Thursday, 3 December 2009
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)
Senator O'Toole's contribution focused almost exclusively on audit matters. I thank him very much for that contribution, informed as it was by his experience and expertise in this area. Before addressing the proposals he made, the first point to make is that although good corporate governance should apply to all institutions, it does not necessarily mean corporate governance is the same in all institutions. Institutions, whether stand-alone corporate bodies, civil society bodies, semi-State bodies, Departments or the Houses of Oireachtas Commission, are all entities but the same rules of governance do not necessarily apply to all of them. What applies in the private sector in terms of good corporate governance is not necessarily applicable to other entities.
I draw a distinction between the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and other Departments. Unlike other Departments, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission effectively administers expenditure. It accounts for expenditure channelled to Members, committees and so on. Salaries are an enormous part of it. There are no major spending programmes, or there is no major outsourcing of programmes, where the commission's expenditure would be channelled to other parties or entities which would give rise to the potential or capacity for things to go wrong. This is effectively the proper and appropriate accounting of money which is administered in this building in a very limited way.
Therefore, the question which arises is that raised by Senator O'Toole as to whether the audit committee should report to the chairman of the commission as distinct from the Secretary General. There is a very real distinction here in that the Secretary General is by law the Accounting Officer. He or she is personally charged with accounting for the moneys over which he or she is responsible because of the position he or she holds. In turn, he or she must account to the Committee of Public Accounts. That is a personal responsibility held by one person.
I know. That is why I am making a distinction because I do not believe it should be "also" and that the audit committee should report directly to the chairman as well. In trying to explain that, I pointed out that essential distinction. The role of the Secretary General is to account for moneys and to ensure they are appropriately spent. That is not the role of the chairman of the commission.
The primary role of the chairman of the commission is the orderly functioning of the committee, carrying out ceremonial duties and ensuring the aims and objectives of the commission are adhered to at all times. He or she is not the Accounting Officer and does not account for the money per se. Therefore, for the audit committee to report to him or her would be unnecessary.
In a sense the audit committee reports to the chairman because it reports to the commission in its annual reports. However, if it was to take on the role of advising the chairman of the commission, to which I believe Senator O'Toole is coming, or if it was obliged to do so under the legislation, it would put the chairman in a completely different situation from the role given under the legislation. He or she would be advised as to the proper accounting and expenditure of moneys under the control of the commission. However, that is not his or her function but the function of the Secretary General. For those reasons, we must draw a very clear distinction.
There is no reason the audit committee cannot retain professional services, whether consultants or otherwise. There is no need to empower it in that regard. It is envisaged that the outside members of the commission, the people with much expertise and of high professional standing, would be the best people to advise the committee. We can deal with these issues in greater detail on Committee Stage.
I have dealt with Senator Alex White's issues concerning the functions of the commission under section 4. In terms of accountability, he raised the point about whether the commission should be, in some way, accountable to the Dáil, perhaps through an Oireachtas committee. The commission is accountable to the Dáil through the parties represented on it. It is the function of representatives to account to their respective parties or the Minister for Finance, while at the same time acting collectively in the best interest of the Houses of the Oireachtas.