Thursday, 3 December 2009
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage
As always, it is an honour and a privilege to address the Seanad and listen to Members' views on this important legislation. Senators will remember that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission came into being on 1 January 2004, following enactment of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill 2003. The commission has since overseen the smooth running of services in both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann and instituted a number of significant improvements in the services provided for Members to the wider public. The delivery of these services is largely in the hands of the staff of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, as the Civil Service support structure is formally known.
To remind the House, the commission comprises 11 members under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad and the Clerk of the Dáil, in his capacity as Secretary General of the Office, who are ex officio members. There are also seven ordinary members, four from the Dáil and three from the Seanad, who are appointed by the Members of each House, and one representative of the Minister for Finance. The responsibilities of the commission include the payment of the salaries and allowances of Deputies and Senators, the payment of the salaries of staff of the Houses and secretarial assistants of Members, the payment of certain pensions and the provision of other necessary facilities to enable the business of both Houses to be transacted.
The fact that Ireland has a bicameral and bilingual assembly presents particular administrative and logistical challenges in the management of the day-to-day business of the Houses. For example, the 2003 Act was amended in 2006 to confirm that one of the functions of the commission was to provide for the translation of Acts of the Oireachtas. However, a co-located bicameral parliament having a shared staff also brings many efficiencies not enjoyed by other parliaments having separate premises and staff. Under the commission, many of the services that would otherwise be provided separately for each House are provided as a combined service, with examples including procedural support for House business and committees, official reporting of debates, the translation services mentioned, security and accommodation, catering, refreshment and other facilities.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to make available the funding for the running of the Houses in the coming years. The current funding comes to an end on 31 December. The Bill proposes in section 6 to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €360 million to carry out its functions in the three-year period from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2012. This sum has been agreed with the commission and takes into account foreseen expenditure. It is less than the €393 million provided for the past three years but it must be seen in the context of the current budgetary and fiscal position of the country. The proposed funding carefully balances the needs of the commission with the availability of resources during the period. We should not take for granted the services which it is intended to fund and I urge Senators to reflect on how they might pursue their business in a manner which will support the maximum economy and efficiency in the running of the Houses.
Members will be well aware that the financial provision for public services will be under severe budgetary pressure in the coming years. Negotiations are ongoing for the achievement of significant cost savings in the delivery of public services. I understand the Government and the Minister for Finance expect that any savings to the commission resulting from the outcome of the discussions will be reflected in a reduced drawdown against the amount provided in the Bill.
Aside from the financial provisions, the Bill also provides for a renaming of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas as the "Houses of the Oireachtas Service". The purpose of this is to strengthen the identity of the service which is, in many respects, as distinct from the Houses of the Oireachtas or the commission as a Department is from its Minister. The public and parts of the public service often find it hard to appreciate the distinction between the elected Members of the Houses, the commission and the administrative staff of the commission and their respective roles.
The distinct role of the Civil Service staff and senior management structures of the Oireachtas are specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. These structures have served both Houses extremely well and remained in place following the establishment of the commission in 2003. However, significant changes in Civil Service management systems have taken place in the 50 years since the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959 came into force and it is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. In that regard, the Minister for Finance is committed to ensuring, in co-operation with the commission, that the administrative structures of the Oireachtas do not become out of step with Civil Service norms in terms of adapting flexibly to the needs and demands of modern management practices.
The renaming of the office comprising the staff of the Houses as an entity to be known as the Houses of the Oireachtas Service does not affect the operations of the service or its relationship with the commission under the 2003 Act and the commission retains all the powers and functions conferred by that Act. However, the change in title may facilitate further development of the service and closer integration of the service with the commission as its governing body in future legislation. Section 2 provides for the renaming, while section 14 and the Schedule, Parts 1 and 2, update the references to the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas in other Acts and statutory instruments.
The Bill also includes some technical amendments to the existing legislation and I take the opportunity to present them briefly to the Seanad.
Section 3 sets out the advice and support function of the newly named Houses of the Oireachtas Service which is identical to that currently carried out by the office. Section 4 sets out, in greater detail than heretofore, the functions of the commission in providing for the running of the Houses and its policy determining and oversight roles. It also includes new measures clarifying the commission's accountability to the Houses for the performance of its functions and obligation to secure value for money in the use of resources. It also clarifies that the charge to be levied by the commission under the existing legislation for the provision of certain services and facilities for outgoing Members following a dissolution of the Dáil is to be for the period of dissolution only.
Section 5 is a new provision for the drawing up of a code of conduct for commission members. While they are already covered by other codes, these are not specific to that role and a uniform code is desirable in the interests of good governance. The purpose of section 7 is to bring the process for the removal of a commission member more into line with that used for Oireachtas committees.
The 2003 Act specified that Oireachtas staff who were civil servants before the establishment day specified in that legislation continued to be civil servants after that day but did not legislate specifically for those appointed subsequently. Section 8 amends the original section to include both categories in the civil servant classification.
The objective of section 9 is to amend the original legislation to provide a statutory basis for the procedures to be followed by the commission if a Supplementary Estimate is required in any year. This is in line with current practice since the establishment of the commission.
Section 10 is a new provision setting out the role, membership and functions of the audit committee. The commission's audit committee is currently established on a non-statutory basis and has been in place since 2004. The section reflects the current membership and practice, with the exception that it proposes that the commission may appoint up to three external members where currently it has only two.
Section 11 which replaces section 15 of the 2003 Act updates the provision of the 2003 Act by designating the Clerk of Dáil Éireann as Secretary General of the "Houses of the Oireachtas Service" and chief executive of the commission. It also designates the Secretary General as the officer accountable for the commission's accounts.
Section 12 expands on the Secretary General's functions as set out in the 2003 Act, including accountability to the commission for ensuring economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the use of commission resources and the preparation of a statement of values for the service. The section also clarifies the Secretary General's role vis-À-vis the commission with regard to various other statutory functions.
Section 13 restates the commission's responsibilities with regard to injury claims made by secretarial assistants employed by Oireachtas Members or political parties. It also repeals the relevant sections of earlier Acts which it supersedes.
The usual definitions, Short Title, collective citation and commencement provisions are contained in sections 1 and 15. It is intended that the Bill will come into effect on 1 January 2010.
Most of the proposed changes are minor or technical in nature. However, they are intended to give greater clarity and functionality to the legislation underpinning the service on which we all rely. Senators will appreciate that the process of updating the legislation is ongoing. I have no doubt that in a few years' time other, possibly more significant, changes, including, as I signalled, to the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959, will be required to keep up to date with best practice and developments in the way our parliamentary business is done and wider developments in public service management. The three-yearly budgetary process is valuable, not just in facilitating financial planning but also in giving an opportunity to reflect on the adequacy of the structures underpinning the management of our institutions and their funding.
In summary, the Bill is designed to enable the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to continue to provide the services which have facilitated both Houses in the carrying out of their work in the past six years and to facilitate their further development. Members will agree that these objectives are worth pursuing. It is important also to point out that the changes proposed in the Bill have been approved by the commission. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.
At a time when we are trying to be more accountable to the general public on financial issues, we should have tightened the figures a little better and provided for more clarity in other sections. For example, section 5 deals with codes of conduct, but the Minister should publish them to give us a greater idea of what is going on. Perhaps, the Minister of State will have the opportunity next week on Report Stage to present them to us to give us a better idea of the terms under which the members of the commission will work.
In the budget, as presented to us, the average cost of running the Oireachtas has been €120 million per annum in the past two years. It is unlikely this will change significantly in the next few years. If anything, the amount will reduce significantly. The figures presented allow for a figure of €120 million per annum, but perhaps we should have tightened up better on it. Next week's budget may well bring changes to the pay of Ministers and Members of the Oireachtas. Therefore, there was an opportunity to present a figure to the public that might be closer to the real thing. The headline figure is €120 million per annum, but the Minister of State made no allowance in what he said for changes that may be made. I know he cannot predict when the next general election will take place or what may happen. If the current opinion polls are to be believed, a fair amount will be needed for severance payments to certain members of the Government. Allowance must be made for this. However, in general, we expect a significant drop in the cost of running the Oireachtas in the next year or two. This should have been taken into account by the Minister of State in presenting the figures.
The information made available to us by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service shows us there was an increase of 34% in the cost of running the Oireachtas in the second three-year period, 2007 to 2009. The budget went from a figure of €295 to €393 million. It is stated the extra €100 million was due to severance payments and pension costs associated with the 2007 general election, the commission's decisions on service improvements and staffing resources and the provision of a translation service to translate Acts of the Oireachtas. Will the Minister of State provide a breakdown of costs in each of these areas?
I would like the Minister of State to take into account that the budget for running the Oireachtas should include ministerial expenses. Members of the Houses are fully accountable with regard to their expenses and in making them public. However, ministerial costs are covered up within Departments. In order to provide for greater transparency and accountability Departments should not be responsible for ministerial costs. That function should be performed by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. In today's newspapers, for example, mention is made of a €41,000 secretarial allowance Ministers receive above the normal Civil Service staff complement and separate from their entitlements as Members. It appears this secretarial allowance is not paid from the Oireachtas budget but from that of the relevant Department. There are a number of other allowances also paid to Ministers such as a housing allowance for Ministers from outside Dublin who buy a house in Dublin. Ministers have a range of benefits, of which many are unaware and which it seems are unaccounted for to a degree because they are buried in the middle of departmental budgets. All such ministerial costs should be transferred to the budget of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Also, a note should be included in the commission's report on all additional costs such as the cost of State cars or providing State services for Ministers. That is the accountability the public wants to see at this time.
A significant change is being made to the audit committee which to date has been non-statutory. The audit committee shall be established on a statutory basis. I ask the Minister of State to outline the proposed changes and the implications for members of the audit committee. We have seen in the case of the banks and other organisations that an audit committee often does not understand its function very well and may be merely acting in a rubber-stamping capacity for decisions made by a chief executive or board of directors. An audit committee which is established by statute would imply further responsibilities for the members of the committee. I ask the Minister of State to explain those responsibilities.
The Bill provides that the senior civil servant, the Clerk of Dáil Éireann, will be designated Secretary General of the service and chief executive of the commission. What are the financial costs, if any, associated with the change in status of that person? A Secretary General of a Department is paid substantially more. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether the Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service will be of similar standing and whether this will have financial implications.
There is a need for a tightening up of the financial information presented to the House and there are opportunities under all headings. I ask for information on both past and predicted future costs. The Minister of State needs to be clear with regard to the changing functions of the commission, the code of conduct for commission members and the changes in responsibilities of members of the audit committee. We will be seeking greater clarity on these points on Committee and Report Stages.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille. Tá sé tráthúil go mbeadh reachtaíocht den saghas seo ag teacht os comhair an tSeanaid. Tá obair agus freagracht uile ghabháileach ar an gcoimisiún agus mar sin, tá sé tábhachtach ó am go chéile athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar sin. I welcome the Minister of State. In 2003 when we embarked on the legislation to establish a new commission it was quite clear at that time we were entering into uncharted waters, so to speak, in many ways. It was evident that from time to time, it would be important to review that legislation and the operation of the commission. It is only right to begin this debate by acknowledging the work of the commission to date. It has an exceptionally wide remit and much wider than is generally known outside the Oireachtas. It has presided very well over the smooth running of the services of the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are living in different times now and because of the changed economic times, people are taking a much closer and detailed interest in parliamentary operations. The commission has a relatively large budget and for this reason is coming under increasing scrutiny. The change of name of the commission to the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is important as it gives a distinctive corporate identity to the commission.
I refer to existing similar models of this type of institution in other countries. To some extent we have fallen behind what is available in other countries but this provision will be a form of catching up. I note the operation of the commission will be discussed in both Houses and accountability will underpin those discussions. I say this not by way of criticism but to underline the potential which exists for the commission. It would be helpful for all Members to be kept up to date and be aware of the activities of the commission. Recent discussions regarding issues of expenditure were publicised in the media in what was a half-baked way. It would have been preferable if such information had been presented in a controlled and accountable fashion within the Houses of the Oireachtas. I expect this will be accommodated in the new legislation.
I hope this legislation will be a step towards an independent section of the Civil Service which underlines and underpins the independence of Parliament as this is very important. This is not meant to be a criticism of the staff because they have done an exceptionally good job in a very professional, calm and quiet manner. We should acknowledge their work. However, it is important to allow for the independence of Parliament and for this to be evident to the public. I see this legislation as a step in that direction.
Issues have been brought forward by the Minister of State. I refer to a figure of €360 million to be allocated over a three-year period. The Minister of State has helped us to understand this but he is not saying this must be spent. The drawing down of that money is very much a matter for the Houses themselves. We need to ponder on this point. I note that in his nice Munster manner he put forward a challenge to this House. We must also judge how effective and efficient we can be and how we can make savings because this is how we will be judged finally and not by another body such as the commission being accountable. Many of the debates in this House have been exceptionally inspiring. People are very open to identifying ways of saving money. I refer to the amount of paperwork emanating from the Houses of the Oireachtas which is quite extensive. We should examine ways of making significant savings in that regard and include the personnel aspect of copying documents, etc. This is only one aspect.
I suggest the House consider arranging for an extension in sitting hours. I am not trying to be populist in this regard. We should sit longer hours when possible. We patted ourselves on the back when we sat until 8 a.m. when dealing with the banks issue and we all felt the better for it because we felt we were giving a better service. Two nights' ago the House sat until 11.30 p.m. or midnight. I do not mean this should be the normal practice but we should look at how we can use the time of the House more effectively which also provides a challenge for Members.
I do not mean this as any criticism nor to mean there was any vacuum in this regard but a code of conduct for members of the commission is important for the members themselves. In many ways these were the kind of issues we knew we would have to deal with when the commission was established in 2003.
I do not wish to denigrate the amendments tabled for Committee Stage but the small number of amendments suggests a fairly general welcome for this legislation as proposed. I am happy that when we take Committee Stage later, there will be an opportunity to elaborate on a number of issues. I compliment the Minister of State and his officials on bringing forward this timely legislation which has given us an opportunity to focus on something we have taken for granted. This is another step towards bringing the Oireachtas more into line with what is happening in parliaments in other parts of the world.
I welcome the Minister of State and I also welcome the legislation, which I support enthusiastically. I was a member of the first Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and I am a member of the Irish Audit and Accounting Supervisory Authority. I would like to raise a number of issues which I hope the Minister of State will take on board. I concur with Senator Ó Murchú's remarks. The commission is doing a difficult job well and it has expanded services.
I have had arguments about individual issues with the commission now and again but we made a mistake when it was established. A number of parliaments that have set up similar commissions and tied in the work of their committees on procedure and privileges with the work of their commissions. We had that choice and it should have been done. I called for it at the time but it was not done and it never will be done. Consequently, there has been regular conflict between the decisions of the commission and those of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and there is not a clear understanding of the differentiation between them.
I refer to the guide for board members of State bodies in Ireland, a copy of which I was given on the day I was appointed to the commission. I acknowledge that the commission has an audit committee, although it is not statutorily necessary. The document states: "The Chief Executive, Head of Finance and Head of Internal Audit should attend meetings, though not as members of the audit committee". This is the Government's position on audit committees. I would like this provision inserted in the legislation. The Bill provides for the Secretary General to appoint somebody with a background in finance. The head of finance is crucial to audit. For instance, he or she is mentioned in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the US as the person rather than the chief executive who takes the hit. This is Government policy and I ask the Minister of State to insert this provision in the legislation. There are good reasons for that.
The Department of Finance recently issued a code of practice for the governance of State bodies. I am on a number of State bodies and this document has been gone through in minute detail to meets its stringent requirements. I would like to ensure we do the same in this legislation. Paragraph 9.2, which is crucial to how the code works, states:
A small number of bodies have an Accounting Officer within the meaning of the section. In such cases, the accountability of the Accounting Officer to the Oireachtas must [not may] be differentiated from that of the board's general responsibilities.
That is key to my problem with the legislation. It does not make that distinction explicit enough but it is required. A basic tenet of the code is that all semi-State bodies should comply with its requirements.
It is also important that the code provides that the chairperson of each subsidiary should formally report to the main board. That would apply to the audit committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The greatest failing in the legislation is the lack of a requirement to report to the board. A report should be made to the commission after every meeting of the audit committee and every paper produced by the committee should be available to every member of the board. This is crucial to transparency. The problem in FÁS is the board never saw the outcome of its internal audit unit's investigation. That cannot happen under this legislation but it only provides for a report to be made once a year whereas the code of practice requires that the chairperson of a State body should provide an interim report to the relevant Minister on significant issues within six months. There is a continuing responsibility on the chairperson to carry out various functions.
While section 10 provides, rightly, that the audit committee should advise the Secretary General on financial matters, I would like the committee to advise the chairperson as well. I have witnessed on a number of occasions chairmen of State bodies appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts who clearly were not aware of their responsibilities. This is where the breakdown begins. This is small provision to insert. It would strengthen the Minister's position and it does what his advisers would want to have done. We cannot have a scenario where people can point to a gap in the governance structure of the Oireachtas in comparison what is required of other State bodies.
The code of practice states further: "The Board should lay down formal procedures whereby Directors may take independent professional advice if necessary at reasonable expense, if they feel they need it." This happens regularly and it should be addressed in the legislation. Another issue covered by the code of practice but not the legislation is the protection of whistleblowers. I cannot think of somebody working for another State body who would require more protection than a member of the Oireachtas staff who wanted to draw attention to an issue without it rebounding on him or her. An amendment should be made to reflect this.
The Minister of State referred to the challenge to how we do our business. The legislation should provide for a formal review of the performance of individual directors. Every Member in both Houses would say that is badly needed. It would be a little humbling and unattractive to measure the competence of board members, as each member would be asked by an external body what he or she thought of the contribution of colleagues. My comments are not a reflection on the legislation or the commission. I do not object to one word of the Bill and I will support it. However, I have a great deal of experience in this area and I guarantee the issues to which I have referred will be raised. Each issue has been discussed over the past three months since the new code of practice was circulated to every semi-State body. I hope nobody replies that the Oireachtas commission is not a semi-State body.
I also have a copy of an old Department of Finance publication on internal audit. Members of the Green Party raised questions about how internal audits work within Departments. Will the Minister of State take on board the issues I raised? I have tabled amendments on Committee Stage to address a number of them but I did not have time to address every issue because the Bill was introduced so quickly. I will understand if the Minister of State cannot accept the amendments today but I have asked that Report Stage be taken next week in order that he can examine the issues I have raised. If there is something wrong with what I said, I will accept that but these issues are raised at audit meetings all the time.
The legislation is technical in nature and is the third such allocation of a triennial budget to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission since it came into being with the 2003 Act. The House needs to be run and there is an onus on us to ensure the appropriate budget is given. It being frozen for the period 2010 to 2012, as opposed to the three-year period just passed, on the surface seems to be responsible given the budgetary constraints at the moment. The 2012 budget will be on average the same as the 2007 budget. Given that decisions are pending and may be made next week when the Minister for Finance delivers his Budget Statement, there is an onus on us to speak about the cost of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and how we can reduce the cost as much as possible.
Some of the debates and discussions over the past 18 months, particularly regarding Members' expenses, have not been handled well by the commission. This has not helped the perception of politics and politicians outside this House. I would like to see the commission being more proactive in this area, not only in terms of the amount given for expenses but the manner in which they are given. Proposals are being considered by the Minister for Finance in this regard. It seems strange to me that the system of travel expenses rewards Members of these Houses and members of the Civil Service for having a bigger car. As long as we have expenses that encourage people to be wasteful, we will waste public resources. In passing legislation such as this, if we do not make these points and see these changes happening, our credibility is lessened.
There are other issues about how the commission is operating. I agree with Senator O'Toole in respect of transparency. The minutes of the commission are made available but they are very anodyne and relate to decisions. We should raise questions about the commission meeting in public as much as possible. The commission is responsible for the affairs of the ultimate public bodies in this country. We should seek an open and transparent culture within the commission.
Due to the grouping arrangements and membership of the commission, there are questions about how representative it is. For example, there is only one female member on the commission. The Green Party and Sinn Féin have no representatives and the Independents find it very difficult to be represented on the commission. The composition of the commission must be seriously examined. Given that this is the third triennial budget, we must have a valuation process of whether the stand-alone Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is better than the previous system of allocation from the Department of Finance. It is taken as a given that we should run our own affairs and that this is the best mechanism to do so. Major questions have been raised about the first two tranches of funding and whether they have been used effectively. It seems to represent how public expenditure has gone out of control in this country. If we cannot show we are running the Houses of the Oireachtas in the most efficient way, it raises a credibility issue about gaining public confidence on whether we can run the public finances in a credible way.
I did not intend to be so negative in dealing with what is a technical Bill but the debate on Second Stage gives us the opportunity to ask questions that we rarely ask and that, for cultural reasons, we would prefer were not asked in public. For those reasons we should ask these questions and seek the answers.
The sincere commitment of those who have served and are serving on the commission is to try to deliver the best possible services. Elements of the Houses are run very well and would be a good example of how other things in society and in the public economy should run. The debate on Second Stage should be used as an opportunity to give congratulations on this.
Another point regarding the costs of the commission may cause dissent. This has nothing to do with the fact that my party is not represented on the commission. We must examine the stipend that attaches to being a member of the commission for representing the Houses of the Oireachtas when other committees do similar work. There is additional work for members of the commission but the context of 2004 is very different from the context of 2010. These measures must be examined strenuously.
I support this Bill. I ask that the qualifications I am raising be examined in the context of how the commission runs its affairs over the next few years. Given the current climate and in freezing the budget for the next triennial period, the expectation should be that the budget will not be fully used. In a culture where we try to spend the maximum and overspend on budgets, it would be a good signal if we found ourselves in 2012 having spent less than what was allocated in this Bill.
As a relatively new Member of the Houses, at certain times over the past two and half years I have scratched my head and wondered what was the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. That is not to criticise the commission or its members. My colleague in Dáil Éireann, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, has made me aware of the extent of the work and its importance. I have concerns that reflect what Senator Boyle said. What do we expect the commission to do and what is its role? If I am not 100% clear on that, it is difficult for the public to have an appreciation of the purpose of the commission.
I refer to the members of the commission, not the work it does. The financial, administrative and technical services provided to the Houses of the Oireachtas manifestly must be provided. It is good that there is an identifiable body in charge of doing this, but I am never clear on how this fits in. It exists since 2003. The phrase in the principal Act and repeated in the amendment Bill in elaborated format is that the commission is responsible for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am not particularly comfortable with the use of the phrase "running of the Houses of the Oireachtas". I have not submitted an amendment in this regard but I would prefer if this was more clearly expressed as referring to the administrative, financial and technical services required for the Parliament to function. The term "running" suggests something grander than a body that provides a service. I welcome the change in this amendment Bill so that this is renamed a service. In the same way as the Civil Service is a service to the members of the Government, the parliamentary Civil Service provides a service to the Parliament and the Members of Parliament. The wording of the principal Act is not absolutely satisfactory in making this clear.
There is very little in this Bill with which one would have difficulty other than arguing it could go further in certain circumstances. For example, there is a provision in the legislation that the service will be accountable in future to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which is welcome. One would take it for granted that the commission or the service would be accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The section that provides for that is welcome, but it would be improved if there was an elaboration of how precisely that accountability is to occur. Senator Boyle or another Member said that meetings of the commission should be held in public which would present an opportunity for its work to be scrutinised in public. I have considerable sympathy for that point of view, but even in terms of its accountability directly to Parliament, what mechanisms does the Minister of State envisage the Seanad and the Dáil putting in place to vindicate that accountability provision? It is an important advance but it is not clear how it will be delivered.
The members of the commission are performing an extremely important role. There should be scrutiny of the work. We might consider meetings of the commission being held in public at which there could be a question and answer session or some elaboration by the commission members on the work they are doing. I listened carefully to what Senator O'Toole and others said in this respect. If we are to expect that level of availability and preparedness on the part of members of the commission to be subjected to public scrutiny, the job will be turned into something bigger than was originally envisaged. It brings me back to my original point, namely, what precisely is the role of such individuals. If they are to be available for such public scrutiny, as they should be, is the commission becoming a different sort of animal than was originally envisaged?
With regard to the payment of €16,000 to members of the commission, at this time we are examining the payment of various allowances and salaries. If there are five members of the commission - I have forgotten momentarily the exact number - and if those colleagues are to be prepared, briefed and have sufficient expertise to be queried in public as to what is occurring in Parliament, the services it provides, the cost of them, Members' expenses and strategies, I am not sure whether €16,000 is sufficient for that kind of work. It may not be popular to say that at the moment. If that is the level of work we are requiring - perhaps it is not and this is ultimately something that should be left to the management of that commission - that would take from its democratic-----
I agree with Senator O'Toole that it does, but it probably applies with even greater strength to a body that is responsible for the "running" of the Houses of Parliament of the people. It is something that bears further consideration. It would be interesting to hear more from the Minister of State on how its accountability will be delivered. He might say it is a matter for the individual Houses as to how they will deliver that. That may be the answer we get.
I have no difficulty with the balance of what is proposed in the legislation. We could all talk at great length about various developments we would like to see happen in the Houses in terms of technical and administrative support for Members. One issue in this respect occurs to me every day we deal with legislation. This amending legislation is a relatively short Bill, in respect of which there is the 2006 amending legislation and the 2003 principal Act. Senator Ó Murchú said there seems to be very little controversy about this Bill as they are very few amendments to it. We got this Bill yesterday or the day before. While I do not believe I would amend it if I had two or three hours to consider it, this is not a satisfactory way of doing business.
We are shuffling through the Bill while looking through the very helpful documentation from the Library and trying to decide whether we are doing the job as well as we should be doing it. Why can we not have a better use of technology by having the principal Act available on screen whereby we could note the sections of it this legislation amends and how it relates to other legislation? While I appreciate there are problems in terms of resources, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we could improve the way we do business in terms of amending legislation by having access to the materials that we need, particularly existing legislation, to enable us to navigate our way around the legislation more easily than we otherwise are able to do.
Those are some general remarks. I do not believe there is anything in the Bill to which one could take exception. I simply add those observations.
I am speaking on the Bill as a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which I believe is necessary to put that on the record.
I welcome the legislation and listened with interest to the previous speakers. Members of the public gain their knowledge of what happens in Leinster House generally from what is transmitted by the press. Only two issues of concern arose in terms of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission during over the past 12 months. One related to the endless debate concerning Oireachtas expenses and allowances and the other issue, which grabbed some degree of public attention, was the restoration of Leinster Lawn. If one was simply a student of the media and had no further understanding of politics, one could be led to believe that the Oireachtas commission spent its entire time discussing expenses and considering the possibility of digging up Leinster Lawn.
I remind colleagues that while it was easy for people to be critical of the Leinster Lawn project, a planning decision was made many years ago, which presented the requirement for us to restore Leinster Lawn. I do not believe we in the Oireachtas could be seen to second guess the planning process and, therefore, the work had to go ahead.
On the more substantive matter of allowances and expenses, which is entirely a matter for the Minister for Finance, my colleagues in this and in the other House are aware that the Oireachtas commission has had quite a number of meetings with the Minister and officials on this matter. We tried to reflect the views and concerns of the public and our colleagues. We look forward in the very near future to the Minister for Finance bringing forward his new proposals for what we hope will be a transparent, accountable and value for money system. It is on record that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission proposed a single parliamentary allowance. The Minister did not seem entirely happy with that and there was further reflection, debate and engagement, but at the end of the day, as is the requirement under law, the Minister for Finance alone sets the allowances and expenses for politicians. It would be useful if that debate ended pretty quickly, hopefully with next week's budget, and that we were in a position to put a new system in place.
We have been very much the whipping boys in regard to this subject during the past 12 months. It is necessary that changes be made and that further reining in occurs across all sectors of the State. However, we must also ensure that politics as a career and a way of giving public service is open to every citizen of this State and that we do not make the system so financially inadequate that it would be only wealthy people who could become elected politicians. We forget that sometimes when we talk about a league of expenses and who claimed the most in January and who travelled the most in February. If we want politics to be a public service, to which every citizen of the State could aspire to enter, there must be a reasonable system of pay and expenses available to people so that it does not become, as it would have been many years ago, the preserve of the very well off.
It is to be noted with satisfaction that once again the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, through budgetary savings and measures taken during the past few years, has underspent. In other words, it has saved the taxpayer money. If every agency of the State and every Department returned the amount of the underspend in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Government would not be in the difficult situation in which it finds itself in respect of the public finances. Our overall allocation from the national budget is tiny but in so far as we can, we should set an example. We have a three-year budget, on which we have saved and which we did not spend in its entirety. I hope this will be an example for other Departments.
I refer to two matters related to the work of the commission in so far as it impacts on the public. I congratulate all those involved in the schools programme which has put Members in touch with thousands of pupils throughout the country and has been very successful. This work is ongoing and we try to improve as we continue with it. I refer also to the open days in Leinster House which have attracted thousands of visitors and have been very successful. They have profiled the work of the Oireachtas and how it works as opposed to the perception held by some of how it works.
The members of the commission appreciate that we must continue to improve. We must continue to try to ensure taxpayers' money is well spent. We recognise our job is to preside over the effective administration of the finances available in Leinster House and keep the taxpayer at the top of our agenda. The triennial budget has been well spent; it has been constructively and, more importantly, carefully spent. Our commitment for the future should be to continue to be careful guardians of taxpayers' money.
I thank Members for their thoughtful, incisive and reflective contributions. It occurred to me during the course of the debate that if ever there were an argument to retain this House, it was justified because of the debate or discussion that had taken place. The Seanad provides an environment in which a more reflective debate can take place that can utilise the undoubted diverse experiences, abilities and expertise available to the Upper House in a way not readily available to the Lower House, for political reasons, of which Members will be aware. I refer, in particular, to Senator O'Toole's undoubted experience and expertise in corporate governance in the public and semi-State sectors. That is the reason the Seanad is able to make a contribution that one might not find in the Lower House. It occurred to me that the matter should be considered carefully following proposals that had emanated from certain parties on the future of this House. The second Chamber has a valuable function and role to play, as do second chambers in democracies throughout the world. We should be very careful in our rush and haste to suggest we ought to abolish it. The matter is not directly related to the legislation but since I have the opportunity to compliment Members on their contributions, the point should be made.
Throughout all the contributions there has been broad agreement among parties and Independent Senators that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is an improvement on the historical structure. Senator White referred to this point. The powers and functions were vested in an informal way in the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach and in a way not transparent or accountable to Members or the wider public. In line with corporate governance developments throughout civil society, the corporate sector, at Government level and in Departments, it was appropriate that a new and improved structure of corporate governance should apply to the Houses of Parliament. That is why the broad agreement across parties is welcome and an improvement on the position which obtained. I trust this deals with the issue raised by Senator White on the need for the legislation or the reason we are in this position. I will revert to the specific functions of the commission presently.
I will refer to the contributions of Members in the order in which they were made. On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, Senator Twomey made several important points. He referred to the code of conduct and asked why it was not readily available for discussion. While I can see from where the Senator is coming, it is the responsibility of the commission to set out the code of conduct. This is an enabling provision to allow it to do so in consultation with Members derived from political parties across the board. It would not be within the powers of the Minister for Finance who is introducing the legislation to set out the code because, essentially, it is a matter for and a function of the commission. The publication of the code is a matter for members of the commission, as is the question of whether it should be brought to the floor of the House or back to the respective political parties for consideration. It is a matter for the commission to decide in its own wisdom.
Senator Twomey made the key point about the significant increase in expenditure in the three years preceding the introduction of the Bill. His point is well made because there was a 34% increase, amounting to €120 million. It deserves a serious response and analysis. When one considers the matter seriously, it is possible to see the significant improvements. Senator Bradford referred to the outreach schools programme. It is a significant expenditure item in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Vote and an innovative, imaginative idea to bring the concept of parliamentary democracy to schools. It has contributed to the increase in expenditure.
Senator White referred to the excellent research services provided by the Oireachtas Library for this debate and many others in this and the Lower House. This is a significantly enhanced function of the Oireachtas Library, involving significant additional expenses. Two of the key, headline items which have resulted in an increase in expenditure include the vast investment in information and communications technology, from which we have all benefited in the past three years. The Senator made the point that we should have greater ready access to it on a daily basis in dealing with legislation. The point is well made. All information and communications technology is expensive to introduce. It involves a heavy front-loading of capital expenditure, as well as ongoing maintenance costs for the period during which the investment is made.
The other great increase in expenditure relates to the increase in the number of committees serving the Houses of the Oireachtas. I realise the number of committees is a matter for separate debate. However, they require a substantial service in terms of the provision of information and communications technology, translation facilities, the recording of debates, committee clerks and so on. While the number of committees is a matter of debate, it accounts for the significant increase. I trust this gives Senator Twomey a flavour of the reasons for the 34% increase in the past three years.
Taken together, all of these developments mean Members are in a position to concentrate more effectively on their real role, that is, analysing and researching legislation and making informed contributions to the Houses. All of these developments help us to do this.
Senator Twomey also inquired as to why ministerial expenses are not included in the budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I wish to make two basic points in that regard. The Bill relates to the Parliament, which is comprised of the two Houses. In that context, the distinction between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Executive branch of Government is explicit in the Constitution. Under the latter, there must be a clear separation with regard to the roles and functions of the two. If we were to transfer responsibility for the thorny issue of ministerial expenses to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, it would blur the constitutional lines. In addition, it would import an element of politics which might not perhaps best serve the interests of the commission or the Houses. Let us have the debate on that matter on another occasion.
The Minister for Finance has been extremely active in this area in the context of increasing the level of transparency with regard to ministerial expenses. I cannot indicate the level of cost incurred in replying to parliamentary questions or freedom of information requests in respect of ministerial expenses. The Minister's initiative in this area in the context of publishing details of such expenses, either on the Internet or in some other form, on a monthly basis is the correct route to take. Hoarding information over a period or encouraging the perception that it must be dragged out of Government serves no one's interests. However, I reiterate that the Executive branch of Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas are separate entities.