Wednesday, 5 May 2010
Ministerial Pensions: Motion
That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to introduce legislation to cause, with immediate effect, the cessation of the payment of Ministerial pensions to members of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, for his presence in the House to debate the motion, which is a simple and straightforward one that relates to the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Deputies. I urge him to outline in his response the historical reasons ministerial pensions were paid to sitting Deputies who are no longer Ministers. Perhaps he could indicate also the origins and merits of the practice and what it was hoped to achieve by the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Deputies.
There has been much discussion of the belief that to attract the best and brightest in society into politics, we must pay them significant sums of money. Before I consider that issue it might be worthwhile to consider whether pay and terms and conditions have a major impact on who gets involved in politics. For years politics was a poorly paid profession, yet it still attracted a wide cross-section of society. That has been the case since the foundation of the State. Complaints centred on the belief that it suited professionals based in Dublin to become involved in politics because they could continue their professional careers but that it was difficult for those outside the capital to travel to and from Dublin and that they had to give up their profession or job to work full-time as politicians. It also suited some public servants to get involved in politics because in many cases their jobs and pensions were protected. A large proportion of those who got involved in politics suffered a loss professionally and financially but they persevered. I do not believe money is always the motivation for people to get involved in politics. The majority of people were not motivated by money and their job security was precarious to say the least.
It is true to say individuals who have had a long ministerial career have often had successful careers after they have left the House. Ministerial pensions for sitting Members are a source of public anger. That anger is red hot and furious and is focused on politicians. The perception that politicians are cushioning themselves from the worst effects of the economic downturn is making individuals angry with the political establishment. In these difficult financial times there is an expectation that ministerial pensions should be a cushion for electoral misfortune or retirement, not a top-up for an Opposition or Government back bench Deputy who is still a Member of Parliament.
Whatever about the past, there is currently no public appetite for individuals of either House of the Oireachtas claiming a ministerial pension while a sitting Deputy or Senator. That message should have been sent clearly from both Houses of the Oireachtas by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, all other members of the Cabinet and the Government parties. That message was not sent and that is why the Government has contributed so much to the public anger we are witnessing. Those in receipt of a ministerial pension can be misguided owing to their own sense of importance or misplaced understanding of principles. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance should have stood up to that kind of misguided thinking and done something about it. It is clear they failed to do so.
The accusation has been made that the media are fanning the flames of public anger on the issue. That may be so but the public anger is real. The failure to acknowledge that anger is allowing the issue to become a major one in terms of the perception of the Government parties by the public. When the Minister of State gets an opportunity to respond, he will no doubt try to evade the moral responsibility by outlining the constitutional argument or by using legalese. If he has received proper legal opinion, he will be aware that there is little defence for the constitutional argument that the pensions are paid for and therefore they are an entitlement for the remaining Fianna Fáil trio who insist on keeping them.
If legal opinion is available, it should be published. When we discussed previously in the Seanad the reduction of ministerial pensions, we were told the opinion of the Attorney General was that we could not reduce or get rid of pensions completely for sitting Members. That opinion has never been published even though it would be of extreme interest not just to the legal profession but to ordinary men and women in this country as to why former Ministers must be treated in such a different fashion from the rest of the country when it comes to cutting their pay and conditions, as has been proposed for almost everyone in society. Debate has focused on the destruction of pensions. The legislation that was passed last year was not opposed by the three individuals who were Members of the Lower House at the time and who maintain that their entitlement will end anyway within two years. There is no retrospective element to the legislation. It simply applies from this point forward and does not equate to major losses for the individuals concerned compared with, say, the proportion of their earnings being given up by public servants. Just consider the number of people who lost their jobs and those who have contracts with the State. There is a major issue about this being a contract. Other groups that have contracts with the State such as pharmacists and dentists have seen their incomes slashed in the past 12 months.
Legislation passed by the Oireachtas blocked the long-service payments being made to a small section of its Members. However, the lifelong equivalent of what they have lost is very much the same as the amounts in pension payments this trio will receive individually in the next two years. I find it difficult to believe the Government can argue nothing can be done about this on constitutional grounds. Fine Gael has had legal opinion on the different shades of protection on offer for citizens under the Constitution. Nothing under the Constitution protects the Fianna Fáil trio. There is no absolute right to property, if pensions may be regarded as property, and there is certainly no absolute right in the context of having their pensions stopped completely at this time.
We would be very interested to know the Attorney General's advice is, just to get over the legal side of the argument being put forward by the Government. I believe the Government has relied too much on that rather than responding to what this is really about, namely, a moral argument. It is a moral argument to show leadership to the people, thus indicating that this behaviour has to stop. It may have been acceptable in good times for former Ministers to have pensions. There might even have been a reasonable argument for former Ministers being paid ministerial pensions as back bench Deputies or Senators and that this argument got lost in the fog of the Celtic tiger period, but we are in very different times. If there is one group of people that is expected to show leadership in the present crisis, it is the Cabinet, and it should percolate downwards from the top of Government to every single Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas. There is a sense that there is not this leadership. Instead a sense of entitlement continues.
The ordinary man and woman who are suffering do not understand this concept of entitlement, as expressed by the trio within Fianna Fáil regarding what they are entitled to having held ministerial office. The Government's response to the way these three individuals believe they are entitled to their ministerial pensions shows no recognition of the absolute hardship many people are going through. I hope when the Minister of State responds to this that he will express the anger of the Government at the trio still holding out and show that this Administration has the backbone to do something about it. I trust he will not hide behind a vague constitutional argument presented to the Government by the Attorney General and which he refuses to share publicly with the Opposition so that we too can question whether that argument can stand up in court.
If the Minister of State believes, as I do, that this is a moral argument, he should allow the legislation to come to the Oireachtas and let the trio involved challenge it. Let them take the Minister to court and challenge the law. That is the best way to check how strongly they believe in the principle of this issue. Members of the Oireachtas must show solidarity with everyone in the country at this time. If there are individuals in the banks and other organisations that have acted in a despicable manner in recent years and are seen to have got away with it, we cannot use this as an excuse. We must show we have the moral courage to lead the people and take the pain with them. That is the main thrust of what we are talking about in this motion and I hope the Minister of State will acknowledge that in his response.
I formally second the motion so ably proposed by my colleague, Senator Twomey. This is a simple question for Members of this House to decide on. If they disagree with the ministerial pensions being paid to sitting Members of the Dáil or Seanad, they will support the motion. If they agree that the current regime should continue to apply until the next general election, they will support the Government. This is a typical response from an Administration that is frozen like a rabbit caught in the headlights. It is incapable of making any decision and is trying to muddy the waters with issues that have nothing to do with the motion before the House. This is clear from the Government amendment to the motion. It is a simple question either to agree or disagree with the current practice.
Last year Deputy Enda Kenny wrote to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and argued for the immediate removal of these pensions from sitting Members of the Oireachtas. He argued that it should have been done across the board to remove any ambiguity or doubt on the issue. The Government refused to act on this proposal and only committed to removing such pensions from the beginning of the next Dáil, another typical response from this Administration. The Minister indicated he had received legal advice to the effect that the pensions to serving Members could not be abolished, despite which he was able to cut them by 25%. If he could legally reduce these pensions by 25%, why could he not reduce them by 100%? There is considerable confusion surrounding the legal restraint on the Government implementing these changes. Where is the advice of the Attorney General? It has not been furnished to this House or the other House to the best of my knowledge. My party has received opinion from three eminent senior counsel to the effect that there are considerable legal grounds for asserting the constitutionality of the measure in the manner we have proposed in the Oireachtas (allowances to Members) and ministerial and parliamentary offices Bill 2010.
There is a crisis of public confidence in the institutions of State. There is an important role for the Oireachtas in setting a public example at a time when there is an urgent necessity to effect reductions in the public service and in public expenditure. It boils down to agreeing or disagreeing with the motion before the House. One can agree with the status quo that sitting Members can still accept pensions or disagree on grounds of the unfairness of this situation. The public is watching and expecting us as public representatives to act in this situation. I know there are Members on the Government side of the House who firmly believe this practice should be abolished and that serving Members of the Oireachtas should not be paid pensions. I urge those Members, not all of whom are members of the Government parties, to vote with their consciences and as the public would suggest in this matter.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"- takes note of the Government's actions to deal with the economic crisis;
- recognises the budgetary measures taken by the Government to stabilise the public finances;
- notes the reduction in the number of Ministers of State and the reduction in staffing of Ministers' offices;
- acknowledges the extensive efforts of the Government to secure solidarity among the social partners;
- recognises the measures taken in the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2009 which reduces the Ministerial pensions of sitting Members of either House of the Oireachtas by 25% and provides that payment of such pensions to sitting Members will cease after the next general election;
- notes the Attorney General's advice that the immediate and total abolition of pensions for a single category of pensioner would be unconstitutional; and
- notes that many sitting Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament and others have made a gift of their Ministerial pensions to the Minister for Finance for the general benefit of the Exchequer."
I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points on this issue, but I would prefer to have been speaking about Greece or other issues.
I did not interrupt anybody, nor will I. It has been my policy for eight years not to do so and I will not. I would like to be heard.
I would much prefer to have been dealing with important economic issues such as the situation in Greece. I have no interest in pandering to an agenda set by certain elements of the populist media. I quote from an article by John Waters - a good Roscommon man, as I am sure the Minister of State knows - in The Irish Times last Friday, entitled "Media rage at pensions is hugely hypocritical". He states:
Is it just a matter [of] punishing politicians - the nearest available ones - for the alleged sins of other politicians, or is there indeed a principle at stake? If a principle, what is it? That nobody should continue working while receiving a pension? That nobody should continue working for the State while receiving a State pension? In what sense does it matter whether the pension or other income comes from the State or otherwise? Does this mean broadcasters, when they retire from their roles as public prosecutors, will be prohibited from taking up weekend nixers on Lyric FM [or writing for one of the Sunday newspapers]? Or perhaps the "principle" relates to double incomes? If so, there are many more lynchings to come. Soon it may be your turn or mine.
Is there a problem, a Leas-Chathaoirligh?
"I don't have a great stomach for the targeting game," Pat Rabbitte on Monday told a broadcaster who is paid several times the Taoiseach's salary. Neither do I.
In his Irish Times column on Wednesday, Vincent Browne wondered: if we all had started out on a desert island and were asked to decide on how the wealth "accumulated by our collective efforts" should be distributed, is it likely we would have agreed to a dispersal of income and wealth the way our society does it? "If anyone suggested that bookies, oil magnates extracting resources from some of the poorest countries in the world and concrete manufacturers would be paid at multiples of thousands what those keeping the peace, caring for children and old people, looking after the sick and educating people were paid," he asked, "wouldn't we think they were bonkers?"
This is an interesting philosophical question. Here's another: why should someone who sits snarling, sneering and spitting fury in a television studio be paid more than a taxi driver who does essentially the same job while also managing to keep his vehicle on the road?
But this has given me a great idea. To avoid even the whiff of hypocrisy arising from the fulminations of journalists about the incomes of others, I propose we introduce a Standard Proletarian Wage (SPW) of €30,000 a year. All citizens, including journalists, would be free to opt for this, "gifting" the remainder of their salaries to the State. Everyone would be free to retain their existing incomes, but those who failed to sign up to the SPW would not be entitled to denounce others on the basis of their incomes or possessions.
It might not solve our financial problems, but it would do wonders for our stomachs.
I thought that was a good article, which captured the mood of things. There are almost no measures of austerity to which I would not agree in the public interest; I am the same as most other Members of the House in this regard. However, it must be done in an appropriate way. Deputy Phil Hogan mentioned this when asked whether he would be giving up the 5% of his salary that Deputy Kenny was giving up. The Irish Independent stated on Friday, 20 February 2009:
Fine Gael frontbencher Phil Hogan yesterday refused to elaborate on the "personal circumstances" preventing him following his party leader in taking a voluntary pay cut...
"My personal financial circumstances don't allow me to take a voluntary pay cut. I'm taking the 10.6pc pension levy and 2pc income levy and the 10pc cut in expenses like everybody else," Mr Hogan said.
He continued: "Members of the Oireachtas and members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party will adhere to the law and adhere to Government policy the same as everybody else". I agree with him 100%. I praise the many people who have given up their pension entitlements and, more to the point, those who have found themselves in a position to afford to do so. Who knows what outgoings people have? I am only familiar with my own; I am not familiar with Senator Twomey's, nor would I presume to dictate what he should or could give to charity or otherwise.
I am a recent convert to Facebook, and there is no question as to the palpable anger of the public - the justifiable anger that people have about the circumstances we are in. The regulatory environment, both nationally and internationally, allowed a set of circumstances which has resulted in the world being robbed of much of its wealth. With the benefit of hindsight and as a Fianna Fáil politician, there is no question that there are certain things we would have done differently had we known what Fine Gael, at the time, clearly did not know either, because it was advocating further increases in expenditure.
Many interest groups, trade unions and others wanted higher pay, greater investment in capital and so on. However, circumstances have changed substantially since then and, as a result, the Government has changed its mind and its focus, establishing admiration-winning measures under the leadership of the Taoiseach and, in particular, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, over the last two and a half years. These measures have been painful and have hit every family in the country. There was nothing vote-winning about them, but they were necessary. This morning, the European Commission praised these measures and asked that they continue in order that Ireland show leadership in areas in which Greece and others have failed heretofore. We hope, in the interests of all European citizens, that Greece will be able to lift the ball and do what we have done very well.
Quite a few years ago, I and others in the House called for the establishment of a commission for a fairer Ireland, a voluntary forum which all pillars of society would be invited to attend, without expenses or any similar payments. In this way we could begin to decide how the country could best go forward in terms of pay scales, pensions and so on, with contributions from everybody. This is the sort of thing with which I would agree. If there are pensions we need to cut or abolish, that forum would be the best place in which to decide on this. In the meantime, I welcome the gestures made by many, such as Senator Feargal Quinn and others, in foregoing salaries and pensions. It is just, if they can afford it, that they do forego those payments, but they are not breaking the law by continuing to receive them.
One wonders what the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, and particularly the communications unit, is for. I, for one, am disgusted that an impression has been created in the newspapers which has gone unchallenged by paid personnel of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not know why we have communications people if they are not prepared to respond to insinuations in the media. Senator X or Deputy Y clocked in for seven out of ten days. Unfortunately-----
I ask the Acting Chairman to indulge me ever so slightly. I know I am being critical of aspects of the Oireachtas, which people do not like to hear sometimes, but it is all the more necessary.
Seven out of ten days is the number of days I clocked in. I would say the person responsible for communications works the statutory 39 hour week. I probably put in 80 or 90 hours last week. I am not complaining, as I am very well paid, even with the pay cuts, for that. However, what I expect is that these people do their jobs, which is to defend the Houses of the Oireachtas - not individuals, but the position of a Senator, a TD or a Minister - and acknowledge the work and time that is put in and the hours that are involved. It is not a matter of clocking in. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission should do more than put bouncy castles on the lawn or Beano comics in the lobby. I would like to see much more work done in that regard. With respect to Senator Hannigan, we need more than DVDs showing Senators jogging on beaches or Deputies collecting their children from school because considerable work is done in these Houses.
I am happy to accept whatever austerity measures are needed with the agreement of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time with me. It is about time the institutions of the State defended the good work of the institutions of the State.
I will begin by outlining my credentials. I have never been a Minister and this is the only public office I have held. As I will not get a pension until I am gone from this House, I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking an unpopular position.
The motion before the House is a load of hypocritical political opportunism and populism. I do not think it is even going to work because the political parties missed the boat. I acknowledge that calls were made for leadership but such leadership should have come from a united front of politicians or at least within the relevant parties. The proposers of this motion know perfectly well, however, that they had to put a gun to the heads of half of the people in their own party to get them to volunteer. Do not underestimate the intelligence of the people. I would have been happy to join a demonstration of leadership by making whatever financial sacrifice was necessary because the people are bleeding but everyone must jump at the same time and make it clear the sacrifice is voluntary.
I commend Senator MacSharry on his courage. Although he beat me to the quote with John Waters, a previous article by that author brilliantly analysed the language used by English newspapers in their dishonest targeting of politicians. However, politicians also have a lot to answer for. They sold the pass because they are terrified of the media.
Last week I had a cup of coffee with a decent fellow from a Government party who I will not name. He had been contacted by a journalist about a big Fianna Fáil meeting which was held recently in Killarney. When asked whether he had attended any of the caucus meetings, the journalist responded that he did not have to go because he knew what Fianna Fáil meetings are like. That man wrote scathingly about the meeting. I have no idea whether the meeting was good or bad but one would not last long as a music or theatre critic without attending the performances under review. Unfortunately, when I asked my informant whether he would raise the issue in the House or lambaste the newspaper that printed this twaddle, he said he could not do so for fear of being skinned alive.
I do not always agree with Mr. Waters but he accurately described the way in which Emmet Stagg was hauled before a Star Chamber inquiry on "Morning Ireland" to explain why he received a weekly pension of €56 as if this show trial would rectify the economic situation. Mr. Waters wrote:
This show-trial was introduced by Áine Lawlor with a low bow towards "public fury", which, she told us, showed "no sign of abating". Later, in a conversation with an audibly queasy David Davin-Power, she said: "But I suppose equally there are a lot of people listening, and €56 a week, while €56 may not be a huge sum of money to the State, it's a very big sum of money in their family's incomes." On such platitudes have been launched a dozen lynchings.
We can do nothing about the media except raise challenges. However, it is unwise for any group to inflame the already exacerbated feelings of the people which clearly need to be vented. People are on the threshold of bankruptcy or are losing their homes and jobs and they are suffering. However, we should be taking practical measures and it does no good to inflame the situation.
The people concdrned are very pious but I wonder if they ever read the New Testament. When I heard the debate about the pensions, I was immediately reminded of the parable of Jesus Christ involving a landowner who hires labourers. The first labourer is hired at the break of dawn and on an almost hourly basis the landlord hires additional people, all of whom receive the same wages. Those who were hired in the morning complained as they looked over their shoulders begrudgingly, even though, as our Lord pointed out, they had all agreed the same wage. There is something foolish in giving a pension to somebody who continues to work in virtually the same job but that was the agreed arrangement.
The cut of 25% was an appropriate and wise decision. My good friend, Senator Cummins, who I respect and admire, asked why the reduction could not be 100% rather than 25%. The perfectly obvious answer is that 25% is a reduction but 100% is an abolition. That is the legal point.
I am concerned that the perception of party political advantage will take hold. Everybody knows the matter is being addressed. Pensions will be completely abolished for sitting Members after the next election. I listened with great interest to my colleague, Senator O'Toole, who wondered where the witch hunt will end once we start it. Will it end with the police or retired teachers marking exam papers? I am concerned that we may unleash a tide of begrudgery instead of addressing the matter. We must give the people an opportunity to vent their justified rage without inflaming it further.
I missed this afternoon's vote in this House because I was attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science where I stated that I would support the Minister for Education and Skills, as I supported her predecessor, if she introduced fees. I made all the cogent arguments for the necessity of introducing fees and I believe I was absolutely correct even though I could hear the sound of votes shedding all over the place. I spoke on behalf of the disadvantaged people who, unless we introduce a proper cut-off level-----
I will sit down in that case. It is important for people to tell the truth. I wish I had more time because I would like to highlight some examples of dishonest and selective journalism. There is very little investigative journalism in this affair. If they are so interested, let them investigate the degree and quality of the contributions. Voting is a technical matter and we always lose because the Government has a built-in advantage. What difference does it make? I speak as a journalist when I say that journalists should be more realistic.
I speak as someone who entered the Oireachtas at a time when considerable reforms had already been introduced in regard to pensions payable to former Members on leaving office. I never knew about nor inquired into the pension entitlements that would accrue to me in the event that I ceased to be a Senator. I will receive some sort of pension at the normal retirement age rather than any earlier. I do not, therefore, have a vested interest.
I will stress two ideas, between which there is some tension. The first is that there should be reasonable and good remuneration for Deputies and Senators and, by extension, Ministers to attract people of calibre to politics. We are all familiar with the old saying, "if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys". Some critics of these Houses might say we pay considerably more than peanuts and still end up with some simian quadrupeds, but I am not sure that would be fair. However, it is debatable whether good remuneration should extend to the right of people to be paid a pension before leaving office as an ordinary Member of the Oireachtas.
The second issue - or bundle of issues - is the need to show solidarity and lead by example in the current difficult times. It is well known that people have been asked to make major sacrifices to put the country back on track. Those in the public service, in particular, have been asked to endure extra pain. It is, therefore, easy to understand why and undeniable that politicians' salaries and pensions have become such a neuralgic issue. Politicians are viewed in many cases as having contributed to the woes people are experiencing. That is due in part to the functioning of the media. The quest for accountability and necessary scepticism shown to all institutions and, in particular, people involved politics has on occasion spilled over into unhelpful cynicism. If we are honest, we should say there is a selfishness in our culture at this time. People endure no pain themselves but seek to scapegoat others and politicians are an easy target. The crisis is partly of our own making but has also been created partly by our culture, in which people are willing and anxious to play the blame game. Fine Gael's proposal must be accepted, on the basis that we have arrived at this point. However, I support much of what Senator Norris said, particularly on the way in which politicians have lost the opportunity to establish and regulate clear structures for fairness in media coverage of such issues. We have ended up considering the issues in a partial way and being led by the nose as a political class instead of leading ourselves.
Senator Cummins raised a valid point when he asked about the need to explain the logic that we could cut 25% from the pensions of former Ministers but not go further. We have never heard a proper explanation of why we could not have gone further.
It is legitimate, if we are talking about ministerial salaries and pensions, that we open up the debate to include others with public service pensions who are now earning in other areas, whether in the private or public sector. I asked some months ago if we should think about whether anyone in banking, politics or the media - or anyone whose salary was in any way supported by the public purse - should be allowed to earn more than €150,000 a year. If we are in such a serious crisis, perhaps we need to ask such drastic questions.
Fine Gael's proposal will be welcomed by many people because they cannot understand why a former Minister would attract a pension while continuing to earn a salary as a public representative. That is a legitimate question. However, if we criticise people for enjoying these privileges, we should have the generosity to praise and acknowledge those who took steps of their own volition to forgo part of their entitlement. I say this as someone who has no vested interest.
We need to widen the debate and re-establish a space in public discourse-----
-----in which politics can receive its proper due and people can learn to differentiate between politicians who are on the take and politicians who are genuinely selfless and seek to contribute to the common good. If we are to debate ministerial salaries, we should have a much more honest debate about anyone who is in receipt of a public sector pension and in a position to earn in other ways in the public or the private sector in order that we come up with some standards-----
Michael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to engage in a full debate on what the Government is doing on ministerial pensions. This is an opportunity to set out the facts and make certain the public is fully aware of what has been done to reduce spending on ministerial pensions. We are all aware that the issue has caused a great deal of public controversy in recent days, which is, to an extent, understandable. What happens in the Oireachtas, especially regarding Members' pay, pensions and expenses, must always be in the public eye. I am sure the same happens in every country with a healthy democracy. In such countries legislators will welcome such scrutiny and must be prepared to accept criticism and act on it where it is justified.
We must accept that public scrutiny will be even more intense at a time of serious economic crisis. Everyone in our community has been hugely affected by the crisis, especially those experiencing the problems caused by high unemployment. As a result, the public reasonably wants an assurance that the measures being taken to deal with Ireland's economic and budgetary crisis are fairly distributed and, in particular, that Members of the Oireachtas are not asking others to carry burdens they are not prepared to carry themselves. I am happy to provide that assurance for the public in this debate. Nonetheless, I hope we can agree it is essential that the debate will concentrate on the facts and will be carried on in a calm and rational manner. Important issues of public interest must be fully and properly debated in the Houses and we must take decisions in the light of that debate. If that means we cannot take knee-jerk decisions to appease a few commentators, so be it.
The Government makes no apology for refusing to allow policy to be decided solely by reference to what might or might not play well on the evening television news or in the morning newspapers. If we were to go further down the route mapped out for us by some of those who have been exercised recently about ministerial pensions, there is no doubt that the quality of Irish public life would be seriously undermined in the longer run. I am concerned about the nature and tone of some of the public debate on the issue in recent days. Many of the comments have been objectionable and many of the commentators have taken no account of the substantial measures the Government has introduced. Even more importantly, individuals have been singled out publicly and pursued until they have made what is considered to be the "right" statement about their ministerial pensions. That is a new development in Irish public life and I am not comfortable with it. By all means, we should have a full and open debate about the issues of the day, but I cannot stand back and agree that people who have previously served in government in the public interest can be harried until they are coerced into giving up income to which they have a clear legal right and which has already been reduced. We must be cautious about a public discussion that names particular individuals whose private circumstances are unknown and which moves on to make demands about what they should or should not do with their income. That is not a route we as a community can or should go down.
It is particularly disturbing that the recent debate has taken no account of the major steps the Government has taken on pay, administrative costs and pensions. The Government has led by example. We have taken a strong and clear line in reducing the cost of running our administrative and parliamentary system. As part of these measures, the Government has taken major steps to reduce public service pay costs which have significantly reduced spending on pay and related costs for all public servants and Members of the Oireachtas and Ministers. Ministers and Ministers of State voluntarily surrendered 10% of their pay from November 2008. Senators will be aware that in February 2009 the Government introduced a pension-related deduction for all public servants - the pension levy - which aimed to reduce the public service pay bill by an estimated €1 billion in a single year.
In 2009 the Government decided to restructure the way it operated by reducing the number of Ministers of State from 20 to 15. The reduction in the number of Ministers of State has also led to a reduction in the cost of running ministerial offices.
In budget 2010 the Minister for Finance announced the Government's decision to cut public service pay, with reductions ranging from 5% for the lower paid to just under 8% in the case of salaries up to €125,000. For those paid above this level, the Government decided, in line with the recommendations of the Review Body on Higher Remuneration in the Public Sector, on reductions of 8% for those with salaries from €125,000 to €165,000; 12% for those earning between €165,000 and €200,000, and 15% for those earning €200,000 or more. The Minister made it clear that these were permanent reductions which would be reflected in future pension entitlements.
The salary of the Taoiseach was reduced by 20% which meant that, when account was taken of the pension levy, the Taoiseach's salary was cut by close to 30% in total. Ministers and Secretaries General of Departments all took a pay cut of 15% which produced an overall cut of close to 25% when account was taken of the pension levy. By any standard, these are significant measures which have taken us a long way towards dealing with the budgetary problems we face. They have made it clear internationally that the Government will act immediately and decisively to secure the economic future of the country.
Turning to the issues raised in this debate, it is a fact that the Government has changed the terms and conditions of ministerial pensions. In 2009 the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act was introduced. It provided that ministerial pensions paid to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament would be reduced by 25%. Even more importantly, it also provides that such pensions will not be paid to sitting Members after the next general election or elections to the European Parliament.
In considering the legislation the Government looked at the possibility of ending the payment of pensions to sitting Members of the Oireachtas with immediate effect, the measure the Opposition wishes us to endorse this evening. However, the Government decided not to take this course of action following advice from the Attorney General whose clear advice was that pensions were earned but deferred income to which the person concerned had a property right. In addition, he advised that legislation to end pension payments completely for a particular group of people who had clear rights to the pension payments would be discriminatory and give rise to serious legal and constitutional issues. As the Minister for Finance said yesterday, this could amount to disproportionate discrimination.
The Government did take action, however, to reduce spending on ministerial pensions for sitting Members. It took steps within the law and the Constitution. Although these pensions could not be removed, the Attorney General said they could be reduced in a proportionate way after consultation with the relevant Members. The Minister for Finance consulted the pension holders and, in the light of this, proposed legislation to reduce the pensions of sitting Members by 25%, a measure which was approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister also proposed in the legislation to stop payment of these pensions to sitting ex-Ministers with effect from the next Dáil. Those concerned will have had an opportunity to assess the new position for themselves and make a decision in the light of their personal circumstances about any alternative pension arrangements they may wish to make.
In short, a reasonable but robust policy on ministerial pensions has been given effect by the Government. It is an approach which reduces costs to the taxpayer at the expense of ex-Ministers and takes account of the serious legal constraints which apply in this area. We must also remember that a considerable number of ex-Ministers have already gifted or intend to gift their pensions to the Exchequer. I express the Government's gratitude for these significant and generous contributions. It is also important to remind the House and the public that these gifts were being made privately before the recent controversy began.
The Government makes no apology for what it has done in this area. It also makes no apology for refusing to join in a disturbing public campaign to coerce people to give up properly acquired pensions. When the record is looked at fairly, it shows clearly that we have moved to deal with the economic and budgetary crisis, reduced the cost of running the Government and the Oireachtas and taken entirely reasonable and proportionate measures to reduce very significantly ministerial pensions paid to sitting Members. There is no need for the legislation proposed in the Opposition's motion. I commend the Government's amendment to the House.
I will start with a question to the Minister of State relating to the summary he gave of the Attorney General's legal advice. The Attorney General said pensions were earned but deferred income, to which the person concerned had a property right. I cannot disagree with this; it defines what is a pension. Therefore, there was a constitutional impediment to removing pensions, particularly from just one group of people. We will not be privy to further detail of the Attorney General's advice, which is a pity.
The Minister of State also pointed out that the Government had already made a decision that pensions would not be paid to sitting ex-Ministers with effect from the next Dáil. If one applies the advice relating to the decision the Government has made regarding the next Dáil, current serving Ministers are earning deferred income in the same way as occurs generally. The Minister of State and his colleagues, therefore, are earning deferred income. How can this be taken from them, albeit from the next Dáil, if we accept the Attorney General's advice that there is a constitutional impediment to so doing? The income the Minister of State and members of the Cabinet are earning is earned income. How can the advice apply to the current position but not to the future position? Surely the same legal issue arises in respect of doing it for Ministers who are currently serving and who will be fortunate enough to be elected - if any are, although perhaps that is a cheap shot - to the next Dáil. I look forward to receiving an answer to that question. It does not add up that it will be all right to do it then but not to do it now.
The difficulty in this debate is that there is confusion. I sympathise with some of the points made by Senator MacSharry and others. There is confusion as to whether the wish to remove pension payments from serving Members of the Oireachtas amounts to a financial emergency measure, like the others of which we are aware, or a reopening of the issue of whether, in principle, we ever thought it was right that a pension should be paid to former Ministers who were still Members of the Oireachtas. Furthermore, we are not discussing whether we are talking about it as a principle or as a financial emergency measure in the context of this debate, which is a pity.
Senator Twomey is correct that there is massive public anger and upset about former Ministers who are serving in the Dáil and Seanad drawing pensions. Most ordinary mortals regard pensions as something one receives when one is 65 years old, or possibly 60 years old, if there is an early retirement arrangement in one's pension fund. People perceive pensions to be for one's retirement, not a payment to be made while one is still working. That is a reasonable position for people to take when they view what is happening. However, there was a rationale for introducing these payments, about which all parties should be honest. There was a rationale former Ministers received pensions, notwithstanding the fact that they had not reached the age of 55, 60 or 65 years. Are we opening up the issue of principle by stating the payments should never have been provided for in the first place or are we saying there was a good reason for making them but because of the financial situation in which we find ourselves the position needs to be changed?
I do not say this to be critical of my Fine Gael colleagues, but I would prefer if there was draft legislation before us to be debated in the House, rather than having an Opposition party - I found myself in this position previously - calling on the Government to introduce legislation. I emphasise that I am not criticising my colleagues in this regard, but it would be more satisfactory if we were in a position to table legislation because it would then be easier for us to come to a view on whether the provisions of that draft legislation offended the Constitution. We are arguing blind. Senator Twomey states he has received the opinions of three senior counsel who state there would not be a problem with such legislation, but we do not know because we have not seen the heads of a draft Bill. On the other hand, the Government states the Attorney General says it can be done in the future but not now. That is extremely unsatisfactory in facilitating a meaningful debate in the House on this important issue. We deserve more from the Government side on what the legal impediments are, over and above what the Minister of State said. I want to see more of an account of precisely why it cannot be done. Perhaps the Minister of State is in a position to address the point about draft legislation. It may be academic at this stage, but it does not seem there would be an impediment to an Opposition party tabling legislation on an issue such as this. It seems it would not be a Money Bill or a matter on which an Opposition party could not table legislation, even though there are areas we cannot address.
Touching again on the issue of principle, I have sympathy for what Senator MacSharry and others were talking about. Senator MacSharry was inclined to be critical of the Houses generally, the way business was done and the efforts made to explain matters to the public. Politicians are principally to blame in this regard. It is no use saying there are staff in an office who are paid to explain matters, etc. They may or may not be doing so as well as they could, but I am not interested in that aspect. Often politicians do not have the necessary self-belief to explain and argue in public on, for example, the reasons politicians in the past believed, as they obviously did, that there should be pension payments for ex-Ministers, even those still serving as Deputies and Senators. In this country many things seem to happen quietly. We are aware of the argument that over a period of ten to 15 years the level of expenses went up. This happened here, there and everywhere. I am not saying it was done in a covert way in the sense that it was done secretly, but it was done in a way that did not give rise to much public debate. Politicians are very weak at explaining and arguing these points and when there is a furore, a huge row and, as Senator Twomey stated, public anger, it is not possible to defend the matter because, frankly, politicians would not last five minutes on a radio programme in trying to defend something such as this. There is an issue for us in that regard which has to do with our own sense of what we are about.
I refer to the deeper issues involved, about which Senator Twomey spoke and which perhaps are missed in this debate such as what are we about? What is our role? What is our perception of our role? How do we value ourselves? What value do we put on our work in the Dáil and Seanad? Where do we fit in? What are we not doing that we should be doing? Are we overpaid? If we were doing the job a parliament was expected to do in a democracy and if we were given by the Government the scrutinising role a parliament should have in a democracy, there is no way I would regard the pay of politicians, Deputies and Senators, as being too high. The question arises in circumstances where we are not seen to be doing the things I want us to do as politicians, as Deputies and Senators, whether it be scrutinising financial measures in the case of the banks or otherwise. Essentially, such measures are presented on the floor of the Houses as a fait accompli. Often we do not operate as parliamentarians in the true sense of the word which gives rise to questions in the public's mind about what Members are doing and whether, in fact, they deserve the money they are getting. This brings us back to our sense of self-confidence which we often lack, as has come out in this debate.
On the core issue involved, it seems one can reduce the debate in this Chamber to the net issue. Independent Senators and all of the parties agree that former Ministers ought not to be paid a pension while still serving in the Oireachtas from the next Dáil. Everyone seems to agree with this. It is only a matter of what happens between now and the next general election in the case of a small number of individuals who for their own reasons do not wish to forfeit or give up their pension payments. It all boils down to that net point. I will support the Fine Gael motion because it is right that the issue should be dealt with by the Government now rather than in the future but it would be much better if it had not come to this.
Since the establishment of the State the payments to public representatives in the Houses of the Oireachtas have evolved through many stages, from a point where their wages were considered relatively modest compared to the average industrial wage to the point where a number of compensatory measures were introduced to encourage people to enter public life. They included an expenses regime that was perhaps over generous and largely unaccounted for. However, other measures were in place under which 50% of one's salary was not taxable. It took many years to get rid of this anomaly in the 1970s. Even up to the 1970s the wages of Members of the Oireachtas were relatively modest compared to the average industrial wage. However, since the 1990s there has been a considerable increase to the extent that they are now a multiple of the average industrial wage. The compensatory measures put in place were let stand and reforms were not introduced soon enough. We now have a system in place under which the expenses regime has been changed in order that it involves an element of accountability and vouched expenditure. I am not sure whether it is the right mechanism, but it is a sincere attempt to have in place a new regime.
As the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, outlined, there are several areas in which the Government have introduced significant reforms in making payments to persons involved in public life. I refer not only to the reduction in the level of ministerial wages, the reduction in the number of Ministers of State, the cut Members of both Houses have suffered with everyone else in the public service and the public service levy, but also to other measures such as the abolition of the seven and ten-year increments, of which Senator Twomey and I have been victims, and the introduction of the new expenses regime which the Minister of State failed to mention. As an accounting exercise, the amount of money spent on politicians is far lower than it used to be, which is no bad thing. There may be a reactionary element to this; certainly, there are elements in the media who are bathed in hypocrisy, given the wage levels of and pension arrangements for many of the opinion-forming columnists who write on this issue. There is, however, justifiable public concern about the nature of some of the payments made which has crystallised in the pensions issue. First, the scale of the pensions paid rightly seems to intimidate and upset people; second, there is the fact that multiple payments are made; third, there is the question of pensions being paid to persons still in receipt of salaries, all of which has been deemed as unacceptable by the general public.
There has been an attempt to address the issue by means of various pieces of legislation. Senator Twomey will remember that five or six years ago legislation changed the entitlements of future Members of the Oireachtas and Ministers to receive a pension before retirement age. I think both the Senator and I got in under the counter in that regard. Those elected in the two by-elections before the 2007 general election and all new Members of the Oireachtas and all new ministerial appointees since 2007 are all governed by that legislation. Had I chosen to take what would have been a very modest pension of €300 a week, the equivalent of a State pension, I would have been claiming that sum for a period of 25 years and possibly more after five years' service. We need a debate on pensions in general. Compared to other European countries, Ireland has a demographic advantage but it also has an ageing population. If we are serious about providing for the payment of pensions, there has to be a better bridge between the contributions people make and the amounts they receive. This is an important debate.
The Fine Gael motion reflects wider public concern on the issue. Ironically, a ministerial pension was designed as compensation and meant to benefit those who had been in office and subsequently found themselves in opposition. Those who benefit most from this measure are members of the Opposition. It was designed to compensate for the loss of office. However, we are living in different times and expectations are different. The general salary level of Members of the Oireachtas is generous compared to the average industrial wage.
The actions of those who have given up their pensions have been commendable; such actions needed to be taken. On the question of whether legislation is required to tackle the handful who remain and want to hold on to their pension payments, the economics of such a move should be considered. Introducing legislation to cover the period up to the next general election, to tease out the constitutional niceties, would probably cost the State more than the value of money outstanding. At a time when we are seeking to curb public expenditure, is this something we need to do? I do not think further legislation needs to be enacted between now and the next general election.
Another category of public representative is also covered by this principle. We need to introduce controls governing the circumstances, the amounts and the timing in terms of when people receive pensions. This will require more all-embracing legislation than is envisaged by the motion. The matter should be dealt with under the auspices of promised legislation covering the period when politicians leave office and enter the private sector. The programme for Government refers to a period of 12 months. I am disappointed with the ethics committee of the European Commission which has made a poor decision in this regard. It should be a general principle that anyone who leaves a decision-making role should have to wait for a period of at least 12 months before he or she takes up an equivalent role in the private sector in an area for which he or she had regulatory responsibility. That is what I would like to see included in all-embracing legislation. This is a debate which could be usefully held in this House in time to come.
We need to return to the matter of dealing with the other contradictions and anomalies, quirks of the system, which cause public concern. I would like to think the economic position is becoming less uncertain, that there are signs that we may be heading back to better times. Many citizens find themselves in difficult times, it is difficult to find money to spend.
The time of this and the other House would be better used in bringing forward legislation to introduce and protect the notion of fairness. The political class - politicians and political parties - needs to be proactive to win back the confidence of the people. It needs to be less reactionary. We need to identify the flaws in the system and introduce legislation. We can act in a more unified way than in the past, but neither can such legislation be rushed. This will be a major debating theme in the general election whenever it happens. The new Government after the general election will be informed by the need to introduce such legislation. I look forward to a continuing debate on the issue.
In welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, to the House I am conscious there has been a tied vote in the other House on the writs for the by-elections. This debate is important because the body politic needs to reconnect with the people. There is a sense among the wider population that there is cronyism and that politicians are looking after themselves. We must, therefore, not consider this issue through rose-tinted glasses, rather we should honestly look at how this parliamentary democracy operates. We must accept there is a need to embrace a new culture in Irish politics. This has a broader strand which must be considered in the context of the entitlement of former Taoisigh to be provided with a State car and the need for transparency and openness in how people are appointed to State boards. All political parties are guilty of looking after their own membership. If we are honest, the practice of Deputies, Senators and MEPs claiming a ministerial pension in tandem with a salary from the Houses of the Oireachtas was wrong and its continuation only helps to inflict further damage on the political system and the reputation of politicians. We must give credit to those MEPs, Senators and Deputies who have given up their entitlement to a pension. There is anger and a sense of betrayal among the people which is levelled at all politicians but predominantly towards the Government. The people have been let down by politics and politicians in the decisions taken and in the way the country has been run for 13 to 14 years. That is the reality.
I appeal to the remaining Members, former Ministers, who have not relinquished their pensions to do so. I am not doing so in an adversarial political manner. This is not a witch-hunt. It is not a case of bowing the knee to the media, rather it is the right thing to do and would help to restore a level of trust in politics and politicians. The motion is important because it provides the right course of action for us to take. If we want to bring about change and a new political culture, we must start with ourselves in the Houses of Oireachtas.
I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, speak about the various changes introduced by the Government - I accept there have been improvements - while Senator Boyle spoke about the evolution of politicians' pay. However, we must call a spade a spade. Politicians' pay grew exponentially under Deputy Bertie Ahern's stewardship as Taoiseach.
While I accept certain journalist are only interested in bringing down politicians, we must not blame journalists for the mess we are in and the low esteem in which politics is held. The Government will give us the line about the Attorney General's advice on why legislation on ministerial pensions cannot be introduced, yet the practice of ministerial pensions is outdated; it belongs to a different generation. We must lead by example. If we are serious about developing a new society and culture while restoring trust between politicians and the people, the motion should be supported by all sides of the House.
I am concerned that we will embark on a process, whereby politics will be the preserve of the chosen few and that those who enter politics will be of a certain type only. We must never allow politics to be about a few; it must be about looking after everyone. No one should be debarred from running for office because of the costs involved.
Dara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Finance; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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What about the cost of staying in office?
I was speaking about the cost of running for office. Ministers are well looked after when in office with the different arrangements in place both in their ministerial and constituency offices. These arrangements should be the subject of another Private Members' motion.
Dara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Finance; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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What does the Senator want next - a circus?
It is not a circus. The Minister of State knows full well the numbers of advisers and members of staff a Minister can have in his or her office.
Reform is needed in electoral spending. I expect the Standards in Public Office Commission to look at candidates' expenditure between elections. We must examine the issue of how political parties and candidates are funded. I am in favour of the State giving political parties funding to operate, but a cap must be placed on the amount that can be spent by parties and individual candidates between elections. It has, unfortunately, reached the point where only a certain few can run for political office. It is almost like we have gone down the American road where it costs millions of dollars to run for state or national political office.
The motion offers a clear choice to all political parties on which we can agree. We must allow the people their right to have a say, but we cannot be governed by populism or Joe Duffy either. If we are honest, we will agree the practice regarding ministerial pensions is wrong. If we want genuine change in political culture, we should start by accepting the motion.
To come back to a point made by Senator MacSharry, there is no point in blaming the Leinster House press office or staff for clocking in. Neither can journalists be blamed for the ills we have brought upon ourselves as politicians. We have an obligation to lead and the motion gives us the opportunity to do so. The outdated ministerial pension model needs to be replaced with a new transparent one which will show the people we are serious about reform and ensuring openness.
I second the amendment to the motion moved by Senator MacSharry.
When some lose sight of the past and do not realise why certain arrangements are in place, it is time to recall the pay and conditions of Oireachtas Members in the 1980s. I spoke with a candidate for both the Dáil and the Seanad who ran in several elections in the early 1980s, who was elected in the first Seanad election in 1982 and subsequently re-elected. The personal cost was such that at one point the former Member's bank manager told him not to write any more cheques.
While we work in a privileged position, we do not have security of tenure. The average term a Senator will serve during which he will give his or her best on behalf of the public is 12 years. There was a time when it was possible to receive €2,000 a week on the lump doing labour for a builder in Dublin. We were all scandalised by the pay scale on offer to someone working in a medium-sized company, through statutory compliance, of €200,000 plus benefits. The chief executive officer of a large company was able to earn up to €700,000 a year. Pay and conditions in the Oireachtas tried to keep pace with these developments.
I often hear people claim that in the boom years money was squandered. If it was, it was the people who squandered it because the reality is the Government put the money back into the public domain. There is no doubt that through benchmarking people's pay and conditions improved considerably, including their pension provisions. I do not hear people who served in government between 1994 and 1997 say they should hand back their pensions because the qualifying term was reduced for two years.
One does not hear those who served for a very short term in the 1994 to 1997 Government, who are now retired and who qualified after two years for a pension speak about handing back their pensions. The Opposition is chasing the rainbow of public opinion. Were it not for the pension arrangements of Bank of Ireland's chief executive officer, Mr. Boucher, or the Irish European Commissioner's, the motion would never have been put before the House. If it is wrong today, it was wrong two years ago or five years ago, but we have not heard a word about it. The Opposition is trying to ensure the opinion polls stay flat-lined, which is its hope, but the Government's job is to get on with what it must do.
As someone who qualified as a financial adviser and was qualified to sell pensions, I am aware that a pension amounts to deferred pay. That is the legal position. Even if we were to introduce legislation in the next term to prevent people from claiming their pension, I am certain it could be challenged. We can only hope those who have already given up their pension, if they are still Members of the House, will agree not to make a claim, but it is deferred pay which is the property of the person concerned. If I go for a walk in the countryside, through a farmer's land, and while on it someone puts up a "No Trespassing" sign, I cannot be sued for trespassing because the sign was not in place when I started the walk. In the same way, if a person has accrued a pension, it is his or hers. I hope all of the Members concerned are in a position to give up their pension. It would be welcomed because we are now much better paid. We are moving forward together on the issue.
I was disappointed with the suggestion made on the Order of Business which was incorrect and unfair that the Government was corruptly in cahoots with developers and builders. There was not even a question of this, not to mind somebody being brought in for questioning, charged or convicted. It was unseemly and what was said should not have been said in the House.
This motion is cynical and hypocritical because Members on the other side of the House were in receipt of pensions. I spoke to a Member at noon on the day the story about Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn broke and he said there was no way he was going to give back his pension. At 6 p.m. he was announcing his intention to give back his pension. I wonder what happened to make him change his mind between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. It is hypocritical also when one hears people speak about the amount of money spent before and during elections. Another Member on the other side of the House spent €47,000 on local election campaigns. God only knows what he spent on general elections. I will not name him, but he knows who he is.
I also query whether sitting Members who are performing work as general practitioners are drawing their pension. These are questions that will have to be answered in view of what has happened. Mr. Alan Dukes, a well paid executive of Anglo Irish Bank, is drawing his pension and refusing to give it up. The former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, is still working and drawing his pension. This is a hypocritical, cynical motion that will come back to haunt to Members opposite.
Senator Norris was correct when he said we made our own decisions about pensions and the way we looked after ourselves. That is fine, but we are not as well looked after as many others, including bank managers. Members of the teaching pension are working and drawing a teacher's pension. Retired civil servants are working in the private sector and continue to draw their pension. The motion is hypocritical and cynical and would never have been tabled if its movers were not seeking the populist vote. That is what is happening this evening.
Three individuals have not yet given up their pension and Members opposite want legislation to be drafted when they know in their hearts the pensions issue will be decided after the next elections when there will be a new mandate in that regard. The cost of bringing forward legislation to deal with the position of the three individuals in question would be far too high.
It is important to thank those who have given up their pension voluntarily. People on both sides of the political divide have done so and it is important that we bear this in mind, as people face different financial demands which could be the cost of nursing home care for a parent, other financial or family arrangements, etc. We all are subject to different financial constraints.
I support the Government amendment. It is important to ensure that when we table motions in the House, they are sensible. I would rather see a proper debate on the economy which is what should have taken place this evening, rather than engaging in a cynical exercise such as this.
The Minister of State is welcome. I also welcome the fact that we are having this worthwhile debate. It is interesting because about 25 years ago I made a comment, long before I was ever involved with this House, about ministerial pensions. I said I had been amazed to discover that former Ministers still with the same employer, namely, the State, were drawing ministerial pensions. The story was carried in the Evening Herald , even though I was not a political figure at the time.
We face a dilemma on this issue. I do not know how it will be solved, but I am sure it will be through legislation, as long as there are no voluntary withdrawals. The public cannot understand how someone working for the same employer can draw a pension and also earn a salary. We must face up to this challenge.
I recall a particular individual who was a Minister some years ago. He lost his seat and did not manage to survive in politics. Does this mean he cannot work for anyone without having to forgo his ministerial pension? It is a tricky position to be in. The matter is not as simple as I thought it would be. It is apparent, however, that the State cannot afford such extravagances as ministerial pensions which will have to come to an end because the public does not understand the reason for paying them.
On how we will solve the problem, we face a challenge to the economy. According to the most recent forecast, the Exchequer will collect some €32 billion this year, but it costs the State approximately €55 billion to function, not to mention the cost of the banks' bailout. Put starkly, we must borrow the difference between these two figures this year. Whether it is through the Croke Park agreement or something else, we are asking citizens to tighten their belts and reduce spending. We are telling them that it would be worthwhile doing so because there is much at stake, but then they see former Ministers taking a pension while earning an income. It is not possible to survive on that basis. We will have to make a statement on the issue. On that basis I support the motion brought forward by the Opposition.
I thank Senator Quinn for sharing his time. I listened to what he had to say about the comment he made on this issue 25 years ago. I am sorry to say my memory goes back to about that time also. I have news for the House. This is not the first time such a motion has been introduced . In 1986, almost 24 years ago to the day, I introduced almost an identical motion to the one before the House. We had a Fine Gael led Government at the time. Guess who voted against my motion? The answer is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It is the nature of the Opposition to propose such reforms and it is the nature of the Government to oppose them. However, I remind the House that the Opposition today was in that position at that time and took the view that there should be no change in ministerial pensions being taken by sitting Members. With that in mind, I take the view that it is right now. The Opposition has changed and reformed. That is fine. However, I refer to those from both sides, especially the Fianna Fáil side, who maintain this is media led. I agree with them; they are right, but one must remember that sometimes the media are right as well. From time to time the media get it right. Sometimes the mob is right although it may behave in a way that is not acceptable. I understand it behaves in a way which is not acceptable on many occasions but it does not mean that a cause it champions, such as this one, is not right. Simply because the media leads a campaign, does not mean the media is wrong. I believe this cause is media led and the media has led those who have tabled the motion today. That may not be a laudable or commendable way of behaving but that is the reality. I cannot turn my back on what I believed in 25 years ago. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael believed me at the time, although to its credit the Labour Party voted for the motion, as did the Independents. The Labour Party split with the Government at the time.
We should look upon this with a certain degree of scepticism, even though the principles behind it are probably correct. It is indefensible that people should hold a pension at the same time as holding a job in one of the Houses. The reaction at that time by the Government was to set up a committee. That is not the reaction we have seen tonight. The motion is simply being voted down. However I call on the Government to respond to this and to commit to reforming the system properly. It should not hide behind the Attorney General. There are ways of getting around that issue and the Government had no need to seek the Attorney General's opinion.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Quinn as ucht a chuid ama a roinnt liom. I wish to support the Fine Gael motion although it is politically opportunistic. As I stated last week on the Order of Business, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil were all up to their necks in this until last week, when the parties realised the media and the mob, if one wishes to call it that, was coming after them and they needed to give up their pensions and do the right thing. It is wrong that at present there are three former Ministers or Ministers of State serving either in the European Parliament or in the Oireachtas who are holding on to those pensions. However, it was equally wrong that this position was taken last week or ten days ago by the Deputy Leader of Fine Gael or other senior members of the Labour Party and it was wrong that this was taking place across the board in these parties several years ago. As we have heard, people have raised these issues for many years.
I have raised the issue of teachers in receipt of salaries and top-ups and the difference between the remuneration of a lower grade teacher coming in to replace a Member who has left his or her job. All of that is wrong and people are sick, sore and tired of the issue. This is why there is so much anger because people have seen the shenanigans that have unfolded in the political system. They have seen the junkets, bonuses, the scandal over expenses and now they see the issue of pensions.
It is with regret that I note two of the three former Ministers or Ministers of State remaining who have not bowed to a common sense attitude and given up the pensions at this point or gifted them back to the State, are from Donegal. "Gift" is a horrible word and I do not believe they should have been entitled to these benefits in the first place. This is turning people away from politics. God knows there are enough difficulties in trying to convince people that as legislators we can make a change, that there is hope, that people who enter into the political arena have a vision and that people should not brand us all with the one brush. However, when such events unfold, it adds to the frustrations that exist and to the cynicism about politics. In addition, the Government will not even ask its fellow party members to hand over the pensions, knowing full well that the country is up a creek without a paddle. We need people to pitch in and to be patriotic, as we have heard in the past, but somehow these people believe they are entitled to double salaries to deal with whatever moats, pools or other luxuries they have become used to over many years.
I support the motion. However, I believe it is too little, too late and the damage has been done by all the parties to which I referred. The system is wrong and it goes to the core of what I believe requires change in terms of the salaries and remuneration of Deputies and Senators. I recall when the Minister for Finance introduced legislation to deal with vouched expenditure, he informed us in his press release that information would be available to the public. We are two months into the use of the new system and the information is still not freely available to the public. The media must go through the freedom of information process and that gives a sense that we are hiding something. All this must be dealt with and I support the motion.
It is a matter of considerable regret that this motion is before the House. I place the blame largely on the three individuals who have chosen not to do the honourable and decent thing. The three speakers who have just contributed hit the nail on the head. This is total political opportunism and this is one of the reasons I will not support the Fine Gael motion. It will not deliver anything. I am reminded of the phrase "May the Lord make me virtuous, but not yet". It is ringing in my ears from Fine Gael and the Labour Party. I simply do not believe this is the right way to address the matter. It is a matter of individual conscience. To date, two former Ministers or Ministers of State who remain Members have refused to give up their pensions. That is wrong. A third person has left the Houses of the Oireachtas. However, to echo the phrase used by Senator Quinn, which I liked, he is still with the same employer, i.e. the State. That person is in a slightly different position but nonetheless it is a question of what we do when times are straitened. Entitlements are all very well and we can all take the view we are entitled to this, that and the other. I accept the Government's bona fides and the line that advice has come from the Attorney General but sometimes we are asked to rise above the normal reaction in such situations. We may cling to our entitlements for as long as we do but the ship is going down and it shows character if one does the right thing at such a time. I do not know how any of them can continue to take their stated positions. They may put forward a good argument in respect of why they are not going to succumb to pressure. However, I do not believe it is exclusively media pressure. There has been an element of that and politicians are easy and unfair targets in a situation such as this. We do not help ourselves by arguing with each other about the matter.
To echo Senator Quinn's phrase again, many people are still with the same employer. For example, I refer to retired Secretaries General of Departments who go on and are in receipt of money. Such people may have pensions as a result of being retired Secretaries General and have then gone on to various organisations such as NAMA. Such people are now receiving good money. That is why I do not like the way politicians are addressing the issue. We are attacking ourselves with such a motion. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. If it is not appropriate for one then it should not be appropriate for any person in receipt of a public pension and public salary. People should not have both and the standard should be the same for everyone. I am disgusted by the three Members who have chosen not to do the right thing by their country. Naturally, they are entitled to it and it is a matter of individual conscience.
Senator Quinn alluded to the borrowing levels in the country. Did they stop for one minute to think about that? They should think beyond what they have received themselves and consider the sacrifices everyone is being asked to make. As politicians, we are subject to a higher level of exposure and we must be more sensitive to public attitudes. It does us no good to find people clinging to their entitlements as we see the ship of State in such choppy waters. At such times, we must rise above the situation and do what is honourable and decent. However, I will not award a Pyrrhic victory to the Opposition by supporting its motion because there is nothing to be gained by it. I regret that the three people have insisted on the motion going forward. They did not do the honourable thing for their country and for nobody else. Politics is a noble profession. When people do things like this, they do not serve the noble cause.
A large proportion of the general public supports the glib lines of the motion before the House. The payment of ministerial pensions to serving Members of either House of the Oireachtas has attracted the interest of many people. It is generally viewed as unfair that Members who receive salaries should receive ministerial pensions at the same time. It is perceived to be unsatisfactory. There has been a mixed bag of criticism from certain individuals. Broad and sweeping statements, such as "slash the pension", "give it up", "it is well for you politicians" and "generous payments and top-ups", are usually made. The political play tonight does nothing to refute such misinformation.
Most Senators are aware that the last few years of economic and financial turbulence have left a volcanic ash cloud over the country. The changed economic landscape has led to testing financial times for everyone, especially those involved in business and industry. We are in testing and challenging times. Most people are in survival mode. Others are on a downright scary rollercoaster. This has led to a new guillotine level of public anger and cynicism about politicians. I say "guillotine" deliberately because the agenda that seems to have been set involves throwing the issue out there, muddying the waters, throwing enough shit so that some will stick, fuelling it with misinformation, going for the jugular, guillotining it and executing it. As far as most people are concerned, the matter has been dealt with in that way. Can I ask when we will debate the consequences of that? If one tries to correct the ill-conceived public perception, the glib line one hears in response is "then why did you agree to it?" or "why is that position not explained?". In the short time available to me this evening, it is not possible to address all the consequences.
We should not act in a foolhardy manner by supporting Fine Gael's cheap-shot motion. If we support the motion, we cannot expect to escape the broader consequences across the board. The possibilities in respect of the broader consequences are considerable. Solutions can be realised and implemented only when one has gathered enough information to make an informed and balanced decision and to understand the consequences. In the current climate, there are many variables and matters of opinion. The fundamental issue is the recovery plan to address the national economic and budgetary challenges. The various aspects of the rescue package that is being implemented by this Fianna Fáil-led Government prove we are facing up to the massive scale of this country's problems. Some of these aspects were outlined in the Minister of State's response. The Government has taken the necessary action on the basis of informed briefing. It has been balanced rather than reactionary. Courageous decisions have been taken to solve our problems. Therefore, it is with regret that I am not able to support the motion. I have to wrap up because the amount of time available to me is limited.
I thank all Senators who contributed to the debate, including those who said they will vote against the motion. I suggest that those Government Senators who feel that former Ministers are entitled to draw certain pensions when they have retired as Ministers and returned to the backbenches should use their own Private Members' time, the next time it arises, to make a case to that effect. I alluded in my opening speech to the need for a broader debate. If it is needed, we should have it. We have proposed a motion on this issue this evening.
I accept this is a topical issue. As long ago as 9 July 2009, Deputy Bruton said during his Second Stage speech on Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Bill 2009 that "pensions payable to serving Members of the Oireachtas should be entirely abolished". He said it was wrong to make such payments but nothing was done in that regard. This issue, which has been the subject of a long-standing debate within and outside politics, has come to the fore in recent weeks. That is the way it happens in politics - things bubble away under the surface before coming to the top and needing to be dealt with. That is the way life is. If Senators on the other side feel they did not get enough time to explain why the Fine Gael motion is wrong, they should propose a motion of their own the next time they have Private Members' time outlining why these perks should be retained into the future.
The argument that has been made against the implementation of legislation in this area is that it would disproportionately discriminate against people's property rights. It has also been suggested it would cost too much to introduce such legislation. That is the weakest argument, to be honest, given that we imprison people who do not pay €100 for television licences even though it costs €2,000 a week to keep them in jail. It costs as much to put them in there in the first place. It is not a very strong argument. We should consider the introduction of legislation for other reasons, for example to defend the principles of social justice, to uphold the common good and to highlight the powers of the Oireachtas. We need to make it clear that both Houses can show leadership when it is required.
Three individuals who are Members of the European Parliament or Members of the Oireachtas are refusing to accept the general consensus, which is that ministerial pensions should no longer be paid. We should be more forceful in insisting that such payments are stopped. They are contributing greatly to the public anger that is a feature of the manner in which we, as individuals, and these two Houses, as institutions, are perceived. That is why this step should be taken. We are in the eye of the storm when it comes to public anger. Many of the things we do are extremely good and of benefit to the people. We are well paid. The general public may continue to disagree with the payment of some of the allowances we receive. We are given allowances to run our offices and fulfil other aspects of our jobs.
There is something wrong with the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Members of the Oireachtas. As Senator Quinn said, retiring Ministers remain with the same employer until they leave the Oireachtas. There has been something wrong with such payments for a while. This issue was brought to the fore as this country's economic situation worsened. Those of us who have been Members of the Oireachtas since 2002 have seen dramatic changes in the pay, terms and conditions under which we work by comparison with those that prevailed a few short years ago. We have accepted many changes in light of what is happening. We should insist that this change be made on behalf of all Deputies, Senators and Members of the European Parliament.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 31 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, David Norris, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 24 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Tellers: Tá, NiallÓ and DiarmuidWilson; Níl, MauriceCummins and LiamTwomey
Amendment declared carried