Seanad debates

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:15 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Dublin South, Labour)
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I am privileged to deputise for my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, in addressing the House on the subject of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill.

This Bill is designated a No. 2 Bill because an Oireachtas commission (amendment) Bill, which concerns the Oireachtas translation service and is being dealt with by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, is already before the Oireachtas, having commenced its legislative passage through Parliament earlier this year.

The Houses of the Oireachtas commission was first established by statute in 2004 and since then the legislation has been further amended in the Houses of the Oireachtas commission Acts 2006 and 2009. The commission is the independent body which, in effect, is the governing board of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. The primary functions of the commission are to provide tor the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas, to act as governing body of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, to consider and determine policy in relation to the service and to oversee the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General.

The commission is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle and consists of 11 members, including the Secretary General. The commission is financed from the Central Fund for a three-year period and has control over current expenditure and, to a considerable degree, over its staffing. The commission has no role in regulating the business of the Houses. The commission is accountable to the Parliament and presents annual reports of its work together with estimates and accounts of its expenditure.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Service is the public service body that administers the Houses of the Oireachtas on behalf of the commission as the governing authority. The functions of the service are set out in the Act of 2009. They are to provide advice and support services to the commission, the Houses and their committees, and Members of the Houses.

Since 2004, the current expenditure of the Houses of the Oireachtas has been financed from the Central Fund rather than, as had been the case up to then, being included in the Estimates voted annually by the Dáil Éireann. This change was effected by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. Under the terms of that Act, a three-year budget, covering the period 2004-06, was provided for the commission. Further Acts were enacted in 2006, covering the 2007-09 period, and 2009, covering the 2010-12 period. A new Act is now required, as the financing provided under the 2009 Act expires as of 31 December next.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to make available the funding for the commission over the coming three years. The Bill proposes to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding ¤324 million to carry out its functions for the three-year period from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2015. The sum has been agreed between my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the commission and takes into account foreseen expenditure.

I draw to the attention of Members that the sum in question is a great deal less than the ¤360 million provided for the past three years and, to an even greater extent, the ¤393 million provided for in the previous three-year period. In looking at these figures, a pattern of reducing expenditure by the commission is very clear. The proposed funding continues the trend and reflects the current budgetary situation while taking into account the needs of the commission over the coming three-year period. To keep its spending within the reduced figure of ¤324 million, the commission is committed to ensuring that funds are only designated to essential expenditure. The reduced three-year figure also takes account of the decrease in Members' allowances announced by the Minister in his Budget Statement of 5 December.

In regard to the curtailment of expenditure, I draw the attention of Members to the fact that under the terms of the Oireachtas commission legislation, the commission determines its own staffing requirements, with the exception that for senior appointments the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is required. Since 2009, the commission, while not obliged to implement the staffing moratorium that has been in place in the Civil Service, has mirrored it and authorised staffing levels for public servants in the Oireachtas have been reduced by 10% in the period.

I am sure that Senators will agree that the ¤324 million target is a challenging one and will require substantial economising by the commission over a three-year period. It will be no more difficult than the regime to which Department and offices will be compelled to adhere. The Oireachtas must show the public that it is ready, able and willing to participate in the general reduction of administrative costs.

In addition to the financial provision, the Bill provides for a revised format to the manner in which the commission's account are presented. The existing format does not take account of changes to the structure of the service since the establishment of the commission. For example, the establishment of the library and research unit and the communications unit. Alterations are also being proposed in the lay out of the accounts, including the deletion of references to receipts no longer received.

The third and final provision contained in the Bill refers to the retention of receipts by the commission. The receipts will be offset against the Exchequer allocation and will be accounted for in both the annual Estimate, which the commission presents to the Dáil, and the appropriation account which is audited annually by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The commission has requested the initiative on the grounds that, up to now, receipts generated went straight into the central fund and gave no incentive for efficiencies in the provision of services. Under the new proposed arrangements there will be heightened awareness of the need to maximise the extent of receipts.

I also wish to advise Senators that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform intends to bring forward legislation early in 2013 to ensure the modernisation of the senior management structures of the Oireachtas service. These are specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. It is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. It was flagged in 2009 by the then Minister for Finance when moving the Second Stage of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill in the Dáil. While it is recognised that significant modernisation has taken place, the statutory framework in the 1959 Act does not reflect this and needs to be modernised. In this regard, the Minister 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 Bill is designed to allow funds be made available to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to continue to provide the services that facilitate both Houses in the carrying out of their function. I am sure that Senators will support this very worthwhile aim.

1:20 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has an extremely important role, for which he is well capable of, in the Department of Health. It is a waste for a good Minister of State to be sent into the Seanad to discuss a technical Bill on the funding for the Oireachtas for the next three years. I wish him well in his main role and hope that he accepts my comments in the spirit that they are directed. Another Minister could have done this job for the Government while the Minister of State could be going about important work at the Department of Health.

This is mainly a technical Bill to keep the Oireachtas funded for the next three years. That job must be done. It is a pity, with all of the talk of Oireachtas reform, that there is no one all encompassing Oireachtas reform Bill to take account of funding and accountability in terms of the public's acceptance of how the Oireachtas is run. There is a view that the public should be thankful for the Oireachtas but Members must earn their respect. One way of doing so is to have an overall reform Bill that would regulate how we run ourselves. There has been a lot of spin on reforms that have taken place within the Houses but no reform has taken place. For example, the guillotine is being used more than ever.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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That is not correct.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Yes, it is. I accept that the use of guillotines has reduced somewhat in the Seanad but we battled over them during the early months of the current Government. I accept the Leader's point that it has not been used in the past while and I pay tribute to him for that. I know that he has had to battle with the Government and its Chief Whip over its use. The other House, as we speak, is running out of time to discuss draconian social welfare cuts due to Government guillotines of the kind that were castigated and attacked while the Government parties were in opposition. The guillotine system seems to be acceptable now that they are in Government.

Funding for the Oireachtas has decreased but I would not say that it is welcome because it must happen. Everything else has been cut so funding for the Oireachtas must be cut. It does not seem like a big cut but at the same time important functions must be carried here. There is a lack of respect for politics and politicians at present, some of which is justified. The democratic representatives of the people have an important job to do and that must be recognised. Public representatives must do their job in a way that inspires confidence among the public.

The Bill is technical and I have little more to add. My party supports the Bill but we would like to see more substantial reform which was promised by the Government but has not been delivered.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I commend the Bill to the House. We must budget. I am glad to see that the expenditure is significantly less than the previous budget for the three years prior to the legislation. I also take on board the efficiencies pointed out by the Minister of State and the need for more management skills within the Houses of the Oireachtas which will be addressed in the coming years. As Senator Byrne has said, this is a technical Bill to provide the finances for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I support the legislation and commend it to the House.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I agree with the previous speakers that the funding is going in the right direction. It was decreased from ¤393 million to ¤360 million and it is now ¤324 million for the period 2013-15. That means that we are in touch with what is going on outside of these Houses. Perhaps the communications unit will communicate that message. There is a lack of coverage and many taxpayers do not know what happens here, which is a pity. They are well represented and we have good debates here. We try to discuss the great national issues of import here. Ministers also attend and their participation in debates has been most impressive but little of this is seen outside. We try to raise the considerations and concerns of the wider society here and Ministers have been most receptive to us. We need to communicate that to the public.

The Minister of State referred to the library and research unit. I commend the unit on the top class service that it provides to Members which enables us to make an informed response when dealing with legislation. Over 300 amendments have been made to the Personal Insolvency Bill as a result of the many discussions with the Minister for Justice and Equality here. That is not unique. It is essential to have a functioning parliament that deals with how legislation is formulated, hears all kinds of views and considerations made by Ministers.

I would hate it if this House did not exist or if a Government with a very large majority in the other House was able to put legislation through without much scrutiny. We need checks and balances. Sometimes the case for the importance of Parliament has to be made at a time when, as Senator Byrne said, there is so much hostility towards politicians. Much of what happened in the past was not solely laid at the door of this House - or certainly very little was - or with the average Deputy either. It was because so much political power had moved away from Parliament and we lacked the scrutiny of checks and balances.

I thank the Minister of State. It is always a pleasure when he comes to this House. I commend the Bill to the House. We must strengthen our resolve to continue to serve the wider society and ensure we get the best possible policies and legislation to help the country through this difficult period.

1:30 pm

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. I agree with Senator Barrett and others on the technical need for this Bill to be passed. Democracy does not come cheaply, however, and we are all aware of the cost of the budget and the pain many people are feeling. As happened in the past, there was a certain constituency of people who said democracy was not working, but it was the road to dictatorship. We must continue with what we know as our democracy. Efficiencies obviously come with this Bill, and as parliamentarians we must welcome all such efficiencies, especially in the running of Parliament. As Senator Barrett said, the Seanad has been instrumental in highlighting issues.

Getting rid of the Seanad might save money, but it is like closing a town library - it might save money but we must continue educating people. One might save ¤1 million in a council area by closing some libraries but what is the real cost of such a move? There are people who would say that both the Dáil and Seanad should be closed. It may satisfy some people and save a few euro but the consequences would be catastrophic.

I commend the Bill to the House. I also commend the Minister of State on introducing further efficiencies and cuts in this Parliament. None the less, the role of the Oireachtas will not be diminished, nor should it be.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As a member of the Oireachtas commission I wish to make a few brief points. First, the Bill before us is predominantly about funding the commission for the next number of years. I note that the figure of ¤324 million allocated under section 2 for funding is for the next three years. In case it is overlooked, the Minister of State mentioned that the Houses of the Oireachtas have had their funding reduced significantly, which fully reflects the downturn. Everybody has been affected and we must now do more with less. It is worth stating, however, that when the Oireachtas commission was established in 2004, the initial funding for the first three years was ¤295 million. The figure rose to ¤397 million in 2006 and was ¤360 million in 2009.

Given the constitutional role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in holding the Government to account, the figure allocated is a tiny fraction of the overall expenditure of ¤56.2 billion. In addition, Members have taken significant cuts in salaries and allowances, which are necessary. There is a misconception that because the commission's funding covers salaries, pay and allowances to Members, in some way the commission has a say in setting those payments. That is not the case. The Minister has exclusivity on this issue.

In budget speeches it has at times suited Ministers for Finance to hang that level of responsibility for cuts in expenditure on allowances and salaries around the commission's neck, but that is incorrect. In this regard, I am referring to the former Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan - Lord have mercy on him - and the current Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin. As a public corporate body it would be inappropriate for members of the commission to set the levels of salaries, allowances or expenses. As was done previously, an independent group should examine salaries and allowances and set them accordingly. They could perhaps be benchmarked against ten other parliaments throughout the world in countries of similar size and relative wealth. It should be done in that way. I do not like superficiality when it comes to cutting pay and allowances, but these are matters that Ministers and their officials will consider.

It is true to say, however, that if one had to pay a certain amount to come through the gates of Leinster House, there are those who would believe it should be more. We should be cognisant of that.

The 1959 Act is definitely out of date, although parts of it will continue to serve us well. In that regard, I welcome the Minister of State's intention to bring forward legislation in the new year. I understand that proposed changes are currently before the commission - involving the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad, the Superintendent of the Houses and the Captain of the Guard - to help them form the legislative process the Minister of State will bring forward. We must have a modern parliament, so what worked in 1959 will not work now in so many different ways. Nevertheless, there are parts of it that will. As we consider this critical process, the Minister of State might arrange for the officials who are pulling this legislation together to consult the people who currently hold those positions. In addition, I have no doubt that some of their predecessors, who are enjoying retirement, would give some good insight in how the project could progress. The group, involving four principal officers, certainly has a lot to offer but in isolation even they would admit that it is difficult to capture precisely what is needed without adequately liaising with those who currently hold those positions and those who held them in the past. Such a wider group is required to consider how that might best be brought forward.

In considering all aspects of expenditure, the current commission and its forerunners have done an exemplary job in reducing the cost of running the Houses of the Oireachtas. Cutbacks have been made in a number of different areas while, at the same time, the levels of service have increased. Of course, there is always room for improvement.

There are many good reasons, including legislation and other issues of public interest, for which we might seek to play the ball or even at times play the man. However, I would caution against anybody seeking to dig up the pitch just in the interest of scoring political points. There is a cost involved in running the Houses of the Oireachtas and people must be paid to do that particular job. Expenses are incurred, naturally, but thankfully we are moving into an area where all these expenditure levels will be reformed. It is also necessary that they should be fully vouched. There are considerations that may have to be taken into account, such as the headings under which expenses can be vouched. No doubt the Minister of State will be examining these particular areas.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is doing a pretty good job in cutting back while providing a good level of service. I would caution that there is a cost involved in doing business here. There will always be those who will say it is too much and it needs to be brought down, but the figures speak for themselves in that costs have consistently been reduced in recent years. Arguably, regardless of who is in government, the levels of service are going up.

There will always be issues of the day on which we can disagree. In addition, the public can rightfully disagree about how Members of the Oireachtas are doing their job. However, I cannot think of a more accountable system than standing for election every number of years when the public have their say.

There is a structural issue concerning wider Oireachtas reform, which will be a challenge for this Government or the next. While this is just a personal view, I think that increasingly in this country, Parliament is a tool of the Government of the day. That is not meant to be a criticism of the current Government, any more than the last one, but the Whip system ensures Parliament is a tool of the Government of the day. Policy is formulated elsewhere, while legislation comes before the Oireachtas and if one votes for it, it will go through.

Perhaps in the future, greater minds than me will introduce reforms in which the members of Government may cease to be Members of Parliament. Instead, the onus will be on Government to try to sell its policies to the Houses of the Oireachtas to get them through, similar to the way some parliaments operate. I think that may be a positive move in the future.

1:40 pm

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White to the House. I commend the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas services for the work they have done. It is always incredibly difficult to be doing the same or more with less and it is good to see this is happening. As Senator MacSharry has said, such is the growing cynicism about politics that some think we ought to be paying for the privilege to be here. It is very easy for that idea to take root and it is very difficult to say to people outside the Oireachtas that if we are to do the work well, we need a system to support that work, and those who do the work very well need to be paid and treated properly and with respect. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make that case outside these walls.

I commend the Minister on his commitment to bringing forward legislation in 2013 to modernise the senior management structure. I trust the legislation is pending and that we will see it in 2013. That will afford a clear moment for people to understand how the Houses of the Oireachtas work and how the work is carried out. It will also give Members an opportunity to allay some of the growing cynicism.

Senator Barrett raised the issue of communications and the role of this Chamber. I do not know if there is an opportunity and the Leader may have a view as to how we would be able to share our thoughts on how savings can be made. Certainly Senator MacSharry has mentioned the idea of involving former members and the Captain of the Guard, but could we as Senators contribute? I do not know if there is a system by which we can do that, either formally or informally. Senator Barrett's challenge to the communications unit is a valid one, because we have been Members of the Seanad for more than a year and the workings of the House remain as big a mystery to the public now as they were then. There is an onus on us to try to make our role clear, but equally the media have some responsibility in this to try to show when we do it well and if we do it badly. That is part of the job, but somehow we seem unable to make that connection. Whether the Houses of the Oireachtas can assist us in that matter, given that there is a communications unit, is an issue we ought to raise, either through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or through the Houses.

I commend the Bill.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill. It is regrettable that all Stages of the Bill are being forced through with just a little over an hour for discussion. I accept that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission itself does not determine where savings could be made. That is the job of the Minister for Finance. I take on board the comments of the previous speaker, I want to be helpful and point out to the Minister of State the areas in which savings can be made in future years.

Politicians should be reasonably well paid. We have a difficult job to do. Politicians incur expenses and must travel to Dublin from different parts of the country, for which people should be fairly reimbursed. I also believe we can achieve greater savings in this area, especially at a time when we know that painful decisions are being made that impact on vulnerable people, for example, on carers, and people who are suffering.

Let me give some examples. I believe the salaries of Government representatives at the highest level, be it the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or Ministers should be capped at ¤100,000. I believe the salary for a Deputy should be reduced to ¤75,000. That is still ¤1,500 a week, a very generous salary in the current economic climate. The salary of Senators should be reduced to ¤60,000. I do not believe the Seanad should be abolished but should be reformed.

I also want to see a number of allowances scrapped altogether. It is small money in the general scheme of things but it would save ¤335,177, which is still significant. It is about whether these allowances are fair. The Ceann Comhairle has expenses of ¤76,603, the Leas Cheann Comhairle has expenses of ¤37,370, the Cathaoirleach has expenses of ¤44,336, and the Leas-Chathaoirleach has expenses of ¤24,429. The party Whips in the Dáil have expenses of ¤78,000. The Leader of the Seanad has expenses of ¤19,439, while Whips have expenses of ¤24,000. The leader's allowance for the Fianna Fáil leader in the Seanad is ¤9,500, while both of the Independent's Leaders allowance is ¤6,000.

There are also a number of allowances paid to committee members which should be abolished. The chairpersons of committees are paid ¤9,500 for mobile phone payments and ¤1,100 in hospitality payments. These are payments on top of what they get as a Member. This should be part of their work.

Some of these payments are just outrageous and they genuinely need to be scrapped. We have the super junior Minister allowance of ¤34,000, and that should also be scrapped. We know that several ministers, including Deputies Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin, Pat Rabbitte, Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have breached the ¤90,000 cap on the salaries of their special advisers.

The mobile phone allowance payable to Members every 18 months is ¤750, but I have not availed of that allowance. We get very generous allowances through the standard parliamentary allowance. Why is a mobile phone allowance of ¤750 for phones and car kits payable every 18 months? What other job would pay such an allowance? These allowances should be cut.

We continually put our position on the record but it is often misrepresented by members of the Government parties that we do not want politicians to be reasonably paid. We want politicians to be reasonably paid. What I have set out is fair in a climate in which we are asking people who are genuinely suffering to take cuts. We must give leadership. We must ensure we are achieving real savings so that people can see the cuts are genuine and being applied across the board. If the cuts I have outlined were accepted, it would shave ¤5 million off the Oireachtas bill this year, next year and the following year. I hope adjustments can be made in the coming years yet still allow Oireachtas Members to be reasonably well paid.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, who started his parliamentary career in this Chamber. I look forward to his response to some of the comments.

I agree with much of what the previous speaker said, but not the entire package. He has raised pertinent points which are worthy of observation and comment. A good starting point for the debate and where we stand politically is the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. I ask Members to reflect on the Houses of the Oireachtas and the state of Irish politics in 1959 and the types of people who were elected to the Oireachtas. If one looked at the profile of members of the Oireachtas in 1959, they were comprised of wealthy farmers or business people, generally from the legal and medical fields and from some of the other privileged professions, and men rather than women. There was no space on the Irish political platform for people of modest incomes. It was expensive to practise politics. The salaries of Oireachtas Members, be they Deputies or Senators, up to 25 years ago shut the Oireachtas to ordinary people.

In the rush to score cheap popularity with the public, especially with changes to the income structure of politicians, we should be careful to ensure we do not return Irish politics to being the preserve of a wealthy elite, which it was. We need to ensure the Houses of the Oireachtas are open to people of all backgrounds. That is the reason politicians must have a reasonable income stream. We should be careful we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I recognise that many of the salaries are excessive and that some of the allowances and expenses, as proclaimed by Senator Cullinane, could certainly do with urgent review. Senator Cullinane stated that he had never claimed that mobile phone allowance. I have been here more than 20 years and I am not sure when that allowance was introduced. I could never understand why a Member of the Oireachtas should claim an allowance to purchase a mobile phone. We must try to strike the correct balance between excess and being fair. There is now a rush down the tube which is not helpful.

The public demand is for not cheaper or more expensive politics, not bigger politics or small politics, but better politics. The Minister in charge of the Bill is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and we look forward with some degree of anticipation to the package of political reform. I say this not out of any degree of bitterness, but the debate about political reform has been about abolishing the Seanad. I would call that ladybird politics. If we believed that scrapping the Seanad is the extent of political reform in this country, that is a low aspiration for political reform. Simultaneously, we talk about changing the Dáil by abolishing eight seats out of 166. I look forward to when a referendum will be put before the people asking them to reflect on whether it is the 60 Senators with their salaries of approximately ¤60,000 and one secretary who caused most of the problems in this country or, perhaps, the other House with 166 Deputies and with salaries of ¤100,000 plus, in addition to secretaries, parliamentary assistants, constituency offices and various allowances. That will be an interesting debate. It will not be the simplistic popularity race and chase that some might wish it to be. For that reason, if no other, I would say, bring on the Seanad referendum. It will lead to a fundamental debate and a fundamental choice about the sort of politics, democracy, transparency, scrutiny and value for money we want in this country.

I am privileged to be a Member of this House and I was privileged to be a Member of the other House, but I will say with certainty that the average Senator, by virtue of the numbers in this House and the workload, participates to a much greater degree in public and parliamentary debate through his or her work in the Chamber and in the committees. If people want to focus the light on the Oireachtas and ask which House on average is providing the best value to the taxpayer, it will be very much to our advantage.

I was privileged to serve on the Oireachtas commission for a number of years in the previous term. It has done its work in a balanced and fair fashion. It has continually reduced expenditure here over the past number of years. It must continue in that vein and must try to ensure that the Houses works, provides an open and transparent place and provides value for money to the taxpayer.

The most important value we can provide to the taxpayer, in this and the other House, is to practise good open transparent politics and decision making. One cannot put a price on that but it must be demanded and expected of us. My question to the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White but, more importantly, to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform - I am not sure whether it is the Minister, Deputy Howlin, or the Taoiseach who will bring forward the proposals for adjudication on the Seanad to us and to the Irish people - is what sort of accountability, transparency and democracy do we want and value in this country? Reform of politics must be more than a one-line slogan. It must involve questioning the electoral system, the parliamentary system, the relationship between the Government and Parliament, the role of Ministers and backbenchers, and the ability of the Opposition not only to bring forward ideas but to have some of those ideas translated into political action. We do not have a monopoly on political wisdom in this country and there is much we can learn from some of our political brethren across the world.

That is probably a little preview of the substantial debates I hope we will have on political reform next year. I wish the Minister of State well with shepparding this legislation through the House. The Oireachtas commission has a heavy duty of responsibility to spend the taxpayers' money wisely and to ensure that value is provided. Although it may not be the popular phrase, as an individual Senator and on behalf of all of my colleagues in this House, I think I can say that we genuinely provide political value for money. We do not have the trappings, salaries, offices or allowances that they enjoy in the other House, but we provide genuine political value for money in this House and long may that continue.

I am sure there will be no division on this legislation. I only hope it will allow us reflect on the serious choices that will come before us over the next 18 months. If solving the problems of politics in this country could be solved by a simplistic slogan, they would have been solved a long time ago.

1:50 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Dublin South, Labour)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions. This legislation, although important, is relatively limited in scope. As Members have acknowledged, many of the issues that are worthy of public debate and elaboration, such as those on which Senator Bradford has touched and others have mentioned, while related to the subject matter of this Bill, are not contained or referenced in it. The Bill, as Members will be aware, deals with a relatively limited, although not unimportant, requirement that the commission should continue with its work and, most importantly, should continue to have funding in order that it would be able to continue with its work, not least in the payment of the salaries and, indeed, expenses of Members of the Houses, but also in the important support work that is done by senior staff and those across the system, such as the library and research service, to which Senator Barrett referred and which, I agree, is an excellent service.

If I can say this, drawing on my own experience as a Deputy before I became a Minister of State and while I was Chairman of a committee and, indeed, when I was in this House, it may be that in some instances the work and materials provided by the library and research service are under used by Members and that there is a great deal of information, background research and support available that may not always be used to its fullest. Senator MacSharry made the point that Parliament, the way it has evolved in our system, to use his term, was as a "tool" of Government. I suppose that is putting it at its most extreme but Members would be aware of what Senator MacSharry is touching on, that the Government has a uniquely important role in our system and often the Parliament or the Members of the Parliament either chooses not to or, for some reason, are not in a position or able to assert itself or themselves, be they Members of this House or of the other House. On that score, the availability of research tools - the staff of the library and research service have a high level of expertise - is something that the Members should support as much as ever they can. One should be aware that those kinds of supports are there because the more they are used, the more they must be supported, funded and replenished. If they are not used, an argument might arise - I hope it never would - as to the priority that should be given to those vitally important services in our system.

I will not refer to all the comments made by all the Senators but I note that Senator Cullinane was unhappy about the length of time being assigned to this Bill. That is a matter for the House. It is not a matter for me to comment on but the issues Senator Cullinane was anxious to talk about are not issues that are specifically referenced in this Bill. We can discuss the contents of the Bill relatively efficiently and quickly, as colleagues have done, but that is not to say Senators do not have the entitlement, as do Members in the House, to raise other matters as they see fit in the context of a Second Stage debate. I know Senator Cullinane did not raise any objection to the contents of the Bill and I do not believe anybody else has done that in the course of the debate.

In respect of Senator Bradford's points, I do not want to break my own strictures by engaging in the very area of debate that I pointed out is not directly germane to the Bill but I will make one or two observations regarding reform generally because it is important that we talk about and deal with reform. I agree with Senator Bradford's point that reform cannot be reduced to the question of whether the Seanad is abolished, leaving aside one's view as to the merits or otherwise of a proposal to abolish the Seanad. It is not the case that this Government's agenda for reform can be reduced to that. It could not be reduced to such a proposition, regardless of what one believes about that on one side or the other. It is certainly not a one line agenda for reform. There are quite a few areas of reform being pursued by this Government, some arising directly from the programme for Government and others that have arisen since, for example, in regard to the electoral system. I heard one of Senator Byrne's colleagues in the other House complaining recently that electoral reform was not one of the issues included in the constitutional convention. That is not true. Electoral reform is one of the issues included in the constitutional convention. It is important that there is a debate about our electoral system, and it is provided for in the constitutional convention.

The question of the Oireachtas and the power and ability of committees to take on issues of public importance and concern is being addressed also. There is legislation to be brought before the Houses soon in 2013, and it may even be before the finance, public expenditure and reform committee at present, which is to give powers to committees to hold inquiries into matters of public importance and interest. That legislation is being progressed.

On the question generally of legislation and the power and scope for influence of Members of this House and the other House, the innovation that has been introduced allowing for pre-legislative scrutiny is very important, and Members on all sides of the House would agree with that. In terms of what I observed and participated in regarding the credit union legislation, that was dealt with in a pre-legislative forum in the finance committee before it progressed. The whistleblowers legislation, another area of serious reform being brought forward by the Government, was also dealt with in a pre-legislative context before the finance, public expenditure and reform committee.

None of these individual innovations of itself may be revolutionary but when they are combined together they evince an intention on the part of this Government genuinely to reform the way we do our public business on the behalf of the people who elect us. There are other areas such as the question of lobbying, the question of freedom of information and so on that are being brought forward also.

On those points I want to thank the Senators for their support for this legislation. I gather from what colleagues have said that the support for the contents of this legislation is unanimous. I look forward to its passage.

Question put and agreed to.

2:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?