Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013: Committee Stage

 

Section 1 agreed to.

SECTION 2

12:05 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Amendment No. 1, in the name of Senator David Norris, has been ruled out of order.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I would like to raise to raise an issue in that regard.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The amendment is out of order.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am sure it is, but I intend to speak to it when we come to deal with the section.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator will be able to do so when we come to deal with it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is what I am going to do. I am just looking for some information. Can the Cathaoirleach tell me what is meant by "declaratory in nature" and "outside the scope of the Bill"?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I am not discussing my rulings in the House.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Is there any forum in which we can discuss them?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I have ruled the amendment out of order and will allow the Senator to ask a question on the section.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach, but everything he has said thus far is declaratory in nature. Everything I have said is "declaratory in nature". Everything said in this House is declaratory in nature. These words could be used to rule anything out of order.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I have made my ruling.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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On my amendment being outside the scope of the Bill, the scope of the Bill is determined when it has passed. Part of our obligation is to change the scope of the Bill, even the principles.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I have made my ruling on the amendment.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I understand the Cathaoirleach is bound by his rulings and I am not challenging them, but they are daft and do not assist in the process of democracy. I am not blaming the Cathaoirleach for this.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Government amendment No. 2: In page 3, line 16, after “paid” to insert “, on request,”

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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This amendment provides that the parliamentary activities allowance, what we are now calling the former leader's allowance, shall be payable following a request from a parliamentary leader of a qualifying party or a qualifying Independent Member. This is already the case on an administrative basis because Members and party leaders are required to provide bank details to receive moneys from the central fund. However, it is appropriate to reflect this requirement in the legislation. Some people may decide they do not want to ask for this allowance. For that reason, it is not paid automatically and one simply needs to request it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I will be addressing this issue in some detail later. This is more pettifogging. All of these allowances should be abolished because we will simply have more paperwork. We have to request the allowance and keep accounts and bills for six years, in other words, we will have to operate an accountancy department in our offices. My personal assistant works around the clock and does overtime for which she does not get paid because there is no provision for it. This is an utter waste of time on paper pushing. The way to address the issue is not by triping around in sending in requests and producing documentation for a slight amount of money.

On the €60,000 parties in the Dáil receive and the €42,000 received in the Seanad, do they collect it when they pass Go, as in a game of Monopoly? Do they have to vouch for their members?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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They are required to do so annually.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I look forward to seeing the vouching. It will be the biggest laugh on Earth. Will the details be published or will we have to make freedom of information requests?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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They will be published.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is all right. This is something I will harp on about during the debate. Time and again, Governments have conspired against Independent Members to put them at a disadvantage. It was the same during the presidential election. A hoo-ha was made about the Constitutional Convention, but it voted by a majority of 95% - the highest proportion in any vote - to recommend changes that would democratise the process of presidential elections which are also loaded financially against Independents. This is a situation in which Independents are at a significant disadvantage. That is wrong.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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This is a simple amendment which requires people to apply for money rather than receive it automatically. It is reasonable that one does not get money without asking for it. If people want to decline the payment, they do not have to apply for it. That is the only import of the amendment.

On the notion that successive Governments have focused negatively on Independent Members, any rational reading of the truth would show the opposite. For parties, the allowance has always been entirely vouchable, audited and published. For Independent Members, it was none of these things. If a Member wanted to take his or her allowance and go on holidays with it, nobody could say "boo" because it was not vouched or audited. Our experience for several years of the various tribunals of inquiry and expert panels and our involvement in international best practice indicates that this is not the way to go. People demand transparency in these matters. The legislation is simple and does two things.

First, it reduces the allowance for everybody by 10%, in line with the general reductions and, second, it asks that everybody be on the same playing field in terms of accountability. We will get to those particular amendments in due course.

12:15 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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All of this would be obviated if we were given the rate for the job, full stop. That is what I am proposing in the amendment that was ruled out of order. I do not want to have to apply for this or that allowance. I do not want to have to keep records. I probably will not apply for any of these allowances because I could not be bothered. I find the whole thing insulting.

As I said, we should get the rate for the job. The public will be outraged in any case by our getting all these allowances, the history of which I set out on Second Stage. They were a fudge - we all knew they were a fudge - by the then Minister for Finance to make up for the fact we did not take what was due under certain pay agreements. I did not agree with that strategy at the time nor with a number of associated economic measures, including benchmarking. The Minister is still relying on a form of benchmarking, with his reference to these decreases being in parallel with what is being done in the Civil Service. Civil servants were granted exactly the same allowances under exactly the same regime and, as a result of their trade union activities, they were streamed into their core pay.

I am not suggesting that these allowances be streamed into our core pay without an analysis. What I am suggesting is that the Minister give consideration to abolishing all the various allowances and instead pay us a flat rate for the job, as identified by an external adjudicator. Another speaker remarked that this was done in Britain and the result was an increase in salary. So what if that is the case? It might just as easily go down. I want the rate for the job, no more and no less. I do not want bogus allowances and I do not want to spend the rest of my life filling out forms. That is not why I am here. I am in this House to use my intellect to try to help in refining legislation. That is my last word on the issue at this point.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I have sympathy with Senator Norris in some of the issues he mentioned, particularly the principle of paying the rate for the job. Some years back, Deputies' pay was aligned to principal officers' salary, but those rates have reduced significantly in the meantime. I have no objection to the provision in the Bill that Members must request that the money be paid. As it stands, we have a situation where Independent Deputies are talking on various local radio stations about how they are getting €42,000 without even asking for it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is reason enough to abolish the payment.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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While those Deputies might well be giving all of that €42,000 to charity, the fact remains that they can go anywhere and do anything with that money without any requirement to prove it has been spent in line with their parliamentary duties.

All Senators should be treated equally. That fits in with Senator Norris's notion of paying the rate for the job.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Absolutely.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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However, it behoves us to point out that this legislative Chamber is equal to its Dáil counterpart. When we are being treated differently from our colleagues in the Lower House in respect of the expenses regime, we must ask that the situation be examined. The Minister sympathises with us in our plight in terms of constituency offices. As we have outlined, our constituency is the whole country. We are not looking for anything extra here. A myth went out during the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad that Senators were seeking an additional €5,000 each. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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According to one newspaper, €500,000 was being sought.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I saw a figure of €300,000 being touted, which worked out at €5,000 for each Senator. That claim was entirely untrue. We want to be able to claim the allowance to which we are entitled under the same conditions as apply to Members of the other House. There should be some mechanism to achieve that. We might well be accused of trying to feather our nest, but that is not the situation. We are simply asking for parity of esteem. In my view, we deserve it.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I am fully supportive of the requirement that Members must request payment of the allowance. In fact, that is precisely what I and my colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, argued for on Second Stage. We asked that the scheme be vouched and audited.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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And renamed.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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Yes, and renamed. However, together with a need for clarity, there is equally an issue of parity of resources. The notion has gone out in all the public discourse on the subject that Independent Members are getting extra money that is denied to others. In fact, it is very clear that the first five Members of a party receive almost double what an Independent Senator gets. We are expected to draw down resources and access expertise with that money. To put it simply, we do not have the resources parties have.

As I said, I agree with the principle that allowances should be requested. However, I have a difficulty with the returning of the unspent portion. As it stands, those of us who wish to return an unspent portion of an allowance are put in the position of having to gift it back to the State, which seems wrong to me. It does not send out the right message. I publish my expenditure figures, but the fact I have to write a cheque to the Minister to gift the unspent portion does not seem in keeping with an appropriate accounting system. The Bill should be dealing with issues like that.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I fully endorse everything the Leader said in regard to the apportioning of allowances to Senators. The Minister indicated that he was encouraged by those Senators who set out their stall on this issue on Second Stage. I am pleased to put my view on the public record without equivocation and ambiguity, or concern for what the reaction might be in certain sections of the media. As the Leader said, this is about fair play and a level playing field. It is not about anything else.

We cannot continue with the situation as it is. The Minister has changed the law this year, leaving us in a very difficult position as to how this money is to be spent. I have no difficulty whatsoever in returning unspent money to the Exchequer, but I am also of the view that it is a legitimate aspiration for us as Senators to be given some form of allowance for the work we carry out in our offices, whether that office is located in our home or in a rented premises. It is no more and no less than Deputies are getting. All it would require is an amending piece that refers to county of residence as opposed to constituency. That would not have any constitutional implications as far as I am aware and would, in a simple and straightforward way, get over the obstacle of our essentially representing the country as a whole as legislators rather than an individual constituency.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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I support the points made by the Leader. I also endorse the provisions in the Bill regarding the furnishing of receipts and so on. Something that springs to mind as we discuss this issue is the phenomenon of certain multimillionaires in this country pointing out that they do not need children's allowance, while still going to the trouble of claiming it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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How does the Senator know that?

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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One has to apply in respect of a first child.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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How do we know these people are getting the allowance?

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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They are saying they do not need it, but they are not giving it back. That is why I agree with a vouched system of receipts. If money is being claimed, there must be a paper trail to support it.

12:25 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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In deference to my colleagues who want to speak on other amendments, I will save my comments for the debate on the section.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I listened very carefully to Senators from across the House on Second Stage and they made a coherent case in respect of a workspace being recognised. Senators know that I am more than sympathetic to that point of view. It is not encompassed in this legislation but a coherent case has been made for it.

With regard to the point made by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, which I have raised in discussions on the matter, perception is everything. One is given an allowance and, if one is frugal in the management of the allowance and does not spend it all due to being prudent and frugal and one returns the unspent amount, it almost looks as if one has over-claimed. That is something I am trying to address. There are different ways of doing it. One can claim a lesser amount in the beginning, but that involves making an annual determination on the matter. It is a matter of handling the returns at the end and the balancing statement one is required to do. I am giving attention to that. I have seen cases in which the media presented it as though someone had over-claimed, had been caught out and was required to pay back some amount. If the person has spent the lot, the job's oxo.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is how the newspapers will report it.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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That is true of both Houses and I am conscious of it. We will see if we can improve it. These are points that are much more general than the amendments before the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Government amendment No. 3: In page 4, line 11, after “elected” to insert “or nominated”.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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This is a minor amendment to correct an inconsistency of language between paragraphs 10(i)(b)(i) and 10(i)(b)(ii). Both paragraphs should refer to Senators elected or nominated to Seanad Éireann.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 4:


In page 4, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:“(2) Where a member of a qualifying party ceases to be a member of the Parliamentary Party of that party, no allowance shall be payable in respect of that member and the allowance payable under this section shall be reduced proportionately.”.
The word "fairness" has been used frequently in the debate over the past 20 minutes with regard to other sections. I want the Minister to reflect on that word in respect of this amendment. The amendment is about the transparency and accountability that the Minister espouses and the reform he aspires to bring about. It is also about fairness and democracy. We spoke on this matter last week and there has been a debate over the past number of months about the desirability and fairness, or otherwise, of the parliamentary party's keeping an allowance in respect of Members who are no longer within the parliamentary party. While no Minister or spokesperson has put it officially on the record, on the margins the argument is made that parliamentary parties and party structures have invested time, resources and finance in the election of particular candidates and, therefore, there should be some entitlement for the parliamentary party to retain the allowance payable in respect of Members no longer within the parliamentary party. The Minister is aware that under this legislation, the parliamentary activities allowance, previously called the party leaders' allowance, shall not be used to recoup election or poll expenses incurred for the purposes of any election. The unofficial reason we get - that somehow we owe it to the party to allow our money to stay with the party - is in respect of election costs heretofore, but moneys cannot be spent on that.

Then we ask what the moneys can legally be spent on. I refer to expenses as interpreted by the proposed Bill. The money that the Fine Gael, Labour or Sinn Féin parliamentary parties wish to keep in respect of former members are supposed to be spent on general administration of the parliamentary activities of the qualifying party, the provision of technical and specialist advice, research and training, policy formulation, etc. I ask the Minister to reflect upon the fact that no parliamentary party, under any circumstances, can validly claim it is expending the allowable expenses on Members that are no longer within the parliamentary party. Is the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party spending money on research and training for me? Is the Labour Party spending money on policy formulation in respect of Deputy Patrick Nulty? Is the Sinn Féin Parliamentary Party spending general administrative costs on the parliamentary activities of Deputy Peadar Tóibín? It is impossible for a parliamentary party to suggest the expenses it is entitled to claim under these headings can be spent on Members who are no longer within the parliamentary party.

We all appreciate that when the democratic revolution was promised after the general election, there was a huge appetite for reform, a greater understanding of the financial problems facing the country and a demand for fairness, accountability and transparency. I appreciate what the Minister said on the record last week and what we all said in the heat of political battle. If the Bill means anything in respect of reform and even pretends to be transparent and portray itself as accountable or any way fair, it makes no political sense, no financial sense and no moral sense to allow a parliamentary party to keep taxpayers' money in respect of persons who are no longer within it. We spoke earlier about the need for support, research and training of all Members and the Leader spoke strongly on the need for equality. I agreed with him.

In an ideal world, I suggest that the allowance payable in respect of an Independent Senator be payable to those who find ourselves with that status. However, the amendment is not going that far and simply says an allowance should not be paid for expenses that cannot be incurred. There is no way a qualifying parliamentary party can claim to validly spend moneys under the appropriate headings for people who are no longer within the political party. It defies common sense and logic to suggest otherwise. How can a party purchase support services in respect of Members no longer within the parliamentary party? How can a party justify paying a salary in respect of duties to support someone who is no longer in it? In the overall scale of the national budget we are talking about a modest sum, but my estimate is that in a full calendar year €500,000 or €600,000 of taxpayers' hard-delivered moneys are being handed over wrongly and unfairly to parliamentary parties.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The figures are multiplied over three years.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I plead with the Minister, wearing his reform hat and as someone who champions fairness and equality, to take the only reasonable step and the only politically acceptable step. Any citizen of the country who reflects on this section and amendment would take steps to ensure the taxpayer does not pay over money in respect of people who are no longer in a political grouping. If we were paying a stipend to a community organisation in respect of its membership list or paying a community hospital in respect of the number of people in the hospital, we would not pay in respect of people who are not in those positions.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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On the basis of decent politics and mature politics, the Minister must give serious consideration to bringing about this necessary, desirable, fair, accountable and transparent change. Any other decision makes a mockery of our pretence to espouse reform, fairness and accountability.

It is possible for a political party, under this legislation, to legally spend moneys allocated by the taxpayer on behalf of Members who are no longer within the parliamentary party. It makes a joke of the legislation and politics. We have had enough of that over the past 20 or 25 years. The Minister has a difficult job - it is probably more difficult than that of anybody else in the Government - in trying to balance the books and bring about savings. The sort of politics which has brought us to this state of ultimate despair and a broken economy will continue if we do not change this legislation.

12:35 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I appeal to the Minister to look beyond the bailout exit towards a new type of politics and economics based on the meaning of words holding true, with people saying what they will do. We must live up to the reform agenda and take on board a very simple amendment that a child in first class should be able to understand. It would mean an allowance would not be given for a group or person no longer within a parliamentary group or association.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is very welcome. I have read the record and last week he responded to me on this issue on Second Stage. I concur with everything said by Senator Bradford, who has put the argument extremely well. I ask the Minister to reconsider his views from last week in light of the fact that this Bill does not deal with electoral expenses. I put it to the Minister last week that my party of origin in this House, Fine Gael, continues to get €21,045 for both me and Senator Bradford, as well as approximately €40,000 per person per year in the Dáil, for people who lost the party whip arising from the abortion Bill vote. We were not allowed to speak freely and our party changed its policy from the day we were elected. Our hands were tied.

I will deal with a number of issues. This Bill does not deal with electoral expenses and the costs incurred by a party contributing to an election. That was the Minister's thinking last week in his response to me and Senator Bradford, which I accept, but in view of our study of the Bill since, it has become clear that these moneys are disbursed by the citizens of this country through the Exchequer to political parties for their members to be supported in parliamentary activities. It is to be used for research, personnel and press support. In our parliamentary system, how is it proposed that a Member losing a parliamentary party whip - due to a break in policy from the time of election, for example, as in our case - would fund research, personnel and press support? What makes the parliamentary party from which they have been expelled or have walked away entitled to the money?

Senator Bradford indicated that we should be honest and do things differently. Just because things have been done in a particular way in the past does not make it right. When the Government took office, for the first time there was a title of Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the intention was to do things differently in the interest of the taxpayer. It is not right or just that a party continues to get money for any of us who have been expelled from the party because the money is no longer being spent on us as Members. Could I justifiably expect Fine Gael to support my research or press activities? I could not, yet the party is getting money in my name, and it will get €21,045 per year for at least the rest of the term of this Government. That amounts to approximately €50,000 if it goes to the full term. How is that right or just? It is not.

Technically, we are elected and we deserve to be supported in our parliamentary activities. We are not even making a case for the money to be given to us, even though, under the principle of parity of esteem, as mentioned by Senator van Turnhout, it should be. The taxpayer and the people who elected us expect us to do as good a job as anybody else. We are asking that the moneys be refunded to the Exchequer - or rather, not taken from the Exchequer in the first place. Could we ask anything more honourable? When the public hears what is going on here in the fullness of time, unless there is a change, they will see this as an insider job for parties that are minding themselves. Parties can chuck out Members but they will still get paid for them. Where is the justice in that?

Senator Bradford alluded to the fact that we sometimes hear of doctors on the medical card scheme who continue to get an allowance for patients who have died. In such cases the State has not done its job in tracking the issue and the doctor has not done his job properly by reporting the deaths. There is no honesty in such cases. We want a different type of politics. We could use the allowance to be more effective parliamentarians, but we are asking the Minister to accept our amendment and return the money to the people of Ireland through the Exchequer. I ask the Minister to honour this wish.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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My understanding of the party leaders' allowance is that it is based on the number of elected Oireachtas Members who are affiliated to the party at a general and Seanad election. The elections are decided by the people in the case of the Dáil and an electorate in the case of the Seanad. That is the reason for the continuance of these allowances, as the people were elected as members of the parties. That is the point of time at which people decided that certain politicians should be Members of this or the other House.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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It is good to see the Minister again, and I thank him for providing me with some of my better lines during the Seanad referendum campaign.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I am glad to be of assistance.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I am grateful for the Minister's honesty.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I told the Senator he could use the comments as they were my views.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I appreciate the fact that the Minister gave me explicit permission to do so. I am very supportive of the Bill in its broad thrust and I am also supportive of the idea of reducing parliamentary expenses, with everything vouched for. I can think of no reason that would not be good public policy. It is impossible to comment on these issues without considering the broader context of the subvention of the allowances of political parties in general, of which this is a small part. This is simply inexcusable in a country that has until recently been in a bailout programme and where an additional 7% to 8% of the health service's operating budget must be curtailed over a short period. We already have a health service that is groaning under cuts of 10% to 15% from the baseline taken at the beginning of the financial crisis.

I wish to comment on some figures that are already in the public domain. The total amount of funding via party leader's allowances and political party expenses to the two parties of Government last year amounted to approximately €8 million, which would have exactly coincided with the savings we estimate would have been made if the people had decided to abolish the Seanad. If saving that money is so important there is a simple constitutionally valid way of effecting the saving right now, which is to end the policy of giving money to political parties. The money is given to them at the beginning of an Oireachtas parliamentary term and, in truth, is used for the benefit of the party not for the benefit of the Republic or the citizenry and which is used with the primary aim of getting the party re-elected in the next election. This is the bigger context which must be seen.

In that regard I am very supportive of the amendment which is being advanced now because as a first step to it, it is inexcusable – I am sure it is entirely legal and our colleagues are correct in pointing out that the allowance is paid on the basis of seats that were elected – but the reality is that it is supposed then to subvent the activities of the people who were elected. If they are no longer working for the party it is inappropriate that the money would still be retained by the party. One could ask whether the parties are stuck for money. The figure I have for the total amount of money, the balance carried forward to 2013 by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, People Before Profit, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, the Labour Party and the Socialist Party, is €8.3 million in expenses this year. What is the necessity for that large financial endowment? Why should we continue to give the money for expenses if the money is not yet paid? What is happening is that the parties are developing war chests which are, through the artifices of creative accounting, used to subvent other non-directly campaign related activities of the party when the next campaign comes up in one to two years’ time. I know I will be criticised for saying that. That is entirely wrong. That €8 million would have paid for anti-melanoma drugs and the newer breast cancer drugs for every patient in the country who needs them and who may well be denied them. That amount of money would run the entire cancer drug budget for the country for approximately six to eight weeks. There is something really wrong. There has been speculation as to whether I would join the Reform Alliance. I see they have joined me by taking my seat today.

12:45 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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Senator Crown is our leader. He should get a leader’s allowance.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I have not joined the Reform Alliance but I wish the group well. It is right for its members to highlight this aspect of the Bill, which is absurd. The amendment should be accepted in good faith and as a token of goodwill towards the reform process. I do not believe the Minister will ever follow my suggestion that we cease to fund parties in their entirety but it would be a gesture of goodwill for the Government to accept the amendment and to say that this little bit of money which in truth it has no right to have anymore, will be returned to the State, which is emerging from a bailout programme at a time when we are trying to find €666 million in health service cuts in the hope that it will make a little dent in the shortfall.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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Senator Crown is having a moment of naivety which is rare for him. He has suggested that there is no cost to the running of a political system. There is, of course, like anything else and the idea that at any point a Government would choose not to pay any money to keep the political system running is absolutely absurd. The point I raised on Second Stage is that if one were to go down that road, it is fine and we will have a Galway tent, a Tipperary tent, a Mayo tent and every other sort of tent where people put their hands in their pockets and pay political parties. We would not know who is paying and we would not know how much. For Senator Crown to inflate figures and make it look as if millions of euro are being spent in a wasteful fashion to run political parties is-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The figures are facts, they are not inflated.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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On a point of information, these are official figures.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I have not inflated them.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator O’Keeffe should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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As long as she tells the truth.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Crown has spoken already.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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The truth, as Senator Norris knows well enough and Senator Crown equally well knows, is that one does need to fund political parties. One does need to fund a political system.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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And Independents.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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Otherwise, as I have said, we are back to the Galway tent. Could I please finish my point? Senator Crown chose to put the biggest amount of money in the headline in order to make the point that we should not fund politics as we know it. If Senator Crown wants the privatisation of politics he is in the wrong place.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I stand to speak in favour of the amendment. It is a fair one. The proposal is that the money would be returned to the State. I could understand, for example, if the Minister were to say that a time period must elapse such as three months or six months after someone ceases to be a member of a party because it is necessary to make arrangements. Some sensible arguments have been made. To that effect, if someone joins a party mid-term such as in the case of Senator Eamonn Coghlan, could the Minister advise whether the allowance continues to go to the individual Member or if it goes to the party? That would help my understanding of how it would happen on the other side of the argument.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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A number of questions arise. It seems to me that this is a very honourable amendment because my colleagues are not looking for money for themselves. The money would go back to the Exchequer. They are not looking for any personal, pecuniary advantage. In fact, they would be giving an advantage to the State.

With regard to elections, in the other House people are not just elected because they are a member of a political party. Very often parties try to slide candidates in and the public rejects them. They will go for somebody whom they know has worked locally. It is not true to say that one is elected just because one happens to be a member of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party or Fianna Fáil. Since one is elected by the people, not by the party, it seems to me that it remains the money of the person elected and not the party’s money, in particular when one has left a party over an issue of conscience. It would make a cat laugh the way the Government has behaved because it was pushing hard for the abolition of the Seanad and going towards a Nordic situation. My two colleagues would have remained in the party in any of those Nordic countries because there are freedom of conscience votes on such issues. One cannot have it every way. It is important to put the figures on the record because they are large and they are correct. Senator O’Keeffe-----

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I do not have a problem with the figures but with the way they were put on the record.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Norris should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I do not have a problem. Senator O’Keeffe might not like to be continually interrupted but I love it because it means that I am hitting home. Senator O’Keeffe should please interrupt.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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Does Senator Norris know there is no issue with-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Norris should speak through the Chair.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Yes, certainly. All the allowances are a nonsense. The Minister never replied to my point. Could we get to a stage where we get the rate for the job and no bloody allowances at all? That is what I would like to see. Let us analyse the provisions. The public should know what is proposed and the amounts of money involved. There is €64,368 in respect of each of the first ten Members elected and then apparently there are second-class Dáil Members. I do not know how they become second class but they only get a mere €51,493 and if one is a total dud at the bottom of the class and never opens one’s gob except to be pushed through the lobbies-----

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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That is absolute nonsense.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Norris should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Senator O’Keeffe just said I was talking nonsense but I am happy to withdraw it if she explains why.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Norris should speak to the amendment.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The final allowance is approximately €25,000.

It is the same in the Seanad, with €42,089 for the first five. The rest receive €21,000, which is what we get. Perhaps the Minister might respond to this and I do not mean to be antagonistic. I know that sometimes I have an abrasive personality, although the Minister does, too. Is there any possibility the Government would give consideration to abolishing allowances altogether and establishing an international commission to determine the appropriate rate for the job? I am tired tagging in-----

12:55 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator is being repetitive.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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This is not being repetitive. I am tired of all the bureaucratic measures and the fact that we are showing the public that we do not trust ourselves. The point I made earlier which I will repeat because it is significant and on which the Minister appeared to agree with me was that if one were to return money honourably, the newspapers would pick up on this and declare that one had been overpaid and had to return the money. We will never satisfy the media. The only way to remedy the matter is to abolish the whole damn lot and give us a rate for the job.

My colleagues in this House are not required to resign if they are expelled from their parties and they were expelled. I know it is said they excluded themselves, but that is a Jesuitical construct, similar to Roman Catholics not being able to take communion and excommunicating themselves if they believe this, that or the other. I have always thought that is hogwash in the Roman Catholic Church and also believe it is hogwash in political parties and the proof of the pudding is in the fact that they do not have to resign. If they are kicked out of a party, they do not have to resign and can continue as Members of this House claim benefits accruing to them as Members. If they want to kick them back to the Government, more power to them. I admire them for doing so, but I do not think the Government has the right to hold on to them.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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We should consider the amendment proposed very seriously. There has been a change of allegiance from Fine Gael and the Labour Party to the Independent benches. In changes of circumstances and to deal with abuses the Minister and his predecessor had to deal with it, we are required to submit expense claims annually. One must declare one's residence as being X number of kilometres from Leinster House and the forms are very precise. Should it not also be the case that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste should declare annually how many members are in their parties? The Leader has mentioned that the data are based on what they are at the date of the election, but we should update them in cases where people's circumstances have changed. The same is true of distances from Leinster House. This would allow people who might have made a mistake in the first instance to correct it. It is a pity this system did not operate in the past. It is also a pity it does not operate in other countries because it seems to give rise to many difficulties. We might consider, in the context of changes of allegiance, ensuring the returns of the leaders of the parties reflect this.

Members are listed in official documents as the Members for Galway, Wexford or wherever else. As party allegiance is not mentioned, they are not locked into it in that sense. There is also a change in the implied contract between the leaders of parties and the taxpayer. We are applying that principle to medical cards and so forth. At one stage we thought that doctors had X number of patients on their books, but the Minister is now most energetically and assiduously searching to determine if these numbers still apply. If a person enrols in a university but with the passage of time is no longer attached to that university, should the institution continue to be paid for him or her? The same question applies to patients and hospitals. Recently the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport took some money back from Dublin Bus because he felt it had not complied with its public service obligations. As the company had not delivered on the original contract, a deduction was made. There have been cases in which firms received grants from IDA Ireland and when their circumstances changed, they refunded the money to the Exchequer. I would support the amendment on these grounds. Circumstances can change. We should not freeze costs from the date of the last election.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I fully respect the bona fides of Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames in proposing the amendment. I listened to the arguments they made last week and again today. Under the proposed amendment the calculation of the parliamentary activities allowance payable to the party leaders of qualifying parties would be recalculated in the event that Members leave the parliamentary party, with the amount payable being reduced, presumably, on a permanent basis. The current system, as the Leader of the House said, provides that the allowance payable to a parliamentary party leader is calculated on the basis of the numbers of Members elected or nominated to the Dáil or the Seanad on the day of the election. This amount is fixed at the time of the election or following a by-election and not affected by Members leaving or joining the party subsequently. It is very important to note that the amount is determined by the vote of the people, not the subsequent decision of an individual Member to change allegiance or by any group within a party to expel somebody. It is determined on a fixed day by a vote of the people. Following the calculation of the allowances payable, parties are allocated their resources, inclusive of the allowances, which they use to employ researchers, support staff, press officers and so forth, commission research or obtain other supports in order to fulfil the real duties of a parliament which are demanding. These commitments are entered into on the understanding there is a fixed sum of money available for the duration of the Parliament. If the amount payable to a party could be decreased by Members resigning from it or losing the whip, as suggested by the Senators in their amendment, parties would find themselves with contracts in relation to both the employment of staff and the engagement of services that they could no longer honour, with an accompanying loss of jobs and a party potentially facing legal or contractual challenges. I do not believe that would be a desirable outcome and it is certainly not one I would support.

The parliamentary activities allowance is the means through which we support the parliamentary system. I listened carefully to the comments of Senator John Crown who believes there should be no such thing as supporting the parliamentary system. Some of us have been here for a long time and seen what the alternative in funding politics - that is, through donations; corporate donations, in particular - has done to the political system. Perhaps the Senator is more familiar with the North American system than I am, in which Members of Congress are in permanent fund-raising mode and there is no prospect of standing for, much less being elected to, either House of the US Parliament without an incredible war chest given, no doubt, with no conditions attached by generous donors, be they corporations or wealthy individuals. We have seen electoral battles in the United States where incredible war chests had to be deployed. That is not the political system I support or want. That is why when I was the Minister for the Environment in the mid-1990s, I brought forward the Electoral Act to ensure full transparency in the election expenses of all individuals who contested an election. I also put a cap on these expenses in order that there would not be the capacity for those with the deepest pockets or the best and wealthiest friends to fund their way into Parliament. That is not the system we have in place.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.