Wednesday, 7 October 2015
Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Bill 2014: Report and Final Stages
I thank the Minister for coming. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Simon Harris, was here for previous Stages when we had quite a detailed debate on the Bill, particularly about the duration of the term that was supposed to be set for the posts of Clerk of the Seanad and Clerk of the Dáil. I will not go over all of the details, as I am sure the Minister’s officials have already advised him on the matter.
In general, I support the Bill, but there were concerns across the House about the issue of progression within the Civil Service, the suitability of persons for these posts and, more importantly, possible unintended consequences of the legislation. The concerns pertained to the perception that, because a timeframe was being set, it would give the commission more control and that one could have political influence on appointments, particularly those of the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad. If a given Minister or commission did not like an individual, he, she or it could actually reduce the term. As the maximum term is not specified, will the Minister provide details of the term the Government is looking to set? The Minister of State took note of these points and I would like to see them being addressed. I do not suggest the Government is looking to control these appointments or the terms of appointments; however, the running of Seanad elections and by-elections requires someone with a great deal of experience in the role of Clerk of the Seanad. Someone could be serving a five year term which would expire before the holding of a Seanad election. I do not have to remind colleagues of the importance of the Seanad nomination process and being able to say someone has been validly nominated to a given panel. I refer to the Seanad as constituted because there are no other reform proposals to be implemented before the next Seanad election. As these concerns have not been addressed, I ask the Minister how he see this legislation working? Will he indicate how it can be ensured someone with experience will fill the role and that in the future a Clerk of the Seanad cannot be removed by a commission or that he or she will not leave his or her post at a time when they will be most required?
I apologise that I was unable to be here for previous Stages of the Bill just before the summer recess, but I was committed to being elsewhere. I did, however, read with great care the transcript of the debate in this House and thank Senators for participating in it. I will offer some background information on the Bill.
This is a very modest proposal in terms of the real reform agenda that must be undertaken to professionalise the administration of the Houses of the Oireachtas. My predecessor, the late Brian Lenihan, was of the view that the old way of appointing senior officials in the Houses, which dated back to the 1950s, was not an appropriate way, or that it was not appropriate for the Executive to have that influence in Parliament. It involved the appointment of the most senior official, the Clerk of the Dáil, by the Taoiseach in consultation with the Ceann Comhairle. The Taoiseach agreed with me that we should begin the process of reform by holding an open competition to fill the most senior official position in the Houses, the equivalent of a Secretary General post in a Department. It would be done along TLAC lines, on an open basis, in order that anybody and everybody would be entitled to apply. The normal Top Level Appointments Committee would handle the vetting process and make a determination on who was appropriate to fill the post. The committee would, without listing in any order of priority, submit names to the Ceann Comhairle, the most senior person in the Dáil. The Ceann Comhairle would then take the proposal to the Oireachtas Commission, made up of Members of both Houses, which would then make the appointment.
The second part relates to the appointment of the next tier of officials, on which a germane discussion took place in this House. I share the very strong view held by my predecessor that there needed to be flexibility in filling the posts of Clerk Assistant of the Dáil, Clerk of the Seanad and Clerk Assistant of the Seanad. These posts are now the equivalent of principal officer grade, whereas the Clerk of the Dáil, the Secretary General of Houses of the Oireachtas, is the equivalent of Secretary General grade. Rather than have somebody appointed to any of these positions - Clerk Assistant of the Dáil, Clerk of the Seanad and Clerk Assistant of the Seanad – on a permanent or long-term basis, it would be a matter for discernment within Houses of the Oireachtas staff. It would be mirrored in the appointment of the Clerk of the Seanad from within the staff rather than being open to appointment by TLAC. On nomination by the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, the appointment of Clerk to the Seanad would be made by the Oireachtas Commission, on which this House is robustly represented. That respects and preserves the independence of the Houses in a way that it currently does not. Many very important points have been made by Senators in the debate. More work requires to be done in terms of how we structure an appropriate, robust, modern administration in these Houses. I would like that work to be led not particularly by the Executive but by the Oireachtas itself. It will be a work for the Oireachtas Commission in the next Oireachtas to have a root and branch examination of administration and to determine how a modern administration system works because we are going to move into the area of open data, and there are many substantial differences in the way things were done in the 1950s when the governing legislation for the appointment of senior staff was initially crafted.
I ask Senators to pass the Bill. I acknowledge it is a relatively modest proposal in and of itself, but an important one to ensure that the most senior official in the House is appointed by means of an open competition, and it is open to anybody to apply for that, rather than the closed position that it is now where it is a case of somebody being nominated from within the House by the Ceann Comhairle to the Taoiseach and the appointment being made by the latter. That is not an appropriate, open way of having a senior official appointed at this time. God knows what position either of us will be in a number of months’ time, but I can say from my perspective-----
Or weeks. Who knows these things? I am more confident, to borrow a phrase from our esteemed President, that the testing of the love of the people will take place in 2016 rather than 2015, but who is to know these matters. In any event, should I have any influence on the matter, I certainly will have something to say about it, and if I am in an executive position in the next Oireachtas I will encourage the Oireachtas Commission to look in a very open way at the existing administrative structures and for the Oireachtas itself to make recommendations rather than simply for the Executive to make proposals, which in a modern, functioning parliamentary system is probably not the right way to go.
I thank the Minister for his response. I outlined some concerns in my Second Stage speech which I hope will not come to pass. The system should be reviewed as to how it works in reality when the Bill becomes law and appointments are made. Perhaps people in the Department would look back at certain things we have said here that I hope do not transpire. We support the Bill. I thank the Minister for his response.