Seanad debates

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage

 

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

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, to the House.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to present the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015 to the House. The Bill passed all stages in the Dáil last Friday. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission came into existence on 1 January 2004 under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. The founding of the commission through legislation passed in 2003 had two consequences: the commission became the sanctioning authority for expenditure and for deciding on staff numbers up to the grade of principal officer 2, and for the provision of services and related matters to the Oireachtas, which authority formerly rested with the Department of Finance; and the system for the allocation of budgets to the Oireachtas changed from the annual civil service Estimates procedure to a different process involving a three-year budget drawn from the Central Fund. The new budget is set every three years following negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, formerly the Department of Finance, and is approved at political level by the commission, and the amending legislation is passed by both Houses.

Under the terms of the inaugural commission Act, a three-year budget, covering the period 2004 to 2006, was provided for the commission. Further Acts were enacted in 2006, 2009 and 2012.In addition, legislation was enacted in 2013 to give the commission responsibility for the translation into Irish of statutory instruments and the publication and periodic review of An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. Senators will recall the recently passed Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Act 2015, under which the method of appointing the Clerks and Clerk Assistants of the Dáil and the Seanad was revised. They will also be aware of the recent announcement of an open competition for appointment to the post of Clerk of the Dáil and Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015 is now required as the financing provided under the 2012 Act expires on 31 December next. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is an independent body. It is, in effect, the governing body which oversees the provision of services to the Houses and their Members by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service in accordance with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts. The primary functions of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission are to provide for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas, to act as governing body of the service, to consider and determine policy in respect of the service and to oversee the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General. The commission is composed of 11 members under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is an ex officiomember, as is the Secretary General. There are also seven ordinary members, four of whom are appointed by the Dáil and three of whom are appointed by the Seanad, and one member appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister’s representative must also be a Member of either House.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has no role in regulating the business of the Houses, which is a matter for the Committee on Procedures and Privileges of each House. The commission is not responsible for the management and day-to-day operations of the Houses. The Secretary General has overall responsibility for these functions in accordance with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts. The commission does not set the level of remuneration payable to members of the Houses. Salaries, pensions and allowances are determined by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The commission is accountable to the Parliament. It presents annual reports on its work to both Houses 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 legislation. They can be broadly summarised as the provision of professional advice and support services to the commission, the Houses and their committees and the Members of both Houses.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to make available the funding for the Houses of the Oireachtas commission for the coming three-year period. The Bill proposes to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €369 million to carry out its functions for the three-year period from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2018. This sum has been agreed between the commission and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It takes account of foreseen expenditure over the three-year period. The figure of €369 million over three years comprises €131 million in 2016, €120 million in 2017 and €118 million in 2018. The €131 million figure for next year represents an increase of €19 million over the expected outturn of €112 million for this year. The bulk of the increase - over €14 million – relates to the forthcoming general election and covers payments in respect of termination allowances and pensions for former Members and secretarial assistants. The remainder of the increase - just under €5 million - relates to: the increase in staffing levels that is required to support enhanced security arrangements, as recommended by An Garda Síochána; the Oireachtas television channel, which now runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week; enhanced ICT services; Dáil reform measures, such as longer sitting hours, increased budget scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny; the much-needed updating of the various forms of technological equipment in operation in both Houses of the Oireachtas, including the electronic voting, sound technology, voting panel and broadcasting systems; and an increase in the provision of legal services arising from legal cases being taken against committees of the Houses.

In summary, the extra expenditure projected for 2016 over 2015 is either a direct consequence of the forthcoming general election or emanates from demands to meet unavoidable security, technological and legal cost pressures on the commission. The Estimates for 2017 and 2018 show a decrease from the 2016 levels, due primarily to a reduction in general election-related costs. While the funding issue is the primary purpose of the Bill before the House, as I have said, this opportunity is being taken to make a number of amendments of a more technical nature. I would like to give Senators details of some of the amendments in question. First, under section 8 of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, as amended, the initial assessment and transmission of complaints from the public against Members of the Houses can only be undertaken by the Clerk of the relevant House. This creates an impediment to the processing of such complaints when the relevant Clerk post is vacant. The proposed section 8 in the Bill before us allows the relevant Clerk Assistant explicitly to exercise the necessary powers.

Second, with regard to section 2 of the Bill, which deals with copyright, Oireachtas copyright was vested by section 195 of the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 in each House. This provision was enacted before the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was established. The right of the commission to exercise such powers on behalf of the relevant House, together with the power to delegate the exercise to the Secretary General, is being made explicit in this Bill.

Third, with regard to paragraphs (b) and (c) of section 6, the Oireachtas wishes in the interests of administrative convenience to have an enabling provision included in the Bill to allow the secretarial assistants of Members who are elevated to posts at Minister or Minister of State level to continue to remain under the scheme for secretarial assistance, rather than being seconded to Government Departments as is currently the case. In addition, these costs will be borne by the commission, rather than being spread over the Votes of the relevant Departments or offices as they are at present. Currently, the commission bears the cost of secretarial assistance for non–office-holding Members under Schedule 1 to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. The amendment being proposed here would extend that arrangement to secretarial assistance for all Members.

Fourth, I draw the attention of Deputies to amendments being provided for in sections 2, 5 and 6(a) in connection with the substitution of the term "grant" for "grant-in-aid" in section 4 of the 2003 Act and Schedule 1 to that Act. This follows a change in Government accounting procedures that was instigated by the Public Expenditure and Reform, whereby arrangements under which bodies and funds, etc., were allowed through grants-in-aid to retain unspent moneys at the end of the year have been superseded by grants systems in the interests of expenditure control. The term "grant-in-aid" is no longer in use and, therefore, references to it in individual sections of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts and the Schedules thereto need to be amended. Fifth, section 4 corrects a typographical error in the 2003 Act and section 7 of the Bill is a cross-referencing update to Schedule 2 to the principal Act concerning the treatment of the commission's receipts in its accounts. Sixth, section 9 provides for the repeal of provisions in the 2003 Act which have been made redundant by the repeal of the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 and their replacement by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the repeal of the Civil Service Commissioners Act 1956 and certain amendments effected by the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Act 2005. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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We support the Bill. One thing that was missing from the Minister of State's speech was a reference to the performance of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission in recent years. I understand that as a result of the savings which have been provided for, there has been a year-on-year reduction in costs other than those associated with the banking inquiry or general elections. That is a testament to the efforts of the Ceann Comhairle and the members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, of which I am one. I think Senator Bradford is a former member of the commission. Frankly, the multi-annual approach that is taken to funding the Houses of the Oireachtas is one that should be replicated across all Departments. The Department of Health would certainly benefit from such an approach if it were possible, as would HSE executives such as Tony O'Brien, about whose day-to-day work many of us are critical. The lack of multi-annual budgeting in other Departments impedes the ability of organisations to correctly plan or identify savings over periods of two to three years. I think we would benefit from an Oireachtas perspective if they were in a position to plan in that way.

I would like to make a point about the issue of legal defences, which came up recently. As a member of both the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and the banking inquiry - I am not publicly discussing any of the evidence the inquiry is considering - I am aware that the issue of the members of the inquiry signing off on the report if there were any legal challenges against us has arisen. It has been suggested that, theoretically, we could be on our own. If there is a challenge, presumably it will be a matter for the next commission, which will be put in place in six or eight months' time after the general election has taken place, to determine whether it is a defendable challenge.

I am aware, from my experience as a member of the banking inquiry and of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, that from time to time the Houses of the Oireachtas Service consults Members of the Oireachtas on what they feel is best but on other occasions it does not consult Members and instead does what it feels is best. I will give an example. Those of us who worked on the banking inquiry for 23 months or thereabouts were told that we could make a decision but that we could be on our own thereafter. At the same time, funds from the Oireachtas pool were presumably used in preparation for a review of an allegation made under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 by a confidential informant. That review, which was carried out and paid for independently, in effect vilified the confidential informant without carrying out any level of investigation that would be required in terms of interviewing key witnesses or considering material that would have a material relationship with the allegations being made. I would be happy to say that publicly and not just under privilege. I am sure that legal review was paid for. I doubt very much that it was run through the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I did not attend all of the meetings of the commission at that time because of my banking inquiry obligations.

Although Members of the Oireachtas in their elected roles on committees should be driving the bus, it seems at times that officials are doing so. I suggest that decisions must be made by elected Members from all parties and none, regardless of who they are and what committees they have chairmanship or membership of, rather than being signed off by them retrospectively as in the instance I have cited.The members of the banking inquiry were wished the best of luck and told they had done great work and could be on their own. By contrast, the whistleblower who had come forward with concerns about that process was in a position to be vilified in a quasi-independent review by an external senior counsel who, presumably had to be paid taxpayers' euro, without what I would see as a reasonable investigation. That said, it is a broader issue that Oireachtas committees, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and elected bodies under the auspices of the Houses of the Oireachtas - the people's representatives as elected - must be the ones in control. There are the civil servants, directors general and public servants who work so hard and on whom we depend so much for their expertise and advice, but the people driving the bus must be the elected representatives, not unelected people.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. He has been a regular visitor this afternoon. The Bill's main purpose is to deal with the funding of the Oireachtas for a number of years. I note that there is a €14 million increase connected to the forthcoming general election. I also note from the Minister of State's speech that much of this will cover termination allowances. I hope that not all the Members here will be availing of them and that we will be back here again after the next Seanad election.

There are a number of other sections dealing with other technical amendments which are necessary and which the Minister of State has outlined. I have no problem in commending the Bill to the House and complimenting the members of the commission who did Trojan work over the last five years. I thank them for their efforts and wish them every success for the future. The commission seems to have been working quite well since it was set up.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Renua Ireland)
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I welcome the Minister of State and support the legislation. As Senator MacSharry said, I was previously a member of the second commission, I think. I enjoyed my membership and got a very good insight into the workings of all those associated with it. It is commendable that we have this three-year budget model. It allows for review and overview. It could be reflected upon by all Departments. It gives us a greater long-term view of expenditure coming down the line, of future plans and developments and how to fund same.

The increase being sought today is quite modest yet it has hit the media and the news in a typically negative fashion in respect of money being set aside, not just for Members of the Oireachtas but for members of staff who, as a result of the electorate's decision in Dáil and Seanad elections, will lose their seats or their jobs. The fact that we are setting aside a sum of money to provide for same should not be an extraordinary moment in Irish politics. One would hope in today's world of advanced labour relations that most people who lose their jobs would be entitled to some degree of allowance, compensation, redundancy or pension on the way out. What applies now to Oireachtas Members is radically different from what applied to them five, six or seven years ago. It is fair and balanced. The Bill is brief and I have no suggested amendments.

In respect of the overall presentation of Houses of the Oireachtas Commission business, the dedicated Oireachtas channel notwithstanding, from a public relations perspective we have a long, long way to go in providing a complete view of the work and worth of the Oireachtas and responding to some of the - to put it mildly - erroneous, sometimes deliberately created hysteria which applies. If the Minister of State had been here this morning he would have heard Senator Norris refer to media reports yesterday or the day before about completely manufactured so-called goings on in the Dáil bar. Some journalists present an entirely false view of facts but for many readers, that view becomes reality. It gives politics, politicians and the whole system of democracy a bad name. We need to be much more responsive to that.

We occasionally see a letter written on behalf of the Oireachtas to a national daily newspaper or two but it is not really sufficient. The damage has already been done and the public mindset changed. The commission, our staff and the staff serving as public relations officers for the Houses will certainly have to be much more responsive. They are not responding on behalf of individual Members; I think they are responding on behalf of the Oireachtas itself and of the democratic process and procedure in the State. If I was to be slightly negative I would say we have more work to do in that regard.

I welcome the Bill and the three-year budget. The figures are the cost of democracy and, in the overall scale of Government expenditure, not over 12 months but over three years, the provision and maintenance of democracy, democratic Houses and open, transparent government is value for taxpayers' money. I am happy to support the Minister of State in respect of this Bill.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State and support the Bill. It is very brief. If the Cathaoirleach will pardon the pun, it is getting our Houses in order here and gathering up a few ends. I have not sat on the commission but compliment it, as Senator MacSharry did, as it has achieved an overall reduction over the years. Of course it will go up in line with a general election when the redundancy payments will be paid out to people.

As Senator Bradford said, a lot of our staff beaver away in the background. They work late nights at the drop of a hat. We could be sitting until 11 p.m. and the staff and the clerks here are sitting recording and doing what they do without any complaint. It is time we paid tribute to the staff who work in our offices as secretarial staff and to the staff of both Houses. I have never heard a comment or complaint from them. The guys up there at the back are always there to help keep us on the straight and narrow when we are sitting in as Acting Chairman. There is great credit due to them. If some of them are retiring, they are more than entitled to their redundancy payments. When there is forced retirement of our staff, in terms of us losing our seats, they are certainly entitled to it. They are only earning a day's pay and they are entitled to their redundancy.

I just asked the Minister of State if the refurbishment of this House and the offices here came under the commission's remit, but apparently that project is under the OPW. After the next Seanad election there will be big changes. There will be no House here as this Chamber will not be in operation for the best part of two years, I think. I do not know if the decision has been made as to where the Seanad is going to be located. If we are outside the Leinster House complex and are going across the street to take votes and things, it is going to be awkward for staff and Members. It will be dealt with in due course by whomever will be here.

It is so important to put our words of thanks to both Houses. I support the Bill.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank all Senators who took part in the debate for their very constructive responses to the Bill. To take up Senator Moloney's point, and in my role as Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, it is important that we remember that while this building is a Parliament, it is also a historic building which we have a duty to protect and preserve.There are a number of things that need to be done in that regard to ensure that we keep this historic building in the safe and protected manner which is our legal obligation and to pass it on to the next generations. While that will cause significant inconvenience around the House, it will leave us with a Parliament and, more importantly, a historic building in good care and stead to pass on.

This is a suitable opportunity to make some general comments on the commission, especially as the current Dáil and Seanad draw to a close. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is an expression of a fundamental tenet of the doctrine of separation of executive and legislative powers. The financial independence of Parliament is essential to ensure the effectiveness of the process of holding Government to account. The commission built from a low base the services and connectivity essential for Members, including information and research services and transparent and accountable financial and governance systems. Examples of new or enhanced services include increased ICT facilities, new library and research services, the establishment of Oireachtas TV, which rightly allows members of the public to track our work here, and the introduction of a parliamentary legal service. Through prudent financial management, for which I pay it tribute, the commission has consistently managed its budgets so as to return a significant surplus. It has fully implemented all Government policy for the Civil Service in the areas of governance, planning, accounting, audit and value for money. Fundamentally, it operates in a transparent manner through the publication on the Oireachtas website of commission minutes, strategic plans and corporate business plans.

It is of great significance that a new Clerk of the Dáil will soon be appointed following an open completion. This competition was recently announced. The new Clerk will be expected under the terms of the Civil Service renewal plan published by the Government last year to play a key role in raising morale and productivity among staff, creating opportunities for staff to develop their talents, strengthening strategic planning capacity, assigning the appropriate staff to the right areas so that they can encourage and develop excellence and drive the modernisation process in the Oireachtas service and, overall, in ensuring that the Oireachtas service has a strong culture of leadership, excellence and continuous development. With these demands being placed on whoever becomes Clerk of the Dáil, Senators can be re-assured that the substantial progress made under the various commissions to date will be continued.

I take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude, and I think that of all Members, for the work of all members of staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I refer to our personal staff and the staff who work in the Seanad, Dáil and committees to keep Parliament going. It is a very important role that they play. When people talk about remuneration and termination payments, they tend to focus on the public face of the office of the Deputy or Senator. However, it is right and proper that a number of Senators acknowledged the role played by our staff who work very hard to assist in our work. Sometimes, as part of the democratic process, they find themselves without employment after an election.

I draw Senators' attention to the fact that during the passage of this Bill through the Dáil, my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, recorded his view that we need a mechanism to allow the incoming commission after the forthcoming general election to be as representative as possible of the Houses. It is a view that I share. Real powers are devolved to the commission and the exercise of such powers needs to have as broad a mandate from Members as possible. It is a responsibility that will fall to the membership of the next Dáil and Seanad. Overall, the commission has been able over the last 12 years to develop into an organisation which can validly be regarded as being fit for purpose for current demands. I thank the commission for its work and I hope the Bill provides clarity and transparency in terms of the funding envelope for the next three years. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.