Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill

[Speaking in the Seanad during Committee Stage of the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013]

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. 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.

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