Wednesday, 9 December 1959
Dáil Éireann Debate
That a sum not exceeding £5,460 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1950, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Minister for Transport and Power.
The Department of Transport and Power was established on the 27th July, 1959, and it is necessary to provide funds to meet the cost of the services administered by the Department to the end of the present financial year. It is considered inadvisable to make any changes in the existing financial arrangements in the current year in respect of the services transferred for which provision is made in the Votes for Industry and Commerce (Vote 50); Transport and Marine Services (Vote 51), and Aviation and Meteorological Services (Vote 52). Accordingly, expenditure on those services to the end of 1959-60 will, as indicated in the note to this Estimate, continue to be borne on Votes 50, 51 and 52 and accounted for by the Office of the Minister for Industry and Commerce.
 The staffs working on the functions which have been transferred were taken over by the new Department and their salaries, etc., will continue to be borne on Votes 50, 51 and 52. Provision has to be made, however, for the new Minister, for two new posts, Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary, for the Private Secretary to the Minister (Higher Executive Officer) and the Private Secretary to the Secretary (Executive Officer) of the Department. In addition, a provision is included to cover the allowances paid to the Private Secretaries and to the confidential Shorthand Typist to the Minister. The salary provision amounts to £5,160. In addition, a sum of £300 is provided to cover the travelling expenses and subsistence allowances of the staff of the Department whose salaries are borne on this Vote.
Mr. Coogan: I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the strong feeling which exists in Galway city and county in regard to the implementation of the second stage of the Galway Harbour Board scheme. I do not propose to go into this matter deeply.
Mr. Sweetman: This is the Estimate for the Minister's existence. Without  this Estimate the Minister would not be here. Surely, therefore, we can discuss on this Estimate the administration of his Department and what he does and does not do?
Mr. Coogan: I hold that this is a question of policy, in so far as the Minister is being requested to meet a deputation of the various interested bodies. If the Minister is prepared to meet that deputation I should like to know it.
Mr. Childers: I do not want to disturb Deputy Sherwin, but, quite frankly, we did not come prepared for a full-scale debate on the Department. We came simply to make a financial arrangement to provide a salary for the Minister.
Mr. Sherwin: I am unprepared, like the Minister. I am concerned with power. We now have a Minister for Transport and Power and I have a grievance against a body in respect of which I think the Minister should have some say.
Mr. Sherwin: Then what does the title imply? I have a question down for tomorrow and perhaps I should wait until then but I am getting the opportunity to speak now, whereas tomorrow I shall be told I am making a speech. I think the Minister should have some power in regard to statutory bodies.
Mr. Sherwin: The Minister is not a dummy. He should have some power to restrict statutory bodies where their policy creates undue hardship for the public. I hold that the practice of the E.S.B. in asking the people I have in mind to save money for them is wrong. I have a case I propose to raise tomorrow where an old age pensioner used 9d. worth of light and her bill was 14/6d.- 13/9d. for the meter rent and 9d. for the charge. Is that not hardship?  Surely the excuse the E.S.B. has that it would be costly for them to put in a coin meter is something that can be queried, and surely the Minister should be concerned with the hardship this policy inflicts on poor people. It is his duty to see that these bodies are in some way restricted so that an old age pensioner such as I have in mind who puts on a light for about a half an hour before going to bed thinking that it will be cheap will not get a bill for 14/6d., 13/9d. of which is for meter rent.
If the case is being made in regard to P.A.Y.E. against asking people for lump sums, the same thing should apply here. The Minister should restrict the E.S.B. from compelling poor people to save money for two months. They are unable to do it. It is contrary to the nature of things. Under this policy, thousands are cut off every year among the poorest people because they are not able to save money. When the bill is due, the money is not on hands, the current is cut off and they have to pay 10/- to have it reconnected. That policy of inflicting hardship on the poorest people is wrong. Meter fees and such are all right for business people who have a reserve of money but not for poor people and I shall continue to agitate against this policy. That is all I shall say because I am not prepared but I am well prepared on the point I have just made.
Mr. McQuillan: I have no doubt that the Minister, if he replies to Deputy Sherwin, will say that he has no function in this matter. Since the pronouncement was made by the Minister that a new Ministry was being set up, I had hoped that we would have a clarification by the Taoiseach of the powers of that Minister, the Minister for Transport and Power, who would deal with such very important aspects of our economy, but so far I must confess that I have been completely in the dark as to what the real functions of the Minister are. I had hoped that when the Supplementary Estimate came before the House under which money would be made available to  pay for these services—about which we are not clear—the Minister would let us into the secret that seems to exist between himself and the Taoiseach.
There are four major bodies now concerned with transport and power. We have two major bodies connected with transport, C.I.E. and Aer Lingus; we have two other major bodies, the E.S.B. and Bord na Móna concerned with power. Every Deputy will admit that Aer Lingus is a statutory body but this House has no authority to peer or probe into the administration of this body.
Mr. McQuillan: I am making a point; I am not advocating anything. Deputies realise that C.I.E. is a State body given certain powers by this House but no member of the House has authority to examine or inquire into the running of C.I.E. Can we get an answer from the Minister—has he power?
Mr. McQuillan: If the Minister will allow me, he did not make clear what the functions of the new Minister would be in connection with these State bodies. I mentioned two dealing with transport. If any Deputy has a matter of public importance to raise in connection with either of those State bodies, he is precluded under  Standing Orders from raising it in this House. I happened to have the privilege of being a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges up to recently and it was clearly and definitely established that it was against the rules of procedure to allow questions of importance in connection with these bodies to appear on the Order Paper. How can Deputies query the Minister as to his responsibilities at Question Time in connection with either Aer Lingus or C.I.E.? In what way is the Minister to be held responsible to the House?
The Chair knows that an attempt has recently been made to prevent Deputies from putting down Private Members' motions dealing with C.I.E., E.S.B., Aer Lingus or Bórd na Móna. Not only are they prohibited from putting down questions but an attempt was made to prevent us from putting down motions on the subject. Yet we now have the Minister charged with the responsibility of looking after transport but the hands of the House are tied. They cannot ask questions; they cannot deal with the subject for which he is responsible.
Let us take the question of power. The E.S.B. is another State body that has been given specific statutory powers by this House, powers which prohibit Deputies from interfering in the administration of practically every aspect of the E.S.B. Yet the Minister comes into the House and we are told he is responsible for that body. If he is responsible here for that body, for its policy and administration, the members of the House should be in a position to query aspects of the administration or policy of the E.S.B. The same applies to Bórd na Móna. It might not be desirable to have every aspect of these State bodies discussed in the House; I do not suggest that should be done. But I am trying to find out what exactly the Minister's functions are, and how far Deputies can force him to accept responsibility for matters of importance that come to their notice.
For instance, we have a Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, and if a Deputy wishes to raise questions in connection with the Department of Posts and  Telegraphs, he may do so and the Minister must accept responsibility. That is reasonable. We have another Department called the Department of Lands and in connection with it we have a Minister with very little functions and very little power. Are we now to appoint another Minister in charge of transport and power who will have as little responsibility as the Minister in charge of Lands has? If that is the case, I object to making money available for the payment of a Minister whose responsibilities we cannot find out, and who will not be responsible to this House on matters of importance.
Mr. McQuillan: The Minister must realise that neither he nor any other Minister, nor the civil servants advising here, have authority as to what questions appear on the Order Paper. That is decided by the Ceann Comhairle and in my personal knowledge and experience, questions which I put down in connection with the administration of Bord na Móna, the E.S.B., and C.I.E., time and again have been ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle. Will that situation still obtain? Can the Minister tell me, in future, that due to the fact that he has assumed responsibilities which apparently up to this were the sole responsibilities of these State companies, by permission of the Ceann Comhairle, it will be possible for Deputies to put down questions and have them answered? If the Minister clarifies that point, I shall not delay him any longer, and he will be welcome to this Estimate.
Mr. Childers: In reply to Deputy Coogan who asked a question about a particular deputation, I am examining the whole question involved, the Galway harbour scheme, and when I feel I can discuss the matter with the Galway Harbour Board, I shall naturally consider doing so. That is as far as I can go on this occasion.
Mr. Childers: I know very well the views of the Harbour Board at the moment, but it will be a matter of discussing the question after detailed study of the project. I already accept that they want the scheme to go on.
Mr. Childers: That is a matter of detail and there is no need to deal with it now. The observations of Deputy Sherwin relate to matters that are entirely the concern of the E.S.B. If there were—and naturally this applies to any State company—grave abuses  or distortions of policy affecting the public weal, the public good, then it would be the duty of the Minister for Transport and Power to examine such abuses.
Mr. Childers: It has been established tradition that the Minister does not interfere with the day-to-day working of State companies. He examines general policy, their financial position, and how the operations of the various companies are going to affect the economy as a whole, and I can assure Deputies that there is plenty of work to do in that connection. This matter has been discussed for many years, not only here but in other Parliaments, as to just how free State companies should be in day-to-day policy and administration. It has been very widely debated and men of equal stature, equal probity and political reputation, have disagreed on the subject and it would be very difficult for me, at this stage, to start a philosophical discourse on what has been a question of great interest, but upon which there have been wide differences of opinion.
I should, however, like to refer Deputies to the very able discourse by the Taoiseach to the Institute of Public Administration on this subject, and in that they will see the case outlined as to what interference there should be and as to how free State companies should be from interference or inquiries of routine character. I do not think I should say anything more about it.
Mr. Sherwin: If the old age pensioners and all the people affected marched on Fleet Street, and a half a dozen of them were sent to Mountjoy, would the Minister not come into this House and say: “This warrants action?”
Mr. Childers: We could discuss this interminably. In reply to the Deputy,  I could make a statement that few members of the House would disagree with, that in relation to the E.S.B. and the charges made to persons in very low income grades, it would be rather more a matter for public assistance, for the level of the social welfare services, than to suggest the E.S.B., for example, should subsidise current to one level of consumers on very modest incomes, at the expense of other groups on almost equally low incomes, people who manage to pay their electricity bills— but that is the kind of thing which will lead us nowhere.
Mr. Childers: It is very important for the person appointed Minister for Transport and Power to take an active interest in every phase of activity in respect of all the companies over which he has general supervision, and I can assure Deputies that in the course of the year if multiple complaints, which in the ordinary way are not regarded as subjects suitable for Parliamentary Questions arose, I would examine all of them. If the point were reached where I felt I had the right, in view of the general powers of a Minister, to inquire into the working of any State company, because of complaints, naturally I should do so. That is quite different, however, from interference in the day-to-day activities of a State company.
This is a matter on which there are different opinions. Even in Great Britain, one finds Conservatives and Socialists with varying opinions on the subject. I hope to be able to hold the balance in an equitable manner, so that, when I come before the House to report on the Estimate, there will be no criticism to the effect that I have maintained the tradition of allowing  State companies to be free to the point of encouraging social or economic abuses. I hope I shall be able to face the House in such a manner that nobody can accuse me of that. As I said, this involves tact and discretion. While I am not actually prepared to speak at length on this matter, I am giving some general impressions.
I can cite a particular example. Today a Deputy asked a perfectly normal question, one which was permitted by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as to the number of persons in County Mayo who have been paid for their land by Bord na Móna. The reply was that that was a matter of day-to-day activity by Bord na Móna; it was not a question in which I should like to interfere. Quite obviously, of course, if I knew that Bord na Móna were getting generally behindhand in their payments and that there were substantial abuses, I would take action. I knew very well in that particular case, as in most cases, it was a question of producing title and, in the circumstances, it was quite unnecessary for me to reply to the question in detail. It was a matter of day-to-day routine and I knew from the general conduct of Bord na Móna that there was unlikely to be any delay in payments. The reasons for the delay in this instance were both normal and acceptable.
All these matters can be discussed on the main Estimate. I do not claim that I can contribute much more to the experts who have debated this question of the freedom of State companies. I doubt if I can do any better than the Taoiseach, who spoke excellently on the subject, or than some other people who feel there should be some special machinery for inquiry into the operations of State companies, a matter upon which, as everyone knows, there has been controversy here from time to time. I doubt if I have very much to contribute to the argument now.
Mr. Sweetman: The Minister is aware, of course, that the Taoiseach had to write a letter of apology subsequently in relation to what he had related in this House. He had to say he was sorry; he had not said what he said he had at all, as he discovered when he looked up his notes.
Mr. Dillon: Might I direct the Minister's attention to what he himself said to-day? Is it not a dangerous doctrine for a Minister to claim in this House that he has a power and a duty to do certain things, when he thinks it is appropriate, but to claim that he is delivered from that duty, even though the House thinks it is appropriate for him to intervene? I suggest to the Minister that he look at what he said to-day and, on reflection, I think he will probably wish to amend it on some future occasion.
Mr. Childers: I was not trying to make a dictatorial or a unilateral statement. Anything I said was in no way intended to convey that I was attempting to alter the general tradition at the present time with regard to these matters. I have no doubt the Deputy will take what I said in good faith. There was nothing to indicate that I was putting myself in a special position.
Mr. Dillon: I think it necessary to put on record the fact that, if a Minister has a right to discharge certain duties, he must not be the final arbiter. One of the most important parliamentary safeguards we have is that members on both sides of this House can by Parliamentary question call a Minister to answer to this House for the performance and discharge of his duties and he is not delivered from the onus of responsibility in regard to those duties merely by saying that he  personally does not think it is appropriate that he should interfere.
Mr. O.J. Flanagan: Might I ask a simple question? In the event of C.I.E. deciding—this is a matter which affects my constituency at the moment —to close down branch lines or stretches of canal—the Grand Canal, in this instance—would the Minister be prepared to make representations and to satisfy himself that there is merit on the side of C.I.E. in regard to proposals to close branch lines or stretches of canals?
Mr. Childers: C.I.E. is clearly directed by an Act of this House to close lines which are uneconomic. I could interfere only if I felt that the management of C.I.E. were grossly inefficient and that they were unable to exercise impartially and efficiently their own powers in assessing the uneconomic working of railway lines.
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