Tuesday, 15 November 2005
Dáil Éireann Debate
The Government appointed Deputy Tom Kitt as Government Chief Whip and Minister of State at my Department and at the Department of Defence and Deputy Noel Treacy as Minister of State at my Department and at the Department of Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for European Affairs.
Deputy Kitt, as Chief Whip, is primarily responsible for the organisation of Government business in the Dáil and for representing the Government’s interest in all matters, procedural or otherwise, relating to the conduct of its business by the Dáil. He chairs the Government Legislation Committee and oversees preparation of the Government’s legislative programme. In addition, he has responsibility for the Central Statistics Office and for the Information Society. In this respect, he oversees the e-lnclusion Fund established to support the participation of late adopters of technology in an inclusive information society. The Government allocated €1.025 million for the funding of e-inclusion initiatives this year, which includes a particular focus on initiatives targeted primarily at older people and people with disabilities.
In a co-ordinating role in the Department of the Taoiseach, the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, chairs the interdepartmental co-ordinating committee on European Union affairs. The committee keeps under review and works to ensure coherence on the full range of issues on the European Union’s agenda. The committee focuses particularly on the correct and timely transposition of EU legislation. The Minister of State also has responsibility for the Government’s Communicating Europe initiative which aims to foster broad public understanding of and identification with the issues on the EU agenda.
The Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, plays a key part in the national ratification process of the European constitution. He is in this regard playing an important role in the period of reflection and debate on Europe that was initiated by the European Council last June. He will also play a central role in consolidating and further developing Ireland’s positive bilateral EU relations, particularly with the new member states.
In addition to these duties, the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, has a heavy workload within the Department of Foreign Affairs which workload involves representing the Government at meetings in a wide range of contexts related to European affairs.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Chief Whip, Deputy Kitt, who is one of the Taoiseach’s Ministers of State, is described on the Department’s website as having among his tasks the operation of the pairing system. Will the Taoiseach elaborate on the role of the Chief Whip in this regard? For the benefit of those outside the House who have little or no understanding of this system, will the Taoiseach advise the House how it works week to week? I am sure he will agree that many of those watching this debate or who will read the report thereon will be very interested in the accusations of some Members on the Opposition benches, especially those of the Fine Gael Party, that there is a lack of Government accountability in this regard, particularly given the full——
The Chief Whip is nominally responsible for Dáil reform. What measures of reform has he presented in the period of his tenure since 2002? Given our knowledge of these, will the Taoiseach advise us if the Chief Whip is seriously considering real reform measures at this time?
It is 23 years since I was Chief Whip so I can hardly remember how the system works. It is meant to work in such a way that Ministers and Ministers of State on official business can seek pairs. The Chief Whip deals with Opposition Whips to arrange those pairs so that
the Ministers and Ministers of State can continue to engage in official business on behalf of the Government. From time to time, other pairs are sparingly allowed on the basis of illnesses or special or family occasions that Members wish to attend. That is how the system operates.
As the Deputy will appreciate, Dáil reform is the responsibility of the House and, more specifically, of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the sub-committee on Dáil reform. I assure the Deputy that the Government, through the Chief Whip, will always engage constructively in this regard. The Chief Whip brought forward a scheme to make the work of the committee system in the House more accessible, including by using the Internet to make available the workings and decisions of committees. This is due to be operational in the new year.
Mr. Sargent: Deputy Treacy is a Minister of State in addition to Deputy Kitt. Given that we had a discussion last week on the fate of, or lack of a future for, the European treaty as it stands, will the Taoiseach state whether the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, who has responsibility for European affairs, is to have his role amended in any way given that he would have been appointed with a referendum on the treaty in mind? Will there be a reallocation of duties?
Will the Taoiseach indicate whether the level of expenses for his two Ministers of State, Deputies Treacy and Kitt, has changed compared with the levels of last year or the preceding year? Is there a pattern or will the level remain the same? Does he have a view on the proposals of the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, to allow the public to make submissions on legislation while it is going through the House? This is facilitated in the Scottish Parliament via the Internet. Has progress been made in this regard?
The Taoiseach: With regard to the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, the work of Europe goes on. Much of it is carried out in the Department of Foreign Affairs, where the Minister of State stands in for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and attends meetings on European initiatives. In my Department the Minister of State chairs the meetings of the interdepartmental co-ordinating committee on EU affairs, which comprises senior officials from all Departments. A group is charged with ensuring there is a co-ordinated approach to negotiations on key policy issues arising at the European level. As many issues arise, it is a way of pulling them together and co-ordinating the work so that each Department prepares and plans accordingly. The Minister of State reports on development issues arising from the group to the Cabinet committee on EU affairs but it is his responsibility to co-ordinate the effort.
The interdepartmental committee works to co-ordinate the position on key policy issues and to ensure that this goes back to the Government and its various Departments. The committee is focused on an ongoing effort on the timely transposition of European measures and is also briefed on the key working groups in the EU, from which information comes back on an ongoing basis. The interdepartmental committee deals with that level of work, which would not normally come to the Cabinet committee. The EU co-ordinator of every Department and officials at different levels sit on that co-ordinating committee.
The e-democracy proposal of the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, gives the public the opportunity to make their views known to the committee of the House via the Internet. It is hoped to begin work on that with the broadcasting Bill at the beginning of the next Dáil session.
Mr. Kehoe: Sinn Féin will understand the pairing arrangements when they are sitting on the other side of the House, sharing power. It would look well to have Corporal O’Dea sitting beside Deputy Ó Caoláin.
Does the Taoiseach intend to alter the responsibilities of the Ministers of State in his Department? In particular, does he intend to create new ministerial positions? Fine Gael suggested that ministerial responsibility for small business, consumer affairs, immigration and anti-social behaviour could be of considerable benefit in assisting the economy, the consumer and society as a whole to move towards a more multicultured society.
The Taoiseach: My Department has no proposals in that regard, although I changed roles and responsibilities at the last change of Government. I do not want to discuss this matter in detail as it is outside the scope of the question but, with regard to the responsibilities of other Ministers of State, from time to time we consider it appropriate to switch around or change ministerial functions, as was recently done in regard to some areas of transport. However, while we regularly do this, there have been no changes to the responsibilities of my colleagues.
Can the Taoiseach provide figures for the constituency office staffs of the Ministers of State in his Department? How many staff are employed in these offices? Is it intended that the Ministers of State will retain these staff during the course of a general election? There seems to be a serious disadvantaging of the majority of Deputies given that it is apparently the rule that Ministers may, under the guise of promoting themselves as Ministers, maintain facilities in the House that are not available to the rest of us. Does the Taoiseach intend to promulgate regulations in terms of advertising for Ministers?
Mr. Rabbitte: Will the Taoiseach say how many people are employed by the Ministers of State in his office? Has he any intention of promulgating advertising regulations in respect of Ministers using public resources to——
Mr. Rabbitte: ——promote themselves? Now that the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, does not have to run the EU constitution, what does he propose to do? Will he say whether Ministers of State have the rights that I refer to, during the course of a general election?
The Taoiseach: To the best of my knowledge, and subject to correction, the staff complement referred to by the Deputy is four. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, has an adviser, but the number of constituency staff is four and the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, has the same number. While the EU constitution work is not proceeding at the same level, there still is a reflection period, and Deputy Treacy is co-ordinating that. Apart from that, he has the entire workload of the everyday co-ordination of all of the committees in Europe. These comprise the feedback through various Departments and Deputy Treacy chairs the interdepartmental co-ordinating group that deals with these matters. He also stands in at a number of meetings and in particular acts as a delegate at various functions for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. A considerable amount of his time, therefore, is spent in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The Taoiseach: The content of the two questions about advertising procedures was raised last week. I have just been checking again what the procedures are. In the case that came up last week, it was the Dublin Transportation Office that organised the advertisement. I am conscious that such issues should be restricted to the Departments concerned so that unnecessary arguments do not arise. We must keep within the regulations that are in place. Last week’s issue, as I understand it, was kept within those rules and regulations.
As regards what occurs between elections, while some changes were made on that front, following the Supreme Court case in 2002, I understand Members can still keep their staff in their constituency offices. They can deal with constituency work, but cannot be involved in issues that are related to the election. I assume this means they can deal with the normal issues of representation but cannot be involved in forwarding election literature or participating in campaign matters, beyond dealing with ongoing issues. The situation is confined to where it was before.
The Taoiseach: It is. The Department of Finance always had an old rule that once an election started, photocopiers and printers could not be used for anything that was directly related to an election issue. That extended to circulars that were sent out during an election period, so if something was to be sent out about a traffic problem outside election time, that was allowed, otherwise it was not. That line is already there and I know that it was imposed in the last election. Any literature of a canvassing nature is not allowed to be sent during election time.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I welcome Deputy Kenny to the Chamber. I thought I was doing well in his absence as Deputy Kehoe had placed me in the Taoiseach’s chair when he referred to Corporal O’Dea at my side.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——the operation of the pairing system, in which Deputy Kenny will be very interested, he indicated that it applies to Ministers and Ministers of State. I have been a Member of this House for just over eight years and I have noticed the pairing arrangement operating beyond that. Is the Taoiseach not aware that pairing arrangements have exceeded the original arrangement? The pairing arrangements between the Government parties and Fine Gael go well beyond that. They are so outrageous that——
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——I recall that during the expulsion of a Fine Gael Member, Deputy Timmins, from this House, members of his party had to sit on their hands and could not cast a vote due to pairing arrangements. That is hardly something that would bring the Government down. Does the Taoiseach believe that the arrangement operating between Fine Gael, presenting the semblance of opposition, and the Government is disingenuous?
The Taoiseach: There have been many traditional procedures in the House that have worked well. The pairing arrangements in the Dáil are not dissimilar to other parliaments, where the major parties operate pairing arrangements based on rules set out from time to time by the Whips. These are based on urgent business and the domestic situation as they see fit. In my time in the House, the Whips have run this in a competent way. That is how we manage to function efficiently in the Dáil and in committees, and that system operates effectively.
Mr. Timmins: I could never understand why the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kitt, was given responsibility for civil defence. Did the Taoiseach ever consider moving that responsibility to the Minister for Defence? While I do not doubt the ability of the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, that would make more sense. If the Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, had the additional responsibility it might stop him sending out scurrilous press statements.
The Taoiseach: The historical connection is that there was a link between the Department of the Taoiseach and the Defence Forces. The responsibility rests with the Minister of State. As far as this connection to civil defence is concerned, the President has a key role as the Taoiseach meets the President monthly.
I believe that the Civil Defence probably would have been abolished 20 or 30 years ago, had it not been for this link. In more difficult financial times, there was always a temptation to assert there were savings to be made on the Civil Defence. This was always resisted by the Department of the Taoiseach in various battles on expenditure with the Department of Finance in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a good connection and a useful link. Moreover, the Minister of State can remained involved in this respect and can act in place of the Minister for Defence when he is unavailable or abroad.
Mr. Sargent: I am interested in some of the functions of the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kitt. Does the Taoiseach receive a full report from the Minister of State on all the functions he attends? Was the report he received concerning the Minister of State’s visit to RAF Lyneham as full as the French report? The latter referred to the host country showing how it would secure a hostile airport with the sort of forces it believes are needed by the EU. It is claimed to be the first exercise of its kind.
Why was the Minster for Defence, Deputy O’Dea not present? It sounds more like his cup of tea. However, I understand that the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kitt, was officiating on behalf of the Minister of Defence. Is that part of his role? Did he report to the Taoiseach on how that function included EU defence, fighter planes, transport, refuelling aircraft, helicopters, ground troops——
Mr. Sargent: The Minister of State belongs to what we think of as a neutral country. Is the Taoiseach not concerned about the militarisation of the EU when he hears of this sort of event? Was a report given on that meeting?
The Taoiseach: As to the first question, this obviously refers to a meeting where Deputy Kitt was acting as the Minister of State at the Department of Defence. At meetings which he attends on behalf of the Minister for Defence, he reports to that Minister. Both my ministerial colleagues concerned have informed me that the meeting in question pertained to peacekeeping in the EU.
The Taoiseach: Keeping the peace is not an easy task and all aspects must be examined, which is what was being done on that occasion. As regards Deputy Kehoe’s question, I meet the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kitt, every day and I meet the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Treacy, several times a week.
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