Wednesday, 18 May 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
The Government is committed, in line with our undertaking during the recent general election campaign, to bringing forward a constitutional referendum to allow for reductions in pay for members of the Judiciary in circumstances where it has been necessary for the State to engage in financial emergency measures in the public interest.
While it is generally well known that the public service pension levy has not been imposed on members of the Judiciary it has been less generally recognised that there have also been two pay cuts across the public sector, neither of which has been applied to judicial salaries. This has led to considerable disparities between judicial pay and that of other senior officeholders in the State with whom they would have been linked for pay determination purposes in the past. In all fairness, it should be noted that a majority of the Judiciary has voluntarily contributed sums equivalent to the pension levy. It is vital, however, for the independence of the Judiciary that it is not perceived as a group of officeholders who are uniquely insulated from the economic crisis which is detrimentally affecting the lives of all our people.
The date for holding the referendum remains a matter for decision by the Government pending full consideration in consultation with the Attorney General of the details of the necessary legislation. As the Deputy will be aware this is an issue I previously addressed when in Opposition by publishing a Private Members’ Bill. The detail of the legislation required is being considered further by the Office of the Attorney General and a referendum will be held as early as possible.
Deputy Joe Higgins: Does the Minister agree that it is repugnant that a very privileged elite in our society — which senior judges in particular are given that some of them might be on six or seven times the average industrial wage — should be allowed to continue with such very high salaries while working people, poor people and unemployed people are getting hammered by the Government continuing the policy of Fianna Fáil and making them pay for the EU-IMF bailout and the financial crimes of European bankers?
I ask the Minister to be more specific on the timing. He indicated he already has a Bill drafted. As I believe he will agree that it is a very straightforward question, there really should not be any problem in putting a time on it. Will it take place this year? Surely it is the Minister for Justice and Equality who will bring the recommendation to the Government.
Did the Minister receive a report on the meeting between the Chief Justice and the Taoiseach in regard to related matters of judges’ pensions and so forth? What was asked and were any assurances or promises given by the Taoiseach with regard to the issues that were under discussion?
Deputy Alan Shatter: I believe the Taoiseach answered that question in this House. I do not believe any assurances were given in the context of that issue. As the Deputy will be aware an interview with an unnamed judge was reported in The Irish Times, expressing some concerns with regard to how changes in the Finance Act might affect retiring members of the Judiciary. I have a simple view in this area, which is that there should be no special treatment for any particular group of people and the law should apply equally to everyone. If it gives rise to anomalies that could impact unfairly on individuals or if there are unintended consequences of legislation enacted in this House, those are issues that should be addressed. At this time I cannot provide any further information on that issue beyond saying that there is no change in the law as it stands at the moment.
On the timing of the referendum, as the Deputy will be aware the Government has proposals for a series of referendums to be held and we are considering the practicalities of the extent, if any, to which a referendum may coincide with the presidential election. It is of very great importance in the context of the workings of this House that we have a referendum to address issues arising from the Abbeylara judgment to facilitate committees of these Houses being able to engage in full and proper inquiries. There are issues with regard to a referendum in the context of Members of these Houses being in receipt of information from constituents or other people on matters of public importance and not finding themselves before the courts having to reveal the identity of those who might have furnished them with information that is correct and real.
There is a range of areas, including the work being done preparing for a children’s rights referendum. Decisions need to be made on dates when referendums will be held. A substantial amount of work is being done on these issues in the Office of the Attorney General. It is not just a question of publishing a Bill as I did as the Deputy correctly mentioned. There is the need to publish the ancillary legislation through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which is part and parcel of the process, and putting in place an appropriate referendum commission. These are all issues to the forefront of the Government’s attention and when decisions are made on dates, they will be announced.
Deputy Joe Higgins: At the time of the Abbeylara tragedy and when the report thereon was issued, during the term of the 29th Dáil, I called for a referendum. Does the Minister agree that some of the proposals made, including that on judges’ pay, are non-controversial and would — I am not being presumptuous about the people’s vote — probably be supported by an extensive majority? Does he also agree that a number of the referenda could be held on the same day as the Presidential election? While he is at it, why does he not hold a referendum on the Presidency, either to make the office completely democratic such that it would be open to every citizen to stand which is not the case at present, or to abolish it on the grounds that it is a waste of money?
Deputy Alan Shatter: The importance of the position of President and the benefits to the State of the Presidency are clearly seen in the events of this week. Mrs. McAleese has been a most distinguished President. She and her husband have made an extraordinarily valuable contribution to the peace process. She has done enormous work to the benefit of the State in visits she has made to other countries. The Presidency has been established as an office of genuine value and importance. The key to that office is, of course, the person elected thereto. We have been very fortunate to have had the recent holders of that office. Therefore, I do not share the Deputy’s view thereon.
With regard to bringing forward legislation, I agree with the Deputy on the merits of holding a considered referendum on judicial pay that would not interfere with the independence of the Judiciary, which is very important, but which would ensure changes in public pay across the public sector, or changes within what I would describe as grades with pay scales comparable to those of the Judiciary, were applied equally to the Judiciary. A referendum on this issue would receive substantial support from the majority of the people. I hope we will hold that referendum this year, but it is a matter for the Government to determine the date.
In the context of the other referenda mentioned by the Deputy, there is substantial work to be done in drafting legislation and teasing out the wording required in certain instances, for example, the referendum required arising from the Abbeylara judgment. We must ensure committees of this House have full and proper capacity to ask questions, obtain answers and publish reports, but we must not create a system in the House that would resemble the Star Chamber of many centuries ago. There is a balance to be prescribed in the legislation that must be given careful thought. It is legislation for which the Government has great enthusiasm. The Government has an enormous reforming agenda. Substantial legislation will be produced by my Department and others. An issue arises in ensuring adequate advice is obtained from the Office of the Attorney General and that office has time to consider the detail of what is emerging from each Department.
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