The question of Ministerial Pensions

The issue of Ministerial Pensions has been lingering for the past 10 days with a number of those in receipt of such a pension while still a sitting Member forgoing their payments. This included all such Labour TDs. On Wednesday, Fine Gael brought forward a motion in the Seanad calling for the abolition of such payments. You can read the full debate by clicking here, while my own speech is below.

I will start with a question to the Minister of State relating to the summary he gave of the Attorney General’s legal advice. The Attorney General said pensions were earned but deferred income, to which the person concerned had a property right. I cannot disagree with this; it defines what is a pension. Therefore, there was a constitutional impediment to removing pensions, particularly from just one group of people. We will not be privy to further detail of the Attorney General’s advice, which is a pity.

The Minister of State also pointed out that the Government had already made a decision that pensions would not be paid to sitting ex-Ministers with effect from the next Dáil. If one applies the advice relating to the decision the Government has made regarding the next Dáil, current serving Ministers are earning deferred income in the same way as occurs generally. The Minister of State and his colleagues, therefore, are earning deferred income. How can this be taken from them, albeit from the next Dáil, if we accept the Attorney General’s advice that there is a constitutional impediment to so doing? The income the Minister of State and members of the Cabinet are earning is earned income. How can the advice apply to the current position but not to the future position? Surely the same legal issue arises in respect of doing it for Ministers who are currently serving and who will be fortunate enough to be elected - if any are, although perhaps that is a cheap shot - to the next Dáil. It does not add up that it will be all right to do it then but not to do it now.

The difficulty in this debate is that there is confusion. I sympathise with some of the points made by Senator MacSharry and others. There is confusion as to whether the wish to remove pension payments from serving Members of the Oireachtas amounts to a financial emergency measure, like the others of which we are aware, or a reopening of the issue of whether, in principle, we ever thought it was right that a pension should be paid to former Ministers who were still Members of the Oireachtas. Furthermore, we are not discussing whether we are talking about it as a principle or as a financial emergency measure in the context of this debate, which is a pity.

Senator Twomey is correct that there is massive public anger and upset about former Ministers who are serving in the Dáil and Seanad drawing pensions. Most ordinary mortals regard pensions as something one receives when one is 65 years old, or possibly 60 years old, if there is an early retirement arrangement in one’s pension fund. People perceive pensions to be for one’s retirement, not a payment to be made while one is still working. That is a reasonable position for people to take when they view what is happening. However, there was a rationale for introducing these payments, about which all parties should be honest. There was a rationale former Ministers received pensions, notwithstanding the fact that they had not reached the age of 55, 60 or 65 years. Are we opening up the issue of principle by stating the payments should never have been provided for in the first place or are we saying there was a good reason for making them but because of the financial situation in which we find ourselves the position needs to be changed?

I do not say this to be critical of my Fine Gael colleagues, but I would prefer if there was draft legislation before us to be debated in the House, rather than having an Opposition party - I found myself in this position previously - calling on the Government to introduce legislation. I emphasise that I am not criticising my colleagues in this regard, but it would be more satisfactory if we were in a position to table legislation because it would then be easier for us to come to a view on whether the provisions of that draft legislation offended the Constitution. We are arguing blind. Senator Twomey states he has received the opinions of three senior counsel who state there would not be a problem with such legislation, but we do not know because we have not seen the heads of a draft Bill. On the other hand, the Government states the Attorney General says it can be done in the future but not now. That is extremely unsatisfactory in facilitating a meaningful debate in the House on this important issue. We deserve more from the Government side on what the legal impediments are, over and above what the Minister of State said. I want to see more of an account of precisely why it cannot be done. Perhaps the Minister of State is in a position to address the point about draft legislation. It may be academic at this stage, but it does not seem there would be an impediment to an Opposition party tabling legislation on an issue such as this. It seems it would not be a Money Bill or a matter on which an Opposition party could not table legislation, even though there are areas we cannot address.

Touching again on the issue of principle, I have sympathy for what Senator MacSharry and others were talking about. Senator MacSharry was inclined to be critical of the Houses generally, the way business was done and the efforts made to explain matters to the public. Politicians are principally to blame in this regard. It is no use saying there are staff in an office who are paid to explain matters, etc. They may or may not be doing so as well as they could, but I am not interested in that aspect. Often politicians do not have the necessary self-belief to explain and argue in public on, for example, the reasons politicians in the past believed, as they obviously did, that there should be pension payments for ex-Ministers, even those still serving as Deputies and Senators. In this country many things seem to happen quietly. We are aware of the argument that over a period of ten to 15 years the level of expenses went up. This happened here, there and everywhere. I am not saying it was done in a covert way in the sense that it was done secretly, but it was done in a way that did not give rise to much public debate. Politicians are very weak at explaining and arguing these points and when there is a furore, a huge row and, as Senator Twomey stated, public anger, it is not possible to defend the matter because, frankly, politicians would not last five minutes on a radio programme in trying to defend something such as this. There is an issue for us in that regard which has to do with our own sense of what we are about.

I refer to the deeper issues involved, about which Senator Twomey spoke and which perhaps are missed in this debate such as what are we about? What is our role? What is our perception of our role? How do we value ourselves? What value do we put on our work in the Dáil and Seanad? Where do we fit in? What are we not doing that we should be doing? Are we overpaid? If we were doing the job a parliament was expected to do in a democracy and if we were given by the Government the scrutinising role a parliament should have in a democracy, there is no way I would regard the pay of politicians, Deputies and Senators, as being too high. The question arises in circumstances where we are not seen to be doing the things I want us to do as politicians, as Deputies and Senators, whether it be scrutinising financial measures in the case of the banks or otherwise. Essentially, such measures are presented on the floor of the Houses as a fait accompli. Often we do not operate as parliamentarians in the true sense of the word which gives rise to questions in the public’s mind about what Members are doing and whether, in fact, they deserve the money they are getting. This brings us back to our sense of self-confidence which we often lack, as has come out in this debate.

On the core issue involved, it seems one can reduce the debate in this Chamber to the net issue. Independent Senators and all of the parties agree that former Ministers ought not to be paid a pension while still serving in the Oireachtas from the next Dáil. Everyone seems to agree with this. It is only a matter of what happens between now and the next general election in the case of a small number of individuals who for their own reasons do not wish to forfeit or give up their pension payments. It all boils down to that net point. I will support the Fine Gael motion because it is right that the issue should be dealt with by the Government now rather than in the future but it would be much better if it had not come to this.