Decisions by 11 TDs not to contest the next general election have focused attention on the pay and conditions of members of the Oireachtas and on the political system operating in this State. In 1992, there was broad agreement amongst the Dail parties on the need for fundamental Oireachtas reform. Since then, a considerable amount has been achieved through the establishment of Dail committees with powers to question Ministers and senior officials on matters of public policy and practice. Dail business has been streamlined. An Ethics Act, involving disclosure of interests, has been passed. And a Freedom of Information Bill is nearing completion.
There has been failure and foot dragging too: commitment to a referendum on Cabinet confidentiality has not been met. An Electoral Bill, dealing wit the funding of political parties and expenditure a election time, is still hanging fire. And the promise to introduce a Privilege and Compellability of Witnesses Bill, which would allow for the establishment of a special Dail Committee of Investigation, is still only a political aspiration.
The reforms have significantly lengthened the working hours of TDs and have added as much as two months to their legislative year. When the Dail does not sit in plenary session, the committees continue to meet for all but the month of August. And the normal Oireachtas working week has been extended from three to four days.
The working situation has been exacerbated by a refusal of TDs to cut their links with local councils, in a order to concentrate on national issues. They fear that, in multi seat constituencies under the PR system, they could lose their Dail seats to ambitious young councillors if they themselves are not seen to be active at council level. The result is double jobbing, which adds further to their workload.
Last March, members of the Dail applied for a 30 per cent pay increase to the Buckley Commission on Higher Remuneration in the Public Service, as compensation for extra work. At a time when the Government was preparing to enter negotiations on a new national wage agreement and was seeking pay moderation from the public and private sectors, it sent an unfortunate signal.
It is certainly the case that, on the basis of their workload and skills, TDs are not well paid at £32,000 a year. But the action of Government Ministers in 1994, when they returned their last special pay award to the Exchequer, reflected intense public pressure and a perception, that elected representatives were over paid. The relatively poor a of Oireachtas members is quoted by Dail parties as the prime reason why many professional and business people in their 30s are declining to enter politics. Apart from the uncertainty of the career and the huge workload involved, the pay is considerably less than middle and upper management earn in the private sector.
Recent changes have been designed to give backbench TDs a much broader and active role in national, politics, through the committee system and their ability to table private members Bills. Their traditional role as "lobby fodder" has declined, as their quality and education standards have risen. Some years ago, Ministers were forced by legislation to abandon their links with local councils and to concentrate on the national interest. It would seem to be only a matter of time before TDs are required to do likewise.