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Committee chairs have 'serious concerns' over workload and say they need more staff

A letter from the chairpersons of the Oireachtas committees to the Ceann Comhairle has raised “serious concerns” about the workloads faced in 2014 as a result of the plans to scrutinise legislation before it comes before the Dáil.

The Public Accounts Committee (File photo)
The Public Accounts Committee (File photo)
Image: Screengrab via Oireachtas TV

THE CHAIRPERSONS OF Oireachtas committees have “serious concerns” about the increase in the amount of work their members and staff face this year as a result the government’s Dáil reforms and have called for extra staff to be provided, TheJournal.ie has learned.

The new pre-legislative stage, where committees examine draft legislation before it goes before the Dáil, is likely to result in a “fourfold” increase in the workload of the various Oireachtas committees, according to a cross-party group made up of the chairpersons of all of these committees.

The Working Group of Committee Chairman (WGCC) wrote a letter to the Dáil Ceann Comhairle and Oireachtas Commission chairman, Seán Barrett, before Christmas outlining their concerns.

The letter from WGCC chair Fine Gael TD David Stanton, seen by this website, notes “serious concerns” among members about the increase in workload in 2014 as a result of the reforms and calls for more staff to be allocated to committees in order to meet the workload demand.

“In particular, the WGCC has concerns over the increasing workloads and the capacity of the current staffing, research, and consultancy supports to sectoral committees to maintain the qualitative standards already achieved,” the letter states.

Stanton writes that the committee chairs are agreed on the need for additional staffing and more funding for research and consultancy support in 2014. The letter says it is essential that the Oireachtas’ annual resource plan include “the necessary additional staffing resources to enable sectoral committees to properly meet the challenges of the latest Dáil Reform package”.

One committee chairperson, who declined to be named, said that changes brought about by the Fiscal Treaty referendum mean that there is a greater process of budgetary scrutiny that the Oireachtas is legally compelled to do.

“That demand has to have resources going into it,” they said.

The Oireachtas Commission said that Barrett, as chair of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, received the letter and “in his role as chairperson of the Commission referred it to the Commission” but declined to comment further, saying the letter is being “actively dealt with”.

Government chief whip Paul Kehoe, who the letter is copied to, said that committee chairs have been told to consult with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Oireachtas and said they should receive more resources.

“If they’ve more work they have to get more resources, more staff, whatever it is,” he said.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

Under reforms announced in September, every non-emergency bill going through the Oireachtas will be subject to a pre-legislative stage where committees will examine the bill in detail and take submissions from interest groups as happened with the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.

But in addition to this, Stanton’s letter notes the various changes implemented by government since it came to office such as scrutiny of EU legislative proposals, enhanced scrutiny of government department budgets, and engagement with the incoming chairpersons of public bodies.

He says this increased workload has “placed a major increasing burden on staffing and research resources” which will be added to as a result of the pre-legislative stage.

The letter says: “In undertaking this ambitious volume of ongoing work, individual sectoral committees are consistently meeting more frequently than was the norm in previous Dáileanna.”

Concern is also raised in the letter about the budget for committee consultancy being reduced from €240,000 in 2013 to just €50,000 for the year ahead and warns that this reduced budget will mean committees can only be expected to “partially deliver”.

Outside consultants are usually employed by Oireachtas committees to help with writing committee reports providing the necessary academic expertise.

“Without an increase in the budgetary provision, as and when required during 2014, as a well as the assignment of additional researchers, it is not envisaged that the capacity exists to deliver on expected demands throughout 2014,” Stanton writes.

The committee chairs recommend that the Oireachtas make greater use of newly-recruited administrative officers, draw down expertise from the consultancy budgetary provision and increase the resources of the Library and Research Service in the Oireachtas.

The Oireachtas Commission is due to consider its annual resource plan at its next meeting which is likely to be held at some stage before the end of the month.

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Hugh O'Connell

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