16 July 2009

The first cut is the deepest

Most of this afternoon is being spent reviewing the report from An Bord Snip Nua on suggested cuts to the Public Sector. As many commentators have said over the last few weeks, you can't cut yourself out of a recession, but that seems to be exactly the way the government is heading. While none of the recommendations are in any way binding, they certainly must be starting a few very difficult conversations off in departments around the country.

Aside from the expected garroting of Primary and Secondary Education and Social Welfare, the report has thrown up a few interesting suggestions, such as the merger of IADT and NCAD, the merger of DIT with Tallaght and Blanchardstown ITs, the abolition of maintenance grants for students outside the fields of Science and Technology, the introduction of metered water charges for domestic customers, the sale and/or privatization of our national forests and the happy little nugget of information that the Irish tax payer currently provides €68.1 Million in prize money for horse and greyhound races. The good news is that the Bord recommends this be reduced to €51.7 million.

Yay. All the 100 newly unemployed language and 2,000 special needs primary teachers will be so happy to hear that! Seriously, the savings associated with firing 2,000 special needs teachers is around €60M - why not just stop giving taxpayer money to horse owners instead?

Of course everyone who reads the report will have their own list of priorities, and why their specific area should be saved and someone else's should pick up the slack, but there is one recommendation that I think we all can agree with, and it's worth quoting in full.
Possible reduction in the number of TDs

Article 16.2.2 of the Constitution states: “The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population”. The most recent population estimate from the Central Statistics Office put the April 2008 population at 4,422,100. On this basis, the number of TDs could be no fewer than 148, but could be as many as 222. The number of TDs could be reconsidered when the results of the April 2011 Census become available, probably in the Autumn of 2011, and there could be scope to decide on a reduction in the numbers. For illustrative purposes, a reduction of 12 in the number of TDs would lead to savings of around €3m a year, including savings on the numbers of personal assistants and secretarial staff.

Possible move to a unicameral system

The Group notes that among EU members, many (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden) have unicameral parliaments. Bicameral parliaments are in the main found in larger countries and in smaller states with a federal structure e.g. Austria. Countries similar in size and population to Ireland, such as New Zealand (which shares with Ireland a Westminster-style tradition of parliamentary democracy) and Israel also have a unicameral parliament.

The Group is also cognisant of the 1996 Report of the Constitution Review Group, which concluded that if the two main criteria for retention of Seanad Éireann – namely the desirability of a system of checks and balances and of representation of as wide a cross-section of society as possible – could not be satisfied, then the case for the Seanad would fail and it should be abolished. There is an arguable case that the first criterion is not satisfied, since Dáil Éireann can overrule any amendments; and as regards the second criterion, the vast majority of the electorate in Seanad elections are local government councillors, generally of one or other of the three main political parties. Furthermore, no action has been taken on foot of the Report on Seanad Reform (2004) and successive Governments have declined to legislate to take account of the Seventh Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann, which allowed for broader representation from the third-level institutions. Accordingly, the Group considers that there is at least an arguable case for the option of moving to a unicameral legislative system and discontinuing Seanad Éireann. This would give rise to savings
of around €25m a year: as well as salary savings from Senators and their personal staff, there would be lower cost overheads for the running of Leinster House and fewer ushers required. Any such proposition would require careful and extended consideration, taking into account issues of democratic accountability and constitutional settlement that go beyond the remit of the Group.
Economic crises as an agent for democratic reform normally involves a few more mobs, pitchforks and the occasional defenestration, but I'll take it where I can get it.

The 85 page summary of the report can be found here, and the full 200 page report can be found here (both are PDF links), and you can follow all the fun on Twitter at #snip or at IrishElection's liveblog.

Judging by the level of chatter the best thing that can be said about the Snip report is that it has actually motivated many ordinary folk to sit down and read through the Government's finances, and see exactly what our money has been spent on.

And an informed populace is a dangerous thing.

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