TD's and the abuse of Dail Questions

An examination of over seven thousand Dail questions processed during forty sitting days this year shows that only four out of every ten questions asked could be considered legitimate. The majority of the questions are designed to increase the electoral prospects of the TDs asking them. Over a full year, with the average number of sitting days of 87, the misuse of parliamentary questions costs the tax payer almost half a million pounds and contributes to the distortion of the democratic process.


The questions examined by Magill were put down for written or oral answer during January, February, March, April and May. In deciding which questions were an abuse of the system the criteria have been weighted in favour of the TDs. Any possibility that the information sought was of use in the better governing of the country put the question into the category of public use. For instance, questions which sought telephones for individuals were categorised as for electoral use. However, questions seeking the siting of a telephone kiosk on a particular road, although transparently asked for electoral purposes, were categorised as being for public use on the basis that it could be argued that such decisions are in some way related to policy. Similarly, routine questions which asked what plans the government had for bringing jobs to a partkular area were categorised as having some public value although they were undoubtedly asked merely to demonstrate the TDs' concern and have no practical effect.

Almost all the questions categorised as being for electoral use concerned individual inquiries about telephones, social welfare benefits and housing and agricultural grants. These make up 4,332 of the 7,054 questions examined. lf stricter criteria were applied, up to 85% of questions asked could be said to be motivated by the TDs' interests rather than those of the public.

on February 3 Vincent Brady TD told the Dail, "There is an old saying regarding Deputies who have been unfortunate enough to lose their seats, that they talked their way out of the House. That is because they became involved in de bating legislation and perhaps to some extent were seen to be neglecting their constituencies." Deputy Brady, who is himself no slouch at using the system to his own advantage, was quite blunt about where TDs' priorities lie. "A Deputy who comes into this House and who is seriously concerned with debates runs the risk of not retaining his seat after the next election." In the forty days examined Deputy Brady asked £1,950 worth of electoral questions. (There are various estimates of the cost of researching, typing and printing each question and we use a conservative average of £50.) To give him his due, Deputy Brady argued that an alternative system must be devised.

The Fianna Fail Chief Whip, Bertie Ahern, has told the Dail that "Ninetyfive percent of Deputies spend 95 percent of tlieir time working for their constituents." Mostly, that involves passing on inquiries to government departments. Such representations have no effect, other than endearing the TD to the voter. John Boland told the Dail how things work when someone is looking for a civil service job. There are many people, he said, who "would prefer not to go to a Deputy but they are afraid that if they do not another applicant for the job will do so and will get the job. We all take part 'in the charade". What happens? "A Deputy writes to a Minister, a Minister writes to the commission, the commission say they decide on the issue and will announce the decision in due course, the Minister writes to the Deputy, the Deputy writes back to the constituent, and if the constituent gets the job he is never sure whether he got it on merit or 'because of the Deputy's intervention."
The routine is the same for housing
grants, social welfare benefits, phones, whatever. But because of administrative problems, which result in long delays, particularly in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and the Department of Social Welfare, many TDs skip the queue and uSe the Dail to process their representations. Dail questions will be answered within a few days. Myra Barry: "I used to spend frustrating hours on the telephone without getting any satisfaction from the Departments. Then I decided to put down a written question. Within a week I had my reply from the Minister."

Alan Shatter told the Dail on May 4 that "TDs are spending hour after hour, week after week, trying to get information as to when people will be supplied with phones and when repairs will be carried out ... If a Deputy seeks information by letter and then, in despair, puts down a Dail question, it is not unusual to get a reply ultimately to one's letter, two months after the Dail question has been answered, the letter stating the exact opposite of the reply to the Dail question."

The Minister of State at the Department of P&T, John Donnellan, replied, "A lot of time is wasted by the staff of the Department because they have to concentrate their efforts on providing information sought by Deputies whim their time could be better employed." The behaviour of the TDs makes worse-1:he situation which they claim forces them to do this work. (Incidentally, Alan Shatter wasted £2,200 of tax payers' money on such shortcuts in the period under review.)

Dail Deputies argue that such behaviour is forced on them because of the peculiarities of the electoral system. The extent to which this is true is unimportant at this stage as the TDs have demonstrated that they have no intention of reforming the system and are content to exploit it. It is routine for TDs to seek out and invite such entreaties from their constituents. John Boland: "We have participated in conditioning the people into the mentality that they must go to a Deputy to fill up a form for them, never mind getting the item concerned. "
One statistic from our survey of forty Dail sittings demonstrates the extent to which the actual question and answer are secondary to the fact that the TD is seen to be doing something for the voter. A closer examination of a batch of 745 questions revealed that 27% of those asked for electoral purposes were faulty. That is, TDs routinely scoop up entreaties from voters, many of which are loopy or are from people chancing their arm, and shovel them into the Dail system, often with inaccurate or insufficient details.
* February 8: Hugh Byrne wanted a tax rebate for someone in Wexford . "as a matter of urgency". He was told, "There are two taxpayers bearing the same name at the address supplied by the Deputy and no repayment claim has been received from either of them."
* March I 0: Liam Cosgrave J r. wanted to know why people who applied for a civil service position weren't told that the examination would take place on November 20 1982. Answer, the test was on January 20 1983.
* March 16: John Browne wanted to know when someone would be paid a £1,000 new house grant. Answer, the person had made a claim in April 1977 and the claim was rejected in September 1977.
* April 19: Michael Begley wanted to know why someone from Kerry hadn't received a tax refund for 198182. Answer, the person concerned hadn't paid any tax that year.
* April 28: Mary Harney wanted to know when someone would get a phone. Answer, a phone was offered, rejected and the application cancelled.
* May 3: Kieran Crotty wanted to know when someone would be paid a mortgage subsidy. Answer, it was paid last February.
* May 5: Ben Briscoe wanted to know when a constituent's phone
would be repaired, and he wanted to know the reason for the delay. Answer, the constituent was no longer a subscriber - his phone had been discon· nected for non-payment of accounts.
Usually the fault in the question is that there is "no record" or "no trace" of the matter in the files.
The fact that there is such a high rate of inaccuracy in such questions indicates that they arise not because the TD has stumbled across some burning injustice, but that any and all entreaties are shovelled together and thrown into the Dail.
There are two basic causes for this situation. First, the inadequacies of the social services in the face of real social deprivation. The social welfare questions reveal something of the gap between poverty and the state insti· tutions designed to deal with it. Ad· ministrative overload and inadequacy also cause frustration in other areas, such as telephone services, agricultural grants and the like. There is a lot of frust-ration looking for an outlet.
The second cause is the uselessness of most TDs. There is literally no use for them. Once elected they merely sit there and have no function in the Dail. Alan Shatter: "Deputies quickly learn they have no real role to play in the legislative process. If a Deputy did not do constituency work and merely sat around the House he would rapidly become a patient for the nearest psychiatrist. The only way to retain one's sanity and feel one has any relevant function is to carry out constituency work. It is also a way of retaining one's seat."
Result: a lot of TDs elected. They have no function in politics other than being elected. So they spend most of their time fouling up the parliamentary machinery with silly questions so that they can impress their constituents and be re-elected.
When the Dail discussed reforming itself this year it touched on the issue of the misuse of parliamentary questions. It quickly shied away. Pious rhetoric was spouted about the sacred right of the TD to probe and examine the activities of government. There is some truth in this. Gene Fitzgerald, for instance used the system to systematically examine the phenomenon of the Coalition's "ministerial advisors". Deputies like Proinsias de Rossa, Jim Leonard, Jim Tunney and Alan Shatter and many more have used the system to extract useful information on problems and policies. But such use has in recent years become secondary to the abuse for electoral purposes.
The only concern the Dail has shown is that the hour allocated each day for questions is sometimes clogged up with nonsense. There has been no mention of the abuse of questions for written answer. But it is here that most of the abuse takes place. The most obvious crime is the misuse of public money. For instance, if our survey's figure of 27% of electoral use questions being faulty is applied to an average year it means that almost £150,000 of our money is squandered each year on the like of the questions quoted above. A total of over £470,000 is wasted on questions put solely for electoral use.
Money, however, isn't everything.
There is the abuse of the public service, with experienced staff being wasted on what is effectively helping the reelection of TDs. These staffs and the money quoted above are hidden subsidies of the electoral expenses of sitting TDs.
There is the consequent decline in efficiency within Departments as staff are used in this way.
This abuse also gives sitting TDs an advantage over any potential challenger. When the election comes around the sitting TD has amassed a lot of credit by putting voters under a compliment to him or her. The challenger had no such chance and it is an unequal race.
An even more serious distortion of the political process is the fragmentation of political demands. The normal political process would be that those with political demands - whether they be concerned with social welfare, agriculture, housing, or even a proper phone system - would band together and express those demands collectively. The needs of the citizens would then be translated into political demands to be expressed through political organisation. The TDs who offer a sort of black market service, peddling the Dail and public service administrations in this way, fragment these political demands and reduce them to individual entreaties.
That's the bad news. The good news is that TDs have been discussing Dail reform. The worse news is that they haven't the slightest intention of doing anything about it. Frank Fahey, in the Dail, January 26: "If our young people had had an opportunity to see the last Dail in session their cynicism towards Dail Eireann and politicians would have become much greater". And Frank Fahey tops the list of those who abuse the Dail for electoral success