Wednesday, 6 February 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
2. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if, in view of the many commitments in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress to various Government Departments in consultation with the social partners which will require the consent of the Oireachtas, he will consider the establishment of an Economic and Social Affairs Committee of the Oireachtas; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
The Taoiseach: As I indicated to the House last Thursday in reply to a query from the Deputy on the Order of Business, I do not see the need for such a committee. The many provisions in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress which, as the Deputy says, require the consent of the Oireachtas can be dealt with in accordance with the legislative and financial procedures of the House.
Mr. Quinn: Would the Taoiseach not agree that many of the 66 specific items that are referred to in the programme requiring the direct and indirect involvement of the Oireachtas involve negotiation in which the social partners present, on occasion, conflicting points of view, and that an open forum such as a committee of the Oireachtas, which is subject to democratic scrutiny including the press, is the right place for such negotiations to take place? In view of the widespread support for the idea of social partnership would the Taoiseach not give it some democratic underpinning by establishing such a committee.
The Taoiseach: I appreciate what the Deputy is getting at. On the other hand Deputies did express some concern about the democratic process and the fact that these important social and economic issues should not be taken away from the  ambit of the House. Therefore I think to set up a special committee just to deal with the programme might be tending to isolate it from the normal democratic and parliamentary procedures here in the House. Everything in the programme will in some shape or form have to come before this House either by way of financial provision or by way of legislation and it will be an ongoing process for some considerable time. I think it is better to leave it that way.
Mr. Quinn: Would the Taoiseach agree that legislation promised specifically in the programme and which is part of the programme's contract will ultimately involve the House and that such legislation will, as it has in the past, involve detailed negotiation tantamount to Committee Stage involvement of the social partners? Would the Taoiseach also agree that such involvement would be entirely outside the ambit of this House and that that is, in effect, as we saw in the Industrial Relations Bill, a negation of the real function of this House? It is precisely that kind of measure that should come under the ambit of this House. Would the Taoiseach not therefore agree that in matters such as that there is a very central role for such a committee?
The Taoiseach: I would agree that legislation is the fundamental responsibility of this House and of nobody else. However, as the Deputy knows, in the case of long legislation the Minister in charge of the legislation enters into discussions and negotiations with vocational groups of all kinds. That does not affect the quality of the legislation. Nor indeed does it affect the validity of the input of this House into the legislation and that is the way it will be done on this occasion.
Mr. Quinn: Is the Taoiseach not aware that in the context of the Industrial Relations Bill detailed discussions took place behind closed doors on the text of the Bill on Committee Stage, and when pressed by Members from all three parties on this side of the House the Minister proclaimed his impotence on the grounds that these things had already been negotiated and were tantamount to being agreed? That is fundamentally undemocratic and the Taoiseach is undermining the basis of the social partnership if he does not open it up to democratic scrutiny.
The Taoiseach: On the programme as such, first, all aspects of the programme and then, as I said, the component elements of the programme must come here in some shape or form for a full democratic discussion and decision.
Mr. J. Bruton: Would the Taoiseach agree that if we are to have, as is desirable, a consensus approach to economic matters over a ten year time frame, there must be a means found of involving all the parties in this House, in the sense that no one party has a lease on office for ten years? Is the Taoiseach aware that in most European countries, Scandinavia for example, where consensus economic policies are successfully pursued, there exists a procedure for involving parliament prior to decisions being written in stone? Is the Taoiseach further aware that it is undesirable and not actually democratic to present this House with a fait accompli which has to be voted through by a whipped Government majority——
Mr. J. Bruton: ——and that does not involve any constructive involvement of the democratically elected representatives? In view of these considerations would the Taoiseach agree to examine the former Fine Gael proposal on this matter which advocated an economic accord for 1992 and suggested, in January 1989, the establishment of exactly the type of committee envisaged by Deputy Quinn in his question which I most heartily welcome?
The Taoiseach: I think the Deputy is misunderstanding, or perhaps misdirecting his attention here. There are countless occasions on which a Government, as the Executive, negotiate with different persons, bodies, agencies and then bring the result of that negotiation here for confirmation. Let us take for example the case where the Government would negotiate a treaty with another country — that is negotiated by the Government in detail with some foreign power, some other country or other administration and then when those negotiations are completed, the document or the treaty is brought here for discussion, debate and confirmation or otherwise. There is nothing undemocratic about that. It is the normal procedure. I think the function of this House contrary to what Deputies are saying, would be negated to some extent if there was political involvement in the original negotiations and discussions because political parties having participated in those original discussions and negotiations would then be prevented from having full scale discussion in this House and possible opposition to what was decided. In any event the practicalities are——
The Taoiseach: The process of getting all the social partners and the Government to hammer out an agreement is complicated enough. If political parties had been brought in at the negotiating stage, with all the conflicting ideologies that exist within the parties of this House, ranging from the extreme left of The Workers' Party to the extreme conservatism of the Fine Gael Party, we would never have got an agreement.
An Ceann Comhairle: It is. All the questions on this Order Paper are equally important to the Chair as I am sure Members will agree. I want to bring this question to finality very quickly. I will call the three Deputies who are offering if they will be very brief. I call Deputy Bruton.
Mr. J. Bruton: Would the Taoiseach not agree that comparing a concordat for ten years in regard to all economic and social matters, which is a very general issue, with a treaty with another country on a very narrow issue is to completely confuse the question? Would he not agree also that what we are talking about here is binding the entire legislative output of this House into a concordat in which this House has had no part?
Mr. J. Bruton: Would the Taoiseach not agree that that is fundamentally unhealthy as far as democracy is concerned and places the social partners as well as the Opposition parties in this House in an invidious position?
The Taoiseach: It would be, if it were true, but of course it is not true. First, the amount of legislation which will be involved in implementing the programme will be minimal compared with the general corpus of legislation which will be enacted over the next few years. Second, the Deputies are basically — Deputy Bruton may not wish to acknowledge this — endeavouring to upset the firmly established process whereby we have established consensus between the social partners and the Government.
The Taoiseach: The Government are the executive authority and must carry out all these discussions and negotiations. It is, of course, always subject to the final authority of this House and that is the way we are proceeding on this occasion.
Mr. Rabbitte: My first point is the same as Deputy Bruton's point which is to ask the Taoiseach if he would agree that comparing a domestic economic agreement with an international relations agreement with another country is patently absurd? Does the Taoiseach agree that since we are talking about a national long term strategy as well as a medium term strategy, this agreement is not the property of any one Government and that, therefore, it is necessary to involve, in a more formal structured way the parties in this House? May I specifically ask the Taoiseach whether he agrees that the central review committee needs revision so as to allow for the more public appraisal of progress and for us to participate in monitoring the progress of the various objectives and targets under this agreement?
The Taoiseach: All these arguments would sound much more convincing to  me if I did not recall that on the occasion when we succeeded, as a major departure, in bringing forward the first programme, it was treated with scathing criticism and opposition from all parties on the other side of the House.
Mr. J. Bruton: That is the most appalling and inaccurate statement made in this House this year. Does the Taoiseach forget the position taken by this party where we allowed his Government to function for two years in the national interest?
The Taoiseach: The simulated outrage of Deputy Bruton does not impress me when I distinctly remember listening to what Deputy Michael Noonan, the spokesman for his party, said on those benches at the time.
Mr. Quinn: With your permission, Sir, may I bring this issue back to the specific question on today's Order Paper and my reference to the agreement which I hope will be endorsed on 18 February. In so far as there are commitments, and we are not challenging the executive right of the Government to enter into——
Mr. Quinn: Would the Taoiseach not agree that in relation to this question, there is a specific commitment by the Government on behalf of the Oireachtas which anticipates the consent and the approval of the Oireachtas to 66 separate matters of legislation and administration, and that, in respect of that particular set of promises, a committee would be the most effective and democratic way——
The Taoiseach: I do not agree and I think the outburst by Deputy Bruton reenforces my argument about political involvement in the early stages of these discussions. I see Deputy Quinn's difficulty. I understand it and I appreciate it.
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Flynn): Before dealing with the questions I think I should refer to the fact that these are the first questions that Deputy Jim Mitchell and Deputy Brendan Howlin have addressed to the Minister for the  Environment as spokespersons for their various parties.
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