Wednesday, 1 February 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Ms Burton: Before the Dáil suspended, we debated the Labour Party’s proposal that there should be a 40% quota for both men and women, respectively, in the new super quango, with the balance to be chosen by the parties to the body in whatever fashion they choose. The Minister of State spoke about the difficulty involved in persuading various bodies to adopt a quota. Deputy Boyle spoke about his experience as a member of the National Economic and Social Council. Neither IBEC nor the farmers’ organisations had women representatives and 20% of trade unions were women representatives. In the voluntary and NGO sectors, about 60% were women representatives.
It is absurd if the major bodies representing industry and farming are allowed to have no women representatives at these ongoing discussions. As far as I know, there are thousands of women very actively involved in farming, and many women are also involved in business. The trade union record of women representation is somewhat better but not by much. The Government, with this legislation, should not pander to the failure of these bodies to provide for the inclusion of women. It is not good enough. The Government spends a vast amount of money on this structure and all these bodies have signed up to lengthy reports, with significant participation by women. However, the Government, through legislation, allows these bodies a free hand to completely exclude women.
At this time, it should not be necessary to make this type of comment. Part of the reason there is no sense of urgency on the part of the Government or the Taoiseach, who is sponsoring this Bill, is perhaps that there are so few women representing Fianna Fáil in this House. The Taoiseach is concerned with social inclusion, which is fine as long as women are included. I do not accept the Minister of State’s explanation of why he is not prepared to insist on appropriate, adequate and serious representation of women, on a par with men, in a consultative body. As the Minister of State stated, this body produces reports on everything from child care to migration to housing and women’s participation in the life of this country.
Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. Kitt): In discussing the issue earlier I outlined that in the debate on Committee Stage, I gave an undertaking that the Taoiseach would write to the various bodies. I share Deputy Burton’s sentiments on the matter. However, this is the only practical way to tackle the issue.
I accept that some bodies have unfortunately sent forward male representatives in more cases than they should have. That has been my experience in other Ministries, in particular when I was Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I made every effort, as did many of my colleagues, to have a gender balance, but in some cases nominating bodies did not fulfil the wish of the Minister of the day.
I understand that some of the bodies have performed well in this area, such as the National Economic and Social Forum, which has 44% representation by women. As a result of constraints and the number of nominating bodies, I cannot concede on this issue. I will raise the matter with the Taoiseach again and the aforementioned letter has been issued. I hope the bodies will respond positively.
This amendment is being made to modernise the language of “guilty of an offence” to “commits an offence” and to update the section to include the maximum fine currently permitted by the Attorney General. The amendment was produced on the advice of the parliamentary council.
It is constitutionally dubious for the head of Government, the Taoiseach, to require by legislation the consent of his own Ministers to take action in pursuit of a specific statutory power. There are detailed discussions on this in the standard reference book, J. M. Kelly, The Irish Constitution. Reference is made to authority for the proposition that it is contrary to the dignity of the Office of the Taoiseach for him or her to require the consent of the Minister for Finance to take steps under legislation, as opposed to consulting with the Minister.
Mr. Kitt: I cannot agree to the amendment as it would alter fundamentally the thrust of the section regarding the involvement of the Minister for Finance. It would, effectively, dilute the role of the Minister for Finance.
In keeping with previous debates on Report Stage, this amendment is an attempt to engage the Dáil in the general, but not specific, workings of the organisations referred to in this Bill. It would help in terms of engagement and greater public knowledge of the work these bodies carry out if there was general debate on the work programme of each of the bodies on a regular basis.
In an earlier reply, the Minister of State was reluctant to discuss specific reports and having such reports voted on in this Chamber. I fully accept that these are advisory reports to the Government, but they help to inform general political debate. For example, NESC is a body that produces concepts that are generally not discussed in normal political debate as they are ideas that carry a political consequence. This body first raised the prospect, still unrealised within our fiscal system, of the possibility and effectiveness of taxes on energy and property. For various political reasons, political parties in this House would evade these ideas during normal discourse.
If the strategic plan referred to in the Bill was to be laid before the House and subject to a regular debate, the plan would build upon the previous experience of bodies such as NESC, NESF and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance. It would detail how it intends to build on such work in future.
This is particularly important with regard to NESC. Every five years or so this body produces a major report or strategic document. When I was a member of NESC, it was entitled Opportunities, Challenges and Capacities for Choice. The body has recently released a similar document. These are major documents that inform the partnership process and the talks to secure future partnership agreements. We should, in line with the previous amendment tabled by Deputy Bruton, debate regularly in the House what these organisations intend to do and how they intend to do it. In the course of such a debate we should refer to the reports they have issued as part of their general workload. I hope the Minister looks on this amendment favourably, on the basis that the debate itself is important. I am open to suggestion on the second element of what I propose, namely, that a strategic plan be voted on in the House. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.
Mr. Bruton: I support the amendment, though the Oireachtas is settling for half a loaf rather than nothing at all. Deputy Boyle’s proposal is very solid because it would give us the opportunity to debate the NESC strategy and the present one is worthy of study and debate.
These bodies are essentially ingredients of social partnership but the key activity is the agreement hammered out in negotiations. It is important to hear from the research bodies that advise the social partners. Some have executive roles but they are primarily research and study bodies. The key is to go beyond that and learn how they and their findings influence policy. While Deputy Boyle’s recommendation would ensure the Dáil would at least be active in the debate, the Dáil needs to be active further up the pipeline to shape the way discussion at partnership level focuses on the issues.
I am pleased to support the amendment but regard it as second best to our having a real role in the making of policy in that we will only debate matters relating to these research bodies. Consistent with what the Minister of State said this morning about his desire to facilitate the House, I am sure he will accept Deputy Boyle’s amendment which puts into legal form what the Minister of State said he would be happy to support.
Ms Burton: I support Deputy Boyle’s amendment. Will the Minister of State say what will be the position of the new body under the Freedom of Information Act 1997? It is critical that the reports and research material of these bodies are freely accessible.
The Bill refers to summary reports and the amendment in the name of the Taoiseach mentions reporting to a relevant Oireachtas committee. The Freedom of Information Act 1997 is mentioned and I hope these bodies will come under its ambit because that represents the only way to gain access to such material.
What are the chances of Opposition Deputies accessing this information if, for example, under the revisions in the Freedom of Information Act 1997, reports of such bodies are deemed to be deliberations on ongoing Government policy? As Deputy Bruton said, the work of the NESC is primarily to produce research papers and documentation. We can get reports on how many times the bodies met etc. — somebody might be interested in that though I am not — but the House will want to access the documentation and the information on which the reports to be made by this super body are compiled. There has been a huge row-back on the part of Government on how much information we can access under freedom of information, on top of the fact that it has imposed severe costs for that access. If social partnership is not fully subject to freedom of information it would be a sorry comment on the notion that this Government was open to giving information to the public about bodies its tax is paying for.
Mr. Kitt: I will take Deputy Burton’s question first. She will see that section 36 brings this matter under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 so people will be entitled to information subject to the normal conditions.
We are grouping amendments Nos. 23 and 24 but, if it is in order, I will refer to a discussion with Deputy Bruton on an amendment he tabled on Committee Stage, following which I have come forward with amendment No. 24. It was proposed that the officers in each body should submit a report of progress on its strategic plan to the relevant Oireachtas committee each year and make themselves available to present it to the committee for examination. In the course of Committee Stage debate on this section it was agreed that the progress report on strategic plans would be presented to the Taoiseach before submission to the relevant committee. I am trying to encompass the views of the committee in putting this amendment forward.
I thank Deputy Boyle for his comments and his amendment. My initial advice was not to accept it because we incorporated his proposals into our amendment but it is acceptable if he agrees to end with the word “contents”. The section would then read: “The Taoiseach shall lay a strategic plan which has been approved by him or her under subsection (1) before the Houses of the Oireachtas, to debate the contents”. Deputy Boyle has acknowledged there would be an objection from me if we had to go into the area of voting on implementation. If we can agree the matter in the House I will accept Deputy Boyle’s amendment subject to it concluding with the words “the contents”.
Mr. Boyle: I am grateful to the Minister of State for giving consideration to this matter. I would be happy to remove the final clause but the last phrase should be “its contents” rather than “the contents”.
An Ceann Comhairle: The first paragraph of amendment No. 23 is agreed. The second paragraph will now read: “shall lay a strategic plan which has been approved by him or her under subsection (1) before the Houses of the Oireachtas, to debate its contents.”.
This section allows the Taoiseach, after consultation with the office of any relevant Minister, to dissolve any of the bodies in question. Later, in the transitional provisions, it provides for the dissolution of the bodies on establishment day. It seems odd the Government will have the power to dissolve the social partnership bodies established by the Bill without debate. I am sure this Bill was given its latest outing as a consequence of the commencement of the social partnership talks but I do not know what discussions have been conducted with the partners on the abolition of the bodies. Of course, we do not know whether the establishment day will be many moons hence or quite soon. Perhaps the Minister of State would care to comment.
Mr. Kitt: This could refer to existing bodies or to newly established ones. It depends on the Deputy’s opinion of this motion and the motivation for the Taoiseach of the day in abolishing a body. It is entirely appropriate that a Taoiseach has the right to dissolve a body where circumstances alter its role or agreement to this effect is reached in the context of social partnership.
As the bodies will have a statutory basis following the enactment of the Bill, there is need for a section which would facilitate their dissolution because they would otherwise exist indefinitely. It is, again, a legal point in terms of the statutory nature of these bodies and we have to provide for it. Any proposal to dissolve a body will require the approval of the Oireachtas. If we do not make this provision, a body that, for example, became unnecessary could continue indefinitely. It is a reasonable proposal and I hope my explanation clarifies the matter.
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