Thursday, 31 March 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Minister without Portfolio (Deputy Brendan Howlin): We are at a critical juncture in our history and our democracy. The scale and depth of the crisis that has engulfed our State has undermined confidence in our public institutions. The political culture that captured the previous Government and allowed this crisis to happen — a culture of golden circles, of impunity, of conflating party political interest with the national interest — has sown among our citizens distrust, at best, and contempt, at worst, for those who hold public office.
On its own, the complexity and reach of this current crisis are enough to shake our systems of governance to their core. This crisis is the third time since the foundation of the State that our country has been brought to the brink of disaster by political recklessness and economic mismanagement. It is long past time to say “Never again”. Never again will Ireland be brought so low by the actions of a few. Never again will the livelihoods of our people be exposed to such unacceptable risk. Never again will Ireland’s good name be dragged through the mire. That is the task willingly shouldered by the new Government, its pledge and its purpose.
Times of crisis test the quality of a democracy. February’s general election demonstrated that Irish citizens are not afraid to exercise their democratic right to a change of Government. However, this is just the beginning of the kind of transformation we need. We need to change how Government itself works, so that it is more democratic, more transparent and more capable of taking on the complex challenges our country faces now and in the future. Put simply, we need a system of governance that is fit for purpose.
Before and during the general election campaign, both the Labour Party and Fine Gael outlined in detail their plans to radically reform the Government. Those plans reflect the bitter lessons of the past, but they also reflect a belief in the potential of our Parliament and its Members on both sides of the House to lead change, to govern effectively, and to hold the Government to account — a potential that is considerably greater than has been realised to date.
The programme for Government agreed by the two parties contains the most ambitious and far-reaching agenda for political reform ever put before the House. It must be ambitious if we are to restore the people’s trust and confidence in the institutions that serve them. Our agenda for reform is two-fold: to challenge the overall context in which the Government operates so that the people’s business is no longer concealed behind closed doors; and to change the way the Government operates, making it more effective and more democratic.
Changing a political culture is difficult, particularly when one party has been in power longer than any other. We can start by restoring the principle of a democracy of equals. In such a democracy, influence is not for sale. One of the most important commitments by this Government picks up where the Labour Party left off in 1997 when it introduced the first limits on electoral spending. We are committed to drastically reducing the amount that can be donated to political parties and lowering the threshold for declaring those donations. We will also make appropriate constitutional provisions to ban corporate donations.
The Government is committed to shining a light on how the people’s business is conducted. We will legislate to establish a statutory register of lobbyists and clear rules governing the practice of lobbying. We will restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was filleted by the previous Government, and we will extend it to other bodies substantially funded by the public purse. We will legislate to protect whistleblowers who speak out against wrongdoing or cover-ups, whether in the public or the private sector. Government is not something that happens behind closed doors, to be accessed only by the chosen few. Changing the context in which we govern — throwing open the doors, rather than seeking protection behind them — is a powerful and practical message that this is government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The second pillar of the Labour Party and Fine Gael’s reform agenda is to change the structures and practices of the Government itself. Democracy is debased if its most important institution, the Parliament, is not relevant. Underpinning the Dáil reforms detailed in the programme for Government is the principle that every vote cast, in every school, community hall and other place of polling, matters. Democracy is not just about electing a Government: it should be also about electing an effective Parliament. This is the principle that underpins the Government’s proposal to abolish the Seanad. It is not a knee-jerk reaction to the need for cost savings or demands for reform or smaller government. It is about strengthening democracy itself. It is my view and the view of the Government that Ireland’s democracy is not well served by a superfluous second Chamber which is widely regarded as being arcane and irrelevant. If our democracy is to be seen as relevant, it must demonstrate that it can reform itself. That includes consigning institutions that have served their purpose to the history books, as well as making existing ones more effective.
One of the most important tools of an effective Parliament is parliamentary committees. Yet Ireland is unique among parliamentary democracies in having an extremely weak committee system with very limited powers and no power at all to investigate matters of fact. The reforms to the committee system being proposed by the Government are centred on making committees more relevant, strengthening the Dáil’s engagement with the European Union, and strengthening its capacity to investigate matters of grave public interest.
First, as part of this Government’s commitment to breaking its monopoly on legislation and Dáil business, committees will be given considerably more power and responsibility to progress the work of Parliament. They will have the power to introduce legislation themselves rather than simply scrutinise Bills introduced by the Government. Legislation is made by the representatives of the people, which include all Members of this House and not just those elected to the Government side. By opening up the power of tabling legislation to committees and to every individual Member of the House, the people’s business can be done more effectively and efficiently — and, most importantly, more democratically.
Scrutiny of legislation will continue to be a critical function of committees, but to make that scrutiny more meaningful, the Government will amend Cabinet procedure to allow it to publish the general schemes of Bills. This will enable Oireachtas committees to begin to debate legislation, to hold hearings and to talk to the people involved at an earlier stage of the legislative process. To provide for more in-depth analysis and work by legislative committees, every fourth sitting week will be a committee week. During those weeks, the House will sit only to take Question Time and the Order of Business, with the rest of the day devoted exclusively to committee work. Many of us have worked in committees buried in the bowels of another building with no scrutiny or interest on the part of the press. Important legislative business and the productivity of the House went unnoticed and remarks made in the Chamber were passed over by the media. We need to put legislative business and the work of committees centre stage. Too often, the good work that happens in committees falls down the back of a silo. Reports painstakingly researched over months are compiled and published and then never heard of again. It is proposed that new Friday sittings be given over entirely to committee reports and Private Members’ business in order that Members can debate and examine in more detail the often useful policy findings that emerge from committees and to allow them to use that time, as they do in the British Parliament, to bring forward legislation.
Second, committees should be the vehicle for a much more proactive engagement between the democratically elected Oireachtas and the European Union. This Government will not continue, except in exceptional circumstances, the previous Administration’s practice of automatically enacting EU legislation by statutory instrument. Is it any wonder Irish citizens feel disconnected from the EU when there is little or no debate about the laws and policies that originate from it? In future, regulatory impact assessments prepared for Ministers on all EU directives and significant regulations will be automatically forwarded to the relevant sectoral committees. These committees will be required to advise the Minister and the Joint Committee on European Affairs whether EU directives should be transposed into Irish law by statutory instrument or by primary legislation. Most important, committees will be responsible for ensuring that EU laws and policies comply with the principle of subsidiarity, in accordance with the reforms introduced by the Lisbon treaty. It should be up to Members to decide whether the EU is overstepping its competencies. Finally, to enhance the transparency and accountability of Government in its dealings with the EU, all Ministers will be obliged to appear before their respective committees or the Joint Committee on European Affairs prior to attending Council meetings in Brussels or elsewhere.
The third significant reform we propose to the committee system is also a significant step forward for our democracy. Ireland has the only parliament in the world that I have studied which does not have the power to conduct investigations that might attribute blame to identifiable individuals. This was further underlined by the Abbeylara judgment of the Supreme Court, which has had the effect of quashing any hint of criticism of a named official by an Oireachtas committee. It is simply not right that the representatives of the people elected to this Parliament are not entitled to establish clear facts about right and wrong when matters of grave public importance are before them. This Government does not accept that our Parliament should be neutered in this way, almost uniquely in the world. We have committed in the programme for Government to amend the Constitution to allow for comprehensive inquiries by Oireachtas committees. Every citizen in our democracy has a right to his or her good name but that right must be balanced with the undeniable public interest realised by effective investigation into matters of serious public concern.
The programme for Government also proposes establishing a powerful investigations, oversight and petitions committee. This committee would be structured along the lines of the Committee of Public Accounts, and chaired by a senior member of the Opposition. Once the Constitution is amended to roll back the restrictions of the Abbeylara judgment, every Oireachtas committee will have the power to conduct an investigation. However, the investigations, oversight and petitions committee will have the specific function of addressing citizens’ concerns as they relate to public services or public administration. For example, the committee could be a formal channel of consultation between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman, responsible for ensuring her recommendations are acted upon. It would also receive petitions from individuals and groups on issues of public concern in the same manner as the petitions committee of the European Parliament. The most glaring problem with our system of governance in recent years has been its failure to provide the checks and balances that would have reined in the excesses of previous Administrations, much of which amounted to electioneering with the people’s own money.
It is my intention, together with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to radically overhaul scrutiny of public spending by the Dáil. My immediate priority, as Minister for public expenditure and reform, will be to undertake a comprehensive review of all public expenditure. Public spending will be measured against its effectiveness in achieving its stated intentions and outcomes. This is a significant departure from previous efficiency reviews, which focused exclusively on doing less of everything, rather than asking what was done or what was intended to be done in the first place. The results of this comprehensive spending review will inform the budget to be introduced later this year.
Other measures include the establishment of an independent fiscal advisory council, which would objectively monitor fiscal policy, and which would report to the House in order that there will be an independent watchdog to advise Members. The Estimates procedure will be brought forward and will be accompanied by a detailed performance report on what the previous year’s spending had achieved. This will include a performance report from agencies funded from the public purse. There will also be a significant role for Oireachtas committees in scrutinising performance and expenditure of Departments and agencies, some of which have never been subject to public oversight.
The programme for Government includes changes to Dáil procedures, which will enable every Member to contribute meaningfully to the business of government. These include granting Opposition and backbench Government Deputies the right to introduce their own legislation, ensuring there is adequate time to debate important legislation and amending the Adjournment debate format to make it a meaningful forum for raising topical issues. The overall effect of these reforms will be to rebalance considerably power between the Executive and the Parliament.
Governing effectively is not the same as hoarding power and democracy is not well served by knee-jerk defensiveness. This rebalancing of the Oireachtas will, I hope, better reflect the serious responsibility conferred on every Member when he or she is elected to the Dáil. That responsibility is to put the people’s interest first and not just the people today, but their children and their grandchildren. It is our responsibility to hand our country on to its next stewards in a better condition than that in which we found it.
The reforms I have outlined are not partisan and they are not designed to increase the Government’s advantage. It is quite the contrary; they are about doing what we were all elected to do — get our country back on its feet, get our people back to work and to put the concerns, hopes and aspirations of our fellow citizens at the heart of how we do our business.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle as a bheith tofa anseo ar maidin. Is onóir speisialta í don Teachta agus dá chlann gur tofadh é d’aonghuth tar éis tréimhse fhada fhiúntach a chaitheamh sna Tithe seo.
I also congratulate Deputy Howlin on his appointment as Minister and I welcome, in particular, the fact that his remit covers public service reform. His zeal is well established and the public will have general confidence in him as he takes on the daunting challenge that lies ahead.
With regard to the limited subject matter before us, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the many strengths of our committee system, the many challenges the system faces and the way in which committees can be given a more prominent and effective role in our parliamentary democracy. I also welcome some of the Government’s commitments set out by the Minister in the recent programme for Government aimed at strengthening the role of committees. We strongly support some of these measures but others will have a negative impact.
The debate is timely following the publication of the Moriarty tribunal’s final report. The report has once again shed a light on the huge costs and inefficiencies associated with tribunals of inquiry and the need for an alternative, more efficient and inexpensive way of conducting inquiries in the future. The Government has proposed reversing the effects of the Abbeylara judgment to allow Dáil committees full powers of investigation and Fianna Fáil strongly supports this. In his statement to the Dáil on the Moriarty tribunal report this week, the Taoiseach announced the Government intends to scrap the current restrictions on the nature and extent of evidence by civil servants to Oireachtas committees and replace it with new guidelines that reflect the reality of the authority delegated to them and their personal accountability for the way it is exercised. We welcome and look forward to a full debate on these proposals when they are put before the Dáil.
Fianna Fáil fully supports a strong and well resourced committee system and believes this is the best way in which the Legislature can hold Government to account. While our committee system can be said to be weak and underdeveloped compared to some of our European counterparts, some of this is down to the fact that we have a relatively young committee system that was only properly developed and reformed since the early 1990s. We need to look at the current strengths and weaknesses of our committee system and how these can they be improved. Committees can be defined as a small group of legislators who are assigned, on either a temporary or permanent basis, to examine matters more closely than the full Chamber could. The strength of the committee system is that it enables Deputies to tease out legislation and put forward detailed amendments to the relevant Minister. The committee system tends to adopt a less adversarial approach than is taken in the Chamber.
Committees allow for specialisation giving Deputies and Senators the opportunity to pursue and gain expertise on particular policy areas. Unfortunately, not every Deputy or Senator approaches his or her respective committees in this manner and the level of dedication and interest can vary widely among committee members. One of the weaknesses of the current system is the large number of committees in operation. In order to ensure committees continue to encourage and foster specialisation, this must be addressed. There are 19 Oireachtas joint committees in total and I support the proposal in the programme for Government to somewhat reduce the number of committees. We need a stronger and more focused committee system, one that allows for specialisation. However, unfortunately the programme for Government does not give any specifics on how it intends to reduce the number of committees.
We believe the number of joint committees could be reduced from 19 as a certain number of committees overlap, such as the joint committee on European affairs and the joint committee on European scrutiny and also the joint committee on the environment and the joint committee on climate change. It would be wiser to have one joint committee for each of these areas with relevant sub-committees. We also propose a close correlation between Departments and committees as this allows committees to better participate in the policy development process and to hold each Minister and Department to account.
The Taoiseach recently seemed to forget his party’s previous commitment to reduce the number of Ministers of State from 15 to 12 when he announced his 15 Ministers of State a few weeks ago. I hope that when it comes to reducing the number of committees, Fine Gael shows a stronger commitment to this area of reform.
While we support a reduced number of joint committees, we would like to see more focused and specialised committees. This will play to the strength of the committee system and offer a level of specialisation the Dáil cannot offer. One proposal is for a new joint committee on children to be created following the creation of the new Department with responsibility for children. Within this joint committee on children, we propose a sub-committee on children’s welfare. A sub-committee on children’s welfare was established by the Joint Committee on Health and Children shortly before the 30th Dáil was dissolved and I would like to see this committee re-established under a new joint committee on children. I commend the Taoiseach on creating the new Department with responsibility for children and his appointment of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald as Minister.
Regarding the committee on health, we propose setting up of a number of specialised sub-committees, such as a sub-committee on older people and a sub-committee on suicide. I recognise the enormous contribution of Deputy Dan Neville and Senator Mary White to the work of the previous sub-committee on suicide. The sub-committee on older people is particularly important considering that the Government, having appointed a Minister with responsibility for children, seems to have forgotten and neglected older people. A committee for older people, operating under the aegis of the committee on health, would be worthwhile.
While we support giving more time to committee work and encouraging elected Members to take their committee work more seriously, we do not agree with Fine Gael’s proposal to devote Friday sitting days to committee reports. This is not a solution to the problem and simply pushes committee work to the margins of the Dáil working week. We would like to see the work of committees integrated into the Dáil week rather than pushed out to the edge.
Certain committees meet more than others, some are better attended and there is also a variation in the output of work. Each and every committee is as important as the next and should be treated as such by their members. We need to ensure a high and consistent standard across all committees. The answer is not simply to devote Friday sitting days to committee reports or introduce a committee week every fourth week. Similarly, Fine Gael’s proposals to increase Dáil sitting days to four days is not necessarily the answer. There is no evidence that simply increasing the number of days where the Houses or committees of the Oireachtas meet will make any significant change in the quality of debate, the relevance of policy or the strength of legislation.
Instead, all parties need to ensure that committee members have a genuine interest in the policy area, in particular the committee chairmen. The success of the committee is dependent on the buy-in of all committee members to its work programme and the Chair’s priorities must also reflect the members’ priorities. We cannot have a situation where the Chair is allowed to use the committee for his or her agenda or where parties use committees as a system of patronage, with jobs for the boys and girls.
I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children during the previous Dáil. A number of positive measures were introduced, which other committees would do well to consider. This ties in to the importance of buy-in from all committee members. The Joint Committee on Health and Children ensured that the former Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, and the former CEO of the HSE appeared before it on a quarterly basis. Committees benefit from a strong partnership approach with the relevant Minister. The Government of the day needs to ensure its Ministers are prepared to be open in their relationship with committees. While we need well resourced committees, it costs nothing to bring about a new mindset and partnership approach. I strongly recommend that the new committees engage regularly with their relevant Ministers and the relevant State agencies under their remit, not just on legislation but on the broad policy agenda.
While Committee Stage is the third stage in the legislative process, there is still a clear pattern of Government dominance of legislation at all stages. Committee members can table as many amendments as they see fit but unless the Minister is willing to take on board some, the committee’s work is ineffective. Unfortunately, our current system means the Government continues to have a stranglehold over legislation.
One of the advantages of committees is their ability to engage with a wide range of interest groups. This ensures an important link between the public and our elected representatives. While committees regularly invite interest groups and public servants to appear before them and provide input into the work of the committee, there is also an opportunity for committees to travel around the country and meet with groups outside the environs of Leinster House. For example, the previous Joint Committee on Health and Children visited centres in Monaghan and Mosney to meet asylum seekers and witness at first hand the conditions in which they were living. The previous Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, under its Chairman, Deputy Penrose, travelled around the country talking to business owners about access to credit. Both committee initiatives were beneficial and this type of active engagement should continue.
This kind of open relationship, whether it be with Ministers or particular interest groups enables more efficient and effective processing of legislation. It also creates stronger legislation by flagging particular flaws or changes that need to be made to legislation at critical stages. The success of a committee is down to its ability to take on board relevant views and effect change in the legislative process.
Apart from its legislative function, committees play an important role in providing oversight of the executive branch of Government but this depends on their ability to get evidence and compel witnesses. I welcome the Taoiseach’s announcement this week that he intends to scrap the restrictions on the nature and extent of evidence by civil servants to Oireachtas committees and replace them with new guidelines.
The intention to bring forward a referendum on the Abbeylara judgment is welcome, as is the Government’s intention to allow committees to conduct more effective investigations. However, if we expect the public, by way of referendum, to convey quasi-judicial powers on committees, we would need, I respectfully suggest, to demonstrate that we can abandon our primal, adversarial tendencies as politicians and show instead a greater capacity for balance, reason and mutual respect.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, established under law, stands above the normal committee system. It has worked well. I urge the Government, Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle to re-establish it quickly.
I acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the staff of the committees. They are hardworking, dependable, committed, respectful of and fair to all committee members. It is essential that committees continue to be well resourced so that the important work of committee staff can continue. I acknowledge also the good work done by the communications unit on behalf of the committees.
In summary, Fianna Fáil supports a reduction in the number of Oireachtas committees, especially where duplication or overlap exists. We recommend the establishment of a number of sub-committees with focused responsibilities, for example, in the area of older people and child welfare. We endorse the proposal to hold a referendum on the Abbeylara issue, to allow committees to conduct effective investigations.
The Minister, Deputy Howlin, is anxious to ensure that the process is not just about Government, but about all the Members of the House. In this new situation where the Government has such a massive majority we must see a change in the process whereby more of the committee Chairs can be drawn from the ranks of the Opposition parties and groupings to ensure that we have transparency, accountability and effective oversight of the legislative process in the public interest.
I welcome this opportunity to address the role of committees in the 31st Dáil and in the Oireachtas generally. These statements are timely in that they come before the Government decides what committees it will establish and what the composition of those committees will be. I was somewhat sceptical about the proposition to hold this discussion because it can only be a useful exercise if the Government listens and takes on board the experience, views and concerns of Deputies, especially those who have served in previous Dáileanna and who have participated in the committee structure. They have much to share and it is important that their points are taken on board.
In the 30th Dáil I was in the unique position of being my party spokesperson on health and children while being deliberately — I use the word “deliberately” advisedly — denied full membership of the Oireachtas joint and select committees on health and children. I was the only party spokesperson to be so excluded. The previous Taoiseach, but one, refused to accord me and, more importantly, the people and the party I represent, the right to membership of those committees. That was factually the position that applied post the general election of 2007. It was a right earned through hard and consistent work on issues relating to health and children since I was first elected in 1997, something many who are familiar with my role in regard to such matters would acknowledge, irrespective of party differences.
I have no hesitation in pointing out that the exclusion at the time of Sinn Féin from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children was for purely party political reasons. That is not my assumption. That fact was shared with me by members of the then Taoiseach’s party.
The points I make were underlined by the fact that not one but two Fianna Fáil Deputies from my constituency were accorded full membership of the committee by the Taoiseach of the day. Let us be under no illusion. That was against the backdrop of serious actions on the part of the Government of the day and the Department of Health and Children in terms of acute hospital services in the north east. That same Taoiseach approved an extension of the committee’s membership to accommodate a second representative of another political party, but no accommodation was made for this Deputy or my party in terms of membership of the committee.
I record my thanks to the former Chairmen of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children and to the committee secretariat which facilitated me in attending and contributing to meetings and keeping my office up to date on committee work, despite the fact that I was not a committee member. It is a very important point that every Deputy and Senator is entitled to full membership of a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas. As recently as the previous Dáil, that was not honoured.
I have referred to this experience not as a gripe, but to make the point that there needs to be absolute fairness in the allocation of committee membership to all Deputies and Senators. I urge the new Government to be fair and equitable in its allocation of committee places and to accommodate all Members of the Houses in a manner respectful of their respective mandates.
In the past the positions of Chairs of Oireachtas committees have been doled out — some would say as goodies — to favoured Government backbenchers and to so-called Independent Deputies who supported the Government by one means or another. I recall one individual, whom I will not name, who was awarded a committee Chair. I will not put a tooth in it. He was clearly incapable of the duties required of him. This ballyhoo must end; I witnessed it personally. Committee Chairs should be allocated proportionally on the basis of party strength or from among Independent Members. They should be allocated to competent Oireachtas Members who have a particular interest in the area of responsibility and who can properly fulfil the role entrusted them. There should be no additional remuneration attached to the position of committee Chairman. It should be an honour to take up such a position, which does not necessarily have to run for the duration of the Dáil of five years. The position could be rotated.
If the Oireachtas had long ago instituted a proper system of investigation by committees we might have been spared much of the huge expense and long duration of the tribunals. I welcome the new Government’s commitment to amend the Constitution to give such powers to committees. Between 2002 and 2007, the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, of which I was a member, conducted an investigation into customer charges and interest rates set by the commercial banks in this State. Its report was published in June 2005 and exposed how ordinary customers were being ripped off by the banks. The very fact that an Oireachtas committee had to carry out that investigation in the first place showed the failure of the Central Bank to carry out its duties and proper regulatory role. We now know this was only the tip of the iceberg of gross profiteering by the banks and gross negligence by the so-called regulators, those who were given the responsibility of oversight in respect of the banking institutions. The institutions’ crimes — I mean crimes absolutely — were facilitated and encouraged by previous Governments and have brought the economy of this State to the edge of complete ruin. We have yet to see anyone held accountable before the courts for this real crime against citizens, who are suffering daily as a consequence of neglect or willful participation in the activities I have described.
Considering the role of Oireachtas committees is not an academic exercise. The function of the Dáil is to hold to account the Government it elects from among its number. We may well ask if a more empowered and vigilant Oireachtas could have held Governments more effectively to account, particularly in the past decade and a half, thus helping to avoid the worst excesses that led to the current economic nightmare.
It is often said that Dáil committees are expensive and ineffectual. They should represent no additional cost other than that associated with the provision of the supports they need. They represent an integral part of our responsibilities as elected representatives of our respective constituencies. Committees should not be ineffectual. The only way they can be effective is if the Government takes heed of their work and not only notes but also acts upon, in all reasonableness, recommendations made by them. This is related to my earlier appeal in regard to this debate.
I recently served on the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which is a case in point. It came up with wording on the constitutional amendment on children that received all-party support after holding more than 60 meetings over approximately two years. There was some cost in terms of the legal supports provided. On many occasions since the publication of that committee’s third report, at the outset of last year, I asked the last Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for children what progress had been made on the wording recommended by all parties. I asked whether there would be a referendum in 2010. It was like trying to extract teeth from an unwilling patient in a dental surgery; it was impossible to obtain absolute clarity. I appeal to the new Government, as I did last week, to move now towards accepting the wording all parties have agreed on after protracted hearings, discussions and negotiations. That is the only logical outcome of the committee’s work. Otherwise, its report, like so many others produced by Oireachtas committees, will sit on a shelf and never be acted upon. I hope and expect that the Government will shortly confirm, very likely on the formal setting up of the new Department of Children and the appointment of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald as the Minister at its helm, that a date for a referendum will be set this year.
The Abbeylara judgment was very disappointing and negative and has had very serious consequences for the relevance of Dáil committees since it was issued. It has certainly impaired the opportunity that might have been available to many Oireachtas committees to carry out necessary investigative work. I hope that matter will be addressed this year to give teeth and opportunity to the committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas to play once again the part they can quite rightly play. In carrying out this function, they could save the State considerable sums of money.
In the term of the Thirtieth Dáil, I concluded that the committee system was a very complicated labyrinth involving joint committees, sub-committees, select committees, Seanad committees, standing committees and special committees. A number of diverse reports were produced by all of them. The purpose of the committees was to advise on a wide range of legislative, social, economic and financial business and to process proposals for Bills on Committee Stage and examine Government expenditure. I was fascinated to see on the Oireachtas website that “the setting of up of well-organised joint committees has resulted in Deputies and Senators having additional opportunities to participate to an even greater extent in specialised parliamentary work where they take evidence from interest groups, meet witnesses or invite key Departmental officials in on specific issues of interest.”
I like the title of these statements, “Making Committees Work in the 31st Dáil”, because I have had, since I was a teenager quite some time ago, considerable experience of committees, all in a voluntary capacity. Some of that committee work continues today. The committees on which I participated were associated with youth clubs, community projects, community organisations, boards of management, festivals, drugs task forces and the Young People’s Facilities and Services Fund. They all had one thing in common: they generally comprised a small number who were all committed to the work and who were not members to fill seats. There were no expenses involved and there was no remuneration for chairing the committee. Punctuality was a key factor. People arrived on time and stayed for all of the meeting. Most important, decisions were made and actions followed. At the meeting after a decision was made, a report would have been produced on that action. The meetings were to the point, and when people spoke it was not to score points but to advance the issue.
I was on committees that convened solely to do a specific job and when that was done they were disbanded. Equally, there were committees whose members worked together for a considerable time out of loyalty to the relevant organisation.
When I entered the Thirtieth Dáil, I was interested in the work of some committees but my status as an independent precluded me from being a member of a considerable number of them. I attended committee meetings when I could and found they were attended by very few of the actual members. There were committees at whose meetings a member would ask a question of the visiting delegation or speaker and then leave before that question was answered. I attended committees to listen to a presentation and noted members spent more time talking to each other than to the delegations and were not paying the slightest attention to the speaker. Chairmen also spent considerable time consulting staff during presentations. Some delegates were civil servants, in respect of whom I sometimes wondered about the time they spent getting here, speaking and leaving. I wondered whether they would not have made a better difference if they had stayed at their desks. Some delegations would come to speak and as meetings take place during Dáil sittings the bell would ring for a vote and the delegation would be left speaking to an empty chair. I attended the launch of certain reports and I wonder where those reports are languishing now and to what they have led.
I pursued being on a committee and I got an opportunity to sit on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. Overall, it was a positive experience. However, some of the issues I mentioned were relevant such as the bells ringing in the middle of presentations and delegations being left alone, and some members appearing and disappearing in almost the same moment. Also, there was a change of membership after a few months. I was fortunate to have had on that committee the benefit of the considerable experience on human rights issues of former Deputy Michael D. Higgins and Senator David Norris. At that committee we met delegations from Colombia, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Haiti. What difference did these delegations make to the crises, situations or human rights abuses in their countries? Yes, it was decided that letters would be written but to what did they lead? It was very frustrating and sad to sit there and listen to those stories feeling totally powerless to advance the issue the delegations had brought to the committee’s attention.
I welcome what Deputy Howlin stated and that he accepts the committee structure has been weak. For reform we need committees to be meaningful and relevant and we also need a consistent and interested membership which has a real role to make a difference. There is a need for a protocol on attendance and participation, and each committee could do with outlining a mission statement. Above all, the committees should not be talking shops. I welcome the plans in the report for the committees to have more power and responsibility and I hope that what Deputy Howlin stated is not left to languish.
I was intrigued by the name of the portfolio Deputy Howlin will take up, which is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I hope this will go far beyond reform of public expenditure because we need a vision on how we work and how we remodel our way of working and how our governance is organised. Deputy Howlin spoke about the principle of subsidiarity in the European Union. However, he did not speak about subsidiarity in terms of what we do at home. We have a very centralised system and a valid criticism made during the election campaign, one which has been made for many years, is that there is too much localism at national level. This localism cannot be eradicated if we do not have a change in where we make decisions. There needs to be serious reform whereby some decisions we make are moved to a reorganised local government system which is democratic, fair and works. This could also deliver efficiencies. This is missing from Deputy Howlin’s speech. I realise it may not be Deputy Howlin’s area and that others may have specific competency in this area. However, it is necessary to state this. If we continue to do work that is not properly done in Parliament we will reduce the role of Parliament.
A reduction in the number of committees has been discussed and last night I watched “Tonight with Vincent Browne” on which Deputy Costello made the point that it is intended to reduce the number of committees from 24 to 12. This was not included in Deputy Howlin’s speech. If such detail is known it would have been useful to have it today. It poses particular questions given that if 134 Deputies and 60 Senators are to be included and have a right to be a member of one or more committee it would mean very large committees. I find that very large committees can be quite ineffective. However, having said that, in the short time I was a Member of the Dáil from 2005 to 2007 I witnessed other members of the committee of which I was a member who did not attend meetings.
From my experience of being a member of a raft of various committees outside of the Dáil, I found committees which worked best were those with a particular task with a beginning, middle and end. It would be perfectly possible for this type of committee or sub-committee to report on a particular body of work. This would require rules and regulations defining the body of work, the length of time and who would do the work. In reducing the number of committees there is the potential for efficiencies in the use of staff on the secretariat of those committees.
I agree the positions of committee chairman should be shared between Government and Opposition Members. I also agree that no payment should be made for the honour of chairing a committee. If this were so, we would be far more likely to get people who have a deep interest in being involved in a particular topic.
In his broad statement, Deputy Howlin stated the most glaring failure of our system of governance in recent years was the failure to provide checks and balances which would have reined in the excesses of the previous Administration. One of the reasons we have not had the type of oversight required is because of a movement to outsource government. Decisions made at one remove create a Teflon layer, and this was a description applied to a former Taoiseach. This has to be quickly and substantially reined in so we have democratic control over decisions on public expenditure. This was missing from the speech but it is absolutely essential if the work of the Dáil is to be meaningful.
One area that will dominate all committees is that of public service reform, because every committee has an element connected with this. We need to have a vision for public service reform rather than looking at it purely from the point of view of cutting expenditure. However, certainly we have to get value for money. I understand an overarching role will exist such as that of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and Public Service in the previous Dáil. It will be necessary to debate at committee level how we can function with a smaller public service, because this is likely to be the case and it is outlined in the programme for Government. A total of 55,000 public servants are earmarked to lose their jobs. This will have a profound impact on frontline services. The members of the Technical Group want to spend their time usefully and effectively. I am aware that people in other walks of life have, in a sense, made a career out of being members of committees. Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan made an interesting point in her contribution regarding committees in the community and voluntary sector. People may have spent time on committees and no decisions were ever made. It seemed to be almost a job in itself to be a member of one committee after another. I do not want this to be the case in the Oireachtas and I hope committees will have a defined output because that would be in all our interests.
Deputy John O’Mahony: It is appropriate the House is discussing how an effective committee system could and should work because for the past two days we have been discussing the findings of a tribunal that was like a soap opera for 14 years. At least soap operas such as “Fair City” or “Coronation Street” are broadcast with ad breaks in the middle, which means money is being earned as well as expended. However, in the case of the tribunal, all the money was going out.
The Moriarty tribunal did its work as per its instructions, but this was at a significant cost to the State. Up to now, at least, it seems to have had no more of an effect than five or six people in a pub on a Friday night having a chat and gossiping. These tribunals have all the trappings of the Supreme Court or High Court but the difference is there is as much confusion at the end as there was at the beginning. If there were an effective committee system, armed with the investigative powers to investigate such matters of public interest, with people forced to give evidence, would there be any need for further tribunals? Was it foreseen when it was instituted that the tribunal could run into the sand as it did? In this regard it is ironic to be discussing the committee system today. We need to get the system right, once and for all.
When I suggest that people should be forced to attend committees to give evidence, I mean people such as Ministers and the Taoiseach. This would provide a level of accountability to the House whereby the facts could be established quickly and the appropriate action taken by the relevant bodies, whether the Garda Síochána, the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Revenue Commissioners.
The public have been infuriated for the past 15 years by the fact that there seems to be one rule for the high and mighty and another rule for the other classes, as it were. I am glad to see that the programme for Government clearly outlines how we plan to overhaul the way politics and government works. The Government realises this radical overhaul is necessary. The failure of the political system over the past decade has led to the financial crisis about to unfold before us in a few hours' time. One of the biggest criticisms of the political system over recent years is that this House is completely disconnected from the public. The promise in the programme for Government to establish an investigative, oversight and petitions committee will go a long way towards addressing the gulf between politics and the people. This committee will receive parliamentary petitions from individuals and groups seeking to have grievances redressed with regard to public services and administration. The concept of a petitions committee has worked well at European Union level and there is no reason it will not work well here.
I was elected to this House for the first time in 2007 and I found the lack of accountability mind-boggling. For example, questions were often disallowed and when they were dealt with, the reply meant nothing. Ministers hid behind quangos and often one had to wait six months for the final answer. I acknowledge there are many good people working in the system but they were also caught in the strait-jacket. I regarded it as an extended game of pass the parcel. The restructuring and reorganising of the committee system is the first and crucial step in making this House and its workings more relevant. It needs to be implemented now if we are to regain the political system we deserve.
The committee system has so much to offer. Its role is perceived as being similar to a footballer who comes onto the pitch for ten minutes but is then taken off. A proper list system will give the players in this House more time on the pitch, and a real say. The people will identify with this. The committee system has so much to offer and it is time we embraced it totally.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: I congratulate Deputy Michael Kitt on his appointment as Leas Cheann-Comhairle. The Minister in his opening speech spoke about openness and transparency, with which I agree. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin told the House of his disappointment that he was not a member of any committee in the previous Dáil. This should be rectified in the future. Any Member who expresses a wish to be a member of a committee should be given the opportunity to be part of the process, regardless of the party to which he or she belongs.
I was first elected to the Dáil in 2007 and I enjoyed being a member of a committee in the previous Dáil. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Social Protection. The work was most interesting and educational. I most enjoyed meeting groups who came to the committee, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Older and Bolder, ActionAid Ireland and the Carers Association. All these groups made very interesting representations and they have their fingers on the pulse of the community. I learned more from listening to them than I could learn from reading any book.
I see potential in the committee structure to make more of an impact on legislation and to give a voice to groups and individuals who do not otherwise have access to the Oireachtas. It is a vital link between representative groups and elected Members. We must continue the policy of openness and transparency which is the key to political reform. This is how we must do business in the Oireachtas from now on.
It is crucial that we completely reject the old mentality of jobs for the boys when it comes to appointing chairmen of committees. Such appointments should be made on the basis of merit and ability with no additional payment involved. Committees become more effective when they use their powers in a constructive way to make good law.
I refer as a good example to the manner in which committees are organised in the European Parliament. They meet twice a month and the public are permitted to table amendments and make proposals for legislation. These committees consider Commission and Council proposals and, if necessary, draw up reports to be presented to the plenary assembly.
I wish to make a particular point on the subject of senior citizens. We must be careful not to abandon or forget most important areas to which we need to give attention and effort. I fully accept the importance of focusing our energies on the economy at present and this is reflected at the Cabinet table. Let us not forget about important areas and interested groups who still need and deserve our attention. One such group very dear to my heart is that of our senior citizens. They were previously represented by a Minister of State with responsibility for older people in the Department of Health and Children, but unfortunately this is no longer the case. Since the announcement of Ministers and Ministers of State, I have been inundated with calls from elderly people and interested groups representing senior citizens who are shocked that they are no longer to be represented by a dedicated Minister of State. This is a major oversight on our part. I fully understand the difficult decisions that had to be taken in forming the Government and creating the Cabinet. However, given that the aging population is facing into a pensions crisis in the years to come, older people’s issues must be represented at the highest level.
With this in mind I am asking for the establishment of a committee dedicated to older people. Older people’s issues come under a wide range of policy areas. I have previously worked on older persons’ issues in the areas of health, long-term care, housing, energy and fuel, pension and income, social welfare support, and abuse of the elderly. These important issues need to be given a platform to be adequately addressed, including, for example, taking the national positive aging strategy in hand to ensure it is fully implemented.
The programme for Government makes important commitments to older people and I know that Fine Gael and our coalition partners are determined to deliver on them. When forming our new committees we need to seize the opportunity to show our senior citizens that they are not forgotten, but are valued and appreciated.
Deputy Brian Lenihan: I welcome that we are having this debate which allows us to make a contribution and intervention on the subject of parliamentary reform in the context of committees. I will comment on a general feature of public debate that I have noticed in much recent commentary and media presentation of politics, where it is suggested that the function of politicians in Dáil and Seanad Éireann is to legislate. A programme recently suggested that our only function is legislation, which is wrong. I accept it is a very important function of this House to enact legislation and it is a power we share with Seanad Éireann, but the Government is elected by Dáil Éireann and is responsible to Dáil Éireann under the Constitution.
As well as the obligation on the Dáil to share with Seanad Éireann the function of acting as a Legislature, it has a separate and equally important function of supervising the work of the Government, which is not acknowledged in much of the commentary on Dáil Éireann taking place at present. That function of the supervision of the work of the Government is especially important in a country like ours, where so much of the business of the State is centralised in the Government. Unlike, for example, in the United Kingdom, our educational services, with the exception of the VECs, are not administered at a local level. The upgrading of a primary school is a central government responsibility as are many other educational responsibilities. We have centralised the management of the health service through the Health Service Executive. We have had a national police force since 1924 in the Free State era. We have never had the tradition of strong county government that exists in the United Kingdom and very false comparisons have been made on the issue.
False conclusions have been reached, some of which are reflected in the programme for Government, firstly in the possible functions of the Seanad. If we are sharing the function of legislation with another House and we also need to supervise a Government that is highly centralised, we need some assistance in the legislative role. I agree that Seanad Éireann as constituted does not do that in an effective way and we need a reformed senate, but whether we need to abolish it I do not believe has been properly considered in the light of the legislative responsibilities that both Houses have at present.
Regarding the supervision of the Government, we have the constant demand to reduce the number of Deputies, which has also been uncritically accepted in the programme for Government. If we do not have a strong tradition of local government service delivery and do not have health, education and justice being delivered at the local level — we certainly see no appetite among local councillors to raise the money to fund these services — and given that we take the responsibility for funding these services when we do our budget here, we therefore should have an adequate number of representatives here to ensure that those services are properly supervised. While this may go against some of the current orthodoxy in the programme for Government, Members in this House will need to reflect very carefully on these changes when we receive the report from a constitutional convention which is not elected by anybody.
Regarding the issue of Oireachtas committees, it is important that we establish the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission as rapidly as possible. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and the late Jim Mitchell were very involved in the committee that recommended its establishment, a recommendation accepted by the then Fianna Fáil-led Government. The purpose of that recommendation was to bring these Houses under an administration of their own separate from the Department of Finance. Were the commission not established, the Department of Finance would have direct control over all matters relating to the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which is not desirable. The commission is important and should be reconstituted.
I accept that there are too many committees given the size of the Houses, a point that is well made. There are committees for administration, which clearly should be part of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. We should have a committee for each Department. If the Taoiseach decides to organise the business of the Government among 14 Ministers, then we should have 14 committees if we are to make the Government accountable to these Houses. My inclination would be that even the scrutiny of European legislation should be done on an individual departmental basis with the relevant committee building up an expertise on the European dimension of that Department. Regarding the Committee of Public Accounts, I would even consider whether the public accounts should be considered in each committee. At present the procedure is that the Estimate is considered by the relevant committee. To complete the circle of financial supervision, as well as the Estimate, the appropriation, the final account and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be considered by the relevant committee.
The one big advantage noticed in the committee system since it expanded in the early 1990s, is that it has given Deputies the capacity and ability to absorb information about individual Departments, which fits in very well for office in the event of them being appointed Ministers in particular Departments. That is a valuable aspect of committees that has not received much comment in this debate. There is a case for a committee to shadow each Minister in a highly specialised way. The committee would deal with that Department’s legislation on Committee Stage, and would deal with the financial administration of the Department through the Estimate and the accounts. It would also have general powers of investigation of the State enterprises and the non-commercial semi-State bodies that might operate under the aegis of a particular Department, as well as calling the Minister to account as I was called to account as Minister for Finance on many occasions before the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. It is appropriate that Ministers should make themselves available to these committees. If the Government is doing its business through 14 separate Ministers and that is the priority the Taoiseach has attached to the business of Government and if this House is to hold the Government to account and make it responsible, the ideal arrangement is to have a committee shadowing each Minister.
We need to have chairmen of committees and various comments have been made as to who should be chairs and who should not be. There should be a proportionate share out of chairs among the Members of the House. If the chair is of the Government interest, the vice chair should come from an Opposition interest and vice versa. That should be agreed at this stage. As long as the chairs are seen as patronage belonging to the Government of the day with a few crumbs for the Opposition parties, I do not believe the committees will be treated with respect. We need to agree a basic rule if we are having this democratic revolution — although I object to the use of the word “revolution”. The people voted at the ballot box not for a revolution but for a profound change. In any event if we are to have this profound change, we need to have a rule that these chairs be rotated or divided in strict proportionality to party strength around the Chamber and that the vice chairs come from the other side of the argument. It has always been said that one of the problems of making an effective committee system work in this House is that the Government has many Members pre-empted in executive office as Ministers and Ministers of State.
Clearly that disadvantage does not apply to this House as the Government has a large majority. Perhaps that will give an opportunity to the Houses to establish a committee system that will have a rational basis, hold the Government to account, allow Deputies to deepen their experience and knowledge of the business of government, provide an effective financial administration and conduct inquiries into the responsibilities of the Government.
I would like to touch on one other matter, that is, the proposal that the Abbeylara decision be reversed. I may be on my own on this issue, even in my own party, and I am expressing a view that may not necessarily be a party view. We have to be careful about it. The reason tribunals of inquiry were established in the first place is because parliamentary inquiries were found to be too biased, prejudiced and partial to conduct an impartial investigation into a matter of historic controversy. There seems to be in some quarters of this House a wish that we resume archaeological digs into various historical matters and equip ourselves with all the legal powers to conduct ourselves as a court of law. We are not a court of law.
This week Deputy Lowry made a strong plea in his defence. We set up a tribunal of inquiry that made findings of fact, which we are bound by. It seems that the passions of politics are not conducive to producing a tribunal of inquiry among its own membership because clearly it will divide along party lines in the finding of fact. One has to find somebody outside the system to determine facts. If we start determining facts we will move very fast to the position that the committee of public safety had in the French Revolution. We cannot have Deputies sitting in judgment on themselves or others when they may have very particular party opinions and passions about the matter under investigation.
It may have worked in the context of an investigation into DIRT and the banks a decade ago. I can testify, as a former Minister for Finance, that banks are most unloved entities and there can be all-party agreement on that. If there is a matter of current political controversy and immediate public interest which a committee of this House should investigate, it would be very difficult to conduct a satisfactory investigation. That said, it is something we could tease out in the months ahead.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I welcome the chance to contribute to this debate on Oireachtas committees. Political reform was one of the key themes of the general election and I know from canvassing in Dún Laoghaire that there is a real desire for change in the way the Oireachtas does its business. On Tuesday the Taoiseach outlined plans to clean up politics by reforming the funding of the political system and how the lobbying process works. I welcome plans to set up an oversight committee, which will scrutinise appointments to semi-State boards and agencies. By doing so these appointments will be open to public scrutiny as they will be on the Official Report of the Oireachtas.
In this spirit of transparency I also welcome plans to televise committee meetings. However, I am cognisant of the fact that if they were televised it could lead to politicians grandstanding and waffling, and thus wasting more time. This would defeat the whole purpose of televising parliamentary business. I appeal to politicians to be direct, clear and concise in their contributions and to stop playing to the gallery in committees and in this Chamber.
As well as making committees more transparent in these straitened times, the public wants to see a serious attempt to make the Oireachtas more efficient, in terms of time and cost. They want to see an increase in the effectiveness of their public representatives. The public does not have the patience for political intrigue and infantile political debate.
A comprehensive reform of the committee system is a good way to go about achieving these efficiencies. I recognise that many Deputies work very hard on committees. A survey of Oireachtas members conducted by the Joint Committee on the Constitution in February 2010 found that committee work accounted for a significant percentage of a Deputy’s workload, at 26%. However, we have had too many committees in operation, something that was perceived to be part of the culture of waste in the Oireachtas. For example the Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion, children and integration only met twice in 2009.
Under the programme for Government, committees will have to be given the power to introduce legislation, ensuring they play a real role in the legislative process. Another major proposal in the programme for Government is the plan to hold a referendum to reverse the effects of the Abbeylara judgment. This will enable Oireachtas committees to carry out intensive investigations with real teeth, which is crucial in terms of giving public representatives a real role in investigating matters of public concern.
We need an Oireachtas committee to investigate the behaviour of our banks. Such a committee will need real powers because we cannot afford another tribunal. Ministers should be compelled to attend and answer questions before committees. Recommendations from a committee should be followed up, adopted or an explanation given as to why they were rejected. This has not happened in the past. Too many reports are gathering dust on shelves in this building.
I am also very aware of the abuse of the committee system which has taken place in the past and I call for an end to it. Too many politicians have been happy to accept payment for membership of a committee but have been less than enthusiastic about their actual attendance at and contribution to it. This is entirely unacceptable and will not wash with a public demanding a change in the culture of politics.
I pledge that should I be fortunate enough to be appointed to an Oireachtas committee I will treat the appointment with the respect it deserves. I will commit myself to attendance at the relevant committee and pledge to make a significant contribution to the best of my ability.
I am very pleased to be able to speak today on making committees work better and more effectively in the 31st Dáil. My experience as a member of the Upper House for the past number of years is that committees can be very worthwhile but unless we give them effective powers and teeth and a real imprimatur then the exercise will be futile. We need to reform committees to reflect that and examine critical areas such as the power to compel.
We need to avoid past instances whereby people were summoned by committees with great intent on the part of the participants on it but were met with a flat refusal to attend. It highlights not just the lack of respect that some figures have for parliamentary democracy but also the frustration of people in terms of how the status quo operates.
As a new Deputy in this House I am committed to the programme for a Government which examines radically reforming how the political system functions. In this context, it is critical that we place high on the list of priorities the committee system. There are a lot of positives about the current system. The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was chaired by the former Deputy, Johnny Brady, was a fine committee. He brought a lot of people on board in terms of ideas. He avoided situations whereby people attempted to engage in the normal combative Government versus Opposition conflict, debate or exchange that may take place in this or the other Chamber. There was a sense of achieving an overall objective, in terms of the work programme. The committee was exceptional in that regard and I pay tribute to the former Deputy for that.
Committee membership also allows individual Members to focus on individual aspects of their work as parliamentarians that may not necessarily be covered by the workings of this House. The committee system is also a very good tool, in terms of ministerial and bureaucratic oversight. It gives us an opportunity to look more effectively and, possibly, more forensically, at issues in a better environment that one would expect might be the case in this House.
The issue in terms of compellability is a good one. There was a disgraceful situation in 2009, when the former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank refused point blank to come to a meeting of the Joint Committee on Economic Regulatory Affairs. Whatever one’s political affiliation or whatever side of the House one is on, everybody made a genuine attempt at bringing people into this committee and trying to establish factual information in terms of what had gone wrong with the system, or even holding them to account for matters within their organisation, and one was again met with that flat rejection.
There was a similar case with the NTMA when there was a question being asked about the remuneration paid to NAMA employees. On that occasion Mr. McDonagh flatly refused to attend. He advised the pay structures for staff in that area were outside of the normal public sector pay terms and conditions. There was also a number of other committees where that was the case. Not only was it bad in terms of how we do our work and the perception of the work of parliamentarians, it was exceptionally frustrating for members of that committee.
The Committee of Public Accounts is a fine example of a committee working effectively. It is an excellent example of the value of compellability, bringing people in, and given its powers, establishing and making public vital information. It was critical when key documents were obtained by the Committee of Public Accounts on correspondence between Government and Merrill Lynch in which the latter advised the former that the blanket guarantee could be a mistake. It is vital that such information, whatever its importance, is brought into a domain like an effective working committee system and debated at length by the members present.
As Deputy Lenihan correctly pointed out, the DIRT inquiry in the 1990s, involving the late Deputy Jim Mitchell and other fine parliamentarians such as the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, was an excellent example of what we can achieve, in terms of vital revenues for the State but also in a cost effective and constructive manner.
On the issue of attendance at parliamentary committees, my experience, as Deputies will know thus far, is that one could be doing 101 different things from early morning, late into the night here. I would not necessarily criticise Deputies for poor attendance rates at committees because there are many other demands on our time when we are here, be they parliamentary party meetings or engaging with groups which want to discuss our various briefs. Our schedules might not always be friendly, allowing, for example, for full attendance at committee meetings. In terms of engaging with the public, the only way we can bring about tangible results in committees is by addressing that sense of disengagement, not only of the public but of us, as Members.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Tá sé tábhachtach sula dtosóimid ag cur coistí nua ar bun sa téarma Dála seo, agus nuair a bheidh an Seanad ann, go bhféachaimid ar choistí i gcoitinne agus conas is féidir athruithe a dhéanamh. Is é sin an príomh rud; mura bhfuil rud ag obair i gceart, caithfear díriú isteach air agus déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil athruithe curtha i bhfeidhm a léireoidh don domhan go bhfuilimid sásta féachaint chun é a athrú agus go bhfuilimid sásta foghlaim ó bhotúin a bhí nó atáá ndéanamh againn.
Sa mhéid sin, aontaím leis an Teachta Lenihan nuair a deir sé gur chóir go mbeadh go leor coistí ann chun gnó na Dála a dhéanamh, ach go háirithe coistí a chuirtear ar bun atá cothrom le líon na Ranna Stáit. Níl mé a rá go bhfuil gá le 15 ceann acu ann ach ba chóir go mbeadh thart ar an méid sin ann dá mbeadh 15 Aire ann.
Níl aon ghá, áfach, le níos mó ná sin. Sa Dáil dheireananch, cuireadh coistí ar bun nach raibh brí nó feidhm ar bith acu. Bhí mise ar cheann acu, the Joint Administration Committee. Bhí obair an choiste sin á déanamh ag Coimisiúin Thithe an Oireachtais, an CCP agus coiste na nAoirí. Bhí ceithre choiste ag déileáil leis an stuif chéanna. Bhí sin tubaisteach mar ní raibh a fhios ag aon duine cé bhí i gceannas sa chás sin.
I began by welcoming the debate on committees. Originally, when the idea was mooted by the Government Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, I stated it would be a waste of a few hours in the Dáil if we had an open-ended debate about committees. Having thought about it since, I think it is important that we discuss the committees. Even though many of the Members have not enjoyed the experience of committee or have not been involved in committees, it is important that we learn from their perception of committees in the Dáil. We always need to learn from our mistakes or, at least, how to do things better.
As I stated, I was a member of quite a number of committees. One of them was the Joint Administration Committee and I explained that it was one of those committees that should not have been established. I was probably one of the most frequent attenders at committee meetings because as a Member from a small party, I was a Whip, I was on the Dáil reform committee, the CPP, the Joint Administration Committee and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny.
I also attended a number of other committees because as it was a small party at the time, I had a number of portfolios and there were a range of committees, for example, the Committee on European Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Defence and Women’s Rights, and Social Protection, which I would attend on a regular basis and, therefore, I had some idea of how each of them worked.
One of my criticisms, for instance, in European affairs, is that the Joint Committee on European Affairs did much of the work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, but also did much of the work of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. There seemed to be an overlap. That might be one of the areas to address, if the Minister is looking at reducing the number of committees. He might look at the area of amalgamating EU affairs and foreign affairs.
Under the Lisbon treaty and under our responsibilities, we need an EU scrutiny committee. In defence of that committee, it is one of the most wide-ranging committees in the Dáil. If anybody has an interest in any area of politics in Ireland and in Europe, that is one of the committees on which to sit. A significant volume of material goes through it.
Chairmen of committees were criticised, sometimes justifiably for their remuneration, which used to be €20,000 and has been reduced to €10,000. However, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny had to travel on a regular basis to committee meetings in Europe of all of the other chairmen so that there was co-ordination and one does not give up easily a weekend every month or two. There is quite a task involved in chairing committees.
I was one who at one stage offered to chair the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women’s Rights free of charge. I would have been honoured, as anybody should be, to take on the role of chairing a committee of this House. It allows a Deputy a greater say in some issues. We should look at whether there is remuneration required at all for committee chairmen.
One of the issues for those who have not attended committees in the past and who have not seen them — especially new Members who have come in here and have seen the adversarial nature of this Chamber where on occasion we score points off each other — is that the nature of committees is much different and much more effective. Obviously, the primary role is to hold the Government to account. Ministers attend, and it can be quite informative, not only for Opposition Deputies but also backbench Deputies. I believe backbench Deputies, in particular, enjoy the committees more because they are not as restricted by the Whip, party or programme for Government as they are sometimes inside this Chamber. It is an area where one can flourish as a Deputy, whether in opposition or as a Government backbencher, because one teases out each line of legislation in contrast to the criticism often made that sometimes we rush legislation in the Chamber especially coming up to Christmas and the summer break. Such legislation is often found to be flawed by the Supreme Court at a later stage. I appeal to the Government to try not to slow down the legislative process but not to rush Committee Stage, because that is where issues are teased out line by line and where mistakes are spotted. Although we were on the opposite side on many occasions in the Chamber and on the justice committee, I and Mr. McDowell, when he was Minister, worked well and constructively together. He was a firm believer in ensuring that legislation could stand up to the highest standard of scrutiny in any court in the future if required.
It is vital for all Members to realise we have a responsibility to the public in this regard and must listen to the people. Committees are very useful in allowing community groups, campaign groups, trade unions, representative groups and concerned citizens and experts to make presentations. I have found these presentations to be most informative. Often, expert knowledge presented before legislation is prepared is vital. This is a mechanism committees should use more often and once they see the heads of a Bill from the Government, they should use the opportunity to invite experts to present to the committee prior to completion of the legislation. A document produced some years ago, entitled Regulating Better, suggested the Government should produce a regulatory impact assessment for all legislation and produce the heads of a Bill early enough for everyone in the Houses and the public to have some idea of what is coming down the track.
There are many other issues. I made a proposal to the Committee on EU Scrutiny that we should make more use of video-conferencing and a pilot study was to be done. I suggested when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was selected as a Commissioner that rather than bringing her before a committee, we should use video-conferencing so that she, or any Commissioner who was presenting, could remain in their office and respond to questions from afar. This facility has not been used properly in the House so far and I would appeal for it to be used as one of the committee rooms has been set up for that purpose. If any Members here are appointed to committees, they should remember this proposal because it is currently buried.
Deputy Alan Farrell: As this is my maiden speech, I take the opportunity to express my appreciation to the electorate in Dublin North and the members of Fine Gael in my constituency who worked tirelessly with me in order to achieve a feat not seen since the days of Nora Owen and John Boland some 25 years ago. It is a profound honour and great privilege to serve as the people’s representative in this House. I also take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on his appointment to this hugely important role in the Thirty-first Dáil.
The reform of the committee system is an element of political reform which is essential if we are to reform properly our parliamentary democracy because for too long the committee system has been used as a method of rewarding political loyalty rather than a tool of a properly functioning parliamentary democracy. It should be an honour and a privilege to be asked to serve on a committee, not something that comes by virtue of political service. Deputies and Senators who sit on committees must be there to effect real change rather than as a reward for political loyalty. Committees should not and cannot exist purely for the sake of it. This is not to detract from the important and significant work performed by some committees over the past number of years, including the Committee of Public Accounts.
The manner in which committees operate must be changed so that they not only operate effectively, but restore public confidence in the political system. The only way this can be achieved is by empowering committees to reform properly the functions for which they were formed and by appointing committee chairpersons and vice chairpersons on merit so that proper oversight of our political processes can take place. Committees are essential in order to investigate issues of public concern in a timely and cost-effective manner. The new structure for committees to be announced in the near future should provide investigative powers to committees to conduct inquiries and their findings should be enforceable in a court of law. These powers should include the power to compel witnesses, question witnesses in full public session and provide reports and recommendations. I support the reduction in the number of committees, as outlined by the Minister, in conjunction with strengthening of committee powers.
In a properly functioning modern democracy, it is essential that the business of government be open to scrutiny and that this scrutiny is not just for the sake of generating headlines. The task of reforming government is immense, but is essential to our democracy. We cannot continue to lumber through a system that is a not a proper service. We must remember that we are here as representatives of the people and tasked with representing their needs. This requires a radical overhaul of our system so as to ensure government works for the people and not itself.
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan: Is mór an onóir domsa a bheith anseo mar Theachta Dála ó Dháilcheantar Luimnigh chun an óráid seo a thabhairt. Seo an chéad uair dom seasamh chun labhairt sa Dáil. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le muintir Luimnigh as ucht an toraidh a thug siad dúinn san olltoghchán. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil go háirithe le mo thuismitheoirí, mo chlann, lucht tacaíochta Fhine Gael, na daoine a thug cabhair dom i rith an toghcháin agus leis an slua a thug a vótaí dom. Táim fíor-bhuíoch dóibh go léir. As this is my first contribution to the House, I take this opportunity to thank the people of County Limerick for the honour they have bestowed on me to be their representative in Dáil Éireann. I also thank my supporters, family and the Fine Gael Party for their help during the election.
It is clear to me from speaking to people in my constituency that there is significant goodwill for the new Government. People throughout the country have genuine hope that the new Taoiseach and Tánaiste and their Ministers will be able to lead Ireland out of the economic wilderness into which their predecessors led us. The programme for Government agreed between the coalition partners provides the cornerstone on which Ireland can restructure itself and rebuild its international credibility. The concept of political reform will be central to rebuilding our economy and restoring trust between politics and the electorate. Having contested the election and listened at the doorsteps to the views expressed by voters, I am delighted the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have put political reform and accountability at the centre of their plans for the future and I welcome the opportunity given to the House today to discuss the effectiveness of Oireachtas committees. Like Deputy Ó Snodaigh, I concur that initially I thought this debate would be a window-dressing exercise. However, the contributions made have been quite effective.
It is clear that during the lifetime of the previous Government, Oireachtas committees were set up to reward backbenchers who had missed out on being appointed to either ministerial or junior ministerial posts. I welcome the proposed reduction in the number of committees so that as a result a real opportunity will be provided to Deputies and Senators to devote quality time to their membership of committees. The reduction in the number of committees is only one part of what is required to make the committee system work. Strong committees are the hallmark of a strong, accountable parliamentary democracy. This was evidenced here during the investigations into DIRT by the Committee of Public Accounts. However, we also have evidence of the weakness of our system. I welcome the commitment of the Government to bring forward a constitutional referendum that will help redress the balance. A previous contributor referred to the patronage element attached to committees and hoped the current Government would not go down that route. I agree. However, given the fact this contributor is the former Minister for Finance, his comments smack of some hypocrisy. The debates in this House over the last few days on the report of the tribunal of inquiry generally did not focus on a key issue, namely, the ineffectiveness, cost, duration and cumbersome nature of the tribunal system. By any stretch of the imagination, 14 years is too long a timespan for issues of public importance to be investigated.
A strong committee system with powers to compel witnesses, arrive at conclusions and make recommendations should be the replacement mechanism for investigating issues of public importance, and we should not be in a position in this House where the establishment of unwieldy tribunals of inquiry are our only recourse to accountability. One of the most important committees that will be established during the lifetime of this Dáil will be that which addresses the collapse of our banking sector and the legacy of the last Administration’s failure to regulate and govern a sector that has caused widespread destruction to our international reputation and our economy, and which has left a scar on families and individuals across our country. Those politicians, officials, bankers and auditors, who continued to give a clean bill of health year after year to the Irish economy and its banking system, must be brought before a properly and constituted public committee and account for their actions and inaction.
The remit of our committee system must be expanded. All bodies, be they Departments, semi-State companies, agencies, authorities, councils or any group in receipt of public finance, regardless of scale, must be compelled to answer questions and be held to account for their actions by Oireachtas committees, if called upon to do so by the Oireachtas committee members. The days of agencies hiding behind a screen where line Ministers absolve themselves of their responsibilities, given to them under our Constitution, must end. Oireachtas committees must be empowered to receive what other functioning democracies take for granted, which is the truth.
I am honoured to represent the people of Limerick in the Dáil and I look forward to working with my constituency colleagues, Deputies Neville and Collins, and with my Government colleagues in providing an effective level of representation in the Dáil. The public are tired of looking at a broken political system that is not delivering to the citizen and the initiative by the Government to ask Deputies to help design an effective committee system is a good first step in reversing that trend.
Deputy Finian McGrath: The message I got from the voters on the ground during the election campaign was about the three “Rs”— reform, reform, reform. As somebody who sat on committees in previous Dáil sessions, I found them to be very important, but there is urgent need for reform. I sat on the Oireachtas committee on justice that dealt with the Disability Bill 2004 and I had the privilege of putting forward amendments to that Bill and getting some of them accepted. I also dealt with the Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings on the justice committee. I found this to be an amazingly detailed and insightful committee, where we learned a lot about that horrific tragedy. We had an opportunity to meet the victims, bring them in and hear their side of the story as well. These committees are important to this debate.
I agree with the Minister when he states that Ireland is unique among parliamentary democracies in having a very weak committee system with very limited powers. I hope the Minister encourages change in this area. I also believe that our committees need to be given more power and responsibility to develop the work of the Parliament. The Minister also mentioned that the committees might introduce legislation, rather than just scrutinise Bills. It is important that such changes be implemented.
We must create a real democracy with accountability at every level in this country. We should cut out the fat. I would be in favour of reforming the Seanad within 12 months into a genuine forum from civic society, but if this does not work, then we should abolish it.
Minister without portfolio (Deputy Brendan Howlin): I thank all Deputies who participated in this short but useful debate. I apologise for not being present throughout, but there were other things happening today that involved Ministers.
I do not want to downplay the importance of this debate in any way. I am very passionate about the role of Parliament. We have not focused enough on the rebalancing of Parliament and the Executive. In the past, many Governments felt that this place was nothing more than a rubberstamp for decisions that were made by the Government, and we need fundamentally to break that view. We need to make this place fit for purpose, able to hold Governments to account and to initiate policy, respecting all mandates in the House. In that way, this side of the House will have no monopoly in either devising or amending legislation, and I hope that good ideas, from whatever quarter, will be welcomed by this Government.
I join you, a Cheann Comhairle, in complimenting those Deputies who used this debate to make their maiden speeches. I thank them for that because it is an important subject. Tús maith leath na h-oibre, and this is only a beginning and an opening of ideas on the changes that need to be made to make this place fit for purpose. I am enthused by the welcome that I discern for the new Government, but also for the enthusiasm for the new crop of Members in this House. There is a willingness to change and not to see everything that was done in the past as the only way of doing things. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water, because there are many good traditions and practices that we need to maintain, but there is much reform that we need to carry out as well.
Let me summarise one or two of the main points that were made. There is a need for committees to be able to inquire. We need to row back the Abbeylara judgment, which I think has been overly interpreted to be more restrictive than the judges intended it to be. Very good work was done by committees such as the DIRT inquiry. I was on the Abbeylara inquiry and I was one of the respondents in the High Court and Supreme Court cases on the matter, when the position of the inquiring power of the Dáil was diminished. We need to push that back.
I agree that membership of committees should be on merit. Appointments to the chairs of committees in the US are based on seniority, but maybe that is not the best thing. Giving more rights to the committee members themselves to determine their own chairs is something I am happy to discuss with my Government colleagues and with the Opposition. We need to reduce the overall number of committees so that people are not running from committee to committee. In the last Dáil we had Members who were on several committees and we had to drag people in to form a quorum to begin meetings. This was just not good enough, so we need a smaller number of better resourced committees with clear, defined functions, and to give them the publicity they need as well. That is why there is an idea of having a committee week every fourth week so that committees meet in the Chamber and the media look at the workings of committees. So much detailed work that was done for months on end on committees went unnoticed when trivial stuff that went on in this Chamber got headlines. We need to break that.
Many important points were made in the debate. Although I was not here for all of it, my officials have made careful note of it and I will undertake to read the transcript of all that was said. We need to continue this spirit of dialogue so that we can have a working committee as the start of reform mechanism, because there are other legislative and constitutional actions we need to take to restore the trust that is broken in the ability of politics and Parliament to do the people’s business effectively. I pledge to play my part to the best of my ability and to be open to every idea that emanates from this House, in order to make this place one of the most effective parliamentary chambers in Europe.
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