Thursday, 2 June 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Deputy Paul Kehoe): I welcome the opportunity to speak on Dáil reform in the Chamber. It is very important not only for this side of the House but for all sides and it has been discussed at a number of Whips’ meetings. We had a similar debate and statements on the committee structure during which I thought some very meaningful contributions were made which we were able to take into account when we established the committee structure.
Radical reform of our system of Government will involve changes at constitutional, political and Dáil level. The programme for Government sets out an ambitious and comprehensive programme for Oireachtas reform. Dáil reform has been an issue which many Governments have discussed over a number of years, but little in the way of reform has actually been achieved. This Government will be different. We propose a radical reform of the way the Dáil operates to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.
The House has two primary functions, namely, to legislate and to scrutinise the work of the Government of the day. The proposals which the Government will put forward for Dáil reform will address both of these. While the Government will play its part in bringing forward appropriate proposals, it will be incumbent on the other parties and all Members in the House and to play their part in reforming and modernising Dáil procedures. Reform of Dáil procedures is essentially one for the House itself which, under the Constitution, has responsibility for making its own rules and Standing Orders.
The programme for Government plans to increase the number of Dáil sitting days by 50%. The length of Dáil breaks at Christmas, Easter, after bank holidays and during the summer will be reduced to help achieve this target. This year, although the Government had only been appointed the previous week, the Dáil met in St. Patrick’s week which has never happened before. This initial statement of intent of the new Government was followed up by the Dáil having a shorter Easter recess and bank holiday breaks being removed. In the weeks to come, we will see the Dáil take a vastly reduced summer recess.
The programme for Government also proposes to introduce a four day sitting week. Friday sittings would be used to take committee reports and Private Members’ business, except where urgent Government business might be required. Friday sittings may also see the use of the Dáil Chamber for committees. This is important as the excellent work carried out by committees is all too often ignored for the more dramatic exchanges that tend to take place in the Dáil. Moving some committee meetings to the Dáil Chamber may help increase the profile of the work they carry out.
The Government is currently in the process of concluding the final touches to the radical reforms that need to be introduced to improve the Oireachtas committee system. The new system will break with the committee system of the previous Government where committees were sidelined instead of being seen as a central working element of the Oireachtas. We will have fewer committees but they will be focused on detailed work programmes. Deputies will be on fewer committees and will have more time to meet the demands and opportunities that the new focused committees will provide.
We will establish an investigations, oversight and petitions committee to provide a channel of consultation and collaboration with the Ombudsman and to manage a new public petitions system for redress of grievances relating to public administration or services. This committee is a new and welcome addition to the committee system.
For the new committee system to work, the committees need to have real functioning powers and a committed membership. The Constitution will be amended to give Oireachtas committees full powers of investigation. The Abbeylara Supreme Court decision currently limits the ability of committees to hold investigations into crucial issues of public concern and we will hold a referendum to correct this. Such a change will see the Oireachtas committees given the powers they need to do the job they are asked to do.
The vast majority of Deputies in all parties and none want to contribute in a meaningful way to the running of this country and serve the Irish people. The radically reformed new committee structure will give Deputies and Senators that opportunity.
The current system of oral and written parliamentary questions will be reformed to meet the needs of Deputies more effectively. The programme for Government proposes to increase the time allocated to oral parliamentary questions but reduce the number of parliamentary questions being submitted to one per Member and the Member must be in Chamber when the parliamentary question is reached but may defer the right to other Members to ask supplementary questions and to give the Ceann Comhairle a role in deciding whether a Minister has failed to provide reasonable information in response to a parliamentary question.
The extensive over-use of the guillotine to ram through non-emergency legislation as in the last Dáil will be cut back so legislation can be debated in full. The over-use of the guillotine in the last Dáil was one of the great frustrations for Deputies of all parties because they were denied the opportunity to have their voices heard on vital issues passing through this House. However, there will be occasions when the guillotine will have to be used. As Chief Whip, I will try to reduce them to a minimum because all legislation should be debated in full and all Deputies should have the opportunity to contribute, whether they are in favour or against the legislation going through the House. Next week we will have to guillotine a Bill and it will be up to the Whips to reach agreement on it, although Deputies opposite may oppose it and push it to a vote.
A petition system to the Dáil will be established similar to that operating in the European Parliament to be managed by a specific committee. The Adjournment debate format will be updated, renamed the topical issue debate and moved to a more suitable time on the Dáil timetable. This new system will allow Deputies to raise issues of concern in the Dáil and to be provided with a more comprehensive reply from the Government. Deputies should be allowed to ask supplementary questions. Under the current system, a Deputy makes a five minute contribution while the Minister gives a five minute reply. There is no provision for a Deputy to ask a supplementary question. It is very important that the current system is totally overhauled and that a Deputy has the opportunity to ask a supplementary question. Members opposite and the party Whips have very strong views on that and it can be worked on.
While the Government will drive the process of Dáil reform, it is a shared responsibility of all the parties in the House. Through their Whips, the parties and the Technical Group have the opportunity to work out common positions on a range of issues, including Dáil reform, with the Government so that as a House we can embrace the idea of Dáil reform in a way that is as far removed from party politics as possible.
I, along with the deputy Chief Whip, Deputy Stagg, have been in discussions with the three Opposition Whips regarding the introduction of a number of wide-ranging Dáil reform proposals. Those discussions have been frank, open and useful. It is clear from them that we have agreement across the political divide on the need for Dáil reform.
The Government wants to work with the Opposition to set out the details of the changes we need to introduce to meet the shared responsibility we have to reform the Dáil. We are determined to see real Dáil reform early in this Dáil and not have a repeat of the past where plans for Dáil reform were discussed for months only to be left sitting on a shelf.
This Government is committed to significantly reducing the size of the Oireachtas. In response to the recent census results, which will be published shortly, the Government will establish a boundary commission which will review the new census and address the issue of the number of Deputies in this House.
When, as leader of the Opposition, the Taoiseach spoke about the abolition of Seanad Éireann, it resulted in much debate not only within the confines of the Oireachtas but outside it. A single Chamber Parliament would create a Parliament that is more effective, efficient and in tune with our democratic ideals. Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand have all abolished their second houses to create single chamber parliaments. When the Taoiseach announced the proposal to abolish the Seanad, there was opposition from other parties but within 18 months, they were all singing from the same hymn sheet. I have no doubt the proposal will be debated in full when the legislation comes before the House in advance of a referendum.
In the course of the contributions from Deputies today, we will see the concept of shared responsibility for Dáil reform embraced in full with suggestions and recommendations and I welcome this. It is nice to see new Members of the House put forward their ideas. I have been a Member of the House for the past nine years and one can get caught up in the runnings of it but it is refreshing to see new Members. If new Members believe there are other ways to have more meaningful debate, I would be very open to their ideas. Today’s statements provide an opportunity for members of political parties and Independents to come forward with their ideas and share them with us. The Whips are a responsible group and we want to put together the best reform proposals. I hope to have a package of reforms ready to change standing orders before the conclusion of this session so they will be up and running when we return after the summer recess.
These changes will ensure a far stronger Parliament where different groups and organisations will be held to account, which they have not been in the past. We have drastically reduced the number of committees. In the last Dáil some Deputies were members of two or three committees. They often had to race from one meeting to another and barely had time to review agendas let alone examine the issues being discussed. They were there for the sake of numbers rather than to enhance the quality of debate. Confining Deputies to membership of one committee means they will have a greater focus on the issues arising in that committee. I look forward to the contributions of Members opposite and on this side of the House with a view to ensuring we have a better debating Chamber.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I thank the Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Deputy Kehoe, for including this issue in today’s business. The other Whips and I have been engaging with the Minister of State on this matter in a constructive way and have had some useful meetings. We might not have met as extensively as may be necessary before these matters are formalised, but we have met with a sense of good will and determination to achieve reform.  We accept the Minister of State’s point that there have been many years of talk of reform but very little delivery. I am sure I speak for the other Whips when I say that we on this side of the House will enthusiastically support the concept of reaching a degree of agreement on this before the summer recess so that some measure of effective reform can be put in place when the House returns in September.
I am mindful that we had a similar debate some weeks ago on the issue of reform of the committee system to which Members on all sides of the House contributed. I regret to observe that very little of what was offered by Members on this side is included in the proposals for a new committee system to be established next week. If this debate is to be meaningful there must be tangible proposals from this side included in whatever package of measures on Dáil reform is eventually agreed.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to a former Government Chief Whip, the late Séamus Brennan, who, on the basis of his 1999 document, A Dáil for the New Millennium, was the last person in that role to achieve any meaningful reform of the Oireachtas. Fianna Fáil has considered the current agenda for changes to the Dáil’s work schedule and we have major concerns about the Government’s intentions. In particular, we are concerned that some of the proposals could seriously damage the practical accountability of the Taoiseach to the House. The reality of three months of the largest Government majority in the history of the Dáil is that the Opposition will be further marginalised and accountability reduced unless significant reforms, especially in respect of parliamentary questions, are implemented. The efforts under way by the Government to transfer, disqualify or ignore questions are a bad omen for the working of this Dáil.
Formal changes in procedures and increased sitting days will only represent reform if the Dáil is dealing with substantive measures and if the Government respects the right of the Opposition both to ask questions and to have them answered comprehensively. The proposal from the Taoiseach and the Chief Whip of having the Dáil sit for 35 weeks per year is something of a sham and a publicity stunt. When one analyses the sittings of the House for the periods 2008-09 and 2009-10, respectively, it is shown that on both occasions it sat for 35 weeks.
We support the intention to increase sitting days but would contend that more could be done on Tuesdays. The Taoiseach has said he is willing to consider moving Cabinet meetings to Monday to enable the Dáil to operate before 2.30 p.m. We have suggested that the topical issue debate, for example, could be dealt with on Tuesday mornings. Equally, it would be possible to have Question Time before lunchtime on Tuesdays, with the Order of Business to be held in the afternoon. This would allow time for more substantive legislative sessions and other business on Tuesday afternoons and evenings.
In January 2006, Fine Gael and the Labour Party issued a joint policy document, A Ten Point Programme to Make the Dáil More Effective — Agreed Proposals by Fine Gael and Labour for Dáil Reform. It states: “Fridays should constitute real sitting days, and should include an Order of Business and Question Time.” I seek clarification from the Minister of State on this matter. Fianna Fáil is supportive of extending the working week to include Fridays but only on the basis that real and meaningful business is transacted. We must not have a situation where we are treated to a series of committee reports. We want to see Question Time and legislation dealt with on Fridays.
Following the debate on committee reform we on this side of the House were chastised for not coming forward with specific proposals. On this occasion, therefore, I propose to outline our specific proposals in regard to the reform agenda. The Order of Business should deal with both future arrangements for sittings and that day’s business. As such, the current rules are appropriate, with one significant change, namely, that any votes on the day’s business should come after, and not before, Deputies have an opportunity to ask about intended business. Standing Order 26 should be amended to reflect this change.
All measures before the House should continue to be amenable to a vote and not limited to a single vote. The existing Standing Orders adequately allow for the Chief Whip to answer questions on Thursdays. Therefore, we do not see the need for any other changes to the duration or rules governing the Order of Business. Where it is not on the Order Paper for that week’s Private Members’ time, a Member should be enabled to withdraw a motion or legislation from the Order Paper at any time and in writing without having to raise it in the Chamber. This will allow for a more up-to-date Tuesday Order Paper.
The constraint which the inappropriate grouping of questions places on Deputies has got so far out of hand that even the Taoiseach has admitted that he should review his actions in this regard. This is particularly an issue where the amount of time available to individual issues is dramatically curtailed by grouping. Standing Order 40 should be amended to require that at least 24 hours’ notice be given to Deputies of any intention to group a question or questions asked by them with three or more questions. In addition, Deputies should have the right to appeal to the Ceann Comhairle against such a grouping where they believe the subject matters addressed in the questions cannot reasonably be related to each other.
Regarding how Ministers answer questions — an issue that is raised in the House all the time — the programme for Government is absolutely clear in its commitment to “introduce a role for the Ceann Comhairle in deciding whether a Minister has failed to provide reasonable information in response to a question”. We object strongly to the Government’s attempt to back out of this commitment, especially given the tactics being used nearly every day to avoid answering questions. Priority questions are an essential tool of accountability and we do not support any amendment to current provisions relating to them. We strongly object to the proposed rule that a Member must be present when a question bearing his or her name is called. This would undermine the effective operation of accountability on the part of Opposition spokespersons and would ignore the impact which other representative business can have on Deputies at short notice.
A new Standing Order should be introduced to the effect that the Ceann Comhairle may rule that a member of the Government has failed to address a clear question asked by a Deputy. We accept it cannot be required that the answer be to the Deputy’s satisfaction, but the subject matter of in order questions must at least be addressed, even where this amounts to a statement by the Minister that he or she does not wish to answer a particular question.
Standing Order 34 should be amended to ensure that a member of Government is accountable for all personal acts as a member of Government rather than those areas where he or she has administrative responsibility. It is unacceptable that the Taoiseach is refusing to answer questions about statements and meetings on the basis that another member of Government has responsibility. Standing Order 35(3) should be amended to remove the limit on repeat questions where a question has been grouped with two or more other questions. Standing Order 35(3) should be amended to reduce the repeat period to one month. If the answer is unchanged this will involve no additional cost but it avoids a situation where Ministers can fail to answer a question properly and the issue is ruled out of order for the following four months. Standing Order 35(6) should be removed as an unreasonable limit on the ability of Deputies to get direct answers to serious issues if those issues are being dealt with by way of debates at the same time. Standing Order 42 should be amended to add the words “or matters raised during the course of the reply of the member of government” after “information requested”. This will formally acknowledge the right of Deputies to respond when a member of Government raises side issues in replies.
We strongly oppose moving away from the holding of two separate sessions for questions to the Taoiseach. The experience from the United Kingdom is that this has led to a major diminution of the accountability of the Prime Minister. The more fundamental issue is not reducing the sessions but ensuring the Taoiseach shows some commitment to answering the questions asked. Standing Order 37 should be amended so Members may request that any matter not reached at the end of questions to the Taoiseach on Wednesday be answered in writing. We do not support other changes in this area. In line with the proposed change to Standing Order 34, the Taoiseach should cease transferring questions that directly relate to his official actions.
Private Members’ time should continue to have a reasonable priority in scheduling. We do not support moving its start times any later than the current arrangement. Given that Government is entitled to bring matters to a vote after less than three hours of debate, the Opposition should be entitled to bring up separate matters on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, providing that a motion be required before a matter is brought to a vote following less than three hours’ debate. Where a motion or Bill is handled in this way, speaking slots should be adjusted to ensure fair speaking opportunities on both evenings.
We strongly support the move from the traditional Adjournment debate to having debates on topical issues in the Chamber. We had some useful engagement with the Government Chief Whip and the other Whips on how this might be handled. We have submitted proposals in this regard. These topical issues should be dealt with on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It is essential that the relevant Ministers are present in the Chamber to address these matters. We will seek assurances from the Government that this will take place. We concur with the outline of how this will be dealt with — five minutes for the question, a five-minute response and supplementary questions for three minutes.
We support a longer and more productive working week. We want to see reform and we are agreed in principle that agreement must be reached before the summer recess so the measures can be introduced in September. Having reached agreement on a set of initial reforms, the option should exist for Whips, parties and Members to participate in a review of the amended arrangements after six months. We can then evaluate how effective the arrangements are and whether they provide the opportunity for this House to be more workmanlike, productive and effective.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuilimid ag labhairt faoin gceist ríthábhachtach seo. Ba chóir dúinn a chinntiú go n-oibríonn an Dáil chomh héifeachtach agus is féidir. Mar pharlaiminteoirí, ba cheart dúinn an méid ama atá againn a úsáid chomh héifeachtach aguis is féidir. Ba cheart dúinn déileáil leis an Rialtas chun an obair atá os ár gcomhair a dhéanamh i gceart agus mar is cóir. Bhí díospóireacht spéisiúil againn aréir ar rún mar gheall ar leasú a dhéanamh ar an tslí ina bhfuil an Dáil á reáchtáil againn. Nochtaítear roinnt tuaírimí spéisiúla. Cé gur ait liom fós go raibh an rún os ár gcomhair, glacaim gur thug sé deis dúinn am a chaitheamh ag déileáil leis an gceist seo. Tá a lán rudaí ann.
B’fhéidir nach dtuigeann roinnt de na Teachtaí nua conas go díreach a oibríonn an Dáil ina iomlán agus conas atá am na Dála leagtha amach. B’fhéidir go bhfuil míthuiscint orthu maidir leis an tslí ina ritheann an Dáil. Nuair a toghadh mé don chéad uair i 2002, shíl mé go raibh na rialacha agus an tslí ina leagadh amach obair na Dála ait. Cosúil le go leor daoine eile, cheap mé gur chóir go mbeadh Teachtaí in ann teacht isteach sa Dáil agus an méid gur mian leo — nach mór — a rá ar chuile ábhar a thagann os comhair an Tí. Tar éis tamaill, d’aithin mé go raibh sé de chead ag na 165 Comhalta eile labhairt ar gach ábhar freisin. Thuig mé go raibh gá dá réir, an tam a roinnt go cóir. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil ról ag na hAoirí agus an fáth gur chuir mé i gcoinne an rúin a mhol an Grúpa Teicniúil aréir. Bhí na Teachtaí sa ghrúpa sin ag iarraidh fáil réidh leis an gcóras Aoire atá againn. Is é sin an fáth go raibh mé ina choinne.  Tá bealaí ina féidir linn athruithe a dhéanamh ionas go mbeimid níos éifeachtaí sa ról atá againn agus go mbeadh an Dáil níos éifeachtaí sa ról atá aige.
Measaim gur chóir dúinn díriú ar an méid ama a suíonn an Dáil. Aontaím gur chóir cur leis. Molaim gur cheart dúinn suí maidin Dé Máirt, seachas teacht anseo ar an Aoine. Tá an chuid is mó den phobal ag rá nach bhfuil seachtain iomlán oibre á dhéanamh againn. Táéileamh i measc an phobail go suífeadh an Teach seo ó Luain go hAoine. Tá an dream ceanann céanna ag iarraidh go mbeadh Teachtaí Dála ar fáil ina dháilcheantair féin maidin, tráthnóna nó oíche. Bíonn siad ag gearán nuair nach ndéanaim freastal ar chruinnithe poiblí sa cheantar nó déileáil leis na grúpaíáitiúla. Caithfidh tuiscint níos mó a bheith ag daoine ar an dá thrá atáá fhreastal ag Teachtaí Dála. Tá ról amháin againn ag déileáil le reachtaíocht agus an Rialtas, agus ról eile ag déileáil leis an bpobal a thogh sinn. Aontaím gur chóir níos mó a dhéanamh chun fáil réidh le clientelism.
É sin ráite, caithfimid déileáil le grúpaí, comhlachtaí, lobby groups agus gach uile duine go háitiúil agus go náisiúnta. Tá an ról sin againn mar Theachtaí Dála. Muna ndéanfaimid an plé sin le grúpaí agus leis an ghnáthphobal, beimid istigh i bubble anseo agus ní bheimid i dtiúin leis an méid atáá rá lasmuigh. Caithfear am a thabhairt dúinn le haghaidh sin. Má táimid chun suí anseo cúig lá sa tseachtain, déanfar gearradh isteach ar an ról sin go háirithe. Tá sééasca dom os rud é go bhfuil cónaí orm i mBaile Átha Cliath. Is féidir liom teacht isteach anseo ó mo dáilcheantar i leathuair a’ chloig. Caitheann daoine eile sé uair a’ chloig ag taisteal anseo agus sé uair a’ chloig ag dul abhaile arís. Caithfimid bheith an-chúramach gan praiseach iomlán a dhéanamh de. Ní chóir go dtiocfadh dream iomlán nua isteach anseo ag gach toghchán toisc nach raibh na Teachtaí a bhí in áit in ann déileála leis an méid a bhí ag tarlú ina dháilcheantair agus lasmuigh den Dáil.
Impím ar an Rialtas, má tá an méid ama a suíonn an Dáil le méadú, é a dhéanamh sa tréimhse ina bhfuilimid ag suí cheana féin. Ba chóir dúinn cur leis an am a suíonn an Teach seo ar an Máirt. Más gá dúinn suí níos déanaí ar an Mháirt, an Céadaoin nó fiú an Déardaoin, in ainneoin go bhfuil clann againn, ba cheart é sin a dhéanamh seachas bheith ag teacht anseo ar an Luan nó an Aoine, ach amháin i gcás éigeandála.
We would come here on a Monday or Friday only in an emergency, which could arise every now and again. In the main we would extend the time we sit on a Tuesday to allow for debates on reports and other issues which should be discussed in the House but which do not require every Member, the Cabinet or the Taoiseach to be present. Time must be set aside to debate many of the urgent reports and inquiries which have been commissioned by this House. Some of the work can be done on a Tuesday morning without cutting into the time allocated for Cabinet meetings, etc.
A number of good suggestions have been made over the years on changing the Dáil and making more effective use of its time. Currently, all amendments to Bills likely to lead to a charge on the Exchequer are automatically ruled out of order, although some may be beneficial rather than costing the State money. As an Opposition we cannot put forward such amendments, although we might hope that a Minister would welcome the suggestion. Given the times we live in, we should look again at the restriction on the Opposition. We should be able to make reasonable suggestions for amendments to legislation, even if they involve financing.
Teachta Ó Feargháil mentioned the debating of topical issues and moving the Adjournment debates to an earlier time. I fear that if that happens we will end up with key spokespersons jumping on this opportunity to highlight major issues. Currently, matters on the Adjournment deal with national or, more likely, local issues requiring a ministerial response. When debates on topical issues are introduced, they should not become an extension of Leaders’ Questions involving key spokespersons.
Some changes can look good on paper but after a while they might replicate some of the problems we have already. For example, there is a suggestion of having 30-second questions in the slot currently used for matters raised under Standing Order 32. Every morning a number of Deputies propose to adjourn the Dáil under Standing Order 32 to deal with issues. Perhaps those ten minutes could be used for asking 30-second questions. That would allow ten topics to be discussed very rapidly.
The following reform issue has been discussed for the nine years in which I have been a Member. How do we make the various bodies to which power has been ceded accountable to the Oireachtas? They are called quangos by some people but how can we make them answerable through parliamentary questions in some format? We must draft legislation dealing with the matter, and it would not be beyond the abilities of those formulating legislation to deal with the issue quite quickly. It would be a good result of Dáil reform if we could make the various quangos accountable to the Parliament. They are required to be responsive to the Dáil but they should be more responsive than just issuing an annual report or visiting a relevant committee once a year.
I apologise for missing the contribution of the Government Chief Whip as I was with a delegation visiting the site of the national monument at Moore Street. I hope this Government will extend, secure, refurbish and redevelop the monument appropriately in time for the 2016 commemoration. I understand the Chief Whip referred to the overuse of guillotines to ram through non-emergency legislation in the Dáil. The use of guillotines to ram through any legislation, even emergency legislation, should be resisted as much as possible. Nevertheless, we will see next week the first use of a guillotine since the Government was formed. I urge the Government and the Chief Whip in particular to avoid such action. If that means extending sittings to accommodate as many people as possible and having more time shared between Members, so be it. That would be more appropriate than using a guillotine.
Over the years legislation has been produced quickly and rushed through the Houses. Next week we are to have a social welfare Bill that has not yet been published. I have argued time and again here that there is a danger of rushed legislation returning to haunt the Government. I urge the Government to provide at least two weeks, as it has in the past, for Deputies to peruse and properly examine legislation in order to ensure it is effective. As Deputies we should be able to ensure legislation is correct. That job of work is before us.
I mentioned in last night’s debate the booklet entitled Regulating Better, which the Government should consider to see if the regulatory impact assessments can be carried out prior to the publication of legislation. When the heads of some Bills in the last Dáil were prepared, they were sent to committee so there could be hearings. That was a useful tool and the legislation emerged at the end of the process, when the time was taken by the Department to put the heads before a committee and there was a discussion. Such legislation was often much better than examples produced in the orthodox way, meaning it could go through the Dáil much more quickly as time was taken to examine the issue in detail. I urge the Government to consider publishing the heads of a Bill when agreed by the Cabinet so we can begin the discussion. That allows us carry out our work and help the Government see where mistakes are likely to appear.
There were other interesting proposals for reform in the last Dáil. One idea looked to ensure that the Taoiseach would be accountable to the Dáil. There are various views on this and once a new Government takes office, it is normally more protective of the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach should be accountable to the Dáil on any day that it sits, even if that is from Monday to Friday. He should be present in the Dáil as much as the other Deputies, despite his different role.
One of my proposals to make Taoiseach’s Questions more relevant is to require written answers to any questions that remain unanswered at the end of the week. This would mean new questions could be raised the following week rather than allowing questions to remain tabled for several weeks. At present, questions can be out of date by the time they are reached, which makes for a stale debate. My proposal would speed up the process as well as ensure questions are more topical.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I will start on a positive note by welcoming the Government’s response to some of the concerns expressed by the Technical Group and others regarding its initial proposals on Dáil reform. The Minister of State outlined substantial improvements to his initial proposals on Dáil business and there appears to be a genuine willingness on the part of the Government to take on board our suggestions. The topical issues slots that are proposed to replace the Adjournment debate are welcome, as is the fact that they will be scheduled reasonably early in the day. It is hoped these debates will bring more vibrancy and topicality to our business and perhaps end some of the frustration Deputies can feel when they try to raise topical issues on the Order of Business. I also welcome the reversal of the Government’s initial decision to cut back on the period of time during which the Taoiseach will be available for questions in the Dáil. It is critical that the Taoiseach continues to be accountable to the public through this House.
Question and answer sessions should be routinely included before the conclusion of debates on legislation and topical issues. A number of Deputies have pointed out that debates often follow a model which involves set statements and a relatively small number of Members in the House at any time. The Minister is often not present to hear the questions raised during the course of the debate. While this is inevitable in the context of a debate that continues over several sessions, it would be useful to conclude with question and answer sessions so that Deputies could directly interact with the Minister.
In the context of yesterday’s debate on the Private Members’ motion on political reform, I suggested that we should loosen what is allowed during the Order of Business in terms of asking about future schedules for the Dáil and requests for debates. The rules on the Order of Business are restrictive and it becomes a circus with Deputies trying to negotiate their way around the strictures.
The Government’s proposals represent improvements which should make this a better and more responsive Chamber for debate and allow us to raise topical issues. Credit where credit is due for this, although the Technical Group should take some of the credit for putting forward this week’s Private Members’ motion on political reform. Even though the Government chose to delete the motion and replace it with its own programme for reform, it nonetheless appears that some of the points we raised were taken on board.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: We also made submissions in the documents we circulated. It does not matter, however, because the important outcome will be the genuine improvements that can be made. A long way remains to be travelled in terms of real political and Dáil reform.
Even if it would not be popular in this Chamber, an initiative to address the question of politicians’ pay would receive the support of the majority of people in this country. Much of the alienation the public feels about the political system arises from the perception that politicians live in a different world from those they purport to represent.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I support reducing it and that is why I am raising the issue now. Members of the United Left Alliance have volunteered to take only the average industrial wage and the rest of the money goes into the campaigns, issues and organisations with which we are involved. We did not make this decision because we are saints or martyrs but because putting politicians in the same situation as the majority is the best way to make them truly representative of society. It puts them in a position in which the decisions they make on increasing taxes or cutting pay will affect them as well as others. Politicians would thus have a vested interest in championing the interest of the majority rather than the current situation, where their pay is closer to the wealthier sections of society and, despite the best intentions that may exist in the heads of individual public representatives, their material reality puts them out of touch with ordinary working people.
This proposal is more relevant than ever at a time when savage austerity is being imposed on ordinary working families and the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. The austerity measures mean they are struggling to make ends meet and are threatened with an impossible financial burden. Politicians would think twice about the policies of austerity and cutbacks if they were in the same financial boat. Although I doubt the majority of Members of this House would consider following the example of the United Left Alliance of reducing salaries to the average industrial wage, the salaries of Deputies, Ministers and the Taoiseach are high compared to our European counterparts or most other public representatives elsewhere in the world. We should consider reducing politicians’ pay by a substantial amount in order that it is more in line with that of ordinary people in our society.
I would counterpose that proposal with the Government’s proposal to reduce the number of Deputies. As Deputy Pringle pointed out yesterday, parliamentary representation in Ireland is on a par other European countries. In other words, the number of public representatives per head of population is the same as most European countries. The notion that we have too many is not the problem and, therefore, reducing the number of Deputies is not the way forward. It would be better to cut pay and put us in the same material position as those we represent rather than cut the number of Members.
I congratulate the Government on moving to abolish the Seanad. That would be a positive move because it is an elitist institution. The notion that we would have a second tier of government based on an elitist electorate with the majority of our society excluded from voting is obnoxious to any democratic sentiment or impulse. The abolition of the Seanad is welcome and long overdue. However, while this would be a positive move, we need other democratic tiers to oversee the Dáil. This also relates in a way to local government. Most people accept powers must be devolved, whenever possible, to the lowest level of society in order that ordinary citizens can participate as much as possible in decisions affecting them and we can move away from a centralised political system.
I propose that we seek to develop a second tier of democracy, different from the Seanad, which is genuinely representative of all sectors of society. Groups such as We the Citizens point in this direction with its proposals for citizen assemblies. However, we could formalise and institutionalise that notion with citizen assemblies taking place locally and having representatives from all sectors of the community, including trades unions, students, workplaces, young people, pensioners and people with disabilities. They could, in turn, elect people to higher bodies at regional and national level. Representatives of those assemblies would not be professional politicians but they would be directly accountable and recallable.
There would not be, therefore, set terms of four or five years where they could get elected on the basis of saying one thing and then implementing or pursuing different policies once they were elected regardless of what they said to people when they were seeking their votes. The fact that politicians will say one thing at election time to secure votes and, shortly afterwards, do things differently once they are in office is a sore point for people. We need a mechanism of accountability and recallability for both representatives of citizen assemblies and sectoral-based assemblies at local, regional and national level and Oireachtas Members. We should be subject to the same terms if we fail to implement the promises on which we were elected.
While all the proposals made by the Government, myself and others during this week’s Private Member’s business and this debate could be positive, they are meaningless in the context of the bigger issue facing the country. Shifting deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind. By signing up to the IMF-EU package, we have handed over our democracy. No matter what is debated in the House or any other institution we seek to create, it will be undermined and negated by the fact the EU and the IMF are dictating policy to the Government to pay back the bankers and speculators who caused the economy to crash. Although I expect the call will fall on deaf ears, even at this stage I urge the Government to think again about tying us into a deal that is fundamentally undermining and destroying our democracy by handing control of policy and economic policy, in particular, over to people representing bankers and speculators rather than the ordinary citizens of this country.
This is my maiden speech and I hope the Chair will indulge me with a few thanks. I wish to thank the people of Laois-Offaly for electing me to represent them. It is an honour and privilege to be here. My husband, Seamus, my children, Evan and Rebecca, my extended family, friends and campaign team and all who contributed so much to my success and that of Fine Gael are all in my thoughts today. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the 31st Dáil across all parties and none in the years to come with energy, enthusiasm and optimism. In this House, we are united with one goal in mind. We want to help make Ireland a better place for our people even if we do not agree on the means to do it.
Ireland faces many challenges, including how to manage our finances, how to get more of our people working, how to ensure equal access to our services for all especially for people with disabilities, the elderly and the vulnerable, how to ensure that our rural economy is supported, how to combat crime and how to maintain a thriving arts sector. There are further needs in Laois-Offaly, for example, how to reduce the numbers of those who die by suicide, how to sustain our manufacturing industries, how to manage our peat lands and forests, how to control our waterways to minimise flooding, how to increase our uptake in third level education and how to deal with unfinished estates. I look forward to finding solutions to these problems in the coming years.
This debate deals with one of the means of finding those solutions, namely, Government and Oireachtas reform. Such reform is needed to strengthen our democracy and I would like to address one key area for reform — increasing women’s participation in politics. I have been an advocate for many years for the introduction of quotas to address the remarkable lack of women in the House. We are at the bottom of the EU league table and 84th in the world ranking of women in parliament. I have always believed that we cannot be a true democracy if we fail to take positive action to ensure women can influence debate and become part of our decision-making process.
I very much welcome the announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government that he intends to produce a Bill for Cabinet approval which will see political parties lose half their State funding if they do not put measures in place to run a minimum of 30% women candidates in the next general election, increasing to 40% after seven years. It is a shame we have had to go the legislative route and that this has not happened voluntarily. We, however, cannot avoid the fact that in 2007, 17% of total number of candidates running in the general election were women and that dropped to just 15% this year. In my constituency, I was the only female among 21 candidates.
It is my sincere hope that not only will political parties achieve the 30% minimum of female candidates but will also develop strategies to ensure that female candidates will be selected to contest winnable seats. A female candidate has as good a chance of getting elected as a male candidate if she is a good candidate contesting a winnable seat. There are sincere people who are convinced that we do not need quotas. However, I appeal to them to give quotas a chance to work. It has been proven internationally that quotas work. For example, following the introduction of gender quotas, Sweden now has 46.4% female parliamentarians and South Africa has 44.5% female parliamentarians.
By now it is well established that the long working hours in political life are not family friendly. Those in many other careers face a similar problem. Perhaps we should lead by example in trying to achieve a work-life balance for both male and female Oireachtas Members. As I look around I see many parents of young children who are trying to meet that challenge. We will find solutions to the issue in examining the organisation of the Dáil and its workings. I urge the Government to address this area in the context of the overall reform package in addition to the many positive initiatives already announced.
Deputy Paschal Donohoe: I challenge the point made by Deputy Boyd Barrett that our participation in the IMF-EU plan is destroying democracy and has removed our sovereignty. I note that he qualified the remark towards the end of his contribution. The IMF and EU are not dictating to us what the rights of children should be. They are not dictating to us how we should organise and run our schools and hospitals. Neither are they dictating what our response should be to the killing of Osama bin Laden. They are a variety of themes and issues that also form a vibrant and important part of our sovereignty. There is no doubt that the economic element of sovereignty has been compromised, but there are still areas within which the Government can make decisions on what it wants to do. On many other social aspects of our sovereignty — some of the areas to which Deputy Corcoran Kennedy referred at the start of her contribution — an elected Government still decides what those decisions are and those issues still matter very much to the people whom it serves.
The nation is facing up to an array of challenges, some of the biggest problems the 21st century is capable of producing. Despite that, we are working with a 19th century state in terms of the institutions we have. This morning when we voted on the Order of Business I looked up at the Visitors Gallery. A number of schoolchildren were visiting, all clad in uniform and looking with interest at what we were discussing and how we were voting. Reform of the Dáil and other institutions of State is essential not only to the future prosperity of those schoolchildren but also to securing their interest in politics and gaining an understanding of how it works. The overhaul of the institutions in the Dáil so that it matches up to contemporary life and its challenges is essential not only to our future prosperity but also to the interest people have in politics and to their continuing to give consent to being governed by us.
I wish to make a number of practical suggestions on Dáil reform. They come under two areas, first, how the institutions and the Dáil work and, second, how the Dáil and our work in it is perceived. The point has been made continually about our involvement in the budgetary process. Members of the Opposition will have good ideas about how the economy should be conducted and operated just as when we were in opposition we had Members with good ideas too. The power and oversight is concentrated on the Government side of the House. The lack of oversight and ability of Members of both Houses to contribute to the budgetary process and the oversight of it is an important element in contributing to the collapse we are trying to get out of now. The Government has proposals on a fiscal council, the overhaul of the budgetary process and the role of committees that are hugely important to the future and must be implemented promptly during this term of office.
The second point relates to the interaction of the Dáil with regulators. One topical example of the problem relates to my experience as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport in the previous term. The taxi regulator was regularly invited before the committee. Questions were often asked about the existence of a €30 million surplus in its bank account and the operation of its agency. However, one television programme has got more prompt action from the regulator than hours of hearings in an Oireachtas committee with all the main executives in attendance. That shows the weakness of the committee system in engaging with such people. We must find a way of strengthening that system vis-à-vis the various regulators who affect all aspects of our lives.
One aspect of the operation of the committee system gives me cause for concern. I refer to the proposal for a referendum on the Abbeylara judgment. That must be done. I hope the people will consent to the referendum being passed. One of the things it would do is confer upon the committee system and the Dáil structure powers that are quasi-judicial. We must put great care into how those powers are exercised. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to speak on the matter. The implementation of the programme of Dáil reform is vital to the success of this term in the House.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: In the previous general election the public voted in large numbers for both Labour and Fine Gael who are now the Government parties. They have promised us real reform. I look forward to engaging with the process also with my colleagues in the Technical Group and all Opposition parties.
Not much zeal is evident for reform at present. It is difficult to get meaningful answers in the House or to have meaningful discussions and the approach to business is restrictive. A number of practices are totally archaic. One such practice is the raising of matters under section 32 requiring the suspension of Standing Orders to discuss an issue of national importance. Whether there is one matter or three or four the Ceann Comhairle — whom I would not dare to criticise — rejects them all. That has been the case with previous incumbents also. It is tokenism at the very least to be allowed to raise an issue but one does not get a response. That is a poor situation. The same is true of Adjournment debates. I pick these examples by way of illustration. Again, they are pretty meaningless because the answer is prepared before one speaks on the matter. One cannot have any debate or discourse on the matter. One puts one’s case in five minutes and the reply takes approximately five minutes also. One is not allowed to ask for clarification.
In his speech the Minister of State referred to radical reform of the system of government which would involve changes at constitutional and political level. That is all fine and dandy but we will wait until we see it. The number of committees is to be cut. I compliment my Whip, Deputy Catherine Murphy, on the job she is doing. It appears from the list of committees that the Opposition will only get a pittance. If there was serious intent on behalf of the Government it would show goodwill and at least offer a number of committee Chairs, other important positions and more places to the Opposition because of the Government’s significant majority. It already has a huge majority in the Dáil, but will also have a majority on most of the committees.
While there is good debate in committees, the outcome will always be the same while the Government has a majority. It could, therefore, allow for a slimmer majority and allow more Opposition Deputies be involved in committees in which they have an interest. I understand the number of committees is being reduced but the number of committee members has increased. The Government should allow for that or we will not get real reform.
The public voted for a significant change, but they are becoming disenchanted because they are not getting that change. The previous speaker on the Government side mentioned the economic policies of the previous Government and the ideas that people on this side of the House had at the time, but those ideas were not sought. There is no change this time. Our ideas are not sought and we are not allowed to have a good debate on the issues. Our Whip had a document this morning which mentioned a proposed change for Tuesday mornings, which would allow time for topical issues to be raised. That is a necessary change. The current system is archaic in that we cannot raise issues of national or significant local importance.
Last night I submitted a motion for debate on the Adjournment today on the closure of a viable post office in Bansha, County Tipperary. This is a huge issue because the post office there serves a huge hinterland. Other rural post offices have closed in the past and many of their customers use the Bansha post office. However, I have been told again today by the Office of the Ceann Comhairle that the Minister has no responsibility for An Post. The current Government promised it would get rid of that type of response. When it was in Opposition, we had a situation where the Minister with responsibility for health would not answer any question on health. Any questions submitted got the response that the Minister had no responsibility for the HSE. We were promised a change in that regard.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: I accept that. The party in Government, of which I was a part, set it up, before I was a Member. However, Fine Gael promised the system would be changed, but we have just changed seats here. Fine Gael has moved across the House and is carrying on the same old policy, with some cosmetic changes. It stood down the board of the HSE, but that is all. We could see that the other night when the Minister was being grilled on television on the inadequacies of the HSE. There are glaring inadequacies and there is no accountability. I accept it was my former colleague, now Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Micheál Martin, who set it up, but it was a cop-out. The same is true for the National Roads Authority. However, I did not realise that the policy whereby the Minister has no responsibility in matters applied to An Post. Somebody must have responsibility. Our democratically elected Government and Opposition must be accountable to the House. We must return to that situation.
It is because of the lack of accountability that people are withdrawing from the political process. That is the reason too that meetings of We the Citizens are taking place around the country. I attended a briefing with that group last week with some colleagues. The people are disenchanted and that is the reason there was such a low turnout in the elections. We had a quiet revolution here, unlike in other parts of the world. People went into the election booths with their pencils and showed us what they wanted. They showed in no uncertain terms they wanted to get rid of the previous Government and wanted a change. They voted for change, but my concern is that they are not getting the change that was promised. That is the problem with making promises.
I have said that the Government parties need not have made any promises because they would have got in anyway. However, promises on policy were made and we were reminded of some of those promises this morning. I am not singling out this Government as previous Governments also made promises. The party of which I was a member made many promises. We now have a sophisticated electorate which can see the situation for what it is and realise when people are not being level and fair with them. The same is true of what is happening here. For example, on Europe Day the Dáil sat here on a Monday. I did not attend that day. I noted from the Minister’s speech that it is proposed we sit more days, Mondays and Fridays and maybe Saturdays. If we are to sit more often, we must be doing meaningful work. There is no point in just being here as a token gesture. I have been told by colleagues that the debate on Europe Day was a token debate and there was no real discussion. There would be no point in coming up from Tipperary or whatever part of the country one represents just for that. Any extra sitting days must involve real, responsible, lively and healthy debate and discourse. That is what we need. Therefore, I welcome the suggestion of talks about talks regarding the topical issues to be raised on Tuesday mornings from 12 noon. That would be a good reform.
We should have more ready access to legal advice. We have immunity here to say what we feel like saying, but there are many issues with legal connotations and the advice should be available to deal with them. The same should happen with regard to county councils. When I was on the county council, the same legal adviser who advised management also advised the members. That is a farce. We need serious reform at that level also. As it is, if members of the council want advice, they get the same advice as management gets. The adviser cannot give different advice to both and members are told that if they want legal advice of their own, they must pay for it. That is unfair and no county council can operate that way.
I have many years’ experience of working in the party system and was in the previous Dáil for three and a half years. Therefore, I understand the Whip system. It is draconian, as the new Government will find as time goes on and the Whip is tested. I realise the system is necessary but there are flaws in it and changes are needed. I enjoy the situation with regard to the Technical Group. We debate and discuss issues, but we can vote any way we want. There is freedom in that, which is a new experience for me. It is good to have that liberty. Deputies on the Government side may smile, but I am sure some of them will be without the Whip before very long.
Deputy Brendan Griffin: As a new Deputy, I am still getting to know the procedures of the Dáil. Therefore, my contribution may be both negative and positive. I can contribute positively by offering a fresh outlook, but the negative side of it is that I have less than three months’ experience here. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue and welcome the healthy mix of contributions so far from both new and more experienced Deputies.
I worked in a Deputy’s office for a couple of years before becoming a Deputy, but since I was elected I have been struck by the huge amount of constituency work required of a Deputy. I am not complaining about this and my staff and I are very happy to assist any constituents who approach us with issues important to them. However, the work to be done curtails the amount of time a Deputy can spend on legislative and parliamentary work. We need to create a more general awareness of the work required of a parliamentarian and that more appropriate to other levels of government. It is not always possible politically to do that when approached by a constituent given that Deputies are in the privileged and honoured position to be able to assist the person. It is, however, something that needs to be looked at generally. There should be greater awareness of who does what and at what level. This would help give parliamentarians more time to focus on their specific work.
This is an issue that should be looked at. The case could be made that it is a matter for electoral reform. If we are to talk about Dáil reform, there must also be electoral reform to ensure that if reforms are put in place parliamentarians will have the time to engage more in Parliament.
One of the greatest tools we have as Deputies is the facility to table parliamentary questions, which is a great opportunity for Deputies to obtain fairly comprehensive information most of the time from Ministers on most topics. Unfortunately many of the parliamentary questions submitted relate to inquiries about individual entitlements and payments. That has been assisted by the establishment of information lines through various Departments. However, Deputies spend considerable time assisting with queries that really should be addressed by Departments and there should be no need for the constituent to approach the Deputy on such matters. This area needs to be rectified so that parliamentary questions can be kept for the more appropriate areas, for which they were originally designed.
Regarding oral questions, I believe that after priority questions are taken, answers should not be read in respect of questions submitted by Deputies who are not in the Chamber and the Minister should skip on to the next question submitted by a Deputy who is present. The skipped questions could then be answered in writing, which would encourage greater attendance for Question Time and would reward those Deputies who show an interest in attending the Chamber. It would also give a Deputy a chance to engage with a Minister on an issue of specific importance to that particular Deputy and would reduce the risk of losing out on questioning opportunity that applies with the current lottery system.
In the three months since my election I have had no experience of working on committees and so am limited in what I can say on the issue. However, a number of constituents have asked why committee chairmen receive payment on top of their salaries. Many people to whom I have spoken feel that serving as chair of a committee should be a privilege and should not require additional payment. This should be considered in the future.
Regarding the Whip system, I am conscious of the person behind whom I am standing. There is a strong argument for considering not applying the Whip on some issues that do not relate to financial issues or the election of Government. This would lead to a stronger democracy and would be a more pure form of representation. The system works well most of the time at local authority level and if it were introduced here, it might lead to a stronger Parliament.
I hope we can have a discussion on electoral reform soon. Many of the aspects of our work are impacted upon greatly by our electoral system and the impact of any Dáil reform would be greatly reduced unless it is coupled with electoral reform.
Deputy John Paul Phelan: I thank Deputy Griffin for sharing his time. Having only been a Member of this House for a few weeks, it may seem a bit cheeky to be talking about Dáil reform. However, the procedures that operate in this House are in need of radical overhaul and I look forward to the new Government doing so. There are three levels of reform that I would like to see introduced, namely, reform of the electoral system, reform of how the Oireachtas processes legislation and reform to make the Oireachtas and in particular this Chamber more relevant to matters of immediate national concern by allowing people to raise topical issues on a daily basis. Under our current system, the Whip is very strong. I have no problem with either the Government Whip or the Deputy Government Whip, but like the previous speaker I believe there are certain matters on which it should be up to the discretion of Members to make their own judgment in a freer fashion.
The current system does not allow input by Government backbench or Opposition Deputies and inevitably Deputies find themselves fulfilling the role they are able to perform, which invariably involves dealing with a considerable amount of constituency work. It is an important role of any public representative. A Member of the Dáil is not just a legislator but also has a role as a Deputy and is here to represent the people in his or her constituency who are not here. While that is an important function, it should not form the majority of the work of any Deputy.
There is a strong need to reform how we elect Members of this House. For a long time I have felt that the multi-seat constituency system is not conducive to electing the best people to Dáil Éireann. As someone who has been both elected and defeated by that system, I feel it is in need of radical reform. I do not know if the Government has made any specific proposals on that area. I believe it has rightly proposed reducing the number of Deputies. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has spoken about giving renewed and additional powers to local government which might result in a more efficient delivery of local services with less need for constituents to contact national representatives on local issues, which I welcome.
The media pays much attention to the amount of time the Dáil sits, which does not make much sense to me. We could sit every day of the week and not perform properly or correctly. The procedures to be adopted in the House could make things much more efficient and give a meaningful role to Deputies on all sides of the House rather than just considering it in the very rough measure of the number of days the Dáil sits. I welcome the Government’s commitment to reforming the committee system and to introducing a referendum to extend the powers of committees to compel people to come before them.
During debates there is a need for more interaction between Members, including people giving way and having real questioning of Ministers and questioning of people’s ideas. I do not see that at present and when reform again comes to the top of the agenda I hope that the Whip will be able to implement that.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I act as the Whip for the Technical Group, which a bit of a misnomer because the Technical Group is just that and is a way of facilitating a very diverse group and not about whipping people into line or telling them how to vote, which would not be possible with the particular group considering the diversity it contains. However, it does not mean we cannot work together. The idea that diversity equals conflict is nonsense — if anything it gives strength. I believe we will play a strong role in the Dáil in coming years. My role is simply one of facilitation and co-ordination and perhaps we need to find a new term for it.
Everybody here believes there is a need for Dáil reform and wider political reform. While that means different things to different people, it was very strongly articulated on the doorsteps during the general election campaign. We all have different ideas about what that means and how to improve the working of the Dáil. I believe that localism can be a strength in its rightful place, but it is not in its rightful place when there is too much localism at national level.
Without local government reform, there will be no Dáil reform. We are not playing to our strengths. The structure of our local government system does not allow for proper local engagement in respect of identity. The system must not only be reformed, it must be reformed radically. I refer to the abolition of many institutions, including county councils, for example, and having district and regional tiers that could act as a counterbalance to the Dáil in the way that the Seanad was supposed to act as such. It could become part of that arrangement.
I was a Member of the Dáil between 2005 and 2007. I lost my seat in 2007 and, therefore, watched the crash from the outside. I, as with all Members, was aware that people were in serious trouble worrying about how they would keep a roof over their heads. From the outset, I was watching a Punch and Judy show taking place. People were not getting a night’s sleep, which was outrageous. This is still the case today. We must change the culture in the House to reflect the culture outside if we are to address the disconnect between civil society and the Oireachtas.
This morning the Visitors Gallery was full with very well-behaved schoolchildren. While I am not saying Members should behave all the time and be kept in a nice, neat little box, I believe the Order of Business is no example for people in the Visitors Gallery, including schoolchildren. We must seriously do something about this. Over recent weeks, I have been watching rule-breaking by Members and their efforts to make a contribution. This is largely because there is no proper opportunity to make one. Typically, a disproportionate number of males break the rules in the House. In parliaments that have changed their gender balance, the culture has changed. There is an advantage to this and we should regard it as positive. I am quite supportive of the Government’s initiative in this regard.
I accept change will occur in the Dáil in an incremental way and that there will be no radical change in ten or 12 weeks. We need a master plan, however, and to follow best practice in other countries. This morning I was at a meeting with the Chief Whip and assistant Whip. There is some engagement on a range of matters with a view to making a start. In his speech the Chief Whip referred to the new Oireachtas committee which will deal with radical reform. We want to see radical reform and not tinkering at the edges. I am concerned that what will be delivered in the first round of Dáil reform will be all that is delivered. We need a master plan to know what the system will be like at the end of the process so that we can genuinely hold the Executive to account.
The Government side of the House is very big and I sometimes believe it is more a case of the Government holding the Opposition to account than the Government backbenchers and Opposition holding the Government to account. There is more criticism of this side of the House than there is engagement regarding the constitutional obligation of both Government and Opposition backbenchers to hold the Executive to account.
I agree with those Members who referred to the misuse of the guillotine. We must avoid this as much as possible. It should be used only in exceptional circumstances because using it represents bad practice. It does not allow for the scrutiny required and it comes back to haunt in most cases. There are certainly unintended consequences.
The legislation pertaining to the holding of State bodies to account, including the Environmental Protection Agency, HSE and National Roads Authority, has a very significant flaw. I have not seen exactly how change will occur in this regard and would like to hear realistic proposals. Too many functions have been outsourced that should be under the control of the Government.
Members should be in the Chamber to hear answers to their oral questions. The vast majority of Technical Group Members believe this should be the case. Many parliamentary questions for written response pertain to things that do not work. It should be a matter of fixing these problems so citizens will not have to go to a Member of the Oireachtas to resolve issues they should be able to resolve themselves.
I very much welcome the proposal on topical debates. This will make a difference and it will be interesting to see what happens in this regard from the autumn. We do not favour the imposition of limits on the Order of Business because, if there are votes, the allocated time could be very limited. This point has been made at meetings with the Chief Whip.
Given the considerable size of the Government side, there should be parity of representation by Government and Opposition Members on committees, particularly committees such as the Committee of Public Accounts. If an Opposition Member is Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts and if the committee’s function is to hold the Government to account, there should be equal representation, although I understand matters tend not be decided by way of vote. Equal representation would act as a safeguard. The proposed membership of committees does not suggest this will occur. That is a serious mistake. I ask the Government to take another look at this. The imbalance in representation is a flaw to which we should not agree.
I want to refer briefly to remarks made by Deputy Donnelly during the debate on Dáil reform last night. He, a fresher Deputy only a wet day in the House, made derogatory personal remarks about me, which has never happened to me in the 24 years I have served here. It is probably one of the many flashes in the pan I have seen in my time here. As a fresher or rookie, Deputy Donnelly would be expected to have some respect for other Members of the House and, if not for them, at least for the people who sent us here. Perhaps he will reflect on that.
I join the Chief Whip, Deputy Paul Kehoe, in welcoming the ongoing consultative process. It is not just about the mechanics of the way the Dáil operates on a day to day basis but much wider reform of the institutions and procedures for making the decisions required, and this debate is part of that process.
This is a legislative assembly and not a debating society. Its time is divided into periods where the Government is kept to account by means of questions to Ministers and to the Taoiseach, and also by Adjournment debates and three hours per week of Private Members’ time. The balance of the time is Government time during which legislation is debated and decided upon. How to make better use of that time to both legislate and keep the Executive to account is a task we are undertaking. I believe there is a large measure of goodwill on all sides of the House to achieve that objective. The Government reform programme outlined last night by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, is the main stimulus for the project we are undertaking.
I will briefly touch again on an issue I raised last night, that is, the power of quangos and what we have done with the power of this House in regard to quangos. There is a specific undertaking in the programme for Government that this will be dealt with in the form of making the quangos responsible to this House through the Ministers under whose remit they come. In other words, Members will be able to ask questions of Ministers who have quangos under their remit and get replies. Currently, that is not the position.
A huge tranche of power has been transferred out of this House and out of the power of the people to faceless people who are not accountable to the people in any real sense. That has reduced and diluted democracy when the real power in democracy is the power to ask a question and get an answer. That has been removed from us in a very large area where previously we could ask questions but we can no longer do so because they are not allowed. I welcome the fact that there is some move to bring that power back into the Chamber.
On the ordinary workday in the Dáil, real changes are necessary to keep the Executive to account and enable us to legislate effectively. The taking of new topical issues early in the day, referred to previously, with supplementary questions is a major change from the old system of Adjournment debates where a Minister of State would come in with a sheaf of replies prepared by civil servants that Ministers never saw and read them out to the House. That is a travesty of parliamentary procedure.
There is no doubt that the Order of Business is a shambles. It is a shambles because there is no proper procedure for ordinary Members of the House to raise current issues and they then try to find a means through the Order of Business to attach it to legislation to get it mentioned. That was an ineffective way of doing it but it was out of order. We must find a means by which Members can raise current issues that arise on the day, and not just by way of pre-notice, and get some form of responsible reply from Government. That is important. This issue has been raised already by a number of Deputies.
Question Time is dominated by the spokespersons for the groups. That is not true of the Technical Group but of the Opposition parties. It is dominated by them and abused by them in so far as they put in the maximum number of questions which are then all taken in the name of the spokesperson. That is not a satisfactory system for parliamentary questions. Deputy Wallace mentioned that in the debate last night and I strongly support him in that regard.
We should have a system — all Deputies have said this — whereby if a parliamentary question is put down in one’s name and one is not in the House when that question is reached, it moves on to the next question. The situation should not arise where one Member of the House can take 15, 20 or 30 questions and beat the lottery by doing so in that he or she puts down the maximum number of questions and they are sure to come out of the lottery.
Raising matters under Standing Order 32, which we see abused as well, is meant only for national crises but again Members are using it because there is no system available to them to raise current issues. That should be changed. There should be a requirement for Standing Order 32 motions to have at least five Members signing them before they are raised.
On the question Deputy Catherine Murphy raised about a master plan, those of us on this side of the House have no excess amount of intelligence or knowledge about how to do that. If she can come up with a good master plan I ask her to produce it as quickly as she can and we will all examine it. We might be able to implement bits of it and put it together as a jigsaw but we have no special amount of expertise to do that no more than the Members opposite. Perhaps we can all work together on that. The process in which we are involved allows us to do that.
I refer to local government reform which is a prominent part of the Government reform programme. Local government in Ireland is a misnomer. We do not have local government, we have local administration by a system of highly paid managers and directors of service. Managers are paid about the same salary as a Minister and the programme managers are paid more than Deputies.
In Kildare we have a manager and eight programme managers. We have engineers coming out of our ears, so to speak. We have engineers for everything in Kildare and when they want to do something they hire consultants to tell them what to do. One group of engineers is involved in monitoring the consultants when they are doing their work and another group is involved in interpreting the consultants’ work.
Deputy Emmet Stagg: It is like a lunatic asylum but there is no power in that system available to the Members who are elected. I would like to see a major change in that regard. Such major change is provided for in the programme for Government.
The management system at local government has been a failure and the power will be transferred from the manager to the people we elect. The people we elect are the people who should have power. If they need expert advice in the form of engineers they can hire that but the people who have the power to make the decisions should be the people who are elected.
In my constituency it is much easier to get an interview with the Taoiseach than with the director of services or planning. It is not possible to get a meeting with senior officials on the council. It is a disgrace that they have been handed that amount of power without any type of check on them whatsoever.
It is about time that we revert to real democracy at local level and give power back to the people through the representatives they elect. I was taken with Deputy Catherine Murphy’s idea of district and regional councils. It is worthy of examination. We must take the power at that level away from nameless, inaccessible, unelected power brokers from the county manager down.
Deputy Stephen Donnelly: I have been listening for the past two days to both the Private Members’ motion debate and this debate this morning. What strikes me most is a genuine desire on all sides of the House for change, both the recognition that the system fundamentally does not work and a real desire to see it change. As I stated yesterday, I welcome many of the Government’s proposals and agree wholeheartedly with Deputy Stagg on the extraordinary situation in local government whereby the elected officials seem to be blocked out of a great deal of substantive decision making.
I wish to make some observations. In my previous role before coming to this House I was involved a great deal in transformational change, and particularly in cultural change. Much of the debate in the past two days has been to do with changing the rules. There has been a great deal of agreement on the outcomes and the changes we want to see brought about.
From my own experience in cultural change and looking at evidence around the world, as I said previously, most major change programmes fail. One of the reasons they fail is because people agree on the outcomes and some of the working practices or behaviours that need to change, but often that is where change programmes tend to stop. They do not get down to the next level which drives the practices and the behaviours, namely, the mindsets.
I would like to give an example of this in respect of the free vote. Let us say the House decides we would like to address the concentration of power in the Executive by allowing a limited number of free votes. Several Deputies on the Government side have said they would love to have the Whip removed on occasions. Let us say the Government parties agree and allow free votes for the next three votes. At this stage it is important to address the mindsets. The current mindset for a Member on the Government side who does not vote along Government lines is that the Chief Whip will call on that Member’s office and he or she might be in a lot of trouble. If a free vote is allowed from time to time but that is still the mindset, then nothing will change because everyone will still vote according to the Whip. If we could change the mindset so a Government backbencher felt he or she was expected also to hold the Cabinet to account and to bring in new ideas, and if we allow the free vote, then we will begin to get a shift in the outcomes. I encourage the Minister of State to think about that. I would be delighted to sit down and talk about various places where I have seen this work.
Part of addressing the change in culture is in respect of role models. One theory of change states that in order for me to change my behaviour, four things need to be true. I need to agree with the change being asked of me. I need to be incentivised to make that change. I need to be capable of making that change. I need to see significant others being role models for that change. The research shows that role modelling is more important than the other three elements combined. I encourage the Minister of State and his colleagues to think about how important their actions are in driving real cultural change in the Oireachtas. An example already mentioned today is in respect of the committees. The number and make up of the committees was essentially provided as a fait accompli. If that kind of activity happens, in spite of all the talk about working practices, it is very hard to change culture and get genuine reform.
During the week, the Taoiseach was asked repeatedly about the analysis on the impact of the pension levy. He refused to answer the question several times. He was then asked if he could at least tell the House whether he received any analysis. Again he refused to answer the question. He may have good reasons for doing that, but in terms of role modelling, it tells us that the Government will not really hold itself accountable and answer what seem to be reasonable questions.
There is much to welcome. Everybody seems to agree on committee effectiveness. It looks like there will be a referendum on introducing compulsory powers for committees. We will get committee input into legislation at an earlier stage. I would love the Minister of State to consider how early that happens. Recommendations I have seen suggest that committees should have input before the legislation is drafted so they can explain the objectives and the spirit of the legislation to the people who are developing the detailed policy. I would love to see this recommendation carried out.
The introduction of topical issues is fantastic. There has been some acceptance around the House that it would be advantageous to introduce ministerial questions and answers on any legislation that a given Minister is introducing, rather than just the rota of the day.
We need to have regulatory impact analyses. The Government would bring it in and Members of the Oireachtas would be able to submit comments and counter proposals. Policy makers and the Cabinet would then come back having addressed each of the proposals. It is a very effective mechanism to improve policy and to create real accountability. I would also like to see a legal advisory capacity. It seems to be one of the areas in which there is a bit of a blind spot for those of us outside the Cabinet, which of course has the Attorney General. I believe former Deputy Gay Mitchell made a recommendation on Oireachtas reform that the Opposition would have access to a high quality legal advisory capacity. For example, I would love to sit down with some experienced lawyers and talk through the bondholder payments and ask whether this transfer of money from private Irish individuals to foreign private investors is legal.
These are my suggestions. I would be happy to sit down with the Minister of State or anybody else to talk through the mindsets, the cultural change and the things that underpin real sustainable change. I wish the Minister of State well and I absolutely believe in his desire to make this a much better functioning House.
Deputy Paudie Coffey: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on Dáil reform, especially as a new Deputy. We all recognise that Dáil Éireann is a reflection of Irish society and every Member elected to this House is charged with electoral responsibilities to reflect the views of those we represent, but also to make decisions in the interests of the greater good of this country. As a new Deputy, one of my biggest challenges is to find adequate time for speaking slots, in spite of the co-operation of the Chief Whip. There is difficulty in trying to get adequate slots on the various debates. Through shared time and other mechanisms, we will have to try to improve this so that every Deputy, from all parties and none, will have the opportunity to express his or her views. Most new Deputies are already finding new ways to maximise their impact in the Dáil. There are other fora and platforms that will assist in this process.
The most important thing is that Dáil Éireann is accountable to the people it represents. It must also be very transparent in its workings. It is essential that democratically elected parliamentarians of whatever hue are taken seriously by the Government and by the Civil Service, so that all views are taken on board. We heard during the last Dáil that we would not have the Punch and Judy show anymore, but I can recall at the time that the only show in town was about resolving the banking crisis. If there was proper engagement and if the Government of the day listened to the Opposition then we would not be in the economic mess we are in today.
Ministers and elected parliamentarians need to take power back from the various executives that have been set up over the last few years. Many powers of the elected Members have been ceded to the various executives. There was recent controversy with the HSE’s fair deal, where taxpayers’ money allocated in a vote under one heading was spent in other areas. That creates a problem when the Minister for Health tries to explain how the HSE has mishandled the issue, even though authority has been ceded to the HSE by a previous Minister and Government. I fully support the current Minister’s effort to reconnect the Department of Health with the HSE across many areas. In the longer term, when time and re-organisation permits, I will support his effort to restructure the HSE. The Minister for Health should be the accountable person for how public funds are spent in health areas.
Another example is the National Roads Authority. It has done magnificent work over recent years and we can see that in the motorways, highways and byways. If I table a parliamentary question to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, as I have done in the past, for example, about the lack of services on the motorway between Waterford and Dublin, the Minister is excluded from responding to my query which is referred to the NRA. We need to bring the executive authorities of these bodies back to Dáil Éireann and make them properly accountable to the Minister.
I agree with much of what Deputy Stagg said about the need for reform not only in Dáil Éireann but also in the political system generally. We were talking about proposals to abolish the Seanad. In New Zealand, two new legislative stages were introduced to substitute for the loss of the second House. We need to consider all those options in order that any legislation that passes through the Chamber is subjected to proper and full scrutiny.
We need to be careful, when we are reforming, that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We must not undermine democratic accountability. In fact, we need to enhance it. The committee system is an excellent way of doing this. I make the point to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, that as soon as the committees are established and working, the sooner we can have real engagement in developing policy based on proposals from all parties, the better it will be for Government and society.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I am pleased to support the plans in the programme for Government for Dáil reform, particularly the concept of refocusing power on the Dáil itself. The Executive has held the balance of power for far too long, resulting in a lack of transparency and accountability in our legislative work. However, the type of reform I am interested in is seeing more women in the Dáil Chamber. The current figures are damning. There are only 25 women elected in the current Dáil. Women represent half the population yet make up only 15% of this Parliament. Female representation in Dáil Éireann has never before exceeded14%. Unsurprisingly, Ireland is performing very badly in world terms. Based on the 30th Dáil, Ireland ranked joint 85th in the world, with Cameroon, in terms of female representation in Parliament. Believe it or not, Rwanda, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan ranked ahead of us, countries about which we have concerns in terms of women’s rights.
There are many complicated reasons for the low numbers of women in politics. It is worth noting, however, that it is not due to a general failure on the part of women candidates to be elected. The real problem is persuading women to become election candidates in the first place. Only 15% of the candidates in the recent general election were women, an increase of 2% on the last election in 2007. The debate on whether this is the result of a reluctance on the part of women to get involved in politics or a reluctance on the part of political parties to put them forward for election is ongoing. The last Oireachtas subcommittee on women’s participation in politics conducted extensive research into the barriers to female participation, and named as the main obstacles the five Cs — child care, cash, culture, confidence and the candidate selection process.
Claiming Our Future, an Irish organisation devoted to equality issues, found that of the €15 million in State funding to political parties, only 3% is devoted to promoting women’s participation in politics. It seems the only way to encourage parties to get serious about this issue is to hit them where it hurts — in their pockets. I am delighted, therefore, at the recent proposals to halve State funding to political parties if they do not meet the new requirement to ensure that at least 30% of their candidates in the next general election are women.
I recognise that gender quotas are not the complete solution to this problem as they cannot work in isolation. Reform of the political culture in this country is just as important. The Minister’s proposal is a good start, but it deals only with the candidate selection process. What are we doing to change the culture? We must implement real cultural change in politics and in the Dáil. Women find the arguing and shouting of male politicians very off-putting. Many of my constituents made this point very strongly when I was canvassing in the Dún Laoghaire constituency. Women are interested in getting the job done, not talking or shouting about the problem. There is also the issue of child care. There is no doubt that women are still the main carers of children in Irish society. The working hours of the Irish Parliament are not family-friendly, and I call for this to be considered when the Dáil reform Bill goes through the Houses.
The theme of the recent election was change. Many people were seeking a change in terms of which party holds the purse strings and makes the economic decisions. However, we also need radical change in our political institutions and culture. Let us hope this election has marked a real change in the prospects for women in Irish politics.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Cuireann sé fíor áthas orm deis a bheith agam cúpla rud a rá faoi na leasaithe atá molta ag an Rialtas maidir le feidhmiú na Dála. Tá roinnt leasaithe go bhfuil mé ina bhfábhar agus cuid eile go bhfuil mé go mór ina n-aghaidh. Tá cuid eile gur mhaith liom tuilleadh macnamh a dhéanamh orthu.
Tá dearcadh coitianta thart gurb é an t-aon rud atá tábhachtach ná go gcuirfimís leis an méid ama a shuíonn an Dáil. Feicim go leor contúirtí ag baint leis seo. Mar shampla, iad siúd atá díograiseach faoi obair na Dála, fanfaidh siad anseo. Ag an am gcéanna, beidh deis ag Teachtaí Dála imeacht abhaile — daoine nach bhfuil ceangailte do pháirtí ar bith nó fiú taobh istigh des na páirtithe — agus a bheith ag déanamh obair dháilcheantair an fhaid is atá daoine díograiseacha ag plé le hobair na Dála agus le hobair na gcoistí. Tá mé cinnte go dtuigeann an t-Aire Stáit an contúirt a bhaineann leis sin agus an brú a chuirfeadh sé orthu siúd atá díograiseach faoina gcuid oibre.
Tá rud eile atá thar a bheith aisteach faoin moladh seo: suí Dé hAoine agus breis uaireanta i rith na seachtaine, agus níos lú ama le caitheamh sa dháilcheantar nó sa bhaile. Ceann des na torthaí a bheidh leis sin ná go mbeidh sé níos deacra agus níos deacra dos na daoine atá i bhfad ó bhaile feidhmiú sa Dáil. Mar a dúirt an Teachta a bhí ag caint romham — thaitneodh sé nó nach dtaitneodh sé liom — titeann go leor de chúram leanaí ar mhná. Smaoiníonn daoine i gcónaí ar na naíonáin, ach nuair a thagann leanaí do aois a ceathair nó a cúig agus nuair a thosaíonn siad ar an scoil, ní féidir an páiste a thabhairt go Baile Átha Cliath. Más rud é go bhfuil Teachtaí Dála thuas i mBaile Átha Cliath Dé Máirt, Dé Céadaoin, Déardaoin agus Dé hAoine, chiallódh sé go mbeadh ar dhaoine an baile a fhágail, agus gasúir óga sa bhaile, agus ceithre lá a chaitheamh thuas anseo. Tá go leor daoine nach mbeadh sásta an íobairt sin a dhéanamh, agus tuigim dóibh. Fiú ar mo thaobh féin, bhí mé i gcónaí sásta nár éirigh liom fáil tofa do cheachtar de dhá Theach an Oireachtais go dtí go raibh na gasúir beagáinín fásta. Dá mba rud é go raibh mé thuas anseo ceithre lá den tseachtain ag an am sin, chaillfinn amach go leor ar shaol óg na ngasúr.
Caithfimid an-mhachnamh a dhéanamh air seo. Go minic, nuair a bhíonn plé air seo bíonn daoine i mBaile Átha Cliath ag caint ar uaireanta níos giorra. Is é ba mhaith le muintir Bhaile Átha Cliath, agus tuigim dóibh mar is as Baile Átha Cliath mé, go dtosódh an Dáil ag a naoi agus go gcríochnódh sé ag a cúig. B’fhearr le muintir na tuaithe go mbeadh an tseachtain níos giorra agus na laethanta níos faide mar is í an fhadhb atá acu siúd go bhfuil siad as baile an t-am ar fad a mbíonn an Dáil ag suí. Teastaíonn tuillleadh plé ar an gceist seo.
Tagaim go hiomlán leis an smaoineamh go mbeadh níos lú coistí ann. Bhí mé ag rá le blianta fada go raibh i bhfad an iomarca coistí. Tacaím leis an moladh sin. Tá súil agam go bhfeidhmeoidh na coistí níos fearr. Nuair a bhínn istigh ag coistí mar Aire is minic a chonaic mé an rud a bhíodh ag tarlú. Thosaíodh an coiste le deichniúr i láthair agus faoi cheann tamaillín bhig ní bhíodh fágtha ach urlabhraithe na bpáirtithe, triúr nó ceathrar ar a mhéid. Ní shin an chaoi cheart le coiste a oibriú. Má tá coiste ann, ba cheart go mbeadh tinreamh iomlán ann ó thús go deireadh. Mar a dúirt mé arú aréir ag caint sa Dáil, tá an iomarca buntáiste sa Dáil seo dóibh siúd atá ag iarraidh an soundbite. Níl dóthain bhuntáiste ann dóibh siúd atá ag iarraidh an obair a dhéanamh.
Maidir leis an leasú bunreachtúil atá molta i gcás Abbeylara, caithfimid bheith cúramach. Ba mhaith liom go mbeadh deis fiosrúcháin cheart a dhéanamh, níl aon fhadhb agam leis sin, ach má táimid ag cur milleáin ar dhaoine ainmnithe, caithfimid smaoineamh gur polaiteoirí sinn agus go bhfuil dearcaidh pholaitiúla léirithe againn taobh amuigh den Teach agus gur idir dhá rud atá an fhírinne sa scéal seo agus go bhfuil ceart ag daoine bheith cinnte nach ndéanfar rud a chur ina leith faoi phribhléid an Tí seo gan chosaint cheart a thógáil san áireamh gur polaiteoirí sinn agus gurb éár ngnóthaí dearcadh polaitiúil a thabhairt isteach sa Teach seo.
B’iomaí rud, áfach, gur cheart go mbeimis in ann a dhéanamh. Bhí mise ag moladh le gairid go ndéanaimid fiosrúchán iomlán ar na téarmaí atá ann maidir le dul ag tóraíocht ola amach ón gcósta. Caithfimid an cheist seo a scrúdú ach d’fhéadfaimis dul thar fóir ar an dtaobh eile.
Tá mé an-tógtha leis na smaointe atá ann maidir leis na ceisteanna parlaiminte ach ba mhaith liom dul níos faide fiú. Aontaím go hiomlán mar iar-Aire go raibh sé craiceáilte 100 ceist a bheith thíos agus gan sinn ag freagairt ach 15 acu agus am na Státseirbhíse curtha i leataobh ag freagairt na gceisteanna sin ar fad. Tá mionrud anseo is ansiúd gur cheart a leasú ach tacaím leis an chur chuige ginearálta. Tá mé i bhfabhar go gcaithfí breis ama le ceisteanna ach ba cheart ceisteanna a chur i bhfad níos minice ná mar a dhéantar sa Pharlaimint seo. Ní thuigim cén fáth go gcaithfimid fanacht cúig seachtaine mar go minic bíonn scéalta briste imithe fuar sula n-éiríonn linn iad a phlé anseo agus pléitear ag na meáin iad i bhfad sula bpléitear anseo iad. Bhí mé an-tugtha le córas a chonaic mé ag feidhmiú i bParlaimint Cheanada. Nuair a bhí tráth na gceist ann bhí sraith Airí ar fáil, mar atá anseo ag Ceisteanna na gCeannairí, cúpla lá sa tseachtain agus ba cheart dúinn breathnú air sin.
Tagaim go hiomlán leis an rud a dúradh maidir le Madame Guillotine a bhíodh in úsáid anseo. Rinne mé iarracht mar Aire gan dul i muinín an ghilitín nuair a bhí mé in ann agus tá súil agam go n-éireoidh leis an Rialtas nua é a sheachaint, go mór mór ar Chéim an Choiste. Le bheith fírinneach, tá an-iomarca ama caite ar an Dara Chéim de Bhillí agus ní chaitear a dhótháin ama ar Chéim an Choiste nó ar Chéim na Tuarascála de Bhillí nuair a bhíonn brú ama ann. Sin iad an dá chéim is tábhachtaí de Bhille mar is ansin a dhéantar cinneadh ar na focail a dhéanfaidh breitheamh breithiúnas orthu.
Maidir leis na moltaí faoin Athló, arís tá súil agam go dtógfar iad ag am tráthúil den lá. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach go mbeidh deis freagraí a fháil go gasta ar rudaí. Tugaim faoi deara le gairid, áfach, go bhfuil Airí ag déanamh fógraí móra faoin rud atá le tarlú agus áirím anseo é ar Riar na hOibre agus an Ceann Comhairle ag tabhairt amach dom go bhfuil mé ag cur an iomarca ceisteanna. Is é an bhuncheist atá agam ná an bhféadfaimis na mórcheisteanna go mbeimis ar fad á bplé sna meáin a phlé sa Teach seo ag an am atá siad ag tarlú. Níl aon mhaith a rá go bpléifimid iad faoi cheann ceithre nó cuig seachtaine mar faoin am sin bíonn an scéal imithe agus na cinntí déanta. Ba cheart breathnú ar an gceist sin agus féachaint an bhfuil aon bhealach gur féidir a chinntí go bléifear na ceisteanna anseo.
Admhaím go raibh Rialtais ann, agus Rialtais ina raibh mise, ró-chosantach faoin gceist seo. Go pearsanta, áfach, bhí mé i gcónaí ag tairscint rudaí mar seo a phlé mar chreid mé sa rud a bhí mé ag déanamh agus níor shíl mé go raibh cúis ar bith nach dtiocfainn isteach chun scéal a mhíniú mar bheadh sé i bhfad ní ba éasca é a mhíniú in áit structúrtha mar seo ná a bheith ag iarraidh plé in áit nach raibh struchtúr leis an díospóireacht agus nach raibh tuiscint ag daoine ar na srianta atá le hAirí mar atá go ginearálta ag polaiteoirí. Ba cheart go mbeadh deis ceisteanna a thagann aníos ó sheachtain go seachtain a phlé gach seachtain sa Dáil agus níor cheart go mbeadh sin teoranta do Private Members’ Business.
Tá caint anseo ar líon na dTeachtaí Dála a laghdú. Tá iontas an tsaoil orm go bhfuil Teachta Dála agus Taoiseach as Maigh Eo ag moladh go laghdófar líon na dTeachtaí Dála. Tá a fhios ag an Taoiseach féin go dtogfadh sé dhá uair an chloig go leith tiomáint ó cheann amháin dá dháilcheantar go dtí an ceann eile. Má dhéantar na dáilcheantair níos mó beidh Sligeach agus Maigh Eo le chéile agus ní bheidh aon bhealach ag na Teachtaí Dála freastal ar an méid sin daoine. Cé a chaillfidh amach? Na daoine ar an imeall, na daoine atá i bhfad ón bhaile. Tá codanna de dháilcheantair ann cheana féin nach dtéann TD ann mar níl an daonra sách tiúbh ná sách mór. Má tá an Rialtas ag dul an bhealaigh seo, caithfidh sé a chinntiú agus a leagan síos gur toghcheantair le trí shuíochán a bheidh sna dáilcheantair ar fad. Níl aon chiall le toghcheantair le cúig shuíochán tuaithe agus ceantair mhóra millteanacha iad, agus ag ceapadh go mbeidh sin ar leas an phobail. Rud amháin a bhí go maith sa pholaitíocht in Éirinn ná go raibh deis ag an bpobal fáil ar Theachtaí Dála. Má dhéantar na hathruithe seo, ní bheidh fáil sna ceantair i bhfad ón bhaile ar na Teachtaí Dála agus beidh éagóir á dhéanamh ar chuid den phobal is laige agus is leochailí dá bhfuil ann.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I wish to respond to points I heard made in the debate earlier. Deputies John Paul Phelan and Brendan Griffin spoke about the need to couple Dáil reform with reform of the electoral system and I fundamentally disagree with this. The point needs to be repeated again and again that any electoral system other than PR-STV in multi-seat constituencies would give the voter in Ireland less say. Single seat constituencies would favour the larger parties and would be a case of winner takes all; it is not much better a system than first past the post. Smaller parties and those who vote for them would find it more difficult to elect people to the Dáil. A list system would impose on the Dáil exactly that for which we criticise the Seanad, namely, unelected people appointed by party leaders with no requirement to go before the people in the ballot. In our system, individual people and not only political parties are held accountable by the voter, and we would be mad to move away from this.
It is misguided to think our problems were caused by our electoral system. This suggests that voters should not be trusted to vote for their representatives. Democracy is not perfect, as has been stated, but it is better than any other system. The other side of this is that it is a wonderful system, and the voters spoke in the most recent election. There is an idea that people going to Deputies’ clinics caused our problems with the banks. They were not caused by a person on social welfare going to a Deputy’s constituency clinic, and they are not the people who should be taken out of the equation. They were caused by the completely unaccountable bankers going to a Minister in the middle of the night seeking a bank guarantee, and the completely unregulated lobbyists seeking tax breaks for developers. This is where the problem lies and where reform is needed.
People speak about mixed electoral systems. There are problems in countries with a two tier system of members of Parliament because the public think the constituency-elected members are the real ones. This was found in research carried out in Wales, where a few years ago a commission recommended moving to PR-STV, the system which we have. Other countries have civic campaigns to introduce PR-STV in multi-seat constituencies because it is the most democratic and proportionate of electoral systems in practice in the world today. I absolutely defend PR-STV and I am proud to have been elected in this way. It is a difficult way to get elected but it gives the voter the ultimate say on who sits in the Dáil.
I fundamentally disagree with gender quotas. Under our Constitution, one cannot prevent people from putting forward their names for election on the basis of gender. No woman has ever been told she cannot put forward her name for election. However, in practice, a gender quota would mean that men would be told that they cannot put forward their names and that people cannot vote for them because they are men. This is not the way to deal with the issue of women not participating in politics.
As has been said, there is no difficulty about women getting elected. Women are winning selection conventions so that is not the problem. There is a need for more women to become active in political parties and to want to run for election. If we start to make top-down decisions in regard to the selection of candidates through the imposition of gender quotas, we should be in no doubt that party leaderships will ensure they impose the gender quota against those they do not want and in favour of those they want. Top-down decisions in regard to the selection of candidates take away the right of people to decide whether they want to go forward for selection and of members to pick their candidates. It is fundamentally undemocratic. If we really want more women in politics, we must make our parties more democratic and stop the tendency to move away from party members making decisions about matters such as this. I fundamentally oppose gender quotas.
There are different opinions on gender quotas. Many women inside and outside political parties are against gender quotas while some men are for them. That is freedom of speech. If we want more women in politics, we want women who will express their opinions and who are entitled to say what they think in debates such as this. Often the likes of the National Women’s Council basically tarnish women just because they express a different view to it on this issue and make derogatory comments about us, which is unacceptable.
The real issue in terms of Dáil reform is how it operates. The former Taoiseach, John Bruton, put it best. We need to shift the balance back to the Government backbencher and the Opposition Deputy. Any moves we make must do that. There is much to be desired in terms of how parliamentary questions are answered.
We also need to deal with the empty Chamber syndrome. The Whips tell us to be here when Leaders’ Questions or Taoiseach’s questions are being taken but they should tell us to be here to listen to each other on this important issue and to have a proper debate where one listens to what someone says and then either agrees or disagrees. That is proper debate and it is an issue which needs to be addressed.
Deputy Anne Ferris: I welcome the opportunity to debate an issue of fundamental importance, namely, reform of the Dáil. It is a subject on which much has been spoken but little action has been taken. This new coalition Government that has already accomplished so much in such a short period of time has its eyes set on reform. However, it is reform with more depth and substance to it than that offered by the current Opposition when in government.
It is also reform that will ensure people’s voices are heard. This will be achieved through a range of measures, including setting up a constitutional convention which will, for the first time, have meaningful input from a range of stakeholders in how they view a 21st century constitution. The current framework is that of a 1930s anachronism reflecting an ethos and a religious tradition that cannot be said to be representative of the people today. The substantive issues at which it will look, include amending the demeaning clauses on women, provision for same-sex marriage and the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution. It will also look at our electoral system to see whether it is fit for purpose and whether there should be a reduction in voting age. I look forward to the implementation of this convention and I hope an equal balance of men and women will be appointed. This is only fair as a reflection not, unfortunately, of the current Oireachtas but of a society where that 50:50 gender split exists.
Further commitments include reform of the parliamentary questions system. It is important the parliamentary questions system is extended to bodies under statute or funded by the State, as is proposed in the programme for Government. I, for one, am fed up tabling parliamentary questions to the Minister for Health and receiving replies stating, “this is a matter for the HSE”. Thereafter, one might — only might — get a reply from it.
There are plans for the HSE to be reformed and responsibility returned directly to the Minister but it is still extremely frustrating. For instance, I am waiting for a reply to an important query regarding the distribution of diabetes paediatric services. This is after asking a parliamentary question and sending a letter to the HSE. Those concerned, constituents of mine in County Wicklow, cannot afford to wait and this is an untenable situation.
There is another matter on which I would like to touch briefly as it should go hand in hand with Dáil reform, namely, reform of the Judiciary. For too long the Judiciary has managed to hold itself aloft from talk of meaningful reform. The Judicial Council Bill, for instance, originally mooted over a decade ago has come to naught. I, for one, am very concerned by this. The history of judicial misconduct is not, fortunately, one of widespread corruption or gross incompetence. However, when misconduct has occurred and come to light, the consequences have been extremely serious. Most of us will remember the Brian Curtin affair and the appalling way that particular case was handled. He was not the first judge accused of gross misconduct and a GUBU-like list could be created detailing a somewhat desperate history.
Further meaningful reform must be addressed in this area and not least in the appointment of judges. As it stands, judicial nominees generally come from a wide and varied background — that of the wealthy middle-aged white man schooled in Clongowes Wood College all the way to the wealthy middle-aged white man schooled in Blackrock College. On 22 July of this year, a vacancy will arise at the end of a seven-year term for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I suggest a woman could be considered for this post not simply because of the significance of having the first female Chief Justice but because there are so many candidates both inside and outside the Judiciary with vast experience they could bring to this position.
The Labour Party has always been a strong supporter of women’s rights and the first female Attorney General was appointed by this Government. There is, therefore, no reason this Government cannot consider this appointment to the highest court in the land. After all, as it stands, there are but two women out of nine currently serving in the court, which is another disappointing reflection of Irish society.
I hope the separation of powers will be rebalanced by the end of this term of Government. The eyes of the Dáil have turned on the Executive for a rebalancing through its reform of this institution but those eyes must also look to the Judiciary to see that justice, in the wider sense, is truly done.
Deputy Mick Wallace: I wish to comment on what Deputies Tuffy and Anne Ferris said. The HSE and the National Roads Authority have grown into monsters and are out of control. The Government cannot tell them what to do anymore; they are not answerable. It would be great if this Government brought power back to the House. I agree with what Deputy Stagg said about quangos, as I did last night. This notion of setting up these unelected, unaccountable bodies and paying people stupid money is nonsense. Power in this regard should also be brought back to the Parliament.
Deputy Tuffy mentioned backbenchers. It would be great if Parliament was more inclusive, and I agree with what she said in that regard. Some 76 new Deputies were elected in the last general election and there is a fair bit of frustration among many of them and a feeling that they are not playing an active role in what is happening in the House. I can understand members of Fine Gael and the Labour Party being very frustrated. The Technical Group seems to be getting a fairer crack of the whip than the backbenchers in Fine Gael and the Labour Party. We all have a mandate and were sent here by the people and we all should play an active role in what goes on.
For a number of years this country has been much too centralised. It is probably one of the most centralised countries in western Europe. Power is very much in the hands of a few. Currently, it is difficult for Parliament to hold the Executive to account because of the way things are structured. It would be great if the new coalition Government had the honesty to tackle this issue in a positive way.
There is a complete lack of local government due to this centralisation. We do not have real local government. The councillors elected to local government in my constituency, and throughout the State, are not placed in a decision-making role. Instead we have civil servants making decisions and it is too bad if people do not like those decisions because the civil servants will still be there after the next election. If that role were given to elected local representatives, we could throw them out at the next election if we do not like how they behave. Some people argue that there is greater expertise in the Civil Service and that councillors cannot be trusted on certain matters. The electorate needs to grow up in this regard and to stop electing people who are not competent to make decisions at local government level. If we change the structure of local government, citizens will have to be responsible and make sure they elect people of quality who are capable of fulfilling their role in a positive way.
Placing elected councillors in charge of the decision-making process will ensure a greater link between them and the people who elect them. Democracy is lacking in local government, with citizens having little say in how they are governed or in decisions made in their name. There is only a pretence at consultations with citizens. In my constituency, for example, a group of civil servants, consultants and engineers came up with eight options for a bypass of Wexford town. These options were set out in a map which was put on display to the public. For six or 12 months people fought about it and protested about it going through their lands. The decision makers eventually imposed the route which suited them best. That is not consultation. Local people had no say in the final route or even any of the options.
Making the options available to the public in cases like these and letting people argue over them for a period of time is not good enough. Consultation would involve engaging the public before any routes are planned. Apart from civil servants, we have a significant over-usage of consultants in the planning process. When I was seeking planning permission to build the Wexford Youths complex in Ferrycarrig I had to make five applications before I eventually obtained all the permissions I required. Members would hardly believe how many consultants’ reports I had to provide, none of which was cheap. I had to provide four different road surveys and traffic reports on the back road into the complex. I had to do reports on how the development would affect plant life and animal life and also had to supply water treatment reports.
Deputy Mick Wallace: I was constantly pushed towards consultants who were required to do this and that. The decision-makers are reneging on their responsibilities. In case there is trouble later on they want to be able to say they made the decision on the basis of a report by such and such a consultant. Local authorities must take power back into their own hands and make the decisions in these matters.
A significant difficulty for local authorities is the question of funding. Income from planning levies — a gravy train in recent years — has now disappeared. Instead they must retain very high rates. Rents in the State have generally fallen by 50% — mine certainly have — but rates have increased. In Dublin city centre, where I have some commercial units, rates have gone up by 5% in each of the last three years whereas rental income has continued to decline. There is no linkage between rates and the markets. Unfortunately, local authorities throughout the country are facing funding shortfalls. We have the most poorly funded local government in Europe and the entire structure must be changed. I am in favour of giving local authorities a percentage of income tax collected and letting people see exactly where their money goes in return for the services they receive locally.
Returning to the issue of Dáil reform, one Member remarked last night that this is not a debating Chamber but a legislative Chamber. However, legislative work requires effective debate. Deputy Joe Costello threw cold water on the motion put forward by the Technical Group in Private Members’ time this week. I find that a strange approach. We were not claiming to have all the answers but we wanted to put ideas out for debate. Our proposals are worth talking about. None of us has all the answers and the 166 Members of the House should be willing to discuss issues and to learn from one another.
I agree with other speakers that Dáil attendance rates are a cause for concern. There are more schoolchildren in the Visitors Gallery most of the time than there are Members in the Chamber. The children must look down and wonder where we all are. I do not watch television and had never seen coverage of the Chamber before I was elected. The greatest shock to me since coming to the House is the number of Members who desert the place after the Order of Business. One would think a fire alarm had been set off.
We must work towards accountability, transparency and democracy. The people want a say in how the country is governed. They put 166 Deputies in this Houses in order to have an impact on governance. If we are going to have half a dozen people running the country while the majority of Members are mere spectators who get to have their say but without any effect, it is a false process.
Deputy Frank Feighan: The debate on Dáil reform is necessary and welcome. However, reform should not be just talked about; it must be delivered. I was elected to Roscommon County Council in 1999 and am aware of the work done by councillors in local authorities throughout the country. Many are also members of vocational education committees, regional authorities and county enterprise boards. Many people do not take a great interest in their work or that of politicians in general. The findings of various tribunals, particularly in respect of the corruption of certain members of one political party, mean politicians have lost the trust of the people. The tribunals took away respect for politicians because people no longer trust them or politics in general.
This debate must offer a new window of hope. Deputy Wallace observed that when people do not like what a politician does they can vote him or her out. Unfortunately, this country is run by the HSE, the NRA and others who were not elected by the people but held the ultimate power. If one wants a medical card or a bed in this country, people should not go to politicians but to someone within the system. In Ireland we have a very strange view of how politics works. People want politicians to be as white as snow but they also want politicians to break every rule in the book to get people what they want.
When canvassing over the years, people who had returned from the UK never entered into talk such as “Good man Frank” or “That’s a lovely dog” or “That’s a lovely garden”. They wanted to know about the party manifesto and when they received the manifesto they read it. If they had any questions, they raised these issues. In 99% of cases, locals never asked what about the manifesto or for what the candidate stood. They used to say that they knew the party or that they knew the candidate. In Ireland we deserve a little better. With the new Dáil and Seanad we will get better.
I hear people say that I am not shouting loud enough but it is not about shouting loud enough. It is about listening to the people and delivering without being controversial. In politics, one has a personality and one represents people through one’s personality. If one is a wild man, one should be that. Members should try to be honest with people.
When the Taoiseach announced reform of the Seanad over 18 months ago, he was ridiculed. I was at the dinner that night and there was shock among many politicians and people in the Fine Gael Party. He made a forthright decision to abolish rather than reform the Seanad and it is up to people to decide that matter in the coming months. I remember a report on reform of the Seanad produced by a previous Leader of the Seanad. I said to a man at the time that it looked like the Seanad was going to go but he said that we should pay no heed to it because it was just another report. The people became sick of reports and we must reform. I welcome the reform. We must be open and honest with the electorate. I thank the Opposition because they must oppose. We must oppose when issues are wrong and we must work together when the goal is good for Ireland Incorporated. I welcome Dáil reform. As a Government, we must deliver. If we say we are going to do it, we must do it.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I am glad to speak on this issue, which we have spoken about from time to time in this House. Speaking about it repeatedly does not mean we have done much about it. Reforms that have taken place since I first became a Member have dramatically reduced the power, influence and authority of Members elected to the House by people. That is what is strange. A few years ago, on the Order of Business, one could ask a question of the Taoiseach or a Minister. It may not have been in order. The Member raising the question had the option of accepting the answer given, if the question was in order, or referring the matter to an Adjournment debate that night. There was no reference to sections 21, 31, 42 or Standing Orders. There was no nonsense. It went direct and straight to the point for an Adjournment debate on that night. Reform took place and now one must raise a matter under Standing Orders 32 or 21 or something else. Eventually, one gets to the position one could have gotten to previously. After 25 years, we have managed to make it more difficult.
Every time reform takes place, we find restrictions imposed on the Parliament. When this happens to the Dáil or the Seanad, the power in the hands of administrators is increased dramatically. That is the way it must work. We cannot talk about Dáil reform in isolation without political reform in general and public administration reform. Fair dues to the Government, which is doing that. It is part of the programme for Government and I hope it will work.
We do not work in isolation. Reference has been made to local authorities. Local and national authorities must sit easily together but one cannot grow at the expense of the other. Many Members spoke in this House of the need for more power for local authorities. This is a direct threat to Members. Devolving authority to other bodies, subordinate or otherwise, means one ends up with less power and authority. People will say that local authorities should have the right to raise taxes. They have the right to do so but no Minister can give total unlimited power to other bodies to raise taxes because then the Minister will not be able to raise taxes. That is how it works. It is a balancing act.
Regarding Deputy Wallace’s point about Members’ attendance, in the beginning there were more Members present in the Chamber. I refer to the beginning as 25 years ago and it depends when one started. One had to be in the House if one wanted to speak. If one was not in the Chamber, one could not speak. There was no list system and the order in which people presented in the Chamber determined the order in which they were called to speak. It was very time consuming but the system has now changed. At that time, no one was allowed to read a script. They were ordered to sit down immediately if they tried to do so. However, things changed. I knew things had changed forever when I saw a Member who did not manage to speak but had a script ready and had issued it to the press. It appeared in the newspapers the next day even though that person had not spoken in the House. I can still remember who it was and the circumstances in which it happened. That could be hugely embarrassing in certain circumstances. It should not happen but that is how things evolved. Evolution is the enemy of Parliament because it has a habit of taking on a life of its own and taking upon itself powers and presumptions of authority that do not exist. That is what is crazy. Over a number of years, Members will eventually realise that they no longer have the powers they once had. They will ask where it went wrong and the answer is with themselves. They conceded because it was an annoyance to have to do the tittle-tattle, everyday nonsense of having to legislate, listen to the public, take on board their views, refer to them in the House and speak on behalf of the people. As a result, over the years we became politically correct. We have now arrived at the ultimate in political correctness. People will still be looking for reform in five years, ten years, 25 and 100 years time, if this House has not been replaced by some subordinate body with powers devolved to the House by an elevated body of experts outside. It is of great importance that the reform is basic and fundamental and recognises the need for the Parliament to be responsive to the needs of the people. I did not refer to the wants of the people because everyone wants everything. There is a need to attend to the legislative measures that must be taken to address issues at a given time.
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