Seanad Review: Statements (Resumed).

Friday, 3 December 1999

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 161 No. 11

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Mr. O'Donovan: Information on Dennis O'Donovan  Zoom on Dennis O'Donovan  Dr. Laver argued for the examination of a provincial system of election to the Seanad which could include the election of four or five Members from the North. I see nothing wrong with that. It may be a difficult idea to put into practice but it is a concept which should be looked at.

It is crucial that this House plays an active role in the progress being made in Northern Ireland. Great strides have been made, agreements have been signed and an Executive and North-South bodies have been established. The Seanad can play an important role in this in the future.

[885] The reform of the Seanad, if it is to come about, can be constructive. Some of the experts who contributed to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution felt that the existing panel system should be abolished. Others felt that the university system should be regionalised. That idea should be looked at. The university panel which has always played a significant role in this House should be broadened.

This House has helped shape the legislation of the State for more than 60 years. One of the criticisms levelled and mirrored by the committee is that this House rubber stamps Bills from the other House, but when one considers the number of Bills initiated by the Government in this House in the past two years that argument falls flat on its face. Ministers have shown it great respect. It is accepted by constitutionalists who have looked at the question of two Houses as opposed to one that on major economic and budgetary issues it does not have a veto or role to play. In my time in the House it has contributed valiantly and diligently and many amendments have been accepted. This is a positive development.

We should not take the stance that an attack is being made on this House by the All-Party Committee on the Constitution and outsiders. Professors and constitutional experts have differing views on its role. It has an important function. From the vibes I am getting the All-Party Committee on the Constitution is almost unanimously in favour of retaining its role. It can be either forced to reform or reform from within. Its workload in recent years is indicative that it has started to reform from within.

While much legislation is being initiated in this House, there are other aspects that need to be addressed. There is need for it to play a greater role in relation to Northern Ireland and the European Union. While I would not be averse to changing the system of election, the current panels should be retained. This House has an important and significant role to play and it should reform from within rather than be forced to do so by way of constitutional change or otherwise.

Mr. Caffrey: Information on Ernie Caffrey  Zoom on Ernie Caffrey  Following Senator Donovan's erudite account of the evolution of the Seanad I do not intend to dwell on history. Suffice it to say that when it caused serious trouble for the then Government, and Eamon de Valera in particular, in the mid-1930s it was decided that it should be muzzled in terms of its legislative powers and it has been muzzled ever since by virtue of the fact that the Taoiseach of the day is allowed nominate 11 of its Members.

What has been said today has been said many times before. Will exactly the same points be made in one or two years' time about the need for reform? I hope not. We need action. The last all-party Oireachtas report was published in 1977. It is gathering dust on the shelves and nothing has been done about it. There are many good ideas [886] in that report but I do not agree with some of its contents.

The Seanad has made a major contribution to the political life of the nation. This work has been done throughout the history of the Seanad by committed people from all walks of life, the professions, business and commerce, who have devoted much time, sometimes at their own expense, to come here and make contributions to political life and discuss legislation. In many respects the debate on the legislation which has come from the other House is far more comprehensive, detailed and penetrative and in many ways far more intellectual than some of the debate there. Members of the Seanad have experience of various aspects of business and commercial life and they make contributions on every Bill which comes before the House.

One of the criticisms which has been levelled at this House by many people, especially people in the media, is that it is a pale reflection of the Dáil. One might equally say that the moon is a pale reflection of the sun but nevertheless it does a very important job. If one took the moon out of the cosmic equation, one would certainly have some catastrophic results. Likewise I think that if one took the Seanad out of the parliamentary equation, one would also have some serious and catastrophic results. After all, the Seanad has been part of our history for 77 years. It has evolved its own structure and culture. One just cannot dispense with that at the stroke of a pen and bring in something new.

I believe the Seanad, with possibly some useful reforms, is here to stay. There are several options being discussed at present. One of these, which must rejected out of hand, is abolition. Apart from the fact that we would be like turkeys voting for Christmas if we were to advocate the abolition of the Seanad, there has never been such a need for it as a strong constitutional bulwark against the hastily prepared, ill-considered legislation which emanates from the other House. Such legislation is debated here at length. Often we have more time than the other House to give legislation the extra scrutiny which much of it deserves. Recent history indicates that that is the case. Recently the Planning and Development Bill, for instance, was debated in the House over a five week period. There were some 148 Report Stage amendments to the Bill which, in my view, is too many but the Minister readily agreed to make some changes which would not have been made without this forum to discuss it.

Given the emerging political landscape – I am referring in particular to yesterday's events in Belfast and Dublin – there could well be a major role for this House. I am convinced that when we reach the ultimate solution to the partition of this country it will be through some form of federal government. The House should remain in place and in that context it will perform an important function in future. I will return to that aspect of Northern Ireland affairs later.

[887] Many of the matters raised in this debate have been mentioned previously. The report of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution made suggestions, many of which are not feasible. Tinkering with the Constitution by proposing indirect and regional Seanad elections complicates the electoral system and is not the way to pursue reform. We should stretch legal limits within the current constitutional framework to bring about the necessary changes and that can be done through legislation without recourse to a referendum.

The report of the all-party committee referred to only a few areas that would require constitutional change, including the direct election of approximately 15 Members, regionalisation and additional nominees to the Seanad. The latter proposals would require a constitutional amendment, but within the present framework we could do much to bring about necessary changes. The existing resources of the Seanad should be utilised to this end, perhaps by establishing a form of committee to act as a tribunal of inquiry. After the current epidemic of tribunalitis, committees of inquiry formed by the House could well replace such tribunals, thus saving the taxpayer much money. There is much professional expertise in the House, whose Members include solicitors, barristers and doyens of the commercial world. Members also have experience in public affairs. That nucleus could be harnessed to form a tribunal of inquiry to examine matters, such as those currently under investigation, in a more cost effective manner.

Ministerial appointments to State boards are not fully scrutinised and there is no great accountability concerning them. A committee of this House could examine public appointments and their suitability and make decisions on them. That, too, would require legislation. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this could happen.

I have been a Member of this House for only two years. One of its striking features is the wealth of talent in the House that is not being fully utilised in many areas, a couple of which I have already mentioned. I am not an advocate of direct elections to the Seanad or of changing its electoral system. Members of local authorities, who elect most Members of the Seanad, are at the coalface of the political system. They have valuable political judgment and wisdom arising from their dealings with people. They are far ahead, in terms of political judgment and wisdom, of the general populace in deciding who can best represent the people in this House. The system should not be changed. It could be said that we have a vested interest in maintaining the system but, looking at it objectively and given that local authority members are the bedrock or the first tier of our parliamentary democracy, they should continue to have the right to elect Members of the Seanad.

[888] Some of the report's recommendations deal with organising the Seanad on a regional basis for the purpose of elections. Senators tend to moan and groan about having to travel the 26 counties during elections but I believe it is a fairer system which results in the best candidates being elected. We are dealing with an electorate based in all 26 counties, most of whom have keen political judgment. They usually do the right thing. The fact that they do is the reason we are here today.

Other recommendations deal with giving the Seanad more power and extending the time by which legislation can be held up in the House. I will not discuss the constitutional position with regard to the 21 days provision, non-money Bills and money Bills. If those periods were extended it would make the Lower House more conscious of our existence and of the fact that it cannot depend on Senators to rubber stamp everything in the appropriate time to return it to the Dáil. “In the appropriate time” is the key phrase.

What are my proposals for limited reform? I am not concerned with major constitutional changes. Referendums to amend the Constitution should only be held in exceptional circumstances. The present circumstances do not warrant it. There is enough leeway in the constitutional framework to make some worthwhile changes.

Perhaps it would be possible, through an independent mechanism, to appoint 14 additional Senators, without voting rights, after every election. They could be drawn from different walks of life and would include those who have made an outstanding political contribution. Until recently, four former Taoisigh were alive. The appointment of one or two former Taoisigh would add considerably to the stature of the House, even if they only attended two or three times a year. They would not have a salary, perhaps an honorarium of £100 or £200 for every day they attended, and the title of Senator. This would be a watered down honours list. Those who work in industry could make a major contribution to debates, as could those who have made outstanding contributions in the fields of arts, culture, literature, sports, medicine, science and technology, invention, research and development. We must not forget members of Northern Ireland institutions who could be appointed, without voting rights, and would not affect parliamentary procedures of both Houses. All of these people would enrich and add to the stature of the House and make valuable contributions because of their wealth of experience in their various fields.

Unfortunately, action has not been taken on the report since it was published two years ago. The only recommendation implemented in legislation was granting constitutional status to local government, which was worthwhile. However, this was only one recommendation and others could be brought before both Houses.

There is a wealth of talent in this House which is not utilised. Short-term cosmetic changes could be made to improve the running of this House. Motions on the Adjournment are too limited, [889] there is not enough ministerial contact with this House and the Order of Business could be changed. These are small but significant matters which come under Standing Orders. I would like legislation to be introduced which would give this House more valuable and worthwhile powers.

Mr. Glynn: Information on Camillus Glynn  Zoom on Camillus Glynn  I make no apologies for being a Member of this House – I am honoured. However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that any institution which does not examine itself occasionally is inward-looking. I am glad we are discussing our role.

I have heard it expressed in many fora that the Seanad should be abolished. I have also heard that the Presidency should be abolished. This would be amusing if it was not so serious. It is amazing that the people suggesting this style themselves as republicans and Nationalists – I too claim to be a republican. We must look at the role of the Seanad occasionally to see how it can be improved. However, it is important to remember that to consider the abolition of this House – which has been mooted by some entities on many occasions – would threaten the democracy for which people gave their lives. I will not discuss the Presidency because that is not for consideration.

This House is necessary for the scrutiny of legislation. Senators O'Donovan and Caffrey referred to the Planning and Development Bill, to which hundreds of amendments were tabled. This demonstrates that Members of this House are concerned and interested enough to read the Bill and put down those amendments. My colleagues and I voted down some of those amendments for valid reasons. I commend the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, who is an innovative Minister and a pathfinder in Government. It is a vote of confidence in this House that a Bill of that magnitude is put through the various Stages here. Some Government and Opposition amendments to the Bill were accepted.

A great deal of legislation has been initiated in this House since I became a Senator. I was given to understand that we would sit for two days a week in the main, but that has not been the case. About a third of all new legislation since this Government took office in 1997 has been initiated in this House. The comment that we are ignored by Ministers is untrue – senior Ministers come to this House regularly, whenever it is required. The Taoiseach has addressed the House twice. We have had many important guests, one of whom was welcomed by the Cathaoirleach earlier.

Senator O'Donovan referred to the fact that about half of European countries have a second house of parliament. I dread to think what might happen if our second House of Parliament was abolished, as has been suggested. It has also been suggested by some commentators that the Presidency should be abolished. This would result in one Chamber scrutinising legislation on behalf of [890] the electorate. I ask those putting forward this suggestion to think again.

I wish to refer to the composition of the Seanad. The manner in which Members are elected to this House is very clever. Perhaps the membership could be extended. There is a multitude of talent in this House and the rules of election ensure this is so. In all six Members are elected by the universities and these people are bright, intelligent and well educated. However, the system does not confine such membership to the university panel because there are five other panels. The administrative panel represents the two main local authority organisations. The Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland represents 84 or 85 local authorities, including county borough councils, borough councils, urban district councils and town commissions. These organisations are represented because, as their nominee, I was elected to this House. The nominee of the General Council of County Councils, Senator Coogan, represents 29 county councils and the five county borough councils. People from other walks of life are represented on the administrative panel.

The representatives of the cultural and educational panel are people who are experienced in those fields. There are sub-panels, including the nominating bodies and the Oireachtas panels. It is important for the county councils and county borough councils to have elected representatives. Long may the system last. Local councillors are the first line of democracy. There are experts in agriculture elected to the agricultural panel. Some of the best talents in industry and commerce are elected to the industrial and commercial panel. The system should not be changed, it should be extended. Why change a winning formula? Every law is a bad law until one tries to change it, and it can difficult to do so.

I support the comments of Senators O'Donovan and Caffrey on European legislation. This House can play a pivotal role in this area. The suggestion that MEPs should be involved is important, given that this country is now one of the main players, with the fastest growing economy in the EU. It is right and proper that MEPs should come to this House to answer questions on legislation that has an impact on the affairs and citizens of the State.

I wish to refer to the number of days the House is in session. Anyone who says the Seanad is not relevant to legislation should take a dose of reality – they do not live in the real world. It has been a pleasure to listen to some of the debates in this House. For a new Member of the House such as me it has been an education. It is well worth listening to the collective wisdom expressed by spokespersons on both sides. The second House ensures that legislation receives greater in depth scrutiny than would be the case if the House did not exist. It is important that the composition of the House allows for the representation of minority interests. The Taoiseach has 11 nominees and I commend the Taoiseach [891] and former Taoisigh for ensuring that our brethren from Northern Ireland are represented in this Chamber.

I am not in favour of provincial constituencies. The manner in which this House is elected would militate against this. While this might be desirable in the context of trudging around the country from Mizen Head in Cork to Malin Head in Donegal and from Galway to Dublin, nevertheless, the way in which Members are elected to this House would not be favourable to that suggestion.

Perhaps we could consider how the House does its business. I am not disputing that the Order of Business could be better ordered or that the way in which we do our business in general could be improved. I welcome our being here today and this form of self-analysis by way of scrutinising and commenting on our weaknesses and strengths.

I would like to see the Seanad expanded. I would like to see other groups elected to this House in a similar fashion to that of the universities panel. I am not sure how this might be done but that view has been expressed to me. We should consider this aspect of the membership of the Seanad. I am not interested in people not having a vote. Members of this House should have a vote. I do not wish to throw cold water on Senator Caffrey's suggestion and I have no difficulty with the suggestion that former Taoisigh should be Members of this House. They would have a wealth of knowledge and experience which would be very welcome.

I commend the Members of this House who have played a pivotal role in the affairs of the State. Legislation initiated either in the Lower House or in this House has been given due consideration, and all Members of this House, without exception, have honoured their commitment in scrutinising legislation. That is the reason we are here.

The suggestion to abolish this House is a backward step and does not give due respect to the efforts of our predecessors and those who conceived the idea of the Houses of Parliament, of one of which I am honoured to be a Member.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I did not pay attention to the same degree to the debate last June on this issue so I brought home the Official Report of that debate last night and the contributions of those who spoke made worthwhile reading. Senator Manning, in particular, opened my eyes to the need for and possibilities of reform. From that point of view, this debate today is also worthwhile.

The debate runs under one handicap, namely, that everybody assumes most of us in this House want the Seanad to continue. Anything we say, therefore, is coloured to some extent by that assumption. We have to recognise that particular weakness in our credibility. People clearly will be [892] of the view that everything we say in this debate will be biased, but set against that is the fact that we are the people closest to the working of the system. We are experts in one sense. While our judgment may be suspect on the question of whether to continue with the Seanad, our input in terms of the practicalities involved should be valuable.

I want to make two fundamental points and build on them with some practical proposals. I read the interesting report submitted to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution by John Coakley of UCD and Michael Laver of Trinity College, but I will not waste time going over areas dealt with previously but rather concentrate on other issues. The public attitude to the Seanad is largely one of indifference rather than hostility. That is not to say that a move to abolish the Seanad would not quickly gather a head of steam if some people used it to reflect the widespread public frustration and disillusionment with the political process as a whole. Just as the public indifference to the Seanad could be turned into hostility, it could also be transformed into enthusiasm but that would require a radical transformation of the Seanad. I am sure there is no public demand or political will for reform that merely tinkers around the edges. Senator Caffrey spoke about that earlier and used the term “cosmetic changes”.

It was interesting to hear Senator Glynn speak about the way Members are elected to this House. There is a danger in tinkering around the edges of that issue also. There is need for reform in that area but I will not concentrate on that aspect today because the six university seats represent a different constituency from others. We are elected by every graduate. People who graduated from university 30, 40 or 50 years ago continue to have a vote, even if they have been living abroad for many years.

One only has to read past debates on this subject, and not just the last one, to find a long list of ideas. There are also many good ideas in the Coakley and Laver report, particularly those which attack the democratic anomalies and contradictions in the process of electing and appointing Seanad Members. Some of those suggestions might form part of a wider solution but regardless of their worthiness, they will not result in a solution that will galvanise public support and political will. They have to form part of a wider new vision that addresses the shortcomings people are now finding in the political process. Tinkering around the edges is a non-starter because it will be impossible to gather sufficient support to make it happen.

Members of this House can do much more to make the Seanad more responsible and relevant, and good suggestions were put forward this morning. We can work harder to get recognition for the work we do, but that is not reform. That is internal housekeeping. I have often said we deserve the attention we receive. We do a great deal of work but we do not command attention.

[893] Reform of the Seanad must be radical, not just different. It must go directly towards satisfying what is now a manifest political need, to marshal public support for the political process which has been damaged in recent times. It must provide the openness and transparency the public has been clamouring for but in exchange for which it has received only rhetoric. If we can craft a vision for a new Seanad that will answer these needs, it will be desirable both for the public and the political establishment. That is necessary to allow any change take place.

My second point brings me closer to the question of the type of Seanad we want. Let me clear away some of what I call the undergrowth by talking about what we do not want. We do not want a Seanad which is engaged in a power struggle with the Dáil. Whenever we debate this subject I become uneasy when I hear recipes for increasing the powers of the Seanad, not because I think we will never have an opportunity of getting increased powers but because the Seanad should not be in the power business. That is not our function. That is not the reason the Seanad was established. Our Constitution is clear on where the power lies – in Dáil Éireann, in a democracy elected by the citizens. I have no problem with that and wishing to change it is going into a cul-de-sac. A new Seanad could have a valuable and far more popular role without increasing its powers in any way. More powers are not the answer. I am not sure that Coakley and Laver, in their report, were sufficiently convinced of that need. After seven years in this House, I am in no doubt that the value of the existing institution lies in one area, the scrutiny of legislation. Equally I am in no doubt that the role for a new Seanad should be based on previous successes in that regard.

Obviously, as a Senator under the existing system, I may be biased but I believe we have consistently had a valuable input into legislation, albeit only to a fraction of the extent we could have. However, we have done so within a framework which is quite hostile to our making a contribution. Last year, the Dáil debated and passed a very short Bill on the George Mitchell scholarship. Everyone in the Dáil said nice things about the Bill which was to provide for the awarding of scholarships to American students to study in Ireland. When the Bill came to the Seanad, I noticed that, under its terms, students would be limited to studying within the State. I queried the matter with the Department because I felt that if a student wished to study peace, he or she should be allowed to do so in Belfast or Derry as well as in this State. I was informed that it was the Department's intention to limit the study to this State because problems would otherwise be incurred. I was delighted that when the matter was drawn to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science, he immediately recognised that the issue had slipped unnoticed through the Dáil but was recognised in this [894] House. I am not trying to take credit for that, I merely want to point out that without the scrutiny afforded by this House words or phrases can slip through unnoticed in legislation.

The occasions on which we have been able to make a difference are, however, far outnumbered by those on which this House was treated, or allowed itself to be treated, as nothing more than an expensive rubber stamp. We have permitted that to happen. We are at our best in dealing with Bills which originate in this House and there has been a dramatic change in that regard in recent years. Senator Caffrey referred to the planning and copyright Bills to which hundreds of amendments were tabled. When Bills are initiated in the Seanad, we get them prior to the adversarial confrontations which are properly inherent in the Dáil and which serve to freeze ministerial attitudes and make Ministers come down in favour of one side of an argument over another.

In the past, I have suggested that a major and worthwhile reform of our legislative process would involve the origination of all Bills in the Seanad. I now realise that that suggestion does not go far enough. A gradual change has been ongoing over the past 12 years as a result of the social partnership approach which effectively commenced in 1987. Prior to coming before the Oireachtas at all, Bills have already been the subject of extensive consultation among a wide range of interest groups. All too often, we are presented with provisions which cannot be changed because they represent deals which have been done elsewhere behind closed doors and out of public view. Although it may be unintentional, there is something profoundly unsatisfactory about this process which is almost undemocratic. The process is secret rather than open. Lobby groups sometimes establish their position on an issue in an effort to garner public support, but most of the time they go directly to Government. They approach the civil servants who deal with the details of the legislation rather than the politicians who are ultimately responsible for it. This process is anything but open and transparent. There is no reason why the process should not be open and transparent. Citizens have an inalienable right to know what inputs are made to their legislation, knowledge which, in spite of the freedom of information legislation, they do not currently receive because of the current system.

We have spoken on many occasions about the control and registration of lobbyists. I suggest a reform which would compel the entire consultative process to take place in the full glare of public scrutiny. We are often told that a Bill is the fruit of extensive consultations with all of the concerned interest groups and, therefore, must not be changed. We also sometimes hear from those interest groups that they were consulted in a cursory manner and, in many cases, their views were completely neglected in the final drafting of the legislation. The result of this arrangement is that decisions are often taken by relatively junior civil [895] servants in a manner over which we do not have any control or influence.

My vision of a new Seanad would sweep away all of this and would put in place a system of preparing new legislation which would be fully open, transparent and democratic in the truest sense of the word. I would make the new Seanad an open forum where all discussion about, and input into, forthcoming legislation would occur in the full light of day. If people wanted to lobby, they would have to do so at a public hearing of a Seanad committee where every contribution would be recorded and available to all citizens. Further, access to the Seanad committee forum would be open to virtually anyone, not merely to those vested interests which can afford extensive and expensive lobbying operations. This new approach would totally ban any lobbying of Ministers or officials outside of the Seanad committee forum. That is a radical idea. Imagine the benefits which would accrue from that system. Senator Caffrey made a lovely reference to “tribunalitis”. Many tribunals have come about as a result of groups' abilities to lobby and exert influence outside normal parameters.

The new system I envisage could be defined as a pre-legislative process. I am not saying that the forum would consider legislation which had already been drafted but that all new Bills would have to undergo a pre-legislative phase in which public inputs would be invited and made. The starting point of every piece of legislation could be the publication of a Green Paper, followed by discussions at the proposed new Seanad forum which would encompass all aspects of public opinion. The outcome of that process would involve the publication of a rapporteur's report, which would bring the arguments together and suggest options to Government, and the reporting of consensus when it emerged. The Government would then proceed to draft the legislation and bring it before the Oireachtas.

Such an arrangement would acknowledge that over the past ten or 12 years, many of Parliament's original functions have drifted away in a manner which is undemocratic and quite unhealthy in the long term. My vision would bring these functions back into the centre of the political arena and the Oireachtas would become infinitely more relevant. Most important, however, it would drag back into public view the type of issues which have been decided upon on the shadowy fringes and out of the public glare.

If we speak about reform, we must offer a new vision or system which will address people's cynicism and disillusionment. We must propose a system which will garner public commitment and involvement, revitalise our democracy and make it worthy of the name. Anything less will bring us back to Nero's time – we will just be fiddling as Rome burns. Let us take this opportunity to change the Seanad's functions in an open and transparent manner which will result in the betterment of democracy.

[896]Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  In a nutshell, I do not want to see any change in the Seanad, although I have no problem looking at the Seanad more often. I held the same view when I was a member of the county council. I was a member of the General Council of County Councils and I heard county councillors time and again talk about how they were losing power. I was always of the opinion that they did not use the power they had, and the same can be said of this House. We do not use the power we have to make changes. Senator Quinn called them cosmetic changes but I would not.

We must first look at ourselves and at how important the Seanad is to us. I would be critical in this regard because only four Senators made submissions to this review. The Cathaoirleach, Senator Mullooly, did so on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group and I also chose to make a submission. Senator McDonagh, Senator Norris and Deputy Wright made submissions. There may be a little confusion here – the review came out in 1997, although deliberations were completed in 1995 and that is why Deputy Wright is mentioned because he was elected to the other House in 1997.

My criticisms are of ourselves in that we did not look after our business when we were asked by this review. It was very wrong that only five submissions were made by this House. We should have taken more time and made submissions. I hold the same view as regards the Bill which passed through the House yesterday. It is a fabulous Bill to which 450 amendments were tabled. It was the Seanad's greatest hour. I nearly had a heart attack when I was told there were 380 amendments to the Bill and that the Minister would table another 50 or 60 amendment. I thought we would be voting every day but we had about eight votes on all those amendments which were discussed in a proper manner.

To go back to Senator Quinn's observation, when legislation is initiated in the Seanad, the Ministers appear to be softer – I am not talking about the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, in particular, but about all Ministers down through the years. There are more political battles in the Dáil which harden a Minister's attitude and when legislation comes to this House, no matter how wrong it is, the Minister will not budge. That is why I would like more legislation initiated in the Seanad.

When Senator Manning was Leader, he initiated changes in the Seanad. Prior to his time as Leader there was much waffling and Senators might speak glibly on a Bill for an hour and a half. That is what happened in the past. Senator Manning was the first to change that along with the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Cosgrave. I am glad Senator Cassidy and I have carried on that work with the full co-operation of the House. This is a different House now.

I have many complaints, however. In addition to the Independent Senators, four Members from this side of the House are not councillors – myself, Senator Rory Kiely, Senator Mooney and [897] Senator Gibbons. There may be few non-council members on the opposite side. Every Senator who is a county councillor had an interest in the Planning and Development Bill, 1999, which passed through the House yesterday, but it was left to the spokespersons to do the arguing. I was certain that nine or ten Members from my side of the House and some Members opposite would have been here asking questions. We are not taking sufficient interest in the legislation going through the House and that is giving us a bad name.

The Order of Business is nonsense. It turns into a type of question time where the Leader endeavours to be the Taoiseach of the day answering the questions asked. That is not an Order of Business but a question time or a “What it Says in the Papers” of sorts. I would like only the matters on the Order Paper to be raised on the Order of Business. If we need to discuss the Order of Business or when a Bill will be introduced, a group, including myself as Whip, should meet for one hour each week and talk about legislation which will be introduced between now and Christmas, for example. After Christmas, we should talk about legislation which will be introduced between then and the Easter and summer recesses.

The Order of Business is nonsense and we all contribute to it. It would be wrong if I did not refer to Senators from my party. It is laughable that a Senator from my party will ask the Leader a question on the Order of Business when they can ask him at the group meeting. They probably know the answer anyway. That is why I would like to Order of Business to be limited to the business ordered. If there is a need for a question time, then we should have it. The Leader cannot answer every question he is asked because he is not the Taoiseach. That is a major change which I would like to see and which would improve the Seanad.

All the great things said about legislation are ignored on “Oireachtas Report”. However, if a Member can raise a controversial item on the Order of Business they will appear on “Oireachtas Report”. I am probably being critical of Senator Norris and others in that regard but it is wrong that serious legislation—

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  We are here for the serious work but Senator Fitzgerald is right, it is not covered.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  Senator Coogan and Senator Burke sat in this House for days going through the Planning and Development Bill, 1999, but they were not mentioned on “Oireachtas Report”. This was significant legislation which they helped to change along with Senator Norris and the Labour Party. That is wrong and is why the Order of Business is nonsense.

There was a suggestion, with which I disagree totally, that we should be elected on the basis of European Parliament constituencies. That is impossible and cannot happen. If we were directly elected by the people, then we would be [898] the same as TDs. If we used the European Parliament constituencies and county councillors elected us, it would be nonsense.

The year I came into the Seanad 11 Members came from County Tipperary, north and south. The Members and the Leas-Chathaoirleach know why I say this. There are 27 councillors in County Kerry, 32 in County Clare and both county councils in Tipperary have 44 members. Cork would probably have about 50 votes in total. There is a disadvantage because a man from Cork or Tipperary in a European constituency would be up against it all the time. A candidate from Dingle would have no hope with only 27 votes from the county council. He would get only a few of them.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  It is always a fight for us.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  He would have to depend on Independent Senators like Senator O'Toole and my good friend Senator Norris.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:  Canvassing in the Chamber can disqualify a candidate.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  He always gets a stroke from this side of the House.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  Senator Quinn passed a remark on a point I intended to raise, reminding the House of the correction that he and Senators Henry and Norris made with regard to the Bill on scholarships. How relevant is this House? I do not want to put myself on a pedestal. It has happened everyone else in this House. The Harbours Bill was introduced in this House when my party was in Opposition and Deputy Éamon Gilmore was Minister of State at the Department of the Marine. That Bill had been sent to the Dáil, then to select committee and returned to the Dáil again where it remained for days. I tabled 42 amendments, 13 of which were accepted. Senator Norris will remember that.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I remember that well.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  How did that Bill steal through the House even though major changes were made to it? The Seanad is a great House but Members must respect it. They must attend and take more interest in the running of it and in changes to it.

The Order of Business gets on my goat. I would like to see a major change because the genuine Members who are present to argue legislation with a Minister do not get anything. I would leave the Seanad as it is. As far as a major review goes, I would like to see changes that we make.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  I thank Senator Burke for allowing me to speak at this time. I was under pressure of time and I appreciate it.

With regard to the power of the Seanad, which was also raised by Senator Tom Fitzgerald, I agree that we have enough power in this House. This is not about more power but effectively [899] using and operating properly within the constraints that already exist. An Upper House should never be allowed to pervert the will of the people as expressed in the universial franchise which elects the Lower House. It was never meant to be like that. In countries which have bicameral chambers we see the results of that. In Washington there are two houses, each of which has full powers, with the result that legislation and decision making runs into gridlock. One house cannot do its business because the other one stops. We could not have that type of a situation here.

There is a way to deal with the Order of Business difficulty raised by Senator Tom Fitzgerald. A recommendation that has come through in a number of considerations of Seanad Éireann is that a slight change could be made to make the Government accountable for its actions to the Chamber. I do not mean to make it accountable to the Seanad in the same way it is accountable to the Dáil, but we should be in the position whereby the Government would have to explain its actions to this House and could be questioned about those actions.

The reason for the problem on the Order of Business is that it is the only way Members can put across specific and topical questions on matters of urgency. The way around that is to change the powers slightly and have a form of question time in Seanad Éireann. If we had question time on a number of occasions during the course of the week the Order of Business would run smoothly. It would just be about the business or what should be ordered. Until there is question time the Order of Business will never be right. Question time could be introduced by simply making the Government, not accountable to the House, but accountable so that it could explain its actions to the House which is something quite different. It is not about increasing the powers of the Seanad.

A number of speakers commented on how few Senators made representations to the Oireachtas review committee. I am tired of explaining that. I refuse to recognise that committee. I know my colleague Senator Norris did but he is a more tolerant man than I am. I refuse to recognise a committee which does not recognise the existence of an Independent or groups of Independents in either House. It is perverse, introspective and regressive that the committee should be an all party group and that the parties were not big enough to accommodate representation from Independents in the Seanad and the Dáil. I have said this time and again and at this stage it is not worthwhile pursuing it. This matter was raised on the Order of Business.

In terms of how this House could be reformed and how it might be done with regard to the system of elections, let us start with my own constituency, the National University of Ireland. What I have to say refers to both university constituencies. Every person who has been elected [900] by university constituencies since I came here in 1987 holds the view that the graduates of all third level institutions should be able to vote in the election of people to Seanad Éireann. There is no equity in the current arrangements. In order to achieve that a constitutional amendment was required. The constitutional amendment was agreed to by the people and it has never been implemented by Government.

I want to talk about the question of universal franchise. Let us look carefully at what we have in this Chamber. It is unrepresentative and undemocratic by any of the yardsticks one cares to use. It need not be that way. The university electoral system could be reformed along the lines I have said. Votes could be given to every graduate from every third level institution. That would lead to consistency around the country and the same number of people would be elected.

The next matter is the panels. The shape of this House is unique in the architecture of the constituencies and the vocational panels. The idea was that we would have different groups, a labour panel, an education panel, an agricultural panel, and that all the different groups would be represented. The idea was good but it has not worked out. With all due respect – I am not saying this in any sense about any of them – the requirement of the Constitution is that one has to have a certain level of experience in education, the arts, labour or whatever vocation, but this is too simple a test. We all know that it has never been rigorously applied in any way. But there is something that we could do. The only people who vote in that election are members of county councils or urban councils. I do not want what I have to say to be seen as a slight on those people. If we take, for example, the labour and education panels, each is divided into two. Half the people whose names appear on the ballot paper are nominated by Members of the Oireachtas. Any four Members of the Dáil or Seanad can sign their names and nominate Tom Fitzgerald of Dingle, County Kerry to stand on a panel and that will put one name on it.

Members of the inner panel, as we refer to it, although I am not sure if it is known by that name in the Constitution, should continue to be elected by members of county and urban district councils. That should be their input into that distillation of democracy. However, the other group of people have been nominated by an outside group, such as the IFA, the ICMSA or the Irish Fishermen's Organisation in the case of the agricultural panel. Those people, whose names also appear on the ballot paper, should not be elected by county councillors but by farmers and fishermen – those whose interests they represent. That is how one gets a balance and how one would get around the geographical problem Senator Tom Fitzgerald raised. County councillors would still have a say, which is important, while there would also be a universal franchise for people who are not politicians. One could do the same with the labour panel, which could be divided in two – half the [901] Senators on the labour panel could be elected by county councillors who nominated them, while the other half could be elected by trade union members or their representatives. There is a variety of ways one could do this and the same could apply to the education panel.

I am general secretary of the largest education organisation on the island and I hold a senior position in the Irish labour movement. Despite that, there is no possibility I would be elected on either the education or labour panels as I am not a member of a party. There must be something wrong with such a system, although that may be the cry of an independent. However, there is a question to be answered and the way to deal with it is to use the method I mentioned – giving a universal franchise to half the panel and keeping the local authority electorate for the other half of the panel. In that way one could build a representative House.

That is why it would not be proper to increase the power of the Seanad, as I said earlier, because the Seanad has quite enough power if it is used properly. Those who talk about giving the Seanad more power are either on a power trip themselves or they do not recognise what we can do here. Those of us with a commitment to issues have managed to make progress on them, whether it is to get those issues debated, to get a Minister to change his or her viewpoint or to have legislation amended. We could give many examples of arguments being made and heard. There have also been cases where Ministers do not have the self-confidence to accept amendments, but that is useful to see in itself. It is also important to recognise those who carry out functions in the Seanad. The Leader of the House should be seen as an officeholder in terms of the operation of the Oireachtas. It should be a properly recognised and rewarded position. The Leader of the Opposition should also be a recognised role, although it is slightly different. We should not lose out in this regard.

I note the Cathaoirleach is in the Chair. It is a fundamental practice in most democracies that the speaker of the House is seen as having an even-handed and level approach in moderating debates; it is demanded of the position. Nonetheless, the speaker must be elected from the membership of the House, which obviously requires that he or she has been elected to the House. In moderating debates over the lifetime of a House and being even-handed the speaker may not show preference to those on the side from whence he or she came. That puts the speaker at somewhat of a disadvantage. It seems proper that the practice in the Dáil, which is the case in most other parliaments, where the Ceann Comhairle is automatically re-elected should be introduced in the Seanad.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  Hear, hear.

[902]Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  We would never get rid of him.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  We do not want him to go.

Mr. O'Toole: Information on Joe John O'Toole  Zoom on Joe John O'Toole  We on the Independent benches feel this would be appropriate. If the Government looks at a review of the Seanad it should consider this. It has nothing to do with parties. It recognises the importance and impartiality of a particular role and that should be reflected in the way we do our business.

The main issues are the roles of officeholders, reform of the electoral system, making the Seanad more representative and democratic as a result, and not extending the power of the House. Calling for the abolition of the Seanad is too simple. If people are asked if the number of Deputies should be halved or if the Seanad should be abolished they will agree. If one asked people if the number of Deputies should be reduced to ten, or even one, they would agree. Most people agree with the dictatorship approach to living in general terms, whether they say so or not.

The reality is that this Chamber's job is to moderate. In moderating, we must be sure the Seanad reflects the views of the day and that it does not change what happens in the Dáil except as we see it. The will of the people as expressed in the Lower House should not be stopped, although we may give it a different twist, emphasis or modification before moving it on or slowing it down. That is what a second Chamber is for. I do not want to debate the bicameral system today as that is another debate, while today we are focusing on the operation of the House.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I thank my colleagues for allowing me to speak, particularly Senator Burke. As Senator Tom Fitzgerald said, I made a submission to the committee's report and it is referred to in the report. I have also spoken on this matter several times, so people know my feelings on this issue.

The report makes eight points. The first is that there is no strong case for the abolition of the Seanad and this needs to be understood, given that an independent group reviewed the operation of the Seanad. There are occasional populist cries in the press for the abolition of the Seanad, but those charged with that responsibility examined all the evidence impartially and concluded that there was no strong case for abolition.

The second point, however, is that there is a case to answer, as the committee found that some of the criticism of the Seanad was justified and that some matters should be examined. Senator Fitzgerald made a fine speech admitting as much and I agreed with many of his proposals.

The third point was that there was no use tinkering with the Seanad. It should be a radical reform, if it is undertaken.

The fourth point is that the vocational element should be retained in some form. They do not believe in getting rid of the vocational element [903] from the Seanad. The fifth point, a rather interesting one, is that the President rather than the Taoiseach should nominate the 11 Members who are nominated directly. That may be an interesting idea but it removes the original basis on which the machinery was put into place, that is, to guarantee the stability of the Government side in the Seanad.

The sixth point is that university representation should be examined and that we should represent not the graduates but the universities. I completely and utterly oppose that. Universities as such have done nothing to deserve such favour nor do they use their representation in this House as effectively as they should. I have to get briefings from college. I often get them, and get good briefings, but they do not use the representation they have. I do not feel that I represent the university authorities; I want to represent something far broader. I represent 35,000 graduates or thereabouts, more than 50 per cent of whom are spread around the world and vote in a postal ballot. That indicates that the members of this constituency value and treasure their representation. They feel that they participate in the political life of this country. I will strongly defend the right of graduates to vote and the right not to have that taken away and given to a little clique of college officials and officers, the provost and fellows, not that I have anything against them. If we are talking about elitism, why make the situation an elitist one?

University representation works well. The Seanad also works well but I have certain queries about the methods of election of some sections of the House. One of the reasons university constituencies work well is that they follow the original idea of the vocational principle, that is, that there should be certain nominating bodies and that the ordinary members of those nominating bodies should be enfranchised and have a vote. We should examine this, at least as a partial model.

Valuable contributions are made from people who enter the House through the existing panel system, which is elected by county councillors, but that is not fully appropriate. There should be a panel on which people can be elected from the county councils, but we should review the nominating bodies. If we are to take the question of nominating bodies seriously, the ordinary members of those nominating bodies should have a vote. The nurses' organisations, the teachers, the legal profession should have a vote. If we want to bring expertise into the House, this is the way to do it. At least 50 per cent of the panel seats should be elected on that basis.

I remember listening to Senator Fitzgerald speak on the Fisheries Bill and thinking what a marvellous contribution he made. In his contribution today he referred to the Harbours Bill; it had gone through Committee, the Dáil and came back to this House at which time he tabled a series of amendments to it, 13 of which were [904] accepted. Why were they accepted? They were accepted because he knows about fisheries, harbours and marine life and he was able to bring his expertise to bear successfully on that Bill. That is what we should seek to achieve in the machinery of election to the Seanad. By ensuring that at least some of the panels have an element of enfranchisement of the ordinary members, we will get more people like Senator Fitzgerald elected who have a special expertise and can bring it to bear on the refinement of legislation.

The seventh point in the report is that special groups should be considered; this is a method for people to be elected who otherwise might not be elected. In the original Seanad the Irish peers were allowed elect 16 members – that must have elevated the social tone of the Seanad quite considerably. I imagine it must have been quite fun. At least they did not make the seats for their lordships hereditary, which would also have had its entertaining aspects.

With regard to special groups, although I am a deeply political animal, at the time I was elected and during the previous ten years when I was trying to get elected, there was no other machinery available to a person like myself with such controversial a background that would enable me to be elected to either House of the Oireachtas, but now I am usually re-elected quite comfortably. That is because I was given the opportunity to demonstrate what I could do, even though I was controversial. That is a valuable element of the Seanad and I would like it retained in whatever way it can be.

The final point in the report relates to special new powers. With regard to the Order of Business, what Senator Fitzgerald said is quite right. It gets a good deal of coverage because it is the easiest business for the media to report. I cannot complain because I get plenty of coverage on it because I am a saucy, rebellious, difficult person and I give cheek to my betters, and that sometimes turns up on “Oireachtas Report”. As Senator Fitzgerald generously said, I am also one of those Members who take the Seanad seriously. I am often here at 10 p.m. with three or four other people working hard on technical aspects of legislation which do not get covered because they are not regarded as sexy by the media.

We had a major impact on the Child Care Bill in that we proposed the insertion of a new section. There was a big battle about that and a decent Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, eventually brought it back to Cabinet. There was also the Harbours Bill and the Fisheries Bill on which Senator Fitzgerald spoke.

Mr. Fitzgerald:  The education Bill.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  There was also the education Bill. We have just passed the Planning and Development Bill on which we worked hard. It was gruelling. The Minister was co-operative and tabled a considerable number of amendments, but there was not a word of coverage about that.

[905] I remember when the Minister for Foreign Affairs returned from East Timor and his first report was made in the Seanad. That was a profoundly interesting time. He used some undiplomatic language, which was very refreshing from a Minister for Foreign Affairs. He deliberately, clearly and courageously criticised the Indonesian regime. He put the facts of the murders he had witnessed and been close to on record. One would imagine that would have made the headlines but there was not a single, solitary word about it. I am not criticising the reporters. I know they do their jobs and I am told frequently they put in their reports but this is subbed out, and that is rather a pity.

With regard to the Order of Business, Senator Fitzgerald said it is not question time, but maybe we could have a question time. Often the issues raised are ones that are of concern to people. I know there are the little bits at the end, matters of concern, but nobody bothers with that – I do not think that is even used any more. We should have a question time.

I wish to make a suggestion that is not mine – I wish it had been – but was made by a distinguished former diplomat to me at a dinner the night before last and I thought it was interesting. He said why not automatically make all former Taoisigh Members of this House. That would enable us to bring in a weight of wisdom, experience—

Mr. Fitzgerald:  Tribunals.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  —and capacity. Some people have had a more rocky ride than others on the way out of the Taoiseach's office, but there is a considerable level of expertise there. If we automatically included former Taoisigh, we would have access to very useful talents.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  The Seanad would never be abolished.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  The Senator is right, it would never be abolished.

On the question of pay and conditions, we are not properly paid. Because I have a pension from Trinity and an income from a flat in my house, I am able to survive, but we are not properly paid. What a colossal earth shattering cheek of the committee established to review this area to tell us we were paid plenty at £21,000 or something like that. The people who carried out that review are all in banks with £750,000 share options. These puffed up little preachers think they are worth multiples of ten times what they think is appropriate for us. Then I heard them on the radio saying that offering £23,000 to nurses was an insult. They do not seem to mind insulting us. I wish they would insult us a little more until the pay went up to something that would make it reasonable for people to choose this life, with all the insults fired at politicians currently, with all the demands on their time, and on their pocket [906] by every charity. We are glad to give to them, it is not meanness. I am just saying, give us the appropriate tools.

We have had considerable assistance recently in terms of technological advances, the computers and all the rest of it, but offices are still a disaster. I say directly to you, a Cathaoirligh, and to my friends in the rest of the House, for goodness sake, let us keep our eye on the ball, by which I mean the building work taking place just out there. As sure as eggs, when those offices are fitted out, every lame political seagull in this House will be trying to build its nest in them. They are for us. We want them and we should make sure that we get them because it is utterly inappropriate to expect us to work in the slum conditions that we and our secretaries have to endure. It is simply not appropriate for people in this situation.

I now raise a matter which is a little more controversial. The official reporting in the House is done on a very excellent basis, may I say. I recently raised a matter with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges about changes that were made in the report subsequently by the Office of the Editor of Debates. It was done with the best intention in the world because I was rather cruel to my colleague, Senator Joe Costello, who was lamenting the high levels of adult literacy. He meant illiteracy – it was a slip of the tongue. I went to town on this and did a sort of Swiftian thing, saying that I agreed with him, that it was quite shocking that people were not only being taught to read all over the place, but soon they would be writing and the next step would be Catholic Emancipation. That entire paragraph disappeared. It was an act of charity and kindness but it should have been left in. I brought it to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and they were so gutless that they collapsed completely and accepted some nonsensical rule which I cannot remember. Boswell or Hansard or some English authority on parliamentary procedure was quoted. The minute this name was raised, of which none of them had heard, they apologised and retreated. This should be examined. In fairness to the reporters, and in fairness to the Editor of Debates, we need to be very clear as to what can and cannot be changed and that situation has not been clarified. We are all very grateful to the standards of accuracy in the reporting and also to the very considerable talents of the editors who tidy up what we say. They make us appear that bit more grammatical than we actually are and a little more fluent in either of the two languages used in this House. I am very grateful to them for covering up my inadequacies but we need to raise a question when an entire paragraph disappears. I have no intention of attacking the office responsible. It is our fault because we did not lay down the guidelines clearly enough.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  I thank the Leader of the House for allowing time to continue the debate on the review of the Seanad. It is only right that every [907] parliament should look at itself from time to time and that it should review its workings. We are doing that today, which is only right. I agree with much of Senator Fitzgerald's contribution and there were some very fine contributions today. Senator Fitzgerald said he does not agree with the Order of Business and I concur. However, if we do not have an Order of Business then I agree with Senator O'Toole that we should have question time. We should consider that possibility. There are matters which need to be raised from time to time or from day to day and this could be done through question time if we were to abolish an Order of Business.

I fully agree with the speakers on the powers of the House. We have enough powers and it is up to the Members to use them.

Senator's Norris stated that we should keep our eye on the ball regarding the new office accommodation to become available in the future. We should have the very best of offices. As Members of Parliament, it is the very least to which we are entitled. We should have a secretary on a one-to-one basis which they have in nearly every democracy in the world. In our system two Senators share one secretary and that is not good enough.

On salaries, I agree with Senator Norris. The miserly sum given to parliamentarians in this House during the time of the Celtic tiger is not good enough. A Member of this House comes from a large family of ten, of whom nine are in the public service and in private enterprise. He is the worst paid of all of them. These are the facts. This is an issue that should be examined.

In recent years there have been several debates on the review of the Seanad in this House. Many of the ideas expressed were put forward in the past. We are not dealing with this matter for the first time. Members have already made a wide range of suggestions on how changes could be effected. There is also a clear willingness on their part to accept the consequences of that change.

The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution chaired by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe decided to carry out a review. They commissioned a report from Professor John Coakley from UCD and Professor Michael Laver of TCD. A second progress report by this committee was also commissioned and it dealt with Seanad Éireann. It observed that the Seanad does make a useful contribution to the democratic life of the State but that the Seanad is a resource that could be deployed to far greater effect if it were reformed. The report also examined the functions of the Seanad and produced recommendations for substantial change in the composition of the House. Senator O'Toole has made several worthwhile suggestions here, some of which should be considered in any future review of this House.

It is clear from the Coakley-Laver study that there was a wide range of options available for determining the composition of a second Chamber. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution in its report is persuaded by the argu[908] ment in the Coakley-Laver study that the Seanad does make a useful contribution to the democratic life of this State. The savings of around £3 million per annum, the cost of running this House, which would be achieved if the Seanad were abolished could be illusory because some of the functions it carries out would need to be relocated to other parts of the political system.

It would be a serious loss to the Dáil because the disappearance of Senators would make the task of manning the committees extremely difficult. The committee also agrees with Coakley-Laver in that the Seanad could be employed to far greater effect if it were reformed. Members accept the need for this reform. Electoral systems must be widened to broaden the membership of the Seanad. Any reform of the electoral system should be based on a frank acceptance that politics is about politics and that the Houses of Parliament are run on political principles because they are about the business of politics. We do not want to see some form of corporate State institution run by those with vested interests, individuals interested only in one issue, who are not answerable in a democratic fashion and who concentrate only on serving the interests of their supporters. Above all, Parliament stands for the interests of the people pooled in one assembly, not for professional interests fighting to fulfil their selfish desires.

There is a need for reform of the electoral system. A college of electors drawn from those who are themselves elected and who are involved in local government on a daily basis is sensible as a means of electing some Members to the Upper House. Other groups should also enjoy the possibility of election to this House, particularly representatives of groups who have something distinctive to say. We should examine ways of bringing this to pass. Senator O'Toole outlined some of those ideas in his contribution.

It is appropriate to examine the functions of the Seanad. It is more reflective in its consideration of legislation. It is good to see Bills being initiated in this House because they are frequently better debated as result. We have heard about many of those Bills this morning. There are many instances where defects in Bills which have slipped past the parliamentary draftsman and the Dáil have been picked up in the Seanad. Senators take the trouble to study legislation line by line. An example is the work this House did on the Planning and Development Bill. That Bill, one of the largest to be introduced to the Oireachtas, was well debated and many amendments were made to it. I congratulate all those who spoke on the Bill, particularly the Minister, who took on board amendments from all sides. That legislation will last for many years.

There have been changes in Seanad Éireann in recent years. More legislation is now initiated in the Seanad; it does not just react to legislation coming from the Dáil. This is to be recommended because more time can be spent on Bills in this [909] House. Speakers have mentioned the idea of prospective EU legislation being debated here in the presence of European Commissioners and officials who can provide the background and rationale of the policies being introduced. I welcome this approach. This House was enriched by the attendance of Commissioner Neil Kinnock some years ago.

Our MEPs should have the right of audience in this House. The day to day matters dealt with in Europe affect trade, commerce and the living standards of every citizen in the State. It is important that within the Oireachtas there should be a House with the time and facilities to deal with these matters. As matters stand, and despite the growing importance of the EU in all our lives, our 15 MEPs have no domestic forum to which they can report and be accountable to their electorate. Seanad Éireann is the most obvious and appropriate forum to accomplish this. If MEPs were given the right of audience once a month in this House, three objectives would be obtained: the democratic process would be enriched, the electorate's knowledge of and involvement in European affairs would grow and the role and status of the Seanad would be enhanced. It is important that the increasing amount of legislation, regulation and directives from Europe is monitored. This House can do that. In most cases European regulations and directives are imposed without full debate.

Great strides have been made in Northern Ireland. There is now an Assembly established. There could a role for the Seanad in North-South debates and Northern MEPs could also have a right of audience.

The principal job of the Seanad is the detailed scrutiny of legislation. We should never rush legislation; we should allow time for reflection and consultation with other groups. I do not agree with legislation being rushed through the House and I oppose the manner in which all Stages of a Bill are taken in one day or in one week. That is not an appropriate way to run our affairs. We should have time between each Stage so we can examine the Bill in detail and allow ample time for negotiation, amendments and discussions with interest groups. We need better support services for the examination of legislation. This is a matter for the parties but it should be given urgent consideration. Members of this House need more research facilities. Every Senator must do his or her own research. That is not good enough.

Many issues have been raised and addressed in this House and it has helped change things. Some issues first brought to light in this House attracted a great deal of attention and we had the time to deal with them in a way the other House did not. In the future, technology and globalisation will cause enormous changes. There is a range of issues which must be discussed in Parliament on a regular basis but which cannot be not dealt with in the other House. This House could lead here.

[910] I have spoken about our role in Northern Ireland. There is also secondary legislation. Many provisions are made law through the use of statutory instruments. As politicians we should be hostile to and suspicious of such measures. They should be examined carefully on the basis that the Executive will always try to go further than it should. Of course, this may not be the case but as legislators we should approach it in that way.

There should be proper backup services to enable us to examine statutory instruments. St. John's wort has been restricted by statutory instrument and we will hear more about this issue, although the Cathaoirleach has informed us that the issue has been dealt with in detail. As a legislative body we should play a role in this. The former Senator, Professor Lee, said that it is not experience which ultimately counts but judgment. We above all others are called upon to make judgments. Lawyers can tell us the law and economist can tells us about economic performance but we must make judgments in the interests of the people.

Our job is to justify the existence of this House and the best justification is to ensure it is a good House. Some say that the Seanad could be abolished, TDs could be got rid of, that there is no need for MEPs or a President; the Civil Service could run the State. Where would that leave us? It would leave us in a dictatorship. There is a price to be paid for democracy and our democracy is second to none. There is, however, no reason we cannot improve it. That should be our aim.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  Senator Burke showed how versatile Senators are by managing to include a reference to St. John's wort in a debate on the reform of Seanad Éireann. I enjoy greatly being a Member of Seanad Éireann and I am only here because it is such a useful body. That is the reason I put my name forward for election and I am most grateful to my constituents for electing me. I have been a Member for the last seven years.

Internationally this House must be considered fairly useful. I was interviewed by the BBC about six months ago when the reform of the House of Lords was being discussed on various programmes. The point was made that the Seanad in the Republic of Ireland appeared to be one of the most useful upper houses in bicameral parliaments. I was delighted to hear this and believe that I personally saved some of the hereditary peers from being thrown out by suggesting that there should be an election, because England had after all been run fairly well for about 400 years under the existing system. I am sure Lord Cranborne was suitably grateful for my suggestion.

Many useful suggestions have been made about what can be done in the long term to reform this House. Senator Tom Fitzgerald said that it should be left exactly as it is and I am sure there are others who feel the same way. As one of the university Senators I would like to see all third level graduates being in a position to vote. I hope uni[911] versity Senators are seen as very committed, even if at times they are considered troublesome. Other institutions should be able to avail of a similar facility.

The question of payment will have to be looked at as the Seanad now sits much more often than in the post. Twenty to 30 years ago it sat two days every second week.

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  Once a month.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  It is very hard to sustain another job or profession when one has to operate on a three or four day irregular rota. I am not complaining about this as I can see the value, especially to Ministers, in initiating legislation in this House where enormous changes can be made without the headline “Minister does a U-turn” being carried on the front page of a newspaper. This is a great advantage. Jimmy Walsh commented on the major changes to the Planning and Development Bill in his column in The Irish Times – they were also mentioned on “Oireachtas Report”– but did they make the headlines? They did not. Ministers will controversial legislation more often in the Seanad to avoid the serious party political debates that one tends to have in the other House. There are Bills to be initiated here next week. One would want to be witless not to see the advantages in introducing controversial legislation in this House where Ministers are not criticised too heavily. Neither are they criticised in the press once they show a willingness to accept suggestions.

There is one matter we could address in the short term. I was disappointed with the response of the Leader of the House on the Order of Business to my tenth request for a debate on the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals. This is a criticism I make of both Houses. Whenever an excellent report is produced in response to calls from Members in either House there seems to be a notion that something has happened. I doubt if 2 per cent of reports requested are debated in either House. Not only does this show shocking discourtesy to those who write reports it is also a terrible waste of money. We should at least go through the list of reports and insist on the most important being debated.

The Leader of the House said this morning that the mental health Bill will be published before Christmas. I will not say which Christmas because I have been waiting for it ever since I was elected. The Leader of the House also said that the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals could be discussed with it. That will not do. The report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals is extraordinarily important and needs to be confronted. Its recom[912] mendations must be implemented. Many Members of this House, from every part of the country, have been professionally involved with the mental hospital service. They should be fighting to have this report debated.

Reports on genetically modified food have also been called for. Has the excellent report on genetically modified organisms been debated in either House? No. Reports on mobile 'phones have been called for. Rather than call for a report on mobile 'phones based on newspaper articles it would be better to obtain and debate whatever reports are available on the subject. Reports on agriculture have been called for. Would it not be better to look at the recent report of An Bord Glas and call for a specific report?

There is a need for more focused debates to ensure we deal with the important issues presented in reports. Has anyone ever heard of the reports of the Law Reform Commission being debated? The answer is no. Has the report on foreign adoptions been debated anywhere? No. I could go on and on. As I hope the Cathaoirleach is aware, I am a practical woman. Our debates should become more focused. Rather than make statements on agriculture we should make statements on the report of An Bord Glas, on the beef assurance scheme or on whatever report is considered the most important. We are inclined to have rambling debates. This is a great pity as there is considerable expertise in the House. We should debate reports out of courtesy to those who write them. It would also be to our benefit.

On two occasions Independent Members have availed of Private Members' time to debate the budget on the day of presentation. This should become the norm, unless there is a more urgent matter to discuss. It should become one of a number of set-piece debates to improve our performance in the short term. The public does think that we have a useful role to play in the governance of the country. I have been contacted by many people about various debates which have taken place in this House. What we say in the House can now be read on the Internet. This is an important facility. The fact that one does not feature in newspaper headlines does not mean the public has no knowledge of what we do. We should not underestimate the interest in our activities. I agree with Senator Tom Fitzgerald that it all depends on the work we are prepared to put in. In general most Members are more than enthusiastic to make the Seanad as efficient and as useful as possible.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly  Zoom on Brian Mullooly  That concludes the statements. When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Information on Tom Fitzgerald  Zoom on Tom Fitzgerald  Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 December 1999.


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