Thursday, 31 March 2011
Making Committees Work in the 31st Dáil: Statements
Brendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
We are at a critical juncture in our history and our democracy. The scale and depth of the crisis that has engulfed our State has undermined confidence in our public institutions. The political culture that captured the previous Government and allowed this crisis to happen — a culture of golden circles, of impunity, of conflating party political interest with the national interest — has sown among our citizens distrust, at best, and contempt, at worst, for those who hold public office.
On its own, the complexity and reach of this current crisis are enough to shake our systems of governance to their core. This crisis is the third time since the foundation of the State that our country has been brought to the brink of disaster by political recklessness and economic mismanagement. It is long past time to say "Never again". Never again will Ireland be brought so low by the actions of a few. Never again will the livelihoods of our people be exposed to such unacceptable risk. Never again will Ireland's good name be dragged through the mire. That is the task willingly shouldered by the new Government, its pledge and its purpose.
Times of crisis test the quality of a democracy. February's general election demonstrated that Irish citizens are not afraid to exercise their democratic right to a change of Government. However, this is just the beginning of the kind of transformation we need. We need to change how Government itself works, so that it is more democratic, more transparent and more capable of taking on the complex challenges our country faces now and in the future. Put simply, we need a system of governance that is fit for purpose.
Before and during the general election campaign, both the Labour Party and Fine Gael outlined in detail their plans to radically reform the Government. Those plans reflect the bitter lessons of the past, but they also reflect a belief in the potential of our Parliament and its Members on both sides of the House to lead change, to govern effectively, and to hold the Government to account — a potential that is considerably greater than has been realised to date.
The programme for Government agreed by the two parties contains the most ambitious and far-reaching agenda for political reform ever put before the House. It must be ambitious if we are to restore the people's trust and confidence in the institutions that serve them. Our agenda for reform is two-fold: to challenge the overall context in which the Government operates so that the people's business is no longer concealed behind closed doors; and to change the way the Government operates, making it more effective and more democratic.
Changing a political culture is difficult, particularly when one party has been in power longer than any other. We can start by restoring the principle of a democracy of equals. In such a democracy, influence is not for sale. One of the most important commitments by this Government picks up where the Labour Party left off in 1997 when it introduced the first limits on electoral spending. We are committed to drastically reducing the amount that can be donated to political parties and lowering the threshold for declaring those donations. We will also make appropriate constitutional provisions to ban corporate donations.
The Government is committed to shining a light on how the people's business is conducted. We will legislate to establish a statutory register of lobbyists and clear rules governing the practice of lobbying. We will restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was filleted by the previous Government, and we will extend it to other bodies substantially funded by the public purse. We will legislate to protect whistleblowers who speak out against wrongdoing or cover-ups, whether in the public or the private sector. Government is not something that happens behind closed doors, to be accessed only by the chosen few. Changing the context in which we govern — throwing open the doors, rather than seeking protection behind them — is a powerful and practical message that this is government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The second pillar of the Labour Party and Fine Gael's reform agenda is to change the structures and practices of the Government itself. Democracy is debased if its most important institution, the Parliament, is not relevant. Underpinning the Dáil reforms detailed in the programme for Government is the principle that every vote cast, in every school, community hall and other place of polling, matters. Democracy is not just about electing a Government: it should be also about electing an effective Parliament. This is the principle that underpins the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad. It is not a knee-jerk reaction to the need for cost savings or demands for reform or smaller government. It is about strengthening democracy itself. It is my view and the view of the Government that Ireland's democracy is not well served by a superfluous second Chamber which is widely regarded as being arcane and irrelevant. If our democracy is to be seen as relevant, it must demonstrate that it can reform itself. That includes consigning institutions that have served their purpose to the history books, as well as making existing ones more effective.
One of the most important tools of an effective Parliament is parliamentary committees. Yet Ireland is unique among parliamentary democracies in having an extremely weak committee system with very limited powers and no power at all to investigate matters of fact. The reforms to the committee system being proposed by the Government are centred on making committees more relevant, strengthening the Dáil's engagement with the European Union, and strengthening its capacity to investigate matters of grave public interest.
First, as part of this Government's commitment to breaking its monopoly on legislation and Dáil business, committees will be given considerably more power and responsibility to progress the work of Parliament. They will have the power to introduce legislation themselves rather than simply scrutinise Bills introduced by the Government. Legislation is made by the representatives of the people, which include all Members of this House and not just those elected to the Government side. By opening up the power of tabling legislation to committees and to every individual Member of the House, the people's business can be done more effectively and efficiently — and, most importantly, more democratically.
Scrutiny of legislation will continue to be a critical function of committees, but to make that scrutiny more meaningful, the Government will amend Cabinet procedure to allow it to publish the general schemes of Bills. This will enable Oireachtas committees to begin to debate legislation, to hold hearings and to talk to the people involved at an earlier stage of the legislative process. To provide for more in-depth analysis and work by legislative committees, every fourth sitting week will be a committee week. During those weeks, the House will sit only to take Question Time and the Order of Business, with the rest of the day devoted exclusively to committee work. Many of us have worked in committees buried in the bowels of another building with no scrutiny or interest on the part of the press. Important legislative business and the productivity of the House went unnoticed and remarks made in the Chamber were passed over by the media. We need to put legislative business and the work of committees centre stage. Too often, the good work that happens in committees falls down the back of a silo. Reports painstakingly researched over months are compiled and published and then never heard of again. It is proposed that new Friday sittings be given over entirely to committee reports and Private Members' business in order that Members can debate and examine in more detail the often useful policy findings that emerge from committees and to allow them to use that time, as they do in the British Parliament, to bring forward legislation.
Second, committees should be the vehicle for a much more proactive engagement between the democratically elected Oireachtas and the European Union. This Government will not continue, except in exceptional circumstances, the previous Administration's practice of automatically enacting EU legislation by statutory instrument. Is it any wonder Irish citizens feel disconnected from the EU when there is little or no debate about the laws and policies that originate from it? In future, regulatory impact assessments prepared for Ministers on all EU directives and significant regulations will be automatically forwarded to the relevant sectoral committees. These committees will be required to advise the Minister and the Joint Committee on European Affairs whether EU directives should be transposed into Irish law by statutory instrument or by primary legislation. Most important, committees will be responsible for ensuring that EU laws and policies comply with the principle of subsidiarity, in accordance with the reforms introduced by the Lisbon treaty. It should be up to Members to decide whether the EU is overstepping its competencies. Finally, to enhance the transparency and accountability of Government in its dealings with the EU, all Ministers will be obliged to appear before their respective committees or the Joint Committee on European Affairs prior to attending Council meetings in Brussels or elsewhere.
The third significant reform we propose to the committee system is also a significant step forward for our democracy. Ireland has the only parliament in the world that I have studied which does not have the power to conduct investigations that might attribute blame to identifiable individuals. This was further underlined by the Abbeylara judgment of the Supreme Court, which has had the effect of quashing any hint of criticism of a named official by an Oireachtas committee. It is simply not right that the representatives of the people elected to this Parliament are not entitled to establish clear facts about right and wrong when matters of grave public importance are before them. This Government does not accept that our Parliament should be neutered in this way, almost uniquely in the world. We have committed in the programme for Government to amend the Constitution to allow for comprehensive inquiries by Oireachtas committees. Every citizen in our democracy has a right to his or her good name but that right must be balanced with the undeniable public interest realised by effective investigation into matters of serious public concern.
The programme for Government also proposes establishing a powerful investigations, oversight and petitions committee. This committee would be structured along the lines of the Committee of Public Accounts, and chaired by a senior member of the Opposition. Once the Constitution is amended to roll back the restrictions of the Abbeylara judgment, every Oireachtas committee will have the power to conduct an investigation. However, the investigations, oversight and petitions committee will have the specific function of addressing citizens' concerns as they relate to public services or public administration. For example, the committee could be a formal channel of consultation between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman, responsible for ensuring her recommendations are acted upon. It would also receive petitions from individuals and groups on issues of public concern in the same manner as the petitions committee of the European Parliament. The most glaring problem with our system of governance in recent years has been its failure to provide the checks and balances that would have reined in the excesses of previous Administrations, much of which amounted to electioneering with the people's own money.
It is my intention, together with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to radically overhaul scrutiny of public spending by the Dáil. My immediate priority, as Minister for public expenditure and reform, will be to undertake a comprehensive review of all public expenditure. Public spending will be measured against its effectiveness in achieving its stated intentions and outcomes. This is a significant departure from previous efficiency reviews, which focused exclusively on doing less of everything, rather than asking what was done or what was intended to be done in the first place. The results of this comprehensive spending review will inform the budget to be introduced later this year.
Other measures include the establishment of an independent fiscal advisory council, which would objectively monitor fiscal policy, and which would report to the House in order that there will be an independent watchdog to advise Members. The Estimates procedure will be brought forward and will be accompanied by a detailed performance report on what the previous year's spending had achieved. This will include a performance report from agencies funded from the public purse. There will also be a significant role for Oireachtas committees in scrutinising performance and expenditure of Departments and agencies, some of which have never been subject to public oversight.
The programme for Government includes changes to Dáil procedures, which will enable every Member to contribute meaningfully to the business of government. These include granting Opposition and backbench Government Deputies the right to introduce their own legislation, ensuring there is adequate time to debate important legislation and amending the Adjournment debate format to make it a meaningful forum for raising topical issues. The overall effect of these reforms will be to rebalance considerably power between the Executive and the Parliament.
Governing effectively is not the same as hoarding power and democracy is not well served by knee-jerk defensiveness. This rebalancing of the Oireachtas will, I hope, better reflect the serious responsibility conferred on every Member when he or she is elected to the Dáil. That responsibility is to put the people's interest first and not just the people today, but their children and their grandchildren. It is our responsibility to hand our country on to its next stewards in a better condition than that in which we found it.
The reforms I have outlined are not partisan and they are not designed to increase the Government's advantage. It is quite the contrary; they are about doing what we were all elected to do — get our country back on its feet, get our people back to work and to put the concerns, hopes and aspirations of our fellow citizens at the heart of how we do our business.