Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Ceisteanna — Questions

Dáil Reform.

11:00 am

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach his proposals for Dáil reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16829/07]

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he has proposals for Dáil reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18794/07]

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach his proposals for Dáil reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20166/07]

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

As the Deputies will be aware, the matter of Dáil reform is essentially one for the House which, under the Constitution, has responsibility for making its own rules and Standing Orders. While the Government parties are committed to progressing any commitments contained in the programme for Government, it is ultimately the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which progresses Dáil reform. Responsibility for promoting Dáil reform is shared by all parties in this House and the Government will play a constructive part in exploring with those parties opportunities for improving procedures.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I assure the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle that this party is genuinely interested in serious Dáil reform to make this place more effective in the interests of the people. Does the Taoiseach have a view on the place an Oireachtas channel might have in broadcasting Dáil, Seanad and committee proceedings on a regular basis and as a public service? The Whips and persons designated with responsibility will meet shortly to discuss it with the Ceann Comhairle. At present people must rely on current affairs programmes and reflections in news broadcasts. Deputy Rabbitte once famously referred to insomniacs and others watching "Oireachtas Report" at 2 a.m. or later as I saw the other night. Does the Taoiseach have a view on that?

It would be extremely beneficial as a public service for the people in that there is always a measure of support for what is discussed here by interested groups. I understand the technology is available and that the cost is not too great. We would be very interested in pursuing that proposal with the Ceann Comhairle and the Government. It would be important for Monday's newspapers to be able to publicise what will be discussed in the Dáil that week. Deputy Barrett made the point that in Britain, even during the summer when the House of Commons is not in session, they broadcast reruns of the issues debated by the committees. A dedicated political or Oireachtas channel covering Dáil, Seanad and committee proceedings would be of enormous interest to people and it would be a great public service.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with Deputy Kenny on two points and I am aware of the Ceann Comhairle's efforts to progress reform issues. There is an agenda to which I am open and ready to move on. We could do a lot to improve how we run the House even within the existing hours. Recently I looked at the figures for last year. With Leaders' Questions, Question Time, the Order of Business and the Adjournment Debate, we continually squeeze legislative time which is the primary purpose of the House, although obviously answering questions is part of that. We could introduce many reforms.

We could also address how we deal with urgent matters which is always a cause of frustration. It could be done better than the way we have done so, or the way in which I have operated for six years or so. I do not have a problem with the current system but one could get more up to date information by involving other Ministers. If the object is to get information — although I am not always sure it is — we could do it in a better way. If the object is just to liven up the House, we probably cannot do so. We should look at that matter. Many useful reports which do not really get too much of an airing could do so.

I am entirely in agreement with Deputy Kenny on a dedicated television station broadcasting unedited recordings of what happens in the House, although perhaps edited if there is repetition. I watch much of what goes on at committees because I have access to committee broadcasts in my office. There are very interesting committees and very interesting presentations are made by all the interested bodies representing all sectors of Irish society, including employers, employees, the public and civic society. Probably the only place they ever make a public presentation is in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I probably only know about 3% of what they say and do, although I try to look at the recommendations of the major reports which come out. Quite frankly, I do not get to read a huge amount of the detail unless it is something in which I am particularly interested, which is a small amount. I regularly watch committees dealing with the semi-States because it is a form of information and is close to what I deal with on a daily basis. Top class reports were issued in the life of the last Dáil.

Presentations made to committees would fill many television stations. Obviously, if the Dáil is being broadcast, everything else could not be but it would be very suitable for running in the evening or at weekends. It might never have high TAM ratings but I do not believe many people watch much of the stuff I happen to flick through when looking for the programme I want to watch. I would say that a lot of the rubbish that is on TV does not get much of a TAM rating, although I have to confess that some of the rubbish gets very high TAM ratings. That is always a point of view one would have.

A dedicated television service would help to publicise some of the quality presentations which are made. I suggest to the Ceann Comhairle that the best way to bring this forward would be through the joint administrative committee, which is chaired by Deputy Barry Andrews. Perhaps the committee should consider this proposal as its first project. I do not think it would be too difficult to do that. I understand that it would be easy enough for us to do it. Deputy Kenny made the key point that we should not be worried about TAM ratings anyway. We are talking about the dedicated work of a group of people and the knock-on effect it has on many others. It may be the case that not everyone will watch the channel when groups come before the Oireachtas to represent a substantial number of people.

I had this debate with some of the members of a group representing the credit unions who came to an Oireachtas committee to make a submission. They almost blamed me when they did not get much coverage for raising the issue. I understood their frustration. They made the point that their submission was vitally important because they were representing 2 million members of credit unions. The people in question, all of whom were volunteers, had spent four weekends preparing their submission. It was not the committee's fault that they did not get a second of coverage. I tried to explain to them that such a lack of coverage is encountered here all the time.

The establishment of a dedicated channel, which obviously would be advertised like all other channels, would have a beneficial effect on the House. It would also cover the point about committees being uninteresting and insufficiently covered. They should receive more coverage, in fairness to Members. I understand that Members have to be re-elected. They are always being asked to do this, that and the other. If Members thought the time they dedicate to a committee, or two committees if they are serving on two committees, would be reflected on television, they would have a bigger interest in doing that. That would make life more interesting around this House in the future.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the establishment of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I hope all MPs in the Six Counties will avail of the opportunity to attend meetings of the committee and to participate in its activities. I do not doubt that the Taoiseach will echo my call. In light of the establishment of the committee, where stands the Taoiseach's original proposal regarding the access of Northern Irish MPs to a committee of the whole Dáil? Can the Taoiseach clarify — he has not done so to date — whether he sees the new Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement as a substitute for what he initially proposed? Is he placing on hold the idea of allowing Northern Irish MPs to access certain debates in a committee of the whole Dáil? He will appreciate that I strongly support the latter suggestion. I hope his proposal to proceed with the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement does not mean that the original idea, which other parties were reticent to endorse, is being abandoned. I believe that the initial proposition reflected most accurately the opinions expressed by the all-party committee.

I have examined the proposals for Dáil reform made by one of the Taoiseach's coalition partners. Is he aware of the various proposals which constitute the Green Party's policy in this area? What is his position on them? The Green Party has proposed that the number of Dáil sitting weeks be increased to 45. What is the Taoiseach's position on that? The Green Party has also called for the removal of the power of the Taoiseach to dissolve the Dáil and call a general election. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's opinion on this policy of his coalition partners. Does he agree with it? Another very interesting Green Party proposal involves the allocation of committee chairs under the d'Hondt system. As I have not done the arithmetic, I am not sure how it would affect my small interest in this regard. Has the Green Party pursued the development of such an arrangement, or any other proposition pertaining to the allocation of committee chairs, with the Taoiseach? Did it do so during the most recent allocation of such positions, or does it intend to do so in the future? Perhaps the Taoiseach will clarify where he stands on these points. Has the Green Party been pressing him on such matters of Dáil reform?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Ó Caoláin will appreciate that we have always tried to introduce Dáil reforms based on agreement. That is necessary if new structures are to work satisfactorily and not be a source of division in the House. Everything we do is aimed at improving the way we do our business. It is obvious that every party has made an input into the reform process. I have been amused by some of the proposals which have been made over the years. The ideas of the Opposition and the Government are different because they are in different positions. We should look at it from a Dáil point of view. If one follows what some people think to its logical conclusion, I would be in here all day, every day, answering questions.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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That will not happen.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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If I were in here all the time, I would have nothing to answer questions about — I would not be outside doing my work. It is logical, I have to go outside the House to do some work so I can then come in here and answer questions about it.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I would like to know how to get the Taoiseach in here more often.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Some people do not understand that I have to be actually doing something to be able to answer questions on it.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Micko was pleased with the Taoiseach's work last night.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is what I spend the other 80 hours a week doing. We have examined the proposals which have been made by various parties about the d'Hondt method and other issues. Deputy Ó Caoláin asked a specific question on the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. My view on this issue has not changed. I did not write the all-party report, but I agree with it. The Deputy will recall that we deliberated on the all-party report, which was a good report, for a long time. We all made submissions on it. I would gladly implement the report tomorrow if agreement could be reached on that. I have not changed my position on it. As I am a realist, I accept that we have struggled to reach the current position. I appreciate the co-operation of the various party leaders in getting to this stage, at least, because otherwise we would have nothing. We should see how the current arrangements work for a period of some years. Perhaps we could revisit the original report at a later date. We should concentrate our efforts on this report at this time. I have not changed my mind.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Taoiseach's continued support for the original proposal he made. I would like to restate my own support for it. I hope the other party leaders will note what he has said. I hope too much time will not pass before the original proposition is revisited, which would be of singular importance. The Taoiseach has suggested that some of us would like him to spend much more time answering questions in this Chamber. He is a mighty man for giving replies to the questions which are put to him. The real problem we have relates to whether those replies constitute answers.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Ask me again.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Ó Caoláin is not too bad at asking questions himself.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I would prefer the Taoiseach to come to the House one day a week and actually answer the questions he is asked, rather than taking the approach he adopts most of the time. The Taoiseach seems unwilling to outline his position on an increase in sitting weeks, on his power to dissolve the Dáil and call a general election or on the allocation of committee chairs under the d'Hondt system. Therefore, I will ask an additional question about a further aspect of the Green Party's policy on Dáil reform. Will the Government revisit the Standing Order that requires seven Deputies to come together before a technical group can be formed? The Taoiseach will recall that I have raised this matter with him on a number of occasions. Has he given any further thought to the Green Party's policy position, which reflects my continued requests and those of my colleagues? I have to acknowledge that voices of disparate opinion in this Chamber have said they believe that Dáil reform and improved engagement in this House would be aided and abetted if my colleagues and I were given an opportunity to participate in Leaders' Questions, Priority Questions and other areas of parliamentary activity from which we have been excluded since the 30th Dáil was formed.

As the Green Party Deputies have joined with Sinn Féin in the call to reduce the number from seven to five in the past, which would accommodate the four Sinn Féin Deputies and the Independent Deputy now no longer recognised as a Technical Group, has the Green Party pressed the Taoiseach on this issue? Has it raised the issue with him since the establishment of his new three-party coalition with Independent support? What response has the Taoiseach given? Is he still considering and will he accept the urgings of this Deputy that it would indeed add to and enhance the engagement on the floor of the House and be much more reflective of the broad spectrum of opinion in Irish society if debate was not confined to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Deputies Kenny and Gilmore, Fine Gael and the Labour Party? There is a third force for change in Irish politics and it is represented by Sinn Féin. The Taoiseach should not be afraid to face us; he has had the experience before.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has made many suggestions. I am not averse to these issues being discussed between the Whips and in the committees which are examining new arrangements which may be agreed on Dáil reform.

Deputy Ó Caoláin would have to acknowledge that the rules of the House have achieved a fair balance regarding Question Time and questions to the Taoiseach. I have been present in the distinguished visitors' galleries of other parliaments and I note those members are not given the same amount of time as the Deputy is given.

I refer the Deputy to the practice in the previous Dáil. Equal time was given to Deputy Kenny and to the leader of the Labour Party and to former Deputy Joe Higgins who was given time nearly every sitting day. It could be said that this did not reflect a democratic position either.

By using the committee system and in discussion with the Chief Whip I have tried to strike a fair balance. Many Deputies do not receive a fair share of time——

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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With respect, former Deputy Joe Higgins was one of only three Deputies, including the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, and myself. The time was shared on a turnabout basis between the three of us out of a Technical Group of 22 Deputies, in fact, even one more than the Labour Party.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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That was out of a total of 166 Deputies.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Nevertheless it was still one more than the Labour Party. If the Taoiseach wishes to bring it down to that type of comparison, he had better deal with the facts.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Is 22 one third of 166?

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We cannot have a debate about it.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am here to answer questions. If I were on the opposite side of the House I would probably be far more aggrieved. Twenty-two Deputies out of a total of 166 were given speaking time whereas other Deputies from the major parties were squeezed and needed two minutes of shared time in order to make a contribution while 22 Deputies were given more than one third of the speaking time.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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We are talking about an Opposition party.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am just speaking honestly. I have been in the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery in many parliaments and I do not think there is a parliamentary system that would give the same amount of time and representation as is given in this House. Far from being aggrieved, the Deputy should come in here every morning and thank the system that is so kind to him.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach says I should be really grateful but my gratitude is reserved for the people of Cavan and Monaghan. I would hopehe would take on board the sense of establishing that balance and allowing the smaller Opposition parties——

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will do so through the committee system.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Allow Deputy Stagg. We cannot have a debate on the matter now.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ó Caoláin has been speaking for 15 minutes and I am weary of listening to him. The Ceann Comhairle is being very lenient.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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I ask Deputies to be quiet and allow me speak.

I have been a Whip for a long time and as a result I have been involved in talks about Dáil reform and I am nearly afraid to say how long that has been. The most extensive work was done by Deputies Barrett, Brennan, former Deputy Des O'Malley and myself. We were very close to agreement on a major package of reforms but the election came and caught us and now we start from scratch again with a different set of people.

The Taoiseach may agree that the mistake we made was in trying to achieve a total package rather than the approach of " softly, softly, catchy monkey" and taking it one step at a time. This might have been an easier and perhaps more effective way.

I presume the Taoiseach is aware of the steps being taken by the Ceann Comhairle to act as facilitator on the matter of reforms which would be acceptable to all, such as in Leaders' Questions and the Order of Business, concerning parliamentary questions and better planning of the parliamentary programme, the committee system and topical issues. These are all issues which have been arising and on which there is a large measure of agreement among all sides of the House. It was the case that if a significant issue could not be resolved, it stopped anything else being agreed.

Will the Taoiseach agree it could be desirable, given that the Ceann Comhairle is making his good offices available to facilitate and assist us, to move forward with these measures and try for agreement, which I believe is possible? The further steps needed could then be examined.

I refer to the issue of the special dedicated television channel. A total of 60 channels are available to the country — it could be more now with the digital service — and these can be allocated by the Government as it wishes. Deputies Barrett and Rabbitte made a proposal a long time ago for a dedicated channel for the Oireachtas. Although they may not sit down and watch us all day, the channel would be available to the public as required to enable them see what happens here and in the committees. The Taoiseach has already indicated his support.

One of the issues of Dáil reform most difficult to resolve is the time we spend in the Chamber. Various proposals have been made by both Government and Opposition but all of them would include longer sitting times and shorter recess times. I am not suggesting we argue the point across the floor of the House but it is an issue that needs to be addressed so that more legislative time is provided.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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It would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that Deputy Stagg has been working on this matter for a very long time.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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I thought I would be promoted by now.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I had experience of his good work in the past. I worked on the issue of Dáil reform a long time ago with Deputies Stagg and Barrett and former Deputy Mervyn Taylor and others.

I agree there should be a dedicated television channel. I am not sure what is involved but I have spoken to the Chief Whip and he supports the proposal. I told the new joint administrative committee that a committee would be given the responsibility of overseeing the project, bringing it from A to Z. Deputy Barry Andrews is Chairman of that committee and he has been asked to undertake the project.

Deputy Stagg may agree with me that it should not be just fitted into a defined number of hours but rather should be lengthy enough to televise the House when it is sitting and also include recordings of the main committees or all the committees for that matter, or at least the committees might indicate when they wished to be shown. I note the excellent contributions and work undertaken in committees by Deputies who are rarely given time on the floor of the House. These contributions should be acknowledged. It would be good for the House as an institution.

I am aware of the work being undertaken by the Ceann Comhairle as a facilitator which I support and I appreciate his personal interest. A balance must be achieved in all these matters. Deputy Stagg will be aware that if the Opposition makes requests but gives nothing in return, there will be no balance and nothing will happen.

The proposal for holding the Adjournment Debate at a more crucial time during the sitting day would make the House more relevant. Notice would be required for topical issues, whether that would be within hours or whatever, so that Ministers could reply on relevant issues. I refer to what happens in other parliaments which have longer sitting times. The last time I was in the House of Commons to meet the then Prime Minister Blair he got delayed. I went down to the House of Commons, which has 650 members, on the Friday morning where a vote was taking place, the result of which was 11:0.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, would be at home there.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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We have a concept here that if the House is sitting the whole infrastructure and architecture of the House has to be present. There is no reason we cannot discuss a report here on a Friday or a Monday but it should not have to require the whole structure and formality of the House. As long as we continue to do that we will never get it right. I will have been dead 100 years and it will not be achieved. Reports could be debated for so many hours on a Monday with one of the deputy cathaoirligh present where staff would not have to record every single word. If the rules were changed we could do that, but if we try to keep all the formalities my honest opinion is that we will never get it through.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I do not want to go into Dáil reform in general because my colleague, Deputy Stanton, has done a huge amount of work on that. I draw to the attention of the Taoiseach one specific issue on which I have done some work, the concept of the dedicated television channel. I spoke to RTE about this issue which states that, from a technical point of view, it is an absolutely viable proposition. The issue is cost. If the Government and the Taoiseach are serious about trying to make this happen in the short to medium term, some money will have to be put aside in the forthcoming budget to facilitate a dedicated Oireachtas channel. I appeal to the Taoiseach, through the Whips office, to liaise with RTE. We can have all the committee considerations we want on this issue but if it is not technically possible to provide that service in terms of cost implications and so on it is a waste of time discussing it.

I suggest a budget be put aside to make it happen and that we liaise with RTE on the cost. Once that is in place we can discuss how it will be implemented and controlled within the Oireachtas and so on. I think it is something that all parties would be in favour of. It would open up the House to the public in a way that has not happened before and it would be a hugely positive development. That is the reason it has happened in so many other countries. RTE has made it absolutely clear that it would be willing to do this and it wants to do it but cannot on its existing budget because the money is not available. Therefore, some budgetary considerations need to be made by the House.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Maybe there needs to be some, but I have been very forthcoming in assisting RTE over the years in a very healthy package of a licence fee and for public service broadcasting. If showing the Oireachtas and its relevant committees is not public service broadcasting, I give up totally. If the idea is to cost the project and put it back on to us, that is not very bright.

I was in here on Saturday night meeting Dr. Paisley and I noticed that on the stations, which I knocked off to save electricity, there was a showing of the Dáil. I know it is technically feasible. If one walks into any of the hotels in the area of the House of Commons the test card that is used is the live showing of the House of Commons or, if it is late at night, the Lords. Within the public service broadcasting remit, RTE has a very lucrative licence fee and is in a very healthy position and should be able to carry it. If there are some small costs I am sure we could look at the matter but I do not think it should be difficult for RTE.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In order to allow everybody contribute I will group some questions. I call Deputy Stanton followed by Deputy Timmins.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Will the Taoiseach agree that before we have a television channel we need to reform the Dáil to make it more relevant and more interesting for viewers? Will he agree there is a need for reform and, if so, does he have a timescale in mind as to when he would like to see reforms taking place? Will he agree there is a democratic deficit in that many State agencies and statutory bodies do not appear to have direct accountability to the Dáil through parliamentary questions? Will he agree to a change in that area in order that such bodies would be accountable through parliamentary questions to the Dáil?

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I was about to ask the Taoiseach on the Order of Business, in a few minutes' time, if time could be made available for statements on the deteriorating situation in Pakistan but if I did that I would be ruled out of order and the Taoiseach would look at me in a sorrowful manner, saying his hands were tied. Following from intergovernmental conferences or Council of Ministers meetings we have a worthwhile precedent where the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs come in and make statements. We do not have any other mechanism in foreign affairs in general other than to get up here and, out of order, plead for time. I ask the Taoiseach to look at the concept in the area of foreign affairs, which is important and is neglected in this House, of making available a few hours per term to make broad statements on general foreign policy.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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There is not a difficulty with that. Perhaps the committee could be televised because it is a good committee on which much dedicated work is put in by people on all sides of the House. I do not have a problem with providing some dedicated time.

To reply to Deputy Stanton, I defend the House as entirely interesting viewing on television, as against much of the other tripe on TV. Other than sport, it would be far better viewing.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thought this was sport.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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On being answerable for agencies, I can never understand that question. I hear Deputies say they table questions and that they are ruled out because of procedures. People are worried that questions are not answered about the ESB, the HSE and so on. I am here every day answering all these questions. This morning I was responsible for 120,000 people in the HSE. Tomorrow it will be probably the ESB.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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The Minister will not answer for the NRA.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am asked about everybody, including the NRA.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach does not answer questions on everything. He refuses to answer questions.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I must examine the Standing Order some time but obviously it is written in such a way that excludes the Taoiseach because I answer questions about everything. Maybe all the other people get away with this.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I wish to make a personal observation and I will be quick. Those who have studied parliaments in Europe in the past 20 years have reached the conclusion that parliaments everywhere are in trouble. Those who are encouraging a disinterest and cynicism in parliamentarianism have a very great responsibility to carry. A badly resourced committee system that drains energy from the plenary system of parliaments everywhere does more damage than good. I initiated a study last year of 43 foreign affairs committees in every country in Europe and no committee was satisfied with accountability on foreign policy. I do not have the time to go into it but I put it to the Taoiseach that every committee mentioned the absence of a distance between the executive of the day and the committee; in other words the absence of autonomy was a reason given. There were also practical reasons which are relevant to what we are discussing today.

For example, committees frequently wind up on the basis that people have to get out of the committee room because another group is scheduled to come in. There is the simple issue of space. The only committees that were satisfied in that regard were those which owned their own building. There are issues of space and resources. Most Deputies are afraid to criticise any aspect of the media but there is a comprehensive neglect by the media of the committee system.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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In regard to resources for those who work on committees, there is a lack of availability of contributions made because the staff is not available to provide the blacks quickly enough so that people can report in turn to regional and local media on issues that are raised. These are practical issues that need to be addressed if the committee system is to work. The issues I have suggested include absence of autonomy from the Executive, resources, space, staff, media disinterest and so on.

I welcome the Taoiseach's interest in the channel that would cover our proceedings. As a former Minister with responsibility for broadcasting, who was most vigorous in supporting public service broadcasting, it is important to bear in mind that RTE is not simply funded by the licence fee. It is a mixed model of broadcasting. I am now in favour of separate total coverage of the proceedings of Parliament, which is the only way to get a full range of parliamentary procedure.

These are all issues on which I would be very glad to make a longer submission. It is not a step in the right direction to ask us as elected people whether we are happy as customers. We are not customers or clients. We are representatives and legislators. It is a negative issue to be conducting this kind of trendy irrelevance by asking people about customer satisfaction. That is not the issue in a parliament. The issue is that parliaments are in trouble for many different reasons some of which are contextual. Although it would cost a great deal, would the Taoiseach favour having a separate autonomous complete broadcasting system? That is the only way to avoid issues of editing. It is the only way to be able to respect the national broadcaster. RTE should be free. Because it is dependent on the licence fee it should be separate from Government.

I was a former Minister with responsibility for broadcasting. I wrote a report on digital broadcasting when I was a member of the education and science committee. With the development of technology and particularly the digital facility, it should be left to citizens, schools and other groups to download anything they want from the proceedings of Parliament in plenary, committee or specialist session. They can then make their own programmes, which would be far more democratic and would a better contribution in citizenship than relying on the casualness of editing.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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The Taoiseach should be commended for going around the corridors at night turning off all the televisions.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Only one.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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It is great to see the Green Party is having such a profound impact at the heart of government. However, it does not appear to be having much impact on Dáil reform. Its general election manifesto proposed that the Dáil should sit for 45 weeks per year, including Monday afternoons and on Fridays up to lunchtime, from 9.30 a.m. to 7 p.m., a total of 180 days in the year. The published Dáil schedule shows that from 26 September, when we came back, to 3 July 2008, when the House is due to rise for the summer, we will have sat for 93 days, which is approximately 20 days fewer than the average sitting time in the late 1980s, when I entered the House, and the early 1990s.

As a practical suggestion towards Dáil reform, why do we not come back in the second week of January? Why are we not due to come back until the end of January? As is the case in many of the parliaments like those in whose visitors' galleries the Taoiseach has been sitting, why do we not continue sitting until late July? Why do we not come back until late September after the summer recess? Why are we not back by mid-September at the latest? None of those proposals involves technology, television etc. It would simply mean we would be back doing our business.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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With all due respect, it is a long time since the Taoiseach was a backbencher. The most frustrating thing for a backbencher in this House is the daily reading of requests to move the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32. When Deputies raise in a genuine fashion important matters relevant to their constituencies, they are ruled out of order. Time should be allocated every day during which Ministers can answer relevant, simple and basic questions. I urge the Taoiseach to consider this proposal. Many backbenchers do not have the facilities of ministerial office or indeed the kind of support available to Frontbench Members of various parties. I hope the Taoiseach will take some positive action in this regard.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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RTE and all of the other networks are in a huge period of change in technology and that will have its own reform difficulties for them. Deputy Coveney spoke about a very simple technical proposition. What Deputy Higgins is saying may be right. I have never looked into it, but to do it separately would be incur a big cost factor. On the other points he made regarding the operation of our committees, we have put a huge amount of resources into the committees and their facilities and staffing to try to make the system more efficient. I think it does a lot of good work. It does not get a lot of attention. Maybe other than meeting the various groups and agencies, it could be improved dramatically and that is an agenda.

On Deputy Tom Hayes's point, I know that creates frustration. I think that more current issues could be taken if we could get a system that was not abused. Sometimes these questions are not of huge importance while others are. Given a certain number of hours' notice there could be a time set aside for urgent issues affecting a region or a constituency. I do not think that is an impossible thing to do in Dáil reform.

I answered Deputy Gilmore earlier. I have been Whip, deputy Whip, Leader of the House and of the Opposition. I have held all kinds of positions. Earlier I answered the argument about sitting longer and later. If he really wanted to do that we could have sessions on Mondays and Fridays covering reports on issues. Every time we try to do that, the first thing said by Opposition parties — I have been on both sides of this — is that they will not do that unless there are Questions, including Leaders' Questions, everybody is here and there are pairs etc. That ends the debate. They are not going to get that. Deputy Gilmore lives in the Dún Laoghaire area and I live in Drumcondra, and it is handy for us, but a lot of other Deputies are seven hours away from here. It is just not possible to be toddling in here on Mondays and Fridays. They have to get elected and serve their constituencies. They have to go to other meetings and organise meetings. That is never going to work. It is poppycock. I heard it 30 years ago and if I am still alive I will hear it in 30 years from afar. If we want real reform we can do it, but if it is reform whereby the whole Dáil in its entire structure has to meet from Monday until Friday, I can tell the Deputy not until the cows come in here and sit in the chairs will he see that.