Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the progress that has been made on each of the three points regarding Houses of the Oireachtas reform included in An Agreed Programme for Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3854/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
As the Deputies will be aware, the matter of DÃ¡il reform is essentially one for the House itself 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 a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which progresses DÃ¡il reform. Responsibility for promoting DÃ¡il 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.
I thank the Minister of State for that very welcome and informative reply. Will he tell the House if the Government has any proposals in this area? Could he outline even one proposal the Government would like to put on the table? Could he name two, three or four proposals? Does he agree this issue has been debated for at least 20 years? In that time can he name any proposal that has seen the light of day? Does he agree that this is an important issue and that you, a Cheann Comhairle, ought to be thanked for trying to move this on?
Does he agree the Opposition has put proposals on the table but that we have seen nothing from the Government? Will he tell the people, who are watching this in their thousands because it is so relevant to us, what exactly the Government is proposing in regard to DÃ¡il reform after 20 years? The Minister of State may be able to name five issues but even one would be a huge breakthrough.
I am more than happy to share my views with the House and to thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for facilitating dialogue with the Deputy and Deputy Stagg as we have been doing in recent weeks. With regard to DÃ¡il reform, every Chief Whip comes into the position full of ambitions to try to improve our procedures. I certainly have been endeavouring to do that. Towards the end of the last DÃ¡il we made an effort to do so. One of the criticisms I have of the general approach to DÃ¡il reform is that while it is very ambitious, we have a general agreement that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We introduced some procedural matters in the last DÃ¡il with regard to e-consultation, which the Deputy and others supported, which involved using the Internet to allow the public to access some of the work we do. It is important that we involve the public. I would like to see that process of e-consultation, as we called it, extended, for example, to secondary schools which might be interested in some of the legislation relevant to them. Although we picked the Broadcasting Bill, perhaps this was not the best Bill with regard to young people. We have strong all-party agreement for a television channel, which is supported by the Taoiseach and the Deputy's party leader, and there are many peripheral but important issues with regard to public access to what we do.
We endeavoured to progress some issues during the last DÃ¡il, before the Deputy became involved. One of the specific proposals related to topical issues and bringing forward the Adjournment debate to a more appropriate time, where there would be public access to what is happening. It is important we do this and that we can agree on the proposal. There are proposals on improving the procedures on Leaders' Questions. I am aware of the views of Deputy Stanton, Deputy Stagg and others and, again, we can make progress in that regard.
We proposed that a short period of notice would be given to the leader, perhaps as short as 30 minutes, which would make for better politics, although Deputy Stanton may not agree. A proposal is on the table on parliamentary questions and on Standing Order 32. At present, Deputies in many cases simply read out a statement on a local issue in their constituencies but we have some good ideas on how to improve on that. A further proposal concerns improving the Order of Business, during which much good time is wasted in wrangling to and fro in the Chamber. There are also proposals on the committee system and legislation in general.
There are many solid proposals centring on five key issues. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating progress in this regard. From my past participation, I accept we perhaps had an over-ambitious approach. We can continue with the modern ideas on using technology, involving the public and improving the committee system and broadcasting. However, there are four or five key issues relating to the Chamber that we can address. We have made progress in our last three meetings. Hopefully, we can bring this to the DÃ¡il committee dealing with reform, the idea being that we could effectively go from this informal stage almost to a pre-agreed process which we could introduce. I will be as positive as possible in that regard, as I have been at our meetings.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Does he agree that one of the most important functions of this House is to oversee the work the Government and the Executive performs and to debate that work? Does he also agree that this is not possible when the House is not sitting? In other Parliaments, for example, the UK Parliament, the Cabinet does not sit when the Parliament is not sitting. Does the Minister of State agree that constituents are disenfranchised when Deputies from all sides are unable to put down parliamentary questions during recess? Does he agree something needs to be done with regard to the many agencies that have been established, in particular since this Government took office, which are unaccountable through the parliamentary system, in particular the parliamentary questions system? Has he proposals regarding these issues?
The issue of parliamentary questions when the DÃ¡il is not sitting has emerged during our discussions. An aspect we will have to consider is the position of staff. As the Deputy knows, I am open to considering the issue of parliamentary questions, written questions in particular. The issue of questions to agencies, such as the National Roads Authority and the Health Service Executive, has been raised by many of the Deputy's colleagues and Deputies from other parties. There are valid concerns among all parliamentarians with regard to access to speedy replies from those agencies. The item is very much on our agenda for discussion and is one of the four or five key items to which I referred.
Both issues, that of parliamentary questions, particularly when the DÃ¡il is not sitting, and that of agencies, are on the agenda, although we have not made progress on the latter yet. To be frank, coming to these discussions as Chief Whip, I would have to revert to my ministerial colleagues on some of these issues. That is the current status of the discussions. As Chief Whip, I agree there are issues that need to be addressed.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, to the hot seat for today and probably this week. In regard to the informal engagements to which he referred, will he outline the exact make-up of those engagements and exactly who is attending? Will he also explain why the Oireachtas reform section of the programme for Government amounts to a scant, short and even vague reference? It accounts for virtually six lines in an 86 page document.
One of the critical areas for reform is the ability of this House to respond to situations presenting or emergency circumstances that occur, sometimes on a week by week or day by day basis; there is no such facilitation in this House. The Ceann Comhairle is strapped by Standing Orders to disallow matters that Deputies endeavour to have addressed and they are not always, as he suggests in terms of Standing Order 32, matters of merely local relevance. The criterion for consideration is that they are matters of national importance. Does the Minister of State not agree that a great number of them are indeed matters that merit and warrant address with the respective Ministers here in a very speedy way which, because of the restrictions of the operation of the House, cannot currently be facilitated?
Is this one of the areas that the Minister is definitely looking at and where we can expect recommendations in the period ahead? What is the timeframe suggested to bring forward a set of proposals for reform of the Oireachtas and can the Minister of State confirm that it is not only the DÃ¡il he is addressing but both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Seanad and the DÃ¡il?
In respect to the Upper House, is it also within the brief of this informal engagement group to which the Minister of State referred, to address the critical need for reform of the electoral process to the Seanad, the Upper House? Does the Minister of State accept that the current method of election of Members to the Seanad is patently undemocratic, that it is confined to those who are already elected representatives at local authority level or within this Chamber and those who have third level degrees from a number of named academic institutions?
Is the Minister of State of one mind with this Deputy that real and fundamental reform of the Seanad is absolutely linked to reform of the electoral process to the Seanad Chamber and that this must be extended to universal suffrage so that all citizens have the opportunity to participate equally, as they do in terms of DÃ¡il elections? Is the Minister of State also of the view that the introduction of such reform offers an opportunity to extend the universal suffrage to all citizens on the island of Ireland and the Irish diaspora, within a given or stated period of time of having left these shores â 20 years has been mentioned previously â to see these substantive changes introduced as part of an overall package to address the serious wants in both Houses of the Oireachtas? Go raibh maith agat.
My colleague who is present in the Chamber, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will re-establish the all-party group on Seanad reform. He will answer questions on that in the DÃ¡il in the next week or so and will deal with all the issues. Much progress has been made on this in the past and the points the Deputy made will be part of those discussions. We will have an inclusive approach to that.
Our informal engagement involves me, the leaders of the two main Opposition parties, Deputy David Stanton, Deputy Emmet Stagg from the Labour Party and the Ceann Comhairle facilitating those discussions. We have had three meetings and are making good progress. As soon as we reach consensus I propose to move that to the DÃ¡il reform committee in which the Deputy's party will be involved. I cannot indicate the exact timescale but there is goodwill on all sides and we are making good progress because we are concentrating on a number of key areas, to which I briefly referred.
On this House being responsive to emergency situations and issues of the day, as Chief Whip I have been as responsive as possible to requests made by my fellow Whips at our weekly meetings, which are crucial for DÃ¡il business. I like to think my fellow Whips, including the Fine Gael Whip, would concur with this. We meet every Wednesday and agree as best we can the business for the following week. If issues need to be dealt with and requests are made for debates, I respond as best I can. On Thursday we will have a debate on pharmacies. That is just one example. In this House we have the special notice procedure and Leaders' Questions, which today and tomorrow the TÃ¡naiste, Deputy Brian Cowen, will take. Questions can be raised at the highest level on any issue. Under this Government the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour can raise any issue they choose during Leaders' Questions and we are examining the operation of that period. Under this Government just two parties are involved while during the previous Government Sinn FÃ©in was involved as part of the technical group. That gives an opportunity for parties to raise issues of the day. In my view we could have a short period of notice, but I am not sure my colleagues agree. We have not finalised arrangements on that. We are looking at reforming many other issues.
On Deputy Ã CaolÃ¡in's main point on the responsiveness of the DÃ¡il, we do our best and my approach, with my fellow Whips, is to try to be as responsive as possible on key issues regarding ordering our business. There are procedures that meet those needs, but if we can improve them, we can examine those issues during our discussions on DÃ¡il reform.
Why has the Sinn FÃ©in Whip not been included in the engagement the Minister has just explained is confined to Fianna FÃ¡il, representing the Government, with the Fine Gael and Labour parties? Why is the only other Opposition party in the House excluded from these preliminary discussions? We have a view to offer on essential reform and experience here, over a decade in my case. Will the Minister explain why these informal talks have not included Sinn FÃ©in and what he is prepared to do to address this deficiency and this further indication of an undemocratic practice, namely the exclusion of one party while others engage in preliminary discussions that will impact on each of us?
When will the Green Paper on local government reform that was promised in the programme for Government be published? Will the Minister rule out the proposal signalled to move the Seanad Chamber and business to the Natural History Museum, with a likelihood of conducting its business there for 12 months or more? This would delay the essential refurbishment works to that important building and its artifacts and exhibits, which we believe is very important and must be restored speedily. Why should there be a delay in bringing the Natural History Museum back into service in order to accommodate an itinerant Seanad Chamber? Surely some other location within a reasonable radius of this building can be found to accommodate the Seanad's needs in the short term.
The situation regarding meetings not including the Deputy's party is determined by the format of the main parties. A party can be recognised as a main party for the purposes of discussions, so long as it has more than seven Members in the House. This has been the precedent in the House over many years and it did not arise today or yesterday. The number of Deputies from a particular party also has implications in other areas of activity within the Houses of the Oireachtas and its constituent bodies. The Deputy's party is represented on the Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which agrees issues formally on a regular basis.
The issue regarding the Natural History Museum would not fall within the ambit of the Government Chief Whip, but rather the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The commission accepted a proposal brought before it regarding the location of the Seanad during the course of works that must be carried out urgently in Leinster House.
Can the Ceann Comhairle show me the Standing Order that excludes parties with fewer than seven Members from an informal engagement, as the Chief Whip described it? Is the Ceann Comhairle suggesting that there is a precedent or a Standing Order that precludes engagement with a party of fewer than seven? I would guess that there is a precedent for engagement with parties of fewer than seven on such matters, and not just in the informal arena. If the Ceann Comhairle checks the Standing Orders, he will see that Sinn FÃ©in is recognised as a political party with more than two Members, just like any other body. The interpretation applying in this particular instance is neither accurate nor fair.
It is not my function to engage in a dialogue with the Deputy on this or any other matter. It is in accordance with precedence and therefore, in accordance with practice. I would now like the Minister of State to speak on the other matter raised by the Deputy, because I must move on to Deputy Stagg and two other Deputies who are offering.
The other matter raised by the Deputy related to the Green Paper on local government reform. I understand that the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have that paper ready in two weeks' time.
I recognise that Deputy Ã Snodaigh is a very constructive and active member of the group of Whips. At some stage we can take it that he will become involved and I do not see any problem with that. This is an initial, informal stage and he will become involved at some stage.
The need for DÃ¡il reform is demonstrated by the fact that the questions being debated today were tabled on the agenda for the DÃ¡il in September 2007. The need to deal with how we order our business is obvious from that alone. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the use of his good offices in bringing forward a tight package of proposals to address the essential issues affecting Deputies and how they can do their job effectively.
The issue of Leaders' Questions has been raised in that forum. My attitude is that if it is not broken, one should not fix it. As Leaders' Questions works perfectly well from the perspective of both sides of the House, it should be left alone. If the Government were to have its way and be given prior notice of the issues raised, it would remove an important feature of the discussion. I have not yet encountered a circumstance where the Taoiseach was not briefed, regardless of the issue raised. To find out the issues of the day, all he needs to do is read The Irish Times or any other newspaper for that matter â I hope none of the members of the Fourth Estate is offended by my comment that he should read The Irish Times.
Two issues arise constantly on the floor of the House. We need to have a mechanism for Deputies to raise topical current issues. As the Ceann Comhairle and Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, will agree, Members currently use devices such as Standing Order 32 to try to place on record, in the barest of terms, constituency matters and various other issues. The Standing Order is in place for good reason, namely, to provide for occasions when it needs to be used for the purpose for which it is intended, as opposed to being used to raise issues such as schools in Straffan or elsewhere. However, as Deputies do not have a mechanism available to them to raise such matters, they use Standing Orders or try to attach local issues to questions on promised legislation on the Order of Business. This is an ineffective approach. The proposal, on which there will be general agreement, is to have topical issues discussed for one hour every morning and to bring forward the Adjournment debate. This would be in accordance with suggestions made by the Ceann Comhairle.
The major issue is that Deputies cannot raise questions or motions about more than 1,000 quangos established to deal with issues for which Ministers were previously responsible to the House. We all know the larger of these bodies but Deputies regularly find when they ask questions of Ministers that small bodies are responsible for the matters they have raised. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, referred to this issue in a speech on 18 July last year. A copy should be sent to those Ministers who have not yet read it. The Minister described the "tendency to establish many agencies and bodies at one remove from Government" as "a form of abdication from Government responsibilities". He did not, he stated, agree with this practice and argued that government by quango was not rule. He added that while he expected the electorate to judge him on the decisions made, it could not judge quangos. As a result, quangos retain power even when a Government loses an election.
We need to address the ability of Deputies to raise questions with Ministers about the expenditure of public funds provided by the taxpayer through Ministers to these agencies. We are currently specifically prevented from doing so by legislation. Is the Government considering or will it agree to change Standing Orders and the legislation which prohibits Members from asking questions? If the Minister of State can respond positively â I am aware he is not acting ex cathedra today â or indicate he is willing to bring such a proposal to Government, the House will have done a good day's work. That is the main proposal under discussion and it relates to the main problem Deputies experience. If the Minister of State can indicate we will make progress in clawing back power for the House and those whom we represent from more than 1,000 quangos, we will have done a good day's work.
I touched on this issue earlier. The straight answer is that the Government has not yet made a decision. However, I am not in any way ruling out a good decision in this matter. I accept that, beyond being the Chief Whip for my party and for the Government, I have responsibilities to work as best as I can with the Whips from the other parties for the House. I have no doubt that my party is also concerned about the problem of getting information from the quangos and agencies we establish. A danger exists that many of these agencies do their own thing and we must address the matter of accountability.
I have work to do on this matter and I have an interest in finding a solution. I referred to it earlier in answering Deputy Stanton's query on written questions with regard to dealing, during non-sitting periods, with this matter of questions to Ministers being forwarded to agencies. Progress has been made in the discussions. If Deputies Deenihan, Stanton or Kehoe were in my position, they would also have to get their Government to sign off on this issue.
I know, and Deputies Naughten and Durkan raise the matter on a regular basis. The Whips are having good discussions on this and I repeat the words of thanks to the Ceann Comhairle for his facilitation.
As we are discussing parliamentary questions, I believe on occasion an excess of questions is put down on issues which, frankly, do not require so many questions to be asked. I will not instance examples of detailed questions on irrelevant matters but we all know them. In some cases, duplication of parliamentary questions occurs. Perhaps we can also examine this if we want efficiency and value for money. I understand answering a parliamentary question costs approximately â¬200.
I am not trying to muzzle anybody. However, issues are raised. It is peripheral to what we were discussing and is not as important, but we should examine it.
Will the Minister of State consider supplying written answers to priority and oral questions to the questioners while the Minister is reading the reply? At times, the Minister replying may not be loud and it may be difficult to understand him or her. This makes it difficult to follow up with a proper supplementary question. With a written copy of the reply we could frame proper supplementary questions. It is a simple suggestion but I am convinced it would considerably help the level of questioning in the House. It should be easy to organise for priority questions because only spokespersons ask questions. For oral questions, the answer could be given to the questioner or the person who nominated the question.
I will consider it. The only issue I have is that Ministers are accountable for the replies they give and he or she may change a reply along the way.
It is not that. At times, the acoustics in the Chamber may not be perfect. It would help the effectiveness of Opposition spokespersons to have the written reply so considered questions could be asked afterwards, particularly when Ministers have given long replies.
While I thank the Minister of State for getting so involved in this debate, has there been a wider Government debate on it? Has he brought any of these points to his Government colleagues recently? Earlier on Deputy Ã CaolÃ¡in asked about timescales. When does the Minister expect some of these proposed, and almost agreed, changes will be implemented? Does he see it happening when the DÃ¡il returns in the autumn?
Does the Minister of State agree a wider public debate on the role of the Oireachtas is needed? Will he give some thought on establishing a forum for such a debate, so the people, of whom we are their representatives, can get involved in what we do? There is a certain negativity in public debates on the importance of the work we do in the Oireachtas. That is dangerous for any democracy.
What does the Minister of State think of the suggestion that important Government announcements be made in the House prior to being made to the press or others? They should be made first in the people's Parliament. A Minister should attend the House, make an announcement on X, Y or Z and then attend a press conference, rather than the other way around. Will he consider that as a change in the way business is done? This would reassert the primacy of Parliament.
Important committee reports should be debated in the House. Does the Minister of State agree a facility, even a mandate, should be put in place to allow a chairman of an Oireachtas committee to present a report to the DÃ¡il for debate?
It is important a limited number of written parliamentary questions be allowed to all Deputies during each week of recesses. This would mean people are not disenfranchised and can get information quickly.
The Freedom of Information Act has been affected by the introduction of charges for requests. This has led to an increase in the number of parliamentary questions being tabled. Will the Minister of State examine the suggestion that Deputies would not have to pay for freedom of information requests? This might cut down on the number of parliamentary questions being tabled. It would make it easier for the people's representatives to get information on behalf of the people.
Some State agencies accept questions from Members. Is it correct that if the Minister or the Department accepts the question, then the agency is obliged to provide the information to the Minister who can then supply it to the House? Is it correct the blockage of such information is not with State agencies but with Ministers? Is the thinking among Ministers that they will do everything they can not to answer a question?
Last week when I raised this matter on the Order of Business, the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Finance accused me of playing games. We are not playing games with it. We are serious and would like the Government to engage seriously in the debate.
I accept Deputy Stanton that it is a serious matter on which we can make progress.
The Deputy referred to a timescale in the autumn, a realistic timetable for all of us to work to. We should all work to achieve success in this area by the autumn.
I have raised the matter concerning State agencies and replies to parliamentary questions, as requested by the Deputy and others, with the Government and the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach formally asked all his Ministers to approach those agencies under their remits with regard to better communications and speedier responses to requests by Members. This was done some time ago and I can only hope some improvements were made.
I have spoken informally with several of my colleagues and the Taoiseach on these issues from time to time. Formally, however, I have not put a package to the Government. I envisage we continue our discussions, get to a stage where we can agree a package and then I can put it to the Government.
Concerning a wider debate, I acknowledge the Ceann Comhairle is involved in speaking engagements about the work of the Oireachtas with the public. It is crucial that we do something in this regard. As I said, e-consultation and the use of the Internet to communicate what we are doing is a step in the right direction and I know the Deputies opposite support this. I hope we can find a Bill that is more relevant to young people than the Broadcasting Bill and get a committee working on it. Webcasting of committees is another innovation that we have brought in. If we could get such a system going with, for example, transition year students in schools, it would be a great opportunity for young people to realise the important work that is going on here. However, we must find an appropriate Bill. This can be done, although we would need a Minister who would back such a proposal. The key thing is not to delay legislation but to let members of the public see all the various stages of legislation and how the system works. I support a wider debate in this area.
A system of committee reports would be an important development if we could introduce it in a formal way. Again, it is up to the chairman of committees, working closely with the Ceann Comhairle and ourselves. Part of our proposal is to consider the workings of committees. We could add to our proposals a requirement for some committee reports to be sent back to the Chamber, with a selection process involving the chairpersons of the different committees. It is a good suggestion.
With regard to written replies during the session, I mentioned earlier that there may be staff issues in this regard. The Deputy mentioned July and Septemberââ
We can consider July and September. Committees meet during these months. I said in the course of our discussions that we would consider this. I answered the question about agencies. Deputy Stanton suggested that we arrange for Deputies not to be charged for freedom of information requests. We can consider that but I cannot give a commitment at the moment.
I am disappointed that the Minister of State could not have been a bit more positive. I know he does not have the power to make the decision, but if he said to the House that he was convinced of the case and he would refer it to his seniors for a decision, I would be much happier.
The Minister of State may agree with me that we cannot continue with the current situation with regard to agencies. The other day in the DÃ¡il, the Taoiseach said that he would talk to two Ministers to see what they could do with the HSE. The HSE had more authority than the two Ministers and the Taoiseach put together. The only reason for that is that we in this House gave it that authority. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform also said he could not justify talking to the chairman of an authority about the way in which the Garda SÃochÃ¡na could be used. This is another quango we set up which has removed both the power of the House to question the Minister and the power of the Minister to act.
We are dealing with a limited proposal. It is not a big package of DÃ¡il reform such as was tried before, it is a limited, specific package that was put on the table by the Ceann Comhairle and I thank him for his good offices in this regard. Unless the Government can give us an answer on the major issue of restoring power to the House from the quangos we have created â as I said, there are more than 1,000 of them â we will not have achieved anything. I strongly urge the Minister to carry the case beyond its current position to those in government who can make decisions about changing the law as well as Standing Orders.
This has been a useful debate and I have been as open as possible with regard to the various proposals that have been raised at our informal discussions. Because these discussions are informal I have been reticent about giving the Deputies a specific commitment on the issue of agencies. So far I have brought the issue of better communications from agencies to the attention of the Taoiseach and he has raised it with his Cabinet colleagues. That was the first step. I am convinced that we need to do something about this, not just because of the pleas and demands of Opposition Deputies but also because Deputies in my party have concerns about the agencies mentioned, including the HSE and the NRA, across a wide range of Ministries. We need better communications for elected Members in the DÃ¡il regardless of which parties they represent. I will certainly bring the case to my colleagues in government. As I said, there are a number of key issues. As Deputies have acknowledged, we have made good progress. When the overall package is agreed I will bring it to Government. This would be a key element of such a package.