Tuesday, 18 June 2013
An Bille um an Dara Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBurnreacht (Deireadh a Chur le Seanad Éireann) 2013: An Dara Céim (Atógáil) - Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
Atógadh an díospóireacht ar leasú a 1: Debate resumed amendment No. 1:To delete all words after "that" and substitute "Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading on the basis that it seeks to abolish Seanad Éireann without affording the opportunity to reform Seanad Éireann as set out in the Seanad (No. 2) Bill 2013". (Deputy Shane Ross)
With the Taoiseach and most people in this country I fully appreciate the need to reform our political system so that we can give full expression to our democracy. I do not subscribe to the view that ours is the worst political system but neither is it the best that it can be and when it was really put to the test no one can deny that it massively failed the people in neither preventing nor even anticipating the economic bust that has visited such hardship on all of our people. It is that failure that has underpinned the consensus around the need for reform of our politics and probably for radical change. What is not so clear, though, is how that should happen and what form it should take.
That is my sole reservation about an early decision on the abolition of the Seanad without a much wider debate about our politics. It might be that the abolition of the Seanad is part of what is required to make our system more robust but currently, without knowing what might replace it or what other reforms might come in tandem with abolition it is not clear to me how politics, our political process or the national welfare will be improved by the abolition of the Seanad. The danger I see is that in the absence of the Seanad with all its flaws – it has many – and with a weakened or reduced Dáil at the same time as retaining the strong Executive, we will have less democracy, accountability and less potential to deliver for our people. I see that as a real danger. We have a large Government majority currently and that may be a feature of Governments in the future and the potential for scrutiny of Government action is already seriously diminished. Our system is characterised by a strong executive arm regardless of whether there is a majority. I understand the need for that but the strength and power must be tempered and balanced by a system that holds the Government to account and does so in a transparent and effective way. If reform is our aim I do not see how a smaller Dáil and no Seanad can achieve that.
I do not dispute the need for reform but before we throw out the baby with the bathwater the question must be asked about what political system we want and what is required to achieve it. The Taoiseach has said he intends to strengthen the committee system, which is a good thing, but there must be a debate about what that means. I am a long time in the House and I have seen change to the committee system.
However, the most recent change to the committee system has removed the Committee Stage of the debate on a Bill from this Chamber. This part of the debate, which most people will agree to be the most crucial, has been relegated instead to a basement in the adjoining building out of the public eye. Moreover, the power to table amendments is confined just to the handful of committee members. I believe this constitutes a diminution of democracy and not a reform. While I believe it was introduced as a reform, it is neither an enhancement nor a reform of our politics.
I understand the Taoiseach mentioned there would be 12 members in the new committees that it is proposed to establish. However, given there is a tradition in this House that Government Members do not submit amendments, it really means the power to submit amendments would be confined to approximately five Members of the entire Dáil and I wonder about that. The proposal for pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny by the committee is a very good one. However, the downside - and there always is a downside - is that having a small handful of Deputies checking on themselves is not always the best way to scrutinise something. Even when one is proofreading something, unless one sees the mistake the first time one will not see it the second or third times. Consequently, that problem of scrutiny with a mere 12 members arises again, as having a small, limited pool of expertise and limited experience will be damaging, particularly when the Bill is complex or technical or both. My fear is the committees will be strengthened at the expense of the Dáil Chamber itself.
I refer to one advantage and indeed the original reasoning behind the vocational or sectoral nominations to the Seanad was to tap into a range of specific skills and expertise that might not be produced through the random election process to the Dáil. I absolutely agree this vocational system no longer reflects the range of vocations or sectors and I do not believe it is relevant today. It certainly does not reflect the academia of today. However, the principle of bringing in other expertise is a good one and were that to be lost now, one must consider how it is to be replaced. It could be done through a reformed Seanad or perhaps it could be achieved by moving the Seanad or the Dáil or both to a list system, in which people with a particular range of experiences could be selected onto those lists.
Incidentally, I agree the current electorate for the Seanad for both the sectoral and university panels is ludicrously out of date and undemocratic and any reformed Seanad, were the public to decide it should be kept, should be based on a completely different system. On the other hand, it should not be one that replicates precisely elections to the Dáil because if we are to achieve the necessary oversight and an alternative source of scrutiny, it will be necessary to move from sole reliance on the party system.
Moreover, no discussion of a new politics can take place without real consideration of the multi-seat constituencies and consideration given to the possibility of changing that either to single-seat constituencies or to a list system or to both. I acknowledge this would be a much harder bullet to bite than the abolition of the Seanad but no one can deny that Ireland's electoral system and the multi-seat constituency in particular has a detrimental effect on its governance.
The point has been made that other countries - and the smaller Nordic countries specifically were mentioned - only have a unicameral system, and that is absolutely true. However, I have done a fair amount of study in the past on Denmark's political system in particular and its governance is almost entirely locally based. They operate a rigid system of subsidiarity and have various levels of local government in which no service is provided at a level above that absolutely necessary to deliver it. The result is that Denmark's national parliament has a limited role in the governance of the country. It is confined purely to national issues, such as national taxation, obviously, national and international transport routes and foreign affairs. Even were we to reform our local government system, we are light years from such a system and in fact are moving in the other direction towards bigger local authorities rather than smaller ones. I welcome the reforms that are taking place at local level and note one such reform mentioned is the ability to vary the property tax by 15%, which then is collected and dispensed by national government. I do not consider that to be a revolutionary change. In Denmark, local taxes, determined and collected locally, provide health, education and policing services, as well as all those other services we regard as being local services. Consequently, I am not completely convinced that comparing the Nordic countries, because they have a unicameral system, with the proposed system for Ireland is entirely valid.
However, Ireland must reshape its political system. This must be done in a coherent way by establishing at the outset what it is we wish to achieve and by identifying all the elements of our system that require change. I believe we need change beyond simply cutting out the Seanad but I have worries about using a piecemeal method of change. For instance, we are introducing gender quotas, about which much has been said. It is another measure I do not entirely support but the idea behind it is to increase female participation, which I do support. However, the sitting arrangements are working against encouraging female participation. In fact, they work against men participating as well, as the practice simply is anti-family. Practices such as sitting until midnight, short notice sittings and cancelling breaks all make it extremely difficult for parents to plan childminding and to organise their lives. Consequently, if one really seeks to have more women in this House, one must consider the organisation of the Dáil in its entirety.
The Whips already have spoken about the need to plan legislation in order that it allows for measured scrutiny, an end to guillotines and certainly an end to situations in which amendments to the Bill as presented on Second Stage must be submitted before the Second Stage debate has even been held. As I noted, our politics must be reformed and I acknowledge there is a perceived need and a temptation - probably too much of a temptation in difficult times - to streamline everything, even our democracy. However, abolishing the Seanad is a fairly dramatic and far-reaching move on which to embark without a clear and coherent overall vision of how scrutiny can be ensured and how the democratic deficit will be compensated for. Consequently, while I certainly am not wedded to the concept of a Seanad, certainly not as it operates at present, I urge caution until we know where we are going. Ultimately, the people will decide and it is worth remembering the public voted in a referendum in 1979 to extend the university panels but no legislative effect ever was given to that vote. There is a certain irony in going back to consult the people again to abolish it completely, having failed to implement the previous decision.
I welcome the opportunity this Bill gives to provide the people with the chance to decide in the first instance. Primarily, it gives us an opportunity to have a broad-ranging debate on our political process, which is long overdue.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, for his presence. The proposed 32nd amendment to the Constitution provides the opportunity for the people to have their say on this debate. Given the current Government's commitment to have this discussion and this referendum in 2009, followed by its inclusion in the election manifesto of a number of parties, I see no difficulty in putting this question to the people to ascertain what the response will be. However, I have a number of reservations about the manner in which this debate is taking place and on the basis of the discussion. For instance, my colleague has just alluded to this point and I cannot help but think this is putting the cart before the horse somewhat, as the debate is not being held on what it is proposed to put in place of the Seanad or the alterations to the behaviour of the Dáil or the Oireachtas in general. Surely that should have been a debate to have been held followed by a discussion on whether the referendum was called for in the first place. That said, it is a commitment the Government has given and, as I noted, it was included in a number of election manifestos, including those of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and, I understand, the Labour Party. Moreover, it is front and centre in the programme for Government.
Since 1936, the Seanad really has been a political football. I refer to the reform agenda initiated by de Valera in 1936, which provided for 11 appointees by the then Taoiseach. This was to deal with the issue of the majority of the Government, which up to that point did not exist - certainly not in the Free State Seanad in any event.
The result was that it diluted the opportunity for the Seanad to have a meaningful say in the legislative process, effectively creating a second House that was a mini-version of the Dáil. In other jurisdictions the role of the second House is to have a say in and even veto legislation if it believes it will not add anything to life in that particular jurisdiction, whereas in Ireland it can only delay it, almost delaying the inevitable.
I refer to the method of election. I found an interesting reference to the effect that the vocational system used to nominate candidates for the Seanad was inspired by the Roman Catholic social teachings of the 1930s and in particular the 1931 papal encyclical, which was news to me. I further read that apparently it has socialist overtures. Given their abject failure across the world, that is a great example of something that should not be left without reform.
In May 2011, an article in The Sunday Business Postwith regard to the Seanad stated: "University representation is a system so bizarre that it is rivalled only by the hereditary peerages in the British House of Lords as an anachronism in modern democracies." That sums up the reason we should be looking at reforming the method of election in terms of the individuals who are permitted to put themselves forward for election to the Seanad rather than the straight question of whether we should have one in the first place.
I preface my remarks by saying that this discussion is not about any individual Senator past or current. The difficulty is with the panel structure in that we give a vote to an elite within society. College educated individuals within the small number of universities which have a vote in Seanad elections can be considered an elite, and certainly a minority, but the candidates themselves do not have to come from the same minorities. We have a rather peculiar scenario, therefore, where a certain number of individuals within society elect individuals both for political reasons as well as in terms of former classmates or whatever. That no longer has a place in society. A 75 year old system that has not been reformed despite ten reports since 1936 and 12 reports in total since 1919 shows that this issue has been treated like a political football and kicked down the road in the hope that someone eventually would take responsibility for it. On that basis, I understand the reason the Taoiseach has chosen to put this to the people for the final say on the matter.
As I outlined earlier, the purpose of the Seanad was to see legislation dealt with on an expertise basis in that individuals would bring their particular expertise to the table for discussion in an attempt to add to legislation. It was not simply to throw it out for political reasons but to attempt to understand what an item of legislation was trying to achieve and make it more fit for purpose. Again, that has not been the case and it is a rare event that Seanad amendments are accepted because it is done on the party Whip system, which does not take those matters into consideration.
As has been seen by the number of individuals who have come out in the weeks and months since this debate started, there is a genuine appetite on the part of the sitting Senators to reform the Seanad. However, they do so in a vacuum because ultimately they do not decide the scope of the Seanad. Invariably, that is decided in the Department of the Taoiseach, and while they may have the best will in the world to attempt to amend the operation of the Seanad by introducing different sitting times, as was done in the Dáil and as alluded to by the previous speaker, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, often it has not worked to the benefit of the House or the people.
The previous two Governments had no reform agenda with regard to the Seanad. A little over two years ago, it favoured putting the question to the people. I do not need to read into the record the 2011 Fianna Fáil manifesto but I take issue with the fact that Fianna Fáil has changed its tune and is attempting to say it was saying something different in its manifesto. Ink does not lie, and I have it before me. That speaks for itself.
Another individual who has been particularly vehement in his dislike of the decision of the Taoiseach to put this to the people is Michael McDowell, who is on record as saying the Seanad is like a cross between a political convalescent home and a crèche and is used as an ante-room to Dáil Éireann to house would-be newcomers, temporary absentees and as a consolation prize for those who have lost their seats, yet in recent weeks he has come out with the terrific soundbite that it is a power grab by the Government. That is a major indictment of that individual, but I will move on from personal criticisms.
This is not an affront to democracy, which was stated by Members of the Opposition. It is an opportunity to exercise democracy in a decision that ultimately comes down to the individual person, the ballot paper and a pen. They get to decide whether this constitutional amendment is passed. The referendum will give the public an opportunity to have its say in respect of democracy and is a good measure of public opinion as to whether the people believe the Seanad is worth reforming.
This debate should be about what we are proposing to put in place of the Seanad because the people will demand that in the coming months. I hope the date for the referendum will be set before the summer recess or shortly thereafter to allow us make our decision as to the way we, as individuals, will vote. I support the decision to put this issue to the people and I hope we will have a robust debate about the price of democracy in this particular instance.
Before the Deputy who spoke before me leaves the House, I wish to refer to the university Senators. Before independence and up to 1937, there were Teachtaí Dála and MPs. It was something we inherited from the British. They were elected to the House of Commons when the Dáil was set up in 1919. There were Senators from the National University of Ireland, NUI, and from Trinity College. That continued until 1937 when, rightly in my view because they do not have any place in this Chamber, it was decided that no longer would university representatives elected by graduates sit in the Dáil.
One might ask why they did not abolish those seats. The logic of the situation is that we are talking about the late 1930s when it would be easy for people in the minority community in the South and people in the majority community in the North to say that the simple abolition of those seats effectively was taking seats from the Unionist minority, who in many cases also happened to be a religious minority in the State at the time.
In terms of the reluctance in more recent years to effect change once we got a referendum, on many occasions I argued that we should grasp the nettle and at least open the franchise, as is now possible, to all university graduates. There was a certain reluctance, in the context of the peace process, to be seen to do anything that was not favourable to Trinity, but I agree with the Deputy that it is time for change.
When people laugh at what was done in the past, it is important that they first examine the historical record and the rather unusual circumstances in which this arose in the first place, which was because they were sitting in this Dáil up to 1937.
This proposal and the way it has been put forward has all the hallmarks of a rush of blood to the head. It is bad enough to have one rush of blood to the head, but to have two in a row seems to be a mistake. The first rush of blood to the head was the announcement by the Taoiseach at a dinner that he would abolish the Seanad. The second was to come forward with this proposal without thinking out the complexities involved and the possible unintended consequences.
The Taoiseach is the longest serving Member in this House. I would have thought he would have realised that when legislation that involves such monumental change is rushed, before having endless debate about it, it is likely he will not wind up with the result he is looking for. It is a pity we did not have a discussion about this, particularly in the Constitutional Convention that is looking at the electoral system.
An interesting debate is going on in the House and Government Members have been frank in their views, which are varied and interesting, but when we look at the totality of the debate, we must ask if we are going anywhere in a coherent fashion and whether we have examined the consequences of anything. I was interested in Deputy Olivia Mitchell's remarks about this place being family unfriendly. We are now proposing four day sittings. She, as a Dublin Deputy, complained about sittings that last until midnight. If there are four day sittings, many Deputies will leave their houses on a Monday morning and return home on a Friday evening, and many of them from the furthest parts of the country will not get home in the meantime. For any family person, that is in no way a family-friendly situation.
It is easy for conventions to make proposals and there have been suggestions of making Dáil constituencies even bigger. It takes longer to drive from one end of my constituency to the other than it does to drive from the edge of the constituency to Dublin. We also know that the more seats there are in a constituency, the more chances there will be more than one person elected from the party in that constituency and a greater possibility of being taken out by another party member if we do not keep watching everything on the ground. The bigger the constituencies and the bigger the numbers, the more people will be tied to constituency work day in, day out.
There are many issues to be debated. One issue I do not hear debated is the role of Parliament. Cén fáth go bhfuil an tOireachtas ann? What are we doing here? The Oireachtas is a forum for public debate where issues of concern to ordinary citizens are raised and debated. I also think we carry out a specialist function. We are meant to be the people who scrutinise legislation. No legislation is meant to be passed into law without a detailed analysis by us of every word in the legislation. This is where the media representation of what happens here is at variance with the reality. The media will highlight the row every day, so if the Chamber is full and there is a heated argument, the media will highlight that. If, however, we are in a committee teasing out legislation in a reflective and co-operative fashion, Government and Opposition, if we are doing that tedious work of improving every section of that Bill, the media does not highlight that. Why would they when it is boring? It is important, however, that we understand that just because something is mundane or appears boring, that does not mean it is not important.
I pay tribute to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for the way he handled the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. He did not take a view that he had the majority, which he clearly did, and he accepted amendment after amendment to the Bill. He listened to the arguments and if he could not accept the amendment but thought there was some substance to it, he came back on Report Stage with an amendment that took on board the principle. If we want reform in this House, the most fundamental reform we could all introduce would be the idea that we could accept arguments of the Opposition when they are valid and explain any reasons an amendment cannot be accepted.
Time and again when we do not scrutinise the legislation properly and when a case is thrown out by the courts because someone has found a loophole we did not find when going through the Houses, everyone then jumps up and down and asks why we did not do our job and see the flaw in the legislation. A law was passed that a driver must keep a warning triangle in the cab of a truck at all times. There was an accident when the truck was parked and a person ran into it. The lorry driver was prosecuted on the basis that he was not displaying the triangle behind the truck to warn the oncoming car of the danger. The barrister noticed the law said the triangle had to be in the cab of the truck at all times and he made the logical argument that he could not take the triangle out of the cab and put it behind the lorry because he would be breaking law because he no longer had a triangle in the cab.
I think of all the famous cases involving the drink driving laws, where people drove a coach and four through that sort of minor error. Last year, when we debated the Water Services Bill, there was a proposal that if a person was prosecuted, his name would be made public. I remember raising the issue with the Minister, and he accepted that only if there was a conviction should a person's name become public, and if that person was prosecuted and found innocent, his name should not be publicised. That is what we are supposed to be doing. It is boring and mundane but at the end of the day, it is only when things go wrong in the courts that we realise the importance of the work we do.
If I apply to a Department for a grant, in most cases I am offered an appeal. If I am still unhappy I can go to the Ombudsman. We accept the idea of three different people looking at the same proposition under the same law and rules to see if the adjudication is right or if errors have been made. Peer review has become prevalent when looking at the work of experts.
We are saying here, however, that one review of legislation that is much more complex and with many sections, will be sufficient.
The role of the Seanad is not to veto legislation. The role of the Seanad is to be part of the iterative process, which should be an interactive process with Ministers to tease out the legislation and, by persuasion, to make amendments. It is significant that, for one reason or another, during the term of this Oireachtas - we count it by Dáileanna even though it is the Oireachtas - 529 amendments have been made in the Seanad. Whereas the popular approach is all about the votes and the big head-on debates, in fact, much of the best work of this is done by persuasion.
Unfortunately, the next issue to which we should address our minds in abolishing the Seanad with the Dáil operating as it does is that 57% of legislation introduced into this House is guillotined. I am not normally overly upset about guillotines on Second Stage, but I have an aversion to them on Committee or Report Stage. I am not saying that there is never a rule for a guillotine because we can need emergency legislation in this House, but if one was even considering getting rid of the second House, one would need to change the Constitution in order that no legislation could be guillotined on Committee or Report Stage in this House without two thirds of the Dáil agreeing. My purpose for that is that it would force all of us to ensure the proper scrutiny of legislation. I am sure in his time as a Minister, Deputy Varadkar, like me, always found that when he examined the legislation, unless it was a two-line Bill, there were issues he needed to amend, of which some could be as small as a comma but others which could be much more substantial than that.
The Taoiseach has mentioned a fifth Stage and I would be interested to see that fleshed out. If the Government is to continue to succumb to the temptation - there is no legal or constitutional barrier to doing so - of guillotining Committee and Report Stages, I cannot really see what a fifth Stage will add in the House, and having gone through the Bill I am not sure how the same persons going through the same Bill again would bring the same thing to the Bill that a different set of eyes looking at the Bill would bring to it. It is important that we would persuade the Taoiseach, even if he really believes the Seanad should be abolished, to hold back on that until we have had a proper debate about all the unintended consequences that might arise.
There is another issue. It is a mundane and practical issue, but it is an issue none the less. In the new Dáil, there will be 158 Deputies. Out of those, we will take the Ceann Comhairle and all the Ministers and Ministers of State, and the fact that at times there might be Deputies who for good reasons cannot fully attend to parliamentary duties, and I am left with approximately 120 Deputies available for ordinary committee work. As somebody who has been very involved in committees where we have been non-partisan since this Dáil came together, I must say that fantastic work goes on in committees. Under the chairmanship of Deputy Andrew Doyle, the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine produced a considerable report on the oil and gas sector, and we got cohesion between all the political parties and the Independents on that report on a matter on which there would never be a meeting of minds. Recently, we have been doing detailed work on the issue of the dominance of the supermarkets in farm prices and how to address that imbalance which is also a big ticket item on the European agenda. Obviously, we have debated the Common Agricultural Policy. We have debated many different matters and each committee is doing this. The pool of available members is approximately 180 when one throws in the Seanad. There are 20 committees, excluding sub-committees, which most committees have, and select committees. The committee of which I am a member meets for two or three hours every Tuesday and often meets on a Thursday as well, either in plenary or sub-committee form. If everybody is on one committee and I reduce the number available from the current 180 to 120, I am left with six members for each committee.
The only way around this is to have each person as a member of two committees, and even then I will only have 12 members. When I take into account, as most will be aware from committees, that there is probably one third on most committees in general who are poor attenders, one third who come in for a while and leave, and one third who stick it out every day and do a great deal of work, by taking one third of the available pool of Members, along with their experience and knowledge, out of the committees, we will come up with a significant logistical problem. There will be plenty of time over the coming months to debate this issue. We need a rational and detailed debate. It is time we stopped running down this House.
I want to point to one interesting intended or unintended consequence that runs in the face of all popular debate that is taking place, that is, if the Acting Chairman will allow me one more minute-----
There has been constant talk about the need for expertise in Cabinet. As the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald did, it is possible for a Taoiseach to pick two members of the public who have never stood for election, appoint them as part of his or her 11 nominees to the Seanad and put them straight into Cabinet. In other words, it is possible for the Taoiseach to include in his 15 members of Cabinet two members of the public who he thinks will never stand for election, either for the Seanad or the Dáil, but would add hugely to the Cabinet. It is interesting, when there has been so much debate about how great it would be to do so, that the Government is slamming the door on that possibility and making it constitutionally impossible.
I look forward to a much more detailed debate on this over the coming months. The proposal is badly thought out. I have not been persuaded by anything that has happened that anyone has come up with a way that would ensure proper scrutiny of legislation, the mundane day-to-day job that will always be the primary purpose of a Legislature.
That is correct. I thank the Whip for allowing me to speak on the issue and I rise to support the Bill, as the change to abolish the Seanad should be made. Our political system is old-fashioned and no longer fit for purpose. We need fewer politicians but more democracy, and during recent years, many people in this country have made very significant and painful sacrifices, doing more with less, and it should be no different for those of us who are politicians.
It is important to see this reform in context, and it is not happening on its own. It is part of the new politics agenda we are pursuing as a Government and it is one of the points in the five point plan that we put before the people at the last election. The involves a new and reformed Dáil and very big changes in local government that are now happening. It also involves more open and ethical government, which I will touch on later.
The evidence suggests that we should all agree that we do not need a Seanad or second chamber, as there are many countries and democracies around the world that manage to get by with one house of parliament. There are 29 European countries, including Norway, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Luxembourg and many of the new democracies in central and eastern Europe that only have one chamber and seem to manage very well. Outside Europe, countries such as New Zealand and Israel have unicameral parliaments and many small island countries comparable to Ireland, such as Cyprus, Iceland and Malta, have single chamber parliaments.
Having held the European Presidency of the transport council for the past six months, I have asked other Ministers in informal conversations how it works for them with one house and it seems to work fine. None is contemplating the introduction of a second house and the process seems to work very well in terms of parliamentary scrutiny and performance. Countries with a second chamber tend to be large and federal, such as Germany, where people are elected from states and not just with a direct mandate from the people. In some countries the bicameral system works very badly, and in Italy, for example, the second chamber has almost the same power as the lower house. As they have similar powers, the houses are often in conflict with each other, making good governance very difficult. Luxembourg is a very small but successful country and it uses an equivalent to our Council of State in a different way, as it reviews all legislation for flaws and constitutionality. That is how it achieves a second opinion without having an institution or second chamber to bring this about. Other countries break up parliament into small legislative committees to carry out that role.
As I mentioned, this is part of a bigger programme of reform, which will result in fewer politicians in the country. There will be approximately 600 fewer councillors this time next year after the local elections, we will have one fewer member of the European Parliament, there will be eight fewer Deputies in the next Dáil and, if this referendum is passed, there will be 60 fewer Senators. It is not that I wish to engage in a cull of my colleagues but we should bring the number of politicians in this country into line with countries of a similar size. It is wrong to compare us with America, which is very big, although it is also wrong to compare us with Liechtenstein or San Marino, which are very small. It is right to compare us with countries of a similar size, with a population of approximately 4.5 million to 5 million. Having 160 Members of Parliament brings us roughly into line with such countries.
The bigger reform agenda involves changes in local government and more open governance, including an effective ban on corporate donations and legislation to protect whistleblowers and regulate lobbying. Changes have been made in how we make public appointments and many Ministers - including me - bring legislation to committees at the heads of Bill stage, which is before final drafting. We are extending the Freedom of Information Act to other bodies. All these reforms are part of a package and the Seanad abolition should be seen in that light. There are savings of approximately €20 million to be made each year, although some of that may need to be used to beef up the committee system. There will be significant savings in payroll.
People often argue for reform of the Seanad, but I am certain that although there will be many promises of reform from those who can and cannot deliver it, the reform will not happen. In 1979, a referendum was approved by the people on Seanad reform, allowing change to the way in which graduate seats are elected. That has not happened. I cannot remember how many reports have been published, although I believe 15 is the correct figure. The Seanad reform has not happened because there is no consensus about what a reformed Seanad should look like. Some want Members to be directly elected, leaving the Chamber in competition with the Dáil, whereas others want Members to be indirectly elected, as it is now. Some people want votes for emigrants and others do not, whereas some people want votes for people in Northern Ireland and others do not. Some people want an elite Seanad made up of experts from the great and the good, including people who are so great that they do not believe they should have to run for election.
Another model would have a sectoral Seanad representing interest groups, and in many ways that 1930s vocationalist system of the Seanad, which we now have, is supposed to achieve this through an administrative, labour, industrial and commercial panel. The idea is outmoded and one could ask where people like the self-employed or sole traders fit into that system. These are people who do not consider themselves to be part of a particular interest group but rather citizens who pay taxes and obey the law. They do not want to be put in some panel or section.
Another model of reform would amount to a citizens' assembly, with people included by virtue of being part of some demographic group, whether they are young, old, or of a certain gender, ethnic background or sexual orientation. Such a citizens' assembly may have value in doing other things, but it would be wrong for a Parliament to include people just because of their demographic group or background rather than abilities or character. That would amount to equality by subgroup rather than equality of opportunity for an individual, which is what should be offered. Anybody who wants to run for Parliament should be allowed to do so and everybody should have one vote for a candidate. It should not matter what panel a candidate is on, what university he or she attended, or if the candidate went to university at all. The other reform models offer a so-called buffet option, or a Seanad made up of a bit of everything. That would be worst of all parts rather than the best.
In fairness to Senators Quinn and Zappone, they have made a good effort to reform the Seanad, and it may be the best possible. It is also pretty flawed. They suggest that the Seanad should have a role in scrutinising statutory instruments or secondary legislation, a practice that this Oireachtas has been very poor at through the years. There is nothing to stop the Seanad doing it now, and if there is an interest, Standing Orders could be changed to allow them to scrutinise statutory instruments. There was a statutory instruments committee of the Seanad until 1981, but it stopped functioning for some reason.
It has also been suggested that the Seanad could be used to scrutinise EU legislation, which is what a functioning EU committee of this Parliament should be doing anyway. The same logic applies to public appointments, which are already scrutinised by committees. The Senators wish to retain graduate seats, which is wrong, as we should not separate people with a degree from those with no degree. They also want to retain existing panels of culture and industry, as well as appointed Members. They also propose a degree of democratic quotas for outcomes, which is very different from quotas for candidates, which give people a clear choice.
Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the guillotine and I have never used this, to my recollection, in two and half years as a Minister. Nevertheless, it is sometimes required because a decision must be made against a certain timeframe, or sometimes people filibuster by tabling large numbers of amendments or speaking forever just to prevent a decision being made by elected Members of this House. That is why it is sometimes necessary to use the guillotine. The Deputy none the less makes a good argument about having a qualified majority to end a debate in that way or after a period, although that would not get around filibustering.
It probably could be done through Standing Orders and not just by way of the Constitution, although I may be incorrect on that.
The Deputy also spoke about the role of committees and I hope what he said is not true because it was a terrible indictment of Deputies and Senators. He said that roughly one third are poor attenders, one third are poor contributors, leaving the remaining third to do all the work at committee. That is not good enough. That is an argument for a better Dáil and better Deputies. One does not create an entire institution because one third of committee members are not turning up or one third are not doing a good job. That is not an argument at all for retaining the Seanad. That is an argument for having better Deputies and a properly reformed Dáil. We do not need the Seanad in that context.
I note the generosity in terms of time allowed for contributions tonight. I am not sure that I will need the extra time, but I might do. I had better watch my words given that we have been joined in the Chamber by two serving Senators.
I wish to commend the legislation to the House. It is based on a commitment that was given three or four years ago during the last general election campaign. Indeed, several different political parties gave a commitment to hold a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann. I cannot understand the criticism of politicians for actually ensuring the referendum question they committed to is being put to the people. Deputy Ó Cuív, who has just left, spoke about the Taoiseach having a rush of blood to the head. His own party leader, Deputy Martin, must have had a rush of blood to the feet from the head because he fought the last election on the basis that a referendum should be held on the future of Seanad Éireann but he has now reversed engines on the matter.
Deputy Ó Cuív also made an interesting point about the role of expertise and the appointment of experts to Cabinet. He was in Cabinet for many years, albeit not a very successful Cabinet which could have done with a lot of expertise but which did not appoint any experts. I thought Fianna Fáil fought the last election on the basis that it was going to establish a new system of government where people who were not elected but who were experts could be appointed to government. Now the Deputy is saying that this is being reversed or dropped and that the Seanad route should be used for the appointment of experts.
Deputy Ó Cuív did not deal with the questions posed by Deputy Farrell with regard to the current composition of the Seanad. Deputy Ó Cuív's own famous ancestor was the main character behind the composition of Seanad Éireann in terms of the panel structure as it currently exists. Deputy Farrell spoke about Catholic teaching and socialism but I thought it was to do with corporatism, which might be more closely associated with national socialism rather than socialism. Deputy Ó Cuív did not take the opportunity to clarify what the thinking was at the time.
Deputy Mitchell made a number of points with which I fully agree. I have a vested interest to some degree in that I was a Member of the other House for nine years. I can say, with my hand on my heart, that the current status quo that exists in terms of the operation of Seanad Éireann is not satisfactory. Equally, however, the current position with regard to the operation of Dáil Éireann and of local government, as Deputy Mitchell pointed out, is not satisfactory either. Having said that, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has at least made a start on reforming our local government system. He has ensured that when people go to vote in the local elections next year, there will not be some who have two votes in certain parts of the country, to elect two different local authorities, while others only have one vote. That is a change in the right direction. However, the situation that has emerged with the boundary changes, whereby some people could potentially live 50 or 60 miles from their local councillors because the electoral areas are geographically huge, is not satisfactory for local government either. We have this situation on the doorstep of Dublin, whereby half of County Wicklow is in a six-seat electoral area. A person could, in theory at least, live 30 or 40 miles away from his or her local councillor. Half of County Kerry is in one electoral area while more than half of County Carlow is in an eight-seat electoral area. A similar situation also applies in County Sligo as a result of the boundary changes. Therefore, while the reduction in duplication between local authorities is to be welcomed, the size of some local authority areas is not conducive to the effective and proper functioning of local democracy. Having said that, at least the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has taken a positive step in the right direction by removing the duplication.
I agree with previous speakers who raised the issue of the electoral system for the Dáil. I note what, to me, is a glaring mistake by the Constitutional Convention, a body established by the Oireachtas to look at reform. The most recent discussions by the convention centred on electoral reform, the result of which was a statement to the effect that constituencies should be larger. I come from one of the largest constituencies in the country. I do not mean this disrespectfully when I say that it is one thing to be a Deputy from a Dublin constituency or one in the immediate hinterland of the capital because such constituencies are geographically small and easier to get around, but it is an entirely different matter being a Deputy for larger constituencies. A former member of this House, P.J. Sheehan, from west Cork, used to say, as a matter of fact, that by the time he reached Mitchelstown he was more than halfway to Dublin but he was still in County Cork. The notion that Dáil constituencies should be made bigger does not make sense from a personal point of view for those who want to get involved in politics. It also does not make sense from an administrative point of view, when it is plainly obvious that much of the effort made by members of political parties who are Members of this House often has more of an eye to the activities of their potential Dáil running mate or sitting constituency colleague rather than on serving their constituents or the best interests of the country. I have long advocated single-seat constituencies with a transferable vote. In that context, I really regret the fact that the Constitutional Convention made the dramatic mistake of not giving that serious consideration and, indeed, not adopting it to ensure we have a proper legislative body in this House.
I welcome the fact that the people will make the decision on Seanad Éireann. I do not see any problem with the people making a decision in a referendum on the future of the Seanad. However, if the future is to be what exists at present or no Seanad at all, then abolition is the only route that should be taken, in my view. Over the past 60 or 70 years, 15 or 16 reports have been published on reform of the Seanad but there has never been any political appetite, from any side, to reform the structure of the Upper House.
Another very obvious weakness in the arguments of those who oppose the referendum is the divergence of views as to what the role of the Seanad should be, its functions and how its Members should be elected. There is no point in having a Chamber that is just a mirror image of the Dáil. Many proposals that I have read seem to focus on that, but that would not serve any particular purpose.
I echo the comments of Deputy Mitchell with regard to some of the piecemeal approaches that are being taken to the reform of our political system.
It has not been acknowledged by the political system that the Houses of the Oireachtas, with the President excluded, have had a significant role in the economic difficulties the country has faced over the past five or six years. A much more clear-cut reform of local government as well as the Oireachtas needs to be considered. It is remarkable and worth pointing out that we are having a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad but one of the reasons for not reducing more the number of Deputies was that we could not have a referendum. I support the Bill.