Wednesday, 6 April 2016
Dáil Reform: Statements
I wish to advise the House that the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform has agreed an interim report which has been laid in the Oireachtas Library. Copies of the report are available at the back of the Chamber if Members need to refer to it. This report is a first step in our journey towards a reformed Dáil. The sub-committee will continue to meet throughout April to agree reform proposals that will be presented to the Dáil for approval. Consequential changes to Standing Orders will be presented as soon as possible thereafter, it is hoped by the end of April or very early in May.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, including its interim report. On 10 March 2016, when the House reconvened following the election, for the first time in its history, the Members had the opportunity to elect a Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. This change in Standing Orders was introduced by me before the general election in order that people would be able to implement it and not have to talk about it at the end of the Thirty-second Dáil. This change was introduced along with changes to allow the selection of Chairs of Oireachtas committees using the D'Hondt system and a requirement that the Taoiseach appear before the Working Group of Committee Chairmen twice a year. Each of these changes was designed to enhance the role of Parliament.
The election of the Ceann Comhairle, which was the first by secret ballot in the history of the State, means that his office is now more independent and, as holder of the office, the Ceann Comhairle has a direct link to his Deputy colleagues as never before. On 10 March 2016, the House also voted to establish a new Dáil sub-committee chaired by the newly elected Ceann Comhairle and representative of the entire membership of the Dáil. The sub-committee sought submissions and received 25 different sets of proposals from parties, individual Deputies and others, including a comprehensive reform document from my party. The sub-committee has undertaken to evaluate the way the Dáil works, review the submissions it has received and report back to the Dáil with a set of reforms that will allow the Dáil to work more effectively.
The sub-committee's interim report and the statements in the House today are only the first steps in a reform process which will build on the reforms of the past five years and which will, over the next number of weeks, recommend a number of changes to Standing Orders. I understand that the sub-committee's interim report touches on a number of areas. These include allowing Deputies to abstain formally from a vote, establishing a business committee representative of all groups and parties in Parliament to set Dáil agendas on the basis of consensus, splitting Oireachtas committee and plenary time, allowing more than one Technical Group in order that everybody has an opportunity, reducing the threshold to form such a group to five Deputies instead of seven, providing a fixed time for the taking of votes, which should be of some assistance in terms of more family-friendly hours, and reinstating the Ceann Comhairle's powers introduced in the last Dáil to question the adequacy of ministerial replies to questions.
I welcome this interim report, which is all it is. I look forward to hearing all the views of the sub-committee members and the other Members of the House. In its interim report, the sub-committee outlined that it will meet continually over the next number of weeks to discuss scheduling Dáil business, parliamentary questions, the way Oireachtas committees work, how the Oireachtas deals with financial scrutiny and the legislative process. I understand that the sub-committee hopes to agree a final report by the end of this month.
Parliamentary reform is an ongoing process. The previous Government introduced three packages of Oireachtas reform which introduced Topical Issues, pre-legislative stage scrutiny for legislation, which has been a very valuable contribution, additional Leaders' Questions, and a process to allow Deputies to have their Bills debated on Second Stage, which did not apply previously. At the outset of this Dáil, the sub-committee is seeking to review how this House works, build on those recent reforms, which have been successful, and introduce new reforms where they are required.
The Ceann Comhairle presides over a Dáil that is unprecedented in its range of representation and probable number of partisan individuals. Business can never be conducted the way it was conducted previously because of those changes. There must be a difference between the constitutional responsibility of the Executive - the Cabinet of the day - and the effective working of Parliament. This situation can bring about huge change in the culture and attitude of Government towards parliamentary work, a change that is required from the public service in servicing the House and Members and in respect of membership of the Opposition. This is because the changes being proposed in terms of committees will require a much greater level of engagement and responsibility and, as a consequence, a much greater level of accountability from all the Members in discussing financial Votes, matters pertaining to the budget and so on. In effect, it will not be just the traditional "look for more money for every sector" attitude when the overall Vote allocations are determined for each Department. The committees relevant to them will have to discuss the amounts being proposed for the different sectors and Members will have the opportunity to make their recommendations.
Given that they will have a limited amount of finance available for any particular Vote, that will bring about a change in the attitude to and the requirement for contributions from Members.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for taking charge of this sub-committee and I thank the 17 Deputies who are members or substitute members of the committee for the work they have already put into it. I hope it will be possible to bring about agreed consensus and recommendations that do make the working of the House more effective and transparent and that it engages every Member. I will put in this proviso: if a recommendation is implemented in the House and is found not to work after a period of months, it could be adjusted to make it work.
Everybody comes in here with the same level of mandate after election by secret ballot and is entitled to an opportunity to have his or her say. This Thirty-second Dáil, because of the decision of the people, can bring about a sense of liberty and freedom and a freeing up of opportunities for elected Members to have their say and participate in a more whole and engaging way in our democratic system than the traditional workings of this House have allowed over the years.
I welcome the progress that has been made under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle towards developing a substantive package of Dáil reforms. This effort remains in its early stages and I hope it will be possible for agreement to be reached on the remaining points on the agenda. The starting point for Dáil reform has to be that this becomes a Parliament in which every Member can make a contribution and, equally, in which every Member accepts his or her responsibility to propose credible long-term solutions for issues of concern to the Irish people.
As the banking inquiry showed, many of the core failings that led to the worst financial and fiscal crisis in our history were ignored by the Oireachtas in the years before the recession. A different approach to speaking time and the answering of questions would have done nothing to set a different course for public policy. Holding the Government to account is an essential role for us to play, but it is not the only role. We need to break with the idea that the Government must be the driving force behind all policy and all that is left for others is to oversee and challenge its work. We need a more dynamic Parliament that is more independent but also more expert. Real reform is not a question of creating more space for speeches. It is a question of creating more space for serious engagement with issues. Fianna Fáil supports the idea that we must have mechanisms whereby all Deputies have a realistic opportunity to contribute to the full range of the work of Dáil Éireann. The ability to participate in committee work and to speak in the Chamber should apply to all. Equally, we must avoid a situation in which there is no respect for the larger and national mandate that parties earn.
I welcome the work the committee is undertaking in finding a fair balance. The establishment of a business committee is something that Fianna Fáil proposed three years ago and that we welcome today. It is an important step towards ensuring that legislation receives adequate attention and that we avoid the overwhelming control of our agenda that has been seen in recent years. An important and consistent part of the reforms being proposed is that the Ceann Comhairle must oversee and decide many more difficult matters. We support this and see it as a logical extension of the de factonomination of the Ceann Comhairle by the Taoiseach of the day. We must, however, all be clear that these reforms will not work if Deputies routinely attack the Ceann Comhairle and seek to grandstand every time they do not get their own way. Parties and Deputies will regularly disagree with the schedule. If every time this happens they question the good faith of the Chair, there will be no progress.
We welcome the proposal to allow the Ceann Comhairle to rule on whether a question has been answered. This is of course very different from saying that the Chair can oblige a Minister to answer to the satisfaction of a Deputy, something that does not happen in any Parliament in the world. This is a major reform and we hope that this new discretion signals a departure from the practice that has developed in recent years of Ministers rejecting and transferring questions without justification.
Potentially the most radical and significant work of the committee will be its decisions on proposals concerning the scheduling of legislation and the budget process. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, has pointed out, our budget process is almost designed to maximise conflict and minimise oversight of new policy. Last year we gathered for a Spring Economic Statement which was intended to set out the parameters for the budget to come. It did nothing of the sort. Instead, there was a massive end-of-year rush to fix the figures to fit electoral needs, something which was confirmed yesterday by the acting Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly. The reformed budget process has to ensure that discussions of macro policy and Department-level initiatives are separated and that the traditional budget day festival of surprises and spin is ended.
The same applies to the scheduling of legislation. No functioning parliament allows unlimited debate on every issue. Equally, no functioning parliament allows a government the right to manipulate and control everything about the scheduling of legislation. It should be said that there is literally no chance of these reforms working unless additional resources are made available to establish an independent budget office and to resource the Ceann Comhairle’s new roles. In the election Fianna Fáil recognised this by providing for the cost of Dáil reform in its proposals. We believe that a resolution to fund the implementation of additional measures should be introduced at the same time as the adoption of the final package of measures later this month. A good start has been made and we look forward to the completion of the work in the weeks to come.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as an obair atá déanta aige go dtí seo. Tá sé tábhachtach go mbeadh muid ag déanamh na hoibre seo, go háirithe nuair nach bhfuil aon obair eile ar siúl againn ins an Dáil. Tá seans againn, nuair nach bhfuil rudaí eile ag cur isteach orainn, díriú ar na fadhbanna a aithníonn na daoine a bhí anseo roimhe seo agus a aithníonn na Teachtaí maidir leis an mbealach gur féidir linn an Dáil seo a dhéanamh níos éifeachtaí don obair gur chóir dúinn a bheith ag déanamh. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go dtabharfaimid faoi aon mholadh a chuirtear os ár gcomhair ar bhealach deimhneach. Táimse gafa le ceisteanna leasú Dála mar aoire ag an bpáirtí ó 2002 agus ceapaimse gur chóir dúinn éisteacht cheart a thabhairt agus féachaint an bhfuil aon cheann de na moltaí praiticiúil, mar sa deireadh thiar thall, ní fiú tráithnín iad muna féidir linn na moltaí sin a chur i bhfeidhm i gceart.
Since I first engaged with Dáil reform, when elected party Whip in 2002, I have always said we should approach it in a positive way, listen, and, where there is a problem, explain that problem. Some of us are old hands at that and understand the practicality of some proposals. In other cases, maybe because we are old hands, we are stuck, or institutionalised in a way. We are rigid and say this will not work or that will not work. It has been very useful thus far to listen to those who are new to the Dáil and those who have been here before and managed to get a break for a while and have approached the work in a very positive way. The Ceann Comhairle is to be commended on his approach. We have come to agreement on issues that have floated around Dáil reform for several years. At least now we seem to be making progress on some very positive issues.
I hope we will conclude our business soon and then continue once the Dáil is up and running, because this is a process that in some ways does not end. There are some very practical proposals which we have already reflected and agreed on. As some say, nothing is agreed till everything is agreed, but we can accept some of the proposals and submissions made by the parties and from outside the House. These include the lowering of the group threshold to five, the proposal agreed in the last Dáil of an "Abstain" button for divisions, and the use of the clock, which was introduced in the last Dáil, and its extension to other business in the House. We considered whether it was practical to continue the Friday sittings, whether they are the most effective use of our time or the House’s time and whether we can encompass or capture what was intended in those sittings in the usual sitting time of the Dáil. The reintroduction of the Topical Issue Debate, which was only a sessional order in the last Dáil, has been welcomed by most Deputies.
I believe we should increase the numbers, but if we stick to the four we can see how effectively it is working and whether there is demand. We need to gauge the demand and the number of Topical Issue requests being submitted. If it is popular, we need to deliver on that.
Another issue that has exercised Deputies of all parties is ensuring we get replies to parliamentary questions, written and oral, that are related to the question asked. I hope the extra powers we are encouraging the Ceann Comhairle to use will address it.
I approached this in a positive and practical way. There are issues that do not fall within the remit of this committee but that Dáil needs to get to grips with, including the question of electoral and political reform. How do we ensure we have a permanent electoral commission that deals with some of the practical problems we experienced in recent elections? It should be within our gift to ensure that happens this time. It has been proposed by many parties for a long time and was also one of the issues that the Convention on the Constitution supported. That is an exercise I praised the previous Government on implementing. I suggest the next Government should continue with it because it was a very useful exercise for those of us who took part in it. In particular it was a very useful exercise in participatory democracy, allowing the citizen a say in how politics is run.
We need to address change and reform of the Seanad. It is not tinkering with the schedule and Standing Orders that we are doing here but the substantive change which many of us believe the Seanad should undertake. The electorate said they wanted it because they rejected the proposal to abolish it. If they want it, on the basis of those who have spoken to me, I presume they want substantive directional change.
We also have treaty obligations to deliver on some proposals. The Good Friday Agreement called for an all-Ireland civic and constitutional forum, which we still have not delivered. That could be a reformed Seanad or a constitutional convention on a permanent basis, but we have not addressed it in any shape or form. We have not properly addressed recognition of the mandates of parliamentarians from the Six Counties.
We have approached this in the positive way to date and some useful proposals have been agreed. There is no argument. We have discussed, debated and agreed or compromised. Not everything that has been agreed so far fits in fully with what I or my party has sought. However, we are willing to compromise because at the end of the day it is not just for the benefit of the parliamentarians. Anything that makes my life easier, I will take it, but at the end of the day that is not what we are about. We want to ensure the time I spend in this Chamber or in committees is put to its most effective and positive use for the electorate and society as a whole. That is the most important thing. It is to be hoped we will be able to focus on that and ensure its delivery.
Some people have said it was not an issue in the general election. A number of people raised it with me and asked how we would change how the Dáil works and how we would address empty Chambers. One then gets into a debate and people say that is not what they see. There are perceptions and there are the practicalities of operating this Chamber. Sometimes we, as politicians, need to put aside our party positions and explain to the public that there are practicalities about how we carry on our business here. There are times when the Chamber does not have to be full because the committee rooms are all full. Four or six committees sitting can take away 50 or 60 people. I hope that is one of the proposals to be addressed in the new Dáil reform package to be put to the Dáil in the next few weeks.
On a point of order, we agreed on speaking time that reflected that members of the sub-committee, who are representative of the entire Oireachtas and not of the Government, were speaking to tell the Dáil our vision and what we had discussed. In direct contravention of the spirit of that the Taoiseach rose to speak, outlining his vision for Oireachtas reform.
The Deputy did not make an objection when his leader was speaking in defiance of the order. I immediately approached the Ceann Comhairle because I think it was wrong that we had a change and in the spirit of change the novelty was that members of the committee who had worked for the past three weeks would be called upon in alphabetical order.
I will speak through the Chair. I do not wish to be in any way controversial on this. I did not go into the committee with the expectation that we would have the degree of co-operation there was. Everybody from all sides of the House went into that committee in a spirit of co-operation. I pay tribute to the Ceann Comhairle and to all colleagues who worked on the committee for their positive engagement on the issue in recent weeks. I was about to say then that it is a pity we stumbled in this debate because part of the transformation was to have members of the committee in alphabetical order giving their views on it.
The debate has been constructive and useful. Much of what was discussed and agreed is technical. Many people who talk about Dáil reform, particularly those looking in from an academic perspective, do not think we are really talking about the timing of taking votes, grouping votes or disaggregating plenary from committee. In fact, most of them have no idea what we are talking about if we talk in those terms. These are what might be described as organisational issues. They are important but probably do not represent the reform people have envisaged when talking about fundamental Dáil reform.
Many of the things we did in the previous Parliament are much more reforming in that sense, for example, deepening freedom of information, having a register of lobbyists and regulation of lobbyists, giving overarching protection to whistleblowers and so on.
The provision of these technical matters is important. Committee time has to be organised in a way which will allow Deputies to be usefully engaged in the process of debate. We cannot be in two places at the one time. This crossover has been driven by the volume of business that the House needs to conduct. When I first came into this House, all the work was done in the Chamber, including all Committee and Report Stage work. All the press watched the Dáil in one manifestation doing its work. The fact that now one can have four committees, as well as the plenary sitting, means we are four times more productive. However, that is certainly not the perception. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, we need to do much more explaining of this. Using this Chamber, as well as the Seanad Chamber, for committee work will be part of that.
We have a comparatively small number of Deputies, with a reduced number in this Dáil than in the previous one. When we compare ourselves to the European Parliament, or even to the House of Commons with close to 700 members, for us to develop the skills-sets to ensure the sort of expertise which is a matter of norm in other parliaments, the scale involved is much different. We have to be, by definition, jacks of many trades to function here and make useful contributions on a variety of issues.
Committee proceedings, by definition, receive less media attention. Often, the technicalities of Committee and Report Stage debates are too complicated for people to follow. If we are not sitting in plenary, the detailed work and minutiae of committees are not properly represented. Accordingly, I welcome the proposal for the establishment of a business committee which will broaden and deepen the old Whips system, which sets the business of the House, in a much morecommunautaireway. The critique of the system up to now is that it has been controlled by the Executive. Undoubtedly, the new proposals will allow for greater visibility and input into how the House does its business. It will, of course, prove effective, or not, in the way it operates in actuality as opposed to in theory.
We have challenges we need to resolve. The Constitution is clear in its framing of the responsibilities between the Executive and Parliament, particularly in money matters. The new arrangements must ensure the Executive - I do not envisage myself long being in the Executive - must be able to function in dealing with the people's business as well. That is why I was a little annoyed and discommoded by Deputy Micheál Martin's contribution on this issue. He talked about the budgetary process needing reform, a point on which there is a consensus.
No, it cannot be ten minutes for the leaders of the parties up to now and suddenly five minutes for everyone else. When I approached the Ceann Comhairle on this issue, he assured me it would be ten minutes for each speaker.
I presume I am getting injury time for this as well.
I was about to refer to the review of the budgetary process, one with which I have been intimately involved over the past five years. We tried to change it. The comprehensive review of expenditure laid out all the expenditure options in each area. I then wrote personally to the chairman of each committee to ask them to examine the expenditure options before any budget was formed. At a time when we were reducing expenditure, it is understandable that this level of engagement may not have happened. However, that process was there.
The election is over. Deputy Micheál Martin need not misrepresent what happened with Supplementary Estimates at the end of last year. They were introduced for very good reasons, namely, to validate expenditure we had announced right throughout the year when we had the moneys, including expenditure on the waiting lists initiative and the summer works scheme, as well as reducing the time for the fair deal scheme. These were all announced well in advance of last summer. These were not matters added on at the end of the year as Deputy Micheál Martin suggested.
He is right to the extent that we need to further reform the budgetary process and not have the big surprise day with everybody making a secret announcement. We need to have an inclusive debate as to how we spend moneys, along with an enlarged agreement across the House on that.
It will not be lost on the public that, in all the talk about Dáil reform, the most fundamental duty which we have to fulfil is a requirement to hold the Government to account. This House is the primary instrument for doing that. It holds the Executive to account. Accordingly, to facilitate that accountability, the Opposition is resourced differently from those parties or Members which support the Government. For that reason, I have some concerns about the proposal to modify the Technical Group and membership agreements until we see what shape the next Government will be. The resources and time available to parties supportive of the Government cannot be identical to those of the groupings holding it to account. I am referring to the notion that one can be a hybrid of Government but also of Opposition.
When I raised this at the committee, I was told it worked in the Seanad. The Seanad is fundamentally different, however. In one of its key roles, it is not constitutionally obliged to hold the Government to account. We will see how that works out. However, if they are going to fulfil the requirement to hold government to account as a fundamental issue, it will be difficult to come to any conclusions on the structure of groups or their resourcing until we see the shape of the next Government.
I recall instances in the previous Dáil when Opposition Deputies objected to parliamentary questions being put by members of the Government parties because they claimed it was eating into their time. There was a legitimacy about that concern when one remembers the significant number of Deputies supportive of the previous Government. We have to get our heads around the notion that we are all equal in here, however. It is an entitlement of every Deputy to ask parliamentary questions and to have time to debate. If we are talking about easing the Whip system, then not every Member should be captured by the letter that is down, even with the least nuanced differences within Government. At the end of the day, every Member supporting the Government is required to support it in votes on amendments and legislation. It would be useful if we were open to allow differences of views to be expressed in this House without it being a fundamental rift in the Government. That is a maturing we all need to do.
We must look at the more diffuse Parliament of which we are now Members. We must allocate speaking times and supports to groups without affecting the larger groups. I heard the demand in the committee for perfect proportionality. Getting that balance right is going to be very difficult. We are going to have much more debate. The previous Dáil was very productive with over 250 Bills enacted. Although we are a House of debate, we are also a House of decisions. We must not have such structures that make it impossible to come to decisions on important issues within reasonable time. It is important those Members who support the Government have, by definition, greater access to the Executive and to the support structures it provides. This is an advantage that accrues to them. Accordingly, there is a need for rebalancing for those who do not have those support structures. That has always been the way with financial resources. It will also have to be the case with how we structure the business of the House.
If the critique of how we previously ordered our business is about the effectiveness of the Dáil at holding the Executive to account, it is not clear to me how the proposals governing the recognition of technical groups will facilitate that now, but that is something that is a work in progress within the sub-committee. The one thing we do not want to do is to make matters worse and have less capacity, than we currently have, to hold the Executive to account.
By definition we have many reforms to present. Not all of them will work and some of them will be revisited after a period. I am very strongly of the view of the "suck it and see" variety in that we need to do it to see whether it works and to be open to changing our minds if it patently does not work. With respect to the reformed sitting day, the disaggregation of plenary and committee work and the structure of the Opposition to allow for groups to be formed, particularly of like-minded people working together to a common objective and a common platform, all of this potentially will be transformative in a way that all of us will welcome.
While this has gone awry somewhat from the beginning, it was appropriate, as the Minister, Deputy Howlin, said, that the members of the sub-committee would be the Members to speak first and that they would do so in alphabetical order.
A mistake was made at the start by the Taoiseach and the Leader of the Opposition and, in fairness, I can understand the position of the other groups. Members of the sub-committee, including myself and others, have participated in this work and we should be afforded the chance to speak on that basis
I agree that is how this should have been done, that members of the sub-committee should have spoken first in alphabetical order. Like Deputy Howlin, I approached the Ceann Comhairle who also seemed to agree that a problematic situation had arisen. However, he said that this is what was now agreed.
On the Ceann Comhairle's list he had the Government, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, AAA-PBP, Independents 4 Change, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, all the way down, all with ten minute slots. We propose to divide our ten-minute slot into five-minute slots but we cannot accept that we would now revert to five-minute slots, now that everybody else has spoken, just like Deputy Howlin rightly could not accept that he had only five minutes.
I have no difficulty with the claim made by Deputy Murphy and others that they should speak now but the reality is that the problem was caused yet again by An Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, telling us what reform is about rather than-----
I was a Member of this House for a year and a half and, without trying to bring a very sour note to these proceedings, there were many very low points in that time in terms of how the Dáil functioned. One of those low points, which I remember well, was myself and Deputy Coppinger being told to toddle along because we asked a very simple question about payment figures for Irish Water. We subsequently asked for those figures in five different ways but we never got them. The reason was that at that time 70% of people were refusing to pay, as we subsequently learned from freedom of information requests.
Another low point was when Deputy Catherine Murphy had to ask 19 times, to no avail, different questions to try to get information about Siteserv. Another low point was the repeated shutting off of Members' microphones whenever, for example, they mentioned a very rich and powerful individual in Ireland connected to Siteserv. The reality is that many of the very important issues raised by the left, by Independents and by small parties were not heard in the previous Dáil. That has to end now. That is one of the purposes of the Dáil reform process we are undergoing. The two and a half party system is over. It was finished off by the electorate 40 days ago, finishing off a process of a long-term secular decline of the two big parties. That is also part of a European-wide process, which is seeing a rewriting of political landscapes. There is a new political landscape still to be created but that means the Dail has to change. It has to change from a system dominated by the two and a half parties.
This must be reflected in the work of the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform and what is ultimately agreed in terms of such reform to allow the opinions and views expressed by the people through the election of a wide variety of representatives, including a number of small parties and Independents, to be reflected and given a proper voice and a proper hearing in the Dáil because what happened in the previous Dáil simply cannot happen again. We welcome the formation of the sub-committee and the progress in its work so far. It has been productive. The staff involved in the production of papers at short notice should be complimented on and thanked for their work, which has been essential to the work of the sub-committee so far.
Some of the issues that have been provisionally agreed and are included in the interim report are important. The reduction in the number of Deputies necessary to form a group is essential to reflecting the reality of the changed Dáil. The agreement to allow the formation of more than one other group - let us not call them technical groups at this stage - is very important again to reflect the new Dáil we have. A provision of fair distribution of speaking time and slots to reflect proportionately the new Dáil we have is essential. The provision for the Ceann Comhairle to be able to point out when questions are not being answered is important.
There are many other issues we still need to address, even within the limited framework of the Dáil reform process.
One is the proper discussion of legislation, eliminating as much as possible - and it is a lot more possible than it has been - the use of the guillotine and allowing proper time for discussion and consideration between Stages. Strengthening parliamentary questions is a key issue that we must address. The answers we get, regardless of where they come from or what agency is involved, should be put on the Dáil record. The point is that questions should be answerable to the Parliament through the Minister. It is essential that questions have a similar standing to the freedom of information provisions.
The Dáil should be able to set its own business. The business committee is an important step in that direction, but we still have the problems we see at the moment whereby, effectively, the Taoiseach is the only one entitled to propose the business of the Dáil.
The last specific point on Dáil reform is that we should talk about the Prayer. We think the Prayer should go. It is anachronistic that we start every day here with a prayer. We have an increasingly secular society. We want a secular society. We want a complete separation of church and State and in that sense we believe that the Prayer does not belong here any more.
There is a massive irony, and I hope it is not lost on the public and everybody in here, in the fact that we are starting this debate about Dáil reform with a decision by somebody - I do not know who, and I have asked many Deputies - to uproot and undo the decision that was made about the proceedings of this debate. That question should be answered, and if you can answer it, Acting Chairman, I would appreciate that. Who took the decision to undo the procedure for this debate that was agreed by those on the committee? Everybody is very annoyed about it, including me, even though I was not one of those who sat on the committee. I acknowledge my appreciation to those who sit on the committee and will continue to look at how we can reform this House. It is really important that we do that. I say that based on my experience of watching the proceedings from the outside for the last few years because I was interested in seeing how Deputies Paul Murphy, Richard Boyd Barrett and others got on in their debates. I constantly heard them being harangued when they were making points in the lead-up to a question or the discussion of a motion, but particularly in the context of parliamentary questions. I heard the former Ceann Comhairle, who occupied the Chair that Deputy Durkan is in, saying, "Ask the question, Deputy. Ask the question, Deputy. Ask the question, Deputy." We must bring reform to the point at which, when the Taoiseach, Tánaiste or Minister responsible for a Department refuses to answer or evades a question, he or she is, equally, harangued to answer the question. That person should hear, "Answer the question, Minister. Answer the question, Minister. Answer the question, Minister."
We should go further than the suggestions, not set in cement, that were just outlined by Deputy Paul Murphy. In the future we must look at the reinstatement of Article 48, which will give citizens the right to a referendum if they achieve 50,000 or more signatures.
A very serious issue is the lack of minutes from Cabinet. Why are such minutes not circulated to everybody who is elected to represent the people of Ireland? What is the big secret?
We should see those minutes and know what decisions have been taken.
I again wish to raise the issue of our salaries. It is ridiculous that we are on these high salaries, some more than others, and entitled to these very lucrative pensions, which are paid out on a very different basis from how an ordinary worker receives his or her pension. We must consider reforming the salaries of Deputies and Ministers, and also their pensions and how they are paid. We have no right to bang on about the Luas drivers’ strike, a Tesco strike or a nurses’ strike when we cannot look at ourselves in an honest way and say that we are being overpaid and are over-privileged here.
Secrecy is a real problem. The idea that one can ask a question as an elected representative and not get a proper answer in the interest of protecting commercial interests must go. If someone asks a question of the Cabinet, as I will do in the near future, about how Transdev receives profits from running the Luas, I will be told it is an issue of commercial secrecy. It should not be a commercial secret; it should be open to the people of Ireland to know how that works. Likewise, it should be open to the people of Ireland to know how public-private partnerships work and how secret commercial deals are kept quiet. Furthermore, the use of consultancy firms such as PCW or PwC, or whichever way the initials go, is outrageous. They are overpaid and over-bloated. They are used to do consultancy work for Irish Water and every other goddamn thing that happens while our universities are loaded with well trained, publicly educated academics and experts in various fields. We have public bodies that could equally carry out such research on behalf of the Dáil. We must start examining things like that instead of taking on advisers who have vested interests in the neoliberal agenda.
My final point relates to something that irks most of the population. If a Deputy runs on a promise relating to a certain issue, he or she will not always achieve what he or she set out to implement. However, I am talking about those who promise not to vote for water charges or an increase in university fees and then do vote for them. There should be some mechanism of recall for Deputies who break promises in their manifestoes, which the public believed and on the basis of which they voted for them.
This is further validation of the absolute mess this afternoon has turned out to be through no fault of anybody here. I am sorry for Deputy Catherine Murphy. It is not her fault either. We did not change the agenda, but it is indicative of the lack of control the Parliament has over Government. Out of respect, I will be brief. I will not take the full time out of respect for the Deputies-----
-----particularly those who served their time on the sub-committee. This Dáil should be the forum for that committee to continue its work throughout the lifetime of this Dáil. If we ever get a government together, it is something that we should take forward and consider very much in the context of what exists in other parliaments. I want to look at some points the committee has addressed, which I think are good and are moving in the right direction, but I will also spend time on some things that the committee has not considered but that we have a unique opportunity, at this juncture, to spend some time on. It is a fact that instead of a scenario in which the Dáil controls the Government, providing accountability, the Dáil has really been a creature of the Government, which has set the agenda, run the committees, and rigorously – in a vicious manner, in many ways – implemented a Whip system. The very odd Opposition amendment that gets through is entirely at the Minister’s discretion and is really just lip service rather than anything substantial. One of the key things that needs to be examined, which is linked to the Constitution, is the Whip system. In Finland and Germany, Members of Parliament are constitutionally guaranteed freedom to vote whatever way they want. Article 38 of the German Basic Law says that Members of the Bundestag shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience. That should be the case here, albeit in such a way that, if one likes, members of political parties or groupings are required through the discipline imposed by their political parties to support undertakings they gave in a general election. The reality is that we have a Whip system here which, rather than forcing people to stand by the mandate which they contest at elections, whips them into line to make sure they do not stand by the promises that they put to the people. The provision that exists in Germany and Finland should be provided for here. It is an essential democratic provision. This is also linked to the right to recall mentioned by Deputy Brid Smith. If somebody patently stands before the electorate on a certain promise and then comes into the House and does the opposite, it is not good enough to say that the people should be expected to put up with that person for five years or however long it is without the right to recall. That is a very important provision.
The issues of independent scrutiny and investigation were raised in a number of areas in the previous Dáil.
We saw it in terms of Garda accountability, NAMA, the foster care scandal in the HSE, which was set up by the last Government, IBRC and so on, much of which was stalled and held in the hands of the Government.
This Sub-committee on Dáil Reform should look at a provision, which exists in the German Parliament and particularly in the Danish Parliament, that in areas affecting the governance of the country, if 20% of the Members of Parliament seek a commission of investigation, it is required that it will happen within a certain timeframe and a declared budget. It should not only be a creature of government, it should be mandatory that it is undertaken. In situations where such an investigation may infringe on the entitlement of persons to their good name, there should be an independent judicial investigation. This is something that happens in Germany and Denmark and should be adhered to here. If the Dáil reform group is to continue, we should look at the best examples from Europe and the rest of the world. Other areas of democratic accountability should be built into the powers of the Oireachtas. The Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, should be answerable to Dáil Éireann in the performance or lack of performance of his or her duties. If 20% of Oireachtas Members or Oireachtas committees require that person to come in and answer, he or she should be obliged to do so.
There are a huge number of issues and we are only beginning this task. I like some of the measures that have been put forward and I very much agree that we need to change the way questions are directed. I am glad that some measures will be imposed in that way but we have to go further. We spent the lifetime of the previous Dáil trying to get answers to questions on the US military use of Shannon only to be kicked from Department to Department in a very deliberate manner by civil servants who seemed to be hell bent on not giving the answer that was genuinely sought. Not only should the changes being put forward by the committee be suggested but sanctions should be imposed on Ministers who deliberately do not answer questions. The guillotine has to go and we need to look at measures. Essentially, when we talk about Dáil reform, we are talking about democratic accountability. An amendment to the Freedom of Information Act providing for full disclosure of all materials, for example, concerning NAMA, IBRC, all other State agencies and agencies obtaining State funding, should be part of this.
Who knows what will happen or if we will have a Parliament in which we can advance some of these issues. One thing is very clear in all of this - it cannot be divorced from our Constitution. It cannot be divorced from the fact that our Constitution is completely out of touch with the reality of a modern Ireland. It was somewhat ironic that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, convened a housing meeting last week given that he was Minister for a number of years during which he blamed the Constitution for why he could not deliver on many of these matters. All of us have experienced issues on which we wanted to bring change and have been told that the Attorney General has said it cannot be dealt with. We need a proper, accountable Constitution for the modern age. That should be part of the discussions.
In deference to others who took part in the sub-committee, I will not take my full time.
I welcome the work the sub-committee is doing. I am a member of the sub-committee and the engagement at it has been very useful and frank. It has been a very open and refreshing approach. There are many things on which we differ but the approach has been a good one. Arguments have been made today on replicating what we are doing with regard to Dáil reform in a number of other issues in the interim, such as housing. This would be very beneficial.
It is unfortunate that we did not start out today with the order that was agreed. That shows a difference in approach. It was possible to change the order earlier by reducing the amount of time that some of us got to speak. It was possible to change the order for this so there is a question about that and we need to get answers on it tomorrow.
One of the aspects of Dáil business of which I have been very critical is that it does not reflect what was set out in the Constitution in that there is no separation between Government and the Dáil, something that was what was envisaged by the Constitution. When people talk about a strong Government, what we really need is a strong Dáil. That is what we are mostly aiming at. Some of the proposals have been talked out and we have come to a consensus. It will be one of a series of draft reports that collectively will make a difference with the proviso that there will be a review in six months time to see if things worked and to tweak or change the things that did not work. That is a helpful approach.
In terms of Oireachtas reform, it is essential, and it feeds into some of the points that have been made by others, that we have political reform and not just Dáil reform. That goes beyond and, in some ways, intersects with what we are doing. The issue of transparency is becoming a more critical one. A recent example is the Panama papers. I have had my own struggles and am still having them in terms of getting answers under the Freedom of Information Act. Without transparency, there cannot be accountability. If one is on the Opposition side of the House and is holding Government to account, there has to be the prospect of transparency to do that job. If one can get more information by way of Freedom of Information than by way of parliamentary questions, I would question the value of parliamentary questions apart from a timing issue.
There are many other things about which we will need to talk once we go through the issues that will affect Standing Orders and that we can bring in pretty quickly. The Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, spoke about the previous Government being very productive, with 250 Acts passed. The problem is that 249, which is almost all of them, came from the Government side. We had a Friday sitting which was a superficial change. It did not matter because of the size of Government. Irrespective of the size of Government in the future, there is a unique opportunity now to change the nature of politics and to stop the Punch and Judy, offensive type of politics that sets a tone which is really offensive to the majority of people who are interested in watching how the business is done. More powerful, properly resourced committees where legislation can be introduced would make a difference.
The issue of the Whip and the sanctions is important. People who lose the Whip can lose their office, be taken off committees or have no prospect of being able to speak on issues. In some cases, we have seen people sanctioned for things their own party had advocated in advance of the general election.
Would we have had the crash had we had a functioning Dáil operating in a transparent environment? Would we have had institutions such as the HSE designed in the way they were? Would we have had Irish Water at all if the process had been thought out and people's inability to pay had been examined?
This, for example, was one item that came up repeatedly. Including people and this more polarised Dáil in decision-making better reflects precisely what people intended by their votes. I argue that strengthening transparency in decision-making includes vetting all Government appointments and independent judicial appointments in order that there is separation. In addition, it includes replacing the Official Secrets Act, which is inconsistent with freedom of information. I have argued for an anti-corruption agency that would have a single approach to co-ordinate anti-corruption measures. This is about examining the institutions because while it is one thing to have legislation, there is another side to ensuring such legislation can be delivered properly, be it in this context or in respect of services to be delivered. Moreover, the establishment of an electoral commission would mean doing things in an entirely different way.
While many matters concerning political reform could be added to Dáil reform, I am quite positive thus far regarding the behaviour of the sub-committee and how it is acting. I am hopeful this first group of meetings will be sufficiently productive to show there is the possibility of delivering something that is meaningful, rather than superficial reform in respect of the manner in which Members conduct business in this House.
I wish to echo the earlier comments of Deputy Catherine Murphy and a number of other speakers. Those of us who are members of this sub-committee on Dáil reform have pretty much common agreement that it is working well. Nothing could illustrate this better than the contrast with this Chamber which, in the first three days on which it has been sitting has not had the same sense of collaboration or of getting business done in a timely and effective manner. That is a pity in some ways and if there were television cameras inside the room off the main entrance hall in Leinster House for the meetings members of the sub-committee are having, it might restore a little public confidence in a political system that people can share experience and ideas and that politicians in particular are the right people to be making these decisions. Unlike anyone else, we have certain expertise in how this place works and it is absolutely right that it falls to politicians, rather than bringing in academics or outside experts as some have suggested. No outside expert could have relayed some of the detail that came out of the discussion held earlier today on the nature of how this Parliament works by those who are within it. To confirm what the Cathaoirleach has heard from others on the sub-committee, it is working and during this hiatus in the political system, Members should avail of this opportunity over the next three or four weeks to get as much out of the system as they can. I wish to have its remit broadened, as other speakers also have noted. It is a pity that such a collaborative sharing of expertise in the nature of Dáil business is not being applied to resolving what must be done with the Seanad. Members on all sides would acknowledge the method for electing the Seanad is not working and is neither an open, transparent, participative process nor a fair process. I refer to how some people have five votes, whereas other people have none I regret the sub-committee does not have the ability to take items such as Deputy Zappone's previous Bill or other Bills to establish whether it could agree, in the same collaborative fashion, on some mechanism for the Seanad, that is, of recognising the decision by the people in the referendum four or so years ago, which I read to mean they did not seek to remove the Seanad but did wish to reform it. Once members of the sub-committee have finished their business with the Dáil proceedings, why would they not look to ascertain whether they can get common agreement on how they would proceed on that issue? I do not suggest the precise measure here but why not use the same round-table process involving 14 or 15 Deputies to ascertain whether success can be achieved in this regard?
I also believe Members agree, pretty much across the House, on the need for radical reform of local government. I refer to many of the ills to be seen in this Chamber and many of the problems Members have in giving out that they are engaged in localism or clientelist politics here. Perhaps it is because sufficient power is not being given back to local government or, I would argue, to regional government. Doing so would free this House to be what it should be as a much more strategic centre of thinking for the State. I certainly would welcome the same process in this regard or, as the sub-committee finishes this process on how the Dáil is reformed, to examine whether cross-party agreement can be reached on how local government can be reformed. As some Deputies from the Anti-Austerity Alliance also noted earlier, that should be extended yet further to ascertain whether there are mechanisms of direct democracy in which one could engage citizens in a referendum process that would restore or strengthen that sense of civic engagement with the Republic. I would move on to this third tier of reform, which I believe to be necessary.
If I may, I will consider briefly reform within this House. It is interesting that when one gets into an honest and open debate about it, one recognises that one needs a stronger Opposition and a stronger Parliament. However, if Members are being honest with one another, they do not wish to kill the goose or to create a system in which the Government cannot function. Much as people might dream up elaborate systems in which parliaments, like Athenian congresses of old, could run the Government and run the country in some interesting way with Aristotle on one side and Plato on the other, within the Constitution we need an Executive. We have a mechanism whereby a Cabinet is appointed and that has Departments. I do not believe this Parliament will overthrow completely the working mechanism of the State for the past 80 or 90 years and suddenly succeed without a government. Consequently, in whatever form, we need to get a system in this House that works for Government as well as for Opposition or which gives the ability for Members to do what is their core role, which is to hold the Government to account. Those who are in government need this as much as do those in opposition. As a Minister, sometimes one actually welcomes that as a way of bringing one's Department with one and of organising it. As the Acting Chairman himself is aware, there is a responsibility here in how this is managed, in order that Members receive proper replies to questions from Departments. In addition, Members have a responsibility, if I might draw the Acting Chairman's attention to this point-----
I thank the Acting Chairman because it is necessary to engage the public service in this process and it is necessary for Members to play their bit in getting real in holding the Government to account and getting real with what is happening in Europe, as well as holding what is happening in Europe and overseas to account. Consequently, all Members have a responsibility. I believe the training or the responsibility starts in the committees. I can only speak from personal experience but the five years I spent on the Opposition benches of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, in the company of the Acting Chairman, was one of the best learning experiences of my political time.
The ability to go into real detail, as the joint committee did, on issues such as broadband or energy policy is the central training ground. Effectively, in politics knowledge is power and the knowledge of what one can really do to improve society and the economy comes from those years and years of hard work and hidden committee work. This is what Members must strengthen and what they must encourage and must value. I believe the broad changes that Members are in the course of introducing appear as though they might help to do this. Consequently, I support them and look forward greatly to the remaining meetings.
I agree with Deputy Catherine Murphy in that there are other issues I wish to consider. Members should consider that prayer at the start of the day and consider what is done in the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Scottish Parliament and to give consideration to different ways of doing this. Perhaps a minute's silence sometimes might work.
There even could be arrangements to have a mechanism whereby, when Members are in a row and it is going really wrong, someone rings a bell and all Members take a deep breath and breathe for ten or 60 or 100 seconds before they resume.
It might be a nice reform to introduce some reflection and pause for thought in Members' working procedures. Members should be creative, innovative and open to different mechanisms. I stated I would not take the full allotted time and in that spirit, I am happy to note this sub-committee is working.
I look forward to the rest of its work and that spirit infusing wider political reform in local government and the Seanad during the lifetime of this Dáil.
I want to explain something. We are at cross-purposes. What happened is the sequence started all over again. We had leader after leader and we have gone so far down that road and are coming to the end of it. The quicker we get on to the sequence of individual members of the committee, the better. Five minutes each will be allowed. I hope that those who spoke as leaders will not come in again with five minute contributions afterwards.
I know that too. Some were and some were not. I presume Deputy Pringle is not coming in again as a member of the committee. The Deputies will have ten minutes between the two of them or five minutes or four minutes or whatever.
Thank you, Acting Chairman. It has been said by other Members that the way this debate has developed shows how difficult it is to get the culture of change in through the Parliament. The Dáil subjects itself totally to the Taoiseach when he happens to be in the House and is offered the first opportunity to speak, which is what caused the whole problem in the first place. The order of the day was to be that the members of the committee would speak in alphabetical order as the first contributors to this debate.
As stated by other Members, the committee on Dáil reform is working well and a lot of consensus has been reached at the committee meetings. That has been very positive but it is a pity it did not transfer through into the operations of the House today. We have to live with that for the time being and hope it will work much better in the future and that the new changes will filter through to the workings of the House. The report before us deals with a number of issues and I wish to deal with some of them. On the formation of groups, Deputy Howlin mentioned earlier that we cannot deal with this until we know the make-up of the minority Government or whoever it is will make up the numbers of the Government. It is important to remember that the work of the committee will affect future Dálaí as well. We, therefore, need to get this right at this stage. We cannot focus solely on the make-up of this Dáil when deciding on how groups will operate. The principle that a grouping of five will be agreed to through the reform process is the right principle. Along with that principle, how those groups will be resourced and structured so that they can participate within the workings of the Parliament needs to be addressed. That is vitally important. It has been brought up at the committee already but it needs to be concluded as part of the process.
The proposal on abstentions in the voting process is a positive one. A suggestion that Members would be able to explain the reason for their abstention and that this would be facilitated through the record in some way was made at the committee. This should be allowed. It will be interesting to see how the proposal relating to the business committee, which is very welcome, develops and works because that will change definitively how the business is ordered in the House. However, it is important that the business committee would assert itself over the Legislature and the independence of the Dáil in terms of deciding the business of the House.
It is vitally important that the Dáil does exert itself. As I understand it, this House, during this interim period when there is a caretaker Government in place, could and should be taking decisions by way of votes and resolutions and instructing the caretaker Government to do certain things rather than allowing the current situation. There are massive, pressing issues outside this House such as the homelessness crisis and the water taxation issue. We have no opportunity to debate those issues on the floor of the House today because this House, as a result of its standing orders and past rulings of the Chair, has, in effect, suspended itself. This means that this House cannot decide any of those pressing issues while a caretaker Government is in place. That is totally wrong.
I will give an example. The caretaker Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine signed Statutory Instrument 125 of 2016 into law on 1 March. That statutory instrument will have serious implications for fishermen but we have no way of scrutinising it or dealing with any motions that could rescind it. What makes this even more stark is that, in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine admitted that the statutory instrument does not have a sound legal footing. Yet he went ahead and signed it into law. He is a caretaker Minister in a caretaker Government which is taking decisions and this House is unable to scrutinise them. That is wrong. Even in this caretaker situation, this House should be in a position to scrutinise and direct the caretaker Administration to stop doing some of the things it has been doing because they will have serious impacts across the board, not to mention the housing crisis and the rest of those pressing issues which need to be addressed. With that, I conclude and hand over to Deputy Katherine Zappone.
I thank Deputy Pringle for sharing the time available. I welcome the interim report and the frank, open and positive tone that clearly was in the committee because it is being reflected in the contributions of members of the committee here as well as those of us who are responding briefly to their work. I thank them for their generous efforts. It is a great lesson to listen to this debate as I, a new Deputy, move from the experience of what probably was a more reflective Chamber to this one.
It is critical that we move towards the strong Dáil about which Deputy Murphy spoke. I am happy to have had the opportunity to make a submission to the committee and one of the suggestions I put forward has been taken on board in its interim report. The committee has acknowledged the increased role an Opposition can play in the Thirty-second Dáil. That is absolutely essential if the Dáil is to represent the views of the people accurately. That has not always been the case given much of the power in the last Dáil was centralised among a small group of decision-makers and we have heard other Deputies reflect on that matter.
The proposal to allow abstaining as a voting option is welcome. This may be an acknowledgement of the possibility of a minority Government and that abstaining will not be seen as an act of not engaging with the legislative process but, instead, as an action of itself. Abstaining on key votes could soon be an act that must be carried out by Members of the Opposition, be they members of political parties or Independents. I also welcome the suggestion for the opportunity to explain those abstentions. I also look forward to future recommendations of the committee, in particular recommendations relating to financial security in the budget process. We need to empower fully all Members of the Parliament to take a meaningful role in the budgeting process and for it to be one that gives us an opportunity to work towards counteracting recent regressive budgets and austerity cuts. I would bring an equality and anti-poverty lens to my analysis of the budgets and the use of an independent analysis to support these.
I hope the appetite for reform shown in the Dáil today, about which other Deputies have also spoken, can be reflected in an appetite for real and genuine reform in the Seanad.
I firmly believe the will of the people ought to be implemented with one person, one vote for the Seanad. I am hopeful that can be achieved, especially given that many of the current candidates in the Seanad election are running on a platform for reform. Deputy Murphy and others have referred to the issue of prayer in the Dáil. We reformed that in the Seanad. There was much debate on the issue to ensure it would reflect a more modern Chamber. Ultimately, our compromise was one minute of silence with one minute of a Christian prayer. The Dáil could go further than that in its efforts to reform, perhaps with a couple of minutes of silence so everybody has an opportunity to draw on their ethical source or their spiritual sense of being part of the wider community as we begin to debate in the House.
To conclude, as many Deputies have said there is clearly a need to move beyond the adversarial nature of the Chamber. I am delighted I had the opportunity to participate in this and to spend time here because there is a contrast between what is taking place now with what took place earlier in the day. As both an optimist and a realist, I acknowledge that political reform is an ongoing process and that the Oireachtas has much to fix. However, I believe there is a renewed appetite. There have been many calls for new politics since the election but it will only be new politics if it translates into new results. I look forward to the ongoing reports from this apparently very productive committee.
When we talk about Dáil reform, we must return to basics. We must return to our function, roots and legal basis. What is our mandate? That comes from the Constitution. The problem with Dáil reform and how the Dáil has operated over the decades is the relationship between the Dáil and the Executive. Article 28.4.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann is absolutely clear in this regard - the Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann. Deputies are in the driving seat. The Government is our creature. We elect a Government - I assume we will elect a Government at some point - so it is our creature and it is sent to do the executive work of the State, but we are in the driving seat and it is responsible to us.
The reality over many decades is that the Government has controlled the Dáil and its business in the same way as in the Westminster system. That is the reason the Dáil has not been seen as an effective Parliament in holding a Government to account, getting answers to questions and dealing with issues in the country. The numbers in this Dáil do not add up for the old system. The reason I was particularly annoyed when the Taoiseach stood up and spoke, in what I considered to be a contravention of the order on which we voted, was that this was a direct contradiction of what we are seeking to do in Dáil reform. We are the Deputies of the House and are meant to be in the driving seat, as the Constitution provides, by holding the Government to account and telling it what to do by legislating, yet here the Taoiseach was standing to speak as the Executive, essentially telling us what was his vision of Dáil reform. That was the wrong way around for the debate tonight, and not the way the debate was structured. We must always remember that the Government is responsible to the Dáil. If we remember that and that we are in the driving seat - we make the decisions in this Chamber, not Secretaries General or the Civil Service - we cannot go too far wrong. This is not understood particularly well at official level and we must make it understood.
We have a responsibility to change the way we have done business for decades, while reflecting the constitutional position. Deputy Ryan said we cannot undo the traditions since the foundation of the State and the relationships that exist. I agree. There is an interdependence in some ways between the Executive and the Parliament. However, we have never fully fulfilled our role in holding the Government to account.
Two items Fianna Fáil has put forward in its document are key to this. One is establishing a proper office of legal counsel to the Oireachtas. The difficulty we have faced over the years I have been a Member of the Dáil or the Seanad is that every time one has a good idea, particularly if one is in the Opposition, one is immediately told by the Government that the Attorney General has advised that it may well be unconstitutional. It happened many times in the Seanad when I and my colleague, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, drafted Bills. It also happened when Fianna Fáil was in power. The only way to counteract that is to have an office of legal counsel to the Oireachtas. Incidentally, that person should be on a par with the Attorney General and should be able to sit with the Attorney General as an equal, if that were necessary. The person should be able to give advice to us that is not subsidiary to the advice of the Attorney General but is considered equal. Our own senior counsel or highly respected lawyer should be advising the Oireachtas on what is and is not constitutional. The Attorney General is the legal adviser to the Government. Legal advice by its nature is confidential, which is why Governments traditionally have claimed confidentiality. That is understandable, but the way around it is to have our own legal advice which is on a par with that. That office must be paid for, and there is a cost attached to this, and established relatively quickly, certainly in the medium term.
In addition, we need an Oireachtas office of policy and economic analysis. There are excellent researchers in the Oireachtas and they are extremely useful in providing information to us as well as analyses of various policies. By and large, however, the vast majority of the information we receive comes from Departments. In addition, there is the issue of charges on the Exchequer and amendments that cannot be accepted because they may cause a charge on the Exchequer. That is a significant issue for the Opposition, in particular, but I hope Government Deputies will put forward amendments to legislation as well. However, it is a major difficulty. In my view, although nobody has ever said this to me, the Ceann Comhairle or the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad decides whether something is a charge on the Exchequer based on advice from the Departments. That is the wrong way around.
As I said, the Government is responsible to us. We are here on behalf of the people to hold it responsible and accountable. We are in the driving seat. It is up to us to make the rules, not the Cabinet. I am glad no Cabinet Minister is present, with no disrespect to them, because all 158 Members of this House are in the driving seat. We are equals and we must put this forward. In fact, with the current configuration there is no other way around it. However, it must last for the decades to come.
Yes. They are Deputies Regina Doherty, Eoghan Murphy, Darragh O'Brien, Louise O'Reilly, David Stanton, Eugene Murphy, Gerry Adams, Brid Smith and Carol Nolan. We will not reach all of them, but Deputy Regina Doherty is next.
I have never been so happy that my name begins with a "D". I am a member of the committee and it is a pleasure to sit around the table with people from all parties and none and to be able to agree on something in a relatively short period. We have only had three meetings. I pay tribute to the work achieved so far and the interim report before the House today. I need not go into the details of it because everybody can read it.
I am lucky to be back in the Chamber for a second time after my first term over the last five years, and I am grateful for it. A great deal of politics is played in this Chamber but there is not a great deal of policy on an average day. To change the culture through the changes we are proposing is probably the most important thing we can do. The reason we are changing groups, and acknowledging and accepting that there are more types of organisations, parties and groups in the House, is to empower them to be representatives and to be equal in their mandate to every other Member of the House. When looking around the House I fear that there are some people who think they are more equal than everybody else. That must change. Every Member of the House, be they from a big or small party, an independent or from an alliance, has the same mandate as everybody else and should be empowered to be as fully representative on behalf of the people as they can be. I welcome the changes we are proposing and I appreciate everybody's input to them.
I wish to refer to two matters which are very significant in the changes we will make. One is the change to our committee structures, although I acknowledge it is not in today's report. I was a member of the health and children committee for the last five years.
I did not realise there were 24 members because only the same six or seven people came, week in, week out, and they were very interested in pursuing in an non-partisan way the agenda of the committee. It was a real pleasure to be part of it. To be a member of a committee should be seen as a privilege. The authority and work of that committee should be elevated and we should try to give it more powers than it had in the past.
From a backbench perspective or an Opposition perspective, the opportunity to put forward legislation as proposed in the amendments to Standing Orders is very important. While we had this before, as speakers rightly said, the legislation never really went anywhere without the blessing of a Minister. It has been very frustrating as a backbencher for the past number of years to have ideas and amendments to put forward on legislation but not be allowed to put them forward, or if Members were allowed to put them forward, they would not have been allowed to vote on them if it was not something their party agreed with. The purpose of each of us in the House, with our individual mandates, is to make law the best it can be. It is not in the gift of a particular Minister to make something perfect at the beginning of a process. Every Member's views, opinions and amendments should be taken on board, and that can and will happen with the changes we are going to make to Standing Orders, which I very much welcome.
The process has started and it is a pleasure to be part of it. I very much look forward to the changes, in particular the change of culture that will arise from the changes in the next couple of weeks.
Despite the initial confusion over the organisation of time this evening, I do not think there was anything sinister on the part of the Executive. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to hear everyone's contributions by being in the Chamber. It is a genuine privilege to be on the committee. If I may, I would like to congratulate you, a Cheann Comhairle, on your election because I have not had the chance to do so.
When the last Dáil changed the Standing Orders so that we could elect the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, it represented a fundamental change in how this place does its business. I found it difficult at the time to explain to people why it was so significant and fundamental, and why it meant the Dáil would now be in a better position to hold the Government of the day to account and why the Dáil would be more independent. I found myself leaning back on the example of the Westminster Parliament, given it changed its way of doing business in 2007 to elect a Speaker by secret ballot. That came into effect in 2009 and, immediately following that, we saw the flow of powers from the Government to the Speaker, and so to the people.
That is what we are seeing right now in the creation of this reform committee. Again, it is a privilege to be on the committee and to get to work with everyone in this House who is making such a positive contribution, those who gave contributions from outside the committee and the staff who are working so well on it. People have to realise that what we are seeing is that the power to reform how we do our business is no longer in the hands of the Government. No one party or group can now force its will on how this place should do its business. That is a fundamental change in how we do our business and it is incredibly significant. The power to reform our parliament and the responsibility to do that rests with the Ceann Comhairle and with the committee. We have never seen this before, so it is exciting and a real opportunity. It must not stop with this initial phase that the Ceann Comhairle has planned and it must continue through the lifetime of this Dáil and into the next.
Some people outside of the Chamber and, indeed, some within it do not believe it is that important. However, how this place works or does not work impacts the lives of people in this country every day. What we do is important. However, if we are not doing it properly, we begin to undermine ourselves. We then also undermine the practice of politics but, worse than that, we can actually undermine the fabric of society and do a lot of damage to people's lives. That is not to overstate things. There is a very real thread between what we do here and what happens in Irish life. That thread should be as strong as a rope but, sometimes, I feel it as weak as string, particularly when we come to very significant issues we have debated in this Chamber in the past five years, the way we have debated them and the results that have come from that, in particular the negative way the people have reacted and responded to that, and the damage this has done, not just to the body politic, but also to the country.
Eight years after the financial collapse, as a group of elected representatives, we are still in a position of responsibility to rebuild the faith of people in their political system and their politicians. That is why we have to reform this place and why it is so important to make our Parliament more diverse, representative, accountable, open, responsible and responsive to the needs of the people.
In looking, with others, to set up this committee to do this work, we in Fine Gael put together an Oireachtas reform programme. What we sought to do in that document was to put forward certain ideas. We are not claiming originality for those or that we invented them, but we wanted to put forward ideas in good faith in order to say that, regardless of when a Government is formed or who is in government, we will sign up to these measures because we see them as being important. In tandem with that, we agree that, as a party, we would seek to relax the Whip system in the Chamber and also in committees, which is very important.
We must all come to this with good faith and, to an extent, we have to come to it with a Rawlsian veil of ignorance in order that the changes we make as a reform committee will empower Deputies and the Oireachtas, but will also recognise the constitutional responsibilities and obligations that are there for Government. We all have to be responsible in making changes because, ultimately, we do not know what bench we might sit on in this House following the changes we make. That will require a change of attitude and of mindset.
The work of the committee is under way and, as I have said, it is a privilege to sit on it with my colleagues from across the House. The Ceann Comhairle has set a very ambitious timeframe and the proposals in the interim report are very welcome. Again, the establishment of the business management committee is another fundamental reform of how we do our business. We, as parliamentarians, will decide how we do our business on a weekly, monthly and sessional basis, which is very important. If we have the will ourselves, we will be able to avoid the use of the guillotine, but it will fall to us to do that. If we can approach the business committee in the way we have approached the reform committee, through seeking consensus and trying to be more mature in our work and less confrontational, hopefully, that attitude, culture and belief will translate into the work we do and the modus operandias we approach each of the issues that will face us over the next months and years.
To conclude, it is important to recognise more groups in the Dáil. Standing on a party platform is important but, at the same time, as we do our work here, we must recognise the voice others have. I look forward to the further work that will continue in the next weeks and months and, hopefully, throughout the lifetime of this Dáil session.
On a point of order, I want to express my dissatisfaction on behalf of many of the Deputies who are not members of the committee and who will not get an opportunity to raise our reforms and what we would like to put forward to the committee. This a cross-party issue. Today, we are seeing the committee members give a regurgitation of their debate within the committee itself but we are not hearing from any of the other Deputies throughout the parties. That needs to be formally recorded. We need a further opportunity to debate these reform proposals because newer Deputies are not getting an opportunity to bring forward our ideas on Dáil reform and that needs to be addressed.
Thank you. My understanding is that we will return to this issue when we meet again on 14 April, so there should be a continuation. The point is valid. I call Deputy Darragh O'Brien.
I will do my best to stick to the facts. Every Member of this Chamber has an important role to play and I know that our parties and relative groupings are consulting their members and, although what they are bringing forward are not even draft agreements, this is the work to date. What I stated at the committee is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and I firmly stand by that. The reason I stand by it is that, if we are to achieve real change, that change must be fundamental, meaningful and real. While there are issues that can be dealt with swiftly and on which there is broad agreement, such as the issue of allowing an abstention, if we were to just do the simple things, that in itself is not reform. Most parties and groupings are in agreement that the Dáil should have more control and power and Members should be able to exert their power as individual Deputies and as members of parties. That is why I have welcomed the proposals to date on the business committee, which are an important step forward. When we get to our meeting on 13 April, the independent budgetary committee or economic oversight committee - whatever we call it - and the independent legal office are an absolute must.
I would say to some of the hurlers on the ditch, who exist in this Chamber as well, that with extra power comes extra responsibility. When we build the process of a budget from the ground up, and are inclusive about it, all of the Members who are elected by the people across the 26 counties of the Republic have a duty to feed into that. Those extra powers that I want will bring about those extra responsibilities.
Furthermore, it is crucial that this reform agenda has started in advance of the establishment of a Government. When a Government is established, whoever it is, it will, in the main, only permit the reforms that suit it.
That was true of the last Government and previous ones, led by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and that is why it is important that we do it now.
I commend the Ceann Comhairle on his chairmanship of that committee. In fairness, I have also been pleasantly surprised - I would say this to other Members who are not on the committee - with the make-up of the committee and how well it has worked to date. Maybe Deputy O'Reilly does not think so, but I think it has worked well to date and that we can reach a consensus and an agreement, but we must also be aware of the mandate that each of us holds and each of our parties holds. Of course it is important that smaller groupings are heard, but it is also important that proportionality is applied. The people voted for 50 Fine Gael Deputies, 44 Fianna Fáil Deputies and 23 Sinn Féin Deputies so if we are to be representative, smaller groupings and independents cannot have more time or more say than parties that received higher votes in the recent general election.
The incoming Government, whatever that is, must move very quickly to a full abolition of the Economic Management Council. We have been talking about the top-heaviness of the Executive and the power of the Cabinet over the Dáil. That was acute in the previous Dáil, particularly because there was a cabinet within a Cabinet. That cannot be allowed to persist. Regarding how business is scheduled and dealt with, the excessive use of the guillotine in the last Dáil is something we should see an end to also.
Reforms were made in the Seanad as well, and I am glad to have had the experience of being a Member of the outgoing Seanad. It was a less adversarial Chamber, more legislation was agreed across the House and people had more opportunities to talk and feed into legislation. We should look at what is done well in the other House and bring that into this House, and I think that is something that we will do. I look forward to the conclusion of the reform agenda. There are other meetings, and I agree with Deputy Chambers that it is very important that all Members of the House feed into this process and that the Ceann Comhairle makes sure that that happens. It is open to all Members now - I know Deputy Chambers made his own submission - and all Members can make submissions at any given stage. Real reform is fundamental, and it is fundamental change that is required, not just tipping around the edges, and that is why nothing can be agreed until everything is agreed.
In advance of the most recent election, the issue of Dáil reform, inasmuch as those specific words are concerned, was not necessarily raised with me on the doorsteps. What was raised was the desire that people had that, when they sent me here to do a job, I would be able to do that work in a timely and efficient manner. What they wanted, and what people all over this island want, is real and meaningful political reform, which does not just tinker around the edges, but is tangible, ambitious and has a real impact. We need reform that goes to the heart of our political system, and it is long overdue. As a member of the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, I believe that we may only be able to scratch the surface of what is really needed. We may only be able to make a small impact. Nonetheless, Deputy Ó Snodaigh and I in Sinn Féin have approached our task with a view to maximising the impact that we can make so that we can make our work more efficient and so that the people who sent us here to work hard on their behalf can see that that work is getting done.
The caretaker Government promised much in 2011 about political reform but delivered very little, if anything. In fact, one only has to look at the number of pages in the documents that it submitted in advance of the meeting of the committee to see that even it acknowledges the scale of the work that they left for the people in their aftermath. It is imperative that while we talk a lot about new politics and reflecting what the electorate really wants, we do not lose sight of the fact that the caretaker Government missed five full years of opportunities to do what it now agrees we should be doing.
As a new Deputy, I have witnessed around the table of the committee the frustration of those who have many more years of parliamentary experience than I have. I have witnessed their frustration about the delays and obstacles that are very often put in their way. I was shocked that, following the introduction of gender quotas, one of the parties used their three slots to send three men. That was disappointing. I think that if we are going to talk about new politics-----
-----we should really walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Notwithstanding what I believe are the limitations of the committee, it is imperative that all nominees do their best to ensure that the House and those who are elected to it can serve the needs of their constituents. All the Members who attend this committee should have a clear mandate from their respective groupings and parties to ensure that they can agree to proposals as they emerge and that we can, as a committee, bring a full suite of proposals to the floor for debate and discussion that has the confidence of all of the members of the committee.
In advance of a Government, whatever the hue or shape it takes, now is the time to make these reforms, to agree principles that will serve us into the future and not to be short term about it. Finally, I urge every Member to give serious consideration to ending the practice of beginning our day with a prayer. It is outdated. I suggest we begin with two minutes of reflection, during which Deputies can perhaps reflect on the reasons we have been sent here and how we can best do the work that we have been sent here to do.
I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his appointment and wish him well. He has made a good start.
I spent 15 years on the Opposition benches, and in that time one reform occurred, namely, the introduction of Leaders' Questions, which were kind of happening anyway, but they were formalised in Standing Orders. There was nothing else, zero, zilch. Once reform occurs, it gets built in and people think that is the way it always was. In the last Dáil there were a number of reforms, such as the bringing of Topical Issues forward to the middle of the day, extra Leaders' Questions and legislative scrutiny. The latter was a major reform and happened down in the dungeons of the committees, and a lot of people did not know it was happening. Over the past five years, 7,386 witnesses came in and spoke to, engaged with and gave their views to Members of the Oireachtas. That is a very significant reform. This pre-legislative scrutiny meant that the legislation was scrutinised prior to being published. What happened prior to that was legislation was published, brought in here after being through the drafting office and finished and set, and Deputies could do nothing of any substance with it whatsoever. At the pre-legislative committees, though, members were able to take the heads of the Bill and make major changes on the advice of NGOs, expert groups and ordinary citizens, who came in to suggest those changes to the Government Department and the Minister. In the main, quite a number of those suggestions were taken on board.
Deputy Zappone and I worked very closely in the justice committee and brought a large number of Bills and reports through that committee, and they are there on the record. That was a major change but, because it happened away from this Chamber, where the grandstanding and politics occurred, it was very often unseen and unheard. However, it did make a difference because one of the main jobs we have here is to produce, scrutinise, analyse, discuss and debate legislation. That is very hard to do it in a Chamber like this where somebody comes in and reads out a 20-minute speech, possibly a script that someone else has prepared for them. I have noticed over the years - I am here almost 20 - that sometimes people come in and read a script and one knows it is the first time they have seen it.
I suggest, as one reform, that we get rid of scripts. It is in Standing Orders anyway that no scripts should be used, apart from those of Ministers, who must be accurate in a legal sense. Apart from that, we should internalise the material, make it our own and be able to speak to the topic. We can have bullet points but reading out a script that a researcher has prepared is not really making the legislation our own.
We should be more involved with the budgetary process. We tried this with the justice committee, as well with the idea of following the money. The OECD produced a report last year and the Oireachtas working group of Chairs asked for it. A former Deputy, Mr. Liam Twomey, was very much involved with that. A fantastic report was produced, with one table illustrating specific issues in parliamentary engagement. There is an index of legislative budgetary institutions in the OECD and Ireland is the poorest of all. We do not scrutinise the budget at all to any extent. This takes time, work and effort. We must roll up the sleeves, swot and study. We must spend time in the committee rooms. How many Deputies are prepared to do that and spend the time that I and Deputy Zappone did with the justice committee, out of sight and out of mind? People are worried about being home in the constituency.
Fianna Fáil has produced some very interesting suggestions in its proposal for Dáil reform, although I have one point of difference with the Deputy who spoke earlier, which is the idea that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That was the case up to approximately ten years ago. The Government Chief Whip at the time, former Deputy Pat Carey, and I tried that idea and although a package was always produced, when somebody objected to one issue in it, nothing happened. We must be careful about that. If that proviso is included, there is a risk that one Deputy on the committee might not agree with an issue and then nothing would happen.
I wish this initiative well and it is exciting. The committee should carry on anyway as a standing committee right through this Dáil.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to this issue. As somebody who has been a Member of Seanad and Dáil Éireann, I am delighted to be back. I thank the people of the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, including those in west Cavan and south Donegal, for ensuring my return. I welcome the reform being proposed as every one of the 158 people elected to the House should be - and in fairness are - treated with respect. It is important that every one of us has the opportunity to raise the issues of the day, particularly national matters, affecting our areas. Ironically, during today's nominations for Taoiseach, Deputies Adams and Boyd Barrett raised a very important issue for my constituency. This is the queuing of ambulances outside Sligo general hospital. That has happened before and I know there were nine ambulances queued outside the hospital three weeks ago. Only for this debate on Dáil reform, I would not have the opportunity even to mention that. As a representative for a constituency, whether a Deputy is on the Government or Opposition side, from a small or large party or Independent, a Member should be entitled to raise the issue of the day affecting the people whom they represent. That is very important.
I wish the 17 people on the committee well in their deliberations. When these issues must be raised, there should be a Minister present to give some answer on how problems can be solved. There is no easy solution to the problem of people waiting on trolleys in hospitals but as a backbench Deputy, my opinion is that if the carer's allowance application process could be dealt with more sympathetically and quickly, rather than people waiting eight or ten months for answers, we would not have our current problems in the hospitals. It is sad that this must be examined.
Everybody in the Chamber has his or her idea about how to improve matters but we do not get the opportunity to express those ideas, unfortunately. I welcome anything that could relieve that problem, whether the issue in question relates to agriculture, health or education. We must have somebody to answer the questions we raise on behalf of our constituents. People have said they take issue with the prayer being said before we start the business. I do not see anything wrong with a prayer, which is a reflection before we start very important work in dealing with the issues affecting the country.
It is great to be able to speak. I apologise for my earlier remark but the point still stands that we need greater input from many of the Deputies who might be new to the House so they can give their opinion on Dáil reform.
Some members of the committee did not show up to contribute to the discussion on Dáil reform, which might demonstrate their level of seriousness in engaging the issue. Deputy Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, put this on the agenda in the week after the election and real reform is needed in the coming weeks. I welcome the establishment and work of a cross-party sub-committee on Dáil reform, which I hope will bring meaningful reforms to the table. As a new Deputy, I was taken aback on our first day here to hear Deputy Doherty dismissing or sidelining the need for Dáil reform. Deputy Louise O'Reilly has reinforced that Sinn Féin perspective. We all have similar concerns relating to health, housing and so on but to dismiss or sideline Dáil reform is wrong. Her membership of the committee undermines that idea.
We need to introduce reforms so we can have debates on key issues and bring more oversight. We must empower the Dáil. This, rather than the negative posturing and empty populist rhetoric coming from the side, will bring about a difference. The attempt to derail Dáil reform serves no purpose and I hope Sinn Féin will embrace the spirit of reform and respect this House. We are at a fundamental crossroads-----
We are at a fundamental crossroads in Irish politics and we can embrace proper, real and substantive Dáil reform to restore the spirit and capacity of the Irish Parliament to provide the counterbalance to the Irish Executive. We must not present anaemic, minor or symbolic reforms that would make little or no difference to the workings of Irish democracy. Now is the time to make the fundamental change and shift so we can uphold the respect for and potential of Dáil Éireann. The reforms in the coming weeks must alter the nature and quality of Irish politics and debate.
I have submitted my own document on Dáil reform. One issue is attendance and quorums and Standing Orders should be amended so more Members must be present. It is not realistic to believe everybody can be here all the time because there is a need for committee work and so on but there must be a greater threshold of attendance. Standing Orders could be amended with this in mind.
There is power currently invested in the Taoiseach under Standing Order 24 to control the summons and postponement of the Dáil. This should be amended so the majority of Deputies can be collectively empowered to summon the Dáil from any adjournment that may have been imposed by the Taoiseach or the Executive. This would help balance the degree of control over our parliamentary democracy. We must work to prevent legislation being guillotined by raising the democratic threshold and requiring the agreement of the Ceann Comhairle and two thirds of attending Members to support the legislation. There is an absolute need for democratic consensus around guillotined legislation. If legislation is of national importance, it should require a higher democratic threshold to be progressed. That would increase the level of debate, oversight and input on matters of national importance that may require an accelerated progression through Dáil Éireann.
I propose the expansion of debate for Topical Issues to limit the current form of tit-for-tat, and to ensure a greater depth of debate and accountability of government. This Dáil must end the current archaic process of Ministers whose background knowledge of an issue is limited. They must debate beyond the answer that is given to them by a departmental official. They should be able to go beyond it. It might be advisable to extend powers to the Ceann Comhairle, as has been moved in the Dáil reforms, to ensure that Ministers who appear for Topical Issues are accountable for the questions asked. If any further questions are asked, which are not reasonably responded to, such questions could perhaps be followed up in an extended topical sessions period in the week following the Topical Issues event that arose in the previous week.
This extended Topical Issues session relating to questions in a previous week should be added to the current Dáil schedule with new additions to current Standing Orders. I welcome the proposed reforms which will vest powers in the Ceann Comhairle to ensure that Ministers respond properly to the questions asked.
As a strong mechanism of reform, all major government announcements, including Exchequer returns and departmental initiatives, should be formally announced in the Dáil Chamber before any public announcement. This would allow debate and oversight on such announcements where they can be teased out. Prior leaking of such announcements should be sanctioned and investigated by the Dáil and the Ceann Comhairle's committee.
We need to end the practice of Ministers swanning around in their chauffeur-driven cars making announcements about this, that and everything relating to their Government Department. Their powers are vested from this Dáil and they should respect them when making those announcements.
I hope my own contribution, as well as the proposals from other parties and Deputies, will provide a collective platform to achieve the progress on Dáil reform that we are all striving for on behalf of our people and our Parliament.
Before calling Deputy Adams, I wish to make two points. First, 23 written submissions were made in respect of Dáil reform. I want to assure Members that each and every one of them has been carefully considered and will be considered further between now and the end of April.
Second, I realise that other Deputies who are not members of the committee cannot know how the committee is functioning. It is, therefore, appropriate to say that it is functioning extraordinarily well. It is receiving positive and active support and participation by every member. As Chair of that committee I am inordinately proud of how it is functioning and I want to pay tribute to all the members involved.
Tá mé fíor-bhuíoch díot, a Cheann Comhairle, as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt faoi leasú na Dála.
I also welcome the publication of the interim report and commend the committee members involved, as well as the Ceann Comhairle's stewardship of that committee. Some useful progress has been made but much more is required if it is to be as meaningful as is needed. Reform of the Dáil does not just mean tweaking Standing Orders or how we schedule business, but reforming the institutions more generally and getting away from the more antiquated practices that prevail within these precincts.
On the first sitting of the 32nd Dáil, we in Sinn Féin were prevented from having motions that were properly submitted on scrapping water charges, health and hospital crises, Moore Street, and making the case for the establishment of a commission of investigation into the sale of NAMA's loan book. We wanted all of these debated here, but were not allowed to do that.
At the last sitting on 22 March, Deputy Ó Snodaigh and I attempted to move a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow for a meaningful debate on homelessness, health, water charges and child care. However, we were told that the current Standing Orders actually prevent Standing Orders from being suspended, contrary to all normal practice in any other assembly. This clearly needs to be changed.
Meaningful reform on how we conduct our business also means the provision of Northern representation, ending the practice of excluding the introduction of money Bills from the opposition benches, and affording Dáil committees the power to introduce legislation. That can and should be done.
I know that the Ceann Comhairle is very open to all of these suggestions and to reform of practices in the Chamber. I welcome that and, as I said earlier, I commend his stewardship of the Dáil reform committee. One issue which I raised many times with his predecessor and with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is the fact that in this place of work there is a facility for Members of the Dáil and Seanad to have access not to one but two bars. I spoke to the Ceann Comhairle about this matter quite recently. It is absolutely bizarre. I have met citizens and Members of the Oireachtas intoxicated in the corridors quite a few times, and even since the 32nd Dáil has met in session. This is absolutely bizarre. The fact that a bar would be in a workplace is contrary to all modern practice. I am as fond of a drink as anybody else, but the fact that its opening hours operate on the basis of parliamentary privilege is equally bizarre.
We also have an unacceptable situation whereby media facilities for opposition parties and Deputies are limited either to the plinth or the portico. The Government can bring members of the media to Departments and offices, but there is not even media access to the audio-visual room in Leinster House. There was a rather remarkable occurrence today when we did a press event on the plinth earlier. We were talking about the homelessness motion that we were trying to get passed and I noted that a young homeless woman, Erica Fleming, was going to give a briefing at my request on the issue of homelessness. I said to members of the media there: "Why don't you come along?" One of the staff approached one of our press officers and told them that under the rules of this Dáil that is not allowed. Therefore, journalists are barred from briefing sessions which are open to members of the public. Clearly this is complete and absolute nonsense when we talk about the Dáil being transparent and open. That is not the way a modern parliamentary democracy should work. The media have a huge responsibility in covering the workings of the Dáil. The Government and the Oireachtas have a responsibility to ensure that we are very open in all of these matters. That means that the media should have access to modern facilities and briefings on important matters that have been organised by parties or Deputies. They should be able to report from the Oireachtas in as professional and modern a way as possible.
We also need to address the issue of late sittings. I return to this issue of the bar opening times, which has an adverse impact on the fantastic staff within the Oireachtas, including ushers, catering staff and all others upon whom we are so dependent to help us to do our jobs. They have family lives and while I am sure none of them minds working long hours if we are dealing with emergency legislation or other important matters, it is totally unacceptable that they should be stuck here because some Deputies want an after-hours drink for themselves or their friends. If they want that, let them go to a local hotel. The people who work here, including ushers, should not have to sit here waiting for them to have their pleasure.
Reform has many aspects and I would hope that in the coming weeks, as the reform committee continues its work, all the issues, and not just those related to this Chamber, can be open for discussion and change.
I thank Deputy Adams for his contribution and I hope the debate will continue on 14 April.
Before the adjournment of the Dáil, I must mention that on the vote for the nomination of Deputy Enda Kenny for appointment by the President as Taoiseach, the numbers on the níl side were added incorrectly and announced as 80 Members against the motion. The tellers have accordingly agreed that the correct result of the division stands at: Tá, 51; Níl 81.