Thursday, 14 April 2016
Business of Dáil
Before moving to the next business, at the request of the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, I wish to update the House on the work of the sub-committee, which has met on four occasions since its establishment.
The sub-committee agreed a formal work programme at its first meeting on 23 March based on the broad range of submissions it had received. At the meeting, the sub-committee also discussed the establishment of a business committee, rules governing Technical Groups allowing for more than one Technical Group and fewer Members to form a Technical Group, dedicated committee time, fixed times for voting and provision to allow for formal abstentions in votes. The sub-committee completed its deliberations on these matters at its second meeting on 5 April, the details of which were set out in the interim report laid before the House last week.
The intention is to bring forward new Standing Orders which will permit the business committee to be established. The committee will agree the sessional and weekly agenda of business for the Dáil and will give all groups represented in the Dáil access to and control over the business coming before the House. The sub-committee has also agreed a fixed time for voting, which it is envisaged will take place on Thursday afternoons. There will be a number of exceptions, such as for the Order of Business, the naming of a Member for disorderly behaviour, which I am sure will not happen, and for Committee and Report Stages of Bills. Apart from these, all votes will take place together and Members will be able to register their intention to abstain.
The combined impact of the more effective planning of business and the new voting arrangements will be to improve the working environment, particularly for Members with young families. It is very evident from the submissions to and discussions at the sub-committee that Members are faced with competing demands on their time due to the fact that the Dáil and committees meet at the same time. The sub-committee has, therefore, proposed splitting committee and plenary time. Committees will meet on Wednesday and Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and plenary time will commence at 12 noon on those days and at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays.
This allows for dedicated committee time which will no longer clash with business or votes in the Dáil. The issues in relation to groups were also examined in detail and agreement was reached to reduce the size of groups to a minimum of five Members and to permit more than one Technical Group to be formed.
At its third meeting on 6 April, the sub-committee gave detailed consideration to parliamentary questions and agreed certain new arrangements. Leaders’ Questions will be taken at the commencement of each sitting for 28 minutes. The current time limit of seven minutes per individual question will be retained, allowing for four questions to be taken each day. The use of the clock was approved to aid the enforcement of time limits.
Taoiseach's Oral Questions will be taken for 45 minutes immediately after Leaders' Questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A limit of three Oral Questions per Member per session will be permitted. A key change here is that questions not reached will continue to be automatically tabled for the next oral session. However, the roll-over period will be limited to two weeks so that questions which are not reached within two weeks of appearing on the Order Paper will receive written answers. The use of the clock for Taoiseach’s Oral Questions was also approved.
The sub-committee agreed that Priority and Oral Questions to Ministers will be taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and the time allocated for them will be extended to 90 minutes, with 30 minutes for Priority Questions and 60 minutes for Other Questions. This period of 90 minutes will run from the time the first priority question is put and not from a fixed time. It was also agreed to reinstate sessional orders 38(1)(ii) and 38(1A) from the Thirty-first Dáil to the effect that a Member must be present in the Chamber to ask an Oral Question in his or her name. However, this will be subject to the proviso that the Member may nominate a substitute questioner by giving 24 hours' notice in writing to the Ceann Comhairle's office. Each questioner will be permitted to give a 30-second introduction to his or her question. A single spokesperson of a group may put down a maximum of five Oral Questions.
The sub-committee agreed to reinstate sessional order 27A from the Thirty-first Dáil providing for Topical Issues to be taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. While the Ceann Comhairle has discretion in selecting the issues for answer, some guiding principles for the selection process were agreed. The sub-committee further agreed that requests for substitution of the relevant Minister will be formalised and that in such cases, the Ceann Comhairle's office will engage with the relevant Member directly. It was further agreed that a substitute issue will be chosen to cover a possible deferral to maximise the number of issues taken each day. If this issue is not selected, it will be taken on the next sitting day along with any deferred issue.
The sub-committee agreed that Members may submit written questions twice during the summer recess: first, one week following the adjournment for the recess and second, two weeks prior to the resumption following the recess. The sub-committee agreed that a new Standing Order will be drafted to allow Members to request further information from the Ceann Comhairle on rulings on the disallowance of questions. It was noted that this will not be an appeal mechanism against the Ceann Comhairle's rulings but rather an acknowledgement that the Ceann Comhairle is happy to provide additional information to Members on his rulings, as has always been the case.
The sub-committee agreed that the time period specified in the repeat rule for Oral Questions should be reduced to two months from the current period of four months. It was agreed to abolish the current rule that questions should not anticipate the discussion of any matter which is scheduled in the Dáil in the same week. It was agreed that administrative arrangements will be put in place to notify all Members of their provisional lottery numbers on the day the lottery is held, rather than having to wait for them to appear on the Order Paper. It was agreed the current question deadlines under Standing Orders will be retained. The question of accountability of State bodies is under active consideration by the sub-committee and a recommendation in this regard will follow.
The sub-committee agreed to reinstate sessional order 40A to allow for a process of written appeal by a Member to the Ceann Comhairle regarding the adequacy of a ministerial reply to Oral Questions, Topical Issues and Written Questions. If the Ceann Comhairle upholds a Member’s complaint, his decision shall be laid before the Dáil. The two-day notice requirement will be extended to four working days. The Ceann Comhairle may rule on the relevance of an oral reply on the spot if he is of the opinion that there has been a clear failure to impart the information sought. The sub-committee agreed that further time would be provided for Private Members' business and that a percentage of that time must be dedicated to Private Members' Bills.
At its meeting yesterday, the sub-committee considered proposals for the committee system and financial scrutiny. It gave particular consideration to the establishment of a budget and finance committee and an independent parliamentary budget office. The overwhelming view of Members was that both need to be put in place. The sub-committee will return to these matters in a fortnight to formally agree proposals for submission to the House. The final strand of the sub-committee’s work concerns the legislative process to be considered by the sub-committee at its meeting next Wednesday. By the end of April, the sub-committee will have discussed all matters on its work programme. It will then agree a draft report to the House. Following this, draft Standing Orders will be submitted to give effect to the new arrangements. We expect to have those new draft Standing Orders early in May.
The overall objective of the Dáil reform process has been to improve the effectiveness of the House so that it can better meet the needs of those we serve. All the measures being considered are designed to achieve this objective. I do not doubt that when they are implemented, they will make a discernible difference to how we conduct our proceedings. I pay tribute to all of the Members who are serving on the sub-committee. They have approached the process in an open, constructive and considered way. As a group, we have shared objectives and have operated by consensus. I think this augurs well for the new arrangements which will ultimately be put in place to conduct business in the Thirty-second Dáil. I pay tribute to the Clerk of the Dáil and all his senior staff, who have worked inordinately hard to support the committee in the work it has been engaged in.