Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions
I take it that the Deputy has in mind the Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning. As Deputies will be aware, in the new programme for a partnership Government, the Government stated its intention to reform Seanad Éireann and committed to pursuing implementation of the Manning report. The report was published last year and it is available on my Department's website. I welcomed the report when it was published and indicated that there needed to be a public and political discussion and consultation on it. On 5 May and again on 8 July 2015, statements on the report were made in Seanad Éireann with both the chair of the working group and former Senator Joe O'Toole, a member of the group, in attendance. I also met Opposition party leaders to discuss the report's contents in July 2015.
One of the report's recommendations was the establishment of an implementation group to oversee implementation of the reforms contained in the report. I agreed with a suggestion made in this House some time ago by Deputy Micheál Martin that the group should be based in the Oireachtas and should comprise members of the Dáil and Seanad from all parties and groups, with access to independent expert advice as required. The group should be tasked with advancing the reform process. I wrote to party leaders on 28 September last seeking their agreement to this approach and their intention to participate. Contacts are continuing with parties to finalise nominations with a view to having the group up and running as soon as possible. I gave a commitment to have a debate here in Dáil Éireann on the working group's report. This did not prove possible in the last Dáil but it is still my intention that the debate should take place as soon as possible.
Eighteen months have passed since the publication of the independent working group report, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning. We could not argue that it has been a political priority for the Taoiseach during the intervening period.
Almost two months have passed since the Taoiseach wrote to each party leader and we responded by nominating Members to serve on the working group on Seanad reform, yet that group has not met. It has not been formed. Two months after the Taoiseach wrote to us and we nominated Members of the House who were accessible, why has the working group not come into existence and started its work? It is almost two months since the Taoiseach informed the Seanad that there would be a debate on the matter in the Dáil. The Taoiseach has also acknowledged that this has not happened either. It is promised again today. In short, two months ago the Taoiseach addressed the Seanad, where he stated that the matter was in hand, that the working group was to be appointed and that there would be a debate in this House. However, it appears that nothing has been done since he made those commitments.
Are we serious about reform of the Seanad or is it simply the view that we will drift into the next election in the same mode as the previous one and that the Seanad will be returned on the same basis? The clear view of the people during the referendum campaign was that the Seanad should be retained, but reformed. That was the view that was argued by every Member of the previous Seanad. In the democratic interest, we need to act on this, but, as a House and as an Oireachtas, we have not treated the issue with the urgency it deserves, particularly in light of the constitutional framework relating to what is a constituent part of the Oireachtas.
I accept responsibility for the delay. I received five replies from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Deputy Daly and Deputy Eamon Ryan. There were some queries about the numbers to be appointed to represent each group, a matter I hope to finalise today or tomorrow. I must speak to the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Buttimer, and get on with doing it. I regret the delay in making it happen.
If anything meaningful is to be done, the drafting process needs to start soon. This has dragged on for far too long. During the lifetime of the previous Administration, we met and we stated that we supported the idea of a legislative mechanism to ensure a democratic franchise. This did not happen. We are open to the implementation of the Manning report recommendations, although I would have gone further than what is proposed in those recommendations. Nonetheless, they represent a compromise. I would have preferred a full franchise, so that the people could decide, within the existing constitutional framework, who should be their Senators. That said, we, along with the other parties, are prepared to agree to it. We need to create the mechanisms in order that we can agree the drafting of the legislative template required to bring about reform of the Seanad. I believe in the Seanad, which is why I campaigned against its abolition. We need independent voices. We need more voices, not fewer, in public debate. The worst slogan I ever saw in a referendum campaign was that of Fine Gael's "Vote Yes - less politicians". The idea of the fewer the better was a terrible indictment of the political profession. People believe that in Russia and elsewhere but we should not be extolling a view of that nature in a democracy such as ours.
Some of Deputy Howlin's former colleagues agreed with me privately that it was an appalling poster. It sent out all the wrong signals about what we thought of ourselves. In any event, the point is that we need to get on with this or otherwise, as Deputy Howlin stated, we will end up at the next general election without any change. There is a platform and a set of proposals that would attract broad consensus in this House at least, whatever about the Upper House. We can work on that. Something needs to happen though. Is any public engagement proposed in order to get ideas or feedback from the general public on the future role of the Seanad?
Níl an Taoiseach ná an Rialtas dáiríre ar chor ar bith faoi tuairisc Manning ar an Seanad. Tá an tuairisc ag an Rialtas le tamall fada anois ach, mar a dúirt an Taoiseach, ní dhearna an Rialtas rud ar bith faoi. Cad atá sa tuairisc? It states that the current electoral system for the Seanad is elitist. It then offers a range of proposals for the reform of the Seanad, including opening up electoral participation for members of the diaspora who are Irish citizens and Irish citizens in the North. Yesterday, the Taoiseach told us he was not going to proceed with the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention on votes for citizens living outside the State, including those in the North, in presidential elections. There is an explanation for the Taoiseach's dilatoriness in respect of acting on these reforms and it is that he does not believe in the involvement, as of right, of those who live outside this State. Perhaps, also, the fact that the Seanad has voted against the Government on bin charges, CETA, etc., does not suit it. We have nominated Seanadóir Rose Conway-Walsh to the interim implementation body but, unless the Taoiseach said it and I have missed it, we do not know when that body will meet. We do not know -it would be useful to get a commitment in this regard - whether the reforms will be completed before the next general election, whenever that may take place. Will the Taoiseach provide some clarity in terms of the timeframe for the debate on these reforms? When will the implementation body meet? Is the Taoiseach prepared to deal with all of these matters conclusively in this term?
Is é a bhí mé ag rá ná go ndúirt mé inné gur b'fhéidir nach mbeadh am againn, mar Theach de chuid an Oireachtais, an reifreann a bheith againn agus an dlí achtaithe roimh an gcéad togchán uachtaránachta eile. Sin a bhí i gceist agam. Tá sé i gceist agam go dtarlóidh sé agus ní hamháin ó thaobh iad siúd atá ar imirce thar lear ach ó thaobh iad siúd atá sa Tuaisceart freisin.
The terms of reference of the implementation body are: to ensure the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report; to liaise as an interim board with draftspersons to ensure that the Seanad (amendment) Bill reflects the spirit and the text of the report; to oversee the process for registration for Seanad election panels following the enactment of the legislation; to receive and to adopt reports from the Clerk to the Seanad on the application of the rules for nominating bodies as required by the Acts of 1947 and 1954, as well as those contained in the draft legislation prepared by the working group; to be responsible for the organisation of the university panel registration and election following the implementation of the 1979 constitutional extension of the university franchise; to oversee the delivery of ballot papers and the receipt and count of the votes; to appoint returning officers to the various panels; and so on.
I undertook, when I was in the Seanad, to meet Senator Norris. I think the meeting is fixed for next week. The Senator is violently opposed to what was recommended in the Manning report and wants a continuation, from his perspective, of the Trinity panel, which has existed for a long time. This is opposed by other Members of the Seanad. There are different views in the Seanad. In deference to Deputies Howlin, Micheál Martin and Adams, I will see to it that this moves along quickly.
In order that the House will have a clear view of how matters will progress from today, will the Taoiseach call on the working group to meet?
Will the Taoiseach give an indication of when that might arise? After that, will it exclusively be the job of the working group to follow through the implementation? What Minister will be assigned? Will it be the Taoiseach? Will his Department do the drafting of the legislation and work with the working group? Will there be a particular assigned senior civil servant to ensure this happens? Does the Taoiseach have any idea when we can expect to see a conclusion to this process?
I will get the implementation group together, if I can, next week. I will speak to the Leader of the Seanad about it. We may have an issue, which I do not object to, in terms of the numbers who might serve on it. The terms of reference are set out for the implementation board, including liaison with draftspersons to draft the necessary legislation.
I undertook to set up the Manning report. I have gone over to the Seanad to talk about it. I will see that, in so far as that is concerned, I will drive it from the Department of the Taoiseach.