Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
100. To ask the Taoiseach the status of the work of the implementation group on Seanad Éireann reform; and the further status of the group's considerations on the extension of Seanad Éireann election voting rights to additional third level institutions. [49924/18]
I established an implementation group on Seanad reform to consider the Manning report and to develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform. The implementation group comprises Members of the Oireachtas with the assistance of outside experts, as appropriate. Since its initial meeting on 9 May, the group has met on 11 occasions and is expected to make a report in the coming weeks.
I thank the Taoiseach for his answer. I understand that the work of the Seanad reform implementation group is due to conclude next week, that it was to sign off on a proposed Bill to give effect to the recommendations of the Manning report and that the legislation was then to be sent to the Taoiseach. What happens next in the process? Will the Taoiseach accept the group's Bill? I am aware that he had reservations about the Manning report. When will a Bill be before the Dáil and when will there be legislative changes? To have or not to have the Seanad and its reform comprise a long-running saga in political life.
There are people out there - in fact, there may be people in here - who do not really believe that this will ever happen. We need to allay those concerns. People voted for the retention of a bicameral system on the understanding that it would be a reformed system. It is only right that we honour that expectation. The last thing we need is anything that contributes to further cynicism towards political life or, more importantly, the institutions of lawmaking and government.
I was recently at an event marking the contribution of Éamon de Valera to Irish parliamentary tradition. In fairness to him, he did a great deal of work in reforming the Seanad and giving it constitutional provision in the 1937 Constitution. More than that, he removed from the then Dáil the right to change the Constitution by itself, which was a remarkable giving up of power for the 1930s or, indeed, any time. That is where we are in this context.
It is time for significant reform of the Seanad. I am glad that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport's personal veto of the nominee for chair of the implementation committee was eventually lifted and the committee was able to get on with its work. In passing, the Taoiseach might comment on why the highly unusual situation of an Independent member of Government personally blocking a parliamentary majority's wishes is one that he continues to tolerate on such matters. It was shocking.
It seems that the committee is doing good work and that it is coming to a conclusion. Given that the Government is considering referendums next year on divorce and other matters, I am curious as to why the Seanad is not featuring in those plans. It seems that an outline is ready and a legislative template is almost ready. My understanding is that the committee has to meet and sign off on it. Maybe the Taoiseach can encourage the Government members of the committee to attend and be constructive as regards the agenda.
Does the Taoiseach agree with me that the timescale exists for producing legislation on the Seanad that could lead to a constitutional amendment? I am sorry, I did not mean a constitutional amendment, but a change in the Seanad's make-up, how it is selected and so on. I do not know whether the Attorney General's office has examined the committee's work. The legislative proposals seem more realistic politically than the Manning report in terms of phasing in changes over the next two Oireachtais. The Taoiseach might comment on this matter. There is room for fundamental change within the next six months.
In the context of the upcoming general selection, which will be followed by Seanad elections, is there any proposal from the Government to extend the Seanad franchise to graduates of all third level institutions?
As I mentioned, the group has now had 11 meetings and it is meeting under the very able chairmanship of Senator Michael McDowell, a former Attorney General and Tánaiste who is known to many of us in this House very well. It is, of course, an all-party committee. As it has not issued a report yet, I cannot really comment on it. Obviously, once the report is issued, I look forward to reading and examining it. The Leader of the Seanad, Senator Jerry Buttimer, keeps me up to date on occasion as to what is going on in the committee, but I did not realise that it was quite that close to signing off on a report. I have not seen a draft report yet or anything like that if such a report exists.
I have some reservations, which I have expressed in the House before. I would like to know what the cost of the election would be. The Constitution requires that Seanad elections be carried out by postal vote and only by postal vote, so a postal vote involving millions of electors, potentially hundreds of thousands of them outside of the State, could be very expensive, but I do not know what that figure is. Perhaps the committee does, and I am sure that will be in the report.
Second, I also have some reservations about retaining the different panels as they currently exist. I understand that to change them would require a change in the Constitution, and that is not being proposed. The last iteration of the Manning report that I saw would require pretty much everyone to register to vote again for the Seanad elections. If we open up the franchise to everyone in the State or every citizen abroad, that would require a registration mechanism by which people would register to vote and would then pick a panel on which they wanted to vote, whether it was the University of Dublin, NUI, cultural and educational, industrial and commercial, administrative or some other panel. I think that could be quite a confusing exercise for people. People, when they register to vote, tend to register to vote where they live for their local constituency. Asking them to choose between a number of different panels when they register to vote could cause some confusion. I also think the panels are out of date. They do not really reflect 21st century society. They derive from a papal encyclical in the 1930s that de Valera was very fond of. It was sort of Catholic corporatism. That is from where those particular panels arise.
However, those are just my reservations. I am not determining this or running it or seeking to-----
I would like to know what would be the cost of a major postal vote election such as that proposed. I would also like to understand why people think that retaining these panels is the optimal way of electing a second Chamber rather than a national list, regional list or many other different options that could be considered.
In terms of the university seats, that referendum was passed a long time ago. I think it was in the 1970s.
Successive Governments and Oireachtais have decided not to make any change, but I imagine that will all be rolled into whatever reform Bill emerges out of this particular process.
My sense of the university seats is that, if they did not already exist, one would never establish them. However, if we look back historically, the contribution of the university Senators has been enormously positive. I would like to see them retained in some way, perhaps with a third constituency for the newer institutions that are not included. We could just merge them all into one, but I would like to see the NUI retained and the University of Dublin retained and maybe have a new constituency for the more recently established institutions like DCU, UL and some of the institutes of technology. Again, though, those are just my thoughts. I look forward to receiving the report.
There are no proposals that I am aware of for a constitutional amendment relating to Seanad reform.