Thursday, 7 November 2019
Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Dáil this afternoon about the report of the implementation group on Seanad reform. I had the opportunity to similarly address the Seanad on 24 September last and to listen to the views of Senators on the report. It was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion and I have no doubt Members in this House would also like to get their views on the record about this report. I repeat my acknowledgement of and thanks for the work that has gone into the preparation of the report and the accompanying Bill by the 23 members of the group. I also again thank Senator Michael McDowell for chairing the group.
Before I comment on the report, I will give a quick reminder of the background and context that have brought us to this point. First, the Government is committed to Seanad reform. In order to progress that commitment, an independent working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, was established in December 2014. The principal focus of that group was on possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system and the manner in which it carries out its business within the existing constitutional parameters.
The group published its report, known as the Manning report, in 2015, together with an accompanying Bill. The key electoral reform recommendations in the Manning report were as follows: that the majority of Seanad seats would be elected by popular vote in a "one person, one vote" system; that this principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers; and a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation.
A conservative estimate of the electorate under these arrangements is some 5.3 million people. Since the publication of the Manning report, the Seanad has had a number of opportunities to discuss Seanad reform, including statements on the Manning report in July 2015. A further opportunity arose in June 2016, when Senator McDowell, with a number of other Senators, introduced the Seanad Bill 2016, a Private Members' Bill based on that prepared by the Manning group. However, it was apparent during the course of those discussions that while we had consensus on the need for change, we still did not have broad consensus on the detail of that change.
Against that background, and with the agreement of all sides in the Seanad, the Seanad reform implementation group, chaired by Senator McDowell, was established. Its main terms of reference were to consider how to implement the recommendations of the Manning report and whether any variations to those recommendations were needed. The group was also asked to provide the text of a Bill to implement its proposals. One of the features of the report is the lack of consensus among the group. The report sets out different statements of position from members of the group who had dissenting views. These range from re-examining the constitutional provisions in regard to the Seanad, with the aim of achieving more meaningful reform, to having an electorate composed only of residents in the State.
Today's statements arise from the Government's consideration of the report and its wish to reflect on the position of the Oireachtas before taking any further steps. Therefore, I am here very much to listen to the views of Members on Seanad reform.
The group has not proposed any change to the widening of the electorate at Seanad elections from what was recommended in the Manning report. The proposal to widen the electorate includes extending the franchise at Seanad elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport. The Government is proposing to hold a referendum to extend the franchise to citizens outside the State for presidential elections, and the relevant constitutional amendment Bill was published recently. That referendum could serve as a useful barometer of the views of our existing electorate for extending the franchise in this way. My view is that we should await the outcome of that referendum before proceeding with extending the franchise for Seanad elections.
Turning now to the variations to the Manning recommendations proposed by the implementation group, the first of these is a proposed change to the number of Seanad Members who would be elected by the public. The group now proposes that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected from the five vocational panels, whereas Manning had recommended 36. The group also proposes that 15 seats be elected from an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and elected county and city councillors. This is two more than the 13 seats recommended in Manning.
I am interested in the views of Deputies on the vocational panels, and there was a divergence of views in the most recent Seanad debate on this issue. Is changing the number to be elected by the public and by elected Members, as proposed, satisfactory? Are there more fundamental questions to be asked, for example, whether the panel structure, which was introduced with the Constitution in the late 1930s, is fit for purpose? Do the proposed reforms of the panel system go far enough?
I note that the implementation group supports the proposal in the Manning Bill for a single six-seat university constituency, the franchise for which would be extended to other institutions of higher education apart from the National University of Ireland and Dublin University. This would give effect to the 1979 referendum on this point. However, I also note with interest that the group did not have a consensus on this proposal. An alternative proposal was recommended by some members of the group to divide the university constituency into three sub-panels, each of which would elect two Members. Again, I am interested to hear the Deputies' views on that point.
The implementation group proposes to depart from the Manning recommendation concerning the downloading of ballot papers by voters. This recommendation removes existing doubts around the integrity of Seanad elections being compromised by the use of Internet or other technology. My own view is that I agree with the implementation group on this point and I agree with the report where it concludes that we should tread carefully in the harnessing of technology in the context of the electoral process.
As I mentioned, under the Manning proposals, a conservative estimate of the number of persons who would be entitled to register and vote in Seanad elections is some 5.3 million. This figure is based on estimated numbers prepared by my Department in its publication, "Voting at presidential elections by citizens resident outside the State", which examines options for extending the franchise to citizens outside the State at a presidential election. The implementation group does not propose any change to the electorate for Seanad elections proposed in the Manning report, so we are broadly looking at the same numbers. There is no doubt about the operational and logistical challenges in dealing with such a large number of postal ballots, so careful planning and adequate resources would be needed. It is also worth restating that widening the franchise for Seanad elections in this way means that the franchise in the State for Seanad elections would be wider than it is for Dáil elections.
The implementation group upholds the Manning recommendation that a separate register of Seanad electors should be established and maintained by a new Seanad electoral commission. However, we estimate that nearly two thirds of those who would be entitled to be on the Seanad register are already on the register of electors maintained by local authorities. The group puts forward the argument that having a separate register that requires voters to voluntarily apply for inclusion on the Seanad electoral register would mean that the register would largely be populated by members of the electorate who have demonstrated an interest in participating in Seanad elections. This, the group argues, would reduce costs and limit the potential for voter fraud because there would be fewer unwanted or unused ballot papers in circulation. The group anticipates that, under these arrangements, rather than there being a rush to register, the growth of the register would take place gradually. The group also anticipates that the number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as those living outside the State, who would exercise their right to register would be much lower than the total number entitled to register. However, I am not entirely convinced by that argument as it is quite likely that the uptake to register at a Seanad election could be very high in Northern Ireland, and the same could be said for Irish citizens resident in the State. I believe it is important that we design a system of electoral reform that accommodates the full potential electorate, rather than some anticipated reduced uptake of registered electors.
I am also not convinced that having parallel registers, one for Seanad elections and one for all other elections, is the right approach, particularly in light of the work which is well advanced in the Department to overhaul and modernise the register of electors. This is something that would require very careful examination.
In regard to the establishment of a Seanad electoral commission, this was originally proposed as an interim measure pending the establishment of an electoral commission. However, work is well under way in my Department to prepare the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill. An electoral commission will, therefore, be up and running sooner than previously thought, which means a Seanad electoral commission may not, and I believe would not, be necessary.
There are a number of other Seanad electoral reform proposals that still need to teased out more fully, and I will touch on one or two of these. For example, it is proposed that when applying for inclusion on the register of electors, a voter would choose the constituency in which he or she would vote at Seanad elections. This could give rise to some constituencies having significantly more voters relative to others and relative to their respective numbers of seats.
As far as I can see, the implementation group's Bill does not make any provision for balancing constituencies. How can this be achieved in a practical and manageable way? I also note that there is provision in the text of the implementation group's Bill to place a limit on the period a person has been resident outside of the State in order to qualify to be registered at a Seanad election. This would certainly limit the overall number of electors based overseas. Obvious questions need to be addressed. What period do we think would be fair? How would it work in practice? For example, how would we know for sure how long a person has been resident outside of the State? Again, these issues need further consideration.
There is no doubt but that a reformed Seanad electoral system as proposed would involve significantly increased costs. I welcome the suggestions made by the implementation group to minimise costs where possible. These include the use of ordinary post rather than registered or prepaid post and the combined candidate election literature rather than separate items of literature for each candidate. We must bear in mind, however, that ballot papers and combined election literature would need to be sent to a significantly higher number of electors than is currently the case, so the costs would inevitably be significantly higher than at present.
The Manning report recommends a number of non-statutory reforms to the way in which the Seanad conducts its business. These could be implemented by the Seanad at any point, and the Seanad could consider doing so at the earliest opportunity. Examples of such reforms include arrangements for Seanad scrutiny of reports from committees dealing with EU matters; debates on committee reports on EU matters being opened and closed by a Chairman or rapporteur or any member of the relevant committee nominated for that purpose; and regular scheduling of committee reports to improve the effectiveness of the House as well as the level of attention given to this work.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
The Manning report adopted the principled objective to develop and strengthen the vocational nature of the Seanad. The report points out, however, that vocational panels are not evident in the way in which debates are structured in the House. Greater prominence could be given to the panels by periodically scheduling special debates on broad themes related to them. Speaking arrangements could prioritise Senators elected to the relevant panels.
It is clear that we have not quite reached a consensus on Seanad reform proposals. The Government wants to pursue consensus by working with Members of this House and the Upper House. Today's debate provides a welcome opportunity for a conversation on electoral and non-electoral reforms of Seanad Éireann. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies.
I thank the Minister of State for his very candid views on this topic. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report of the Seanad reform implementation group as I was a member of the group, which met between May and November of last year. When I looked at the filing cabinet this morning to refer to the documents and saw the number of lever arch folders we had amassed during that period, it just reminded me of the huge amount of documentation we pored over, examined and researched. All the members of the group took their work extremely seriously. The report was published on 19 December last year yet it has taken until now, nearly a year later, for this debate on the reforms proposed to take place. I wondered whether it would ever happen at all.
I pay tribute to Senator McDowell and all the officials for their work. It was highly unfortunate that one member, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, ended up on the committee. How a senior member of the Cabinet came to sit on this working committee I do not know, but his appearance for the vote for the chair was insightful in that it was about the only appearance he made over the course of seven months. The election was won by Senator McDowell. One can draw one's own conclusions from that. We never saw the Minister again.
One of the big driving forces for the group was to see the Seanad reform actually take place and to forge a link with the ordinary citizens of this country. Nobody doubts the huge amount of work and extremely important legislative scrutiny conducted by Senators but, equally, nobody can deny there is a huge personal disconnect between the public and the Upper House because of its very narrow electoral base. The Manning report, which was the base document for our group, and implementation of which is part of the Government's own programme, focused on the reforms necessary to the Seanad. As a party, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, Fianna Fáil fully believes in reforming the Seanad and is committed to doing so. Indeed, it was one of the only parties at the time of the referendum to seek the reform of the Upper House when others advocated abolishing it. Their form of reform was the knife. Thankfully, the people, in their wisdom, did not listen to them, but it is important that the Government listens to the people now in order that we might see real change.
The implementation group agrees that 34 of the 60 seats from five vocational panels, as well as the institution of higher education seats, be directly elected by the people and that 15 seats be retained for an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and councillors. What a change this would be, particularly when one considers that, at present, 43 of the 60 Senators are elected from the votes of just 1,167 people, namely, our councillors, Members of the Dáil and outgoing Members of the Seanad. Like the Minister of State, I served as a councillor. I did so for 17 years. Councillors value their votes and choose good, decent men and women to represent us in the Upper House. However, I ask the House to imagine the engagement we could create with the people by moving the election of Senators from the hands of 1,167 people to the hands of the people of Ireland.
I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said. It is important to point out that the Seanad reform proposals do not seek to create a mini Dáil because we will still have the vocational panels. I was interested in the Minister of State's views on the vocational panels. They are highly important in this regard in not creating a mini Dáil because people would still have to qualify as candidates on these panels with the relevant expertise. This would produce a different kind of debate in the Upper House. We would have a very different scenario in terms of the people who would then present themselves for election and the scale of the electorate. The Minister of State touched on this. The scale of the battle to get elected might frighten some existing Senators and potential new Senators, but we debated this anticipated scale of the Seanad electorate at length at the committee, taking advice from people such as Dr. Maurice Manning and former Senator Joe O'Toole and experts such as Dr. Theresa Reidy. In the report, we made the following point: "It is anticipated that rather than there being a rush for inclusion in the Seanad electoral register, the growth of the Seanad electoral register will take place gradually over time and pro-active measures may need to be taken [...] to promote awareness and encourage registration." When we refer to the need to encourage registration, this does not strike me as involving a mad rush of people to get onto the electoral register. The report continues: "In addition, when registering to vote in future Dáil elections and local elections, voters may be asked if they wish to also register to vote in Seanad elections and if so, to merely indicate their preferred constituency."
I argued at the time for the Seanad election to take place on the same day as the Dáil election and that the panels of those running would be affixed to the wall as people came in such that they would be able to review it. I pressed this point. I know there were issues as to how the Constitution sets out the timeframe and so forth, but I thought it was worthy to boost participation in the Seanad election on the day. It is also noteworthy that for the 2016 general election there were 3.3 million registered voters yet only 2.1 million people opted to cast their votes.
At the time of the referendum on the eighth amendment of the Constitution, there were approximately 3.2 million registered voters but only 1.2 million people cast a ballot. In the presidential election last year, approximately 3.4 million people were registered but only 1.4 million people cast a vote, while some 2 million did not. As parliamentarians, we need to engage with the public in order to reverse this decline in voter participation which is mirrored in many democracies across the globe. Seanad reform, through expanding the franchise, would be one such move.
The report anticipates that the number of Irish residents who apply to be registered and vote in a Seanad general election would be far lower than the number of people who participate in Dáil elections.
The extension of the vote to Irish citizens abroad presents an opportunity for Ireland to enable its emigrants to maintain a meaningful link with their home country. The statistics presented by Dr. Theresa Reidy from UCC on this subject suggest it is not anticipated that there will be a mass influx of votes that could skew an election. It would be a steady base. We looked at various countries when we were examining this issue.
The Minister of State expressed fears and said he remained unconvinced that the number of potential voters in the North and abroad would not skew votes in the South. What international expertise and documents did he use to formulate that opinion? Over the course of the seven months, we examined numerous countries and looked at the trends over a series of elections and, if anything, there was a high engagement at the start and a tail-off after that. There is a body of work to help ensure interest is maintained when the franchise is extended abroad and to Northern Ireland.
Senator McDowell, in presenting his report last December, stated that the Bill should be introduced to Dáil Éireann rather than into the Seanad and that reform of the Seanad is not a matter best left to the initiative of the unreformed Seanad but is a matter on which the will of the people, as expressed through the Dáil, should be ascertained and implemented. I agree with that and ask the Minister of State to act swiftly on this. I look forward to continued debate on this matter.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and take part in contributions and statements on the report of the Seanad reform implementation group.
I do not think the Minister of State will disagree when I say that there have been far too many reports on Seanad reform, none of which has been implemented to any significant degree, if at all. We could all wallpaper our living rooms with the number of reports that have been done on Seanad reform. There has been a debate on Seanad reform in both Houses of the Oireachtas for every week that I have been on the planet which is a considerable amount of time. We have had any number of debates on Seanad reform in this House and the Seanad. There was a call for a debate on Seanad reform almost every week when I was a Senator and yet nothing was ever done.
It is interesting that this report comes from the Manning report in 2014. We have a history of doing reports, not agreeing with everything that is contained in them, and then setting up a working group to look at the report that was done. We then do not agree with the conclusions of the working group which was looking at a report with which we do not agree. We have not, for whatever reason, got to a point where we can implement reforms on which we agree but we do not have to agree on everything to initiate reform.
People want reform. I supported abolition of the Seanad at the time of the referendum, although not without giving the matter a great deal of thought. The only reason I supported abolition at the time was that the option of reform was not on the ballot paper. We were given a straight proposition to either support the Seanad as it was or support its abolition. However, much of the commentary around that referendum was about reform. Many people who were arguing that people should vote to retain the Seanad were arguing that we retain it, reform it, make it work, make it more democratic and inclusive, bring it closer to people and make it a second Chamber that would actually work for citizens.
The one thing that comes up in all of these debates on political reform, whether reform of the Dáil or Seanad, is that no one likes to give up power. This Government has been in power for the past four years and is still in power despite any amount of commentary around when an election might take place, mainly because the Government does not want to give up that power. It is the same with reform of the Dáil. The Executive does not want to cede power to the Dáil, the Dáil does not want to cede power to the Seanad and neither House of the Oireachtas or any Department wants to cede power to local government. We go around the houses and around in circles on reform of local government, the Dáil and the Seanad.
Behind all of those reports and despite differences that exist between different parties, reports and working groups, some basic things can and should be done. These require legislation. The Government has said in the past that the Opposition can bring forward legislation but it is, in the first instance, primarily the responsibility of the Government to do that. There has been controversy this week about how many Bills are stuck with money messages and opposed by the Government. The Government can deal with this by bringing forward legislation that deals with some of the areas on which there is consensus and agreement. That would be a starting point. The areas of difference can be addressed separately and I will get to that in a few moments.
The reforms Sinn Féin wants would require further constitutional change. I can understand the reluctance of the Government to go back to the people on Seanad reform because it got what the Taoiseach described at the time as a wallop on the issue. It is somewhat understandable that the Government does not want to go back to the people. Having said that, we argued at the time that it would have been better if the option of a reformed Seanad had been put to the people, rather than the straight proposition of abolition. We would be in a better position if that had been done. However, the decision by the people to reject the simple proposition of abolition is not an excuse for refusing to go back to the people. We could reasonably say that, having gone away and reflected on the referendum result, we acknowledge the will of the people to keep the Seanad and are now offering a reform proposition that goes beyond the scope of the Manning report and the working group, which precluded any findings that would encroach on constitutional reform. There needs to be constitutional reform if we want to do away with the elitist nature and some of the undemocratic elements of the Seanad.
Either deliberately or unintentionally, the Minister of State in the past expressed a view that Sinn Féin had dissented from the report. Sinn Féin put forward a supplementary opinion on the report to the effect that we wanted it to go further but it was not possible to do so under the terms of reference of the working group. We wanted to see constitutional reform, an issue I will address shortly, but, notwithstanding that, we are happy for many of the recommendations of the working group to be legislated for in order that there is at least some degree of reform. It would not be good for either House of the Oireachtas to go back to the people and for the term of both Houses to end without any reform, given that we had a referendum. It would not be good if we simply carried on regardless with the same arrangements and with no reform at all.
One of the constitutional changes we looked for was the abolition of the Taoiseach's nominees. I understand this provision is in place to ensure the Government of the day has a majority in the Seanad. In recent times, however, when the Government has not had a majority or has been close to not having one, the house of cards has not fallen down. We could easily do away with the Taoiseach's nominees.
Sinn Féin has also called for Seanad elections to be held on the same day as the general election so that candidates would have to choose which House they wanted to serve in.
If candidates have to choose what House they want to serve in, the Seanad will no longer be a House where aspiring politicians like me can spend a bit of time before getting elected to the Dáil. Equally, many people who fail to get elected to the Dáil end up going back to the Seanad. I say this not with a sense of irony, but in all sincerity as someone who used the Seanad as best I could before I found myself in this Chamber. It would be better if we were very clear on the respective roles of the two Houses of the Oireachtas. If the elections to both Houses took place at the same time, people could choose which House they want to serve in.
We want the requirement for postal votes to be abolished and provision to be made for equal gender representation. Seanad reform gives us a good opportunity to deal with gender representation in the Oireachtas. Nominating bodies, panels, list systems and other methods should be used to make provision for representation from traditionally marginalised groups in society. Having said that, we would be quite happy to see the recommendations made in the report we are discussing being implemented as soon as possible, even before Sinn Féin enters Government and initiates constitutional reform at some point in the future. I do not think we are going to get such reform from the Government party that got what it described as a "wallop" the last time it proposed reforms in this area.
I would like to ask a few simple questions. Will the Government initiate legislation on this issue? I am not sure how many months it has left in office. There has been a great deal of speculation about the date of the next general election. Regardless of when it takes place, does the Government intend to introduce legislation? Will returning Seanad election candidates go back to their respective constituencies without having achieved any reform? That would be a sad day for the reform of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
When we critique Government plans, budgets or policies, it is often suggested by the Taoiseach or one of his Ministers that we have no policies of our own, even though we have such a policy in almost every case. I do not know how many times we have heard this accusation being made in the Dáil Chamber, often unfairly and for political purposes. I suggest that the Government is guilty of having no policy in this instance. It is saying it does not agree with the recommendations in the report, but it has not brought forward its own vision of a reformed Seanad. The Government cannot, in all conscience, criticise the report and refuse to accept its findings while at the same time proposing to sit on its hands for another five or ten years, during which time more reports on Seanad reform will probably be produced and more implementation groups will probably be formed. It has no vision of its own. The Government should bring forward a vision. When we see what its vision is, we can decide whether to support it.
We are having another debate on Seanad reform, but we want to see action rather than more debate. Like other speakers, I have participated in these debates before. I was a Member of the Seanad from 1993 to 1997 when Maurice Manning was the Leader of the House. His group produced a report. Subsequently, Senator McDowell's group produced a report. The Minister of State has said calmly today that he would like to hear our views. He should know my views and those of Deputies Cassells and Cullinane because we represent political parties that are represented in the Seanad. The views of the three parties were expressed during the debate in the Seanad. I am quite happy to debate the matter in the Dáil as well. I absolutely support the view that was espoused by Labour Party Senators in the Seanad and in a written report to the Manning group on 22 January 2015. Our position remains largely the same. I would like the Government to give a commitment during this debate that action will be taken.
I would like to mention some of the most important principles that apply to this issue. It seems from what we have heard from Deputies Cassells and Cullinane that there is a great deal of agreement among political parties on what should be done. We need to see action from the Government. I have some questions for the Minister of State. Will the Government make some decisions on the implementation of the Manning and McDowell reports? We argued in the Seanad that a timeframe for the implementation of these changes was needed. Such a timeframe is still needed. Does the Government intend to decide on a set of reforms that will be implemented in advance of the next Seanad election? Is it the Government's view that the general 130-page report which was submitted by Senator McDowell before Christmas is the basis for these changes? Does the Government accept the conclusion that the franchise for voting on the panels in Seanad elections should be opened to all Irish passport holders overseas, as well as people in Northern Ireland? We agree that this would be appropriate. When can we expect decisions to be made? Those are the major questions. There is general agreement on the open franchise issue. The Seanad has a role. Obviously, it has a constitutional role. We are in favour of changing the Constitution, but we want to see change implemented now. That is important.
The role of the Seanad is primarily to act as a check and balance on the Dáil. It also gives a platform for a variety of voices on a variety of issues. Its role is constitutionally different from that of the Dáil. We need to ensure it can perform its role effectively. The main issue about the extension of the franchise is that we have to operate within the Constitution as its stands. That is why we have five panels. The Labour Party group has suggested that the powers of nomination could be extended beyond the existing nominating bodies. This could be done without constitutional change. For example, we could provide for popular nomination by 500 people who are on the Seanad electoral register. That would be another option for nomination. That proposal is worth considering.
The most important proposal, apart from the universal franchise proposal, is one that has been espoused by the Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin speakers during this afternoon's debate. I refer to the proposal that the Seanad election take place on the same day as the Dáil election. Article 18.8 of the Constitution provides that "A general election for Seanad Éireann shall take place not later than ninety days after a dissolution of Dáil Éireann". Our party group has proposed that legislation be agreed to provide that a Seanad election by secret postal ballot would take place on the same day as the Dáil election. We suggest that such legislation would prohibit a candidate from running in both elections, thereby breaking the direct link between Dáil elections and Seanad elections. Even though many of us in this Chamber were in the Seanad first, or spent time in the Seanad after being in this Chamber first, most of us will agree that this is not a good way for the system to operate. We recommend that the Seanad election take place on the same day as the election for the Dáil. It would be constitutionally permissible. It would require some thought about how we define postal elections, but that can be done within the parameters of the Constitution. It would ensure the Seanad does not continue as a mini Dáil. It would break the direct link between Dáil and Seanad elections.
I have mentioned the main issues. I would like to comment on a couple of points that were made by the Minister of State. He referred to variations between the two reports, but I believe they are quite minor. It is now proposed that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected by the five vocational panels, whereas the Manning report recommended that 36 seats be elected by those panels. Similarly, it is now proposed that 15 seats be elected from an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and elected county councillors, which is an increase of two on the number of seats that the Manning report recommended be filled in this way. I do not think there should be any delays on the basis of these minor variations between the two reports.
With regard to the university constituencies, the Labour Party would support the concept of a single six-seat constituency that would include all higher education institutions. It is well beyond time for such a change to be implemented. It is completely undemocratic that only certain universities have nominating rights in this regard. We are also making a suggestion to ensure certain people do not have an extra vote.
I or any other graduate of those universities can vote on the five vocational panels as well as the university panel. We are suggesting that persons entitled to vote on a university panel would have to choose between that panel and one of the other appropriate panels such that they would not have an extra vote. It is a minor point but it makes sense.
We also proposed a focus on a gender balance. There is already a mechanism for political parties to nominate candidates for election to the Dáil and it should be possible to design a system that would focus on gender balance in the Seanad.
My remarks very much reflect the comments of Labour Party Senators and our written proposals to the working group. My main message is for the Government, please, to get on with it and not have any more consultation or debate. There has been too much consultation on this issue. We need to see reform. To go into the next Seanad election without change would do no service to that House or politics in Ireland. I hope the Government will be able to act after this debate.
I would prefer to retain the current system rather than embark on implementing the findings of this report. I represented the Independents 4 Change technical group on the Seanad reform committee. I strenuously objected to the main proposals in the draft Seanad Bill, which I believe are unworkable, unwieldy, prone to manipulation by wealthy vested interests and fundamentally not in the interests of developing Irish democracy.
On page 21 of annex 4 of the report 4 I set out my views in a statement of position. In it, I recall that from the start of the group’s proceedings I had expressed my opposition to the recommendations of the working group on Seanad reform published in 2015 and also known as the Manning report. Ironically, I was a teenager in Professor Manning’s politics class when I first visited Seanad and Dáil Éireann. I was struck by the vibrant debate we witnessed between some of the great men and women of the era in Dáil Éireann, with many dynamic speakers. I was then very disappointed to walk to a mostly deserted somnambulant Seanad which had all the atmosphere of an old boys’ club. Likewise, when I regularly visited the Seanad as a Deputy with visiting classes of schoolchildren and constituents, my view that the Seanad should be abolished steadily hardened. For example, in May 2003, I wrote to Mr. Peter Finnegan, our current Secretary General of the Oireachtas, who at that time was secretary of the then Committee on Procedures and Privilege sub-committee on Seanad reform, and urged that the Seanad should be abolished as it was a totally undemocratic, unrepresentative and failed institution. I added that if the Seanad was reformed into a truly democratic body, it would be a rival to the Dáil or function as a second Dáil and issues about the appointment of Ministers from the Seanad and financial and other powers would surely follow.
I have always acknowledged the outstanding contributions of some Senators through the years, such as my former colleagues in the Labour Party like Joe Costello, the late Pat Upton, Michael D. Higgins, Mary Robinson and Senator Ivana Bacik. Distinguished Independents such as Senators Norris, Ruane, Higgins, Black and Dolan also immediately spring to mind. I also closely follow the contributions of Senators Ged Nash, Kevin Humphries and Aodhán Ó Ríordán. Many outstanding Senators were subsequently elected to Dáil Éireann, or in one instance to the Presidency, or should have stood for Dáil Éireann.
I was opposed to the austerity Government under Deputy Enda Kenny and former Deputy, Eamon Gilmore, cutting the size of Dáil Éireann and producing more huge multi-seat constituencies. The current significant expenditure on Seanad Éireann - €10.3 million directly for 2020 in the three-year Oireachtas spending envelope - would be much better spent on elected mayors and executives for our major cities instead of relying on bureaucrats, which would greatly enhance democratic local government. Alternatively or additionally, the money could be put towards a larger Dáil Éireann with a possible representation of one Deputy per 25,000 population, which would result in 20 additional Deputies. In general, Deputies are very good value for money. In my Dáil speech on the Thirty-Second Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill in 2013, I estimated the full cost of the Seanad to be €20 million per annum or €100 million over a full Oireachtas term. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission’s three-year budget framework 2016-18 gives a direct Seanad spending outturn of more than €26 million for that period.
In my statement of position on page 21 of the implementation group report, I referred to an amendment I proposed which was very brusquely and unfairly ruled out of order by the chairperson of the group, Senator Michael McDowell. The key section of my amendment declared: "the Seanad Reform Implementation Group is of the view that Seanad Éireann cannot be reformed as a truly democratic chamber within the terms of Articles 18 and 19 of Bunreacht na hÉireann". In other words, constitutional change is required. It continues: "The Implementation Group consequently recommends to the government to propose amending the Irish constitution to permit the direct election of sixty senators by all Irish citizens resident in Ireland. Such an amendment will stipulate that Senators be elected alongside and on the same franchise as members of Dáil Éireann representing geographical constituencies closely aligned with contemporary Dáil constituencies with approximately one senator elected with each three TDs." It concluded by asking the current Oireachtas to legislate to permit the content of the amendment to be put to the Irish people on the day of the local and European elections a few months ago.
I devised the amendment because large parts of the draft Seanad Bill 2018, which is included in the report, are undemocratic and hastily conceived nonsense. Chapter 3 of the draft Bill is the most problematic and downright unworkable. It extends the Seanad franchise for 34 seats not just to those with Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland but to all Irish citizens living outside the State and, by implication, all those entitled to Irish citizenship. Up to 50 million people in the UK, USA, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere could, if they so chose, vote for the election of 34 Members of Seanad Éireann. The organisation of such a voting register and electorate would be a logistical nightmare and open to incredible manipulation and abuse. The soothing words in section 6 of the report about this voting register, such as there only being 813,000 current passports in circulation, do nothing to ameliorate these concerns. A few years ago, the former Deputy Eamon Gilmore was unable to tell me how many Irish passports were in circulation - it could be far more than 1 million. I presume they are all outside Ireland. Likewise, the comments in the report of Senator McDowell, who should know better, on ordinary postal voting, which he terms entirely practical, are woefully poorly researched. Is he not aware of the longstanding controversy in the courts on the delivery of fixed charge notices for penalty points? The Leas Cheann-Comhairle is certainly aware of it, as are most Deputies. Serious abuses in postal voting in the UK and elsewhere have been discovered. In some cases, people were brought into a room and signed their voting papers together, led by the local branch of a political party. The cumbersome and ludicrous voting system envisaged in this report would not survive a single Seanad election. It is pointless for Senator McDowell and others to compare the overseas voting registers of hugely populated democracies such as the UK, France or the US with the situation which this report and draft Bill would create in Ireland. The domestic voter registers of such larger countries hugely outweigh votes from their citizens abroad, as for example in the case of the United States, whereas Ireland’s history of emigration, with 8 million or 9 million people emigrating within 60 or 80 years, has created a vast worldwide diaspora of which we are very proud, but which is much larger than our domestic population. Senator McDowell’s claim that there is no likelihood of some massive or overwhelming imbalance on the register has no basis in reality.
Of course, I agree with the majority of the implementation group that there should be a single third level constituency of six Senators for graduates of all third level institutions.
In my statement of position on page 21 of the report I refer to my support for the proposal for a unicameral Irish legislature in the Thirty-Second Amendment to the Constitution which was very narrowly defeated by 51.7% to 48.3% on a turnout of less than 40% on 4 October 2013. Had a more popular Government been in power, the amendment would have been easily carried. Abolition of the Seanad was supported by the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, the Socialist Party and many Independents. Indeed, 15 Dáil constituencies voted to remove the Seanad from the Constitution. In 2013, I pointed to the exemplary democracies in unitary states similar to Ireland which had abolished delaying and pointless second chambers or never had such institutions. These states include Denmark - I once sat in the former Danish Senate, which is now the room for its Social Democrats, its equivalent of the Labour Party - Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greece, Portugal, New Zealand and a significant number of other countries. I argued that in those countries, the people are effectively the second house and any available resources are correctly applied to very strong local and regional government structures. In my statement of position I reiterated my view that the Manning report, the report of the Seanad reform implementation group and the draft Seanad Bill 2018 establish five potentially massive and unwieldy Seanad constituencies with unknown registration and election costs and dangers, as well as the very real possibility of favouring wealthy candidates. I noted, “Even the single six seat University Constituency has potentially many hundreds of thousands of an electorate.”
Up to the current Dáil, the Oireachtas has been largely controlled by the Executive of the day and the Seanad historically had little input into legislation going through the Oireachtas. I accept that in the current unique Dáil and Seanad, with the confidence and supply agreement between the minority Fine Gael Government and Fianna Fáil, there has been more scope for legislative and other initiatives on the part of Members of both Houses. Even Senator McDowell concedes, in the letter to the Taoiseach which accompanies this report, that Dáil Éireann can override the Seanad irrespective of the Seanad’s make-up after 90 days on any legislative matter. Therefore, very fundamental questions remain about the efficacy of an expensive second Chamber in any small unitary state.
This woolly, cumbersome and ill-thought-out report before us cannot and should not be implemented. It is a very expensive recipe for disaster. The Chairman should not have ruled out my amendment A. I favour an early second referendum on such a proposal just as I hope our British friends will have their early second referendum on the European issue and they will actually remain in the European Union. If, however, the Seanad cannot be abolished, the only responsible workable and democratic option is for our people is to elect all 60 Senators by universal franchise on the same day as and in similar constituencies to a Dáil election.
Even the statement of position on page 23 of the report by our four Fine Gael colleagues, Senators Byrne, Paddy Burke, Buttimer and McFadden, reflects the great unease of many of the members of the implementation group on this report’s proposals and a feeling on their part that it would be better to leave the current Seanad structure alone rather than embark on the type of Mad Hatter proposals championed by Senator McDowell.
I thank the Deputies who have contributed. I again thank those who participated in the group and Senator McDowell, who chaired it. I also acknowledge the former Senator, the late Feargal Quinn, who was very involved in the referendum campaign and who was also an outstanding Member of the Upper House for many years.
This is the first discussion on Seanad reform to take place in the Dáil during my time in the office I hold. Senators - at least one of them is seated at the back of the Dáil Chamber now - were adamant that the report should be discussed by the Dáil at the earliest opportunity. I acknowledge what Deputy Cassells said about it being a year since the report was published. For six months, I have been asking the Business Committee to have the debate and I am glad we have had the opportunity to engage in it this evening. Even having this discussion highlights the lack of unanimity that exists, contrary, in particular, to what Deputy Jan O'Sullivan said. Any proposals we introduce which change our electoral system and the nature of our democracy are by their very nature ones that should not be taken lightly. We have seen more evidence today that there is a complete lack of unanimity at least as to how we should proceed.
I want to address specific issues that Deputies raised. Deputy Cassells spoke in support of reform, strengthening the link between the Seanad and the public. The latter is a proposal with which I agree. The Deputy also supports the vocational panel system. I served two terms in the Seanad having been elected via the Agricultural Panel. My issue with the vocational panel system is that it bears no resemblance to the actual activity as things stand of the Seanad. Many party spokespersons in the Seanad were not elected via that particular vocational panel at all. It was just a mechanism that qualified people could use to be elected but was not reflected in how the Seanad necessarily acted.
Deputies Cassells and Jan O'Sullivan suggested that the Seanad be elected on the same day as the Dáil. The report states that it would be neither practical nor desirable to hold the Seanad election on the same day as that for the Dáil.
I am just highlighting the lack of unanimity, to say the least, that exists.
Deputy Cassells asked what international expertise I used in my assertion about registration. I just use the practical interpretation that we, as public representatives, use. In other words, it is not sufficient to state that just because a group believes that not everybody who is entitled to register will do so, it will be possible to avoid administrative problems when it comes to the compilation of an electoral register. The starting point should be that the maximum number of people should engage in the process, and that is what we should be about facilitating. I understand the Deputy's point to the effect that it might be a more gradual process in reality. However, we cannot legislate for a House of the Oireachtas being elected on the basis that only a quarter of the people entitled to vote will actually register to do so. That is not the way any legislature should operate.
I agree. However, the report's authors proceed to outline why they think there is not a hope of that happening, which is completely contradictory, but there are many contradictions in the debate.
Deputy Cullinane stated that I do not accept the report. There are chunks of it that I accept, including the need to implement the 1979 referendum result. I certainly accept the provisions of the Manning report and those in this report which suggest that the Seanad can reform the way it conducts its own business. Deputy Cullinane and, to an extent, Deputy Broughan expressed the view that if the Seanad is to continue, it must be through constitutional referendum rather than on the basis of the current parameters. I am not totally opposed to the vocational panel system, but it was representative of a time in the 1930s when those types of structures were more popular than they have proven to be subsequently.
I point out to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan that the implementation group's report specifies near the end that no reform should take place before the next Seanad election. I want to see reform happen. My commitment was to come to both Houses of the Oireachtas to discuss the report and to report to Government. I hope to do that before the end of the year. The Government will then make its decision as to how to proceed on the issue of reform of Seanad Éireann.
I again thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate.