Wednesday, 2 June 2004
Report on Seanad Reform: Statements (Resumed).
I appreciate and am delighted we are having this debate. I thank the Minister of State for speaking briefly but eloquently at the start of this debate. Obviously he could not propose resolutions to it because as he said, tá sé ag éisteacht.
Before I pay tributes and go through the report, it is important to note Appendix A on page 70 of the report. Working from the bottom up, Members will note there have been 11 reports on Seanad reform. The first report was commissioned in 1928 and the last one in 2002. Not much has happened as a result of the 11 reports, which says something not about the industry of the people who compiled them but about the lack of implementation or follow-through of their recommendations. That is a salutary lesson for us.
I thank my colleagues, Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Opposition, Senator Dardis, Deputy Leader of the Seanad and Senator O'Toole, co-ordinator of the Independent group for their contributions and Senator Ryan who was present for 18 meetings during which we shared our thoughts and compiled the report. Senator Ryan had an issue with the composition of the commission. He expressed his thoughts on reform, attended all the meetings and contributed greatly to the thrust of the report. I also thank Peter Finnegan and Eugene Crowley, who provided a great Civil Service secretariat, and their Northern colleague who helped us with various references. In particular, she reviewed the operation of upper houses in other countries, which is instructive and shows how other countries run their upper houses. That appendix in the report is well worth reading. Dr. Michael Laver was a terrific help to us in our thoughts on reform and in compiling the report.
This report is a compilation of the thoughts of the Senators, to whom I referred, who worked with the secretariat. We spent many mornings last summer in the good weather discussing this matter. We did not approach this from a perverse notion, as I said to my party colleagues. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges under the chairmanship of the Cathaoirleach convened a meeting at which we were given the terms of reference for preparing the reform package. We debated this matter over two days in this House at the start of this process two years ago during which Members shared their thoughts on it. We did not suddenly decide to put forward a Seanad reform package. Under the guidance of the Cathaoirleach, the sub-committee was given its terms of reference, namely, to examine the composition and functions of the Seanad, which we set out to do.
Countries throughout the world which have upper and lower houses have each adopted different ways of dealing with their upper house. Our Upper House was modelled originally on the House of Lords in the UK because many of the ideas underpinning our system of government comes from there. I am not a newcomer to the Seanad thanks to the generosity of the Taoiseach. I served here with the Cathaoirleach for two six month stints. I have always been struck by the ease of movement in dealing with matters in this Chamber because of the intimacy pertaining due to its size and the fact that it is a compulsory legislative assembly. A Bill cannot become an Act unless it has been passed by the Seanad. There is no point in saying the Seanad is worthless or that it does not have any relevance. We could not pass legislation, by which we are all governed, if we did not have the Seanad to pass Bills. We have been fortunate in that many Bills have come to this House before going to the Dáil, and vice versa, but all Members have a chance to examine every Bill and amend it on Committee Stage, a point mentioned by Senator Brian Hayes. In the Dáil, Committee Stage is taken in select committee because of the large number of Members in that House. It would be impossible to do it otherwise.
I hold fast to the idea that people throughout the country do not understand the point of having the Seanad. If we were to go out to Grafton Street, Henry Street or O'Connell Bridge and stop any number of people ranging in age from 80 to eight and ask them if they know anything about the Seanad and what it does, I would vouch that unless we were extremely fortunate, we would not meet people who knew what we were about in this Chamber. I do not mean to lessen the importance of what we do. If one does not have a democratic link with the electorate, our fine thoughts, words, speeches and attendance will come to naught. It needs to be built on a bedrock of democracy.
It could be argued that Senators are elected by county councillors who are, in turn, elected by the people. I respect the work of county councillors, who have been given a strong role in the proposed Seanad reforms. Candidates will be nominated by county councillors rather than by vocational bodies, who have lost much of their relevance to Irish society, sadly. Letters were sent to the vocational bodies on three occasions and huge public advertisements were placed in all the newspapers, but less than one third of the bodies deigned to reply or to make a submission. That indicates that they have moved out of synch.
The 1930s ideas of Quadragesimo Anno etc, resulted in greater social awareness and inclusion and other fine thoughts that were of relevance then. A great deal of time has passed since the 1930s, however. We did not have a Seanad for a time because it had been abolished by Éamon de Valera due to its inability to pass important legislation. It was revived in the 1937 Constitution and we are all here today. Very little has changed in the interim.
The sub-committee on Seanad reform examined the functions of the Seanad. I thank all those who made submissions. We received 158 public submissions in total. Everybody who engaged in the process had a purpose. Individuals and groups took the trouble to sit down to put together their thoughts and to come to the House. The sub-committee met in the Seanad Chamber for a week without the Cathaoirleach to hear the submissions. Questions were asked and certain matters were probed during the hugely interesting exercise. I wish we had more of it. RTE was very good to broadcast much of the sub-committee's hearings. Many people made submissions.
In making recommendations on the composition of the Seanad, the sub-committee tried to ensure that a certain number of Senators will continue to be elected in the traditional way. The sub-committee has a high regard for the work of county councillors and the link between local government and the Oireachtas.
A decision was also made to recommend a vote by suffrage. I cannot understand why some Senators think they would not stand a chance in such a vote. Why do they think so little of themselves that they feel they would not be elected if they faced such a vote? Others might wonder why I am making this point, given that I lost my Dáil seat in the last general election. I would respond by saying that I was returned to the other House on five consecutive occasions. Very few people can better such a record. Although I was not successful on the last occasion, I have a huge regard for the popular vote. I do not understand why people are imbued with so little self-confidence that they think they would not come through such a system when, of course, they would.
I wish to discuss the university panels. The people voted in a referendum on university representation in the Seanad in 1979. They expressed 25 years ago their wish that graduates of certain institutes of higher education would have the right to join graduates of universities in voting in Seanad elections. It is sometimes suggested that the universities voting system is elitist, but those elected under the system are the only Senators to be elected by means of a form of public suffrage. The university Senators are elected by graduates. I do not share the view that the system is elitist. It has been a huge disregard on the part of all Governments in the past 25 years. When I reminded the Taoiseach that the people voted in 1979 to allow graduates of other colleges to participate in the Seanad elections, he said that he could hardly believe it. We all continued blithely on our way in 1979 and did nothing about it. The time has come to remedy the matter.
Everybody favours changes in the functions of the Seanad, but nobody favours changes in its composition. Perhaps I am more detached in that regard, but I am conscious of the way in which I got into this House on two occasions. It is some job to court county councillors in multitudes as people do now. It is a wonderful exercise which leads to great interchanges. Certain little groups manage things much better than others. Many Senators arrive in the House in that way.
The Taoiseach made some interesting points about the functions of the Seanad in the strong letter he wrote to the sub-committee as part of his submission. He spoke in the House as part of the reform process, as did the former Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton. Members of all political parties took the trouble to come to the House in mid-September to put forward their points of view. The provosts of all the colleges also addressed the sub-committee. The Taoiseach made suggestions in respect of the North-South bodies, social partnership and the European Union. It was recommended that the House should have a role in examining the EU mid-term review, in considering what it is like and what it will be, and in assessing its scope, its work and what needs to be done. Such ideas emanated from the Taoiseach. He also spoke about several other matters.
Many people said they do not know about legislation until it has been passed and starts to be implemented. While Senator Mansergh did not quite say that we should not entertain lobby groups, he said at our party meeting that such groups might have an overweening influence on legislation. We do not see it that way, however. We consider that it would be appropriate to allow groups to state how proposed legislation might affect them, materially or otherwise. It is right that such people should convey their thoughts to those who are preparing Bills. Perhaps legislators might consider such ideas or meet the groups to explain the legislation to them. For whom are we making legislation? About what are we making it? When will it all happen? Many groups are made aware of proposed legislation that affects them in a sudden manner.
Many representatives of respectable and proper lobby groups who addressed the sub-committee said they would come to give their opinions, prior to the formulation of legislation, if they could be sure they would get a hearing. It is hugely important that we receive such advice because if we do not do so we will be preparing legislation in the air to meet a need. Such legislation is often the subject of a challenge — everybody has the right to challenge — and found to be faulty. It is important to bear in mind that it may have been rushed or it may not have taken into account human rights, poverty or some of the issues that are relevant to people's lives.
I thank Peter Finnegan, Eugene Crowley and Dr. Michael Laver for their contribution to the sub-committee's report. Anybody can read the report because it is well laid-out. It sets out the legislative and constitutional changes that are needed. We can use the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to make the functional changes that are needed. We have started on that by arranging for many MEPs to come to the House.
When one hands out leaflets while canvassing with candidates for the local and European elections, everybody asks what MEPs do when they get to Brussels. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, who used to represent a large, far-flung European constituency, is aware of how difficult it is to convey what one is doing. We heard the opinions of a range of extremely interesting MEPs who addressed the sub-committee. They told us about their work. MEPs should come to the House on a regular basis, although we cannot make it mandatory for them to do so. They could tell the House about the committees on which they serve, the work they are doing, the role of the Parliament and the relationship between the Parliament and the Executive. We need to know such things.
It is important that the Seanad should be relevant. The Chamber is beautiful. The Seanad office is fortunate to have excellent staff, who work diligently to serve all Senators. We should not be keen to rush into the Chamber so that we can hurry home again. I do not think we should do our business in such a manner. We should conduct ourselves properly as the full legislators we are and we should scrutinise our work in detail.
Oireachtas Members have reached a point at which they are on a decent but not lavish salary scale. However, we work for it and I have always believed that one should work for one's money. The Seanad can be put to far greater use. Members should have confidence in themselves, absorb the report and believe that recommendations can be taken from it rather than carp about it. I am very happy that the Cathaoirleach will be in the next Seanad in some capacity. The report is good and, if I may immodestly state, we have done a fair job on it.
The Cathaoirleach's ruling gives me the freedom to compliment a number of Members who are in the House. I can mention the names of the Members present, namely, the Leader, Senator O'Rourke, Senator Brian Hayes and Senator Dardis; I hope the Cathaoirleach will also permit me to congratulate Senators O'Toole and Ryan in their absence.
The document is very impressive because it is easy to read and understand but, more particularly, it is easy to act on. Often documents may be easy to read and understand but may not be easy to act upon. I was particularly impressed with the examples from other senates in other parts of Europe and the world. When I have tried to explain to people from other parts of the world and even in Ireland the concept of a second house, they ask why we need it, in reply to which the Leader has given us a number of examples.
When Bills are initiated in this House, it is interesting to note the number of amendments tabled and the number accepted by Ministers. However, it is even more interesting when a Member of this House identifies an error or potential improvement in a Bill which has already been passed in the Lower House. Ministers are often willing to acknowledge such errors or improvements and redraft the Bill accordingly. The example which comes to mind is the issue Senator Ross identified at the last moment in the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2002, in respect of opinion polls prior to elections. We realised at that stage that a flaw had not been identified in the Lower House and the Bill was stopped.
Another role of the House, to which Senator Brian Hayes referred, is the scrutiny of legislation which is needed and to which on occasion we do not pay enough attention. We probably would not have had the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2004 before us last week, which we have asked the President to sign in five days, if we had thought through the issue when the Copyright and Related Rights Bill was taken five or six years ago. The Bill received a great deal of attention at the time but we did not identify the flaw which has now been identified.
The other question people raise is how Members are elected from their constituencies. When I explain the process and the constituencies, people remark that it sounds like an undemocratic House. The manner in which we are elected or nominated is not entirely democratic. However, the second house in the British Parliament is not very democratic either.
In the United States, Hawaii and Alaska, with their tiny populations, have the same number of senators as California and New York. It is not very democratic but the recognition of the need for a second house which represents other interests has been recognised in this document as being well worthwhile.
The concept envisaged for the Seanad in the 1937 Constitution was well thought out. It was to ensure that those voices, which would not otherwise be heard in the Dáil, elected by universal suffrage, had some chance of being recognised. The issue of Trinity College Senators will not be solved by this process and perhaps does not need to be because the world has changed since 1937. However, it is unlikely that the voice of the Protestant minority in Trinity College would have been heard if we had not given three seats to what was, in those days, a totally Protestant university. Nonetheless, the world has changed since then and the new system for electing Members will take that into account.
The 1937 Constitution also recognised the other vocational interests and the whole concept was well thought out. However, the error was that referred to by Senator Brian Hayes, namely, that while there were vocational plans, the rights to vote were given to county councillors who voted along party lines and, therefore, Members are elected on a party political basis and do not represent the vocational interests as envisaged.
It is important to recognise the need for a second house. Some 11 reports have been produced since 1928 to examine how it can be improved but none has received the same attention as this one. I congratulate the members of the sub-committee for producing an excellent report. Never has the future of the Seanad been investigated with anything like the rigour which has been applied on this occasion. Neither has the issue ever received such a comprehensive level of public consultation. A huge number of outsiders made representations to the sub-committee in written form and personally, making the process well worthwhile.
I also congratulate the sub-committee on the subject matter of the report. Its recommendations are quite radical and far-reaching and, if fully implemented, will bring about the beginning of a new era for the Seanad as a creative and viable force in the political process which has been so definitely required. The recommendations are also courageous because they fly in the face of the expressed preferences of the main Government party.
Up to now, we have relied greatly on the energy and political clout of the Leader to push this process along and we will need even more of this in the implementation phase as the Government will clearly need some persuasion to go the route recommended by the sub-committee. I wish the Leader well in that effort and I only hope the Government will be influenced by the strength of the consensus that has emerged from the public consultation.
The sub-committee made a raft of recommendations, some of which will require constitutional amendment, new legislation or can be implemented by adopting and adapting our own procedures in the House and those of the legislative process in general. In this context, has any thought been given to the practical question of whether it will be possible to deal with the constitutional amendments by means of a single referendum question rather than a series of separate proposals? This issue, which may seem trivial, is anything but. Putting one question to the people is a relatively straightforward matter but putting a whole series before the people, even if the referenda happen simultaneously, is likely to be very much less attractive to the Government.
Furthermore, asking a series of questions of the people runs the risk that they will give different answers to different questions and the outcome may well turn out to be an unworkable mish-mash. However, we are constrained in what we do here by the Constitution, which lays down that only one issue can be put before the people in any referendum. The obvious way around this is to incorporate all the changes into a single new article. I have no idea whether it is possible or practical to do that but I suggest some consideration be given to it because the alternative is difficult and dangerous inasmuch as it will not be an attractive outcome. We should look at it, as a matter of urgency, rather than just talk about it if we are serious about achieving real progress. Having listened to the first two speakers, I know it is not the intention to just talk about it, but to act on it. We must move fast to make the recommendations in the report a reality. Therefore, I disagree slightly with the Leader when she said not to rush it. Perhaps she did not say that but I got the impression——
I know that is not the intention but we have to get behind it.
As a university Senator I express my particular pleasure at the proposals in regard to the university franchise. At this stage there is no way of justifying in democratic terms a separate franchise for university graduates. However, the recommendation to continue with it reflects a widespread awareness that the system has worked well in practice to the benefit of the political process and the country in general. I warmly welcome the recommendation to extend the franchise to graduates of all third level institutions. I remember well the vote in 1979.
Given that it was 25 years ago, it is long overdue. I had not thought it through that some of us have two votes. If one is a county councillor and a university graduate, one has two votes. Perhaps that is not democratic. The solution that has come out of this is well thought out and innovative. Irrespective of what one's views may be on having university representatives, it makes no sense to have only some of our graduates represented to the exclusion of others.
On the issue of the higher education franchise, I wonder how it will work in practice. As I understand it, there will be a general electoral register for the Seanad, which will include everybody entitled to vote in the Dáil elections, and a higher education register in which graduates can choose to be included instead of on the general register. That is well thought out and an issue I had not considered. What is the position of graduates of the universities who are Irish citizens but not resident here and, therefore, are not eligible to vote in Dáil elections? At present they are entitled to vote in Seanad elections. I am not clear whether it is intended that this will continue afterwards.
Is it the intention to disenfranchise non-resident university graduates? I would like some clarification on this issue because that has not been fully thought out, but perhaps I am wrong. If it is so intended, that would be a pity. At present it is the only aspect of our electoral system that recognises the existence of our emigrants overseas. We have heard much in recent times about giving emigrants votes. The only emigrants who have votes are those who vote in the university elections. Part of the difficulty is that so few graduates have registered. Certainly graduates from the NUI panel have not been good at registering, Trinity College has been much more efficient in that on the day one graduates, one is given a document to sign. In the case of NUI, one has to make a second visit or request it to do so. Those are technical issues we should be able to overcome.
I recommend the report as good reading for students but even more so for those who are able to get to work and do something about it. I congratulate the Leader, the committee and those behind the scenes who did a great deal of the work and who have already been mentioned.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, and thank him for attending to listen to the debate. It is a privilege to be a Member of the House and the national Parliament. We should be conscious of that privilege and the responsibilities it carries with it. I am fortunate to have been the first member of the Progressive Democrats to be elected to the House and to be nominated on several occasions. What we do is important. We contribute to the overall national debate which is important in a democracy and we have contributed to the improvement of legislation. All the parties and those who are not members of a party have contributed to that process.
The report was prepared by the sub-committee, of which I was pleased to be a member. I join in the words of thanks to the secretariat, Dr. Laver and the other members. It is a comprehensive and good report and is quite courageous. The current system is indefensible. It cannot be defended on any grounds of proper democracy or of relevance to the electorate. I have found three more written submissions in addition to what the Leader found. There were 161 submissions and there were four days of hearings. We were fortunate to be guided by people such as the Taoiseach and the former Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton. There were many pearls of wisdom from those who came before us, all of whom were listened to attentively. The report is a good representation of the consensus that emerged from those hearings and from the submissions. It does not reflect the personal bias of any of the members of the sub-committee or their party positions. I do not think anybody promoted their party's position within the committee. That was one of its strengths.
The origins of the current Seanad under the 1937 Constitution, which was to create a vocational Chamber whereby the various vocational elements would be represented, was laudatory. Within that context it was legitimate to have the universities represented as a separate constituency. The system of vocational panels was devised. Given that the electorate was political, the nominating bodies became political instruments and it was inevitable that would happen.
Given the vocational system that emerged, it was understandable it would become a political instrument and that the political parties would take it over because the electorate was political. There is no difficulty about that; the House is political. I do not see anything wrong with a House of Parliament being a political House. If the intention was to have vocational representation, it was thwarted by the electoral system which was devised.
An aspect mentioned by Senator Quinn was that some matters require constitutional change. The way the House is structured and elected would require constitutional change but the functions aspect does not require constitutional change. There are certain issues that might require legislation but not many. We have the capacity to make fundamental changes to the functional side of the House. That can and should be done quickly to bring it in line with modern thinking and the population as a whole.
The current system, which is a product of the 1937 Constitution, is arcane. If one was to try to explain how the system works to people who are politically astute and even to some Members — they need to know how it works to be elected — one would have a difficulty in the area of sub-panels, the Oireachtas nominating sub-panel and the various vocational panels. If one asked somebody to tell one off the top of their head how many members are on each of the vocational panels, I am sure he or she would have a difficulty, except for the one he or she represents, which he or she would know intimately.
My party's position is that it would have been preferable to have universal suffrage for the whole of the Seanad, in other words, that there would not even be a university panel and everybody would be directly elected.
The conclusions of the report represent a reasonable balance. However, the universities, as a separate constituency, still present a difficulty. The only defence for university representation is the contribution made by university Senators over an extended period. We must ensure that when election to the Seanad is by universal suffrage, nobody has two votes, for example a vote as a graduate or a county councillor as well as a vote under universal suffrage.
How does one deal with representation of smaller parties in a system of direct election? The only way that can be done is by having, as the report suggests, a national constituency of 26 people, whereby a party that receives 4% of the vote will get a seat. If one divides the county into four constituencies, similar to the European constituency, the threshold becomes much higher and it is much more difficult to have representation from a cross-section of the smaller parties.
It is totally indefensible in circumstances where the universities are entitled to membership that a decision by constitutional referendum 25 years ago should not be implemented. It is not possible to defend that. Obviously every graduate and everybody at level 7 at NFQ, as recommended in the report, should have a right to vote. I have problems about how this option will be offered. When one graduates from university, will one be asked to opt for the university constituency or universal suffrage? This would be quite problematic also in terms of putting the question to the people in a referendum of whether to increase the membership of the Seanad from 60 to 65 Members. The report explains the reason for that — the Cathaoirleach has to be returned automatically; the Taoiseach has to hold the balance of representation, as well as nominating Members from the Unionist and Nationalist traditions in the North; and there must be a balance between directly elected members and the members elected by county councillors. The report is reasonably conservative but I can see it being problematic if one asks people to increase the membership of Seanad Éireann from 60 to 65 Members. More than one question would be put and I agree with Senator Quinn that a composite proposition should be put to the electorate to embrace all the aspects. This is relatively complicated because of the number of references in the Constitution to Seanad Éireann. We are not dealing with only one article but with a multitude thereof.
I am pleased that it was recommended that disability groups, emigrants and other such groups should be represented in the Taoiseach's nominations. The committee spent considerable time examining the possibility that emigrants should have the right to vote in Seanad elections. I have always been of the view that emigrants should have the right to vote not only in Seanad but Dáil elections. I accept that is extremely difficult to organise, but other countries do it. Obviously, the question of representation and taxation and the cut off point for the number of years one is out of the country impinges on this, but it should be possible to organise it. Having listened to the evidence of the distinguished former ambassador, Mr. Seán Donlon, who outlined how difficult it would be to organise, I have had second thoughts as to how to register an electorate. It is reasonable to suggest that the Taoiseach would nominate representatives from the emigrant community.
The central issue is how the people connect with Seanad Éireann and in my view the only way is to give the electorate a direct say in choosing the Members of the Seanad. The democratic deficit is evident in elections for the European Parliament where there is a direct election. That is a major flaw. I am not saying that county councillors who elect the Members of the Seanad are not representative of the electorate. Of course they are representative of the electorate and comprise a reasonable electoral college. There are electoral colleges in other jurisdictions. However, the nominator should be the electorate, in other words the nominating body should supply the electorate. If the electorate are the county councillors, they should become the nominators and the report suggested that the backing of ten councillors would be required to secure a nomination to contest the election. It is reasonable that there should be a rolling renewal. As far as I am aware, most second chambers have that system, where Members serve a fixed term. If the Seanad election is held on the same day as the European elections, one will have a higher turnout and one is likely to erode the umbilical chord between the Seanad and the Dáil. It is generally perceived, although I do not subscribe to it, that the Members of the Seanad are either here as part of the Dáil crèche or as the Dáil retirement home. Serving a fixed term would rid us of that perception.
The original policy of the Progressive Democrats was that the Upper House would be demolished.
I note the report states that in the absence of reform, that might be considered. The Seanad performs a valuable role. It would not surprise anybody that because I am a Member I am not particularly in favour of abolition, and have not been for some considerable time. I do not see an inconsistency with having an abolitionist attitude and participating. The Seanad is a very important political institution and a political party has to participate in the political institutions of the State. I have this speech rehearsed and off by heart after 14 years. We have a duty to participate, but that does not mean we did not raise radical views with the committee.
It would be good for democracy for a major proportion of Senators to be elected by direct franchise as it would give people a sense of ownership of the work of the Seanad. It is important that the Unionist and Nationalist tradition as well as emigrants and other under-represented groups are reflected in the Taoiseach's nominees. I agree that the Cathaoirleach should be returned automatically as is standard practice in most parliaments where the speaker is returned unopposed. I would also like former Taoisigh and Tánaistí to have the right to be Members, if they were to choose to exercise that option although I appreciate the constitutional difficulties involved.
The Seanad could have a more meaningful role in debating the issues that will arise in Europe and in considering legislation at the early stage when the possibility for consultation exists and in reviewing policy. I agree that the Leader, and I know she excluded herself from this, should be able to attend Cabinet meetings.
That would be important for the way the business of this House is conducted. I agree that senior public appointments should be subjected to scrutiny by the House or at least by a committee of the House.
The report is quite radical and forward looking, and I say that as a member of the sub-committee. I hope there will be progress in implementing its main conclusion.
I join other Senators in complimenting the sub-committee and the secretariat and the many individuals and bodies who made submissions on Seanad reform. I welcome the Minister who has exercised patience during this debate. The Leader referred to groupings of individuals and petitioners. I hope she was not referring to little groupings of councillors organising votes during her presentation.
That did not happen among elected local public representatives. Reading the report on the first Seanad and the list of Members, including such well known figures as William Butler Yeats, poet and dramatist, and Oliver St. John Gogarty, surgeon, wit and author, one has a sense of history. I am proud to be part of the system, as laid down in the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. One can only have admiration for an era which had the wisdom to include such figures in our Upper House.
Interestingly, it was the intention at that time that the Seanad was to be directly elected by the people but, as a transitional measure, one half of the first Seanad was nominated by the President of the Executive Council and the other by the Dáil. It is now being proposed in the report on Seanad reform that 26 senators should be directly elected.
Despite his avowed opposition to a second Chamber, Éamon de Valera included proposals for the Seanad in his new Constitution in 1937. His vision for the Senate was influenced by Pope Pius XI's support for vocationalism in his papal encyclical of that time.
As a result, 43 of the 60 seats were filled from vocational panels, a position we now propose to change, bringing us nearer to the original concept of 1922.
Change is important for growth and the Seanad is not immune to the need for such change. However, it could be said that for any meaningful change to take place, Seanad reform should follow what many see as necessary change in the Dáil. It is important that any Seanad changes should reflect the input of all sectors of this House and all strands of the wider community.
It is desirable that members of the public were involved in the process of Seanad reform and were invited to give their views. There is a contradiction between the Leader of the House and the leader of the Progressive Democrats group on that matter. Senator Dardis is correct that there were 161 submissions which gave us a view of public opinion on Seanad reform.
Direct Seanad elections are probably the most important change to encourage and strengthen public interest in the workings of the House and give purpose to public perception of its viability. At one time, the Progressive Democrats had a policy to abolish this House but I am glad they had a change of heart on the issue.
It is interesting to see that Fianna Fáil's arguments against giving ordinary citizens a Seanad vote were of a politically pragmatic nature. Why would Fianna Fáil be concerned with the practical consequences of such actions?
The Seanad is to be retained despite reservations by the Progressive Democrats about its effectiveness, but in a very overhauled form with a view to making it a vigorous and vital part of the future governance of the State. Political inertia, which has in the past stymied reform, seems finally to have been overcome, but is there any certainty that these changes as proposed will be in place for the next general election? The major elements will require a constitutional referendum, which will have to take place within the next two years if the changes are to be introduced before the next general election.
Seven years ago the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution proposed the direct election of 15 Members of the Seanad and the enfranchisement of all third level graduates to elect six university or third level Members, without affecting the overall numbers. Nothing was done, however. In all, there have been 11 previous reports on Seanad reform with little or nothing to show for them. This is the 12th reform plan and the first which claims to have all-party support. The fundamental difference now is that there is a strongly demonstrated desire for change not only from Members of the Oireachtas, but also from the public. We are light years behind public opinion on Seanad reform.
My party, Fine Gael, advocated a mixed voting system as a first step to full, direct elections. It is interesting and even reassuring that Fianna Fáil's view, despite supporting the continuation of the existing voting system, did not prevail in these proposals.
The proposed abolition of Seanad vocational panels, which nominate candidates for Seanad elections, will see the end of what is a unique international electoral system. The Leader of the House referred to that point also in her contribution. While we may be unique in terms of this system, the report highlights the fact that we are not alone in facing problems that confront other second chambers throughout the world. Ultimately, our problems are peculiar to our situation and must be resolved in the best interests of society.
As suggested, 26 of the directly elected Senators should be elected by voters on a national list PR system, with elections being held every five years on the same day as the European and local elections. That is the proposal in the report and I welcome it because it would give greater independence to the Seanad if that were to happen.
The remaining six seats would be elected on the same day to a higher education constituency. This independence from Dáil elections would underpin the unique nature of the Seanad as a deliberative body that takes a different perspective from the Dáil, while at the same time complementing it. There should be no attempt to reform the Seanad at the expense of bringing it into confrontation with the Dáil. I compliment the sub-committee on ensuring that this will not happen. I gather from the report that under the proposed system of reform, the Seanad would be independent of the Dáil and there would be no confrontation between both Houses.
It is important that the Seanad should not be seen to act, in any way, as a carbon copy of the Dáil. Its function should be the examination of Bills and while many people feel that is so, its role has been somewhat chequered in recent years. Senators often had to wait for long periods for Bills to come form the Lower House. I am glad that during her current term of office, the Leader has initiated more Bills here than ever in the history of the House. I compliment her on having done so.
The abolition of the party Whip system should be considered, thus allowing Members to act and vote independently. A system whereby Members could freely state personal opinions would be preferable to the constraints of the Whip system where Members toe the party line. We should be independent because we all have our views on various issues. During the debate on the legislation to abolish the dual mandate, a majority on the Government benches felt it was a bad idea.
However, the arrogant Minister whipped them into line in order to push the Bill through both Houses.
In any consideration of the Seanad, it is essential to consider gender balance. Any representative body should be composed of equal numbers of male and female members. Looking around the Chamber today, one can see that such equality does not exist but I am sure the Leader would be happy to see this position reversed.
I welcome the report's recommendation on the extension of the Seanad's role concerning the EU. The sub-committee stated that it should be responsible for four specific areas and, most importantly, for providing MEPs with a domestic forum to discuss EU matters and account for their work. There is probably less interest in European elections now than when we joined the EU, which is sad. The public seems to think that Europe is a gravy train and that MEPs do not make a meaningful contribution to the development of our country in Europe. If Irish MEPs were given an opportunity to outline their policies in the Seanad and explain how they voted on various issues, it would attract public attention. The report makes provision for the attendance of former Taoisigh and Tánaistí. That should be extended to all former Cabinet members, whose contribution would be invaluable. They should have the right to attend and speak, though without, of course, voting, which is the privilege of the elected Members. However, it would do no harm to hear their views on certain subjects. We should broaden matters, and I would even go a step further, giving ambassadors a role from time to time. If there were a crisis in another country, we should afford the ambassador the opportunity to attend and address the House to update us on exactly what is happening. We rely too much nowadays on the media and journalists to pass on the message, and we act on their reports rather than on those of our diplomatic representatives in those nations where we have ambassadors. We should broaden matters so that we can request an ambassador to attend, give his views, address the House and make a statement on what is happening in the nation in which he is posted if it is at war.
There are other areas I would like to see addressed, but I will always toe the party line on policy, and I compliment our leader, Senator Brian Hayes, on keeping us updated on many activities. I thank him for his foresight and assistance to members when we raised many queries during the process of preparing the reform document, and I wish him well.
I must attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs at 4 p.m. SIPTU is meeting representatives of trade unions in Colombia. Having met them in the country, I would like to be present to pay my respects.
I would like to take up what Senator Dardis said about the complications of this election. I assure him I did not find it complicated. I disagree with everything he said. He said that people in this House would not even understand the system. I stood for election to the Seanad and I understand the system upside down and inside out. I do not agree with him that people in the House would not understand it. Anyone running for the House would do so. It is a mega election to run for and a mega pleasure to win a seat. It is an honour to be here, and I cannot identify with what Senator Dardis said about it being so complicated that people in the House cannot understand it.
I do not identify with what Senator Dardis said. I found it straightforward once I knew what it was about. I also disagree with his view on emigrants. He said that, because of what Mr. Donlon said, he would re-examine the issue. Why on earth, just because a previous ambassador to the United States said it is not that easy, would one revise one's opinion on emigrants voting in Senate elections? I found that amazing. All that is required is a political initiative rather than a bureaucratic, departmental one. If politicians agree the rules should be changed, emigrants should vote in the Seanad election. It is not for him to decide that it cannot be done from an administrative point of view. I found his contribution very naive.
I am very thankful to Senator Kitt for sharing time. No Progressive Democrats Senator made a written submission. I find that amazing too. Deputy Fiona O'Malley made a submission, but no Progressive Democrats Senator made a written submission for the report. Senator McHugh was the only Fine Gael Senator to make one, though his party made a submission. If people could make the effort, it would be worth doing. We were all rushing at the time, and it was a burden to do it, but it is important.
In my party, we were asked to make individual submissions too. It would show more interest if individual submissions were made by Members. As I have said before to the Senator, I do not think that being in the Seanad is playing second fiddle to the Dáil.
I will comment on what I have been listening to and put the matter to bed. I am glad the sub-committee picked up on emigrants and said the Taoiseach, when selecting his nominees for the Seanad, should include people who can represent the interests and perspective of both emigrants and immigrants. The sub-committee acknowledged that emigrants should have a role here. That is fundamentally important, and one could spend an hour discussing it.
Though I have not been asked to do so, I am speaking on behalf of Dr. Yvonne Galligan of the Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics. I got to know her as an undergraduate in UCD, where we both did a degree in economics and politics at night class. She went on to get a doctorate in politics and is a mega lady. The Dáil and the Seanad have some of the lowest levels in Europe for women's participation in parliament. It has been shown that in any country where more women are represented in parliament, a broader range of issues comes through in legislation. It has been proven that women see things differently. Child care is a significant issue to me, and it is not really figuring in the Dáil.
We should have social and political engineering through temporary positive discrimination quotas to get more women into the Dáil and the Seanad, though we are here to talk about the latter. The next time the Taoiseach makes his nominations, I will speak to him about half of them being women. I said at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party that the Dublin committee looking after the local elections was a seven-man one. Seven men were considering the candidates for Dublin. That is sick; half the population is female, and women are in the workforce. We must all become more aware, and more women must be put on the committees. I will not hold up matters any longer. I hope I have got the point across that I would like to see more women here. In any country where more women are represented, after social engineering has taken place, there is better legislation, since we have a different perspective on matters, as I am sure the Minister would agree. We naturally have a different outlook. It would be all the better if there were more women in the Seanad.
I thank Senator Kitt for facilitating me in attending the other meeting before 4 o'clock.
I welcome the Minister of State. I compliment the committee which drew up this report, which consisted of the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke, and Senators Brian Hayes, Dardis and O'Toole, as well as Senator Ryan for a period. Their starting point regarding the involvement of the public was very important. That formed the basis of many of their recommendations. There is a certain cynicism about the Seanad, but at the same time the point was made very clearly that very few people wished to abolish it, and even those who did want that, including the Progressive Democrats, seem to have changed their mind. I welcome that and hope we can work together to improve things.
Much of the report discussed how we would choose Senators and the changes to the functions of the Seanad. There are many references to the role of the European Union in the report, which I welcome. In this Seanad we have provided opportunities for debate on the European Union. Many of our MEPs have been here. Deputy John Bruton has been at the Presidium talking about the constitutional treaty. In particular, the debate we had with Seán Ó Neachtain MEP on the status of Irish led to a great deal of debate throughout the country and, I hope, throughout Europe.
Perhaps there should be a different composition in the Seanad relative to the Dáil. The public is not involved in our electoral processes. At the same time one does not want conflict between the Seanad and the Dáil. That is addressed in the report. We can talk about EU and North-South bodies and the scrutiny of public appointments, which is important, but if there is to be conflict, we will get into difficulty. Perhaps that is why former President Éamon de Valera had difficulties with the Seanad.
Many derogatory remarks have been made about the Seanad over the years. I remember someone once saying that when the Dáil had a day off the second-hand cutlery and crockery were taken out in the restaurant. I hope we have moved beyond that and that the Seanad is being given the respect it deserves. There is also an issue as regards the nomination bodies. I understand, from reading the report and from what the Leader has said that the county councils would be the nominators. Certainly in the past there have been problems and one would have to question the relevance of some of the nominating bodies in a modern Ireland. Also, it is quite clear that a person may get a number of nominations on panels, thereby excluding others. That is wrong. It would be interesting to discuss who will nominate prospective Senators. Many of the issues involved are out of date and need to be addressed.
The question of the universities is important. We all value the great contributions made here by our colleagues from the NUI and Trinity College Dublin panels. It is a fact, however, that there are many other people with third level qualifications who should be entitled to a vote. Considering that we voted on this back in 1979, it is amazing that we have not moved on it. The Seanad would be much more representative if that issue was resolved, once and for all.
Reference has been made to emigrant representation in the Seanad. Again, different views have been expressed on this in the debate. I happen to have been a spokesman, ten years ago, on issues relating to emigration. There was a strong lobby at the time to have votes for emigrants. I recall that when Deputy Howlin, as Minister for the Environment, tried to resolve that he met with difficulty. There was the whole issue of the secrecy of the ballot to be considered and the problems of getting votes from as far away as Australia for an election in Ireland. Further problems were identified as to how this might be done quickly in the event of a sudden general election. The consensus at the time was that the Seanad could be the appropriate place for emigrant representation. Again, some difficulty has arisen in this area and some people believe it would be better if it were resolved through the Taoiseach's nomination. Perhaps that is the way to go.
The report deals with other countries and what they do. There are bad situations in some countries, where people are made senators for life.
In Spain, there is a dual process, which looks more democratic. It is interesting for us to look at what is done in other jurisdictions which operate a bicameral system. This is an issue that arises regularly as regards emigrants' votes and representation and how they should be dealt with. I agree with the report's recommendation on inviting MEPs to speak on particular matters. We have done this in the past regarding the work of Irish MEPs. The right of a former Taoiseach or Tánaiste to come before the House as well is also important. I welcome also the recommendation that the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad would be deemed to be re-elected as well as the recognition of the Leader of the House at the Cabinet table or——
——the next Cabinet that is chosen. Involvement of the public is important as regards directly elected Senators. The committee has tried to get the balance right between those who are elected directly and indirectly, when compared to the situation in other countries. The role of the Seanad is very much recognised in the report. Perhaps members of the public wonder what is our role, how we are elected and why they do not have a greater role in the electoral process. I would like to again thank the committee and welcome the receipt of 161 written submissions. This shows a high level of interest in this House. I hope we have a rolling debate on this and come to discuss the many further issues that will arise from it.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, and thank the Leader and her committee for the tremendous work they have done in compiling this report. I would like to take up Senator White's point about the number of Senators who made submissions. Senators may not have made submissions in the knowledge they would have the opportunity to speak when the report came before the House and to avoid prolonging the committee's work.
I often wonder how the Seanad was set up, when one thinks back to the 1930s or whenever. As Senator Dardis said, ours is probably the most complicated system in the world. One wonders how people ever thought of putting all those panels and sub-panels together and devised the system for the counting of votes. Then there was the educational end of it involving the graduates of Trinity College and the NUI, as well as the Taoiseach's nominees. It must have taken an enormous effort and considerable time to reach agreement, unless there was one brainy strong-willed person that commandeered the whole system and put it all together.
It is a complicated system from start to finish. It is not that bad either because it brings a broad range of views before this House from many different backgrounds — from farmers to educationalists to fishermen etc. Anybody can be a Member of this House or nearly any group may have a representative. I would like to touch on Senator Dardis's point about connecting with the people. We have local government, two Houses of Parliament, a Seanad and a Dáil, and elections to the European Parliament. If one asks the vast majority of the public about any one of those, few understand what goes on in any chamber, whether it is a town or county council, the Seanad, Dáil or the European Parliament. Councillors probably feel they have the most sophisticated electorate, but we have the most educated electorate involved in the selection of Members of this House. The brains of the country elect three members, the three Trinity graduates. If one were to ask 90% of the people who elect the three Trinity graduates here what goes on in Seanad Éireann, they would not know. By putting in five or six more Senators and giving various other groups representation, will the Seanad connect better with the public? In my view, it will not. It is all about education. This matter will have to be brought back to the classroom. One must bring the teachers into the Seanad and give them crash courses on what happens in the Seanad, the Dáil, the European Parliament and town and county council chambers. They will bring it back to the classroom. This may need to be introduced into the curriculum. When I was in first or second year at secondary school the teacher asked the civics class what was a specimen ballot paper. I was the only one who could answer because I had been marking them for my father at an election shortly before that.
In Canada there is a system for educating teachers about their parliaments. They are brought in for two or three days at a time and learn how Bills pass through the houses, their different stages, and how they progress from one house to the other. We should consider educating our educators in the same way. Most teachers or lecturers have no idea how a Bill goes through either the Dáil or the Seanad. People who visit these Houses on deputations or watching briefs are amazed at what happens and are often delighted they have come in and observed the progress of a Bill, regardless of how they lobbied on it. That is a very educational process and is the way we should move to bring our Parliament closer to the people. They should know what happens here and how it happens.
We will not bring our Parliament and local authorities closer to the people by bringing in more Members or representation from other interested groups. Any group can be represented here. Looking back at how I got in here I realise that if any of us can get here, anyone else who puts his or her mind to it can get in here too. Going through the process of local government and national parliament and coming in here is a learning curve. It is a university in its own right. There is much to learn locally and nationally on politics and legislation. We must educate our educators if we are to bring Parliament closer to the people so that we can connect with them.
A member of one of the Orange societies in the North said to me a couple of months ago that he likes to turn on "Oireachtas Report" as a cure for insomnia. One can take that any way one wishes but he also expressed a preference for the Seanad. Whether it puts him to sleep quicker than the Dáil, I am not quite sure. It is interesting that we are holding this debate on a day when we have passed a Standing Order which puts flesh on an existing latent function and one that may develop further and be used for the first time in the coming weeks.
Every country with a population over 1 million people should have a second chamber. Having legislation in particular discussed in two different chambers is a safeguard against something slipping through that should not. We need checks and balances vis-À-vis the Executive. I support the retention of this Chamber and would always have done so, not simply since becoming a Member. I also agree with the premise that this is not a matter of increasing the powers of the Seanad but about increasing its influence and input. The role of the Seanad is primarily to persuade and influence rather than to engage in conflict and confrontation with the other Chamber, as can happen, particularly in federal states. Tony Blair finds this to be the case in Britain but the British electoral system creates such untrammelled power for the government that some checking mechanism, even an unsatisfactory one, is perhaps needed.
There is one point not covered in any way in the report but prompted by my mention of Britain. I would not like this Chamber, particularly through the Taoiseach's nominations, ever to become a place where people could buy seats in Parliament as happened 200 years ago. It happens across the water; if one pays a sufficient amount to either of the main parties one can be nominated for public service. I would not wish to see this Chamber being used as a business card or flag of convenience. I notice with some interest a former colleague who has made the transition from here to the House of Lords. He sat on the Fianna Fáil benches and is a fine industrialist who provides a great deal of employment in the North of Ireland. Now he is to sit with the Unionists.
I might have some difficulty following the consistency of political philosophy but there may be a very considerable consistency of business philosophy.
Before proceeding I wish to congratulate and compliment the authors of the report on a fine, comprehensive survey. The chapter on functions is a very important part of the report and in broad principle I agree with all the recommendations there but if they were implemented in full we would be biting off a large amount at one go. That side of the report should be implemented and gradually absorbed by stages rather than at one fell swoop. Checking or vetting, whether by sub-committee or the full House, of important public appointments will take a long time. We have taken some steps in the direction of contact with Europe by concentrating rather more than is possible for the other House on European issues. It is unrealistic to think we would always, or even that often, be able to second guess at a glance what specialist civil servants have been working on for months, if not years, in regard to particular areas. On the whole, we have to stick to the broader political issues or measures of particular interest to the public at various times. We must be realistic about what we can do.
The third point which was referred to by the Leader relates to lobby groups coming to the House to give us their views at a formative stage of legislation, perhaps when no more than the heads of a Bill are prepared. I have no difficulty with that, but the way it was put is that the House would then send a recommendation to Government as to whether to proceed with legislation. Being practical about it, that could put the Government party in a bit of difficulty if the Government, having considered these representations, decided it would proceed with the Bill. It would be best to formulate it in terms of passing on concerns to be taken into consideration, but in a general way, not necessarily taking a hard and fast position before the Government's mind on the matter is fully known. I appreciate the perspective of the Opposition; that would not be a problem.
There are three areas I wish to cover regarding composition. I agree with the recommendation that the university seats be kept. It might be hard to defend in principle, but one is defending it in practice. There is no doubt the university Senators, to this day, make a fine contribution to our deliberations. I accept the Seanad should have been reformed long ago, given the way we voted in 1979.
My sister's godfather was a Member of this House for 25 years, former Senator W.B. Stanford, and was subsequently chancellor of Trinity College. There is no doubt the House served a function in terms of minority representation at a time when cultural divisions and historical difficulties were much greater than they are now. The Seanad was preceded by the Free State Seanad, which was even more generous, but the problem is it then got into serious conflict with the Dáil and the elected Government. One of these days I must read Donal O'Sullivan's book on the Free State Seanad. I am sure I will find it full of interest. As far as minority representation is concerned today, there is no reason why anyone should not seek it, either through the continuation of the six university seats or in any parties that have, or have had, minority representatives, not only from the Christian religion, in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I have to express some disappointment with the proposal regarding Northern representation. The only justification for increasing the number of seats from 60 to 65 is so we can have five Northern representatives. The discussions between the Taoiseach, the Government and the Northern parties were on that basis in 1998. Although it was not part of the Good Friday Agreement, it is something that would perhaps be properly moved on as an act of completion on our part paralleling a lot of other acts of completion. It is not something I would necessarily have sought to fast forward. We have had, and still have today, some Northern representation in the Seanad. We have had that on and off since the late 1940s and fairly consistently since the early 1980s. If one were to have only two representatives who would be in any sense representative these days, one would come from Sinn Féin and one would come from a representative of the Unionist community. The reality is that there are four main parties in Northern Ireland, not two, if one is to have the spread of representation that is needed. However, we also need the type of non-party voice provided by Senator Maurice Hayes. There is a non-party, cross-party or middle ground element that may not add up to more than about 10% of the voting public in Northern Ireland but, nonetheless, it is valuable and was extremely valuable at the time of the Good Friday Agreement talks. If we are to have a constitutional referendum on Northern representation I fear the Northern parties would feel themselves sold a bit short with only two seats. I feel we need to have five. That would perhaps have consequential adjustments which I have not looked into and would have difficulty going into.
I support the notion of former Taoisigh and Tánaistí having speaking rights here, but I would limit it to that. I would not go overboard in the way Senator Bannon suggested, as that would upset the balance.
I now come to what many people might consider the main issue, namely the electoral composition. I suppose it is inevitable, and this has been reflected in the debate, if one has come through a particular system however arcane or complicated one acquires a certain vested interest in it.
It has a certain integrity of principle in that 43 Members are elected by the people whom the people elect. The French have the exact same system of Senators being elected by councillors and representatives of municipal authorities, although the electorate is much larger numerically. It also provides a genuine democratic election to the extent that very few people are guaranteed election.
It is a toughly fought election and there is no such thing as a safe seat, although some people manage their affairs so well they make it look as if they are safe, but we know that is not the reality. There is genuine excitement and uncertainty involved in the process. Counting 987 votes takes three times as long as counting 60,000 votes in a constituency.
The nominating bodies provide an input by various groups but I accept this should have been updated. That said, I have an open mind. On a personal level, I am prepared to take my chances with whatever electoral system other people in their wisdom may decide upon, whether in regard to this House or if opportunity offers, elsewhere.
I would not overly knock the existing system which has served us well. I have reservations about a list system and how much it would add to legitimacy. One has to ask who will compose the list and if there will be any democratic input into that. These are matters for further debate and consideration.
I am also concerned about mid-term elections. These are not always the best of news for Governments, regardless of who holds power at a particular time.
In a tight situation, it could arise that the majority in the House might change. However, we lived through the 1994 to 1997 period without any constitutional crisis arising. At that stage, there was a rainbow Government in power but Fianna Fáil held a majority in the Seanad. That is a great tribute to the good sense of the Seanad.
I wish those who will be carrying Seanad reform forward all the best. I am sure they will take into consideration the views expressed on all sides of the House and not treat the report as holy writ but as an agenda. I hope they will make some progress immediately on the matters on which it will be easier to make such progress.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for being patient enough to remain here for the entire debate. I was not present during his contribution but I listened in on the monitor. I am sure he pleased every Member of the House when he stated that the Seanad is valued as a vital component of our system. That is good to know, particularly when it is said by someone on the Government side.
I compliment everybody associated with the report. It is very well laid out and easy to follow. I appreciate that a great deal of work was invested in this report at a time when people could have been doing other things. The sub-committee dealt with many submissions and held a large number of meetings. I commend the Leader, the Deputy Leader, Senator Brian Hayes, Senator O'Toole and even the Member who resigned for reasons outlined earlier.
I agree with the comments made by the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Like Senator Mansergh, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I must declare an interest because we were elected twice on panels. We will not be making the final decision on this matter and we will be obliged to accept what will be decided in due course. For that reason, the report is somewhat like the proverbial curate's egg, namely, it is good in parts. However, it contains some excellent elements and I liked what Senator Mansergh had to say about rolling renewal. I would also have reservations about such renewal but we could have rolling progress as well. Progress could be made on matters that could be dealt with in the immediate or near future. There are some wonderful recommendations in that regard. However, I am not sure that a system of rolling renewal would suit people in this country or whether it would be apt to have a mid-term elections system.
It has been noted that there were 11 previous reports on Seanad reform. I did not have the opportunity to read any of these but perhaps they also contained some good recommendations. Everyone agrees that this House is less partisan than the Lower House and it is also often more objective in its outlook.
There is almost an element of concern coming through in the report in respect of legitimacy. I would not worry about that at all. The Seanad is constitutionally provided for and I do not believe anyone should be concerned in that regard. As Senator Paddy Burke stated, it does not matter what type of election is taking place because there is huge apathy abroad. That is something all politicians are trying to counter but it is not easy. Unfortunately, people are largely not interested in knowing about the make-up of the Dáil or Seanad. I am not sure whether this should be a primary concern. I accept that some Members would be more concerned than others about it and we would all like people to take more of an interest in our democratic institutions.
In Constitutional Law of Ireland, Michael Forde states:
In his account of the Senate, Professor Chubb observed that
Seanad Éireann is both singular in its composition and circumscribed in its powers. In considering a new senate, De Valera was attracted by one of the proposals of a commission set up to advise on the composition of a new house, a proposal for a body selected on a vocational basis and obviously inspired by the principles enunciated in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of Pius Xl. However, he recognised that the country was not sufficiently organised on vocational lines to allow direct choice by vocational bodies, and he was also concerned not to have a body that would be likely to oppose the government of the day.
In that sense, the 43 Senators elected on the panel system may be termed "quasi-vocational" Members. However, I do not believe that anyone would set out to have a senate or second Chamber that would run into conflict with the Government of the day. That would not be the intention. I may be wrong but there appears to be a slight conflict in the report in this regard.
In the executive summary, under the heading "Defining the Problem", it is stated that the Seanad is seen as having no distinctive role. The report also states: "These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Seanad is dominated by the Government." Under the heading "Reform of Existing Powers and Functions", the report states: "Either explicitly or implicitly, virtually all submissions accepted that a revised role for the Seanad should not bring it into conflict with the government."
Being dominated by the Government is part of our democratic system. The people elect the Government and, particularly in the Lower House, it must dominate. There is also an in-built Government majority in this House and I do not believe this should be a matter of concern. I may be misinterpreting what is stated in the report — I have only read it once — and it may not have been intended in that way. However, it appeared to me that there was a conflict in terms of what the sub-committee stated in this regard.
There are some good recommendations in the report. I do not want to labour the point further but I accept what was said by many speakers. What was voted on in 1979 is worthy and it could be implemented without any further constitutional changes. In my view it is correct that the university franchise should be broadened. Everyone would welcome such a move. It is also recommended that MEPs should have a voice in this House, which would be relatively easy to provide. The report also refers to enhancing the role of the House in respect of reviewing EU affairs, a recommendation that would also be relatively easy to implement, and in terms of consultation with the social partners. These are meritorious and worthy suggestions and could be implemented without the need for constitutional change.
There is one matter that is near and dear to my heart and to those of many other Members because we all must engage, to a greater or lesser degree, in constituency work. I thought this might be part of the supplementary recommendations.
I agree with the supplementary recommendation that the Clerk of the Seanad should be on the Oireachtas commission. I thought there might also be a recommendation regarding a facility for Senators to seek written answers to questions. We can write to Ministers, who are courteous about responding, but a system of written questions and answers would be a great facility. This is something that would be dear to many Members' hearts, particularly if approved without obstacle and taken on board.
I return to the main point made regarding the quasi-vocational nature of this House as defined and accepted in the Constitution. The report would say that. I believe the county council is an ideal electoral college. There will be no apathy in its case as all the councillors will vote. In support of county councillors, they represent, on average, at least 1,000 voters. As Senator Mansergh just said, there is something inherently democratic about that. It is an ideal indirect method of voting.
I confessed at the outset that my notes were somewhat disorganised. I did not realise I would get the opportunity to speak on this matter today. However, I am delighted to do so. I agree with what Senator Mansergh said about the North. We realise there are four separate and distinct main parties there. The Senator means well with his proposal for two Senators from the North. As we know there is great value in having an independent voice in the House of a person such as Senator Maurice Hayes who has been excellent.
I too would have reservations about the list system and the potentially anti-democratic measure inherent therein. One would worry about the integrity of the system and those compiling the lists. Presumably, the lists would be drawn up at individual party headquarters and we would not have the widest possible input into them. For that reason, I agree with Senator Paddy Burke and Senator Mansergh that there is merit in our current system which I would be slow to change.
The report has some good points and makes some excellent recommendations, a few of which I have mentioned. There are many more such as the suggestion regarding former taoisigh and tánaistí with which I would not disagree. The main recommendations appear to be to change the numbers and the method of election. The debate will go on. It is good that we have this report and that further debate will follow. This will not end today.
Another great service provided by the report is the inclusion in its appendices of the descriptions of other second chambers and the method by which their members are elected. I have no particular interest in the Canadian or Australian chambers as they are so far from us, but found the descriptions of the European chambers very interesting. We would all agree the British have a major problem with their second chamber.
This report provides a valuable service. I welcome it and the debate thereon. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and his attention. He has been good to us.
I too welcome the Minister of State. This has been an interesting debate on what is an important topic for Senators. The report produced by the sub-committee is the result of six to seven months of hard, dedicated work. This is evident in today's debate and debate outside of the Chamber. I congratulate the members of the sub-committee and its secretariat which provided great support. The result of this process will be a credit to Members because it will continue long after present Members have moved on. In that sense it will be an effective testament.
As other speakers have said, any reform of the Seanad must be realistic and achievable. The balance reached in this report will lead to that achievement. The strength of the report is that it chose, in a clear and understandable way, the way forward. I would like to concentrate on some of the recommendations for "the way forward" as it is termed.
Some Senators have expressed reservations about the part of the report dealing with renewal on a rolling basis. If, for example, as has happened in the past, we have one or two general elections within the space of six months, what will be the position regarding renewal of members? Our current utopia cannot continue forever and it is possible we will have a number of elections in a short period. What effect will this have on the functioning and consistency of the Seanad? This is something we must consider. We can build the rolling renewal into the current system; it is a reasonable suggestion.
We should not, as the Leader said, be afraid of direct elections. We are currently in the throes of local elections. When people put themselves before the people seeking the vote of electors, that is probably the most difficult part of the process. However, they should not be afraid of the process and we should not be afraid of direct elections. Questions regarding proportionality and how divisions will be made are a matter for future debate. I am a Taoiseach's nominee but I have often heard Senators comment on how arduous it can be to canvass councillors throughout the length and breadth of the country. This is common.
We have all been involved with direct elections in some form, whether general, local or European. Our system lends itself to that involvement and this House would benefit from more direct elections. I would have some concerns about their costs and about the proposed list system which could have drawbacks in the manner in which it is compiled. These matters can be debated in the future.
Regarding third level representatives, I have always thought that all third level institutions should be represented in that election. The six Members who will be elected by all graduates will ensure good representation of that sector and such a means of representation has proven successful in the past. We have a number of successful representatives from third level institutes.
Regarding the Taoiseach's nominees, it is important to ensure that in practice the Government of the day will have a majority in the Seanad, which will enable it to get the legislative programme through the House. That this system of nominees also enables exceptional people to become Members of the Seanad is a bonus. The former Senator, the late Gordon Wilson, Senator Maurice Hayes and others have contributed greatly to the work of this House. The sub-committee states in the report that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the current system. It is proposed to increase of Taoiseach's nominees to 12 to provide for a second representative from Northern Ireland. Senator Mansergh made the point that the number could be increased even further. With the Good Friday Agreement in place, the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, cross-Border bodies up and running and even North-South and east-west bodies up and running, there is scope in that regard. However, we must be sensitive and careful how we tread. My concern is that if an offer was made to a person of either tradition in the North and it was refused, that could be not only dangerous but damaging. The point was made that the implementation of these recommendations must be pursued. The Minister of State pointed out that the Government is committed to pursuing them. That is something we can only support in this House.
There was much talk about emigrants' representation. I have often heard an argument against such representation on the basis of whether a person who has lived abroad for 35 to 40 years is in any way contributing to the country. Such emigrants have children and grandchildren. Particularly in the case of emigrants who live in the United States, a great effort is made by many of them to return home, even if only for a holiday, and that is a contribution to this economy. Many emigrants have returned to live here in recent years. As stated in the report, these people contribute daily to our economic progress in all fields. The suggestion that the Taoiseach, in his nominations, has scope to take account of emigrants' representation is valid. It would be a logistical nightmare to give emigrants a vote. As Mr. Dorr pointed out, some 80 million people around the world have some connection with this country. Irish Embassies even find it difficult to register Irish citizens abroad. There are questions in this area which we can examine.
I welcome the suggestion that former Taoisigh and Tánaistí should be allowed to address this House. A number of interesting people have addressed this Seanad, from which all Members have benefited. Use of that provision could be expanded.
I can foresee problems arising regarding the ability of graduates and indirect electors such as councillors to opt for their own list. How will we police and control that system? Our population is going to expand and there may be problems with that proposal.
As the report states, we cannot veto legislation or amend it without the agreement of the Lower House. While there is an opportunity for the Seanad to become, as the report states, more powerful, it is probably more appropriate for it to become more involved. There are ways we can become more involved in the end result of the process we go through in this House in passing legislation. The sub-committee recognises the primacy of the Lower House and I agree it should be maintained.
I attended a few of the public submissions on Seanad reform, when members of the public were invited to give their views. The report states that many of these groups and individuals valued being asked for their opinion. That point is crucial. The suggestion there should be some public input into the daily or weekly running of the Seanad is excellent. The suggestion that there should be more access for the public to have a voice is one that will benefit not only the public but also the Seanad in the sense that we have often complained about the lack of media coverage of the proceedings of this Chamber. If a certain time is set aside, as suggested, in the business of the Seanad each week for an element of public consultation or input, that would attract media coverage and enhance the standing of this House. A formal system of consultation could be put in place early in the legislative process.
Since becoming a Member of the Seanad as a Taoiseach's nominee, I have been surprised that councillors do not take full advantage of the Seanad, particularly as a conduit for information. We have the facility to debate matters on the Adjournment, but it is not used to the full extent possible. Certain Senators will raise issues, the Minister responsible will reply and the Senator will be given a copy of the reply, which he or she can use in a circular, magazine article or in a local radio programme. That facility seems to be totally underutilised. It could be expanded as a mechanism to facilitate an element of the public consultation whereby if an issue arose or information was required, it could be used to provide such information.
Regarding the proposed role of the House in EU affairs, I agree we should have a greater input in that regard. However, I caution against becoming bogged down in scrutinising the minutiae of legislation and directives. I have read some of the work of the sub-committee on EU scrutiny and it is hard work to check that every full stop and comma are inserted in legislation. I agree the Seanad should only be involved in scrutinising EU legislation or proposed legislation or directives on matters of national importance.
I agree with the proposal that MEPs should attend this House and address it. The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox, MEP, made a good contribution when he addressed this House recently. Other MEPs also addressed it, which proved a useful exercise, particularly in the run-up to the European elections. Apart from election time, there is a contribution to be made by MEPs, because they are in a sense disconnected from us in that once they are elected they are based in Europe. People might see them once or twice a year after that, but in the meantime they are working all the time. It is similar to Members of this House. We are here two or three days a week and when we leave people believe we have nothing else to do. This proposal will provide an opportunity for MEPs to become more connected with us on a more regular basis. I used to get a regular update in the post from Niall Andrews about everything that had happened in Europe in the previous six months.
I hope to see more of my brother than of I did of Mr. Andrews. That facility would provide a mechanism for MEPs to let people know what they are doing.
The report recommends that the House should be involved in a review of public policy and have an input in assessing the performance of Departments. I caution against overlapping with the work of other institutions, such as the office of the Ombudsman, which are involved in scrutinising Departments. We should have some input in certain areas. The suggestion that was made about public appointments, in particular, is an excellent one. We have often heard people asking who certain appointees are, where they came from or how they were chosen. I congratulate the sub-committee.
During my introductory remarks and comments, I paid tribute to the members of the sub-committee dealing with Seanad reform. I inadvertently omitted to mention the contribution of Senator Ryan. Although he resigned from the sub-committee, he made a valuable contribution. I would like to be associated with his colleagues' remarks in paying tribute to him.
The contributions of the Senators who spoke were most interesting. We sat here for two and a half hours but it seemed like just half an hour, which is a testimony to the speeches we heard. I look forward to hearing further contributions from other Senators at a later date.