Thursday, 21 October 2004
Report on Seanad Reform: Statements (Resumed).
I am delighted to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House. It is great to see him sitting in that chair. I thank the Leader for continuing the debate on Seanad reform to allow all Members who wish to contribute to do so.
Page 38 of the report states:
. . . it is striking that very few public submissions received by the Sub-Committee called for the abolition of the Seanad. The vast majority wished to see it reformed, to allow it to make a more meaningful contribution to the political process in Ireland.
This sums up the objective of any reform process. Despite the fact that Members have said they hoped this report would not sit on a shelf and gather dust, I believe that if we do not achieve, through reform, the objective of allowing the Seanad make a more meaningful contribution to the political process, we should not do anything until we get it right. We have a great opportunity to consider how we can make the Seanad better.
I have many views of the possible role of the Seanad which I would like to share with Senators and the Minister of State. First, let me concentrate on the method of election and the number of Senators. I entered this House in 1997 and have enjoyed my time here wholeheartedly. It has afforded me a great insight into the workings of the Irish political system, the workings of the Government and the opportunities that exist to allow ordinary people become involved in the legislative process. However, we could do more. I would like more Senators to be elected. I know the report suggests an increase in the number of Senators but the number should be increased to as much as 70 or 75.
I would not like to see a reduction in the number of Senators elected by councillors. I do not wish to appear like a turkey not prepared to vote for Christmas but the role of councillors in electing Members to the House is vital and represents a very important power. It makes Senators accountable to members of local authorities and, ultimately, to the people who elected the local authority members.
When talking about reforming the electoral system we should consider the geographical spread of the constituencies. Perhaps it is not appropriate to have a group of would-be Senators travelling the entire country looking for votes from county and city council members. Perhaps we should consider the European constituency model whereby only councillors from a particular constituency would vote for candidates for that constituency.
I would also like to see greater formal interaction between councillors who elect Senators and more transparency and accountability. It is not desirable to have a model whereby one Senator would do one thing and another would do another. There should be a clearly defined method of communication between Senators and councillors.
At a recent seminar in Geneva, the Irish Government reported on the success it had had in the area of equality and on the greater involvement of women in Irish politics. Speaking as a member of a party in Government, I believed the Government was joking when it said the number of female representatives in both the Seanad and Dáil was okay. It is not okay, there are not enough women involved in the political life of Ireland. We need more women involved and the only way we will achieve this is by making a very conscious decision to introduce some sort of positive discrimination. We only need to do so until such time as the playing pitch is levelled. If we do not do so, we will again have a slow decline in the number of women in the Dáil and Seanad.
Everybody agrees that we need more women involved at this level and that they have a significant contribution to make. It is important for balance in all our deliberations. We do not have such a balance at present. When considering the reform of the electoral system, let us try to ensure, on a pilot basis, that a designated number of seats — they can be extra seats if not existing ones from the various panels — will be safeguarded so we can achieve the objective of having more women involved in the decision-making process at governmental and parliamentary levels, as supported by all political parties.
We have not yet had the opportunity to hear the Minister of State working on legislation in the House, but I have the greatest respect for the Ministers who come to the House to listen to the points we make which they take them board. Very often the points are made equally as well by the Opposition side as the Government side, yet some Ministers return to their Departments, listen to their officials and do not make any of the recommended changes. We sit and talk for hours, research our business and take on board the points of the groups that have lobbied us and argue those points which we feel are worth arguing. However, certain Ministers do not change anything, although they may take copious notes. How many Ministers, particularly Ministers of State, have been told to come into this House under instruction to "take no prisoners"? I believe this is the phrase used. This means they will not accept any amendments. They do so because it might upset their schedules when they return to the Dáil given that they may have to complete the business by a certain date. That is one reason people believe the Seanad is ineffectual.
The Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, represents a prime example of what I would like to see happening. When he was in the House dealing with the recent maternity legislation in his former capacity as Minister of State, we put a number of points to him which had previously been ruled out by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, and the then Attorney General, who is now the Minister. Our proposal was in respect of the compulsory requirement on women to take four weeks' leave before giving birth. The Minister came to this House, listened to the arguments put forward and made the change. He has now created a much better system which reflects what is happening and the way women want maternity leave to be available to them. Expectant mothers no longer have to run around to doctors and employers telling lies about the date their baby is expected because they do not want to take four weeks off before the baby is born. That is an example of a Minister being smart enough to listen and overrule officialdom.
With all due respect to the officials, they have their job to do. However, we are a political grouping, regardless of whether it is a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil Government, and it is our job to ensure that the legislation reflects the political ethos and policies put to the people during the general election campaign. I would like the Seanad to play a much stronger role. There must be accountability from Ministers who must give clear reasons for not accepting amendments. Some of the suggestions about question and answer sessions and so on would make the Seanad more relevant and give Senators much more influence.
An interesting aspect of the report is the recommendation that the Leader of the Seanad should have the right to attend Cabinet meetings. This is salient from the point of view of the influence of the Seanad. If the Leader of the Seanad is allowed to sit at the Cabinet table, he or she should have the same rights as all the other members, not a glorified right to attend without the right to vote. The Constitution states that the Taoiseach can nominate a senior Cabinet Minister from the Seanad. This should be a Cabinet position with all the attendant rights, which would give the Seanad influence. The current Leader issued the proviso that she was not interested in this aspect. This was smart of her because it is not about self-promotion, it is about promoting the Seanad and its influence.
On the interaction between Members of this House, their constituents and councillors, what I find very lacking in the Seanad is the dearth of continuing professional development available to Members of the Houses. We should force people, as happens in many jobs, to undergo some sort of continuing professional development. We benefit from the best advice through the reports that arrive in our office on a daily basis. We have a responsibility to our constituents and the country to do our job as well as we possibly can. There should be a formalised opportunity to do so, because some people are better than others in this regard. There should be a requirement for continuing professional development, as happens in accountancy bodies or HR bodies. Any professional organisation has this need. This could be introduced into the Seanad as a test scenario. If it works and makes us all better, that is great, and, if not, we can review it. As was said earlier, some of the reforms made here may be replicated in the Dáil Chamber.
On the point made about legislation being brought to the Seanad first, I have taken part in many debates which began in the Seanad. Ministers will accept that the level of debate in this House is far removed from the argy bargy that takes place in the Dáil Chamber. It allows them to deal with the points made, consider them after Second Stage, prepare for the Dáil debate and come back to us with changes on Committee Stage.
The maternity legislation, parental leave legislation and copyright legislation, to name but three, were all initiated in this House. All the legislation was changed significantly between Second Stage and later Stages. The Seanad has a worthwhile contribution to make. However, the challenge is to make it even more worthwhile. There should be greater accountability to our constituents and greater accountability from the Ministers' point of view when dealing with legislation here. We are not a rubber-stamping House. We need to stand up for ourselves more and say we will not rubber stamp legislation. If the legislation is wrong and deserves to be stopped, then that is what should happen.
I thank the Minister of State for listening to all the points that were raised.
Before calling on the Minister of State, I would like to congratulate him on his appointment. Someone expressed delight to see him in that chair. He was in another seat here on one occasion. I was in another seat on that occasion too but we are in different seats now. As my colleague from west Limerick, Senator Finucane, said, the Minister of State's appointment is most deserved and I wish him every success.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is very pleasant to be back in this House. I enjoyed my stint in the Seanad from 1989 to 1992 and I look forward to the interaction we will have in the Chamber in the future. I commend you, a Chathaoirligh, on the even-handed and progressive way in which you direct the proceedings of this House.
I would like to refer to my predecessor and Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. He said at the beginning of the debate on Seanad reform in June last that the Government's objective is to listen to the views of Members of the House on the many issues dealt with in the sub-committee's excellent report. Now that we have reached the conclusion of the debate on Seanad reform, I want to thank the Members of the House for giving me and my ministerial colleagues, who listened attentively to Senators' comments in June and September, an opportunity to hear their many varied views at first hand.
The whole question of Seanad reform is a core element in the wider debate on democracy and the political process in Ireland as we chart our course for the 21st century. The approach of Senators in evaluating the role of the Seanad, advocating and embracing reform and developing new roles for this House, while at the same time maintaining its integral character and status as part of our modern democracy, is to be commended. The Government welcomes all the contributions from across the House, which reflect the wide range of issues to be addressed. Senators can be assured that their views are the key to the future of the reform process.
Senators may be aware that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, will be chairman of the cross-party parliamentary group to be established imminently. Its aim is to advance, with consensus, the recommendations of the sub-committee report. The Minister intends to proceed immediately with the establishment of the group and will arrange, in consultation with the eminent Leader of this House, Senator O'Rourke, to keep the Seanad informed along the way.
I will conclude by thanking the Cathaoirleach and Senators for their warm welcome, very kind words and good wishes to me as a new Minister in this House.