Thursday, 21 October 2004
Report on Seanad Reform: Statements (Resumed).
Some years ago the former Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Ken Whitaker, stood for election to the educational panel of the Seanad and he got what was considered to be a derisory vote. He had been a distinguished Member in 1981 having been appointed by the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald. He was not re-appointed but he felt later that he would still like to serve in the House. He stood for the panel and did not get elected or even get a competitive vote. I wonder what that tells us about the House because Dr. Whitaker was awarded a somewhat token but significant award as the greatest living Irishman of the 20th century a little later. If someone who is awarded such an extraordinarily elevated status by an independent panel is unable to be elected to this House of 60 Members, it does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the election of the House but one of the two bodies is unrepresentative.
When he was a Member, Dr. Whitaker played an independent role, despite his nomination by a partisan Taoiseach, Dr. FitzGerald. I do not say that in a pejorative way because all Taoisigh are partisan. Dr. Whitaker could not get the requisite number of votes for election to these panels because of the system of election to the House. A total of 43 Members are elected to these panels. I am not being critical of other Members' form of election as I am equally critical of my own. However, one of the great problems is, despite the laudable aspiration that nominating bodies should elect people to the House to give it a vocational aspect and it works in many cases, the electorate is nakedly party political. An informal party political whip is imposed on the election of those 43 Members. They are elected through their own parties because they are not able to fish in the pool of other parties, if at all. They seek the votes of county councillors, outgoing Senators and Deputies. The result is that if one is non-party, it is almost impossible to get into the House unless one is a Taoiseach's nominee or is elected to a university seat. That is not necessarily good or bad but it should be highlighted.
I challenge anybody to name a Member elected to those 43 seats who was not a committed party member. There may have been one or two but I do not recall any in my time here. The system was devised to ensure the Government had a majority in the House. The Seanad should not in any way thwart the democratic wishes of the Dáil. That would be utterly wrong and it would be a case for abolition. That is why the House cannot defeat or amend financial legislation but it can amend and revise other legislation and bring forward extraordinarily novel ideas. However, it can also play a different role and my criticism of the House is that it plays a similar role to that of the Dáil. If it is to be taken more seriously, it should do different things and, therefore, it should not automatically reflect the party political balance of the Dáil.
The division of seats in the House was thought up by someone obsessed with ensuring Governments had majorities, Oppositions were in minorities and there was one or two Independents. The nominating bodies are a cover for the vocational aspect of the House. While these bodies nominate a significant number of people who have great expertise, the second ingredient, which is absolutely necessary, is that they should have party political allegiances and can, therefore, be elected by councillors, outgoing Senators and newly elected Deputies. That is a flaw because the result is two Chambers, a bicameral system, which are too similar to each other. They have similar roles and they are clones of each other. There is a lack of a non-political input or people from a left-wing background. That could be a useful role for the Seanad.
I am guilty of using the House to get into the Dáil. I thank God I failed abysmally and I will always thank the people of Wicklow for the rejection they inflicted on me because I no longer have such ambitions. However, it was an abuse of the House in that I was holding on as a Member in anticipation and hope of becoming a Member of the Dáil and, when I failed, I returned to this House as a second choice. That was not a noble thing to do. Now that I have no such ambitions, I can say that with a great deal more purity but, at the time, I could not do so. I was constricted in my contributions in the House during that time by that ambition. The House is, unfortunately, a second choice for many. It is not to the benefit of the House if those of us who wish to be Members of the Dáil make it obvious. It means our performances are constricted by our ambitions.
Yesterday, Senator Bannon stated he had been speaking to a constituent in the morning. What he means by a constituent is someone in Longford-Roscommon but that is not his constituency. His constituency is fellow Members, Ministers and others but he does not look on it like that. He thinks of his constituency as where his ambitions lie rather than where he is. That is a flaw which we must reflect on and we must decide what is the Seanad's role, as many Members think of it this way.
I made a suggestion to the sub-committee that I have been making for 20 years but constitutional reform, in particular, takes a long time. Dáil and Seanad elections should be held on the same day. That would thwart a significant number of ambitions but it would also make people decide which role they want to play. If one had to say one was standing for the Dáil or the Seanad, one would immediately have a different perspective because one would not have a fall back position. Once one failed to be elected to one Chamber, one would be unable to go for the other. There would be many unemployed and redundant Deputies and Senators and, therefore, it would be a difficult measure to get through the Oireachtas but it would be a method of redefining the role of these Houses by forcing people to make the choice. While it is not to say I am necessarily his great advocate, such a process would also mean that people of Dr. Whitaker's calibre would not have to compete with those with obvious ambitions to enter the other House. While that is the main reform I identify in the context of the 43 Members who are elected in that way, it does not mean I think this should be a non-political House in some puritan way. It should be a House, however, in which people have perspectives and ambitions other than to get into the Dáil. Candidates should be nominated and elected by people who are not necessarily politicians first and foremost.
The university seats are rightly and frequently criticised. Among the criticisms made against those of us who hold them is that we are elitist, which is a pretty glib term and a very convenient one. It is not true. People who make such charges do not realise what the circumstances are. While the constituency is certainly discriminatory, Senators O'Toole, Ryan and Quinn have an electorate of approximately 120,000, a figure on which I am open to correction. It is larger than most Dáil constituencies although all members of the electorate happen to have degrees. My constituency at the last count was approximately 40,000 people, all of whom have degrees also. Its members come from all types of backgrounds and professions. While they are drawn from those who have what remains the great privilege of a university degree, the constituency is not elitist in the way it was when the electorate was 3,000 or 4,000.
As history shows, it is useful to have in this House representatives of the universities provided the electorate is large enough and not too elitist, but it is indefensible that any university should not have the franchise. If we reform this House, we must give the franchise to all universities and all people with degrees. It is quite wrong that for traditional and political reasons and a failure to prioritise reform, graduates of other universities should not have votes. In the package of reform whenever it comes, these graduates must be given votes in the same way as graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland. On the other hand, the university constituencies do not want to be the soft target in the reform of the Seanad when it comes. The university Senators would welcome and will initiate moves towards these reforms ourselves. To claim some of the credit, I suggested when I chaired the first meeting of the House at the beginning of the session that such reforms should be a matter for the Seanad.
While the university Senators do not wish to be a soft target, we want to see democratic and fair reforms in our home patch. We do not want to see the political parties agreeing that while Seanad reform is positive, it should be a gradual process starting with those guys in the back row who make something of a nuisance of themselves. We do not want to see the political parties sitting back and observing how reform of the university constituencies works for 50 years before being ready to move on to themselves and the particular problems they have.
It is obvious that resistance to Seanad reform will come from everywhere. One cannot blame anybody given that this is a House in which patronage is particularly prevalent. With the best will in the world, one cannot ask people to sacrifice a seat for which they have fought very hard and which they believe, in many cases correctly, they merit. One cannot ask people to give away half of the seats from which they are making a great contribution and vote themselves out of office. As that does not happen in political life, it will be extremely difficult to get reforms through. Reform must be pushed through each of the parliamentary parties, all of whose members see themselves as Dáil Deputies who may become Senators by accident or as Senators for life who are coming back to the Seanad in difficult circumstances. While it would take great political courage by parties to tackle this problem, we must have an overall package to ensure the university seats are not the only target for reform.
While reform is absolutely essential in the university seats and the issue should be tackled, the matter must be considered very carefully. One does not want to lose the independence of the university seats by changing the constituencies too much. I hope it is fair to say the seats have had a value in their independence whatever one feels about the individuals who held them, given that they have said things political parties found difficult to say for obvious reasons. If one changes the constituencies too radically, one might find that the political parties take them over with their machines. It is always a temptation and I see a real danger that it might happen. It would take courage on behalf of a Minister to prevent this.
Among the suggestions made is that the six university seats should be placed in one constituency. With the new universities, that would create a constituency of over 200,000. I cannot envisage that many independent individuals could afford to circulate 200,000 people. I am not referring to free postage but to maintaining contact in other ways. Independent candidates would not have the manpower to cope with the logistics of treating such an electorate as a constituency and getting around to each of its members. In such circumstances, I can envisage political parties moving into the constituency with great professionalism having agreed to keep the seats and expand the electorate to 200,000 meaning no independent candidate could be elected due to expense, difficulty and lack of support, manpower and machinery.
When, as they should be, the university seats are reformed and the franchise increased, I hope the matter will be treated sensitively and with a great deal of thought. If that is not the case, all that will happen is the political parties will take over our seats in a constituency too large for us to manage re-election. I say that with a very obvious vested interest. I intend to stand for re-election to this House and do not wish particularly to do so in a constituency of 250,000, which I would find extremely difficult.
The Taoiseach's nominees constitute, in principle, the worst aspect of this House, although in practice they have not proved to be so. Providing the Taoiseach with the capacity to impose lobby fodder is utterly wrong. While it gives him the majority, it also provides him with the opportunity to include people he blatantly wants to promote, patronise or reward. That has happened and it is an insult to the House. I say that, but think immediately of some of the really great Taoiseach's nominees we have had. Charles Haughey showed fantastic imagination in nominating Seamus Mallon, John Robb and Éamon de Buitléar, none of whom could be regarded as politically partisan. John Robb was subsequently nominated by Garret FitzGerald who also nominated Dr. Ken Whitaker. Gordon Wilson was another distinguished Taoiseach's nominee and among the current Members is Senator Maurice Hayes, also from Northern Ireland.
The appointment of such people showed great imagination and enlightenment by Taoisigh at the time. However, such appointments can only be made when the Government has a majority. It is only then the Taoiseach of the time appoints those he or she believes can be afforded. On the whole, it is a principle that should be abandoned. Overall reform of the House takes place when one removes the nakedly political nature of it. If the House does not have the power to obstruct and thwart Government legislation and includes people who regard their role as vocational and legislative but to never frustrate the Government's wishes — that idea of this House obstructing the will of the Dáil for any length of time is unacceptable, absurd and totally undemocratic — then the principle of Taoiseach's nominees can be discarded.
This House should not suggest piecemeal reform. One of the disappointing aspects of the submissions was the lack of an overall vision in terms of the role of this House as a direct contrast to the Dáil — what we ought to be doing for the bicameral system. There were all sorts of specialist interests expressing views on little changes here and there. We should have a new vision of a Seanad which is less political and where elections to it are held on the same day as the general election so as to remove as far as possible the party political element and to take account of the fact that some of us have ambitions to move between one House and the other.
The first thing that comes to mind in terms of Seanad reform is, if it is not broken do not fix it. There are elements of this House which work exceptionally well as they were well thought out. The creation of a legislative arm that reflects the vocational groupings in the country was a far-sighted and wise undertaking. It also incorporates the universities. It is important to bear in mind that it would be impossible to run a Parliament without a Government majority in both Houses. It is a contradiction in terms because there would be no Government without a majority in both Houses because it would be impossible to get any work done. That is a practical application.
The Seanad is made up of five panels, Labour, Cultural and Educational, Agricultural, Industrial and Commercial and Administrative, a practical and wide-ranging system which has worked successfully to date. Those who serve in this House are provided with a wonderful opportunity to raise matters of immediate national and international concern on a daily basis, which is a unique privilege.
However, some change is necessary. Having a directly or partially-directly elected Seanad is not a good idea. A proposal was made earlier that 20 seats be directly elected. That would be similar to election to the European Parliament given the constituency would be so wide. The overlapping function, with elected Deputies, would be a difficult task and would be unnecessary. It would be a most difficult task given that we have a clientalist system of politics. The need to look after such an extensive constituency would take from the work of the Seanad in terms of its necessary legislative process and its role in debating issues.
The issue of holding Seanad elections on the same day as general elections was discussed earlier. One can only smile at that idea. Getting around the country as it is and hoping to meet the electorate is difficult. The electoral college works successfully and it allows us to meet our councillors and Oireachtas Members. Can anyone imagine trying to meet them during election time? What hope would one have of meeting them in an effort to secure election to the Seanad during the three-week canvassing period before a general election? There may be merit in the University Panel holding its election on the same day.
At the time the University Panel was set up, it was apposite that there would be three seats for representatives of Trinity College. However, that time and need is gone; there should be one electorate. I have no doubt the same people would be re-elected. However, the need for special representation from Trinity College is not necessary. It harks back to a time when there was a perceived need to extend a special place to such representatives. There is now a need for only one University Panel which would include all third level students.
The appointment of the Taoiseach's nominees is necessary. The Government must have a majority to ensure legislation is not delayed. It is not feasible that the Government would not have an in-built majority in the Upper House otherwise the constitutional provisions governing the House would have to be changed to remove its blocking power. It would be a pity if that were to happen.
There is a practical and obvious need for the Taoiseach's nominees. However, reform is needed in terms of membership numbers. When the Dáil first met, it had approximately 120 Members and the Seanad had 60 Members. Membership of the Dáil has increased to 166. It would be entirely appropriate that there be 80 Members of the Seanad, at a minimum. We need to increase membership of the Seanad. It is unfortunate the level of debate — I do not include myself in this — and high standard of contributions by Members of this House are not reported more often. However, the solution to that is in our hands.
I believe former Taoisigh and Presidents should have an automatic right to sit in the Seanad and contribute. We can only imagine the contributions they might make. I include in that those whom I would not have supported. Former President, Mary Robinson, would provide the House with an excellent account of human rights throughout the world. That would be of benefit to this House. It would also have the double-edged effect of focusing the media on what is done in the Seanad. Much of what is done in the Seanad goes unreported and that is unfortunate.
As I said earlier, we should not seek to fix that part of the Seanad which is not broken. It is important that councillors and elected representatives from the electoral college have an opportunity of making a direct input into Government. This is their fora and we, along with the greater electorate, represent them.
Reference was also made to constituents. As elected representatives we have a responsibility not alone to the electorate but to the wider community, just as Deputies have a responsibility to others outside their constituency. It is up to the individual whether or not he or she takes up that responsibility but I would like to believe any request made of a Deputy would be undertaken. I believe such tasks would be undertaken by the vast majority of Deputies and Senators. We have a wide role which could be expanded upon.
The Seanad is a great House in terms of debate, the introduction of legislation and its ability to take on board different views while at the same time holding fast to one's own. That is well reflected in this House. I suggest that membership of the Seanad be increased, that former Taoisigh and Presidents be allowed to sit in the House and that there be one constituency for universities.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House. He is a former Member of this House and this is his first visit since his elevation, on which I congratulate him.
I wish to be associated with those comments. I was not aware that the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, is a former Member of the House but I wish him well in his new job.
Two years ago I knew very little about the Seanad. I am certainly much wiser now, having been a Member of the House for that period. I suppose my knowledge reflects that of the general public, who ultimately know little about what goes on in the Seanad. Thankfully that is changing and I suppose we have ourselves to blame for that. This Seanad has quite a high profile and that is due in no small part to the current Leader, Senator O'Rourke, who has certainly ensured that we have received good coverage and publicity at times. That is good for the democratic process because it has made people aware that there is a second Chamber and of the useful work we can do.
I agree with some points raised by Senator Hanafin on having the election to the Seanad on the same day as the election to the Dáil. Speaking selfishly, this would not necessarily be good. The abolition of the dual mandate has suddenly forced politicians into a tricky scenario. For example, if, following the next general election, people do not get elected to the Dáil or Seanad, they are finished in politics. A Member cannot be a county councillor or town councillor, unlike previously, and one's political career can come to an end very quickly. It is no harm to have options for people who invariably sacrifice their personal and business lives to go into politics. A previous speaker described politics as a rat race and I suppose it is an uncertain career. I do not think introducing more uncertainty into it would do anyone any good and it certainly would not attract people who have good, solid careers behind them.
We all know the long hours we put in and the fact that our work is, in effect, never finished. We work from early morning until late at night, we are constantly on call and there is always the danger of an election looming over us. At least if people want to contest a Dáil election and they do not succeed, there is an option of standing for the Seanad election. Without such an option, if a snap general election were called tomorrow morning, for example, we would have to wait until 2009 to return to the political race. That would be a long time to wait, especially when there are young people with families in politics. If we want to go the route of America where people are quite old and have their money made and their families reared before they go into politics, then politicians will be able to afford to take years out. However, if we want to encourage into politics young people and those who have something to offer, we must introduce some degree of certainty and security into the job and provide them with options. Otherwise we will lose those people. They will walk away from politics and politics will be poorer for it.
The idea of inviting former Taoisigh and Tánaistí into the House is quite a good one as obviously they have considerable experience. The likes of Deputy John Bruton, who was elected in 1969, even before I was born, have a wealth of experience that few in the House would match and it certainly would be worth inviting him into the Seanad every so often to make a speech or a contribution. Even the Taoiseach, who is a Member of the Dáil since 1977 and has served in numerous Departments, would have a considerable contribution to make although I might not agree with his policies. It is a pity that when politicians retire, they literally are forgotten. Ms Olivia O'Leary wrote about that in her recent book. Politicians, when they leave the Houses, are literally shunned by their colleagues. The aforementioned invitations would provide an opportunity to bring former politicians who have a wealth of experience into the House to make contributions to certain debates.
I am impressed at what the Seanad can do. The matters raised on the Adjournment are quite good, although it is an area which can be developed further. At times we get bland replies to specific matters raised on the Adjournment. It is regrettable when a Minister comes into the House with a prepared response. No matter what a Senator says in the five minute contribution, he or she gets the same response anyway and perhaps wonders whether raising the matter is a waste of his or her time. Invariably the Minister can be curtailed in what he or she can say, even though some Ministers, to be fair to them, give extra information afterwards and deviate from the script. If we are to make the Seanad really meaningful, the Adjournment should become far more specific. Senators should get proper replies they could use and not just some bland response stating how much money the Government is spending on the national development plan, etc., which ultimately is no use to us.
There should be a facility for a question and answer session in the Seanad. One was held here previously with the former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. Senator O'Toole, in particular, and a few others engaged in a robust and informative exchange of ideas and it certainly worked well. This is something that should be looked at as it might benefit everyone involved.
Senators should also have the option of tabling parliamentary questions. It is daft that we invariably end up working through our colleague Deputies, which is unfair to them. We should be allowed to table parliamentary questions on behalf of our constituents.
I would disagree slightly with Senator Ross when he spoke about using the word "constituents". If one looks carefully at the Constitution, the constituency of those Members elected by the county council system covers the Twenty-six Counties and therefore includes everybody. While we might understandably concentrate on particular geographical areas, we are right to make representations on behalf of people and it serves democracy well.
I welcome the idea in the Seanad reform report that envisages an enhanced role in EU affairs. That should be developed further. I also welcome the suggestion that the Seanad should scrutinise public appointments. At present we are seeing this in the European Parliament, where the proposed EU Commissioners are being put through their paces. Perhaps we should have put the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, through his paces too before he was appointed as a junior Minister to see what qualities he would bring to the role. No doubt he would have passed with flying colours.
It is regrettable that the Government has not replied to a proposal by my colleague, Senator Jim Higgins, who is now an MEP, that he would give up his seat to a representative of an emigrant group. Several letters were written to the Taoiseach on that issue. It is a good idea. However, I would deviate slightly from it and recommend that, because of the considerable non-national population in Ireland, we should look for somebody living and working in Ireland to represent the different communities. Even in Carlow, there is a significant non-Irish population working, paying taxes and contributing to Irish life. It is important that they would have a representative. I am aware that Ennis in Senator Daly's county has a town councillor from a non-Irish background working on behalf of the people. Perhaps the Minister of State might bring to the Taoiseach's attention that he should make a decision on the sensible proposal by Senator Higgins. It would be a great opportunity to make the Seanad more reflective and inclusive of society and that would be welcomed.
The next Seanad will be very exciting. As a result of the abolition of the dual mandate, we will see a significant turnover of Senators. Fianna Fáil, more than likely, will lose about five seats based on the local election results. We will see smaller parties, like Sinn Féin and the Green Party, coming into the Seanad. This is a good development. It will be more reflective of society. It might also lead to better debates in the House. One criticism I have of the House at present is that perhaps it is too conservative and invariably there are no major ideological differences in the House on key debates. That does not necessarily augur well for the future. The next Seanad will be an exciting Chamber of which to be a Member because all the political parties will be represented, along with the Independents.
I compliment the media for the coverage they have given the Seanad. In particular, I compliment The Irish Times and Mr. Jimmy Walsh, who every week ensures that we get coverage. It is much appreciated by the Senators. "Oireachtas Report" gives a fair amount of coverage to the Seanad also. Other newspapers may not give the House the coverage it deserves but perhaps that is a reflection on ourselves and we are not pursuing them enough. Other media should cover the Seanad as well as it is covered by The Irish Times and "Oireachtas Report".
One criticism I have of the Seanad relates to the delay in passing Bills. Years ago most Bills were initiated in the Dáil but now half the Bills are initiated in the Seanad and then go on to the Dáil. There can be a long gap between a Bill being passed in the Seanad and going to the Dáil. In some cases the gap is two years. For example, the Criminal Law (Insanity) Bill has suffered a long delay. That is regrettable as there should be a smooth transition for Bills between both Houses.
The Order of Business is good in that we have more latitude than our colleagues in the other House. It allows us to raise topical issues and we can seek debates on issues. One difference between the Seanad and the other House is that of having statements on topics. I find them good because, generally speaking, Senators put forward good ideas. It also allows Ministers to listen and be better informed and, perhaps, put some of those ideas to good use. The danger with Bills is that one can be political and, perhaps, the public do not benefit to the same extent. The option of statements on different issues is beneficial, such as we have today.
I welcome the fact that the mandate for graduates will be extended. My sister, who got eight As in her junior certificate, does not have a vote in the Seanad elections because she went to DCU. She has a degree. I know the vote will be extended to such people. Given that there are more people in higher education we should not leave the remit to a select few colleges but should widen it. There will be a difficulty in deciding to whom to give the vote. At a minimum it should be those who have undertaken a two-year degree course; otherwise people would qualify having done a one-year course and that would be unmanageable. The remit should be extended to include the institutes of technology and some of the universities that are currently excluded.
The report is good and contains plenty of information. I question whether its recommendations will be implemented. Will it be like many of the reports to the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, that are still on a shelf gathering dust? It is important to pick at least three or four key themes from it. I agree with Senator Hanafin in regard to the timing of elections. If the elections were held on the same day as the local and European elections it would be a nightmare because those we are meant to be canvassing with would themselves be canvassing. We need to think carefully about that issue before embarking on it.
The Seanad has many advantages and should not be a miniature Dáil. The Seanad should be a different Chamber and have a different method of election. I would not apologise for the political parties playing a major role in it. It allows people an opportunity to be elected who might not otherwise get elected. For example, the former President, Mary Robinson, was elected to the Seanad but she could not get elected to the Dáil. However, she ended up being President. We have to increase the opportunities available to people. The Dáil is not the be-all and end-all. There are other options and we should allow people to look at different political routes from local to national or European levels. Ultimately, there is not much wrong with the Seanad but it needs some improvement.
I join other speakers in congratulating the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and wish him well in his onerous task in the Department. He is bringing with him much experience, having been a Member of both Houses. I am sure he will make a valuable and distinguished contribution to the development of the issues that affect the Department. He is welcome here and I wish him well in his new office.
The previous speaker wound up by saying he would like assurances that some of the issues raised in the report will be implemented. I agree with him on that point. I find these debates artificial in the sense that this report now joins 11 other reports on Seanad reform since the foundation of the State. One thing I do not like doing is wasting my time and that of other people. My wish is that if action is to be taken on this report, it should be taken speedily. In that regard I thank the various members of the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges for the volume of work it put into the preparation of the report, the detailed analysis of the current situation and for looking at the various reports prepared during the past 30 or 40 years. They have made some very definite recommendations, some of which I agree with. While each of us will have our particular views, it is important that some reform of the Seanad is undertaken because the general consensus of the public is that it needs to be reformed.
While the committee indicated there were 161 submissions from the public on reform of the Seanad, that is a small number. The vast majority of people would not bother to make submissions as they believe the Seanad is irrelevant. That is not a view I hold but it is the view of the public who are not familiar with the workings of the Seanad. In the main, the public know absolutely nothing about the nominations system. Many of the young graduates feel disenfranchised even though a constitutional change was made in 1979. I recall that very clearly as I had just become a Member of the other House in 1973. The constitutional change was made to allow the vast majority of third level institutions to have a vote and take part in elections to the Seanad. That has never happened. Those Members who represent the universities should account for that as they do not represent the vast majority of third level graduates. In fact, the vast majority of third level graduates did not have a hand, act or part in the election of this or any other Seanad. Would it be possible to have the constitutional amendment implemented to allow the other institutions to have representation in order to bridge the gap between the younger intellectuals and graduates and the public at large? That would be a start.
The public view, in so far as it is expressed, is that the Seanad should be more democratic and more relevant to what is happening in Ireland as a whole, even though, through some of the changes made under the existing Standing Orders, it has become more relevant in recent years than when I first became a Member in 1992. Some of those changes allowed for commissioners from the European Commission to address the Seanad on regional policy and other matters. For example, the President of the European Parliament had the opportunity, before he left that office, to address the House. In that regard there is a great opportunity to involve the House in the activities of, for example, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the various institutions and especially in relation to dialogue between Members and the social partners.
All of us would agree that the success of the economy in recent years has come about, by and large, because of the partnership approach of unions, employers, farmers, social partners and the Government in developing economic polices. As the Minister of State will be aware we had the opportunity at Inchydoney to have some discussions with Fr. Seán Healy on social issues. There is the view that the social partners do not have an adequate opportunity to voice their opinions on some of the social issues. We need to amend that and it may be possible to do so by means of some legislative changes. If we took account of the changing economic environment and social issues which affect Ireland, the scope of this House could be broadened enormously within existing parameters. If the representatives of NGOs were more involved in the deliberations of this House, as was the case in respect of the European Parliament regional offices, it would give the public a better understanding of the role and responsibilities of Senators, which principally involve the scrutiny of legislation.
The establishment of a raft of committees of the House does not take account of the manner in which the Seanad operates. It may be advisable to bring the chairpersons of the various committees before the House to get assessments of their work because it involves dialogue between the social partners, public bodies, semi-State organisations and others. Therefore, it may be possible, without having a representative of every organisation before us, for the chairpersons of the committees to give the House regular reports on proceedings. The committees publish reports at the end of each year but I do not remember any being debated in this Chamber.
I represented Ireland on the Council of Europe for some years. As the Minister of State is aware, the Council of Europe is responsible for what is probably the world's largest body of legislation governing human rights, justice and the rule of law, at the centre of which is the European Court of Human Rights. During that entire period, Ireland's representatives had no forum in which they could express the Council's views on some of the major issues of the day such as stem cell research and euthanasia. These issues occupy much time in the Council of Europe's social and political affairs committees.
The Council of Europe has a broad membership of almost 50 countries, among which Ireland is a founder member. The deliberations of the Council among its members at assembly and committee meetings take place but Irish representatives are not afforded an opportunity of addressing the Dáil or Seanad on the Council's important and far-reaching work, other than through the European and foreign affairs committees.
It may be necessary to change legislation to broaden the scope of the activities of the Seanad to include European affairs matters, social partnership issues or the North-South bodies, which everyone in the House hopes will be restored when a new agreement is reached on Northern Ireland, all of which will open up a new dimension to the work of the Seanad. In that context, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Paul Murphy, was in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery yesterday and appeared to be very interested in the work of the Seanad. I am sure we could invite him to address the House at some stage.
The sub-committee has envisaged areas which the Seanad could address such as European affairs, social partnership, the North-South bodies and the scrutiny of public appointments, which is coming more into the public arena as people demand that those appointed to public office should be given an opportunity to explain their backgrounds, experience and expertise before a select committee of this House or the Seanad itself. We have met some of these people already and it may be opportune to carry out an assessment of whether any of these functions can be carried out under existing standing orders without the necessity for Government decisions on legislation or constitutional change.
The main focus of the work of the sub-committee has been on the issue of the vocational committees, the role of the Seanad in modern Ireland and whether that role has been fully explained and expanded upon in a way that meets the changing circumstances. The sub-committee had discussions with the Taoiseach and his predecessor about whether elections to the Seanad should be direct, a combination of direct elections and panels or a list system, all of which are detailed in the report so there is no need for me to expand on it.
Nonetheless, if we are to make the Seanad effective there must be changes. The vocational system has not worked satisfactorily. Unless candidates have party political connections their chances are limited. The point was made that people who could not get elected to the Seanad were elected as President. The Minister of State will be familiar with the case of a representative of disabled people who could not get elected to the Seanad but was elected to the European Parliament. The system of election is not as democratic as the public would like. If we reform the system, it could be reorganised on a provincial or regional basis, which would entail people from the six counties of Northern Ireland being represented as part of Ulster in the Chamber. The four provinces could be elected by the people in those areas, although it would likely require some constitutional and legislative change.
I do not wish to waste my time with debates of this nature if this report joins the other 11 in splendid isolation in the Minister's office in the Custom House. If we are to be effective, perhaps we could start by making some changes almost immediately. It is important that we bridge the gap between the public, who feel this place is irrelevant, outdated and useless, and the general view held by most of us that this is a very important place which should be protected in the context of any future changes in the governance of the country.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. After many years as a Deputy, he deserves his place in the sun having been appointed as a Minister of State and I wish him well. His popularity extends beyond his party throughout Leinster House, which says a great deal.
The issue before us has been debated at length in the House. I respect the great work that was done by the committee that was established which produced this document. Its members carried out wide-ranging research which was interesting. One often hears people outside the House make a simplistic argument for abolishing the Seanad. The Progressive Democrats wanted to abolish it. I had the experience of being a candidate in the last general election and on being unsuccessful, I traversed the Twenty-six Counties in order to get elected to this House. In the process I met councillors which was an enriching experience. The four Progressive Democrats Senators were appointed directly by the Taoiseach and gladly accepted the nomination. Sometimes it rings hollow when they say, "Let's abolish the Seanad", because they gladly embraced it.
Senators who get an easy route into this House by way of a Taoiseach's nomination should know the heartache of travelling around the Twenty-six Counties as we all did. When one loses one seat in a general election, it is difficult to pick oneself up and re-motivate oneself and face the country. However, having done so, I found it a worthwhile experience. Councillors are often criticised but we should not forget that they are elected by the people. Their decisions reflect people's thinking. When people talk about the narrow base of the elected representatives who elect Senators to this House, they should be mindful that those councillors were elected by the people.
Comparisons can be drawn between the workings of this and the other House. Having had the experience of being a Member of the other House for 13 years and witnessing reform of the Seanad, consideration should be given to reform of the Dáil. There is a great deal of rhetoric in the other House, often made up of 20 minute speeches by Members which is not covered by the media and in which nobody appears to be interested. When the Sunday Tribune did an analysis of the other House at the end of the last year, it reported Members who rated number one, two and three in terms of the number of contributions they made rather than the quality of their contributions. While there are only 60 Members of this House, there is a degree of camaraderie among all the Senators which does not exist in the other House. Such camaraderie has probably developed because this House is a smaller unit.
The composition of people elected from the vocational panels and from the universities has probably enriched the type of debate in this House. When one wishes to raise a pertinent issue, one often finds this House a better vehicle, so to speak, for doing so than the other House. I put that forward as my analysis from the perspective of having been a Member of the other House.
It is interesting to note the submissions and research carried out in respect of other parliaments which operate a bicameral system. In most cases those parliaments were seeking certain reforms. There is probably not a unique model with which we can draw a parallel.
Senator Daly was correct in pointing out that 11 such reports have been produced and this is the 12th. Based on the recommendations in this report, one would anticipate that some reforms will emanate from it. While such reforms may not be in parallel with what is recommended in the report, we should examine and change the system.
There is constructive merit in how this House has been used in recent times when MEPs made submissions on their work in the European Parliament. That was a useful exercise, which I do not believe has taken place in the Dáil Chamber. The report embraces that type of exercise which provides for accountability of MEPs through the Seanad. If anything, such submissions in the House enhance the European profile. The ordinary voter views the European Parliament in a detached way and considers that he or she is quite removed from it. Such submissions enhance the credibility of the European Parliament.
I would like a change to be made regarding how we deal with business in the Seanad. I would like 20 minutes to be provided so that Ministers can answer questions in the House. If Ministers were to do that, they would be on top of their brief. They would be prepared for any questions they might be asked. Such a facility would be enriching and preferable to a Minister and a Member having prepared speeches. It would enable us to address the serious business at issue and would be almost akin to enabling a cross-examination of Ministers. They might not want that or to be subject to that type of forensic approach, but it would be much more beneficial than what happens at present. It would also be in their interests. If anything, it would mean they would have to research their briefs more comprehensively and be less reliant on civil servants for briefing notes. I put forward that constructive proposal which I believe would help improve the operation of this House.
Most of the Members present would have been elected from the vocational panels. Those panels were probably drawn up a long time ago and they have served the House well over the passage of time. I do not know how that system could be changed to broaden or reduce it, but such change is merited on the basis of the report and the research into this area.
There are many good proposals in the report. I compliment the people involved, the leaders of the various parties, the Cathaoirleach and the people involved in producing this document. We have spoken at great length on this issue over a considerable period. I do not have much more to add because most of the other points I might make have already been made.
There is much merit in the workings of this House. If anything, the Leader has enhanced the respectability of the House. During the time I have been a Member of the House, a number of Bills have come directly to it and then gone to the other House. I have spoken privately to Ministers, who I will not name, but they have often said they would prefer legislation to take this route because the debate in this House has enhanced the legislation and they have picked up various constructive pointers which helped them in the other House. Bringing legislation directly through this House has enhanced its profile. The Leader has timed her entry to the Chamber well and I compliment her. If any criticism is made of the House outside it, she has always tried to portray it in a constructive light. I appreciate that. There are many good points about the House, but like everything else, changes are required. I wish good speed to the implementation of this report. As it is the 12th such report, I hope its recommendations will be implemented.