Wednesday, 29 January 2014
Seanad Reform: Motion
- for the immediate establishment of an all-party task force to consider such legislative reform of Seanad Éireann.”.”
That Seanad Éireann: - conscious that the people of Ireland have recently rejected a constitutional amendment for its abolition;
- noting the clear terms of Article 6 of Bunreacht na hÉireann which acknowledge that it is the 'right' of the people 'to designate the rulers of the State';
- noting that the terms of Bunreacht na hÉireann at Article 18 provide for a 'general election’ of Seanad Éireann’s members on ‘the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote’;
- noting the overwhelming consensus both among those who proposed and those who opposed abolition of the Seanad that the existing statutory system for its general elections was unjust, elitist and undemocratic;
- noting the public statements by members of the Government it was indefensible that some citizens had up to seven votes in such 'general elections' while other citizens had no vote at all;
- conscious that no provision of Bunreacht na hÉireann requires or even suggests that the electorate in Seanad general elections should be composed of such a restricted group as elected members of county and city councils, outgoing members of the Seanad and incoming Teachtaí Dála, as at present;
- conscious that the Oireachtas is empowered by Bunreacht na hÉireann to provide by ordinary legislation for general elections to the Seanad in a manner that vindicates the aforementioned right of the people to designate their rulers;
- noting that any legislation simply extending the existing Universities election to further higher education bodies, as overwhelmingly authorised by the people some 34 years ago, would still leave 90% of Seanad general elections unchanged and would still result in some citizens having up to seven votes in a Seanad general election while other citizens would have no vote at all;
- and noting the Taoiseach’s commitment to seek a consensus on reforming the Seanad and the Government’s commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny of important proposals for legislative reform; - now calls for the legislative reform of the Seanad within the existing terms of Bunreacht na hÉireann to include and reflect, as a starting point, two core principles:
- the right of each citizen to vote in general elections of Seanad Éireann,
- the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ in such general elections,
thereby fully vindicating the constitutionally guaranteed right of the people to designate their rulers; and
I have just counted the number of Members present and we do not seem to have a quorum yet.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this afternoon's motion. I stand here to propose that this House should be reformed according to two principles that are cornerstones of any genuine democracy, and that this House should be reformed with a sense of urgency by the immediate establishment of an all-party task force so we can have meaningful reform in advance of the next Seanad general election.
Some of the criticisms levelled at the Seanad during the last referendum campaign are unfounded and untrue but it remains beyond dispute that this House is not democratic or as effective as it could be, and the Seanad electoral system is elitist. So what is the Government willing to offer the people now they have spoken? We can look at the public record. On 18 December, the Taoiseach ruled out proposals that would have given every citizen a vote in Seanad elections, doing so on the basis that he did not "believe that the framers of the Constitution intended that you'd have a universal suffrage for the Senate in the same way as the Dáil". I will rebut this declaration in a few moments.
The other issue on public record is the Government's amendment to the motion, which effectively places on public record the minutes of the meeting that the Taoiseach had with political party leaders last December. The Government's offer to the people is as little reform as possible, as slowly as possible and with no sense of urgency and certainly no reform in time for the next Seanad general election to provide the people with what they are entitled to in a democracy, which is one person, one vote, and universal suffrage. What the Government offers the people this evening is simply the minutes of a meeting that happened over six weeks ago. The Government should stop underestimating the people. Our motion does not underestimate the people, and it reflects the growing consensus across Independents, the Opposition parties and some individual members of the Government and relevant civil society groups that the bottom line requirement for the next Seanad is that every person should have a vote and the franchise should be extended universally.
It reflects the primary elements of my Bill with Senator Quinn, Senator Crown's Bill, the recently published Fianna Fáil Bill and proposals from Sinn Féin. Our motion is framed with cognisance of the Constitution. Article 6 of the Constitution acknowledges that it is the “right” of the people to “designate the rulers of the State”. It is the right of the people to choose who governs them and who makes the laws in their democracy. Article 18 of the Constitution clearly does not exclude universal citizen suffrage in Seanad elections. It does the exact opposite. The Constitution simply provides that general elections to the Seanad “shall be held on the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote” and that the law shall regulate those elections, not the Constitution.
The Taoiseach’s claim that the Constitution must remain rooted in the political convictions of the 1930s and cannot be reinterpreted to fit modern needs is not only archaic, it disregards a well-established judicial principle that the Constitution is a living document. The generation who wrote the 1937 Constitution is the same one that fought for our national freedom. It gave us a free Constitution to empower our people politically, socially and economically. The whole raison d'êtreof this country’s quest for sovereignty and national self-determination was to ensure that Irish people in every generation would be free to chart their own future according to their times, so it is incumbent on the Government to respect the freedom of our people to choose who can make our laws. As long as the Seanad remains unreformed in its electoral system, disregarding the democratic right of every person to have a vote, the Government is not respecting the constitutionally embedded freedom of our people. Let us make no mistake about it; the power now for this kind of Seanad reform is in the hands of the Government. If we do not see this kind of reform for the next Seanad election the fault will rest with this Government, and that will start here in this Chamber this evening if this motion does not pass.
Let me come then to the first component of our motion, the first of the two fundamental principles of Seanad reform – universal suffrage. It is the most basic principle in any election process. In a democracy every citizen should be entitled to vote for those who govern them. Those who are opposed to universal suffrage for the Seanad cite a range of reasons as to why, in their view, it should not be used in Seanad elections, but I do not think those arguments hold much water. Some have suggested that an extension of the franchise would result in a Seanad whose make-up mirrored that of the Dáil. That is not true; it is inaccurate. Geographical constituencies elect the Dáil, with voters in a certain area only being permitted to vote for candidates running within such constituencies. In contrast, the Seanad would be elected by a national electorate, so where a voter lives and where the candidate lives will be of zero relevance in a Seanad election.
There have also been suggestions that if the franchise is extended the Seanad will somehow rival the Dáil. The role of the Seanad is set out in the Constitution. It is principally a House of the Legislature. The Seanad plays a crucial role in ensuring that legislation is given a second look based on expert and informed views, knowledge and practical experience in a range of specific sectors as identified in the panels. In spite of its valued role as the House of legislation, too often the Seanad’s role in scrutinising the law is dismissed in the interests of political expediency. All too often the Government uses the Stages of the legislative process as a box-ticking exercise and the guillotine is regularly applied to debates. That is not the way to make good legislation. Let us take a look even this week at the Seanad’s schedule. It is another "Seanad-lite" week. Where is the legislation now when we have time for it? Why is it not here? Where there is a political will, there is a way, but us let us be clear, there is no truth in the assertion that a Seanad that is elected by the population would rival or even mirror the Dáil. The Seanad’s role is set out in the Constitution and also in Standing Orders. The Seanad complements the Dáil. Extending the franchise would not alter the role of the Seanad.
One person, one vote is an important concept. The vast majority of Members in this House are elected by a small cohort of local authority members who could have five, six or seven votes each, yet the ordinary person who did not have the privilege of going to a certain university has no say whatsoever in the make-up of this House. That is indefensible. One person, one vote is about ensuring that all voters are treated equally. The views of one person in a ballot box are just as important as the next. Why should we tolerate a situation where a teacher or a nurse might have one vote but a person who never had the privilege of going to university or third level has no vote and local authority members have six or seven votes? As members of the Government said repeatedly during the campaign, it is elitist. That must end and we must work collectively to bring it to an end. While the Taoiseach’s strategy to extend the franchise of the university panels to all third level graduates is welcome, it will not bring about an end to elitism on its own. In fact, on its own it will exacerbate elitism. Such a limited statutory change would leave 90% of the Seanad totally unaffected.
The second part of the motion is all about time. We need the immediate establishment of the task force to consider Seanad legislative reform, starting with the two fundamental principles. One could ask why that is so important. If the people are to be given their constitutional right to a vote in a Seanad general election next time around, we must have passed a Bill to that effect by the end of 2014. One could ask why that is the case. It is because it will take some considerable time in 2015 to set up the new electoral process and system, to inform the people of their right to vote and to devise a way of registering and voting for the preferred panel choice. If that does not happen it will be at least another seven years before the possibility of this kind of reform opens up again. The people need to know that. If the Seanad is reformed now, that would ensure that after the next general election we could have a Seanad for the people and elected by all of the people. The Seanad would then be a truly democratically elected Chamber in which the aspirations of the 1937 Constitution would be met. That would be the essence of democracy.
I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to the House.
It is in truth a given that there is a prevalent cynicism about democracy and an increasing scepticism about its potential for reform and self improvement. Many citizens are totally alienated from the democratic process, believing that a self-perpetuating system populated by self-serving people neither reflects their wishes and values nor particularly acts in their interest. I do not make this up; it is what people think. People feel disconnected from and unable to change many of the realities of public governance in Ireland.
At the time of the Seanad abolition referendum, as was pointed out by my friend and colleague, Senator Zappone, the charges were laid that the Seanad was elitist, ineffective and wasteful. We got a message from the people. They rejected something when they said “No” to the proposal that the Seanad should be abolished. Two interpretations are that they rejected the Government’s analysis that the Seanad was wasteful, ineffective and elitist and in fact liked it the way it was and wished it to remain in the status quo. I have met no one who thought that, espoused that, canvassed for it or advocated it. In any of my personal canvasses during the Seanad referendum or in any of my discourses and debates with others, the message loud and clear in every forum was reform, reform, reform. The platforms of both sides acknowledged the inadequacies of the Seanad and the platform of the side which ultimately prevailed contained a consistent message of reform. In short, a thumping mandate for reform of the Seanad was given by the referendum. In fact, as the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is aware and as Senator Zappone has pointed out, two different reform Bills were offered before the House prior to the referendum. They were broadly similar with nuanced differences but they both adhered to two principles. The first was the fundamental democratic value of universal suffrage. The second was living within the constraints imposed on us by Bunreacht na hÉireann. In other words, that was the maximum reform which could be achieved in the absence of further constitutional amendment. What we are instead hearing is that we will have long overdue legislative implementation of the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution, passed in popular referendum in 1979 – all of 35 years ago. Let us put a little perspective on 35 years ago. Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States.
The Shah had not yet left Iran, the USSR still existed and had not yet invaded Afghanistan. Two senior parliamentarians at the time were Enda Kenny and Terry Leyden, both of whom remain in Leinster House 35 years later and we are very grateful to them for their long service to the people. Why is it only now, after a referendum was rejected, that this legislation is being offered? Is it any wonder that people are disillusioned with the lack of answerability of the political process here? The contempt for the popular will - expressed in a referendum - exhibited by all of the major parties in the intervening 35 years is Marie Antoinette-like in its disdain. It is as if the Government is saying, "Let them eat cake" but the trouble is, the cake is 35 years old.
What objections have been raised to true Seanad reform? There are two principle objections, the first being that we would be left with some kind of science fiction, mutant, pseudo-replica Dáil and the second, we would have gridlock. I will deal with those in a moment but before answering those charges, let us look at the widely acknowledged need for important, fundamental political reform and Dáil reform in particular. The current problems with Dáil Éireann, from an outsider's perspective, are as follows: it is exclusively parochial in its selection; it is, unfortunately, somewhat ineffective in its procedures because of an imbalance of power between a strong, central Executive and relatively disenfranchised individual Deputies; and that the potential input of talented Deputies from the backbenches is thwarted by them being whipped to within an inch of their lives. These are the problems. We cannot fix all of them but if we did have the kind of reformed Seanad that has been espoused through two stages of votes in this House and which I believe has been given a mandate by the people in the referendum, we would have two very differently functioning Houses.
The Dáil needs to reform itself. There is probably a need for constitutional change to reform some of the procedures in the Dáil. Some of these issues have been discussed by the Constitutional Convention, from which all questions of Seanad reform were, in my opinion, inappropriately excluded. In the Seanad, as Senator Zappone has said, we would have a very different Chamber. We would not have people who were looking over their shoulder at a local political constituency in their local area. We would have people who were elected through national mandates and who, through clever nomination processes, would be disproportionately associated with the areas of expertise which the Constitution has suggested they would be.
A wise Government, troubled by the increasing popular scepticism concerning politics would, in response to the palpable hunger for reform, introduce true reform of the Seanad and the Dáil. Instead, for the second time in a few months, we are being offered a pretence at reform and are being sold a pup. It is important that we take the message from the people. There is a real hunger for political reform in this country and it would be an awful shame to ignore it. It was not a wallop, it was a mandate. If the historical opportunity afforded to this Government by the people in the context of the Seanad referendum were ignored, that would be an awful shame.
I move amendment No.1:
To delete all words after “Seanad Éireann” and substitute the following:
“- notes that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste met the leaders of the various parties and groupings in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann on 18 December 2013 to consider how best to proceed with the reform of Seanad Eireann;agrees that the question of constitutional reform, which would require a referendum or referendums, can be considered at a later date.”.
- notes that there was agreement at the meeting that the parties and groupings in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann would present their proposals for operational/ procedural reform of Seanad Eireann to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges early in 2014, for consideration by that Committee, and that the Government would submit its proposals to the Committee through the Leader of the Seanad;
- notes that there was broad consensus that a task force, representative of the different parties and groupings within the Houses of the Oireachtas, would look at reform of the Seanad electoral system;
- notes that the parties or groupings in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann may submit their proposals for reform of the Seanad electoral system to that task force;
- notes that task force will be in a better position to propose a timeline for the enactment of legislation once it had scoped out the nature and extent of the legislation proposed, and examined any possible constitutional implications;
- notes that the Government had already agreed that legislation should be prepared by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to implement the 1979 referendum decision which allowed the State to extend the provisions for the election of members of Seanad Éireann by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State;
- notes that, when the Heads of this Bill are ready, they will be circulated to Seanad Éireann, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration;
- urges the various parties and groupings in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann to submit their reform proposals to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges or the task force, as appropriate; and
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. There have been many discussions during the lifetime of the 24th Seanad on its work, composition and its very existence. Senator Zappone has put forward some very convincing proposals in her motion today and I congratulate her on bringing the subject of Seanad reform before the House again. So many of the arguments have been debated time and time again but this topic is so serious that whenever it arises, it deserves thoughtful consideration by the Government and Members of Seanad Éireann. The amendment sets out the Government's position with regard to reform of this House. I agree with Senator Zappone on many of the issues in her motion and believe there is a good element of common ground in both the motion and the amendment. I do not believe the debate today needs to be an adversarial one.
Fine Gael gave a commitment prior to the last general election that a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann would be held. The referendum was held and the people voted to retain this House. However, it was very clear from the public discourse at the time that there is also a public appetite for reform of Seanad Éireann. As we are all aware, countless reports on Seanad reform are gathering dust, consigned to the scrap heap by successive Governments. These reports, in the main, dealt with how the Seanad should be elected but no Government had the courage to implement the recommended reforms. In the aftermath of the referendum result, my party leader, the Taoiseach, acted quickly by instructing the relevant officials to commence the drafting of legislation to enact the result of the 1979 referendum which will confer the right on all third level graduates to vote in future Seanad elections. This must be welcomed as a wise first step on the road to reform. We must, of course, listen to voice of the University Panel Senators and address their concerns, where possible.
Time never stands still and further, more comprehensive change is needed. High-level reform of the general political system is urgently required to address the disconnect between the public and politics, which is a cause of concern in many democracies. As Leader of the House, I have tried to reform the way the business of this House is conducted, despite the archaic rules and Standing Orders under which we work. We set up a public consultation committee at the suggestion of the Independent nominees and have engaged with many organisations, including those dealing with the rights of older people and those dealing with the lifestyle changes needed to prevent cancer. We have consulted with Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, CoderDojo and Change Nation, which inspired us with their ideas for improving Irish life and society. Some of these consultations have produced reports which we submitted to the relevant Ministers, not only for debate but for action. As long as we have the co-operation of the Government, we intend to continue with this work which gives a voice to people and groups that may not otherwise be heard by Government but which are, nonetheless, carrying out essential work in wider society.
Last year the House provided a platform for all Irish MEPs. I invited all 12 MEPs to come before the House to discuss their particular areas of expertise and to inform us about the work of the committees of which they are members so that we, as legislators, are better informed about the procedures at European level before we are asked to enact legislation here in Ireland that has largely been drafted elsewhere. This initiative was long overdue, especially given the importance of engaging with our representatives in Europe. Our EU Commissioner, Ms Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, also gave an excellent address to the House and spoke of the need for far greater dialogue between national politicians and EU representatives and institutions. It is essential that we continue to review EU policy and the Commission's work programme in the months ahead.
As I have said on many occasions, the key role of this House is to improve and enhance legislation. However, we can only deal with the work we are given to do. The pipeline of legislation coming through the House is a source of great concern to me and most of my colleagues. Indeed, it has been alluded to again today. The pattern of having very little to do at the beginning of a term, followed by a raft of long, late sittings towards the end of each term, including the shortening of debates in some instances, is a long-standing one. I know that the Minister of State is trying to initiate reforms to improve the process and I will support him in any way I can in ordering the business of this House. However, better planning of their legislative priorities by the relevant Departments is needed so that we can avoid the peaks and troughs that seem, to me at least, to be avoidable.
I wish to advise the House that I intend to bring forward a number of my own proposals to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges regarding the schedule of business in the House. In order to avoid clashes between Oireachtas committee meetings and the Order of Business, I propose that we replace Adjournment debates with commencement debates, from 10.30 a.m. to 12.00 p.m, when the Order of Business would then take place. Committees would meet from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and after 1.30 p.m. each day, which would avoid clashes with the Order of Business.
Personally, I would prefer if we had one week dedicated to committee work each month. That would benefit both Houses and committees, but I do not believe there is an appetite for it. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, comment on this?
Oireachtas committee reports should be referred to the Seanad for debate and we should explore the feasibility of committee Chairmen attending the House for such debates. Reports from public bodies which are required to be laid before the Houses of Oireachtas and cover issues relating to Seanad panels should also be debated in the Chamber. The Seanad should review EU policy and its work programme annually. The Government’s approval will be sought for the Seanad to have a formal role in the North-South Ministerial Council, as well as the British-Irish Council, and the relevant Minister would address the Seanad following each Council meeting.
Some of these changes will require the Government’s backing. I am sure a way to enable the Seanad to take on such work could be found. I will keep the House informed on the progress of these proposals. I welcome suggestions from any Senator or group who wishes to improve the way the House does its business. The Minister of State will outline later that the Government has proposals, too. There is a broad consensus on the need to reform the House, how it is elected and its day-to-day business. This can only be done with the backing of the Government and the co-operation of Members.
I commend the amendment to the motion to the House.
I commend Senator Katherine Zappone for tabling this Private Members’ motion and Members for their views on the issue of Seanad reform. The reason there are not many Fianna Fáil Members present in the House today is they are attending the funeral of a close and young family member of a party colleague. I am sure Members opposite will understand this.
Fianna Fáil supports the motion. While not disagreeing entirely with the amendment, we will not be supporting it. No Member is on a different page in the yearning for reform of this House and the political system. If the media had covered it during the years- it would have done well to have done so - that message would have been received loud and clear by the public. It is only through the grace of God, the efforts of some Members, not least the Leader, and some private commentators that the public, without being informed of the true work of this House during the years, took the decision to retain the Seanad last October. Thank God for this.
The Seanad is a piece of infrastructure that belongs to the people ultimately and the democratic system the nation tries to embrace. We support Senator Katherine Zappone’s motion and would like all people to take a proactive role in voting in elections. Fianna Fáil has participated in the many debates and Bills on Seanad reform in the 12 years I have been a Member. I am glad that the Taoiseach is making a move in the interim to implement the seventh amendment of the Constitution, a law of the land which was systematically ignored by all Governments in the intervening period.
This House has always been treated very badly by the Government of the day. The Government is no different as it has chosen to ignore it. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and others, in their consideration of matters that relate specifically to Members and their work, have treated Members very badly. One could not be blamed for thinking how these Ministers are dealing with parliamentary allowances and expenses for Members is a bitter retort to the outcome of the referendum on Seanad abolition. This issue needs to be addressed and I, for one, am not afraid to do so. It is better than sneaking around trying to impress on the Minister the need to sign a particular statutory instrument.
For many years Parliament has been subservient to the Cabinet. That is why the people do not feel they have a sense of ownership of the policy platform pursued by the Government of the day. The Taoiseach and the strongest personalities in the Cabinet tend to dictate how policy evolves. The Whips tell parliamentary party colleagues that this is the party position and that if they do not like it, they can leave. Every Member of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil will recall those words spoken in their respective parliamentary rooms. This is the sad reality of the political system. We live in a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. That is the way it has been for many years.
In the 12 years I have been a Member, Senator Maurice Cummins has been the best Leader of the Seanad, particularly with regard to the improvements he has managed to make to the way we conduct our business, even within the constraints placed on him. If we really want to reform the House, the Minister of State should abolish the Whip, make the Seanad responsible for the ratification of all public appointments and the scrutiny of all EU proposals. While he agree with what I have said, there is no way in the wide earthly world that the powers that be in Government Buildings will allow it to happen because it would make the Chief Whip’s job more difficult. It would also make the House more transparent and accountable to the people, giving them a genuine sense of ownership of the policy platform of the day. No Government - be it Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party - will allow this reform of the House for the same reason the Leader gave about the raft of legislation rammed down our throats at the end of every session. That is the will of the Government. The Taoiseach and the stronger personalities in the Cabinet insist on legislation getting through. We have motions for earlier signature to suit the senior Ministers and, despite their great efforts in producing legislation, officials. It does not suit the people and does nothing to enhance their belief in the political system.
In this nation we have no sense of state. We have a great sense of community as shown by the raising of funds for local football clubs and so forth. We are second to none for giving donations for the relief of natural disasters. However, we have no sense of state because we have no ownership of the policy platform of the day. It is not about Enda Kenny, Charlie Haughey, Garret FitzGerald or any of these people; it is about a system that is rotten to the core. Democracy in this country is not democracy; it is a dictatorship. Parliament is subservient to the Cabinet of the day. If one wants real reform, that is what one has to change. Hands up those Members who have been at a parliamentary party meeting, watched all of their colleagues agree with their position on a particular issue and the Minister say the opposite and that if one did not like it, one could leave as there was a queue of people outside the gate looking to take their place. If we want real reform, we should not tell the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to investigate the issue of reform. Imagine if it contacted the Taoiseach’s office to inform it that the Whip would not apply in the Seanad for the next six weeks as a pilot scheme to see what the people thought about it. Do Members honestly think the Taoiseach would issue a press release with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government welcoming it? The reform process afoot will end like the other 17, namely, in reports gathering dust on a shelf.
I commend Senators Katherine Zappone and John Crown for their contributions on Seanad reform. Sadly, it is all in vain because we are subservient to the Cabinet of the day unless it has the political will to really reform.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, and commend Senators Katherine Zappone and John Crown for their work on Seanad reform. It was a pleasure to campaign with Senator Katherine Zappone and Democracy Matters for the defeat of the referendum on Seanad abolition in October. That defeat gives us a welcome chance and an imperative to reform. On both sides of the debate, there was an understanding that if the Seanad was to continue after the referendum, it should be reformed fundamentally.
I very much welcome the fact that a number of us met the Taoiseach on 18 December and that at that meeting a road map for progress - as a cyclist, I prefer to refer to it as a cycle path - was set out, which is reflected in the Government's counter motion which the Leader has proposed and I second. The Leader has stated there is common ground and that we are all united on the need for reform. The critical issue is how we go about it. After many years of debate it is imperative that we have a clear timeframe and plan to make progress on reform.
The Taoiseach has made it clear that constitutional reform of the Seanad will not happen in the lifetime of the Government. This sets out markers for what we can do. Looking at the constitutional articles on the Seanad we can see fundamental reforms can be carried out through in legislation alone. In a very welcome move the Government has at last commenced drafting legislation to implement the decision in the 1979 referendum on expanding the electorate for the university panels. As a university Senator, I welcome this and know all of my colleagues on the university benches do so also.
There are two other means of reform we need to examine and they are set out in the Government's counter motion. The first is operational reform, in other words, procedural reform of the Seanad, which will not even require legislation, for the most part. This is where it is proposed parties and groupings in the Dáil and the Seanad present proposals for operational or procedural reform to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Leader has, helpfully, set out some of his own proposals for reform which are very welcome. It is worth noting that this Seanad has already instituted very important reforms such as the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, the extension of invitations to speak to MEPs and distinguished speakers such as Mrs. Mary Robinson, Mr. David Begg and others. It would be very welcome to see us having stronger links with the sectoral committees by inviting the chairpersons of committees to brief us on the work they do to ensure links are strengthened with the committees, just as they have been strengthened with the European Parliament through the issuing of invitations to MEPs. There are clear ways by which we can do this.
We all agree that we should have a greater role in the scrutiny of EU proposals, but we must be careful. The committees have a hugely important scrutiny role and we do not want to see duplication. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality which is scrutinising EU matters while others and I are here, I welcome the Leader's proposals to try to ensure fewer time clashes. The committee scrutinises matters under the Justice and Home Affairs Directorate-General of the Commission. We must be careful, therefore, not to duplicate work. Seanad Standing Orders 99 to 103, inclusive, already reflect additional powers we have following ratification of the Lisbon treaty and we should look closely at how best we can implement these powers without trespassing on the work being done by the sectoral committees. We can issue reasoned opinions on whether EU legislative proposals comply with the principle of subsidiarity, but we must examine how best we can exercise these powers. I very much welcome the Committee on Procedure and Privileges taking on detailed consideration of these operational changes.
I wish to focus on other changes to the Seanad electoral system which might be carried out through in legislation. The Government's counter motion clearly sets out - this was the consensus at the meeting on 18 December - that a task force representative of various parties and groupings in the Houses of the Oireachtas will examine reform of the Seanad electoral system. We must ensure any reform is within the terms of the Constitution, but we can make fundamental changes without amending the Constitution. Two reform Bills, tabled by Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone and Senator John Crown, have passed Second Stage and there is much common ground in the reforms they propose.
The Labour Party group in the Seanad has also tabled proposals to the parliamentary party which are under consideration on what we would like to see brought about by way of reform through legislation. We have suggested four headings under which reforms should be made, the first of which is reform to the university panels which is under way. The second is reform of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Acts 1947 to 2006 to provide for the composition of the electorate for the five panels. I would very much welcome universal suffrage, as would my Seanad colleagues in the Labour Party group, and the proposal we have tabled is that the electorate comprise all of those resident in the jurisdiction, in other words, the local election register. How to organise this raises complex issues such as whether it would be a national panel. My colleagues and I believe it should be on a regional basis, perhaps in line with the European Parliament election constituencies. Would voters have to opt for one of the five panels or would they have five separate votes? These are the issues we would have to consider. We have suggested voters have five votes.
The third reform heading is how those on the panels should be nominated. We suggest that perhaps 500 persons whose names are on the Seanad electoral register be entitled to nominate, with the existing nominating bodies and local authorities. All of this would need to be thought through in some detail.
The fourth heading is the timing of Seanad elections. This would be a critical change that could be made through legislation and it would really transform the way in which the House did its business and how Members were elected. Under Article 18.8 of the Constitution, the Seanad election must take place not later than 90 days after the dissolution of the Dáil. Legislation could, therefore, provide, as some of the Private Members' Bills do, that the election take place at the same time as the Dáil election, thereby removing the propensity for many of us who fail to win seats in the Dáil election to then run for the Seanad. Serious logistical issues are raised about how a secret postal ballot would be organised on the same date as the Dáil election.
These are matters which require to be dealt with through the task force which should be given a clear timeframe to report to the Government. I ask the Chief Whip whether a clear timeframe can be set for the work of the task force. The Government's counter motion clearly sets out this timeframe for the task force and the cycle path for progress towards reform on the need for which we are all agreed.
I welcome the Minister of State. There were 112 combinations proposed between 1937 and 2013 for the reform of the Seanad. They covered such matters as size and composition, elections, automatic re-election of the Cathaoirleach, terms and timing of elections, the filling of vacancies, nominations, the need for gender balance, vocational panels, regional versus national panels, university seats, the Taoiseach's nominees, the legislative process, votes for persons living in Northern Ireland, the European Union and internationally, national votes, secondary legislation, public appointments, public inquiries, policy reviews, petitions, the Order of Business, the right to address the Seanad, the membership of Senators of the Cabinet, the accountability of the Government to the Seanad, the nomination of the Cathaoirleach, the nomination of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the salaries of Senators and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. There were ten reports between 1937 and 2004. We have also had Bills presented by Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Senators Katherine and Feargal Quinn and Senator John Crown. The question for us is where to begin. As an Independent Senator, we must begin very quickly.
I welcome the Minister of State and look forward to his contribution.
The Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, outlined the reasons behind the amendment, with which I heartily concur. Many issues are involved and he has outlined many improvements which have been made in the lifetime of this Seanad. I particularly welcome his reference to the need to avoid clashes because there is interference with committees, of which we are all well aware. As we know, the Oireachtas joint committees do valuable work. We must clear this logjam and the Leader has outlined proposals in this regard. As Senator Ivana Bacik stated, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is meeting and I would like to be present as it is dealing with a very important question on improving the courts system through the provision of community courts.
The change to the university panels franchise will go ahead. This was decided by the people in 1979 and we welcome the first steps being taken. We should not become involved in reading tea leaves or crystal ball gazing as to why the people voted in the way they did. It was a clear "Yes" or "No" question. As Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell stated, we are where we are and must get on with it. It has been set out in a submission to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and a task force has been established. We will take it from there.
The public consultation invitation to distinguished speakers has been very useful. I agree strongly with the Leader that people on both sides have long since recommended that the House should be allowed deal with the scrutiny of EU legislation. There is unanimity on the issue. I also agree that there should be a North-South dimension. We all agree that universal reform of the political system both in this and the other House is needed. The people have recognised that we as Senators have a role to play in our constitutional democracy. In fact, we are an equal legislative Chamber to the Dáil with the exception of money Bills. The various suggestions of reform which were made during the referendum campaign must be set out in the context of the Constitution. The provisions set out in Articles 18 and 19 would limit some of the changes some people would like to see in regard to the Seanad. At the core of this Chamber must be a role in the passage of legislation.
Debates in this House tend to be less partisan and more constructive in nature than those that take place in the Dáil. Ministers of all hues down through the years have commented on the objectivity shown in this House. Senator Feargal Quinn is aware of this, having had many amendments accepted over the years in this House. This stems from the array of Senators who have particular expertise in their own backgrounds, whether it be professional, business, cultural or from a trade union perspective. The election and appointment procedures in place make this possible. I have noted the reforms mentioned by Senators prior to the referendum and here today but we do not want a replica of the other House. No matter what is done, we must not have that.
Many share the view that the process by which Senators are elected and appointed is archaic and has it flaws. Such processes have produced some excellent Senators, such as Mary Robinson, Joe O'Toole, well known to us, Catherine McGuinness and, more recently, Martin McAleese, all of whom have made strong contributions to Irish public life as well as on the international stage.
The concept of the vocational panel system obviously has merit in bringing forward candidates who come from different backgrounds and experience but, as has been said, maybe that method of election providing for the panels can be improved upon and the way in which the various bodies can nominate candidates to the Seanad election can provide an important link between the Oireachtas and key sectors of society. This is even more relevant now as the country recovers from the years of mismanagement. Such a system has nominated Senators who may not have managed to get through the party political process of nomination. Similarly, local authority members need to be recognised as another vital link between members of the Oireachtas and local communities. I do not think we would want to lose that link in its entirety in expanding the system of election if that is the route we take.
As set out in the amendment which arose from a meeting which the various party leaders had with the Taoiseach, we must present our proposals to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and get the task force established.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I thank Senators Zappone, Quinn and others for tabling the motion.
There are three areas to be considered: the promised democratic revolution which turned into a power grab; the national democratic deficit which has been in place for many years, as outlined by some speakers; and what is possible for the House to achieve.
I will start with the issue of the power grab. In recent months we have witnessed how the democratically elected Údarás na Gaeltachta was abolished. The people who will sit there and decide how taxpayers' money is spent and how issues shall be resolved in the Gaeltacht are now going to be appointed. That is not a step in the direction. We witnessed reform painted as some panacea in local government when in fact we are seeing the dismantling of the democratically elected town councils, the merger of some areas and more powers being centralised. I do not think anybody in the House would argue that is a good thing. We have the least number of locally elected public representatives in Europe. The current position is one locally elected public representative for every 5,000 people. We rank second worst to the United Kingdom which has one locally elected public representative for every 2,500 whereas France has one public representative for every 98 people. We are the worst in Europe when it comes to local democracy. We witnessed the attempt to abolish the Seanad and centralise power in a dysfunctional Chamber in the Dáil. I am sure the Government Chief Whip recognises how dysfunctional it is and it continues to be the same. Nothing has changed fundamentally in the Dáil.
In terms of our national democratic deficit we see a system that failed in the run-up to the economic crisis. The consensus politics which was in place in the making of a building bubble, a housing boom and bust is still there. The basic fundamentals of that system, the committee system, the way legislation is passed, and the lack of accountability, are still in place today, therefore, we continue to have a national democratic deficit.
In the local property tax legislation which was run through amendments had to be brought back in to rectify its failings. We have had a debate on the Water Services Bill prior to Christmas and the organ donation legislation was debated in this House in August 2013. The first EU directive on organ transplantation in the history of the State was signed into law by a Minister without a Deputy or Senator seeing it prior to it being brought into Irish law. Some 80% of the laws made in Ireland every year are EU directives, which are amended by Ministers and no committee, Deputy or Senator sees them in advance. As Members of the Seanad we should scrutinise EU directives separate from what is done by the committees. The committees scrutinise some but not all of the EU laws made in Ireland every year.
We are talking about what is possible for the Seanad. An argument was made prior to the election that the House it elitist. When the number of voters who are entitled to vote in any election is confined, therefore, it is elitist. To offer to make it less elitist but still elitist in terms of the electorate is not genuine reform. One cannot say that is real reform. To turn around and say that if one had the opportunity to go to third level that one will be given a vote but if not, one will not be given a vote, is not the democratic revolution that people sought in the last general election. All we had was a change of parties but there has not been a dramatic change in terms of the way business is done in this country. What is also possible, as outlined by Senators Zappone, Crown and Quinn, is to open up the franchise to give those in the North and the Irish diaspora, some 800,000 people who live overseas, a say in this Chamber. Every other European country, bar three, allows its overseas citizens a vote. We are in poor company when we say that Greece, Malta and Cyprus, are the three countries, with Ireland who do not give votes to their overseas citizens. However, in the Government's proposal only those who have third level degrees and who had to emigrate will have a vote in a reformed Seanad. Some 800,000 overseas citizens have Irish passports, the equivalent of the populations of Galway, Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Waterford, and yet they do not have a say in this Parliament. They should have a say in this House we should have a more democratic House.
How it is elected is important but what it does is far more important because these Houses have not been reformed in any real way. The system that failed the people and caused an economic collapse is still in place. The infrastructure has not changed. All that has changed are the people involved but the structure remains the same. The system that failed remains and it will fail again because the reform that should have happened has not happened. We must see that reform to ensure that the system does not fail the people again.
I welcome the Minister of State and Government Chief Whip to the House. It is good to see him here for this particular debate. I welcome also that we are having this debate and congratulate Senator Zappone and her colleagues for putting the motion before the House. I am clear that when the Irish people voted on 5 October they voted to reform Seanad Éireann. There is no doubt that they did not vote for business as usual and as many colleagues have said, the issue is where we go from here. Numerous reports and Bills on reform of the Seanad have been proposed in this House. Those reports and Bills presented a number of options, some of which involve constitutional reform and some of which do not. Most of the proposals, with the exception of Senator Crown's Bill, involve the Seanad having additional powers, which would be welcome. That flows in the face of some of the measures announced recently that do not involve Senators and with which some of us might have a difficulty.
It is important to recognise that there are many different views on the proposals that may be worthy of consideration and how they should be pursued. I have always been of the view that the matter of Seanad reform should have been put to the Constitutional Convention. I do not believe that the Seanad should have been examined in isolation from the rest of the political system. I am a member of the Constitutional Convention and it is interesting that we will shortly be looking at Dáil reform but, again, that will be examined in isolation from the rest of the political system and will not include Seanad reform.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Bacik, that there is no reason reform cannot be incremental. I understand there is an attractiveness in looking at reform in an incremental fashion, particularly reform that does not require constitutional referendum. I know there is a sense of concern that there may be fatigue among the people regarding numerous constitutional referenda being put before them. However, if we are to be true to the people's mandate, and we must respect the people's mandate, we must approach the issue of reform in a more general way than simply looking at non-constitutional reform. If we are to be true to the people's mandate we must go back to what I would call first principles and ask what the Seanad is for and how it fits into the overall political system. In that context we must have real discussion on Seanad reform, which cannot exclude the position of the Seanad in the Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention was one of the most exciting commitments in the programme for Government and in spite of the naysayers, it has proven to be one of the most significant developments that has taken place in the general political debate in the past 12 months. The Constitutional Convention was weakened by not being able to discuss the matter of Seanad reform and I was disappointed that when the matter was raised from the floor by our colleague, there was a clear representation by the chair that the matter could not be considered by the convention. Even allowing for that, it was a narrow defeat.
I have been impressed by the standard of debate in the Constitutional Convention and I genuinely believe that every strand of society is represented there. Some of the members' comments on the overall political system have been interesting. For example, clientalism was seen as a distinctive feature of the Irish political system. For example, some of the convention's proposals would include the majority view that Ministers, on their appointment, should resign their Dáil seats on the grounds, as expressed in the debate, that it would allow them get on with the job and not spend their time fixing potholes and addressing the needs of their constituencies. We cannot go forward by simply saying it will not be business as usual but we should examine the Constitution with a view to determining, for example, how we can change the way in which Senators are elected. To do that would simply give us Seanad light, for want of a better term, and we will end up with a representation of the Dáil in the Seanad.
A number of issues should be considered when we consider Dáil reform. There is a general view, as expressed at the Constitutional Convention, that we lack expertise in the political system. There is a view also that we are here to serve the local community rather than the general public interest. There is another view that diversity and the representation of minority communities is not achieved through the current electoral system. If we want to be serious about Seanad reform, we cannot close the door on constitutional reform. By focusing only on reform that can be achieved through legislative change we will end up tinkering at the margins and not getting to the real issues of why we want a Seanad and its purpose.
We have had a referendum on the university panels, and I agree the Government should proceed with that. It is many years too late but as a first step on a route map to genuine Seanad reform it is at least one gesture towards reform that we can make.
The Minister is very welcome and I am glad to see him in the House for this valuable debate. On 4 October over 634,000 people voted to ensure that the Seanad would not be abolished. I suspect that for many citizens, 4 October was the first time they had the chance to cast any type of vote relating to the Seanad. The question now is how long they will have to wait before they can have a say in Seanad elections. Will they have a say in the elections?
It is often asserted that this House cannot agree on a series of reform measures yet earlier this month Democracy Matters published a paper that set out six core principles around which this House can unite, and Senator Zappone has included some of them in her motion.
The Seanad Bill 2013, which Senator Zappone and I published, and the Bill published by Senator Crown, light the path towards reform of this House, and today's motion rightly focuses on two of those fundamental principles, namely, universal suffrage and one person, one vote as a starting point for reform. I hope these are two principles on which this House can unite.
Some 43 Members of this House are elected by a cohort of county councillors, and 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach. Of the 60 Members of this House, I am one of only six people who are elected by a significant number of people from around the country, Northern Ireland and throughout the world. During the referendum campaign, many critics of this House labelled the Seanad as being elitist and unrepresentative. I agree with those assertions. However, I find it incomprehensible that any Taoiseach would want to maintain a Seanad electoral system whose underlying principle seems to be one councillor, seven votes. That is the position with a number of county councillors who have five votes automatically and if they happen to have degrees from two universities, they get seven votes. That is an intolerable situation when the majority of citizens have no vote. As democrats, we cannot allow that to continue.
Opening up the electoral process to citizens at home and abroad, as well as to people in Northern Ireland, will deeply enrich the political dynamite of this House. Since the economic collapse some years ago, there has been much navel-gazing about how Ireland can best harness the views and the confidence of the diaspora who are scattered throughout the world.
However, one of the best ways to achieve this is by opening up the Seanad elections to citizens around the world, as proposed in Senator Katherine Zappone's motion. In the face of Government inaction on Seanad reform the public may be without a voice in Seanad elections for the foreseeable future. As a result of the Government's plans to implement the 1979 referendum result, the ranks of the privileged who hold university qualifications that entitle them to vote in Seanad elections will be added to, while those without a voice in Seanad elections will continue to be ignored. The extension of the franchise to vote in Seanad elections to more graduates can only ever be a small first step towards reform; it is not of itself real reform.
Since the referendum people have occasionally stopped me to ask me what the Seanad had done to reform itself. In Democracy Matters we marked the passing of 100 days since the referendum and highlighted Government inaction in the delivery of reforms, but as a House we have yet to deliver the reforms which are within our gift. It was interesting to listen to the Leader and hear some of the proposals he was making. They are worthy of consideration and we should make sure we give them consideration, but anybody who has spent any time following the proceedings of this House can clearly see that it is dysfunctional, despite the efforts of the Leader and others to do something about this. It is imperative that its business and workings be reformed through changes to Standing Orders. It needs a more clearly defined role that reflects its constitutional mandate as a House of the Legislature, not just that of a mini-Dáil.
There is an opportunity to make this House more reflective of the gender balance in society. The Bill Senator Katherine Zappone and I put through includes such a measure. In failing to implement reforms we do not do justice to ourselves and the people who place their trust in the reform agenda. In the absence of reform, the Seanad will remain elitist, undemocratic and unrepresentative. The reluctance to deliver root and branch reform plays into the hands of those who like everything just the way it is. It disappoints me somewhat to have to say this, but the only people I know who want to keep the Seanad the way it is are some of my fellow Senators. We should make sure we listen very carefully, but more than this we should do something about it also.
Last October, some weeks after the referendum, the Taoiseach came to the House with the stated intention of hearing Senators' reform proposals. He followed this up with a number of meetings with party leaders in December and I was one of several people who called on him to establish a Seanad reform task force which should comprise a mix of Members of the Seanad as well as people outside the House. Why should the incumbents of the House be the sole deciders of its future? I know the Taoiseach was unhappy with the referendum result, but rather than walk away from the Seanad, he should grasp the opportunity to reform it and take all of the criticisms the Government levelled at it during the campaign and fix the underlying problems that had given rise to them. He has been given the answer which is included in Senator Katherine Zappone's motion. If he took hold of it, it would enhance his reputation and he would be able to look back and say he was the one who reformed the Seanad and made it democratic and worthy of consideration. He should accept the motion.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to debate this important subject and also every opportunity to debate it. I commend Senator Katherine Zappone and all those involved in the attempts to have further engagement on the issue because we all agree that we have a mandate from the people for the reform of Seanad Éireann. We all agree that reform must happen in order to give the people an institution they can trust and believe in. The Taoiseach has taken the first steps by initiating what was agreed to 31 years ago but not enacted by any party since, namely, that graduates of third level institutions be given a vote and that the mandate be broadened. The Taoiseach has signalled that this will be done. The electoral system has been mentioned in ten reports. It has not been agreed in them that ours is the ideal system and we agree that it must be examined.
The aim of the education system should be to ensure all children attend college, regardless of type, suited to their intelligence. University is not necessarily suitable for everyone. There are multiple intelligences and the sooner we recognise that everybody has a sphere of intelligence the better. Everybody should be included as being worthy of having a vote. I would like to see the institutions of State engaged in education and the level of participation examined to establish for whom they cater. We should examine the level of engagement in third level education on a socio-economic basis, who qualifies in that respect and assist those not catered for in third level academia by way of the nominee system by the Taoiseach. A interesting socio-economic study of engagement in third level education was conducted by Mr. Duffy and Mr. McCarthy and it should be examined in the context of this debate to ensure that if we extend the franchise in Seanad elections, as many people as possible are included. I pose the question of whether granting universal suffrage which is worthy of debate would result in this House being a replication of the Dáil. Senator Katherine Zappone argues that it would not be. The constitutional motivation for having the Seanad and the reason it was formed was to provide for gaining the views of those from contrasting backgrounds with experience and expertise. Providing for universal suffrage would not guarantee this because, in theory, those elected could all be footballers, pop singers or doctors. It would not ensure we would have people from contrasting backgrounds with experience and expertise. I compliment the Taoiseach on his 11 nominees. He selected nominees from contrasting backgrounds with experience and expertise. He lived up to the principle in the Constitution. It was the first time the nominees had been selected from outside party politics, for which the Taoiseach must be commended. An interesting point to note is that if Ireland were to opt for a system of direct election to the Seanad or universal suffrage, it would literally be the only small, non-federal country in Europe to do so. This was said by Mr. David Farrell of the School of Politics at UCD in 2013.
In the interests of democracy, I welcome the proposal for the establishment of an all-party Seanad reform task force. The Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, has enunciated how that task force would work. I look forward to its report which I think the Minister of State said would be published in early 2014, or else I read this elsewhere. I am not a member of the task force. Does "in early 2014" mean that the report will be published in the first six months of the year?
The Leader mentioned various reforms, some of which I had written down. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell referred to 112 proposals; there are, therefore, many proposals that could be examined. Political reform of this House, the Dáil and the committee system is very necessary. Every speaker who has contributed to the debate has spoken about this and how the Oireachtas committee schedule clashes with Seanad business. This is not good either for the work of the committees or that of the Seanad; both inevitably suffer as a result. Several years ago there was all-party agreement that there be a week dedicated to committee hearings. If we were to implement that proposal, we would do the legislative process a great favour.
As the Leader mentioned, previous reports on Seanad reform recommended that the Seanad be given a role in scrutinising EU legislation. Taking into consideration the fact that 60% of our laws come from the European Union, this is an ideal House in which to ensure proper scrutiny of EU legislation. Many speakers have spoken about the lackadaisical scrutiny of such legislation. Therefore, it is necessary that consideration be given to the timing and planning of legislation to ensure its efficient and effective delivery and implementation.
Our Leader spoke about that. I also support the recommendation that the Seanad have responsibility for examining public service appointments and reviewing the performance of all Departments and State agencies. We need a review of State agencies, as demonstrated last week. Another reform measure implemented over the past two years is opening up the Seanad to the wider community and bringing various groups into the Seanad. The Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, deserves credit. It is envisaged that this offers a real opportunity for building bridges with citizens. The Leader spoke about MEPs. As a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I agree this is another area that could be considered.
With regard to Whips, the issue of stability is very important. We need to send out a message of stability to the international community as well as to our own people. One person's crisis of conscience may be another person's finest opportunity. Everyone has his or her own idea about how to define conscience. Social issues are hugely important in conscience matters and I have had a crisis of conscience over many things. It would not want to lead to legislative paralysis.
I thank Senator Zappone for raising the issue in Private Members' time and allowing the Senators to discuss Seanad reform. I also thank her for keeping the issue on the agenda and I thank Senator Quinn and Democracy Matters for their very good and constructive work in campaigning on this issue and for listening to a range of ideas, voices and opinions in formulating policies and ideas on Seanad reform, which is very useful for all of us. Sinn Féin published proposals on Dáil reform and Seanad reform today. There is a range of opinion and there is much common ground between the issues that arise when we examine all the voices seeking real reform of the Seanad.
We must accept that we had a referendum in October and the people had their say. While it was the Government's intention to see the Seanad abolished, the people voted for reform. I think they voted for radical reform as I doubt many people who voted "No" were voting for minimalist reform. They wanted real and radical reform and they want to see a second Chamber that is fit for purpose, democratic and representative of citizens of the State and that can play a more powerful and valuable role in the overall running of the State and the Oireachtas. During the campaign, some of us turned up for the debate and some did not. We saw what happened when the Taoiseach failed to properly debate the issue. It had an impact on the outcome of the vote. There were many voices campaigning to save the Seanad and calling for a "No" vote on the basis of reform. While I campaigned for abolition because it was a simple proposition put to us, I always wanted to see the option of reform put to the people.
We always want to see the option of reform put to the people and one of the consistent calls made by my party and others outside the political system was that the Constitutional Convention be the mechanism and conduit, which we can still use, to properly tease out, debate and ventilate the range of ideas on Seanad reform.
The first thing the Government should do is to commit to real and radical reform. I have not seen any evidence from the Government that it has that intention. I was part of a delegation from Sinn Féin, as the Minister and the Chief Whip know, when the Taoiseach invited party leaders to a meeting to discuss his views and his approach. It seemed to us at that meeting, and from everything we heard since, that the Government would go for minimalist reform. The only reform option we have seen is to extend the university franchise to all citizens. That is not radical and it does not go far enough.
It is not real reform. The Constitutional Convention is meeting this weekend and may discuss the future of the Seanad. The Taoiseach and the Oireachtas should give the Constitutional Convention a fresh mandate to properly examine Seanad and Dáil reform in the wake of the referendum results. We should properly ventilate all of the ideas and return with proposals, and then the Government can examine the proposals. In doing so, it would be appropriate for the Government to set clear parameters and guiding principles that will underpin Seanad reform. The first guiding principle in reforming the House is universal franchise - one person, one vote - for all citizens. We cannot continue with the method of election to Seanad Eireann that we have had for far too long, in which people are elected by city or county councillors or if they are fortunate enough to be members of certain universities. That has to stop, as it is elitist and undemocratic. If we want to citizens to have real value in the Seanad and a real connection to it, we must give them a vote. My view is that we have one person, one vote, and holding Seanad elections on the same day as Dáil elections is the best way to proceed to something I would like to see. That is one of the core principles that should underpin reform of the Seanad.
There is consensus on giving a voice to the Irish diaspora and citizens in the North from either side of the community. If we want to build bridges and work toward unity in the country, we must give a voice to people across the island of Ireland. Far too many people living in the North of Ireland are Irish and are disenfranchised. They are not seen or valued by the State as part of the Irish nation. If we give citizens in the North a vote in Seanad elections, it would be a very good and useful step towards Irish unity. It would also be the right thing to do.
We should have equal gender balance. That is difficult to achieve, but we should aim for 50% representation of women in the Seanad and the Dáil. I am one of the people who supported the Government's gender quotas and the instruments the Government brought in to help achieve increased gender representation in the Dáil. We must also do so in the Seanad. There should be representation of marginalised minority groups. The Seanad can examine this point.
I did not get a chance to discuss the powers of the Seanad, one of which should be to scrutinise EU legislation. There is consensus on that point. We are up for real and radical reform. I hope the Government and the Taoiseach are too. I do not want to end up in a situation after the next Dáil election in which we elect Senators in the same way as we have done for decades. That would be a failure of the political system. We need to get this right and to push for as much reform as possible. I commend Senators who have been active on the issue and have pursued it relentlessly. They have used their Private Members' time on several occasions to ensure we have proper debate in the House.
I commend Senators Zappone, Quinn and Crown and others for bringing this matter forward for debate. It is important to acknowledge that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste met party leaders in December, as mentioned by Senator Bacik and others, and are taking a consultative approach, which is welcome. The vote of the Irish people to retain the Seanad last October was accompanied by a widespread consensus among the public and Senators alike that the issue of Seanad reform needed to be addressed. There is no mistaking how tangible is the sentiment that the Upper House should evolve into a more democratic institution relevant to the needs of our ever-changing and developing society. In particular, strong views exist that the Seanad should lead the reform process by facing squarely up to the major issues and dealing with them objectively and comprehensively. I acknowledge the point made by Senator Zappone and the other eight senators that no provision of Bunreacht na hÉireann requires that the electorate in Seanad elections be composed of such a restricted group as elected city and county councillors, outgoing Seanad Members and incoming Dáil Deputies.
I have no difficulty with the proposal and would welcome the extension of the franchise for the Seanad. It is perfectly understandable that many voters find it hard to feel a connection to this institution when they have no hand, act or part in electing the Members. However, it must be acknowledged that we are elected or appointed primarily by those who have themselves been elected by the people and so, in a sense and albeit indirectly, are representative of the people. It must also be noted that if the franchise is fully extended to the general public, the danger exists of the Upper House becoming a "mini-Dáil", which would be regrettable, as one is clearly enough.
The noble beauty of the Seanad is that it primarily centres its discussions on the bigger picture of how to improve the lives of Irish people without getting bogged down in parish pump politics; that is as it was intended when it was created. Having said that, there is no mistaking that Irish citizens currently see a major gap between themselves and this House. As such, it is important that any reform should give a much greater public legitimacy to this House while ensuring its composition differs from that of the Dáil. In addition, it is important to enhance the prospects of people with particular valued expertise being able to make a contribution to the work of Seanad Éireann. I would like to see a division of labour between the two Houses of the Oireachtas and identification of important jobs that currently fall between the cracks in our political parliamentary system, which other Senators have alluded to.
I would like to see a stronger role for the House in the areas of legislative consultation, and the Seanad - at least physically - played a very significant role in the legislative process in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. That example illustrates how this House could be used, although I accept that both Senators and Deputies were in the House for those consultations. Consultations with the committees of the Houses, as mentioned by Senator Bacik, are a good idea, and scrutiny of EU legislation is something that has long been held as a job that could be carried out in this House to great effect. We should be careful what we wish for, as we do not want legislation coming in for the sake of it, and we want to avoid repetition, as Senator Bacik noted.
At this point it is important to note that the Government has agreed that legislation may be prepared by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to implement the 1979 referendum decision, which allows the State to extend the provisions for the election of Members of Seanad Éireann by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State. The Government has also confirmed that when the heads of the Bill are ready, they will be circulated to Seanad Éireann, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State for consideration. Moreover, this Government has agreed that the question of constitutional reform, which would require a referendum or referendums, can be considered at a later date. I am fully aware that in the course of reform, difficult decisions will have to be taken involving sensitive political matters. If progress is to be made, there is a need to accept the political reality that Seanad Éireann must be reformed if it is to evolve into a more relevant entity which can make a viable and distinctive contribution to the economic, social and political affairs of our country.
The decision of the Irish people last October was not to abolish the Seanad. There is an important distinction, and although we may surmise that there was a decision to reform the Seanad, in reality the decision was not to abolish the House. That referendum has injected a new sense of purpose into Seanad Éireann and I am confident that with the appropriate reform, the Seanad will be empowered to make a major contribution to meeting the challenges facing 21st century Ireland.
It is significant that the Senators who are promoting the motion this evening are those who were very much to the fore in defending the Seanad during the recent referendum campaign. We all agree they did a magnificent job in that regard. Unfortunately, a great opportunity was lost during those debates in the referendum because the Government decided to focus on a €20 million saving. All the other debate, which could have been constructive and very helpful, was left until the very last weeks.
One is tempted to ask who came up with the bright idea at all of a referendum on abolishing the Seanad. Many reasons have been put forward in this respect but one is particularly evident; the powers that be perhaps saw the Seanad as a nuisance because it had a view on what the Government was doing and put a brake on it while it scrutinised national and European policies. If that is correct, it is a sad indictment which is in many ways undermining what democracy should be about. However, we are where we are, and that is why it is significant that the same Senators have not left the field. They are here and want to respond to what they believe are the wishes of the people. There is no doubt that part of the decision, although not necessarily all the decision, was based on the idea that reform was expected.
It is not in our remit to bring about reform as a Seanad and very often people pose the question why this is so. One of the reasons it took a long time to create an interest in the debate was a lack of profile of the Seanad. One need only consider, for example, the absence of coverage of some of the foremost debates we have had in this House. The only time I have seen the Gallery overflowing with media people was when controversy or a fight was expected. It is still empty, although people may be listening in their offices.
There is a way to improve this issue. A number of Bills were brought forward independently and by what we will call the "Opposition". I will give an example of a Bill I introduced on the release of the details of the 1926 census. Everybody on the Government side spoke in favour of the Bill but the Government could not accept it. The Bill should have been progressed to Committee Stage so many of the issues in it could be discussed. The other evening we had a debate on sign language for the blind and the same thing happened; it was evident that we all held the same view but the Bill was stymied.
I fully agree with the idea of one vote for each citizen, as it is not a problem. The Government must be genuine and committed in responding to the wishes to the people. It must endeavour to allow us have a meaningful role and not feel that at all times we must be obstructed. I hope there will be a further debate after this evening and we can continue to tease out the issue and put forward proposals to the Government.
I thank my colleague for allowing me a few minutes to speak, and I also thank the Senators who tabled this motion. I support the broad principles of reform, although I do not support all the details in the proposal. All Senators in the House should be elected, as this is one way of getting away from group-think and the Government control of the Seanad through the very rigid Whip system. We can consider what happened during the economic collapse and wonder if we have learned anything. It was caused by a property bubble, an international downturn in property and the failure of regulatory authorities but there was also a significant failure of Parliament to hold the Government and Departments to account. In order to avoid a repeat of that, we should move to a system where all Members are elected.
The elephant in the room is Dail reform, which is much more urgent than Seanad reform. That said, I fully support Seanad reform, which is urgently required. I put it to the Government Chief Whip that the Government has systematically broken its programme for Government pledge not to guillotine Bills. A total of 63% of Bills have been guillotined to date. The ramming through of the Bill relating to Irish Water just before Christmas in a single day in the Lower House has led to an overstaffed conglomerate that is a profligate entity with total disregard for the hard-pressed taxpayer. The Government failed to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow for two weeks between Stages of Bills. Ministers only respond to little more than half the number of Topical Issues raised, which is evidence of disregard for the House. The Government continues to engage in cronyism in appointments made to State boards-----
In listening to the debate I am reminded of the saying that if one were going somewhere they should not start from here. I am a somewhat of that view in terms of Seanad reform. If the opportunity arose we would not start from here. It is pity previous Governments did not take the opportunity to reform the House. I agree with some of what has been proposed by Senator Zappone and others supporting the motion. I agree that people should be elected by the public. That said, the university panels are good and they provide good people. I would not just throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I welcome the Taoiseach's statement on the night of the referendum defeat that he was prepared to move on the 1979 referendum straight away. That was a positive step in the right direction. We must make a decision on what we can do now. The Taoiseach clearly said the Government would not hold another referendum. Therefore, we can only operate on the basis of passing legislation to alter this House. The task force is a good idea. Anyone who has ideas, be they Senators, other Members of the Oireachtas or members of the public, should bring them forward. That should happen straight away.
I have an idea that could be introduced straight away to provide universal suffrage but it would mean the Taoiseach would have to give up something that is very important to him and future taoisigh, namely, the prerogative of choosing the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees. They should be chosen by election. Legislation could be passed in this House and in the other House to allow for 11 people to be elected by means of an electoral process. They should be elected in 11 single-seat constituencies throughout the country. Those who are elected would become the Taoiseach’s nominees. That would not be easy to do, as it is radical, but it would be legitimate reform and could be considered. In conjunction with the 1979 referendum we would move towards the immediate reform of one third of the House. We must be realistic. The vocational panels would require a Seanad referendum to be properly reformed. I do not have a solution to the provision of universal suffrage. I do not envisage a system whereby anyone could put themselves forward for the administrative panel, for example, or the agriculture panel. That will not happen. This is a time when voter turnout for referendums is 35%. People will not register for a vote on a particular panel.
We are also restricted somewhat due to legacy issues. The Seanad was constituted in 1937. It was a time of economic war. The Second World War had not yet started, and the Cold War had not yet started, but it has since come and gone. We should leave aside any of the views that are stuck in the past relating to when we were constituted in 1937. We should look to the future – 2037 – and how we can be relevant at that time.
I wish to support my colleagues, Senators Zappone, Crown and Quinn. I am a Taoiseach’s nominee but I have no problem with what Senator D’Arcy suggested. One of the things that has affected me is getting to know my colleagues in the Seanad. As has been pointed out, this is another light week in the Seanad. We are closing early this evening. There is not a lot of legislation for us to scrutinise this week. One thing I do know about my fellow Senators is that we are here to serve all Irish citizens. We all know the evolutionary process that is needed just to survive in business in today’s world. The Irish population has never been more disillusioned or dissatisfied with us politicians. Could we please come together and take some radical steps within the Constitution to reform ourselves so that we can be an example to the citizens who vote to keep us here? As Senator Zappone said, if we do not get something done before the end of the term it will be another seven years before anything can happen. I hand over to Senators Bradford and Healy Eames.
I thank Senator O’Brien. I am delighted to be a signatory to the motion. I thank Senator Zappone and Senator Quinn for leading on the matter. We are talking about Seanad reform again. We await the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, because a roadmap needs to be laid out today on how serious, rigorous reform of the Seanad will take place. We could not have received a better mandate from the people. We got a mandate to retain and reform the Seanad. I wish to see the principle of one person, one vote being upheld. While I accept that the Taoiseach has given a commitment to implement the terms of the 1979 referendum, we must be careful that we do not create another new elite, something Government Senators accused the Seanad of being in the previous election, by just giving the franchise to university graduates. Let us not perpetuate another new elite.
My second point is simple. I do not want to see party politics in the Seanad. We could have a simple vote to decide issues. The Seanad could become the thinking House and the place for policy formulation for the Dáil.
I thank Senator Zappone and the other Senators who have driven this matter to the top of the political agenda. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State. However, we all know in advance that the response of the Government will be a continuation of Government policy towards the Seanad, which is one of deep and utter cynicism. Fortunately, the people thought differently.
It is interesting to debate the motion this afternoon, but it will be much more interesting to debate the motion in late May or early June in the aftermath of the local and European elections, because it is only at that stage that politicians will universally accept that the winds of change are blowing through the political system and that the same is simply not good enough.
I would welcome an extension of the university panel system but the debate would have to be about allowing every single citizen of the State to vote in Seanad elections. I am disappointed to hear Government Members say that is not possible and that no further referendums will take place. It is not necessary to hold a referendum to extend the franchise universally.
If we are serious about changing politics and encouraging participation, step one in regard to the Seanad must be universal franchise, where every citizen of this country is equal and has a vote in the Seanad election.
I thank all Senators for their contributions, some of which I agree with and some with which I do not agree. Some Members spoke about Dáil reform, but I thought we were here to discuss Seanad reform. Some people played the man rather than the ball and some had a very good contribution to make. I thank them all. I would like to thank my constituency colleague, who has always played politics and is good at it. I assure Members he played the man this afternoon. If Senator Walsh wants to talk about Dáil reform, he should have the courage to put his name on a big ballot paper. It takes courage to do that. Then he can talk about Dáil reform.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the Seanad in support of the motion proposed by the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Maurice Cummins. The subject of this debate is important and I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to it. Seanad reform was much discussed during the recent referendum. There was consensus on all sides that, whatever else, there was little appetite for the Seanad to continue in its present form. Now that the people have given their decision, we must all look at how the Seanad can be reformed so that it serves its purpose as a 21st century House of Parliament.
The debate on reforming the Seanad is not new. As we know, since 1937 there have been numerous reports and policy papers on how the Seanad might be reformed. Indeed, many of these got an airing during the referendum campaign. The challenge now facing the various parties and groupings in both Houses is to produce proposals for practical, implementable reform, and to do this quickly and effectively. The reforms that have been proposed down the years, and more recently through draft legislation and policy papers, fall into two broad areas. The first relates to the role and functions of the Seanad and how it carries these out, while the second concerns how the members of the Seanad are nominated and elected.
As the House will know, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste met the leaders of the different parties and groupings in the Dáil and Seanad before Christmas to get their views on what areas should be reformed and how we should proceed to develop and implement appropriate reform proposals. There was a very good discussion at that meeting and all present had the opportunity to express their views. The meeting identified three possible ways in which reform could proceed and I will deal with these in turn. The first involves operational or procedural reform. Proposals can be developed as regards both the work of the Seanad and the manner in which that work is carried out. The second involves legislation that would be necessary in order to reform the Seanad electoral system. Finally, change could be implemented by way of constitutional amendment, but this would entail reverting to the people in another referendum.
To return to procedural reform, there was agreement at the meeting between the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the party leaders and groups that procedural reform should proceed immediately. I am sure Senators will agree that there are many ways in which the operation of the Seanad can be improved. The parties and groups were invited to present their proposals for procedural reform to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and I urge all involved to do this. Procedural reform should be the quickest and easiest way to make progress, and the sooner we start the better. The Government will submit its proposals to the committee through the Leader of the Seanad and I expect that this will be done in the coming weeks.
In urging parties and groups to bring forward their proposals in this area, I would like to highlight the excellent work that has already been done by the Seanad Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, in improving the work of the House. The initiatives he has brought forward since becoming Leader were praised by all sides of the House during the debate on the referendum, and rightly so. I think it is fair to say that there is widespread consensus on all sides of the House that the way the Seanad operates can be enhanced within current constitutional and legislative frameworks. Another area that received a significant airing during the referendum campaign was the role of the second House in regard to EU scrutiny. I believe there is considerable scope for reform in these and other areas.
The focus of the motion before the House today is on legislative reform. As I already said, this primarily involves reform of the Seanad electoral system. The electoral system for the Seanad is complex and it may be worth briefly recapping exactly how it works. The Constitution provides for the election of 49 of the 60 members of Seanad Éireann. The other 11 members are nominated by the Taoiseach of the day. The current Taoiseach made imaginative choices in selecting his nominees, the first time ever a Taoiseach broadened the selection of nominees. I am glad to recall that even during the height of the referendum campaign there was widespread recognition of that fact.
Of the 49 elected members, six are titled university members. These are elected in two constituencies, three by the National University of Ireland and three by the University of Dublin. A separate register of electors is maintained for each constituency and the elections are run separately by the respective universities. At the 2011 Seanad election, there were some 98,000 voters on the National University of Ireland register and some 53,000 on the University of Dublin register, just over 151,000 voters combined. There is no prohibition on being registered to vote in both constituencies.
An important point arises in regard to the universities' franchise. In 1979 the people of Ireland approved by referendum the extension of the university franchise to other institutions of higher education in the State. That was 35 years ago this year. It is remarkable that until now no government has acted on the outcome of that referendum. However, the current Government is going to address that situation. Heads of a Bill are currently being prepared by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to implement the 1979 constitutional amendment and reform the arrangements for the election of the six university members.
The legislation will provide for a single six-seat constituency and for one register of electors. The franchise will be extended to all holders of a degree, or equivalent qualification, from an institution of higher education in the State. It is intended that a broad definition would be applied so as to include universities, institutes of technology, other higher education institutions and private colleges. This will represent a significant expansion of the electorate in line with the outcome of the 1979 referendum. The general scheme of the Bill to extend the university franchise will be brought to Government in the corning weeks and there will be ample opportunity for input into the preparation of the legislation. The Government has agreed that the general scheme of the Bill will be referred to the Seanad, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration. Feedback from the consultation process will help inform the preparation of the Bill.
The Constitution provides that the remaining 43 elected members of Seanad Éireann are elected by Oireachtas Members and by members of city and county councils from five panels of candidates containing the names of persons having knowledge and practical experience of a range of interests and services. The Constitution further provides that these elections are to be regulated by law, subject of course to the provisions of the Constitution. The election of the so-called panel members is governed by the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947. Five Senators are elected from cultural and education panel, 11 are elected from the agriculture panel, 11 are elected from the labour panel, nine are elected from the industry and commerce panel and seven are elected from the administrative panel.
There are two sub-panels of candidates for each panel. Candidates are nominated to these panels by nominating bodies and Oireachtas Members. The Clerk of the Seanad, as Seanad returning officer, maintains the register of bodies entitled to nominate. To be eligible for registration as a nominating body, an organisation must be concerned mainly with, and be representative of, the interests and services of one or other of the panels. A body cannot be registered in respect of more than one panel, and organisations which are mainly profit-making concerns are not eligible for registration.
Those entitled to vote at an election of the 43 panel members are the Members of the incoming Dáil, the Members of the outgoing Seanad and members of the county and city councils. Each elector has only one vote in respect of each panel, even if he or she is qualified in more than one respect. So, for example, an outgoing Senator elected to the Dáil at the general election could not vote both as an outgoing Member of the Seanad and an incoming Member of the Dáil. The electorate for the 43 panel members numbered about 1,109 for the 24th Seanad. It will number 1,167 for the 25th Seanad - that is 158 new Deputies; 60 outgoing Senators and 949 local authority members.
The motion put down by Senator Zappone and other Senators calls for legislative reform of the Seanad within the existing terms of the Constitution but reflecting what the motion describes as two core principles, namely, that each citizen should have a vote in the general elections of the Seanad and that there should be one person, one vote in such elections. The motion mentions that some citizens have up to seven votes in a Seanad general election, while other citizens have no vote at all. It is important to clarify that the current entitlement to vote at Seanad panel elections arises not from citizenship but from holding elected office. If it was the intention, in framing the Constitution, that there would be a universal franchise for Seanad Éireann, then the Constitution would have so provided and the provisions on the election of the Members of Seanad Éireann would have mirrored those for the election of Members of Dail Éireann. The Constitution also stipulates that Members of the Seanad are elected by secret postal ballot. Arising from this provision, ballot papers are issued to voters by registered post. It is important to point out that the cost of running Seanad elections on a universal franchise, without a referendum to amend the secret postal ballot provision in the Constitution, would be quite significant. Based on the Seanad 2011 election, it costs €5.25 to send each ballot paper and that gives an indication of what it would cost to send a postal ballot paper by registered post to over 3 million electors. That would not include the cost of staff to administer the election and count the votes.
Today's amendment proposes that a task force, representative of the different parties and groupings within the Oireachtas, should in the first instance look at the question of electoral reform of the Seanad. The various parties or groupings in both Houses can present their proposals for such reform to the task force. Once the task force has examined the submissions and scoped out the nature and extent of the legislation proposed, including an examination of any possible constitutional implications, it will be in a better position to propose a possible timeline for the enactment of any such legislation. I should add that this process will be greatly assisted when the heads of the Bill to extend the university franchise are published over the coming weeks and are examined in detail. Scrutiny of this legislation, which arose from the referendum thirty five years ago, will provide a useful guideline for further reform of the Seanad election system. I note that Senator Zappone's motion proposes such a task force, as does the Government's amendment, so we are agreed on the main point. It should be possible to get such a task force established soon.
As I said earlier, the third option for reform would involve reverting to the people by way of referendum. There was broad consensus at the meeting of party and group leaders before Christmas that the question of constitutional reform could be considered at a later date. Let us first see what can be achieved through the procedural and legislative routes. We can then take stock of the situation. There is an imperative on all of us here today, on all sides of the House, to get on with the process of reforming the Seanad. Our aim should be, unlike the various reports and recommendations on Seanad reform since 1937 that remained on the shelf, to ensure that this time there is action and reform is actually implemented. The success of this reform process will largely depend on the Members of the Seanad working closely together to develop reforms and working with the Government towards implementing these reforms. I welcome the Leader's proposals for consensus on this issue and I look forward to having further engagement with the House as the process of reform develops.
Senator Cummins and others spoke about the duplication of work