Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Political Reform: Motion
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is not, however, an effusive welcome. The motion that I and my Independent colleagues have put down about political reform is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive but is part of a process. I suggest that we continue to have these debates on an all-party basis once a month, as we did, at my suggestion, during the Iraq war when we monitored the progress under the aegis of the then Leader of the Seanad, Ms Mary O’Rourke. That would help us. We should also keep the public informed, through press statements, of what is being said here and what ideas are being explored.
“That Seanad Éireann requests the Government to outline in detail its proposals and estimated time line for radical reform of the Irish political system including reform of Oireachtas procedures, Dáil reform, full proposals for reform of Seanad Éireann, reform of the nomination procedures for the Presidency and reform of the financing of political parties.”
Is the Government serious about reform? I do not think so. I do not believe it for a minute. I do not think any Government ever has been. I have been in this House for the guts of 30 years and have sat on many of the groups that considered reform of the Seanad. I have tabled the results of those all-party agreed motions and they have been voted down by the very people who agreed to them. That does not suggest any great seriousness. I recognise that it is a great deal to ask of any Government or any political party to yield power because any real democratic reform, of the nature of which the Government has been speaking recently, entails a yielding of power and a yielding to a new democratic structure. This Government promised the people of Ireland radical, democratic political reform and so far it has totally failed to deliver on this.
I quote from The Irish Times on 18 January 2014:
Taoiseach Enda Kenny went to the Upper House last October “to listen to ideas on reform”. On the basis of Government briefings since then, however, it would appear that minimal change is envisaged. Such an approach gives politics a bad name. People would welcome effective reform.That is what I believe as well. I do not believe for one second that people are suffering from referendum fatigue. That is rubbish. That is more dishonesty. They are suffering from rubbish fatigue, from being presented with dishonest, irrelevant referenda. People demanded throughout that campaign that they be given the opportunity to vote for reform of the Seanad and the Taoiseach resolutely refused to allow that. That is what they wanted. If the Government gives it to them they will welcome it. They would think it is a great thing to have a real, radical reform. It should be all or nothing. Tinkering with the university seats is a total and absolute farce.
There is an awful lot of farce about this. During the referendum there was a wonderful situation where we knew the Government and other agencies were deliberately telling lies. It was perfectly obvious. Even their spokespeople on radio were forced into admitting it but they would not take down the posters. I asked about the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and the Referendum Commission. They were impotent to prevent lies being told to gull the Irish people out of their democratic rights. Why do we not consider as part of our political reform, abolishing the Referendum Commission and SIPO and putting something that will actually work in place instead? With regard to SIPO and so on we all have to sign myriad forms saying we did not get money from here, there and everywhere else. We have to clock in as if we were working in Cadbury’s Chocolates. It is all utter rubbish. It deceives nobody. There is paring away with little cuts. The Irish people do not give a damn. If we got up naked on the roof here, gave away all our possessions and jumped they would not give a toss. They are not impressed and neither am I. It is nitpicking and the dishonest people will get away with it.
Since SIPO was introduced, they continue to get away with it, including in this House. It is only inconveniencing the people who do the work.
I will tell the House something else that would make things a little more democratic; if the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle were elected by secret ballot of both Houses, they would then be clearly seen to be independent. That would be very refreshing. I am old enough to have been in the House when every single named officer failed to be elected to anything and they were all nominated by the Government. One of them had failed to be elected to the Seanad. Let us have a little democracy if the Government is serious about it, but I do not believe that is the case for one minute.
This business of vouching expenses, what a tedious piece of nonsense. We should get rid of the whole bloody lot. They are not worth a damn anyway and I am doing it this year. I am already well over what I sought, but it is not my job to act as an accountant for the State. It is also not the job of my wonderful parliamentary assistant to do it. We should not waste time on this penny-pinching theme; we should get an international person or body to give us a reading on what is the rate for the job. What I want is the rate for the job.
With regard to the role of Independents, we have a more onerous role because, unlike people who are in parties, either Government or Opposition, we do not spread the load; we each speak on everything. Perhaps that is irritating for our colleagues, but we do and we have to have a range of expertise on everything. That also should be recognised.
We are in the Stone Age in terms of the facilities and assistance we receive compared to other parliaments. I was in Australia 20 years ago and we still have not caught up with anything like the facilities and services they had available. What about, for example, giving us some assistance with parliamentary draftsmanship? Did that ever strike anyone? This is supposed to be a legislative House, yet we have no assistance. I put a Bill together and it took me two years to do so. I know of other colleagues who have put Bills together and they have had legal help, but it is very difficult work. If the Government wants us to work as we are supposed to do under the Constitution and if we do not want to be just a collection of hypocrites, we must be given the tools to do the job. The Government has not done this and I do not believe it ever will. Members, in particular Independent Members, should be given access to draftspersons.
I have only a few points to make on the Dáil because it is up to its Members to consider their own issues. From the outside, I find it deeply shocking that Ministers evade questions all the time. They just refuse to answer them. They do not give proper or adequate answers. I well remember when the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, gave the smart-alecky reply in the other House that the right question had not been asked. That is not showing respect for Parliament. The Ceann Comhairle should have the right to reprimand and rebuke a Minister or even the Taoiseach. Unfortunately, one cannot torture or force them into it. One cannot put them on the rack and squeeze the truth out of them, but at least one can embarrass and shame them and that is what should happen.
I have said the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach should be elected by secret ballot. The same is true of the Chairmen of committees. The positions are shared out on the basis of how many members a party has. It has nothing to do with their qualifications or interests; it is a perk. That does not get us the best people by any means.
This rubbish about Friday sittings, it is like Joe Duffy’s Fridays - it is a load of nonsense. The Dáil shoves Bills through to get them out of the way, but they are never allowed to pass; nothing ever happens - it is all balls. Why does the Dáil not get rid of them or make them effective? It should do one or the other, but let us not have this charade.
At the meeting we had the Taoiseach suggested we might look at Standing Orders. I would love to do that, for example, look at rulings from the Chair which are complete nonsense most of the time. They come from the Government; they do not come from the Cathaoirleach. I remember asking in 1991 that something be considered as a matter of urgency under section 29, but it was ruled out of order, while the former Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, was simultaneously declaring a national emergency in the other House. That is just one example. I draw attention to the fact that during a Seanad debate 79 amendments were ruled out of order, all except one, which was disposed of quickly, and that was only discussed for the sake of image. The Chair should be required to give a reason for rulings. Why should we be bullied in this way? It is insufficient to say, “That is my ruling.” We are not children, for God’s sake. We are experienced parliamentarians and should be treated as such. It is rubbish to refer to creating a charge on the Exchequer.
I remember once when it was said a charge would be imposed on the Exchequer to print something on a piece of paper and we were not allowed to do it. That is complete rubbish.
The Seanad has a proud record. We made a couple of mistakes during the referendum which I was against all the time. We should have stood by our record and said what a proud record we had. We have a proud record, despite the hindrance every Government has been to us. To date, four Bills have been passed by the House, three of which were initiated in the House and one was a Fianna Fáil Bill. They are a mixed bag. I was accused in The Irish Times of reneging on a commitment to the so-called Quinn-Zappone Bill. I only saw that Bill on the day I came into the House. There are things in it with which I do not agree at all. If anyone thinks I will queue up to work for half the price, he or she has another thing coming. If anyone thinks I will work for nothing, he or she can hump off. It is bloody easy for people who float in here, who were nominated without an election and with no expense and they receive €60,000 or whatever it is we get. They would like to take away half of mine, but I will take half of their’s, thank you very much.
I will not even dignify the rubbish and tripe that has been placed on the Order Paper. Whistleblowers are now being protected. Did Members know that? Someone should tell it to Deputy Clare Daly whose dealings with the gardaí were leaked, or to the gardaí who were involved in whistleblowing.
I will tell Members something else. They might think I am an old fossil, but I most certainly do not agree that it should be mandated that 50% of this House be women; absolutely not. As far as I am concerned, that is discrimination. I do not give a damn if 100% were women, as long as they were the best candidates. What would happen if in some of the constituencies there were only two women? They would both be elected.
I second the motion and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I remember the first time he came to the House. We were talking about the Central Statistics Office and he praised its independence and professionalism, two good yardsticks. We will try to apply some of these criteria in this debate.
The Minister of State is sitting beside a reformer. As the counter-motion shows, the Leader has reformed the Seanad. We have had Nobel Prize winners, representatives of the Orange Order and every single MEP to link with our activities in the European Union. Some reform does take place, even if it is not often that people give the House the credit it deserves. It is capable of reforming itself and it is in capable hands in that regard.
The problem we faced in 2008 was that the country was bankrupt. The banks needed serious reform. One could ask whether the Seanad responded to this. We did. Bills Nos. 19, 21 and 24 were on the Order Paper for precisely that reason. We need much stricter rules on banking, as I fear we will get into trouble again.
Let us go back to 2.5 times the main income or 80% of the value of the property as the maximum loan. Governor Honohan has been before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and expressed his fear that he still does not have adequate powers to deal with reckless banking. If that is still the case, it is an urgent area for reform because banking was one of the four sectors which bankrupted this country and created the political crisis that we are all here to solve. The activities of the property sector were allied to that and one must ask if we are still giving too many tax breaks to that sector. The crisis also has its roots in the activities of accountants, who prepared books for the banks which we ended up buying, at a cost of €64 billion. We will not know until after certain court cases are concluded if we now have proper regulation of that area of financial services. We have already debated with various Ministers the adequacy of our current arrangements for policing the accountancy profession. We also had failures in public administration. There were banking regulators who, in the main, moved from the Department of Finance into the Central Bank and, as we know now, did not regulate the banks. Indeed, the whole system came unstuck. Those four areas, therefore, need urgent reform. We need to have stricter regulation of banks, the property sector, accountants and financial service providers. We also need to reform the system under which the Department of Finance and the Central Bank regulate the banks and I am not convinced that we are nearly there on that. In fact, we have had discussions on various Bills but we seem to be leaving much of this up to Europe, which may not work to our advantage. Those are the sectors that got us into so much trouble and we must address them.
I wish to praise the Leader for the reforms he has brought about already. With reference to the Constitutional Convention, I am not so sure that our Constitution had much to do with the collapse of the country in 2008. I am also not sure that reducing the number of Deputies in the Dáil is appropriate because I believe we face a democratic deficit. The legislation dealing with political donations is welcome. Local government still remains heavily dominated by the county managers and we have not reformed that aspect of it very much. Many of the county managers act like semi-dictators in their own jurisdictions. We must wait and see the results of expanding the functions of the Ombudsman but there is a list of exempted organisations at the back of the Bill. Those organisations lobbied successfully to be exempt from the attentions of the Ombudsman which is not satisfactory. It remains to be seen whether the whistleblower legislation will be effective. The effectiveness of Oireachtas committees is diminished by the fact that meetings often clash with important meetings of this House which we must attend. We must wait and see how the reforms that have been implemented to date will work. We need legislation on lobbying urgently and it is a great pity that it has been delayed.
Looking back to the most recent consultation with the electorate with regard to the future of this House, I wish to say a few words as a member of the winning side. The five independent university Senators took the line against five political parties: Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, People before Profit and the United Left Alliance. What did we find? First, young people voted overwhelmingly with us. They are disillusioned with the way political parties operate in this country. We won all of the student debates and told students to go home and tell their parents, grandparents and so forth to vote "No". Those who are interested in reform should reach out to young people much more than they have done heretofore. The Dublin working class gave a massive vote to us. In constituencies where not a single Deputy was in favour of the retention of this House we got between 68% and 70% of the vote. Again, reform must address why working class people, particularly in Dublin, have become alienated from the political process. The other issue I discovered among my electorate in Northern Ireland was that they were furious that they were being deprived of a vote for the Oireachtas. Many of those in the two university constituencies had no vote in the referendum.
Did we neglect Northern Ireland? Exactly 100 years ago on Friday, Edward Carson said to John Redmond in the House of Commons that Redmond was never interested in Unionists but was depriving them of their political rights. That was what was attempted during the recent referendum. We must also ask why some sectors have not been addressed at all in terms of reform. We must also ask how the Government managed to alienate so many young people, working class people and so many people in Northern Ireland. Let us address those together rather than the losing side deciding that it does not want five Independent university Senators anymore.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the important subjects brought before the House by Senator Norris this evening. I support the well thought out and well constructed amendment to the motion from Senator Norris.
Reform of the Irish political system is an issue that has been debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas a number of times in recent years. This Government will continue to introduce political reform which will improve our political system by making it more effective, efficient and economical. In answer to the main question posed by Senator Norris at the beginning of this debate, I believe that contrary to his doubts, this Government is serious about reform. Since the foundation of the State in 1922, no political reform of this degree has been embarked upon by any Government. It is time that we started to use Oireachtas committees, local authorities, the Seanad and the Dáil to their full political potential. Since this Government came into office in 2011, six referendums have been held, including one on children's rights which had been promised for years. The Constitutional Convention has been a huge success. It has been a platform for ideas and political debate. I welcome the participation of citizens debating issues with politicians as it brings them right to the heart of policy making.
The Government has not only reformed at national level but also at local level. The Bill to abolish 80 town councils and to merge six county councils represents the most substantial reform of local government in over 100 years. The Government is also addressing the imbalance of power between councillors and county managers. Dáil reform has been a major element of this Government's policies. So far, the Government has reformed many aspects of the Dáil and over the coming months, more vital reforms will be introduced. The Dáil now starts earlier in the morning to ensure adequate time for legislative debates. The Tánaiste now takes Leader's Questions on Thursday which is another positive reform. Compared to previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have sat 74 more days in their first two and a half years in office. The Topical Issues debate is a new and welcome framework for raising matters of importance. I also welcome the new format under which Deputies can bring a Bill before the House. Since this reform was introduced, there has been an increase in the number of Private Member's Bills brought before the House, from 14 in 2010 to 58 in 2013. I welcome reform of the Dáil as it is assuring the people that this Government is fully focused on working hard to restore their faith in the Irish political system.
There have been many Oireachtas committee reforms since the Government came into office in 2011 and involving the public in law making is one of the most important changes. The pre-legislative stage, which was introduced in 2011 and extended in 2013 will allow for an unprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in law making. This gives the public a voice when it comes to policy making. The post-legislative stage involves a Minister reporting to the relevant Oireachtas select committee, within 12 months of enactment, on the functioning of the relevant Act. This will allow committees to consult with civil society groups and individuals with expertise in the relevant area.
More recently, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Government Chief Whip, who is present, announced a second phase of Dáil and Oireachtas committees. I welcome these positive reforms also.
I welcome the introduction of political reform in all areas of the Irish political system and I have no doubt the Government will implement reform effectively and efficiently. Now that the Irish people have spoken to preserve the Seanad, reform is the next stage to ensure that this House can be used to its full political potential. The Members are well aware of the many improvements the House has made under the Leader since the Government took office and, please God, there will be more.
Members on all sides of the House will have to work closely with the Government to ensure the changes to the Seanad are implemented. I have every faith that the Government will continue to work hard to reform all areas of our political system for the better.
I am sure that when the Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, makes his contribution, Senator Norris will find his speech most gratifying. I am confident the Leader will allude pertinently to the relevant items that Senator Norris might have wished me to discuss in more detail. However, I am happy to leave that to the Leader.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. This debate will afford him an opportunity to hear the collective wisdom of the House on both the motion and the amendment.
There is a historical context to all this talk about reform. The worldwide economic crash in 2007 and 2008 coupled with the erosion of trust in State institutions and the abuse scandals in the church shook the Irish people's faith in institutions in general. There was a sea change in attitude about the political establishment from that time and I am the first to concede that the Fianna Fáil Administration, under former Deputy Brian Cowen, from 2008 to 2011 did not focus at all on political reform. The reason is that it was in fire brigade mode. It spent the entire period trying to save the country. One can argue about what happened before that, but the reality is that the beginnings of what we hope is the end of this economic nightmare came from the initiatives taken by that Fianna Fáil Government in 2008 and later which, of course, cost us electorally. While this Government boasts about its reform record, all political parties realised that there had to be change. The Government is holding the ball so, of course, it will initiate its reform proposals, and I broadly welcome them.
However, when one looks at the body of reform, ultimately power still resides in the Executive. That is the case even with the reform proposals put forward within this House. Incidentally, I do not agree with everything in the Fianna Fáil reform paper either, but it is in keeping with the party leader's view, which, although he might not like to be reminded of it-----
I thank the Senator. In the 2011 general election, having been elected party leader, one of his first commitments was the abolition of the Seanad. However, there was a caveat, because it was in the context of overall parliamentary reform. He did not agree that the Seanad alone should be taken out of the equation, but that there should be overall political reform. Of course, he was a little like St. Paul on the road to Damascus subsequently, helped along by those of us around the country who had a different view.
Wiser counsel has prevailed with the electorate. I appreciate that I only have six minutes so I do not wish to waste much time on that, but I was anxious to outline the historical context.
Very progressive reforms have been brought forward by the Leader of the House, as outlined in the amendment, but ultimately power still resides in the Executive. In the reform proposals for this House, even from the Fianna Fáil Party, there is retention of the Taoiseach's nominations, which ensures there is a continuing inbuilt majority for the Government of the day. Therein lies the complexity of attempting to change the role of the Seanad. It is generally accepted that one cannot have a Seanad that is competing with the other House. It would not work and would be unconstitutional. One must therefore try to frame something that will allow the Seanad to expand within the existing constitutional constraints while at the same time not being seen to be in competition with the other House. The Leader of the House has been attempting to do that.
I recall it being said by the former President, Mary Robinson, during her election campaign that she would stretch the constitutional constraints of the presidency to its limits - I am paraphrasing her words. Her successor, Mary McAleese, did the same and President Higgins is doing it now. They stretched it to its absolute constitutional limits, far more than their predecessors did. We in these Houses are now doing much more than previous Houses did, so I continue to applaud the initiatives being taken by the Leader of the House. I believe he should look to the European dimension to a greater extent and how we could play a more useful role in that regard, given that over 80% of our laws come from Europe. I appreciate that the committees are conducting a certain amount of scrutiny in that context, but I believe we have a role.
With regard to the committees, I believe another political sea change is taking place before our eyes. It is not only the changing nature of the committee system in the Oireachtas, and they are joint committees, but their increasing relevance and influence, to the point where the Committee of Public Accounts is now seen as almost a separate government by many of the general public. People have asked why we do not have more such committees, but other committees are already beginning to flex their muscles in this regard. I hope the Government will not restrain or constrain the committees and that it will facilitate the evolving nature of these committees, which is taking place before our eyes. Many more issues of the day are being brought before the committees and the national media are now fully engaged with the work of those committees, to an extent that was never the case previously in my experience. Previously, the media saw committees as irrelevant but now they see them as very relevant. In fact, they frame the headlines of the day. Witnesses are brought forward and very few people from outside this House will refuse to comply with a request to appear before a committee. Heretofore, in some instances people refused to appear, but it is now very unlikely that a public figure who is involved in a public controversy will refuse to comply with a request from the Houses' committees. That is what is happening and the Government should harness it.
Finally, as Senator Norris said, the problem was and remains whether the Government of the day, and I am not referring specifically to this Government, has it within itself to release or concede some of its power within the Houses of the Oireachtas. That is the nub of what should be involved in reform. We have the most centralised Executive and democracy in Europe, where the Government of the day uses its majority to get its legislative programme through. Every Government has done the same and every Government in the future will continue to do it, but there must be some type of give to ensure there is meaningful reform in both Houses.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to the House. We had the pleasure of his company two weeks ago for the debate on Seanad and political reform but it is always good to have another opportunity to discuss it, so I commend Senators Norris and Barrett on tabling the motion.
I second the amendment, which clearly sets out the different steps taken on political reform, beyond simply the issue of Seanad reform. I am glad the motion tabled by Senators Norris and Barrett covers other aspects of reform. If we focus too much on Seanad reform it sounds as if it is the only entity within the governance structures of the State that requires reform, and that is patently not the case.
It is very good to see that the original motion covers different aspects of political reform and that the Government's counter-motion sets out very clearly a range of political reforms which have taken place. I will begin by addressing the importance of the political reforms that have been undertaken and their impact which has not yet been experienced. The first item in the Government's counter-motion is "implementation of a substantial programme of constitutional reform, including the establishment of the Convention on the Constitution". As we approach the last session of the convention, it is evident that it has grown in stature and gained immense public respect since its establishment. It is also very positive to see that the Government has committed to holding three referendums on specific recommendations of the convention. I hope we will see further referendums on foot of further recommendations made by the convention. I know that the Government is still considering some of its recommendations. I ask the Minister of State if the Government might commit to holding a referendum on changing the references to the role of women and mothers in Article 41 of the Constitution. The Convention on the Constitution recommended, by a large and substantial majority, that these provisions be amended. I was sorry that the Government did not immediately commit to holding a referendum on these recommendations, as it did, rightly, on marriage equality and the lowering of the voting age. I hope we will see further recommendations being acted upon by the Government and the holding of further referendums.
In the context of this debate, I thought it would be good to refer to the recommendations on Dáil reform made at the most recent session of the Convention on the Constitution a number of weeks ago. There was a clear impetus to make changes to the procedures of the Dáil. Notably, the members of the convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of giving constitutional status to Oireachtas committees. Other speakers have referred to the importance of the committee structure. We are seeing great emphasis in recent weeks being put on the role and power of committees. There was a very strong view that they should be given constitutional status. Procedurally, more importance should be given to them by accepting the proposal, made many times in different reform reports, tht one week in four be set aside for committee hearings. I hope this recommendation of the convention will be given some weight. Of course, its implementation would not require a constitutional amendment.
I will touch on some of the issues arising from the Convention on the Constitution raised Senator David Norris. The convention recommended overwhelmingly that the Ceann Comhairle be elected by secret ballot. That is a really important recommendation which I personally supported and spoke in favour of, as we need to strive towards enhancing the role of the Legislature as against that of the Executive. Another recommendation concerned the need to give the Ceann Comhairle greater constitutional status. We need to examine giving greater power to the Opposition to introduce Bills and removing the restriction on money Bills which has been commented on. The Government should accept more Bills on Second Stage. These recommendations would not require a constitutional change, but nonetheless they were supported by clear majorities and will be included in the convention's report to the Government. I know that the report has not yet gone to the Government, but it is worth flagging these fundamental reforms to Dáil procedure. I am glad to see in the Government's amendment to the motion a specific reference to the next phase of Dáil reform. We all welcome the establishment of the Oireachtas inquiry system which is in hand and the further restructuring of Oireachtas committees, but the convention's proposals would give a higher status to the role of committees. I ask the Minister of State to give us his view on some of these proposals for change.
Let us consider specific reforms in the Seanad. We have debated the issue of Seanad reform a number of times recently. I welcome the announcement that this week the Cabinet considered the extension of the universities panel to include graduates of all third level institutions in the State. Let me emphasise my own view which I think is shared among all the university Members, that suffrage should continue to include those graduates who are Irish citizens but are resident outside the jurisdiction. It wold be regrettable if we were to see a rowing back on that right to vote. Senator Sean D. Barrett mentioned the right of Irish citizens resident abroad, graduates of Trinity College Dublin and NUI colleges who may vote in Seanad elections. The same principle should be extended to graduates of the other third level institutions.
I have made this point before to the Minister of State: we need to see a task force established without delay. I know that the Government has previously committed to doing this, which is very welcome. I also know that the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, will be bringing forward proposals to the Committee on Procedure and Privilege on internal procedural reform. The task force needs to consider the legislative reforms we could introduce that would improve the democratic mandate of the Seanad in keeping with the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum last October. We need to look, in particular, at the principle of universal suffrage and how we could introduce a model that would not replicate the Dáil. I know that there is real concern among some Government Members that the Seanad should not replicate the Dáil. I do not think there is any real danger of that happening, given that Article 28.4 of the Constitution clearly states that it is to the Dáil to which Ministers are accountable, not the Seanad. The Seanad's role, as set out in Article 20, is to initiate and amend legislation. That will remain the case, whatever method of election to the Seanad is put in place. I personally favour universal suffrage, which clearly would be perfectly possible in line with the Constitution, by amending the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act which provides for the composition of the five electoral panels-----
----- in line with the electorate for the local elections or perhaps on the basis of regional panels in line with the three European Parliament constituencies.
The timing of the election is also crucial. Again, this could be changed by legislation to hold the election on the same day as the general election, thereby removing the current system under which those who do not win a Dáil seat then run for the Seanad. I know that there is a great deal of public concern about that system which needs to be tightened by holding the ballots on the same day.
We need to look at the secret ballot issue dealt with in Article 18, but there are proposals, notably in Senator John Crown's Bill but equally in the then Senator Mary O'Rourke's report.
It would be well worth giving Senator Ivana Bacik a couple of more minutes.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Taoiseach, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I appreciate his being here so soon after our other debate on Seanad reform.
I highly commend the university Senators for tabling the motion. I welcome its breadth, as Senator Ivana Bacik and others have identified, and echo the words of Senator David Norris who opened the debate that the Government promised radical democratic reform. We are considering whether there has been enough reform for the people; obviously, the amendment to the motion lists a number of things that have been reformed. I look forward to the Minister of State's speech and hearing what the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, has to say. The counter-motion lists the reforms made, but I agree with Senator David Norris that they may not have been as substantive as originally envisaged. I feel privileged to have participated in a number of them. I hope to bring forward progressive reforms in the context of the Government's record.
I wish to highlight the issues Senator Ivana Bacik raised, about which I spoke a number of weeks ago when I tabled a motion calling for legislation to be introduced on universal suffrage in Seanad elections. I called for reform to give every citizen one vote in Seanad elections. As I understand it, the Government has dismissed the idea of universal suffrage, citing, among other things, the fear that a replica of the Dáil would be created with a reformed Seanad. It is important that we be absolutely clear that the Constitution leaves it to the Oireachtas to decide on how the Members of the Seanad are to be elected. The panels remain, but a different method of election could be provided for in legislation; therefore, the only barrier to creating a more democratic Seanad appears to be a lack of political will. The retention of the current voting structures means - let me remind the people - that a little more than 1,000 politicians will elect 43 Members in the next Seanad in 2016, unless a change is brought about. If politicians comprise the majority of the electorate for the Seanad, of course, we will see the continued dominance of the political parties. The opening of the elections to the people would change this in order that civil society organisations, unions, farmers' groups and ordinary citizens would have a chance to gain a Seanad seat.
At the time of the referendum the Government argued for the abolition of the Seanad on the basis of our undemocratic nature and now it is seeking to reinforce that undemocratic element by denying a vote to all citizens. I simply ask that the Government provide a more substantive rationale for denying the people a vote for the Seanad than that it would make it a replica of the Dáil. Of course, the issue of cost has been cited as well. It is not correct to state that the cost of direct election to the Seanad would be prohibitive. Extending the franchise to all third level graduates will of course incur costs. The process would be more cost effective if it were used to extend the franchise to all voters who are registered for the Dáil and local elections.
As Senator Norris said, let us put in place something that will work. A constructive suggestion about how we can be really efficient around the cost issue is the establishment of an independent electoral commission. It could dramatically reduce the cost of all elections and could form part of the reform to extend the Seanad vote to everyone. Let me remind Senators and the Government that a detailed study on the establishment of an electoral commission has already been conducted by UCD on behalf of the last government. The resultant Sinnott report found that considerable economies of scale could achieved by the merger of the Standards in Public Office Commission, the register of parties, the Constituency Commission and the ad hocReferendum Commission. Establishing and appointing a new referendum commission every time we have a referendum is a very unsatisfactory situation. We have often heard that said on all sides of the House when it comes to a referendum, but I am saying it now when we are not in the process of having a referendum.
The establishment of a permanent independent electoral commission would be in line with best international practice. Out of 156 countries, Ireland is in a minority of 32 whose elections are still managed by government. International evidence shows that an electoral commission could proactively modernise our electoral registry, develop innovative and cost-effective changes in our methods of voting, improve turnout and, most importantly, contribute to a more accessible and engaging democratic process. If we did that, and that infrastructure was moved on, the issue of votes for everyone in the Seanad would be less likely to be put forward as not being cost-effective.
Finally, I look forward to the Leader presenting the Government proposals to the Seanad and CPP as soon as possible. Perhaps he might say a little bit about the matter this evening. I note that the original motion called for a timeframe. Can we have a timeframe?
I commend all of the Senators who tabled the motion. They have worked on it for a considerable time. I have often wondered whether it has been a waste of time, but we must go through the process anyway.
When Senator David Norris made his powerful speech the Visitors' Gallery was full. I looked around to see what impression he had made on those present and discovered that they were particularly animated. It struck me that if a referendum to abolish the Dáil and enhance the Seanad had been held this evening, all of them would have gone home and voted for doing so. They had the opportunity to come in here and listen to a Member of the House put forward his views in an exceptionally passionate and well-researched way.
I often find that when we have a walk-through vote on a specific issue - and I know full well that this applies to people on the Government side, just as it did to us when we were on that side - we must support something we do not believe in. I do not understand that. In the past we have given out about the proverbial blow of the crozier, but now we get the blow of the Whip, and in a very big way. If one goes against the Whip here one will suffer, and we have all suffered at some time. However, I hope that reform will come in and that we can model it on what is happening in Britain, which we hear about every day. We had an exercise on it two days ago but the sky has not fallen in and the Parliament has not disappeared. This is an area for reform, because it is hypocritical for us all to be voting in a way that we do not believe in. This is something that we should consider.
I attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to discuss the issue of housing in the Traveller community. The Acting Chairman may have been there that day. I was absolutely impressed by the four Travellers who attended because they put their case so well and cogently. The city management people were present as well. It left us in no doubt about the issue, yet we have never taken any step to give Travellers a voice in a place where we could give them a voice. We know they will not succeed in the near future in getting a seat in the Dáil. They certainly should be represented here because there are powerful voices in the Traveller community.
During St. Patrick's week we will all be in here to talk about the Taoiseach's visit to Washington, the diaspora, etc. There are 75 million people of Irish extraction throughout the world but they have no voice in the Seanad. Last week I was in England visiting an Irish community group and people kept raising the issue in discussion. We keep dangling the carrot but then it disappears again and we have no representative here.
The debate on Northern Ireland has become calm. I suggest that the contributions made in the House at the height of the Troubles in the North played a very significant role in the peace process and, by extension, the Good Friday Agreement. I can remember the well-thought-out contributions that were made here and the fact that there was a diverse gathering in the Chamber so we were able to contribute and hold individual views. I have no doubt those views were monitored and people saw our attitude. That was epitomised for me when members of the Orange Order travelled down here to visit the Chamber. It was an historic occasion, but the reason for its importance was the decorum that existed here. It was not a patronising attitude. Here, we have taken away again the opportunity for such people to have a voice. We have had great people here, such as Maurice Hayes and others before him, who made a major contribution. Again, all of this is reform. Therefore, one starts to ask one's self the question of what we mean by reform. Let us be honest. One would have to have a powerful imagination to believe that trying to abolish a House of Parliament, as tried with the Seanad, was reform. Let us think it through. This was put forward as part of a reform package. One would need a powerful imagination to think that getting rid of all of the town councils, which have a tradition and history and whose members are working at the coalface, is reform. That was mentioned in the amendment to the motion. That is not reform; it is quite the opposite. We must clarify for ourselves what we mean by reform. There have been many contributions here - not just today but heretofore - that could be assembled and brought together to show what meaningful reform really means.
Senator Norris put his finger on it very well when he asked that we be given the tools to do the work. We know when we come in here that our hands are tied behind our backs. There is no question about that. There are times when we even start to feel cynical about participating in that type of charade, because that is what it is. All the Government has to do is to give us the tools to do the work, and, second, give us the opportunity to have a more meaningful input, even if it wants a specialised input - if it wants to say that we cannot deal with matters of finance or whatever. There are many areas in which we should have an input. A number of committees in recent times - for example, the Committee of Public Accounts and the committee on which I sit, which has been attended by representatives of Uisce Éireann and other groups - have shown what they are capable of doing when the shackles are removed. It is quite extraordinary. The only way reform will work is if the Taoiseach comes in here and talks to the leaders of the different parties. I urge him to sit down and speak to them in a meaningful way, forget the rebuff of the result of the Seanad referendum, and say, "Yes, we are living in a new Ireland, a new society and a new world, and we have to approach it in that way." Senator Barrett made the point earlier that we are capable of instituting reform ourselves but we are not capable of implementing it. If such a discussion led to a meaningful proposal, we would put meat on the bones. That is what we need. Today, I feel we are speaking to ourselves and we are speaking in a vacuum, which only adds to the cynicism.
When the Taoiseach attended the Seanad, I thought he was very magnanimous.
It was not easy to come in to the House and face Members after the defeat, but he was exceptionally magnanimous. I would go one step further and say, as I said on the day, that we have a Leader - he could not be better - who can lead us along the road I am suggesting. However, that will only happen if we trust each other, are genuine and expand our vision. In this debate we must go further than where we are.
I presume I will have 14 minutes, as Senator David Norris had for his virtuoso performance in entertaining the packed galleries at the time, but I will settle for half of that amount. I have no intention of making any reform to curtail the contributions of Senator David Norris, as that is certainly not within my remit.
I move amendment No. 1:
I commend the Government's amendment to the motion. I am surprised at the number of reforms mentioned in it. Senator David Norris has said the argument that there is referendum fatigue is nonsense. It is nonsense, given that we are going to have at least three referendums in 2015, to which the Government has committed. The number of Deputies is to be reduced from 166 to 158. That is a reform people have sought. The Senator has said people will be like Oliver with the bowl asking for more. If they were to receive more, they would get an awful shock; certainly many Deputies would get a shock. We have seen reductions in the salaries and pensions of members of the Government and other office-holders and in the cost of ministerial transport. These are the reforms about which people were speaking before the last election when they said we should cut the cost of government. We have seen legislation to require the public disclosure of political donations, another matter about which people talked, and to link the payment of State supports to political parties wtih the achievement of a gender balance in candidate selection at general elections. That is another matter about which many people spoke before the last election.
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:"welcomes -
the programme of reform of the Irish political system already introduced by the current Government since coming into office, including
- implementation of a substantial programme of constitutional reform, including the establishment of the Convention on the Constitution, and acommitment to formally respond to each recommendation from the Convention, and a commitment to hold three referendums in 2015 on foot of such recommendations;- a reduction in the number of TDs from 166 to 158;
- reductions in the salaries and pensions of members of the Government and other office-holders, in the cost of ministerial transport, and in theexpenses of Oireachtas members;- legislation to require public disclosure of political donations, to provide for considerable reductions in the maximum amount that a political party orindividual can accept, to restrict corporate donations, and to link payment of State supports to political parties to the achievement of a gender balance in candidate selection at general elections;- the most extensive reform of our local government system for over 100 years;
- the most significant expansion in the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman since the original legislation was put in place 30 years ago;
- legislation to restore freedom of information to its pre-2003 state, and to extend it to almost all public bodies;
- legislation to protect whistleblowers;
- a significant programme of Oireachtas reform, including a new pre-legislative stage for all non-emergency legislation which allows forunprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in law making;- the restructuring of the Oireachtas committee system to place additional focus on key areas such as jobs, and the enactment of legislation toprovide a framework within which Oireachtas committees can conduct inquiries into matters of public interest;- the Government's intention to initiate further Oireachtas reform over the remainder of its term including
- the next phase of Dáil reform, including the establishment of an Oireachtas inquiry system, the further restructuring of Oireachtas committees andexpanding the powers and functions of those committees, along with a number of other programme of Government commitments;- proposals to reform the operation-procedures of Seanad Éireann, which the Leader of the Seanad will present, on the Government's behalf, to theSeanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges;- publication of the heads of a Bill to implement the 1979 referendum decision which allowed the State to extend the provisions for the election ofmembers of Seanad Éireann by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State;- legislation to establish a public register of lobbying;
- legislation to reform the party leaders allowance; and
- agrees that this represents a very real and significant body of reform in a relatively short space of time."
We have seen extensive reform in local government which many would say only involves cutting numbers. I suggest the local government Bill did a lot more than just cut numbers, it has made a number of significant changes. We have seen legislation to restore freedom of information to its pre-2003 state. Many said no Government would ever do this, but the Government did it. We have restructured the Oireachtas committee system to provide a framework in which Oireachtas committees can conduct inquiries into matters of public interest.
These are just some of the reforms that have taken place. The Government Chief Whip has, I hope, many other reforms that he intends to introduce in the next two years. I do not know if he agrees with me that consideration should be given to having dedicated committee weeks. This would allow members to give full consideration to their committee duties, when necessary, and to focus on their duties to the Houses by participating in debates and legislative work. This can and should be done. It would be good for the committees and each of the Houses of the Oireachtas. People have mentioned the logistics and said there would not be enough committee rooms to hold meetings. That is nonsense. It can be done if we wish to do it and it would serve the Oireachtas well.
Since we last discussed the specifics of the Seanad, the Taoiseach has been true to his word in progressing the drafting of legislation to enact the result of the 1979 referendum to confer the right on all third level graduates to vote in future Seanad elections. The Government will shortly send to the House for examination the general scheme of a Bill to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution on the election of Members of Seanad Éireann by institutions of higher education in the State. Some of the main features of the general scheme will be: a single six Member constituency to replace the current two university constituencies; an extension of the franchise to all holders of a degree or equivalent qualification from an institution of higher education in the State; other technical provisions for the organisation of elections which include, for example, the creation of a register of electors, the appointment of a returning officer and arrangements for taking the poll and counting the votes. I will make as much time available on the schedule of business as Members wish to have to deliberate on and discuss the proposed Bill and encourage all Members to avail of the opportunity to contribute to the legislative process in a constructive fashion.
During the discussions which took place between the Taoiseach and the Oireachtas political group Leaders before Christmas, three possible ways in which reforms could proceed were identified: operational and procedural reform, legislative reform of the Seanad electoral system and implementation of change viaa constitutional amendment which would require a referendum. As I have stated previously, proceduralreform is the most convenient way of making progress in reforming the daily business schedule of this House. I have submitted my own proposals to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges in this regard and the Government will submit its proposals next week. I presume we will have ample opportunity to discuss these proposals at the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and in the House, if necessary.
As I have previously stated, the current position on the availability of business in the House cannot continue. It was stated on the Order of Business this morning that only one piece of Government legislation had been published since the beginning of the year. It appears that Departments need to improve their systems and ensure they are developing policies, engaging in consultations and planning the drafting of legislation in a much more efficient manner than at present. We cannot continue with the peaks and troughs, where the elected legislators are presented with Bills towards the end of legislative sessions and told they must be enacted by a specific date and left with nothing to do at the beginning of term. As is often said, rushed legislation makes for bad legislation. There are, of course, occasions when emergency legislation is necessary, but we are elected to examine and improve legislation, when necessary, and I personally do not like the use of the guillotine for any reason.
While there are visible signs that the wheels are in motion for political reform, a lot more can and should be done. As I have mentioned, the Seanad has been left in a position where we struggle to fill the schedule, resulting in our sitting only two days this week and last week which could ultimately result in a situation where we will not sit at all if legislation does not come through from Departments. Departments need to become more organised and have less of a solo mentality, realising a whole of government approach to the legislative process needs to be taken. For reform of this House and the Oireachtas system as a whole to succeed, the backing of the Government is required. I am confident that a better way to enable the Seanad to carry out its business can be found and I will keep the House informed of progress on these proposals as they evolve.
The Minister of State will have an opportunity to speak immediately after me.
I thank Senator David Norris for tabling the motion. One of the things I like about what the Senator does is that he commits himself clearly and mentions a timeline. That is one of the important elements of the motion.
It is not enough simply to state what we should do, because we need a timeline.
I congratulate the Leader. In the past, I have always had a feeling that if one side of the House said something, the other side disagreed entirely with it. In this instance, however, the motion of Senators Barrett and Norris, in making its points, gives credit to the Leader. The Leader pointed out a number of the areas where action is taking place. From this point of view, the motion is worthy of consideration.
Consider how bad we were and the problems that obtained in this country five or six years ago. When the election took place, three years ago this month, we committed ourselves to saying we must do something about it. We said we could not allow what happened to recur. Every political party devoted a substantial section of its general election manifesto to political reform. Commentators and analysts also led the way in advocating radical change to the way we conduct our business. I am not sure that is happening nearly as much as is required. On 12 February 2011, The Irish Timesreported that one of Ireland's most successful businessmen, Mr. Dermot Desmond, had circulated a detailed plan for political reform among leading figures in business and political life. I had a look at some points in it. While I agree with some of the points Mr. Desmond made and disagree with others, I believe the proposal is another example of the extent to which the desire for political reform was dominating public debate. All of the parties stated they must do something about it. Let me quote Mr. Desmond: "If Ireland is to prevent itself sleepwalking into another crisis in 20 years' time we must radically reform the political system to a design that puts Ireland first." This quotation goes to the heart of what we should be trying to achieve when we talk about political reform. Put simply, it is incumbent on all of us in public life to ensure we seek to change a political system that failed and that was highly complicit in causing the worst economic crisis in the history of the State. The broken system was made up of the Dáil, the Seanad, the Cabinet, political parties, Departments and regulators. These have been mentioned by Senator Norris today. The collective system contributed to the failure that created the economic crisis. It is in the interest of everybody to ensure this never happens again.
Three years ago, the people gave Fine Gael and the Labour Party a mandate to govern. In their programme for Government, the parties pledged:
We will radically overhaul the way Irish politics and Government work. The failures of the political system over the past decade were a key contributor to the financial crisis and the system must now learn those lessons urgently.Almost three years later, the Leader has given us some description of what has taken place but the progress is very slow. I have criticised in the House how long it takes to get things done. The debate on the Seanad's future last year distracted from the fundamental need for Dáil reform. I expressed concern previously about the overuse of the guillotine in the Dáil. I am delighted that the Leader of the Seanad has seldom used the guillotine. Let us examine what happens in the Dáil, however. Figures produced last year show that as many as 57% of Bills passed by it have been guillotined in the lifetime of the Government. The readiness of the Government to use its majority to curtail debate and short-circuit the time for deliberating on legislation is a recipe for very bad law. It damages trust in politics and undermines economic renewal. It negatively affects the way in which we lead our lives. Reform in this area needs to be achieved urgently.
Do we live in a republic that will insist on the concept of "one citizen, one vote"? It was interesting to hear Senator Zappone speak about this. Are we really going to acquiesce in a divisive proposal that stipulates "one degree, one vote"? During the upcoming local election campaign, we must ask every candidate weather he or she is in favour of everyone having one vote or whether he or she is anxious to ensure the average citizen does not have a vote while a successful candidates will have five, six or seven. An elected member has five votes if he does not have a degree, six if he has a degree from one university and seven if he has a degree from two universities. This seems outrageous. Citizens should ask local election candidates whether they are in favour of having one vote for every citizen.
The Bill that Senator Zappone and I introduced and that which Senator Crown introduced go exactly in the direction of having one vote for every citizen. We debated that but we have not got anywhere with it. What is required is reform that will give every citizen, not just university graduates, a Seanad vote. It is a total misnomer to suggest that another costly referendum would be necessary before every citizen could vote in a Seanad election. By means of simple legislative amendment, this can be achieved. We have demonstrated this in the various Bills we published. Simply by amending the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Bill 1947, the Government could provide for direct elections to all the 43 panel seats and extend the franchise to every citizen. I appeal to the Taoiseach and Government Senators not to let this opportunity pass. Senators Zappone and Crown and I have brought forward Bills that would transform the House and give every citizen a stake in the future. This can be done but it requires commitment. However, this reform alone is not sufficient, as many other reforms are also required.
Senator Norris referred today to using the committee system better than we have done, particularly in regard European legislation. It was interesting to hear the Leader respond in this regard. So much of our legislation is now coming from Europe but it is not subject to sufficient commitment. We must do something about this. We must ensure that reform occurs according to a timeline, and that is why I believe the reference to "time line" is important. Let us ensure we do not just assume something will happen; let us ensure we actually get around to doing something about it.
I welcome this motion because it gives me an opportunity to set out the very real and significant political reforms initiated by the Government since coming to office in 2011. The main focus of the Government has rightly been on job creation and economic recovery. We have used our time in office to set about making our political system more democratic, responsive and accountable. Our aim is to restore people's faith in politics and rebuild trust in government and the institutions of the State. To achieve this, we have embarked on what can fairly be described as the biggest programme of political reform since the passing of the Constitution in 1937.
We have implemented a substantial volume of constitutional reforms in a short time. We have already put six referendums to the people, including an amendment to insert into the Constitution for the first time an explicit statement on children's rights. Senators will recall that such an amendment was promised by previous Administrations over many years but never delivered.
We set up the Constitutional Convention. Despite the initial scepticism with which it was greeted in some quarters, it has proven to be a considerable success. In just over a year, it has completed work on a wide range of issues, including the reform of our electoral system and same-sex marriage. The convention's chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold, his team, and the convention’s members, especially the citizen members, deserve the highest praise for their commitment and their attendance. The Government has already committed to holding three referendums in 2015 arising from recommendations of the convention. These are to be on same-sex marriage, reducing the voting age to 16 and reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections. With regard to presidential elections, the convention made a recommendation that citizens be given a say in nominating candidates to increase public engagement in the nomination process. The Government agreed to refer the matter to the relevant Oireachtas committee for consideration and so it could produce a report.
We have introduced considerable reform to restore people's faith in the political system. The process of political reform will always be an ongoing one but we have started the process after years of inaction. For example, the members of the Government took an immediate pay cut on entering office in 2011, and then a cut in 2013 arising from the Haddington Road agreement. Ministerial pensions are no longer paid to sitting TDs, and we have abolished severance payments to current and future officeholders. Pensions are no longer paid to newly elected Members until they reach 65. We have also reduced the cost of ministerial transport, delivering savings of €4 million per annum in this area alone. The number of TDs will be reduced, from 166 to 158, at the next general election. Changes were announced in the last budget to the Oireachtas expenses regime, which will reduce costs and enhance accountability.
We have introduced radical and significant reform in the financing of the political system. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 brought into force restrictions on corporate donations. It also provided for considerable reductions in the maximum amount that a political party or individual can accept as a political donation. The Act reduced the donation limit for a political party, from €6,348 to €2,500, while for an individual politician or candidate, it fell from €2,539 to €1,000. Cash donations above €200 are prohibited and anonymous donations given through a go-between have been banned. Corporate donations above €200 are prohibited unless the donor meets the most exacting requirements. The threshold at which political party donations must be reported and published has been reduced, from €5,078 to €1,500. For individuals, it fell from €635 to €600. Political parties are now required to prepare audited accounts which are then published. These actions, which implement the recommendations from the reports of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, demonstrate the seriousness of the Government in acting on the lessons of the past. I should add that our progress in this area was independently recognised in the report by the Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption, GRECO, which observed that the regulation and transparency of political funding in Ireland had greatly improved.
We are also reforming the party leader's allowance. It is important that it operates in a transparent and accountable manner so that citizens can see that their money is being spent as was intended. Under new legislation, the amount payable to leaders of qualifying political parties and to qualifying Independent Members will be reduced by 10%, a measure which will save about €840,000 per annum. Also, for the first time, Independent TDs and Senators will be subject to the same reporting requirements as those that apply to party leaders.
The Government has legislated to link the payment of State supports to political parties with the achievement of a gender balance in candidate selection at general elections. To receive their full allocation of State funding, a political party must select a minimum of 30% from each gender at the next general election. This will then rise to 40% of each gender after a further seven years.
We are also taking action to ensure that the Government and the institutions of the State act in an open and transparent manner. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has undertaken an extensive public consultation process to assist his preparation of legislation for the introduction of a public register of lobbying. The Minister is also preparing proposals for an extensive overhaul of the legislative framework for ethics, arising from recommendations from the Mahon tribunal.
The Protected Disclosures Bill 2013, which legislates for the protection of whistleblowers, will be enacted later this spring. The Bill reflects best international practice and addresses a significant gap in Ireland's anti-corruption framework. We are also restoring freedom of information to its pre-2003 state and extending it to almost all public bodies. Work is also well advanced in developing a code of practice to support the implementation of the new FOI legislation. We have also extended the jurisdiction and powers of the Ombudsman through the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012, resulting in the most significant expansion in the role of that office since its establishment.
Our overall reform of local government is the most radical in over 100 years. It introduces change across the entire local government system, including its structures, functions, funding, governance and operational arrangements. There will be much greater local authority involvement in economic and community development than before. The Government recently agreed a procedure for the local government proofing of all future proposals for public service functions at local level. This will ensure that the momentum towards devolution will continue to be taken forward. The changes being introduced are extensive, with the dissolution of the 80 town councils, the merger of six city or county councils in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary, and an overall reduction of over 190 statutory local bodies. The resources that have been absorbed as a result of this will in future be more directly and effectively deployed in improving front-line local services, enhancing the quality of life in local communities. Elected members of local authorities will also have a much more important role in how local authorities are run. This forms part of a significant re-balancing of the relationship between the policy role of the elected members and the implementation role of the executive.
I now turn to Oireachtas reform, a topic which I know is of considerable interest to Senators. No parliament is perfect and the process of parliamentary reform is always an ongoing one. The Government's ambitious agenda for Dáil reform is being introduced in a phased process over the life of this Administration. The reforms introduced since we took office in 2011 have significantly improved the working of the Dáil and Oireachtas committees, but they are not the end of the reform process. Work has already started on the next phase of reform. In October last, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and I met the Opposition leaders and Whips to discuss what should be included in the next phase.
Reforms introduced to date include an additional Leaders' Questions session on Thursdays, taken by the Tánaiste; replacement of Adjournment debates with Topical Issues debates, where the TD raising the issue can now postpone the debate until the Minister from the relevant Department can respond directly; and Friday sittings every second week, where TDs can introduce their own Bills and where Oireachtas committee reports can be discussed - TDs have responded to this opportunity to be active legislators and the number of Private Members' Bills published by TDs has jumped, from 14 in 2010 to 58 in 2013.
I note the following is a particular issue for Senator Ross.
Senator Norris, sorry.
When the draw has being made on a fortnightly basis, there have been at a minimum 25 Bills and at a maximum almost 35 Bills submitted by Members of the Dáil. Last month, Bills were submitted by eight Fianna Fáil TDs, five Sinn Féin members, seven Independents and nine Government TDs. For Senator Norris to say that is not a success, this is a great opportunity.
In 2011, five were taken to Committee Stage, one was adjourned, two were withdrawn in favour of Government legislation and 12 were rejected. Almost half moved to the next Stage of the parliamentary system and that has to be welcomed. This is the first time that Members have been given an opportunity to draft their own Private Members' Bills. Never before were Members given that opportunity.
In 2010, the year before we came into Government, there were only ten Private Members' Bills. Now we are almost having 60 Bills put forward every month. I take great exception at anyone's comment to the effect that that has not been a success. The Friday sittings are a great success. It gives Members an opportunity, if they feel strongly enough about any issue, to draft their own Bills.
There is an appeal system whereby, for the first time ever, a TD, if unhappy with the reply to a Dáil question, can appeal the matter to the Ceann Comhairle. No other Government ever came up with that idea. We have increased the length of the Dáil sitting day to make more time available to debate legislation.
Together with new drafting and enactment procedures, this should reduce the use of the guillotine. I should point out that the number of Dáil sitting days already has been increased significantly by reducing the length of the recess and introducing additional sitting days. A comparison of sitting days between the present Government's first two and a half years in office, when the Dail sat for 303 days, and the first two and a half years in office of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party-Progressive Democrat Government, in which the Dáil sat for a mean 229 days, shows an increase of 74 sitting days, which constitutes an increase of 32.3%.
The Government has undertaken a radical restructuring of the Oireachtas committee system. It has put in place a comprehensive statutory framework for Oireachtas committees to conduct inquiries into matters of public concern within the current constitutional framework. In addition, the Government is introducing a new pre-legislative stage for all non-emergency legislation. The committee examining the legislation can consult with experts and civic society groups, thereby opening up the law-making process to public involvement as never before. Crucially, this exercise will take place before the legislation is drafted.
From this year onwards, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste will address the Dail each year to set out the Government's annual priorities. Each Minister then will set out his or her Department's plans. Moreover, to inform the debate, the Government will publish an economic update, a national risk assessment and a national progress report. In April the stability programme update is presented by the Government to the EU, and committees will be able to review this information and report before the budget. The role of Oireachtas committees in the budget process is also being expanded. The budget and spending Estimates will be published in October each year and committees will, for the first time, have the opportunity to scrutinise the budget proposals and Estimates before the beginning of the financial year and before any money is spent. A new post-enactment review will allow Oireachtas committees to review the functioning of an Act 12 months after it is has been passed. The Constitutional Convention recently discussed the issue of Dáil reform. The Government looks forward to receiving the convention's report, which will be taken into account in preparing the next round of reform proposals.
I will now turn to Seanad reform. The debate on reforming the Seanad is not new. Following the October referendum, the challenge now facing all public representatives is to produce proposals for practical, implementable reform of the second House. The Government has prepared a set of proposals for operational reform that can be implemented in the lifetime of this Seanad, and will provide these to the Leader of the Seanad for the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, to discuss. These proposals focus on the Seanad's legislative and vocational roles while also acknowledging its role in respect of EU scrutiny. The proposals also will suggest ways in which the Seanad can engage with the Government, as well as work jointly with the Dáil through the Oireachtas committee system. I am conscious that under the leadership of one of the most progressive Leaders of the Seanad, Senator Cummins, many innovations have taken place. I have no doubt that under his leadership and with the support of all his colleagues on both sides of the House, much more can be done.
I compliment Senator Ó Murchú on his comments to the effect that a joint approach must be taken. He mentioned how the Taoiseach came into this House after the referendum and commended him on so doing. I commend a Member of the Opposition on his commendation of the Taoiseach on the way in which he was able to come into the House after the referendum on the Seanad, having had the courage to put the question to the people. I urge the other parties and groupings in the House to submit their proposals for operational reform to the Seanad CPP in order that discussion on the implementation of practical, workable reform can commence at the earliest opportunity.
With regard to electoral reform of the Seanad, the Government has approved and will shortly publish for consultation the general scheme of a Bill to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution on the election of Members of Seanad Éireann by institutions of higher education in the State. The main features of the general scheme will be a single six-Member constituency to replace the present two university constituencies and an extension of the franchise to all holders of a degree or equivalent qualification from an institution of higher education in the State. Other technical provisions for the organisation of elections will include, for example, the creation of a register of electors and the appointment of a returning officer, as well as arrangements for taking the poll and counting the votes. There will be ample opportunity for input into the preparation of the legislation, and the feedback from the consultation process, which is to follow publication of the general scheme, will inform the further development and preparation of the Bill. The general scheme will be circulated to Seanad Éireann and forwarded to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht for consideration. Copies also are being sent to other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State. As part of the consultation process, written submissions will be invited from citizens, elected representatives, the institutions of higher education and any other individuals or groups that have views. Implementation of this constitutional provision could have been done at any point since 1979 but it is the present Government that now is taking action to implement the will of the people.
I trust Senators will agree the extensive list of reforms I have outlined represents an impressive and radical programme of reform in less than three years. However, more is required and it is the Government's aim to deliver this over the remainder of its term of office.
The list of reforms is interesting, in that reform has been talked about for a long time in this House. I am interested in the actual success of the Private Members' Bills, many of which do not appear to get as far as they should. Senator Crown pointed out yesterday that his Bill to ban smoking in cars in which children are present has been waiting for two years. I acknowledge that the Leader gave assurances yesterday in this regard, but this two-year wait should be contrasted with the four weeks it took for a similar measure to go through the British House of Commons and House of Lords. This is happening for no other reason than that civil servants are not processing the legislation or bringing forward the amendments on which all sides are agreed. Despite this, it is clogged up.
Yes. In the context of political reform, if legislation that everyone agrees should be passed and is in the public interest does not happen, one cannot then state that political reform has genuinely taken place. There is no point in having 60 Bills per month coming through the Dáil if, when amendments are required, there is no impetus for civil servants actually to prepare those amendments. Even in the case of Senator Quinn's Bill on subcontractors, it took two successive Governments for it to be processed. That would be real reform, and I will cite the Chief Whip back to himself on a matter of which I know he is aware. He stated that in respect of statutory instruments which are laid before the House, he does not believe Members even read what statutory instruments are laid. An enormous amount of statutory instruments are laid before the House. In a given year, there could be 594 statutory instruments, 164 EU directives and 129 EU regulations, versus 47 Acts of the Oireachtas. This is where the problem is - that is, all those European Union directives and regulations and statutory instruments that simply are signed in. I refer to the example from August 2013 when this House was recalled in respect of a statutory instrument that was the first legislative item in the history of the State pertaining to organ donation. It was signed into Irish law, the amendments having been made by the Minister and the civil servants. Those amendments were not seen by the Whip himself, the Government or the health committee, yet there it was. It was the first legislation in the history of the State on organ donation but no one in this House or the Dáil or any committee saw it. Moreover, this happens nearly 600 times per year, in contrast to Acts of the Oireachtas, on which Members spend huge amounts of time. For those who proposed in the referendum that the Seanad should be abolished and that this House was beyond reform, the reform being proposed in respect of the electorate is an absolute insult to the Republic. As has been pointed out, in a reformed Seanad it is a disgrace to say "one degree, one vote". It is absolutely appalling that only those who went to third level may be allowed to vote in elections to a reformed Seanad.
The EU has highlighted Ireland, the United Kingdom, Malta, Greece and Cyprus as the only five countries out of the 33 member states of the Council of Europe which do not afford votes to their citizens living abroad. We are addressing that issue by accident in that if a citizen who lives in Australia happens to have a degree from Trinity, he or she will be able to vote. An Irish electrician who lives in Australia will not have a vote, however.
The constitutional convention considered extending the franchise in presidential elections. We are proposing to give a vote to those who hold degrees from third level institutions, thereby including members of the diaspora by accident. Of the 196 countries in the world, 120 allow citizens living abroad to vote. The constitutional convention recommended that citizens living outside the State would only be allowed to vote in presidential elections. Only eight of the aforementioned 120 countries confine the overseas franchise to presidential elections. However, the presidents of these eight states have executive powers similar to those of the President of the United States. We would be the only country in the world to provide a vote in elections for a largely ceremonial presidency.
As Senator Coghlan has pointed out, this House needs to focus on EU scrutiny given the wide range of legislation and statutory instruments that are produced. Ministers are given powers through primary legislation to draft statutory instruments. Under legislation dating from 1972, Ministers also have powers to change existing Irish law to comply with EU legislation. It is extraordinary that a Minister can change legislation enacted by this House with the stroke of a pen. Of the 28,000 statutory instruments introduced since the foundation of the State, 7,300 have been introduced in the past ten years. On the significant issue of real scrutiny of legislation and debating Bills, I can give no better example than Senator Crown, whose legislation has been stuck in an official logjam for the last two years. Everyone agrees with it but it is going nowhere. That is where political reform is needed.
Some of our citizens, on behalf of whom we are here, think that Irish politics is reverting to its pre-2008 standards with the flight of the troika. I salute the reforms that the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, and the Leader have clearly and eloquently outlined but, as Senator Quinn pointed out, we have a long way to go. Our citizens are more disenchanted with politics than ever. They believe nothing will ever change here. I am embarrassed when I go to dinners or parties because people ask me what I am doing in this House and whether I have managed to achieve anything. Although I was comforted by the reforms outlined this evening we have much yet to do.
If only the Government could loosen the Whip, which I would describe as a noose around the neck of democracy. In the two and a half years I have been in this House I was lucky to get to know a considerable number of people. There are wonderful minds in this House from all sorts of backgrounds, whether legal, medical, business or academic, and they have much to offer. I am probably idealistic to believe that the Whip system prevents good Deputies and Senators from speaking about what they know.
The voting system in Seanad elections is another noose. I will be depressed if we do not grant a vote to all our citizens and instead continue with the present system for the next election. I salute all the Senators who are in the Chamber this evening but our citizens should be able to elect who they think should be in the Seanad.
At the end of January, Elaine Byrne wrote an article for Sunday Business Post on sections 86 and 89 of the Electoral Act 1997. Much good has come from the Government's programme of reform in terms of dealing with corruption, donations and freedom of information. However, sections 86 and 89 of the 1997 Act empowered the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to make a decision, before the 31 December 2013, on implementing the recommendation by the Standards in Public Office Commission that all parties be required to publish detailed accounts. I do not think he made such a decision, however.
We are hypocritical to be having this debate given that the events in the CRC happened before our eyes. That is a totally different conversation but a huge amount of taxpayers' money goes into the charity sector. We had a good debate on this issue with the Minister for Justice and Equality recently and we welcomed that he proposes to appoint a regulator and introduce complete transparency in the charity sector, whereby moneys spent on advertising, marketing and administration, as well as the salaries of all those earning more than €60,000, would be published. We need to do the same in respect of our political parties, quangos and NGOs. Why has the Minister, Deputy Hogan, not implemented the recommendations of the Standards in Public Office Commission? Elaine Byrne's article indicates that we will not see parties' accounts before 2016. We should see them in 2014.
I welcome the Chief Whip back to the House and thank him for his generosity in giving his time to us.
I am sometimes reminded of Groundhog Day when sitting in this Chamber. I would remind Senator Daly that we had 13 years of Fianna Fáil rule with very little in the line of political reform.
It is incumbent upon me to speak to some extent in defence of the Whip system as I am the Labour Party Whip in this House. We can criticise the Whip system as much as we like but it is the Whips' duty to deliver the Government's programme. That is the bottom line. It is up to individual members of political parties to decide, on balance, whether they think there is more good or bad in the Government's programme and vote accordingly. I accept of course that we should have a more relaxed Whip on matters such as Private Members' time, as we are having at the moment.
While I always welcome debates on reform, and it is important for this House to prioritise a reform agenda, the motion before us is premature. We had a meeting of the Constitutional Convention fewer than two weeks ago, at which Dáil reform was discussed. It would have been preferable to have allowed the convention to finish its business and produce its report. As was discussed with Mr. Tom Arnold, the final report of the convention would have been placed before this House for debate in the way that other reports of the convention have been placed before the Dáil. I believe that is the way we should proceed.
We should allow the Constitutional Convention to finish its business, make its proposals, produce its report and have that report debated in this Chamber in a proper and lengthy fashion.
The motion before us concerns the broader political system and not just the Seanad. That is why I am emphasising that the Constitutional Convention has debated many issues that relate to the Irish political system in broad measure. Some of the convention's recommendations are exciting and will have a positive impact on the wider political system. For example, the Government's commitment to have a referendum on lowering the voting age could potentially revolutionise the political system.
The Government has achieved other matters in its brief period in office. For example, legislation on the public disclosure of political donations is ground-breaking. When one considers the abuse of the political system that occurred in this country over the last two decades, I do not think we can say that this is any small measure of political reform.
Linking State support for political parties to the recognition of a need for gender balance in Irish politics is an innovative and ground-breaking measure. It is easy to forget that in the general debate on Seanad reform.
I am interested in local government reform and if I were to be critical of this Government in any way, it might be in that area. I believe in strong, self-funded local government and I think that in time the local property tax will revolutionise local government here. I would, however, like us to have considered far more regional change along the lines of many other countries. I am thinking, for example, of Wales where a much smaller number of regional authorities have power over police and educational services. They have genuine regional government in Wales.
I would also like us to have examined the issue of plebiscites, as some north European countries have. In such countries, people have many opportunities to vote on local issues that most affect them. We need to examine more closely how to get the political system down to its most local level and stop focusing on the Oireachtas in particular.
I welcome moves to restore freedom of information legislation to its pre-2003 status. Such accountability is critical to any successful political system, as is the proposed legislation to protect whistleblowers.
As anyone who attended the Constitutional Convention will be aware, some of the debate on Dáil reform concerned clear operational measures that could easily be taken within the political system, including this House. To some extent, we need to look into our own hearts. There was much criticism about using the guillotine, for example, but very little talk about stopping people talking repeatedly on Committee Stage on amendments. Such people then complain bitterly when we do not get beyond amendment No. 3. Let us get real. If we are going to talk about reaching the maximum amount of amendments, we must be realistic about not allowing people to filibuster. That is the bottom line.
I welcome the Chief Whip's statement on Seanad reform. I was somewhat concerned that with all the talk about Dáil and committee reform, as well as pre-legislative supervision, the Seanad was being written out of the system and would not feature in the debate at all. I therefore welcome what has been said here about operational reform.
I have no difficulty in sharing time but it would have been helpful if the Leader of the House had extended the debate for a few minutes to enable all of us to speak. That in itself shows up the mockery of political reform. I represent three Senators in this House, yet I have only three minutes in which to make a contribution on political reform. The Government is saying it wants ideas and solutions but then it does not have the debate.
I am using my time to show up the ridiculous nature of political reform. The Leader sits there and says he is in favour of reform, but will not extend the debate by five or ten minutes. It does not make any sense, unless he does not want to listen to all shades of opinion in this House.
I have no difficulty in sharing time with Senator Crown because he has been innovative in using the Seanad effectively to bring forward legislation here. He should be commended for it.
I have listened to lengthy speeches given mainly by Government Senators which comprise a lot of hot air and nonsense. They have not addressed the core problem in this State.
One can talk all one wants about reform, what the Government has implemented and what it claims are successes. The reality is, however, that as long as central government and the Executive refuse to cede power to the Dáil, Seanad or local government, we will always have only piecemeal reform. We will only be ameliorating the system around the edges, but will not have the reform we need.
The core problem in this State is that we have a centralised system of government. The Executive has far too much power and will not give it to local government, the Seanad or the Dáil. This Government has dressed up its failures as political reform. It has cut numbers.
I did not interrupt the Senator. The Government tried to abolish the Seanad while cutting the number of Deputies and councillors, but there has been no real reform or devolution of power. When we debated the Local Government Bill, I challenged the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to indicate one power that has been devolved by any Department to local government. He was unable to point out even one single power.
We saw, of course, that he transferred power over water services to a quango that ended up being an absolute disaster. Even the Bill that gave effect to that was guillotined through the Dáil, so we had to come back and deal with the mess afterwards.
I thank Senator Cullinane for sharing time. This afternoon's proceedings, including the Government's amendment to the substantive motion, constitute a powerful argument in favour of emigration.
This country desperately needs political reform. The disaster we faced over the last five years was not primarily due to bankers, builders or bureaucrats. Bankers and builders acted understandably, albeit in a self-defeating manner, in what they perceived to be