Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Seanad Bill 2013: Committee Stage
I wish to make a comment on Part 1. This evening is an opportunity for the Seanad to ensure its legacy of commitment to its own reform, thereby leaving a legacy of genuine commitment to political reform. This evening we can do something immensely significant: we can focus on the good. Having spoken with most Senators, I know that everyone wants to achieve the good of Seanad reform. I know that every one of us present wants to demonstrate before the next general election that we will not be counted among those who are part of a system that is unwilling and unable to reform itself. Well over a year ago, the people voted to retain the Seanad so that it could be reformed. No one wanted the Seanad retained in its current form. Many in this Chamber, including myself, have talked to the people we live among or represent, and their disappointment that reform has not yet been delivered is palpable - understandably so. Let this be an evening that is not about resisting change; rather, it should be about hearing how we can co-operate with each other and allowing the agenda of reform to be advanced.
One of the excuses the Government has used for not advancing any reform is that we cannot agree among ourselves. Let us own the responsibility to work co-operatively and demonstrate that this questionable statement is inaccurate. I ask for the co-operation of all sides of this House, along with Senator Quinn, so that the Seanad will be viewed as one body wherein we can do the business of the people. At the very least, we know that the huge majority of our people want a vote for this Chamber. Universal suffrage and the principle of one person, one vote are fundamental tenets of a properly functioning democracy. It is absolutely critical to note that Articles 18 and 19 of the Constitution do not specify universal suffrage for Seanad elections. In fact, they do the direct opposite. The Constitution refers to the election of the elected Senators as a general election and states that "... elections of the elected members of Seanad Éireann shall be regulated by law". We can provide for universal suffrage in legislation. The Constitution says so. This will not make the Seanad a rival to the Dáil. There are many sections of the Constitution that demonstrate that the Seanad was specifically designed in a manner that could not rival the Dáil or consistently obstruct the will of the people as expressed through the Dáil.
We have very little time left to do our work of Seanad reform. Therefore, in the spirit and practice of reform, I am requesting that Senators be brief in their remarks on this debate, in the very limited time that we have left, so that we will be able to complete the passage of Seanad Bill 2013 today. We are almost out of time because the Government has done nothing substantive to advance Seanad reform. However, within the time provided today, we can have a good debate on the Bill and still bring it all the way through. Senator Norris, as the father of the House and champion of reform in the House for so many decades, is introducing some amendments. We are together in this. I again ask for the co-operation of Senators on all sides of the House in keeping their remarks brief so that we can achieve and demonstrate our integrity and commitment to advance the will of the people and embrace political reform in this Chamber.
I do not have a prepared statement but I would like to put on record a couple of matters. As Senator Zappone has said, I have spoken and campaigned for Seanad reform over the last 30 years and more. When the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann was launched, I and a number of other people met outside in the ante room to get a committee going and so on and so forth. We were on the way to that. We had two of these informal meetings. Then it was taken over as a vanity project by the people proposing this Bill, Senators Zappone and Quinn. I stepped back. I said, "If it works, that is the only thing that matters. If it works, it does not matter what the motivation is." I attempted to be included. Although I attempted to become informed and be briefed, I was, like other people, ruthlessly excluded. This Bill does not emerge from Seanad Éireann.
It emerges from two people and their hired lawyers. The title of the campaign was "Democracy Matters". Well, it did not matter that bloody much to them.
I have to say these things. We have to talk this Bill through. I am not in agreement with a lot of it. In fact, I am strongly in disagreement. However, I will leave my remarks at that. I feel very strongly about this. I did not speak about it at the time but I speak about it now because I thought this confection might disappear into the general mix of discussion documents. Yes, I want reform. I want real reform. I want radical reform. I do not see it in this, however. It is a lawyers' hotchpotch.
I commend Senators Zappone and Quinn not only on their introduction of this Bill and their motives in doing so but also on the manner in which they orchestrated the "No" campaign last year. Their valuable contribution should be put once again on the record of this House.
However, I am somewhat disappointed with the suggestion by Senator Zappone in her opening remarks - I am sure she did not mean it - that because the Senators are bringing forward the Bill, this should somehow stifle debate, the inference being that we should not talk about it at all but embrace the Bill enthusiastically. That was the inference, and I am sure that was not what the Senator meant. However, she did indicate, to put it another way, that she wanted this Bill to go through without too much debate. I think "too many contributions" was the term she used. I can only draw from that the inference that she would prefer if there were no debate. I am sorry to disappoint the Senator, but I certainly will be debating various issues.
To pick up on the Senator's remarks, which are relevant to section 1, I will be opposing the Title - which, by the way, I will not an opportunity to speak on until we get to that stage. I have reasons for doing so. It is linked to the Senator's comment that this reform proposal would not put the Seanad in competition with Dáil Éireann in any way. That may be correct in theory. However, I put it to the Senator, in the context of the Short Title under section 1, that if we extend the mandate to the entirety of the Irish electorate, there is absolutely no question, in my mind, that there would then be a very strong view among those Senators who are elected that, in fact, they do have a mandate to compete with Dáil Éireann. That is not what the Constitution suggests. I would strongly defend the right of this House to continue in the form that was originally set out, which was of a vocational nature, although it sadly did not develop along those lines. I do not think it would be workable in an Irish democracy to have two Houses in competition with each other. I am suggesting to the Senator that extension of the mandate to the entire electorate would result in elections that were similar to Dáil elections. We will rest there; we may just disagree on that. However, I believe that is a fundamental issue. This House should not be seen to be in any way in competition with the other House. We cannot have the two.
I have a specific question about section 1. The Bill states, on page 9:
"relevant Irish Embassy or Consulate" means the Irish Embassy or Irish Consulate which has been assigned responsibility for the country in which the voter is ordinarily resident.Ireland does not have an embassy or a consulate in every country in the world. It certainly does not have an embassy or a consulate in every country in which there is an Irish diaspora. Ireland - I am sure the Minister will confirm this - is represented by the EU or by EU countries or by the UK, depending on the country. I have not got the full list, but there is quite a significant list. I think that particular subsection of section 1 will have serious difficulty in being passed because it would mean through its very wording that access to voting would be confined to quite a significant number of the Irish diaspora. It refers specifically to Irish embassies or consulates. That is a major problem.
That was the main objection I would have to section 1, which is essentially about the Short Title and commencement and interpretation. This is significant because if this were passed without extending it to those countries where there is no Irish consulate or embassy, it would deny the franchise to some of the people to whom it is hoped to extend it.
The discussion is about section 1 and it is about the Short Title. The Bill also seeks to amend a number of existing Bills, so there should be some latitude given because of that.
I am very slow to get in the middle of a disagreement between Independent Senators in this House, but I will say that the two Senators who approached me and my party most frequently on this issue were Senators Zappone and Quinn. In fact, they had met us and requested to meet with myself as the group leader of Sinn Féin and with the Sinn Féin Party long before the referendum and they have been active on the issue of Seanad reform.
I disagree with many aspects of the Bill. I am not in agreement that we should keep the sectoral panels or the university panels. We should look at geographical panels. We should have the principle of universal franchise on the basis of one person, one vote. I do not agree with the system where county councillors and members of certain universities have votes. It should be open to Northern representation and voting rights should be extended to the diaspora, which is included in the Bill. I am also opposed to the 11 Taoiseach's nominations.
We will have more discussion as the Bill progresses. It is not beyond the ability of the two Houses of the Oireachtas, and indeed of influences and organisations outside those Chambers, to come up with Seanad reform that actually wins the support of the people. Months ago I attended a meeting organised by the Taoiseach, which the Leader of this House was also at, at which we discussed where the Government was going to go with Seanad reform following the referendum. There has been no meeting convened since then. There has been no update to any of the group leaders or party leaders on what the Government----
I do not wish to interrupt the Senator, but we have already had one Second Stage speech and we are talking specifically about section 1 now. He may have an opportunity on a later Stage to elaborate on the line he has gone down, but with respect, we are talking about section 1. It would be helpful to the sponsors of the Bill as well.
The Acting Chairman is always very helpful. I accept that and I am going to conclude by reminding the Minister of State that it is possible to reform this House and to win popular and public support for a properly reformed Seanad. The question is, when are we going to get it?
I agree that we can come up with a properly reformed Seanad and there is no Member of this House or of Fine Gael who will stand in the way of bringing reform here. The Taoiseach promised a referendum and it was held. He said that he would set up a group to look at it and consultation did take place with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We have lots of reports.
While there is an awful lot to admire within the Bill, there are some problems with it as well. It repeals two existing Seanad electoral Acts and does not adequately put in place what I would see as a workable solution. The Taoiseach has agreed that the procedural reform will take place quickly and the all-party groupings in both Houses, including the Government through the Leader of the Seanad, put forward proposals. I have also been informed that the Taoiseach is to establish a working party to examine the issue. We must all put our heads together and today I welcome the Bill. I think we will learn a lot from it, and with all parties working together it will be a better proposal at the end of the day. Submissions and proposals that have already been submitted to the Leader of the Seanad and to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will all be taken into consideration.
The working party will be----
No, you yourself mentioned the embassies and the issue of Northern Ireland. I agree with you on that. I will be making a comment on that as well because we do not have an embassy in every country and I have a lot to say on that. The Taoiseach has said that the committee will report by February and he has put a time limit on it and given it to the Leader and to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. There is nobody in this House who does not want to see reform of the Seanad and I want that said loud and clear from the Fine Gael Party. This legislation is 35 years overdue and this is the only Government that has acted in ensuring that all universities will get the vote. We have had the first Stages of the Bill and the heads published.
I will be particularly brief in speaking to the Title. As someone who broke ranks early on without any direction or instruction from anyone and who is still here to tell the tale, I would say that the Whip system is not as cruel as people make out. I defied Government direction and policy on the referendum and, along with other colleagues, prevailed in preserving and retaining the Seanad. In that regard I particularly welcome the Bill as it gives us an opportunity to reopen this debate in a meaningful way. I do not think we should seek consensus. This House is known for its lack of consensus and long may that thrive and live. However, all colleagues will agree that the electorate at large, at home and abroad, will not thank us if we do not at every opportunity endeavour to introduce meaningful reform. Finally, I am intrigued to see that most infamous of Irish institutions is alive and well - before we even got out of the traps we had the split.
I will speak to section 1. Last year, 600,000 people voted to retain the Seanad. They did not intend to retain it as it was; they intended to have a reformed House. This Bill is an effort to bring about that reform. I listened very carefully to Senator Norris and I think that is exactly the reason for having a Committee Stage debate, so that we can discuss and debate these things and improve the Bill. This effort that Senator Zappone and I have made is an effort to have reform without having to have another referendum. I believe that is possible and that is why I support section 1. There may well be some changes that should be made and suggestions to that effect have been made already. Let us make sure that we have a proper debate to ensure that the reformed Seanad that comes about is one that we will be very proud of.
I am broadly in support of the notion of a Bill to reform the Seanad, although I have some serious difficulties with some of what is in this Bill. We are probably suffering from an Irish problem, which is that if we have not got it right first time we put it back on the shelf and wait 40 years before taking it down again and brushing the dust off it. Anybody who has ever been at school knows the way to write an essay is to sit down and start writing. The Bill is here in front of us. A lot of work has been put into it and I commend both Senators for bringing it forward. I do think it will need serious debate. What I do not want to see happen is what I am beginning to hear, namely, the notion that we can reform the university seats, broaden that out, and to hell with the rest of it. If we are going to reform the Seanad we should take it root and branch and open it more to the people of this country.
Having recently been elected to the Seanad I saw just how difficult it was even to get a nomination. My election was no triumph of democracy, it was a triumph of pragmatism. At the end of the day I thank God for that pragmatism, but if we are going to reform the Seanad let us start by tearing this Bill to pieces, rebuilding it and making it into something we can all work with.
I welcome the Minister of State. I have been watching the debate on the monitor. The Government gave very clear commitments on Oireachtas reform prior to the election .
Seanad reform, unfortunately, from that party's perspective meant abolition. As we know, the people decided not to abolish the Seanad.
I commend the Senators who put this reform Bill together. As I said to Senators Quinn and Zappone, it has imperfections and there are things I would change, but at least it is a basis for reform. The major issue I have is that almost a year ago I, the Leader of the Seanad, Deputy Maurice Cummins, and others sat down with the Taoiseach about eight weeks after the Seanad referendum. The Taoiseach said reform of the Seanad would be dealt with as a matter of priority and urgency, but nothing has happened.
There has been no reform, and worse still is the fact that the Seanad was picked upon as the one area requiring reform while everywhere else did not. Seanad reform cannot be considered solely in the context of reforming the Seanad, rather, Oireachtas reform must be considered. Oireachtas reform has not worked. The programme for Government refers to the necessity to allow proper debates, and not to shut down and guillotine debates. I commend the Leader for, in the main, facilitating and seeing good that promise. However, more than 60% of all legislation in the Dáil has been shut down or guillotined. There is still no proper oversight. The pre-legislative process does not work.
A lot needs to be fixed. People around the country are concerned about many different issues, but political reform is something they want to see happen. This Bill gives a basis for that, but I would not like to see the Seanad identified as the only place where reform is required. Let us consider the Whip system-----
I am sorry, but I have referred to other contributions. This is Committee Stage and I have no doubt that there will be opportunities throughout the passage of the Bill to address wider issues. I would be grateful if the Senator would focus on section 1, which deals with the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.
I will be brief. As Senator Whelan said, we are hardly out of the traps. We had a referendum on the Seanad only last year. We know what the people decided, for whatever reasons. We do not know what went into the pot. I would counsel caution.
Other matters might need to be reformed. We are discussing the Title. There was a referendum in 1979. I am not saying other things need to be done, but let us do the first things first, so to speak. I do not have a lot to say on the Title.
- Sean Barrett
- John Crown
- Fidelma Healy Eames
- James Heffernan
- Paschal Mooney
- Rónán Mullen
- Darragh O'Brien
- Mary Ann O'Brien
- Denis O'Donovan
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Averil Power
- Feargal Quinn
- Jillian van Turnhout
- Jim Walsh
- Mary White
- Katherine Zappone
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Gerard Craughwell
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Aideen Hayden
- Imelda Henry
- Caít Keane
- Marie Moloney
- Mary Moran
- Michael Mullins
- Hildegarde Naughton
- David Norris
- Marie Louise O'Donnell
- Susan O'Keeffe
- Pat O'Neill
- Tom Shehan
- John Whelan
The contribution I made earlier actually referred to section 2 but we were on section 1 at the time so I want to apologise for that slip. At the same time, I hope that the sponsors of the Bill would take account of the remarks I made. The Minister of State might have a view to express as well.
Senator Mooney inferred from my opening remarks that I was indicating that he should curtail his remarks or that we should not have a proper debate. My point was that we have very little time left to debate anything related to Seanad reform. We requested a number of times that Government give us time to debate this Bill and we were not given that time. It is within that context that I requested that people be brief in their remarks, not to restrict our opportunity to hear the brilliant contributions of every Senator.
On Senator Mooney's comment on section 2 about the relevant Irish embassy or consulate, he has made a reasonable point. The current provision in the Bill was the best measure we could identify at that time to reach out to the diaspora. If there are suggestions of how to make it more inclusive we would of course be open to that.
I am grateful to Senator Zappone and am glad she clarified her earlier remarks. I did not for one moment think that she was in any way motivated by a desire to stifle debate but it is important to clarify the context in which she made the comment. This is a drafting issue; perhaps the Senators' advisors did not take account of the point that I made, that there are parts of the world where there is no Irish embassy or consulate but there is a significant Irish population. Even if there is only one Irish national, why should he or she be deprived of the vote in the proposals they have made. That is the reason I raised the issue. If we get as far as Report Stage, perhaps this might be something they might introduce by way of amendment.
As the last speaker said, the more discussion, the better. On the interpretation of section 2, obviously much of the interpretation is as it stands in the Bill and "local authority" means a city or county council, naturally enough - nobody could disagree with that. As I agree with the interpretations, for example, on a gender sub-panel I will be saying much on that issue and other issues as they arise. However, while I agree with the interpretation of most of section 2, I will not agree with the actual section of the Bill itself. I will agree with the section 2 interpretation but when the different items come up I will be coming in again and I reserve my right to do that.
I wish to acknowledge the work that has gone into this Bill. It is comprehensive and I commend the Senators for their work on it. However, there are fundamental legal, policy and administrative issues spread throughout the Bill which are problematic. I will expand further on those.
The Government is opposing section 2. The interpretation section is integral to the effect and functioning of the Bill as a piece of legislation. I will address a number of specific issues within this section, while also dealing with matters that arise as a consequence. Section 2 makes provision for foundational elements, and for a key feature of the Bill, namely, the extension of the franchise in Seanad elections to all registered local government electors living in the State, persons resident in Northern Ireland who qualify for Irish citizenship, and Irish passport-holders living abroad. This would create a second directly-elected Chamber of the Oireachtas, with a significantly wider franchise. It must be observed that if the Seanad were to be so configured and the right to vote in Seanad elections so provided for, the Constitution would have been framed in this way.
On a point of order, could I ask the Minister of State to point out where this is in section 2? I do not see this in section 2. I am looking at it and I am sure it is there, but I would like the Minister of State to point it out to me.
I am happy to clarify. This relates specifically to interpretation in section 2 of the Bill.
To continue where I left off, this would have the effect of creating a second directly-elected Chamber of the Oireachtas. Although the Bill does not quantify the likely electorate, it can be estimated that some 5.2 million persons would be entitled to vote. Apart from the policy question and the matter of whether this proposal is legally sound, serious costs and administrative considerations must be taken into account. Notwithstanding the removal of the requirement for registered post, these have not been addressed in the Bill or the explanatory memorandum to the Bill.
Included among the interpretations in section 2 are the definitions for the terms "constituency", "electoral commission", "gender sub-panel", "local authority", "Minister" and "university constituency", among other terms. The definition used for "constituency" is confusing and unclear in its usage in the Bill. Throughout the Bill the term "constituency" is used to describe a panel of candidates, which does not fit with the common understanding of the word as an area of territory or a particular electorate or group of voters.
Section 2 provides for a definition of the term "electoral commission", which is then used in section 35 of the Bill in regards to voters in Northern Ireland. These provisions in the Bill are legally flawed and unworkable. They envisage a role being performed by the Northern Ireland division of the electoral commission of the United Kingdom in verifying eligibility to register by applicants based in Northern Ireland. Legislation made in this State could not compel or direct a body in another state to perform a particular function. This is notwithstanding the position that the wrong body was identified in the Bill in any event. Functions in relation to electoral registration in Northern Ireland are carried out by a different agency, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The electoral commission is a separate body with other electoral responsibilities, but not voter registration.
Elections to the gender sub-panel, as defined in section 2 seem potentially to offend the equality provision in Article 40.1 of the Constitution. Votes would carry different weights, with some candidates elected even though they have fewer votes than a candidate elected by reason of gender preference. This would give rise to a difference in the treatment of voters and candidates. Overriding policy objectives to achieve gender equality would not be enough to counter the discriminatory treatment of individuals where key democratic rights and the election of candidates chosen by voters is in question. The Government has some experience in legislating for gender balance in elections, having introduced provisions in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 affecting Dáil elections. What is proposed in the Bill before us is of a different order and is potentially unsound.
There is also an issue of discriminating between citizens living in the North and those living in other jurisdictions outside the State, who would have to have an Irish passport to vote. This would impose a cost on them in order to exercise a vote which would not apply to a voter in Northern Ireland or in this State.
The definition of "local authority" is incorrect, having regard to the Local Government Reform Act 2014.
The term "Minister" is defined in section 2. Later in the Bill, certain functions are assigned to the Minister which would appear to undermine the independence of the Seanad returning officer, a term which is also defined in section 2.
The universities constituency is defined in section 2, but the provisions for the universities constituency are significantly lacking. The register of electors, candidate nominations, conduct of the elections, the composition of the constituency, and other elements are framed in a way that is problematic from a legal perspective. Administratively, it is questionable whether an election in the six-seat universities constituency proposed in the Bill could be organised using the Bill as a basis. The alternative offered by the Government is a better approach. Earlier this year, the Government published the general scheme of a Bill to reform the Seanad university constituencies and expand the franchise. Work is currently progressing on the preparation of a Bill and this is to be published in 2015.
My final point is significant with regard to the Bill as a whole. As Senators are aware, this House has the right under Article 15.10 of the Constitution to set its own rules and Standing Orders. Chapter 3 of Part 3 of the Bill, which sets out additional roles for the Seanad, appears to be in contravention of this article. The Bill directs the Seanad in how it makes its rules. There are also implications under Article 15.10 for the Dáil, in so far as the Bill impacts on how it sets its rules and procedures. The Government has already, through the Leader of the Seanad, presented a package of reforms to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges to improve the operation and effectiveness of the Seanad. The Government's proposals are comprehensive. Importantly, they are also capable of being implemented, and are consistent with constitutional rights afforded to the Seanad and its Members.
Some of the provisions in the Bill dealing with inquiries undertaken by the Oireachtas have already been implemented in other legislation since the Bill was published.
In making these initial observations on the Bill I am mindful of the hard work and effort put into its drafting. Committee Stage is where we test a Bill. Just as Opposition Senators have a duty and an obligation to robustly test Government legislation, so too the Government must test Private Members' Bills being considered in the House. While there are policy differences in the Bill, there are also questions about the legal and administrative provisions included. These are particularly evident in section 2. While we will oppose other sections of the Bill, the Government opposes section 2 as it stands.
I subscribe totally to what the Minister of State said. No disrespect to the proposers of the Bill, but as I tried to say earlier before I was rightly upbraided by the honourable gentleman in the Chair, none of us enjoys a monopoly of wisdom.
Yes and they all need to be taken into account. Sadly, as we have heard from the Minister of State, the Bill is fatally flawed. Section 2, for example, refer to a relevant amnesty, the consulates and so on. Would this not require another referendum? What would happen to an Irish citizen resident in an area where we did not have an embassy or a consulate? Would that person be disenfranchised under the Bill? There is no provision to deal with that issue.
I do not want to get into the issues of election expenses, having an electoral commission, a gender sub-panel and a judicial assessor and the provisions in respect of local authorities which, as the Minister of State points out, conflict with what was passed in the most recent local government Bill. For the reasons outlined and others that could be included, we should start again. With respect, we should not be starting from this position, although I respect the work put into the Bill.
As colleagues on this side of the House will confirm, Fianna Fáil is totally supportive, as is the Government side, of realistic Seanad reform. In fact, some of us managed to persuade the Leader who started off from a position where he wanted to abolish the House to take a policy decision that he would seek to have it reformed. We have had an internal debate within Fianna Fáil on the issue. There is nothing inherently wrong with what Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn are attempting to do through the Bill and I commend them for using their Private Members' time to highlight the issue because we all accept that there is a need for reform.
I do not have the Minister of State's response in front of me, but I am intrigued by it. Please correct me if I am wrong, but when giving a reason for his opposition, he referred to section 2 and the proposal made in it for Irish passport holders to have the right to vote. He said this would be an extra cost. I am intrigued by this. Like many on all sides of the House, I support the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that Irish people abroad be able to vote in presidential elections, as a first step in widening the franchise for the Diaspora. Part of the recommendation of the convention on the criteria to be used to establish who should be entitled to vote was that one be a passport holder. I do not see any other criterion to prove identity than ownership of an Irish passport. I am aware that the Government is going to introduce legislation in this regard and that it will act on the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. However, will the Minister of State clarify why he believes there would be an extra cost involved? If there would be an extra cost in this regard, it is inferred there would be an extra cost in regard to any other proposal to extend the franchise through using the criterion that a person be an Irish passport holder. I hope I have made myself clear to the Minister of State and will be grateful if he clarifies his remarks and the reference he made to Irish passport holders in the context of the Bill.
The Minister referred to the difficulties in administering an election with an electorate of 2 million. However, what about the difficulty in the case of the university seats where the electorate has been expanded to almost 1 million? What about the difficulty in keeping that register and managing that election? It is complete and utter nonsense.
We should keep in mind that the referendum was nearly lost because it was a vanity project. We also need to keep in mind that it was in the last two weeks of the campaign that the result of the referendum was turned around by Members on the back benches and in the Independent seats.
In response to Senator David Cullinane, I wanted Sinn Féin to be included in the debate at a time when many others wanted it to be kept out.
On the definition and interpretation of "constituency", provision is made for a voter to choose a constituency. We may not get another opportunity to say this, but no provision is made for people to change their choice subsequently. While I believe we should have a "panel" rather than a "constituency", no provision is made in the Bill for a move to another constituency. It is conceivable that some panels, or "constituencies" as they are labelled in the Bill, would have significantly more voters relative to others and the respective number of seats. It seems eminently possible that this could arise, but there is inadequate provision made in the Bill to deal with such an outcome Therefore, the interpretation of "constituency", as it stands, is inadequate.
On the issue of having a gender sub-panel, I agree that there should be a 50:50 gender balance policy for a panel, but the difficulty is how we would achieve it. Providing for a specific electoral outcome for women may be legally problematic. This issue has not been tested.
It is wonderful to have such a good debate. I appreciate the fact that the Government has put such thought into this section, for which I thank the Minister of State. I will do my best to respond to some of the remarks made and issues identified, despite the fact that there is no one behind me to help me out, but I will do the best I can.
One of the issues identified by the Minister of State was that the Bill would mean that we would have a second directly elected Chamber. In the context of what we have suggested, I agree that it would be a directly elected Chamber, but it would be directly elected in a different way because of the panels to be established. The people would not be electing Members on a geographical constituency basis but on the type of candidate they wanted to be on the different panels. The Bill is an effort to put forward the fundamental principle of having a universal franchise, one person, one vote, instead of the current system which largely means that we have politicians electing other politicians, to which we object strenuously, as does the public.
On the point made about the use of the terms "constituency" and "panel", we used these terms interchangeably to try to unpack and make more accessible the notion of a panel. We wished to ensure those voting to elect Members to a particular panel would feel part of that constituency. It would not be a geographical constituency, but use of the word "constituency" was deliberate and interchange of language.
The Minister of State also suggested various aspects of the Bill were legally flawed or problematic from a legal point of view. With others, Senator Feargal Quinn and I look forward to considering more deeply the meaning and detail of what has been put forward by the Minister of State, although, in many cases, he has just identified something as legally flawed or problematic. It would be helpful if he provided more detail on the reasons.
On gender equality, like Senator Cáit Keane, I do not believe there is a major issue in that regard. As far as I understand it, nobody in this Chamber is against the principle of gender equality. We debated thaeissue previously in the context of the Electoral Act.
This was our best effort to try to find a way to bring gender equality into this Chamber with the use of sub-panels, which in the past were referred to as inside and outside panels. If there is a better way and if the Government is in favour of gender equality for this Chamber, then it should put forward its proposals, as distinct from simply opposing what we have done with this Bill. It was our best effort at that moment in order to incorporate the principle of gender equality, which we all knew we wanted and which was passed for the other House. If the other House has it, then this House should have it too.
In his concluding remarks, the Minister of State spoke about why the Government is opposing section 2. He said he had an alternative on offer, which was to extend the franchise for the university panel. Yes, the heads of a Bill dealing with this were published a long time ago. I understand that many people were consulted about those heads, including the Seanad, which had a good debate. The consultation process was concluded in April 2014, but many months later the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is still considering what to do with the Bill. As the Minister of State said, that Bill will be published in 2015. If it is published next year, however, it will be too late, in our view, if we want that kind of change to happen, even with regard to that particular composition of Members of this House.
In the Dáil yesterday, the Taoiseach said he was establishing a working group on Seanad reform. We welcome the fact that he is finally doing so. I read his comments and noted that none of us will be participating in that working group. The discussion on this Bill concerns what we as Senators want to do by way of Seanad reform. There are few alternatives on offer and we do not even have a Government Bill. If we had such a Bill in 2015, we probably would not have enough time to pass it through both Houses. Even if we did so, however, there would still be elitism in the Seanad. In addition, the people would not have direct elections for the Seanad that were different from those for the Dáil.
I am stunned at the effrontery of the Government side in trying to be so utterly obstructionist about every aspect of this Bill. Those Members were elected on the promise of political reform but have split themselves asunder on the issue of abolishing the Seanad. Most Government Senators were either lukewarm in their support for abolition or, in many cases, frankly opposed their own Government's position. They should be warmly embracing every opportunity for meaningful Seanad reform. If the 2013 referendum meant anything, it was an endorsement of Seanad reform. I do not believe any single person went into the polling station on the day of the referendum wishing to maintain the status quo. A plurality of people, a majority of those who cast their ballots, voted effectively for reform. This message needs to be taken on board.
For the Government merely to implement the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution 40-odd years later and say that this is long-promised political reform is absolutely unsatisfactory. Their use of tactics such as calling a vote on the Title of the Bill speaks somewhat to the insincerity of their commitment to the whole question of reform.
What could be simpler? The people said "No" to abolishing the Seanad. We are all democrats and we believe that we should have a popularly, generally enfranchised second Chamber, elected in a different fashion from the first Chamber, so that we have people representing a different spectrum of interests; perhaps not local electoral constituency interests, but more national interests. What could be simpler?
We have a number of opportunities with various reform Bills - including the Bill from my esteemed colleagues, Senators Quinn and Zappone, my own Bill, and now the Fianna Fáil Bill - to deal with substantive reform. If the early signals we are getting here mean anything, it seems to me that there is going to be no reform whatsoever. There will be a little bit of adjusting around the edges, changing the way we elect the current six university Senators. By the way, I will support that. Anything that increases the number of people who have a direct popular vote for any seat in this House is something I will support. I will support enthusiastically anything that moves us away from a situation in which 200,000 people elect six Senators, 1,000 people elect 43 Senators, and one person elects 11 Senators. It can only be an improvement. That is what we should all be striving for.
The whole question of political reform is not hung just on the Seanad. Much as we like to think it, we are not the centre of the political universe or the centre of politics in Ireland. We are what we are. It has been an interesting forum for debating meaningful political change. Such change should apply not only to the processes of this House but to politics in general. Right at the core of it, we are seeing example after example of the system's failings - specifically, how they revolve around the Whips in the Dáil. It should be an opportunity for us in this House to try to break free from the turgid shackles of whipped, unthinking, slavish, sheepdog-like behaviour and, instead, to think, come up with some constructive suggestions, and vote with our consciences on how we can make the politics of this country a little bit better. I see no evidence of it, however.
We know who the winners are when the true democrats start behaving like this. Those recent converts to democracy, who may have a rather lukewarm commitment to it, suddenly start to look not so bad when those who are supposed to be the expert exponents and passionate devotees of democracy start behaving in a fashion that is a little bit undemocratic.
I am sorry that Senator Paul Coghlan has left, because I wanted to ask him about a point of information. I know that today many people in his esteemed County Kerry decided that they might elect to have it deemed an island in a separate category from the rest of the country.
I have raised this matter because it may explain the fact that Senator Paul Coghlan seemed to think there were two categories of Irish citizen abroad: those who have access to a consular office and those who do not. That is not the case. Everyone has access to a consular office. For some of them it will be in the same country they live in, while for others it will be a designated consular office in another country which assumes responsibilities for their country of residence.
I hope we will get this Bill through Committee Stage today and that we will pass it. I also hope that my Bill will be afforded the opportunity for a full debate when it comes before us. Our colleagues in the other House should also have an opportunity to see these important pieces of legislation and have a debate that relates not only to the way we do business here but also to the way we do business in our Parliament.
I agree wholeheartedly with the motivation behind Senator Zappone's Bill. On a number of occasions, I have said on the record that the Seanad referendum provided us with an opportunity to closely examine our political system and ask searching questions about what we believe our system of Government should be. As a member of the Constitutional Convention, as many other Members of this Chamber were, I think the question of reform goes way beyond this particular House. It also concerns the Dáil and wider aspects of our governance structure, including how we will reform the presidential election system.
The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs is currently looking at how, in a broader context, we can enable our diaspora to vote. There are many reform issues that we must face as a country, of which Seanad reform is one. I believe that the people voted for reform of the Seanad. To be frank, there is no real, credible proposition on the table at the moment, other than reforming the election process for the university panels. I am personally disappointed that the Government has not taken this issue more seriously.
Having said all that, I must now consider the Bill before us. In the first instance, it was accepted by this House because the Members of the Seanad wanted to express their views on reform. They wanted to give a clear indication that we wanted to see reform of the Seanad. One of the strengths of any Upper House must be that it is seen as being independent from the mainstream political process.
I do not believe we can go forward with a Bill that has, unfortunately, been designed to result in the Seanad becoming a Dáil 2.0 or a Dáil-lite, for want of a better phrase.
I have said on a number of occasions that any reform of the Seanad must focus on the issue of representation, particularly of minorities in our society. It must also focus on providing expertise within the political system. One of the issues raised consistently at the Constitutional Convention was the concept that the Dáil was far too clientelist and did not spend enough time in contemplation and bringing expertise to the table. A system based on the existing panel structure will not bring us to the position we wish to achieve. A number of people have commented on this issue. Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, for example, has suggested we need a properly representative and independent Seanad "moving towards a state conducted for the public interest, not one that is a separate, unaccountable and arrogant entity, divorced from the people it is supposed to serve." That is the reason I raise the issue of minorities. Many communities are not represented by the current political structure. One need look no further than the Dáil Chamber to see the extent to which impoverished communities are not represented in the current political structure. Yesterday, I raised the incidence of cancer in impoverished communities where people do not have access to health care. I do not believe modelling this Chamber on Dáil-lite is the way to proceed. Opening the Seanad to a popular vote with the current panel structure would not do anything to improve the current situation and would bring us to what should be a novel and representative system.
The current measures have been criticised by a number of people, including law lecturers in University College Dublin, UCD, Dublin City University, DCU, and the University of Limerick, UL, for retaining panels provided for in the Constitution. Panel seats have never been meaningful. In the years I have been a Member, Senators have stood up and said they represent such and such an interest group and the like, but there is no real, meaningful panel system within the Seanad and there is no good reason to believe more can be done with that panel system by simply extending the franchise. It will yield a miniature and pointless replica of the Dáil, risking parliamentary gridlock. If we are to reform the Seanad in a meaningful way, we should not do it by rushing a Bill through the House. I understand Senator Katherine Zappone's frustration. We are rapidly approaching the end of the Government's term in office and, of course, there is frustration that we have not brought forward meaningful reform, as the people of Ireland have asked us to do. However, I do not believe the Bill achieves that purpose. We might get a better version of an old system, but we are losing an opportunity to do something meaningful about representation in this country.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, a former active Member of the House. I have not seen him in the House since his appointment. I welcome the words he used. He might have got some help in drafting them, but he was making points about the Bill. Members who were involved in drafting the Bill put a great deal of effort, thought and time into it. Nobody is saying it is not flawed in some way or other, but the purpose of Committee Stage is to debate the Bill, criticise it, comment on and change it, if necessary. One of our main aims on Committee Stage was to ensure we could have change. We thought the Government did not have the heart, stomach or enthusiasm for another referendum and on that basis our effort was to see if it was possible to have change without another referendum. I believe a reasonably good effort was made in that regard. That does not mean the Bill is not foolproof or that it is not possible to make some changes to it.
I was delighted with the Taoiseach's announcement yesterday that he was establishing a working group, but that is 13 months or more since the referendum was held. It has taken too long. I have often criticised the length of time required to get something done in the Oireachtas, but 13 months after the Taoiseach had said there would be change and that the Government wouild do something about it, he is only now setting up a working group. As Senator Katherine Zappone said, nobody from this House is on the working group. That is not democracy. If we are to have democracy, we should at least ensure that when people vote against the abolition of the Seanad, the Taoiseach will act on his words that there will be change and reform of the Seanad. Given that 13 months on he is setting up a working group that is due to report in another three or four months and does not include a Member of the Seanad, I do not believe the Taoiseach's heart is in reform. On that basis, this debate is necessary. This is one of the few chances we have had to debate the possibility of reform. The reform provided for in the Bill is an effort. Nobody is saying it is foolproof, but if it must be improved, let us ensure we can do this.
I admire my colleagues for the sincerity of their views that the House requires reform. However, I must defend my electorate - county councillors throughout the country. With all due respect to Senator Katherine Zappone, I suggest she run for election in the near future in a Dáil constituency or the Seanad election. She speaks in a derogatory fashion about our electorate because we are elected by politicians. All county councillors will only be elected and re-elected if they look after the people in their communities in which they are social workers. The Senator should inform herself more about the work of a county councillor. The hardest election to win is a Seanad election by county councillors. I have run and been successful three times. I will not do it again as I wish to hand over the baton to another person. The Senator should make herself aware. She refers to being elected by politicians, but if only she knew how hard it is to be elected by politicians - it is far more difficult than to be elected by the public.
-----but one could be a proper politician if one could give one's opinion in a situation where there was no need for the Whip. We are here to represent the public and interpret what it wants.
I do not agree that the people voted for reform of the Seanad. I never heard them say that. They voted to keep the Seanad, not to leave power in the hands of one Chamber. They were afraid of the Lower House being too powerful. Saying they voted for reform would not stand up in a court of law. I agree with Senator Aideen Hayden. I, too, would like more disparate groups and the more vulnerable in society to be represented here.
Senator Katherine Zappone is being derogatory about us, but I assure her that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have very difficult Seanad elections. When I first stood for election, there were no Sat Navs, TomToms and the like and we had to find and travel on boreens.
The act is very physically demanding in every way. Sinn Féin people in this House are lifted in here by their party.
Sinn Féin Senators are lifted in here by their party and, with all due respects, Labour Party Senators are lifted in by their party but we have to compete. The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Senators have a mega job to do when seeking election. I assure Members that it is very difficult for a Fine Gael person-----
-----or for a Fianna Fáil person to get elected to this House. Many hundreds of people have tried to get elected to the Seanad, from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but have not succeeded. I am trying to enlighten the Senator and wish her luck if she seeks election.
One must be burnished by the electorate, whether that is politicians or the public, to know what it is really like. I do not want to hurt anybody's feelings because I hate my feelings being hurt and they are regularly hurt here. I have a problem with the principle behind a Taoiseach's nominee which is enshrined in the Constitution. That is my honest opinion and I always like to speak the truth. I have a problem with the principle.
I have found it very irritating when this new Seanad came into action, and I am sure that the Cathaoirleach will agree along with many of my colleagues, that we were treated by the Taoiseach's nominees as if we were a crowd of wasters that needed reform, etc. It was very irritating listening to it being said that we were half asleep or something which is not correct. I have given my opinion truthfully and hope that the Government's Senator-----
I commend the movers of the Bill. We all want to see change and reform in the way we do our business. I agree with some items in the Bill but there are some that I totally disagree with. I reject totally that the Government has been in any way obstructionist in relation to this Bill.
Let us look at the Title of Bill - the Seanad Bill. I would have thought that it would have been called the Seanad Reform Bill, the Seanad (Amendment) Bill or whatever. Therefore, I reject totally the charge that the Government side is being in any way obstructionist about this Bill. The primary duty of this House is to scrutinise, amend and debate legislation. That is exactly what we are doing with this Bill and is the same for any other Bill. That is what this Bill deserves, namely, the scrutiny of this House. It deserves to be amended and discussed so that we can pick the good things out. Obviously we are not going to agree. There are people on this side of the House who disagree with my sentiments. The same applies to the other side of the House. People disagree with each other on some aspects of this Bill but we will debate it. As a democracy we will debate the legislation.
As has been mentioned, and as the Taoiseach announced yesterday, the Government decided last week that a working group would be set up within the next number of days. Its jobs is to bring together the reports and all the proposals that have come before the House and it will report back by February.
I am sure that when the report is in place we will have another very important debate in this House on the proposals put forward. Again, I reject the claim that we have not been reforming this House. We have done quite a number of things to reform this House already.
We have referred to the public consultation committee. We have already met the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. Senators Quinn, Leyden, van Turnhout, Colm Burke and myself will examine the EU work programme which will be published this month of November, probably next week. We will look at areas we can debate from that work programme in this House. That is one item.
We will also have debates on the North-South Ministerial Council in this House, which has not happened heretofore. Those are just some of the items. At the Committee on Procedure and Privileges we are talking about scrapping Adjournment motions and replacing them with commencement debates which would avoid clashes with committees. These are all very laudable items of reform.
The vast majority of things that people are caught up with when they talk about reform, is reform in terms of the election of the Seanad. That has been the topic for 80% of the reports carried out. The ten reports that have been mentioned have dealt with how the Seanad is elected and not with Seanad reform per sewithin the House. We can do so much within the House and will do so with co-operation. We will bring everyone on side to discuss how we can do so within our own rules. That is my intention. That is what we are doing and will continue to do. There is a greater agenda in regard to the election.
The Government has mentioned that university seats should be elected now by institutes of technology as well as universities. That is something which the people decided in 1979. It is the Government putting in place what the people decided in 1979 and that is how it should go. Why have we not had a Bill on something that the people decided in 1979?
This is an effort by the Government. Some people do not like it because it will affect them personally in terms of how they get elected. They are right to fight their corner in that regard. They are very right in fighting their own corner and we have to listen to them as well. This Government has listened to what the people said in 1979 and will try to legislate for same.
I reject totally the claim that this side of the House is being obstructionist in regard to this Bill. We commend the Senators who moved the Bill, and we commend many of the items that are contained in the Bill. I think, and the movers themselves will acknowledge, that this Bill deserves the same scrutiny, amendment and debate that any other Bill should get in the House.
I thank the Leader. Having reflected on this Seanad I think the problem it encountered was the attempt at abolition. We came in here, hit the ground running and had a brilliant year or so. The move to abolish us knocked us off course but we tried to come back as best we could. We did the task that the Leader annunciated and took legislation. For example, some legislation had 15 amendments on one day or 19 amendments on another day.
I have just remembered that I must welcome the Minister of State to the House. Unfortunately, the amendments on water that we tabled were not listened to and, at this juncture, I think they could have saved the Government an awful lot of trouble.
If today's proposal goes forward, with an electorate of 5.2 million as stated by the Minister of State, it will mean the Seanad will clash with the Dáil which has a smaller electorate. I do not want a mini-Dáil, a double sized Dáil or whatever. We are here to revise legislation. All second chambers are an artificial construction but the people voted to keep us.
In response to the important points made by Senator Hayden, the strongest vote to keep us came from working class areas. I do not know how that happened but it indicates disillusionment with party politics. In constituencies where every single Deputy wanted this House abolished as much as 68% of the people wanted it retained. That proves somebody out there has great faith in what we do but we have never really responded. What did the people vote for? They voted for some hope and acknowledged that party politics was going wrong. The Seanad referendum was the start of the Government starting to get into trouble.
People mentioned the county councillors.
Why did the county councillors not say to the abolitionists on the Government side that this was not what the grassroots public wanted? County councillors should have been more active in describing their role in electing people.
The five Independent university Senators are the last part of the vocational element, with 64 departments in my case. We try to bring that wisdom here. With regard to the minority aspect, we have unwittingly been chosen by people, especially in working-class areas in Dublin, to represent them as best we can. They rejected all the party politicians. I recall posters in Dublin West indicating that only ten or 12 people in the area ever vote in Seanad elections but thousands do so in Ballsbridge. The people turned out and voted for us to bring an element into the system that is not there currently.
The eighth amendment to the Constitution has been mentioned and I spoke with people in a Fianna Fáil Government some time ago about it. They told me that every time they tried to implement the amendment, they realised that in reforming the Seanad, they would lose as well as gain. It was not that people did nothing but rather that every time they tried to act, they realised there were costs associated with change. The whip system has also been criticised and I agree with those comments.
The Leader has spoken about minorities which we are here to represent. We had politicians from Northern Ireland in this Chamber on Friday. In the university constituency, particularly the Trinity example, there are a substantial number of people who support this House and have a vote. They have rights under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the 1937 Constitution and the Good Friday Agreement. They value these rights. On Friday and today, we discussed the possibility of more quotas for people from both communities in Northern Ireland to attend universities in the South. Inadvertently, the rate of exchange between the systems has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of people attending our universities. The Northern Irish Unionist is a minority on the island and one of the functions of this House is to ensure such a person is represented. We have tried to do so and we have had people from the Orange Order come before us. We sent a message of sympathy when the Orange halls in Newtowncunningham and Convoy were burned down and attempts were made to burn down the Presbyterian church in Newtowncunningham.
We have tried to reach out and implement many reforms but we must be very careful about the nature of a second House and why it should never be a rival to the other House. Within those constraints, particularly the reforms proposed by the Leader and the points made by the Minister of State, we can develop a role. It is a pity for this House that it has spent a year or more trying to stop its abolition rather than the daily work that may not be seen on television and which is barely reported in newspapers but which is extremely valuable nonetheless. Do Bills leave this House in better shape than when they came in? Absolutely. We never use the "R" word - resign - in here as we go through a Bill line by line. I hope the Ministers bring legislation back to the other House having had the benefit of the wisdom here. I hope we will always have that in whatever shape the Seanad takes.
People did not vote for a rival to the Dáil in the referendum and perhaps we should have studied those results. I recall an opinion poll in The Irish Timeson the Tuesday before the referendum indicating that 27% of people were in favour of retaining the House but by Friday, that became 52% of people. It caught the media and political commentators unaware but it is the feeling we experienced on the ground. We should implement measures on foot of those wishes.
This is a very valuable exercise as we have been listening to valuable contributions from the floor. Senator Quinn referred to the working group and it is important that when it is established, it should have input and representation from the Seanad. That is a very important point that may not have been raised if Senator Quinn had not made it. The terms of reference should be drawn from the submissions coming from the House, including Senator Crown's Bill and the other legislation from Senator Zappone. There were three Bills.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach indicated that he is examining the submissions already made and that other submissions will be taken by the working group. The door has not been closed and is being opened further for consultation with the working group. Senator Barrett argued that the second House is always an artificial construction but there is nothing artificial about councillors. As Senator White stated, they are the most discerning group of people that one could come before. As Senator White also indicated, the councillors are elected to represent the people-----
These people would not be elected if they did not have a mandate from the people. I am not saying it is ideal but I agree with Senator White that this is not an artificial construct. It is very real. I commend the people selected by the Taoiseach as representatives. They are in a very privileged position, which I am sure they recognise. When the franchise is to be extended overseas, how much will the electorate know about the people they will put into the House to represent them? A person having a degree - I have two - does not mean he or she is qualified to sit on a particular chair.
A councillor or other politician with experience on the ground would have gone before the people. I agree with the idea of extending the franchise to include everybody in the country if that is possible. All educational establishments in the country should be recognised. Universities and third-level institutions have been mentioned and all those must be included. Apprenticeship programmes must also be recognised as there are multiple types of education and intelligence, which must recognised to ensure we can be inclusive of all people and cultures. It is important that the cultural aspect of society is included. I will contribute again on the relevant sections but it is important to have commented on the composition, as raised by Senator Quinn, as well as the terms of reference of the working group.
I beg the Minister of State's forgiveness as with my novice status, I forgot to recognise him formally. I agree with Senator White. I only needed nine politicians to sign a nomination form and it took me the best part of 12 weeks to get them so I cannot begin to understand how difficult it must be to get past the most discerning group of politicians one would ever find. I would not discount city or county councillors at all. There may be some argument for a college system that would allow the general population vote in a geographical area before the process would be passed to councillors. We could consider that at some stage.
I am concerned that there is a drive to change the university panel but not examine the rest of the panels.
We should be examining the process of educationalists and people involved with culture electing people to the education and cultural panel. People involved with the trade union movement and in business should be involved with the labour panel, for example. Those involved with agriculture should have a say in who is elected to the agricultural panel.
I would like to see some reform of the vocational panels. I would not like to see the vocational panels disbanded or some other change made to them. One of the riches I have witnessed in this House is the interests of people and the way in which they are able to bring those interests into debates on the Order of Business and on legislation. I have been extremely impressed by Members from both sides of the House in the short time I have been here.
I am a little concerned about including the diaspora, although it is a lovely, populist thing to say. I hold two passports, as do many other people around the world. Such people could hold up their stars and stripes passport, for example, when there is an election in America and then hold up their Irish passport and vote in a Seanad election, even if they have not been in the country for 40 years. I believe that is wrong in every sense of the word.
Regarding the issue of whether one has a degree or not, I would agree that apprentices are equally as well educated and qualified to elect a Senate Member as anyone who holds a degree. I did not manage to get a degree until I was nearly 40 and have no academic snobbery about me whatsoever.
Finally, I would like to see every member of the public given the option to stand for election to Seanad Éireann. We have set the bar extremely high, particularly when it comes to a Seanad by-election, where a potential candidate must find nine people to support him or her, rather than the four people that are ordinarily required. As I will be throwing myself before city councillors in the not-too-distant future, I want to acknowledge their wonderful contribution to the Seanad.
Senator Cummins has already said much of what I intended to say. I agree that unless we initiate electoral reform, the public will not be happy. We have had a lot of operational reform of the House already. Indeed, on the first day of this Seanad, the appointee Members were given the option to stay independent if they wished, rather than accepting the party whip, which was a big move. Many of the appointees have not taken the whip, have been performing very well and have vote for or against the Government as they saw fit.
I would like to see the franchise for the university panel extended to all graduates. My own daughter is a graduate of Cork Institute of Technology and very proud of it. However, she is very aggrieved that her brother, who graduated from University College Cork, can vote in Senate elections while she cannot. She is not at all pleased about that and cannot understand why her qualifications are not deemed adequate. She is now working in a professional line and doing very well, which proves that there is nothing wrong with institute of technology qualifications. Graduates of the institutes of technology are just as able and willing to vote as university graduates.
In fairness, the Leader has reformed many of the operational procedures of this House and continues to do so. Indeed, he will be introducing more new procedures in the near future. He has always done his best to avoid the use of the guillotine during legislative debates and he must be commended for that. I hope he will continue in that vein for the remainder of the lifetime of this Seanad.
I must disagree with something Senator White said earlier. I do not know what gave her the idea that it is very easy for a member of the Labour Party to be nominated to run for the Seanad.
Fianna Fáil can do the very same as the Labour Party but today its members seem to be aligning themselves with Fine Gael and likening themselves to that party. To be honest, many members of the public believe that should be the case anyway because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are actually very alike. That is being confirmed by Senator White today but I would point out to her that it is no easy task to secure a nomination or to get elected. We have to go out and face members from all of the councils, the same as everyone else and we have a much smaller electorate than Fianna Fáil has.
We do not have serious competition within our party? Is the Senator suggesting that our candidates do not have serious competition? I certainly would not say that about candidates from my party. I can assure Senator White that there are damned serious contenders out there and one must fight hard for one's seat.
I have been here for 30 years and I have never heard them disparage this side of the House, disparage the Senate, look down on us or lecture us. I have not heard that at all. I have seen the best, most diverse, most individual and the most independent group of Taoiseach's nominees in the 30 years I have been in this House. I do not always agree with them. Indeed, I can disagree with them strongly on occasion but they have been absolutely magnificent.
What the Leader has just told us about the establishment of a review committee is just another example of the outrageous, cavalier and arrogant attitude of the Government. It has established a committee without any consultation with the Senate and without anyone from the Senate sitting on said committee. It is absurd and an absolute disgrace. This is also why I object to this Bill, in a human way. Its proposers are a multi-multi-millionaire and two unelected people who were parachuted in without an election and without incurring any expenses and none of the three will probably run at the next election and will therefore not be subject to these rules. There is something cavalier and arrogant about that too.
Here we are, having this debate but I am the only person in this House, out of 60 Members, who bothered to table any amendments. I tabled 11 amendments, including one providing for the removal of the Whip from Members of the House. My amendments also deal with the proposal to take away €21,000 from us. There is a provision to reduce our income by €21,000 which is bloody fine for a multi-millionaire but there are some of us here who are just ordinary, humble human beings, trying to scrape a crust ---
With regard to the university constituency, I do not believe it is elitist but frankly, I would not give a fishes' tit if it is or not. It would not cost me a bother. If one wants experts, one gets experts and one does not get them ploughing around in the ditches of County Wicklow or elsewhere ---
I have a record here of what the Taoiseach said yesterday on the working group. He said the group will comprise "persons who no longer have a vested interest in the Seanad but who served there". That confirms that it will not include us.
We have heard very divergent views here this evening, which is welcome. As a former Member of this House, I respect every Senator's view. I commend Senators Quinn and Zappone who have put a lot of work into this Bill, which is well intentioned and which has generated a very welcome debate this evening. We have only reached section 2 of the Bill and have heard very diverse views across the board.
That said, I have an obligation as a legislator to point out where the Bill is fundamentally flawed.
As legislators, we are required to robustly scrutinise and analyse all legislation that comes before us. A number of Senators made the same point.
The Bill gives rise to significant issues which impact on a number of articles of the Constitution. I referred previously to Article 15.10 of the Constitution. The Bill would impact on that Article because the Seanad cannot be directed in legislation on how it does its business, which is what the Bill sets out to do.
To address some of the points made on Seanad reform in general, given the wide and diverse range of views expressed in this debate, it is clear that it will be difficult - in my view impossible - to arrive at a consensus. With this in mind, the Taoiseach announced the establishment of a working group which will examine all previous reports, proposals and submissions on Seanad reform and welcome new submissions from Senators and members of the wider public. The Government has given a commitment that the report will be finalised by the end of February 2015, when it will be submitted to the Government.
I acknowledge the work the Leader is doing in the background through the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
I experienced frustration in the four years that I was a Member of the Seanad. Those who have been Members of this House for much longer than four years will agree that the frustration of Senators predates the election of the current Government. In 1979, the people decided in a referendum to extend the university franchise. Why has this decision not been implemented? I am pleased to note that I am part of a Government that will introduce legislation in 2015 to extend the university franchise to all graduates. While this step may be too little too late, Senators must acknowledge that it constitutes progress. The new working group presents another opportunity for all of us to contribute to the wider debate by making submissions to assist its deliberations.
I propose to respond to a number of queries raised by Senators, specifically Senator Paschal Mooney's question on the issue of passport holders. The point I tried to make was that the Bill, if enacted in its current form, would place voters overseas at a disadvantage by requiring them to have a passport, whereas people in this country would not be required to have a passport. The proposal would create an element of discrimination. We cannot impose a charge on a person by virtue of having a vote on the basis that he or she must have a passport.
I accept the Senator's point on presidential elections and the views and recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. The Government's response to the recommendations of the convention's report is being prepared in the Department and we will address them in detail in that response. The Bill, if enacted, would create an element of discrimination against voters outside the State vis-à-visvoters in the State.
I am grateful to the Minister of State for his reply and I am pleased that the Bill will form part of the wider debate on the Seanad. I am particularly pleased, given the Minister of State's background in both Houses, that he will be central to this debate.
While I do not wish to be glib, one would expect a citizen living outside the State to automatically hold a passport, as he or she would not be able to travel otherwise. This is a minor point.
While I am prepared to concede the point, which is a minor one, I am certain the issue will be addressed in the context of the Government's response to the recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention. I will nail my colours to the mast and state that I fully support the right of members of the diaspora to vote in presidential elections. As to the wider issue of how to deal with the diaspora in other elections, I have a problem with the proposal to extend the franchise that far. As the Minister of State will be aware, the question of whether to afford the diaspora the right to vote is not new. It is an old political chestnut that has been tossed around for the past 30 years. All sorts of lobbies have emerged over the years, particularly in the United Kingdom, seeking a vote for Irish people living abroad. I distinctly remember a point made by the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring, that under our proportional representation system, he would hate to have to wait for the result from the last box of votes from Boston to decide the final seat in Kerry North, as his constituency was then known.
Given that the diaspora numbers approximately 70 million people, the decision on how to address the issue of enfranchising Irish people abroad is a considerable problem. I do not believe it would be possible to do so under the current system, except in the case of presidential elections. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence in allowing me to stray a little from the point.
I would like to draw on Standing Order 55 on the closure of debate by moving that the question be now put. As I interpret the procedure set down in the Standing Order, if I move that the question be now put and my motion is accepted, I can propose that the question be put to a vote. My interpretation may be incorrect.
To respond to Senator Mooney's comments on the diaspora, the Joint Committee on European Affairs will publish its report on wider engagement with the diaspora at 11 a.m. tomorrow. One of the issues the committee considered is that Ireland has a very large diaspora. While we may wish to engage with members of the diaspora, serious issues arise in terms of how we could do so, particularly in respect of the level of influence the diaspora could have on the electoral system. One of the issues that arises is whether there should be representation without taxation. While voting rights for the diaspora may be wonderful in theory, if it comes down to the final box in a constituency such as Kerry North or Kerry South-----
It would be worthwhile to read the joint committee's report before considering further the issue of how we engage with the diaspora. The committee was asked to consider the issue in the context of wider engagement with communities from other parts of Europe.
For God's sake, we can hardly get the electoral registers right at home, whether in Kerry North, Kerry South or Kerry united. With respect, I do not know how in blazes one could compile an electoral register for the diaspora, scattered as it is throughout the nations of the earth. Given that we do not have diplomatic representation in half the countries of the world, how would we account for Irish people living in such countries? They would be disenfranchised under the proposed system. As I stated, this is a crazy proposal. Let us start again, because we are in the wrong place, one from which we cannot make progress. With respect, the Bill is fundamentally flawed, as the Minister of State said. While I respect the points made by all speakers, we must address basic issues such as the registration of electors, which is not dealt with in the Bill.
On the provisions to include voters in Northern Ireland, I am doing some research on the numbers that would be involved. The Bill does not provide figures on specific sections of the proposed electorate. The general electorate would be between 3 million and 5 million people, of whom more than 250,000 would be people resident in Northern Ireland. Section 35 envisages a role being performed by the Northern Ireland division of the Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom in verifying eligibility to register for applicants based in Northern Ireland. Legislation passed in this State cannot compel or direct a body in another state to perform a particular function.
We must be realistic. I am pointing out the reasons the measures cannot be implemented as proposed.
I have here a fact sheet from the website GlobalIrish.ie. Based on major global research, it estimates that the diaspora numbers 70 million. Where would the legislation take us?
The Minister of State has referred to the fact that the Taoiseach will put a group together to consider this issue. I am naturally suspicious of groups put together by anybody, anywhere, anytime. Should a group be put together, it must include Members of this House and, second, the names of the proposed members must be placed before us to be debated. For far too long decisions have been made behind closed doors. People have been embarrassed by a recent decision, which was unfair to them and their families.
When the Government was formed, the Taoiseach spoke about a new age in Irish politics and about openness and transparency. I ask that Members of the House be informed of the names of the proposed members of any group and that Members from all parties and none - I include myself in that regard - have an input into any group to decide on the reform of the House. Bringing in a former Member or somebody who has not been a Member is not the way to reform the Seanad; all it would do is lead to another debate such as we have had tonight and we would get nowhere with it.