Wednesday, 8 July 2015
Report of Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015: Statements
We will now hear statements on the report of the working group on Seanad reform. As Members know, the working group was chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, a former Member of the House. He is most welcome, with another former Member, Mr. Joe O'Toole. I invite Dr. Manning to make his presentation.
Dr. Maurice Manning:
On my own behalf and that of Mr. Joe O'Toole, it is a great honour to be back here again. We had a full debate on the report the last day we were here when we made opening statements which are available and in which we outlined the way in which the working party had operated and the principles we felt should be part of any body of Seanad reforms. We worked on the fact that everything had to be done within the framework of the Constitution and outlined various ways by which the electorate could be greatly expanded, effectively to the point of universal suffrage, while at the same time retaining as far as possible the vocational nature of the Seanad. We tried to go back to first principles, to the House the founders of Seanad Éireann had envisaged. In our report we tried to indicate the powers, role and functions that would be appropriate to such a reform.
We noted clearly that the House had been in a state of constant reform in the past decade or so and that the question of reform had concerned and engaged the attention of many Members. We also noted that many of the reforms made would - some as they were and some capable of being developed - form the basis for the role we envisaged was intended for Seanad Éireann as a body that would not be in competition with Dáil Éireann but which would fulfil a different role and do many of the things not being done in the First House. That is what we outlined the last day when my colleague went into detail - he is prepared to do so again - on how some of the changes proposed would operate in practice. We were very pleased with the response from Seanad Éireann. There was a general welcome for both the idea of reform and some of the proposals made. There were some constructive suggestions and we are very glad to be back here today to continue the debate.
I welcome former Senators Maurice Manning and Joe O'Toole. In our previous debate on Seanad reform I expressed the view that this should be the last report on the issue and that we should move on many of its proposals. Many Members have expressed concerns to me and in the House about several aspects of the report. I hope they will outline their concerns because this is their last chance to have their say on the report before a Bill is brought before the House in the next session. The Taoiseach has informed me that it is his intention to set up an implementation group early to move on matters, with a view to having a Seanad reform Bill pass through both Houses during the term of office of the Government.
On the Order of Business Senator Darragh O'Brien said it was mentioned on the RTE website that the Taoiseach was meeting group leaders in the Seanad today. I have not been able to speak to the Taoiseach, but his officials have informed me that he intends to meet group Leaders in the Dáil today to discuss the report. I have no further information for the House in that regard.
On the last occasion we discussed the report I dealt specifically with the reform of the role, powers and business of the House. I made it clear, as the report does, that the primary role of the House was the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation. I welcome the recognition of the working group that in strengthening and refining the role of the Seanad a stronger institutional system must be prioritised and that Seanad Members should have access to adequate research services, specialist support services, training facilities and technological services. We all share these sentiments. We should have parity of esteem with Members of the other House in all areas that affect our role and the performance of our duties.
The Seanad has sought to augment its role and functions.As the report outlines, these innovations provide a sound starting point for a clear definition and consolidation of the ways in which Seanad Éireann can make a distinctive contribution to the work of the Oireachtas. Our engagement with our MEPs, European Commissioner and officials has brought a new dimension to our work. We had our Commissioner here early last week. Our proposal to scrutinise the EU work programme in many areas would add to this work.
The public consultation process that was initiated has been a success. Our most recent report on farm safety was published to great acclaim and the subject of a documentary on Oireachtas TV recently. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, will be in the House next week to debate the report with us.
The proposals for further debate on North–South Ministerial Council meetings are welcome, as are the proposals to consider the reports of regulators and other statutory inspectors, bearing in mind secondary legislation, etc. To implement these proposals, the Government in power would have to buy in totally to the enhanced role of the House. Ministers would have to be made available and regard attendance here as an important function, bearing in mind the new duties that would be assigned to the House. This cannot be taken as a given considering what could occur under various Governments, as we all know on both sides of the House. The Government must be serious and supportive of the House, which has not been the case in the past. Future Governments must not regard it as an inconvenience but as a strong and integral part of our democratic system.
Let me refer to some of the contentious parts of the report, which deal mainly with how Senators are elected. This matter has dominated all other reports and is one on which one will never have unanimity. We are all clear on that point.
I favour the recommendation that 30 Members be elected by popular vote using the principle of a "one person, one vote" system. That is fair. People want to have a say in the election of Members to the Seanad. The 30 seats recommended by the working group represents a fair balance in that regard.
I favour the retention of university seats, but Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole might clarify whether the proposal includes the other third level colleges. The Government has not advanced its proposals to legitimise the will of the people in the referendum in this regard. Do the recommendations imply that the university panel would remain as it is, or that the franchise would be extended to all third level colleges, as envisaged in the referendum passed by the people?
Extending the vote to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and the holders of Irish passports living overseas would present many logistical problems, some of which are outlined in the report. Could we have circumstances in which more people outside the jurisdiction would vote in a Seanad election than voters within the jurisdiction? This has been put to me by several members of the public. Also put to me was the old chestnut of representation without taxation.
This is one of the main areas on which Members will probably dwell. We need to be clear on the question of who could vote, how citizens would vote and the number who could vote. I do not know how many Irish passport holders there are, but perhaps Mr. O’Toole and Dr. Manning have that information. If it were the case that more people outside the jurisdiction were voting than people within the jurisdiction, it would not be desirable. This may not be envisaged under the proposals.
I will allow the rest of my colleagues to contribute. Many have expressed concerns to me about the report. I hope the sentiments they expressed to me personally will be aired in the House and put to the two gentlemen in order that they may address them. This is our second time to deal with the report. There were brief contributions from Members the last time, but they will have ten minutes each to contribute this evening. They should be under no illusion that the Taoiseach has indicated that he will be setting up very soon the implementation group, with a view to having a Bill on Seanad reform passed during the term of office of the Government.
I thank both gentlemen and the members of their group for the work they did to bring forward these proposals on Seanad reform. I thank the Leader for outlining his concerns, many of which I share. As one who has relatively little experience in the Oireachtas but who has served in both the Seanad and the Dáil, I very much value the role of the Seanad in the Oireachtas. I have actually seen it at work in what some might call an unreformed Chamber. I will make my remarks in the context of my belief the Seanad has not done a bad job during the years. I have often said during debates with the Taoiseach, on the odd occasion he has seen fit to come here, that Seanad reform should take place in the context of overall Oireachtas reform.
I refer to reform of the Dáil, the committee system and the Seanad. I will be political for one moment and state what is an absolute fact: since the Seanad has been in the crosshairs since the Taoiseach saw fit to put its abolition to the people, which proposal I am happy they rejected, it has nearly come to be regarded as the only Chamber that needs to be reformed. I have seen the Seanad work very well. I have seen Senators from all parties and none, on all panels and from universities, do a particularly good job in scrutinising legislation, which is our primary role. As a Senator, I have written and published more legislation than I was able to produce in nearly four years in the Dáil. I have read more legislation than I did in the Dáil as a Deputy. I understand legislation a lot better for being in the Seanad. People should actually realise this and respect the fact that the Seanad has done a very good job. However, I have some concerns. My party published a detailed Seanad reform document which I discussed with both Mr. Joe O’Toole and Dr. Maurice Manning. I am happy that many points made within the report they have published and are presenting to us again today encompass points made in many of the reform documents many of us have brought forward. We want to see reform, albeit in the context of overall Oireachtas reform. Any future Government should commit to doing this.
I have grave concern about the manner in which this reform is being achieved. My saying this is no reflection on the two gentlemen present. The process is being rushed on the basis that the Taoiseach has said he will set up an implementation group that will produce legislation to be enacted before the end of the Government's term in office.If the term runs its full course then the Government will last until March or April 2016. I expect the legislation will be quite detailed. I have learned from my experience here that rushed legislation is poor legislation.
The composition of the implementation group is important. I, again, would like to put on the record of the House how disappointed I am that a Member of the current Seanad, and in particular the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Maurice Cummins, was not included in the working group. An existing Senator should have been included in the working group and I mean somebody who has worked through some reforms of the House. My belief is no reflection on the two gentlemen present who did their job, along with their colleagues. My grievance is more about who was selected by the Government to sit on the committee. I believe that the implementation group must have a representative group from the existing Seanad.
I do not think the Taoiseach has woken up to the fact that the Seanad should have equality and parity of esteem with the other House because this evening he will meet party leaders of the Dáil. That includes my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, who is the leader of Fianna Fáil in the Dáil, plus Gerry Adams who is the leader of Sinn Féin in the Dáil and the same for other party groups. What is wrong with us? I have had my moments with the Taoiseach but I am particularly interested in Seanad reform because I work here every single day. It would have been appropriate for the leaders of the Seanad groups to be included for the meeting.
That aside, I shall ask the delegation a few questions. I appreciate all the work that both gentlemen and their colleagues have put into the report but I am concerned about the short space of time left. How confident are both of them that legislation can be implemented during the remaining term of this Government? Have they been advised of any timeframes by Government in regard to the publication of the legislation and on bringing it forward? I heard Mr. Joe O'Toole say in the media that any changes would take place from the next Seanad election, not the one coming up but the one after that again.
It is very important that all parties and Independent groupings sign up to Seanad reform. As Senator Cummins has said, the problem with this report is that a number of reports already have been left on shelves. A referendum was passed on extending the franchise to other universities but it was never implemented. Even if legislation is passed in the Dáil and Seanad during the term of this Government, it is down to the political parties or whoever is going to be in the next Government, whatever shape that Government is going to have, to drive forward these changes.
I am gravely concerned about extending the vote to people who do not live in the jurisdiction. An argument for this can be made for people who live in the North of Ireland. We have North-South ministerial bodies, we have all-island parliamentary groupings and that type of thing plus we share a common cause. It may not be a popular to say the following but I will. When we do not have a handle on the actual number of people who may be able to vote then one could have multiples of people living outside of Ireland, or Irish passport holders, voting in a Seanad election than we have people who live in the Republic. That is a concern for me. I understand the reasoning behind making sure that Irish citizens abroad have a say but we should look at restricting the number of seats further. I am just uncomfortable with the situation. We are a small country and are not like France. I know that France and the US allow their citizens from abroad to vote in parliamentary elections. We have multiples of our population who are resident in Ireland but live abroad and these are people who are entitled to Irish passports. I do not know how one can make the distinction between people who are either born in Ireland and living abroad as an Irish passport holder and someone who has an Irish grandfather or grandmother and, therefore, gets an Irish passport. That is a major concern for me. It also gives an excuse for future governments not to proceed with these changes. We must also consider the cost for administering such a measure. There is no hierarchy of citizenship in Ireland and I do not believe there should be one in the electorate for the Seanad.
I cannot see how some of the proposals in the document could be implemented. I have read into it that one would look at people registering online, receiving their ballot paper abroad and sending it in. That aspect could be fraught with all types of dangers. All of us use online banking and do various things online but we do not vote online. I know voting online has not been proposed but I disagree with registering to vote abroad when it is very difficult to carry out checks. The people who manage the electoral registers in this country can call down to a house and check that Mr. Joe O'Toole, for example, lives at a certain address in north Dublin or that Dr. Maurice Manning lives at a certain address in south Dublin. Such checks cannot be done on people who live abroad.
I welcome the proposal to extend the franchise to the general public for 30 seats. I also believe we need to keep the vocational aspect of the Seanad. For all the criticism of the Seanad, I have seen at first hand here that, in the main, one has people who are able to draw from their own experience of the vocational system. It would be a problem if that aspect is lost and the Seanad becomes a mini Dáil.
I would like to thank both witnesses and the working group for the report. It is a serious document. I agree with the vast bulk of the report but there are some things that I have concerns about which I have outlined. I would like answers in terms of the implementation, timeframes and commitments from other parties. The Government has given a commitment but I worry that it was given in advance of a general election so the Government can say it has published a reform document on the Seanad. It seems likes a box ticking exercise but I would hate for that to be the case. I thank the delegation for their attendance here today.
I welcome former Senators, Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole, to the House again. I thank the Leader for organising the debate which follows the debate on Seanad reform that we had on 5 May, and in particular on the findings contained in the report of the working group on Seanad Reform. I commend both of them on producing the report. We all share in the hope and expectations expressed by Senator Cummins that this would be the last report on Seanad reform. I very much welcome the announcement that there will be an implementation group established in early course which is long overdue. It will be quite an achievement to get a Bill through the Oireachtas before the general election even if the implementation group is set up very quickly.
Like Senator Darragh O'Brien, I am concerned that the Taoiseach is meeting the Dáil leaders today. I hope that Seanad group leaders will be met but it is not a matter for either former Senator present. Clearly, it would be important that the Seanad group leaders also meet the Taoiseach to discuss a timetable for reform. I also agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Cummins on the status of the Seanad, the importance that should be ascribed to the Seanad and that priority should be given to the work of the Seanad.
Senator Cummins and myself, on the previous occasion, spoke at length about the procedural changes we have made to the workings of the Seanad. We spoke about the initiatives we have taken. For example, public hearings were held with interested groups and bodies on matters of public interest. We have produced some excellent reports through the initiative. Most recently, we produced a report on farm safety and the previous reports dealt with lifestyle changes to prevent cancer and the human rights of elderly persons. We have produced a whole range of different reports through the new forum of the public consultation committee. As Senator Cummins has said, we have also held a series of debates with MEPs and we have made a number of changes to the way in which the Seanad works. All of those aspects are hugely important.
I very much hope that the current Seanad will have some representation on the implementation group. Others have spoken on the matter. Indeed, I have spoken previously about the lack of representation by serving Senators on the working groups. Having said that, and as I pointed out previously, very few former or serving Senators made submissions to the working group even though clearly it was open to anyone to do so. I made a submission on behalf of Senators in the Labour Party and I went through the submission in more detail on the previous occasion we debated this matter. Now that we are coming back again, and in light of the publication of a draft Bill which seeks to implement the recommendations in the report, I might refer to some of the changes we proposed that I think might be stronger, in some ways, than some of the provisions in the Bill.
In general, the Bill and the recommendations in the report would lead to a hugely improved and more democratic Seanad. We may disagree on some of the detail but, in general, the principle of extending suffrage for the Seanad is a hugely important issue. There is agreement across the House on the need to do so.We can debate to what extent it should be extended, for instance, whether it should be extended to our diaspora or beyond the general election register to the local election register as proposed by the Labour Party group, and I have no doubt the implementation group will also consider these issues.
I have stated on a previous occasion that the report somewhat glossed over how universal suffrage for the 30 seats would work in practice. Looking through the Bill, more detail is clearly available, but there is still some issue about university Senators, which Senator Cummins raised. The issue is whether it is to be based on the existing register for the current institutions initially and for it then to be extended to all higher level education institutions. I am not clear on the point and I could not quite make it out in the Bill so I would be grateful for clarification on it.
I raised a particular issue the last time and, looking at the Bill, it is still an issue for me. The report recommends, on universal suffrage, that individuals who elect to register will choose the vocational panel of their choice and that university graduates may choose to remain eligible to vote on the university panel or transfer to one of the vocational panels. My concern is that such an approach could skew the panels. Looking at section 8 of the draft Bill, I am concerned that it could lead, in the first instance, to very uneven numbers of electors or voters across the panels, which would be a fairly obvious consequence. There might be 100,000 people opting to vote on the arts panel-----
I am just coming to that point. That is a very particular instance. How many people would be eligible to vote on the university panel if it is extended to all higher education graduates? The estimate is between 500,000 and 700,000-----
-----and that would be for six seats, while there might be just 100,000 electors on another panel, resulting in very skewed numbers on different panels.
There is a further possible consequence from the proposal in section 8 and I am offering this point in a constructive spirit. It is likely or possible that people would organise registration campaigns on a particular panel to ensure they were elected to it. The problem with one voter, one panel is that that would be a likely consequence of it. Our submission was brief but we did think through this issue a little. We suggested that each person entitled to vote would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the five panels and that university graduates could opt for a vote on the university panel instead of just one specified panel. This would guard against the skewing of voter numbers on different panels. We argued this would be like a multi-seat constituency. A person would have five votes on five panels and a person would vote 1, 2 and 3 on each of those panels. This would get over the problem of different numbers registering to vote for different panels. Under our system, people who opted in to register would register for all the panels. These are some of the details.
An issue which I did not get to address in detail on the last occasion but which is addressed in great detail in the report and is reflected in the Bill is the use of online facilities. Excellent suggestions have been made in the report about facilitating more efficient registration so that people can register online and also download ballot papers online. The Constitution requires that ballot papers are returned by post and provision is made for that in the Bill but it would be more efficient and effective if people could register and download ballot papers online.
I wish to make one further suggestion, which could be applied to current panels of voters on the university seats. This is something about which I have been thinking for some time. We should move to a system whereby those who are currently registered to vote on the Seanad Éireann register, that is graduates of the NUI and Dublin University, should be able, as one can in a general election, to check the register. A person should be able to go to a register like checktheregister.ie. Currently people can check the register but they must look at the hard copy of the Seanad Éireann electoral register, which is available in the libraries of the various institutions of the NUI and Dublin University. The NUI register is available for examination in the reception of NUI offices, but there is currently no facility for people to check an online register.
Since we were here last on 5 May, we have seen the huge amount of people who came home to vote, who, having checked the register, saw they were still eligible although they had lived abroad for a short period of time. We saw the huge strength of the Home to Vote campaign, but it relied on people being able to check the register. It struck me that the referendum on 22 May highlighted how important it is that people can check if they are registered. Whether one moves to the universal suffrage model here, or even if it is just in respect of the six university graduate seats, we should have a mechanism for people to check a register online to see if they are registered for Seanad elections. I make that pitch now and I will also make it to the appropriate Minister, who I think is the Minister for Education and Skills. It is clear an online register is available to public representatives so it should not be too difficult a system. There are security issues but reading through the detail in the appendix to the report from the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, many of the security issues concerning online registration systems have been addressed. That would also apply to existing registers for the university seats. That is one very particular issue I did not get an opportunity to address on the last occasion which became more pertinent following the marriage equality referendum.
There is a lot more in the report and the Bill but I wish to raise a couple of other points. There is the issue of giving councillors a continued say in a number of seats - 13 I think - in a reformed Seanad. It is a good idea to give councillors some continued say in the make up of the Seanad. We sought to address this issue in our submission to the working group by suggesting that one of the panels under the Constitution and in accordance with Article 19, the public administration panel, could be reserved for election by city and county council members, which would preserve existing links with local government. There would, therefore, be no need to set aside as many as 13 seats to preserve that link. There are other ways of achieving what I agree is a worthy aim, which is to preserve the link between those who are elected locally and the Seanad.
We recommended that if we were moving to universal suffrage, as we favour, that all those entitled to be registered to vote in the local election register should be entitled to vote in Seanad elections. Dáil elections are clearly confined to those on the general election register. Using a local election register for Seanad elections would maintain the link between local representation and local government and the Seanad and would give us a broader franchise.
We already have diaspora votes for the university seats so there is an argument that that would be one way of extending the franchise without encountering the problems others have addressed. In principle, I agree that it would be positive to have votes for those who live abroad without the current restrictions that one can only live abroad for a very limited period of time while retaining one's general election vote. There is plenty more to say and I am sure we will get more opportunities. I thank the former Senators for engaging with us today.
I welcome Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole and thank them for coming back to the House. I acknowledge and applaud their work and the publication of the report and the extraordinary work of the members of their group too. It is an extremely helpful resource for us. I also thank them for their perseverance. I know there were ongoing meetings in the background to keep this process moving and am most grateful for that and I hope they are successful in this regard. I spoke the last time they were here, but I have a few more things to add given the passage of some time.
To begin, I refer to the fact that Senator Quinn and I published a motion yesterday evening which is listed in today's Order Paper. It reads: "That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to establish immediately the Implementation Body recommended in the Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015, and that the Implementation Body immediately begins to liaise with draft-persons to develop a Seanad Amendment Bill that reflects the spirit and text of the Report, as well as carrying out the other responsibilities recommended in the Report.”
I hope both our statements sessions will be resources for the group when it is established. It is great to see the opportunity here today for people to reflect on the draft Bill and to comment on it, as Senator Bacik has just done, since we did not really have it in front of us the last time. As I said, I hope these statements will be resources for the group. Otherwise these sessions are nothing more than talking shops, which is what people said no to in the referendum. They did not want the old Seanad. Notwithstanding the earlier remarks of Senator O'Brien on the reforms which have taken place and the quality of the work we do, we do not want these sessions to be talking shops and neither do the people. If our words cannot feed into the work of the implementation body for this report, we are simply playing out the old Seanad right here, in the present, right now.In his remarks on the Order of Business Senator Darragh O'Brien referred to what the Taoiseach did today. I woke up this morning to hear that the Taoiseach would be briefing Opposition leaders on his views or decisions on Seanad reform and the establishment of an implementation body. I wondered all day whether it was happening. Now it sounds like it is, which I welcome. However, I want to know why we found out about it after RTE. For once and for all I am hoping we can have some open government, especially in the effort to reform the Seanad. Let us abolish the secrecy. Why is it so hard to receive information on what is going on, especially for those who have been so involved in the process of the retention and reform of the Seanad?
I welcome the announcement which now appears to be true. With Senator Darragh O'Brien and others, I hope the Leader will be included in this body. He was not a member of the working group, although, of course, it did do excellent work. His comments this afternoon, as well as during the previous session, were reflective and helpful in terms of the work the body might do. As stated in the motion tabled by Senator Feargal Quinn and me, I hope it will get to work immediately. It should use as a prime resource the Bill published, with Dr. Manning's and Mr. O'Toole's report. The Bill was drafted by Mr. Brian Hunt - no finer draftsman could most of us find. It should also take into account our work and bring the heads of the Bill to a committee early in September, to be enacted before the end of the term of office of the Government. I do not believe that is impossible to do because we have had so many discussions and debates in the lead-up to the publication of any Bill. That is not to say we still do not have to tease everything out. Of course, we can do that and there would be time to do so. It would be possible to do it. If Members are questioning whether there will be sufficient time, I wonder if it ultimately indicates an underlying resistance to change. I do not think so, however, because I believe my colleagues want reform as much as I do. I do not see any reason we would not have enough time, given all of our debates on reform up to this point.
I favour giving votes to the diaspora, but we need to tease out the many details. The working group on Seanad reform did much of the work and some other reports are feeding into it. It is great to hear some of the comments being made. If we had doubts before the recent referendum about whether we should give votes to the diaspora - Senator Ivana Bacik referred to this issue - how could any of us resist it now? The use of HomeToVotestill makes me quite emotional. People who are away want to be engaged. I am also aware of persons who were deeply disappointed that they could not come home to vote because they had emigrated more than 18 months ago. There is a problem with that restriction. Why can the Seanad not lead on this issue? Why can it not be the Government's first demonstration of a genuine engagement with the diaspora? I see no reason the working group's recommendation of online registration of voters and the downloading of ballot papers could not be implemented to facilitate a deepening of democracy. I applaud the working group for its efforts to engage in very extensive research on the issue, demonstrating how we could move forward on it and giving us confidence that it could actually work. As Senators know, I am originally from the United States of America where I still vote. I download my ballot paper and ensure I continue to be registered online. I post my ballot paper and it works. It has worked for many years and is not that big of a deal. What might be a big deal is how to have it installed here and ensure it works. The working group has demonstrated that we could move forward on the issue.
I welcome the proposed reform of vocational representation in the Seanad by opening up the nomination process and, of course, having one-person one-vote for most seats. I agree with the working group's statement that our nomination and voting process "fails to realise the constitutional ambition to create a largely vocational chamber which would represent a diversity of views, minority voices and specialist experience". However, I also listened closely to the remarks of Senator Paschal Mooney and others the last time we debated the matter. In putting forward that view one questions whether it could be a critique of the performance of current or past Members in terms of vocational representation. I listened carefully to some of the things Senator Paschal Mooney said and do not think so necessarily. Senator Paschal Mooney and many others, if not all of my colleagues, demonstrate an exceptional performance in that regard in representing the vocational concerns of the panel they represent. This is a criticism of the system of nomination and election, not necessarily of individual Members who come from it. The system should be opened up in order that we would have as wide a range of candidates as necessary to reflect the complexity and diversity of modern life. The working group's recommendation that "the level of knowledge and the practical experience required of candidates in the Constitution be defined in legislation" is a good one.
I thank Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole. Are we having an implementation body? It sounds as if we are. When will the Taoiseach speak to us? There is still time for him to do so. How can the Government go to the people next time around without reforming the Seanad? There is no excuse not to do so. I do not think there should be further delays. We cannot have more talking shops. The Government should let the people see that its legacy is reform rather than resistance to it?
I again welcome the former Senators Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole. I congratulate them on the work they have done. They have obviously put a lot of work into the issue. The Constitution was adopted in 1937 and we are subject to its constraints. Therefore, we have had to adjust to this fact. The working group on Seanad reform has done a very good job in looking at the issue and looking at what has been established on that basis.
I believe the Taoiseach said the implementation body would operate very soon. I am not happy with the term "very soon". I would have thought that by this stage we would have something that was much closer.
Let me touch on some items that may not have cropped up since the previous time I spoke on the matter. Senator Darragh O'Brien mentioned a concern about emigrants' votes and spoke about representation without taxation. I believe the Seanad does not really have that problem because there is no taxation in this House. Therefore, the principle of representation without taxation does not apply in this case.
I am happy to provide it on that basis. I would not have a problem with emigrants' votes if it was done on the basis of current passports. I cannot believe there are many people with current passports who keep them up to date, who have actually not lost contact or interest during the years. I imagine it would be well able to continue on that basis.
I have a problem with the changes that have taken place since 1937 when we talk about registration and certainly about the voting system having to be operated by mail. While we are used to modern technology, in 1937 the word "mail" meant an envelope with a stamp on it.Registered mail meant something else as well. Nowadays mail is no longer an envelope with a stamp on it and therefore I imagine it is possible to be able to include a different method, be it e-mail or whatever else, that would enable us to have that. That point has been touched on in the report as well.
What gets me is that the referendum took place in October 2013. At that stage the Taoiseach said he got a wallop and therefore he would have to do something about it, yet nothing happened until the working group was set up in November 2014. That is a huge delay. I have often spoken in this House about the length of time it takes to get things done and the speed at which things happen in government circles, but this has been a very long period of time. The working group moved quickly, to the extent that it was able to hand over its very good report on 13 April. However, I had to ask the Leader in the House on 1 July what had happened to it. What happened between April and July?
It is unfortunate that nothing has happened since then. Even those of us who have invested confidence in the Taoiseach's commitment to achieve Seanad reform are beginning to doubt whether there is any real commitment at all. Senator Zappone has spoken about the fact that the Taoiseach announced today - at least we heard about it on the radio today - that he is going to meet the leaders of the Dáil to talk about Seanad reform. I could not get over that, and Senator Zappone has said the same thing. The first we heard about it was on the radio. It seems to me that the Taoiseach does not have his heart set on making changes, and if he has, he does not have his heart set on involving this House in getting change made. He did involve the members of the working group and there is a strong team with the added input of those involved in the implementation group, but the fact is that nothing has happened since then.
There have been a number of Bills, for example, the one Senator John Crown introduced, on which we had a good discussion. Senator Zappone and I also introduced a Bill, on which there was also a good discussion. We have had plenty of time to discuss reform but it is difficult to know what is happening and why things are not moving. In some ways, it seems that as the weeks pass we are entitled to fear that the Government may merely have been involved in a process of running down the clock. We heard in April that reform of the Seanad would be pushed forward by the Government but now it is July and there does not appear to have been any progress. The Leader used the term "very soon", which I assume is a quote from the Taoiseach, but that is not good enough.
It is also disappointing to realise that even if enacted now, the proposal of the working group could not operate for the next Seanad election, which is due early next summer. However, I am not sure that is true. Senator Zappone said that if we were really determined, legislation could be enacted on that basis. As I understand it, the working group completed the report on the assumption that change would happen before the next election. Even if we do not get the change, passing an Act based on the working group's proposals would at least ensure that real reform would be on the Statute Book and usable in the following election. While that would not be an ideal situation, the Taoiseach would be able to rightly claim a tangible and positive outcome. More important, the Government would be able to tell the electorate that it had implemented the change that more than 630,000 people voted in favour of.
The Oireachtas will go on recess at the end of next week or the following week and there is no prospect of the Government bringing the group’s Bill or its own Bill to either House before then. Once the Oireachtas resumes in the autumn we have at most approximately 20 weeks to enact the legislation even if the Government runs full term. I hope the Government will make an announcement on this immediately. I was nearly going to say "very soon". Next Tuesday would be the time if we are going to have Seanad reform because there will be a very busy legislative programme before the next general election, whenever that is.
The Taoiseach and the Government must realise they are now uniquely positioned to deliver what none of their predecessors had the leadership or the vision to deliver, namely, real and substantive Seanad reform. The Taoiseach could make a name for himself. That would be a huge achievement. Without overstatement it would be something to go down in the history book. The people spoke on the Seanad in 1979 and again in 2013. It is hard to believe that although last Saturday it was 26 years to the day since the people voted for change in the Seanad, that change has still has not been implemented. We have done enough of talking, although we have an opportunity to talk a little bit more. The danger is that we are repeating ourselves. I am not sure how many Members will speak today, but the Leader expressed disappointment that there were not many speakers on Seanad reform on the previous occasion. I hope we will have plenty of speakers on this occasion.
The working group has done sterling work and has come up with a very sensible proposal which retains the spirit of the Seanad as envisioned by the 1937 Constitution. It gave a different voice to that of the Dáil while opening it up to a much wider electorate. These are principles on which we all agree. All we need now is some effort from the Government to give voters what they want. Getting on with the task of delivering the historic reforms of the Upper House would signal the genuine shift to the "new politics" which has been promised by the Government.
I believe the customer is king, and in this case the customers have said they want change. They voted for change back in 1979 and again almost two years ago, yet it seems to take a very long time to get something done. I am disappointed that the Taoiseach does not appear to have grabbed hold of the issue because it is an opportunity for him to make a name for himself and for the Government by saying they were given a challenge by the people in 2013 and they have moved on it and are going to make the change now. We could do it. He could do it, but it needs determination. The Taoiseach will certainly have the support of this House based on the report before us. That does not mean everything in it should necessarily go unchallenged. The report will be challenged on a number of grounds but it will benefit from that. I congratulate the working group for what it has done and I urge it to make sure it insists on the Government doing something about it right away.
Cuirim fíorfháilte roimh an Dochtúir Maurice Manning agus an Uasal Joe O'Toole. Míle buíochas as ucht an obair dhian atá déanta acu dúinn inniu agus le bliain anuas. I welcome the debate, which is very important. As the Leader said, not everybody can be on a forum or working group and it is important to get the view of all Members. It is the only chance we may get, as not all of us will be on the group. Today's debate is about providing us with a chance. It is not a talking shop or just for the fun of it. It is to find out everybody's views because no one person has the say on what will happen.
Back in 2009 Fine Gael proposed that every citizen would have a vote in the Seanad. That predates my election to the Seanad in 2011. Nobody has a franchise on reforming the Seanad. We have many reports but we must have action. The Taoiseach has said there will be action and the Leader has repeated that again today. It is important that the group would be set up immediately and that it would start the process of change now.
I welcome the report. I accept it was not possible to provide a costing in the time available to the working group. Every time a budget is put forward by a party in the House, we criticise it if it is not costed. We must look for value for money. We require change but it must be right for the citizen. That is also the case with our own papers and policy documents. When the argument for Seanad reform was put forward in the Seanad university constituencies the Government introduced change. That happened since the Government took office in 2011. I welcome that change, which was acknowledged in the report.
Another recommendation from 2009 related to procedural reform.Senator Cummins has done some work on that. There is a lot more to do, which is why I want to ensure that the Seanad gets extra duties. We have already succeeded in respect of the reform of the universities and Senator Bacik has outlined something that was recommended in the report. It relates to how university graduates could choose to run on another panel. I cannot figure out how that will work. I will not dwell on it because Senator Bacik has spoken about how it is going to work. That change was on the cards for 17 years. The Government has done it and it should be acknowledged. I thank the working group for acknowledging it in the report.
We are setting up a electoral commission. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which is discussing that matter at the moment. Many of the issues that will be on the agenda in respect of Seanad reform are coming up in the committee. Examples include the registration of voters and who will be responsible for it. The electoral commission is an important part of this debate. It was recommended in the report that the interim group that would be set up would be subsumed into the electoral commission. This is putting the cart before the horse because the committee that is looking at the electoral commission will be making recommendations on how the commission should be formed. Both groups must work together because one group could recommend one thing, the other could recommend another, we would fall down in the middle and nobody would do anything. This is what we must guard against.
Part 6 of the report deals with implementation and recommends that the membership of the interim implementation body should have access to IT experts. I agree with this. As Senator Cummins said, the Seanad must have secretarial back-up because if it does not, how can Members are scrutinise EU legislation with their hands tied behind their backs? This must be taken into consideration when it comes to cost. The report recommended that the interim body have access to political scientists and experts with knowledge and practical experience of national politics and that eventually the interim body and its functions would be subsumed into the wider electoral commission. I have a question about that.
I thank the reform group for the work it has put in and those who provided their time, all of whom worked on a pro bonobasis.They include Brian Hunt from Microsoft and Deirdre Lane who provided advice on the deconstruction of the complicated nominating process. It is quite a process to deconstruct because I have tried explaining it to a few people. Another individual who was involved is Michael McDowell who provided legal counsel.
One statement I noted in particular is the statement on popular legitimacy.I agree that a reformed Seanad must be seen by Irish citizens as having a legitimate voice and role in the political process. We would be doing ourselves a disservice, and I do not think the report meant this, because when I look around me in here I see quite a few people who have earned their legitimate voice. They were put here by people who were elected by the legitimate voice of the people, namely, councillors who are in touch with the people on the ground. Councillors have a legitimate voice so I would not dismiss their value and I do not think the report intended to do this by suggesting that it would be more legitimate if people were elected some other way. The legitimacy of elected and nominated personnel of this House has much to offer. The Seanad has offered much since the foundation of the State and as Senator Darragh O'Brien, who has served in both Houses, noted, there is no better House in terms of scrutinising legislation. As the old saying goes, "If you respect yourself, you're given respect". The people had respect and, hopefully, still have respect for the Seanad because they voted to retain it. This says a lot.
Senator Cummins has changed and enlarged the duties of the Seanad in respect of scrutinising EU legislation. He has invited different representatives from community organisations, taken their recommendations on board and implemented them through legislation. We all agree that the Seanad will be reformed within the legislative process and not through altering the Constitution.
Another recommendation was that the Seanad should have a distinct composition. It is related to the various methodologies of panels. I looked up the definition of "distinct" because I was unsure what is meant by the term "distinct composition". When I look around the House, I see distinguished Members who differ in philosophy and personality. A system that excludes the majority of its citizens from participation does lack popular legitimacy. Including every third-level institution in the voting process will go some way towards addressing that. We must go further but it is far harder to do it than to say it must be done.
Section 35 of the Bill recommended that the Northern Ireland division of the Electoral Commission of the United Kingdom would be involved in verifying eligibility to register by applicants based in Northern Ireland.The Taoiseach pointed out here that legislation made in this State could not compel or direct a body in another state to perform a particular function. We need verifiable data analysis if we are to have electronic voting because every country that has electronic voting has a system of verifiable electronic data identification. It could be through PPS numbers, passports or another methodology.
In respect of the recommendation on gender balance, I was never in favour of gender quotas until I saw that they actually work. However, it only relates to a recommendation rather than actual voting so that measure is problematic as well. In case everybody thinks Ireland is the odd country out and that the Seanad is only elected by the few, Canada's Upper House is un-elected. All Members are appointed. The German Upper House is formed indirectly of Members appointed or elected by the regional governments. All the Members of the French Upper House are elected indirectly by the elected members of the 100 French Departments.
Some very distinguished Members of this House have come from Northern Ireland. In respect of citizens living abroad, #hometovotewas a great initiative but #stayawayandvoteis a different matter. I do not have all the figures but according to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, 230,000 Irish citizens are living in Australia. The figures are skewed. The globalirish.comwebsite gives totally different figures. How many of the 3 million holders of Irish passports are Irish citizens? Could we have more people voting abroad than at home?
I welcome our former colleagues to the House. Are 500 people required to nominate somebody for direct election? I saw a figure of 500 mentioned somewhere in this. That seemed to me to be a ridiculous figure.
I will rain on somebody's parade by saying this but there seems to be a growing perception that the decision of the Irish people to retain this House contained within it a passion for reform. I have found nothing in any statistics, other than Members of this House and others saying that there was such a need. It is reflected in the report stating that there was unanimity that it should be reformed. As far as I am concerned, and my view may or may not be shared by others, the overwhelming majority of those who voted for the retention of the Seanad did so because first, they wanted the Seanad to be retained and second, they did not want to give the Government any more powers. As far as I am concerned, those were the reasons why they voted to keep it. I do not think they got into the complexities of whether this House was in urgent need of reform. That is not to say that I am not in favour of reform but I want to put it on the record that I do not agree with this cosy consensus that has arisen that there was an obsessional need among the Irish people for reform of this House, if they even thought about it.When they were asked to think about whether they wanted to keep it, they made a very simple decision that, yes, they wanted to keep it. I wanted to get that off my chest.
The report deals with the selection of candidates. It proposes that each nominating body be entitled to nominate a candidate and that candidates be required to have both knowledge and participation. The onus is on the candidates to prove beyond doubt that they meet these requirements. As anyone who has gone through this process knows, there is a very strict protocol involved, irrespective of the looseness of the language about knowledge and general knowledge and experience, but that actually requires a High Court judge sitting along with the Clerk of the House to decide whether a person is suitable for nomination to a particular panel. It is not that one just writes in and ask to be nominated to a panel. There is a very strict protocol involved. To use the American term, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." There is already an onus on the candidate to prove they meet the requirements. I had to do it and I am sure other Members of the House had to do it.
I refer to the oral responses on the previous occasion from former Senators O'Toole and Manning about the Whip system. This seems to exercise the minds of some people who express the opinion that the Whip system is terrible and awful and we should get rid of it. There would be chaos if that were to happen. In fact, the report is riding two horses. On one hand it is talking about having a representative body and on the other hand it refers to the O'Rourke report in the context of Taoiseach's nominations:
[T]he Seanad must inevitably be a political body since it must discharge political functions. This is clearly the case as far as the presentation and management of the Government's legislative programme is concerned and which must also be a legitimate factor in the consideration of any Taoiseach in making these nominations.In other words, the Taoiseach, at least up to this one, will do what previous taoisigh did, which is they made sure they had a Government majority in this House. The criticism from outside was that it was terrible and awful but the political reality was that it ensured the legislative programme of the elected Government got through the House. That is what it was all about and that was the constitutional requirement from day one. It has strayed from that considerably and I will not go into what is in the mind of the current Taoiseach about his decisions that were taken in that narrow concept. I am not talking about the quality of those whom he nominated.
On votes for emigrants I am totally opposed to the view that they should be passport holders. It should be time limited and be for Irish citizens who left this country within the past ten years. Other than that I think it would be a recipe for chaos. How would it work if all the passport holders started registering? How would this work in principle? How will the nomination process work for the 13 Members elected by councillors? The report infers it will be a continuation of the Oireachtas sub-panel which currently takes four Oireachtas Members to nominate. Keeping in mind that these nominations have traditionally come from the political parties in the Houses, I have no doubt that even though it is being reduced to 13, there will still be a very strong party political input into the 13 nominations. People will be representative of their parties. Inevitably those who are directly elected will be representative of their parties and they will come in here as political groupings. Will they leave their political grouping outside the door? There is this idea that this will be an Upper House that is so diverse and representative of this widespread opinion, of community organisations and the representatives of the whole of Irish society, whereas the reality is there will be people who will be elected to this House either directly or indirectly, under the terms of these proposals who will be party representatives and who will exercise and discharge their party obligations, along with the 11 nominees of the Taoiseach whom the report has acknowledged will be political representatives of the Government of the day.
How will the nomination process work for the 36 Members to be directly elected? This is a national election. I am opposed to a national election because I believe it should be regional. I appreciate the difficulties that those who are university Senators have in reaching out to their worldwide alumni and to their voting register. However, I ask the House to consider the implications of having a directly elected national election such as the amount of money involved and the logistics. It is already difficult enough for those who travel around the country having to canvass Deputies, outgoing Senators and county councillors but to have a national election on the entire island of Ireland - those in the North will be entitled as Irish citizens to vote - suggests this proposal has not been well thought out.
The report talks about modernising the register of nominating bodies. The Clerk of the Seanad each year issues an advertisement inviting representative bodies to apply to be included in the nomination register. What is meant by modernisation of the register? Anybody who fulfils the obligations and criteria is entitled to apply to be on the register of nominating bodies. There is quite a substantial number. I do not have the figure but I am sure that if it were to be analysed I would think that practically all those bodies who are representative of the diversity of society are currently represented on the register.
I do not wish to seem negative about this report. In the context of the recommendation that there be just 13 Members elected by Deputies, Senators and county councillors, I believe that the nominations will be party-based, and this coupled with the 11 Taoiseach's nominees, who will be party-based, means this idea that seems to permeate this report that this Chamber will somehow be non-political with a small "p" does not bear any scrutiny.
I welcome Senators Maurice Manning and Joe O'Toole to the House. I thank them for all their work in producing this report. I find myself very much in agreement with the outline that our Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, laid out at the start of the contributions. I suppose I am one of the fellows who harangued him often enough on representation without taxation which I believe is a non-runner. I recognise, of course, the good work of Senators Maurice Manning and Joe O'Toole and their colleagues and that they are completely confined within the constraints of the 1937 Constitution. I am glad to hear that there is a Bill on the way and, first things first, an implementation body is being set up. In common with all Members, I hope that the Leader of the Seanad is on that body and perhaps some other Senators from the different sides.
I agree with the broad outline with regard to the 13 directly elected Members. The Taoiseach's 11 nominees are provided for in the Constitution and 13 are to be elected by the councillors - I would grant them more - but I think Senator Mooney hit the nail on the head. We are wonderful navel gazers in here. We are a great talking shop, despite what others might think. I acknowledge Senator Quinn's smile, which is probably in agreement. Senator Mooney spoke about how the people voted in the referendum, but the truth is they could not give a fig, the bulk of them. Maybe for a lot of them on the other side it was a disagreement with the Government proposal.Let it be said, there were many on this side-----
In any event, I look forward to the implementation group and I am glad to hear, as we heard this morning, that the Taoiseach is consulting with the leaders in the other House and, presumably, will be consulting with the leaders here as well.
The Constitution lays down that the primary function of this House is a legislative one. It has to do the very same work, in a sense, that the other House does. Some would say we do it better, some would say we do it worse - I do not know. There are many who would say the Dáil might be in more need of reform than this House, but I accept it is this House and this report we are dealing with.
I acknowledge the good work that has happened during this Seanad. The Leader has outlined the consultation we have had with MEPs and there has been the setting up of the consultation committee, which has done very valuable work on quite a number of reports at this stage. There was the hearing with the Commissioner and, while not much has happened yet in regard to EU scrutiny, the North-South meetings are being developed. All of this will give the House an enhanced role. While we still have to ask whether the public want that, I welcome it and I believe other Senators welcome it too. However, it all comes back to how we read the minds of thousands of people, as a Senator interjected, because I do not know what they think.
There was a referendum in 1979 to reform, as it was put, the university seats. No Government has touched this issue legislatively since then, and I look forward to hearing other views on that. I believe very strongly, as do a number of other Senators, that we could not possibly have a system where there would be more voters overseas in other jurisdictions than within the country itself. I think that is totally impractical and some would think it sheer madness, or at least some have very strong views on it, as we have heard. I believe this is something that will have to be trimmed because I cannot see it working. I know the argument about this House not having any function constitutionally as regards dealing with money Bills but I do not believe the public would accept that either House of Parliament should have more voters abroad than within the country to deal with the issues of the day that need to be decided on in an election. They could not possibly have the same concerns that citizens living within the jurisdiction would have about day-to-day matters, budgetary matters and so on. I do not foresee that working.
Senator Darragh O'Brien also touched on this matter when he referred to the position of this House vis-à-visthe Dáil. Some very good work is done here and I believe people could be equally critical, if not more so, of the Dáil than of this House. Until we have a Bill and something concrete to deal with and tear apart, if necessary, we are dealing with a bundle of cotton wool that we cannot get to grips with. Nonetheless, I welcome the report, the fact there is going to be an implementation body and that the work will proceed.
When Mr. O'Toole comes to respond to the debate, he might deal with the issue of the postal system. I do not fully comprehend the system he envisages. I know the ballots have to come back by post but, with all due respect, I do not think we would have the returning officer capability within the House to deal with what is envisaged. I look forward to Mr. O'Toole saying more about this as I believe there will be huge snags in this regard.
I have touched on most of the points I wanted to make but I have been prompted by Senator Cullinane on one further point, namely, the important link between councillors and the Oireachtas. Again, this was touched on with regard to other chambers being indirectly elected or appointed, including regional chambers in other countries. It is very important we have had that since 1937. The link through LAMA and AILG is regarded as very important and we would not want to lose it. I know Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole do not want to lose that and it is being retained, although confined to 13 seats. With regard to the vocational aspect, there are many nominating bodies and that number can grow. That is also an important and valuable link between sectors of society and the Oireachtas, and I understand it is also to be kept.
There is this point that we could somehow be less political. Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole have been practitioners for longer than many of us and they may have accumulated a lot more wisdom. They know a legislative chamber is going to be political and, of course, the Government of the day will seek to get legislation passed. The Taoiseach of the day will be politically constrained and will still have 11 nominees, so let us be honest, the Government of the day, of whatever hue, is naturally going to want a majority to get its legislation through. To be fair, the Seanad is less partisan and more objective than the other Chamber but, that said, it will still have to be political.
I am very grateful to Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole for the work they have done and I accept it in broad outline. I look forward to a Bill. Until we have a Bill we can sink our teeth into, the talking shop will continue.
I want to welcome back my two very valued colleagues, Mr. Joe O'Toole and Dr. Maurice Manning. They were two very distinguished Members of this House and their contribution to the discussion about reform of the Seanad has been invaluable. I am a little surprised, however, that there is no Bill yet because the last time our two friends were here with us, I think they promised a Bill within a matter of days. It has not materialised, which is a pity, or at least I do not think it was suggested there is a Bill.
The compulsive interest of Members of the House in this matter has led to a situation where there are 11 Members present - I counted them some minutes ago - and that has been about the average throughout the afternoon.
Is that a Bill I see?
I thank the Senator. With regard to the Taoiseach's meeting with the leaders of the Dáil, I also find this rather unusual. The last time there was such a meeting, Members of the Seanad were invited and I took part in those discussions in the Taoiseach's office. I had a brief chat with him during the week and he referred to the question of Seanad reform but he never mentioned there was going to be this meeting.
With regard to the lack of a Whip in this House, I think that would be ideal. It works in Germany so I do not see why it does not work here. Members would vote on their conscience, except on crucial budgetary matters. It works perfectly well in Germany. The Seanad is the place for Independent Members, not the Dáil.If we had a disparate group of people it would be quite a problematic task to get them all to join together to defeat the Government, unless there was very good reason. Moreover, they would be reflecting the views of the people. I think that would be a very important step.
With regard to the question of tax, I listened with great interest to what Senator Feargal Quinn said. Of course he made some good argument about taxation to the effect that this House is precluded from dealing directly with taxation matters. However, we deal with the dispersal of tax money in a whole series of areas. That is the important thing. It is not the question of whether these people pay taxes; it is a question of the Seanad dealing with the dispersal of tax moneys.
There will be a vast number of candidates on the ballot papers. I wonder whether people will bother reading their way through them and voting. I tend to agree with Senator Coghlan. I am unsure whether the people are obsessed with the Seanad. They talk about it when it is drawn to their attention but it is not at the forefront of their minds at all.
One thing demeans the Seanad and every political party has been involved in it. I am referring to horse-trading over seats. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin have all, to the discredit, traded votes to get seats in this House.
The next thing is the question of the university seats. I have spoken previously on the matter. Frankly, the idea of a whole-island constituency for the panel seats is daft. It would involve vast numbers. How would people canvass if there were several million people voting? I would not fancy that at all.
Whatever is going to happen, whether implementation committees or anything else, it ain't going to happen before the next election. That is what I feel in my waters, and nothing the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, said to me at lunchtime during the week will make me change my mind on the matter. However, those responsible might just tinker around with the university seats, because we are the soft option. The view is that they are the ones to go for. Then they can say they have reformed it and made it democratic. The university seats are already perfectly democratic. They are the only really democratic element of the whole House. There are two constituencies, with 65,000 in one and 110,000 in the other. The proposal is to run them all together into one monster constituency with 850,000. That is only magnifying the distortion. In the old days we went from 65,000 and 100,000 down to 1,000 councillors and then down to one person. That is a distortion, but that distortion will be immensely magnified if we have a situation where the university seats are all jammed together and we have 850,000 voters, while we leave the other constituencies the same way. Anyway, that is what I believe is most likely to happen.
I know my view will not be popular and I am sure it will lose me votes, but what about it? I have always said what I believe to be the truth regardless of the consequences. In 1979 there was a vote to extend the franchise, but it was to extend the franchise to other universities, not to every kind of third level institution. If there is no distinction between universities and third level institutions of various mixed hues all over the place, why has the Department fought against the recognition of a fine third level institution, Waterford Institute of Technology? It is not recognised as a university. There is a clear distinction between universities and other third level institutions in the world of real politics. They are not the same thing. I would prefer to extend it to the other universities, in limited number, and keep the two constituencies.
I have already spoken on this on numerous occasions. I was one of those who made a submission to the group. It consisted of my speeches in the Seanad and some other papers because what I have had to say, I have said. There is no point in inventing a series of extra things simply to make myself look important. The important matters are those that I have specified in my contributions to the Seanad.
I look forward to Seanad reform and I congratulate my two former colleagues on what they have done and the work they have done. However, my realistic appraisal of the situation is that, implementation body or not, I do not believe anything substantial will happen in advance of the next election. There is a possibility that the Government will be tempted to tinker with the university seats. Frankly, I believe that would be disastrous. I do not think they will have it in place - even for the university seats - by the time of the next election. I do not believe that is realistic given the need to compile the registers and so on. It is a major job. First they will have to get the legislation through and then the register would have to be compiled and so on. It will not affect me because the next election is probably the last one I will go in, but I still feel strongly about.
I welcome our two former colleagues, the learned gentlemen, Dr. Maurice Manning and Joe O'Toole. Dr. Manning is from Carlow-Kilkenny, where I am from. He is most welcome. I welcome the report. I was one of the first Senators invited to address a conference in Waterford some months after being elected. The subject of Seanad reform came up from the floor. I was quoted in the newspaper as saying that I believed it should be elected by public vote. That was one of the issues I raised. However, reform for reform's sake is something we need to be careful of in this House. We should remember that this is a body which is part of three bodies that legislate in this country: the President, the Dáil and the Seanad. We should not simply reform it because it looks good to reform it. If reform is going to happen we must ensure that it works. Will we have a better house if this House is reformed? That is the question we have to put in debates in both Houses.
If we reform the Seanad, where are we going to go to with it? Senator Norris made the point about a situation where there were numerous Independent Members. We are part of the Government parties and we have a minority in this House. We have no wish to go back to the previous situation. Page 16 of the report refers to 1936 when the Seanad was abolished due to the fact that it was delaying legislation. Would this country become ungovernable if the House became one not of Independents but of those with no political allegiances? People could come along and suddenly defeat legislation - I am not referring to voting with conscience. Anyway, how would we govern this country in that scenario?
At the time of the conference in Waterford I said the public should have a say and perhaps a public vote. I recommended at the time that perhaps a Seanad election could be run at the time of European Parliament and council elections by public vote. That would amount to a mid-term review of the Government of the day. However, let us consider the situation in America. Whether it is the House of Representatives or the Senate, the representations change mid-term. They have mid-term elections but then suddenly the government or the president of the day cannot get anything through. We have seen that situation. If legislation were to be defeated in this House, would we have to bring legislation to the effect that the Dáil or the Taoiseach of the day would have a veto on certain aspects of legislation if it was not passed? That needs to be considered.
There is another way to look at it. We have 43 Senators elected by the Members of the Oireachtas and the county councillors. People say that is undemocratic, but there is a particular idea behind it.We all know that each Seanad vote represents 1,000 people. That is the reason county councillors vote. Members of the Oireachtas and councillors elected 43 Senators and there were 43 constituencies in the last general election. If we had worked the panels so that the last person standing in each constituency qualified for a Seanad seat, the composition of this Seanad after the last election would be 17 Fianna Fáil Members, ten Fine Gael Members, six Labour Party Members, six Sinn Féin Members and four Independent Members, in addition to six University Senators and 11 Taoiseach's nominations. However, changes our boundaries mean that we will only have 40 constituencies in the next general election. Perhaps we could bring the number to 43 by providing for the automatic re-election of the Cathaoirleach and two Leas-Chathaoirligh.
This is the 12th time that the Seanad has been held up for review. The Taoiseach is serious about Seanad reform. He put a referendum the people on abolishing the Seanad. That proposal was rejected by the people and he is now establishing an implementation body. We need debates in both Houses, and with the general public, on how we should reform this House. We cannot reform it for reform's sake.
The report also deals with the notion of indirect elections and the idea that voters should register for a panel. I am from the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency and I was elected on the agricultural panel. If people have to register on panels, elections to the Seanad will become a celebrity contest. Senators might include people like Senator Norris, who is a well known celebrity, and people from the world of sports, such as Henry Shefflin from Kilkenny, who is known from Donegal to Kerry. If his name was on the ballot paper, he would get the vote. We would end up with a House of Independent Senators, some of whom might be affiliated to parties. That would be unworkable.
On the question of people in the diaspora who hold Irish passports, some my colleagues have pointed out that the electorate living outside the country might be larger than the population resident here. It is possible to hold two passports. The report suggests that those who do not pay tax in this country should not be allowed to vote. We could fine tune that proposal if necessary because a considerable number of people emigrated in recent years. Perhaps the franchise should be extended to those who paid tax in this country in the previous five years. Approximately 18 million people worldwide are of Irish descent. What kind of electorate would we have if all of these individuals registered to vote? What party in this country has the biggest connection to America and collects millions of dollars every year from the diaspora? We would have a House that is not representative of every party in this country because of people with certain aspirations. We all want a united Ireland but it is a matter of how we achieve it. We cannot allow all in the diaspora who hold an Irish passport to vote in Seanad elections. We might, however, consider extending the franchise to those who paid tax in this country in the previous five years.
Ms Mary O'Rourke made an excellent point when she described the Seanad is a political body which must discharge political functions. We cannot turn this Chamber into a talking shop. We are one of the three bodies, the President, the Dáil and the Seanad, which play a role in producing legislation. We cannot allow Government legislation to be held up because someone wants to get a headline. If we have a House in which the Government does not enjoy a majority, it will become ungovernable and we will return to Mr. de Valera's decision to abolish the former Seanad because he did not like what Senators were doing to his legislation. This House has served the country well since 1937. If we are going to reform it, we must do so in a proper manner that best serves the people of this country. We do not want reform for reform's sake. I do not criticise the authors of the report when I say it is the start of a discussion. When the legislation comes to this or the other House, we must allocate sufficient time for a proper debate on it and the Minister of the day must be prepared to accept amendments from both sides of the House. This will be one of the most important Bills to come before either House. We can debate budgets and the other matters that affect people's lives but this legislation will affect the lives of the people of this country for the next 100 or 200 years. I look forward to participating in further debates on the matter.
I acknowledge the contribution by the Leader of the House and welcome our guests. I hope their contributions to the report will result in a Bill that brings reform to the Seanad but this is not the first occasion we have debated Seanad reform. I find these debates very amusing because we can hear some crackers from Senators. We heard one such cracker from Senator Paul Coghlan, who suggested that we should keep politics out of the Seanad.
We are here to practise politics. We tried to turn the Seanad into something that it was never meant to be. As one of the Houses of the Oireachtas, it is a political Chamber. Senator Mooney made an interesting contribution. He started by saying that he did not want to rain on anyone's parade but he gave us a monsoon of criticism of elements of the report. I agree with him regarding many of the issues that he raised but, having said that, one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. The difficulty with Seanad reform is that for every proposal someone makes, there are five more ideas in contention. That has always been the case. The people who sat on the review group had to consider all of those ideas, as well as a mountain of previous reports. If they also paid heed to all of the navel gazing on Seanad reform that took place over decades, I do not know how they managed to prepare a report at all. They did their job, however, by producing a report that stayed within the confines of the Constitution and I think they made decent proposals. I have my own views on Seanad reform but they have produced what are possibly the fairest of proposals.That should be acknowledged because it was a good and decent job of work.
The difficulty is that I would go beyond the Constitution. I firmly believe that from the outset this issue should have been put to the constitutional referendum. The major problem with the Seanad is that it has always lacked democratic legitimacy and does not have real powers. One can say the same about local government, on which we had umpteen debates about reforming it. We have a centralised system of governance. One thing the Dáil will never surrender is power to either the Seanad or local government. The reason we have weak local government and the reason the Seanad has never been the Chamber it could possibly be is that nobody was able or willing to grasp the nettle and say the Seanad needs to be given more powers. If the Seanad and local government are given more powers, that power has to come from somewhere. From where does it come? It comes from the centre, from where the power is already, and it is reluctant to give it up. That is the reality. It is the backdrop in which we have always tried to get Seanad reform, as limited as it could possibly be.
In regard to some of the proposals made, the reason the Taoiseach did not agree with this being put to the Constitutional Convention is that he had given the commitment to hold a referendum. He had his plans to abolish the Seanad. That was set in train and was going to happen and because of that we lost an opportunity to have a good discussion at the Constitutional Convention on all of these issues. I still believe that is the way forward. We will possibly have a change of Government. Certainly my party will not support piecemeal reform of the Seanad. We are committed to holding a fresh Constitutional Convention which would look at radical reform not only of the Seanad but of local government and the Dáil, something we should have done from the outset. At some point we will arrive there because whatever we do here will still not be enough for many people.
I welcome the proposal to extend voting rights. That is hugely important, not just symbolically for the diaspora and citizens in the North. It would be a useful step forward. I do not agree with that the Taoiseach can appoint 11 nominees. That is undemocratic. Neither do I agree with the university panels. Some of my colleagues who get emotive when opposition to that is raised are not present. It is a hangover of the elitist nature of the Seanad which should be done away with. I understand it did not come within the remit of the working group, nonetheless it is not something that should or can remain in place.
The recommendation that only 30 of the 60 seats be elected by universal franchise is not enough. Each Member of either House of the Oireachtas should be elected by the people. If we were to move to what is proposed the vocational panels should not remain. It should be on a regional basis, possibly along the same lines as the European elections which would be far easier. Logistically, I am not sure how this will work. Were this proposal to be implemented, one would have to chose what panel to vote in. As huge numbers of people might vote on one panel and fewer might opt for another panel. How can a balance be achieved? Potentially, 2 million people could be registered to vote on one panel and, perhaps, 200,000 on a different panel and yet there would be the same number of seats. That is an issue we should return to.
If we are to have directly elected Members to this House from popular vote and a universal franchise it should be done in a more managed way and by geographical constituencies. While I welcome the vote for the diaspora and for those in the North, we need representation here as well. It has been mentioned that people from the North have been appointed to the Seanad previously. It would be a follow-on from the logic of the Good Friday Agreement, and all the other agreements, including the St. Andrews Agreement, to have democratic representation from citizens from the Unionist and Nationalist community in the North and for those who do no associate with any of those labels. That they should have an opportunity to be represented in this House would greatly enrich and benefit it.
Reference was made to the intentions of the voting public in the last referendum and we can naval-gaze on that. There are many opinions as to why people voted "No". If we want to crystallise it into one argument and one reason that motivated many people, they were concerned about giving the Government more power. They saw this as a sleight of hand from the Government. Rightly or wrongly, they saw it as a power grab. Despite everything that has happened and all the rhetoric that people do not have time for political institutions, people in this State and across Europe value democracy. One of the reasons there is huge sympathy for the Greek people and one of the reasons the European institutions are under such pressure is because people value democracy. People see a democratic deficit and think there is something not right, that there is an elite and that bullying is taking place. There is a democratic deficit which is at the heart of those powerful institutions. That is what motivates people. They believe in democracy. We saw that in action in Greece with its referendum and we saw it here in the marriage equality referendum a few weeks ago when huge numbers of people came out to vote because they value democracy. That was important and it shows that people value the institutions here. If they value the institutions we have a responsibility to make them fit for purpose. Despite the lack of surveys I have no doubt that the vast majority of people who voted "No" believe in reform and they want this House to be fit for purpose. They want this House to be stronger, to have democratic legitimacy, real powers and real functions. We have to make that a reality as best we can.
I thank the members of the working group, including our two guests, for their work. Given their remit they have done an outstanding job. People can quibble over different elements of the report but they have presented a fair set of proposals and that should be acknowledged. Unfortunately, because I am committed to much more radical Seanad reform that is where my head is at. Certainly one of the commitments of my party in the forthcoming election is that we will commit to a new constitutional referendum that will further consider this and other issues in regard to Dáil reform and local government reform.
I welcome my two esteemed colleagues and thank them for the great work they have done in a spirt of public service. Any departures I might have from the consensus that may have existed within its group about its recommendations should not construed as anything less than fully appreciative of the efforts they have made.
I came in here last week and spoke on a different issue in which I quoted Mill, Hume, Voltaire and Orwell and was greeted with the response that I should go back to being a doctor that I did not know what I was talking about. It is with some trepidation that I will start by quotingDescartes, but I will do so because with Seanad reform we are, in the words of the famous Irish diplomat, putting "Descartes before the horse".
I am very cross at Senator Cullinane for using the phrase "navel-gazing" repeatedly because I intended using it and I am afraid he has stolen my thunder from his appropriate invocation of the phrase. Problems with Seanad reform inevitably arise in that they resemble attempts at navel-gazing. We have a group of people in the Seanad or those who are charged with looking at it from outside or from inside. They have decided it is a body of sadly, minimally relevant officials with minimal legitimacy who are seeking their own reform in an attempt to increase their relevance and legitimacy. Increasing the relevance and the legitimacy of the Seanad is a worthwhile undertaking but it is not the principal problem which besets our system of government. When I ran for the Seanad I stated at the time that I would campaign for its reform or its abolition. I believe the status quois unacceptable and that therefore minor adjustment of the status quo is equally unacceptable. I have consistently held that view.I have always stated that if the alternatives were a commitment to a wholly unreformed Seanad and no Seanad, I would say no Seanad would be better.
The problem, however, is not specifically with the Seanad but with the system of government. There are a number of critical dysfunctions. Consider the governmental dysfunctions that wrecked our country over the past ten years, condemned so many to unemployment, emigration and the loss of their homes, and caused an already mediocre health service to become even poorer. Although I will not be dramatic enough to call the health system a Third World health system, I believe it is a poor one by comparison with the one we should have. We found our universities dropping out of all the top league tables and there was so much wasted talent. What was the reason, at Government level, for these occurrences? By and large, it was incompetence. It was not malice, malevolence or corruption, although in certain sectors of the economy, and to an extent in government, some of these might have been a factor. By and large, however, it was a question of incompetence or, to use another phrase, non-competence and a lack of national focus.
Deputies in our more powerful Lower House are elected according to a system that, in 99% of cases, is rigidly focused on local politics. I acknowledge we all have our personal ambitions and agendas and we all have our own interests to defend. In this regard, I am not being holier than thou or moralistic but just stating a fact. I do a lot of things in my own self-interest. Deputies do many things in theirs, but theirs is principally determined by the next general election. If they believe they will do well in the next general election by doing something good for the country, they will do it, and if they believe they will do well by not doing something good for the country, they will adopt that approach. We see much of the spin-off from this way of thinking in this House, unfortunately. I am not moralising about any of my colleagues but I must draw attention to the intense irritation many of us feel every time we hear someone in the House using the phrase "In my constituency". It makes me want to ask which part of the agricultural, commercial or culture panel they are referring to when they make such a reference.
A major problem is that we have not elected people whose eyes have been focused on national problems. It is not their fault as their activity reflects the system we have. The result is that representatives are elected in disproportionate numbers for very local reasons. My saying this will result in some criticism, which I can take. Some are elected, not usually but disproportionately, because they have a certain family background or some other local advantage or because they have been very good at negotiating with the constituency organisation of a local party that is culturally strong in the area in question. This is the gene pool, the talent pool, from which we must pick our Government. These are the folks we must then rely on when facing really big problems, such as banking crises, banks spreads and bond yields. Every taxi driver in Dublin has become an expert on these over recent years but hardly any of us had heard of them ten years ago. Suddenly there are people making very big decisions about these major issues. There are people making big decisions about the health service who know nothing about the delivery of health care. Therefore, we need really fundamental reform of our system of government.
We need an arrangement that somewhat decouples the Executive from the parliamentary branches. We need a system that results in the right people being appointed at the highest levels of the very technocratic Ministries. I am not decrying civilian control of the military, for example, but contending that we need a system that allows people with expertise and talent in particular areas to put themselves before the people under some sort of ratification process with a view to becoming the folks who will sit around the table. We need another group of people who will hold them to account in a national parliament. We have neither. The same people who pick the Executive sit in the Parliament and are whipped into silence and prevented from making statements they believe to be true because they are not allowed to deviate from the party line. I will not personalise but I believe we have had examples of this phenomenon in this very House. There was a spectacular case early in the history of this Seanad concerning a very fine and much-needed Bill that was introduced and advocated by a Member on the Government side. That Member was then whipped into voting against the Bill having made a very passionate and articulate case for its acceptance and implementation. This is the kind of daftness we are dealing with, yet we wonder why we have so many problems.
The two former Senators were given tremendously narrow confines in which to operate. Within these confines, they have behaved competently, honourably and cleverly and have done a good job, but the problem is more fundamental.
It has been stated the Seanad is not the number one item on the agenda of most people in the country. Perhaps this is the greatest truism ever spoken. The Seanad may not be in the top ten, 100 or 1 million items on the agenda of most people in the country. The House is regarded as largely irrelevant. We love standing in our august Chamber making a speech that nearly nobody will hear or read. That is sad but it is the reality. For Senators, former Senators, people interested in politics and those who care about politics and the system of government, issues such as the reform of the current Seanad assume great importance. It appears such people need us to increase its legitimacy and relevance. There is something sad about an organisation that is seeking to increase its own relevance. Sometimes a lack of relevance is a statement of reality, not something that needs to be changed.
In my ideal world, which I will never see, there would be a fine argument for a bicameral system of parliamentary representation in a country such as Ireland, with one Chamber comprising representatives very focused on local issues in their election campaigns. I do not decry parochialism in politics. The connection between individuals and government is critical. We should never think the people are an irrelevance to the process of government. They are not and are what the process of government should all be about. If people have concerns, there should be a mechanism whereby they can identify a representative who can articulate them, but the Chamber in which such a representative would sit ought not to be the only kind of Chamber. We could also have a Chamber or forum focused rigidly on national issues in which a representative would not be reluctant to advocate an approach to the national economy, employment policy or health policy that is unpopular. He or she would be able to say, in spite of its being unpopular, that a certain hospital should close and that its patients would be better served if they had to travel 40 miles farther to get better care. In our current system, almost nobody elected is able to say anything like that. Therefore, there is a need for us to examine the system fundamentally.
In many ways, I am a great admirer of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny. I have stated before that I believe he is the best Taoiseach we have had for a long time, although it must be stated the competition for that accolade has been somewhat weak. With regard to the question of Seanad reform, however, the Taoiseach has played this one exactly wrong at every step along the way. As a doctor, I would prescribe one of three approaches to somebody who received a wallop. The Taoiseach correctly self-diagnosed his wallop. One could deal with the disagreement that caused the wallop, one could wallop the person back or one could put something very cold over the walloped area to make the pain go away. It is very hard for me to escape the conclusion that the latter is what the Taoiseach has done on this occasion. He is trying to put a big cold compress over the wallop and wound, which is the deficiency in our parliamentary system of government, but he is choosing the wrong option.
It has been stated there have been many reports and much navel gazing and irrelevant debate on Seanad reform. When I ran for election to this House, I said I would either work to abolish it or work to reform it. I have worked to reform it together with my very able colleagues in my office, Shane Conneely, Aoife O'Toole and Aoife Casey. We formulated a Bill, which was advanced. Before the end of this Seanad, we will advance it for further discussion, although I know it will be shot down in flames. It would be dishonest to do less than that.
I thank the witnesses unambiguously and acknowledge what they have done. I sort of wish them well but must admit I am afraid we are aiming at the wrong target.
I thank the Leader for setting aside the amount of time he has set aside today to discuss this. In thanking him, I cannot but express some disappointment over the number of people who have turned up in the Chamber today to add their voices to the debate. Many people in this House will be running around the country over the next few months trying to secure their seat for the next term, but they have not got even the decency to be here to try to focus on the future of this institution.
I congratulate the two former Senators. It has been said time and again that the narrow focus or narrow terms of reference they had limited their scope. Despite their limited scope, they delivered an excellent document that will stand for years to come. Sadly, however, I believe it will just be left on a shelf somewhere. The independence of the Seanad is of fundamental importance. There have been arguments that one cannot run a government or an institution unless there is dominance on the government side or on the other, as the case may be. I do not believe that. Politics is the art of the possible and government need not dominate this House. Experts in the various fields under the vocational panels should be dominant when proposals, such as legislation, come before the House thus ensuring that they could be addressed in a much better way. Would it be the end of the world if a Bill was sent back because it was poorly written or badly conceived in some way? It would focus those who draft legislation on ensuring it is written with more care before they send it to the Dáil or this House to be initiated.
One of the issues that concerns me is the esteem in which this House is held. Some of my colleagues, particularly Senator Crown, have spoken about the issue of constituencies for Senators. My constituency is Ireland. My interests are the macro-issues that are Ireland's issues. I do not care if they are going to build a new school in Ballydehob or someone cannot get planning permission in a particular place. That is not my role. We have people in local government and the Dáil to deal with those issues. My job, as I understand it, is twofold. The first is to scrutinise legislation that comes before this House and to offer comment on it. I know I will be accused of having an eye to the election on the way, but the second is to represent my electorate. That is what I am here to do.
Another issue which concerns me are the nominating bodies. I would like to have seen a simplification of the registration process for nominating bodies. I would require the nominating bodies to put forward, when making their application, a set of qualifications which were verifiable and which would set the bar for those wishing to seek a nomination from them. The report states that each person seeking a nomination should be able to make their candidacy or qualifications stand up but that should be tested at the nominating bodies level before it comes to this House.
I welcome the proposal regarding the change to the panels. By increasing in particular the educational panel, the working group has reflected the change in Irish society and the importance of education to Ireland. I welcome that.
When the reform group was put together I commented on the fact that no sitting Member of this House, in particular the Leader, was included in the group. Those in the group have done a great job so I am not in any way castigating its members but the Leader should have been a member of the group. Meetings are being held with the Taoiseach and the leaders in the Lower House now. What is that about? Is it about how they are going to carve things up in the future?
I thank the former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, for reminding me that I am not the first Independent to be elected in this House to a vocational panel. However, I am the first to be elected in a by-election, something I have said time and again since I have come in here. I am sure all will agree it is next to impossible for a person independent of party politics to run for a Seanad election.
A person might get the nomination, get out and meet whoever, but he or she will not get elected. It is that simple.
I see the role of this House as assessing legislation and not representing local constituency issues. I do not see how there can be a constituency. There is no funding for a constituency and no suggestion that one is in any way representing any constituency at a local level. As Senator Crown said, we hear Members speaking about people in their constituency but what constituency are they talking about? It has been made clear that the constituency is the constituency of Ireland. That reads through the report and it is something on which I commend the working group.
I am very disappointed at the small number of people who have turned up for this debate. Perhaps it is saving Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole a lot of time but I do not think either they or their group would resent giving the time to hear the views of people who had the future of this House at the core of their concerns.
Everyone has referred to broadening the electorate but it raises huge problems. The notion of some form of a regional electorate, similar to the European elections, appealed to me when I heard it. It was not something I had considered. I was concerned for those who would not be, if one wants, in cyberspace or familiar with it and who wanted to appeal to an electorate across the globe, be they holders of Irish citizenship or whatever. How does one communicate with and get to those people? How does one get one's message across? Senator Norris made the point that if a person declares he or she wishes to have a vote in a Seanad election and if 15,000 pieces of information are coming at that person the situation becomes next to impossible. This issue needs to be teased out a little further and I would like to see more clarity on it.
The working group was not allowed to consider the issue of altering the Constitution, which is a pity because the days of the Taoiseach's 11 nominees should be long gone. Let us be honest about it. At least one Taoiseach nominated a person to the Seanad when he failed to be elected in a Dáil and then a Seanad election. He was appointed as a Taoiseach's nominee. What does that say about respect for democracy? It was outrageous and should not have been allowed.
There are real opportunities available, as can be seen from the report. There is an opportunity to populate the vocational panels with experts in their respective fields. I turn again to Senators Crown and Quinn who are such experts. They knew where they are coming from and they are non-party political. I see some of the party Members are laughing and that is fine too. In fairness, the Seanad was hijacked after the 1937 constitutional amendment. The party political system sat down and looked at it and asked how it could maximise its seats. The system was locked down and everyone else was kept out.
I turn again to the issue of legislation. Implementation of the recommendations in the report would lead to a Seanad very different to the current one. It would mean legislation would be scrutinised by people from all walks of life - or at least there would be the possibility of that - and these people would be here for a short time only. Perhaps the notion of returning term after term is something that would change. I thank Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole for their patience today.
I welcome the former Senators. I was a little surprised to be allowed speak on this report today because it is not that long ago since we were here, perhaps two months. In terms of my input on this issue, I have made a written submission and I spoke on the last occasion. Usually one is not allowed to speak twice on the same subject. I am here, however, because this is important and we are being given the time to speak again.
I hope Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole will respond before the conclusion of the session. Can they enlighten us as to whether there will be reform of the Seanad prior to the next election? Former Senator Manning is shaking his head in the negative. If that is the answer, it is very disappointing. It is a year and nine months, which is a considerable amount of time, since the people spoke. Some people in this House have been relentless in keeping this issue on the agenda. I wish to pay tribute to Senator Feargal Quinn in particular. More of us have supported him. What is the point in vague promises? Let us cut to the chase. As soon as the Government lost the Seanad referendum I believe I am correct in saying that An Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, said that he would bring forward a Bill on the extension of the university mandate, to include other third level colleges in Ireland. Where is the Bill? This is vital. There has been almost like a second class citizenry among the graduates of Ireland when colleges like University of Limerick and DCU, with very fine graduates, and graduates of teacher education colleges have not had a vote. In 1979 the people said they should have a vote. I would hope that at a minium this would be rectified before the next election because there has been a firm promise in place that this would happen.
Dr. Manning may be able to clarify for me how the new university groupings are to work together. For example, NUIG will work with St. Angela's College while DCU, Marino Institute of Education and St. Pat's form a grouping. I do not have all the exact groupings. Given that some of the colleges within those groupings have votes on the NUI panel, for example, does this give reason to the graduates from the other colleges within those groupings to have a vote? Another speaker said there was a difference between universities. We all know there is a difference between universities but once a university or a college is granted the authority to confer its own degrees we have to accept its graduates. I am keen to hear Dr. Manning's answer on whether those new groupings influence the extension of the vote to the graduates now within those groupings.
I am very disappointed to hear that there will not be reform before the next election. However, we need evidence of action at a very minimum on the extension of the university panel. Senator Norris said that if every graduate in this country had a vote there would be 850,000 graduates with the right to vote on the panel of either NUI or Trinity. I presume there would be a larger number of NUI graduates than Trinity graduates. If there are only six seats this would be an incredibly contested election. For the 30 seats proposed to be directly elected with universal suffrage - which I completely support - will those graduates also have a vote for the direct elections?
I agree in principle with the extension of votes to include those living abroad and in Northern Ireland. However, I accept the argument put forward that it would be impossible to give the same weight to that vote. We are known to be a country with a diaspora of 70 million people. I accept that they are not all passport-holders but it would be very easy to have more voters from abroad than Irish-based voters. There is a strong case to be made for the weighting of that vote, that there would be a different weighting for the vote of a person living abroad than for a voter living in Ireland. This should be easy enough to achieve because we successfully transact much of our financial affairs online so there should be a secure way, therefore, to enable online registration of voters. Senator Cáit Keane referred to a system that is worthy of consideration.
The proposal that 13 seats would be maintained for councillors is valid. Direct election by councillors is a valid system but I believe it is widely misunderstood. It is often commented by the public that the system is not democratic. It is democratic but in a different format. Some councillors who cast their vote may have been elected to a council by anything from 1,000 to 4,000 votes, depending on the local constituency. Therefore, if such councillors have the pulse of the people in their area and if they are then using their judgment to give a vote to a particular Senator, I think that carries a certain punch. The proposed breakdown is good. However, I am disappointed at the retention of the Taoiseach's nominees for constitutional reasons because it is viewed with some cynicism.
I believe the House was retained because the people believe in a second opinion and they did not trust the Government. They did not want to see a power grab. They were very wise in deciding that they wanted to have a second opinion available. If we are to think of the Irish public as a nation and are to consider our position within Europe then, as has been said by other speakers, we need a very distinct role for scrutiny of EU legislation and scrutiny of ministerial regulations that do not go to a vote in the House. For example, we are dealing in Galway with a proposal for a bypass. This proposal has come up time and again but it meets with all these restrictions. I am not saying I fully agree with the bypass because what we are being offered at the moment is a through-pass, not a bypass. The proposal has been met with restrictions around NHAs and SACs that enjoy incredibly high protection in Europe, in fact more protection than the citizen. That is not a joke. Those regulations and directives should have been scrutinised adequately in a House of the Oireachtas. When it goes to the floor at any public meeting the Oireachtas Members blame Europe when in fact we should be blaming ourselves because we are not scrutinising in advance. Nor are using all the mechanisms to inform the people in advance in order to get their views.
Equally, yesterday I had a motion before the House that Montessori teachers currently enjoy restricted recognition to teach in special schools at primary level. The Minister has committed to removing that restriction so that those teachers will never again be allowed to teach in special schools at primary level-----
I did not know about it only for the fact that it was brought to my attention.
We need this House to do very valuable work for the people. I envisage a different type of Seanad which would include the removal of the Whip system so that decisions are not compromised along party lines but are made on the basis of best argument and evidence put forward. This is not dissimilar to Senator Crown's argument. Decisions would be based on expertise and talent that is critical to the subject area. It does not mean we will not have votes nor does it mean that we should run the Seanad the same as the Dáil. There would still be a vote at the conclusion of a debate but there is no need for it to be compromised by a party line. As another speaker said that in Germany, representatives are expected to vote according to conscience. Deputy Peter Mathews brought forward a Bill in the other House addressing this aspect but needless to say it was shot down.
I apologise. I hope there is food for thought.I wish them well in their deliberations and thank them for the time they have given to this issue. Let us move ahead with implementation and ensure the implementation body includes not only Dáil Members but also Members of the Seanad and members of the public, as well as individuals with the necessary expertise. I look forward to sensible recommendations being implemented.
I have listened closely to the debate and welcome both of our guests back to the House. I made observations at the time of their previous attendance and I am here today to listen to what they have to say on the current position. I do not believe in repetition, wasting the time of the House or saying things for the sake of it in order to be able to relay it to various quarters at various times. I welcome Dr. Manning and Mr. O'Toole and look forward to hearing their responses to the debate.
Mr. Joe O'Toole:
With the permission of the House, I will deal with the direct questions posed and Dr. Manning will wrap up.
I will deal, first, with what was not part of our role. We did not deal with the university constituencies because of the existence of an extant Bill published by the Government and it would have amounted to interference in the work of the Houses for us do so. Therefore, I will not respond to questions on that issue, except on the right to vote, to which I will come back shortly. It is not our objective, intention or thought to depoliticise the House either. That is the furthest thing from our minds because this is a political House. We do not understand the criticism from a number of quarters that in some way, if our proposals were to be implemented, there would be no political groupings in the House. We do not know how this came about, but it is just not true.
On the question of there being a Whip or strong party political input, we are agnostic. However, I remind the House that in the Bunreacht, tá sé thar a bheith soiléir, it is written clearly, "The House shall organise its own business". It is not our business to deal with the question of a Whip.
On the question of whether the university panels will be extended, that is a matter included in the Government's Bill, the heads of which have been published. We had sight of them, as did Members, but we have not dealt with that issue. In terms of overseas voters, including in Northern Ireland, the crucial issue is that this is a decision in principle. Many have raised the question as to whether we would be overwhelmed in finding we had 2 million voters outside of the country and only 500,000 in Ireland. First, as was mentioned by several speakers, the current Government proposal regarding the universities would see almost 750,000 voters on the panels, spread across the globe. Therefore, there is nothing new in our proposals that is not already on the radar of the Government. The issue of numbers is a matter for the House. We propose that there be votes for the diaspora, but how should we deal with the question of being overwhelmed? We could do a number of things. We could restrict the overseas votes to a particular panel. We chose not to do this, but the House could. Therefore, even if 20 million were to vote, they could only elect the number of Members from that panel.
Another way to do it would be to restrict votes to Irish passport holders. There are approximately 60,000 Irish passports issued per yearabroad, which means that in a ten-year period there are far less than 1 million potential voters. We could also insist on votes only being given to people who were born in Ireland. That information is included in the passport documentation. Votes could also be restricted to a number of years, for example, the number of years out of Ireland. There are many structures that could be put in place to deal with the issue and we have looked at all of the different ways that could be used. The decision in principle is what is important, but how it is implemented is a matter for the House. It is a decision that can only be made in legislation. It is important to understand this and that it can be changed at any time.
The position is similar in extending the vote to people living in Northern Ireland. It would simply be an extension of the Good Friday Agreement, which states that, by the principle of consent, people should be able to involve themselves in elections or express their citizenship as Irish, British or both. This comes from the clear intention outlined in the agreement.
A number of Senators raised the matter of taxation. Our thinking on this issue is that because this House does not determine taxation matters and has a restricted role in the area of finance and money, this offered a way in for the diaspora. Again, the House will have its own way of approaching the issue should it become a matter for discussion.
On the register of electors, we are positive that the register we have proposed would be more reliable than the current register for local, Dáil, European and university panel elections. We agree that the register should be capable of being checked on line and that this should be easily done.
The question was raised as to how one could communicate with a global electorate. This could be done by the simple pressing of a button and sending a communication to the 2 million people registered abroad. This would be a lot easier, cheaper and more effective way than anything currently in place.
Senators Cáit Keane and Feargal Quinn asked about votes by mail. The Constitution provides for a "secret postal ballot" or "le rúnbhallóid phoist". We received advice on this issue from a number of counsel who were unanimous that votes would have to be returned by post. We raised the point raised by Senator Feargal Quinn, that times had changed and that we had interpreted words in legislation to mean other things in order to deal with IT issues. This issue concerns the Constitution and our advice is that it cannot be done here.
Senator Cáit Keane raised the questions of electoral reform, the electoral commission and political reform. Many asked whether our report was putting the cart before the horse, whether we should do it in a different order or whether we should concentrate on total political reform. There are three documents on electoral commissions that are of significance: the Geary Institute-UCD paper published in 2008; the all-party Oireachtas report published in 2010, and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government document published in January 2015. I recommend that Senators read these reports. Starting with the last report, they will find little or no reference to the Seanad in the document which is being dealt with by joint committee. It states there should be consultation with the Clerk of the Dáil. The only reference to the Clerk of the Seanad is in a passing reference to returning officers. Senators should be clear on this point. Also, the document of January 2015 states the establishment of a commission should be considered on a phased basis. What we propose would work into that timescale and system. I ask Senators to look carefully at it.
Senator Ivana Bacik raised a number of questions about Article 19 and whether indirect elections, the election of councillors, could be confined to panels. We spent significant time discussing this issue. We looked at Article 19, which has never been used, and thought it offered a solution. It allows for another proposal. It states: "Provision may be made by law for the direct election by any functional or vocational group or association or council...". We thought the words in the article would include councillors and local authorities, but the advice we received from three counsel was that it would not. They all said it would restrict it to one group and that it could not be used for different ones. We then looked at the suggestion made by Senator Ivana Bacik, that we could include all of them in one panel, the Administrative Panel, for example. If we were to do this, all of the other groups included in the Administrative Panel, which in the main deal with disability issues, would not have access. We cannot transfer nominators to different panels. We worked our way backwards and came up with a somewhat convoluted system, but we were stuck with a Constitution which provided for two or three on a sub-panel of each panel. Our solution, however, is not ideal.In response to the question from Senators Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik on the possibility of a skewed electorate, with people opting to be included in one panel and nobody choosing to be included in another, that could happen. We have dealt with the issue whereby the format of the indirect panel could also be used for the general panel. It may be the case that it might be decided to restrict the number who may opt for a particular panel by setting a minimum or maximum number of candidates, similar to the numbers set in the Constitution for elections to the Dáil. The Senators have asked a valid question, but we deliberately left it open. There are many ways to deal with it, but we decided not to deal with it at this time. One way of dealing with it would be by working registrations through the nominating bodies which would certainly ensure it was not skewed. One could have more candidates on a specific panel. Some of the nominating bodies may have small numbers to deal with, but that would not be a problem.
Senator Paschal Mooney raised the question of knowledge and experience and spoke about the need for a High Court judge in this regard. Let me reassure the House that we went through every High Court judgment line by line where there was a problem. We also had a long discussion with the Clerk of the Seanad about this. The problem is that there are no criteria for assessing knowledge and experience, on which a High Court judge has to adjudicate, and what one person may decide is sufficient, another may decide otherwise. Senator Gerard P. Craughwell correctly said the nominating bodies determined what qualifications their candidates should have. That is what we have inferred in our report, but the nominating bodies would have to put in place a system that would be clearly understood. The Clerk of the Seanad, as returning officer, would have to decide whether a candidate had an adequate level of knowledge and-or practical experience and it would come down to a subjective judgment. We propose that there be criteria to make the position clear. That is all we are saying. People say if it is not broken, do not fix it. We work on the basis that if it is not broken, it will shortly become obsolete such that we should be changing it.
A number of Senators raised the question of whether there should be more indirectly elected Members. When one does the sums, one has very little room for movement. If one decides that the majority of Members should be elected by popular vote, one is suddenly over 30, not including the six university seats and the Taoiseach's 11 nominees.
Another question was whether Seanad and European elections should be held at the same time. We cannot do this because Bunreacht na hÉireann is very clear that the elections to the Seanad have to take place within 90 days of Dáil elections. One cannot relate it to European elections as suggested.
Senator David Cullinane asked about people from the North being elected to the Seanad. That is not a problem. Quite a number of the nominating bodies are all-Ireland bodies and can nominate anybody they like, North or South. It is their call. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this from happening.
I think I have dealt in general terms with all of the specific questions raised, but on the general question of political reform and the electoral commission, we have worked within the scope and context of the current position. The issue is complex. The Government's proposal is to set up an electoral commission and people were afraid that it would decide to do it altogether. They talk about an election commission as if there is a general understanding of what it means. There are no two countries with the same kind of electoral commission. One of the three documents I mentioned states there should be no former politicians on an electoral commission, while another states there should. We are discussing the third document. This is an issue that has to be decided. In some countries the electoral commission is utterly independent of the government, while in others it is appointed by the government and works separately, or it may be a mix of the two, but there is no model that is understood globally. It will be whatever suits the Government of the day.
We looked at the idea of giving everybody a vote on every panel, but we thought that would be too cumbersome. We decided on the principle of one person, one vote. That means an individual who is a councillor, a graduate and a citizen will not have three votes. As a councillor, a person will have to vote in the indirect election. That is written into our document. As a graduate, a person may decide to de-register and re-register on one of the other panels orvice versa.
I think I have dealt with gach ceann de na ceisteanna atá curtha chugam ag an bpointe seo. If I have forgotten anything or if there are other issues, we will be happy to respond to questions. If further clarification is required, we will be very happy to deal with queries. Members can drop us a note or raise queries through the Leader, with whom we will be in contact regularly.
In many ways, this is an historic day. Even though this is the 12th or 13th report - I cannot remember which - it is the first time a Taoiseach has come out and said to us that he will set up a body to implement it. The question was raised fairly by Senator Feargal Quinn and others as to the cause of the delay until now, but it is not one for us. I completely agree with the point raised by Senator Katherine Zappone. We have written legislation and legislation has been brought forward previously by Senators John Crown, Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone. We have asked that the implementation body have access to the Parliamentary Counsel. It could be done within time. The Government has made the decision to have the report implemented in time before the following general election.
Dr. Maurice Manning:
I was going to say that for the short time we were in this Chamber Joe O'Toole and I could reclaim our old titles, of which we were both very proud.
I thank everybody because the contributions have been extraordinarily constructive. There is a sense that there is a basis on which we can move forward. I think former Senator Joe O'Toole has dealt with most of the questions raised.
I want to be slightly political and agree very strongly with Senator Feargal Quinn. The timescale is important. We were able to produce our report effectively in three months. I do not know of any other working party or committee that produced its report within that time. We were able to do so in large part because we did not try to reinvent the wheel and because we were working on what had already been done. The term "navel gazing" was used by Senator John Crown and others. There had not been navel gazing but a significant amount of analysis of the Seanad, what needed to be done and what was possible. With committee members, many of whom had deep experience of the workings of the House and all of whom had great respect for this House and were aware of the potential, we worked on that basis. There is a draft Bill. I believe there is enough material available. The implementation group could work with the Parliamentary Counsel on the draft legislation and signpost the things that needed to be done such as dealing with the issue of cyber security. This might be done in earnest given the intention of the Government that legislation will be in place before the general election. It is like draining the River Shannon; people will only believe it when they see it happening. Members are, therefore, right to be impatient, but the timescale is realistic.
Former Senator Joe O'Toole has dealt with the question of political parties, but it is one that needs to be addressed head on. I am and have been a member of a political party all my life. I always encourage my students to be members of political parties. A good society needs people to be actively involved in political parties which are the mechanisms through which parliamentary politics works. When this House was set up in 1922, there was no Whip.The Cathaoirleach of the day was also the Leader of the House and the absence of a Whip system meant chaos. Very quickly the people who had said, to be different, we will have no Whips realised that for the practical purposes of getting business done, we had to organise Whips to be sure of votes. There is a difference between having Whips. As a former Whip myself, and in the presence of Senator Paul Coghlan, I think Whips play an extraordinarily useful role. The confusion is with the dominance of a majority. I was the Leader of this House for three years and I had a working majority of minus five because of the change of Government. Therefore, I have great sympathy for Senator Cummins.
Dr. Maurice Manning:
Mr. O'Toole was seated there, where Senator Crown is sitting now. One can have a Government that does not have a majority because it means the Government has to listen to what the Seanad is saying and the Government has to argue its case. As Senator Craughwell said, if it has to bring legislation back, the sky will not fall in. It is a different sort of politics. It will give the House a sense of mattering and of being independent. The House, in turn, must be reasonable. The House cannot set itself up as a roadblock to the work of the majority in the Dáil. The House cannot do so because if it does, it will lose credibility. It has to be reasonable and credible. It also has a position and is in a position to ensure it matters. In addition, it has some of the relevance that Senator Crown spoke about. It is important to make that point about political parties and Whips.
All the main points have been covered and, again, I thank everybody. The word "vocational" was used. I want to stress something which Mr. O'Toole did not mention. The Constitution describes the Seanad as a vocational House. We worked within the confines of the Constitution and I think it enriched our work rather than impose restrictions. I meant to say that political parties will elect the majority of those indirectly elected. Political parties are in a better position than anyone else to register voters online. Political parties have nationwide organisations. They can register their people better than anyone else so there will be a presence of political parties in a reformed House. I wanted to stress that point and hope I did not stress it too much. I hope the work of reform continues. What we have produced is not the last word. As Mr. O'Toole said, the last word will be with the Houses of the Oireachtas. The fine-tuning or maybe the substantive change to anything we have proposed will be the work of the two Houses of the Oireachtas and not of a committee. It will be the work of Parliament. I would like to say thanks again for the very good contributions made today. I hope this will be the beginning of what will be the biggest reform since the 1937 Constitution. If this reform goes through, it will be one of the biggest political reforms and I do not know why the Government does not grab it and run with it.