Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."It is important, perhaps, to note that on 1 February 2018 the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Varadkar, came to this House and endorsed the principle of the Manning report and announced his intention to establish an all-party implementation group and spoke strongly in favour of the principle of amending the way Seanad Éireann was elected. He indicated that he was going to establish a group which over an eight-month period would come forward with proposals on how, in turn, the proposals of the Manning report would be implemented.
Subsequent to that, between February and June of that year, the group was established and its terms of reference were set out by a Government decision. The group met and I was elected as its chairman. The group met over a period from June to December 2018 when it completed and presented its work to the Taoiseach. The group had the advantage that the Department of the Taoiseach paid for the retention of a skilled parliamentary draughtsman to devise a Bill that would be appended to the report. The group itself met on many occasions, deliberated on how it intended to craft a report, and received evidence about the practicality of various ways of implementing the Manning report.
The report was sent by me, as chairperson, to the Taoiseach in December 2018 and in early 2019 I noted that the Taoiseach had made somewhat dismissive remarks about the report in Dáil Éireann, in the Chamber in which we are now. I asked to see him on this issue and he told me, much to my surprise and disappointment, that he himself was an abolitionist during the referendum and that he had no particular interest in progressing the matter any further. This contrasted greatly with the impression that he had given the Seanad the previous February.
Over 12 months the situation had changed dramatically and we were then running into a general election and suddenly all interest in the Bill disappeared. I was told that the Government had no intention of introducing the Bill in Dáil Éireann, as I had recommended in my covering letter and in addition to that, I was told that it could be introduced by any private Member but the Government in those circumstances would allow a free vote and it was highly unlikely to go anywhere.
That set of circumstances smacks to me of utter cynicism. The Manning report was put in place following the rejection by the people of a proposal to abolish this House and this report was published and it became part of the programme for Government for the 2016 to 2020 Administration to implement it. Yet by early 2019 that commitment was completely thrown aside and all interest in implementing the Manning report seemed to have evaporated in a miraculous way.
My own view is that this was breathtaking political cynicism because many Members participated in the Manning report implementation group, Members who are here in this House and others, in good faith believing that they were finally taking the steps without constitutional change, to give the people of Ireland a very substantial say in who sat in this Chamber. That is what was proposed, is what the Government had committed itself to doing and is what was immediately taken off the agenda and effectively thrown into the political wastepaper basket.
We now come to the point where the question of Seanad reform simply will not go away. I want to welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for electoral reform here and I have spoken to both him and to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, about this matter. I fully empathise with the position of the Minister of State who has indicated that his party wanted to have Seanad reform as part of the programme for Government but that the other two parties showed very little interest in having it there. In fairness, that is the truth of the situation. The Minister, Deputy O’Brien, as I understand it hopes to have somebody on the Government benches move an amendment to the motion for a Second Reading of this Bill today to postpone the Second Reading until 31 December 2021 in order that further consideration to the implementation of the Bill can be given by the section of the Department over which the Minister of State has responsibility. The effect of that amendment, if it were carried, would be to put into the record of this House that the Bill would be deemed to be passed on 31 December 2021 and it would fall then to be considered whether it or other legislative proposals which the Department had come up with in the meantime would be progressed thereafter to Committee Stage etc.
As far as I am concerned, Senator Malcolm Byrne introduced legislation recently designed to implement the result of the referendum and to spread the university seats more equitably across institutions of higher education. The result of that Bill if adopted in isolation would be that perhaps 800,000, or perhaps with the passage of time 1 million or more people, would elect 10% of the Members of this House provided that those people were graduates of higher education. The remainder of the electorate, which would probably be 2 to 3 million other people - though a declining fraction as higher education is more generally available - would have no direct say and that 1,200 people, being representatives in local government and the Oireachtas would elect or select the remaining 90% of this House.
The case for reform is overwhelming. I remind the House that the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in order to try to induce the people to accept the referendum for the abolition of this House informed the people prior to the referendum vote that if his proposal to abolish this House was rejected he would not reform this House. That was also a very cynical move. He effectively was saying that he would leave it as undemocratic as it was so that the people were not to think that they would get a better Seanad, but he changed his mind when he got what he described as a wallop at the hands of the electorate in his attempts to wreck this House and the Constitution with it.
I will not talk about recent controversies but one of the functions of this House is to ensure that certain powers in respect of the Judiciary are not abused by a majority in Dáil Éireann and we have our own separate function in that respect.
We have other functions. This House has a veto on any plans to implement any measure at European level to deploy the passerelle clause, in other words, to give up unanimity requirements.This House, under the Constitution, has significant functions apart from its legislative scrutiny function.
I will continue in the short time provided for in the Standing Orders of this House in the form in which they still are. I would have had to sit down about three minutes ago if a certain thing had happened this morning. This Bill was crafted in good faith by a collective effort of Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. It was modular in form. It acknowledges that change will not happen in a big bang. It was gradual in form, in that it provided for a phased introduction of these reforms. It was a genuine, bona fide effort to finally give this House a broader base with regard to the people who select who is here. It was also designed, as the Manning report attempted, to retain a function for representatives in local government to have an input into the composition of Seanad Éireann and thereby the Oireachtas. It is a fair Bill. It is expertly drafted. It is capable of being implemented. It may cost money but it is worth doing.
Now is not the time for cynicism or further delay. The Minister of State has told me privately, and said that I was at liberty to say this, that he wants to go ahead with these reforms. This is the occasion on which to do it. I wish that we would make faster progress than the amendment, which is likely to be tabled by the Government in respect of the Second Reading indicates. I am taking the Minister of State at his word that he is genuine and bona fide committed to implementing the reform of the Seanad in the way that he has indicated in private to me. I thank him for those assurances.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the opportunity to debate Seanad reform for the second time in as many weeks. In 2013, when I was not a Member of this House and never dreamt that I would be, I did everything that I could during the referendum campaign to ensure that this House would survive. When I was elected to this House, I was deeply honoured, and I am as honoured and as privileged today as I was in 2014 when I came in here. Many of my colleagues have said to me that in my support for this Bill, I am committing political suicide. If this is what I have to commit political suicide for, I will gladly go to my political grave, because this House desperately needs reform.
I have been told that no county councillor will ever support me again for supporting this Bill. I believe our county councillors are far more discerning than some people in this House give them credit for. In 2015, I addressed a meeting of county councillors from all over Ireland on the issue of their pay, terms and conditions. They were told at that meeting that it was bad that this new Independent Senator had brought their pay into the public domain, and that people were working in the background on it and would sort that out for them. It is 2020 now and it was not sorted out. Maybe the county councillors would get much more from the 15 people they have elected here than the 43 who have failed to deliver for them in the entire life of the Seanad. I am talking about the time since 1937.
I commend my colleagues, Senators McDowell and Higgins, and indeed Senator Warfield. They all sat on the committee that Senator McDowell was talking about and came up with this draft. It is an ideal Bill. In an ideal world, it would be the Bill that would come to reform the Seanad. It should be the last Bill that this House ever needs because it should bring this House to be what it was envisaged to be in 1937. What have we done with it? We have turned it into a replica of the Dáil. We have a Government and an Opposition side. In the current Seanad, we have a rubber stamp. Anything that comes here is passed. We do not give legislation the right scrutiny that it should get in this House. This House was never meant to have Government and Opposition. This House was meant to be populated by academics and vocational experts who would put legislation through its paces and recommend that legislation be returned to the Dáil if it was deemed to be faulty. That does not happen and we have Government and Opposition.
The Bill is ambitious and, if passed, as my colleague Senator McDowell has said, it does not have to be implemented in one fell swoop. It can be implemented in a modular way that would allow for a less disruptive implementation. I know that the Minister of State's party is committed to Seanad reform but I am afraid, if the boat sails today, that it will sail forever. I do not understand why we have to wait until 31 December 2021. There would be nothing wrong with passing this Bill through All Stages in this House and letting it go from there to the Dáil to remain in the Dáil for whatever length of time it takes to pass through the Dáil. There is no need to do what is happening today. Were this Bill passed, it would radically change the Seanad. It would radically change vocational representation in the Seanad. From my perspective, it would deliver much better representation for the vocational groups that we are here to represent.
Having 28 Senators here who are elected under a general franchise by members of the public would give this House the credibility it deserves. Far too often, and the Minister of State is no different, I have sat in company and people have said the Seanad is a rest home for failed politicians or a warm-up home for those who want to get to the Dáil. It is treated with nothing but disdain by many people in this country. As an Independent Senator who was fortunate enough to be elected, I would be the first person to admit today that my election in October 2014 was a fluke. It was a good fluke because it led to other Independent Senators coming in after me. It led to a realisation by independent county councillors around the country that they could elect Independents to this House.
When I look at the history of this House, the great things that happened in this House were all initiated by Independent people. I look at my colleague, Senator Norris, one of the great orators and legislators in this House. I think of Feargal Quinn and of John Crown, who left this House saying he would never return because it would never be reformed. We have to take our courage in our hands and reform this. If this is my political death, and an end to my political career, I will walk out of here proud because at least I tried, but I am so disheartened.
This House was formed in 1937. In 1942, there was an amendment to the way this House does its business. Other than that, it has sat in the doldrums. It is difficult not to see the public view that it is simply a rest home. It is difficult, with this Government, to see that we have moved away from having people from civil society among the Taoiseach's 11 nominees. There is one such person, Senator Flynn, and I am delighted that she is here. In the previous Seanad, there were six Independents, and there were Independents in the Seanad before that, all great Senators.
As a former postgraduate from the University of Limerick, I welcome the expansion of the university panel. As the Bill passes through, there will be amendments, probably looking at the cost. At the end of the day, we need to make the Seanad answerable to the people of Ireland, who pay our salaries.
When I saw the amendment tabled last night, my heart sank into my boots. I saw that nothing has changed. Cute hoorism is alive and well and is living in Ireland. Not one of them would have the courage to come in here and actually vote down this Bill.What they will do is adjourn it until 31 December 2021. I have a written speech and I really just cannot go through it because I am so bloody disheartened by what I see. I see cute hoorism working its way through. This is the second or third time since 2014 that I have seen this. We had the wonderful Manning report but it was only the fourth or fifth report. We have had three pieces of legislation come through this House yet nothing has happened.
The ball is at the feet of the Minister of State and I plead with him to not allow what they are trying to do to this Bill. I thank my two colleagues, Senators Higgins and McDowell, for the marvellous work they have done in bringing this Bill before the House.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
- "the Bill to be read a second time on 31st December, 2021, to allow for further consideration of the Bill".
I wish to share my time with Senator Cassells. I thank Senators McDowell and Higgins, and all of the Senators and Deputies, I guess, who worked on the commission and the report. I have to say ráiméis because what I have just had to listen to is exactly what gives this House a bad name. I do not know what or where Senator Craughwell thinks I come from but I consider myself very much part of civil society. I am somebody who has contested multiple elections. I have been elected in my own right to the largest local authority in the country having topped the poll on many occasions, so I have every right to be here. As somebody who lives closest to this House, and worked the hardest and longest to come to this House, it is a real privilege for me to participate in this debate. Nobody can accuse me of taking either the short or scenic route to Leinster House so I will not listen to him. What I will say is that this is a really important debate and important House so it is a huge privilege for any of us to take a seat here and participate in debates.
I encourage the Minister of State, and I have spoken to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about this, but we cannot deal with the Seanad in isolation. I have read the draft legislation. It has many good parts and much of it I support but it has some issues. I note that when the committee had concluded its business there was not unanimous support. That is hardly surprising because when one puts a bunch of politicians together the multiplying effect of disagreement is compounded.
From where I stand in looking at this matter, the broadening of the electorate is very welcome but the perverse sub-panel arrangement must be addressed. I cannot describe it any other way but perverse. The constituencies need to be updated and take account of the modern world. The way that I expect the Minister of State to respond to this is that he will talk about the commitment from Government for broader electoral reform and the very clear commitment from three parties that have a majority to deliver an electoral commission. The programme for Government explicitly says it will, "Establish an Electoral Commission to provide independent oversight of elections and referendums, to inform the public" [the people who we are meant to serve] "about elections and referendums, to update and maintain the electoral register", which is something I would welcome in Dublin Central.It will, "Empower the Electoral Commission to regulate online political" activities, which is something that I know will scare some political organisations but is not a concern for me or my party. It will, "Mandate the new Electoral Commission to examine the use of postal voting". I know that Trump and others complained about it but we would welcome that as it is a really valuable service for a lot of our electors.
I appreciate that Senators McDowell and Higgins are disappointed that the Government has responded by saying it will deal with this again in a year but I suggest that they take heart. My journey here has taken me 16 years and I never gave up. I urge them not to give up but stick at this and not adopt an adversarial approach. This House does not have to be divided and can deliver reform, and broader electoral reform, but it takes two parties to work together.
I deeply regret that Senator Craughwell in making a case for the legislation that is before us, chose to besmirch the credentials of people on this side of the House. If he wants to check my academic and professional qualifications over a 25-year period then he need only check with the Clerk of the Seanad.
As is so often the case, we are doing things backwards because I believe that we have already had Second Stage. I know because I stood over there on 7 November last year when we had a two-hour debate on this report with the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy John Paul Phelan. It took him a full year to make his way into the Chamber from the presentation of the report in December 2018. I remember it well because I sat with Senator McDowell as we waited for the report to come across from the printers that particular Christmas week. I recall the dismissive nature of the then Minister of State's retort on that day in the Chamber was hugely regrettable.
We have already had Second Stage and it took place from June 2018 until Christmas 2018, which I believe is the longest Committee Stage ever. We met weekly with only one objective which was to deal with the legislation because the then Taoiseach had asked for the text of a Bill to be produced in conjunction with the report. As has been pointed out, the State provided an expert draftsman to produce that text. What other Members of Parliament are going to have that resource at their disposal, to bring a Bill in here before any Minister, when the Taoiseach himself commissioned members of the Bills Office of the Oireachtas to help with the compilation of the legislation. One will not find a more well crafted piece of legislation during the term of office of the Minister of State when he debates in this House. Today, we should be on Report Stage yet, perversely, we find ourselves back at the start.
I was a proud member of the Seanad reform commission. I pay tribute to Senator McDowell on the manner in which he chaired the commission because it was inclusive, comprised of members of all parties and none. The witnesses, if people took the time to read the report, were drawn from all areas of life. When I and my party campaigned for the retention of the Seanad in the referendum we did so on the basis of reform. This is unlike the current Tánaiste whose idea of reform is to use the scalpel. That is par for the course considering that idea of reform of the former Minister, Phil Hogan, was to abolish a whole load of councils across the country.
One of the big issues that people may dwell on is extending the franchise. Dr. Theresa Reidy conducted an extensive consultation on this in countries where it already exists in other parts of world. There is a large participation in the initial period but that tails off. It is those who are actually committed to the electoral franchise. We consistently have over 1.2 million people, who are citizens of this State, who never bother to vote on polling day and the number increases on local election day. When people are afraid of extending the franchise either into Northern Ireland or abroad we must remember that over 1.2 million people never bother to turn out on election day and use their franchise that people fought to give them.
I commend the work not just of the signatories of this Bill but the entire membership of the commission who sought to get legislation that could be accepted by all Members of the House. We have done things backwards as we have already had Committee Stage. One will not find a more detailed Committee Stage than what was undertaken, so we should really be on Report Stage today.
I also join with other Members who have congratulated the signatories to this Bill on the work involved in it. I do not know if I can say this definitively but physically it is probably the largest Private Members' Bill that has ever come before the House. There is an enormous amount of work in it and I recognise the acknowledgement of the work done by Dr. Maurice Manning and the committee which gave rise to this legislation. I know Dr. Manning very well. He was one of my lecturers and mentors, if I can say that, in college and the man who probably led me down the road of becoming a nerd with an interest in the Seanad despite not being a Seanad Member. We all recognise that the level of public interest in this House is much more limited than it should be. I acknowledge that much of the reason for that is the manner in which the House is constituted and the various issues that are dealt with in this Bill.
Yes, there is also a lack of press coverage. I, of all people, would like to do more about that but it is not within my gift, unfortunately.
Last week, when we debated the Bill brought forward by Senator Byrne and his colleagues, I said that in 2003, the then Senator Mary O'Rourke, who I believe was Leader of the House at the time, chaired a committee on Seanad reform to which I contributed. I had the privilege of sitting in the Seanad Chamber for the first time and making known my views on the Seanad. My views then were more radical than the measures proposed in this Bill but I also recognise they would have required substantial constitutional as well as legislative reform.
The provisions in this Bill are wonderful. There is a great deal of good material in it, much of which I support. However, I do not support the Bill in its entirety and in that regard I echo what other Members have said. I do not want to be so precious as to suggest it is denigration of the 43 Senators elected on the panel system but I take issue with the suggestion that this House is not democratically elected. That was said during the debate last week and I resist that suggestion.
Senator Norris said it last week in the debate. Unfortunately, I did not have time to contradict him but I will do so today. The Senators who are elected by local authority members around the country are democratically elected Members of this House. They are indirectly democratically elected in exactly the same way as the Taoiseach. Nobody ever suggests the Taoiseach is not democratically elected. He is, however, elected by a college of elected persons in the same way the 43 Senators in this House are elected by a much larger college which is spread throughout the country and represents local communities. I absolutely resist any suggestion to the contrary. The danger with making that suggestion or challenging it in debates like this is that it becomes part of the popular discourse that, somehow, this is not a democratic Chamber. It is a democratic Chamber. That argument could perhaps be made in respect of the 11 nominees.
Senator Craughwell stated that the Seanad is not as it was envisaged by Éamon de Valera. That is not true. The Seanad operates exactly as de Valera envisaged it; it is powerless, divided and deals with legislation in a way that is subservient always to the Dáil. That is exactly what he wanted and it is what he got. The Seanad is, therefore, the way the framers of the Constitution envisaged it would be. Perhaps the clearest sign that that is the case are the 11 nominees because their stated purpose is to ensure the Government maintains a majority. It is far from the idyllic House Senator Craughwell describes, one populated by academics and experts. I am not necessarily suggesting there is a lack of academics and experts in this House, far from it.
It was always intended that there would be an Opposition and a Government side and it has always been thus. Even if that were not the case, the Seanad could not operate because the lack of certainty would create a malaise. The absence of agreement and of parties and structures in the House would end up merely delaying the passage of legislation. I have great respect for Senator Craughwell who is a friend and near neighbour of mine but to suggest there should not be politics or politicians in a House such as this completely ignores the value of the contribution politicians have to make.
A feature of modern society is that we simply dismiss the skill set politicians have. In many cases, this has been developed over years of local government and other types of political activism involved in making decisions that are saleable and transmissible. I can give any number of examples of people who came into politics in this country, sometimes high office, without training or serving an apprenticeship. The difficulties they had when they got there became clear because they had not had the benefit of sitting in a council chamber or working in an organisation or political party. Having served such an apprenticeship and having gone through that process, I know that in my 11 years at Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council I learned much about how chambers such as this should operate, how decisions should be made and, more importantly, how to make decisions and bring people with us. It is not the job of the Legislature or, indeed, the Executive to impose decisions on people that they cannot or will not wear. Part of the job of a political assembly, the Seanad included, is to make decisions that bring people with us and include them.
I baulk at the suggestion that this is not a democratic Chamber. We represent people all over this country, not just the councillors who elect 43 Senators or the thousands of university graduates who elect the National University of Ireland, NUI, and Trinity College Dublin Senators or the Taoiseach who appoints 11 people to this Chamber, but the people of this country. We are amenable and available to all those people in a way, I suggest, members of the upper houses in pretty much all other European countries that have them are not. I suggest that Irish politicians are closer to the ground than the vast majority of their counterparts in western democracies. We have the benefit of that and it is due, in no small part, to the fact that most Members of this House are elected by grassroots activists, local politicians and hard-working councillors who are incredibly close to their electorate at local level. There is enormous benefit in that.
I do not want it suggested that I am degrading the 11 Taoiseach's nominees because although de Valera may well have intended their role to be one of ensuring a Government majority, they have also been used to identify gaps in the representation of this House. I say that knowing a number of them are here and I particularly acknowledge Senator Flynn in this regard. Former Senator Billy Lawless is another example, as is former Senator Ian Marshall. They are people who have represented views in this House that are not widely held in this country. There are also elected Members who do that as well.
The Seanad has a measure of democracy which goes beyond the mere geopolitical physical representation one gets in the Dáil. I disagree with Senator Craughwell that this House is a mirror of the Dáil; it is quite the opposite. If we look back through the work the Seanad, including in this term, has done in identifying flaws in legislation that has been passed in the Dáil, we see that, on a number of occasions, Senators have said "Hang on a minute; there is a problem with this section." We do not get enough credit for that but it happens because we have a House of informed, hard-working people who listen to people on the ground. Having said that, Senator McDowell is correct that the case for reform is unassailable. We need to reform and we all want to reform. I will reluctantly support the Government's amendment because it is important from the point of view of facilitating reform. Reform is coming, however, so let us make sure we are all part of it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and his stated commitment to reform in this area, which Senator McDowell has also noted. I commend Senator McDowell and his colleagues on bringing forward this important Bill. I also note Senator McDowell's most interesting account of some of the context and background to Seanad reform.
I spoke on this matter last week when we debated Senator Malcolm Byrne's Bill and I mentioned a sense of déjà vuwhich I believe many of us feel when we discuss this topic. It is useful to remind ourselves of the hugely significant constitutional role played by the Seanad. It is important that Senators continue to assert that role. It is, in fact, the reason a number of us, including me and the other Labour Party Senators and Senator McDowell, took a case before the High Court earlier this year to assert the role of the Seanad and seek clarification on the constitutional issue around the status of the Seanad post election. Without going back over that case, it was important.
Colleagues spoke about the contribution made by the Seanad and Senators to ensuring robust levels of scrutiny of legislation and bringing forward legislation. In my time as a Senator, I have had a number of Private Members' Bills accepted. These have become law on issues as diverse as the legalisation of humanist weddings, recognition of freelance workers for collective bargaining purposes and prohibition of female genital mutilation.
The Seanad can and does play an important role in the development and scrutiny of legislation. The current Seanad is different from the Dáil in one particular respect, namely, we have a far better gender balance with 40% of Senators now women. That is a record high.This is very welcome when the Dáil, however, continues to languish behind so many other European legislatures in its proportion of women Members, where only 22.5% of our Teachaí Dála are women, even with gender quota legislation in place. It is entirely right in this sort of debate to assert the importance and significance of the Seanad. We also acknowledge that reform is long overdue. Indeed, in 2013, when the referendum was happily defeated and the proposal to abolish the Seanad was vetoed by the people, this was really a vote for reform not for thestatus quo. All Members on both opposition and Government sides will acknowledge that. As Senator McDowell did, I also acknowledge that the Green Party in both the most recent election and in the negotiations for the programme for Government appear to have pushed for Seanad reform as a priority. I am glad that in last week's debate the Minister of State stated that although the programme for Government disappointingly does not include an explicit commitment on Seanad reform, the three composite parties have recognised the need for urgent action and that action would happen in 2021.
In that context we can consider the ground that has been laid and the preparatory steps that have been taken towards that reform. Without going back over all of the detail, we are all aware of the Manning report, which was a very important process chaired by former Senator, Maurice Manning. I am also a big admirer of him and he, along with his other colleagues, did extraordinary work in bringing on the process of reform and producing a very clear set of proposals in a Seanad Bill in 2016.
At the time of the preparation of the report, I made a submission on behalf of Labour Party Senators, which I spoke about last week and which put forward a series of practical ways in which the Seanad could be reformed to bring about universal suffrage, an expansion of the electorate for the six university seats and so on. Those proposals merit review because they answer many of the concerns about the need for reform to make the processes for the election of the Seanad more democratic.
We are all also aware of the Seanad reform implementation group so ably chaired by Senator McDowell on which I was glad to serve for the Labour Party. That group broadly endorsed many of the proposals in the Manning report and diverged from it on a number of issues. The group's report included a draft Bill, which Senator McDowell has mentioned.
This Bill effectively builds on the recommendations of those different processes. I am very happy to support it on behalf of the Labour Party because while it differs from the proposals we put forward to the Manning report in some ways, it nonetheless represents a practical and effective way to reform the Seanad. It has some merits.
The proposal to establish a Seanad electoral commission is welcome. It would manage the electoral process and deal with some of the undoubted logistical issues that arise from changing and expanding the electorate for the 49 elected Senators.
The provision whereby the Minister may appoint different dates for the commencement of the provisions to allow for an incremental expansion of the franchise is also welcome. That answers perhaps one of the main objections or obstacles to Seanad reform, which is that of cost and logistical difficulty. If one can set out an incremental process, that would address that issue.
The processes for the holding of Seanad elections and the nomination of candidates as set out in Part 4 follow the constitutional requirements and there are also provisions relating to the filling of casual vacancies, how the Seanad commission is to be set up and to function, and so on.
Crucially, the Bill would also do what Senator Byrne’s Bill sought to do in that it would expand the franchise for the six university seats to enable graduates of higher education institutions throughout the State to vote, which is very important, is something that I support and was in the Labour Party proposal in 2015. This Bill, because it is more comprehensive, is a better vehicle within which to bring about that reform for the very reason that I pointed out last week when we were debating Senator Byrne’s Bill, which is that his Bill would effectively bring about a lopsided Seanad and a very skewed electorate, with 800,000 voters electing 10% of the 60 Senators while the others would remain to be elected by the much smaller electorate that currently applies.
It is essential that we bring forward legislation that creates a comprehensive package of reforms for the 49 elected Members, albeit that we would allow, enable or provide for within that comprehensive framework the incremental bringing about of the expansion of the franchise. No Member would consider it as feasible to do everything all at once but it is important that if we are reforming the university panel by expanding the electorate there, we do this in the context of the broader reform proposals from the Manning report and from the implementation group. That is the big strength of this Bill as opposed to Senator Byrne’s Bill.
The Labour Party has always called for the need to establish an electoral commission, which is very important, and our proposals had some significant aspects to them that are not included either in this Bill or in the implementation group report. One of these, in particular, is that we proposed Seanad and Dáil elections would take place on the same day. That is quite a radical proposal and is permitted under the Constitution but would answer the critique often levelled at us that people who have failed to win a seat at the general election then turn around and run for the Seanad. This proposal did not find favour with either the Manning report or the implementation group and is again worth reviewing.
In conclusion, the principle of universal suffrage is of great importance as is that of the expansion of the university seats. The Government motion is disappointing and I ask Government Senators, who may be very reluctant to support that motion, to allow this Bill to pass Second Stage so that we can all work then together to ensure that it becomes reality. Gabhaim buíochas.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. People are judged by actions, not mere words. Today is an action. I hope I can be forgiven for not getting carried away and being slightly reticent in not being overly optimistic for any radical solution in the short term. One only has to look at the history and the delay upon delay the House has suffered. In 1979, the outcome to a constitutional referendum permitted a significant extension of the franchise to third level graduates but there has been no progress 41 years later. Then 2013 was a pivotal year in the history of the Seanad when a power grab by the Executive of the day spectacularly backfired on it because civil society groups spoke up for this Upper House, our fellow politicians and national parliamentarians voices were not to be heard and their endeavours ran contrary to democracy. It is sometimes dangerous to name names in case I leave anyone out but I wish to mention in this debate my friend and colleague, the late Noel Whelan, who was front and centre of that campaign-----
-----was a wonderful gentleman and was missed during the general election as well to crunch the figures and predict individual constituencies. He is irreplaceable. We had so many others such as Katherine Zappone, John Crown, the brilliant Feargal Quinn, and let us not forget the role of the Attorneys General. With a week to go, I recall John Rogers being hauled out on the “Six One News”, and they played a pivotal part. I am also proud of the Green Party. Members are not privy to the parliamentary discussions of the Green Party and they may be fortunate in that regard, but I assure the House that I am unaware of any member of our parliamentary that is against reform of the Upper House. We were proudly there in 2006 and 2013, when we had no Senator in this Chamber but we still saw the benefit of the House.
Where are the obstacles? We stand indicted 41 years later. Incidentally, how could I forget the father of the House, Senator Norris, who is a fantastic ambassador for the Upper House and its retention, and I ask him to forgive me for not mentioning him the in the raft of names I mentioned earlier. This is, however, a non-exhaustive list, but Senator Norris’s incredible appetite and energy has been a tremendous plus for this House.
I ask again then where the obstacles are. It is not Senator Fitzpatrick who eloquently told us of her road to the Seanad, which was not an overnight success. Nothing was handed to her easily. I am privileged to be a Member of this House. Unfortunately, apart from its vital constitutional role, its true potential has to date remained largely unfulfilled. It will not be blocked by Senator Ward. I do not know what is causing the obstacles. Senator Craughwell in his exuberant over-enthusiasm to welcome the Bill was unfair on the many officeholders of the Seanad who went before us and who may not have come from the university panels. If they suffered from an Achilles' heel, it was not a self-inflicted problem, rather it was the nature of the House and how it operates.
I speak from the vantage point of having been an elected county councillor on two different local authorities, which happen to be in two different provinces. County councillors are not afraid of change but there is a bogeyman or woman and I do not know what the problem has been. There is a potential knight on a white horse who could translate words into action. His name, and Members have heard it first here today, is the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I believe him. I have known him for a long time as a party colleague. He is a man of his word. I am very pleased that he is behind the steering wheel. I will judge this matter on the basis of actions not words, but I believe there is a real opportunity. I have spoken to the Minister of State privately on numerous occasions.
Well done to all the sponsors of this Bill. It is an incredible work of drafting art. Of course, changes will be made to it but that is the nature of our job as legislators. I am glad the Minister of State has reached out to Senator McDowell and others. I am glad Senator McDowell takes him at his word. I advise Senator Craughwell that I do not believe this House is as divided as it appears. He and Senator Fitzpatrick could reach out to each other. We have one common goal. We are all on the same side. The Minister of State is on our side.
Just like I named all those people who deserved credit for 2013 success, the biggest credit of all goes to the people of Ireland. Their voice was heard that day. They said "No" to the Executive power grab. We must remember that it is the people of Ireland who should be front and centre of all we do.
This is an encouraging day and I give the Bill a qualified welcome. I will do everything I can as a Senator to make this happen but the Minister of State can understand the years and years of frustration. I know a number of environmentalists. They were thrilled when Senator McDowell was elected to this House. They are not typical bedfellows. I can think of the rumble in Ranelagh but many environmentalists who care about this Seanad said, “Let McDowell at it. He will give this a bit of impetus that is so badly needed”. I know he is doing that but time is rolling on. Even with the likes of Senators McDowell, Norris, Bacik, and Craughwell, this job of work is still before us.
I hope in the lifetime of this Seanad, we can look back on this day. If there is one wish I have above any other - it is not a party-political aspiration - it is that we would reform this House once and for all, deliver on our promises to the people of Ireland and make the Seanad something that would be potentially very special. This House has such potential to allow the unionist voice of Ireland and of citizens from all over the world to be heard here. There is also potential to expand the franchise relating to the university seats. I say to Senator Norris that it is a shame in a way that last week we started with tackling the best part of the Seanad, the most democratic part, but that was an irresistible opportunity to support all change. Last week, the Senator branded that a form of gerrymandering. I think his tongue was in his cheek when he said that. An extension of the franchise has to be good. I predict that Senator Norris would top the poll no matter how many were added on to the number of graduates.
-----to permit and support the extension of the franchise. Perhaps the McDowell vote or the Mullen vote will peter out at a certain height and fall short of the quota - they were very selfless in pushing that through - or perhaps some gimmicky politicians could top the poll. That was a risk we took but it was in the better interests of democracy.
I have not prepared many notes but I have a lot of paper in front of me, which is all from the then Taoiseach's Seanad reform implementation group. I might reference some of that material.
It dawned on me as the debate was proceeding that this is one of the most important days of this Seanad term. That has been reflected on. We will not be presented with another such comprehensive Private Members’ Bill in our time here. I say that because I am losing hope in our ability to deliver Seanad reform. I want to use my time to appeal to all Senators as we have so little time here, even those of us who are lucky enough to be re-elected. Much of the debate has focused on references to "I" and that "I got here this way or that way". Ultimately, we have very little time here. We would all do well to use our limited time to prioritise this issue so that we can leave here and say that we are proud of the role we played, that we started Seanad reform in this House and that the legislation went to the Dáil and was enacted. In the end, it is about setting aside self-interest and the comfort of the status quoand saying "I am willing to jeopardise a seat or my position to change the system".
It is not that the Seanad is undemocratic - Senator Ward touched on this - because it would be unconstitutional if that were the case. The issue I have is that it is just about democratic. The majority of Senators are elected by approximately 1,200 people. A candidate in a Seanad by-election is elected by even fewer than that number, namely, by Deputies and Senators.
I made most of the points in favour of this Bill in the debate which took place last week. I thank Senator McDowell for bringing the Bill forward. It was the main the focus of my contribution last week.I will not repeat the points I made but I will say why I am so proud of this Bill and the work I put in alongside others in bringing it to this stage of development. It was a collective process. The annexe has been used at times to belittle the work of the committee by saying the annexe was a dissenting view. I would never have submitted a statement on behalf of Sinn Féin in that annexe if I had known the annexe would be portrayed as a dissenting view. It is far from it. We worked hard to produce this legislation.
For my part, I am proud of the amendments. I tried to get the vote at the age of 16 in there. That was rejected but I still supported the report. I tried to achieve a greater number of Senators to be elected by the public. That was rejected, a compromise was made and we supported that. Another amendment was adopted to the effect that, where a nominating body had more than two nominations, it would be required to have an equal balance of male and female and, where a balance was not achievable, the majority nominated by the nominating body would be women. On the factors to be considered by the Taoiseach, I was passionate that the Taoiseach would give regard to and have consideration for minority groups, that is, to people and communities who do not have representation here in the Seanad. Other amendments concerned undertaking initiatives to encourage voter registration. Others were about reforming the way we do by-elections by looking at a replacement list, as the European Parliament does, so a by-election would not be just elected by the Dáil and Seanad.
In conclusion, I will not support the Government amendment. This place is not the real world. I do not think we would get away with the type of stalling we have seen on Seanad reform in any other workplace. It is disappointing that we see it here again in the proposal from Senator Doherty to delay the Bill until next year. It has been done to kill Bills of mine in the past and I have no doubt it is designed to kill this Bill. That is a huge regret on one of the most important days in this Seanad and for Seanad reform.
I will speak to the amendment later. I am glad to co-sponsor this very comprehensive legislation at 104 pages. While I am one of the co-sponsors, this legislation is not simply a product of those who are putting it forward today. This is the agreed legislation that came from the Seanad reform implementation group and the points made by Senator Warfield are important because there has been a suggestion that this is a magic impossibility and that we cannot find agreement. In fact, this legislation is the proof that agreement can be reached. It is testimony to that. Like Senator Warfield, I had proposals that I brought into this. I would have liked a different balance with more people elected directly from the public than by councillors. Compromises were made. People brought their best ideas. They were debated with expert testimony and expertise in, as Senator Cassells stated, one of the longest Committee Stages on legislation ever. There were months of Committee Stage and every single line was going through. We each had our say and brought our proposals. People engaged in good faith and some proposals were successful and others were not. In the end, the legislation was published and there was a unified report. There are annexes with different opinions that people have, as they do with any legislation, but there is no minority report. To be clear, this is the report of the implementation group.
People have different views on different issues, including on issues they feel should be subject to constitutional change in the future, such as the idea regarding the titles of the panels, mentioned by Senator Fitzpatrick, which requires constitutional amendment. That was not within the scope. People parked the wider ideas they had around political reform and other issues they were interested in and engaged in a disciplined way with the task at hand, namely, to look at how the recommendations of the Manning report would be implemented. It was a task that reflected the programme for Government commitment directly, which was not a commitment to look at Seanad reform but a programme for Government commitment in the last Oireachtas to implement the Manning report. We were that far along the stages that we were looking at having the recommendations already and this was the tool to implement them. That is what we bring forward and what does it mean? It means every citizen over 18 in this State would have a vote. They would be able to vote on one of the panels but only one, so that we would move away from the situation for university electors sometimes having two votes. They would each be able to vote on one of the panels, according to the theme and subject matter that was most passionately important to them. For example, they might say education is a huge issue for them and they would use their vote on the education panel. We would benefit from not simply the different persons who may put themselves forward as candidates - many excellent people already put themselves forward as candidates for the Seanad elections. We would benefit from the expertise, insight and knowledge of the electorate who would express what they know and consider to be important. Those who voted in 2013 to retain the Seanad because they wanted it reformed, as an expression of good faith, were telling us they wanted to have a say in the Seanad. They would have a say in the Seanad, an input into who enters this Chamber and direct representation. That was the promise made and I was part of the campaign in 2013 to retain and reform the Seanad. I take that seriously. We have talked in the last week about the 1979 referendum. The 2013 referendum is an equally important mandate.
That is the legislation we put forward. It is detailed, comprehensive and entirely compatible with the Constitution. It is expertly drafted and it was cynically disregarded. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, came to speak to us after asking us to leave our legislative proposals aside and work together, as we did. He told us after all that he was not interested in it whatsoever. I asked him if he was sincere. I am afraid to say the clear message he gave was that he was not sincere in relation to Seanad reform. There was a question about the mysterious reasons that Seanad reform is not happening. It is not happening for a number of reasons but one clear reason is that two Fine Gael taoisigh in a row and a Fine Gael Minister who occupied the role, now occupied by the Minister of State with responsibility for Government reform, Deputy Noonan, chose not to follow through on their promises in a programme for Government and on the Bill they had commissioned and requested.We lost two years because of a cynical desire to put it aside. That is why I am very concerned. I do not accept that everybody is on the same side on this. There are those who do not want Seanad reform. There are those who wanted the Seanad to be abolished, and as it was not abolished, they are quite interested in seeing it being ineffective and not reformed. I say that having engaged in good faith with all parties over a number of years.
It is the case, however, that the Taoiseach has previously expressed an interest in Seanad reform. In fact, in 2014, following the 2013 referendum, Deputy Micheál Martin brought forward legislation to suggest there should be one person, one vote in the Seanad, the same idea in the Bill. That is what the now Taoiseach brought forward as a private Member six years ago. I accept the Minister of State's bona fides in expressing interest in moving forward in the area of Seanad reform. A senior Minister has also expressed that he is committed to moving forward with reform in this area. They now hold that power and responsibility. In this case, the Taoiseach, the relevant Minister and the relevant Minister of State are members of Fianna Fáil or the Green Party. I rarely mention parties in the Chamber and try to avoid it, but it is relevant in this context. The other party in the coalition had its opportunity over an extensive period. It had the Ministries and the power as taoisigh but it chose not to move forward with Seanad reform. That ship has sailed. It is now the responsibility of those with that brief to work with all parties and ensure this is delivered.
I cannot accept the amendment to postpone the Bill and will have to oppose it. As Senator Cassells noted, the Bill has had many Second Stages and upwards of 100 hours of Committee Stage debate. The intention of the amendment to postpone the Bill by not just 12 months but to the very last day - New Year's Eve - of 2021 is to stall the Bill further. It would basically provide that we would not come back to it until 2022 when, I remind the House, the rotation of Taoiseach will occur. It is now the responsibility of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party not to bounce this ball back out of their area of control and not to allow this legislation and progress in the area to be stalled until 2022, when the authority will be with the person who will then be Taoiseach, who has expressed in the Dáil Chamber that he does not believe in this legislation.
I have proposed an amendment that will instead provide that the Bill should be read again in May. It will allow time for a springtime engagement in advance, a summer between Second Stage and Committee Stage, a proper conversation and engagement, and it would mean we had progressed the Bill this year. I urge the Minister of State to consider accepting my amendment to move the Bill past Second Stage on 31 May instead.
The Bill is a bit like the curate's egg; it is good in parts but stinks in some of the others. I have advocated since 1979 the extension of the franchise to the University of Limerick and Dublin City University. I have always been onside for that and I think it would be a good thing. I also think the idea of an element of universal suffrage is terribly important for the democratic strengthening of the House.
My friend who has just left the Chamber challenged me on the question of democracy in respect of the county council seats. I well remember the days when party officers used to lock Senators in the party rooms, tell them who to vote for and stand over them until they did so. How democratic was that?
With regard to the Bill, the idea of one constituency - I will come back to this - is absolutely unmanageable and would lead to a kind of gerrymandering because young people would be gerrymandered out of the process.
There are references to various institutions in the Bill but I think it should now be the technological university that is mentioned.
There is no question that the register is defective but there is no solution. Young people get jobs, move around, go to England or America, come back, go off on holidays, do this, that and the other, and are virtually untraceable. It is a miracle that so many people are caught in the register.
I have asked Trinity College several times to give us access to the email addresses of constituents. I do not see why it would not. It is a way of communicating with them. I would like that to be included in the Bill. We should have access to the identities and email addresses of our constituents. That would make democracy considerably better.
The Bill states, "In order to be eligible to be nominated as a candidate for the institutions of higher education constituency, the person shall be required to hold a requisite qualification". I wonder what kind of lunatic would use that requirement. People talk about elitism; there is elitism for you. I glory in the fact that to be a candidate for either the National University of Ireland or Trinity College, one does not have to have a degree. One has just to get a nominator, a seconder and six assenters. That is democratic and that is the way it should be.
I would like to see anybody defend the provision for Taoiseach's nominees as democratic. It is a farce. Of course that feature was intended to give the Government the balance, but this House should not be an oppositional, party-controlled House. It should be for people who have a professional interest and who are capable of adding something to the debate. They should not have to be members of a political party, although I will acknowledge that many excellent people have been nominated by taoisigh and I pay tribute to the various taoisigh for the calibre of the people they have nominated.
Turning to the provision for the electorate, this is a real stinker. The Bill states, "At every Seanad general election the electorate shall consist of ... Irish citizens who are resident in Ireland". That is a couple of million to start with, despite the fact that somebody gloried in the fact that more than 1 million people never vote, but they have access to the vote if they want. It will include, "persons entitled to claim Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland and who reside in Northern Ireland or in the State". That is another few hundred thousand. It will include, "Irish citizens who hold a current and valid Irish passport and who reside outside the State". There is another few million. What about it? Shove them all in. The more, the merrier - uncle Tom Cobley and all. The Bill goes on to include, "Irish citizens holding a requisite qualification and who are graduates of an institution of higher education in the State, and ... serving members of the Dáil, members of the outgoing Seanad, and serving members of local authorities". I do not know how many million there are there. It is absolute madness.
I will support the Bill. I am not going to go on about it. I made points in the previous debate about, for example, revising and bringing up to date the nominating bodies. That is an obvious one and it really should be done.Like the curate's egg, the Bill is good in parts, but there are some absolutely glaring defects in it, and I hope they will be addressed or amended.
I certainly would. That is another issue. I was going to ask what happened to the envelopes. I recall when we got 2,500 envelopes; that is now down to 350. That is absolute nonsense, particularly for people like myself who use the envelopes to contact constituents with newsletters.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him. I have not had the opportunity before this to wish him well with his portfolio.
I agree with Senator Norris that the Bill is a bit like the curate's egg: good in parts and not so good in other parts. I thank Senator McDowell for bringing it forward. It has been a good debate but, at the end of the day, I hope in the 12-month timeframe up to the end of next year that the Minister of State uses the time to consider how we go forward with reform of the Seanad, whether it is by constitutional change, referendum or by leading on and amending the Bill before us.
I sat on the committee that Senator McDowell chaired in a very exemplary fashion, and we had some excellent meetings. We learned at lot and it was a good basis for the Bill that has been produced, but there are shortcomings. The Senator McDowell will agree that we had to work within the constraints of a previous referendum and the Constitution, and that is why I feel that we need a referendum to change Seanad Éireann. If we are going to have a second Chamber, and the people have decided that we will, I believe that the only way that we can have that meaningful change that the public will appreciate is by way of referendum.
There is talk about extending the franchise to the other universities. I assume that was brought in for minorities, but 80% of the people in this country now go through third level education, so why do we need a universities vocational panel for the House? Why do we need representation for that sector? The vast majority of Members have third level education anyway. We would only be moving the chairs on the deck, and that is one of the reasons we need a change. That type of change can only take place through a referendum.
How can the franchise be extended to 800,000, as Senator McDowell has mentioned, including Irish passport holders abroad and people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? There would have to be two electoral registers. We cannot maintain the current electoral register for Dáil and local elections, because there are many shortcomings in how it is compiled. How would having two registers work? I am very much in favour of the provision in the Bill to establish a commission for reform of the electoral register. If one looks at the practical outcome of reforming Seanad Éireann, the franchise could be extended to between 4 million and 5 million people. That is twice the number of people that vote in Dáil elections to elect 160 Members. There would be double that to elect 60 Members to a second Chamber. How feasible is that?
From a cost point of view-----
I did not get a definitive answer when I asked at a committee meeting what the cost would be of extending the franchise under the constraints that exist with postage and everything, but in my view it would cost twice as much to elect 60 Members to Seanad Éireann as it would to elect 160 Members to Dáil Éireann. It costs somewhere north of €20 million for a Dáil election, so one would be talking about more than €40 million to elect Seanad Éireann under the new Bill.
It has all the sorts of problems I have mentioned, so I hope that the Minister of State evaluates all of the issues before he returns to the House at the end of next year, and that he puts us on a path forward. There is no doubt that there needs to be change, and while this House does a great job scrutinising legislation, we can do a better job if we stick at it. One of the problems is that the vast majority of Members want to be Members of Dáil Éireann. The Labour proposal to have elections on the same day could be a way forward. There are many issues to address and there are inadequacies and shortcomings in this Bill.
There is also the problem in regard to the counting of votes. One could have a count for a vocational panel where there are 500 electors with 40 or 50 candidates. One could imagine how long that would take; it could take weeks to count and transfer the percentages of votes, etc. That could take an enormous length of time as well, and one would also have to consider the cost of holding those counts in centres. There is a lot to take into account if we want to reform Seanad Éireann. After all, we are talking about a second Chamber. In the previous Seanad, the Government had no majority; in this Seanad, the majority is about two to one, as the Government has 40 and the Opposition has about 20 seats, and I do not see much difference in either Seanad. In the previous Seanad, there was not much of a change in the way we did our business compared with the way we are doing it today-----
And we succeeded. All in all, I agree with the Minister of State's proposal to adjourn this matter until next year. I do not think I was the man who proposed going to New Zealand, as Senator McDowell said. He should withdraw that remark or he should clarify who said it. It certainly was not me who said it.
To be helpful to colleagues, I wish to explain that the Minister must be called at 3.20 p.m. and Senator McDowell at 3.35 p.m. to reply. A number of Senators are offering and I am making them aware of this in case they want to arrange time sharing. Senators Mullen, Byrne, Buttimer and Gavan are offering, and we will not be able to hear all of them.
I thank the Senator. The day might come but the weather will be considerably changed in this country when it does, I suspect. An Leas-Chathaoirleach agus an Aire Stáit, fáilte romhat.
When I think of this Bill, I am reminded of the story that all of us have heard many times about the old man in Connemara who is asked the way to Dublin when a motorist stops his or her car and the old man replies, "If I were you, I would not start from here at all." I say that with great respect for Senator McDowell and the former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning. Both of them have done Trojan work in trying to craft a very honourable and creditable proposal to bring about a Seanad reform that everybody with a titter of wit can see is long overdue and greatly needed. The problem is that they were presented with a mandate that required them to produce a proposal that is very unwieldy and difficult. I say that while fully acknowledging that this is very carefully prepared and intelligent legislation. However, it is hopelessly constrained by the requirement that these proposals must operate within the current constitutional arrangements.
It is worth taking a step back to consider how we got here. This whole chapter on Seanad reform we are dealing with has its roots in the proposal by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad, which he also proposed when in opposition. Many people criticised the then Taoiseach's proposal. I stated at the time that it was a crass reach into the cookie jar of popular ideas to present a proposal that would signal to the public that we were going to clean up politics, get rid of wastrel politicians and wasteful public institutions and make democracy simpler by having only one House of the Oireachtas. Thankfully, the voting public saw through the proposal.
For some reason, when the people voted down the abolition of the Seanad that was interpreted, rather conveniently and cynically, by the then Government as meaning that what we now must do is reform the Seanad within the existing constitutional arrangements as though the holding of one referendum and its failure meant that it was not logical or right to hold another referendum to reform the Seanad. The stupidity of that is very obvious when one realises that the then Taoiseach proposed to change our political institutions radically by having a referendum so there was no reason for future necessary change and reform. It was rightly interpreted that the public had not voted to leave things as they were but wanted reform. Somehow, cynically and rather too conveniently for the political establishment, the view was taken that there was a need to reform the Seanad but that this should be done without changing the Constitution. That happened while all sorts of other referenda, good and bad, were being proposed arising out of the Citizens' Assembly process. That was deeply cynical because the ultimate motivation for offering to continue to scrutinise the issues and come forward with a proposal, but without having constitutional change, was to force upon people like former Senator, Dr. Manning, and Senator McDowell the obligation to prepare something that just would be very difficult to work. That is my honest belief.
I always put on the record the fact that the efforts to have the Citizens' Assembly, which came up with a diverse set of proposals, to consider this proposal were stopped as well. The assembly was prohibited from discussing the matter.
It is very helpful that the Senator brought that fact forward. Neither of us is an unqualified admirer of the Citizens' Assembly mechanism, to say the very least.
What is urgently needed, if politicians are genuinely sincere about reform, and as I said last week, is that we identify a date by which the necessary reform must be carried out. We also need a committee of these Houses to consider and be tasked with coming up with a proposal that will, in my view, necessarily encompass a proposed constitutional change and have accompanying legislation to give effect to that.
I am on the record as stating that what I would like to see is a Seanad elected by means of a list system that would allow a national electorate to consider people on the basis of the ideas they have, as groups, and that this would balance, very appropriately, the local basis on which Members of the Dáil are elected. I have said all of this before and I would like to see the various matters to which I refer teased out by a future committee that might be established to consider these proposals. I support the Bill because I support what is an honourable and intelligent attempt to follow through on the mandate that was given.
The Minister of State has generously agreed to reduce his speech by five minutes. In order to facilitate contributions from everyone in respect of this very sensitive issue on which people wish to comment, I propose to give the remaining speakers two minutes each in which to make their points. Is that agreed? Agreed. Next are Senators Byrne and Buttimer. They will have two minutes each. Senator Flynn is also on my list.
I welcome the Minister of State on his weekly visit to the Seanad. I broadly support this legislation. We had quite a strong debate on the Bill I brought forward last week, the purpose of which is to enact the seventh amendment to the Constitution. The legislation before us relates to a broader question on our democracy and what we would like to see happen during the lifetime of this Oireachtas. It will be good if, at the end of this period, we are able to say that we introduced an effective electoral commission and implemented Seanad reform along the lines of what is suggested in Senator McDowell's Bill. I have issues with some parts of his Bill but they can be teased out on Committee Stage.
We need to look more generally at how we deal with particular business. I find it difficult that the Whip is applied in every circumstance. I certainly believe that for matters relating to the programme for Government and important issues such as the budget, the party Whip must apply. On issues such as this legislation, however, there should be a lot more crossing of the aisle. I hope that in the discussion that will happen on this legislation that there will be a lot of crossing of the aisle crossing. I know happened at the committee chaired by Senator McDowell. Prior to that Dr. Manning's group and Mary O'Rourke's group examined this matter. In fact, Seanad reform is the modern equivalent of draining the River Shannon because it is proposed on a regular basis. We should be the Oireachtas that delivers Seanad reform.
I disagree with much of what was said by Senator Burke, particularly as a great deal of it was a rerun of the 2013 referendum. We need to move beyond that. We need to look at modern ways of voting and have a modern electoral register. I support the Bill.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment. After 41 years and 14 reports, we still do not have common ground other than it is Groundhog Day and we want Seanad reform. I very much respect Senator McDowell but on his side of the House there is no equality of where to go. There are some people, and not Senator McDowell, who think it is their way or no way in terms of this debate. Therein lies the problem. Senator Byrne has a proposal to amend the seventh amendment. We have been waiting 41 years for action in respect of that amendment.My view is let us reform. Senator McDowell had a survey of graduates where 51.8% of respondents did not want to extend the franchise to those living in the North and abroad. Others are opposed to extending the franchise to graduates of the new colleges in the NUI constituency. Among the political class, there is a view regarding the casting of our county councillors to one side, on one level, while on another level some of us believe there should be a Seanad election on the same day as the Dáil election. There is merit in what Senator Mullen said concerning a list system in his proposal for Seanad reform. The bottom line is that we will not get agreement on what Seanad reform means. For some people reform, as in the Latin word "reformo", means to improve, but is it improvement? There is then the chemical definition of reform, which is meant to be catalytic, but it is pouring petrol on what is happening. There is merit, therefore, in the Government's proposal to have more time because there will not be agreement. I commend Senator McDowell on his perseverance, integrity and professionalism.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is a privilege to stand in front of a Minister of State who I know believes in equality. I have many notes on this issue, but I will be brief and refer to the most important issues. Referring back to what my great friend, Senator Ruane, said earlier, since 1937 people like me have not belonged in our own Parliament, the Houses of the Oireachtas, both the Upper House and the Lower House.
I strongly support this Bill. As Senator Higgins said, if we need to push this process out further, we should do so only for six months. Let us have a look around us. Do we see people of colour in the Chamber? Do we see people with disabilities? Do we see people from the Traveller and Roma communities, people who live and belong in Ireland? We do not see those people.
This process is now in the hands of the Minister of State. I have all the faith in the world in him and I am not in any way being a lickarse in saying that. Like me, he has been a community development worker and I understand that he fully believes in equality. We can work together in the Seanad, which can be a platform for Travellers and others in society. This is our House as much as it is everyone else's. The Seanad is being reformed and the process is in the hands of the Minister of State. I am delighted that is the case. I know I am putting a lot of pressure on him by saying that but I have hope that reform will happen. I beg the Minister of State to let it be sooner rather than later so that this House can be one for all of us in Irish society.
I will make some brief points. I welcome this Bill, especially the fact that it includes our brothers and sisters in the North of Ireland. We hear much about republicanism, but true republicanism means giving everyone in Ireland a vote and a say, and this Bill does just that. It is not a perfect Bill but, as many previous speakers said, it is worthy of support because it brings us a long way down the road of real reform of this Seanad. I am very disappointed by what I have heard from the other side of the House. I cannot imagine how Senator McDowell must feel when he hears comments to the effect that this is a really important debate, he should stick at it and there needs to be change. We are all on the same side, apparently. To paraphrase St. Augustine, I think, and Senator Mullen may correct me on this, Lord make me in favour of Seanad reform, just not yet.
As Senator Buttimer so eloquently put it, there have been 14 reports. Forgive me, and I am not doubting the Minister of State because he strikes me as a very decent man, but I do not believe there will be Seanad reform because the two conservative parties - his party's partners in government - will move heaven and earth to ensure there is no reform. Those parties are past masters at talking about reform in Parliament after Parliament and then ensuring that nothing changes.
I commend Senator Craughwell on making a courageous speech. With no disrespect to anybody else, the finest speech has just come from Senator Flynn, who summed up in a few words everything that is wrong with the Seanad, this elite House, as it is. We badly need reform. The notion that we will meet on New Year's Eve next year is, frankly, ridiculous. I ask that support be given to the amendments to the amendment and, failing that, that we do not talk about Seanad reform again.
Senator Flynn has summed up, in essence, what we are trying to achieve. I take on board all the comments. It is also important to state that during my attendance in the Seanad in recent weeks, I have been deeply impressed with the level of debate. I thank Senators McDowell, Higgins and Craughwell for bringing forward this Bill. I also thank the members of the Seanad reform implementation group, which was chaired by Senator McDowell. Its work led to the creation of this Bill, alongside the contribution of the 2018 report.
Before I comment on the Bill, it is worth reflecting on the background which brought us to this point. An independent working group on Seanad reform, under the chairmanship of Dr. Maurice Manning, was established in December 2014. Its principal focus was on possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system. The group published its report, known was the Manning report, in 2015 with an accompanying Bill. The key electoral reform recommendations in the Manning report were that the majority of Seanad seats would be elected by popular vote in a "one person, one vote" system; that this principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; and that provision would be made for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers.
Moving forward to 2018, and with the agreement of all sides in the Seanad, the reform implementation group, chaired by Senator McDowell, was established and it published its report in 2018. The implementation group departed from the Manning report in a small number of areas and those changes are reflected in the Seanad Bill 2020. The main areas of change include some adjustments to the numbers of Senators who would be elected from the five vocational panels by citizens and public representatives. The Bill proposes that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected by citizens, while the Manning report recommended 36. The Bill also proposes that 15 seats be elected by public representatives, which is more than the 13 seats recommended in the Manning report. The downloading of ballot papers by voters, as recommended in the Manning report, is no longer proposed. The use of ordinary post instead of registered post to issue ballot papers and combined candidate election literature, rather than separate items of literature for each candidate, was also recommended by the implementation group and that is included in this Bill.
Moving to the substance of the Bill, it largely mirrors the recommendations of the Manning report, starting with the electorate. The Bill proposes to widen the electorate at Seanad elections to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those Irish citizens living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport. A conservative estimate of that electorate under these arrangements is some 5.3 million people. There is no doubt there will be operational and logistical challenges in dealing with such large numbers of postal ballots, so careful planning and adequate resources would be needed. It is worth restating that widening the franchise for Seanad elections in this way means that the franchise in the State for Seanad elections would be wider than for Dáil elections. The scale of the electorate is a point which I will come to in a moment.
The Bill proposes that a register of Seanad elections be established. This would be separate from the electoral register maintained by local authorities for all other elections and referendums, and it would be maintained by a new Seanad electoral commission. However, we estimate that nearly two-thirds of those who would be entitled to be on the Seanad register are already on the register of electors maintained by local authorities. The argument put forward in the report from the implementation group on having a separate register requiring voters to voluntarily apply for inclusion on the Seanad electoral register would mean the register would be largely populated by members of the electorate who have demonstrated an interest in participating in Seanad elections. It is anticipated that, under these arrangements, rather than there being a rush to register, the growth of the register would take place gradually.
The group also anticipates that the number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as those living outside the State, who would exercise their right to register would be much lower than the total number entitled to register. However, I do not believe that this is necessarily a given, as it is likely that the uptake of the register of Seanad elections could be quite high in Northern Ireland by Irish citizens resident in the state. In any event, I believe it is important that we design a system of electoral reform which accommodates the full potential of the electorate, rather than some anticipated reduced uptake of registered electors.In regard to the establishment of a Seanad electoral commission, as I have previously outlined in this House on a number of occasions, work is also well under way in my Department to prepare the general scheme for an electoral reform Bill. This includes the provisions to establish an electoral commission. As it is intended to have the commission established by the end of 2021, it does not make sense to have two parallel commissions in place. Again, a detailed examination of this issue is necessary.
On the university franchise, Senators will recall that this issue was the subject of the Private Members' Bill brought forward by Senator Byrne last week. The Bill before us today proposes a single six-seat constituency, the franchise for which would be extended to other institutions of higher education apart from the National University of Ireland and Dublin University. This would give effect to the 1979 referendum on this point. However, it is worth noting that the group did not all agree on this proposal and for that reason, an alternative proposal was recommended by some group members. This option would divide the university constituency into three sub-panels, each of which would elect two Members. I know some Senators would favour this option. As I indicated last week, a detailed examination of how the election of university panels would work and how Senator Byrne's Bill fits with this Bill needs further consideration.
There are a number of other Seanad electoral reform proposals that still need to be teased out more fully. For example, it is proposed that when applying for inclusion on the register of electors, a voter would choose the constituency in which he or she would rather vote at Seanad elections. This could give rise to some constituencies having significantly more voters relative to others and relative to the respective numbers of seats. This Bill does not appear to make any provision for balancing constituencies and this needs to be addressed.
I also note that there is provision in the Bill to place a time limit on the period a person has been resident outside the State in order to qualify to be registered in a Seanad election. This would limit the overall number of electors based overseas. However, there are some questions to be addressed. For example, what period of time should be allowed and how would that work in practice? We do not formally track the movement of our citizens in and out of the State and so these issues also need to be given further consideration.
Another matter that would need careful examination is the use of a passport as evidence of citizenship. A passport is not currently a declaration of requirement to citizenship and to link one directly to an electoral right based on citizenship would not be in keeping with the primary purpose or function of a passport, which is as a travel document. In addition, the attachment of a cost - that is a passport fee - to the right to exercise franchise in an election may have an impact on the ability of certain citizens to do so and may have unintended consequences in that respect.
I have pointed out some of the issues with the Bill which require further consideration and it is also worth mentioning some of the alternative views that were expressed by the Seanad reform implementation group report, which may also merit some examination. For example, Sinn Féin members believe that further reform could be made by the Seanad examining the current constitutional provisions and how they can be changed to facilitate a modern, diverse and democratic Seanad. Fine Gael members state that real, meaningful and tangible reform, leading to a modern 21st century Seanad Éireann can only be achieved through constitutional change and through the holding of a referendum. An Independent member of the group also states that reform of the Seanad into a fully democratic body within the terms of Articles 18 and 19 of Bunreacht na hÉireann is not possible.
As I have outlined to this House twice in the past week, I am prioritising the implementation of the Government's electoral reform commitments. This will be done by advancing the electoral reform Bill as soon as possible. Long overdue and significant changes will be introduced in that Bill by the modernisation of the electoral register and the establishment of an electoral commission. The Bill will introduce other reforms but these are the two areas that would most impact on Seanad reform. For reasons I have already stated and against that background, as I have indicated last week during the debate on the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020, more time is needed to allow further consideration of the Seanad reform proposals being proposed in both Bills. I hope to be in a position to advance this work in 2021, following the completion of the Government's electoral reform plans.
I also note that I have a timeline of the electoral reform processes down the years. I am conscious of the frustration and impatience of Members of this House at times for this reform process. I have listened carefully to Senators' deliberations this evening and I remain personally committed to achieving this reform with them over the coming years. I also want to say that I recognise the need for action and I want to emphasise that this amendment is a measure to allow an agreed approach, not an exercise in kicking the can down the road. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has indicated that he will engage with Senators before Christmas on how to approach the issue and aims to come before the Seanad by May 2021 with proposals to ensure that progress is made. I hope these commitments are to the satisfaction of Members. I reiterate our commitment to ensuring this happens and I thank all of the Senators for their contributions.
I thank the Minister of State for his remarks and I thank everybody who has participated in this debate. It is important that this debate should have occurred. I do not have as heavy a heart as I had when I stood up to move the Bill. The reason is that I accept what the Minister of State has said, that he is committed to reform of the Seanad.
The fact that there was not unanimity on every point in the Seanad reform implementation group does not mean there was not agreement on the Bill that was produced. We had our differences and we expressed them. There was no provision for a minority report but the Bill that was put forward was put forward by a solid majority of the members who were present and it represents the common ground among them.
Statements have been made that the present panels are somehow not fit for purpose. I wish to remind the House of what they are and to ask the House what aspect of Irish life is not included. The cultural and educational includes, "the national language and culture, literature, art, education and such professional interests as may be defined by law". The agricultural panel includes, "agriculture and allied interests, and fisheries", which would include rural affairs, forestry, horticulture and rural tourism. There is the labour panel, "whether organised or unorganised" and there is the industrial and commercial panel, involving, "industry and commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering, and architecture". Last but not least is the administrative panel, which includes, "public administration and social services, including voluntary social activities". The whole voluntary sector is entitled to be included in that panel.
The point I am making is that the number of Senators allocated to each of those panels under the present constitutional framework is variable. One could slash the agricultural panel to five Senators and increase the allocation to those involved in voluntary social services on the administrative panel to ten Senators. There is nothing sacrosanct about the present distribution of seats.
Senator Burke and others have spoken about cost. Cost is dealt with in this report and we reckoned it would cost roughly €1 per vote to send out a ballot paper to people. The Minister of State will acknowledge that there will be increased postal voting in Ireland in any event. It is very cheap and the agency which gets that money is An Post, which is on its uppers, so I do not see that this is an issue. Members forget what it costs to run a general election between the jigs and the reels. It costs more than just the stub of a pencil in a polling booth.
The momentum to change the way in which this House is elected is not of my making. Former Senator Feargal Quinn saved this House from abolition more than anybody else but the momentum was widespread. In his first three months of membership of Dáil Éireann after the 2007 election, the Tánaiste and former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said in an interview that he intended that the time of that Dáil would be the last occasion on which the Seanad would be elected in the way it was at the time. I am critical of him because I am critical of the fact that he set in train a procedure which he effectively discarded at the end. However, I am convinced by what the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has said to me privately and has told me I can tell this House publicly, that he is committed to this. I want to put it on the record of the House that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, said the same to me today.I am willing to take their assurance that they are committed to this. It does not really matter whether this Bill goes to Committee Stage today. I accept that, because providing Committee Stage time for a Private Members' Bill is problematic, but if we are being told the truth, this Seanad will be the one which set in train electoral reform.
The last thing I want to say is this: people said we need constitutional reform. That is fine: so be it, but they should look at the Constitution. This House cannot initiate legislation for the amendment of the Constitution. If we cannot initiate that amending legislation, the most we could do, and the least that we should do, is to reform ourselves within the ambit of the present Constitution. So, on that basis, I stand by my motion that the Bill should now be read a Second Time.