From overhanging trees to pensions: Why the Oireachtas petitions committee is important (Opinion, TheJournal.ie)

Opinion piece by Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD, originally published on TheJournal.ie on Thursday 10 October.

WE CURRENTLY FIND ourselves in the midst of an important debate on Dáil and Seanad reform, which has been given a new impetus by the result of the referendum last weekend.

However, it is important to point out that Oireachtas Members, working on a cross party basis, have already effected significant change in the way our parliamentary system does its business.

In September last year, a new petitions system was introduced in the Houses of the Oireachtas, which aimed to place the citizen at the heart of our parliamentary system. This is a significant innovation, in that for the first time in the 93 year history of the Oireachtas, citizens now have a direct route to influence the parliamentary agenda.

To some extent under the radar, the Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which I chair, has slowly but firmly found its feet within the Oireachtas system. We have since received a steady flow of petitions from individuals and groups around the country, on a wide variety of topics.

A number of petitioners have come before the Committee in recent months. Thomas Kevin Walshe from Co Wicklow outlined what he perceived as a flaw in the qualification criteria for the Back to Education Allowance.

While John O’Sullivan from Cork raised the concerns he has in relation to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. At both meetings, a range of government officials and representatives of interested organisations engaged with the issues at hand.

‘In good faith’

We’ve also called a number of Ministers before us to address the concerns raised by individual petitioners. Earlier this month, we raised the changes to the contributory State Pension in recent years with Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. The changes impacted adversely on two petitioners and their calls on the Minister to implement the changes to the scheme in a more staggered fashion were raised.

In May, Minister of State Kathleen Lynch addressed our Committee on a petition which called for a national campaign on suicide prevention, akin to the road safety media campaigns of recent years.

This article was prompted by Wednesday’s edition of TheJournal.ie’s excellent Oireachtas Agenda, which light-heartedly pointed to the fact that the height of overhanging trees was one of our topics for discussion for the day.

While it may sound frivolous, the height of trees in neighbouring gardens is of genuine concern to some citizens and the petitions related to this issue are being processed by the Committee in good faith.

Through the careful scrutiny of petitions, our approach has been to examine the delivery of public service not from the perspective of the policy maker or senior civil servant but through the experience of a citizen and user of public services.

It has been most pleasing that, for all the recent public debate over the merits and demerits of the whip system, each Member of our cross-party Committee has left their party affiliation firmly at the door of the Leinster House Committee Rooms and worked constructively and collaboratively on behalf of the citizens we serve.

Get involved

The second pillar of our work is the engagement with the various Ombudsmen. We have had regular and fruitful meetings with the now departed Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, and followed up on her concerns around the ending of the Mobility Allowance Scheme and the Motorised Transport Grant with the Minister for Health James Reilly and his senior officials.

An empowering feature of the petitions system is that it is open and accessible to every single citizen. And history proves it often takes the resolve of just one or two civic minded people to make a stand and effect substantial change.

I would encourage anyone with concerns around any aspect of public service delivery to take these concerns directly to the heart of the Oireachtas by logging on to the Oireachtas Petitions website to create and submit a petition.

The petitions system, working to its full potential, can make the parliamentary system more accessible and more participative. I would argue that, contrary to much public commentary, our parliamentary process is already relatively open. With Leinster House receiving over 100,000 visitors a year, Irish people know well how consequential to their lives the business of the Oireachtas is.

We can watch every minute of business live on oireachtas.ie and read the record of the parliament online. Our Committee will help channel the appetite of Irish people for public engagement in a structured and meaningful way.

As a Committee, we are conscious that there is much more work to do, but we do believe that we are becoming a robust champion within our parliamentary system on behalf of the citizens we serve.

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Oversight and Petitions. The Committee can be contacted on (01) 618 4216 or on lo-call number (1890) 337 889.