First, I would like to state that it was a great honour for me to have been elected Chairman of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security at its first meeting in May.
There are three main topics I wish to refer to in my statement this afternoon. First, I will outline the background to the establishment of the committee. Second the work programme the committee has set for itself will be reviewed. Finally, will look forward to the tasks the com mittee hopes to undertake in the future, paying particular attention to general policy issues that have arisen in discussions and the powers needed to bring these discussions to a conclusion.
As Deputies are aware, all the legislative committees were established in accordance with the commitment given in the section of the Programme for a Partnership Government entitled, "Broadening Our Democracy". The programme contained a package of proposals designed to achieve fundamental reform in the way in which this Legislature operates. These reforms, including the new legislative committees, are intended to encourage the highest level of democratic partnership — via participation — in the tasks of producing legislation and formulating policies. Underlying all our efforts in this regard is the need to make the national Parliament relevant and capable of dealing with the problems of modern Irish society.
The Programme for Government envisaged a deadline of 31 January 1994 for the establishment of this and the other legislative committees, apart from the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs. However, the committee was brought from the proposal stage to practical functioning within a period of four months. Arising from statements on the subject of Dáil reform in February, 30 Members were selected by the Committee of Selection and Orders of Reference were agreed on 7 April. I am sure Deputies will agree that all the committees, including the select Committee on Legislation and Security, took the minimum amount of time to commence operations.
Our first meeting was held on 4 May and since then we have had eight meetings, involving 20 hours of deliberations. These meetings have dealt with Estimates, Bills and general policy issues as well as defining our work programme.
Before I go into more detail about he objectives of the committee and its work programme, I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues in the committee for their constructive input into our deliberations on various topics. In particular, I would like to thank the convenors, Deputies Calley and John Browne(Carlow-Kilkenny) and the staff of the House for their assistance and co-operation. The committee system was put in place to facilitate a greater quantity and quality of participation by Deputies selected for membership. There is no doubt that both of these aims have been achieved. I would also like to thank Ministers, Ministers of State and officials of the Departments of Defence, Justice and Equality and Law Reform for the assistance provided at private and public sessions, in particular, meetings at which briefings were provided to members which worked well and helped members carry out their work in a informed way.
In reviewing the operation of the committees to date, it would be helpful to remind Deputies of the precise terms of reference set out for the Select Committee on Legislation and Security. All the committees have specific legislative tasks assigned to them. The Orders of Reference of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security state that our function was to consider specific issues relating to justice, law reform and defence comprising the Estimates for relevant Government Departments, the impact on equality of policy in these areas, Committee Stage of relevant Bills and such appropriate reports as were referred to the committee from the Dáil.
In assigning these tasks to the new committees, the original objectives were common to all the committees. First, it was envisaged that the new arrangements would provide Deputies with a formal structure conducive to the meaningful contributions from members towards drafting legislative and policy proposals. Second, the system was intended to speed up the process of the passage of legislation through the Houses, without simultaneously curtailing or inhibiting that constructive input, which members can and may wish to provide. Third, some Deputies expressed in February the necessity for the committees to enhance the accountability of Government, and especially Ministers, to the Members of the Dáil. In this way, the need to increase the accountability of Government to the electorate would, to some degree, be met.
Since its first meeting, the work programme of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security has, in accordance with its Orders of Reference included consideration of the relevant Estimates and Committee Stage of relevant Bills. However, our work programme has not been restricted to those matters. We have also had meetings on general policy matters relating to our brief in the areas of justice, equality and law reform and defence issues. I will return at a later stage in my statement to the subject matter and outcome of these meetings.
As its initial task, the committee considered the Estimates for a number of Votes, covering almost £930 million of public expenditure. It dealt with these Estimates at three separate meetings, at which Estimates under the aegis of the Departments of Defence, Equality and Law Reform and Justice were considered. In each case, the Minister, in one case accompanied by his Minister for State, attended together with officials. The consideration of the Estimates took 13 hours of public session, with contributions from almost every Deputy attending, on issues relating to defence, army pensions, equality and law reform, justice, the Garda Síochána, courts and prisons. Many worth while points emerged during our discussions of the Estimates. The quantity and quality of Members' contributions attest to the participative nature of this committee's work. The Estimates were reported to the Dáil on 21 May 1993.
At present the committee is processing the Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill, 1993. A private briefing session on the Bill involving officials was held and all Members present felt it was a worthwhile exercise. The committee also met in public on this subject and the Committee Stage debate will continue tomorrow.
Many amendments to the Bill have been suggested to date by Members, and, once again, the number and quality of the amendments illustrate the useful and participative nature of this committee's work. The fact that some of these amendments have resulted in changes to the Bill is due to the Minister and members concerned.
Undoubtedly, other Bills will be referred to the committee. As yet, we have no firm indication of the future workload in this regard.
A wide range of topical and relevant issues may arise over the life time of the committee. These include forthcoming developments in family law, the civil legal aid scheme and the changing environment for the Defence Forces on foreign missions.
The committee has views on the topics it wishes to discuss, notwithstanding its current Orders of Reference. The work programme was discussed at a number of meetings and, in particular, issues relating to itsmodus operandi, terms of reference and powers. I will consider the issue of the powers given to the committee later.
Our attempt to review the role of the Defence Forces simultaneously highlights the potential for the committee to formulate and review policy and the constraints on it performing that function. Arising from the committee's consideration of the Defence Estimate, the Minister for Defence suggested that the committee consider the role of the Defence Forces. The Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Dempsey, participated in this exercise, which was held in private and the committee is grateful for his contribution. While further consideration of this matter at subsequent meetings may be appropriate and desirable, the committee felt that no useful purpose could be served by its continuing discussion on this subject because the Orders of reference do not explicitly envisage such an exercise. Neither do they allow the committee to invite, or summon if necessary, interested bodies or parties to these meetings. The committee views such participation as vital to its success in its wider role of policy formulation and review. The committee's deliberations on the role of the Defence Forces have led me to an inevitable conclusion: that the problems of the terms of reference and powers of the committee are inter-related issues. The committee would like to discuss issues of current public interest in the areas of its remit. However, as I stated, it does not have the explicit power to do so and neither does it have the complementary and necessary power of invitation.
I wrote on the committee's behalf to the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, drawing attention to its difficulties. His reply stated that the committee's views would be taken into account when the Orders or Reference were being amended. Having discussed this matter on three occasions, the committee would like to see these amendments put in place as a matter of urgency, so that it can undertake the tasks relating to general policy issues that Members are willing and prepared to perform.