(1) That, in respect of the First Report of the sub-Committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on Reform of Dáil Procedure (T. 291) dated 19th June, 1996, and with effect from Tuesday, 15th October, 1996—
(a) the amendments and additions to the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann relative to Public Business and the sessional orders recommended in Appendix 1 to the Report be adopted; and
(b) the proposals set out in Appendix 2 to the Report, including the amendment to the Orders of Reference of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies set out at paragraph 1 thereof and the amendment to the Orders of Reference of the Committees set out at paragraph 10 thereof, be adopted.
(2) That, in relation to the Orders of Reference of the Select Committees on Enterprise and Economic Strategy, Finance and General Affairs, Legislation and Security and Social Affairs—
(a) the provisions of paragraphs (17), (18), (20), (21) and (22), inserted by Order of Dáil Éireann of 1st march, 1995, shall be deemed to apply to, and to have always applied to, a sub-committee appointed by the Select Committee; and
(b) paragraph (19) of the Orders of Reference of each Select Committee be amended by the insertion of `or a sub-Committee thereof' after `taken before it'.
I wish to pay tribute to the co-sponsors of the motion who, as members of the sub-committee, worked to achieve a consensus in formulating the report. I thank the Clerk and assistants to the sub-committee for their excellent services and the Clerk of the Dáil whose wise counsel was available at all times to the sub-committee. I also thank the officials from the Department of the Taoiseach who assisted me in preparing proposals for consideration by the Government and in liaising with the Clerk to the sub-committee.
Although a large measure of consensus was achieved in formulating the report, the sub-committee realised that there were issues on which all-party agreement could not be reached. Accordingly, we agreed that amendments may be tabled in the House to the report. A number of such amendments have been tabled and I will reserve my remarks on these until I reply to the debate so that the movers will have an opportunity to argue in favour of their case.
Before outlining the principal elements of the report of the sub-committee, I would like to make a few brief comments on the Government's proposals for Oireachtas reform. Deputies will recall that Oireachtas reform formed a key part of the Policy Agreement A Government of Renewal negotiated between the three parties now in Government in December 1994. Pursuant to that, the Government, on 24 January 1995, published proposals relating to committees, matters of concern, Dáil sitting hours, promised legislation and streamlined voting procedures. The proposals relating to committees were subsequently approved by the Dáil and Seanad in March 1995. The Whips of the various parties agreed on informal arrangements on Dáil sitting hours and committee meetings and the Government published a list of promised legislation for the first time on 24 January 1995 — this has been updated on a number of occasions subsequently prior to the commencement of each Dáil session.
The Opposition parties, however, indicated at the time that the Government's proposals relating to matters of concern and streamlined voting procedures were not acceptable to them as framed. Accordingly, those proposals were not proceeded with. On my appointment as Government Chief Whip at the end of May 1995, I took up consideration of the remaining commitments in relation to Oireachtas reform as set out in A Government of Renewal. I wrote to the Ceann Comhairle suggesting that a comprehensive review of Dáil Standing Orders be undertaken. This led to the decision of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges on 5 July 1995 to establish a sub-committee on the matter. By this time, a sub-committee of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party had published its proposals for Dáil reform. The Fianna Fáil document graciously acknowledged that many of its proposals had previously been proposed by the parties now in Government when in Opposition.
On 25 October 1995 when speaking on the Dáil motion relating to the relaxation of the repeat rule for written parliamentary questions, I stated that the Government was working on a comprehensive package of Oireachtas reform measures. This package, which took account of the proposals put forward by Fianna Fáil, was published on 6 February 1996. Deputies will be aware from the minutes of the meetings of the sub-committee, which are appended to the report, that the Government's proposals and those of Fianna Fáil, with a submission from the Progressive Democrats on the Government's proposals and a submission prepared by the Clerk of the Dáil on technical amendments to Standing Orders, formed the documentation which was considered by the sub-committee.
I am very pleased that the sub-committee readily agreed to most of the proposals put forward by the Government. These relate to: (1) the widening of the role of the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges established to review Dáil Standing Orders and to examine proposals on Dáil reform; (2) the extension of the remit of the Joint Committee on State-sponsored Bodies to include Bord Fáilte, FÁS, the industrial development agencies, the National Roads Authority and Teagasc; (3) the investigation by existing committees of matters of serious public concern; (4) the formalisation of a role for the Dáil and Seanad Committees on Procedure and Privileges in overseeing procedures of committees — this will require the committees to report to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at least every six months; (5) an option for debating reports of committees; (6) the financing of up to five Private Members' Bills each year; (7) the rationalisation of arrangements in relation to responsibility for parliamentary questions in so far as ministerial policy for agencies is concerned; (8) the relaxation of the rule for disallowing parliamentary questions which are anticipatory of debate; (9) the introduction of a revised rule that ordinary and priority questions should not be taken together; (10) the provision for interventions during, and on, Dáil debates; (11) the provision of a question and answer facility in debates; (12) the provision for the making of declarations or affirmations in respect of the offices of the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle; (13) the televising-broadcasting of debates; (14) the use of Teilifís na Gaeilge channel for Oireachtas proceedings; (15) the examination of video conferencing; and (16) the provision of a revised format for the Order of Business and the Dáil Order Paper.
I am also pleased that, in response to points made during the deliberations of the sub-committee, I was able, on behalf of the Government, to accept revised proposals relating to: (1) the introduction of streamlined voting procedures, in so far as they relate to the suspension of a Member; (2) revised arrangements for Expressions of Sympathy in the Dáil; (3) rationalisation of time allowed for Question Time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; (4) rationalisation of time for Taoiseach's Question Time; and (5) the allowance of second contributions on Report Stages on Bills and on Financial Resolutions, as well as accepting many of the proposed technical amendments to Dáil Standing Orders which are detailed in the report.
The willingness by the Government to accept revised proposals indicates its openness to consider proposals, including those made by the Opposition, and to amend proposals which it had put forward.
It may have been a much more expeditious procedure if the Government had pushed its proposals through the Houses of the Oireachtas without reference to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I remain convinced, however, that the approach adopted in seeking to get the maximum consensus was the correct one even if the process is somewhat tedious.
I wish to refer briefly to some of the principal features of the report. To underpin the impartiality of the offices of the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle, it is proposed that there should be a provision for declarations in respect of both office-holders on their taking up those positions. I have been assured by the Attorney General that the proposals are in order.
Up to now, the practice in relation to ministerial responsibility for matters raised on the adjournment and parliamentary questions on agencies under the aegis of Government Departments, has differed from Department to Department. There will, in future, be a consistent line in that Ministers will take responsibility for replying to adjournment debates and parliamentary questions in so far as Government or ministerial policy laid down for agencies under their remit is concerned, as distinct from policy laid down by the board and day-to-day administrative activities.
The time available for the Taoiseach's Question Time is being more evenly divided and an additional 20 minutes is being provided on Wednesdays, thus enabling extra time for Ministers' questions.
On the question of interventions during, and on, debates, such a procedure operated up to the late 1950s. It is felt that its reintroduction will give rise to a more spontaneous exchange of views and enable Members to clarify statements made during a particular debate.
Clearer powers are being given to the Ceann Comhairle to suspend a Member in a case where he or she disregards the authority of the Chair.
Heretofore there was no system whereby reports from committees were tabled for debate. It is proposed that all such reports will be tabled to allow the option for debate.
One of the things we lack in assessing the committees is reports on how they operate. I wrote earlier this year to the chairperson of each committee asking for suggestions from Members on reform. In doing so, I was conscious that I might be accused of interfering in their operations but I felt it was appropriate to allow Members to indicate their wishes. I invited them to convey any proposals for reform to me either directly, through the Liaison Committee or otherwise. I regret I did not receive a single reply.
It is desirable to lay down some specific arrangement for the taking of expressions of sympathy. It is proposed to provide financial assistance for the drafting of up to five Private Members' Bills each year. This is an innovation and all Members will be eligible to participate in a lottery for such assistance. It is also proposed to allow Members to speak a second time on Report Stage of Bills and on Financial Resolutions, subject to a strict time limitation.
The remit of the Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies is being extended to include nine other bodies in the tourism and industrial areas as well as Teagasc and the National Roads Authority. In paragraph 2 of the motion we are proposing a slight amendment to paragraph 10 of appendix II of the sub-committee to allow for substitution by members of the Opposition at committee meetings. This already applies in respect of members of Government parties. In paragraph 2 of the motion we are responding to a request of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security regarding the powers of sub-committees. This amendment was agreed with the relevant committees.
I emphasise that this is the first report of the sub-committee. We propose to continue our comprehensive review of Standing Orders. We will be thinking in terms of producing an updated version of Standing Orders. I am of the opinion that the procedures as they relate to parliamentary questions require close examination. Parliamentary questions are a vital tool in our democratic system. Anyone who closely studies the way it operates cannot say that it is satisfactory from either the viewpoint of Government Ministers or individual Deputies. This, however, is for further consideration. In my capacity as chairman of the Broadcasting Committee I am having various issues such as televising and broadcasting of debates, the use of the Teilifís na Gaeilge channel for Oireachtas proceedings and video conferencing and information for Members referred to in the report actively followed up.
The Government is reasonably satisfied that we are far advanced in implementing practically all of the commitments in Oireachtas reform set out in A Government of Renewal. However, we realise that reform is a constant part of life and we must regularly review our procedures. It is with enthusiasm that the committee will proceed. Many of the changes being introduced have been debated for years but consensus has only recently been achieved. We must move to a new level in the debate to take account of the Government's strategic management initiative. The central theme of the document launched by the Taoiseach on 2 May, Delivering Better Government, is the provision of quality service to the customers of the Civil Service at all levels. In order to do this, a framework of change is set out which encompasses legislative changes in order to devolve authority, accountability and responsibility and make the process more concrete.
A key element in underpinning the process of change will be a greater emphasis on openness and transparency in the working of Government. The role of the Houses of the Oireachtas is crucial in this context and the report makes a number of references to the need for change in the existing systems and procedures. It is now appropriate that the areas of change should be further considered and a programme of action proposed.
A number of issues relating to the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas are raised in the Strategic Management Initiative Report as follows: the need for continued reform of the committee system in support of the change to greater openness and transparency in public administration — the need for greater clarity in relation to the role and remit of individual committees was considered essential; the need for clearer understanding of the relative responsibilies of Ministers and civil servants in relation to the formulation of policy, on one hand, and implementation of policy, on the other; accordingly, in relation to Oireachtas Committees, it is envisaged that Ministers and Ministers of State will address issues relating to the determination of policy, including the policy advice they had received relating to the production of outputs; appropriate arrangements for accountability of civil servants at Secretary and at senior levels to Oireachtas Committees for action on implementation of policy and for ensuring value for money, which would include the publication of strategy statements for Departments which would be subject to scrutiny and examination by an appropriate Oireachtas Committee — the remit of the various committees and, in particular, the role of the Public Accounts Committee needs to be considered in this regard; adequate protection for those giving evidence before Oireachtas Committees; and the question of Ministers answering parliamentary questions on policy and the arrangements for implementing it. It was stated that the development of appropriate mechanisms to answer queries on daily operational decision from Members of the Oireachtas will be required.
I am extremely interested in Members' views on these elements and in particular the views of committees on their future roles and remits. I believe the debate should commence now so that we can prepare proposals for consideration and implementation in due course. Judging from previous debates, I know Members will be tempted to raise extraneous matters such as the impact of electoral reform on Oireachtas reform. I appeal to them to resist this temptation as there will be other occasions on which such issues can be debated. Indeed, the All-Party Committee on the Constitution might be an appropriate forum in which to raise issues such as electoral reform.
I am also aware that we can expect contributions from Members who will probably express themselves on current Oireachtas procedures, particularly relating to the committees. Before they are tempted to do so, the committee will be most impressed if any such contributions are forthcoming from those Members who use the procedures to the full. All Members are now eligible to attend committee meetings and to contribute to the proceedings. If they fail to do so, they cannot be taken seriously if they deride what is available to them by way of such facility.
There are many vague notions about Oireachtas reform. It is time for those with ideas to expand on them and bring them forward into the public arena for consideration. I look forward to Members' contributions. I assure them that all views will be carefully and fully considered. On the other hand, there is an obligation on the assiduous members of committees to let us hear of their views on how the procedures of the committees can be improved. As I stated earlier, committees will be required to submit reports to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges every six months from now on.