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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Oct 1998

Vol. 495 No. 2

Ceisteanna — Questions. - Constitutional Amendments.

Proinsias De Rossa


1 Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach the plans, if any, the Government has to bring forward any amendments to the Constitution during this Dáil session; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17508/98]

The Government's legislative programme published by the Chief Whip on 28 September 1998 lists 18 Bills which the Government expects to publish before the end of the year. No Government Bills to amend the Constitution are envisaged in that period, but we have agreed in principle to bring forward at a future date a proposal to accord a constitutional guarantee for local government as recommended by the All Party Committee on the Constitution. This proposal is being developed by the Department of the Environment and Local Government in the context of amending legislation on local government reform. It is envisaged that the text of the proposed constitutional amendment will be referred to the all party committee for consideration.

Will the Taoiseach indicate when he expects the legislation for reform of local government, which will include a proposal to amend the Constitution to give constitutional clarity for local government, to come before the Dáil and when does he expect it to come before the constitutional review committee? Given the consideration the Government has given to regionalisation in the context of new EU Structural Funding and the demands of the EU Commission in that regard, does the Taoiseach consider an amendment of the Constitution will be required to devolve Oireachtas powers to regional authorities?

I hope the local government Bill will be before the House early in the new year. It is a large Bill containing 150 sections. It will certainly be considered in the session between Christmas and Easter. The answer to the Deputy's second question is no.

The Taoiseach did not respond to my question on the regionalisation proposals. I understand the Government is considering dividing the State into two regions. We know from statements by the EU commissioner that if the Government proceeds on that basis the EU Commission will require the ensuing regional authorities to have devolved powers. Does the Taoiseach believe such a devolution of powers would require a constitutional change? From my reading of the Constitution such a change would be required, given that ultimate authority lies with the Oireachtas and in order to satisfy the EU Commission that the authorities will not be constructed merely for the purposes of subsidy shopping, as the EU commissioner referred to it.

I understood the question the first time. The answer is no.

Does the Taoiseach mean the Government is not considering a constitutional amendment or that such an amendment is not required?

For the third time, I understand the Deputy asked if it was my view that a constitutional amendment is required. The answer is no. My advice is it does not require such an amendment.

I compliment the Taoiseach on the verbal economy of his replies.

Yesterday I was criticised for taking 50 minutes to answer three questions.

That was because the Taoiseach was being unduly prolix. Now he is being complimented for being brief.

"Prolix" is a lovely word.

It means long winded——

I know what it means.

——in script rather than verbally. Will the Taoiseach indicate if the definition of local government to be encompassed in the proposed constitutional amendment will include regional government? Will a constitutional role be given to regional as well as local or county government?

The legislation which will be introduced in the beginning of the year will cover local government reform. The purpose of the constitutional amendment is to accord a constitutional guarantee for local government, in line with the recommendation of the all party committee. Local government will, therefore, be defined in the proposed legislation.

Does regional equal local? Does the concept of local government exclude regional government or is it included?

It is included.

Has a document been prepared on the legislation to which the Taoiseach referred and, if so, have the heads of a Bill been cleared by the Cabinet?

The first tranche of the heads of a Bill, which is a substantial document, will be passed next week.

Will the Taoiseach place in the Library the legal advice he states he has received with regard to the constitutionality or otherwise of devolving powers to regional authorities? If he is not prepared to do that, will he indicate if such information would be made available to me if I requested it under the Freedom of Information Act?

The advice I have received is that this matter does not require a constitutional referendum. I did not seek written constitutional advice.

If the Taoiseach is not prepared to place such advice in the Library, will he indicate if it will be provided under the Freedom of Information Act if I request it?

The advice I have received, which is adequate for me at this stage, is that it does not require a constitutional amendment.

Is the Taoiseach indicating he received no written advice from the Attorney General?

I did not seek written advice. I do not ask for the views of the Attorney General in writing every time I speak to him.

The Taoiseach's earlier reply was, therefore, intended to mislead the House.

No it was not.

The Taoiseach indicated he received advice to the effect that constitutional change was not required. Will he place this information in the Library of the House? What is the basis of this advice? Did the Attorney General give it?

The Deputy should know the Taoiseach is not responsible to the House for legal advice.

The Taoiseach indicated that he got advice as Taoiseach. He clearly implied that the Attorney General advised him and is he now saying he did not. What advice did he receive?

He did not receive written advice from the Attorney General.

Is the Deputy suggesting the Taoiseach misled the House?

I ask you, Sir, to restrain the Taoiseach's little helpers beside him.

What game is being played here?

Let the Deputy tell us.

I do not know if the Taoiseach advertently or inadvertently intended to give this impression, but my interpretation of his answer to a supplementary question is that he sought and received advice and the answer was no. It appears that advice was not sought in a written form but, irrespective of whether it was the Taoiseach's intention, he gave the impression there was a written exchange.

The Taoiseach is not responsible to the Dáil for any legal advice he might or might not have received.

He is responsible for the answers he gives in this House.

The Deputy should resume his seat. We must proceed to the next question.

On a point of order——

The Deputy should resume his seat. He is not entitled to speak unless he is given the floor by the Chair. I would like him to bear that in mind.

On a point of order, I put a legitimate question to the Taoiseach, which was allowed by the Chair, on whether he received legal advice on the constitutionality of devolving powers to regional authorities. He indicated he had received advice to the effect that a constitutional amendment was not required. He subsequently told the House he did not receive written advice. Will he indicate the basis of his request for advice? What did he ask about the constitutionality of that proposal and what was the nature of the reply he received?

I have ruled that the Taoiseach is not responsible to the Dáil for any legal advice he receives.

Is he not the lucky man.

We must proceed to the next question.

May I pursue this matter briefly?

The Deputy should be very brief.

The Taoiseach volunteered information that he received advice and subsequently said he did not get it in written form.

I ruled on that matter. The Deputy must resume his seat.

Is it not the case that the Taoiseach confirmed in his reply to my question that the proposed constitutional amendment to protect local government will also protect, and give constitutional underpinning to, the functions of regional government?

The Deputy is correct. As I stated, my advice is that the definition of local government includes regional government. We have not finalised proposals on this. When I asked questions about this matter, I received the advice that local and regional government would be covered by that amendment. Regarding what I said to Deputy De Rossa, I asked if a separate constitutional amendment or any change is required, and the answer I got was that none is required.

The Taoiseach has given a third version of the reply.

The Chair did not call the Deputy. He must resume his seat until the Chair calls him.

I wish to ask a supplementary question. Is the Taoiseach indicating that the constitutional amendment he is proposing is necessary to devolve powers from the Oireachtas to local government?

Will the Taoiseach place in the Library the basis of his view that the answer in this regard is no? We are entitled to know about that.

The Deputy is being repetitive.