Amendment No. 1 in the name of Deputy Costello and Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 in the name of Deputy Ó Snodaigh are out of order as they are in conflict with the principle of the Bill.
European Communities Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Report Stage.
Amendment No. 4 in the names of Deputies Costello and Ó Snodaigh arises out of Committee proceedings.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, to delete lines 16 to 33 and in page 4, to delete lines 1 and 2.
I welcome the Minister of State belatedly to the Dáil to take legislation which is before us again for a short time. My objection to this legislation has been stated on Committee Stage and on Second Stage. The principle of this legislation is all wrong. It is giving full power to the Minister to operate as he or she sees fit in terms of European directives, resolutions and legislation and all European proposals may be transposed by the Minister as he sees fit, in his own image and likeness, so to speak. This is an extraordinary power we are granting to the Minister, both retrospectively in the case of matters that have already been dealt with and in the future. The Minister is almost like an alchemist of old who can turn whatever he wishes into a precious substance and guild it as he sees fit. Not only will he transpose it into legislation, but he can amend it. He can amend the legislation, providing for up to three years imprisonment for any citizen of this jurisdiction or up to €500,000 in fines. Those are extraordinary powers the Minister is taking unto himself in this legislation.
What he is giving us is a crumb. He is prepared to put the European legislation on the floor of the House for 21 days, but he is not prepared to do so in the normal fashion in which it would be debated, teased out and legislated for, which is our business as legislators. In that sense it is contrary to everything we stand for. I am wholly opposed to granting these extensive powers. This extends not merely to summary jurisdiction, but to indictable offences which involve the Minister taking much greater powers unto himself.
As well as opposing the principle of this legislation, I am also opposed to the message it sends out. I am sure the Minister of State was present last Sunday for the Berlin declaration, stating the benefits the European Union had granted over the past 50 years and the wonderful benefits which would be granted in the future, but there were quite a few elephants in that room. There was no mention of the constitutional treaty or of enlargement, in other words, the issues that concern citizens and that caused the citizens of the Netherlands and France to vote against the constitutional treaty because they were fearful and suspicious of the lack of accountability in the European Union.
If we are embarking on another 50 years in the European Union we must ensure we do so with the right principles, and one of the basic principles is that of transparency and accountability. This legislation avoids all of that. That is a bad start for us.
We set up the National Forum on Europe so citizens could have a sense of involvement and engagement and we set up the scrutiny legislation — both emanated from the Labour Party — so the Oireachtas would have a scrutiny process, but now we are in a process of legislation which takes away a raft of such measures and passes them to the Minister, who can then determine how the legislation from Europe will be implemented. That is not good enough. It sends out entirely the wrong message.
No doubt this legislation will be quoted the length and breadth of this country when we are putting through the next referendum on Europe. When a referendum, whether on the constitutional treaty or another treaty, is put to the people, no doubt those eurosceptics who do not want Ireland in the European Union will point to this Bill and state the Government in 2007 in the Dáil took power away from the people and elected representatives and handed it to the Minister. That, in itself, raises a serious question of European Union accountability.
My amendment relates in general terms to that issue. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider his position and give us something more than the crumb he is allowing to be placed on the table such as that statutory instruments be presented on the floor of this House rather than laid in the Library for 21 days and that he give at least a positive presentation on any proposals he is putting forward.
Although I do not like repeating myself, I stated on Second Stage that this Bill is dangerous. I will set out my reasons. From the start my party has been pro-European. We have seen our country and our people gain considerable benefits from our membership of the European Union. A large number of problems arising from our membership hit some of our traditional industries hard in the early days, and my city suffered more than any other in the demise of traditional industries because of open competition. On balance, Ireland has gained substantially through its membership of the European Union and I hope people recognise that.
This Bill gives hostages to fortune to the opponents of the European Union. As Deputy Costello stated, and we stated both on Second Stage and on Committee Stage, this Bill will be used as a weapon against the supporters of the European Union in future referenda and in future debates.
It will be difficult to get the support of the majority of the Irish people for the European constitutional treaty and there is a large hurdle to be surmounted in getting this constitution through. There are a number of reasons for this. There is a fear among the people and we must listen to them. We should stop lecturing people on the benefits the European Union has given them. We should listen to people's concerns and fears and enter into two-way dialogue with them. Such dialogue has been attempted by the National Forum for Europe, but we are not being effective enough in getting out to the communities and, first, listening to people and then discussing their concerns with them.
Their concerns include the drift of industry from Western to Eastern Europe and the loss of jobs to the newer member states, where competition is keener and costs and overheads are lower. People are concerned about the ongoing enlargement of the Union and believe, to use a basketball analogy, we should take time out to consider the impact of the most recent round of enlargement involving Bulgaria and Romania, and the previous ones, and the long-term effects of that enlargement on the Irish economy and the Irish people. While I support it, we must bring the people with us. It is pointless lecturing people about what they have gained, as we must also meet their concerns. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will take on unprecedented powers under this legislation. He is attempting to override domestic legislation through a statutory instrument and bypass the House. The concession made by the Minister of State on Committee Stage, while welcome, does not go far enough. A provision should be inserted to ensure a positive assent by the House to the statutory instruments introduced by the Minister of the day. The Dáil should have 21 days to oppose a proposal by the Minister, if it so wishes.
I am chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. Last year most of our work was devoted to regulations, decisions and directives, which comprised 69% of the total documentation. Approximately 56 Common Foreign and Security Policy proposals were considered, including the application of restricted measures against countries such as Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Liberia and against suspected terrorists. On issues of such importance, we must not simply hand over absolute authority, retrospective or otherwise, to the Minister of the day. I am not trying to increase the sub-committee's workload or make my job more important, given that the election is imminent but the next Government must take a realistic approach to EU directives. The sub-committee should become a full committee of both Houses and adequate resources and powers must be provided to deal effectively with the avalanche of European documentation. Unfortunately, we are dealing with it on a wing and a prayer currently. We are dependent on a small but very professional staff and I marvel not only at the quality of their work but also at the volume of documentation they scrutinise. They must decide on the implications for the State of all these regulations, directives and so on.
The inadequate resourcing of this sub-committee coupled with the Minister of State's proposal in the legislation is dangerous. Last week during Question Time I referred to the Government's failure to transpose many EU directives into domestic legislation. The Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport are the greatest culprits in this regard. Between 50 and 60 EU legislative proposals have not been transposed into domestic law because the system is not capable of dealing with the volume of work coming through.
We are faced with a dangerous vacuum and the sooner it is eliminated, the better but that will not be addressed by giving the Minister of the day the right to sweep aside the oversight function of the Dáil and its Members and introduce by statutory instrument EU directives that will override domestic legislation. It is wrong and dangerous because it undermines our sovereignty. We will be hostages to fortune to the opponents of the EU who will be very vociferous in future referenda and I worry about this. I have tabled a number of amendments, which I will not debate at length, and I ask the Minister of State to reconsider his position on this and take on board a number of the reasonable amendments tabled by the Opposition. It is reasonable to propose that a statutory instrument be laid before the House for 21 days for its consideration. In the interest of all Members and the people we represent, that should be entertained.
The powers the Minister is seeking in the legislation represent a quantum leap. Many people's nightmare that Europe would dictate to Ireland what should be done will become a reality. While many positive initiatives have emanated from Europe, we should have a policy of critical engagement with the Union. We should consider whether to support or oppose each new initiative on the basis of merit and criteria relating to its effectiveness, human rights compliance and whether it is good or bad for the people. The legislation will take powers away from the Dáil and its committees and put them in the hands of a Minister. One person who was asked for a legal opinion on this described it as an attempted coup by the executive arm of the State against the legislative arm, which is the Oireachtas. The difficulty about these powers, some of which are retrospective, is that we do not know what we are agreeing to or what legislation is covered.
My colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, tabled a number of parliamentary questions to various Departments about this legislation and most Departments are in the dark. We are being asked to agree to the Minister deciding what regulations should be implemented without referring to anybody. That is absolute madness and it is a dictatorial approach to this process. To hand power exclusively to a Minister and his or her officials is anti-democratic and that view has been expressed by many Opposition Members throughout this debate. It is crazy that, as long as the Minister claims it is necessary, European laws could be implemented without seeking the permission or acknowledgement of Deputies and Senators or even having to notify them. I do not know how a Parliament could argue this is positive and democratic.
A former President of Germany, Roman Herzog recently asked whether Germany could be called a parliamentary democracy because the EU drafts 80% of its laws. That is our current position without the enactment of this legislation. In 2006 the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny processed 329 legislative proposals, which amounted to 90% of legislation dealt with by the Oireachtas. We are relying on the goodwill of the Minister and his officials to inform us whether it is good or bad. What is being proposed here is wrong. The nightmare will become a reality and many of us have spoken about the centralised Europe which seems to be developing. We have argued against the direction Europe has taken in recent years and the undermining of countries' sovereignty. We have asked whether we are moving towards a European super state. The legislation certainly appears to be moving us in that direction and fewer powers are being given to sovereign parliaments. Our arguments were rubbished by many people, who said we were anti-European, but this type of legislation is the nightmare becoming reality.
My party will oppose the Bill at all stages. We are being asked to agree to smoke and mirrors because we do not know what is coming down the track or what we will agree to retrospectively. I do not see how anyone in his or her right mind could agree to these proposals if he or she genuinely believes in democracy or giving people the opportunity to scrutinise legislation. This Bill will undermine whatever powers of scrutiny are currently possessed by these Houses and it represents the wrong way forward. We are giving too much power to Ministers and it is anti-democratic, if not dictatorial. I support the amendment but oppose the Bill.
Is cúis áthais dom a bheith ar ais arís le freastal ar an díospóireacht faoi na hathruithe atá molta ag an Fhreasúra maidir le Bille na gComhphobal Eorpach 2006. I thank Deputies for their contributions and the amendments they brought forward on Report Stage, which allow for a full and frank debate on the Bill.
We cannot have a full debate because the Bill is being guillotined.
We are here to do a job, we will do it together and, hopefully, we shall beat the guillotine.
We do not have much time to do so.
Our reasons for being here are clear from the Title to the Bill. This Bill arises because of the serious implications of landmark Supreme Court judgments in the Browne and Kennedy cases. The court found that a statutory instrument to give effect to European Community law can only be validly made where the Oireachtas has specifically provided for it in the relevant primary legislation. We are not reinventing the wheel. For the past 85 years, the Oireachtas has passed primary and secondary legislation, and has given power to successive Ministers to bring secondary legislation through statutory instruments. We are not asking the House to allow us to do anything that was not done in the past.
It was done wrongly in the past. That was the decision of the Supreme Court.
Following the judgments, a significant degree of analysis was carried out by the Office of the Attorney General and by all Departments involved in the transposition of European Community legislation. This issue affects every Department, in accordance with the importance of Europe to our economy and society and the range of our European obligations. The Attorney General advised at the end of this consultative process that new legislation was needed to fill the gap created by the two Supreme Court decisions.
We all agree with that.
The Supreme Court judgments mean that some of the body of legislation developed since 1973 could be susceptible to legal challenge. Essentially, secondary legislation made in good faith over three decades by dozens of Ministers from successive Governments under the powers given to them by Acts of the Oireachtas may be in doubt. The Attorney General's advice to the Government was that the issue needed to be addressed and that is the reason for the Bill before us. Deputy Costello and others referred to this issue on Committee Stage.
Our founding fathers and predecessors in government believed that secondary legislation was sufficient for the practical implementation of law and regulation.
I will give Deputies a simple example. If primary legislation provides for a maximum limit of ten parts of sodium per million in fertiliser and an EU directive subsequently reduces the limit to five parts per million, a statutory instrument could be used to amend the relevant legislation.
That is not an indictable offence.
Is somebody saying that is not a proper way to proceed?
The Government got unstuck in that regard with the nitrates directive.
We were not unstuck on that.
That is not an indictable offence.
I have not interrupted anybody and would love to be given the chance to respond to the points made by Deputies.
We just want to educate the Minister of State. This is Report Stage so we should be allowed a bit of interaction.
I thought contributions on Report Stage were the preserve of the respective speakers.
I stand corrected.
In his opening remarks, Deputy Costello spoke about the Berlin declaration and elephants in the room. The Berlin declaration is basically a statement of the evolution of the European Union, its success and the opportunities it has created. It outlined how we can reflect on the past and have the confidence to enhance the European Union in the interest of its citizens. There is no elephant in the room.
What about the constitutional treaty?
The European Union is clear on what it has achieved and confident about its future. The European constitution is a way to refine institutional requirements so that we will be able to deliver an effective system to our people in an efficient manner so as to ensure equality of opportunity for all.
When will we vote on the treaty?
As soon as a clear decision is taken on how we can proceed.
Two years down the road.
I am confident the treaty will be in position by the next European elections. That is the goal of the European Union and Ireland. Members of all parties will work together on the constitution to the benefit of the EU and our country. We have to be mindful of the role the European Union has played in modernising our nation and our laws and in ensuring we have an effective mechanism to introduce fair and equitable legislation.
I pay tribute to Deputy Allen on the outstanding work he has done as Chairman of the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. I salute him, his colleagues and the officials of the sub-committee. Much work has been done in a quiet but efficient manner. My Department is proud to have fulfilled its responsibilities under the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002. The Act also obliges us to produce an annual report on developments in the European Union. That is accessible and transparent to everybody and is an important tool for Members, citizens and Departments in terms of knowing the ramifications of any proposals coming from Europe.
Deputy Allen spoke about the National Forum on Europe. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend the Committee of the Regions in Ireland, with the secretaries general of the committee and the forum. The secretary general of the committee stated emphatically that the European Union believes that the National Forum on Europe is the best vehicle for communicating the European message to the citizens of Ireland. He recommended that the forum be replicated in every member state. This week, the forum will move to Deputy Allen's great city, where it will address the lifelong learning festival. It is visiting the people in rural and urban areas.
Reference was made to resources for the scrutiny role of the Oireachtas. I have made it clear on Committee Stage that we are open to a review of the arrangements in place for Oireachtas scrutiny. I fully support that.