I compliment Deputy Durkan on the outstanding work he is doing in European affairs. On behalf of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny I am pleased to present our second special report which deals with new EU legislative proposals. I thank the Whips for scheduling this debate today, and for their commitment to schedule further debates at least once a month. This point was well made earlier on the Order of Business by the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Enda Kenny. We have to connect our work directly with the issues that matter to people.
It is clear from the committee's work that there is an enormous amount of material to be scrutinised in considering the legal framework of the EU. Already, more than 9,000 EU legislative measures are in place, and since 1973 Ireland has transposed 1,732 directives into Irish law out of a total of 1,751, equivalent to a transposition rate of 98.9%. More than 400 European legislative proposals per annum are laid before the Oireachtas and considered by the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. The volume of EU legislation and the significance of its impact on domestic policy in all areas mean that it is essential for the Oireachtas to have effective, robust and accessible procedures for scrutinising EU business.
When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, section 4 of the European Communities Act provided specifically for the Government to report twice yearly to the Oireachtas on European developments. Section 2(5) of the European Scrutiny Act 2002 strengthened this by providing that each Minister must individually report twice yearly in relation to EU legislation and other developments within their remit. This provision was meant to strengthen the ability of the Oireachtas to hold the Government to account for its role in agreeing new EU laws on Ireland's behalf in the Council of Ministers.
Going back to 1973, the six month reports have never been actively considered or debated in the Dáil. That has drawn much critical comment from outside commentators. It implies a lack of interest by the Dáil in the detail of new EU laws. This is regrettable because EU laws have a major effect on the daily lives of our citizens. Surveys and polls since the Lisbon treaty have highlighted the public's concerns about the level of public information and consultation on important EU proposals. It is against that backdrop that the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny sought this debate. The report, which is very detailed, contains separate reports from each of the 15 Departments. Those reports reflect the considerable work done by the Government in connection with Ireland's membership of the EU. They also reveal the wide variety of policy areas involved.
Chapter 1 describes the work of the committee. In Chapter 2 we draw particular attention to 11 major policy areas we identified where important EU legislation is being progressed — climate change, labour laws, energy, environmental protection, financial policy, Internal Market, aviation, telecommunications, justice and home affairs, CAP reform and the Common Fisheries Policy. That is a broad spectrum of directives that have a direct impact on Irish citizens. In this and future debates, I believe, we can hold the Government to account, and the people of Ireland will know well in advance of any new directive in future, which will be well debated. That will reduce the lack of concern among the public as regards lack of awareness on EU issues. I shall briefly deal with some of them.
Section 2.5 deals with financial policy. In the current economic climate, the public is looking for stability and reassurance that Ireland can manage its way through the current extreme downturn. Our membership of the EU has been vital in protecting us to some extent from the type of shocks that Iceland has faced.
Section 2.1 deals with climate change proposals. The EU has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions. We sent those proposals to the Joint Committee on Climate Change which recently published a major report on the matter.
Section 2.7 deals with aviation proposals. This is an industry that enjoyed a boom period of growth but is being seriously hit now by the economic downturn. Other areas we highlight include changes in the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. This is very significant, when one considers the role played by the IFA, regrettably I believe, in the loss of the Lisbon vote. It led thousands of farmers up the mountain but was unable to bring them down, because of the lack of clarity on issues that affected so many people in terms of the enormous benefits the farming community has derived from Europe.
There was also a major policy report on the Common Fisheries Policy. This is a very detailed report and has been scrutinised and debated by the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. We have invited submissions from vested interests, all the NGOs and top civil servants and the report deals concisely with opinion within the Houses of the Oireachtas.
A table on page 12 of the report gives a good overview of the type of proposals the committee looked at. In the last six months we received 274 separate legislative proposals. This included 46 draft directives. Directives tend to be used for major legislation and offer each member state some room as to how precisely to transpose the law at national level. The report deals with subsidiarity and the role of national parliaments — the latter being completely lost sight of during the debate on the Lisbon treaty. If the treaty had been ratified our scrutiny committee would have far more power. As matters stand, without the ratification, we are still proceeding to scrutinise every debate. However, when one considers the increased powers the treaty was to confer on national parliaments and their entitlement to cross-examine and hold the EU to account, I have no doubt this is the model for the future.
Chapter 3 gives details of the 16 reports the committee did on individual legislative proposals in the first half of 2008. They represent an interesting cross section of policy areas across a number of Departments.
In Chapter 4 we have made three recommendations on how to improve the scrutiny process. The report has been circulated to each Minister and departmental Secretary General. It has also been sent to the Chairman of each sectoral committee. I hope it encourages a wider debate in other committees and in the public domain. We recently had a meeting with the Secretary General of the Department of Transport on her Department’s recent report. We intend to invite other Secretaries General to our meetings and this should raise the profile of the reports. We shall hold Departments to account as regards the transposition of EU directives.
There is general acceptance in this House that we need to up our game with regard to how we deal with important new EU directives. It is essential that the Oireachtas fully assesses these proposals and fine-tunes them before they are fully implemented. The Oireachtas cannot change EU directives once they have been transposed. There is no second chance so we must ensure we get it right the first time.
There have been numerous examples where major public concerns have arisen about EU directives, particularly with regard to how they were negotiated. I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is in the House, because he is dealing decisively with this. The nitrates directive, charges for school water and criminal sanctions for fishery offences have shown up massive inadequacies in terms of how we deal with these matters.
We are also discussing this report at a very important time in Ireland's membership of the EU. It is essential that we do not get it wrong again. The Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union is currently taking a detailed look at the role of the Oireachtas in EU affairs. When addressing the Minister of State I am speaking to the converted. We look forward to the report from the sub-committee next week and will carefully consider the recommendations it makes.
The committee appreciates the regular assistance it receives from all Departments in its consideration of EU legislative proposals. I thank my colleagues on the committee for their assistance in carrying out their important remit on behalf of the Irish people. There is little public awareness or media coverage of the work done in the Oireachtas and Departments to meet the obligations of Ireland's membership of the EU. The committee is currently developing its own communications strategy and, as a part of that, sees the six-monthly reports as a major element of the accountability process. These reports have a wealth of information that can be used to show how important EU issues are in an Irish context and how much the Oireachtas and Government commit to representing Ireland's interests in Europe.
The committee is strongly of the view that their reports on important EU matters need to be debated in plenary session and this is a very good start. I am pleased the Minister of State is present and I passionately believe in the involvement of Oireachtas Members in plenary session in the Dáil and Seanad to discuss critical issue in these reports. This report contains directives that will have an impact and the directives themselves should be discussed here. I have agreement from the Whips' office that on occasion special reports dealing with a specific issue that impacts on Irish citizens can be considered here.