I wish to share my time with Deputies Joan Collins and Seamus Healy.
Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)
Is that agreed? Agreed.
What is the point, therefore, in spending so much money, €50 million, on all of us if we do not get to do what we are elected to do and that which, to be fair, we all came here to do? The truth is that after the Chamber elects a Taoiseach and he or she appoints a Cabinet, that is pretty much it; the Cabinet runs the show for the next few years with the Departments. For the rest of us, there is a very limited meaningful role to play. While Members put in their time and try to become Ministers of State and, ultimately, Ministers, there is no meaningful legislative role for most of them to play, despite how good or smart they are or how much they want to serve their country. It does not matter how hard one works. Therefore, what is the point in reducing the number of Members of the Dáil from 166 to 158? I accept that the Minister is constitutionally constrained, but, bearing in mind the wider picture, the reduction is window-dressing.
Ireland has one Deputy for every 27,640 people. In the United Kingdom there is one Member of Parliament for every 96,000 people, while in Germany there is one for every 131,000. Why do we have four times as many Members as the United Kingdom and five times as many as Germany?
I appreciate that my proposal would require a referendum and that it is beyond the scope of the Bill. I propose radically reducing the number of Members, perhaps to 100. Perhaps we should halve the number to 83. This would allow for a meaningful legislative role for every Member to play. It would force us all to think very carefully about who we send here. A referendum would be required. Every Member receives considerable criticism from the public for a wide variety of reasons, some justified and some not. Let us ask the people whether they would prefer to have 100 Deputies or half the current number? There are arguments on both sides. I suggest a radical reduction to 100 or lower.
The people pay a lot of money for 166 Members of the Dáil. Despite the considerable criticism, every single Member does his or her best to represent his or her constituents, but we must ask how many legislators are actually required in a country the size of Ireland. A total of 166 are not required. A reduction of eight is not enough; the turkeys need to vote for Christmas. It is time that this House examined in a very serious way how it is run. We should ask the population the type of Dáil it wants to have.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is often said constituents in Ireland are over-represented and that the country is, therefore, out of line with other countries. If, however, one examines reports by political scientists, one will realise we are fully in line with international norms.
While I agree with much of what Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly has said on how business is done in the House, I disagree fundamentally with the suggestion there should be a significant reduction in the number of Members. A significant reduction would mean a lack of democracy and a very elitist and exclusive Chamber. The Chamber would be almost like a vocationally representative Chamber such as the Seanad. It certainly would not allow for proper representation or the very strong contact Members have with their constituents and the public. The link between individual Deputies and their constituents is a very significant strength. It is anything but a weakness and ensures Members do not become out of touch with their constituents or constituencies. It is a considerable strength of the proportional representation and single transferable vote system. I fundamentally agree with and support our electoral process.
The Bill arises from the census findings in 2011. Let me outline the input of Independent Deputies Catherine Murphy and Finian McGrath whose involvement in the case Murphy and McGrath v. the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government ensured constituency reviews would take place very quickly and linked with the publication of preliminary census figures and the constituency review report arising therefrom. The report must be submitted to the Minister within a three-month period. The process has been strengthened and this has ensured timely implementation of the Constituency Commission's recommendations.
Since 1980 there have been 166 Deputies elected. In the intervening period the population has increased significantly, from approximately 3.3 million to 4.5 million. The Joint Committee on the Constitution, in its review, did not recommend a change to the number of Deputies elected. It indicated that serious difficulties would arise from a reduction in the number of Members of the Dáil. It stated a reduction in the number would affect the proportionality and representative nature of Dáil Éireann. I agree.
Political scientists internationally have examined this matter. In general, Legislatures in small European countries have more Members of Parliament per head of population than in larger countries. Nine countries - Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden - have Members who represent between 15,000 and 35,000 people. There are four countries - Cyprus, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta - in which Members represent fewer than 13,000. If one makes a calculation using the cube route of population size, as political scientists do, one realises that people in Ireland are neither under-represented nor over-represented; one actually arrives at a figure of 166 Members.
The average number of seats per constituency, or what political scientists call the average district magnitude, should be as high as possible. There has been an average of four since 1980, but it should be higher.
In other words, the number of seats per constituency needs to be higher to ensure proportional representation in this House. Political scientists have found that larger constituencies give better proportional election results. I believe, as do many political scientists, that five, six or even seven seats per constituency would give a much more proportional result. PR-STV has been hugely advantageous in limiting the effect of a low number of seats per constituency. A higher number of seats results in greater proportionality, greater representation of smaller parties and Independents and better representation across the political divide.
I refer to the terms of reference of the Constituency Commission, apart from the one which states: "not less than 153 and not more than 160 seats" for Dáil Éireann. They include:
"The breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable. ... Each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas. ... There should be regard to geographic considerations, including significant physical features."
The commission's report breaches a number of these terms of reference. County boundaries have been breached in a number of constituencies, particularly in Tipperary. Both the county boundary and physical infrastructure terms of reference have been breached. In the south of the county, part of Waterford county that skirts the Comeragh Mountains, which has traditionally been in Tipperary South because it is contiguous with south Tipperary and is dependent on Clonmel as its main centre of employment, social activity, health services and education, has been transferred. That area should not have been removed from Tipperary South. There was a more significant breach in Tipperary North, with 11,000 people being transferred to Offaly. This area is contiguous with two of the main towns in the county, Nenagh and Roscrea. People living 500 yards outside both towns are now in the Offaly constituency. However, all of these people look on both towns as their centres for education, health services, employment and social activity. It is clear that the commission, in respect of both Tipperary constituencies and a number of other constituencies, has breached its own terms of reference. Will the Minister seriously examine the position in Tipperary and revert to two three-seater constituencies?
I agree with Deputy Healy that PR is probably one of the most progressive electoral systems in the world; it is much better than the first-past-the-post model used in other countries. I would argue strongly that it be maintained.
The issue is what Members do when they are elected. We are seriously lacking in two areas in trying to change the way we work. The first is the use of the Whips, which Deputy Donnelly addressed, and the second is accountability. There is no accountability to the electorate over the five-year electoral cycle and that is a significant issue for ordinary people. They feel they elect Members on a particular programme or agenda but when they get into government, that all changes. Citizens do not have the ability to recall party representatives, and this must be addressed. In America, where the first-past-the-post system is used, accountability is easier with the use of petitions through which, once a threshold of constituents is reached, a politician can be recalled. This is crucial to the our form of parliamentary democracy, which is not something I support. I favour more power for local government.
Deputy Donnelly referred to the tabling of amendments and Ministers having the sole right to bring in legislation that has the potential to impose a cost on the State. I tabled an amendment to the personal insolvency legislation which provided for the introduction of the Norwegian model, which was a progressive way of dealing with insolvency. It was ruled out of order without debate. What are we here for if we cannot propose and debate alternatives? The amendment was struck off the agenda and we were not allowed to speak on it. That is a failure in our parliamentary system.
Deputy Healy mentioned the boundary issue. The boundaries were changed prior to the 2009 local elections. Previously, the Ballyfermot ward comprised Bluebell, Inchicore, Chapelizod and Ballyfermot, while the Crumlin-Kimmage ward comprised Drimnagh, Walkinstown, Crumlin, Kimmage and Terenure up to Harold's Cross, and the south-west inner city ward comprised Kilmainham, Christchurch and one side of Clanbrassil Street, including the Tenters. These were natural boundaries, but they were changed and 4,000 out of 5,000 households in Drimnagh were unilaterally cut off and transferred to the Bluebell area. The natural boundary for this part of Drimnagh was cut off and people were given a new area office to deal with. The same happened in my area with the boundary for Dublin Bay South and Dublin South Central. An unnatural line has been imposed on Parnell Road, meaning the area along one side of Clogher Road into Rutland Avenue and up Sundrive Road has been taken out and put into Dublin Bay South. It is an unnatural alliance for the community. I have been asked by the people in the area to strenuously point out in the House that these changes should not happen and natural boundaries should be looked at first. These issues should be addressed, and it is a little late to debate them after the fact.
The deal is done. We cannot make any amendments to this legislation, only speak to it which is another serious flaw of this Parliament.
I call on Deputy Olivia Mitchell who I understand is sharing time with Deputy English.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this short Bill. Often it is the shortest Bills that carry the biggest punch. This certainly carries a punch for politicians, although I suspect the public is less than interested in what we are saying on this or indeed in the constituency changes. I welcome the Bill as far as it goes but I do not believe it goes far enough. I welcome the fact it has been introduced in line with commitments in the programme for Government and election promises. It follows up on other Dáil reforms which have taken place such as the reduction in the pay and pensions of Members, the removal of increments, the reduction of expenses and the longer working hours as well as shorter holidays. These appropriate reforms were needed and no one would think otherwise as we cannot ask of others what we will not do ourselves. I refer to them because they seem to have been written out of history entirely. As a result, they are not reported by the media and, for that reason, are not acknowledged by the public which seems to think none of these reforms has taken place.
The reduction in the number of Deputies is not large but it is significant. A referendum would have been needed to go below a total of 153. In a broad reform that may have been desirable. However, when people claim we are over-represented here, they are comparing us with much larger countries such as Great Britain, the United States and Germany where, of necessity, the level of representation per head of population has to be less because of the sheer numbers involved. In a small country, a minimum number of Deputies is needed in order to be able to choose a government and reflect the diversity that exists in society, even if it is in a small country.
This new dispensation will apply from the next general election and must apply before 10 March 2016. Even if we are all alive in 2016, we know for the first time not all of us can be re-elected. We have never gone into an election before where this was the case. Again, I suppose this is only of interest to politicians, however.
Of more interest to me is the question of the number of constituencies recommended. A reduction has been proposed in this legislation but it is so miniscule I do not know why it is there. Maybe it is to facilitate the reduction in Deputies. If we want real political reform, we should be looking at a more radical approach. I realise the Minister is constrained by legislation and a referendum would be needed to go further in reducing the number of Members. However, as we are planning a referendum on the Seanad, why should we have this piecemeal reform? We need to examine fundamental changes in how we implement and administer our democracy. With all that has happened to us, no one believes the multi-seat constituency with all its wasteful competition, its pandering to local and special interests, its clientelism with its need to put short-term interests before long-term considerations has not served us well. Just because the problems have changed, does not mean the system will serve us any better. Real radical reform rather than deciding whether young people should have the vote at 17 should be decided at the constitutional convention.
We should be examining a single-seat model with or without a list system. An electoral system is needed that has a better chance of producing Deputies who can put the broad public national interest before local interest. No matter how loud local or individual groups shout, no matter how worthy their causes may be for local politics, they should not be dictating national politics. Society, as well as the economy and political landscape, have changed. It is increasingly recognised in all areas of life that the old ways are not working and it is time to change to them. It is also time to grasp the nettle of electoral change. While it may be outside the scope of the Bill, with a constitutional convention and a referendum planned on the Seanad, we should be seeking a wider debate on a complete overhaul of the electoral system.
After the next general election, apart from having fewer Deputies and constituencies, we will also have gender quotas for candidates. Smaller numbers will make it more difficult for parties in their individual constituencies to comply with this aspect of the legislation. I have said before that I do not like gender quotas as I believe they demean women. Women levered into the Dáil by virtue of a quota system and, perhaps, supplanting better candidates or individuals who get more votes in selection processes will never command the kind of respect they would get if they were elected on their merits, no matter how deserving they may be, and women tend to be more deserving in general.
Countries which have successfully introduced gender quotas also have list systems. Our approach is shoe-horning gender balance into small constituencies. In my constituency, Dublin South, Fine Gael has three seats out of five. If these were all men, one of the Deputies would have to stand down because otherwise we would have to run five candidates to achieve the quota which would fracture the vote. In Mayo, Fine Gael has four seats. As it is becoming a four-seater, I anticipate with interest how the party will achieve the 30% gender quota unless somebody is driven out of the constituency, which is probably what is planned. In the next election we are going to see many Independent candidates running, candidates from the large political parties who failed to be selected in the normal way through party conventions. The smaller parties will also be badly hit because they will find it extremely difficult to comply with the legislation as many of them will have to run two candidates, split their vote and lessen their chances of getting either elected.
Difficulties will arise with gender quotas in multi-seat constituencies, many only with three seats. An unintended consequence of these gender quotas might be that it will produce a much fractured Dáil which is not their intention. While I recognise moving to a single-seat constituency or a list system cannot be effected by legislation, will the Minister examine it in the longer term in the context of the constitutional convention?
I want to make a final plea for the name of Dublin South. As well as butchering my constituency's boundaries, the name is also to be changed. Rarely does a Dublin constituency's name have any resonance with its citizens. Rarely does it give its citizens a sense of place or belonging. The name of Dublin South, however, actually does mean something to people. Outside of Dublin, citizens can easily identify with their county as a constituency but this does not happen in Dublin. People know what one is talking about when one refers to the constituency of Waterford. In the rare case when we actually get a sense of identity from the name of an urban constituency, it is a shame to let it go. The new name chosen, Dublin-Rathdown, is utterly meaningless. It does not even identify the location of the constituency. At least the other name-changed constituency, Dublin Bay South, identifies where it is even if it does sound like a television soap opera. Maybe in 20 years time Dublin-Rathdown will mean something to people but now no one in Dublin South wants to lose the name.
I know that since the commission was established 20 years or so ago, we have always accepted its recommendations. While I accept the arrangement of the constituencies, I do not think there is any real necessity to slavishly follow the commission's selection of a name.
I am unsure whether much thought went into it but certainly it is not resonating with the people of Dublin South. They simply do not like it and it is something they are reluctant to relinquish. I am reluctant to table an amendment to this effect but perhaps the Minister could indicate in his reply if he would consider an amendment in his name. I know the people of Dublin South, for as long as we have the name, would welcome it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Bill 2012. I wish to reflect on this reforming legislation, which, like the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill discussed last week, represents another indication of fulfilment of a pre-election promise by the coalition Government, one for which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, deserves credit and support.
It is a pity Deputy Donnelly has left the Chamber because I wanted to point out something to him. I listened to his speech earlier on Dáil reform. When I first came to the House I spoke a good deal about Dáil reform as something that was badly needed. In a way it is nice that we are getting a chance to discuss Dáil reform now and that is what some of these Bills are about. Local government reform is being planned and an associated document has been produced. Major changes are planned and a timescale has been set out. Some consultation is still required but major change is under way and this represents reform of local politics. Public sector reform is taking place as is reform of the committee system.
The way we do business in the House is being reformed and this is why I wanted to raise the matter with Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I have been embarrassed on many occasions while sitting here during the time of previous Governments when the Order of Business would take between two and three hours while we were acting like children, shouting and roaring and voting up to ten times simply on the Order of Business or the Dáil schedule for the day. It was lunacy. I do not blame anyone for it but the system was ridiculous and needed to be reformed. I accept that some people may believe that the Order Business is somewhat short now and they do not get a chance to intervene, but at least it has some more order to it than before. We can get on with the real business of the day. The Order of Business now takes half an hour and it is not embarrassing to sit here because generally we deal with our business in a more efficient and proper way before we move on to the rest of the business of the day. This represents proper reform.
There are Friday sittings now and this change gives any Member a chance to bring forward his or her own Bill. One need not use the time on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening but at one time that was the only opportunity one had to bring forward one's own Bill and have it debated. Now that has changed and there is a full Friday sitting of three hours to introduce a Bill. Not everyone turns up on that day and often the Chamber is not full but at least the opportunity is there to present one's own Bill and one's own thoughts, whether one is an Independent, a member of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party. The opportunity is there but it was not always there in the past.
We have established the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, a major reform. I accept it was part of the last IMF deal but it was also something Fine Gael and the Labour Party had called for well in advance of the last election and well in advance of the direction to create it. I strongly believe that if the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council had been in place we might not be in the budgetary position we are in now. Everyone in the country refers to the banking crisis and the bailout and many suggest that this is what caused all our problems but it has not caused all our problems. I have said it before and I will say it again - if we never had a banking crisis we would still have a crisis in this country in respect of the budget and the deficit because the short-term money made from housing and construction during the boom was invested in long-term decisions, but that money was not guaranteed in a long-term sense. I have no doubt that an independent advisory council would have helped us to prevent that from happening. This is the reason we have a deficit of €15 billion or €16 billion this year, which must be addressed in the next three or four budgets. It is not simply because of the banking crisis. People should understand this a little more. It is hard to accept all the cuts and changes in our budgets and services and the extra taxes if we do not fully tease this out. That was the big mistake of the last Government.
Let us check the figures of every Department from 2001 to 2008. Expenditure ballooned completely and utterly out of control and this is the reason we have had tough budgets in recent years and why it will continue in the years ahead. It is not only because of the banking crisis. Dáil reform could have helped to prevent this and thankfully we are getting such reform now with some of these changes.
The Minister is bringing forward other reform relating to the funding of politics. This is badly needed to help repair the damage that has been done to our reputation as politicians. Politics needs these changes. The introduction of gender quotas is another positive development. I realise there are many in the House who are unsure whether we need them or whether they will work, but they are needed as a temporary measure. We may not need them in ten or 20 years time but they could be reviewed at any stage. Anyway, they are needed to try to correct a wrong that exists now. There is an imbalance here and there is no harm in bringing in quotas to try to address this in the short term and to get a fix on it.
There has been a good deal of reform. I accept that more reform is needed with regard to the way the House does its business. I was part of the Opposition for almost ten years and some days I was pulling my hair out because of the way the House worked. The Government has a fair say in how Parliament works but eventually we might get to a situation where the Parliament has more powers. That is probably something we all aspire to.
I agree with the comment on tabling amendments. It is embarrassing for Ministers. There is a serving and a former Minister in the House at the moment. It is embarrassing when one cannot even debate an amendment because it might result in a charge on the State. That is crazy. We should all put our heads together and sort that out. It does not suit anyone. A Minister need not accept a given amendment after the discussion but at least we should be able to discuss it. This happens on Committee Stage but it does not suit anyone and it is something that several people have raised. This too could be addressed as part of the reform. Each step of reform is a step in the right direction and I congratulate the Minister on this Bill, among other things.
The need for the political system to reform and renew itself for the challenges and opportunities of 21st century society has been evident to many for some time but sadly not acted upon. The great global recession of recent years has produced a challenge to the broad political class here and abroad, among many other players, with regard to their role in what happened and their ability to act quickly and decisively to stem the crisis.
Despite the failures and challenges of recent years we should remember that politics is important and it can and does work. We cannot risk a further erosion in the standing of politics and political participation, whether from the perspective of local or national elected representatives, political volunteers or party activists, canvassers or voters. To query the need or role of politics is to query the existence of democracy and the personal freedom it brings, a freedom that many billions in the world do not enjoy today and would gladly die for in order to bring about a better future for their children or grandchildren.
I accept that democracy can be costly and time consuming and that it can lead to slower decisions, but there is no better way. Democracy is fair and right. It may not be the quickest system of governance but it is fair and right. Good politics practised by well-intentioned politicians has brought many enduring achievements in the country which will last long after newspapers gather dust and Internet discussion boards go out of date. Among these, peace in the North and increased contact between both parties on this island and between Britain and Ireland stands out. Many former taoisigh and Ministers from many parties are to thank for nurturing that process over 30 years. The common sense of John A. Costello and Seán Lemass in taking on board the recommendations of a young T. K. Whitaker to reform and open up our economy to Europe and the world in the bleak 1950s shows that political vision and decisions are important and that power does not always rest in the permanent Civil Service, as cynics of politics often claim. The work of the United Nations and the European Union, institutions dreamt up and operated by politicians, has prevented a third global war for more than 60 years. Even with many regional conflicts causing concern this is noteworthy and not often given the recognition it deserves.
It is important to reflect on why politics matters in the present, past and future. The education of politics is something we need to get to. Electoral reform is something we tend to discuss but we need to bring the people with us. I welcome the move to consider lowering the voting age but there are people of all ages who do not participate in politics because they do not always grasp it. Before I became a county councillor I had no idea what politics was about or what local councillors did. I had thought they were people who wrote in newspapers during the week, but in fact they have a very important role. We also have a role to educate people on the system of local government, national government and European politics and government. We need to do so at every opportunity. We could use our libraries or post offices to get information out to people about how it all works. If one understands the workings then one can appreciate why tough decisions are made sometimes but many people do not always grasp what is behind decision-making. I have said as much in opposition and I say it again in government. We have a duty to inform people how the system works and to bring them with us.
I am pleased the Government is following through on its commitment in the programme for Government to bring about a new politics. We cannot ask the public or private sectors to be leaner, meaner, more efficient and less costly but not practise what we preach. This is not easy but change is never easy. It will be painful for some but many of the changes brought on by the great global recession have been tough on many people and families, including many in my area. There are people in need in all counties.
The reduction of the number of Members from 166 to 158 is to be welcomed. It represents a sensible compromise between the current system and the calls for a more radical cut in the numbers of the House. The primary purpose of the Dáil is to elect from among its Members a Taoiseach, who will proceed to form a Government from among the Members, with the option of two Senators entering Cabinet as well.
That is the current system under the Constitution. Any fundamental change to the manner in which we select a Taoiseach and Cabinet would have to be addressed in the Constitution by way of a referendum of the people. We must, therefore, work within the system we have. It is important that any future Taoiseach, in forming a Cabinet, have as wide a choice as possible of people in terms of talent, experience, age, gender and geography. A reduction from 166 to 158 Members, although not as radical as some would have hoped for or suggested, is a good compromise when viewed in this context and in the light of the likelihood of a referendum on the future of the Seanad. I admit that in the past I was one of a number of people who called for a greater cut in the number of Deputies. However, following a discussion I had a number of months ago with a wise man, whom I will not name, I now acknowledge the necessity for a critical mass in this House. The formation of a Government and selection of Ministers and Ministers of State and an Opposition require that a particular number be elected to this House. It may sound great to say there should be only 50, 60 or 90 Members, but without sufficient numbers, we would not be able to select the people needed to do the job. I did not always believe that was true, but I have now come around to believing it.
Deputy Stephen Donnelly stated politics did not work. However, there have been improvements, with more to follow. People need to be more honest in their politics; there needs to be less spin and they should get down to the nitty gritty. The committees are the best place to tease out issues, at budget and other times, with Ministers. The Ministers who have appeared before the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation have always be open to proper discussion, leaving aside officialdom, and teasing out and often accepting amendments. That is what we need. In fairness, Ministers in the previous Government were also willing to take on board amendments. I am glad we have moved on to a position where Ministers actually make decisions. I recall when sitting on the Opposition benches hearing that owing to partnership talks, decisions on this, that or the other could not be made. At least, now under the Government we have real reform, with Ministers making decisions and being held accountable for what they do. That is reform.
Fianna Fáil supports the Bill. The boundary commission has been a feature of the system since before I was elected a Member of this House, which was not today or yesterday. It is fair to say no Government of any persuasion has ever sought to interfere with the recommendations of a boundary commission, which is good. With all due respect to all sides of the House, if politicians were to start interfering with independent reports, particularly on the drawing of constituency boundaries, we would be at the beginning of a slippery slope.
Following the previous revision in 2008, a number of local representatives in my area who were members of the Minister, Deputy Hogan's, party, Fine Gael, suggested to the public press that the commission had been interfered with in some way by the then Government. That was a gross libelling of members of the commission. The commission has never been influenced one way or the other by a Government. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support that assertion. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. With the Acting Chairman's indulgence, I will give the House the benefit of my experience.
There have been seven or eight constituency revisions during my time as a Member of the House, all of which, bar one, were introduced by a Fianna Fáil or Fianna Fáil-led Government. Only one was introduced by a Fine Gael-led Government. They all had one thing in common, namely, they led to a reduction in the area of my core vote. On each occasion I lost a loyal cohort of voters and had to work immeasurably harder in the remainder of the constituency to make up for that loss. The apogee of that process came in the famous constituency revision following the 2007 general election which resulted in my constituency being reduced from a five to four seat constituency and the removal of the remaining part of my home area, an area in which I had received 4,500 first preferences in the preceding election. That was at a time when Fianna Fáil was in power and I was a member of the Cabinet. It was not a very palatable change, but there was little I could do about it and I would not have sought to do anything about it either. I recall being at the Cabinet table when the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government announced that the constituency commission report was out. I did not see the report until several hours after the Cabinet meeting had concluded.
The revision being proposed by the Minister in this legislation is the first since I became a Member of the House that actually benefits me in terms of my being able to represent much of my home area again. When I first saw the report, I was so overcome by excitement and exhilaration that I thought I might vote for Fine Gael in the next general election. Thankfully, that madness passed as quickly as it had come on me.
On the procedure to be used generally, the Minister will know that there are criteria set out in the original legislation to which the commission must adhere, including in considering county boundaries, physical features etc.. I know it is extremely difficult for a commission to adhere to these criteria based on changes in population, given the significant shifts during the past two decades. I may be wrong but recent revisions appeared to breach rather than observe these criteria. Perhaps the Minister or his officials might consider examining whether the basic legislation could be amended to ensure these criteria would be taken seriously. They serve a purpose and the commission is supposed to adhere to them.
The shape of constituencies is only one part of the overall constitutional jigsaw. The reality - any objective outside observer would have to admit this - is that the Irish political system is not fit for purpose. I recall saying this many years ago when giving an interview to a national newspaper. It was more fit for purpose then than it is now. I recall being called in by the then Government Chief Whip - Fianna Fáil was in government at the time - and being admonished and having my knuckles wrapped for saying it. I also recall being given the cold shoulder by some because in their view I had let down the club. If it was true then, it is even more true now. I could spend from now until midnight outlining the deficiencies of the system.
The fundamental fault lies in the imbalance between the Executive and the Houses of the Oireachtas. It cannot be truthfully said both Houses of the Oireachtas are in a position to hold the Executive to account properly and that has been the case for many years. It has probably been the case since the inception of the State. The only time during my long career that I saw the Oireachtas have power was when a Government was on its last legs and trying to appease the Oireachtas because it had lost its majority and was struggling to buy time. Apart from such a scenario, it is one-way traffic.
I studied with some respect the Fine Gael and Labour Party election manifestos on which they fought the last general election. Having done so, I thought a constitutional revolution was on the way. Following the election, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government was formed and the two parties sat down to draw up a programme for Government. That document contains words such as "radical" and "fundamental" and phrases such as "dragging the Dáil into the 21st century" and "significant revamping". I suppose it was written in the first flush of enthusiasm. While I have noted a resiling from some of the manifesto commitments, to which I will return, the enthusiasm remains.
While I recognise that there have been some changes, if one looks at the performance to date measured against the fine words, one sees that terms like "radical", "fundamental" and "significant" are inappropriate. Deputy English and others referred to the reduction in the membership of Dáil Éireann. The Fine Gael manifesto was very specific and stated that 20 seats would go but only eight went. The Minister has said that if he wanted to get rid of any more seats he would have to hold a constitutional referendum because of the 30,000 per member rule. We have had many constitutional referenda and the Minister could have held one during the Government's honeymoon period when a proposal to the people that we reduce the number of Deputies would have been passed with no difficulty. I welcome the idea of fewer Deputies and, indeed, I have seen a Private Member's Bill drawn up by Members of the Minister's own party which seeks to reduce the number of Deputies to 100 and to create single-seat constituencies. Whatever about the latter part of that proposal, I find the first part very acceptable. While a reduction from 166 to 158 is welcome and is some form of progress, it is hardly radical or fundamental.
Deputy O'Dea had 14 years to make progress.
I recognise that but the Government made promises and was elected on the basis of those promises.
The centrepiece or jewel in the crown of the Government's proposed constitutional reforms was the abolition of the Seanad. The programme for Government states that the Government will "prioritise" this measure but the Government's understanding of "prioritise" is a bit funny, given that two years have passed and nothing has been done. The Taoiseach has said that Ireland is about to take over the Presidency of the EU and the Government will not have time for this sort of referendum for the next six months and I accept that. However, in six month's time, when Ireland finishes its stint, two and half years will have passed from the time the Government came to office. That is half the constitutional lifetime of the Government before we even start and I am willing to bet it will be much more - perhaps two thirds - of the actual lifetime of this Government, if one takes the average life of a Government in Ireland. At that point, we will not even have started the process.
How much is the Deputy willing to bet on that?
Another difficulty arises as we go further into the life of this Government. I canvassed for the recent children's referendum and was one of very few Deputies who did so. I went out and knocked on doors because I strongly believed in it. Towards the end of the campaign, however, I was seriously worried that the referendum would not be passed because so many people told me they would be voting "No", not on the merits or demerits of the case but because they wanted to have a crack at the Government. It seems to me that the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be for the Government to get any referendum passed, even one which proposes to abolish the Seanad.
Various commitments were also made on Oireachtas committees. The Taoiseach, when in opposition, never ceased to talk about "powerful committees", which he asserted was the mechanism through which the Executive could be held to account. I ask the Minister, quite sincerely, where are the powerful committees? What has changed? The centrepiece of committee reform was to be something called the investigations, oversight and petitions committee but that, unfortunately, was stillborn because the people rejected the referendum proposal on Oireachtas powers. That proposal was badly botched and one of the main reasons it was rejected - I know the Minister will not agree with me but he knows in his heart I am right - was because of the overbearing arrogance of some Ministers in response to the slightest criticism, particularly-----
Maybe it was rejected because the Deputy did not go out canvassing for it. Deputy O'Dea should have gone canvassing.
I am not referring to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government but to the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Where are we with these powerful committees that were supposed to solve the problem of the imbalance in power between the Executive and the Oireachtas? We now have fewer committees than before and they are more starved of cash than ever. In reality, nothing at all has changed. If what has happened to the committees is a measure of the Government's commitment to address the imbalance between the Oireachtas and the Executive, then it can only be described as a breathtaking failure.
We were also promised reform on parliamentary questions but again, nothing has changed. There is a new a rule that Members can appeal to the Ceann Comhairle if they feel a Minister is not giving them the proper information but that is a charade and a fig leaf. It has been rarely invoked and even more rarely successful. In fact, I do not think it has been successful at all and I would love to hear of even one example of it working. Essentially, nothing has changed in this area either.
We were promised a 50% increase in sitting hours and got a 25% increase. One might say that is half a loaf which is better than no bread but what does the 25% increase consist of? It consists of Friday sittings, when there are no votes, no questions to Ministers and no real parliamentary activity taking place. It is a parody and a mockery of reform.
In terms of topical issues, the time has changed, admittedly. Instead of being taken at 8.30 p.m., they are taken earlier in the day which could count as a change. A few additional minutes have been given to topical issues, which also counts as a change, I suppose. However, I do not see any real difference between the way topical issues are dealt with now and the old Adjournment debates. They amount to a staid, Civil Service-scripted encounter between the Opposition Member and the Minister. We had hoped, at the very least, that one valid criticism the Minister's party made of the previous Government would be addressed. During the old Adjournment debates there would be three or four Adjournment matters and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government might take the first one, for example. He would then sit there and read out the scripts in reply to the other matters raised. Unfortunately, that practice has crept in again. Unrelated Ministers come into the House and talk about things they patently know very little about. I do not have to dig into the realms of parliamentary history to find an example of this. There was an example in the House today only an hour and a half ago. The Chief Whip, Deputy Kehoe, was dealing with topical issues and finished up dealing with a topical issue about the death of Father Niall Molloy. He read his script and when a few questions were put to him, he went back and read part of the script again. That is not real reform in any true sense of the word.
I recall some of the lofty phrases from the Opposition benches during the previous Administration about the overuse of the guillotine. I do not have time to read some of the comments made into the record but one would be forgiven for thinking that the use of the guillotine by the last Government was as damaging as the machine used in late 19th century France. We were led to believe that the guillotine would only be used in the most extreme circumstances by the current Government, but what has happened? Ten items of legislation have been guillotined already, including things like the Social Welfare Bill, when the basic income of hundreds of thousands of people was reduced. That Bill was simply guillotined through the House. I was taken in by the language and genuinely thought that the use of the guillotine would change. Again, I am doomed to disappointment because the guillotine is now used as casually by this Government as it was by the Jacobeans in France.
Other promises remain untouched, unspoken and seem to have disappeared into some sort of Bermuda triangle of lethargy. Unvouched expenses are still a feature of this Administration. I do not see anything on the promise of a relaxation of the rules on Cabinet confidentiality. I do not know what happened to the famous Constitution day. I know about Bastille Day but I do not know anything about Constitution day, which the Taoiseach was supposed to introduce.
Looking at the wider picture, we are all familiar with the long-running saga of the Minister's report cards. The Taoiseach promised faithfully that he would introduce a system of report cards for Ministers. On "The Late Late Show" he stated: "I am starting the report cards already." At Christmas 2011, he promised to keep his Minister's noses to the grindstone by publishing a report on their performance. Recently, however, his spokesman admitted that there would be no report cards.
That is the saga of the report cards.
The constitutional convention was, again, a good idea in principle but an empty vessel in reality. Deputies on all sides have called for electoral reform but the convention will not be considering this area during the lifetime of this Government. It is considering such monumental matters as whether the President should serve for a term of five years or seven years. Let us be blunt - who cares?
The cost of ministerial cars was supposed to have been halved but I think it has doubled. The issue of appointments to State boards is interesting because a lot of people voted for the parties currently in government on the basis that they would make the appointment process transparent and clean. What happened every time there was a vacancy on a State board?
We have made very good appointments.
We did this, and we were wrong to do so, but the Government was elected on a promise of reform. Every time there is a vacancy anybody with a hint of a connection to anybody other than Fine Gael or the Labour Party might as well go home. We heard a lot about judicial appointments. Six of the last seven judicial appointments were closely associated with a certain political party.
They are excellent people.
I could rehearse their names and connections but I do not like to embarrass people who are not here to defend themselves.
Sometimes doing nothing at all is better than box ticking or making a pretence at fulfilling electoral promises. In my naivety I was taken in by some of these promises.
Did the Deputy give the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, his No. 1?
I was dubious about the Government's commitments on job creation and the economy - sadly my fears in that regard have been realised - but I thought that on the question of constitutional reform it would be a success. What we find, however, is a flop. Unintentionally the Government may have brought forward the day when we see these much needed reforms because the members of the public have become cynical and sick of broken promises. They were promised fundamental change but all they see are box ticking exercises. The people of this country will force the pace because the disconnect between the political system and the public is enormous. I do not think the people will put up with that for much longer.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which will have a dramatic effect on the electoral hinterlands across Ireland. As part of this Government's programme of political reform the Bill provides, for the first time since 1980, a reduction in the number of Members of this House. A number of commentators have argued that it will have little impact but I believe a further reduction in the number of Deputies will have a greater impact on the western seaboard than on the east due to the population imbalance in the country. The Bill proposes to reduce the number of Deputies from 166 to 158. There will be 40 constituencies, of which 11 will have five seats, 16 will have four seats and 13 will have three seats.
The loss of eight Deputies comes largely from the west, including counties Cavan, Mayo, Donegal and Kerry. Population should always be the basis for determining the allocation of Dáil seats but it is clear that certain constituencies will be formed from large geographic areas. I welcome the proposal to reunite County Leitrim politically in the new Sligo-Leitrim constituency, which will comprise counties Sligo and Leitrim alongside west County Cavan and parts of south County Donegal. County Leitrim was divided on two occasions since 2007, which were cruel blows to a county with a population of 30,000. The divisions deprived the county of a full range of candidates as parties sought to achieve a particular result. I found that many people in the county grew disillusioned with politics. The people of Drumshanbo were included with County Roscommon for the 2007 election only to be moved to County Sligo in 2011. This was unfair and anti-democratic. The decision of the electoral commission to propose the reunification of County Leitrim has received widespread approval and results in a good day for the people of the county.
The people of west County Cavan are disappointed because they are now separated from the rest of the county. I am concerned that the distances from Bundoran to Roosky and Ballina to Ballyconnell are 90 km and 127 km, respectively, which is a huge distance to cover. That is the downside of reduced representation in the north west and west.
The terms of reference for the commission will see a reduction of 29 in the number of county council members in counties Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Roscommon and Longford. This equates to a reduction of 25% in political representation, not counting the proposed abolition of six town councils and one borough council. When I hear so-called experts demanding further reductions in political representation I ask them to study the impact of such reductions on parts of Ireland with relatively sparse populations.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is implementing reform in this Bill and through his proposals to reform local government. Given that the country continues to run a current deficit of almost €1 billion per month it is incumbent on us to reduce our cost base in every sector, including this House. Reducing the number of Deputies was a commitment in the programme for Government, with the objective of reducing the cost and size of government. Savings of approximately €2.2 million are forecast as a result of this reduction. It is also estimated that a further €420 million will be saved through the putting people first proposals which were recently launched by the Minister. Much of this saving will be achieved through fewer committees and members across a broad range of political representatives.
The legislative framework for the next general election will be different to that for previous elections due to the proposed reduction in the number of Deputies and the requirement in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 that parties must ensure at least 30% of their candidates are women if they are to receive State funding. However, with a reduced number of Deputies there may in fact be fewer women Members. I have no doubt there will be more female candidates but the outcome remains to be seen.
The Bill proposes to reduce the number of three-seat constituencies to 13, the lowest in the history of the State. It will be interesting to see the political impact of that reduction. When the current 166 Dáil seats were provided for in 1980 the population of the State was 36% smaller. In real terms this means the number of seats is being reduced by eight. Irish people engage more with their local representatives than in other democracies in western Europe. This engagement allows them to discuss the national and international issues of the day and makes for better engagement between the people and the Oireachtas. A further reduction in the number of Deputies would be detrimental to that close relationship.
The Government proposes to put the future of the Seanad to the people in a referendum late next year. If the people agree to abolish the Seanad, Leinster House will have 68 fewer politicians after the 2016 election and there will be 700 fewer councillors. This Government's intention to introduce reform can be clearly seen in the reduction in representation. The much maligned Minister, Deputy Hogan, is to the forefront of this process. He is the first Minister in many years brave enough to reduce the number of politicians in Ireland.
Rather than continually highlighting what they see as mistakes, his detractors should acknowledge his efforts in both the central and local government area to reduce numbers and introduce real reform. I commend the Bill to the House.