Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill is to fulfil the programme for Government commitment to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. It will be held in the autumn. The Government also intends to hold a referendum on the establishment of a court of civil appeal on the same day and possibly other issues arising from the early reports of the Constitutional Convention.
As the Government is proposing this referendum, it is appropriate that I, as Taoiseach, should outline the reasons why we are doing so. In July 2009, at the MacGill Summer School, I announced that Fine Gael was embarking on a root and branch analysis of the political system. As part of that analysis, we looked in detail at the role of the Seanad and came to the clear conclusion that reforming it was not realistic or achievable. The key difficulty with all of the proposals for reform is that they take the existence of the Seanad, with its widely-acknowledged flaws, as a given. It would either remain an unrepresentative elitist composition or a directly elected entity that would seek to duplicate the Dáil.
Instead, the correct approach is to start by asking whether we need a second House at all. I do not believe we do. For 75 years political insiders have discussed and debated Seanad reform. Ten reports on reform of the second House have been published since it was established in 1938, yet not a single one has been implemented.
Many of those who ignored Seanad and Dáil reform when in power have argued vigorously against the holding of a referendum, yet it is the Constitution that declares the people are sovereign. What could be more appropriate or more democratic than asking the people to decide on the future of the Seanad following 75 years of inaction by the political establishment?
The proposed abolition of the Seanad is part of the Government's comprehensive programme of political reform. This is a programme that will establish a new politics in our Republic - one that is more accountable, more democratic and more responsive. It is time to create a new political system that will put people's faith and hope back into Irish politics. This Government's proposals to modernise the political system with major reform of the Dáil and abolition of the Seanad, the most radical reform of local government in 100 years and the establishment of a Constitutional Convention to review the country's supreme law represent the biggest package of political reform since the passing of the Constitution in 1937. We have cut the number of Deputies and increased the number of Dáil sitting days. We have reduced the pay and allowances of all politicians. We have halved the cost of ministerial transport. We are already radically reforming local government, reducing the number of local authorities from 114 to 31 and the number of councillors from 1,600 to 950. However, the truth is that we still have too many politicians in Ireland. When combined with a reduction of eight in the number of Deputies, the abolition of the Seanad will enable this country to cut the number of public representatives by almost one-third. It has been estimated that abolition will save up to €20 million per annum over time on the running costs of the Oireachtas. I make no apology for seeking to cut the cost of politics in Ireland. There is something fundamentally wrong with politicians asking others to change - asking the citizens of this country to make real sacrifices - and not doing the same ourselves. The reason Ireland has significantly more politicians than other small countries is very simple: we have a second House. Five European countries have approximately the same population as Ireland, between 4 million and 6 million. These are Denmark, Finland, Norway, Croatia and Slovakia. None of them has a Senate.
No Government would seek to abolish a House of Parliament simply to reduce the number of politicians. We are in favour of abolition because the Seanad has not worked. It is an outdated institution that owes more to 1930s vocationalist ideas than it does to modern constitutional thinking. The theory on which the Seanad is based is no longer relevant and its elitist composition does not reflect modern Irish society. Parliamentary democracy has moved on around the world. Maintaining a House of Parliament in which 43 Members are elected by a tiny electorate, with six elected by an incomplete third-level electorate and 11 nominated by the Taoiseach of the day, is simply not defensible.
The following critique of the Seanad summarises the case for its abolition very well:
Much of the rationale for the inclusion of the Seanad in Bunreacht na hÉireann has ceased to be relevant over time. Serious questions must be asked about the continued role of an entity which is still struggling to justify its existence after three-quarters of a century.
The critique also states: "It is important to note that second chambers are not an essential part of parliamentary democracy." If these words sound familiar to the Members, they should. This damning critique of the Seanad was contained in Fianna Fáil's election manifesto of 2011. Supporters of Seanad retention are deeply divided about the kind of reformed Seanad they want. Some want it to be an elected second Dáil and others want it to be a House of experts, while others want some form of citizens' assembly. It is precisely this lack of consensus which means that reform has never happened and never will happen. The experience of Canada suggests that the "no reform" option is the most likely outcome. There have been more than 20 major proposals for constitutional Senate reform in Canada since the early 1970s and all have failed.
The contention that a second House is crucial to democracy is simply untrue. All of the Scandinavian countries have abolished their second Houses. These countries have some of the most accountable and effective political systems in the world. Other small successful countries, such as New Zealand, have shown that it is perfectly possible to establish checks and balances within a single-chamber, unicameral Parliament. Most of the new nations in central and eastern Europe have also decided that they do not need a Senate. If a second House is so central to democracy, as some would maintain, why have so many of these emerging democracies decided to do without one? In a strong, long-established parliamentary democracy such as ours, a second Chamber is even less of a requirement.
The correct approach is to start by asking whether we need a second House. The Government believes that a second Chamber is no more necessary here in Ireland than it is in other small unitary states. We believe that a reformed Dáil can give this country a fit-for-purpose Parliament - one that fully meets the needs of a 21st-century democracy. As I said, we have started the process of real Dáil reform. Much more is obviously needed. The Government believes that, in tandem with the abolition of the Seanad, further change is required to strengthen the role of the Dáil. First, we will reform the way in which the Dáil deals with legislation. Legislation will first be submitted to the relevant Dáil committee in heads of Bill format. This means that suggestions for changes in legislation can be considered and any key flaws identified before the full legislation is even published. To allow for extra consideration and scrutiny of legislation in the Dáil, a new schedule will increase the time allocated to legislation. I expect that four-day sittings will become the weekly norm. Each Bill will be referred back to the committee that originally considered it for a final examination. Furthermore, a Minister will have to revert to the relevant Dáil committee within 12 months of the enactment of a Bill to review and discuss its functioning and effectiveness. This new legislative process will ensure, therefore, that legislation is fully considered before, during and after its enactment. We will empower committees to carry out investigations and inquiries into matters of major public importance. The legislation to give effect to this has recently been published.
Furthermore, we propose to radically overhaul the committee system in the Dáil. A total of 14 Dáil committees will be established. Each committee will have 12 members and will be able to invite external experts to provide specialist input into its work. The Government has been impressed by how the expert panel has contributed to the work of the Constitutional Convention and will examine how a similar type of panel could contribute to the work of Dáil committees. We also believe that the independence of committees should be strengthened. We will, therefore, introduce the d'Hondt system to distribute chairs of key committees on a proportional and equitable basis. If this is approved by the people, the Government and I are convinced that we will create a better, more effective political system with better accountability, better oversight and deeper scrutiny of legislation.
I will say a few words about the Bill itself. The Bill provides that Seanad Éireann will be abolished from midnight on the day immediately before the day on which Dáil Éireann first meets after the next general election, and that from abolition day the Oireachtas will consist of the President and Dáil Éireann only. Articles 18 and 19 of the Constitution, which deal with the composition of the Seanad, elections and nominations to it, etc., will be deleted, and the Bill provides that no general election to the Seanad will take place after the next dissolution of the Dáil. As a consequence of abolishing the Seanad, it will be necessary to amend or delete all articles in the Constitution that either relate directly to the functions of the Seanad or are premised on the existence of that House. Many of these changes are purely technical. They will be made to articles that deal primarily with matters that are not directly related to the powers or functions of the Seanad.
Other references in the Constitution do relate to the functions of the Seanad and I will say a few words about these. The function that may come first in people's minds is the Seanad's legislative role. As a consequence of abolishing the Seanad, the articles in the Constitution relating to the Oireachtas legislative process will have to be amended or, where appropriate, deleted.
Articles 20, 21, 23 and 24, which deal with the relationship between the Dáil and Seanad with regard to the passage of legislation through the Houses, will be deleted as they will no longer be needed in a unicameral parliament.
Article 20 deals with the initiation of Bills in either House and the Seanad's power to amend Bills while Article 21 limits the Seanad's powers as regards Money Bills and the time within which it must consider them. Article 23 deals mainly with the time for the Seanad to consider other non-Money Bills while Article 24 provides that where the Taoiseach certifies that in the Government's opinion a Bill is immediately necessary to preserve public peace and security in an emergency, the Seanad's time for considering the Bill can be shortened by a resolution of the Dáil if the President so agrees.
As well as deleting these articles, it will be necessary to amend Article 22 which deals with Money Bills. Article 22 defines a Money Bill and provides a mechanism to resolve a dispute between the Dáil and Seanad on whether a Bill is a Money Bill. The Article 22 procedure relates only to whether a Bill is a Money Bill: it is not concerned with the merits or otherwise of the Bill. The reason it is proposed to retain and amend this article is because under the Constitution the President cannot refer a Money Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. Nevertheless, to provide clarity on whether a Bill is a Money Bill in the context of the possibility of a reference to the Supreme Court by a citizen, there is a need to retain an Article 22 procedure. The Bill, therefore, proposes that the Ceann Comhairle's certificate that a Bill is a Money Bill shall be final and conclusive unless the Dáil resolves that it is not a Money Bill. The Article 22 mechanism has never been used.
The Bill proposes to delete Article 27 of the Constitution. This article provides for the possibility of a petition from a majority of the members of Seanad Éireann and at least one third of the members of Dáil Éireann to the President to refer a Bill to the people on the grounds that it "contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained." The President must consult the Council of State before deciding whether to agree to the petition. This procedure does not apply to Money Bills or to Bills to amend the Constitution. It applies only to Bills which are deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas under Article 23 of the Constitution. This means that it applies only to a Bill that is not passed or rejected by the Seanad within 90 days or that is passed by that House with amendments that are not agreed by the Dáil. Also, for Article 27 to apply, the Dáil must have passed a resolution to deem the Bill to have been passed by both Houses. Essentially, Article 27 provides a way of resolving a dispute between the two Houses on a legislative matter. Once the Seanad has been abolished there will no longer be a need for this provision and consequently the Bill proposes its deletion. The Article 27 procedure has never been used.
I want now to deal with a number of items that while not relating directly to Bills that come before the Seanad involve the Seanad in actions relating to legislation or measures proposed by the Government. Article 28.3 provides immunity from challenge on constitutional grounds of any law, other than one imposing the death penalty, that is expressed to be for the purpose of securing the public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war or around rebellion. The article provides that the term "time of war" includes a time when there is an armed conflict in which the State is not a participant but where each House of the Oireachtas has resolved that arising out of the armed conflict a national emergency exists affecting the vital interests of the State. The article also provides that the expression "time of war or armed rebellion" includes such time after the end of the war, armed conflict or rebellion, as may elapse until each of the Houses of the Oireachtas has resolved that the national emergency has ended. The powers in this article for each House will, with the abolition of the Seanad, necessarily reside in the Dáil.
Articles 29.4.7° and 29.4.8° relate to the exercise by the State of certain powers conferred on the State under certain provisions of the Treaty of Lisbon. The State may exercise these powers only with the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Article 29.4.7° concerns the exercise by the State of options in relation to enhanced co-operation, Schengen and the position of Ireland and the UK on freedom, security and justice matters. Article 29.4.8° relates to the State proposing to agree to authorise the Council to act other than by unanimity, to agree to authorise the adoption of the ordinary legislative procedure or to agree to certain decisions in the area of judicial co-operation in criminal matters. The abolition of the Seanad will mean that the power of approval will reside in the Dáil alone. I believe it is far more satisfactory that it will be for a democratically-elected House to make approval decisions in this area.
I will now address the role of the Seanad in the procedures laid down in the Constitution for the removal of certain officeholders. In the case of the impeachment of a President, abolition of the Seanad will remove the current arrangement whereby the House that prefers a charge of stated misbehaviour against the President cannot be the House that investigates that charge. To ensure the highest level of protection for the independence of the Office of President, the Government has carefully considered this procedure and is proposing in the Bill that a resolution to prefer a charge against the President, and if an investigation sustains that charge, a resolution to remove the President must each be passed by four fifths of the total membership of the Dáil. The current requirement in this regard is two thirds of the total membership of the Dáil.
In the case of impeachment of the Comptroller and Auditor General and members of the Judiciary, the Government has also considered the procedure in the Constitution for removal of the Comptroller and Auditor General - Article 33 - and of Supreme and High Court Judges under Article 35. The removal of the Comptroller and Auditor General requires a resolution not only of the Dáil but also of the Seanad. While no Comptroller and Auditor General has ever been removed from office, the abolition of the Seanad raises the question of whether some additional safeguard should be provided for the independence of that office. The independence of the Judiciary is central to our system of government and the constitutional balance of powers. This is reflected in the fact that, as in the case of the Comptroller and Auditor General, a resolution to remove from office a judge of the Supreme or High Court must be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government is eager to ensure continued independence for these offices. Accordingly, it is proposed that two thirds of the total membership of the Dáil be required to remove either the Comptroller and Auditor General or a judge of the Supreme or High Court.
The Bill also proposes that, following abolition of the Seanad, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will replace the Cathaoirleach on the Presidential Commission under Article 14. Abolition of the Seanad would reduce parliamentary representation on the Presidential Commission to one member and would reduce membership of the commission to two. To maintain the current constitutional balance between parliamentarians and the Judiciary on the commission, it is proposed that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the Dáil, given that the office is already mentioned in this article, will replace the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad as a member of the commission. It is also necessary to designate substitutes should they be unavailable. Accordingly, the Bill provides that Dáil Éireann shall, as soon as may be after it reassembles following a general election, nominate two members to act as substitutes for the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle should either or both be unable to act on the commission. In keeping with the approach proposed in relation to the membership of the Presidential Commission, the Bill proposes that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle should replace the Cathaoirleach on the Council of State. Article 31 will be amended accordingly.
Turning to other matters, the Bill proposes to amend Article 12.4 of the Constitution to provide that no fewer than 14 serving members of Dáil Éireann may nominate a candidate for President. Currently, a nomination under this provision requires no fewer than 20 members of both Houses.
This reduction is proposed in the light of the proposal to abolish the Seanad, as well as the planned reduction in the number of Deputies after the next general election. The combined effect of these changes will be to reduce the overall number of Members of the Oireachtas from 226 to 158. The reduction proposed in the Bill, therefore, is designed to retain the existing ratio between the overall number of Members eligible to nominate a presidential candidate and the number of nominations required to secure a nomination.
With the other necessary provisions arising from the amendment of the Constitution, the Bill also provides for the insertion of a new Article 50A to cater for the transitional arrangements that will be necessary in the move from a bicameral to a unicameral parliamentary system. It provides that any Bill not passed or deemed to be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before abolition of the Seanad will be deemed to have lapsed. Any such Bill may, however, be introduced or reintroduced in Dáil Éireann following its reassembly after the general election. It also provides that any Bill passed or deemed to be passed by both Houses but which has not been enacted before the abolition of the Seanad can complete the process of signing and promulgation into law. The Bill also provides that any procedure to remove the President, the Comptroller and Auditor General or a judge of the Supreme or the High Court or of any new court not completed prior to abolition of the Seanad will lapse. Any such procedure can be initiated again under the new provisions of the Constitution set out in the Bill. If, however, in relation to the removal of the Comptroller and Auditor General or a judge of the Supreme or the High Court, the only remaining procedure is for the President to act on foot of resolutions from both Houses, the President may complete that procedure.
I should end this part of my remarks by drawing the attention of the House to a minor constitutional curiosity. The transitory provisions set out in Articles 51 to 63, inclusive, of the Constitution provided for the transition between the Irish Free State and the new State created by the 1937 Constitution. While the transitory provisions, as they themselves require, are not published in official texts of the Constitution, the Bill proposes to delete two of them. Article 53 deals with the election and assembly of Seanad Éireann after the coming into operation of the 1937 Constitution. Article 55 dealt with the composition of the Oireachtas and the signing and promulgation of Bills passed by it in the period between the coming into operation of the Constitution and the entry into office of the President. It provided for the signing of Bills by the Presidential Commission during that period. Both articles will now be deleted.
The people have demanded a new politics that is leaner, more responsive and more democratic. They want a politics that can truly meet the needs and demands of 21st century Ireland. In putting forward the Bill I recognise that it is the people who will have the final say on the future of Seanad Éireann and major political reform.