Deputies Thomas P. Broughan and Denis Naughten were sharing a speaking slot. I call Deputy Denis Naughten.
Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It gives us the opportunity to debate the relevance of the Upper House in this Parliament. It needs to be remembered that the abolition of the Seanad was a pre-election commitment given by the Fine Gael Party in advance of the general election. It is welcome that the legislation has been brought before us to allow the people to make a decision on it. It is a pity that the Government did not comply with all of the pre-election promises it made. As the Minister will be aware, a clear promise in regard to Roscommon County Hospital was given to the people of County Roscommon by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health, who was happy to put it in writing, yet that promise was ignored very soon after the election. Another commitment was given in respect of Portiuncula hospital, also in writing, and since it was given the accident and emergency department in the hospital has lost the capacity to treat stroke patients. Some pre-election promises are sacrosanct, yet others seem to be slipping by the wayside.
The Government gave a commitment to abolish the Seanad and reduce the size of the Dáil, but it did not give a commitment before the general election to reduce the Cabinet to a group of four, as is the case. Instead of the abolishing the Seanad, it should be reformed. It needs to be radically reformed and have a smaller number of Members; it should be reformed rather than abolished.
The Government is proposing as an alternative to the Seanad the establishment of a new committee which is being described, in its own circles, as a mini-Seanad, with outside experts, an unelected body, an unaccountable arm of government. I cannot see where the reform is taking place when we are moving decisions further away from, rather than closer to, the people.
The Seanad should be reformed by directly electing its Members at the time of the European Parliament elections, on the Euro constituency geographical split, using a list system and it should become a European chamber. Minister after Minister will come into this House and tell us that decisions are being taken at European level and that the European Union is forcing us to do A, B and C, but the reality is that Ministers or their predecessors on the Council of Ministers have signed up to proposals and from now on the Oireachtas will have the opportunity to question them, but it has ignored them. The difficulty is that the vast majority of European legislation is rubber-stamped through the committee system. We should scrutinise effectively European proposals and the Seanad should become the tool to do this. We should also utilise the red and yellow card system that we have been given through the reforms introduced under the Lisbon treaty.
The Seanad should not only scrutinise legislation. Why should it not scrutinise the German budget in the same way as the German Bundestag scrutinised our budget before we, as Members of Parliament, representatives of the people, had the opportunity to scrutinise our own proposals to at least bring some balance to the equation? The Irish Members of the European Parliament who are directly elected should also be ex officio members of the Seanad to provide for their input.
It is frustrating to hear the Government speak about reform. Live horse and get grass is its policy on Dáil reform. We have longer sittings, but there is less accountability now than was the case in the past. It is ironic that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 which we will debate later this week provides a conscientious objection clause for the people tasked with implementing it, whereas Government and Sinn Féin Members who may have a conscientious objection to the legislation will be expelled from their parliamentary parties if they act on their conscience. I cannot see how this represents reform and provides for greater accountability. People should have an opportunity to articulate their concerns as the representatives of the people.
We are going backwards in some areas in reforming this House. The Topical Issue debate was introduced with the purpose of making the Dáil more accountable, whereby Ministers with direct responsibility for the issues raised would come into the Chamber to address them. I commend the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, on responding in person to an important issue raised today pertaining to the ambulance service. Two weeks ago I raised a Topical Issue matter pertaining to a young woman who had died in the acute psychiatric unit in Roscommon County Hospital. Three serious assaults had occurred in that unit and gardaí had been called to it on numerous occasions. The family of a suicidal man had to contact the Garda to seek an emergency admission to Galway hospital because he had been refused admission to the acute unit in Roscommon. On five occasions in the previous three weeks, I had tabled parliamentary questions and raised Topical Issue matters on the same subject. There are three Ministers in the Department of Health, but none of them could respond in person to this extremely important issue. The Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, happened to be away, but her colleagues in the Department could not be found. I do not see how that could be described as greater accountability. I tabled a parliamentary question on home help services on 25 October 2012 and the Minister responsible referred it to the HSE for direct reply. When I raised the same question on 23 January this year, the Department refused to issue a response and I am still waiting for a formal reply from the Ceann Comhairle's office as to when I will receive a response to my question. Members' rights are being continually eroded.
If the Government was serious about reform, it would provide for reform of the Dáil in advance of the Seanad referendum to let the public see whether its reforms are effective in making it accountable. People could decide the future of the Seanad on foot of these reforms. However, we are instead being told that we should vote in the referendum before seeing the long promised reform of this House. Reform has been promised for many decades but little, if anything, has happened. All we have seen is a diminution of the power and authority of Deputies to question the Government, which is hugely disappointing.
I look forward to the debate that will take place in the coming months on the reform or abolition of the Seanad. The electorate will have an opportunity on polling day to decide once and for all whether to keep a genuinely reformed Seanad or to abolish it. We have a golden opportunity to use the Seanad to debate issues such as European legislation that is rubber-stamped in this House and committees. We should use the tools we have been given through the Lisbon treaty reform process to give the Seanad powers to scrutinise the budgets of other European parliaments. If the Bundestag is allowed to scrutinise our budgets, we should allow the Seanad to scrutinise the budget of the German Government.
If I had a euro for every time the word "reform" was mentioned in this House in the past ten days I would be able to repay the national debt. The time for reform has passed and we have to be radical or redundant in this debate. I commend the Government on showing leadership in putting this question to the people. The only way we can bring about reform is by forcing it. I do not hold any great opinion for or against the Seanad, but we have to be radical and by abolishing the Seanad, we will force this House to reform. One of the results will be a strengthened committee system that can scrutinise legislation. It is suggested we need layers of politicians for this task, but I do not think that is the way to make progress. The 158 politicians left in this House will be more than sufficient to engage in all of the scrutiny required in a country of this size.
I was recently in Ballydehob in west Cork where I visited a get-up-and-go and innovative enterprise, the Wilson family's ceramics heating company. This company is run by extraordinary individuals, but they are frustrated with the Government and by politicians because they believe we could be doing much more. Among the issues they raised were energy costs and refocusing on manufacturing. As we were debating these issues, I suggested one simple step they could take to assist us in our reform efforts was supporting us in the referendum on abolishing the Seanad. Whoever may be in this House after the next election, they can make more progress by having fewer politicians. I ask those who fight for and hide behind democracy why they are terrified of democracy. Real democracy involves putting this question to the people to allow them to decide. Perhaps they should have more say in matters because that is the essence of democracy.
The greatest threat to reform is the practice of playing to the gallery. It has been suggested the number of Dáil sitting days should be increased. That is a notion to which I object strenuously. I do not accept there is a need for longer sitting days. It is a disingenuous suggestion. We have the ability to do more with less and it is nonsense to say we should be here for four or five days a week. That poses the greatest threat to real democracy because it takes us away from our constituents and does not allow us to interact with them. It would create a cocoon in which we would be completely isolated from the public. That is a threat to democracy. I would not like to see this proposal progressing beyond the talk stage, although I am sure that, like many other proposals made in this House, talking is as far as it will go.
A number of speakers have referred to the straw man argument in respect of the use of the guillotine. Everything that needs to be said has been said on many issues since I was elected. The only difficulty is that not everybody has said it. I do not think it important for democracy that everybody should say the same repetitive line time and again.
I believe the Seanad should be abolished. The countries that have joined the European Union in recent years have a new found democracy. My wife is from Estonia and I have studied that country's political system. Estonia was in the hands of a dictatorship for many years, but it did not see the need to establish a second House of Parliament to demonstrate its democratic credentials. Estonia is happy with one House because it regards itself as a true democracy. Only two countries with similar populations, Ireland and Slovenia, have a second chamber. It is an unnecessary burden because it doubles the amount of work and hinders the progress of Parliament by doing everything twice. I support the Bill and will be playing my part to campaign in the name of progress for the abolition of the Seanad.