Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

Thairg an Taoiseach an tairiscint seo ar an Déardaoin, 13 Meitheamh 2013:
Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois.
The following motion was moved by the Taoiseach on Thursday, 13 June 2013:
That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
Atógadh an díospóireacht ar leasú a 1:
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "that" and substitute "Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading on the basis that it seeks to abolish Seanad Éireann without affording the opportunity to reform Seanad Éireann as set out in the Seanad (No. 2) Bill 2013".
(Deputy Shane Ross)

Deputy Niall Collins has the floor.

I propose to share time with Deputy Billy Kelleher.

It is a sad day when we are discussing the abolition of Seanad Éireann. The Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, is well aware of my party's view on the issue. When the Government came to power there was talk of a democratic revolution, but what has actually happened could not be further from that declaration. In fact, the Government has succeeded only in feeding into the cynicism and dissatisfaction of the public in regard to the practice of politics in this country. It has engaged in a series of broken promises and populist measures, of which there are too many examples to name. The Minister, for instance, signed a pledge for the pro-life movement, which is very relevant in the context of another Bill that is progressing through the House this week. It is no wonder there is deep-rooted dissatisfaction with politics in this State.

Unfortunately, the Bill before us today merely represents the culmination of an ongoing power grab by the Minister, the Taoiseach and their colleagues. The Minister has demonstrated the same tendency to power-grabbing in his own brief in respect of local government. His policy document, Putting People First, contrary to its title, will serve only to weaken the autonomy and decision-making powers of local authority members. We are seeing the silo effect in overdrive, with the Government centralising power at Cabinet level while seeking to remove any obligation to subject itself to adequate scrutiny and oversight. As I said, it is a very sad day.

This legislation, as well as representing a power grab by Government, is fundamentally anti-democratic. The Government has never satisfactorily explained why it did not refer this issue for consideration to the Constitutional Convention, even though other relatively minor issues, such as voting ages and the electoral system, were so referred. I was shadow spokesman on the environment for a time, during which I engaged with the Minister on some of these issues. The Government's efforts thus far in the area of Dáil reform have been a complete joke. In the case of Friday sittings, for example, there is no provision for Leaders' Questions and no Order of Business. In the absence of his Cabinet colleagues, the Government Chief Whip seems to have been saddled with the chore of representing the Government on most Fridays. No committees sit on Fridays, divisions cannot be taken in the Dáil, parliamentary questions cannot be tabled and no points of order can be raised. The sittings are an utter sham.

Another aspect of Dáil reform that has been much heralded by the Government is the introduction of the Topical Issue debate but, again, it has proved disappointing. We were promised, for example, that the relevant Minister would be in the Chamber to respond to matters raised, but that very rarely happens.

That is not the case.

It is not reform in any real sense but merely moving what was formerly the Adjournment debate to a different time slot.

I am in the Chamber regularly for Topical Issue debates. The Deputy should submit matters for discussion more often.

I do so regularly but they are not selected. That, however, is another issue.

The Taoiseach promised that Ministers would be at their desks rather than attending events throughout the country. In reality, they are never at their desks. The Taoiseach presents for Question Time once a week, on a Tuesday, whereas his predecessors were obliged to attend twice weekly. In other words, instead of increased accountability, the Government has reduced the allocation of time during which the Taoiseach can be subjected to questions from the Opposition.

The number of committees has been reduced. The system is nothing but a joke now, with a range of functions stockpiled onto individual committees thus rendering them unworkable. The only Opposition Chairman is Deputy John McGuinness of the Committee of Public Accounts and, as we know, attempts were made last week to unseat him. On the question of Dáil numbers, the Government has proposed that membership be reduced by eight at the next election. We have had no explanation as to why the number eight was chosen. That level of Dáil reform is essentially meaningless.

We are all aware of the circumstances in which the proposal to abolish the Seanad was conceived. The Taoiseach, while still in opposition and floundering in opinion polls, needed a way to get one up on the Tánaiste, whose party was then threatening Fine Gael's position as main Opposition party. The result was a dramatic shift in Fine Gael policy, which the Taoiseach set out at a speech in Glenties. Noel Whelan wrote an informative article in The Irish Times some weeks ago in which he referred to the decision by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, to introduce the Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012 in the Upper House. The Minister said on that occasion:

As the engagement from Senators has been hugely positive, I considered it appropriate to introduce the Bill in the Seanad before taking it to the other House as there are many Members here who want to get engaged in the detail of the legislation. That is important because this is important legislation.

He went on to laud the Seanad for its work on that legislation.

The Government has made a complete hames of the money-saving argument for the abolition of the Upper House with its projected figure of €20 million. It took the independent Accounting Officer of the Houses of the Oireachtas to knock that projection on its head. There has been a refusal to answer questions in this regard, even though the figure the Government gave is twice that of the estimate from the Accounting Officer. The Minister referred to Finland as a country to which we should aspire. He did not mention that it has 200 Members of Parliament and its committees have far more extensive powers than do the Oireachtas committees, including the capacity to hold Ministers to account.

My party will be campaigning vigorously in opposition to this amendment and in favour instead of reform of the Seanad. We all agree that such reform is needed and that the existing archaic electoral system cannot continue. A root and branch reform is required. As somebody who purports to be in touch with ordinary people, the Minister should know that the citizens of this country value democracy and the capacity to elect their public representatives. Despite all the populist spin and commentary which seeks to denigrate politics, people ultimately want representation but they also want oversight of the Government. A reformed Seanad can perform that function. The reality, however, is that this Government is seeking to remove all oversight. Its objective is the centralisation of power and a scaling back of the opportunity for Dáil scrutiny. This is, I repeat, a sad day for democracy in Ireland.

I join my colleague, Deputy Niall Collins, in opposing this proposal. If the abolition of the Seanad was really such an important aspect of Fine Gael policy, one might have assumed the party would at least have published a policy document in sufficient time to allow its own members to be aware of it. In fact, the way in which the policy was announced left no doubt that it was a response to a dip in the opinion polls. The Tánaiste, then leader of the Labour Party in opposition and another person who has shown himself to be different in government from what he was on this side of the House, was riding high in those polls at the time. The Taoiseach, as then leader of the Fine Gael Party in opposition, needed something big to grab the headlines. There were no internal party discussions of what was proposed; it was all about the headlines.

I do not mind politicians posturing from time to time and seeking headlines but when the Minister is attacking an arm of the Oireachtas, its second Chamber, I find that very distasteful, to say the least.

Then there was a great democratic revolution whereby the Government set up the Constitutional Convention to oversee the changing of the Constitution. At the very least this issue should have been referred to the Convention on the Constitution in order that it could have had an informed discussion on it and we could have had a discussion in this House and elsewhere.

I was a Member of Seanad Éireann from 1993 to 1997. It needs reform, there is no doubt about that. This House needs reform as well. Every day of the week we see a shambolic charade when the Government comes in and bludgeons Parliament to death with its massive majority, guillotines Bills, stifles debate and treats elected Members with absolute contempt and disdain. There is no process for raising issues of serious concern. There is no accountability in getting real questions answered. I believe not only as a Deputy but also as a citizen that Governments should be held to account. There is an obligation on Parliament to hold Governments to account. The way this Parliament is structured such that the Government runs the show because of the Whip system means that it has less accountability and there will be less when the Seanad is abolished, as the Government wishes. We should campaign on this issue and highlight the fact that this is a power grab, as Deputy Niall Collins said.

There is cynicism in Ireland about politicians. Why would there not be? The Government parties said they would burn bondholders, that there would be no cuts in child welfare and no increases in water charges. They made a plethora of promises when they were on this side of the House. When those Deputies became Ministers they broke one promise after another. I find it very distasteful that we cannot have an informed debate, that the public is being asked only a simple question either to abolish the Seanad or leave it as it is. That is unhealthy to say the least. If we are going to abolish the Seanad, this House needs to be reformed as well.

One of the most insulting things coming before us is the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013. This is to inquire into issues of public interest. We know full well that this Bill is flawed from the word go. The Government is talking about a democratic revolution, finding the truth, holding governments to account and ensuring the hard questions are asked and answered. This Bill is nothing but a political stunt from start to finish. The Government has no interest in unearthing what happened prior to the banking crisis, during the crisis, the guarantee and the lead-up to it. This Bill is an insult to what we call Dáil reform. We need to have a proper investigation of what happened. It should be open, transparent, independent and impartial but it is a political stunt by the Government, particularly the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to bring forward this pitiful Bill which he says will unearth the truth. If it will, whoever allowed it out of the Office of the Attorney General will have to answer many serious questions. If one reads the Bill, one can see that it will not hold people to account. It will hold officeholders to account, and I have no difficulty with that, but it will not hold to account people who are also potentially culpable in the demise of the banking industry in this country, the resulting guarantee and all that flowed from that.

When we talk about Dáil reform let us have a meaningful discussion on it and on Seanad reform. In the meantime, let us have a meaningful discussion on what we want to achieve in this Parliament as elected representatives of the people with regard to accountability, transparency, holding Government to account, particularly a Government with a massive majority that sweeps in here day after day, sends in one or two Ministers and repeatedly guillotines Bills. We could not even have discussions on one of the most important Bills on taxation changes in recent times, the local property tax. It was bludgeoned through Parliament. The Opposition was dismissed as if it was irrelevant. We may be irrelevant in numerical terms because of the coalescing of Fine Gael and Labour after they betrayed promises made before the previous general election. That is not the point. The point is that we are obligated to hold the Government to account and the least a Government which talks about a democratic revolution should do is try to accommodate that type of debate. It should be making itself more amenable and accountable but it is doing the exact opposite, holding sham Friday sittings when there is no accountability whatsoever, and reducing the time for questions to the Taoiseach and in which we can have responsive, rapid debates on issues of public interest, which are also dismissed out of hand.

The Government says these are matters for the Dáil. They are not. They are matters for Government because it runs the Dáil in its entirety from 10.30 in the morning until the last bell at night. When the Minister talks about reform of the Oireachtas, let us have meaningful discussions on it. Let us have a sincere debate on how we can reform the institutions of this State rather than just deciding to abolish the Seanad for cheap headlines that will garner a few votes and encourage the demeaning populist type of politics in which many people in this House engage. This was a stunt from start to finish but the people might yet realise that this arrogant Government deserves to be held to account. The more questions that are put to Ministers and the more checking and scrutiny of legislation and policies that go through the Seanad and the Dáil, the better for everyone. I hope that when we take this campaign to the people, they will respond knowing full well that this is for one reason only: a power grab by a Government that is completely removed from the reality of what happens every day in this House and treats this Parliament with disdain.

I thank all the Deputies who spoke for their contributions, either to the debate tonight or on previous occasions. The large number of speakers on all sides of the House is an indication of the importance of this Bill, no matter whether one agrees or disagrees with it. With such an extensive debate it is not possible to respond to every issue. I will try to deal with the main points that have been raised. First, I remind Deputy Niall Collins that what he said tonight is very different from what Fianna Fáil said in its manifesto before the last election.

I will quote it.

Deputy Martin addressed all that.

I will quote it.

The Minister will misquote him.

Is the Deputy trying to abandon his party's manifesto already?

Very well, I am quoting from it:

Much of the rationale for the inclusion of the Seanad in Bunreacht na hÉireann has ceased to be relevant over time. Serious questions will be asked about the continued role of an entity which is struggling to justify its existence after three-quarters of a century ... It is important to note that second chambers are not an essential part of parliamentary democracy.

The Deputies should stop the usual partisan hypocrisy and the usual politics that we get. This is what Fianna Fáil said before the last election.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, he said something similar before the last election and he is going through with it and giving the people an opportunity to have their say.

What did the Taoiseach say in Glenties?

Seanad reform has been the subject of much debate over the years, principally from Fianna Fáil Leaders of the House in the Seanad, and nothing has happened. As the Taoiseach said in opening this debate, the correct approach is to start by asking whether we need a second House at all. That is what we are asking the people to decide. The contention that a second House is crucial to democracy is simply untrue. The Scandinavian countries do not have second houses. Other small, successful countries, such as New Zealand, have shown that it is perfectly possible to operate with a unicameral parliament. Most of the new nations in central and eastern Europe have also decided that they do not need a senate.

Those parliaments can hold their governments to account. That is the difference.

The Government believes that a second chamber is no more necessary here in Ireland than it is in other small unitary states.

In addition, the Seanad is an outdated institution. The theory on which it is based is no longer relevant and its composition does not reflect modern society. Maintaining a House of Parliament that is produced by the electoral and nomination system that produces the Seanad is simply not defensible.

Some Deputies argued that we should not seek to abolish the Seanad until we have tackled other areas of reform. In fact, the truth is that we have been, and are, carrying out extensive reform over a wide range of areas. The proposed abolition of the Seanad is part of the Government's comprehensive programme of political reform. We aim to make our system more accountable, more democratic and more responsive, and to put people's faith and hope back into Irish politics. We have embarked on the biggest package of political reform since the passing of the Constitution in 1937. We have established the Constitutional Convention to consider a range of areas in the Constitution, and we have given a commitment that the Government will respond, in the Dáil and Seanad, to the convention's recommendations within four months of receiving them.

Our reform of local government is the most radical in over 100 years. It will reduce the number of local authorities but widen the role and functions of councils and give them a greater involvement in economic development and enterprise support. It will also reduce the number of councillors, from 1,600 to 950. On the broader front, we will see many more powers being devolved from agencies of the State and from Departments to local level. We have published Action Plan for Jobs, and we publish regular reports on how we are implementing it. We have introduced measures to reform legal services, to deal with personal insolvency and to get our banks lending again. We have cut the size and cost of our public service and we are transforming the way it works.

We are overhauling the health system and making major changes to the education system. We said we would cut the donations that could be made to political parties, including corporate donations, and link State funding with a gender balance that better reflected what was happening in the real world. That legislation was passed last year. We said we would bring forward legislation to protect whistleblowers, extend freedom of information legislation, enable the Dáil to hold inquiries and regulate lobbying, all of which we are doing.
Deputies also argued that we should reform the Dáil before holding a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Of course, the truth is that we have been active on Dáil reform, too. While I accept that more needs to be done, we have increased the number of Dáil sitting days, as well as making it easier for backbench and Opposition Deputies to bring forward legislation and raise important issues. In tandem with the abolition of the Seanad, we are proposing further changes to strengthen the role of the Dáil. We will reform the way in which it deals with legislation. Legislation will first be submitted to the relevant Dáil committee in heads of Bill format. This means that suggestions for changes to 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. Each Bill will be referred back to the committee that originally considered it for a final examination. 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 legislation is fully considered before, during and after its enactment.
Several Deputies mentioned the importance of improving the committee system. The Government is working on this front also. 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. We are also proposing to radically overhaul the Dáil committee system. A total of 14 Dáil committees will be established. Each committee will have 12 members and be able to invite external experts to provide a specialist input into its work. To strengthen the independence of committees, we will introduce the d'Hondt system to distribute the chairs of key committees on a proportional and equitable basis.
Many Deputies suggested the question of what to do about the Seanad should be referred to the Constitutional Constitution. I acknowledge the work done by the convention. There was a good deal of scepticism about the idea of having the convention before it started its work. However, there is widespread acknowledgement that it has worked well. I compliment its chair, Mr. Tom Arnold, and his team and the members of the convention, especially the citizen members, on their work to date. The convention is dealing with items on which the Government did not take a position in its programme. However, our programme is very clear about the Seanad. We said we would put before the people a referendum to abolish the Seanad. We are doing just that.
As has been said by Deputies on all sides, there have been many reports on the Seanad during the years. The fundamental question, however, is whether 21st century Ireland needs a second Chamber. The Government believes we do not and is putting that view to the ultimate arbiters, the people. In a similar vein, some Members were pressing for the Government to reform the Seanad rather than propose its abolition. However, as I have said, the programme for Government gives a clear commitment to put the abolition of the Seanad before the people in a referendum. That is what we are proposing to do. It is interesting that we are discussing the abolition of the Seanad and people are talking about reform. The Government's position is crystal clear: we are proposing its abolition. In this context, it is interesting to note the unanimity in the House on one issue, namely, that the Seanad, as currently constituted, is not defensible. An assembly with 43 seats elected by a tiny electorate, with six seats elected by an incomplete electorate and 11 seats nominated by the Taoiseach just cannot be defended.
It was somewhat interesting to hear people describing the proposal for a referendum as a power grab by the Taoiseach and the Government. In fact, the Taoiseach is proposing that the people should remove from him the power to nominate nearly one fifth of the second Chamber. It should also be noted that the referendum in the autumn will be the first time since 1937 that the entire electorate, not just a small fraction of it, will have a vote on the Seanad. This is remarkable. At last, we are asking the whole electorate whether we should keep or abolish the Seanad. I, as well as the Government, believe it should be abolished and we believe the people will agree with us.
Deputy Andrew Doyle made a technical point about the Bill, proposing that the holder of the position of Leas-Cheann Comhairle be automatically re-elected to ensure full membership of the Presidential Commission through a general election. This is not necessary as there is a Supreme Court judgment to the effect that the outgoing holders of the posts of Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle must be taken to survive in office for the purposes of the Presidential Commission.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Cuireadh an cheist: "Go bhfanfaidh mar chuid den Phríomh-Cheist na focail a thairgtear a scriosadh."
Question put: "That the words proposed to be deleted stand part of the main Question."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 86; Níl, 30.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Ferris, Anne.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McEntee, Helen.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nulty, Patrick.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Perry, John.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Wallace, Mick.
  • Walsh, Brian.

Níl

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Browne, John.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Seán Ó Fearghaíl and Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
Question declared carried.
Faisnéiseadh go rabhthas tar éis glacadh leis an gceist.
Faisnéiseadh go rabhthas tar éis diúltú don leasú.
Amendment declared lost.

"Fógraím gur léadh an Bille an dara huair de réir Bhuan-Ordú 121(2)(i)."

"I declare the Bill read a Second Time in accordance with Standing Order 125(2)(i)."

That is outrageous. It is a bad day for democracy.