That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform entitled, Draft Final Report of the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 18th May 2016.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the report of the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform. When the Dáil first met on 10 March, following a general election that produced a Dáil in which no one party had secured a majority, many commentators predicted that the newly elected Deputies would find it impossible to agree on anything and that another election was probably just weeks away. These doubts have proved unfounded. First, the Members of the House, under a radical reform introduced by the previous Government, elected the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. This reform has made the office more independent and the holder of the office has a direct link with his fellow Dáil Members like never before.
The second item of business, agreed to on the first day back, was an all-party motion establishing the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform to be chaired by the new Ceann Comhairle and tasked with reviewing the way the Parliament worked and identifying a set of reforms that could be introduced to strengthen it. I was honoured to be appointed to the committee by the Taoiseach and to work with my party colleagues, Deputies Eoghan Murphy, David Stanton and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, as the Fine Gael members of the committee. I am also proud to work with the other members of the committee representing all parties and Independents.
Under the, often patient, chairmanship of Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, as a group of 19 Deputies from different political traditions and viewpoints, we worked in the past two months to review the way the Parliament works and prepare a report which sets out in detail a package of reforms which will radically change the way the Oireachtas operates for the better. As a group of Deputies, we have worked well together and, despite our differing opinions on other issues, shared a commitment to make the committee successful. It has worked. I thank the clerks and other staff of the Oireachtas who worked tirelessly in the past two months and without whom this report would not have been possible.
In its time in office, the previous Government introduced reform packages designed to strengthen the Parliament in its relationship with the Government, namely, Leaders' Questions on Thursdays, Topical Issues, specific Dáil time to debate Deputies' own Bills and a pre-legislative stage for Bills. Earlier this year new Standing Orders were introduced which focused on three areas, namely, the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, the selection of Oireachtas committee chairmen using the d’Hondt system and the requirement for the Taoiseach to appear before the working group of committee Chairmen twice a year to discuss matters of public policy.
The sub-committee established on 10 March sought to review the way the Oireachtas worked. As a group, we wanted to build on the reforms introduced in the past but also to identify the failings in the Parliament and, where possible, correct them. The fact that the general election earlier this year produced a Dáil that required a new way to do politics if it was to work must be accepted as a major factor in prioritising our work. As a group of 158 Deputies elected by the people, we have a duty to make this Dáil and the new politics it both represents and requires work. If we fail in this task, the people will be not thank us and the critics and cynics will be proved correct.
As a member of the committee, I approached the issue of Dáil and Oireachtas reform with the belief that, as a newly founded nation in the 1920s and 1930s, we adopted the British form of parliamentary democracy, with its weak concept of the separation of powers, too easily. In the almost one century since independence, we have not challenged that system enough. No Government or Parliament has really challenged the status quo, until now and that is good.
In the report we are seeking to empower the Oireachtas like never before. We are seeking to give Parliament a stronger voice and make the Government more accountable to it and us. The first section of the report recommends the establishment of a Dáil business committee to give all Deputies a greater voice in the business of the Dáil and allow a fairer distribution of Dáil time between Government and Opposition business. This will not prevent the Government of the day from enacting the legislation required to govern the country or fulfilling its mandate. It recognises the new reality of a Dáil not dominated by the Government of the day and a Dáil in which Opposition parties and groups and Government Deputies each have a mandate and an obligation to play a greater role in the legislative process than ever before.
The second section of the report proposes a budget oversight committee. This new structure will allow Parliament to play a greater role in the decisions taken by the Government in the preparation of the annual budget. No longer will the budget be a Government only document. Under the new system proposed, each budget will be prepared in partnership between the Parliament and the Executive. This will not dilute the Government's constitutional responsibility in this area but enhance the role of the Oireachtas and address many of the concerns highlighted in the recently published OECD Report on Budget Oversight by Parliament: Ireland. We are adopting best international practice in this area and future budgets will benefit from the changes we are proposing and be more inclusive and rounded.
The third section of the report addresses the need for an independent parliamentary budget office, which is a requirement in any modern parliamentary system. If the Dáil and the Oireachtas committees are to perform their new functions to the highest possible standard, an office such as this is a necessity.
The fourth section of the report recommends the establishment of an office of parliamentary legal adviser to support Deputies in their work. The fifth section addresses the issue of groups, the new reality of Dáil Éireann. In the past Deputies elected to the Dáil as Independents or representatives of smaller parties were, unfortunately, not given the recognition their mandate deserved. Setting the minimum size of a group at seven and requiring all non-aligned Deputies to join a single technical group, regardless of their policy differences, was unfair. The report seeks to address these problems. The minimum number of Deputies required to form a group will be reduced to five and more than one technical group can now be formed, if the reforms are adopted. This is a significant departure from the rules that governed the House in the past but recognition that today we have a more fragmented political structure, that smaller parties and Independent groups are likely to be a feature of Irish politics in the future and that every Dáil Member must adapt to that reality and respect it.
The sixth section of the report recommends that in the future, as far as possible, Oireachtas committee meetings and the Dáil plenary sessions not clash. Oireachtas committees will meet on Tuesday evenings and Wednesday and Thursday mornings, with the Dáil sitting on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings. This new split will finally end the age old problem of Oireachtas committees clashing with important debates in the Dáil and Deputies being forced to choose between the two, or run up and down the stairs, as we frequently have done during recent years.
The seventh section enhances the legislative process in the Oireachtas. Pre-legislative scrutiny and post-enactment scrutiny will be enhanced and adhered to. The development of pre-legislative stages for Bills was one of the major reforms introduced by the previous Government. It opened up the law-making process to the public like never before. Experts, interested individuals and civil society groups could be involved in the legislative process from the beginning in an advisory capacity. Committees and the Deputies and Senators who sat on them had a greatly enhanced legislative role. The fact that each committee could review the heads of a Bill and report on the findings of the pre-legislative stage to the Minister before the Bill was published meant issues were identified earlier and better legislation was passed. I am delighted that the Thirty-second Dáil will build on the success to date of the pre-legislative structure in place.
It is at Oireachtas committee level that some of the most important work by the Members of this House is carried out.
The eighth section of the report identifies the importance of our committee structures and seeks to build on them. New committees such as the budget oversight committee and an Irish language committee will be established. Committees will be more effective, with a smaller number of members, and every effort will be made to ensure that Deputies are not required to be members of multiple committees. The working group of committee chairs will play greater consultative and policy roles as well as the Taoiseach appearing before it. Committee chairs will now be selected under the d'Hondt system, which is also a major step in empowering those committees.
The next sections of the report provide new structures for Leaders' Questions, Taoiseach's Questions, ministerial questions, Topical Issues and, importantly, the accountability of State bodies. The changes proposed are designed to make the Government more accountable to Parliament and to allow each non-office holding Deputy a greater opportunity to play a role in that. The time for ministerial questions will be extended and there will be a greater opportunity for Deputies to get to ask the Minister their question as 60 of the 90 minutes will be for ordinary Oral Questions. There will be two 45-minute sessions of Taoiseach's Questions a week but questions will only roll over for two weeks. The very successful Topical Issue debate introduced in the previous Dáil will be built on and improved. As with the previous Dáil, any Deputy unhappy with the advocacy of an answer may make an appeal to the Ceann Comhairle, and I believe that will be enforced during this Dáil session.
The final section of the report focuses on Dáil procedure and, for the first time, a number of changes are proposed, including a fixed time each week for taking all divisions on a Thursday afternoon. In the future, Members may formally abstain on a vote and relevant Ministers may, at the request of the Taoiseach, respond to questions on any promised legislation, which is a significant reform.
If these reforms are adopted by the House, the Thirty-second Dáil will look and operate very differently from any other Dáil in our history. The Members of this House are open to reform and willing to embrace change, as has been seen by the members of the sub-committee. These reforms are a major step forward in the direction of creating a real separation of powers between Parliament and our Executive. We are not seeking to abandon the traditions of our parliamentary systems but we are seeking to learn from the very best international practice and recognise the realities of politics in Ireland today.
The general election earlier this year delivered a message to all of those elected to this House that the people of Ireland want their policies done in a new way. The set of recommendations before the House today is by no means the final answer, nor will it create a perfect Parliament, but it is an honest attempt at reform from a committee that represented every shade of political opinion in this House.
The members of the sub-committee have published this report and have put it before the Dáil seeking the opinions of our fellow Deputies. This is an issue in which we each, as elected Deputies, have an interest. The changes we will make to the Standing Orders over the next few weeks will be the framework within which we will work over the next few years and which may well set the standard for decades to come. As members of the sub-committee, we look forward to hearing the views that will be expressed over the course of this coming days.