This Bill is designed to remedy certain defects in the procedures whereby statutory instruments are submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for consideration and action, if the Houses so desire.
With the growth in the functions of Government, the legislature has found it necessary, in many cases, to delegate part of its statute-making powers to the executive arm. This delegation is usually accompanied by safeguards to ensure that the powers devolved are properly used in accordance with the intentions of the Oireachtas. The safeguards generally include a requirement that the subsidiary instruments through which the delegated powers are exercised must be presented to the Oireachtas and that, during a specified period, they may be confirmed or annulled, as appropriate, by one or both of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In this manner ultimate control is retained by the Oireachtas. This is an important feature of modern democratic government and care must be taken to ensure that the intentions of the legislature are not frustrated by defective procedures.
Most statutes which confer the power to make regulations or orders prescribe a specific period during which the relevant statutory instrument must lie before one or both Houses of the Oireachtas and during which parliamentary action may be taken to annul the instrument or prevent it coming into force.
In almost all cases this period is expressed in terms of "days in which the House sits." This ensures that the control of Parliament is not rendered ineffective by reason of the fact that a House is not in session throughout the period during which the instrument lies before it. However, in some statutes, the period for parliamentary intervention is loosely expressed simply as "days". In those cases there is a danger that the powers of Parliament could not be effectively exercised because the period could run its course when the House concerned was not sitting. To a certain extent this possibility has been avoided administratively, by regarding the statutory period as commencing on the day on which the House concerned next sits. Even this arrangement, however, is not completely satisfactory because a sitting day could be followed by a lengthy period of non-sitting days, especially in the Seanad.
In section 3 of the Bill it is proposed to rectify this defect by prescribing that, where the period for parliamentary action is not already clearly defined, the documents concerned will lie before the Oireachtas for a minimum period of four weeks in each of which the House in question sits. This provision will not, of course, affect the great majority of cases in which the relevant period is precisely and satisfactorily expressed.
The Bill also clarifies the position regarding the procedure for laying a document. Section 2 provides that this means either the action specified in the Standing Orders for the time being in force in the House concerned or, if no such action is specified, the procedure followed and accepted by virtue of the practice of that House. At present the Standing Orders of the Dáil make specific provision in this regard but those of the Seanad do not.
Advantage is being taken of this Bill to clarify the period during which orders prescribing the fees to be taken in the Registry of Deeds must lie before they can come into force. The fees in question are prescribed by orders made by the Minister for Justice under section 35 of the Registry of Deeds (Ireland) Act, 1832 and section 9 of the Land Transfer (Ireland) Act, 1848, as adapted. The presentation provision is contained in section 1 of the Registry of Deeds (Ireland) Act, 1875. On one view of the existing provisions, such orders could not have effect until they had lain before both Houses of the Oireachtas during forty sitting days, a period which might well run for more than a year in the case of the Seanad. There will, I feel sure, be general agreement that such an extended and uncertain waiting period would be quite unsatisfactory in the case of a Fees Order.
The provision in section 4 of the Bill will enable the Minister for Justice to specify in the orders themselves, as in the case of Court and Land Registry fees orders, the date for the coming into force of Registry of Deeds fees orders. So that adequate notice will be given to all concerned, it is being provided that an order shall not come into force earlier than three months after it is made. The existing provisions of the law requiring presentation to both Houses are not affected by this provision nor does it curtail in any way the right of either House to pass a resolution annulling a particular order.
This Bill is, therefore, designed to strengthen Parliamentary control over statutory instruments and to ensure that in no case is Parliament unintentionally deprived of its powers over these instruments. I trust, therefore, that this measure will commend itself to all sides of the House.