I welcome the opportunity to launch this Bill in the Seanad. From previous experience, I know that Members of the House have a keen interest in statute law reform and I am sure that the Bill will have as interesting and thorough a debate as others of its kind.
The Bill is the greatest single statute law revision measure undertaken in the State. It will repeal 3,188 statutes, more statutes than have been repealed by any Act before or since the foundation of the State. For the first time, clarity will be provided to the Statute Book because the Bill contains as its central feature the "white list" of all statutes that will continue in force after its enactment.
The Bill has been devised within the better regulation agenda, which the Taoiseach has pursued vigorously in recent years, and represents further delivery of a key commitment in the Government's 2004 White Paper, Regulating Better . At the core of the better regulation programme is the opinion that we need to address the flow of new legislation and the existing stock of legislation. The flow of new regulations is being tackled through a regulatory impact analysis, which was introduced across all Departments in June 2005. This approach requires Departments to consult more widely before regulating and to analyse in greater detail the likely impacts of Acts and significant statutory instruments before presenting them to the Oireachtas. In this way, proposed legislation will benefit from being subjected to comment by interested parties and will be more comprehensively evaluated in terms of potential downstream impacts.
As we work to improve the quality of legislation moving on stream, we must tackle the substantial body of existing laws and regulations, which is where this Bill fits in. Statute law revision means the process of removing the deadwood from the system, that is, legislation that is obsolete or has lost any modern purpose. Unlike the process of statute law reform, the revision process does not change the substantive nature of the law itself. Its primary objective is to facilitate users of the law — the Judiciary, citizens, business — and to provide greater clarity regarding the legislation that remains in force and pertinent. All Government Departments, legislative drafters and we, as Members of these Houses, stand to gain from statute law revision processes.
The issue of statute law revision is an important element of better regulation, particularly in the Irish context. Our complex history has led to a situation whereby there is considerable uncertainty as to what legislation from prior to independence even applies to this State. We have many laws passed by various parliaments sitting in Ireland between the Norman invasion in 1169 and the Act of Union in 1800 but because records have been lost or destroyed over the years, and particularly during the Civil War, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty what all of these are. We also have laws which were not Acts of Parliament in the modern sense, but are regarded as being of statutory force. We have laws passed by various Parliaments of England and Great Britain that also applied or were subsequently extended to Ireland, even though Ireland had its own Parliament from at least the 14th century onwards. We have laws passed during the period of the former United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but it is not clear to what extent many of them applied to Ireland.
These and other factors leave us in a position where it is at the moment impossible to say with absolute certainty which laws from before the foundation of the State actually apply in Ireland at the present time. That situation is clearly not in line with our modern regulatory principles of clarity and transparency. That is why we have moved from previous models of statute law revision — which tend to lists those statutes to be repealed — to a new model. This new model is one by which we can clarify exactly which laws continue to apply.
The need for this clarity is the genesis for the current statute law revision process. For the past two years, researchers based in the Attorney General's office have been analysing all of the laws made by those authorities that made laws governing Ireland. These include the various Parliaments of Ireland, England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. This research has allowed the compilation of a detailed database recording the status of more than 26,000 public general statutes. Of course, many of these have been repealed over the centuries, and many never applied to Ireland in the first place, but they all had to be assessed to find out which was which. More than 4,500 statutes were found that were or still might be in force to some extent.
These 4,500 statutes then had to be assessed in greater detail to determine which of them had any modern relevance. This was a painstaking process involving detailed research and the compilation of voluminous files. Initial decisions were made as to which statutes might still have some modern relevance and which ones were obsolete and could therefore be repealed.
Detailed rounds of consultation then followed, in which Government and outside bodies, as well as members of the public, made representations. This consultation process was facilitated by publication of the lists of statutes on the Attorney General's website. Those lists were in effect the draft Schedules to this Bill and were open to public consultation for a period of several months on two occasions during 2006. The Department of the Taoiseach also published newspaper notices regarding the process and hard copies of the lists were made available by the Office of the Attorney General. Hundreds of representations, on matters large and small, were received, replied to and recorded on the database.
The Bill before us today provides that statutes predating 6 December 1922, where there has been any doubt, or where there is a credible argument that they may still be in force and may still have continuing relevance, will be preserved in the white list set out in Schedule 1. This cautious approach is necessary to ensure this Bill does not inadvertently repeal a statutory provision, which might still have legal effect. However, I emphasise that it is the Government's policy that all of these retained Acts ultimately will be repealed.
In the case of this white list it will be necessary for substantive modern legislation to replace the provisions of these older laws; the old laws can be then repealed. This is a distinct and separate process from statute law revision, which is restricted to repeal without replacement.
The process of substantive replacement of the old legislation, which we describe as the process of repeal and re-enactment or statute law reform, is already underway in a number of areas. For example, almost 10% of the 1,348 statutes on the white list will be retained only for a very short time. This is because 133 of these statutes will be repealed when the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2006 is enacted. Senators will recall the provisions of this Bill, which passed this House before Christmas and is now before the Dáil.
The Government's overall programme combining statute law revision under this Bill, together with a co-ordinated series of repeal and re-enactment measures, will ensure that within a short number of years all the legislation on our Statute Book that predates independence will have been replaced with modern laws more appropriate to our modern democracy.
In addition to the clarity which will be conferred by this Bill when enacted, it also will have a dramatic effect on the volume of material on the Statute Book. This Bill will repeal 3,188 statutes, far more than any previous statute law revision measure. In fact, it is more than the entire number of public general Acts of the Oireachtas enacted since Ireland achieved independence in 1922.
It is important to emphasise that the decision to list an Act in either Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 has been based on purely legal reasoning. Where an Act has or may have continuing legal effect, it is preserved by listing it in Schedule 1. Where it is entirely obsolete or has ceased to have legal effect, it is repealed by omitting it from Schedule 1 and it will instead appear in the list of repealed Acts in Schedule 2.
The inclusion of an Act in one Schedule or another should not be taken as being a positive or negative comment on the content of that Act. By repealing an Act we are not necessarily saying we disapprove of it, some of the Acts being repealed were very progressive and positive in their day but they have long since served their purpose.
As I have previously indicated, statute law revision Bills are concerned with removing only laws that have become entirely obsolete. There is a complementary process, statute law reform, that involves changing the content of laws to modernise them. In respect of the Acts on the white list, that process of statute law reform is already under way but will be effected by other legislation.
As I have made clear, this Bill is not the end of the process of modernisation of our Statute Book. It is an important step in that process and will provide a blueprint for future measures, not just of statute law revision but also of substantive statute law reform. Our ultimate objective is to provide the Irish people with a single legislative code which is clear and accessible. This code will contain only laws enacted by the democratically elected Oireachtas, or under European law where Ireland is a member of a community of equal nations. This Bill will be a major step along that road towards clarity and democratic credibility in our Statute Book.
Members may wish to note that while the present Bill deals only with public general Acts, the Government intends to give attention to analysing legislative measures going beyond that category. It is intended, subject to progress with the present Bill, that proposals can be developed to deal with local and personal Acts, private Acts, and statutory rules and orders, which complete the picture of pre-independence statute law. An examination of post-independence law would also fall to be addressed. Obviously, review of these areas would necessitate the bringing to the House of further legislative proposals in due course and I hope that I can look to the support of Members for our ongoing work in this regard.
I will now explain in detail the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides a broad definition of the word "statute" for the purposes of the Bill in order that it includes royal ordinances and similar documents that are recognised as having the force and effect of an Act of Parliament. The reason for this broad definition is that the parliamentary system was evolving for many centuries. In early times laws were enacted in ways somewhat different from the modern system and some of them would not conform to the definition of an Act of Parliament as we would understand it. However, these laws were regarded under the constitutional systems of those times as being valid, and they have continued to be recognised as having statutory effect. It is appropriate, therefore to use the term "statute" to cover all these kinds of laws.
Section 2 is the central provision of the Bill. It will provide a fundamental clarification and simplification of the Statute Book by drawing a line at 6 December 1922 and repealing the majority of the statutes passed prior to that date except for certain statutes that are to be specifically preserved.
The first category of exceptions is provided for by section 2(2)(a) which preserves in force the statutes listed in Schedule 1. These are the 1,348 statutes which have or may have some modern relevance. These cannot be repealed until they are first replaced by modern legislation.
The other main category of exceptions is local and personal and private statutes. These are statutes enacted and-or published under different mechanisms from the normal. Local and personal statutes were statutes which were public in the sense that everyone was deemed to be on notice of their content but not general because they only related to specific places or persons. They were published in separate series between 1797 and 1922. Private statutes are statutes enacted under a different mechanism entirely than the normal public general statutes and also relate to specific persons and places. This mechanism is still in use to this day and, as Senators will be aware, a private Act was enacted as recently as 2003, namely the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Charters Amendment) Act 2003.
As more than 33,000 local, personal and private statutes must be assessed, in addition to the 26,730 public and general statutes already assessed, it was thought appropriate to preserve these statutes as an entire category at this time. They will be assessed at a future stage and will be the subject of further statute law revision measures.
Section 2(3) has the effect of repealing a part of the Bill of Rights 1688. This is the only partial repeal contained in the Bill. It arises because some provisions of the Bill of Rights may be of continuing legal relevance and, therefore, the entire Bill cannot be repealed. However certain elements of the Bill of Rights are discriminatory, such as between different religions, and these elements are being removed for obvious reasons.
Section 3 provides for the listing in Schedule 2 of the statutes repealed by the Bill as a consequence of the fact that they have not been preserved by section 2 and Schedule 1. These comprise the 3,188 statutes which did apply or may have applied to Ireland, have not been fully repealed and do not have any continuing relevance.
Section 4 assigns Short Titles to all public general statutes that are in force, are not going to be repealed by this Bill and do not have Short Titles. Sections 5 to 7 amend Short Titles conferred by a number of earlier Acts. These are Short Titles which are unconventional or misleading. The effect of this Bill will be to standardise the Short Titles of all surviving statutes to facilitate and simplify the making of references to those Acts.
Section 8 provides for certain of the early statutes to be proved in court by being produced in certain official publications or in copies from such publications as certified by a specified institution. At present, the only institution specified will be the National Library, although the Taoiseach may specify other institutions. This provision is necessary because of the difficulty, or in many cases the impossibility, of producing original copies of very old legislation.
Section 9 is a savings clause, which is standard for Bills of this type, with some additional provisions. The savings clause is designed to ensure that no unintended consequences arise from the repeals effected by the Bill. One of the most important effects of the savings clause is the provision that where we are now repealing an Act which had itself repealed an earlier Act, our repeal through this Bill does not have the effect of reviving the earlier Act. They will both be repealed.
Section 10 provides for a Short Title and collective citation of the Short Titles Acts. Schedule 1 lists the statutes that are being retained, while Schedule 2 lists the statutes that are not being retained and, in consequence, repealed.
The Bill is a major and historic step toward our ultimate goal of completely modernising the Statute Book. It will allow us to give democratic legitimacy to the body of laws in our Statute Book by giving the approval of the Oireachtas to those laws which are to continue in force, while also cutting out more than 3,000 laws which serve no further purpose. The Bill provides, for the first time in our history, complete clarity as to exactly which laws apply in this State. I hope Senators will enjoy an interesting and productive debate on this subject and I commend the Bill to the House. Finally, I express my appreciation of the people involved in helping us through this interesting process.