I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for sticking with us. We are at a defining moment in Irish parliamentary democracy and we must proceed with great care lest we be sorry in the future. The fundamental question we need to answer concerns what type of parliament we need to best serve the Irish people and whether the abolition of the Seanad will provide for that through this Bill. I do not accept that it will.
Leaving out Seanad reform for the moment, this Bill could have presented a once-in-decades golden opportunity for the reform of politics, but it does not do that. Unfortunately, this proposal is lazy and minimalist. There are serious deficiencies in this Bill for what it envisages in the absence of a Seanad. The first of these is the lack of any form of legislative delay provision, which is a glaring deficiency. This is somewhat ironic, given the way this Bill was guillotined through the Dáil, which is not unusual. If this is agreed, there will be no constitutional requirement for a Bill to have even more than one reading or to go through more than one Stage in the Dáil. It will be quite feasible, even if unlikely, for a future government to change Dáil procedures to require only a single vote to pass a Bill. This is a clear danger of not having a second House.
Many of the small unicameral countries held up as shining examples in the past few days or weeks have explicit constitutional requirements for at least two Stages when passing a Bill. Most have some delay built in between these Stages, or at least the potential to trigger some delay. This happened here naturally when a Bill had to come to the Seanad. With the Seanad gone, this protection will be gone. This is not good for democracy and will not provide for the necessary scrutiny of legislation which affects Irish people's lives daily. For example, Luxembourg has a minimum delay of three months. Finland has a veto of up to three months and in Iceland there is the potential for referral to a referendum.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, mentioned Denmark. There, two-fifths of MPs can direct the Speaker to delay the Final Stage of a Bill by up to 12 weekdays. Many larger countries still have their second chambers and the delay that comes with that. Can we assume our Parliament functions so splendidly that such conventional safeguards would be superfluous? We cannot. We should not diminish democracy and nor should our Taoiseach. Nor should we diminish the importance of reflection and consideration, which come only with time and legislative review.
What are the Taoiseach and Government offering instead in terms of an improved Parliament, which is ultimately about serving the people? They are offering Friday Dáil sittings, which are essentially window dressing. These are not realistic for country Members and do not constitute meaningful reform. Dáil Deputies need to be in their constituencies to take soundings on the issues that matter to people if they are to inform policy and legislation effectively. A strengthened committee system has also been promised, but that is not mentioned in this Bill. I love the capacity for exchange in committees and find it useful. However, only members of a committee can propose amendments and vote on them. Committee members nominated by parties are frequently groomed into consensus. Consider, for example, the effect of this on the health committee hearings on the abortion Bill. Apart from a few independent voices, that committee in no way reflected the level of difference across the House or among the public. Contrast that with the diversity and detail offered in the 2,664 amendments introduced to improve legislation in the Seanad during this term alone. I was stunned by the number of amendments introduced here when I checked the number. There is not time for such detail in the Dáil. Let us be careful, therefore, that in deciding to abolish the Seanad we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remember, the devil is generally in the detail.
What is possible with this approach, with the promised referendum to change the Constitution? Ideally, an amendment Bill would have transferred the Seanad's notional delay powers to the Dáil and made them functional. For example, it would write in an explicit requirement for two or more Stages into the Constitution and perhaps it would allow for a qualified minority of one third of Deputies to ask the Ceann Comhairle to delay the Final Stage of a money Bill for 21 days and that of a non-money Bill for three months. This provision is already in the Constitution for the Seanad.
Look at the folly of the blanket bank guarantee - something we rue to this day - which was rushed into overnight and left us in hock up to our ears for generations to come. Of course we must move swiftly sometimes, but the provisions for emergency Bills already exist, if the President assents. It is a concern that a Government with a majority of almost two-thirds, which guillotines more Bills than not, has neglected to include any form of legislative break whatsoever in this amendment.
The second major deficiency of this Bill is the elimination of the possibility of having two non-Dáil Ministers, which may come as a surprise to Members. A former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, appointed a Senator, Jim Dooge, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I would like to have seen that provision retained because, as we know, the necessary expertise is not always elected to the Dáil. What, for example, would be wrong with having an Elderfield, a Honohan or a Ken Whitaker appointed to Cabinet to provide expertise? This would demonstrate thinking politics, rather than simplistic populist politics designed to pretend that abolition equates to reform. I am sorry to say that the leader of my party, the Taoiseach, has subscribed to that approach.
The third deficiency is one the people need to be made aware of. This amendment Bill will lead to the deletion of Article 27 of the Constitution, which provides the Seanad with the ability to petition the President for a referendum. I know the people will be concerned by this when they are made aware of it. Do other single-house parliaments have this provision? They do. Denmark, for example, has had an even stronger provision in its constitution for decades, whereby one-third of its members can petition the Speaker for a referendum. I feel that the retention of this provision would be very useful, because it provides a useful safeguard for Bills of national importance, such as the abortion Bill. However, with the proposed amendment to the Constitution, there is no replacement provision and this safeguard is gone. Would Members consider that less or more democratic? I see it as a further indication of a power grab and a move towards more absolutism. If that is not the case, let us change this.
The fourth opportunity lost with this Bill was the opportunity to reform the election of the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The fifth deficiency is that there are no proposals for Dáil or committee reform in the Bill. Despite the fact the Government has had two years to draft this Bill, there is no indication of any proposed Dáil or committee reform in it. This is appalling. If the Government genuinely believes in Dáil reform, why does it not enshrine the proposed new Dáil and committee structures in our Constitution by way of this referendum? This is a great opportunity. Either the Government is serious about political reform or it is not. If it does not want to do it in the Constitution, the Dáil could, as we know, pass these reforms next week if it were serious about doing so.
As I see it, there are two options for genuine political reform. The Seanad could simply be reformed in a way that would not need a referendum - for example, through the passing of a Bill such as either of those put forward by Senators Quinn and Zappone. Alternatively, these improved roles or powers could be transferred to the Dáil. However, that is not built into this Bill. It does neither of these. It would be easier to vote in favour of abolition if the Bill provided for reform. The Bill proposes a very poor offering to the people. Thus, I believe that once the people realise what is going on here, there will be a strong vote against the abolition of the Seanad.
With regard to my position, I am fundamentally a democrat. On that basis, I will vote in favour of a referendum and give the people the opportunity to vote "Yes" or "No" to abolition. However, I do not agree with their being given only that choice. Today I call on the Taoiseach to frame the choice offered to the people in the form of a yes-or-no question asking whether they agree with reform of the Seanad. Democracy is not something to be trifled with. It was hard won by our forefathers. All of us in these Houses, including the Minister of State, are but guardians of the Constitution for a very short time. Therefore, before we decide to throw the Seanad, our second limb of democracy, away, I recommend that we look very carefully at how to improve and reform it before the referendum.
If the choice is "Yes" or "No" to abolition, I will be recommending a "No" vote on the basis that "No" will be a call for a reformed Seanad at the next general election, or at the very least, a radically reformed Dáil.
I want to speak very quickly on the opportunities for reform. First, there must be universal suffrage. Second, expertise matters. A reformed Seanad should provide the expertise needed to represent the needs of Irish society in a functioning and effective democracy. Third, a reformed Seanad does not need a Whip system. That is not envisaged at all in the Constitution. Without the party Whip system, the people could have more confidence in the independence of thought of its Members. With the Whip system, one is essentially asked to leave one's brain and one's conscience outside the door. That is appalling and is not what Irish people expect when they put their confidence in electing politicians. Without a Whip system, a consensus and a majority view can still emerge in the Seanad. Directly elected by the people to the various panels of expertise, its members can represent independent thinking without fear or favour of the Whip system.
The Whip system in the Irish Parliament is more oppressive than any other in the Western world. The American President, Barack Obama, tried to bring in gun legislation, but he could not do it because his party did not back him. They do things over there by negotiation and by making a strong case. In Westminster, Conservative Party backbenchers can introduce a Bill against the wishes of their leader, yet they do not lose the Whip. Maggie Thatcher, as British Prime Minister, voted against her own Government on hare coursing, which is not unheard of here. Such a democratic approach instills the confidence of the people in the Members they elect.
Between the lack of a free vote on conscience grounds, about which we have heard a lot in the last few weeks, and the elimination of the Seanad without a stronger alternative, I believe something very bad and unhealthy is afoot. Our Taoiseach should not be afraid of losing control. Nobody wants this Government to fall or to fail. We want it to succeed, but we want it to be democratic in the process.