Thomas P. BroughanQuestion:
1. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the time-frame for a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann [23668/13]View answer
Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 2 July 2013
1. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the time-frame for a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann [23668/13]View answer
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if a date has been decided for the referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25195/13]View answer
3. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the timescale for the referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [27555/13]View answer
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update on the planned referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27874/13]View answer
5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if a date has been agreed for the holding of a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [28685/13]View answer
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans for the holding of a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [28686/13]View answer
7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the consultation process he intends to hold in relation to his plans to hold a referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [28687/13]View answer
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if his Department has a special unit in place to prepare for the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28695/13]View answer
9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will circulate his Departments memos and minutes of meetings held regarding the forthcoming Seanad referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30375/13]View answer
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if his Department officials have given him any assessment they have made on the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30376/13]View answer
11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the timeframe for the referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [31609/13]View answer
12. Deputy Simon Harris asked the Taoiseach his plans to hold a referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann. [31844/13]View answer
13. Deputy Dara Murphy asked the Taoiseach the progress made to date on introducing a unicameral style of parliament; and if he will provide an update on the referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann. [31930/13]View answer
14. Deputy Helen McEntee asked the Taoiseach the progress being made towards a referendum to have a single chamber Parliament. [31933/13]View answer
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 14, inclusive, together.
The Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013 was published on 6 June last. As Deputies will be aware, the Bill completed all Stages in the Dáil on 25 June and is now with the Seanad. While a date has not been set for the referendum, the Government intends that it will be held in the autumn.
The programme for Government contains a clear commitment to ask the people in a referendum whether they wish to abolish the Seanad. Accordingly, my Department's assessment of the proposal and the Department's records relate to the implementation of that commitment in the Bill and its contents, and associated proposals for Dáil reform.
My Department has set up a small unit to deal with the matter. Its focus at the moment is to support the Government in the passage of the Bill through the Houses. The unit has one member of staff working on a full-time basis and three working on a part-time basis. If the legislation is passed by the Oireachtas, the unit will remain in place. It will operate in accordance with the law relating to referendums and in accordance with relevant court judgments. If the proposal is approved by the people, I envisage the unit will remain in place to work on the implementation of the people's decision and associated reform measures.
With regard to consultation, the Bill and explanatory memorandum were published on 6 June, well in advance of the proposed referendum date. The proposals in the Bill are being and will be debated extensively, both by the Houses of the Oireachtas and in the wider public forum, in the period between publication of the Bill and the referendum. Ultimately, it is the people who are to be consulted on the future of the Seanad.
While the Government does not propose to conduct a public information campaign, such a campaign will be conducted by the Referendum Commission. The early publication of the Bill, some months in advance of the referendum and the fact that the commission has already been established will no doubt assist the commission in its work.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I understand a Referendum Commission has been established under Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne. In light of complaints made about a lack of resources available to the Referendum Commission established for the children's referendum, will the Taoiseach confirm that sufficient resources will be made available to the new commission? I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks, specifically in respect of the Supreme Court judgment in the McCrystal case. What will be the impact in terms of the way in which the Government will prosecute the campaign to persuade people that the Seanad should be abolished? In my view, the Seanad is a useless and ineffective institution and should be abolished. What does the Government intend to do in its campaign?
I welcome the decision to establish a small unit which will, I understand, work on further reform of Dáil Éireann. It is very small if it has only one full-time member of staff. Will it not be important to present to citizens a significant programme of Dáil reform, including in the area of committee powers and so forth?
Will the Taoiseach consider rerunning the referendum on Dáil powers? I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts for eight or nine years and I know the Taoiseach has been a member of many Oireachtas committees. Clearly, the lack of those key powers was a fundamental obstruction to Deputies in doing our jobs. I ask the Taoiseach to look at that again. A small elite group of people, led by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats and Minister, Mr. Michael McDowell, Mr. Noel Whelan, a senior Fianna Fáil activist, and others, did their damnedest to defeat the attempt to give the Dáil much more significant powers. They look like they are lining up again to take on what I believe is the right policy of fundamental reform of the Dáil and abolition of the Seanad.
The Government will not run an information campaign. Clearly, we need to abide by the Supreme Court rulings in respect of a previous referendum and the Government will comply with that fully and completely. However, the parties of Government will run a campaign in respect of information for the public about the abolition of the Seanad. The referendum commission is now working on the basis of the provision of information about the Seanad and about the issues relating to its abolition or to its not being abolished. It will be properly resourced and in that sense it will do its work completely independently of Government.
The question of Dáil reform is a matter for Government and for the Oireachtas. I have been doing some work on a number of issues in regard to Dáil reform and I would like to talk to the party leaders and their Whips about that. It is in everybody's interest that we make decisions about a more effective running of this House to use the time more effectively to provide opportunities for people to get involved in legislation in a way that has started with the Friday sittings and the production of Private Members' Bills and so on. On an average week of 24 hours' legislative work here, approximately 11 hours goes to the detail of legislation. We have to make arrangements for people who want to raise priority issues, Topical Issues, Priority Questions and Leaders' Questions. We need to take a serious look at how we focus on the operation of the House here to make it more effective and more energetic. I know the Ceann Comhairle has had a number of ideas over many years. I am certainly not one to say that we should not change the way that we run the business of the House. Over the course of this month I hope to have the opportunity to sit down with other leaders and present our own set of proposals that might make the running of the place more effective.
As Deputy Broughan knows, having been a Deputy for a long time, we have had many proposals over the past two and a half decades, some of which worked well for a short while and some of which did not. It is very hard to put in place processes that allow for new Dáileanna and new representatives when they are elected. However, I hope we can improve somewhat on where we are now.
I asked the Taoiseach a number of questions on the referendum to abolish the Seanad. I believe he answered two of them but did not answer the other two and I ask him to look at that again. I asked if the date had been decided and obviously he has said that no date is yet decided. Question No. 8 asked the Taoiseach if his Department has a special unit in place to prepare for the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann and if he will make a statement on the matter. I believe he said he had one person in a unit, which is fair enough. Question No. 9 asked the Taoiseach if he will circulate his Department's memorandums and minutes of meetings held regarding the forthcoming Seanad referendum and if he will make a statement on the matter. There was no response in the answer the Taoiseach gave. That is a legitimate question of which I gave due notice. It was tabled some time ago and it is not good enough to have no reference to it in the answer.
Question No. 10 asked the Taoiseach if his Department officials have given him any assessment they have made on the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann and if he will make a statement on the matter. I do not believe the Taoiseach referred to that either. Does such an assessment by the officials exist? Some months ago the Taoiseach indicated to me that enormous preparatory work was being done on this issue. He declined to share that work with me and other Members of the House. I asked him to do it and he just smiled and ignored my question.
The Taoiseach has said he is going to have a chat with us about Dáil reform at the end of the month. He had his chance to have real engagement on these issues with other Members of the House and he chose not to take it. He simply chooses to ignore Opposition politicians on this proposal. While that is his entitlement, he should not come in here now and say he is going to have a chat about how the House will change its ways when he is the main architect of running the House into the ground and leaving us with a Dáil that is more unaccountable now than it ever was. This proposal that will ultimately go before the people will essentially give extraordinary powers to the Government, which has a huge majority over all areas of public policy. What is required is radical reform of the electoral politics of the Dáil itself and not just the Seanad. Having just one system will reduce scrutiny of legislation and will lead to an increased concentration of power in the hands of a few as opposed to having a broader spectrum of opinion.
On the date for a referendum, the referendum commission was scathing of the Government's performance over the Oireachtas inquiries referendum on which it claimed that the time allotted to the commission was "grossly inadequate" to use its term. We know the debacle in which the Government ended up in the children's rights referendum which is still in the courts because of the mishandling of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, when the Government went off and unnecessarily circulated its own propaganda on the referendum and did not allow the referendum commission to do it on its own as it is the independent body.
In that context, the recommendation is that a minimum of three months would be provided for the commission to inform the public on the referendum proposal. The Taoiseach has said that no date has been provided. It would make sense that the Taoiseach should indicate as early as possible - there should be no major mystery to this - the date of the referendum. Furthermore, I ask the Taoiseach that from now he gives a minimum of five months. There is no hurry here. We have until the end of this Dáil term because the Taoiseach has said repeatedly that if the public votes for its abolition, the Seanad will not fall immediately but will continue until the next general election in, I believe, 2016, so there is no need to rush this through the House. Politically, August is a dead month in terms of the public engaging with the issues - not all issues, obviously, but in terms of the conduct of a referendum.
We need a meaningful response to the referendum commission's scathing criticisms of the Government's handling of previous referendums. Given that there are 40 changes to the Constitution consequent on the abolition of the Seanad, we need to give the public enough time to digest the impact of the change and to have sufficient public debate. There is no time imperative that demands that the Government rams this through for its own political agenda.
The Taoiseach said that the abolition of the Seanad would save €20 million. This has been refuted by the Clerk of the Dáil. He has confirmed that gross savings would be less than €10 million a year. If we add on the real savings after tax, it would be only €6 million to €7 million in savings, which represents less than 1% of the cost of Dublin City Council. We need less of this propaganda and more accurate statements from the Taoiseach about what the abolition of the Seanad would entail in terms of costs and so forth. How much time is the Taoiseach prepared to give to the referendum commission in advance of polling date?
In respect of the information available in the Department, what we are talking about here is a clear commitment of both parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, to put a referendum to the people to abolish the Seanad. When I was in the Seanad last week talking about the Bill, Members asked me why this was not referred to the Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention is a very important entity.
However, it is an entity that makes recommendations to Government for consideration by Government either to be accepted or rejected. In this case the parties making up the Government, that is, my party and the Labour Party, and the Tánaiste and myself have already agreed that there would be a Government decision to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad.
It is only some of the Labour Party, not all of the Labour Party.
This is not a good week for Deputy Martin to get into that.
The position was that the assessment carried out by the Department and by the officials was on the basis of what needed to be done in order to put a question to the people to abolish the Seanad. In other words, it was necessary to prepare the heads of the referendum Bill and that meant examining the Constitution and focusing on every article that either directly or indirectly had a relationship with the Seanad and in the preparation of the Bill provide for the removal of those articles from the Constitution. That has gone through the House and is currently-----
Will the Taoiseach make that available to us?
Yes. There is nothing secretive about that. I can give Deputy Martin that information. It is the assessment of the articles in the Constitution that need to be dealt with, removed, amended or altered, as the case may be.
Deputy Martin said the Constitutional Convention was examining the electoral system and that it would make recommendations on that.
I did not speak about the convention.
I hear the former Deputy and Minister, Mary O'Rourke, talking these days. She came up with proposals for Seanad reform in 2003.
I did not talk about Mary O'Rourke.
I am talking about her.
You have asked a question, Deputy Martin, and you must allow the Taoiseach to reply.
He is not answering.
When Deputy Martin says-----
He wanders and meanders around this House and abuses this process.
I will let you come back in later.
He never listens.
I asked about Question No. 9. Will the Taoiseach answer Question No. 9?
One of the hallmarks of those in an arrogant Government is that they never listen.
I asked about Question No. 9. Am I entitled to an answer or not?
You are entitled to ask, through the Chair, please.
Through the Chair, this is very frustrating. The Taoiseach is abusing this process.
Cool down. We will get to your answers shortly.
It has happened time and time again.
The Taoiseach to reply. Other Deputies have questions.
I hear this week after week. The Taoiseach is filibustering and going all over the place and he will not answer the specific questions he is asked.
Deputy, would you please behave yourself and show some respect to the House?
I am behaving myself. The Taoiseach should behave himself.
You are not.
With respect, we are entitled to answers.
You are not entitled to jump in and shout across the Chamber when you feel like it.
I simply want an answer. There is argy-bargy from time to time in the House. I would not get too excited about it.
I will come back to you again. Other people have questions as well. The Taoiseach to continue with his reply. Thank you.
The position in so far as the Dáil being accountable is one that we are obviously interested in. Deputy Martin has done a good deal of shouting. The former Deputy, Mary O'Rourke, brought in her proposals for Seanad reform in 2003. All of that could have been implemented by Fianna Fáil and the former Progressive Democrats Party with the former Minister for Justice, but there was no appetite for change then. Instead, the then Government went the other way and set up a plethora of Dáil committees, rewarding chairmen, vice-chairmen, conveners and everyone else. Measures included the appointment of 20 Ministers of State to keep people quiet. In 2007, the Constituency Commission was not tasked with any reduction in the number of Members of the Dáil. In fact, the Fianna Fáil election manifesto sought 180 politicians in the House, no less. I understand that the working group from the party brought forward its recommendations and these included a 15 minute Order of Business and two hours' advanced notice of Leaders' Questions. The first meeting Fianna Fáil held in the new year, on 3 January 2011, was to discuss Seanad abolition. At that point, the party that Deputy Martin leads was not opposed to its abolition. In fact, talks had taken place between the then Ministers, Mr. Kileen, Mr. Gormley and Deputy Martin. Then, clearly, the party changed its tune. Of course other Members from other parties had a similar experience.
The Taoiseach knows our position.
Deputy Martin referred to €20 million. The total running costs of the Seanad have been estimated by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to be in the region of €20 million per annum. This is based on the 2012 outturn and includes all direct and apportioned or indirect costs. Direct costs related to Seanad Members' salaries, expenses and staff costs amount to €8.8 million. Indirect pay and non-pay costs of the supporting sections, that is, information and communications technology, the office of the Superintendent and procedural and support sections amount to €9.3 million. There is also an annual cost of approximately €2 million in pensions. The pensions of former Members are paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission under subhead 2.1, grant-in-aid in respect of ciste pinsean Thithe an Oireachais. The commission has indicated that it is not possible to estimate the amount of net actual savings that would arise if the Seanad were abolished. While there would be savings related to salary and expense costs, parliamentary printing, information and communications technology and other support services, etc., there would be substantial increases in the pension costs and possible other payments to outgoing Senators.
The Government has not decided on the date of the referendum but it is expected to be in October. The Government will make its decision on that in due course. Did Deputy Martin raise anything else with me?
Question No. 9.
As I said, this was a clear commitment of both parties, and, therefore, the Government, to hold a referendum with regard to abolishing the Seanad. From that point of view there were no meetings about minutes and memoranda on an ongoing basis. This was a clear Government decision that was communicated to the Departments. The work they have done relates to what is necessary in order to be able to put a question to the people on whether they want to abolish Seanad Éireann. The work included the preparation of the heads of the Bill. This meant that we examined the entire Constitution insofar as any of its articles are related to the Seanad. That is the work that has been done and I can supply Deputy Martin with that material.
The next question was in the name of Deputy Joe Higgins, but my office has received a message from him. Unfortunately, Deputy Higgins is in Kerry with his elderly mother, who is seriously ill.
I am sorry to hear that.
Deputy Higgins has passed on his apologies for not being here to take his question. The following question is from Deputy Boyd Barrett.
I wish to pass on my best wishes to Deputy Higgins and his mother.
We all do.
Fianna Fáil's abysmal failure to institute political reform and its double standards when it jumps up and down now about political reform are apparent to people. However, the issue is about this Government and whether it is serious in its commitment to political reform. I am happy to give credit where credit is due. The Government said that it would abolish the Seanad and has moved to do so. I support the abolition of the Seanad because it is an unrepresentative and elitist entity that does not enhance democracy. However, if the Taoiseach was listening to people in the country he would know that since this issue has come up the public sentiment on the matter is perfectly clear. They want the choice of more democracy not less democracy. They want to see the abolition of the existing Seanad, but they want abolition to take place in the context of an enhanced democracy and a greater level of political accountability, whereby, for example, politicians who make promises and break them can be held to account and whereby people do not have to wait five years to do so. There is clearly a concern among the public about the idea that if we simply abolish the Seanad then we are left with Cabinet dictatorship. This Government has not especially inspired confidence in this regard given its repeated use of guillotines and repeated short-circuiting of debates on vital issues.
Will the Taoiseach listen to the public in the context of the forthcoming referendum and link the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad to a serious debate on democratic reform and how we enhance democracy in order that the whole thing is seen as a package whereby we get more democracy, not less? I put it to the Taoiseach that if he does not do that, he runs a serious risk of losing the referendum. That is where the public sentiment is going such is the level of mistrust of politicians in general. This must be addressed. That is my question to the Taoiseach. Is he going to listen to what the public is saying on this issue?
Can the Taoiseach convince them it is not just about "Yes" or "No" to the existing Seanad but that he seriously intends to listen to their views and put forward and be willing to accept proposals about how the democracy in this country can be improved and enhanced? Unless the Taoiseach does that, he and the entire political establishment will rue the day.
The Deputy did not actually state whether he supports the abolition of the Seanad.
I support the abolition. That is absolutely clear.
Okay, that is clear, and so do I. I accept the Government must engage with the public in a public discourse in this regard. That is the reason there will be a campaign by the parties in government about the abolition of the Seanad and the referendum commission will proceed to do its work independently. When I spoke on this subject at the MacGill summer school a number of years ago, reform of the Seanad was on my mind. However, on considering it, the more one looks at it, one either will end up with a minority discriminatory select system, such as one has at present, or with another version of this House. Consequently, the answer is one on which I agree with the Deputy, namely, we must do our business in this House far more effectively in the interests of openness, accountability and transparency. When I make an offer to talk to Deputy Martin, who is passing me by in the Chamber at present, he tells me it is too late. However, it is never too late because as someone who has been around this place for a long time, I have seen different versions and proposals for Dáil reform to make the place more effective over the years. Some have worked and some have not. I certainly am game ball, as is the Tánaiste.
We have already announced some of these proposals, such as use of the d'Hondt system for the dispensation of the new system of committee chairs to provide greater cross-sectional involvement in such committees. The Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill, which is going through the Houses at present, will allow for committees to undertake parliamentary inquiries into certain matters of major public importance and a separate administrative system will ensure this works. The intention is to appoint 14 Oireachtas committees. There will be four strategic committees on issues of major strategic and political importance, including the Committee of Public Accounts, finance and European Union scrutiny, which is an issue that always is raised. There will be seven sectoral committees to shadow Departments, as well as a number of thematic committees that will focus on specific issues, including the Ombudsman and petitions, the Good Friday Agreement and so on.
An important element of what is happening is that in the process of legislation going through this House, there will be a pre-enactment Stage before legislation is signed off on fully. The heads of the Bill will be approved by the Government and sent to the committee, which will send them back to the Government for the preparation of the Bill. Then there will be the Second Stage, Committee Stage and normal Report Stage debates. Thereafter, before the Bill is finally signed off, there will be a pre-enactment Stage to establish whether anything has been missed, whether something should have been attended to or whether some other issue has arisen but which had not been considered.
The public wants much more.
My genuine belief is the committee system, having the ability to draw in experts or anyone who has a view on a subject, will get a far deeper and more comprehensive cross-section of analysis early on. Consequently, when the committee reverts to the Government with its response to the heads of a Bill, it will be with a much broader assessment than currently applies. I have heard people state that one gets highly colourful contributions from the Seanad on Second Stage. This is true and some of them have been very good. However, an effective committee system could have far more of that, as well as far more involvement from people who have experience or a point of view on a proposal. I saw this in Finland recently, where they have a highly extensive system of involvement of advocacy groups, communities, individuals, organisations and agencies as part of the analysis of the legislation. It is all in public in order that the accountability and transparency to which Deputy Boyd Barrett refers is present.
I envisage the committee system being enhanced, being resourced and being given those powers here in a more streamlined legislative process. In my view, this will give a far deeper and more comprehensive analysis of the preparation of legislation, as well as views on such legislation once it has gone through. Ministers will be required to revert within 12 months to engage with the committee and indicate whether the legislation is working and is doing what it was supposed to do and, if glaring anomalies were missed, to rectify them. From that perspective, I wish to talk to everyone before we actually introduce the system in order that it really is effective in the interests of the people.
I also wish to send best wishes to Teachta Higgins's mother and to the Higgins family. I will give my own take on what politics should be about. It should be about empowering citizens, systems of government should be accountable and transparent, and politicians should be the servants of the people. Consequently, the starting point of this discussion on the reform of the Oireachtas should have been about how our democracy is organised and how our governmental systems are organised. As to how this is done in the context of a post-Good Friday Agreement environment, one must have a notion of an all-Ireland vision about all this, as well as on how we reach out to the diaspora. I am a relative newcomer here and find it highly dysfunctional. I find the institutions to be exclusive and have only to cite the Government Chief Whip, who has acknowledged the Government's record on Dáil reform is deplorable. The guillotine is in free use and all the while it looks as though more power is being given to the Government and yet, in his election promises, the Taoiseach was loud in taking about the people's revolution, the need for root and branch reform and so on.
Then one comes to the issue of the abolition of the Seanad. The Seanad is not representative, is exclusive and is not elected by universal suffrage and so clearly it must go. However, the proposed referendum does not give people the choice of being able to vote for a reformed Seanad. I refer to those who might prefer a bicameral system as opposed to a unicameral system, and while I acknowledge the Taoiseach has been citing unicameral systems in other places, most of them also have strong local government structures, which is not the case here. Consequently, with the deepest respect, I am not at all taken by the idea that the Taoiseach will have a talk with Members before the new system is introduced. There must be a discussion about these matters in which ideas are swapped. I attended the Constitutional Convention and it was desperately frustrating for all the citizen participants present that they could not discuss the abolition of the Seanad. They could not even discuss it because they were not allowed to so do.
There is cynicism abroad within society about politics and politicians for very good reason. However, we still retain the tradition of the meitheal and of cabhair na gcomharsan. There remains a sense of volunteerism and people are highly active within their communities. The Constitutional Convention is evidence of this because every single citizen delegate to whom I spoke was delighted to be there. While those involved would tell one they were not coming down with all sorts of academic qualifications, nevertheless they read themselves into it, took the job seriously, did it and felt privileged and honoured to be a part of it. This shows that were a Government genuinely about root and branch reform, about empowering citizens and about bringing in a genuinely republican form of government in which the people were sovereign, one would get a highly positive response to all this. However, given the manner in which it is being done, the Government is missing a huge opportunity to bring forward real political reform and I think it will leave a mess. I do not say that with any sense of satisfaction.
Does the Taoiseach not agree that a rebalancing of power within the Oireachtas between the Executive and the Legislature is required? Does he not agree that real reform of local government is required, as opposed to what obtains at present? Does he agree that rather than having a centralised core comprising an Executive or a Cabinet holding control, a system in which people genuinely can have a sense of ownership is needed?
People in this country in general have always involved themselves extensively in the national politics of the day.
That has always been reflected in the high percentages of turnout in national elections because people in this country are always interested in politics and the issues that affect us on a global, European and national scale. However, Government is about leadership and making decisions and this Government made a decision to put a question on the Seanad to the people in a referendum. There was not any need to have a recommendation from the Constitutional Convention in that regard because the Government had already made its decision that this is what it would do, in the same way as the Government will decide on the recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention, be it on the Presidency, the voting age or whatever. I look forward to the recommendations it will make and has made on a number of issues that have been given to it to consider, including, in due course, its views on the electoral system.
The Deputy also mentioned local government reform. Clearly, that is of interest to everybody, particularly to those who might have come up through the ranks of service in local authorities. That is part of the local government Bill, which will be here before the end of the year. It is an extensive Bill where powers are being devolved back down to local authorities. As the Deputy is aware, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is reducing substantially the number of councillors, amalgamating a number of city and borough councils, and abolishing town councils. Also, in regard to the property tax, local authorities will have the option and the decision whether to increase or reduce the property tax over a period, adhering to the Government principle that the vast majority of the revenue raised by the tax is retained within the local authority area.
I agree with Deputy Adams. The meitheal concept was never stronger than it is now. It is part of the personality of our people that in times of challenge they come to assist each other. That can be seen in many small ways throughout the country every day and every weekend when thousands of people give of their time voluntarily for common causes in their individual communities. I strongly support that. I have been witness to it for many years. That is an issue that needs to be reflected in the way Government goes about its business in that we must not lose that voluntary community commitment, a personal commitment, that is so strong and is, as Deputy Adams said, a central core of the meitheal concept, coming from our tradition of challenge and hardship.
From that point of view the points made are valid. There is no perfect system of parliamentary democracy. If one goes to-----
-----Capitol Building, the Senate or the Congress one will see it is much like this, except on a bigger scale. I have been there on a number of occasions when only one person was speaking to the television camera, with his or her script or whatever it might be. Others are away attending delegation meetings, doing committee work or whatever.
We have an opportunity, which we intend to take as a Government, to have an effective unicameral system here, that is if the people decide to abolish the Seanad, and to prove that the preparation of legislation, the analysis of legislation and the contribution to legislation can be done far more effectively by a strong committee system where experts, individuals, groups, organisations and letter writers to the newspapers can be called before committees and asked for their view. That can be sent back to Government and repeated during Committee Stage. What I believe is a real advantage is a pre-enactment Stage which will involve the committee reflecting on the legislation in terms of what it has done, whether it missed something, if there is an issue that has arisen since or if there is anything outstanding. Finally, once it goes through, the Minister of the day can re-engage with the committee. From my experience over the years, if we can manage to do that effectively, I believe it will be a huge improvement on the current system.
The British Government sets outs its programme almost 12 months in advance. It is difficult to do that here. We are faced with pressure on a legislative basis over the coming weeks, and people want to be able to get away for a break during the summer. The staff are fatigued and exhausted as a result of the extended hours we sit here. In that sense I hope we can put in place now a system for the management of this House, with particular emphasis on the committees.
Regarding Deputy Boyd Barrett's comment that we need a more demonstrably effective way of doing business, that is in everybody's interest. Whoever the people elect is their own business but whoever they elect should have the right and the opportunity to contribute to legislation in the fullest way possible.
I very much welcome the advancement of a Seanad referendum, which was a commitment the Taoiseach personally, and both parties in government, gave in advance of the election and I am pleased to see it progressing.
The Taoiseach spoke about the establishment of a referendum commission. It is important that the commission is up and running at an early stage but considering the number of referenda this Government has held and intends to hold, has the Taoiseach given any thought to putting a referendum commission on a more permanent basis or even establishing a broader electoral commission? We all know that in our local authority areas there are disparities in the Registers of Electors. People are turning up to vote in referenda only to find their name has been removed from the list. A body of work needs to be done in that regard, possibly by an electoral commission.
The Taoiseach stated also that Government will comply with the various judgments from the courts. I welcome that but has the Government any intention to consider legislative or potential constitutional change arising from those Supreme Court judgments in regard to the way referenda should be run?
On the issue of electoral reform being considered by the Constitutional Convention, obviously, if there is only one House the way this House is elected comes under even greater scrutiny. What is the Government's timescale for that, considering the electoral reform proposals of the convention?
On the day the Taoiseach finishes the last official event of the Irish Presidency of the European Council, and I congratulate him and the Government on a very successful Presidency, he is in a relatively unique position in this House to have seen many parliaments across this Continent in operation in recent months, many of which represent populations of a similar size to this country with one House. What is the Taoiseach's view on the other countries of a similar size that operate a unicameral system and their effectiveness?
The main complaints regarding referendum commissions was that they were not set up for long enough and did not have enough time, according to the chairpersons appointed to do the job as effectively as they might wish. That is why we have given advance notice of the setting up of this commission. It knows it is to be established and therefore it is doing preparatory work on the kind of properly resourced campaign it will set out for the people.
Some consideration could be given to the setting up of a commission on a permanent basis but if we do that there might be an interim period of a number of years in which no referendum is held. We have already had a number of referendums to date. We will have a number this autumn, and the commission being set up will be able to do the job, and will be properly resourced as well.
Regarding the way referendums should be run, once the referendum commission is set up it is completely independent. Clearly, we are now obliged and will follow the decision of the Supreme Court in the way this matter has to be left to the referendum commission in so far as that is concerned. The parties supporting the referendum will run their own political campaigns outlining why this should be done, the effect of it and what it means in terms of the changes that will be made here so that people can have an argument, a discourse or a conversation about how effective that might be.
In respect of the Presidency, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of countries recently. The Nordic countries such as Denmark, Norway and Finland have effective systems of doing their business. I was particularly struck by the range and the authority of the Finnish committee system. As I said, people who get involved in public comment and public proposals about legislation have the opportunity to feed into the committee system; it is very powerful. New Zealand as well as Croatia, Slovakia and new countries that came from a communist regime have only one house. Most countries with populations of between 4 million and 7.5 million have one house. We have two. The point I was making earlier is if we reform the current system we end up either with a minority electorate, which can be deemed to be discriminatory and does not cover all the issues in the way intended, and Ireland has changed, or some form of directly-elected house similar to the Dáil.
The Seanad has never really been a second House, rather it is a break on the proceedings of the Dáil. On one hand, this matter relates to legislation, the preparation, assessment, effectiveness and implementation thereof and how it works in the interests of the people. On the other, it comes down to ensuring that the issues of the day can be debated and that there is accountability and transparency. It is not beyond the bounds of our ability to make the Parliament much more effective than is currently the case.
It is rare that I agree with my colleague from the Joint Committee on Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Boyd Barrett. However, I am of the view that he was somewhat harsh in what he said about Deputy Martin. While it is true to state that Fianna Fáil has adopted a new position on the Seanad, there is hope that the party may change that position. That was the case in recent days when Fianna Fáil adopted three different positions on the proposed parliamentary inquiry. On Saturday last, Deputy Michael McGrath was unable to indicate whether his party would even co-operate with such an inquiry. On "Morning Ireland" yesterday, Fianna Fáil advocated a Leveson-style inquiry in the first instance and five minutes later it urged the Government to press ahead with its proposed inquiry. There is hope that Fianna Fáil will come around to supporting the Government's position on the matter under discussion.
I compliment the Taoiseach on the decisive approach he has taken on this issue, in respect of which commitments were included in both Fine Gael's election manifesto and the programme for Government. Legislation is forthcoming and a referendum is going to be held. To be fair, different styles are apparent in the House. I refer, for example, to the see-what-way-the-wind-is-blowing approach taken by Deputy Martin and his party to this and so many other issues with which we are dealing at this important juncture.
The Taoiseach indicated that Ireland is the second last country with a population of under 10 million which retains a bicameral system. We are aware of the elite nature of the Seanad and the fact that a very small number of people are allowed to vote in elections relating to that House. It is that lack of democracy which is the reason I am of the view that the Seanad should be abolished. Some eight or nine reports on reform of the Upper House have been compiled to date but no action was taken on any of these.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach a number of questions regarding the functions of this House if the people choose - as I hope they will - to abolish the Seanad. Does he foresee potential for more legislation to be forthcoming and for greater efficiency in the context of how the House conducts its business? Will the committees be given more time within which to consider matters before them? It must be remembered that we already have a very busy working week in the context of conducting our business as elected Members of Parliament.
When the Deputy commenced his contribution, I thought the Members from Cork were going to stick together at all costs. I thank him for his comments. There are two aspects to the work of the committees. The first of these relates to dealing with legislation. Select committees consider Bills that are presented to them on Committee Stage, while the heads of Bills can be sent to joint committees for their consideration and then referred back to the Government. The second aspect relates to committees holding hearings or receiving presentations from groups - be they those which represent fishermen, pensioners, young people or whomever - from throughout the country. From the perspective of committees, this is where their power actually lies. Committee Stage is the most important of all Stages because it is at that point that legislation is teased out on a line-by-line basis.
When the heads of a Bill are prepared, the Minister involved will bring them before Government for its approval. Those heads, which are general in nature, will then be sent to the relevant committee to be considered from a political, social and national perspective. That committee will seek information to assist it in its deliberations and will call before it experts, interested individuals, organisations, advocacy groups, etc. The problem which arises relates to the amount of time available to committees to allow them to do all of this in the period within which the Dáil is actually going to be in session. Separate from this work, a committee may be involved in compiling reports on gambling, alcohol or whatever and it will be obliged to hold other hearings so that it might engage with interested groups and organisations. The members of a committee can contribute to the debate on legislation on Second Stage, Committee Stage and again in the pre-enactment stage.
There is a requirement to structure business in a better way. The main forum of the Dáil is used for the taking of Leaders' Questions, Topical Issues, etc., and we need to focus on achieving the best results from the way in which we conduct our business. I am of the view that the real effect of what is proposed will be the creation of a really strengthened and well-resourced committee system. Under that new system, the chairs of committees will be allocated on the basis of the d'Hondt mechanism. Those who will be appointed as chairmen will have the opportunity to ask, "What do we want to do here?" When proposed legislation is passed, some committees may be required to hold parliamentary inquiries regarding issues of major national importance. I do not believe we can squash all of this business in between 2 p.m. - when we currently commence business - to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, 10.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10.30 a.m. to 5.45 p.m. on Thursdays. We must, therefore, consider the number of hours the Dáil sits each week and how this time can be divided in an effective manner. I attended in the European Parliament this morning, where most speakers have 90 seconds in which to contribute on a given subject. Other speakers are allowed two minutes of speaking time and those who are given very long extensions are able to speak for three minutes and 30 seconds before being cut off. The message there appears to be, "Say it in a short period or don't say it at all".
I thank the Taoiseach for his initial reply to this group of questions. I also welcome the plan to hold a referendum. Should that referendum produce a "Yes" vote, then the committee system will be reformed. In that context, I welcome the pre-enactment and post-enactment stages it is proposed to introduce. The latter will ensure that Ministers will be obliged to return to the House a year after legislation has been enacted in order to provide an update on its implementation. That is an important development.
The Taoiseach referred to how the committees will work in the future. Numerous experts, bodies and groups came recently before the Joint Committee on Health and Children to comment on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. How will the new committee system improve upon that which is already in place? A great deal of time was spent discussing that Bill, the debate on which is beginning to come to an end. The Taoiseach referred to the committee system which obtains in Finland. Is it possible that a similar system might be brought into operation here?
I thank the Deputy for her questions. We have already introduced a change whereby if, for example, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, brings the heads of a Bill to Government and states that he wants to prepare legislation based on the general principles outlined, those heads will be referred to the relevant committee which will examine the principles involved. The committee in question will then decide from whom it should take presentations in order to inform itself of the position in respect of the various issues which arise. The committee will assess whether there are public groups or whatever which might wish to make observations on the legislation and will then invite them to come before it. When it has completed this process, the committee will make recommendations to the Minister and he will bring all of the relevant information back to the Government and seek permission to proceed to prepare a Bill. When this is drafted, it will be introduced in the House and Members will contribute to the debate on Second Stage. It will then be referred to the committee to which the heads were originally referred. That committee will consider what has and what has not been included and whether any matters have been brought to light since its initial deliberations. It will go through the Bill line by line and then refer it back to the Dáil where Report Stage will be taken. When this reform is implemented, there will then be a pre-enactment stage whereby we will be able to assess whether anything has been missed or discuss any issues have been brought to our attention by interested individuals or groups. When, in the future, legislation is passed by the House and signed into law, the relevant Minister will return - within 12 months - to the committee which originally dealt with in order to reflect on how well it has worked, whether it has fulfilled its purpose, whether there is full accountability and transparency in respect of it and whether the intent behind it has been translated into reality in the interests of the people.
The committee systems which obtain in other countries cannot be directly translated to the Irish Parliament.
Many of the ways they do business are well worth seeing in the interests of that openness, transparency and accountability about which they talk.
I will be brief because I realise the Taoiseach needs a break from the interrogation he just received from Deputy Dara Murphy, in particular, and Deputies Harris and McEntee.
They are all good Deputies.
It was very forensic.
The interrogation from the Taoiseach's backbenchers was forensic. I stand back in admiration of their qualities and the very searching questions they helpfully asked, which were obviously prepared by the back room people.
No. We do not want to go down that road.
I want to make it quite clear that every Member of this House is entitled to put a question to the Taoiseach.
I am not questioning that at all.
There is this idea that has built up that only the leaders of parties put questions to the Taoiseach of the day. I disagree totally with that. Every Member is entitled to table questions.
I articulated no disagreement with that at all. I merely commented on the quality of the-----
There is no need to pass comment.
I am entitled to pass a comment, or I hope I am. I know we are just about to discuss a proposal to abolish the Seanad. I hope we will not abolish free speech in the Dáil-----
-----or the right to comment on issues in whatever form we may and in accordance with Standing Orders.
I asked the Taoiseach Question No. 9, to which I would like a specific and straight answer. It should not be difficult because I think he half answered it. I asked the Taoiseach to circulate his Department's memorandums and minutes of meetings held in regard to the forthcoming Seanad referendum and if he would make a statement on the matter. I would appreciate a categoric "Yes" or "No" answer to that question. The Taoiseach seemed to indicate first of all that there were no memorandums or minutes. I am not worried about the content or the purpose of them but I simply believe they should be circulated to help in the overall public debate on the proposal to abolish the Seanad.
My position prior to the general election was clear that we would favour the abolition of the Seanad only in the context of deep and meaningful reform to the electoral system, to the Dáil itself and to the method of appointing persons to the Executive. It would be a very radical programme of reform because I think the crisis we have experienced demands that.
The Taoiseach has dramatically changed his position. In the famous speech in the Glenties, he detailed considerable reform which he believed in then. Then there was the famous dinner at which he abruptly turned, which he was entitled to do, and came forward with the proposal to abolish the Seanad.
We should also record the fact there have been many very good contributions in the Seanad. People did not only make colourful contributions which I think was a bit of a put down to some very good, sustained and significant contributions people from all political backgrounds made in the context of analysing legislation and making important statements on issues of public importance. That must be acknowledged.
The problem is we are abolishing urban councils in their entirety. That is one tier of democracy at a local level which is being abolished. I passionately believe in town councils. In towns throughout the country, I have seen the work of small town councils, which fundamentally represent people coming together in their communities to make a difference. We are getting rid of that but are dressing it up by saying we are reducing the number of councillors. We are increasing the number of councillors in Dublin by, I think, 60, which is an extraordinary number. The reasons are electoral, that is, to keep the Labour Party seats on those councils.
It is population.
We will now have an incredible number of ten-seaters, nine-seaters and so on. It is one of the great gerrymanders we have witnessed in local government. The Government can have that but the abolition of town councils is a retrograde step. Its connection to the Seanad is that it represents another removal of a tier of scrutiny and of public participation in politics and in community activities.
The elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta were done away with. The Government said to people living in the Gaeltacht area that they did not really need to have a say on who sits on Údarás na Gaeltachta. People are beginning to wonder about an authoritarian streak within the Government. If the Government succeeds in having the Seanad abolished, we will be left with an Executive which has dramatically increased the number of guillotines on very important legislation. It has absolute control over everything that happens in this House, including timetables and length of time issues are discussed, through our historic system of the Executive controlling the agenda of the House, and I acknowledge it did not start with this Government. That is the big issue down the line. How far do we go in abolishing democracy and the various tenets of democracy? Direct franchise to the Seanad is an option the Taoiseach could proceed with but he needs to be careful how he proceeds.
Will the Taoiseach circulate the memorandums and minutes?
I call Deputy Adams.
I am next on the list.
Deputy Adams had three questions, Deputy Martin had four questions and you had one question, so be patient and I will come to you.
My question is very straightforward and brief. Why does the Taoiseach not give the citizens the option of a preferendum of abolition, retention or, more important from our point of view, root and branch reform of the second Chamber?
I am in favour of the abolition of the Seanad because it is unrepresentative. However, does the Taoiseach not think the enhanced committee system, about which he talks, could replicate the problems we have with the Seanad? I would welcome greater involvement of different sectors of civic society in the committees but there is nothing to stop the same sort of favouritism of the Government appointing its favourite people, its cronies and so on to an enhanced committee system and, essentially, replicating the same elitism and unrepresentative character at committees.
We need representatives of civic society who are genuinely representative of all sectors of society, unlike Members of the current Seanad, who are directly elected from those different sectors, probably starting at a local level as they would come from voluntary and community organisations and genuinely representative organisations and not just professionals, officials, full-timers and so on. We should build a sort of citizens' direct democracy from the base up, which would have some influence and some teeth in regard to oversight of the way this House operates and the way democracy generally operates.
From what the Taoiseach is saying, there is a real danger that the Government of the day will end up putting its favourites onto the committees, but that does not resolve the problem we are trying to resolve by doing away with an institution which we have already accepted is not representative and has not really functioned in the way it should. What does the Taoiseach say to some sort of citizens' assembly structure, directly elected at a local level, and then maybe building up from there?
##A citizens' assembly is what one calls the local elections. While the town councils are being abolished-----
-----current members can stand for the municipal areas or the county councils. The Government has already published the independent report in respect of the boundaries for those local elections and the constituencies are much larger than applied previously which will give a fairer distribution of support from the people.
In some areas but not-----
They are in the vast majority of areas. That was an independent operation. I will give Deputy Martin whatever material I have in regard to the assessment of what needs to be done to draw up the Bill for the abolition of the Seanad and the reasons all the articles of the Constitution have to be dealt with by abolition, by amendment or otherwise.
That was not the question.
The Government made a very clear decision to ask the people whether to abolish the Seanad. I agree with Deputy Martin that some very fine speeches have been made in the Seanad over the years. Why would there not have been when Members included people from ordinary sectors of life to the very elite?
Some have made outstanding contributions but these contributions will also be available to the committee system, which can call in both external experts and people of that nature who have respect and a weight behind particular issues. They can provide that advice to the committee system.
The question raised by Deputy Adams necessitates a "Yes" or "No" answer. The Government has decided it wants a unicameral system, with the changes seeking to run this place more effectively, and the question is whether it is appropriate to abolish Seanad Éireann. This is in the hands of the people and not the Oireachtas, and they will decide the matter.
With respect to Deputy Boyd Barrett's final question, the d'Hondt system will on a proportionate and equitable basis distribute the chairs of committees. After all, people in the Dáil are directly elected by the people and they represent all sectors and strands of society. I do not understand how it could be that cronies could be appointed in that committee system, and people would be equitably and proportionately distributed in accordance with the system. It would be above board. The committees would have access to expertise and they could call in individuals, organisations or other groups in a manner that would be transparent and accountable.