The Programme for Government outlined an ambitious agenda for Oireachtas Reform to be introduced in a phased process over the lifetime of this Government. The two phases of Dáil reform already introduced since the Government took office in March 2011 have significantly improved the working of the House. The first phase of Oireachtas reforms introduced in 2011 restructured the Oireachtas Committee system, introduced an additional Leaders' Questions on Thursdays, established Topical Issue Debates, allowed TDs introduce their own Bills and have them debated in the Dáil and started to develop a pre-legislative stage before Committees.
The second phase of Oireachtas reform expanded the Friday sittings, allowing more Private Members Bills and Oireachtas Committee Reports to be debated in the Dáil, further developed the Pre-Legislative stage at Committee and takes steps to reduce the use of the guillotine. It now provides for new structures for interaction between the Government and the Dáil and Committees, including an annual outline to the Dáil by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste of Government Priorities, an economic update and projections for the next three years, a National Risk Assessment which will set out the risks (both financial and non-financial) which the country faces and a National Progress Report produced independently by the CSO.
The Dáil continues to extend the number of days it sits and the length of those sitting days. But this is by no means the end of the reform process. The roll-out of reforms announced in autumn 2013 will continue over the next few months as will the development of an Oireachtas Inquiry system. Work has already started on the next phase of reform. Reforms being considered for inclusion in the next phase include the establishment of an Oireachtas Inquiry system, the restructuring of Oireachtas Committees and expanding the powers and functions of those Committees, along with a number of Programme of Government commitments. The Tánaiste, the Government Chief Whip and I have met the Opposition Leaders and Whips to discuss what should be included in this phase.
The Constitutional Convention met last weekend to discuss the issue of Dáil Reform and I look forward to seeing the Convention's Report on this in the coming weeks. The outstanding Programme for Government commitments, items considered by the Dáil Reform Sub-Committee, discussions with Opposition Party Leaders and Whips, consultation with all TDs, the report of the Constitutional Convention on the subject and debate time scheduled to discuss the issue in the Dáil will all provide suggestions for reform that will form part of developing the next set of proposals.
As regards the Seanad, the Tánaiste and I met the leaders of the other parties and groupings in the Dáil and Seanad on 18 December last to discuss reform of the House. The outcome of the meeting was as follows.
Work on operational/procedural reform could proceed immediately. All the parties and groupings in both Houses would present their proposals to the Seanad CPP early in 2014. The Government will do so through the Leader of the Seanad.
As regards electoral reform, a task force, representative of the different parties and groupings within the Oireachtas, could look at this matter. The parties/groupings could present their proposals to the task force, which would be in a better position to propose a timeline for the enactment of legislation once it had scoped out the nature and extent of the legislation proposed, and examined any possible constitutional implications. There was also broad consensus at the meeting that the question of constitutional reform, which would require a referendum or referendums, could be considered at a later date.
The Government has, of course, already announced that draft legislation will be prepared to give effect to the 1979 referendum decision, which allowed the State to extend the provisions for the election of members of the Seanad by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State. The General Scheme of the Bill, when ready, will be referred to the Seanad, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration.