The Programme for Government outlined an ambitious agenda for Oireachtas Reform to be introduced in a phased process over the lifetime of this Government. While the Government's main focus since coming to office has been on job creation and economic recovery, we have also used our time in office to set about making some long overdue reforms to our parliament. The extensive packages of Oireachtas reforms introduced since this Government took office in March 2011 are designed to improve the working of the Irish parliament.
The number of Dáil sitting days has been significantly increased by reducing the length of the Dáil recesses and introducing additional sitting days. A comparison of sitting days between this Government's first three years in office, when the Dáil sat 372 days, and the first three years in office of the previous FF, Green & PD coalition, when the Dáil sat 286 days, shows an increase of 86 sitting days.
The first phase of the Dáil Reform Programme was introduced in the summer of 2011 and included:
- An additional Leaders' Questions session on Thursdays, taken by the Tánaiste
- Topical Issue Debates to replace the outmoded Adjournment Debates to give TDs an opportunity to raise issues directly with Ministers from the relevant Department.
- Friday sittings to allow TDs to play a fuller role in the legislative process by introducing their own Bills and having those Bills debated on the floor of the Dáil
- An appeal to the Ceann Comhairle if a TD is unhappy with the reply received to a Parliamentary Question
- A Pre-Legislative review system where Ministers could give the Heads of a Bill to the Oireachtas Committee to review the issue before the legislation was published.
- Restructuring of the Oireachtas Committee system by reducing the number of Oireachtas Committees from 25 to 16 and providing a system of pre-legislative review.
In the summer of 2012 further reforms to the Oireachtas Committee system were introduced which streamlined the structure and allowed additional focus on areas of priority such as Jobs and Agriculture.
In September 2013 the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Government Chief Whip announced the second phase of Dáil Reforms proposed by the Government and the Dáil debated and approved changes to Standing Orders in October 2013. These reforms are being phased in over a period of time, with the first reforms being introduced in November 2013 and other reforms being phased in since then.
The changes will allow more public involvement in the law making process:
- A Pre-Legislative Stage before an Oireachtas Committee is now a requirement for all non-emergency legislation.
- A Minister who does not bring a Bill to Committee for Pre-Legislative Stage will be required to explain that decision to the Dáil.
- This allows for an unprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in law making. The Committee can consult with experts and civic society groups and crucially, this will take place before the legislation is drafted.
- Where there has been a Pre-Legislative Stage the Chair or Vice Chair of the Committee has an opportunity to outline the Committee's work to the members of the Dáil during the Second Stage debate after the Minister and main opposition spokespeople have spoken on the Bill.
A new system which requires the Government to outline its priorities to the Dáil on an annual basis has now been introduced. The first such debate was held earlier this year. It includes:
- The Taoiseach and Tánaiste addressing the Dáil setting out the Government's annual priorities.
- Each Minister also addressing the Dáil setting out their Department's plans for the future.
- The Government will publish a number of supporting documents for the Dáil.
The role of Oireachtas Committees in the Budget process has been expanded:
- In April the Stability Programme Update is presented to the EU and Committees can review this and report before the Budget in October.
- The Budget and Spending Estimates will be published in October and Committees will scrutinise the Budget and the Estimates earlier.
The use of the guillotine has now been reduced by introducing a new system of drafting and enactment of legislation, including a reduction in the number of Legislative Programmes to two per year, and increasing the time available for legislative debate in the Dáil by extending the sitting day and starting at 9.30 am on Wednesday and Thursday. To date in 2014 the guillotine has not been used in the Dáil.
The way legislation in the Chamber is debated has been improved:
- At First Stage the proposer of a Private Member's Bill now has 5 minutes to outline the purpose of the Bill to the Dáil and explain their reasons for drafting the legislation.
- At Second Stage the Chair or Vice Chair of the Committee which considered the Bill at Pre-Legislative Stage shall have a speaking slot, of the same length as the Minister or Opposition Spokespeople, to report to the Dáil on its findings.
- At the end of the second stage debate, 45 minutes may be allowed for concluding remarks by Deputies chosen by the Ceann Comhairle who had previously spoken.
The Friday sittings have been expanded:
- The Dáil now sits every second Friday to debate Private Members' Bill and Committee Reports selected using a lottery system. This expansion of the Friday sittings has been introduced as a result of the growth, from 16 in 2011 to 58 in 2013, in the number of Private Member's Bills being published by TDs since the introduction of Friday sittings from 16 in 2011 to 58 in 2013. The Dáil will now debate three or perhaps four Private Members' Bills each month.
- The new Friday sittings also allow Committees to seek directly to have their own reports debated in the Dáil for the first time.
- A Minister or Minister of State will speak during the debate to outline the Government's response.
The system of Topical Issues now requires the Minister or a Minister of State from the relevant Department to reply and if this is not the case the TD who raised the issue can have it deferred until a Minister from that Department is available, when it will be given priority.
The time allocated to Oral Parliamentary Questions to Ministers has been standardised to 75 minutes. An ordinary oral question will be answered only if the Deputy tabling the Question is in the Chamber when it is reached and the Deputy will be given a brief period, of 30 seconds, to outline the question.
A new system of Post Legislative Review will be introduced requiring a Minister to report to the relevant Oireachtas Committee within 12 months of enactment to review the functioning of the Act.
The Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges & Procedures) Act 2013 has been passed and the Standing Orders necessary to establish Oireachtas Inquiries put in place by the Dáil and the Seanad. Both Houses have now passed motions to establish a Joint Committee to set up a Banking inquiry, which will be the first Oireachtas Inquiry under the new legislation.
No parliament is perfect and the process of parliamentary reform is always an ongoing one. The Oireachtas Reforms announced last autumn are currently being implemented but work is already under way on the next phase of Dáil Reform. The next phase will build on the changes introduced since the Government took office in 2011 and focus on the outstanding commitments in this area in the Programme for Government.
Any Member of the House who has Dáil reform proposals can contact the Government Chief Whip to discuss those proposals in detail and they will be considered as part of the ongoing process of Dáil reform.