Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the status of proposals to reform Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12980/16]

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Gerry Adams

Question:

2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his progress in furthering the proposals in the Manning report on reform of Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12981/16]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his role in relation to the commitment in the programme for Government to reform Seanad Éireann by implementing the Manning report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13101/16]

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Ruth Coppinger

Question:

4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach the status of the reform of Seanad Éireann. [15854/16]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the status of the reform of Seanad Éireann. [15860/16]

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Mick Barry

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the status of the reform of Seanad Éireann. [15866/16]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

In the new programme for a partnership Government the Government stated its intention to reform Seanad Éireann. We are committed to pursuing implementation of the report of the working group on Seanad Reform which was chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning. The report was published last year. With the associated draft Bill and the explanatory memorandum prepared for the group, it is available on the Department's website. I welcomed its publication and indicated that there needed to be a public and political discussion and consultation on it. To that end, I requested that the working group make a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the Seanad. On 5 May and 8 July 2015 statements on the report were made in Seanad Éireann, with the chairman of the working group and former Senator Joe O'Toole, a member of the group, in attendance. Last July I met Opposition leaders to discuss the report's content. Arising from the meeting, I gave a commitment to have a debate in the Dáil on the working group's report. Although this did not prove possible in the previous Dáil, it is still my intention that the debate take place as soon as possible. A Dáil debate should be the first step in the reform process.

In February 2014 the then Government presented a package of proposals on Seanad reform to the then Leader of the Seanad for submission to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. In February 2014 the general scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill was published for consultation. The purpose of the Bill was to enable implementation of the 1979 constitutional amendment to extend the Seanad franchise to graduates of higher education institutes in the State that did not form part of the Seanad universities constituencies. The general scheme was presented in the Seanad for discussion in March 2014 and at the end of the previous Dáil a revised general scheme was under consideration by the then Government. It would need to be considered in the light of the Government's commitment to Seanad reform in A Programme for a Partnership Government.

I am very supportive of the pursuit of implementation of the Manning report and have advised the new Leader of the Seanad, Senator Jerry Buttimer, that it should be a priority of his.

I understand a number of Senators have also tabled a Bill to implement the Manning report. It is important that there be an implementation group to advise Senators on their choices and options about certain matters relevant to it.

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the issue of Seanad reform has not been tackled and that it has been on the political agenda for as long as the Seanad has existed. There have been 12 reports on Seanad reform and following the McNulty debacle, as the Taoiseach outlined, the Seanad reform working group was established by him, but its report has not been acted on. We did not even get to debate it during the previous term. The Taoiseach mentioned the need to put together an implementation group and Sinn Féin Seanadóirí and Independents have taken an initiative to push Seanad reform to the top of the political agenda. This is about the setting up of a committee on Seanad political reform which would be strictly time limited to four weeks and address the role of a reformed Seanad, its powers and functions, any legislative change that might be needed and how the Seanad should conduct its business. The notion is that it would deal with submissions from any Member or group and with the Manning report. It is a way of doing it coming from Seanadóirí. Will the Taoiseach support this initiative and embrace the proposal?

I am very supportive of the report produced by Dr. Manning and a number of others from different parties on Seanad reform. I spoke to Dr. Manning recently and he is prepared to work with an implementation group that would be available to advise Senators on the technical aspects of the report. I commend the Seanadóirí from the Sinn Féin Party for their efforts, but ultimately this is a matter for all Senators and I am supportive of the Manning report being implemented. I am not sure what their response will be. It is a new Seanad with a diverse range of opinions, but having gone through the attempt to abolish the House and having had the people say, "We want the Seanad retained," I am supportive of it being reformed. The Manning report provides a range of opportunities to engage in such reform. I expect the proposal from the Sinn Féin Senators to feed into this. Obviously, I spoke to the Leader of the Seanad and that House will have a debate on the matter in the near future.

Of course, the Leader of the Seanad was a determined and committed advocate of its abolition; therefore, I will not hold my breath in terms of his new zeal to reform the House. However, it is not a matter for the Seanad alone; it is a matter for the entire Oireachtas but this House, in particular, because legislation would have to be passed. I would like the Taoiseach to clarify, as he said in his reply, that, in essence, he is now in favour of the Manning report because when we met as party leaders during the previous term, I cannot recollect him committing to direct franchise, for example, whereby the people would elect Senators. That is the fundamental change that needs to occur. There are other recommendations made in the report which was drawn up on the basis that they would not require a constitutional amendment. That was an unnecessary constraint, but I was prepared to work with it.

The public wants the Seanad to be reformed. Seanad reform is of equal importance to Dáil reform that has occurred in giving greater authority to Members and greater opportunities to participate in rebalancing the power axis between the Executive and the Parliament. The Seanad is part of this, but for it to have legitimacy into the future, it needs a direct electoral franchise, as recommended in the Manning report, using different models. Is the Taoiseach saying he is committed to implementation of the report? Is it his view that an Oireachtas all-party implementation group should be established with a view to implementing the Manning report recommendations? Is that the pathway we are on or is he suggesting it is just a Seanad committee that will be formed? That would not be satisfactory and might delay matters even more. If all the leaders of the political parties and groupings were to sign up to the Manning report - all of us would be compromising to some degree - the logical follow through would be implementation and that would mean working through the legislative framework and the wherewithal required. The implementation group should have a secretariat and receive legislative advice to make this a reality in order that within this Dáil timeframe we could put in place and pass the legislation that would mean a different Seanad the next time we have a general election or a different modality for electing Members of the Seanad. That should be our target and I seek clarity on whether that is what the Taoiseach is suggesting.

Given the short time remaining, I will ask Deputy Paul Murphy to contribute before the Taoiseach.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Obviously, we campaigned for abolition of the Seanad, but we did not win that referendum; the people voted to retain it. When they look at the Seanad today, full of former Deputies who failed to be re-elected to this House, many of whom said they would never enter the Seanad if they failed to be re-elected, most of them, including those who voted to retain the House, would say, "That is not what we voted for." They voted for a Seanad that does not exist; they voted for a reformed, much more democratic House.

Our position remains the same. We think Upper Houses are inherently undemocratic and designed to act as a conservatising block on progressive change. However, we would favour a significantly reformed Seanad. Does the Taoiseach agree that there is a problem with the Manning report, which is, as Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned, that it remains within the framework of the Constitution? The Constitution is a fundamental problem. If its framework is accepted, the elitism of six university seats is accepted. They can be divided up in a way that is slightly less elitist than is the case, but that still means that 16% of the population have the right to an additional vote in the Seanad election by virtue of the fact that they attended university. That is inherently elitist and undemocratic. Does the Taoiseach not recognise the problem with this?

Second, if we stick within the framework of the Constitution, the Taoiseach's nominees remain. Whatever about 16% of the population having an additional vote, in this case, one person, who happens to be the Taoiseach, appoints 11 people, many of whom could be from the same category of failed election candidates or election candidates who did not put their names forward. Does the Taoiseach agree that he needs to move beyond the bounds of the Manning report and the Constitution to ensure reform and democratisation?

I am prepared to sign up to the Manning report. Deputy Micheál Martin has been direct in his question. It is a matter for the Oireachtas and if the leaders of the parties in this House are prepared to sign up to it, the programme for Government states clearly that we will pursue implementation of the report as a priority. I have spoken to the Leader of the Seanad who will work towards its implementation.

Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned an implementation group comprising Members of the Oireachtas or of the Seanad only.

The Oireachtas includes the Dáil and the Seanad.

That is positive because an interim implementation group overseen by the Department of the Taoiseach was originally proposed in the report.

I think the Deputy's proposal is a better idea. If the group comprised members of the parties in the Dáil and the Seanad, with access to independent IT experts or independent legal experts, and representatives from the various Departments, the process could move faster. That is probably a better idea.

To deal with elements of the Constitution in so far as the Seanad is concerned, we probably will not see a scale of reform that would be envisaged here. As the Deputy is aware, the report recommended an interim establishment body. It recommended a majority of seats to be elected by popular vote in a one-person, one-vote system, that the principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport, a provision for online registration of voters and the downloading of ballot papers. People approached me in America recently about the developments that have taken place in authentication and validation of this particular system. The report also recommended a far greater role for the Seanad in scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation, reviews of the panel system and that the commencement date for the new arrangements should be made immediately after the Seanad election. I am happy to sign up to this. If we can have agreement among the parties here, we should set up an implementation group comprising Members of the Dáil and Seanad, together with whatever other expertise will be needed, and move the process on. I am prepared to sign up to that.