14 Apr 2016, 17.44
Thursday, 14th April, 2016 - Check Against Delivery
Before moving on to the next item of business, I wish to update the House on the work to date of the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform which has met on 4 occasions since its establishment.
The sub-Committee agreed a formal work programme at its first meeting on 23rd March based on the broad range of submissions it had received. At that meeting, the sub-Committee also discussed the establishment of a Business Committee, rules governing technical groups allowing for more than one technical group and fewer members to form a technical group, dedicated Committee time, fixed times for voting and provision to allow for formal abstentions in votes. The sub-Committee completed its deliberations on these matters at its second meeting on 5th April, the details of which were set out in the interim report laid before the House last week.
The intention now is to bring forward new Standing Orders which will permit the Business Committee to be established. This Committee will agree the sessional and weekly agenda of business for the Dáil and will give all groups represented in parliament some access to, and some control over, the business coming before the House.
The sub-Committee has also agreed a fixed time for voting which it is envisaged will take place on Thursday afternoons. There will be a number of exceptions e.g. for the Order of Business, the naming of a member for disorderly behaviour and for Committee and Report Stages of Bills but apart from these all votes will now take place together and in addition Members will now be able to register their intention to abstain.
I think the combined impact of the more effective planning of business and the new voting arrangements will be to improve the working environment particularly for Members with young families.
It is very evident from the submissions and discussions at the sub-Committee that Members are faced with competing demands on their time due to the fact that the Dáil and Committees meet at the same time. The sub-Committee has therefore proposed splitting Committee and Plenary time. Committees will meet on Wednesday and Thursday mornings from 9 am to 12 noon and Plenary time will commence at 12 noon on those days and at 2 pm on Tuesdays. This allows for dedicated Committee time which will no longer clash with business or votes in the Dáil.
The issues in relation to groups were also examined in detail and agreement was reached to reduce the size of groups to a minimum of 5 members and to permit more than one technical group to be formed.
At its third meeting on 6th April, the sub-Committee gave detailed consideration to the Parliamentary Questions and has agreed new arrangements in relation to:
(i) Leaders’ Questions:
Leaders’ Questions will be taken at the commencement of each sitting for 28 minutes, the current time limits of 7 minutes per individual Question will be retained, allowing for 4 questions to be taken per day. The use of the clock was approved to aid the enforcement of time limits.
(ii) Taoiseach Oral Questions:
Taoiseach Oral Questions will be taken twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for 45 minutes, immediately after Leaders’ Questions. A limit of 3 oral questions per member per session will be permitted. A key change here is that Questions not reached will continue to be automatically tabled for the next oral session, however the rollover period will be limited to 2 weeks so that Questions which are not reached within 2 weeks of appearing on the Order Paper will receive a written answer. The use of the clock for Taoiseach’s Oral Questions was also approved.
(iii) Ministerial Questions - Priority and Oral:
The sub-Committee agreed that Priority and Oral Questions shall be taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and the time allocated for them would be extended to 90 minutes: 30 minutes for priority questions and 60 minutes for ordinary orals. The 90 minutes will run from the time the first priority question is put, and not from a fixed time.
It was also agreed to reinstate sessional order 38(1)(ii) and (1A) from the 31st Dáil to the effect that a member must be present in the chamber to ask an Oral Question in their name, however, this will be subject to the proviso that the member may nominate a substitute questioner by giving 24 hours' notice in writing to the Ceann Comhairle's office. Questioners will be permitted to give a 30 second introduction to their Question and a single spokesperson of a group may put down a maximum of 5 oral Questions.
(iv) Topical Issues:
The sub-Committee agreed to reinstate the sessional orders 27A from the 31st Dáil providing for Topical Issues to be taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. While the Ceann Comhairle has discretion in selecting the Issues for answer, some guiding principles for the selection process were agreed.
The sub-Committee further agreed that requests for substitution of the relevant Minister would be formalised and the Ceann Comhairle's office would engage with the member directly. It was further agreed that a substitute issue would be picked to cover a possible deferral to maximise the number of issues taken each day. If not selected, this Issue would be taken on the next sitting day, along with any deferred Issue.
(v) Written Questions during the Summer recess:
The sub-Committee agreed that members may submit questions twice during the summer recess - firstly one week following the adjournment for the recess, and secondly, two weeks prior to the resumption following the recess.
(vi) Rulings by the Ceann Comhairle on disallowance of Questions:
The sub-Committee agreed that a new Standing Order would be drafted whereby a member can request further information from the Ceann Comhairle on his ruling on the disallowance of Questions. It was noted that this would not be an appeal mechanism against the Ceann Comhairle's ruling but rather an acknowledgement that the Ceann Comhairle is happy to provide additional information to any member on his ruling, as has always been the case.
(vii) Repeat rule for Oral Questions:
The sub-Committee agreed that the repeat rule for Oral Questions should be reduced to two months from the current four.
(viii) Matters of order - Anticipation of Debate:
It was agreed to abolish the current rule that Questions should not anticipate the discussion of any matter which is scheduled in the Dáil in the same week.
(ix) Notice of Oral Questions lottery results:
It was agreed that administrative arrangements would be put in place to notify all members of their provisional lottery number(s) on the day the lottery is held rather than having to wait for them to appear on the Order Paper.
(x) General deadlines for submitting questions:
It was agreed the current Questions deadlines under Standing Orders will be retained.
(xi) Accountability of State bodies:
This matter is under active consideration by the sub-Committee and a recommendation on this matter will follow.
(xii) Adequacy of replies to Questions: powers of the Ceann Comhairle
The sub-Committee agreed to reinstate Sessional Order 40A to allow for a process for a written appeal by any member to the Ceann Comhairle in relation to the adequacy of a Ministerial reply to Oral Questions, Topical Issues and Written Questions. Where the Ceann Comhairle upholds a member’s complaint, his decision shall be laid before the Dáil. The two day notice requirement will be extended to four working days and the Ceann Comhairle may rule on the relevance of an oral reply on the spot to address cases where the Ceann Comhairle is of the opinion that there is a clear failure to impart the information sought.
(xiii) Scheduling of business
The sub-Committee agreed that further time would be provided for Private Members’ Business and that a percentage of that time must be dedicated to Private Members’ Bills.
At its meeting yesterday, the sub-Committee considered proposals for the Committee system and Financial Scrutiny. The sub-Committee gave particular consideration to the establishment of a Budget and Finance Committee and an independent Parliamentary Budget Office. The overwhelming view of Members was that both needed to be put in place. The sub-Committee will return to these matters in a fortnight to agree proposals for submitting to the House.
The final strand of the sub-Committee’s work concerns the legislative process which will be considered by the sub-Committee at its meeting next Wednesday.
By the end of April, the sub-Committee will have discussed all matters on its work programme. It will then agree a draft report to the House and following this, draft Standing Orders will be submitted to give effect to the new arrangements.
The overall objective of the Dail reform process has been to improve the effectiveness of the House so that it can better meet the needs of those whom we serve. All of the measures being considered are designed to achieve this objective and when implemented I have no doubt that they will make a discernible difference to how we conduct our proceedings.
To conclude, I would like to pay tribute to all those who are serving on the sub-Committee. They have approached the process in a very open, constructive and considered way. As a group we have shared objectives and have operated by consensus which I think augurs well for the new arrangements which will be ultimately put in place to conduct business in the 32nd Dáil.
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