Having been Chief Whip for the past three years, I am a firm believer in the value of the committee system to the workings of the Oireachtas. I believe it is an excellent committee system, of which all Members can be proud. However, we need to build on and strengthen our system, a view shared in this House.
In the early 1990s, the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, introduced the new committee system which has evolved over time into a dynamic structure of sectoral committees and which has proved a great asset to democracy. At the time, he said:
The new committee system being introduced is probably the greatest single change in the way the House conducts its business since the foundation of the State. The potential for each Deputy to influence legislation and spending by Departments should not be underestimated.
Committees now constitute a major part of the Oireachtas framework. The structure of the existing system allows for a more flexible and transparent approach to scrutiny outside of the more formal platforms of the Dáil and Seanad Chambers. Members of committees avail of the opportunity the system gives to engage publicly on many issues. It also offers the opportunity to improve access by the public to the Houses and their committees, as we all have observed through the hearing of evidence and presentations from witnesses.
To take one example of how committees have helped shape public policy, I point to the work of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution in the run up to the referendum on the right to life of the unborn. Debates on this issue previously had been characterised by bitterness and divisiveness. However, as a result of the committee's intervention, a public platform was provided, where all opinions were expressed in a calm, professional environment. The ensuing debate was grounded on a more rounded view of the issues and a greater appreciation of the concerns of the various interests taking part.
A further example of the impact of a vigorous committee in action was the follow-up to the DIRT inquiry by the Committee of Public Accounts. In that regard I pay tribute to the late Mr. Jim Mitchell who was a driving force in that inquiry and in following up the implementation of the many recommendations that followed. Many of those recommendations have had a lasting influence on how we conduct business today, not least of which was the establishment of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.
Committees are an invaluable tool for the Houses of the Oireachtas and the scale of their role can be seen from the fact that, last year alone, there were 531 committee meetings, 191 reports were published and 1,215 witnesses gave evidence. Committees sit more hours than the Dáil and Seanad put together.
Informed by today's statements, I intend to move as soon as possible to put down the resolutions re-establishing the sectoral committees and the standing committees so that their work can resume.
In addition to the sectoral and standing committees in the previous Dáil, the Government proposes a new committee on the constitutional amendment regarding children. The Committee on Children will be addressed later by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, who has been developing proposals in this regard.
The Joint Committee on the Constitution is to formally become a Joint Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and there is to be an amalgamation of the Joint Services Committee and Members Services Committee, to be known as the Joint Administration Committee.
It is proposed to establish a Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. This is a reflection of the transformed political context on the island of Ireland following the successful restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement earlier this year. As I have indicated, I believe an excellent system is already in place. However, there is always room for improvement, and following recent consultations I am happy to announce the strengthening and enhancement of the committee system as follows.
I will deal first with parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislative proposals and the oversight role. Further enhancements are proposed for the Sub-Committee an EU Scrutiny and more direct engagement with committees on EU related matters. National Parliaments can only have an effective influence on EU policy if they scrutinise and react to EU proposals at the earliest possible stage in the policymaking process. Therefore a timely, efficient and co-ordinated system of EU scrutiny is desirable.
Co-operation between the Government and the Joint Committee on European Affairs on matters relating to EU scrutiny ensures timely availability of EU proposals and other relevant information to the committee. However, as was highlighted in its last annual report, the increasing volume of legislative proposals emanating from the EU institutions has placed a considerable burden on the committee and the sectoral committees in carrying out EU scrutiny work. Additional staffing, training and advisory supports will be put in place within the committee secretariat to assist the Joint Committee on European Affairs, its Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny and the sectoral committees to achieve and maintain the highest standards in quantity, quality and timeliness of their scrutiny and oversight of EU policymaking in Ireland and in Europe. In this regard, the Joint Committee on European Affairs will have a stronger co-ordinating and facilitating role in the scrutiny of proposals which have been referred to sectoral committees for detailed scrutiny.
The Sub-Committee on EU Scrutiny will have the power to report directly to the Dáil and Seanad on the outcomes of oversight and scrutiny. It is anticipated that there will be more meaningful committee engagement with Ministers, Department officials and wider interest groups. The consequent benefits should raise public awareness of ongoing European issues and fully use available opportunities to influence policymakers in Ireland and in Europe. For example, the terms of reference of sectoral committees will include the power to request the presence of the relevant Minister to attend before the committee and provide oral briefings in advance of Council meetings. This will enable committees to make their views known in advance of Council meetings.
I now turn to the development of the Estimates and expenditure process. The introduction of a range of reforms by the Minister for Finance over the past two years, together with the recently announced introduction of the unified budget with effect from 5 December next, combine to give Oireachtas committees a greater opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending by each Department. In an effort to give maximum effect to the opportunities presented by these reforms, it is intended that specific provision will be made in orders of reference of committees to place greater emphasis on such issues as annual output statements, value for money and policy reviews in particular. Committees should be afforded an opportunity to formally examine departmental expenditure on a quarterly basis, with a view to having a more informed debate during the Estimates process. The publication of other documents such as the Pre-Budget Outlook and the Stability Programme Update will also enable the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, for instance, to engage with the Minister for Finance on the economic and fiscal background to the budget.
As regards the mechanism for tracking interdepartmental issues such as children, integration, innovation and the elderly, a number of Ministers of State have specific responsibilities which cut across several Departments. A parliamentary oversight mechanism will be required to ensure that policy issues do not fall between committees and to avoid conflict concerning ownership and responsibility. It is intended to assign responsibility to a committee to take the lead on an issue with a procedure to allow other interested committees to contribute. I feel strongly that the effectiveness of any committee depends to a large extent on the dynamism of the Chairman and that of its members. It is crucial that Members fully engage with committees in this Dáil to maximise their value.
In the last Dáil, with the co-operation of my colleague, Deputy Noel Dempsey, then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, we pioneered the e-consultation process with a pilot project on the Broadcasting Bill. The aim was to revolutionise the manner in which Parliament, Government and the ordinary citizen interact. I want to take the opportunity to thank the Minister and members of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for their work in this area. It was intended to be a genuine consultation process that would test the readiness of Parliament to work more closely with the general public by using new technologies and interactive communications. I intend to further promote e-consultation as a way of improving the transparency of the workings of the Parliament and to give wider access because this should not be seen as a means of slowing up legislation, but rather of creating a modern and more efficient system.
We should be using this technology to better engage with the public, individuals, not just lobby groups, and where appropriate, young people. I plan to look at how this e-consultation process can be used for the benefit of teachers and students so that young people can gain a better understanding of the workings of the Oireachtas and get involved. It is imperative that we tackle the disconnect between the Oireachtas and the public head on and, in particular, that we try to engage young people through modern technology.
I want to take the opportunity to refer briefly to the question of Dáil reform, while we are debating the whole issue of committees. The issue of Dáil reform has arisen with every Government for the past decade. This particular Government has tried to reach agreement on a package of reforms which would be acceptable to all parties. The changes I endeavoured to introduce during the life of the last Dáil included the Order of Business. The following was proposed: the Order of Business would be dealt with exclusively by the party whips, whose responsibility it is to address these issues in the first instance; each week's business and, where appropriate, time allocations would be determined in advance by a motion that the Chief Whip would move on the preceding Thursday — provided that he or she might move an urgent motion on any particular sitting day to give effect to variations required by changed circumstances; and the Chief Whip would conduct a special weekly session in the House during which he or she would answer questions about the taking of business that had been promised, including legislation, the making of secondary legislation, arrangements for sittings and when Bills or other documents on the Order Paper would be circulated.
The following was proposed concerning Leaders' Questions and questions to the Government: to have a short period of notice to facilitate greater depth in responses as a result of more focused briefing and in order to ensure that the appropriate Minister was there; to enable Ministers to respond, at the request of the Taoiseach, where issues raised were more suitable for answer by the responsible Minister, who might have been more immediately and comprehensively engaged with the issue; extending the facility to Thursdays on the basis that the relevant Ministers, excluding the Taoiseach, would be available; and the Taoiseach would continue to be present on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but only the responsible Ministers would be present on Thursdays.
As regards Adjournment debates and current issues, it was proposed to improve the means for raising topical issues by introducing a new current issues time, to be held at an earlier time which would give greater prominence to them within the daily Dáil schedule. This would replace the Adjournment debate procedure and it was proposed to increase from four to six the number of issues that could be raised. The time allocated to each would be reduced to three minutes, with three minutes for replies.
It was proposed to discontinue the practice of reading out Standing Order 32 notices each day and matters sought to be raised would be noted by the Ceann Comhairle and placed on the record of the Dáil.
As regards sitting times, the time available currently in the Dáil for legislation is 11.25 hours per week. This could be increased to 15 hours, with some modest adjustment of sitting times.
As I have indicated, we have already undertaken e-consultation on a Bill as a pilot project and plan to build on that progress. Unfortunately, a package for Dáil reform has not yet been agreed. Discussions in the past have proved fruitless due to the continued pre-occupation of the Opposition with the Taoiseach's attendance in the Dáil on Thursday mornings, in addition to his Leaders' Questions and Order of Business on Wednesdays. This is in spite of the fact that most other Prime Ministers in Europe do not attend their respective Parliaments as often as the Taoiseach who answers questions for over three hours a week, compared with the British Prime Minister, for example, who gives just 30 minutes a week.
However, I am anxious that this Government continues its commitment to change, and to play a constructive part in exploring with all parties, opportunities for improving procedures so the House operates in a manner which reflects the wishes of the people. I wanted to touch on that today because it is closely connected to committee procedures.
In conclusion, I should like to return to the issue of the formation of the committee system of the 30th Dáil. I want to emphasise that I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak on these matters. I thank Deputy Michael D. Higgins of the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party, who asked for this debate. It is important and I look forward to hearing the rest of the contributions throughout the day.
I want to compliment the staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly the committee secretariat, for all the work they are doing. I would also like to thank my colleague, Deputy Cowen, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, for providing the necessary resources for some 20 additional research staff to be engaged by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. This signals the Government's commitment to the development of a vigorous Oireachtas committee system backed by dedicated support staff and resources.