Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 11 Oct 2007

Vol. 639 No. 3

Establishment of Committees: Statements.

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.

I wish to share time with Deputy Neville.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

There is a fundamental principle involved in this debate which is that Dáil committees are such and are not extensions of Government and the tool of the Executive. They are there for a specific purpose. Dáil committees have different roles and responsibilities, depending on the way they are set up. I expect Members from all sides who will contribute to this debate will give their views on the relevance of committees and how they could be made more relevant and effective. Committees are instruments of the Dáil which is the complement of all elected representatives, from whatever party or none, sent here by the people. Dáil committees should reflect that proportion in membership and management.

I have long held the belief that we do not do justice to the people who serve on committees or to the issues they debate and research. From a technological point of view, there is no reason we should not have an Oireachtas channel separate from any other. It could broadcast the Dáil, Seanad and relevant committees and there would be no need for a commentary. The people are entitled to see democracy in action. It would be a public service which could be properly promoted in advance. There would always be somebody who would wish to watch it.

Over the years I have seen many Deputies attend committee meetings in the bowels of this building but the work and contribution they have made, whether valid or not, is never heard of again. In 2007, when one can switch on a computer in Auckland, New Zealand, and watch the proceedings of the Dáil, we should able to broadcast Dáil, Seanad and relevant committee proceedings on television. It would be available to schools and others. There would be little cost involved and it would be a public service.

The way we have hived off work to committees is not the way it should be done. They have been badly serviced in terms of the facilities available to public servants who attend to them. For example, during the rumpus over the summer about the landing slots moving from Shannon to Belfast, it was brought to my attention that the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, which was chaired by former Deputy Ellis, had sought legal advice on the Heathrow slots. As I was interested in the debate, I sought that legal advice. When my office contacted the relevant secretariat of that committee, it was told it could not have that information because the committee was not in session.

As we all know, transcripts of the forensic examinations of Des O'Neill at the tribunal are available two hours later. When one looks for information from, or transcripts of, committees, one cannot get them because we have not serviced them. That is fundamental to anything which happens here, that is, one must provide proper facilities for committees. Material should be available by way of CD, DVD or whatever. It should be possible to download it from the Internet so that people who have an interest in these matters can follow them.

This is not the first time we have had such a debate in the House. As Deputies Jim O'Keeffe, Shatter and Higgins know, this matter has been raised on umpteen occasions over the past 30 years. However, political will is required in terms of implementation. I remember former Deputy John Bruton in his document, A Democratic Revolution, made certain projections on how things could improve. A start was made in that regard.

I take the Minister of State's point about the improvement of facilities for the Sub-committee on EU Scrutiny. If we had debate on opt-ins or opt-outs of the legislative framework and the technicalities involved, it might save people a lot of hassle. The important point emerging from all of this is that the EU reform treaty must be passed by the people and that requires full information. When people do not have information, they feel left out.

Members sent to the House want to be able to be seen to represent their people. That is why there is always a reluctance to attend committee sessions for three or four hours which might be completely irrelevant and the work of which members know will never be seen again.

For example, there is a role for committees interviewing some of the appointees for chairpersons or members of some State boards. I do not mean there should be an inquisition but members of committees should be able to interview and understand the range of competencies a person might have to offer.

I refer to the committee about which the Minister of State spoke in respect of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which everybody supports. This was originally deemed to be a committee on Northern Ireland and it was to have participation by, and the support of, all the parties in the North. We need to tease out the terms of reference proposed for that committee a little more. In a way, it is ironic that we are talking about giving rights to MPs, who do not attend the House of Commons, to sit in a committee room here and debate issues. However, I fully support the work which must be done to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Minister of State made some comments on Dáil reform. As far as I am concerned, this party will participate in discussions which will lead to real and relevant Dáil reform. When we have all left this Chamber, we should have at least put in place a base which will work in the interests of the people. From a Government point of view, people will say one cannot do that because one is giving oneself a stick with which to beat oneself if it becomes too accessible. The Taoiseach should be in the House on Thursday mornings. This is a small country and politicians are accessible to the people. That is a fundamental element but it is not the only one.

I like what the Minister of State said about Adjournment debates. At the end of an Adjournment debate, one should be able to ask a Minister two questions such as whether he or she will meet a deputation from Carrigaline or whether the Department will report in a fortnight rather than have the bland statement on which one has no comeback.

I would like to participate in Dáil reform in terms of bringing about real and effective change. I want to see the committee system operate effectively and properly resourced. I would also like to see the promotion of an Oireachtas channel so that the public is aware of what is happening in the Dáil, Seanad and relevant committees. I have sent a letter to the Minister of State on this party's increased membership of the Dáil and how that should be reflected in the membership of committees and how they are run.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and thank the Minister of State for facilitating it. He spoke about the effectiveness of the committee system and instanced two cases in which it is effective. However, most reports from committees are ignored by the Government. I refer to two reports which demonstrate this point. In July of last year, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, of which I was a member, produced a report with 33 recommendations on how to deal with the issue of suicide. Some 28 of those recommendations were to be implemented immediately. Today none of them has been introduced. Four of them were cost neutral but have not been introduced. We had a full debate one Thursday during which Members from all sides welcomed and supported the recommendations, yet, more than 12 months later, they have been ignored.

One recommendation states: "Have the National Office for Suicide Prevention, the HSE National Hospitals Office and the Primary, Community & Continuing Care Directorate review, improve and standardise pre-discharge and transfer planning from or between mental health service settings". This was ignored although it was cost neutral. Another recommendation states: "Recommendations from the Inspector of Mental Health Services must be implemented within a 5-year period of his/her report or a resignation from either the Inspector on a point of principle or the Minster with responsibility for Mental Health Services because of the failure to support the Inspectorate as a matter of course." This, too, is cost neutral but it was ignored despite the fact that the then Minister for Health and Children spoke and accepted all the recommendations and committed herself and the Government to their implementation.

Let me refer to a report on the public orthodontic service produced by the Joint Committee on Health and Children, on which it spent considerable time and for which it interviewed many people, including many from the Department of Health and Children. The report, published in May 2005, contained three controversial recommendations, yet the committee members were convinced they were necessary to ensure an adequate service for children requiring orthodontic treatment. I understand that staff within the Department totally frustrated the recommendations of the committee, even though the Minister for Health and Children accepted them in the House.

The two comprehensive reports, on which the joint committee spent much time and which would have a considerable impact on the well-being of children in one case and all the community in the other, were ignored. This is very frustrating for the committee members who devoted much time to them. There were high profile launches for both reports and discussions in the Dáil on foot of which the recommendations were accepted, yet they were not implemented.

I certainly welcome the Minister of State's acceptance that there should be reform. The proposals put forward by Fine Gael and the Labour Party during the last election campaign would complement his proposals. The commitment made during the campaign still stands and the Opposition's proposals would greatly enhance the workings of the Dáil. They included the Minister of State's proposal on the Adjournment debate. Having a Minister of State replying in respect of three of the four issues raised during an Adjournment debate and having civil servants anticipating the cases presented is hardly good enough. It is extremely frustrating to make a strong case about an issue only to have a Minister or Minister of State read a script pre-written by the responsible Department, which script he or she might not have read. It is soul-destroying, yet we persist with this method.

I hope the difficulties we have been experiencing with committees can be resolved very quickly. I assure the Minister of State that we will help in every way on this side of the House. I am sure he understands that we have a strong point to make, as stated by Deputy Kenny in his contribution.

I very much welcome the opportunity to make some preliminary remarks on the committee system, which remarks are but a small part of the debate we desperately need to have on parliamentary reform. The amount of time allocated for this debate, while welcome as a beginning, is totally insufficient to address the crisis of parliamentarism with which we are dealing. In this regard, when I consider my reflections on the literature that has been written on parliamentary reform since I first became a Member of the Oireachtas in 1973, I note that nearly every single article refers to the evolution of the committee system as a vital part of parliamentary reform. This is an issue to which I will return.

I will justify my remarks by saying that there is a decline in parliamentary power in parliaments in Europe generally and in those across the world. This raises a considerable issue. In some respects, one is tempted to describe some parliamentary processes as a managed illusion; however, it is an illusion without which we could not live. We need to see, at least in formal shape, the possibility of democracy and accountability, but we do not get that.

In the time allocated to me, I can say but a few words on this matter. I am in favour of change but do not necessarily agree that all changes have been automatically good. When I first became a Member of the Dáil there were distinguished contributions that were capable of teasing out legislation and dealing with issues comprehensively, sometimes not limited by time. The confinement of speeches to 20 minutes and the sharing of time by Members, combined with the arrival of press offices, meant that small, inefficient and partially cut and pasted regurgitations of the Minister's speech and the main spokesperson's speech on the Opposition side served as a substitute for what was previously vital political rhetoric. I use the term "rhetoric" in the Greek sense, that is, the important sense of dealing with substantial issues.

I cannot address all these issues because of the time limitations imposed on me today and I hope the Chief Whip, who is a generous man, will want to return to the Dáil and offer a full day, for example, to address more fundamental parliamentary reform. In the meantime, he may encourage members of the media, none of whom is present, to turn up.

Let me address some of the more specific points. Speaking as one who worked as a political scientist for a very long time, I do not have to waste my time issuing a whole lot of caveats. Nothing I have to say is a reflection on any particular person or the staff of the House, whose duties and dedication I, like everybody else, appreciate deeply. However, an issue of accountability arises in respect of the relationships of the public, through elections, to Parliament, of Parliament to the Executive, and of both the Parliament and Executive to the public in terms of policy.

Let me give an example of the extreme position that now obtains in respect of accountability, bearing in mind the powers given to a range of unaccountable quangos and semi-State bodies. This transfer of powers goes against the advice of a former Attorney General, who, while speaking in a private capacity to the UCD Law Society, suggested that Ministers, under the Constitution, should give to any body acting in the name of the people a policy envelope, which policy would remain accountable in the Parliament.

I asked a question of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who, as I understood from the Minister of State's speech, was a glowing advocate of the committee system. I asked the Minister for Transport, who had answered a previous question that acknowledged the social role of CIE, the procedures by which CIE has calculated such assets it considers surplus to public transport requirements in general, and the procedures that were used to establish the regional integrated public transport needs that might be served at Ceannt Station in Galway city in view of the public interest in the policy issues that arise. It was a policy issue to say that CIE would have to sell its property to install the extra platform rather than that it be provided under the national development plan through Transport 21. The Minister's reply stated: "This is a day-to-day operational matter for CIE and not one in which I have any role".

I refer the House to Question No. 301 of Tuesday, 9 October 2007, ref: 22426/07. One must place this alongside the suggestion that the Government has no responsibility in regard to Aer Lingus or the implications and fallout of HSE actions on health. A gulf is opening up between the genuine concerns of the public, the policy division that has emerged between Parliament, the Executive through the Cabinet and Ministers with delegated responsibilities under the Constitution, and these quangos that are unaccountable.

I want to address some specific issues but, as I have said, I can only glance at them. I would like to have been back in the time of the late Professor John Maurice Kelly and others and I could have discussed the question of democracy and parliament. I am a pessimist about what is happening. While I welcome the technical innovations and capacities and facilities being provided in this House, there is a serious ideological error happening in that there is an assumption that one can substitute technical improvements for fundamental debate concerning what parliament should be about. I will come back to this in a moment, lest I run out of time.

I have given examples across other Departments in regard to transport and health. The National Roads Authority is the same. I could give an example from the area with which I am most familiar, namely, the foreign affairs committee which is a special case of unaccountability. I describe it as the triple deficit because here again we do not debate issues. Next week the Taoiseach will sign the European treaty and the day after he will tell us how he got on. The issue is that in regard to the different pillars of the European Union, some decisions are taken in intergovernmental consultation, the IGC process. There is a real deficit concerning what is being decided in Europe — in some cases decisions are not even made by parliamentarians. The European Union has more accountability than the foreign affairs committee of any one of the composing countries in terms of some information. It has a limited access to information in regard to intelligence and security. This was brought to the fore during the preparations for the illegal war in Iraq.

In 1986 I proposed the establishment of a foreign affairs committee. The Labour Party and university Senators voted in favour of it in the Seanad. Former Senator Jim Dooge of Fine Gael described it as organised distrust rather than delegated confidence in regard to the Executive, and Fine Gael voted against the proposal. Fianna Fáil abstained. Seven years later, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs was established. In November 2003, ten years after it was established, I questioned what I was doing on a foreign affairs committee, what we were doing in Parliament discussing foreign affairs if we discover that at an informal meeting which has no constitutional or legal basis, the political wing of Hamas is being added to a proscribed list on the basis of information that has not been presented to any Parliament. My reaction to all of this was one of horror.

When I raised that issue in November 2003 I was referring to the fact the Irish representatives on the Committee of Permanent Representatives in Brussels, COREPER, had conducted preparatory work on the drawing up of names of persons, groups or entities for inclusion on a proscribed list. The permanent representatives had formed their own sub-committee known as the clearing house, and that mechanism was not reported to anybody. Excluding Hamas from talks in 1993 was very significant. There is an almost identical reality in regard to the response to the elections that took place in Palestine. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs is a gross example of non-accountability.

There is no reference to the different powers of the European affairs and foreign affairs committees. The European affairs committee can occasionally be briefed, but not on intelligence matters. The foreign affairs committee is not briefed. Does any Member feel that when we eventually formed that foreign affairs committee in 1993 it had any autonomy? I would pose the following questions regarding these committees. What is their role and function? How many of the committees described by the Minister are autonomous? How many are independent? How many have the right to initiate legislation? How many have the power of amendment? How many have the power of scrutiny? How many are limited to scrutiny? In regard to the European affairs and foreign affairs committees, does scrutiny include issues of security? Do issues of security include being briefed on intelligence? What is the relationship of committees, their different roles and functions having been specified, to the plenary session?

I raised the issue of the war in Iraq on the Order of Business and was almost out of order when I asked the Taoiseach whether or not the Government was in favour of pre-emption. I never really got an answer. When Deputy Michael Kitt and I eventually went to Iraq, three or four weeks before the war broke out, it was only after every single obstacle had been placed in our way, including some that were rather pathetic. We were told we would not be able to get insurance and we said we would get it ourselves. Then we were told the person from the committee who would accompany us would not be able to get insurance. When I said we were going anyway, the difficulty with the insurance was suddenly solved. That kind of nonsense indicated more than anything the absolute price to be paid for the absence of autonomy. Will the foreign affairs committee be run as an arm of the Executive from Iveagh House, or will it be an independent committee?

I have the greatest respect for people who go before the people, who get votes and get elected. I do not believe parliamentary reform can be reduced to somehow or other beefing up the Members, telling them what to read, what research journals to read and where to get them. Those provisions are welcome. However, the people who are elected are representing what is very often the feeling of the people. People want a general health service. If there are to be cuts in the health service they do not want patients to suffer. They want public transport. They do not want CIE selling off its property by stealth. On the issue of war, 100,000 people went out onto the streets one Saturday and we could not get a debate in this House.

Other issues arise, some of which I will list. They arise in regard to the role and function of committees in terms of initiation, amendment and scrutiny of legislation. The Dáil should be able to debate their formal authority better. There is the political will. In terms of cross-parliamentary analysis of this issue, the question is asked as to why the Australian Parliament does not get the reforms people like me are looking for. It is because the Labour Party in Australia often saw itself as likely to be in Government and oppositions did not want to concede anything they might have to live with when they themselves were in Government. We are past that point. What we need now is a robust parliamentarism.

Other Deputies have mentioned the hard work put into committee work and the absence of any media attention to it. There is a kind of new fashionable illiteracy in which people will not have to read background economics, history, politics, culture or do comparative work so as to be able to judge a parliamentary performance in terms of its proposals and the value of the different proposals. There is an idea that one can substitute gossip which fits nicely with ten-minute slots so that one gets reduced meaningless speeches, media neglect and so on. I wish the Minister well in his hubris and his optimism when he describes his excitement when he reflects on Deputy Noel Dempsey's historic innovation.

Other things are important. Why should the committees be governed by the availability of limited amounts of time or even such basic things as a room? How often have chairmen had to tell members that they must finish by 4 p.m. because somebody else had the room booked for a meeting? Time and availability of space govern the agenda. The capacity of the committee system is dependent on staff and resources. If a member of a committee raises an urgent issue, how valuable is it if the minutes of that committee are available three months later?

I totally agree with the proposals for a public service channel that would cover the proceedings of the Dáil and committees. We do not need the proceedings to be edited in some smart aleck way, such as, "members were back again in the Dáil today". If I wanted to go down that road, I would say the media were missing again today when we were discussing the work of the committees and they will be missing from the committees. It is disgraceful that there is such a low attendance, and limited time when discussing a matter as fundamental as the genuine public desire to have not just technical access but real political accountability.

The Government will be thanked if it gives to Parliament what it should never have lost. It is up to the Government and Opposition to take back from quangos and unaccountable entities, such as the NRA, the HSE, or HSA the accountability the public wants vested in Parliament.


Hear, hear.

The committee system is of major importance to the work of the Oireachtas and an essential element in proper democratic representation for the people who elect the members. It is amazing they are of such relatively recent origin and that it took the Oireachtas so long to see the vital role committee work plays in representative government. We are all aware that very often far more detailed and constructive work is done in committee than here in the Dáil Chamber. Committees are vital to legislative work and allow for real and constructive input to the Committee Stage of Bills. Too often Governments adopt a rigid approach and refuse to take on board valid and often non-controversial amendments from Opposition Deputies, solely on the basis that the Opposition tabled them. This is not always the case and where there is real engagement across all parties, very valuable work can be done. It is long overdue that we dispensed with the ridiculous rule — I emphasise this — that amendments tabled by Opposition Deputies may not lead to a charge on the Exchequer. This rule hampers real engagement on much legislation and makes a nonsense, for example, of the annual passage of the finance Bill.

It is disgraceful that no Oireachtas committees have been formed since the general election four months ago. The Dáil and Seanad did not return until the end of September. No committee work was done in August or September because the committees were not in place. In my view this brings the Dáil and Seanad into disrepute. It must be stated clearly that every Deputy and Senator should have the right to a place on an Oireachtas committee. Obviously all Members cannot serve on the committee of his or her choice. However, in order to fulfil his or her role as a public representative comprehensively, it must be accepted and not seen as a concession that every Members should have access to the committee system. It is totally unacceptable that committee places are divvied out by the larger parties and that smaller parties such as Sinn Féin and Independents must depend on the larger parties giving up places allocated to them to become a member of a committee. This must change and each member and the sector of the electorate he or she represents must be given due and equal recognition in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That is not the case currently, as the Minister of State knows only too well, as he and I have addressed it repeatedly since the general election in May.

The Government closely guards its majority on committees and its power to nominate committee chairpersons. The position of chairperson should be shared out and rotated on a yearly or two yearly basis. The positions of chairpersons should not be doled out as goodies for Government backbenchers and disappointed aspirants to ministerial office. While the Government jealously guards its committee places, it is not so vigilant about ensuring its members fully participate in committee work. I found that while Opposition Members have good attendance records, they are faced with one or two representatives at meetings from the Government side who are in to keep the side up.

The media have a major responsibility to reflect the importance of committee work, which is something they have failed to do. Starving the work of Deputies and Senators of the important oxygen of media attention has ill served the very important work that I know the committee system addresses in Parliament. It is important the media take on board that they have a responsibility to adequately and properly inform the electorate of the extent of the work of Deputies and Senators in these Houses. I encourage the reporters and their editors, including the broadcast media, to take a greater interest in and accept the validity of the case for more and greater attention to the work of committees. Perhaps RTE might consider extending "Oireachtas Report" rather than cutting the already inadequate attention that some Members receive.

I have noted the Minister of State's comments on the proposed committee for children. I will give the Minister a moment to bring his attention to this matter.

I apologise, I was taken up with one of the matters the Deputy raised.

I refer to a matter which the Minister signalled in his address, the committee on children. The situation seems to move and change not only by the day but by the hour. I have kept abreast of the feedback at Whips' meetings and yet today we learn the Government proposes an entirely new committee regarding children from that signalled in the missive circulated at a previous Whips' meeting. It is proposed to have a committee on the constitutional amendment regarding children quite separate from the committee the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, is involved in arranging. I have no problem with that but the Minister must accept that the drip drip approach is not a good way to do business. This makes it very difficult for parties to plan and in our case how we will divide our time and attention when there will clearly be a much greater number of opportunities arising from these committees. I welcome the subtext of the Chief Whip's announcement, that the committee on children, which had been signalled earlier, will be a substantive committee rather than a stand-alone address of the proposal to amend the Constitution. This is in line with an argument I presented to the Taoiseach yesterday. I further argued for a specific Question Time for the Minister of State with responsibility for children, independent of questions to the Minister for Health and Children where matters pertaining to children are rarely addressed, given the extent of concern and the import of all health issues currently.

Children are a very important part of our society and the House must address issues concerning them. The case for this is self-standing.

I welcome the establishment of the committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There is no indication yet of the intent of the commencement of this committee. When will the committee be constituted? Have Members of Parliament from north of the Border signalled their acceptance of the opportunity to participate? I hope there will be a willingness to participate by all political views north of the Border.

In my first five years in the House I served on the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government and during the previous Dáil on the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service. I express my appreciation of the committee secretariats and of the support staff who serviced committees during the ten years of my experience. In every way they were hugely accommodating and helpful. I record my thanks to them and I am sure I reflect the thanks and appreciation of all Members.

The record of committee engagements needs to be speeded up and, if possible, its publication brought into line with the Official Report of the Dáil. This aspect of committee work does not serve the appreciation by the media and public of the importance of committees. If an increase in staff is necessary to speed up the preparation of the transcripts of all committee meetings I encourage that. Committee transcripts should be in line with the speedy availability of those of the Dáil and Seanad and committee reports should not be relegated to a later time. All reports should be done within the same time arrangements. If additional staff are required that must be addressed. I express my appreciation of the work of staff who compile the reports of all such engagements.

There is value in committees hearing evidence from delegations. In my experience it is often valuable to invite representatives of State agencies, non-governmental organisations and civic society to committees. The Houses will better address their work by continual contact and engagement with these voices. This work is important and underscores the importance of Parliament to people. In that regard, the work of committees should be expanded. I am not averse to specific time being allocated for it.

We must be aware of resource issues. The Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service has had to curtail meetings because of the unavailability of rooms.

In 2007, it is bizarre that the Parliament must order the time it allows for committees to sit and Members to do their work on the basis of the constraints of space. I urge the Chief Whip to address these serious deficiencies so that we can have a better opportunity to play our part to the full. Welcome developments took place in 2000 but we are only a handful of years from that and it is obvious there was insufficient planning for the future needs of the Houses.

I look forward to the establishment of committees at the earliest opportunity. While all Members cannot access their committees of choice, I hope my party colleagues and I, now smaller in number, will be accommodated by the larger blocs. Government has a responsibility in this. It should not act only in the interest of perpetuating its own majority position but look to its responsibility to ensure access to all elected voices. Our mandates are the equal of any other in this Chamber. We have the right to access committees in order to perform our role to the best of our ability. It is a sad reflection on the arrangements in the House that one must engage in negotiation, barter and begging to have a chance to play one's part. That is not what was expected by the electorate which made us their choice, either in first position or with high preferences, in the recent election. The electorate deserves, as do their elected voices, the apportionment of equal opportunity to all representatives in this House. I hope that will be the case in the future. I look forward to participating in committee work in the new Dáil for whatever time lies ahead.

With the agreement of the House, I wish to share time with Deputy O'Flynn.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the committee system at the commencement of the Dáil. This is an appropriate time to debate this subject and we should do so at the commencement of every Dáil. I compliment the Chief Whip on the series of proposals he has outlined, specifically the provision of enhanced research facilities and resources to committees. Proposals relating to European matters will be seen as very significant. I had the honour last year of chairing the committee on child protection, a special committee established to deal specifically with an issue of national importance that convulsed the House, if not the nation, in terms of the gravity of issues with which it dealt. There is enormous scope for the House to deal with these types of complex issues through the committee system. In other words, we should remain open to the possibility of establishing special purpose committees. Another committee which comes to mind in this regard is the one established last year to address the complex and difficult issue involving a judge of the Circuit Court. While I may be biased, both committees were considered particularly effective in proposing solutions and bringing about resolutions to these difficulties outside of the hothouse atmosphere that sometimes pertains in the Dáil Chamber.

I welcome the innovations introduced by the Minister of State. I welcome in particular that the All-Party Committee on the Constitution will become a Joint Oireachtas committee. I could never understand why that committee met in a different venue and under different terms from standard committees. I also welcome the proposal to establish a joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and a joint committee on the constitutional amendment regarding children.

The proposals in respect of EU scrutiny are important. The volume of material coming from Europe is unwieldy. No Deputy, regardless of his or her experience or expertise, could be expected to deal with the volume and complexity of material coming from Europe. The proposed committee will require enormous resources and staff to deal with those issues. I believe the Minister of State's proposals go some way towards addressing this issue.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins identified the staffing of committees in general as one of the most crucial issues. A committee not properly staffed cannot operate effectively. In this regard, I noticed last year — this may have been peculiar to the committees of which I was a member — a great deal of turnover of committee clerks. This, in my view, gave rise to a great deal of disruption of the work of the committees. I do not know whether this was widespread. However, I believe that in so far as it is possible a clerk assigned to a committee should serve with that committee for the entire tenure of the Dáil or, at least, a large part of it.

The proposals in respect of research assistants are also important. Members are often faced in committees by a plethora of advisers accompanying a Minister providing him or her with the most up-to-date specialist information whereas they, be it on the Opposition or Government side, simply do not have that level of expertise. I draw the Minister of State's attention to the overly complex issue of financing of rapporteurs which I believe should be streamlined. Many of the rapporteur-based reports were good.

Deputy Kenny at the outset made the point that committees should be seen as an instrument of the Dáil and should reflect its work. At the same time, the argument was made that there should be more committee chairmanship positions for Opposition Members. Surely, if the committee system is to mirror the Dáil, which is chaired for the most part by Government, the proposed system for Government chairmanship of committees to drive and direct those committees is an appropriate way to proceed.

I welcome this debate and the reforms proposed by the Minister of State. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

It is important to point out that it was 16 October 2002 that the order for the formation of the new committees came before the Dáil.

I agree with Deputy Higgins, having served as Chairman of the Joint and Select Committees on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources during the previous Dáil, that a shortage of staff arose on numerous occasions because of the pressures on them. I must acknowledge that the staff of my committees, which included Ronan Lenihan and others, were excellent.

Perhaps the Minister of State will consider whether four committee rooms will be sufficient to service the proposed 21 committees. I agree with Deputy Higgins that being told a room had to be vacated at a particular time disrupted the business of the sitting committee. I also had the honour of chairing the Working Group of Committee Chairman and of visiting the UK with Mr. Art O'Leary to view the system there. I noted during that visit that there was one PR person for every seven committees. Our committee system is mirrored on the UK system and it is important a public relations person is appointed to serve a designate number of committees. This would allow committees to operate effectively in terms of getting their message out prior to a meeting or, in respect of the issuing of a report.

Committees perform invaluable work and they make an invaluable contribution to the democratic process. All debates in the committee system are held in public session. The current committee system adds value to the process by invigilating with the Department which it mirrors, the stakeholders and, the public. The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources produced 11 reports in five years. These related to public policies which had a major impact on people. These reports were published following full consultation with the stakeholders, the public, the relevant Department and Minister. The committee examined the issues, commented and made recommendations and built a roadmap for policymakers to consider and follow. I am happy to say that a substantial number of the recommendations made in the 11 reports produced by the committee which I chaired for five years, were taken on board by the Department. I am glad our work was not in vain.

All of the reports were agreed by consensus. All parties were fully committed to the process in which they engaged as a committee. It is only fair to say that this committee was considered to have been one of the most active of the Twenty-Ninth Dáil. The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources published three reports on broadband, one of which, published in 2004, included 12 recommendations. However, we were not happy that the Government was following up on these recommendations and later published another report which included 35 further recommendations. The third report, published prior to the end of the Twenty-Ninth Dáil, included two recommendations which meant that Government, stakeholders and others had taken note of what we had to say. There has been phenomenal growth in the roll out of broadband during the past 12 months.

This is but one area of activity in which the joint committee was involved. The committee also discussed salmon drift netting and produced a report which laid the foundations for the Department's report which was accepted by Government and is currently being implemented. It also produced a report on non-ionising radiation from mobile phone handsets and masts, the recommendations of which, I am pleased to put on the record of the House, were accepted by the Department which established an implementation group to follow through on it.

I believe the committee system has a major role to play in the workings of the Dáil and Seanad. I welcome the Minister of State's earlier announcement that the committees will be beefed up in terms of staff numbers and so on. I believe this will be helpful. I hope the Minister of State will take on board some of the suggestions made in my short contribution.

The success or otherwise of this debate will depend on whether the Minister of State and the Government as a whole are prepared to recognise that the time has come for a clear separation of powers between the Executive and this Chamber. Their terms of reference immediately indicate the thinking behind the formation of committees. There is a fear on the part of Government of losing control. I do not refer to backbenchers on the Government side because we are all Members of the Dáil but the Executive has a job to do and this Parliament has a job to do. For example, one of the conditions of committees is that a joint committee shall refrain from inquiring into, in public session, or publishing confidential information regarding any such matter if so requested by the body concerned or by the Minister. This means a Minister can tell a committee of Parliament it cannot debate a matter in public. He can tell it not to publish information. If ever there was an example of the control of Government and the Executive over committees it is reflected in that condition, which applies to the terms of reference of all committees. I object to that.

The first thing we should do is review the terms of reference of all committees but it will depend on whether the Executive is prepared to release control over committees and leave it to the Dáil and Seanad to act in a responsible fashion to assist the Executive in the formation of legislation. The original intention was for heads of Bills to be sent to committees by Cabinet for consideration and that was a very good idea. The object of the exercise was to invite witnesses to debate those heads. The results would then be returned, via the Dáil, to the Executive. I see nothing wrong with that system but, as things stand, we empty this Chamber of real work by sending off Bills on Committee Stage to committees when, in many instances, they should be debated in the House.

If we let the committee system operate in a correct fashion we would not need to be concerned about there being a majority on all Stages in committee. Committee meetings should not be about votes. The only reason for a Government majority on a committee is the fear of losing a vote on Committee Stage of a Bill. Why should a finance Bill be buried in a committee, with nobody knowing what is happening? It is not reported, which is also the case with social welfare Bills. I spent five years outside this House and I was appalled not to have a clue what was in finance Bills.

This is a real problem, which is why, with Deputy Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, and Deputy Higgins, I have advocated for a long time that proceedings of both Houses and committees should be aired live on our broadcasting station. Television is a feature of the present generation and if we want to communicate with people we should have our own channel to broadcast on a daily basis, with its schedule published in newspapers so that people will know what time certain debates take place and what is happening in a committee. One can flick a button to watch and listen and one does not even need a commentary. I watch BBC Parliament on occasions and during the summer months, when the Parliament is in recess, much of the committee work is replayed, in which there are some very interesting debates. One gets the advantage of hearing outside experts advise parliamentarians on various issues, and there is no reason it cannot happen here. It is simply a question of the will to do it.

I believe we are creating committees for the sake of creating committees. There is a real fear that they will be seen as more jobs for the boys. I want real committees and do not see why we need another three. I accept that many of the proposals in the Chief Whip's speech this morning relate to important matters but we do not necessarily need a separate committee to discuss them. The present committee structure could achieve that. Mention has been made of insufficient space and staff but if we increase the number of committees to 21 or 22 there will be less space for the existing committees and more staff will be required. It will also add to the potential for talking shops.

There is no reason for the Government to feel it has to chair every committee. If one accepts the separation of powers between the Executive and Parliament, the chairs of committees should be allocated on the basis of proportionality, depending on the strength of each party in the Dáil. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin's point that every party should have the opportunity to be represented on a committee. We live in a democracy and many countries would give their right arm for the freedoms we have. We rightly fight the cause of people such as those in Burma who are trying to rid themselves of dictatorship, but we are going in the opposite direction by allowing Government to take over more and more in respect of the operation of our democracy. Government has a job to do and so does Parliament. It is time all of us, irrespective of our party, thought this way.

On the subject of Dáil reform, one of the most important instruments in any parliamentary democracy is the power to ask a parliamentary question and receive a comprehensive reply. Question Time in this Parliament is now an utter joke. There are 50 or 60 questions to a particular Minister on the Order Paper every day but everybody knows that, after Priority Questions, we are lucky if more than five are answered and that is utterly wrong. I know from my time as a Minister, as will other Members who have served in government, that if a Department sees a question at No. 20 on the Order Paper it knows the quality of the reply can be lower than if it were at No. 1, given the fact that it will not be reached. The Minister does not even have to brief himself, or herself, on the topic.

We have a lottery system but I suggest that, instead of that lottery taking place a few days before the questions are to be asked, they be given to the Ceann Comhairle to deal with. In the morning, before he comes into the Chamber, he would draw the questions and the order in which they are to be asked, but he would not tell any Member. If I had submitted a question, I would come into the House because there was a chance it would have been drawn as No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. Most important, the quality of the reply would be the same for each question because nobody would know whether it was to be selected for answer. The system would be very simple and would attract more Deputies into the Chamber at Question Time.

We should also restrict the time allocated to each question. A Minister should not be allowed to spend five minutes replying while the person asking the question only has 30 seconds. This is a vital change which would not adversely affect any of us. It will only benefit those of us who ask a parliamentary question. I ask the Minister of State to give the suggestion serious consideration as it is a disgrace that people turn on their television to see only two or three people in the Chamber at Question Time, because we know our question will not be reached. He must find a way of attracting people to the House because this is a theatre and it is where the action takes place. This is where the public forms its impression of how we are doing our jobs. People do not realise that we slave in committees. As we run from one committee to another, we ask ourselves why we are doing it. Do we need 21 committees?

I would like to share time with Deputy Moynihan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak during this debate. I have served in this House for five years without having had the honour or privilege of being a Chairman of a committee. During the last Dáil, I served on the Committee of Public Accounts, the Joint Committee on Education and Science and the Joint Committee on Child Protection. While each of those three committees worked very hard, the public understanding of their work was limited. It is incumbent on all of us to take the appropriate steps to ensure that the real work done by Oireachtas committees is recognised and appreciated. It is a matter of Dáil reform. When one is trawling through detailed figures with a witness at the Committee of Public Accounts, it is impossible to keep one's train of thought after the committee meeting has been disrupted by a division in this Chamber. It is also unfair on witnesses. We need to change the structures.

The work of the Committee of Public Accounts often makes the newspapers, particularly when it relates to a headline issue, because the committee has a certain profile. I would like to mention a somewhat disturbing aspect of the committee's work. The committee tackles various questions in a structured manner — it does not just highlight the issues of the day. It pursues various matters by making specific recommendations to the relevant Department or organisation, and subsequently in a minute to the Minister for Finance. In most cases, the recommendations made by the committee are acted on. The media does not seem to notice when the committee's cycle of work on a given issue is completed. The newspapers prefer to publish glamorous headlines about amounts of money which have been squandered than to reflect the real work of the committee. They do not follow through on the detailed work of the Committee of Public Accounts, which is a pity.

I listened with interest to Deputy Barrett's comments about the composition of the various committees. I wonder whether he would be making those recommendations and suggestions if he were speaking from this side of the House and his party were in government. I would like to make that point having listened to those comments.

The Dáil should retain the ability to establish at short notice certain sub-committees in addition to those committees which have been listed by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt. Such sub-committees were established by the last Dáil to deal with certain issues. I listened carefully to Deputy Peter Power, who chaired the Joint Committee on Child Protection, which was established by the last Dáil when a major issue arose. The members of the committee, who represented all sides of the House, dealt with the issue in a professional manner. The committee's final report reflected the collective thoughts of its members, rather then the individual policies of the Government, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party or Fine Gael. The manner in which the various strands of the issue were teased out in detail was an example of real committee work. That the members of the committee were not necessarily concerned about party lines showed that committees can come together to solve problems within tightly defined timeframes. The Joint Committee on Child Protection's work, which was done over the summer months, was completed within a short and well defined period of time. It is a good example. We must retain the ability to restructure our systems by establishing a special committee of that nature at short notice when issues of significant national importance arise.

I would like to speak about the membership of committees. One often sees many empty seats in the committee rooms where meetings are taking place and when Deputies have an opportunity to attend. In the vast majority of cases, any Member of the House who is interested in the topic being discussed by a committee is entitled to attend the relevant meeting. It is soul-destroying to hear Deputies frequently calling for a Dáil debate on an issue that has been discussed in some detail at committee level during a debate to which any Deputy could have contributed. If we are serious about the committee system, it is incumbent on all of us to use the forum presented at committee level to debate the issues we want to see addressed in detail.

I heard the Sinn Féin Leader in this House, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, suggest a week or two ago that the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be debated in this Chamber. I do not have a problem with that proposal as long as we understand that it would detract from the work of the Committee of Public Accounts, which is charged with going through such reports in forensic detail. If we debate the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports here, we will be suggesting that the role of the Committee of Public Accounts is somehow second rate. It would be as if we were saying that we are happy to debate it in the House and to allow the committee to do what it wants thereafter. If we are serious about the committees, we should leave them to deal with those issues which are rightfully and properly their responsibility. A Deputy is entitled to attend a meeting of almost any committee, regardless of whether he or she is a member of the committee in question. I accept that the position is somewhat different in the case of the Committee of Public Accounts. Any Member of this House can express his or her views at almost any committee meeting. We need to put our beliefs into practice by making the committees work. The system is not working if we try to reconsider in this House issues which have been debated at committee meetings with lots of empty seats.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few brief words on the establishment of the Oireachtas committees. Previous speakers have commented on the effectiveness or otherwise of the committees. The committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas are responsible for reflecting on the issues appertaining to their various remits. There is scope for the committees to do far more exploratory work with parties who are interested in specific issues. It should be borne in mind that we are talking about committees of elected Members of the Oireachtas. Some Deputies have mentioned that the Oireachtas has devolved a great deal of power to unelected organisations which now make decisions relating to Government and State policy. As a result of this process, which started a long time ago, such bodies are no longer accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Members of the Oireachtas are often frustrated when they contact these groups. I recently highlighted the case of Pobal, which has said that when Members of the Oireachtas contact it, it cannot give information to third parties. These organisations should be asked to account for their work to Oireachtas committees.

Each of the Oireachtas committees has done a great deal of work during my two previous terms as a Deputy. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Science in the last Dáil, I was in charge of a group of people who worked intensely on the issue of adult literacy and had started to examine school boundaries when the general election was called. There is scope within the committee structure to ask the relevant stakeholders to attend meetings to tease out various issues so members can identify shortcomings and shortfalls. As Members of the Oireachtas, we should use the committees to a much greater extent, by producing reports for the attention of Departments, for example.

Previous speakers mentioned that reports which they worked on were considered and implemented by the various Departments. I am sure that if we were to re-evaluate all the reports which have been published by Oireachtas committees over the years, we would find that they include many good policies and statements. On reflection, however, it may transpire that many of the recommendations of those reports were not implemented by the relevant Departments, which belittles the Houses of the Oireachtas. The essence of our democracy, in the first instance, is the election of Members of the Oireachtas. As parliamentarians, when we produce reports as members of committees, we are mirroring the views of the people we represent. Democracy dictates that as policy-makers, we should have a greater ability to ensure that the reports we produce are considered. There should be some system whereby Departments are obliged to implement such reports as Government policy and then as State policy.

This might be one of the shortcomings of the committee system. There is scope for more work to be carried out by committees. Certain organisations should be held accountable to the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas who are ultimately accountable to the people. We are the elected representatives of the people and as such should have a say.

As someone who was absent from this House for five years, what I find most depressing is that nothing has changed. I listened and read with some interest the speech delivered by the Government Chief Whip. The proposals described as relating to Dáil reform do nothing other than tinker around the edges, dealing with mechanics and procedures as opposed to substance. I have reached the conclusion that we are rapidly becoming a dysfunctional democracy as a consequence of one party, Fianna Fáil, having dominated Government for the past ten years. This House is no longer regarded by the Government or the main Government party as truly a parliament or a legislative assembly. It is seen as something to be controlled, to be organised and, in so far as possible, something to be politically neutered. The best way to describe the current function of Government backbenchers in the eyes of the Government is simply "lobby fodder". They are seen as individuals whose support is necessary to keep Ministers in office.

When dealing with the Opposition an attempt has been made by the Government of the past ten years to ensure that the Opposition ceases to act, behave or exercise a role as legislators but instead becomes simply a protest movement. As the Government sees it, the role of the Opposition is to raise issues and questions but never to be allowed play a meaningful role in the legislative process. This is having an extraordinarily bad impact on politics. It is undermining democratic principle and it is holding Members of this House up to disrepute in the eyes of the general public.

The statistics relating to legislation are extraordinary. I researched the number of Private Members' Bills which had been introduced in both Houses of the Oireachtas in the period beginning 1 January 2002 to date and the number which had succeeded in being enacted into law. A total of 70 Private Members' Bills were published during that period by various Members of this House on behalf of their parties or by Independent Senators in the other House. Of the 70 Bills published, 69 have gone no further than initial debate. They have been blocked and stopped as early as possible from making any real legislative progress. Many of them have been to do with issues that badly needed legislation or required public debate and where reform was required. There is an absolute need to recognise that Members of this House have a role to play in the legislative process. It is very disappointing that in the proposals suggested for Dáil reform, no special place is being given to the enactment of Bills of an important nature dealing with issues that need to be addressed but which Government does not have the time to address. It should be open not only to Opposition parties but to backbench Deputies to publish legislation on issues of importance and it should not be regarded as a form of betrayal of the party if a backbencher from a Government party does so. Legislation is enacted in other parliaments as a result of this system.

In my past life in the Dáil I published a large number of Private Members' Bills and was successful in having a small number of those enacted and many others adopted by Government. However, I regret that the clock seems to have been turned back in that area rather than forward.

I agree with previous speakers on the subject of Dáil questions. It is a sterile ritual dance located within a timeframe that undermines all concepts of accountability. A specific time is allocated and the Minister gives a reply. The Minister knows that the Opposition Deputy might succeed in asking one or two brief supplementary questions but the time is talked out. There is no real concept of accountability and Dáil questions have become largely a meaningless exercise outside Leaders' Questions. There is a need to reform the way Dáil questions are being dealt with to ensure that a Dáil question can truly make a Minister accountable and issues can be adequately explored. The general public will be subject to more tribunals being created because it is only within tribunals, with lawyers asking questions, that real answers are given on issues of public importance if the system is not changed in that area. This would undermine democracy.

On my return to this House I am astonished to discover that a Member cannot get answers to serious questions about the running of the health service. The HSE is an extra-parliamentary quango that operates within its own sphere and carries out about 75% to 80% of the functions that were formerly the functions of the Department of Health and Children. The Minister's answer to most Dáil questions is that it is not her responsibility but rather that of the HSE. The HSE has a parliamentary office that may eventually send a written reply to a question. However, the way to achieve parliamentary accountability for service failures is not with the initial reply but with the capacity to pursue questioning and the capacity to force Ministers, who are often reluctant, to give the full story of where things have gone wrong or what new action is required to be taken. Receiving written responses from a huge, over-bureaucratic quango that cannot be furnished with a supplementary question or reply to same is an utter and complete waste of time and an undermining of the function of this House.

The tyranny of the whipping system needs to be examined. I agree this is easy to say from the Opposition benches. The whipping system has turned Government backbenchers into what could best be described as parliamentary and legislative eunuchs. They can talk about issues but they dare not do anything. What happened in the case of the Shannon issue is a classic example. There is a need to give and allow Government backbenchers a real parliamentary role as well as appreciating that Members of the House on the Opposition side should pay a real legislative role. There is a need to take off the shackles. It should be possible for Government backbenchers to support a Government of a particular complexion while legitimately proposing amendments to legislation or bringing forward new legislation or being critical of and voting against the Government on issues that are not fundamental to the Government's survival. There is a need to re-appraise our political ethics but there is an utter failure to do so because Government is comfortable with maintaining the current system.

Many of the proposed reforms are simply about mechanics rather than substance. The Ceann Comhairle has spoken of the need to provide greater information to the public about how our parliamentary system works. He has committed himself, "to encouraging further reform and modernisation of parliamentary services for Oireachtas Members and the public". He cites a three-year strategic work programme. However, this will not transform the public's view. We need to transform our political ethics to allow Members of this House to play a real and true legislative function and to date there has been an abject failure to do so.

The committees are seen as playthings of Government as a means of handing out political Smarties and Dolly Mixture gifts of chairmanships. We required that in the Northern Ireland Assembly the committees and their officers would reflect the proportionality of the different parties. It is a system that applies in many European parliaments. The reason Government wants to appoint Chairs of committees is not to ensure that committees work properly but rather to ensure the Government of the day controls the committee system. This was admitted by one of the Fianna Fáil speakers. The committees should be an arm of Parliament and not an arm of Government. They should initiate legislation. They should hold debate which is critical of Government and should not play the role of an arm of Government.

In the dying days of the Twenty-Eight Dáil, before the 2002 general election, a Private Members' Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil. Instead of it automatically being dealt with on Committee Stage in the relevant Oireachtas committee, the role of the Government-appointed chairman was to ensure it was never rostered. It was never heard of again but disappeared into some type of parliamentary vacuum. That is not good enough.

Committees should be given a real role. Let us establish a committee system in which the chairmanship of a committee is not about the support the Taoiseach of the day gets from backbenchers as a result of them being paid an extra €10,000 or €20,000 per year on being appointed chairman or vice-chairman of a committee. It is not about the Opposition parties sharing in the largesse. It is about the committees and the officers of committees truly reflecting the proportionality of party and independent representation in the House and exercising a parliamentary function free of the control of Government.

If we do not fundamentally reform how our Parliament operates, it will continue to be viewed cynically by the general public and seen as incapable of responding to issues of national importance in the expected way. Committees will remain largely the same talking shops — let us not pretend otherwise — in which Opposition and backbench Deputies engage, on occasion, in political-personal psychotherapy with each other about issues, knowing that the Government will, by and large, take absolutely no notice.

In the words of Bunreacht na hÉireann, this is the national Parliament of Ireland. It is in this Parliament's power to conduct its business as it wishes. It is all very well to claim there are various limitations on the committees but in my time as a Member of the Oireachtas, both as a Senator and as a Deputy, I have never seen a member of the Government attempt to limit, direct or stifle the business of a committee. On the contrary, I have seen Ministers made accountable and uncomfortable when brought before committees to explain a particular action or to defend a policy.

I can give specific examples. During the past five years I had the privilege of being a member of both the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The latter committee dealt with the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and Ireland's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Unanimity would be required in that group if the USA and India were to conclude a new nuclear arrangement, and Ireland would have a voice in that. The committee had lengthy debates with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on that issue. Similarly, on many occasions prior to and after EU Council meetings, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs were invited to meetings of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and were subject to rigorous scrutiny.

That leads to one of the main topics I wish to discuss, the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. In the Twenty-Ninth Dáil approximately 2,183 draft EU legislative measures, comprising proposals or notices, were dealt with by the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. I was disappointed at the lack of media interest in that committee, given that it dealt with some of the most important new legislation due to be brought before the Dáil. That is not to blame the media. Perhaps it was due to how the sub-committee's business was conducted and to the fact that much of it involved extremely technical information. Nevertheless, there was hardly a peep on television, radio or in the print media about 2,183 draft EU legislative measures. That is a serious issue because these measures are of immense relevance to the people. They might not affect people this year or next year but they could five years hence.

I am sure the Chief Whip and the Opposition will agree that we must seriously strengthen the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. I was delighted to hear the Minister tell the House that the Government is committed to provide extra resources in terms of research, management and so forth for that committee. In the past five years it had a very small staff, who did a brilliant job. However, that situation was unacceptable. Members should note that under the proposed new European Union reform treaty the role of national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation is to be significantly strengthened. That treaty might be signed by the Government in a few weeks.

The mandate in the treaty provides for a strengthened role for national parliaments. There will be an eight-week period in which national parliaments can offer a reasoned opinion on whether a Commission proposal respects the principle of subsidiarity. If a proposal is contested by more than half of the Union's national parliaments, it will have to be re-examined and can be blocked by the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament. The reform treaty will contain a protocol on the role of national parliaments. The protocol, which was in the draft constitutional treaty, will require all Commission proposals to be forwarded directly to the national parliaments at the same time as they are sent to the Council and European Parliament. The protocol also provides for interparliamentary co-operation within the Union, including meetings of parliamentary committees dealing with EU affairs.

If the reform treaty becomes law, there will be an extraordinary new responsibility and opportunity for this Parliament to scrutinise EU legislation, to have dialogue with other national parliaments about proposed legislation and to initiate a new framework of discussion, debate and scrutiny of European matters. More thought will have to be given by this Parliament to how we will participate in the new process envisaged by the reform treaty.

I fundamentally disagree with many of the points made by the last speaker. This is not a dysfunctional Parliament. There are many mechanisms in the Dáil to raise matters of national importance. Last night, an important debate took place on the fire services arising out of events that took place only two weeks ago. To claim that this Parliament is not capable of responding is simply incorrect.

However, I agree that far more resources must be allocated to staffing committees. If a Member of the House wishes to draft legislation, it is extremely difficult to do so, given the technical complexities of modern law, both Irish and European. There is no resource available to a Member of the House if he or she wishes to draft a Bill. There is a legal adviser for the Dáil who does an excellent job, but there is no team that a Member of the House can approach to seek help in drafting legislation or advice on the technical requirements of legislation. There could be a greater role for ordinary Members and for committees in initiating legislation. We have gone too far in following the UK model, where all legislation appears to emanate from government. In the United States, far more legislation originates from the floor of Congress, although it may be vetoed by the President. Congress sees itself more as an initiator of legislation as opposed to the Executive arm initiating legislation.

A new and welcome development is mobile phone technology whereby anybody can dial 01 6184000 and listen to proceedings in Dáil Éireann with another number available for Seanad Éireann. I wish to publicise this because I am not sure whether the public are aware of it. I hope I am allowed do so.

This Chamber and the Seanad Chamber both have cameras.

We are trying to keep people out of hospital at the moment.

Cameras also record every committee. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for all of these channels to be available on television so interested people can watch the committees discussing European affairs, housing or the environment. This would greatly strengthen the committees. The technology also exists for all of these channels to be viewed on mobile telephones. Why not open it up and make proceedings, apart from those which are confidential and private, available through television to every citizen of the country? The technology exists and the Chief Whip should examine this matter.

I thank the Chief Whip for his speech. More must be done but we have excellent committees and a strong Dáil and we should not talk down our democracy which is in a healthy state.

I wish to share time with Deputy Joe Costello.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I wish to reflect on the number of appointments to be made and the context in which the committee system is structured. The Constitution provides for 15 Members of Government. We have 20 Ministers of State which is an extraordinary number. If we ever have a pub quiz in Dáil Éireann the tie-breaker for members of the Government should be to name the Ministers of State and for the absolute clincher to also state what they are supposed to do. Not even members of the Government who work with them know what they do apart from seven or eight important jobs.

The Government proposes to increase the number of committees by three. The list of 21 committees we will have does not include the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. We will have an extraordinary structure whereby each of the 21 committees will have at least three remunerated appointments. In some cases the number is more but for the most part it is three. The chairman, vice-chairman and convenor of each committee receive a stipend, and the total cost is approximately €30,000 per committee.

In addition we will have to find staff for the extra committees. Unlike the HSE, an embargo probably does not apply to the Houses of the Oireachtas. From my experience of being a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service, which are both serviced by excellent staff, I believe most committees have approximately two staff and various people are allocated to translate and transcribe records from time to time and for the hours the committee operates.

The new committee structure will mean 63 paid posts, the lion's share of which will go to the Government with a smaller share going to Fine Gael and a tiny share going to the Labour Party. This is called a "payroll vote" and one wonders what it is for. Is it to make the Government Deputies who receive the stipends work harder? I work with people in Government all the time on committees and I know how hard many of them work. This is not about them. It is about the designs of the Government, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance.

Several weeks ago when the motion of confidence in the Taoiseach was put to the House I found the reply of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, interesting. While the power was draining away from the Taoiseach, when Deputy Cowen spoke to the thrill of the Fianna Fáil backbenches one could feel in the atmosphere that this was their man speaking and the paradigm of power had shifted. He stated he valued loyalty above all else and fair dues. Is the loyalty in this "payroll vote" to be purchased at the taxpayers' expense? Many Fianna Fáil people of great talent have been overlooked in recent years. Committee appointments are a way of rewarding and keeping people quiescent and if they are made chairmen they may live to fight another day. It is hard on people who put a great deal of effort into the Dáil not to get preferment when their party is in power. All of us are aware of this difficulty.

According to the Ombudsman's report, in recent years approximately 450 quangos have been created. These bodies, such as the HSE, barely report to the Dáil. I do not know where they are in the reforms suggested by the Chief Whip. People from the HSE are not accountable, least of all to the people in the Dáil or in committee and this is the worst of all.

I thank Deputy Joan Burton for sharing time. I read the Minister of State's contribution with interest and aspects of it are well worth noting. I am interested to see how we might expand and enhance the issue of e-consultation to introduce a level of public involvement in the work of the committees. It was done with the Committee on European Affairs when we held the week on European affairs, raised European issues in the Dáil and devoted our time entirely to them. It was extremely useful.

I welcome the establishment of the joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It is overdue and can only be beneficial. I am somewhat perplexed by the committee on the constitutional amendment regarding children considering we will also have a committee on children which surely could do the work proposed for the committee on the constitutional amendment. It could deal with its broader work when the constitutional amendment has been dealt with and it seems an unnecessary replication.

I am glad to see the establishment of a joint administrative committee through linking the Joint Services Committee and the Sub-Committee on Members' Services. I also welcome the further enhancement of the work of the European affairs committee which is clearly necessary in terms of resources, staffing, advisory work and training due to the enormous amount of scrutiny required for the extra legislative proposals coming from Europe.

My problem with this is that much of it will be wasted because of the committees' lack of real power. Every Member of the House should have the right to be on a committee. Why should any Member whether part of a large, small or no group be denied membership of committees? Unless one is a member of a large group one will not be made a member of any committee. This is wrong. The committee system should be integral for every Member and should be re-examined.

Perhaps I can give an example of the committee of which I was a member, the Joint Committee on European Affairs. Five months have passed since the election and that committee has not been established — the position is similar with all other committees. In the coming weeks and months we will face probably the biggest single legislative decision that will be taken in the five years of this Government, namely, the reform treaty. The Government will nail its colours to the mast by the end of next week on where it stands on the substantive proposals in that treaty without as yet a full commitment to debate in the House prior to that decision. There is no opportunity for the committee to scrutinise the proposals in advance because it has not been set up. Ireland is the only country in the EU that will put that matter to the people by way of a referendum without prior consultation with the people. The Taoiseach has given a confused commitment to a debate without saying it will definitely take place next week. I hope it takes place next week but it should have been part and parcel of the committee system so that it could have been debated properly.

The enhanced resources that will be given to the European affairs committee are being given in such a way that, while welcome, it is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. One of the last items of legislation passed in the last Dáil was European affairs legislation that transferred proper legislative scrutiny in this House to the line Minister. From now legislation coming from Europe will be subject to a rubber stamp by way of a ministerial order. The relevant Minister will look at it and, unless it is of major character, will stamp it into domestic legislation and place it in the Library. If nobody objects within three weeks it will be the law of this country. We are being given extra resources but already the deal will be done and we will have had very little control over it.

We need to look carefully at the role of the committee system and how its powers can be enhanced. We have an extremely strong Executive but we have a weak committee system in terms of real power.

I wish to refer to a couple of items raised by Deputy Costello, including the question of e-consultation. I agree this is a matter that should be developed. In this regard I commend the Chief Whip, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Tom Kitt, for pioneering the e-consultation process in the Broadcasting Bill, with the co-operation of the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the good work of Deputy Noel O'Flynn, committee chairman, and his staff. The Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, has set out a commitment to further promote e-consultation with a view to improving the transparency of the workings of this Parliament, giving greater access to all people, in particular, students and teachers, and widening it as an educational tool so that people are more educated in our workings.

Deputy Costello said everyone should be members of committees, but it would be totally unwieldy to have 165 people going to a committee room to vote on each amendment to a Bill. Having said that, every Member is entitled to attend committee meetings and to contribute at those meetings in whatever way they wish to do so. Certainly in the justice committee, Members of the Dáil who were not members of the committee regularly attended and contributed in a positive way to the proceedings of the committee. I understand also that Deputy Seán Barrett mentioned that the heads of Bills are not discussed at committees. Deputy Barrett was away from the House for a few years and certainly in the last Dáil the heads of a number of Bills, including the Criminal Justice Bill and the Garda Síochána Bill, were given to all members of the justice committee for discussion before the Bill was published. The heads were given on the basis that the committee would contribute and suggest amendments, even at that stage, before the Bill was published.

Why is there a need for committees? Committees are very effective and allow us to carry on the legislative work we have been elected to do. More often than not in the Dáil, the debate is between Ministers and the Front Bench spokespersons of the various parties. Certainly at committees every member is allowed, entitled and enabled to contribute positively to the legislation that is going through the Houses of the Oireachtas. It also provides opportunities for Members to get stuck into the job of legislation and reports related to the committee of which they are members. It also allows backbench Members to shine in particular areas whereas that opportunity is not provided in the Houses.

I was very honoured to be appointed by the Taoiseach to the Committee of Public Accounts when I became a Member in 1997 and as chairman of the justice committee in 2000. Not everybody got that opportunity but certainly it made a difference in the way I was able to work in the Dáil and get things done and in the way my electorate perceived me as a legislator and a positive influence in developing the laws of the country.

In the Committee of Public Accounts people were brought to account in terms of the DIRT inquiry whereas they cannot be brought to account here. The Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, referred to the great work done by the late Jim Mitchell as chairman. I was fortunate to have been a member of the DIRT inquiry. It was memorable to see on television, bankers brought to book publicly and made answerable for what had happened in their institutions. The Chief Whip also mentioned the new method of looking at Estimates and output statements. This was developed at the Committee of Public Accounts by its members.

One of the big items that must be addressed again is a public inquiry into matters of great public interest. Unfortunately, as a result of the Abbeylara inquiry in the Twenty-eighth Dáil, a difficulty has arisen in relation to the limitations that have been put on Members by the Constitution and the courts. Since then, certainly in the justice committee, there have been a number of inquiries and hearings: the Barron inquiries into the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, the Dublin bombings, the murder of Seamus Ludlow and the bombings in Kay's Tavern in Dundalk. These were four separate inquiries. The first day of the hearings on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings when the victims came and told their stories was one of the most telling days ever in Leinster House. That happened through the committee system. It was very worthwhile not only for the country, but particularly for the people who were affected.

The committee covering the justice brief met 317 times in the lifetime of the last Dáil and completed a considerable amount of business. One issue it addressed, as do other committees, was EU scrutiny. One of the strands that wove its way through the justice, home affairs and criminal justice discussions was the question of civil law versus common law. We have recently had questions during Leaders' Questions and at Question Time on opting in or out of certain justice and home affairs issues. This matter can and should be discussed at committee. It is done best in that setting as it gets the total attention of all the members of the committee.

The Garda Commissioner, who was unseen around Leinster House for many years, has become very amenable to the justice committee. The Garda Síochána Bill was improved dramatically following discussions at the committee. The Garda Commissioner now appears regularly before the committee.

The issue of international crime is continually to the forefront, particularly regarding drugs. The issue of the international arrest warrant and of evidence being gathered in one country and used in another——

The Deputy has one minute.

Are you serious?

Yes, unfortunately.

The committee system presents an opportunity for individual Members to delve into areas of particular interest to them. This has been used by members of the Opposition. I refer to excellent reports on restorative justice, child care and community policing that were prepared by Opposition Members. They gave rise to excellent reviews in the media and highlighted and improved the profile of the rapporteurs in those matters.

The Disability Bill was improved because of the committees. All the interested parties who were affected or who represented people who would be directly affected by the Bill appeared before the committee and said their piece in the presence of senior civil servants and the Minister. They were listened to, the Bill was amended and improvements came about as a result. It had a very positive effect. A number of committees have similar results that could be enunciated and I commend the establishment of all the committees outlined. I look forward to them being very successful for the benefit not only of this House, but also of all citizens.

I welcome today's debate. It is important, before the committees are established, to have an opportunity at plenary session to raise some of these issues. I welcome what the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, had to say in his opening remarks, which I read in detail. I wish to take up the issue Deputy Ardagh referred to in the course of his contribution. It is fair to say that the high point of the Oireachtas committee system since it was introduced in a comprehensive way in the 1990s was the DIRT inquiry report, commissioned by the then chairperson, former Deputy Jim Mitchell, and his colleagues. Deputy Ardagh was also a member of that committee. The reason it was a high point was that it managed to capture the public's imagination. For the first time in a long time politicians were able to take direct responsibility for something that had gone wrong away from the tribunals and the senior counsels, and without the grotesque sums of money that we are pouring into the inquiry system. It was possible because the issue of public concern effectively did not involve a direct clash between Government and Opposition.

That model had limitations placed on it by the Abbeylara ruling. Sooner rather than later we will need to return to the Supreme Court decision on the Abbeylara inquiry. If we are serious about instituting inquiries within the House which are of public concern, we must ensure that our powers are such that we can draw specific conclusions either on individuals or on facts. The limitations caused by the Abbeylara ruling have never really been revisited by this House or the other House in terms in how we might change the way in which the committee system operates. That model of instituting inquiries of public concern by experienced parliamentarians is the most successful model and is one we need to replicate.

I wish to make a number of proposals which would greatly help the proceedings in this House. On becoming British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown instituted a number of reforms in the House of Commons as a means of trying to get over what was seen to be a very restrictive ten years under the former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, whose presidential style did not lend itself to ensuring the Parliament was given all the powers it should have had. The Government could introduce one reform tomorrow. If the Government wants to make any major statement of public importance on an issue or a policy initiative, it makes that policy announcement at a press conference in Government Buildings. No parliament in the world would accept that position.

I suggest to the Chief Whip that when the Government or individual Ministers choose to make major public policy announcements, they should do so here on the floor of the House. Thursday afternoon could be given over to specific announcements by the Government on a new policy area. The media would be invited and they would attend. We should allow an opportunity for the Opposition to make a statement on the policy announcement. I do not even object to the notion that some contents of the announcement might be leaked the night before provided that the announcement is made in the House rather than at a press conference in Government Buildings with none of us present.

It completely demeans Parliament to have a Minister make major policy announcement outside the House. Ministers would not get away with that in the House of Commons or in many other parliaments in the world. If we are really serious about doing something about parliamentary accountability, let those statements be made in the House. The Minister, the Opposition and the media should be here. The only reason for the media not to attend here is that the statement has already been made at a press conference. It is completely demeaning to the notion of parliamentary accountability and is a matter to which we need to return.

Another reform would be to give additional power to our Speaker. At the moment at Question Time, probably the most important time in the week in terms of grilling the Minister, making sure he or she knows his or her brief and making sure that issues are raised, the Ceann Comhairle does not have the power to direct the Minister to answer a question with the result that we get these Gettysburg-type addresses by Ministers following the format of two minutes, three minutes and two minutes again, which do not answer the questions posed. At no stage can the Ceann Comhairle intervene to tell the Minister he or she is not answering the question the Deputy has raised. Let us institute that reform rather than letting the Ceann Comhairle be more than happy to allow this game to continue as the mini speeches that are all written by civil servants are read into the record of the House.

Another reform should be introduced to address the issue of the many quangos established in recent years. Deputy Burton has stated 400 different agencies have been given various powers, thus providing another opportunity for Ministers to avoid answering a straight question. Had many of the relevant questions been posed and answered honestly 15 years ago, the beef tribunal would never have happened. Many of the tribunals currently sitting may not have been established if Parliament had demanded straight answers from the relevant Ministers, who were accountable to this House. That reform could be made at relatively small pain to the Executive.

If one ever wanted to see jobbery in action, one need look no further than our committee system, which ensures the Government backbenches are kept quiet. It is the greatest scandal in the House that in excess of 50 Members are put on the payroll to serve on a committee. They do so as a means of keeping in with the Government and the Government is happy because it keeps these Members on side. However, someone must cry "halt" to this. The winner takes all principle whereby all these positions are given to the Government parties is unacceptable.

With regard to the number of committees, I am totally opposed to the establishment of a joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That is a plenary matter for the House and it should not be hived off to a committee. This is an international agreement between two sovereign states and the political parties in Northern Ireland. For what purpose is the Government suggesting the committee should sit? If the Government was serious, I would have no difficulty supporting a North-South parliamentary tier, as provided for in the Agreement. It would be good if parliamentarians in the Assembly and the Oireachtas could put Ministers through hoops. Currently, there is no parliamentary accountability for the decisions taken by the North-South Ministerial Council and the actions that follow. A North-South parliamentary tier is needed, which would at least ensure the Executive would have to reply to questions about actions taken in our name on a North-South basis.

Will the Chief Whip consider the establishment of a committee that would review Government appointments to major public posts? A committee should be set up where Members of both Houses could put appointees through their paces before they take up a position. A hearing should take place to ensure the person is suitable rather than being plucked from obscurity to take up these highly paid posts. In America, individuals who take up significant government jobs must go through a hearing system. It would be good for the person to account for whether he or she is qualified for the post at a public session of a committee of the House and to take questions from Members of both Houses. That would be useful and it would provide added value to the committee system.

I was almost tempted to give the previous speaker a few minutes of my time.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I compliment my friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, on his clear efforts in this regard. Many Members will have been impressed by his contribution, which was very accommodating. It was good that he acknowledged the contribution made to the establishment of the committee system by the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, when he served as Minister for the Environment. The debate gives an opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the Oireachtas who service the Houses and the committees in such a professional way and I am grateful to them for their efforts in that regard.

I normally do not rise to Opposition comments but a number of contributions by Opposition Members have been entertaining. Deputy Shatter made a comparison between Government backbenchers and eunuchs. I do not mean to be flippant but when I was first elected five years ago to replace my predecessor, former Deputy Chris Flood, many people said I would have a comfortable experience if I sat on the Opposition benches and was able to ask questions about everything and raise issues on every subject under the then Standing Order 31 and so on, but I was, and still am, quite happy to sit on the Government benches. Life might be different and more comfortable on the Opposition benches.

The Deputy should not worry. We will give him an opportunity yet.

The Opposition keeps promising.

That is kind of the Deputy. One of his more famous colleagues told me prior to the election that I would make a very good Opposition Deputy but it is not something I would like to do. I am very comfortable on the Government benches. Perhaps some colleagues have been on the Opposition benches too long to understand what is like to be a Government backbencher but I have spoken out on issues of concern to my community. I have not been afraid to raise issues or make radical points. However, the myth persists that Government backbenchers should troop through the Opposition lobbies during divisions which is a nonsense. The public does not believe that should happen anymore. It is unhelpful to the debate that every now and then Opposition Members say Government Deputies should vote against the Government. That is a nonsense and I will never do that.

Previous speakers referred to the image of the Parliament and the work done in the House. RTE does its best with "Oireachtas Report" and other programmes cover the business of the House. However, much of our proceedings is not covered, particularly committee work. I agree with colleagues who said the Chief Whip's office should redouble its efforts to interest the media in the work of the committees. Many important issues are raised by committees and good work is done, which deserves more coverage. Constituents will always say they were watching television and there were only two or three Members in the House during a debate, which creates a different image.

I have sympathy for Deputy Brian Hayes. The Minister of State has expressed his interest in scheduling a slot to discuss current issues in the House and this also relates to the ability of Government Deputies to raise issues. Very few Government Deputies raise issues under Standing Order 32 and the relevancy of these issues is a subject for debate. For examples, I could raise issues on every street in Tallaght every day under Standing Order 32 but where would that get me? I have sympathy with the notion that we change our system somewhat.

We all welcome the opportunity given to us by the Ceann Comhairle's office to seek Adjournment debates. When debates are granted, the Minister will come into the House with a prepared script, which is needed to provide information, but the debates do not work. I have pressed many issues on behalf of my constituents on the Adjournment. When I am bored I watch the television coverage of the House of Commons, for example, during Prime Minister's Question Time. I watched it yesterday and it was riveting television. The coverage is also interesting on other occasions. The speaker calls for contributions from the floor and members of all parties stand and are called by him or her. I am not sure exactly how the process works but it seems to be some type of rotation system. This means that Government MPs also have an opportunity to raise issues in this quick-fire way.

I do not wish to be too radical but some variation of this procedure would assist parliamentary business and would be helpful for all Members. Government Deputies are always in the position of being somewhat constrained while their colleagues on the Opposition benches can raise all types of issues. We are obliged to find ways to get around this and I, for example, approach the Taoiseach and Ministers on a regular basis. I strongly support reform of Dáil procedures along the lines the Minister of State has indicated to make it easier for Members to ask questions about current issues. I hope I offend nobody in saying that most of us are agreed that the Adjournment debate has become somewhat dated and that a different system is required.

In the past five years I had the honour of being a member of the Oireachtas Committees on Social and Family Affairs and Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and, more recently, Government Whip on the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The work of these committees sometimes goes unnoticed. Deputy Ardagh, the excellent Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, has spoken about the volume of good work done by that committee, with particular reference to the restorative justice report. This was a radical project that was piloted in Tallaght and in the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor's, constituency in Nenagh. It showed how an Oireachtas committee could work well and in an innovative way.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children has also gained in importance in recent times. Like Deputy Naughten, I have a lengthy record of service on the former health board in my area. My views on recent changes in this area are on the record and I will not say something different today. Under the old health board system, our questions were answered and politicians from all parties were given notice of current and potential issues. That no longer happens. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children has played a crucial role for Members in filling some of the gaps in information. It has, for instance, been able to summon Professor Brendan Drumm and other officials and has facilitated progress on all sides.

Life in the Chamber generally requires one to be part of the political game. At committee level, however, the relationships between Members from different parties are such that valuable work is regularly done. This is why I object to criticism of the committee system. I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, is conceding that changes could be made for the benefit of the system. I hope he continues on the road on which he has embarked. He has great support, including from Members on the other side of the House, even though they must play the game as they see fit. The Minister of State is on the right track and I wish him well.

I welcome the debate on this important matter. It is helpful that we have an opportunity to discuss the issues before any final decisions are made. It is a pity this was not formerly structured into the agenda for the House at the beginning of a session. I acknowledge the Government's acceptance of Fine Gael's proposal for this debate. However, I ask the Minister of State to agree to a second debate on the issue of Dáil reform other than that specifically dealing with committees.

Some seven years ago, in autumn 2000, the Joint Committee on Education and Science produced a report on science and technology, which was drafted by myself and Mr. John Bruton. One of the proposals we put forward was that there should be a specific Oireachtas committee to deal with science and technology. I understand we are the only country in the EU that does not have a parliamentary forum to deal specifically with this area. An ad hoc committee of Oireachtas Members was established during the last Dáil by Science Foundation Ireland but this did not involve any formal Oireachtas structure.

I urge the Minister of State and the Taoiseach, prior to finalising any decisions on the new committee system, to give serious consideration to such a forum for discussing issues of science and technology. The Taoiseach, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other Ministers have pointed out ad nauseam that we must upskill the workforce if our economy is to continue to thrive. Investment in science and technology and research and development is vital in this regard. In fairness to the Government, it has, in the past five years, recognised this as a fundamental cornerstone of the future development of the economy. Following a lack of action in this area, significant funding has been ring-fenced for this purpose in the past five years.

However, there is no formalised Oireachtas structure for supervising and monitoring efforts in this area. Each Dáil committee has a role to play in this regard but there must be a dedicated committee to oversee activities. The rainbow Government included a Minister of State, who sat at Cabinet, with specific responsibility for this agenda. We considered it an extremely important issue. If we are to ensure our economy remains strong in the medium to long term, the Government must recognise that science and technology will be the cornerstone of industrial development.

There is a significant problem within our education system in that many young people do not continue with science subjects after they complete their junior certificate. Recent data on the State examinations show that pass rates in science subjects have fallen back at both ordinary and higher level, as have participation rates. We must put science and technology on the political agenda and in the public domain through the establishment of a dedicated Oireachtas committee. There is a significant advantage in doing so in that the majority of its members will not come from a science or technology background. This will force the scientific community, for the first time, to communicate to ordinary individuals what their objectives are, the activities they are undertaking and the ultimate goal of the research in which they are engaged. If they are obliged to attend regular meetings of a dedicated Oireachtas committee, they will have to come up with means of communicating that information to the public in general.

From time to time, we in this House scratch at the surface of the debate surrounding genetic engineering and biotechnology. There is major controversy regarding the ever-changing position of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on these issues. This is an area that could be dealt with by a dedicated Oireachtas committee. The issue of human genetic engineering encompasses the question of how to deal with embryos. We have perhaps the most liberal laws in the world in terms of the treatment of embryos. None of this has been formally debated by the Oireachtas. A certain amount has been done by the Joint Committee on Health and Children and those issues could be thrashed out.

One of the bigger problems we have is a lack of public awareness of science and scientific opportunities. There is innate fear in the public mind of new technology. We remember the debate on the erection of mobile telephone masts some years ago, when Deputy Mary O'Rourke was the Minister and Deputy Stagg was the spokesperson on the Labour side. We were dragged around the country and brought before public meetings where alleged scientific experts threw out information, none of which could be validated. They declared themselves experts and were paid by local community groups to make presentations. If we had one committee to deal with such matters, the truth could come out, warts and all. People could debate the issues with the full facts available. Sadly, this is not happening with the current structure.

I urge the Minister of State to consider this before a final decision is made on the structure of committees. This is now the only Parliament in Europe without a specific committee dealing with those issues. Such a committee has been set up on an ad hoc basis with a number of Members of the Dáil and Seanad participating in the process facilitated by Science Foundation Ireland, but it should be put on a formal structure, with meetings held in the public domain rather than behind closed doors, which is the case now.

I wish to discuss the handling of European legislation by Oireachtas committees. If any of us put hand on heart, we would call what goes on at these meetings a farce, with important European legislation being rubber-stamped. This happens because of a lack of resources to deal with such legislation and difficulty with timing in physically accommodating committees.

It is appalling to think that large volumes of European legislation coming through the committee structure are not being teased out. It is easy enough for some committees to deal with these matters because they do not have many rules and regulations from Brussels to consider, but others must examine a significant amount.

I sat on two separate committees in the lifetime of the last Dáil. The transport committee had adequate time to deal with European legislation because the volume of rules and regulations coming from Brussels to be considered by that committee was manageable. Deputy Johnny Brady was the chairman of the agriculture committee and can verify the volumes of legislation the committee had to consider. We had quite a heavy workload regardless of this but no additional resources were provided to deal specifically with European legislation. It is wrong to state the committee structure is currently dealing with European legislation when it is not. Action should be taken to ensure European legislation is examined in more detail.

Oireachtas committees do valuable work in producing reports. I mentioned the Joint Committee on Education and Science's role with science and technology and I was involved in a report by that committee on school transport. It dealt with the bus tragedy in County Meath and thankfully the Minister for Education and Science is beginning to implement recommendations, eight years after the report was published. These recommendations are particularly relevant when one considers the Meath tragedy and others.

The committees should have the opportunity to produce reports and these reports should bring action from the Government. At least, the Government should report back, indicating why it is implementing or not implementing recommendations.

I wish to share time with Deputy Calleary.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am delighted to be here to debate this issue. I was very proud to be chairman of a very active committee, the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food, over the past five years. During that time we discussed a range of issues and there were many hours of fruitful debate.

That would not have harmed the Deputy's chances of re-election.

We have an excellent committee system, of which we can all be very proud. As with anything else in life, there are elements which can be approved.

I thank the Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, who is in charge of all committees. He does remarkable work in setting them up and organising them. It is not an easy job and I can imagine the hardship and stress he must go through.

He seems quite stressed.

There is no better man than the Minister of State to oversee the work.

I compliment the members of the last Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food on their work over the past five years. Deputy Naughten is gone now but he was the Fine Gael spokesperson, with Deputy Upton being the Labour Party spokesperson. They were a very easy pair to work with and they worked in the best interests of agriculture and food every time they got up to speak. I was lucky the committee had such an excellent group of people. Former Deputy Ollie Wilkinson, who unfortunately did not return to this Dáil, did an enormous amount of work on a report on early farm retirement. As chairman, I was very lucky to have three different clerks over that period who were excellent staff. I thank the Minister and Ministers of State, as well as officials who came to discuss various issues over that time.

The main areas where I seek an improvement in committees are in making the process more open, encouraging committees to be more flexible and innovative and improving the image and understanding of committees in the general community. 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 the more formal platforms of the Dáil and Seanad Chambers.

Public access to the political process has been greatly increased thanks to the committee system. Committees are an invaluable tool for the Houses of the Oireachtas and statistics reveal the importance of their role. Last year there were 531 committee meetings, 191 published reports and 1,215 witnesses gave evidence. It is interesting that committees sit more hours than the Dáil and Seanad combined.

If people are to contribute to a committee inquiry they must know that the process is being conducted fairly and honestly, their contribution is being considered seriously and the process leads to an end result they can see. A report in Australia into the system of committees drew some interesting conclusions, some of which we could perhaps take on board here. For example, the House should formalise procedures for interaction with witnesses by a resolution setting out the rights and obligations of witnesses and committee members. Summary information about the procedures should be made widely available and provided as a matter of course to those giving evidence to a committee.

A committee should be empowered to authorise some or all of its members to give regular briefings to the press about progress and to publish, with the approval of the chairman, a summary report prior to the tabling of the full report in the House. Improved opportunities should be made to debate committee reports and Government responses to them, and the House, through Standing Orders, should impose a requirement on the Government to respond to committee reports within four months. The committees should publish such Government responses as are tabled on their website.

I join my colleagues in thanking the Chief Whip and Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for organising and facilitating this debate. I approach this debate slightly differently from previous speakers in that I was involved with a group which made a presentation to an Oireachtas committee before I became a Deputy. The group to which I refer made a presentation on the reform of the rules relating to gas connections in small towns. Our appearance before the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was facilitated by its then Chairman, Deputy O'Flynn, and Senator MacSharry. We were able to make our case in a coherent manner and we were challenged by Members in respect of it. This ensured that our case had to be perfect and what we said provoked a major change in Government policy which has allowed many smaller towns to be connected to gas supplies.

My experience at the time showed me how the committee system can work, particularly when individual committees are given specific briefs and engage with organisations and people making cases, be they related to economic or other matters. The interaction between the delegation of which I was a member and members of the committee was a welcome surprise and represents the way forward.

I note the wariness of many long-serving Members regarding committees. I watched the contributions of previous speakers on the monitor and I thought it ironic that the wariness to which I refer seems to be most pronounced among those who may have taken a break from the proceedings of the House during the past five years. These people have returned and are stating that nothing has changed. We must engage in a process to make things change.

I agree with a great deal of what Deputy Johnny Brady and others stated in respect of introducing reforms. The key point is that we must examine the legal basis of the committees so that we can avoid issues which get in the way of what they are trying to do. I refer, for example, to the work carried out in respect of the Curtin report and the report into the Abbeylara shooting. I do not know whether it is a job for the Minister of State or the Ceann Comhairle but an examination should be carried out into the legal basis on which we establish committees to ensure that the issues they consider in the public interest can be investigated without fear of their work being blocked by legal action. If a constitutional change is required, we should use as a deadline for completing the examination to which I refer the two referendums due to take place next year in order that we can strengthen the legal basis of the committees and thereby underscore the legal standing of the work of the Houses.

Previous speakers made many proposals regarding the profile of committees and some stated that no one pays attention to what we are doing. There was a great deal of comment about the lack of media participation. If one looks around the Chamber and, with respect to Members opposite, takes account of the hullabaloo and disagreement regarding committees, there is not necessarily a queue of people lining up to listen to or participate in a debate on those committees.

I would be wary of Deputy Kenny's proposals regarding Oireachtas television. There are already enough people lining up to have a go at the proceedings of the House and the work we do here without giving them what would be the inevitably low viewership figures for such a television channel to support their case. Comments were made to the effect that the state of democracy and the level of accountability in this country are declining. However, the ultimate measure of the state of democracy is the turnout at a general election. We have bucked the trend in this regard and more people are participating in the process of electing Members to the Houses. I would be wary of establishing a dedicated TV station because on each occasion it emerged, the ratings would be used as a stick to beat us in respect of the work we do.

I share other Members frustration regarding the unaccountability of certain bodies but I do not wish to become involved in a debate on who did or did not establish such bodies. I receive letters once a week from the Ceann Comhairle's office to the effect that I cannot table certain questions because the matters in question are relevant to particular bodies. The committee structure must be reviewed in order that representatives of organisations such as the HSE, the NRA etc. can be summoned to appear on a regular basis. When it is up and running, I hope the health committee will invite the management of the HSE to appear forthwith in order that we might investigate what is happening in respect of the health service.

Deputy Brian Hayes and others referred to jobs for the boys and for Government backbenchers. Do I take it from their comments that members of the Opposition are no longer seeking additional positions as chairmen and vice chairmen of committees because they are not interested in those jobs but are rather only concerned with the actual work of committees?

We are interested in our position being recognised in proportion to our numbers.

If the answer to my question is yes, we should get the arguments regarding particular bodies out of the way, get the committees up and running and get down to the work the people elected us to do.

I remind the House that this debate was arranged on foot of a demand made by my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins. I thank the Government for acceding to that demand.

Deputy Calleary made a thoughtful contribution but when he has served for a period in the House, he will realise the importance of media coverage. I will discuss that matter further in a moment.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins dealt with the issue of accountability and the need therefor. He referred to the power of the people, through this Parliament, in our democratic republic and the right and duty of these Houses to ensure that the Executive is scrutinised and kept accountable. The Deputy also referred to the absolute necessity to ensure that committees are not seen or used as the instruments of the Executive. He argued eloquently against the democratic deficit created by the transfer of power from the people, as represented in this Parliament, to a clatter of quangos — 450 of which, as another speaker stated, were established in the past five years — composed of faceless, unknown and unaccountable people. The Deputy further argued that neither Ministers nor this Parliament have the right to deprive citizens of their powers and rights as enshrined in the people's Constitution. I strongly support the arguments made by Deputy Michael D. Higgins in this regard.

It must be unique in the history of humanity that a group of individuals — namely, this Parliament and its Executive — entrusted with power by the people has, on a voluntary basis, divested itself of this power and thereby disempowered the people. I am not a great historian but I am aware that wars were fought to protect such power. However, our Parliament and its Executive seems to have surrendered it without firing a shot. However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel in that regard. I refer to the recent statement by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the effect that rule by quango is not the way in which any country should be ruled. I hope this is a signal that the Government is giving serious consideration to reclaiming for the people the rights that were given away when the quangos were established.

I wish to comment now on the nuts and bolts issues relating to the committees, namely, how they are formed, how they are constituted and how they operate. The Government Chief Whip sent me and others the Government's proposals for the establishment of the committees, joint and select. These require the setting up of a total of 21 committees, comprising the 18 existing committees and three new ones. The Government's proposals require that every Fianna Fáil backbencher, including Deputy Calleary, will serve as a committee chairman, vice chairman or convenor. These are all paid positions.

That is a great idea.

We are talking here not just about membership of committees but about paid positions to be taken up by Government backbenchers, who will have to double up on their workloads to fill the places. No one will be left out. Like "The Late Late Show" under Gay Byrne's stewardship, there will be something for everyone in the audience.

There will be something for Fine Gael and the Labour Party as well.

We are elected to this House on the basis of proportional representation. On two occasions Fianna Fáil tried to do away with that system but the people gave it their answer on both occasions. If the committees are to be truly representative of the make-up of the House, their membership should accurately reflect the numbers in the groups and parties in the Dáil. Fine Gael has argued in favour of this approach in so far as the positions of chairmen, vice chairmen and convenors are concerned. However, that argument, which is entirely valid in so far as it goes, must also be applied to the membership of the committees. The application of this proportional principle would change the proposed membership and officership of the committees from that envisaged under the grab-all proposal put forward by the Minister of State on the Government's behalf.

I will be specific and comment on the position of the Labour Party because others are well able to speak for themselves. If the proportional principle to which I refer is applied, Labour Party Members would be entitled to two chairmanships, two vice chairmanships and two convenorships. We would take those jobs and we would do them well. What is on offer at present — one or possibly one chairmanship, possibly two vice chairmanships and no convenorships — falls below our representational entitlement. The Labour Party would also be entitled to 23 of the Opposition places on the proposed committees as opposed to the 16 places on offer from the Government. I say to Fine Gael that if the proportional principle case is applied in the case of officers, it should also be applied to the membership of the committees. I wrote to the Government Chief Whip outlining the Labour Party's position and I would welcome further discussion on the matter before it is finalised.

I also add my voice to others in the House in seeking proper facilities for the committees to allow them to do their work effectively. I expect Government spokespersons and backbenchers to praise the committees and say how wonderful they are. The Government is doing less of that and is, I believe, examining how they can be improved. In particular, since the appointments to the committees have not been made, I expect Government backbenchers to be generous in their praise of the Government Chief Whip, who will be keeping an eye on them to see what they are saying and what committees or positions might be fit for them. They will all get a position under the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt's proposal.

In this day and age, it should be possible for a committee of this House to produce its minutes — a record of its proceedings — in a time period shorter than three months. The lowliest town council in the country can produce its minutes in a week. Most councils post their minutes on the Internet within hours of proceedings but it takes up to three months to produce the minutes in this House, with all its technical backup and resources.

It is only a matter of reorganising the resources we are applying to the committees. I do not attend committees very often because that is not my particular job in the House but when I do, I notice a glass box behind the Chairman. There is a group of people sitting inside this glass box and I do not know what they do. I could not see them do anything while I was there except look at us. I think they have something to do with the recording but I thought machines like that were automatic nowadays and would record regardless of whether people looked at them. There seems to be a group of between two and three people sitting there. Perhaps if that particular resource was applied to actually recording and producing the minutes, we would have them in a shorter period of time than three months.

I strongly suggest to the Government that we have a dedicated television channel similar to C-SPAN in the US which would broadcast the proceedings of this House and its committees and would also cover local authorities and other public service areas. This proposal has been on the agenda for a long time. When he was Chief Whip of the Workers' Party a long time ago, Deputy Pat Rabbitte was the first person I heard propose this measure. It was not rejected then and should not be rejected now and I believe the Government is seriously considering it. We should act on this proposal. We are already filming the proceedings, which is the main cost. I believe we have also been allocated 60 television slots through the satellite system for Ireland Incorporated. The Government is entitled to and may have reserved three of these for Dáil proceedings. This is a very good idea and should be acted on quickly and put into the public domain.

Reference has been made to the lower viewership. I accept that there is a lower viewership if one puts on the proceedings at 1.30 a.m. for insomniacs or people who come in from the pub and cannot sleep very well. That is about all they can see because of the time at which proceedings are broadcast. There is high viewership of the morning coverage of Leaders' Questions. Members know from their electorate that if they are included in any way in this, their electorate will see it and tell them so.

My last point is related to the proposal for a C-SPAN channel. The media in this House represents the entire media. I believe there are 60 journalists assigned to the House on a full-time or part-time basis but they are certainly here all the time. If their organisations — I am not blaming the individual reporters in the House — do not see fit to cover the proceedings of this House, we should take that into our own hands. We have the power and capacity to do so and should do so forthwith. The Gallery is evidence of a lack of interest when we are debating as serious a subject as this.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Aylward.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am proud to have served on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs from 2002 to 2007 and to have been a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Over the years, a number of initiatives have been taken with regard to committees. The number of committees has increased, their role and remit has been extended and they now bring before them far more external bodies. The committee system has expanded since its beginning in 1984 when only a few committees existed.

Committees play an important role as they advise on a wide range of legislative, social, economic and financial business. As well as this, committees also process the legislation and the examination of Government expenditure. In recent years, the setting up of a well organised system of joint committees has resulted in Deputies having additional opportunities to participate to an even greater extent in specialised parliamentary work in the areas of foreign affairs, European affairs, the Irish language — as Gaeilge, State enterprise, women's rights, family matters, sustainable development and small business and services. Any Member who believes that committees are only debating chambers is incorrect in his or her assertion.

The Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, of which I was a member, discussed many and varied topics. They ranged from issues such as the National Gallery of Ireland to a discussion on rural development strategy. In order for committees to perform their role effectively, it is important for Members, individually and collectively, to keep in touch with community views and the effects on people of legislative and Government action.

There should be effective promotion of the work of committees. One of the main reasons there should be a better connection between the community and the work of committees is the desire to produce better inquiries and reports which encompass the views of those affected by Government activity as well as those of specialist groups. The second aim is to draw people more into the practical workings of the democratic processes to help them understand the role and value of the parliamentary institutions in society.

One of the key tasks of Members of Parliament is to feed into the parliamentary process the opinions and needs of the community they represent. Their very jobs depend on their ability to hear, understand and interpret the views of the electorate. In order to produce the best possible analysis and recommendations, committees need to encompass not only the views of experts but those of the wider community.

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 that the committee system gives to them to engage publicly on many issues. It also offers the opportunity to improve access by the public to the Houses and committees. People need to understand that the Dáil is there to work for them and to help them re-engage with the democratic processes. The work of committees can play an important part in this.

The committee system which operates in this House is an integral feature of our work as politicians and legislators. As I understand it, the system has proved to be worthy and productive and is now regarded as a valuable and constructive aspect of our parliamentary activity. However, like all systems, its operations require regular attention and review. Useful reforms and adaptations must be implemented to lend greater efficiency to accommodate change. In order to promote and facilitate the meaningful role of the system, we must adopt modern practices in our approach to our work and constantly reassess and update the manner in which we deliver the fruits of our collective endeavours. Our parliamentary democracy must keep up with the rapid pace of change and we must evolve practical systems which reflect that pace and are sensitive to an ever-increasing volume of work.

The new proposals represent a welcome and enlightened approach to how the House can do its business more effectively. I am impressed with the recommendations to enhance our methods for parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislative proposals and the role we play in the oversight of such proposals. A plethora of complex issues emanates from EU institutions and their impact is pervasive. I am pleased to note the proposals improve the existing systems through the provision of additional personnel, together with other support structures in training and expertise. The expansion of the committee secretariat is a welcome development. The increased support and advisory services will be beneficial to the deliberations of the committee and will enable it to respond in a timely way to the intensity of its role.

The proposal to lend greater thoroughness to the remit of the committee on European scrutiny must be endorsed. It is critical that this committee has the appropriate access to the interaction with the relevant Ministers and departmental officials. The substantive input of this committee is essential and its role and function will be greatly enhanced through active ongoing dialogue. It is also important to ensure the participation of all stakeholders and interest groups. They must be afforded an adequate opportunity to represent their views fully. Any proposal which facilitates access is positive from the point of view of inclusiveness.

There is a sense that the public is not interested in EU affairs. If anything, the public can be apathetic where awareness of EU matters is concerned. The issues often appear remote and inconsequential when they are not. Any efforts on the part of the committee to stimulate interest and increase awareness of EU affairs must be encouraged. Any initiative on the part of the committee to improve the dissemination of information is also welcome. Public information will educate the public and will result in informed debate on the issues which have a bearing on our lives. The public needs to know and understand the practical implications of various EU measures. Efforts to promote public understanding will have a concrete effect and will encourage our citizens to avail of every opportunity to make their views and concerns known to Members. This is the essence of democracy.

It is proposed to introduce an ongoing monitoring role to the sub-committee on European scrutiny. It is imperative that deadlines are met by Oireachtas sectorial committees. Any system which improves overall efficiency must be positive. In that context, I welcome the proposals to expand the e-consultation programme and to apply modern technology to our systems of work. It is important we utilise all resources available to us and to develop and improve the overall consultation process. This will foster a better and more meaningful interface with the public.

By embracing new concepts and modern communication means, we can fulfil our role as legislators by inviting as many people as possible to contribute to our ongoing committee work. By making access to information available on-line and in a user-friendly fashion, we are promoting positive interaction. We are stimulating useful dialogue and upholding the democratic ideal of representation. This will be a valuable service to the public which has the right to take an active part in consultation and policy formulation processes. By enabling interested parties to contribute easily and on-line is a pragmatic suggestion and deserves to be explored further and developed. It serves all our interests to receive a comprehensive view of public opinion on matters of policy and emerging issues.

I support any measures which seek to involve all citizens in the decision-making process. The workings of the Dáil and Seanad can often appear obscure to the wider public. Any initiative which leads to transparency in the democratic process and seeks to engage with the public in a tangible way must be encouraged. These proposals are enlightened and I hope they will have far-reaching consequences in how the committees will function and how the public will be engaged in the process. These innovative proposals will enhance the parliamentary process and ensure our work is both meaningful and effective.

I am glad we are finally having this welcome and important debate, one for which I have waited for over five years. My impression on first entering the House was that one felt one was speaking to oneself most of the time. The system is antiquated.

As long as the Deputy is not referring to Members in that regard.

I would not say that about Members.

When school groups, such as the one in the Visitors Gallery, attend Leinster House, Members explain to them how the House operates and how difficult it is to raise matters. Having been on Offaly County Council, I found it easier to raise matters affecting the county there than here in the Dáil. The Laois-Offaly constituency could be under siege but, with respect to the Ceann Comhairle as it would not be his fault, I cannot raise it in the Dáil.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, would not allow such a siege to occur.

I would have to go through the farcical situation of raising the matter under Standing Order 32, which I know would be disallowed. I cannot remember one matter under that Standing Order being accepted in the past five years. Members will still raise them because it is the only way of getting a particular issue on the record.

The other avenue for raising matters is through the Adjournment debate. Members can only raise issues of the day or those which affect their constituencies. The arrangement is wholly inadequate. Each Member has five minutes to raise the matter and a Minister, often not the relevant one, gives a prepared reply. No matter what a Member says, the Minister will read out this prepared answer regardless. I appreciate it was the same when the Opposition was on the other side of the House. However, it is not a good system and must be changed. There is no arrangement for teasing out an issue. The Adjournment debate should be arranged along the same lines as Priority Questions, where a Member can raise a matter, ask the relevant Minister questions on it, with some toing and froing to tease out the issue.

I welcome and support the Minister's decision to change the Adjournment to a format known as current issues time. While increasing the number of matters allowed to six is welcome, the time allocation of three minutes is pathetic. Three minutes speaking time works out as 540 words. There is no way a Member could raise an issue of any consequence in 540 words. I do not support people talking endlessly on a topic as it achieves nothing. At the same time, I do not believe a matter can be dealt with effectively in such a time slot. The Minister must re-examine the format and provide a decent system for raising matters.

The oral questions format is not conducive to Members obtaining proper information. I do not know if there is a fairer system than the lottery arrangement but having important issues subject to such a process does not give them the attention they deserve.

The quality of replies to parliamentary questions is another issue. Deputy Seán Barrett pointed out that if one suffered from paranoia, one could wonder what the replies are trying to hide, even on the most mundane issues. Members are only seeking information and not trying to catch anyone out. However, the reply often results in more questions being tabled. If Departments answered Members' telephone and written queries, there would be no need to table so many parliamentary questions, which in turn wastes the time of the Civil Service. It is a last resort to obtain information. Will the Ceann Comhairle ask Departments to ensure Members receive sufficient information in replies to parliamentary questions?

Once the Dáil goes into its summer recess, the lack of a mechanism to table parliamentary questions means officials in Departments run and do not have to answer us. People's problems do not take three months holidays; they will still come to Deputies with their problems during the recess. When I ring or write to a departmental official about something, he or she knows I can table a parliamentary question demanding an answer. One just does not get the information or the service one is entitled to receive from the Department. This needs to be addressed to ensure Departments are fully accountable 365 days of the year.

Another issue I have relates to Departments asking Deputies to withdraw parliamentary questions. I do not mind withdrawing a question about an individual person, but when I am seeking information on a general issue relating to a Department, I resent being asked to withdraw the question. In that situation I decline to do so. What is wrong with having the information available to the public? It should be, but receiving an answer in an e-mail addressed to me only seems to indicate that it is a method by which to hide. The worst aspect is the manner in which parliamentary questions are referred to the HSE, NEPS and SENOs. This is a widespread practice which has got out of control. I always go to the HSE, the special educational needs organiser or the NRA first for information. When they do not give me the information I require, I have to go through the parliamentary question system, when the question is referred back to the very person who would not give me the information in the first place. All we are doing is creating a cycle of work, keeping a few people in jobs and getting nothing done. That is the real issue.

The timelag for a response from the HSE is beyond belief, but the lack of accountability on the part of the Minister in charge is worse. Last week I tabled a series of questions as regards maternity services because of the serious problems being experienced in the hospital in Portlaoise and others brought to my attention where consultant anaesthetists were not available to give an epidural. Maternity beds were also not available. As a consequence, women were not able to receive treatment because they could not be brought to the labour ward. The reply I received was that the Minister was unable to answer the questions as they were matters for the HSE. The reality is that the Department of Health and Children gives the HSE its budget. When an extension is being built, Ministers are very willing to take a trowel and put cement on top of a few blocks, yet when there is a problem, they plead that the HSE has nothing to do with them. That is wrong and has to change.

There are too many quangos. However, I do not want to be hypocritical in this regard, as I called for the establishment of a national fire authority the other night. While there are instances in which they are needed, this does not mean they should not be accountable to the House.

The practice in the Department of Education and Science of passing questions to special educational needs organisers has got out of control. The point I wish to make in this instance is similar to the one I made as regards the HSE.

The committee structure needs a radical overhaul. I support what Deputy Naughten said about the need for much better scrutiny of European legislation which has been put through, effectively, with a nod and a wink. I hope the proposals of the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, will address this.

At 22, the number of committees is too great and it smacks of jobs for the boys and girls. Deputy Calleary might not like me saying this.

That covers both sides of the House, I take it.

It does not because the Government is not prepared to recognise the greater size of Fine Gael. The Government Chief Whip has clearly said it will not happen, which is wrong. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are entitled to be recognised with numbers relative to their size——

They are recognised.

They are not; certainly not by the Government. As Deputy Stagg pointed out, everyone on the Government side of the House will have a position. Therefore, they will be happy.

I do not know who designed LH2000 or what input the Government had, but the location of the committee rooms is indicative of the Government's attitude towards the committees, although there have been exceptions. I was a member of the committee set up following the CC case, the Joint Committee on Child Protection, which was chaired by Deputy Peter Power who did a great job. We got things done and one felt one's contributions were constructive and would achieve something but that has not been the experience on many other committees which are important and have work to do. The main problem is that if a committee agrees on something, nothing will happen.

Deputy Calleary was reluctant to go down the road of television coverage of the Dáil because it would be a stick with which to beat us but that is an occupational hazard when one enters politics. Therefore, why not? I would not expect the ratings to be fantastic or people to take days off work to watch the Dáil. However, it is a facility that should be available to them. There is also the timing of politics-related programmes. I know this is not something the Government Chief Whip or the Ceann Comhairle can change, but if people are interested in and want to participate in politics, showing programmes such as "The Week in Politics" and "Questions and Answers" at 11 p.m. or 11.30 p.m. will not achieve the objective. It does not allow people an opportunity to watch because, in the first place, by that stage many will have gone to bed, or are elderly. This is an issue that needs to be addressed in order that people can better participate. Practically everything is televised in the United States; even local community meetings are available on local channels. This gives people a far better opportunity to participate and see what is going on. I would like to see the work being done here in the Dáil and Seanad Chambers televised in order that people may better participte in the political process.

I, too, am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words in these very important statements on the setting up of committees in the Oireachtas and Dáil reform in general. I was fortunate to have been chosen by the Taoiseach as Chairman of a committee in the last Dáil, albeit for a short period before the general election. I regarded it as a great privilege, prior to which I also had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service for a number of years. Certainly, the committee system has tremendous merit when taken seriously and dealt with properly.

I regret that up until recently we were not able to reach agreement with the Opposition parties which were looking for more jobs for their boys and girls. However, I welcome the fact that we have now reached agreement and the outlook is positive. Committees constitute a major part of the Oireachtas framework. The existing structure allows for a flexible and more transparent approach to scrutiny away from the more formal platforms of the Dáil and Seanad Chambers. Members of committees avail of opportunities provided to engage publicly on many issues. The system also facilitates access by the public to the Houses of the Oireachtas and their committees, as we have all observed through the hearing of evidence and presentations by delegations. We have all used the opportunity from time to time to bring various interest groups to Leinster House which report back to their communities. This provides them with a national platform to tell their story. The process also allows the other side of the story to be heard, that of the Department involved.

The Government Chief Whip referred to the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitution in the run-up to the referendum on the right to life of the unborn. It was a great example of the advantages attached to the committee system. Previously debates on this issue had been characterised by bitterness and divisiveness. However, as a result of the committee's intervention, a public platform was provided where all opinions could be expressed in a calm and professional environment, ensuring the debate was grounded on a much more rounded view of the issues involved and a greater appreciation of the concerns of the various interest groups participating.

Another example within the past few years of a committee doing excellent work is the sub-committee of the Committee of Public Accounts which was chaired by the late Jim Mitchell who was the driving force of that inquiry and followed up implementation of many of the recommendations to emerge, many of which have had a lasting influence on the way in which we conduct our business today, not least the establishment of the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Committees are an invaluable tool for the Houses of the Oireachtas and the scale of their role may be determined from the fact that last year alone there were 531 committee meetings and 191 reports published. Some 1,215 witnesses gave evidence. Those statistics speak for themselves.

I referred to my membership of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service in the last Administration. In that context I welcome the changes proposed by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Cowen, and the range of reforms introduced in the past two years, including the recently announced introduction of a unified budget, with effect from 5 December next. These initiatives will give committees greater opportunities to monitor 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 committees to place greater importance on annual output statements and value for money and policy reviews, in particular. Committees should be afforded the opportunity to formally examine departmental expenditure on a more regular basis, perhaps quarterly, with a view to having more informed debates on the Estimates process.

Deputy Enright referred to the Adjournment debate and the discussion of current issues. I agree with what she said, with one exception. Three minutes is adequate time because one can tell one's story in 540 words. Perhaps many of us like to hear ourselves talk too much, but that is a matter for individual Deputies. It might be ideal to have six slots on a given day at earlier times. With the Adjournment debate held at night, to a certain extent, it probably loses its validity, as one is talking to an empty Chamber. If Members had an opportunity to address, albeit briefly, issues of local importance in a full Chamber, it would be more beneficial to everybody concerned. I support the call for these welcome changes to be made, for the number of slots to be increased and the time available to be reduced to three minutes.

I welcome the new committees the Taoiseach has introduced, namely, the joint committee on the constitutional amendment regarding children, the joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and, possibly, a committee on the Irish language. I wish the chairpersons and memberships of committees well in their endeavours.

I welcome the outline of the Government reform of, and position on, committees as set out by the Government Chief Whip, Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, who is doing excellent work in that regard and his utmost to get committees up and running. If he had his way, they would be up and running before now.

I wish to take up a point made by a number of speakers in regard Standing Order 32. This is my second term in the Dáil and for people to stand up before the Order of Business day in day out and mention items is a wasted exercise and to no avail. There are plenty of other opportunities, which I will outline, for members of the Opposition to raise issues. A lot of Dáil time and resources are wasted. In the last Dáil, members of the Opposition raised different items, particularly on health. However, those same Members rarely went near the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. Committees are a very valuable resource and much more use could be made of them by Members.

In the last Dáil, I was on the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and Food under the chairmanship of Deputy Johnny Brady and, in the past number of months, I was added to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights under the chairmanship of Deputy Ardagh. The relationship between members of those committees and the Chairmen was very open. I never saw a member of any party or none being turned down in regard to bringing in any group or raising any issue.

A lot of politics is being played in this House. Members want to talk about issues in the House but not at committees. The issue of opening up committees and having more television coverage of them was raised. While I would welcome that in one sense, I would also have reservations because some Members are inclined to play political football too much when the camera is in front of them. The committees are very open and chairmen are willing to take on any matter or have any debate. Before changing the committees, we should have a good look at the existing ones because I do not believe there is much wrong with them; Members could make much more use of them.

I look forward to seeing the new committees up and running as soon as possible. I welcome the three new committees, particularly the one with the North-South dimension. I look forward to, and will welcome, members from across the Border coming to the House to address that new committee. It is a very welcome move which, I suppose, is as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. It would not have happened but for the work of our Government on the peace process. I hope that committee does well.

I wish to share time with Deputy Reilly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The role of committees is closely linked to the operation of the Dáil and the need for Dáil reform, so I will address my initial remarks to that aspect. There is no question but that over the past ten years or so we have seen a clear diminution of democracy and of parliamentary democracy and accountability in particular. In many ways, the media has become the real parliament. One can go out to the plinth or into a television studio and say almost anything about any issue, yet very often we are not allowed to discuss the various issues of the day in this Chamber.

As was mentioned by other speakers, there has been a proliferation of quangos, State boards and State authorities — approximately 450 to date — almost none of which are accountable to the Dáil and some of which do not even appear to be accountable to their own Ministers. With the development of consultative committees, enterprise boards, RAPID boards and Leader boards, we have a situation where almost any community activist, local worker or anybody who has any involvement in civil society has, in one way or another, been somehow co-opted into the Government system and been made part of a State committee. In many ways, I can see why the Government does that because it is a great way to control dissent. As one Minister said to me in regard to my local drugs task force, it is better to have these people pissing in rather than pissing out. I am not quite sure what he meant by that, but I have a fair idea.

In many ways, that sort of system resembles what one would see in a communist country or in a country such as Libya where one has a system of government by committee. Everyone is a member of a committee which reports to a higher one which then reports to a higher one again. Then the great dictator makes his decision. That, in itself, is a diminution of democracy. We have seen the removal of powers from local government and the transfer of powers from councillors to managers.

There is definitely a need for a democratic revolution. That means restoring power to local government, introducing democracy into the education system by giving the vocational education system control over all education, a bonfire of the quangos — I am sure we can abolish least half of the over 400 quangos — and a proper restoration of parliamentary democracy in this House. Fine Gael has made a series of proposals in this regard.

I would like a committee week perhaps every month or six weeks similar to that in the European Parliament. That would give us a proper opportunity to concentrate on committee work and to review legislation properly through committees rather than having to run back and forth to Question Time or other debates in the Dáil. I do not see why that cannot be done.

I have great concerns about the expansion of the committee system to 22 committees, which is extraordinary. There will be 22 chairs, 22 vice-chairs and 22 convenors, or possibly even more than that with sub-committee chairs. I might not have the support of many of my colleagues on this but it is inappropriate that committee chairs, vice-chairs and convenors should be paid for that work. Surely part of the job of a Deputy is chairing a committee. I do not know anyone in any other walk of life or business who gets paid extra just to chair a committee. If we took away that entitlement and saved the taxpayer €1 million, we would see a sudden lack of interest in having so many committees and chairs thereof.

If we are to have committees, rather than have more of them, we should have committees which have more power. All the chairs should go to the Opposition parties but if that is not the case, they should, at the very least, be given out on a proportionate basis. Committees should be given the power to review appointments. Where Ministers make appointments to State boards and State authorities, all those people should be called in front of the committee to be questioned to see if they are qualified and up to the job. Quangos should be responsible to the relevant committees and ministerial power over the committees should be removed. Committees should set their own times and agendas and Ministers should not have the power to order them to meet in private. Committees should also be given the power of inquiry.

I question the need for some of the newly proposed committees. An Irish language committee is a nice idea but much more could be done much more effectively than creating another committee to discuss the Irish language. If we want to improve the Irish language, we need to focus on education rather than just create another committee with another Chairman and Vice-Chairman.

We should have a committee on the partnership process, which is not discussed at all in this House, and we should consider adopting the Finnish model and having a committee on the future, which would look beyond legislation at some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Having read the Minister of State's statement, I concede it proposes some reforms but it certainly does not outline what needs to be done or address the key reforms required to make this Parliament relevant and work like other parliaments of its kind around the world.

I, like Deputy Leo Varadkar, have many reservations about the committee system and the manner in which the House does its business. I would have found the Minister of State's contribution quite encouraging had I not had the benefit of hearing the responses of some other Deputies. I am particularly disturbed by Deputy Dan Neville's comments on the Joint Committee on Health and Children. None of its recommendations, which were accepted by the Dáil, have been implemented.

Deputy Leo Varadkar and others mentioned that the HSE and other quangos are now being used as a screen to prevent Ministers being held to account in this House. I have a sheaf of parliamentary questions I asked last week that have been referred to the HSE. This is just like referring them to eternity because I will never get the answers I seek. If I do, it will be long past the time during which they will be of value to me or my constituents.

The HSE is in disarray and is bringing politicians into disrepute because there is a perception that they cannot do anything. Some 30 or 40 students from Templeogue who were visiting the House earlier will, on looking at this Dáil, wonder why anyone should vote, let alone run for election, if politicians all appear to be neutered. They do not seem to be able to deliver information or effect change under the current arrangements.

I am obviously very interested in the Committee on Health and Children and I am very distressed at what is happening at present. We were told there would be no cutbacks before the election, but there are cutbacks. We were then told the cutbacks would not affect patient care, but they do. The number of days during which the Galway cancer service operates has been reduced from five to three.

Legionnaire's disease was discovered in the water supply of a nursing home in Dublin. The patients there, instead of being transferred to another private nursing home that could accommodate them, were, for cost-saving reasons, placed in St. Joseph's Hospital in Raheny, which is the elective surgery unit for Beaumont Hospital. Consequently, operations are being cancelled hand over fist in Beaumont and patients will have to wait much longer for care.

Consider the case of a patient in the intensive care unit in Galway who received a serious head injury in a road traffic accident. His consultant wanted him to have 24-hour nursing care but his request was refused by the HSE because of the staffing freeze. Consequently, the poor, unfortunate patient has fallen out of bed on at least one occasion and his family must stand in vigil over him for 24 hours per day. It is outrageous that this is happening in the Ireland of 2007.

There is a child with Down's syndrome and cystic fibrosis whose home care package has been removed from him. An elderly man with relatives all over north Dublin cannot be placed in care in this region although there is plenty of space in the nursing homes. The list goes on and it includes real people in real distress who are suffering because of the cutbacks. We do not even have a health committee at which to discuss them. Even if we did have one, according to Deputy Dan Neville, there would be gagging clauses so that it could not report on various issues in public. This beggars belief. Is Ireland becoming a Third World communist state?

I am very worried about the democratic deficit in the European Union. Before the summer recess, we discussed the fact that the Department of Homeland Security in the United States had extended the time during which it could retain information on Irish citizens. We only received notice of the motion the night before and when it was discussed in the House, we discovered it was a done deal and already agreed in Europe. Where is the democracy in this case? Members' parliamentary questions are being fobbed off to the HSE, which is not the only body to which responsibility is being transferred. This shows disregard for the House and the public.

Let me refer to the successful committees. The Committee of Public Accounts, which was chaired by the late Jim Mitchell, did great work and was certainly more successful than many of the tribunals. It reached conclusions very quickly and inexpensively. We need to be seen to be engaging with voters and able to effect change. We must not keep allowing the Government to hide behind semi-State bodies.

We need a committee to consider drugs in prisons. Why do people who do not take drugs on entering prison come out on drugs? This is not good enough and needs to be explored further.

I support the call to televise the Dáil and committees. I do not agree with Members who believe this would lead to playing to the gallery. It would shine a light on the House. Politicians should do their jobs correctly or not at all.

In light of what the Taoiseach said about the difficulty in finding suitable people for positions on State boards, such positions should be advertised. The applicants should be interviewed by an Oireachtas committee, as is done in other jurisdictions.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am glad to have the opportunity to inform the House of the intention to establish a joint committee of the Oireachtas, to be called the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, to further the proposal to amend the Constitution in respect of children's rights.

The establishment of this important committee will be the latest in a series of key developments in improving the lives of children, which started with the publication of the national children's strategy in 2000. This was a ten-year action plan for children that set out a vision of an Ireland where children are respected as young citizens with a valued contribution to make and a voice of their own; where all children are cherished and supported by family and the wider society; and where they enjoy a fulfilling childhood and realise their potential. More specifically, the strategy committed to improving children's and young people's participation in decisions that affect them, research on children's lives, and supports and services for children.

The fundamental law of our land, the Constitution, or Bunreacht na hÉireann, should reflect our commitment to value and protect childhood. Provision must be made in our Constitution for children to be protected from maltreatment, neglect or abuse. The Constitution must require that, in appropriate circumstances, the welfare of the child be the paramount consideration. Over recent years, there have been calls from many quarters to strengthen children's rights in Ireland, including seeking an amendment to the Constitution to reflect the rights of children.

The Constitutional Review Group recommended in its report of 1996 that the Constitution be amended to include the welfare principle and to provide an express guarantee of certain other children's rights deriving from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In January 2006, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended in its review of the articles dealing with the family that a new section be inserted in Article 41 dealing with the rights of children.

In September 2006, my predecessor as Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, led the Irish delegation at the UN committee hearing on Ireland's second report on the implementation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child which took place in Geneva. The committee expressed concern that some of the recommendations it had previously made had not yet been fully addressed, in particular those related to the status of the child as a rights holder.

Against this backdrop, the Taoiseach announced in November last year that a referendum on children's rights should take place. The then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was asked to initiate a process of consultation and discussion with the other Dáil parties and with all relevant interest groups with the aim of achieving consensus on the wording of an appropriate constitutional amendment.

Following an extensive round of consultations, the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2007 was published in February 2007 and it proposes wording to amend the Constitution in respect of children's rights. The Bill seeks to repeal Article 42.5 of the Constitution and insert a new Article 42A. The proposed text incorporates a number of separate proposals, covering areas such as the imprescriptible rights of the child, adoption, collection and exchange of information in relation to persons who are a risk to children, and absolute and strict liability in relation to offences against children.

The programme for Government agreed in June 2007 includes a commitment to "establish an all-party committee to examine the proposed constitutional amendment with a view to deepening consensus on this matter". I will be bringing proposals to Government shortly regarding the establishment of such an all-party committee. The priority is to agree on wording for our Constitution that will reflect the desire of the Irish people to establish robust safeguards for the rights and liberties of all the children of our nation. It is envisaged that the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2007 will form the basis of the deliberations.

The power to change our Constitution rests with the people alone. Time and again, the people have demonstrated their strong attachment to the Constitution. As has been stated by my predecessor, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, we should not underestimate the huge onus that rests on all of us who seek to strengthen the position of the child in our Constitution. The burden of persuasion in any referendum is a heavy one. It is all the greater when the proposal relates to the delicate and intimate relationships that exist between child, parent, family and the State.

I look forward to working with the committee and Members of this House to advance this important issue and, following discussions at Cabinet level, I will revert to the Houses with further proposals on this issue in the near future. I look forward to playing my part in a continuous drive towards an improved quality of life for all our children and I know I can count on the support of the Members of this House in moving towards that shared goal.

I very much welcome the proposals brought forward by the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and Government Chief Whip, Deputy Tom Kitt, in regard to the operation of the committee system in the 30th Dáil. As a new Deputy who has not previously been involved in Oireachtas committees, I am very much looking forward to working on whatever committees I am selected to serve on.

I firmly believe the committee system allows Members to be involved in a very real way in formatting and amending legislation. The system allows me as a Dáil Deputy for Dublin North to ensure that the views and feedback of my constituents in regard to proposed legislation are brought to each relevant committee. In this way, the public's views form a central role in drafting and amending legislation. My previous experience of committees was at local authority level on Fingal County Council, which was the first local authority in Ireland to broadcast meetings live on the Internet. This is very effective in allowing people to view how their politicians are working on their behalf. Most importantly, it allows each citizen easy access to debates on issues that matter to them.

It is with this in mind that I welcome the e-consultation programme outlined by the Minister of State. This will allow the public to access information on-line. It will lead to greater understanding and engagement with the parliamentary process and enable the public to contribute to policy consultation and policy formation on-line by making submissions on matters before Parliament and its committees in a structured fashion. I would, however, like to see enhancement of the live web casting of Dáil committees and Dáil debates which will allow the public see the work that takes place on their behalf. I was interested in the debate among Members about the possibility of a dedicated television channel for the Oireachtas. This works for the Westminster Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The more the public can see how this House operates, the better. It will improve transparency for the public. The Minister of State should examine the possibility of having a dedicated television service for the Houses of the Oireachtas not just in regard to the Dáil and Seanad, but in regard to committee debates.

Hoping they can sell advertising.

The Chair would be surprised by how many people watch "Oireachtas Report". I have seen how live web casting has helped to make local government in North Dublin transparent and has improved the understanding of the public of the workings of the council. I would like the same approach to be taken by the Oireachtas.

More specifically, in regard to what was outlined by the Minister, I very much welcome the initiative of parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation and the oversight role. I agree with the Minister that it is crucially important that the Oireachtas should scrutinise EU legislation at the earliest possible stage. As we all know, EU legislation and directives from the European Parliament have become increasingly important to Ireland and it is vital that such legislation is scrutinised in an efficient, timely and structured fashion.

I look forward to the speedy establishment of the new Oireachtas committees which will allow all Members of the House to have a real and effective input into legislation. I was interested to hear from Deputy Enright and in particular Deputy Reilly regarding his distress that committees have not been set up. It is a pity that his party, Fine Gael, delayed the establishment of these committees purely because Deputy Kenny wants to hand out a few extra jobs to some of his more senior Deputies who were promised Ministries before the election if Fine Gael were elected to Government and now has a group of backbenchers who are causing him a headache. I look forward to the House in general and particularly the Fine Gael Party agreeing with the Chief Whip to move forward and establish these committees as soon as possible so that we can get on with the work of the House.

It could be construed that I am one of those Members to which the last speaker referred. I can honestly say that I was made no promises before, during or after the election so I have no reason to be disappointed. However, I submit that there are a few Members on that side of the House who have good reason to be disappointed, whose disappointment has not yet been assuaged——

We are back in Government.

On the backbenches.

——and whose disappointment may not be assuaged.

During my time in this House I have seen numerous changes, many not for the betterment of Parliament. There has been a dramatic growth in the number of committees. Government has a preponderance of power in all committees. I will go into that in a minute. Initially the purpose of that growth was to provide a means of placating Government backbenchers. That still remains the case. I can understand that but, unfortunately, it indicates that we are heading towards a one-party State. That is a serious matter.

The people decide.

It is something I have studied carefully. There are some analogies. In Malaysia, the same party has governed for almost 50 years. It has experienced the same pattern of events as this country. The same main party has been in power all the time. It has a presidential style of leadership, committees to defuse situations — to lance the boil, to remove concerns from within and from without. Committees constitute an area into which various groups can be drawn so that they no longer blame Ministers directly. Instead they come before a committee to express their grievances. Then they walk away and, as other speakers have said, nothing happens.

I have seen changes in this House. At one time this House was full of Deputies at Question Time. Everybody had the right to raise a question, to have that question put on the Order Paper and to get an answer. There was no lottery system. Every question had to be dealt with, from the moment it was tabled until it cleared the Order Paper. Ministers did not like that. They did not like to be kept in the House all day for a week or, in some cases, two weeks so ultimately the system was changed.

I have seen the change in the system whereby the importance of the committee has been expanded to the extent that it has undermined the importance and the privileges of the House so that the plenary session of the House is diminished and nobody comes into the House. The reason Members do not come into the House is because they have no business there. They cannot participate in a debate except in ordered slots of ten, five, or two and a half minutes. That is not democracy.

There has been a change in the system whereby public representatives are elected by the public to represent them in parliament. Here we have drawn much of our inspiration from the European Parliament. Members will remember the Committee on Petitions. It was a means of bringing democracy of a kind to the people in a situation where the elected Member does not have the power to get access to the authorities. A system was introduced under which it could be arranged for a delegation to go to Brussels to air grievances. If power were vested in the elected Member there would not be a problem. The elected Member, of all parties or none, should be able to deal with issues of that nature.

We arrange for various groups, such as North-South groups and east-west groups, to come before committees and air their grievances. It is tokenism. Nothing happens. I have been on virtually every committee in this House over the years. My experience is that one could be dead in a committee for a fortnight before anybody would discover it because nobody has any interest.

One could attend every meeting of a committee and anything that one would say or do at it would be of no consequence. It is a waste of time. It makes no difference that committee chairmen and convenors are paid. We need to recognise that the role of parliament has been undermined and diminished to a significant extent by the establishment of several quangos and committees and the way it has been ordered. This will suit whoever is in Government and will limit the degree to which government will change in the future. This is not a criticism but a comment.

Let me give an example, I remember having a role to play when the decision was made in this House to the effect that the Taoiseach would be out of House after Taoiseach's questions on a Wednesday. It was obvious that the objective was to adopt a different role. The Taoiseach in fairness made comparisons with his European colleagues and explained that they would not be in parliament. However, many of the so-called democracies in Europe are very new to democracy, so I would not take lessons from that quarter.

The Taoiseach was in the House six times more than the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Britain is not a new democracy.

The mother of parliaments would not be where I would necessarily look for an example of what is less than democracy. We will park that and deal with it again.

We have reached a time when we must look at the way parliament is run. Parliamentarians are elected directly by the public. Unlike other democracies, we have no list system and Members are elected directly. This is the most pure form of democracy with the exception of the Australian system. We have failed to recognise that. The way the institution is now being run is our fault. We allowed it to happen. Government must take the weight of the responsibility for that because every committee is dominated by Government. There are many more issues that I would like to address.

We have a presidential style of leadership, with the Taoiseach of the day out shaking hands, pressing the flesh, launching events, cutting tapes and talking to the people. That is not necessarily the role of the head of Government. Parliament is something that is being dealt with in committee. That is not the way it should be. Incidentally, I do not agree with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It is another quango. I do not agree that the Ceann Comhairle should be the Chairman of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. There is a conflict of interests, and that is not a criticism of the incumbent.

It is a fact of life that the Government has the predominance in the nomination of the membership to the commission. Why? All the Government needs is a majority of one. What is the purpose of the exercise? Where is democracy? There is a notion that representation is proportional. Proportionality has a rather peculiar meaning because in the previous Government the main Opposition parties had a higher proportion than is proposed to them now.

On-line submissions are the brainchild of the Minister of State and I criticised it in committee when it came before me. It is the ultimate attempt to bypass public representatives. It is an attempt by Government to reach over their heads of the elected public representative and talk directly to the people.

Do not be afraid of it.

It is to the discredit of the Government that it keeps coming up with this. Every attempt allegedly made to improve the system brings with it a referral to a committee and on-line submissions that the Government will deal with directly to the exclusion of the Opposition. The Opposition can make on-line submissions too. What is the benefit of having a parliament? Why not abolish it and have the odd plenary session every six or eight months? Let the committees do the digging and let the various Minister do what they want, be out of the House at all times.

Deputy Sean Barrett referred to Question Time and he put forward a very good idea to ensure that everybody participated in it. There should not be a lottery system and in that way there would not be picking and choosing, just open questions for everyone and every question would have to be answered. One could put a limit on the number of questions and that would bring every single Member into this House.

The Deputy's time has expired.

It is unfortunate that my time has expired——

——because I have more comments that I would have loved to make.

We have relegated the role of the plenary session of parliament to the role of a committee and have elevated the role of committees to plenary sessions. We have seen the extension of the committees and they have become the extension of Ministries, a means whereby the Minister can have his persona in a particular role doing the job the Minister would have done previously and which is now being conveniently done for him.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to statements on the committees in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I thank the Government Chief Whip for facilitating this debate. This is my third term in the Dáil and it is the first occasion on which we have had a wide ranging discussion on the role of committees. This is very useful. The committees have become more active and it is time to look at the overall role, the number of committees and their functions. This debate contributes to that, for which I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

I have been sitting for the past 20 minutes listening to the contributions from the Fine Gael bench. I am bemused by what I have heard from the Opposition benches. I am disappointed that Deputies Leo Varadkar and James Reilly have left the House because I wish to address the comments they made a few short moments ago.The gist of Deputy Varadkar's complaint is that there are too many quangos. Last night, the same Deputy and his party voted for the establishment of a new national fire authority. Last night, they wanted a new quango to be established, but today they say there are too many quangos. That was bad enough, but he continued by stating that we want to have real democracy and give more power back to local authorities. Last night, the Deputy and his party colleagues voted to take the power for fire services away from local authorities and to give it to a new national quango. I cannot understand how these Members contradict themselves in a 24 hour period.

Deputy Varadkar was sitting beside Deputy James Reilly and saying we have too many committees, but before Deputy Reilly sat down he proposed to establish a new committee to deal with people in prisons who are on drugs. Within a speaking slot of ten minutes, they contradict themselves in everything they say about committees. The same Deputies are fundamentally contradicting themselves in how they voted last night and on their first opportunity to speak in the Dáil today. I hope that when they become involved in the committees they will show some consistency in thought because it will make a farce of the committees, the Dáil and democracy in general if Members say one thing on a day, having done the precise opposite the day before. Empty vessels make a great deal of noise. New Deputies should consider the noise they are making and be more consistent in their remarks.

I have been a member of a number of committees since I was first elected to the House in 1997. The work of the committees can be improved. Most Opposition spokespersons take their role very seriously, senior Government members also take their role very seriously and we have very good debates in the committees. I would divide the work of the committees into two halves — the work select committees do on legislation directed to them from the Dáil with regard to Committee Stages of Bills or Estimates debates and the work the committees do within their respective remits on a range of activities on which they issue reports they lay before the Dáil. They have tremendous scope if they want to use their power. They do not always wish to do so.

The quality of information provided by public servants to committees can vary enormously. I have seen public officials give full and complete answers to the questions they are asked by committee members. I have seen others who, whether they attend for two minutes or 22 hours, will give no information which is not already in the public arena. I would like to see public officials more confident and open with committees in discussing matters for consideration within their Departments. Some are afraid to say what is being talked about within a Department if the Minister has not made a final decision. As a result, committees do not derive the full value from questioning public officials.

As chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, I was the only chairman who conducted every aspect of committee business in public session. Committees often meet in private session when they wish to discuss certain items, usually matters concerning travel. I was elected to the Dáil and I do not carry out the business of the Dáil in private session. I see no reason, therefore, to conduct committee business in private, unless certain information must be given. There is a tendency among all Members to hide some of their activity from the public glare. However, the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service did its job satisfactorily in public. Confidential information and letters can be discussed without disclosing the name of the person concerned. Members may be nervous about doing all business in public but it can and does work. It simply requires a change of culture. I would like to see an end to private committee sessions.

I have been a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, which frequently meets in private for an hour and a half before the public session begins. This baffles me. As much as 80% of correspondence deals with routine matters which have come before the committee previously or will do so again. There is a tradition that all correspondence is discussed in private session. One must be careful occasionally with certain items of correspondence but the blanket rule that all correspondence must be dealt with in private session makes no sense. I have tried unsuccessfully to change procedure in the Committee of Public Accounts. I hope it will change in the future.

I would like to see improved research facilities for committees. I understand improvements have been made and I look forward to the establishment of new committees with improved research facilities provided on a non-party basis. In joint committees, which do not deal with legislation and where a strict party line is taken, open and frank debate leading to a consensus of opinion is not unusual. Additional research facilities would help. Sometimes the best way to research an issue is to table a parliamentary question but one is not always given the information one wants.

I thank the Chief Whip for the changes he is making in the Estimates procedure. We will no longer see Estimates in November and the budget in December. The new approach is correct and sensible. The old idea of discussing in one month without reference to income what one will spend next year, and in the following month discussing the income one must raise to finance expenditure which is already approved is nonsense. No organisation does its business that way. I am delighted the Oireachtas and Departments are now coming into line, facilitated by the Chief Whip. The new finance committee will have an oversight role in the Estimates for all Departments.

I ask each committee to take its Estimates debate seriously. Many committees spend less than one hour discussing billions of euro. The same Members who will spend the rest of the year whingeing about what is not being done in a Department will fail to question the Minister, the Accounting Officer and senior officials when they attend the Estimates meeting. Perhaps the information is presented in a cumbersome manner. The new procedure will involve output statements, projections of work to be done and priorities for the Department and people will see where the money is being spent. This will improve public accountability in the Estimates procedure. I ask that Estimates be cleared prior to the commencement of the financial year. We have often discussed Estimates in May, June or July when half the year has passed, half the money has been spent and the rest is fully committed. I hope new committees will take the debates on the Estimates seriously.

With the agreement of the House, I will share time with Deputy Rabbitte.

Debates involving Dáil reform usually attract the ire of the Opposition rather than of Government. I have a sense of déjà vu. Not having been a Member of the Dáil for five years I find this debate remarkably similar to debates which might have taken place ten or 12 years ago. This is indicative of our slow pace of reform.

Twenty-two committees is far too many for a House of 166 Members. Deputy Fleming is one of the more successful committee chairmen. As a constituency colleague, I acknowledge his constructive work in the area of finance. The Dáil and its committees have failed to keep Ministers accountable. Many committees are being run by the Executive, whether openly or surreptitiously. Ministers and ministerial functionaries are ordering the business of committees in the same way as the business of the House is being ordered exclusively by the Executive.

The Legislature remains weak and loses out on all occasions. The lack of ministerial accountability has grown considerably since I left here in 2002. A parliamentary question on health can now be responded to six weeks after it is tabled and contain no relevant information.

The Dáil needs to be less tribal and more representative of the people. We should not always break down on party lines and slavishly follow the party whip. I hope we will have an opportunity to deal with this issue on a future occasion. We have Government conveners, vice-chairs and a variety of super-Deputies but one must remind oneself of the minimal power entrusted to these people.

We now have Government by press release and press conference. None of the major decisions of the day affecting how we do our business is made from within this House. They are made in the plush surrounds of Merrion Street or after Fianna Fáil cumainn arrangements in Galway, Kerry or north Dublin, usually on days when the House is sitting but with no one here. This place has become a total irrelevance and the Chief Whip is constitutionally charged with the duty of wresting power back to the Legislature. He has failed abysmally in introducing a 22 committee labyrinthine structure which will take Members out of the Chamber to meet one another going back and forth in corridors, carrying files. No one, certainly not the people who elect us to this House, will know what is happening. Power needs to be wrested back and vested in the Legislature where we could have scrutiny and accountability of a type we do not have now. Twenty-two committees is not the way forward.

I thank the Minister of State and Deputy Flanagan for sharing time with me.

There can be no doubt or no question in anybody's mind but that the position of this House vis-a-vis the Executive has been consistently eroded in recent years. The agenda, timetable and decisions of this House are the prerogative of the Executive. As someone who has served on a number of committees and who served longer than anybody else in this House on the Committee of Public Accounts, I acknowledge that committees can do good work. The Committee of Public Accounts and its DIRT inquiry under the chairmanship of the late Jim Mitchell, on which I was proud to serve, was an outstanding example of Parliament at work — Parliament as distinct from the Executive — pursuing a matter of public interest, scrutinising and examining the evidence, reaching conclusions and making findings and recommendations. It is an excellent example. It was the work of six Members of this House with no public or civil servant involvement in the writing of the report. It was purely the work of parliamentarians and it brought credit to this House.

Since then, we have shut down inquiries by parliamentary committees. Doing so merely because of a court decision in respect of Abbeylara is no argument. I can understand in the particular circumstances of Abbeylara why it would be wrong to have Members of this House draw conclusions that would or might adversely reflect on the reputation of another citizen, regardless of whether he or she is a member of the Garda Síochána. I can understand that, but in terms of the use of public money and matters of public interest, inquiry by parliamentary committee would make this House more relevant and would give the committees a function.

I agree entirely with Deputy Charles Flanagan that these committees are effectively run by the Executive. That is what happens. A House comprising 166 Members cannot productively support 21 committees. There are 650 Members in Westminster. This House comprises 166 Members and we now have more people in ministerial office than ever before, certainly a great deal more than when I came into the House. Why is it proposed that 21 committees be created. Some of them do not perform and others cannot perform because they do not have the required resources or the commitment on the part of Members who are pressed to maintain their membership of other committees and duties in the House.

The Minister of State is stoking public cynicism by allowing this to continue. The inference the press will draw from the establishment of 21 committees is that it facilitates the Taoiseach being able to give a chocolate sweet to those backbench members of the Government parties who failed to attain junior office in government. We will be facilitating people by enabling them to get a stipend. I will never forget the day I met a colleague, a member of the Fianna Fáil benches, rushing out of the Committee of Public Accounts saying: "Will you go in there quickly and vote?" When I asked what it had to do with him he told me he was the Whip of the committee. I had never heard of a Whip of the Committee of Public Accounts. It is supposed to be an audit committee, a non-party committee and, by and large, it has functioned that way and has done its job. Why must we create all these positions for disappointed office aspirants and pretend this constitutes Dáil reform? It does not.

The size of this House does not warrant the establishment of 21 committees. We need only establish half that number of committees, ensure they are properly resourced and that members who hold down positions on them have the required interest, skills and expertise to do the job. Just as the Committee of Public Accounts carved out a reputation for itself in recent years, there is no reason the chairman of the foreign affairs or finance committees should not be a person of some stature with some clout when offering an opinion, even if it is not always the opinion of the Executive, on matters of foreign affairs, finance and so on. The notion that we should do this for the reasons that will be inferred by the press diminishes this House and does it no credit. It is time we had a serious debate on Dáil reform.

This debate takes place at the request of the Fine Gael Party and particularly Deputy Michael D. Higgins. I sat through most of the debate today and listened carefully to what was said, and I will respond as best I can to the points raised. However, I will not be able to deal to everybody's satisfaction with all of them. I speak in that regard to the Deputies opposite.

There is an onus on me, my officials and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the head of committees and the committee secretariat to respond as best as possible to the many suggestions made. There is a record of this debate. Some Members spoke of the need for records to be produced quickly. Members will be aware that an immediate record of this debate will be available. However, the issue will be taken seriously by me and many others.

The Government is involved in ongoing discussions on various positions with the Fine Gael Party, which increased its representation in the House following the recent general election. The discussions, if not already concluded, are almost concluded — I hope they will be concluded before the end of the day. I informed my colleagues opposite earlier that we should first have this debate today, listen to what people had to say and conclude those discussions.

I will respond to the comments made by Deputies Rabbitte and Flanagan as they are freshest in my mind. Deputy Rabbitte spoke about the Government trying to satisfy Deputies, but that is not the case. Many capable Members on this side and the opposite side of the House will obtain chairmanship positions in various committees. I too instance, as I did earlier, the work of the Committee of Public Accounts in terms of the DIRT inquiry. I referred to the late Jim Mitchell and I acknowledge the work done by Deputy Rabbitte and others in terms of the subsequent legislation enacted as a result of the work of that committee.

Issues arise all the time. We know, as politicians, that times change and new issues emerge be they related to children, the Constitution or whatever. Two other areas are being considered in respect of committees about which I will inform the House in due course. What I am doing is being done in good faith. I will return to the House as quickly as possible to put in place the process required to get the committees up and running. I am convinced that many able people here will make a genuine commitment to the process.

It is also proposed that reports from committees be brought into the House thus maintaining a connection between committees and the House. Many Deputies spoke about the need for greater awareness and a dedicated channel for Oireachtas proceedings. This matter will be considered by the re-established broadcasting committee. I assure Members I have taken serious note of the comments on this issue from across party lines. I will try to advance the issue. I support those who called for a dedicated Oireachtas channel. Lack of media attention has been mentioned. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has allocated more resources to enable better promotion of our work in the committees through media and the press office and to ensure what happens in other Parliaments is reflected here.

On Dáil reform, I was delighted to hear Deputy Kenny say that the Fine Gael Party will engage with Government on this and that there is a great deal of common ground between us. I intend to re-establish the sub-committee on Dáil reform. I have noted that there is support for bringing forth Adjournment Debates. I hope we can put the issue of whether the Taoiseach comes into the House on Thursday out of the way. We have spent four years talking about that issue and I hope it can be parked and that we can move away from it.

The Taoiseach must come into the way.

A valid point was made about accountability issues in terms of the HSE, CIE and many other bodies and agencies. This issue must be addressed as soon as possible. I have some ideas in this regard. I thank Members for their contributions. We have a record of the debate and I will do my utmost to follow up on many of the valid points made.