I welcome this timely and important debate. I compliment the Leader on his measured and thoughtful comments. He set a good tone for the debate, which, I hope, will be helpful in the context of Seanad reform.
In recent years there have been several debates on this topic in the House. Many of the ideas which will be expressed this afternoon were put forward in the past. We are not dealing with this issue for the first time and Members have already made a wide range of suggestions regarding how change could be effected. There is also a clear willingness on their part to accept the need for and consequences of that change. Like the Leader, I intend to concentrate largely on the principles which should underlie any change.
A question people frequently ask is whether a second House is needed. As the Leader indicated, many countries, particularly some of the Nordic states, manage quite well with one House of Parliament. It is interesting that, to date, none of the reports on this House carried out by outside experts has reached this conclusion and they all stated clearly that there is a need for a second House. They are correct to make that assertion.
We live in what is frequently referred to as the "age of the democratic deficit", which is a real problem particularly as it relates to how we deal with European matters. No matter how hard they try, the 15 MEPs, who are generally people of high calibre, are not able to do what is expected of them. They cannot ensure that there will be a full flow of information in respect of and a full debate on major issues or that there will be a proper examination of the many detailed proposals put forward daily by the European Commission, via the European Parliament and elsewhere, which will inevitably find their way into domestic legislation.
Europe is not an esoteric subject. The day to day matters dealt with in Europe affect trade, commerce and living standards in addition to the daily lives of virtually every citizen in this country across a wide range of activities. It is important that within the Oireachtas there should be a House with the time and facilities to deal with these matters, so that when a debate arises similar to that on the Amsterdam Treaty, claims will not again be made — in my opinion they were correct — about the lack of proper scrutiny and debate in the Houses of Parliament. I will return to that matter later.
There is great justification for the existence of a second House. Virtually all of the new countries which emerged after the collapse of Communist and totalitarian rule have opted for a second House of Parliament. They did so, for the most part, following a great deal of reflection. They realised that there will be needs for which a lone House of Parliament cannot cater and that groups and interests which need representation will not obtain it if only one House is established. They also recognised that there are many functions which will not be carried out by Lower Houses but which, in the interests of democracy, should be carried out.
It is instructive to consider current events in Britain where one of the aims of the Government is to transform the democratically indefensible House of Lords into a form of senate which will meet some of the needs that are glaringly obvious — and which could be dealt with effectively by a properly organised second House — to people involved in British politics. It would be foolish and short-sighted of us to abolish an institution which has not only served the country well but which, more importantly, has the potential to add significant value to our democratic process.
As already stated, Members accept the need for reform. Our electoral system must be widened to broaden membership of the Seanad. As the Leader indicated, this is a political House and it is an integral part of the political process of the State. I can do no better than recall the words of the great 19th century philosopher of parliament, Walter Bagehot, who stated "Without party, parliament is not possible." In the context of the Seanad, "party" could be taken as meaning politics. This is a political House and it is concerned with the business of politics, in its narrowest and broadest sense. What was true in the 19th century is even more true today.
Any reform of the electoral system should be based on a frank acceptance that politics is about politics and that Houses of Parliament are run on political principles because they are about the business of politics. I do not believe we want a second House of Parliament which is a carbon copy of the NESC or a similar body. We do not want to see the establishment of some form of corporate State institution populated by those who are loaded down with vested interests, individuals interested only in one issue or those who are not answerable in any democratic or accountable way and who concentrate only on serving the interests of their supporters. That would be a recipe for narrow brokering between powerful professional interests and it would represent a negation of everything parliament represents. Above all else, parliament stands for the general interests of the people pooled together in one assembly rather than professional interests fighting against each other to fulfil their selfish desires. There are many other places where such battles can be fought.
Having said that, I accept the need to change our electoral system, broaden the electorate and tighten up a number of current procedures. However, I believe that a college of electors drawn from those who are themselves elected and who are involved in local government on a daily basis is not merely defensible, it is eminently sensible as a means of electing some Members of an Upper House. It is also inherently democratic because those people are accountable to their electorates and we, the people they choose to elect here, are accountable to them. Any reform of the Seanad should retain this electoral college as a large element within its structure — I say this not because I have a vested interest in it, which I have, but on the basis of democracy. Ireland is not unique in this system. France and Spain have broadly similar structures, and in other European countries the principle of an indirectly elected House of Parliament is accepted as inherently democratic. Other groups should also have the possibility of being elected to this House, especially representatives of groups which may have something distinctive to say, and we should examine ways of bringing this to pass.
I have been vague up to now about the type of electoral system we should have and I do not believe our Constitution should go into too much detail about how the Seanad should be organised. A constitution should lay down general principles and leave the rest to legislation, and if the legislation does not conform to the constitutional principles it can be tested in court. The present Constitution goes into far too much detail about how the House should be constituted and on the type and detail of the electoral system. The Seanad of 60 years ago should not be the Seanad of today. I have been in the House for 18 years, on and off, and I know that it wants to reform but it is constrained from reforming itself by constitutional limitations. We should not have found ourselves in this position; we should be answerable to the general principles on which the House is constituted and should be free from time to time, through legislation, to make changes which are thought appropriate. Too rigid a constitutional framework inhibits the changes necessary for any institution.
Equally, some of the suggestions for a new Seanad would, had they been enshrined in the Constitution, have proved even more restrictive than the current position. They would have ossified this institution within the political correctness of the 1990s, much of which is already out of date, and would leave our successors with an institution even more anachronistic than some people say the current House is. The worst possible thing which the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution could do would be to start prescribing the detail of a new Seanad in a way which would necessarily be fixed, rigid, cumbersome and expensive to change, with too much input from theorists and not enough from those who understand the practice, pressures, needs and aspirations of politics.
I urge the committee not to undertake a detailed remaking of a House of Parliament; rather it should lay down clearly defined principles as to what a 21st century second House should be, the categories of people who should be represented, the job the House should do and the contribution it should make to the overall body politic. The rest should be left to legislation. Constitutions should not be involved in detail or be over-elaborate. They should not reflect as fixed principles what may only be current practice or the modish whim of the day. They should lay down principles clearly and succinctly; those principles may be radical or conservative as needs be, but constitutions should not bind future generations with fixed ideas which may be out of date before they are enacted. Also, if we confine ourselves to principles, practices can be changed more easily, through legislation, without having to resort to the cumbersome, expensive and uncertain process of referendum. We could have made many more changes had we not been so constrained.
What should the Seanad do and what role should it have at this point in the life of our country? We have covered this ground in previous debates. It should do a number of things well. First, its principal job is the detailed scrutiny of legislation. We do this well at present but we do not do it well enough. We should never rush legislation; we should always allow time for reflection and consultation with other groups. We also need a greater back-up service for the examination of legislation. I accept that is a matter for parties rather than the Seanad but all parties should give it urgent consideration.
Second, we should be a wider forum than the other House. In the past, this House pioneered debate on key issues which were live for almost two decades; for instance, the efforts of the former President, Mrs. Robinson, when she was a Senator, to change the law on contraception, and issues like homosexuality, suicide and East Timor. Those issues were first brought to light in this House and attracted great attention because we had the time to deal with them in a way the other House did not. In the coming years this society will face enormous change from technology and the consequences of globalisation and the task of creating a fair society in the midst of prosperity.
There is a range of huge issues which should be discussed in Parliament on a regular basis which are not dealt with in the other House but on which this House could lead the way. The Leader referred to the European role, and there is also the matter of secondary legislation. A great deal of provisions are made law through statutory instruments and as politicians we should be hostile and suspicious of all such measures. We should examine them carefully on the basis that the Executive will always try to go further than it should — that may not be true but it is how we, as legislators, should approach them. A fixed part of our business should be the detailed examination of statutory instruments, with proper back-up services to enable us to do it. The former Senator, Professor Lee, made the good suggestion that regular reviews of Departments should be part of the annual work of this House. Time prevents me from going into the many other constructive ideas proposed in recent times.
There is an unanswerable case for the reform of the composition and role of this House. The process will only be done effectively if we can agree on the principles which should underpin the role and composition of the House and can enshrine these principles, not the details, in constitutional form. We should translate these principles into reality through legislation, always remembering that Houses of Parliament are concerned first and last with the business of politics, both narrow and wide. Let us not enter into the self-indulgence of constitutional engineering which will leave us and our successors infinitely worse off than at present.
We should listen to the professors and experts but also remember what the former Senator Lee wisely said in the last debate on this subject — it is not expertise which ultimately counts but judgment, and as politicians we above all others are called upon to make a judgment. Lawyers can tell us the law and economists can tell us about the economy, but we must make the judgment about what is in the best interests of all the people. Our job is to justify this House, and we can only do this by making it a good House. We are all agreed that is the best justification for the existence of the Seanad; let us now find agreement on common principles.