I welcome Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House.
Seanad Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House. There has been much debate about the future of this House over many decades but particularly over the past five years. For the first time since the passing of the Constitution of Ireland by the people, a referendum was held in 2013 asking the citizens of this country to abolish this institution. Thankfully, the people in their wisdom rejected that proposition and the Seanad will continue to perform its often under-appreciated, but always important, work as part of the functioning of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
However, any institution which faces an existential threat, as the Seanad did in that referendum, must question why such a proposal was even considered in the first place, other than the fact that the Taoiseach had a rush of blood to the head at a Fine Gael pre-Christmas dinner and thought it was a good idea. The Seanad is often the forgotten part of the three pillars that make up the Oireachtas. While the Presidency is a highly respected and a very visible office, particularly in recent decades, and the Dáil dominates the political landscape, the Seanad often has to take a back seat in publicity terms, despite its significant contribution to the legislative process.
One of the main issues raised during the Seanad referendum campaign was the disconnect between the Seanad and the people and yet it could be argued that the vast diversity of opinion which is found in Seanad Éireann is often more in tune with the general population than that of the Lower House. This House often debates legislation which, although it has been passed with very little debate and without a vote in the Dáil, results in considerable discussion and amendment in this House. One of the reasons the people rejected the attempted abolition of the Seanad was for that very reason. People recognise that the Seanad offers a more open and often more critical voice to proposed Government legislation than the Dáil. Ironically, given the Government's majority in the Dáil and due to the current arithmetic which makes up this House, it is the Members of the Seanad and not the Members of the Dáil who currently have the power to demand real debate on legislative matters. This is mainly due to the electoral process which elects Members to Seanad Éireann. These are the electoral rules which I would like to speak on today with this Bill.
As we are all aware, the electorate for the Seanad is limited to Deputies, Senators and councillors, along with university graduates and nominees from the incoming Taoiseach.
In its Seanad reform document Fianna Fáil has already proposed significant reforms in relation to that electorate and the merits or otherwise of this electoral system can be debated on another day. What this legislation addresses is the Seanad electorate when there is a vacancy to fill one of the 43 seats on one of the vocational panels during its term of office. A by-election was held to elect a replacement for our colleague and friend, former Senator Jimmy Harte, to whom Members expressed their best wishes and to his family to assure him that his many friends would welcome him back at any time in the Seanad.
At this juncture I again congratulate our newest colleague, Senator Máiría Cahill, on her victory in the recent by-election and wish her the very best in the coming months in her new role. The electorate for the by-election comprised current Deputies and Senators who voted for the candidates put before them. Unlike the election in which former Senator Jimmy Harte was elected to his position, local authority members played no role in the by-election. I think and hope Senators agree that without the contribution of local authority members, this is an incomplete and somewhat diminished electoral process unlike that which normally surrounds an election to a vocational panel of this House. The Bill, if accepted and passed by the Oireachtas, will change the Seanad electorate for by-elections by allowing not just current Deputies and Senators to vote but also local authority members who have a vital role in linking their community's voice with that of the Seanad. It seems bizarre to me and many of my colleagues that when a Senator is first elected to a panel, the electorate includes Deputies, Senators and county councillors, yet in a by-election this is not the case. I suggest that in all probability this is not for some significant reason of principle or law but is mainly down to administrative convenience for the Oireachtas. Put simply, the Government of the day wants to control who is elected to the Seanad.
While the Constitution outlines the general principles, the membership and place of the Seanad in our constitutional structure, the Seanad electorate for by-elections is specifically dealt with in legislation, namely, the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947. The Bill before the House would amend that Act to broaden the electorate for Seanad by-elections. While its purpose is specifically to broaden the Seanad electorate for by-elections to include members of local authorities, it would also for the first time in generations show that the electoral system for the Seanad which came in for much criticism during the referendum campaign could be improved utilising legislation. The reform proposed in the Bill is very small reform, but it is significant because it shows that it is open to all of us to propose amendments to legislation governing how the Upper House operates. I know and acknowledge that the Bill is more symbolic than substantial in that regard, but it is a start, which in itself is important.
The Fianna Fáil Party has brought forward significant legislative proposals for Seanad reform, for example, specifically earmarking the seats of the Taoiseach's nominees for minority groups such as the new Irish and the disability sector. I suggest we consider the position of Cathaoirleach being filled by one of these nominees. We propose an opening up of voting rights for the university panels to graduates of all third level universities. The result of a referendum that took place more than three decades ago allowed this to happen but no Government ever progressed that decision. We would open up the 43 vocational Seanad seats to the entire electorate, not just councillors, to enable the people to have a stronger voice in the Seanad. We would broaden the electorate to encompass the diaspora and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. We would also allow 500 citizens to nominate a candidate for the Seanad.
In order to understand the rationale for bringing forward the Bill, we must remember why local authority members are allocated the privilege of voting in Seanad elections in the first place. Local authority members represent local communities. They are the closest political link with local concerns. At the same time they also hold an important political office within their county and are fully engaged in the political structures of the State. As a result, they have been granted the ability to elect national politicians to vocational panels to provide an alternative voice to that of Members of Dáil Éireann. This structure represents a vital link between local and national, county and State, politicians and citizens. Obviously, there is always room for improving dialogue between the political institutions of the State and its citizens. This link could certainly be enhanced further than in the legislation I am putting forward, but, again, I must emphasise the symbolic rather than substantial nature of the Bill. In this regard, I am calling on all Senators - Government, Opposition and Independent - to send a message to the Executive that we want to reform our structures; that we want to reform the electoral system and that we want to have more inclusive elections. By supporting this legislation, this small step, to allow members of local authorities to vote in Seanad by-elections, Members would be stating clearly that they wanted legislative change. We are not demanding aggressive change but simply looking to rectify a legislative defect. Let us set down a marker that this is just today's work, that there is a lot more work to be done.
I look forward to the debate on the Bill. I urge the Minister of State to accept this small but very important Bill.
It gives me great pleasure to second the Seanad Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015, as proposed by my colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group. He has outlined in great detail the rationale behind the Bill. If we look back to what happened in the last general election, post the formation of the Government, there was much talk about a democratic revolution and the way politics would change, particularly the legislative process, such that the debate on no Bill would be guillotined and that a gap of two weeks would be allowed between the different stages of legislation. However, when we examine the record, we find that the debates on more than 63% of Bills in Dáil Éireann have been guillotined; that in the case of 78% of Bills there was not the requisite two week period between Second and Committee and Remaining Stages. That is an abject failure. Looking back, we now understand the rationale for proposing what was thought at the time to be a populist referendum to abolish the Seanad, which acts as an important check and balance to the Government, particularly a Government which has a very sizeable majority, as this one does.
The current Seanad has become a more effective debating Chamber. To be fair, many Ministers have taken on board amendments and suggestions from Senators because they have had to do so. It is not good for a Government of any hue to have too much power. We must learn from the result of the referendum, which meant not maintaining the status quo but that people respected the institution, that we needed checks and balances and also that it could be done better. Political reform cannot be undertaken in isolation. Many other reforms were proposed by the Government, including to the committee system, the Dáil and the Executive in terms of how they would work.
Very little has been done in that regard. As Senator Wilson outlined, we have put forward two substantial political reform documents which propose actions that are very doable by way of legislation.
This legislation would go a small way to show, before the end of this term, that the Government is open to reforming the structures that govern us by extending a by-election to the full electorate. The current electorate is county councillors across the country. I wish to be associated with Senator Wilson's good wishes for our former colleague, Jimmy Harte, and I am delighted that Senator Cahill was elected to replace him. The Senator is a very good addition to the Seanad. This legislation is not a reflection on her but on the process whereby there is a greatly reduced electorate for filling one of the 43 vocational seats in the Seanad. It makes sense that future by-elections should be opened up to county and city councillors across the country. As local representatives, they are closest to their communities.
I have had the honour of serving in both Houses of the Oireachtas and I can safely say that I have learned more in the Seanad about the legislative process for Bills. I have read more legislation here than I would have done as a backbench Deputy in the Dáil. I am conscious of the experience here, the quality of debate and the way each section of the legislation is dealt with. I compliment the Leader on the fact that the guillotine has rarely been used, which shows that business can be scheduled correctly and time can be given to examine legislation and scrutinise the issues. A significant number of amendments have been accepted in the Seanad. I had the honour of having an Opposition Bill accepted on all Stages in the House. The Public Services and Procurement (Social Values) Bill 2015, which dealt with access for the SME sector to State contracts, was passed by the Seanad. That would not happen in the Dáil, where no Opposition Bill has been accepted on all Stages. We are able to work together on legislation.
Given that fact, the small change proposed in the Bill before us to open up the electorate for a future by-election makes a great deal of sense. There is no reason that it should not be accepted and it would give the Government the opportunity to say that it has started the reform of the Seanad. I strongly urge colleagues to support this well-constructed Bill. In particular, I commend Senator Wilson who has put a great deal of work into it. He discussed it with colleagues on all sides of the House in an effort to seek their support for it. I am pleased to second the Bill and I look forward to the debate and the Minister's response.
Like other speakers, I wish the best of luck to former Senator Jimmy Harte and his family.
The result of the Seanad referendum was clear. The people of Ireland have said that they value this House. Hopefully, they value its Members as well and we do the best job possible when we are elected to the House. It is a privilege to represent the people of Ireland. This House has an important role to play in the Irish parliamentary system. Equally clear, however, was the vocal support for the House to play a more effective role as a safeguard against possible excessive populism in the other House. This House comes to the fore in that regard. I mentioned earlier today that in the case of one Bill, we accepted 14 amendments tabled by the Opposition. Senators should take note of that. They were accepted and appeared on the list of amendments with the names of the Senators who had proposed them as well as the asterisk to denote Government amendments.
They were from the Independents, not the Opposition.
They were amendments that were tabled on Committee Stage by Independent Senators and that were accepted in the House. The House works in that way, despite it being stated that we do not accept such amendments.
Reform of this House, in line with the popular vote, became a concern for the Government. It remains a concern and a work in progress. Indeed, the Government by legislation changed the Bill that was introduced 35 years ago. In 1979 a referendum was held on the franchise for graduates and this Government ensured that the referendum result was enacted. Obviously, there is much work to be done on that and it would be good-----
It has not enacted anything.
-----if it was dealt with for the next election. It takes time to get all the registers of students in the universities and the institutes of technology up and running. The groundwork on that is ongoing.
The legislation has not been passed.
Change has happened under this Government-----
Nothing has happened.
I will refer to the Bill shortly. The Seanad reform working group has worked tirelessly on this-----
It has not been implemented.
It is gathering dust.
The group met the Taoiseach-----
They met my Aunt Fanny.
-----and it has been agreed that the next Stage on that Bill will be discussed by the Dáil.
The Taoiseach said today that it will not be dealt with during the term of the Government.
Senator Keane has the floor.
Why was it not changed since 1979 when the referendum was held? This Government changed it. We cannot have an election if there is no electorate or register, so work must be carried out on it.
With regard to the Bill before us, the amendment proposed is good and welcome. However, work must be done on it. As this House has specialist legislative oversight, it makes sense that its Members should be elected by a broader structure in a by-election. I understand the Senator's intent and I welcome it wholeheartedly for a by-election. The city and county councillors are involved in the election of Senators so why would they not be involved in the by-elections as well? The current system denies this franchise to councillors in by-elections. This means that the House structure is skewed with two different types of electorate for the two electoral processes. However, the Bill we passed regarding the university franchise contained a recommendation that the filling of casual vacancies would be done in the same way as happens with the European Parliament-----
No Bill was passed.
-----through a list system.
But no Bill was passed.
It was in the general scheme of the Bill. One of the recommendations was that by-elections in the Seanad would be dealt with in the same way as in the European Parliament, with the vacancies filled from a list system. I would not support that as much as I support ensuring that it goes to the councillors on the ground.
I was very impressed by a proposal from Future Matters, a group of young people set up to examine Seanad reform. It is an independent campaign of young people of various party affiliations and none who are committed to the ongoing reform of the Seanad. These young people put forward a proposal regarding councillors. Councillors represent and work for the people in the communities. Future Matters went a step forward in its proposal and I believe it is worth examining. It is that the councillors would call community meetings of all of the interested parties in all electoral areas, have the candidates for election to the Seanad appear before the meeting and have a question-and-answer session, after which the councillors would vote for the candidates as recommended by general participative democracy. It would widen the franchise, but the vote would still be done by the councillors.
This could be done without legislative change. We spend our time travelling around the country but perhaps we could meet in general halls and have a general discussion in a type of town hall meeting in every regional electoral area. We are in the process of establishing an independent electoral commission, so we could examine this proposal.
First, I wish to dispose of one point. No Bill concerned with electoral reform of Seanad Éireann has passed this House. There have been discussions and proposals, but absolutely nothing has been done about it. The Taoiseach's proposals for including every institute of technology and all the rest of it would have the effect of leaving the Taoiseach with one vote, to nominate without an election 11 Members of the House. Then there are 43 elected by about 1,000 local representatives and Members of the Oireachtas. That means one vote for 11 people, 1,000 votes for the next 43 and 850,000 for the universities. The Taoiseach's proposal would magnify the existing disparity and I do not approve of it. By the time this comes in, if it ever does, the latter figure will be 1 million. That would open up the university seats to the political parties to penetrate them and take them over. It would mean the end of the Independent vote in Seanad Éireann.
The Bill goes a small way towards rectifying an idiotic situation. I pointed out on the Order of Business that we had somebody elected to a national Parliament through an electorate of 200 voters. That far exceeds anything that happened in rotten boroughs in the 18th century in a completely corrupt situation. I repeat that there were 200 votes in an electorate for a seat in a national Parliament. It is a scandal.
What about the other provisions? I remember when Mr. McNulty was catapulted, from a petrol station or whatever it was up in Donegal, on to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I doubt if the most recent person elected had a connection with a huckster's sweet shop. She was elected on the Industrial and Commercial Panel, and everybody thinks it was a wonderful idea. I am a dissenting voice in that when I say I do not. If there are provisions for people to be elected on panels, they should at least have some even vague relationship to the panel on which they are elected.
What is needed - it is not very complex - is scrutiny of the existing nominating bodies, which are now antique. Some of them are still central to Irish life and still fulfil the function, but we need a review of them to ensure they are brought in line with the conditions in the early part of the 21st century. Crucially they need to enfranchise the ordinary members of the nominating bodies. That would bring real people. I am not suggesting that my colleagues are not real. Considering the utter corruption of the process by which they are elected, it is astonishing that we get some very good people.
I would not turn my back entirely on political representation. I have been a Member of Seanad Éireann for nearly 30 years and I have seen the valuable contribution made by people, who, for example, had experience of Dáil Éireann - sometimes former Cabinet Ministers - coming in here. That is valuable political expertise and I would be reluctant to lose it completely. There should be a mixture.
The Bill extends the franchise for by-elections to local authority members, but they are also politically directed. They are mostly members of political parties and they will do what they are told. I have had direct personal experience of this. They do what they are told by head office. Head office marks their card for them by advising the person for whom they should vote, and off they go and vote accordingly.
I see my good friend, the Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, shaking his head. I had experience of this in the presidential election when-----
We are also shaking our heads on this side.
I beg the Senator's pardon. Could he interrupt more cogently? Could he start that again?
Councillors are independent.
We are also shaking our heads on this side.
I thought it was palsy or dropsy he was afflicted with.
Please do not interrupt Senator Norris.
By and large people from political parties are told what to do. I remember in this House when they used to be shepherded into the party offices and their papers marked for them by the general secretary.
I remember it. I witnessed it. I saw it. That is what happened.
This extends the franchise, which is fair enough, but it extends it only in a very marginal way. It is not a real reform, but I will vote for it, if there is a vote, because it is some token gesture towards Seanad reform. However, we need a way to get all the people of Ireland involved. To review the nominating bodies, enfranchise the ordinary members and then have a small miscellaneous section for people who are left outside would be fine. We had a recent by-election which was a total farce. We also had the farce of Mr. McNulty being-----
What about the previous by-election?
I beg the Senator's pardon?
What about the previous by-election?
What about what?
I fixed that.
What did he say?
He wanted to know about the previous by-election - the one I won.
We won it fair and square. What about it?
The Senator is out of time.
That is all I have to say. I doubt if the slightest notion will be taken of it because we can always rely on political parties to hang on like grim death to power and they will not give up any control they have without an avalanche.
I hope to bring a little rationality and calm to the debate.
I remain calm and eminently rational.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I commend Senator Wilson, in particular, on introducing it. It gives us an opportunity to debate an important issue regarding Seanad reform. As others have pointed out, the context for the Bill is the recent retirement of our good friend and colleague, Mr. Jimmy Harte - we all wish him well in his retirement - and the election of our great new friend and colleague Senator Máiría Cahill. I take the strongest possible exception to the insinuations made by Senator Norris about the candidate for the recent by-election. I welcome Senator Cahill who is already-----
The Senator should give her reasons.
-----making a strong-----
On what grounds does the Senator take exception?
Senator Cahill is already making-----
Senator Norris has spoken for six minutes. Senator Bacik is in possession.
Senator Cahill is already making a strong-----
She is not entitled to attack me and will not give her reasons.
-----and welcome contribution to Seanad debate and I know she will continue to do so in the months ahead. I also pay tribute our retiring colleague, Mr. Jimmy Harte.
We have had many debates on Seanad reform over the years. I regret that we have not seen actual change in the external sense through legislation, but we have had extensive internal changes and improvements to our procedure in recent years in particular.
Senator Keane referenced the extensive taking of amendments by Ministers, including amendments tabled by Senators from both sides of the House - Independent and party Senators. I have had amendments and even entire Bills accepted. I am delighted that our Bill to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which started life as a Private Members' Bill tabled by me and the other Labour Senators in this House is now going through the Dáil and I hope will be law by Christmas to change and remove the potential for discrimination against LGBT teachers in particular.
We have seen some very important legal reforms brought through. Senator Quinn has had Bills accepted by the Government. Just today, as Senator Keane said, the Government accepted a number of amendments tabled by Senator Barrett on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. We have had some good debates with constructive changes made to law in this Seanad, which is a mark of the sorts of reforms we have introduced.
I should also reference our good friend, Senator van Turnhout, whose amendment on bringing forward, at last, a repeal of the defence of reasonable chastisement is very important in terms of children's rights. We have seen huge changes brought forward in the Seanad. We have seen changes in our procedures in terms of the public consultation committee and in bringing in outside speakers. That has been very welcome.
Of course, we need bigger reforms - legislative reforms. I will address that bigger picture in a moment. I want to speak briefly on the very specific proposal for change made in the Bill before us, which, as Senator Wilson has said, is quite a modest proposal. It is a short-term or interim reform, simply relating to the filling of casual vacancy by way of Seanad by-election. Current law, as others have said, restricts the electorate to Deputies and Senators only. I fully agree with Senator Wilson on the need at least to extend the vote to members of local authorities. That is the simple change the Bill would make.
It makes sense and I hope we will see this reform implemented in due course. Clearly, bigger reforms are necessary. The Labour Party Senators' group has put forward proposals to the working group on Seanad reform and I have spoken about them before in this House. We believe there should be constitutional change, in particular a change made to the Taoiseach's power to nominate 11 Senators without any vote and, indeed, to the existence of the five vocational panels. We have stood for more extensive reform through constitutional change.
Pending any decision on constitutional change, we have put forward four proposals for change that could be brought about through legislation alone. These include the expansion of the electorate for the university panel to all third level graduates. That is in the legislative programme of this Government but I accept it cannot be done in its lifetime and that we will not see that change brought into effect. However, I hope that it will be done in time for the next Seanad election.
Our second legislative reform is for universal suffrage to the five vocational panels. We have proposed that all those entitled to be on the local election register, which is different from the electorate for Dáil elections, would be entitled to vote in the Seanad general election. Also, each person entitled to vote would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the five panels. University graduates could opt for a vote on the university panel instead of the national language and culture, literature, art and education panels. We think this is a practical way to resolve the difficulty of multiple votes and giving university graduates an extra privilege in voting. It could be done by way of legislation without constitutional change. In accordance with Article 19 of the Constitution, one of the panels - we believe that the public administration panel would be the most appropriate - could be reserved for city and county council members to preserve what I think all of us agree is a valuable existing link with local government. That really marks the Seanad as particularly distinctive from the Dáil in that there would be a representation of local authority members.
The third and fourth changes that we have recommended are to extend the powers of nomination to the panels and that Seanad elections should take place on the same day as Dáil elections. I have spoken with various colleagues about the matter and believe it could be done without constitutional amendment.
Article 18.8 states: "A general election for Seanad Éireann shall take place not later than ninety days after a dissolution of Dáil Éireann." We have suggested that legislation could provide that the Seanad election takes on the same day as a Dáil election. It would have to be by secret postal ballot because, clearly, that is required in the Constitution. We could, by legislation, prohibit a candidate from running in both elections which would break the direct link between the Dáil and Seanad elections. Again, this is something that many of the reports on reform have proposed, that is, that link should be broken and that the distinctive nature of the Seanad should be highlighted and strengthened.
I welcome the opportunity to speak generally on Seanad reform. In particular, I welcome the specific and short-term reform proposed in this sensible Bill.
I thank the Senator and call the Minister of State.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Senator Wilson's Private Members' Bill. I acknowledge his work in bringing the Bill before the House and thank its seconder as well. The Bill proposes the alignment of the electoral roll for Seanad panel members' by-elections with the electoral roll for Seanad panel members' general elections. The proposal is certainly worthy of consideration and discussion. This debate gives us an opportunity to take a broad view on the Bill. However, the Bill would require careful examination on Committee Stage. The new section to be inserted in the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947 is incomplete and would require amendment if it was to be agreed but I will return to this point later on.
The Bill proposes to introduce Seanad electoral reform. As Members will know, wider Seanad reform has been the subject of much research and analysis over the years. I understand that Seanad electoral reform has been the subject of considerable debates in this House over the past two years, in particular. Most recently, on the Government side, this work has been progressed through the establishment of the working group on Seanad reform. The group reported to the Taoiseach in April. The report made wide-ranging recommendations about the way in which Members are elected to the Seanad and how it should perform its functions.
I know Senators had the opportunity to have a full and frank debate on the report in the Seanad in May and also in July. The Taoiseach met the Opposition party leaders to discuss the report during the summer and agreed that the next step is to debate it in Dáil Éireann. It is important we hear the views of all sides on this important matter and we look forward to the debate taking place.
Another element of Seanad reform where some progress has been made is in terms of the higher education aspect of Seanad elections. The Government has published, for consultation, the general scheme of a Bill on the election of members of Seanad Éireann by institutions of higher education in the State. The purpose of the Bill is to implement the 1979 constitutional amendment to extend the Seanad franchise to graduates of institutes of higher education in the State that up to now did not form part of the Seanad university constituencies.
While I am aware that it is two years since the Taoiseach announced this initiative, and some time since the general scheme was published, nonetheless action has been taken and a considerable amount of groundwork has been carried out. I remind this House that the implementation of this constitutional provision could have been done at any point since 1979 but it did not take place. This Government has taken the first steps to implement the will of the people.
On the matter of filling casual vacancies, which is the focus of the Bill before us, the general scheme of the Seanad electoral (university members) Bill provides that such vacancies would be filled in a similar way to European Parliament vacancies. They are filled by the use of replacement candidate lists and, therefore, no by-elections would take place in the university constituency to fill casual vacancies. These arrangements differ from the proposed by-election arrangements set out in the Bill before us. I wonder if the proposers of the Bill have considered this option for filling panel members' vacancies when they arise.
Having said that, this Second Stage debate is about the Bill before us. It is important we consider the Bill's contents and their implications. The Bill would result in a widening of the electorate for Seanad panel member by-elections to include local authority elected members. As I said earlier, the Bill proposes to insert a new section in the 1947 electoral Act. The new section requires further consideration. In the Government's view, an amendment is necessary to make the new section workable. For example, the Bill does not replicate those provisions in the 1947 Act which provide that only those on the electoral roll can vote. It does not provide that the death of a person on the electoral roll would not prejudice or affect the validity or operation of the roll. In addition, the Bill does not make provision for the names, addresses and descriptions of members of local authorities to be sent to the Seanad's returning officer by local authorities. This provision is contained in the 1947 Act for Seanad general elections. It may need to be replicated for the by-elections.
Consideration would also need to be given to replicating provisions in the 1947 Act for the Seanad general elections which allow the Seanad's returning officer to make inquiries to ascertain the correct name, address and description of every person on the electoral roll. The 1947 Act also provides for the publication of the electoral roll for Seanad general elections in Iris Oifigiúil. Again, this may need to be replicated for by-elections.
These are some of the issues we believe need further consideration on Committee Stage. The provisions of the Bill are certainly worthy of further consideration and discussion. Therefore, the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House once again and thank her for her response. My friend and colleague, Senator Wilson, will respond to her response in further detail. I also commend Senator Wilson on his initiative in this regard. This is an issue which has cropped up informally over the past number of years. The fact it has been brought forward in a legislative proposal is welcome. I particularly welcome the Government's decision not to oppose the Bill on Second Stage.
I am probably somewhat unique, although my late mother always thought I was unique, as I was re-elected in a by-election in 2010.
I was very fortunate because I happened to be a member of the Government party at the time which had an in-built majority in both Houses. Unlike the case of our friend and colleague, former Senator Harte, the vacancy was declared as a result of the sudden death of an esteemed friend and colleague, Peter Callanan, who was from Innishannon in County Cork, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Once it became apparent that there was a vacancy that had to be filled, my biggest challenge involved convincing my own party that I was good enough to be nominated and I was not the only person who was of that view. There were a number of individuals who were lobbying very hard to be nominated. As this was a new experience for me, I learned very quickly that the decision was not made by the parliamentary party. It was in the gift of the Taoiseach and the leader of the party. I assume the same would be true of the other parties represented here in a similar situation. Therefore, I had to convince the then Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, that I was worthy of consideration. Again, I knew that others were plighting their troth in the same direction. Fortunately, I was nominated by the then Taoiseach to whom I was eternally grateful, as indeed was my wife, family and bank manager.
Levity aside, that was the biggest challenge and it brought home to me that I felt I had more of a mandate in the subsequent general election where I was elected by the councillors, Deputies and Senators than the one I had through this closed church of Deputies and Senators in these Houses. This does not in any way cast any reflections on those who have gone before or come after me, as in the most recent example. It was just that my feeling at the time was that when I got elected in the normal way, I felt I had a more secure mandate whereas the others seemed to be a bit temporary.
This is why I support this initiative. I know I speak for everybody in this House when I say that the one thing we all know from talking to councillors around the country is that they jealously guard their right to vote in Seanad elections. They do not see it as a chore. They see it as a very important responsibility and something they jealously guard.
I found Senator Norris's intervention earlier rather amusing when he spoke about people being whipped into line. Senator Cummins was nodding in the same way as us. Anybody who has gone through a Seanad election knows that councillors are very independent-minded people and are more likely to react negatively to any imposition from the top down than from the bottom up. They do so quite regularly. Without going into too much detail, it has happened over the years in all the parties represented in this House. It is vitally important not only for councillors themselves who are on the outside looking in for by-elections but for the entire system of election to the Seanad. Extending the franchise to all councillors would strengthen the credibility of the Seanad.
In the same vein, I have often wondered why no Government since the foundation of the State has decided to have by-elections to fill vacancies in local authorities rather than having it done by agreement. Those of us who have served on local authorities know that depending on who the member is and the party or grouping he or she represents, there is an agreement that if it is a resignation or death, the vacancy is filled by a person from the same party or grouping. A by-election is held in England. A candidate needs to go out on the hustings and I think it is something that should be given worthy consideration.
I do not want in any way to dilute the importance of this Bill by straying into other areas. I just wanted to put down a marker that I believe that it is vital for the democratic system as a whole and its credibility among the public, which has perhaps taken an increasingly closer look at how the Seanad operates since the referendum than it did before. I am sad to say that this is not something that is reflected in the mainstream media and I wish it was. It has been an old bugbear that the media tends to undervalue this House. I compliment the Leader of the House. This House has initiated a vast corpus of legislation over the past five years yet by the time it gets to the other House six months later, as far as the media is concerned, it is a new Bill whereas in fact, it has been debated here. One of the most specific examples was the Water Services Bill. The Leader of the House ensured it received line-by-line debate in this House over three or four days yet the public perception as fuelled by the media was that there was no debate. That is only one example. I am not defending the Bill. I am merely using it as an example of what goes on. This initiative will help to enhance the value, role and status of this House and I commend it.
I commend my friend and colleague from the other side of the House, Senator Wilson, for proposing this Bill. As he stated, it is a small step in Seanad reform and relates to the 43 Members elected by the panels and a by-election. I know the Minister has outlined a number of areas that would need to be refined when the Bill reaches Second Stage but giving local authority members a say when a by-election occurs is certainly a step in the right direction. I have no problem with the principle of the Bill that is proposed.
Senator Wilson said that the Government would like to keep the status quo where Governments have majorities. Without the current system, we might never have had Senator Craughwell. What would we have done?
Accidents do happen.
Come on now, Fine Gael gave away that seat.
This is the rotten borough that Senator Norris spoke about where only 200 or so had a vote. Senator Wilson is proposing to amend that. I know the Seanad was set up by the late Taoiseach, Mr. de Valera and everything in the initial Bill and Act was drawn by him. There was a time when Fianna Fáil thought that every word and action of Mr. de Valera was infallible but, obviously, the sands are beginning to shift a bit on the other side of the House and possibly for the better. I appreciate that.
The Senator should be careful. He could be in coalition with them next year.
The House has produced alterations and reforms over the past four to five years. Obviously, 80% of Seanad reports and reports on Seanad reform concerned how the Seanad is to be elected. I have no doubt that, irrespective of which Government comes in or which party or parties form the next Government, we will see changes. At least half of the Seanad Members will be elected by the people in forthcoming elections and people will have one vote in a Seanad election relating to whether they are in a university panel or another panel. I am confident that we will see change, which is not before time.
Irrespective of which party comes in, this will be in place for the next election. I have no doubt that this reform is necessary. I commend the people who produced reports on Seanad reform, such as former Senators, Ms Mary O'Rourke and Dr. Maurice Manning. They did excellent work, much of which I agree with. I do not agree with some aspects of it but that is for another day. I will keep to the Bill before us. I commend Senator Wilson for bringing it before us.
I am pleased the Government has agreed to accept it on Second Stage.
I am sure the necessary amendments to which the Minister of State alluded will be brought forward on Committee Stage. There is no need to go into the whole area of Seanad reform in detail as we have debated that matter on many occasions. Reform of Seanad Éireann will be a priority for whatever Government is formed after the next election. It will have to be done, because the people want it, and I expect it will be enacted in the coming years.
I compliment the Minister of State on her decision not to oppose this Bill. It sends the right message to the public. Intentionally or otherwise, the Taoiseach may have done this House a favour by holding a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Until then, we were depending largely on guesswork and innuendo as to the public attitude to the Upper House. By allowing citizens to decide on the future of the Seanad, we got a chance to make our case. As we all know, it is not always easy to get publicity for the work we do here. Several speakers noted that debates in this Chamber tend to avoid personality politics to a large degree. In many cases, the contributions of Senators reflect the substantial research they have done on a particular matter. Senator Darragh O'Brien observed that he came to understand the legislative process better after coming to this House then he ever did when he was a backbencher in Dáil Éireann.
I compliment Senator Diarmuid Wilson on bringing forward these proposals and the manner in which he did so. It is important that our debate on the Bill has not coincided with a by-election, because it allows us to debate the issues in a general sense. Indeed, Senator Wilson's proposals preceded any discussion about by-elections because he has been working on them for a considerable time. He consulted broadly, which meant he was not making a party issue of it. He spoke to people on all sides of the House and it was clear all Senators wanted to do what was right by the House. We do not own Seanad Éireann and it is a privilege to be here. At the same time, we all like to think we give a reasonable service.
The underlying basis of the Bill is a concern for democracy. While there are difficulties associated with the broader objective of enhancing the democratic nature of Seanad elections, what Senator Wilson has proposed in this legislation is a measure we can implement without difficulty. The fact the Government is not opposing it gives us the opportunity of teasing it out further and, in addition, of discussing reform in the broader context. It was evident from the debates surrounding the referendum on the future of the Seanad, if not from the result of the vote itself, that the public wants reform. What is less clear, however, is what form that reform should take. There are complexities involved in any reform but that change is required is beyond question. Nothing stands still. Our society is changing, our country is changing and things are changing internationally. There are many new obligations on us to protect democracy, as we have seen in recent times. We must have the structures in place to do that work properly and, indeed, we must have the confidence of the people to do so.
As Senator Wilson noted, there are changes we can implement before there is any change in legislation. In the case of the 11 Taoiseach's nominees, for instance, there is an opportunity to respond to some of the concerns expressed by voters. To the credit of the Taoiseach, his nominees to this Seanad were quite diverse and represented many aspects of life in this country. Those Senators have made a valuable and important contribution to the work of the House. We have an ideal opportunity to consider doing something in respect of the 11 Taoiseach's nominees.
I recently accompanied a guest from America on a visit to both the Seanad and Dáil Chambers. I do not know if he is familiar with the ongoing debate on the subject but he asked me afterwards about the prospect of having the diaspora represented in this House. It is an issue we have discussed on several occasions in this House, with the view often expressed that we might start by allowing members of the diaspora to vote in presidential elections. We are very much part of a globalised world and a person representing Irish people abroad would be able to offer something important to the work that is done in this House.
Likewise, there could be a particular role for the Seanad on Northern Ireland matters. Members will recall that we had representatives of the Orange Order here on the initiative of former Senator Martin McAleese. It was an amazing experience because whatever preconceived notions people might have had, the actual debate was useful and moderate and we were able to find many areas on which we agreed. There is so much more we could do in that area, in a context where the peace process is still not 100% bedded down. I travel to the North on a regular basis and have engaged with loyalists and republicans in various fora. It is clear to see that under the surface, difficulties remain to be resolved. This House is an ideal forum in which to engage with people from all traditions in the North.
The Government support for this Bill is welcome. I hope there is an opportunity in the future to look at a larger reform package and how we might work together to achieve it.
I compliment my esteemed colleague on the opposite side of the House on bringing forward this Bill. The Irish people voted to retain the Seanad and we all understood this was on condition that there would be a change in how the House works. As colleagues noted, we have already changed a lot of things. This is my first term in the Seanad but those who have been here longer acknowledge what has been done by the Leader and all of us. New legislation introduced here has been voted into law and amendments tabled here have been accepted by the Government.
Local public representatives have the franchise to elect 43 of the 60 Senators to this House. They understand their responsibility in this regard and take great care when selecting the various candidates on the different panels. I agree with the speaker who noted that councillors have their own minds and will make up their own minds. They are not influenced from on high and I commend them on that. What is proposed in this Bill would make a small but significant change in terms of extending the Seanad franchise. It does not make sense that the people who have the right to elect 43 Senators following a general election should not have the opportunity to participate in Seanad by-elections when they arise. In the most recent case, the by-election was to replace our unfortunate and much loved colleague, Jimmy Harte, who contributed greatly in his short time in the House.
I will not go back to the previous by-election because I received many promises. Circumstances have changed greatly since the 1947 Act. I support the Bill and the extension of the franchise. I was on the local authority benches for 16 years. Councillors view their responsibility with great pride but this would lead to a wider variety of people being elected to the House. I commend my colleague and I support him.
I commend Senator Wilson on bringing forward the Bill, even though I would probably vote against it if a division were called.
Sinn Féin tried to get rid of this place.
We did indeed and I will get to that. If I had a choice, I would vote against the Bill but it will not be pushed to a division. It would take a brave politician to go back to the people again on Seanad abolition and nobody is inclined to do so. If a constitutional convention was held on Seanad reform and it recommended changes, I would support that and those changes could be put to the people. No party is recommending that and there is no prospect of a referendum to abolish the House any time soon. That means it is here to stay and that we must reform it in the interests of the people.
The Taoiseach was partly right in his comments prior to the referendum that there are many disparate views about how to reform the House and many documents sitting on shelves. People mentioned the Mary O'Rourke report but there were many other reports as well. There were different opinions but there was also a commonality in many of them, including proposed representation from Northern Ireland and the diaspora, the principle of a universal franchise and measures to deal with the elitist nature of the House. There was some, although not absolute, consensus on many issues. This means there is the prospect of a reformed Seanad, something which would win the support of almost every political party and grouping.
I commend the work of the forum. Given the remit its members had, they came up with a good document that points the way forward to a reformed House. Given the constraints they faced, they made positive recommendations. The obvious constraint was that they were told that constitutional change was out of the question and that they had to compile a report based on what was possible through legislation. They have come up with a fair way forward. If those recommendations were implemented, they would represent a huge step forward. It may not be enough for me but it would be a huge step forward.
It might be useful following the election - whenever it is called and depending on who is in government - to set up a fresh constitutional convention to examine many outstanding issues that were not considered by the previous convention. The latter worked well and some issues were put to the people. A number of referenda relating to its recommendations still have not have taken place. However, the model worked well and could be used again. I would like a fresh constitutional convention to examine Seanad and Dáil reform, to forensically go through the different options, including the options published by the forum, and to push the boundaries to consider what would be possible if constitutional change were allowed. We should not be afraid to go back to the people with a proposal for a referendum on reforming the Seanad. While people voted to retain the House, they also voted to reform it. That is my view and I cannot base it on anything other than how the canvass went and on what people said to me. That is anecdotal, although some opinion polls reflected it as well. We should not be afraid to go back to the people to support reform of the Seanad. I do not favour asking them to vote again on abolishing the House. The people stated their case and voted to retain it.
I make no apologies for my party seeking to abolish the Seanad. However, the people voted to keep it. This is democracy and I accept that. It is entirely legitimate for people to say that the Seanad should be abolished. That is a clear political view that people had and they were entitled to it. Political parties were entitled to put that view forward. The only option given to us was to abolish or to retain the House as it is. No reform was, therefore, put to the people. We were offered a simple, clear choice. We had our position which we had adopted through Ard-Fheiseanna, which is, again, democratic. We make no apologies for the fact that we went to the people with a view that if this was the simple choice, we would opt for abolition. However, the people voted to retain the House and the question now is what do we do.
I have a concern about whether all the reforms in the forum report will be implemented. When I made my maiden speech, I talked about Seanad reform and someone within my party who is seen as a cynic said he would place a bet that the next Seanad election would be the same as that which preceded it and that there would be no reform of any description, the university and vocational panels would be same and the Taoiseach's appointees would remain. That is what has happened. Let us hope that following the upcoming Seanad election, we do not go into the subsequent election without any reform again. That would be a slap in the face for all those who voted for Seanad reform.
The Bill does not go far enough. The intention behind it is worthy, as is the extension of the franchise in Seanad by-elections. However, there should be a universal franchise and that would happen if the other reforms were implemented. The reforms recommended in the forum report would go much further and would be much better and I support them. I will not put the question to a division but if there was one, I would vote against the Bill. Committee Stage is the forum to amend the legislation and, therefore, I will not oppose it today.
I very much welcome the Bill and commend Senator Wilson on introducing it and giving us the opportunity to say a few words. I appreciate what the Minister of State said and I have no doubt the matters arising from a previous Act can be dealt with by Senator Wilson on Committee Stage by means of a tidying-up measure. I was struck by Senator Norris's comment and I enjoyed Senator Mooney's contribution in that regard. It again shows that for such a learned man who comes from the rarefied atmosphere of one of the university panels, how little he knows about what happens between councillors and their respective party headquarters. I recall that a certain headquarters did not want someone as a candidate in a previous election and once the councillors got hold of that information, they ensured the return of that person.
Fair play to him.
Councillors regard it as a great honour to have a say on the 43 panel seats. They regard it highly and they take their duty seriously. Members all know this because of the attention they have to pay to them and the canvass they must undertake throughout the 26 counties during election campaigns. I do not mean any disrespect to Senator Norris but he is way off beam in his comments.
A great deal of blather is talked about Seanad reform. When the matter is examined in a serious fashion, it might emerge that there is as much need for reform of the Dáil as there is of the Seanad. I commend the Leader and others on the necessary improvements, etc., that have occurred during the lifetime of this Seanad as opposed those which preceded it.
I would have no objections to universal franchise but one of the suggestions that has come forward is totally cracked. One cannot have more votes outside the jurisdiction for election to a House of Parliament as are within the jurisdiction, which is possible if votes were to be given to the diaspora in the North, in Britain, in the US and everywhere else. It is not logistically possible anyway, let us be honest about it. Major reform would be required for the returning officer and for the staff required for the Seanad Office to handle all of that. I do not believe it is necessary, it is beyond necessity, for this State. When one elects one of the Houses of Parliament, and I firmly believe in having two Houses of Parliament, then the votes must be within the jurisdiction. Perhaps some other ideas can come forward to tidy this Bill, and I have no doubt Senator Wilson has them in mind. I commend him for the soundings he took regarding the Bill. This side of the House is very happy and it is totally in line with our own thinking that the councillors who are elected by the people should have a say at every stage whether it is a general election or a by-election. I will leave it at that.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is such a love-in, it is a great day to be here, I have never seen anything like it in my life. I commend Senator Wilson. He has done what very few people have been able to do; he has brought something that will bring a degree of reform to this House. It is one slight step forward but it is one that has to be commended.
There is no doubt there is a disconnect between the people and the Seanad. It is rare that one will see a member of the media in this House or a media report on what goes on in this House because there is no public demand to know. This is because people feel totally disconnected from the House. I was delighted to hear Senator Bacik say that one of the proposals brought forward by the Labour Party was to hold Seanad elections on the same day as Dáil elections. I hope that after the next election, the Labour Party has some little piece of the next Government where it can influence the Government. I have also called for nominations for the two Houses to close on the same day.
There are professional Senators here who give their life and soul to this House and work hard every day to drive this House forward. I compliment the Leader for the way he runs this House and I compliment Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin for the way they respond. We actually get on quite well in this House and the debates are usually of a very high standard. I admit that I have not been the easiest person to live with since I was elected but my colleagues in Fine Gael have been generous to me and to the Labour Party. They understand the difficulty I have in accepting some of the material that comes through the House. However, I would like an end to the Seanad being seen as a crèche for those who fail to get re-elected in a general election. That has to stop.
I have a problem with the way the House works. I will use my own nomination as an example of where there is a real need to do something. I was not really elected. I was given this seat by Fine Gael because one Fine Gael person tried to pull a stroke and it backfired. Ultimately the members of the Fine Gael Party elected me to this House and I thank them for that, but it should not have been like that. It should have been an election that was open to city and county councillors and Members of the Oireachtas. If that had happened there would be a very different Seanad indeed because party strengths and weaknesses vary within county councils.
This brings me on to the issue of parties. I was elected to an educational and cultural panel in this House. I am a member of that panel but I do not have speaking rights based on my panel membership. My speaking rights are based on the fact that I am, and I stress, an Independent - and I am the only Independent Senator on a vocational panel in this House. Dr. Maurice Manning, a former Senator of this House who also brought forward Seanad reform proposals, informed me that I am only the second such Senator in the history of the State, and the first ever such Senator to be elected in a by-election. There is something terribly wrong that this can happen.
This House divides along party lines; we have the Government and the Opposition, which was never envisaged for this Seanad. This House is supposed to be based on vocational panels with expertise from outside and expertise from inside, a mix of the political, the academic and the experts and is supposed to act like guiding fathers for the nation. The 1937 Seanad that former Taoiseach Éamon de Valera developed and wanted was comprised of vocational experts who could look at legislation and where the legislation was bad or flawed it was to be sent back for redrafting. I remember when Éamon de Valera died my father said it was a great day for Ireland so I do not know much about that.
However, what has happened to the Seanad? Large majority Governments have allowed legislators to become poor legislators. The people who draft legislation now think that any old thing at all will do because it will be driven through by way of the Whip. That is not right. We are not serving the people well. This House should serve as vocational panels.
I compliment the Senators who are here every day and I have nothing but scorn for those Senators who are not, and there are too many who are not. The Taoiseach's 11 nominations are a total and utter misuse of this House and it is sad that the reform cannot look at changing that situation. Of the people in this House today, none of them treats the House with disrespect or disdain and none treats it as though it was a part-time job. They are all here working hard. There may be disagreements but all the Senators here are working hard and I take my hat off to every one of the professionals here.
However, there are Senators who are using the House as a part-time position to sit in here, and who maybe get a front seat at some event or other because they were given the post of Senator. That is totally wrong. It is not a part-time job. I commend the Leader particularly because he has accepted amendments to Bills in this House. He has accepted Bills that have been developed or have been raised in this House by what we term the "Opposition". I would prefer to think the Bills had been brought in by members of vocational panels but that is a discussion for another day.
I am very impressed by this Bill. I will be bringing forward one additional amendment to seek the reduction in nomination signatories from nine down to four. When I needed nine people to sign my nomination form, before Fianna Fáil did me the favour of giving me the second nomination, it took me from July until September to get nine people to sign. Everybody I met said, "Yes, sure I will sign, who has signed already?" When I responded that no one had yet signed I was told to get back to them when someone had signed. That should not be the way to go about it. In the future, although not in this particular Bill, I would look for the right of councillors themselves to put forward a nominee. I would love to see this House work as vocational panels and not along party political lines. I think it could do a great job.
I commend Senator Wilson on bringing forward this Bill. He is a man who is very much in touch with local democracy which is reflected in the Bill. I also commend the Minister, the Government and the Leader of the House for accepting the validity of the Bill and for allowing it to progress to Second Stage. I am fairly liberal in most things and on most issues I tend to think outside the box, but I am deeply conservative on matters concerning parliamentary democracy. The fragility of democracy can be seen from history and from world experience. I have time for the Taoiseach, we were in college together for a couple of years and we were good friends before we came up here, but I think the biggest mistake he made in his political life was his attempt to abolish this House. The people were offered a free kick at the backsides of politicians. Most thought that people would not be able to resist that opportunity.
Whether it was the Dáil or the Seanad, it would not have mattered. I felt they were going to kick us out but they did not. They sat back and had a good look at it. There was not a very big turnout, I must admit, but a majority of those who did vote voted to retain this House, with all its flaws and failings. The more representative a democracy we have, the better it is.
Senator Norris has consistently decried the panel system as a kind of rotten borough. I vote on the educational panel as a graduate of UCD, and it is a very distant, remote type of election. People do not get to meet the candidates, there is no one-on-one and it is virtually a pamphlet election, with our letterboxes full of pamphlets from the various candidates. I want to stress we are very fortunate to have the calibre of people that the universities provide and elect to these Houses, not least the six who are here in the current Seanad and also the other great people who came into public life on that road, like Mary Robinson, Joe O'Toole and others who made a huge contribution in their time.
Mr. de Valera has been mentioned by one or two speakers. Whatever else about him, he was a superb tactician and a man who knew what it was to be elected. He has the greatest record of anyone in this country of winning elections, being in government and knowing how to do that. He looked at the Seanad at the time as something he had to fix because, naturally, any Taoiseach will want to make sure he has support in both Houses, as that is how democracy works.
It would be a farce if this was an open House and Government decisions could be overthrown. I do not see any alternative to the Whip system in a representative democracy. Despite a lot of airy-fairy talk about getting rid of Whips and getting rid of the confrontational democracy we have, this system has evolved in the United States and here not because it is perfect but because it is best practice. I honestly believe Mr. de Valera's idea of vocational panels was the best then and it is probably the best now. Senator Wilson wants to include county councillors in the franchise for by-elections, which is logical because, as they had a say in the original election, they should also have a say in the by-elections. It would also avoid the rather farcical situation that arose in that particular election - no disrespect to Senator Paul Coghlan - where the major Government party made a cock-up of it. Fair play, the Senator did well and he exploited that, and he is entitled to be here.
We must remember that county councillors are a very sophisticated electorate and they are themselves elected by the people. I do not know what the quota is in county council areas around the country but I know that for me to be a county councillor, I would need to get 2,500 votes to make a quota. Every councillor that votes is representing that number of people on average. As Senator Paul Coghlan said, they use that power very wisely and are very careful about it, and they use us, when we are elected, as a conduit to the corridors of power. We can serve them and help them, and enhance what they are able to do for themselves.
We have had a lot of talk about Seanad reform in the last five years. If I understood him correctly, Senator Cullinane said there will be no change in this coming election. I am not sure I will be here in five years' time, if I am re-elected this time, but if I had to bet, I would say it will be the same then because, despite all the reform ideas, there is nothing coming forward that is any better than the system we have.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House. I congratulate Senator Ned O'Sullivan on reaching a certain birthday today.
Seanad Éireann is a lovely place to celebrate a birthday. I compliment Senator Diarmuid Wilson on initiating this very good Bill, which has received a tremendous reaction from councillors who are absolutely delighted they are being recognised in this fashion, and rightly so. To do otherwise would seem totally illogical. It would be like excluding the electorate in a by-election where all the electorate have a say in the election of a candidate to fill a seat that is vacated. For example, it would exclude the very electorate that voted for Senator Jimmy Harte on the industrial and commercial panel and elected him to this House, where he served extremely well and was a very popular Senator until he resigned for health reasons - we wish him well. Senator Máiría Cahill has been elected in a proper, democratic way.
The purpose of the Bill is that this franchise would be extended to the 967 councillors throughout the country. I believe they would add to the campaign in that the candidates would have to put their case to the councillors, as well as to the Deputies and Senators. I commend Senator Wilson for initiating the Bill. I also compliment the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, who persuaded the Government to support the Bill on Second Stage. That is a very wise and fair decision, which is what I would expect from the Leader as he has been very progressive in this regard. He played a very decisive role in regard to the referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann, rightly so. I believe that proposal was an error. It was a political judgment at the time. It was, I suppose, politically advantageous to the Government and perhaps to Sinn Féin, which supported it, although they are now very keen to get into the Seanad and will probably have more Members after the next general election and Seanad election.
Having served in government, like the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, I have been in that seat on many occasions and brought numerous pieces of legislation through this House during my term. I had absolute respect for every Member of this House and I must say the contributions made here were far more incisive and constructive than those in the Dáil. The Members in the Dáil were too busy but the Senators took tremendous interest in the legislation. I believe the Minister of State would agree Ministers are put through their paces here and they have to be on the ball. The officials are very close by, compared to the Dáil, where the officials are not quite as close to the other Members of the House and, as they are also close to the Ministers, they have an opportunity for a quick chat in regard to the amendments being put forward.
I believe this is a very worthwhile innovation from Senator Wilson. This Seanad has been a very active and progressive one. That is a compliment to the Leader of the House, Senator Maurice Cummins, the leader on this side, Senator Darragh O'Brien, and all the Members, including the Independents, among whom Senator Craughwell has made a great contribution since joining. Even when listening to the debate between Members today on the environment and other issues, I thought it very worthwhile, and I compliment the Minister of State on accepting amendments to the Bill.
As far as reform is concerned, as one who worked in the Seanad as a Minister of State and brought legislation through the House, I never saw any great need to reform it. I think the House is a very tight ship, with 60 Members, and it has tremendous balance. I would make the point that the Taoiseach and the then Labour Party leader, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, after the last election selected a very broad church and a very independent group of 11 Members who, I believe, have made a major contribution to this House. It was very innovative on the Taoiseach's part that he filled those 11 seats in that way, although there is nothing wrong with nominated party members and there would have been a lot of disappointment in that regard. Nonetheless, it was felt there was a need to bring new blood into the House, and I believe that has proved successful. The Whip, Senator Paul Coghlan, may not appreciate it at times when he is dealing with such an independent group of people, because it makes his job of trying to keep a majority in the House that bit more difficult.
This is a good Bill and a step in the right direction. I want to wish all the outgoing candidates success, including myself.
Senator Norris has consistently decried the panel system as a kind of rotten borough and a fix
I am on the labour panel along with Senators Maurice Cummins and Ned O'Sullivan. We three were nominated by the professional associations. I wish all candidates and outgoing Senators every success in the Seanad election, as well as those Senators running for the Lower House in the general election on 11 March 2016.
There ends the party political broadcast.
I wish Senator Craughwell well, although he might be on my panel. We will live to fight another day.
At this stage, we should concentrate on the general election for the Lower House and then we can proceed with the election for the Upper House. It is the proper phasing of these elections. It is better to have the Lower House dealt with first, see its outcome and then proceed to fight for the nominations and election to the Upper House.
Next year will be extremely special. Senator Norris is the father of the House. A good father he is too to all of us.
I do not acknowledge all of my illegitimate children.
I certainly am not one of them.
Next year will be historic. It will be a great honour for Members - the Leader will organise it in 2016 - that we will have a special commemoration in this House in recognition of the sacrifices made in 1916.
I thank colleagues from both sides of the House for contributing to this Bill. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, for accepting it on behalf of the Government. I accept some technical amendments may be required before it can become law. It is important it becomes law as soon as possible as it is about democracy and correcting an anomaly. It will extend the franchise in Seanad by-elections to county councillors. The general consensus this evening was that this would be right.
I am disappointed, however, that Senator Cullinane cannot support this Bill. I know from talking to Sinn Féin councillors in Cavan and Monaghan that they are supportive of this legislation. I am sure they will be disappointed their representative in this House is not supportive of it and, accordingly, disenfranchising them as an electorate of this House.
The debate, generally, was constructive and I welcome the suggestions made by all colleagues. I thank the Leader, the Deputy Leader and the Government Whip for the work they put in to ensure this Bill would be accepted on Second Stage. As Senators elected by city and county councillors to the vocational panels, we appreciate the work they do at local level. They are the representatives of their communities and feed up from those communities to the 43 representatives they elect to this House. They have a voice at national level in this House. It would be a terrible pity if that were ever to be lost.
Seanad reform was referred to and there are several proposals in that regard from colleagues in this House and political parties, as well as Independent Members. That debate, however, is for another day.
This legislation affords us an opportunity to do what we can. Accepting this Bill is a significant indication to the general public that we are serious about Seanad reform.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan was slightly nervous speaking to this Bill. It was not because he was against it. It was because he noticed it will amend legislation from 1947, the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act. For every Kerry man, as Senator Paul Coghlan will know, 1947 strikes fear into them. As a Cavan man, I know it was a proud year in our football tradition. It was the only year the All-Ireland Football Final was played outside Dublin in America when Cavan defeated the mighty Kerry.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this Bill. Its provisions probably did not cause councillors much thought, as they have bigger difficulties to deal with such as pay and conditions and the changes of the so-called better local government initiative brought in by the Government. However, that work to ensure their pay and conditions are improved is continuing on an all-party basis.
As well as by the Independents.
I commend colleagues for continuing that fight. We will continue to push that issue. This is an important addition to that work. I thank the Leader, Deputy Leader and Government Whip for their assistance in ensuring this Bill has been accepted on Second Stage. I thank all colleagues for their support.
A Chathaoirligh, may I make one point?
The Minister of State has already made her contribution but I will allow her make a brief point.
I thank all Senators for their contributions. They were rational and calm, to use the words of Senator Bacik. The debate tonight was all about reform. We will not get any real reform in either this House or the Dáil until 50% of Members in both Houses are women.
I was wondering why the Minister of State was so anxious to speak.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.