Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ceisteanna (1, 2)

Mattie McGrath

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an assessment of the implementation of his Department's strategy statement 2011-2014 and in particular the strategic aims regarding reform of the political system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5037/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his views on Government progress on political reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10480/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (153 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The programme for Government outlined an ambitious agenda for political reform. While the Government’s main focus since coming to office has rightly been on job creation and economic recovery, we have also used our time in office to set about making some long overdue reforms to the political system. I propose to highlight a few of the key political reforms that have been introduced over the past three years.

We established the Convention on the Constitution to make recommendations for constitutional change. Despite scepticism from the Opposition and some commentators, the 100 members of the convention - 33 parliamentarians, 66 citizens selected at random and the independent chair, Mr. Tom Arnold - have silenced the critics. The convention has been a great success. The Government has committed to holding three referendums in 2015 arising from its recommendations.

Corporate donations have been restricted by legislation. The maximum amount that a political party or an individual can accept as a political donation has been limited. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has linked State supports to political parties to the gender balance in candidate selection at general elections. This is a positive step to encourage more women into politics.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is restoring the freedom of information legislation and reversing the damage done to that legislation by a previous Government in 2003. The Government has also extended the jurisdiction and powers of the Ombudsman.

The most radical reform of local government in over 100 years will see the dissolution of 80 town councils and the merger of six city or county councils in counties Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. This will significantly reduce the total number of councillors. Councillors will have a more important role in how local authorities are run. There will be much greater local authority involvement in economic and community development.

We are committed to a programme of Oireachtas reform, which is being introduced on a phased basis over the lifetime of this Government. No parliament is perfect. The process of parliamentary reform is always an ongoing one. The reforms introduced since this Government took office in March 2011 have improved the working of the Oireachtas and allowed Oireachtas committees to play a more active role in our Parliament. This is not the end of the process. Work has already started on the next phase.

The first phase of the Dáil reform programme was introduced in the summer of 2011. It provided for an additional Leaders' Questions session on Thursdays, taken by the Tánaiste. Topical Issues debates replaced the outmoded Adjournment debates. Friday sittings were introduced to allow Deputies to introduce their own Bills. Deputies can now appeal to the Ceann Comhairle if they are unhappy with the replies received to parliamentary questions. The Oireachtas committee system was restructured by reducing the number of committees from 25 to 16. Provision was made for a system of pre-legislative review. Further reforms to the Oireachtas committee system were introduced in the summer of 2012 to streamline its structure and place an additional focus on priority areas for economic recovery, such as jobs and agriculture.

The Government announced the second phase of the Dáil reform programme in September 2013. The Dáil debated and approved changes to Standing Orders the following month. These reforms provide for more public involvement in the law-making process and include a new pre-legislative stage for all non-emergency legislation. A Minister who does not bring a Bill to a committee for pre-legislative stage will be required to explain that decision to the Dáil. The pre-legislative stage will allow for an unprecedented and extensive engagement by the public in law-making. The relevant committee will be able to consult experts and civic society. Crucially, this will take place before the legislation is drafted. If there has been a pre-legislative stage, the Chairman, Vice Chairman or a member of the relevant committee will have a right equal to that of the Minister and the Opposition spokespersons to speak in the Dáil to outline the committee's work.

We have also introduced a new system for the drafting and enactment of legislation. We have reduced the number of legislation programmes to two per year. The Dáil sitting day is being lengthened to increase the time available to debate legislation. These steps are resulting in a reduction in the use of the guillotine. A new system of post-legislative review, whereby a Minister will report to the relevant Oireachtas committee within 12 months of the enactment of an Act to review it, is being introduced.

We have taken steps to improve debates on legislation. On First Stage, the proposer of a Private Members' Bill now has five minutes to outline the purpose of the Bill. As I have mentioned, during the Second Stage debate on a Bill, the Chairman or Vice Chairman of the committee which considered the Bill at pre-legislative stage will have a speaking slot to report to the Dáil on the committee's findings.

We have made changes to Friday sittings. The Dáil now sits every second Friday to debate Private Members' Bills and committee reports. This allows more Deputies to have their Bills debated in the Dáil and allows Oireachtas committee reports to be debated in the Dáil. Private Members' Bills and committee reports are selected using a lottery system. A Minister or Minister of State speaks during the debate to outline the Government’s response. As the House will be aware, Deputies have responded positively to these changes. Just 14 Private Members' Bills were published by Deputies in 2010, but this number had increased to 58 by last year. This Government has accepted more Bills from Opposition and Government Deputies than any of its predecessors. Two Bills from Opposition Deputies were accepted by the Government last week.

We have substantially changed the way the House conducts its business generally. The Government’s priorities for the year ahead are outlined to the Dáil on an annual basis. This has been happening over the past week. Under this new procedure, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste address the Dáil setting out the Government’s annual priorities, each Minister sets out his or her Department’s plans for the future and Deputies have an opportunity to debate the Government priorities for the year.

The role of Oireachtas committees in the budget process will also be expanded. The stability programme update is presented by the Government to the EU in April of each year. Committees can review this information and report before the budget in October. The budget and the spending Estimates will be published in October. Committees will scrutinise the budget proposals and the Estimates earlier than they did in the past.

The system of debating Topical Issues has also been improved. A Minister or a Minister of State from the relevant Department replies to each matter raised during Topical Issue debates. A Deputy can ask to have the matter deferred until a Minister from the relevant Department is available. It will be given priority at that stage.

Changes have also been made to Dáil questions. An ordinary oral question is now answered only if the Deputy tabling the question is in the Chamber when it is reached. The Deputy is given a brief period of 30 seconds to outline the question. An Opposition spokesperson can no longer nominate questions in the name of other Deputies. However, he or she can submit five ordinary questions on his or her own behalf.

The number of Dáil sitting days has been increased significantly by reducing the length of the Dáil recesses and introducing additional sitting days. The Dáil sat for 303 days during this Government’s first two and a half years in office. By comparison, the Dáil sat for 229 days during the first two and a half years in office of the previous Government, which was a coalition between Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats. This shows an increase of 74 sitting days, or 32.3%.

The Government's proposals for operational reform of the Seanad, which will be implemented in the life of this Seanad, have been submitted for discussion to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The proposals focus on the Seanad's legislative and vocational roles and acknowledge its role with regard to EU scrutiny. The proposals also suggest ways in which the Seanad can engage with the Government and work jointly with the Dáil through the Oireachtas committee system.

With regard to electoral reform of the Seanad, last month the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government published for consultation the general scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014, to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution on the election of Members of Seanad Éireann by higher education institutions in this State. The main features of the general scheme are the establishment of a single six-Member constituency to replace the current two university constituencies and an extension of the franchise to include graduates from third level educational institutions that have not formed part of the Seanad Éireann university constituencies before now. The franchise will apply to the holders of a major award validated by an awards body in the State and recognised through the national qualifications framework as being at least at ordinary bachelor degree level.

Other technical provisions for the organisation of elections include the creation of a register of electors, the appointment of a returning officer and the making of arrangements for taking the poll and counting the votes. Alternative arrangements are being made for the nomination of candidates to bring them into line with reforms made in other electoral codes. The new provisions for the filling of casual vacancies will be based on the replacement candidates list system that operates for European Parliament elections in Ireland.

Copies of the general scheme have been sent for consideration to the Seanad, which I understand will be discussing it this week. Copies of the general scheme have been also sent to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State. The general scheme has also been placed on the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government's website for public consultation and the deadline for receipt of written submissions is 11 April 2014.

I trust Deputies will agree this represents a substantial body of reform but, as I said at the outset, the process is ongoing and more reforms are contemplated over the lifetime of the Government.

I thank the Minister of State for a very underwhelming reply to my question. I do not at all accept that what he has put before us is a radical series of Dáil reform or Oireachtas reform measures. The programme for Government stated that the people demanded change and looked to parties that would deliver the change they sought. The people are very disappointed at the lack of any radical change to how we do politics in this country and in particular changes to how the Oireachtas does its business. Fundamentally, people thought the Parliament would be freed from the stranglehold of the Executive, the Government of the day, but the opposite has been the case. The Government, through its huge majority in the Dáil, has made this Dáil a creature of the Cabinet to a degree we have not previously experienced.

The greatest example of that has been the frequent use of the guillotine on sensitive and controversial Bills to spare the blushes of Government backbenchers and particularly Labour Party backbenchers. This has applied to very significant issues such as the property tax on two occasions. More than 12 months ago, all Stages of the legislation underpinning the property tax were rushed through this House in a matter of about three hours to prevent debate. The same has applied to successive social welfare Bills. There was no debate on controversial issues such as child benefit and the Bills were just rammed through the House.

Time and time again the Government orders the schedule of the House, decides what gets debated and for how long. The Minister of State talked about Friday sittings which are a sham. He should not present that as radical reform. People can certainly produce Bills - the Opposition has been very productive in the publication of Bills. However, the Government is not accepting Bills. It occasionally allows them to pass Second Stage and then buries them. It took years to get Senator Quinn's subcontractor's Bill passed.

There was the wonderful proposal to abolish the Seanad, if the Deputy remembers.

I was coming to that.

The Government accepted our Bill on the IBRC mortgage book being sold on because it felt it would be too unpopular to oppose it, but it will not do anything about it, particularly in advance of the sale of the mortgage book. We will not see the Committee Stage of that Bill for some time. That is the strategy. Friday sittings should be full-day sittings, involving Leaders' Questions and ministerial questions - normal business should be done. People would respect the Government more if that were the case, but of course it is not the case.

Of course Government Deputies dominate the Chairs of the committees. The Government has reduced the number of committees which has meant less accountability in many areas. It has put too many Departments together under the auspices of one committee and many issues are not getting addressed. The Government has undermined the plenary session of the House. Deputies need an opportunity to contribute in plenary session on many issues.

The Minister of State mentioned local government reform. The Government has not reformed local government. It has not delegated any increased or enhanced powers to local government. It has abolished town councils, which is a regrettable step. I value democracy. I was in a school yesterday, encouraging young people to become interested in democracy and politics. What kind of message are we sending to people when we abolish the very councils that are basically a manifestation of people who want to help to advance the cause of their local towns? It was just done for optics so that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, can go around the country saying we have got rid of hundreds of councillors. It is an appallingly cynical act that cannot in any shape or form be regarded as radical reform of local government. There has been no radical reform of local government.

The Government introduced a property tax and decided not to give the proceeds of that property tax to the local authorities. The Government informed citizens that €500 million would go to local authorities, but then it pulled it back to the centre and left them without it.

The Minister of State mentioned the Seanad and again the Government has not grasped the nettle of Seanad reform. The fundamental reforming issue within the Government's gift is to provide for direct franchise to allow the citizens to elect their Senators. It can do that; every Opposition party is in favour of it. We have put it up to the Government to do that and it continues to refuse to do so. It talks about a CPP of the Seanad - that will not bring about radical reform to the Seanad. Legislation within the parameters of the Constitution to allow for direct franchise would bring about radical reform of the Seanad, but the Government will not go near it - or will it? Can the Minister of State confirm that the Government has no intention of doing that?

In his long reply the Minister of State mentioned the Freedom of Information Act. There is no radical change to freedom of information. The Government's intentions were exposed on Irish Water. I recently saw the revelations under freedom of information which showed that the Government had decided not to include Irish Water. It basically had been pressurised by Bord Gáis Éireann and Irish Water that whatever it might do it must not put Irish Water within the ambit of the Act. Shame faced it was forced to do a U-turn when revelations about the €180 million spent on Irish Water emerged. All of a sudden it decided it would be a very good idea to put Irish Water under the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act.

There is a complete lack of sincerity in what the Minister of State has said about the Freedom of Information Act and whistleblowing in general. Why has the Government issued a contract to general practitioners gagging them and preventing them from advocating on health matters? The contract for free GP care for children under six prevents GPs from making any statement critical of the HSE. That is anti-democratic and runs counter to any idea of a democratic revolution. Its purpose is to silence people who might speak out on health issues thereby embarrassing the Government of the day and in particular the present Government on health issues. That is what is happening in the real world.

When people hear the Government talking about radical political reform, they wonder in amazement given the reality of what they are experiencing on the ground. Does the Minister of State accept that the Government's programme of reform has been a huge disappointment to the citizens who feel they were promised one thing and got something entirely different?

I understand it is Deputy Martin's job to be disappointed - as Opposition leader he cannot be happy. If the Deputy had the same appetite for reform when he was in government, we would be a great country because we would take that reform even further. It is unfortunate he did not have the same appetite for the 15 or 16 years he was there.

We actually did it.

I checked back on the Cabinet minutes and I saw no discussion about Dáil reform or anything like that.

When the Deputy talks about guillotines-----

How many minutes has the Minister of State read?

A Cheann Comhairle, I did not interrupt the Deputy once even though I felt like interrupting.

That is a huge revelation that he has checked all the minutes.

Deputy, please.

The Deputy spoke about the guillotining of property tax legislation. His Government committed to it and we had a timeline to introduce property tax legislation which is why it was guillotined. I have been a Member of this House since 2002 and in that time we have not had a full debate on a social welfare Bill; it always has been guillotined. It was the same guillotine the Government, of which Deputy Martin was a member, applied when it cut the blind pension. It did not allow a debate on that when I was in opposition. It is not appropriate for him to come in here and start lecturing about what he is doing.

It frustrates me to have to use the guillotine, but I am happy we have not used it in this session so far.

We used it on three occasions between September and December in the previous session. This Government is committed to reducing the use of the guillotine. Parliaments will always need to have a mechanism to introduce, debate and conclude legislation, but I want to make the use of the guillotine the exception. There is not a parliament in the world that does not have to guillotine emergency legislation or other legislation, but I want to make guillotining the debate on Bills the exception. It is frustrating for both Opposition and Government Deputies that they are not able to participate in some debates on legislation but I want to make it the exception that Bills are guillotined. I hope the Deputy will understand that we had a timeline in terms of the troika commitments and that we had to bring in legislation on which the guillotine was used, but I want to make that the exception in the future. The Deputy was a Minister for a long time and he will understand the reason the guillotine has to be used. It has been used in this Parliament for decades but I want to reverse that and introduce a better system. That is the reason we have increased the number of Dáil sitting days and increased the sitting hours on a daily basis to ensure more time is given to legislative debate. We have a more streamlined legislative programme than the one previously in that we now have two schedules instead of three covering the session from January to the summer recess at the end of July and the session from September to December. I believe that will streamline legislation and curtail guillotines but I do not want to have any guillotines used in the House.

The Deputy referred to the Government setting the agenda for the week. The Government has to set the agenda but it is an open and transparent system where the Whips meet once a week and, as Government Whip, I present a schedule for the week. I accept that changes are made on occasions but the Government must get through its business and legislation, whatever that may be, but I am always open to debate on it and to alternative arrangements. That has always been my position, and I have never put down anyone for offering an alternative to that. The Opposition Members will not get their way all the time but I would like the business to be agreed before it comes to the House the following week. I understand the point. I was in opposition long enough. It is up to the Opposition Members to oppose the Government taking business on some occasions. That is their job, and I understand that. I will not say the Members opposite should not do that.

On the issue of Friday sittings, if Friday sittings were not as successful as they are, there would not be the number of Private Members' Bills being submitted on a weekly basis by both Opposition and Government Deputies. It is a great opportunity for Deputies to bring forward Private Members' Bills, regardless of the issue. It is a Member's right. They are elected to this Parliament to bring forward Private Members' Bills. We have never had that opportunity previously.

We have always had it.

They could place it on the Order Paper where it would be left, but to have it debated in the Chamber every second Friday is a great opportunity for Deputies. In the past, if a back bench Deputy wanted to bring forward a Private Members' Bill, he or she could place it on the Order Paper where it remained for years and they never had an opportunity to debate it. The Opposition parties, be it Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or whatever party was in opposition at the time, would bring forward their own Private Members' Bills in Private Members' time on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. That is the way it was done. They would decide the previous week whatever the burning issue of the week was and debate it in their Private Members' time the following week. It is incorrect to say that Friday sittings are not a success.

Regarding the changes in the committee system and reducing the number of committees, committees are far busier and are working better now than they were previously. Their workload has increased no end. Members are busy on committees now and they have issues to debate in committees.

The Seanad is a priority for this Government. We brought forward draft legislation which has gone to the committee and to the Seanad for consideration, and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will bring it before the House very soon. It is part of the legislative process to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18.4.2°. It is the general scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014. We are the first Government since 1979 to bring forward an amendment to Article 18.4.2°. No other Government has bothered to bring such legislation forward. We are doing that to extend voting rights in Seanad elections to graduates of third level institutions.

I listened with interest to the exchanges. As one who has spent some time as Opposition Chief Whip and assistant Whip and who attended Whips meetings in Government and afterwards, there appears to be a conflict as to where the House should go now. Consideration might be given to the fact that there are quite a number of Government backbenchers who do not get the same airing in the current structure, nor is it intended that they should. The former Minister sitting opposite will recall full well the way the system ran in a previous era, but the conflict arises from the fact that with all the pre-legislative scrutiny, there appears to be a belief that the Opposition should formulate the legislation and that the Government should agree to it. That is not the way it works. It never worked that way, nor should it be presumed. The very reference to the Government having a huge majority, implying that in some way the democratic process is not being observed, is incorrect.

The Ceann Comhairle has been a Member a long time, as have some of the rest of us, and I recall sitting on the opposite side of the House on numerous occasions having parliamentary question after parliamentary question refused on spurious grounds and being ejected from the House for my protests. I reject entirely the suggestion that democracy has in some way been watered down and that people do not have an opportunity to debate issues.

It is recognised in parliaments worldwide that government proposes legislation and parliament debates it. We have lost sight of that in recent times. Parliament's job is to debate. When a proposal comes before parliament, that is the job parliamentarians have to do. There are various levels at which they can carry it out but I remember allegations being made about guillotines. In times not long past the guillotine was applied on a regular basis in this House by some of the people who are now complaining about its use-----

We are on Question Time now.

-----to such an extent that on one occasion I had to refer to the person who invented the guillotine. I will not go into that today. If it is recognised that the job of parliament is to debate and that it is the job of government to propose, in any reform that takes place recognition must be given to both.

Nobody is restricting the Government backbenchers. I welcome some of the Minister's changes in terms of Dáil reform and the way the Houses of the Oireachtas are working but Government backbenchers now have as much of a role in the pre-legislative stage, for example, as anybody else.

They can attend committees, like every other Member of the House, they can publish legislation and have it debated on a par with myself, an Opposition spokesperson, and they can put oral questions. In fact, they probably have a greater chance of getting their oral questions selected than any Deputy other than a spokesperson-----

Yes, they do. I would encourage the Minister of State to correct the interpretation Deputy Durkan has taken.

The Minister of State mentioned guillotines. I would encourage him to list the Bills that were guillotined in the last session, one of which was the Social Welfare Bill. Regretfully, that Bill was guillotined by the Government for no reason to do with a lack of time in this House or lack of Government time. The Minister of State might inform the Dáil of the real reason the Social Welfare Bill was guillotined in the last session, which was because the Government was afraid of the lack of a Seanad majority.

In regard to the topic under discussion, what are the specific proposals we will see forthcoming on Dáil reform and political reform? There have been a number of Dáil reform meetings and some technical changes have been suggested, as well as some major changes. Perhaps the Houses of the Oireachtas and all Members would be interested in that. Has consideration been given to changing the make-up of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to ensure all political groupings in the Houses are represented on the body that takes key decisions on the running and the expenditure of the Houses? I have put forward other proposals at Dáil reform meetings and, while I am not asking the Minister of State to say yes or no immediately, all of the Whips and all of the parties have published suggestions for legislative change, Dáil reform and political reform. Hopefully, these questions will stimulate that debate once again.

With regard to the Constitutional Convention, when is it intended to have the debates on the most recent reports? I believe the fourth report is to be debated at some stage this month. If that does not happen, we will be running contrary to the remit that each convention's report had to be debated within four months of the Dáil receiving it. I know that report was received in November so there is a need for that debate.

Are there plans for political reform in regard to the local authorities? The Government has already made major changes, mostly to the detriment of democracy, in terms of reducing the powers of local authorities and adding quangos to the list of existing quangos. Is it intended at some stage to give some of the power back to local authorities or will more and more power be centralised, not in the Houses of the Oireachtas but in the Executive, given these groups are answerable only to the Minister and are not answerable to this House?

Is there any intention to allow Deputies to put written parliamentary questions during periods of recess to ensure the Executive is still answerable to both Opposition and back bench Deputies? We need to continue the work of scrutinising legislation and ensuring the Executive is answerable to the Dáil even when the Dáil is not formally sitting, for example when it is adjourned during the summer months.

There are a number of other issues. I hope the Minister of State will be able to outline some of the timetable of the political reform and Dáil reform that was intended when the Government took office, not all of which I agree with, but some of which I have already welcomed.

In the context of the questions raised, I am a newcomer to the Dáil and I am very honoured and privileged to serve the people - the whole people - of this country. However, I was shocked last year when, for example, in the Seanad and Dáil debates on the proposed abolition of the Seanad, a weird situation seemed to arise where the debates were not meaningful but were meaningless because a party whip was imposed on all Members of Government parties that they had to vote in a certain way. That is meaningless in a Parliament - it is illogical.

The Minister of State's own party is one that signed up the European People's Party's document of principles of two years ago, the title of which escapes me. Article 155 of that document has the meaning that, as a member and a signatory to the document, Fine Gael purports to uphold the principle of conscientious objection. It is a fundamental democratic principle that has been jettisoned. It is weird. I would like an answer to that question. The leadership of parties should not ever have iron fist control, down to blind obedience, over their members. That is unparliamentary, it is undemocratic and it is not right. This has to be examined because, otherwise, we are living in an unreality bubble where, if the numbers say so, the Government has complete control until the next election. That is wrong. Even in the most liberal countries, the principle of conscientious objection is upheld, but not in this Parliament.

I will start with the last question first. Deputy Mathews sat in the same room as me in April 2011 and supported the programme for Government, which included the referendum to abolish the Seanad. I have a fairly good memory. I do not remember him standing up at that meeting to object to it, although I know hindsight is a great thing.

When you are the new boy in the class, you do not object.

With regard to the leadership of parties, the iron fist, democracy and everything like that, maybe now that you are in a new party, you might be able to-----

I am a Member of this Dáil, like you.

Members should speak through the Chair, please.

In his membership of a new party, Deputy Mathews might be able to steer the leadership of that party into a less, as he puts it, iron-fisted approach.

How dare the Minister of State say that.

He has an opportunity to do that now he is in a new party. I look forward to that.

I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for welcoming some of the changes. I also thank him for his participation in the process. It was a joint approach by all involved, and some of his proposals were taken on board, as were the views of other Members. I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for the extensive submission on Dáil reform made very early on in the process by the Sinn Féin Party.

Deputy Durkan took exception to one point made by Deputy Ó Snodaigh. I have spoken to Deputy Durkan on this issue. The position is that Opposition spokespersons dealing with a specific Department are allowed to ask five oral questions whereas a Government backbencher is curtailed to asking two. This was one part of the reforms. I was in opposition for long enough and I believe we have to give status and some sort of recognition to Opposition spokespersons, who put a huge amount of work into each area, whether it be jobs, agriculture, social welfare or otherwise. I am a believer in recognising the role of Opposition spokespersons in trying to hold the Executive or the Minister to account.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked about specific proposals for the future.

A committee week is one specific proposal at which I am looking and about which I have spoken to the Taoiseach. It is something to which I would have been totally opposed a while back but I am gradually coming to favour it. I have looked at other parliaments that have a specific committee week once every five or six weeks. This works extremely well. If one looks at the pressures and workload of all committees, and Deputy Martin spoke about them, one can see that there is a huge amount of pressure on committee members. They are not racing from one committee to another but their workload has increased and almost doubled from what it was in the previous Dáil. We must look at committees, how they work, the membership and their workload and how if there is a committee week, a committee could use the Dáil Chamber during Committee Stage of a Bill or something like that. They would be not bringing guest speakers into the Dáil but they could use it for specific areas of work. I would like to see a committee week introduced and it is something I will bring forward.

Two Social Welfare Bills and the Irish Water Bill were guillotined between September and December 2013. I may be corrected on that but I am almost certain that they are the three Bills that were guillotined. Since 2002, I have never seen a Social Welfare Bill being fully debated. It has always been guillotined.

That is not true.

It is true. The Deputy should check the record. I was Opposition Chief Whip since 2004 and I can assure the Deputy that I have looked back at the record. Every Social Welfare Bill since I came into this House in 2002 has been guillotined.

We spoke about the Constitutional Convention and the debates coming up. We are making time available. The convention reported back to the Minister who will bring a memorandum to Cabinet shortly. As soon as the memorandum is brought to Cabinet, we will have those outstanding debates in the Dáil. The convention was extremely important and worked very well. I would have liked to have seen the topics discussed at the convention given more time in the Dáil. Some of them were very important. Due to time pressures relating to troika commitments in the past two and a half years, they did not get the debate that I felt they deserved. When one sees 66 members of the public giving their time on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays, they were interested enough in coming together with Deputies. This is something about which I was very sceptical when it originated. I wondered whether Deputies would stay out of their constituencies once a month on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. In fairness, they did so. There was a huge turnout of Deputies, Senators and parliamentarians in general from North and South. I welcomed that and I thank both the Opposition and Government Deputies for their commitment to the Constitutional Convention for the past two years because it worked extremely well. I believe this Government and future Governments can look at it. It was a good way of debating our Constitution. Some real and controversial issues were brought forward in a completely different manner from that used in the past. It was good to see that working. I assure the House that I will give the outstanding issues that must be debated plenty of time in the Dáil.

The Deputy mentioned parliamentary questions being answered in the summer. This has been an issue since I entered the House. I do not think it is as much of an issue as it used to be. When I first entered the House, we finished up in late June and came back on the last Wednesday in September, so one was off for almost three months. We are now off for six weeks. We finish the last week in July, have four weeks off in August and are back here in the second week in September. I understand that Ministers want to see replies to parliamentary questions going through their Departments. When a parliamentary question is replied to, the Minister would like to see it. Everyone understands they are away for August. We would like to see it but that is the way it is. If Ministers are on holidays, they are on holidays and that is the way it is. I would like the Deputy to accept that and understand where I am coming from when I say that.

The Minister of State said at the beginning of his reply to my question that he read the minutes of previous Cabinet meetings and that he saw no evidence of any reform initiatives. Would he accept that he would have been in breach of Cabinet confidentiality if he read the minutes of Cabinet meetings of previous Cabinets? I am very surprised to hear him say that because-----

I did not look at the minutes but at the agenda topics.

He said the minutes.

I withdraw what I said regarding the minutes. They were the topics on the agenda.

As a Government Minister, I never had, nor did I seek, nor was I ever informed that I would have, access to either the agendas or the minutes of Governments that went before me or before the Governments in which I served. I found it extraordinary that the Minister of State made that assertion that he read previous Cabinet minutes. That is what he said. He said he had read the minutes of previous Cabinets.

I withdraw what I said. I said the topics on the agenda.

I would suggest that even this is in breach of Cabinet confidentiality. There is a constitutional framework-----

Can we get on with the supplementary question?

I think it is a very serious issue. There is a constitutional framework-----

It is some very serious issue-----

I put it to the Minister of State that there is a constitutional framework which governs access to Cabinet papers. From my understanding, nobody has the right or entitlement under the law to access the Cabinet meetings, be they the agenda or minutes, of previous Governments unless it is within the law. In others, it is a 12 year or 30 year rule. Has the Minister of State been poring over these agendas?

Maybe if the Deputy had looked at them seriously-----

I did not think I was entitled to look at them.

The Deputy has made his point. Could he put a supplementary question?

The Minister of State needs to clarify urgently in a statement what access he had to the Cabinet meetings of previous Governments.

I put it to him that, of course, there has been rolling Dáil reform. It includes the ending of the dual mandate between local government and the Dáil. The bringing in of Leaders' Questions was an initiative of a previous Government. Initiatives like the establishment of the Standards in Public Office Commission constituted political reform around the financing of politics and the changes to donations and the thresholds around it, so the assertion that nothing happened in terms of political reform is completely wrong and untrue.

During the general election, every political party said there would be very radical change in how Parliament operates, but the people have been disappointed in terms of what they were promised and the commitments that were made to them. I put it to the Minister of State that what would constitute radical reform would be permitting the appointment of Ministers who are not necessarily Members of the Oireachtas so that people with particular expertise in certain policy areas could be invited to serve in the Cabinet by a future Taoiseach. One can do that already. One could change the law to allow Ministers of State to be invited in from external sectors. That is the kind of issue we should be debating in terms of re-connecting with the public's wish for reform of how we do our work. We are unique as a Legislature in that we insist that a person must be a Member of the Oireachtas to be a member of Cabinet, a Minister. That is something the Government could change. I am not talking about any individuals but the office of An Ceann Comhairle in future Parliaments could be elected by secret ballot. The idea would be to generate a separate corporate identity for the Parliament vis-à-vis the Government of the day because we need more oversight.

I am sure the Deputy is not suggesting that I am subject to the influence of Government.

There is no need to say it then. The Deputy is implying that I may in some way be subject to influence. I was elected by this Assembly. It was a motion before the House.

With all due respect, I did not mention the Ceann Comhairle at all. This is something that has been floating in the public domain for about ten years.

Incorrectly floating in the public sphere. People who want to get their hands on power are responsible for many of these suggestions.

I am just clarifying-----

The Ceann Comhairle should not have clarified it. He is too touchy.

-----the position that I am not influenced by the Government. Please proceed.

Fine. I accept that. An argument has been put forward in the public domain to which I now subscribe and have included in my party's policy, which we submitted to the Government, to the effect that, in future, it would be good for the Parliament if it elected the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. People might disagree with that view, but it is a legitimate suggestion for parliamentary reform. That is the context in which I made the suggestion. It is the concept of who guards the guards. I do not mean the Garda, but oversight by the regulators. There is no strong parliamentary oversight committee in this House. The only aspect of financial regulation that has changed has been the personalities. In terms of how regulators behave, the fundamental structure and relationship between Parliament and regulation has not changed at all. This principle has not been addressed in the context of political reform.

As to the idea of the Parliament having its own identity and challenging the Executive of the day, regardless of who comprises the Executive, people want this kind of fundamental change, not the changes that this Government only makes for the optics. The Minister of State's feeble attempt to put down Deputy Mathews illustrates my point. It is not a question of whether the Deputy belongs to a new technical group. That is not the point he was making. It is wrong that Governments should decide that people cannot sit on committees because they objected to Government proposals of the day. A Government backbencher can be expelled from a party if that is the Government's wish, but he or she might have been serving well on a health or finance committee for two years. Just because he or she has had one disagreement with the Government on an issue, this Government decides to remove the person from a committee.

Conscientious objection.

There is no doubt about it. I am nearly ready to burst into tears.

Deputies, please. We have given this particular question a lot of time.

A democratic revolution was promised, but the Government's behaviour in the past three years has not matched that. If one does not accept the diktat of Government, one does not serve as a parliamentarian in any real shape or form.

That is the reality.

This is the message that the Government has given time and again to anyone who stands out from the herd. If we really want to change politics, this must change.

Did the Deputy espouse that when he was in government?

To clarify, it was a conscientious objection. It was not just a-----

Will Deputy Martin please speak through the Chair? This is Question Time. We are not making statements.

Through the Chair, I want to make the point that I never pursued the guillotine in respect of any legislation that I tabled. I was in the Departments of education, health and enterprise.

The Deputy never pursued anything.

I am sorry, but I did not pursue the guillotine. In fact-----

We are not making statements. Will the Deputy put a question, please?

I can say that now-----

-----and ask anyone to challenge it. I always got the agreement of Opposition spokespersons, I engaged in the Parliament with them-----

The Deputy guillotined things.

-----and I was known for accepting amendments from the Opposition to a range of Bills.

The only reason the Social Welfare Bill was guillotined under this Government was the fact that there were too many draconian cuts and broken promises on, for example, child benefit.

The Deputy will appreciate that this is Question Time, not statements.

That is why it was guillotined.

The Deputy is the one who famously started it.

Would Deputy Durkan please stay quiet?

I am sorry, but there is only so much of this nonsense to which I can listen.

Then leave the Chamber.

I am thinking of doing that.

Regarding the Order Paper and so on, the Minister of State claims that the Government must propose to change them. Consider what happened last week.

Will the Deputy put his questions, please? This is Question Time, not statements.

I am putting the question. Consider what happened last week. In fairness, the Minister of State was never a great fan of the North Korean way of doing things. Maybe the Tánaiste was in his student days. Last week was extraordinary. Everyone was invited to sing the praises of our dear leader. We all had to genuflect and say, "How great thou art".

Is that the Deputy's question?

Not only that, but we will do it again this week.

What is the Deputy's question?

It was meant to be about Government priorities, but what did we find out about those? We cannot be told about water charges until after the elections. We cannot be told about universal health insurance until after the elections. We cannot be told about HSE funding of universities until after the elections. That report is buried.

The Deputy is all wrong.

The report on sustaining small schools has been buried. We cannot hear about it either until after the local elections. The democratic revolution has not happened. Will the Minister of State embrace the kind of change that the Government promised before the election, one that would radically reform how politics works in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann? He did not answer my question on the direct franchise. The Government can decide, and would receive the Opposition's support, to change the law to allow the people to elect Senators. Will the Minister of State confirm whether the Government is prepared to proceed with that legislation before the next general election? It would be a major fillip to the concept of reform if we allowed citizens to elect people to the Upper House.

I was actually reading the minutes I took on Dáil reform since becoming a Whip in 2002. I apologise to the Deputy.

Never judge a book by its cover.

I am glad that I did not have a-----

The Minister of State said, "Cabinet".

I am delighted-----

The Minister of State said, "Cabinet".

Yes. It went to the Cabinet.

The Minister of State is correcting the record.

I was on the Cabinet's-----

He is not correcting the record.

I am correcting the record.

He stated that he had read the minutes of Cabinet meetings and saw nothing-----

He stated that he was correcting the record.

-----in those minutes that suggested any Dáil reform.

Had I read them, and as Deputy Martin stated, the only reforms that his Government-----

Would I be right in saying that the Deputy sat on the Cabinet from June 1997 until 2011?

The Minister of State read the minutes, obviously.

Whip on the ropes.

The only reforms that his Government introduced were Leaders' Questions and the abolition of the dual mandate.

No, we did an awful lot more than that.

The Deputy mentioned these himself.

And what has the current Government done?

The only two issues Deputy Martin mentioned were-----

The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO.

I have been watching, a Cheann Comhairle.

In respect of Dáil reform, Leaders' Questions and the dual mandate were the only changes that were made between June 1997 and February 2011.

Not true. I did not say that at all.

Will Members conclude, please? I want to finish.

We have spent 56 minutes on one question.

I will outline some of the changes-----

Is the Minister of State going to revert to the minutes?

-----that we have introduced, just to remind the Deputy.

He is a Whip on the ropes.

Additional Leaders' Questions on Thursday, the replacement of the outmoded Adjournment debates by Topical Issue debates, Friday sittings, allowing Deputies to approach the Ceann Comhairle if they are not satisfied with replies to parliamentary questions and restructuring Oireachtas committees from 25 to 16. It used to be a case of jobs for the boys and €10,000 per year under the former Government.

This Government controls the committees. Bar two, every one of them is chaired by Government Members.

Those are some jobs for the boys.

We have provided a pre-legislative system and introduced the examination of economic recovery by Oireachtas committees. Last September saw the introduction of the pre-legislative phase at committee level, there was First Stage of-----

The property tax was subject to it.

The Deputy's Government signed up to the property tax.

-----Private Members' Bills and an array of other changes that we have introduced in only two and a half years. Deputy Martin sat at the Cabinet table from June 1997 until March 2011, yet the only changes that Government made were the introduction of Leaders' Questions and the abolition of the dual mandate. I am not surprised that he is sitting silently in the Chair.

I am not in the Chair.

I welcome the Deputy's admission of his Government's lack of Dáil reform in those years.

The Deputy also mentioned water charges. He is trying to twist matters, but people will know well in advance of the local and European elections what they will be charged for water. The Taoiseach has stated this in the Chamber numerous times.

The Deputy has lost his memory. He had it for many years while in government, but now that he is in opposition, he wants to do everything that he claims he would have loved to have done in government, even though he had been there for 14 years.

The Taoiseach stated that he was against water charges while in opposition.

It is amazing that someone would lecture the House on Dáil reform after admitting that the former Government only introduced two changes, one of which was Leaders' Questions. In fairness, the late Mr. Séamus Brennan is the man who introduced Leaders' Questions. He was instrumental.

Yes. He was the then Chief Whip.

I admired him for doing so.

He was a good Chief Whip.

He finished as Whip-----

Is the Minister of State claiming that Séamus Brennan did nothing?

-----in 2001 or 2002. No changes were made from 2002 onwards. It is amazing, but I will rest my case that Deputy Martin has done-----

Has the 1997-2001 period been revisited?

Deputy Martin was spectacular in his silence.

-----very little in the past 16 years, including when he was sitting at the Cabinet table and had a great opportunity to do so.

I have not addressed Deputy Durkan's comments.

The Minister of State could be excused for that.

He referred to pre-legislation, scrutiny and so on.

It is increasing the workload of committees. The Deputy referred to the guillotine, which I am addressing. Only three Bills were guillotined in the session from September to December 2013. There is room for improvement but no Bill has been guillotined since January this year. It is important not to have guillotines in order to give every Member an opportunity to debate legislation.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.