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.