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My exchange on Dáil Reform with An Taoiseach during Topical Issues Debate – Tuesday 8th October

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for allowing us to raise this topic. I welcome the Taoiseach to the Chamber. That this might be the first Topical Issue he has taken, it shows how much respect he has for this topic.

I wish to highlight two matters, the first of which is Friday sittings. As I have often stated, Friday sittings are just time-consuming efforts. We do not have a vote and we normally only debate one Bill. Proposals have been made to provide for additional Bills to be tabled on Fridays, but it is difficult for a backbencher to get a Bill on which he or she has worked onto the Order Paper. A number of the Bills on the Order Paper, particularly on Tuesdays, have been outstanding since the Dáil’s first sitting in 2011. This issue must be tackled. Just as Private Members’ business can be used to debate Bills, perhaps we can move back bench Bills from Friday and discuss them in a private Bills session, allowing us to vote at that time. I hope that some consideration will be given to this suggestion.

I wish the reform of the committee structure to continue. It is important that civil society be involved in the initiation of legislation. We saw the success of that process during the abortion Bill. It would give civil society every opportunity to introduce new and different ideas before Bills are published and allow consensus to be reached instead of the Houses debating Bills on Second Stage, by which time Ministers might not be willing to accept backbenchers’ ideas.

The Taoiseach: I thank all Deputies for the points they raised. This is always about time and the capacity for everybody to have an opportunity to say their piece in respect of Dáil reform. Over the years, I have seen situations where Ministers came in to answer questions. The Minister for Agriculture might be in possession for six months before anybody else because the questions just kept rolling through. Thus, a Minister might answer from September or October right through until March. We have made a lot of changes and there have also been some good suggestions, some of which are already under way. I want Deputies to understand that I am serious about this matter. What we introduce for this session and the next is not permanent. We would like to have a situation whereby we try things and see how they can work in the best interests of all Deputies. When we do make changes they are, of necessity, to be tried and we will continue with those that work best. That is why we have Leaders’ Questions on Thursdays, which the Tánaiste takes. Topical Issues have replaced the outdated and outmoded Adjournment Debate. Friday sittings are for Deputies to introduce their own Bills, and we have never had that before, except in Private Members’ time. It is a good innovation.

I am open to the question Deputy Lawlor raised about Friday sittings. Who attends and do we have real debates on Committee Stage of Bills? We could always put the votes off until Tuesday if necessary. There is always a problem with Deputies from around the country who are not able to attend the House on Fridays. It is an issue that has always been raised by them.

I assure Deputies concerning the restructuring of the Oireachtas committees that we want to continue with the pre-legislative review. The engagement with civic society is important, as was evidenced in a number of Bills recently. As regards Deputy Kyne’s point, that will not be watered down. It will require the engagement of Ministers with Opposition spokespersons. Committee chairmen will ask how many hearings are needed and how long they will last. They are not dictated to by government. The chairman and other members of the committee will decide what organisations and individuals to call to provide experience whatever the case might be. Some Bills are short, comprising a few lines of amendment, so they may not require any hearings at all. By contrast, the Companies Bill had 1,800 sections and was five years in gestation. That was a very different matter. Bills, therefore, can range from being simple to complex. That system of scrutiny will not be watered down. Committee chairs will have a role in engaging with civic society.

We also want to move on so that committees can examine the stability programme update in respect of the budget. When the forthcoming budget is over, I expect the committees will engage with Ministers on departmental Votes and Estimates, as well as what their spending priorities are and how effective that expenditure will be. Hopefully, this will all be televised and streamed live so that the public is fully engaged on what is being spent on their behalf by different Departments.

I would like to think that we can arrive at a situation whereby chairmen and Opposition spokespersons can work with Ministers on Bills. Unless it is emergency legislation, it should not be rushed. I wish to allow for proper debate here but I do not want people to play games and seek extra time just for the sake of it. It must be recognised that this is the Dáil and it is the Opposition’s duty to hold the Government to account. We must provide people with the facilities to do that.

We had committee weeks before and they did not work. We may look at that again. We devoted a week to particular committees in the Chamber as distinct from being in committee rooms. People said they liked it but it did not work.

Deputies have raised valid points. Some people mentioned the Whip vote but I have been in Governments where there was a minority situation, or very close to it. One cannot have instability. What might be one person’s crisis of conscience is another’s political crisis. I see an opportunity when the heads of a Bill are being discussed on Committee Stage whereby people could give their view irrespective of whether it is in accordance with Government philosophy or not. When one signs on for a Government Bill as Government Members, one will be expected to support that. The issue of stability is important for international investors when they look at the country. In a tight future election outcome, for example, people may ask whether the Government will be able to continue in office. Without stability, one cannot have investment.

Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Taoiseach for his response and I am heartened by what he said about committee structures and how he will empower committees in future. I would press him on Members’ Bills, however Perhaps given the amount of work undertaken by Members in terms of bringing forth Bills the Taoiseach would give consideration to their being scheduled for debate during the week rather than on Fridays. A Bill recently introduced during a Friday sitting, the debate on which I contributed to, has still not gone to committee for consideration. I would prefer if Members who make the effort to introduce Bills are given due respect for doing so and that following conclusion of Second Stage, Committee Stage would be taken as soon as possible thereafter.

With regard to the outcome of the referendum on Seanad abolition, the decision to put the matter before the people was a courageous one and was a commitment in the programme for Government. Those of us who were Fine Gael candidates in the last election stood on the Fine Gael manifesto. Even though the result was not in favour of those of us who would prefer a unicameral system, we must accept the decision of the people.

ENDS