A Cheann Chomhairle,
Having been Chief Whip for the last three years, I am a firm believer in the value of the Committee System to the workings of the Oireachtas and believe that we have an excellent Committee System of which we can all be proud. However I feel we need to build on our system, and strengthen it and it is obvious this view is shared in this House.
In the early 90’s my colleague Deputy Noel Dempsey, introduced the new committee system which has evolved over time into a dynamic structure of Sectoral Committees, and which has proved a great asset to democracy in Ireland. At that time, he said
“the new committee system being introduced is probably the greatest single change in the way the House conducts its business since the foundation of the state. The potential for each Deputy to influence legislation and spending by Departments should not be underestimated.”
Committees now constitute a major part of the Oireachtas framework. The structure of the existing system allows for a more flexible and transparent approach to scrutiny outside of the more formal platforms of the Dáil and Seanad Chambers. Members of Committees avail of the opportunity that the Committee system gives to them, to engage publicly on many issues. It also offers the opportunity to improve access by the public to the Houses and their Committees as we all have observed through the hearing of evidence and presentations from witnesses.
In that regard, if I were to take just one example of how Committees have helped shape public policy, I would reference the work of the All Party Committee on the Constitution, in the run up to the referendum on the right to life of the unborn. Debates on this issue had previously been characterised by bitterness and divisiveness.
However as a result of the Committee’s intervention, a public platform was provided, where all opinions could be expressed in a calm, professional environment, and the ensuing debate was grounded on a much more rounded view of the issues and a greater appreciation of the concerns of the various interests taking part.
A further example of the impact of a vigorous Committee in action was the follow up to the DIRT Inquiry by the Committee on Public Accounts. In that regard I would like to pay particular tribute to the late Jim Mitchell who was a driving force in that Inquiry and in following up the implementation of the many recommendations that followed. Many of those recommendations have had a lasting influence on how we conduct business today, not least of which was the establishment of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.
Committees are an invaluable tool for the Houses of the Oireachtas and the scale of their role can be seen from the fact that, last year alone there were 531 committee meetings, 191 reports published and 1,215 witnesses gave evidence. Committees sit more hours than the Dáil and Seanad put together.
It is my intention, informed by these statements today, to move as soon as possible to put down the resolutions re-establishing the Sectoral Committees and the standing committees so that their work can resume.
In addition to the Sectoral and Standing Committees in the previous Dáil, the Government proposes that there will be a new
Committee on the Constitutional Amendment regarding Children .
The Committee on Children will be addressed later by my colleague Minister Of State Brendan Smith who has been developing proposals in this regard.
The All Party Committee on the Constitution is to formally become a Joint Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and there is to be an amalgamation of the Joint Services Committee and Members Services Committee, to be known as the Joint Administration Committee.
It is also proposed to establish a Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
This is a reflection of the transformed political context on the island of Ireland following the successful restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement earlier this year.
As I have already indicated, I believe we have an excellent system already in place.
However there is always room for improvement, and following recent consultations I am happy to announce the strengthening and enhancement of theCommittee System as follows. These enhancements include the following;
Parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislative proposals and oversight role.
It is also proposed that there will be other enhancements for the sub-committee an EU Scrutiny and more direct engagement with Committees on EU related matters.
National parliaments can only have an effective influence on EU policy if they scrutinise and react to EU proposals at the earliest possible stage in the policy-making process. Therefore a timely, efficient and co-ordinated system of EU scrutiny is desirable.
Cooperation between the Government and the Joint Committee on European Affairs in relation to EU scrutiny ensures timely availability of EU proposals and other relevant information to the Committee. However, as was highlighted by the Committee in its last annual report, the increasing volume of legislative proposals emanating from the EU Institutions has placed a considerable burden on the Committee and the Sectoral Committees in carrying out EU scrutiny work.
Additional staffing, training and advisory supports will be put in place within the Committee Secretariat to assist the Joint Committee on European Affairs, its sub-Committee on European Scrutiny and the Sectoral Committees to achieve and maintain the highest standards in quantity, quality and timeliness of their scrutiny and oversight of EU policy-making in Ireland and in Europe.
In this regard the Joint Committee on European Affairs will have a stronger coordinating and facilitating role in relation to scrutiny of proposals which have been referred to Sectoral Committees for detailed scrutiny.
The Sub-Committee on EU Scrutiny will have the power to report directly to the Dáil and Seanad on the outcomes of oversight and scrutiny.
It is anticipated that there will be a more meaningful Committee engagement with Ministers, Department officials and wider interest groups. The consequent benefits should raise public awareness of ongoing European issues and fully use available opportunities to influence policy makers in Ireland and in Europe.
For example, the Terms of Reference of Sectoral Committees will include the power to request the presence of the relevant Minister to attend before the Committee and provide oral briefings in advance of Council meetings to enable the Committees to make their views known in advance of Council meetings.
Development of the estimates and expenditure process
The introduction by the Minister for Finance of a range of reforms over the last two years, together with the recently announced introduction of the unified budget with effect from 5 December next, combine to give Oireachtas Committees a greater opportunity for the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending by each Department to come under greater parliamentary scrutiny.
In an effort to give maximum effect to the opportunities presented by these reforms, it is intended that specific provision will be made in committees’ orders of reference to place greater emphasis on such issues as Annual Output Statements, value for money and Policy Reviews in particular. Committees should be afforded an opportunity to formally examine departmental expenditure on a more regular basis (e.g. quarterly) with a view to having a more informed debate during the Estimates process. The publication of other documents such as the Pre-Budget Outlook and the Stability Programme Update will also afford, for instance, the Joint Committee on Finance to engage with the Minister for Finance on the economic and fiscal background to the Budget.
Mechanism for tracking cross-departmental issues for example children, integration
There are a number of Ministers of State with specific responsibilities which cut across several departments. A Parliamentary oversight mechanism will be required to ensure that policy issues don’t fall between committees and to avoid conflict in relation to ownership/responsibility. It is intended to assign responsibility to a committee to take the lead on an issue with a procedure to allow other interested committees to contribute.
I feel strongly that the effectiveness of any committee depends to a large extent on the dynamism of the Chairman and the members themselves. It is crucial that Members fully engage with committees in this Dail to maximise their value.
In the last Dáil, with the cooperation of my colleague Noel Dempsey, we pioneered the eConsultation process with a pilot project on the Broadcasting Bill. It aimed to revolutionise the manner in which parliament, Government and the ordinary citizen interact.
It was intended to be a genuine consultation that would also test the readiness of Parliament to work more closely with the general public by using new technologies and interactive communication.
And I intend to further promote eConsultation as a way of improving the transparency of the workings of the parliament and to give wider access because this should not be seen as a means of slowing up legislation, but rather to create a modern and more efficient system.
We should be using this technology to better engage with the public, individuals, not just lobby groups, and where appropriate, young people. Indeed in the coming months, I plan to look at how this econsultation process can be used for the benefit of teachers and students so that young people can gain a better understanding of the workings of the Oireachtas and get involved. It is imperative that we tackle the disconnect between the Oireachtas and the public head on.
I would like to take this opportunity to refer briefly to the question of Dáil reform.
The issue of Dáil reform has arisen with every single government for the last decade. This particular government has tried to reach an agreement on a package of reform which would be acceptable to all parties. The changes I endeavoured to introduce during the life of the last Dáil were…
1. Order of Business
- Order of Business be dealt with exclusively by the Party Whips, whose responsibility it is to address these issues in the first instance.
- That each week's business and, where appropriate, time allocations be determined in advance by a motion that the Chief Whip would move on the preceding Thursday [provided that he may move an urgent motion on any particular sitting day to give effect to any variation required by changed circumstances].
- The Chief Whip would conduct a special session in the House, once a week, during which he would answer questions about; the taking of business that has been promised, including legislation, the making of secondary legislation, arrangements for sittings and when Bills or other documents on the Order Paper needed in the House will be circulated.
2. Leaders Questions: Government Questions
- To have a short period of notice to facilitate greater depth in responses to Leaders Questions as a result of more focused briefing and in order to ensure that the appropriate Minister is there.
- To enable Ministers to respond, at the request of the Taoiseach, where issues that are raised are more suitable for answer by the responsible Minister, who may have been more immediately and comprehensively engaged with the issue.
- Extending the facility to Thursdays on the basis that the relevant Minister(s) (excluding the Taoiseach) would be available.
- The Taoiseach would continue to be present on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Only the responsible Ministers would be present on Thursdays.
3. Adjournment Debates/ Current Issues
- Improve the means for raising topical issues by introducing a newCurrent Issues Time, to be held at an earlier time which would give greater prominence within the daily Dáil schedule.
- This would replace the Adjournment Debate procedure and it is proposed to increase from 4 to 6 the number of issues that can be raised. The time allocated to each would be reduced to 3 minutes, with 3 minutes for replies.
4. Standing Order 31
- The practise of reading out S.O. 31 notices each day is discontinued and the matters sought to be raised would be noted by the Ceann Comhairle and placed on the record of the Dáil.
5. Sitting Times
- The time available currently in Dail for Legislation is 11.25 hours per week. This could be increased to 15 hours, with some modest adjustment of sitting times.
6. Develop further the eConsultation process
- As I have outlined already, we have already undertaken eConsultation on a bill as a pilot project and plan to build on that progress.
Unfortunately, a package for Dáil reform has not yet been agreed. Discussions in the past have proved fruitless due to the continued preoccupation of the Opposition with the Taoiseach’s attendance in the Dáil on Thursday mornings, in addition to his Leaders questions and order of business on Wednesdays. This is in spite of the fact that most other prime ministers in Europe do not attend their parliament as often as Bertie Ahern, who answers questions for over 3 hours a week, compared to the British Prime Minister who gives just 30 minutes a week.
However, I am anxious that this government continues its commitment to change, to play a constructive part in exploring with all parties, opportunities for improving procedures, so that this House operates in a manner which reflects the wishes of the people.
In conclusion, I would like to return to the issue of the formation of the Committee System of the 30th Dáil and I want to emphasise that I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak on these matters today and I look forward to hearing the rest of the contributions.
I would like to compliment the staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas and in particular the Committee Secretariat for all the work they are doing. I would also like to thank my colleague, Brian Cowen for providing the necessary resources for some 20 additional research staff to be engaged by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. This signals the Government’s commitment to the development of a vigorous Oireachtas Committee System backed by dedicated support staff and resources.