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Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 5

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  2 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan] True Independents are those who have absented themselves from that farce that we call a Technical Group because one is either an Independent or in a party but there is a group of Members in the House who want their cake and eat it. When someone stands up to speak the truth, it hurts. I do not know any other Parliament where a group of people with nothing in common from the extreme right to the extreme left and everything in between----

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald It is a bit like the Government.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan -----and they take a big ball of money to call themselves a Technical Group. They speak, vote and are whipped as one.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy That is not the case. The Deputy does not have a clue.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan In most people's estimation, that is a political party. They should do the decent thing and call themselves a party. I am glad the Chief Whip is present. The Standing Orders should reflect what people look for. If people are elected as Independents, they should be forced into behaving as Independents and they should not be paid as a party.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan On a point of order, is this relevant to what we are discussing?

Acting Chairman (Deputy Ann Phelan): Information on Ann Phelan Zoom on Ann Phelan Yes.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan As I have pointed out to the Chief Whip previously, Government backbenchers get the same amount of speaking time in the Chamber as Technical Group members. Fine Gael and the Labour Party have 70 backbenchers and we are treated the same in the context of speaking time as a group that have cobbled together an arrangement and called themselves a Technical Group.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy The Constitution does not recognise political parties. The Constitution recognises our mandate.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan No one interrupted the Deputy. This is unfair. After Christmas, as part of the move for political reform, the Oireachtas should reflect its representation in its speaking rights.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy We should call it a dictatorship.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan It should be more representative of the people in terms of the make up of the House and the representation within the House. It is unfair that Government backbenchers are entitled to the same speaking time as a group that has been cobbled together. That is not right and I ask the Chief Whip to take it on board.

With regard to the Bill, I compliment the staff of the Houses. The previous speaker made good points about the work that is done, the school tours and so on but much more could be done to take the message of the Oireachtas to the people and to encourage them to visit.

I welcome the Bill. Every now and then, it is no harm to inject a little truth into debate in this Chamber. When some people hear the truth, they get a little rattled and they start roaring and shouting. That is their entitlement but, at the end of the day, when we discuss the cost of running this House and the cost of politics, we need to be fair to everybody - political parties, those outside them and those that are a political group but pretend they are not one.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris Even in the trenches during the world wars, peace broke out over Christmas and, therefore, I will attempt to leave my colleague's comments to one side. I would like to comment on political reform and while the Bill is focused on the cost of running a Parliament, there is a cost associated with democracy and with having democratic institutions. My constituents, and I presume those of other Members, want to know how effective we are and what they are getting in return. I am pleased the Government Chief Whip is present and I hope he will take note of a number of my suggestions about the running of the Oireachtas.

  Both Houses are sitting more frequently, which is welcome. An additional sitting is a metric of the work, debate and legislation being dealt with. The Friday sittings, which provide backbench Government Members who never previously had a mechanism to table legislation, put it up to us to be legislators. During the next election campaign, which I hope is far away, we can knock on the doors of constituents and be measured on what we did in bringing forward legislative proposals. We have an opportunity to draft a Bill to, for example, change a law and we can answer the question about what we did. That is an important change. We also have an opportunity to preview legislation with the heads of Bills sent to committee before the legislation is fleshed out, which is positive. However, I am a member of both the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Committee of Public Accounts, as is Deputy McDonald. Earlier both committees, which were dealing with important topics, were sitting at the same time. We can learn from other parliaments where a period of time, be it days or weeks, is assigned to committee business. In my brief time in the House, I have learned that most of the effective work is done by committees, where there is less partisanship and greater scrutiny of proposals. We must examine how committees are timetabled.

  Another issue that needs to be considered is the empowerment of committees in the context of their work programmes. I am not a great believer in the ideology of everybody having a free vote on every issue but when committees are not dealing with legislative proposals, members should not have to divide along party lines and it has been disappointing when that has happened on a number of occasions in this Dáil.

  Deputy Dooley referred to topical debates and Topical Issue Matters has been a great addition to the House. They have helped Members but the House is still a little too rehearsed and staid at times. We need to look at the House of Commons, if Members do not mind me referring to it following the previous contribution, where every MP has the opportunity to raise issues with the Prime Minister of the day on a regular basis. That needs to be considered as well. We do not just need Punch and Judy politics, which some Members criticise but then engage in themselves, where our constituents when they look at their television screens wonder whether this is what goes on in the Dáil.

  As we approach another recess, we need to examine how we timetable recesses. The European Parliament provides for a constituency week. One of the great challenges I face is finding the thinking and reading time needed to do my job effectively, particularly in the context of committee work. We can run around Leinster House being busy and go from morning to night but the opportunity to have time and space to plan and to, for example, work on parliamentary questions and be good legislators and contribute well is limited. The European Parliament model, albeit it is in place for a slightly different reason, of having designated time to scrutinise and think when members are not on holidays needs to be considered. The parliament's procedure whereby votes are held at a certain time of the day or week is also good. Sometimes members have to get up in the middle of a committee meeting and witnesses are left sitting in the room waiting for ages and this is an ineffective use of time. We need to have votes and it is the right of members to call them. It is an important part of our work but we should examine grouping them if we are honest about spending our time effectively in the House. Deputy Dooley also referred to the cost overruns when votes run late into the night and so on.

  Great work has been done by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission led by the Ceann Comhairle on the broadcasting of proceedings. The House is becoming much more accessible through the new television channel and the Internet and even through the displaying of Members' expenses on a monthly basis on the website. It is unfortunate that, a website that has done great work on transparency and tracking the performance of Members, including the number of parliamentary questions constituency rivals, for example, have tabled, is having difficulty due to changes in how the Oireachtas processes its information. Will the Chief Whip and the commission examined how we can facilitate that website to continue its work?

  I am a member, along with Deputy O'Sullivan, of a cross-party group concerned with mental health. This group has representatives of every political grouping in the House and it does solid work. While we know we are coming at the issue from different perspectives and there will be debates in which we will take different sides as political needs must, we have come together to park the party politics and move the issue forward in a broad sense. Other parliaments have a great tradition of cross-party groups. Outside the formal Oireachtas structures, we are not great in this regard but it should be considered. I do not know whether Members need to get on and do this ourselves or whether we need to examine this through formal Oireachtas processes but it would be useful to have cross-party groups to examine different sectoral or societal interests. They do not need to be formal legislative committees.

  The final issue I would like to raise, on which I have corresponded with the Ceann Comhairle previously, relates to the opening up of Parliament.

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