Seanad Reform: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seanad Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford] If we are serious about changing politics and encouraging participation, step one in regard to the Seanad must be universal franchise, where every citizen of the country is equal and has a vote in the Seanad election.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Deputy Paul Kehoe): Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe I thank all Senators for their contributions, with some of which I agree and with some with which I do not. Some Members spoke about Dáil reform, but I thought we were here to discuss Seanad reform. Some Senators played the man rather than the ball and some had a very good contribution to make. I thank them all. I thank my constituency colleague who has always played politics and is good at it. I assure Members he played the man this afternoon. If Senator Jim Walsh wants to talk about Dáil reform, he should have the courage to put his name on a big ballot paper. It takes courage to do this. Then he could talk about Dáil reform.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh The Minister of State has no interest in Dáil reform, as has been evidenced in the past three years.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The Minister of State has an interest in upsetting Members.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik He has a track record at it.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Please allow the Minister of State to speak, without interruption.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the Seanad in support of the motion proposed by the Leader of the Seanad, Senator Maurice Cummins. The subject of this debate is important and I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to it. Seanad reform was much discussed during the recent referendum. There was consensus on all sides that, whatever else, there was little appetite for the Seanad to continue in its present form. Now that the people have given their decision, we must all look at how the Seanad can be reformed in order that it serves its purpose as a 21st century House of Parliament.

  The debate on reforming the Seanad is not new. As we know, since 1937 there have been numerous reports and policy papers on how the Seanad might be reformed. Many of them got an airing during the referendum campaign. The challenge now facing the various parties and groupings in both Houses is to produce proposals for practical, implementable reform, and to do this quickly and effectively. The reforms that have been proposed down the years, and more recently through draft legislation and policy papers, fall into two broad areas. The first relates to the role and functions of the Seanad and how it carries these out, while the second concerns how the Members of the Seanad are nominated and elected.

  As the House will know, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste met the leaders of the different parties and groupings in the Dáil and the Seanad before Christmas to get their views on what areas should be reformed and how we should proceed to develop and implement appropriate reform proposals. There was a very good discussion at that meeting and all present had the opportunity to express their views. The meeting identified three possible ways in which reform could proceed and I will deal with these in turn. The first involves operational or procedural reform. Proposals can be developed as regards both the work of the Seanad and the manner in which that work is carried out. The second involves legislation that would be necessary in order to reform the Seanad electoral system. Change could be implemented by way of constitutional amendment, but this would entail reverting to the people in another referendum.

  To return to procedural reform, there was agreement at the meeting between the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the party leaders and groups that procedural reform should proceed immediately. I am sure Senators will agree that there are many ways in which the operation of the Seanad can be improved. The parties and groups were invited to present their proposals for procedural reform to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and I urge all involved to do this. Procedural reform should be the quickest and easiest way to make progress and the sooner we start the better. The Government will submit its proposals to the committee through the Leader of the Seanad and I expect that this will be done in the coming weeks.

  In urging parties and groups to bring forward their proposals in this area, I highlight the excellent work that has already been done by the Seanad Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, in improving the work of the House. The initiatives he has brought forward since becoming Leader were praised by all sides of the House during the debate on the referendum, rightly so. I think it is fair to say there is widespread consensus on all sides of the House that the way the Seanad operates can be enhanced within current constitutional and legislative frameworks. Another area that received a significant airing during the referendum campaign was the role of the second House in regard to EU scrutiny. I believe there is considerable scope for reform in these and other areas.

  The focus of the motion before the House today is on legislative reform. As I said, this primarily involves reform of the Seanad electoral system. The electoral system for the Seanad is complex and it may be worth briefly recapping exactly how it works. The Constitution provides for the election of 49 of the 60 Members of Seanad Éireann. The other 11 members are nominated by the Taoiseach of the day. The current Taoiseach made imaginative choices in selecting his nominees, the first time ever a Taoiseach broadened the selection of nominees. I am glad to recall that even during the height of the referendum campaign there was widespread recognition of this fact.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh It was the first time nobody from Northern Ireland was appointed.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke The Minister of Staten to continue, without interruption, please.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe I am glad most Senators here do not have behavioural problems.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh The Deputy should think of that when he goes on South East Radio.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Please allow the Minister of State to continue, without interruption.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe Of the 49 elected Members, six are titled university Members. These are elected in two constituencies, three by the National University of Ireland and three by the University of Dublin. A separate register of electors is maintained for each constituency and the elections are run separately by the respective universities. At the 2011 Seanad election, there were some 98,000 voters on the National University of Ireland register and some 53,000 on the University of Dublin register, just over 151,000 voters combined. There is no prohibition on being registered to vote in both constituencies.

  An important point arises in regard to the universities' franchise. In 1979 the people of Ireland approved by referendum the extension of the university franchise to other institutions of higher education in the State. That was 35 years ago this year. It is remarkable that until now no Government has acted on the outcome of that referendum. However, the current Government is going to address that situation. Heads of a Bill are being prepared by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to implement the 1979 constitutional amendment and reform the arrangements for the election of the six university Members.

  The legislation will provide for a single six-seat constituency and for one register of electors. The franchise will be extended to all holders of a degree, or equivalent qualification, from an institution of higher education in the State. It is intended that a broad definition would be applied so as to include universities, institutes of technology, other higher education institutions and private colleges. This will represent a significant expansion of the electorate in line with the outcome of the 1979 referendum. The general scheme of the Bill to extend the university franchise will be brought to Government in the coming weeks and there will be ample opportunity for input into the preparation of the legislation. The Government has agreed that the general scheme of the Bill will be referred to the Seanad, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration. Feedback from the consultation process will help inform the preparation of the Bill.

  The Constitution provides that the remaining 43 elected Members of Seanad Éireann are elected by Oireachtas Members and by members of city and county councils from five panels of candidates containing the names of persons having knowledge and practical experience of a range of interests and services. The Constitution further provides that these elections are to be regulated by law, subject of course to the provisions of the Constitution. The election of the so-called panel Members is governed by the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947. Five Senators are elected from the Cultural and Education Panel, 11 are elected from the Agriculture Panel, 11 are elected from the Labour Panel, nine are elected from the Industry and Commerce Panel and seven are elected from the Administrative Panel.


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