Twenty-eight pieces of legislation are currently before the Dáil and Seanad. The Government expects to add 30 more Bills to that list before Easter. It seems an impressive workload and, indeed, Oireachtas members are likely to be fully engaged in establishing its likely impact. Many of the Bills are of minor consequence as important reforming legislation promised in the programme for government fails to secure priority.
Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe has emphasised those aspects of the programme that will assist in job creation, such as competition and workplace legislation and the establishment of a new education and training agency to replace Fás. But the really big beasts that will dominate Dáil proceedings over the coming months will be the Finance Bill and legislation giving effect to last year’s referendum on children’s rights. New health charges and changes to GP services are proposed. In addition, there will be changes to the Freedom of Information Act, a whistleblowers’ charter, a framework for Oireachtas inquiries and legislation on money laundering and human trafficking.
Ireland’s presidency of the EU and pressure on Ministers may be affecting ambition. There are worrying signs that, after almost two years of fiscal firefighting, political caution and party politics have begun to influence legislative developments. An obvious candidate in that regard concerns the delay, until after Easter, of legislation and regulations in connection with the X case so that pressure on Fine Gael backbenchers might be reduced. The most glaring omission, however, involves Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s commitment to set down in legislation the separate responsibilities of Ministers and public servants. That undertaking does not even appear as a twinkle in the Coalition’s eye.
Drafting legislation is a complex business and has traditionally been used as an excuse for delay. Although Cabinet members have approved the outline of 27 additional pieces of legislation, their publication dates are uncertain. Chief among these is long-promised anti-corruption legislation. Remedies in relation to judicial misbehaviour are awaited, as is a Bill – originally proposed by Mary Harney – controlling the use of sun beds.
The Government has yet to agree on what, precisely, it wishes to achieve by way of a further 67 Bills. Disagreement on detail between Ministers and parties ranges from the establishment of a minimum price for alcohol, to reform of local government, water charges, the regulation of lobbying activities and abolition of the Seanad. The Taoiseach is said to be consulting the Attorney General on that matter with a view to producing a referendum Bill later this year. Whatever about that, negotiations on the Croke Park agreement and a deal with the European Central Bank are likely to have a greater impact on Government prospects.