‘Shift’ in answering questions needed if new Dáil politics to work

Reforms will give all TDs a greater voice in Oireachtas affairs, says Chief Whip

 Catherine Murphy TD: calling for an essential “cultural shift to answer questions fully”, she said the change was not just about TDs and Ministers but also the Civil Service. Photograph: Alan Betson

Catherine Murphy TD: calling for an essential “cultural shift to answer questions fully”, she said the change was not just about TDs and Ministers but also the Civil Service. Photograph: Alan Betson

 
There must be a “cultural shift” by Government departments and State agencies to answer questions fully, if the new politics of a divergent Dáil is to work, the House has been told.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said some departments and organisations were good: “Some are all right, while others are terrible. It shows a cultural difference.”

Highlighting the increased obligation on Ministers to properly answer questions, she said: “There is nothing wrong with the legislation, rather it is a question of how it is embraced. Frustratingly, one can obtain more information via a freedom of information request than via asking parliamentary questions.”

Calling for an essential “cultural shift to answer questions fully”, she said the change was not just about TDs and Ministers but also the Civil Service.

“If there is information available, it should be put into the public arena. That would give people a great deal of confidence about issues not being hidden and we would be open to providing information they had a right to receive.”

Final draft report

The Kildare North TD was speaking during a four-hour debate on the final draft report by the subcommittee of 19 TDs tasked with proposing reforms and chaired by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Opening the debate Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty said the new Dáil reform proposals aimed to “empower the Oireachtas like never before”. She said a new Dáil business committee would give all TDs a greater voice in the business of the Dáil and “allow a fairer distribution of Dáil time between Government and Opposition business”.

She took the view that as a newly founded nation in the 1920s and 1930s Ireland too easily “adopted the British form of parliamentary democracy, with its weak concept of the separation of powers.

“In the almost one century since independence, we have not challenged that system enough. No government or parliament has really challenged the status quo, until now.”

Business committee Reforms include the establishment of a Dáil business committee to plan what issues the House will deal with; a new and permanent stand-alone Irish language committee; and a budget oversight committee to properly scrutinise the annual budgetary cycle. The committee will be assisted by a new independent parliamentary budget office which will “crunch the numbers”.

More than one technical group will be allowed, which will give smaller parties and Independents more speaking time. And in a bid to get more publicity for committee work, committee meetings will not clash with plenary Dáil sittings, where possible.

Labour TD Brendan Howlin said the committees would be improved because they would be better-resourced, more relevant and “I hope most of all, more visible in terms of the real work done”.

Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne said the changes meant that if the Government lost a vote “it is not a crisis. It is just democracy in action.”