Dáil reform plan has potential for significant change
Weakness has been on legislative side
The Dáil will sit for longer but, more importantly, time for debates on legislation will be increased and the Ceann Comhairle will have more freedom to call TDs who are genuinely interested in the legislation, as opposed to time being allocated to parties to use as they wish. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Dáil reform package unveiled yesterday should improve the efficiency of our political system while giving the public a greater level of involvement in the legislative process.
How it works in practice only time will tell but at the very least it will mark an improvement in the way the Dáil does its business. If Government and Opposition take it seriously it could be a truly significant step in the process of political reform.
Every democratic parliament has two functions. One is political theatre where the Government and the Opposition of the day engage in public combat with the ultimate aim of showing which of them is best fitted to wielding power.
The other part of parliament’s work is the more mundane and infinitely more laborious process of getting on to the statute books the legislation required for the running of a fair and efficient society.
In terms of political theatre, the Dáil has served its purpose well down the years. The weakness has been on the legislative side, with virtually all power in the hands of Ministers and their officials with the Opposition and backbench Government TDs excluded from any real input.
The Dáil reform package aims to address this in a number of ways. The Dáil will sit for longer but, more importantly, time for debates on legislation will be increased and the Ceann Comhairle will have more freedom to call TDs who are genuinely interested in the legislation, as opposed to time being allocated to parties to use as they wish.
Dáil committees will achieve much greater freedom from being controlled by the government of the day, with chairs elected proportionally under the d’Hondt system rather than being appointed by the executive.
Another significant move is that committee chairs will also have a role in speaking during formal Dáil debates alongside Ministers and the main Opposition spokespersons. That should give them greater status and power.
A key element of the programme to make the process of legislation more transparent is the introduction of a pre-legislative stage that will involve the public and the relevant experts in the field under discussion.
The committee chairs will determine who is to be called in this phase but, crucially, it will take place after the heads of the Bill have been agreed but before the detailed legislation has been drafted.
If the electorate votes to abolish the Seanad, the public will also be involved in another stage of a Bill that will follow its passage through the Dáil. That pre-enactment stage will be undertaken by the same committee that dealt with the pre-legislative stage.
The template for drafting of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill will now broadly apply to all legislation apart from the budget. If a Minister wants to opt out of the process for emergency legislation he or she will have to justify the decision to both the Cabinet and the Dáil.
When it comes to scrutiny of the budget the process does not appear to be as strong. Dáil committees will scrutinise budget proposals and the estimates before any money is spent but they will not be involved in the preparation of those proposals and estimates.
On a more positive note, the Dáil week is being extended by five hours and question time should be improved dramatically by the decision that oral questions will be answered only if the TD who has put down the question is in the chamber.
The provisions regarding topical debates and private Bills should also help to give all TDs a role if they wish to avail of it. Ministers have not been great at attending Friday debates on private Bills since that innovation was introduced two years ago but they have generated valuable debates among members.
The publication of the Dáil reform package at this stage is clearly intended to influence the outcome of the Seanad referendum campaign.
The scope of the changes, which will be introduced immediately the Dáil resumes next week, could prove the decisive turning point in the campaign.