Proposals for Dáil reform just don’t cut it
No incentive to be aggressive in holding executive to account
“Working extra days or longer hours won’t achieve anything if the basic structures of the Dáil and its relationship with government are not addressed.” Photograph: Alan Betson
The Government’s planned reforms of the Dáil announced last week, while welcome, are underwhelming. There are some good proposals such as the routine use of pre-legislative scrutiny.
But much of the reform just tinkers with the details of when and where TDs will work. Working extra days or longer hours won’t achieve anything if the basic structures of the Dáil and its relationship with government are not addressed.
However, virtually nothing in the proposals incentivises the Dáil to be more aggressive in its scrutiny of government.
A lot of the proposals relate to the organisation of time in the Dáil, but not its allocation. The primary resource in parliament is time.
At the moment the taoiseach/ government, usually through the chief whip, schedule the business of the Dáil. This is highly unusual by international standards. Opposition party whips, government whips and the government’s parliamentary parties independently of government would normally negotiate with the chair of the house, who would seek reasonable consensus.
It is clear government use of guillotines to limit debate on legislation is and has been excessive in Ireland. In most other European countries, guillotines are limited to emergency legislation or used for when there are few limits on speaking time in debates.
There will be times when guillotines are necessary. A simple procedure (used in the US) is that two-thirds of members “present and voting” can bring a guillotine motion. This would ensure that only issues the opposition agrees are urgent can be guillotined.
Allocation of posts
One of the ways in which parties and especially government parties control TDs is through the allocation of posts.
Committee chairs are reasonably sought-after because they allow a TD to make a name and impress party leaders/media and public. When these chairs can be removed by party leaders without reason or notice, it weakens their independence and ability to carry out oversight and scrutiny functions.
The proposal to have them allocated to parties more evenly using the d’Hondt voting system seems fair, but this keeps the party leader’s power to allocate and withdraw favours. A more effective mechanism, now used in the House of Commons, is to have an election of chairs by secret ballot. This would incentivise TDs to work for the House and fellow TDs rather than the government.
A positive change in the Government’s proposals is to require heads of Bills to go to the relevant committee at the first stage of the parliamentary process. Pre-legislative scrutiny will allow meaningful input from TDs in policymaking if they want. At this stage, debate tends to be more reasoned and less partisan than when there has been a division in the plenary session.
We’d be concerned that the Government might not actually provide the heads. Ministers are meant to now, but most don’t; having to give the Dáil an excuse why they don’t is hardly going to change their behaviour.
There should also be greater research support for committees. Reallocating some of the savings made if the Seanad is abolished to committees should help. It might also be useful to give the Dáil a beefed-up inde- pendent policy research service.
Another area in which the Oireachtas has few resources to match government expertise is in legal advice. There needs to be a legal adviser to the Dáil with much greater resources than currently available and an ability to provide advice on parliamentary drafting.
One reform that was flagged but didn’t emerge is the way the ceann comhairle is elected. At the moment the taoiseach chooses who takes this position. Electing the ceann comhairle by secret ballot would remove the power of parties to insist on who gets the job and give some incentive for the ceann comhairle to be a defender of the Dáil rather than the government.
The ceann comhairle is constitutionally an important figure but his/her actual powers are quite limited. These should be extended. They should have a greater role in the allocation of time and speaking rights in the Dáil. They might also have the right to “name” ministers who evade answering questions. This would let them be more active chairs in a debate.
Many changes set out here can be achieved simply through the standing orders of the Dáil. It would be a good idea to make the standing orders more difficult to change. They should be amen- dable only with a two-thirds majority in the Dáil – this would make it more difficult for governments to change the ones that didn’t suit it.
The changes we’ve outlined here are not revolutionary by international standards, but they would do considerably more than the piecemeal offerings of the Government to bring Dáil Éireann up to the standards of parliaments in other countries.
The authors are political scientists in University College Dublin and Dublin City University and are co- editors of the blog politicalreform.ie