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.