A referendum should be held to allow proxy voting for TDs and Senators on maternity, paternity and sick leave and to allow them participate remotely in certain Dáil and Seanad business, a new report has recommended.
The Forum on a Family Friendly and Inclusive Parliament also calls for every Oireachtas committee to have at least one woman member from each House from after the next election, due in early 2025. In the election after that – due in 2030 if both run their full five-year terms – women must make up 50 per cent of committee chairpersons.
There are three chairwomen of the 17 main Oireachtas committees.
The forum also calls for political parties to set targets for ethnic minority women within their gender quotas and states that the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees to the Seanad should include representatives of minority communities.
The forum urges parties to set targets for ethnic minority representation, recommending legislation to ensure they are reached “if there is no progress following the next electoral cycle”.
It also calls for “appropriate personal security for Members and their staff” with a need for “dedicated supports” to deal with online abuse and harassment and recommends additional supports should be available for newly elected TDs and Senators.
The forum’s report, published this week, also states that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission must act immediately to “prevent working practices that involve onerous working hours” and which could breach working time legislation.
The recommendations are among 51 in the 75-page report of the 16-member group chaired by former TD Mary Upton and comprising other politicians including TDs and Senators and representatives of the NGO sector and other experts with an interest in how the political system works.
The report suggests that a referendum result allowing remote working and voting and “hybrid arrangements” would facilitate a redesign of the parliamentary sitting week which can have long sitting days and non-family friendly working conditions. In the interim politicians should be allowed to choose whether to participate in “certain business” in person or remotely.
In her foreword to the report Ms Upton said there were financial implications for some of the recommendations but “the final cost of not doing something now, of not addressing these issues now, far outweighs the cost of tackling the challenge”.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl established the forum when maternity leave for Minister for Justice Helen McEntee – the first member of Cabinet to take such leave – and issues surrounding it “brought into sharp focus the inadequacies of the system that we have at present”.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said of the 51 recommendations that he was “enthusiastic” about seeing as many as possible implemented as quickly as possible.
He will bring the report to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission when it meets on November 15th and ask it to appoint an implementation group to oversee action on the recommendations.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the Oireachtas is not a family friendly location to work either for politicians or for political or Civil Service staff with “ridiculous” hours and they had to deal with “how we attract far more women, young people and the new Irish into politics”.
The forum, established in March, looked at how eight other parliaments organised sittings including Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden and the UK. They generally sat three or four days, the Dáil and Seanad sit three days.
One or two late night sittings until 10pm or 11pm are the norm except in Germany (9pm) and the British House of Commons where 7.30pm is the latest sitting. The German Bundestag sits five days a week and the Commons four days with 13 additional Friday sittings. Denmark and Estonia have no set finishing time and continue until all business has been completed.
The forum concluded that as remote participation and voting are not currently an option, the three-day sitting week is the most appropriate pattern for politicians to meet parliamentary and constituency duties.
It also recommends a new “main” committee of the Dáil for certain non-votable Dáil business to ease the pressure on the Dáil chamber schedule.
Women for Election welcomed the report and chairwoman Alison Cowzer said they hoped it would be implemented as a matter of urgency "to help encourage more women to enter and succeed in politics. Currently, only 24 per cent of Dáil members are women, and Ireland ranks 101st in the world for gender balance in politics."
National Women’s Council (NWC) women in leadership co-ordinator Emma DeSouza welcomed the report and its “acknowledgement of threats of political violence and harassment. This is an increasing issue for women’s political participation and one which NWC is currently highlighting as part of our #StopOnlineAbuse campaign.”