Noel Whelan: The current Dáil is a very feeble legislator
It was said the ‘new politics’ needs ‘bedding down’, but our politicians are almost asleep
‘There are 12 weeks of Dáil sittings between now and the summer. These will be dominated by the Fine Gael leadership contest and a Cabinet reshuffle. We can expect even less focus on law-making this term.’
This week the Dáil returned after an extended Easter break to a chorus of renewed criticism about the slow pace of legislation. A review of its legislative output which we did here in January showed that only 18 Bills had passed last year.
There has been no improvement since. In fact, things have got worse. The flow of legislation has now slowed to a trickle. The current Dáil is a very feeble legislator.
The Dáil has passed only six Bills so far this year. It passed no Bills in January, two in February, three in March and one in April.
The six Acts passed since January when printed together run to just 70 pages of law
Of course the number of Bills of itself is not the true measure of our lawmakers’ output. It is necessary to consider each piece of legislation in turn.
That doesn’t take long. If one discounts the title and index pages, the six Acts passed since January when printed together run to just 70 pages of law.
There are hundreds of single Bills on our statute books from previous years which are longer than that.
Four of the six Bills enacted were minor pieces of legislation.
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2017 is an eight-page Act which, as the title suggests, makes minor amendments to other Acts.
Its provisions allow for the payment of fees to members of the Health Products Regulatory Authority, adjust slightly the qualifications for the Nursing Homes Support Scheme, and introduces some changes to tobacco packaging.
The Communications Regulation (Postal Service) (Amendment) Act 2017 is a 1½-page Act. It lifted the cap on postal pricing in previous legislation, thereby allowing An Post to increase the price of a stamp.
The Criminal Justice (Suspended Sentence of Imprisonment) Act is a six-page Bill which amends section 99 of a 2006 Act which enabled the activation of a suspended sentence in the event of the commission of another offence by a person who is subject to a suspended sentence.
This short 2017 Act became necessary after a High Court judgment last April found certain provisions of section 99 to be unconstitutional.
Medical card holders
The Health (Amendment) Act 2017 is a 2½-page Act which makes minor adjustments to confer eligibility for GPs and other health service to children on the Domiciliary Care allowance, and to amend prescription charges for medical card holders over 70.
The Knowledge Development Box (Certification of Inventions) Act 2017 runs to 16 pages, but is a technical piece of legislation.
It provides a certification scheme to enable SMEs’ inventions in the nature of intellectual property to qualify for a reduced corporate tax rate of 6.25 per cent. The initiative was originally provided for in the 2015 Finance Act.
The only lengthy piece of legislation passed by the Oireachtas this year was the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. It is arguably one of only two substantial Bills passed by the Oireachtas since the election in February 2016.
This Act accounts for more than half of the law passed in 2017. It is longer than the other five Acts passed this year put together.
It includes many important reforms in criminal law, including provisions regulating the disclosure of the content of third-party counselling or therapy records in sexual offences, as well as important improvements in child-protection measures.
This Bill was on the order paper of the last Dáil, and while most of its provisions were uncontroversial, it took some political courage from Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald to ensure its enactment.
There was strong opposition from some quarters to a provision in the Bill which criminalises the purchase of sexual services, including from within the Government.
There seems little prospect of the parties agreeing to sort out the defects which are undermining the Dáil's capacity to make law
In response to earlier criticisms of the slow pace of law-making, we were told that we were being impatient, and that “new politics” would take some getting use to.
There was much talk then about how “new politics” needed time to “bed down”. Now, almost a year after “new politics” began, our legislator is almost asleep.
Glorified press releases
Meanwhile the Dáil order paper is flooded with dozens of Private Members’ Bills, many of which are short and badly drafted.
Some of them are no more than glorified press releases. Many have simply been waved through to committee stage. None has of yet been enacted.
The Dáil agreed this week to reduce its quorum in the mornings from 20 to 10, and also spent much time rowing about whether it should say a prayer at the start of every day.
There seems little prospect, however, of the parties agreeing to sort out the procedural and political defects which are undermining its capacity to make law.
There are 12 weeks of Dáil sittings between now and the summer. These will be dominated by the Fine Gael leadership contest and then there will be a Cabinet reshuffle. We can expect even less focus on law-making this term.