Reform of the Oireachtas

 

FUNDAMENTAL REFORM of the Oireachtas and how it operates is a key commitment of the Fine Gael/Labour Government. Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil last week that the Government is considering whether to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad later in the year.

In the meantime, all-party talks on reducing the number of Oireachtas committees are about to begin, with the changes likely to come into effect in the autumn. That should mean a sharp reduction in the number of parliamentary committees. With the Government also committed to reducing the number of TDs, the result would be a slimmer but, hopefully, a more focused and effective Oireachtas.

Parliament, given the extensive range of reforms proposed in the Government’s joint programme, would be better equipped to hold the executive to account and this would mark a huge improvement in the democratic process. For the public, not least, it would make the proceedings in Leinster House more relevant. Indeed if the Government’s proposed referendum to amend the Constitution to reverse the effects of the Abbeylara judgment is passed, Oireachtas committees would again be able to carry out full investigations on major issues of public importance.

A crisis can also present opportunity; the opportunity for radical reform. The financial crisis has called into question not just the reckless lending of the banks and the failure of the regulatory system. It has also cruelly exposed the inadequacies of government and of the public service, both in anticipating the crisis and in responding to it. And it has also highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Oireachtas in its role of holding government to account. Fewer Oireachtas committees with enhanced powers should give those committees much greater authority.

A feature of the boom years in the economy was a parallel growth in the number of Oireachtas committees, where some (chairpersons, convenors and others) were excessively rewarded for their efforts. This proliferation of committees produced much duplication of effort and an inevitable loss of focus.

The use of the parliamentary guillotine has also led to major legislation, such as the Finance Bill, not getting proper scrutiny at a legislative committee. This is unacceptable given the importance of the Bill, which implements the detailed provisions of the Budget. The Government has, however, promised to restrict the use of guillotine motions, save in exceptional circumstances.

Certainly, if the Government fully meets its commitment on Dáil reform it will have done much to rectify the imbalance in power between the executive and the legislature.

By allowing for a committee week every four sitting weeks, where the Dáil will sit only for questions and for the order of business, this should give the legislative committees an opportunity to enhance their role and to raise their public profile.