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Free vote for TDs among radical proposals for Dáil reform

Goverment TDs should be allowed to vote against their party on certain matters under proposals by backbench TD Eoghan Murphy in an internal document circulated among Fine Gael members this week.

Eoghan Murphy with Taoiseach Enda Kenny (File photo)
Eoghan Murphy with Taoiseach Enda Kenny (File photo)
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Updated 1.30pm

GOVERNMENT TDS SHOULD be allowed a free vote on certain matters under a series of radical proposals to reform the Dáil that have been suggested by a backbench Fine Gael TD.

An internal document circulated among the Fine Gael parliamentary party this week has outlined a series of proposals that would radically alter the way in which Dáil business is conducted on a weekly basis with TDs allowed to vote against the government on certain issues.

The document, seen by TheJournal.ie, is authored by Dublin South-East TD Eoghan Murphy who has previously called for TDs to have a free vote on upcoming abortion legislation.

In the document he calls for a wider loosening of the party whip system to allow government TDs to vote against the coalition on certain matters as well calling for the reform of Leaders’ Questions to allow backbenchers to ask questions of the Taoiseach.

A Fine Gael spokesman said that the document has been discussed with senior figures and is in the spirit of the party’s 2011 general election manifesto which “contained a strong element of political reform” but noted the proposals are not currently party policy.

In the document Murphy criticises the current party whip system whereby any government TD who votes against the government position is automatically expelled from the parliamentary party. He says this “in essence means that a TD can never take an opposing view to the leadership”.

He says the party whip system should remain in place for important bills such as those concerning the Budget but calls for it to be relaxed in circumstances where TD might wish to introduce a “meaningful amendment” to legislation which the party leadership may not support.

He also proposes that the whip system be removed when:

  • Bills are being debated at committee stage
  • TDs vote on the order of business
  • TDs vote on bills introduced by private members, except on money bills or proposed laws that contradict legislation the government intends to bring forward or has already put in place.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has explicitly ruled out a free vote on legislation for the X Case on abortion, despite calls from one junior minister.

At present any government TD who votes against the coalition is automatically expelled from the parliamentary party as has happened to Fine Gael’s Denis Naughten and a number of Labour TDs.

“The government can not be expected to draft the best possible legislation every time,” Murphy writes in the internal document saying that the “state and the country suffer” as a result of members being subject to the party whip “on every single decision”.

Other reforms

Murphy also proposes that Leaders’ Questions be taken by the Taoiseach once a week for 40 minutes and that each opposition leader be given 10 minutes to have as many exchanges as possible with the Taoiseach. A provision for backbenchers to ask questions of the Taoiseach should also be introduced.

He calls for reforms to the committee system including holding committee meetings outside the time when the Dáil is in session as well as time for committees to report to the Dáil chamber. Other proposed reforms include:

  • The establishment of a committee to specifically oversee the budget
  • Special committees to be established to scrutinise each piece of legislation and make recommendations
  • A provision for committee members to produce a “minority report” if they disagree with the overall findings of a committee
  • Abolishing priority questions to ministers in favour of a more “robust” system whereby TDs who submit a question only have it answered if they are present in the chamber
  • Abolishing pre-allocated speaking slots except for ministers and senior spokespeople
  • Dividing speaking time among members of the Dáil rather than between parties and groupings
  • Increasing the number of topical issues discussed in the Dáil and for the relevant minister be required to respond to each topical issue raised.
  • Allowing more than one bill to be discussed at Friday sittings and introducing a weighted lottery system for private members’ bills so as that bills on the order paper longer have a better chance of being selected.

“A parliament should never be reduced to acting as a vehicle of the executive for rubber-stamping its decisions,” Murphy writes saying that the “vast majority” of what happens in the Dáil is an “aside to the main week-to-week business”.

He says that issues are often tackled outside of the chamber in committee and “to a greater extent” in private meetings with ministers, civil servants and special advisors.

Murphy claims  that initial reforms introduced by the government in September 2011 such as Friday sittings, topical issues and extra sitting days have not been built upon.

A Fine Gael spokesperson said in response to a query about the document: “We have many young, ambitious and capable TDs and Senators, who are not currently office holders. They are anxious to see us pursue a strong reform agenda.

“While the proposals contained within this document are not currently party policy, we have a number of fora through which our members can raise new policy ideas, and stimulate debate.”

Eoghan Murphy did not wish to comment when contacted last night.

Updated 1.30pm: Following our story this morning, Eoghan Murphy has published the document ‘Reforming Dáil Éireann: A view from the backbenches’ in full. The 24-page document can be read here

Read: Toibín dismisses talk of SF rift after defeat on abortion ‘free vote’ motion

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