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Column: The Seanad must be a real balance to Government power

Legislation is not being properly vetted because the Government can simply force it through, writes Senator Katherine Zappone.

Senator Katherine Zappone

SENATORS STARTED receiving large numbers of e-mails shortly after the 2013 Budget Speech was delivered. These e-mails, from people all over the country, asked us to intervene. They pointed out the flaws in the Social Welfare Bill 2012 and that challenged us to vote against it. The public, rightly so, were looking for a political system of ‘checks and balances’ that works. It is, after all, one of the key functions of the Seanad in a country like this.

So my group of Independent Senators (those nominated by the Taoiseach) examined the Bill, particularly in light of Government claims that the budget was ‘fair’ and ‘progressive’, and we found it wanting on three fronts. It was wrong to cut the respite care grant, wrong to reduce child benefit in such a way that it would disproportionately affect low-income households and wrong to give powers to the Department of Social Protection that could push people into destitution when the government recovered overpayments from social welfare recipients.

We put forward amendments to correct these wrongs. If Government is making a genuine mistake, misjudging the needs of the people, the Seanad must do its duty and point this out.

When the debate ensued at Committee stage the Seanad was not given enough time to debate all amendments put forward by the Opposition and Independents therefore we voted in unison against the Government. Our goal was to make sure that at the next opportunity, what’s known as the “Report Stage”, we would have time to debate the amendments properly.

Disturbing

The Government won the vote, but only by three. However, the next day the Cathaoirleach ruled all of our amendments out of order at Report stage – meaning we could not debate them again. This was particularly disturbing given the rationale provided for ruling them out of order– that they would cause a charge to the Exchequer. A rationale that could have been applied earlier in the process, at the Committee Stage, but was not. It seemed that we would be allowed to discuss the problems with the Bill only in circumstances where we could not properly air the issues. Once we manoeuvred for more time to debate the Bill properly, we were shut down.

Article 43 of the Irish Constitution says that if the Seanad does not pass a bill, it is sent back to the Dáil for review. The Dáil can then either amend the bill or must pass a further resolution to enact the bill into law (usually within a period of 180 days). This power of the Seanad would require the Government and Dáil members to review the controversial aspects of the Bill again.

That was our ultimate goal – to force the Government to take a second look, to consider the points we’d raised and to decide their course of action only after due consideration. But even with so many of us that might be expected to follow “party lines” choosing not to – the Government still had a majority.

Friends and relatives

Right now, it is all about some straightforward maths. Armed with a substantial majoritiy in the Dáil the Government parties can and will pass whatever legislation they believe is needed.

That means some legislation that really should be looked at again will not be.

Yet this is precisely the time when we need the Seanad to vet legislation to try to make sure that it does not have unintended and lethal consequences for our weakest and most vulnerable. That phrase has been so over-used, particularly in the run up to the Budget that it has lost meaning. Our weakest and most vulnerable are may be our relatives and friends. Anyone we know who is without a job, who has a disability (whether temporary or permanent), those dealing with mental health problems and the many that find themselves poor for the first time or who have been trapped in poverty their entire lives. Those are the weakest and most vulnerable and they are measured in hundreds of thousands.

And democracy is failing them.

Having a situation where the Seanad’s membership is controlled by the parties that wins most seats in the General Election just means it is an extension of the Dáil.

It should not be. It was not intended to be. We need to fix that now. By reforming the Seanad rather than abolishing it we could have a system of checks and balances that works.

This is why the Seanad Reform Group, of which I am a member, has put forward proposals for radical Seanad reform.

Nominations

What my colleagues and I have suggested is (1) that nominations for Seanad membership should come from a much wider representation of Irish society. As it stands now, just 101 organisations are registered to nominate candidates to the five Seanad panels. We think there should be more. For example, let’s consider the Administrative and Voluntary panel with 14 nominating bodies, one of which, People with Disabilities Ireland, has had its funding removed. That leaves 13 organisations (including, unusually, two representing deaf people) nominating on behalf of every voluntary group in the country as well as representing those responsible for administration.

The second thing we’d like to do is get rid of the sub-panels of Oireachtas members who can nominate candidates. There are already 11 members effectively chosen directly by the Oireachtas, we hardly need any more.

But the most significant issue has to be who gets to vote. Analysis of the 2007 Seanad Election (the most recent we could find data on) showed that a total of 1,096 people were allowed to vote to choose the members of the five panels. Of those, it was estimated that their party affiliations were as follows:

Fianna Fail: 406
Fine Gael:  353
Labour: 125
Independent: 100
Sinn Fein: 58
Progressive Democrats: 26
Green Party: 24
Socialist Party: 4
Workers’ Party: 2
South Kerry Independent Alliance: 1

So 884 out of 1096 were from the three largest parties – in and of itself, a significant majority. All were political in some form or other. We think that every citizen should have a right to vote for Seanad candidates from the five panels, ‘one person one vote’ – so that 43 seats of the Seanad will be directly elected by the people.

Senator Feargal Quinn and I will be bringing forward legislation early this year to make this idea a reality. And that’s one of the other advantages of this approach; there is no need for a referendum. In fact, the goal here is not to change the constitutional underpinning of the Seanad at all, but to allow it to be opened up to the excluded, to provide the balance that our Government and its huge majority require and to give it back to each citizen.

Senator Katherine Zappone is an independent member of the Seanad.

Senator Katherine Zappone, Senator Fiach McConghail and Senator Jillian Van Turnhout will hold a meeting of civil society and arts organisations on February 7, giving details on Seanad reform and how organisations can apply to become a nominating body. For full details see here.

Read more from Katherine Zappone on TheJournal.ie>

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Senator Katherine Zappone

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