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Taoiseach says Covid has 'exacerbated' volume of legislation, as politicians discuss President's letter

Michael D Higgins says he received nine Bills in one day.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said the volume of legislation that had to be passed by the Oireachtas before the summer was “exacerbated” by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

His comments come as TDs and Senators from two Oireachtas committees met today to discuss an “unprecedented” letter from President Michael D Higgins about the legislative process. 

In a letter to the Oireachtas, Higgins expressed concerns about the volume of “complex” legislation he has been asked to consider in a short space of time and raised “concerns about a pattern that has emerged in recent years.”

The President said that since the beginning of July he has been asked to consider “19 separate bills. Nine were presented on the one day.”

He said the legislation was required “to be considered and signed in the same seven-day period”.

“Many of these bills are complex and require me to undertake a detail analysis of their constitutional implications. Some may require the seeking of legal advice and others consultation with the Council of State.” 

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Mark Daly, called the meetings today to determine the ordering of business for the new term. 

The Dáil is currently in recess but before it broke for the summer a number of high-profile bills were passed that were signed into law by President Higgins. 

Among them was the controversial indoor dining bill as well as laws relating to the  CervicalCheck Tribunal and the Land Development Agency. 

In his letter, Higgins says that 21 of 32 Bills presented to him last year were sent in the weeks leading up to the summer and Christmas breaks. 

He said that as part of his considerations, he reviews the debates from both Houses of the Oireachtas, and it has struck him that debates for many of these “very important and far-reaching legislative proposals have been curtailed through the imposition of restrictions on time in one or both Houses”.

Many were not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, he added, stating that “considerable portions of some Bills that arrive on my desk have not  been considered in detail”.

Amendments put down by members are often not discussed, and government amendments to legislation are carried without proper scrutiny, he added.

Volume increase

When asked about the matter today, the Taoiseach said the pandemic has had an impact on the volume of new legislation, and it has also impacted how committee meetings can be held.

He said there is an opportunity for Dáil reform, and how legislation makes its way through the Houses, stating there is a need to “provide more time for legislation”.

“There’s been an ongoing need throughout the pandemic to get Covid legislation through. And depending on public advices at any time, the Oireachtas has had to be nimble and agile to respond to public health imperatives,” he said.

“I would accept that there has been a high volume coming at the end of it, of the parliamentary session, that’s been a trend for many, many years, but has been exacerbated by Covid, no question,” he added.

Following today’s meeting among politicians about the letter, which lasted about an hour, it was decided that the Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail and Seanad Chair Mark Daly will write to all ministers and the secretary generals for each department calling for a “smoother process” for legislation in the next term.

A meeting with he Taoiseach and Attorney General to discuss the management of the legislative process is also being sought.

‘Valid concerns’

Both have also written to the president to say they “understand and appreciate” his concerns over the volume of legislation being sent over to him in recent days.

It is understood there was no push back against the president for issuing the letter, with all members stating that he had raised valid concerns, and such concerns had been raised previously on the floor of the Dáil and at the Dáil business committee this year. 

The meeting heard that there should be no “bottle-necking” of legislation. Over the next week, members of the committees will send proposals to the chairs about how to improve matters, with some suggestion that there be better use of the committees.

Other suggestions included putting Thursday sittings to better use, with also some suggestions of having an extra sitting day on a Friday, where needed.

There was an “element of the head prefect” having to step in and get involved, said one politician who was at the meeting. 

The meeting heard that the letter from the president was an “alarm bell” of a letter and government should pay heed if they are expecting to force through emergency legislation in the future, as it might not have such a speedy passage has it has in the past.

As set out in the constitution, the president must consider new legislation before signing it into law.

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Under Article 26 of the constitution, Higgins can refer legislation to the Supreme Court within seven days of receiving it, to determine whether the Bill conflicts with the constitution.

The president must convene with the Council of State when doing so.

If the Supreme Court holds that the Bill is unconstitutional, the president cannot sign it.

If the court rules it is constitutional, the president signs the Bill and it becomes law and it cannot be challenged at a later date.

‘Ramming through emergency legislation’

Speaking to The Journal, Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said:

“Time and again we see legislation rushed through the Oireachtas by this Government. Very often it is down to a Government ill prepared and bad planning.

“Ramming through emergency legislation at the 11th hour has been a hallmark of this Government’s approach in recent times.

“Rushed legislation bypasses proper scrutiny and accountability and deminishes the role of the Oireachtas.”

Sinn Féin Chief Whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said that the government’s practice of ramming legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas must cease, and he has said that proper parliamentary scrutiny and consideration must be given to proposed laws.

“For too long, we have seen the government ride roughshod over the Dáil and Seanad by forcing through legislation with guillotines. This means entire sections of Bills are often not debated at all and proposed amendments are brushed aside. This is totally unacceptable.

“The disrespect shown to Oireachtas committees, which carry out crucial pre-legislative work, is staggering,” he said.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said he was delighted to see the president write to the Oireachtas about the amount of legislation being pushed through by Government, calling the manner in which legislation is being rammed through as a “disgrace”.

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