PoliticsReform

Changing the committee culture

Oireachtas-Commitee-Room Art O’Leary, Oireachtas Director of Committees, discusses the committee system’s new structure and powers with Meadhbh Monahan.

Thirty of the Programme for Government’s pledges on reforming the Oireachtas relate to changing the role, structure or powers of committees. The reform process is already underway and there are now 14 committees as opposed to 26. Members are only required to sit on one policy committee so that they can focus an appropriate amount of time on the required workload.

There are seven sectoral committees scrutinising 14 departments (see relevant committee page). Five of these will scrutinise two departments and two will shadow three departments each, thereby considerably increasing members’ workloads.

The three standing committees are:

• Public Accounts;

• Members’ Interests; and

• Procedures and Privileges.

A new Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee will act as a ‘clearing house’ for parliamentary petitions from individuals and groups seeking redress of grievances about the public services. It will pass complaints to relevant bodies such as the Ombudsman, the Data Protection Commissioner or the relevant Oireachtas committee. The Ombudsman will be required to attend as a regular witness.

Due to Europe’s increasing importance and relevance, the European Union Affairs Committee will no longer deal with all proposals from the European Commission. Instead, individual committees will deal with EU directive proposals that are relevant to their departments. The European Union Affairs Committee will now scrutinise matters arising from Ireland’s membership in the EU that are not covered in other committees.

Scrutiny

Committees will now have increased powers to hold public servants to account, question CEOs of state bodies, carry out pre-legislative scrutiny and value-for-money and policy reviews.

The Programme for Government states that the Abbeylara Supreme Court decision currently limits the ability of Dáil committees to hold investigations into crucial issues of public concern, such as the banking crisis. Therefore, the Government intends to hold a referendum to change the constitution to allow committees more powers of investigation.

Accountability will be a key theme in the 31st Dáil and the Programme for Government states: “Where a responsibility is delegated through several civil service grades, each grade will be held accountable for their element of it and departmental officials giving evidence to Oireachtas committees will be obliged to speak on their own behalf for their delegated responsibilities and, where appropriate, defend themselves and their actions.”

This is “more stark than some people expected,” according to O’Leary. There is now “some nervousness” in public sector circles as a result of this prospect.

Proposals for financial scrutiny by committees will be brought forward in the autumn to deal with:

• the estimates process;

• the comprehensive spending review;

• public service delivery reports (which will expose any failure to hit milestones and targets and will be used by the Oireachtas when considering the next Budget); and

• the parliament’s relationship with the Fiscal Advisory Council (a new body separate from fiscal decision-makers in government, that would undertake official fiscal macro-economic projections and monitoring and would report to the Dáil and the public).

On the estimates process, O’Leary says members agree that the practice of considering a budget half-way through the year in which it is being spent is “not the proper way to do business.”

He says: “As part of the revision process, the committees will be considering the estimates at a much earlier stage and will have the opportunity to be able to report and make recommendations because it’s not simply about the money; it’s what we are getting for the money.”

Europe

“Everything that everyone does now has a European dimension and that is reflected in the new committee system as it’s laid out,” O’Leary contends.

Following the Lisbon Treaty the Oireachtas was given the power to ensure that the EU policies comply with the principle of subsidiarity. This means the Oireachtas can determine whether it or the European Union can take action on areas where there is joint competence.

The Oireachtas receives proposals for new EU legislation directly. If several parliaments object, they can force a rethink or withdrawal. A yellow, orange and red card system is in place (as explained in the adjacent box).

Member states have national parliament representatives in Brussels (Ireland’s is Derek Dignam), who keep their national parliaments informed about upcoming legislation and relevant issues.

MEPs (including those from Northern Ireland and other member states) will now be invited to attend all relevant committees, not just the European Union and Foreign Affairs Committees. Attendance will be at their discretion.

Sub-committees

Committees shadowing two departments (such as Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Agriculture, Marine and Food) will have a sub- committee for each department that will deal with their legislation and estimates.

“If you have a piece of legislation on broadband there would be no point in the agriculture spokespersons having to attend and vote,” O’Leary explains.

Each sub-committee will have nine members: three opposition party members and six members of the government parties.

State bodies such as Fás (which is involved in three departments: Social Protection, Education and Skills and Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation) would appear before the plenary meeting of that committee rather than the individual sub- committees.

O’Leary concludes: “The opportunity is there to do things differently and to change the culture.”

Lisbon Treaty powers

Yellow card

Step 1: One-third of national parliaments (currently nine out of 27) believe a draft European legislative act does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity and send a ‘reasoned opinion’ to the EU Parliament and Commission within eight weeks of the draft legislation being sent out.

Step 2: The EU institution where the proposal originated decides whether legislation is maintained, amended or withdrawn.

Orange card

Step 1: A majority of national parliaments (currently 14 out of 27) believe that a legislative proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity.

Step 2: The proposal must be reviewed by the Commission which will decide whether the proposal is maintained, amended or withdrawn.

Red card

Step 1: The European Council can use a general passerelle to change the decision-making process in a given area from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV), or from special to the ordinary legislative procedure (i.e. the Commission proposes a legislative act and the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament co-decide). Any decision to move to QMV or the ordinary legislative procedure must have the unanimous agreement of the European Council. In addition, the initiative must be notified to each national parliament which have a veto over the use of a general passerelle clause, provided that it communicates its opposition within six months of notification.

Step 2: The Dáil will notify the European Affairs
Committee of decisions to be made under the general passerelle clause and the committee will report any opposition to this decision back to the Dáil.

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