Belfast Telegraph

'Real improvements' in Dail reforms

People who make it onto the letters pages of newspapers could be among members of the public brought before the Dail to help craft new laws.

As plans for a major overhaul of Irish politics were published, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said more public involvement in the early stages of legislation could make for a more effective system.

"After having been in Finland there, in many cases the committee system in that country, when it looks at the taking of public information of the people, they call on occasional letter writers to the paper," Mr Kenny said.

"As well as other people, who might have a vast range of experience or knowledge of what the particular issue might be."

The reforms, which will begin taking effect from Wednesday, will include longer sitting hours of the Dail with an earlier start to each day - 12.30pm on Tuesdays, and 9.30am on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The Dail will also sit on two Fridays of every month instead of one, which will include discussions on committee reports and debates on private members' bills.

It is estimated the standard Dail week will increase from 23 hours to 28 under the plans.

The reforms are a central part of the Government's campaign to abolish the Seanad.

Most of the changes will come into force regardless of how the public votes in the referendum on October 4.

But some measures are contingent on the scrapping of the upper house.

As the longest serving member of the Dail, Mr Kenny said he had seen numerous attempts of reform in the past and insisted this new plan is not perfect.

"We could sit seven days a week for 15 hours a day and that still would not satisfy everyone," he said.

"The latest phase of changes being recommended here by the Government will deliver real improvements to the way that the Dail examines legislation, the scrutiny of budgets and the spending of monies.

"It will also bring civil society, interest groups and experts into the legislative process at an early stage."

The longer sitting hours will afford TDs more time to consider legislation with a more structured system for its drafting and enactment, which is expected to reduce the use of the guillotine.

Under plans to involve the public, Oireachtas committees will be able to consult advocacy, civil society groups and expert individuals at the pre-legislative stage.

Mr Kenny said this process had been successful in the drafting of recent landmark abortion laws when medical and legal experts were called before the Health Committee to give their opinion.

Other reforms include:

:: Ministers who do not bring a Bill to committee for the pre-legislative stage will be required to inform both the Cabinet and the Dail their reasons why.

:: Committees will have greater involvement in the budget process, with the opportunity to review spending estimates for the year ahead between budget day and the Christmas break.

:: Two sitting weeks a year - in early May and early November - will be spent dealing with European Union-related business.

:: Committees will review the annual Stability Programme Update produced by the Government for the EU.

:: There will also be Dail debate on a new document called the National Risk Assessment, which will set out risks - both financial and non-financial - which the country faces in the year ahead.

The Government outlined a separate set of reforms to take effect in the next Dail - provided its campaign to abolish the Seanad is successful.

Under a unicameral system, these reforms will include:

:: A pre-enactment stage will be introduced between report stage and final stage of legislation. This would be undertaken by the committee which had considered the Bill at pre-legislative and committee stages, and will allow it to make recommendations to the Dail before approval.

:: The committee system will be overhauled - with 14 Dail committees including four strategic, seven sectoral and three thematic committees.

:: The committee chairpersons will be appointed using the d'Hondt system to ensure proportionate distribution of chairs between the Government and opposition.

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