Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 04 October, 2006

Petitions Committee: Motion.

  Ms Tuffy: I move:

That Seanad Éireann will establish a petitions committee and initiate procedures for civil engagement with the Seanad through a right of individuals, community groups and organisations to petition the Seanad and make a request to the Seanad to take a view or initiate or amend legislation in relation to matters of public interest or concern.

The motion sets out clearly what I would like the Seanad to do. I thank my own group and the Leader of the House, Senator O’Rourke, for the opportunity to elaborate on my proposal.

I will give some background on the concept of the right to petition. It is a right of persons or groups of persons either to request their legislature to do something or to make a complaint. That right is available to the German people whose law states that every person shall have the right, individually or jointly with others, to address written requests or complaints to competent authorities and to the legislature. The German Bundestag has set up a petitions committee, requests to which are primarily taken to [1481]mean suggestions regarding legislation, including enactment, amendment or repeal of a law, and complaints are primarily directed against the acts or omissions of administrative authorities.

The right to petition is a very old right. I have done some research on articles about the history of the right to petition and have identified that it goes back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. That document set out rights of subjects vis-à-vis their king, but it included a petition of right, which is similar to petitioning a king regarding grievances. The idea behind the right to petition was to allow people make complaints and petitions regarding grievances. That type of concept is still in place; we only have to look to the example of the European Parliament. It also developed into a much more substantial right, which is the type of right I would have in mind for the Seanad, whereby individuals or groups of individuals could call on the legislature to do something. That is the way the idea developed in individual American states and it is still to the fore in some of them.

In that type of right to petition, members of the public would have an instigating role. They could come up with ideas for legislation and make requests. Individuals or groups could identify a gap in a particular law and seek appropriate change. They could also call for a debate on a particular issue. Under this process members of the public could have a major influence on legislation and on their legislators. Subject to checks and balances, they could instruct their representatives. It would involve a dialogue between the public and Parliament. It is a very old and radical idea. Some parliaments have had such a process in the past, others have rolled back on the idea while others have taken it up and developed it very well.

This issue was raised in the Seanad in 1925 in a debate about the presentation of petitions. A question of procedure arose and the Earl of Mayo—

  Ms O’Rourke: The Earl of Mayo?

  Ms Tuffy: I had hoped the Leas-Chathaoirleach would be in the Chair to comment on it.

  Mr. B. Hayes: He is the Lord of Castlebar.

  Ms Tuffy: The Earl of Mayo tried to make a petition concerning a road from Fintown to Doochary, County Donegal, to the effect that the road should be made passable for traffic.

  Ms O’Rourke: When was that?

  Ms Tuffy: That was on 31 March 1925. A debate ensued because the Seanad had not decided on the right to petition at that stage. The Dáil had ruled out the proposal and the Seanad had not taken a view on it. The petition was defeated but it referred the question of whether [1482]to take petitions in future to a sub-committee. I could not find out what happened after that. It appears the idea was not developed, although I cannot be sure about that. It does not appear to have been raised in the Seanad since then.

The type of right I have in mind is to allow members of the public have an initiating role whereby they can call for legislation. It would be based on a bottom-up approach and could come from an individual group or even a county council. This would be a way for Members to engage in dialogue with county councils. Obviously, were this approach to be adopted, they could participate in it.

A good example that could be considered is the manner in which the Scottish Parliament has introduced such a system. On its establishment some years ago, it decided to allow the right to petition. Mr. George Reid, who is presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, has stated that:

Many of the discussions that took place and shaped the Parliament that we have now were difficult. When it came to discussing a petitioning system, however, we were united. We were determined that we should be open and inclusive and that we should give the public access to their Parliament in a very Scots way.

Members should do the same in an Irish way. He also stated that the public petitions committee, which has been extremely successful, grew out of such discussions.

In a sense, what they did was similar to what was done in Northern Ireland in terms of police reform. They examined all models and came up with a good one themselves. They have had many firsts, such as being the first Parliament to implement an e-petitioning system. Subsequently, the German Bundestag examined it and has also adopted it. They have held rolling meetings throughout Scotland in which they tried to promote the petition system and have included marginalised groups because they wish to try to engage the different sectors of society.

I will provide some examples of how the Scottish system works. Basically, it operates along the lines of this motion. Individuals, community groups and organisations can make a request to the Scottish Parliament on a matter of wide public interest or concern, or to amend existing legislation. Such petitions are forwarded to the Public Petitions Committee, which processes them — its 1,000th petition was presented today. The committee goes through the petitions and can make a decision on them. It can decide to do nothing, by closing a matter and not considering it. Moreover, a petition must be appropriate. There are many guidelines in this regard and a particular form must be filled out. The committee can send the petition to a Minister for his or her consideration, it can have a debate in the Scottish Parliament or it can refer it to a parliamentary [1483]committee. Ultimately, in Scotland this can and has led to changes in legislation.

The petitions received by the committee are interesting. For example, its current list includes one from a primary school. The school substantiated its petition application with research conducted by its students. Essentially, the petition calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Executive to take greater action to protect the public, domestic and non-domestic birds as well as animals, from the dangers of broken glass; to promote the use of plastic bottles as an alternative to glass; and to introduce a refundable deposit scheme aimed at reducing the levels of broken glass in public places. The petition includes details such as children’s experience of broken glass in playgrounds.

In the case of a primary school, the petition was drawn up on the students’ behalf. However, some petitions pertain to legislation. One petition is from a man asking — Members will be interested in this and many will be opposed to it — to extend the prohibition of smoking to designated areas in the vicinity of non-smoking premises, such as doorways and pavement cafés.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Ms Tuffy: Someone might also come up with a similar petition here.

  Ms O’Rourke: No, that would not work. They could not cope with it.

  Ms Tuffy: The 1,000th petition, which was received today, came from secondary school students and pertained to the consumption and availability of cheap alcohol. Hence, this would be a great way in which to engage young people in the workings of the Seanad.

  Ms O’Rourke: The cold weather is approaching for all those who smoke outside.

  Ms Tuffy: Yes. This model differs from the European Parliament model, which is concerned with airing one’s grievances. It also differs from the e-consultation that was carried out in respect of the Broadcasting Bill, although that was welcome. The right to petition goes much further. There is real dialogue and the public has a significant instigative role, which is extremely important.

This proposal would be ideal for the Seanad because its mandate is different from that of the Dáil. Members are not elected to particular constituencies and can take a broader view. Petitions would not be approached in a narrow fashion, while a Deputy might be placed under pressure on a particular issue. Members can take a broad view and this House has a record for so doing in the past. It has a record of being a less adversarial model. Members go through the nitty-gritty of [1484]legislation and this could be also done with petitions once they reached the House.

Moreover, there has been much debate regarding Seanad reform. Senator O’Rourke has taken the debate on this issue much further than anyone else. I have researched the issue and it has arisen many times. Although many Leaders have facilitated debates and statements on Seanad reform, Senator O’Rourke is the only person who held proper public consultation on the issue, which resulted in a substantial report.

  Ms O’Rourke: The public consultation worked.

  Ms Tuffy: This proposal could be implemented in terms of Seanad reform without requiring a change in legislation. If Senator O’Rourke adopted this measure, she could change the Seanad in terms of public and civil engagement. It could mark the Seanad as being separate from and more progressive than the Dáil. People could feel a sense of ownership of the Seanad that may not be the case at present. People feel such a sense of ownership of the Dáil because they elect representatives to it. However, the Dáil is in major need of reform, perhaps even more so than the Seanad.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Tuffy should wait until she and I get into it. I should say back into it.

  Ms Tuffy: The House could mark itself out in this regard. This is an ideal role for the Seanad.

  Mr. Ryan: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh an díospóireacht seo. As putative leader of the Labour group — in the Labour Party every leader is putative — Senator Tuffy has been asking me for months to facilitate a debate on this motion.

  Mr. Roche: A temporary arrangement.

  Mr. Ryan: It is a good idea because too much time is spent in this House trying to be a mirror image of the other House and in shouting at one another. While I yet may do some shouting, this issue is worth discussing because there is a profound problem, both in Ireland and in western society generally, of disengagement from politics. It would be remiss of me not to state that this is not helped by equivocation and evasion regarding loans, presents, dig-outs and other matters. They do not help to achieve a sense a political engagement. I will not omit this factor from the redress of political engagement. However, I will not spend all of my time on it either. I will leave it to the poodles of Ranelagh to do what they need to do in this respect.

  Mr. B. Hayes: It was not the poodles of Longford, who were mentioned in the House this morning.

  Ms O’Rourke: Or of Westmeath.

[1485]  Mr. Ryan: The fundamental issue is that—

  Mr. Roche: We will not mention the poodles from Tallaght.

  Mr. B. Hayes: There are no poodles of Tallaght.

  Mr. Ryan: — politics has changed to a degree in western societies and ideological differences have become blurred, at least in the short term. While I believe they will arise again because of forces at work in the evolution of economies that will reinvigorate a serious ideological debate, in the short term, members of the public are easily persuaded that who is in power makes no difference. It would not have been possible to persuade working class Britain in 1945 that who was in power made no difference. It would not have been possible to persuade them of this three years later, when a National Health Service was provided for the first time ever. This made an enormous difference to the quality of life for working families and people. There are specific issues like this.

I will allude to the people of my father’s generation, who campaigned for Fianna Fáil in the early 1930s and who saw massive programmes of public housing being built. That programme was described by prominent academics as an example of Bolshevism at work. It would not have been possible to persuade such people that policies made no difference, because in my home town they saw a move from mud cabins to houses with running water and a toilet. At present however, it is much more difficult to persuade people that politics matters. This is one reason for the decline in voting, although registers also have much to do with it. However, the lack of a belief that one’s vote matters is significant. Part of what must be done is the re-engagement of the public with the belief that politics matters. One of the more sinister developments is the way major sections of the media, in this country and others, send out a message that is essentially cynical about politics. They concentrate on the entertainment value of the occasional idiotic remarks made by politicians, which are always picked up. There are now almost as many colour features about politics as articles containing serious analysis.

The same newspapers which create that climate are owned by people who are acutely aware of the importance of politics and who spend both time and money ensuring the politics that develop are the politics they want. In the UK, more so than Ireland, they summon leaders of Government to their conferences to be reassured of that, even as their newspapers give the impression there is not much difference between politicians. In this country one major newspaper group peddles the line that it does not make much difference who is in power because they are all the same and all equally corrupt, but the owner does [1486]not believe a word of it and cultivates politicians who agree with him.

There is a great need to re-engage the public. If an issue, local, national or international, agitates people or is not, in their opinion, being addressed with the priority it deserves, they need to be persuaded there is a process through which, without having to visit a clinic and outside election time, they can put it right. Irish politicians, perhaps more than many others, have a good idea of what the public thinks, but things can get overlooked and our society has become much more complicated. In the Minister’s area, the environment, many of the best ideas have originated from local communities thinking about how to deal with problems. It is not always the case but it is common. Local communities are a great source of ingenuity, creativity and imagination. It is very frustrating to spend years knocking on the doors of unresponsive bureaucracies to get things done that are obviously in the interests of the community.

When I was first elected, community groups often asked me for advice about campaigning. I used to reply that the first thing they needed was stamina. They then asked what was the second thing they needed. I said it was also stamina, as were the following ten things. However, it should not be stamina. Good ideas need to be tested but deserve to be heard.

The way the media regard the commentary of people outside the political process, whether it be CORI talking about poverty or a non-governmental organisation discussing the environment, creates a problem. Their response is to get politicians to have a row about it. Then they decide to bring in dispassionate experts to talk about it. I use a pet phrase, which I may have stolen from a piece the Minister wrote during his academic years, the tyranny of experts.

The late Lieutenant General MJ Costello who, as I recall, was not a great admirer of Fianna Fáil, although I am not sure, detested experts who came into his office and tried to swamp him with gobbledygook. He had a great belief in his own ability and believed himself to be reasonably intelligent. If anybody came to him and told him something he did not understand, he would say that if they were real experts, they would be able to explain it to him. He told them to leave, acquire a proper understanding of the subject and explain it to him. That is the sort of expertise ordinary working families have, one based on experience. They know what is wrong with their local communities.

I am aware of a classic example which is now common practice. For years local authorities, when building housing estates, whether private or public, used to lay paths only to discover that the public would not walk on them but went a different way instead. Nowadays, in many places they wait a little while and see which routes people take. Then they put the path where people actually want to walk. It is very simple and sensible [1487]but previously only they knew where the path should be. The fact that the people did not want to walk along it was a mistake on the part of the people. Until recently, to put double yellow lines on a street in Cork required the permission of the Garda Commissioner in Dublin, as if the Garda Commissioner in Dublin would know anything about the nature of parking in Cork. There was a belief that there was always an expert who knew the answer.

The process proposed in this motion would not change things inherently but would foster a sense of engagement with the Houses of the Oireachtas, this one in particular, that would begin a process of enhancing the public sense that politics is a process that delivers change. We know it happens but the public does not believe it anymore.

  Mr. Roche: I will do something dangerous and ignore my script. I can give the Senator another story to quote. When I was a civil servant many years ago, one of my senior and wiser people advised me about the dangers of Ministers who got their script too early and wrote on it. The real horror was a Minister who got a script and then changed it. Worse still was a character who actually said what he thought.

A petitions committee is an interesting idea, something I do not say in a patronising way. I will refer to two points made by Senator Ryan. One is that politics matters. If we do not believe that, we should not be here, nor should we subscribe to the idea that this is a modern democratic State. Whatever we disagree on, we must agree on that essential common point. I will make a couple of critical points but do not want be regarded as throwing cold water on what I regard as a fundamentally good idea.

Senator Ryan also urged re-engagement with the public, with which I also agree. If we care for democracy there is a critical need to do so. If, as a State, we do not re-engage with the public or get the public to re-engage with politics, the country will end up being run by faceless people who, for all their many talents, will never be answerable to anybody. We have created not just a tyranny of expertise but, in many areas of public administration and life, a tyranny of people who are not answerable. That is wrong because the essence of democracy is for the people — the Demos — to have the right to express an opinion.

There are many things I could say but I will focus on a couple of points. I pay tribute to Senator O’Rourke and I am pleased Senator Tuffy did so. She has driven the reform agenda in the Seanad, I will not say manfully—

  Ms O’Rourke: There were many on the committee.

  Mr. Roche: The Leader should not demur at a compliment. It is right to engage in this dis[1488]cussion. We have established a sub-committee under my chairmanship, as Senators know, which picks up on the work of the Leader’s sub-committee. The sub-committee touched on the area of public consultation, which is interesting. I am pleased to say that Senator Tuffy’s motion offers clarification in that regard in her focus on how the concept of a petitions committee could be developed, without cutting across other agencies, to create a sense of engagement. Significantly, the sub-committee did not mention a petitions committee, perhaps because its focus was different.

Following the sub-committee’s report and on foot of a request from the Taoiseach and in consultation with all the party leaders, I established an informal all-party parliamentary group on Seanad reform. It would be untruthful, however, to suggest that it has made any rapid progress.

  Ms O’Rourke: It has not.

  Mr. Roche: The group’s remit was to establish the extent of cross-party agreement on recommendations in the report. Frankly, I am not sure exactly how much agreement there is. There are some areas of consensus but others where I do not think it will emerge. The group held its first meeting in October 2005 and will hold its fourth on 18 October 2006.

I will make a proposal to the House and a couple of points about the idea of a petitions committee. Perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will consider the points I raise for the Seanad to clarify. It can then bring forward the matter as the first item on the agenda for the meeting of 18 October where we can develop a real consensus around the idea.

The motion focuses initially on the recommendations which could be effected, such as changes in Standing Orders, including the recommendation for the promotion of the Seanad as an appropriate place for public consultation in the early stages of legislation. That is hardly an earth-shifting proposal. To take forward that and other proposals and to update itself on developments in the interim, the group made contact with the relevant Oireachtas committees, the Taoiseach, relevant Ministers, Departments, and the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges and stated that the matter could be best pursued in the course of dealings with the Party Whips.

The motion does not call on the Government, on me, or on the all-party group to take a specific action which is good because it sets a ball rolling and allows people to make up their own minds. The motion seems to be an internal matter in the first instance for the Seanad and that is why it should ask the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges for its view.

It needs, however, to clarify several issues. I do not intend these points as criticism. It is easy to destroy an idea and I do not wish to do that. I am interested in the Seanad and in reforming it. Senator O’Rourke tells me that we are not going [1489]far enough in the Seanad. There is an area of real interest in this motion but the Seanad needs to say how it proposes to define the remit of the committee, for example, what sort of issues could be brought before it. Senators Tuffy and Ryan indicated how it should approach that. This needs clarity and focus.

Senators Tuffy and Ryan suggest that issues would be confined to operations in the public services. If a petitions committee is to focus on what is needed that would not be what is being done but what should be done. We need more clarity here.

How would such a committee fit in with other agencies such as the Ombudsman, the Freedom of Information Commission, or the Garda Ombudsman Commission? If it is to handle petitions in the sense of complaint, an issue which Senator Tuffy mentioned, it ought not create an additional layer where there are already grievance agencies. How would it relate to the Comptroller and Auditor General who sometimes deals with the use of public funds, or with the Oireachtas committees?

What procedures would the Seanad employ to vet and prioritise complaints? It would not be a good idea for the petitions committee to become a listing agency with a long list of items, worthy though they may be, from the four corners of Ireland. I can think of plenty of people standing at corners signing petitions. The Seanad needs to think about that.

What resources would be necessary? If the committee is to make any sense we must discuss its resource implications. The cost of the committee has not been established. Will it need a budget line? The most important question is whether such a committee would have an investigative role? There have been many occasions when, as a public representative, I was extremely frustrated, for example, on the issue of the sale of lands at Glending. There is a large volume of correspondence about this because I raised the issue as a Senator and as a Deputy.

  Ms O’Rourke: I remember that.

  Mr. Roche: As a citizen, taxpayer and public representative I felt intense frustration that a valuable property, 14 miles from the centre of Dublin, containing millions of tonnes of sand and gravel, was sold for a ridiculous consideration. When we started to ventilate the issue I found that my frustration was nothing compared with that of citizens who felt that a large and powerful multinational company, based here, had trampled on their rights. Not only were they frustrated that their rights as citizens and taxpayers had not been vindicated but they had no way to ventilate their concerns. There was no obvious complaint mechanism available. Would the committee have some form of investigative capacity or role? If so, then the Seanad needs to consider its relationship with the agencies I mentioned earlier.

[1490]I do not intend these observations to be destructive. We are searching for a role for the Seanad and I believe in the concept of it being used in this way because it is less gladiatorial and political than the Dáil. Would the individual Senators carry out the investigations and if so how?

Legal powers would also have to be considered. Would it require power to compel the production of documents? This is an interesting area because many Oireachtas committees have been extremely frustrated on this point, not only in dealing with parties outside the Administration but even in compelling the production of documents within the public sector. Senator O’Rourke will recall a case when a new regulator chose to be less than forthcoming with information. I was on the committee at that time, not being a Minister, and thought there was something quintessentially wrong in a part of the public sector feeling it was not answerable to either the Minister of the day or the Oireachtas.

What sort of powers would this committee have, how would they be enforced and what would arise from non-cooperation? What kind of findings would the committee make? Much of this relates to whether the committee decides to focus purely on the evolution of law, and ideas to bring forward new legislation, or would it, like other petitions committees, have some right to investigate and handle complaints? What would be the status of the findings?

These are important considerations, and Senator Ryan will note that I did some substantial editing. He left out the less complimentary part of what I said.

  Mr. B. Hayes: We read it.

  Mr. Ryan: We would hardly put that on the record ourselves.

  Mr. Roche: That would not be wise because this is a positive exchange and we should have more positive exchanges. One point the group left out is that the Irish people are put off politics because we are not engaging in politics but in personal petty destruction of individual characters. That is not good.

We all have exchanges and sometimes use strong language in both Houses, which is the nature of politics but we should have a more calm and focused debate. All these points are worthy of detailed study and assessment. Such a committee could have a real role. The Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges might like to consider and focus more clearly on some of my points. If the all-party group permits, when it meets on 18 October, I would be quite willing, in line with my positive responses here, to put the group’s considered view as the first item on the agenda, which is the appropriate place to discuss it. The idea is good, and if we focus it we can take something positive out of it. I must answer [1491]to people who wrote a script that suggests otherwise. We have been talking for a long time in a kind of haze about the concept. Perhaps I should say “maze” to make it clear that I do not refer to Senator Brian Hayes.

  Ms O’Rourke: I could not understand what the Minister meant.

  Mr. Roche: I think “maze” is more appropriate because we have been going around in slightly decreasing circles, ending up in the circumstance I have outlined.

I do not mean to be patronising when I say this proposal is worth considering. I am genuinely committed to and interested in creating a more vibrant role for the Seanad. I share Senator O’Rourke’s enthusiasm — she has beaten me on the head with it — for Seanad reform. The committee I mentioned can focus on this issue in the short term. I thank the Senators who tabled this Private Members’ motion. We should have debates of this nature more frequently. I have outlined, without being destructive, some of the practical issues on which we need to decide. When those issues have been dealt with by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which can do so easily, the all-party group can take it from there.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I warmly welcome the motion that has been tabled by the Labour Party Senators. I thank Senator Tuffy for raising this issue regularly in the past few months. I thank the Leader of the House for giving this matter such a positive airing when it has been highlighted on the Order of Business.

I recall the first day the new Seanad met after the last election, almost four and a half years ago. The over-riding concern of all the contributions made by Members on that day was the need to deal conclusively with the issue of Seanad reform. It was suggested that all the previous reports should be put to one side so that we could get on with the job. I compliment the Leader of the House on her tenacity in driving the process on an all-party basis, thereby allowing us to publish the report. Like other Senators, I have been disappointed by the pace of the implementation of the report.

A fundamental question, which is as relevant to the current Government as it would be to any other Government comprising any other collection of parties, needs to be addressed in any debate on Seanad reform. Is the Government of the day prepared to take on this issue and to resolve it? We should admit that the same questions would be asked if Fine Gael and any other Opposition parties were on the other side of the House. We need to confront this fundamental question. I do not think we can deal with this on a piecemeal basis. The compromises which were reflected in the Seanad reform document rep[1492]resent the way forward in the reform agenda, broadly speaking. We are facing a dilemma because we know that nothing will happen in the tail end of a Parliament. I hope that whoever is in government after the next election can get on with allowing this House to reform itself. I estimate that at least 80% of the contributions which were made on the first day the Seanad met after the last election were in support of the reform of the Seanad.

The Minister, Deputy Roche, referred to the public consultation process, which was one of the most positive things that was done during the Seanad reform efforts. Senators were involved in the public consultation process over the course of a week. I was quite astonished by the number of written, oral and e-mail submissions which were received from groups and individuals which were interested in the process of Seanad reform. When we placed public advertisements in the newspapers I thought nobody would reply and I was astonished by the response that was received.

  Ms O’Rourke: Some 158 submissions were made.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I think that a certain number of people, in the current public mood, will respond to the process of reform if we can get on with implementing it. We dealt with this issue to a slight extent in our document when we said there should be a formal process of consultation—

  Ms O’Rourke: With regard to legislation.

  Mr. B. Hayes: —before a Bill is published or after the heads of a Bill have been published. It was proposed that any group that could be affected by legislation should be entitled to come to this Chamber to give Senators their considered views in advance of Second Stage. The suggestion that has been made by Senator Tuffy and her colleagues is a better one, however, because it allows for a bottom-up approach to be taken when suggestions about public policy are being received. I think we need to move towards such an approach.

The principle of petitioning is established in the Seanad. As I understand it, Private Bills can be initiated and sponsored by institutions or individuals outside the House. For example, the House considered the Trinity College Dublin (Charters and Letters Patent Amendment) Bill 1997, which was sponsored by that institution, some years ago. Private Bills can be proposed on the floor of the House. I understand that under existing Standing Orders, amendments to Private Bills can be proposed by people who are not even Members of the House. As I understand it, if one has a solicitor or a barrister positing one’s amendment, that amendment can be tabled. Senator Ryan has more knowledge and experience of this area than I have.

[1493]  Mr. Ryan: I managed to avoid that experience, much to my relief.

  Mr. B. Hayes: We need to understand the principle that underpins Private Bills. The Standing Orders which relate to Private Bills, rather than to the public business of this House, could well be the foundation of the acceptance of the proposal that has been made by Senator Tuffy. If an Oireachtas committee establishes that an individual or an institution has a locus standi, it is within the rights of this House to allow a Bill to be promoted by that individual or institution. We need to recognise that and see whether we can build on it.

May I give an example of a matter that could be covered under the suggestion that has been made by Senator Tuffy? I recently saw a terrific programme on Channel 4, in which the public was asked to nominate the 20 ugliest buildings in Britain. The request for the public to get involved in architecture received an astonishing response from people in Scotland, England and Wales. People from all parts of the United Kingdom submitted the names of the ugliest buildings in their communities. Most of these wrecks of buildings were constructed in the post-modernist era of the 1960s. The outcome of the vote was that the public believed it should have the power to delist buildings which are a blight on the architecture of their local communities. Such buildings include ugly car parks, shopping centres and commercial facilities which are run down because their owners have moved off and local authorities are unable to take action.

As a result of that programme, a new provision might be included in the United Kingdom’s planning legislation to give the power to a community to initiate a process of delisting. Senators will be aware that the people already have the power to list buildings, but there is no such power to delist buildings. That core idea came from the public — nobody in a position of power had thought of it.

  Ms O’Rourke: Yes.

  Mr. B. Hayes: New Labour, with all its years in office and its bright populist public consultation, had not thought of it.

  Mr. Ryan: They probably do not consult socialists.

  Mr. B. Hayes: There we have it — just leave it to the people. I have referred to that case as an example of many ideas which can be implemented. Public services are never designed to meet the needs of the people who use them.

  Ms O’Rourke: Not at all.

  Mr. B. Hayes: The Minister regularly spoke about that when we were on the strategic management initiative committee some years ago. I think it is sensible that users of public services [1494]should be approached by public representatives when we are making decisions on best practice, codes and the manner in which services should interface with users. Many suggestions could be made by the public in this manner. A person living in my constituency telephoned me today to ask me why privacy windows are allowed in cars. Who gave legal effect to the installation of blacked-out windows in cars? Why should people be entitled to sit behind dark windows in their cars? I understand that the practice was established by the Tokyo Mafia some years ago.

  Ms O’Rourke: I think it was started by the Sultan of Morocco or someone like that.

  Mr. B. Hayes: All kinds of people are now driving around in cars with blackened windows. The person who contacted me earlier today asked me whether someone can do something about the practice. The Government is not the font of all wisdom. Not even the Opposition — God help us and protect us — is the font of all wisdom. Many of the positive suggestions which are made by the public deserve a hearing. They could be implemented in law if there were a forum in which they could be initiated.

Regardless of the progress or lack of progress that is made by the all-party committee, perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in this House could consider Senator Tuffy’s suggestion. It could construct a working Standing Order to cater for this measure so that it can be launched. I have outlined my personal view on Seanad reform — if we wait for a kind of omnibus agreement to be reached by everyone, nothing will happen. If we can implement bits of reform as we go along, we should do so. I welcome the suggestion that has been made by Senator Tuffy.

  Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House and Senator Tuffy’s Private Members’ motion. Her point on engaging with young people on environmental matters such as recycling and waste management is relevant. The Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform, led by Senator O’Rourke, has done excellent work. The Taoiseach has a particular interest in Seanad reform and volunteerism. Last year in Cavan, the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party spent a weekend discussing community and volunteerism with Robert Putnam, who made an excellent contribution. People are concerned about volunteerism. Even in rural areas, it is now claimed that if it were not for community employment schemes, there would be no volunteers, even if it is just for putting up a village’s Christmas lights.

I organised one petition as a public representative to get 5,000 signatures to support a community hospital in Tuam, County Galway. Thankfully the then Minister for Health and Children, and then Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, delivered on the hospital. While other politicians organised [1495]other petitions, I am the only one in a photograph handing the 5,000 signatures to the Minister.

There is a general concern that many who make decisions are based in Dublin with no adequate consultation and involvement with rural communities. The National Roads Authority decided earlier this year that there would be only one access point on the Gort, County Galway, bypass. A local community organisation, the Gort Regional Association for Community Enterprise, GRACE, compiled projections for houses to be built in the area, figures for school enrolment and the town’s industry. It was successful in convincing the roads authority that a second access was needed. It was a great example of a local community getting across its message. It is up to the organisation to persuade Galway County Council and the National Roads Authority western section to provide the funding for the local road network. I thank the Minister for meeting GRACE when he visited Galway.

Other local associations have done excellent work in highlighting their communities’ views through research and public meetings. IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland should meet with people in the west to discuss industrial development. If that is not done, development will take place only in the larger urban centres.

Many powers have been given away to semi-State bodies. It is frustrating that issues with a board or a semi-State body cannot be raised in the House. For example, I could not find out why it was decided to remove two railway services on the Galway-Dublin line last year. Earlier this year, Bank of Ireland decided to shut its branch in Glenamaddy on 27 October. There are four roads in and out of the town but Bank of Ireland took one. While I accept this cannot be raised in the Seanad, there should be a consultation process with local communities on these matters.

The Tidy Towns competition is a great example of community involvement. Some of the marking reports for towns involved can be hard-hitting but they point out how communities can improve their environments. The Local Government (Business Improvement Districts) Bill is a good example where in urban areas people can get involved. The RAPID and CLÁR programmes offer the same opportunity to rural areas.

A petitions system to initiate legislation and debate is a move in the right direction for community development and involvement. I congratulate Senator Tuffy on tabling this motion. I hope the all-party sub-committee will make progress on Seanad reform.

  Mr. O’Toole: The concept of a petitions system is important because it involves the engagement between people and parliament. I was a member of the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform with Senators O’Rourke, Brian Hayes, Dardis and Ryan. It was on this committee that this issue was first raised. When considering Seanad reform, I [1496]examined the process in other Parliaments. I was interested in the New Zealand model because it moved from a bicameral to a unicameral system. As it was a Westminster, Anglophone style Parliament, I was curious how it managed this change. In its Bills procedure, it had a five Stages system similar to our own. When it moved over to a unicameral system, extra Stages were simply added. In effect, there were three different forms of Second Stage. The last form of Second Stage allowed for amendments made by a special committee to examine that Stage. This part of the Stage required the New Zealand Parliament to invite civic groups to make representations on the legislation.

My report facilitated discussion of this issue by the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform. Such a system can work well, even in a country like New Zealand which presents geographical difficulties, being a long, narrow country. The parliamentarians employed various strategies. If they believed a group had genuine locus standi and relevant insight on a particular issue, they would pay its expenses to come to Wellington and make a presentation. At other times, the special Second Stage committee went out to meet people in their localities. This worked well and it is something I recommend in our case.

We should also look to some of the existing Oireachtas committees. I made a propsal to the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that it should visit Gaeltacht areas to listen to and talk with people there, but it could not find its way to do this. The Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, on the other hand, is already engaged in such activity. Senator Kitt has attended one of its meetings in Ballinasloe in his own constituency.

These meetings are attended by a wide range of people, from business, labour, chamber of commerce and educational backgrounds. In addition, the committee always invites local post-primary school pupils to make a brief presentation. I believed this element to be ground breaking. Speaking recently about the connection between education and industry, however, a senior industrialist told me that the organisers of trade shows in Germany, which is the most advanced state in Europe in this regard, all insist that local post-primary schools are involved and contribute to the exhibitions.

I raised the issue of consultation with interested groups with the Leader some time ago. At the time the Disability Bill was going through the House, we agreed in principle it was an obvious example of where such consultaiton could work. There were so many groups with clearly defined disability agendas and the idea was that we would seek their views on Second Stage. This never came about but I do not blame the Leader for that; the fault lay with all of us. I invited some of these groups in for discussions after Second Stage but this contact turned out to [1497]be more of a briefing than the engagement which I envisaged.

A consultative approach can work. Senator Ryan will be extremely pleased to hear that I was at a meeting on Monday night where the general cry related to the difficulties people encounter in trying to talk to parliamentarians and put their view across on a particular issue. This was at a meeting i nDaingean Uí Chúis nuair a bhíodar ag plé ainm na háite. The attendees would sincerely welcome the opportunity to come and talk to Oireachtas Members chun ath-mheon mar gheall ar an díospóireacht seo atá ar siúl a chur faoi bhráid an Oireachtais. Their belief was that the legislation in question went through the Acht teanga while they were effectively deprived of any form of consultation. I am no longer jousting with Senator Ryan; this is a serious point.

  Ms O’Rourke: Did Senator O’Toole hear the song about the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív?

  Mr. O’Toole: That Bill took away the rights of people in the Gaeltacht to have a say in the name of their own place, a right enjoyed by everybody outside the Gaeltacht. This is not the place to argue the rights and wrong of that case but it is a good example of the issue we are discussing. It would have been useful in this case if we had known, through a process of consultation before this legislation was enacted, what its impact might be, how any issues might be dealt with and, later on, how it was working and how it might or should be changed. Other Members have given different legislative examples.

6 o’clock

Although it is cumbersome, I have seen how well the consultative process works in the New Zealand Parliament. At a time when there is such a lack of respect for the political world, we must encourage people to engage in the work we do and we must be seen to be listening and taking on board their views. People understand when they cannot get their way and when others disagree with them. Allowing interested persons to engage in such a consultative process is akin to giving them a day in court. People want to make their case, engage in argumentation and discussions, and listen to and make proposals. Such a process can be only valuable.

Perhaps a way of getting this off the ground would be to choose some legislation that will come through the House in the near future and agree to a process of consultation with interest groups with clearly defined agendas, as opposed to lobbyists. These groups could be invited to the House to talk to us on Second Stage or we can agree to go to them. I am aware there is an issue in this regard because Members of this House do not sit on select committees. There is nothing to stop us, however, from forming a select committee to deal with one Bill, or we could set up a joint select committee to try out this. I ask the Minister to keep in mind such a scheme as a way [1498]of testing this process. It would cost us nothing, pose no risks and would be well worthwhile.

  Ms O’Rourke: As Members spoke, I observed what a wonderfully constructive debate this is. I thank the Minister for coming to the House to listen to the high standard of debate.

I begin by saying “Well done” to Senator Tuffy. She spoke about this issue on the Order of Business last May but I was not aware she planned to bring forward a motion during Private Members’ business. It is a constructive and interesting debate and Senator Tuffy has clearly done her homework. She must have had somebody downloading information for a good portion of the day. Her ideas in regard to the Scottish Parliament are interesting because there are many remote areas in that jurisdiction where people may feel far removed geographically from power. She suggests a process by which either parliamentarians might meet people in their own areas or else people might come to meet the petitions committee. Senator Tuffy did not simply put down the motion and waffle on; she had her ideas on the issue and she put them forward.

The philosophical debate which followed has been equally useful. Everybody who spoke had fine ideas. I listened with enthusiasm to Senator O’Toole. I do not recall the visit to New Zealand but it was interesting because it is based on the same idea. The New Zealand Parliament did away with the upper house and found itself having to invent a senate-like arrangement because it was dissatisfied with the resulting vacuum.

The Minister and I are in agreement that the House should not divide on this issue because there is widespread agreement on it among Members of all parties. All the Fianna Fáil Senators said at our party meeting that they wished this to be an all-party issue. We want the Minister and Government to co-operate with us on this, as I said in the House this morning.

The Seanad reform programme has gone nowhere in the past 18 months. I do not mean to castigate anybody but this is a fact. It is not good enough. As Senator Brian Hayes said, everybody who spoke was in favour of Seanad reform. As he knows, however, the difficulties arise when it comes to the question of how Members are elected to the House. Apart from the university representatives, who are elected by a separate process, Members of this House are elected by the will of county councils and other local authorities. This is where everybody did a runner from the prospect of real reform; they wanted to be radical but not yet.

The Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform came up with many recommendations that we could have implemented. The seed of what Senator Tuffy has proposed was contained in that committee’s discussions on the need for consultation with the public. Some 158 groups responded to the public advertisement relating to the work of the committee. It was an amazing response. I [1499]remember seeing the advertisements the day they first appeared in the newspapers and thinking nobody would want to come. People flocked in, however, in a breathtaking public response. Two ushers guided them in every day at stated times and we did not have enough time to handle the volume of public interest.

We have let down people because we have not moved on this issue as we said we would. I propose we be selectively radical and take this proposal as a way forward because the germ of it was in our wish to engage with people prior to the formulation of legislation. Of course, civil servants would hate this because it would mean more work for them, it would mean they would have to attend these meetings. It is not that they are lazy, they do not want to rock boats. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, knows this, as someone who has tried to rock boats.

  Mr. Bannon: Senator O’Rourke told them that this morning.

  Ms O’Rourke: I cannot hear what the Senator is saying, and I have quite good hearing.

The key to this motion lies in deciding how to get started, to settle on the format of the petitions committee. We talk about the disconnect between Europe and the public, but people perceive a disconnect between parliament and the public and Senator Kitt spoke evocatively on this point. Public representatives conduct clinics, collect representations, write to the housing office, the Health Service Executive and so on. They receive replies, pass them on, follow up on them and make related phone calls. I only realise now how much it entails. However, in a philosophical way, there is a disconnect between Parliament and the people.

Surely the Seanad can provide a forum in which this disconnect can be addressed, whether it be here or another location. We could advertise that the committee would visit certain places on certain days. This is a community matter, as Senator Kitt pointed out, where a group may decide to do something. For example, if public opinion rose up in response to a bank’s earnings, the bank could reinvest some of its profits locally towards community service. The farmers of that area may have been prime customers for many years.

I approve of this idea and the Minister has spoken strongly in favour of it but it is important we decide how to give expression to it. I would like to start working on this matter, rather than continue talking about it. I would like it applied to the Aran Islands, for instance.

I always feel that Senator McHugh speaks authentically and he passionately gives vent to particular geographical ills. He approached the issue of cancer and women who could not travel from Donegal to Dublin in the same manner. [1500] This was also the case this morning on the subject of fishing ports and the quota system. That is an issue in which one could become deeply involved.

We must put some shape on this issue. The ideas are all in place as the Scottish Parliament has laid it out. The Minister has proposed the next meeting of the all party group for 18 October and the first item should be the setting up of a petitions committee and establishing its remit.

Senator O’Toole made a fair point on legislation. The five sectoral plans of the five Departments are going to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights. I propose, instead of simply accepting this, we debate it when it comes back to this House. Prior to that we should meet the disability groups to hear what their input has been and how they feel the five sectoral plans for the five Departments will be implemented. Will they mean anything to such groups? If we owe any community groups we owe groups representing the disadvantaged and the disabled. We should get the report from the committee and invite group representatives to this House to hear what they have to say.

I am happy that the Seanad has heard many fine contributions to this debate. I look forward to us putting our foot on the ladder of radicalism which this initiative represents. The omens look good for Senator Tuffy in an electoral sense, though I know saying that usually spells doom. I do not mean to imply electoral doom for Senator Tuffy.

  Mr. Ryan: Senator O’Rourke is topping the poll.

  An Cathaoirleach: We should not discuss the next election just yet because there are too many potential Deputies here.

  Ms O’Rourke: We will keep names out of it. This initiative will be a fine legacy for Senator Tuffy to leave to this House.

  Ms O’Meara: I thank the Leader of the House for the warm welcome she has given to this motion and for using her influence in the major Government party to win support for it. I commend Senator Tuffy on bringing forward this important motion. As Senator Ryan said, she has been dogged in her determination.

It is opportune that we should debate it at this time, against the background of a discussion of politics, public life and the public’s reaction to politics and politicians. The biggest joke at a social occasion I attended last Sunday was that in Ireland we have the best politicians money can buy. I did not find that funny and I do not like that kind of remark. We have been the butt of cynical jokes for a long time, not just at the moment. A petitions committee would not, in itself, restore public confidence in politics and politicians but it would have a positive impact. It [1501]would indicate that we are willing to reach out and listen to people.

I agree with everything Senator O’Rourke said and I agree that we should get started on this initiative as soon as possible. We need to create mechanisms to allow the public understand that they have an input into the system.

Consider the manner in which the Health Service Executive was established and before it the National Roads Authority. Democratically elected politicians have been removed from the process of decision making and accountability in important areas of Irish life. The health boards are gone and the system did need reform but I do not believe it was necessary to remove a whole layer of democratic accountability. This has contributed to politicians' frustration in trying to get answers on the health service and I believe it has added to the public’s frustration and sense of distance from the decision making process. This kind of approach is regressive and is having a negative impact.

Large numbers of people protest in places such as Monaghan, Ennis and Nenagh partly because they feel the decisions made by bodies such as the HSE are undemocratic and that those in charge cannot be held to account. This engenders a sense of frustration and powerlessness in communities. This motion is, therefore, very important.

This Seanad and the previous Seanad will have heard me raise the issue of the Silvermines on more than one occasion. Thanks to the determination of a number of people and the willingness of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, to listen, we have, effectively, resolved that issue. When I started working with that group some years ago it did not know where to go or who would listen. I suggested we would take the issue wherever necessary, be it the floor of the Seanad, the committee or to the Minister. The general reaction was that no one would have any reason to listen. It worked, as it should in that case.

An elected representative, supported by other elected representatives, was able to raise an issue and have it resolved, thus providing a very good example of how a community got heard. The process is not available to everybody and many feel excluded from it in that it does not work for them. In such cases, the petitions committee would serve as a very important arena. It has become increasingly important because of the examples to which I referred.

Senator Tuffy provided an example from abroad of children coming forward with their idea and I was heartened to hear about it. It is not just a case of considering big, high-flown ideas, although they obviously would be very welcome, but also of training young people and children to understand how the democratic process can work for them and showing them they can have a direct input. We could work with the Ombudsman for Children in this regard. I would not be surprised if we had a proposal from young people to extend [1502]the remit of the Ombudsman for Children. Perhaps we could consider this as well.

Feelings of disconnection from democracy and powerlessness are on the increase. As Senator O’Rourke pointed out, elected representatives are negotiating with State agencies, local authorities and, in many cases, non-State agencies on behalf of the public. This is obviously our role and it is very important and I do not believe a petitions committee would detract from it or dilute it in any way. As Senator O’Rourke stated, it would broaden and expand participation and bring the Members of the House closer to the people. It would create an avenue for connection and dialogue and, I hope, allow people to realise it is possible to influence the system. I hope it might engender some idealism about politics to counter the cynicism of the times.

  Mr. Brady: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, having had the privilege last year and in recent months of listening to the various groups that participated in the Seanad reform process. It is timely, at this stage of the Seanad’s term, that we take some action, try to be radical and implement what we all discussed in the House in great detail.

My experience of dealing with community groups and various other lobby groups leads me to believe the community policing forum is one of the most successful models for participation by individuals, residents’ groups and disability groups. It affords direct interaction with public representatives, State agencies, the Garda, Dublin City Council, the Department of Health and Children and other groups. The forum can even address simple matters such as the location of bus stops. The forum meets three times per year and those in attendance can raise issues and propose ideas. It is ideal for this purpose and is working successfully. I am delighted the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has agreed to the enhancement of the various fora throughout the city. The introduction of the policing committee is a good step in this direction.

As the Minister stated, having a forum at which the public can discuss legislation is useful. We all have been lobbied by various groups and my experience of this over recent years is that the very well-organised and resourced groups are the ones that get what they are looking for. The smaller ones, which have a lesser voice, lose out on whatever resources are available purely because they have not got the stamina, as Senator Ryan stated. It has been the case that such groups could not keep up the fight. At every turn they felt barriers were being put in their way, whereas the larger organisations had more resources and the ability to spend money, produce glossy presentations and employ people on a full-time basis to make their case. Every year the same groups make their pre-budget submissions at the expense of the smaller groups. Any proposal that would give a voice to a small group, an individual or [1503]larger group such as a residents’ association would be helpful.

We deal with many community councils, which are formed on foot of a number of residents’ associations coming together as an umbrella group. They find this is the best way to influence their local politicians. In my constituency there are a number of community councils. They raise various local issues and are quite successful, but this is because they are umbrella groups and have the extra strength to influence public representatives, especially at local level.

Local area committees allow local councillors to sit face to face with lobbyists and call on various lobby groups. The proposed measure is a step forward in enhancing the relationship between local public representation and national public representation. Any measure that gives a voice to those who feel they are disconnected can only be of help.

This is a timely motion and not just for the Seanad, because it is linked to a large body of policy concerning the task force on active citizenship. Last month I had the privilege of attending a task force gathering in Croke Park at which there were more than 400 people from all walks of life representing all types of groups, including groups representing the disabled, disadvantaged, men and women. The atmosphere in the room on the morning in question was amazing because everyone present was giving time freely to contribute to the task force.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the task force is to encourage people to become more actively involved in their communities. If people are to be encouraged to become involved, they first must be asked to do so, but if nobody asks them, they will not bother. Politicians all know how difficult it is to get people to vote in the first place, never mind getting them to vote in a particular way. We have run campaigns in my constituency encouraging people to register to vote and explaining the electoral process. As public representatives, it is our duty to ensure people are encouraged in this regard. We must make it easy for them to participate.

It has been suggested by the Minister that the initiative will be covered at the next meeting. I presume the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will discuss it at some stage.

  Ms O’Rourke: We would all agree.

  Mr. Brady: I certainly welcome the initiative, having been privileged to have been involved in efforts at Seanad reform. The process may be too slow for some people, but even one small change would be well worth the effort.

  Mr. Bannon: I voice my strong support for the motion on behalf of Fine Gael and thank the Labour Party for bringing it before the Seanad this evening. I am delighted to note that backing [1504]comes not only from the Opposition but from the Government, courtesy of the Leader of the Seanad. When Senator Tuffy raised the establishment of a petitions committee on 15 June 2006, in No. 26, motion No. 20 on the Order Paper, Senator O’Rourke described it as follows.

It is an excellent motion. I hope Senator Tuffy puts it forward in Private Members’ time. I will seek, if I can, that we do not put forward an amendment and that this House will accept it.

She did so and deserves our acknowledgment in that regard. This morning she referred to the fact that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, had some reservations on the matter.

  Ms O’Rourke: I did not say that.

  Mr. Bannon: However, I am delighted that she has overruled him on the issue. It is on the record of the debate this morning.

  Ms O’Rourke: I never said that this morning.

  Mr. Bannon: I am delighted that this positive response is reflected in this evening’s debate and that the motion has received unanimous support. I hope that it will also be acted upon. It is one thing to accept a motion, but to follow through is another. Such co-operation begs the question of whether this jaded Government is running out of ideas and initiatives of its own.

  Ms O’Rourke: That is a new twist. One agrees to something, and one is jaded.

  Mr. Bannon: Such co-operation on behalf of the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government is rare and therefore open to suspicion. With such unprecedented backing, there is nothing to stop the committee from being up and running before Christmas if we pass this motion, which enjoys unanimous support.

The Labour Party document on Dáil reform, Putting our House in Order 2003, which is being followed up in the motion this evening, referred to the establishment of a committee of investigations, oversight and petitions in the section dealing with parliamentary inquiries. Once again, I thank Senator Tuffy. There was also reference to “citizens’ petitions” in A Dáil for the New Millennium, the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats proposals for parliamentary reform published in December 2000. However, like many other Government proposals, it has died a death and has not been acted on or followed up.

The press appears to have been strangely silent on this issue, and I could find no media discussion of what I believe to be a very interesting concept with far-reaching implications for individuals and community groups and organisations and surely worthy of being set out for public consumption.

[1505]The right to petition reaches back to Magna Carta in 1215. Historically, a petition was a written request stating a grievance and requesting relief from a ruling authority. Since each petition commanded legislative consideration, citizens in large part controlled legislative agendas. The right to petition a government is a freedom firmly upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States, proving that it is considered an inalienable right by the US Government.

Today, the right of citizens to petition Parliament is also part of the political structure of several other countries, including the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Germany. Such a petition is typically a request for action with regard to legislation, repealing legislation or for a particular purpose. They give a voice to members of the public to express concerns and opinions to parliament. Some, but not all, Parliaments that accept public petitions have petitions committees such as that proposed this evening to process petitions received.

Currently under review in the UK, the system of public petitions is referred to by the select committee on modernisation of the House of Commons as a “significant avenue for communication between the public and Parliament”. The committee sorted and classified the petitions as well as deciding if they were in order under the rules of the house. In Australia, each House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, has its own rules with regard to the acceptance of petitions. Members present valid petitions on behalf of petitioners on the floor of the relevant House, with such a presentation not meaning that the member necessarily agrees with the petition. The relevant Minister may then reply to the petition in the House or respond directly to a petition, with all petitions printed in the official record of debates.

The function of a petitions committee is typically to assess the validity of a petition and decide how it should be dealt with. Such committees have been established in several countries, including Scotland, Israel and Germany. In Scotland, petitions are submitted to the public petitions committee for consideration. It may then be forwarded by the committee to another body, usually another committee. The Scottish Parliament also has a highly innovative e-petitions system to enable petitions to attract support on the Parliament’s website.

In Germany, the petitions committee has a staff of around 80 to cope with the heavy workload involved with the number of petitions it receives, on average around 20,000 a year.

  Ms O’Rourke: It is a big country.

  Mr. Bannon: For us in the Seanad, the potential of such a committee is enormous. While the Seanad has the freedom to look at issues that are perhaps not always on the political radar, we may not be as effective in dealing with public concerns [1506]and suggestions as we should be. It seems to me that we have a case in point in the Government Green Paper on energy, which was as noteworthy for what it left out as for what was in it, and it might have benefited from such a committee. Ideas on the environment and regarding the economic instability threatened by rising energy costs might come from petitions to such a committee.

Constitutional reform would no doubt be an important part of the committee’s work, with particular reference to the rights of minorities. Notwithstanding Senator Norris’s Bill on civil unions, a concept that my party was the first to favour as far back as 2004, more could be discussed in this House and the Oireachtas in general on issues relating to the gay community, not least the disgraceful level of homophobic violence, particularly in Dublin.

  Ms O’Rourke: I say that we live in turns.

  Mr. Bannon: There have been many false dawns in the debate on the role of the Seanad, but we must make it more efficient and relevant to the general public. This motion is a worthy addition to that reform agenda. I am delighted but, as I said, suspicious of Government co-operation, which more than anything sends out a clear message that it is on its way out.

  Ms O’Rourke: The Senator is not on the way in.

  Mr. Bannon: I am afraid——

  Ms O’Rourke: The Senator himself may well be re-elected, but he will not form a Government.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senators O’Rourke and Bannon, please allow Senator Henry to speak.

  Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister to the House and am very glad that the Labour Party has put forward this interesting suggestion, which would certainly formalise all the initiatives brought to our attention by e-mail, letter, telephone call and so forth. It would be very useful from that perspective. They will also be interested in answering all the questions put forward. There is another one, however, I should put forward as well. At the moment we are all like Sir Boyle Roche’s bird, trying to be two places at the same time, serving on committees and sub-committees. This will stretch us even further. Some people believe that the Members of the Upper House are not as occupied as in fact they are. This will be another challenge, especially when I hear from Senator Bannon that the German committee got 20,000 petitions. That is an astonishing number. When one takes it on a pro rata basis for the citizens of this country, there will be thousands coming in.

When we have debates on development aid, as we did this afternoon, I always ask the govern[1507]ments of developing countries to encourage more involvement from civil society. It would indeed be very wrong if I did not support greater involvement of civil society in the making of legislation here. After all, initiatives are being taken by bodies in this country. Why should not the Oireachtas be another one? Dublin Bus is always seeking suggestions from passengers as to how it should move forward, what routes to examine and where there should be bus stops. There are precedents from which this type of committee might gain.

The National Forum on Europe, chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes, has been a great success. The meetings in Dublin and around the country that I have attended have always attracted a large number of people. The Third Pillar, as we describe it, is always very well represented by various representatives from civil society. It is good, too, that the involvement of young people in that forum has been so much promoted, with speaking competitions for schools and people outside schools. Senator Brady talked earlier about voting and how we are trying to encourage people to come out and vote. I am always alarmed that so many people in civil society do not realise what a privilege it is to have a vote and be able to exercise it freely.

It is very disappointing to me to see the way the new EU member states from Eastern Europe have had such a poor voter turnout in recent elections. It is astonishing when one sees how crucial democracy is for those countries and voting levels are only 50% to 60%. Then, of course, there are even lower levels of voting in America. It is very important to keep telling people that civil society should be involved in democracy in a meaningful way in our countries.

The National Forum on Europe gets questions from other countries about setting up similar forums as well. We should look more closely at the petitions committees in other countries. The Labour Party, I am sure, will answer the Minister’s questions and we shall see how we go forward from there.

  Ms Tuffy: I welcome in general the consensus in the debate and the very thoughtful contributions about the proposal from both sides of the House. I welcome the Minister’s positive attitude to the proposal. I should be gratified if the Committee on Procedure and Privileges set the ball rolling, as he said. Senator O’Rourke has suggested that this should be the first item on the next agenda of that committee.

The Minister asked what type of remit we had in mind. The issues to be raised are those that are within our remit. That is the way it works in other Parliaments. It is not just confined to other Parliaments. Councils and state legislatures have it in other countries, for example in the USA. Similarly, in Germany the landers, at a lower level than the Bundestag, have it. Those matters that [1508]are appropriate to local authorities should be dealt with by them. We would not be dealing, for example, with the issue raised by the Earl of Mayo, which related to how to fix the local footpath or road. That type of issue could be referred to a local government. We see that type of thing already in our committees.

Scotland and Germany both try to ensure that inappropriate material is not submitted. Guidelines are given and they have procedures on how to deal with inappropriate material. In Germany, for example, there is no obligation to deal with anonymous or confused petitions — or petitions that might affect pending court cases and so on. In Scotland, before a petition may be put one has to have carried out certain steps. Basically this involves clarifying whether one made representations to the Scottish Executive or sought the assistance of locally elected representatives such as councillors, MSPs and so on. In submitting the petition the steps that preceded it must be set out. It is important that we look at other examples, although that of the Scottish Parliament is particularly relevant.

As regards other matters raised, a grievances committee is not envisaged. It is not that type of petition. Senator Bannon mentioned the Labour Party document. That document did not go as far as suggesting what I am proposing here, which would be much more substantial and includes the right of the public to initiate proposals. It would not deal with the types of issues the Ombudsman deals with and so on.

As regards other discussions, Senator Brian Hayes mentioned the Private Members’ Bills, something I had not thought of. I had one before me, which was done by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It is important to look at that and see how this type of arrangement is processed through the House at the moment. It would need to be developed, however, and there would have to be much broader scope. Colleges and such institutions would have solicitors, etc. The idea is not to have someone submitting a fully fledged Bill, but rather a proposal or suggestion. It basically would be about trying to move forward the type of idea as suggested by Senator Brian Hayes.

Senator Kitt mentioned voluntarism and the projects started by the Taoiseach in this regard. There is a problem with voluntarism, but where petitions committees exist in other countries they have been enormously successful in this area. Senator Bannon mentioned the example of Germany where they get 20,000 petitions a year. That of course is a much larger population. Since they started in Scotland they have received 1,000 petitions altogether.

Senator O’Rourke asked whether we would have thousands of petitions. There is a risk of that but we would need to embrace it. That is what other jurisdictions have done. A certain amount of background work has been done with the e-consultation process as regards the broadcasting Bill.

[1509]All speakers made good points. I want to return to what Senator O’Rourke said: "That the Seanad can provide a forum for that disconnect." I totally agree with her and believe this would be the ideal forum. Senator O’Rourke took the initiative as regards bringing people into this House to ask them questions, for example, on European Parliament issues. That was a very welcome initiative. She set a precedent that hopefully other Leaders of the House will replicate in the future.

Senators O’Rourke, Brian Hayes and others noted that much could be done without the full reform of the Seanad. Pending that many steps can be taken and this is a small thing we can do which would be very positive. It could make a real difference as regards participation and civil engagement with the Seanad — and through that, with the Oireachtas.

The Constitution does not have to be amended. We do not need the go-ahead from any Department and it is something we can do ourselves. I welcome in particular the Leader’s response to the proposal and look forward to working with the Seanad in terms of trying to progress it in the future.

Motion put and declared carried.

  An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?

  Ms. O’Rourke: At 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 11 October 2006.