Reform or bust: the Irish Senate

The Seanad Éireann, pronounced sha-nud air-un, may not exist for much longer. The current Fine Gael/Labour government has pledged to hold a referendum on abolition for the Seanad (along with a small degree of strengthening the committee system in the lower chamber which I’ll look at later) within the next eighteen months.

Understandably, the Seanad doesn’t want to be abolished – many of its members have acknowledged it needs to step up its game to avoid it. There has been an array of reports on Seanad reform in recent years but I can’t see that the Senate or the government has acted on many, if any, in any seriousness.

Of course, the Seanad is a second chamber and they are very varied creatures. To give a cursory overview it’s a sixty-member upper chamber with various methods of becoming a member: indirect election by an electoral college of parliamentarians and local councillors after selection by vocational panels, election by graduates of certain Irish universities, or appointment by the taoiseach or prime minister. While it has a significant number of independents the Seanad often has a government majority. Senators can use their chamber as a stepping stone to the lower chamber. The Seanad has ten policy committees each of which mirrors one in the Dail – these committees hear evidence from interest groups and the public and write reports on their subject.

The Seanad is often accused (perhaps slightly unfairly*) of being nothing more than a weak, outdated unrepresentative relic with no distinctive role. So after the election earlier this year the Seanad approved some internal reforms to make itself work better proposed by the independents. The power of Seanad committees has been slightly beefed up and there’s a change to who can speak in the chamber:

  • Committees now have the power not only to “invite and accept written submissions” but to “send for persons, papers and records”
  • They can also now recommend that any statutory instrument, whether it be laid before Parliament or not, be annulled or amended and to that end can require a memorandum to explain any statutory instrument before the committee as well as summoning the minister responsible though he can refuse after giving his reasons in writing
  • If a minister or head of a public body says in writing that evidence can’t be held in public or published then the committee must do as they say, subject to appeal to the chairman of the Seanad.
  • A new “super-committee” of sorts called the Seanad Public Consultation Committee has been set up which essentially is a wide-ranging committee staffed by a proportionate mix of party front-benchers, the deputy chairman of the Seanad, one or two backbenchers and the independents; it can hear evidence in the chamber and write a report on any public policy area it wishes to hear about
  • Subject to the leave of the House, the standing committee on procedure and privileges can let persons of public and civic life be heard in the Seanad chamber

These are too complex to compare and examine fully in this post, so I’ll leave it as a brief overview and hopefully expand on a few of these later.

The Seanad Public Consultations Committee was for about a week known as the Public Petitions Committee, but that was unclear because it almost made it sound a general committee to consider whatever petitions the public sent in.

All in all, a much-needed tweaking of the committee system and an interesting experiment in letting non-members speak. But it’s far from revolutionary and I’d like to see it go further. Quite frankly the public consultations committee seems little more than a PR stunt. There are plenty of committees with experience about the issues in their remit who can do everything this public consultations committee can do and where needed can form joint committees where the topic is too big for one committee’s jurisdiction.

However, will this alone be enough to convince the public to save the Seanad when this referendum inevitably happens? I doubt it. As it stands, if the Seanad survives it won’t be because it has reformed itself.

*I know that it can and does defeat the government sometimes, but I want to have a look at some statistics about how much the Seanad challenges the Dail and how much it amends legislation, but their website is depressingly spartan in statistical terms. I might have to search some journals for information – if anyone can point me in the right direction, I’d be very grateful!

EDIT 9/10/11 23:38: I have found statistics for government defeats between the years of 1993 and 2003 for the Seanad, the House of Lords, the German Bundesrat and the Belgian Senat – data from here. The Irish Seanad defeated the government in 0.05% of votes; that compares to 1.18% of all votes in the House of Lords, 0.89% in the Belgian Senat, and 2.47% in the German Bundesrat (one of the four most powerful upper chambers by common consensus together with the US Senate, the Australian Senate, and the Swiss Council of States).

It should also be noted that the government had a majority in the Belgian Senat throughout, whereas the Irish Seanad had a period where the government did not. Interesting results, and not very flattering for the Seanad sadly.

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