From Jane Suiter
The new Dáil committees made their first appearance today as reported here and here. The government is flagging its reform and ministers have been keen to stress that this will be a new era for committee powers. If this were true it would be excellent. We know through the work of Niamh Hardiman and others that Ireland has the most dominant executive in Europe, greater even than in the UK from whence it came. The problems with this dominance for policymaking are manifold and are arguably at the centre of many of our problems as has been rehearsed many times on this blog.
Of course all parliamentary systems have varying degrees of overlap or fusion between the legislature and the executive and few argue we should go the whole hog down the US separation of powers route. But even within Europe there are many parliaments where legislators can do just that – legislate. What is needed is that legislation goes to committees at a very preliminary stage, that way they can influence the thrust of the Bill as well as the micro detail. In some legislature legislation even regularly emanates from the committees.
Irish committees are among the weakest (along with Greek) in the EU. The new reforms which dramatically reduce the number of committees from 27 to 15 are designed to allow greater focus. Of course simply reducing the number is no guarantee of this as some will now up to three Departments which are they are meant to oversee. Committees have also been given others powers the power to “send for persons, papers and records .
The Government chief Whip argues that “the new Committees will be stronger and will bring real focus to the areas they cover. They will be properly resourced to carry out their function.” But there is an argument that this is not yet enough. The parties still nominate and divvy up the chairmanships. A secret ballot by members would be far preferable and would mean committees would owe loyalty to the Oireachtas rather than the executive. In addition, there is no real sign yet that legislation will be delivered to the committees at an early enough stage that they can have much impact, although this was mentioned pre-election. Policy making in Ireland in general would arguably benefit greatly from more evidence based decisions making. Surely TDs themselves would like to be able to call relevant witnesses and experts and then de on what sort debate legislation their committee will recommend at a stage that it can make a real difference? Simply pushing through pre drafted legislation from colleagues in the executive and holding the odd inquiry means most will be far less involved than they could otherwise be. This is particularly important now that the coalition parties will hold 70% of all committee positions.