Comment: In drafting legislation, the Government always acts on behalf of the people

This is not a ‘do-nothing Dáil’: Of 61 acts passed, 56 were government bills, but we also encourage private members’ bills from opposition, says Joe McHugh.

Comment: In drafting legislation, the Government always acts on behalf of the people

AS CHIEF whip, I ensure the implementation of the Government’s legislative programme.

We want to enact laws to meet our commitments in the Programme for a Partnership Government, as well as tackle the challenges faced by the nation.

But we are a minority government. With 57 TDs in a Dáil of 158, passing legislation requires that we build support for reform across the political divide. And we are doing this.

The accusation that this is a “do-nothing Dáil” rings hollow and is rarely made with any conviction by our opponents any more.

Since this government came into office, in March, 2016, 22 months ago, 61 acts have been passed.

Of these, 56 started as government bills. They reflect the needs of society and include, for example, the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act, 2016, which gives fathers two weeks off from work to spend time with their young children.

Another important reform came with the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act, 2017, which improves the rights of victims of crime.

And we are building on this record of achievement. A Technical Universities Act is due to pass shortly, radically reforming our third-level education sector, establishing technical universities in Kerry and Donegal.

But the government that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar leads has not taken the view that it has all the right answers. We are open to supporting quality legislation that makes a positive impact, regardless of its provenance.

One of the reforms introduced by the previous Fine Gael/Labour government made it easier for TDs who do not hold ministerial office to publish their own proposed laws, known as private members’ bills.

As a result, the amount of draft legislation from backbenchers and the opposition jumped from fewer than 20, in 2010, to more than 100, in 2017.

In the last 12 months, this government has supported the passing of five acts, which were first published as private members’ bills.

And the variety of reform is there to see. There is the Prohibition of Fracking Act, first published as a bill by Fine Gael TD Tony McLoughlin. More recently, new laws allowed for the sale of alcohol on Good Friday, a reform brought forward by Independent senator Billy Lawless.

Others at an advanced stage, and which could be enacted shortly, include a parole bill and an initiative to allow craft and micro-breweries to sell their products on-site.

The real question is: Why are more private members’ bills not transitioning into acts?

The power to make laws is something that should not be taken lightly. It is incumbent on all of us, who are elected as TDs or senators, to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose.

Government bills go through a rigorous process of quality assurance, before publication. This includes consultation with stakeholders and assessment of cost and compatibility with constitutional and EU law, before the general scheme goes to cabinet for approval.

And it does not end there. These proposals are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, before an Oireachtas committee, which can consult experts and interest groups. Only then does it issue its report. The final wording is drafted by the attorney general’s office and sent to cabinet for approval. Ultimately, the published bill has to be debated in the Oireachtas.

By contrast, the quality of private members’ bills is not tested to the same extent before publication.

More than 200 pieces of draft legislation from the opposition and back benches are currently before the Oireachtas. But it is not certain how many of them are capable of functioning as laws.

A huge factor in preventing these proposed reforms from becoming law is the lack of quality assurance.

Our Constitution requires that bills which result in a cost to the taxpayer need the Government to provide a “money message”, before enactment. This prevents the waste of taxpayers’ money.

Under the current system, with its lack of quality assurance for private members’ bills, such decisions are taken only after detailed consideration.

If a bill is of sufficient quality, then government has no problem issuing a money message.

To date, we have done this for four bills: The Parole Bill, 2016; The Competitions (Amendment) Bill, 2016; The Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No.2) Bill, 2014; the Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill, 2016.

The ceann comhairle and his team in the Oireachtas have recognised the problem of quality assurance and have been trying to find a solution.

In March, 2017, an external expert was brought in to review the effectiveness of procedures for managing and processing private members’ bills.

I regret that the expert’s recommendations did not receive the necessary cross-party support to be implemented, despite government support. They may have led to fewer private members’ bills, but it is also likely that more proposals would pass the test and become law.

However, I am still confident that a solution can be found, which will be agreeable to all and I will work with my colleagues, from across the political divide, to achieve this.

Officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Houses of the Oireachtas are focused on improving the quality assurance processes for private members’ bills.

If we want society to benefit from the laws we make, then we must ensure that those laws are of high quality.

We cannot, and should not, accept low standard legislation. It is not good for the Oireachtas. It is not good for the people.

Joe McHugh is government chief whip. He is also Minister of State at the Department of Culture, with responsibility for Gaeilge, Gaeltacht, and the Islands.

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