Introducing and amending legislation

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Making and changing the law is one of the main functions of the Oireachtas.  Legislation may be divided into primary legislation (Bills which become Acts and are law) and secondary legislation (detailed regulations, or statutory instruments, which have legal effect, see below).   Although these are not formal categories, legislation ranges from the enabling (permitting agencies or bodies to take certain action) to mandatory (requiring agencies to do certain things) to establishing (setting up a new body, like the National Asset Management Agency) to the prohibitive (e.g. changes in the criminal law).  Some legislation is called ‘transposing’ because it transposes European directives into Irish law.  Some legislation is implemented by state agencies and local government, assisted by the police and the courts.

Debates on new draft laws (Bills) take up a considerable part of the time of the Dáil.  Most Bills are introduced by the government.  Since the 1970s, there has been a tradition of individual members or opposition parties introducing legislation.  The Office of the Ombudsman, for example, originated as a private member’s motion introduced by a backbencher.  In more recent times, governments have been more prepared to adopt such Bills and, often with amendments, pass them into law.

Most Bills are introduced in the Dáil.  The government has occasionally introduced legislation through the Seanad, either because of pressure of time or, more likely, if it is non-partisan legislation open to a large number of amendments before it reaches the Dáil.  Bills must be approved by both houses or be deemed to be so approved.  A Bill amended by the Seanad goes back to the Dáil, which can eventually overrule the Seanad.  Any single deputy or senator may introduce an amendment.  Once passed by the Dáil and Seanad, a Bill is sent to the President for signature.  The President may refer it to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality (this has been done 14 times, e.g. the Equal Status Bill); or refer it to the people on the petition of half the Seanad and one-third of the members of the Dáil (this has never happened).  Once a Bill is signed, it is termed an Act, dated to the year of its signing (not the year when the Bill was introduced, which could be many years earlier) (> Legislation).

The five stages

All Bills go through five stages, in both houses, as follows:

1.  Permission to publish

2.  Debate stage.

3.  Committee stage.

4.  Report stage.

5.  Final stage.

Government Bills do not need permission to publish and are circulated automatically, but private member’s Bills must get formal permission to introduce so they may be published (this is normally a formality). The Ceann Comhairle or Cathaoirleach asks the leading government representative present whether the Bill is opposed and, assuming not, it is sent for printing.  If it is opposed, then a vote takes place.   In the second stage, the Bill is approved in principle or not.  Each member may speak, but only once.  The third stage is called the committee stage and each house goes through the Bill line by line and debates amendments. Traditionally, the third stage was considered by all members in a full session in the main chamber of the Dáil.  Although this may still happen, it is now the norm for each Bill to go to a committee (see Oireachtas committees ).  These committees meet outside the Dáil chamber and in adjacent committee rooms.  They cover different subject areas, the intention being to draw in deputies interested in specializing in that subject.  These committees consider and amend the Bill point by point.  Any member may speak frequently.   

Once they have finished, the Bill is then ‘reported back’ and sent for fourth and fifth stages which are normally very short and sometimes only a formality (called the report and final stages).  It is unusual for Bills to be amended on the fourth or fifth stage, though the opposition may sometimes press the point on a much-disputed Bill and introduce fresh or reintroduce earlier amendments.  The government may also introduce its own amendments if technical flaws are spotted on the committee stage.  Sometimes, the minister will give a commitment to ‘look at the matter again‘ with a view to possible fourth stage amendments, generally on non-partisan elements. 

Amending legislation

Bills are guided through each house by the minister responsible.  The minister introduces the Bill, speaks about its virtues and, during committee stage, decides whether to accept amendments or not.  The committee stage can be quite lively, opposition deputies trying to persuade the minister to accept their amendments, or, if not, trying to get on-the-record commitments from him about how the Bill will operate.  Once debate on each text is concluded, the proposer either presses the matter to a vote or else, if satisfied with the ministerial commitments given and put on the record, withdraws the amendment. The chairperson will then confirm each section by proposing to the committee ‘That section X now stand’.  If the debate is guillotined, then all the sections not debated are deemed approved (see Order of business ). The same procedure is followed in the Seanad, where ministers must also steer their Bills through the house. From the point of view of voluntary and community organisations, these commitments are important and should be noted and used to subsequently challenge any state body not observing them.

Secondary legislation

In addition to Bills, the Oireachtas must approve secondary legislation.  These are regulations (called statutory instruments and ministerial orders) issued by ministers to govern, in detail, the work of their departments.  Several hundred are issued each year, covering such diverse areas as minimum temperatures in nursing homes, shipping fees, aviation standards, product safety, to the length of the fishing season for particular species.  Such regulations are announced by the minister in writing on the order paper of the Dáil and, unless revoked, are automatically deemed to be passed within 21 sitting days.  It is most unusual for a regulation to be debated, still less vetoed or revoked, so it is a passive rather than an active process.  Either house may annul a statutory instrument by a simple majority (for example, a regulation approved unanimously by the Dáil can be annulled by a majority of one vote in the Seanad).

Private members’ Bills

Some groups are ambitious and ask members to introduce private member’s Bills.  Trying to get a Bill through is a campaign that will involve a long time and requires a lot of supporting documentation.  Bills are problematical, because deputies and senators have no special resources to help them with this (the parliamentary draftsman works only on government Bills).  Furthermore, they take years to work their way through the system and, if not yet approved, fall when there is a general election.  Groups must therefore be prepared to do the drafting work themselves (this is often not as difficult as it seems) and help the member steer it through.  On the other hand, a successful Bill can produce a political change that is likely to be irreversible and can be a focus for a campaign.  Important changes in social policy have been the outcome of private member’s Bills, mainly in the Seanad (e.g. animal welfare, homelessness, freedom of information, family planning).