Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair.
That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
Subsection 3º of section 2 of article 16 of the Constitution provides that the ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country. The subsection thus affirms the principle of democratic representation—based, it should be noted, on population and not on voters—and at the same time recognises (by the use of the phrase "so far as it is practicable") that some divergence from strict mathematical parity is necessary if a rational system of constituencies is to be devised. Difficulties have arisen, however, on two points—what factors have to be taken into account in determining what is practicable and how great a divergence from the national average is permissible.
At every revision of constituencies, from 1932 to 1959, the most important factors taken into account, apart from population, were the desirability of respecting county boundaries, of having special regard for the needs of constituents in thinly-populated rural areas and of topographical features such as major rivers and lakes, peninsulas and mountain ranges. This was done within the limits of a quite modest divergence from the national average. At the periodic revisions of constituencies up to 1959 the maximum divergences were within the range 11 per cent to 19 per cent approximately of the national average. This was the type of approach that the framers of the Constitution had in mind, it was supported by all Parties in the Dáil in 1959 and it is the approach which appears to be common to democracies. The revision of constituencies made in the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1959, in accordance with these principles which appeared to have been established by usage, was as Deputies know challenged in the High Court and that Court, in its judgment on the constitutionality of the Act, held that this type of approach was not permissible, that if the Constitution had intended that regard be had to such matters as the desirability of adhering to county boundaries it would have said so, and in effect that the phrase "so far as it is practicable" should be given a purely statistical connotation.
The object of the Third Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1968, is to make the original intention of the Constitution effective, to put beyond doubt the extent to which divergence from the strict mathematical ratio is permissible and to set out expressly the special factors to be taken into account. It accordingly proposes to substitute for the existing provisions the new subsection 3º, set out in the Schedule to this Bill. The new subsection has three main provisions. First, the maximum divergence is fixed at one-sixth of the national average. Secondly, it is provided that regard be had to the extent and accessibility of constituencies and the need for securing convenient areas of representation. Thirdly, it is provided that due regard be had to the desirability of avoiding overlapping of county boundaries.
Taking the provision relating to county boundaries first, it will be noted that this is only set out as a desirable norm, not an absolute requirement. If all county boundaries were to be preserved the tolerance limit would have to be put at too high a level—about 30 per cent. With the level now proposed the county boundary will be observed in the case of the great majority of counties. The reasons for having due regard to county boundaries may be summarised as follows.
1. It is generally recognised by authorities on electoral matters that constituencies should, as far as possible, be based on local communities and respect local sentiment. It will scarcely be denied that, in the conditions of this country, this means that county boundaries must be respected as far as reasonably possible. This applies irrespective of whether we have the present system or the single-seat constituency.
2. A considerable part of a Deputy's work on behalf of his constituency will relate to matters within the competence of the county council. He can, therefore, serve his constituency more effectively if it is wholly within a particular county.
3. The whole process of registration of electors and of holding elections is geared to counties. County councils and county borough councils are responsible for preparing the register of electors and devising polling schemes for their areas. The returning officer is normally the county registrar. From the point of view of electoral machinery many complications are caused by the breaching of county boundaries.
4. It is desirable that constituencies should be based on some form of existing administrative divisions and the authority responsible for devising these should be given a definite framework within which to operate. This is standard practice abroad. In our conditions, and having regard to the need to cater for two contingencies (single-seat and multi-seat constituencies), the most suitable divisions are counties. Incidentally, constituencies in Britain must normally be confined within counties or boroughs.
The boundaries of County Boroughs are, in effect, excluded from the provision which aims at preserving county boundaries. Housing and other community developments have extended the built-up areas across the boundaries of the four County Boroughs of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford, and it might not be practicable to determine satisfactory constituencies if the overlapping of these city boundaries had to be avoided within the context of the new subsection 3º.
Turning now to the requirement related to the area of the constituency, the Government have always taken the view that the special difficulties of persons living in large constituencies in rural areas should be recognised. These people do not have the same ease of access to their Deputies as persons living in the more compact urban constituencies. Moreover, experience has shown that people living in rural areas are more likely to have to seek the help of their Deputies for quite legitimate reasons. Any person who disagrees with a slight bias in favour of such areas can scarcely have any idea of the problems of representation for both electors and Deputies in these areas or of the importance of maintaining adequate rural representation in this House. I might mention that there was broad agreement between all Parties on this point in 1959.
If then it is accepted that regard must be had to the factors outlined above the question must be faced of how great a divergence from the national average of population per member should be permitted. It is the view of the Government that the appropriate limit is one-sixth of the national average. This figure, which it must be remembered is a maximum one, is in line with pre-1959 practice. It will be sufficiently high to obviate the need for breaches of county boundaries in the case of the great majority of counties and to keep the representation for rural areas at or near the present figure. At the same time it is sufficiently modest not to involve any departure in principle from democratic representation. I might say that the figure is low by international standards. In Britain, for example, a tolerance limit of plus or minus 25 per cent was fixed for some years but was abandoned as being too restrictive. In Canada the figure is 25 per cent and in Australia 20 per cent. In Germany a spread of 33? per cent is allowed. Some Deputies opposite, speaking under a misapprehension as to the present constitutional provision, have in recent weeks suggested that a tolerance of 10,000 population per Deputy should be sufficient. We do not propose anything as large as this.
To clear up any possible misunderstanding which may still exist, I should emphasise that this Bill will have no effect on the total number of Deputies. The tolerance limit proposed in this Bill relates to the national average population per member after the total number of Deputies is fixed. For instance, if the total number of Deputies is fixed at 144, the national average population per member would be 20,028 and the population per member of each constituency could not deviate from this average by more or less than one-sixth of the average, that is, by more or less than 3,338.
I commend this Bill to the House. It proposes no more than that the people be given an opportunity to decide at a referendum whether the Constitution should be amended to enable the Oireachtas at the next and future revisions of constituencies to determine constituencies on the basis contemplated by the framers of the Constitution and at all times accepted by the Oireachtas.