I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
At present the Assembly of the European Communities consists of delegates designated by the Parliaments of the member states from among their members. The treaties establishing the Communities envisage the introduction of a system whereby the Assembly will be elected by the people of the Communities by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member States. In pursuance of this aim, a Council decision and an Act providing for direct elections to the Assembly were signed by the Council of Foreign Ministers at Brussels on 20th September, 1976. These instruments laid down certain provisions in relation to direct elections and provided that, pending the entry into force of a uniform electoral procedure, the procedure for the elections will be governed in each member State by national provisions. The purpose of this Bill is to lay down the provisions to apply in relation to the direct elections in this country until such time as a uniform electoral procedure comes into force.
The decision signed at Brussels in September, 1976, does not fix a specific date for holding the elections but refers to the intention to give effect to the conclusion of the European Council held in Rome in December, 1975, that the first direct elections to the Assembly should be held in May or June, 1978. The Government consider it very important that the elections should take place on the target date. Failure to meet this deadline would reflect on the credibility of the Communities and on their ability to fulfil their commitments. The Government earnestly hope that each member State will be in a position to hold the elections in May or June next and I am sure the House shares our determination that this country at least will be fully ready to proceed with the elections at that time. May I say that I have assured my colleagues in the Council of Ministers that, irrespective of the change of Government and the consequences this would have for reintroducing legislation here, it was our firm intention to proceed with this legislation? I think I was able to anticipate that I would have the support of the House in getting the necessary legislation through so that we could meet the target date.
Turning from the European to the national level, this Bill is an important development in our domestic affairs. The constituencies set out in it have been determined by a process which ensures that there cannot even be a suggestion that it was inspired by the aim of achieving electoral advantage for any particular political party. I think this is a step forward which will be welcomed without reservation by everybody who is involved in the democratic system of this country, as a Dáil Deputy or a public representative at any other level or as an ordinary elector. The House will be aware that, as long ago as September of last year, the Taoiseach gave it as his opinion and intention that this would be a suitable occasion to introduce the Commission for Constituency Revision, and I am glad it has been possible, even in the short time available to us, to do just that.
The constituencies proposed in the Second Schedule to the Bill were drawn up by the commission, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Walsh, which was set up by the Government for this purpose. I think the House owes a debt of gratitude to the members of the commission for the thorough and conscientious way in which they carried out their task in a relatively short time. The proposed arrangement of constituencies, in the words of the commission's report, "appears to provide a reasonable basis for the fair conduct of elections and has due regard for social and economic factors, the electorate and density of population as well as to total population." I have pleasure in recommending the proposed constituencies to the House.
Constituencies apart, the provision of this Bill are essentially the same as those of the earlier Bill on this subject presented last April which lapsed with the dissolution of the Dáil on 25th May. Reference is made in the second paragraph of the explanatory memorandum to a small number of departures from the text of the previous Bill. These changes are minor ones of a tidy-up nature with no question of principle involved.
As to the major principles contained in the Bill, I am confident that the House will be able to give them its unanimous support. The most fundamental question to be decided was the matters of the elector system. In adopting the single transferable vote we are choosing a system with which our electors are fully familiar and which affords them a wider range of choice between parties and candidates than would generally be available under any other system. The STV system appears to be the most suitable in our particular circumstances and we should not regard our freedom of choice in this matter as being in any way restricted by the fact that the other member States may adopt different systems.
The Bill proposes that nationals of the other member States ordinarily resident here will have a vote at Assembly elections on the same conditions as Irish citizens. We know that some of these electors may have the right to vote by post or otherwise at Assembly elections in their country of origin and that for some the possibility of voting in more than one country may arise. However, the European instruments forbid double voting and this Bill makes it an offence under our law to vote at the same Assembly election in this country and in any other member State and lays down a penalty for doing so. Until a uniform procedure is introduced for all member States anomalies of this kind appear inescapable. Meanwhile, the proposal in the Bill appears to be the most "European" solution as well as being the most suitable arrangement in the circumstances of this country.
In regard to the qualification of candidates and the procedure for their nomination, it seemed sensible to follow the same general procedure which applies at Dáil elections and the Bill provides accordingly. Probably the main question arising here is the size of the deposit which it is proposed to require of candidates. Generally there are two ways of doing this. The right to nominate candidates could be restricted or a substantial deposit could be required. The requirement of a deposit seems more in keeping with our tradition and more likely to be acceptable.
The Bill, therefore, proposes to rely on a deposit and recommends the same level of deposit as proposed in the previous Bill on this subject. I know some Deputies may have misgivings about a deposit of this order but this must be weighed against the necessity to ensure that every candidate whose name appears on a ballot paper will be abona fide contestant.
In relation to the nomination of candidates, there is another matter which I think ought to be mentioned and that is the provision that a person may not be nominated in respect of more than one constituency. This embargo is considered desirable in order to avoid the possibility of a person being elected to fill more than one Assembly seat and the complications that would arise from such an eventuality.
Under the Bill the role of political parties will be the same as at Dail elections but it will be open to candidates, where appropriate, to use the name of the relevant Assembly political group on ballot papers in addition to the name of their political party. Provision is also made in the Bill for the registration of parties specifically organised to contest Assembly elections.
One of the most difficult problems related to Assembly elections is the selection of a method for filling casual vacancies. In the electoral law of this country two methods of filling such vacancies in the membership of elected bodies are recognised. Vacancies in the Dail and among the elected members of the Seanad are filled by by-election while vacancies in the membership of local authorities are filled by co-option.
In relation to by-elections there are two very serious objections in the context of Assembly elections. First there is the considerable expense and inconvenience of holding a by-election in the large constituencies proposed in the Bill but, more important, there is the distorting effect which by-elections could have in our representation in the Assembly. There is of course a strong argument for by-elections in relation to the national Parliament in that they provide a useful method of testing public opinion between general elections and can, thus, have an important bearing on Government policy.
This argument has no relevance in the context of the Assembly which will not have the task of appointing an executive to be responsible to it and for this reason their representational aspect becomes more important. A by-election is therefore not a suitable device in this context but on the other hand, direct co-option by the Assembly itself is also not appropriate.
The Bill therefore attempts to bring together the idea of filling vacancies by co-option with which we are familiar in the local government field and the view that, once the political composition of the Assembly has been decided by the people at a general election, this balance ought not to be upset by accidental casual vacancies. Section 15 provides that casual vacancies will be filled by appointment by the Dail. If at the last election the seat had been won by the candidate of a political party, the appointment will be made on the nomination of that party, provided it furnishes a nomination within three months.
The detailed provisions of the Bill are dealt with very fully in the explanatory memorandum and it seems unnecessary for me to dwell on them at this point. I will, of course, be glad to deal at greater length with any point on which the House may desire clarification.
Introducing this Bill is a pleasant task for me. The Bill was largely prepared by the previous Government and, apart from the question of an delineation of the constituencies, we in this Government found it possible to adopt it virtually unchanged. This brings home to us that there are issues on which all parties in this House can agree. One of these is the necessity to make the institutions of the European Communities more responsive to public opinion by the early introduction of direct elections to the Assembly.
Our standing in the EEC is based on our wholehearted participation in the Community's institutions and our constant support for the principles of the Treaty. Equally, we have always promoted the need for strengthening the democratic process in Europe and to the extent that a directly elected Assembly provides a direct link between the people and one of the institutions, can only be welcomed by all who want a truly democratic European Community.
The fact that 83 per cent of the Irish people voted in favour of Europe in our referendum for accession has always provided our negotiators and representatives in the Community with considerable moral backing. Direct elections will further enhance our position within the Community by providing a direct democratic link between our citizens and decision-making within the Community.
Direct elections will also ensure that the Community remains consistent with its own ideas and has a greater sense of reality with regard to its present commitments and future obligations.
It is necessary that there be a wholehearted commitment by all parties to direct elections. There must be no indifference. Might I say that those who might seem to have some degree of opposition to the whole concept of direct elections, are in an intolerable position. This position would seem to me to be, one might say, a democratic aberration. How can anyone genuinely oppose direct elections which simply mean that the people are getting a right to be consulted democratically or are they happy to say that the people have no right to be consulted democratically?
Whatever the evolution of the powers of the directly elected Assembly, we must be effectively represented to ensure that our voice is strong and that the Community remains consistent with its own objectives and ideals.
As Deputies are no doubt aware, Parliament has at present perhaps the negative power of dismissing the Commission and also rejecting the Community's draft budget. There is also the conciliation procedure which affords Parliament an effective voice at the Council of Ministers on matters with regard to which Parliament is directly concerned.
At present, Parliament has considerable budgetary powers. It can reject the Community's draft budget which this year is in the nature of £8.2 billion. It is worth remembering that 75 per cent of the EEC expenditure is on the Common Agricultural Policy. While the Community budget represents only 2.15 per cent of the total of the budget of the member states and about 0.69 per cent of the Community's GNP, the European Parliament has a considerable role to play in restoring expenditure in areas which are of vital interest to Ireland. Indeed, as recently as yesterday the Budget Committee of Parliament accepted an amendment tabled by our representatives there which will increase by £110,000 funds available for studies on cross-Border projects in Ireland. This extra expenditure is to allow for more comprehensive socio-economic studies of the whole Irish Border region to be undertaken with Community financial assistance. The proposed amendment will increase the funds available for these purposes to £317,000. It is my determination that the Council of Ministers will accept this.
Direct elections will require the active participation of all to ensure an adequate turn-out of voters. Might I say that those who aspire to direct elections should inform themselves with regard to the functioning of the present Parliament and European matters? In this regard I should like to assure Deputies that I will facilitate them by making arrangements for them to visit both Parliament and the Commission in liaison with the Information Departments of the respective institutions.
One of the issues that has surfaced here in Ireland with regard to direct elections is the question of the level of salaries for the European Parliamentarians. While no definite decision has been taken on this matter I might say that the figures mentioned have aroused public interest as people become aware that these salaries reflect the enormous difference in living standards between various regions of the Community.
This is because people do not relate sufficiently to the Commission, are not sufficiently aware of who is serving the Commission in the first instance and because it is frankly too remote a problem in the second instance. The interesting thing here is that this question is now being asked for the first time because through their elected representatives, the people do relate to this assembly and obviously are more aware of the level of salaries applicable in Europe. To that extent it is a vindication of the role of the Deputy and also must pose a question to the Commission as to how this matter has not been raised beforehand and is now being raised only when we are talking in terms of parliamentary salary.
While the present Bill provides that the dual mandate, that is, membership of Dail and European Parliament, is not incompatible, nevertheless, this must be considered more as an interim arrangement, which is what it is. Hence it would seem desirable that the dual mandate be abolished in all countries in the event of a uniform electoral system being adopted. Furthermore, the burden of work and responsibility would be such that membership of both Dail and European Parliament would be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, we shall have to arrange that there is effective consultation between Members to the European Parliament and the National Parliament to ensure that the views expressed in the European Parliament are not in direct conflict with our interests. Each party will have to elaborate within its own ranks arrangements which will ensure close liaison and a consistency of approach between Euro Members and TDs. A low turn out to direct elections would not only be very damaging for a directly elected Parliament but it would also hinder our standing with our European partners. The mere act itself of holding the elections will not be enough in itself. The elections must be a genuine exercise in democracy with a very large degree of vocal participation. We have a very good record in Europe and it is vitally important that we maintain that record and strengthen our own position in the Community and also the position of this newly directly elected assembly. Arousing the necessary public interest will be a task for all parties and I am confident that, as in the past, that will be done and that Members of this House will play their full part so that we collectively can continue to play a fully committed part in the development of Europe. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.