: I have been a good many years a Member of this House and I cannot recall any previous occasion where a report was circulated to Deputies and brought for debate before the House itself within one week of the report being made available to the Members. I am also very disappointed at the Minister's contribution in which he has given no indication whatsoever, as far as I can make out, whether the Government are accepting the recommendations in the report. I cannot see what useful purpose the debate will have being held so soon after the publication of the report without the benefit of the Government's intentions being made available to the House.
The Minister said that the Government were anxious to give the House an opportunity to debate this as soon as possible. Quite a number of Deputies have not even had an opportunity to read this report yet. This was the reason for my leader's comments earlier on that what this House is being asked to discuss today in unreasonable. There is no great urgency that the matter should be brought at this stage before the House. The only reason the Whips asked for our agreement seems to be that the Government had no other legislation, no other matter of great public importance which they thought Dáil Éireann should consider at this stage. It is extraordinary that this should be the view of the Government. As spokesman on this side of the House, I must record our dissatisfaction at not being given adequate time to study the report. Naturally, as spokesman I read the report.
I would like also to go on record to thank the chairman and members of the working party for the work they did, but it is rather too much for the Minister to say that the purpose of today's debate is to get the views of the Members of this House so that account can be taken of them in preparing firm proposals. I am certain a large number of Government Deputies have not yet fully studied the contents of this report. I have said enough about that. In my view we are merely filling in time and it is unfortunate that the time of this House should be used in this way.
The working party were established in June 1982 by the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy R. Burke. As Fianna Fáil spokesman for the Environment, I would like to express the appreciation of my party to the chairman and the members of the working party for the efficient way they carried out their duties. I believe, from the hurried examination I have made of the report that their recommendations are of great value and, in the main, should result in substantial improvements, first, in the standard of the register of electors, second, in the proposed extension of the postal voting and, third in regard to improving access to polling stations for disabled and elderly people but I would like to have heard which recommendations the Minister considered should have been implemented.
People who contest elections, work for candidates at election time and canvass on a house-to-house basis during election campaigns, will be aware of the serious dissatisfaction about the inaccuracies in electoral registers in recent years. In some cases whole streets have been omitted and people who had been included on the register of electors since reaching the qualifying age, having been on the register for may be 20 or 30 years, were shocked and angry to find that, for no good reason their names were omitted and they were denied the opportunity of casting their votes. In many cases people have gone to the trouble of examining the draft register of electors and on noticing that their names were not included, making proper claims and having them heard at the revision court, presided over by the county registrar, and then finding that their names have still been omitted from the official register and they have no redress. That is a cause for very serious complaint.
The working party have identified one of the reasons for these extraordinary omissions as being the necessity to print in toto the draft register and then reprinting it in its final form. That double printing of all the names on the register — over two million people — will result in some printers errors being made. The suggestion to drop the draft register and publish a list of omissions and names to be added and deleted is a sensible proposal.
We are debating this subject without having heard the proposals to be put forward by the Minister or his Department. The working party made five recommendations to improve the register and I will deal with each in turn. The first main proposal is that the register should be prepared within a revised shorter time scale. they suggest from 15 November to 25 March, coming into force on 6 April. A person would have from 5 March to 6 April to claim to be included on the supplementary list. The proposed time scale is on page 26. I would like to make some suggestions in this area with which the House may agree. To change the qualifying date from 15 September to 15 November is a good idea. There is no real necessity to have such a long period between the qualifying date and the publication of the draft register. The date which is of importance to the public and to those who use the draft register prior to election time, such as politicians who are anxious to ensure it is accurate, is the date on which it is published. Heretofore it was published on 1 December and was available for public scrutiny and for the lodging of claims up to 15 January. That was a very bad time of the year with the Christmas holiday intervening. Many registering authorities did not always produce the draft register for public scrutiny on the required date.
I can recall on several occasions not receiving the draft register until the week before Christmas. If the statutory requirement was that it should be made available by 1 December, that hardly ever happened in the Galway West constituency. I do not know what the experience was in other constituencies, but that shortened the period during which one could arrange to have the register distributed throughout the constituency, have people examine it and arrange for claims to be made for omissions and deletions. The intervention of the Christmas holiday period meant the period was shortened further. I agree with the suggestion that it be removed completely from the Christmas holiday period and the publication date of 10 January seems very satisfactory, but what is not satisfactory is the idea that the last date for making claims would be 24 January. That is far too short a period, only two weeks. As we know from experience registering authorities have not always been able to make the register available on the appointed day.
If the proposed new lists are to be made available only on or after 10 January, but claims must statutorily be lodged by 24 January, in many cases the period would be as short as a week. That is a suggestion with which no practising politician would agree. As an alternative I suggest that it be extended to 10 February, in other words to give a period of four weeks for claims to be lodged. That would require consequent changes in the other dates. As listed on page 26, the date for publication of the list of claims is suggested as 31 January but I suggest that should become 17 February; for the completion of returns of endorsed lists of claims by county registrars the suggested date of 21 February should be changed to 25 February; the proposed date for publication of the register is 25 March, which could be retained, and the register would come into force on 15 April. That is an important proposed change in the recommendations of the working party who suggested that the register come into force on 6 April. I will give my reasons for this in a minute.
On receipt of the draft register I have had to arrange for its distribution to units of my organisation throughout my constituency to ensure that supporters of my party will continue to be included in the voters register. It is a political exercise which I consider to be very valuable, as all politicians will agree. That requires quite a period of time because the register has to be broken up and distributed to give time to others to examine it locally. It often involves going from house to house and then coming back and submitting reports directly to the county secretary. Alternatively it comes back to me for transmission to the county secretary, who would draw up the lists. Much time is required to do that successfully and the period of two weeks is far too short. I hope that the Minister intends to adopt these recommendations and bring forward legislation later in which he will allow a minimum of four weeks for that exercise. On page 26 of the report the following is contained:
At present a period of 10 days is allowed for corrections in respect of names appearing in the claims list. Specifying such a period is considered to be unnecessarily formal and it is proposed that this provision should be dropped. It will still be open to interested parties, of course, to make such claims.
I hope the Minister can give some indication about what he and the Department consider to be the appropriate procedures to be followed when names are omitted from the claims list: how can they be included in the list and how will they be checked if that facility is to be removed? The report goes on at page 27:
The register will be published on the 25th March and will come into force on the 6th April. A period between the publication of the register and its entry into force is necessary because in the event of an election the register to be used is needed at the beginning of the election period by the Returning Officer, and for the purpose of canvassing, etc.
I have already suggested a change in those dates — that the period be from 25 March to 15 April. My reason is that I considered the period recommended by the Working Party to be too short. If a general election were called either for 6 April or 7 April and if the register is only to be published and available on 25 March it would not then be available for the full duration of the campaign which on the average has a three-week span. It is my view that the register should be available for the full duration of the campaign, particularly for the last three weeks of the campaign. It would be intolerable if one had to carry out an election without the benefit of the register for most of the compaign period. It could cause great confusion and would prove a serious hindrance to the efficient operation of our democratic process. A lot of time would be wasted with people coming in demanding to know if they were on the register and we would not know because the register had not been published in time. Therefore I strongly recommend that the period between the publication of the register and its coming into force should be at least a period of three weeks — if necessary, a little longer, but certainly not shorter.
The second major recommendation in regard to improvements to the register appears on page 5. The working party recommend that the practice of publishing the full draft register should be discontinued and that only lists of additions and deletions should be made available. That, in practice, should prove to be a very valuable change which would help to eliminate many of the mistakes being made because of the reprinting of 2½ million names on two different occasions — first in draft and then repeating the whole thing when the final register is being made available.
There is also a suggestion that these lists should be published in local newspapers. I have no doubt that if the Minister were to find that to be practicable it would eliminate many of the mistakes and omissions of recent years. It would create immediate public interest. It would be a topic of conversation and possibly would be the most effective step the Minister and the Department could take to bring to the notice of the public that the register of electors was available for public scrutiny and that time would therefore be available to make claims.
I do not know how much money is being spent at present on advertising on television and on stamping envelopes reminding people that they should check the register of electors in the period between 1 December and 15 January. I do not think that has any great public impact: I do not think TV advertising has been very imaginative. I have never found any great public reaction, like people saying, "I must go to the post office or the Garda station to check whether my name is on the register of electors". I do not think there is great public awareness. My experience as a politician has been that there seems to be great ignorance on the part of the public in regard to the procedures that have to be followed in the revision of the register on an annaul basis. The public seem to be interested in whether they are on the register only when they hear an election has been announced. There is intense interest at that stage.
The suggestion I have referred to, it is not a recommendation, that the list of additions and deletions should be published in local newspapers, would bring about an instant response from the public and possibly would result in the most accurate register of electors ever produced here. The only obstacle I can see to it is the cost, and I am not sure it would be very great. I do not have figures on the number of claims for additions and deletions each year but I have a rough idea of the numbers in my constituency. Therefore I would not consider that the cost of publishing the list of claims in local newspapers would be excessive. Indeed, I recall some years ago that organisations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society used to publish the names and addresses of all subscribers. They are not doing that now because of the cost, but when a major part of the machinery in a democracy is being revised the State would be well advised to spend money to ensure that the public would be made fully aware of their rights to check the register.
The third major recommendation in regard to improving the register refers to the number of field workers:
Sufficient field workers should be employed by each registration authority to ensure that the field work involving a complete house-to-house check will be completed in time to be reflected in the electors' list.
If that recommendation is not implemented, the work of this committee will have been a complete waste. I strongly urge the Minister to implement that recommendation. It is crucial to the success in achieving a more effective and accurate register of electors.
An interesting comparison is made in the report about the accuracy of the population census carried out every five years. The most recent census of population in 1981 is estimated to have cost £3.8 million. The public have full confidence that the national population census was an accurate count of the population. An elaborate system was established resulting in house-to-house calls by field workers on the ground and also involving very careful supervision of those people. Unfortunately, the same care and attention have not been given in the past to the preparation of the register of electors. Great responsibility has been thrown on the rate collectors.
As we all know, rate collectors have become scarce on the ground in rural Ireland since the abolition of domestic rates. They are not as closely in touch as they used to be with each individual householder because they have not got the occasion to call to any householder. The only obligation which rests on them now is to call, if necessary, to business enterprises or the remaining enterprises with responsibility for paying rates. The domestic rate has been abolished and ordinary householders have no official contact with the rate collector. He still continues to carry responsibility for compiling the register, and is responsible for its accuracy, despite the fact that he has such little contact with the local community. There is a serious deduction from his remuneration according to the level of accuracy determined by the officer in charge of the registration authority.
The figure of £3.8 million given as the cost of the census of the population in 1981, when compared with the cost of compiling the register of electors over a similar period of only £700,000, indicates the degree of importance given to this task up to now. Unless the Department are prepared to commit an adequate amount of funds for the establishment of a network of personnel on the ground to check the register, the whole exercise will be a waste of time. The recommendation of the working party that sufficient field workers should be employed can never be implemented unless the political will is there on the part of the Minister and the Government to provide sufficient funds to ensure that sufficient field workers are employed.
The figure provided of £700,000 is grossly inadequate. There is no possibility of increasing the number of personnel involved in this task unless the Department make realistic allocations to the local authorities. There is an unfortunate obligation, in one sense, on the local authority to carry half the cost. With the present system of financing local authorities it is not realistic to demand that they provide this improved service unless the Department will provide them with the financial wherewithal to carry out the Department's instructions. We have had a history in recent years, since the 1978 Act was passed, of Ministers introducing legislation placing responsibility on a local authority to provide a certain service and at the same time not providing additional funds to enable the local authority to provide that service. This is a very serious anomaly which is the cause of much frustration for elected councillors, and it has caused much distress to local authority accounting officers and county managers.
Whoever replies to this debate should make clear what the Government's commitments are in relation to the recommendations and whether they are serious about requiring an improvement in the degree of accuracy in the register of electors. We need that statement because it was not the present Minister or any Member of the Government who established this working party. Unless there is an indication from the Government that they support the recommendations and intend to introduce the necessary legislation and provide the necessary finance, involving Deputies in a debate of this kind will be a waste of time. Hopefully we are not wasting our time here today. Hopefully the Minister will pay some heed to some of the suggestions we are making. Hopefully in particular, serious note will be taken of the recommendations made by the working party, and we will see the legislation and the finance provided in the future to satisfy the desire of everybody in this House and in the country that we should have an accurate register of electors.
One comment on page 23 of this report interested me very much. It is rather unusual, bearing in mind that the Minister has informed the House that the people who comprised the working party were civil servants, or officials of local authorities, or county registrars. The comment is that the public must be encouraged to take an informed interest, to understand the procedures involved and co-operate in them, to be specific in their criticism and to refuse to accept an inadequate service. Three cheers for all these civil servants and public officials who advised the community to refuse to accept an inadequate service, but they did not tell us what steps the public should take to make known their refusal to accept an inadequate service or what form their protest against an inadequate service should take. It is a very bald statement and quite extraordinary coming from public servants. The only comment of any critical nature I would make of them — I subscribe to the sentiment; why should we accept an inadequate service? — is that they do not give us any idea of what they think we can do if an inadequate service continues to be made available.
The fourth major recommendation for the improvement of the register refers to a change of residence. If this takes place between 15 November and 24 January the elector should be registered at the new residence. This is a very sensible recommendation. I would add the warning that it is absolutely imperative that, if a person is to be registered at his new residence he must be removed from the register at his old place of residence. It has been the cause of much wonder how people who move from one constituency to another manage to be registered in the new constituency while still remaining on the register in their old constituency. There does not seem to be any co-operation between the registration authorities and the county registrars in examining the electors' lists and the various claims submitted. Time and again we have been told of people who have voted twice on the basis that they were registered in two different places. It is very difficult to know about this unless it happens to come to light afterwards. I urge that special provision be made to ensure that when a person moves his place of residence his name is deleted from the original list. The recommendation here which only allows for this where people change residences between 15 November, the new suggested qualifying date, and 24 January, the suggested date for the last day to receive claims, I consider to be too restrictive. There should be a provision in the supplementary list for people to be registered up to the time an election is announced.
The fifth and final major recommendation to the register is set out as follows:
A supplement to the register to correct errors of a clerical and typographical nature should continue to be published, subject to the clarification that in cases where a person's name is due to appear on the final register but is inadvertently omitted, such name should be included in the supplement. In addition, the supplement should be published as soon as the process for the holding of an election begins.
I do not agree with the views of the working party in this case. They elaborated on those views in the report. Most people will agree that, in the main, omissions from the list come to light during an election compaign. At that stage the supplementary list should allow for omissions to be included in the supplementary list. I suggest that claims up to one week before polling day should be allowed. I know that the public servants involved will shrink in horror at the administrative difficulties they claim this would create but I think it has a lot to do with the will of the people who are charged with implementing the measures. If one wishes sufficiently to do something I believe it is possible to devise efficient methods to do it. However, if the attitude is to make life as easy as possible, one can always say the task is impossible.
In this day it should be well within our competence to devise an efficient and adequate method of including an elector's name on a supplementary list even up to the time an election is announced. I make that suggestion but I suspect from experience it may not be well received by the officials charged with carrying out the measure. If adequate arrangements are made and if good procedures are adopted there is no reason it should not be done. We have only to look back to the local elections in 1974 when the postal voting arrangements were along similar lines, when claims were being made close to the time of the election date.
I do not believe the number of claims would be excessive and I think this facility would remove a major cause of complaint against the present system. I am surprised the working party did not make stronger recommendations in this area. People who contest an election or participate in an election campaign and who go to each door in an area are on occasion confronted by a resident who will say that his name is not on the list and who will ask how he can rectify the situation. Those people who are campaigning are nonplussed because there is no provision in the law to cater for this. We are now reviewing the law and making suggestions for its improvement and I recommend strongly that procedures be introduced to enable claims to be made up to one week before polling day. I do not think the number would be excessive or that it would present the major administrative problems that I suspect some public servants might seek to claim. Even if it should prove to be cumbersome, I recommend to the Minister that it be tried out on an experimental basis.
These are the five main recommendations of the working party. I am not very impressed with the fifth recommendation and I have made my own suggestions which I consider an improvement. I should like to compliment the working party on the thorough way they have examined the whole problem and the open-minded approach they adopted. I should also like to commend the public-minded people who submitted recommendations to the working party. I am very pleased to see that two Fianna Fáil Deputies were among those who made suggestions and recommendations to help the working party in their deliberations. I commend Deputy David Andrews and Deputy O'Hanlon for their work and also the other people and bodies who made contributions.
The next major area the working party were asked to consider was the matter of postal voting. Members of the House will agree that every qualified elector should be able to vote, if not in person then by postal vote. It is absolutely essential that the success of the democratic process be guaranteed by devising facilities which enable all qualified voters to exercise the franchise. The recommendations of the working party with regard to postal voting are very sensible. In the main they recommend the extension of the postal vote to people who are physically disabled and that includes elderly people and electors prevented from voting in person due to their occupation. They make a condition that this should apply only to persons ordinarily resident in a particular constituency on the qualifying date and there are various flexible interpretations with regard to the qualifying date. I understand it has been accepted that if a person is ordinarily resident in a certain place he could be absent for a period up to 18 months and still be accepted as ordinarily resident at that place. I understand that that flexible approach has been adopted up to now.
However, the working party did not recommend extending the postal vote to certain categories. One category might gain the sympathy of the House — public servants employed by the State who, because of their duties, have to reside away from this country. The postal voting facility should be extended, firstly, to all members of the diplomatic service and other State employees required to reside abroad in the fulfilment of their duties. I cannot see how we can deny these citizens the right to vote in our elections. It is a weakness of the report that it has recommended against this. The working party appear to have been over-influenced by the law in regard to the place where one is ordinarily resident in a particular constituency. A person in the diplomatic service ordinarily resident abroad for, perhaps, 15 or 20 years would not qualify for a postal vote under this law and this should not be so.
The recommendation of the committee is otherwise very sensible — the provision whereby people can make a claim for postal voting on being able to show that the circumstances of their employment will deny them the opportunity of being present to cast their vote in their local polling station on the appointed day. If they can produce documentation from their employer or a doctor or, in the case of the self-employed, a statutory declaration, then the deciding officer, presumably the county registrar, would extend the postal vote to them. This will give that opportunity in future to people like commercial travellers, seamen, members of the airlines, fishermen and a whole range of people going about their ordinary task of earning a living and who are as interested and involved and have as much stake in any election as any other citizen. It will give them the opportunity to cast their vote and help to determine who shall govern the country and maintain the peace and democratic process which we have enjoyed since the establishment of this State.
It is extremely important that as many as possible should be enabled to vote and that every facility should be extended to them. Only in very exceptional and necessary cases should this be denied. Unfortunately, it is now denied to a very large section of the community. One reads the newspapers on the day after a general election and sees the headlines of a 70, 75 or 80 per cent poll, but one can be sure that it will never be a 100 per cent poll under our present electoral law, under the arrangements available at present to enable people to vote. People in poor health in hospital are not able to walk into their polling station to cast their vote and a very substantial percentage of the electorate have had no opportunity of casting a vote in any election over the years since the State was founded, because of the denial of the postal vote.
In the 1974 local elections the postal vote was available only to Defence Force and Garda personnel. A whole section of the community have been disfranchised because we in the Oireachtas have not provided them with the facilities and the procedures to enable them to cast their vote. This recommendation is obviously of very great importance.
I would like clarification from some Member of the Government in reply to this debate as to what form the statutory declaration in respect of the self-employed would take. It is mentioned on page 40 of the report that people seeking to prove that because of their employment they will not be able to be present at their polling station on election day must justify their application through the presentation of a statutory declaration. Would this statutory declaration involve the payment of money to a Commissioner of Oaths? I would be opposed to any charge being made on anybody providing the statutory declaration.
Other Members of the House when they come to contribute to this debate or who have time to further consider the contents of this report may suggest that postal voting be extended to other citizens who are not ordinarily resident in the country on the qualifying date. The recommendation on page 45, section 4, that no ballot paper should be sent to an address outside of the State, I could not agree to. If we extend the postal vote to the diplomatic service and State employees, the vote should be posted direct to these people. If I remember correctly, the procedure for postal voting in local authority elections required the application to be made from an address in Ireland and if one were residing abroad at the time of the election the vote had to be sent to one's home in Ireland and from one's home to wherever one resided abroad, and back. It certainly proved very cumbersome. With reference to State employees, provision should be made to have the vote sent direct to these electors.
Reference is made on page 35 of the report to the Local Election Postal Voting Regulations, 1974. Is it the intention to have postal voting in the local authority elections to be held in 1984? If so, will the 1974 postal voting regulations apply? If this is so, it should be pointed out that these differ from the recommendations in this report. The 1974 postal voting regulations for local authority elections provided that the postal vote could be granted if one could show that one was going to be absent from the constituency on the election date, or if one were employed by a returning officer. Neither of these two recommendations is contained in the working party's report and I would like some clarification as to the application of the 1974 regulations in the event of the local elections being held in 1984.
It would be helpful if on this side of the House we could know that it was the Minister's intention to introduce uniform postal voting regulations which would apply across the board to local elections, general elections, presidential elections, referenda, to the Údarás na Gaeltachta elections and, of course, would apply also to by-elections. We have not had any indication as to what are the Minister's intentions and we have been left in the dark in this respect. If it is the intention to introduce uniform voting regulations will the 1974 local authority postal voting regulations continue in operation until a new Act is passed? Might we have some indication as to whether the Government have given any consideration to this whole question of postal voting? Can we expect a new Bill to be brought before the House implementing the suggestions of this working party and, if so, what will be the time scale?
The postal vote was not made available during the most recent local elections in 1979 because the European Assembly elections were held on the same day. It was decided that it would not be appropriate to have postal voting extended to the electorate in the case of local elections when they were being denied that right in the case of the European Assembly elections. The decision was taken not to grant postal voting at all for those local authority elections. We understand from recent statements of the Minister that it is likely that the European Assembly elections and the local elections will be held on the same day in May 1984. Therefore, we should like some clarification as to what are the Government's intentions in this whole area of postal voting as they affect local authority elections and the European Assembly elections to be held next year.
The working party gave some information in their report on postal voting facilities available in other European countries. I must say that I consider the existing postal facilities in the Federal Republic of Germany to be the most enlightened system in operation in Europe at present. The German postal vote is available for absence from the constituency, in the event of a change of address, an occupation difficulty, because of an illness or because of old age or physical disability. It extends also to the diplomatic service serving abroad at the time of the election. I should like to see the same type of scheme operate here eventually.
I referred earlier to the existence of a supplementary list. In whatever legislation is introduced after this there should be provision made for a supplementary list of claims for postal votes where one could show that it was necessary because of illness, because of absence or change of address. The arguments in the report against extending the postal vote to a wider section of the electorate are purely administrative, as outlined on page 37 of the report and I shall not go through them here. It is not beyond our competence to devise a satisfactory system. I recognise the difficulties involved but I do not think they are insurmountable. I hope some further thought will be given to that.
While on the subject of postal votes I might make a reference to the existing facility extended to members of the Defence Forces and Garda personnel. The situation has arisen in the past in which a member of the Defence Forces had retired prior to the date of the election and his name had been included on the voters' register as a postal voter. He was residing in an Army barracks. As we are aware, the arrangement at present in operation is that the returning officer sends the ballot papers directly to the officer in charge of the barracks where the voter is residing, if he is residing in barrack quarters, and arrangements are made for him to vote, secretly of course, in the baraacks. He does this in his own time. He is handed the ballot paper. But where a member was no longer a serving member of the Defence Forces it has happened that these ballot papers have not been forwarded to the ex-soldier's last known address. In the regulations there should be a requirement on the Army authorities to forward the ballot papers to the last known address of a postal voter who had formerly resided in their barracks. If that was done it would eliminate a problem which arose in the past on a number of occasions and which was at one time the subject of a very hot and angry debate here. Of course the same should apply in the case of Garda personnel but it would not arise as frequently in their case.
The third major area which the working party were asked to consider was that of access to polling stations for disabled and elderly persons. Here the objective should be to ensure maximum independence for disabled persons by the elimination of any obstacles to their free access and circulation. On page 49, paragraph 9.2, of the report reference is made to the Memorandum for Guidance of Returning Officers at Dáil Elections as issued by the Department of the Environment prior to the November 1982 general election. This memorandum refers to the importance of facilitating disabled voters when polling stations are being arranged. It goes on to say:
The memorandum advises ... that "polling stations should in all cases be located on a ground floor to provide ease of access by physically incapacitated electors. To facilitate electors confined to wheelchairs consideration should be given to the provision of a ramp if the polling station cannot be reached without negotiating steps".
As far as I can ascertain that memorandum was ignored totally. There is little use in the Minister issuing memoranda of that kind unless there is some follow-up to ensure that the recommendations are implemented, and they were very valid recommendations made for very good reasons. I know that the Wheelchair Association and other organisations representing handicapped people have been making representations along those lines for quite a number of years. I commend the Minister of the day for issuing separate instructions to returning officers to make provision for handicapped people. But in my experience very little has been done to enforce those instructions. If the Department are interested I might quote just a few examples in my constituency. There is no way that a person confined to a wheelchair could enter the Ozman House polling station in Galway city. I canvassed in the Spiddal area during the last general election and a gentleman in a wheelchair told me it would be impossible for him to gain access to the Spiddal national school polling station, that he would have to be physically carried in. That completely defeats the wishes of Parliament that people in wheelchairs should be facilitated to get there through their own efforts without seeking the assistance of people to lift them bodily in and out of polling stations. In the Mervue national school polling station many of the polling booths are located on the first storey of that building. There is no way a handicapped person could negotiate those stairs. There is the same difficulty in the Claddagh national school polling station in Galway city. Those are just a few I can very quickly recall in my constituency. We can be sure that up and down the country there are hundreds of polling stations where a handicapped person in a wheelchair could not gain access. Returning officers cannot implement what the memo provides for if the budget allocated is not adequate to acquire suitable premises. Instead, they will take the soft option and avail of the free premises, which is the local national school.
Again, it is a question of the Minister giving instructions but not providing the wherewithal to implement them. It is very frustrating for a returning officer to receive a direction of that kind and to know that if he sets about hiring a premises to which there is easy access for disabled persons the expenses involved may not be approved by the Department. That is an area in respect of which I should like some clarification from the Minister. He should tell us what the guidelines are for expenses that may be incurred by returning officers and also how restrictive are the Department in this regard. Time and again public representatives have complained to returning officers about inadequate facilities only to be told that the facilities can only be as good as those for which their budget provides. We could be merely wasting our time if the will is not present on the part of the Minister to ensure that these excellent recommendations are implemented and that the additional finance necessary is provided.
An election is the instrument whereby people express their democratic will. The facilities and arrangements provided for the electorate in this respect should be the best possible so as to ensure that at least the people have confidence in the system. On those grounds alone we can justify increasing substantially the moneys spent in arranging for elections.
It is important, too, that lists of voters be accurate and that polling stations be accessible and well lighted. It is a dreadful situation when people have to struggle up grassy banks into broken-down school houses in order to vote and in addition, in the case of a winter election, to have only candlelight from about 5 o'clock in the evening. This is not good enough. It does not help to create confidence in the democratic process. Counting centres should be large enough to enable the public to observe the vote counting procedure. In Dublin access is very restricted. In some rural areas where suitable arrangements in this regard have been made, the people concerned must be commended.
I fully agree with the recommendations regarding accessibility. The suggestion that temporary ramps be provided in order to make the polling stations accessible to the disabled is excellent as is also the suggestion to site polling stations in hospitals and institutions.
Regarding the booklet that is issued to presiding officers I should like the Minister to clarify the position regarding paragraph 18 which concerns illiterate voters. I have known of instances in which this paragraph was interpreted by the presiding officer as meaning that when a person who was illiterate came to shout out his vote, the presiding officer instructed the Garda sergeant present and the poll clerk to leave the station. I do not know whether that is the correct manner in which the law should be interpreted. The only people who remained in the station were the presiding officer, the illiterate voter and the personation agents for the candidates. That situation has caused quite an amount of controversy in the Galway-West constituency. It has resulted in a good deal of correspondence between the returning officer in Galway and the Department of the Environment but so far he has not been given any clear instruction as to what the procedure should be in such cases. In other words, the Department have not said yet whether the presiding officer was correct in the manner in which he interpreted the law. Parliamentary questions from me on the matter have been refused on the grounds that the Minister has no obligation to state the law. He may not have an obligation to state the law in the case of parliamentary Question Time but he has a responsibility to explain to the House what the law is in regard to that issue.
I wish to commend the officials who worked assiduously to produce this excellent report and I hope that the contributions from this side of the House will be helpful to the Minister and that at an early date he will bring forward the legislation to implement the recommendations. If he does so, he can be assured that we on this side of the House will be very pleased.