I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
The Bill will establish on a statutory basis an independent electoral commission to prepare proposals for the revision of Dáil and European constituencies. It will provide for State funding of political parties, require the disclosure of substantial political donations, and impose limits on election expenditure by political parties and candidates. It also contains provisions to set up new voting arrangements for electors unable, by reason of their occupation, to vote at their polling station; and provisions to facilitate more expeditious vote counting at elections.
Its central objective is to enhance efficiency and accountability in the political process. To this end, the Bill contains an integrated package of proposals involving a measure of public funding for political parties, a requirement to disclose significant political contributions, and limits on election spending. Public funding will help reduce the dependence of parties on income from other sources; limitation of election spending will relieve some of the financial pressure on parties; greater openness will be achieved through the disclosure of substantial donations and the publication of details of election expenditure.
The Bill, in some respects, complements the Ethics in Public Office Act which provides for the registration of interests by Members of the Oireachtas, office holders and senior public service officials. It sets up procedures for resolving possible conflicts of interest in the execution of public policy and clarifies that expensive gifts to office holders will become the property of the State. Together, the two measures will provide a framework to protect and enhance our democracy and help restore the openness and trust essential to the democratic system.
The explanatory memorandum which has been circulated with the Electoral Bill is quite detailed and contains both a general summary of the provisions in the Bill and notes on individual sections. I propose, therefore, in the time available to me, to concentrate on the underlying principles.
I will deal first with the case for public funding which rests on the essential role political parties play in the democratic process. It has become fashionable to denigrate politicians and political parties and to portray those involved in public representation as self-serving opportunists. Whether one likes the individuals involved at any particular time, it has to be accepted that political parties are the work-horses of democracy; it is difficult indeed to envisage a functioning parliamentary democracy which does not involve political parties of one kind or another. Quite correctly, parties have been described as inevitable and indispensible instruments of democratic government.
Political parties provide the essential underpinning for democratic structures and make it possible to exercise an effective electoral choice. The modern party performs a range of important functions, including the formation and development of policy. It provides representation for a broad range of opinion. It offers citizens the opportunity for active participation in public affairs. It recruits, trains and motivates candidates for election to public office at every level.
Pressure on parties in a complex modern society demands increasing professionalism, access to an expanding range of expertise and more effective communications strategies. The whistle stop tour, the inspirational speech, the personality candidate at election times will no longer suffice to attract and retain support. Today's electorate demands comprehensive, coherent and costed policies, properly presented and explained. Such policies do not grow on trees; they are the product of high quality, sustained hard work.
In their day to day operations, parties must deal with highly organised and well resourced interest groups. Organised labour, employers' organisations, farmers, business interests, pressure groups of all kinds can deploy formidable resources nowadays. Parties must be in a position to deal effectively with such organisations and respond to their concerns.
The costs involved in meeting the ongoing running expenses of a political party have increased for a variety of reasons. So too have the costs of mounting election campaigns. I would be the last to suggest that a huge outlay on advertising, media consultants or gimmicks can win elections, but there is no getting away from the fact that the cost of even the most carefully managed campaign has increased substantially, given the standards which parties now have to match in printing, advertising, television broadcasts, and so on.
To function satisfactorily, parties require an adequate level of funding. In particular, they need a certain basic level of income which can be relied on and supplemented, as required, by the party's efforts.
Traditional sources of income, such as the subscriptions of members and voluntary fund raising, corporate or otherwise, are no longer adequate or appropriate to meet the full cost of the operations of political parties. To share in the limited funds available from these sources, parties must compete, not only with one another, but with a range of voluntary and charitable organisations at local, national and international level. This intense competition for funds obliges party organisations, even at the highest levels, to devote an undue proportion of their time and energy to fund raising. Time and energy, which should be devoted to the development and implementation of policies directed towards the real problems of our society, are dissipated in this way. There is also the risk that parties may become dependent, to an unacceptable extent, on corporate donations from business interests and organisations representing industry, business, the professions or trade unions. There is an even greater risk that the public perception of parties and politicians will suffer as a result of fundraising practices, and that our democratic institutions will be the ultimate losers if the system is not regulated.
The difficulties associated with the financing of the political system are not exclusive to this country but are experienced in most parliamentary democracies. Throughout the democratic world, there is increasing acceptance of the concept of public funding of political parties, to one degree or another, this is not to imply that the argument is all one way.
It is necessary, for example, to recognise the understandable reluctance of some taxpayers to contribute to political parties, particularly parties to which they may be diametrically opposed.
Some people strongly hold the view that the acceptance of State funding could undermine the essential independence and vigour of parties and lead to a degree of State control which would inhibit freedom of action and the development of truly independent policies. Any system of State funding must be designed to take account of factors such as these.
While acknowledging that State funding is no panacea, the view has been taken that, in line with most of our partners in the European Union, it is appropriate and in the wider public interest, to propose the introduction of a measure of direct public funding. The proposals in the Bill seek to approach the matter in a balanced way. Care is taken to ensure that parties will not become unduly dependent on public funding. The proposed funding is designed to supplement, not replace, income from other sources. Parties will be required to account for the money provided by way of an audited statement. In addition, they will be required to disclose the sources of substantial donations and restrict their spending at elections.
Beyond these requirements, intervention in the internal functioning and procedures of parties is kept to the minimum necessary. Thus, the use to which the money may be put is left to the discretion of the party but will, of course, have to be openly declared. The money could, for example, be used to defray the general operating expenses of party head office, or to fund research and policy development, or it could be reserved, in part, for future election expenses. This will be a matter for each party to decide.
It is, however, Government policy — and has been the policy of successive Governments — that participation by women and young persons in political activity should be positively encouraged. Parties will, therefore, be required to indicate the extent of their expenditure for this purpose. The amount they devote to it will be left to their own judgment, but their decision in this regard will, of course, be open to scrutiny by interested groups and the public generally.
The payments proposed in the Bill are designed to assist parties in the discharge of their general role in the democratic process and will be payable to registered parties represented in the Dáil. Essentially the Bill is concerned with funding for parties. However, section 15 (5) envisages that financial support may also be provided for non-party Deputies to assist them in the discharge of their functions in the Oireachtas. Regulations for this purpose will require the consent of the Minister for Finance and the approval of both Houses.
The Bill requires the disclosure of political donations exceeding certain prescribed levels. Annual disclosure must be made by registered political parties and Members of the Dáil, Seanad and European Parliament. The disclosure requirement will also apply to candidates at Presidential, Dáil, Seanad and European elections and provision is made for regulations to extend the requirement, with appropriate modification, to local authority members and candidates at local elections. Companies, trade unions and certain other corporate bodies must also make an annual disclosure.
The disclosure threshold proposed in the Bill for political parties and corporate bodies is £4,000 and for individual Members and candidates £500. The expression "donation" used in the Bill will include the value of property, goods or services provided free of charge or at reduced cost as well as monetary contributions. In addition, all contributions made by a person or organisation to the same recipient in the course of a year, or in relation to a particular election, will be treated as a single donation. Contributions made to different branches, elected representatives, candidates, officers etc. of a party will be treated as a donation to the party and aggregated.
There will be an element of double and, in some instances, threefold disclosure. For example, if a Deputy, who is a member of a registered party, receives a contribution of, say, £600, the contribution must be disclosed by him or her. The contribution will also be deemed to be a donation to the Deputy's party and if, in the course of a year, the total contributions from the donor concerned to the party, as a whole, exceed £4,000, there must be disclosure by the party. If the donor is a company, trade union, building society or similar body and contributes more than £4,000 in total, the contribution must be disclosed in the annual report or return of the body concerned.
The purpose of the disclosure requirement is, of course, to make for greater openness in the conduct of public affairs and help all involved in public life to rebut the perception that wealthy individuals or powerful organisations can seek to influence public policy by making substantial contributions to political parties, candidates or elected representatives.
In practice, political contributions have generally been treated as confidential up to now in accordance with the wishes of donors, but the practice of confidentiality has given rise to suspicion that substantial political contributions may be made with a view to influencing decision making. Whether there is any basis in fact for the suspicion of undue influence, the existing situation is not conducive to the public trust which is an essential element in democracy. To restore that trust, it is necessary to deal with the appearance of, and potential for, improper influence or corruption, as well as the offence itself.
With the introduction of public funding for political parties, it is all the more important that the public should know whether parties are in receipt of substantial sums from other sources and, if so, the identity of these sources. However, the Bill preserves the right to privacy of persons and bodies who may wish to make more modest contributions to the parties and candidates with whose policies they are in agreement. The objective must be to set the thresholds at levels which will represent a reasonable balance between these considerations.
It must be said that contributing to the funds of political parties is a legitimate practice. Parties, as I said earlier, perform an essential function in a democratic society and it is in the public interest that they should have the resources to carry out that function effectively. In many countries, contributions to political parties are positively encouraged by mechanisms such as tax incentives.
What this Bill addresses is the suspicion that persons or organisations with substantial resources may seek to use these resources in an attempt improperly to influence official decisions. Even if such suspicion has any basis, the suspicion itself must be dealt with, and the only effective weapon for combating suspicion is openness. Let the facts speak for themselves and the ultimate judges, an informed electorate, deliver their judgement where it counts, in the ballot box.
Limitation on expenditure will apply at Dáil, Presidential and European elections and there is provision for its extension to local elections by means of regulations. Because of the unique circumstances obtaining in Seanad elections, the question of expenditure control at these elections is left over for future legislation. Any proposals in this regard will have to take account of developments in the Seanad, particularly the proposal that three Members should be elected by Irish emigrants.
The Bill does not deal with expenditure at referenda. As the present case illustrates, the position at a referendum can be complex and differ radically from one referendum to the next. If expenditure control were to be considered appropriate, the structures would have to be materially different from those relating to elections. This is a matter which it may be desirable to address on another occasion, perhaps when we come to deal with the general question of information arrangements for referenda, which the Government is already committed to reviewing.
Control of expenditure at elections will operate through a system of agents. Parties must appoint a national agent and each candidate an election agent. Agents will be required to maintain appropriate records and furnish after the election a detailed expenditure statement, with supporting vouchers and a statutory declaration. The cash limits and control arrangements are set out in the Bill and dealt with in substantial detail in the explanatory memorandum.
A particular aspect requires mention. At recent elections certain individuals and organisations having no apparent connection with a party or candidate contesting the election have published advertisements advocating support for, or more usually opposition to, particular parties and candidates. The Bill will not affect expenditure by such third parties, or place any limit on it. However, where such third parties propose to incur expenditure for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election, they will be required to signify their intention to do so in advance and furnish a detailed account of the expenditure incurred by them after the election. Recent elections have also witnessed the publication of advertisements by the "friends and supporters" of particular candidates. In future, such expenditure must be accounted for by the election agent of the candidate concerned.
In a democracy, it is essential that parties and candidates should have an opportunity of presenting their policies and programmes to the electorate and, for this purpose, should be free to incur an appropriate level of expenditure. Looked at from another perspective, electors are entitled to know what each party and candidate stands for so that they can make an informed choice but extravagant spending at elections is unseemly and inappropriate. In the intensely competitive atmosphere at an election, parties and candidates can be drawn into a spiral of competitive spending which can serve no real purpose. It is in everybody's interest that there should be clear and sensible limits.
In laying down such limits, the Bill recognises that extravagant spending is not appropriate, particularly in a situation where political parties will be financed, in part, from public funds. It also acknowledges that excessive expenditure is ineffective in terms of influencing the outcome of the election and may well be counter-productive. I am sure Deputies will have their own views on the spending limits proposed and I look forward to hearing them.
Regarding monitoring and enforcement, the provisions of the Bill relating to funding of political parties, disclosure of donations and control of election expenses will be monitored by the Public Offices Commission — the high-level, independent commission to be established under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. The members will be the Ceann Comhairle, the Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad. In addition to its functions under the Ethics in Public Office Act, the commission will consider all statements and returns required to be made under this Bill and make these documents available for public inspection. It will be empowered to demand additional information and documents; to report to the Dáil on any matters arising; and to report any suspected contravention of the provisions of this Bill to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
It will be the function of the DPP to prosecute, or authorise prosecution, for alleged offences. Offences under the Bill will include failure to furnish a donation statement or a statement of election expenditure, furnishing false or misleading statements or incurring election expenses above the permitted limit.
There will be other sanctions also. For example, payments due to a political party under the Bill will be withheld if the party fails to furnish an audited statement regarding the preceding year's funding or if it fails to furnish a donation statement. Similarly, excess expenditure incurred by a party at an election may be recovered from any payments due under the Bill.
Thus, there will be effective measures in place to ensure compliance. However, the most significant enforcement mechanism will be the force of an informed public opinion. The thrust of the Bill is to make for greater openness in public life. All relevant information will be published and readily available to the Oireachtas, the media and the public generally. All the necessary information will be available to enable electors to make up their own minds and make their views known where it counts most — at the ballot box.
The Bill provides for the establishment, on a statutory basis, of an independent constituency commission to prepare proposals for the revision of Dáil and European parliamentary constituencies. Under the Bill, the commission will be set up on the publication of the census report following each census of population. It will be chaired by a judge of the Supreme Court or the High Court nominated by the Chief Justice. The other members will be the Ombudsman, the Secretary of the Department of the Environment and the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad.
The terms of reference of the commission, which are set out in the Bill, are essentially the same as those given to previous, non-statutory, commissions. They are, in fact, identical to those given to the Dáil constituency commission which reported last April and whose recommendations are given effect in the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1995. The commission must invite and consider submissions and report to the Ceann Comhairle within six months of its establishment. The report will be laid before the Dáil and Seanad but, as at present, implementation of the recommendations will require legislation.
By providing a statutory base, the Bill will enhance the standing and authority of the commission and guarantee its independence. It will ensure that a commission is established as soon as practicable after each census and that the commission is given the necessary resources and co-operation to carry out its functions. It will also ensure that the terms of reference for the revision of constituencies can only be altered by an Act of the Oireachtas and that the report of the commission is published.
If the Bill is enacted, the first statutory constituency commission would be set up following publication of the results of the census of population to be taken next year. The commission would deal with both Dáil and European constituencies.
There is general agreement that the practice of having constituencies drawn up by an independent electoral commission is a vast improvement on the former practice under which constituencies were revised by the Government of the day. I believe that there is also general support for the proposal that the commission and its terms of reference should now be placed on a statutory basis.
Other provisions in the Bill will include facilities for voting by electors who, because of their occupation, are unable to vote at their polling station. The facilities are intended to assist fishermen, transport workers, business persons and others whose occupations involve frequent absence from home. This will meet a long felt need to which attention has been drawn by Members over the years.
Electors in the situation referred to may in future apply for entry in the postal voters' list. At an election or referendum, a ballot paper will be sent by post to each elector concerned. The elector may vote at any Garda station, having produced satisfactory evidence of identity, and on making a declaration of identity which will be witnessed and stamped by the Garda on duty.
The arrangements proposed will provide a reasonable opportunity for voting by the categories concerned while providing adequate safeguards for the secrecy and integrity of the ballot.