Electoral Bill, 1994: Second Stage.

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.

How can a fisherman go to a Garda station to vote if he is out fishing?

The Deputy may raise that later. The safeguards are closely in line with those which apply in relation to home voting by electors with disabilities and voting by civil servants posted abroad and their spouses.

The Bill will remove certain time constraints which apply in relation to vote counting at elections, thereby making for greater flexibility. Combined with other measures, including the development of appropriate computer programmes, this step should contribute to earlier ascertainment of election results.

It is possible to anticipate that, at some future date, voting and counting at elections will be fully automated but, realistically speaking, we are still some considerable distance from this situation. Meanwhile, work is well advanced in my Department, in consultation with Dáil and local returning officers, on the development of a computer programme to assist in the conduct of the count.

The complexity of the voting system means that it will always take longer to ascertain the results of our elections compared with other countries. It is appropriate, however, that procedures should be critically examined to see whether improvements are possible which would significantly reduce the time taken to produce results.

This is a Bill of considerable significance, addressing complex questions in relation to the political process. I believe the House will welcome the broad principles contained in the Bill and will wish to subject the detail to a searching analysis.

The electoral reform measures, such as the provision of a statutory base for the constituency commission and the voting facilities for electors unable to attend their polling station are, inevitably, overshadowed by the financial provisions. They are, nonetheless, of substantial importance in their own right and merit the support of the House.

By any measure, the Bill is an important one and I look forward to an open, vigorous and positive debate on it. Members of this House have a great fund of knowledge and experience of electoral matters and will, I am sure, have specific suggestions to make in relation to the various provisions of the Bill. I wish to assure the House that I will be open to consider, on Committee Stage, any constructive amendments which may be put forward to improve it.

I commend the Bill to the House.

As constructed the Bill will hang small parties.

Deputy Molloy will have the opportunity to contribute later.

I welcome some of the broad principles outlined in the Bill. However, I am happy to be in Opposition where I can oppose parts of it, not because of the specific proposals — although some of them are unworkable — but because of the thinking behind some of the provisions of the Bill.

I believe all Members will unequivocally welcome Part VIII. I have no doubt that, with a little more thought, a number of its provisions can be improved on Committee Stage and I look forward to working with the Minister in that regard, particularly in relation to the point raised by Deputy Molloy about floating voters and the question of fishermen voting at Garda stations. I do not have any difficulty supporting the principle of State funding for political parties because that is dealt with in Part IV in the context of the provisions regarding the disclosure of certain donations. However, if we want to make an ass of the law and create a bureaucratic nightmare for individuals, parties or anyone who contests an election, the provisions of Parts V and VI provide the necessary ingredients.

The Bill proposes to set up the constituency commission on a statutory basis. As the Minister stated, the principle of an independent commission has been accepted by all parties for some time and the ad hoc arrangements in place have been accepted as working well by those inside and outside the House. While a number of people have, justifiably, disagreed vehemently with the conclusions of some of the reports, I do not believe anyone would argue that the current procedures are anything but excellent. If everyone is satisfied with the present arrangement, why should the commission be placed on a statutory basis? If it is not broken, why fix it? Is this merely another example of placing a law on the Statute Book for the sake of having a law? If there are real arguments for enshrining the commission in law, I would like to hear them. I have not heard any real arguments put forward here or elsewhere, but a number of phoney ones have been put forward.

No political party could possibly believe we could revert to the system that pertained to constituency revisions before the constituency commission was established on an ad hoc basis. If the Minister claims he is putting this legislation in place to ensure the independence of the constituency commission and that such commissions will be independent in the future, he must radically alter the provisions of the Bill. If the commission comes into effect after each census and is supposed to be independent, as intended under the provisions of the Bill, why must we wait until a Minister signs an order to allow it to come into being? For political reasons, a Minister might decide at his or her behest, or at the behest of the Government, to delay such a commencement order. The commission will not be independent if a Minister must sign such an order. Also, according to the provisions of the Bill when the report is published it is up to the Government to introduce legislation to give effect to its recommendations. Again, it does not stretch the imagination to suggest that, for political reasons, a Minister might decide to delay introducing such legislation. If possible the report should be brought before the House and, when passed, its recommendations should automatically become law, if that would give rise to difficulties, the Minister should outline them. Alternatively, a provision should be inserted in the Bill to compel the Minister to bring the report before the House within one or two months of its publication.

If the Minister wishes to ensure the independence of the commission, its composition should reflect this. I do not wish to cast reflection on previous commission members, but if we are talking about the principles of transparency, impartiality and accountability we must take the logical step of removing civil servants of the Government from the commission. We must ensure that the secretarial services are not provided by the Minister's Department. The logic of what the Minister has put forward requires that public servants of the State, rather than civil servants of the Government, should make up its membership. There are already precedents for that approach in the Public Offices Commission established under the Ethics in Public Office Act and the ad hoc commission. To copperfasten the independence of the commission it is essential that the secretariat is independent. It is noteworthy that members of the Public Offices Commission are explicitly stated as independent in their functions. Why is there not a corresponding provision for the members of the commission referred to in this Bill?

I have major reservations about section 5 which includes the terms of reference under which the commission must work. While I can see the logic in inserting those terms of reference now and do not have any difficulty accepting that the commission should have regard to the Constitution in its deliberations, other matters should be left to the Dáil to outline at the appropriate time. That would be a more flexible approach than writing the terms of reference into the legislation. However, if the Minister insists in inserting the terms of reference in the Bill, they should be examined carefully and, in particular, altered to prohibit the breaching of provincial boundaries. Placing part of a county in a constituency in another province or as an adjunct to another county rubs salt into the wound and the people affected feel disenfranchised. That should happen only in rare circumstances and should never happen when it involves breaching provincial boundaries. Also, in relation to the terms of reference, the procedures of the commission should not be decided by the commission. It should follow the guiding principles that govern the movement of people from one county to another when redrawing constituency boundaries.

In redrawing the boundaries of constituencies a reasonable number should be transferred, sufficient to elect one Member, thereby overcoming the perceived disenfranchisement of the displaced population. The commission should not be allowed to transfer 2,000 to 3,000 people from one constituency to another; the number should be more significant so that the people concerned would have an opportunity to elect a Member to represent them.

There are other principles outlined by previous ad hoc commissions which should be incorporated in the Bill if the Minister is insisting on having the terms of reference included. These should be considered in more detail on Committee Stage. I would prefer, however, if the terms of reference were not included in the Bill as they are too rigid. I wish to give one example. The previous commission, which recommended in its report that County Mayo should become a single five seat constituency, had no discretion to take its geographic size into consideration. This is ridiculous, as has been mentioned by the Deputies who represent that constituency. If I drive from my home in Trim to the Mayo border I will be half way to the west coast. It is impossible to ask five Members of this House to serve an area of that size as one constituency.

Part III of the Bill deals with the funding of political parties. This has been the subject of some adverse comment from the begrudgers and those who are cynical about politics and politicians in general. I do not pay much attention to them. I would make the point to those who oppose this concept for genuine reasons that the first country to introduce such a system was Germany following the reign of Hitler and his Fascist regime. It learned that the best way to defend democracy was to have a strong political system. Most countries in Europe, with the exception of ourselves and our neighbours, have followed suit.

The Minister of State outlined some good and cogent reasons political parties should be funded. The complexities of political life demand that political parties, particularly those in Opposition, should have proper back-up and research facilities in dealing with legislation and devising policy. In a European context, life is also becoming much more complex for legislators. Government Departments are increasingly becoming more professional as Ministers surrounded themselves with an array of programme managers and special advisers. It is estimated that approximately £14 million is currently being spent under this heading. I am not maintaining that Opposition parties should be given an equal amount, but they should have access to funding for the necessary back-up and research facilities.

While it may be perceived that members of the Government have huge PR budgets, if one looks at the budgets for the IFA, the trade unions or IBEC one will see they are much more substantial and, in many cases, bigger than the budget available to an individual Minister and his Department. There is a need, therefore, for political parties to become more professional and conduct proper research.

Despite their best efforts, it is impossible for the Opposition parties to finance the employment of people with expertise in order to compete with the Government and lobby groups from funds raised by way of national collections, golf classics, raffles and subscriptions from public or private sources. Fund raising should not form a major part of a political party's activities. It defeats the purpose of having political parties if they have to spend all their time trying to raise funds.

The facilities available to individual Deputies and parties in this House are woefully inadequate and the position is getting worse, not better. We are being left further behind as we are unable to keep up with the pace of change. This underlines the need for politicians to become much more professional in order to cope. Because of the need for more back-up and research facilities some people fear that political parties could become unduly dependent on subscriptions from business and private sources. I do not think this is the case, but if things stay as they are, there is a danger that it could happen. As one who believes in the democratic and political process, it is essential that political parties maintain their independence and do not become dependent on private subscriptions, although there is nothing wrong with subscribing to a political party. The modest proposals in this Bill will go a long way towards allaying any fears people may have.

I am sure the Progressive Democrats Party has its own views, but I wish to enter a caveat. It is necessary to provide for a minimum payment to all political parties as no matter how small a party is it needs to have access to back-up and research facilities.

Part IV of the Bill deals with the disclosure of donations. I believe in the maximum disclosure of information by politicians in matters which might have a direct bearing on their work as politicians. This is necessary in order to protect themselves against cynical and snide remarks. Ostensibly, the Bill promotes the concept of openness and transparency.

One of the difficulties is that if one opposes the sections dealing with disclosure one is automatically seen as being bad as they are automatically seen as being good. There is no harm in disagreeing, not with the provisions contained within them, but with the spirit in which they were drafted. I am delighted the Minister distanced himself from the original thinking behind this which was that some members of the Labour Party thought everyone bar themselves could be bought with corporate or business subscriptions. I do not say that thinking pervaded the entire party which has become adept at organising golf classics and taking corporate subscriptions since it went into Government. However, some members of the party had a suspicion that no one would give money to a political party or candidate without having an ulterior motive. There was a suspicion that all who contributed to political parties did so far base reasons — either they were trying influence policy or buy favour. According to them nobody makes a political donation for patriotic reasons or because they like the party's policy, believes in their philosophy and approach or believes in a candidate who is standing for the party. No one would dream of questioning the reason a person donates money to an organisation for the homeless or one that promotes the welfare of children. Neither would they question a donation to a hospital, university or environmental protection organisation. People are concerned about such issues and show their feelings by providing financial aid.

Political parties have views on issues. They, too, care about the homeless, the environment, the less well off and so on and those who believe in the policies adopted by parties are entitled to make donations and subscriptions to them to help further their aims. I make no apology for that. People may have forgotten that the original reason for this Bill was it was felt there was wholesale corruption in political parties and I am glad that the Minister distanced himself from that.

How will a distinction be made between a donation as defined in this Bill and a gift as defined in the Ethics in Public Office Act? They are both limited to £500.

A good law was once defined as one that can be enforced. If that definition were applied to Part V of the Bill it would be a disaster. It will prove a bureaucratic nightmare to implement. Imagine trying to determine after an election, or worse still, during the course of one, the amount of money spent by the different branches, cumann and candidates in every parish. It might be easy for a small party such as Democratic Left but in a large party such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael with a wide network of branches and large membership, how will records be kept and reported? In the case of Fianna Fáil, imagine trying to keep track of the money spent by 3,000 units and the 50,000 members of the party during the heat of an election campaign. It is not on. We will end up with more accountants than directors of elections if we bring in this Part as it stands.

It might be a handy stick to beat us with during or after an election campaign and add to the myths surrounding this party but in fairness to all politicians it should be reviewed. Perhaps instead of dealing with the issue on Committee Stage we could have talks about it between now and then to see if we can agree a working document on it. Apart from the vision of bureaucracy gone mad that it presents it is wrong and unnecessary, given the disclosure provisions in the Bill, that there should be a limit that can be spent during an election campaign. I agree with the Minister that most of the items we spend money on during an election campaign, for example posters, canvass cards and election literature, do not make a whit of difference at the end of the day. I am not complaining about being told not to incur excessive expenditure but about the bureaucracy behind having to report the amount spent. Perhaps the political party at national level could certify that it stayed within the limit but it is at constituency level it will cause ferocious problems.

Section 28 (9) deals with freedom of expression but that is not included in section 29. Is there a constitutional difficulty about it?

The Bill purports to reform parts of the electoral system. The complexities of political life mean that the role of politicians is becoming more and more that of full-time policy makers — they put forward ideas and solutions for the problems facing people and give policy the thought and care it deserves to enhance the quality of life for all citizens. We are victims of the inefficiencies of the multi seat system. To survive politically, too much time has to be spent dealing with unproductive constituency rivalry with the result that too little time is spent dealing with real issues. It is essential that Deputies keep in touch with constituents but survival should not depend solely on that. No one receives any marks for recognising that reform is needed; the real marks are for offering reforming solutions.

The Bill recognises the need for reform but does not address the issue. We should push for new and dynamic changes in the electoral system and put in place a system which will allow Deputies to concentrate on legislation. It should be real electoral reform designed to deliver the most efficient and effective form of Government. One area of real reform being discussed at some length is that of votes for emigrants. When in Opposition the rainbow parties were vocal in putting forward solutions. Their programme included a provision for emigrant voting in Seanad elections. I will put forward an amendment on Committee Stage to allow for emigrant voting. Those who emigrated recently could be given a vote by simply altering the residency stipulations for voting purposes. We propose that a person be entitled to vote in all elections provided he or she is registered, was a registered voter in a constituency at any time during the previous five years and has no vote either in this State or elsewhere. This would allow emigrants to retain their vote in this country for five years after they go abroad and would go a long way towards meeting the demands.

Whatever about the importance of emigrants having a vote at home, those who return to Ireland should not be disenfranchised. I ask the Minister to take this point on board. People who return to reside in this country are effectively disenfranchised until the register of electors is reviewed. They cannot be included on the supplementary register and this means they can be off the register for up to 20 months after their return. I ask the Minister to consider this point in the context of the special voters' register.

I thank the House for its indulgence. I will approach Committee Stage of the Bill constructively. I accept most of the sections but many amendments are necessary.

My party and I have grave reservations about the proposals to commit additional taxpayers' money to funding political parties. As matters stand, there has been a veritable explosion in expenditure of this nature since the last general election in 1992. At present, each of the parties in Government has a battalion of programme managers, policy researchers and media personnel. In addition, frequent use is made of outside consultancy services of one type of another. All this activity, which is essentially political in nature, is funded by hard-pressed taxpayers and costs millions of pounds annually.

The proposal in the Bill would cost the taxpayers a further £2.5 million approximately annually. The taxpayer is entitled to ask when all this will stop. Who will set the ceiling and who will cry halt? Must taxpayers be continually called upon to give this and future Governments a blank cheque for activities of this nature? The timing of the introduction of this measure could hardly have been worse. In recent weeks, the Minister for Finance has correctly called for restraint and prudence in public spending, which rose by three times the rate of inflation last year. Yet, despite that, there is not enough money to appoint additional judges to speed up criminal trials, to establish drug treatment centres or to tackle the horrific drugs problem. There is not enough money to create additional prison places to keep those convicted of serious crime in lawful custody. The public are entitled to ask if they are getting good value for money.

The Government proposes to place this additional burden on the taxpayer. I fear that the taxpayer, already cynical about politicians and the practice of politics, will balk at it. Nevertheless, I recognise much of the thinking behind the Bill. I accept there is an uneasy feeling about an unethical connection between sections of business and some politicians. All right-minded people in Ireland want the Government to root out any semblance of golden circles, inside tracks and corruption. However, I am not so sure whether the public are prepared to pick up the tab.

Much of the corruption we seek to eradicate could be dealt with more effectively by well framed legislation and putting in place proper modern procedures, including constant scrutiny of how public money is spent and, regarding the tendering process, the basis on which contracts for public works are awarded. When I first entered the House in 1987, one of the burning issues was the scandals deriving from land speculation. The then Government addressed the problem by putting in place modern and effective planning laws. If we, as legislators, want to confront such issues, the first and most important thing to do so is to put in place the type of legislation which preempts the happenings which we all wish to see end. If such procedures are established and there was public scrutiny, such matters could not recur.

Regarding the manner in which it is proposed to distribute moneys under the Bill, the Government is proposing a figure of £1.2 million for itself annually. This is in addition to what it already takes from the Exchequer and it is effectively a double subsidy. The amount of money spent on spin doctors, media personnel and party gurus already involves a substantial cost to the taxpayer. If the Government parties are now to pay themselves a further public subsidy, the cost of their existing panoply of political staff, including spin doctors, research officers, programme managers, etc., should be deducted from their allocation.

The cost of maintaining this new superstructure of personnel must be taken into account in the £1.2 million the Government proposes to set aside for itself under the Bill. This is fair and just because the Bill's fundamental flaw is the gross lack of equity between parties in Government and Opposition, particularly small parties in Opposition. Elections come and go; small parties can be in Government after one election and in Opposition after the next. Small parties often bring enormous vigour and insight and make a great contribution to the workings of the House. Any funding system which militates so strongly against small parties and Independents, as this Bill does, must be resisted, It cannot succeed and this is why the Bill cannot be enacted in its current formulation.

Government expenditure on its existing panoply of political staff must be included in the £1.2 million set aside under the terms of the Bill. We sometimes forget that, in addition to the retinue of programme managers and PR people, the Government also has access to back-up from the Civil Service. This is available to every Government in a form which is not available to the Opposition. The Government was already well accommodated before the new practice of the appointment of specific personnel arose.

The distribution formula worked out in this Bill is nothing more than an all out assault on democracy. If adopted, there is only one certain outcome; small parties will be condemned to a slow death, bigger parties will be permanently entrenched, Independents will disappear and this certainly would not be in the best interests of the future of this country. Taxpayers' money should not be put to any exercise that would have that outcome. By all means, let us contest the seats at election time——

(Wexford): The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte will be gone by then.

The Independents are doing well out of this.

——but let us not use taxpayers' money to stifle and strangle small parties and put the Government and bigger parties in a position of permanent advantage.

Consider, for example, the contribution that many good Independents have made to the workings of this House since the foundation of the State. There is poor recognition of that in the Bill. There is no provision for Independents in the Bill but section 15 (a) authorises the Minister, after an election has taken place and by way of regulation, to make, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, an order to pay out of central funds".... a supplementary allowance in respect of the discharge of parliamentary functions to each non-party Member of the Dáil who applies therefor". That exercise, which gives absolute discretion to a Minister or pair of Ministers, would happen after an election.

If a Government was about to be formed and had the necessary numerical strength bar one, a pliable Independent would then find himself or herself in a happy position.

He would be made up for life.

Exactly. Consider the wheeling and dealing that would occur. Would a Minister perhaps decide to give a larger fund to an Independent who was prepared to play ball and allow a Government to be formed? If a truly independent minded person reserved his or her right to remain independent and continue so being, would that person get less than the person prepared to play ball with the Government?

A person in a party would join the other side and look for a transfer fee.

That was my next point. I do not want to be flippant about the matter because I have a great and deep regard for the Independents and the contribution they have made to this State and the role they play in any vibrant democracy. I do not want to see a measure that trivialises Independents being part of our law. My party will oppose vigorously this section of the Bill.

Earlier, Deputy Molloy described the Bill as a hanging charter for smaller parties and I agree. Smaller parties and parties in Opposition need funds to enable them provide proper research back-up. Stripped of such funds, they are not able to analyse Government Bills in depth and make a reasoned and informed contribution on the making of new laws or the amending of existing ones, a key function of the Opposition. When the Opposition is strong in that respect, the Legislature functions well, democracy is vibrant and good laws are framed.

I detected in the Minister's speech an emphasis on the electoral side; moneys being spent helping candidates to get elected. My party argues that if public moneys are to be spent, they must be spent in a manner that will enable elected Members to become efficient legislators in this House and play a strong, ongoing and active role in the making of laws. Modern legislation is complex. Parties in Opposition need to have the best available expertise to enable them effectively confront their task. This Bill fails to make proper provision for that.

The needs of both bigger and smaller parties in Opposition are essentially the same. Irrespective of whether a party consists of six or 26 Members, it is still expected to cover the whole spectrum of legislation on a day-to-day basis. Small and big parties need to be equipped with a high level of expertise in terms of research and back-up facilities. That is a central principle of the Progressive Democrats argument and a fact that has not been fully taken into account in the framing of this Bill. Unless and until the Government is prepared to take that into account, my party cannot give its support to this Bill.

Does the Deputy want more money for smaller parties?

I thought the Deputy was against spending of money.

I am against spending money in certain ways. I did not interrupt the Minister of State when he spoke.

I wanted to clarify that point.

It is a courtesy I normally give to, and enjoy from, Ministers. They respond to me when their turn comes to sum up.

The Deputy often asks me questions when in possession.

If public moneys are to be spent, they must be spent in a way that gives the public a good return. If moneys are spent in such a way as to result in legislators being elected to this House, the taxpayer will get value for money.

The basic need of all parties, whether big or small, has to be fully taken into account but it has been ignored in the proportionality as set out in this Bill. Some may assume that a big party needs a big retinue of back-up services and a smaller number will suffice for a small party. That is not the case. I repeat, because it appears that certain people were not listening to my argument, that small parties have to confront the whole spectrum of legislation and often do so in Opposition. They have a certain basic requirement below which they cannot be expected to go if they are to function properly.

That fact was taken fully into account in respect of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. When funding was made available for parties taking part in the Forum, recognition was given that all parties needed a certain basic amount of back-up to enable them make an effective contribution to its workings. Provision was not made in proportion to the size of the parties. Recognition was given at that time to the point I am now stressing — that under this Bill smaller parties must get their fair share. Are we asking people to vote money simply for electioneering or are we asking them to vote money to instal good legislators? That is the key question and I want a response to it.

My party will not support the Bill in its present form. We will seek to amend it with a view to establishing a system of funding that will work for the betterment of this House and ensure fair play for all parties, regardless of size. The key provision we are seeking is proper research facilities. Most people who become Members of this House have no specific training for the task they undertake. They enter the House as farmers, teachers, auctioneers, accountants and other professionals. They have no training for being effective legislators. That is a major weakness in our system. In most other modern European democracies there is infinitely better back-up in terms of research facilities for members of Parliament.

We have not been very effective in our work as legislators. Consider how out of date many of our laws are. We have not really succeeded in codifying and updating our criminal law. When a crisis arises we respond by tacking on a section to the existing law. Much of our criminal law is totally outdated and, as a result, cannot respond effectively to the explosion of crime. Much of the blame for that lies with the legislators who do not appear to have the time or talent to tackle these matters effectively. We have the opportunity to correct that in this Bill by making proper provision whereby our legislators can become more effective. That done, we will be in a position to put in place modern laws that work.

I support some elements of the Bill without reservation. Putting a ceiling on the amount of money to be spent during elections is a good principle. Some parties or members of parties appear to have unlimited money to splash about at elections and I am not sure that anybody benefits. I am certain the public view this as a waste of money. We are supposed to give leadership to society and the public expect us to show a better understanding of how money should be spent to achieve value for money, whether it comes from taxpayers or is raised by way of private subscription. Spending a great deal of money on electioneering is ultimately counter-productive because we are dealing with a sophisticated electorate. Many of the arguments during elections will be made on television and, I hope, judgments on candidates will be made on their performance between elections. All parties will see that it is sensible to put a ceiling on the amount of money that should be spent at elections.

The Bill provides for the disclosure of donations. While I agree with the principle and understand the intention, the way the provision is framed will yield an unintended result and lead to a great deal of creative accounting. Irish people are nothing if not crafty. On reading the Bill I could think of a dozen ways — and I am not the most crafty of people — whereby people can get around the limits established on subscriptions to political parties or individual party members.

The Deputy is not entirely without craft.

The Deputy could start a consultancy on it.

Exactly. Moreover, if the Bill is passed as drafted it will lead to a great deal of wasteful expenditure. Every party will have to employ an accountant to keep the accounts and ensure they are within the limits. That would be a non-productive way of employing somebody to serve the best interests of politics.

The provision might be well intentioned but the manner of its drafting offers considerable scope for evasion. Under section 21 the names and addresses of all persons donating more than the specified amount will be laid before the Oireachtas. That will lead to many creative donations. Section 19 (2) provides for aggregation of donations made by "a person". That is fine in so far as it goes. However, where the limit is £4,000, there is nothing to stop anybody donating £3,999.99 to the party of his or her choice and quitely arranging donations of the same amount from a spouse, a company, another relative or through a solicitor.

That section of the Bill is cumbersome and will be an administrative nightmare. I appreciate the intention. Everybody wants to see real openness and transparency, even if those words are somewhat played out by now. We want to break the perceived connection between business and politics. This country will be a better place if that is achieved. However, the manner in which the Bill proposes to deal with donations is unwieldy and will not work. My party will seek to amend the Bill. If the response we receive enables us to do so, we will support it.

The key point is that the provision of public moneys should be for research, not for electioneering. Research comes before electioneering and is far more important than PR. Too much public money is spent on PR and putting a good gloss on what is sometimes a bad story. If there is a good story it will carry itself. I want a system that makes proper provision for back-up and research facilities for Opposition parties, both large and small.

I hope Deputy Dempsey does not mind if I deal with some of the matters raised by Deputy Quill. Her speech was a bit like the curate's egg — good in parts. The good parts were the ones where she put on the record what she genuinely believes as distinct from what was in the script which, unfortunately, has been sent to the newspapers and from which she read at the beginning of her contribution. She made a compelling case for fairness in the treatment of small parties. Her argument is not rebuttable in that the spectrum of legislation which confronts small parties is the same as that which confronts large parties and they must be enabled to have reasonable back-up to do the job they are required to do if legislation is to get the quality of scrutiny it ought to get in this House.

It is very difficult to reconcile this with Deputy Quill's scripted remarks which undoubtedly will be the ones which will appear in the print media and probably the electronic media tonight and tomorrow. She deplores this further imposition on public spending and the spending of money on funding political parties. However, having disposed of her script she went on to argue for more funding for small parties. This is not designed to facilitate the Government in dealing with some of the questions she raised. The Minister of State, Deputy Allen, made it clear that the Government has a flexible position in regard to reasoned amendments which are evaluated on the merits of the case being made, and that remains our position.

I am not clear at the end of Deputy Quill's argument whether the Progressive Democrats Party is in favour of or against public funding for political parties. One cannot say "I am opposed to this concept but I want a bigger share of the funding." The Bill puts no compulsion on any party to accept the grant which will enable it to do its business and if a party considers that it should not avail of it or has conscientious objections to it for whatever reason it does not have to draw it down. Deputy Quill should go easy on the sanctimoniousness and not overdo it.

The Progressive Democrats Party adopted the same position on the divorce legislation and I still do not know whether it is for or against it. It does not help the argument to put out a position for public consumption that even though the rest of the parties in this House cannot wait to get their greedy little fists into the jar of sweets and help themselves to State funding, the Progressive Democrats will have none of that but if we can increase its share of the cake it will accept it.

However, I agree with Deputy Quill it is important that the Bill is seen to be fair. The Minister of State, Deputy Allen, said he is amenable to considering amendments and, as I understood him, Deputy Dempsey went out of his way to put down a marker on that point. The Progressive Democrats cannot say it is opposed to charmed circles and wants to put an end to them and also say it is opposed to public funding for political parties.

I am sorry I have been irritated by the contribution but it reminds me of what happened when I was chairman of Dublin County Council during the time of the controversy about rezoning land. There tended to be a majority for more rezoning than seemed to the reasonable person who required it and there seemed to be a section of councillors who consistently voted against this. However, business had to be done and the plan had to be concluded. It is not as simple as saying that all rezoning is bad. If that was the case one would not be able to provide industrial jobs, housing for an expanding city, etc., although some people took up that position. At least the Fianna Fáil members of the council and some Fine Gael councillors who regularly voted with them made their arguments on their merits and it was a matter for judgement whether one accepted them. The Progressive Democrats councillors tended to vote against that position but, as it was closer to my position, I approved of it. However, sometimes the Progressive Democrats did not vote that way and one found there might have been political connections of whatever kind in a particular rezoning which did not make it either good or bad. The Progressive Democrats councillors made long sanctimonious contributions about the industrial merits of rezoning — it was in line with Culliton or the cluster effect which Culliton was trying to achieve — when it was simpler to say, as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors did, that it was necessary for certain reasons.

We ought make no apologies to the public about this very minor imposition which is not, as Deputy Quill said, an open-ended fund. The fund is circumscribed by the electorate at £1 per head and if the electorate grows the fund will grow and if the electorate declines the fund will decline. It is not open-ended and we should not make any apology for seeking, as they have done in other countries, an element of public funding for political parties in the interests of the political system and in developing the kind of quality legislators Deputy Quill argued for in the more rational part of her speech.

I am more sensitive than most Deputies on this side of the House to the position of small parties versus larger parties and sympathise with the points made by Deputy Quill about the imposition and burden on small parties in confronting, as she put it, the entire spectrum of legislation which will not get the kind of quality scrutiny it requires without proper and adequate research back-up. She made a compelling argument and, if I understood him correctly, Deputy Dempsey recognised that argument. The only argument which seems to be left relates to the question of quantum, how do we construct an amendment which will meet that requirement in fairness to everybody, including Independent Deputies?

I do not understand Deputy Quill's argument that this may lead to the extinction of Independent Deputies given that they have been in the House since 1919 and received no assistance in terms of back-up in performing their duties. The previous Government was the first to make any provision for Independent Deputies to do their job effectively and discharge their duties in the House. I do not know off the top of my head the amount individual Deputies stand to take from this fund but it will be a big improvement on the situation which obtained up to now.

It will be £20,000.

It would be very difficult to argue that £20,000 does not provide a facility for Independent Members to receive some assistance in preparing themselves to deal with matters in which they are interested.

I do not agree that this Bill is a hanging charter for small parties. If reasoned amendments can be tabled we will be happy to examine them and consider them on merit.

Deputy Dempsey was the soul of common sense while going through the Bill but when he came to the script prepared by his back-up people I noticed an ominous reference to the multi-seat constituency. I do not say there is not an argument to be advanced about the multi-seat constituency——

I can assure the Minister of State that every word of that script was prepared and written by me, not by any back-up people. Indeed I stand over it, particularly my comments about the multi-seat constituency.

In that case the Cabinet up there is under-worked. That would worry me even more because, given Deputy Dempsey's eminence in the party, it might imply that the subject is under active consideration. We held a referendum on proportional representation in 1959, another in 1968, on both occasions sponsored by Fianna Fáil and rejected by the people; on both occasions it would have been a hanging charter for small parties had it been passed. I accept Deputy Dempsey's point that the multi-seat constituency imposes impossible strains on Deputies confronted with a legislative burden today beyond comparison with anything this Legislature has experienced in the past but it is necessary to find some balance in terms of constituency obligations and being able to do one's job in this House. That is another argument for the resources being made available to parties today to enable them have the requisite back-up to subject legislation to its requisite scrutiny.

Deputy Dempsey devoted a good deal of his comments to the constituency commission being established on a statutory basis. He feels free now to criticise some of its provisions and made some interesting points. The argument being advanced is that it is important that the commission be seen to be independent. If that is to be the case we must examine its membership. While not casting asperions on anybody who served on any previous commissions I understood Deputy Dempsey to infer that civil servants were vulnerable to pressures from their political masters; I think that is a fair paraphrase of what he said.

I said they could be in the future.

They clearly were not in the past, is the implication. Like some theological problems being thrust into public debate at present, I have always found some aspects of the workings of commissions on boundaries conundrums I was unable to resolve for myself. I do not know why that should have been the case, because I certainly would not cast any aspersions on their memberships. Nonetheless, it was always one of the wonders of the political system to me how some particular configurations emerged.

Deputy Dempsey referred to the size of my native county and the politicians it has produced. Perhaps he has a point and we should examine it. His suggestion that there ought to be a veto on the breach of provincial boundaries is an interesting one on which I have an open mind. Perhaps it makes good sense. It may or may not be related to Longford-Roscommon — I do not know — and all that stemmed from that. It might well be an additional term of reference that could be inserted. He remarked that the Labour Party were the originators of this question of funding because some of them believed that otherwise there would be wholesale corruption. I have no doubt my colleagues in the Labour Party will contribute to this debate later but I do not believe there is wholesale corruption within our political system, nor do I believe that anybody in the Labour Party believes that. The argument being advanced was that, on occasions, there were suspicions about the capacity of big money to purchase political influence, that this Bill is a fundamentally reforming one to allay that suspicion that henceforth there will be a ceiling on contributions to political parties in addition to a requirement for transparency so that corporate and private donations are clearly visible to anybody who wishes to ascertain their source and purpose.

Deputy Dempsey spoke about private and corporate contributions sometimes being made for reasons of belief in policy and so on. While that may be true in some cases, the phrase that occurred to me was that these were "conviction contributions". Nonetheless, I do not think one could say that all contributions on all occasions are for reasons of conviction.

There is a suspicion about big money purchasing influence. While that influence may have been exaggerated, it is unlikely that Ireland is completely out of step with so many other countries in western Europe. Big money can secure a place on the Honours List in Britain; in Italy, France or Spain it can produce different, more far-reaching results. Here it may enhance one's prospects of being appointed a Member of Seanad Éireann, of obtaining a position on a semi-State board or perhaps even having portion of one's land rezoned. None of that is illegal and, all things being equal, the argument is: why not give one of our own a leg up? Of course, a sizeable donation to the party of one's choice is purely in the interests of our democratic system, or so the argument goes, but manifestly it is the case that, even if our citizens' confidence in our democratic system falls short of enthusiasm, it remains very healthy compared to their counterparts in, say, Italy, France or Spain. However, it is an inescapable fact that the controversies of more than a decade concerning the nexus between big business and senior politicians, culminating in claims of charmed circles and inside tracks, have done some damage to public confidence in our political system.

The public do not believe that the size of financial contributions to political parties is a yardstick of patriotism, nor that excessively large contributions are always made without strings attached. The public may be wrong but the fact that to date such contributions were made in secret only serves to stoke suspicion. Can political influence be purchased? Clearly, the evidence from other jurisdictions is that it can and one does not have to rely on the unique trial under way at present in Italy to support that conclusion. By comparison in terms of honesty and integrity, whatever about policy and performance, Ireland has been well served by its politicians. However, it would be naive to conclude that the purchase of political influence is an entirely unheard of phenomenon in Ireland.

The issue has been much commented on but never really challenged. Only a few years ago a letter was read into the record of the House from an individual purporting to justify fees of more than £1 million in a certain transaction because he had to resort to using up all his political credit to successfully clinch a deal. That was a rare glimpse into the world of politics and high finance.

I do not suppose that most citizens are overly preoccupied about the chemistry behind a particular deal. However, if they believed that the purchase of influence shaped the kind of society in which they are living, they would be concerned. For example, do massive tax reductions for the rich in the United Kingdom have anything to do with political contributions?

The only time this was examined was in the case of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Beef Processing Industry. That was a systematic effort to address this question. It established many valuable conclusions in different areas, but it simply avoided the major question. Were some of the key decisions influenced by the very large financial donations admitted before the tribunal? Before assessing the evidence, the tribunal entered a caveat in paragraph 54 on page 12 of its report where it said:

In view of the nature of some of the allegations the Tribunal sought particulars of contributions made by companies or persons engaged in the food processing industry to Political Parties, Ministers and a number of individual Members of Dáil Éireann from the parties concerned and the companies making the contribution. The Tribunal received full co-operation from all parties concerned and the relevant details were supplied as requested by the Tribunal. The Tribunal does not intend to refer further to this matter or report thereon as the Tribunal is satisfied that such contributions were normal contributions made to Political Parties and did not in any way affect or relate to the matters being inquired into.

Since one political party admitted receiving £175,000 in the period inquired into, it would be interesting to know by what yardstick it was concluded that such contributions were normal. No explanation was offered for that conclusion.

It is sufficient to say that if such contributions can be considered normal, the Bill the House is considering today is long overdue.

I welcome the general principles of the Bill and there are many positive aspects to it. It has been in gestation for some period. Most of the work and content of the Bill emanated from the former Fianna Fáil-Labour Government. I welcome the opportunity to deliberate on the provisions of the Bill. I will focus on the Deputy's role, rather than on the party political view which Deputy Quill adequately put forward. Her comments should be closely analysed because I do not believe any of the main political parties intend that the provisions of the Bill would damage the welfare of smaller political parties. That would be bad for the democratic process. We are inclined to consider the provisions of a Bill from our point of view, but we must consider it in the context of Deputy Quill's comments.

Deputy Dempsey referred to the Minister of State Deputy Rabbitte's birthplace, the constituency of Mayo which I represent. I welcome the establishment of the independent constitution commission. Heretofore constituency commissions were set up on an ad hoc basis on the whim of the Minister for the Environment when he considered the climate was right. It is right that there should be a formal framework or set of rules governing when the commission becomes operative and its resources, including personnel.

However, the proposed constituency commission does not take account of the implication of the date a census of population is carried out. In a constituency like Mayo, if the census were carried out on a Saturday, the population would be considerably higher because thousands of people return to their birthplaces, the place they love best, from, say, the cities of Dublin or Galway each weekend. That would have a substantial impact on the population. Mayo has a population of 110,000 people. If there were an additional 5,000 people on our register of electors we would not have lost a seat. Mayo, perhaps the largest constituency in Ireland, is now reduced to five seats.

It is right and proper for Deputy Dempsey to acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to give the quality of representation to Mayo constituents that those in most other constituencies receive. How could a Deputy adequately serve the former Mayo West constituency which stretched over 137 miles while constituencies in Dublin and most major cities cover an area of two or four square miles? The Minister of State with responsibility for western development, Deputy Carey, is familiar with the terrain of County Mayo and the difficulties it poses for Deputies.

The quality of representation to our constituents is the best we can offer, but the reality is that we can only visit parts of the constituency once a month. One part of my constituency, Erris a beautiful rugged isolated area, has a population of 3,000 and covers an area equivalent to County Louth. It has one district engineer, and rural Deputies are aware that a district engineer is a subsidiary engineer who has responsibility for the maintenance of roads in an area. The fact that the size of Erris is comparable to the area of County Louth indicates the difficulty Deputies encounter in meeting their constituents. It takes me an hour and ten minutes to travel to my clinic in Belmullet and constituents from Carrowteige and Ross Port must travel 30 miles to Belmullet.

Will the Government consider Deputy Dempsey's remarks regarding whether it is right and proper that the terms of reference of the proposed independent constituency commission should be written into the Bill and if additional ones should be included? I considered this matter in my submission to the Dáil constituency commission which reported to the House in 1995. I appreciate there are constitutional constraints and do not know if a provision to take account of the matters I raised can be included in the context of those constraints. I am sure Deputies do not wish the level of representation in one constituency to be below that of other constituencies. It is important for the democratic process that we retain the maximum number of Deputies in rural Ireland because we must recognise that increasingly more of our population is moving to live in our cities. The number of Deputies representing city constituencies is increasing and some provision should be made to take account of that trend.

I welcome the fact that our party will table an amendment to give voting rights to emigrants who for the previous five years have been registered in Ireland. I appreciate that issue is complicated and will have to be governed by detailed rules and regulations, but the right of our emigrants to vote is one that is supported by most political parties. Given that thousands of Mayo people have emigrated to England and further afield, I am glad they will have a right to exercise their franchise in an election provided they were on a register of electors for the previous five years.

Unlike forced emigration in the past, a large number of emigrants, particularly third level students, choose to obtain experience in European countries for three or four years and many return home and use it to set themselves up in permanent employment. Why should they, because of a temporary absence in some European country, be deprived of the right to indicate the type of Government they would like representing their interests? It is a useful amendment and I hope it will receive support. If not ultimately incorporated in this Bill I hope it will generate debate from the point of view of allowing our emigrants a direct voice in the say of this House and not, as proposed by the Government, namely, a say in the Seanad. The question of how three Senators can represent our emigrants will have to be examined.

I also welcome the minor provisions — important to a substantial category of people — which extend voting rights to commercial travellers, fishermen or other categories of people not normally in a position to cast their vote due to the nature of their work, in that they are away on the day of the poll. This long overdue amendment is welcome. The rules relating to the production of proof of identity etc., cause no difficulty. I sincerely hope, on the passing of this Bill, there will be adequate notice by way of advertisements etc., giving examples of the categories of people concerned so that they are aware of their rights and entitlement to use this facility.

In reply perhaps the Minister will clarify the provision whereby people can be put on a subsidiary register, up to 15 days before an election, while the disabled persons' voting list is compiled many months in advance of an election. In regard to the categories of people to whom voting rights are being extended, will they be put on a subsidiary register which is compiled shortly before an election or, as in the case of people with a permanent disability, asked to consider their position many months in advance of an election? Deputies will appreciate that nothing focuses the mind more than a person's right and entitlement to vote and where they might be if an election is called in, say, three weeks hence.

I welcome the provision to provide funding for political parties at £1 per name on the register of electors. This is not £1 for every vote cast although, in the eyes of the public, this legislation could be seen in that way. We should not try to countenance that image of the legislation. The House will appreciate that on average only 70 per cent of the electorate cast their vote. As somebody said, when one goes canvassing the next time one may come to a door where people may ask if they owe a pound or, if there are four people in the house with voting rights, £4. That is not the case, it is based on the totality of electors. The time is long past when parties in the main depended on a variety of sources of funding to pay for staff, research, organisation and the many other facets that make up the workload of national political parties. As Deputies, either we or our supporters had a role to play in fund-raising. I always felt uncomfortable in soliciting contributions because of the impression that I was indebted to that individual. As Members we should be unfettered in the way we discharge our role as legislators. Many organisations that lobby political parties are well funded and have research capabilities complementary to their staff levels. Funding, as provided in this Bill, is the norm in almost every other European country, except Britain. The public will welcome the obvious intended objectivity which underpins this provision and it will cast out the innuendo of political parties being at the beck and call of big business.

The provision in relation to the disclosure of donations in the main does not give me any cause for concern. In fact, I welcome its main thrust and a reasonable approach has been taken regarding the limits set. I have never received — I am sure this applies to many other Deputies — from a company or an individual a donation in money, goods, property or services approaching the disclosure threshold of £500.

Politicians have been character assassinated on many occasions in the past when, through their work, they achieved a desirable result for a constituent. Unfortunately, and all too often, people have stated that a good backhander was paid for a service that the constituent obtained as of right and entitlement.

Scandals in England or payment for putting down certain political questions, or, in this country, of sums of money reported to be handed over to facilitate a planning process have recently been reported in the media. More localised comment such as payment to get a person into the public or semi-State sector is very damaging for the political process. Under these provisions, quite properly, we are obliged to report annualised donations over £500.

There are provisions in the Bill which will have no effect on the quality of people's lives from an economic or social point of view. Some of the provisions will mean that one crowd will watch the other crowd and this is a recipe for a snooper's charter. The provisions regarding the control of expenditure by parties and Deputies in the various branches of those organisations are self-righteousness gone mad. Who has asked for this additional protection, this openness, as the Minister referred to it in his opening contribution? Certainly, it was not the public. I have never heard a member of the public criticise with any degree of conviction the amount of money spent on an election. Certainly, the public will criticise how the money was spent and on what but they are not particularly concerned about the amount of money involved.

One half of the public think Deputies are overpaid and underworked while the other half say they would not have our jobs if we were paid double. Some of the provisions are irrelevant to improving the political process, the procedures inside this Chamber, the services to Deputies along the lines of research, access to information, etc. Without going into detail, because my colleagues have referred to it, Deputies and political parties have a great need for research facilities. Constantly we hear of computer serve, E mail, Internet, etc. How many of the Members who wish to take an interest in certain aspects of forthcoming legislation have access to this facility? While I compliment the staff in the Library there is no filing system there, of which I am aware, where I can browse in my own time over whatever books, articles or pamphlets they may have received 20 years ago. The staff are very helpful when asked for something and will do research. However, why should I have to ask, I should be able to go in and see the entire stock?

When I was elected, I decided, for reasons which I thought would best suit my purposes politically, to have my secretary based in my constituency rather than in Leinster House. Why should I be discriminated against with regard to the allowances paid to Deputies? When in Dublin I can phone any part of the world on behalf of my constituents and the cost of each call is paid for by the taxpayer. Every time I use the telephone in my constituency office I am only reimbursed for 75 per cent of the cost of the call. Why is there a presumption that a quarter of the calls made by my secretary or me are private?

This regulation was made when the wives of many Deputies acted as their constituency secretaries or when their offices consisted of rooms in their homes. Approximately 50 per cent of Members have rented offices on the main streets of towns well removed from their homes but the presumption is still made that a quarter of the telephone calls they make are private. It would be simple and would not require much imagination to change this regulation for Members whose constituency offices are more than, for arguments sake, 20 or 50 yards from their homes.

By 1 September I had used up my telephone allowance for the year and any calls I make over the next three months for the benefit of my constituents will have to be paid for from my after tax income. This may be another reason many members of the public tell us, privately and otherwise, that they would not take our jobs even if they were paid twice as much as we are because of the way we are treated.

Why should the level of expenditure by candidates in elections be controlled? If they are foolish enough to spend more than £12,000 to gain a seat, that is their business. Is there a suggestion that the less money candidates spend the more entitled they are to be elected? I have never heard of a Deputy who has bought his or her way into the House. What is the rationale for such cumbersome, extensive, time consuming and complex rules to ascertain what each candidate spends? This is a recipe for half cocked complaints. Public access to the records which are to be maintained will give an opportunity for frivolity. Comparisons of doubtful political relevance will be made, as will vexatious complaints by unsuccessful candidates against successful ones.

Some provisions of the Bill will improve the democratic process but others will undermine it and do nothing to encourage able people to become involved in the political system and put themselves forward for election.

Section 29 provides for the limitation of election expenses and states that the maximum expenditure by a political party shall not exceed £25,000 for a general election and £10,000 for a by-election in each constituency. I have not yet seen a by-election where election expenses by a main political party were limited to £10,000. This limit will have to be substantially increased if we are not to have candidates suggesting there is an unfair constraint on them depriving them of the constitutional right to contest elections. Personal expenditure by candidates in Dáil elections ranges from £10,000 to £15,000. Deputies and candidates will have to employ fully trained accountants to ensure they comply with these rules.

These limits are unnecessary and I am glad my party will oppose them. They will not improve the openness of the political process and there is no public demand for them. The majority of Deputies will not come near the limits. However, if people innocently or innocuously reach them, they will automatically criminalise themselves unintentionally. This is the wrong way to prove openness and transparency to the public and it is unnecessary. Other than the criticisms I have made I welcome the general thrust of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister of State on introducing it. Few other Bills would attract the level of interest of Members as this one. This is because the Bill deals with political parties and elections, which are at the core of our existence and take up all our daily lives. For this reason there is not a single Member who does not have an interest in it. My first reaction to it was that I regarded it as almost virtuous. I welcome attempts to regularise situations. However, the problem with virtuous legislation is that it may send out a signal that there is something to be cleaned up and I do not believe this to be the case.

One would think from reading the Bill that political parties and candidates have money to spend left, right and centre but this is not true. We are all aware of the financial positions of the parties in the House — they are in debt — which gives no credence to the belief that political parties have surplus finance to spend. Many candidates spend a year or two trying to pay off election debts. I fear the Bill may send out misleading signals. Nevertheless, I welcome it as many of its provisions are overdue. I want to regard it not as virtuous but as providing a mechanism to regulate political procedures and the financing of political parties.

The Bill proposes to establish on a statutory basis an independent electoral commission to prepare proposals for the revision of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. I had an almost magnetic compulsion to speak on the Bill. I can speak from personal experience of constituency revisions. I acknowledge the independence of earlier commissions and have no problem with how they carried out their functions. However, I question the wisdom, logic and reasonableness of many of the deliberations and recommendations.

Constituency revision commissions can be hangmen for many Members. I do not know which TD from south Tipperary will be on the scaffold at the next election but it appears from the present constituency boundary proposals that one of us will lose. It is hard for Members who work tirelessly in their constituencies to find their careers can be finished at a stroke of the commission's biro. I accept there must be revisions of constituencies but I see no reason why these cannot be logical, practical and reasonable. People are regarded as numbers and are moved north, south, east or west to have a certain number of seats per constituency. This is unfair.

I speak from experience. In my constituency natural and local authority boundaries were broken down and there was no logic to the decisions of the constituency commission. Our local authority area has been divided between two constituencies and one has to drive through the north Tipperary constituency to get to parts of the south Tipperary constituency. This leads to disillusionment among the electorate. The net result of good decisions on our democratic systems should be to encourage the electorate to participate in the democratic process. However, the feedback I am getting is that the electorate are discouraged; they no longer feel part of the constituency; they are not familiar with the candidates. After all, we are creatures of habit. People like to vote in the constituency in which they always voted and in their local polling centre. It is part of the tradition. I predict that in the areas that have moved from south to the north constituency there will be a much lower turnout than if they had remained in the constituency they considered home. This is regrettable.

I do not agree with Deputy Dempsey's proposal that there should be a limit on the number that could be moved from one constituency to another, in other words he was recommending that enough should be moved to constitute a seat. If you take that route you will damage the area from where you are taking the people. I believe notice should be taken of local natural boundaries. Unfortunately, decisions are taken by people who do not have intimate knowledge of an allegiance to the area and they reach their decision from a map. That is not always wise. At the last meeting of South Tipperary County Council we had to deal with a directive from the Department of the Environment requesting changes at polling stations, without any consultation with the local authority or the people on the ground. No notice was taken of the fact that many people do not have private transport and whether the new station is more suitable than the one they have closed down. This is where local government should have its say. There is no one better to decide on changes such as that than the people at local level.

I welcome the establishment of the independent commission and I hope there will be no further dissections of south Tipperary because if they do much more we will not know where our base will be.

The State funding of political parties is most welcome. We must accept that we cannot have democracy without political parties; we cannot have political parties without funding and all are intertwined in the democratic process that we support. Energy, initiative and expertise without the political parties are damaged by the overriding factor that the only item on every agenda is finance. Political parties should be the real focus point and the basis for Government policy. It is only when the political parties are able to devote their energies to developing policies from the feedback from local people that we will have a bottoms up approach rather than policy coming from the top.

We all agree that what prevents people from joining political parties is that they are afraid they will be asked to sell tickets, to run sales and to be involved in other fundraising activities. Many people do not have the disposition to raise funds. Many political parties are denied a very valuable contribution by people who would like to participate in the party but do not want to become fundraisers. The leaders of the political parties should be free to devote their energy to being either in Government or Opposition, but very often they are burdened with worry about debts and have to devote their time to help fundraise. That is a total waste of time and a ridiculous use of the talents and dedication of many party leaders. Parties need to become professional because we are in the age of professionalism but cannot do so unless they have proper funding. The funding proposed in this Bill should be a supplement and not replace income from other sources.

I agree with Deputy Rabbitte who said he did not know whether the Progressive Democrats were in favour or against funding political parties. At the beginning of her speech Deputy Quill spoke forcefully against funding political parties and looked upon it as a disgraceful use of taxpayers' money. Yet at the conclusion of her speech she was arguing that smaller political parties and Independents should get funding. Her conclusion was that we should break the link between business and politics. I agree that should be broken but the only way it will is if our political parties are funded. One cannot be on both sides, one is either for or against it. I agree with funding political parties. I hope it will allow the energy, time and dedication of many members of our political parties to be devoted to the formulation of policy.

I welcome the demand that because political parties will get State funding, special resources will have to be made available to encourage women and young people into politics. The sad reality is that women have not yet taken their place in the political system and in fact find it very hard to do so because they continue to make up a low percentage of any Dáil assembly. We need to have greater participation by women in the political system. I believe that many women are prohibited from participating in politics because of the cost factor. After all, not every woman has an income from work outside the home. For that reason she finds she does not have the resources needed to become involved in the political system. I hope that when political parties are State-funded they in turn will be able to provide resources to any potential candidate, because nobody should be debarred from participating in the political process through lack of funding.

Regarding the section providing for the disclosure of substantial political donations, I have no idea how this will be implemented or how much it will cost. One would think politicians were getting cheques in the post from every source. For my part, this section of the Bill will give me few problems, and the same can be said for most of my colleagues. I have not yet met a friendly financial donor, but should he or she come my way it will be a privilege for me to disclose the amount of the donation.

This section of the Bill will require amendment on Committee Stage to clarify how it is to be implemented. My understanding is that if I get a donation of over £500 I have to report it to my party. The party will add up all the donations reported by its members, and if the aggregate is over £4,000 from one donor the party must report that. In addition the donor must report it. It is cumbersome, but I agree with it if it can be implemented.

People should be entitled to make donations to a party or candidate with whose policies they agree. That is at the core of our political system. However, I agree with the section of the Bill dealing with donations because the bottom line is that money should not be able to buy power. Policy must be implemented for the common good, not just for the good of those who can afford to pay.

I welcome the fact that there is a penalty for non-compliance with this section of the Bill in that due payment to a political party will be withheld if disclosures of donations are not made. This is the only way we can ensure implementation of this section. I look forward to the streamlining and simplification of the section on Committee Stage.

I welcome the limitations on election expenditure by political parties and candidates. However, very few candidates would have the kind of resources mentioned in the Bill. I have never spent £10,000 on trying to get elected to this House; if that were required, I would not be here. I worry that the Bill will send out a signal that those of us who are Members have £10,000 in our back pockets to spend during elections.

Money can be wasted at election time and often the greatest waste relates to environmentally unfriendly activities. There is too much literature and too many posters, and such campaigning costs money. It is a good principle, therefore, to have a ceiling on the amount of money that can be spent on elections.

I believe the Bill will enhance efficiency and accountability within the political process. It will help to protect our democratic system and undoubtedly help to restore confidence and trust which are essential ingredients in the democratic process.

(Wexford): I, too, welcome some parts of the Bill. Some of the ideas in this Bill, including the proposed restrictions on political parties' expenditure during election campaigns, were mooted when I was in the Department of the Environment. However, some of the provisions are surprising. Sometimes civil servants and politicians go overboard in trying to legislate for honesty and openness. In many ways this is up to individuals, and it is not possible to legislate for them.

The public perception of public representatives is at an all-time low. Young people are cynical, and it is difficult to get them out to vote. Often they see us as lining our pockets, feathering our nests and being involved in shady deals of all types. However, perception is not reality. Most if not all politicians in this House are decent, honourable people doing a job to the best of their ability. I am not involved in shady deals, rezoning of lands for my friends, or pulling off contracts. Neither are the majority of Deputies. The fact that we are held in such low esteem by the public has more to do with ourselves than anybody else. In the last four to five years we have spent most of our time undermining each other with allegations, counter allegations, rumour and innuendo, more often than not with no element of truth. If we treat each other in such a shabby way, how can we expect the public to do differently?

We are living in changing times and political parties must be capable of adapting to change. We are dealing with a very sophisticated electorate. Television and local radio are very much part and parcel of a changing Ireland. Political parties must, therefore, be in a position to meet the demands of many interest groups, community groups, business groups, farming organisations and others. In many ways politicians are but amateurs when dealing with such organisations. When I attend an IFA meeting there are usually 10 or 12 people on the far side of the table who are very well prepared with the most up-to-date computerised documents relating to sheep and cattle subsidies and just about everything to do with farming at their fingertips. Dáil Deputies end up arguing the toss and trying to defend themselves with few research facilities and very little back-up. Research facilities and back-up for political parties in this House leave much to be desired. More often that not one has to wait two or three weeks to get information from Departments. It is not available to politicians in the way it should be. The organisations we are dealing with are far more professional and, in the context of back-up and research facilities, they leave us far behind. That is why State funding of political parties is essential.

If we are to implement the legislation required by the public, we must have the necessary finance for research and back-up services. Up to now political parties depended for funding on donations from various sources and on the proceeds of golf tournaments, raffles and so on, but such funding is not sufficient to run political parties. It is no secret that every political party is in serious financial difficulties, some are in debt to the tune of £1 million or £2 million and that makes it difficult for them to operate efficiently. As Deputies and Senators spend a great deal of their time running functions to help pay off their parties' debts, they are unable to devote sufficient time to teasing out legislation in the House and properly representing their constituents. Therefore, I welcome the provision for a reasonable level of State funding for political parties. Parties should not be given funding willynilly to spend as they like, but they should be given enough to help them modernise their operations and use the necessary research and back-up facilities at election time. It is pointless having major political parties in name only if they do not have resources to operate efficiently.

It is difficult to know whether the Progressive Democrats are for or against State funding of political parties. Perhaps it is taking the high moral ground again. As it is no better off than any of us in terms of debt, it should state its position in this regard. The Bill provides for control over the amount of money candidates spend on election campaigns. I do not have a difficulty controlling the amount of money I spend in the run-up to an election because it is usually my own. I am not aware of any election candidates who have had their pockets lined by big businesses, but perhaps I move in different circles. The majority of my constituents are either unemployed or middle and working class people. Most candidates, irrespective of whether they are elected, are in debt to the tune of £5,000 to £6,000 following an election and their bank managers pressurise them to repay the moneys borrowed for their campaigns. I wonder, therefore, if it is necessary to control what candidates spend on election campaigns.

However, if a candidate with unlimited resources goes forward for an election it would make it practically impossible for others to compete and perhaps some candidates would be prepared to spend up to £60,000 in an effort to get elected to the Dáil. Most Members also contest county council and urban council elections, all of which prove costly to candidates. Although I do not receive large donations to fund my election campaigns, I have no difficulty with a figure of £10,000 being stipulated as the maximum a candidate can spend on his or her campaign. I am sure most Members could not afford to spend such an amount of money on their campaigns.

The Bill provides for a disclosure threshold of £4,000 for political parties and corporate bodies and £500 for individual Members and candidates. The Minister stated there will be an element of double and, in some cases, threefold disclosure. Does that mean if a person gives me £450 or £500 before the next election it will have to be disclosed three times? He also gave examples of how this could happen. It must have taken a great deal of departmental time to draw up this bureaucratic nonsense.

The Minister went on to state that the candidate's agent will be responsible for disclosing the amounts donated. Unless agents are paid a great deal of money they will not carry out work for candidates in the run-up to elections. In most cases the agent is a friend of the candidate who does not charge for his or her work. However, if they are responsible for keeping and submitting accounts, they will not want to do such work. It will also be difficult to find directors of elections without paying a great deal of money and the burden of paying them will fall on candidates. All this bureaucratic nonsense will discourage candidates from going forward for election.

The Minister appeared to gloat that this provision would make the candidate or Deputy more honest. As the majority of Members are honest and of the highest integrity it is not necessary to insert such a provision in legislation. It will mean that candidates will have to pay accountants or other professionals to keep their accounts at election time instead of allowing those who are part and parcel of the political system at present to voluntarily do such work.

This does not happen very often, but people, particularly elderly persons, deliver a bottle of whiskey, a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers in return for work done on their behalf. I heard on the grapevine that this will have to be disclosed. Will these items have to be placed in a warehouse in Dublin to be sold off later at a big sale? Perhaps the Minister will clarify that matter.

Provision is made for monitoring and enforcement, strict guidelines will be laid down and any alleged offences will be prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions. What will happen if a politician fails to disclose that he received an extra £10 or £20 above the figure of £500 at election time? It should not be forgotten that election agents, directors of elections and those who do the books act in a voluntary capacity although they may be seen by the officials of the Department of the Environment and the Minister as being in tow with politicians. Will there be flexibility or will the time of judges and the legal eagles be wasted before a case is thrown out? Much of the valuable time of civil servants will be wasted in monitoring some of the nonsensical provisions of this Bill.

A simple Bill to provide for funding political parties would have been sufficient but, as usual, too much meat has been put on it to try to pin down politicians and give the impression that they are dishonourable, line their own pockets and engage in skulduggery inside and outside the House.

Voting rights for emigrants have been mentioned. This has been a bone of contention for many years and emigrants have been fighting strongly for such rights. This is a difficult matter for politicians to resolve. If they felt that election results would be distorted and more favourable for one party as against another they would not be keen to grant voting rights to emigrants.

The proposal that emigrants be allowed elect three Senators to represent their interests is only a sop. If they are to be granted voting rights, they should be entitled to vote in all elections, depending on the number of years they were included on the register of electors prior to leaving the country.

Some of the provisions of the Bill are welcome, in particular those dealing with funding political parties. It is not, however, the kind of Bill that I envisaged the Department of the Environment presenting in that an attempt is being made to legislate for the honesty and integrity of politicians. I do not go along with this. Politicians have caused many of the problems for themselves by spreading rumours, making innuendoes and false allegations. As a result the public have become cynical.

All 99 per cent of politicians, if not 100 per cent, want to do is represent the interests of their constituents. They have no desire to engage in skulduggery or underhand activity. They are not lining their pockets, rather their salary is their only source of income. If one had an opportunity to look at their bank statements, one would find that they are very much in the red.

This Bill, allied with the Ethics in Public Office Act, is timely. If we are to restore the credibility of the political system and politicians in general, such legislation is necessary. In recent years the political system has been debased to such an extent that it has become fashionable to denigrate politicians. I resent the dreaded cliché "you are all the same" whereby all politicians are tarred with the same brush. Despite this, I can appreciate the reasons they are held in low esteem. This is borne out by the findings of recent surveys.

I recall hearing many years ago about business interests in the construction industry being aligned with a specific political party. They believed at the time that if they supported a specific party they would have a better opportunity to progress. Over a period it became part of our political culture that if one supported a particular party by way of generous financial contributions one would have a better chance of getting a bigger slice of the cake.

The recent sequence of events in this House, in particular the allegations of cosy cartels, has led the general public to hold politicians in low esteem. If business people and companies wish to make a financial contribution to political parties, which in many cases can be generous, they should be open about it and name the parties concerned. That would be in keeping with the principle of openness.

I represent a three seat constituency and, like the majority of politicians I know, regard politics as a profession just like accountancy and law. As I do not have an alternative source of income I have to be energetic in pursuing the interest of my constituents to ensure survival.

Politicians are often criticised by the general public for engaging in parish pump politics and articulating the views of their constituents. They argue that, as legislators, we should deal with policy issues, but a balance has to be struck. My functions as a member of the county council and Dáil Éireann overlap. I am alerted to specific problems and queries which need to be followed up by my constituents. In many cases, they are in need of guidance.

There are many regulations governing social welfare payments, grants, medical cards and so on and those who have problems with them need someone to act on their behalf. People say we were elected to legislate but we neglect local politics at our peril. If politics is a Deputy's livelihood, he or she has chosen it as a profession. It is time for openness and transparency. We do not have anything to hide.

Mention has been made of contributions to individuals. That will not create a problem for most backbenchers. Few personal donations are made and most of us are out of pocket at election time.

In a three-seat constituency a candidate can spend up to £10,000. A ceiling must be imposed otherwise a candidate who was a millionaire could distribute largesse in the constituency in order to be elected and a far more effective candidate, who might be a better public representative, may not be in a position to match that. If we do not impose a ceiling we risk the possibility of someone buying his or her way into the Oireachtas.

The hurlers on the ditch who knock politicians do not go before the electorate. If they did they would get a rude awakening. They have no concept of a politician's workload or the low esteem in which they are held. That is not sufficiently appreciated. How many people have said they would not have our job for love or money because of the demands it puts on us and our families? People are unaware of the time spent by a politician in his office. Deputies often work until 11 p.m. When the Dáil is in recess Deputies are knocked for taking holidays. Journalists often malign politicians unfairly.

As regards the system in the House, many would say there are abundant committees. The committee system introduced in 1993 has helped to speed up the processing of legislation. I contribute regularly at committees. They provide an excellent way for Members to make positive contributions and indeed, far more constructive contributions are made there than are made in the Dáil or Seanad.

When the public see one or two Members present in the Dáil it lowers the esteem in which politicians are held. The perception is that Deputies should sit in the Chamber all day. People do not realise that we monitor debates in our office and contribute as required. If Deputies participate in non-legislative committees such as the Joint Committee on the Family and the Joint Committee on Small Business and Services their knowledge will be enriched. The Joint Committee on Small Business and Services recently met organisations representing all sections of the business community and my knowledge of this area has been enhanced by their contributions. Journalists often make negative comments about those who participate in committees, but in many cases the journalists are not present at committee meetings.

We are a maligned bunch and everyone seems to knock us. It is fashionable to denigrate politicians. Perhaps we are our own worst enemies because we put up with working conditions and a level of service which are incompatible with providing a professional service for those we represent.

If a Deputy decides to have a constituency office and builds an extension to his home he is not liable to pay rates but if he buys a small business premises he is liable for rates. The politician is providing a voluntary service and it is unfair that he or she is penalised in this way. I, in common with others, have a constituency office and, as a rural Deputy, this permits me to have contact with my constituents even though I am in Dublin. We do not have adequate infrastructural support, decent office accommodation or furniture, although the position has improved recently. We are regarded as public enemy No. 1 if we look for secretarial assistance in Dublin, having decided to have a constituency secretary. I welcome the decision taken by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to commission Price Waterhouse to investigate the activities of and services provided by politicians. The more professional we are the better appreciated we will be. I deeply resent some of the criticisms which are unfairly levelled at us. Perhaps we are the victims of circumstances and the culture which surrounds politicians.

I agree with the ceiling which is being imposed and with the disclosure provisions. All bodies, whether semi-State, harbour boards or local authorities, must adhere to tendering procedures and contracts must be awarded fairly. Everybody should have an equal chance to tender. It is within our control and capacity to do this and if it is done we will ensure that politics is not debased. Given the proceedings of recent days with regard to the cosy cartel — as it was described — I hope the changes which will result will lead to more respect for politicians. There should not be suspicion on the part of the public that if one greases political parties or politicians, one has a better chance of securing contracts. I hope matters are moving in the right direction.

The Bill contains an amusing reference with regard to a candidate who campaigns in an election. If he recoups contributions in excess of a certain amount of money, he must reveal this afterwards even if he loses the election. This amuses me because if somebody loses an election, they are shattered enough without being told they must write in and reveal from where they got their money and how it was spent. I do not agree with that measure; it is not necessary.

Another element of the Bill regarding people unable to vote at polling stations is most important. They will be given a concession which will allow them to vote. There has been a considerable improvement in this area in recent times with, for example, the special voters list for elderly people in nursing homes run by the health boards. They can have a postal vote and be included in the register of electors. Many people may be away from home at election time and unable to vote. I welcome the provision which attempts to redress that situation.

There is also reference in the Bill to a proposal to change procedures following an election. I am emotional about this subject. The excitement of Irish elections involves the tally men adding the votes from the different boxes as they tumble out during the count. This process is fascinating to watch. I am not sure whether it is intended to computerise the system in an effort to improve it and I am interested in hearing the Minister's reply in this regard.

The lack of uniformity following elections in various count centres surprises me. Certain centres seem to conclude the county quickly while other counts appear to drag on indefinitely. The way in which the count dragged on in my three seat constituency of Limerick West at the last election was amazing. It continued through the night although the counts in other parts had concluded. There is some scope for streamlining and improving the system but we must await the Minister's reply for suggestions on this aspect.

The Bill is necessary, although modifications are possible. I welcome it and the Ethics in Public Office Act. These pieces of legislation can only help the stature and profile of politicians in the eyes of the public. I support some of the laudable changes contained in the Bill.

This is a most interesting Bill and most of its provisions are welcome. Many people will object to some elements, but overall the many good points contained in it outweigh the bad. We are all interested in this issue, which is close to our hearts. However, some of the attempts at political correctness are a little overboard. There is a notion that politicians are all wealthy and there is much money in political parties. There is much intellectual nonsense behind that type of philosophy.

Most people are aware that political parties are in severe financial difficulties, particularly at local constituency and branch level. People are being driven away from the political process because the agendas of meetings are being taken over by details of fundraising events. People who want to engage in political activity are going elsewhere because the constant over emphasis on fundraising is boring them. This applies to parties other than Fianna Fáil.

I was not surprised by the attitude taken by the Progressive Democrats earlier. It confirms the view that it is a niche party, looking after the interests of a well to do class. Perhaps that party has no trouble getting necessary funds. We all oppose wasteful public spending but I was surprised at the attitude taken by the Progressive Democrats that the Bill involves more wasteful expenditure. The party obviously does not experience the problems of other parties with regard to shortages of finance, particularly at local branch level.

Deputy Finucane mentioned the way in which politicians are denigrated by the media and others. This is an ongoing process and perhaps these people will tire of us at some stage. Perhaps they have already moved on and are focusing on other groups or organisations which may have been considered part of the establishment. They may stop constantly zoning in on politicians.

The Minister mentioned the general principle of enhancing efficiency and accountability. All sides agree with those sentiments and the Minister made some good points. Political parties are part of the political process and they should be encouraged. The proposal to fund political parties is a sound suggestion. They have received some funding for a number of years and most Deputies agree with the proposal to put that on a better and more organised footing. It is a good idea and can only improve matters.

The funding will be retained exclusively by the head offices of the various parties for research and policy formulation. There is much to be done in this area. As other Deputies mentioned, outside groups are far better prepared these days. The politician goes along with his hands swinging. He is supposed to know everything but he is just trying to pick up bits of information as he goes along.

The Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs has received many political lobbyists and heard their pre-budget submissions. Officials in the Department of Finance and other Departments will agree that this area has mushroomed in recent years. In the past the Minister might have received a letter or two in the weeks preceding the budget but people are now coming in and making sophisticated and well researched submissions up to four months in advance. One wonders who is calling the shots — the poorly researched political party or the well researched political lobby group. Time is wasted at political level dealing with fund raising and such matters and we should move away from it. The Minister said it will not be a case of the State taking over the funding of political parties but that it will give some funding to help them. It will not relieve them of the responsibility.

It seems the Minister is thinking of inserting an opt out clause as he said: "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." He further said "Any system of State funding must be designed to take account of factors such as these." What does that mean? Is he saying that if a taxpayer wants to record his objection to giving funding to all political parties — or one — there will be a process for him to do so? How will that be done?

I was an active member of a trade union before I became a Member of this House. I always paid my contributions to its political fund, which went to the Labour Party. There was a process where I could opt out of paying — one could claim back approximately 10p per month — but I never did. When the Minister replies, could he explain what this means? Does he intend to put in a provision for those who wish to opt out of giving money to political parties? Since this Bill is now over a year old, at what time would the pound per vote provision start — is it inflation proofed? Did it start from the day the Bill was published or when it is passed?

I agree that this Bill will give money to political parties and can see it being used for research and policy formulation purposes at head office level. However, will it affect me as a Deputy? I am inclined to think I may never see its benefits.

The Bill says that an allocation of money will be given to Independents to compete with the parties. The Independent may not use it for policy formulation. While I would get no extra money from the party to fight an election, the Independent candidate would have an unfair advantage over me or any party candidate because he would get a lump sum which could be used at election time. This will boost the status of Independents to the detriment of the established parties.

The explanatory memorandum says that "Part III provides for payments out of the Central Fund to each political party which is organised throughout the State...". What does that mean? If a party does not run a candidate in one constituency, it would get no funding even though it may run candidates in every other constituency. This may not pose a problem for the major parties. While this wording seems to suggest that the smaller parties will not get their share, later on it says that Independents will get extra funding. I can see the Independents' money being spent at local level in competition with a candidate from a major party. If the major party has to prove that it spends the money on research etc., there should also be guidelines to tie the Independent to this — I am not sure what research he would be doing — as well.

Deputy Finucane referred to the way the committee system is evolving. I have only been a Member for three years and I may not be qualified to talk in these terms, but up to five committees are sitting today. There was no business in the House for a while yesterday but some Members were still busy attending different committees. The advent of the committee system may be making our job as legislators more meaningful, but we should address the whole issue if we are to examine electoral reform correctly. Are we legislators or social workers? Should we look at the whole system and the concept of the single seat constituency? A string of committees have been established and many of them are interesting, but there are so many of them that Members are running from one to another and the theory behind it has been nullified. While these committees are a good idea, we need more time to concentrate on them and not be there just to make up the numbers. I agree with the system but we should look at their organisation.

Some people say that we do not need 166 TDs to run the country. We may not; the figure could be reduced by up to 40 Members and it would not matter much, but we may need to be replaced by three times our number of social workers, counsellors, therapists, etc. Much of our time, especially as backbenchers, is taken up dealing with constituency problems. If we want to move the system forward, we should do this all the time. There should be a fundamental examination of our electoral system to see whether a single seat constituency system or an abbreviation of it would allow us to be better legislators and give the committees more of our time.

Too much time in the major political parties is taken up, especially if more than one TD of the same party is in the same constituency, in conflicts and personality clashes, which are usually kept under the surface. That time and energy could be used to better effect in this House rather than wasting it in chasing each other to every local event in their constituency.

I have reservations and concerns about the political funding measure because it may boost the status of Independents and smaller parties. This may be the way events are going. There has been a decline in support for the major parties — Fianna Fáil was stronger a few years ago. Some people say that coalition Governments are here to stay. However, is that a good thing and is our electoral system working in that direction? As we move on, it seems that small pressure groups, Independents or people who stand for only one issue will not alone have a voice in this House but may determine the legislative programme for Government if they hold that vital seat. Bigger parties take in a broader stream of thought and it may be better if the system encouraged them. While it is fine to be democratic and let everybody have their say, there could be a danger in encouraging small groupings.

The disclosure of political donations exceeding £4,000 for parties and £500 for candidates does not trouble me; I have never been given a donation like that and I doubt if I will. However, I am interested in the meaning behind them. The Bill states that these donations would include cash, goods and services. Does it just cover cash? Parties tend to get their money through fundraising activities rather than getting direct cash donations. If a group of friends organised a race night for a Members and raised £501 for him, would he have to declare it? Does it have to be a donation from a person or company? If it is the proceeds of a race night must it be declared?

As an individual it does not cause me a problem but the idea that the party hierarchy or national treasurer is responsible for all these matters seems rather strange. In Fianna Fáil we do not practice democratic centralism. Mount Street does not know if a cumann in my area receives a few quid from somebody. A company or an individual might give a few pounds to me or to a cumann and might do the same in the Limerick or Cork branch but we do not make those returns. It would be deeply resented by the voluntary personnel in our party. It is a little daft.

The figures in the guidelines are fine but I doubt that anybody in Mount Street could be expected to be responsible for such donations because detailed data of that type are not given. Is that information only to be given about cheques? If there is a race night or a dinner or a golf outing must those figures be returned also? Companies and individuals are moving away from making cash donations. Are we setting up a system to prevent what used to happen or what might have happened? If fund raising is becoming more like corporate entertainment such as race nights and golf outings, is that excluded from the legislation?

This notion that somebody who gives a politician a few pounds has undue influence over him is nonsense. The people who have undue influence over us are the lobbyists. Organisations that lobby politicians, such as business, trade unions and so forth, have proper research facilities and undue influence. They give us material that reads well and is well presented. We come into the House and push it because we do not know any better. It is presented to us in a nice way and because it is the easy way out we run with it. One sees Members — and I do not exclude myself — reading directly from lobbyists' material whereas if we were properly resourced we would be more discerning in what we speak about and promote in the Chamber.

There is a requirement on companies to make declarations. Does that relate to cash or fund raising events? The provision regarding election expenses probably annoys us most; there is a fair degree of sense in the rest of the legislation. The Minister used the word "extravagance" earlier. We are all against extravagance. We have seen candidates spending a fortune and we want to stop that. Guidelines are simply guidelines but trying to put them in legislation and saying, for example, that £12,000 can be spent in a four seat constituency begs a number of questions. Who can spend the £12,000? Can I spend it or the comhairle? Much of this legislation appears to be written from the point of view of the Labour Party which has only one candidate in each area and the organisation is behind the candidate. If it is a bigger party and there are up to four candidates, does the £12,000 refer to my expenditure or the comhairle's expenditure? Do I get a proportion of the comhairle's expenditure? Who knows who is spending what anyway? The whole thing is daft.

I agree with guidelines. However, having a Joe Hendron type situation or having somebody get into trouble 60 days later because they went to McDonalds or bought a few pints one night and did not record it is asinine. Guidelines for election expenses are fine but they cannot be anything more than guidelines. Otherwise the situation will be ludicrous. When do the guidelines come into effect? Do they say that I can spend £12,000 from the day the election is called? What about the money I spend this year and next year? We know there will be an election in June 1997. Can I go on a splurge in the next 12 months and spend whatever I wish and know that it will not be taken into account? Does it only refer to what I spend in the 21 days? It is ludicrous.

We will have to go through that provision in great detail on Committee Stage. The best place for much of it is the bin. One will not need an election agent in future but an accountant and a computer. The provision is over-bureaucratic and full of intellectual nonsense. It appears to be Labour Party material and obviously that party does not envisage ever having more than one candidate in a constituency. If it thought otherwise it would not have included such nonsense.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ring.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

With his usual colourful langauge I am sure Deputy Ring will give the House a fine outline of politics in the west.

The contributions so far have been interesting. I support the Bill. I would like to discuss a number of its aspects but, unfortunately, my time is limited. Having been involved in politics for 21 years — I was first elected to Cavan County Council in 1974 — I believe I am in a position to speak on how the system functions. There is no doubt that it works extremely well and that people get the representation they deserve. It is easy to be critical of people who put themselves up for public office. I have often asked such critics to test the water themselves but of course they run miles away from it.

I support State funding for political parties. Funding is the one area of politics I never liked. I felt I was returning to people who had done something for me and seeking a reward. That is the last thing I wish to do. In public life I want to work for people without any strings attached. If people in their generosity wished to make a contribution at election time or at any other time that was fine. However, I never liked the idea of knocking on their doors and feeling that I was putting them under pressure when collecting for the party. There will always be a need for public contributions. State funding will go so far but there is nothing wrong with voluntary contributions and church gate collections. It is a barometer of how the party is doing and how the people are responding to it.

There is no difficulty with full disclosure. I cannot understand the myth that plenty of money is swirling around; I have never seen it. I have never believed in large expenditure at election time. It is an insult to the electorate to say that the politician can bamboozle it with large posters and advertisements in the press. People are very well informed. The big change in the past 21 years has been the arrival of television into every house. That was not the case in the 1970s. People are now fully informed and have made up their minds. At national level one can convey a certain picture but all politics are local and people will respond to the efforts of the local politician. It is only fair to those in public life that we come clean about the notion that money is swirling around in the political arena — I have never seen it nor am I aware of it.

With regard to voting, it is vitally important that people are allowed to cast their votes. In rural Ireland we have seen the closure of many of the traditional polling stations. Schools have been closed over the years and not replaced. They might be opened on the day of an election but they are damp and not suitable for people to cast their vote in privacy. On election days and immediately beforehand a mobile office that is fully accessible should be put in place in areas that were designated over the years as polling stations. The disabled and handicapped must have the same facilities as those who are able-bodied to cast their vote in privacy. That facility should not be removed from anybody under any circumstances and no cost should prohibit it being provided. I welcome the section of the Bill that deals with that issue.

The Bill has much to commend it. It will offer an opportunity for discussion in the House and lay the basis for proper funding of political parties. The smaller parties should have no fear that they will be wiped out. The Bill makes funding available to them on an equal basis with the larger parties which have probably played the major role.

Debate adjourned.