I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time." The main purpose of the Bill is to provide for a statutory scheme for the disclosure of election expenditure by candidates, political parties and third parties at local elections. In addition, candidates will be required to disclose the sources of funds used to meet election expenses including the disclosure of any donation over £500 received by them in connection with the election. The Bill removes the disqualification for membership of a local authority of chairpersons of Oireachtas Committees and also makes provision for research into electronic methods of recording and counting votes using the ballot papers from the European and local elections to be held in June this year.
The question of commencing section 72 of the Electoral Act, 1997, under which the Minister may make regulations to provide for a scheme of disclosure of donations and election expenses comparable to that which operates at Dáil, European and presidential elections has been given detailed consideration. However, it has been decided that the arrangements envisaged under that section would not be appropriate for local elections for reasons which I wish to outline.
Local elections differ from Dáil and other elections in a number of major respects, most notably in terms of scale. At the local elections in June of this year, there will probably be over 3,500 candidates. This compares to 484 in the 1997 general election and 52 in the 1994 European elections. Similarly in relation to constituencies, there are 268 local electoral areas compared to 42 Dáil and four European Parliament constituencies.
There are also major population differences. The population of local electoral areas varies greatly, but the average is around 13,500 with some areas having a population of little more than 1,000. This compares with Dáil constituencies where population ranges from 62,000 to 115,000 and European Parliament constituencies which have populations ranging from 668,000 to over one million. Finally, due to the smaller size of constituencies and the local nature of the elections, extensive expenditure would not be necessary and expenditure by each candidate would be lower than at a Dáil election.
If section 72 was commenced and regulations made under it, the size and complexity of the administrative undertaking would become even clearer. For example, each candidate would have to appoint an election agent; about 3,500 election agents would have to make election expenditure statements to the Public Offices Commission within 56 days of the election in respect of elected members and unsuccessful candidates; expenditure limits would have to be set either for all candidates for election to each local authority or different limits would have to be set for candidates for different classes of local authorities. If different limits of expenditure were set for candidates in different areas, the question of equality of treatment would arise; 1,627 elected members would have to make donation statements to the Public Offices Commission by 31 January 2000 and every year thereafter; and about 1,900 unsuccessful candidates would have to submit donation statements to the Public Offices Commission within 56 days of the election.
Not surprisingly, given what I have outlined, the Public Offices Commission would need extra staff and resources to carry out the extra work involved at a cost of about £300,000. Another major feature of a section 72 scheme would be its central focus – all documentation would have to be brought to Dublin rather than remaining in the relevant locality. I think it is clear, therefore, that a scheme under section 72 would not be appropriate for local elections and the Bill provides for an alternative which can meet the objectives of the Electoral Act, 1997, through a less bureaucratic and local arrangement.
The Bill provides that each candidate will submit an income and expenditure statement to the local authority for which he or she is a candidate for election. Details of any donation over £500 received to fund election expenditure will also have to be disclosed. Political parties, likewise, will submit a statement of total expenditure by their headquarters in local elections to a specified local authority in the Dublin area. Expenditure by a political party at local electoral area level will have to be disclosed by a designated person of the political party to the local authority concerned. Thus, there will be two levels of disclosure for political parties and one for candidates.
I would like to point out that political parties are already obliged to disclose donations over the specified limit received during a local election in their annual donation statements. For this purpose, parties are deemed to include any branch of the party, candidate of the party at a local election, member of the party who is a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas or member of a local authority or representative in the European Parliament or any officer, member, or agent of the party or of a branch or subsidiary organisation. Members of the Oireachtas who stand as candidates at the local elections will have to furnish statements to a local authority. There may be some duplication in this situation but it should not be too onerous on any individual. If a Member of the Oireachtas who is a candidate at the local elections was excluded from submitting an expenditure statement to a local authority, there would not be a complete picture of expenditure at the election and this could give rise to concern that some candidates were not being treated the same as others.
An important feature of the scheme proposed in the Bill is its local focus. All documentation will be kept locally for inspection by local people. It would run counter to the major programme of local government reform which is under way if the documentation, for example, was stored centrally in Dublin. Why should the public in Bantry or Buncrana have to travel to Dublin to inspect the relevant records?
Before I outline some of the main elements of the Bill, I would like to briefly mention existing provisions and some current developments in relation to conflict of interest and ethics at local authority level. I am very conscious of the need for a new ethical framework for local authorities which is both robust and workable and which takes account of the recent legislative changes within this area. As members are aware, ethical provisions have been in operation in the local government planning service since the enactment of the Planning Act, 1976. That Act applies to both members and officials of local authorities in so far as any planning, land acquisition and disposal functions or any dealings or interests in land are concerned. The provisions involve registration of interests, a public register of interests, declarations at meetings along with penalties for non-compliance, etc. However, it is now time to widen and strengthen its scope.
The major local government Bill in preparation in my Department provides an ideal opportunity for a review and preparation of an ethical framework for the local government service. This review will include the widening of ethical provisions to all local government activities and not just the planning area. It will take account of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and the work of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service on the draft standards in public office proposals. It will also take account of similar legislation in other jurisdictions. Additional areas to be considered include provision of a code of conduct, the widening of existing disclosures and annual declaration provisions. For these reasons, it is not proposed that elected members of local authorities should furnish annual donation statements under the terms of the Bill.
The local government Bill will also provide for the elimination of the dual local authority/Oireachtas mandate from a future date. In the interim, pending the coming into effect of this general disqualification, it is proposed to remove the current disqualification applying to the chairs of Oireachtas committees and joint committees for the local elections in June 1999. Such persons will then be free to stand for election.
Regarding the main sections of the Bill, section 6 contains the definition of election expenses and is based on section 31 of the Electoral Act, 1997, which applies to Dáil and European Parliament elections. Election expenses are defined as any expenditure incurred in connection with a local election to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the interests of a political party or the election of any candidate or to present or oppose the policies of a party or candidate. The section provides that certain expenditure will be deemed not to constitute election expenses. These exceptions are the same as those which apply at Dáil and European elections and details of them can be found in the Bill and in the explanatory and financial memorandum.
An expenditure limit for candidates at the local elections is not being proposed. Such a limit would make the scheme very bureaucratic for candidates and political parties and would add to its cost. Because of the smaller scale of individual local election areas compared to other elections, expenditure should not be as extensive. The general principle of disclosure contained in the 1997 Act is maintained and all candidates will also have to disclose the sources of funding used to meet election expenditure. It is intended to analyse expenditure at the elections and this data will be useful to see if an expenditure limit is necessary in future, especially if different limits should be set for candidates and political parties contesting elections in differently sized authorities. Most EU countries do not have election expenditure limits for local elections.
The most frequently asked question is the period in which election expenses incurred have to be declared. Section 6(3) states that the period commences on the date of the polling day order and ends on polling day. This is generally four weeks before polling day which will be 11 June next. However, election expenses incurred before the date of the polling day order for use during the election period must be included in the election expenses statement. This section also provides that third parties who have no connection with political parties or candidates and who intend incurring election expenses either at a national level or at local electoral level will have to register with a local authority and make an election expenses statement after the election.
Section 7 requires a political party, other than a political party registered to contest elections in part of the State, which proposes to present candidates at a local election to appoint a national agent. He or she will only be responsible for national expenditure because it would not be possible for such a person to keep track of local expenditure without an army of staff in party headquarters. Section 8 provides that each political party will be obliged to appoint a designated person who will be responsible for furnishing a statement of election expenses incurred by a political party at local electoral area level.
Section 13 provides for the furnishing of the statements in prescribed forms by national agents, designated persons, candidates and third parties within 90 days of polling day. There is also provision that, where a candidate or third party dies before the submission of a statement, it will not be necessary for the personal representatives of that person to submit a statement.
An essential element of the scheme in the Bill is openness, and section 14 provides that election expenses statements received from designated persons, candidates and third parties for expenditure at local level must be given to the elected members of the local authority concerned. The statements by political parties and third parties for expenditure at national level will be available for inspection at a local authority in the Dublin area, and I acknowledge the co-operation of Dublin Corporation in this regard which has agreed to act as the specified local authority. Section 18 obliges a local authority to register and acknowledge every statement it receives. Section 19 requires an authority to publish a notice in a newspaper circulating in its functional area stating the time and place the statements can be inspected. The notice will also include the names of those who have not furnished statements.
Section 18 also provides that a local authority will issue guidelines to candidates and political parties on matters covered in the Bill. This should assist candidates and others in understanding the Bill's requirements. I would like to see the guidelines issuing to candidates and others as early as possible and my Department will issue draft guidelines to local authorities as soon as the Bill is enacted.
Disqualification, offences and penalties under the Bill are contained in sections 20 and 21. The penalties for non-compliance or furnishing false or misleading statements by a national agent, designated person or third party are the same as those which apply at Dáil or European elections. A different regime is proposed for unsuccessful and elected candidates. Where an unsuccessful candidate fails to furnish a statement of election expenses or a statutory declaration within the specified period, the person shall be disqualified from membership of a local authority during the remainder of the term of office of members of local authority elected at that election.
Where a member of a local authority fails to furnish a statement of election expenses or a statutory declaration within the specified period, the member shall be automatically suspended from membership of the authority for seven days commencing on the expiry of the time specified. If at the end of such seven days the member has not complied with the requirements of section 13, he or she shall be disqualified from membership of a local authority during the period of the remainder of the term of office of members of a local authority elected at that election. So that there is no misunderstanding of the position of elected members, I will ask local authorities to issue a notice at the first meeting of the new councils to remind them of the provisions of the Bill.
Section 24 provides for the necessary amendment of section 6 of the Local Government Act, 1994, to remove the disqualification applying to the chairs of Oireachtas committees and joint committees for the June local elections.
Section 25, the final section, makes provision for research into the feasibility of introducing electronic methods of recording and counting votes under the present PR-STV election system. This provision will not introduce electronic voting and counting at elections, which would require separate legislation. Counted ballot papers can only be inspected by obtaining a High Court order when the court hears a petition questioning an election. Counted ballot papers are normally destroyed six months after an election. The section makes provision for the use of counted ballot papers to assist in the examination of the feasibility of introducing electronic voting and counting. This is necessary to test the equipment to be used for electronic voting, including any minor changes in the counting rules necessary, and to establish the effects of such changes. Extraction of data from the counted ballot papers will be restricted to this purpose and the ballot papers will be destroyed in the normal way once the information is recorded.
The scheme proposed in the Bill is a local one appropriate to local elections. It will be less costly, less bureaucratic and simpler to operate than the scheme for Dáil and European Parliament elections. Crucially, it will embody the principles of the Electoral Act, 1997; all expenditure will be disclosed and candidates will have to dis close the sources of funding used to meet election expenses together with any donation over £500 received. The obligation on political parties to disclose donations, as currently provided for under Part IV of the Electoral Act, 1997, will continue. This Bill is a sensible, workable and comprehensive approach to the disclosure of donations and expenditure in respect of local elections. I commend it to the House.