Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 11 May 1999

Vol. 504 No. 4

Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Committee Stage.

Amendments Nos. 1, 68, 72, 73 and 74 are consequential on amendment No. 7 and amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are related. Amendments Nos. 1, 4, 5, 7, 68 and 72 to 74 inclusive, are to be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, subsection (1), line 21, after "and" to insert "limitation of".

The effect of this amendment is to change the Title of the Bill to "Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Limitation of Expenditure) Bill, 1999"; the reason for it is very clear. The Bill seeks to introduce to local elections procedures which are already for force in general elections and by-elections to this House in relation to donations and expenditure and which, next month, will be operated for the first time in relation to European Parliament elections. However, the Bill omits to place a limit on the expenditure of candidates in local elections, in sharp contrast to the limits placed on the expenditure by candidates and parties in general elections, by-elections and elections to the European Parliament. This creates an anomalous situation where, although candidates in general elections, by-elections and European Parliament elections have limits placed on the expenditure in which they and their parties can engage, candidates in local elections would have no limit placed on their expenditure. In theory, a candidate for election to a local authority could spend unlimited amounts of money, if he or she were stupid enough to want to do that, while a candidate in a general or European Parliament election must observe limits.

Members will agree that the limits on expenditure by Dáil election candidates are tightly drawn. We have had two by-elections since those limits came into operation and, although I was not involved in that aspect of either by-election, I know from my colleagues who were in charge of running the elections and from the staff who were employed to help comply with the requirements of the legislation that the expenditure limits for by-elections left very little room for extravagance. I am not complaining about this, I merely state it as a fact.

European election candidates, whose expenditure is limited to £150,000 per candidate, will also find that this limit is tightly drawn. A great many candidates will be quite happy that this limit has been placed on European election candidates. I was a candidate in the first direct election to the European Parliament – an unsuccessful one – and while 20 years ago our election culture had not developed to its present point, I found it quite an expensive campaign. In subsequent European elections expenditure levels have tended to go up and, although not entirely relevent, it is in keeping with my personal prejudices to say that no party has resisted this temptation and the left-wing parties have been just as eager to spend money as others. For general elections, by-elections and European elections the expenditure limits are quite tightly drawn and will rein in the natural tendency of candidates and their supporters to spend more and more money on posters, canvassing cards and gimmicks of all kinds.

The campaign for next month's local elections is in its early stages. Like many of my colleagues, I have already established the budget which we can afford in the various electoral areas, given the numbers of candidates. We all need to spend carefully but I have no doubt that, during the next few weeks, some candidates will become either more exuberant or more anxious and will push up expenditure. Until now there has been no limit on the expenditure by candidates in local elections and any resulting unfairness is unaffected by this Bill which neither imports a new unfairness nor gets rid of an existing one. That is wrong. If we believe that there should be a limit on election expenditure – and it seems that we do – there should be a limit on expenditure for local elections in the same way as for general elections, by-elections and European elections. If the principle is valid for one set of elections it is valid for another.

I do not wish to hear the argument that such a limit would be too complicated and its operation would place too great a burden on local authorities and various other people because of the large number of local election candidates. I have tabled amendments to deal with with that argument. I see no reason the Public Offices Commission could not supervise and invigilate this process as it does in for general elections, by-elections and European elections. Even if the Public Offices Commission feels it cannot invigilate the expenditure of every candidate, it could take a random sample of candidates at an early stage and invigilate those. There is no reason, in a more relaxed period after the election, the commission could not go over the declarations made by candidates and their parties and decide whether the limits on expenditure and the provisions of the legislation had been infringed.

On one hand it is said that this cannot be done without creating the need for more bureaucracy while, on the other, local authorities will be expected to collect all the information about donations and expenditure required to be given to them under the terms of the Bill and then do nothing with it except tell the public that they have the information and that it may be consulted at a designated place. That is nonsense. I see no reason for having a mass of information simply so that people can look at it.

I accept that there is more to the Bill than this. It places limits on the size of donations which can be accepted by candidates and lays down penalties for contravening these limits. However, the whole procedure is incomplete. It is not a good idea to put an incomplete procedure in place. The procedure set out in the Bill does not lead to anything. It may be interesting to know that X or Y received two or three donations of over £500 during the course of a local election campaign and that he or she spent £7,000 or £8,000 on the election but if that is the sum total, candidates have nothing to fear and all we will have is a mass of useless information in local authorities that will contribute nothing to changing any aspect of the electoral system.

We should make this amendment and then proceed to consider the rest of the proposals about what the permitted levels of expenditure should be. I have made one suggestion and Deputy Gilmore made another. We are pointing in the same direction. If the Minister is open to suggestions, between now and the end of the debate we can arrive at figures which would represent a reasonable approach, even if they are a little tightly drawn like the other expenditure limits about which I have spoken. We would then have a unity of approach to expenditure on elections which is in keeping with the logic of the system we have put in place.

The central issue which has to be addressed is whether there will be a limit to the amount a candidate may spend in the local elections. Without it the Bill is meaningless. As Deputy Dukes said, there is a limit to what a candidate may spend in an election to Dáil Éireann and the European Parliament. Under the Bill there will be no limit to what a candidate may spend in seeking to be elected to a local authority. What this means is that a candidate who has a lot of money or a wealthy backer or major contributor or contributors who will put up money for an expensive campaign will be at a distinct advantage in local elections.

The potential to buy a seat is far greater in local elections than in a general election. As we know from experience, the turnout in local elections tends to be considerably lower than in a general election. It is not far-fetched to envisage a situation in a particular local authority where a candidate, highly resourced and running an expensive campaign, is elected for no other reason than he or she had the money to run a better campaign than somebody dependent on local community support.

There has been much talk recently about the potential for corruption in public life. The potential for corruption is much greater in local government than in central Government. Many of the decisions made at local government level have the capacity to confer considerable wealth on small numbers of people. In the case of decisions relating to land rezoning somebody can be made a multimillionaire on the vote of a county council. For somebody who sees the possibilities, the potential for buying their own member of a local authority and funding them is much greater. There is, therefore, an unanswerable case for spending limits in local elections.

Why are spending limits not proposed in the Bill? Is the reason administrative? I cannot see where the administrative difficulty is. The Bill puts in place an administrative system for the declaration of amounts spent. Every candidate will have to make a declaration to the local authority within a certain period after the elections and every party will have to nominate a person who will have to account for donations and amounts spent. A system will be in place under which limits can be monitored.

If the reason is not administrative, is it political? Will the Minister clarify what he said on the matter in the Seanad? In reply to my colleague, Senator Pat Gallagher, the Minister indicated that it was his intention not only to have no spending limits in local elections but to get rid of the spending limits set down in legislation for general elections. Is the Minister pursuing a political agenda to get rid of spending limits and return to the bad old days when candidates could spend any amount they wanted and when the highly resourced were placed at an advantage over everybody else?

The spending limits I am proposing are £3,000 for a three seat electoral area, £4,000 for a four seat electoral area and £5,000 for a five seat electoral area or greater. Like Deputy Dukes, I am open to discussion on the amounts but limits should be set down in the Bill. What ground rules are we following in this debate? Is this an administrative or a political issue?

The question of expenditure limits was dealt with on Second Stage and in the Seanad. I do not accept the argument being used by some in treating members of local authorities and Members of the Oireachtas in a similar fashion that this is an administrative or a political issue. One of the problems with the 1997 legislation is that limits were plucked out of the air. There was no research to back up the amounts selected. Already in two by-elections parties opposite had major difficulties in staying within the limits imposed at that time. That is an argument for ensuring that, at local government level at least, we have some—

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.