Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2007: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill represents a response to the judgment of the Supreme Court on 13 November 2006 in the cases of King, Cooney and Riordan. The judgment deals with the assentor requirements for the nomination of Dáil candidates who are not members of registered political parties. The net impact of the judgment is that no statutory mechanism is in place to regulate the nomination of such candidates standing for election. This must be addressed before this year's general election.

I will outline briefly the background to this problem before I speak about the detail and implications of the court decision. The assentor provisions for the nomination of candidates were enacted in 2002 to provide an alternative to election deposits. This followed the 2001 High Court judgment in the Redmond case which found the deposits system which had been in place throughout the history of the State to be unconstitutional. The assentor provisions, as enacted, required the nomination papers of certain Dáil candidates to be assented to by 30 people, excluding the candidate and any proposer, who were registered as Dáil electors in the relevant constituency. Each assentor had to sign the candidate's nomination paper which was usually lodged at the main local authority offices. These requirements were put in place as an alternative to the system whereby a certificate of political affiliation had to be attached to the nomination papers of members of registered political parties.

The State had several grounds of appeal to the Supreme Court in the recent cases. It was successful on all but one point. The court upheld the main requirement of obtaining 30 assentors to help to ensure the proper regulation of elections. It struck down the provision that required the personal attendance of all assentors in a single location in a constituency, however, on the basis that it could make excessive demands on the time of assentors. The court found that the provision was disproportionate to the objective it was trying to achieve, the due authentication of nomination papers. It, therefore, declared section 46(4B) of the Electoral Act 1992 to be unconstitutional. The statutory mechanism that regulated the manner in which such candidates stood for election is no longer valid in the light of the judgment.

Most parliamentary democracies try to regulate access to the electoral process in some way. It is widely seen as necessary to discourage an excessively large number from contesting an election and prevent frivolous candidates from entering the field and making a mockery of the democratic process. The need to prevent too many people from contesting elections was endorsed on page 19 of the Supreme Court judgment which supports fully the right of the Oireachtas to legislate in this area:

The Court is satisfied, and considers it self-evident that the State has a legitimate interest in regulating the conduct of elections by law, subject to the Constitution, in the interests of, inter alia, protecting and maintaining the integrity and efficacy of the electoral process for Dáil Éireann as well as ensuring that those elections are conducted free from abuse and in an orderly fashion consistent with democratic values acknowledged by the Constitution.

The judgment continues, on page 21:

In the view of the Court the State has a legitimate interest, founded on rational considerations, in being concerned that the integrity of the electoral process is not tainted by frivolous candidates or a seriously excessive number of candidates on the ballot paper.

In Ireland the purpose of a general election is to elect members to Dáil Éireann in accordance with the Constitution, with a view to the formation of a Government. Elections must have a reasonable structure and coherence if voters are to be able to foresee what the impact of their votes might be on the eventual composition of the Dáil and if they are to exercise a meaningful choice towards that objective. If an overly large number of candidates were to contest an election, it might have an impact on the democratic right of voters to play a meaningful part in the political process. As always, a balance has to be struck. In this case, the balance is between providing for a reasonable test of the bona fides of a prospective candidate and not setting that test so high as to unduly restrict people from seeking election. Having considered the issues involved, I am proposing to the House the measures provided for in the Bill.

I would like to explain the overall approach being adopted in the Bill. Almost by its nature, electoral law is complex. It can be challenging to read and make sense of some of our existing electoral law. In the Bill I am trying to avoid, as far as possible, making isolated textual amendments to the law which are not easy for people to follow. I have decided to present to the House a continuous text dealing with nominations in general. I propose to insert the specific new provisions arising from the court judgment within that text. Such an approach will allow Deputies to place the new provisions in their proper legal context. It will result in a single text that can more easily be understood and implemented. One of the considerable merits of this approach is that, unlike most other electoral legislation, it will provide a continuous narrative. If the Members of this House can be faulted for anything, we can be faulted for making changes in law which make the law less readable, understandable and coherent. The Bill repeals and re-enacts without amendment most of the existing settled law relating to nominations. I will highlight the new provisions proposed to meet the terms of the court judgment. It is not necessary for me to comment on the Bill's proposals which have been in place as statutes for a long time. At this stage in the electoral cycle our attention should primarily be on the limited new provisions we need to put in place before the upcoming election.

The Bill provides for two alternative ways of regulating the nomination of Dáil candidates who do not possess certificates of political affiliation. It provides, first, for assents requiring the completion of statutory declarations by 30 assentors in the constituency which may be witnessed by a commissioner of oaths, a peace commissioner, a notary public, a garda or a local authority official. This provision could hardly be wider — we did not include postmen and bus drivers because we wanted to contain it a little. Second, the Bill provides for a process, whereby the candidate, or someone acting on his or her behalf, can lodge a deposit of €500 with the returning officer in advance of the deadline for the receipt of nominations.

As regards the assents procedure, the move to the use of statutory declarations allows a much more flexible system to be put in place. Previously, each assentor had to travel to the local authority office to sign the candidate's nomination paper. Assentor signatures will now be on documents attached to a nomination paper, as opposed to being on the actual paper. This is one of the most open nomination systems in the developed world. I know of no other system in use in the developed world and particularly in other European countries which is more liberal.

The break in the physical link with the nomination paper allows for more flexibility in the time for assents to be obtained and the Bill avails of this opportunity. The five categories of authorised persons who may witness the statutory declaration will also ensure a wide spread of locations with easy access for assentors. For example, under the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1994, every practising solicitor, of whom there are more than 6,000, has all the statutory powers of a Commissioner for Oaths. The form of statutory declaration will be prescribed by the Minister and relevant details of an assentor must be included on the declaration. An assentor will have to present prescribed photographic ID to the person who is witnessing the declaration.

I wish to explain the alternative of deposits. In lieu of obtaining 30 assents, a candidate may choose the alternative of lodging a deposit. If he or she does not do so, their candidature will be deemed to have been withdrawn. The provisions are similar to the previous deposit system which operated until 2001.

This is consistent with the Supreme Court judgment. Notwithstanding the High Court decision in the Redmond case that year, the thinking on a return to a deposit system is informed by comments of the Supreme Court and advice from the Attorney General. To be clear on this point, I will quote directly from the Supreme Court judgment — page 22 — where it is refers to the deposit of £300 which was required under the Electoral Act 1992:

In contemporary Ireland it is difficult to comprehend how a sum anywhere in the region of £300 or its equivalent in Euro (or more if inflation is allowed for in the meantime) could be considered a disproportionate measure for such a legitimate purpose or to involve invidious discrimination, given the costs necessarily otherwise incurred by candidates and the possibility, at least in certain circumstances, of a refund of the deposit.

In further response to the Supreme Court judgment, the Bill provides that the candidate, or someone on his or her behalf, has the option of lodging a deposit of €500 with the returning officer before the deadline for receiving nominations. The sum of €500 is less than the figure introduced in 1992 if that figure were to be increased by the rate of inflation. It is significantly less than the figures which applied in this State from 1922 onwards when in the first elections in the history of the State, the deposit was £100 which is significantly more than the sum of €500.

In summary, candidates standing for the Dáil who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation may now choose which option best suits their own circumstances — either assents or deposits — to support their nomination. This represents a significant improvement on the previous arrangements and fully meets the relevant constitutional requirements. It is undoubtedly one of the most liberal arrangements in the developed world.

The Bill contains three sections. Section 1 is the main provision. It amends the Electoral Act 1992, as previously amended, by inserting sections 44 to 52 in substitution for the existing ones. These sections cover the nomination of all candidates for election to the Dáil and most of the existing, settled law in this area is being re-enacted without amendment. This produces a more coherent narrative. The amendments necessary to meet the terms of the Supreme Court decision are being incorporated, as appropriate, in the re-enacted sections so as to give a single text relating to nominations generally.

Section 44 restates the law on the giving of a public notice at a Dáil election by the returning officer. The public notice sets out the time and place for receiving nominations and related arrangements. A new section 44(b) requires details of the new assentor and deposit provisions to be included on the notice of election.

Section 46 contains the substantive provisions underpinning the two alternative mechanisms to regulate the nomination of Dáil candidates who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation. Section 46(5) is a new section. It provides specifically that either the assents or deposits system must be complied with before the expiration of the time for receiving nominations. A consequential provision is included in the new section 46(2)(b) relating to inclusion of details of the new provisions on the notes to the nomination paper.

The detailed procedures for assents are set out in the new section 46(6). The relevant details of the assentors to be included on the statutory declaration are the assentor's number and polling district letters on the register of Dáil electors in force at the time of assent, the address on the register, the contact details, the relevant Dáil constituency on the date of assent where he or she is registered, the name and address of the candidate and the form of prescribed photographic ID produced and any number on it. An assentor must confirm on the statutory declaration that he or she has not consented to the nomination of any other candidate in the election concerned.

Under the Statutory Declarations Act 1938, a person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statutory declaration is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding €2,539 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or both. However, given that the misbehaviour of an assentor could have a dire consequence for a candidate, I have introduced a new section 52(1)(c). This provides that a candidate’s nomination will not be invalid where a person assents to the nomination of more than one candidate. A candidate could be quite innocent if an assentor decided to misbehave or to make a misstatement or false statement. It seemed to me that the candidate should not suffer disproportionately for the misbehaviour of an assentor. It could be somebody acting the clown or who deliberately decides to make two assents with a view to nullifying a nomination of a candidate. The candidate should not suffer for the fraudulent assentor but the fraudulent assenter can be punished for his or her false declarations. Statutory declaration forms will be available free of charge from registration authorities and returning officers.

An assent will be valid in respect of the constituency in which the assentor's address at the time of assent is located. The assent may be made at any time but it may only be used at the next general election or by-election in the relevant constituency and it expires when the current register ceases to be in force, notwithstanding that no such election may have been held by then. This is a liberalising clause to ensure that nobody is unduly pressured for time on the issue of making the assent. Responsibility will lie with the candidate or proposer to attach the 30 statutory declarations to the nomination paper and deliver all the documentation to the returning officer by the deadline for receipt of nominations. Where there are more than 30 statutory declarations attached to the nomination form, the first 30 attached will be taken into account.

Under the new section 52(1)(b), a returning officer may rule as invalid a nomination paper from a candidate who has opted for the assenting alternative if the returning officer considers that the candidate has not complied with the relevant statutory requirements set out in the Bill.

Instead of obtaining 30 assents, a candidate may choose the alternative of lodging a deposit under the new section 47. A candidate, or someone on his or her behalf, may lodge a deposit of €500 with the returning officer before the deadline for receiving nominations. If a candidate chooses this option and fails to lodge the deposit with the returning officer by the relevant deadline, his or her candidature will be deemed to have been withdrawn.

I regard the amount of €500 as reasonable. It is significantly less than the £300 enacted in 1992 as updated by reference to inflation and it is dramatically less than the figure of £100 in the 1920s. Under the new section 48, the deposit will be returned to successful candidates, to those receiving votes in excess of a quarter of the quota and in certain other circumstances, such as withdrawal of candidature or death. Otherwise, the deposit will be forfeited.

Section 2 of the Bill amends the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997 to ensure that travelling and other expenses that may arise for a candidate or an assentor in meeting the assentor requirements, and the amount of any deposit paid, will not be regarded as an election expense. Section 3 is a standard provision relating to Short Title, collective citation and construction.

To conclude, elections are fundamental to the operation of our democracy. It is incumbent on us, as legislators, to ensure they are conducted in a fair, orderly and open manner. Candidates who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation will, under the terms of the Bill, have a choice in the mechanisms they use to support their nomination. This is a balanced and proportionate response to the terms of the Supreme Court judgment. I commend the Bill to the House.

The Bill responds to a judgment of the Supreme Court in the cases of three citizens versus the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Attorney General and others. The cases challenged the assentor provisions requiring that the nomination papers of Dáil candidates who are not candidates on behalf of a political party registered in the register of political parties — in other words, independents — be assented to, by way of signing the nomination paper, by 30 persons, excluding the candidate and any proposer, who are registered as Dáil electors in the constituency concerned. There is an important distinction in this regard. The court upheld the main requirement for obtaining 30 assentors as well as other provisions but it struck down the provision requiring personal attendance by all assentors in a single location in the constituency. It is important that this is corrected in this amending Bill. The court found that the provision is disproportionate to the objective to be achieved, namely, the due authentication of nomination papers, and declared section 46(4B) of the Electoral Act 1992 unconstitutional.

Anyone should have foreseen at the time that it was putting a severe penalty on independents that they were required to have 30 registered members of the electorate with them in signing their nomination paper. We should not make it more difficult for independent candidates who wish to stand for election. The Minister in his contribution stated: "Having an overly large number of candidates could impact on the democratic right of voters to play a meaningful part in the political process". That is his view.

I was referring specifically to what the Supreme Court had to say on page 20 of its judgment.

I thank the Minister. In case there is any doubt in this regard, I would not share that view. Independents can often add to the effect of an election in a constituency. In Galway West, there were 20 candidates for five seats on the last occasion. I am sure all of those candidates believed when they handed in their nominations they had a reasonable chance of getting elected — perhaps they were right to do so. I support the view that it is not our duty to in any way limit the number of candidates who would be willing to contest an election. That is what democracy is about.

With the Bill, candidates now have the option of lodging a €500 deposit or 30 signatures, which is reasonable and will allow many people to put their name on the ballot paper if they feel strongly about the Deputies who represented them since the last election. Many people feel strongly about either the benefit or lack of benefit to them from their Deputies. It is reasonable that they would have a chance to put their names on the ballot paper and state they want to challenge Pádraic McCormack, Frank Fahey, Éamon Ó Cuív, Michael D. Higgins, Noel Grealish or anybody else in the next election — that is democracy.

Or Fidelma.

She cannot be challenged yet because she is not in the House. Perhaps after the next election, she might be in a position to be challenged. I am talking about people who think their Dáil representatives are not providing the service they deserve in the constituency. Such people should have the right to put their names forward at an election. We can then let the people of the constituency decide, which is what democracy is about. Let the voters in the relevant constituencies decide to elect a new candidate or to re-elect a sitting Deputy if it was thought he or she gave a reasonable service. That is fair enough.

We should not move to limit the number of candidates. Of course there will be candidates who stand on a particular issue, and some issue candidates have been elected to the Dáil — perhaps some of those present in Chamber as we speak were elected on a particular issue. That is positive. It is democracy. It is the right of the people to do this. It is also their right to put their name forward on a particular issue. However, if 20 candidates run for just five seats, and eight, ten or 12 of them are issue candidates, they cannot all be elected. It is a matter for the people to decide which of the candidates is standing on the most important issue, and they will then elect that candidate for the term of the next Dáil. I support the right of anybody to put his or her name on the ballot paper for elections.

The Bill, as the Minister stated, responds to a judgment of the Supreme Court on 13 November 2006 in the case where three citizens challenged the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Attorney General and others. We are obliged as a result of the court case to bring in the Bill to alter the situation. The three citizens challenged the provisions in the Electoral Act 2002 that required the nomination papers of candidates who wished to contest elections to this House and who are not members of a political party be assented to, by way of signing the nomination paper, by 30 persons. I understand the Act which is now being amended meant 30 persons had to be present at the handing in of the nomination paper. This was overruled by the courts. Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to expect non-party candidates to arrange for the 30 people who wish them to be on the ballot paper to travel to the relevant local authority offices and declare in person they would nominate that candidate. It was unreasonable, and should have been foreseen to be unreasonable, to have 30 people in one room to sign a nomination paper. That was over the top.

Fine Gael accepts that the law must be changed and it is the duty of the Oireachtas to correct the legislation. However, it would be remiss of the Opposition not to hold the Government to account for drafting improper legislation that requires us to pass this Bill. While it was not this Minister who introduced the legislation, he would be well placed to explain the legal advice his predecessor received when drawing up the Electoral Bill, now the Electoral Act, and steering it through the Oireachtas. To know what that advice was would be helpful to Members of the House, as well as members of the public. The Minister may also be well placed to inform us whether his Department was warned that the provisions relating to non-party candidates, as they are to be known on the ballot paper, were likely to be considered unconstitutional, which they have proved to be.

In accepting the need for the Bill, Fine Gael has one question for the Minister. The Bill states that under the Statutory Declarations Act 1938, a person who knowingly makes a false or misleading declaration is liable on conviction to a maximum fine of €2,539.48. Can the Minister provide further clarification on the exact implications of that? Fine Gael also wants to know what measures are being put in place to catch somebody who breaks the law in this area. There is plenty of law but not enough order in the record of this Government. Making laws is not enough — their implementation is vital. Somebody must take responsibility for the latest blunder by the Government and not spotting that such a simple condition would be unconstitutional. It is one more example of its dreadful record in handling elections.

It would be remiss not to refer to the debacle of electronic voting during the course of this debate, because I took a keen interest in the issue at the time. This Bill should have included a provision to eliminate the possibility of electronic voting being introduced. It is an electoral amendment Bill and was an ideal opportunity for the Minister so to do, although I am aware it addresses the decision of the Supreme Court.

That episode showed the entire political and electoral process in a very bad light. Taxpayers are paying exorbitant rates for the storage of useless electronic voting machines, thanks to a complete lack of direction from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The revelation, on foot of a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Paul McGrath, that the State is paying wildly different annual rates for storage, from nothing in Sligo to an average of €1.65 per machine in Louth to an incredible €271.22 per machine in Waterford is astonishing. The Acting Chairman is from Waterford and I cannot understand how storage can be so much more expensive in Waterford than Sligo, or than the national average. Perhaps it is because it is the constituency the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government represents but one would think he could have shopped around for a cheaper place in Waterford. The Government should call off the whole exercise and sell the machines to somebody who could use them or keep them as souvenirs.

In early December 2003 I was a member of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government which expressed serious reservations to the Minister about the rush to proceed with electronic voting without carrying out the necessary safety checks. To try to advance the matter the committee invited independent experts, officials from the Department of the the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Dutch company which manufactured the machines to a meeting on 18 December 2003.

The early part of the meeting was very informative. Very useful exchanges of views took place and some searching questions were asked. The independent IT experts posed 41 questions to the departmental officials and experts on behalf of the manufacturers. We adjourned for lunch with the intention of continuing in the afternoon for the rest of the day with a view to getting answers to those serious questions. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, was not present for the early part of the meeting but I am sure he was in touch with developments. Whatever transpired during lunchtime, when we returned the Government representatives on the committee immediately proposed we end the discussion and give the Minister the go-ahead to sign the contract for the supply of the machines. The proposal was approved because the Government had a majority on the committee and the debate ended. We never received an answer to the 41 questions and never debated the issue fully because somebody wanted to kill the debate on that day.

That was 18 December and the contract for the machines was signed on 19 December. It has since been discovered under a freedom of information request that at that time €20 million worth of electronic voting machines had already been delivered to Ireland. It is no wonder the Minister wanted to get the decision through under the pretence that the committee had decided to go ahead. The decision had already been made, although we did not know that at the time. That highlights the utter contempt the then Minister and the Government had for the committee. Some 4,500 new voting machines costing €20 million were imported into Ireland before the contract was signed and 1,100 of these machines were imported before the design was certified on 19 September.

One way or the other, with or without Dáil approval, the Minister was determined to go ahead with buying the machines. I do not know what drove him but I had hoped that something would be included in this Bill. If that is not possible, I urge the present Minister to take electronic voting off the agenda and auction off the machines. It is now costing €700,000 a year to store the machines, which will continue. I do not know in what state they are kept but it would be far better for the Government to admit its mistake.

The episode should be investigated by the Committee of Public Accounts because it was a complete waste of taxpayers' money to spend €60 million or €70 million on machines that cost so much to store and will never be of any use. The cost of introducing the system was €33.4 million in 2001, although I do not know the cost to date.

This Bill has important implications for our electoral system and Fine Gael has further proposals in this area. One such proposal is to allow for automatic voter registration upon reaching one's 18th birthday. As I canvass in Galway city I find that the current electoral register is far from accurate. I meet scores of people who have not registered and have come across houses where people left a couple of years ago but are still on the register. In Galway alone, 12,000 people who were over 18 in November, according to the census, are missing from the register. In fact, many more are missing from the register in Galway city if one counts all the people on the register who should not be on it, of whom there are thousands. According to the census, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 in Galway city who are entitled to vote but who are not on the register. Some might be students who do not wish to be registered in Galway but in their home electoral area but there is a serious discrepancy in the register.

There cannot be so many people missing from a register. The only way to obtain an indication of the actual position was to take the total number of people in Galway listed in the recent census, subtract the number listed who were over 18 years of age and compare the result to the number listed on the register. It emerged that there was a difference of 12,000 between the figures from the census and those relating to the register. This does not take account of the number registered but who should not be.

The Minister should take on board Fine Gael's proposal that people should be automatically registered on reaching 18 years of age. This would offer a simple solution to the difficulties we are experiencing with the register. It would be easy to use the PPS numbers employed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to register people when they turn 18. Every person has a PPS number and when someone reaches voting age, the Department could automatically inform the relevant local authority. Such a system would effectively eliminate much of the confusion, although it would not eliminate the need to remove from the register those whose names should not be on it. However, the system we propose could be adapted to facilitate the latter. There is no doubt that it would ensure everyone living in an area would be automatically registered to vote on reaching 18 years of age.

Some might say it is not very important that certain individuals do not have a vote, while others might state it is not important that the names of many who should not be listed on the register are actually included in it. The potential for electoral fraud as a result of the gross mismanagement of the electoral register by the Government is huge. It would have been completely eliminated if the Minister had not been so stubborn and refused to accept proposals from the Opposition parties that PPS numbers should be used.

Everyone is aware that thousands of homes in the Galway West constituency were empty when council staff responsible for compiling the draft register visited them. I presume that the position was similar in other constituencies. It is the responsibility of each voter to check the draft register to see if his or her name is still on it. The initial process in this regard has ended because the official register has been issued. The only option open to voters to ensure they will be able to vote is to complete the pink form relating to the supplementary register. The system in this regard is not that straightforward and many will not go to the bother of obtaining the form, completing it and having it registered at a local Garda station by a member of the force who knows that they are resident at their given address. Safeguards of this nature are necessary in order to ensure people are not illegally registered on the supplementary register. Some simply will not register to vote if their names were not included in the original register. When the election takes place, therefore, the register will be inaccurate.

The register has been made available on-line in order that people may check to see if their names are on it. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 homes in Galway were empty when officials called to check people's details. On the basis of all the evidence that it was possible to acquire and from what I was told when canvassing in the area, I estimate that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 people in the Galway West constituency who are either not on the register but who are entitled to be or who are on it but not entitled to be.

Lifestyles are different from what they were ten or 15 years ago. What is happening with the register highlights the pressures with which individuals must cope. Thousands are out of their homes for up to 12 hours a day because they must commute to their places of employment and work longer hours. In many families both parents are obliged to go out to work. It was impossible, therefore, to ensure the register was checked properly. Even if a note stating their names would be removed from the register if they did not indicate that they were still resident at their address was left for them, people either did not have time or did not bother to reply because they were so busy. As a result, the register is in its current state.

Fine Gael also favours a reduction in the age at which people should be allowed to vote. This is to ensure more people would vote. By reducing the voting age to 17 years, people who are still in secondary school would be permitted to vote. In such circumstances, we could include in the school curriculum classes relating to the importance and relevance of elections and the right to vote. It is a good idea to reduce the voting age to 17.

I reiterate that the exclusion of 18 to 21 year olds from contesting Dáil elections makes no sense. It might be no harm if the right to stand in a Dáil election was reduced to 18 years. Citizens are very responsible at 18 and it might be good to have that age group represented in the House.

Section 1 is the main provision in the Bill. It amends the Electoral Act 1992, as previously amended, by inserting sections 44 to 52 in substitution for the existing ones. These sections cover the nomination of candidates in general for election to Dáil Éireann. Most of the existing law in this area is being re-enacted without amendment. The amendments necessary to meet the terms of the court decision — this is the important aspect of the legislation — are being incorporated, as appropriate, in the re-enacted sections so as to give a single text relating to nominations generally.

The new section 46(5) provides for two alternative mechanisms to regulate the nomination of Dáil candidates not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation, in other words, people standing as Independents.

Hear, hear.

The Bill outlines the nature of the alternative mechanisms to which I refer.

It is important to note that responsibility will rest with the candidate or proposer to attach the 30 statutory declarations to the nomination paper and deliver all the documentation to the returning officer by the deadline for receipt of nominations. An assentor must confirm on the statutory declaration that he or she has not consented to the nomination of any other candidate in the election concerned. Under the Statutory Declarations Act 1938, a person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statutory declaration is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding €2,539.48 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or both. However, under the new section 52(1)(c), a candidate’s nomination will not be invalid where a person assents to the nomination of more than one candidate, which is reasonable. Forms for the giving of assent will be available from returning officers and registration authorities.

I ask the Minister to clarify one other provision in the legislation. Under the new section 52(1)(b), a returning officer may rule as invalid a nomination paper from a candidate who has opted for the assenting alternative if he or she considers that the candidate has not complied with the relevant statutory requirements set out in the Bill. If candidates now have two options, either to lodge €500 with the returning officer or have their nomination papers signed by 30 assentors, will the Minister clarify exactly what that paragraph means?

My party is not opposing the Bill which is necessary owing to the lack of foresight and other provisions. I have asked the Minister to clarify when introducing this Bill what legal advice his predecessor received. We are not opposing the Bill because it was necessary to correct the ridiculous position whereby an Independent candidate had to bring 30 persons with him or her when handing in the nomination paper.

Ní thógfaidh mé 30 nóiméad, is dócha, mar beidh sé deacair an méid sin ama a chaitheamh ar Bhille chomh beag leis seo.

This is the legislation the House must enact to clear the way to hold the general election. It is to rectify the flaw in the provision in the existing Electoral Act relating to the nomination of Independent or non-party candidates in a general election. I welcome the fact that it is before the House because, clearly, a general election could not have been called until it was introduced and enacted. Therefore, the Labour Party will not oppose it. We have comments to make on some of its detailed provisions, but we are not opposed to it in principle and will be supporting it on Second Stage. I ask that it be enacted as quickly as possible and a general election called as quickly as possible thereafter.

The Deputy might get his wish.

We are on death watch in the House with regard to this Dáil.

Imagine what it is like in a three seater.

I hope the Government is in its final days. Certainly, the 29th Dáil is in its final days. This democracy is not served by prolonging its life. It appears that the Government has an agenda. Whatever it is, it is not in the people's interests or those of the country. It is the Government's own partisan interests to prolong the life of this Dáil to get as much out of it as possible and string it out until the last possible day. Everybody knows that it is coming to a conclusion. There are nine or ten sitting days remaining, even if the Dáil lasts the full duration, when one factors in St. Patrick's Day and Easter. The legislative programme with which the House can deal is minuscule; it amounts to a tidying up operation. The work the committees of the House can do is limited. No committee can seriously programme any significant work, adopt long-term objectives, engage in new projects or investigations, or place new issues on its work programme or agenda.

For some time the focus of Members and members of the Government has been on the impending general election. The posters are printed, the election literature is ready and Members and candidates are already out knocking on doors and engaging in campaign activity. The election campaign has been under way for some time. It would, therefore, serve the country better if the general election was called as soon as possible.

I say the following to the Minister. Let us get the Bill enacted because it is required before the general election can be called. As soon as it is enacted, let the Taoiseach go to the President to request a dissolution of the 29th Dáil and let the general election take place without further ado. After that, of course, it is a decision for the people as to whom they want to return to the House for the 30th Dáil and what shape of Government they want thereafter.

The presentation of the Bill gives us an opportunity to discuss a number of issues of electoral business that are not complete. I regret that the Government has failed to allow time in the House for a debate on the report of the commission on electronic voting. When the Government ran into trouble, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Cullen, when it became apparent that the Government could not foist the electronic voting system that it had purchased on the people and the electoral system, set up with the agreement of the House the commission on electronic voting which reported to the House, not the Government, last July. I have repeatedly asked the Taoiseach on the Order of Business, including this week, to provide time for a debate on that report and every possible excuse has been used by him. He has stated the matter is with the Whips who can agree if we find time. This week the indications were that we might not be able to find an opportunity to do so in the time remaining in the 29th Dáil. Let it be clearly understood that the report of the commission is not being debated because the Government does not want it to be debated in the House.

Hear, hear.

The Government does not want to present the Ministers who were responsible for the debacle, the waste of public money and the threat to our democracy to account for themselves. Let us repeat what they attempted to do. Let us look at what is contained in the report of the commission on electronic voting. It concluded that if the Labour Party and Fine Gael, in particular, had not challenged the proposals on electronic voting in 2003, the people would be going to the polls to vote using a system, first, which had never been fully tested. There was no complete end-to-end testing of the system from the point where the voter cast his or her vote to the point where a result was announced. There was no joined-up test. Second, it was a system under which nobody would have been able to confirm that a person's vote had been recorded because there was no paper trail. There was no paper record and no way of auditing the system. The commission reported that it was a system which could be hacked into and interfered with. We were told that it was a system where the software for the counting of the votes was unreliable, in other words, we could have ended up with any result with no way of checking it.

There has been much focus, rightly so, on the waste of €60 million in purchasing machines which will never be used, but the biggest scandal surrounding electronic voting was the underhand attempt of a Government which will do anything to stay in power to foist on the people a system of voting that was as unreliable as the one it proposed. On top of this, it was going to hand control and ownership of the system's software and associated codes to a private company located outside the State. That is the biggest scandal associated with electronic voting, greater than the scandal of wasting €60 million of the taxpayer's money in an attempt to introduce the system. No Minister in the Government has been made accountable for this waste of public money and the attempt to steal — a word I use advisedly — the democracy that belongs to the people.

As Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey dreamed up the scheme, yet he has never been held to account. When his successor, Deputy Cullen, inherited the scheme, he was asked by Opposition Members not to proceed without all-party agreement but in a burst of arrogance he refused to listen. Despite wasting €60 million of the taxpayers' hard-earned money on purchasing a system which will not now be used, both Ministers remain in office. The very man who authorised the signing of the contract and who paid €60 million to purchase electronic voting machines was sent out a couple of weeks ago to spend €600 million on a second-hand bridge. This Government, and the aforementioned Ministers in particular, have a lot to answer for. However, the Taoiseach has refused to allow the House to debate the issue, which means our only opportunity to debate it is on the occasion of this Bill. Not only are the Members of this Government a crowd of wasters but they are also cowards because they will not come to this House to answer for their mistakes.

Were it not for the calls made repeatedly by this side of the House, the Government would have done nothing about the electoral register. I recall putting a question to the present Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding a request made by Kildare County Council for additional funding to update its electoral register. The council made a case to the Minister that the growth in population and the degree to which development had taken place in the local authority area had given rise to a problem in respect of the electoral register. However, the Minister refused the request for additional resources to update the register. When I put my question to the Minister, he stated there was no necessity to provide resources because it was a matter for the local authority. It was only when Deputies spoke about their experiences of the inaccuracy of the electoral register and a series of articles was published in the Sunday Tribune and elsewhere that the Minister, who had already rejected several valid suggestions from this side of the House, was forced to act.

The Labour Party proposed to address the issue by taking advantage of the opportunity presented in the census but the Minister tried to distort our position by claiming we were trying to interfere with the confidentiality of the census process, which was untrue. We were simply pointing out that because census takers would already be calling to every household in the country, it made sense to supply them with additional forms that would determine who was registered or entitled to vote in a particular household. We made our suggestion because we understood that the census process was the most reliable opportunity of addressing the increasing difficulty of reaching people at home. If our proposals had been taken up, the register would have been rectified and the personal public service number system could have been used to keep it updated and to provide controls at polling stations. However, all our proposals were rejected and it was only when the penny dropped at the 11th hour for the slow learners in this Government that it was decided to recommence the process by sending out local authority officials and re-recruited census enumerators to collect information for the register. While I acknowledge that the electoral register has improved as a result of that exercise, it is not yet accurate. During Question Time last week, I drew attention to the fact that the register is out by an average of 2,000 to 3,000 voters in each constituency. We all know elections often turn on handfuls of votes, so an inaccurate register is not good for our democracy.

This Bill proposes to end the absurdity whereby assentors to the election papers of Independent Dáil candidates have to attend local authority offices at the same time in order to submit nomination papers. That process was introduced to replace the deposit system, which I note the Minister is reintroducing through the back door. He claims he is reintroducing deposits as an alternative and that he is satisfied it is constitutionally robust to do so. We should remember, however, that the system of assentors came about in response to the Supreme Court decision in the Riordan case that the deposit system was not valid. That decision raises questions about whether the provision for a deposit system, albeit one involving relatively modest amounts in the context of what some candidates now spend, will stand a constitutional challenge. There have been a number of instances, including as recently as this week, in which the Government introduced legislation which was subsequently found to be incapable of standing a challenge in the courts, with the result that Ministers have had to rush into the House in the dead of night after Private Members' Business to correct the mistakes their arrogance led them to make. I am concerned that the provision for deposit systems will be another such instance.

When we last debated the revision of constituencies, I drew the Minister's attention to the likelihood that the provisional census figures, which were not known at the time, would give rise to two problems. First, it was possible that some constituencies would exceed the maximum ratio of population to Deputy. That has turned out to be the case. Second, the variation in the ratio of population to Deputy per constituency threatened to be so wide as to raise doubts about the constitutionality of the composition of constituencies. The provisional census figures have since been published but we are going to hold an election on the basis of the existing constituency configuration. The Minister has stated that the official census figures are the basis for determining the matter. He might tell the House when he expects the official figures to be available or whether his Department has made any inquiries in that regard and what effect the matter is likely to have on the date of the election.

As far as this Bill is concerned, I have no difficulty in agreeing to Second Stage and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the issues I have raised.

I propose to share my time with Deputies Catherine Murphy, Gormley and Morgan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2007. This is an important debate because it gives us the opportunity to consider not only the legislation but also the position of independent politicians in the Ireland of 2007. It also presents an opportunity for us to examine the role of Independent Deputies, Senators, councillors and candidates for the next election and to acknowledge the value of Independent Members who have made a positive contribution to this Dáil. The Minister should recognise that Independent candidates are polling between 8% and 18% of the vote in various constituencies. Independents have a major stake in society and that mandate should be respected by the House and the national media. Sadly, many commentators are hostile to us but it is important to recognise that we are different.

I raised the issue of permitting the use of the title "Independent" on the ballot paper recently in the House and the Minister blew my argument out of the water. I challenge the Minister, the Government and all those who seek to exclude this title from the ballot paper. We should be allowed to put the word "Independent" beside our names. Currently, our choice is to use the title "non-party" or leave the space blank. In an inclusive, progressive society in which the Minister and his colleagues claim to be democrats, why will they not permit us to put the title "Independent" beside our names on the ballot paper? It is a national scandal that many candidates will not be given the opportunity to state their representation. Independent Members have demonstrated over the past five years that they are on the side of the elderly, the poor, people with disabilities and working people in general and the media should recognise that reality. We all support the concept of a free press but I wonder how free its practitioners are when they constantly ignore Independent Deputies and councillors throughout the State.

The Minister is a great man for rolling out initiatives. We debated the issue of boundary changes during the previous Electoral Bill and it was an absolute disgrace that the Minister dumped all the three-seat constituencies north of the River Liffey in Dublin while all the five seat constituencies are located on the south side. Dublin North-East, Dublin Central and Dublin North-West could easily have become five seaters but the Minister is trying to squeeze out the smaller candidates and parties. That might suit the elite and the wealthy in society but the people will see through it.

It is also important to examine why people vote for Independent candidates. Despite the Celtic tiger boom and our increased prosperity, people feel more disconnected from their communities than ever before. Scandals and corruption involving politicians, the church, the Garda, business and the medical and legal professions have shaken society's confidence. Society is people and without people there is no society. Independents have brought communities together based on people centred policies and actions. Many of us came through the community and voluntary sector and we are making a contribution. Yesterday, ten Independent Members came together on the class size issue and demanded a 20:1 pupil-teacher ratio and investment in primary education. Tough rather than populist decisions need to be taken on health, education, disability, housing, environmental economic issues and that is the role Independent Deputies could play in this society. We are only answerable to the electorate, as opposed to vested interests. I welcome the opportunity to support the legislation.

I compliment the people who took the case that led to this legislation coming before the House. It takes a great deal of courage to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court. Had they not done so, the flaw would have remained in the primary legislation. The focus of attention regarding the nomination of Independent candidates is on Dáil elections but the relevant provisions were seen at their most ridiculous prior to local elections. When I ran for Kildare County Council, a date was nominated when candidates would be received with their assentors. Ten independent candidates were running and each of us brought 30 people with us. We spent three or four hours standing in a queue similar to what happens in newly formed democracies where citizens are enthusiastic about voting and will queue for days or walk long distances to the polls. It was absolutely ridiculous.

I was contesting seats on both a town council and the county council and I had to go through the process twice. I had to ask people to give up their time, which was extremely unfair. That is a practical example of how ridiculous was this section. My mother was an assentor and she brought her passport, as it was only the document she had that contained a photograph. Many elderly people do not have documents with photographic identification and I was conscious of people being excluded because of such procedures and I may table an amendment to address this aspect.

In 2002, the largest number ever of Independent Deputies was elected to the House and I was an addition in 2005. Independents have been party to 13 different Governments in the history of the State and they have been in Government more often than the Labour Party. They have not played an inconsiderable part even in Government. Ireland is different in that more Independent politicians are elected than in other countries. The Minister stated that candidates in the first elections in the State had to pay a deposit of £100 but there was an equality to that because every candidate had to do so. However, nowadays, such deposits are only paid by Independent candidates.

I strongly agree with Deputy Finian McGrath's comments on putting the title "Independent" beside the names of candidates on the ballot paper. We are referred to in the media and in the House as Independents. We put the title on our election material and we are independent of political parties. There is no reason we cannot properly define ourselves on a ballot paper because people understand us to be Independents. It is offensive that we are not allowed to describe ourselves in that fashion.

I refer to the issue of the weight of the vote, which has been mentioned by previous speakers. A census of population was conducted last year. However, the votes cast in the upcoming election will not be equal votes. This will not be an election in a democracy in a traditional sense where the votes are seen as equal because we will not use the census of population figures from the preliminary census. That is wrong. There is a less than 1% difference between the preliminary and final figures. We are either serious about the Constitution or not where it states there should be equality of votes and constituencies should not exceed 30,000 electors. That is a fatal mistake and I hope the public will understand this is being foisted on us. I ask the Minister to publish the advice he was given by the Attorney General on that issue because I believe it is flawed.

I understand this is a tidying up exercise responding to the Supreme Court decision in November 2006. I also believe it is a missed opportunity and that there is so much in terms of electoral law that needs to be addressed which is not being addressed. The question of funding and how we deal with that in elections is not addressed in this legislation. There is provision in the Bill for a deposit of €500 and I fully understand the reasons behind that. We do not want people standing willy-nilly in elections. One could have a ballot paper the length of one's arm and it is a waste. It is important there is some hurdle. Obviously, people should get their money back etc.

I now come to the more profound issue. Once a person has put his or her hat in the ring, how does he or she contest because there is not an even playing field after that? If one looks around this city, there are 48 sheet billboards advertising certain candidates. I come from a party which does not accept corporate donations. How are we expected to contest an election with people who are funded up to the gills, sometimes by people such as developers etc., who have vested interests and seek to have them represented in Dáil Éireann? That is not conducive to real democracy.

In fairness, it is an issue the Labour Party tried to address when it was in Government. It brought in fairly far-seeing legislation and the idea was to cap electoral spending. I heard Deputy Fleming on a radio programme last night say the spending limit would be increased and that it would be consumer price index-linked. Again, that misses the point.

The three weeks before the election is no longer what it used to be. I heard Seán Barrett on a radio programme say that years ago — I am long enough in politics to remember this — candidates were chosen at convention approximately five weeks from the election. The candidates then put out their leaflets and that was the end of the matter. It does not function like that anymore.

We are now into almost five year election cycles where the gun is sounded once we get into the House. This is as a result of people trying to spend money before the three week period commences. It is spend, spend, spend. Looking at the glossy leaflets, bus shelters and billboards, I ask how much is being spent. I calculate some candidates must have spent approximately €100,000 in the past few months. How are we supposed to compete against that? Where are they getting the money?

There are far too many loopholes which the Minister should address. If we are talking about elections, surely we are talking about enfranchising people and about real democracy. A joke was made at our convention that we have the best democracy money can buy. It would be a very sad day if we were to go down the American route which, increasingly, it seems we are.

The evidence from Trinity College, where scholars have done analysis, shows a number of things. Interpersonal contact is still the most important factor in that people need to know the candidate. That gives some of us an opportunity and a chance. However, another major factor is the amount of money spent. The more money spent, the more votes one gets. Of course, it is diminishing returns but if one spends €100,000, one will get a good return and the chances are one will be elected. That has nothing to do with the calibre of the candidate. It is great if one has a good candidate and one can add to that by spending a lot of money enabling him or her to get elected. This is not addressed in legislation. All these factors are ignored for one very good reason, namely, there are certain parties in the House which benefit.

The Minister's party, in particular, is flush with money. It gets huge amounts of money and the Galway tent has been mentioned so many times, it has become an almost mythical place at this stage. That money goes into these election funds. As far as I can see, Fianna Fáil has not yet started to spend money but when it does, there will be no end to it. It will put everyone in the shade.

There are many ways to get around the spending limits. We talk about donations, lack of corporate donations and how some donations are capped. One thing which is not capped is advertising. Each year Fianna Fáil produces an annual in which developers take out advertisements. As far as I know, that does not have to be declared. People can take out advertising and pay Fianna Fáil enormous sums. That is one of numerous ways to get around the ethics legislation. Those loopholes are being exploited. The result is fewer people will enter politics because they cannot compete.

The good news is that sometimes one can be elected on a small budget. I heard approximately 20 minutes ago that my colleague in Northern Ireland, Brian Wilson, could be in with a shout of getting an Assembly seat, and that is on a shoestring budget.

I agree with the idea of a deposit, although others do not. However, the issue which the Minister needed to address in this legislation was spending between elections.

The electoral register is in a bit of a mess. I have seen that even in my constituency. Previously, there were over 65,000 people on the register in Dublin South-East but 5,000 have disappeared from it. Not only that but many people who took it for granted that they would be on the register have disappeared from it. The Minister must find a way to address this problem so that it is easy for people who genuinely want to participate in an election to get on the register. Perhaps he will say when summing up whether we can at least make it easy for people to get on the register using the supplementary registration form. Will the Minister embark on an advertising campaign to let people know how this can be done? Many people are panicking at this stage because they are not on the register. They are asking how they can get on it. Can they get on the register using the supplementary registration form? Can the Minister let people know through an advertising campaign — I am not asking him to lash out lots of money on that — and give them some hope that on 18 May, or whenever the election is held, they will be able to cast their vote?

I appreciate the opportunity to address the House on this Bill, which I welcome. However, it constitutes a missed opportunity on the part of the Minister to deal with a series of important issues. Before discussing them, I ask the Minister to clarify a number of issues in his response. For example, can spending limits for candidates be changed by ministerial order or must such changes come before the House?

The former.

In that case——

They can be changed up to a specific limit to take account of inflation.

The limits may be changed in line with inflation. Is the Department considering the prospect of bringing the spending limit back to a period before the declaration of an election? As Members are aware, such a period is usually of the order of three weeks.

The Deputy would be in some trouble if I did so.

I would not be in any trouble.

There are many Sinn Féin offices throughout the country.

I do not receive the corporate donations enjoyed by candidates of the Minister's party. I am in no way reluctant to publish details on every last cent I receive and on where I spend it. However, that is a different matter and the Minister should not provoke me in this regard because he would not win that argument.

I am not so sure.

I also wish to inquire about the opening hours of polling stations. I was in Armagh city until 10 p.m. last night when the polling booths there closed, having been open since 7 a.m. yesterday. People's lifestyles have changed and I will take as an example people in the constituency I represent from the northern end of County Louth, who live in places such as Faughart, Kilkerly and the Cooley Peninsula. Under the existing opening hours, such people, who are obliged to commute to and from Dublin to do their day's work, find it difficult to get to a polling station. Is the Minister actively considering an extension of polling times to match the practice in the North, where they open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.? The change in lifestyle is a major factor that must be brought to bear on the entire electoral process.

I wish to raise another issue that I have raised previously with the Minister, namely, the supplementary register. Perhaps I will have more time to elaborate than was the case the last time I broached the subject. The supplementary register is particularly important because of the wholesale changes to the register of electors, which almost amounts to its rewriting. I suggest the transfer of responsibility for the supplementary register from the county registrar to the local authority as the latter is the body that has proficiency in this regard.

At present, the supplementary register is open from the time of the declaration of the election. The Minister should consider an 11-day or 12-day period during which applicants may apply for inclusion on the supplementary register. After 11 days, four days should be given to the local authority to process such applications and thereafter——

In order to be helpful to the Deputy, I should mention the process is more liberal than that. One can use the supplementary register up to 15 days before voting.

However, the weakness in that regard is that the decision is made by the county registrar and there is no appeal mechanism. One does not know whether one has been included in the supplementary register until after its publication, which usually takes place two to three days before the election. The local authority should publish its draft and thereafter, people who wish to appeal may do so to the county registrar. In this way, the role of the county registrar would become an appeal process, which of itself constitutes natural justice. This would enhance——

This is what happens.

No, one does not know whether one is on the register. At present, the county registrar makes the decision, not the local authority. One applies to the county registrar for inclusion on the supplemental register. That is the present position.

Forms are submitted to the county registrar. The Minister appears to have some doubt in this regard. The green forms that I am handing out on the doorsteps at present are addressed to the county registrar. If the forms in my constituency are misprinted, I must examine the issue and establish what is going wrong.

In order to apply for inclusion on the supplementary register, one is obliged to have the form signed at a Garda station. In the constituency I represent, people who wish to gain access to a Garda station are obliged to mount a 24-hour vigil. Garda presence has been withdrawn from huge tracts of rural Ireland and one cannot find a garda. While I remember a time when we were tripping over them, one cannot find them now. The Minister should remember the Government promised additional gardaí at the last election but has forgotten to deliver them. They never came.

They were delivered.

It has not happened.

I am smiling at the thought of the Deputy looking for a garda.

It will be a promise for the next election.

Perhaps. I suggest the removal of this requirement and its replacement by an absolute requirement obliging everyone who gains a place on the supplementary register to be in possession of proper identification. Instead of the system that applies to those on the ordinary register, whereby one in four or one in six people are checked, everyone on the supplementary register would be obliged to produce identification. This would reduce greatly the opportunity for fraud.

I also wish to raise the issue of constituency sizes, which was alluded to by a previous speaker. I am not concerned by constituency size as I represent a four seater. However, Deputy Finian McGrath noted earlier that on the north side of Dublin, virtually all the constituencies are three seaters while on the south side, they are virtually all five seaters. This is completely undemocratic and unfair. Members are aware that the greater the number of seats in a constituency, the more proportional the representation of the voices and views coming from that constituency in this House. I wonder whether this pertains to implementing best practice in democracy or trying to cook the books by matching the size of the constituency to suit the bigger parties, thereby ensuring they can sustain their power base in this House. Either way, constituency sizes must be reviewed. Incidentally, I do not accept that the constituency of Louth should remain as a four seater. It should have become a five seater before now and had the census figures been taken into account, it would have. The sooner this position is reached the better.

As only a few minutes remain to me, I wish to conclude by referring to the issue of electronic voting and the debacle created in respect of that nonsensical scheme in which approximately €60 million was squandered. Money was poured down the drain at a time when people are on hospital trolleys and when pensioners are cold and hungry in their homes because of a lack of proper medical care or heating, as well as a lack of provision of housing aid for the elderly whereby windows, doors and draught excluding issues could be resolved. The Minister should imagine the number of pensioners' homes throughout the State that could have been dealt with, had the €62 million spent been available.

Moreover, that sum merely refers to the machines. What about the other material pertaining to the e-voting debacle? I refer to the cost of the stands, the cost of the propaganda and the rogue machines Members saw next door when they were asked to inspect such wonderful machines. Subsequently, Members found out the machines did not work.

They did not work at all.

The cheque had been written and paid over before we were satisfied the machines would work and do what it says on the tin, in the words of the television advertisement.

They should be recycled.

I am conscious my time is almost up. When will the Minister address this issue?

They should be melted down.

What will the Minister do with the machines? Will he keep them indefinitely in highly expensive warehousing throughout the State——

Paid for by the State. They should be melted down.

—— using up and wasting taxpayers' money, which is being poured down the drain?

Hear, hear.

Will the Minister continue to do so with such worthless machines——

They should be put on the M50.

——for which we have paid an absolute fortune? The Minister should address this issue in his response because people are asking me this question on the doorsteps and streets. If people are not asking that question of the Minister, he should ask himself why not. This issue is of concern to people and when will the Minister address it? Will he provide Members with answers today?

Moreover, in respect of accountability——

The Deputy should conclude.

I will finish on this point. When will we have Government accountability for the people who caused this debacle? Why did they walk free without responsibility or accountability to the House?

Indictable offences.

Will the Minister address these issues?

This is probably the last occasion on which I will have an opportunity in the current Dáil to make a Second Stage speech. It has been a great privilege to be a Member of the House for 26 years. I came here shortly after my confirmation. On Second Stage of this Bill I wish to say a few words on the relevance and importance of politics and people using the electoral register to vote. At the commencement of the 21st century and a time of unprecedented material wealth we have more opportunities than ever before to shape the Ireland we could only hope for in the past when, to a great extent, we were reactive or even protective and played the hand we had been dealt. Today we live in a country of previously unimagined wealth and in which there has been enormous change in a short few years, albeit with serious social and economic issues yet to be addressed. It is a country in which there is virtually full employment, in which Croke Park can host rugby and soccer matches, immigrants make up 10% of the population and, for the first time, we have broad political consensus on North-South relations. In such a changed Ireland what society should we now seek to shape?

For many years our greatest export was not agricultural produce, but our people. The devastation and heartbreak this created for families and communities should cause us to want an Ireland in which opportunity is nourished and enterprising spirit encouraged and rewarded. Enterprising spirit is not the sole property of the captains of industry. A man or woman who toils for a day is entitled to a day's reward. The wealth thereby created gives us the tools with which to ensure, at last, solidarity with the less fortunate. Enterprising spirit and solidarity go hand in hand. Solidarity is not about patronage or paternalism. None of us knows the hour or the day on which we will need to rely on each other, the community or public services. Solidarity is not for some other person. It is inclusive and for us all. It provides the platform to ensure equality of opportunity and protection of the weak and disadvantaged in society. The twin pillars of enterprising spirit and solidarity are based on the principle that we all have rights which should be protected and that we also have responsibilities to ourselves and each other to be discharged in accordance with our ability.

Nobody should have authority without also having responsibility for the decisions that go hand in hand with it. Neither should anybody have responsibility while others exercise authority. At first consideration this may seem axiomatic, but in the Ireland of today far too many have power and authority but not the responsibility that goes with them. In particular, social partnership and a free media which have grown in stature and power must take the responsibility that goes with this stature. If we are to encourage enterprising spirit and solidarity, rights and responsibilities and authority and accountability, we must have more democratic debate and participation. What passes for debate in modern Ireland is little short of a sham. Far too many political parties vie for the middle ground; where there are ideologies, they are more likely to be bigoted than open to persuasion by the arguments of others. “Bigoted” is a word we normally reserve for our Northern brethren, but it is time to look into our own hearts. Our so-called consensus on neutrality, without as much as a discussion, is evidence of the appalling absence of democratic debate in the Republic.

Hear, hear.

An Ireland with proper democratic debate would have at its centre respect for the rights of others. One minor example comes to mind. Some want to see the Angelus removed from RTE television and radio schedules. While I am not in favour of this, I am open to persuasion. If we were to have a proper and respectful debate on such an issue, perhaps an accommodation could be reached. Man does not live by bread alone. In this new materialistic Ireland could we build on the majority tradition by pausing for daily prayer or reflection when Roman Catholics could quietly say the Angelus and others might say whatever prayers they wish or simply take a moment to reflect?

In an Ireland which shows respect and solidarity could we consider a requirement for all to sign up for national service? Service in the Defence Forces immediately springs to mind when national service is mentioned. There is no disgrace in this. The Defence Forces have served us with great honour. Ultimately, they guarantee our democracy. However, national service need not be military service only. It could involve having to give six months of one's life to the community, prison visiting, helping those with learning difficulties or the developing world. Voluntarism has greatly declined in Ireland. Part of the reason for this is that people spend so much of their time commuting that few actually get home before 6 p.m.-8 p.m. or 9 p.m. is not unusual. Therefore, we have left less time for voluntarism. Perhaps it is time to reintroduce the concept of service to each other and the nation.

What is our concept of nation? The word "nation" comes from natio which means “greater community”. The terms “state”, “country” and “nation” are constantly used as if interchangeable. The Republic of Ireland is a state of 26 counties; the island has 32 counties and the nation of Ireland includes people who no longer live on the island such as the 800,000 now living in Britain. In revisiting the question are we prepared to be inclusive? What role can immigrants — the new Irish — play in all this? They also have rights and responsibilities but a crucial point little noted about them is that they have enriched our society, broadened our horizons and enabled us to grow economically and in societal terms in ways that would not have been possible without them. We would not have the IFSC on its current scale, major Intel investment or the Google European headquarters in Dublin to name but three examples without the presence of many of the new Irish. The health service would collapse without the presence of nurses from countries such as the Philippines. Some of our inner city churches and other places of worship of all denominations would close without the influx of new blood provided by the new Irish.

Hear, hear.

It is time to be more honest and open. No society stands still. The challenge is to build a new inclusive nationalism. More than 200 years ago Wolfe Tone spoke of uniting the then very different traditions of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishmen and women. Today we must be equally visionary to develop a new broad form of inclusive nationalism. Even in traditional terms we must ask ourselves whether the majority community in the Republic of Ireland is truly nationalist. Are a good number of us really partitionist because facilitating a united Ireland would be discomfiting? If we want to bring about a united Ireland, are we prepared to consider what it would take?

Our parliamentarians are now elected to the Dáil, Seanad and European Parliament by the register the Minister is preparing. In the North parliamentarians are elected to the European Parliament, the Northern Assembly and the parliament at Westminster. If we were to ask our Northern fellow Irish to give up electing members to the British House of Commons, could we, together, make another proposal? We learned last night that the British House of Lords is to be reformed to include elected members. Could part of the island elect members to the House of Lords who would take a special interest in Anglo-Irish issues? We already have the precedent of a particular group, namely, university graduates, having the unique right to elect Members of Seanad Éireann. Without diminishing the office of the President of Ireland, what role would we be prepared to consider for the British monarch? Section 3 of the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936 left such a role open in the area of diplomatic representation and international agreements. For example, Articles 29.4.1° and 29.4.2° of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which created the office of President of Ireland, specifically allowed for this and was approved directly by the people. Although we have had a President of Ireland since the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, the British monarch continued by ordinary law to be capable of acting in our affairs until 1948, provided the Executive Council, the then Government, agreed.

Would we be prepared to allow our Parliament sit in Belfast while Dublin remained the capital? Alternatively, could the Seanad meet in Belfast and the House of Representatives, the English name for Dáil Éireann, meet in Dublin?

If those of us who say we are constitutional nationalists are really interested in uniting the people of Ireland and bringing about consensus in the North on such unity, we will have to address these or similar questions. It is not good enough that we abandon the question of Irish unity to the one group which has no hope whatsoever of bringing it about, Provisional Sinn Féin.

The success we enjoy today was in great part brought about by politicians and public servants. In modern Ireland, politicians should have the courage to insist on respect for politics and stand up for the public service tradition. Those who do not have the gumption to stand for public office should be taken on more often when, as hurlers on the ditch, they overstep the mark and demean the value of public life.

Politics and politicians have been rotten from time to time. Some standards have left a terrible stench, although politics should not be cast to one side because of such appalling occurrences. Charles de Gaulle claimed politics is too important to be left to politicians, and it is certainly too important to be sullied and brought into the gutter by people whose capacity for political abuse is often in inverse proportion to their knowledge of current affairs.

Hear, hear.

People do not generally kill because of business failure but they do because of the failure of politics. Thirty years of mayhem in Northern Ireland should teach us that. What happened in two world wars on the continent of Europe, when 60 million Europeans died in the first half of the last century, is the starkest reminder of what happens when politics fail. It is time for politicians to stand up for politics.

Look what happened in this country with the first Nice treaty referendum, when politicians did not motivate the volunteer members of their organisations, those who do a huge public service by voluntary contribution in good times and bad.

Especially on the opposite side of the House.

I did not see the Deputy giving us much of a hand.

I was the only one to do so in my constituency.

Was it really in our interest to be the one EU state to reject Nice? This shows that participation in political life must be encouraged.

Politics itself will become more interesting and more respected, and people will vote in bigger numbers and use the electoral register, when political parties are more clearly defined and identified by their distinctive ethos. Fine Gael will be identified as Christian democrats, Fianna Fáil as republicans, Labour as social democratic and socialist and the Green Party as environmentalists. Each would explain what their distinctive ethos means. Quite literally, in today's fudged party politics, someone could leave the Progressive Democrats in the morning and join the Irish Socialist Party and justify it on some pragmatic point.

In the case of my own political party, I have come to the belief over a number of years that we should embrace at home the mainstream Christian democratic tradition that we do in Europe. We should seek support of 30% of the electorate, not 50%, 60% or 70%. Those who do not subscribe to our beliefs should be in no doubt that we are not the people to vote for; similarly, other parties should define themselves in terms of ethos. That is what will turn the electorate out.

This does not mean we cannot respect each other's ethos and work with each other. In the European Parliament, for example, we have had a socialist president for the first two and a half years of the life of this Parliament and we now have a Christian democrat president for the second two and a half years through power sharing. As nobody has a majority we must work with each other, respecting diversity.

If a person wants to buy a hamburger, he or she can go to McDonalds, Supermacs or Eddie Rockets. A person cannot buy a burger in a hardware shop. Political parties must not be like retail outlets where almost anything can be purchased. Each party should have conviction about their stock in trade, but an even stronger conviction about what is not.

We do not just need a new kind of Ireland; we need a new Ireland that is kind. This would be an Ireland which fully embraces its responsibilities, for example, to the developing world. Given our own recent history of famine, we have the authority to give leadership. We could create a template to which other countries, when they ask who they should emulate, can turn. We should twin with the developing world our hospitals, Departments, local authorities, businesses, trade unions, educators and cultural leaders. We should legislate to meet the 0.7% of GNP contribution to the developing world as promised and seek to exceed it, as some other EU states have done.

The reason people are in prison or homeless and the cause of the widow should be high on our agenda. We should not simply prioritise those who turn out to vote in big numbers. Is an Ireland that fails to promote respect, tolerance, encouragement of openness and debate, perhaps an Ireland with a harshness of criticism which is no longer tempered by charity, contributing to a hopelessness in society where suicide thrives?

In a just and fair society, would we not respect the mighty contribution that different religious traditions have given and continue to give? There can indeed be unity in diversity, as we are often reminded about the European ideal. That unity in diversity can start at home in a new kind of Ireland.

The challenge of forging a new kind of Ireland is not one we should or can long finger. At a time of prosperity such as now, choices can be made and transitions can be smoothed. If we leave this work until a time of economic downturn, the debate could too easily become a blame game or witch hunt where the vulnerable, the weak and the new suffer.

In the next nine years as we prepare for the centenary of the 1916 Rising, let us commit ourselves to building a better Ireland that is kinder, gentler, more inclusive and one in which all the children of the nation are truly cherished.

I appreciate the opportunity to put those words on the record. I may have strayed somewhat from the main content of the Bill but I wanted to take what may be my last opportunity in the current Dáil to put such comments on record. It is important that the electoral register is not only inclusive but up to date. We all hate to hear on election day somebody saying that he or she had been on the register for so many years but was not on it on that particular day, meaning he or she could not vote. It does not matter if the person would vote for us or not, the omission from the register is terrible.

Even on election day a District Court judge or similar official should be in residence so that he or she could order somebody to be put on the register of electors, with a subsequent Garda check to ensure the person did not vote twice. Nobody should be deprived of his or her vote.

More important than the right of people to vote is the reason they will vote. I hope some of the comments made here today will contribute to a debate on that reasoning.

Well said, Deputy.

I wish to share time with Deputies Healy and McHugh.

I welcome and wholeheartedly support this Bill. There has been much discussion this week in the media on the lack of women participating in politics, particularly on the national level. One of the criticisms levelled has been the lack of support structures within political parties for women wishing to involve themselves in politics.

The Bill makes it somewhat more accessible for any person wishing to stand in an election as an Independent candidate. As long as 30 people acquiesce to the nomination within the constituency, by completing the statutory declaration to that effect, a hurdle is overcome.

As with any statutory declaration, the signature of an appointed officer is required, such as a peace commissioner or a commissioner for oaths. Frequently, I meet constituents seeking peace commissioners and commissioners for oaths, so I asked the Tánaiste to carry out a review of how many are in office.

Many political correspondents will be happy to see the deposit system return because it is not really an election count until one hears the immortal phrase to the effect that an unfortunate candidate has forfeited his or her deposit. To promote democratic procedures, it is important that an alternative to the assentor route is available. For this reason, I welcome the return of the deposit system.

During the next election, I will hand my nomination as an Independent candidate to a returning officer, but I will be cited on the ballot paper as "Breen, James, NP". That could mean "No Pain". My constitutional right will be violated. My profession of small farmer will be put on the ballot paper, but why must the presiding officer change "Independent" to "NP"? Will the Minister address this matter in his response?

I am happy to be an Independent Deputy with no affiliation to any political party. I have represented the people of County Clare fairly and honestly since my election and I hope I have been a thorn in the Government's side, highlighting issues it has failed to deliver on since entering office. Ennis General Hospital is one of the county's greatest scandals. Before the previous general election, the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, told us the project was so advanced that it would be placed in the European Journal for tender.

Hear, hear.

Tonight in Shannon a large meeting will be held on the matter of the pupil-teacher ratio. At another meeting a year and a half ago a representative of the Government said everything was rosy in the garden and that no child who needed it would be left without special needs education or one-to-one tuition, but nothing has happened.

I have no problem with the requirement for 30 assentors. While I could get 100 to endorse me, I welcome the decision to make getting one's name on the ballot paper easier. For too long the large parties made the rules and dictated terms. They are trying to make the work of Independents difficult, but the Independents have represented their constituencies and the people fairly, honestly and without fear or favour since entering the House. I hope that after the election count has concluded — the Government may be holding back on calling the general election because it is afraid it will lose heavily — I will be back in the House to continue the work I have carried out for the past five years. The people of County Clare see the benefits of having an Independent Deputy——

The Government is doomed.

The Deputy is calling on the Government.

——to act as a major parties' watchdog and ensure fair play and County Clare gets its equal slice of the national cake.

A change in government would ensure that.

The Deputy called on the Government to do so.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill because I am not happy with it. It arises from the November 2006 Supreme Court judgment which struck down the necessity for an Independent candidate to present 30 assentors to his or her nomination at a central location. That system replaced the deposit system which was a deliberate attempt by the Government to make it more difficult for Independent candidates to register and be nominated. While the Supreme Court judgment struck down the deposit system, it has effectively been reintroduced through this Bill. To what extent will that provision stand the legal test of time?

Presented with a problem, most Independent candidates used the assent process as a positive way through which to develop their campaigns and support bases and to put it up to the political parties, but anyone included in the register of electors should be entitled to present himself or herself to the electorate at election time. There is no legal or practical obstacle to this being the case and we should introduce such legislation today. We are discussing democracy and the right of the people to vote for whomsoever they please and support anyone's policies. The Minister stated such a position would create a large number of candidates and make a mockery of democracy, but the reality would be far from it. The electorate should make the decision, not the Minister, the Department or the Government of the day.

On making a mockery of democracy, what has been the Government's record in recent years? There was the issue of electronic voting, the debacle that was the register of electors, a deliberate redrawing of the boundaries of many constituencies as three-seaters in a bid to make it more difficult for Independents to be elected and a situation where the word "Independent" would not be allowed to be used on ballot papers. What is paying €60 million of taxpayer's money for e-voting machines which will never be used and are lying idle in warehouses across the country, and the cost of their maintenance and storage if not a mockery of democracy?

On a number of occasions I have raised the issue of the register and the manner in which the Minister and his Department disenfranchised thousands of people, as we will discover on the day of the forthcoming election. People whose names have been on the register for years will approach Deputies because they are no longer on it. The Minister has turned everything upside-down. Until this year, someone's name remained on the register unless his or her local authority knew that he or she was dead or had moved to another constituency.

For which reason 500,000 people were incorrectly included in the register.

Many who did not return their form owing to reasons of sickness or illiteracy will find that their names are no longer on the register and that they cannot vote.

The matter of the supplementary register was raised with the Minister. It is difficult to have one's name included in the supplementary register, as this can only be done by having one's application certified at a Garda station. In many rural areas there is no Garda station, while in urban areas gardaí do not know the people in question. Why would a local peace commissioner or solicitor not suffice? That is something the Minister should consider. Perhaps it could be included as an amendment to this Bill.

Another matter that has come to my attention over the years, particularly regarding local elections, is where people have registered in a particular area and then find they are not accepted at the centre to which they signed up. It may be that the name on the register is Patrick Healy while that on the driving licence or passport is Patsy Healy and there is a question over whether it is the same individual. I ask that this be looked at if the proposal on centres is to go ahead so that genuine people are not turned away.

The next Dáil will be elected on the basis of a mockery of democracy. Many constituencies, because of the preliminary census, will not be properly represented after the election. As the Minister knows, there is very little difference between preliminary and the final census findings. I believe the preliminary census figures could and should be used to determine the number of seats in constituencies. Many constituencies will be seriously under-represented because the boundaries have not been redrawn on the basis of data arising from the preliminary census. It would not be the first time that constituencies were redrawn on the basis of a preliminary census.

It certainly would.

It would not.

It would.

I compliment the three people who took the court action to have this legislation amended. Mr. King, Mr. Cooney and Mr. Riordan deserve our thanks. If matters were left to the Government, there is no way it would have introduced any type of legislation which would have made life easier for Independent candidates.

The Bill is welcome and it will, to a degree, eliminate the cumbersome procedure involved in Independent candidates having themselves nominated. I live 20 miles from Galway in which the headquarters of the county council is located and where I have to present myself with my team to get my nomination papers in order. The whole procedure involves hiring a bus, travelling the 20 miles, getting the 30 people to take a day off work, lining up like a herd of cattle in the local authority offices and waiting for other candidates to go through the system and vacate the premises before one can be attended to. It is absolutely ridiculous and the Minister who introduced such a provision should have been locked up on the grounds that he or she did not deserve to be part of the political system.

It will happen in due course.

All I can say is thank God somebody has read the Bill.

One has to ask why it was introduced in this manner. The only conclusion one can reach is that in the mindset of the people who introduced this legislation, Independent candidates were head-bangers who had to be controlled in some way and not let loose. They had to be contained and life made so difficult for them that they would not last the pace and give up, leaving the pitch to the political parties. There can be no other rationale for introducing such legislation.

The situation that has prevailed for a considerable time means that Independent Deputies and councillors are here to stay. The reason is that the public, having elected Independent Deputies and councillors, now see their worth.

It is part of the plan.

They will continue to elect such candidates in the future. Take the west, for example. There is an Independent Deputy in Clare, Galway East, Mayo and Sligo, as well as in Cavan-Monaghan. In the past, these areas displayed bedrock support for the Minister's party and it is encouraging to see that people are now looking outside the circle, taking notice of what politicians are doing and not doing, and acting accordingly. I am glad the west is awake and people are taking action.

The matter of so-called "non-party" candidates, as described on the ballot paper, was raised earlier in the debate. The word "Independent" cannot be used on ballot papers. This is a relic of the past. "Non-party" is a negative expression at the best of times. Such a label conjures up a non-entity. I ask the Minister to go the extra few inches and bring in a change that will allow the use of the word "Independent" on ballot papers.

The media must also be held accountable for the manner in which they describe and report on the activities of Independent Deputies. Pollsters, who carry out opinion polls, use the term "Others", as if these are people with whom nobody should have any association. In other words, such people should be cast back to the end of the pile. This is a terrible word to use to describe any category of persons.

I do not have much more to say on this legislation because it is relatively simple. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Healy, that it does not go far enough. Surely anyone who wishes to put his or her name forward for election should be entitled to do so without any impediments. Ultimately, the people decide and Government or political parties should not put anything in the way of them having a free choice. However, the only way they can have a free choice is that anyone who wishes should be allowed to put his or her name forward.

I am glad of the opportunity to say a couple of words on this legislation, most of which the Minister sitting opposite is anticipating with a certain amount of relish, glee and welcome. However, I do not take the line that many other speakers have taken on this issue.

I will start with the Minister's explanation, which is correct, as to how the legislation came about and the decision taken by the courts. We very much appreciate the courts, which have a difficult job to do. The last time they visited the national Legislature as regards how to get elected and all the trapping associated with it, was in the Kelly case, which took place just before the last general election. This had a very serious impact, to my mind, on the outcome of the election. To make matters even worse, the court's decision did not issue until after the electorate's decision. One had Hobson's choice and could take it or leave it, but it was applicable. I appreciate the need to have the purest and simplest form of democracy. However, I am not sure that everybody should have the right to get elected. There are serious reasons some people who were elected in this country in the not too distant past should not have been elected. I do not care how many people supported them or assented to their election — I still believe it was wrong that they were elected. It is wrong to make a decision that allows people with criminal records, for example, to be elected. The election of such people does nothing for society or for local and national politics. The Minister has failed to take such serious aberrations into account, which is why we are facing many of our current problems.

I listened carefully to the speeches made by some of my Independent colleagues. I understand why people support Independents. Many people do not know that the Government thinks it necessary to ensure there will be an ample supply of Independent Members in the future. Supporting the election of Independent candidates is part and parcel of the Government's agenda. The more a Government splinters the Opposition, the better its chances of being re-elected. That is a well-known, tried and trusted philosophy which did not come to light today or yesterday. Every time they get an opportunity to do so, the Minister and his colleagues further embellish the prospects of more Independents getting elected to the House. They do not often announce that Independent Deputies are better paid than other Members of the House — that they are paid nearly twice the salary of ordinary Deputies in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and all the other parties. It might be no harm to admit now and again the undeniable fact that the Independents who are elected to this House get payments into their hands which are virtually double the payments received by party-supporting Deputies. The Minister, Deputy Roche, knows that is the case. While I have no problem with the existence of that system, we should ask what is the real reason for it. Is it in place because the Government thinks it is most important to ensure that the Opposition is as splintered as possible? Does the Government want as many Independents as possible to be elected so it has a better chance of getting some additional Deputies to support it? The Minister knows well what I am talking about.

I was honoured to be present in the Chamber for the thought-provoking speech made by Deputy Gay Mitchell, who is a Member of this House and a Member of the European Parliament. He mentioned many of the things we take for granted which we need to bear in mind if we are to ensure that democracy is not pushed aside during the introduction of a new way of calculating what the people are thinking. God knows we have enough examples of problems which have arisen in such circumstances. Electronic voting, for example, was supposed to be the ultimate way of getting as many people as possible to vote. There has been a reduction in the turn-out at many elections since the Government took the ceremony out of polling day some years ago. People used to congregate outside polling stations to enjoy the fun that was taking place and to participate in the day's activities. They wanted to ensure they were part and parcel of the electoral process, even if that involved insulting their neighbours, etc. The then Government took what it thought was a slick and intellectual decision, in the interests of being honest and modern, etc., to ban such activities. We are familiar with the rubbish of this nature that comes from the other side of the House from time to time. The Government thought it should ban it because it was smelly, unhygienic, unholy and unattractive. The argument that it interfered with democracy was rubbish. The result of the Government's decision to abolish the spectacle associated with polling day was a decrease in the number of people participating in elections.

In a moment of inspiration, the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, whom I oppose in his current role, decided to introduce electronic voting. The Government almost suggested that it was making it possible for it all to happen as soon as one thought about one's vote. It introduced electronic voting in two or three constituencies throughout the country and tried to convince people that it would be the technology of the future. Similar claims have been made in respect of broadband. It is amazing that the Government chose to adopt a type of technology that always fails at some stage. It suggested it had ways and means of dealing with such failures. It wants us to believe it can solve every problem, including the gridlock on the M50. In this instance, its solution was to undertake a substantial public relations campaign to ensure people knew how to use the electronic voting machines. The Minister told the public that he was absolutely certain that the machine worked effectively to record the opinions, views and votes of voters. That was rubbish because such a claim could not and cannot be made. Those who were elected using electronic voting do not have a scintilla of evidence to prove they were adequately elected. They do not have a record of what happened. If they wanted to prove how they were elected, they would have to go to court, which is codology.

I am interested to note that this legislation has been brought to the House in advance of the general election. It is another example of the red herrings, or decoys, which are used as a tactic coming up to elections. I do not doubt that it is a great honour to be elected as a public representative at any level. Similarly, it is a privilege to do one's duty honestly and in accordance with the wishes of the people, as far as possible. This House and the country as a whole have fallen victim to perception rather than substance in recent times, unfortunately. The order of the day is no longer delivering things, living up to one's promises and meeting the people's expectations, as expressed at election time by those seeking election. The order of the day now is engaging in public relations exercises, promoting one's gimmicks by wrapping them up in as slick a manner as possible and diverting the attention of the electorate from the real issues. It is sad that the Deputies on the other side of the House stand indicted for their misuse of public funds over the last ten years. The Government has spent more money on pursuing its own air bubbles — that is the only way to describe what the money has been spent on — than any other Government since the foundation of the State. I have always had great admiration for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I used to think he was a sincere guy who would give an honest answer to a parliamentary question. Asking such questions is my favourite pastime.

It is an expensive pastime.

I am afraid that in recent times he has started to behave in the same slick, smart alec way as his colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who regularly answers such questions by referring to a question he answered six months previously. I remind Ministers that the answering of parliamentary questions should be taken seriously. Many officials in each Department — including executive officers, assistant secretaries, secretaries and, in many cases, the Secretary General — are supposed to vet the answers that are prepared. The Minister ultimately puts his or her initials on the response. It is not good enough to give the House a glib response like "I refer the Deputy to question so and so of September, October or March of last year, or last month". In all circumstances, questions are asked to get the up-to-date, current position. Ministers might not want to mention the negotiations they might have had with their cronies in the meantime, but they should remember that they are duty bound to give the information demanded of them. I will pursue this matter again. If the Minister, Deputy Roche, thinks for one moment that I have finished with it, I assure him that I have not. Ministers of all parties should remember that parliamentary questions are the best protection they will ever have, in or out of office. The time ultimately comes when all Ministers have to leave office. When questions which were not answered are examined in retrospect by others, a conclusion may be reached that will be regretted by the former Minister who refused to address the issue.

I have no problem with ensuring that as many people as possible can stand for election, although I would like to comment on the ongoing debate about the age at which one should be allowed to vote. Some people think the current voting age of 18 should be retained, although others think it should be reduced to 17, 16 or 15. Why not bring it down to ten? I do not agree with such suggestions. The voting into office of a Government is a serious issue that should be taken seriously. Some young people are parents at the age of 16 or 17, but that does not necessarily mean that everything else follows.

I have come across many cases in recent years of mothers of children having serious concerns about the associations of their sons or daughters with older people who could be sexual predators. The parents are not given adequate protection from the State and neither do the children who are not sufficiently capable of dealing with the threat which such associations presents to them. Parental guidance is required in certain cases up to the age of 18 years, depending on the views of the parents' which must be taken into account. If something happens which is not right, this should not mean that we should legislate to ensure that it is always right. The Minister should bear this in mind because other discussions will be held in the future where there will be conflict between the parents of children and others who may decide arbitrarily that a certain path should be followed. In my experience in the past 12 or 14 months in particular, parents of children have had serious difficulties in finding out who can protect their child who may have wandered off the track and who may well come back into line again. It does not mean that if this happens the State should stand over what has happened and declare it to be legal. I would be loath to reduce the age. We should ensure that everybody recognises the seriousness of the business of electing governments.

My colleague, Deputy Gay Mitchell, has referred to European legislation. We have things to learn from Europe but they should also learn from us. Our system of democracy is at least as good as anybody else's. We were longer waiting for it than most other nations so we should cherish it. However, we should honour it by making sure we do not bring it into disrepute. I am amazed at the degree to which some cynics will snigger at the quality of people who become involved in politics — these are usually people not of their own ilk. They complain that snags in the system of democracy allow this to happen. Democracy means that if a candidate can garner sufficient support and if he or she is not a criminal, then everything else should be within reason and a person should have the opportunity to participate in that exercise.

I was asked to witness a signature on a local authority housing application form, a form with which the Minister will be very familiar. It is a 29-page document and is the ultimate answer of the bureaucrat to the housing crisis; if the document is long enough and difficult enough then nobody will want to fill it in and they will shudder when they see it. It is similar to the agricultural document which has 700 notations required before it is returned. The local authority form may be signed by a peace commissioner.

I discovered that I was not permitted to witness another document as a peace commissioner was not of a sufficiently high standing and that it could only be witnessed by a bank manager, a solicitor, a clergyman or clergywoman, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse or some other such person of high standing. I was amazed and offended because I do not regard myself as of lower standing than any other human being nor should anybody else in this House. Nobody should presume that they deserve a higher standing by virtue of somebody else's identification of their position which confers on them some extraordinary higher level of intelligence or standing than the rest of us.

Some politicians may have been led astray and some may have wandered off the path. This might have been because the profession used to be very poorly paid, even though I do not wish to make excuses. There is no profession, group or association in our society that should look down on politicians and regard them as an inferior group of people.

The legislation on independent assents is an improvement as it was unworkable in the past. I am not impressed with the urgency or manner with which it was introduced into the House. The Minister will know I am deeply suspicious of the antics from that side of the House especially coming near an election. He knows well my reasons for that deep suspicion. Every measure from that side of the House with regard to electioneering is to do with gaining an overall majority. They are all various versions of diversions and red herrings, electronic voting being one example and the Kelly case being another. I remind the House of the case of the post office stamping all my correspondence with the slogan, "Vote for Fianna Fáil" at the time of the last general election, until Deputy Broughan had the temerity to take the case to court and put a stop to it. This is an adulteration of the democratic process, all for the golden calf of achieving the overall majority.

Much discussion has taken place on the subject of expenditure at election time. We presumed the new regulations on maximum expenditure at election time would change everything but there was no intention of anything changing. All the Government has done is spend on massive splurges beforehand. Significant amounts of money are being expended all over the country. The public is becoming fed up with the barrage of literature coming through letter boxes. The effect is the opposite to what was intended and the public is turned off. I cannot understand why the Government has been fiddling around with the election system and with procedures that worked well. I refer to the voters' register. The Government never wanted the voters' register to be accurate. It did not wish An Post to compile it because it might have been done effectively as An Post could visit every door in the country every day of the week.

Time does not permit me to say more. However, before long, there will be an opportunity to have a full debate on these issues at length, not in a truncated fashion, as is the case at present.

I can never recall an occasion when either his wind or his loquaciousness failed the Deputy opposite.

It is getting worse.

Today's contribution was a good example of how bad it can get.

For bombast, the Minister holds the record.

I listened to the Deputy for 20 minutes without interrupting him once.

I have been listening to the Minister for 20 years.

I expect the Deputy to show some courtesy on this occasion. I will deal with the last speech first. Deputy Durkan, with other speakers, made the point about the huge spend before the elections, and about the postering taking place at present. As I drive around the country, I see an astonishing amount of very large posters which are predominantly Fine Gael posters.

That is the Minister's problem.

In fact, there have been two or three separate, major campaigns of postering. I have no problem with it.

The Minister should come to my constituency.

However, as one Deputy noted earlier, I wonder where the money comes from. I want to commend——

The Minister need not wonder in our case.

That is it. The old Blueshirt comes to the fore. Shout the other fellow down. Do not listen.

The Minister should not go there.

Do not allow a response. Be ignorant, be thick. Keep the head down and shout. I will deal with some of the points raised.

The Minister should deal with them.

I commend Deputy Gay Mitchell on a thoughtful and incisive speech — it was one of the better speeches in this debate. He made the strong point that it is time for us to consider the creation of a kinder Ireland. In complete contradiction to the last speaker, he made the point about it being important in all political debate and discourse that we listen to each other. I commend him on that. He also made the point that Ireland should look forward. I agree. The time has come for Ireland to look forward, not backwards. One of the astonishing points to note is that most of the speeches looked backwards when they could have looked forward and discussed matters we could and should be changing.

Deputy Gay Mitchell was also right in another way. Ireland has changed dramatically. When I first entered the House 20 years ago, it was at a time when a Fine Gael-Labour coalition was just being turned out of office. At that time, the number of people in work was half what it is now, we had a huge tax burden, the national debt had doubled in three years and every farthing collected in tax simply went to pay for the debt. The other part of that coalition Government's legacy is an interesting one. Some 250,000 people were out of work — unemployment was at 16% — and 71,000 people were working in the building and construction industry compared to 250,000 today. Deputy Gay Mitchell is correct that we have made progress. We will continue to do so.

I wish to consider the Bill, although many of the contributions were not on the Bill. Deputy McCormack was characteristically negative and, as usual, he made points of very dubious relevance. There have been many elections since 1992. I do not recall a single Deputy from that side of the House having the prescience he had today — 20/20 vision is always a good thing. The reality is that the Bill arises not because of a deficiency but because the Supreme Court made a decision. We live in a country where, thank God, we have a Supreme Court and a Constitution and, from time to time, legislation is tested.

With regard to the register, Fine Gael and the Labour Party simply did not listen. Deputies McCormack and Gilmore made the point about the register being linked to PPS numbers. Deputy Gilmore talked about slow learners. He should also talk about slow listeners. As I have stated since time immemorial, there are in excess of 5 million PPS numbers. Anybody who thinks one can create a viable voting register from 5.6 million PPS numbers is not in touch with reality. Another point that shows the lack of reality in this debate is that there are children who have PPS numbers despite not being 18 years or older. Non-nationals who have been in the country and gone home for a period have PPS numbers but are not entitled to vote in all elections. Moreover, PPS numbers are not always related to one's voting location or the place where one is entitled to vote. It is idiotic for Members to come to the House and repeat the same views over and over.

Deputy Gilmore made a specific point with regard to the register of electors in Dún Laoghaire. It is worth reminding ourselves that the problems in Dún Laoghaire arose because, arrogantly, the chairman and council of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council refused to be bound by the advice that every other council in the country took. It took a long time for them to admit they got it wrong, but wrong they got it. I recall that particular gentleman arrogantly stating: "We have 99% accuracy in Dún Laoghaire." Anybody who thinks there is 99% accuracy in any voting register is not in touch with the real world.

Deputy Gilmore and a number of other Deputies made reference to spend, which brings the same gentleman in Dún Laoghaire to mind. He spent an astronomical amount of money being elected to a local council on the last occasion and now seems to be trying to spend his way into the Dáil, although that is a debate for a different day.

A point raised by several Deputies, particularly Fine Gael Deputies, was the issue of electronic voting. When they have nothing else to say, they go back to that. I do not want to cause any Fine Gael Deputy discomfiture, but I remind them that their former leader, Mr. John Bruton, introduced what I thought was a superb leaflet on the issue of electronic voting. He extolled the virtues of the electronic system, and said it was as easy as 1, 2, 3. This was on the website of Fine Gael until recently, but when I drew attention to it last year, it disappeared.

Where is he now?

Mr. Bruton is doing a very good job in Washington. The Deputy was happy to walk behind him——

It will not worry him anymore.

As the Deputy is from Galway, he may remember that his current leader, when talking to students in Galway, extolled the virtues not just of voting electronically but of voting on the Internet. People are entitled to change their minds but they are not entitled to play the hypocrite.

While much of the debate was not on the Bill, a couple of points on the Bill were raised. Deputy McCormack raised a serious point with regard to the centre and the purpose of the penalties. The penalty will apply when a centre has given a false statement, and will apply under the existing law on false statements. A situation could arise where somebody could malignly attempt to disenfranchise an Independent candidate by giving assents in a number of different areas, thereby conspiring to defeat the democratic purpose. The point is not to punish the Independent candidate, who would be innocent in this matter, but to deal with the centre which behaves malignly.

Several points were raised with regard to the deposit, which I believe is reasonable at €500. A number of non-party Deputies referred to the use of the word "Independent". Deputy James Breen, who was almost on the point of taking off with indignation, argued that his constitutional rights were being infringed. I am not sure about Deputy Breen's capacity to make judgments on constitutional rights but I am convinced the Supreme Court has some competence in this area. The Supreme Court has been specific and clear in this regard. I refer Deputy Breen and anyone else who has doubts on this matter to pages 34 and 35 of the Supreme Court's adjudication. It states at page 34:

Candidates for registered political parties will invariably have the name of their party after their names. The description for other candidates as "non-party" candidates is a correct one and could not be said to be misleading.

The adjudication continues on page 35:

The ballot paper is not intended to be one which goes beyond enabling the candidates to be identified by voters and contain a political message. Every candidate, including independent or non-party candidates have the freedom during the course of the election campaign to convey to the electorate who they are and what they stand for. There is no reason to conclude that the description "non-party" on the ballot paper is misleading. Neither is there any evidence suggesting that this might be so.

That is the view of the Supreme Court. If we are democrats, we accept the Constitution and that is the view to which we sign up. We cannot have a situation where we accept the adjudications of the court when they suit us and do not accept them when they do not.

Deputy Finian McGrath, at length and in a dispassionate way, gave what he regarded as an objective assessment of the role of Independents. Anybody who is elected is entitled to the respect of the House. The fact that a person has one appellation rather than another does not suggest that person is superior to every other Member of the House. The view of the law and, thankfully, that of the people who drafted the Constitution is that all who walk into this House are equal. Deputy Durkan made the point that, in terms of remuneration, Independent Members do rather better than those with party affiliations.

In response to Deputies Finian McGrath and James Breen and others in that part of the House, while I respect them fully, I notice that all those who talked about non-delivery called on the Government to deliver. It is a marvellous position to be in to carry the Independent banner and then call on the Government to do the thing they told the electorate they would do.

Ministers are calling on the Government to deliver.

It is the function of the Government to deliver.

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, is constantly calling on the Government to deliver, as do all Fianna Fáil backbenchers.

There is double think in that. Fine Gael branches will never listen.

Ministers are calling on the Government to deliver.

Will the Leas-Cheann Comhairle ask the Deputy to respect the rules of the House?

The Minister is provoking Deputy McCormack.

I have sat in the House for three hours and respectfully listened to the Deputy.

The Minister is talking rubbish.

Deputy Finian McGrath said Independents were prepared to take the difficult decisions. I cannot remember a single occasion in this House on which an Independent Deputy pushed through taxation measures, as the rest of us, including Deputy McCormack, must do from time to time to pay for public services.

Does the Minister recall Deputies Healy-Rae, Fox and Blaney?

I will return to less controversial and sensitive matters. Deputy Gormley referred to the amount of money spent recently on election posters. The main Opposition party has done the same, as it is entitled to do. It is not breaking any law or trespassing on anybody's rights in so doing. The Deputy asked where the money would come from and suggested a post hoc arrangement, whereby such expenditure between elections would be considered improper. This touches on another issue, namely, election spending and how it is contributed to. There is room for debate on that matter. A number of Members take the view that taxpayers should pay, while others say they should not.

The legislation before us is well balanced and deserved a more focused debate than it received in the House today. It will not do violence to those who want to pursue elections on a non-party basis, as one or two non-party or Independent candidates recognised.

We are Independents.

The Supreme Court takes a view on the matter, on which I will not trespass. It does not matter what people call themselves but the quality of what they do and how they deliver should be the issues for adjudication.

Therefore, it would not matter if the Minister was designated a Fine Gael candidate in the general election.

It would be inaccurate and the point demonstrates how ludicrous and silly the debate has become. This legislation supports those who want to put themselves forward for election on a non-party basis.

The Government is correcting mistakes it made a year ago.

It makes it easier for people to deal with the matters raised and does not impose any additional penalty. In response to the last, characteristically negative, comment from Deputy McCormack, there have been many elections since 1992 and he has been in the House for much of that time.

I have been in the House throughout that period.

Not once did the Deputy show the prescience shown by the three individuals who decided to take the issue to court. This is good legislation. The question was asked as to why we were introducing it now. The answer is that the Supreme Court has given its adjudication on a particular issue, which means we have to deal with it before the general election.

The Minister is cherry picking. Why does he not answer the hard questions? It is awful to have to listen to such rubbish from a smart man.

Question put and agreed to.