Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second Stage

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

The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 is a short but important Bill that contains three important electoral reforms. It amends the terms of reference of a constituency commission in section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 by providing that the number of Members of the Dáil, subject to the relevant provisions of the Constitution, shall be not less than 152 and not more than 160. It provides for an amendment to be made to section 39(2) of the Electoral Act 1992 to provide that the writ for a Dáil by-election shall be issued within six months of the vacancy occurring. It also provides for amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for a reduction in the spending limit at a presidential election from €1,300,000 to €750,000 and for a reduction in the maximum amount that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election from €260,000 to €200,000. The three measures are separate and distinct and all are important features of the Government’s commitment to push ahead with much-needed electoral reform.

I first will turn to the proposal to reduce the number of Members in the Dáil, in respect of which the Government's position is quite clear. It wishes to reduce the size and cost of government and the programme for Government has identified a "clear need for our political system to embrace change, share the burden and lead by example". Under the heading political reform — change must start at the top, the programme for Government states "the political system cannot ask others to change and make sacrifices if it is not prepared to do the same". A number of commitments have been made in the programme including one to reduce significantly the size of the Oireachtas and to reduce the number of Deputies following the publication of the 2011 census of population. The proposals in this Bill regarding the terms of reference of a constituency commission respond to this commitment. The preliminary census results were published by the Central Statistics Office last Thursday. These results show that Ireland has a higher than average level of parliamentary representation, as with a population of more than 4.5 million and a combined Dáil and Seanad of 226 Members, our representation level is one Member to 20,271 people. This is out of line with other similar sized countries. For example, in New Zealand the ratio is one member to 35,000 people and in Denmark it is one member to every 30,500 people. It is worth noting that both these countries have unicameral parliamentary systems and the reduction in the number of Members set out in the Bill would bring Ireland into line with them, particularly if the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad is approved by the people in a referendum. This obviously would further reduce the number of parliamentarians by 60.

The amendment to the terms of reference of a constituency commission set out in the Bill would give a commission the option to recommend a set of Dáil constituencies based on a minimum of 152 and a maximum of 160 Members. While the provisions in the Bill will alter the terms of reference of a constituency commission, the overriding constitutional provisions relating to the number of Members of Dáil Éireann and equality of representation will remain unchanged. Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution provides that Dáil representation "shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population". Article 16.2.3° of the Constitution provides that "The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country." If one applies the constitutional provisions to the new population figure, the minimum number of Deputies that can be recommended by a constituency commission, subject to enactment of the Bill by the Oireachtas, is 153, while the maximum number is 160. Therefore, depending on what the commission recommends, there will be a reduction in Dáil membership of between six and 13 from the current number of 166 Members. Given the census results published on 30 June mean the lower figure of 152 in the Bill for the number of Members of Dáil Éireann is not feasible, I wish to signal to the House my intention to bring forward an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage. The proposed amendment will set the range open to the commission at not lower than 153 and not more than 160. We should legislate on the basis of the best information available. In this case, the information that has emerged from the preliminary census results is that the minimum number of Members of Dáil Éireann allowable under the constitutional provisions would be 153.

There are eight possibilities in the range being given to a commission. It is important to give this flexibility to a commission as it should assist the commission in adhering to the other terms of reference set out in the Electoral Act 1997. These include avoiding the breaching of county boundaries as far as practicable, ensuring each constituency returns three, four or five Members and endeavouring to maintain continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies.

Regarding costs, it is important to note the savings that will be realised by reducing the number of Members of the Dáil. The McCarthy report on public service numbers and expenditure programmes estimated a saving of some €3 million with a reduction to 154 Members. This estimate gives a good indication of the annual costs that can be expected to be saved by amending the terms of reference of the constituency commission in the manner proposed. I wish to emphasise that the timing of this Bill is important. As Members will be aware, last Thursday the CSO published preliminary results for census 2011. The publication of these results triggers the establishment of a constituency commission by me, as Minister. I have commenced the process of establishing the commission by writing to the Chief Justice seeking the nomination of a judge to chair the commission. I intend to establish the commission formally once this Bill has been enacted. This will ensure the commission will be working on devising a set of constituencies based on the reduced number of Deputies.

One of the key elements of the work of the constituency commission will be the consultation process which the commission must undertake. The provisions of the Electoral Act 1997 require a commission to allow at least three months for the making of submissions to it. With the commission commencing work on the basis of preliminary census data, greater time is now made available than in the past for consultation with interested organisations and individuals. This will ensure a fuller opportunity for political and wider public input to the revision process. I urge people to avail of the opportunity to engage with the process when the commission invites submissions.

The commission must complete its work not later than three months after the publication by the CSO of the final census results. When the commission has presented its report to the Ceann Comhairle it will be a matter for me to bring forward legislation to address the recommendations of the constituency commission. This is likely to be in autumn 2012. Constituencies enacted at that point would have effect only after the dissolution of this Dáil.

The Bill also contains an amendment to the Electoral Act 1992 relating to the holding of Dáil by-elections. The proposed amendment ensures steps are taken to hold a by-election to fill any vacancy if the Dáil has not moved within six months of the vacancy arising. The current provision regarding Dáil by-elections requires the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue a writ for the filling of the vacancy as soon as the Dáil so directs. However, there is no timeframe within which the Dáil must act in relation to the filling of the vacancy. This can and has led to some extraordinarily long delays in filling Dáil vacancies, often for political expediency. Recent examples include the 538-day duration of a vacancy in the Donegal South-West constituency with Dublin South and Waterford not far behind at well over 300 days each. Delays of this duration are simply not good enough in a parliamentary democracy.

We need to ensure citizens are fully represented in the Dáil even if this means taking measures to prevent Governments in power using their majority position in this House to further political objectives by blocking the filling of vacancies. The people have a right to full democratic representation in their national Parliament. Preventing this, as has happened in the past on a number of occasions, only damages the reputation and integrity of Irish political institutions. I spoke on this theme in this House 12 months ago when I introduced a Private Members' Bill to address the situation. Of course, that Bill did not receive majority support and we ended up with the ridiculous and costly solution of citizens taking their case to the courts. We should not have the situation again in the future where people must go to the courts to ensure a by-election is held. I am, therefore, taking the opportunity presented by this Bill to address the by-election issue directly.

Specifically, the amendment I propose in this section is for a continuation of the existing arrangement during the six month period following the occurrence of the vacancy, namely, that the Dáil, in its discretion, may direct the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ at any time. However, if the Dáil has not availed of the opportunity during that six months, then at the end of that period, the Ceann Comhairle will be obliged to direct the Clerk to issue the writ. This amendment will bring greater certainty to the process of filling vacancies. While it will constrain the currently unfettered discretion of the Dáil in this area, a period of six months within which the Dáil will retain that discretion is more than reasonable. Providing for a shorter period within which the Dáil would be obliged to act might be considered too restrictive. On the other hand, a longer period could not be justified when consideration is given to the general points I have already made with regard to the people's right to full democratic representation.

The third measure in the Bill seeks to reduce spending limits and the amount of expenses that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election. As Members will be aware, a presidential election is due to be held in 2011. It must take place within the 60 days before the expiration of the term of office of the outgoing President, in other words between 11 September and 10 November 2011. It is, therefore, timely, that the matter of the spending limit and the level of reimbursement of election expenses to apply to candidates be considered. The measures contained in the Bill will have the effect of reducing the maximum amount that can be reimbursed from the Exchequer to a presidential election candidate from €260,000 to €200,000. The spending limit at the 2011 presidential election and all subsequent presidential elections is also to be reduced from €1,300,000 to €750,000. The reduction in the reimbursement payments will save the Exchequer money that can be put to better use elsewhere. While it is not known at this stage how many candidates are likely to contest the 2011 presidential election, were three candidates to qualify for a reimbursement payment at the maximum rate, the total saving would be €180,000.

Regarding the reduction in the spending limit, the cost to candidates of running a presidential election campaign would be reduced by up to €550,000 per candidate if he or she wishes to spend the amount allowable. While this will not save the Exchequer money, the reduction is of symbolic significance in reducing costs associated with the election of the President of Ireland. Candidates will have to run their respective election campaigns with reference to the reduced spending limits and moderate their election spending accordingly. Political parties and candidates seeking election to office should lead by example and this is only right given the times in which we are living.

The Bill makes provision in primary legislation, through the Electoral Act 1997, for the setting of the maximum payment that can be made to a presidential election candidate in respect of the reimbursement of expenses. It also sets out the qualifying criteria and administrative arrangements for the making of payments. The Bill replaces the existing provisions in the Electoral Act 1997, which required that arrangements for the reimbursement of election expenses be put in place by regulations made by the Minister. Statutory Instrument 442 of 2004 set the reimbursement level at €260,000 and also specified the related administrative arrangements. This statutory instrument is now repealed and its provisions are replaced by a new section 21A in the 1997 Act. This new section largely replicates the administrative arrangements that were included in the statutory instrument. The significant change is in respect of the maximum amount that can be claimed.

The Bill will also have the effect of consolidating into primary legislation, the Electoral Act 1997, the legal arrangements for the payment of election expenses to candidates at a presidential election where there are equivalent existing provisions that apply in respect of elections to Dáil Éireann. Currently, a candidate who receives votes in excess of one quarter of the quota at a presidential election can claim a reimbursement of election expenses up to a maximum of €260,000. After the election in 2011, an application is submitted through the Standards in Public Office Commission with payment being made by the Department of Finance through the Central Fund. The same key qualifying criterion of receiving one quarter of the quota will apply under the revised provisions, as will the administrative arrangements for submitting an application for payment. Similar arrangements are in place for Dáil and European Parliament elections.

Section 21(2) of the Electoral Act 1997 made provision for the level of reimbursement to apply at a presidential election to be set by regulations made by the Minister. These regulations came into effect on 14 July 2004 and first applied at the presidential election scheduled to take place in 2004. In the event, President McAleese was returned unopposed and no claim or payment for the reimbursement of election expenses was made. With the spending limit at a presidential election also being reduced from €1,300,000 to €750,000 as part of this Bill, it is appropriate that the level of reimbursement of expenses be reduced also. While there was no provision for the reimbursement of election expenses at the last contested presidential election in 1997, by applying the relevant qualifying criteria, three candidates would have been able to claim a reimbursement. Should three candidates qualify for the reimbursement of expenses at the maximum level at the 2011 presidential election, the total saving would be up to €180,000.

The programme for Government makes reference to the application of spending limits at a presidential election, in the following terms:

we will introduce spending limits for all elections, including Presidential elections and constitutional referendums, including for a period in advance of scheduled Local, European, General and Presidential elections respectively.

At a presidential election the agent of each candidate is required to furnish a statement of election expenses to the Standards in Public Office Commission. This statement must be submitted within 56 days of polling day and must include details of the candidate's spending at a presidential election. When running their campaigns and submitting statements of election expenses, candidates will now be required to stay within the revised spending limit of €750,000. It will be an offence for an election agent or candidate to exceed the spending limit. This change will send out a strong signal that those involved in public life are committed to moderating their own expenditure, thereby showing a positive example to others. Reducing the election spending limit is of symbolic significance in demonstrating the willingness of those involved in public life to scale back their spending on elections.

Section 53(1) of Part VI of the Electoral Act 1997 provides for the spending limit to apply at a presidential election to be specified by an order to be made by the Minister. The order setting the spending limit at €1.3 million was signed on 14 July 2004. As I mentioned, at the presidential election in 2004 President McAleese was returned unopposed and as a consequence there no data on spending at previous presidential elections. However, a lot has changed in this country since 2004 when the current spending limit was set and there is a clear case for its substantial reduction. To do this requires that a change be made in the primary legislation. That is why I propose to amend the Electoral Act 1997. Bearing in mind the current economic circumstances facing the country, it is important we lead by example and moderate our spending.

I will outline briefly the specific contents of each section in the Bill. Section 1 contains definitions. Section 2 inserts a new section 39(2A) into the Electoral Act 1992. The new provision provides that where, after a period of six months from the date of a vacancy arising in the Dáil, the Dáil has failed to direct the Chairman of the Dáil to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ for a by-election, the Chairman shall so instruct the Clerk as soon as is practicable.

Section 3 amends section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997. The amendment revises the terms of reference of a constituency commission which will now be required to recommend Dáil constituencies based on a reduced number of Members. I have already signalled my intention to table an amendment on Committee Stage to provide for a range of between 153 and 160 Members. The number of Members of Dáil Éireann recommended by the constituency commission will still be subject to the limits set out in the Constitution.

Section 4 deletes provisions currently in sections 21(2)(a) and 2(4) of the Electoral Act 1997 that enable the Minister to put in place regulations to provide for the reimbursement of expenses to a candidate at a presidential election. Revised arrangements are being made in section 5 of the Bill, which will insert a new section 21A into the Electoral Act 1997. Section 5 provides that the maximum amount which can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election is €200,000. It makes provision in primary legislation, through the Electoral Act 1997, for the setting of the maximum payment that can be made to a presidential election candidate in respect of the reimbursement of expenses.

Section 6 provides that the spending limit at a presidential election shall not exceed €750,000. It makes provision in primary legislation, through an amendment to the Electoral Act 1997, for the spending limit to apply at a presidential election and replaces the existing section 53 of the 1997 Act. Section 7 provides for consequential amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 arising from the provisions in sections 4 to 6, inclusive, of the Bill. Finally, section 8 contains standard provisions of a general nature dealing with the Title, construction and citation of the Bill.

Deputies will know the Government has outlined an ambitious programme for constitutional and electoral reform. The programme for Government commits to a radical overhaul of the way Irish politics and government work. It sets out a wide-ranging series of commitments to this end, a number of which are within my area of ministerial responsibility. I am committed to working with my Government colleagues and all Oireachtas Members to implement these measures in full. In taking forward the measures set out in the Bill, I am conscious that a piecemeal approach to electoral reform may not generally be the most productive approach. However, I also believe these are important and timely reforms that should be introduced now rather than put on the long finger. I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputy John Browne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is a disappointing Bill. I agree with one of the concluding remarks made by the Minister, namely, that a piecemeal approach to electoral reform is not generally the most productive approach. He is acknowledging that it is a bad piece of work and I commend him for saying that. I have to make a number of political points.

I am not surprised.

Fine Gael promised to cut the number of Deputies by 20, which was a populist and high profile approach before the election. It also promised to abolish the Seanad, a question which remains unanswered. It sought to reduce the number of Ministers of State and has not done so. It promised there would be no more bank recapitalisation, that it would burn the bondholders, that there would be no more increases in taxation and that the Minister would be responsible for bringing in a suite of backdoor taxes on the population.

We discuss hospitals here every day of the week. We can now see the effects of what the Government is doing to hospital services around the country. It has the wherewithal to address the issue financially. It has introduced measures in the House such as the pension levy to raise more money and has made political decisions and decided on political priorities such as funding the removal of the air travel tax rather than keeping accident and emergency departments open. It is yet another U-turn.

It stated it would reduce the number of Deputies by 20, which I do not agree with and on which it is now reneging. The Bill is ill thought out. When it was published it immediately offended the Constitution. The Bill gives the constituency commission a band of 152 to 160. The Government has acknowledged that it jumped the gun on the census figures. Where did it get the band from? What rationale and logic was applied in arriving at those numbers? It is fundamentally undemocratic and will dilute democracy.

The Government is equating the number of Members by adding the number of Deputies and Senators and coming up with a Member to population ratio which does not reflect the current situation. It is reducing the number of Deputies which is fundamentally undemocratic. Our party's proposal during the general election was to discuss a total reform package. A piecemeal approach, as the Minister acknowledged, is not the way to address the issue. If we are serious, we should have a complete debate on reform in the House on the Dáil, Seanad, committee system and local government. Let us debate the whole package and not have a piecemeal approach.

We proposed a single-seat constituency arrangement, supplemented by a list system which allowed for gender balance. We also proposed an idea whereby if a Member of the Dáil was asked to serve in government, an alternate would be placed to do his or her work as a Deputy in order that he or she would not be double-jobbing as both a member of Government and constituency Deputy. I want to put the Minister on notice that we will table a number of amendments, one of which concerns the number of Deputies indicated in the banding. It is worthwhile to note that the Labour Party has been silent on this issue. In the pre-election period it rubbished the idea of cutting the number of Deputies. There is one Labour Party Deputy in the House who may contribute to the debate. It was on the record in terms of keeping the number of Deputies and democracy.

It is correct to focus on spending limits for presidential elections. There will be a presidential election in a number of months. The current limit of €1.5 million until the Bill changes it is quite high because, due to the nature of the contest, candidates enjoy a significant amount of what could be termed free media, exposure and publicity. The spending limits are quite high and it is correct to reduce them but we should go further. A sum of €750,000 is a lot to spend on an individual campaign, given the amount of free media and exposure that is enjoyed by candidates. From that point of view, the limit should be closer to €500,000. I know that will not suit political parties, but it will suit the Independents.

I would be interested to know whether the Minister intends to introduce his legislation to reduce corporate donations and the amount that people can contribute to political parties.

Is Fianna Fáil going to run a candidate?

That remains to be seen. Do not worry. The Minister is very interested in what we are doing. Which candidate is Fine Gael going to run?

Do not worry, we will have one.

Which candidate is the Minister backing?

I would be interested to know who the Deputy is backing and whether Fianna Fáil will field a candidate.

On radio last Saturday, the Minister was very cocky. He said Fine Gael had become very good and professional at winning elections. He was taking it as a foregone conclusion.

It is none of the Deputy's business how much will be spent because Fianna Fáil is not fielding a candidate.

I did not interrupt the Minister. Am I in possession, Sir?

Deputy Niall Collins is in possession.

I thank the Acting Chairman. The Minister voted down our Bill on personal and corporate donations, but will he bring in his own Bill in advance of the presidential election?

The Deputy has a brass neck talking about corporate donations after 14 years.

The Minister is fund-raising to beat the band. I read somewhere that the Minister's party leader was over in Cricklewood in London hosting a fund-raiser there recently.

Yes. Is that illegal?

He is fund-raising to beat the band. I am curious because he has produced legislation to limit fund-raising, yet at the same time he is merrily fund-raising on his way in advance of the presidential election.

We operate legally.

The Deputy could teach us how.

Deputies must address the Chair, not each other. Deputy Niall Collins has the floor.

I am sorry, Chairman, but it is hard to listen to that.

We would like to see a level playing pitch. Our local authority members throughout the country have been mandated, where they feel they can, to offer a presidential nomination to people who request it. I think that is right. I do not think that local authority members should block anyone from participating in the democratic process.

The boundary commission will be established on similar lines to its predecessor in terms of its membership. Has any consideration been given to producing an interim report or will we just see a final report? As the Minister knows, constituency boundaries have been contentious during the years.

Look at Limerick.

This issue has arisen in Leitrim and in my constituency. What was west Limerick is now part of Limerick, while another part went into north Kerry. The same applies to south Offaly, east Carlow and west Waterford which went in with Tipperary. County boundaries have not been recognised in parts of the country and therefore it is a highly contentious matter. We should tighten up the terms of reference. I know the Minister is asking the commission to adhere to county boundaries where possible and practical, but we should examine a mechanism to make it tighter. Due to the urban sprawl of the greater Dublin area, it has spilled over into neighbouring counties. In rural areas, however, the breaching of county boundaries is a bigger issue. The last occasion it arose was in the south Offaly example. From that point of view, we will have to examine the possibility of tightening up the terms of reference involved.

The proposal to run by-elections within six months of a vacancy occurring is a good one. We are generally in agreement with that idea, which is the right thing to do. We should not tie our hands completely on the six-month period, however, if we are running close to a local or European Parliament election. If, for example, the six-month limit arose three before a local or European election, it might make sense to have some discretion to defer the by-election for a further three months. This might make for a more efficient running of the event.

We will be opposing the Bill on a number of fronts. We will also be tabling a number of amendments, namely, on the number of Deputies, presidential election spending limits and the production of an interim report.

I thank Deputy Niall Collins for sharing his time. The Bill gives us an opportunity to make some points about the boundary commission as well as commenting on the Minister's address. When it comes to the presidential election, I am sure the Minister will have to support Avril Doyle in my constituency. I am making a play for her here.

Thanks very much.

I am delighted to know the Deputy is crossing the floor.

Knowing the former Deputy, Avril Doyle, I am sure she is well able to fight her own cause.

The Bill deals with the boundary commission, a reduction of funds for the presidential election, and holding by-elections within six months. I welcome the fact that in future by-elections will be held within six months of a vacancy arising. Previous Governments, including Fianna Fáil ones and others, have delayed by-elections as long as possible where they have not suited the political situation at the time. We have all been guilty of ensuring by-elections have not been held, thus not giving an opportunity for the electorate to elect a Deputy when a vacancy occurred. It is important that by-elections are held within a set timeframe. There are times, for example, if the six-month deadline was close to a general election, when it might make common sense not to hold the by-election, but other than that example I welcome the six-monthlimit.

The boundary commission's drafting of constituency boundaries has been a bugbear of mine for quite a long time. I have argued with previous Ministers with responsibility for the environment about this matter and we have had a number of them in the past 14 years. When the commission makes its recommendation or comes forward with a report, I understand the Minister of the day has the right to accept or reject it. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that point in his reply. Some of the decisions taken in the past by the commission were not good for constituency politics. In recent years, we had the farcical situation where Leitrim was divided down the middle and had no Deputy at one stage. That caused problems in the area and it also happened in other constituencies. We have parts of Carlow in Wicklow, while parts of Limerick went into Kerry. I am not sure it is the right way to go. I know it is difficult to draw up constituency boundaries that suit everyone but common sense should prevail. Will the Minister clarify whether he can reject the commission's proposals if he is unhappy with how the constituencies are divided up? He might come in for some political criticism if he tried to change things once an independent boundary commission has drafted them, but common sense must prevail.

To a certain extent, the Minister has tied the boundary commission's hands by saying that there must be three, four or five-seat constituencies. Have the Minister and his officials considered the possibility of having six or even seven-seat constituencies? Why is he confining it to three, four or five-seat constituencies? I understand there were six and seven-seat constituencies in previous times. The commission will face considerable difficulty in trying to avoid breaching county boundaries. It should be able to get around some of the problems by adopting guidelines that each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas.

The make-up of the commission is also important. The Chief Justice, Mr. John Murray, will be asked by the Minister to nominate the chair of the commission. In line with past practice, the commission will be made up of the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Secretary General of the Minister's Department. I wonder if the make-up of the boundary commission could be extended to include an ordinary citizen of the State. Why should membership of the commission be confined to the Clerk of the Dáil, Clerk of the Seanad, the Ombudsman, the Secretary General of the Minister's Department and a judge? I have no problem with a judge heading up the commission but the Minister should consider breaking with tradition and appointing an ordinary citizen of the State to the commission. I ask that the Minister consider this.

Census 2011, as published recently by the Minister, records that Ireland's population now stands at 4.5 million, an increase of approximately 400,000 when compared with census 2006. Census 2006 recorded Ireland's population at 4.2 million, the first time since 1871 our population rose above 4 million. Also, census 2011 records a population increase of 100,000 more people than predicted by the Central Statistics Office. It is stated in the programme for Government that the Government proposes, by way of Dáil reform, to reduce the number of Deputies in this House. I wonder if that is wise now given the approximately 400,000 increase in population. I may perhaps be one of a minority in this House but I do not agree with the proposal to reduce the number of Deputies. All 166 Members of this House during my time as a Member and down through the years have served the people well, regardless of their political affiliations. Despite the criticism Members get from time to time from the general public the people love their representatives. They certainly like to have them make representations in this House on their behalf.

"Love" is a strong word.

It may be. The people of Wexford have loved me for 29 years. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has been loved in Kilkenny too. The proposal to reduce the number of Members of this House is not wise. If the maximum reduction is made €3 million will be saved. If the maximum reduction is not made — I doubt that the commission will agree to the maximum reduction — the saving will be much less.

The Minister might clarify if one of the reasons the Government has not gone down the route of the 20 Deputy reduction is because such a reduction would affect the west more than any other part of the country.

It is called the Constitution.

I know that. I am sure the Government could have gotten around that issue by holding a referendum, if it so wanted.

The Constitution would have to be amended.

The Government was not thinking about the Constitution when it proposed a reduction to 152 Members.

Read it again.

I may be one of a minority but I believe this House should continue to have 166 Members given the increase in population.

Members can vote against the Bill.

I ask that the Minister take another look at that proposal.

The Government has broken many of the promises made by both parties prior to entering government, including on the reduction in the number of Members of this House and in relation to hospitals in Wexford and throughout the country. I would forgive——

The list is endless.

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, announced a big investment programme for Wexford General Hospital.

I would forgive the Government breaking this promise and allowing the number of Members of this House to remain at 166.

What about the hospitals?

In regard to Wexford hospital, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, other Oireachtas Members and I have all played our part in making sure it survived the test of time. We will continue to represent Wexford and parts of Kilkenny, Carlow and Wicklow. Long may that continue.

We have delivered more than the previous Government.

I hope that commonsense will prevail among the people of Sligo and Roscommon and that they will have hospital services in their areas. However, that is a matter for the people there.

We will mind ourselves. We do not need the Deputy.

On the spending limit for the presidential election, a greater reduction than the €750,000 proposed in this Bill should apply. There should also be a greater reduction than the proposed maximum of €200,000 which can be reimbursed to a candidate of a presidential election. It is disappointing that Fine Gael and the Labour Party are facilitating another election campaign to be funded by corporate donations.

Earlier this year we introduced a Bill——

What hypocrites.

Was the Minister at Cricklewood?

Yes. We had a good night.

——which would have effectively outlawed corporate donations, including for the presidential campaign.

Were there lots of builders there?

There were a lot of Fianna Fáil people there.

Please allow Deputy Browne to continue without interruption.

The Government parties voted the Bill down on the basis of their having an effective ban in place by July. Perhaps the Minister, when responding, will tell us when the Government proposes to bring forward legislation in this regard. The absence of any such revision in the Bill before us today confirms the cynicism of that promise.

While the Government has published the general scheme of a Bill it is clear the legislation will not be in place in time for the presidential election. As such we will have a presidential campaign funded by corporate donations, despite a Government commitment to bring about a ban on corporate donations.

The London tent.

Fourteen weeks. I will have it all sorted.

I welcome that Deputy Joanna Tuffy——

Fianna Fáil was charging a great deal for the tea in Galway.

I recall that when as Minister of State I was in the Seanad and Deputy Tuffy was a Senator she described the move to reduce the number of Members of this House by 20 as a rush to populism that amounted to less accountability and weakened democracy.

I know that the Minister is a democrat and that he fought hard on the Fine Gael side to ensure there was a democratic process within his party.

We set up the State in spite of Fianna Fáil.

It is important that we protect the democratic process. There is no place for populism such as abolishing the Seanad, reducing the number of Deputies and everything else that costs money.

The Deputies can vote against the Bill.

I have been holding ten or 12 clinics a week for the past 29 years.

I have been doing the same.

No one has ever come to me suggesting we should abolish the Seanad or reduce the number of Members of this House. People come to me about matters such as protecting hospitals, renewing medical cards, school extensions and so on. The people respect democracy. I agree that we need to reform this House and the Seanad substantially in a way that makes it more relevant to the ordinary people.

Another report.

I do not agree with the manner in which Senators are elected, a view I have made known on several occasions.

The Minister is at the wheel of power of the Government. He is next in line to the Taoiseach.

No, that is the Tánaiste.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is the Taoiseach's eyes and ears and has been his voice on many occasions. He was also the Taoiseach's protector when in opposition. I have no doubt that the Minister has his own views on this matter. I doubt that the Minister agrees with abolishing the Seanad or reducing substantially the number of Members of this House.

I ask that the Minister reconsider the make-up of the boundary commission. While it is important to have the Clerk of the Dáil, Clerk of the Seanad, Ombudsman and a judge on the commission, it is also important the ordinary people are represented. The Minister should break the mould

Should we put a cumann chairman in?

——and appoint an ordinary citizen to the commission.

We are ordinary people.

The Minister should seriously consider it.

I welcome the Bill which the Minister promised some time ago. He has probably excluded a number of areas we would have expected to see included in terms of reform.

The Deputy's party had 14 years to do it.

The Government has gone part of the way with the reduction of expenditure on presidential elections, which is good, but I doubt if it has gone far enough. It is welcome that by-elections will be held within six months of a vacancy arising. For political reasons all parties failed to hold by-elections when they should have.

We never did.

Fine Gael and the Labour Party did the same during my time in this House and delayed the holding of by-elections when it suited them. We did the same.

The Deputy's party voted down my Bill last year.

We are getting away from that now.

I know; Fianna Fáil is a changed party.

My party will fully support having a six-month deadline for the holding of by-elections, which is a good idea. At some stage in years to come we might do what is done in local authorities, whereby replacements can be co-opted without the need for a by-election. Perhaps we should consider that option, but I am sure it is way down the road.

I welcome the Bill, although I have reservations about some of the points made by the Minister. As our spokesperson said, my party will table amendments on Committee Stage, but I am sure we will not delay the passage of the Bill.

Will the Deputy vote for it?

We will table constructive amendments.

I wish to share time with Deputy Colreavy.

While I welcome the proposal made in the Bill on the holding of by-elections, there are serious problems with it. We also welcome the reduction of spending limits in presidential elections. When somebody wants to run for election and does not need great sums of money, he or she does not need to have a big tent in which to collect a lot of money.

The Deputy is not in that tent. We do not all have events in America.

Having a fund-raising event in——

The Moran hotel in Cricklewood.

——the Crown in Cricklewood would do the job.

Members should speak through the Chair.

The Deputy should tell us about the donors in America.

Was Deputy Mathews there?

The new provision in the Bill that a by-election must be held within six months is long overdue and as such, we welcome it. It will put a stop to the practice of Governments not holding by-elections for fear that they will lose a seat. It is nothing short of an affront to democracy to leave people unrepresented for months on end in that manner. We should not forget that this provision is the result of Deputy Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin having to take a court challenge in order for a by-election to be held. Pat the Cope Gallagher stood down in June 2009 in order to take a seat as an MEP. The then Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government left the seat vacant until the High Court ruled in November 2010 that there had been an unreasonable delay in holding the by-election. By-elections that should have been held in Dublin South, Waterford and Donegal North-East never took place, depriving voters in these constituencies of adequate representation, because of the cowardice of a Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government which was running scared of the people. It prevaricated when it came to holding the by-elections because it was sure it would lose the seats, as if it had a God-given right to hold on to them. That was one of the fundamental problems with that Government — it spent far too much time thinking it was entitled to do whatever it wanted because it had been in power for so long and to hell with the rest of us.

It is baffling, therefore, that, even as the Minister brings forward the proposal to impose a six-month deadline for the setting of a by-election date, which we fully support, the Government is still appealing the High Court decision on the holding of the by-election in Donegal South-West to the Supreme Court. The by-election was held nine months ago and we have had a general election since. It seems farcical and is a waste of taxpayers' resources that the Government is paying for an appeal to the Supreme Court in this matter. I am asking the Minister to take the opportunity to announce that it is withdrawing the appeal.

Why has the Minister chosen to introduce a six-month deadline? While we welcome the provision to hold by-elections within six months, why has the Government stipulated that it be six months? Why should an by-election not be held within four or five months? The general election was called in a matter of three to four weeks. We were all out on the hustings and 165 Deputies were elected. Is there a particular reason it takes so long to hold a by-election?

It is to show respect for families.

There is considerable arbitrary number-plucking from the sky. We take serious issue with the proposal to cut the number of Deputies from 166 to between 152 and 160. In the absence of a comprehensive overhaul and strengthening of local government structures, it makes no sense to reduce the number of Deputies. While we accept the need for money-saving proposals, if this is such a proposal, we would prefer to see the pay of Deputies being reduced rather than the number of Deputies. Will reducing the number of Deputies make the Dáil more representative? Will it empower Deputies to act as legislators? Will it improve the position in terms of the scandalous under-representation of women in the Oireachtas? Will it assist the Dáil in holding the Executive to account? If there are 155 Deputies instead of 166, will this enable more scrutiny of State bodies and agencies? The reality is, as the Minister is well aware, that it will do none of these things.

The Government's first 100 days have passed and there is little to show for it beyond a few gimmicks and a pile of U-turns, but this legislation will allow the Minister to pose as a reformer. It is all about being seen to be doing something. When the Minister is asked what Fine Gael and the Labour Party have done to reform politics, he will be able to point to reducing the number of Deputies. It hardly amounts to reform when we will merely have 20 fewer saying the same thing as before. In Fine Gael's election manifesto the proposal to reduce the number of Deputies by 20 which the Minister has acknowledged is unconstitutional is directly linked with the need for the political class to be seen to be making sacrifices during this time of economic crisis. My party shares this sentiment. However, if Fine Gael and the Labour Party are serious about providing political leadership at a time when so many are facing cuts, they should support the legislation proposed by Deputy Doherty. The Reduction in Pay and Allowances of Government and Oireachtas Members Bill 2011 would cut the Taoiseach's and the Tánaiste's pay by 30%, Ministers' pay by 27% and the Ceann Comhairle's pay by 36%. In addition, it seeks to reduce the pay of Ministers of State and other officeholders by a scale ranging from 20% to 31% and to cut the basic salary of Deputies and Senators by 19% and 9%, respectively. We are also proposing to eliminate the perks and privileges of Whips and committee Chairmen that they hold dear.

In advance of budget 2011 Social Justice Ireland called on all Deputies to vote against any reduction in welfare rates. It produced research that showed the take-home pay of Deputies had increased enormously since 1986, while unemployment benefit rates had risen by only €143.73 in the same period. Ministers' take-home pay in the same period had risen by €1,200 a week. If there ever were a collection of people in the State who were due a serious pay cut, it is the Members of this House. The savings made would be far greater than those that will be achieved by way of Fine Gael's target of reducing the number of Deputies by 20. If this is all about cutting costs, why not cut them in a way that would not undermine the ability of the Oireachtas to do its job and demonstrates real political leadership?

Last week the CSO published preliminary census figures. They show that the population of the State now stands at 4,581,269. Article 16 of the Constitution specifies that the number of Deputies must not be less than one Member for every 30,000 people. The figure of 152 proposed as the minimum in this legislation would be unconstitutional were it to be set by the commission, as it is slightly less than the 1:30,000 ratio.

These proposals also do not seem to take population growth into account. The rate of population growth in the past five years was 8.1%, according to the census. If this rate continues, we can expect the population of the State to be just under 5 million by 2016. If we divide the 2016 figure, which would be 4,952,351, by the figure of 30,000 specified in Article 16 of the Constitution, we get a figure of 165, which is almost exactly the number of Deputies we have now and the minimum we would need to be in line with the Constitution at that point. However, under section 3 of the legislation, the maximum size of the Dáil would be set at 160 Deputies, less than the likely constitutional minimum in five years.

Will the Minister explain whether he believes the rate of population growth will slow down and outline his evidence for this to the House? Considering that data from the ESRI in June stated that we have the highest birth rate per head of population in the European Union, I do not understand how this will happen. The population of Laois has increased by 20% in the past five years. The Minister acknowledged the consequences of this population growth when he visited the Portlaoise area to open a new stretch of road recently. Laois-Offaly needs to remain a five-seat constituency as the combined population in the census figures, when they are published, will show the population of the two counties together is now 157,464 in total. Will we have to revisit this legislation in five years when we realise that our electoral law and the Constitution are contradictory?

This proposal is nothing short of populist nonsense. In theory, one could agree with the reduction in the number of Deputies if there was a fundamental overhaul of how local government was structured and organised. If it was to be reformed, strengthened and empowered to do what is necessary, then one could effectively redistribute the democratic representation between State and local government. This is not what the Government proposes, however.

I am at a loss as to how the Government expects a smaller number of Deputies to represent effectively what will be effectively larger geographic constituencies with higher populations. Does the Government expect that people will suddenly stop attending Deputies' constituency clinics with issues that local government cannot effectively resolve, including many issues referred to by a previous speaker? The strengthening and reform of local government is an essential prerequisite to even a discussion around the reduction of the numbers of Deputies. This is Mickey Mouse reform; it does nothing but give the Minister some other issue on which to put out a statement.

It is less than a year since the Joint Committee on the Constitution, which included members of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party, published its review of the electoral system in which it examined suggestions to reduce the number of Deputies. It found that "...a reduction in the current number of members of the Dáil would hamper the effectiveness of members in performing the collective parliamentary functions of the House as a whole... [and] ...would also affect the proportionality and representativeness of the Dáil". Did the Minister consider this report, which five of his party colleagues signed up to, before bringing this legislation forward? Will he explain why he has seen fit to ignore the recommendations on this issue and what evidence he has uncovered to contradict the proposals from the committee?

I am disappointed that the constituency commission has not been allowed to consider increasing the number of seats per constituency, although this would involve enlarging the geographical area of constituencies rather than increasing the number of Deputies, as has happened before in the State. This would ensure a much more accurate representation of the public's voting intentions based on their percentage vote, in contrast to the current system that favours the largest parties, particularly in three-seat and four-seat constituencies. I welcome that the last Fianna Fáil speaker acknowledged this would be a good idea, which may be due to the reduced size of Fianna Fáil.

The report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution highlighted an increasing trend towards the creation of three-seat constituencies, which it was argued make it more difficult, for example, for women candidates to get elected. The committee also examined the wealth of international evidence to show that increasing the number of seats per constituency has a positive effect on the representation of women and minorities, and results in a parliament that is more representative of voters' choices. It was a little timid in its recommendation to set the number of Deputies per constituency at never less than four, since we should consider five-seat constituencies. However, it was at least a move in the right direction, if a small one.

To return to my earlier point, why are we proceeding with a proposal to cut the number of Deputies? How will it improve accountability in public life or the functioning of the Oireachtas? Why will the Dáil work better and citizens be better represented if there are fewer of us? The Deputies who most welcome this have said it is evidence that the Government is committed to "real political reform." Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin heralded the proposed change by stating: "At a time when tens of thousands of Irish men and women have had to make significant sacrifices in their daily lives in order to cope with job loss or emigration, it is heartening to see politics changing as well." I ask the Deputies who share this view what exactly will be the impact of this proposed Bill on the lives of those who are struggling to pay their mortgages and put food on the table, or are currently considering emigrating.

One cannot simply reduce the number of Deputies and assert that this is "political reform" without some kind of justification for it. To have the Government reply "Because I said so" is not an option. That is the response one would give a five-year-old who does not want to go to bed, not an adult electorate which wants to know why a reduction in the number of Deputies is "reforming". If this is about cost, and cost alone, then let us cut costs properly. Let us drastically cut the pay and allowances of our elected representatives and Ministers. Sinn Féin is ready and willing to do this, and has proposed legislation. We ask all parties in the House to support us. There was much talk about accountability and reform during the general election campaign in February. I hope it was more than just political posturing and that the other parties will support that Sinn Féin Bill.

If the Government seriously wants to reform the Oireachtas and our electoral system, let us all work together to do this. Let us do it properly, together and in a meaningful way, instead of as part of some pathetic, panicked, populist rush from the period before an election, and let us try to show that the incoming Government will do something other than U-turns.

Does this Parliament need to reduce the cost of doing its business? Without question, it does. All of us said to the public that the cost of running Parliament must be reduced, and that the public is entitled to see better value for the money it spends on its Parliament. Does the nation need less democracy? No, it most assuredly does not. The mistake in the Bill is the confused and confusing view that to have better value for money and a reduction in the cost of Parliament, we must have a reduction in the number of Deputies. That is a simplistic proposal and it will not have the desired effect. I acknowledge that we need to reduce costs but we certainly do not need less democracy in this country. When I made my maiden speech in this House, I was almost an extinct species as a Deputy who happens to live in County Leitrim. People do not understand the total population of County Leitrim is approximately equal to the average population per Deputy. When a Government or a commission splits that county down the middle, it becomes virtually impossible for a person living in either of the two parts of a now divided and weakened county to be elected to the Dáil. The Taoiseach kindly described me as the exception who proves the rule but my election does not right the wrong visited on the people of Leitrim. I see nothing in this Bill that would right that wrong.

The Minister referred to "avoiding the breaching of county boundaries as far as practicable, ensuring each constituency returns three, four or five Members and endeavouring to maintain continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies". However, the terms of reference of the constituency commission, which is set out in the Electoral Act 1997, state: "the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable". In 2010, the Joint Committee on the Constitution recommended: "in drawing constituencies according to the required representation ratio, due regard be had to natural and/or county boundaries". It is recognised that the breaching of county boundaries causes problems for Members, candidates and voters. Both politicians and political scientists have pointed out problems such as electoral alienation and low turnout. I do not see anything in the Bill that would result in significant changes to this. I hope I am wrong but I will seek to beef up the provision that breaches of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable.

We speak about three, four and five-seat constituencies as if there is something inherently wrong with six-seat constituencies. We should not tie the commission's hands by recommending smaller constituencies. There is nothing illegal, unethical or inherently wrong about six-seat constituencies and, if they offer commission members a fairer alternative to arranging the distribution of constituencies, why should we restrict them? Our aim should be to make it easy for commission members to do the right thing by ensuring each county has at least one representative in order that we can strengthen democracy on this island.

I wish to share time with Deputies Clare Daly, Catherine Murphy, Shane Ross, Mattie McGrath and Thomas Pringle, by agreement.

There is nothing surer than the need for political reform. The people of this country desperately want reform and for their politicians to be brought down to earth, taken out of the bubble of the Houses of the Oireachtas and planted with their feetfirmly in the ground where ordinary citizens are forced to suffer the effects of bad political decisions.

In the context of the obvious need for accountability and politicians who are responsive to the needs and wishes of the public, this Bill and almost anything the Members of this Dáil might say is virtually irrelevant because of the EU-IMF package which hands over the control of this country to the unaccountable representatives of bankers and bondholders who care nothing about ordinary people. This Bill merely shifts the deck chairs on the sinkingTitanic of the economy and Irish society. It does not even proceed in the direction of addressing the need for political reform. The measure to ensure by-elections are called within six months is reasonable, if overdue, and it is also reasonable to reduce the spending limits on presidential elections. I support the abolition of the Seanad because it is an elitist institution which does not represent every sector of society. The question remains of how to develop a political system that genuinely represents the people. Can we achieve that aim by providing less democracy and public representation or do we need more democracy and better and more responsive representation? The Seanad should be replaced by another tier of democracy composed of genuinely elected representatives of all sectors of society. As non-professional politicians, these representatives would not be paid but they would have real powers over local services and issues, as well as oversight of this House.

The plan to reduce the number of Deputies goes in the wrong direction. Savings of €3 million have been suggested as the maximum that can be achieved from this measure. We all want to cut the cost of government but, given the obscene level of remuneration that many politicians and Ministers receive, why do we not cut their pay? We could save far more than €3 million by cutting the pay of politicians. If we did so, they would also be more responsive to ordinary people because the big problem is that they are unaffected by the decisions they make over the lives and incomes of others. If our pay and conditions were more closely aligned to that of the average citizen, perhaps this House would be more representative of the needs and aspirations of ordinary people. To put it simply, instead of reducing the number of public representatives we should be cutting politicians' pay, expenses and leaders' allowances. It would not only be fair in itself to cut the pay of politicians at a time when they are slashing the incomes of ordinary people, but it might also make them more wary of imposing austerity on those who cannot afford it.

Like other speakers, I welcome certain aspects of this Bill. Section 2, which requires the calling of a by-election within six months, is a dramatic improvement, but I concur with those who asked why the period cannot be shortened to four months. I am not sure where the point comes from, but it is obviously a step in the right direction. The lowering of expenditure in presidential elections — what can be spent and recouped — is also welcome, but, again, it is not enough. I will be tabling amendments in this regard. There will be three constituencies for European elections and the reimbursement figure is €38,000 per constituency, which gives a figure of €114,000 to be recouped. Why are we allowing a figure of €200,000 for presidential elections, even if that is a step in the right direction?

The main problem with the Bill is in section 3 and the Government's stunt in reducing the number of Deputies and revising the terms of reference for the constitutional commission. This is nothing more than a gimmick dressed up as reform. The point has been made that the parties opposite in fighting the general election stated they would reduce the number of Deputies by 20, but now they shrug their shoulders and tell us that they can only reduce the number by 16 and that even that is in breach of the Constitution. There were methods for changing the Constitution if it was a serious proposal, but, of course, it was no such thing. It was just an illusion that Fine Gael and the Labour Party were trying to clean up the political system, whereas the reality is that this proposal will make the system less accountable and democratic.

It is very easy for us to pick figures arbitrarily from other countries or use European averages to justify the argument that in Ireland we are over-represented. However, we are not comparing like with like, especially given the way in which the population in Ireland is dispersed along the east coast, particularly around Dublin. We have a very different system of governance. This is one of the few countries without regional authorities to engage in serious decision-making. Let us be honest about it; we do not have real local government either. This Chamber has stripped these bodies of their decision-making powers. If the Government was really serious about reform, it would be starting from the bottom up and ensuring involvement in decision-making at local level. Instead, what we have is a stunt.

It is not the number of Deputies that annoys people but the fact that people often do not know who they are or what they do. What really galls them is the amount of money Deputies are paid. We are told this is about money, but that is nonsense. If the Government was to remove 16 Deputies, the salary saving would be around €1.5 million a year. If it was to reduce the salaries of 166 Deputies to the average industrial wage which would make Members appreciate the living conditions of ordinary people, it would save €9 million a year. This does not include the allowances parties receive, the staff they receive and so on. The Government could make radical savings of tens of millions of euro every year if this was all about money, but, of course, it is not. It is an attack on democracy and is undermining the democratic process. We know the real outcome of a reduction in the number of Deputies would statistically hurt the small parties and Independents more than the bigger parties which have larger resources and the bigger machines. Having larger constituencies tends to benefit smaller parties more.

The carving up of constituencies by the boundary commission was one of the biggest insults to democracy in Ireland. Members have spoken about counties being carved up. I come from Swords, the so-called capital of the county of Fingal, which was partitioned in the last electoral boundary review. Such an affront to democracy must be corrected this time. Towns cannot be partitioned and included in diverse geographical areas. This is unsustainable and must be taken into account in the electoral boundary review in order to overcome the democratic deficit, the outcome of the last review.

I am looking for vision in political reform, but I do not see it. We are seeing piecemeal changes, some of which are welcome. If we are to rebuild our democracy, we must have a vision for the democracy we want to see in five or ten years.

The Bill provides for a reduction in expenditure to €750,000 for a presidential election candidate, which I welcome. However, we could go further. The recoupable amount is €250,000; therefore, from where will the other €500,000 come? It will come from corporate donations and so on. We cannot criticise this and then allow an amount which provides no option for serious candidates but to raise funds in that way.

We would not be looking at a change in the by-election system were it not for the fact that a court case was taken. Every excuse under the sun was given for not holding a by-election the last time around when the Government claimed it was too busy. I took a seat in a by-election and know that on the vast majority of days when a candidate is out canvassing he or she will not see anybody from the Government. Government politicians show up on the last weekend, on which I could write the book. The Government was just trying to give excuses because it did not want to go before the electorate.

The Bill to redraw constituencies should always postdate the census. The Government excelled itself this time by publishing the Bill before the findings of the census were made available and then discovered that the figure of 152 would make the Bill repugnant to the Constitution. Each vote for each citizen should be equal. I felt so strongly about this issue that with Deputy Finian McGrath I commenced a constitutional challenge in 2007 after the 2006 census figures had showed wide variations in constituencies. The 2006 census figures were not used in redrawing boundaries. That challenge was successful and had the effect of changing the law; therefore, the preliminary census figures are now being used to trigger a redrawing of constituencies which will take practical effect in 2016, or whenever the Government ceases to have the support of the Parliament. Given the size of the Government, it looks like it could happen in 2016.

If there were 152 Deputies in the Dáil, there would be one Deputy per 30,140 people. The Constitution states the figure cannot be more than 30,000. If the population keeps growing, it is inevitable that there will have to be a referendum to change the provision, as the Constitution is clearly restrictive.

People get annoyed when they hear about proposed changes such as the abolition of the Seanad or a reduction in the number of Deputies by 20, when those proposing the changes do not even look at the Constitution. Almost every second page of the Constitution contains a provision about the Seanad; therefore, changes are going to require a referendum.

There is no mention of political parties in the Constitution, yet the Standing Orders of the House and electoral funding provisions are to the benefit of parties, as opposed to Independent Members. There has been much talk in recent weeks about the leader's allowance paid to Independent Members. I have no difficulty in being held to account for my expenditure, as all public moneys should be accounted for. However, astronomical figures are transferred from the State to run political parties. If we are to have genuine political reform, we must go much further than this Bill goes, which is what people want. We must sketch out a vision. We must put in place local government rather than the local administration we have because people want to have some control over their lives and that is the place to start.

I welcome this Bill in the very narrow sense that it is good as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. I question one aspect of it which everyone accepts so readily, that is, the setting up of the electoral commission. I noted what Deputy Browne said that all the great and the good are put onto this commission, including the Ombudsman, a High Court judge, the Clerks of the Dáil and of the Seanad and others. He asked why in the name of God an ordinary person, whatever that is, is not put onto it. I agree with him but it should be more than one person. Perhaps the Minister will respond to this. Why do we not have a majority of citizens decide on what the electoral boundaries will be? Why do we not have a majority of six or seven citizens on the commission who would outnumber those who know more about the nuts and bolts?

It is not very fashionable to say this but High Court judges who are put in charge of sensitive areas of this sort are not immune from political pressures and there is no point pretending they are. Just because someone is a High Court judge does not mean he or she is politically untouchable. There is a great temptation for all Governments, in particular the last one, to say they are appointing a High Court judge to the chair and, therefore, it is all right.

Everyone knows High Court judges, in particular, are politically appointed and they are also subject to political pressure because if they want to go on to the Supreme Court, that promotion is politically controlled also. I am not saying any abuse is intended in this Bill, but it must be acknowledged that law of this sort is made for bad Governments and not for good ones. It is made in order that it passes the test of time and cannot be abused.

I do not accept that this commission or its membership should be set in stone. The same should be said of clerks, civil servants and the secretary to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, a very sensitive position which should be pointed out also as being subject to political pressure, and the Ombudsman. I believe all Ombudsmen serve at least one term.

It would be open to any government to apply pressure, whether for reappointment or otherwise, on people on this commission. Everyone in this House knows there is constantly talk of appointing tame judges and tame people to commissions of this sort who will come out with the right result which will give advantages to the government in power. Time and again, commissions have been set up and the results of those commissions have been questionable because of the political input into them. That is the reality and not something that is said.

The Minister should consider at the very least widening the basis of this commission by putting people onto it who do not have a vested interest, who are paid by the State, who cannot have pressure put on them by the political party in power and who are not identifiable, as judges so often are, as being attached or having loyalties to the political party in power.

This is a tidying up Bill and, as such, it should be welcomed. It attacks three principal aspects of our electoral law. Does the Government intend it to be the forerunner of many Bills to come to tackle the electoral law? I have a different view from my colleagues on some of these issues. I do not particularly like the idea of multi-seat constituencies. It is one of the few things that is not in the programme for Government and which the Government has not put into effect and on which it should be congratulated. The idea of multi-seat constituencies — a six or a seven-seat constituency — will only multiply the difficulty we have where people pay more attention to work in the constituencies than they do to work in this House. I agree the two should be balanced but the balance currently is very obviously in favour of doing all the work in the constituencies, which undermines the work of this House. To some extent, if we start to go down the road of having even more seats in the constituencies, we will tilt the balance even further in that direction.

Coming from my constituency, I thought the Acting Chairman would not be as hard on me. Obviously, what Deputy Ross said about working in the constituency does not always work.

I welcome this Bill, but I am concerned that many of the promises made about real political reform have been abandoned. The measures in the Bill only tinker with the notion of political reform, although I welcome them. Section 3 relates to the number of Deputies. This is a red herring because people need better representation and more democracy. As was said by previous speakers, we need change at local authority level and to give it back some powers instead of stripping it of powers which has been done by successive Ministers and Governments.

I welcome the six-month provision in respect of by-elections, but why is there a need for by-elections? Why could we not go back to the returning officer and ask him or her for the name of the defeated candidate with the highest number of votes from whatever party or persuasion and allow him or her to take over without a by-election? That is democracy in action because he or she would have received the next highest number of votes. We could do a lot more work in the constituency rather than travelling to wherever the by-election is taking place, knocking on doors and pestering people. It was an outrage that the last Government did not hold the by-elections for so long. The Acting Chairman and I know that we were pretty busy in south Tipperary-west Waterford looking after Waterford because it was without one Deputy for so long after the former Minister, Martin Cullen, retired.

I also welcome the lowering of spending limits in presidential elections. Fine Gael has assembled a war chest to go after the most prestigious job which has eluded it for so long. It has many potential candidates. However, this will come too late for that, but I agree with curtailing the spending.

In recent months the Technical Group has been blackguarded. There was talk of fair play and so on but it did not happen. We have no representative on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission nor does Sinn Féin. We did not receive fair play in respect of the Committee of Public Accounts and in many other areas. Light is being made of the leaders' allowance for Independents. Some of the parties are getting three times the allowance for Independents. Let us be fair and honest.

As Deputy Ross asked, why can ordinary people not be on the electoral commission? Why must it always be a commission of the high priests, such as a High Court judge, a Secretary General and so on? They do not understand life. The Judiciary needs to be reformed. One must be re-elected to this House but, once appointed, one is a judge for life. I know to my cost the situation where judges are politically appointed, politically motivated and politically selected for certain court cases. What has happened is an outrage and I could go back to the gerrymandering of the Tully regime in the 1970s and what happened.

This is neither open nor honest nor is it intended to be fair. It cannot be fair because certain political appointees must look after their masters. If they do not, they will not be appointed again and soft judges will be picked. A judge who supports a political party will be appointed.

I respect the role of the Judiciary and the fact it must be independent. However, these judges need refresher courses, as do these commissions. We have had a number of commissions and they cut County Leitrim in two as well as towns. There are rumours of amalgamating Tipperary South and Tipperary North but it is almost 110 miles from the County Waterford border to the County Galway border. Is that fair representation? I know there are large constituencies elsewhere, including in County Donegal.

It is even bigger.

I know it is even bigger, but it might not have the population.

The Deputy has only 30 seconds remaining.

As the Acting Chairman knows, where Tipperary leads, Ireland should follow. We must retain our two constituencies. I will not have any influence in that respect, but the process should be fair. I want ordinary people to be represented on the commission in order that the people can have confidence in the commission that will set out the constituencies and how candidates will be elected to the next Dáil.

The Deputy will be allowed to make a submission.

Yes, but I do not want to exert undue influence. Ordinary people from all walks of life should consider this, as citizens should also be involved.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. I will begin by discussing two of the changes proposed. The implementation of a six-month deadline for by-elections is to be welcomed, as it will mean there will be no repeat of the events of the last Dáil when we had to wait for over 18 months for by-elections to be held. Imposing such a deadline will take the decision away from the Dáil and ensure by-elections will take place within the allocated time.

Like other speakers, I welcome the reduction in spending limits for presidential elections. However, I question the reason for having a figure of €750,000 and ask whether it could be reduced further to bring reality to a presidential election campaign.

I wish to focus on the proposed change to the number of Deputies to be elected to the Dáil. The Bill was published on 30 June, but when the Central Statistics Office published preliminary census figures, we discovered that some of the provisions of the Bill concerning a reduction in the number of Deputies to 152 would be unconstitutional. If the Minister had waited a week, he would not have had to bring forward an amendment to bring the Bill into line with the Constitution. The proposed reduction in the number of Deputies is window dressing, much like the changes made to the numbers of committees in the Houses, as the Government wanted to portray an image of reform in politics. There are now committees covering two or three Departments, which committees will have such a workload they will not be able to hold these Departments to account. This was done in order that the Government would be able to state it had reduced the number of committees; the Bill has been introduced purely because it wants to state it will reduce the number of Deputies in the Dáil, it is not about making our democracy more efficient.

The Minister spoke about having one representative for just over 20,000 people. He conveniently included Seanad representatives in these figures in order to reduce the ratio and compared Ireland to countries such as New Zealand with unicameral systems where the figures are significantly higher. I commend the Library and Research Service for its Bills digest on the legislation and the Minister would do well to read it and consider the figures for representation in our European neighbours. In Austria there are 45,000 people for each Member of Parliament; in Denmark there are 30,000 people; in Finland, 26,500 people; in Hungary, 25,900 people, and in Sweden 26,300 people. These countries have similar populations to ours; therefore, the number of citizens for each Deputy is not out of line with that in our European neighbours and does not need to be changed significantly. If we were to reduce the number of Deputies to 153, there would be one Deputy for each 29,500 people. If the population was to increase by 4% in the next census, we would have to increase the number of Deputies again. The Bill is only window dressing and we require real political reform. We should examine our political structures. The people want to see the Dáil working on their behalf, not just a reduction in the number of Deputies.

I wish to share time with Deputies Olivia Mitchell, Regina Doherty and John Paul Phelan.

I listened with interest to the points made by Deputy Mattie McGrath about the Independent group being blackguarded. Any time I turn on the monitor there is a Member of the Independent group speaking. It has got so bad I have taken to throwing a blanket over the television set in order to avoid seeing what is in front of me.

What about the sound?

I turned it down a long time ago.

My goodness. I believed the Deputies were great buddies.

That is what friends are for.

I wish to take up one of the points made by Deputy Ross regarding the composition of the constituency commission. Reference was made to section 1 of the Electoral Act 1997 and I wish to comment on the membership of the commission. I am not that familiar with the Bible — Deputy Ross may be more familiar with it — but the issue reminds me of the parable on finding one honest man; it seems it is almost impossible to get somebody to be a member of anything in this country who is not above reproach. In the past I expressed concern about the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government being a member of the commission, not because of the individual in question. What I said while in opposition I will say while in government: the suggestion of political interference can be made because the Department offers secretarial back-up to the commission. My understanding is that the Department presents various options to the commission. The Minister should examine the issue with a view to considering the type of electoral commission discussed in the past, or even the Standards in Public Office Commission assuming the role. I would like to see in the the report the details of submissions or various options presented by the Department or others. We would then be able to see the reasoning behind the process.

Much reference has been made to the breaching of county boundaries and taking geography into account. In many instances people in one county may have greater empathy with others in a neighbouring county than in their own. Deputy Ross is smiling at that suggestion. However, the constituency commission should have regard to the need for continuity. There is a small part of County Carlow in my constituency and I made the point after it had been included in the constituency of Wicklow, that the turnout in that part of County Carlow increased because the people there had a greater association with their new constituency. At the same time the turnout decreased in the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny.

I would like to see the Minister dealing with a couple of other issues in the Bill, including a problem that has been ongoing for decades. Could we, please, adopt a commonsense approach to the register of electors? How does one explain the system to a family in public housing when members are knocked off the register on polling day? It is crazy that there is no interaction between the various bodies involved, but with a little common sense, we could get it right.

I abhor the concept of posters appearing all over a constituency. We should consider the idea of having a defined area in each constituency in which a number of posters could be put up.

The main issue in the legislation is the reduction in the number of Deputies in the Dáil. I made the point a few years ago that if the population imbalance continued, the eastern seaboard would have all of the representatives, while the western seaboard would, relatively speaking, be devoid of Deputies. I made a case — to my detriment — that geography should be considered. At the time in an editorial in theEvening Herald I was referred to as a nut who wanted two culchies for every Dub in the Dáil. We must consider this issue. It is likely that Donegal and Kerry will be five-seat constituencies, whereas in travelling five or ten minutes either away in Deputy Ross’s or Deputy Mitchell’s constituency, one will cover the lot.

There may not be a need for as many Deputies in the future. I do not know if anybody read the article inThe Sunday Times in which it was indicated that politicians could be fined €5,000 for every unsolicited text, e-mail or telephone call made to members of the public, following the signing of statutory instruments by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, last week. The Data Protection Commissioner has indicated that there will shortly be contact with political parties to explain that only electronic contact with members of the public who have consented to be on text, e-mail and telephone lists is permissible. We may reach a point where we will not be allowed to contact members of the public at all, which would mean there might be no need for as many of us. This is crazy.

We should limit spending between elections, not just at election time. We also should limit the amount of money politicians and parties can spend in promoting themselves between elections.

Although this is probably one of the shortest Bills to come before the House for a while, I suggest any Member could speak on it for days. Electoral issues seem to be very close to our hearts. As I have just a few minutes, I will concentrate on the proposal to reduce the number of Dáil Deputies which is exercising our minds. Obviously, I would have preferred a greater reduction in the number of Deputies to be proposed. I suppose we were stymied by the unexpected increase in population revealed by this year's census findings. The Constitution prohibits us from getting rid of a greater number of Deputies without holding a referendum.

I agree with Deputy Ross who has left the Chamber that multi-seat constituencies are not good, overall. Ultimately, we should get rid of them and adopt another system. National and local politics would benefit from a move away from the competitive constituency politics from which we cannot seem to escape. Given that we are retaining multi-seat constituencies, however, it is a shame that the constituency commission will be required to confine itself to three-seat, four-seat and five-seat constituencies. I ask the Minister to consider allowing it to use six-seat constituencies in exceptional circumstances in order to avoid breaches of county boundaries. I know it is supposed to try to avoid such breaches where practical, but the reality is they happen every single time. To be honest, they are a complete pain in the neck and make the job of local and national representation much more difficult.

A council which caters for a small portion of a different county or constituency tends to regard the business of that area as an add-on to its main business. I am sure that tendency is absolutely unintentional. Regardless of the assiduousness of the councillors elected in one of these areas, if the bulk of the members of the county council represent a different constituency, that will be the focus of the council. That is what happens when bits of constituencies are pushed into other areas. It is not malign — it is human nature. That has been my experience. Two thirds of my constituency is in one county council area, while one third is in another. If the phenomenon to which I refer can create difficulties in urban areas that are geographically much the same, as Deputy Timmins pointed out, one can imagine how much more difficulty can be caused in rural areas that are geographically more distant and diverse than cities. Like most Members, I am sure the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is aware of the role played by counties and constituencies in generating and engendering a sense of place and belonging. Therefore, it is not a good idea for counties and constituencies to be working against one another.

Although the Bill provides for some political reform, much more needs to be done. I think the Minister accepted this when he spoke. I welcome the announcement that a White Paper on local government reform is to be prepared. Those of us who have been around for a while know that previous efforts to reform local government resulted in anything but reform. We ended up with less effective local government. I am a great admirer of local government which has a huge role to play. It should be a great force in improving quality of life. We all know it can do better than it is doing.

Now that we are in the midst of an economic crisis, it is time to bite the bullet on the form and functions of local authorities. As I said, there is far too much public representation at local and national level. We could make do with less representation. We would do much better with fewer councillors. It is time to bite the bullet with regard to town councils. However, I am sure town councillors would not agree with me. I suggest the functions undertaken by town councils would be far more efficiently undertaken by city and county councils with greater powers and responsibilities. I do not under-estimate the difficulties involved in devolving functions and streamlining local authorities. However, if we are to achieve real political reform at national level, Deputies must be released to deal with national issues, concentrate on the bigger picture, scrutinise legislation rigorously, ensure the laws of the country are the best we can have and put in place the safeguards, checks and balances needed. This cannot be done, unless we begin by reforming local government. We all recognise that during the recent general election campaign people spoke about national issues and said Deputies should be dealing with them. I am sure the reality is that no Deputy has noticed a diminution in the number of local issues being raised with them. That will continue until we have fundamental political reform.

I had the pleasure of listening to a speech made by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, at a meeting just over one year ago. He spoke about what he would do to change how we govern at local level and outlined the political reforms he had planned. He referred to changes in the manner in which local and national politics were funded. As a county councillor at the time, I was very excited about his plans. I wish him every success with them in his role as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I am delighted to speak on them this evening.

The people are crying out for political reform. This legislation marks the start of the Government's progressive plans. If one asks any voter if we need 166 Deputies to represent the people, overwhelmingly one will be told we do not. In the purest sense, there are two distinct facets to the job I am blessed to have. First, we are required to scrutinise, amend and improve the legislation that people live and the country is governed by. Second, we have to meet and listen to representative bodies which want their proposals to be heard and relayed to policymakers. Like many of my colleagues in the House, I think our job involves far more than the two facets I have mentioned. I disagree with my colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, in that regard.

The people of Meath East elected me to this House. If I am to represent them effectively, I must be aware of their views, concerns and needs. The only way I can do this is to be available to the people who elected me. That takes time and commitment. If we do not have a real debate on how the local needs of citizens are represented, we are fooling ourselves into thinking we can impose a blanket reduction in the number of Deputies without it having a detrimental effect on the direct access of citizens to Members of this House. People need to be honest with themselves. Do they want true legislators, in the purest sense of that role, or do they want to retain their direct access to their representatives which is what the current system allows?

I am not talking about filling potholes or medical card applications. I accept such issues are very important to those who make representations on them. I am talking about national issues such as joblessness, mortgage arrears, access to education and funding. I am sure that other Deputies, like me, are contacted about such real issues on a daily basis. They need to be represented and dealt with. We cannot have a real and earnest debate on the proposed reduction in the number of Members of this House until we ensure the job description of Deputies matches what we want them to do.

I welcome the Minister's proposal to provide that by-elections be held within six months. The last Government grossly abused the facility to delay calling by-elections to suit its agenda and protect its slim majority. No Government owns any seat in this House. The last Fianna Fáil-led Government abused its privilege and showed utter contempt for the people. The changes proposed in the Bill are a reflection of our respect for the House and the people we represent. I also welcome the proposal in the Bill to reduce the spending allowances and reimbursement fees that apply to presidential election campaigns. I look forward to future changes in the allowances and fees that apply to local and general election campaigns.

This legislation shows how serious we are about political reform. This is the start of what the Minister, Deputy Hogan, believes is a progressive plan. I commend him for his approach to these reforms.

As previous speakers said, this legislation deals with a small number of areas. Most of the Bill is uncontroversial. I agree with Deputy Doherty and others who praised the proposal to ensure by-elections will be held within six months. However, I would go further. Deputy Mattie McGrath was correct when he spoke about the possibility of not having by-elections. We do not use by-elections to fill vacancies at local authority and EU level. In those chambers the party or Independent grouping which held the seat previously is allowed to co-opt someone to fill the vacancy. In the long term that is something at which the Minister should look.

Debate adjourned.