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.