I spoke earlier about the lack of rules for the holding of by-elections, which is the first of this Bill's three parts. The Minister's proposed changes in this area are not controversial. The second part of the Bill provides for reductions in the spending limits for candidates who contest presidential elections, a proposal which will enjoy widespread support in this House. One of the more positive features of Irish politics is that a candidate does not require independent wealth to be elected. The third, and more controversial, part of the Bill is the proposed changes to the terms of reference of the constituency commission, with specific reference to reducing the number of Deputies. I, for one, support this initiative.
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
Is it not customary for a Minister to be in the Chamber? Perhaps I will call a quorum to give the Minister an opportunity to turn up.
I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, is arriving.
Does the Deputy wish to call a quorum?
I would if it was any other Minister but I have great respect for the Minister of State, Deputy Perry.
That is very gracious of Deputy Ó Cuív.
I thank the Deputy.
At a time when an embargo is being imposed on public sector recruitment and with record levels of unemployment, it is appropriate to restructure significantly the numbers involved in the Oireachtas. The Minister's efforts in that direction are to be welcomed and I would support further radical reform in this area. People have spoken about the need to change and possibly expand constituency size to six or seven seats. I am a firm supporter of single seat constituencies and the Minister should give further consideration to that alternative as a way of reforming the way our political system operates. It is often the case that the biggest competition is within political parties, which is unhelpful and does not necessarily deliver an effective Oireachtas.
I support Deputy Olivia Mitchell's comments regarding the need for full reform of local government as well as the procedures of this House. Our local government system does not work and, while I am aware the Minister intends to bring legislation in this regard later in the year, it is not sustainable that some counties contain as many as six local authorities. We need to consider rationalising them.
Deputy Timmins spoke earlier about the electoral register. Any reform of our electoral system needs to include a radical overhaul of how the register is compiled because to describe the system as haphazard is putting it mildly. I hope the Minister will be able to introduce further reform in this area.
I will be sharing time with Deputy Ó Cuív. I appreciate the opportunity of speaking on this Bill. It is welcome that by-elections will be held within six months of a vacancy arising. Successive Governments have delayed the timing of by-elections.
The Minister stated the guidelines for the number of Deputies are between 164 and 168. This Bill will reduce that number and introduce spending limits for all elections, including the presidential election which will be held this year. The question arises of how to maintain county boundaries while reducing the number of Members. The west has been subjected to numerous breaches of county boundaries, often because of the constitutional preference for three, four and five seat constituencies. Some people in rural areas will argue that a five seat constituency is too large while others would prefer to see six seat constituencies. Perhaps that is why County Leitrim was divided on two different occasions. It would be interesting to see the result in a five or six seat constituency in a rural area. When Galway West was turned into a five seat constituency in advance of the 1977 general election, we were told it would improve our status. This was before County Mayo had five seats. I often wonder whether the people of Galway West regard having a five seat constituency as a matter of status.
I never fought an election in a five seat constituency and when I was first elected in a by-election in 1975, the constituency was known as north Galway and south Roscommon. We had already begun the habit of breaching county boundaries. The constituency commission had not been established then and decisions were made by the Minister. There were many allegations of gerrymandering, irrespective of who was in power. During the 1990s there was a provincial breach when Roscommon-Longford was created as a constituency. In more recent times, Offaly and Tipperary were created as a constituency.
There have been many breaches of county and provincial boundaries and people question why these things happen and ask whether there is a better way to deal with the matter. There has been much comment about having three, four and five-seat constituencies. Deputy Phelan spoke about having one-seat constituencies based on a system of proportional representation, which has its merits. It has often been said this would have carried the day in a referendum, rather than having the first past the post system which was rejected by the people. I am worried about counties such as Leitrim which has been split into two between counties Roscommon and Sligo. If we reduce the number of Deputies, counties such as Leitrim will lose representation more often.
Before we put the issue of abolishing the Seanad to the people, perhaps we might look at the idea of every county having a Senator. In that way, counties such as Leitrim would never suffer the absence of representation in the Oireachtas. The United States has two Senators per state, regardless of size or population.
Sometimes a by-election can take place the same day as local or European Parliament elections, for which there are good reasons. Cost is a factor. Some wonder why we do not have a co-option system, as we do to fill European Parliament and local authority vacancies. I do not agree with it, but it could be considered because I have heard people ask why we should close down the Dáil to go off and fight a by-election campaign.
Fianna Fáil has published a Bill on electoral spending limits and corporate donations, an issue on which I hope we will make progress. Having a maximum expenditure limit is a welcome aspect of this Bill, while reimbursement is a new element. In my early days in politics there was no question of receiving a refund. If there is to be reimbursement, it should happen more quickly than has been the case up to now. Sometimes a candidate or the party receives the money. If a candidate has to wait a long time, there is no point in saying there is reduced reimbursement. In the heat of a general election, common sense can sometimes go out the window when it comes to posters, canvass cards, the new phenomenon of painting cars, mobile phone technology, social networking and so on. It is important, therefore, that we do this in a reasonable and rational way. Some are great at putting up posters, but there is no point in seeing 20 or 30 posters at a roundabout when there are good vantage points in other parts of the country. It is sad that posters are still being defaced. On a more sinister level, they can be taken down and put up again seven days after polling. As a result, candidates can be fined €125 for each poster they never knew they had up. I hope the Minister will consider this issue because people are being fined, which is completely unfair.
I would like to finish by talking about the difference between an independent and a party-political candidate. I am often told that one of the reasons for reimbursement not being provided for is that candidates of political parties may have expenses grouped together which are then posted to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Perhaps the political parties have to do this for nationwide campaigns, but it is very unfair to candidates awaiting reimbursement. An independent candidate does not have to worry about this because there is no political party dealing with the commission. As Fianna Fáil candidates, we often allocate some money to the party to spend on a national campaign.
I agree with the Minister when he states he wants Ireland to be in line with countries such as New Zealand and Denmark which have one Member per 35,000 population. However, it does not immediately follow that because these countries have only one Chamber, we should do the same. We should look at the idea of having a stronger committee system before we do away with the Seanad. We should not vote to abolish it until we improve the committee system.
The first issue I would like to address is that of having a bicameral parliament. Today we have been debating the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 which has already passed through the Seanad. At the request of the Minister, we have made a great amount of amendments, very few of which have anything to do with the change of Government, as many are technical. If we did not have a bicameral system, we would have the passed the law as it was presented in the Seanad and which the Minister now claims is technically flawed. Therefore, we should be very careful in giving in to popular sentiment without understanding how legislation put through the Oireachtas allows the Opposition to make its case in two Houses and the Minister to make necessary amendments that come to light as a Bill goes through.
In respect of the Presidential campaign, if there is to be a reimbursement level of €200,000, the total spend should not be inordinately above this. Otherwise, it will provide a major advantage for those who belong to strong parties or have a lot of wealth over those with more modest means. While I welcome what the Government has done, it does not go far enough. We do not charge for television coverage in Ireland, with which I totally agree. I abhor the American system of buying advertisements on television and trying to swing the public vote. There is not a great need for a lot of money to be spend in a Presidential campaign and I the issue should be examined again by the Government and the figure reduced.
I would like to talk about the proposals in respect of Dáil elections. Either the Government should do it properly, or not at all. The Minister has found out that population growth, allied with constitutional provisions, means any change in the number of Deputies in the Dáil will be quite small. Technically, it cannot be more than 13. However, if we make changes at the lower end, we will find that in a country with a rapidly rising population every time we set up a commission it will have to change the constituencies radically, even if the population rises uniformly across the State. We all know the difficulties and challenges this poses for aspiring politicians and the electorate alike. The electorate likes constituencies to stay more or less the same and it does not like constituency changes that are forced on it owing to changing demographics. Answering the problem by making changes at the lower end, where we hit the 30,000 mark and will be forced to make more radical changes during each revision, will deliver little benefit. If the population rises in the intercensal period, we will arrive back at 166 Deputies in the Dáil very quickly. However, we will have had to change constituencies much more radically than if we had stuck with 164 to 168 Deputies — the margin that was given previously — and not unnecessarily changed constituencies. This is important because, as we know, the more radical the constituency review, the more upset among the public.
The other issue is the number of people we represent. The Constitution, in a technical sense, talks about us representing 30,000 people but, to a point, that is nominal. The reality is that each of us represents all the people in our constituencies. Even though we might not have been elected by all of them, all of them have a right to call on us. In a geographical sense, the population of the territory we represent is five times the number of population per seat. If we take it at approximately 30,000, in a five-seat constituency, we represent 150,000. However, when we compare that to single seat systems, we are comparing apples and oranges in terms of the physical area we represent.
A further difficulty which arises is that with more Deputies chasing around, one must go to everything for fear that someone else will go to them. Any Deputy in a multi-seat constituency will testify to that. If one was the only representative in a constituency, one might stay at home the odd time. However, we all labour under this paranoia that if one does not go, one of the other four might go and where would one be then because people will say one did not go.
I looked at the terms of reference of the previous commission and what is states is amazing. It states that it should endeavour to maintain continuity. The Government will give these terms of reference again but it is destroying continuity by virtue of trying to change things in a minor way, namely, trying to change the number of Deputies just for the optics.
The terms of reference also state the commission should have regard to the extent and identity of population in each constituency. I often wonder if the commission ever read that. The Minister of State, Deputy Perry, lives in the neighbouring county to the Taoiseach, who lives in County Mayo. Geographically, County Mayo must be the largest constituency in the country and one of the most sparsely populated parts of Ireland. There is only one decent town in the county in terms of population, Castlebar, and it is only a geospailín of a town, again may I stress, in population terms.
If one looks at the problem in Connacht, even Galway with a population of 60,000 or 70,000 is hardly a city in international terms. There are very few towns. Galway West is a large constituency with offshore islands, the large Connemara area and a large area east of the city. It is a pity there has not been more regard to the extent of these constituencies.
My prediction is that if we persist with this, counties Donegal and Kerry, some of the most sparsely areas in the country, will become five-seat constituencies. That gives a lie to what the Minister is trying to do. One of the terms of reference gets thrown out because continuity is destroyed and another gets thrown out because the commission has often come up with very large constituencies in rural areas.
The breaching of county boundaries is inevitable because of the tolerance ruling of the Supreme Court but I have always held the view that if we are going to breach them, breach them well and at least take a slice of a county that is big enough to elect someone. Where the real grief starts is where we take a little bit of a county and throw it into the neighbouring county. It feels like the cuckoo in the nest. It does not feel it belongs and it knows it cannot elect someone of its own.
In regard to the number of Deputies in a constituency, we should make all constituencies three seaters. It is very interesting that in Northern Ireland all the constituencies have the same number of seats. Just because having different sized constituencies goes back to the 1920s does not mean it is rational that people in this House have a totally different experience of politics and face a totally different challenge in getting elected by virtue of an independent commission. I would opt for a smaller sized constituency because of all the rivalries I mentioned. Every constituency should have the same number of Deputies and I would opt for three because it would reduce the rivalries been Deputies in the same constituency.
I could speak forever on this subject because it is one at which we really need to look. My simple message is that if we are not going to change the Constitution, we should not bother doing this because there are more downsides than upsides. I do not believe the Minister will get any kudos or thanks for what he is doing. As promised before this Government came in, we need to look at this issue in its totality and have a very open debate about it.
Contrary to popular myth and despite what the media in Dublin want to happen in this country, I do not believe we will ever get to a situation where people will not want to interact personally with their Deputy. What happens in other countries is their business. It is a charming and a good thing that people in this country feel they can go to any Deputy, whether the Taoiseach or an ordinary backbencher. It stops elites developing and stops privilege because one does not have to go through an intermediary to see one's elected representative, and long may that continue. However, to counterbalance an overly clientalist approach, which is driven by the four and five-seat constituencies, we would reduce it somewhat by having uniform three-seat constituencies.
I very much welcome this Bill. The political system requires major reform and this Bill is a first step in a positive direction to enhance democracy and political effectiveness in this country. It is especially relevant in light of recent events which precipitated the need to introduce such legislation without delay. The ruling by the High Court in November 2010 that there was unreasonable delay in holding the Donegal South-West by-election and that the delay was a breach of constitutional rights highlighted the need for such legislation. Such an occurrence can never happen again. It came about because common sense did not prevail in the previous Government to fill vacant seats in a timely fashion.
The UK does not need to legislate for writs to be moved because this generally occurs within three to six months of a casual vacancy arising. In Ireland, however, to ensure history does not repeat itself, a timeframe for the holding of a by-election should be enshrined in our legislation. I very much agree that by-elections should take place within six months of the vacancy arising. The electorate deserves to be fairly represented in Dáil Éireann at all times to maintain a democratic balance within a county. On such a small island one can understand how people can be aggrieved when neighbouring constituents, who often live only a few metres away, have an adequate share of representatives.
Legislation is urgently required because, constitutionally, there must be one Deputy per 20,000 to 30,000 people in each constituency. If this ratio is breached and people are denied their quota of representatives, a legal challenge could once more be taken to call a by-election, as occurred in November last year. This challenge brought before the High Court last year was an unnecessary cost to the State. This amending legislation is a mechanism for saving such wasted money and unnecessary recourse to the legal system.
We have two electoral systems on this island in terms of voting for national parliamentarians and both systems have by-elections. However, our neighbours in the North appear to address the issue of casual vacancies much more efficiently and without recourse to legislation. This amending legislation will give reassurance to the public that their voice will be heard from both the point of view of representation and their choice of Deputy. In Ireland we should embrace the fact we can again allow the electorate a choice to fill a causal vacancy. The holding of a by-election is important in terms of democracy as the people's voice can be heard.
This is unlike Malta, for example, where there is similar electoral system but a count-back system is worked for filling casual vacancies.
Our European Parliament does not have by-elections for MEPs and there is a substitute list instead for a vacant seat. However, the replacement MEP may not necessarily have been next in line on the official substitute list at the time of election and candidates lower on the list by default may take a seat in the Parliament. Is this really fair? Consequently, the Irish system appears to be fair as it allows the voice of the electorate to be heard.
There is the question of the need to reduce the number of Deputies in the Dáil. According to some leading political scientists, Irish figures are comparable internationally per head of population. The method used determines the appropriate number of representatives per cubic root of population, and based on the method, we should have 166 national politicians. However, the Bill is correct in decreasing the number of Deputies as Ireland is over-represented in terms of elected personnel, with 1,627 local councillors, along with 166 Deputies and 60 Senators.
This Government is serious about overall political reform, which must begin at the top with our national Parliament. Reducing the number of Deputies will decrease the link between local and national issues by focusing the attention on legislation to a greater extent. As a former county councillor just elected to the Dáil, I know the reduction in the number of Deputies will devolve power to local government and strengthen its role within communities in a move that would be appreciated by all concerned. It was recently indicated that only 61% of Deputies spend more than six hours per week on legislative work in the Dáil, and we must ensure this time is increased and that legislation becomes the primary focus of all Deputies.
An argument has been raised that a reduction in the number of Deputies will affect the level of accountability in the Parliament but I argue for the contrary. The fewer Deputies in the Dáil, the more responsible they will be for their actions and they will hence be more accountable to constituents and society as a whole.
This Bill is one step in addressing the lack of Government reform by previous Administrations. The recommendations of a number of independent and Government-backed reports have been discarded in favour of self-interest and this practice will now cease. We must change how the Dáil works and how we view our role as national elected representatives. Furthermore, in the current economic climate we cannot ignore the fact that reducing the number of Deputies is a cost-saving measure.
The Deputy is eating into his colleague's time.
Overall political reform is required and this Bill is a major step in that direction. I look forward to the establishment of the electoral commission, which will be tasked with addressing the current discrepancy in the electoral registers, which we all encountered in the recent general election, as well as many other functions.
I welcome publication of this Bill after such a short period of this Government in power. It addresses four key areas, including reducing the spending limit for the presidential election and the level of expenses that can be reimbursed to a candidate after that election. It also introduces time limits for holding by-elections and revises the terms of reference for constituency commissions.
The reduction of spending limits from €1.3 million to €750,000 was mentioned by Deputy Ó Cuív earlier and contrary to his view, I believe it will be of benefit to smaller parties as it will allow a more level playing field relative to larger and wealthier parties. Much more important is the reduction by 20% in the amount that will be reimbursed by the State to presidential candidates. That falls in line with the commitment across all Departments to seek cost savings where possible.
A third element is the introduction of time limits for holding by-elections. One of the most regrettable elements of the last Government's term in power was the abuse of democracy in our country by its refusing to hold by-elections for such a long period. It is to the credit of Deputy Pearse Doherty — who is in the House — that he was involved in forcing a High Court case on the matter. It is unfortunate that we have been forced into a position where we must legislate to protect this Dáil and democracy from a repeat of that abuse in the future. The six-month time limit must be welcomed.
Deputy Ó Cuív noted that if one cannot do it properly, nothing should be done; with electoral and political reform over the past 14 years, the last Government focused all its energy on not doing anything. In a brief time in power this Government has committed to an abolition, through referendum, of the Seanad and the reduction in the numbers of Deputies. As a result, we will see a reduction approaching 30% in the costs and numbers of representatives within the Oireachtas. Both parties in the Government gave a very clear commitment in advance of the general election that reform, savings and reductions must be delivered from the top down.
By virtue of the mandate which both Government parties received, and contrary to the view expressed by the main Opposition party, our people are ambitious to see real political reform. Although the new census has limited the option to leave a Dáil with between 152 and 160 Deputies, in addition to the potential reduction with the abolition of the Seanad, there will be enormous reform.
With regard to the electoral commission to be set up, some constituencies have seen repeated changes in boundaries. I know the commission will be independent but I would like to see where possible that constituencies which have seen many changes in boundaries in the past would have that factor taken into account. In my constituency of Cork North-Central there are elements to the north east and north west of the area that have been in three different constituencies in recent years. There must be an element of continuity. Where there has been a boundary change, another one should not be foisted on people. Otherwise, I welcome the Bill.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill this evening. During the recent election campaign I was asked many times, as a new candidate, why I had decided to run in politics. One of the main reasons was to become involved in political reform. There is a strong sense of cynicism in the electorate. People feel politics has failed them in many respects. I have always believed that the system could be changed but this can only be done from the inside.
The cynicism I refer to has affected all politics. Change is so important that we must, as a collective, restore people's faith in politics. Pope John Paul II once referred to politics as a "noble art". I believe in this sentiment, having grown up with the history of Collins, Cosgrave, Costello and FitzGerald. I want to see politicians once again in the same light in which those true statesmen are viewed. To do this we must change how politics work and make it more relevant to people's daily lives.
How can we best do this? We must recognise that one amendment will not change everything. National politics has always been linked with local authorities and local representation. We cannot change the representation of the Dáil or the role of the Deputy without changing our local councils and the role of councillors. Prior to the recent general election I met many constituents who expressed their desire that I should deal with national issues, if elected, rather than parish pump politics. Since my election on 25 February, I have met many constituents who want me to deal with more local issues that affect their lives while pursuing national issues in how they affect my constituency of Kildare South.
It is vital to balance local and national issues. A public representative should remain aware of the issues affecting constituents locally while dealing with national issues that affect constituents' lives in other less direct ways. To best do so, the role of the Deputy must be supported by strong local representation in local authorities. By empowering and adequately funding local government, we can greatly support the Deputy in spending more time on legislative issues.
This Bill will see the constituency commission charged with relocating constituency boundaries while returning fewer Deputies to the Dáil. If we are to reduce the number of Deputies, at the same time we must consider the role local authority members can play in the new political landscape. If the number of Deputies is to be reduced at a time when the population is continuing to increase, the role of the Deputy will have to change to take cognisance of the greater number of people each Deputy will be representing.
I agree with the recommendation that the commission should try to keep constituencies within county boundaries. I encourage the commission to act in such a manner. People have an affinity with where they are from. It is a great help for them to be able to connect with their public representatives if they share a common bond. This is already proving to be a reforming Dáil. A record number of new Members were returned at this year's general election. There is a great sense of opportunity and possibility at this time. I feel empowered by the opportunity to change the system. Some important reforms have taken place since March. The pay of the Taoiseach and Ministers has been cut. The arrangements for ministerial cars and drivers have been changed. Radical changes have been made to the pensions system.
Previous speakers referred to the old system for organising by-elections with particular reference to the vacancy that arose in Donegal South-West during the previous Dáil. An important point needs to be made in that context. I believe it will be addressed. I would welcome it. Decisions on representation in this Chamber should not be made at the whim of any Government, including this one. It is important for such decisions to be taken out of the hands of the Government of the day. I discovered when the census results were published recently that I represent more than the permitted maximum of 30,000 people. I look forward to the review of constituencies and boundaries.
Politics needs to regain credibility. If this is to happen, we must show the ability to reform. We must listen to the people who comprise our electorate. If they have become cynical, it is because politics failed them in the past. Many of them do not believe politicians have the good of the public at heart. It is up to us to restore trust and confidence through our actions and hard work. If we are to regain trust and a belief in honesty and fairness, we must remember we are here to serve. This Bill is a good starting point. I hope we can build on the proposals in it to restore a system people will believe in.
Like previous speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. As others said, it has been introduced as part of the process of reform that has been ongoing since this Dáil first met on 9 March last. Never before have we seen so much reform in such a short space of time. On its first day in office, the Government reduced the Taoiseach's salary and introduced a new structure for the transport of Ministers. It is possible that there will be a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, which would be important.
This Bill focuses on three areas, the first of which is the proposal to ensure by-elections are held within six months. The current arrangements for the holding of by-elections have been abused in the past by most of the large parties, including my party probably. Politics has been played. As we saw last November, the only people who win in such circumstances are the legal people in the High Court. This situation must not be allowed to continue. I welcome the proposal to provide for a six-month period in which future by-elections must be held. The second focus of this Bill is the reduction in the amount of money that can be spent during Presidential election campaigns. This measure must be commended. I would like to concentrate on the third focus of this Bill, which is the establishment of a boundary commission.
I listened attentively to Deputy Colreavy when he referred to himself as "almost an extinct species as a Deputy who happens to live in County Leitrim". I have the honour of representing the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. As a resident of east Carlow, however, I have to vote in the Wicklow constituency. Therefore, my family, friends and neighbours are not in a position to vote for me. I am a proud Carlow man. It is essential that county boundaries be observed when constituencies are drawn up. Many organisations, including the IFA, the ICMSA and the GAA, use simple slogans like "one club — one county". It is essential that county boundaries be maintained as far as possible, especially in rural Ireland.
It was mentioned earlier that people in rural Ireland, in particular, like to be able to associate with their local Deputies. They like to be able to talk to us in a positive or negative manner. It is essential that such contacts be maintained if possible, especially at county level. We are all very important. People get disillusioned and disenfranchised when they are not in a position to vote for the people they would like to vote for in their particular areas. When they are voting for people in one area at local authority elections and in a completely different area at general elections, they see no option. This issue has to be addressed if we are to get more people involved and interested, rather than completely disillusioned. It is important that we address such matters as we move into the future.
It is important for us to address the issues that were raised during the recent general election. Like previous speakers, I can say that the reform of the political system was raised at every second house I visited during the election campaign. It is important that we follow through on the reforms to which we committed ourselves. This Bill is an important step in that process. We must take into account the reform of local government that will take place in the coming weeks and months. When taken together, these measures will form the basis of a new Ireland of which we can all be proud.
It is with pleasure that I stand to address the House on this legislation. It is very rare that a Deputy speaks on legislation, some of which he had a part in instigating. I think I can say that in the case of the proposal that by-elections be held within six months. The reality is that following my victory and that of my party in the High Court last year, it is unlikely that any Government would get away with not holding a by-election within a six-month period, or at least shortly afterwards. A number of the Fine Gael speakers rightly acknowledged that no Government should have the right to obstruct democracy and delay a by-election for its own selfish reasons. Some Deputies mentioned that Fianna Fáil is not the only party to have been guilty of such behaviour. Sometimes we think Fianna Fáil is the only party to act in this way. Donegal South-West is probably a case in point. In the 1980s, a Fine Gael-Labour Party Government——
The Deputy is going back a long way.
Yes. It was the only other by-election that was supposed to happen.
The Deputy has a great memory.
The difference in the 1980s was that nobody had the guts to take the Government to court at that time and to win their case.
Fair play to the Deputy.
That is what happened at the time. The Minister might be able to confirm that the Government was hanging on by one vote at the time.
It was before I was born.
That is right. I think the Government had a majority of one in the early 1980s. If the by-election took place — one of the Coughlans had passed away — it was likely to be won by Fianna Fáil, which would have resulted in the collapse of the Government. It is unlikely that the Government will need to delay a by-election during the lifetime of this Dáil in order to stay in office. The introduction of this legislation by the Minister is the right step and the right thing to do.
I would like to reiterate one of the first questions I asked the Taoiseach after I was elected to this Dáil. I asked him whether the previous Government's decision to appeal last year's verdict to the Supreme Court would be halted in light of the likelihood of this legislation being presented. I should mention a possible conflict of interest, given that the reason for the appeal, which the current Government is continuing to uphold, was the decision I secured in the High Court. The Government's representatives and my own legal team have had to present themselves in the Supreme Court on a number of occasions. My team has presented itself there on three separate occasions. A great deal of work is being done on a weekly basis to prepare for that appeal. It is listed as a priority case in the Supreme Court.
Given that legislation is before this House to ensure by-elections are held within six months of the vacancy arising, given that the by-election which was the subject of my case has taken place and given that the Dáil to which I was subsequently elected no longer exists — a general election has been held since then — it makes no sense to continue to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. It is nonsensical for the reasons I have outlined. If the appeal goes ahead in the Supreme Court — I do not wish to predetermine the outcome of the judges' deliberations — I suggest the clear decision that was made by the President of the High Court will be upheld. The arguments that were made last year are as valid today, if not more so in light of the introduction of this legislation, as they were at that time.
Many members spoke about the need to reform politics and reduce the costs associated with it. The costs involved in appealing this case to the Supreme Court are absolutely massive, especially at a time when cuts are being imposed in areas like education. The ongoing health cuts were discussed in the context of Sinn Féin's Private Members' motion. It is more than likely that the cost of this appeal will run into hundreds of thousands of euro. It will waste the time of the Government's legal representatives and of my legal team, not to mention my own time. If this section of the Bill is enacted, hopefully the Government will instruct the Attorney General to withdraw the appeal to the Supreme Court.
That said, this measure is to be welcomed and I commend the Minister on speedily introducing this legislation. The arguments put up by the previous Government simply do not wash. We should not have the right to postpone democracy for whatever reason. I do not agree with some listening to the debate who have argued that if there was another election pending in a number of months, we should suspend the by-election. I believe in a six-month outer limit.
One can look back, as I did in preparation for the High Court appeal, at the vacancies that were filled during difficult turbulent times in the State's history such as the Civil War where vacancies were filled within a number of weeks of a death arising. In recent times, it has not been as a result of death but the result of resignation or of Members being elected to higher office, etc.
There is also an argument being put forward, although not in this legislation, that by-elections are not the best way to deal with this issue and we should adopt one of the other member state's ways of dealing with it, which is, taking the next person on the list, namely the person who has the highest first preference vote afterwards, or the party or independent nominating someone to replace the Member, as happens at local authority level. I disagree because by-elections are a good barometer of public opinion and the Dáil must be accountable to the people. We are only here at the whim of the electorate and it is the people of the State who are sovereign. It is important, in terms of having that barometer, to be able to go to the people to ask who they want to represent them in the constituency and I commend the Minister on this legislation.
There has been much debate about this reduction in the number of TDs. I have listened to speakers who have argued for this say that no Government has ever brought in so much political reform. That is probably the case. There is much political reform. I stated on RTE this week that one of the matters on which I commend the Government is that it is bringing forward political reform. I welcome much of the stuff. There are some parts of it that I do not like but, in saying that, there is perhaps more that I could support than I would not support.
On political reform in the context of reducing the number of TDs, I can speak on my party's opinion but I will speak personally. I have not been convinced by any speaker as to how reducing the number of TDs will make this institution any more effective.
Deputy Doherty can vote against the Bill.
I will vote against the Bill. I am genuinely engaging; I am not having a go. We are all on the same page that we want a more effective Parliament. We want to deliver better. We should be focused on national issues. We are legislators and we need to deal with the big issues that affect every person across the State, and that is the parish pump politics as well. Instead of dealing with the local school that is being closed, let us deal with the legislation that affects that or let us deal with the budget.
Deputy Doherty is not too bad at it.
That is the reality. The question is: how reducing the number of TDs will make this institution any better.
On its own, it will not.
It will not, that is true. An argument that has been put forward is that it will stop us being more parochial and force us to deal with national legislation in a bigger way. That is nonsense. We could have the best institutions and the best reform packages possible, but unless TDs want to step up to the mark, then it makes no difference. When I started off in electoral politics members of other political parties told me the only way I would get elected in a rural constituency was to attend every funeral and wake. "Not a hope in hell", was my reply. I was not doing it because it is not my personality nor is it my politics. My mantra was I can either attend your funeral when you are dead or try to change your life for the better when you are alive. Thankfully, that viewpoint has resonated with the people. In the last election I topped the poll. In the by-election I got elected as well. It shows that people are not fickle, that they want their representatives to speak on the national issue that affects them locally. That is the point. Having 152 TDs will not solve that issue.
If reducing the number of TDs will not deliver a better system, then the question is why we are doing it. If the only reason we are doing it is to reduce costs, I presented a Bill to the House, which has passed First Stage, to reduce the cost of TDs. For example, if we reduce the number of TDs by 14, the maximum allowed under this legislation, the savings on TDs' wages would be in the region of €1.8 million. If the Minister takes the proposal in the Bill that I presented to the House a fortnight ago, which is to cut TDs' salaries by 15%, which would still leave them handsomely paid at €75,000 per year, which is nothing to shy away from, he would save in excess of €1 million more than what is being presented under this legislation. If we want to save costs, that is the way to do it.
One of the ways we could try to ensure there were more TDs dealing with national legislation is to look at the list system. Many parties argued for a list system or partial list system in their political reform proposals in the run up to the election, and I am disappointed a partial list system is not included in this legislation. If we are serious about political reform, why are we cutting the number of TDs which, while popular, will not make the institution any more effective or lead to better government? Perhaps we should look at the list system for which we all argued beforehand. Many of us had different views as to how the list system would be elected. Sinn Féin favours a mixed system where two thirds would be elected through PR-STV and one third would be elected via the list system. I put that to the Minister as something he may look at in future legislation.
Others have argued against the multi-seat constituencies but I think it is important to keep them because it is the best way of ensuring the minority view in a constituency has a representative in the House. We cannot have a Parliament that is dominated by larger parties. This House represents a more balanced view of the public between the four larger parties and a large number of Independents, and that is healthy for democracy. The limitation placed on the constituency commission that the maximum number of seats in any constituency is five is something that should be looked at. I would like to hear the arguments why we do not allow the commission to look at a six-seat constituency. For example, if there was a six-seat constituency, it would probably mean that Donegal would be one constituency. Coming up to election time, I would not thank the Minister that I would have to travel all the way to Malin Head.
Would Deputy Doherty settle for a five-seater?
Neither would Deputy Mac Lochlainn thank the Minister for it. For example, if my proposal of a partial list system were to be enacted, then Donegal would have to be a single constituency and that poses major challenges.
That is not good from the point of view of a candidate or an elected representative, but it is the best way of dealing with it. Having a larger constituency with more seats ensures the minority view will get heard and, one hopes, be represented in Parliament while ensuring at the same time that the majority view is returned in enough numbers to form a Government. The issue of six-seat or seven-seat constituencies is something we should look at.
I would like to hear the Minister's views on a constitutional change. The 30,000 person limit in the Constitution is something that probably needs to be changed. It is likely that this limit will have to be amended in the coming months or years ahead. We should do it now. It is something that was developed a long time ago and it puts too many constraints on the commission. While constituencies should be broadly in line with each other with each TD representing so many constituents, because of the population growth in the State, it is placing too many constraints on the constituency commission which results in our dividing, dissecting and putting pieces of counties here, there and everywhere. Other Deputies have referred to people's identity, their association with their county and the identity we have with our parish which stems from the Gaelic Athletic Association. Everyone likes to wear their county jersey but in future some Deputies may have to wear three or four jerseys and that would be awkward for them. I am keen to hear the arguments in this regard.
My argument against cutting the number of Deputies is simply because I am not convinced it will make the House any better. I accept there is an issue in respect of what happens to backbenchers. Last week, I listened to a maiden speech given by a Deputy some four months after the election. It was a good speech and the Deputy had a good deal of knowledge on the issue before the House. This shows up a real issue: what is a backbencher to do? What does a person do who is part of a larger party in which, generally, the speaking time is divided between the Front Bench and Ministers of State? These people do not have the option or chance to get involved in the legislation although they may wish to get involved in the nuts and bolts of it but cannot because of these constraints. There are ways to deal with this through reform of the committees, some of which is underway. Other changes need to take place within the House. People are constrained under Standing Orders in respect of the type of questioning in which they can engage.
I wish to advert to several other things not included in the legislation. I call on the Minister to examine one issue of concern to me in respect of which someone might end up going to the High Court if it is repeated in future. At the last election, people were denied their vote because of the rules. People from many of the islands vote on a different day from the mainland. I refer to the example of Arranmore Island off the coast of Donegal. A person working on Arranmore Island but away from home would not be there to cast his or her vote on election day and should be entitled under legislation to a postal vote because he or she is working away from home. The vote should be stamped from the employer or, if the person is self employed, he or she fills in the appropriate form. A problem arose at the last election in the case of a person working away from home on the island. A person was unable to fill in the required form because the form had to be with the local authority, in this case Donegal County Council, before a certain date. The person had to indicate on the form that he or she would be working away from home on the date of the election. However, the election date was not set until after the deadline for the postal vote form. This is a real issue and there are several ways to address it. I sent an appeal on radio for someone to come forward and go to the High Court but no one has come forward so far.
Will the Deputy indemnify the costs of the plaintiff?
I had not thought about it. The right to cast one's vote is important. I asked the ferryman providing a service to Arranmore Island to tell me the number of days during the course of last year he was unable to get in and out of the island. He put it to me that he was able to get in and out of the island every day last year. That is the norm. The practice of having a different day for voting on the island can be a problem. I realise there are smaller islands without proper piers and so on but we should examine that problem.
Another issue is the option of automatic registration and especially the provision of registration days in colleges. Simple measures could be carried out. There is much talk of political reform and cutting the number of Deputies. Among the most effective things we could do are to allow people to register up until the day of the vote, with appropriate safeguards in place; have registration days in colleges; and get the Garda to go into colleges on certain days to register people for postal votes. At present, the timeframes involved are too tight and cumbersome and people are unable to get to Garda stations on time. I call on the Minister to deal with the issue of postal votes in rural areas whereby one must go to a Garda station but where the Garda station is only open for a number of hours. This is causing people to be unable to register on the supplementary register and for a postal vote and they are being disenfranchised as a result.
I welcome the fact the Minister is legislating in respect of by-elections. I do not welcome the proposed reduction in the number of Deputies because it does not lead to political reform. If the Minister intends to push through this legislation and if he succeeds in attaining a reduction of approximately 14 Deputies, since there will be empty chairs he may consider allowing northern representation. We could fill the gaps with representatives from the North, as agreed at the time of the Good Friday Agreement.
I wish to share time with Deputies Kevin Humphreys, White and Moloney. During the last election all parties represented in the House spoke of the need for electoral reform. As reflected in the electoral outcome it is clear there is an appetite for political change. I welcome the proposals outlined in the Bill but I would be concerned were we to consider the job complete if and when the Bill is passed. Otherwise, we would have missed a golden opportunity to make a lasting, effective and positive change to our political landscape and processes.
The reductions in spending limits for the presidential election as reflected in the Bill make a good deal of sense. These reductions should be extended to all elections and to spending prior to elections for a greater period than is the case at present. Political participation whether at local or national level should not be the exclusive preserve of the rich, the well-connected and those in the best position to finance an election campaign.
The introduction a time limit of six months for the holding of by-elections makes sense as well. Never again should we encounter the farcical situation whereby the Government is dragged through the courts at great expense to the taxpayer to force the calling of a by-election, a matter reflected on in considerable detail by Deputy Doherty. I note from my observation of the monitor earlier that he was not behind the door when it came to congratulating himself on several occasions for embarking on that particular journey but in fairness to him, credit is due. I add the caveat that we should consider the wisdom of being required to hold by-elections at all. By-elections tend to be dominated by local issues and personalities. Alternatively, they can become a referendum on a given Government's popularity at a given time. The record of Government parties in by-elections during the past 30 years speaks for itself. Is it sensible to decide the make up a Government following a national general election and then allow its stability to be chipped away by a succession of by-elections? This is not likely to be an issue in the lifetime of this Dáil but it has been in the past and inevitably it will be in the future. There is a strong argument in favour of considering a substitution system following the departure of a Member from the House.
The reduction in the number of Deputies makes sense but it should be tied into the larger scenario of reform of local and national government. In essence reform should redefine the roles and demands made on local and national politicians. Merely tinkering with the number of Deputies is not enough. It is clear from the census results that a significant reduction in numbers cannot be achieved without amending the Constitution. This is a personal opinion but we should proceed and amend it to reflect a different scenario with, possibly, a greater reduction in the number of Deputies. This could be done with relatively little expense and at the time of the presidential election and it is worth considering.
It is imperative that the message goes out from this House that politicians are not seen to be in the business of self-preservation. Everyone will agree this would reflect badly on the business of politics, a profession already badly damaged in recent years. The number of Deputies is almost irrelevant unless we tie it to changes in local government. I realise the Minister is keen to embark on a process of reform of local government which will better reflect the situation in which we find ourselves at present. We have a system more akin to local administration than local government. There is a strong case for potentially halving the number of local authorities, consolidating the number of councillors, giving them real and meaningful jobs to do and providing them with more powerful roles. I imagine the Minister will be keen to get his teeth into these matters at a later stage in this Dáil term.
Is the Deputy trying to get rid of me already?
When we are discussing local elections and local authorities we tend to stick rigidly to maps drawn 500 years ago by an English Queen. While county boundaries determine the colour of the jersey one wears on Sunday, they should not act as impediments to the development of places such as my home town of Drogheda, which I represent and which is seriously constrained by the position in which it finds itself. Waterford is in a similar position, as is Athlone, but I note action has been taken in respect of Limerick. Moreover, while consideration might be given to making membership of a local authority a full-time occupation, this should be examined as part of the entire spectrum of political reform.
I welcome the Bill as a highly positive step and a start on electoral reform for the Government. It will send a strong message that the Government is serious about what it is doing, that it is not business as usual and that the system will be reformed and made more effective. There is an opportunity to make a real difference to the political system during the lifetime of this Dáil and I believe all sides of the House wish to see progress in this regard. This has been reflected in much of what I have heard during today's debate and I look forward to hearing the views of other Deputies, as well as considering other elements of this Bill on Committee Stage.
Having listened to Deputy Nash's contribution, I now discern the reason we are members of the same political party. First, I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill so swiftly. It is a down payment on what must be done with regard to reform. The Minister has worked exceptionally hard to bring this legislation before the House and I congratulate him.
The first point I wish to consider is the reduction in spending limits for the presidential election. I consider the reduction of this limit to €750,000 to be highly positive although personally, I would prefer it to be reduced further. I am open to considering this point on Committee Stage and intend to make a submission in this regard at that stage.
In itself, this reduction in spending limits will produce savings because the maximum reimbursement to a candidate will be reduced by €60,000. Were three candidates to qualify for such a reimbursement, the total saving would be €180,000, which in these days of austerity, equates to two classrooms. This point should not be undermined and this example should be made. Costs must be contained and the influence of money must be minimised in the exercise of democracy. Much remains to be done in this regard and the issue of corporate donations must be tackled and transparency must be increased. While this measure constitutes a major part of a move in the right direction, one must continue to push forward in this regard.
The second major provision all Members can welcome concerns the creation of a six-month limit on by-elections. This issue brought the House into great disrepute during the last Dáil and as Deputy Nash observed, the previous Government should be ashamed of its idea that one can block a by-election. This six-month limit is an excellent idea and I congratulate Deputy Pearse Doherty on taking this issue to court. In this context, Members must consider and discuss whether the existing method of holding by-elections should be retained or whether consideration should be given to adopting the co-option system used in local Government to fill vacancies. I welcome that this measure will bring back dignity to the House, in that a defined structure will be in place on how Members who either leave the House or pass away may be replaced.
Deputy Pearse Doherty nodded when the Minister stated previously that this is the first step, which in itself is insufficient and that Members must go much further. Deputy Nash made the point clearly on how the strengthening and reform of local Government will bring about real reform and will allow for a great deal more time to be left to concentrate on legislation in this House. The vast majority of Members in this Dáil have been concentrating on legislation and one may observe the welcome engagement in committee of the new Deputies.
As for the reduction in the number of Dáil Deputies, each Member in this House has a vested interest in not voting for this measure.
It is a little like turkeys voting for Christmas and as a Deputy who was elected to the last seat in his constituency with one of the lowest first preference votes in the country, I should be for self-preservation.
As Deputy Quinn will not be standing in the next election, the Deputy will be all right.
I will tell him the Minister told me that. Nevertheless, I welcome the challenge because Members must lead from the front. If they ask the rest of the country to accept cuts and reductions, they also must lead in that regard. I was present in the Chamber this morning and was struck by the number of matters raised under Standing Order 32 on purely parochial and local issues. This measure will shift the balance in this regard, as local government, rather than the national Parliament, should deal with local issues.
As the Government tackles the massive challenges of closing the deficit, reducing spending and getting Ireland back to work, it is critical that Members lead by example. This measure is an important symbol of the changes being brought about by the Government in respect of the way Members and society as a whole work. I welcome the Minister's bravery and the effort he has made in pushing through this measure.
I also welcome the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011. It constitutes an important advance and as other speakers have noted, it forms a single element of a highly ambitious programme of reform the Government has set out to achieve and introduce. It is important that Members bear this point in mind.
One of the most important measures that has been agreed in the programme for Government is the establishment of a constitutional convention. I heard Deputies Pearse Doherty and Éamon Ó Cuív making a number of points earlier that I thought had great validity such as, for example, a suggestion about a list system. In addition to a number of suggestions from other speakers, such a change could only be dealt with or addressed through constitutional change, which is the reason it will be extremely important for the Government to turn its attention as quickly as possible, hopefully later this year, to establishing the constitutional convention once it has got through the more immediate proposals regarding constitutional change and the referendums that already are on the blocks. It is only when such a constitutional convention is established that it will be possible to consider all these issues in the round. It will be possible to consider matters more widely.
Electoral reform and the electoral system for the Dáil is one of the priority items in the programme for Government the constitutional convention is to address. It will provide the opportunity to deal with questions such as whether there should be a list system, the broader question of elections or perhaps the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. In itself, that measure would not require a constitutional change but broad questions on what electoral system it is best to have or how best to elect people to this Parliament can be addressed in the context of a constitutional convention. I hope such a convention is brought forward as early as possible in the autumn.
Nevertheless, simply because one states it is necessary to have a broader debate on such issues and on how to have constitutional change, this does not mean there are no measures that can be taken now. One should not allow the perfect be the enemy of the possible or the more immediately achievable measures such as those contained in this legislation. It contains three discrete items, each of which can and should be dealt with at this time and which should not be obliged to wait for the broader programme or agenda. The question of by-elections manifestly should be dealt with as quickly as possible and it is good the Minister has brought forward this measure so quickly. The Government may consider itself to be under a certain amount of pressure on foot of the High Court decision but notwithstanding that, it still is commendable that the Government has brought forward this proposal as quickly as it has.
I am unsure whether to describe myself as an unwitting victim or beneficiary of the delay in respect of——
The Deputy looked like a victim at the time.
——fighting what would have been my second by-election within the lifetime of the previous Dáil. However, it is important to get away from the temptation that exists for all governments but which was particularly unacceptable and remarkable during the last Dáil, when for naked political advantage, there was a clear attempt to avoid facing the people and to avoid being obliged to face a position in this Chamber in which the Government's majority manifestly would be threatened if not brought down. This measure is highly important and I congratulate the Minister for bringing it forward so quickly by way of legislation.
There has been much debate recently on the relationship between the Executive, the Parliament, the courts and the Judiciary but it should never be necessary in a democracy for any citizen to be obliged to apply to the courts to vindicate what is the most fundamental democratic right he or she has, which is the right to cast a vote and be represented in Parliament. It really should never be necessary. The Minister referred in his speech to the choice between three, four or seven months and, in my view, the choice of a six-month period is correct. It is also wise to maintain the current system for that six months, in other words, that parties are allowed to maintain the convention of bringing forward the writ within a six-month period and, if this is not done, the mechanism is triggered as per the legislation.
As regards the number of Deputies, I admit that I am sceptical about the reduction in numbers. I will support the proposal but I hope the commission will find it necessary and appropriate to err towards the higher number of the interval proposed by the Minister. I understand all the arguments about change from the top and cost but the level of representation of the people in Parliament is extremely important and we must ensure a level of representation. The Minister referred to the numbers in the combined Houses, the Dáil and Seanad, of 226 Members and he applied this number to the population of 4.5 million. Realistically it should be computed on the basis of the Dáil. The Seanad is an important Chamber and we will have to deal with the question of whether it is to be retained. However, it is not representative in the way this House is. If we were to choose the median number of 157 Members, it would end up that the ratio would be one Member to approximately 30,000. This is equivalent to the representation in Denmark and New Zealand and these other countries to which the Minister referred. I maintain my scepticism but I support the Minister on this issue.
Like others in the Labour Party, I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. The issues to be dealt with are, among others, the issues debated during the general election, and the Minister has taken action in this regard by presenting the Bill to the House.
I am at one with the other speakers on the proposals for by-elections and for the expenditure limits in presidential elections. I welcome and look forward to the establishment of the commission which will provide a great opportunity for citizens who have much to say and have opinions on how this country should be reformed and modernised. This is an opportunity presented by this Government to the population.
I have been a life-long opponent of the Seanad because it has its roots in elitism and in the outgoing British authorities and their discussions with the incoming new Irish establishment and not one, but two, churches. I have never had any time for the Seanad, aside from the fact that people talk about how much money its abolition will save, be that €7 million or €8 million. In recent times I hear people talking about how important for democracy it is to preserve the Upper House. I have never heard one of these people referring to the representation of one of the largest sections of Irish society, the almost 500,000 unemployed people. I did not hear a single person during the Seanad elections talk about having someone in the Seanad who is unemployed. I look forward to the establishment of the commission and to the abolition of the Seanad. In case the Minister is nervous about reducing the number of TDs, I was out in Kildare Street earlier and I did not see thousands of Irish people with their placards so it is obvious the Minister is doing the right thing. On the other hand, I would be bringing the Minister a different message if he were to propose to increase the number of TDs, and the situation outside these large granite walls with their large black railings would be different.
I must make it clear that some Members of the Seanad have done some very good things. I can think of one good Member——
I know one.
There may be others from Cork. We were in the council together so I always admired this man's contribution. I hate to disagree with my Labour Party colleagues but, in my view, the Minister did not go far enough. One of the best examples is that great Cork man, Seán Moylan, from north Cork, a former IRA man, former Sinn Féin man, and, dare I say, a former Fianna Fáil man. He had very independent views about the size of this House because of the size of the nation and I agree with him entirely. I could count on one hand the number of times I have been in agreement with a Fianna Fáil man but Seán Moylan was right. He thought the Dáil had too many Members for a new nation and things could not be done. I regret it was not a Labour man or a Fine Gael man who said it but I agree with the Cork man. If the Minister were to reduce the numbers even further, I would have no qualms about that. I welcome the Bill.
I wish to share time with Deputy Joan Collins. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and to comment on some matters raised during the course of the debate. I welcome the provision in the Bill whereby by-elections will take place within six months of the vacancy arising. We are agreed the situation was completely unacceptable and almost anti-democratic, especially the almost two-year delay in the case of Donegal South-West by-election and the almost year-long delay before the by-elections in Waterford and Dublin South were held. The six-month period is correct.
I do not understand the reason the previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government had allowed this matter to go to the courts for adjudication. Deputy Doherty won that court case but I do not understand why an appeal was lodged nor do I understand why the current Government appears to be continuing that appeal. I am assuming that once this Bill is passed, the appeal will be withdrawn.
The proposals for the spending limits for the presidential election are welcome but whether they go far enough is a matter for debate. I would like to see a further reduction in the limits. The Minister should have taken the opportunity to include proposals for spending limits in other elections, in particular, Dáil elections. There is room for significant reductions in spending on general elections. The very narrow timescale included for election expenditure from the date of the announcement of the election to the election day is much too short a timescale. Other spending through the course of the previous 12 months should be included in election expenditure. It is quite clear there is much expenditure in the period before the election which should be regarded as election expenditure.