Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was in possession and there are 14 minutes remaining in the slot. Is Deputy Seán Kenny taking over from his colleague?
Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
This Bill will address issues of serious public concern in the operation of the political system in Ireland and incentivise parties to ensure 30% of their general election candidates are women. It will implement specific commitments contained in the programme for Government in respect of political donations, having regard to recommendations made in the final report of the Moriarty tribunal. It can be seen as one part of a wider programme to reform our system of politics and government. Reform should not be feared, particularly when it opens the political process to greater scrutiny. A closed political system breeds mistrust in politics and for those who work within it. I see this every day in my political life and would be surprised if practising politicians were not also aware of it.
The general scheme of the Bill makes provision for the restriction of corporate donations, a reduction in the amounts that can be received as political donations and also a reduction in the thresholds for declaring political donations. Political parties will also be required to submit their annual accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication. The Bill aims to increase transparency with regard to all donations to ensure there is no question of unhealthy relationships. All political donations will be dealt with in an open and transparent manner. I very much welcome this development.
As an incentive to encourage the selection of a greater number of women candidates, the new legislation includes a provision that political parties will face a cut of one half of their State political funding if they do not have at least 30% female and 30% male candidates at the next general election. This will rise to 40% after seven years. This is a groundbreaking political opportunity to incentivise a shift towards a gender balance in Irish politics. As a man who has been active in politics for some time, I welcome this development. Irish politics is badly in need of greater female participation. However, while required, gender quotas are only the first step. Other change is needed also in order to increase the number of elected females. Changes to how political representation works are also required. I refer to a move to conventional business hours and an end to the late night meetings which conflict with the ability to carry on family life. This would be a positive development for male as well as female politicians.
The Government is keen to have greater transparency in the context of decision making and is soon to publish new laws, based on the very robust Canadian model, on the regulation of lobbyists. These laws will force lobbyists to disclose all their contacts with Deputies, Senators and civil servants. The proposals dealing with this cover all organisations, including charities, professional bodies and, most importantly, commercial lobbyists, who make representations to politicians and civil servants regarding policy or prospective decisions. This will be the first occasion on which members of the public will be able to view information on the contacts made between lobbyists and the Government and how intensely these lobbyists push for what they are seeking. This is a critically important issue and it must be highlighted that the Government's move in respect of it comes only a few months after the publication of the Mahon report which recommended far greater transparency with regard to the role of lobbyists.
I understand a number of proposals are being considered in this regard. I refer to a two-year "cooling-off" period for public servants before they can work in the private sector or any area where a potential conflict of interest might arise in respect of the area of public employment in which they were previously employed. There were examples of this in the area of local government during the property boom when some local authority managers who were retiring went to work for developers. A statutory register of lobbyists that will record the dates of all forms of communications, including e-mails or telephone contacts, between lobbyists and office holders or civil servants on policy, legislation or prospective decisions is to be established. There will also be a public register, with details of contacts to be maintained by an independent body such as the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Office of the Information Commissioner.
Open access to the Government is an important matter of public interest and lobbying is, within reason, a legitimate activity. However, the public should be able to know who is engaged in such activity. A definition of lobbying should encompass any communication on legislation, policy or decisions being made by office holders, including Deputies, Senators or councillors and senior officials, civil servants or advisers. If adopted, these proposals will represent a radical change in Irish politics, in which informal lobbying has taken place in the past. Sometimes this was based on a nod and a wink, while on other occasions it involved the passing of brown envelopes. All of this occurred with little public knowledge of the extent of the access those seeking to change our laws had to decision makers.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011. This is an important item of reforming legislation which will change many things about how our political system is run. This will be a change for the better. Changes to the current political funding regime should lead to a move away from the perception of politics as being in the hands of big business and corporates. The removal of these links is very welcome to me in my role as a politician. Their removal will allow us to do our work in a fully open and transparent manner.
One of the biggest challenges Members face is to restore people's faith in politics and politicians. This can only happen through reform and the Bill is an important part of our reform package. Reform of the political system is one of the main reasons that I decided to run for election to Dáil Éireann. It was a matter that was continually raised with me during last year's general election campaign and even during the recent referendum campaign. Citizens want to see a change in how politics functions and a reduction in the maximum permitted levels relating to both corporate and individual donations to political parties is a key component in this regard. This gives rise, however, to a debate on how people expect politics to be funded. Members of the general public do not want big business to be in a position to provide large donations. However, they are not very happy when large amounts of taxpayers' money are used to fund parties.
Fine Gael holds a national draw once a year. This is the party's largest source of income and involves individual members and supporters throughout the country buying tickets which cost €80. The election campaign run by Barack Obama almost four years ago revolutionised how political campaigns in the United States were funded. Members of the public were encouraged, online and elsewhere, to give what they could in order to be part of Mr. Obama's campaign. The amounts donated were small, but even giving a couple of dollars allowed American voters to feel part of one of the most exciting political campaigns in the world. This has the added bonus of giving a sense of ownership and interest in campaigns to the wider public. I hope the changes to levels of political funding proposed in the Bill will lead to a wider participation in campaigns by more Irish citizens and also that it will lead to larger numbers of interested people giving small donations, thereby allowing them to feel part of the political system. This could only be a good thing.
I wish to address another aspect of the Bill, namely, the measures relating to the under-representation of women in the Dáil. This is an extremely serious issue and one which should be addressed at the highest level. We have long moved on from the time when the country was run exclusively by men. The universally acclaimed achievements of both Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese who, between them, served as Head of State for over 20 years show the very high level of skills, values and political acumen that women bring to the political system. It is for this reason that I welcome the provisions in the Bill. However, I would like them to be implemented at an earlier stage than that envisaged because this would ensure they would have a greater chance of success. If we are serious about introducing gender quotas that will work, political parties must initially look to the forthcoming local elections in 2014. There is serious under-representation of females at local level. The level of female representation on councils reached 15% for the first time in 1999. It rose to a high of 17% in 2004 but then fell back to 16% following the local elections in 2009. There is no better education for a future Deputy than time spent as a local representative. Time spent as a local councillor would show candidates that they are well up for the job and increase their confidence, if that is an issue. It would also vastly increase the chance of more female candidates getting elected to Dáil Éireann. They would be better known to the local electorate and, perhaps more importantly for candidate selection, well known and proven to the local party hierarchy who select candidates. From my own experience, my role as a county councillor gave me the experience and belief to go on to be a Deputy. It is great first step and grounding in the role of a public representative.
I note and acknowledge the Minister's points that due to the funding structure of parties being linked to general election performance, it is not possible to tie these proposed changes in at local level. I am hopeful, however, that even though not required, political parties will start the process of seeking more female candidates for the next local elections.
In practice, it will make sense for parties to be seeking more balance in candidates in 2014, once this legislation is enacted, to allow them to be in a strong position to implement these changes at the next general election, thus having a greater percentage of women in the field as potential Dáil candidates long before the next general election.
Caithfidh mé a admháil go bhfuil saghas díomá orm nach bhfuil níos mó san mBille. Ní fheictear ann ach ar dhá rud. I am slightly disappointed. I would have preferred to look at the bigger picture of political reform rather than at the two areas the Bill encompasses. I know certain things move slowly and I accept the need for due process, consultation and ensuring all angles are covered. However, it has long been acknowledged that many aspects of political life are in need of reform. The Bill only covers the two aspects of funding and gender. In the course of the time allowed to me, I will look at other aspects relating to political reform.
The Government came to power with a considerable mandate and on a great wave of positivity and expectation that things would be different and that reform was coming sooner rather than later. I thought we would be moving at a different pace, grasping those nettles that have been stifling society.
The constitutional convention is a good idea, but I wonder about how it is to be set up and whether that will enable or inhibit what it is setting out to do. I know a constitutional convention cannot cover everything, but two aspects being covered, reducing the voting age and the length of the presidential term, are fairly straightforward. It only requires that they be put to a vote. Those two items could be covered in a referendum.
The Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, commented on the significance of making space in civil society for promoting and protecting human rights. I support the suggestion from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that there be wider ranging participative consultation. Amnesty International has called for the constitutional convention to examine human rights law and how best to protect economic, social and cultural rights. It is vital the constitutional convention look at these issues. There was wide-ranging consultation on the White Paper on Irish aid. That set a very good example.
Figures on gender balance are startling. We are in an area of male domination, but only numerically. Intellectually, socially, work-wise, and in multi-tasking and juggling demands, women are the dominant force. A report published in May of this year shows Ireland well below the European average with regard to the proportion of female members of parliament. The European average of women members, in both lower and upper houses, is 24.68%. The highest is 44.99% and the lowest 8.7%. Ireland hovers around 15%. In the 27 EU Governments, the average number of women ministers is 25.71%. The highest, in Sweden, is 54.17% and the lowest, in Greece, is 5.56%. That might have been a contributing factor to Greece's current woes. Ireland has 13.33% women ministers. We do better in the European Parliament, where the average is 34.26% and Ireland has 33.33%. The figures there range from 61% to 0%.
We know we are in a very male-dominated Dáil. Quotas are proposed. At the next general election, 30% of all candidates must be women, or political parties will face a cut in State funding. A side, but important, issue is whether political parties should receive State funding at all. The Bill does not take into account women who stand as independent candidates.
I am against quotas as a way to address the issue of more women in politics, even though I understand the arguments for them. Parliament is not representative of society in any event. If that is the principle on which this proposal is operating, it follows that there should be quotas for other groups in society who are not represented here, such as certain socioeconomic groups, age groups, minority groups, new communities, the unemployed and those with disabilities. We know that certain professions are over-represented in the House. Everyone who is elected has a duty to represent all their constituents. I do not see women Deputies as representatives of women and men Deputies as representatives of men.
The idea of quotas smacks of tokenism. Women, if they choose to stand, are very well capable of being elected on their own merits. We need only look at any community throughout Ireland to see examples of women who are taking dominant and strong roles and getting the work done. In Dublin Central, two of the four Deputies are female. We have a perfect gender balance. Of the two local authority areas in Dublin Central, the inner city ward had a 50:50 male:female ratio until a recent move by one of the councillors, and the Cabra-Glasnevin ward has three female councillors for every two males.
Why do more women not stand for election? I pay tribute to those who do stand, and I do not denigrate anyone in the House but I believe women have more sense than to stand for the Dáil. Women, in spite of our reputation for talking, are doers. We do not see enough doing in this House but we hear a great deal of talking.
Putting women candidates on the ballot paper is tokenistic. Apart from anything else, it does not guarantee that women will be elected. It pays lip service to the aim of getting more equal representation between men and women in the Dáil rather than actually achieving something.
The Bill lets the parties off the hook. They can point out that they have put women on the ballot paper and that it is not their fault if they are not elected. Political parties have much soul searching to do with regard to election strategy, and I acknowledge the Labour Party as different from the others in this regard. I am talking about decisions to stand one, two or three candidates, vote management, and so on. Women are sometimes put on a ballot paper, but in such a way as to make it difficult for them to be elected. I have heard women Deputies say this, in this Dáil and the previous one. Women have been on ballot papers and not been elected. This can depend on where the woman is put. At the last general election count in Dublin Central, I saw some ballot papers where only women candidates were voted for. I am not sure that is a good idea.
We know of some of the reasons for the under-representation of women in political life. We know of the barriers at the various stages from self-selection through party selection to the election itself. We know of the five Cs a woman needs to enter politics, including child care. I do not totally accept the argument about child care, because men have children too. I dislike the way child care is seen as the prerogative of the mother. It is an issue for fathers also. Why is child care not cited as a factor in male representation?
There is evidence from Ireland and other democracies that the sex of a candidate is of less importance than to a voter than the candidate's party, the policy positions taken and whether a candidate is a member of a Government or Opposition party. I presume the same is true for non-party candidates.
Deputy Tuffy referred to quotas, the principle of democratic representation and voter choice. There is a valid argument that quotas could be seen to contravene the liberal democratic principle of merit and to violate the principles of fairness, competence and individualism. The point was made that gender quotas could, in some instances, skew the selection process in favour of less able candidates at the expense of other more able candidates, on the basis of their gender. Another female Deputy said, on that point, that she was relishing the prospect of voting for a mediocre, less able woman because she had been voting for mediocre, less able men for years. I believe there is no such thing as a mediocre or less able woman. The point is one of fairness. Political reform is needed to ensure women will want to stand as Deputies in the first place.
Some theorists propose that the more highly educated women are, the more likely they are to participate in politics. However, although there are greater numbers of women leaving third level institutions, they have not translated into more women entering politics. Much more is needed in the area of political reform to bring about change in that regard. I do not believe quotas are the way forward, but I accept that they have worked in other countries.
We know that for far too long there was an unhealthy relationship between certain political parties and business and we see the results around us in society. The unethical, immoral and illegal system of donations in return for favours must be eliminated. We must also eliminate the possibility of loopholes to get around the system. One can set the maximum amount that can be accepted as a donation, establish a register of corporate donors and a threshold above which donations must be declared by companies, trade unions and other bodies. It is all very well to set this down on paper, but the important thing is to implement it, in addition to ensuring there are no loopholes.
In June 2009 I stood in both a by-election and the local elections for the first time; therefore, I was somewhat paranoid about receipts and keeping within the limits. For the by-election I had to furnish the receipts, which I did, but it was not the same for the local elections. Those responsible took my word on the amount I said I had spent. I am in favour of supporting a Bill which seeks to address the problematic relationship between politics and business. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, argues that there is a strong case for adopting a new approach to the general funding of parties. I presume it would include Independents. Because of the need for increased transparency such funding must be scrutinised. Unfortunately, even in countries in which there are strict requirements for disclosure there is still a way to buy policies.
The Library and Research Service's Bills Digest has an alarming statistic about parties spending more than €10 million in campaigns, yet only €1 million was disclosed in donations. In 2009 no donations were disclosed by parties, even though it was a year in which local and European elections took place. In 2010 more than €67,000 was disclosed in donations - the lowest figure since the introduction of the system in 1997. None of the three main political parties disclosed any donations, yet in the general election in February electoral expenses of more than €9 million were disclosed. Members of these parties must pay a massive membership fee to cover such expenses. There is a need for greater scrutiny, but it must be real and meaningful.
We talk about equality, parity and fairness. The allowance introduced for Independents was intended to address the imbalance between those involved in political parties and Independents. Funding had been going to political parties which meant Independent candidates were disadvantaged. There are considerable disparities in the allowances for Independents and what is received by political parties. I acknowledge and support what Deputy Stephen Donnelly has said on the matter. When we take everything into account, between Exchequer funding, leaders' allowances and staff resources, we see clearly the extent of the imbalance and unfairness. The total annual amount of Exchequer funding for Fine Gael was more than €2.25 million; iapproximately €1.25 million for the Labour Party ; just under €1.25 million for Fianna Fáil and approximately €700,000 for Sinn Féin, while there was nothing for Independents. The amount received in leaders' allowances was €2.5 million for Fine Gael; €1.75 million for the Labour Party; more than €1.5 million for Fianna Fáil; just over €1 million for Sinn Féin; €350,000 for the ULA and €950,000 for Independents.
If we look at total funding per group, there is more than €5.5 million for Fine Gael; approximately €3.5 million for the Labour Party; €3.75 million for Fianna Fáil; approximately €2.2 million for Sinn Féin and €950,000 for Independents. When one breaks down the figure among Deputies, it works out per Deputy at €67,000 for Fine Gael Members; €83,000 for Labour Party Members; €172,000 for Fianna Fáil Members; €147,000 for Sinn Féin Members, €86,000 for ULA Members and €41,000 for Independent Members. I have rounded up the figures. Allowances are also made for additional staff. We are aware of the amounts that can be involved in salaries for the various political parties. No allowances were made for staff for Independents. Provision is also made for facilities for extra staff such as computers and telephones.
As an Independent and following the work of the longest serving Independent Member in the Dáil, I believe in equality and having a level playing field. I am prepared to eliminate all allowances, but it should be done across the board in order that there is no unfairness, or else everybody should be brought down to the level of allowance received by Independent Members. That would ensure a much more level playing field.
I include referendums among the areas in which political reform is necessary. It is important and positive to give citizens a chance to have their say, apart from at election times. Citizens were deprived of a vital referendum on the bank guarantee. One measure of reform would be to reduce the length of time allowed for a referendum campaign. One month is too long and a shorter timeframe would be preferable. We have a discerning electorate, as we saw in the referendums on judges' pay and the extension of powers for Oireachtas committees. One went through and the other did not.
There has been much talk about Seanad reform and the abolition of the Seanad is part of the programme for Government. A blanket abolition of the Seanad is not the essence of parliamentary reform. There should be a discussion on the issue and a rational debate on the pros and cons of the Seanad. There have been some excellent debates in the Seanad and its blanket abolition is not required. However, there is no doubt that election to it is elitist and undemocratic. There is a value to the Seanad such as the debates on various topics and legislation and we must examine how to make the most of it. However, appointment should not be at the behest of university graduates or Members, the convoluted system of panels or include nominees by the Taoiseach. That said, the Taoiseach made some inspired choices in the current Seanad. I look on it as a place in which to honour those who have made real contributions to society such as some of the current Members, but it must be done democratically rather than in the way it has been used and abused as a training ground for prospective Deputies and a retirement home for others.
On the number of Deputies, the way forward is to examine the work of a Deputy and to divide up the work and the number required to do it rather than saying we should get rid of a certain number of them without being sure of the effect on a Deputy's work.
I was most surprised that so many committees were amalgamated. From my experience of voluntary work, the smaller a committee the more focused it is and the better the work that results. Large committees were set up. On the basis of allocating only two minutes of speaking time to each member, with a membership of at least 20, up to one hour would be spent on contributions rather than in discussing an issue. I welcome the rearrangement of committees and hope it will prove to be a forward step for them.
I am disappointed that we are not covering more issues. It would have been good to see a list of what would be addressed. My focus is on political funding, gender quotas and a few other aspects of the legislation.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the Bill. While I am a relatively new Deputy, I have been around long enough to know that when it comes to politics and corruption, as politicians, we are presumed guilty. I do not expect the electorate to forgive and forget what happened in the not-so-distant past. It has enshrined a deep mistrust in the people of politicians and the Government. We still are waiting for justice to be done after the release into the public domain of of two damning, yet predictable, reports - the Moriarty and Mahon tribunal reports - and we will not be allowed to move on until that happens. However, we must try.
We must plan for the future without paralysing ourselves with what has gone on previously. Like it or not, politics costs money. There is nothing wrong with people making donations to political parties, as long as it is done in a transparent and controlled manner that does not allow for the exertion of influence on policy. We must also be careful not to create further barriers to entering politics by making it the preserve of an elite. A mix of low caps on donations, with transparency, is the best way to allow political parties and those with no party affiliation to continue to sustain themselves without the need for additional taxpayer funding, which is the only alternative.
I wish to pause for one moment to reflect on what the previous Deputy said about political funding. It is not the wish of the electorate to fully fund political parties, but at the same time political parties can only adhere to the rules enshrined in legislation, not what they hope they will be in the future. One cannot retrospectively apply legislation on how political parties publish their annual accounts. This matter was raised with me when I guested on radio shows and "Tonight with Vincent Browne" and I have heard it raised on Joe Duffy's radio programme and so on. It is a nonsense that the current Government's wishes for the Bill are being applied to our stance three or four years ago when we were in opposition. We hope to apply this legislation now in order that it will be the rule in the future, not the past.
Funding political parties with taxpayers' money would be an undesirable outcome that the electorate did not envisage when we discussed reform during last year's election campaign. It is for the good of the nation that the public should engage in politics. Unfortunately, given the controversy surrounding corruption in politics down the years, people have become apolitical, which is not in the best interests of our nation.
Funds for political parties are used locally, for election and referendum campaigns and to allow local members to highlight what they believe to be important information to their electorates. Members and supporters of political parties volunteer their time and energy to political campaigns. It is worth remembering that the work involved in putting up posters, dropping leaflets through doors and calling to houses to try to engage people on the issues of the day is done on a voluntary basis by party political or non-political people, whichever the case may be. Regardless of which party one supports, volunteering as a member of a party is one of the most patriotic things that a person can do. Funding for local branches and political groups goes towards leaflets and posters as well as meetings that allow branches and local organisations to sustain their contribution to democracy, without which we would be unable to continue. This should not be regarded as a negative aspect of local politics, as funding must be forthcoming if local organisations of every political hue and none are to be able to campaign. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure we are fully transparent and only accept donations that are genuine personal contributions to democracy without allowing them to be influential transactions.
Recently, I read the online musings of an individual who had been involved in American politics for approximately 30 years before moving to Ireland a short time ago. He found it amusing and surprising that individuals in his social group believed party political people and those who campaigned on behalf of Independents were paid. We do this work out of a deep-seated sense of public service. We want to contribute to and change our society. I say this on behalf of the tens of thousands of members of my political party and others.
If we are to keep the tradition of political activism alive, we must create an environment in which fund-raising is allowed so as to minimise the cost to the taxpayer. The issue of lobbying will be addressed at a later stage via another Bill, but we cannot discuss electoral reform and funding without noting the need for a register of lobbyists. I do not like to tar all lobbyists with the same brush, but every Deputy knows we are bombarded with e-mails and telephone calls each day as well as meetings with various lobby groups. Some of those groups are worthy and are seeking access to politicians and Government members for good reasons. Everyone has a right to be heard and should be allowed access to local and national politicians for the purpose of putting a point across. There is nothing wrong with that.
As we all know, however, especially in these times when resources are not easily parted with and legislation is being constantly updated, lobbying has become a heavily invested profession. There is a concern that those who shout the loudest or, as in this case, spend the most on professional lobbying are heard over those who might not have the resources or expertise to do likewise. I look forward to the establishment of legislation that will create a register of lobbyist as well as a fairer platform for all interest groups and businesses to engage with the Government and Opposition.
I will make a few comments regarding gender quotas. Regardless of whether we agree with quotas, Ireland has one of the worst representations of women in parliament of all OECD countries. I welcome the efforts being made by the Minister to increase female participation in the Dáil on the basis that a representative parliament should correspond to the composition of society.
It is a stark realisation that, if we continue as we are, it is predicted that it will take 370 years to reach a level of 50:50 representation in the House. While I am delighted to know that my great-great-great-great-granddaughter stands a good chance of being elected to the Dáil in the 23rd century, it shows that the well-meaning efforts that parties have already voluntarily put in place to increase female participation are going nowhere fast. Fine Gael aimed for an increase of up to ten women Deputies in the last election. We attained six new female Deputies. All other parties bar one that are represented in the Chamber had similar targets based on various elections over the years and have come similarly shy of their targets. Unfortunately, quotas are not a guarantee of success. This is apparent in various other countries that have introduced similar legislation. While there has been a notable improvement, there has been a high price of failure at grassroots level. For this reason, political parties need to engage with measures to increase female participation at local level. We must reconsider how local candidates and talent are found.
As a young member of my local Fine Gael branch in Malahide, I was approached to run for the council by one of the strongest female performers in the Dáil, former Minister Nora Owen, who has noted at times the reluctance of successful, ambitious women to enter politics. We must acknowledge that there are barriers in self-selection and party selection. Women's participation in politics at branch level is strong. In Fine Gael, 42% of members are female. The interest exists - it is just a matter of getting women on the ballot paper and elected. Contrary to the previous speaker's statement, evidence points to the fact that, once women are on the ballot paper, they have an equal opportunity to get elected. This has been borne out by statistics. The evidence portrays the uphill challenge for political parties to find the right candidates for future elections and to encourage women to put themselves forward. I cannot imagine that any woman would want to be a token candidate for any party. It would not be good for our democracy or our Parliament if we were to bring a candidate in for the sake of it.
We are fast approaching the 2014 local elections. While I note that the legislation will not apply quotas to them, parties will adopt this approach for their upcoming conventions. Politics is not a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. business. Some have suggested that moving to such an arrangement would be easier for the women entering the House, but every Member and everyone who has been involved in politics at any stage knows that politics is seven days per week, 24 hours per day and depends heavily on what is occurring.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute on this welcome Bill, which was promised in the programme for Government. It addresses two important issues, those being, political donations and women's participation in politics. I welcome the changes regarding donations. They are practical, proportionate and necessary. As a basic premise, we must accept the existence of and necessity for fundraising and donations. In this, we are no different from any other democratic country. All democratic countries grapple with the doubts and questions that inevitably hang over dependence on fundraising to fund political campaigns. Like us, they recognise that there are only two alternatives, the first being that only wealthy candidates could run, as they would not require fundraising of any sort. The other is, of course, full State funding for candidates in all elections. Neither of these scenarios would meet the approval of the electorate, certainly not at present. It would not be in any way desirable to only have wealthy candidates, those who could afford to buy their way into politics. If we are stuck with fundraising to fund the electoral process, to remove the democratic process from even the possibility of having the taint of the self-interest of donors, we must make it as transparent as we possibly can. Even at that, we are struggling against public opinion, but transparency is the most important element. People the world over, not just in Ireland - although we seem to think it is only in Ireland - are predisposed to suspicion of politicians' motivations. We must do everything possible not to reinforce this disposition. For that reason, I welcome the Bill's measures which will increase transparency.
The reductions in the amounts that can be given are welcome and there is no reason for anyone to criticise them. It is the transparency measures, however, that will have the most impact in removing the questions and suspicions that surround fundraising. The new obligation on political parties to submit their accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission is very much welcome. All political donations over €200 must be included in the annual reports of companies, trade unions, societies and charities. A register of corporate donors will also be established. These transparency measures can only be good for politics and will go some way towards restoring trust and faith in the political process.
Deputy Farrell referred to the upcoming legislation on registering lobbyists, again a welcome proposal. The concept of having a register of lobbyists, however, will be extremely difficult. How does one define a lobbyist? We tend to think of professional paid lobbyists and public relations people. The reality is very different. As a Deputy for many years, I have met individuals, companies and bodies lobbying on their own behalf. It is self-interest that is driving them, not the interests of the body they represent. A paid lobbyist is acting at one remove, while far more dangerous is the individual lobbying on his own behalf. I do not know how that will be provided for in the register. However, it is a welcome development. The more transparency we have and the more information is made available to the public on how decisions are made and influence is exercised the better.
I must confess I am not nearly as happy or convinced of the merits of the other major measures in the Bill, namely, the introduction of quotas for women. There are also quotas for men in the legislation. I understand the motivation behind introducing this measure and that it is based on strongly held convictions of many that this is the way forward for women. Perhaps they are right, but in my gut I feel this is all wrong. It is demeaning to women and ultimately will be counterproductive. Of course, I want to see more women here and at every level of politics. Our level and quality of representation here are the poorer because of the one-sided male perspective brought to almost every single debate. This is not to say the female perspective is better or more right. It simply adds another dimension and prism from which to view the many complex and multidimensional aspects of every single legislative decision made here. A greater contribution by women would mean our legislative decisions would be informed by the wider societal view in so far as possible. Better informed means better formed. This can only happen if the range of societal views have equal value. I am not convinced the views of women who are artificially leveraged into Dáil Éireann can carry the same weight as those of someone who is elected solely on merit.
The actual implementation of the candidate quota will be problematic too. Most countries that have gender quotas have list systems; therefore, the manipulation of the selection process is not as obvious. Given the tensions we already have within parties in multiseat constituencies, can one imagine the better candidate or the one with the most votes being passed over because of this legislation? It is fundamentally undemocratic. We send monitoring teams all over the world to monitor elections in emerging democracies. If there is any manipulation of the vote, we are the first to condemn them, yet here we are legislating for something that is fundamentally undemocratic. There are many issues that make it difficult for women to get here. Some of them are small such as physical size and the sound of one's voice. When a man speaks in a loud voice, he is regarded as forceful and authoritative. When a woman does so, she is regarded as strident and aggressive. The reason many women are not here is the same they are not at the top in every other profession. The years one is building a career and a profession one is also building and rearing a family. Until we tackle the problem of child care for women and encourage them by providing every support to get involved in politics, we are wasting our time. I support this legislation, but I strongly urge the Minister to introduce a sunset clause into this legislation. It is anathema to democracy to manipulate the vote. Until the artificial prop for women is taken away, we will never know whether it is actually working, encouraging and making it possible for women to come forth.
The Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011 has been broughtr to the floor of the House at an important time in politics. Having reached a watershed, we must decide whether we are going to continue along the road of corporate donations, backslapping and political favours with all the ill effects these have on the health of the political system and the integrity of the body politic. Alternatively, are we to take the new road offered by the Bill which will help to deliver us from the evils of the aforementioned culture and restore the confidence of citizens in the democratic political system by creating a transparent model where decisions are made on the basis of what is right for the people instead of being influenced by wealthy individuals or corporations against the public good? The Bill offers us the possibility of a renaissance of the political system. In passing it, we will empower the citizen by reducing the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations on the political system and reaching towards a position where donations will be smaller but, I hope, more plentiful as ordinary people take ownership of their democratic system.
While a blanket ban on donations has been suggested, this raises constitutional issues and is not in the interests of the political system. I want to see the policy on donations moving more towards one of the recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal report. Tax relief on donations up to a limited threshold would encourage a much larger number of smaller donations, as well as having the effect of limiting the power of an individual donor seeking influence in return for his or her donation. At the same time, it would give individuals, small clubs and those who to date feel alienated from the system ownership of their political system. In dramatically reducing the threshold of party donations from €6,348.69 to €2,500 a year and individual donations from any one donor from €2,539.48 to €1,000 the Bill is moving in the right direction towards reducing the influence exercised by donors over politicians. Party donations in excess of €1,500, representing a reduction of some €3,500, and individual donations in excess of €600 must be disclosed to the Standards in Public Offices Commission. This builds in a policing mechanism which, when coupled with new disclosure requirements placed on corporate donors to register with the commission and furnish it with relevant details of their donations, provides a system under which qualifying donations must be recorded independently by both parties, the donor and the recipient, with the commission providing a transparent policing system. The fact that irregularities are to be notified to the Garda or the Director of Public Prosecutions for further action is proof, if proof were needed, that politicians want to free themselves from the suspicions and innuendo visited on them by the previous culture and are openly embracing the new transparency the Bill affords.
The Bill will succeed where others have failed in keeping big money out of politics and restore politics and ownership of the political system to those who engage in the democratic system by casting their vote to elect the politician of their choice. It is the result of the two Government parties working together to deliver on their election commitments to restore confidence in the political system by removing the influence of big money, whether private or corporate, from the political landscape.
On the gender balance aspect of the Bill, I support the measures being put in place to encourage females to get involved in the political arena, especially at legislative level. I recognise, however, that positive steps have to be taken on indirect public policies in this area such as the introduction of measures supporting women in education, the inclusion of politics in education and, more important, provisions to reconcile family and public life by making subsidised child care facilities widely available and legislating for good maternity and paid paternity leave. While being mindful of Dr. Eoin Daly's neutral perspective on the constitutionality of the effect the Bill may have on the internal organisational autonomy of political parties, we need to do something to encourage more females to get involved in politics. Provided that we act within constitutional parameters, I am in favour of this aspect of the Bill.
All in all, the Bill is a positive step forward in developing our democratic model and restoring confidence in the body politic.
I join other speakers in welcoming the Bill. It is part of the commitment we made to the electorate 15 months ago to reform the political system, examine the issue of donations to parties and address the need for more balanced representation across Irish society. I shall address my comments to the issue of gender balance.
Other speakers have pointed out that we are at the lower end of the scale when it comes to female representation in Parliament. Approximately 15% of the Members of the Oireachtas are women, compared to an average of 24% across Europe. My party's record is not dreadful in this respect, although we need to improve it. In the last general election 26% of our candidates were women which although the highest of any of the main political parties, was not enough. If this legislation had been in place prior to the election, we would have been required to field a higher number of female candidates. The Bill will help us to reach a fairer balance and demonstrate to society that we want a body politic that represents everybody.
I am aware of the difficulty in encouraging people to run for Parliament. In the 2004 local elections the Labour Party fielded one candidate in my electoral area of County Meath and it was not until 2009 that we managed to persuade three female candidates to run for the county council. I am glad to say all of these candidates were elected. Three of the four Labour Party members of Meath County Council are female, which is a validation of our efforts in the run-up to the 2009 local elections to encourage females to get involved in local politics. Next week Meath County Council will elect Councillor Niamh McGowan as its first ever Labour Party female cathaoirleach. This is a cause for celebration for my party and, I venture, others.
For various reasons, it is difficult for women to get involved in politics. Child care is one reason. All three female members of Meath County Council have children and I recognise from working with them on a daily basis the problems they face in balancing family life with looking after their constituents. It is not always possible to achieve this balance without the necessary support mechanisms. There is an onus on the rest of us not only to pass the Bill but also to reach out to offer help, advice and understanding to those who are thinking about getting involved in local or national politics. It is not an easy task to find the right balance. The Bill will force parties to do more in this regard, but it is not sufficient to merely pass laws. It is incumbent on Members of this House and everybody involved in politics to do more to encourage women to enter the political world.
We should not forget the context of the last general election when the people made their choice about the new Government. One of the major themes of the election campaign was a sense that people wanted change not only in personnel and parties but also in ethics and the type of politics parliamentarians pursued. The Bill goes a long way towards meeting that desire in the two areas it addresses, namely, corporate donations and party funding based on candidate gender.
In regard to corporate donations, the people believe the size of an individual's cheque book should have nothing to do with democracy. It should be a case of one person, one vote, regardless of how much money an individual has in the bank. This legislation copperfastens that concept. I am delighted that the figures set out in the Bill were originally set out in the manifesto on which I campaigned. The all-party support offered to the Bill shows that the political system has received the message.
We are in the midst of an economic crisis of unprecedented scale. This period is second only to the Civil War in terms of the difficulty of being a public representative because of the challenges people face and the strains on our system of government. The Bill attempts to outlaw one of main causes of the crisis, namely, the undue influence of people with money over government policy. The major cause of the banking collapse which has cost the State in excess of €64 billion and wiped out shareholder value for thousands of pensioners was a cosy relationship between Fianna Fáil and business interests. Nobody would disagree with the contention that a small clique at the top of Irish society used their money to buy influence over elected representatives through supporting party functions. The economy was shaped by property reliefs and property was seen as the only viable economic course, even as the rest of the world looked at our property bubble with amazement. Such was the influence of money that the property bubble went unquestioned. I note that for a number of years limits have applied to the amount that people can donate. The cap is being reduced from €6,000 to €2,500. Given how much was bought for €6,000, imagine what would have happened if the limit had been €50,000 or €100,000.
The Bill is important not only for its practical implications but also for sending the signal that the Government wants to construct a different regime. The restriction on corporate donations is welcome, as is the corporate donations register. Openness and transparency are what people want above all else. Even if they cannot access the information, the Bill provides the information in order that others can highlight it and make sure the media and public get to scrutinise these issues, which is very important.
The personal limits for donations have also been reduced, which is good. Personal donations cannot be banned because of a constitutional provision. My own campaigns are funded largely by family, friends and political supporters making very small donations. That is to be encouraged rather than denigrated as being the same as the actions of people who are buying access. Those who participate in the electoral system and help to fund politics through fundraising or through donating €100 ought not to be put in the same group or denigrated as being the same as those who have bought access for business reasons or self-gain. It is important we make that distinction.
The linking of State funding of political parties with the number of candidates of either gender at general elections is covered by the Bill and its consequences will kick in at the next general election. Whether quotas are the way to go is debated by the Government parties and in society. My instinctive reaction is that quotas are not the way to go, except when the facts cannot be ignored. It is a fact that of 166 Deputies only a few are women who are so capable. This must be remedied.
I have been involved in politics since I was 18 or 19 years. When I was in NUI Galway, during freshers' week, we would try to get people involved in politics and the party. The proportion who would sign up reflected the ratio of women to men in this Chamber. There would always be a figure of approximately 80% to 85% of young men who would sign up to join a political party. There was no barrier in place and no one was saying women were not welcome; all a person had to do was sign his or her name, but even at that earlier stage, many more men would come forward. Arguments made against this include that there are few examples of successful female politicians, but that is not the case. When I was at university, the leader of one of the parties was a woman, the President was a capable and admired woman and there were other women involved in politics. If we are to solve the issue of gender representation in the democratic structures, we have a long way to go to make sure women feel politics is for them.
This goes back to how we educate children and condition young girls, even in the media. Society has not followed up on the feminist and equality agenda in the media and through the acceptance of change to the extent we sometimes think it has. We should look at the education system, the media and a much broader range of areas to encourage the change we need to see in this House because it must be reflected first in broader society. We can still see it in universities today, where some courses are exclusively male dominated such as engineering, while others such as the social sciences are predominantly attended by females. While the Bill is good and will encourage parties to do their bit, it is not enough. More work needs to be done and organisations which fight for equality and which still state the feminist cause is not complete are not getting the hearing they deserve. There is an acceptance that it is done and the problem was solved in the 1990s. That is not accurate or fair and there is more work to be done.
The Bill, if anything, will change the dynamic here. I hope it will create a new atmosphere that will spread to other areas of society. It would be ideal if it had happened the other way around, that we had got the fundamentals right and they had worked their way through to the Oireachtas. That is not happening or, if it is, it is happening far too slowly.
The Bill is quietly revolutionary in its two proposals. In what it does with corporate donations, it sends a clear signal that no longer will the body politic accept that there can be undue influence exerted by a small clique of those with money, that every citizen is equal, that everyone can participate on a level playing field and that one person, one vote is the cornerstone of how we view and accept influence. The gender quotas will send a proper signal and sometimes sending the signal is the important thing to do.
Not all influence is exerted by money or donations; it can be exerted by favours, cliques and introductions. Let us not confine the debate on ethics in public life to the idea of corporate donations because they are only one small part of this. We must also remember that we cannot legislate for a moral compass. We cannot legislate for someone to follow the rules, declare donations and account for them. Just because we have legislation that will restrict donations, we should not pretend money will not find its way into the system in other ways or through the brown envelope culture. While this is welcome and sends a clear signal, we must not lose sight of the broader picture.
I commend all those speakers who have spoken positively about this, realising the change in direction it is signalling. It is something to be proud of, something we all promised and that the people want.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the electoral (amendment) Bill. The last election signalled a significant yearning among the public for a reform agenda. Personally, I have not seen any real evidence of a commitment to radical reform emerging from the Government yet. I live in hope and welcome some provisions in the Bill, although certainly not all of them. Real, radical reform is what people were crying out for, but there has been no significant evidence that yearning will be satisfied. I am talking about radical reform whereby we diminish the coercive impact of the Whip system in the Houses and reduce the overweening influence of the Executive over the Parliament that is facilitated by that system. We need more open votes and an effective accountability structure in committees. We have not seen this yet, although I accept we are changing the committee structures. I have yet to see a real, radical commitment to reform, for which the people are crying out, in local authorities, with elected members being given more power. The jury is out on the Government's commitment in this regard, other than to tokenism. Part of the legislation is welcome, but there is also an element of tokenism which I will outline in giving my views on gender quotas.
Previous speakers have alluded to the corrosive influence of private funds on Irish politics. That has been well documented in various tribunal reports and it is only right and proper that the Government should act on its commitment to reform that area. I accept the constitutional restrictions and that people's entitlement to support political parties made it impossible to ban donations entirely. It is an expensive business to run a political party and people might wish to support that process for many reasons, political, personal and ideological. It would not be right to diminish that form of political commitment. The limits being imposed in the Bill are welcome nonetheless. They need to be followed up by placing an obligation on political parties to publish their accounts with a detailed outline of how they use the significant public funds they receive. The quid pro quo, rightly, in the legislation to diminish the corrosive influence private funds have had over political parties is that somebody must pick up the slack and the reality is the taxpayer will do so in providing increased funding for parties. In tandem with this, there must be accountability to clearly show how the funds are spent, including the leader’s allowances and so on. Independent candidates receive significant funding and there should also be an obligation on them to publish a detailed account of how the money is spent. This aspect of the legislation is welcome, but elements are missing, including the commitment to publish accounts, which need to be worked on.
The other issue I would like to address is gender quotas. It is a truism that more women are needed in politics. The House is much the poorer for not having the balance of views and opinions that increased female participation would bring with it. We have been the poor relations for many years by international comparisons in the context of facilitating greater participation by women. Is the solution to use the big legislative stick to make provision for gender quotas? Will that in itself advance the cause of women in politics? It is a retrograde step that smacks of tokenism and will undermine the commitment of women involved in grassroots politics, while serious legal and constitutional issues need to be addressed. It is alleged that political parties are old boys' clubs which put impediments in the way of women who want to pursue a political career. However, of the 176 independent candidates who stood in last year's general election, only 8% were women. There is no old boys' network and somebody who is politically motivated can put himself or herself on a ballot paper. Approximately 15% of the candidates for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were women, but the Labour Party led the way and Sinn Féin was second. Where there was no impediment to getting on the ballot paper as an Independent, however, only 8% were women. This explodes the myth that political parties are old boys' clubs where in smoke filled rooms every effort is made to thwart the ambitions of would be women politicians. That is not the case and I am fortunate to share a constituency with a female party colleague, Deputy Áine Collins. She will have her own views on the legislation and I suspect we differ in this regard, but she is in the House on merit. She has a track record of involvement in politics from her early days through canvassing, leaflet drops and acting as a director of elections and she worked the political system. She would not say that within our organisation in Cork North West that there was a glass ceiling in respect of how far she was allowed to progress and the evidence is that she is in the House. However, we need to address the issue of greater participation by everybody in politics. Many practical measures could be implemented to encourage this.
I refer to my reservations about the legal basis of what is proposed. The Fourth Report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution published in July 2010 dealt at length with the issue of quotas. Chapter 5.30 states:
The Committee was advised that measures which went further than merely encouraging political parties to take positive measures with regard to female candidates would raise serious constitutional questions. The right of political parties to organise their own affairs and to select their own candidates without interference is a key feature of political liberty in any free society and this right is plainly protected by the right of association in Article 40.6.1°. The Committee considers that any measure which coerced political parties to select certain types of candidates or which imposed a quota in that regard would probably be unconstitutional.
Chapter 5.31 further stated:
The Committee gave consideration to a proposal under which enhanced political funding would be available to political parties who fielded a sufficient number of female candidates. But since it is clear from the Supreme Court's decision inKelly v. Minister for Environment  4 IR 191 that any form of preferential funding of candidates using public monies is prima facie unconstitutional, the Committee did not consider that this was a practicable proposition.
With regard to the reform, why is there secrecy about publishing the Attorney General's advice on matters that do not threaten State security? Why not publish the Attorney General's advice on this matter? The joint committee had access to significant legal advice and it was clearly advised that what we propose to enact was unconstitutional. The Constitution does not mention political parties, but it makes reference to freedom of association and clearly guarantees that right. This form of electoral engineering, which the latter part of the Bill is about, is a step too far. There is a fundamental hypocrisy in the Bill. It first seeks to address the accepted undue influence of private funds over political parties, but the flip side is that it tries to leverage through public funds an influence over policy and electoral matters. There is an inherent contradiction and flaw in this, which raises the most fundamental constitutional issues. If we were a Government of reform, where serious issues do not affect the security of the State, we would have an open and transparent debate on this issue. The party whip should not be imposed in divisions on legislation such as this. Let the cards fall where they may. Other Members probably share my views on the legislation and believe it is the wrong way to go.
I nail my colours to the mast. The House is much the poorer for more women not being involved in politics. More women should be involved at every level in politics - grassroots, local authority and the Oireachtas - but this is not the way to achieve that aim. Other options are open to parties to address the issue. Why not change the party rule book rather than use the Legislature to deliver change with a big stick and use public funds to engineer the result? Internationally, the best results have been achieved without legislation. There is a sinister opportunity for those who may wish to exploit it, with power vested in a handful of people at the top of political parties, to thwart the ambitions of individuals under the pretext of this legislation. Concentrating excessive power in the hands of a few turns many off participation in grassroots democracy. We need more women to become involved in politics and there are ways to achieve this objective. This legislation is not the way forward. It is a form of electoral engineering and a step too far. As a Government driven to implement genuine reforms, it should allow a more open debate and refrain from imposing the Whip. Furthermore, the legal advice on the constitutionality of what is proposed should be published without delay.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Michael Creed, for sharing time. This legislation is somewhat unusual in that it deals with two very different aspects of the political system as it currently operates. Although it goes part of the road to solving a number of problems, it ultimately falls between two stools. I concur with much of what Deputy Creed has said in regard to the first aspect of the proposal, namely, the contentious issue of funding of political parties. The Minister has spoken in the past of the need to eliminate corporate funding, but we are given to understand that the legal advice suggests it might be unconstitutional to ban corporate funding of political parties and candidates in elections. As a result, what is proposed in the Bill is a significant reduction in the existing thresholds at which declarations must be made and a lowering of the sums that are permissible to donate to parties and individuals.
Deputy Derek Nolan rightly observed that one cannot legislate for a moral compass. The legislation might propose reduced rates and declaration thresholds, but the reality is that corrupt individuals and political parties which choose to operate outside of a moral compass will find ways of breaching whatever rules are in place. That is not to say that we should not have rules and, on balance, I support what is proposed in this regard. On the broader issue of political reform, I find myself completely in agreement with Deputy Creed's comments regarding the overwhelming demand from the public at the time of the election last year for a renewal of our political structures and of how the Dáil operates. Unfortunately, I have not seen sufficient evidence as yet of the Government's intent to enforce effective reform in terms of how the political system operates. I remain hopeful, however, that significant changes will be made.
The second issue dealt with in the Bill relates to the gender of political candidates. It is absolutely lamentable that such a low proportion of public representatives, at both national and local level, are women. Politics is certainly the poorer for that imbalance. However, while I support the notion of gender quotas, they are, to some extent, merely window dressing. What is required is a thorough review of how the political system operates and the barriers therein which prevent women and other groups from entering politics. It is not something that can easily be addressed by legislation. The issues to be examined include, for instance, long Dáil sitting hours and local meetings which politicians are obliged to attend and which invariably take place in the evening and late into the night. Such practices discriminate against people with young children. There is an entire structure in place that is the root cause of the failure of women to participate in larger numbers in politics. Unfortunately, the legislation does not go anywhere near addressing it. In fact, legislation in general is probably not the right place to seek to address it.
I agree with Deputy Creed that there is a significant possibility that the part of the legislation dealing with gender quotas may be unconstitutional. Given that a joint committee of the Oireachtas concluded less than two years ago that the imposition of gender quotas by way of legislation would be in conflict with the Kelly judgment and constitutionally dubious in respect of the Article 40 provisions on freedom of association, it seems extraordinary that the Government is now of the view that this difficulty can be overcome. I agree with Deputy Creed that the advice of the Attorney General in this regard should be made public. The difficulty in getting more women and more people of diverse backgrounds into politics goes very much to the structure of our political system. What we must confront are issues that cannot necessarily be corrected in legislation but may be tackled by changing how we do our business. We must ensure the Oireachtas becomes a more attractive place for women and other groups who are not currently represented if we are to encourage them to seek membership of this House in the future.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, I thank Members for their thoughtful and detailed contributions to the Second Stage debate on this Bill. I acknowledge the positive reception given to it by many Deputies from all sides of the House. A broad range of points was raised with which I will attempt to deal presently. If necessary, issues can be teased out in more detail with the Minister on Committee Stage.
Based on the contributions of Deputies during the debate, there is a general acceptance that the current system of political funding needs to be reformed. There was an acknowledgment by many speakers, including Deputy Charlie McConalogue and Deputy Brian Stanley, that the Bill is a positive step in the right direction. The range of views expressed by Deputies from all sides of the House reflect the wide scope of the Bill. Points were raised regarding corporate funding of politics, political donations and the gender balance provisions. Several Members raised concerns relating to political reform in a broader and more general sense and points were made about matters that go beyond the immediate scope of this legislation. Overall, the breadth of contributions is a positive reflection on the diversity and ambition of the Bill.
Several Deputies expressed the view that the measures dealing with political funding do not go far enough. This point was made by, among others, Deputies Niall Collins, McConalogue, Seamus Kirk and Dara Calleary of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Stanley and Deputy Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, and Deputies Catherine Murphy, Seamus Healy and Clare Daly. Fianna Fáil Deputies referred to legislation introduced by their party on political and corporate donations which came before the Dáil in May and November 2011. The Government's approach, as set out in our Bill, is more comprehensive and will be more effective.
A number of Deputies called for the introduction of an outright ban on corporate donations. The Minister addressed this issue at the outset of the Second Stage debate and I will respond to some of those points now. Deputy Catherine Murphy observed that such bans operate in other countries, something of which the Government is well aware. In preparing the Bill, we examined some of those models, including those in operation in Belgium, France and Portugal. However, we are legislating in Ireland and must be mindful these other countries have different constitutions from ours. An outright ban on corporate donations raises particular questions with reference to the provisions of Article 40 of the Constitution on freedom of expression and freedom of association. It is the duty of Government to bring forward legislation that is robust and carries with it a level of legal certainty. This is what we are seeking to do in this legislation.
The objective of the Government is to restrict the influence of corporate donations on politics and to enhance the openness and transparency of the whole system of political funding. The Bill will do that to the maximum extent that is possible and constitutionally permissible. The approach being adopted is consistent with our commitments in the programme for Government.
Deputy Alex White specifically asked if corporate donors who register under the new system will be subject to any further restrictions in the amount they can donate. To respond to the Deputy and by way of reassurance, I will say that in addition to the specific registration provisions, corporate donors will also be subject to all of the other donation limits that are to apply generally in the Bill. The theoretical possibility of a group of lobbyists setting themselves up as a corporate entity in order to make donations was also raised by Deputy White. Were this to happen, the legislation will still allow us to know who the individual members of the entity are and what their purpose might be. They will also be restricted in what they can donate. The legislation is comprehensive in this respect.
The Bill will bring about real change and real reform. To quote Deputy Charlie McConalogue, "it will bring about a significant sea-change". Corporate donations will be severely curtailed and the books of political parties will be opened up to public scrutiny. The maximum amount that can be accepted as a political donation will be more than halved. There will be greater openness, with significant reductions in the thresholds for the public declaration of political donations. Other measures in the Bill provide for greater transparency by both donors and those in receipt of political donations.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and the Government, I agree with my colleagues Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick, Tony McLoughlin and James Bannon who said we need more transparency and accountability. Deputy Paul Connaughton captured the essence of what we are doing when he said corporate donations should be discouraged in favour of individual donations.
Deputy Niall Collins asked if measures to regulate the disclosure of spending at referendum campaigns would be incorporated into the Bill. The Government has announced plans to bring forward separate legislation on this matter. The electoral (amendment) (referendum spending and miscellaneous provisions) Bill is included in the Government's legislative programme published in January 2012. The Minister hopes to bring that Bill before the Dáil later this year. It will provide for the disclosure of expenditure and donations at referendum campaigns and will provide for the extension of the spending limit period that applies at Presidential, Dáil, European Parliament and local elections. The issue of spending that occurs before the commencement of the formal election period was raised by Deputies Clare Daly, Billy Timmins and Jerry Buttimer.
The Bill deals with political donations, the funding of politics and gender representation. The next Bill will deal with the spending side of the equation. The Government is implementing its programme and fulfilling the commitments it gave to the people. Deputy James Bannon made a strong case for the establishment of an electoral commission. The programme for Government contains a commitment to establish such a body.
A number of points have been made about the funding provided to Deputies and Senators and to political parties to support their activities. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Mattie McGrath, in particular, made contributions on this matter. Many of the concerns raised relate to the operation of the party leaders' allowance and to expenses paid to Members of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, has responsibility for the legislation dealing with the party leaders' allowance. He is currently considering the introduction of reforms to the arrangements that are currently in place and intends to bring proposals to Government on the matter. While issues in regard to the partly leaders' allowance and expenses arrangements are important, they fall outside the scope of the Bill.
However, the Bill deals with issues concerning the payment of funding to qualified political parties under the Electoral Act 1997. A political party that does not submit audited accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication in line with the new provisions will have its funding withheld. A party which does not comply with the gender balance provisions will lose half of its State funding for the lifetime of the Dáil. In response to a specific question raised by Deputy Catherine Murphy, the Bill does not provide for money withheld from one party to be redistributed to other political parties. Any savings arising would, therefore, accrue to the Exchequer.
The gender balance provisions have generated a good deal of comment. As Deputy Heather Humphreys noted, it has got people talking. On behalf of the Government side, I welcome the constructive manner in which points have been made. It is also acknowledged that some Members are reluctant converts to the approach taken in the Bill. However, as Deputy Mary Lou McDonald said, "we have done the lamenting about the lack of women in public life, we have to do something that has a good chance of working". The contribution of Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor was particularly striking. She said that one can hate quotas but can like their results. Unless we take action, experience has shown that the current gender balance in Irish politics is unlikely to improve to any great extent for a very long time. As Deputies Ciaran Lynch and Bernard Durkan pointed out, women have made a significant contribution to the work of this House. We want to see that strengthened and enhanced. Those who are sceptical should do as Deputy Sandra McLellan advised in her contribution, namely, they should look at the evidence. Equivalent measures in other countries have worked.
Many Deputies, including some in my party, would like to see the Bill going further than it does. When the Minister introduced the Bill, he reflected on the fact that the legislation before us is a significant step. I reiterate this view. The Bill represents a seismic shift in our approach to gender equality. The Minister also outlined how the gender balance provisions are to apply and why the provisions are structured as they are. They are designed to be ambitious, effective, fair and legally robust.
The measures in the Bill link the payments made to qualified political parties by the State under the Electoral Act 1997 to candidate selection at a general election. Payments are made under that Act to parties that contest general elections, based on their performance at those elections. There is no linkage between these payments and local elections or elections to the European Parliament or the Seanad. We are, therefore, not in a position to apply a similar measure to candidate selection at other elections as has been suggested by many speakers, including Deputies from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Independent benches and by some Members on this side of the House.
In framing the Bill, a key reference point was the 2009 report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights entitled, Women's Participation in Politics. To recap, it recommended the introduction of measures to achieve a minimum representation of one third women and men. The committee recommended linking candidate selection with financial sanctions through the withholding of State funding, which we are doing. We must lead but in doing so, we must bring people with us. The objectives of the Bill are ambitious in theory and attainable in practice.
It is evident that there are people of different political persuasions who do not agree with what is in the Bill. Deputy Healy-Rae asked if the Government had "scenario tested" the Bill. I reassure the Deputy that the Government has fully considered the policy implications of this legislation.
During the debate, the question of whether the gender balance measures in the Bill are constitutional was raised by Deputy Joanna Tuffy. The Minister addressed this matter directly in his opening remarks on Second Stage, and I will do so again. We believe that the measures in this Bill are legally and constitutionally sound. We are providing an opportunity for women to stand before the electorate. The ultimate choice about the balance of representation in the Dáil will be made by voters.
As Deputy Regina Doherty said, gender balance measures are not intended to discriminate but to compensate for the barriers facing women. The funding provided to political parties under the 1997 Act is given by the Oireachtas under legislation and it is open to the Oireachtas to make the funding subject to conditions. To be very clear, if we did not believe the Bill would withstand legal challenge, we would not have brought it forward.
Deputies referred during the debate to the current and past failings in the system of political funding in the State. On behalf of the Government, I reassure Deputies that the measures in the Bill are comprehensive and far reaching. In developing the Bill, the Government had particular regard to the recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal's report, published in March 2011. While the tribunal report did not actually recommend that corporate donations be banned, it did note that the desirability and feasibility of a complete ban on private political funding is pre-eminently a matter for the Oireachtas and for public debate and consideration, having regard to the constitutional issues that might arise and the national financial exigencies. It is our view, therefore, that the restrictions to be placed on corporate donors in the Bill will go beyond what the tribunal was in a position to recommend. The provision in the Bill for the publication of political party accounts will address the Moriarty tribunal's recommendation that all income of political parties be disclosed. The Bill will go beyond this recommendation by providing that the expenditure of parties will also be reported and open to public scrutiny. The tribunal recommended that all political donations, apart from those under a modest threshold, be disclosed. The reductions in the donations thresholds we are introducing are substantial and significant and address this recommendation.
The final report of the Mahon tribunal was published on 22 March, on which day the Bill was being debated in this House. As my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, said at the time, there are significant lessons to be learned about the relationship between politics and business. The tribunal's report is a substantial document, both in size and the breadth of issues examined. It is worth noting that some of the recommendations on political finance are being acted upon in the Bill, specifically with regard to the reduction in political donation amounts and the publication of political party accounts.
It is right that the work of the tribunal should inform the debate on the Bill. Some speakers, including Deputies Kyne, Anne Ferris, Conway and Corcoran Kennedy, referred to the failings in the system of political funding that had been exposed in the report. On behalf of the Government, I must say I do not agree with the proposition made by Deputy Seamus Healy that we should set the Bill aside and start again from scratch. A full examination and analysis of the report's conclusions is being undertaken in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. As part of this analysis, the recommendations made on electoral matters are being examined.
As experience with the Moriarty tribunal has shown, the Government is both willing and able to respond to recommendations by change. The Bill implements major reforms in the regulation of political funding. As I noted, the Government plans to bring forward further reforming electoral legislation later in 2012 dealing with referendum and election spending and other related matters. There will be ample opportunity to consider the Mahon tribunal recommendations again in these Houses and, where necessary, to legislate for further change.
On behalf of the Government, I thank Deputies for their comments and observations on this important ground-breaking Bill. The Government looks forward to further consideration on Committee Stage of the specific provisions in the legislation. It also looks forward to hearing Deputies elaborate further on some of the ideas and proposals they mentioned in their contributions. Deputy Niall Collins, in his contribution, said political parties are no different from any other organisations in the country in the sense that they all require money to be run properly. A similar point was made by his colleague, Deputy Seamus Kirk. We on the Government side agree. It is worth recalling that the public funding provided to political parties cannot be used to fight election campaigns. In these circumstances, there is a need to ensure the regulation of political fund-raising is strict, fair and transparent. That is what we are achieving through this Bill.
While money is needed to run politics, politics should not be run by money. Many speakers, including Deputies Timmins, Buttimer, Finian McGrath, Neville and Áine Collins, made a similar point. We cannot expect a political system that commands the highest respect from the people unless there is greater transparency associated with how it is funded and unless we have a gender balance among elected politicians that is more reflective of the population. On both counts, the current system is not fully working and needs to be changed. Deputies Keaveney, Donnelly, Feighan, Tom Hayes and Ó Ríordáin made strong points on the need to combat cynicism and rebuild trust among the public in politics and politicians. This Bill will reform the way politics is conducted in Ireland. We are drawing a clear line between corporate funding and political activity. Even if one does not agree with what is in the Bill, I hope one will agree it is radical and far reaching. I ask that the House approve it in order that we can proceed towards its enactment and implementation.