I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013 is a diverse Bill. As the name suggests, it provides for amendments to existing electoral, local government and planning and development law. The Bill puts in place legislative provisions that are needed now, across the electoral, local government and planning areas, in order to advance implementation of the Government's programme of local government reform. The Bill provides a structure for the review of European Parliament constituencies. It also provides for the transposition of an EU directive on nomination procedures that must be in place for next year's European elections. The Bill presents an opportunity to rectify an omission in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 and to make two other small but important changes in electoral law.
I will now outline the content of the Bill in greater detail, setting out why the proposed legislation is required or recommended to the House, as the case may be. The provisions in the Bill dealing with the register of electors follow on from the Government's programme of local government reform that will see single new local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford after next year's local elections. In preparation for those elections and in view of the mergers, we have looked at the arrangements for the preparation and publication of the register of electors in these areas. In the normal course, this would involve all six existing councils in these areas progressing this work in their respective areas for the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014. Having reviewed the position, I am satisfied that the preparation and publication of one register of electors in each area for the 2014 to 2015 period is the correct approach to take. This view is underpinned by the recent report of the local electoral area boundary committee where it can be seen that the local electoral areas recommended straddle existing administrative boundaries in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. The amendments in the Bill provide a legal basis for the preparation of a single register of electors in each of these new administrative areas.
We cannot wait until next year to put in place the necessary arrangements. We must do so now because a detailed work programme must be undertaken each year on the preparation of the register of electors that will be published the following February. This work programme is undertaken in accordance with dates set out in the Electoral Act 1992. The first of the deadlines to be complied with is the requirement on registration authorities to give public notice of the categories of electors entitled to be entered in the postal or special voters lists. This must be undertaken in the period of 14 days ending on 1 September. The amendments should come into effect therefore before that date. My Department has discussed and agreed the provisions proposed with all of the local authorities involved. Limerick, South Tipperary and Waterford county councils will be the registration authorities for their respective combined areas for the next electoral register. That is the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014, the preparation of which will commence before the end of the summer.
In the area of planning and development the reform of local government structures presents an immediate challenge for town councils which are to be dissolved and city and county councils which are being merged. That is because these councils continue to have to meet their statutory obligations in regard to development planning, including where they all have different review cycles for their development plan reviews.
In the case of planning authorities that are due to be dissolved, I am of the firm view that reviews of borough and town council development plans, as currently obliged under the Planning Acts, are wasteful of resources and confusing for the public given that the authorities will not likely be in situ to finalise and adopt these development plans. As regards amalgamated planning authorities, I propose to give them the discretion to not review their plans, particularly given the different cycles they are currently locked into in terms of review of existing development plans. For example, while south Tipperary commenced review of its development plan in February 2013, it is not due for adoption until February 2015 and while north Tipperary is due to commence its development plan review in July 2014, its plan is not due for adoption until July 2016. As Tipperary County Council will be a newly merged authority, it makes no sense for it to have to finalise two separate development plans for the county. At the same time, I want to ensure that there will be a timely cohesive and coherent unitary development plan made by the newly amalgamated planning authorities. Consequently, I am proposing to give those planning authorities which it is proposed to amalgamate or dissolve, the discretionary powers under the Planning Acts to extend the lifetime of their existing development plan and to cease any development plan reviews already commenced.
I am also proposing to place a mandatory obligation on planning authorities that are being amalgamated to commence preparation of a development plan within one year of the making of regional planning guidelines which affect the area of the development plan given that it would be important to ensure that there is a time-bound obligation on the new amalgamated authorities to commence the process of preparing a new cohesive and coherent unitary development plan for the entire new administrative area of the council. These are pragmatic proposals to give the necessary flexibility to planning authorities in meeting their statutory obligations under the Planning Acts in light of the local government reform programme.
I am taking the opportunity afforded by this Bill to provide for the appointment of a dual manager in Waterford county and Waterford city. Provision for the dual management of the Limerick and Tipperary authorities was provided for by way of an amendment to section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2012. The decision to merge the authorities in Waterford had not been taken at that stage. Provision is being made in this Bill for the further amendment of section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 to allow for the appointment of a dual manager in the case of the Waterford authorities. A local government Bill, to be published later this year, will give expression to the wider reform measures in the action programme for effective local government, which sets out Government decisions for local government reform. Provision for the full merger of the three sets of authorities and consequential and related matters will be provided for in that Bill.
Arising from the accession of Croatia to the European Union, there was a need to adjust the distribution of seats in the European Parliament. The European Council made a decision of 28 June 2013 on the composition of the European Parliament for the 2014-2019 parliamentary term. This provides for a reduction from 12 to 11 in the number of members to be elected in Ireland. A review of European Parliament constituencies is, therefore, necessary. The Electoral Act 1997 provides only for the establishment of a constituency commission to review European constituencies following the publication of preliminary results of a census of population. The constituency commission established following the 2011 census recommended no change in the configuration of the European constituencies. However, at that stage there was no change in the number of members to represent Ireland in the European Parliament.
As there is no provision for the establishment of a commission in the period between the taking of one census of population and the next, an amendment to the legislation is necessary to provide for a review. The Bill deals with this by providing that whenever a constituency commission has completed its work in the normal course and it is necessary afterwards to review the configuration of European constituencies because of a change in the number of members to be elected in Ireland, then a committee will be established for this purpose. The committee will present its report within two months of establishment, having allowed a period of at least one month for the receipt of submissions from the public during that two month period. Apart from this, the same provisions that apply to a constituency commission as regards terms of reference, membership, procedures and disclosure of information will apply to the committee. It is my intention that this committee should be set up as soon as possible in order that the constituencies will be known in good time for next year's European elections.
European elections are set to be held again next year. All EU citizens have a right to stand for election to the European Parliament, irrespective of where they live in the European Union, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements. Those set out in Council Directive 93/109/EC are transposed into Irish law in the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. Up to now, non-national candidates putting themselves forward for election were required to produce, with their nomination papers, an attestation from their home member state certifying that they did not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate for election to the European Parliament in their home member state. While this measure safeguarded the member state of residence from including an ineligible candidate on the ballot paper, it was not working well in practice. Potential candidates were being deprived of the right to stand simply because they could not get their attestations from their home member states in time. Against this background, new arrangements have been put in place to remove this barrier to the exercise of the right to stand for election. These are set out in Council Directive 2013/1/EU, which amends the earlier directive and which must be transposed by 28 January 2014.
This directive abolishes the attestation requirement and includes in its place an additional element to the formal declaration that candidates were already required to complete when seeking a nomination to stand for election. Candidates will in future directly declare that they do not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate in their home member states. It will then be a matter for the member state of residence to check this with the candidate's home member state, which must respond within five working days or less if so requested. If the information provided invalidates the declaration, the member state of residence must then take appropriate steps, in accordance with national law, to prevent the candidate from standing for election or, if that is not possible, to prevent the candidate from being elected or exercising the mandate. This is a significant shift in approach for potential non-national candidates. No longer will it be their responsibility to establish their eligibility - this responsibility will lie with the member state of residence in which the candidate proposes to run.
We have an obligation to ensure we facilitate any non-national candidate who wishes to seek election in Ireland to the European Parliament in accordance with the provisions of the directives. At the same time, we need to take steps to minimise the possibility of ineligible candidates making their way onto the ballot paper or possibly being elected. The directive provides that if the candidate's home member state does not respond to the member state of residence in time, the candidate is to be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to stand for election. This Bill proposes new nomination arrangements that will meet the requirements of the directive, while ensuring that the chances of including ineligible candidates on the ballot paper are minimised to the greatest extent possible.
The preamble to Directive 2013/1/EU recognises that different deadlines can apply for the submission of nominations by national and non-national candidates. The new arrangements for Ireland proposed under this Bill build on this recognition. They provide for more time between the making of the polling day order and polling day than at present. This should allow sufficient time to check the declarations of non-national candidates. The Bill provides that the polling day order will be made not later than 50 days before polling day, instead of the current 35 days. It provides that, excluding Sundays and public holidays, the returning officer will publish the Notice of Election not later than the 35th day as opposed to, as it currently stands, the 28th day, before polling day. This then enables different nomination timelines to be put in place. The current period of seven days, excluding Sundays and public holidays, allowed for submission of nomination papers to the returning officer will continue to apply in the case of non-national candidates. In the case of national and UK candidates, however, this period will be extended to 14 days, excluding Sundays and public holidays. The seven days between these two periods will be used to check the declarations made by any non-national candidates, with their home member states. The aim is to ensure all necessary checks are completed before the end of the period for withdrawal of candidature, at which point the returning officer adjourns the election to take a poll or declares candidates elected, as appropriate. I am satisfied that these arrangements will both address our needs and the requirements of the directive.
The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 expanded the requirements in respect of the information that individuals must provide when making a statement of donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission or to a local authority. It provides that information must be supplied on whether the donation was solicited, the name of the person soliciting the donation and whether a receipt was given, and the date the donation was given and received. The Act applied these information requirements to elected representatives and election candidates but they were not applied to political parties. This Bill rectifies this by providing that the information requirements in respect of the disclosure of donations that apply to elected representatives and election candidates will apply also to political parties.
I am bringing forward two small but important amendments to electoral law in this Bill. The first of these relates to the time that is available following the announcement of an election or referendum for eligible people to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists. The reality is that any eligible person can apply to be included on these lists at any stage. However, it is human nature to put off making the application. If a person waits until after the announcement of an impending election or referendum, he or she then only has a two day window in which to submit an application to his or her registration authority. These arrangements have been the subject of some criticism. I felt it appropriate, therefore, to examine what could be done to improve the position. The Bill provides that, in future, the timeframe in which to make an application for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists will be based on the date of the polling day rather than the date on which the polling day order is made. The Bill provides that applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists need to be made 21 days in advance of polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum. This matches the arrangement already in place where applications for inclusion in the supplement to the register need to be made in advance of 14 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum.
However, in the case of applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' lists, additional time must be provided. This is to allow for the issue of postal voter documentation in good time and for making arrangements for special voters to cast their votes.
Given the very tight timelines that can arise between the moving of the writ or the making of the polling day order and polling day, the new arrangements will not apply for general elections or by-elections. They will apply for referendums and for presidential, European and local elections, for which the polling day orders generally are made at an earlier date relative to polling day. To give an example of how these new arrangements will be an improvement, it may be useful to consider them in the context of next year's local elections. Under present arrangements, a polling day order will be made no later than 50 to 60 days before polling day, requiring applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' lists to be made no later than 48 to 58 days before polling day. Under the proposed new arrangements, such applications could be made in advance of 21 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, thereby giving people an additional 24 to 34 days to apply to their registration authority for inclusion in the supplement.
The other amendment to electoral law relates to the requirement of An Post to make copies of referendum Bills available for inspection and purchase in post offices in the run-up to referendums. The context for this provision has changed completely since it was introduced in 1942. It effectively has become obsolete and should be repealed. In 1942, copies of Bills were not accessible online and there was no Referendum Commission to provide information to voters. This has all since changed and referendum Bills can now be read on or downloaded from the website of the Houses of the Oireachtas at any time. While the establishment of a Referendum Commission is not mandatory, a commission has been established for every referendum held since 1998. The commission's role includes the preparation of statements for the information of the public and the publication and distribution of these statements to bring them to the attention of the electorate. In addition, a statement for the information of voters may be prescribed by the Houses of the Oireachtas whenever there is a referendum. Such a statement has been prescribed and issued to voters for all referendums held since 1937.
As I stated, the Bill puts in place legislative amendments that are needed across the electoral, local government and planning areas in the context of the programme for local government reform, the change in the number of MEPs to be elected in Ireland and the need to transpose a Council directive. This Bill takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to meeting all these requirements and I commend it to the House.