Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage

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

The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014 is a short but important Bill. It provides for the repeal of the bankruptcy disqualifications for election to and membership of the Dáil and the European Parliament.

The bankruptcy disqualification has been in place in Ireland since 1923 and it was there before that under the Westminster administration. The disqualification was removed for local elections in 1974. My Department has made inquiries of other EU member states and confirmed that it is not a disqualification for elections to the national or European Parliament in at least 18 member states.

Anomalies exist under the current legislation whereby although an Irish citizen adjudicated bankrupt in another jurisdiction is eligible for election to the Dáil or the European Parliament to represent Ireland, an Irish citizen adjudicated bankrupt in Ireland is not eligible for election to either. Similarly, while a Deputy or MEP who is adjudicated bankrupt in Ireland ceases to be a Member, if a Member is adjudicated bankrupt in another jurisdiction a vacancy in the Dáil or European Parliament does not arise.

It is difficult in the 21st century to identify a valid reason for retaining this disqualification. When the provision was originally introduced, well over 100 years ago, there seem to have been valid reasons. This is not the case now having regard to recent insolvency legislation in Ireland and the altered view of bankruptcy as a protection or remedy rather than a punishment. There was a commitment in this Government's programme for Government to reform our bankruptcy legislation to bring us into line with best international standards. This reform has been delivered in the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 which amended the Bankruptcy Act 1988 to provide for a more enlightened, less punitive and costly approach to bankruptcy. Those amendments continued the reform of bankruptcy law which was started in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011.

We have taken a 21st century look at the relevant parts of our electoral law and decided it, too, needs to be changed. In the past, the disqualification from election to or holding elected public office by dint of being an undischarged bankrupt partly reflected a concern that a person in such circumstances could be more susceptible to inappropriate influence. This might have had some validity when the provision was originally conceived in a previous era, in another century. However, we need to consider the disqualification provision in the present day taking into account the legislative framework that exists to guard against corruption, to uphold ethics in public office and to restrict the potential for inappropriate influence of private and corporate political funding.

Between 1889 and 2010 seven separate Prevention of Corruption Acts were enacted, along with a range of other criminal justice legislation that addresses corruption. Further significant reforms are planned. When enacted, the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill being developed by my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, will not simply be a consolidation of the existing legislation. It will clarify and strengthen the main corruption provisions and offences. Head 18 of the general scheme makes provision for the courts to remove from office Irish public officials who are found guilty of corruption. This includes members of the Oireachtas and of the European Parliament. The Bill is being drafted and it is hoped that it will be ready for publication in the coming months. We have an ethics framework covering public office holders, as set out in the Ethics Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. The requirements of this legislation are overseen by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

The comprehensive legislative code covering political donations has been substantially strengthened by this Government through the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act in 2012. Corporate donations are now restricted. The maximum political donation that an individual can receive was reduced to €1,000 and every donation above €600 must be reported, with details of the donor published. Cash donations above €200 are now banned, as are anonymous donations above €100. Experience in the past has, unfortunately, shown that some individuals are willing and capable of circumventing the rules, and that bankruptcy is no predictor of such behaviour.

No system will guard against every possibility and there is a constant need for us to be vigilant in reforming our laws and regulations to appropriate and proportionate effect. However, an absolute ban on bankrupt persons standing for election can be regarded as a disproportionate measure with questionable justification. There are better and more targeted ways of dealing with concerns about the inappropriate influence of office holders. These should apply whether a person happens to be bankrupt or not. This approach is reflected in the range of necessary laws and regulations dealing with political funding, ethics in public office and anti-corruption measures. In these circumstances, it is right and reasonable that the bankruptcy disqualification be repealed.

The following are the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 amends the Electoral Act 1992, providing for the removal of the disqualification of bankruptcy for election to the Dáil by repealing paragraph (k) of section 41 of the Act and the removal of the disqualification of bankruptcy for membership of the Dáil by repealing subsection (3) of section 42 of the Act. Section 2 amends the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, providing for the repeal of the bankruptcy disqualification for election to the European Parliament by removing the reference, in section 11(2)(a), to paragraph (k) of section 41 of the Electoral Act 1992.

No amendment is required to remove the bankruptcy disqualification for membership of the European Parliament because section 11(5)(a) of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 provides that a person shall cease to be a member of the European Parliament if they become subject to any of the disqualifications referred to in subsection (2)(a) of section 11. Section 3 contains standard provisions dealing with short title, construction and collective citations.

Although the bankruptcy disqualification also applies to Members of Seanad Éireann, the Bill does not provide for amendment to Seanad electoral law. Article 18.2 of the Constitution states that "A person to be eligible for membership of Seanad Éireann must be eligible to become a member of Dáil Éireann". Section 16(2) of the Seanad (University Members) Act 1937 provides that "No person who is for the time being disqualified from or incapable of being elected as a member of Dáil Éireann shall be a candidate at an election in a university constituency". Having regard to these cross references to the Dáil provisions the bankruptcy disqualification will be removed for the Seanad as a consequence of the amendments in the Bill.

As I noted earlier, the bankruptcy disqualification was removed for local elections in 1974; that is 40 years ago. We are only now removing it for general elections and for European elections. This is something that could have been done, and probably should have been done, long ago. This Government is taking action to repeal a provision that is disproportionate and no longer necessary. Voters will elect the representative of their choice. I commend the Bill to the House.

We have only four minutes until Leaders' Questions.

I will give Deputy Cowen a minute.

As the Minister said, the Bill is important and we agree it must provide for the repeal of the bankruptcy disqualification for election to the Dáil and the European Parliament. While the disqualification has been in place and served the State reasonably well since 1923, it came, as the Minister said, from the Westminster administration. The disqualification was removed for local elections in 1974 and it needs to be revisited. Recent years have provided for a mechanism whereby many members of the public who have gone through the process during the downturn have gained much experience, if nothing else, of the difficulties and perils of business life, let alone home life. If offers them an opportunity to put in practice rectification measures in the manner in which they would become part of the legislative process. There should be no bar on a person going before the public and seeking approval for his or her candidacy. A bar of this nature, especially in the present circumstances and considering our most recent past in this economy, allows us the opportunity to examine that legislation in a new light.

I join with the Minister and the Government in seeking to create and amend legislation to allow members of the public of all backgrounds, persuasions and hues the opportunity, in the first instance, to put their names before the electorate. The ultimate responsibility will lie with the public to elect those they see fit, who they feel have the life experiences and relevant qualifications to be what they want them to be in our Dáil, namely, parliamentarians of whom they can be proud and who they feel will enact legislation which reflects the times in which we live and the difficulties of our economy for various businesses. There should be no bar based on candidates' financial predicaments immediately prior to an election. I hope all parties will see the legislation in that light and against that background. I hope that, where they see fit, they will promote the thrust of the legislation. Proceedings are being taken by members of the public regarding the existing laws on this. It is therefore a timely move by the Government to seek to enact legislation so candidates will be given enough time to lead into the most immediate elections facing us.

Debate adjourned.