I am pleased today to provide to the Oireachtas the Government's response to the recommendations of the fourth report of the Constitutional Convention. The report is about the Dáil electoral system, one of the topics listed for consideration by the convention in the Oireachtas resolutions of 2012 approving the calling of the convention.
The Government acknowledges the interest of the participants and contributors and their engagement on the subject of the Dáil electoral system over two weekend meetings of the convention. This was, to quote the convention chairman, "a technical and complex" issue for consideration by the convention members. The decision of the convention was decisively in favour of retaining the current proportional representation-single transferable vote, PR-STV, electoral system, and the Government accepts the recommendation that the system be retained.
While voting to retain the current system, the convention made a number of recommendations for its modification. The convention chairman called this a "strong demand for changes" as part of a more substantial agenda of political reform. In that context in particular, the Government restates its commitment to reform of the political and electoral system. This is evidenced in the strong delivery over the past three and a half years on commitments in the programme for Government and the commitment in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 to further reform.
In the fourth report, as well as dealing with the Dáil electoral system, the convention made recommendations for constitutional change in regard to permitting the appointment of non-Oireachtas members as Ministers and requiring Dáil Members to resign their seats on appointment to ministerial office. A recommendation was also made in regard to direct democracy or citizens' initiatives.
I will now set out the Government response to each of the recommendations made by the convention in its fourth report.
I will begin with the recommendations for change to the Dáil electoral system. The convention recommended providing for larger constituencies with the smallest constituency size being a five seater. The Government is of the view that the three, four or five seat Dáil constituency arrangement has served the State well since 1948. It has provided for an appropriate balance in representation across the country while, at the same time, allowing for regard to be had to the terms of reference set in law for boundary review. The Government, therefore, will not accept the recommendation that no constituency should have less than five seats.
The Convention recommended the retention of more than 159 Members. In the convention report the recommendation to have more than 159 Members is associated with a range of one Deputy for every 30,000 or fewer of the electorate. The Government does not accept that such a ratio should be provided for and does not, therefore, propose to hold a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution in this regard. There is scope within existing legislation to provide for constituencies to return between 153 and 160 Members. The most recent constituency commission recommended an arrangement of constituencies for the election of 158 Members and the Oireachtas has provided for this in the Electoral (Amendment) (Dail Constituencies) Act 2013.
The convention recommended the establishment of an electoral commission. In April this year the Taoiseach advised this House of the Government's acceptance of this recommendation which reflects a commitment in the programme for Government. The preparatory work on this task has commenced in the Department and the Government Legislation Programme provides for the publication of an electoral commission Bill in 2015. Last night in the Seanad, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, spoke with great passion and enthusiasm and in some detail about his commitment to this issue. He outlined his intention to bring proposals to Government in January to commence the pre-legislative phase of the Bill and this was well received by Senators.
The convention then recommended changing from the alphabetical order of candidates on the ballot paper and giving greater access to postal voting. The Government proposes that in due course an electoral commission be tasked with considering these issues and advising in detail on the electoral and operational implications, including costs, of implementing changes in these areas.
The convention recommended that measures be introduced to improve voter turnout. The Government accepts this recommendation and will continue to seek to implement measures to achieve improvements in voter turnout.
The convention recommended extending polling hours and polling days. Under existing law polling hours can to be set for a period of at least 12 hours between 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m. on any day of the week. However, in the context of any new arrangements for running elections that would be put in place when an electoral commission is established, the options for implementation of the convention recommendation to extend polling hours and to provide for polling on more than one day should be examined. The costs and the electoral and operational implications of such options would need to be identified in that examination.
The convention recommended improving the accuracy of the electoral register. The Government fully agrees that the highest levels of accuracy should be a constant and continuing objective for all with responsibility for the register. This includes the voting public, local authorities and the Department. The Department will continue to work with stakeholders on improving the accuracy of the electoral register. This issue also exercises county councillors at election time.
The convention recommended the introduction of a relevant education programme in schools. Much is being done in this regard. There is a civil, social and political education programme in place for post-primary schools. The new junior cycle student award is underpinned by 24 statements of learning which include that the student "values what it means to be an active citizen, with rights and responsibilities in local and wider contexts". Earlier this year, it was announced that politics and society is to be introduced as part of the suite of subjects available to students at senior cycle.
The convention, in its fourth report, also made a small number of other recommendations unrelated to the Dáil electoral system. The first of these was that there should be a referendum to permit the appointment of non-Oireachtas members as Ministers.
The convention recommended providing a right for citizens to petition on influencing the legislative agenda and to petition for referenda. In response to these recommendations, I would point out that constitutional referenda are relatively common in Ireland and that there is nothing to prevent citizens presenting petitions. The Government has also substantially opened up the legislative process to citizens both via the work of the convention itself and the various packages of Dáil reform that we have introduced since 2011.
As the Taoiseach recently said in this House, the convention has been a valuable innovation in our democracy. I also commend the members and staff of the convention for their work on this report and their work generally over the lifetime of the convention.