Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2016: Second and Subsequent Stages

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

The purpose of the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2016 is to enable the register of electors to be used for selecting members of the citizens' assembly. The provisions in the Bill are along the lines of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2012 passed by the Oireachtas when arrangements were being made for the membership of the then proposal Convention on the Constitution. When consideration was being given to the establishment of the citizens' assembly, the Government decided that it should have a membership of 100 citizens, including the chairperson. As set out in the resolution approving the calling of the assembly that was passed by the House a short time ago, the Government will appoint a chairperson. The balance of the membership will consist of "99 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society".

As the citizens' assembly is not established by statute, it is necessary to provide in the Electoral Act 1992 for the use of the register of electors in the selection of the members of the assembly. Section 13A of the Electoral Act 1992 provides that it is an offence to use information in the register other than for electoral or other statutory purposes. Such a statutory purpose is, for example, provided in the Juries Act in respect of the selection of members of juries. As already stated, provision was made in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2012 for use of the register in the selection of member of the Convention of the Constitution.

There is in place an edited register of electors which could have been used in the selection of citizens to serve on the citizens' assembly. That register includes 320,000 voters who have opted to have their names included on it. However, that is a relatively small percentage of the total electorate of some 3.2 million from which citizens may be selected on the enactment of this Bill. As to the selection process, a polling company will be commissioned for this purpose. Its brief will be the selection of a representative sample of the Irish electorate in terms of gender, age and regional spread. The selection process will be overseen by the independent chairperson of the assembly.

I will now outline the detail of the Bill for the House. Section 1 amends section 13A of the Electoral Act 1992 by the insertion of a new subsection. This will provide that information in the electoral register may be used for the purpose of selecting citizens of Ireland to participate in the assembly. Section 2 contains standard provisions dealing with the Title, citation and construction of the Bill.

In summary, the sole purpose of this Bill is to provide in statute for the use of the electoral register in the selection of members of the citizens' assembly. The Bill is required to facilitate the establishment of the assembly, the calling of which was approved by resolution of this House earlier this evening. I commend the Bill to the House.

In light of the fact that Fianna Fáil abstained on the motion for the establishment of the citizens' assembly, the party will also be abstaining in respect of this legislation. As the Minister of State identified, the purpose of this legislation is onefold. It is solely designed to enable the selection of citizens of Ireland from the electoral register in order that 99 of those citizens can be selected for membership of the citizens' assembly. Notwithstanding the fact, that Fianna Fáil is abstaining in respect of this legislation, it is appropriate that a number of comments be made in respect of how it is proposed to select the 99 individuals who will play an important part in respect of the issues that the assembly will be asked to consider.

It is stated in the motion that was approved by this House a number of minutes ago that the 99 citizens would be "randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society". As an attempt to ensure we get that broad representation, the Government seeks to rely in this legislation on the electoral register. In many respects, that is probably a wise decision since there are 3.2 million people on the register. As I said earlier, however, if we wanted a broad representation of Irish society, it would have been more appropriate if the random selection were not limited to those entitled to vote in Dáil Éireann elections, namely, citizens, but instead included every person in Ireland. We would have had a broader assessment had we included those entitled to vote in local elections.

In the aftermath of the Constitutional Convention, which took place during the term of the previous Dáil, there was some concern as to the randomness of the individuals selected to be part of that Constitutional Convention. We hope the citizens' assembly is effective notwithstanding the fact that we will be abstaining in respect of the legislation. Nonetheless, in order for it to be effective, the Government must seek to ensure that it is a random selection. I note from what the Minister of State said that it is the intention of the Government to subcontract out to a polling company the selection of the individuals who will be members of the citizens' assembly. The Minister of State's indicated that it hopes the membership of the assembly will be representative "in terms of gender, age and regional spread". I can understand how the electoral register could be used in order to ensure that there was a representative sample based on gender and regional spread. However, I do not know how the electoral register could be used to ensure that there is age representation on the citizens' assembly. It is also important to ensure that once we get 99 citizens together into the citizens' assembly, resources will be put in place to ensure that those citizens can carry out the functions - if this legislation is passed - that the Oireachtas will have asked them to perform. I do not believe it is sustainable or tenable to put 99 people into a room and ask them to discuss, for example, the most divisive and controversial issue that will be before them, namely, the eighth amendment. If it is a random selection, presumably the 99 people will have a varied amount of views on the eighth amendment. Some of them will no doubt be as reflective as the extreme views on the pro-choice and the pro-life side in Irish society. We will need to put in place resources to ensure that there will be a mediation or facilitation process in order that work can be done by this citizens' assembly in an adequate manner.

Those are some words of advice I would give to the Minister of State and the Government. If this process is to succeed, it is imperative that there be a random selection and that all parties and individuals in Ireland will be able to say that it was done fairly and randomly and that it was not slanted in any particular way to favour a particular viewpoint.

The Bill is designed to allow the electoral register to be used for the purposes of selecting the members of the citizens' assembly.

I will only speak about the technical aspects of the Bill and not the broader issue of the assembly itself as that was well debated earlier. Sinn Féin will oppose the Bill because this is the wrong data source and the wrong organisation to oversee the selection process. The difficulty with using the electoral register is that 5% of the adult population of the State is not on it. Those people are automatically excluded. This is approximately 200,000 people. Generally, they are likely to be young people, those on low incomes, people with literacy difficulties, Travellers and those who do not have citizenship or residency rights. All of those people have a right to be involved in any constituent or citizens' assembly, irrespective of whether individual parties agree or disagree with such an assembly or the issues it will consider. It is a mistake to use a data source that excludes those people from the outset. There is also a concern that we are only talking about those who have citizenship rights, the right to vote in referenda and people over 18 years of age. There is clearly an argument that other groups should be included when deliberating on these important issues. Therefore, using the census data held by the CSO rather than the electoral register would be a much more inclusive approach.

To pick up on a point made by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, Sinn Féin does not believe it is appropriate to use a private polling company. While the legislation does not specify a private polling company and refers to "persons", it clearly does not prohibit one. Irrespective of the subject matter or the purpose of the assembly, if there is to be full public trust and confidence in the selection process, the CSO would be a much better placed organisation to provide it. We would have much preferred to see legislation that used the census data and tasked the CSO with the responsibility to provide the members of the forum. On those bases, we are not willing to support the Bill. There are other categorise of people who are excluded. These include the diaspora, citizens from the North and people in direct provision and the asylum process. All of those people have a right to be involved in the debates of the assembly. On those bases also, we will oppose the legislation.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance will oppose the Bill for a number of reasons. We spoke earlier of our opposition to the citizens' assembly, which is a delaying tactic and a charade for political expedience. Having lost the argument that it should not proceed, we should now at least try to have the most representative sample of 100 members. The Minister of State has said that the use of the electoral register by a private polling company is something that was done before in regard to the Constitutional Convention. However, it is almost a sacred thing that the electoral register is only meant to be used for the registration of voters. There are difficulties in getting people to register as they fear they will be placed under certain types of scrutiny and that the roll may be used to hunt them down for debts. This is a real issue because in many working class areas, the electoral register is in no way representative of the local population. In the polling district I live in at Lady's Well, Mulhuddart, the turnout in elections is often 24% of the register. There should be an investigation of some kind into the reasons for that. I was talking to a returning officer one evening who made the point that because of the huge non-Irish population there, most people do not have a vote in Dáil elections and that therefore the sample is very low. I have raised this very serious issue before. Migrant women are very much affected by the eighth amendment. In fact, they are more affected by it than anybody else, but the Government does not seem to care. The fact is that they do not have the money to travel and probably do not have the freedom and visas necessary to do it. Brexit will be an even bigger issue. They will not have any say. Will any attempt be made to have migrant voices on the assembly?

A lot of young people do not register to vote. The Minister of State may say that is their choice, but it is not good enough to do so. If the Government wants a representative sample of the population at large, to choose from among those who have opted to vote is not the best way to do it. This could have a bearing on the outcome of the citizens' assembly because, agree or disagree, young people have a much more liberal attitude on the issue of the eighth amendment. That will not necessarily be reflected in the citizens' assembly in terms of the youth population. That is my fear. We also know that working class people are not represented on the register. It breaks my heart on a weekly basis as I deal with people to help them with housing or other issues. One talks to them and finds out that they are not registered to vote.

There is a cultural issue in working class communities on the value or efficacy of bothering to register to vote. Let us exclude the other assembly issues and focus on the first one, which is the eighth amendment. That issue is critical for working class women because they face huge issues around having potentially to save €2,000 or €3,000 to have an abortion in another country or trying to access the abortion pill outside the State and take it at home. Nevertheless, they will not be fully represented on this so-called citizens' assembly.

The other really important issue involves Travellers. Travellers are excluded from many aspects of civil and civic society and registering to vote is a huge, generational and historic issue for them. We are relying on a polling company using a small sample of the population and no effort will be made to involve those minority groups.

On non-citizens, the Minister of State did not get a chance to deal with the amendment we proposed to the previous motion. I can give an example from Dublin West, where one in four people was born outside Ireland. It is the highest multi-ethnic population in the country. A lot of them are now Irish citizens, but they are not registered to vote in Dáil elections for a variety of reasons. I have spoken on this in the Dáil but no attempt has been made to address it. Why are people not offered the opportunity to register to vote at naturalisation ceremonies? This is a very big problem because decisions are being taken that affect them. They live and work here and many are married with children in the State but they do not upgrade their vote to a Dáil vote because they simply do not realise they need to. We asked for a simple amendment to include local authority voters in the sample but for some reason that was rejected as unreasonable.

What efforts are going to be made to protect the people who are chosen from the electoral register when they are on the assembly from anti-abortion lobbyists or others who may target them? I am sure we have all been victims of threats. When one is an elected representative, one has to take that in one's stride. What about people who are not elected and who did not sign up for that kind of thing? I asked this before but I have not heard any mention of what will be done in that regard. I assure the Minister of State that the dire diatribes I and others get, in particular from anti-abortionists, can be very upsetting for those who are not used to it. I am sure others get it on other issues.

Turning to the polling company, if the Minister of State remembers back to when the water charges issue was launched, there was talk about people's data being given to Irish Water. It almost caused an insurrection in the country. There is huge paranoia as well as genuine awareness about people's data being passed over.

What safeguards will be put in place at polling companies or other companies that might use this information?

It is funny that a private polling company is being given this task. Every time that attitudes and so forth are surveyed, the Government claims that it takes no notice of polls, yet it is commissioning a polling company to find the 100 people. Polling companies often use much larger samples than that. Many poll 1,000 people.

It is late at night, but 87% of people surveyed in the most recent poll on the eighth amendment stated that they wanted expanded access to abortion, 80% believed that abortion should be available where a woman's health or life was at risk, 73% favoured the holding of a referendum and 66% believed that it was hypocritical to have a constitutional ban on abortion when women were travelling abroad for abortions. I could cite many more figures, but these already give a good idea of what we need to do with the eighth amendment without bringing a smaller sample of 100 people into a room.

Has any consideration been given to the 100 people? I assume that they will have jobs and other responsibilities. No one wants to serve on juries. The Minister of State has told us that this is a weighty matter and will take a great deal of deliberation, but what expenses will be provided? I presume that people will be compensated for missing work or will it be the case, as tends to be in jury selection, that people who may be unrepresentative of all strata - self-employed or well-heeled people who can afford to be there or unemployed people - will be the ones there?

I do not support this idea and will not vote to facilitate a waste of time and a charade, an exercise in kicking the can down the road. It is laughable that we are passing this Bill late at night.

I will address some of the issues in reverse. The timing for Bills is no longer a Government decision. It is for the Business Committee, which decided that the House would not sit on Friday. That is the reason for being here so late tonight and tomorrow tonight. It is not my choice. I would facilitate any time for the Deputies, but that is Dáil reform. It is working well for some and not for others, but that is the nature of the game.

Deputy Coppinger asked why people were not encouraged to register at their citizenship ceremonies. I did not know it, but I have been informed by the departmental officials that they are encouraged. They are given the leaflet and told what is involved in the process. They are not made to sign up there and then, but they are encouraged to do it, which is positive.

In general, most of the issues that Deputy Coppinger has raised about this Bill rather than about the citizens' assembly, which we debated a few minutes ago, concern who should be on the register. I agree that we have a great deal of work to do if we are to get the register right, which is in everyone's interests. It should be fixed once and for all. The system for registering should be automatic. I hope that we can commit to sorting this out together, as the register is not reflective of everyone who wants to vote. People are only discovering that they are not registered when they go to vote. It is unfair to say that there is a particular age group or social background involved. I meet people regularly everywhere I go and I get the same phone calls as Deputy Coppinger does from people who ring for help after discovering that they are not on the register. That happens to us all on a daily basis.

It is much more common in working class areas.

It is unfair to say that. I come across people of all ages who are not registered.

I do not agree with the Deputy. Saying that it is just the working class is unfair on the working class. People of all ages-----

It is a statistical fact. It is not the Minister of State.

I do not agree with the Deputy on that. Maybe she will just accept that.

Through the Chair, please.

Regarding the selection process, the same process was used for the Constitutional Convention, and everyone was happy with how the convention worked - the same criteria, the same logic used by the polling company and the same register. That is all that I am saying. It worked well. I hope that it works well and speedily in this instance. That is the intention. No matter what process we picked, though, Deputy Coppinger would probably not have been happy with it and would have found some hole in it. I can only refer to the convention, which worked. This is a similar process and I hope that it will deliver consultation and achieve what people want, namely, a referendum, among other things.

Deputy O'Callaghan raised concerns about advice, help and expertise. Expertise, facilitators and mediation were available to the convention. The citizens' assembly will be independent of the Government. Likewise, issues of protection and so forth will be for the assembly and its chairperson to decide. Funding will be made available. The Government will not lecture the assembly on what it should do. Independence is the whole idea behind the citizens' assembly, but everything it requires will be provided. As with the convention, that is up to the assembly to decide.

The Bill is concerned with how to facilitate the motion passed by the House today. It will allow 99 people to be picked. It is late at night, but this is not a complicated Bill. The use of the register is protected in law, but the Bill facilitates its use for this one matter. The data will not be shared. The polling company will not sample 100 people for their opinions. It will use samples and polling methods to find 100 people. Deputy Coppinger is confident that a poll of the people will give the result that she wants to achieve, but that is not what this Bill is about. Rather, that question will be decided if there is a referendum. She would get her vote then. This Bill is about finding 100 people from a sample of those who can vote in a referendum.

I thank Deputies for their time and effort. I am conscious that it is late at night. I thank Deputies for their contributions. This is a process to engage citizens and was set out in a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government. It addresses four or five issues, but more may be added if the process works speedily. If the process works, we can hold a debate in 12 months' time on which is better - the citizens' assembly, the Constitutional Convention or some other version - but this is concerned with trying to effect discussion and change in a non-political environment. Deputies are chatting here everyday of the week, but others must be consulted.

Question put.

The division will be postponed until the weekly division time tomorrow, Thursday, 14 June 2016, in accordance with Standing Order 70(2).

The Dáil adjourned at 10 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 14 July 2016.