Business of Joint Committee.

Members of the committee have been forwarded the replies to 41 questions posed by Mr. Joe McCarthy at a meeting of the joint committee in December 2003. Do members have any questions or comments they may wish to make at this stage?

We have received responses to the questions put by Mr. McCarthy and other experts on the 41 headings. The responses I received run to several pages but I cannot understand why they took over two months to produce them. I believe many of the questions have been dodged. These were dealt with by Mr. McCarthy yesterday in a different forum.

I will not waste the committee's time by going through the questions one by one but major questions have been raised. For example, one relates to the testing by BTB, the German group. My interpretation is that BTB tested the vote casting and recording, and the ERS tested the count system. This implies strongly that there has been no fully independent end-to-end test, entering the votes and then counting results. No such end-to-end test results have been done. That is ridiculous. If one is testing an aeroplane, one tests the engines and wing-flaps separately but ultimately all the tests are run at once to ensure that the system works. There should have been full testing of the entire system, whereas we have had a limited testing that is not good enough.

In order to consider the details of the answers we should invite the experts that attended the committee on 18 December 2003 to give the committee the benefit of their expertise concerning the quality of the answers that have been received. I am not a computer expert and nobody in this forum can claim to understand all the technicalities involved in the responses that have been received. As a matter of courtesy to those who gave their time and expertise to the committee last December, I propose we should invite them back to give an assessment of the responses from the Department and its experts to the questions that were posed. I would hope to have the support of the committee to invite them back. I will have other comments to make later but it is fundamental to afford the experts the courtesy of being recalled.

This item is on the agenda because we sought responses to the issues raised by Mr. McCarthy at our meeting in December. It should be noted that it has taken the Department from 18 December 2003 to 27 February 2004 to furnish a reply. That is a period of over two months. The fact that it has taken that long for the Department to compile the reply to the issues raised by Mr. McCarthy does not augur well for the possibility that this issue will be examined by an independent commission, new legislation put in place and all the practical arrangements that go with that made in time for the elections in June. This underlines the fact that the timeframe for the use of electronic voting in the elections in June is too short.

I agree with Deputy Allen that we will have to invite back Mr. McCarthy and the other computer experts who raised these issues to respond to the details dealt with in the letter and to some of the technical issues raised. I was struck by the number of occasions in the letter when the Department relies on issues of commercial confidentiality and sensitivity to deny information to the committee. I draw attention to the response to question No. 3, relating to the ownership and design of the source code, where the Department denies information to the committee on the grounds that this raises, "issues of commercial sensitivity and security". The reply continues that regarding information about the source code the Department must take into account, "both security concerns and intellectual property rights of the software designers". The same type of reasoning is used frequently. I merely give these as examples because many of the replies are peppered with similar references. Question No. 15 is why there was a refusal to release some Nedap documents. The reply states:

As stated in their letter to the Department, Nedap are concerned that, while the documents sought do not give immediate access to the hardware schematics and software code, it would be possible to derive the internal design structure from these documents. This information would enable a competitor to design and develop a comparable voting system.

Question No. 19 asks who designed and developed the source code. The reply is that this is regarded by Powervote as company confidential information.

We are being told that essential information about the system by which the public will be casting their votes cannot be provided to an Oireachtas committee because it is regarded as commercially sensitive by the company which produced it or because intellectual property rights or issues relating to a competitor are involved. That may be fair enough as far as the company is concerned and may be a valid issue for the company. However, is it acceptable that the method by which people vote in a democracy should be so privately owned by the companies which developed the software and hardware that essential information cannot be put into the public domain?

This is not because of the security of the vote, the confidentiality of individual voters, political considerations or the conduct of democracy but because of possible competition and disclosure of commercially sensitive information. This is not acceptable and adds a new dimension to this debate.

The replies to Mr. McCarthy make it clear that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and his Department have sold the election process of the country to a private company. That private company, even before a full election has been conducted, is telling an Oireachtas committee that information regarding the set-up and design of its machinery and who is involved in it cannot be provided. Can one imagine what this company is going to tell the democratically elected representatives of the people in four or five years' time when this is all bedded down? This adds a whole new dimension to this debate.

I propose that the joint committee invite the independent commission to meet us in public session, because this is a matter of concern to the public. As a representative of a political party, I should have the right to present my party's concerns about this issue, directly and in public, to the independent commission. I propose, when you have had an opportunity to deal with Deputy Allen's proposal, a Chathaoirligh, that you arrange for the joint committee to meet in public session with the independent commission.

I am concerned at the length of time it has taken to get the answers we have received today. It would not take two months to write out these answers because they are mostly evasive. For example, question No. 18 asks whether the Department is willing to allow a panel of outside security experts to review the source code. The reply merely states that the Department is satisfied that the independent review undertaken by Nathean Technologies Limited is accurate and thorough. I take it that the Department is not willing to allow an outside panel to review the source code. The Department should simply have said so.

Question No. 33 asks what is the rush in implementing the new system and for a definition of the net benefits to the public for this investment. The answer begins, "We are not rushing into the implementation of this new system of voting and counting." Of course it is being rushed. Our aborted meeting of 18 December——

It was not aborted.

It was aborted.

It was aborted.

I will have to spell things out for the members who think it was not aborted. We met in the forenoon and agreed to meet again in the afternoon. As soon as we came back in the afternoon the Government members of the committee proposed that the contract be proceeded with and the meeting finished shortly afterwards, without waiting to develop the debate. Experts from both sides were present and we had to adjourn the committee and leave the room. Members may interpret those events however they like. The meeting finished prematurely because we did not discuss the business before us. On the following day, 19 December, the contracts were signed.

Despite the fact that the contracts were signed on 19 December, €20 million worth of machines had been imported at least six weeks previously. It is clear that the Minister, the Government or whoever is pushing this project had no interest in what this joint committee, which is charged with the responsibility of dealing with this matter, was discussing. The machines had already been ordered and imported into the country and would have to be paid for. I now understand why Government members of this committee gave the Government sanction to proceed with the contract, which was signed the next day despite the fact that machines worth €20 million had been imported into the country in September, at least six weeks before the contract was signed. That defeats logic.

Our question No. 39 asked whether the voting machines can be randomly chosen for a paper check, whether they can consistently be randomly selected for an audit and whether there is a role for an electoral commission. Some people are confusing the committee which has been set up with an electoral commission. It is not an electoral commission. It is supposed to be an independent committee to examine the system but it is not independent, having been set up by the Government. The only answer in reply to question No. 39 was that the Government had decided to establish an independent electoral voting commission. The Government had not made that decision on 18 December when those questions were asked. It is now not a constituency commission, it is an electronic voting commission to verify secrecy and accuracy. The question as to whether the voting machines can be randomly chosen for a paper check has not been answered.

Members of this committee are not against the principle of electronic voting. We would wish to be able to say we support electronic voting but we cannot do so because of the manner in which it is being forced upon us. There has been a difficulty in obtaining answers to the questions and the Government seems to be in a rush to push it through. This is a matter of the confidence of the electorate and it has gone beyond this committee or the Oireachtas. The voting public must have confidence in the electoral system and quite obviously the voting public has lost confidence. Generally speaking, the voting public has lost confidence in anything that politicians from any side of the House try to implement because of what has happened at the highest level of Government over the past ten years. The public has lost confidence in Government proposals.

For that reason alone, we should have been far more careful to achieve consensus in this committee that electronic voting was the way to move forward. If we had received the assurances we requested from Government, we would have been able to give that support but we were stalled at every opportunity, including 18 December when a meeting scheduled for the whole afternoon finished within ten or 15 minutes after lunch. This was because the majority forced a vote to proceed with the signing of the contract for electronic voting machines.

The fault lies with rushing the matter through without having taken time at this committee. If the commission which has now been set up finds that this should not be proceeded with, the fault will be entirely with the Minister and the Government who tried to rush this through without the necessary checks and answers being given to the legitimate questions asked.

We are almost on a merry go round of confusion and obfuscation. On the issue of the vote on 18 December, I must take umbrage at Deputy McCormack's remarks. The members of the committee voted to proceed with electronic voting. We were not voting on any contracts as outlined by Deputy McCormack. The committee voted on giving the go ahead to proceed with electronic voting. It is very different——

(Interruptions).

Order, please. Please allow Deputy Kelleher to speak.

It is as if this side of the House was giving out contracts. This committee has discussed the matter for some time. The Opposition has tried to instil in the public a fear that this electronic voting system will not function properly. If we had another 41 questions it would not satisfy the Opposition, particularly and primarily because they are using this as a political opportunity. I am disappointed that despite all the answers, all the research and all the experts who have come before this committee, the Opposition members are trying to undermine how we go about our business with regard to electronic voting. We have now answered the 41 questions and people still are not satisfied. All these questions have been answered already by the various people from the Department and from Nedap and elsewhere who attended the committee. I distinctly remember these issues being raised. There were reports on the certification and test results have been circulated to members.

I believe we are doing the public a great disservice. We have debated this issue. All the people who voted on the electronic voting system in the previous general election and in the Nice treaty referendum in seven constituencies, and also all the parties, accepted thebona fides of the results and the accuracy. More important, the public embraced it and saw it as a very positive experience. We are now trying to revert to undermining the whole issue——

(Interruptions).

Order, please.

I will inform Deputy Allen. I was referring to the count. They have taken my views on board with regard to outlining the various counts such as first, second, third, fourth, fifth and the distribution of surplus votes and eliminations. I am glad the Government has listened to that suggestion.

Deputy Rabbitte made some allegations in the House some time ago. The kernel of the issue seems to be, "We do not trust Fianna Fáil to count votes." That is a great slur on every returning officer in this country and the officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who are overseeing the elections and have a statutory obligation——

He said nothing about them.

He certainly did. He implied that they were not impartial. He was implying that Fianna Fáil had some——

That accusation was about Fianna Fáil.

——-control over it. We must accept that we are really doing a disservice to the democratic functions that this committee is trying to address. There has been scaremongering and the release of inaccurate information in an effort to politicise this issue. The Government is not trying to politicise the issue but rather trying to make a decision to implement electronic voting——

A Deputy

Which everybody supported.

——which happened in the previous general election and in the referendum on the Nice treaty. If the Opposition is using electronic voting as a platform for their local and European elections campaign, then they really are a sad bunch.

The deep concerns still remain. I do not believe the questions have been answered in detail. The software code is not available and neither are the costs. These are two fundamentals which we should know at this stage of the proceedings. Decisions are being made by a Minister who has barely been in the country over the past few days and has not really been in a position to consider it in any great detail.

Do members of the Deputy's party travel abroad?

We do not particularly run from one photo opportunity with models to another.

Does the Deputy mean the Minister cannot travel abroad on Government business?

I wish he would do it more often.

Deputy Cuffe obviously does not agree with Deputy Gilmore. He wants him at home all the time.

If I had something as weighty to deal with as the concerns about electronic voting, I would make it my business to be there and available.

I do not believe that the testing carried out on the machines reflects the real concerns of the Opposition. I am concerned that binding contracts have been entered into which run into tens of millions of euro. Even if the so-called independent commission comes back——

Why does the Deputy say "so-called"?

A Deputy

The Deputy should withdraw that statement.

Because it is not independent. There are no appointees by the Opposition. It is set up——

Is the Deputy stating that the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights is not independent?

and appointed by the Government.

On a point of order, Chairman, the Deputy is saying the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights is not independent.

I am saying that I do not believe this is an independent commission.

I recommend a period of repentant silence for Deputy Cregan given the manner in which he carried on last December.

Gentlemen, please allow Deputy Cuffe to continue.

Thank you. The independent commission is not independent and has no real authority. It seems blindingly obvious that the Minister is pushing strongly towards the use of electronic voting in the elections of 11 June and it appears there will be no opportunity to pause and reflect on the fundamental issues.

Question No. 34 asked whether a cost analysis had been carried out. According to the final line of the answer, the costs will be fully set out in the contract when it is completed. I would hate to enter into a contract in which I was told the costs would be set out when it is completed. It is naive of the Government to have entered into a contract under such conditions. The costs are startling. The cost of public relations is €5 million and storage of the machines will come to €8 million. In the past, it was easy. The ballot boxes could be left in a shed in a local authority yard from one election to the next in the relative confidence that they would suffer little damage. The voting machines will require temperature controlled conditions day and night which will be damned expensive. The cost of maintaining, upgrading and supporting these machines will be enormous.

We have been told the machines will be good for 20 years, but I do not see many computers which continue in service which were introduced that long ago. I doubt the machines will still be used even two elections hence if the decision is made to go ahead with their introduction.

I also draw the attention of the committee to question No. 37 which asked whether the Comptroller and Auditor General had performed a value for money audit. The answer is "No". One of my deepest concerns about the electronic voting system is that it will be very expensive. According to initial, back-of-an-envelope figures, it appears the system will cost about €50 per voter, which is a crazy figure in comparison with the traditional cost of an election. The final and real concern remains the absence of a voter verified audit trail. That is what the computer experts are saying. On a one-to-one level, I am struck that people with enormous competence in computing are saying they do not trust computers to conduct an election in the way the Minister, Deputy Cullen, wishes. That is not good enough.

It is not fair for the Minister to push out senior civil servants to defend the system. The Minister should do that himself. It is an unfair and incorrect use of staff resources to require senior civil servants to defend on television a system about which they may well have their own concerns.

I will confine my remarks to the response from the Department. I regret very much the rewriting of history with regard to the 41 questions. While I do not wish to start a political brawl which will serve no one's interests, valid questions were put by experts to the Department's officials on 18 December at this committee. Following a recess, a motion was put that the committee should accept the principle of electronic voting despite having heard the reservations of the experts that morning. The motion was carried according to a purely party political divide. If that is the way the committee is to work, it will not be very effective.

I do not seek to question the bona fides of any person appointed to the commission, but it is not independent. There was no consultation with Opposition parties.

That does not make it——

The Deputy should allow me to finish. I do not wish to be party political; I am trying to assess this matter on a reasonable basis. I am concerned that credible, respected people from the offices of the Oireachtas are being involved in a political dogfight on an issue which has become very politically divisive. They include Mr. Kieran Coughlan, Clerk of the Dáil, and Ms Deirdre Lane, Clerk of the Seanad, who are people we all respect.

Does the Deputy not think they are independent?

These people with long experience are being brought in as arbitrators of a very divided issue politically. I regret that very much. I also regret that the four party leaders and other interested groups could not sit down and agree a strategy to introduce electronic voting. It is one of the key issues and principles of our democracy. It is appalling. Even at a late stage prior to the announcement of the commission, not one phone call was made to an Opposition party leader to ask for his views on its establishment. That is appalling. Even at this late stage, for the sake of Irish democracy and all that has evolved since the establishment of our Parliament, the four party leaders and groups should come together to find a way out of this political crisis. If we are not allowed to bring the experts back to assess the responses to the 41 questions, it will mean we are not serious about our business and that this committee will have done a disservice to the public it represents.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is the person who has done most damage. He has failed to turn up here to discuss legislation and to answer questions. The Minister has sent Ministers of State to this committee in his place while going on television and radio on the same evenings to hammer people who were asking valid questions here. From the distance of Brussels yesterday, the Minister accused people who criticised the system and asked questions of being motivated by a desire to undermine the Government's actions. Asking questions is our responsibility.

I have two key demands which relate to a paper verifiable audit trail and the source code and they should be addressed. As Deputy Gilmore said to me this morning, on the rest of the issues we could get lost in a fog. The paper trail, the source code and the independence of the commission are the core principles. They must be addressed in the interests for which all parties stand. The key decision the committee must make today involves whether or not to invite the experts to come back and assess the work which has been done. For the sake of the committee, we should agree to do that as a method of introducing some sort of order to the current shambles.

Previous speakers have mentioned the questions which were asked at the 18 December meeting. I have no problem with that. The answers were provided today. At that meeting, a decision was taken that the committee accepted the principle of electronic voting. In the interest of fair play for all members of the committee, I ask Deputy McCormack to withdraw his allegation that we approved the contract at that meeting. That is very important to members.

Reference has also been made to the members of the independent commission. If it is up to the commission to make a decision and take into consideration the points which have been raised, I have no objection to inviting the experts back to address this committee and taking further questions. It is very important to recognise the independence of the commission. It would be very wrong of us to say the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad will not make an independent recommendation to the Government.

I clarify for Senator Brennan that this committee made a decision which facilitated the signing of the contract the next day. That is what this committee did, despite the fact that €20 million worth of machines were already in the country. It was a farce.

Deputy McCormack remarked that it was the decision of Fianna Fáil members to approve a contract.

I would like Deputy McCormack to withdraw that remark or to see the minutes of the meeting to see what was put to the committee.

The Government members made a decision to facilitate the signing of the contract the next day.

That is incorrect.

It is absolutely true.It the Deputy does not understand that, he does not understand anything.

Chairman, I would like reference to what was put to that meeting on that particular day.

The motion is being copied and will be handed around to members in a few minutes.

The contract was signed the next day.

The contract was signed the next day. They made soft work for the three already in the country. It was all a farce.

Have we agreed that we will call the witnesses and the experts? Senator Brennan said he has no objection to it.

We are talking about the independent committee.

I made a proposal earlier on.

The point I want clarification on is whether these questions would go to the independent commission. If we are inviting the independent commission to come before this committee, I have no objection.

I understood Senator Brennan said he had no objection to the recall of the expert witnesses in order to assist——

No. That is not what I said.

He does not like what he said.

He did say that.

No one will put words in my mouth. I ask for a withdrawal to the reference that we approved the signing of a contract.

I have absolutely clarified what happened here on 18 December. A decision was made which facilitated the signing of the contract the next day and that decision was made by a majority of the Government parties.

That is wrong. The members who voted on that occasion had no idea when contracts would be signed - either the following day or at any other time.

The Deputy knows nothing.

What happened here on 18 December was remarkable. This committee had been looking at this issue over a number of meetings since October. Deputy Allen and I put the matter on the agenda way back and the committee was looking at it. We had a meeting on 18 December with experts from the different companies, Powervote, Nedap and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, as well as experts who had criticisms of the systems. They all made presentations and there was a great deal of questioning and so on. We came back here after an adjournment and out of the blue, without any prior notice, the Government members of the committee proposed that the committee endorse the system, although I forget the wording of the motion.

That is not normally the way in which the committee does its business. Rather, we try to reach agreement. I was surprised that the Government members introduced that motion in that way and I pleaded with them at the time not to press it to a vote. I argued, as did other colleagues, that we should allow a longer period of time. I even suggested that we could perhaps agree that the forthcoming elections in June could be used for an extended trial on the electronic voting system, rather than moving it along. However, the Government members would not hear any of that. They had a motion which they insisted on putting to a vote and pushed it through by force of numbers. Lo and behold, by pure coincidence, we are expected to believe, the contract was signed the next day.

The motion on the introduction of electronic voting states:

The Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government fully endorses the policy of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce electronic voting, further supports the introduction of electronic voting at next year's European and local elections, it calls on the Minister to have in place arrangements to ensure that sufficient training of key personnel is undertaken and that adequate training systems for the public are put in place.

This motion, as amended above, was agreed by the joint committee after a vote at its meeting on 18 December 2003.

That was the time for members to make up their minds about whether or not they wanted this. I am faced with the awkward position——

It could not be any clearer.

We have no problem with the motion. It makes it clear there was no reference to the signing of a contract.

There is no reference to a contract here.

I am very happy we voted against that motion in any case.

The contract was signed the following day.

It was my understanding that all parties in the House bought into the procedure of electronic voting a number of years ago.

The Deputy was misinformed.

Were the Deputies never in favour of electronic voting?

We debated the legislation here.

It was guillotined.

Did the Deputies not agree with trials taking place?

We agreed with the trials.

The trial worked perfectly, with one glitch.

How does the Deputy know?

The announcement of the result was a big issue at the time and no member of the public, candidate or party complained about how the trials ran. They ran quite successfully with the exception of the announcement of the results.

Where were the 41 questions from these experts when the trials were run? They did not appear and no one questioned the validity or security of the ballot machine. All of a sudden we have so-called "experts" on the outside - probably because they are not on the inside - giving their opinion and it is only an opinion.

I am confident that the opinions of the experts on the inside are correct and I am prepared to support them. I am disappointed that the independence of the commission and its members has been called into question today. We have been told that the commission is not independent.

It is not independent.

I am quite sure the commission will come in with an independent decision. They are eminent, honest, independent people.

They are very eminent people and——

The Deputy has doubted their independence just because Opposition spokespersons and leaders were not consulted.

We are not doubting for a moment——

They are an independent panel of experts who will examine the situation. I am disappointed that members of the Opposition have chosen to call those people's reputation——

The Deputy is right to be disappointed.

I am disappointed because it is wrong that eminent, decent, honest people have been called into question. I am disgusted because it should not be the case.

It is a Government appointed committee.

Mention has been made of this being rushed through committee. We spent many days listening to experts, reports, questions, answers——

We spent one day on it.

Excuse me, that is wrong. We spent several days here.

We did not get any answers.

We spent several days discussing the issue and every question which was asked has been answered. I am at a loss to see why the Opposition wants to continue creating doubt in the minds of the public. That is what this game is about - creating doubts through throw away remarks such as "We do not trust Fianna Fáil".

That is correct - the people do not trust Fianna Fáil.

To the Deputy's party's grief, the public does trust Fianna Fáil because people voted for the party. That is their problem.

I welcome Deputy Gilmore's proposal. I presume the independent commission will seek submissions and this committee should be in a position to give a submission, ask any questions and look for any clarifications.

The Deputy has already endorsed it.

I have endorsed it already.

The cheque was signed.

Were they paid for?

They were bought.

If one buys something, one pays for it. Were they paid for?

They were manufactured, bought and imported.

Were they paid for?

I do not know what one would pay for it and I do not know when they will be paid for. They might never be paid for.

They might.

They might not. I think the Progressive Democrats will pull the rug out from under it anyway.

This is a sham, a waste of time.

It is a sham.

There will be a vote and this will be pushed through by weight of numbers. I propose that we invite the experts back in order that they will have an opportunity to hear us and consider the responses to the questions placed here formally at a committee meeting on 18 December.

I second that.

I propose that, out of courtesy to the group, which has given its expertise and time to this committee, that we invite them back for their opinions on the responses received after two months.

I oppose that.

The Deputy may be sure he will. What are the Fianna Fáil members afraid of?

: There is an independent commission in place to examine this issue. I support Deputy Gilmore's proposal to meet those people and give our views and criticisms. I do not support bringing the panel of experts in again to go back over the same ground we have covered for the last six months.

What are the Fianna Fáil members afraid of? These are people who have no axe to grind. They posed the 41 questions that are in front of us.

They do have an axe to grind.

They have waited two months to obtain answers to the questions. This is the first time we have seen the answers, many of which are actually non-answers. What are they afraid of?

We believe the system will work.

Why are they afraid to bring these people in to receive responses to the questions they posed? It is very logical.

We have set up an independent commission to consider the issue of electronic voting.

It is a question of inviting people to attend the committee.

The reason I feel we cannot drag people back to the committee to give their opinions is that all this is aimed at undermining the confidence of the public in electronic voting. I am sure Deputy McCormack would have these people in the day before polling if he could to try to engender doubt and concern in the public, when all the evidence shows we should not have any concern and that we should embrace electronic voting. The public have already embraced it.

They will have to vote without proper safeguards and a paper trail. There is no question about that.

We had exactly the same voting system in previous elections and nobody challenged the validity or authenticity of those poll results. Not one person challenged them. Experts came to the committee and said they had concerns about electronic voting, yet they did not highlight any of those concerns after the 2002 election or the Nice referendum.

The Deputy has his own column inThe Irish Times.

At this stage we should put this to bed. We should embrace a modern, democratic system of voting electronically and not engender any more doubts. I support Deputy Cregan's motion that if we have any concerns we should address them to the independent commission. We should not bring in people who have already expressed their opinions and are fully opposed to electronic voting for whatever reasons they have.

It was not our side who brought these people in originally. It was unanimously agreed in the committee that we should bring them in and now the Deputy does not want them to see the answers to the questions they posed.

A Deputy

We have the answers.

It was unanimously agreed by this committee that experts from both sides should be brought in order that we could have a logical debate on the matter. That was supported by Government Deputies. Now they do not want them to see the answers to the questions they posed. I do not know what they are afraid of.

There seems to be agreement on Deputy Gilmore's proposal that the joint committee should invite the independent commission on electronic voting to meet with the committee. If the amendment is withdrawn we can all agree on this.

I have a problem with that in that the commission has not been independently appointed.

The Deputy can tell them that when they come in.

It is independent.

We can bring in both sides. We can have them all in.

I believe the commission must still be backed by legislation. The Taoiseach told us today there will be legislation before the House as soon as possible in which the status of the commission will be clarified and established. Until we see the terms of this legislation I do not believe the commission is independent as it has not been independently appointed. I have a problem with the manner in which it is being appointed.

We also have a responsibility to the people who gave their expertise and time to invite them, out of courtesy, to come back here and give their responses to the answers they have received.

Why can we not bring all sides back?

First, we should see how the legislation is presented——

I will deal with this quickly if the committee will allow me to do so. I am trying to reach agreement. If I do not, I will rule everything out of order on the grounds that a motion was passed on 18 December 2003 after a vote of the committee. I am trying to be reasonable with everyone. There seems to be agreement that the joint committee should invite representatives of the independent commission to meet with it.

That is on the presumption that the independent commission will invite submissions.

That is in the terms of reference.

That is correct. They should be in a position to give us something.

Is there general agreement that we will invite representatives of the commission to appear before the committee?

In public session of the committee.

Can we agree that the joint committee will invite the independent commission on electronic voting to meet with the committee if submissions are sought by the commission?

I hate to be difficult, but thatcaveat was not included in my proposal.

We are just being realistic. The commission will be inviting submissions.

There is a difference. This committee has been considering the issue of electronic voting since mid-autumn last year, long before it became an issue of controversy. As it happens, there has been much divided opinion. We have heard expert opinions and much material has come through the committee.

The Government has appointed a commission, although legislation is yet to be passed. I understood from what the Taoiseach said that he would accept the commission's conclusions, even if it recommended postponing the use of electronic voting at the local elections.

This is the Oireachtas committee that has been dealing with this issue - the Government's appointing a commission is a new development. In light of this we have an obligation to put before the commission what we have been considering and our perspective on it, so it will know where it is picking up the ball.

I do not accept that we can only meet the commission if it decides to invite submissions, which I presume it will do. We have been examining this issue for some time; we are entitled, as an Oireachtas committee, to meet with the commission. We are entitled to put our views to the commission and let its members form their own views. Divided views will be put to the commission, but we must let it form its own view on that. It must form its own view about the partisan nature of this debate.

There is a small difficulty with that. I understand Deputy Gilmore's point in regard to individual members of the committee putting forward their proposals to the commission, but the committee has voted and made a decision recommending electronic voting. Are we to repeal that decision now? Will we make a presentation to the independent commission on electronic voting? If we are doing it as a committee we will be obliged to recommend the decision that was made last December. I understand there are divided opinions. Are we to put forward our views on an individual basis or as a committee?

We need clarification on this matter. As a committee, we have already endorsed electronic voting. Some members have not, but as a whole the committee has.

By majority.

Yes. We need to be clear that it is committee members who are expressing their views, not the committee itself. That is important.

I am not going to be muzzled now. I know exactly what the Deputy is saying. I am not going to be muzzled by the decision taken by majority vote, a partisan vote, on 18 December.

I want to make quite clear what I am proposing, which is why I have challenged this little aguisín that Deputy Cregan sought to add to the motion. I want us to meet with the commission and I want each of us, as we have individual views, to put to the commission our position on the matter and let it hear what our concerns are. Those who are enthusiastic about the matter may explain that to the commission and allow the commission to form its own view. I am seeking an opportunity for committee members to put our views on the issue to the commission without any restraint or strings attached, without being saddled by the vote taken at the committee in December. That is the proposal I make. I thought we were on the point of reaching agreement until I heard the little piece added at the end, which made it conditional.

Can I just confirm——

Is the chairman calling me?

I fully support——

I have facilitated every member in turn as well as I could, and I now call Deputy Allen.

I want to put this in the context of 11 December. This committee unanimously agreed to send a communication to the Minister and his Department requesting that the Minister should involve himself and the Department in no further spending on the introduction of electronic voting until this committee examined all aspects of electronic voting. That agreement was made on 11 December 2003. Seven days later, we met the group of experts who came with the Minister and his officials, and the experts expressed reservations. Questions were put under the 41 headings, and the Secretary General of the Department said that questions could not be answered on that day, but that there would be a fairly early response to those detailed questions, and that there would be ongoing dialogue between the Secretary General, his officials and his experts and those who had given evidence at the committee meeting. No dialogue at all took place between the Department and the experts. The answers were provided more than two months later, in the last day or two.

On 18 December we broke for lunch. When we returned, a diktat had obviously come from the Minister or his Department, to whip it in——

That is not true. I have defended the position. The Minister made no contact whatsoever.

These are bully boy tactics. I will state my case.

I will state it after the Deputy.

Deputy Cregan can state what he likes.

The Deputy is telling lies.

That should be withdrawn.

Neither the Minister nor his officials made contact with anyone on the committee on that day. I want to be honest and fair about this.

A diktat came from the Minister to push through a proposal that afternoon so that the contract could be signed the following day.

That is a lie.

The record speaks for itself.

That is a lie.

I heard that word used.

I say in the strongest possible way that that is a lie. Neither the Minister nor his officials made contact with myself or any other committee member on that day.

The Deputy should be asked to withdraw the word "lie".

It is a lie.

It is a good sign when the Deputies are getting so excited.

This is an act of desperation.

On a point of order, an allegation has been made that a member of the committee lied. Under Standing Orders it is not permissible for such an allegation to be put on the record.

I will clarify what I said. I will withdraw the word "lie" if the Chairman wishes.

Can I continue?

The Chairman should be fair to me. I want to reply to the point of order. Deputy Allen and others have been saying that either I or my colleagues were contacted by the Minister on that day to push this motion through. That is rubbish. It never happened. I was never contacted, except by my colleagues.

On 11 December, when this committee decided to write to the Minister to ask him to terminate all spending, there was outrage by the Minister and his officials that Fianna Fáil representatives on this committee were asleep in allowing that proposal to go through. On 18 December they salvaged the situation. Having spent hours listening to evidence, they jackbooted through a proposal in order that the contract could be signed the following day. It is a matter of public record that the contract was signed on the following day.

I have a difficulty with this commission in that it is not independently appointed.

Who should appoint it? If the Government does not appoint it, who is going to appoint a commission?

Deputy Allen may continue, but if the Government does not appoint a commission, who will appoint it?

It should have been appointed after consultation, as I said earlier, with the leaders of all the parties in Dáil Éireann. Fianna Fáil and the PDs do not own this democracy or the Parliament. There should have been a consultation. It is a reform of our electoral laws and it is an exercise that should have been carried out by an electoral commission, not by the jackboot tactics of this Government, which has deceived people over the years in so many ways.

I have problems with the electoral commission because it has not been independently appointed. I have problems with its terms of reference, which are so confined, and with the role of the Ceann Comhairle, and with respected officials of the Oireachtas being drawn into what is now a political dogfight.

In the Dáil this morning I tried to establish the role of Ceann Comhairle. His only role is to receive a report from the commission and to lay it on the record of the House. It will of course be accepted by a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats majority. It is a sham and a fig leaf.

Look out for the PDs.

At this late stage, in the name of democracy, there should be consultation between the leaders of the parties regarding such issues. Any considerations by any commission which do not involve a verifiable paper audit trail and do not include consideration of a source code are a sham.

I fully support what Deputy Gilmore has proposed. I have no difficulty with what he suggests and I fully endorse it. I added thecaveat because I was not sure that the independent commission was seeking submissions. It obviously is, and this committee should be in a position to meet those people, to give our views independently as members. I have no problem with the proposal.

I agree with the commission, and I want the right to express my opinions clearly to it. When the decision was made on 18 December, the commission was not even thought of. It was not set up until the all-party Private Members' motion in the Dáil in the middle of January. That is when the Government agreed to set up the commission. Therefore, we had no opportunity before that to express our views to the commission, since it did not exist.

I want to express my views about what I see as the drawbacks of this system, and perhaps encourage the commission to put things right with the electronic voting system, so that we could all support it in the end. That is the purpose of meeting the commission and being able to put our views before it clearly without any hindrance to the commission.

We have agreed now that the committee will meet with the commission and that we will have a free exchange of views with the commission on our concerns. The issue that now arises is to invite back the experts who came here and who voiced criticism of the electronic voting. Deputy Allen has proposed that they should be invited back to the committee to respond to the document that we received from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is a matter of common courtesy that they be asked back. They are the people who came to this committee, who expressed criticisms and who raised questions. The Department has recently given us a document responding to that. In fairness, and out of courtesy, if nothing else, to the people who took time and trouble to come before the committee and express their views, they have a right to reply and we should afford them that. I support Deputy Allen's proposal. I ask members of the committee to agree to it.

We have had too many divisions on this committee on this question. I do not think that colleagues on the Government side should insist on voting down Deputy Allen's proposal. It is perfectly reasonable that these people should be brought back and given an opportunity of telling us what their assessment is of the replies that have been given by the Department to the concerns that they themselves raised.

I wish to comment on that last point made by Deputy Gilmore. We have listened to many experts coming in to the committee, including the experts who raised issues of concern on the Powervote-Nedap system and the 41 questions that were raised and have been answered. We are going to bring members before a committee again whose views we know full well and will not change.

How does the Deputy know?

They will be expressing concerns because they are fundamentally opposed to the electronic voting system as is proposed by the Government.

On a point of order, I spent an hour yesterday considering the views of those experts. I did so with a jaundiced and critical eye to see if they were just using a platform or whether they had genuine concerns. I believe those people have genuine concerns. All of them said they were in favour, in principle, of electronic voting. If we meet the commission we should be fully equipped with information and detail from all sides of the argument to allow us to have an effective session with the commission. We should meet these people again.

I am not finished yet.

In fairness, I interrupted the Deputy.

I call on Senator Michael McCarthy.

I support the calls made to invite back to this committee the experts who are to the fore of this issue. It is proper and appropriate that the committee should invite them back in view of the fact that the commission is now in place. It is important that these two different bodies of people should meet. The issue has been a mess from beginning to end. If the Government parties want to persist at this stage in blocking an attempt to bring back the experts, it will just prolong the mess.

The commission was put together without consultation with any other Members of the Oireachtas. This issue could have been handled from the start on the basis that there would have been all-party co-operation. One can take the example of the spirit of the forum on Europe. It is nonsense to suggest that we should not take this course of action. I support fully the calls that we invite back the experts.

We have arrived at a decision and we are in March. We have elections on 11 June. The Government has proposed, and the Government is elected because more people vote for the Government than for the Opposition, so it is in a position to make decisions. That is the purpose of having elections in the first instance and that is what we are trying to arrive at on 11 June.

If we bring in witnesses to this committee again and they express their concerns, we will then invite back the officials, Powervote-Nedap and the Department the following week and 41 more questions will be asked. We will end up completely undermining the credibility of the commission. If members or witnesses have concerns, they can make a submission directly to the independent committee set up to address the issue of electronic voting.

The course of action proposed would be a complete disservice to the issue. All the evidence to date shows that the electronic voting system works very effectively. It has been used in this country and not one person has challenged the validity of any of those results to date. If the Opposition wants to find an issue, let it address other issues. Do not hang your hats on trying to take out this Government on electronic voting.

On 11 December, this committee unanimously agreed to invite in the experts from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the experts on IT. It was not the Opposition who decided that; it was this committee which unanimously agreed it.

To tell the truth——

I did not interrupt the Deputy. That was unanimously agreed. We have now received the answers to the questions that the experts invited into this committee have posed. What is the logic of the Government? Why is there a change of mind now by the members who invited those experts in, that they do not want them to discuss or hear the answers to the questions that they posed on 18 December, to which they should have received replies long ago? We have the replies now.

It is logical and courteous that this committee, which unanimously invited them in the first instance, should allow them to respond to the answers to the questions they posed. I do not understand the logic of this change of heart. Somebody has issued instructions. Deputy Cregan seems to be very hot that nobody is instructing the Fianna Fáil members of the committee. Somebody must be instructing them because they are changing their minds as they go along on every aspect.

We are not changing our minds.

You invited them in here.

We agreed with the committee——

You got bought out - is that what the Deputy admits?

We agreed to invite in the experts, we listened to them, questions were asked and they have been answered. We can invite experts for the next 12 months on both sides and we will be at the very same stage. I am opposing Deputy Allen's proposal.

They are worried about something, whatever it is.

Deputy Allen should be careful about his accusations.

They are worried about something.

Please be careful with your accusations.

The Deputy is the only person making allegations.

The proposal by Deputy Allen is that the joint committee should meet again with the experts with whom it met on 18 December 2003 to discuss the replies to the question posed by Mr. Joe McCarthy on 18 December.

It was Mr. Joe McCarthy and others. There was a Miss McGaley there also.

Question put.
The committee divided: Tá, 6; Níl, 9.

  • Deputy B. Allen,
  • Deputy C. Cuffe,
  • Deputy E. Gilmore.
  • Deputy P. McCormack,
  • Senator J. Bannon,
  • Senator M. McCarthy.

Níl

  • Deputy J. Cregan,
  • Deputy N. Grealish,
  • Deputy S. Haughey,
  • Deputy J. Healy-Rae
  • Deputy B. Kelleher,
  • Deputy J. Moloney,
  • Deputy P. Carey
  • Senator C. Brady,
  • Senator M. Brennan.
Question declared lost.

Deputy Gilmore tabled a motion that the joint committee invite the representatives of the commission on electronic voting to meet with it. Is that agreed? Agreed.

One significant aspect of the joint committee's works programme for 2004 is the area of housing and homelessness. It is proposed that the joint committee should examine this matter and to that end I am interested in the way in which this examination will proceed. Have members any suggestions?

We should invite agencies that have front line experience in dealing with homelessness as well as one or two city managers from the major cities where there is a homelessness issue.

That sounds very sensible.

Initially, I would like the Minister to set out his programme on dealing with the homelessness issues and when we have had the information from him, we could address the issues with the agencies and local authority managers, as members have suggested.

We should invite some of the bodies involved with the homeless, such as Focus Ireland and so on. A very serious situation developed prior to Christmas when the Minister for Social and Family Affairs introduced legislation that will abolish rent supplements, which will have very serious consequences for people and may lead to homelessness. It is evident that more and more people are lying in alleyways within a mile of Leinster House. The matter needs to be addressed fairly soon.

I suggest we ask agencies that are dealing with the problem at the coalface, for example that we invite Dublin City Council, which organises soup runs at night and collection of people on the streets. We need to get a good view of the position.

There is general agreement that we should invite the agencies in the front-line which are dealing with homeless, Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Alice Leahy's group. We should also hear from the Homeless Agency which was established. It would be useful for them to give an overview. The impact of the new regulations on rent allowance should be reviewed and we should ask the unions who represent the community welfare officers and supervisory community welfare officers to come before the committee, as I know they have expressed a view on the operation of rent allowances and its impact on homelessness.

The Homeless Agency is certainly important, as are Focus and the Simon Community. Threshold should also appear as the residential tenancies Bill is going through the Dáil. Some of the other service providers such as the Iveagh Trust might be worth bringing in.

There is greater recognition that homelessness is more than just a housing issue. There is a fair amount of statistical evidence of a link between homelessness and previous incarceration or institutionalisation, sometimes involving ex-servicemen and women. The Homeless Agency is probably the best agency to engage with. The Eastern Regional Health Authority could also be brought in. However, I imagine that the Homeless Agency incorporates representatives from the ERHA on its board.

The Irish Council on Social Housing should be invited. Housing is one aspect, but the committee should deal with how other services work with the health boards for homeless people.

When I say agencies dealing with homelessness I do not exclude other statutory bodies and agencies that deal with other aspects of it. The closure of psychiatric hospitals and the limited number of hostels in the community have led to homelessness. In Cork a large section of the homeless were previously in psychiatric institutions. They were discharged and entered hostels with very little support, in communities with very little support, and they fell through the system. We have to look at other services including the health service and educational service and how they are addressing the issue.

I support the involvement of the health boards as the regulations which were sent by the Minister were rejected by the boards as impossible to implement. There is another group that should be involved and that is the homeless Irish abroad, particularly in London. A recent report showed a large number of elderly Irish people in London, many of whom are homeless. We owe it to those people who contributed to their families in Ireland back in the lean years. It is our responsibility to look after those people. The remit could be extended to representatives who look after these people.

The joint committee will therefore proceed as agreed.

We will deal with the emission of greenhouse gases national allocation plan. The Environmental Protection Agency has been assigned responsibility for the design and implementation of an allocation plan on national emissions to be assigned to emissions trading, as well as the way in which this should be distributed among those affected. The EPA has drawn up a draft plan which was circulated this morning to members. It has also sought submissions for its final national allocation plan and members should note that it has put a deadline of 10 March 2004 for the receipt of submissions. Do the members of the committee have any views?

Two significant decisions were made recently. First, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government made a decision on a global allocation of emission allowances to industry. Second, the EPA has now published the proposed allocations plan whereby it will allocate those allowances across industry sectors as well as to individual enterprises. These allowances will be very valuable commodities in the future. They will be traded and they are worth money. The consultative process is under way and people can make their submissions to the EPA regarding the individual allowances.

This committee is the forum in which the Minister is accountable for the overall allocations made and in which the EPA is accountable for the distribution of those allocations. We should ask the Minister to come before the committee and explain the overall allocation made and the rationale for it. Why did he allocate such a high proportion of the allowances to existing industry? Where will that leave existing industry? How does he reconcile the allocation of the allowances and the emissions trading regime with the possible introduction of carbon taxes and its impact on domestic households, the price of electricity, the cost of petrol, the bag of coal and so on?

I also believe that the EPA should be advised to appear before the committee to account for the allocation plan that it has made. Why did it allocate a certain amount to a particular industry, and a certain amount to particular companies? This is allocating something that will be tradable and there is a need for public accountability.

This arises from the Kyoto Protocol. There is an agreement that emissions have to be limited to 8% above 1990 levels. The EU has introduced restrictions through its policies and directives. The restrictions put on Ireland will be painful and costly.

I agree with Deputy Gilmore that we should bring in the Minister to explain the policy and rationale behind the proposals. When the Minister comes to the committee, I would point out to him that the European Union is just one player in a global sense. While the EU attempts to have a responsible environmental policy, the two biggest players are the United States and Russia, which still refuse to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. I fully support the attempts of the European Union in this regard. It is living up to its responsibilities but its contribution is like a drop in the ocean when two of the biggest polluters, the United States and Russia, are so irresponsible on environmental policy.

There is a bigger picture in regard to our relationship with the European Union and its relationship with the United States and Russia in the context of their environmental irresponsibility on this issue. Perhaps we should signal to the Minister that this type of question will be put to him so that he will be equipped to answer when he appears before the committee.

I agree with the suggestions by colleagues as to how we proceed with the matter.

I agree with Deputies Allen and Gilmore that it is important the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should attend the committee. However, a number of factors are needed in this regard. We must address the question of coping with the impact of climate change rather than simply assessing how far away we are from complying with the Kyoto Protocol. We are currently at the bottom of the league in Europe, which is embarrassing to acknowledge, but no matter how successful we aim to be and and no matter what measures we take, the impact of climate change will need to be accommodated.

The Chairman will be interested to hear I attended a recent conference on agriculture and climate change at the Royal Irish Academy. This will not only be a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but for all Departments, which will need to have some means of managing their affairs in regard to climate change. It is disappointing that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in drawing up his consultation document, acted like the Taoiseach in the context of State boards in that he did not advertise the consultation process. Instead, he selected people he thought might be good to talk to.

The Minister should attend the committee so that we can ask him to go back to square one. People are constantly being overlooked. The environmental NGOs are not part of social partnership, for example, and are only peripherally involved. There is a need for a more centre-stage role for such NGOs in dealing with climate change, as well as for measures which will bring us somewhere close to where we have legally committed ourselves to going. Otherwise, there will be a cost to the taxpayer of €300 million per annum, a very serious penalty for inaction by a range of Departments.

I ask that the committee bring in the Minister but also that we include representatives from other Departments. While it is difficult to tell whether that is the remit of this committee, other Departments are under the impression that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has it all sewn up, which is far from the case.

The joint committee has therefore agreed that we invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the EPA to a meeting or meetings.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.15 p.m. sine die.