Electoral Register: Discussion.

The next item on the agenda is a general discussion of the electoral system, which arises from our examination of the electoral register. I invite comments from members on any aspect of the issue. I ask them to be concise in order that the clerk can work on producing a draft document for the next meeting. Before proceeding, I ask members to agree the draft travel report on our visit to Belfast which will be placed in the Oireachtas Library. Is that agreed? Agreed. I now invite observations from members on the electoral system. We will produce a draft report which we can then analyse, paragraph by paragraph. While I recognise the topic is wide-ranging, I ask members to be as concise as possible.

I was very impressed by what I heard in Belfast. Every fair-minded person would have to agree that after every election, whether local, national or European, the same complaint is trotted out, namely, that the register of electors is in a disgraceful state. Clearly, irrespective of who is in government, the system is not working. I do not see any reason we should not embrace change. If change is happening elsewhere, I do not see why we should not take this on board. I could go on ad nauseum but that is the nub of the matter. The system is not working.

I was also very impressed as regards the cost of maintaining the register of electors in Northern Ireland. The cost was only approximately £2.5 million for the Six Counties, in which there are eight regional offices and one head office. We spend considerably more than that, per head of population, in trying to improve the register from year to year. We need to obtain accurate figures for the cost of maintaining the register of electors in the Republic.

In Northern Ireland, the improvement or upgrading of the existing register of electors, rather than providing a new register on an annual basis, was being looked at. It seems to be a successful, streamlined operation. I was very happy with what I heard during our visit, particularly the fact that the accuracy level was over 90%. There are good reasons given in Northern Ireland for the deletion of a name from the register. That is something which often proves problematic here, whereby people whose names have been on the register for half their lifetimes suddenly discover that they have been eliminated. This can be very embarrassing for them when they go to a polling station and discover they are not registered. The system in Northern Ireland guarantees that a person's name will not be removed without his or her prior notification.

It is a matter of bringing a report before this committee so that we can get some movement and direction on this issue. There is a common acceptance throughout the House that the existing register is flawed, not just in how it is managed, but in the structure on which it is based. In bringing a report to the House we must ask ourselves whether we are trying to improve the existing structure or bring a new structure here to be debated. This may be a suggestion for the clerk.

I suggest we should examine an alternative structure on a national basis, as other members have indicated, similar to the register in Northern Ireland. I hope that in the lifetime of this committee we will establish a system that works and maintains the three requirements we have and which the Northern Ireland authorities have established, namely, an accurate register that minimises fraud and ensures the proper type of representation to allow people, when they go to vote, to find they are accurately represented on the register.

I support Deputy Ciarán Lynch's suggestion. It is time we moved on. The local authorities have had charge of the register of electors for a long time and I have no hesitation in saying they have not been doing a great job. We must examine the possibility of establishing a one-stop-shop rather than having so many local authorities involved. I support a new structure if it can be put in place.

The electoral register is corrected mainly by people who have an interest in doing so, namely, people of all political parties who are standing for election. The window of opportunity from the time the draft register is published to the closing date for corrections occurs at the wrong time of year and is too short. One cannot correct the draft register in the period of time given for doing so. It is almost impossible. People can get on the supplementary register if they are not on the register, but that is such a bother that people do not do so, for example, they have to have the form stamped by a garda. The window of opportunity to change the draft register could be at a different time of year, perhaps from January to March, and there is no reason it should not be that long. This is a time when political parties and others hold meetings and they could easily scrutinise and correct the draft register. That is where the work must be done, from the draft to the publication of the white register.

I will not go over old ground. We all know the register is frustrating and has been so over the last number of elections for all political parties and especially for citizens who find they are not included on the register. There is much inaccuracy. I was impressed by our day in Belfast and the briefing we received, which included many positives that we can take on board. We should frame a new system. A dedicated team looking at a national register would be more efficient, accurate and accountable. We should examine that possibility. The current system is outdated and leaves too much to chance. We need a systematic approach such as that in the North. I do not agree with everything they do and some of the members would agree. They are reviewing their proxy voting system and we should not consider such a system. However, I was impressed by their use of social insurance numbers and the co-operation with the health executive to update the register after a period of time if people move house. We have learned much and should progress the situation. I am glad to be part of the committee that would do something positive about our electoral register because it is a disaster.

I do not know whether members are saying we should remove responsibility from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but we need a separate body with sole responsibility for producing the electoral register. Each local authority should have one or more dedicated staff who would spend all their time looking after the electoral register. The former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, tried to review the system and it was successful to a point but did not achieve what we hoped it would. If the draft we produce incorporated some of what we learned in Northern Ireland it would give us room for debate. I wonder what the political parties would feel about handing over responsibility to a new body and revamping the whole system. In Northern Ireland the idea of a counting machine rather than a voting machine was mentioned and we should examine this idea.

If there are no other comments the clerk will proceed—

Are we examining the practice in Northern Ireland of fining people who do not register?

We will put it in our draft report.

We should debate it at least.

There will be a paragraph on compulsion versus voluntary registration and the committee will decide which way to go.

It should include a provision for a person absent due to work or otherwise to vote, similar to the system in Northern Ireland. If a person has booked a holiday and an election is called suddenly, he or she is disenfranchised through no fault of his or her own. We should include a paragraph on that issue.

I support Senator Coffey. Over the last number of elections I have encountered people who refuse to register and there are many spurious reasons for this, which we can all guess. I favour compulsory registration. What people do with their vote is their business, but everybody should be on the electoral register.

We have got a flavour of comments and we will put together a draft for discussion. Before putting pen to paper we wanted to get views because we did not want to jump the gun.

Under any other business, maybe we could schedule for the Private Residential Tenancies Board to meet the committee. I note the PRTB is under the remit of the committee in terms of the functions as laid out by us. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the board because whenever one puts down a question to the Minister on the matter he tells one it is a matter for the PRTB.

At the next meeting we will have the work programme back before us to sign off on the topics we will deal with in the months ahead.

Could we look for clarification on the foreshore licences required from various Departments to progress sewerage infrastructure in the various local authority areas? There seems to be difficulty with those licences and they are snagging progress on essential infrastructure in many local authorities. Responsibility was with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, but I do not know where it lies now. There are difficulties for local authorities.

We will write to the relevant Department and ask for a note of clarification. The Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources have roles in this, depending on how far out the licence is for.

It is causing much confusion.

Yes, and the Department of Transport has responsibility for harbours, so I am confused on who is responsible for what in the foreshore. I am from a midland county and it does not affect me much, but I suspect Ministers are also confused because three Departments have varying degrees of responsibility. We will request a clarification note and it would be useful for every Member of the House to get it.

About a month ago we had representatives from An Bord Pleanála with us and they were to return to the committee on a number of issues. I understand it has come back with two or three responses but there are still a number of queries outstanding. Perhaps we could follow up on those.

We noted the first couple of responses but we wrote to An Bord Pleanála again after last week's meeting. We will make sure we get a response.

The joint committee adjourned at 4 p.m. sine die.