Business of Joint Committee.

Apologies have been received from the Chairman, Deputy Fleming, and Deputy Fitzpatrick. I ask all members to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off for the duration of the meeting.

The minutes of the meeting of 26 February have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed.

The next item on the agenda is correspondence received by the joint committee and circulated since the last meeting.

Correspondence No. 2008/74 from the private secretary to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government relates to constituency boundary alterations. It is proposed to note the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Correspondence No. 2008/77 relates to e-mail information from the Oireachtas Brussels representative for the next meeting of the EU Environment Council. It is proposed to note the information. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The next item is a press release from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the green flags for schools programme. It is proposed to note it. Is that agreed? Agreed. There is a document from the press office at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about the rural water programme, which we will note. The next item is a press release about bathing water regulations from the press office at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which we will note. There is a press release about sewerage infrastructure at Howth Peninsula from the press office at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which we will note. The next item is a press release about planning guidelines for taking in charge residential estates from the press office at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which we will note. The next item is the European climate policy newsletter from GLOBE Europe, European climate policy upgrade No. 67. I propose to note it. There is a letter from An Bord Pleanála in reply to a query on board membership. Do members wish to note the correspondence or seek further information?

I propose to note the list of proposals for EU legislation from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. The Irish Rural Dwellers Association has requested to make a presentation. I propose to note the correspondence and to invite the association here. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Regarding the payment dispute concerning Kildare County Council, Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick is not present so I propose to defer that matter. I propose to note the correspondence, a letter outlining the dispute between the council and the contractor company.

Deputy Fitzpatrick is not present so we should place it on the agenda for the next meeting, in deference to him.

Is that agreed? Agreed. The next item concerns deforestation, and is a weblink outlining the problems with logging. I propose to note the correspondence. Just Forests has asked to make a presentation to the committee outlining the problems with logging. It is agreed to invite the organisation? Agreed.

I propose to note correspondence regarding building control press release. I also propose to note correspondence from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about boundaries and alterations, and correspondence from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny on the decision list from the meeting of 11 March 2008. I propose to note the e-mail regarding the European Parliament research institute conference in Leinster House on 27 and 28 March.

Item No. 3 is the work programme. The draft programme discussed before Christmas was circulated to members before this meeting and includes a request from Deputy O'Sullivan to include new departmental schemes in our deliberations. These include housing adaptations, grant schemes for people with disabilities, mobility aid grant schemes and housing aid for older people.

The new housing adaptation schemes are not working well in local authorities. We must be briefed by officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There was a special housing aid scheme for the elderly operated by health boards. It was satisfactory but now local authorities are not prepared to give a second grant to people as circumstances change. This needs to be addressed. Heretofore, where people availed of an essential repair grant and would not be awarded a second grant, the health board stepped in and accommodated them.

We could facilitate a discussion on that in the work programme.

I support Deputy Bannon on this issue. Today I made a representation for an 80 year old man living on his own regarding a grant to provide him with a shower. He received a letter from the local authority stating that he did not need the grant because he was in a fit state. While these grants look good in theory, there are questions relating to the way in which they are being interpreted at local authority level.

We will agree to invite an official to appear before the committee to discuss it. Is that agreed? Agreed.

There is a problem with the practical implementation of it.

No further decision has been received by the clerk for inclusion in our draft work programme. It is proposed to sign off on this approach and put it before the Houses? Is that agreed? Agreed. Do members have any comments to make on the draft report on the electoral register, which has been circulated? Does it cover everything we need to cover?

I compliment the clerk on the compilation of this report. If ever a common denominator obtained among elected members, it relates to the electoral register and the failure in successive local, national and European elections to ensure it is accurate. I have said before that whatever we have been doing it is not working. I welcome the report which reflects what we spoke about not only in Northern Ireland but what has happened since our visit to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The matter is worth further consideration.

The report fits in very much with the discussions we had at a number of meetings. Some of the members were in Belfast and saw the Northern Ireland example regarding what can be achieved in very difficult political circumstances in respect of the authenticity of the register of electors.

I see that we are slightly silent on the use of PPS numbers, mostly from the point of view of data protection. Is this correct? We have not come down on one side or the other in respect of the matter, pending further clarification. We should be more definitive about it in our report and seek to use some method of identifying people other than just depending on a presiding officer to do it or on the presentation of a passport or whatever is used at the moment. Something more searching on the part of the citizen is required. When they enter a polling station, they need to have something that is easily identifiable, more authentic than a driver's licence or other form of identification and about which there can be no doubt.

We should come down very firmly on the side of the use of PPS numbers. It is then up to the system to see how we can get around the difficulties that emerge from that. In the first instance, the committee should say that we want this to happen. We have heard about some of the pitfalls but no problem exists for which there might not be a solution.

I would not have a difficulty with using the PPS card. It is logical, makes sense and is consistent with what obtains in the North. The PPS card should also include photographic evidence. I could get hold of Deputy Scanlon's card. Who is to say that I am not the Deputy if his photograph is not on the card? Whatever we do must be as foolproof as possible.

I agree with Senator Glynn.

I thank the clerk for preparing a detailed report for us. It is extremely comprehensive and is along the lines of what we discussed in Northern Ireland on the day we met Mr. Bain. Have we any idea in respect of comparisons of costs of implementing this new system and the present system of the draft register of electors compiled by the various local authorities? We need to have some idea of the cost of the present system as opposed to that of the proposed new system of compiling a register of electors. We are told that it costs in the region of £2.5 million sterling per annum to run the office in Northern Ireland, a fact which has been referred to in the document. The present system costs considerably more than that and is something on which we need comparisons going forward.

We must examine the issue of electronic voting machines. People will not take too kindly to the introduction of a new system until we deal with the obsolete e-voting system. All members know the electronic voting machines are unreliable, untrustworthy and insecure. This has been proved in several commissioned reports. The machines are duds and should be got rid of. People will link any new system with the existing e-voting machines. When we asked Mr. Bain for a comment on the existing e-voting machines, he said they were obsolete and he would not use them. A decision must be taken sooner rather than later to get rid of them. They have inspired much public distrust in the system which we want to eliminate.

Before I call Senator Coffey, I must point out the Department of Finance presented figures to the committee on the existing system compared with the proposed system.

It is not mentioned in the report.

The figures will be contained in the appendix and presented to the committee when officials appear before it.

I welcome the draft report which contains several good recommendations. As to linking the PPS number system to the electoral register, it is imperative a personal identifier, even a photographic system, is introduced to ensure high levels of accuracy. Whether the PPS number itself or a parallel number system is considered, I concur with other members that the committee should recommend a personal identifier for each voter.

A computerised register was recommended by the committee. This is another reason a personal identifier should be included. No computer system will work unless there is a label for each individual registered.

The committee should have an open mind on electronic voting but must learn from past fiascoes. I agree with Deputy Bannon that the existing system is outdated and costing the Exchequer much money. They should be disposed of and put down as a bad debt.

Since the committee was established, we have been around the houses on this issue. The crux is what to do with the electoral register? Some €5 million was thrown at it in 2006 but it did not work. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland runs the most accurate register in Europe, approximately 80% plus correct, at a cost of £2.5 million sterling per year. Our job is to give some indication and strong direction to the Minister and the Department on where we will go on this matter. There seems to be a consensus in the committee that the PPS-based system is the route to take. From my conversations with other members this seems to be the shared view. Having welcomed the report, the question of the function of the report arises. Will we do something with it or will we discuss it further?

The first thing we must decide is if we agree with the report. We can then invite the Minister to discuss the report and consider the aspects with which he agrees. I agree that we have enough reports gathering dust on the shelf. This matter affects all members, the democratic process and the citizens who wish to vote. Citizens get annoyed when those not entitled to vote go to the polling station a number of times due to duplication on registers.

We are in a new era of multiculturalism in this jurisdiction. It is more difficult to identify people in local elections, where more people across all EU member states and further afield have voting rights once certain criteria are met. This is urgent business if we want to get an accurate register and a vote that reflects the will of the people in 2009.

We must ask ourselves a number of questions. Can we afford to do this or can we afford not to do it? In my opinion, we cannot afford not to do it.

Another matter concerns me, which I have mentioned to the Minister. A number of people have refused to go on the electoral register. Members of other political parties have a similar experience. There are various spurious reasons for this, some of which come to mind immediately. It should be obligatory to be on the electoral register and to vote. What the person does with the vote is a matter for that person. It is disappointing to look at areas where the percentage turnout is in the high 20s and early 30s. That is a body blow to the body politic and to the concept of democracy. That men and women fought hard and gave their lives to give us what we have today, the ability to elect and remove Governments, local or national, by virtue of a vote, makes it particularly precious. The cavalier approach to the franchise by some people is annoying.

The incidence of fraud and personation have attracted much discussion at the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. A number of important points were proposed, of which the clerk is aware. I will not rehash it here but we should examine this area. We have one opportunity to do this and should do it right. If we must push the boat out, what the hell. It is an improvement on what we have. The current system has been in place for quite some time and has not worked.

We will shortly consider the Green Paper on reform of local government. Reform for its own sake is not necessarily positive, despite the positive connotations. One can consider the HSE, where reform has created more bureaucracy and structures than existed previously. One would hope for efficiency of services from the reform of local government.

We all acknowledge that the current situation where 34 local authorities deal with separate franchise departments and separate registers is extremely problematic. The opportunity under the reform of local government creates a situation where we could take the entire franchise department out from under the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local government and create a structure similar to that which exists in Northern Ireland. The creation of a single structure is one of the recommendations in the conclusions.

One matter was not outlined in the conclusions. We can only make this system accurate by using a PPS number-based system, which is in place in Northern Ireland. My daughter turned 18 recently and, like every good citizen, I decided to get her included on the register.

One more vote for the Deputy.

It turns out that local authorities are operating a supplementary register which will close when the date for the Lisbon treaty is set. One of the main advantages of the Northern Ireland system is that it does not have a supplementary register because the register is continuous. The idea that one must be on some second sheet would be removed if we had the structure in place.

As Deputy Hogan and my other colleagues on the committee said, it is now a case of bringing the report to its next position, requesting that the Minister appears before us to discuss the report and seeing where we will put the bricks and mortar and meat and bones on this report.

Is that agreed? Agreed. Is the title agreed? Agreed. Is there any other business?

What about the work programme?

We went through the work programme.

I am happy with it.

I would like to see the issue of extracting turf for local consumption included in the work programme. We need to discuss that issue.

The turf directive.

The turf directive or whatever one wishes to call it. It is a directive coming from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for which Europe has been blamed. There is much public disquiet in rural areas with regard to extracting turf.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I wish to raise a serious issue in which this committee should involve itself. I am referring to a report in The Irish Examiner on Wednesday, 19 March 2008 which contained the headline “Huge state bill for ‘smuggled’ rubbish”. We can revisit this issue another day. The newspaper report said that the State must bear a €200 million bill to remove 800,000 tonnes of waste from Southern sources that were deposited in the North. Both commercial and domestic waste is involved and the material has been scattered around 78 different sites in Northern Ireland.

This is a significant issue about which this committee should be concerned. I ask that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and officials from the Department appear before the committee to discuss whether these figures are correct and whether the issue is as serious as we have been informed. If this can be facilitated as early as possible, this committee should take it on board.

I am sure the committee has no objection to that. Is that agreed? Agreed. Is there any other business?

In respect of the annual work programme, I understand that talks are ongoing with the office of the Ceann Comhairle in respect of a number of agencies and questions put to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to which he does not respond. Such questions are under the auspices of those individual agencies, such as the National Roads Authority and the Private Residential Tenancies Board. I am led to understand that there will shortly be some movement on that issue.

Could agencies like the Private Residential Tenancies Board and the National Roads Authority, which are on the list we received at the first meeting of the committee and from which one cannot get answers to parliamentary questions, be prioritised in terms of those making presentations to us in the coming session?

Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputies should note that the Select Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will meet on Tuesday, 15 April 2008 to consider the Revised Estimates for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.30 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 8 April 2008.