The purpose of this Bill is to postpone for a period of 12 months the local elections which under existing law are due to be held this month. The Government's decision to seek legislation to postpone these elections was based on two considerations. In the first place the Government had regard to the number of elections that had already been held during the past year and to the proximity of the Presidential Election. Senators will recall that referenda were held in May and December, 1972, a general election in February, 1973, and the Presidential Election on 30th May. Clearly, it would be asking too much to expect the electors to come out again to vote at the local elections a few weeks later. The Government also had regard to the necessity for a reappraisal of the local government structure which it is intended to examine afresh.
If this Bill is enacted the election will be held in June, 1974, and every fifth year thereafter. The Bill extends the terms of office of existing members of local authorities accordingly and makes minor consequential arrangements in relation to appointment of school attendance committees and the meetings of vocational education committees. These are purely technical matters and the provisions in this regard are identical with those contained in the Local Elections Act, 1972.
I would like to draw special attention to section 2 of the Bill. That section proposes to empower the Minister for Local Government to effect any future postponement of local elections by order, subject to the limitation that such an order will not have effect unless and until it has been approved by a resolution passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is the fourth occasion on which local elections have been postponed in the past eight years—the fifteenth occasion since 1919—special legislation being introduced each time. It seems desirable, therefore, to introduce a simplified procedure which would be less wasteful of parliamentary time and section 2 does this by providing that the postponement instrument will be an order, not an Act. I would stress that such an order cannot come into operation without the specific approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas and the final effective decision on whether local elections should be postponed will continue to rest with the two Houses of the Oireachtas, following full and open debate.
When this Bill was going through the Dáil many Deputies were anxious to know what are the Government's intentions in relation to local government reorganisation and I am sure Senators are also interested in this question. It is my intention to have a fresh look at the local government structure. This, of course, will take time and until the examination is complete I will not be in a position to indicate what structural changes will be proposed. In consultation with local authorities, I intend to give early attention to the question of equality of representation as between the different county electoral areas. In general, these electoral areas were drawn up over 30 years ago and do not reflect the significant changes in the distribution of population which have taken place in recent years. I hope that at least the more serious anomalies in this regard will have been dealt with before next year's local elections.
Senators may regret the necessity for this further postponement of local elections, as indeed I do. On this occasion, however, it can at least be said that there is no area without a local council since the present Government restored local representation in Dublin and Bray.