Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1986: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill has two objectives. The first is to amend the electoral law to provide that sheriffs appointed solely for the purpose of executing certificates of tax liability at elections will not be required to discharge the duties of returning officers at elections and referenda. The second objective is to make available to voters at the forthcoming referendum on the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill a statement setting out the constitutional amendment which that Bill proposes.

As Senators are aware, the Government decided last October that certain measures should be taken to improve the position with regard to the collection of taxes. One of the measures decided on was the appointment of additional sheriffs to take over the functions of the county registrars in relation to the enforcement of tax certificates issued by tax collectors under the Income Tax Act 1967.

It is not intended that these newly-established sheriffs will have the same functions in relation to the conduct of elections and referenda as the existing sheriffs in Cork and Dublin. Section 1 of this Bill proposes an amendment to section 11 of the Electoral Act, 1963, which will preserve the existing situation in relation to returning officers. The amendment provides that the Cork and Dublin sheriffs will continue to be returning officers for their areas while the county registrars will remain the returning officers for the rest of the country. The amendment is necessary because the Electoral Act, 1963, provides that the sheriff for a county or county borough is the returning officer for any Dáil constituency situated in that county or county borough. Section 2 of the Bill proposes a parallel amendment to the European Assembly Elections Act, 1977.

At all previous constitutional referenda a special provision was made to have a polling card sent to all voters setting out a prescribed statement of the proposal for the amendment of the Constitution being referred to the people. Provision was also made for displaying copies of the statement at polling stations. Presiding officers were also authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out the statement to them, where necessary, and asking them whether they wished to vote in favour of or against the proposal and marking the ballot paper accordingly.

These provisions are additional to the standing provisions in the referendum law which require that copies of Bills to amend the Constitution are made available in post offices for inspection and for purchase at a nominal charge.

Section 3 of the Bill proposes that similar steps to those taken in relation to previous referenda will be taken in relation to the forthcoming referendum. The appendix to that section sets out in both Irish and English the statement which it is proposed to have printed on the polling cards and posters. The statement includes the text of the subsection which the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill proposes to substitute for Article 41.3.2º of the Constitution.

The Bill is technical in nature. The provisions of section 3 are identical with those contained in Bills enacted prior to previous referenda. As indicated, the purpose of sections 1 and 2 is to preserve the existing situation in relation to returning officers, in the event of additional sheriffs being appointed for tax enforcement purposes.

I do not wish to delay this Bill going through the House but I am somewhat disappointed at the failure of the Government to provide the necessary Bill which the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Fergus O'Brien, promised. He said that in all future elections — European, local government, Dáil or referenda — a new Bill would come before the House. He promised on 5 March 1985, when he was introducing an Electoral (Amendment) Bill, to make provision for postal votes at local elections prior to last June and that he would have a Bill ready for the 1986 register. I am disappointed at the Government's failure to introduce a Bill to enable incapacitated people and others to have the right to vote in this referendum. This is a very important referendum and all electors should have the opportunity of voicing their opinions. A large section of the community has now been denied that right. Even on the 1974 figures, when more than 30,000 people voted in the postal election, 60 per cent then were disabled and incapacitated, 20 per cent were out of the country as a result of their employment and 20 per cent away from home for other reasons. We do not know what the new census will reveal but 40,000 to 50,000 voters could be denied the right to vote on this very important issue.

People and public representatives will say that there were abuses in the 1974 Electoral (Amendment) Act, and of course they are right. However, a number of corrective measures were put into operation in the 1985 regulations which eliminated the fears that public representatives had. The teething problems and abuses of 1974 were corrected in 1985, although not eliminated. These measures should have given the draftsmen ample fodder for bringing in a Bill which would cover the whole spectrum of the population here on this occasion.

The fact that there were abuses on the last occasion does not justify the elimination of the postal vote on this occasion. Genuine voters are certainly entitled to vote. The only person who can give them that right now is the Minister, who can table a motion to that effect. I appeal to him to do so and not to deny the many categories of people who require a postal vote because of disability, the circumstances of their occupation or employment, physical illness or whatever.

The Minister may argue that there is no time to make a change. In the 1985 Act a prescribed length of time was included in the regulation within which a person could apply for a postal vote, something in the region of four to six weeks. That period of time was included in order that that application could be adjudicated on by the Returning Officer. Bearing that in mind will my proposal upset the date the Minister has in mind for holding the referendum? Nevertheless, the machinery exists and was used in the local government elections in 1985. It will not be necessary to bring in further machinery to deal with applications. The amendment seeks to specify the length of time necessary to make application for a postal vote.

The Returning Officer will look for other statutory evidence in connection with physically disabled postal voters such as medical certificates. He will also look for a declaration from a Commissioner of Oaths, or a peace commissioner, in regard to people away from home, those who are self-employed and others. For that reason, it should not be beyond the capacity of the Minister to bring in an amendment before the referendum. It is important that the Minister should do this.

Another change in 1985, which was a good one, was that the ballot paper was sent out by registered post. An elector had the right to receive this and sign for that paper when it was delivered to him by the postman. It may be necessary to adopt corrective measures to deal with the abuses that occurred. I do not think they happened in Mayo but I heard they occurred in other counties.

Are they all pure in Mayo?

Some people were very disabled.

Postal voting is a privilege and the disabled and others have a right to this privilege. In 1974, 30,000 disabled people had a right to vote. Between 40,000 and 50,000 may be entitled to a postal vote on this occasion. Those in the diplomatic service, commercial travellers, merchant seamen and prisoners we should be trying to rehabilitate back into society should be entitled to a postal vote. It would in my view be a step on that road back into society for short-term prisoners, and for long term prisoners, if they were given a postal vote. There is merit in giving prisoners that right.

Long stay patients in institutions should be given a postal vote. The many people in institutions in the State for the remainder of their lives are entitled to a postal vote. The same facility should be extended to the disabled. The letter "P" should be inserted on the register of electors in front of their name for future elections.

This debate has gone on for a long time and as it is Saturday evening and Members are anxious to get home I will conclude. I know polling schemes are being discussed by many local authorities at this time and although they may not be ready for the Referendum emphasis should be placed on the necessity to have proper access to polling stations for voters who are confined to wheelchairs and for the aged. Some polling stations are located in the upper stories of some buildings that do not have lifts. Some people find it hard to get to such polling booths because of their age or their disability. All polling stations should be on the ground floor and where that is not possible there should be a lift for the old and the disabled. Disabled people should not have to be lifted from their wheelchairs into the polling booths. Proper facilities should be provided for them. In selecting polling stations the county registrar should ensure that the accommodation is suitable. I was disappointed that there was not a Bill before us, as was promised for all elections in 1986 to extend postal voting rights. I appeal to the Minister to endeavour, even at this late stage, to extend postal voting to the disabled and the aged.

I should like to express my profound regret that it has not been found possible to allow the disabled to have a postal vote in this most important referendum. It grieves me that this is so. I should like to put on record my extreme disappointment. Yesterday Nora Draper, a member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and of the Wheelchair Association left me in no doubt as to her feelings on the matter. Nora Draper is incapacitated and disabled. Not only is she wheelchair bound but, at this stage, she is house bound. She has fought long and hard over many years for postal votes for the disabled and watches Government statements on this matter like a hawk. She referred me to the following statement of the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Liam Kavanagh, in the Dáil on 31 January 1985:

It is my intention to introduce legislation in the near future to provide postal voting for the disabled and certain other categories at all elections and referenda.

He reaffirmed that the Bill would also make provision for postal votes for diplomats and so on. His remarks were attended to by Senator Martin O'Toole. It is widely assumed by the general public that following recent amendments of electoral legislation postal voting would be available to the disabled in this referendum but that is not the case. The fact that it is not the case is to be deplored. I am not saying that in any ritual bleeding type of speechifying for the disabled but I am sure every Senator feels as strongly as I do about it. I am deeply sorry that it does not appear to be possible. I would ask the Minister, when he replies, to state his own view on the matter and say whether in any way it would be possible to allow the disabled to have a postal vote in this referendum.

I know the reason often advanced for not being overly liberal in our giving a postal vote is that it is open to abuse. I recognise the fact that it is open to abuse. Not so long ago — perhaps two weeks ago — in County Waterford a member of Waterford County Council was involved in some litigation in connection with electoral abuse. This sort of thing is to be deplored, but it is very sad when it leads to even more caution and concern and greater restrictions and when the people who are affected by abuse are the innocent, the disabled. It should be possible in some way to give people who are registered members of specific societies, who are bed-ridden inmates of institutions, a postal vote. We need increased vigilance, we need corrective measures and we need to do so many things to ensure that there is no abuse.

I would like to refer the Minister to legislation which Mrs. Draper in a letter toThe Irish Times on Thursday, 27 March 1986 referred to. This is New Zealand legislation for “special”— that is, postal voters. It was described by Elgy Gillespie, correspondent to The Irish Times, as being a model system for Ireland. Under this legislation, 11 categories of people may claim a special vote. In category No. 7, for instance, one is entitled to this right if one's illness or infirmities will prevent one from attending at any polling place in the district. Category No. 8 gives the same entitlement if pregnancy or recent childbirth prevents attendance at the polling station.

We appear to have difficulty in providing that kind of provision for thousands of our citizens. Would that it were not so. The right to vote is an extremely precious one. It should not be regarded lightly and it should be given to all our citizens. It should not be necessary to make special pleading for the disabled who are full citizens of this democracy and whom I would dearly love to see having a vote in this crucially important referendum which I have gone on record as describing as a watershed in Irish social and political life.

Briefly, I would like to join with Senator O'Toole and, in particular with Senator Bulbulia, in seeking the extension of the right to vote in this important referendum to those who, for physical or other reasons are unable to attend at the polling booth and vote in the normal way.

I share some of the anger that was clear in Senator Bulbulia's contribution that we have yet another measure, particularly an important proposal to change our Constitution, and we have not got the simple mechanics of allowing the disabled to vote. It is only when there is a measure envisaged it is likely that time will be given for something like this. There has to be the pressure of the fact that there is going to an an election. It would be particularly regrettable if we simply find ourselves with time constraints that prevent us from being able to introduce postal voting rights for the disabled in this instance. I see no reason for the need for a fixed time for doing this, as Senator O'Toole has said. We can shorten the period of time so that the referendum can still go ahead on 26 June which is desirable for very cogent reasons.

I hope the Minister will be able to meet the arguments which were made in the other House on this point. I hope he has been able to consider the possibility of extending the postal vote on this occasion. It is something we should have addressed a long time ago but there have been a number of recent Government public statements and commitments, as has been mentioned, about it. It does seem that particularly in relation to such an important amendment to the Constitution it is indefensible that we do not make the arrangements. It does not seem to be something so difficult that it cannot be part of, not necessarily this Bill, but a Bill that would be introduced to both Houses. There would be no delay on it so why not introduce it next week and make a simple necessary amendment to the electoral law to that effect?

I would like to agree with what has been said so far. It does seem to be a case of one step forward and two steps backwards in relation to consideration in one year of extension of postal vote facilities and then, because of the existence of abuses, moving back from that position. In this case we are revealing ourselves as a Legislature that has an extraordinary impact on the public who elect it. On the one hand, we legislate and, on the other hand, when the legislation is not honoured in principle, we allow the abuse to defeat the principle of the legislation. It seems that that is a very bad set of procedures. The thing to have done, of course, was instead of reacting as a Legislature, we should have pursued the abuses.

I have only three things to say. I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Bulbulia about the exclusion of so many categories, particularly, the disabled and those out of the country for reasons over which they have no control, all the categories that Senator O'Toole referred to. My second point is this; I hope that some short term resolution can be found in time for this referendum.

My final point would be — and it is a point I have been making since 1974 in this House when we were preparing for a by-election in 1975 — that electoral amendment Bills come before us usually very close to the time at which people are asked to vote. I am told that for more than a decade there have been reviews, working parties and reports on this subject in the Department of the Environment. But when can we look forward to a comprehensive, electoral amendment Bill coming before both Houses which will include the issues mentioned, for example, the question of access to polling stations? It is not only those in wheelchairs who have difficulty in getting in to vote. One has to beat one's way in to vote in Ireland.

Many people suggest that this business of people congregating around polling booths producing tens of thousands of useless bits of literature is wasteful, anti-the environment and is harassing the voters. All of this should be looked at. Equally I think that there should be a period of quite for 24 to 48 hours before elections as happens elsewhere. It is not only undemocratic I use the words very carefully — it is anti-democratic not to have a register of interest. I repeat it is not only undemocratic, it is anti-democratic in so far as it allows the results of elections to be distorted. There is also the question of the timing of elections. Why can we not vote on a Sunday and so on? In view of the fact that these issues have been addressed by legislatures all over the world why does it take so long for us to decide on something in this regard?

Quite honestly, we are not looking abroad at all. People have decided how they should run elections. They have decided how much should be spent on elections. Do we believe, for example, that there should be no upper limit on a party? We not only have no publication of expenditure on elections but we have no upper limits on elections, no limit on advertising on elections, no limit on the number of newspapers one can own coming into an election and no limit on subscriptions. I deliberately saved this for an occasion such as this. In the time I have been a Member of this House and a Member of the other House I have found little bitty electoral amendment Bills coming before us. They are an indictment of the people who have served in the office of the Minister for the Environment or as he would have been known previously, the Minister for Local Government. Anyone who knows the real difficulties and all the hugger-mugger and the nonsense that goes on about voting would have brought in a comprehensive reforming Bill. Since we are members of the European Community and since whatever it was we decided in the seventies, their experience of elections seems to have rubbed off very little on either successive Ministers or on the officials of the Department of the Environment.

On every available occasion since I became a Member of this House I have raised my voice along with other Members of the House to ask that voting rights and facilities be provided for disabled people. On many occasions we talk about the disabled. We put forward legislation in many other aspects and respects to try to improve their livelihood. Yet, I find it amazing that when it comes to an election or a referendum we seem to totally disregard a section of our community. The provision of postal voting facilities for the disabled is not a privilege but an absolute entitlement.

We heard much talk during the referendum debate in regard to citizens' rights and it can only be assumed that, because there is no provision in this Bill for postal voting, there still exists blatant discrimination against disabled people. This is most regrettable and should be rectified.

Abuses arising from the 1974 Act were referred to. I believe such abuses did not arise on the part of those for whom the Act was intended, the disabled: they did not commit the abuses. I call on the Minister to insert the necessary amendment to rectify this discrimination. I appeal to him to give thought to our plea, which has been made with the greatest sincerity.

I have to agree with most of the sentiments expressed by Senators. I agree with Senator Lynch that there is blatant discrimination against invalided people, wheelchair patients and those confined to bed or in institutions who were unable to vote in the past except for the brief respite under the 1974 Act. I know a person who has been confined to one room for 40 years who feels extremely sore because she has been unable to exercise this democratic right like all other citizens. I appeal to the Government to look seriously at this. It has been considered from time to time in a half-hearted way. Efforts were made to give those people an opportunity to cast their votes.

I would not go so far as Senator Higgins and his idea about how elections should be carried out. The preservation of the democratic system is worth the price of the razzmatazz of election day and the few days beforehand. While he was speaking, I thought of the countries where there is silence before and after elections.

Many people in this State would not like to live in such countries. We had postal voting on a couple of occasions but it was discontinued because of the actions of over-enthusiastic party supporters and workers. They were the cause of the abuses.

They should have been sent to prison.

The postal vote was given to too many categories. It should have been limited to those confined to wheelchairs and institutions. In recent elections in my area we were successful in persuading the returning officer to set up a polling booth in an institution. It would depend on the size of the institution. I am thinking of Crooksling in which there were about 150 patients at the time I am referring to. Many of the patients cast their votes for the first time in many years. Some of them were taken out by party supporters in transport supplied by the parties and they were taken to the local polling booth. Returning officers throughout the country should be encouraged to follow the example at Crooksling. On this occasion there will be less party activity, judging by past referenda. It is an important issue and many old people will be unable to get to the polling booths in isolated parts of the country where it is normal for political parties to supply transport for elections. In my constituency, whether such a person is a supporter of a party or not, a car will be supplied by one or other of the parties——

Convert them on the way to the polling booth.

Many people have been taken to polling booths who did not vote for the party which provided the transport. I suggest that a directive be given to returning officers when appointing their personnel for the various polling booths. Particularly in Dublin, Cork and other areas of larger population, people are appointed to polling booths and they are unable to cast their votes because they are not working in their own constituencies. The directive I have suggested should instruct returning officers, when it is possible, to appoint personnel to one of their own local polling booths so that they would be able to vote there — I do not mean that they would be serving in the polling booth in which they would normally vote.

I do not know if the referendum will be run on a constituency basis. If a polling clerk is appointed in Dublin south-west and he lives in Dublin south or some other Dublin constituency — it happens all the time — will that person be able to cast his vote? This is very important. Hundreds of people in Dublin alone will be denied their right to cast their votes because of the system of appointment by the officer in charge. As on previous occasions when we had similar Bills before this and the other House, I ask the Minister to ensure in so far as it is possible that personnel would be appointed to booths where they would be able to cast their votes. Normally, when a presiding officer or polling clerk is appointed he is given the job in a booth other than the one he would normally vote in. He would be able to bring along his polling card and he would be able to vote provided he was working in a booth in his constituency, but the inspector is not entitled to give that person a vote or a ballot paper outside the constituency. The people appointed should be kept within the constituencies. If the Minister can assure us that it is not being run on a constituency basis then it does not arise on this occasion but it would, of course, arise on the occasion of Dáil elections.

There is one other point and it refers to what I mentioned a few minutes ago. Old people may be at a disadvantage — I am not talking about handicapped people but of some people who may have to travel two, three or four miles to a polling booth and who do not have transport. Would the Government consider, on this occasion, making transport available in an area? It would be a major step and would be a break with precedent, but this is an occasion where party lines have not been taken up and it might not be out of order for the Government to provide transport in the distant rural areas where there are old people who will find it difficult to get to the polling booths because the normal party transport is not likely to be available on the occasion of the voting on 26 June.

We have wandered rather far from the point raised by Senator O'Toole. I add my voice to those who are looking for postal votes in this referendum. I know this is one of these things we will be told is too difficult to arrange, that there is too little time and so on. I would simply say that if we really wanted to do it, we could do it. We could shorten the time necessary in advance to apply for the vote. I share very much Senator Bulbulia's feelings about the discrimination against the disabled. I, too, have been struck by the courage and pertinacity of Mrs. Draper in her pursuance of legal actions and so on in regard to this matter. I feel that she and all those others like her who are denied a vote in this referendum are being very badly discriminated against.

I also re-emphasise what Senator Michael D. Higgins said. It seems a very strange way of going about things to say that we realise the thing is desirable, we bring it in and then because we find there are some abuses we withdraw and say we will not have it, even though we know perfectly well that it is the right thing to do. Surely in this situation the right thing to do is to take some steps to guard against the abuses, and they cannot be all that difficult to guard against.

It is not as though postal voting was utterly unknown to the electoral system in this jurisdiction. Senators Ross, Robinson and I are elected by a totally postal voting system and nobody has suggested that it is terribly open to abuse, that it is impossible to operate or that there are great difficulties in regard to it. It means that postal voting can be worked. Where there is a will to do it, you can do it. I plead with the Minister, even at this late stage — and I know it is a late stage — to do something about this. I believe if the Government made up their mind to give votes at least to those who are disabled, although I would like to see it extended to the other categories mentioned by Senator O'Toole, it could be done. I ask the Minister to do that.

It is not with the intention of being repetitive that I rise but rather with the belief that the more voices that are added to the call maybe the greater the impression that will be made on the Minister in this regard. I commend the compassion and vigour with which Senator Bulbulia spoke in reinforcing the case for postal votes for the disabled and those who are institutionalised. It is a dreadful feeling when you knock on doors — as I have done in an election — and meet people who physically cannot get out. They make great efforts sometimes. I have attended at a polling station and helped to carry people in. Their determinition is great and they want to be part of the voting decision-making procedures. They feel passionate about the subject and yet because of their physical incapacity they are denied the right. That is a negation of democracy. It dilutes the whole democratic system that we do not provide for people who are so incapacitated.

I come from a constituency where there is a very considerable maritime employment, where people simply by virtue of their work roster, who are on the ferries at Rosslare, are denied a vote. It is an appalling situation and people feel very strongly about the issue. They do not know now if they will have the right to participate in the vote-making decision on 26 June until they see their work rosters. Surely that is wrong. Surely we can do something about it. I again ask the Minister to bring in the sort of reforming legislation that is needed. I accept there are abuses but surely they are abuses that can be dealt with.

I support the more global contention of my colleague, Senator Michael D. Higgins. There is a whole range of crucial issues that he has raised that have not been touched on by other speakers. The whole issue of the haranguing of voters going into postal stations——

I was not talking about eastern Europe which, to my knowledge, has not joined the EC. Senator McMahon seemed to be under that impression.

Yes. I was going to touch on Senator McMahon's comment. There is a range of countries within the Community and within the western democracies who sensibly do not allow electioneering 24 hours or 48 hours prior to the voting. They also have an embargo in many democratic advanced countries on opinion polls being published prior to election results, which is certainly a very important consideration we should address. There is no doubt in my mind that the publication of opinion polls immediately prior to an election distorts the actual democratic process. Research has been carried out on this matter in Britain and it was found that when asked, a huge number of people said they voted on the winning side, much greater than the actual number of people who voted for that side. The publication of opinion polls can distort the democratic system. Senator McMahon also suggested that such a global reform would somehow negate the preservation of the democratic system. I wonder if it adds to the preservation of the democratic system to have no limit on the amount of money that can be expended, that there are no restrictions on the manipulation of the media. The Minister commented on the freedom of the press. There is the freedom of people to own the press, the freedom of people to send out any message they like in their own press which——

And to know who owns the press.

——may, indeed, not help the preservation of the democratic system and may be a negation of the democratic system. There is a whole range of issues to be addressed and that cry out to be addressed. I ask the Minister to indicate to us now, not that these are under active discussion or that they will be addressed at some future date, but that they will be addressed within a specific and defined timescale. Surely that is possible.

I conclude with one other point which I would again like to make, as I have made in the past. It is on the selection and appointment of personnel, whether they are polling clerks or presiding officers on the day or the staff included in the count on the subsequent day after polling. There is a very serious unemployment problem that does not need to be alluded to by me, but there is a very large number of unemployed people most capable and competent to carry out those duties. It is a source of annoyance to many of us when people who are already paid in full-time employment are given an extra salary to work on that day. I know that the Tánaiste and other Ministers who had responsibility for the Department of the Environment did try to ensure that as far as possible unemployed competent people would be taken on to do this job. I ask that provision would be made in this regard on this occasion.

By now the Minister must have got the message that all the Members of this House — and I am sure the Members of the Dáil also — are in favour of postal voting for certain classes of people. I imagine a Bill to do so could be rushed through early next week. It is more important to have a postal voting facility for this referendum than it was with regard to local government elections. I imagine most elderly people are very anxious to vote on this occasion. With regard to local authority elections, if five people are prevented from voting because they are unable to get to a polling booth, that would probably have no effect on the election in that electoral area. The same would apply in a constituency but, with regard to this referendum, perhaps 20,000 people could be prevented from voting because they might not be able to go to a polling station. I appeal to the Minister at this late stage to bring in a Bill to allow those people to vote.

The issue of giving postal votes to disabled people has been very well aired here this evening. I am struck by the unanimity in the House regarding this issue. I should like to know why this measure was not introduced before if such unanimity has existed for so long. I remember this issue coming up time and time again. As far as I remember at the time we were told there was not time to organise postal votes for the handicapped. I hope the Minister will not give us the same excuse this evening because we have had ample time to organise it. It may be that it will be difficult in the next four weeks to organise it but it certainly is not impossible. It can be done if the Government have the will to do so. I cannot understand why this was not done before because in other areas the handicapped have been given some priority recently. In regard to this referendum, which is absolutely vital, we are down grading the handicapped to the position of second class citizens. I appeal to the Minister to consider if there is some way we can organise postal votes for the disabled by 26 June.

Charity forbids me to speak.

I assume that, since the House has spent some considerable time talking about what is not in the Bill, what is in the Bill meets with the approval of the House. It is true that on a number of occasions the Government have indicated their intention to provide postal voting for the disabled. It is true that on one occasion the Government gave effect to that intention. What happened? At the local elections in June 1985, the regulations provided that persons suffering from physical disability and persons who for occupational or employment reasons were not able to vote in person at polling stations could apply to vote by post. Some 16,665 applications were received; 10,903 were granted which left 6,700 which were not granted because they did not comply with the requirements. It would appear that a number of applications were granted which should not have been granted.

I refute the suggestion made by certain Members of the House this evening that the Government are not willing to do this — it is quite clear that we were prepared to try — and that it is simply a matter of passing a Bill. Such is the ingenuity of the Irish electorate that they will find a way to drive a coach and four through any simple little Bill. That has been the experience. I regret that is the case.

It is a little disingenuous of Senator McGuinness to say she is elected through a postal voting system and why cannot everybody else do the same. She is, of course, but there are no gradations of graduation that would apply in that case. If we were to provide, for example, that we had postal voting for everyone who wore glasses that, you could argue, would be a very simple test and objectively determinable. It would be abused right, left and centre. Unfortunately, there is no simple way of doing it. Members of the House have also indicated just how difficult it is. Senator O'Toole mentioned a number of categories of people. To be quite honest — and experience will bear me out in this regard — it is partly the case that the enemies of those for whom the greatest concern has been expressed are the other categories that everybody else wants to add in once the good idea has been put forward. It is not as simple as it has been represented here.

My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, is of the intention that we should have postal voting. The type of scheme he is examining will be based on applications made when the register of electors is being drawn up. That being the case, it is quite clear that we could not possibly have such a system in operation for this referendum. It gives me no pleasure to say that. However, the House will understand that having gone through the experience of 1985 — and, indeed, there are still some reverberations from that — it was impossible to produce another scheme for the preparation of the register of electors for this year.

As far as the commitment to postal voting is concerned the record speaks for itself. The Coalition Government of 1974 introduced a scheme for local elections. That scheme was suspended by the Government for the 1979 local elections and the present Government came back and introduced a scheme for last year's local elections. I have no doubt whatever where the commitment is. However, I would point out to the House that both France and Belgium felt obliged to abandon postal voting systems in the past ten years.

In relation to voting by polling staff, where a person employed in connection with the poll at a referendum is prevented by his duties from voting at his own polling station, the returning officer may authorise him to vote at another polling station within the same constituency. This referendum will be carried on on the basis of Dáil constituencies.

Not in a polling booth outside his own constituency?

That is prevalent in Dublin.

The requirement that it be within the same constituency automatically rules out voting at a polling station outside——

It could be within 100 yards.

Of course that is true. Part of the difficulty is that, no matter where you draw the line, somebody will be on the wrong side of it. The same applies to drawing up a scheme for postal voting of any kind by any group. The point was made that, since the ballot paper is the same throughout the country, people should be able to vote at any polling station anywhere. There are some obvious difficulties in that a returning officer in the constituency in which the person is voting may not be in a position to satisfy himself as to whether the potential voter is properly on the register in the other constituency.

A polling officer cannot leave the station.

I have enough trouble here without having to run into the flak of points that have not been raised so far. I felt I sold the House a little short last night in that some people had been expecting me to go on a little longer but we could replace it today and have a longer discussion.

In relation to access to polling stations by the disabled I would like to bring to the attention of the House the fact that instructions are given by the Department of the Environment to local returning officers to facilitate access and the following appears on those instructions. I quote:

Polling stations should in all cases be located on a ground floor to provide ease of access by physically incapacitated voters. To facilitate voters confined to wheelchairs, consideration should be given to the provision of a ramp if the polling station cannot be reached without negotiating steps.

Senator Howlin raised the question of employment of unemployed persons on polling day. The statutory responsibility for taking the poll in each constituency rests with the local returning officers, and it is the duty of the returning officer to take all the necessary steps for effectively conducting the poll, including the employment of necessary staff. Local returning officers are independent statutory officers and are not subject to direction. However, advice is given to them or suggestions are put to them, and the following paragraph will be included in a Department of the Environment circular to be issued to returning officers. I quote:

In the present situation of high unemployment, especially among well qualified young people, the Minister is anxious that wherever possible employment in connection with the referendum should be offered to suitable unemployed persons. He appreciates that the efficient conduct of the referendum is of paramount importance and that a cadre of experienced persons must be engaged for the more sensitive and highly skilled tasks. He is satisfied, however, that there are many unemployed persons who are fully qualified to carry out the ordinary range of duties connected with the referendum, such as acting as poll clerk, addressing polling cards and counting the votes. He requests that, as far as possible, unemployed persons should be engaged for these purposes and recommends that you should contact the National Manpower Service as early as possible to secure their assistance in the recruitment of suitable persons.

That is the sum total of what I have to say about the concern of the House. I join the House in the feeling of regret — that is far too weak a word — at the fact that there are substantial numbers of people who are denied their right to vote by our inability to put together a system that cannot be abused. The Minister is working on a system that would be based on identification of those potential postal voters at the time the register is being prepared. It would be his hope that a scheme drawn up in that way would enable us, on the one hand, to give the people who are concerned their right to vote and on the other to prevent abuses.

I will not venture into some of the other areas raised by Senator Higgins since they are not appropriate to the Bill and I know Senator Ross will be annoyed if I say we have not got time to sort them all out.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Acting Chairman

Before Committee Stage begins I want to inform the House that amendment No. 1 has been ruled out of order as it could have the effect of imposing a charge upon the Revenue.