Senators will recall that earlier this year we had extended and very useful debates on the different Stages of this Bill. The measure was initiated in the Seanad and was subjected to a thorough and searching examination in its passage through the House. I hope I am in order in saying that speakers in the Dáil were very complimentary about the work done by the Seanad in relation to the Bill. It is my pleasure at this stage to report on certain amendments which have been made to the Bill in the Dáil.
First, I will sketch in very briefly what the Bill is about. Its purpose is to consolidate, with amendments, the law relating to the election of Members to Dáil Éireann. For the first time in the history of the State, the entire law in relation to Dáil elections is being brought together in a single statute.
The amendments which have been effected in the Dáil will, I believe, be generally welcome in this House. Senators will be particularly pleased at the amendment to section 47 which relates to the deposit required of a candidate at a Dáil election.
The existing deposit was fixed at £100 in 1923. The Bill, as drafted, proposed to increase this to £500. Many Senators, on both sides of the House, expressed disquiet, in varying degree, at the substantial increase proposed. I am sure they will be pleased to learn that in the Dáil the Minister accepted a compromise suggestion that the deposit be set at £300.
The amendment to section 57 emerged from a consensus among the parties. That section relates to the free postage facility for candidates at Dáil elections. Existing law on this subject, which was reproduced by the Bill as enacted, entitles each candidate at a Dáil election to send, free of postage charges, one election communication to each person on the register of Dáil Electors for the constituency. The amendment effected by the Dáil enables the election communication to be sent to each Dáil elector as at present or to any combination of such electors.
The amendment will give more flexibility to candidates in the operation of the free postage facilities. It will allow them to target individual electors, or households, or a combination of both. Under the amendment a candidate will be able to issue a letter to: all electors on the register for the constituency, or certain electors only, or each household, or certain households, or certain individual electors and certain households.
The new arrangements will provide for greater flexibility for parties and candidates and will enable them to use their resources to the best effect. It may also result in a saving to the Exchequer, which must bear the cost of the "free postage" facility.
Associated amendments to sections 167 and 170 effect corresponding improvements in the free postage facilities applying at Presidential elections and European Parliament elections, respectively. Consequential technical amendments were made in section 172 which relates to certain provisions of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act, 1983, which have reference to postal arrangements at elections.
A provision of the Bill which attracted a good deal of interest in this House is section 147 which prohibits canvassing and other political activity in the vicinity of polling stations. The Dáil accepted a proposal that the prohibition should apply within 100 metres of the polling station rather than 50 metres, as originally proposed. There appears to be general acceptance that this will make the provision more effective and, hopefully, will put an end to this unseemly activity altogether rather than simply moving it down the road.
Again, there are associated amendments to section 172 relating to European elections and 174 relating to local elections. The provisions are applied to Presidential elections and referenda by sections 167 and 168 respectively. I might add that the Minister gave a specific commitment that these provisions will be in force for the poll at the forthcoming referenda and, indeed, at any general election that may be forthcoming.
Section 121 (8) of the Bill, as originally drafted, provided that the returning officer would not transfer a surplus if the surplus, together with all other untransferred surpluses, could not possible give any continuing candidate a quota, could not save any candidate from elimination or could not save the deposit of any candidate. Outside these very limited circumstances, the returning officer would be obliged to transfer every surplus.
Certain reservations were expressed in the Seanad about this provision, particularly by Senator Naughten. Further examination of some concrete examples suggested that the provision as drafted would work satisfactorily and would be a definite improvement on the existing provision.
However, we all know how tense the situation at a count can be. Sometimes a candidate may find it difficult to understand why he or she should be eliminated when there is any surplus, however small, available for distribution. The wise returning officer may well seek to release some of the tension by transferring a surplus, even though he may be aware that it can make no material difference. For this reason, the section has been amended to restore the discretion of the returning officer but within much narrower limits than at present. The amendment does not fully meet the views expressed by Senator Naughten but should go a long way in this direction.
Finally, the Dáil amended section 88 of the Bill which sets out the directions for the preparation of the ballot paper. The amendment provides that the top right hand column on the ballot paper, which is the space reserved for the official mark, will be darkened or cross-hatched in order to discourage electors from writing on the otherwise blank space.