Referendum Bill, 1994: Committee and Final Stages.

Sections 1 to 30, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 31.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 20, subsection (2), line 29, after "disability" to insert "as certified by a medical practitioner".

Recently there has been a lot legislation relating to reforms in the electoral area, including the Local Government Bill and the Presidential Elections Bill. We are now dealing with referenda and there will probably be changes in Seanad elections to allow the regional technical colleges, the new universities and, perhaps, those living abroad be represented. That is something we can look forward to.

I am concerned about including section 31 (2) without objection. If this subsection is included in this Bill it could be reflected in future legislation. I am not worried about the problems experienced when bringing someone in a wheelchair to vote. I do not know of any situation where a physical illness or disability of seven days duration is looked on so casually as not to require a medical practitioner's certificate. If one applies for sickness benefit, one does not require a doctor's certificate for the first three days. However, on the fourth day, in order to be paid, one must have such a certificate. If one wants to be paid from the first day, one must have the certificate back-dated by the medical practitioner to the first day. We are worrying about a medical practitioner's certificate for three day's pay. Yet in this important electoral Bill we are setting up something which could be reflected in future legislation.

Does this Bill seek self-certification? Does the local returning officer need a medical qualification so he may argue that a person's illness is not severe enough and he or she should return to their own polling station if the person gives a week's notice? This could lead to problems. Could the Minister advise me of other circumstances as serious as the one where a person seeks to change where they cast their vote? Again, one must remember that this Referendum Bill concerns one constituency. What happens if it is reflected in other legislation where, for example, we know the number of votes from one electoral ward to another. The number of votes in those wards may make a difference to the outcome. This is unsatisfactory.

I would not like to see creeping non-certification by the medical profession starting in this legislation. I would like to know if there are other serious areas where a person, a returning officer or one's aunt, can say one's physical illness or disability disbars one from voting?

Wexford): Section 31 provides that the local returning officer may authorise an elector to vote at another polling station in his or her constituency where the elector is unable to vote at his or her normal polling station due to physical illness or disability. The situation envisaged is that there might be steps or other obstacles in getting into that station. The effect of the amendment tabled by Senator Henry would be to require an elector who wishes to avail of this facility to support his or her application with a medical certificate.

I appreciate the points made by Senator Henry. However, arrangements made in this section are intended to apply to physically ill or disabled electors who are not registered as special voters and who wish to vote in person. An elector who applies to the returning officer to vote at an alternative polling station must satisfy the returning officer of his or her eligibility. The elector may, if he or she wishes, submit a medical certificate.

The section as drafted is intended to be flexible and to allow the returning officer maximum discretion as to how a particular elector should satisfy him or her of the entitlements to vote at another polling station. I understand that the returning officer normally accepts the elector's statement without further formality. The returning officer may request an elector to submit a medical certificate. On the other hand, if the elector is known to the returning officer, this may not be necessary. It would also be open to the returning officer to consult with his or her local staff who may be in a position to confirm that the elector had previous difficulties in gaining access to a particular polling station. I understand a medical certificate would only be sought in exceptional circumstances where there might be doubt about the bone sides of the application.

In many cases electors may not apply for authorisation to vote at an alternative polling station until close to the deadline, as the elector may not be aware until then that a particular building is proposed to be used as a polling station. In that context it is essential that the minimum requirements are imposed on such electors and the provisions be as flexible as possible. The inclusion of a requirement that a medical certificate be produced in each case would be inconsistent with this flexibility.

I would like to point out that there is already a system in operation for Dáil and presidential elections and it is working well. We have received no complaints in this regard and we intend to extend this system of voting to other areas in further electoral reform.

Is the Minister saying that in Dáil and presidential elections no medical certification is required and that there is precedent?

(Wexford): Yes.

What type of physical illness develops in seven days which would make a person so ill that they would have to stay at home or go their own polling station? If there is precedent in Dáil and presidential election, I will withdraw the amendment.

(Wexford): The application must be made within seven days. For example, if someone is in a car accident they are entitled to vote in a polling station.

I am worried about the precedent which may set because it is not a good idea. However, if it is in Dáil and presidential elections, it is consistent.

Has this device been used by people since it has been in existence?

(Wexford): It has rarely been used and we have had complaints from people with disabilities who could not vote. These people were unaware that under this section they could do so if they sought application and were granted it. We asked the National Rehabilitation Board to inform their members that this facility is available. We hope to see an increase in the number availing of it in future.

When publicising elections, etc., could the Minister through his Department give this special attention so those who are not in contact with the National Rehabilitation Board could be made aware of it?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 31 agreed to.
Sections 32 to 58, inclusive, agreed to.
First Schedule agreed to.
Second Schedule agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

Wexford): I thank the Senators on all sides of the House for their support and cooperation. I asked at the beginning for a speedy passage through the Seanad but I did not think it would be that quick.

I thank the Minister for dealing with my amendment. It was not motivated by creeping trades unionism on my part for my profession or anything like that to get them another few pounds. I agree with Senator Manning's point that we should be very careful about easy access to referenda. They are not that easy to deal with. It is easier to tease things out in the House than it is to make a decision on a single question. I hope that what Senator Manning said on that subject is taken to heart.

I thank the Minister for the way in which he handled the legislation in the House. The Minister is very popular in this House and it is partly because of the way in which he treats everything very seriously. Once again I pay tribute to his Department and especially to the officials in the franchise section.

I thank the Minister for his presence here in the House and for the customary courtesy of his replies. He is a popular Minister in this House and his responses to queries and to debate have always been appreciated by the Members of this House. This is important legislation and I compliment the Minister on the passing of this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 5.15 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.