Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

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

I thank Senators for agreeing to consider the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1998, tonight at such short notice. It passed all Stages in the Dáil about 15 minutes ago. The reason for the urgency in dealing with this Bill arises from the need to have the proposed amendments operative as early as possible. For instance, today is the last day for political parties to furnish donation statements to the Public Offices Commission for the period 15 May 1997 to 31 December 1997. One of the substantive amendments proposed in the Bill has a major impact on the content of such statements. The content of donation statements already furnished will also be covered by the amendments as well as the donation statements by unsuccessful candidates, election expenditure statements and claims for reimbursement of election expenses in connection with the recent Dáil by-election. I will deal in more detail with these matters later but they are the reasons for the urgency of the Bill and the Motion for Earlier Signature by the President to be taken at the end of the debate.

The Bill makes a few substantive changes to the Electoral Act, 1997. While the Bill contains 18 sections the major changes are contained in just six of them. The other sections contain consequential drafting amendments and the normal standard sections found in a Bill. Each section is explained in the explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill. The Dáil agreed to six amendments to the Bill which are not covered in the explanatory memorandum and I will refer to them later.

As the 1997 Act was the subject of lengthy debate only last year, I do not propose to deal at length with the principles of that Act. However, the Government accepts the principles of Part IV of the 1997 Act dealing with the disclosure of donations for political purposes and the amendments proposed will not interfere with those principles. Likewise, the Bill does not make any changes to the expenditure limits set out in the 1997 Act.

The Bill is also required at this stage to clarify certain matters arising from the legal interpretation of some of the provisions in Parts IV and V of the 1997 Act by the Public Offices Commission. While I accept that the commission is independent in the performance of its functions, its legal interpretation of some of the main sections of the 1997 Act dealing with the disclosure of donations and expenditure limits at elections requires that the Oireachtas be more specific about certain aspects of the 1997 Act so that there is no doubt as to the intentions of the Oireachtas. Some amendments also arise from experience gained from operating the provisions of the 1997 Act which is new to Members of both Houses.

Section 4 amends section 21 of the 1997 Act which provides for the reimbursement of election expenses of candidates at Dáil and European Parliament elections. The first amendment to the 1997 Act in paragraph (a) was agreed by the Dáil today as a further amendment which was not in the Bill as published. It provides that candidates at a Dáil by-election will be treated in an equal fashion to candidates at a Dáil general election with regard to the number of votes to be obtained to qualify for reimbursement of election expenses up to £5,000. The two other amendments to section 21 are drafting amendments.

Section 5 provides for amendments to the definition of donation as used in section 22 of Part IV of the 1997 Act. The first amendment in paragraph (a) provides that benefits derived by a candidate from a service rendered at an election by an individual in the employment of a political party will not be regarded as a donation to the candidate, provided the individual is not in receipt of any extra reward or benefit for that service. This is in keeping with the general thrust of the 1997 Act that benefits derived by individual candidates, elected representatives or political parties from services or facilities which are publicly funded are not deemed to be donations or an election expense.

Senators who are familiar with their party headquarters will know that it would be almost impossible to apportion the costs of an individual employed at party headquarters over candidates of the party at an election. This would involve keeping detailed records and increased bureaucracy and expense, especially for the larger parties which may have over 100 candidates standing at a general election. The administrative work involved in such an exercise is out of proportion to the benefits obtained by the individual candidate.

The amendment in paragraph (c) provides that expenditure by a political party on behalf of its candidates at an election will not be regarded as a donation to the candidates, except in the case of a monetary contribution to a candidate which will be regarded as a donation. This amendment clarifies a point raised by the Public Offices Commission.

The section also includes in paragraph (d) an amendment to the 1997 Act which provides that a donation received by a member of either House of the Oireachtas, a representative in the European Parliament or a candidate at a Dáil, Seanad or European election will be regarded as a donation to the person involved unless it is passed on by him or her to his or her political party and a written acknowledgement of the donation is received by the person from the party. In that case, the donation will be regarded as a donation to the party and will have to be disclosed by the party if it exceeds £4,000. Disclosure by the elected representative or candidate is not required in these circumstances. This amendment will clear up a legal doubt raised by the Public Offices Commission which would require double disclosure even though an individual was merely a channel between the donor and the intended beneficiary, the party.

One of the major difficulties of operating the 1997 Act as it is currently is the requirement on political parties to contact each individual member or branch to obtain details of all donations received in a year in order to ascertain if any donor gave donations the aggregate of which exceeds £4,000. Section 6(b) will amend section 24 of the 1997 Act to require a donor who makes donations to several members of the same party in the same year to furnish a donation statement to the Public Offices Commission if the donations for the year, when aggregated, exceed £4,000.

The main purpose of this amendment is to make it unnecessary for political parties, not only the larger parties but also the smaller parties, to introduce elaborate bureaucratic procedures to trace all donations, even very small donations down to raffle tickets, to every member of the party in order to ascertain if the aggregate of donations from any one source exceeds £4,000 in any year. The large bureaucratic exercise required would far outweigh the benefit sought from the present legal requirement. The amendment will put the onus on an individual who makes multiple donations to the same or different members of a political party or directly to the party to make a donation statement to the Public Offices Commission. A member of the Oireachtas, an MEP or unsuccessful candidate at all elections except local elections will still be required to submit a donation statement for any single donation exceeding £500 or multiple donations from the same source exceeding £500 at an election or in a year whichever period applies. The donation statement by a donor of multiple donations to the members of the same political party exceeding £4,000 in a year will have to include the names of the political party and of the individual donees to whom the donations were made.

The Dáil agreed earlier today to two further amendments to section 24 of the 1997 Act. The main amendment provides that a donation directly to the party as well as to individuals of the party will be included in the total sum of donations made by a single donor in a year for disclosure purposes. The second amendment is a consequential drafting amendment.

Section 6 restates, with amendment, section 24(1)(b) of the 1997 Act and provides for an extra month for political parties to furnish donation statements for the period from 15 May to 31 December 1997. The latest date for furnishing such statements will be 30 April next; the deadline for submitting donation statements by political parties will revert to 31 March in future years. The extension of time this year is necessary due to the changes proposed in the Bill.

Section 7 provides for the insertion of a new section in the 1997 Act to prohibit an elected representative, a candidate of a political party at an election or any other member of a political party from accepting a donation if he or she knows or has reason to believe that the donor in question will be required to make a donation statement and does not intend to comply with the requirement.

If, notwithstanding the prohibition on the acceptance of such a donation, an elected representative, a candidate of a party at an election or any other member or agent of a party receives a donation in such circumstances, he or she will be required to notify the Public Offices Commission and surrender the donation or its value to the commission. The Public Offices Commission will be required to cause a copy of such notification to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and to dispose of the donation or its value in such manner as directed by the Minister for Finance.

This prohibition on accepting a donation where the donor is considering not submitting a donation statement is a corollary to the change proposed in section 6. The prohibition in the section demonstrates that the amendment proposed in section 6 is not made lightly and there is no change in the Government's attitude to the principle of disclosure of donations for political purposes.

Section 25 of the 1997 Act provides for offences and penalties for non-compliance with the various requirements in Part IV of the 1997 Act. Section 8 of the Bill provides for an amendment to insert new subsections (1A) and (1B) in section 25 to designate as an offence non-compliance with the disclosure of section 24(1A) and with the prohibition on the acceptance of a donation or other requirement of section 24A inserted by section 7.

Section 10, which amends section 31 of the 1997 Act, will clarify that the expression "election expenses" means all expenditure for electoral purposes incurred on the provision of property, goods or services for use during the period of the election. In the case of a Dáil general election this period commences on the date of the dissolution of the Dáil and ends on polling day. In the case of a Dáil by-election the period extends from the date of the issue of the writ to polling day and in the case of a European election it commences on the date of the polling day order and ends on polling day.

The amendment to section 31 also clarifies that all election expenses incurred at any time before the commencement of the relevant period for an election on the provision of property, goods or services for use during the election period will also be regarded as an election expense and will have to be accounted for by the relevant election agent. The reason for these amendments is to assist candidates at an election and the Public Offices Commission in implementing the Act.

The amendment at section 10(a) defines generally what "election expense" is for the purposes of the Act — that is, all expenditure for electoral purposes incurred in the provision of property, goods or services for use at an election during the period referred to in subsection (3). A revised subsection (3) is included at section 10(c) and it states quite clearly and unambiguously the election periods for a Dáil general election, a by-election and a European election.

It also deals with expenditure incurred before the operative date. This is important to ensure that, if expenditure is made in advance of the election period for property, goods or services for use during that period, then the expenditure will form part of the candidate's election expenditure. This will cover such items as posters, leaflets etc., or services of agencies engaged to design which are ordered, delivered and paid for well in advance of an election.

There has been much discussion on whether an elected representative's normal constituency work is to be regarded as an election expense. This work was never intended to be so regarded. Normal interaction between an elected representative and his or her constituents is not to be regarded as an election expense. This was recognised by the Public Offices Commission in the guidelines issued for the recent by-elections.

Section 32 of the 1997 Act sets out the limits on election expenses which may be incurred by candidates and political parties at a Dáil election. Section 33 provides that election expenses at European elections will be set by ministerial order which must be approved in draft form by a resolution of each House of the Oireachtas.

There are four amendments to section 32. The amendments in paragraph (a) and (c) are consequential drafting amendments. The amendment in paragraph (b) removes the ceiling of 50 per cent of the election expenses of a candidate which may be incurred by the candidate's political party with the candidate's agreement. This will le leave it open to the political party and the candidate to agree in writing an appropriate division of the candidate's expenditure limit as may be appropriate to the circumstances. A rigid limit is not appropriate when one does not know what exactly the expenditure at an election will be. The removal of the 50 per cent limit will facilitate both the candidate and the political party to come to whatever arrangement satisfies both. No change is being made in the expenditure limits, only that it will be open to a candidate to agree in writing with his or her party on the part of the candidate's expenditure limit — if any — the party can spend on a national campaign or in the candidate's constituency or both.

The provisions that expenditure by a political party under sections 32 and 33 of the 1997 Act is deemed to be expenditure incurred by the candidate will be replaced by two new provisions which specify that expenditure by a political party under section 32 in a constituency, other than expenditure by the national agent of the party, will be deemed to be expenditure incurred by the candidate and must be accounted for by the election agent of the candidate. In other words, if the expenditure by a political party is not by the national agent or under this authority, then the expenditure is the responsibility of the candidate and his or her election agent.

The amendment, at paragraph (d), also inserts a new subsection (4) which clarifies that expenditure by a party in a constituency, including expenditure by the national agent, will be deemed to be expenditure by a candidate for the purposes of the reimbursement of election expenses of the candidate. This will change the present position that all the expenditure of a party could be used by a candidate to claim recoupment of election expenditure. The new arrangement clarifies that only expenditure in the constituency can be included in the candidate's claim.

Section 18 is a transitional provision which provides that a donation statement or a presidential election donation statement already furnished to the Public Offices Commission, or a statement of election expenses to the commission relating to an election held before the coming into operation of the Bill, will be deemed to be valid if the statement in question complies with the provisions of the 1997 Act as they now stand or the provisions as amended by the Bill.

The Dáil agreed today to two further amendments to ensure that donations made between 1 January of this year and the date the Bill is enacted are covered by the Bill's provisions. The Bill will apply to donation statements to be made by unsuccessful candidates at the recent by-elections. The amendment provision on reimbursement of election expenses will also apply to unsuccessful candidates at the recent by-elections.

In conclusion, the amendments proposed in the Bill will make the 1997 Act, as amended, more workable for candidates at an election, those to whom the duty of making donation statements applies, and the Public Offices Commission in carrying out its functions under the Act.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Strictly speaking, the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1998, is a technical Bill which provides a number of amendments to the Electoral Act, 1997. It may come as a surprise to some that a Bill passed by the Oireachtas only a year ago now requires to be amended. Following the recent general election and the strict interpretation placed on expenditure by the Public Office Commission, certain aspects of the Act required clarification. This is not a criticism of the Public Office Commission which was interpreting the law as it was. The core principle of the 1997 Act has not been changed by this new legislation.

There are no new principles enunciated in this Bill and for that reason I do not intend to reopen the long debate which took place on the 1997 Electoral Act, except to say that under the existing Act total spending by a political party in a five-seater constituency must be held below £20,000, under £17,000 in a four-seater and below £14,000 in a three-seater constituency.

It was always understood among politicians that the capped expenditure related to the period three weeks before an election but politicians were alarmed when they discovered that the Public Office Commission was interpreting this in a different way. The commission was of the view that money spent by TDs and Senators on clinics, newsletters and advertising during the lifetime of a Dáil or Seanad would have to be accounted for as well. If this matter was not clarified there would be very little funding left to a politician at election time; indeed, one could find oneself without any funding at all.

I am pleased to note that the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1998, makes it clear that from now on election expenses will be calculated from the date of the dissolution of the Dáil until polling day and, if it is a by-election, from when the writ is moved.

The Bill provides a clear distinction between expenditure committed by a politician in carrying out his or her duties and expenditure committed at election-time in order to be re-elected. That is the most important issue in amended legislation before us. It goes without saying that money spent on election material before the date of a dissolution will have to be accounted for as an election expense.

Section 5 provides an amendment to the definition of a donation. Any benefits derived from services rendered by the staff of a political party will not be regarded as a donation for election expenses of a candidate. In addition, expenditure by a political party on behalf of its candidates at election time will not be regarded as a donation to the candidate. This is a reasonable approach to this issue.

More importantly, section 5 also provides an amendment to the 1997 Act which will clarify the situation where a Member of either House of the Oireachtas receives a donation which he passes on to his party. This will not now be regarded as a donation to the person involved but as a donation to the party, provided that the recipient receives a written acknowledgement of the donation from his party.

Another welcome amendment provides that any person who makes donations to several members of the same party in the same year will be required to furnish a donation statement to the Public Office Commission if, when aggregated, the donations exceed £4,000. This replaces the existing requirement on political parties to disclose such multiple donations. This particular change will mean an end to the administrative nightmare for political parties who currently have responsibility for disclosing donations totalling over £4,000. Under the previous Act, party administrators were legally obliged to gather details of all contributions from local branches but those very same branches were not obliged to tell them anything if they did not want to do so.

Section 7 provides for the insertion of a new section into the 1997 Act whereby politicians will be legally barred from accepting donations from any person if they have reason to believe the person has no intention of filing a statement to the Public Office Commission. This will be a rather difficult decision for politicians to make. They will have to know that a person will not make the return and I find it hard to understand what information has to be made available to them to come to that conclusion.

Another major headache for political parties will also end with the introduction of Amendments 11 and 12 whereby the ceiling of 50 per cent of election expenses of a candidate, which may be incurred by the candidate's party, is being deleted. Expenditure being incurred by the party will now be deemed to be expenditure incurred by the candidate.

I understand there is broad agreement among the political parties to the amendments proposed in this Bill. The changes proposed in the Bill will make a significant improvement and I hope they will be interpreted by the Public Offices Commission in the spirit in which they have been put before the House.

I welcome this amending legislation because there was much confusion concerning the 1997 Act. The amendments are both practical and necessary. Most importantly, they clarify the situation regarding election expenses for candidates from the time an election is called. Dáil and Seanad candidates incur much expense in advertising their clinics in local newspapers and in printing flyers. I am glad this section of the original Act has been clarified by this Bill. Other sections concern donations to political parties through a candidate to whom a receipt is forwarded by party headquarters.

I commend the Bill to the House.

The last time I had the pleasure of the Minister's company was in an equally gracious Georgian building when he was also dispensing largesse. On that occasion it was to a wonderful heritage project and in a judicious manner.

We have heard a good deal about this situation from the point of view of political parties. That is necessary and appropriate because we want to address standards of accountability, transparency and disclosure. However, I want to make one point strongly to the Minister. It is regrettable that there is no provision in this legislation for Seanad Éireann, except in so far as disclosure is concerned. If we are compelled to make disclosures about donations, which I am very happy with, then we should also participate in the benefits. I speak particularly strongly as an Independent.

When the previous Bill was going through the House under the previous regime, my distinguished colleague, Senator Dan Kiely, made this point fairly strongly. In the Official Report of 14 May 1997, column 962, the Senator said:

If the political system is brought into the public arena, Senators and county councillors should be included. All politicians seem to be tarred with the same brush. If one politician is reported to have received a donation from an entrepreneur to help run his or her campaign, every candidate is labelled with the same tag. The Seanad elections are different as one does not have a campaign team. However, there is expense involved.

That is only partially true. Independent Members on the University panel will probably have a campaign team and expenses which are not similar to those applicable to our colleagues on the panel system. The expenses include the production and distribution of an elaborate manifesto to a multiple of thousands of people — approximately 35,000 in my case and 90,000 in the case of the NUI. The only method of contacting this kind of electorate, which is very substantial, is to write individual letters to all the people on the electoral roll, which involves a great deal of money in terms of printing, posting, etc. I stood for election for Seanad Éireann on six occasions over a period of ten years before I was elected. It cost me somewhere between £50,000 and £60,000 and it took me a number of years of receiving my Seanad salary to pay off the backlog before I received a penny.

I do not wish to whinge; I am merely putting facts on the record. Indeed, it would be inappropriate to whinge because nobody told me I must be a Member of the Seanad. I decided I wanted to be a Member. It was a personal choice. I wanted to contribute. I did not do it for the money, but my access to the democratic process was not assisted by the considerable sums of money involved. If that was true of me at a time when I was employed by a university in a professional capacity and had much greater sums at my disposal than the average person, how much more true would it be for a candidate from some of the more marginalised areas, either of the city or the country?

It would, therefore, be useful to extend this benefit, especially when one takes into account the fact that this expenditure is asine qua non of political life in the Seanad. One will simply not be elected without spending this money. Yet, despite this, and for technical reasons I understand but which I still deprecate, it is not possible even to write off this legitimate expense as a business expense for tax purposes. There is not even a tax break involved. This puts people at a considerable disadvantage. Senator Fitzgerald also echoed this call.

I discussed this matter with Ministers of the previous Government and was given an undertaking that this would be addressed, either by additional legislation or supplementary regulations. It is important that we be given an indication that the Government will introduce this kind of legislation. I speak in a partisan fashion on behalf of those who are Independents. However, it should be extended to all elements within the House. I am sure my colleagues in the party system, both on the Government and Opposition benches, would be happy to furnish and support this kind of argument because it appears to be extraordinary that the Upper House should, uniquely, be excluded from the operation of this otherwise worthy Bill.

When I first ran for election I understand there were fewer than 10,000 registered voters in the University of Dublin. This could be just about handled by a good team stuffing envelopes, folding material etc. Nowadays this is virtually impossible within the time scale and we must acquire the services of professional companies who will print, sort, fold and stuff envelopes, etc. It becomes an increasingly expensive operation.

I made a point on the Order of Business which I now repeat for the Minister's edification and amusement. It is extraordinary that we are required to fill in forms regarding donations and then get nothing. On the last occasion I filled in one such form it stipulated that it was not good enough for me to say it was the truth. I had to have it notarised and then sent in a registered envelope. I do not wish to be seen as some kind of Protestant niggard — that is N-I-G-G-A-R-D, in case anybody accuses me of racism — penurious and penny pinching in the extreme when I say it cost a mere £5. I grudged it because I went to the inconvenience of filling out this form to say I got nothing and then having to pay for the privilege of returning the information on a notarised form in a registered envelope. I submitted a bill for my expenses and requested payment by return. For some inexplicable reason my letter was not replied to. I cannot understand that; it is most unusual.

It was probably too busy trying to interpret the law.

Exactly. I am sure Senator Cassidy will support what I have to say, especially in view of his singularly appropriate Christian name — Donie. Was the Minister thinking of the esteemed Leader of the House in his various references to "the donees", who are in a much more advantaged position than the mere donors? We all aspire to the position of Donie on this side of the House.

I support the call by Senator Norris to have the Seanad and Seanad Members included in the legislation. He was speaking from the experience of being a candidate on the University panel. I assure him that if he had to drive over 12,000 miles over six or seven weeks he would probably find it far more difficult to get elected. There is a personality election on the University panel, with the exception of one or two.

Who have no personality.

My great friend and colleague, Senator Norris, contested elections to the House on six occasions before being elected on the seventh occasion. He is certainly consistent, to say the least. He put a very good case to the Minister.

I am confident the Minister understands the difficulties experienced by all public representatives. He started off in Meath County Council and became secretary of, LAMA which, with his chairman colleague, Councillor Willie McKenna, he considerably enhanced. I have had the pleasure of being a colleague of the Minister for a long time. I wish him well. I did not have the opportunity to speak on legislation he has introduced to the House until now and I am delighted he has become Minister for the Environment and Local Government and look forward to him serving four fruitful years in his portfolio.

I welcome the section of the Bill which removes the onus from the political parties to the donor because we in Fianna Fáil have to face a mammoth challenge and undertaking. Our party has 50,000 registered paid up members. Presumably Fine Gael has 20,000 to 25,000 members. One can only imagine the number of comhairle ceanntair, comhairle Dáil ceanntair, raffles, dances and golf classics, not to mention our national collection and the almost 3,400 cummain that participate and it would not be practical for all those units of the organisation to tabulate their income and make a return to our headquarters. I congratulate the Minister for acting so swiftly to end a practice which was not really possible. I can see the logic of where his predecessor was coming from, because he wanted to do everything in his power to put everything above board and in order.

I welcome the section of the Bill which clearly places the responsibility on the donor and makes it easier for people. All the secretaries, treasurers, chairmen, vice chairmen and presidents of all the units in all political parties operate in a voluntary capacity. We are the chosen few of the political party system who are reimbursed for the time we spend in Parliament and working in our offices on behalf of our constituents.

I congratulate the Minister. I know the Bill must be passed by the House this evening for an early signature so I will not delay its passage. I concur with everything said by Senators Joe Doyle and Dan Kiely.

I concur with what the previous speakers said. We all realise elections are a very serious and costly business. The one election system with which I am very familiar is that for the Seanad; thankfully, I was successful on the two occasions on which I ran. There is a huge cost involved in running for election to the Seanad. One generally covers 10,000 miles during a Seanad election campaign and Senators around the country have estimated the cost at £1 per mile. Most of our respective bank managers could confirm we spend about £10,000 on a campaign. All literature and documentation for Seanad campaigns must be funded from candidates' own pockets.

It is important to look at the Seanad election system when we are examining the funding of various elections. It is crazy to regard the entire country as a single constituency for Seanad elections, requiring candidates to travel thousands of miles. It would be much more appropriate to adopt the European constituency boundaries for Seanad elections whereby Senators would be elected on a regional basis. That would make much more sense and I hope the Minister will examine it before the next Seanad election next year or whenever it comes.

Nobody in the country is well disposed to politicians receiving sums of money or the provision of huge funding for election campaigns. However, it goes without saying that no politician receives the type of election funding which has been mentioned and inferred by innuendo. There must be transparency and any subscriptions or donations, big or small, must be upfront. The provision of funding along those lines is being enshrined in this Bill and there must be no strings attached to, or favours given for, any funding. We all agree on that point.

Anyone who contributes to an election campaign does so out of respect for the work done by politicians in their respective areas. The subject of funding for political parties and politicians has been blown out of all proportion. I favour legislation to streamline the process and to stop the innuendo, the winks and the nods and the total exaggeration.

The real test will come next year as parties endeavour to entice candidates to enter the local election fray. We should thank the Minister for giving us an extra year as the elections will not take place until 1999. However, when that time comes many will be called but, in the current climate, few will respond because there is an easier way of life.

My party supports this amending legislation. It is important to point out this amendment does not change the substance of the primary legislation which was passed last year.

In the context of all the talk about tribunals, investigations and inspectors, despite the amount of time and paperwork required to comply with the Electoral Act, which provides for declarations by candidates and parties of the accounts of their expenditure on political campaigns, and the legislation which was passed some years ago requiring declarations of Members' interests, these Acts protect our reputations at a time when political, religious and financial institutions which the public respected in the past are under attack and investigation. That legislation allows us to say to those who put us here that we have nothing to hide and we can declare we got here under our own steam or under that of someone else. We can then demonstrate that the snide remarks and innuendo which are made from time to time are without foundation.

I appeal to those in the print media, in particular, who are very quick to throw allegations at us, to spend some time going through the donation statements, declarations of interest and the accounts made by the political parties of their election expenditure. They will find, by and large, that the type of overblown innuendo and allegations made against Members of these Houses have little or no foundation.

I recognise it is not easy to carry out that exercise in the spirit of tribunals which are now sitting to examine planning matters and the funding which it is alleged was received by people such as Mr. Haughey and Deputy Lowry. However, it is important to point out those tribunals were established by mechanisms undertaken by these Houses.

It is important for us, as the primary national political institutions, to show we can regulate our affairs and that we have mechanisms to deal with questions. The type of allegations about past practices which are now being investigated can be answered or stood over now in a far simpler manner by means of the mechanisms which we have put in place. The mechanisms put in place by the Electoral Act and the Ethics in Public Office Act will stand the test of time better than many of the self regulating mechanisms put in place by other professional bodies, such as financial institutions, which are also under attack at the moment.

The amendments in this Bill, as passed by the Dáil today, have been well drafted by virtue of consultation with all the parties in the House, all of which, bar some of the smaller parties, assented to the proposed changes. We are supporting this Bill because they are not changes of substance but are required because of practical questions which have arisen in the course of Members seeking to comply with the provisions of last year's Act. These questions have arisen as a result of dealings with the Public Offices Commission over the past number of months. They are sensible questions which will make the legislation more workable and enable us to protect our reputations, stand over what we do in public and defend in an open and accountable way any criticisms or questions levelled at us. I am happy to support this Bill.

I will not oppose this Bill, although it is unnecessary and a cumbersome way to achieve a simple objective. The Houses have run before ill-informed media comment on this issue. I do not blame this or the last Government for dealing with it, but a wrong decision has been made. It reminds me of a decision by a previous Government not to give official drivers to Ministers of State. It makes no sense. The public believes it is accountability but it is only creating a huge administrative mess.

Legislation, requiring every Member of the House to make a declaration each year of donations above a certain amount received and to publish their electoral accounts should replace the Electoral Act and the Ethics in Public Office Act. It is of little value to restrict people otherwise. If Senator Ross and I are on the same panel and it is shown that I receive a certain amount of support and money from the trade union movement and Senator Ross gets it from a business environment — I am not suggesting he does — it clearly indicates to the voter from where somebody is coming. I do not understand how we can interfere with that activity in a democracy. The legislation should be simplified.

I am not blaming this or the last Government. When the newspapers wrote about politicians on the take, everyone ran to be open and informative and not to hide anything. I was appalled to see that the motion on the Order Paper to appoint Mr. Kevin Murphy as the Information Commissioner, which I support, included his home address. That is an invasion of privacy, even for the Information Commissioner. We are running in front of a mad view which is ill-informed and mischievous. Those of us who had pickets placed outside our homes would not wish it on anyone. Although public representatives must put up with it, public servants should not have to cope with such intrusions.

There is a conflict between this legislation and the Ethics in Public Office Act in relation to campaign donations. This Bill demands that people declare donations for electoral purposes. Every January, under the Ethics in Public Office Act, Members of both Houses are required to declare donations over the course of the previous year. This means they must declare the same things all over again. We are tying ourselves up in knots, which cannot be right or necessary. People should look out for themselves. When such donations are disclosed and made available to the media — I am not suggesting they should not — they will appear a second time. What the Minister declared last summer will now appear as an additional amount. People will then ask did he not get a certain amount of money six or seven months ago and conclude that he is on the take. We are unnecessarily setting ourselves up for such reactions. We should keep it simple and disclose once a year donations above a certain amount received the previous year, whether for electoral or other purposes. That form should then be made available to the public.

I did not believe there was a conflict between the two pieces of legislation. The Select Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann asked the Public Offices Commission to clarify if the provisions of the Electoral Act , 1997, requiring Members to "register certain political donations are in addition to or are in substitution for the requirements relating to gifts under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995." The reply we received stated that "Members must comply separately with the requirements of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and the Electoral Act, 1997." I want the Minister to state that this should be changed.

I would like the Minister to accept an amendment to the Bill to insert a new section which states that candidates who make returns to the Public Offices Commission regarding electoral donations in compliance with this legislation will be deemed to have satisfied the requirements of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, in accordance with those particular donations. This would ensure we do not have to make two declarations. My proposal will get rid of confusion and clarify the issue for ourselves and those we represent. It will also comply with the highest standards of transparency and accountability.

This issue is like the confidentiality argument. There is a view that honest people tell everyone what they are doing. If people read my mind from morning to night I would be out of a job. The idea that leaders cannot have unspoken thoughts or that people should have access to the inner discussions of Cabinet in order to make decisions about running the country is nonsense. In Dingle, where I was reared, transparency was another word for simple. If someone was described as transparent, they would not be sent to the quay to buy a box of fish or to the fair to sell an animal. Transparency is not an attractive or a good quality in leaders and I would not be interested in voting for someone who is transparent. The Government Whip, Senator Tom Fitzgerald, would be able to tell the House where transparency would be held in low esteem. The idea that someone would tell everyone their business would not be regarded as a source of pride in west Kerry, whatever about the rest of the country.

I know the Minister will say he cannot accept my amendment because he is under pressure of time to get this Bill passed because of the dates given. I ask him to consider it or to indicate in his response how he might address the issues to which I have referred. I understand the time limits and why political parties feel the need to support it. I speak as an Independent — people who are often considered to be different from other politicians, although I do not consider myself to be any different from or better than my colleagues in political parties. This Bill is not dealing with what we are required to do. It is too complicated and steeped in administration and it duplicates another piece of legislation.

I thank the Members who contributed to the debate and for facilitating the passage of the Bill so far. I cannot accept Senator O'Toole's amendment although I do not disagree with what he said. We can, in this or the other House, wrap ourselves in the mantle of propriety and political correctness but I believe that the vast majority of the Members of both Houses, past and present, have been decent, upstanding and honest individuals. I doubt that we needed to go to such depths to oblige Members to declare their honesty. Senators will recall the first publication of statements of interests by Members of the Oireachtas under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. I have an abiding memory of the disappointment expressed in newspapers that the statements contained no juicy information and that most of us were working full time as public representatives for a not very large salary. Even then, the usual suspects insinuated that we had not told the full truth. We bend over backwards to justify ourselves to people who will not believe even what we swear to or, in Senator Norris's words, have notarised.

We are not changing the principle of the Bill. The Government did warn that the Bill, as originally drafted, was unworkable. I have no doubt that we will be obliged to return to this legislation when other aspects of it are found to be unworkable. I take Senator O'Toole's point about duplication. No matter how carefully the declaration is made Members will always be worried that they have forgotten something, that it will come to light and they will be tarred with a particular brush. While I cannot accept Senator O'Toole's amendment, the Minister for Finance is preparing a Bill which will deal with standards in public office and I will convey the Senator's views to the Minister and support them. One declaration of interests should be sufficient.

The Act is being amended because sections of it have been found to be unworkable. The current provision of section 24 of the Act would require a political party to declare aggregate contributions in excess of £4,000. In order to establish whether a person donated more than £4,000 in aggregate the party would be required to write to every member, every unit and every public representative in the party. Fianna Fáil, for example, has 50,000 members and each person would be required to itemise and declare to the party general secretary every contribution no matter how small. The general secretary would then be required to cross check all donations to see if any individual had contributed a total of more than £4,000.

It would be a political nightmare.

The amendment will put the onus on the donor to make the declaration. Senators Cassidy, McDonagh and Norris raised the matter of recouping costs of Seanad elections. This would have to be dealt with in separate legislation. I hope, at some stage, to introduce legislation to allow Senators to recoup some of their election expenses. The franchise section of the Department is under considerable pressure of work but I will endeavour to introduce such legislation.

Will it be before the next election?

That will give the Minister plenty of time.

I will do my best to introduce it before the next election, perhaps when regulations are being drafted for the local elections which must be done under this legislation. I will give it favourable consideration.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take Committee Stage now.