Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Committee Stage.

NEW SECTIONS.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—This Act (other than Part 3) shall not come into operation until such time as the Commission established by Part 3 certifies that the other provisions of this Act are in accordance with the highest standards of transparency and accountability and safeguard fully the integrity and privacy of the voting process in a verifiable manner.".

I welcome to the House the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher. I also welcome the opportunity to debate this critical Bill in light of the major fiasco in respect of how the Government does business and conducts elections. The public's confidence in the system has been shattered to a point which is extremely worrying.

The issue should have been handled with care and sensitivity in a professional manner. However, experts in IT, Opposition spokespersons and the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government, who debated the issue at some length, advised and contributed, were criticised and knocked by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen. At some stages they were accused of scaremongering, which was not the case. The electronic voting commission's report has vindicated the many fine contributions made in various fora by those people.

From the outset, this issue should have been dealt with by an all-party Oireachtas committee in a similar manner to the committee on land prices, chaired by Deputy O'Donovan. That is what happens when consensus politics prevails and a common sense approach is taken by a Minister. It is also what happens at Government level when a decent attempt is made to introduce good legislation or examine an area which needs tighter or newer controls. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in regard to this matter.

In a stubborn and deliberate manner, the Minister refused point blank on a number of occasions to listen to the advice put forward by many interested and qualified parties. This has led to an undermining of the electoral system. The Minister has now spent in excess of €52 million on e-voting. This is a large sum of money which could be well spent in other critical areas. One need only look at the health service and the many hospitals bursting at the seams and in need of funding.

We have yet to be convinced, as we were in respect of the Minister's case on e-voting, in regard to its cost. Mr. Joe McCarthy has pioneered the argument that these machines, which are now in storage across the country, may very well be obsolete and of no real benefit to this country if we take up the mantle of e-voting and the commission decides we should do so.

Is it fair to waste €52 million on an issue as notorious as this at any time? If this happened in private industry, the manager responsible would be shown the door quicker than his or her feet could touch the ground. It is a failing of the Taoiseach to allow the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to continue in his Department.

I understand the purpose of this Bill is to indemnify the commission in respect of its next report, which I welcome. I pay tribute to the members of the committee for the brave way in which they deliberated and for their result, which reflected the long hours of hard work expended by them. I urge the Minister of State to examine this amendment and the points which will be raised by Senator Quinn, whose amendment No. 4 is being discussed with it.

In respect of amendment No. 4, this is an important Committee Stage debate because ours is the only House which can revise the Bill at this stage and I hope all sides will face up to that challenge. I hope Opposition contributions are constructive and that the Government will consider and accept amendments no matter where they come from.

The aim of my amendments to help achieve the best possible electronic voting system. My first amendment has two purposes, the first of which is to facilitate the operation of those parts of the Bill which need to be brought into effect immediately. The Minister stressed the urgency of these provisions and the fact that the Bill needs to be passed by the Oireachtas before Thursday of this week if it is to be in operation in time for the elections next month. As currently worded, following enactment, it will be necessary for the Minister to make an order bringing these urgent provisions into effect. It seems much more efficient to bypass the necessity of a commencement order by simply providing for those parts of the Bill to come into operation immediately on enactment. Providing for commencement orders holds up the operation of the Bill while the sponsoring Department gets its act together on the implementation process. That is not necessary in this case. By accepting this amendment we can make the commencement order redundant in so far as the urgent provisions are concerned.

That is the technical aspect of the amendment, but the substantive part of the amendment has a rather different purpose. It provides that any commencement order applying to those provisions of the Bill which apply to electronic voting shall not come into effect until after such time as the Ceann Comhairle has received from the Commission on Electronic Voting a satisfactory certification of the proposed electronic voting system under the commission's terms of reference.

The Minister of State will probably be advised to say that such a provision is not necessary but after recent events it is surely unthinkable that any Government would try to proceed with electronic voting in the absence of an all-clear from the commission. That is what the Minister of State will say, because to do so would be arrogance of the highest order, even higher than we have seen on this subject in recent months.

While I agree that in practical terms this amendment is not strictly necessary — at least I hope not — it nevertheless has an important symbolic value that leads me to commend it to the House. Acceptance of the amendment will write into the Act an acknowledgement by the Government of the technical issues involved. In other words, a technical constraint will be put on the actions of any Government, not just this Administration, by providing it can act only on foot of the satisfactory certification of the proposed system by the independent commission. That recognises that no matter how desirable electronic voting may be in principle, we should not go forward with it unless we get the technical details right. Put another way, this takes judgment of whether a proposed voting system is acceptable in law out of the hands of Government and gives it to an independent commission which has been specifically constituted for this purpose. That is how it should be. That is the method we should have as with one stroke it removes any possibility of a repeat of the unsatisfactory scenario we witnessed in the past few months. The Government insisted over and over, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that the proposed system was utterly foolproof and that we should take its word for that. The preliminary report of the commission clearly showed how unwise it would be to take the Government's assurances at face value. If we had gone ahead on the basis originally planned a cloud of uncertainty would have hung over the voting system for all time. All Members would agree that that would have been very unsuitable, given the importance of public confidence in the democratic process.

I do not argue that this amendment is strictly necessary, but that it is highly desirable. If the Government accepted it, it would be a welcome signal that it believes the best way to move forward on this issue is by agreement and consensus, rather than on the belligerent confrontation of which we have seen too much in recent months. I commend the amendment to the House. It makes sense and it should be accepted.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. He made the best case for abandoning electronic voting last February when——

Will the Senator please speak on the amendment?

This is an embarrassing day for the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, who would not listen to Opposition parties.

I asked the Senator to speak to the amendment.

I support the amendment. Due to the need for accountability, safeguards have to be built in because of the arrogant Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is probable that he is the most arrogant Minister to ever set foot in this House.

We are not discussing the Minister.

He has cost taxpayers €60 million. That has to be highlighted because there is great anger among the public about the squandering of this money. That €60 million could have been spent on improving the health service, the home help service, the carer's allowance and so on. It is a scandal that the Minister is being let off the hook. The Taoiseach's ability to lead the Government should be called into question forthwith because he——

Senator Bannon, we are not discussing the Minister or the Taoiseach but amendments Nos. 1 and 4. I ask the Senator to debate the amendments.

I support the amendments because of the need for transparency and accountability. I am entitled to speak on transparency and accountability because the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, said in the House in February that he feared an accompanying paper trail could give a different result from that of electronic voting.

The Senator should ask Senator Finucane.

That is what the Minister of State told the House. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government still did not abandon the system even though we had evidence that it was flawed. It is shameful that the Government continued to push a system that cost the country an arm and a leg — over €60 million — and went ahead with its publicity campaign when it was told to call off electronic voting. We cannot stand idly by and let the Government away with this because the public is fed up with its lies and deceit. It is happening in every area. During the past fortnight we have had the Fahey and Dempsey scandals in regard to squandering and the Deputy Cooper-Flynn scandal.

Will Senator Bannon please resume his seat? We are not discussing Government policy but amendments Nos. 1 and 4.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are an attempt by the Labour Party and Senator Quinn to introduce a commencement order after the independent commission has reported. This is a good idea. When I heard the Bill was being taken in the House, after the commission had given the thumbs down to the electronic voting proposals as currently constituted, I was in a state of disbelief as to why the Government was proceeding with the legislation. I now understand that for the commission to produce its full report and to be put on a statutory footing, legislation is required. It does not require any of the sections relating to the procedures involving electronic voting. The Government would have been well advised to amend the Bill by scrapping all the sections dealing with electronic voting until such time as the independent commission had given its approval to the procedure as outlined.

I commend amendments Nos. 1 and 4 to the House. In opposing these amendments the Government is asking the House to give it acarte blanche and the right to introduce these sections at any time in the future, independent of the advice from the commission. That is bad politics.

While I accept the need for the statutory commission, I do not accept the need for any other sections in the Bill dealing with the introduction of e-voting where there is currently no mandate for it. Other amendments deal with the cross-party support and the need for consultation. Amendments Nos. 1 and 4 deal with the commencement order. It is very bad legislative practice for the House to hand over to the Government a completecarte blanche in this area where the independent commission has failed to give its approval to the system.

Amendment No. 1 proposes to insert a new section into the Bill. The Government regards this as unnecessary. The commission's terms of reference in Schedule 5, together with sections 21 and 22, clearly state that the commission's reports will comprise recommendations on the secrecy and accuracy of the system including its application or non-application at the European and local elections on 11 June. In line with its commitment to accept the commission's recommendations, the Government decided not to use the system at the polls next month. We must now await the publication of the commission's next report on which the commission based its conclusion that it was unable to make a positive decision.

The commission stated that its experts reported that the system accurately records and counts the votes. It stated that when used at the 2002 general election the system accurately counted the votes. It is understandable that once the commission decided on its own testing regime it would find it difficult and impossible to complete the testing as the experts engaged by the Department took months to complete their work. The commission would require a further period of time.

The provisions in the Bill adequately provide for the intent of the amendment and therefore I cannot accept amendment No. 1. The first part of amendment No. 4 reflects what will happen when the Bill is enacted. Consequently, I ask Senator Quinn to accept my undertaking in this regard. The commencement order is in line with the first part of his amendment. The second part of amendment No. 4 is akin to amendment No. 1.

In view of the Government's commitment, which is being honoured as regards the elections in June, I do not believe any Government would insist on using any system if the commission expressed dissatisfaction with it. I do not consider it necessary to have the second part of the amendment included in the Bill. The intent of this part of the amendment is already implicit in the first part of the commission's terms of reference and was drawn up in agreement with the commission.

The commission makes its report not to the Minister but to the Ceann Comhairle and then to both Houses of the Oireachtas. In the circumstances I ask the Senators not to proceed with these amendments. There is a commencement order to the Bill which has no major legislative or technical problems associated with it and which will be duly signed by the Minister.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.