I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the House.
Electoral Commission: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann supports the commitment in the Programme for Government to work to bring into being an Electoral Commission.
It is a pleasure to move this motion this evening in Green Party Private Members' time. I welcome the fact that an amendment to the motion has not been tabled and take it as a general degree of interest among all the parties in this Chamber in working towards a necessary reform of our political system.
The programme for Government contains a number of measures designed to reform the political system. In a previous session in this Chamber we discussed the possibilities of Seanad reform and some weeks from now we will see the first phase of a process of local government reform with the publication of the Green Paper. The issue of an electoral commission is a third part of that package of reform measures and it is one that is treated emphatically in the programme for Government. Under the heading of "Electoral Reform", the programme for Government states:
We will establish an independent Electoral Commission to take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight. This Commission will:
Implement modern efficient practices for the conduct of elections, becoming a standing Constituency Commission for the revision of constituency boundaries. We will, in its terms of reference, stress the importance of avoiding, where at all possible, the division of small counties or small parts of counties into separate constituencies.
Take charge of the compilation of a new national rolling electoral register.
Assume the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to electoral expenditure and examine the issue of financing of the political system.
The broad range of support for the idea of an electoral commission is based on the fact that it will not only help improve the business of politics in this country but make the nature of elections more efficient. What we are talking about in a stand alone, independent body is incorporating many of the functions that are dispersed through our current system. The Minister is here this evening representing the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, having specific responsibility for local government but also for the electoral process itself. Many of those functions are devolved to local authorities, not only in terms of the electoral register but also in providing the personnel needed to run an election, especially an election count. The time has come to bring all those functions into one body that will provide a consistency and a cohesiveness that has been lacking to date.
Electoral commissions operate effectively in other jurisdictions and I hope the Minister, in initiating the process of bringing about this reform and achieving levels of support from other parties in that process, will instigate an all-party process of consultation to ensure that the electoral commission promised in the programme for Government will come into being with the greatest possible levels of support. I emphasise that because the programme for Government has been often criticised in that events overtake matters and what comes out as a good intention turns into an aspiration and an unachievable goal. The programme for Government is emphatic in regard to an electoral commission. It does not state that we will investigate or consider an electoral commission. It states, "We will establish an independent Electoral Commission ....." and that must be on the basis of all-party consultation and support.
There have been difficulties in the past regarding the compilation of the electoral register. Questions arise about the degree of national co-ordination that exists in compiling that register, the level of effort and willingness each local authority can put into the compilation of its own local register and the consistency that applies throughout the country. A national body would address many of those concerns.
A constant situation arises in terms of electoral boundary commissions which are established as and when censuses are completed. They have been independent for the past number of decades but they are a separate organisation. In the remit of an electoral commission we may avoid some of the controversies that occur from time to time. It has been the practice in the previous electoral boundary commission reports that Ministers for the Environment do not interfere with its recommendations. They have been instituted, as suggested, and I believe that will be the case again but to put a Minister for the Environment into a situation where he or she has the ability to decide whether the recommendations are right or not is a political pressure that should not exist in the system and one that would be alleviated by the existence of an independent electoral commission.
We are all familiar with the Standards in Public Office Commission. It is a body that has improved the public perception of politics and helped those of us involved in political life to better account for ourselves. It is not dealing with all the areas with which it could deal and is probably not operating to the level of support, in terms of resources, that it needs. A stand alone electoral commission that would not only absorb the current functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission but enhance those functions would improve the quality of democracy in politics.
The running of an election in terms of its personnel, the location of the polling stations, the appointment of polling clerks and election count supervisors and deciding who participates in counts are functions that are partly national and partly devolved at a local level. We must have more consistency in that regard to ensure those areas are properly tackled.
It is in the last line of the section in the programme for Government on electoral reform on which most public and political debate will be needed. The programme for Government refers to not only assuming the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission but also examining the financing of the political system, and different political parties have different approaches to that. The purpose of the motion is not to go solely into that area but I would argue that an independent, stand alone electoral commission will take much of the unnecessary political debate out of that and make it a topic of public interest if it is done by an independent body. I refer not only to the way money is collected in elections but the way it is spent.
Many of us believe the current regulations, while they have introduced some measure of fairness into a system that was not always fair, still do not properly account for the nature of expenditure in elections. After the release of statistics following the 2007 general election, I was portrayed as the third highest spender in my constituency which I know not to be a fact because the regulations account for the three weeks of the election campaign and not the many months of political activities that take place before that.
Another aspect which is not taken into account is that, while political benefits for those in public office, in terms of paid political staff, access to Oireachtas facilities and the like, are measured, the money that goes into individual campaigns from people who do not hold public office is not. Our systems of measurement are unbalanced. The mechanisms we use are not only unfair to those who take part in the election process but also to those expected to police these systems. If one speaks informally to those who work with the Standards in Public Office Commission one begins to understand they implement existing legislation to the best of their ability but they are increasingly frustrated that this legislation does not allow them to do the job they could be doing rather than the job they are doing.
I would like this debate to address how to make the existing system work better. The programme for Government is clear that the way to do it is through a stand-alone independent electoral commission. As this will necessitate a consultation process prior to new legislation and the formation of a body, all of us involved in public life have a responsibility to put interim steps in place. If we have a piecemeal system between national and local government how can we make it work more effectively until we have in place an independent electoral commission?
I am interested to hear how those in the Opposition benches, who I take it from their failure to table an amendment are largely supportive of what we suggest, make particular——
The opposition could be behind Senator Boyle's back.
We will address this in the debate also.
Senator Boyle is reading it properly. We did not put down an amendment.
Senator Boyle without interruption.
I am interested to hear from all sections of the House what proposals they might make in this regard. It is important to recognise that the need for this exists not only in terms of efficiency. We need a body such as an independent stand-alone electoral commission to have and restore public confidence in politics.
I would like to think the Minister is open to suggestions. The Green Party is open to such suggestions and the programme for Government makes a firm commitment that this will come into being during the life of the Government. On these grounds, I am happy to move this motion. I look forward to the ongoing debate and the co-operation needed to bring into being something which I, my party and the Government believe is a necessary reform of our political system.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to the House. I also welcome this opportunity to discuss the establishment of an independent electoral commission which, as Senator Boyle stated, forms part of the programme for Government. The Green Party was active in negotiating its place in the programme for Government. It is important to improve the electoral system because the effect of this would be to increase public support and confidence in the system. I am happy to second the motion proposed by Senator Boyle.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister has taken action on this commitment so quickly. The Minister is developing the reputation of being a reforming Minister. Given his wide brief, he has taken action on a number of key areas contained in the programme for Government although he has only been in office for several months.
The establishment of a full-time and independent electoral commission is a priority. It is a challenging and ambitious endeavour because it will involve consolidating much of the existing electoral legislation. Over the years, many changes have been made to our electoral system in an incremental way. The aim of establishing an electoral commission will be to consolidate the legislation, make it far more coherent and modernise the system.
An issue which I hope the electoral commission will address is one which was live before the general election last year, namely, the voter registration system. This needs to be radically overhauled and for a long time, the Green Party has called for it to be changed. We believe the way voters are registered should be linked to the PPS system and that people should automatically be registered on the basis of their national insurance numbers.
Unfortunately, the debacle which happened several months prior to the general election, when it became obvious that serious inaccuracies in the electoral register had developed over years, bred a certain lack of confidence in the election process itself on the part of the public. Many people in my constituency of Wicklow contacted me because they were unsure as to whether they were registered to vote. Some were alarmed because they had been left out of the loop and were not included in the electoral register. They were concerned they would be deprived of the important opportunity to vote.
A priority for the electoral commission should be to take responsibility for the voter registration system, overhaul it and establish a rolling electoral register. For a long time, the Green Party has advocated extending the option of postal voting to all registered voters and to explore the options presented by e-voting. Increasingly, we find young people in particular find it difficult to be in a certain place on voting day to cast their votes. Often, people are disenfranchised because of problems with geographical location. For this reason, the opportunities presented by e-voting mean we can be more flexible in our approach to allowing people opportunities to participate on election day.
The electoral commission should also address the decline in voter turnout. This should be of concern to all political parties because over the past decade or two a trend has appeared whereby fewer voters turn out, not only in general elections but also in local and European elections. It is in all our interests that we have a thriving democracy and that people participate and feel a sense of ownership over the electoral decisions made. This can only be done by participating in electing politicians to office.
Unfortunately, the trend showing a decline in voter turnout suggests a voter education role for the electoral commission, with a far more vigorous programme particularly targeted at disadvantaged areas to encourage people to vote and see the importance of voting and to teach them what the political system can achieve. This requires the support of the electorate and voter education should be an important part of the commission's function.
Election spending is another issue touched on by Senator Boyle. This is an important issue when we consider some of the major elections in the United States where it appears the availability of large sums of money allows certain candidates to outspend and therefore outdo their rivals. We would not want to see such a situation arising here where only those political parties which are well bank-rolled could afford to campaign effectively and therefore be in a much better position to achieve good election results.
It is in everybody's interest that we have a fair and level playing field and that election spending is controlled to a certain extent so that we avoid a situation written about by Greg Palast in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. I hope we will always have a situation whereby our democracy is not linked to the amount of money a candidate can afford to spend. Reasonable limits on election spending should be set on all parties and the Green Party has always supported this.
The electoral commission will take on some of the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission. I understand these will include not only election spending but also the standards in public office function of the existing commission. There has been a good deal of concern in recent years about the issue of standards in public office. Some incidents in the local government decision-making process have caused people to look for tighter scrutiny and accountability, especially in planning decisions which can be, by their very nature, controversial. It is important there is always a sense that local authority decisions are made for the right reasons and in the public interest.
The Standards in Public Office Commission has always had an important independent function in investigating standards with Oireachtas Members. I suggest to the Minister that the proposed electoral commission should have responsibility for ethics standards in local government. The Planning and Development Act 2000, which deals with ethics in local government, allows local authorities to investigate themselves when complaints are made against them about unethical practices. This does not conform to any national or international best practice which would not expect a body to investigate complaints made against it.
Establishing an investigative function such as this in the proposed independent electoral commission would be very much in the public interest. If a complaint were made about a local authority, the independent and impartial body could investigate it to decide whether it deserved further investigation or was vexatious without any basis.
Giving this function to the proposed independent electoral commission will instil greater public confidence in local government. I hope the Minister will ensure the commission has all the powers it needs to ensure the electoral system is improved, modernised and serves the public interest as well as possible.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the House for the debate on this motion on the establishment of an electoral commission. He is one of the few senior Ministers who regularly attends the Seanad. As an Opposition Member, and like many of my colleagues, I appreciate this. I hope he takes the Opposition's views on the motion on board as it will be of great benefit for democracy.
Senator Boyle was surprised that no amendment to the motion had been tabled. The proposal for an independent electoral commission was part of Fine Gael's election manifesto and I was pleased the proposal was included in the programme for Government. Like many other proposals in the programme, the devil is in the detail. By what criteria will the electoral commission be established? What resources will be allocated to support it? A realistic timeframe for the delivery of the commission needs to be put in place. Its establishment would be welcome to oversee an independent and credible democratic system.
Electronic voting, to which Senator de Búrca referred, has garnered much criticism and negative publicity over the past five years. Perhaps an electoral commission might take the hard decision to abandon the electronic voting machines lying in storage and costing the State much money. If the Minister made that decision sooner rather than later, he would get much credit.
I assume the commission would oversee the drawing up of constituency boundaries and local electoral areas. The demographics of the east coast and regional towns have changed dramatically in the past ten years. While submissions have been invited for the current review of local authority areas, the review needs to be done quickly.
Cities, counties and towns should not be divided by obvious geographical boundaries such as mountain ranges because it is not feasible. Dáil constituency boundaries often overlap with local authority electoral areas which causes much confusion with many constituents, not to mind public representatives. For example, the Suir electoral area is for Waterford County Council but a quarter of the area falls to the Dáil Tipperary South constituency, creating much confusion on representation.
The Minister seems in favour of larger local electoral areas. I am concerned such areas may tip the balance in favour of representatives from large urban areas while representation for outlying rural areas will suffer. For example, the population of Tramore, County Waterford, has increased dramatically in recent years. In next year's local election, the town's large population could elect the majority of councillors while the outlying rural areas could be under-represented. Representation of our large rural population must be taken into account.
The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government recently visited the independent Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, headed by Douglas Bain, from which there are many lessons to be learned. It carries out much of the work proposed for our electoral commission. Northern Ireland also has an independent Electoral Commission. Not to confuse the two, the Electoral Commission deals with the same matters as our Standards in Public Office Commission. I assume the Minister is proposing an amalgamation of the two functions when establishing the proposed electoral commission.
The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland administers elections and compiles the electoral register. It has achieved high levels of efficiency in compiling an accurate electoral register. It also has responsibility for polling stations and the running of elections. The key to its success is its independence and its permanent and dedicated staff. It staff's day-to-day function is to ensure the electoral register is kept updated and to promote the registration of new voters. A permanent staff can dedicate resources to it, not like the present system in the Republic where local authorities, already stretched for resources, allocate staff in a piecemeal fashion to electoral registration. That is why we have a disaster of an electoral register.
It is a disgrace that one year after the 2006 census, many people were disenfranchised for the general election. This year's annual budget for the electoral office in Northern Ireland is £2.8 million, approximately €3.5 million. We spent €5 million before the previous general election trying to update the electoral register and it was still a disgrace.
Lessons can be learned and the tabling of this motion shows the Green Party is genuine in its attempt to address this matter. Fine Gael will support the Minister as best we can but only when we see the detail.
Senator de Búrca referred to the use of personal public service numbers for electoral identification purposes. Northern Ireland has a system of electoral identity cards which is why there is much accuracy and efficiency with its register. As these are verified ID cards, they can be used by youths to gain access to pubs and clubs or to buy alcohol, and airline security will accept them. It is a multi-use card and we should consider its introduction. The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is considering this. With regard to the national insurance number, the health service in the North has a reciprocal arrangement with the electoral office whereby it notifies the office if a person moves from one location to another so that the electoral register is updated. Much good work is being done in this area.
I welcome this debate. We have much ground to make up in terms of promoting democracy in Ireland and the electoral commission can play an important independent role in this. All political parties play their part in promoting democracy, but the electoral commission can play a special role by promoting the independent view and developing ways to generate interest among our youth. It should work with youth organisations and in conjunction with school civics programmes to encourage a realistic view of engagement with the democratic process. It is essential for the future of this country that young people take an interest.
There are some stark statistics in this regard. In one survey, just over 40% of young adults aged 18 to 19 and only 53% of those aged 20 to 24 indicated they had voted in an election. Voter participation increases rapidly with age thereafter, reaching a high of almost 90% for those aged 65 to 74. That tells me that although people take a deeper interest in the democratic process as they get older, we have a major job to convince our young people to engage in this process.
I welcome the possibility of an electoral commission. It will have a significant role to play. Does the Minister have a timeframe for its delivery? Will it be resourced properly, as is the one in Northern Ireland? If the Minister ensures it is, there will be considerable benefits for the democratic process.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue and I thank my Green Party colleagues for tabling the motion. There is a fair degree of consensus in the House on this issue, which is welcome. I have listened with interest to the contributions of Senators. It is especially timely that the Seanad should consider this matter now and provide its input as we embark on a programme of significant change in an area of public policy which is key to the well-being of our democratic system.
The system of electoral administration in Ireland has been built up incrementally over the years in response to particular circumstances. Some elements of the system, such as the role of the county registrars and sheriffs, have their foundations in traditions going back well into the 19th century and beyond. Conversely, we also have experience of more modern reforms such as setting up and later legislating for independent commissions charged with drawing up boundaries for Dáil and European constituencies and the oversight of electoral spending and donations by the Standards in Public Office Commission. Other bodies involved in electoral administration include the Referendum Commission, local electoral area boundary committees and local authorities. We can pride ourselves on an electoral system that enjoys widespread public support and confidence. However, there is no electoral system or administration of such that cannot be improved. We are at a stage at which we must reform the system of electoral administration by establishing a full-time and independent electoral commission to take charge of all relevant electoral functions.
The programme for Government agreed between the Government parties contains a commitment, referred to in the motion before the House, to an electoral commission along these lines which will take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight, implement modern and efficient electoral practices, draw up revised constituency boundaries, take charge of compiling a new rolling national electoral register, take over the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission with regard to election spending, and examine the issue of financing the political system. A single impartial body with this mandate will achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness in electoral management. It will modernise our electoral system and bring greater professionalism and expertise to its role. Beyond that, it will enhance transparency and, ultimately, generate greater confidence in public life.
The advantages to be gained from an electoral commission are plain to see. Indeed, the idea is not a new one. The establishment of such a body was, for example, a key recommendation in the First Progress Report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, published in 1997. In 2006, the Commission on Electronic Voting recommended an independent commission on electronic voting, in keeping with best international practice, which would have responsibility for relevant aspects of electoral administration and oversight. In 2007, the Taskforce on Active Citizenship recommended the creation of an independent electoral commission to encourage everyone who is eligible to register and vote in elections, to support voter education programmes and to provide data, research and analysis on political engagement and awareness. Senator Coffey referred to this in his contribution, and I will return to the questions he addressed to me.
If the "why" of establishing an electoral commission is well founded, and I have no doubt it is, the "how" is perhaps more challenging. This reform project spans the entire electoral agenda and is clearly the most far-reaching and ambitious reform measure affecting electoral administration in Ireland since the foundation of the State. The establishment of an electoral commission will be a major body of work. Issues arising for consideration will include international best practice, the commission's structure and functions, to whom it reports, its relationship with other bodies in this area, and the approach to be followed with regard to the extensive legislation that will be required. Internationally, there are different models of electoral commissions, ranging from a single commissioner with a number of deputies to a board of commissioners. These will need to be examined in detail.
The scope of the planned commission relates to the duties and responsibilities of the constituency and local boundary commissions, the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Referendum Commission. It also will have responsibilities with regard to returning officers, local authorities and the Registrar of Political Parties, as well as my Department and the Department of Finance. The wider issue of voter education and awareness also will need to be considered.
In taking forward the work, consideration will need to be given to consolidating the existing electoral legislation. There are 25 separate Acts in seven codes dealing directly and solely with electoral matters. These electoral Acts are a very complex set of interrelated statutes and the functions of a new commission would probably affect all of them. There is also extensive secondary legislation as well as EU directives required to be given effect in Irish electoral law and Údarás na Gaeltachta elections, for which the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is responsible. In considering the right approach to the extensive primary legislation required, it may be appropriate to consolidate the electoral legislation into a single body and within that, where necessary, to reassign electoral responsibilities from existing bodies to the commission.
As a first input to this work, a procurement process is under way in my Department to commission a preliminary scoping study on the issues involved in an electoral commission project. I expect to be in a position to appoint a person to undertake the study shortly. Those invited to tender have been advised that the key elements to be included are as follows: an overview of the present arrangements for electoral administration in Ireland; an examination of relevant models of electoral commissions in other countries, taking account of relevant international research; identification, assessment and ranking of options for an electoral commission, including possible structure, functions and relationships with other bodies involved in electoral policy and administration; and recommendations for approaching the modernisation and consolidation of legislation in the context of the establishment of an electoral commission and the phasing of its introduction. As I stated in the reply to a recent parliamentary question, we also need to address the matter of political funding, which was raised in the Seanad by my colleague Senator Déirdre de Búrca. I expect this work to be under way by the end of March and to be completed within an eight-week period. I refer here to the scoping document and not to the legislation required because, as Senators will appreciate, there is considerable work involved.
The establishment of an electoral commission is not a quick-fix solution. It is, however, the right one. It will require significant commitment and political co-operation to bring it to fruition. Despite the challenges, I believe there is a real need for an ambitious programme of electoral modernisation and reform centred on an independent electoral commission. I assure the House that I accept fully the need to build maximum political consensus in this area if real progress is to be achieved and I welcome the input of Senators today in this regard. I look forward to engaging with all parties and interests as we further this vital work and I am pleased we have consensus on this. I would like to address some of the issues raised. The suggestions and proposals put forward are positive and constructive, and I am open to them as we progress the work. There is a possibility for widespread consultation given the initial scoping document.
Senator Coffey raised a number of issues and if I omit any of them I hope he will come back to me. On the question of the size of constituencies, I favour larger ones. There is a good reason for this. Under the Constitution, constituencies are allowed contain up to seven seats for general elections. We have not had many seven seat constituencies because the terms of reference given to previous boundary commissions excluded the possibility. This constrained their work to a significant degree. It meant we received reports from those bodies that many deputies find unpalatable. I have received such complaints. It would be far better to have a broad range of larger constituencies because that is more in the spirit of proportional representation. Also, if we examine the size of constituencies in other countries where proportional representation operates, we see there are no three seat constituencies. We now have a preponderance of such constituencies in this country for general elections.
On the terms of reference for the local elections it is suggested that, in exceptional circumstances, three seat constituencies can be created. Otherwise, constituencies should have between four and seven seats. That is the best way forward for both local and general elections.
Senators know how this operates too, and that we now have a committee dealing with urban and rural areas. The terms of reference are basically the same. I do not see a pattern of under-representation for rural areas emerging from that process.
May I clarify that, with permission? The urban areas or large towns in a local electoral area with huge rural hinterlands——
There are no Standing Orders allowing the Senator to interrupt and there are other Senators that have not yet spoken.
I will address some of the other issues raised by the Senator. Part of the idea is that the commission would deal with all matters relating to elections. I hope we can learn lessons from Northern Ireland and other countries. It should be possible to get an accurate electoral register. The commission can do this job.
As a serving Deputy I am aware there is an inconsistency now between the various local authorities and how they collect and present the data. Some of them do not properly record data on computer. Most deputies would like to get the information in a consolidated form to use it for their own records. An electoral commission would be of invaluable benefit to deputies and to the wider public. As other Senators wish to contribute I will take further questions at the end of the debate.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He is one of the few senior Ministers who comes to the House and appears to listen, which is novel and nice to see.
Most political parties should not have a major issue with this. It is something for which my party has a track record in terms of the legislation introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin. Much of it still stands and provides the basis for election spending rules and the way in which elections are conducted. I wish the Minister well in this. I hope it will bring some form of consolidation of legislation and also modernise it.
Voter participation is an area that must be dealt with by whatever commission is set up. I will not go into detail but the Senators will know what is meant. The programme of reform intended to address this has diminished over the past years. It needs to be accelerated.
I have looked at the commitment regarding an electoral commission in the programme for Government. The Minister mentioned a standing commission to deal with elections, electoral reform and constituency boundaries, etc. More detail is needed. Senator Boyle provided some clarification but more is needed, including clarification on what is meant by a standing commission, how it would operate, etc. There will be concern if that much is not known in advance. We have an independent constituency commission so I would like to know more about the proposed role of a standing commission.
I accept that it would be preferable if counties, particularly smaller ones, were not divided. It is ridiculous that small areas are taken from some counties that then have no necessary correlation with the parent constituency. In many areas across the country there are constituencies which are trans-county and trans-local authority. Following the implementation of the recommendations of the most recent boundary commission report in my own area, I will be dealing with three different local authorities, North Tipperary, South Tipperary and Offaly. In addition, I will possibly be dealing with four urban areas, Templemore, Thurles, Nenagh — with which I already have dealings — and, eventually, a small part of Birr because of its connection with south Offaly. Senators can imagine my concern. Such situations should be avoided, although that may not be possible in all instances. I have spoken to the county managers who also have similar concerns. Administrators and members of the public will be affected.
I would encourage the commission or any such body to take into consideration the pronouncements by the High Court judge, Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, who made recommendations regarding the use of preliminary census figures. In such cases there would not then be a scenario such as there is in Dublin West. Mr. Justice Clarke's strong recommendation should be taken on board.
Unlike Senator Coffey, I welcome the proposal regarding local elections and the three seat constituencies. I agree with the Minister on this point. From a PR point of view, the more we can press for what the Minister has proposed — a mix of four and five seat constituencies with the optimum constituency size in most cases being five seats — the better. Six seat constituencies could be looked at from a national point of view. There is merit in that proposal. It does not have to apply to rural areas but could be used in certain circumstances where other criteria do not allow common geographic layers to bind. For example, in Limerick East, 14,000 voters were transferred to Kerry North, an anomaly that one hopes the proposed commission could help avoid.
The Labour Party made a submission last year stating that a fundamental requirement for the constituency commission must be to protect the element of proportionality, to ensure the closest possible correlation between the share of the votes a party gets and the number of seats it secures. Statistics provided to the commission by my party clearly show that larger constituencies provide a greater degree of proportionality. In that case, six seat constituencies would be welcome. Unfortunately this was not taken into account. In Kerry South, for which I have a deep love, the franchise and proportional representation will now be called into question because it will only have two seats in the next election. That is a genuine concern.
The Labour Party believes the law should be changed to allow for a two stage process to the finalisation of future reports. If the commission is not in place, we believe that initial submissions should be made and a preliminary report produced. Any commission in place should not have to automatically act on further submissions but it should take them on board. It would be a two step process, and any major concerns which build up a head of steam could be aired. People would be happy that they were aired, even if they were not taken on board. A number of Members of this House have expressed concerns about Limerick, Kerry, Leitrim and so forth and that would be a way of airing those concerns.
I will not delve into the ridiculous nature of the electronic voting issue other than agree with Senator Coffey that the Minister would get credit for acknowledging that it has not worked and getting rid of the machines. I laughed when somebody appearing before one of the Oireachtas committees congratulated the Department on the machines only costing €500,000 per year. It was down from €750,000. We need an electronic voting mechanism but we do not need an electronic counting mechanism. We could have one but we must also have a verifiable way of doing it. I am not convinced that anything else is required. I do not believe in IT gimmicks. There must be a consistent approach to how elections are managed across the country. There are issues with how some local authorities do things and with the people who work for local authorities working at election counts and so forth. There is inconsistency in how matters are dealt with and that is not proper. I do not wish to take the route taken in the US, which is worrying to say the least.
We must ensure the electoral register is accurate, can prevent fraud and is simple to use when people are trying to register. I agree with the Green Party that PPS numbers should be used. It has been successful in Northern Ireland. It is accurate. The PPS number is what a database analyst would call a unique key identifier. It travels with the person wherever they go. Use of the PPS number would limit concerns about fraud, nature of use and so forth. As the winner of the national e-Government award two years ago, I am still not convinced about e-voting and voting on-line. My knowledge of the subject leads me to believe it is open to fraud. Postal voting should and could be used more extensively.
I hope the Minister will support the Bill on local election spending, sponsored by my colleague, Deputy Ciarán Lynch. Everybody has concerns about this subject. Although provision was made in the 1997 Act introduced by the then Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, relating to local authority electoral spending, it was never implemented and in 1999, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government got rid of it. I hope the Minister will change this and accept Deputy Lynch's legislation or implement such a measure as soon as possible. If one can spend as much as one wishes in a local election, one does not know where it could lead. It could bring one into the Seanad. It is amazing what can happen if one can get onto a local authority in the first place. The amount of money that is spent sometimes is worrying. A number of Members have expressed their concerns about this in the past. I believe local authorities and local representatives should be brought under the remit of the Standards in Public Office Commission.
Specific concern has been expressed by the Standards in Public Office Commission — this should be brought to the attention of the electoral commission — that if it or people working for a future commission repeatedly make strong recommendations, they should be taken on board and implemented. The Standards in Public Office Commission has made certain recommendations regarding the provision of inquiry officers, where a complaint has not been made about a public representative. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Finance should take this recommendation on board and implement it. If there were an independent commission in place, it could take care of it. It is a concern, however, that this has not happened to date.
I welcome this proposal although we must wait for the legislation. The timeframe of eight weeks is good, if ambitious. I wish the Minister well with it.
"Tús maith, leath na hoibre" is an old adage in the Irish language and we have made a good start here today by accepting this motion without amendment. It is a victory for common sense and a recognition by all sides of the House that something must be done in this area. I compliment my colleagues, Senator Boyle and Senator de Búrca, for putting down the motion.
Unquestionably, something must be done with the electoral system. To a certain extent successive Governments have indulged in self delusion over the years with regard to the electoral register. The register has not worked, is not working and, if the current process continues unchanged, it will continue not to work. There is recognition by all sides of the House that proactive measures must be taken by the Minister, as outlined in the programme for Government, and that there must be a common approach to resolving the difficulties. The fact that there are 25 Acts in seven codes dealing directly or solely with electoral matters is evidence that we must consolidate our approach to this problem.
I strongly support the use of PPS numbers. That proposal was made in Northern Ireland, as Senator Coffey mentioned, and it appears to be working there. In a few months I will be 29 years in public life as an elected representative in local authorities and the Seanad. After every election there is controversy on all sides of the political spectrum about the register of electors. Nothing seems to work. Throwing money at the current system is like throwing water into the sea. It is not working so we must go back to the drawing board.
I urge the Minister to consider making electoral registration compulsory. In my experience, people deliberately opted not to be included in the register. Generally it was for spurious reasons that would not stand up to scrutiny. Members of the House will be able to conjure reasons for people not wishing to go on the electoral register. I am not sure the tax man would be in any doubt about them. We must also examine the role of local elected representatives. Members have made points about local and national constituencies and my colleague, Senator Ellis, will wish to comment on the breaching of county boundaries and the division of counties. I agree with the opposition to such divisions. We are a Celtic race and, as such, we are resistant to change. If we put in a system today and left it in place for 30 years, it would be resisted all the way to hell and back on its inception but after 30 years we could not try to change it, because that would be resisted to hell and back too. We are a funny race in that regard.
Voter apathy was raised by Senator Coffey and he is absolutely right. There are large urban electoral areas with very low turnouts. I know of one county borough where the turnout, if my memory serves me correctly, was in the late 20s. That is an outrageous scandal. Good men and women fought hard and gave up their lives for democracy in this country. To see that thrown away in the manner in which it is by people not bothering their heads to turn out — with only 28%, or 30% or even 40% voting in some areas — is an insult to the whole concept of the electoral system.
I do not know if the Minister is aware that we have a junior county council in Westmeath. It is a marvellous idea and compliments the teaching of civics in our schools. We should put a spotlight on the teaching of civics because it is very important. If the installation of a junior county council is not practised in other local authorities, I ask the Minister to ensure it is done so in the future. It is very important and is working very well in County Westmeath. I do not see why it could not work elsewhere.
If we are to improve our electoral system it can be done only by mature, measured and meaningful proposals. In that context, I compliment the Members on the other side of the House, who did not table an amendment to this motion. There is a clear recognition by all sides of this House that in terms of electoral reform, the register of electors and other areas, we have a problem. The only way we will solve that problem is to work together, with a meeting of minds and a mature approach to the issue. This debate is a victory for common sense.
I wish to refer briefly to the issue of boundary extensions. As a former long-standing local authority representative, until the abolition of the dual mandate, which I supported fully, I believe we must have a more sensible approach to the issue of boundary extensions. During my first term as chairman of Westmeath County Council in 1988-89 Athlone Urban District Council, as it was known then, made an application for a boundary extension. The issue dragged on for donkey's years. We must get by an impasse like that. I am sure that scenario is replicated all over the country. There must be a more proactive and speedy way of dealing with such applications.
With regard to election spending, I ask the Minister to examine an issue which does not really apply to the Dáil or the Seanad, but to local authorities. We must recognise that membership of local authorities, county councils, county borough councils and large urban district councils such as Bray, Tralee, Dundalk and so on, as well as the five borough councils of Kilkenny, Sligo, Clonmel, Wexford and Drogheda is a full-time job. I am speaking here as someone who was nominated to this House and was a member of two local authorities. It is a full-time job. I ask the Minister to closely examine how people who are in employment can also serve as public representatives. At the moment, on Westmeath County Council, approximately 12 or 13 members out of 23 are devoting all of their time to their council work. This may not be pertinent to today's discussion but it is something that must be tackled. The Minister has proven in his short term in office that he is prepared to grapple with such problems, take them by the scruff of the neck and shake the dead wood off them. Something must be done in this area. I wish the Minister well. He has set himself a timescale of some eight weeks in terms of bringing forward proposals. Is that correct?
That is the hope.
I agree that such a target is ambitious but I also believe that it will bring a focus on the area with which tonight's motion deals and I welcome that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome this motion and compliment my Green Party colleagues on tabling it. I found everything the Minister said encouraging and refreshing and fully endorse it, as does my party, as Senator Coffey has already said. I agree with the views expressed by Senators Boyle, de Búrca, Coffey, Kelly and Glynn.
The establishment of an independent electoral commission with responsibility for electoral administration and oversight is a basic sine qua non in any top-flight democracy, which we proclaim ourselves to be. The commission will include a standing constituency commission for the revision of boundaries and there is obvious and eminent sense attached to that proposal. The programme for Government refers to avoiding, where at all possible, the division of small counties or small parts of counties into separate constituencies. In that context, I was going to refer to Leitrim, but my erstwhile colleague, Senator Glynn, is smiling and I have no doubt that whatever I might say on the matter, he would more than adequately cover the subject.
It is envisaged that the commission would take charge of a new, national rolling electoral register, which is also essential because quite frankly, as several speakers have already indicated, the register was, and still is, in absolute rag order in many areas. I agree with the proposal made by Senators opposite that we should use PPS numbers. Senator Glynn had some interesting comments on why people might wish not to be included on the electoral register. He is probably correct. He might know more about it than I do but I have no doubt he speaks the truth in that regard.
The programme for Government refers to an examination of the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission regarding electoral expenditure and the issue of the financing of the political system. Senator de Búrca raised the issue of responsibility. We all await, with bated breath, the judgment in the famous case, de Búrca vs. Whittle, whenever it will be reached. The Minister referred to local authorities in this regard and they should be included, for all the obvious reasons, including ethics and transparency. A person should not be allowed to have any hand, act or part in investigating himself or herself on foot of complaints. That has absolute, inherent conflict built in. I endorse what was said in that regard. It appears the Minister intends to include local authorities in the electoral commission and the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission will come into play there.
I am reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch. It is a natural trait. We all suffer the effects of original sin. People who might want to fund candidates might expect a reward. If they are handing over big bucks, they may expect a return on that investment. My experience in the business world is that this is natural. If one makes an outlay in terms of expenditure or investment, one expects a return.
Electronic voting machines should also be included in this. I agree with some of the previous speakers, it is time to sell the machines. The Commission on Electronic Voting was set up but I believe these machines are not suited to the Irish character and I do not think they will ever be acceptable without a verifiable paper trail. I do not know whether the machines are capable of being modified to allow for such a provision; perhaps somebody is still studying them but they are costing a fortune to store. Perhaps an emerging democratic African state could use the machines; there must be people somewhere in the world interested in them. I hope somebody is trying to sell them so we can cut our losses.
We mentioned local authorities and I understand the Minister said that responsibility for them will come within the ambit of this. The Minister has appointed electoral area boundary committees and I see no harm in this matter being part of the responsibility of the commission. There is nothing wrong with the committees or the eminent people he has appointed to them. I believe the committees share a common chairman in an eminent former Secretary General of the Department.
One term of reference refers to a need to respect constituency boundaries and another specifies that the number of seats in a constituency will be between four and seven. In some exceptional circumstances a three seat constituency could be allowed. Which constituency boundaries are to be respected? There is no electoral Bill to give legislative effect to the findings of the constituency commission. My colleague, Senator Ellis, is smiling behind Senator de Búrca's back and I suspect he is thinking of Leitrim in this regard. I agree with the Senator regarding Leitrim as I thought the manner in which it was divided was unfair. How was it not possible for Leitrim to either exist on its own as a constituency or to stay fully joined with Sligo? It has been split in two. I will leave this matter to Senator Ellis.
Perhaps in his response the Minister can clarify whether the intended boundaries will be respected rather than the ones in which the last general election was fought. We all tend to think of our own localities and in Kerry the large town and hinterland of Castleisland and the townland of Cordal are to join the constituency of Kerry South, which is greatly welcomed by the Members from the area. However, does this mean Castleisland and Cordal will come into the Killarney electoral area, which is currently a six seat area? It could be expanded to become a seven seat area — it would have to — but it would still be too large so some parts would have to be hived off, perhaps to the Killorglin electoral area. How would this impact on Dingle, a three seat area and, as a peninsula, a natural area? It stretches a little outside the peninsula to ensure it is big enough to warrant three seats. I would like to hear the Minister respond on the matter of three seat and seven seat constituencies.
The Minister was interesting and refreshing and he spoke of the possibility of seven seat constituencies; apparently this is provided for constitutionally but has been limited by the terms of reference in the past. I look forward to this and accept the Minister's contention that it would be more in the spirit of proportional representation. There is consensus in the House but perhaps not on this matter. That is what I meant earlier when it was pointed out that there is no amendment proposed for this motion. There is no amendment because we heartily concur with it; perhaps the opposition is behind the backs of the Green Party Members of the House.
I may welcome this motion more than any other Member of this House because I have often raised this matter on the Order of Business. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Trevor Sargent, and understand that the Minister left the House with good reason. I welcome the Minister's statement of intent regarding the electoral system.
I have a great bone of contention with the electoral boundary commission and the changes it has made. The commission sought submissions from the public and 75% of submissions sought Leitrim to be included in a constituency as an entire county. The commission seems to have been entirely opposed to the submissions it received and, to add insult to injury, it has refused a freedom of information request seeking the basis for its findings. It is wrong that a commission does not have to make available the documentation it consulted in taking a decision. The Minister is well aware that he must reply to FOI requests but, because a commission ends on the day it makes its report, I am told we will not receive an explanation for the decisions made. This is despite the fact that all of the documentation is still in the possession of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. To add insult to injury, the officer who first refused the request was part of the commission's secretariat and this is totally wrong. I have written to the Ombudsman to see if anything can be done but I doubt it can.
An electoral commission with the independence and capabilities to deal with all electoral matters, including local government, Seanad, Dáil and presidential elections and referenda, is a great idea. At present elections are the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There is a great deal of legislation deriving from various Acts that spread across many Departments and I believe it is time this became the responsibility of a single Department.
I also believe it is time to examine how constituencies are decided on. Senator Coffey said that county boundaries should be sacrosanct but it would take a constitutional amendment to achieve this. At the moment every challenge that comes before the courts relating to representation changes the field on what is tolerated as acceptable regarding constituency boundaries. This was part of the problem facing the members of the boundary commission; they claim their hands were tied and that the bind was strengthened by the judgment on the case last year involving Deputy Finian McGrath and former Deputy Catherine Murphy.
This House and the public must decide whether we want to widen the tolerance of what is acceptable. We must decide on whether we wish to increase the membership of the Dáil, because doing so is the only way this can be achieved. The alternative is to face the continual court challenges that have gone on for some years.
It is only fair that I should deal with my own county. I remember when Leitrim was divided between three constituencies: Donegal South-West, Sligo-Leitrim and Roscommon-Leitrim. It was that way for over 20 years until the 1981 election, when Leitrim was a single unit for the first time since the 1950s. This shows the type of representation the county has received, though I do not mean this as any reflection on the people who represented the county then or who represent it now. Leitrim has no Deputy in Dáil Éireann due to the gerrymandering it has experienced at the hands of the last two boundary commissions. The last one has guaranteed that nobody can be elected from the county to the Dáil.
In the Leitrim end of the old Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency, which was the one I fought on the last occasion, every vote cast was only 80% of a quota. That is an indication that people there feel they are being duped and that they can never have anybody to represent them. The new changes will mean it is nearly impossible to have anybody elected because of the division of the county into two greater parts. How do we explain to the people in Leitrim that they will never have a Deputy for the foreseeable future? Senator Coffey mentioned that parts of Waterford used to be in and out of Tipperary but I do not know what is the present position.
It is proposed that the recommendations of the new boundary commission report may be legislated for the next general election. Part of Offaly goes into Tipperary; west Limerick goes into Kerry; the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, is divided in two at Main Street in Swords. The constituency of Dublin North had been a natural accepted geographic area for many years. These are the issues that have to be discussed if anything is to be done.
An all-party committee of the House should be set up and given the same powers as any of the Oireachtas committees and asked to report within six months on the best way of ensuring people are represented. We all know about county loyalties. One has only to go to a Munster final, a Connaught final or any other GAA final to discover how strong are county boundaries. The River Shannon is a boundary for much of my county. Cortubber is just across the bridge in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Roscommon. If Roscommon is playing, the blue and saffron flags are displayed at Gings at the bridge and the green and gold flags are displayed at the other side of the bridge. County loyalties will always remain.
If something is to be done about county boundaries a root and branch approach will be required and it will need all-party consensus. Having listened to Senators Coffey and Kelly that consensus exists and having discussed the matter with people across the political spectrum, it is clear that people want county boundaries brought back and used as the marker for constituencies. There is a further reason for this in that many county operations, local authorities, health board regions, tourism boards and so on operate on a county boundary basis. It is time we decided to give it the respect it needs by ensuring that constituency boundaries are county based. It means there may have to be give and take in regard to the number of Dáil Members but I do not think anybody has a problem with that. The one thing the public want is representation and as near as possible to them.
Given the changes taking place in the population base, rural areas will be left without representation. One that is coming down the tracks is Mayo which will soon be a four seat constituency if the population of the east coast continues to grow. One can imagine what it is like trying to run a four seater constituency of the size of County Mayo.
At its last revision, if the boundary commission had not decided to protect two three seat constituencies between Kerry and Limerick, it would have meant that Leitrim would have been an entire constituency. Submissions were made to the boundary commission. It galls me that the report went against every proposal submitted by the public not only in Leitrim but throughout the country. Perhaps it is time this and the other House decided to set up an Oireachtas committee to deal with this issue and ensure legislation is introduced at the earliest possible date. It will not be ready for the Bill the Minister has proposed but it should be introduced to ensure that at the next general election, even if it means having a referendum, county boundaries become sacrosanct with regard to the electoral system.
Curim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Sargent. I compliment my Fine Gael Party colleague, Senator Coffey, on his fine speech on this motion. To enlighten Senator Boyle, the reason there is no amendment is that it is Fine Gael Party policy to support the electoral commission. If we are serious about reform of the political system let us not have a fudge, as we had from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley.
Given that the local elections take place in 2009, why wait until after 2009 to introduce reform that we all agree is necessary? At present there is no spending limit on local elections. Let us have real reform. There will be no opposition from this side of the House. I suggest the reform be introduced now and used in the local elections of 2009 as the experiment of the electoral commission to be fine-tuned and tweaked for subsequent elections.
At present we have cheque book politics in Irish society. We have tokenism in regard to spending at elections. It is a farce. Members opposite are participating in a sham. Spending limits come into force once the Taoiseach dissolves the Dáil and for the three week period of an election campaign there is accountability. Like Senator Boyle I was amused at some of the returns in our constituency.
We will all have to look at those.
I was amused to discover that I had spent more than some people and I agree with Senator Boyle on that issue. Cheque book politics is alive and well in Irish politics. Let us get rid of it. I suggest the electoral commission be brought into being now before the local elections. Let us have accountability and let us clean up politics. Some 99.9% of the people I know in local and national politics are honest individuals. I am sure the House will agree with that.
My party introduced a ban on corporate donations in 2002 and the Irish people said it did not matter. It does matter on one level. I happen to believe there should be public funding of political parties. Let us get rid of private donations. Let us have public accountability.
That is a good idea.
Let us have it and see how it works. Barak Obama today is suffering from having a cap on his spending in America. He was taking funding and he has been caught. Let us have accountability. If the Green Party wants to leave its imprint on the Government this is the one area where it can do it. Despite my rows with Senator Boyle——
That was only——
——I believe him to be a person of impeccable credentials and I know he is sincere in regard to his political work. If he wants to leave an imprint on the Government this can be his legacy and I will support him 100% in that regard. I want to see democracy funded, with people participating in it. I also want to see Irish politics clean. The way to do it is to bring the electoral commission into being and have accountability.
Senator Coffey referred to the electoral register. We should implement his suggestions although I do not necessarily agree with the concept of forcing people to register. We are a democracy but I am willing to go along with new measures. If the PPS system works or if people are forced to sign up to the register and fined for failure to do so, let it be because we need to enhance people's co-operation. One way that can be done is by not having electronic voting. There is nothing better than having a count with the peann luaidhe and the pen. Last night we watched MSNBC until 7 a.m. There was a core computer printer and a code analyst but not the cut and thrust of the count. We have all been there: one is on the verge of winning or losing, and a vote shifts here or there, but there is accountability. There is no greater buzz than that of election count day, whether one is winning or losing. We have all had the good and bad days.
I was amazed that so many Acts are involved in this process — the Minister, Deputy Gormley, stated there are perhaps 27. Let us have an electoral commission. Let us have one body that runs the whole operation. However, I do not want us to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are many local government officials who have been involved in elections and have done a great job in the counting of votes. I thought one of the best ideas was to get rid of canvassing on polling day and stop people giving out literature outside the gates of polling stations. I did this since I was a child but I thought it was the greatest waste of time.
I agree with Senator Boyle that we need consistency with regard to the running of elections. I support Senator Coghlan's remarks on boundaries, including local election boundaries. What will be the division in my city of Cork? Will it be along the river? If so, current wards will have to change and there could be an imbalance with 13 or 14 wards on the north side and 17 or 18 on the south side, which could be a recipe for chaos or misrepresentation between one area and another. We need balance.
Dan will fix it.
There are more people on the south side.
An independent electoral commission is necessary. I sometimes wonder whether the Government Members understand this. Do they really want such a commission? Is there an over-reliance on the members of the Green Party? Do some Government Members say they will pander to the Greens, put out this great concept and then forget about it? I hope we will not do that.
It makes no sense that Leitrim is divided into so many different parts. It should be part of a constituency where it has a chance of having a Dáil representative elected, such as it had with the former constituency of Sligo-Leitrim. Mr. Gerry Reynolds of Fine Gael was a great Deputy but his chance was taken away.
The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is present in the House. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Department should consider introducing spending limits for the period between elections. The situation at present is crazy, given that people can frontload spending in the months before an election and spend thousands if not hundreds of thousands of euro. It is not a level playing field. If we want to enhance democracy, let us have a level playing field where the ordinary person can participate. I would like the Minister of State to bring the following message to the Minister. Let us introduce spending limits for the period between elections as part of the work of the commission because it is badly needed. The situation at present is a joke because the system can be abused and there is no accountability. We need to have traceability for the period between elections.
I commend Senator Coffey on his fine speech. We on this side of the House are in favour of the commission. Let us introduce it sooner rather than later.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach chun na ceiste seo a phlé. Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom moladh a thabhairt dos na Seanadóirí ón Chomhaontas Glas a chur síos an rún seo inniu. Sílim go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo de dhíth orainn. Fáiltím roimh an rún agus glacaim leis. Beidh mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta dó níos déanaí tráthnóna má tá vóta againn.
There is no doubt the independent electoral commission is long overdue. The Minister, in a very frank and honest address to the House, referred to the fact it is not the first time this has been called for by different bodies. Unfortunately, as we did not have the adjustments and reforms, it was our own citizens and democracy that suffered as a result. However, I agree with the proposal that there be an independent commission to review constituency make-up and boundaries, and to deal with all of the legislative change which is needed given the ethics and standards in public office legislation.
This is especially apt in light of the shortcomings of the constituency commission report last October, which failed to seriously examine the changing demographics of this State. Given that the demographic trend is all in one direction, we need to take this on board. The commission also did not address the problems created as a result of breaking county boundaries, to which Senators referred. Its work amounted to minor cosmetic changes, some of which cut across traditional county boundaries and will require further revision and adjustment within a few years. Serious concern has been raised in County Leitrim, where an atrocious decision has left it without a Deputy. The commission appeared to ignore the much more radical approach that was required and did not admit that the earlier decision to divide Leitrim between two new constituencies was a mistake.
An independent electoral commission might look more seriously at the proposition that there are too many three and four seat constituencies, which tend to benefit the two larger parties. There is a case for such constituencies where they match county boundaries but in general my party would support the idea of larger constituencies. This would benefit parties such as my own but it would also benefit Independents and the smaller groups who want to have a voice in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Sinn Féin has proposed legislative change to allow for six seat constituencies, as was originally envisaged when the current PR voting system was introduced. Not only would this more properly equate the seat share to vote share but it would also lessen the need for regular readjustments of smaller constituencies. This is a matter I would like the electoral commission to examine seriously.
The creation of a genuine independent electoral commission to examine these matters would also avoid the insinuation that the process has been used to further the interests of the governing party or parties that establish such a body. I am not suggesting this was the case in regard to the recent commission report but there have been incidents in the past — I am glad they are consigned to the past — where it would appear that the Government of the day benefited unduly from changes that took place in the constituency make-up. The famous Tullymander case in the mid-1970s was designed to assist the then Government parties of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In order to avoid such a prospect in the future, I would support the establishment of an electoral commission as proposed here, namely, one made up of experts and completely independent.
Reference was made to the use of PPS numbers for registration and electoral purposes. This is long overdue. While the Minister said a scoping document will consider international best practice and that the process for this will begin in March and conclude within eight weeks, we need to consider the follow-up to this. When will we see real reform? When will we begin to shape up the electoral register? It was a disgrace last year that field officers were put out into the counties with only a couple of weeks to try to update the register. The results of that were a disaster, particularly in my own county and in parts of Dublin, where thousands of people were disenfranchised and taken off the electoral register because of lack of resources, time and proper planning.
The Minister is trying to look forward and to have proper electoral reform but in the meantime people are losing out. I know of one case where Donegal County Council, of which I was a member, honoured a certain family and gave them the freedom of the county. A number of weeks later, the woman of that family found she had been taken off the electoral register. There is nothing worse for somebody who has been voting all her life than to turn up to cast her vote at a polling station to be told she has been taken off the list. All the questions arise as to who took the person off the list, whether it was a political party or political interference and all the rest. There is a need to deal with this matter in a transparent way. The PPS system is the best way and I cannot understand why we are not taking it seriously, particularly as it could happen outside of the overall reform.
There needs to be an easier way for people to get onto the register. This is very difficult, particularly in rural areas where Garda stations are only open for a couple of hours on a Saturday. It is particularly difficult for young people to get on the supplementary register, for which an application must be signed by a Garda. We need to look at international best practice. Elsewhere, it is possible to register people on college campuses and on the way in to polling stations, so as to make it easy for them to participate in the democratic process.
I hope the commission will examine all aspects of voting in elections. We need Seanad reform, but that is a debate for another day. The Minister referred to international best practice. I hope he will adopt some of these progressive international practices and allow Irish citizens in the Six Counties as well as the Twenty-six Counties to elect the President and thus participate in the democratic process.
Reference has been made in recent weeks to the American elections. Americans citizens in this State have been able to cast their vote for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain. I want a person from the Falls Road, the Bogside or the Shankill Road to be in a position to be able to vote for our President in the future. I also want to be able to see an Irish person who is living in Cricklewood in London, or in Glasgow or America to be able to vote for our President. I hope the commission takes these issues on board. Go raibh maith agat. I, again, applaud the Green Party Senators.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I compliment the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, for coming to the House to take this motion. He is a great attender of this House and I applaud him for that.
I welcome the Green Party motion which has the full support of the Fine Gael Party. This is an important issue and today's debate is only the start of the wide-ranging discussion we need on the matter. It is only right that the Minister would set up a tender process to examine how the system will be structured. A great deal of work and an enormous effort is involved in the compilation of the electoral register, on polling day and in counting votes. A large cohort of people is involved in ensuring the democratic process works well.
I agree with what Senator Coffey said about voting machines. The Minister acknowledged Senator Coffey's point but he should make an immediate decision to sell the machines.
They cost us money every day. If the money was given to the St. Vincent de Paul organisation it would be of some benefit——
——but we receive no benefit from the money currently spent on the storage of e-voting machines. I hope the Minister will act promptly in this matter.
I support Senator Ellis, who is from County Leitrim, on the remarks he made about that county. The county should be re-united for electoral purposes. The boundary commission should have examined this matter in more detail. It is very poor form that County Leitrim has no representative in the Dáil. It is bad form that Leitrim was divided in the first place. I hope the Minister will examine this issue again and that in future the electoral commission will do so.
We are all aware of cases where counties have been divided. The most recent report proposed to add a slice of County Limerick to County Kerry and Senator Coffey referred to County Waterford. I recall when County Mayo had two three-seater constituencies. One part of County Galway was added to the constituency of west Mayo and another part was included in the constituency of east Mayo. Nobody knew whether they would be in for one term or two terms. Parts of counties that are added to bigger counties do not get the full representation they would have received had they been retained with the county boundaries. I support Senator Ellis's points in this regard.
Everybody should have to register to vote. Senator Glynn referred to a number of reasons why people should register. Jury service is one important reason, as those who are not on the voting register do not get called for jury service. This is a very important part of our democratic make-up. There is an obligation on us as legislators to ensure everybody is registered to vote once they reach the age of 18. It may not be mandatory for people to vote but it should be mandatory for them to register to vote.
I support what Senator Doherty said about the difficulty experienced by some people in getting on the electoral register. I deplore the amount of money wasted prior to the general election in order to get people on the electoral register. I was contacted at the time by a person from Naas who had to travel to Maynooth to get a garda to sign the necessary form. It is difficult to imagine that one would have to travel this far to get a garda but this case was replicated in every constituency. In many cases when one goes to a Garda station one only meets the "green man" on the door and it is not much good to only speak to someone if one wants a form signed.
We cannot hinder people from getting on the electoral register. We should help them. There must be a better system of registration than is the case at present. Local authority revenue collectors could play a greater role in this regard. They should be properly financially resourced in order to do this job. When the extra funding was provided by the then Minister, Deputy Roche, prior to the previous election, in some cases people went into urban and rural areas who did not know where they were going or what they were doing. A great deal of money was squandered. A better system must be put in place. More efficient use can be made of revenue collectors because they know exactly where they are going and who are their clients. They know the constituents and the housing estates. In most cases they know the rural areas also.
I welcome the debate and compliment the Green Party on bringing it forward. This is an important issue and there is a great deal of merit in what is proposed in the motion. This is Fine Gael Party policy also. I accept it will be a big task to bring all of this together. The Minister appears to be taking the correct approach. I am delighted that he said he expects to receive a report in eight weeks' time.
I thank all who contributed to the debate this evening. It has been a rare occasion of harmony descending on the Seanad Chamber in Private Members' time. I cannot remember a Private Members' motion in the lifetime of this Seanad where there was such a degree of consensus. On a personal level I am heartened by it as it will help the eventual progress of necessary legislation in this area.
The debate has been characterised by a number of useful points about what needs to be addressed. The Minister made significant commitments as to how he intends to proceed. He indicated the production of a scoping document is expected at the end of May. This will give us an indication of how an electoral commission can come into being and what kind of commission it is likely to be. When we have that type of detail we might have small ripples of political dissent because the idea of a commission depends on how wide-ranging or all-consuming it would be in its functions and how deep would be its remit. I am still hopeful that the trend of all the contributions this evening would indicate that a general support exists and will continue to exist until we have that necessary reform. All involved in the debate recognise that change is necessary.
Many of the points raised go beyond the formation of an electoral commission but they are worth commenting on because a future commission could deal with such issues, although it is probably our responsibility to deal with them before a commission comes into play. I sense a degree of consensus for spending limits in local government elections and they are easier to put in place than the convenient fiction we have for general elections of covering a three-week campaign in that the date of a local election is constitutionally known.
It is fiction.
We know that Bunreacht na hÉireann provides that there will be a local election every five years. We do not know, on the whim of a Taoiseach,——
Or the Green Party.
—— a vote of confidence in Dáil Éireann or whatever circumstances arise, when the Government may fall within the five year period. It is more difficult to set a six month or one year period before then for spending limits.
Can Deputy Boyle give us a clue?
I am in favour of extending it to general elections.
Proportionality is an important part of the remit of a future electoral commission. The Constitution says Dáil constituencies should have between three and seven seats. We have no seven seat constituencies, but have five seaters at most. Senator Doherty mentioned this in his contribution and might be interested that in the early years of the Free State a constituency in Donegal returned nine members. He would be satisfied if such a state of affairs returned. Senator Ellis mentioned the anomalous situation in County Leitrim, which does not have a large enough population to return a Dáil Deputy. Alone it would return one and a bit but that does not fall within the Constitution's requirement of having at least three Members. There is an argument for examining the Constitution in terms of country boundaries not being breached but it is a wider debate.
There is an argument in the contributions of Senators Ellis, Burke and Doherty for the need to get a proper balance between rural and urban representation. The demographics of this country are heavily weighted towards the east coast. The population in the greater Dublin area, despite its size, is out of kilter with the rest of the country. We should ask whether population ratio alone is the best determinant of parliamentary representation. It is worth debating whether geographical representation and different sectors of society should be taken into account. If today's debate has facilitated those ideas being aired, I am grateful to the Members for taking that opportunity.
The real benefit of an electoral commission is to address the issues of voter awareness and participation, however that is done. The value of tonight's debate should be to establish new structures that will help future generations of voters and citizens to have confidence in the political system and I thank the Senators for their contributions.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Amárach ar 10.30 a.m.