Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second Stage

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

The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 is a short but important Bill. The Bill contains three important electoral reforms. It amends the terms of reference of a Constituency Commission in section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 by providing that the number of Members of the Dáil, subject to the relevant provisions of the Constitution, shall be not less than 153 and not more than 160. It also amends section 39(2) of the Electoral Act 1992 to provide that steps are taken to hold a by-election to fill any vacancy if the Dáil has not so moved within six months of the vacancy occurring. It also provides for amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for a reduction in the spending limit at a presidential election from €1,300,000 to €750,000 and for a reduction in the maximum amount that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election from €260,000 to €200,000.

The three measures are separate and distinct. They are all important features of the Government's commitment to push ahead with much needed electoral reform. I will turn first to the proposal to reduce the number of Members in the Dáil. Our position is clear: we want to reduce the size and the cost of government. The programme for Government has identified a "clear need for our political system to embrace change, share the burden and lead by example". Under the heading "Political Reform/Change must start at the top", the programme for Government states, "the political system cannot ask others to change and make sacrifices if it is not prepared to do the same".

A number of commitments are made in the programme, including to significantly reduce the size of the Oireachtas and to reduce the number of Deputies following the publication of the 2011 census of population. The proposals in the Bill regarding the terms of reference of a constituency commission respond to the commitment. The preliminary census results were published by the CSO on 30 June. These results show that this country has a higher than average level of parliamentary representation. With a population of more than 4.5 million and a combined Dáil and Seanad of 226 Members our parliamentary representation level is one Member to 20,271 people. That is out of line with other similar sized countries. For example, in New Zealand the ratio is one Member to 35,000 people and in Denmark it is one Member to every 30,500 people. It is worth noting that both of these countries have unicameral parliamentary systems.

The amendment to the terms of reference of a constituency commission set out in the Bill will give a commission the option to recommend a set of Dáil constituencies based on a minimum of 153 Members and a maximum of 160 Members. While the provisions in the Bill will alter the terms of reference of a constituency commission the overriding constitutional provisions relating to the number of Members of Dáil Éireann and equality of representation will remain unchanged.

Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution provides that Dáil representation "shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population." Article 16.2.3° provides that "The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country." Applying the constitutional provisions to the new population figure the minimum number of Deputies that can be recommended by a constituency commission, subject to enactment of the Bill by the Oireachtas, will be 153. The maximum number will be 160. Therefore, depending on what the commission recommends we will have a reduction in Dáil membership of between six and 13 from the current number of 166 Members.

There are eight possibilities in the range being given to a commission. It is important to give this flexibility to a commission as it should assist it in adhering to the other terms of reference set out in the Electoral Act 1997. These include avoiding the breaching of county boundaries as far as possible, ensuring that each constituency returns three, four, or five Members and endeavouring to maintain continuity in the arrangement of constituencies.

It is important to note the savings that will be realised by reducing the number of Members. The McCarthy report on public service numbers and expenditure programmes estimated a saving of approximately €3 million with a reduction to 154 Deputies. The estimate gives a good indication of the annual costs that can be expected to be saved by amending the terms of reference of the constituency commission in the manner proposed.

The timing of the Bill is important. The CSO published preliminary results for census 2011 approximately three weeks ago. The publication of the results triggers the establishment by me, as Minister, of a constituency commission. I intend to formally establish the commission once the Bill has been enacted. This will ensure that the commission will be working on devising a set of constituencies based on the reduced number of Deputies. One of the key elements of the work of the constituency commission will be the consultation process which the commission must undertake. The provisions of the Electoral Act 1997 require a commission to allow at least three months for the making of submissions to it. With the commission commencing work on the basis of preliminary census data, greater time is now made available than in the past for consultation with interested organisations and individuals. This will ensure a fuller opportunity for political and wider public input to the revision process and I urge people to avail of the opportunity to engage with the process when the commission invites submissions.

The commission must complete its work not later than three months after the publication by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, of the final census results. When the commission has presented its report to the Ceann Comhairle, it will be a matter for me to bring forward legislation to address the recommendations of the constituency commission. This is likely to be in the autumn of 2012. Constituencies that are enacted at that point would have effect only after the dissolution of the current, 31st, Dáil.

The Bill also contains an amendment to the 1992 Electoral Act relating to the holding of Dáil by-elections. The amendment proposed ensures that steps are taken to hold a by-election to fill any vacancy if the Dáil has not so moved within six months of the vacancy occurring. The current provision relating to Dáil by-elections requires the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue a writ for the filling of the vacancy as soon as the Dáil so directs. However, there is no timeframe within which the Dáil must act on filling the vacancy. This can and has led to some extraordinarily long delays in filling Dáil vacancies, often for political expediency. Recent examples include the 538 day duration of a vacancy in the Donegal South-West constituency, with Dublin South and Waterford not far behind at well over 300 days each. Delays of this duration are simply not good enough in a parliamentary democracy.

We must ensure that people are fully represented in the Dáil even if this means taking measures to prevent Governments in power using their majority to further political objectives by blocking the filling of vacancies. The people have a right to full democratic representation in their national parliament. Preventing this, as has been done on a number of occasions over the years, only damages the reputation and integrity of Irish political institutions. I spoke on this theme in the Dáil just over 12 months ago when I introduced a Private Members' Bill to address the situation. Of course that Bill did not receive majority support so it never came before this House. We ended up with the ridiculous and costly solution of citizens taking their case to the courts. We should not have the situation again in the future where people must go to the courts to ensure that a by-election is held. I am, therefore, taking the opportunity presented by this Bill to address the by-election issue directly.

Specifically, the amendment I propose in this section is for a continuation of the existing arrangement during the six month period following the occurrence of the vacancy — namely, that the Dáil, in its discretion, can direct the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ at any time. However, if the Dáil has not availed of the opportunity during that six months, at the end of that period the Ceann Comhairle will be obliged to direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ.

This amendment will bring greater certainty to the process of filling vacancies. While it will constrain the currently unfettered discretion of the Dáil in this area, I believe a period of six months within which the Dáil will retain that discretion is more than reasonable. Providing for a shorter period within which the Dáil would be obliged to act might be considered too restrictive. On the other hand, a longer period could not be justified when consideration is given to the general points I have already made regarding the people's right to full democratic representation.

Notice taken that 12 Members were not present; House counted and 12 Members being present,

The third measure in the Bill seeks to reduce spending limits and the amount of expenses that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election. As Senators will be aware, a presidential election is due to be held in 2011. It must take place within the 60 days before the expiration of the term of office of the outgoing President — in other words, between 11 September and 10 November 2011. It is, therefore, timely that the matter of the spending limit and the level of reimbursement of election expenses to apply to candidates be considered.

The measures contained in the Bill will have the effect of reducing the maximum amount that can be reimbursed from the Exchequer to a presidential election candidate from €260,000 to €200,000. The spending limit at the 2011 presidential election and all subsequent presidential elections is also to be reduced from €1.3 million to €750,000.

The reduction in the reimbursement payments will save the Exchequer money that can be put to better use elsewhere. While we do not know at this stage how many candidates are likely to contest the 2011 presidential election, were three candidates to qualify for a reimbursement payment at the maximum rate, the total saving would be €180,000.

In regard to the reduction in the spending limit, the cost to candidates of running a presidential election campaign would be reduced by up to €550,000 per candidate. While this will not save the Exchequer money, the reduction is of symbolic significance in reducing costs associated with the election of the President of Ireland.

Candidates will have to run their respective election campaigns with reference to the reduced spending limits and moderate their election spending accordingly. I remind Senators that the €750,000 expenditure is a target which does not have to be met. Political parties and candidates seeking election to office should lead by example. This is only right given the times we are living in.

The Bill makes provision in primary legislation, through the Electoral Act 1997, for the setting of the maximum payment that can be made to a presidential election candidate in respect of the reimbursement of expenses. It sets out the qualifying criteria and the administrative arrangements for the making of payments. The Bill replaces the existing provisions in the Electoral Act 1997, which required that arrangements for the reimbursement of election expenses be put in place by regulations made by the Minister. SI 442 of 2004 had set the reimbursement level at €260,000 and also specified the related administrative arrangements. This statutory instrument is now repealed and its provisions are replaced by a new section 21A in the 1997 Act. This new section largely replicates the administrative arrangements that were included in the statutory instrument. The significant change is in respect of the maximum amount that can be claimed.

The Bill will also have the effect of consolidating the legal arrangements for the payment of election expenses to candidates at a presidential election into primary legislation in the Electoral Act 1997 where there are equivalent existing provisions that apply in respect of elections to Dáil Éireann. Currently, a candidate who receives votes in excess of one quarter of the quota at a presidential election can claim a reimbursement of election expenses up to a maximum of €260,000. After this or any election, an application is submitted through the Standards in Public Office Commission with payment being made by the Department of Finance through the Central Fund. The same key qualifying criterion of receiving one quarter of the quota will apply under the revised provisions as will the administrative arrangements for submitting an application for payment. There are similar arrangements in place for Dáil and European Parliament elections.

Section 21(2) of the Electoral Act 1997 made provision for the level of reimbursement to apply at a presidential election to be set by regulations made by the Minister. These regulations came into effect on 14 July 2004 and first applied at the presidential election scheduled to take place in 2004. In the event, President McAleese was returned unopposed and no claim or payment for the reimbursement of election expenses was made.

With the spending limit at a presidential election being reduced from €1.3 million to €750,000 as part of this Bill, it is appropriate that the level of reimbursement of expenses be reduced also. While there was no provision for the reimbursement of election expenses at the last contested presidential election in 1997, by applying the relevant qualifying criteria, three candidates would have been able to claim a reimbursement. If three candidates qualify for the reimbursement, this would amount to a saving of €180,000 in the current year.

The programme for Government refers to the application of spending limits at a presidential election in the following terms: "We will introduce spending limits for all elections, including Presidential elections and constitutional referendums, including for a period in advance of scheduled Local, European, General and Presidential elections". At a presidential election, the agent of each candidate is required to furnish a statement of election expenses to the Standards in Public Office Commission. This statement must be submitted within 56 days of polling day and must include details of the candidate's spending at a presidential election. When running their campaign and submitting a statement of election expenses, candidates will now be required to stay within the revised spending limit of €750,000. It will be an offence for an election agent or candidate to exceed the spending limit. This change will send out a strong signal that those involved in public life are committed to moderating their own expenditure, thereby showing a positive example to others. Reducing the election spending limit is of symbolic significance in demonstrating the willingness of those involved in public life to scale back their own spending on elections.

The existing section 53(1) of Part VI of the Electoral Act 1997 provided for the spending limit to apply at a presidential election to be specified by an order to be made by the Minister. The order setting the spending limit at €1.3 million was signed on 14 July 2004. As I mentioned, President McAleese was returned unopposed in 2004 and, as a consequence, there are no data publicly available on spending at previous presidential elections.

However, much has changed in this country since 2004 when the current spending limit was set and there is a clear case for its substantial reduction. To do this requires that a change be made in the primary legislation. That is why I propose to amend the Electoral Act 1997. Bearing in mind the current economic circumstances facing the country, it is important that we lead by example and moderate our election spending.

I will now outline briefly the specific contents of each section in the Bill. Section 1 contains definitions. Section 2 inserts a new section 39(2A) into the Electoral Act 1992. The new provision provides that where, after a period of six months from the date of a vacancy arising in the Dáil, the Dáil has failed to direct the Chairman of the Dáil to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ for a by-election, the Chairman shall so instruct the Clerk as soon as is practicable.

Section 3 amends section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997. The amendment revises the terms of reference of a constituency commission which will now be required to recommend Dáil constituencies based on a number of Members between 153 and 160. The number of Members of Dáil Éireann recommended by a commission will still be subject to the limits set out in the Constitution.

Section 4 deletes the provisions currently in sections 21(2)(a) and 21(4) of the Electoral Act 1997 that enable the Minister to put in place regulations to provide for the reimbursement of expenses to a candidate at a presidential election. Revised arrangements are being made in section 5 of the Bill, which will insert a new section, section 21A, into the Electoral Act 1997.

Section 5 provides that the maximum amount that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election is €200,000. It makes provision in primary legislation, through the Electoral Act 1997, for the setting of the maximum payment that can be made to a presidential election candidate in respect of the reimbursement of expenses.

Section 6 provides that the spending limit at a presidential election shall not exceed €750,000. It makes provision in primary legislation, through an amendment to the Electoral Act 1997, for the spending limit to apply at a presidential election and replaces the existing section 53 of the 1997 Act. Section 7 provides for consequential amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 arising from the provisions in sections 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill. Section 8 contains standard provisions of a general nature dealing with the Title, construction and citation of the Bill.

It is very important that the reduced spending and reimbursement limits would apply to the presidential election this autumn. To do this, the Bill needs to be enacted before the summer recess. We have been facilitated by Oireachtas Members and by officials in scheduling this Bill for passage through the Dáil and the Seanad and I appreciate those efforts.

Senators will know that the Government has outlined an ambitious programme for constitutional and electoral reform. The programme for Government commits to a radical overhaul of the way Irish politics and government work. It set out a wide-ranging series of commitments to this end, a number of which are within my areas of responsibility as Minister. I am committed to working with my Government colleagues and all Oireachtas Members to implement these measures in full. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister and compliment him as being one of the few Ministers who appears in the House when legislation relating to his or her Department is being taken. As he outlined, the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 contains three important electoral reforms. It amends the terms of reference of a constituency commission in section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 by providing that the number of Members of the Dáil, subject to the relevant provisions of the Constitution — I will come back to this — shall not be fewer than 153 and not more than 160. It also provides for the amendment to be made to section 39(2) of the Electoral Act 1992 to provide that the writ for a Dáil by-election shall be issued within six months of the vacancy occurring. In addition, it provides for amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for a reduction in the spending limit at a presidential election from €1,300,000 to €750,000 and for a reduction in the maximum amount that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election from €260,000 to €200,000.

The Minister stated that the Government wished to reduce the size and cost of Government and the programme for Government has identified a "clear need for our political system to embrace change, share the burden and lead by example". He went on to state, under the heading of political reform, that change must start at the top. I fully agree with that. The programme for Government states that "the political system cannot ask others to change and make sacrifices if it is not prepared to do the same". I also agree with that.

The Minister also stated that a number of commitments have been made in the programme, including one to reduce significantly the size of the Oireachtas and to reduce the number of Deputies, following the publication of the 2011 census of population. However, what the Minister did not say is that the Fine Gael manifesto stated clearly that Fine Gael in government would reduce the number of Deputies by 20. This was a populist and cynical proposal which, by virtue of what the Minister has said here today, the Fine Gael Party had no intention of carrying out. It also, of course, said that they would reduce the numbers of Ministers of State, which clearly did not happen. Now the Minister proposes to reduce Dáil membership to between 153 and 160, depending on what the commission recommends.

I ask the Minister why the Government is not proposing to hold a referendum to reduce the number of Deputies by 20, as Fine Gael committed to do in its election manifesto. The census results that were published on 30 June indicate that our population now stands at 4.5 million, an increase of 400,000 when compared with census 2006, which recorded Ireland's population at over 4.2 million. Census 2006 confirmed that for the first time, our population rose above 4 million people since 1871.

My party is not in favour of reducing the number of Deputies and we will be opposing this measure. We proposed, during the general election, a total reform package, not a piecemeal approach. We proposed a single-seat constituency arrangement, supplemented by a list system which allowed for gender balance. We also proposed an idea whereby if a member of the Dáil was asked to serve in government an alternate would be placed to do his or her work as a Deputy.

We have a very different system of governance in this country. Our electorate, as the Minister is well aware, expect to meet their Deputies and Senators on a regular basis. Deputies must hold multiple constituency clinics on a weekly basis and the electorate expect them to be there. In England, our closest neighbour, Members of Parliament are elected to single seat constituencies. Constituents are lucky if their MP visits the constituency once a month, I believe the average is about six times a year. That system would not work in this country.

We need to reform local government and give councillors back the powers the Oireachtas has taken from them. My party is as guilty of that as any other. I believe political reform should start with local government. Is the Minister proposing to reduce the number of county and city councillors to be elected at the next local government election? If the answer is "Yes", my party will oppose that.

What are the terms of reference of the constituency commission? I refer in particular to county boundaries. The last commission was asked to adhere to county boundaries where possible and practical. This resulted in County Leitrim being divided. West Limerick is now part of Limerick and another part of Limerick went into Kerry North. Other counties were also affected, such as south Offaly, east Carlow and north Waterford.

The terms of reference should be changed in this regard and the commission should adhere to county boundaries. There should be positive discrimination towards rural Ireland and we should look at four, five and even six seat constituencies where practical.

I understand that the make-up of the commission is a judge, to be nominated by the Chief Justice, who will chair the commission, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Why is it necessary to have the Secretary General on this commission? I suggest that there should be two independent members appointed — I could furnish the Minister with a few names — and that the Secretary General should not be a member.

I welcome the amendment to the Electoral Act 1992 relating to the holding of Dáil by-elections. The proposed amendment will ensure that a by-election to fill a vacancy in the Dáil has to be moved within six months of the vacancy arising. Throughout the decades, my party, the Minister's party and others have been responsible for delaying by-elections when it suited us. I very much welcome this measure and I will fully support it. The Minister referred to the court case that preceded the Donegal South-West by-election. Is the Government persisting in appealing the High Court decision regarding the holding of the Donegal South-West by-election to the Supreme Court, in light of the proposed legislation?

I welcome the proposal to reduce the spending limits and the amount of expenses that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election. The Minister is proposing to reduce the maximum amount that can be reimbursed by the Exchequer to a presidential candidate from €260,000 to €200,000 and the spending limit from €1.3 million to €750,000. I would propose reducing the figures to €150,000 and €500,000 respectively.

We will be tabling a number of amendments on Committee Stage. They will be practical and I hope the Minister will consider them. We will not oppose Second Stage because the Bill contains a number of measures with which we agree.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his comprehensive overview of the Bill and its contents. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this important Bill.

The publication of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill illustrates the Government's commitment to providing improvements, something that has been long overdue. In this House and in the Dáil, we have become public representatives at a time when the public perception of politics in Ireland is at an all-time low. Many people have lost trust in politicians and in our political system. That does not come as a surprise to us. It is a poor reflection on our democracy and civic participation that many people are largely unaware of the work done in either House, particularly the Seanad. This should not be the case. This is why reform is necessary. I am very much in favour of the amendments proposed to reduce the number of Deputies by changing the terms of reference of the constituency commission, introduce a six month time limit for holding Dáil by-elections and reduce the presidential election spending limits.

By comparison with other European legislative chambers, Ireland is neither over-represented nor under-represented. Generally, Legislatures in smaller European countries have more MPs per head of population than larger countries. Nine countries, including Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Latvia and Sweden have a member representing between 15,000 and 35,000 of their respective populations. Clearly, the scope is very wide and there is no consensus in comparative European terms as to the precise or ideal population to parliamentarian ratio.

Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution states: "The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population". That figure is the present constitutional benchmark and, based on the preliminary census results for this year, there could be a reduction of 13 Deputies. However, that figure is subject to the final results of the latest census when they become available. While the exact figure in respect of the reduction in the number of Deputies is undoubtedly important, we must not become too sidetracked and over-focus on one particular aspect of a wider political reform agenda. The word "reform" has become widely used in Irish politics in recent times, particularly in the past few months. This is definitely a very positive move for our democracy.

The Government has tabled more political reform proposals than did the Fianna Fáil-led Governments which held power for the previous 14 years. There is an appetite among the public for change in the political system. Fine Gael has recognised that and has responded to what the public wants. It is difficult to engage in a debate on political reform without discussing the role of local government. Some might claim that the latter should be the subject of a separate debate. However, I am of the view that it is key to any discussion about reform in politics.

The role of local government is one that is under review by the Department. The Minister indicated in the Lower House two weeks ago that the key objectives of the local government review include devolution of greater decision-making to local level, strengthening the powers and functions of local authorities, enhancing the development and leadership role of local Government and strengthening its structures. The devolution of powers to local government is a much needed step if we are to make our political system more efficient. It has also been suggested that the reduction in the number of Deputies can facilitate an individual Deputy in focusing on his or her national and legislative role. In turn, this will encourage the devolution of powers to local government. This would be a very healthy development that has been required for some time. The work of Deputies and Senators is often very constituency-concentrated and too much of our time is spent focusing on local rather than on national issues. We often forget that our primary role, as elected representatives at national level, is as legislators.

In his submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution, Professor David Farrell, in the context of the proposal to reduce the number of Deputies, advocated the creation of slightly larger constituencies of at least five members. When one considers this idea, it makes sense. The rationale behind the proportional representation single transferable vote system is that all parties, including the smaller ones, have an equal chance of their candidates being elected. Political scientists such as Michael Gallagher, have discovered that the larger the district magnitude, or the number of seats per constituency, the more proportional will be election results. In this regard, it seems logical that in reducing the number of Deputies we elect, we would consider constituency size.

In the context of the second proposed amendment of the Bill, I would also welcome the introduction of a six-month time limit in respect of the holding of Dáil by-elections. We must never have a repeat of the events of last year, when a High Court ruling had to be handed down before the previous Government would take political responsibility for holding a by-election. This was one of the many failings of the previous Administration. What occurred was profoundly anti-democratic. The six-month limit is a sufficient period in which to fill a seat that has become vacant.

The third proposed amendment concerns presidential election costs and expenses. The proposal to reduce spending limits for the presidential election from €1.3 million to €750,000 is a positive move. Although it must be acknowledged that election costs can be high, there is no good reason why presidential candidates, as individuals, should run up bills that are excessive at a time when we are all conscious of our expenses. It is not just presidential election spending that needs to be reduced. We are spending more than should be the case at all elections — local, national and presidential. I hope the Government will be in power for a five-year period. During that time we should put a plan in place to reduce the wasting of financial resources on posters, advertising and other unnecessary election material. I urge those responsible to ensure that inroads are made on this issue in the next couple of years.

Every Member of the House is aware of the expense involved in running for elected office, be it to institutions such as town councils, the national Parliament or the European Parliament. Political parties and candidates are funded through individual, corporate or union donations governed by standards in public office, SIPO, regulations. We must give careful consideration to the entire area of political donations. It must be borne in mind that a complete ban on political donations would mean that candidates would be obliged to rely on their own resources in the absence of State funding.

It is in no one's interest that participation in elections is only available to those who have personal wealth to fund extravagant campaigns. Regardless of the model of funding upon which we decide, we must be conscious that if we are to ban donations, the State will inevitably be obliged to provide increased resources to fund elections. It is time to have a proper debate on what it means to have State funding for political parties in our democracy. Ireland is a democratic Republic and it is important, therefore, that an open and transparent debate should take place on this matter.

The debate on the future of the Seanad is ongoing and further developments are awaited in respect of it. We must consider reform proposals on how the House conducts its business. Such a consideration is taking place and a number of significant changes were introduced to Standing Orders in recent weeks. In a welcome innovation, the Minister for Agriculture, Marine and Food came before the House this morning and took part in a question and answer session which lasted a couple of hours. The session was quite a success.

Political reform must permeate all levels of representation, from town councils to the office of the President. There is no need for cynical responses from any quarter on the matter of reform. What is required is a positive, proactive approach from all parties. If we are to strive for a fairer and more efficient political system, we must change it in such a way that is conducive to equal and proper representation.

I thank the Minister for coming before the House. I welcome the Bill. Before commenting on it, I wish to comment on what Senator Wilson said in respect of piecemeal reform. The Senator is correct. What we are doing is being done in pieces.

I thank the Senator.

With respect, if we were not doing it in pieces and if we were waiting for a package of reforms, the Senator would, quite rightly, be inquiring as to the whereabouts of such reform.

I am very patient.

There is no harm in bringing forward reform in pieces, particularly when one considers that it is only summer and we have already done quite a lot. It is to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government's credit that we are putting the Bill, which is a mechanism of reform, through the House in order that by the time the next general election takes place, the legislative position will have been amended. It took courage to bring this legislation forward. The Government could have waited but it did not do so. It decided to act. That should stand as the hallmark of the current Administration. When Senators and Deputies canvassed during the recent election, the word "change" was on the lips of almost every member of the electorate. Change is easy to discuss but extremely difficult to introduce. Even the smallest of issues attract opposition. Not least among such issues is that which relates to reducing the number of Deputies.

I welcome the speed with which change is being introduced. We are all too acutely aware of how important change is to those who voted in the general election. Senator Paul Coghlan referred to the fact that people wanted change and were keen to see it occur. It is difficult to find ways to facilitate change. In such circumstances, the move to reduce spending on presidential elections is welcome. Let us be honest; it costs money to become involved in politics. A few moments ago there was a little girl in the Visitors Gallery who was wearing a T-shirt with a big red heart on the front of it. Perhaps she will run for the presidency one day. The truth is, however, that if she has a great deal of talent and no money, she will not be able to gain election. Money is one of the biggest barriers to becoming involved in politics. Any reform we can introduce in the context of reducing the amount of money that can be spent on elections is welcome. Reform is particularly welcome in the spirit in which the Minister intends it, namely, that the Government must show leadership at a time when there is little enough money available and that it should take all necessary steps to ensure that spending is reduced. I welcome what is being done in this Bill because money is a barrier to people moving into politics, particularly as it costs money to gain election.

I am not naive enough to suggest that candidates can gain election in the absence of funding. The latter is simply not possible. It costs money to travel throughout one's constituency or around the country. The electorate must decide whether, in the future, candidates should travel about in battle buses and use rosettes, balloons and confetti during their campaigns — as is the case in the US — or whether they should continue to adopt the more basic approach which has obtained up to now. We are slowly developing a process for the running of elections which is becoming more Americanised. Every time we do that we are acquiescing to the idea that running an election is extremely expensive. That is a cause for concern. I welcome the fact that this proposal will reduce the amount candidates can spend in an election and perhaps bring us back to a more basic form of campaigning. Having said that, candidates have a responsibility to ensure the electorate is well informed. People who present themselves for election to public office are obliged to inform the public of their intentions and what they stand for. We must bear in mind that meeting that obligation costs money.

Reform in this area has been introduced in a piecemeal fashion. The Standards in Public Office Commission sets the rules regarding the conduct of elections, but those rules are retrospective in that there is no policing of expenditure during the course of an election. That is a problem because although the limits are set, there are some who breach them and find ways around them. There is no way, for example, that a concerned member of the public can report such breaches at the time they are made. The Standards in Public Office Commission does not perform that role. Although it is probably not possible to make provision for such a role in this legislation, it is something we might consider at a later date.

I welcome the proposal to ensure by-elections are held within six months of a vacancy arising. This sensible amendment to the existing legislation will prevent the type of political point-scoring that occurred last year and ensure Government parties cannot defer a by-election for the purpose of shoring up their own parliamentary strength. Such behaviour is an abuse of the Constitution.

The proposal to reduce the number of Deputies in the Lower House is welcome. Contrary to the generally held view, it may well be the case that in a European context, Irish voters are neither under nor over-represented. The data can be interpreted in many different ways, but we are certainly not as out of step with Europe as some would have us believe. When one includes Senators and councillors and the personal way in which politics is conducted in Ireland, it is clear that one is never far from a public representative. We need to reduce the number of public representatives in total. This legislation is the first step in a process which should also include reform of local government.

It is has been argued that a reduction in the number of Deputies will mean there is less likelihood of the Executive being held to account. That is true, but it is a far cry from suggesting that the reduction will give rise to insufficient numbers of Deputies to perform that role. While it is a very important task, the fact that there will be fewer Deputies does not mean it cannot be done. On that basis, it is a rogue argument.

The point has also been made that there will be fewer Deputies to perform important parliamentary work, particularly committee work. However, the reality is that less is usually more, with smaller groups often showing greater efficiencies than larger ones. People find ways of being more efficient when their numbers are reduced. That type of efficiency will ultimately lead to more work being done. Although it is always difficult to tell a certain group of people that their numbers will be reduced, as is happening often these days, we will achieve more efficiency, in this context, through a reduction. It will undoubtedly cause problems for sitting Deputies, but no Deputy owns his or her seat. If we genuinely want more efficient and cost effective governance, a reduction in the number of Deputies is an important step in achieving it. Greater efficiencies will be found and there might even be an increase in the output of work from the Oireachtas. However, it is important that the reduction is implemented fairly and that equitable representation is ensured across the country.

I thank the Minister for facilitating the speedy passage of these welcome proposals through the House.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. As a former Member of this House, it is good to see that his distinguished political career continues to flourish. There is a long history of controversy and disagreement whenever electoral amendment Bills come before either House because they relate to a sensitive issue for politicians. This Bill is no different in that regard. I support much of what my friend and colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, said, but I disagree entirely with Senator Susan O'Keeffe's reference to justifying piecemeal legislation. I did not see any particular reason for rushing this legislation. The Minister, quite correctly, has triggered the obligation on any Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, once the preliminary census results are released, to establish an independent electoral commission.

It is my understanding that Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution specifies that the total number of Deputies shall, under current census data, be not less than 164 and no more than 168. There are references throughout the Bill to the effect that its provisions are subject to constitutional provisions. Am I incorrect on this point or is the Minister going to act on the provisions of the Bill, once enacted, by triggering an increase in the constitutionally specified limit on the number of constituents per Deputy, which will allow the provisions in the Bill to be implemented? It is interesting to note that the Minister's own constituency now has the highest number of people per Deputy, at 27,598, with a national average of 26,749 and Senator Diarmuid Wilson's constituency of Cavan-Monaghan having the lowest number, at 24,000.

Is the Senator suggesting that part of Leitrim should go into that constituency?

I am coming to that. It was also interesting to discover that Laois, because of its extraordinary increase in population, now has sufficient numbers for four seats. This suggests either that Laois-Offaly will end up as two three-seaters or that Laois will have four seats of its own.

County Leitrim has had a sorry history in the area of constituency amendments. It has been sundered by successive electoral commissions and by various Governments before that, prior to the establishment of the independent commission system. Every commission that has been established thus far has given an undertaking that county boundaries will be protected, with the let-out clause that this principle will be adhered to "in so far as is possible". A great deal of controversy was generated by the decision to split Leitrim and both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made submissions to the then commission in regard to the division of the county. I strongly disagreed with my party's position on this issue. I do not know what happened in terms of the consultation process in Fine Gael, but there was no such process in Fianna Fáil. If that is letting out State secrets, I do not care. Nobody was consulted and I do not even know who took the decision. It seems to have been presented at a Cabinet meeting as afait accompli and subsequently became policy.

The legacy of that is the deep psychological scars in the county, apart altogether from the emotional element of it. I hope the Minister will tighten up the terms of reference of the electoral commission in order to ensure a more concrete consideration of the protection of county boundaries than a requirement that they be preserved "in so far as is possible". There is no question that we will be under threat, with the Minister indicating that there will be a reduction in the number of county councillors. This suggests that Leitrim will, at some point, find itself merged with another county.

I do not understand the rationale for permitting no more than five seats per constituency. In the early years of the State larger constituencies were the norm, with Sligo-Leitrim having seven seats in the 1920s and 1930s. What was so wrong with that?

The change was made by Éamon de Valera.

Yes, and he probably did so for nakedly political reasons. Just because something has become practice does not mean it should not be reviewed.

I know it is set in stone, but I think it is worth looking at in the context of the terms of reference of the boundary commission and maintaining county boundaries. There may be a way around it. Should counties Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon become a six or seven-seater constituency, at least there is a county identity and the feeling is that people would vote in line with the county boundaries.

Is there a possibility, or is it even on the radar that the dual mandate could be restored? I believe this is an antidemocratic measure, not in the interests of efficient government, and it should be open to discussion. Senators from all sides have spoken on efficient government. With a reduced number of Deputies, and the reduction in the number of committees, yet with the enormous number of committee mandates, I cannot see that there will be more accountability in the Government, if this Chamber is abolished.

De Valera changed it.

The 1937 Constitution.

I thank the Minister for attending in the Seanad. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd who will remain until we finish the debate. I call Deputy Clune.

I wish to call a quorum.

Notice taken that 12 were not present; House counted and 12 Members being present.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill, which is the first step in reforming the Oireachtas and the local authorities. Many would have campaigned in the last general election — I certainly did — on the need for reform because if we are not prepared to change, we cannot ask others to change. Never before has there been such an appetite for reform among the electorate and the Oireachtas members. Everybody wants to see change.

It is not just about cost cutting. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, stated: "The McCarthy report on public service numbers and expenditure programmes estimated a saving of approximately €3 million with a reduction to 154 Deputies." This is not an insignificant amount but it is more about efficiency of services. In my constituency, comprising four electoral areas, there were five Dáil Deputies and two Senators, a total of seven members of the Oireachtas. Quite often one could have up to 14 public representatives at some of those meetings, which was an inefficient use of resources. I would not agree with the criticism of the Bill as piecemeal legislation; it is a start and I am sure we will see much more from the Minister. I know his reforming zeal and he is sharpening his knives and getting ready to move across the board.

There are three issues covered in the Bill, the first relating to a reduction in the number of Deputies, which will become relevant now that the census has been produced and the constituency commission is to be established. The terms of reference of that commission will reflect the elements of the legislation when it is enacted.

The presidential election will take place in a few months, in either October or November, and we are well on the way in that campaign. Some candidates have been established. The spending limits will be relevant to their campaign. The by-election can take place at any time. It was an absolute disgrace in the previous Dáil that the people of counties Donegal and Waterford and South Dublin were without representation for a long period. I acknowledge that the then Senator Pearse Doherty took a case to court that ensured the people in Donegal had their by-election. We will have legislation in place that by-elections will be triggeredin a period of six months, if the writ has not been moved. That is an important step for democracy.

I was very pleased to see that the population has increased beyond expectation to 4.58 million, which is the highest it has ever been since 1851. We have one Deputy per 27,000 of population. The figure I would have had in my head is that we had a Deputy for every 20,000. We can push it to one Deputy for every 30,000 people and I think it is important to introduce such efficiency across the 43 constituencies we have at present. We do not know how they will end up after the next commission. At the last census the percentage of population living in Leinster was 54%, again we saw an increase in the greater Dublin area and in Leinster. In the Cork area we lost one seat as a result of the last census and we are down to 19 seats. I have a suspicion that we will lose another seat which I see will go to the east. Similarly, in the Kerry North-Limerick West constituency, one seat went to the east. Looking at where Dáil seats are gives a quick picture of population density and where it is based. It will be tricky for the commission. It is important to keep five-seat constituencies and I am not averse to six-seat constituencies. They have proven to support smaller parties, which gain seats in larger constituencies, and it is important to have this in our PR-STV system to ensure representation across the board and that smaller parties are not frozen out. I have much more to say but I see the Acting Chairman is looking at me. I know we will have an opportunity for discussion with the Minister on Committee Stage tomorrow and on Report Stage. I welcome this Bill and it marks a progression on the road of much needed reform of our representative system.

I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government attended the Chamber on a number of occasions when issues concerning his portfolio were being debated. That is important and should be welcomed. I look forward to the support of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for the Waterford constituency remaining a four-seat constituency. For that to happen, part of occupied north Waterford must be brought into the Waterford constituency. There is a proposal that everything from across the bridge to Rosbercon and New Ross should be within the Waterford constituency for it to remain a four-seat constituency. I am sure the Acting Chairman agrees with me.

It is just as well I am in the Chair.

We must ask ourselves whether the reforms we intend to implement are designed to make institutions more democratic and inclusive, to make sure we have better representation, to ensure we have more women in elected positions and in power and to make sure we have effective governance. Effective governance is the most important point. Considering the economic crisis that has been building up for the past ten years, one of the charges levelled against the political system is that it was asleep at the wheel and that there was insufficient accountability and scrutiny. We saw that in the context of the political system and the regulatory system. Many people argue we have a deficit of proper accountability and scrutiny in this State. For those reasons, I am somewhat sceptical about the proposals of this Government in the Bill. The Minister will not agree with me but this is part of an election gimmick, something promised by the Taoiseach and the Government in the run-up to an election. He went down the populist road by proposing to abolish the Seanad, cutting the number of Deputies by 20 and abolishing a number of local authorities. If we follow that path, we will end up with less scrutiny. If we abolish this House and have fewer Deputies, there will be less scrutiny and oversight. Following that with fewer councillors and a weakened local government system will make a bad situation worse. If the Government was serious about reducing the number of Deputies and ensuring there was an enhanced system of governance, it would start by improving local government. It should not reduce numbers but give more powers to local authorities.

One of the arguments for reducing the number of Deputies is cost. Sinn Féin has made proposals for reducing the salaries of Deputies and Senators and doing away with the expenses and allowances available to Chairmen of committees and Whips. I was informed last week that, as a Member of this House and as someone who served on a local authority, I am entitled to claim €23,000 when I reach the age of 50. I hope I will be a Member of the Lower House at that stage but other Senators are over the age of 50 and have received the payment. They can leave the local authority on election to this House, receive a generous salary along with expenses and allowances and also receive a payment from a cash-strapped local authority. These are the issues the public want us to deal with. If it is a case of saving money, let us start with those expenses. We should start at the top and properly reform the system to do away with the outrageous expenses that were available to politicians. These were put in place in a different era and we are in a different place now.

I have tabled a number of amendments and I will get to the substance of our proposals later. Like previous speakers, I support four-seat, five-seat and six-seat constituencies. The worst thing that could happen is if we move to a two-party state. From my perspective, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are one party. There is little difference between them, as we see in the programme for Government. It is a case of continuing the policies of the previous Government. We need political diversity in this country and if the Government parties consider reducing the number of Deputies and abolishing this House, they will take away the independent voices in this Chamber. I refer to people appointed by the Taoiseach who add value to this House, such as Senator Crown, who has a strong background in health and can bring a different perspective to the Chamber. If that was lost, it would be a sad day for the country, the democratic system and the idea of empowering the institutions of the State. For those reasons, I oppose the Bill.

I have been told by the Leader of the House that the changes we propose to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges require changes to Standing Orders and that this was not possible. Standing Orders seem to be very precious to the Leader for some reason and, in keeping with that, I call for a quorum.

On a point of order, is the Leader present in the House?

Do Standing Orders not preclude Members from mentioning those who are not present?

That is noted.

Notice taken that 12 Members were not present; House counted and 12 Members being present,

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, is welcome back to the House.

I thank Senators on all sides of the House for their contributions to the debate. The comments focused both on the Bill and, as might be expected, the electoral agenda generally. In the time available it is not possible for me to comment on all the points made. I propose to respond to some of the issues raised and further discussions will take place on Committee Stage.

I welcome the strong support evident during the debate for the measures in the Bill. Those provide for the holding of Dáil by-elections within six months of a vacancy occurring and a reduction in the spending and reimbursement limits that apply in presidential elections.

Different views were offered in the debate on the proposal to change the terms of reference of a constituency commission to provide for a reduction in the number of Members in the Dáil. Many speakers were very supportive. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, stated that the political system cannot ask others to change and make sacrifices if it is not prepared to do the same. The reduction in the number of Deputies is a first step along the path of electoral reform.

The programme for Government commits to a radical overhaul of the way Irish politics and Government works. It sets out a wide-ranging series of commitments to that end. The Minister is committed to working with his Government colleagues and with all the Oireachtas Members to implement these measures fully.

The Bill before us deals with three specific issues which will bring about real and meaningful change but that is not all. In addition to the Bill before the House, on 8 June 2011 the Minister published the general scheme of the Electoral (Amendment)(Political Donations) Bill 2011. Provision is made in that Bill for the restriction of corporate donations, a reduction in the amount that can be received as political donations, and a reduction in the thresholds for declaring political donations. Political parties will now also be required to submit their annual accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication.

The new legislation includes a provision that political parties will face a cut of half their State political funding if they do not have at least 30% female and 30% male candidates at the next general election. That will then rise to 40% after seven years.

In line with the Government's commitment to reform the way legislation is debated and implemented, the Minister will publish the general scheme and invite public input into its contents. We can look forward to debating that Bill in the House in the autumn.

The proposal to abolish the Seanad was signalled by the Government parties prior to the general election. The programme for Government contains a commitment to put that question to the people in a referendum. Work is proceeding in the Taoiseach's Department on the preparation of proposals for such a referendum. The Dáil and Seanad will have an opportunity to fully debate the legislation when it is published.

I wish to refer briefly to concerns raised by some Senators regarding specific recommendations. Senator Wilson and Senator Mooney discussed the fact that the county of Leitrim is split between two constituencies. Senator Wilson referred to the decision of the last commission on the Kerry-Limerick region. We must bear in mind that constituency formation is not a perfect science. People do not always live in the areas that would enable constituencies to be drawn up which meet with general approval. The overriding constitutional requirement of equality and representation means that breaches of obvious boundaries are unavoidable in certain circumstances.

In the revision process somebody's interest must inevitably be affected. That is the price we must pay for our electoral system which has generally served us very well. I have no doubt that when the next commission issues its recommendations some people will be unhappy. The general consensus, however, is that the job should be instructed to an independent commission. That being the case the commission should be allowed to do the job in the way that seems best to it within the terms of reference given to it.

Difficult choices have been made in the past and will be made in the future. It is open to anyone to make a submission to the commission and having considered the options, the commission will make its decision. The Senators or I might make a different choice but we cannot fault the commission for that. It carries out its task in accordance with the mandate given to it.

During the course of the debate many Senators referred to the need for real reform of local government. I strongly agree. I am happy to say that a range of work relevant to local government reform is under way. The Minister recently established an independent implementation group to progress the relevant recommendations of the local government efficiency review in areas such as shared services, procurement, value for money, and audit. He has asked the group to build on the extensive efficiencies achieved by local authorities in the past two years or more and to focus on key recommendations that will remove cost and yield earliest financial savings for the benefit of the sector and the community.

In terms of structural reform, good progress has been made. The Government recently decided to implement the main recommendations of the Limerick local government committee involving the creation of a single local authority to replace Limerick city and county councils. That historic decision will lead to the first major change in local government in years. It will bring about a more cohesive and better integrated system of local government for Limerick city and county, with the potential to provide better value for money, eliminate duplication and free up financial and human resources for critical projects such as the revitalisation of Limerick city centre.

The Minister is also considering wider proposals to renew and develop the local government system. Key objectives in this regard include devolution of greater decision making to local level, strengthening the powers and functions of local authorities, enhancing the development and leadership role of local government, and strengthening its structures and funding arrangements.

Relevant proposals in recent reports, including the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes and the local government efficiency review, will be taken into account in the development of policy in this area. The Minister will also publish a policy statement on local government that will outline Government policy in this area in line with the programme for Government.

I stress again the Government's commitment to electoral and political reform. This Bill is a first step in that reform agenda. I thank the Senators again for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 21 July 2011.
Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.