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,