Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Committee Stage

Section 1 agreed to.

Amendment No. 1 is consequential on amendment No. 12 and amendment No. 13 is related to amendment No. 12. All three will be discussed together.

I call a quorum.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

2.—In this Act "Act of 2002" means the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2002.".

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is a technical amendment but I would like to raise a number of issues. I referred on Second Stage to the need for genuine political reform and said that my party would support genuine reforms in the operations of both Houses of the Oireachtas. One of the commitments given by the Government parties during the election campaign was to reduce the number of Deputies by 20 and to abolish the Seanad. My party had serious difficulties with these promises because we looked on them as opportunistic and everything that has happened since, including in this legislation, proves that. The legislation has provided the Government with an opportunity to save face and back-track on the commitments given. The reduction in the number of Deputies will be much lower than 20.

The Bill also represents missed opportunities. There is a partitionist mindset in the State and I was struck by this when I was elected to this Chamber and as I observed debates on political reform over many years. No effort has been made, for example, to improve the dynamic and the relationships between this State and Northern Ireland and between the Assembly and the Oireachtas. Many commitments were given in the Good Friday Agreement regarding voting rights for Northern Irish citizens and the presidential election is an example of that. The President is from Ardoyne, Belfast, and the fact that her family did not have the opportunity to vote for her proves there is a compelling case for all-Ireland voting rights in presidential elections and in elections to the House.

My party put forward many proposals previously in respect of Seanad reform. The Bill was an opportunity for us to embrace genuine and real political reform. As a member of Waterford City Council, I was part of a delegation that appeared before the House in 2003 and at that time statements were taken from every political party and other groupings in respect of Seanad reform. None of those reforms was taken on board and we arrived at a position where the Government parties went for the easy, populist option of calling for the House to be abolished. Yesterday, we had a fruitful, encouraging and worthwhile exchange of views between Members and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food using a new format introduced by the Leader, which provided for statements and a question and answer session. Important questions on the future of agriculture and fisheries were asked by Members and we had a good response from the Minister. That demonstrated again the need, and the space, for a second Chamber in this State.

Political reform is so important that it should not be rushed or based on promises or even a rush of blood to the head by either the leaders of political parties or other politicians in the heat of an election campaign. That is the wrong way to bring about political reform. The Bill falls far short of what is required to strengthen the institutions of the State to ensure greater democracy, accountability, proper checks and balances and best practice in respect of democracy. The Government parties had opportunities to address these but the Bill demonstrates they are attempting to follow through on election promises that perhaps some of their Members now regret. It is very much a watered down version of those promises and, in that context, it represents a big missed opportunity for the State to experience real and genuine political reform.

I ask the Minister of State and the Government to reflect on the need for all-Ireland political reform. Members in this House pay lip service to this. Many of them have made requests for invitations to issue to the First Minister and Deputy First Minster to address this Chamber. I support these because they are important but commitments were given regarding representation in the House by people from the North and in respect of broadening the opportunities for people to vote in elections.

Another opportunity on Seanad reform missed in this Bill is the extension of voting rights to the Irish Diaspora. Those are the main issues that should have been considered in this legislation rather than these minimalist and regressive proposals. As I stated on Second Stage, if the Seanad were to be abolished, along with the loss of the talent Senators bring to the Oireachtas, and reduce the number of Deputies and local authorities, then the democratic deficit would be increased. This would not be a good development. For that reason, we have moved this amendment.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, to the House. In his absence yesterday, I congratulated him on the efficient manner in which he dealt with NAMA and the 28 ghost estates for which it is responsible.

Prior to the general election, Fianna Fáil put forward progressive proposals for electoral reform. We object to the reduction of the number of Deputies in light of a population increase of over 400,000. Ireland has a different type of electoral system from most others in that people expect their Deputies to hold and attend multiple constituency clinics.

I also agree with Senator Cullinane on the democratic deficit that will be caused by reducing the number of Deputies without reforming local government. The first step should be to give back the powers the Oireachtas took off local authorities. I accept Fianna Fáil was responsible for much of this, which I objected to at the time.

In its election manifesto, the Labour Party stated it was in favour of electoral reform but did not specify the number of Deputies it would reduce. Fine Gael, however, stated it would reduce them by 20. Now, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, uses the Constitution as an excuse for not reducing the numbers by 20. If Fine Gael were truthful about its proposals prior to the general election, why not have a referendum on this matter?

There is much merit in Sinn Féin's amendment No. 13. The Labour Party has always argued a vote should be related to a person's personal public service number, PPS, number. However, the timing may not be right as we recently found out that there are 7.2 million PPS numbers in circulation for a population of 4.5 million. Before we try to introduce a PPS-based register, we need to clean up our act with the issuing of PPS numbers.

I agree some consideration should be given to allowing a postal vote for those who may be on holiday during an election.

While I do not intend to press my amendment No. 5, for which I received notification that it could be tabled at the eleventh hour, I do hope there will be an all-party debate on each constituency returning five or six Deputies.

I was Fianna Fáil spokesperson on political reform during the general election campaign. I noted on the doorsteps and in national debates that there was much focus on political reform with all parties publishing proposals. Like never before, people actually engaged with this topic with calls for real change. Many people said to me the problems for several years came down to the excessive localism in our system where we elect people because of their ability to fix potholes instead of electing individual candidates on a national platform. Fianna Fáil proposed to have half the Dáil membership elected by constituency with the other half elected from a national list. For example, a voter in the Dublin North-East constituency could vote for a national candidate on health issues based in Galway.

We need to really change politics, not tinker with numbers or sit extra days with no real business. People showed a hunger for substantial change during the election. I am disappointed by this electoral legislation and see it as a missed opportunity. I hope the Government is serious about its proposed constitutional convention. All we have seen so far have been optics and a lack of substance.

In a newspaper article this week, Senator Mac Conghail's group, We the Citizens, reported that many at its citizen assemblies called for external experts to be brought into the Cabinet. This was another Fianna Fáil proposal and I am disappointed the Government has not taken it on board. Considering the economic challenges we face, it should be possible to allow into the Cabinet people with business or economics expertise who wish to offer their professional services in a ministerial capacity but who may not want to run for election and wait 20 years for Cabinet selection. I am disappointed this Fianna Fáil proposal has not been taken up.

The Minister of State's reputation for his diligent constituency work and his national profile speaks for itself. I agree with the broad thrust of Senator Power's arguments. Our political system is not fit for purpose and has not worked for the past 24 years. The Irish experience of national politicians working on issues that should be done by a local councillor is unique to Europe if not international political systems. Deputies' offices have for years been letter-writing factories. For example, someone who gets planning permission will get a letter from their Deputy telling them he is delighted they got it and to contact him if he can be of any further assistance to them. That type of politics should be confined to history. Until we change our political system, however, that will be the type of politics we will have.

Ours is a clientelist political structure. Proportional representation through the single transferable vote, PR-STV, is the purest form of proportional representation. The problem, however, arises with multiple seat constituencies. Not only are candidates fighting among themselves but the internal party battles are legendary.

The constitutional convention that forms part of the programme for Government has considerable merit in terms of doing the right thing. If we can return to the electorate in five years having at least started to reform the political system, it will be a significant achievement.

The decision by the Acting Chairman, Senator Quinn, who has vast business experience, to enter political life some years ago gave politics a boost. He contributes regularly to the House. This is the type of politics we need in this House and the other House. We will not do the right thing by people unless we wake up and realise that some form of list system is needed to enable the political parties to bring in and promote external expertise.

Senator Cullinane's amendment proposing to link personal public service numbers to the electoral register is a good idea. The problem, however, is that the PPS system is flawed. It is bizarre that the number of PPS numbers issued exceeds the population by more than 1 million. We must first review how PPS numbers are reviewed before making the necessary and worthwhile investment to create an intrinsic link between the register of electors and the personal public service number system. It should be noted, however, that the register of electors is archaic and not fit for purpose. The measures taken some two years ago to update and improve the register made matters worse.

The legislation may be a drop in the ocean but it will have a ripple effect as it shows that political reform has moved to the heart of the business of this House and the other House. It has also been enshrined in the programme for Government. The Bill makes small changes which the vast majority of people support. Achieving this end in the first term is a credit to the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, and Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan. I look forward to more substantial political reform.

I thank the Senator for his comments.

Political reform must start from the bottom up. Some Senators are confusing political reform with a reduction in the number of public representatives. I fundamentally disagree with that view. I understand the Minister intends to reduce the number of county and city councillors prior to the next local government elections. Is that the case? The Minister of State did not answer my question on this issue. If that is the Minister's intention, his proposals for political reform are a farce. One will not make any progress if one does not start at the bottom and work upwards. What would be achieved by reducing the number of county councillors? Will the Minister of State clarify whether it is the intention of the Government to implement such a reduction?

I wonder if reducing the number of Deputies, even by a small figure, and abolishing the Seanad misses how the country got into its current position. We need more scrutiny, checks and balances and parliamentary democracy. In recent times, the Executive as opposed to the Parliament, was all-powerful and the permanent government had massive power and was rarely questioned in the House. As we heard on the Order of Business, all of our problems crystalise from the banking decisions taken on 29 and 30 September 2008 in which Parliament was not involved. Perhaps we should have supervised the Central Bank which, in turn, should have supervised the commercial banks. In any case, the bankruptcy of the country had little to do with Parliament.

I note the rather extravagant estimates on the savings that would be achieved by reducing the number of Deputies and the millions of euro in savings to be achieved by abolishing the Seanad. We should examine the large number of quangos which were established and allowed to escape from parliamentary control, hollowed out Departments such as the Department of Health which devolved all of its functions to the Health Service Executive, thereby weakening parliamentary control, and the semi-State companies which the McCarthy report described as having evolved out of all control of their so-called parent Departments and which are not subject to any regulation. The report also found that they had a record, particularly in recent years, of wasteful capital expenditure and that their top executives were paying themselves extremely large amounts of money. I commend the Government for tackling the latter issue.

We rarely discuss the activities of pressure groups and lobbyists — notoriously in the case of banking but also in the case of the construction industry with which the Galway tent was identified — and the role of tax lawyers and accountants who appeared to have access to the Department of Finance to extract tax breaks worth approximately €12.5 billion per annum. The finance Act usually takes effect at a time of the year when Members are trying to get away, whereas the budget and its provisions to impose a penny on the pint or whatever are discussed seriously in both Houses and the media. The ability of lobbyists to extract major concessions from the Exchequer in tax shelters and tax breaks requires a strengthening of democracy. While it could be argued that reducing the number of Deputies would reduce the number of participants in a Punch and Judy show between political parties, the real issues of governance need to be faced. The relatively small reduction in the number of Deputies is a small part of the reform package. I sincerely hope the Seanad is not abolished. It should be redefined to give us more scrutiny, checks and balances and so forth.

Senator Cullinane raised the connection with Northern Ireland. Senators can make such connections themselves. One of the first things I did was to ask the Speaker in Stormont to arrange a visit. Based on my experience, Members who visit the Assembly to see it in operation will be most hospitably received. It is not always a matter for Ministers to arrange for Members to make friends with their counterparts in other parliaments.

The issue with Parliament has been essentially resolved with the election result in the sense that the Government that was adjudged to have done all the borrowing and given all the concessions to the banks has gone and its main party seriously reduced in numbers. The question that remains, however, is whether the permanent government and various quangos and non-performing semi-State bodies are still in place. Tackling these bodies with a stronger Parliament may be the way in which Ireland gets on its feet again.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.