I support the amendment. It is in the same vein as our proposal to delete the provision in the Bill which allows for the number of Deputies to be reduced to as few as 153. It is not acceptable that the number of Oireachtas Members is reduced without a corresponding enhancement of local government. I appreciate the Minister's point that local government reform is on the Government's agenda and will be tackled at a later stage. I accept that this Bill is intended to make several very specific provisions. However, we are putting the cart before the horse by proceeding in this manner. Reform of local government should take place in tandem with reform of constituency boundaries and changes in the number of Deputies. This is a fundamental issue for me as somebody, like the Minister, who was a member of a local authority for many years and who saw powers stripped away from councillors in regard to waste management and many other issues. While many promises were made by the previous Government in respect of directly elected mayors and various aspects of local government reform, such reform has been piecemeal at best, where it is forthcoming at all. It makes little sense to reduce the number of Dáil Deputies in the absence of serious measures to strengthen local government.
There is a question mark regarding the constitutionality of the Bill given that a reduction in the number of Deputies will not make the Dáil more accountable or enable people to participate more effectively in democracy. It will not, for example, provide for the involvement of more people from low-income or rural backgrounds, who are often voiceless in political debates and who depend on those who are elected to represent them. The Bill is more about the Government being seen to deliver on an election promise; it is about image rather than genuine political reform. Reducing the number of Deputies raises several issues given that a further population increase between now and the next census is likely. The minimum requirement under the Constitution is one Dáil Deputy per 30,000 head of population. On Committee Stage in the Dáil, the Minister stated that he did not accept there would be a further increase in population in the next two or three years, but the preliminary returns from this year's census show that the population is increasing at quite a rapid rate.
The Government has talked a great deal about reducing the number of quangos and unelected officials, as referred to by Senator Barrett. It drives elected representatives crazy to see the types of powers accorded to certain unelected individuals. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum — left, right or centre — we are all agreed that important decisions should be made by the people who are elected to make those decisions. The powers enjoyed by some quangos are entirely unacceptable. The Leader recently referred to the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, in this regard. While we all accept that the authority has a job to do — and a very difficult job at that — there are question marks over who sets the agenda in the health service. For instance, is it HIQA which decides whether hospital accident and emergency departments are closed or is that a matter for the Government as part of a broader regard for issues of health service provision? There are issues that must be addressed in this regard.
I am not convinced that reducing the number of Deputies is the best way to go. If it is a question of reducing costs to the Exchequer, the simplest way to do that is to reduce the salaries and expenses of Oireachtas Members. My party put forward legislative provisions on this issue some weeks ago in the Dáil but, unfortunately, they were not supported by the Government parties. If it is all about saving money, or giving an impression to the public that we are saving money in the current austere times, it would be far better to reduce allowances and salaries rather than reducing the number of Deputies.
A reduction in numbers, and all of the challenges it would bring in terms of boundary changes and so on, will only create unnecessary distractions from more pressing issues. I made the point in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion to the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, that if my own constituency of Waterford, which I share with the Leader, is to remain a four-seat constituency, parts of south Kilkenny may have to be brought into it. As the Leader will agree, that is a political hot potato in the area. Such unnecessary distractions are likely to arise throughout the State.