In order to progress that commitment, an independent working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, was established in December 2014. The principle focus of that group was on possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system and the manner in which the House carries out its business within the existing constitutional parameters. The group published its report, known as the Manning report, in 2015, together with an accompanying Bill. The key electoral reform recommendations in the Manning report were: that the majority of Seanad seats would be elected by popular vote in a one person, one vote system; that this principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers; and a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation. A conservative estimate of the electorate under these arrangements is 5.3 million people.
Since the publication of the Manning report, the Seanad has had a number of opportunities to discuss Seanad reform, including statements on the report in July 2015 and again in June 2016, when Senator McDowell, along with a number of other Members, introduced the Seanad Bill 2016, a Private Members' Bill based on that prepared by the Manning group. However, it was apparent during the course of those discussions that while we had consensus on the need for change, we still did not have broad consensus on the detail of that change.
Against that background, and with the agreement of those on all sides, the Seanad reform implementation group was established. Its main terms of reference were to consider how to implement the recommendations of the Manning report and whether any variations to those recommendations were needed. The group was also asked to provide the text of a Bill to implement its proposals. One of the very obvious issues in the report, however, is the lack of consensus among the group. The report sets out different statements of position from members who had dissenting views. These range from re-examining the constitutional provisions relating to the Seanad with the aim of achieving more meaningful reform to having an electorate composed only of residents in the State. Today's statements arise as a result of the Government's consideration of the report and its wish to reflect on the position of the Oireachtas before taking any further steps. I am here to listen to the views of Senators.
The implementation group has not proposed any change to the widening of the electorate at Seanad elections from what was recommended in the Manning report. The proposal to widen the electorate includes extending the franchise at Seanad elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold valid Irish passports. The Government is proposing to hold a referendum to extend the franchise to citizens outside the State for presidential elections and the relevant constitutional amendment Bill was published last week. That referendum could serve as a useful barometer of the views of our existing electorate for extending the franchise in this way. My view is that we should await the outcome of that referendum before proceeding with extending the franchise for Seanad elections.
I will now turn to the variations to the Manning recommendations proposed by the implementation group. The first of these is a proposed change to the number of Seanad Members who would be elected by the public. The group now proposes that 34 of the 60 seats shall be directly elected from the five vocational panels, whereas Manning had recommended 36. The group also proposes that 15 seats be elected from an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and city and county councillors, two more than the 13 seats recommended in the Manning report. I am interested in hearing the views of the House on the vocational panels. Is changing the numbers to be elected by the public and by elected Members, as proposed, satisfactory or are there more fundamental questions to be asked such as, for example, whether the panel structure is fit for purpose? Do the proposed reforms of the panel system go far enough?
I note that the implementation group supports the proposal in the Manning Bill for a single six-seat university constituency, the franchise for which would be extended to other institutions of higher education apart from the National University of Ireland and Dublin University. This would give effect to the 1979 referendum on that point. However, I also note with interest that the group did not have a consensus on this proposal. An alternative proposal was recommended by some members of the group to divide the university constituency into three sub-panels, each of which would elect two Senators. Again, I am interested in hearing Senators' views.
The implementation group proposes to depart from Manning concerning the downloading of ballot papers by voters. This recommendation removes existing doubts regarding the integrity of Seanad elections being compromised by the use of Internet or other technology. I agree with the implementation group on this point and with the report where it concludes that we should tread carefully in the harnessing of technology in the context of the electoral process, particularly in light of past experience in Ireland and also other issues regarding the integrity of voting systems across the world in more recent years.
As already stated, under the Manning proposals, a conservative estimate of the number of persons who would be entitled to register and vote in Seanad elections is 5.3 million. The implementation group does not propose any change to that electorate so we are broadly looking at the same numbers. There is no doubt about the operational and logistical challenges in dealing with such large numbers of postal ballots and, therefore, careful planning and adequate resources would be needed.
The implementation group upholds the Manning recommendation that a separate register of Seanad electors should be established and maintained by a new Seanad electoral commission. However, we estimate that nearly two thirds of those who would be entitled to be on the Seanad register are already on the register of electors maintained by local authorities. The group puts forward the argument that having a separate register that requires voters to voluntarily apply for inclusion on the Seanad electoral register would mean that the register would largely be populated by those members of the electorate who have demonstrated an interest in participating in Seanad elections.
The group argues that this would reduce costs and limit the potential for voter fraud because there would be fewer unwanted or unused ballot papers in circulation. The group anticipates that, under these arrangements, rather than there being a rush to register, the growth of the register would take place gradually.
The group further anticipates that the number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and of those living outside the State likely to exercise their right to register would be much lower than the total number entitled to register. I am not entirely convinced by that argument. It is likely that the uptake to register at a Seanad election could be very high among certain groups but would not be representative of the entire State or of Irish citizens living outside the State. It is important that we design a system of electoral reform that accommodates the full representative electorate rather than some anticipated reduced uptake of registered electors. I am not convinced that having parallel registers, one for Seanad elections and one for all other elections, is the right approach, particularly in view of the work which is well advanced in my Department to overhaul and modernise the register of electors. This is a matter that requires careful examination.
The establishment of a Seanad electoral commission was originally proposed as an interim measure pending the establishment of an electoral commission with a broader remit. Work is well under way in my Department to prepare the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill, which will see a commission up and running sooner than previously thought. As such, a Seanad electoral commission may not be necessary.
Other Seanad electoral reform proposals need to be teased out more fully. For example, it is proposed that when applying for inclusion on the register of electors, a voter would choose the constituency in which he or she will vote at Seanad elections. This could give rise to some constituencies having significantly more voters relative to others and relative to their respective numbers of seats. The implementation group's Bill does not make any provision for balancing constituencies, so we must consider how that can be achieved in a practical and manageable way.
There is provision in the Bill to place a time limit on the period a person has been resident outside the State in order to qualify to be registered at a Seanad election. This would effectively limit the overall number of electors based overseas, but it is a proposal that leads to several questions. For example, what time period would be fair and how would such a criterion operate in practice? How would we know how long a person has been resident outside the State? These are issues that merit further consideration.
There is no doubt that reforming the electoral system as proposed will require significant resources. I welcome the suggestions provided by the implementation group for minimising costs where possible. They include the use of ordinary post rather than registered or prepaid post and the issuing of combined candidate election literature rather than separate items of literature for each candidate. However, we must bear in mind that ballot papers and combined election literature would have to be sent to a significantly higher number of electors than currently is the case, which means the associated costs will inevitably be significantly higher than at present.
The Manning report recommends several non-statutory reforms to the way the Seanad conducts its business. These could be implemented by the Seanad itself at any point, which this House should consider doing at the earliest opportunity. Examples of such reforms include strengthening of arrangements for Seanad scrutiny of reports from committees dealing with EU matters, facilitating debates on committee reports on EU matters which would be opened and closed by a chairman, rapporteur or member of the relevant committee nominated for that purpose, and regular scheduling of committee reports to improve the effectiveness of the House as well as the level of attention given to its work. The report adopted the principled objective of developing and strengthening the vocational nature of the Seanad. However, the report points out that the existing vocational panels are not evident in the way debates are structured in the House. Greater prominence could be given to the panels by periodically scheduling special debates on broad relevant themes and prioritising Senators elected to the relevant panel when assigning speaking rights in particular debates.
Today's debate provides a welcome opportunity to deepen our consideration of the electoral and non-electoral reforms we want to see. The Government is committed to implementing the reforms contained in the report but is also seeking views from Members about possibly going further. I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on the proposals by the implementation group regarding the election of Members of this House and its recommendations for changing the way the Seanad conducts its business.