Like Deputy Dennehy, I wish the Minister well. He has excellent experience in his own constituency and he knows how elections are run because he has been in politics for many years. He is the right man to steer this Bill through the House.
I welcome the Bill because any legislation which helps elections to become more efficient and accessible to the electorate is timely. During the passing of the measure through the House every effort should be made to improve it if at all possible.
In this country we are fortunate to have a system of elections which must rank as one of the fairest in the world. Our system offers a wide range of choices. At times up to 12 candidates may offer themselves for election in a constituency. Voters number the candidates from one to 12 in order of preference — and all candidates, including the Minister and myself, hope to have many voters allocating No. 1 to them. Voters are able to select those people who they deem would represent them best at either national or local authority level. Some commentators would claim that the system of proportional representation does not produce the best politicians but I tend to disagree. Those commentators might say that the politicians elected are messenger boys, clinic operators or those who are always stuffing letter boxes with unwanted literature —"drops", as they are known out my way.
Although our system is not perfect, I should like to speak in its defence because I believe it to be absolutely fair. Deputy Leonard made the case for single seat constituencies. The Irish people get excellent representation from our present system. My constituency has four TDs, all of whom work very hard on behalf of the constituents. Under our system there may be a lot of competition but, in my opinion, through that competition the constituents get the benefit of good service. All of the ensuing activity may place unwanted burdens on the elected representatives, but such activity brings the public representatives closer to their constituents. The representatives are given greater opportunity to ascertain the views of their constituents on matters relating to legislation and on local issues that affect the wellbeing of the public. It is my experience that on a regular basis constituents offer views on matters affecting the environment, planning and housing. As their public representative, I am thereby enabled to put forward their views at local council level and at Dáil level. It is a two-way process and I am able to report back to my constituents on progress made. By attending constituency clinics and meetings, a public representative is made aware of different views and circumstances that can be represented both at local council meetings and in the House. I find our present system very helpful and I hope that it continues for a long time to come.
One group often forgotten when legislation such as this comes before the House is the party activists. We all have party activists — the Minister's party have the cumann members and my party have branch members, and one is usually able to identify the party to which activists belong when one is told that they belong to the local cumann or the local branch. Some of the best ideas to come before the House have originated at a local branch party meeting or a meeting of a local constituency executive. In my constituency of Dublin North East the activists of my own party are frontline people. They are the people who are out at local level working very hard on our behalf and they are often the people who can tell us just what our constituents feel. I often think that most of the time of party activists is wasted on fundraising activities — selling tickets, running functions, raffles and so on. That should not be the role of party activists. Our party activists should be able to make a contribution in other ways such as by finding out what is happening in the constituencies and by having an input at meetings and reporting to us. They should have an input on the issues of the day, such as legislation that may be going through the House. Such feedback can be very valuable.
One often finds that the agenda of a party branch or cumann meeting is taken up by financial issues. Finance is usually the first item on the agenda and much of the meeting is taken up in discussing fund-raising ideas following receipt of a letter from party headquarters that urges members to hold raffles or draws or find other ways to raise funds. That is not right. In this regard, I am trying to make a case for the funding of political parties. Parties should be funded at national level. In Germany a political party receives funds the amount of which is determined by the number of votes gained. From memory, I think that for each vote gained at national level a party gets one Deutsche Mark. A system such as that operated in Germany should be put in place in this country. As I have already said, too much of the time of TDs and party activists is taken up by fund-raising. At local level there are people who have good ideas to contribute and it is wrong that their time should be taken up with projects that try to raise funds in order to keep a party in operation and to meet the expenses incurred at the time of local and national elections.
Party activists could make a better contribution to democracy and to this country by identifying the issues in a constituency and by commenting on issues to come before the House. People go out to join parties not to raise funds but in order to have an input, and it is my view that much talent is being wasted. All political parties are experiencing a falling off of numbers at branch and cumann meetings. I have spoken to people on the Minister's side of the political divide who have agreed that this is happening. People are discouraged from attending the meetings because they know that they will either be asked to pay money by way of subscription or be asked to go out and raise money. Our party members should not have to do that, they have a more important role to play. As I have said, people go out of their way to join a political party because they want to have an input into democracy and into the running of this country. At this stage we should consider the case for making money available to political parties. In fact, funding should be filtered down to local level so that party members are enabled to carry out research and surveys.
We live in an age in which the environment is of paramount importance. Elections should not pollute our environment. There would be a great improvement were posters and electioneering literature strictly controlled at election time. I have just spoken about party activists and the way in which they have to raise money. Much of the money raised during the years in between elections is put towards the publication of posters and literature. The whole issue of electioneering literature needs to be examined. In my own constituency we found other ways of doing things during the most recent local authority elections. Posters can pollute a constituency. Party activists go out on the streets and put up posters and a few days later after a stormy night, one finds damaged posters all over the place. Posters become an annoyance to residents. People are often put off the thought of elections by the evidence of so much waste and so much paper pollution. At the time of the most recent local authority elections all parties in my constituency met and decided that we would not erect the traditional posters we had used over the years but would instead use the local newspapers and the local radio stations to get the messages across. I found that process worked very well. My own party decided to give individual candidates their own choice of what kind of advertisement was put in the local papers. My area has two excellent papers, theDublin Tribune and the Northside People, and we chose advertisements that included an individual candidate's photograph, asked for a No. 1 vote and requested people to carry their votes on to one's party colleagues.
That is the way to go about putting across a written message at election time. Most of the free publications are delivered to every household in an area and people do read them. Perhaps a party or an individual candidate incur expense in inserting advertisements in the newsletters and papers but that is money well spent. Surely it is better to put a message across in that way than to pollute our environment. What about the time wasted by party activists in putting up posters which may be found on the ground the next day? That time could be better employed by party activists canvassing people, putting the issues to them and being positive about the election. The electors would thank us were we to carry on our business in that way.
Most contributors today referred to activities outside polling stations on election day. I welcome the provision in the Bill in regard to this aspect. I believe the polling station should be the domain of the general public on election day. I welcome the provision whereby there should be 50 metres between the polling station and what is happening elsewhere but the provision could go further. As Deputy Leonard said. There will always be people who will say: "I can set up shop beyond 50 metres and I can erect banners, posters and loudspeakers and I can have the usual razzmatazz that takes place." There should be no razzmatazz in the vicinity of the polling stations — it should be banned from the night before — as provided for in the Bill.
As candidates over the years we all know from watching people arriving at the polling station that they have literally to run the gauntlet before they achieve their aim of getting inside and casting their vote. Fine Gael supporters are on one side and Fianna Fáil supporters are on the other side and they are trying to outdo the other on election day. The night before the election they are out erecting posters and banners and it all seems such a waste of time. In my opinion the activists are people who should be out there putting the issues on the doorstep. When election day arrives it should be a free day; it should be for the electorate and no one else. All electioneering should cease the night before and the polling station should be free so that people can get in easily and cast their vote.
I welcome the provision in the Bill whereby a supplement to the register of electors can be formulated up to 12 days before polling day. At every election in which I have stood — approximately eight between local authority elections and general elections — I have met people who say they are not on the register and ask why that is so. Quite an amount of time is spent in ascertaining why they are not on the register and in reporting back to them after the election. I am aware local authorities do their best. I notice in my own household that Dublin County Council have had people checking the register door to door. That is not an easy job because they may find many people are not in and may have to call back but it is the only way it can be done. The register must be right. However, no matter how thorough you try to be someone will always slip through the net. I welcome the fact that a supplementary register can be compiled up to 12 days before polling day.
Deputies referred to commercial travellers who have missed out on voting down through the years. Following the last budget many commercial travellers called to our clinics; in fact, I had some of them here on a deputation in relation to the taxes they were being charged. They pointed out also that they very seldom have an opportunity to get back to vote because they are travelling in the country and, indeed, nowadays many are travelling outside the country. Special provision should be made for commercial travellers to have a postal vote.
In my own constituency there are many fishermen. The fishing business in Howth has become specialised nowadays and fishermen are at sea for two or three days at a time. More often than not, elections in this country, are held on a Wednesday and fishermen are not always able to get back on time. I am aware — and I am thankful to them — that on one occasion they broke their trip and came back on a certain day and voted for me. They should be considered as should sailors who often have to sail across the Channel, and sometimes further afield. I have had representations from them from time to time as to why they do not have a vote and I would like to make a special case for those three groupings I have met over the years who have been deprived of a vote.
It is important at election time that only serious candidates offer themselves for election. We should make sure the ballot paper is not confused with entries from spurious candidates and the Bill provides for that aspect. I have some reservations about the increase in the election deposit from £100 to £500. I note the Bill reduces the number of votes to be obtained from one third to a quarter of the quota. That is a welcome provision but we should examine the idea of reducing it to, perhaps, a fifth or a sixth of the quota which would allow those with limited means to contest an election. If democracy is to work, money should not be an inhibiting factor for anyone standing for election. However, we must ensure that spurious candidates do not cause confusion. At local elections, which are basically very different from national elections, there will be many people seeking election on local issues, sometimes from the local residents' association or various community groups. The deposit of £100 should remain because it allows people to participate in local elections.
During the past few months I have received representations from the people under reference D on the register of electors. Recently I received a letter from a constituent regarding the fact that she was born in Liverpool of British parents and had arrived here when she was three months old. She married an Irishman but she was unable to have a vote in a recent referendum and was most perturbed. She stated that after living here for 65 years, paying taxes, being married to an Irishman and having had two children here she was most upset over the whole matter. She asked whether she should pay her taxes in Britain as she is no longer a citizen of this country. She appreciated the help I gave because I raised the matter with the relevant Department but she want on to say she has requested that her name be removed from the register of electors. That is the case of a person who arrived here when she was three months old, lived here all her life and paid her taxes here. Her husband, who was a civil servant, paid his taxes here and yet when an issue like the Maastricht referendum came up she had no vote. We should examine that issue and try to accommodate such persons.
I support the vote for emigrants, many of whom have put much effort in helping this country. It is not their fault that they have had to emigrate; some day they may wish to come back and be part of the process here.