: I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This is a short Bill to amend certain sections of the Electoral Act, 1997, relating to the disclosure of donations for political purposes and the regulation of expenditure at elections. The need for the Bill arises from the experience gained in operating the 1997 Act to date, particularly the legal interpretation applied by the Public Offices Commission to Parts IV and V of the Act. It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen, as we sail in uncharted waters in so far as the disclosure and expenditure requirements of the 1997 Act are concerned. Although there was provision for furnishing election expenditure statements up to 1963, the requirements then and the present public scrutiny of all things political are not comparable. I, for one, do not remember the pre-1963 regime and so far as I know there is only one Member of the House who was a Member when that arrangement relating to the publication of election expenses operated.
The Government has no problem with the principles of Part IV of the Electoral Act, 1997, which deal with the disclosure of political donations. I made the same point on Committee Stage of the Bill before the House last year. This Bill seeks to make the 1997 Act more workable following the initial experience of the reporting arrangements for disclosure of donations and the furnishing of statements of election expenses. Following consultation between the party Whips, I understand the amendments are acceptable to all the parties with the exception of the Green Party. Even though the Bill has 18 sections, the substantive changes are contained in six sections. Most of the other sections contain consequential drafting amendments.
The amendments to the Electoral Act, 1997, broadly provide for the following: the modification of the definitions of the expressions "donation" and "election expenses" as used in Parts IV, V and VI of the Act; clarification that a donation received by an elected representative or a candidate of a political party at an election, which is passed on by that person to the political party, will be regarded as a donation to the party, provided a written acknowledgement is received by the elected representative or candidate from the party; a requirement that a person who makes donations to several members of the same party in the same year must furnish a donation statement to the Public Offices Commission if, when aggregated, the donations for the year exceed the disclosure requirement of £4,000 for a political party — this will replace the existing requirement on political parties to disclose such multiple donations; a clarification of the position in relation to election expenses incurred by a political party or a candidate at a Dáil general election and by-election and at a Presidential or a European election; the removal of the ceiling on the limit of a candidate's election expenses which his or her party may incur at an election.
Section 3 will amend section 3 of the 1997 Act, consequent on an amendment in section 6 of the Bill. Section 3 of the 1997 Act makes provision for the variation of monetary amounts in that Act by order of the Minister. The amendment includes a reference to the new subsection (1A) in section 24 in the list of sections which have monetary amounts which can be varied by ministerial order, in accordance with changes in the consumer price index. The monetary amount referred to in section 24(1A) is £4,000, which will be the limit for disclosure by a donor of multiple donations in any year to different members of a political party.
I will move a further amendment to section 21 of the 1997 Act on Committee Stage concerning the number of votes necessary to be obtained at a Dáil by-election to qualify for reimbursement of a candidate's expenses. The number of votes to be obtained to qualify for reimbursement of election expenses will be the same proportion as at a general election.
Section 5 includes the first substantive amendments in the Bill. It provides for amendments to the definition of "donation" as used in section 22 of Part IV of the 1997 Act. The first amendment in paragraph (a) of section 5 provides that benefits derived by a candidate from a service rendered at an election by an individual in the employment of a political party will not be regarded as a donation to the candidate, provided the individual is not in receipt of any extra reward or benefit in kind for the service. This is in keeping with the general thrust of the 1997 Act that benefits derived by individual candidates, elected representatives or political parties from services or facilities which are publicly funded are not deemed to be a donation or an election expense. If such a provision is not included it would be nearly impossible to apportion the cost of an individual employed at party headquarters among many candidates of the party at an election. It would involve keeping detailed time sheets. In my view, the administrative work involved in keeping such detailed records would be out of proportion to the benefits obtained by the individual candidate.
The amendment in paragraph (c) provides that expenditure by a political party on behalf of its candidates at an election will not be regarded as a donation to the candidates, except in the case of a monetary contribution to a candidate which will be regarded as a donation. This amendment clarifies a point raised by the Public Offices Commission. It will avoid the need for double disclosure as such expenditure by a national election agent of a political party on behalf of each of the party's candidates is required to be included in that agent's election expenditure statement. It also forms part of the candidate's election expenditure limit. The exclusion of this matter from the definition of a "donation" will not inhibit disclosure of the expenditure involved.
The section also includes in paragraph (d) an amendment to the 1997 Act which provides that a donation received by a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a representative in the European Parliament or a candidate at a Dáil, Seanad or European election will be regarded as a donation to the person involved unless it is passed on by him or her to the person's political party and a written acknowledgment of the donation is received by the person from the party. In that case, the donation will be regarded as a donation to the party and it will have to be disclosed by the party if it exceeds £4,000. Disclosure by the elected representative or candidate is not required in these circumstances. This amendment will clear up a legal doubt raised by the Public Offices Commission which would require double disclosure even though an individual was merely a channel between the donor and the intended beneficiary, the party.
Paragraph (b) of section 6 will amend section 24 of the 1997 Act to require a donor who makes donations to several members of the same party in the same year to furnish a donation statement to the Public Offices Commission, if the donations for the year, when aggregated, exceed £4,000. The disclosure requirement applies to the donations whether the individual donations exceed the disclosure threshold for the individual to whom they were made and fall to be disclosed separately by the individual. A political party will not be required to disclose such donations covered by the new subsection.
The main purpose of this amendment is to make it unnecessary for political parties, not only the larger parties but also the smaller parties, to introduce elaborate bureaucratic procedures to trace all donations, even very small donations, to every member of the party in order to ascertain if the aggregate of donations from any one source exceeds £4,000 in any year. I referred to this problem when the 1997 Act was being discussed on Committee Stage last year. The large bureaucratic exercise required would far outweigh the benefit sought from the present legal requirement. The amendment will put the onus on an individual who makes multiple donations to the same or different members of a political party in a year, which exceed £4,000 in aggregate, to make a donation statement to the Public Offices Commission. A Member of the Oireachtas, an MEP or unsuccessful candidate at elections to these institutions will still be required to submit a donation statement for any single donation exceeding £500 or multiple donations from the same source exceeding £500 at an election, or in a year, whichever period applies. The donation statement by a donor of multiple donations exceeding £4,000 in a year to the members of the same political party will have to include the name of the political party and the individual donees to whom the donations were made.
I will be moving two amendments to section 6 on Committee Stage. The main amendment will clarify that if one or more of the multiple donations is made directly to the party as well as to individual members of the party, then such donations will be included in the total of the donations for disclosure purposes. The other amendment is a consequential drafting amendment.
Section 6 restates, with an amendment, section 24(1)(b) of the 1997 Act. It provides an extra month for political parties to furnish donation statements for the period from 15 May to 31 December 1997. The latest date for furnishing such statements will be 30 April next. The deadline for submitting donation statements by political parties will revert to 31 March in future years. The extension of time is being provided to allow political parties to take on board the changes included in the Bill.
Section 7 provides for the insertion of a new section in the 1997 Act to prohibit an elected representative, a candidate of a political party at an election or any other member of a political party from accepting a donation from a donor if he or she knows or has reason to believe that the donor in question will be required to make a donation statement and does not intend to comply with the requirement. If, notwithstanding the prohibition on the acceptance of such a donation, an elected representative, a candidate of a party at an election or any other member or agent of a party receives a donation, he or she will be required to notify the Public Offices Commission and surrender the donation or its value to the commission. The commission will be required to cause a copy of such a notification to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and to dispose of the donation or its value in such manner as directed by the Minister for Finance. This prohibition on accepting a donation where the donor is considering not submitting a donation statement is a corollary to the change proposed in section 6. The section demonstrates that the amendment proposed in section 6 is not made lightly and it is not intended to convey a softening of the Government's attitude to the principle of disclosure of donations for political purposes.
Section 25 of the 1997 Act provides for offences and penalties for non-compliance with the various requirements in Part IV of the 1997 Act. Section 8 of the Bill provides for an amendment to insert new subsections (1)(a) and (1)(b) in section 25 to designate as an offence non-compliance with the disclosure requirement of section 24(1)(a) and with the prohibition on the acceptance of a donation and other requirements of section 24(a) inserted by section 7 of the Bill. The penalties are the same as the existing penalties in the 1997 Act.
Section 10 of the Bill will clarify that the expression "election expenses" means all expenditure for electoral purposes incurred on the provision of property, goods or services for use during the period of the election. In the case of a Dáil general election, this period commences on the date of the dissolution of the Dáil and ends on polling day. In the case of a Dáil by-election, the period extends from the date of the issue of the writ to polling day and, in the case of a European election, it commences on the date of the polling day order and ends on polling day.
The amendments to section 31 clarify that all election expenses incurred before the commencement of the relevant period for an election on the provision of property, goods or services for use during the election period will be regarded as election expenses and will have to be accounted for by the relevant election agent. The reason for these amendments is to assist candidates in an election and the Public Offices Commission in implementing the Act.
There has been much discussion on whether an elected representative's normal constituency work is to be regarded as an election expense. This work was never intended to be regarded as an election expense. I am glad the Public Offices Commission accepted this in the guidelines issued for the recent by-elections.
There are four amendments to section 32. The amendments in paragraphs (a) and (c) are consequential drafting amendments. The amendment in paragraph (b) removes the ceiling of 50 per cent of the election expenses of a candidate which may be incurred by the candidate's political party with the candidate's agreement. This will leave it open to the political party and a candidate to agree in writing a division of the candidate's expenditure limit as may be appropriate to the circumstances. I do not accept an arbitrary upper limit should be set for this purpose. A rigid limit is not appropriate when one does not know what exactly the expenditure will be. The removal of the 50 per cent limit will facilitate the candidate and the political party to come to whatever arrangement satisfies both. No change is being made in the expenditure limits.
The provisions which provide that expenditure by a political party under sections 32 and 33 of the 1997 Act is deemed to be expenditure by the candidate will be replaced by two new provisions which specify that expenditure by a political party under section 32 in a constituency, other than expenditure by the national agent of the party, will be deemed to be expenditure by the candidate and must be accounted for by the election agent of the candidate. In other words, if the expenditure by a political party in a constituency is not incurred by the national agent or under his authority, it is the responsibility of the candidate and his or her election agent.
The amendment in paragraph (d) inserts a new subsection (4) which clarifies that expenditure by a party in a constituency, including expenditure by the national agent, will be deemed to be expenditure by a candidate for the purposes of the reimbursement of the election expenses of the candidate. This will change the present position that the expenditure of a party in constituencies other than the candidate's constituency could be used by a candidate to claim recoupment of election expenditure. The new arrangement clarifies that only expenditure in the constituency can be included in the candidate's claim.
The amendments in section 12 of the Bill are identical to the amendments in section 11 except that they relate to European Parliament elections rather than Dáil elections.
Section 18 is a transitional provision which provides that a donation statement or a Presidential election donation statement already furnished to the Public Offices Commission or a statement of election expenses to the Public Offices Commission relating to an election held before the coming into operation of the Bill will be deemed to be valid if the statement in question complies with the provisions of the 1997 Act as they now stand or the provisions as amended by the Bill. I will move amendments on Committee Stage to ensure donation statements for the period between 1 January this year and the date the Bill is enacted are also covered as well as donation statements to be made by unsuccessful candidates in the recent by-elections.
The amendments proposed in the Bill to the 1997 Act will make the Act more workable for those covered by its provisions and the Public Offices Commission. I express the appreciation of the Government Chief Whip to the other Whips who discussed over many meetings the conclusions being put before the House. I commend the Bill to the House.