I wish to share time with Deputies Collins and Wallace.
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
Is that agreed? Agreed.
In the few minutes left to me I will deal with the number of Deputies and the reduction proposed in the Bill. I strongly believe that the number of Deputies in this House is not the problem. The problem is the accountability of Deputies in the House to the public and electorate who elected them. It was brought home forcefully in the aftermath of the recent election. Parties stood on platforms and made promises, but came in here after the election and implemented policies that were totally at variance with those for which they campaigned during the course of the general election.
Reform is needed to ensure that Deputies are accountable to the public. The public should have a mechanism whereby Deputies who do not fulfil their obligations and mandate to the people could be recalled. A popular initiative should be available to the public, something which was in the first Constitution of the State and is available in many other European countries. If the public was dissatisfied with a law passed by Parliament it would be in a position to call a referendum on the issue. Accountability is the real problem with Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and the Oireachtas.
On the number of Deputies referred to in the Bill, if one looks at international comparisons we are not out of line with other comparable countries such as Denmark, Sweden or New Zealand. Any reduction would disadvantage smaller parties and Independent Deputies. The reduction in cost would be small and there are other methods by which significant cost reductions could be achieved by the House.
I wish to comment briefly on matters raised by other speakers. Last night, a Sinn Féin Deputy indicated he was supportive of the list system. I am absolutely opposed to the list system, however, on the basis that if we had such a system in the 2007 general election we could well have ended up with Mr. Seanie FitzPatrick as Minister for Finance.
Deputy Shane Ross wanted him.
Deputy Mick Wallace mentioned him also.
He was the financial guru of the day and we could have ended up with him here. There are all sorts of problems relating to the list system. Someone like Seanie FitzPatrick, who was considered to be a guru then, might well have ended up as Minister for Finance, so we would be in an even worse situation than we currently are.
This Bill is a sop to the whole question of political reform. Having spoken to people before, during and after the election, it is clear they want accountability from their public representatives. As Deputy Healy said, on too many occasions promises have been made only to be broken afterwards. Consequently, people feel they have no redress concerning the promises that were made. The issue of recall must be on the agenda, as well as a mechanism to seek a referendum to hold politicians to account.
Before discussing political reform, however, we need improved access to social welfare services, including medical cards. It is scandalous that TDs should have a role to play by intervening in decisions as to whether a person should have a medical card. If it is a person's right and entitlement they should get it. More resources should be afforded to the citizens' information bureaux as well as to local authorities in that regard. As elected representatives, it is the business of TDs to implement through legislation the pre-election policies they put to the people. That is our key role.
I support the Bill's provision to hold by-elections within six months of a vacancy arising. There should be no recurrence of the scandalous delays that happened under the last Government when we were waiting years for by-elections to be held. People should not be deprived of representation in their constituencies.
The proposal to cut the number of TDs by 20, which appeared in Fine Gael's election manifesto, is nothing more than a political stunt. One of the few good points about our electoral system is that it provides for a more representative range of political opinion. It allows Independents and members of small parties to gain seats. Despite the advantages the establishment parties enjoy through the media, financial backing and the support of big business, real electoral reform would mean tackling these issues. Apart from being a cheap electoral stunt, the Bill's proposal to reduce the number of TDs is aimed at Independent TDs and small parties.
If the Government wants to reduce the cost to taxpayers of running the Dáil there are much better ways of doing so. I estimate the overall cost of a TD is somewhere between €270,000 and €350,000 per year, depending on whether the Member is an Independent or in a large political party. That estimate takes account of wages, vouched and travel expenses, employment of secretaries and personal assistants, phones, free post and office space, in addition to the party leader's allowance and party running costs. Cutting the number of TDs by ten, for example, would save approximately €3 million. The same amount would be saved by halving the wages of TDs and Ministers. We should be looking at these areas. This would also have the advantage of bringing a bit of reality to bear on making ends meet in the Dáil.
It is the policy of TDs in the United Left Alliance to take the average industrial wage they received before being elected — whether they worked in the post office, airports or elsewhere — and give the remainder to a solidarity fund. We are proud to be able to implement that policy, which keeps our feet on the ground. We therefore understand the reality facing ordinary people in our communities.
Cutting TDs' wages by 50% would do far more to lessen the damage done by certain people who abused the system by phoning celebrity contests, being unsure whether they lived in Dublin or Cork, or the activities of Deputy Lowry for which he has been censured in this Chamber.
I am not sure people are aware that €11,640,000 is being paid out annually to political parties, with €4.5 million going to Fine Gael, €2.3 million to Fianna Fáil and the same to Labour. A 50% cut in those payments would save taxpayers almost €6 million.
What about the Deputy's €40,000 tax-free allowance?
If linked to really effective legislation to ban big business funding the political establishment, it would begin to end the hegemony of the pro-big business establishment and open this Chamber to ordinary people, rather than big business interests that are bankrolling the system. That would be real and meaningful political reform.
There are some positive elements in the Bill, even though the legislation is insubstantial. I am still not convinced how much the coalition Government wants to make serious changes or how much of it will be cosmetic. Much of the change that is needed would require the Government of the day to be more accountable. Therefore, asking the incumbent Government to effect serious change is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas——
——which they would be reluctant to do.
The six-month by-election rule is definitely a good idea. What happened under the last Government was a complete sham, but it also occurred before that. It is definitely a good idea to introduce that provision.
I was shocked to hear Deputy Pearse Doherty say last night that the Supreme Court appeal to the High Court decision to force the Donegal South-West by-election is still being fought. It seems outrageous that we should be spending money on that at the moment.
It is a good idea to reduce allowances for presidential election campaigns from €1.3 million to €750,000. It is sensible but the new figure is still way too high. The €200,000 return figure is also high. We are nonetheless nothing like the American situation where it costs about $1 billion for a presidential candidate to run for office. The USA has a population which is approximately 70 times ours but it is still a mad scenario over there. One must be a multi-millionaire to consider running for the White House. We are not quite as bad as that yet, but it would be a positive move to bring the figures down further, thus making the presidential election more available to ordinary citizens with less money. We would also have to change the way a candidate can get on the ballot paper, which is pretty discriminatory at the moment.
With regard to the Bill's proposal to reduce the number of TDs, it would make a lot more sense to start with local government. If this country is to be run in a healthy fashion we must reform how local government operates. It is one of the biggest differences when one compares Ireland to how other western European countries run local government. The lack of local government here is the starkest difference.
I am sure many Members of the House have read Fintan O'Toole's book Enough is Enough, from which I would like to quote a short extract. It is a fabulous work and deserves attention. In the book, O’Toole argues that the process of radical political reform has to start at local government level. He justifies this on three grounds: first, the elites are too deeply entrenched to have any interest in radical reform; second, without real local government what will continue to happen is what has always happened — we get local politicians operating at national level, and national politicians continuing to function as if they were county councillors; and third, because localism remains so strong, Irish people have a very weak sense of ownership of the State, but a very strong sense of local belonging.
O'Toole also draws attention to the fact that Ireland has some of the best civil society organisations in the world, "all of them built on a very strong sense of local engagement and participation". Commenting that centralisation has been "disastrous", he writes: Instead of being centres for strategic thinking, inovation, co-ordination and long-term planning, Government Departments got bogged down in day-to-day bureaucracy and crisis management.
At present, local government here has only one fifth of the average funding available in Europe. I would like to see greater taxation powers for local government as well as it being involved in education, health and economic development.
Local government input into economic development would provide a huge boost for the country. Also, rather than having civil servants make all the decisions, councillors, as opposed to only taking part in special groups, should also have the power to do so. More often than not, a county manager is a political appointee. I would prefer if such a person was directly elected by the people in order that if he or she did not perform well, they would have the power to remove him or her. Currently, they have little power over those who make decisions for them at local level.
I wish to share time with Deputies Buttimer, Donohoe and Tom Hayes.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I have no great problem with this legislation and will only comment on it in general terms. I am not a great supporter of any attempt to diminish democracy. I have always held the view that we must safeguard it, as it is fragile. Any country which shrunk democracy paid a high price for so doing. I am not suggesting the proposals contained in the legislation will shrink democracy in this country unnecessarily. However, weaknesses have shown up in the system in recent years. In the short time available to me, I would like to evaluate these weaknesses.
Weaknesses have shown up in Departments, many of which did not do the job they were supposed to do. Ministers did not call the shots, did not recognise the problem and did not take action when they should have. Heads of Departments also did not do their jobs. They should have taken action and issued warnings immediately when things were seen to be going wrong. The regulators also did not do their job. However, there is no point in going over the matter. The banking system did not do what it was supposed to do. The economy was turned upside down leaving us in a situation from which we will have great difficulty extricating ourselves.
The question that arises is whether the parliamentary system failed. I do not believe it did, as it was not allowed to function. It was dominated by a Government which slowly strangled Parliament. Once that happens, Parliament become irrelevant. Where does Parliament now finds itself? We are placed between local authorities which we all believe should have more power — in European Union member states greater recognition is given to regional authorities and, as such, there is regionalisation with the establishment of the Scottish, Welsh and other assemblies — and the European institutions, including the European Parliament and the European Commission. There is no purer form of democracy than having direct elections to the national parliament. We can talk about the matter for as long as we like and can get as many experts as we like to analyse it, but there is substitute for this. Any attempt to circumnavigate the system, whereby experts are elevated to ministerial or any other office in the parliamentary system, is anathema and flies in the face of democracy.
Whenever we shrink democracy we enhance bureaucracy. It is as simple as that. When we remove, trim or reduce the powers or autonomy of parliamentarians, the corresponding change is the giving of more power to bureaucrats, which they love. For them, it is all about power. The longer one studies this issue, the more obvious it becomes. That is the reason so many experts are commenting on our situation. Have we ever before been beset by more opinions from experts than in the past two and a half to three years since the economy began running into the sand? The experts came out of the woodwork and continue to advise and tell us what we should be doing. Very often they offer contradictory opinions. However, where were they before everything went wrong? They were rallying the crowd and being populist. Let us not forget that populism is dangerous. Any European historian could tell us all about this and would not have to go too far back in time to do so.
I do not have a difficulty with the Bill. However, I caution that we must be careful not to trim democracy to the benefit of bureaucrats and administrators, thus reducing the quality of representation to which the people are entitled.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus molaim an Bille Toghcháin (Leasú) 2011. I welcome the Bill. It is important we have legislation which introduces a six-month time limit for the holding of by-elections. During the last Dáil court intervention was required in the case of by-elections which were not held for 18 months. That is an example of where the Government turned its back on democracy, leaving some people without representation. The Government must allow people to be represented. The approach of the previous Administration undermined the principles on which our democracy is based.
Yesterday Deputy Niall Collins derided this legislation as piecemeal. The Bill addresses the real issues facing us. It is about ensuring a continuation of democracy. It represents a far superior way of legislating than the à la carte approach taken by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Administration. This measure is necessary because the people were ignored. In many constituencies they did not have a voice. It is unfortunate that we have to take this prescriptive step, but it will ensure representation continues in the national Parliament.
Following on from publication last week of the preliminary census report, I welcome the establishment by the Minister of the constituency review committee. The census confirmed an unexpected increase in population which will have a profound impact in terms of changes to Dáil constituency boundaries which will affect some of us. As Deputy Joan Collins stated, political reform was an issue in the last general election campaign. It was the lexicon used by many. In establishing an electoral commission the Minister is outlining the parameters within which reform can and will take place. Legislation states county boundaries and geographical features must be taken into account when reviewing constituency boundaries. It is important that social and day-to-day realities are also taken into account. There is a large degree of interdependence between urban centres and what are referred to as satellite towns. They share many of the same issues, facilities and services. It is important, therefore, that these factors are considered by the commission in order that boundaries will not be arbitrarily drawn without reference to the impact on local communities and, accordingly, the people living in them.
I welcome the reduction in spending limits in presidential elections and the amount to be reimbursed to candidates, another demonstration of the Government's commitment to providing for a reduction in spending across the political divide. It is important that it continue to examine all items of expenditure to identify where savings can be made. Deputy Wallace has referred to what happens in elections in America. It is important that we proceed with caution. Every Member of this House knows the expense involved in running for elected office from a town council to the national Parliament and the European Parliament. Political parties and candidates are funded through individual, corporate or union donations governed by the SIPO. If we were to ban political donations, candidates would, without State funding, have to rely on their own resources. It is in no one's interest that participation in elections is only available to those who have personal wealth to fund their lavish campaigns. Regardless of the model of funding we decide upon, we must be conscious that if we are to ban donations, the State will inevitably need to provide increased resources to fund elections. It is time to have a proper debate on what it means to have State funding of political parties in our democracy. We are a democratic Republic and it is important that we have an open and transparent debate on that.
I very much welcome that we are having this debate and I hope the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the commission will be cognisant that in carrying out the electoral review it is not just about geographical boundaries, but is also about communities and giving people a strong cogent voice. As Deputy Durkan said, reform is not just about trimming and cutting, but about how we can engage and have real participation in bringing the voice of the people not just to this Chamber, but also to the local authorities where decisions that have a real effect are made.
I also welcome the Bill. I pick up on a theme mentioned by Deputy Buttimer, which is the role of Parliament in political life. There is one consequence the Bill cannot be allowed to have. As we move to reduce the size of our political system, it cannot be done at the expense of reducing the effectiveness of the political system or the total amount of politics and democracy available in our public life. That can really only be done if measures are put in place to increase the power of Parliament and make this a proper Parliament as opposed to a Chamber that can be dominated by Government.
A recent survey evaluated the effectiveness of different parliaments across similar-sized countries. Of the 31 parliaments surveyed, we ranked 29th in the effectiveness of Parliament based on oversight, holding Government to account and particularly in giving a role to backbenchers. A recent article on the operation of the new parliament in the UK indicated that one of the innovations there was to give greater ability to backbenchers to raise matters they believed to be of national or local interest, which is something of which we continue to be deprived. There is a waiting list of matters to be raised on the Adjournment. Our inability to do that impairs our ability to carry out one of the roles for which we are elected, which is to raise local or national matters we believe to be important. I strongly support moves to reduce the size of our political system and that should be done. As we have seen change in the size and operation of every other public service, the same should happen to our political system. However, when talking about reform of our public services, we also need to talk about proper reform of what happens here. I believe the Government is committed to doing that and Members on the Government side as well as those in opposition have an incentive to see it happen.
I wish to speak about the calling of by-elections. I participated in the Dublin Central by-election caused by the sad death of Tony Gregory in the last Dáil. How that was handled was nothing short of a farce and did real damage to the legitimacy and value we seek to accord to being a Member of this House. The insight that must underscore all of that is that being a Deputy and having a seat in this Chamber does not make that seat the property of anybody elected to it. I stand here representing Dublin Central and that seat is owned by the people. The people through Parliament should have an expectation regarding when that seat should be filled if a vacancy arises for whatever reason. Therefore it is important that the Bill introduces a bounded time limit as to when that should happen.
I welcome the changes to the spending limits on presidential elections, but I would like to see that extended. We should consider the cost involved in participating in a general election campaign and find ways to ensure that money of itself does not have a disproportionate role in deciding how people get elected. Having contested a number of elections and knowing the amount of money I have spent on general elections, I recognise that in retrospect the effect of that money is always far less than I might have considered at the time. The qualities that still continue to be decisive at election time are the amount of work a candidate puts into getting elected, the quality of what is said and how he or she communicates it. We ought to ensure that the power of money is regulated and restrained at all times.
I conclude on the role of Parliament and strengthening the role of democracy — not just reducing it. I saw a very encouraging sign of that yesterday when the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, brought a proposal to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht regarding legislation he is planning to draft. He invited the committee to revert to him in four weeks with its input on what should be in that Bill before he begins drafting it. Those kinds of measures give testament to the intent we have to reform these Chambers and reform political life.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 is a prime example of the Government's and this party's commitment to changing how politics works in this country. During the general election campaign and prior to it, Leinster House was seen as a place where there was nobody. I can count eight Deputies, including the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, in this House today. People and particularly those in the media will say this is a national disgrace, but last night at 10.45 p.m. I walked through the corridors in Leinster House and in almost every office there was somebody working. There is no other workplace in this country where people put in such long hours. However, the public's perception of this place is so wrong. We have done an injustice to ourselves over the years by hammering each other inside here. I passionately believe that, with the possible exception of a very small number, everybody elected to this House is committed to public service. Most people come in here with a passion to do something, and work long hours and extremely hard on behalf of their constituents. We have a very difficult electoral system that is clientelist and we all have constituency offices. We work on Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays and long weekends, but I believe the public perception is wrong. We need to generate a different idea of exactly we are doing — what Ministers are doing, what committees are doing and what each representative is doing in this House.
It was a big argument of the public and the media to reduce the number of Deputies. The Bill's proposal to establish a new commission tasked with setting boundaries with 30,000 people per Deputy is welcome. That is what the public wants and we must deliver what it wants. However, in giving people what they want we must also explain what we are doing and how we are doing it. I have brought many people into this House on a constituents' day out. They are shocked and flabbergasted with the amount of hours we put in and the amount of work we do.
I participated in two by-elections, being elected in one and defeated in the other. While I welcome the introduction of a time limit on holding by-elections, I have a reservation. While I might be disagreeing with party policy, I believe that six months is too tight. I suggest the Minister give consideration to providing for a 12-month period because there can be tragic deaths and circumstances where a person must leave this House. I firmly believe the six-month period is too tight, although the Minister is right to put a limit in place. However, a 12-month period should be considered in particular circumstances, given the fact that many by-elections have resulted from people leaving this House owing to very serious events.
With regard to the amount that can be spent at a presidential election, we are spending twice what we should be at all elections — local, national, presidential and otherwise. There were far more posters used during the last general election than was necessary. I hope the Government will be in power for a five-year period during which time we should put a plan in place so as not to waste money on posters, advertisements and so on. I urge that we make inroads on this issue in the next couple of years.
I wish to share time with Deputy Troy.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I generally welcome many of the measures proposed in the legislation. Having a time limit of six months for the calling of a by-election is generally a good idea, although I agree with Deputy Tom Hayes that allowing a few extra months might be preferable. When one considers the logistics, it is never appropriate to hold an election in the months of July and August because many people are out of the country on holidays. Therefore, if a Member was to die in the early part of the year, the by-election would have to be held within four or five months to be completed by June and a six-month provision would not allow us to wait until September when the holiday season was over, people were back to work and the schools were open again. I suggest, therefore, that we consider the practicalities of providing for a six-month period, although the principle is correct.
I generally support the proposal regarding the constituency commission which will get on with its work. The third proposal concerns reducing spending limits and the reimbursement of expenses of candidates at presidential elections. This is the issue on which I want to focus, not just as it relates to presidential elections but to all elections. During the last Dáil, in April 2008, the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I was Chairman, issued a report entitled, First Report — The Future of the Electoral Register in Ireland and Related Matters. All members of the committee signed up to the general ideas espoused in and the contents of the report. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, was a member of the committee, as were Deputies Bannon, Ciarán Lynch and Tuffy, and the then Senators Hannigan and Coffey, now Deputies, as well as the then Senator Cannon, now a Minister of State. Therefore, many members of the current Government parties were involved and agreed to the contents of the report.
The key issue on which I wish to focus in the context of the report is the cost of elections. I am very disappointed the Minister is not present, although I make no political point in that regard, as he is obviously otherwise committed. Nonetheless, I will try to make a point of speaking to him personally on this issue in the coming weeks to express my views to him. We are discussing reducing the amount that can be reimbursed to presidential election candidates from €260,000 to €200,000 and the amount candidates can spend from their own resources from €1.3 million to €750,000. Therefore, for example, if there were four candidates in a presidential election, the reduction of €60,000 per candidate would give a total saving of €240,000. While that sounds significant, it is not the issue. That is the point I want to make to the Minister.
I wish to quote figures for the 2007 general election, the election studied in the 2008 report of the joint committee of which the Minister was part. The most minor cost is the sum that must be reimbursed to candidates. Based on parliamentary replies from the then Minister for Finance, the cost of payments to returning officers in all the constituencies in the 2007 general election was €15,443,187.57. In addition, as shown in the report — the information was probably acquired by means of replies to parliamentary questions — the amount paid to An Post was €12,496,308.93. This gives a ballpark figure of €28 million for the cost of running a national election campaign, which includes the payments to returning officers for organising the counts and making arrangements for polling day, as well as to An Post, the biggest component of which is the litir um thoghchán, an issue to which I will return. My point is that while there will be a saving to the taxpayer in respect of refunds to candidates, the cost of staging a general election is about €28 million; therefore, the saving will not even represent 1% of total election expenditure. What we are doing in cutting the cost to the taxpayer of election campaigns looks populist, given the small saving involved. I am not suggesting an effort should not be made, but there is scope to make massive savings in two areas. One is the costs of returning officers, which I will highlight using as examples two five-seat constituencies, the information on which is contained in the report cited which is available in the Oireachtas Library and which I am sure is in the possession of the Minister's office and the Department of Finance, from where the costs of returning officers are paid.
Laois-Offaly is a large five-seat constituency in which the cost to the returning officer in the 2007 general election was €500,000 which I presume was money well spent. In the same election in another five-seat constituency, Wicklow, the cost to the returning officer was €780,000. There is no good reason it should have cost the returning officer €280,000 more to pay his staff in Wicklow than in a neighbouring five-seat constituency. If we want to make savings, this issue must be examined. The scale of fees is set out, with so much per counter, so much per person on polling day, so much for overtime and so on. It is all included, yet there are enormous differentials. If savings need to be made in the interests of taxpayers, this is the first area that should be considered.
The real issue to be considered in making savings — this is my suggestion to the Minister — is the cost of deliving to what we call the election address. This is the biggest single cost to the taxpayer. One point, in particular, aggravates the public. If there are four or five voters living in a house and six or seven candidates sending items to their address, 30 items of correspondence or more might arrive, all costing 55 cent to be delivered. The excess must be eliminated. The cost in sending this correspondence in the 2007 general election was €1.6 million in the case of Fianna Fáil, €1.6 million in the case of Fine Gael and €1.6 million in the case of any party which sent correspondence nationwide. The total cost to the taxpayer was €11 million. As I said at the Committee of Public Accounts, there is time before holding the presidential election for the Department of Finance——
Will the Deputy's party be running a candidate?
That is an interesting point to which we will come on another day. Members will see merit in the point I am making. Candidates in a presidential election include a photograph and a short biography that appears on the ballot paper. There is no reason a full CV cannot be handed in in order that one booklet could be posted to each registered elector. Instead of four or five candidates individually sending correspondence at a cost of €1.6 million per candidate to each registered elector, let there be one booklet for the candidates, to be listed in alphabetical order, in which they could include their blurb. There would be one postal communication to each registered elector. We could try to be smart by sending it to each household, but I would not want that to be done. In a democracy each registered elector is entitled to receive a communication, given that not every person in a household will vote the same way and the communication might not be circulated to other voters in the household. Therefore, each registered voter should receive one information booklet carrying the details of the four or five candidates standing for election. There would also be sufficient time for this to be done in a general election, as the ballot papers would be printed in advance and it could be made a requirement to include a photograph of each candidate and their CV.
A booklet would be sent to each registered voter during the election campaign with the details of the candidates in each constituency. Given that a number of referendums will be held on the same day as the presidential election, a summary of the referendum issues will have to be distributed and this will have significant cost implications. As we have sufficient time over the summer to complete the nomination process, we could provide information on the referendums and the biographies of candidates in the same booklet. By sending out one communication rather than several, the savings for the taxpayer could be massive. I am all in favour of cutting €60,000 from candidates' spending limits but this is only Mickey Mouse stuff which does not even equate to 1% of the cost of the campaign. If the Government is serious about saving money on the election, it should amalgamate the material. It is a source of public aggravation that 30 items of literature are sometimes distributed to registered voters when one would suffice.
I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to advise me when I have spoken for seven minutes. My colleagues opposite are seeking additional time because the Order of Business ran late. When dealing with electoral and political reform, actions speak louder than words, and I am happy to share time with my colleagues.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill because every Member of this House dealt with questions on the need for reform while canvassing for the last election. While I do not question the Government's sincerity in proposing reform, I have reservations about the piecemeal manner in which it is pursuing its aims. The Minister is required by law to establish a constituency commission to review Dáil and European Parliament constituencies upon publication of the preliminary census report but there is no reason why we cannot go a step further. I will concentrate my remarks on the review of the constituency commission.
I support the reduction in the spending limit for presidential elections, although it perhaps could be reduced further. My experience of running a Dáil election campaign on a shoestring and being elected at a bad time for the party of which I am a member suggests that national elections could cost significantly less than what is being proposed in this Bill. I welcome that by-elections will be held within a specified period. I do not have an issue with a time limit of six months but perhaps the time could be extended by a few months in light of comments made by previous speakers.
The Government proposes to introduce radical political changes but reducing the number of Deputies by six or 12 will not achieve that goal. We need to examine the political system in its entirety, including the Dáil, Seanad and local authorities. We should bring forward a package of reforms on the same day. In April, the Taoiseach stated he would introduce a Constitution day within the following 12 months with a view to amending the Constitution. Fine Gael's election manifesto indicated it would reduce the Dáil by 20 seats but perhaps we could reduce this number still further by devolving powers to local authorities. These are areas that we need to consider collectively. There is merit in establishing a cross-party group to investigate political reform. Some of the newer Members of the House should sit on this group because, with all due respect to long-serving Members, it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Members who have fought several campaigns over a 20 to 30-year period become comfortable with the status quo because they know they can be elected and they sometimes appear afraid to embrace new practices. Previous speakers appeared nervous about bringing in outside expertise. However, I commend the Taoiseach on his lack of fear in appointing his 11 nominees to the Seanad. If, as some have claimed, we might have ended up with Seanie FitzPatrick as Minister for Finance, we might also have appointed Matthew Elderfield. We cannot be afraid to embrace change and we need to reform radically the way our political system operates. We are national legislators but some of us spend too much time on local issues. While voters expect us to do a certain amount of local constituency work, they also expect us to deal with national issues.
The reason I want a cross-party group to review our political system is that I do not believe we can trust one party to operate on a consensus basis. The largest party in Government is at present blatantly blocking prospective candidates from entering the presidential election because it is in the fortunate position of controlling a large number of county councils and can use a whip to ensure credible candidates do not enter the field. If a credible candidate wants to undergo the process of nomination by local authorities, councillors should be given the opportunity to make a decision based on the individual's merits. Fine Gael has also broken its promises to reduce the number of junior Ministers to 12 and on reducing the number of Dáil seats. These issues should be considered on a cross-party basis.
The Minister was correct in stating that the failures of the political system over the past decade were key contributors to the financial crisis. This is why we need to examine the way we elect Deputies. The system provides for auction politics and empty promises. I remind Members of the broken promises on political reform, Roscommon hospital and ensuring the money follows the patient. These promises were made with the sole intention of electoral gain.
We need to rethink the way we do our business by considering the devolution of powers to local government or introducing single-seat constituencies and partial list systems. I will not set out what is right or wrong but I ask why we must rush into these matters. Does the Government want to implement everything because it does not expect to last five years? In respect of other measures contained in the programme for Government, we are told there are five years for implementing them but the approach to political reform is to rush through a measure to reduce the number of Deputies by six. I do not agree this represents political reform and I propose that an all-party committee be established to consider reforms at Dáil, Seanad, European Parliament and local government levels.
I am sharing two minutes of with Deputy Michael McCarthy. I thank Deputy Troy for his generosity in sharing time. Given the fundamental nature of this legislation we should have been given more time on Second Stage to allow us to express a diversity of opinions.
I wish to correct a report in The Irish Times today which cited the Minister as stating there is one Deputy per 20,271 head of population. However, according to the preliminary census results the correct ratio is 1:27,598. From reading the transcript, I understand the Minister actually said there was one representative for every 20,271 people, and he included Senators to come up with that figure. I think that is disingenuous on the part of the Minister. We in this House are the representatives of the people. We are elected by our constituents, so it is disingenuous to include Senators in that sense. Constitutionally, the ratio is set out according to the number of TDs to population.
The Minister also talked last night about reducing the size and cost of government. With all our economic problems, we need to start naming the ideology behind ideas. The idea of reducing the size and cost of government is right-wing ideology and Tea Party philosophy.
What will be the Minister's legacy on political reform in a few years? I reckon his gender quota initiative will probably fail on constitutional grounds. I reckon the Seanad will never be abolished. It looks like the Minister is already kicking it to touch. I would not be surprised anyway if, at the end of the day, the people rejected the abolition of the Seanad. His biggest achievement will then have been to cut the number of TDs by between six and 13. That will be it, even though the Minister could be looking at so many challenges now under his portfolio, including so-called local government reform. I do not wish to use the word "reform", because it is being debased by its use as a euphemism for cuts. We need to empower local government. Other issues such as climate change should also take priority over this at his Department. In his words and actions, the Minister is undermining the value of representation, which is the core of democracy.
These Houses were founded in 1919 and 1922, respectively. They brought us out of a civil war. They brought about a peace process. They had great achievements and successes along the way. At the whim of a spin doctor, the next opinion poll or the focus group he met last week, the Minister would just turn around and decide to cut the number of TDs and abolish the Seanad. He is butchering the Constitution before there is a proper analysis. His comparisons yesterday were again disingenuous. There are many countries with members of parliament representing between 15,000 and 35,000 people. Political scientists have a rule known as the cube root law of assembly, which is 166 Deputies for Ireland. The same formula would show that the UK and other countries are over-represented, and not Ireland.
There are flaws in the Bill. The figure of 153 Deputies may well end up being unconstitutional by the time the actual census results come out. The 2006 preliminary census figures were out by almost 5,000, so the Bill could be unconstitutional in a few months and provide unconstitutional terms of reference for the boundary commission. Where will that leave the commission? This is the first time in the history of the State that a boundary commission is being asked to reduce the number of TDs. This has never happened before. The commission has not done the populist thing and the Minister is abdicating his responsibility under the Constitution. It is the Oireachtas that sets the number of TDs, not an Oireachtas commission. The Minister is abdicating his responsibility in this area and, in that sense, it is a cowardly act.
I acknowledge the generosity of the Minister and Deputy Troy for allowing me to speak on the Bill. What happened this morning is an example of how we need to reform the business of this House. The Order of Business and Leaders' Questions went over time, which then ate into other Members' time. This narrows the scope within which someone can make a contribution on a very important Bill and a very topical subject.
One of the many failings of the last Administration was to avoid for as long as possible the political responsibility of holding by-elections. That is an assault on democracy because it prevents the right of people to full representation. Sadly, people passed away and we also saw a number of resignations, so I welcome the Minister's initiative to hold by-elections within six months of the vacancy arising.
Another issue I would like to raise is that of the limited role of the backbencher. Since the election, new backbench TDs are finding it difficult to become part of the process, to contribute to debates and to be given a platform from which they can articulate their views, which is the primary reason they have been elected in the first instance. The Backbench Business Committee is a group of MPs from both sides of the House of Commons who come together and propose and organise an order for at least one day's business. That committee was a radical move in the House of Commons and was the first time in 100 years that a Government did not have a complete monopoly on the way business is done.
Much has been said about the Seanad, and whether it should be abolished or reformed. There is an interminable debate about the future of Seanad Éireann. I spent nine years in the Seanad and I found that House far more productive than the Dáil thus far, with a lot more scope to allow people to make contributions, especially on the Order of Business. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you and I shared a term in Seanad Éireann, and you will know that it is a very fine House, even though it is very much in need of reform. If we kowtow to a debate that is inherently anti-politics, be it about town councils, county councils or Dáil and Seanad Éireann, we are pandering to an agenda that is very cynical and is led in many respects by a right-wing media. The Seanad is a fine House and I would like to see it reformed as opposed to abolished.
I thank Deputies on all sides for their contributions to this important debate. The comments focused both on the Bill itself and, as might be expected, across the electoral agenda generally. In the time available, it is not possible for me to comment on all the points made. I propose to respond to some of the issues raised and we can go into further detail on matters relating to the Bill on Committee Stage.
I welcome the strong support that was evident during the debate for the measures in the Bill. These provide for the holding of Dáil by-elections within six months of a vacancy occurring and a reduction in the spending and reimbursement limits that apply at presidential elections.
Many different views were offered during the debate on the proposal to change the terms of reference of the constituency commission to provide for a reduction in the number of Members in this House. Many were very supportive and some were not. As I stated in my contribution, I believe the political system cannot ask others to change and make sacrifices if it is not prepared to do the same. The reduction in the number of TDs is a first step along the path of electoral reform and leadership.
Some Deputies, including Deputy Humphreys and Deputy Doherty, spoke about the need for wider electoral reform. I agree. The programme for Government commits to a radical overhaul of the way Irish politics and government work. It sets out a wide-ranging series of commitments to this end, a number of which are within my area of responsibility as Minister. I am committed to working with my Government colleagues and, indeed, with all Members to implement these measures in full.
The Bill before us deals with three specific issues which will bring about real and meaningful change, but that is not all. In addition to the Bill now before the House, on 8 June 2011, I published the general scheme of the electoral (amendment) (political funding) Bill 2011. That Bill provides for the restriction of corporate donations, a reduction in the amounts that can be received as political donations and a reduction in the thresholds for declaring political donations. Political parties will also now be required to submit their annual accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication. The new legislation includes a provision that political parties will face a cut of half their State political funding if they do not have at least 30% female and 30% male candidates at the next general election. This will then rise to 40% after seven years. I remind Deputy Tuffy that I got legal advice from the Attorney General on these matters, who indicated that Part 5 of the Bill is legally in order. In line with the Government's commitment to reform the way legislation is debated and implemented, I have published the general scheme and invited public input on its contents. I look forward to debating that Bill with Deputies in the autumn.
I wish to refer briefly to the concerns raised by some Deputies regarding specific recommendations of past constituency commissions. For example, Deputy Daly referred to the splitting of Swords. Deputies Browne and Colreavy discussed the fact that County Leitrim is split between two constituencies, and Deputy Collins referred to the decision of the last commission regarding Kerry and Limerick. We must bear in mind that constituency formation is not a perfect science. People do not always live in the areas which would enable constituencies to be drawn up that meet with general approval. The overriding constitutional requirement of equality of representation means that breaches of obvious boundaries are unavoidable in certain cases. In the revision process, someone's interest must inevitably be affected. That is the price we must pay for our electoral system which has generally served us very well and which is independent. I have no doubt that when the next commission issues its recommendations, resulting in a reduction in the number of Members in this House, there will be some people who will be unhappy.
The general consensus is that the job should be entrusted to an independent commission. That being the case, the commission should be allowed to do the job in the way that seems best to it within the terms of reference given to it by the Oireachtas. Difficult choices have been made in the past and will be made in the future. It is open to anyone to make a submission to the commission and, having considered the options, the commission will then come to a reasoned decision. Other Members or I might make a different choice but we cannot fault the commission for that. It carries out its appointed tasks in accordance with the mandate given to it by this House.
On this point, I take issue with the claims made, in particular by Deputies Ross and Mattie McGrath, which called into question the independence of the commission by suggesting that its members were open to political interference. That is an outrageous claim to make and I want to make it clear that I fully support and acknowledge the integrity and independence of each member of the commission. I regret that Deputies Mattie McGrath and Ross do not share my view of people who have served the country well in their positions of responsibility, in the public service and in the Judiciary. Contrary to the views of Deputies Ross and Mattie McGrath, it is vital the commission retains our support in carrying out its important work which is central to the effective functioning of democracy in this country.
Deputy Doherty and others made a number of points about the electoral register and postal voting. I doubt if there has ever been a discussion in this House on electoral matters where the register has not been raised. I have noted the points made and will consider them, but not in this Bill which needs to be enacted with speed.
During the debate, many Deputies referred to the need to have real reform of local government, with which I very much agree. I am pleased to say a great deal of work relevant to local government reform is under way. I recently established an independent implementation group to progress relevant recommendations of the local government efficiency review group in areas such as shared services, procurement, value for money and audit. I have asked the group to build on the extensive efficiencies that have been achieved by local authorities in the past two years and to focus on key recommendations that will remove costs and yield earliest financial savings for the benefit of the sector and the economy.
Good progress is being made on structural reform. Last week, the Government decided to implement the main recommendations of the Limerick local government committee involving the creation of a new single local authority to replace Limerick city and county councils. This is an historic decision which will lead to the first major change in local government in years. It will bring about a more cohesive and better integrated system of local government for Limerick city and county with the potential to provide better value for money, eliminate duplication and free up financial and human resources for critical projects such as the revitalisation of Limerick city centre and regeneration.
I am also considering wider proposals to renew and develop the local government system. Key objectives in this regard include devolution of greater decision making to local level, strengthening the powers and functions of local authorities, enhancing the development and leadership role of local government and strengthening its structures and funding arrangements. Relevant proposals in recent reports, including the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes and the local government efficiency review, will be taken into account in the development of policy in this area. I intend to publish a statement in the autumn on local government that will outline Government policy in this area in line with the programme for Government. I will bring proposals to Government to develop and enhance the local government system, improve its capacity to meet current and future challenges and make a substantial contribution to the national recovery effort. I say to Deputy Troy that more political reform proposals have been tabled by this Government in 14 weeks than in the 14 years of Fianna Fáil-led Government, so I do not accept the faulty assertions he articulated.
I stress again the Government's commitment to electoral and political reform. The Bill is a first step in that reform agenda. I thank Deputies again for their contributions and look forward to further debate on these important issues on Committee Stage.