Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013 is a diverse Bill. As the name suggests, it provides for amendments to existing electoral, local government and planning and development law. The Bill puts in place legislative provisions that are needed now, across the electoral, local government and planning areas, in order to advance implementation of the Government's programme of local government reform. The Bill provides a structure for the review of European Parliament constituencies. It also provides for the transposition of an EU directive on nomination procedures that must be in place for next year's European elections. The Bill presents an opportunity to rectify an omission in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 and to make two other small but important changes in electoral law.

I will now outline the content of the Bill in greater detail, setting out why the proposed legislation is required or recommended to the House, as the case may be. The provisions in the Bill dealing with the register of electors follow on from the Government's programme of local government reform that will see single new local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford after next year's local elections. In preparation for those elections and in view of the mergers, we have looked at the arrangements for the preparation and publication of the register of electors in these areas. In the normal course, this would involve all six existing councils in these areas progressing this work in their respective areas for the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014. Having reviewed the position, I am satisfied that the preparation and publication of one register of electors in each area for the 2014 to 2015 period is the correct approach to take. This view is underpinned by the recent report of the local electoral area boundary committee where it can be seen that the local electoral areas recommended straddle existing administrative boundaries in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. The amendments in the Bill provide a legal basis for the preparation of a single register of electors in each of these new administrative areas.

We cannot wait until next year to put in place the necessary arrangements. We must do so now because a detailed work programme must be undertaken each year on the preparation of the register of electors that will be published the following February. This work programme is undertaken in accordance with dates set out in the Electoral Act 1992. The first of the deadlines to be complied with is the requirement on registration authorities to give public notice of the categories of electors entitled to be entered in the postal or special voters lists. This must be undertaken in the period of 14 days ending on 1 September. The amendments should come into effect therefore before that date. My Department has discussed and agreed the provisions proposed with all of the local authorities involved. Limerick, South Tipperary and Waterford county councils will be the registration authorities for their respective combined areas for the next electoral register. That is the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014, the preparation of which will commence before the end of the summer.

In the area of planning and development the reform of local government structures presents an immediate challenge for town councils which are to be dissolved and city and county councils which are being merged. That is because these councils continue to have to meet their statutory obligations in regard to development planning, including where they all have different review cycles for their development plan reviews.

In the case of planning authorities that are due to be dissolved, I am of the firm view that reviews of borough and town council development plans, as currently obliged under the Planning Acts, are wasteful of resources and confusing for the public given that the authorities will not likely be in situ to finalise and adopt these development plans. As regards amalgamated planning authorities, I propose to give them the discretion to not review their plans, particularly given the different cycles they are currently locked into in terms of review of existing development plans. For example, while south Tipperary commenced review of its development plan in February 2013, it is not due for adoption until February 2015 and while north Tipperary is due to commence its development plan review in July 2014, its plan is not due for adoption until July 2016. As Tipperary County Council will be a newly merged authority, it makes no sense for it to have to finalise two separate development plans for the county. At the same time, I want to ensure that there will be a timely cohesive and coherent unitary development plan made by the newly amalgamated planning authorities. Consequently, I am proposing to give those planning authorities which it is proposed to amalgamate or dissolve, the discretionary powers under the Planning Acts to extend the lifetime of their existing development plan and to cease any development plan reviews already commenced.

I am also proposing to place a mandatory obligation on planning authorities that are being amalgamated to commence preparation of a development plan within one year of the making of regional planning guidelines which affect the area of the development plan given that it would be important to ensure that there is a time-bound obligation on the new amalgamated authorities to commence the process of preparing a new cohesive and coherent unitary development plan for the entire new administrative area of the council. These are pragmatic proposals to give the necessary flexibility to planning authorities in meeting their statutory obligations under the Planning Acts in light of the local government reform programme.

I am taking the opportunity afforded by this Bill to provide for the appointment of a dual manager in Waterford county and Waterford city. Provision for the dual management of the Limerick and Tipperary authorities was provided for by way of an amendment to section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2012. The decision to merge the authorities in Waterford had not been taken at that stage. Provision is being made in this Bill for the further amendment of section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 to allow for the appointment of a dual manager in the case of the Waterford authorities. A local government Bill, to be published later this year, will give expression to the wider reform measures in the action programme for effective local government, which sets out Government decisions for local government reform. Provision for the full merger of the three sets of authorities and consequential and related matters will be provided for in that Bill.

Arising from the accession of Croatia to the European Union, there was a need to adjust the distribution of seats in the European Parliament. The European Council made a decision of 28 June 2013 on the composition of the European Parliament for the 2014-2019 parliamentary term. This provides for a reduction from 12 to 11 in the number of members to be elected in Ireland. A review of European Parliament constituencies is, therefore, necessary. The Electoral Act 1997 provides only for the establishment of a constituency commission to review European constituencies following the publication of preliminary results of a census of population. The constituency commission established following the 2011 census recommended no change in the configuration of the European constituencies. However, at that stage there was no change in the number of members to represent Ireland in the European Parliament.

As there is no provision for the establishment of a commission in the period between the taking of one census of population and the next, an amendment to the legislation is necessary to provide for a review. The Bill deals with this by providing that whenever a constituency commission has completed its work in the normal course and it is necessary afterwards to review the configuration of European constituencies because of a change in the number of members to be elected in Ireland, then a committee will be established for this purpose. The committee will present its report within two months of establishment, having allowed a period of at least one month for the receipt of submissions from the public during that two month period. Apart from this, the same provisions that apply to a constituency commission as regards terms of reference, membership, procedures and disclosure of information will apply to the committee. It is my intention that this committee should be set up as soon as possible in order that the constituencies will be known in good time for next year's European elections.

European elections are set to be held again next year. All EU citizens have a right to stand for election to the European Parliament, irrespective of where they live in the European Union, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements. Those set out in Council Directive 93/109/EC are transposed into Irish law in the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. Up to now, non-national candidates putting themselves forward for election were required to produce, with their nomination papers, an attestation from their home member state certifying that they did not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate for election to the European Parliament in their home member state. While this measure safeguarded the member state of residence from including an ineligible candidate on the ballot paper, it was not working well in practice. Potential candidates were being deprived of the right to stand simply because they could not get their attestations from their home member states in time. Against this background, new arrangements have been put in place to remove this barrier to the exercise of the right to stand for election. These are set out in Council Directive 2013/1/EU, which amends the earlier directive and which must be transposed by 28 January 2014.

This directive abolishes the attestation requirement and includes in its place an additional element to the formal declaration that candidates were already required to complete when seeking a nomination to stand for election. Candidates will in future directly declare that they do not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate in their home member states. It will then be a matter for the member state of residence to check this with the candidate's home member state, which must respond within five working days or less if so requested. If the information provided invalidates the declaration, the member state of residence must then take appropriate steps, in accordance with national law, to prevent the candidate from standing for election or, if that is not possible, to prevent the candidate from being elected or exercising the mandate. This is a significant shift in approach for potential non-national candidates. No longer will it be their responsibility to establish their eligibility - this responsibility will lie with the member state of residence in which the candidate proposes to run.

We have an obligation to ensure we facilitate any non-national candidate who wishes to seek election in Ireland to the European Parliament in accordance with the provisions of the directives. At the same time, we need to take steps to minimise the possibility of ineligible candidates making their way onto the ballot paper or possibly being elected. The directive provides that if the candidate's home member state does not respond to the member state of residence in time, the candidate is to be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to stand for election. This Bill proposes new nomination arrangements that will meet the requirements of the directive, while ensuring that the chances of including ineligible candidates on the ballot paper are minimised to the greatest extent possible.

The preamble to Directive 2013/1/EU recognises that different deadlines can apply for the submission of nominations by national and non-national candidates. The new arrangements for Ireland proposed under this Bill build on this recognition. They provide for more time between the making of the polling day order and polling day than at present. This should allow sufficient time to check the declarations of non-national candidates. The Bill provides that the polling day order will be made not later than 50 days before polling day, instead of the current 35 days. It provides that, excluding Sundays and public holidays, the returning officer will publish the Notice of Election not later than the 35th day as opposed to, as it currently stands, the 28th day, before polling day. This then enables different nomination timelines to be put in place. The current period of seven days, excluding Sundays and public holidays, allowed for submission of nomination papers to the returning officer will continue to apply in the case of non-national candidates. In the case of national and UK candidates, however, this period will be extended to 14 days, excluding Sundays and public holidays. The seven days between these two periods will be used to check the declarations made by any non-national candidates, with their home member states. The aim is to ensure all necessary checks are completed before the end of the period for withdrawal of candidature, at which point the returning officer adjourns the election to take a poll or declares candidates elected, as appropriate. I am satisfied that these arrangements will both address our needs and the requirements of the directive.

The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 expanded the requirements in respect of the information that individuals must provide when making a statement of donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission or to a local authority. It provides that information must be supplied on whether the donation was solicited, the name of the person soliciting the donation and whether a receipt was given, and the date the donation was given and received. The Act applied these information requirements to elected representatives and election candidates but they were not applied to political parties. This Bill rectifies this by providing that the information requirements in respect of the disclosure of donations that apply to elected representatives and election candidates will apply also to political parties.

I am bringing forward two small but important amendments to electoral law in this Bill. The first of these relates to the time that is available following the announcement of an election or referendum for eligible people to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists. The reality is that any eligible person can apply to be included on these lists at any stage. However, it is human nature to put off making the application. If a person waits until after the announcement of an impending election or referendum, he or she then only has a two day window in which to submit an application to his or her registration authority. These arrangements have been the subject of some criticism. I felt it appropriate, therefore, to examine what could be done to improve the position. The Bill provides that, in future, the timeframe in which to make an application for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists will be based on the date of the polling day rather than the date on which the polling day order is made. The Bill provides that applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists need to be made 21 days in advance of polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum. This matches the arrangement already in place where applications for inclusion in the supplement to the register need to be made in advance of 14 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum.

However, in the case of applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' lists, additional time must be provided. This is to allow for the issue of postal voter documentation in good time and for making arrangements for special voters to cast their votes.

Given the very tight timelines that can arise between the moving of the writ or the making of the polling day order and polling day, the new arrangements will not apply for general elections or by-elections. They will apply for referendums and for presidential, European and local elections, for which the polling day orders generally are made at an earlier date relative to polling day. To give an example of how these new arrangements will be an improvement, it may be useful to consider them in the context of next year's local elections. Under present arrangements, a polling day order will be made no later than 50 to 60 days before polling day, requiring applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' lists to be made no later than 48 to 58 days before polling day. Under the proposed new arrangements, such applications could be made in advance of 21 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, thereby giving people an additional 24 to 34 days to apply to their registration authority for inclusion in the supplement.

The other amendment to electoral law relates to the requirement of An Post to make copies of referendum Bills available for inspection and purchase in post offices in the run-up to referendums. The context for this provision has changed completely since it was introduced in 1942. It effectively has become obsolete and should be repealed. In 1942, copies of Bills were not accessible online and there was no Referendum Commission to provide information to voters. This has all since changed and referendum Bills can now be read on or downloaded from the website of the Houses of the Oireachtas at any time. While the establishment of a Referendum Commission is not mandatory, a commission has been established for every referendum held since 1998. The commission's role includes the preparation of statements for the information of the public and the publication and distribution of these statements to bring them to the attention of the electorate. In addition, a statement for the information of voters may be prescribed by the Houses of the Oireachtas whenever there is a referendum. Such a statement has been prescribed and issued to voters for all referendums held since 1937.

As I stated, the Bill puts in place legislative amendments that are needed across the electoral, local government and planning areas in the context of the programme for local government reform, the change in the number of MEPs to be elected in Ireland and the need to transpose a Council directive. This Bill takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to meeting all these requirements and I commend it to the House.

Fianna Fáil broadly supports this primarily technical Bill to enable the redrawing of European Parliament constituencies due to the reduction of Ireland's complement of MEPs from 12 to 11. Fianna Fáil also supports the changes to provisions for postal votes and increased transparency in electoral donations. However, it is opposed to the specific measures to allow the development plans of town councils to continue after the abolition of such town councils. In addition, the party is opposed to the creation of a dual county manager for Waterford City Council and Waterford County Council, which forms part of the preparatory work for what Fianna Fáil considers to be a deeply flawed document from the Minister pertaining to local government reform, Putting People First.

The accession of Croatia as the 28th member state of the European Union and the Lisbon treaty commitment to cap the number of MEPs at 751 means that Ireland and a number of other countries will lose a single MEP each. The total number of Irish MEPs obviously then falls from 12 to 11. This Bill enables the Government to set up a constituency boundary review commission to accommodate these changes, which Fianna Fáil supports as part of the Lisbon treaty changes to the role of the European Parliament. Fianna Fáil is opposed to the section of the Bill that creates a dual manager for Waterford city and county councils. It is opposed to the amalgamation of these authorities, which it considers will damage the strength of representation and leadership in Waterford. It also is opposed to the sections outlining changes to planning law that will accommodate the Government's proposals to abolish town councils in their entirety. Fianna Fáil intends to publish its own radical local government proposals in the coming weeks, which will form the bedrock for its proposals in respect of the forthcoming local elections to be held next year.

The minor amendments to the postal and special voting arrangements are a welcome step towards making voting more accessible for citizens. Fianna Fáil also supports the provisions in the Bill to enhance the transparency of political donations by extending criteria for disclosure to both candidates and political parties. As for the proposals contained within the Putting People First document, I note the Bill prepares the way for the implementation of the Government's centralising power grab outlined in Putting People First. Fianna Fáil is opposed to the Minister's local government plans on a number of grounds. The Putting People First document puts bureaucrats first by transferring power away from public representatives into the hands of officials and by creating a democratic deficit at the heart of Irish politics. There is no vision of a new role for local government that moves away from silo-driven central government thinking. The Putting People First proposals reduce the role of councillors without handing real power to ordinary citizens, thereby making Ireland what I consider to be the most centralised country in the Western world. There are no ideas, such as the establishment of directly elected mayors, to really drive on reform and change in local government. I note that thus far in this or any other document published by the Minister with regard to recommendations, there is a complete failure to implement the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. The Putting People First proposals support a property tax that will differ from county to county across 31 councils, hitting home owners in some areas much harder than others. As I stated, the proposal creates a democratic deficit at the heart of Irish politics, places more power into the hands of unelected officials and fails dismally to transform how politics is done in Ireland.

Local government is ripe for change in Ireland but the Government has missed its opportunity by opting for spin and rhetoric instead of substance. One has headline-grabbing cuts but the lack of substantive changes to local authority powers is ignored. It constitutes a failure to shift away from the silo thinking and delivery that emanates from centralised government. Having already moved water services from councils before deciding what it wants to do with local authorities, the Government has offered no new vision for the role and functions of local government that would bring it into line with the rest of the democratic world. Moreover, there is no real detail regarding any devolved function. Promises in the programme for Government for a rebalancing of powers between councillors and officials have been abandoned and section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001 has been removed without giving any real additional powers to councillors. Greater democratic participation is completely ignored by the plan, which transfers powers away from communities and towards the most centralised government in the western world. The Minister stated previously that a high level of centralisation was unhealthy but the proposals in the document now have made the situation worse. The changes threaten merely to be a reduction for the sake of headline grabbing, rather than thoughtful political reform with real foresight on how the country should be run. The Government must show more imagination in shaping our comparatively weak system of local government.

Instead, power is being centralised in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, and putting people first simply means putting bureaucrats first. There is a real sense of a democratic deficit emerging from these changes.

We have consistently argued that real political reform must be holistic in its approach to the institutions of the State. Ad hoc haphazard changes, such as an emasculated Constitutional Convention, abolishing the Seanad, sham Dáil reform and eliminating town councils are not the way towards creating a better system of governance. Instead of reform, the Fine Gael–Labour Party Government has centralised power in the hands of four key Ministries. It has amalgamated the areas of justice and defence under one Minister, which is unique in the western world. The Government has stated its intention to remove the Seanad as a check on its powers. Ireland is sliding towards a serious democratic deficit and failing to live up to the EU principle of subsidiarity. It is alienating citizens from the process of governance. This flies in the face of the promise made by Fine Gael in its document, New Politics, which was to confront the traditional centralised, top-down approach. It was to restore power to local government and make local governments more relevant to the communities they serve. It stands in direct contradiction to Labour Party's pre-election promise in its manifesto, namely, to return accountability to elected councillors. In reality, the new chief executive position enhances and maintains an iron grip on councils. It is simply the county manager under a different name.

We broadly support what is primarily a technical Bill enabling European Parliament constituency redrawing. We support the provisions for the changes in regard to postal votes and increasing transparency with regard to electoral donations. I repeat, however, that we are opposed to specific measures that allow development plans of town councils to continue after the abolition of town councils. We oppose the creation of a dual county manager for Waterford city and county councils. These are the first instances of the preparatory work, the first enabling tools in legislation, giving effect to proposals for local government reform in the flawed document known as Putting People First. In response to Second Stage statements, I ask the Minister to inform the House as to when he will bring forward legislation to give effect to the bulk of the detail in Putting People First.

I thought there was nothing in it.

I have no doubt there is nothing in it but I would like to hear the Minister's interpretation of the legislation to give effect to the nothingness within it in order for the local authorities and their members to provide for the local elections next year. The Government has a vast majority in this House and Deputy Hogan, as the Minister, has a right to make proposals in this regard. I do not dispute that and acknowledge the right. I acknowledge his election victory and the commitments he made, despite the fact that he will not live up to many of them. However, it is only right and fair, having described what he believes to be contained within the document and to be the considerable enabling powers for local authority members, that he make us aware of the detail of the legislation at his earliest convenience. It is on having investigated and interrogated it that I will be able to pass judgment. It is only then that I will be able to confirm and reaffirm the nothingness I believe will be within the document. Unfortunately, without the documentation and relevant legislation before the House, we cannot argue that specifically. I ask the Minister to inform the Houses when he will bring forward the relevant information in that regard. I expect it will be early in the new session considering that he has reneged on bringing it forward in this session.

We must always strive to make democracy inclusive and accessible. While I acknowledge the constitutional review group is dealing with the bigger issues, I believe there are challenges this Government could tackle immediately without ever touching the Constitution. While this Bill appears to be technical, simply putting in place structures to reflect EU directives and the new reality of the Minister's local government proposals, it also offers opportunities in regard to voter registration. The Bill gives the Government an opportunity to make voter registration easier and more accessible. Part 4 deals with supplements to postal and service voter lists. Many people do not query whether they are on the electoral register until an election is within weeks. To get onto the supplementary register, a member of the public must obtain a form, fill it out, have it signed by a garda and send it to the relevant local authority. While at a superficial level this may seem a simple procedure, it is another obstacle in the way of the public exercising their right to vote.

Exercising one's vote should be encouraged and easy. Many residents fill out a new form, get it stamped by a member of the gardaí in a Garda station and return the form to the local authority in needless bureaucracy. The application should be valid with or without a Garda stamp, and the form should be completed electronically. In this era of information technology, it should all be computerised. There is no evidence or information that it is so important that it cannot be included on electronic forms. It would make it far easier, particularly for young first-time voters.

This raises the question of voter registration. It seems archaic that in the 21st century we still expect people to register and re-register to vote. When I buy a television licence once, I am registered and do not have to re-register annually. Those who are registered pay their licence fee every year without any need to re-register. The same principle should apply to voting. In this regard, I must raise a serious concern. It has been the practice to remove people from the voting register. Every single party at election time discovers people who have voted for it over many years who are no longer on the register. This is wrong and it is a disgrace. People are unaware of the practice until it happens to them and their neighbours during an election. This practice must stop. It appears the Government is suspicious of the electorate and puts barriers in place to ensure they do not exercise their vote.

All the voter education in the world is useless unless we make the registration process easy and more accessible. I ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to review the process. I understand one is automatically registered once one becomes 18 and is put permanently on the register. In certain elections, a voter can vote in any voting centre over a two-day voting period, usually on a Saturday or Sunday. In this State, however, we make the process awkward and cumbersome. In saying that, I understand the Irish political system, according to the Integration Centre's annual report of 2012, is generally deemed to be inclusive and to offer favourable conditions for migrant integration.

While residents need to be full Irish citizens to vote and stand in presidential and general elections, or to vote on referenda, all residents - regardless of status - can vote in local elections. We are one of 14 EU states that allow for this. While others, including Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, impose a condition that a person must be resident for five years - Britain and Ireland, thankfully, have no such precondition.

This has its own challenges, however. It is one thing to allow people to vote, but the real challenge is to ensure that people actually participate in their democracy. There are no reliable national data on registered electors by nationalist groups, but an analysis of Dublin City Council's electoral register was undertaken in 2012. The study found that just 8,068 non-EU nationals in Dublin City were listed in the 2010-11 register of electors. The census shows that there were 32,659 non-EU nationals aged 18 or over living in Dublin. This indicated that only 25% of those eligible to vote were registered, while of within-EU nationals almost 6,400 were registered out of a population of 39,028. This means that just one in six potential EU voters was registered, while the percentage of British nationals registered to vote was 74%.

This study highlights the need for local awareness campaigns. Examples of these are the "Count Us In" campaign run by the Immigration Council of Ireland; the migration voter education campaign led by Dublin City Council; and the "Our Vote Can Make a Difference" campaign managed by the New Communities Partnership and the African Centre. This is particularly important as we approach the local and EU elections next year.

This challenge is not reserved to local elections because an increasing number of non-EU nationals are receiving Irish citizenship. The number has increased from 4,969 in 2010 to 9,529 in 2011, and an estimated 23,200 in 2012. This is due in part to improving waiting times and a low rejection rate. This poses challenges to ensure that these citizens enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everybody else.

The important challenge is to ensure that people participate in the decision-making process in this State. Registration drives must be done in different languages and in partnership with migrant communities. Political parties must also make themselves accessible to Ireland's new residents. No party has a monopoly on this issue and we must avoid political point-scoring in this regard. We must make ourselves accessible and open to engaging with migrant communities, not just at election time but also before and after elections.

The challenge is to ensure all residents in Ireland - regardless of where they are from, how long they have been here, or how they got here - feel included and are included in our democratic structures. Progress is being made but we have a journey ahead of us. It is only if the Government takes the lead, with cross-party support, that we will complete this journey.

We have had important hearings all day at the Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht; it is a pity, therefore, that this matter is being taken on the same day. I realise that there are scheduling issues and that the Minister would not want that to have happened. I must apologise because I have not done an awful lot of preparation on this matter.

There will be other days.

It is not desirable to do things in this way. Things have been so hectic this week that preparation for this debate has been difficult.

In setting out a reform agenda, much depends on what question is posed. I tend to ask what we do well as a country. I am more than a little concerned, however, that the question being asked about the reform of our political institutions is how we can save money. I think that is where these amalgamations are coming from, which is a pity.

In our own areas we can all see the wonderful community and voluntary work that is undertaken locally. I am afraid, however, that we will miss a real opportunity to rebuild or redevelop our uniquely Irish local government system. I was a councillor in a town that was established in the lifetime of the State. There were only four such towns, three in the 1980s and Tramore in 1948. I realise that is not the subject of today's Bill but one could see the opportunity that presented. It mattered in the community where I lived and had a vested interest in developing.

The county has become the pre-eminent location for local government, yet the county is not uniquely Irish. The county system was developed between the 12th and 17th centuries and was used as a means of control by the crown. That means of control has been retained as the culture that dominates our local government system. It may no longer be the crown, but the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government still exercises that system of control. As a people, we do not like being controlled; we do our best when there is a certain element of liberty. I realise that there must be control measures within any political system, but positioning the county at the centre of local government is wrong. There is good evidence that that system is not what people identify with.

A study was undertaken by the New Urban Living project at the Department of Sociology in NUI Maynooth. The researchers found that four things created an attachment to places: the built and natural environment, the cultural character and life of an area, the quality of informal associational life, and the elective belonging. These were the reasons people had chosen to live in a particular area. The study found evidence of a strong attachment by residents to their town and locality. That also applied even those who had moved from outside, which is very much the profile of North Kildare. On All-Ireland final day, people certainly do feel attached to their county, but it is a very different vehicle from a manageable location for building communities.

As part of a UK study, Sir Michael Lyons examined how local government should be reformed there. He surprised himself with some of his findings. He said the function of local government should be about place-shaping and the creative use of power and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens. We should start by talking about that and looking at the smaller level of place-shaping. One must shape that place where people feel a sense of identity and function well. That is where an opportunity is being missed in terms of the reform programme here.

One of the great examples of what works well at community and voluntary level is the GAA which is based fundamentally on the parish or community. Competition may well culminate in September with a focus on the county, but the main platform for the association is at community level. It is the same with the credit union movement and TidyTowns associations. These institutions are incredibly important to discerning what is uniquely Irish and on what we can build our local government system rather than continue to remodel an inherited system which does not play to our strengths. We must develop a local government system which is cost-efficient and effective. It is people's money that is being spent. I am certainly not talking about being wasteful.

The other side to this is what one gets in return and how one builds communities. My practical experience of working at town and county level is that the play-shaping role was more effective at town level. As I say whenever I get the opportunity, a district council model, independent of the county council system, is what we should develop. Some town councils have been too small in the past and there has been resistance to reform. There has been a need for a very long time to reform institutions. However, there are great opportunities also. We need three large regional authorities. Barcelona is an example of how city regions deliver strong economic returns. To amalgamate the County Waterford and Waterford city local authorities is not to create a regional authority. We have regional authorities which are not elected and which most people do not know exist. Sometimes, they perform very useful functions. In particular, the planning function exercised on the east coast has been valuable. Now that spatial plans at county level are consistent with regional plans, a culture which needed to change has changed. We can identify some of our economic failures at that level where we saw an out-of-control, informal approach to rezoning land. It is something that bothered me for a long time.

I do not see the Bill providing for the kind of reform that builds on our strengths. We have an opportunity to build a dynamic new infrastructure which could change behaviour. My experience on Leixlip Town Council which was established in a modern context in 1988 was that it was in many ways very efficient. It was aimed very much at facilitating community development because the community identified with it. It was of the community, which is a consideration we are missing in the proposed amalgamations. We are missing a unique opportunity, which I regret. I hope I am wrong, but the Bill should be opposed from that point of view.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I thank the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, and the Constituency Commission for their hard work and equitable conclusions within geographical constraints. On the law of averages, we will see some discontent at the end of the process, particularly in the loss of one MEP serving the country. It was a bit rich of Deputy Barry Cowen to be so critical of this reforming Government when we are suffering from the corruption, fraud and cover-ups committed by former politicians from the Fianna Fáil Party he represents.

Perhaps we will stick to what is in the Bill. This is Second Stage.

They were in collusion with some senior bankers and executives and responsible for the illegal theft of taxpayers' money and the downfall of the economy which we are trying to fix. Every time Fianna Fáil took office in recent years, it dragged us down. I hope the people will be aware of this next year when the local and European elections are held. Fianna Fáil has had a history of centralising everything related to local government and services since 1977. Gone are the days when the Minister for the Environment used to take a pen to a map of the State to trace lovingly and gerrymander a new set of constituencies for the benefit of the party he or she represented. Nobody wants to go back to the Tullymander, although it did not benefit the then Deputy Tully or his party at the time. It was a period when artistic talent was given free rein. Like Oireachtas Members and local authority councillors, MEPs represent the voice of the people by whom they are elected to serve them and implement their will. Their aim is to keep the best interests of the community in mind in making cost-effective and environmentally sound decisions.

I welcome the reforms to local government of the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, in particular the way he intends to resource and provide it with more powers. He intends to abolish many of the quangos established by Fianna Fáil in government. He is bringing Leader boards within the control of the locally elected representatives who are best positioned to serve the interests of the people. I am relieved that citizens will no longer remain without legislative representation for uncontrolled periods of time. The Government now fills vacancies within six months, which eliminates the need for redress in the courts. It is interesting to note that six vacancies arose during the 30th Dáil, three of which were eventually filled through by-elections, while the outstanding ones remained vacant. These are issues which should be noted, not forgotten.

Transparency is the essence of democracy. It would be beneficial to hold a public meeting after the Constituency Commission issues its primary report to allow voters to contribute their views on the process. That might go some way towards resolving contentious issues. I welcome, in particular, the provision that a new constituency review will follow each election. This is very important. I was very pleased that the Constituency Commission had retained the status quo in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath which had been restored by a previous commission in response to submissions to rectify an unsustainable realignment.

This is an historical constituency in the midlands and remains a four-seater.

I am sorry, but will the Deputy get back to dealing with the Bill?

I know that it is the European elections I am meant to be dealing with. However, it is important to note this issue.

Yes, it is the European elections we are dealing with.

The commission has recommended that our European parliamentary constituency be part of the north-west region. This is important because the midlands region has much in common with those counties, particularly in matters such as agricultural development. Ours is a disadvantaged constituency which has little in common with Dublin and the east coast.

It is essential the democratic process is seen to be impartial and transparent, which brings me to the important bedrock of the electoral register and the urgent need to establish an electoral commission to safeguard electoral integrity. There is a need for a single body to foster integrity and public confidence in the electoral process. This measure was discussed when we were in opposition and I hope we will implement it now that we are in government. I know the Minister is committed to it. The existing state of the electoral register has been found to be unsatisfactory and it has been woefully neglected in the past. The current administration of the system is piecemeal and lacks a cohesive approach. Major discrepancies have been found between it and the published figures in recent censuses. In 2007 alone, it was estimated that there were 800,000 errors in the register. Such errors negatively impact on voter turnout and future registrations.

Ireland’s electoral register is patently incapable of being updated and maintained within the existing structures of local authorities. There are 24 registration authorities legally responsible for the register. This is not, however, a core function of local authorities. They have between 700 and 800 programmes to look after and the register lacks priority within these structures. Local authorities have done the best possible job, but the care of the register is not within their remit. This places an undue burden on resources and staff. We must secure the integrity of the electoral process and solve the problems associated with the register of electors and address the necessity for having one overarching body responsible for compiling the register such as the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland or the Electoral Commission in the United Kingdom.

The consolidation of the electoral registers into one national register, maintained by a single body, would also provide for an overall saving to the taxpayer. Several years ago, as a member of an environment committee delegation, I had the pleasure of visiting the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission and meeting its head, Mr. Douglas Bain. He informed us that the cost of maintaining the electoral register came to approximately £2.5 million, with a further £2.5 million required for the running of elections.

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy, but I have to draw his attention to the Bill.

This is an important part of the local government system.

The Bill deals with the register of electors in respect of a European constituency. We cannot have a general discussion about what should or should not happen to registers. Perhaps that is a matter the committee of which the Deputy is a member could address.

I am speaking about this issue because the register is very important as it is the same register we use when we go to the polls.

I know that it is an important issue.

It is the same register we use when we vote in European elections-----

However, the register of electors is only a related issue.

-----general and local elections.

Will the Deputy, please, return to the Bill? It only deals with local authorities in Limerick and Waterford.

It is important that I flag the issue in order that we can get it right. I know I have the support of the Minister in this regard. The register should be updated and published yearly, with a system of continuous registration to be devised.

The European elections provide us with an opportunity to look after our emigrants abroad. It is our duty to care for Irish people abroad. It is bad enough to see people having to emigrate without being disenfranchised also. We have many highly skilled workers who are deprived of the right to work and live in their own country. This is not the fault of the Government. We hope to get the economic climate right to which they can come back. We cannot penalise them further by refusing them the right to be part of the democratic process. It is high time, therefore, that we recognised that workers who are forced to leave the country should be entitled to be treated as citizens, with all the rights of citizenship. One of these rights is the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. I would extend this right to national and local elections. Will the Minister examine such a move? This is a practice followed in most European countries and internationally. According to a recent study, 121 countries, including 36 European countries, have put in place mechanisms to allow their emigrants to vote. It is becoming highly unusual that the only non-residents allowed to vote in Dáil and European elections are Army personnel and diplomats stationed abroad. All of our citizens should be provided with this facility. I know that the e-voting machines introduced by the previous Government were a disaster, but with the use of modern technology we could enable emigrants to vote in Oireachtas and European parliamentary elections. We are not too far away from seeing this happen in Ireland.

Democracy is all about the people ruling themselves.

It is about encouraging people to take an interest in their society. It is not just a system; it is an idea that has been cultivated. I know that the Government is committed to ensuring better communications with our Parliament. There should be a greater role for our MEPs in the national Parliament. Most other European countries facilitate their MEPs to a greater extent than we do and I would like to see the same happen in this country. Broadening the role of our MEPs should probably have been considered by the Convention on the Constitution. I know it has been touched on, but greater discussion and debate should take place about it.

I thank and compliment the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the fine job he is doing. He has adopted a hands-on approach, as acknowledged the length and breadth of Ireland among public representatives and communities. He recently visited my own constituency of Longford-Westmeath and the general public very much appreciated what he was doing for local government, communities and, above all, services used by local people.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak on this Bill which, again, is an important one. It is short, but there are some very important initiatives included in it.

The major change is that the number of MEPs is being reduced from 12 to 11, which means that the constituencies will have to be reviewed. At present, they are quite large. MEPs in the north-west constituency must take into account people living in Kilrush and Moville. It is an enormous area. The areas from Dingle to Tramore in the south and Wexford to Dundalk in the east are also very large. Each constituency, including Dublin, has three seats. If one is to move to have 11 MEPs, there needs to be a major change and my suspicion is that we will have even larger constituencies. Obviously, we do not know yet and the commission will be independent. As the Minister likes to be radical, will he consider having single seat constituencies or a national list system? I do not know if it is physically possible for people to cover that kind of territory and engage with constituents. I, therefore, challenge the Minister to possibly produce a paper on the pros and cons of and hold a seminar on having single seat constituencies or a national list system in order to get away from these massive constituencies and expecting people to travel to Brussels or Strasbourg and then come back and service a constituency of that size. In practice, one will find that MEPs are located in physically different areas; therefore, in practice, there are smaller boundaries that MEPs will serve, but we need to look at this issue because it would make it far more manageable.

I will digress for a few moments. The Minister knows my views on national elections and Dáil constituencies, for which we should be talking about single seat constituencies. I was perturbed recently at the Constitutional Convention when it spoke about having seven or eight seat constituencies. That would lead to massive competition at local level and one would end up with Deputies spending less time here dealing with national and international issues as they would need to spend more time in their constituencies dealing with local issues, which are within the remit of councillors. We need to rethink on this issue in a significant way.

I welcome the changes to the supplements to the postal and special voters lists, which are important and timely. They give people more time to get on the lists, but we need more advertising of them. We need to let the public know in a timely fashion that they are available. Perhaps we should look how they are structured, as they are quite complicated. There are a range of sections, qualifications and rules. The system needs to be simplified in order that people can avail of the postal and special voters lists in an easier way, but this is a welcome first step that is very important.

At the start of this process, the register of electors will be changed because of the new authorities and there will be new registers. When this is happening nationally, I suggest we consider mandating undertakers to let local authorities know when someone dies in order that his or her name can be taken off the register? It would be a simple thing to do. Surely the undertakers could send a note to the local authority telling it that someone has regrettably passed away. It would be a very simple and easy thing to do. I mention this in the context of the changes to the register of electors. Again, it is an interesting idea.

Mention is made in the Bill of town councils and changes and requirements relating to development plans. The town councils will go, a matter on which the Minister and I have had conversations. We need something to replace town councils with in urban areas in the context of development plans and planning. I note that around the country there has been growth in the number of community councils and know that the Minister is interested in this idea. There are community councils all over the country and they work very well and are democratic. However, they will not be recognised unless they are democratically elected. They do a lot of work such as looking after social services, old and young people and the environment. One could say they do more than town councils which have a narrow statutory remit. I suggest that if we are looking at development plans, as mentioned in the Bill, we need to start encouraging the development of community councils in urban areas which will no longer be served by a discrete, focused town council. This should possibly be looked at and encouraged.

Another issue which arises under the Bill is the disclosure of donations. Again, it is welcome that political parties must come forward in the same way as candidates and it is quite important that they do so.

Mention is made in the Bill of candidates who come from other jurisdictions and how they can be validated to ascertain they do not have a criminal record and are eligible to stand for election. This leads to a wider debate about how we can encourage new immigrants to get involved in the political process. If people who come from other jurisdictions stand for election, this might help, but we need to reach out to people who are now citizens of Ireland to encourage them to get involved in the political process by standing for election, including in European elections, either for political parties or as Independents. We had different integration policies and sections at Government level. Now that they have more or less been stood down, it is important that we focus on this issue. It is quite hard to get involved in the political process in Ireland. Even joining political parties can sometimes be daunting for people who do not know what is involved in the process. Perhaps we need to start looking at that issue and talking about democracy and how people can become involved. Many of the people concerned come from other jurisdictions that would, to say the least, have had challenges related to democracy and many of them are quite interested in getting involved. The political system needs to focus on this issue to try to involve them.

I have a point to make on the register of electors, voting and the special voters list. It is slightly off topic, but perhaps the Ceann Comhairle might indulge me when I talk about polling station personnel. I suggest to the Minister that he bring about a situation where individuals could apply for these positions rather than having people in them who are well off and have huge pensions, while persons in receipt of jobseeker's allowance cannot get a look in. If these positions were advertised on an annual basis, people would be able to apply for them and a panel established. This would certainly be of help. It would also be of help if people in receipt of social welfare payments received some dispensation for the period of time they were doing this work in order that it would not impact adversely on their jobseeker's allowance or eligibility for other schemes.

I do not have much more to say. This is important legislation. I know we spoke about having an electoral commission. Perhaps the Minister might give us his views on when that might occur.

The idea of a standing electoral commission to look after elections, referendums and so on has been suggested so at what stage is that?

It seems to be funky Friday in here. I was hoping Deputy Catherine Murphy would stay on as she was part of Kildare County Council when I was on it and I have been fighting against certain changes in this type of legislation since they came into being. I will refer to Part 8 of the Bill, which deals with planning development and specifically the Planning Development Act 2000. Within the Bill, there are proposed changes to amalgamate city, town and county bodies and there will be a review of development plans in that process. Within each development plan being reviewed there is a section referring to Part V of the planning Act, and this takes in the social and affordable housing scheme. If the Ceann Comhairle will indulge me, I will speak specifically to this.

I have been totally opposed to this process since it was introduced by a former Minister, former Deputy Noel Dempsey, as a way of alleviating housing list difficulties in all counties throughout the country. It has failed miserably, and in Kildare currently we have in excess of 5,000 people on lists. If Deputy Murphy had remained she would have known that I argued passionately at the time not to introduce it into our development plan but we were forced to do so as a result of legislation under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. I argued at the time that it did not develop communities but just built houses. It did not develop playgrounds, amenities or sites for schools. Before this, local authorities were doing "deals" - I hate that word - with developers and if there was a possibility of getting a piece of land for a school or playground, there could be a negotiation. In my constituency the McHugh case in the courts struck down that concept, although I thought it was an excellent idea. If a local plan was put in place, it meant local amenities could be sorted out.

This process was introduced by the former Minister, Noel Dempsey, who believed it would solve all the housing problems, but it has failed utterly in doing so. We need to give local authorities some opportunity to start building houses and that will also help generate jobs locally. Many builders are unemployed on a long-term basis and these could be taken from the dole queues. It would also help clean up the black market, where much construction is ongoing.

I know the Minister is part and parcel of a reforming Government and he loves to change things. He recognises that some of the actions of our predecessors were absolutely disgraceful and despicable. Since its introduction in 2000, I have fought against this process with all my body to ensure it could be reformed or removed from the Statute Book. I ask the Minister to consider this and he will have my complete support if he amends the 2000 Act in order to repeal this section. The Minister is reforming and likes good ideas and if we remove this process and allow local authorities to get back to building houses, it will be a positive move not alone for local authorities but for the economy in general.

I thank the Deputies who made a contribution on Second Stage of the Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill. I stated at the outset that this would not be the most Earth-shattering Bill in the world but we have to deal with a number of technical issues that relate to the current reform programme in local government. It also deals with European election boundaries because of the decision of the Heads of Council in recent days, and we are reducing the number from 12 seats to 11. I was interested in Deputy Stanton's comments on the numbers of members and the context of single-seat constituencies. We must divide 11 seats among the population to give fair representation to everybody, amounting to 400,000 people per member. Some parts of the country, particularly in the west and north west, will require a fair bit of geography in order to give that critical mass of population per member. With the best will in the world, there will be a bit of travelling for the member elected in that region. There is a system in place under the Electoral Acts, with an electoral commission similar to that of the Dáil that will consider the matters. I know the Deputy's personal views on matters related to electoral reform, which are being discussed as part of the Constitutional Convention. I will not create a new process with this Bill for the European elections in 2014. Perhaps some of the suggestions made by the Deputy will be in place for the following elections.

I am very committed to the establishment of an electoral commission, which is in the programme for Government. We hope to advance proposals on that in 2014 and it is hoped it will be in place in time for the 2016 general election. A number of Members mentioned the register of electors and in the context of the electoral commission we are considering how to do better in ensuring the citizen is engaged more in the process of being interested in politics and wanting to put their name on the register. Political parties have a role to play in this regard, as Deputy Ferris mentioned. As political parties, we are not as good as we were in going out to meet the electorate on an individual basis, but there are sufficient communication tools at our disposal to allow us engage with citizens and ensure they do not forget to register. We should make it as easy as possible for them to do so, particularly when it comes to marginalised people in the community and non-nationals. The problem is not unique to those groups.

There was mention of community councils and I am considering the concept in the context of a local government Bill. Many of the suggestions from Deputies Cowen, Catherine Murphy and other speakers are appropriate to another Bill, which will be published in the autumn and enacted before the end of the year. That will be significant legislation and I look forward to the constructive and open engagement from all sides of the House in getting this right. The notion of having the community and voluntary sector empowered with local government through the municipal districts is something of which I am very conscious, and we do not want to create a democratic deficit in any locality that could be filled by other means. There must be a structure in place with the democratic and accountable autonomy of local government that is able to guide the process and ensure a group of people does not come together just to set up a structure to compete with an existing municipal council or district. We must watch out for that and ensure that whatever is established is accountable.

I am very conscious of the need for citizen participation in all aspects of government and there is no better place for it than at local government level. That is why we will ensure, contrary to Deputy Cowen's ungenerous comments, the Government's programme and my personal commitment to devolve as much power and function as we can from national agencies and the national Government to local government. This is the first time with any local government reform package or policy agreed by Government where the first port of call will be local government. There is a capacity in local government but, unfortunately, since the abolition of rates on land and houses in 1977, we have taken all the financial autonomy and wherewithal from local councils. We have not prioritised local resources at a local level, based on the priorities of the democratically elected local councillor. Anybody who has read Putting People First, the action programme for effective local government that was published last October, will see that the intent of the policy document, which will be enshrined in legislation, is to reverse all the bad work and policy done since 1977 as a result of abolishing domestic rates and rates on agricultural land. There were also changes in motor tax introduced in order to get a 20 seat majority in the 1977 election. Moreover, many agencies of the State had activities centralised that should have been going on at local level.

I have reduced the number of agencies from 21 to ten in my Department alone.

They were never necessary but, because of the times we were in, it was felt we could solve every problem by throwing money at it or setting up a committee or an agency. That day is over and I will make sure we have, on behalf of the taxpayer, an effective and efficient means of delivery of services without duplication of structures, staffing or any other facet of government, national or local.

I very much support Deputy Lawlor's comments on planning and development matters and I am on record in this regard in opposition as well as in government. I will work closely with the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who has the delegated functions in this area, to see what we can do in the forthcoming planning and foreshore Bill, which will be published in the autumn. This will give us an opportunity to consider planning matters and policies that have not worked, such as the Part V provisions, which, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, became developer-led rather than being led by local authorities and their elected members in the interest of the wider community. I subscribe to his comments and I am very much in favour of getting local authorities back into the business of building houses again in line with what he suggested. They have been pushed aside over the past 20 years from doing the work they were set up to do, which is to generate economic and social activity in their own communities with the help of money from the Exchequer and locally by adopting plans agreed by local authority members to get people working and to deliver services at local level - particularly housing, which is essential to every family - as quickly as possible. I assure the Deputy we are engaged in initiatives that will be based around local government, which will give a stimulus to the construction sector and which will give hope to the people on our housing waiting lists as we attempt to transfer the various financial supports the State gives to the private sector through the RAS and so on into the local government system.

The Bill is not intended as a major review of law. In the electoral area, I have taken the opportunity to address a few provisions, particularly in the context of political funding. Few people acknowledge the fact that we have effectively taken the chequebook out of politics and we have provided more money in the public system while retaining the opportunity at local level for small financial donations to be made to people in the political system to support various small events for local election candidates. The days of vast amounts swashing around in the political system are, rightly, over. There was not a level playing field in this regard in the past and I have sought to improve it.

I thank everybody for their contributions. I look forward to dealing with the remaining Stages and to enacting this modest legislation prior to the summer recess.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Tuesday.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 July 2013.
The Dáil adjourned at 2.15 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 16 July 2013.