I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In commending the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019 to this House I am asking Dáil to continue the long established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of independent electoral constituency reviews. As Deputies in this House are aware, a decision on the number of representatives to be elected to the European Parliament in each member state for the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term was made by the European Council on 28 June 2018. That Council decision establishing the composition of the European Parliament provides for 13 members to be elected in Ireland for the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term. That provision of seats is up from 11 seats in the current Parliament and the last few European Parliaments. The Council decision reduces and redistributes European Parliament seats following the decision by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union on 29 March 2019.
The new composition will reduce the size of the European Parliament from 751 to 705 MEPs. Of the 73 seats vacated by the United Kingdom, 27 will be re-allocated to reflect better the principle of degressive proportionality. The 27 seats will be distributed to some 14 member states, including Ireland, with no member state losing a seat. This change necessitated a review of European Parliament constituencies in Ireland with the result that a European Parliament Constituency Committee was established by order under section 5(1A) of the Electoral Act 1997 on 24 July 2018.
The committee was required to report to the Ceann Comhairle no later than two months after its establishment, that is, by 24 September 2018, and was required to hold a public consultation process to inform its deliberations. The public consultation was held over the month of August 2018 and a total of 20 submissions were received by the committee in advance of developing and finalising its report. In arriving at its recommendations, the committee was required to have regard to the following terms of reference: the total number of representatives to be elected in the State to the European Parliament shall be such number as may be specified for the time being pursuant to the treaties governing the European Communities, that is, 13 in this case; reasonable equality of representation as between constituencies; each constituency returning three, four or five members; the avoidance of any breach to county boundaries as far as practicable; each constituency being composed of contiguous areas; geographic considerations including significant physical features and the extent of and the density of population in each constituency; and subject to the above, continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies.
The committee's report was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 24 September 2018, after which it was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. The report was also circulated to Oireachtas Members and MEPs on that date.
In summary, the report recommends that the State continue to be divided into three constituencies. A four-seat Dublin constituency will comprise Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, south Dublin and the city of Dublin. In effect, the existing Dublin constituency will gain one additional seat but remain geographically unchanged. A four-seat Midlands-North-West constituency will comprise counties Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath and the city of Galway. While the number of MEPs in the Midlands-North-West constituency will not change, its geographical territory is reduced by the transfer of counties Laois and Offaly to the South constituency. A five-seat South constituency will comprise counties Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow; the cities and counties of Limerick and Waterford; and the city of Cork. In summary, this constituency will gain an additional seat, with its territory increasing to include counties Laois and Offaly to maintain reasonable equality of representation.
The Bill provides for implementation, in full and without change, of the recommendations made in the report I have outlined. This approach is consistent with the established practice since the first independent Constituency Commission reported in 1980. It is a short Bill which provides for the election of 13 MEPs in Ireland across the three recommended constituencies. In addition, it provides for a number of technical amendments to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to implement certain requirements set out in the EU Council decision of 13 July 2018. This decision which aims to modernise the European Union's electoral law, known as the Act of 1976, as well as strengthening citizens' participation in future European elections, was adopted in July 2018 under the special legislative procedure following more than two years of negotiations between the European institutions. It inserts a number of provisions into the Act of 1976, some mandatory and some voluntary, which are intended to take effect in advance of the holding of the elections to the European Parliament which are scheduled to take place in member states between 23 and 26 May 2019.
The Bill has seven sections. Section 1 provides that the principal Act referred to in the Bill is the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, which is the Act that is being amended.
Section 2 amends section 10 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to extend the minimum period within which a polling day order announcing the date for the holding of a poll for an election to the European Parliament must be made. The amendment is consequential on the amendment in section 4 of the Bill to extend the timeframe for the notice of election as set out in Rule 2 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. A polling day order will be made not less than 60 days in advance of polling day for the elections to the European Parliament, up from the current 50 days.
Section 3 amends section 15 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to provide that the counties, the cities and counties and the cities listed in the new Third Schedule to the principal Act will be those in existence on 1 September 2018.
Section 4 provides for amendments to rules 2, 5 and 50 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. The extension of the current timeframe for the giving of the notice of election as set in rule 2 will ensure the mandatory requirements under the Council decision of July 2018 in respect of the three-week deadline for the receipt of nominations, as well as the six-week deadline for the commencement of the exchange of information, will be achieved. A notice of election will be issued by the returning officer at least 45 days, disregarding excluded days, before polling day, up from the current 35 days. Separately, the amendments to rules 5 and 50 will allow a candidate standing for election to the European Parliament the option to include on the ballot paper the name of any European political party to which his or her national political party may be affiliated. The application of this provision will be entirely voluntary and whether the name of a European political party should be included will be a matter for prospective candidates and their national political parties, if any, to decide.
Section 5 provides for the substitution of the Third Schedule to the principal Act. The new Third Schedule sets out the name of each constituency, the counties and cities each constituency will comprise and the number of members who will be elected in each constituency in the European elections to be held after 1 January 2019. The major change from the current configuration is that an additional seat will be allocated to the Dublin and South constituencies, as I have outlined. In addition, counties Laois and Offaly will move from the Midlands-North-West constituency to the South constituency to provide for a better balance of representation. In spite of these moves, there remains a considerable degree of continuity in the arrangement of the constituencies, with a three-constituency arrangement continuing to apply. In addition, the population per MEP in the three constituencies ranges from just under 337,000 to just over 380,000, which is a narrow range in the variance of population per MEP. Therefore, there is a fair balance of representation among the three constituencies.
Section 6 is an amendment consequential on the changes proposed in section 4 and amends section 25 of the Electoral Act 1992 to allow national political parties the option of including in the register of political parties the name of any European political party to which they may be affiliated.
Section 7 is a standard provision which provides for the Bill's Short Title, collective citation and construction.
The Bill has been drafted on the basis that the United Kingdom will withdraw from the European Union on 29 March 2019. As Deputies will be aware and can appreciate, however, the timing of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union is less than clear in the light of recent decisions on the withdrawal agreement taken in the House of Commons. In the event that the withdrawal does not take place as envisaged before the start of the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term, the provisions of Article 3(2) of the June 2018 Council decision will come into effect. In summary, it would mean that, in the case of Ireland, 13 members would be elected to the European Parliament, with 11 taking up office immediately, while the remaining two would take up office only when the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union became legally effective. Prudence dictates that we make provision for a delayed withdrawal, given the uncertainties that prevail. Accordingly and if necessary, I will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to provide for such a scenario and any other such matter that may arise on foot of the Brexit process.
As I stated in my introduction, this is a short Bill which has the specific purpose of providing for new constituencies, in which 13 MEPs will be elected to represent Ireland in the European Parliament for the next term. It is now a matter for the Oireachtas to revise our European constituencies. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and the contributions of Members to it.