Arising from the significant public interest and ongoing discussion on issues relating to the Register of Electors, I wrote to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government inviting the joint committee to discuss a range of issues with me. I am very grateful to the Chairman for arranging this meeting at very short notice and giving me the opportunity to come before the committee. I am aware the committee formally considered the register and examined the draft guidance documents earlier.
It is important that we, as practising politicians, discuss the issue in this forum. There should be a broad political consensus on the approach to electoral matters. Some of the issues raised in the process of editing and updating the register are inevitably going to give rise to query. It is very important, therefore, that we lay all the issues before the joint committee.
I hope we will get at least two things from our discussion: first, a broadly based political consensus for the changes I am introducing to improve the register; and second, I would welcome the views of members on a number of specific issues. Short, medium and long-term action must be taken to resolve the problems with the electoral register. There is no simple solution, no silver bullet. All the international literature that deals with this issue points to the difficulties of keeping the electoral register up to date. I have set out a package of short-term measures to assist local authorities in their work on the register. These include the use of census enumerators or other temporary personnel to support local authorities in preparing the next register. We had meetings with the representatives of local authorities on 2 and 8 May and the City and County Managers Association will meet tomorrow to finalise the detailed programme for this element; I am providing additional ring-fenced financial resources for local authorities. I have been asked how much, but it is very difficult to give a simple answer. In a typical non-election year the local authorities put aside between €5 million and €6 million to deal with the register. I believe the task I am setting them will require twice that amount and I will be providing top up finance for the local authorities. However, I will do so on the basis that the funds will be ring-fenced, cannot be used for any other purposes and that it will be a once-off allocation; I want to initiate a local authority electoral register campaign early in 2007 and 2008. I read the comments of joint committee members and I agree with the general thesis that we should have a continuing focus on this issue. I will return to the suggested date of 1 October later; to issue upgrade guidance documentation by the end of this month; and local authorities will make use of relevant databases to cross-check the register.
Councils have a number of databases in their own ownership, however, it may surprise members to learn that local authorities do not co-ordinate entries on the register with occupation of new houses. That is not rocket science and it should be done as the norm. Other databases can be used without any trouble, expense or trespassing on data protection issues. I want the local authorities to examine the possibility of using other databases to cross-check the register. We all use the services of the ESB, while one could not compile the voting register from the ESB register one could become aware, at least, of new houses in the area. I have already mentioned the new arrangements to delete deceased persons. We all know of cases where a family is traumatised by getting a voting card for somebody who is dead. That should not happen. I have made arrangements that EXCEL files will be available to the local authorities which will directly allow them to upgrade the register on line on a periodic basis. This arrangement has been in operation since 26 April 2006.
Later in the year I intend to conduct a very intensive campaign of information on the voting register. The format will be different from previous years. It will be necessary, in particular, if the enumerators are calling door to door and there is a great deal of editing to ensure that people are aware of the requirement to check the register to confirm their names are not deleted. I am considering the idea of better on-line facilities to help people to check the voting register. Most local authorities have dedicated websites with a click in button where one can check the Register of Electors. Some, but not all websites are user friendly. I want to have best practice in operation in all local authorities. By using the website of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I can effectively give universal access to all registers in the country.
I want to strengthen the controls at polling station at election times. New guidelines will issue before the next election, but I want to draw on the experience and views of this committee in this regard. If we want to protect the system against electoral fraud, we must take robust action to prevent it. That is done in other administrations but it is not done here. As a number of members have observed, it would be quite easy to pass from one constituency into another and claim another vote. We must examine that.
A group of local authority managers is working with senior officials from my Department to put in place the programme to improve the register. In view of the concerns which have been expressed about excess numbers on the register, the programme envisages that each household will be visited at least twice and provided with forms and information during the registration process. In the event that this process does not satisfactorily register the household, written notification will be given to a household, cautioning against the danger of being omitted from the register. As all politicians know, one can go to a house five or six times, without ever finding anybody at home. One cannot make an automatic assumption that nobody is there, but one can leave a notification that the members of the household are not registered and must contact X, Y or Z or fill in the form to register. We need to reach an agreement on how the modality will work in order to ensure that we do not exclude people who should be included. This reflects what is, I believe, a wide-scale acceptance of the need for a more rigorous approach to compiling the register and ensuring that electoral fraud is avoided.
The entire focus in Ireland has been to create a voting register that is inclusive in order to encourage people to register. In the not too distant past, we encouraged students to register in the area where they lived as well as where they attended university. I can understand that people have been very anxious to encourage young people, in particular, to register to vote. The approach at local government has been to include rather than to exclude people. That approach, however, has contributed in no small way to an excessive number being entered on the register because the emphasis has never been on editing it. Now the emphasis will be on including those who should be on it and ensuring those who should not be on it, will be taken off. That inevitably will give rise to potential problems of exclusions.
I very much welcome the views of the committee on these measures, specifically those related to the register as well as the issue of presenting identification at polling stations. I believe that what happens on polling day is what really counts. There are longer-term options that must be examined. The first is the use of PPS numbers, which obviously has a role, but I do not think the PPS registration system would provide us with the automatic access to a universally correct register. To attempt to use the PPS register at this stage to create the electoral register would certainly create more problems than it would solve. I believe strongly — this is implicit in the Chairman's question with regard to 1 October — that we should move strongly towards a continuous registration process instead of the current seasonal operation combined with a supplement for additional registration. That is what happens elsewhere. Our register, which comes into effect on a particular date in February, is compiled on a particular date in November and relates to where one resides on 1 September, is bound to erode unless the election is held the day after the register takes effect. If an election is held towards the end of a register, the maturing register will be out of date and will have tens if not hundreds of thousands of incorrect entries. Given that 81,000 new households are coming into existence every year, which probably means that 81,000 couples are moving off the register in one place and onto the register somewhere else, the current system is a virtual formula for problems. In addition, tens of thousands of students change their residence during the course of the year.
I read the committee debates in this regard. The committee debate on pushing the date forward to 1 October suggested to me that we need an even more radical step, namely, a continuous register. I welcome the views of the committee in this regard.
The next issue relates to the use of the registration of any system established for identification of citizens. Several Members of the Oireachtas have referred to the question of a national identity card. I do not find that proposition attractive given that national identity cards have caused massive problems in other jurisdictions. However, it is an issue that has arisen. An honest contribution to the debate has been made, especially by members of the Labour Party, and my views on the issue are no better or worse than theirs. It is an issue that we should discuss calmly and in a constructive way.
On the integration of the register within the five-yearly census, I have made it clear that for a variety of reasons it is not possible ex post facto to mine into the census which has just been taken. Nor would it have been a good idea to depart radically this year from what had always been the census process. I will come back to this point if the committee wishes. In the longer term we could consider the question of how to integrate the creation of a register every five years to provide a baseline register.
The next item is the establishment of a single national authority to establish and maintain the register and perhaps to take on other electoral duties. I have suggested to several members of the committee that a case can be made for an electoral commission. My views on this would obviously have to be agreed by Government but we would also need cross-party agreement if we were to proceed in that way.
There is also a role for the Houses of the Oireachtas in this regard. Strangely, the Houses are not involved in the process of drawing up a register. What more appropriate authority should be involved in the oversight of the register than these Houses where democracy resides and which are the home to the Members elected by the people? The Houses are not involved, however, except peripherally with regard to registration for the Seanad. A role for the Oireachtas needs to be thought through in this regard, which is one of the healthy developments to have come from the debate.
There is also the question of more stringent oversight of local authority performance, either by my Department or a separate entity, although whether that entity is the Houses of the Oireachtas or an electoral commission needs to be discussed and teased out. As Members have noted at the committee, in the Dáil and Seanad and in other public discussions — I am grateful for their contributions — the standard of performance dramatically changes between local authorities. I have spoken to many local authority managers and franchise officers and believe there is a serious interest in making sure oversight is improved. The issue is resource hungry but we need to resolve it.
Another matter that must be considered is the use of the postal service for compiling the register. Members on different sides of both Houses have noted that the postal service and postmen know where everybody lives. That suggests a sensible, common sense, low-tech solution to a problem which will involve foot-slogging.
I have separately explored another issue. We know An Post has been doing much work in examining the question of introducing national postal codes. Therefore, it has a fix on every house in the country. We cannot use that information to create the register but it could be used to identify where households or groups of households are missing from the register. That is the kind of access to a database which would not trespass on people's privacy but which, with a little ingenuity and lateral thinking, could be used to create a good register.
There is also the question of having more powers for registration authorities to access databases containing information on individuals and to target registration action-taking accordingly. Deputy Gilmore stated that we should not be frightened by the fact that we have data protection. We should use it judiciously to improve the register because the register is central to the expression of democracy. We need to explore this question to ascertain the positives and negatives.
No doubt many other options can be availed of, perhaps in combination with the others to which I referred. However, I have outlined a substantial work list. If we get through that, we will have made a significant improvement to the register.
Important issues arise to which a careful and considered approach is necessary. It will not serve the public interest or the democratic process to propose fundamental change to the register without giving it significant thought and allowing for consultation in the process. The issue must be resolved on a cross-party basis, which is why I have set out a programme and asked to meet the committee.
A further issue has not been dealt with. Every member of this committee who has contributed at some stage during the debate indicated a concern about fraud on election day. I share that concern. There should not be political points-scoring on this issue. We should consider practical solutions to avoid fraud on election day. We can opt for high-tech or low-tech solutions but we can resolve this if political consensus exists.
To give an example, a number of members have had the experience of being poll observers in other countries. I was a poll observer with Deputy Michael D. Higgins during the election at the end of the civil war in Nicaragua. It avoided fraud by simply requiring everybody to put their finger into indelible ink which could not be washed off for four or five days. On an RTE programme this morning, I told Pat Kenny that people might object to that in this country. He made the interesting point that it would be a badge of pride that one had participated in democracy. It is a very low-tech solution and the stain would remain but a person could not vote a second time.
There is also a high-tech solution, if one does not like low-tech solutions. A system is available, which we have all seen in airports, where one puts one's finger on a scanner which reads one's fingerprint. If there is an issue that needs to shine, it can shine. If a person has voted once, his or her fingerprint could be recorded for the following 24 hours to make sure he or she does not vote anywhere else. Between the high-tech and low-tech extremes, there are ways of addressing the issue of electoral fraud which all members have raised.
If the Chairman wishes, I can go into more detail on issues such as EPS, but I am sure it will arise during questions.