I thank the Chairman and members for their invitation to appear before them again this afternoon. I also thank the committee for the detailed consideration it has given the general scheme of the electoral reform Bill. The Chairman outlined some of the groups and organisations that have appeared before the committee. I must say, it has been very impressive and I have followed the pre-legislative scrutiny process over the past number of months with great interest.
The general scheme proposes a comprehensive and far-reaching suite of changes to our electoral system. It is appropriate that it be assessed by a broad range of experts and interested parties. The points raised have been of great interest and assistance to my officials and myself. I would like to put on record my appreciation of the consistent support which has been expressed for the general scheme and its aims through the pre-legislative scrutiny process.
The general scheme that was presented to the committee was the result of very careful consideration of the 2016 joint Oireachtas committee Report of the Committee on the Consultation on the Proposed Electoral Commission 2016; the views of the public expressed in the 2018 public consultation processes on the establishment of the electoral commission and modernisation of the registration process; and, finally, the recommendations set out in the first and second reports of the interdepartmental group on the scrutiny of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation, having particular regard to the public consultation and open policy forum held in respect of online political advertising. Indeed, many of the scheme’s features can be linked directly to these recommendations.
I have previously spoken about the need for our electoral system to evolve as our society evolves. I believe that the provisions of this general scheme are integral to that evolution. The independent electoral commission, which we plan to have in place by the end of this year, will move a broad range of electoral functions into one specialised organisation. Electoral policy and practice will be its sole focus. The centralisation and specialisation will allow the commission to look at the interactions between functions and also to improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which the functions are carried out. The electoral commission’s research and advisory role will allow it to take a cohesive view of our electoral landscape. It will help us in maintaining strategic focus on the system and how we meet new challenges. Fundamentally, it will guide and inform the evolution of our electoral system.
I believe that the modernised electoral registration process, which this legislation will deliver, will facilitate greater democratic engagement, including with our young people. By simplifying and streamlining the process, it will align much better with how we live in Ireland today. By putting in place the means to ensure a more accurate register, it will support and enhance the integrity of our democratic process into the future.
To promote greater transparency in our electoral processes and to reduce the risk of hidden influence, the general scheme provides for the compulsory labelling of paid political advertisements commissioned for use on online political platforms during electoral periods. This labelling will ensure an elector is aware of who is behind an advertisement, why the elector is being targeted and how much the advertisement costs. This will mean that the rules which currently apply to the more traditional forms of advertising will now be extended into the online ecosphere.
An issue that has been particularly close to my heart has been the need to bring about a more inclusive and vibrant democracy for Ireland. To achieve this, we need a more informed, engaged and energised electorate. This starts with greater engagement with and understanding of our democratic structures and processes. I see the modernised electoral registration process and the electoral commission’s voter education and participation role as absolutely critical to fostering greater participation and engagement in our democracy from new voters, as well as these traditionally under-represented and marginalised groups. I know some of those groups have been represented at the committee and I commend it on the work it has done in that regard. I was, therefore, particularly happy to see the full scrutiny and session involving representatives of the National Youth Council of Ireland, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Irish Traveller Movement. I am determined that the electoral commission’s voter education and participation role will be significant and that this function will be well-resourced. It will have a clear emphasis on reaching out to marginalised groups, underpinning a more inclusive political system that is representative of all of our citizens.
In conclusion, the deliberations of the committee and its witnesses in respect of the general scheme have been constructive and well considered. I look forward to receiving the committee's report. I assure members that it will receive our full attention and as careful consideration as I know the committee has put into this process so far. Again, I thank the committee for its diligence and hard work in this regard. I acknowledge the presence of officials from our Department, Mr. Barry Ryan, Mr. Paris Beausang, Ms Petra Woods, Mr. Martin Hehir and Ms Mairead Ryan, who will assist with the session this afternoon. I look forward to members' questions.