Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 5 Nov 1992

Vol. 134 No. 10

Private Business. - Electoral (No. 2) Bill, 1991: [ Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil ] : Report and Final Stages.

I welcome the Minister to the House.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 82, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration," the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as a report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matter, therefore, that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

Senators will recall that earlier this year we had extended and very useful debates on the different Stages of this Bill. The measure was initiated in the Seanad and was subjected to a thorough and searching examination in its passage through the House. I hope I am in order in saying that speakers in the Dáil were very complimentary about the work done by the Seanad in relation to the Bill. It is my pleasure at this stage to report on certain amendments which have been made to the Bill in the Dáil.

First, I will sketch in very briefly what the Bill is about. Its purpose is to consolidate, with amendments, the law relating to the election of Members to Dáil Éireann. For the first time in the history of the State, the entire law in relation to Dáil elections is being brought together in a single statute.

The amendments which have been effected in the Dáil will, I believe, be generally welcome in this House. Senators will be particularly pleased at the amendment to section 47 which relates to the deposit required of a candidate at a Dáil election.

The existing deposit was fixed at £100 in 1923. The Bill, as drafted, proposed to increase this to £500. Many Senators, on both sides of the House, expressed disquiet, in varying degree, at the substantial increase proposed. I am sure they will be pleased to learn that in the Dáil the Minister accepted a compromise suggestion that the deposit be set at £300.

The amendment to section 57 emerged from a consensus among the parties. That section relates to the free postage facility for candidates at Dáil elections. Existing law on this subject, which was reproduced by the Bill as enacted, entitles each candidate at a Dáil election to send, free of postage charges, one election communication to each person on the register of Dáil Electors for the constituency. The amendment effected by the Dáil enables the election communication to be sent to each Dáil elector as at present or to any combination of such electors.

The amendment will give more flexibility to candidates in the operation of the free postage facilities. It will allow them to target individual electors, or households, or a combination of both. Under the amendment a candidate will be able to issue a letter to: all electors on the register for the constituency, or certain electors only, or each household, or certain households, or certain individual electors and certain households.

The new arrangements will provide for greater flexibility for parties and candidates and will enable them to use their resources to the best effect. It may also result in a saving to the Exchequer, which must bear the cost of the "free postage" facility.

Associated amendments to sections 167 and 170 effect corresponding improvements in the free postage facilities applying at Presidential elections and European Parliament elections, respectively. Consequential technical amendments were made in section 172 which relates to certain provisions of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act, 1983, which have reference to postal arrangements at elections.

A provision of the Bill which attracted a good deal of interest in this House is section 147 which prohibits canvassing and other political activity in the vicinity of polling stations. The Dáil accepted a proposal that the prohibition should apply within 100 metres of the polling station rather than 50 metres, as originally proposed. There appears to be general acceptance that this will make the provision more effective and, hopefully, will put an end to this unseemly activity altogether rather than simply moving it down the road.

Again, there are associated amendments to section 172 relating to European elections and 174 relating to local elections. The provisions are applied to Presidential elections and referenda by sections 167 and 168 respectively. I might add that the Minister gave a specific commitment that these provisions will be in force for the poll at the forthcoming referenda and, indeed, at any general election that may be forthcoming.

Section 121 (8) of the Bill, as originally drafted, provided that the returning officer would not transfer a surplus if the surplus, together with all other untransferred surpluses, could not possible give any continuing candidate a quota, could not save any candidate from elimination or could not save the deposit of any candidate. Outside these very limited circumstances, the returning officer would be obliged to transfer every surplus.

Certain reservations were expressed in the Seanad about this provision, particularly by Senator Naughten. Further examination of some concrete examples suggested that the provision as drafted would work satisfactorily and would be a definite improvement on the existing provision.

However, we all know how tense the situation at a count can be. Sometimes a candidate may find it difficult to understand why he or she should be eliminated when there is any surplus, however small, available for distribution. The wise returning officer may well seek to release some of the tension by transferring a surplus, even though he may be aware that it can make no material difference. For this reason, the section has been amended to restore the discretion of the returning officer but within much narrower limits than at present. The amendment does not fully meet the views expressed by Senator Naughten but should go a long way in this direction.

Finally, the Dáil amended section 88 of the Bill which sets out the directions for the preparation of the ballot paper. The amendment provides that the top right hand column on the ballot paper, which is the space reserved for the official mark, will be darkened or cross-hatched in order to discourage electors from writing on the otherwise blank space.

It is appropriate that we have this measure before us today and I will not hold up the progress of the Bill through the House.

As the Minister has said, this Bill was introduced in the Seanad and was dealt with in great detail by Members. It brings together all the laws in relation to Dáil elections for the first time in one statute. That is long overdue and one wonders why it was not done before this.

Section 47 relates to the deposit required by candidates in Dáil elections. I was one of those who felt that the deposit should be higher than the figure quoted by the Minister because I believe that people going forward for election who are unable to get 25 per cent of the quota and who are not able to come up with £500 are not serious candidates. I referred to that matter on Second Stage. Very often candidates put their names on the ballot paper simply to cause confusion. On Second Stage, I outlined situations I experienced in my time as a candidate. They did not affect me but other people lost their seats as a result of candidates, who did not even go out to vote, putting their names on the ballot paper.

I accept the wisdom of the other House and I will not make a song and dance about it here. It has been agreed by the Dáil to reduce the deposit to £300. It is an improvement but I think the sum is rather low.

With regard to the amendment to section 57, prior to this one could send letters by free post to every elector but not to households. This amendment is welcome. This caused a major problem in a previous election when a political party decided to send literature to a household rather than to individuals and the election literature was refused. The party was saving the State money by doing it in that way. I welcome this amendment which will mean that candidates can now circularise literature to all electors on the register for that constituency, to certain electors only, to each householder or to certain households. That is an improvement and in the long term it will mean a saving. We are all aware of the flood of literature we get at election time; I wonder how much of an impression it makes? Very often political parties go overboard with literature and posters but in this age of television and of national and local radio those matters are losing their impact. In the interest of the environment we should keep postering to a minimum.

In regard to section 147 prohibiting canvassing in the vicinity of polling booths, I have no difficulty with increasing the distance from 50 meters to 100 meters. The 50 meter provision may be only moving the problem down the road but the 100 metres provision will clean it up. This practice is dying out anyway. The Minister says in the "vicinity" of polling stations and the Bill says the "curtilage" of polling stations. What precisely are we talking about here? Where does the polling station begin? Is it the room where the polling booth is, is it in the building or is it the edge of the grounds where the polling booth is? I would ask the Minister to clarify this point. In rural areas where polling is held in a schoolhouse, the schoolhouse may be 50 yards from the edge of the road. I would ask the Minister to clarify this matter so that we will leave here clear in our minds as to what precisely we are talking about.

With regard to the transfer of surplus votes, I expressed very strongly my personal view that all surpluses should be distributed, particularly where that was requested by a candidate. While there is an improvement in that section, which I welcome——

As there are two other Senators offering I ask the Senator to conclude.

I will be brief. I feel very strongly that a candidate in an election should have the right to demand that all surpluses be distributed. I recognise that there is an improvement in this section of the Bill but I regret that the Minister did not go all the way. I am not saying all surpluses should be distributed but where a candidate requests it, the right should be there. This has given greater flexibility to the returning officer.

Finally, I want to put two questions to the Minister. It is impossible for students at this time of the year, to get home to rural areas to vote. In the near future we should examine the possibility of holding elections on Sundays. People from my part of the country who are attending college in Galway, Limerick, Cork and Dublin are deprived of the right to cast their vote because elections are held midweek.

When is it envisaged that the supplementary register will be introduced? Will it be introduced for the forthcoming election? I appeal to the Minister to have it introduced for the forthcoming election. Every individual has the right to vote.

I am glad the Minister has agreed to reduce the deposit from £500 to £300. I could not help doing a quick sum here. Off the top of my head, the value of £100 in 1921, would be equivalent to about two years wages today; I suspect that the average working wage in 1921 was about £1 a week. That would be equivalent to about £25,000 now. It is terrifying sum of money and suggests that our democracy had a hefty element of discrimination in favour of the property classes which we have gradully got rid of. I would not like to see us moving too far back in that direction. There is the anomaly here; in the election I contested there is no deposit even though every candidate is entitled to free postage to send literature to 80,000——

And many candidates would be able to pay a deposit.

The point made by Senator Naughten is valid. The chances are that every candidate in the election I contested would be able to put up a deposit and no deposit is sought. My poor old university has to sell the register which has 80,000 people on it for a maximum sum of 50p because of an anomaly in legislation even though the university may be severely embarrassed financially by the cost of producing this enormous register.

I have to say, Chairman — and in the spirit of the day you will probably let me away with it — it is a pity this opportunity was not taken to make provision for incapacitated voters on the Seanad panel. A blind person cannot vote on a Seanad panel because there is no provision for assisted voting for people who are physically incapacitated. It is a pity that that anomaly, which has caused inconvenience, has not been removed. I know of one illiterate city councillor and one blind city councillor, who was in Cork city, and in both cases they had no legal way of voting in accordance with the regulations because there is no provision in the Seanad Electoral Act to help incapacitated people. It is an anomaly that could be dealt with expeditiously and appropriately.

It is appropriate that we are debating this Bill today. The most important amendment is to section 47 to reduce the deposit from £500 to £300. As Senator Ryan pointed out, when the £100 deposit was introduced in 1923 it was a huge amount. At that time we were evolving into a democracy and women had just got the vote. Since people received no salary for serving in Parliament there was a clear weighting in favour of the wealthy in parliamentary elections.

Now we are talking about a totally different era, and for the Minister to say this amount is very reasonable considering the changes that have taken place since 1923 does not take into consideration the present financial position of would-be candidates. Many people would stand for election but they find it difficult to pay a deposit of £300 plus expenses. We have not had an abuse of elections by frivolous candidates going forward. We have had single issue candidates and many of them have shown that the electorate respected and supported their right to stand on those issues by electing them to Parliament.

We should not tinker with a system simply because it may not have worked out well in the adjoining jurisdiction. I would like the Minister to adopt the procedure used in many other European countries whereby a certain number of signatures may be put forward in lieu of a deposit. That would be a very welcome development.

I am delighted to see that the area outside a polling station which must be kept clear has been extended from 50 to 100 metres. There was an unnecessary amount of intimidation and hassle outside polling stations. Electors who had already made up their minds had to run a gauntlet of people waving papers urging them to support certain candidates. Thankfully, that will not happen in the future and I welcome that also.

The amendments to the Postal and Telecommunications legislation will give us a more flexible system as regards letters going through the post.

Acting Chairman

As it is now 11.30 a.m., in accordance with the order of the House today, I must put the question.

This House was delayed for half an hour on the Order of Business. Three or four questions have been asked.

Acting Chairman

I am sorry, Senator, I must put the question in accordance with the order of the House.

I must protest in the strongest possible way, I think the Minister should be entitled to reply to three or four questions and I ask the Leader of the House to allow the Minister time.

Acting Chairman

I am putting the question in accordance with the order of the House today, "That the Bill be received for final consideration, is hereby passed and a motion of concurrence with the earlier signature of the Bill by the President is hereby agreed".

Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman

Does the Minister wish to speak to what is in the Bill?

I think the Minister was not clear about what you said.

Acting Chairman

I am calling item No. 3.

The Minister made every effort to get in.

Acting Chairman

Item No. 3.

The Chair is putting down the hammer far too heavily. The Minister was anxious to speak.

The Minister is prepared to reply.

Acting Chairman

I have called item No. 3.

This House has been badly treated by the way this matter has been handled today. We were entitled to get a reply.

Acting Chairman

That is the way business was ordered today. There was no objection so the Senator need not blame the Chair.

I am not blaming the Chair.