When one considers that an average of 30,000 people die in Ireland every year, that last year, 90,000 new homes were sold, a further 50,000 homes changed hands and that 45,000 people over the age of 18 came to this country to work, it is likely that there were over 500,000 changes of address in 2005. I am not sure that all those changes could be tracked by some kind of automatic system without the use of substantial resources. The only way it could be done would be to give everybody a unique number — a discrete number like a PPS number — and then to put in place a system to track automatically their changes of address as they happen. Such a system would have to differentiate automatically between the different types of people who reach the age of 18.
Another problem with PPS numbers is that a small number of elderly people who have been through the system do not have PPS numbers. The cost of producing a system that would automatically edit the details attached to PPS numbers every time a person changes address would be astronomical. It may well be a good way to proceed, but we need to debate whether we want to provide for a national identification system.
I would like to mention one set of circumstances in which PPS numbers would be useful. I have already said I would be disposed to consider this approach in light of further reforms. When one fills out one's registration form at present, there is no requirement for one to cite one's PPS number. We may well provide for such a requirement in the future, but it is not currently intended. While the suggestion that the PPS number system could be converted to be used to update the register of electors is attractive, vast investment would be needed before that could be done. It has been suggested in the media that we could provide for automatic updating by establishing some sort of automatic national computer. I have been around for long enough to know that if one really wants to make a mess of something, one should use a great big computer system.
While a great deal has been written and said about this issue, we should bear in mind that at the end of this process we will have the most up-to-date register we have ever had. I do not think anyone should be blamed for the fact that the register has been in a disgraceful condition for the last 20 or 30 years. When the Irish people went to the polls in 2002 to elect a Dáil, over 330,000 people who should not have been on the register of electors were on it. I estimate that 250,000 people who should have been on the register were not on it. We need to consider how such errors arose.
The local authorities have the legal responsibility to prepare the register but it is not fair to blame the local authorities because, as Senator Brady said, there is personal responsibility on us all in that regard. We would be the first people to complain if we lived in a Big Brother state where we were all tagged, measured and "barcoded" through everything, and rightly so. As a person who has an interest in civil liberties, I would not like the idea of automatic tracking of all movements, which would be costly. When we take time to analyse it, there is, regrettably, no easy solution to preparing the register.
I started this process last year and I said then I did not intend to allow the problem with the register to continue because it was a scandal. The Sunday Tribune did excellent work on this, although I would quibble with it about its methodology, suggesting that there were up to 800,000 errors and omissions on our register. We cannot accept that. We must give the councils credit for what they have done. We must also give them, as I have done, a doubling of the resources to do it this year because it would not be fair to expect councils to put in place that kind of work. It should be noted that I also gave them the authorisation to employ the census enumerators to do the job. It would not have been a good idea to try to do that work and the census at the same time for practical reasons.
I ask the Senator to accept my word that if the PPS number was the magic bullet I would have gone for it as someone who has some technical interests but it would not work. Sadly, unless we put in place an automatic tracking system for every citizen from the cradle to the grave, it will not work. That happens in France. When someone moves to a new area in France they are supposed to register. We have not done that here and until we do, we cannot do what is proposed. I regret I cannot accept the amendment.