Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill is a short but important Bill to enable the electoral register to be used for selecting citizens for the constitutional convention. When consideration was being given to the establishment of the convention, the Government decided there should be 100 members, of which 66 would be ordinary citizens. As set out in the resolution made in the House earlier today, membership of the convention will consist of 66 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society.

Section 13A of the Electoral Act 1992, inserted by section 4 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, provides that it is an offence to use information in the register of electors other than for electoral or other statutory purposes. Such a statutory purpose is provided, for example, in the Juries Act, for the selection of members of juries. An edited register is in place, which may be used for any purpose. That register includes approximately 300,000 voters who have opted to have their names included on it. However, that is a relatively small percentage of the total electorate, which stood at 3.144 million for the referendum last May. Clearly, therefore, the edited register would not be adequate for this purpose.

The constitutional convention is not established by statute and it is necessary, therefore, to provide in the electoral acts for the use of information in the register in the selection of citizen members of the convention. A polling company will be engaged to select the 66 people who are on the electoral register and are representative of the population generally, in terms of gender, age, social class and region. The selection process will be overseen by the independent chairperson of the convention.

Section 1 of the Bill amends section 13A of the Electoral Act 1992 by inserting a new subsection. This will provide that information in the electoral register may be used for the purpose of selecting citizens of Ireland to participate in the constitutional convention. Section 2 of the Bill contains standard provisions dealing with the Title, citation and construction of the Bill.

As I said earlier, the sole purpose of the Bill is to provide in statute for the use of the electoral register for the first time in selecting people for the purpose of the convention. It is a Bill to facilitate an important operational aspect of establishing the convention and I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for his presence. In many ways, this is an inspired Bill. What we are doing is getting to the person in Belmullet, the high unemployment zones in Limerick that we discussed with the Minister for Finance last week, or even in Knocktopher in the constituency of the Minister. Getting directly to the citizen through the electoral register is important because one of the reasons we are in difficulty is policy making is dominated by pressure groups, interest groups and lobbyists. One might say we have an insider outsider model and the Bill gives the outsiders a chance to receive a letter from the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government asking them what they would like to see done in the country on their behalf. That would have an inspiring effect on people finally asked to contribute. It is a very good idea to base it on the electoral register as it will reach everyone who votes. That is the right way to proceed as it gives equal opportunity to all citizens within a culture in which the democratic voice is bypassed through interest and lobby groups. The ones who were in Government Buildings on 29 and 30 September 2008, in particular, have a lot to answer for.

We have in the Central Statistics Office, for which the Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, has responsibility, the skills to undertake the sampling. The CSO does it for the household budget survey and it might reduce the burden rather than have the work done outside by expensive consultants. One concern is that if the lists are known, the lobby groups I am trying to keep out will go to the man at the end of a peninsula near Belmullet and tell him that he should say this and that. We want to get people's own views. I have an open mind as to whether the list of people chosen should be kept secret from lobby groups. This is a fantastic day for democracy as it goes right to where the people are to ask them to help the Government to get the country back to where it was before the bank rescue in 2008 and the IMF rescue in 2010. Governance in this country did not work and we must change it. The Minister proposes to involve citizens directly for the first time. In order to do this he must amend legislation dating back to the foundation of the State. This is a great step forward and I welcome it wholeheartedly.

I welcome the Minister, who is busy. The Bill is most welcome. Democracy is about the people and our political system must listen to the views of the electorate — ordinary people — on the reality of their lives. Many believe there is a disconnection between politics and the ordinary citizen. In this context, the constitutional convention can go a significant way towards resolving the issue of the democratic deficit. I welcome the methodology to be used to choose 60 members from the electoral register. The Bill is enabling legislation to provide such a facility. The programme for Government contained a commitment to better equip the Constitution to meet the challenges of the 21st century and the Bill will allow the methodology to be chosen to fulfil the commitment given.

This is an important and exciting initiative that represents an innovative approach to examining constitutional reform. As we have read, the constitutional convention will be asked to consider a range of matters in the next year or so. It is proposed that it will also review the Dáil electoral system and giving citizens resident outside the State a part to play. It is welcome that women will be encouraged to participate more in public life. The removal of blasphemy from the Constitution is another matter that will be considered and ordinary people will have a say in all of these matters. They will also have an opportunity to pick one or more issues they consider necessary for discussion. They might consider the Seanad in that respect, although I do not know if that is possible. I hope it will be.

Section 1 which inserts a new subsection (3A) in section 13A of the Electoral Act 1992, as inserted by the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, states a person may use information in the register prepared under section 13. I will skip that part as the Minister has referred to the issue.

According to the way the Bill is set out, the measure will be broadly representative of society, according to gender, age, regional balance and social balance. How the latter is handled will be important to ensure all sectors of society will be represented. Provision has also been made for a budget, which is important, and training will be provided for the members selected. That is an important aspect and it is done in other countries.

The Minister is responsible for the electoral register. We did not have an opportunity to debate the issue with the Tánaiste and I do not expect the Minister to answer the questions that would have been raised with him. The manner we left the Tánaiste sitting outside the Chamber for more than an hour was disgraceful when we could have availed of his presence to obtain information in the House.

Senator Sean Barrett mentioned interest groups, many of which have expressed an interest. I hope everyone — interest groups, individuals and whoever else has an idea — will have an input into the methodology to be used. It was said there would be a dedicated website for the purpose. That avenue could be made available to ordinary people not selected from the electoral register to have an input into the process. I do not think the names of those chosen should be made available as they could be inundated with personal emails. The Minister must consider whether the names should be published. It would be useful if the individuals chosen were provided with a website to access all information received from the public.

It was indicated that the JobBridge programme might be considered in making information available on the Internet. The Minister stated the provision of an IT facility would not be rocket science and that it could be done in-house. It is important to get this right. As we know from the Ulster Bank fiasco, serious problems can occur with information technology and we would not like anything of that nature to occur with the electoral register because it is such a serious document. I hope it will be ensured whoever is chosen is competent to do the job.

An important aspect of the constitutional convention is that the Government has publicly committed to responding to each of its recommendations within four months. I am sure this commitment will be honoured. Today we are providing for the participation of citizens in the convention by means of the Bill which addresses one of the main criticisms of previous attempts to initiate constitutional reform. There was a previous attempt 20 years ago and much excellent work was done, but only two referendums followed, in spite of numerous recommendations being made. I am confident that that will not be the case this time because of the commitment given and the methodology chosen which will ensure transparency in the selection of citizens from the electoral register.

The success of the constitutional convention will also hinge to a great extent on the level of engagement with the public. As I said, the provision of a website is important and I hope other methodologies for the receipt of submissions will be found. It is a terrific opportunity for members of the public to become involved in this important innovation in public life. I hope those approached to participate in the convention will take the opportunity to contribute to this exciting development in politics, for which I commend the Minister.

I cannot conclude without mentioning the group We the Citizens. Many of its recommendations, under the chairmanship of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, have been incorporated into the Bill.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. As is his right and obligation, the Minister has stuck rigidly to the strict interpretation of what is contained in this short Bill. I must confess I do not share the enthusiasm conveyed by the previous speaker in this regard. An all-party constitutional committee was in place as long as two Administrations ago and while I am unsure whether the present Minister was a member of it, his party and all others certainly contributed to it. Its members laboured long and hard over a number of years and produced recommendations which, in common with previously made recommendations, were studiously ignored by the then Administration. The programme for Government now contains a commitment to have a constitutional convention. As the candles were burning during the negotiations between the two parties, I am unsure when someone came up with this not terribly original idea. Thereafter, having created a mighty roar, they produced a mouse because essentially, the proposals are minimal.

I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions in this regard. I acknowledge Members have been presented with a fait accompli, in that this will happen anyway. However, does the Minister have an opinion on the fact that one of the items to be discussed is the review of the Dáil electoral system? In my opinion, with all due respect to the public, the best people to debate and come up with proposals on the electoral system are those who are themselves practising politicians. I am curious to ascertain whether the Government intends to provide guidance to the great and good among our citizens, who will be selected at random, as to how they are to go about their business. For example, will they be given guidelines on what is the Government’s thinking on Dáil reform? Are there specific areas of Dáil reform in which the Government has a particular interest and which it thinks the constitutional convention should examine? Alternatively, will the convention simply start with a blank sheet of paper? It has been stated the Government must come up with it within 12 months but I am sure it will not take that long.

I welcome the Minister's request that the convention report within two months on two of the issues to be discussed, namely, the reduction of the presidential term and the reduction in the voting age. I reckon that process should take approximately two days because one either is in favour of a reduction in the voting age or one is not and similarly, one either is in favour of a reduction in the presidential term of office or one is not. Consequently, I am unsure why this will take two months. Moreover, I question whether deciding on whether to reduce the voting age from 18 to 17 can be counted as one of the most important elements of constitutional reform. Some weeks ago, I mentioned in this Chamber that the Army recently raised the minimum age for recruits to 18 years. In other words, one arm of the State is going in one direction while another is going in a different direction. While it is just my opinion, I am uncertain whether there is great merit in reducing the voting age to 17 years.

As for the manner in which the Minister intends to select members of the convention, I am disappointed there will not be any representation from the Irish diaspora. Surely there was a need for this discussion to include those who have been lobbying long and hard and with whom, as a former emigrant, I have been aligned. I welcome the fact that this matter will come under active consideration and hopefully there will be a resolution that will come down in favour of extending the franchise for presidential elections to those of our diaspora who are spread across five continents. Obviously, certain term limits would be introduced in respect of eligibility, the process of registration and all the factors that already are in play in other countries that have extended the franchise for elections to their own diasporas. The Minister may wish to comment on whether there is any way in which the diaspora can have an input. For example, will submissions be accepted from the public or will there be a narrow focus on those who will be members of the convention to decide on such issues? As Members already have indicated, a range of civic groups are screaming and baying at the door, asking why they were not involved. Under the terms of reference that will be given to the convention, will there be an opportunity to take outside submissions in this regard?

It is interesting that all the issues, with the exception of Dáil reform, are effectively straight "Yes" or "No" questions. I refer to issues including reducing the presidential term, provision for same-sex marriage, amending the clause on women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life, removing blasphemy from the Constitution and, possibly, reducing the voting age. The only subject that is not a "Yes" or "No" issue concerns other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the convention.

I am glad Senator Cáit Keane referred to the Seanad but — the Minister may clarify this point — the Taoiseach already has made it clear that he will not allow any discussion on the future of the Seanad in the constitutional convention, despite the fact that one of its main purposes is to deal with Dáil reform. I believe the latter to be an area that will be critical and will be open to much wider debate based on the criteria laid down here and the terms of reference. I believe the major issue to confront the convention will be that of the Dáil and the electoral system that elects Deputies to it, yet the Seanad will not be part of its scope. In other words, one arm of parliamentary democracy will be discussed in great detail while the other arm will be studiously ignored. This is one reason many Members on this side of the House have been so uptight about this issue and have been animated to the point to which they have frustrated their colleagues on the other side of the House, who cannot understand the reason they are becoming so animated. It is not just about the Seanad's survival or Members talking about their own future; it is a matter of common sense, as there surely should have been an opportunity to discuss the future of the Seanad in the context of the constitutional convention.

I have two brief final questions. The fact there is a full register and an edited register came as something of a surprise to me as, for whatever reason, I was not aware there were two registers. Perhaps, at the time of registration, members of the public might be made more aware that they have the option to opt in or out. If they opt in to the edited register, that register is then sold on to commercial companies which in turn can contact voters when selling their goods. Does the Minister agree there could be a publicity campaign of some kind on this practice in order that citizens would be generally aware of it? My final point is about the key issue of how the sample will be taken. I compliment the Oireachtas Library and Research Service on its preparation of a valuable document in this regard. In everything I have read in respect of the questions raised on this particular proposal, the key question concerned how the sample would be taken. Any clarification in this regard from the Minister would be welcome.

I again thank the Minister. This is an important Bill that will give legal effect to the polling system. I have a couple of questions. I do not know how the polling criteria for the 66 members were decided upon; they might simply have come from the polling companies themselves. However, I fear that certain counties — perhaps counties such as Leitrim and Donegal — might have no representatives among the convention's membership, which would send out the wrong message.

Regional criteria will be applied.

Yes, but if it is done on a regional basis, County Leitrim or County Donegal may still be left out. I hope County Donegal will be included. I want to put that on the record.

Senator Barrett was anxious about Belmullet.

I am sure he is. However, were no Oireachtas Members from such counties to be included, it would be possible for one county to be left out. It could be Donegal, Leitrim, Laois or Kilkenny. I wish to ensure this does not happen and that all counties will be represented.

I agree with Senator Mooney in respect of the diaspora. Perhaps one person selected will be found to have emigrated in recent years despite still being on the register. In other words, the presence of a diaspora member may happen by default. However, I agree the diaspora is such an important part of our culture that it is a shame that members of the diaspora will not be included, because my understanding is that it will be based on the register of electors. In the context of electoral reform, Senator Mooney suggested the only people who should be talking about it are politicians. However, that is somewhat akin to suggesting the best people to advise on lovemaking are gynaecologists. The wider public sometimes might have more wisdom than politicians when it comes to electoral reform. Even though they know the ins and outs of the whole range of politics, politicians may need advice from the ordinary man on the street, who is sometimes much more practical and can see things from a distance, rather than from inside the glass bowl in which we politicians live.

The idea of a convention was proposed by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, at a Labour Party conference two years ago in an aspect of his speech that he strongly emphasised. It is important for the country as a whole, as the 1937 Constitution has moved on. Moreover, over the past 20 or 30 years, the country has moved on, both culturally and socially, particularly from the perspective of people of foreign nationality who live in the country. It may not reflect the country as it stands and I think we must broaden it out. There may even be no changes to the Constitution, but giving the people an opportunity through a regional selection based on age, gender, social status and so on will bring out ideas. Sometimes the ideas that come from the ordinary person are the best ideas. They are not tied up in the restricted thinking that we sometimes have. I hope that the 66 members chosen will reflect the views of the nation, and that one of them at least is from Donegal.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Bill. I was very disappointed this morning that we did not get an opportunity to debate the resolution to establish the constitutional convention. I was extremely frustrated, but I have issued a statement to outline what I would have said on that occasion. I do not have a difficulty with us using this method to select 66 members. In fact, I would have no difficulty with us selecting all 100 members. I am not convinced about the role of Oireachtas Members on the constitutional convention, because we have a platform and we will be able to look at the recommendations of the convention.

I understand the motivation behind Senator Barrett's comments on privacy, but it is about the practicalities. Perhaps the convention needs to devise some working methods about direct and unsolicited communication with members, even if it is a standard code of practice. Senator Mooney has said that many of the questions are "Yes" or "No" questions, but I think they will be much more than that. I would like to see the convention reduce the voting age to 16. The voting age was 21 until 1973, when we reduced it by three years.

We did not need a convention to do it.

I do not know if a convention is needed, but the fact that it is on the convention is important. Part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is about the evolving responsibility of children and their voices. The example given about the Army is not comparing like with like. It is about ensuring that children have a voice.

I would encourage that as much of the convention's business as possible is done in the public eye to allow members of the public who are not members of the convention to follow the journey, the discussion and the awareness-raising of the convention. I tracked the work of the constitutional committee on the amendment on children's rights. The committee did very good work, but I felt that too much of the work was in private session, which did not allow other people to come on the journey. Equally, they did not bring in people who did not necessarily support strengthening the rights of children. We should have heard those voices and given them a view. I hope this convention will give everybody a viewpoint.

We missed an opportunity to correct some of the flaws in the wording of the convention resolution this morning. The resolution referred to a provision for same-sex marriage, when it should refer to provision for marriage for same-sex couples. The resolution we voted on this morning was flawed, but that is the democracy of this House, or possibly it is not democracy, depending on which side of the House we were.

I welcome the Bill. It is good that we are using the electoral register. It is important that we get as wide a membership as possible. I would have had no difficulty if the 100 members all came from the public. Sometimes we should listen to other people. We have plenty of opportunities to have our voices heard. I would like to have seen a wider convention.

I welcome the Minister to the House, but I will take the road less travelled on the legislation and the constitutional convention. There is no point in saying something that is completely contradictory to what I have been saying over the past few months. I have a difficulty with the concept of a constitutional convention. I concede that it is the electoral register side of the convention that we are now discussing, and sadly we did not have the opportunity to have a substantial debate on the constitutional convention.

We have 60 Members in this House. There are 166 Members in the other House. We have approximately 15 or 20 Oireachtas committees. We have more than enough politics and more than enough politicians to raise every question and to engage with every single idea, but we have failed to do so. The fact that we had one hour in this House to talk about a constitutional convention which is deemed to be a huge departure and the fact that there apparently was a two-hour debate in the other House shows that the problem is within the political system itself. I would like to see the different Oireachtas committees working as mini conventions in their own right. Each of those committees should be engaging much more directly with the public. By saying that we, the politicians, cannot lead but must somehow follow means that we are making ourselves redundant. By saying that without a constitutional convention, none of these departures is possible, we are actually saying that we have an inability to lead, to think, to debate and to put choices before the public. I have a worry about that.

The Minister is a bigger student of politics than I am. When the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government was facing enormous economic challenges in the 1980s, we had a constitutional crusade. I hope it is not just ironic that in a new era of economic challenge, a similar Government will be bogged down in a constitutional convention like our friends 30 years ago were bogged down in a constitutional crusade. We have all the structures necessary in the House and within its committees to pose the big questions. I am disappointed that we seem unwilling to do so.

The electoral system for Dáil Éireann is on the list for early consideration. That is something on which the public expressed strong views. Many politicians have expressed strong views as well. The commission report on the revision of constituencies will be passed into law at some stage in the next few months. However, the constitutional convention could decide that a new electoral system and a much smaller Dáil would be required. These are serious issues but I do not think we need the structure proposed to be put in place in order to ask those questions or to answer them. However, on the basis that this Bill is going to become law, I have one or two questions for the Minister. Can the Minister provide the timeframe for the membership of the convention? How long will members serve on the constitutional convention? Some people expressed the view that once a particular question is asked and answered, a new list of members will be selected.

I am pleased that as a result of this Bill, the members of the public will be selected at random. However, if the members of the public are elected at random, then it is absolutely imperative that the Members of the Oireachtas are selected at random, if this constitutional convention is to mean anything.

God help the Senator's innocence.

If it is decided that party whips are obliged to select their team, many of the questions will already be answered. If random is good enough for the public, random must be good enough for the politicians. I know that is the not the Minister's decision, but I would like the idea to go back that if the public membership of the convention must be selected at random, then Oireachtas Members should be selected in the same fashion.

I will try to avoid covering any part of the constitutional convention other than what is on this Bill. I could listen to Senator Bradford all day on that topic. I love the concept of random selection of politicians, but I had better not get into that right now. I am not an enthusiast for a constitutional convention. We have a democracy that has worked very well for us over 90 years, and it seems to me that we can make that work. If this will improve it, well and good. Similar processes have been established elsewhere, such as in Hungary and Switzerland. The reason I refer to these countries is to ensure we do not make mistakes and learn from others.

I am impressed by the debate material provided by the Oireachtas Library. I have some experience of public opinion polls from a commercial point of view in using them to understand what products people want, where they want to shop and so forth. I know there are professionals in this field who will organise the selection very well. We must ensure we employ them to make sure it works and we get it right. To achieve this we need balances in areas such as gender, income, social status and age.

Senator Mooney stated any discussions on reforming the electoral system for the Dáil should be done by politicians. I believe to exclude the voters from that discussion would be wrong. If we are going to have a constitutional convention, we must ensure we get it right. The steps we have taken so far are in the right direction and I believe the Bill is worthy of being passed.

I welcome this useful Bill. Contrary to what others believe, I like to see the public engaged in discussions on electoral reform and that a random panel of 66 citizens will participate in the constitutional convention. It is a historic development, as well as a good one for Irish democracy. I respect we have a parliamentary democracy, but given the fact parliamentary representatives will be on the convention, it is useful to have a public panel too.

I also endorse Senator Bradford's earlier comments that if we are to be truly transparent and ensure this is a new departure, then the Oireachtas Members should be selected at random too. Although the people usually decide on constitutional change through a referendum, this has taken that process to a new and historic level by giving a representative group of the people a high level of input into constitutional reform. It is important when the ESRI draws up its random sample that it is based on gender, age, social class and geography to ensure it is truly representative of the wider population. We become systemised, whether we like it, once we are elected to the Oireachtas. We become political animals. That is why I am happy to see a random sample of the public.

I have some questions about this initiative. Will there be oversight of those chosen for the convention? Will some members of the convention be in authority over others? Will any training or introductory courses be provided for the selected group in advance? Without such, it will be rubbish. It is critical this exercise is not mere window dressing. Unless, there are training and introductory courses for the random sample, they will come in, comparatively speaking, at a lower order of thinking than a Member who has been in these Houses for a while. The fact the Bill does not contain an opt-out clause for members of the public selected is also a problem. Can this be changed? If a person is unable or unwilling to take part, they should be able to opt out. Is there a mechanism in the convention to allow people to opt out? For example, in the past, teachers were trained to be relationships and sexuality education counsellors. Some were totally unsuitable for this and could never or did not want to teach it. People should not be asked to participate in something in which they do not genuinely want to be involved. In this case, such people will not serve the convention's purpose or democracy well.

The convention is examining serious issues such as the place of women in public life, the reduction of the presidential term, the reduction of the voting age and whether we should have same-sex marriages. The changes listed, however, do not represent comprehensive constitutional reform. It is wrong the issue of the continued existence of the Seanad, for example, is left out of the programme. The convention is the ideal place for a debate on the role of the Seanad. I have no difficulty with a referendum on the future of the Seanad. However, a debate just before the holding of the referendum does not provide adequate time. If we are to consider whether this House has a place in the democratic process, we must find a model such as the convention to give people real engagement on whether the Seanad should be retained. The Seanad is propped up by 33 constitutional articles, so there is much to consider.

The terms of reference of the convention are too tight. Wider terms of reference are needed to take into account general rights to housing, for example, and to health care. In addition, whether a referendum is needed for ratifying EU treaties should also be on the agenda. The convention is the ideal place to ask the people whether a referendum is needed to pass an EU treaty, as such a process involves significant amounts of time and money. We will see several EU treaties coming down the pipeline in the next few years. I believe international treaties as complex as the Lisbon treaty need not always be put to the people.

The Taoiseach has indicated wider terms of reference are possible. Will the Minister consider whether the existence of the Seanad will be studied in the convention or a similar forum? Will he also consider whether the convention should discuss whether a referendum is needed for each EU treaty?

I am not as positive as other Members about this Bill, as they will be aware from how Sinn Féin voted on it in the Dáil. It is a measure of the innately conservative aspect of this charade in political reform that the electoral register has been chosen as a means of selecting delegates from the public to participate in the forthcoming constitutional convention. Of course, we cannot be too surprised at this as the promise of real political reform has been transformed into an exercise of political theatre. This convention will not bring about the new real republic as envisaged in 1916.

As a Member and a citizen, I question how the so-called constitutional convention cannot, for example, discuss even the constitutional benefits and disadvantages of a second House. Earlier, we heard about the ordinary citizen, how this legislation will allow us have access to them and for them to be part of this convention. The problem with using the electoral register to choose them is that it is not representative either of the people who live in this country, of Irish citizens on this island or of Irish citizens abroad.

There are several conditions for one to be on the electoral register. First, one has to be over 18 years of age. This means nobody under that age will have any say on the political reform under which they themselves will live for the coming decades. Second, one has to be a resident of the Twenty-six Counties which obviously disenfranchises Irish citizens living in the Six Counties. Moreover, it disenfranchises all Irish people and citizens living outside the State. It seems to be an insider's way of doing things with those most likely to seek political change not allowed into the process.

We must question whether this is an accident. It is a well-established fact that working classes and poor people are less likely to be on the electoral register. How can a homeless person be registered which would allow them to participate in this process? It is a phenomenon successive Governments have happily tolerated. In effect, it disempowers and disenfranchises the weaker elements of our society who are more likely to be excluded under this method of selection. Alongside these discriminations, the selection process specifically disallows the participation of residents in this country who are not Irish citizens, namely, the hundreds of thousands from abroad who have made Ireland their home. These people will most likely have children who are going to grow up as citizens of this country but they will not be allowed entry to the process.

In my opinion, the legislation is not going to facilitate us in reaching out to the ordinary citizens of the State. It will allow us access to a select group or to a particular demographic only. I have serious reservations about this legislation and that is why I cannot support it. Sinn Féin would like to propose an alternative whereby the CSO would be used to determine the demographic sets. The CSO is a trusted agency and it has in its possession the most detailed information on the people who live in this country. I urge the Minister to consider our proposal in this regard.

I welcome the Minister and the Bill. I profoundly disagree with one of the points put forward by my colleague, Senator Healy Eames. There is absolutely no way I would accept citizens of this democratic Republic being either trained or programmed. We must respect the individuality of our citizens. They are intelligent and have their own ways of behaving and thinking. I fully accept the fact that people will be selected at random but I respect the individual intelligence of every citizen. I do not know what will be the terms of reference but I look forward to examining them when they are published.

Individual citizens should have the choice to opt out if they do not want to participate. I do not know for how long these people will be incarcerated.


Where is the convention going to hold its meetings?

The 100 people who will serve on it could certainly be housed in Killarney. Will the convention have access to the services of a secretariat?

I do not accept the idea of selecting Deputies and Senators at random. I am of the view that they will have to be selected on a pro rata basis in accordance with the public’s wishes as expressed in the most recent election. How many Senators are going to serve on the convention? It is stated that 66 citizens will be randomly chosen to serve. Perhaps the Minister will outline how it is envisaged to proceed in this regard.

For how long will the convention be in existence and how much time will it be given to compile and submit its report? Will the convention have any leeway to consider any subject matter which does not come exactly within its terms of reference? I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on the points I have raised.

Before I call Senator Walsh, I wish to welcome to the Visitors Gallery former MEP Ms Bernie Malone.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chun an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo — the matter of the constitutional convention — a phlé sa Teach inniu. In my opinion, what happened this morning amounted to a complete disregard for democracy in this House. I refer to the motion we were supposed to discuss in respect of the establishment of the constitutional convention. While I would welcome the establishment of a convention which would allow citizens to have an input into important matters of policy, in many ways what happened this morning undermines any bona fides the Government might have had in that regard.

We are not discussing that happened this morning. We are dealing with the Bill, which is separate from that.

I am aware of that fact. However, both the motion and the Bill relate to the same matter and, in that context, we are on Second Stage. If Government Ministers are taking a cavalier approach to and displaying a total disregard for the institutions of the State, then serious questions must be asked with regard to the purpose the constitutional convention is going to serve. Those who are elected by and have a mandate from the people should have ultimate responsibility for considering, debating and adjudicating on these matters. I have no doubt that the matters to which I refer will be debated again in the House when the convention completes its deliberations.

I welcome the provision in the Bill in respect of random selection. When the range of issues relating to the Constitution is discussed, it is extremely important that the views put forward be representative of all shades of opinion across society. It must be acknowledged that Bunreacht na hÉireann, which was endorsed by the people in 1937 and which has subsequently been amended on many occasions, has really stood the test of time. When we set about incorporating or adopting the EU Convention on Human Rights and the declaration relating thereto into Irish law, it was acknowledged by Members of this House and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, that practically all of the human rights outlined in the convention were already well covered within the terms of the 1937 Constitution. There is no doubt that our Constitution not only reflects the period in which it was drafted but also that the vision relating to it was a sustainable one. It is important to acknowledge that point. Any amendments to the Constitution will hopefully enhance it rather than remove any of its existing provisions. In my opinion those provisions have proven to be in the best interests of civil society in this country.

From what previous speakers have indicated — I am sure the Minister will confirm whether this is the case — I gather that the purpose of the random selection process outlined in the Bill is to ensure that the views of those who will serve on the convention will be fair, balanced and representative. There is a corollary in this regard. If we do not apply the same criteria in respect of the selection of the Members of these Houses who will participate on the convention, we will undermine the aspirations relating to it. If, as other Senators stated, it will be left to the whips or the leaders of the various parties to decide who will serve, then obviously the outcome relating to the convention will be extremely skewed. In other words, it will be driven by an agenda. I would like to believe that the Minister will be in a position to confirm to the House that the selection of those Members who, along with 66 randomly selected citizens, will participate on the convention will be done on a random basis. This will ensure that all shades of opinion across both Houses will be reflected in the outcome of the convention's consideration of the various issues that will come within its remit.

A pro rata selection process would reflect the strength of the various groups in the Houses.

Senator Walsh, without interruption.

Perhaps that would be the case. As long as it is random in nature, I would not have a difficulty with it reflecting the proportionate arrangements relating to the parties and the groupings in the Houses.

As a result of the nature of the process of random selection, the people who will serve on the convention will have varying degrees of expertise with regard to the complex issues they will be obliged to consider. Many Senators have referred to gay marriage as being an issue of equality. I am on the record as stating that I do not see any connection between gay marriage and equality. It is up to those who articulate the point of view to which I refer to support their arguments in favour of the matter being one of equality. I am sure everyone in the House would recognise that once marriage is redefined as an adult-centred institution as opposed to its current, historical and traditional status as a child-centred one, there will be implications for children and for society in general. I ask the Minister to ensure that where the convention considers complex issues which have serious implications for society, proper, independent, impartial and socio-scientific research that would inform the members of the convention in their deliberations be carried out in the first instance. Will the Minister let us know whether the convention will be empowered to arrange its own independent scientific research on complex issues?

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome this Bill which will allow people chosen on a random basis from the electoral register to participate in the constitutional convention. I appreciate Senator Reilly's comment that the electoral register is not a complete picture of the people who live in the country, but it is a good place to start. If it had been proposed that people would be chosen otherwise there would be greater outrage. It is sensible to start with the electoral register. Much of the argument about the constitutional convention has been based on the idea that it does not do all manner of things. That is true as it cannot be all things to all men, women and children. Anybody who has ever tried to propose a piece of work knows that unless one sets out a programme of work that is doable and achievable, nothing is achieved because one is overwhelmed by the mass of work to be done.

It makes sense to start with matters that people who have never sat down and been part of a constitutional convention will be relatively capable of dealing with. Issues such as the voting age and the length of tenure of the President are a good place to start.

The constitutional convention is a much more open way of government and it will give the people an opportunity to be involved in making decisions. Ultimately it will make sense if there is collaboration and co-operation. It is a far cry from the cronyism that marked the 14 years of government prior to the last election.

While the constitutional convention is flawed, and the way people are chosen will not be perfect, let us accept it and see it as a work in progress. Issues such as same-sex marriage and increasing the participation of women in politics will engage many people and will provide opportunities for good debate. The constitutional convention may provide an opportunity for people to raise other relevant constitutional amendments and recommend that action be taken.

We in the Oireachtas say that the people in partnership with the politicians will make the decisions to renew the Constitution. We all recognise that such a renewal is necessary and relevant.

I welcome the Minister. I agree that we need a comprehensive debate on the constitutional convention. We lost an opportunity this morning to make a good start. We lost one hour in which Members could have made significant contributions to this debate. I know the Leader indicated that he would provide additional time after the motion had been passed to flesh out the issue. We damaged the credibility of the House by wasting 90 minutes in an unproductive manner and I hope we do not repeat it. We gave those who wish to see the Seanad abolished further ammunition to show that sometimes we do not take our work as seriously as we should.

The most important sentence in the programme for Government is that the convention is free to consider other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by it. Obviously the Government has indicated that the convention should first deal with the topics listed in the programme for Government. The fact that sentence is included in the programme for Government will ensure that many more issues of interest to the people can be addressed. The 1937 Constitution is robust, but in 2012 we need to consider many other issues. This convention presents an opportunity to do that. I agree that this is a work in progress and we can build on it very significantly.

I welcome the fact that the register of electors will be used to select the 66 citizens. I am very concerned that many will be unrepresented by virtue of the inaccuracy of the register. I was appalled outside my own polling station at the recent referendum to find that people who had voted in the general election less than 18 months previously were no longer on the register. These elderly people had never moved house, had voted in all previous elections and had done so for up to 40 years, and then discovered they were not on the register of electors. The local authorities are responsible for the compilation of the register.

That is not relevant.

It is because the register of electors will be used to select the 66 citizens. The register of electors must be looked at in the future. I suggest the Minister must ensure that we have a better way of compiling the register. Citizens who are entitled to be on register, but are not on it have a justifiable grievance that they cannot be considered for selection as one of the 66 citizens to be chosen. That is an issue. Every citizen in this country has a PPS number and we should use that information for the compilation of the register and look at other ways of checking that it is accurate. The current system is not working.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. This is a short Bill with the sole purpose of providing in statute for the use of the electoral register in the selection of members of the public for the work of the constitutional convention. It is a Bill to facilitate the operational aspects of implementing this proposal to allow ordinary citizens to participate in the constitutional convention.

I will not be able to answer many of the questions that were asked because the constitutional convention is not my direct responsibility. I am sure Members would have got more answers if there has been more time this morning but I understand there were difficulties.

I do not thing we would get too many answers from the Tánaiste.

I will not go into that point now.

I have tried to get information to address the information deficit. An expert advisory group will be established to assist the convention in its work and give specialist guidance on a variety of issue. Back-up support will be available for the people from Belmullet or from Stoneybatter to be able to understand the issues that are before them, to give them guidance and advice that is not driving them in a particular direction but giving them the information for the people to make up their minds on the issues before them. This support will come from academics, perhaps from Trinity College, but also from the political scientists in UCD, from people who are in a position to give the necessary information that people will ask for.

The convention will last for one year after the first meeting and will report to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas will have plenty of opportunities to debate the recommendations and to express their views on them.

The convention will draw up more work that will have to be done regarding other issues the constitutional convention must consider. The same members will apply. Senator Bradford asked whether there will be a change in membership and a number of Senators asked the same question. The same people will remain for the 12 months. That is from the date of the first meeting and they will remain for the duration of the entire convention.

Members of the public will be selected at random. In general they will be, as far as possible, representative of society as regards age, gender, region and social class. I hope that Donegal will not be left out but I cannot deliver for Senator Jimmy Harte.

Give us an extra guarantee.

There might be a safer bet.

Members will, in the first instance, be identified using professional polling techniques by an independent polling company. The electoral register will then be used to verify them and they will have an option to decline the offer because it does not suit everyone to get involved in this work. They will have an opportunity to decline if they wish and I agree with Senator Bradford on that. It is not like jury service. One can decline from this historic opportunity if one wishes.

The procedure to select the public members will be overseen by an independent chair and he or she will be from outside the political realm. Senators Mooney and Walsh have no need to worry about people being guided in a particular direction.

Who picks the Chair?

I was not even thinking about that. Not for one moment did I think that the Minister would be capable of thinking that.

Senator Walsh fixed a good bit in his time but I will not go into that historical pattern.

I asked who "picks" the Chair.

The Government is keen to have the diaspora involved. I understand that the embassies and the community groups abroad shall be briefed with as much information as possible to allow them to do so. A website will be provided to accept submissions and to give as much information as possible to people across the world.

We have tried to comply with what we presented the people with in the programme for Government. As Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I am committed to working with my colleagues to implement some change in the political system. As Members will know, the political funding Bill and legislation dealing with the issue of gender quotas and the female gender participation in politics are before the Houses. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill will limit and substantially reduce corporate donations. We are also reducing the number of Deputies. The Taoiseach has said quite openly that he is not including issues related to the Seanad in the convention. People will disagree, and have disagreed, with him in the House over that. I respect their views but I cannot come here and change it because the Taoiseach and the Government took that decision. Later this year an electoral (amendment) referendum spending Bill will be introduced and it will make spending at referendum time more transparent.

Who knows what will emerge from the deliberations at the constitutional convention? Who knows what issues it will throw up? If there are any then the Government will consider them. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill is a great opportunity. For the first time, as it was done in the Netherlands and Canada, members of the public from across the country and every region will have an opportunity to participate in the people's constitutional convention and in the people's Constitution. We hope that recommendations will emerge that, as we head towards 2016, we will be proud of in terms of a new republic that we will all participate in. We hope that all of us will aspire to make the necessary changes needed to modernise our Constitution.

Senator Michael Mullins and many other Senators made points about the electoral register. I agree, wholeheartedly, that the manner in which the electoral register is drawn up at the moment is less than satisfactory. Certain local authorities have a haphazard approach to drawing up an accurate electoral register. I am examining proposals to see how we can make it a lot more certain. Citizens have got the fright of their lives at polling stations when they discovered that they had been knocked off the electoral register through no fault of their own. From the point of view of participation in the electoral process this is unacceptable.


Hear, hear.

If it happened in Ballinasloe then it has happened in a lot of other places. It is unacceptable. We are examining ways to give certainty, including the one that was mentioned, to assist the process by using data that is available from other sources. I thank Senators for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take the next Stage?



Is that agreed? Agreed.