Citizens’ Assemblies Bill 2019: Second Stage

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

The Citizens’ Assemblies Bill 2019 is a technical Bill to enable the register of electors to be used for selecting members of the citizens’ assemblies which the Government agreed on 11 June to establish. Two assemblies are being established, the Citizens’ Assembly 2019 and the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly. The role of the Citizens’ Assembly will be to bring forward proposals to advance gender equality under a number of specific headings. The role of the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly will be to consider the best model of local government for Dublin and, in particular, the issue of a directly-elected mayor and his or her powers. These assemblies will operate under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach and will comprise a chairperson and 99 citizens selected randomly from local authorities’ registers of electors. The same chairperson but a different selection of 99 persons from the Dublin local authorities' registers of electors will make up the Dublin Citizens' Assembly. The assemblies are to be run consecutively, commencing with the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality at the end of October this year, and will take six months each to complete the work involved.

The Government decision requires the establishment of the assemblies to be approved by resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas. In order to proceed with the establishment of the assemblies as proposed, it is necessary to introduce legislation to allow the register to be used for the selection of assembly members. This is because section 13A(3) of the Electoral Act 1992 provides that the use of the register of electors is confined to electoral and other statutory purposes. Such a statutory purpose is provided, for example, in the Juries Act for the selection of members of juries. A similar approach was taken previously in 2012 when arrangements were being made for the membership of the then proposed Convention on the Constitution and again in 2016 for the then proposed Citizens’ Assembly. A polling company will be commissioned for the selection process. Its brief will be the selection of a representative sample of the Irish electorate, with regard to gender, age and regional spread. The selection process will be overseen by the independent chairperson of the assembly.

I will outline the detail of the Bill. Section 1 of the Bill provides that information in the electoral register may be used for the purpose of selecting citizens of Ireland to participate in both assemblies. It provides in subsection (2) that section 13A(3) of the Electoral Act 1992, which confines the use of the electoral register, shall not apply in the establishment of these citizens’ assemblies. In subsection (3) definitions are provided for "the Act of 1992", "the edited register" and "the register of electors". Section 2 of the Bill contains standard provisions dealing with the Title and construction of the Bill. In summary, the sole purpose of this Bill is to provide in statute for the use of the electoral register in the selection of members of the two citizens’ assemblies. The Bill is required to facilitate the establishment of the assemblies, the calling of which will be approved by resolution of the House in due course. I commend the Bill to the House.

This is a short, technical Bill and Senators can take an example from the Minister's short speech. I call Senator Boyhan.

I am happy to agree with that. I had not intended to speak. I was not aware that the Minister would mention the Dublin Citizens' Assembly. I know what the Bill is about, relating to citizens' assemblies generally. I do not have a problem with public engagement. I will not oppose this and will support every Stage of it today. I will comment on matters raised in the Ministers' speech. We have an assembly in Dáil Éireann and in Seanad Éireann, and an assembly of elected people in both city and county councils. I do not have a problem with other layers of public engagement. I am all for consultation, open government and engagement. I will not get into the matter of the Dublin Citizens' Assembly because the scheme itself is not before us.

I ask the Minister to look, in an imaginative way, at how we and the Minister's Department can tap into the expertise of Dublin's councils with regard to the Dublin assembly. There is an important role for them. I know that the cynics will say they do not want a new system of mayors or form of local government for the city and county but they are elected and have a mandate and a view. It is important that that view feeds into this process, perhaps in parallel with this, and that it is a meaningful role, engagement and discussion. These people are freshly elected. They are there for a fixed term of five years. Many are members of the Minister's party and I know he values them as he values all city and county councillors. Specifically with regard to Dublin city and county, I ask the Minister to consider whether there is a meaningful way to tap into and engage with these elected members to feed into the Minister's and the Government's vision for local government reform, especially in the city and county of Dublin.

This is important legislation. Providing in statute for the use of registers of electors in selecting members of a Citizens' Assembly is not an issue in itself. However, the register of electors is a shambles. Dead people are still listed on the register, as are people who left the country decades ago and people with differing first names, middle names and even confirmation names. These electors should not be counted in the same way as one living resident. Incredible staff in local authorities worked very hard prior to the recent local elections to try to ensure that people were registered, including with new details if they had moved or changed their name. There are terrific staff in my area and I am sure that it is the same countrywide. However, across the country, I have heard many stories about people not being registered, being registered numerous times, and polling cards arriving for the deceased, which was a significant issue. We talk about poor voter turnout relative to the electorate but there may be a record-keeping reason for that. While, in principle, the use of the electoral register is fine with me, I have a problem with the state of the register. To select 99 citizens at random, I believe that we need to ensure that the pool is in order first.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Citizens' Assembly 2019 to bring forward proposals to advance gender equality. I agree that, given the result of the recent plebiscite, having a Dublin Citizens' Assembly to consider the best model of local government for Dublin and the powers of a directly-elected mayor may not be a bad thing at all. The Minister needs us to approve this Bill to allow these citizens to be assembled and I am fine with that. I ask him to look at how we count people who can vote and perhaps consider linking it with one's personal public service, PPS, number. All of this is interlinked. Will the Minister look at PPS numbers? There has to be a way to make it easier for people to vote with less paperwork. I feel that there is such a low turnout because of the paperwork or mistakes made. I cannot blame anyone. Local authority staff are doing a great job. We need to look at the broader picture. This will all feed back into the process. I thank the Minister.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House to deal with a technical Bill, addressing the requirement to select people from the electoral register to sit on the Citizens' Assembly. I will be brief in my commentary. I concur with Senator Boyhan regarding political assemblies. In a democracy, we must recognise the voice of the people and public representatives, whether in local authorities, the Dáil or the Seanad. I also believe that citizens' assemblies are an important mechanism for democratic engagement. As we have seen recently, it is a useful mechanism to gauge public opinion and inform the making of public policy and legislation. It is a necessary requirement and it will have the support of the House. I wish the Bill well and I think Members will pass it in the Seanad today.

Since we are speaking about the electoral registers, the Minister will agree that it is the responsibility of local authorities to have their electoral registers up to date. Some are better than others in this regard and it is important that we review and update electoral registers. Where improvements are needed, it is important that they happen as quickly as possible. In a democracy that we are all very proud of, it is important that, when people are entitled to vote, they have the vote. There is nothing worse than seeing a member of the public going to vote and being turned away from the polling booth with disappointment because he or she is not on the register. We need to deal with that. I wish the Bill well. It is necessary and the citizens' assemblies will play an important role in informing public debate and public policy.

On the topic that Senator Coffey mentioned, while I rarely get involved in debates as Cathaoirleach, there is an issue with the register of electors. When I was a Deputy, I was struck off it. This time, my son and his wife, who never left the Bantry area, were struck off.

Recently, in New York, I met a girl who left Ireland 28 years ago and still has a vote. Her mother said her polling card still comes for her. She is married and has been living in San Francisco for 28 years. I think it is an issue with the council. Fortunately when I was a Deputy, I checked myself and saw my name gone. I was able to rectify it. My son and his wife did not and they were told at the polling station that they had no vote. I think it is a constitutional right. People are getting a red card with no warning. Maybe it is a matter for Cork County Council. I have been struck off the register in Cork three times. I was angry as a Deputy, though I was obviously able to rectify it. I was obviously well-known in the area. Why someone would strike me off is beyond belief.

I normally do not speak, but my blood boils when I think of it. The Minister might take those points on board.

I was also reluctant to change my address during recent referendum campaigns because of a fear of being left off the register. Sinn Féin will support the Bill. As some have mentioned, it is a short technical Bill which is required to enable the selection of citizens for membership of citizens’ assemblies, particularly the upcoming assemblies on gender equality and local government in Dublin. There is some cynicism about citizens’ assemblies and the preceding Constitutional Convention which were seen by some as a delaying tactic in the context of certain referendums. They did delay them, but in hindsight they were good contributions to the national conversation. I look forward to seeing the findings of the next citizens’ assemblies and hope the agendas will remain as ambitious as those of assemblies that have gone before.

On local government in Dublin, I hope the city can be reimagined as a working and living city. As tourism grows in Dublin, it becomes more difficult to refine and conserve its identity, housing and core amenities, particularly social and green spaces, cultural venues and so on. We need to be mindful that local government in Dublin does not have sole control over how it grows and that local government in counties Kildare and Meath have a really important role to play in the development of the city. Development is outside the control of many of the Dublin councils.

On gender equality, we need to be ambitious in the working agenda in order that the changes we suggest will not just be cosmetic but will have a lasting impact in eradicating gender imbalance and misogyny and highlighting the role of women in society. We must hold a magnifying glass to the patriarchal elements of the Statute Book, both historical and current, and the effects they have had.

I am dismayed by the slow pace of implementation of some the recommendations of both the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens' Assembly. We can consider the Constitutional Convention to be the design of the last Fine Gael and Labour Party Government. A certain complacency seemed to grow around recommendations that were not political priorities for Fine Gael. There are a few examples. A referendum to reduce the voting age to 16 years has been shelved by two successive Governments. There are also the matters of citizen involvement in presidential nominations; the formation of citizens' initiatives to allow citizens to formulate legislation; the constitutional right to a home and the constitutional realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, on which we have seen a report produced that is languishing with the finance committee. There is also the question of holding a further convention during the Government's term on Seanad and local government reform. Whereas the establishment of an electoral commission and the holding of referendums on presidential voting rights and women's role in the home have been slow but moving, I hope we will see real progress soon. As we commit to having more citizens' assemblies, we must be more open than we have been to their recommendations, regardless of whether we agree with them. We must debate their merits in the Houses or put them to the people in referendums.

I am afraid I oppose the Bill as I oppose the concept of citizens' assemblies. At best, they represent an extraordinary abdication of responsibility by the Government, the Oireachtas, political parties and other political groups and, at worst, they have been a cynical device used by cultural elites to manipulate and condition public opinion without opening to full and searching public debate on the issues involved. The experience of the two assemblies set up to date shows that they were established, managed and orchestrated by elites from the world of politics and academia, directed at all times by the Government with certain results in mind. That issue is never discussed. Their conclusions were presented as what ordinary voters wanted on the issues they had examined when the participants had been led to the conclusions involved. They were billed as being merely a consultation process, but once their reports were published, their conclusions were not treated as a mere opinion poll or focus group findings, as they ought to have been, but they were held up as a conclusive instruction from the electorate as a whole to the Oireachtas, almost at the level of a result of a general election or a referendum. How on Earth can we seriously say detailed positions on important issues can be formulated by 100 unelected people meeting in a hotel for a couple of consecutive weekends? At best, this is an extramural, night course approach to public policy and in most western countries it would be laughed at, yet in Ireland it is how we intend to formulate national policy.

The Bill aims to allow members of citizen's assemblies to be selected from the electoral register, whereas up to now, they were recruited by polling companies. For the original Constitutional Convention, Behaviour & Attitudes was paid a handsome fee for the task, despite the fact that it completed it in shockingly poor fashion. While recruiting 66 citizens, it somehow managed to recruit two people who lived on the same street, while it later emerged that one person who was selected had suggested one of her neighbours should also be recruited and, incredibly, Behaviour & Attitudes had agreed to this. For the second Citizens' Assembly, it transpired that seven of the 100 members were acquaintances of one employee of RED C who had been hired to find the members. I know that Ireland is a small place, as we often note, but that beggars belief. That is how people were selected for membership of a body to discuss important national issues with major ramifications for all of us, yet we sit here discussing the establishment of another assembly with straight faces.

The reality is that even if assemblies are selected properly, they are an unacceptable recreation of what the parliament is supposed to be. They are designed, at best, to let elected representatives off the hook and, as I said, at worst, they are part of a process of cynical conditioning and manipulation of public opinion. It is troubling to hear about citizens' assemblies being proposed in the United Kingdom on the Brexit issue and in Northern Ireland on the issues of abortion and same sex marriage. There is a common thread to these suggestions, as those calling for a citizens' assembly are invariably in a democratic minority on a particular issue, at least when it comes to political representation in parliament. Supporters of abortion and same sex marriage in Northern Ireland know that neither measure would be passed by the democratic representatives of the people of the North at Stormont; therefore, a citizens' assembly is being called for in order to pressurise or override that will. Likewise, for good or ill, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted for Brexit and as the House of Commons demonstrates no willingness to override that decision, there are calls for a citizens' assembly from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens which both unashamedly want to stop Brexit. The point is not whether we agree or disagree with the objective but rather what is going on and what is important. The normal and proper democratic process is being usurped. These examples illustrate how citizens' assemblies are used to corral opinion towards a predetermined outcome. Would anyone in Britain or Northern Ireland be calling for citizens' assemblies if he or she thought for one second that they would recommend maintaining a ban on abortion and same sex marriage or a hard Brexit? We know that the answer is "No". Far from supplementing the work of national parliaments, citizens' assemblies are invariably used to supplant the views of parliament and attempt to railroad it into taking positions that it would not otherwise adopt and for which there is no democratic mandate.

The Government intends to establish a citizens' assembly to discuss gender equality and local government in the Dublin area. Is it really beyond the wit of the Oireachtas and its committees to formulate new policies on gender equality? With over 10,000 people homeless, spiralling public spending and a health service in crisis, is the system of local government in Dublin really a burning issue on the doorstep? We spend millions of euro in funding the Oireachtas and its committee system. We give millions of euro to political parties and other political groupings - a practice that may be questionable - part of which is specifically to assist in the generation of policy. In spite of this, policymaking on these two relatively uncontroversial issues is to be farmed out to a quango meeting in a hotel. The net result of the additional millions of euro of expenditure on this assembly will inevitably be proposals that are already in the public domain, namely, the abolition of Article 41.2 of the Constitution and some window-dressing on gender quotas in politics and on State boards. There will be no substantive examination of the issue of gender equality and its various aspects. In fairness to the members of the assembly, how could there be? It is simply not possible for 100 lay people meeting on consecutive weekends to formulate proper policy in these areas. Instead, the results will be written by the expert academics and lobbyists recruited to shepherd them through the process and then have them rubber-stamped by the assembly membership.

For these reasons, I am opposing this legislation. This is no way for national policy to be formulated. It should be done here in the Houses of the Oireachtas by the democratically elected representatives of the people and the committees. I have absolutely no expectation of persuading a majority to go with me on these points but I will certainly be voting against the Bill.

I thank Senators for their contributions and their brevity.

The Cathaoirleach mentioned a woman he met in America. I hope she did not come back and vote because that would have been illegal but I understand the point the Cathaoirleach made about the electoral register and I will come back to that in a moment.

The citizens' assembly model has improved our public discourse and political decision-making. I was asked about taking on the views of Dublin councillors and local authorities. While their views will feed into the process, councillors will not be members. Members of a citizens' assembly will be citizens.

The register of electors is managed by the local authorities and it is not a disaster. We should be careful with our language because to say it is a disaster is to undermine the outcome of every election or referendum. We know, however, that it can be improved and different local authorities are looking at different models for improving it. Dublin local authorities have recently piloted the Dublin voter site, which uses mygovid.ie to register online and users can amend their details on the electoral register there.

Recently, we began the process of reform of the electoral register to improve it. We had a public consultation to which 187 submissions were made. I will go to Cabinet soon with a report on the next steps we can take to reform and improve the register. I imagine we will put it on a digital footing. We will also look at voter engagement and education as well as ideas around automatic registration for young voters as they come of age. We want to ensure that the names of persons who can no longer be on the register because they have left the country or have, unfortunately, died will no longer be maintained on the register. All of those matters are being addressed in the reform of the electoral register that is under way.

The chairperson of the citizens' assembly will oversee the work of the polling company to achieve the balance among the 99 members as per the Government decision.

Senator Warfield commented on the Government commitment to the work that comes from conventions and assemblies. We are fully committed to that work. A vote on extending the franchise in presidential elections was due to take place. However, due to timing issues - chief among these was what was happening elsewhere - it has been delayed until later this year. It could be held in October or November provided the legislation passes the Houses in good time.

A recommendation to provide for economic and social rights in the Constitution is with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. The committee is not chaired by a Fine Gael member. We are awaiting the outcome of that work on further constitutional change.

Local government reform is already under way. The outcome of the recent plebiscite on the question of having a directly elected mayor of Limerick was positive. I was in Limerick with Senator Byrne and we discussed how we will progress that quickly. It is important that when we make a commitment to local government reform, we see it through.

Senator Mullen commented on the assembly and referred to more than 10,000 people being in emergency accommodation. That is directly relevant to the structure of local government in Dublin because local government is at the front line in homeless services. If we can better organise our local government and its operation and include more democratic accountability through a directly elected mayor - that will be a matter for the assembly - we will be able to improve the way in which we deliver services. In that way we can have more joined-up services among the four Dublin local authorities. They are joined up through the Dublin Region Homeless Executive but I believe more can be done to improve the services that are delivered in co-operation with our partners in the non-governmental organisation sector.

Senator Mullen spoke about academic elites. He himself has an academic background and was elected from a university panel. I am unsure why he is dismissing people with an academic background and their ability to come to informed judgments. I do not understand why he is dismissing the ability of our citizens to come to informed judgments when information is given to them and they have the time and space to debate. Characterising this as a group that gets together in a hotel at the weekend is highly unfair. The two assemblies we have had have done fantastic work.

I took part in them.

The Senator's characterisation of them is unfair. He referred to the outcomes and said ordinary voters did not want them. They did, because they voted for those outcomes overwhelmingly. In that regard, the moves we are making now in respect of the citizens assemblies that are to be established on two important issues are welcome. I thank the House for its support.

Question put and declared carried.