Electoral (Civil Society Freedom)(Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for attending and for his engagement with me on this important Bill over recent weeks. I will begin with some thanks. First, I thank my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group for facilitating this debate today and for sponsoring this Bill with me. This was legislation I introduced in the previous Seanad. I thank Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Senator Boyhan and Senator Norris, as well as former Senators Colette Kelleher, John Dolan and Grace O'Sullivan of the Green Party for giving it their formal support when I brought it forward in May last year. This is an important show of cross-party solidarity and support on such an important issue. I also thank the Coalition for Civil Society Freedom, an umbrella group of more than 50 civil society organisations which came together two years ago to call for this reform. Without their important advocacy, this Bill would not be here.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that it is to protect their right to continue such advocacy work that we are here. My motivation for introducing this Bill is something of a personal one. Having worked in the area of advocacy for more than 20 years in regard to people who have been living on the fringes of society, whether due to poverty or issues of addiction, and working in community development for all of those years, I know advocacy has played a hugely important role in that we have empowered our communities to be able to advocate, not only for their own rights but the rights of their communities. When I think of such rights, I think of an addiction support group which has been a great advocate in the area of trying to end the use of supervised urinals for methadone users receiving their prescriptions, or those who have created campaign groups advocating against the situation that the GP contract does not allow for a local GP to take these people on. In the past, groups like this in communities have advocated in regard to living conditions. I remember working in Rialto, where a group at Dolphin House took a very successful case on human rights in regard to sewage coming up through the sinks there.

All of this is very important advocacy work and it must be supported at all costs. Unfortunately, we have moved into a time where the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, has begun to raise concerns with groups that operate in the advocacy space, given there was an unintended consequence that now sees some of that advocacy work and human rights work as having what is termed "political purposes". While this was never the intention of the original legislation, it is getting caught up in that. We need to be able to disentangle all the very important work I have been involved in for years, as well as the work of everyone else in this Chamber in regard to disability groups, mental health groups and all the different groups. We all agree that work needs to be protected and cannot be caught up in the way it is currently caught in such a narrow view of political purposes. Obviously, this all falls outside electoral politics or referenda, and it needs to be to decoupled from that as well.

To turn to the Bill, groups of ordinary people who organise together with a common purpose to identify and address problems and injustices play a vital role in our political system. The community groups and civil society organisations they go on to form need to be able to fundraise to engage politicians in the public space. Without their lobbying, their campaigning and their agitating, we do not hear directly from the communities we are lucky enough to represent. It is because of this threat to the chance for a civil society organisation or community group to raise the funding it needs to advocate in the public interest that I am tabling this Bill.

The electoral Acts regulate us as politicians. They apply rigorous, onerous and high standards of donation declaration, certain prohibitions and accounting requirements that we are all familiar with, and we were all subject to them at the most recent election. The problem we are here to address is that, because of a flaw in the wording of these same electoral Acts, our laws do not fairly distinguish between how we regulate the campaigns of politicians and how we treat the normal everyday advocacy of campaign and community groups throughout Ireland.

A group of parents who came together to fundraise and advocate for secular education rights for their children are objectively different from a Dáil candidate seeking funding for an election campaign, yet under our laws no real distinction is made. This was a consequence of the extension of the Electoral Act 1997 with an amendment by the Oireachtas in 2001 to include donations received by third parties for what is called "political purposes". It has forced our electoral regulator, SIPO, to treat donations in excess of €100 received by community and civil society groups as if they were donations to a political campaign and to pursue any non-compliance accordingly. SIPO itself, the very body tasked with applying these laws, in its 2003 annual report highlighted this likely unintended issue, stating,"The Standards Commission doubts if it was the intention of the legislature that such bodies, in conducting their ordinary affairs, could find themselves covered by the legislation." It would, of course, be a different matter if any of them became involved in a campaign at an election or referendum, in which case they should and would be covered.

Despite this the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, must apply the law as it is written, not as it may have been intended. This is the cause of the problem we are seeking to address. The issue with the application of the electoral Acts has arisen for many organisations working in very diverse areas. Some examples include Education Equality, a volunteer-run group of parents campaigning for education reform which had to dedicate extraordinary amounts of its limited resources to attempt to comply with SIPO’s requirements, all the time being threatened with legal action and criminal sanction.

Last year an ad hoc group of local residents in south Dublin who organised together to participate in the planning process and to fundraise locally through a Facebook page were referred to the Garda by SIPO and brought to the High Court. Of greatest concern in the case of the group Equate, actors on the opposing side of the baptism-barrier issue deliberately used our flawed laws to report the organisation to SIPO using the high compliance standards required and therefore diverting resources from the group's vital campaigning work. In each circumstance the financial requirements intended for aspiring Members of the Oireachtas or the European Parliament are applied to what are essentially volunteer-run groups. The work needed to comply with such required standards has damaged their capacity to advocate and has interfered with their right to freedom of association as a result.

This flaw in our electoral law is almost 20 years old and is being continuously identified and criticised in the intervening period, particularly by international human rights bodies and observers. This is particularly worrying due to the near-hypocritical nature of Ireland’s high profile support for free and vibrant civil society spaces internationally. Ireland played a leading role in the development of the European Union’s guidelines on human rights defenders and has even sponsored a resolution on civil society space at the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is difficult to square these international actions with glaring flaws in our domestic law, especially in light of Ireland’s recent election to the UN Security Council.

Our own Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission released a policy statement in 2019 raising concerns about the application of the electoral Acts in this area. This came in the wake of criticism in a report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2018 which raised its concerns with the selective nature of the law’s enforcement on foot of complaints such as in the Equate case. Furthermore, as recently as last month, the European Commission published its 2020 rule of law report for Ireland criticising our laws and calling for Ireland to apply EU law requirements and Council of Europe guidelines instead.

In the wake of the concern on the application of the law domestically and widespread international criticism, we are proposing legislation to amend section 22 of the Electoral Act 1997 to only apply to civil society advocacy during an election or referendum period, as was the likely intention of the Oireachtas in 2001. Concerns have been raised with me this week on the knock-on impact this may have on foreign groups which fundraise to influence public opinion here in Ireland. The inadequacies of our current law in this area were well aired in the recent campaign to repeal the eighth amendment. I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue on which we will have to move carefully. I therefore welcome the approval of the Cabinet this week for legislation creating an electoral commission and on the regulation of political advertising. This issue must be urgently addressed as part of the process. We cannot continue to rely on electoral legislation enacted before the Internet, or on private companies like Google and Facebook to ban online advertising to safeguard our democratic integrity. This must be a role for the State. We are committed to ensuring that we have full transparency and accountability in political funding, especially for funding coming into Ireland from abroad. It is our intention to ensure that this issue will be fully explored as this Bill moves through the Houses so that no unintended consequences arise again.

I am therefore disappointed that we cannot support the moving of the Bill to Committee Stage this evening but I thank the Minister for the memorandum from his Department on how he seeks to progress this issue, in that the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage could examine the Bill as part of pre-legislative scrutiny on the electoral commission Bill and that the commission, when created, could address it as part of a full comprehensive review of the electoral Acts.

I am concerned, however, about the timeline that has been set out. It could feasibly take longer than the lifetime of this Government and over five years for the necessary changes to the law to be made if we are to follow this timeframe. I would appreciate an indication of the urgency that is needed here. Can the Minister commit to a formal consultation process in his Department to happen in parallel with the organisations and groups affected by this flawed law and on the impact that it has on their work? Can he also commit to write to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, as Minister, requesting that the committee specifically look at this urgent issue, in particular within its pre-legislative hearings? It would at least provide an opportunity for concerns to be aired to show that his Department is listening to them. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I commend this Bill to the House.

I second this Bill and commend Senator Ruane for proposing it. It is something that all of us in the Civil Engagement group in the Seanad strongly support - both the current group and the former members of the group including former Senators John Dolan and Colette Kelleher. It goes to the core of the role that we see civil society playing in shaping and contributing to Ireland and in supporting and changing the policies in people’s lives.

This is what the Bill is about. It is important to be very clear that this is not a Bill about elections or referendums but, very clearly and explicitly, the Bill sets out a very comprehensive set of political purposes which we consider should be regulated under the current measures. These include political campaigns but also those who might promote the political campaigns of a particular candidate or party, and those that might be taking action around a particular outcome in a referendum. We very much see all political activity as coming within that political purposes definition. That was very much the intent of the former Minister of State and Deputy, Bobby Molloy, at the time where he very much felt that this legislation was around the engagement of third parties in electoral activity. That was the envisaged role of this earlier legislation.

The concern is that the vagueness of the language, the lack of that clear definition and the interpretation of it, particularly in recent years, has meant that "political purposes" is being taken as basically encompassing having an opinion about political policies that affect one’s life or to actively engage around the changing of a policy. The reason that this is really important is because of the people that this earlier legislation affects. Examples were given of the Hellfire Club and of parents who are trying to advocate together around the rights and supports for their children. The people who care about their colleagues, their neighbours or their communities tend to care a great deal. They care about people and also care about policies. The problem at the moment is that people are often in a position because they feel torn where they have to choose between the two.

For example, those who might be providing community services, who are the exact people who know what needs to be done, have to choose between minding the people, providing the services or changing the policies and changing the future for all of those for whom they work. That is often very difficult. I have spoken to people who have strong views, who know how policies can be improved and what is needed in services on the ground, but are nervous of speaking up about it. They are nervous because they may be regarded as advocating, crossing a line and that it might affect their ability to fundraise in order to provide essential services. It should not be a situation where those who care in that kind of way are inhibited from effectively caring in another wider way. Ireland is particularly unusual in this regard because we rely extraordinarily heavily on volunteers. In the CSO survey some 28.4% of adults in Ireland volunteer, and we have over 14,000 volunteers. Those volunteers in the community groups that we have described, and those who may be employees working with NGOs or civil society groups, should be able to engage and to advocate on the issues that are really important and should not feel in any way compromised or jeopardised to fundraise in that respect.

Again, I do not wish to name groups, but I am thinking now about when I worked with people who cared about bees where advocacy is a tiny part of their work. Mainly they work with bees.

When policies on pesticide or hedge-cutting are coming through, obviously they have a perspective and may wish to share it but that should not jeopardise them in respect of all the other value they add. That is the core of this. NGOs and more informal voluntary and community groups have all been hit by the wide interpretation of "political purposes".

I accept that the Minister of State will engage with us on this and that there will be an electoral commission, but I am quite concerned because the commission has a very significant task ahead of it, not least in regard to Seanad reform and so forth. I would like him to affirm that this issue will not be lost in engaging with those issues. We have supported electoral reform and the electoral reform Bill. I called for an electoral commission umpteen times before I was elected to the House. In the regulation of online electoral advertising, it was Deputy Lawless and I who insisted, before, during and after the most recent referendum, that there was a lacuna in the regulation of online advertising, and that during electoral periods in particular, given that there is a prohibition on foreign donations in respect of electoral activities of other kinds, we should be assured that that also applies to the purchasing of online advertising. We have pushed for the regulation of political advertising, including online.

Those issues, and the issues of ensuring there are appropriate safeguards for issues such as foreign donations, can be dealt with by the electoral commission or by Bills specifically relating to the regulation of advertising. Furthermore, if those issues need to be addressed in the Bill, they could be addressed through amendment on Committee Stage. That is why it is unfortunate that we are not able to move past Second Stage and to come to a debate on definitions and ensuring they are appropriate. The definition offered by Senator Ruane and the rest of our group fulfils what has been noted at EU level, as well as by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, and many others. It is our attempt to address that definition problem. We are, of course, willing to engage with people on suggestions they might have about how that definition could be improved or strengthened. The circumstances cannot be left as they stand. I have talked about people who want to express their concerns and to advocate but we too, as legislators, need to hear from people. We know how many issues have come to light too late, indirectly, via whistleblowers or individuals who had to break from what they were doing to raise a flag or highlight an issue. It will make for a healthier ecosystem because civil society and politics will work together on those collective tasks we set ourselves to make a better and more liveable Ireland.

I hope this will move forward. If roadblocks are encountered in respect of the electoral commission, we might have to revisit the Bill as a standalone issue coming back through the Houses.

I commend Senators Ruane and Higgins on introducing the Bill. It concerns an issue that many of us in the House will have come across, given that in most cases we will have come to politics through our community activism. I have had involvement with many of the groups mentioned and know that many of the problems have existed for 20 years, putting undue pressures on small groups on which the State relies for much of its functioning. It is unpaid, voluntary work. I commend, therefore, the Senators and the Civil Engagement group on introducing the Bill.

Nevertheless, it is clear there are problems with the Bill as it stands and the two Senators have pointed out what they are. Through my involvement with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, it was very clear to me that there were problems with foreign donations. The best way forward from our perspective is to return to the programme for Government and to what we committed to therein, that is, the establishment of an electoral commission and, on that basis, an electoral reform Bill. I understand the repeated concern of those in opposition when they hear that another Government Bill regarding a commission will be brought forward. A memo on the issue has gone to the Cabinet, however, so it has progressed a great deal.

There are many issues I would like to be addressed. This is certainly right up there among them, but so too are election posters, which impact on smaller parties and Independents much more than on larger parties. Incumbents within those larger parties have an advantage, which means that men also have an advantage because they are often incumbents. In this day and age when we are examining why we do not have better representation and why there was such an under-representation of women Senators before the Taoiseach’s nominees had been announced, now more than ever we need to examine electoral reform. Many of us throughout the House have signed pledges in respect of electoral reform in the Seanad and I would like that to be progressed. I would also like us to look to models outside of Ireland when we examine advertising. In Europe, for example, there are billboards in several parts of towns that give every political candidate, irrespective of his or her capacity to fundraise, the same right to put himself or herself forward in a democratic way.

So many factors, which the Minister of State will probably outline, will form part of the proposed electoral reform Bill. I have outlined some of them. I ask the Minister of State that he give them due regard and that something to address them come before us as soon as possible.

I thank Senators Ruane and Higgins for bringing the Bill to us for debate, as well as Seb, in Senator Ruane's office, who was very responsive to my queries. I must admit that when I first saw the Title of the Bill, and the document I received that referred to keeping in power the voices of the people and of civil society groups, I kind of struggled with what exactly it was about. Once I understood it, I agreed wholeheartedly that the issue needs to be addressed. That is blindingly obvious.

Both the Senators spoke about the volunteer effort and how much we rely on it in Ireland, which we do. I am a voluntary director of a youth service, a Garda youth diversion programme, a family resource centre and a community policing forum. I got involved in all those groups on a voluntary basis for the same reasons as the people and groups the Senators described. I have contested local elections, Dáil elections, Seanad elections and European Parliament elections. There is not much of the ugly side of electoral politics I have not seen. This is one part of that which is quite distorting, so it needs to be reviewed. I very much welcome the commitment of the Minister of State and the Government to delivering on the promise in the programme for Government for an electoral commission.

I share the Senators' concern about the issue getting bogged down. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Housing, to my mind, is probably the single biggest issue facing us, putting climate change, Covid-19 and Brexit aside.

It is important that we all work to ensure that it does not get bogged down, that there is a timeline assigned to it, and that this issue is called out as one to be addressed.

In Dublin Central, elections and the other issues that I would like to see addressed are those that have been mentioned around postering, funding from outside of the State for political activities, and the congestion caused by northern-registered cars around polling stations in Dublin Central. I am not sure it will be addressed by the electoral commission, but I can wish.

In respect of posters, the putting up, taking down, disappearing and reappearing, all need to be addressed. I am an ordinary person who cares. I happen to wear a badge that says Fianna Fáil. It is a republican party, which means that it is motivated to actually serve the people. When I think of the other members of Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central, I do not think they differ much from any other group of ordinary people in Cabra, Phibsborough or Drumcondra who want to address housing poverty, end illegal dumping and address climate action.

We need to drill down into this. We need transparency and accountability so that there is some honesty restored to our political activities and to re-establish confidence among the general public. I do not think that engaging in the political and democratic process should be something to be embarrassed or ashamed about, but that is what it has become for many people and it should not be like that. It is really unhealthy for our society. When I saw the civil society group, I wondered whether I was outside of it, but I am not. I do not consider myself outside of it, and I am very much part of it and centred to it, and I want to be. That is why I got involved in politics.

I will support the sentiment and the objective of this Bill, and will defer to the Minister and the Government to progress it. I will do my part to ensure that it is not buried or lost and that it will be progressed. Go raibh maith agat.

I would like to thank Senators Ruane, Higgins and others for bringing this Bill forward. I also welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I note the contributions made and support for the Bill from the ICLL, which represents numerous organisations. Its view is that section 22 of the Electoral Act 1997, as amended in 2001, is having a detrimental impact on the important and legitimate work of civil society organisations. It speaks of operational challenges, and also legal uncertainty in the sector. It is not good for any organisation to be unsure in respect of the work it does, its advocacy and what it has to declare. We all believe in full transparency in everything relating to politics and campaigning.

This is a case of unintended consequences of the original drafting, and this has been admitted in debates that have taken place in the Oireachtas. We know that the civil society groups play an important role, and they need to be able to engage and interact with the Government. This advocacy and campaigning can cost money, and there was an issue in relation to campaigning between elections and at election time.

I would not often quote Atheist Ireland, but it is right and proper to read the submission it has made. It has a contrarian view, and it feels that it is old-fashioned and authoritarian to regard democracy as happening only during elections. This is a valid point. It also feels that wealthier civil society groups and far-right activists, with whom they would disagree, will all have access to even more big money to spend on lobbying decision-makers between elections. It argues that these groups and their wealthy donors will have even more undue influence on our democracy, which is bad, whether one agrees with their aims or not. This is a valid point that should be taken into account and teased out in the discussions on Committee Stage, whenever that may be.

It is interesting that the Standards in Public Office Commission has raised this issue, and it has recommended a review of the electoral Acts and the establishment of an electoral commission. I welcome the commitment to engage on the issue of the electoral commission and also the Minister's view to take the recommendation on board in respect of the review of the electoral Acts.

The definition of political purposes brings non-governmental organisations, NGOs, within the scope of the Bill, even though their activities may not be related to the time of elections and referendums. There are whole range of bodies that we are all lobbied by. We might not be lobbied by some of them, but with others like the Irish Farmers Association and TidyTowns, I would not say it is lobbying, but meeting and having views on important issues. I do not think that was intended in the original Bill.

I welcome the commitment to establishing an electoral commission. The use of PPS numbers, or whether PPS numbers could be looked at in relation to single identity on the electoral register has been discussed often. Electoral fraud is probably not a big issue in this country, but that is not to say that it does not, or could not, happen, or that there are some constituencies in which it might be more common than in other areas. Having a single-----

Would the Senator care to name them?

I would not, but one would suspect-----

It would liven up the evening.

We hear stories, and we have to assume that these stories are not without some fact.

I also have concerns about the use of a polling card alone, that is, being able to walk in with a simple polling card with a name and address on it, and no request for identification. Although one may be asked, will that happen? That has to be looked at. We have heard stories in the past of polling cards being bought for a pint of Guinness. Are these just stories or do they happen? I have concerns that they happen.

Another issue is the electoral registers that still contain the names of the dead. I canvassed a lady in the last election whose son is still on the register even though he moved abroad. He has been abroad for 30 years and is still on the register. One can understand if it has happened recently, but there are instances of people who have passed away seven, eight or even ten years ago, still being sent a polling card to their house. One can see how things happen. For example, one could be registered under a maiden name and under a married name, maybe even in different constituencies. The opportunity is there to vote early and often, but that is not to say that it is taken up.

On the issue of posters, I have come around to the view that they should be banned. I do not know, perhaps that is because my hair is getting greyer and I am getting older and whatever. I think, as others have said, the hassle of putting them up, taking them down, the cost of them, posters going missing and vandalism, are all considerations. There is also a serious point which arose before the last election in relation to some towns which take it upon themselves to say that there is a ban on posters within the town. Is that fair on a candidate who is perhaps very reliant on that town, and other candidates who might not be, so it may not bother them as much as it would in other areas? Therefore, I welcome the review of the use of posters. In the past some candidates have decided not to use posters to their detriment. I do not think that a voluntary decision to not use posters has been official in some cases, although one could make a virtue of it, but an absolute decision would be welcome.

I would like to mention the Citizens' Assembly. It has served a purpose and continues to do so on important decisions made in our country. I have an issue with limiting membership to 100 people. It has been said that one ends up with counties that are not represented. The number should be increased and should also be looked at proportionately. Numerous locations should be used. For example, there should be a meeting of the Citizens' Assembly at the same time in Connacht, Munster, Leinster, the Border area and Dublin. Video conferencing can be used in this day and age to ensure that it would be more representative of the country as a whole, and it would provide regional coverage.

I do not think it is right that some large counties ?. One Deputy in the previous Government mentioned that his county of Tipperary had not one person on one commission. That is not right in terms of population, so with modern technology, something like that could be looked at.

I welcome the Bill and the gist of it. It is important that it be teased out at Government and committee level and that the Minister is supporting it.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It is the first time that I have seen the Minister of State in the Chamber and I wish him the very best in his brief. I congratulate him on his stellar performance in getting elected to the Dáil and being appointed a Minister of State.

I strongly oppose this legislation. Its timing is unfortunate for its sponsors because it comes just as Deputy Nash has exposed correspondence between Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and Sinn Féin, which displays in embarrassing detail how that party is more than happy to use partition to help it pocket a €4 million bequest. That funding loophole and others should be closed all right. Instead, this Bill seeks to take an existing narrow loophole and blow it wide open. This matter arises out of a High Court dispute between SIPO and Amnesty International Ireland centring on an interpretation of the phrase "political purposes" in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001. The Bill before us would change the definition of donations for political purposes to allow NGOs and campaigning organisations to accept unlimited donations from Ireland or abroad in between elections or referendum campaigns. Only donations made during an election or referendum campaign would have to comply with any donation restrictions. This would remove from limit or scrutiny large donations to campaigning organisations delivered up to the time that the election or referendum was called.

Amnesty received a donation of €137,000 from the Open Society Foundation, which is a Swiss front group for the Hungarian multibillionaire, George Soros. The explicit aim of that donation was that it be used to campaign to change the Irish law and Constitution in terms of abortion. Senator Pauline O'Reilly was right to refer to the referendum on the eighth amendment. I can certainly say, from my association with the pro-life campaign which worked very hard to protect unborn babies and mothers, that any donations that I was ever aware of came from Irish citizens. That was not the case with regard to Amnesty's largesse coming from George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. Amnesty claimed, ludicrously, that the donation was not for a political purpose. Hello? It was clearly stated by the Open Society Foundation what the donation was all about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "political" as meaning relating to the government or public affairs of a country, which makes things fairly clear. Therefore, a donation that is intended to influence or change Irish law, as the Amnesty donation clearly was, surely comes within that definition.

The sponsors of the Bill seem to think that a political purpose equals, for the most part, a party political or an electoral purpose. These are all very different things. The issue was not conclusively resolved by the High Court, so future donations might be similarly challenged by SIPO. Therefore, Amnesty has a huge vested interest in seeing this Bill pass so that all future foreign donations for political campaigning can be whitewashed, as does the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which also supports this Bill. That group raised just €6,000 from Irish citizens in 2018 but was given more than €500,000 from foreign sources, including a €65,000 donation from the same Swiss front group which funds Amnesty.

While I wish Senator Ruane well and commend her on her diligence, perhaps she could please clarify for the record of this House whether Amnesty, the ICCL or any individuals connected to those groups were involved in any way in the drafting of this Bill. If so, it would be a disturbing development. It would mean that private organisations funded by foreign money are already seeking to influence directly a change in Irish law for their own financial benefit.

The explanatory memorandum says that treating the Amnesty donation and others like it as a donation for political purposes was an "unintended consequence" of ambiguous drafting in the 2001 Act. Surely it was a consequence that was directly intended. Do the Bill's sponsors seriously believe that the Oireachtas intended, in 2001, that foreign money would be allowed to flow into the country to campaign for changes in our law or Constitution in a completely unaccountable way? Why should third parties be given such light-touch treatment compared with political parties or Independent politicians with a democratic mandate?

If Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or the Green Party wanted to mount a public campaign to change the law or Constitution, for argument's sake to introduce a constitutional right to housing, they would have to fund the campaign through donations from Irish citizens to a maximum of €2,500 per individual or just €200 from an Irish company. If this Bill were passed, a third party or so-called civil society group could be set up and campaign full throttle against such a proposal - against such a proposal, just to make the point easy to understand for some of its proponents - funded by unlimited money from unidentified domestic or foreign sources. Frankly, that would amount to little more than auction politics and the transfer of the democratic process to the highest bidder. It would be a scandal for our democracy.

Senators will have received an interesting submission on the Bill from Atheist Ireland, as Senator Kyne has said, one such civil society group and not one which I regularly quote. I have to say that I am experiencing a frisson of excitement as I quote it. In fact, it might do wonders for my social life once Covid is out of the way. Atheist Ireland make an interesting point when it says that the law as it stands:

... helps us, not hinders us, by trying to make democracy a battle of ideas not bank accounts. It does not prevent any civil society group from raising money. We just have to raise it in small donations from the many, not large donations from the few. This is good for democracy, not bad.

Fair play to Atheist Ireland for putting it so clearly. Does that not bring us to the nub of the issue?

As I mentioned earlier, the organisations supporting this Bill are groups which depend almost entirely on large foreign donations for their existence, drawing only tiny amounts from Irish citizens, so they have a vested interest in seeking this Bill to be passed so they can sustain themselves. It seems to me that it is wrong to give international financiers or big business, at home or abroad, such an advantage over ordinary Irish citizens and the political parties or individuals that they support with their votes or few quid. There is a vested interest in seeing this Bill passed. This Bill could do for Irish politics what the notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the United States Supreme Court did for politics in the US. It could open the floodgates to large amounts of completely unaccountable and anonymous money being funnelled into Irish politics. That would be a seriously retrograde step, and I urge Senators to reject this Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of this Bill on behalf of the Labour Senators. I was a co-sponsor of the Bill and have worked on the issues it addresses with colleagues in civil society groupings, in particular with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. I commend Senators Ruane and Higgins on bringing it forward, and note also that it has received support from a wide range of civil society organisations and NGOs. The number is 65, I am told, including ICCL, Amnesty International Ireland and The Wheel, which is an umbrella organisation for civil society groups, community and voluntary organisations, charities, and social enterprises.

As others have said, the Bill has a simple, straightforward purpose. It seeks to offer a definition of "political purposes" that addresses the existing problem that has been identified with the Electoral Act 1997, as amended in 2001, which has effectively imposed funding restrictions which are having a really negative effect on the work of civil society organisations. Because the definition of "political purposes" in the original legislation is so vague that it can be interpreted and applied in a broad fashion, it has brought a wide range of organisations within the scope of the Act, despite their activities not being directed in any way at influencing the outcome of an election or referendum.

As others have said, the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, itself has identified the problem in the legislation.

In 2003, it noted in its annual report that the scope of the current law is so broad that it may cover such bodies at Tidy Towns committees, charities, representative organisations and other interest groups. SIPO has suggested change. It has doubted that it was the intention of the Legislature that these bodies, in conducting their ordinary affairs, would find themselves covered by the legislation and recommended that a different definition be offered. SIPO has identified this issue. We have also seen concrete examples of organisations that have fallen foul of the current definition. Other have referred to the Amnesty International Ireland case in 2018 and we also saw it with the voluntary group campaigning to end the so-called baptism barrier. The group Equate was compelled to hand back a starter grant.

There is also an international dimension to this. We should be aware that the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, for example, has been critical of Ireland for operating funding rules that have had the effect of shutting down the work of some human rights organisations. Closer to home, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has highlighted the negative impact of the restrictions on advocacy.

It is an important point that is being made in this Bill and an important issue to be addressed. It is therefore disappointing that the Government is not supporting it sufficiently to even allow it go through Second Stage. I know that Government speakers have identified flaws and that Atheist Ireland has corresponded with us about flaws that it suggests are in the Bill but Private Members' Bills can be amended on Committee and Report Stages. Indeed, we have a lot of experience of that. In the previous Seanad, I brought forward legislation to amend the Competition Act and colleagues who were Members of the House then will recall that the Government identified flaws in that but we won a vote on Second Stage and, as a result, I worked with officials and Ministers and we amended, by agreement, the amending legislation and brought forward an important Bill that safeguards and protects the rights of freelance workers to engage in collective bargaining. That was a good example of how Private Members' Bills can be amended and improved upon through collaborative working with the Government.

I welcome the Government's announcement of an electoral commission. I know that there has been a good deal of correspondence and negotiation between Senator Ruane, Seb McAteer in her office and Government officials. That is also welcome. At the same time, I think it would have been preferable simply to let the Bill go through Second Stage and then we could all work together on identifying flaws and seeing whether the aims of the Bill could be addressed in another way. There are useful suggestions coming through, for example, looking at the charities legislation and amending definitions there, rather than necessarily just using this sort of legislation. The Charities Act could be amended to enable promotion of human rights under the category that currently protects religious organisations. Others have pointed out the anomalies there.

We could look again at whether that approach is better or the SIPO approach is better. SIPO's recommendation in 2003 was to keep the current definition of "political purposes" and capture third parties if they intend to spend over a certain threshold in advancing such a purpose. This Bill does not have any threshold and amends the definition of "political purposes" to exclude those groups unless they are spending money during an election or referendum. There are certainly different models by which we can address the current problem that is restricting and curtailing the activities of groups advocating for human rights. I do not think any Member on the side of the House that is supporting the legislation is saying it is perfect. It has been acknowledged that we would be happy to work with the Government to ensure that the Bill could be amended and that any flaws it contains could be addressed, as I said, on Committee and Report Stages.

In the meantime, it is important that Ireland is seen to take a lead on the promotion and protection of civil society. In a debate like this, it is worth reflecting on the contribution to Irish society that civil society organisations have made. I have worked with many groups on many different campaigns, including the referendums on marriage equality and the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018. I have also worked on campaigns in between and outside of referendum and electoral processes, including campaigns on the extension of multi-denominational schooling, for example. As a parent in the local community, I was one of the people who helped to establish a new Educate Together school. That is the sort of low level, local campaigning that goes on and in which many civil society groups are engaged on a day-to-day basis. The problem with the current definition in the Electoral Act is that it unduly hampers the work of such groups. There are sensible ways in which we can address restrictions that were not foreseen or intended. As SIPO and others have said, the restrictions were not intended at the time of the passage of the legislation.

We should be working together with the Minister. I am sorry that we cannot simply agree and move forward through Second Stage and see the Bill go to Committee Stage and then work together to bring forward amendments to ensure that we are not bringing in any unintended consequences and are simply seeking to enable the flourishing of civil society organisations in our society. I again commend Senators Ruane and Higgins on bringing forward the legislation.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is nice to have him here and he is welcome back any time. The issue at hand is the application of the restrictions of funding to voluntary and community sectors. That is what we want to discuss and we are here late at night because we all care about it deeply. I thank Senators Ruane and Higgins for pointing it out. It is important that we find things on which we can work together and have commonality.

The Electoral Act is a source of legal uncertainty and significant challenge for a sector that is already stretched to its limit during this time. Organisations that can be impacted by the application of this include many organisations that we have all probably been involved in, such as Tidy Towns and biodiversity groups. SIPO has agreed there is a flaw in the legislation and we all know that SIPO knows exactly what is going on when it comes to political donations. The definition of "political purposes" is so wide that it may unintentionally cover, on an ongoing basis, many of the voluntary groups that need our support and need not to be prohibited by funding and donation constraints.

I will give a couple of examples. Seventeen years ago, I came together with six other mothers, as Senator Bacik has done, and started a Steiner school. We were three years without a penny from the State and it was all based on volunteering and fundraising. Seventeen years later, that school has 150 pupils and is funded by the State. We gave people a new choice in education, that was co-educational and had a different pedagogy. It was the first free Steiner school in Ireland. Instead of being a fee-paying school, we fought tooth and nail to get it recognised by the State and it became a free school. That would not have happened except that we were able to take donations and allow volunteers to run the school.

Another example is the ban on fracking in this country. That started in my kitchen with a few friends. We decided we wanted fracking banned in County Clare. We got some funding, some donations. We did a 3,000 leaflet drop of all the houses in west and north Clare. That leaflet informed people what fracking was, because they did not know at that time. It also gave them the numbers of all their local councillors so that when the motion was brought to the council a few weeks later, every councillor had received hundreds of phone calls from concerned citizens and fracking was unanimously banned in Clare, the first council in Ireland to do so, although many followed suit. The matter then came before the Dáil and we are now a fracking-free nation. These things happen with small groups. Margaret Mead said never to doubt that a small group of people can make a difference because, in fact, it is the only thing that ever did.

I find it refreshing that I am in the House for the first time since I became a Senator and we are working together on something. It is great that we can come together and find commonality because, at the end of the day, the people we represent are not bothered about who is in or who is out, they just want to get things done, to progress and work in and support communities. The hearts of souls of volunteers and community organisations are keeping this country going at the moment.

I commend the Senators who brought in the legislation and I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will do his level best to deal with any issues. I know that Senator Mullen has some issues. I have no doubt that the Minister of State and those in opposition who are working with him will sort it all out and do a great job. I support this amendment.

Like others have done, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is always good to have two Malcolms in a Chamber at the one time.

I, like others, thank Senators Ruane and Higgins for bringing this discussion to the floor. The discussion this evening and the contributions from everybody are core to our democracy. These discussions are important and, as others, including Senator Fitzpatrick, have said, I would be worried if this gets bogged down in the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That committee will be dealing with a lot of important issues. This is a vital question about the future of our democracy. I ask that the Minister of State ensures that whatever mechanism is used, it is given sufficient priority.

This raises important questions about the role of civic society within our democracy. The difficulty is the legislation, as Senator Higgins pointed out, is analogue legislation operating in a digital age. Activism is completely different from what it was when most of us in this Chamber started getting involved in our various forms of activism. A healthy democracy requires input from a wide variety of groups and opinions from civic society. Senator Kyne mentioned the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, which is probably one of the most successful lobby groups in the country. Input is also required from business organisations, trade unions, churches and all sorts of groups as well as collections of individuals, as Senator Garvey said, who come together and are passionate about an issue. It is important we support those organisations, that mechanisms are found in a digital age for those organisations to advance their cause, that there is not a funding imbalance with one group being more powerful than the other and that we have, as Senator Kyne said, transparency in the process.

The announcement this week by the Government that we will finally have the long overdue electoral commission is hugely significant. I hope it addresses the issues contained in this Bill and that all civic society organisations are provided with a meaningful opportunity to take part in the debate around that commission. There are several functions of the new commission I would like to see addressed. One such function concerns an overhaul of the electoral register, which I think almost everybody would agree with. There is also the question of political education, not just in schools but for the wider public, about how our democracy operates and how to influence the legislative process. There is within the programme for Government reference to investment in a fund which will support research into politics and electoral research. The programme for Government commits to examining by-elections and whether they should be replaced with alternate lists. That would be worthwhile.

In particular, it will be important that it examines the question of online political advertising and microtargeting. I agree with Senator Ruane that we cannot leave it to the tech giants to self-regulate in this area. There must be a role for the State in the regulation of online advertising. This will be one of the biggest challenges the new commission will face.

Elections and political funding are always a source of controversy. There is a noble intent behind this legislation but I do not want to see the provisions contained in this excellent Bill used in such a way, and Senator Mullen referred to this in some ways, that funding raised outside the State would be used to unfairly influence our political system. This is not to stop valid civil society organisations operating here. There are a number of flaws with our electoral legislation at the moment but we have spending limits and much more transparency than other countries. It is not perfect but it is better than other countries. The Twenty-six Counties' regulations are far more stringent than the UK donation regulations which are preferred by the wealthiest political party on this island.

I would fear a move to a situation similar to that in the US. There would be difficulty distinguishing between civil society organisations and political action committees, such as are found in the US. It is not the intention but it is something we will have to address. During the Brexit referendum we saw this was the case where a group called the Constitutional Research Council donated £435,000 to the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, to support the leave campaign, which included the DUP engaging in online advertising in Britain, not just in the North. Equally, we have to address questions around money being raised at a $500 per plate dinner in the Trump Hotel in Manhattan or a political party getting a £4 million donation from a reclusive electrician. We have to ensure mechanisms whereby money from outside the State cannot be used to fund online political campaigns.

One of the challenges we have with the lack of proper regulation, especially of online advertising, is that Facebook, Twitter and others say they self-regulate but everybody knows they do not. Senator Ruane is correct that we have to address that in terms of a role for State. The scale of what is happening with the political action committees and the Super PACs in the US is frightening. I happened to look at it today. The super PACs in the US are different from the political action committees in that they cannot give money to specific candidates but can generally fund a campaign. To date this year in the US, they have raised $2.3 billion and spent more than $1.5 billion. I do not want us to get into a situation where that happens. I am aware that is not the intent of the Bill but when we come to address this we have to ensure, while supporting civic society organisations to engage in political debate, that we do not allow undue influence or malign forces in our democratic process. Given our role, with particular regard to data and data management, there may also be an interest from other powers and other states in influencing our democratic process.

My colleague, Deputy Lawless, is, as has been said by Senator Higgins, bringing forward legislation in the Dáil. This is a hugely important legislation and I ask for the Minister of State's assurance that it will be given priority when it goes to Committee Stage.

This is a great legislation and it is a great stimulus for debate and the thought behind it is thorough. I quite like the definitions in it. I am someone who has built my whole life on advocacy, working in communities and being an activist. The obvious choice of career was to try to move into politics and make that effective change from inside this House. I understand the chilling effect on freedom of speech of advocacy groups that this definition has brought about. I have been aware of it in organisations and somewhere on file there are probably letters I have written complaining about it. I am ad idem with Members when it comes to the spirit behind this legislation.

I welcome what is in the programme for Government, what is being brought forward and the initiatives being taken in the area of the electoral reform commission and the idea of bringing this before the joint Oireachtas committee. I am on that committee and I pledge to make sure to watch this and make sure it does not slip off the agenda.

One of my great discoveries in this House has been having fantastic conversations thus far and looking forward to many more with Senator Byrne. We are in a similar nerdy mode when it comes to data and we exchange nerdy words on data. One of my key concerns and one of the big things affecting democracy is the use of social media and not just with regard to online political advertising.

My concern is that the definition we are trying to legislate for is far too narrow. If we have learned anything from the Cambridge Analytica data breach, the documentaries made about it and the books written on it, either by whistleblowers or by people trying to clear their conscience and save their careers, it is that social media affects how we think and is designed to manipulate us. Social media is designed to control us and to get inside our heads in ways that we do not even realise in order to manipulate us. Those of us who did the old-fashioned thing and bought The Irish Times this morning will have read the same articles. We might agree or disagree with what we read but at least we all got the same news from the same source. The problem with social media is that it is tailored to our likes, depending on how long we pause to look at a particular image, for example. People can go down a rabbit hole, follow something innocuous and end up being exposed to extreme content. They can be radicalised towards violence or positions of ultra-fear.

When we are looking at electoral reform and how we deal with definitions, we need to consider the role of social media and the issue of how our democracy is being undermined. When it comes to news feeds and information being fed to us through social media, people will see very different things because they like different things or are of different genders, have children of different ages and so on. Everything about our lives is manipulated to commodify us as human beings and turn us into purchasers and users. That stream of influence in our lives is in private hands for marketing and profit purposes. It is not like the old days when people would congregate outside this House and try to influence those who are legislating; we do not really know where power lies anymore because of social media. The social media giants need to be taken on and legislated for and I say that in due recognition of all of the employment they provide in this State. They represent a massive threat to democracy. We have already seen the evidence of that in Britain and the US and we should take it very seriously. We need to consider the points made earlier within the larger conversation and we need to be legislating far more powerfully. We actually need to go further than what is being proposed here.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well in his new role. I commend my colleagues, Senators Ruane and Higgins, on this Private Members' Bill which is absolutely fantastic.

I would consider myself an activist. I am the founder of a charitable organisation and understand how difficult it is to raise funds, particularly in the absence of Government funding. Civil society organisations work to influence public policy for the benefit of people living in this country. The advocacy work of civil society organisations has been at the forefront of transformative positive change in Ireland and this rich tradition must continue. Any constraints on their activities are totally undemocratic. Many civil society organisations are supportive of this Bill and see it as a defence of civil liberties and human rights.

One of the many organisations that will be impacted by the provisions of the Electoral Act is Frontline Defenders, an international human rights organisation based in Dublin. I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of that organisation which works to advance the protection of at-risk human rights defenders in all regions of the world. How does it breach the spirit of a law that was passed to prevent foreign influence on the outcome of elections here for this organisation to fundraise to protect human rights defenders? Other organisations that will also be impacted include the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which exists to raise public awareness of human rights issues, Amnesty International Ireland which researches and campaigns with the aim of preventing and ending grave human rights abuses and Transparency International Ireland, the Irish chapter of the worldwide movement against corruption.

I am deeply worried about provisions that were inserted in 2001 into section 22 of the Electoral Act of 1997, as amended, which appear to prohibit any person or organisation based in Ireland from accepting sizeable or international donations to assist them in influencing public policy. I am also concerned by the impact of the onerous tracking and reporting requirements that attach to small domestic donations. The Electoral Act's civil society donation restrictions should be confined to advocacy aimed at achieving a certain result in elections and referendums only. Civil society organisations should be allowed to freely advocate on public policy issues outside of campaigning in an election or referendum for which the date has been set. Denying funding to civil society organisations amounts to silencing the people's voice and weakening democracy.

I have worked closely with many of these organisations, particularly on legislation about which I am passionate including the Occupied Territories Bill and the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. Indeed, I could not have done that work without them and I am still working with them today. They are absolutely incredible and are so passionate about the work they do. They are truly an inspiration. It is highly likely that in conducting their day-to-day business, civil organisations could be involved in activities that would fall within the definition of "political purposes" in that they would be attempting to promote or procure a particular outcome in the context of a policy or policies of the Government or of public authorities including local authorities.

Civil society organisations are essential and I know the Minister of State is aware of this. They are essential to the democratic process in this country and we must do whatever we can to protect the freedom of these organisations. I would love the Minister of State to consider allowing this Bill to progress to the next Stage and then work with Senator Ruane on amending it, if necessary.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the Second Stage debate on the Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill 2019. I thank Senator Ruane for bringing the Bill forward which enables us to debate and consider the relevant issues around the definition of "political purposes" as set out in electoral law. I would also like to commend the Civil Engagement Group on its work on the matter, as well as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, with which I have engaged in recent weeks.

Like many Members of this House, I come from an advocacy and campaigning background with environmental organisations, Traveller development groups and many really important groups that have helped to shape civil society. Many of us were involved in the fantastic Repeal campaign which was an amazing national campaign. I literally had to climb over barriers to get here this evening and am acutely aware of the barriers that civil society must overcome to be active participants in our democratic processes. In that context, I commend the intent behind this Bill.

If the House is in agreement, I will read my statement and then I will try to respond to some of the really excellent points that were made in what was a fantastic debate. As Members are aware, the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides the statutory framework for dealing with political donations and sets out the regulatory regime covering a wide range of interrelated issues such as the funding of political parties, the reimbursement of election expenses, the establishment of election expenditure limits, the disclosure of election expenditure, the setting of limits on permissible donations, the prohibition of certain donations, the disclosure of donations and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purposes which exceed €100.

The Act also provides for the independent supervision of these provisions by the Standards in Public Office Commission, which has published a number of guidelines to inform candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament, political parties, corporate donors and third parties of their obligations under the Act.

As the body responsible for the implementation of the Act's provisions, over the years SIPO has raised concerns in its annual reports about the wide-ranging nature of the definition of "political purposes" and its potential impact on the ordinary affairs of civil society. For example, in its annual report for 2018, SIPO recommended that "An electoral commission should be established, and a comprehensive review of the Electoral Acts should take place." A similar recommendation was included in its annual report for 2019.

Before I proceed to the Private Members' Bill itself, it might be useful to recall that, under the Act, a third party is required, on receipt of a donation exceeding the value of €100, and before incurring any expenses for political purposes, or any further such expenses, to furnish to SIPO the name and address of the third party and the name and address of the person responsible for its organisation, management or financial affairs; a statement of the nature, purpose and estimated amount of donations to, and proposed expenses of, the third party during the year; and an indication of any connection the third party may have with any political party or candidate at an election or referendum or otherwise. In addition, and similar to the requirements on candidates standing for election, for Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament and political parties, where a monetary donation in excess of €100 is received, an account in a financial institution in the State must be opened and maintained and the donation and any subsequent monetary donations, irrespective of value, must be lodged to that account. A number of statutory statements and supporting documents must also be submitted to SIPO by the deadlines prescribed in the Act - for example, by a date no later than 31 January in each year for elected Members.

In very broad terms, the political donations regime applies more or less equally to candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament, political parties and third parties who are in receipt of donations given for political purposes where a donation has been received which exceeds the €100 threshold. While third parties must provide the information which I have just set out, unlike the other obligated parties under the Act, they are not required to make donation statements which are made public by SIPO.

While the Bill is relatively short, it deals with an issue that is complex and, more importantly, plays a critical role in preserving the integrity of our elections and our wider democratic processes. In simple terms, the Bill proposes to amend the definition of "political purposes" in section 22(2)(aa) of the Electoral Act 1997, as amended by the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, by removing the reference to third parties in a number of places within the definition and by restricting the obligations on third parties solely to electoral periods. The definition of "political purposes" informs and underpins the application of our entire political donations regime.

I would like to state that I welcome and support the active participation of a vibrant and diverse civil society throughout all aspects of our political decision-making processes and wish to acknowledge the significant contribution they have made, and continue to make, in this regard. The most effective democracies worldwide are founded on robust structures, active citizenship and civil society advocating for and working towards greater transparency and accountability for decision makers and political institutions.

I also note the concerns that civil society has raised in connection with the wide-ranging nature of the definition of "political purposes" provided for in the Electoral Act 1997, in particular, the adverse impact it can have on the ordinary activities of civil society and the means by which they legitimately raise funds to run their normal day-to-day operations, outside of any specific electoral or referendums periods. Nonetheless, while I accept there is merit in reviewing the definition of "political purposes", given the complexities of our political donations regime and its impact across all participants in the electoral and democratic processes, including prospective candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament, political parties, third parties, individual donors and corporate donors, I am strongly of the view that any review should be comprehensive and objective and should be undertaken in tandem with a wider review of the entire 1997 Act.

Ultimately, the political donations regime as provided for in the 1997 Act needs to apply in a manner that is proportionate, fair and balanced to all participants. Anything less than a thorough review could possibly result in more unintended consequences arising, over and above those that civil society has rightly argued have given rise to the current situation, with potential adverse implications for transparency in our electoral processes. Against this background, the Government is opposed to this Private Members' Bill. However, I wish to assure this House that the issues at the heart of the Bill can be considered further in the context of wider electoral reform proposals, which I intend to bring forward shortly. My Department is currently finalising the general scheme of an electoral reform Bill, which will establish an independent, statutory electoral commission, provide for the modernisation of the electoral registration process, introduce new regulatory provisions to ensure transparency in online paid political advertising, as referenced extensively throughout this debate, and facilitate the holding of electoral events during Covid-19-type restrictions.

The plans to establish an electoral commission are now at an advanced stage within my Department and, in accordance with the commitment in the Programme for Government - Our Shared Future, it is intended that an electoral commission will be in place by the end of next year. My Department is working to meet this commitment and is confident that it can be met. With this in mind, the proposed general scheme of an electoral reform Bill will be brought to Government shortly for its consideration.

As I alluded to earlier, one of the initial functions proposed for the electoral commission, when established, will be to oversee the regulation of online paid-for political advertisements commissioned for use during electoral periods. The general scheme will include provisions to regulate online political advertisements with a view to ensuring that such advertisements are clearly labelled and display certain specified information. These obligations will apply to both the buyers and sellers of political advertising in the online sphere.

Members might wish to note that the provisions on online advertising are being prepared having regard to the detailed proposal from the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, which was agreed by the last Government in early November 2019. This was developed following a public consultation process and the holding of an open policy forum in the latter half of 2018 to elicit the views of a variety of stakeholders, including from the media and political spheres, online companies, the advertising industry and academia, as well as representatives from civil society. The interdepartmental group's proposal recommended that the scope of what constitutes a political advertisement should align with the scope of "political purposes" as defined under the Electoral Act 1997. This would ensure consistency across all legislation, albeit the proposal acknowledged that the definition would be examined as part of a wider review of the Act and the establishment of the electoral commission.

It is intended that the general scheme, following the Government's consideration, will be referred to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to undergo pre-legislative consideration in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Dáil and Seanad. I give a commitment that this will be given careful and due consideration at that stage. It is anticipated that this process would commence later this year. Pre-legislative consideration of the proposed general scheme will provide an opportunity for, among other matters, a detailed scrutiny of the issues which the Private Members' Bill aims to address. While it will be a matter for the joint committee to determine the course of any such pre-legislative consideration, given the general scheme will refer to the definition in the Electoral Act 1997, I believe this could provide an opportunity for the meaning of "political purposes" to be examined on a cross-party basis and could also facilitate an examination of the obligations on third parties under the Act versus those on political parties and prospective candidates.

As part of the pre-legislative process, it also would be open to the joint committee to invite the views of civil society, SIPO and other stakeholders to inform its consideration of the general scheme on this issue and on other issues, as the case may be.

This was discussed at great length with Senator Ruane in our discussions in the lead up to this evening.

Senators may recall that the programme for Government commits the electoral commission, when established, to undertake a number of items of research such as those on the use of posters at elections and referendums, as well as the expansion of postal voting provisions. In addition, it is proposed that a comprehensive review of the Electoral Act will be carried out with a view to making recommendations to address, among other matters, the concerns raised by civil society. It is envisaged that the proposed review could be completed within a relatively short timeframe, following the commission's establishment. In addition, I anticipate that any report that may arise from the pre-legislative process could, in due course, inform the electoral commission in the proposed review of the Act.

The proposed Bill before us today seeks to address an issue that is both complex and integral to maintaining transparency regarding our political donations regime. Accordingly, it is important, deserving of careful consideration and merits an objective analysis of its implications and impacts. In this context, I am of the view that the approach proposed by the Government would, in the final analysis, deliver an objective, clear and more efficient outcome for all affected parties with regard to the entirety of the interrelated provisions in the Electoral Act 1997, including its impact on the ordinary affairs of civil society.

Before I conclude, I will try to address some of the items raised by Senators in what has been a really worthwhile debate. I give my commitment to both the proposer and seconder of the Bill that the Government will give the legislation the scrutiny that it deserves. We will invite in the civil society organisations to give them an opportunity to have their say in that regard. It is really important that we have such engagement because, like the Senators, I share their absolute sentiments in this regard.

Other issues have been raised about the electoral commission and the work it might carry out. Certainly, this has been a long-held aspiration of previous sittings of the Dáil. The work done by the commission will be really important, including the issue that has been raised about election postering. I ran a campaign for the most recent general election without election posters, which is an example of a successful candidate running an election campaign without posters.

The issue concerning the use of personal public service numbers, PPSNs, for the electoral register will be addressed in the wider context of this electoral reform Bill. The point has been well raised by Senators about foreign groups wishing to campaign in Ireland. A lot of important issues have been raised this evening.

Finally, I thank Senator Ruane for bringing the Bill forward and I thank Senators for a really useful debate.

I thank the Minister of State for finishing bang on time.

Debate adjourned.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.03 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 23 October 2020.