I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. Does Senator Ruane wish to continue?
Electoral Reform Bill 2022: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I do. I welcome the Minister of State back to the Chamber. I had spoken to the majority of the amendments when we finished last week on this section. I had not elaborated on amendment No. 62 so I will now speak briefly to that. Amendment No. 62 seeks to include the provision that a registration authority may enter the name of a person on the pending elector list for the register of electors of a constituency of Seanad Éireann in the scenario where the franchise is extended.
Again, this seeks to incorporate the reform we are hoping for into this Bill and to ensure that voters for the Seanad are offered the same opportunities to register to vote early as they are for the Dáil. A few weeks ago, we had young people in Leinster House talking about climate action. I hope that by the time some of them are reaching the age at which they can vote, they will be entitled to vote in the Seanad elections and that they can preregister before they reach that age.
This amendment is perfectly sensible in that it prepares for the scenario where the Seanad is reformed. To be honest, there is no reason that the Government should not accept this amendment.
I want to speak to the set of amendments that relate to Seanad reform. Again, because time is unnecessarily constrained, I will be brief. On the very first day of the last Oireachtas, we moved a Bill for Seanad reform. That was back in 2016. We were asked by the then Government, which included one of the parties still currently in government, to suspend our Bill so we would have a cross-party group who would work together in a committee to come up with cross-party legislation.
A number of us who are here in this House, from all parties, including Senators Warfield, McDowell, Cassells, me and others, worked for hours and hours over eight months to develop legislation which was then voted on and agreed as cross-party legislation. We delivered that to the Government, which promptly parked it.
Coming into this Oireachtas, we were told again that progress would be made. When we brought back that cross-party, agreed legislation on Seanad reform, we were told that these issues would be addressed as part of the Electoral Reform Bill - that was where it would be coming through, that is where action would be taken, that is where progress would be made. Again, we have been disappointed and despite the fact there are a vast number of last-minute amendments on all kinds of issues that have been added into this Electoral Reform Bill, there is nothing about Seanad reform.
I will not go through each of the amendments in turn because my colleague has done so. These amendments would at least start preparing the ground for some of the measures in that agreed Seanad reform legislation, including things like preparing the register and preparing measures around nominations. At a very minimum, amendment No. 54 simply asks that we would have, within 12 months, a report outlining exactly how long-promised Seanad reform was going to come about.
I sometimes get tired of people saying the Seanad will not reform because it cannot reform. The Seanad is very willing to reform itself and Members of this Seanad have been passionate about driving through reform. Let us be very clear that it is the Government that has been blocking it systematically all the way. Will the Minister of State at least agree to amendment No. 54, which makes a commitment that, within 12 months, clear measures would be put forward on how to deliver the promise from two different Governments to implement the Manning report? If not, will the Minister of State support the Seanad reform Bill, if we bring it forward collectively together, since the Government has not chosen to take action on this issue?
This is a subject which is very close to my heart. When Members rise on the business of the House, they have some small amount of time, some three to six minutes or thereabouts, to express themselves on the issue. It is well worthwhile to elaborate on what Senator Higgins has just said.
The history of this is as follows, and let it be stitched into the record of this House. At a time when his leadership of the Fine Gael Party was under strong pressure, the then leader of the party, Enda Kenny, fearing a heave, decided to come up with a gimmick. The gimmick he decided to come up with was to announce, without any internal discussion whatsoever in the party, at a party dinner - I think it was in Citywest - that he was going to propose the abolition of Seanad Éireann. Many people in Fine Gael were astonished and shocked at this stunt, which it was, but that was his proposal.
When he got into government, he duly prepared legislation to mutilate our Constitution, to leave large holes in it, to take away the supervisory role of Seanad Éireann, to scrap completely the idea of a second House and to amend the present Constitution, which at least gives this House a right of veto over any proposal to abandon our veto in the European Union. All of that was to be swept away in order to satisfy the gimmicky stunt of abolition, which he had come up with without any pre-thought or pre-discussion.
Let us remember what happened then. The people of Ireland were told it was important to get rid of this House because it would save €25 million per annum. Of course, that was an inflated figure but it does not matter as that was what was run up on lampposts all over the country. A cynical campaign was then launched to abolish Seanad Éireann. I participated, with other people, in its defence on television, and I was at that stage not a Member of the Oireachtas at all. I recall that the late Senator Feargal Quinn asked me to come and speak to Senators from right across the political spectrum in this House at a meeting he convened to discuss the proposal. We had a discussion and many of the people who were Members of Seanad Éireann came along and expressed complete horror at the consequences of abolishing Seanad Éireann as proposed. Feargal Quinn, Katherine Zappone, who was then a Member of the House, Noel Whelan, former Senator Joe O'Toole and myself all got together to establish a group called Democracy Matters. It successfully contested a referendum, in combination with the Fianna Fáil Party, which opposed the proposal.
The people of Ireland rejected the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann. The Taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny, referred to the result as "a wallop". It was a well-deserved smack across the face for the cynicism that had brought him to that point. Let us be clear about what happened after that. I should say that in the course of the campaign, he had said that if the people voted to retain it, he would not reform it at all. He did not want the people to have that option of thinking it could be reformed. However, he then did yet another U-turn and decided that he was going to institute a reform process. He invited former Senator Maurice Manning to examine the whole process of reform without a further constitutional amendment, which he did. I was very honoured to be asked by Joe O'Toole and Maurice Manning to assist them with the drafting of their report and to show what could be done within the terms of the present Constitution to make the election of this House more democratic.
Having established this group, Mr. Kenny then went on to have another election, where he said that implementation of the Manning report would be part of the Government programme, and this was in combination with the Labour Party. Having done that, he did precisely nothing - he did not lift a finger to bring that about. Katherine Zappone, who was then a Government Minister in that Administration, pressed strongly at Cabinet that something should be done about this. Eventually, there was a change of leader in Fine Gael and Deputy Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny.
In the meantime, Senator Feargal Quinn had asked me to stand for the NUI constituency because he wanted to retire from politics. To progress the Seanad reform project, it was agreed that an implementation group would be established. The group was established and, as Senator Higgins said, it was all-party. We set for ourselves, and we were given, terms of reference that were demanding. Within eight months, we had to produce the legislation to give effect to the Manning report and to make any recommendations for its amendment to make it more acceptable. We did all that work, and we went through every aspect of electing the Seanad. Due to other things, there was quite a controversy about who should chair the group, but eventually it chose me as its chairperson. I will not go into what the then Minister, former Deputy Shane Ross, did or did not attempt to do in respect of that matter.
In the end, however, we produced our report. More important than that, though, we decided that we would not just produce a report that could lie on some politician’s table. We asked for, and we were given, a professional parliamentary draftsman to embody our proposals in draft legislation. The cost of doing that was borne by the Taoiseach's Department, with the agreement of the then Taoiseach, and present Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar. We worked might and main to meet our deadlines. It was a thoroughly democratic and inclusive process. We listened to everybody and everybody participated. Nobody was excluded or stigmatised as a minority person. Everyone was free to participate in the production of the report. We presented it, and I duly sent it to the Taoiseach in time and with the draft Bill attached to it.
Nothing happened for a couple of months. Disturbed by that, I went to see the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, in his office to ask him what he intended to do in respect of the whole process of Seanad reform. I want this House to know that he told me that he had no intention whatsoever of moving the legislation in the Dáil, that he himself had supported the abolition of the Seanad and that the most he would do for the legislation, which was, of course, a sentence of death, was to allow a free vote on it if it was put forward by somebody else. That is what the then Taoiseach said. It was pretty cynical stuff. As Senator Higgins said, we had worked for eight months. We had done our level best to bring about a situation which I will describe as follows.
This House now has 43 Members elected by approximately 1,200 people, that is, county and city councillors, incoming Members of the Oireachtas and outgoing Senators. In the Constitution, there is already provision for the franchise for the higher education seats in the Seanad, one of which I am honoured to occupy for the time being, to be widened to include other institutions apart from just the NUI colleges and Trinity College Dublin. By the way, the Supreme Court has also accepted for consideration an appeal in litigation to consider whether there is a constitutional obligation to do something about the change in the Constitution that was made to allow for the extension of this higher education franchise. Whether that litigation succeeds or not, and I doubt whether it is likely to do so in the courts, if we were to go down the road of allowing every higher education graduate in this country to have a vote, including those from the technological universities, the institutes of technology and all the established universities, the situation then, depending on what criteria were selected, would be that we would have an electorate of approximately 900,000 to perhaps 1,100,000 people. They would be entitled to vote for six seats in this House, based on the increasing rate of participation in third level education.
Of course, that situation would leave out everybody without a university or third-level degree, including those people who are being encouraged by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and others, to take up apprenticeships. It would exclude people who have never gone to university, people who have gone to work in businesses and people who have never been employed. It would leave out a huge range of people. People who came to Ireland with foreign university degrees would also have no say in the election of this House in such a situation, even if they became Irish citizens. Of the 5.5 million people in the country now, or whatever the figure is, the situation I have described would leave about 80% of Irish people with no vote for these six higher education seats in the Seanad. As time goes on, about 10% to 20% of people might have a vote on that panel. Such a situation would also mean, however, that the other 43 seats would continue to be elected by roughly one thousandth of the electorate who would be voting for the six higher education seats. If we were to say that there are approximately 1.2 million people eligible to vote for the six seats and then 1,200 councillors voting for the other 43 seats in this House, we get to that rough ratio of one in 1,000. It would mean that a county councillor's vote would be worth 1,000 times any other citizen's vote to establish this House.
Our group came up with the simple proposal that, without changing the Constitution, it was quite lawful to extend the franchise to citizens who wished to be registered to vote in areas such as agriculture and the environment, culture and education, administration or industrial and commercial matters, if they were qualified on the higher education panels, however extended. That proposal would ensure that everybody would be able to opt to have a vote in an area of interest to constitute Seanad Éireann. That is a radical proposal, but it is not all that radical when we think about it. In fact, it is worthy of a republic that every one of its citizens should be regarded as equally entitled, in some respect, to participate in the selection of the Upper House.
People who vote for Senator Higgins and for me, who are a small minority, should not be a privileged few. Everybody should have the right to vote in this context, if they chose to do so. Many university graduates never even register to vote and those registers are hopelessly out of date and messy to function with. In the context of our group's proposal, however, everybody was to have an opportunity to have some input into the constitution of this House.
This is the situation embodied in the legislation we brought before this House. It was drafted at the Government’s expense. Despite the cynical game playing that went on to leave it on the shelf as soon as it was drafted, the legislation was drafted with the intention I spoke of and to bring all that about. It was presented in this House by its proponents. This Government, which had flooded the House with its own appointees and that had scrapped the idea that people from Northern Ireland or the diaspora would be included among the Taoiseach’s nominees, was so anxious to fill up available candidacies in marginal seats that it simply was not even willing to allow the Bill that we put before this House to progress. The Government put down an amendment to the proposal for the Second Stage reading of the Bill to postpone it for 12 months. That period has now well and truly elapsed. It elapsed during the Covid-19 period.
I will record what happened then. I have the greatest respect for the Minister of State, and I know he is sincere in this matter.
It became clear he proposed to stall the legislative process for the Bill, with the Government having paid for its drafting. Let us remember exactly what happened then. He made it clear to this House he would come back with his own proposals, and the deadline passed more than a year ago. It may have passed 14 months ago now and it was a deadline he set for himself to formulate proposals for reform. I spoke to him about the matter because he contacted me and wanted to explain his position. He told me he would do the following. He said he would not consult everybody again but would set up a committee of Members of the Oireachtas from the Government parties, which are Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, to come up with their variant of the Manning report and associated proposals. He told me the committee would meet in rapid order and have its conclusions ready by the early autumn of last year.
I have duly inquired of all Government parties whether anybody has ever heard of a proposal to do that or have such a group or meetings. It has not happened. Of course, I was sold a pup, having meekly made an assumption. I indicated to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, at the time that I took in good faith what he said to the House were his instructions as to the Minister's intention. I still believe the Minister of State acted in good faith and he believed the undertakings his senior Minister made to this House.
The Minister has not delivered, however, and he has never even bothered to lift the phone to explain why he has not delivered. He never established that group and, as cynically as the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, simply ignored the matter and come up with the notion that, somehow, this legislation had to be prioritised over it. There is no reason they should not proceed in tandem or this legislation could not have paved the way for Seanad reform. There is not even a hint of Seanad reform in the legislation, and from this I draw the fair deduction, in fairness to the Government parties, that they do not intend to lift a finger to reform this House during this session.
I know the Green Party asked for Seanad reform to be included in the negotiations for the formation of the current Government and it was plámásed too. It seems to have fallen for the idea that something would be done but we would not have the recommendations of the Manning report brought into law in the form proposed in the legislation.
I put on record that what the Government has contrived to do is keep this House exactly as it was and offer no reform of any kind whatever. It will continue the position where 1,200 people will elect 43 Members of this House and toy around with that process. Senator Malcolm Byrne has toyed with legislation to extend the university franchise. I realise the generosity of his spirit but I wonder how it is he could not think about expanding his own electorate in an equal way. As I have said, the result is a two-tier society where on an entirely artificial basis people who hold certain diplomas from certain educational bodies would be given the opportunity to elect Members to six seats. In any view of the matter, for the foreseeable future they are a small minority of the total population of the country.
I am a university Senator and the legislation we put forward respected that referendum result, doing its best to implement the outcome by putting up two models for consideration, both a majority and minority perspective. The former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, recently spoke about the idea of directly elected mayors and his comments made much sense. From what I can see is happening in Limerick, a job specification is being prepared that for a five-year term will make no difference at all. The chief executive of Limerick City and County Council is to be redesignated the director general so the Custom House rule will continue to exist no matter what.
Mr. Ahern criticised the directly elected mayor proposal, making the point very simply that people would be elected as personality or single-issue candidates etc. and they would have to carry out a very complex function. He implied the whole thing would be a sham. He told the citizens' assembly that was his view and, God bless him, there is much to be said for the views he expressed. If there are 1.2 million people addressing one ballot paper, or even if that is divided into two or three ballot papers, in order to elect six Senators, it would have the same effect. One would have to be a household name to the power of n to have any chance to get elected in a single national constituency of 1.2 million people. I do not know who would be elected but the process would certainly not be in the tradition of Garrett FitzGerald, John Kelly, Feargal Quinn and the others of the same ilk, such as James Dooge. These were people who came from the university sector and brought that third level education perspective to debates.
I will not comment on the Order of Business that we had the dispute about today. It now appears the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, having come here to say he would not guillotine anything and that he would give us as much time as we wanted, has told the Leader that his Bill to reform the third level sector must be rushed through effectively today and in one more day in four hours. That is the kind of attitude we have, although it is a slightly irrelevant point.
The history of Fine Gael in particular with regard to Seanad reform has been shameful and cynical. First, the party proposed to abolish the Seanad without any internal party discussion. It sought to set up the Manning committee and the implementation group before, in private, saying there was no intention to do anything about it. It is cynical and the public is entitled to know about it. I could be given two or three minutes on the Order of Business to make these comments but I needed a bit more time. The only time I am getting is through the amendments of Senator Higgins. She would concur with me that the picture I have painted is a fair and reasonable one and not overly dramatised. The depth of cynicism I have encountered on this is shocking.
A party that does this deserves bad luck and the way opinion polls are going, it will get that bad luck. There shall be other people who may take the matter more seriously than the party has up to now.
We are moving beyond being relevant to the Bill.
I strongly support the amendment before the House and the number of amendments that Senator Higgins and others have tabled in order to bring this back on the agenda. I do not accept for a minute the establishment of this commission is a reason for doing nothing on Seanad reform. Both could easily have proceeded in tandem. The Bill we tendered made provision for functions to be given to an electoral commission.
I wanted to get all those things off my chest. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for indulging me a little. It is important that the record of this House contains the shameful history of what has happened with efforts to reform the Seanad.
Before a rush of other Senators come in to support Senator McDowell, I will call the Minister of State.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions. I will make a general point on the discussion we have had. I wholeheartedly support the notion of Seanad reform. There was not a commitment to it in the programme for the Government. It is a three-party programme for Government negotiated with three parties in good faith. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, gave a commitment to examine the issue further and I will be happy to take up that matter with my colleague.
Our imperative here is to get this legislation passed. It is critically important we establish the electoral commission from which will stem significant political reform and wider participation of the public and minority groups, in particular, in our democratic processes and system, about which Senator McDowell has spoken so eloquently. I appreciate the frustration he expressed but, from the Government’s perspective, it is critically important to get the commission established and have the legislation passed.
I will speak to amendments Nos. 25, 36, 40, 53, 54 and 62 tabled by Senators Higgins, Ruane, Flynn and Black, which are in respect of the franchise for Seanad Éireann. Amendments Nos. 25, 36 and 40 propose to give an coimisiún new additional functions in reviewing the electoral system, constituencies and franchise for Seanad Éireann as well as the criteria by which the Taoiseach may nominate a person as a Member of Seanad Éireann. While I understand the motivations for these amendments, I cannot accept them.
The approach to the initial functions of an coimisiún toghcháin is balanced. It brings in established functions that are relatively self-contained from the outset, as well as a significant suite of new functions, namely, the new research, advisory and public education function, online political advertising and oversight of the electoral register. These initial functions give an coimisiún toghcháin a solid foundation and allow it to build up its organisational and operational capacity gradually. In addition, we will benefit from having an coimisiún up and running, while at the same time making the preparations for new additional functions to be transferred. I am of the view that an coimisiún is taking on a significant number of both new and existing electoral functions from the outset. I am mindful of the need for an coimisiún to get established and build up organisational capacity. I do not intend to add to these functions at the present time.
Amendment No. 53 seeks to establish an electoral register for Seanad Éireann, which would be maintained by an coimisiún, and proposes to extend the franchise for the Seanad to Irish citizens who are resident in Ireland, citizens residing outside the State who hold a current and valid passport, to those entitled to Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland and to citizens holding a requisite qualification and who are graduates of an institution of higher education in this State as well as serving Members of the Dáil, Members of the outgoing Seanad and serving members of local authorities. This would mean the Seanad would have a significantly wider franchise than is in place for Dáil Éireann. At a Dáil election, only Irish and British citizens ordinarily resident in a constituency who are aged 18 or over can vote. This amendment would create dual registers, one held by an coimisiún and the other held by local authorities. This is unnecessary duplication and would require careful consideration.
As the Senators are aware, Part 3 provides for significant modernisation of the electoral registration process. It would be prudent to allow this modernisation work to be completed. For the foregoing reasons, I must oppose amendment No. 53.
Amendment No. 54 requires the Minister to submit a report to the Houses of the Oireachtas within 12 months of the passing of the Act outlining measures taken to reform the electoral franchise for the vocational panels and for universities constituencies of the Seanad as well as the criteria applied to the nomination of Members for Seanad Éireann under Article 18 of the Constitution. The Bill does not provide that the Minister would have a role in reporting to the Oireachtas on electoral matters. In fact, with the establishment of an coimisiún toghcháin, we will now have an independent statutory body which can made recommendations and provide advice regarding electoral matters. This is specifically provided for in Chapter 9 of Part 2 of the Bill, which sets out in detail the research, advisory and voter education functions of an coimisiún. I do not propose to depart from the general principles set out in the Bill regarding research and advice on electoral matters and I am therefore not in a position to accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 62 seeks to amend section 94 of the existing Bill and to allow a registration authority to enter the name of a person on the pending electoral list in the register of electors of a constituency of Seanad Éireann in the scenario where the franchise for such elections is extended. Section 94 provides for the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds on the pending electors list and the inclusion of these persons on the register when they turn 18 years. Currently, registration authorities do not manage the electoral register for Seanad Éireann elections. I note this proposed amendment is framed on a conditional basis to provide for a circumstance in which the franchise for such elections has been extended. The extension of the franchise in elections for Seanad Éireann would in itself require legislation to have effect. That would be the appropriate time for this type of arrangement or similar to be considered. For this reason, I cannot accept the amendment.
I am less confident following the Minister of State's reply given we have been told there are so many functions for the new electoral commission that it cannot take on the Seanad. There is not even a promise that the commission will engage with this issue. Rather, we are being told the reform of the Seanad franchise is not even being considered as part of the agenda for the electoral commission. That completely contradicts much of what we have heard.
I will not reiterate everything we have heard about the pretty shameful timeline and various obfuscations in regard to this but I will make one point. When we had the first referendum in 1979, people voted to extend the franchise of the university electorate. We have now had two referendums. When people voted to retain the Seanad, we had people who did not have a vote in the Seanad voting to maintain it because they recognised the crucial role it plays in dealing with legislation in this State. It was an expression of choice by the public, every voter in this country, in a referendum indicating they wanted the Seanad and to have a say in it. The title of that campaign was "Open it, Don't close it". Every Seanad since has been in place on sufferance of the fact that the public gave a mandate for reform. To move past that, glibly dismiss it, put it on the long finger and say the Government has loads of issues to deal with when all kinds of other issues have been added to the electoral commission’s work, including the running of lotteries, is unacceptable. To say that one half of the legislative process in the Oireachtas and making sure every person in Ireland has a vote and say in who represents them in these crucial discussions is not a priority and should not even be on the agenda for the new electoral commission is unacceptable.
I urge the Minister of State to look to the other amendments to the section. He has brought forward amendments. There would be no delay to the passage of the legislation if, for example, he were to bring forward an amendment at least setting out a pathway to Seanad reform. If this Bill passes without any reference to Seanad reform, that will be a mark on the Government and one to be remembered and noted. I am very disappointed we do not have progress on this. I may seek to change the functions I would give to the electoral commission on Report Stage, and I will reserve that right. The functions, as I have set them out, are constructive. I will press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 31, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:
“(2) Upon its establishment, the Commission shall be charged with responsibility for undertaking an expedient wholesale review of the Electoral Act 1997, including, inter alia, the Act’s provisions relating to political funding.".
I will comment briefly on this section. I note that I think there is considerable detail. I do not know if we will get to the amendments on it. There are many technical issues in the amendments that have been brought forward around online disinformation, transparency in advertising and so forth, which I may seek to amend on Report Stage. I am concerned about whether the information around demonstrating who is purchasing and paying for advertisements will be visible enough. I am concerned as well about measures being brought forward in this Bill which we were told could not be brought forward in the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 because they relate to the EU services directive. All kinds of definitions which were ruled out of order in the context of that Bill are being brought forward here. I am very concerned at the lack of conversation about the fact that this Bill is failing to address the political purposes concerned, as highlighted already by my colleague, Senator Ruane. The Minister has acknowledged a fact and anomaly that the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, acknowledged as a major problem as recently as a couple of months ago. The failure to address that in this Bill has been used as a justification for allowing the same mistake to be made again in the brand new legislation that is the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022. I deplore the fact that there has been such a lack of communication between the two Departments on those matters.
I notice as I look through the amendments which are for debate on Committee Stage that the ones which are asterisked as being proposed by the Government, and which will come into being when the guillotine falls on this Bill, seem to number approximately 60. Without making any judgment about all of them, important amendments are being made to legislation which concerns everybody in this country. Some of them relate to very important issues, such as media manipulation and the use of social media. However, the Leader of this House stood up to propose, without any notice to the Opposition Whips, Leaders or anybody else, that a two-hour period was being provided for a discussion of all of the amendments, both Opposition and Government. It means that we are now in a position that even as planned, without the voting on the Order of Business, there was less than two minutes provided for many of the amendments.
I could call a vote on this section to express further disgust at what has been done to this House. I am not denying that this is urgent legislation which should be enacted quickly, but I see no reason an Order of Business should have been proposed to effectively guarantee that vast swathes of this legislation go through the Committee Stage without anybody having any opportunity to comment on it one way or the other, or to ask any questions about it. To do that is to trample on the democratic function of Seanad Éireann. It is unconstitutional, in concept, to bring in a series of Government amendments, fling them at us in this House and then say to us that at 2.45 p.m., they are all deemed to have been passed without one of them having been discussed. That is totally wrong.
One can sympathise with the notion of keeping Seanad Éireann in existence, but if a Government comes in here and uses a majority on the Order of Business to say that a vast number of amendments to our law will become part of the legislation that goes back to Dáil Éireann - where one can be absolutely certain the guillotine will be used - for rubber-stamping before that Chamber rises for the summer, these important parts of our electoral law will be just changed and amended with no real discussion or examination in either House. That is what this Government is doing. I protest it very strongly.
I could ask for a vote on this to waste a few more minutes and mark my sense of disgust and revulsion at what is being done to this important legislation. I could do it but I will not because I honour the Minister of State, whom I consider a decent man. I know he is trying to do his best. However, what is being done to this House, not merely by doing nothing about Seanad reform but by treating this House as if it is some kind of ATM into which the Government puts its card and gets out a Bill without anyone discussing the great majority of the amendments that it is putting before the House, is wrong and I protest it.
There is nothing to stop the electoral commission from making recommendations on any aspect of electoral law, including Seanad electoral law. The point was made by Senator Higgins that the possibility is there. Yes, it is tasked with quite an amount of work. We have already spent five and a half hours on this. We will have had seven and a half hours in total. I absolutely respect the points made by Senator McDowell but there has been considerable time given, quite rightly. At the last session, we discussed quite extensively the reduction of the voting age which is considerably important. There are young people in the Public Gallery this afternoon. It was quite right that we had such an extensive discussion. We have given extensive time to this. I agree with the Senator that it is vitally important.
Amendments Nos. 29 to 31, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 31, line 18, after "publish" to insert "in plain language".
Amendments Nos. 29 to 31, inclusive, are all amendments with regard to inclusion. It is important that we ensure we are expanding our democracy and expanding access to, awareness of and participation in our democracy. I should note that we have other amendments which I will bring forward on Report Stage and I hope to get to discuss today. They look to strengthen some of the measures in terms of gender equality in both representation and participation in electoral processes. Of course I strongly support the amendments put forward earlier in this debate with regard to voting at 16. As part of an expansion of the franchise, and given the immense significance of the decisions that are being made which affect their lives, young people should be supported to begin voting at 16.
These amendments address a few more specific issues in terms of access to and participation in information around referendums and elections. Amendment No. 29 is a plain language requirement which says that when the commission publishes information on materials about a referendum, there should be a plain language version of such information campaigns. Many people in the community can sometimes be dissuaded from engaging by complex or inaccessible language. If a decision affects people's lives, it should be communicated to them in plain English and in a way that is clear and understandable to them, in terms of access and inclusion.
Amendment No. 31 is similar. It proposes to delete the phrase, "as far as practicable", from the section of the Bill which provides "as far as practicable that the means employed enable those with a sight or hearing disability to read or hear the statements concerned". In fact, it is important that people have the right to hear and have access to these statements.
A limit of practicability is not appropriate in something so significant. It should be borne in mind that Irish Sign Language, for example, is a recognised language in this State and indeed Article 9 the UNCRPD refers to persons with a disability being able to participate fully in all aspects of public life, including electoral ones. Again, the baseline is full participation and not an aspiration towards participation and, therefore, amendment No. 31 is important.
Amendment No. 30 is minor in that sense. It simply clarifies material should be published, including by the use of television, radio and other electronic media to ensure again that we have as wide a reach as possible and that we are not just technically publishing information but are, in fact, seeking to ensure the information reaches as wide a swathe of the population as possible. Again, all these amendments are in the spirit of strengthening access to key information. It is also important to note that online measures are certainly not sufficient given Ireland has one of the highest rates of digital illiteracy in the EU, according to the Digital Economy and Society Index. That we have 40% of people in this State who do not necessarily have digital skills is something that gets forgotten. Having information online will not be sufficient for them and that is why they must be supported to ensure they can participate fully in decision-making and electoral processes via full access to information.
I again thank Senators Ruane, Higgins, Black and Flynn for these amendments and the sentiment behind them on improving accessibility and participation. It is important and something we all want to achieve. These amendments seek to amend existing provisions in order that, first, as part of an coimisiún's referendum functions, the statement it prepares and publishes to explain the subject matter of referendums be published in plain language; that is amendment No. 29. Second, amendment No. 30 proposes that print media be explicitly mentioned in the forms of media to which an coimisiún has regard to and the distribution of these statements. Third, amendment No. 31 proposes that the phrase "as far as practicable" be removed from the section's requirement that the means employed for the distribution of an coimisiún's statements explaining the subject matter of referendums enable those with a sight or hearing disability to read or hear the statements concerned.
On amendment No. 29, the matter of an coimisiún's public information material explaining referendums is an issue of best practice and an administrative matter for it rather than a matter to be addressed in primary legislation. Notwithstanding this, the referendum commissions from which this function is transferring have regard to a strong blueprint for ensuring the accessibility and ease of comprehension of such material. For example, in respect of previous referendums, versions of the referendum guide were produced in Braille, Irish Sign Language, video, audio, large print format and easy-to-read format for people with intellectual disabilities. I am confident these practices will be carried over and developed by an coimisiún toghcháin when it takes up its role.
Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 relate to the publication and distribution of an coimisiún's statements, which explain the subject matter of referendums, and are a direct transposition of section 3(1)(b) of the Referendum Act 1998. It is not proposed to accept the amendments as the general approach has been taken of avoiding the amendment of transposed legislation, save where necessary to take account of a transferring function or new organisational context, and the section as it stands provided that an coimisiún may publish and distribute statements relating to a referendum in such a manner and by such means, including the use of television, radio or other electronic media. As such, it is not limiting an coimisiún to particular formats. It provides flexibility for an coimisiún to publish statements by any forms of media it considers appropriate, and this includes print media.
It is not very clear to me why the Minister of State, if he agrees with the principle that information should be shared in these various formats we have outlined and expects that to happen, will not accept the amendments. The Bill has been amended by the Government and, therefore, it is going back to the Dáil. It is not clear to me why the amendments are not being accepted.
I am thinking in particular of amendment No. 31 because the legislation stating "as far as practicable" is a problem. That is not sufficient with respect to the UNCRPD. The fact the commission may exceed that and may indeed ensure everybody has access to the information in all the different ways is by the by. The fact is the Government is bound by the UNCRPD and its legislation, including this legislation, should reflect the convention. It is not simply enough for the Minister of State to pass the buck and say he is sure a future electoral commission will consider it. The fact is he has something in this legislation that simply says that kind of access should be as far as practicable rather than that kind of access to information being a right. Again, after we ratified the UNCRPD, the Government should not have legislation that equivocates about full participation and full access to information. It should not be in the legislation.
I am probably not going to press these now because I urge the Minister of State to think between today and tomorrow, review this, look back and ask why exactly these amendments are not being accepted. I do not see any good reason they would not be accepted and see a number of problems with the fact they are not being accepted. I will bring these back on Report Stage and will press them at that point.
In my response to the amendments there is a strong commitment that we are already going - I will not say above and beyond - strongly in ensuring inclusivity, including referendum guides around Braille, Irish Sign Language, audio, large print format and easy-to-read format for people with intellectual disabilities. Thus, we are already doing that. The referendum commission ethos in that regard will transfer to the electoral commission as well. Importantly, we have throughout this had strong engagement with various organisation, including the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, on accessibility and inclusion, especially at polling stations, etc. We, therefore, have a strong drive to ensure full inclusivity for all members of society. That is something I give my absolute commitment to as well.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to reintroduce.
I move amendment No. 30:
In page 31, line 20, after “of” to insert “print media such as newspapers,”.
I withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to reintroduce.
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 31, line 22, to delete “as far as practicable”.
I withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to reintroduce.
Amendments Nos. 32 to 34, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 42, lines 26 and 27, to delete all words from and including “(1) The” in line 26 down to and including line 27 and substitute the following:
“(1) The Registrar shall maintain the Register of Political Parties and shall cause it to be published on the Commission’s website.”.
I will speak to amendments Nos. 32 and 33. We very much welcome that a register of political parties will be established and maintained.
According to section 51, the registrar shall maintain the register of political parties and permit any person to inspect the register at such time and under such conditions as he or she may specify. This seems an unnecessarily restrictive and bureaucratic approach to the register of political parties. Part of the purpose of the Bill is to instil greater confidence among the public in our electoral processes and, by extension, our political system. In this context, having the register easily accessible and published on the website is a very simple and straightforward ask. It would be important in ensuring access to the register as opposed to something that may be permitted by the registrar at a point in time.
Amendment No. 33 seeks to extend the call to publish the register on the commission's website. It asks that details relating to individual parties also be published. These could include the constitution or written rules of a party. It is very simple and straightforward. Almost every political party has a constitution or set of rules. Publishing these would be important to bring greater transparency and increase confidence in, and understanding of, how parties operate. Most of us here are members of political parties. If we want people to join parties, this information should be freely accessible. It is freely accessible from some parties and less so from others. It is a very simple ask that we have the rules of a party published on the website. I ask the Minister of State to consider this amendment.
I support the two Labour Party amendments. They are very basic. This is about transparency and openness. Surely no one has a difficulty with this. The amendments are worthy of support. I would like to think the Minister of State has given them consideration. With no disrespect to the Minister of State, for any Minister to read a piece of paper and tell us something is not possible is not good parliamentary engagement. I am challenging the Minister of State on this. These are very obvious basic asks. I am sure the Minister of State will stand up with a pink or white note in his hand and read it. I ask him to dump it and tell us he has listened to the debate. The Minister of State is not here just to give messages from the public servants and I mean no disrespect to them. I know he is someone who thinks outside the box and I respect him for it. He cannot argue with these two very basic asks. I hope he will use his functions and the powers vested in him to support them.
I strongly support these amendments. In order to register as a political party it is necessary to come up with a constitution or memorandum. It has to be given to the registrar under this regime. It seems the public is entitled to know how a party is constituted. There are questions such as whether a certain class of membership has a veto over decisions. If a party is going to have a public profile, the public is entitled to see exactly who in it rules the roost and who elects its leader. People are entitled to know whether all votes in a party are the same. I do not need to elaborate. I believe there is no harm in allowing in that little bit of daylight. I have knowledge in a professional capacity and I will not elaborate any further-----
I would hope not. We have attorney-client confidentiality.
I have knowledge of litigation where nobody could get the rules of a particular political party. It might be closer to the Cathaoirleach’s home than to mine. Nobody could get the rules for the purposes of deciding the case. They could not go to the head office and obtain a copy of the rules. I know this situation has obtained for some time. It is bad enough for a member of the party not to be able to know the rules. If I am voting for a group of people who are organised in a particular way, surely I am entitled to know how they are organised and who calls the shots in the party.
Given that existing political parties will be deemed to be registered in any event, what we are doing is introducing a requirement that newly registered political parties will have to prove that the organisation and direction of the party are governed by a constitution, memorandum of association, other documents or written rules adopted by the party that provide for what is set out in section 44. Given this is the case, why can we not know? What possible reason could there be? If a party’s rules are changed, with different people in it having different powers, it should be made public. I cannot see any good reason it should not be done. No case can be made for privacy with regard to a party's rules.
Amendment No. 34 is in this group. It is a variation of amendment No. 32, with a slight change as it mentions an annual basis and an accessible format. If the Minister of State will not accept my amendment, I urge him to accept the amendments tabled by the Labour Party. They are both very reasonable and based on the same principle. The register of political parties should not have arcane knowledge for reference, for officials or for those who know how to exercise freedom of information requests. It should be a matter of public information. This is the public's decision-making process. It is about electoral processes. It should be public. Moreover, it should be accessible on the website.
With regard to the point made on a party’s constitution and memorandum of understanding, the Minister of State’s response will be a sign as to whether there is any willingness to engage. The amendment is so obviously clear and it is a good idea that the information would be made available. This is important for a number of reasons. It is important so that if a candidate from a party is presenting as a single issue candidate the public can look to the party’s constitution and see what its wider perspective might be. This is very important. We have been speaking about disinformation. We need to speak about information being clear and available.
On the other side, it is also very important because if people see the constitution and rules of a party and how it works, they might see themselves being involved in politics. They would be able to see some of the democracy in parties. They could imagine, for example, what they might be able to do or how they might be able to influence the party for change. This is also very important.
The electoral commission has a function in information and education, and later I will discuss amendments in this regard. There is a function for the electoral commission in civics, social and political education in our schools. Every classroom in Ireland should be able to look at the register of political parties, practise reading the rules and constitutions of the parties and gain an understanding of the decisions people might be making.
Amendment No. 33 is incredibly sensible. I urge the Minister of State to support it and to support either amendment No. 32 tabled by the Labour Party or my amendment No. 34 to ensure the register of political parties is published and made available to the public.
I thank the Senators for their contributions. Section 51 provides for transparency on the register of political parties and it will be open to the commission to publish it on its website.
Political parties have a responsibility to publish material about the party on their websites. It is something my party and, I am sure, all the established parties take seriously.
I assure the Minister of State that not every party does it.
The onus on and responsibility of political parties in that regard are critical in order that people who want to look up a political party or are interested in joining one are able to clearly see on the party's website its guiding principles, founding principles, etc. All political parties should adhere to that.
I thank Senators Moynihan, Hoey, Sherlock and Wall for the proposed amendments relating to the publication of the register of political parties. These amendments were previously tabled by Deputy Nash on Committee Stage in the Dáil. Currently, the maintenance of the register of political parties is the responsibility of the Clerk of the Dáil. In terms of the register being available for inspection, section 25C(2) of the Electoral Act 1992, as amended by section 11 the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, requires that the register be made available for inspection at the registrar's office. However, in practice, the registrar publishes it on the Oireachtas website.
When bringing existing electoral functions over to an coimisiún in this Bill, I have taken a general approach of endeavouring to bring them over intact. However, in this instance I have removed the 1992 Act stipulation that the register be made available for inspection at the offices of the registrar, making the text in section 51 of this Bill more general so that it does not contain an implication that the register is a physical document which must be inspected at the registrar's office. I am satisfied that this empowers an coimisiún to publish the register on its website, as intended in amendments Nos. 32 and 34.
In respect of amendment No. 33, while I support transparency in how political parties are governed, I am conscious of the burdens on an coimisiún in getting established and building up experience and organisational capacity. This is consistent with what we have been stated in response to a number of amendments. On balance, I am of the view that this is not the time to make a change to the content of the register. I do not propose to accept the amendments.
I have to say I am disappointed by that response. If a political party is organised on the basis that a small group of people effectively determine everything, even who can or cannot be a candidate, who can be selected or deselected, who can join the party or be booted out of the party, or whatever, the public is entitled to know that. The scheme of the legislation at present is that the public is not entitled to know that. The only person who is entitled to know what goes on within a party's rules is the registrar, who has to satisfy himself or herself that there is an annual conference and some kind of executive body elected by the members in whatever way the party chooses, which means there can be different classes of members electing. I have no problem with parties giving more weight to some people in some contexts, such as leadership votes, but the people are entitled to know that. If people are to be obliged to satisfy the registrar that they have rules for some purposes, I cannot see any reason that the public should not be able to see what the rules of a party are.
If the rules of a party were to change in a dramatically undemocratic direction so as to give one person, for example, the leader of a party or the chairman of its national executive of a party, the right to veto A, B and C or to decide who will or will not be candidates, or whatever, the public is entitled to know all of that. I plead with the Minister of State to take this matter seriously before Report Stage. If he has a quibble with the phraseology of the amendment, so be it. The principle is simple. A party has to come along with its rules to get registered. Presumably, there is something to be said for having a party that has amended its rules inform somebody that the rules under which it originally registered are no longer the rules. The public is entitled to know that.
I ask the Minister of State to reconsider this matter before Report Stage, allow the public to see exactly how every political party is organised, for example, whether there is an ard comhairle, a national executive or whatever, and let people work out where the power exists in any party.
As it is now 4.45 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an Order of the Seanad of this day: "That amendment No. 32 is hereby negatived in Committee; the Government amendments not disposed of, other than amendments Nos. 123, 124 and 125, are hereby made to the Bill; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, other than sections 155, 157 and 160 which are hereby deleted, the section or, as appropriate, the section as amended, is hereby agreed to in Committee; and the Title, as amended, is hereby agreed to in Committee."
- Ahearn, Garret.
- Ardagh, Catherine.
- Blaney, Niall.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Malcolm.
- Carrigy, Micheál.
- Chambers, Lisa.
- Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
- Conway, Martin.
- Crowe, Ollie.
- Cummins, John.
- Currie, Emer.
- Daly, Paul.
- Davitt, Aidan.
- Doherty, Regina.
- Dolan, Aisling.
- Fitzpatrick, Mary.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lombard, Tim.
- Martin, Vincent P.
- McGahon, John.
- McGreehan, Erin.
- Murphy, Eugene.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Seery Kearney, Mary.
- Boyhan, Victor.
- Boylan, Lynn.
- Craughwell, Gerard P.
- Flynn, Eileen.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Hoey, Annie.
- Keogan, Sharon.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Norris, David.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Ruane, Lynn.
- Sherlock, Marie.
- Warfield, Fintan.
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.