Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 23 November 2023
Select Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2023: Committee Stage
We are meeting to consider Committee Stage of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2023. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his officials to the meeting. We will now proceed with consideration of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, lines 26 and 27, to delete “Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage” and substitute “AnCoimisiún Toghcháin”.
I wrote to the Minister earlier this week to explain the rationale behind putting these amendments and I welcome the opportunity to do so. We entirely accept the report of the Electoral Commission. Our amendments are not aimed at the Schedule to the Bill, which gives effect to the recommendations of the commission, and, therefore, I just want to make that clear from the outset. We are not seeking to question the outcome of the deliberations of the commission.
Our amendments relate to process points. The first two amendments relate to section 3. Both are somewhat technical in nature but they are nonetheless quite important. I will go through them, but I am conscious that I have written to the Minister to outline the reasons for putting these down. We are doing this very much in a constructive spirit to seek to ensure that the Bill is sufficiently up to date and accurate in the language it uses.
On the amendment, section 3(2) provides that if any doubt arises as to the constituency in which an electoral division, townland or part of a division or townland is included, the doubt shall be determined by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I acknowledge this provision is a duplicate of others found in previous Acts that redrew constituency boundaries but, as I said in the letter, the previous Acts predated the establishment of a permanent and independent electoral commission, the establishment of which we completely agreed with and welcomed. Even when we had statutory boundary commissions previously, they were wound up as soon as they delivered their report. It made sense to have the Minister as the permanent arbiter of determining a doubt, but of course, that is no longer the case. Happily, the Electoral Commission is now established as a permanent body, and we believe it is the body best position to interpret its own report.
The amendment simply seeks to delete reference to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and to substitute An Coimisiún Toghcháin, the Electoral Commission, instead. As I have said, it is technical and seeks to update the legislation in a way we believe is appropriate.
I thank the Deputy for her amendment and for her letter which I read, and we responded to. As she outlined, it proposes to amend section 3(2) by replacing Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage with An Coimisiún Toghcháin.
It is a standard provision, as she said, and that has been inserted into constituency revision Bills going right back to 1923. It does provide a means of resolving disputes over which constituencies contain particular townlands or electoral divisions. The legislation is framed in such a way as to preclude any such doubt, but because neighbouring townlands or electoral divisions can have identical or similar names, that is where this arises from. The possibility of confusion cannot be ruled out 100%. While a Minister has never had to exercise his or her function under this section, it is nonetheless desirable to retain the provision in case a genuine doubt actually does arise.
The provision is for the removal of any doubt that might arise and it is not intended to provide for amending constituencies that are set out in the Schedule of the bill. That is why we have An Coimisiún Toghcháin. It is good and I know the Deputy is very supportive of the fact that we have now have the Electoral Commission on a statutory and permanent basis.
I recognise the fact that the amendment has been put forward in a very constructive manner and for good reason. However, the practical effect of the amendment would be to provide that An Coimisiún Toghcháin, rather than the Minister, would be the adjudicator if any doubt were to arise as to whether a particular electoral division or a part of that electoral division or a townland or anything contained within it, was included in a particular constituency.
I accept that it is well-intentioned and acknowledge that the establishment of the permanent independent Electoral Commission with statutory responsibility for constituency review changes the field in this matter. Nevertheless, I would make the case that there is still merit in the function being retained with the Minister for a number of reasons I will outline.
The Minister is responsible, and any Minister in the future will be responsible, for the development of policy and legislation in connection with the holding of elections. As Minister, I am the sponsor of this Bill. The retention of this function is consistent with the Minister's responsibilities on elections and electoral law more generally. An Coimisiún Toghcháin makes recommendations in respect of constituency boundaries and after that, it is a matter for the Minister to bring forward other potential legislative proposals for the consideration of the Oireachtas. It is very important that the Oireachtas still has and retains that role, just as we are doing right now, with this legislation.
Second, while the commission may be well placed to clarify any doubts related to a description of a constituency as set out in the Bill on the grounds that it mirrors the recommendations set out in the constituency review report, matters relating to the precise boundary of an electoral division or a townland may more accurately fall within the remit of Tailte Éireann.
This is if it ever arises, which it has not as of yet. In the unlikely event that a doubt may arise as to whether a particular electoral division or townland, or a part of one, is included in a particular constituency, the Minister in situwould consult all relevant bodies, including An Coimisiún Toghcháin, and including Tailte Éireann if we needed to get into detailed mapping exercises, in advance of making a determination on the matter. It is for these reasons, while recognising the intention of the amendment, that I cannot accept it.
I thank the Minister for setting out in detail the reasons for his decision not to accept the amendment. In the circumstances I will withdraw it but I reserve the right to come back on Report Stage. We would like to take a little bit of time to look over these reasons and then consider whether we will resubmit the amendment on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following: "(3) An Coimisiún Toghcháinshall conduct research and, within 18 months of the passing of this Act, make such recommendations as it considers appropriate to Dáil Éireann on—(a) an appropriate reconstitution of electoral divisions in the State in accordance with objective criteria that take into account the size and distribution of the population, andfor the purpose of defining and revising Dáil constituencies and local electoral areas.".
(b) discontinuance of the use of former rural districts,
This amendment could be described as technical, albeit it has a somewhat more substantial point than amendment No. 1. It is tabled in a constructive spirit to ensure the legislation will be up to date and fit for purpose. In this regard we believe it is anomalous that, like its predecessors, the newly established commission will still do its work by reassigning electoral divisions and former rural districts between constituencies. It is somewhat amusing to see in section 1 that reference to "a former rural district" is still there. Rural districts were abolished almost 100 years ago in 1925 with the abolition of rural district councils. Since they no longer exist, they cannot be redrawn to reflect current realities. They have a ghostly presence as building blocks in constituency definitions but they are ghosts.
We are simply looking to update the provision. We propose the commission should carry out research and report on its recommendations on the reconstitution of electoral divisions, in accordance with standard and objective criteria that reflect not only the current population but the reality that these ghost entities are no longer in use. I have given the Minister a more detailed explanation for tabling the amendment in my letter and I am happy to go into the poor law system of the 1830s and the history behind it.
I will resist the temptation. The point is that this is very welcome. We have updated our electoral system and machinery for running elections through the establishment of a new permanent commission. We must also make sure that the rules and legislative provisions the Electoral Commission will implement are also up-to-date and fit for purpose. This is a matter of tidying up but it is an important point. The Electoral Act should be fit for purpose. This is one way we could help to achieve this aim.
I thank Deputy Bacik. I note the intention of the amendment, which is a little more prescriptive than the other amendments. I will detail in my response the reasons I will not accept it. However, I suggest that there is a way forward with it. Deputy Bacik has outlined what she wants to do. Included in the amendment is a request that An Coimisiún Toghcháin undertake detailed research within a period of 18 months from the enactment of the Bill on the reconstitution of electoral divisions. Essentially, the amendment proposed would require the Electoral Commission to carry out a particular piece of research. I do not think this is a problem per se.
Research will be a very important function of the commission. Members are aware that earlier this month, on 9 November, An Coimisiún Toghcháin published its draft research programme for 2024 to 2026. It has set out a number of items for research and I will give some examples, including some that caused a lot of debate in the Dáil on Second Stage. The items for research include the use of posters, the reduction of the voting age, by-elections, the 1997 Electoral Act review dealing with political donations and expenditure and other such important matters, the number of TDs and the 18-month rule. The Electoral Commission has published its draft research plan and it has gone out for public consultation. It has invited all interested parties to make submissions and suggest any additional research project that might be considered important to promote and enhance our democracy and further streamline what the Electoral Commission will do. The deadline for submissions is 12 January 2024. There is ample time for the sensible suggestion that Deputy Bacik has brought forward to be included in this body of research.
The one objection I have to being prescriptive about asking the Electoral Commission to do specific research is that we have not reached into its research function. It has published its draft programme. It would be appropriate for Deputy Bacik, as the leader of the Labour Party and a TD, and anyone else who is interested, to make a submission to the Electoral Commission between now and 12 January 2024 on proposals to be included in its research programme.
There are other areas that people may want researched. I do not think it appropriate that they would sit in the Act itself. Research will be a very important function of An Coimisiún Toghcháin anyway. In light of the public consultation process under way, and the fact that I expect An Coimisiún Toghcháin will consult the committee and continue to engage with it and Members of the House, it is not necessary to legislate for it. The research function is there and it can be included in this. While I understand completely where Deputy Bacik is coming from, and I understand the logic behind the amendment, it is not appropriate to include it in the primary legislation in a constituencies Bill that will become a constituencies Act. It would be much more appropriate to do it as part of the research.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. That is good to know. I also thank the Minister for his response. I will withdraw the amendment in the circumstances and reserve the right to come back on Report Stage.
I very much welcomed the research programme. On Second Stage, I stated that I and my party certainly intend to make a submission. We will raise issues on obsolete or anomalous definitions and phrases used. The issue of using up-to-date language is sufficiently important that it might have been the subject of a more specific provision. It does not need to be by way of research and reporting. It could have been dealt with in another way through the legislation. Amendment No. 3 also relates to research and reporting but it is of slightly different import.
I reserve the right on Report Stage to table an amendment on another matter that An Coimisiún Toghcháin should look at. This is the practice of publishing postal addresses on ballot papers. This is an issue that has been debated previously. Many of us have raised concerns about it. I am a member of the task force on safety in political life chaired by Nóirín O'Sullivan. As colleagues are aware, we have met over a number of weeks. This issue is often raised, particularly by prospective candidates who are fearful about having publicity about their home addresses. It has also been raised as an issue in other jurisdictions. For women candidates in particular, there is certainly a perception that it contributes to a lack of safety and security in the home. There may be other particular reasons that people do not want their home addresses published. Clearly people are at a disadvantage if they do not do so in the current system and, therefore, it would be better to have a rule about it. I would like to table an amendment on Report Stage on this.
This is a very important and serious area. I know it has caused many issues and concerns for people who have run for public office and who have considered running for public office and decided against it on safety grounds. All sorts of things have happened, such as people being stalked, as a result of information being publicly available. It is a particular issue in terms of trying to encourage more women to run. I ask the Minister to look at changing this. There may have been good reasons to have it in the past but I do not see why it is necessary to have it now with regard to people's safety.
We have not got to amendment No. 3 yet.
I have a lot of sympathy for the point Deputies O'Callaghan and Bacik raised. There are other issues. If one goes to Google Maps one will see a pin with pretty much every TD or Senator on the Internet. I have seen it. People know where we live and I get that, but some elements of society exploit this. We have seen more protests at the houses of TDs, Senators and indeed councillors. Families are not involved in politics. They do not run for elected office. We are all well able to take criticism, constructive or otherwise. I have sympathy for the point the Deputies raised. It would be useful to raise it with the commission as well. I am happy to assess it further. Mr. Ryan was just saying to me that people may use constituency office addresses, which I knew, but not everyone has a constituency office. Do we look at using local authority offices? There seems to be a very Dublin Fingal-weighted interest in the proceedings this afternoon, but we could take Deputy Mitchell in Dublin as example. Should the closest local authority office to a Member be appropriate for an address? I get the issue, I really do. It has become much more in focus and we have all seen quite serious issues that TDs and prospective TDs have had to endure. We are used to it, in the main, although that does not make it right. However, families and others are not standing for elected office and these are their homes too, so I get it. I do not have the answer for that yet, Chair.
Is Deputy Bacik going to bring something back on Report Stage? It might be something for the commission to do a piece of research on, with a focus on alternatives. Professions still require it and I remember all those types of things. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, it harks back to a time in the past as well. I will leave my comments on it at that for the moment.
I thank the committee for letting me speak to the issue. I missed the deadline to submit an amendment for this Stage, but it is my intention to bring one forward on Report Stage about the naming of the two new constituencies born out of Dublin Fingal, namely, Dublin Fingal west and Dublin Fingal east. Dublin Fingal west is hugely problematic. No point on the compass would accurately reflect that constituency. It is heavily weighted with towns on the east coast such as Skerries, Balbriggan, Rush and Lusk, but if we go down to towns new to the constituency like Santry and Northwood, as well as Meakstown and Finglas, which I represented as a councillor, the constituency name will make very little sense. It is a problem. Dublin Fingal east is the constituency I, and probably the other two Deputies here, hope to run in. That name probably makes more sense and I would be happy to leave that. Deputy Farrell might have a different idea, but I believe Dublin Fingal west should remain as Dublin Fingal to have that Fingal identity of the north county. It would take in everywhere and then we would not have that problem. We need to ensure all areas feel connected to their constituency. They feel connected to Dublin Fingal, so we should keep it. For the new constituency, we can keep the name Dublin Fingal east or rename it Dublin Fingal central. I am interested in the views of the Minister and Deputy Farrell on this. Would they be open to some change in name? Those who have seen it have laughed at it and asked whether it is north or south, because it is definitely not west. It needs a change.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address this. This is pretty minor in the scheme of things, but like Deputy Smith, there is a certain identification which I think is important for any constituency. As the Minister knows well, having experienced the division of the constituency we share a number of years ago, especially Swords-River Valley out to Dublin West, the name of a constituency and its makeup means something to people and especially to the communities.
The precedent I am proposing in my position is that I reserve the right to bring an amendment on Report Stage of this Bill because the names chosen, as Deputy Smith correctly outlined, are somewhat peculiar in the case of Dublin Fingal west, in that Santry is in the south of Fingal, Balbriggan is in the north of Fingal and neither is to the west of Fingal. I understand the commission's logic, which makes sense except for a further consideration, namely, north Dublin and Fingal is the fastest-growing community in Europe for the last four censuses in a row, or 20 years. I see no reason that is going to change. Dublin West, as we know, is about 70% in Fingal and the balance is in Dublin City Council's jurisdiction, but as that growth continues it is likely the latter's area within the constituency will ultimately be excluded. If it is, we have just taken the name Dublin Fingal west and the area I mentioned cannot be rebranded. It also curtails the options for Dublin West in particular as it continues to grow.
We might be a couple of censuses away from having to make such choices, but as Deputy Smith has outlined, holding on to the name Dublin Fingal might be problematic in terms of an individual's identification. For instance, the people of Malahide and Swords might still think they are in Dublin Fingal when in fact they are not. That takes time to work its way through. Undoubtedly, every member in this room has received emails from people from other constituencies. It is a very regular thing for people living on the north side to think they are in Fingal and we get the emails. What I am proposing is rather simple. Dublin Fingal east is appropriately named as it is to the east of Fingal, but Dublin Fingal west should be changed to Fingal north central. The reason I am naming it that is that it is to the north but in the central point of Fingal as an administrative county. It also leaves space for any future division and names of other constituencies. Again, I give the Cathaoirleach notice I wish to reserve the right to table an amendment on Report Stage. In this case, it is to drop the name "Dublin" from the two constituencies. I do so because I do not think anybody is in any doubt as to where Fingal is in the county of Dublin. If we apply the logic in reverse to the south of the county, we do not see "Dún Laoghaire" or "South Dublin" prefixing any of the constituency names. In the case of Fingal it is readily identifiable. I have written to the Minister, as he knows. I have received an acknowledgement but not a substantive response and therefore I wish to provide the time necessary for him and his Department to give this proper consideration. I believe the deadline for amendments is this evening and for Report Stage amendments it is this time next week. If that is the case I hope to have the opportunity for the Minister to consider his thoughts on the issue.
As a final point, if precedent is a consideration for changing a commission's report, which I have no intention of changing save for a name, by means of two words in two amendments, I understand it has happened before. I understand amendments have been made in the past to names and, therefore, it is not that big of a deal. I hope the committee will give that due consideration.
Yes. I will be very brief on it. Obviously, Deputies Smith, Farrell and I share a constituency. I am also acutely aware I am the Minister responsible for this legislation and since boundary reports were published and brought forward as proposals, since 1980 there have been no changes to the report itself, while recognising the points the Deputies have made. There may have been amendments tabled, but they were never accepted and passed.
There is an established practice around the acceptance of a boundary report in full and that includes its name.
Deputy Farrell has put forward a very cogent argument for what the name should be and Deputy Smith has done likewise. The names suggested, even by the two Deputies, differ so how do we adjudicate on that? Names are important. I know that all of us, and as a TD for the area, trust our electorate to understand and get used to the new constituencies. There are changes, particularly the boundaries. We see it in Dublin city where the line will be in Clongriffin and Balgriffin, which will take people some time to get used to.
I will be very straight and say that I am not inclined to accept an amendment in this space. My Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is actually responding today in detail to the Deputy's letter, and I do appreciate that. The matter could be raised with the commission next week insofar as feedback on the naming is concerned. There have been discussions on previous names. I know there were discussions about the name of Dublin Bay South and I recall there was discussions on previous boundaries. Deputy Bacik has said that there were discussions around that and people were unhappy with the name as they thought the name made it sound like a radio station.
I do remember that being mentioned. The name was not changed at the time while it was debated but my officials will double-check in advance of Report Stage. Obviously Deputies retain the right to submit further amendments but I want to be very open with the committee that I am not inclined to accept any on the changing of names even be that a name and it might put the onus on the three of us, as Deputies, in that constituency, which was Dublin Fingal and will now be "Dublin Fingal "East" and "Dublin Fingal West", to ensure that our constituents are clear where they are, post the passing of this legislation and what the new constituency will be. I respect the points made and the right of Deputies to table further amendments but I will not be inclined to accept them.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, after line 30, to insert the following:
“Research on revision of Dáil constituencies
5.In relation to the revision of Dáil constituencies, An Coimisiún Toghcháin shall within 24 months of the passing of this Act, conduct research and make such recommendations as it considers appropriate to Dáil Éireann on— (a) the abolition of constituencies returning three members, and
(b) the specification for an indeterminate period of the number of members of which Dáil Éireann is to be composed and of the constituencies to be represented by the members, while varying from time to time the number of members to be elected for each such constituency having regard to changes in the distribution of the population throughout the State.”.
The need for my amendment is illustrated by the previous conversation. For the record, I was not happy with the name change from Dublin South-East to Dublin Bay South nor were a lot of the constituents who I represent now.
In seriousness, the purpose of my amendment calls on the coimisiún to conduct research and make such recommendations on two specific issues. The first is the precise point about the chopping and changing of names. The second is the different names and different boundaries of constituencies over the years. My amendment wants us to move away from that for the future and move us to a new system, as outlined by Professor Michael Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin in his excellent article published in The Irish Timespublished on 6 September. In response to the commission's report he wrote that a preferable approach, in his view and I think he is right, would be to have fixed boundaries. As one can see from looking at the Schedule, the constituency of Laois is the county of Laois, and the constituency of Kerry is the county of Kerry. So there is no difficulty for the people living in those constituencies and they are represented by public representatives who represent the county. So a fixed boundary, with the number of members to be elected for each constituency to be changed from time to time to align with changes in the democratic distribution of population, would make far more sense from a democratic perspective. I will not labour the point but Professor Gallagher spoke very persuasively and eloquently about the more democratic effect of having fixed boundaries, ideally along county lines, and one would then do away with this issue of changing names and shifting individual communities in and out of particular constituencies. It makes sense and we call on the coimisiún to undertake research and report on this.
My amendment refers to a second issue, which again is inspired by Professor Gallagher's article, and asked that we look at the abolition of constituencies which return only three Members. There was a very strong argument for moving to larger numbers per constituency, again it was made in Michael Gallagher's article, that this more accurately reflects people's preferences in a PR-STV system. I set this out in more detail in my speech on Second Stage. Again, I will not labour the point but I know that the Minister will respond by saying that of course the commission can undertake this research. Obviously we will submit to the commission that it would research this. We do think this is an important enough issue of future-proofing related both to how one determines constituency boundaries and the number of representatives per constituency. We think that is important enough to place within the legislation.
Speaking as a TD in a constituency that has gone now from a five-seater to a three-seater I understand what has been said by the Deputy. Leaving my own views aside, I am not proposing to accept the amendment but appreciate what has been put forward. There is a difference between this amendment versus the previous one because the commission has clearly detailed that this is an area that it is going to look at.
I welcome, particularly as, thankfully, the population of the country is growing and will see future changes. We got to look at how many TDs and do we continue to grow that with the ratio, and that is set out in Bunreacht na hÉireann, how do we do that and manage an ever growing population. This is something that I know all of us in this room welcome. It is trying to provide certainty as best as possible and the commission will look, into the future, at future-proofing and at what would be the best way to do that.
The Deputy mentioned earlier that she will engage, as I know will others, on the research element the commission is doing.
The commission has set out specifically that it intends to carry out research into the issue of representation and the manner in which the overall number of TDs is determined, as I have mentioned, in the context of a rising population. For next week, with the commission coming in, I am certain this will be a matter that members of this committee and the TDs who are coming in to speak at it will raise with the commission. The issue is specifically mentioned in the commission's research programme, which I welcome because it is an area that needs and deserves to be looked at very closely and to come back with potential alternatives or potential changes. In the light of that, I will not be accepting this amendment at this Stage but it is a very important matter that needs to be looked at and I am glad the commission has specifically highlighted this issue as a point to look at.
I seek a clarification. Deputy Bacik's amendment talks about the abolition of constituencies returning three Members. The commission's hands are tied in that sense, in terms of the existing legislation. Is it the Minister's understanding of the research the commission is doing that the commission is not tied by the existing legislation and that everything is on the table or is it otherwise?
The Deputy has asked a good question. The commission has issued its draft research programme for people to feed into. We are not restricting the commission. It has set out its work programme. A view has been articulated here and in the House as to what people's views are, particularly in light of an ever growing population. The commission is going to look at this specific matter. Its jobs is to then come back with proposals and potential recommendations that would, rightly, come back to the Oireachtas and this Government or a future Government for assessment. The commission is not restricted in its research.
To clarify, they do not have to. If one looks at the other areas the commission is looking at, the Electoral Act is not prescriptive in the other areas that they are looking at either. So we are not restricting them in any way. This is an area that does need to be looked at, in my view, and I say that as a Minister and as a Teachta Dála in the House. This matter needs to be looked at. They are going to look at it and will come back with their views. Following the public consultation that goes into it, I assume that any recommendations would be brought back to this committee when that piece of research is done. No, Deputy, the commission is not restricted.
I thank Members for their engagement today. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill gives effect to recommendations of the Electoral Commission in respect of the total membership of the next Dáil. The Bill does not provide, at this stage, for revisions to the European Parliament constituencies. During the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, I indicated that amendments to the Bill would be required in respect of the constituencies for the European Parliament elections following the European Council decision of 22 September, which gives an additional seat to the Republic of Ireland, bringing the total to 14. As Members will be aware, the Electoral Commission published its European Parliament constituencies report last Monday and has recommended a three-constituency configuration, with Dublin unchanged as a four-seater and with the South constituency to retain five seats but to transfer the counties of Laois and Offaly to the Midlands-North-West constituency which, with the addition of those two counties, will increase by one seat to five. I am proposing to bring forward amendments which provide for the revised European Parliament constituencies, as recommended by An Coimisiún Toghcháin on Report Stage. The coimisiún has also confirmed to me that there was a technical drafting error in the description of the Cork South-Central constituency in its report published in August. In that context, I will be bringing forward a technical amendment to correct a drafting error on Report Stage. I just wanted to let members and the Cathaoirleach know that I will be bringing forward those two amendments on Report Stage.