Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements

 

1:50 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Dáil this afternoon about the report of the implementation group on Seanad reform. I had the opportunity to similarly address the Seanad on 24 September last and to listen to the views of Senators on the report. It was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion and I have no doubt Members in this House would also like to get their views on the record about this report. I repeat my acknowledgement of and thanks for the work that has gone into the preparation of the report and the accompanying Bill by the 23 members of the group. I also again thank Senator Michael McDowell for chairing the group.

Before I comment on the report, I will give a quick reminder of the background and context that have brought us to this point. First, the Government is committed to Seanad reform. In order to progress that commitment, an independent working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, was established in December 2014. The principal focus of that group was on possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system and the manner in which it carries out its business within the existing constitutional parameters.

The group published its report, known as the Manning report, in 2015, together with an accompanying Bill. The key electoral reform recommendations in the Manning report were as follows: that the majority of Seanad seats would be elected by popular vote in a "one person, one vote" system; that this principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers; and a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation.

A conservative estimate of the electorate under these arrangements is some 5.3 million people. Since the publication of the Manning report, the Seanad has had a number of opportunities to discuss Seanad reform, including statements on the Manning report in July 2015. A further opportunity arose in June 2016, when Senator McDowell, with a number of other Senators, introduced the Seanad Bill 2016, a Private Members' Bill based on that prepared by the Manning group. However, it was apparent during the course of those discussions that while we had consensus on the need for change, we still did not have broad consensus on the detail of that change.

Against that background, and with the agreement of all sides in the Seanad, the Seanad reform implementation group, chaired by Senator McDowell, was established. Its main terms of reference were to consider how to implement the recommendations of the Manning report and whether any variations to those recommendations were needed. The group was also asked to provide the text of a Bill to implement its proposals. One of the features of the report is the lack of consensus among the group. The report sets out different statements of position from members of the group who had dissenting views. These range from re-examining the constitutional provisions in regard to the Seanad, with the aim of achieving more meaningful reform, to having an electorate composed only of residents in the State.

Today's statements arise from the Government's consideration of the report and its wish to reflect on the position of the Oireachtas before taking any further steps. Therefore, I am here very much to listen to the views of Members on Seanad reform.

The group has not proposed any change to the widening of the electorate at Seanad elections from what was recommended in the Manning report. The proposal to widen the electorate includes extending the franchise at Seanad elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport. The Government is proposing to hold a referendum to extend the franchise to citizens outside the State for presidential elections, and the relevant constitutional amendment Bill was published recently. That referendum could serve as a useful barometer of the views of our existing electorate for extending the franchise in this way. My view is that we should await the outcome of that referendum before proceeding with extending the franchise for Seanad elections.

Turning now to the variations to the Manning recommendations proposed by the implementation group, the first of these is a proposed change to the number of Seanad Members who would be elected by the public. The group now proposes that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected from the five vocational panels, whereas Manning had recommended 36. The group also proposes that 15 seats be elected from an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and elected county and city councillors. This is two more than the 13 seats recommended in Manning.

I am interested in the views of Deputies on the vocational panels, and there was a divergence of views in the most recent Seanad debate on this issue. Is changing the number to be elected by the public and by elected Members, as proposed, satisfactory? Are there more fundamental questions to be asked, for example, whether the panel structure, which was introduced with the Constitution in the late 1930s, is fit for purpose? Do the proposed reforms of the panel system go far enough?

I note that the implementation group supports the proposal in the Manning Bill for a single six-seat university constituency, the franchise for which would be extended to other institutions of higher education apart from the National University of Ireland and Dublin University. This would give effect to the 1979 referendum on this point. However, I also note with interest that the group did not have a consensus on this proposal. An alternative proposal was recommended by some members of the group to divide the university constituency into three sub-panels, each of which would elect two Members. Again, I am interested to hear the Deputies' views on that point.

The implementation group proposes to depart from the Manning recommendation concerning the downloading of ballot papers by voters. This recommendation removes existing doubts around the integrity of Seanad elections being compromised by the use of Internet or other technology. My own view is that I agree with the implementation group on this point and I agree with the report where it concludes that we should tread carefully in the harnessing of technology in the context of the electoral process.

As I mentioned, under the Manning proposals, a conservative estimate of the number of persons who would be entitled to register and vote in Seanad elections is some 5.3 million. This figure is based on estimated numbers prepared by my Department in its publication, "Voting at presidential elections by citizens resident outside the State", which examines options for extending the franchise to citizens outside the State at a presidential election. The implementation group does not propose any change to the electorate for Seanad elections proposed in the Manning report, so we are broadly looking at the same numbers. There is no doubt about the operational and logistical challenges in dealing with such a large number of postal ballots, so careful planning and adequate resources would be needed. It is also worth restating that widening the franchise for Seanad elections in this way means that the franchise in the State for Seanad elections would be wider than it is for Dáil elections.

The implementation group upholds the Manning recommendation that a separate register of Seanad electors should be established and maintained by a new Seanad electoral commission. However, we estimate that nearly two thirds of those who would be entitled to be on the Seanad register are already on the register of electors maintained by local authorities. The group puts forward the argument that having a separate register that requires voters to voluntarily apply for inclusion on the Seanad electoral register would mean that the register would largely be populated by members of the electorate who have demonstrated an interest in participating in Seanad elections. This, the group argues, would reduce costs and limit the potential for voter fraud because there would be fewer unwanted or unused ballot papers in circulation. The group anticipates that, under these arrangements, rather than there being a rush to register, the growth of the register would take place gradually. The group also anticipates that the number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as those living outside the State, who would exercise their right to register would be much lower than the total number entitled to register. However, I am not entirely convinced by that argument as it is quite likely that the uptake to register at a Seanad election could be very high in Northern Ireland, and the same could be said for Irish citizens resident in the State. I believe it is important that we design a system of electoral reform that accommodates the full potential electorate, rather than some anticipated reduced uptake of registered electors.

I am also not convinced that having parallel registers, one for Seanad elections and one for all other elections, is the right approach, particularly in light of the work which is well advanced in the Department to overhaul and modernise the register of electors. This is something that would require very careful examination.

In regard to the establishment of a Seanad electoral commission, this was originally proposed as an interim measure pending the establishment of an electoral commission. However, work is well under way in my Department to prepare the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill. An electoral commission will, therefore, be up and running sooner than previously thought, which means a Seanad electoral commission may not, and I believe would not, be necessary.

There are a number of other Seanad electoral reform proposals that still need to teased out more fully, and I will touch on one or two of these. For example, it is proposed that when applying for inclusion on the register of electors, a voter would choose the constituency in which he or she would vote at Seanad elections. This could give rise to some constituencies having significantly more voters relative to others and relative to their respective numbers of seats.

As far as I can see, the implementation group's Bill does not make any provision for balancing constituencies. How can this be achieved in a practical and manageable way? I also note that there is provision in the text of the implementation group's Bill to place a limit on the period a person has been resident outside of the State in order to qualify to be registered at a Seanad election. This would certainly limit the overall number of electors based overseas. Obvious questions need to be addressed. What period do we think would be fair? How would it work in practice? For example, how would we know for sure how long a person has been resident outside of the State? Again, these issues need further consideration.

There is no doubt but that a reformed Seanad electoral system as proposed would involve significantly increased costs. I welcome the suggestions made by the implementation group to minimise costs where possible. These include the use of ordinary post rather than registered or prepaid post and the combined candidate election literature rather than separate items of literature for each candidate. We must bear in mind, however, that ballot papers and combined election literature would need to be sent to a significantly higher number of electors than is currently the case, so the costs would inevitably be significantly higher than at present.

The Manning report recommends a number of non-statutory reforms to the way in which the Seanad conducts its business. These could be implemented by the Seanad at any point, and the Seanad could consider doing so at the earliest opportunity. Examples of such reforms include arrangements for Seanad scrutiny of reports from committees dealing with EU matters; debates on committee reports on EU matters being opened and closed by a Chairman or rapporteur or any member of the relevant committee nominated for that purpose; and regular scheduling of committee reports to improve the effectiveness of the House as well as the level of attention given to this work.

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