Wednesday, 11 May 2005
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).
Sometimes it is unsatisfactory when the Second Stage debate on a Bill is interrupted by an interval of a number of weeks. However, when the debate adjourned, I was discussing the provisions for updating the electoral register. While there is a provision for adding names to the register up to 14 days before an election, I submit that a similar provision allowing for the removal of names from a register up to 14 days before an election should be included. Frequently, the fact that large numbers of people do not live at the registered addresses is only noticed when candidates call to canvass those areas during an election. I submit that a provision should be included to permit removing such people from the register up to 14 days before the election. It should be as easy to remove a person from the register as it is to add one to the register. Perhaps a temptation exists for parties or unscrupulous people to attempt to impersonate and use the votes of people who are registered but not living at a particular address or locality.
I am aware a provision now exists to enable the presiding officer to check people periodically for identification. I believe the recommendation is that every tenth, 12th, 15th or 20th person should be checked for identification. However, even that is not satisfactory and can be carried too far. For example, during the recent Údarás na Gaeltachta elections in the Galway West constituency, a presiding officer checked every voter for identification which greatly slowed the process. He was not from the area and I believe he had very little Irish. Even the parish priest was checked for identification when he came in to vote. The parish priest told him with his tongue in his cheek that while everyone in the locality knew the priest, no one knew the presiding officer. Possibly that particular presiding officer carried his duties beyond what was required.
I note that section 6 deals with election expenses and what candidates are permitted to spend during an election. I also note that following the review of this area, there are now a number of points on which outgoing candidates will have extra advantages over new candidates. For example, postage and any secretarial usage will no longer be included. The amount candidates are permitted to spend in elections is already far too great. I understand that this change came about because a potential difficulty arose regarding the definition of an election expense at a European election following the enactment of section 33 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004. Section 33 of the 2004 Act provides for the deletion of paragraph 2(a) of the Schedule of the Electoral Acts. This will now debar free postal services provided by An Post, free services provided by an individual, a service provided by an employee of a political party and normal media coverage from being counted as expenses to European election candidates. I presume the same will now apply to Dáil candidates.
I do not know the situation regarding possible restrictions on candidates' expenditure before a general election is called. In several cases, campaigns become ongoing activities once half the Dáil term is over and candidates continue to spend money on advertisements and various other matters before a general election is called. Is there any restriction on the amount of money that can be spent before a general election is called?
Moreover, is there any restriction on the use of Ministers in an election? I was intrigued by the passing of the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill in this House a short time ago and listened attentively to the debate. One would think that butter would not melt in the mouth of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, as he defended transferring the responsibility for making disbursements from the fund from the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board to the relevant Minister and outlined all the safeguards included in the new Bill. I have experienced a practice which is certainly undemocratic and which could be called election spending. The lowest level of election we had recently in my constituency was for Údarás na Gaeltachta. The Minister for Finance arrived in the constituency the night before the election and toured a number of places in the constituency, accompanied by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. They called into small halls and various other places and made a variety of promises regarding funding for facilities, such as €50,000 for a group water scheme, €500,000 for pitches and more money for roads. This took place after a day's worth of canvassing by the Minister for Finance on behalf of the Fianna Fáil candidates. This type of behaviour is undemocratic because the resources of the State — taxpayers' money — including a State car, should not be used for partisan political purposes. It should be classed as election expenditure rather than the amount a candidate might spend in the election.
I have received representations from the Save Leitrim campaign about this Bill. The campaign group wished to meet the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. I advised the campaign group, whose aims I agree with because I do not agree with dividing up the county of Leitrim, which has the lowest county population in the country, between Roscommon and Sligo, that it would be better to talk to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I heard Deputy Ellis argue in this House against the division of Leitrim. The solution is in his own hands; he should vote against this Bill as a native of Leitrim who passionately believes that the county should be left wholly in one constituency. I advised the Save Leitrim campaign that it could steer its campaign in that direction. At least, Deputy Ellis should table amendments and vote for an amendment that would leave Leitrim in one piece. It is a certainty that once the report of the commission on the revision of constituencies is received, the Government parties will pass it.
Another matter to which I would like to refer is electronic voting. It has gone off the agenda but the problems it poses have not gone away because the machines are still being stored at considerable expense to the State. The cost of their storage is apparently highest in the constituency of the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Martin Cullen, who attempted to introduce electronic voting.
I was a member of the Committee on the Environment and Local Government when it dealt with the issue of electronic voting. We pleaded with the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to listen to the case being put against electronic voting. I will give the House an example of the arrogance shown by the Minister in his dealings with the committee on that issue. In early December 2003, the committee expressed reservations about the Minister's haste in proceeding with electronic voting in the absence of necessary checks and balances. All the committee wanted was the safeguard of a printed, paper trail account of the vote. We were not opposed to electronic voting but we objected to the Minister's plans for the same reason that the wider public objected to them. When Progressive Democrats Members saw that public opinion was against electronic voting, they persuaded the Government to set up the commission which eventually prevented the Government from proceeding with electronic voting.
At that meeting on 18 December 2003, the early part of the meeting was taken up with testimony from experts on both sides, including the manufacturers of the electronic voting machines, officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and computer experts from NUI Maynooth who argued against electronic voting and produced 40 questions about it to which they wanted answers. A constructive debate took place in the morning and the committee returned in the afternoon expecting to receive answers to the questions. However, the Minister had obviously listened to the debate because, when the committee resumed, the Fianna Fáil members proposed that we proceed with electronic voting. Without any debate or answers to the 40 questions, the committee passed the proposal that electronic voting be introduced.
The contract was signed as early as 19 December 2003 and I discovered under the Freedom of Information Act that €20 million worth of electronic voting machines had already been bought and were in the country. The Minister, for whatever reason and I suspect the worst kind, was determined to introduce electronic voting. As I suggested in last night's debate on health, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should put the machines up for sale, take the best price he can get if he can get anyone to buy €50 million worth of machines, and spend the proceeds on the health service or another useful area.
I appreciate that the Bill is short and deals with a few specific issues regarding constituencies, the number of Deputies to be elected and some issues regarding election expenses. Deputies have an opportunity to expand the debate and raise some relevant issues regarding how elections are run from the point of view of checking the register, accountability after an election and the work of Members of the Oireachtas. While I know that, in the content of this Bill, we are speaking in terms of 166 Deputies, I wondered at the time of the passing of the legislation to end the dual mandate how long that number would remain at 166. My belief at the time and which I still hold is that over the next few years, in the context of the reform of this House, which is badly needed, we will witness a reduction in the number of Deputies. While that would not be a very popular choice for those in this House, it appears to be the natural follow-on from the ending of the dual mandate. I do not think this is a correct direction to take but it is one that perhaps is in the minds of people, other than and not including public representatives, who formulate legislation and who direct matters.
The issue in the Bill which affects Deputies is the definition of constituencies. While I know that Leitrim is affected, I come from a constituency that has been affected by the carve-up of constituencies over a long number of years and many elections. The part of Carlow that consists of Hacketstown, Rathnure and Rathvilly is constantly sectioned off to a neighbouring constituency. I know the deep feeling in the communities affected that they are not part of the county and constituency of Carlow and are part of another constituency. People have many concerns about this. While I know that it is not easy for those who draw up the legislation and make decisions on the number of Deputies and the make-up of constituencies to reach a decision on this because there will always be fallout from it, in the context of a county like Carlow which is growing, as is Kilkenny with which it forms a constituency, there should be a line set down that will not allow the county boundary to be breached. I ask that this be examined in future revisions of constituencies, not from a political perspective but that of the attachment of people in communities to their own county's identity and their feeling of being part of something that is represented through business, sport, politics and so on. On behalf of those who have been left out of the loop in the part of County Carlow in question, there is deep concern that they should be considered in any future revision as either a county identity or as part of the overall constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny.
I am disappointed the Bill makes no connection to local government in the context of the ending of the dual mandate. There is a need to review the regulations placed before the House on how Deputies engage with their local authorities and the protocols in place for county managers, directors of services and so on to respond to Deputies and Senators. That connection has been weakened substantially by the passing of legislation, and there is no corrective action in this legislation to strengthen the connection and the responsibility of local government to Members of Parliament. Each local authority should be forced by legislation or regulation to adhere to certain principles or protocols in dealing with public representatives.
Regardless of what is said, Ireland is in a unique position in that the electorate has direct contact with Members of Parliament, which does not occur in other countries to the same frequency. We are used to that culture, as are the electorate. Deputies are easily identified as they walk the streets of their constituencies. They are asked, perhaps not about legislation but to have a pothole in the road fixed or to make direct contact with local government. We are not allowed to reflect that unique connection in the context of the work we undertake. I urge the Minister of State, if it is not included in this Bill, to include that matter in broader legislation which would set down the rights of an Oireachtas Member to direct contact and information, with a period set for a response to be given to a query put to a local authority. That does not happen now and it is a bone of contention for many Members of this House. I will continue to lobby for that because I believe in strengthening that connection in the democratic process that allows us to be at one with our constituents, to ensure there is no disconnection, as is the case with our elected representatives in the European Parliament.
In making local government more responsible, I will ask the Committee of Public Accounts to ensure there is greater accountability to that body in the context of public accounts and how local authorities spend funds allocated to them. That will require a change in legislation, but the voters want that. They demand greater accountability. They demand that Members of the Oireachtas have a clear knowledge of what is occurring at local government level and that we have an input into how that is scrutinised through the Committee of Public Accounts. The House should recognise that and it should be addressed in other legislation if not in this Bill.
A stronger connection may be created by way of parliamentary questions. There is no reason Deputies should not be able to get direct answers to questions raised, be they on local government, the Health Service Executive, the National Roads Authority or the numerous quangos that spend public money without direct responsibility to this House. Likewise, Members of this House do not have a direct route to directly question how money is spent, thereby creating greater accountability in the organisation concerned. That we do not insist on the system of parliamentary questions being applied to local government that spends so much money is unusual and I take exception to it.
Deputies who, for example, query the spending of €12 billion by the Health Service Executive cannot get direct answers. They are sent on a wild goose chase and told that the Health Service Executive will respond directly to the Deputy in due course. A response is given to parliamentary questions within three days or so when the Dáil is sitting, but in the case of the HSE it can take several months to get a reply. The people who elect us believe that the levers of power exist here, that the most basic of information can be extracted from Ministers or Departments through our presence here and our engagement with the Departments. That is untrue of the HSE, the NRA and local government.
Such matters should be reviewed as they are not addressed in the Bill. These bodies should be brought under our control. The public fears these bodies might be contaminated in some way if we got our hands on them, but that is no reason to push them beyond the reach of this House, from which they could be questioned or scrutinised. We must remember that local authorities cannot be brought before the Committee of Public Accounts except by way of the Secretary General or the accounting officer of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. That is not good enough. There is a perception among the people that there is such accountability. We must respond in terms of best practice in the management of our affairs and tell the public that we will do so. One means of addressing this is as I have set out and another is by setting down protocols or direction for those we are anxious to question.
The same can be said of public officials. We introduce legislation constantly on how we should behave, such as in regard to expenses. I do not mind that as it allows for best practice in politics. However, there should also be best practice in terms of bureaucracy. Many people are anxious to advance in the Civil Service and to respond to a modern Ireland that spends billions of euro. They should have a reasonable path to promotion and to put in motion their ideas of good practice. The unions within the Civil Service must respond in a more positive, proactive way to a country that is developing and spending so much money. The Government must also respond by giving these people the opportunity to give positive expression to how they wish to see the administration of the spending of multi-billion euro every year. Part of that expenditure relates to the promotional prospects of those involved. Only in recent days we learnt of the massive overspend by many Departments that come before the Committee of Public Accounts on a weekly basis. One would have to question is there a serious level of incompetence within the structure that needs to be addressed. While the Government makes money available, it is up to the people within the organisations to ensure that the taxpayer gets the best bang for his or her buck. That is the challenge that faces us.
While we modernise and mainstream the political system and apply the best practice of other countries, we have an obligation to go beyond the political structure and examine what is best practice in the context of the bureaucracy of the country and how to apply best practice to get value for money from every scheme we put in place to make improvements here, be it major or minor projects sponsored by various Departments. That aspect has never been teased out in a Bill.
Those who work with the Minister should begin that process by assessing the need to employ the professionals required in the system. There is a need to employ human resource specialists, given that Ireland plc., is now the biggest employer here, yet the number of human resource specialists in the system are few and far between. There have been too many failings of the system in recent times. At a time of great expenditure by the NRA and various Departments, very few costs accountants were brought in to examine the spending figures. That authority and the Departments have in-house accountants to deal with payment of salaries and that end of the accounts but there is a need to expand beyond that and bring into the system those who would ensure a professional output related to the cost of a project and deliver a job of which we can all be proud and about which there would be no argument. That is the type of Civil Service and bureaucracy this country needs. Meeting that need is the public challenge we face. It will be up to the largest trade union and employee representative group to take the initiative, take the bold step and to drag the system, like politics and politicians, into this new era of which we are now a part.
Regarding Members' expenses, I have no difficulty in recording the expenses I incur, the cost of my electoral expenses or from where I receive or spend money. The paperwork we are required to complete after each election, be it local elections in which I was involved in the past or in an election to the Dáil, is not clear-cut. One is required to answer a muddle of questions and read through a muddle of information. One has to extract from, for example, an advertisement placed by another person a portion of the cost of that advertisement because it was of some value to oneself. Under this process, one is open at all times to making a genuine mistake. The process needs to be simplified such that a candidate or Member would be required to complete a list of questions, provide a list of money spent directly by the organisation representing him or her and spent by the Member or candidate. I would have no difficulty with that. However, there is a difficulty in interpreting the paperwork one is required to complete or with the interpretation of the information Members supply. If we do not simplify the process and put it right, we will leave ourselves open to being accused of all sorts of things.
I recall completing the paperwork after the last local elections and after the last general election. A candidate is accountable for work other people do on his or her behalf. The way forward should be that one's political party would give an account of what is spent on behalf of the party and on candidates and candidates would be required to give an account of their expanses. When such information is presented publicly in a transparent manner, members of the public would be able to put the figures together. If one accepts donations, as a political party or as a candidate, one must show the donations received and where the money was spent. The process should be simplified to the degree that it would be easy for Members to complete the paperwork and that there would be no question over their expenses. Likewise, without there appearing to be a blurring of the mirror, so to speak, it would be easy for members of the public to calculate from the figures how much it cost to run an election.
Other contributors said that perhaps we are allowed to spend too much on elections, but I have the opposite view. The electorate demands more and more information, not only about policies but about what a candidate proposes to do. A candidate has to inform the electorate, which is a costly exercise. Placing of an advertisement on a once-off basis is costly. Printing material in a professional manner is very costly. Getting one's message across to the electorate by post or by other means is an additional cost. Much good work has been done in explaining the matter of expenses. We made the process too complex in earlier legislation and allowed it to be interpreted in different ways. If we simplified the process, a member of the public interested in this area would easily interpret this information and such expenses would be easily accounted for by the Member. That process needs to be simplified sooner rather than later.
It is time we had a debate on Dáil reform, not among the Whips but among Members, to make the work of the Dáil more meaningful to the people we represent and in terms of the work we undertake as public representatives. I encourage the Minister to take the initiative by arranging for such a debate and introducing appropriate legislation to provide for such necessary change.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I wish to take up Deputy McGuinness's last point. Dáil reform is important. A hour or so ago I spoke to visitors from Monaghan who questioned the way in which the system here works. They found it difficult to understand why, for example, there are currently only two Deputies in the Chamber discussing the future of political life here. They would like to see a more active and vibrant Chamber. I apologise for not including the Deputy behind me.
There are only three of the 166 Members present in the Chamber. There are committees sitting and other activities taking place around the Houses, but such work is not visible to the general public. From that point of view, we need Dáil reform and then it might be easier for the general public to understand why there are 166 Members elected to this House who try to do their best on behalf of their constituents.
This Bill is fairly simple in many respects. Its objective is to implement the recommendations of the report of the independent Constitutency Commission which was published in 2004. I welcome this opportunity to speak on that. The most recent report by that commission revealed interesting information which would have major implications for my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, if the current structures were to continue to remain in place.
A document produced by the commission shows County Louth at the top of the graph and County Monaghan at the bottom of it, in that, Cavan-Monaghan has a population of just over 109,000 or to put it another way 21,828 people per TD as compared to County Louth which had almost a population of 102,000, or 25,455 people per TD. If this trend were to continue over the next few years, with the population of Louth increasing at a much higher rate than that of Cavan-Monaghan, a new commission would have to consider adding an extra seat in County Louth, taking one from its neighbouring constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, or alternatively changing the boundaries. The third alternative would be to increase the seats at national level.
This whole situation raises a question about the major increases in population in counties such as Meath and Louth compared to Cavan-Monaghan. This deserves some analysis. From 1996 to the last census in 2002, the population of County Louth increased by almost 10,000, or 10.5%, while that of County Meath, which will have an extra TD under this Bill, increased by more than 24,000, or 22%, during the same period. The population of County Cavan increased by 3,600, or 6.8%, with that of County Monaghan increasing by 1,280, just 2.5%, the lowest increase in the country.
Cavan-Monaghan is a Border area which suffered continuously as a result of the Northern Troubles and all that went with that history. However, it is clear from these figures that it has also suffered from lack of Government commitment to jobs and infrastructure and, especially in the case of County Monaghan, failure to benefit from Government decentralisation. One only has to look at the failure of Government to provide a reasonable level of decentralisation for the county town of Monaghan, and there is still no confirmation of the 85 jobs for Carrickmacross.
This commission report, together with the census figures, indicates that there is a serious lack of commitment to the Border area. If it had not been for IFI funding, INTERREG and the Peace and Reconciliation funding, there is no doubt the situation would be even worse. It is clear, however, that in many cases this funding, which was supposed to be additional to normal Exchequer funding, was used as a replacement. The Taoiseach admitted that to me in this House some months ago.
The commission's report has certain implications for the future. It states that the population of Cavan-Monaghan warrants an allocation of closer to five seats than four. It also makes clear that neither county has a sufficient population to form a constituency of its own. It stated:
Every alternative to the present constituency formation in Cavan-Monaghan involves the transfer of territory to or from an adjoining constituency, thus breaching both a county and a provincial boundary. Furthermore, any transfer into the constituency would involve joining all or part of three counties in a single constituency. The existing variance of -7.5% [this is the highest downward variation in the country] is within the limits accepted by previous commissions and enacted into law. Furthermore, the difficulties in adjoining constituencies can be addressed without involving the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. The Commission concluded that, in all the circumstances, retention of the existing constituency is justified in the context of its terms of reference. However, if current population trends continue, the case for a reduction in the seat allocation to this constituency may arise in the future.
It is no secret that as the Dáil is currently constructed, and taking into account that the Ceann Comhairle is one of the five sitting Deputies in Cavan-Monaghan, we will only have a four seater if the current position remains on election day. We will be down to four seats this year.
According to the constituency commission, if the present trend continues, we could easily find ourselves in a situation where at the following election, even without the Ceann Comhairle, we might still have just four seats. This has serious implications for a constituency like Cavan-Monaghan, which stretches from Dundalk to near Sligo. It is one of the biggest constituency land masses in the country. Being the only Fine Gael Deputy in the constituency since the last election, I know how difficult it is to provide a service in this area. I put on the record that this danger exists and that something realistic must be done to ensure the Border areas are not denuded.
At one stage, County Monaghan was linked to parts of Meath and Louth. In recent months, I had the pleasure of working with people in the Kells area, which was originally serviced by my former colleague, the late John Francis Conlan, who was TD for Monaghan, part of Meath and part of Louth. The Government and the Opposition must examine why the population has not increased in the Monaghan area in particular, in line with other areas. It is worth examining the current situation.
There was much publicity in the past year about new plans to build houses in rural areas, and they all sound grandiose. I recall as a child when the Doapey flax and corn mill were in operation. My late father could recall when 40 working men lived in the townland of Augnacue, with their wives and families, but there is only one working man, with his wife and two daughters, living in the townland today. Someone who wants to build two houses in an area in north Monaghan where there are 300 documented jobs received the following reply from Monaghan County Council:
The proposed site for two dwellings is located in an area deemed as being, 'under strong urban influence,' in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's 'Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines.' The applicant has not provided adequate justification for the proposed site as required in accordance with the Guidelines.
Taken in conjunction with the existing and permitted development in the area the proposed development would give rise to an excessive, suburban type density of development in this unserviced rural area. The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the provisions of the Ministerial Guidelines and contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.
These are the guidelines under which we are currently working in a county whose population increased by only 2.5% in the past four years.
I can understand guidelines such as these applying to counties such as Meath, the population of which increased by 22.5%, Louth with an increase of 10.5%, Kildare or elsewhere. Given the imposition of such a law by the Government at a time when it is shouting in public that it is encouraging the building of private dwellings, it is no wonder we in County Monaghan are witnessing a decline in population. This must be dealt with seriously by the Government. We must ensure that county development plans are passed only if they meet certain ministerial criteria and are workable on the ground, and that the 40 working people who were in the townland of Augnacue are replaced by 40 more.
Another aspect to building private dwellings is that one must prove one comes from the area. In an area that has been denuded to such an extent over the past seven years, we should be pleased anyone is prepared to build and work in County Monaghan.
Consider the issue of electronic voting. There are many ways in which the decline of the population in County Monaghan could be addressed if we had available to us the €50 million that was spent on electronic voting. This sum has gone to waste. The Government totally ignored the concerns of the Opposition, which did not oppose electronic voting just for the sake of doing so. It had genuine concerns, yet the legislation to introduce electronic voting was bulldozed through the House. I want to ensure that there will be a paper trail when electronic voting is reintroduced and that the system will be foolproof and not present an opportunity for somebody to pull a stroke.
Technology is the way forward. The banks have introduced technology to allow business to be conducted electronically and we all use it. The Department of Agriculture and Food has introduced it to a lesser extent. Its system is still not foolproof but is working to a certain degree. Many other organisations have introduced electronic means of doing business and every one of these systems has a paper trail. We pointed this out in the Dáil before the general election but were ignored. We want to ensure that electronic voting, when sanctioned by the commission, is introduced properly.
I waited for two or three days before knowing whether I was to be elected in the last general election, but at least I was declared elected after the marathon count. Elections do not represent an easy time for anybody. It was not easy for my colleague Nora Owen, the first person to lose a seat in an election using electronic voting. There should be a happy medium involving both traceability and consultation before announcement of election results.
Deputy McGuinness spoke about the cost of elections and the amount each candidate is allowed to spend. The latter should be decreased. The money should also be accounted for properly. When I consider some of the election literature circulated in my area and the behaviour of certain candidates in addition to the costs of elections in Northern Ireland, I wonder how much money is accounted for. Some people seem to have a great deal more than others to spend on elections. A person should not be elected simply because he or she is extremely wealthy. This is American-style politics and I want to stay away from it in Ireland.
There should be clear guidelines stating on what election candidates can spend their money. If a candidate brings his workers into a pub for tea and sandwiches, or whatever happens to be served therein, he does not have to list it as an expense. However, if he brings the workers into a restaurant where they can have a proper rest for an hour, this is chargeable. This is just a mini-example of some of the issues that need to be addressed. Above all, we must ensure that every candidate declares his expenses accurately. Election should not depend on money. In this regard, are ordinary Members working on a level playing pitch with Ministers? I do not accept that they are. Ministers have certain benefits and certain activities need to be monitored clearly and sorted out.
Deputy McGuinness referred to the expense of promoting policies. I hope some of the policies advocated during the next election campaign are worth more than some of those that were advocated during the last one. When I consider some of the advertisements placed in newspapers, the leaflets delivered by hand and some of the promises made regarding my hospital — I make no apology for calling Monaghan General Hospital "my hospital"——
I can stand over my promises. Although I would like much more to be achieved, my promises are more realistic than those of others, who knew on the day they made them that they could not be honoured. It is wrong that we should spend money ad libitum on circulating propaganda that has no real meaning. We should not be in the business of buying votes.
Let me return to a matter raised by other Deputies, namely, the issue of what we stand for. Today, unfortunately, I am not able to stand but that is another story and a health matter. The Health Service Executive and its various areas have been established. I often ask parliamentary questions on Monaghan General Hospital and other health-related issues but all I receive by way of reply are statements that the Minister is not responsible. However, I can say without apology that if a hospital is to be opened or some good news story is to be announced, the relevant Minister and all his or her colleagues will claim full responsibility. This applies to all Ministers of all Governments. We must restore the relevance of this House. Ministers accept the glory in glory days and give the appropriate answers in the House but abdicate responsibility when different circumstances obtain. We must address this through Dáil reform.
Consider an example that arose today concerning the standing of the Dáil. The Minister announced the clearance for the M3 but did not do so in the House. He should have made the announcement in the House and not at some other function. I am delighted for my constituents in Cavan-Monaghan that this motorway has got the go-ahead and I hope nobody outside this country or outside counties Meath, Monaghan or Cavan raises some spurious issue to prevent its going ahead.
If Members table a parliamentary question for the National Roads Authority regarding a road, they are told it is not the responsibility of the Minister but that of the authority. However, if the Minister opens a new road or launches a development, it is regarded as his responsibility. Therefore, there is a need for reform in the House. I hope the Minister of State will consider this and that the Whips will get together to introduce meaningful reform so Members can have meaningful debates in the House, at whatever time they decide upon, on relevant issues, be they related to local authorities, the HSE, the National Roads Authority or otherwise.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005. My constituency of Laoighis-Offaly is not affected by the boundary changes dealt with in the legislation. The constituency is unique in that it has never been affected by a boundary change since the foundation of the State.
I sympathise with my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who must deal with the effects of a major boundary change. He referred to my party getting three seats out of five in my constituency. He will look for three out of three in his new constituency and has his work very much cut out for him in that regard.
I have no doubt that he is. He will not have a member of the Fianna Fáil party in his sights if he is trying to obtain a seat. He is welcome to a seat if he is fit to earn it, once it is not one of the three held by Fianna Fáil. We got on well with Mr. Flanagan before and I would have no problem working with him again.
Given that my constituency is not directly affected by the boundary changes, I want to concentrate on section 6, which deals with a financial matter.
The Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997 (inserted by section 50(v) of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001) is amended by inserting the following subparagraph in paragraph (2):
''(a) any of the matters referred to in subparagraphs (i), (iii), (iv) and (v) of section 22(2)(b) or, in the case of a presidential election, subparagraphs (i), (iii), (iv) and (v) of section 46(2)(b),''.
How could anyone understand that section? Neither a Member of the House nor a member of the public — apart from the Parliamentary Draftsman and those involved in drafting legislation — could understand it.
That is part of the problem here. We pass legislation yet sometimes we do not know about what we are talking. I defy any Member to explain the meaning of that section. We are blessed in having an explanatory memorandum according to which:
Section 6 addresses an issue raised by the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to the definition of election expenses for the purposes of the Electoral Act 1997. It amends the Schedule to the Act (inserted by section 50(v) of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001) by inserting a subparagraph clarifying that the following items are not to be regarded as election expenses at presidential, Dáil and European elections: free postage provided for candidates; a service provided free by an individual or provided by an employee of a political party; normal media coverage; and the transmission on radio or television of a broadcast on behalf of a candidate or political party.
Section 33 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 inadvertently raised a doubt about the continuing exclusion of these items as election expenses. That section, therefore, was enacted in error. Given that section 6 of the present Bill is unintelligible to an ordinary person, or any Member of the House, we could make further mistakes. I hope not. I trust that the officials in the Department have got it right on this occasion because the mistake in the 2004 Act led to particular problems.
There was an Electoral Act 1997, an Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, an Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 and now this Bill. Establishing the meaning of any section in the Bill resembles tracing one's family tree back four or five generations. There is a need for a consolidation Bill to deal with the Electoral Acts.
Section 6 aims to clarify that free postage, party political broadcasts and other items will not be deemed election expenses. Section 33 of the 2004 Act raised a doubt in the view of the Standards in Public Office Commission. That change was made as a result of the Supreme Court decision in the Kelly case. As a result of those changes we inadvertently over-amended the Act and now we must correct that.
This highlights the question of the election address, the litir um thogáim. Proportionality is needed in this respect. We have never held an objective discussion on this aspect of election activity. Many years ago the election address was deemed a significant item of election activity and the legislation provided for every candidate, or where there were several candidates in a party, the party, to issue an election address to each registered voter in his or her constituency.
Fianna Fáil is the largest party in the country and under existing legislation it is allowed to spend more than €3 million. The cost of the election address to each party, is approximately €1.5 million per party. The only real purpose of that expenditure is to give a bonanza to An Post whenever there is a general or presidential election.
If the Oireachtas believes we should spend €3 million per party on an election and €1.5 million on an election address the parties are in effect allowed to spend up to €4.5 million. If the parties had that much to spend they would not spend €1.5 million on an election address which is a small peripheral aspect of the campaign. Candidates must deal with other election literature they distribute in the course of their daily canvas. Postering is a significant activity. They also place advertisements in local newspapers and engage in other such activities, including producing newsletters and leaflets, and at national level parties run a national campaign producing policy documents and so on. The legislation lays too much emphasis on providing what is essentially a subsidy for An Post. While it is not intended as such, that is the outcome. A senior executive in An Post said recently the company had a good year last year. He mentioned the figure of €6 million or €7 million received through election addresses.
In addition, candidates can send an election address to each registered voter. If there are four or five voters in a house, and four or five candidates issue election addresses, there may be 20 items of literature coming into the house over a day or two which turns the public off. By long-established practice the Dáil seems to believe this sum should be spent during an election campaign. If this is to continue the candidates involved should be consulted to see whether that is the best use of those funds. I am satisfied it is not.
We may have to reconsider other issues arising from the Kelly decision. Before the year is out, or at least before the next general election, there will be further electoral amendment Bills to correct the situation. If it is necessary to pass this Bill because there is uncertainty about whether the free postage for candidates and the cost of party political broadcasts should be included as items of election expenditure what was the situation in regard to the two recent by-elections? If they were fought in a context that required clarification what was the position? Will that be accounted for? Maybe we will be told about this in due course.
As a result of the Kelly decision the salaries for parliamentary secretaries during the campaign have been factored in as an election expense. Does this apply also to the salaries of the parliamentary assistants recently approved by the Oireachtas? If so, much of the expenditure limit allocated to a candidate who is an outgoing Oireachtas Member will be reduced before he or she is out of the starting blocks. That needs to be considered in terms of the overall expenditure limits for elections. The essence of the Kelly judgment was to deal with payments out of public funds and the facilities available to Members of the House that were not available to non-sitting candidates going before the public. It was designed to provide a level playing field. I suspect the matter has not been fully thought through in the preparation of this legislation. We will have to return to it at a later date.
The Dáil computer of every Member, even those with computers in their constituency offices far from this building, is linked directly by ISDN lines to the Dail central computer. Every evening the Dáil computer takes back the work done during the day and this is stored on the main server in the Oireachtas rather than on the individual computers in constituency offices. One cannot access copies of names and addresses and backup files as the security copies are not available in constituency offices. They are only available when one is linked to the Oireachtas computer in this building. When an election takes place every Member will link directly to the Dáil facilities when he or she uses his or her computer. There is a cost to that and it will be deemed an expenditure under the Kelly judgment. Nobody knows what the cost will be but it will have to be attributed to each Deputy in some way. If Deputies were told that the Kelly judgment was to be strictly implemented it would mean that none of us could turn on a Dáil computer in a constituency office during the three weeks of a general election campaign. I do not think this matter has been teased out.
No Oireachtas committee in the House has any effect because unless this matter is addressed through legislation it counts for nothing. We can talk all we like in a committee but if it is not in the legislation it does not count. According to the explanatory memorandum this issue has come to light as a result of the Standards in Public Offices Commission. I am the chairman of the Oireachtas finance committee, of which Deputy McHugh is also a member, and the Standards in Public Offices Commission will appear before the joint committee on 25 May 2005. This will be the first time this commission appears before an Oireachtas committee and it will be a worthwhile experience. There is no particular item on the agenda. It is an introduction, and clearly it has concerns about legislation. This is reflected in the legislation today. I am sure Members of the House also have views on how the commission conducts its work. It will be a useful exchange of views. Further legislation will be required and we will need consolidation legislation.
A matter relevant to any election campaign is the matter of the voter register. It is inappropriate for a local authority to be involved in compiling the information for the local register. It has no knowledge, no competence and it does not have the people on the ground. There is only one obvious organisation in the State that should compile the voters register and that is——
No, the organisation is An Post. The local postman or postwoman is calling to every house in the country on a daily basis. No other organisation knows every house in the country, and the occupants of houses, and no organisation is better placed to know who should be on the voter register. Representatives of An Post call to houses and then the register could be checked. Most Deputies have been members of a local authority and know that many of the staff do not know half the county, and would not know how to find a boreen or a pot-holed road. If one tried to explain it to them they would not know where it is, yet they are responsible for having the people who live there on the voter register. It is not part of the daily work of local authorities to travel the highways, byways and visit apartment blocks in the cities, finding out who lives in the area. The local authority may have a role in dealing with the count but it should have no role in the voter register.
Another reason for having an organisation like An Post doing it is that the process could be centralised. The last speaker referred to the massive population shift. People move from Dublin to Laois, Offaly, Kildare and vice versa, and from Galway to Mayo. It would be better if there were a central office where one could change constituency. This would be simpler than going to one constituency and removing one's name, and then registering in a new constituency. Many people have lost their vote in that transfer. They were removed from the register in their old constituency and were not on the voter register in the new area. There needs to be a centralised register where one amendment to the register can effect the required change, instead of having to deal with the local authorities.
The most important electoral matter for the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government is voter turnout, or the lack thereof. Voter turnout has been decreasing steadily for several years. There must be good reasons for that. It is the job of the Department to carry out detailed surveys with detailed questionnaires. We are all aware of voter apathy and it is not just young people. Old people are also apathetic and maybe politicians have contributed to that. In a healthy democracy we need an increased voter turnout. Politicians should work collectively towards that, and aim to get the turnout up to 70% or 80% rather than 50%.
The population on which this legislation is based is the 2002 census. I understand that the next census will be taken in 2006. The figures from the 2002 census will no longer be a valid basis for the next general election. I suspect we will have a census early next year and there should be a system whereby the CSO can compile those figures within weeks of the completion of the census. Although it may cause too much grief to people in this House perhaps the boundaries should be examined in terms of the population that will exist at the time of the next general election. Boundary changes cause upheaval to Deputies but it is important boundaries be up to date. We will fight the 2007 election on the basis of a census which is not the most recent one.
The British general election took place recently and I was impressed by the speed of the election. People went to the polls on the Thursday, and by Friday morning every member of parliament was elected, and before the end of the day the government was in place. By Saturday some Ministers were at their desks.
I wish to share time with Deputy Sargent. We occasionally hear good ideas in this House and we heard one today. The idea that An Post compile the voter register is brilliant. If we want people who are familiar with the country and the residences to do this job there is no better option than An Post. The local authorities are not the best bodies to carry out such an exercise.
The main purpose of the Bill is to make provision for the revision of constituencies as we head into the next general election by way of implementing the recommendations contained in the commission report on Dáil constituencies, 2004. The revision has been carried out by an independent commission established to specifically carry out the task. If we are to accept its independence and that it carried out its work without political interference, our task is simple, we have to accept the report in its totality. Recognising the composition of the commission, one has to accept its independence. It is natural for Deputies adversely affected by the report to be angry and upset but it is unfair to be critical of the commission because it is independent. If we do not like the result of its work, the answer is not to be critical of the commission.
County Leitrim is most affected by the report in the sense that it is cut in two. People in that county say there is a real danger the county may be without a Deputy in Dáil Éireann after the next general election. If that was to happen, it would be disastrous for the county. However, to preserve the independence of the report, it is difficult to see what can be done in regard to it.
In future the terms of reference given to commissions as a framework within which to operate should guard against such an occurrence. In this case, the terms of reference were flawed, given that they led to a position where there was a real danger a county such as Leitrim would be left without a Deputy. Future terms of reference should specifically protect county boundaries as well as relate the population as equally as possible to the number of Deputies elected. We should look at the possibility of electing Deputies on the basis of county boundaries only where the smaller counties would have fewer Deputies while the larger counties would have a greater number.
The Bill will set the constituencies for the next general election. What it will not do is set the day on which polling will take place. It is on that issue I wish to say a few words. There has been a continuing debate as to the most suitable day on which to hold elections. For some time there was mid-week voting at relatively restricted hours. Some improvements have been made with extended voting hours and a move towards Friday voting. However, Friday voting is not working as it may have been anticipated. For example, a person working in Dublin has no hope of getting to a constituency in the west after working hours and before polling closes. That is unfair to a person who wishes to vote in his or her home county.
There is a great need to give detailed consideration to a suitable day which would accommodate the general public. It appears the most suitable day for voting is a Sunday because generally people are off work and those living away from home can travel. The vast majority would be able to cast their vote without any degree of inconvenience. I cannot understand the reason Sunday voting cannot be tried and, so far as I am aware, it has never been tried. It would also have the advantage of not disrupting children in school and there would be no necessity to have the customary day off school to allow voting to take place. For good sound reasons I ask the Minister to ensure polling in the next general election takes place on a Sunday.
Any debate on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill which ignored the electronic voting debacle would be hollow. The greatest scandal associated with elections here has to be that of electronic voting. The taxpayer has been left with a bill of €60 million, a massive bill by any account and that is only the initial outlay. The taxpayer is continuing to foot a bill for storage of the actual voting machines which have cost €60 million and never been used. I doubt if they ever will. The scandal is continuing on a daily basis, reminding us of one of the greatest cock-ups in Ireland.
Given the many needs in various areas throughout the country which we are told cannot be funded due to lack of resources, it is shameful this waste of public funds should have occurred and continues to occur on a daily basis. What is the Commission on Electronic Voting doing? How long more have we to wait to find out if the machines will ever be used? Will the entire process continue indefinitely with no outcome but a daily reminder of the shameful waste of public funds? The Minister has a duty to bring this scandal to an end.
Given the sloppy manner in which funding issues are handled by the Government, State and semi-State agencies, one could be forgiven for thinking there is a crock of gold at the end of the Irish rainbow. The electronic voting scandal for which the Government is responsible has cost €60 million plus. The nursing homes fee scandal, for which all Governments during the past 29 years are responsible, will cost approximately €1 billion. I say all Governments are responsible given that there were four Labour Party Ministers, two Fine Gael Ministers and seven Fianna Fáil Ministers for Health during those 29 years when the issue was known about but not addressed. No party in the House, with the exception of the Green Party and Sinn Féin, can wash its hands of the scandal. All the others are tainted. Perhaps the only reason the Green Party and Sinn Féin can wash their hands of it is that they were not members of any Government. The bottom line is that we are dealing with taxpayer's money. Government and State agencies have a responsibility to taxpayers to manage and spend their money wisely. Unfortunately, that is not happening. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has a responsibility to bring the electronic voting scandal to an end.
Is Bille suimiúil é seo, gan amhras, do gach Teachta Dála, dá bharr go mbaineann sé leis an tslí bheatha atá againn — an Bille Toghcháin (Leasú) 2005 — ach, le cúnamh Dé, beidh suim ag an bpobal ann chomh maith, cé go mbíonn go leor daoine á rá go bhfuil níos lú daoine ná ariamh páirteach i gcúrsaí polaitíochta. Ní mar sin atá séó thaobh mo pháirtí de, atá ag dul i méid. Tá sé tábhachtach go ndéanaimid tagairt do na ceisteanna níos luaithe inniu chuig an Taoiseach faoi the citizenship task force. Tá an Bille seo chomh tábhachtach agus tá sé ceangailte leis an méid suime atá ag an phobal i gcúrsaí polaitíochta.
Luaigh an Teachta McHugh ceist na teorann atá i lár an Bhille. Tá gearán ag muintir i gContae Liatroim agus Contae Sligeach faoin neamhaird ar theorann a gcontae. Má tá muid ag iarraidh suim sa pholaitíocht a mhúscailt, ba cheart éisteacht leis an teachtaireacht sin agus a aithint go bhfuil daoine dílis don chontae agus go dtuigeann siad cúrsaí ann níos fearr ná a thuigeann siad cúrsaí ag baint le haonad oifigiúil bréagach. Tá sin luaite ag a lán Teachtaí agus tá súil agam go n-éistfidh an tAire leo. Ní ligfidh muintir Liatroma don Aire dearmad a dhéanamh faoi. Is féidir sin a leasú anois agus an ceart a thabhairt do na daoine sin a dTeachta a thoghadh.
Rinne Fianna Fáil iarracht an córas vótála a leasú. Sa Vancouver Sun Observer, atá ag déanamh tagairt don chóras STV, tá alt:
The STV: What the Irish have learned.
Okay, relax, it isn't that complicated or rather it is, but you don't need to know exactly how it works (you don't know how a DVD works, either), only that it does. Just ask the Irish, they have been using it since 1922 and twice have rejected changing it.
Is féidir leis an Aire litir a scríobh chuig an nuachtán ag rá go bhfuil botún déanta. Tá sé ag déanamh tagartha don Stát agus d'Fhianna Fáil. An bhfuil an tAire agus a pháirtí sásta go bhfuil PRSTV againn? An ndéanfaidh Fianna Fáil iarracht é a athrú arís?
Is féidir, áfach, feabhas a chur ar an gcóras. Ó Thuaidh, tá"topping up" glactha ag an Tionól agus sa Ghearmáin tá córas liosta ann. Tá sé tábhachtach a chur in iúl don phobal nach ionann gach páirtí. Leis an gcóras faoi láthair, tá go leor daoine a cheapann go bhfuil Teachtaí Dála uile mar an gcéanna agus nach dtuigeann go bhfuil polasaithe i gceist nuair a théann Teachtaí os comhair an phobail. Níl a fhios acu go bhfuil sé de cheart acu vóta a chaitheamh le páirtí de bharr polasaithe. Níl sin sa chóras in Éireann mar níl liosta ann agus is fiú féachaint air sin le suim a spreagadh i measc an phobail.
Tá cur amú airgid luaite ag go leor daoine ó thaobh chaiteachais phoiblí. Ní dhéanfaidh daoine dearmad go deo an cur amú airgid ar an chóras vótála leictreonach. Tá súil agam go bhfuil ceacht foghlamtha ag an Rialtas faoi sin anois. Ní cheart córas nua ar bith a thabhairt isteach gan paper trail agus córas trédhearcach sa dóigh is gur féidir le daoine a fheiceáil cá dtéann an vóta. Níor tharla sin leis an gcóras leictreonach agus, níos measa fós, bhí sé níos deacra do dhaoine dalla bheith páirteach sa gcóras. Nuair atá Bille Míchumas ag dul tríd an Dáil, caithfimid déanamh cinnte nach ndéanfaimid níos deacra do dhaoine vóta a chaitheamh.
Tá ceist airgid ann agus ceist níos bunúsaí ná sin: an ceart ag gach duine a vóta a chaitheamh. Tá mé anseo mar gheall ar chóras vótála leictreonach ach tá sé tábhachtach an córas a choimhéad mar atá cionn is go bhfuil taithí ag daoine air agus is maith leo é. Más maith leo é, cén fáth nach féidir é a choimhéad? Tá cúlra agus traidisiún ag baint leis an chóras agus spreagann sé suim sa pholaitíocht, rud atá ag teastáil.
Tá daoine ag scríobh chugam óáiteanna ar nós Sasana a íocann cáin sa Stát seo de bharr go bhfuil pinsean acu nó a oibríonn anseo ó am go chéile. Tá seoladh acu i Sasana agus mar thoradh air sin níl cead acu vótáil. Beidh tinneas ar go leor Éireannaigh i Sasana nach mbeidh siad in ann sin a dhéanamh. Má tá muid i ndáiríre faoin tír seo mar gheilleagar oscailte, cén fáth nach dtig linn a rá máíoctar cáin don Státchiste, ba cheart vóta a bheith ag duine.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Nolan.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005. I agree with the comments of Deputy McHugh and the Minister, Deputy Roche, that the report of the constituency boundaries commission should be viewed and accepted in its totality. To do otherwise would be to weaken the commission's independence and our acceptance of its independent assessment of the constituency boundaries which would be determined, in effect, by whatever Government happened to be in office.
The purpose of the Bill is to implement the recommendations of the report of the independent constituency commission which was published in January 2004. The purpose is to revise Dáil constituencies to reflect the 2002 census of population. The Bill also addresses an issue that has arisen regarding the definition of "election expenses". Many of these issues arise as a result of the Kelly case. In the short time available to me I will not go into them. I listened to the comments and questions of Deputy Fleming and will be interested to hear the replies in due course.
On account of changes in the distribution of population the Oireachtas has revised constituencies at least once every 12 years and regular revision of constituencies is determined by the Constitution. This, in effect, requires that constituencies be revised whenever changes result in populations per Deputy significantly out of line with the national average. The commission report needs to be set in the context of the 2002 census. The population growth revealed, with the new commuter culture around Dublin, indicated serious imbalances in representation in the existing 42 constituencies. The report will result in an increase in the number of constituencies from 42 to 43, while still retaining 166 Members.
The growing population of west County Dublin and neighbouring counties is reflected in the proposed change of Dublin Mid-West from a three to a four seat constituency. While we may all consider the report globally, of particular interest to us is what is happening in our own area. Dublin Mid-West was a new constituency in the 2002 general election. As a representative for that constituency, I welcome its formation. For most of my voting life, Clondalkin was divided in two by the canal. One part resided in Dublin West with Lucan moving westwards while the other resided with Tallaght in Dublin South-West. The formation of the Dublin Mid-West constituency brought Clondalkin together as a unit and local representation is better as a result. Issues are more clearly defined and focused, which I welcome.
I welcome the addition to Dublin Mid-West from Dublin West of approximately 12,000 people in Palmerstown and Quarryvale and look forward to both meeting and representing them. Lucan, Palmerstown and Quarryvale are in the one local authority electoral area for South Dublin County Council. However, Palmerstown and Quarryvale were included in the Dublin West Dáil constituency, the majority of which is in the Fingal County Council area. In many ways, Palmerstown has been divided. It is divided by the Lucan Road; served by two Garda stations and divided from what I would have viewed its natural geographic constituency. Everything in it is in common with Lucan.
The people of Palmerstown are represented with people from areas such as Castleknock and Blanchardstown. The people of Quarryvale are represented with people from areas such as Mulhuddart and Hartstown. Quarryvale is part of a single RAPID programme area with Rowlagh and Neilstown, which was divided.
The change in the Bill will focus representation and the issues that will be addressed will be much more coherent and focused. It has been difficult for both local and national representatives dealing with Lucan and Palmerstown in such a divided way. When constituents approach public representatives, they may not be aware whether the issue is a local authority or a national one. The division has certainly caused much local concern and I welcome the proposed changes.
Each constituency returns three, four or five Members and the Constitution determines the current position as recognised by the statutory terms of reference of the commission. The imperative of having three, four and five Members allows for the practice of proportional representation. Deputy Sargent was particularly anxious to see the single transferable vote system remain. The results in the UK general election last week were particularly interesting. I agree that the type of proportional representation system we operate here is particularly effective. Deputy Ring expressed concern over losing the craic if we had a quick result as happens in the United Kingdom. However, the reality of the UK system resulted in 70% or 80% of seats not changing hands owing to the first past the post system. The British Labour Party secured a little more than one third of the votes and got considerably more than half of the seats. The smaller parties in the United Kingdom do not secure seats in line with the percentage of votes they receive. The UK system favours the larger rather than the smaller parties whereas our proportional representation system is more equitable.
I agree with the Government's acceptance of the commission's recommendations as a single package of related measures bringing Dáil constituencies into line with the prevailing population patterns in accordance with constitutional imperatives and associated legal requirements. We can all recognise that it might have been possible for the commission to suggest solutions other than those recommended in the report. However, I understand it took account of nearly 100 submissions made to it from all sources such as political parties, local authorities, public representatives, organisations and individuals in formulating its recommendations. Its independent determination of the issues should now be respected. By picking out individual recommendations we would undermine the reasons for establishing an independent commission in the first place. The precedent of adhering to the commission's advice and recommendations should not be broken.
I join the Minister in complimenting all the members of the commission, Mr. Justice Lavan, Mr. Kieran Coughlan, Ms Deirdre Lane, Mr. Niall Callan and Ms. Emily O'Reilly. While they faced a difficult task, they did a good job. I also compliment them on a number of initiatives, particularly the establishment of a website to facilitate public access. This is the sort of action we require from bodies which operate in the interests of the public. They should keep in touch with the public and make it easier to communicate and work with them.
Deputy Fleming suggested that the electoral register be prepared and maintained by An Post rather than the local authorities. Having listened to his suggestion, it has a degree of merit. One of the problems with maintenance by local authorities is that when people move from one area to another, they cannot be easily tracked. This can work both ways resulting in some people losing a vote and others being registered in more than one area. We need to give consideration to this issue.
We may disenfranchise people if we do not give more detailed consideration to the provision of postal voting. The system needs to be modernised. For example, students, those in hospital and many others need to have such a service in place. They also need to feel confident in the postal voting system. The system has the potential to be abused and needs to be tightened.
Particularly as we move towards enactment of the Disability Bill, it is key that everybody is treated on a fair and equal basis. Many of our polling stations pose a difficulty regarding access. I ask the Minister to ensure all polling stations allow full access for those with disabilities.
I welcome the Bill which is sensible and reflects the changes in population that have occurred to ensure people in each constituency are represented equally and fairly. I commend the Bill to the House.
During the lifetime of each Dáil the Houses of the Oireachtas are presented with an Electoral (Amendment) Bill to take account of the shift in population in various parts of the country. As reflected in the census of population that gave rise to this legislation, in recent years we have seen a continuance in the shift of population from west to east. We have seen an expansion of the greater Dublin area. As a consequence, the constituency of Kildare will have an extra seat. The Meath constituency will also have increased representation in the next Dáil as a result of the commission's deliberations. The Bill's main purpose is to review Dáil constituencies and bring them into line with the up-to-date population data set out in the 2002 census and, in that context, to implement the recommendations contained in the related Dáil constituency commission report.
One aspect that concerns me a little is that, while we are amending constituencies and representation in Dáil Éireann for the next general election, the basis on which we are legislating will be out of date by that time since early in 2006 a new census of population will be taken. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for this Administration and the relevant Departments to ensure the census report is published. Any amending legislation necessary to reflect the shift in population could be put in place by the time of the next general election which we are told will take place in spring 2007.
It begs the question of whether there might be a constitutional challenge to the results of the next election if it is found that the census of population report for 2006 and the constituencies at the general election which will take place in 2007 are found to be in conflict. I do not think it beyond the bounds of possibility for the Government to introduce legislation to reflect the census of 2006. If there was a political commitment from all sides of the House rather than merely from the Government benches and the requisite political consensus, it would be possible. I urge and encourage the Government and Opposition leaders to do so.
The process of reviewing constituencies means that there will always be winners and losers. However, the recommendations should be taken as a total package. I support this legislation because of the commission's independent nature and the fact that it sat and deliberated, seeking and receiving submissions on the various constituencies. It did so in a fair manner. However, I disagree with several of its recommendations. I was one of those who made a submission on the commission's report, as I did with previous commissions, regarding several constituencies, something reflected by several speakers in both Houses.
In the census of population for 2002, Longford had a population of 31,000, Carlow, 46,000 and Leitrim, just under 26,000. Since, with 166 Deputies, the average representation per Member is approximately 23,000, Longford should have at least one Deputy; Carlow, two, and Leitrim, one. However, because of the breakdown of the constituencies that the commission has recommended, it could happen that both Leitrim and Carlow will not be represented individually in the next Dáil. Longford, with a population of 31,000, will be represented because of the constituency profile. It has been included with Westmeath but part of the latter has been included with Meath in order that the balance is in favour of Longford, thus ensuring it will be represented in the next Dáil.
The case being made by Leitrim and Carlow is fair and valid. I am disappointed that the commission failed to take account not only of my submission but also those of all the political parties and others which showed more than a mere vested interest in politics. Submissions were made by chambers of commerce, local authorities and several other organisations in the county concerned. This is the second time we see parts of several small counties being so affected, with part of Carlow now being pushed into the constituency of Wicklow.
It is fair to say it is unfortunate that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, is not here since he is well aware of these views, representing as he does that part of Carlow now in the constituency of Wicklow. I also emphasise that the people of Carlow are in the south-eastern administrative regions for health, tourism and development purposes, whereas the vast majority of the constituents represented in the Wicklow constituency are closer to Dublin and reflect this in those whom they elect. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is a very diligent attender of clinics in the east Carlow area, for which he is to be commended.
It is important that we highlight such aspects. Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution states a Member of the Dáil should represent between 20,000 and 30,000 constituents. On that basis, it would be a sad state of affairs if the counties of Carlow and Leitrim were not represented individually in the next Dáil. We all know the tradition and loyalty to county collars. If one had a Dáil with 166 Members but without separate representation from two counties, that would be a sad day, not merely for the counties but also for politics. Only two counties could be affected by the commission's recommendations. As I outlined, I accept the commission's independence but feel, having been so affected for the second time, some of its members may be looking over their shoulders when finalising the exact details of their report.
The commission's terms of reference stated very baldly that the breaching of county boundaries should be avoided where possible. In three cases that has not happened. It is unfortunate that the three cases where that has not happened are three of the smaller counties. If anything, we should be proactive in ensuring the smaller counties are protected. However, for the second time in the case of my county, that has not happened.
The terms of reference also state there should be due regard to geographical considerations, including significant physical features. In my own case and that of Wicklow, the population of which is growing substantially, something that next year's census will show, there is a physical geographical divide in the shape of the Wicklow Mountains which run right through the county. The people of Blessington have far more in common with the people of Tallaght than with those of Greystones or Bray. The people of Baltinglass would have much more in common with Carlow than with the eastern coast of the county. The population movement is from the west to the east, something that is reflected in the commission's report which recommends increased representation for such counties as Kildare and Meath.
Before I finish, I would like to mention electronic voting and the fact that we have spent up to €50 million on equipment that is lying idle. It is a disgrace that we continue to store it at great cost to the public purse and without any idea of where we are going. I would like to see that matter resolved before we go to the public again.
I disagree with all previous speakers in regard to the commission. It may be an independent entity but it is disgraceful that judges, Clerks of the Dáil, officials and others are represented but not those most affected by its deliberations, namely, politicians. The commission did its job fairly in adjudicating on the structure of constituencies. However, its members have no understanding of politics. How many national elections have they stood for, did they reach the quota and have they stood for town or county councils?
It is great for these independent minded people to decide the futures of politicians. Suppose, however, a commission were set up by the Oireachtas to decide how judges or Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad should be elected, for example. There would be an outcry that no judge or official of the House would be represented on the relevant commission. Politicians, however, allow judges and Clerks of the Dáil to decide our future and the way we should operate within politics.
Other speakers have posed the question as to why people do not vote. The reason is that politicians have handed over their power to non-elected persons. This began with the EU and we repeatedly use the excuse that a particular provision is required by EU legislation. People died for the right to vote but every day in this House Members sign over power to non-elected entities.
Many of those elected to such bodies have never put their name on a ballot paper. Examples include the National Roads Authority and the Health Service Executive. It is now the case that Ministers pay a fortune for the services of programme managers and spin doctors. One Minister has 14 programme managers but there are not as many doctors in Mayo General Hospital. It is wrong that we allow ourselves to continuously hand over our powers to non-elected representatives and this is an issue we must examine. It is the reason citizens do not vote in local, Dáil and European elections. The perception is that public representatives are not worth voting for because we have handed over our powers.
A previous speaker referred to the issue of policy announcements. An example is the scheme to deal with the nursing homes debacle. This was announced today on the streets of Dublin instead of in this House. It is little wonder people are not interested in politics and politicians because we sell ourselves short. Every policy announcement should be made in the Dáil before being discussed on national radio. Instead, every issue is discussed on "Liveline" and "Morning Ireland" and is not debated in this House until three months later when people are tired of hearing about it. This must stop. If there is to be real Dáil reform, we must begin using this House as a discussion forum and forget about the EU and non-elected representatives.
In the ten years since I was first elected, the only proper debate I have witnessed in this House was that which took place some weeks ago on the situation in Northern Ireland in respect of Sinn Féin and the McCartney sisters. Citizens spoke about and were interested in that debate because it involved a real engagement between the Taoiseach and the Opposition. Everything else is stage managed, programme managed and controlled by non-elected representatives. This must change.
Although I was not successful, I had the pleasure of taking a case to the High Court in regard to the abolition of the dual mandate. I have a warning in this regard for Fianna Fáil backbenchers and for some Members on this side of the House who did not support me in this instance. There will be many former Deputies leaving count centres in a distressed state after the next election. The loss of their Dáil seat will mean the end of their political career. In the past defeated Deputies at least had the opportunity to retain their council seats and rebuild their political careers from that base.
That option is no longer available and Members will discover that younger candidates are establishing themselves in their constituencies and managing the local party organisation. These candidates are ready to take their chance when the local party Deputy loses his or her seat. Whichever party finds itself in a position to form a Government after the next election, particularly if the numbers are tight, will be obliged to reverse the legislation abolishing the dual mandate. Having witnessed the devastation wrought upon Fianna Fáil backbenchers, any parties or individual Members courted by a potential Taoiseach will insist on a commitment to restore the dual mandate in return for their support for a new Government.
There is evidence of the fastest growing employment sector in Ireland in every council and health board office. The employees in question are not non-nationals or refugees. It is those engaged in recording telephone voicemail messages. The latest development is that when one telephones a county council office, one invariably encounters a recorded voicemail greeting to indicate the recipient of the call is at a meeting or otherwise engaged. These employees must never stop meeting each other or perhaps having fun together. They are certainly not serving the people. The benchmarking process has cost the State a fortune but the only obvious result is the proliferation of voicemails. I challenge the Minister of State and his officials to telephone any council or health board and not encounter a recorded voicemail message.
This situation must be addressed quickly. Yesterday I sent a strongly worded e-mail to the manager of Mayo County Council, of which I was previously a member, reminding him of the legislation passed in this House and what the Government promised us in regard to replies. It is no wonder council officials do not reply to Deputies' questions when one considers that questions addressed to the Government in this House are examined by spin doctors for days in an attempt to ensure the information sought is not imparted. The State has become a dictatorship within a democracy because people refuse to answer questions.
How could the independent commission make a decision that may well ensure the electorate of County Leitrim, the most beautiful county, is not represented in the Dáil? It is wrong that this should be the case. If the commission members understood politics and rural life, they would know the importance of having one's own man or woman in the Dáil for those who live in a county and feel a loyalty to its colours. I hope those electors in Leitrim campaigning against this decision will bring their case to the High Court and attain a positive result. People in Leitrim died to attain a vote and to ensure a person from their own county would represent them in this House. How can any Government allow a situation where Leitrim may not have a representative in the next Dáil?
In my constituency of Mayo, I regularly travel from Shrule through Ballinrobe, Newport, Bangor, Belmullet and down to Blacksod. It is more than 160 miles from one end of the constituency to the other and it is wrong that public representatives must undertake this type of mileage. Mayo has a population of more than 110,000. I do not see why we cannot have two three-seat constituencies rather than one five-seat constituency. It is not right and it is putting pressure on elected representatives. It is wrong that people criticise us for travelling here, there and everywhere to look after our constituents. That is the Dublin 4 and the upper class attitude. This is not the House of Lords and we are not here for life. One is elected to this House for a four or five-year term and the people of the constituency expect a Deputy to represent them and to be available. We are Teachtaí Dala — messengers of the people. If we do not listen and speak to the people and serve them, they will soon forget about us. Some of them have forgotten about us already because we no longer sit on the councils, for which we will pay a price.
Deputy McHugh spoke about the Independents and blamed Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and previous Ministers. He is probably right that the Independents were never in Government. There is only one Independent in this House, he is in the Fine Gael party and the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is looking at him. The others are not independent. They were not independent during the Presidential election and the recent removal of the dual mandate. The only time they are independent is when they collect the €33,000 per year which they get as Independents. They come together and say they want to be a party and want the same privileges in the House as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party. That is fine if they are a political party but why is each of them able to draw down €33,000 unvouched? The leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party must produce audited accounts showing how they spend their money. If these guys want to be a party, let them provide audited accounts. One cannot be in a party and be independent. One cannot seek the privileges of the House as a party and then draw down the €33,000 as an Independent backbencher. One of the worst places to be in politics is on the Government backbenchers, although it is even worse on the Opposition backbenches. Government backbenchers are fodder for the Government and must take the abuse. However, it is fine to be an Independent if one has €33,000 to spend. It is time that was highlighted.
I listened to previous speakers talk about electronic voting. Public officials have rented property to store electronic voting machines for which they are being paid by the State. Some of them work in the Civil Service while others work in councils. If the Minister of State had bought a shed to store electronic voting machines and got paid for doing so, there would be an outcry. However, there was no outcry when an official of a council bought a shed to store electronic voting machines.
It is time to get rid of the electronic voting machines and I have a suggestion as to what to do with them. We are always talking about democracy, educating young people and about how we can get people to vote. I propose that we give the electronic voting machines to schools that can use them to hold mock elections to educate young people on the election process.
We should forget about electronic voting because the people do not want it and did not ask for it. The only ones who wanted electronic voting were the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and Fianna Fáil. I wonder why. They handed over powers in respect of electronic voting to a guy in Holland. I never saw his name on the ballot paper but, by God, I am sure he could doctor the ballot paper in whichever way one wanted. I do not trust electronic voting and I should not have to. The people put their ballot papers in boxes and they are counted the next morning. People continue to enjoy that process and I do not want to see electronic voting.
The previous speaker talked about Britain. We took some good and some very bad things from Britain but we should be able to run our own elections without depending on Britain. The previous speaker was right when he said last Wednesday's election in Britain was over at 9 p.m., that they had the exit polls a half an hour later and that they were out by one seat. It is easy to do that because Britain does not have proportional representation. Some 60% of the people who voted in last week's British election voted against the Government. If that is democracy, it is a queer kind of one. Under our system, the count goes on for three or four days. If the count is going well in the morning, one is in good form but if it is going badly, one has a day to take it on board. At least it is not as cruel and as painful as what happened when electronic voting was used on a trial basis here. Nora Owen was a very foolish woman not to take a case to the High Court because we have found the system was not trustworthy. Those who were elected using the electronic voting system were not truly elected. If I was in Nora Owen's constituency and if I had been beaten, I would have been in the High Court the next day. We would have had a test case and another election.
I turn to the cost of elections. There is no doubt we have pushed ourselves into a corner. I want to have a go at my good friends in the media in regard to expenses. The Independents lectured us about expenses. When they give up politics, many of these fellows could get lecturing jobs in Trinity College because they are good at lecturing. I heard one Independent Deputy make a point about expenses. How can one compare the Minister of State with me? The Minister of State lives in the city of Dublin while I live in Westport, County Mayo, of which I am very proud. It is a lovely town and is the tidiest town in Ireland. It is 155 miles from my home to the House. The Minister of State can go home Monday to Friday but I must travel up on a Monday and work here until Friday.
I have listened to the media compare the 166 Deputies. The Minister of State is also a Deputy. He is lucky enough to be in office, which is an honour. However, when a freedom of information request is made, it should also seek information about Ministers as well as Deputies. It is wrong and unfair of the media to compare the 166 Deputies. Surely I cannot be compared with Deputy Joe Higgins who goes home for his breakfast, dinner and tea and to bed. I have to stay here Monday to Friday. How can the media compare Deputy Joe Higgins with me? I am in the top ten in terms of expenditure. Why would I not be? I want to be in the top five in the five seat constituency of Mayo after the next election, whatever about in the top ten. Ministers have chauffeur driven cars and programme managers which are not considered an expense so it looks as if Deputies are making a fortune. That is not the case.
I see guys in my constituency and outside it spending a fortune in between elections. It is time we looked at that issue. If we are to control the cost of elections, we must control what is spent in between them. If not, everybody should be let spend what they want.
It is time legislation was introduced to enable us to remain on as Deputies until the count is over. There is a daft ruling that once the general election is called, one is no longer a Deputy. There is hypocrisy in that Senators remain on as such until the Seanad election is held. It should be the same for Deputies who are not allowed to use the facilities. We have gone from one extreme to the other. We have become whiter than white. If we do not stop, we will have to count the Biros, the pencils and the next time we go to the toilet, the toilet rolls we use. That is what will happen if we do not stop. It has gone from one extreme to the other. I also want to say regarding voting——
I had some other issues I wanted to raise. I just want to say that we sell ourselves short in this House. We look after the programme managers and the officials in the Departments and we sell ourselves short as backbenchers and TDs.