Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In commending the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill to the House I am asking Dáil Éireann to approve new, thorough and comprehensive restrictions and transparency measures for political funding in the State. I am also seeking approval for the single most significant measure ever brought forward to improve the participation of women in political life. The Bill has been given a thorough and testing examination in the Seanad and I look forward to a comprehensive examination of its provisions by the Members of this House.
The Bill will fundamentally change the way the political system is funded and conducted in Ireland. The role of corporate donations will be curtailed and what role they continue to play will be open to much greater public scrutiny. The Bill will ban all corporate donations above €200, unless the most strict and exacting conditions are met. The amount that can be accepted as a political donation by a political party and an individual politician or candidate is being more than halved. The threshold for the public declaration of donations by parties is being reduced by more than 70%. For politicians and candidates, the declaration threshold is being rounded down and reduced.
All political parties will be required to prepare audited accounts which will be submitted to the Standards in Public Office Commission and published on the Internet. The income and expenditure of parties will be opened up for all to see.
Other measures included in the Bill provide for greater transparency by both donors and those in receipt of political donations. The current system of political funding regulation, with its lack of transparency, is stacked in favour of the donor and the political system and against the ordinary citizen. The donation limits are high - in fact, too high - and we are reducing them. The current system allows corporate and other donors to have a shield of anonymity. This is unhealthy for democracy and the public good. We do not know from where political parties get much of their funding and how it is spent because parties do not have to publish accounts. All of this is going to change. The political funding measures included in the Bill will tip the balance back in favour of the citizen. The Bill will restrict political funding and specifically curtail corporate donations. It will shine a light into the financial affairs of political parties.
The corporate funding of the political system comes at a price above and beyond the value of any one donation. It creates a perception that influence can be bought. It erodes public trust in democracy and politics. In many ways, the price for the failings of the current system has been and continues to be paid.
There has been no lack of advice during the years telling us about the shortcomings of our laws on political funding. Ireland is a member of the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, GRECO. In 2009 this body undertook an evaluation study of Ireland's political system, specifically examining the issue of party funding. Among the recommendations made was that all registered political parties should prepare independently audited accounts that would be made public in a timely and accessible way. It also recommended that consideration be given to lowering the current disclosure threshold for political donations. Similar proposals have been made by the Standards in Public Office Commission. The Bill will directly respond to these recommendations. It will also address recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal report published in 2011. If many of the problems with political funding have been clear for some time, the one thing lacking has been a willingness to act. This is not the case anymore.
Let me turn to the other significant measure contained in the Bill. Women are and always have been under-represented in politics. Just over 15% of the Members of Dáil Éireann are women. Small and all as this is, it is the highest level in this House in the history of the State. Most will agree that this cannot continue. As legislators, it is our duty to lead and, as Minister, my job to do what is necessary within my brief to help to rectify such a significant failing in our democratic system. That is what we are doing here. The gender balance measures linking the State funding of political parties with candidate selection at general elections represent a targeted initiative to help to redress a profound imbalance.
I look forward to hearing Deputies' views throughout the Second Stage debate. We will have an opportunity to scrutinise each section of the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage.
The Bill will reduce the current limits for the acceptance of political donations and the thresholds for the declaration of these donations. The Electoral Act 1997 is now almost 15 years old and the rules for political donations were incorporated into the Act in 2001. A major revision of the laws on political funding is long overdue. If one thing illustrates this point most, it is the fact that the financial amounts in the existing legislation are given in punts.
Part 1 contains standard provisions of a general and technical nature. Part 2 provides for changes to donation and declaration amounts and introduces new conditions for corporate donations. The maximum amount that can be accepted as a donation by a political party, an accounting unit of a political party or a third party is being reduced to €2,500; the current figure is €6,348.69.
The maximum amount that can be accepted as a political donation by an individual is being reduced from €2,539.48 to €1,000. This donation limit will apply to a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or a Member of the European Parliament, as well as a candidate at a Presidential, Dáil, Seanad or European Parliament election. The €1,000 limit will also apply to local authority members and local election candidates through an equivalent measure in Part 3.
Provision is made for a ban on the acceptance of donations of more than €200 for political purposes from a corporate donor unless the donor has registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission. Such donations must be also accompanied by a statement confirming that the donation has been approved by a general meeting of the members of the body or by its trustees. Allowing corporate donations of up to €200 to be accepted without having to comply with the new requirements is based on practical considerations around implementation. Placing the additional disclosure and approval conditions on relatively small donations of under €200 from businesses or organisations would not be fair or practical. If there were no lower limit, a local business placing a poster in a shop window in support of a candidate, for example, could be regarded as giving a corporate donation by way of a benefit-in-kind. A shop owner who buys a raffle ticket or offers a small spot prize for a local function similarly could be regarded as giving a corporate donation.
An exemption is given from the new registration requirements to a provider of a programme of education and training or a students' union where they make a payment to a student society or club. This will allow colleges or students' unions to continue to provide financial support to student groups that promote political participation, without having to comply with the new corporate donor requirements. Members will agree that these grants to student societies can be hardly regarded as the sort of corporate donations which need to be restricted, and that this exemption does not contradict our objective of enhancing the openness and transparency of political funding in Ireland.
Provision is made for the establishment of a register of corporate donors. This register will be published so that people, especially voters, can know which corporate donors intend to provide funds to political parties, election candidates or elected representatives. The term "corporate donor", as defined in section 5, includes all corporate and unincorporated bodies and trusts. This definition embraces companies, partnerships, trade unions, trusts, co-operatives, societies, building societies, charitable organisations, non-governmental organisations, clubs, associations and any other unincorporated bodies of persons; in other words, all bodies and organisations other than natural persons.
To ensure the measures are as comprehensive as possible, an amendment was made by the Government on Committee Stage in the Seanad to provide that a membership fee paid to a political party will be treated as a donation for the purposes of this legislation. Membership fees paid to political parties are not explicitly mentioned in the Electoral Act 1997. Heretofore, the Standards in Public Office Commission, in applying the provisions of the 1997 Act, has not regarded membership fees as falling within the definition of a donation under the Act. A concern was identified in the drafting of the Bill that this could represent a potential loophole. It could allow corporate-type bodies to provide funding to political parties by way of membership fees. A new category of membership, namely, corporate membership, could be created and the fees paid would be exempt from the donation limits and restrictions and the declaration provisions. It was therefore necessary to take action.
While this will affect corporate-type contributions, however, it should not impact in any way on the individual members of political parties who are a vital part of our democratic system. In bringing forward the provision in this Bill, I wish to make it clear that the objective of the Government is to restrict the influence of corporate donations on politics in Ireland and to enhance the openness and transparency of the system of political funding. The Bill will do that to the maximum extent that is possible and constitutionally permissible. The approach being adopted is consistent with our commitments in the programme for Government.
Some Members on the Opposition benches have already advocated a total ban on corporate donations. I accept that it is the role of the Opposition to suggest that it would do things differently. However, the Deputies on that side of the House will be well aware from having been in Government just over a year ago that such a ban would run the risk of a legal or constitutional challenge. Were such legislation to fail on a legal challenge, we would be back to the drawing board. In fact, we would most likely end up back in the House introducing the measures that are contained in this Bill. It is the duty of the Government to bring forward laws that are robust and that bring a level of legal certainty. That is what we are doing. We are restricting corporate political donations and we are doing it in the most effective way we can.
I have already mentioned the reductions in the value of donations that may be accepted. In addition, the threshold at which donations must be declared by a political party to the Standards in Public Office Commission will fall from €5,078.95 to €1,500. The declaration threshold for a donation received by a candidate or elected representative is reduced from €634.87 to €600. There is provision for a reduction from €5,078.95 to €200 in the threshold at which donations must be reported by companies, trade unions, societies and building societies in their annual reports or returns. Part 2 also provides for a reduction in the threshold for donors other than companies, trade unions, societies and building societies in reporting donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission, from a figure of €5,078.95 to €1,500 for aggregate donations given in the same year.Part 3 provides for the necessary amendments to the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 to enable the new requirements on political donations to apply at local elections. All relevant elections, candidates and elected representatives will be therefore covered by the new requirements.
Part 4 provides for all registered political parties to prepare an annual statement of accounts and an auditor's report. These are to be submitted each year to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication. In the event of non-compliance with these provisions, funding made available to political parties by the State under Part 3 of the Electoral Act 1997 is to be withheld. The format of the accounts will be based on guidelines prepared by the commission. In drafting these guidelines, there will be a consultation period for political parties and others to input their views. The guidelines will be then approved by the Minister and published. Having the accounts prepared in a standard format will enable like-for-like comparisons to be made between parties. This will enhance transparency for the public.
Part 5is entitled "State Funding of Political Parties and Gender Balance". The proportion of men to women in the population of Ireland is approximately 50:50, yet this has never been reflected in Dáil representation. As I mentioned earlier, we now have the highest ever level of women's representation in this House. However, women comprise just more than 15% of the Members of Dáil Éireann. That is a long way from balanced representation and the situation will not change of its own accord unless we make it change. The provisions in Part 5 are designed to do just that and move us towards greater gender equality in elected representation in our national Parliament.
Parties that do not select at least 30% women candidates at the next general election will face losing half of their State funding. This would be for not just one year, but for the lifetime of a Dáil. To put into perspective the potential impact of non-compliance, the total that is available for disbursement to parties in 2012 is €5.456 million. Following the 2011 general election, the four political parties that qualify for funding are Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Any party that aspires to receive more than 2% of the vote at the next general election to qualify for State funding will have a very clear incentive to comply with the new requirements.
Part 5 deals with the fund paid to political parties. Currently, the amount available is increased when there is a general increase in Civil Service pay. There is no provision for a decrease to be applied if Civil Service pay is reduced. On Committee Stage in the Seanad the opportunity was taken to introduce a Government amendment to rectify this. This matter was originally raised in an amendment put forward by Deputy Catherine Murphy on Committee Stage in the Dáil during the passage of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011 in July 2011. I did not accept the amendment at the time but I undertook to give it further consideration, in consultation with Government colleagues, in the preparation of this Bill. The Government gave the matter consideration and the provision is now part of this Bill. I commend Deputy Murphy on bringing forward this matter.
The effect of the provision will be to enable any future general decreases, as well as increases, in Civil Service pay to be applied to the fund. However, the decreases that have occurred since 2008 would not be retrospectively implemented. While it is right that we are taking the opportunity to make this change, the gender balance provisions are the significant focus of Part 5. The programme for Government contains a commitment that "Public funding for political parties will be tied to the level of participation by women as candidates those parties achieve". The Bill gives effect to this commitment.
I will explain the thinking behind how and why the measures in the Bill were framed in this way. In developing the gender balance provisions we have had regard to experience in other jurisdictions. We have drawn upon models that have succeeded elsewhere, while having particular regard to Ireland's own legal and constitutional framework. The Government is particularly indebted to the work undertaken by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and its 2009 report, "Women's Participation in Politics". The work of that joint committee has informed the design of the legislation that is now before us. I will quote directly from the summary of the findings at chapter five of the committee's report, which concludes:
It appears that the single most effective reform for women in Ireland would be the introduction of mandatory positive action measures through legislation requiring political parties to adopt gender targets or quotas in their candidate selection process. If such legislation were to be adopted in Ireland, its framing would be critical. In Belgium, for example, under the Smet-Tobback law, a maximum limit is placed on candidates of each gender, i.e. parties are penalised if more than two-thirds of their candidates are of one gender. This may be a better formula than provision for a minimum number of women candidates. A realistic sanction would also have to be imposed where political parties exceed the target prescribed, perhaps based on the French model of financial penalties.
As Deputies can see, a minimum representation of one third women and men was recommended in this report. We are starting with 30% and then moving to 40%. Since details of the Bill were published in June of last year, there has been a significant public debate on the gender balance provisions. In questioning the need for these measures, some have suggested that they may be unconstitutional. While I welcome the debate, I reject those views. To avoid any doubt, I want to state clearly that, in my view, the measures in this Bill are legally and constitutionally sound.
Part 5 will make the funding provided to political parties under the Electoral Act 1997 conditional on achieving a gender balance in the selection of candidates at a general election. Funding to political parties under the 1997 Act is provided by the Oireachtas to political parties under legislation and it is open to the Oireachtas to make the funding subject to conditions. The provision in the Bill is designed as an incentive mechanism to encourage political parties to apply a better gender balance in the selection of candidates. It is a proportionate response to address a significant weakness in Ireland's democratic system.
By contrast with the questioning of the constitutionality of this provision, others have pressed for a similar measure to be put in place for other elections and for local elections in particular. I agree with the principle that is informing this view. We need to encourage more women to stand in local elections and, indeed, in other elections. However, I am not in a position to apply similar gender balance measures to candidate selection at other elections. Funding provided to political parties under the Electoral Act 1997 is linked to performance at general elections. The amount paid is determined based on the percentage vote received at a general election. The reduction in funding paid to political parties that do not meet the new gender balance requirements will therefore be linked to the gender of candidates of political parties at general elections. There is no direct funding mechanism attached to local election candidates or to political parties and groups contesting local elections.
Nevertheless, while the measures will not formally apply at local elections, I expect that, in practice, political parties will act. At a minimum, parties preparing candidates for a general election are likely to select a more balanced ticket for local elections. There is a clear incentive for them to do so now. It can be anticipated that an increase in the number of women candidates at local elections would follow as a consequence of this legislation.
As regards the timing of the coming into effect of the provisions, I believe that the Bill adopts both an ambitious and pragmatic approach. This is particularly so when bearing in mind the baseline from which we are starting. The gender balance figure will increase from 30% to 40%, with a minimum of seven years allowed for this change to come into effect. When we debated the Bill in the Seanad, it was suggested that the 40% provision should come into force after a shorter time period or even from the start. I did not agree with those proposals at the time. I want to explain why and to describe the rationale behind the approach adopted in the Bill.
The starting figure of 30% is ambitious. At the general election held in February 2011, 86 of the 566 candidates who sought election were women, representing 15.19% of the total. When the Bill is passed the intended outcome will be to effectively double that figure to 30% participation within one general election cycle. Section 16 of the Electoral Act 1997 provides that payments made to political parties under the Act are based on the performance of political parties at the "last preceding general election". The change from 30% to 40% therefore has to be made with reference to the holding of a general election, rather than to a fixed time period only. Otherwise there is the potential for a situation to arise whereby both the 30% and the 40% gender balance provision could end up being used as a criterion for payments to political parties arising from the same general election. In the interests of fairness and to ensure compliance with the legislation, the Bill has to be very clear about when the change from 30% to 40% will apply. The formula that is used in the Bill achieves that clarity in a balanced and fair, yet ambitious, way. We also need to allow sufficient time for the measure to bed down and become effective. I would ask that anyone who seeks to criticise the Bill for not going far enough, should bear those points in mind.
I have no doubt that there is a commitment on all sides of this House to the principle of what is in the Bill. There is a balance to be struck, though, between providing leadership by championing a measure that some people may not agree with while at the same time ensuring the legislation we enact can work both in theory and practice. We have to lead but we must bring people with us. Equally, we have to be ambitious and must also be pragmatic. The Bill meets those challenges and achieves the right balance. We are transforming the face of politics for the participation of men and women, and we are aiming to do that in a relatively short period.
How politics is funded is fundamental to the fair and effective operation of our democratic system. In many areas of Irish life we have learned the valuable lesson in recent years that light and limited regulation is likely to have light and limited results. That is why in this Bill we have adopted a detailed and comprehensive approach. The current system is badly in need of reform.
This Bill responds to what the people have been telling us. Each Part of the Bill contains separate provisions that are significant in their own right. However, when taken together, they become greater than the sum of their parts. The combined effect of these measures will be to shift the funding of election campaigns and political activity towards smaller-scale contributions from individuals. In respect of this particular legislation, it is as if, in some respects, we are dealing with two Bills in one. The new gender balance requirements are equally significant in their own right. However, they sit very well with the political funding reforms that we are also introducing in the Bill. Both are about making our democratic system better, stronger and more equal.
I ask Members of the House to give the Bill the consideration it deserves as vital and reforming legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. The Bill is timely given that tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the publication of the Moriarty report, and we are told that the Mahon report will be published tomorrow. In that context, it is opportune that we are discussing the funding of political parties.
Political parties are no different from any other organisations in the country in the sense that they all require money to be properly run, including communicating with the public about what we stand for and communicating with our membership in an upfront and transparent manner. I welcome any legislation which sets out to achieve those important goals.
On foot of what was contained in the Moriarty report, my party published legislation during the year which was rejected. The Bill before us contains many of the proposals we had set out, although the Minister's proposals do not go quite as far as we had envisaged. While we can debate that, it remains a fact that political parties require funding. I needs to be said that when people set out to support political parties in a bona fide manner, which is in the public interest, there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, however, given the activities of a few people over the years, the concept of donating to political parties has been besmirched. There are many people who like to make small donations, which is their way of helping the political process. It is also their way of being involved in the political process and there is nothing wrong with that. Long may it continue. If people wish to give small amounts, let them do so openly and transparently in an upfront manner so that everyone knows about it. If we had had more of that earlier, the country would not have found itself discussing the fall-out of the Moriarty report, while awaiting the fall-out of the Mahon report.
In his opening remarks, the Minister said that we will have a thorough examination of the matter, which is right. We must have a thorough examination of all the mechanisms involved because there are areas of political donations that are not completely black and white. In his speech, the Minister highlighted the example of membership fees for members of political parties. Advancing that point further, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil run members' draws. If one takes the membership fee and the cost of purchasing a ticket for the members' draw, one is adding two sums together which are going to the same destination. Are we therefore getting further into a donation process and will it push an individual over a limit? It obviously depends on the price charged for membership and the cost of a ticket, as well as whether an individual takes up membership and purchases a couple of tickets.
I will make two political points, although we do not have to put on our boxing gloves for this matter. Fine Gael promised before the election to ban corporate donations. I recall seeing the Minister, in one of the pre-election debates, promising to publish the Fine Gael accounts on the party website. I do not think that has been done to date.
I will check when I get back to my office, or did the hackers get in and wipe it off as soon as it was posted?
It is right and proper that all accounts are published by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. They must be independently audited by SIPO and available for independent scrutiny by the commission. People will be cynical if a political party publishes its own accounts through its own medium. There must be an independent verification. Let SIPO be the vehicle for that.
Will the Bill apply the same donation and funding restrictions to referendum campaigns as to election campaigns? We are currently in a referendum cycle and we will be dealing with a number of referendums in the next couple of years. Where do we stand with regard to recording donations to referendum campaigns? Concern has been expressed by members of the public about the analysis carried out of recent referendums. It is alleged that some campaigns received funding from questionable sources. Given that it is proposed to hold a referendum on the fiscal compact before the summer, a referendum on children's rights is planned and a couple of others are stacking up, as it were, we need to examine this issue. Will donations to referendum campaigns be dealt with under separate legislation or can the issue be incorporated into this Bill? We do not want to let time slip by.
Gender balance is a difficult nut to crack. The Minister quoted statistics on the number of women who stood in the most recent general election and related it to the number of women elected to the Dáil. The Minister acknowledges that the Bill is a blunt instrument in achieving gender balance. Any reasonable measure to improve gender balance is right and proper. However, we need to look behind the numbers at the reasons so few women offer themselves for election in the first instance. We must also scenario test the 30% figure. What if a political party does not have the required 30% of women offering for selection?
He might not any more. Politics is a career and lifestyle choice for men and women. We need to look behind those figures and see how we can address the structure of a political career to open it up to women. It is not the case that big bad political parties are dominated by men in smoke-filled rooms conspiring to lock out women. That is not the case. In my own county, only one woman offered to stand for my party in the most recent local elections. She stood for election, but she was the only woman candidate. Should we penalise political parties who do not nominate women candidates? It may be that women do not offer to stand. There is a fundamental question over the lifestyle and career demands and constraints of this job. We need to have a debate about that and to look at the structures. I am in favour of any change that improves gender balance. We have to have it.
It is a good thing and will bring balance. Women are under-represented in Parliament. Anything that will help that is good. One hears some organisations saying that politics is male dominated, which it is, and that there is a conspiracy by party hierarchies to keep it so. Promotion of gender balance is a very difficult issue. Gender balance should operate in both ways. Should the Bill require a minimum of 30% male candidates? It cuts both ways.
A few token men. Anything that will help is good.
The Minister addressed the issue of trade unions, which has been a bugbear for a long time. Trade unions were a major force in the funding of political parties for many years, and this was not acknowledged. It is acknowledged now, and rightly so.
My party tabled a number of amendments to the Bill when it was debated in the Seanad. We will resubmit some of those on Committee Stage in this House, particularly with regard to frontloading the 30% gender requirement for local elections.
I commend the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. It is positive, by and large. Some of its measures could go further, especially regarding political donations. As my party colleague, Deputy Niall Collins, said, we will be raising this matter on Committee Stage as the Bill progresses. The legislation, in its content and spirit, brings Irish politics in the right direction, if not as far as it should go.
The Bill deals with the two key areas of political funding and the chronic under-represenation of women in the political system. We must make strong efforts to bring about improvements in these two areas because of their importance to the system as a whole.
I am disappointed the Bill does not go further with regard to corporate donations, although the Minister has come a long way from where things were before now. I am sure it is tiresome for the Minister to have people remind him of the pledges in the Fine Gael election manifesto where, as my colleague has pointed out, Fine Gael committed to ban corporate donations entirely and to introduce the legislative and constitutional measures necessary to do that. We have often heard that party manifestos are subject to negotiation with coalition partners and that compromises are agreed to. We must take it that it was the influence of the Minister's Labour Party colleagues that caused him to water down his election promises, unless he had a complete change of heart, which would be totally out of character. I must presume the Labour Party was influential in this instance.
The €200 limit on corporate donations will place new and trenchant obligations on companies and corporations to provide details of their membership and shareholders as well as copies of company accounts and annual reports. The Bill requires details of donors to be included in a register to be published on the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, website, for each corporation to get the consent of its members for donations in excess of €200 and to publish all such donations in its annual report. Those changes will bring a significant sea-change to the level of corporate donations coming into the political system because it will make it more difficult for companies to make donations. That will be a healthy influence on politics because the influence of political donations in recent political history has been mostly negative. Tightening up the regulation of properly made donations, however, does not and cannot rule out the potential for more underhand and illegal donations to continue, but it will make it more difficult for that to happen and it will send a strong message on how politics should operate.
Ultimately, politics must operate on funding. Significant funding to the tune of millions of euro is given on an annual basis to the main parties. In recent years, up to €4 million or €5 million has been given to Fine Gael and similar levels of funding has been given to my party and the Labour Party. That is a by-product of introducing a system whereby we limit donations, but in as far as it is possible, the way we want Irish politics to operate is through a system of smaller donations from members of the general public because politics operates through the contributions of people, first by being a member of a party and then by getting out and campaigning for their preferred candidate at election time. I see nothing untoward with ordinary citizens making small contributions to political parties and their preferred candidates to fund the system, but it is critical that the amounts are small. The Minister could have gone further with the legislation in that regard.
It is unfortunate that gender quotas must be introduced and that we are at a juncture that legislation is required to force the issue and to bring about an improvement. In recent years there has been limited progress in terms of improving the gender ratio in Irish politics. In some ways the Bill is akin to taking a big stick to the table, but it will shake things up and lead to a definite change in the number of women that is elected.
It is interesting to focus on the statistics relating to the representation of women in politics and the electoral process in recent years. Historically, there appears to be a reduced success rate for female candidates in elections. In 1992, 18% of candidates were female but only 12% were successful in getting elected. The same statistics prevailed in 1997. Up to 2002, 18% of candidates were female and only 13% succeeded in getting elected. However, in the 2011 general election there was a significant change in that 15% of candidates were women, which was a much smaller percentage than in previous elections, but 15% of Deputies elected were female. Perhaps the result indicates a delayed representation in politics of what has happened in wider society in the past ten or more years whereby female participation in the workforce, in particular in many professions which had hitherto been male dominated such as medicine and law, has increased to the extent that a much higher proportion of women is entering both of those professions.
As the significant increase in female entrants to those professions in recent years filters through to the higher echelons of the courts and the consultant grades in the medical profession, women may come to dominate the courts, for example. If the level of new female entrants is anything to go by, we may get to the stage when we will consider the introduction of gender quotas to ensure men are represented in the Supreme Court and High Court.
Lack of confidence is often posited as a reason for fewer women becoming involved in politics but when one examines what has happened in other professions that are difficult to enter and require a high level of confidence and willingness to put oneself out there, it is clear that a lack of confidence has not been a barrier to the involvement of women in such professions. Deeper issues are at stake in terms of why women have not come to the fore to the same extent in politics. Ultimately, it may come down to the lifestyle involved and the fact that it is much more difficult to regulate politics in the same way one regulates a profession in terms of, for example, providing maternity and paternity leave, holidays, lifestyle and hours of work. An increase in the number of women participating in politics may lead to a change in the political culture which can feed into that. The ultimate arbiter of change is the voter. Most politicians accept that, on balance, the number of meetings attended, hours worked and sacrifices made pay off in terms of the vote garnered.
Ultimately, democracy is pure and to make the lifestyle more attractive to both male and female candidates is not something that could be easily done. It is, however, part of the issue. If, through the introduction of gender quotas there is an increase in the number of female candidates and a resultant increase in the number of female Oireachtas Members elected, this Chamber would be a different place. It would lead to a positive change in the political culture which could ensure change is more rapidly expedited than heretofore.
I commend many of the initiatives in the Bill, in particular the one that relates to corporate donations but the Minister could have gone further in terms of political donations. The Bill is, however, positive and is heading in the right direction.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. With the arrival of Deputy Catherine Murphy, I note that women are in the majority in the Chamber given the presence of Deputies Mitchell O'Connor, Doherty, Tuffy and McDonald.
Overall, the Bill is positive. We have some issues with it but the overall thrust is in the right direction. The proportional representation system has been good in terms of electing public representatives. The gender issue, however, has been a significant problem. The current system has much to commend it in terms of ensuring that as many different strands of opinion as possible are represented and that small parties and niche views find their place in the Dáil and the Legislature. Clearly, the system has limitations. The people do not pick the list of candidates from which they can choose, in particular those who run on behalf of political parties, as it is the parties that select and nominate candidates. The people have shown time and time again that when female candidates are selected, and when they run for election, they are as likely to be elected as their male counterparts. The people do not tend to discriminate on the basis of gender and tend to vote on merit.
Certainly, it is not the case that women are less political or politically able than men. Indeed, I am sure many Members will agree that is often the case that the leaders in local communities, associations and societies are female. Women have the same interest in political matters, in advancing their community and in improving life for the people where they live.
Often it is said that men are dominant in rural areas, but the role of the ICA in difficult decades has been instrumental in Ireland.
It is a women's organisation. It has been a good organisation overall.
It is within political parties and the political culture where our greatest failings lie. Representation of women in the Oireachtas has been held back by our political culture and by parties failing to allow sufficient numbers of women to have their names go forward. Females have never made up more than 15% of the membership of this House, which is their current standing, nor have recent years been especially positive. In the most recent general election only five more women were elected than in 1992. Of the 556 candidates who ran in the most recent general election, only 86 or 15% were women.
This Bill is an effort to circumvent that limitation by ensuring the people have a reasonable proportion of women from which to choose and that political parties take all possible measures to ensure there are sufficient female candidates on the ballot paper representing them. I believe these measures in the Bill are likely to meet with success in ensuring these Houses reach a minimum of 30% female candidates for the next general election.
In nearly any state that has introduced quotas, there has been a significant increase in the representation of women. In Sweden, 45% of MPs are female; in Germany, it is 32%; and in Norway, it is almost 40%. They are a long way ahead of us. In my party, we brought in a quota system a number of years ago. We wrestled with it for a long time. Many of us were against it, but it was the only measure that cracked the issue in terms of getting women into senior positions in the party. Male Members should not see gender quotas as a threat. We should embrace them as a means of bringing about equality in the Houses of the Oireachtas and in the political system. We must ensure women and the voice of women are properly represented in the Seanad, the Dáil and local authority chambers.
Women bring their own particular perspective to politics and to life, not because of any particular talents that are innate to them but on account of their life experience. Women are more likely to be carers, the majority of lower paid workers are female, and females are more likely to be closer to the community. In considering the very poor gender balance in this Oireachtas, which has historically been a huge problem, I welcome this move and commend the Minister on taking such a step.
I might, however, sound a note of caution that this will not be a silver bullet or a panacea to deal with all of these issues. While it is to be hoped the Bill will improve the representation of women in the Houses, and in all likelihood it will, it does not mean we will have significantly more women in politics. Elected representatives are only a small proportion of those involved in politics, and the obstacles that have held back the representation of women in these Houses will continue unless the broader issue is tackled. All of us are aware that the sinews that make up political parties and political organisations are important. Without them, none of us would be here. Even the Independents have their support groups, and rightly so. Women make up a large part of such groups and if one does not have that, there will not be proper representation, proper political structures or a proper basis on which to build a political system.
These are cultural issues within the Irish political system. Many of the women who run for election would not have wished to have done so because of the difficulties they faced in terms of income, child care and other factors. The culture of Irish political parties is male orientated, in terms of the way sittings and meetings are structured, when and where meetings are held, and many other respects. Indeed, these institutions are far from ideal in this regard. The long hours make it difficult for a young mother, or indeed a father, to be a Deputy. The long sitting days, the travel, the expectations and the constituency workload bear down on them. The reform of local government is important in this regard. Much decision-making and many issues that could be dealt with at local government level are currently dealt with by Deputies. The ending of the dual mandate was a positive move by a previous Government. It is to be hoped we will soon revisit the reform of local government. I am not asking for the load to be lightened. I am asking, however, that we examine ways in which the work of these Houses and the work associated with being a Deputy can be made more flexible and easier for those with young families. In many ways, the Houses, as currently constituted, are anti-family. These measures will not change any of that. Papering over the cracks is only a temporary solution.
The issue of quotas is only a small part of what we need to do to ensure more women engage in politics, stand for elections and, importantly, join political parties. Political parties are voluntary organisations and it is honourable to be a member of any political party, regardless of what part of the political spectrum one is on. Funding, child care and unsocial hours have already been signalled by women as barriers to their engagement in politics, and this must be addressed. Some academics have coined the obstacles as the five Cs: child care, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection. Many of us would agree this is accurate. While I do not oppose the introduction of these measures and the taking of positive measures to redress the balance, and while I note that they have been reasonably successful in other places, I would point out that they tackle and manage one of the symptoms of the problem and do not tackle the root causes of the under-representation of women or the more marginalised sections and classes of society. They still face significant obstacles in terms of child care, the times at which meetings are held, the time required to be dedicated to political activity and the male dominated culture of society at large and the networks surrounding politics. None the less, I welcome these measures as a positive step. I ask the Minister to consider my comments and to be emboldened by the legislation to work with other Ministers to tackles issues such as child care and to take measures to improve the involvement of women, not only in elected roles but in the political system generally.
They might also consider the question of whether it would be appropriate to extend these measures, along with other comprehensive proposals, to local elections and other elections. Many of the same cultural and social obstacles to the representation of women exist in other institutions, and we must examine ways in which these can be tackled to achieve greater representation of females in local government and public bodies. I was a member of a VEC for two terms, and it would sit at 4.30. If one wants to stop women from being involved, one should hold meetings at 4.30, the time when children are coming in from school and one is trying to get dinner ready. At that time, I was involved in the same activity. It creates considerable problems for women. Public bodies need to consider that as well.
I also want to touch on the other major part of this legislation which covers maximum corporate donations, the full disclosure of such donations and other such measures. I welcome that the Minister is reducing the maximum single donation a political party can accept in a year to €2,500, the requirement for audited accounts, the creation of a register of corporate donors and the reduction in the minimum donation that must be declared by a political party to €1,500 and by a candidate to €600. Political transparency is very important. We saw over many years the way in which the political system was tainted by allegations, substantiated facts on financial ambiguities, improper donations, lack of transparency and outright corruption.
Some political parties have been seen for many years as being far too close to big business. Indeed, many commentators would have noted that the Galway tent culture was a factor in creating the economic crash. In the eyes of many, the closeness of developers and bankers to the Government meant that no one cried halt at the soaring prices of houses or property, the unsustainable tax base, the reckless levels of borrowing in the major commercial banks, and the lack of regulation of those banks caused by that culture. Limiting the influence of big business and of a small number of wealthy individuals on our political system is essential for the protection of a fair democratic system. Where there is a culture of large corporate donations, this tends to influence policy decisions or, at the very least, access to political figures, which is not unique to this country and happens across the world. The policy objectives of such corporations or wealthy individuals will not always accord with the objectives of the people at large, whereas, at the end of the day, we are here to represent all sections of the community.
The less well-off will rarely have the same access to political figures or the same influence and, therefore, policy objectives which are in the interests of lower income groups will lose out. On that basis, while the limitations on corporate gifts and the new level for declared donations are welcome, I would ask the Minister to go further. There is a need to ban all forms of corporate donations. There is a commitment on page 22 of the programme for Government to that end and we will table amendments to put an end to corporate donations and to hold the Government to that commitment, with which we agree.
Corporate donations are capable of being a malign influence on the body politic, a fact the Government recognised when it made its commitment. It was said this was part of the election manifestos and I accept there must be compromises when a Government is being formed. However, it is there in black and white in the programme for Government and we would like to see it implemented. Why is the Government back-tracking on that position? Has the Minister been put under pressure to ensure important streams of revenue to the two parties in Government are not hampered? Has the Labour Party, worried about the ending of its trade union funding, put pressure on the Minister? I hope we get an answer to this question. We need to know why the Government has dropped a very important part of its election platform and a commitment in the programme for Government.
The Minister has a chance to remove the spectre of the Galway tent from Irish politics once and for all, and he should grasp it. We welcome how far the Minister is going in the Bill and we ask him to go a little further and to ban corporate donations. Overall, the Bill is a very positive move forward and we will be supporting most of what is contained in it.
I thank Deputy Stanley for sharing his speaking time. I find myself in the very pleasant position of warmly welcoming the Bill, in particular the measures on gender quotas. I say all of this mindful that, in an ideal scenario, we would not be sitting here debating gender quotas. In an ideal scenario, the Dáil and the Houses of the Oireachtas would be truly representative but, as we all know, we are not at that place.
If I were to boil it right down, I support gender quotas because if we are serious about political reform and about full and equal representation, we have to do something that has a good chance of working. The evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that gender quotas deliver, and delivery is what we need at this juncture. Like many women in political life and outside it, I have lost count of the number of debates and conversations that have taken place, and all of the lamentations about the lack of women in public life. We have done the lamenting. We have all scratched our heads and wondered what to do. Now, in this legislation, we have at least a step - I believe it is an important step - towards putting matters right.
The focus of gender quotas on general elections alone ignores the reality that many elected representatives begin their political careers on local councils. I urge the Minister to take account of this fact, which holds true for women as well as men. We need a level of consistency. If gender quotas are to be applied in respect of the Dáil, there is no good reason they should not be applied in regard to local authorities.
Responsibility lies with all of us in political life to increase women's participation from the bottom up and the top down. This will mean political parties reconsidering how they organise their work and auditing their own internal procedures and practices. It will mean, at times, men stepping aside and making way for women. It will also mean Governments, when elected, stepping up to the plate, looking at their Front Bench and undertaking a gender audit when making appointments to Cabinet or to committee chairs.
The linking of gender quota targets with party political party funding in this legislation is very important and is evidence, in itself, of the historic failure of politics to deliver equal participation of men and women in public life. Measures put forward by any Government to tackle the low numbers of women participating in national politics are very welcome but, if we are to truly change the culture of politics, gender quotas are only one part of an overall package of measures. A single "big ticket" item will not be enough to address the reasons women "don't do politics", as it is said.
The forthcoming constitutional convention offers a real opportunity for the Government to put meat on the bones of this legislative measure. While the smoke signals from the Government to date have not been encouraging, we have time to change this. If Fine Gael and Labour are serious about gender equality, and I believe they are, one simple expression of this would be an announcement by the Taoiseach that he will ensure the equal representation of women on the convention, as proposed by Sinn Féin.
Any new constitution arising from the convention must include maximum human rights guarantees. It must contain all the modern equality and human rights protections that reflect the full spectrum of our international obligations, including the rights of women to be represented and to be present in all of our political institutions. Politics needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
I have spoken on any number of occasions about the barriers that preclude women from taking part in politics but nothing prepared me for how stark the reality of inequality is and how it expresses itself in this House. I am one of just 25 women elected to this Dáil out of 166 members. Outside of this Chamber, women are in the majority, yet in here we make up just 15%. This is simply an unacceptable fact.
It was only when I came into the Chamber and took my seat for the first time that I truly realised how male dominated an institution this is. The reality of the maleness and the sheer inequality of it smacks right in the face. All of the party benches are dominated by men, the Government Front Bench is dominated by men and our most senior civil servants are still predominantly men. Despite this, when we speak about women in politics, the narrative sometimes still suggests we are a minority group. In this Chamber, which is very male and sometimes belligerently so, that is the truth. In the real world, however, we are the majority, with women making up just over half the population.
I believe there is no accidental confusion in the way this story is told; in fact, it is deliberate. It is a narrative created largely by men in power who want to hold on to power, locally and nationally, on the ground and within our political institutions. Political life is in many ways off limits for women, in particular women with children. The five Cs have been mentioned. Cash, child care, confidence and culture are all obstacles for women, as we know, although we have not done a whole pile about it. However, politics understands full well the reasons that women cannot and do not participate in public and political life. The five Cs are critical components in an overall strategy to empower women to get involved in politics. Above all, however, women must overcome the assumption that it is men who do power. Let us be honest in that regard. This is about power, the attainment and exercise of power and decision making, which in cultural and social terms in this country is considered a male responsibility. We must shift this assumption as a matter of urgency.
Politics is in crisis. Successive Governments have made - and continue to make - decisions that are not in the interests of the wider society. The financial wants of bankers, financiers, developers, business interests and of the European, international and domestic political institutions are prioritised ahead of the education and health needs of our people. Real values have been thrown to the wind and citizens are paying an unacceptable price. Women, alongside our men, can and must play an equal role in political and public life. Delivering parity of representation in politics will act as a lever for reshaping our society. I am not arguing for tokenistic representation which merely delivers a more colourful or attractive Chamber, although I am sure that would be welcomed by many. Fuller participation by women in political life can have a definitive influence in terms of the policy agenda and the policy decisions that are taken. That is why I warmly welcome the proposal for gender quotas.
There is a range of fantastic organisations willing and able to assist us in our task of achieving gender parity. The Irish Countrywomen's Association was mentioned by other speakers. The recently launched Women for Election is headed up by women who can only be described as a breath of fresh air. They are enthusiastic and committed to their objective of increasing women's participation in political life. The 50:50 Group, likewise, is dedicated to achieving equal representation in Irish politics. The National Women's Council of Ireland continues its excellent work of proactively engaging with representatives in its campaign work. I commend all these groups. The political system must engage in an open, honest and progressive way with all interested individuals and groups in order to make progress.
I support the comments made by my colleague, Deputy Stanley, in regard to local government reform. I draw the Minister's attention to another issue of concern, namely, the representation and participation of women in the media. The National Women's Council of Ireland's submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland illustrates starkly that women continue to be marginalised from current affairs broadcasting. The findings in regard to RTE are extremely disappointing. Bottom of the class is "News at One" which, during the surveyed period, shows the lowest level of women's participation, at just 12.5%. Next was "Drivetime" at 21%, followed by "Morning Ireland" at 23% and Marian Finucane's programme at 30%. RTE is a public sector broadcaster. If it is unable to develop criteria to ensure equal representation of women in its programming, then it, like the political parties, must be incentivised to do so. If public funding to political parties is to be linked to efforts to achieve gender parity, there is no reason a similar linkage cannot be made in respect of RTE.
Every time the issue of gender quotas is debated, there are strong reactions, both strongly supportive and strongly oppositional. Sometimes it is women who argue most strongly against quotas because they do not want to be tokenised or undermined in any role they might take on in political life. Every woman elected to this House understands precisely why that is the case. However, the opposite to introducing gender quotas is simply to sit on our hands, complain about how terrible the current situation is and wish it were different. In 2012, we no longer have the luxury of such a stance. Politics, public discourse and public policy are all damaged by the absence of women. If we are to support and nurture a representative democracy in this State, we must all - women and men - insist on equal gender representation.
I commend the Minister on this legislation. The introduction of gender quotas is welcome as the first in what I hope will be a series of steps aimed unapologetically at increasing the number of women in the Dáil and Seanad and in local authorities throughout the State. To those who have fears and concerns, I urge them to consider the experience in other jurisdictions in which women and men were also opposed to the politics of tokenism but nevertheless took the plunge of introducing quotas and subsequently transformed the complexion not only of elected parliaments but of the tone and nature of political debate itself.
All Members will recall the three main issues that were raised by citizens during last year's election campaign, political reform being one of them. That election was unusual in that we saw an absence of local concerns, with a much greater focus than would normally be the case on national issues. In effect, we were given a prescription by voters for the type of reform that is expected. This is the second electoral amendment Bill we have had since then and it represents an opportunity to deliver on the radical reform sought by so many. Unfortunately, while it includes several welcome proposals, it amounts to a missed opportunity to deliver the radical change that was demanded and promised. There will be other opportunities to fulfil that commitment and I hope they will be taken.
It is important we attempt reform in a way which consolidates existing legislative provisions. The Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, GRECO, to which the Minister referred in his opening statement, has emphasised the importance of having consolidated legislation rather than a range of Acts which may make the system less transparent. A consolidated approach is more beneficial to anybody trying to understand the system. However, this Bill reflects the compartmentalised approach to reform that has come to typify the Government's approach. There is also a clear lack of ambition in proposals which amount to a mere tweaking of the political funding landscape. The Bill achieves the minimum required, for example, in regard to the Moriarty tribunal. Having said that, the provisions providing for a linkage between gender quotas and political funding are very welcome. There is a variety of views within the Technical Group in regard to quotas. It is my view that we have gone past the point of talking and that action must be taken. As such, I am supportive of that aspect of the Bill.
Notwithstanding my overall dissatisfaction with the proposals - perhaps I am in too great a rush to see political reform - there are other aspects of the Bill that are welcome. I thank the Minister for including an amendment I proposed last year and which he referred to in his opening statement.
It relates to section 28(a) in Part 5 of the Bill and allows for both decreases and increases, which is welcome. I am very pleased the Minister took this suggestion on board. I also am pleased that some of the Moriarty tribunal recommendations have been included, such as the reduction in the maximum amounts that may be donated to a party or individual, a register of donors and real-time information, which is really important. However, such real-time information must be accompanied by the ability to enforce something based on that information. For example, when running in general or by-elections, all Members will have experienced the phenomenon of having clear knowledge that someone is spending over the limits. However, one only begins to examine the figures after the event. While I acknowledge this point relates to donations, if one seeks a good outcome I believe the organisation enforcing this measure must be resourced adequately.
My real concern is that Members are engaging in a debate on political funding that only deals with private political funding. It appears as though they are whispering behind the very large elephant in the room, namely, the annual Exchequer funding to the political system. I believe this funding to be in need of urgent change, not least to ensure the population of Ireland, which is being bombarded with cuts and additional taxes, is aware the political classes also are experiencing a measure of belt-tightening. At a conservative estimate, approximately €60 million per annum in Exchequer funds goes towards political funding by way of cash and resources. I acknowledge fully it is essential that the political systems should function and that public funding be provided in order that private interests do not dominate. The Moriarty tribunal report has demonstrated to Members just how damaging this has been to the profession of politics. In this context, I note the Mahon tribunal report is about to be published this week, next week or tomorrow, if the whispers are to be believed.
However, I do not believe it is in the public interest to have an overly liberal provision of funding to the political system at a time when severe austerity is being experienced nationwide and there is an expectation that something will be done in this regard. Furthermore, I have grave misgivings about the compartmentalised nature of the current funding model and the lack of transparency in the manner for which moneys received are accounted. I also mean by this comment that I consider it to be wholly unacceptable that no vouching option is available, for example, for the party leader's allowance or the leader's allowance for Independent Members. I certainly would have no difficulty in presenting what I spend from that allowance to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. Public money should be properly accounted for and I wish to make that point. I understand the first legislation pertaining to political funding was introduced in 1938 during the de Valera era. The funding system has been tweaked subsequently and is quite difficult to understand, to the point where it is hard to track down many of the allowances for which politicians and political parties qualify. It is important for politicians to be absolutely transparent in this regard because each time something new appears to be revealed about another allowance, people lose faith and it becomes too big a matter to absorb, which is really damaging.
The entire approach to political funding in Ireland must be questioned. This means reforming both the private and public funding models to ensure there is an even playing pitch for all who participate in politics and for those who may wish to so do in future. It may not be the model that is under consideration at present. One must challenge what one means by political reform and a debate is needed in this regard. I believe citizens understood such reform would cut out waste and would reduce the cost of Government. However, taken in isolation, the proposals contained in the Bill will not deliver on this objective and its provisions do not address that particular aspect.
According to the Bill's digest produced by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, this funding is a contribution to the annual running costs, under the Electoral Act 1997, of each of the qualified political parties. In 2010, each received a basic sum, as well as a proportionate share of the sum of €4.9 million. This is not related to the number of seats won and I believe that to qualify, a registered or qualified political party must achieve 2% of the popular vote. It obviously is proposed to link this particular fund to gender quotas. I will revert to an aspect of this provision regarding gender quotas after noting that at present, Independent Members are excluded from this funding stream because they do not comprise a qualifying political party under the terms of the various legislative items dating back to 1938. However, I note a total of 17% of those who cast a vote in the last general election did so for independent candidates or for smaller parties. Consequently, it will come as a surprise that no savings accrue to the Exchequer on foot of the election of a very large number of Independent Members. What happens instead is the same pot of money is divided among a smaller group of people. In other words, the amount of funding does not reduce but the political parties simply get more. My question in respect of the gender quotas is whether the same approach will be taken if, for example, one party fails to reach the quota. Will that party experience a reduction in its share of funding while the other qualifying political parties share out the same pot? Alternatively, will it mean a reduction in the cost to the Exchequer? It should mean the latter, just as I believe there should be a change in the way it is done in respect of the large group of Independent Members who have been elected.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for publishing a really useful Bill's digest on this legislation. It states:
A key problem with the current political finance regime in Ireland is that is has been relatively easy for parties to raise funds from private sources without disclosing them thereby defeating the purpose of the regime in the first place.
The digest also states that according to a SIPO report of 2008, "In spite of parties declaring over €10 million in campaign expenditure for the 2007 general election, just over €1 million was disclosed in donations". It goes on to note "none of the three main parties disclosed any donations in 2009, in spite of the fact that it was an election year" and that in 2010, "None of the three main parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael [and] the Labour Party) disclosed any donations at all".
It continues by stating "In spite of this, SIPO's report on expenditure during the February 2011 election revealed electoral expenses of €9.2 million disclosed by candidates and parties". The three main parties were the biggest spenders, with Fine Gael at €3.1 million, Fianna Fáil at €2.1 million and the Labour Party at €1.9 million. Just last month, the Irish Independent produced a comprehensive report in this regard. Under a headline referring to the cash political parties did not tell people about, the newspaper claimed that at a conservative estimate, almost €500,000 had gone to the political parties over the past decade. The resourcing and ability of SIPO to investigate appears to be constrained. While the Bill under consideration makes some changes, I do not believe it goes far enough and I will come back to this point a little later.
The Whip system also gives a positive bias in the current funding model. When someone votes against the Government and loses the whip, the political funding, including the leader's allowance, stays with the party. This appears to value the party above the individual mandate between the citizen and the public representative and I believe this must be challenged. Of course, as earlier legislation accommodates parties that dissolve or merge with other parties, there is a party political bias in this regard. In respect of the Whip system, I note that at present in this House, allowances are paid to Whips, Deputy Whips, Assistant Whips and so on. However, although the Technical Group comprises 12 Independent Members, no such Whip's allowance is paid.
I make it clear that neither I nor the Technical Group is seeking to have such an allowance be paid. Nonetheless, some of the matters to which I refer must be addressed.
A set of accounts is to be submitted to the Standards in Public Office Commission each year. However, the format of these accounts is to be agreed between the commission and the political parties. This smacks of a lack of independence. There is a bias in favour of the political parties rather than an individual mandate, but there is no mention of such parties in the Constitution. One must question this, particularly because, as I have stated, the Constitution is the primary legal document in the State.
One must ask why citizens elected so many Independent candidates or candidates from smaller parties to the Dáil to such an extent that they now constitute 30% of the Opposition. The answer is that they wanted to inject some diversity into the Oireachtas. When one is an Independent or a member of a smaller party, one is obliged to compete against organisations with access to disproportionate levels of resources. This is a matter which must be addressed now and into the future.
A leader's allowance is paid in respect of every Deputy, with the exception of the Ceann Comhairle. I have made an estimate - based on some very complex calculations - of the amount of money involved in this regard. It is a large sum. There is a 33% reduction for parties in government. This is because the apparatus of the State is available to support the Government, which is fine. According to my calculations, however, the amounts involved are in the region of €2 million for Fine Gael, €1.3 million for the Labour Party, €1.2 million for Fianna Fáil, €600,000 for Independents, €900,000 for Sinn Féin, €140,000 for the Socialist Party and €140,000 for People Before Profit. The total is approximately €6 million and there is a need to consider how this money is accounted for.
I examined the legislation relating to this matter and discovered a number of things which appear somewhat strange and must be investigated. Owing to my interest in this matter I tabled a number of parliamentary questions and have discovered that political parties can actually use the leader's allowance which is partly funded out of public money to contract services. In one of the other parliamentary questions I tabled I sought information on the mechanism in place to ensure the taxpayer would not be obliged to pay for things twice. The reply I received was silent in that regard. This is a matter which must be examined.
Each Deputy and Senator is allowed to recruit staff under a formula set down by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. That is fair enough because one cannot function without support staff. In addition, however, provision is made for the allocation of funding for a secretariat. The primary legislation is explicit in this regard and only makes provision for such secretariats in the context of registered political parties. Large groups of Independents are excluded from the provision. Even the allocation of speaking time is organised in the context of the fund to which I refer.
I understand an additional allocation of 0.8 in secretarial grade staff per Member is provided for the political parties. I do not dispute that there is a need for such staff to be provided. However, I question the extent of the allocation. I must also question how, under Standing Orders, the Houses of the Oireachtas provide for the formation of technical groups but exclude such groups from availing of the services of any staff. Not even one member of staff can be allocated to a technical group under Standing Orders, which is extremely unfair. Again, a party political bias is built into the primary legislation. This is despite the fact that the current Technical Group comprises 12 Independent Deputies who co-operate with each other in a recognised parliamentary group which, in operational terms, is equivalent to a parliamentary party. However, no staffing provision is made in running that group. I am informed that the budgetary limit of €20 million for Oireachtas staffing has almost been reached. This is despite the fact that the group of 12 to which I refer comprises 25% of the Opposition. Where did the money in question go? The answer is that it has been shared among the political parties which are, therefore, cushioned by the decisions made in this regard.
According to information in my possession, Fianna Fáil has three administrators, two chefs de cabinet, eight secretarial assistants and four administrative assistants, making a total of 17. This has nothing to do with funding for political parties and is in addition to it. Fine Gael has eight administrators, one chef de cabinet and four secretarial assistants, making a total of 13. This is at a time when it is in government. I will not list all of the details available to me in this regard which I obtained by way of replies to parliamentary questions, but I will state 52.3 people are employed in the grades to which I refer. This staffing provision accounts for a sizeable amount of public money. I do not believe the fund to which I refer should be expanded. However, the moneys from it should be distributed in a fairer way in order to allow the Houses to function in a more organised fashion. It is not possible to recognise a grouping such as the Technical Group without providing it with the resources to allow it to function. I understand some €2.5 million is allocated each year in the funding stream to which I refer.
One of the primary aims of the Bill is to respond to the recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal, although it is also designed to address the issue of gender quotas. I do not believe anyone in the country requires an education on the unhealthy influence big business can have if it is not controlled. While the report of the Moriarty tribunal focused on the second mobile phone licence, information also emerged on the plethora of tax breaks available to those in the construction sector. Fianna Fáil used to be regarded as being good for that sector. It was always stated it did well under Fianna Fáil. However, that assertion has become something of a cliché at this stage. The report of the Moriarty tribunal intimated that only a complete ban on private funding would provide a cast-iron guarantee against corruption. In the light of our current circumstances, I do not believe such a ban is a realistic prospect. However, the tribunal did make a recommendation to the effect that tax allowances be introduced in order to allow large numbers of people to make contributions rather than limiting donations to those with plenty of money and thereby distorting and corrupting the political system.
There is another distortion to which I wish to refer, namely, that which relates to people who have a great deal of money more or less dominating the political agenda at the expense of those who are not in a position to exert any influence whatsoever. We are moving towards a more unequal - rather than an equal - society and this works against the common good. The system of funding must, therefore, be examined in that context.
The Bill aims to increase levels of transparency. Transparency International highlights, as critical to the fight against corruption, the availability of comprehensive, detailed, reliable, user friendly and widely accessible information. Simplification and consolidation are absolutely essential in this regard. People must be able to go to one location to obtain information rather than being obliged to consult a plethora of sources which have been amended during the years. Information obtained from a variety of sources can often become unintelligible. Information available from a central location is, as Transparency International recommends, both user friendly and widely accessible.
Consideration was to be given to providing in the Bill the Standards in Public Office Commission with greater investigative and sanctioning powers, as well as making provision for greater sanctions for breaches of the rules on transparency. The Standards in Public Office Commission is getting some moderately increased powers, which is very welcome. Considering the historical context, it is clear that enforcement is severely lacking, almost to the point where the office is irrelevant. I highlighted that political parties have found ways of not disclosing very large sums of money. This Bill proposes a new initiative where parties would make an annual declaration, but the new approval system and register of corporate donors represents a missed opportunity and we should really go for an electoral commission with much consolidation, including, for example, the electoral register and the boundary commission. There is much that could be put into an electoral commission and I hope that will happen.
I am very enthusiastic and hope there will be immediate action. I would like the Minister in his closing remarks to indicate he is determined to act in this way. Other countries, such as the UK, Canada, France, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden, have gone down this route and Ireland is fairly unusual in established democracies in not having a rigorous and well-designed regulatory regime for the funding of parties and operation of elections. I feel strongly on the matter.
The Bills digest which was circulated questioned the desirability of public funds and whether there should be a total ban on corporate donations. The Minister indicated his opinion that he thought this might be unconstitutional, and I understand Fianna Fáil Members have made similar comments arising from advice they got. The Bills digest mentions Sweden and Finland, where parties are considered voluntary civil society associations, which is exactly what they are here. They are private civil society associations and not public associations, so I find it strange that although there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution, this is seen as the only valid type of political model that can exist within this Parliament in an equal fashion. I would question the constitutional issues regarding how politics is funded, and we may examine that matter at another point.
I support the gender quotas, although there are a variety of views within the Technical Group on the matter. We must stop talking about increasing the numbers of women, and a number of issues have already been mentioned. Only 91 women have served in this Dáil since the foundation of the State, with only 12 serving in Cabinet. Some 16% of all members of local authorities are women, and there was a worsening of the rate in the 2009 local elections. In Kildare at the time there were 43 candidates, with six of these women, and there were electoral areas without a choice of a woman.
This is not exclusively about the five Cs. What we do, as much as anything else, is a bit of a turn-off. For example, our local authority system is very one dimensional. We tend to deal with many physical issues, such as roads, waste water treatment plants and physical planning, but we do not deal with areas where one sees women in abundance, such as the community and voluntary sectors, and softer issues such as the building of communities. We must fundamentally change our local government system because it is the entry point for most people into politics. We must change that entry point in terms of what we do at local government level. Building houses is easy but building communities is where the real and ongoing work happens. If we changed the kind of debates that local authorities engaged in, we would encourage a better cross-section of people, including a greater number of women, into the political system.
Our political system was designed by conservative men and it will take a sizeable number of women being introduced to the system to achieve a critical mass and change. Visibility is also important because if many people are seen in a role, it can become a valid choice for others. None of us is enthusiastic about having to put a sanction in place and I would rather this could be achieved without a sanction, although that will not happen. This is a welcome and necessary change that should alter our culture.
I am enthusiastic about reform and perhaps my cup is half full. I hope there will be other opportunities to amend our political system but I would like to see more consolidation rather than a piecemeal approach. If we continue with the latter, the process will become unintelligible to people and we would do ourselves a disservice.
I hate quotas, the Ceann Comhairle probably hates quotas and, in general, we all probably hate quotas. Ms Viviane Reding, the European justice Commissioner, is no exception, and she is planning to legislate for quotas of women on private sector boards throughout Europe. She stated, "I am not a great fan of quotas but I like the results quotas bring about", which sums up this issue. The only thing quotas have going for them is that they work. They change the context in which we live, especially when it is a limiting or discriminatory context.
In a discriminatory position one can hope to change attitudes and behaviours through hard work and over the long haul, but sometimes that can be a very long process. We have been waiting 80 years for such change and we could be waiting for several more generations before parliaments - not just our own - heavily tilted towards male representation come anywhere near equal representation.
We cannot wait this out over several generations and accept inequity in the future as well as in the present. We can shout "Stop", and having done so we can introduce a quota system we do not like but which will work. In more than 50 countries throughout the world quotas stipulate a certain number of political party candidates for election who must be women. These quotas vary, with Nepal demanding 5%, Costa Rica demanding 40% and France demanding 50%. In Ireland we are seeking 30% representation. It is just enough to push political parties into genuinely searching for women candidates and get them to acknowledge their obligation to let women emerge. The results can be seen in other countries, as the majority of nations with more than 30% female representation in parliament have implemented quotas. In other words, waiting and hoping for political parties to see the light and promote more women into the parliamentary ranks does not really work, but putting a quota system in place does work.
This is an interesting week in which to examine the issue, as the Equality Authority has come down like a tonne of bricks on a hotel group for discriminating against a female manager this week. The problem of the hotel group was that the manager got pregnant, which did not suit the employer. The hotel group took action, pressured the manager and limited her choices. The employer has been severely punished for those actions.