Thursday, 10 April 2014
Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)
The principles at stake are equality, voter freedom of choice and discrimination because of socioeconomic status. These are all essential components of the Constitution and have to be addressed before the 28 April deadline.
Removing the ban would bring Ireland into line with the European norm in this area. Bankruptcy bans are more prevalent in common law countries inspired by the United Kingdom model. Traditionally, in Ireland, the ban was viewed through a moral prism which shaped previous debates on the matter. This perspective has moved on, particularly, as I stated earlier, because of the impact of the crisis.
The Bill takes on further importance against the backdrop of the economic crisis and severe financial pressure increasing numbers are under. The reform of the personal insolvency legislation in the State will see a significant increase in bankruptcy numbers in Ireland. This is despite the onerous three-year long period and additional financial drawdown length which will alienate people from the process.
This issue has been thrown into stark relief by the mounting numbers struggling to meet their debts. Today and yesterday, Dáil committees focused on the mortgage crisis that is consuming the lives of more than 100,000 families in Ireland. They belong to a generation defined by the economic crisis. How can we deny those who are no longer able to make ends meet their voice in the national parliament? Surely their opinions are needed to shape the laws that will affect them? With 100,000 homes in mortgage arrears and significant numbers fleeing to the UK to seek bankruptcy, this is a real and present problem in Irish life. These people should not be excluded from a political process that needs to address these problems.
Even if one stands by the dubious principle of the law as it stands, it has fundamental inconsistencies and shortcomings. By its own logic, it simply does not work. Currently the law denies those declared bankrupt in Ireland the right to contest elections. However, if the bankruptcy was pursued elsewhere and in countries where the period is significantly shorter, the ban does not apply. This means the underlying rationale behind the law that bankrupts were incapable of being representatives due to moral or judgmental failures has been essentially bypassed.
The numbers fleeing abroad to avail of less onerous bankruptcy rules are also enjoying an amnesty from the harsh Irish political laws. It is time to challenge this unfairness and the unjustifiable morality behind the law as it stands. If financial mistakes are unacceptable, why not other misjudgments often beyond our own power of influence? The Victorian era sense of priggishness is not sustainable in this day in age.
The prevalence of bankruptcy bans in Commonwealth countries displays that displaced sense of morality where financial difficulties are viewed as a failing. This is not the case in the majority of EU countries. By removing the ban, Ireland will be brought into the international norm.
By denying bankrupts from contesting elections, the principle of equality in political representation is completely undermined. Those seeking bankruptcy tend to be drawn from embattled socioeconomic groups who are unable to meet their financial obligations. This means that a section of society is penalised for its financial problems.
Working men and women who bought at the peak and were caught out by the collapse of prices and the unemployment crisis are further marginalised by a political process that penalises them for availing of one of their few options.
It is a further punishment for events that have often been far beyond their control. A democracy has to be better than this. It must reflect, not exclude, the experience of the people under its rule and this law moves towards this. The Bill, while dangerously rushed, is a welcome measure towards including greater numbers in the democratic process. We have taken strides in Dáil Éireann through gender quota laws to encompass a broader range of members of society in our ranks. This will enhance legislation, heighten scrutiny and bring fresh ideas to the table. The lessons of the past few years have shown the limits of group think and the need for challenging voices. Removing the bankruptcy ban will usher in another part of Irish life that needs to be heard in these Chambers and local authorities and at the heart of Europe. The underlying morality behind the ban does not reflect the reality of modern Ireland. It excludes the people worst affected by the crisis that has defined the past five years. We need to move on from this and put in place legislation that mirrors the kind of country we have. A Dáil that is removed from the people is not worthy of the name. Ultimately, it will be up to the people to decide who goes forward to carry their message in these fora. The Bill gives the citizens of Ireland that choice. We support its thrust and will help in so far as we can to provide for its clear and safe passage through the House.
I am happy to support the Bill which will remove what is probably an outdated ban on persons who have been declared bankrupt in putting themselves forward for election. It also redresses the anomaly whereby people can contest local elections if bankrupt but not elections to this House or the European Parliament. Thankfully, the law barring people from standing for the local elections was changed 40 years ago. Being without it for 40 years has done no damage to local authorities or representation at that level. At one time bankruptcy was probably a fairly exotic condition, but we have seen many people being declared or declaring themselves bankrupt during the fallout from the economic crash and financial crisis that brought an end to the so-called Celtic tiger. There are, undoubtedly, cases where certain individuals and institutions were to blame for much of the collapse and a number of related cases are proceeding in the courts. It could be argued that it is expedient for certain people to declare themselves bankrupt in this or other jurisdictions in order to save some of their other assets. I regard some of the individuals and institutions such as Anglo Irish Bank in a different light from people who found themselves bankrupt from causes beyond their control while trying to run a business, buying a house or putting a roof over their family's head. That is very different and we all know of people who found themselves in that position in recent times. Many of them lost businesses, farms and homes and found themselves bankrupt as a consequence. A huge section of Irish society may not be legally bankrupt but are in a perilous economic state. It has never been known before for people to be in such debt. Never in the history of the State has the level of debt been so high. There is potentially a huge number of people who could be made bankrupt.
The legislation is motivated by the case taken by Ms Jillian Godsil whose home was repossessed and who has expressed an interest in contesting the forthcoming European elections. It would be unjust to deny her that opportunity, especially, as I understand it, she wants to run to highlight the plight of people who have had their homes repossessed as part of the fallout from the Celtic tiger and the economic crash. The issue at stake is whether people who have been declared bankrupt ought to be denied exercising one of the fundamental rights of any citizen in a democracy, the right to stand for election and represent one's peers. Members may question the sanity of people who want to subject themselves to running for election, but it is a right that should only be removed in particular and extraordinary circumstances. Is it right, for example, that someone who is bankrupt should be denied the right to run for election, while former prisoners are, rightly, not denied such a right? Had they been so denied in the State, a huge number of people - some on this side and a few on the Government side - would not have been allowed to run and take up office. We have moved beyond that position.
There is something Victorian in highlighting bankruptcy as a sin to be particularly reviled. The ban on bankrupts contesting elections is a hangover from the pre-revolutionary period. The implication is that someone who cannot manage his or her financial affairs is unable to manage the finances of the State and should not be trusted with legislation. Many who are not bankrupt have played a huge role in bringing the State to the edge of bankruptcy and causing the economic crash of recent years. They will never be declared bankrupt as they are high and dry and safe.
The most famous case of someone being barred from the House as a result of bankruptcy was Big Jim Larkin. He was elected in 1927, but he was disqualified in 1928 for being an undischarged bankrupt. Interestingly, he ran again in the by-election in 1928 but failed to keep his seat; I am not certain, therefore, how he would have fared. He would have been barred had he been successful.
I will take the opportunity to address other issues in the electoral laws. It would be a good idea to have people automatically listed on the electoral register once they have a PPS number and reached the age of 18 years. That would do away with many cases of people not being registered to vote in elections when they should be eligible to vote. It would also do away with cases of people being registered two or three times. People who house move do not change their registration details. The list is linked solely by address and people of the same name may live at the same address. A father, son, mother or daughter may be removed from the list because two people with the same name live at the same address. A council official will see Mary listed twice in a house and, thinking there is something wrong, knock off one of the names.
There are also cases of people being on the list a number of times. Notwithstanding data protection issues, there must be a way to address the issue of people not being on the electoral register. The first time I ran for election, I learned a lesson. People went to vote for me and a small handful - no more than four or five - who would have got me over the line were not on the register of electors. We must try to have the electoral register in good shape. Candidates, councillors and local authority staff help, but the problem is that electoral registers are, at best, 60% or 70% accurate. I raised this issue with Laois County Council at the last local election. In some cases, there were seven adults registered where two adults lived. It is a serious issue, but it could not be addressed because of the construction of the electoral registers and the timeline involved. A special meeting of Laois County Council was called to address the matter. We are talking about barring people from standing but people are barred if the electoral register is skewed. Individuals who campaign to the best of their ability can only canvass the people who live in a house. If five people are registered at an address but do not live in that house, it is fair only to one person, namely, the person playing that for an advantage. The other 15 candidates are disadvantaged. Some 27 people were registered as living in a house in Monaghan.
It was a derelict house. The Sinn Féin party complained about it, and rightly so. When Sinn Féin started to do well in the North there were allegations of electoral fraud. There is electoral fraud in every jurisdiction. Sinn Féin is the first party to support the reform of the electoral register because we do not have anything to fear from it. Some might say we have the most to gain from having an accurate electoral register. It is a fact that many working class people who might vote for Sinn Féin might not be on the register. I accept that the debacle of the electronic voting machines was not the Government’s fault. We have not been good at using technology for elections, but there must be some way to address the issue of the electoral register. When I was a councillor the prevailing view was that one was doing well to get 80% or 85% accuracy in a given street. It was very good to get 90% accuracy. I often said to local authority officials that a person had moved house or was not living at a certain address any more, or I would encourage someone who was not on the electoral register to fill out a form for it. We must address the situation. It would require significant resources for local authorities to address it using the current system.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has just left the Chamber. The Constitutional Convention was considering the possibility of giving votes to emigrants and people in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin supports both initiatives.
We must get a more accurate register. At the moment the register could seriously skew the outcome of any election. It is a serious problem and we must find a better way to approach the compilation of the register. There are opportunities in schools, particularly through civics classes, to encourage young people to get on the electoral register. All such initiatives should be used, but they are not enough. The approach is patchy and no matter how hard people try – officials, elected members of local authorities, or others – we still end up with an incomplete register.
I am aware of two elderly people who went to vote for me, or so they told me anyway.
They had been living at the same address for the past 40 to 50 years. They went to vote as normal but were told they were not on the electoral register. They only discovered it on the day of the election. One can tell people as many times as one likes to check the electoral register in a Garda station, but some people are never in a Garda station. One would not check anything in the post office in Portlaoise because one would have to queue for half an hour or three quarters of an hour to get into it, and if one goes on pension day one could be longer.
We must make electoral registration easier. PPS numbers are used across Departments and could act as the key to the drawer, so to speak. There must be a way for people to get on the electoral register using their PPS number that does not show the number on the system. I believe showing the PPS number on the register of electors would give rise to data protection issues. There must be a way of getting a person onto the register by means of the PPS number and then producing the paper copy without showing the PPS number.
Sinn Féin would like to see a change in the qualifying age for voting purposes. The Government is moving to reduce the age to 17, which is to be welcomed. Sinn Féin would also like to see a change in the franchise for presidential elections to allow all Irish people North and South to vote. Uachtarán na hÉireann is across the water this week proudly representing all Irish citizens. While that is to be welcomed, it is unfortunate that people in the Six Counties cannot vote for a person of their choice to become Uachtarán na hÉireann. We urge that the matter be examined as well as the wider issue of Irish citizens abroad. As a former emigrant I am aware that Irish people living in England will be very proud to see the President there, with the Tricolour flying, and also to get the long-overdue acknowledgement of their contribution to English society and to England, Scotland and Wales, which they built after the war. We should allow Irish citizens abroad to vote. It cannot be beyond us to find a mechanism to allow them to vote in presidential elections. I hope the issues I raised will be addressed by a future constitutional convention. In the meantime, I am happy to support the Bill, which addresses and removes one of the existing flaws in the electoral system. A growing number of people, unfortunately, have been caught - in most cases through no fault of their own - and have been declared bankrupt. Such people will now be able to contest elections to this House.
As has been noted by other Deputies this Bill responds to the case of Ms Jillian Godsil v.the Attorney General. Although the hearing is not expected until July, the Government is moving to address the issue. In his opening remarks the Minister set out why it would not be advisable to allow the case to proceed to the courts. It is clear there is not an arguable case given the comparisons with other European countries.
Deputy Finian McGrath, the Member for Dublin Bay North, and I took a constitutional challenge in 2007. We did not want to do it but we felt we had to do it. Taking a constitutional challenge is not for the faint-hearted.
We did it because the preliminary figures from the census of population were not used, and very often there was a long time lag between the redrawing of constituencies, often missing out on the next general election. Deputy Finian McGrath and I believed that because the issue was not being addressed, it was a type of gerrymandering. We would have preferred it to be addressed in the way the issue before us is being addressed, in advance of the election and the court case, based on an acceptance of the issue at stake.
Bankruptcy was an issue for the Victorians. It was people of property who contested elections, and to fail and leave debts to people of the same class was a major issue of shame. Society has changed considerably, and while in this country it is still very difficult for anyone going through bankruptcy, the term was recently reduced from 12 years to three years. The concept of bankruptcy is not considered as shameful or catastrophic a personal failure as it would have been in Victorian times. Large numbers of people will potentially end up being bankrupt. There is less sympathy for people with large amounts of money who have moved their centres of interest and become bankrupt in another jurisdiction. While the law at present disbars a bankrupt person from running for office or holding office, people who declare bankruptcy in the UK or other jurisdictions are not excluded. It is a particular group of people who are affected in this country and not the people who would predominantly have used bankruptcy as a vehicle to get back into the action.
One aspect of the people being sovereign is the principle underpinning that concept. It should be the people who make the decision and that includes a decision on a person who has a chequered economic history. It is entirely up to the citizens to make a decision on who they believe would best represent them, as it should be. I do not often like, and for many years have not liked, the results that have been often thrown up the electorate but as a democrat I always felt I had to accept them even when it was pretty painful and I had not done well in an election.
I accept the provisions of this Bill but I would have liked it to cover another issue that should be dealt with in a timely fashion for this election and I will table an amendment to it when the opportunity presents in the next week. I have published a Bill on this subject recently. I was not expecting this legislation to arise. I am referring to the issue of how we present as Independents on the ballot paper. It is timely and important that this be addressed in advance of the local and European elections.
An Independent candidate may only describe himself or herself as "Non-Party" or leave the space blank. If one is non-party, that is perceived as a negative in that one is obviously without something but many of us do not see ourselves in that light, we see being Independent as a very positive thing.
Essentially, that is how we feel we can genuinely represent what we are to the electorate. We go through great efforts to make sure photographs are on the ballot paper to cover issues such as literacy and we make sure that people describe themselves as they are commonly known. People have changed their name, with Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus being the most celebrated case. Essentially, there is no reason we should not be permitted to put on the ballot paper exactly what we are, and we are Independents. That needs to be addressed in advance of the local and European elections. I hope the Minister will accept such an amendment or advance a measure from the Department's side because, for many of us, it is not acceptable not to be properly represented on the ballot paper.
I also wish to deal with the wider issue of how we conduct our electoral politics. Reform in this area has been very much piecemeal and that trend, which is very evident, can be similar in other countries. We do not get radical change from the inside and we need to change the way in which we do things. We need a functioning electoral commission that is in place all of the time. We need different architecture in regard to matters of ethics, funding and the register of electors, to which Deputy Stanley referred. After every election we hear complaints about the mistakes on the register ranging from people who are on it who do not live at an address, people who are on it who have since died to people who have been taken on it for a long time whose names were taken off it in advance of the election. We need to get to grips with these issues and we need a truly independent electoral commission. That is vital if we are to have change. Regardless of whether parties are on this side of the House for one term or on the other side of it for another term, that does not seem to make any difference with regard to bringing about change. It has been described as a party cartel where things are divided up among the parties who contest the election and we find that Opposition parties, over the decades, will have been party to that. That issue will be dealt with in the context of this legislation but an early change in the way we do business in the form of an independent, functioning electoral commission, is something we must have because it would be good for our democracy and appreciated by the public in terms of the type of reform anticipated when this Government came to office.
Given the time factor, I hope the inclusion of the word "Independent" on the ballot paper, or making provision to allow people to describe themselves as such, will be included because if we are to introduce a measure to ensure people declare their candidacy for the European or local elections on time, I ask the Government to accept that the other issue, to which I referred, must be addressed also in a timely fashion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. I welcome the debate as it provides all of us with an opportunity to constantly examine and reform our electoral system, both nationally and at local government level. I welcome the Bill as a disqualification should not apply for election to the National Parliament or European Parliament, as in the case of 18 other European Union states. I support this legislation but I want to use this debate to move forward the reform issue. I challenge the Minister, as we face into the local and European elections on 23 May, to explain the reason he is discriminating against Independent candidates, as Deputy Catherine Murphy stated and which she references in her prepared legislation. Many members of the public do not realise that the word "Independent" cannot be used on the ballot paper. We are excluded, and that is not acceptable. We must use the term "Non-Party" or we have the opportunity, as the late former Deputy Tony Gregory used to do, to leave the box blank. That is not acceptable. We are not allowed to use the term "Independent". The Minister of State should go back to the Cabinet and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and try to end that blatant exclusion of Independent candidates throughout the country. It is time for the Government to get off the fence and do that in the interests of democracy. I know they have all been very busy over the last few days talking to the Royals and developing the peace process, which I welcome.
I was referring to the Minister of State's colleagues in government. Let us move away from the monarchists for a while and get back to building a democratic, inclusive republic which respects all our citizens, including Independent candidates. That is a very important reform that should be put down.
Some of us have checked up on this issue on the legal side. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2007, in its amendment of section 46(8) of the principal Act, deals with the issue in terms of specifying the term "Non-Party", and the same is the case in respect of the Electoral Act of 1992. The Supreme Court found that the description of Independent as non-party was not misleading and there was nothing wrong with its use. On the basis, Acts have continued to us the term "Non-Party". However, while the term might not be misleading or particularly wrong in the eyes of the court, it does not mean that it is any more accurate than using the term "Independent". Therefore there is nothing in the Supreme Court decision that binds or forces a Government to use the term "Non-Party". It is instead a matter of choice for the Government, and that is the legal advice. In my view the best way to approach it is to pitch it as a tidying up exercise intended to create consistency and simplification. A Bill like Deputy Catherine Murphy's could be drafted to change the term "Non-Party" and also to use the word "Independent", and that is important. If we are serious about reform, democracy and inclusion, the Minister will have to wake up and respect Independent candidates throughout the country, such as Councillor Damien O'Farrell in Dublin Bay North, and other councillors in the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny or Limerick.
They must be respected. The Minister should consider the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2007 and respect the people involved in this issue. Several weeks ago I asked the Minister, Deputy Hogan, about this and the answer he gave me was that paragraph 14(6) of the 1995 local elections regulations provides that where a candidate is not the candidate of a registered political party contesting the local elections, the candidate may include on his or her nomination paper the expression "non-party".
I am an independent candidate, as the Minister knows very well. The expression will also be specified with regard to the candidate on all ballot papers and notices. This regulation is based on the premise that "non-party" on the ballot paper indicates adequately that a person does not belong to a political party. There are no proposals for legislative change in this regard. This is what the Minister told me on Tuesday, 1 April. It was April fools' day. The Minister needs to up his game. We need reform and respect for independent candidates. Local and European elections will take place and Minister is trying to sideline us. I challenge him here today in the Dáil because it is important to highlight this issue.
A number of my colleagues spoke about reform. We must also deal with the many people who are not registered and the major mistakes made regularly in this regard. We must also deal with voter turnout at elections. Approximately 30% in some constituencies never vote, and in other constituencies this figure is higher. This is because of cynicism, apathy and the negative image of politics. We must face up to this. Members of the House must decide to increase interest in politics in Ireland. I favour compulsory voting as is done in other jurisdictions. It is essential that people vote in elections. I do not accept some of the points made that it is a choice not to turn out to vote in an election. The people have plenty of choice on the ballot paper and some excellent independent candidates are running in the local elections, such as councillor Damien O'Farrell in Dublin Bay North and Seán Tyrrell in Ballymun. They work very hard in their communities and make a massive contribution to this country.
I would not like to stray from the legislation so I will return to the main issue. The purpose of the Bill is to repeal the provisions in the Electoral Act 1992 to disqualify an undischarged bankrupt from eligibility for election or membership of the Dáil and the European Parliament. I listened to the Minister earlier and I agree with this legislation. I will support it, in case the Minister missed that point. I also welcome some of the other provisions mentioned by the Minister. He spoke about the criminal justice (corruption) Bill being developed by his best friend and colleague, the Minister, Deputy Shatter. We all agree with this. Head 8 of the general scheme makes provision for the courts to remove from office Irish public officials who are found guilty of corruption. This is very positive and it will receive much support from this side of the House.
The issue of donations has been dealt with. Every donation above €600 must be reported, and I welcome this. Cash donations above €200 have been banned, as have anonymous donations of more than €100.
We must deal with people who genuinely get into trouble financially and who are bankrupt. We cannot exclude them from involvement in democracy. The amendment to the bankruptcy disqualification will also apply to Members of Seanad Éireann, and I welcome this. I agree with the points made earlier on the Government's need for action, as it is disproportionate and no longer necessary in this day and age. We need to make decisions to elect candidates.
I urge everybody to go out on 23 May and give their number one vote to the independent candidates throughout the country. It is very important. These people are involved in their communities and in voluntary and community groups. They have made a massive contribution to their country and I urge everyone to go out on 23 May to vote for these genuinely credible independent candidates. I welcome the legislation and I will support it.
I welcome the Bill. The idea of this House being unavailable to those who have run into financial problems in this climate and in this day and age is a bit on the harsh side. Bankruptcy is very strange. We have had an economic collapse of a sort in Ireland, and some people who have lost hundreds of millions, and some who have cost the State hundreds of millions, will not go bankrupt while some people who have lost money will want to go bankrupt and others who do not want to be bankrupt will go bankrupt.
I checked the code of conduct for Members of the Dáil Éireann a few minutes ago. It states that a conflict of interest exists where a Member participates in or makes a decision in the execution of his or her office knowing that it will improperly and dishonestly further his or her private financial interests or another person's private financial interests directly or indirectly. On such a basis I will not be allowed to vote on the Bill because I am dealing with four different banks and one of them refuses to confirm that it will not bankrupt me. I could be accused of having a vested interest in voting for the Bill, but I do welcome it.
My company owed the VAT man €1.4 million but we could not pay it so we went out of business. We were not allowed to trade, which is fair enough. I did not get quite as well treated by some banks as others did. Independent News and Media, which loves to call me a tax cheat, got a bailout of approximately €138 million from the banks, more than €50 million of which has fallen on the Irish taxpayer, but Mick Wallace is the tax cheat because he owes VAT of €1.4 million which his business could not pay. In our last ten years of trading we paid €15 million. I often wonder what the guys who call me a tax cheat paid in the past ten years but I will probably never get the answer to it.
In the United States, millionaires go bankrupt on average 3.5 times. It is interesting to note that only one in ten millionaires who go broke during a recession ever go bankrupt again. Recessions are very educational and people who get burned goodo learn much from them. These are very interesting statistics.
One sometimes wonders how a guy can lose so much money, but business is strange that way. If houses or apartments are to be built someone must do it, and more often than not a person must borrow money to do so, and so the person is taking a certain risk. Very often the risk works out well and money is made by all concerned. This includes the developer, the builder and the bank.
Before the recession I understood I had a relationship with some of the banks I dealt with and that we were in it together. Generally we used to meet on my terms and got on really well, and they were very glad to be doing business with me. They probably charged me a little above the norm in the interest rates. The fact I did not wear a suit, cut my hair or join a political party probably did not help me in any way.
I used to get money out of them anyway. However, when trouble arrived, I noticed that I was the only one who was wrong. I had been dull enough to borrow serious money, but the idea that the bank had also taken a risk in the project in which we both had been involved was lost. Judgments are given in the commercial courts on a regular basis in which consideration is not given to the fact that the bank also has a liability. It also took a gamble and it would be useful if a rather more rational view was taken in that regard. Those who had borrowed the money became the next thing to criminals, while the banks that had cost taxpayers throughout the world an absolute fortune were the goodies, which was a strange notion. I welcome the Bill which constitutes a sensible move.
I congratulate the Minister on introducing this amendment to the Electoral Acts, which I welcome. In the context of the Title of the Bill, Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, and given the Minister's presence in the Chamber, I wish to raise the issue of the proposed plebiscite of the people of Dublin on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. It is disgraceful that a minority of elected representatives acted in an anti-democratic fashion and chose to deny all the people of Dublin, not just those whom they represented, a say in this matter. The outcome of the vote in Fingal should be ignored and a plebiscite put to all the people of Dublin on whether they wish to have a directly elected mayor for the city. To those who claim such a decision by the Minister would be anti-democratic, it is undemocratic to give elected members in Fingal a say over councils, constituencies and people they do not represent, as Fingal County Council should recognise. As councillors in Fingal have no mandate in Dublin city, why should they have a say over the people of Dublin city? The people of Fingal should have a say over Fingal County Council and on whether the Dublin region should have its own mayor. Fingal County Council should have let this pass and allowed the plebiscite to be put to the people. Now that the Minister has consulted all councillors in the region and has a clear view of what the majority of them wish - 75% are in favour - he should proceed with a ballot of the people of Dublin on whether they would like to have a directly elected mayor for the city region. This ballot should take place on 23 May, as originally proposed. The Minister has introduced many excellent reforms within a brief period, but, if implemented, this could be his most important yet.
The Bill amends the Electoral Act 1992 and the European Elections Act 1997 with the effect that a person who was declared bankrupt will no longer be disqualified from membership of the Dáil, the Seanad and the European Parliament. Furthermore, it provides that a person who was declared bankrupt while serving as a Member of the Dáil, the Seanad or the European Parliament shall not cease to be a Member as a result of his or her bankruptcy. Under existing law, a person who is an undischarged bankrupt under adjudication by a court of competent jurisdiction in the State is not eligible for election to the Dáil or the European Parliament. An MEP who becomes subject to this disqualification ceases to be a Member of the European Parliament. Where a Deputy has been declared bankrupt and the adjudication order is not annulled within six months of the date of the order, a vacancy arises in the Dáil.
Certain categories of people are ineligible for candidacy or membership of the Dáil. They include a person who is not a citizen of Ireland, who will not reach the age of 21 years on polling day or, if there is no polling day in respect of the constituency concerned by reason of the operation of section 58(b) of the Electoral Act 1992, as amended, the day which is polling day generally throughout the State in respect of the election concerned, who is a member of the Commission of the European Communities, who is a judge, an advocate general or a registrar of the Court of Justice of the European Communities, who is a member of the Court of Auditors of the European Communities, who is a member of the Garda Síochána or a whole-time member of the Defence Forces as defined in section 11(4) of the Electoral Act 1992, as amended, who is a civil servant who is not, by the terms of his or her employment, expressly permitted to be a Member of the Dáil, who is a person of unsound mind, who is undergoing a sentence of imprisonment for any term exceeding six months imposed by a court of competent jurisdiction in the State or who is a directly elected cathaoirleach of a local authority.
There is no amendment to Seanad electoral law in the Bill. To be eligible for membership of Seanad Éireann, a person must be eligible to become a Member of Dáil Éireann and, consequently, the bankruptcy qualification automatically will be removed for the Seanad. The Minister has argued that the current law applies only to those were been declared bankrupt by a competent Irish court. Consequently, an Irish citizen who has been declared bankrupt in the United Kingdom, the United States of America or in any other country is not subject to disqualification. The proposed Bill is one way to address this anomaly by removing the disqualification of undischarged bankrupts, as well as the inherent unfairness these anomalies present. An amendment to legislation to include competent courts in other jurisdictions would be another possibility in this regard.
For the European elections to be held on 23 May, the earliest date for receipt of nominations by returning officers is 10 April. The latest date for receipt of nominations from candidates who are nationals of European Union member states other than Ireland or the United Kingdom is Thursday, 17 April. The latest date for receipt of nominations from candidates who are Irish or British citizens is Tuesday, 28 April. Early consideration of the Bill will provide certainty for prospective candidates at the forthcoming European elections as to the eligibility requirement for election. Ideally, the Bill will go through the Oireachtas in good time before 17 April.
I add my voice in support of this legislation the Minister has introduced. As previous speakers noted, when the original provision was introduced to bar people from membership of what was a different Parliament, it was during the Victorian era when a rather Dickensian view of bankruptcy was held by all and the idea of debtors' prisons was current. I was struck by Deputy Catherine Murphy's comment when she noted how in those days people of property contested elections. In fact, in those days it also was people of property who voted in elections. At the time, there were strict restrictions on those who could cast a ballot. The Reform Act 1832 was the first to extend substantially the franchise and it was not until 1867 that many categories of working people were given the franchise. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act extended voting rights to women in a limited way in that while every man over the age of 21 years had a vote, women did not get the vote until they were over the age of 30 years. A few more years elapsed before that rule was changed. Consequently, this amendment is to be welcomed. I am aware that a case is before the courts and this legislation has been introduced with a view to dealing with some of that contents of that action. It is appropriate that this rule be amended.
I wish to use the bulk of the time available to me to add my voice to others, in particular that of Deputy Brian Stanley, with whom I do not often agree. However, he raised the issue of the need for the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. This is a matter to which the Minister has given consideration. It should be introduced as the conditions in the old days, whereby rate collectors were familiar with who was over the age of 18 years and who could keep electoral registers up to date nationwide, no longer obtain. In many parts of the country, electoral registers are significantly out of date and do not reflect the people living in that area who are eligible under the terms of legislation to be on that register. Many people who make the effort to vote only find this out on polling day. All Members will have encountered cases, perhaps of friends and neighbours, who had previously been on the register but found, in attempting to cast their ballots, that this was no longer the case. The existing system in updating the electoral register is inadequate in this day and age. The amount of local knowledge that used to be available previously in updating electoral registers is no longer available.
As a result of a change in the way society works, people are not as familiar with their own neighbours and communities as would have been the case in the past. Many of those older rate collectors have retired and their expertise and knowledge has gone with them. As a result, electoral registers in many parts of the country - in most parts of County Kilkenny the electoral register is pretty good - are not as accurate as they should or could be. One of the benefits of an electoral commission would be permanent responsibility for the redrafting of electoral boundaries. I refer to the recent farcical situation in which the Minister was attacked by the Leader of the Opposition about the matter of local electoral boundaries in a desperate attempt to hide his own embarrassment before the upcoming elections. Several members of the independently appointed commission had to state publicly that their decisions were completely removed from any intervention by the Minister or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Its decisions were enforced uniformly across the country without regard to any other external interests. In the future, the establishment of a permanent electoral commission could provide a mechanism for the upgrading and the renewal of electoral boundaries for local, European and general elections and also for the upkeep of electoral registers. I suggest that the Minister consider introducing that reform over the course of the next couple of years.
I welcome the Bill. Our spokesperson, Deputy Barry Cowen, has signalled that Fianna Fáil will support it. In 1974 the bankruptcy disqualification was removed in the case of local elections. It is difficult to understand why this ruling did not extend to European and general elections. We have moved on since then. Changing the electoral law in light of the ongoing legal action reflects the principles of equality and representation enshrined in the Constitution. Allowing undischarged bankrupts to contest elections brings Ireland into line with most member states of the European Union. It also mirrors broader changes in Ireland with regard to the issue of bankruptcy, which has been highlighted in the current economic crisis that has affected almost every household in the country. Bankruptcy should not be regarded as a moral failure but rather as a financial decision. The Minister wants to pass this Bill as quickly as possible and it will enable undischarged bankrupts to contest the local and European elections in May, as well as future Dáil and Seanad elections.
The Bill arises from an action before the High Court. Ms Jillian Godsil has brought a case arguing that the legislation banning her from contesting elections as an undischarged bankrupt is unconstitutional. The case will be heard in full in July but this Bill, if enacted, will remove the need for a legal dispute and potential financial repercussions for the State in the future. The principles at stake are equality, in the form of freedom of choice, and discrimination because of socioeconomic status, both of which are components of the Constitution. Removing the ban would bring Ireland into line with the European norm. Bankruptcy bans are more prevalent in common law countries. Traditionally in Ireland the ban was viewed as being a moral issue. The impact of the economic crisis has caused this perspective to shift, and the Minister's Bill reflects this change.
The removal of the personal insolvency legislation will result in a significant increase in bankruptcy numbers in the State despite the onerous three-year period and additional financial draw-down time which will alienate people from the process. The elections will be held on 23 May and the Minister wants to ensure that the Bill passes all stages by that time. The cut-off date for nominations is 28 April. If passed, this Bill will allow those in financial difficulties and bankruptcy to contest the election.
Currently, the law denies people who are declared bankrupt the right to contest elections. However, if the bankruptcy is pursued elsewhere, and in countries where the period of bankruptcy is significantly shorter, the ban does not apply. The rationale behind the law that bankrupts are incapable of being representatives due to a moral or judgmental failure has been bypassed. By denying bankrupts from contesting elections, the principle of equality and political representation is completely undermined. People seeking bankruptcy tend to be drawn from embattled socioeconomic groups who are unable to meet their financial obligations. As the Minister pointed out, this would mean a section of society is penalised for its financial problems. Ordinary business people in every community and county are facing financial difficulties and are engaged in processes with banks. In many cases the banks are very reluctant to do deals or to work out a suitable repayment schedule. This aspect has been debated in committee and in this House. There seems to be no solution on offer to the current mortgage crisis. I hope the Minister and the Government will do everything possible to bring the banks into line to ensure they do deals for people who are in a position to make some repayments, including interest-only repayments if they are not in a position to make a full repayment. The banks should be prepared to meet them halfway and to devise solutions.
The prevalence of bankruptcy bans in common law countries displays a displaced sense of morality where financial difficulties are viewed as a failing. This is not the case in the majority of EU countries. By removing the ban, Ireland will be brought in line with the international norm. Changes to Irish bankruptcy laws mean that greater numbers of people will move through the system. While still onerous, this should lead to more pressure for change in order to mirror the deeper changes. This Bill will remove the need for the pursuit of the court case in July and any possible costly civil or European actions that may arise.
Fianna Fáil will support the Bill. Deputy Cowen may put forward amendments on Committee Stage, although the Bill is straightforward and it will result in significant change for those who are declared bankrupt. As the Minister noted in his contribution, it is farcical that people can be declared bankrupt in other countries and still contest elections in this country. I do not understand why in 1974 the ban was removed in the case of local elections but this was not extended to included Dáil, Seanad or European elections. There was a reason, but it would have made sense to have changed the regulation. The economic crisis has brought this issue to the fore and the Minister has acted as quickly as possible to deal with the court case, which would have been one of many in advance of the general election in two years' time. I welcome the Bill, which I hope will be enacted before the declaration date this month.
Deputy Browne has alluded to the current situation. Under normal circumstances I would be opposed to this Bill, for two principal reasons.
Two types of person, or perhaps more, suffered as a result of the fallout from this country's economic collapse. Those who fall into the first category are what I would call small borrowers, namely, people who had small businesses. They might be contractors or owners of heating companies, electric companies, etc., who in some cases borrowed modestly to extend their businesses during the false boom. There is another category, however, whose members share more of the blame for this country's economic collapse, and I do not evaluate them in the same way I do the small borrowers. I refer to the great and the good who had so much money that apart from buying up Ireland they were buying yachts, racehorses and so on. I am convinced they have a different responsibility in terms of their borrowings than the ordinary men or women running small businesses who took a risk, albeit a more modest risk.
I listened to the contributions of some of the previous speakers. It is sometimes forgotten that when things went pear-shaped for many of the substantial borrowers in the construction industry - developers, etc. - they brought down many innocent small subcontractors who lost their livelihoods and whose employees lost their jobs. In some cases workers lost their pension rights. That was widespread.
I always qualify the argument about developers by saying that not all developers were engaged in this activity, in the same way that not all bankers were involved in the frenzy of throwing money at people. There were decent people in banks who should not be put into that category, but there is a view that they have some responsibility, similar to those who borrowed in an insatiable way.
I heard the Minister's contribution earlier and I understand the point about letting the people decide whether these people should be allowed to contest local or European elections, but I would argue that we as legislators should make a stand regarding the so-called great and the good who made the decisions about borrowing that we are now discussing. What is morally right about someone who caused the demise of half a dozen contracting firms and, in some cases, caused hundreds of workers to lose their jobs running for election? What moral argument can be made that we as legislators should allow those people to run for Parliament or in local authority elections? That is not right. We should take a lead in this matter. That is what legislators are supposed to do, not to follow events as they happen.
In his presentation - other people have made this point also - the Minister stated that 18 EU countries had augmented their legislation to the effect that those who become bankrupt have the right to run in these elections. That may be so, but it does not make it right. None of those 18 countries had this country's experience in terms of economic collapse and what our people have suffered through emigration, which thankfully is improving due to the measures this Government is taking. The people I refer to have committed many sins. I do not believe they are fit to go before the people, and legislators should say that.
On reading the 1992 Electoral Act, a particular subsection caught my eye. It refers to persons of unsound mind. It does not give a definition of "unsound mind" but if the Minister and I scratch our heads we might come up with a definition. Are those in the banking institutions who went crazy and threw money at people of sound mind? I would argue they are not, and I doubt if anyone would argue that they are of sound mind. Are those who were running construction companies and borrowed money they did not need to do what I referred to earlier - namely, to buy racehorses, etc. - of sound mind? Of course they are not of sound mind. They should never have been let get away with that.
Without meaning to give him any more coverage, I heard a former guru in this country on a radio programme advocating that those people in financial difficulty should head off to another jurisdiction, live there for a while, come back to this domain and live happily ever after. I disagree with that. The majority of us are tax compliant but in many cases those people owe the people money through the Revenue Commissioners, and I take exception to the idea that their slates can be wiped clean. It proves the point that the great and the good in most of these matters can walk away unscathed. I do not agree with that.
As I said at the outset, I understand the legal implications of the case that has been referred to, but if it stood on its own, the Minister and I would not be in agreement on this legislation.
I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate on this short but important Bill. I will not go into the details of matters concerning other items of legislation, on which people got some latitude, but I note what Deputy Maloney has just said. One never knows. We could have been on the same side of the argument but there are circumstances in which we have to look at matters legally in a broader way and how we can harmonise them to the extent necessary, particularly in the context of legal advice we get on matters currently before the courts or whatever.
I thank the Opposition Members for their support for this legislation also.