Friday, 11 July 2014
Electoral (Amendment) (No. 4) Bill 2014: Second and Subsequent Stages
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill before the House today is to provide that the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil will perform the functions of the Clerk of the Dáil under the electoral Acts whenever the post of Clerk of the Dáil is vacant or the Clerk is not available through illness, absence or other cause. The Bill provides likewise in respect of the office of Clerk of the Seanad.
The electoral Acts provide in many sections that where the office of Clerk of the Dáil is vacant, the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil shall perform the duties of the Clerk of the Dáil. For example, section 39 of the Electoral Act 1992, which deals with the issue and return of writs at Dáil elections, provides that the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil shall carry out the duties of the Clerk of the Dáil if the office of Clerk of the Dáil is vacant or the Clerk is unable to fulfil the duties through illness, absence or other cause. Another example is in Rule 101 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. That Rule provides that the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil shall perform the functions of the Clerk of the Dáil in respect of the filling of casual vacancies in the European Parliament whenever the office of Clerk of the Dáil is vacant or the Clerk is unable to fulfil the relevant duties through illness, absence or other cause. The electoral Acts are not, however, consistent in making such provision and this short technical Bill addresses this anomaly in the electoral Acts.
The anomaly came to notice when consideration was being given to the making of the by-election order to fill the vacancy in the Seanad arising from the election of Senator Deirdre Clune to the European Parliament in May. The vacancy has arisen in the Oireachtas Sub-Panel of the Cultural and Educational Panel. The legislative provisions on filling the vacancy are set out in Part 5 of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947. The Act requires the Clerk of the Dáil to perform specific functions in the by-election process. These include sending to the Seanad returning officer a "statement of the names, addresses and descriptions of all the members of the Dáil who are then entitled to sit and vote in that House". On receipt of that statement, the Seanad returning officer prepares a list which forms part of the electoral roll for the by-election.
As the office of Clerk of the Dáil is vacant and as there is no provision in the 1947 Act for a person other than the Clerk of the Dáil to furnish the necessary statement to the Seanad returning officer in respect of the electoral role, the by-election could not proceed in accordance with the Act. This anomaly came to light when I received notice last month under section 55 of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947 of the casual vacancy in the Seanad arising from Senator Clune's election to the European Parliament. This is an unsatisfactory and anomalous situation which is addressed in the Bill before the House today.
Rather than just dealing with the immediate difficulty of the Seanad by-election, the Government decided to examine the issue more widely. Therefore, the Bill addresses the entire electoral code where similar difficulties could arise in the future, in respect of both the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad. The Bill provides that in certain circumstances, the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil will perform the functions of the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk Assistant of the Seanad will perform the functions of the Clerk of the Seanad. Those circumstances arise where either the office of Clerk of the Dáil or the office of Clerk of the Seanad is vacant or the Clerk is unable through illness, absence or other cause to fulfil duties under the electoral Acts and no provision is made for another person to perform the relevant functions.
I will now outline the details of the Bill. Section 1(1) provides that if and so long as the office of Clerk of Dáil Éireann is vacant or the holder of that office is unable through illness, absence or other cause to perform his or her functions under the relevant statutory provisions, the Clerk Assistant of Dáil Éireann shall perform those functions. Section 1(2) lists the "relevant Acts" and "relevant statutory provisions" referred to in section 1(1). The functions are those functions in the electoral Acts which are the duty of the Clerk of the Dáil and where no provision is made for any other person to fulfil the duties in the absence of the Clerk. Section 2(1) of the Bill makes similar provisions for the Seanad. It provides that if and so long as the office of Clerk of Seanad Éireann is vacant or the holder of that office is unable through illness, absence or other cause to perform his or her functions under the relevant statutory provisions, the Clerk Assistant of Seanad Éireann shall perform those functions. Section 2(2) lists the "relevant Acts" and "relevant statutory provisions" referred to in section 2(1). The functions are those functions in the electoral Acts which are the duty of the Clerk of the Seanad and where no provision is made for any other person to fulfil the duties in the absence of the Clerk. Section 3 of the Bill contains standard provisions dealing with Short Title, construction and collective citations.
This is a short technical Bill. The goal is to ensure that Dáil and Seanad elections can proceed in accordance with the legislative provisions and requirements when there is a vacancy in the office of Clerk of the Dáil or Clerk of the Seanad or the Clerk is absent for one reason or another. The Bill takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to addressing the inconsistencies in the electoral Acts on this point, and I commend it to the House.
Fianna Fáil supports this Bill. However, as the Minister has explained, it is essentially a stopgap piece of legislation while the position of Clerk of the Dáil is resolved. Unfortunately, it does not reflect very well on the day-to-day running of the Dáil, and it is vital that the independence and the integrity of the Oireachtas are fully maintained in appointing such a critical member of staff on a permanent basis.
As the Minister explained, the Government is facing a by-election to the Seanad to replace the recently elected MEP, Deirdre Clune. This by-election cannot take place until the functions of the Clerk are adequately filled, which this legislation will achieve. The Bill does raise the question of why the Government is prevaricating on appointing a person to the permanent position of Clerk of the Dáil. The key issue at stake is what is the best system to attract and appoint key members of staff to run the Oireachtas. It is essential that this appointment be made, that it be brought to a conclusion and that we have an open Oireachtas where we can have open accountability and maybe meet the demands the Government placed on itself when it said, among many other things, that it would have a democratic revolution.
Fianna Fáil supports an open and transparent process, with the final appointment ultimately being passed by the Dáil. This will ensure a broad pool of talent is drawn into the Oireachtas with fresh ideas and experience. I know the Government stated previously that it will utilise the Top Level Appointments Committee, TLAC, system to appoint the positions in the future, but it has not taken action in this regard. The TLAC incorporates nomination by boards comprising a majority of members from the private sector with specific skills in management and human resources.
That format provides considerable opportunities for new blood to be introduced into organisations throughout the public service. This has been mirrored by the introduction by the Government of a senior public service mobility programme. The precedent has been set in the Houses of the Oireachtas Service at assistant secretary level. The use of such a system should be subject to a vote of the House to ensure the role of elected Members is not diminished and the Government is not able to exploit the process for its own benefit.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has backed the proposal for a new, open process to underpin future opportunities and I implore the Minister in his final days to move on this issue among many others.
In the meantime, the Bill will help to ensure the Oireachtas can function effectively in the absence of a permanent Clerk of the Dáil. This should not be used by the Government as an excuse for inaction on the substantive issue or in bringing forward a new suitable process for such a high level appointment. We support the Bill but we want to be loud and clear that it is stopgap legislation. A new system should be introduced for the appointment to be made on a permanent basis in order that the Parliament can be run effectively and not be faced with having to pass legislation such as this to get over the hump that exists because of the prevarication over a long number of months. We support the legislation and its intent.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill listed on the clár was the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, not the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 4) Bill. A mistake was made in this regard.
Nevertheless this is a short, technical Bill and it is common sense to allow the assistant clerk to act up. We have no issue with that.
Deputy Cowen highlighted a number of issues to the Minister in his final days, although he has not gone away yet.
I presume the next hour or two will reveal all. I would like to highlight the issue of the register of electors in the context of the electoral process.
Anybody who canvassed during the recent local and European elections will know people are on the register two or three times at different addresses. We must move away from registering people by their address and PPS numbers should be used.
The Minister made one good change during his term of office by sorting out the problem in Graiguecullen, County Carlow. This needed to be resolved because it had been hanging there for a number of years. The electoral boundary between Laois-Offaly and Carlow-Kilkenny caused significant confusion in elections in the area. The issue has been addressed and it made everything much easier during the recent local elections. It will be better in the future that the electoral boundary reflects the county boundary, as it does for football and hurling. That was a welcome move.
Someone will have to grasp the nettle on the register of electors and try to sort it out.
I ask the Chair to bear with me.
I welcome that the Government has lowered the voting age to 17 but we advocate that people should be able to vote at 16 and the electoral process should become an integral part of the CPSE course at second level in the context of political and electoral education.
We must move away from the current system of registration to reduce the possibility of fraud. The electoral register might have been okay decades ago when rent and rates collectors called to every house. This went on until 1979 but that will never happen again because of electronic transfers and so on. In addition, town councillors were in office until recently. One of the useful functions they performed was they knew where most people lived in their area because they were dealing with smaller electoral areas. They had local knowledge and they could add people to the register who should have been registered and highlight to council officials when they noticed others were on the register twice. Sinn Féin wants to make sure we have an accurate electoral register. Town councillors and rent and rates collectors monitored it locally along with the local authority's field workers. That role has been reduced because local authorities have had to cut back due to staff shortages.
There are two other important factors, one of which is mobility in the housing market. One would see a different picture if one read a telephone book from 20 years ago. Groups of families lived in certain areas and there was not much movement. Nowadays, that has changed and officials need to take on board the increased mobility in the housing market as people buy, rent and lease property. It is difficult to keep track of them. There is a much more flexible housing market than 30, 40 or 50 years ago. We have not adapted to the 21st century. We are trying to use a method that was used in the early and middle part of the 20th century and we cannot continue with that.
The final factor is jobs. Few people work around the corner from where they live and if they do, they are lucky. Many people live a distance away from their workplace and they must travel to work and they change jobs more frequently than in the past. There is also inward and outward migration. The only way to maintain an accurate register of electors is to use a system based on PPS numbers.
On polling day for the 2009 local elections, I met people in Portlaoise looking for Railway Street as they tried to find the polling station. They were supposed to be living in the town. If they lived in the town, they should have known where Railway Street is. They had polling cards in their hands but that told me they were not living in the town.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have no problem supporting me regarding the accuracy of the electoral register.
I support the Bill. If it means a smoother process in the aftermath of elections, we will have no problem with that. I will support its passage.
This has been described as technical legislation to assist in changes to functions to enable a by-election to be held but it will be a by-election without a popular democratic mandate and I have a problem with that. The people had an opportunity to speak on the abolition of the Seanad, a proposal I supported because these institutions need to be reformed and not because useful work is not done in that House.
I do not think there is any prospect of radical reform of the Seanad with the defeat of the referendum. The most we can expect is the expansion of the university panels to other institutions, in respect of which legislation is in hand.
The Constitution envisaged something very different for the Seanad and how it should relate to the Dáil. This goes to the heart of the Bill's facilitation of by-elections. The intention was to foster the healthy tension evident in other bicameral systems. However, the Seanad is instead the plaything of the larger political parties. It does not provide the expertise envisaged for the system of vocational panels through which 43 of the 60 Senators are elected on the basis of a limited franchise. Even though the results in the 2009 election indicated that 16% were not aligned with the larger parties, this was not reflected in the composition of that Seanad. It has grown substantially since.
The Bill facilitates changes to staffing and the authority of certain roles, but it also facilitates a greater degree of certainty because people have lost the Whip and there is a finer balance in votes. It is not such a bad thing to lose votes on occasion because it can make the Government revisit its decisions. It is normal in other parts of the world to have dissent on proposals that do not work. The Taoiseach's nominees cannot always be relied upon. I applaud the Taoiseach for his imaginative choices in the case of certain nominees, but that has not always been the case. Some of them took principled positions on legislation, which is how it should be. The over-reliance on the Whip system is offensive to those who want to have the prospect of independent thought and action among Members. This has been dumbed down in favour of a culture in which compliance is rewarded with promotion, which is not a healthy way to run a democracy.
Deputy Brian Stanley spoke about geography and counties. I am not fixated on the British shiring of parts of the country which led to the county system. It is amusing that an instrument of the Crown should be adopted by a party that is -----
If the Deputy does not mind, I am making my contribution. It is amusing that an instrument of the Crown should be adopted so readily by Sinn Féin, despite its resistance to other aspects. It is entitled to do so, but that point always amuses me.
I am not going on a tour of counties, but they have a significant influence on how we designed the electoral system and the composition of the Seanad. The organisation of local government has a direct input into the way in which 43 of the 60 Senators are elected. Up to now, there was a definite rural bias in favour of less populated areas because the value of a vote at local level had a variable of approximately 10 to one between Fingal at the high end and County Leitrim at the low end. Even within that system there was inequality in representation and, as a primarily urban county, Kildare did very poorly as a result.
I am not going to call a vote on the Bill, but we should see it for what it is. It will facilitate the smooth arrangement between the Dáil and the Seanad and ensure there will be a majority for the Government in order that it can have complete certainty in passing legislation. That is not good for democracy.
I think the public feel conned by the claim that the Government needed a huge majority to give it the strength it needed to introduce radical change. We did not have the promised democratic revolution.
We got a group of backbenchers who were tightly controlled. If they do not like to go along with decisions, they are chucked out and there is little impact on the Government which can continue on its merry way because of the size of its majority.
This is technical legislation aimed at facilitating a system that is utterly flawed. It will not make a major difference because the margins are tight, but we need to grow up and realise it is not a catastrophe to lose a vote in a democratic system. The Government does not have to control everything.
On a point of order, regarding the situation to which I referred in Graiguecullen, I do not have a hang up with shires or county boundaries. The problem arose for the housing estates in question because there were two sets of boundaries in Graiguecullen. There are different boundaries for local and general elections, as a result of which people were left in the middle. They could vote for Carlow councillors, but those councillors had no control over the budget after the elections took place because each county council took over responsibility. The situation needed to be remedied.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on what is probably the final occasion on which the Minister will bring legislation before the House. I thank him not only for the Bill but also for a number of things he did for the country in terms of electoral reform and for my county of Kildare.
We have had a number of water treatment plants to ensure they continue developing within the county. In my area, Kerdiffstown, the Minister continues to provide funding through the EPA, and plenty of funding has been provided for communities across the county.
The Minister has engaged in electoral reform, which continues with the Bill before the House, to enable a Senator to be replaced in the Seanad. Electoral reform has seen the consolidation of counties. As a proud Kildare man, I am glad to see my county maintain its status. I wish the Minister well in his future trips abroad and look forward to working with him in future.
I support the Bill. As we have seen with recent by-elections, it is important to provide that all seats can be filled quickly. It is important that the Seanad has full representation. When one considers the appointment by the Government of so many independent-minded Senators, it is clear that we are not trying simply to obtain a majority. It is important that all seats are filled as quickly as possible as provided for in the Bill. I commend the Minister in respect of whatever happens into the future as well as on the work he has been doing. There is a headline in my local paper about lack of investment in the west. I assure the House that there has been plenty of investment in the west under the Minister, Deputy Hogan. We have seen progress on sewerage treatment plants across Connemara at Clifden, Oughterard, Claregalway, Milltown, Kinvara, and, in the east, the Cashla regional water supply scheme and Tonabrocky reservoir, as well as progress on a number of other schemes. We have seen progress on a very important fire station for south Connemara under Deputy Hogan, whereas for a long number of years there was a failure to make any provision.
I thank the Minister for his support over the last number of years. I wish him well in respect of whatever happens in future. It has been a pleasure working with him.
It is a technical Bill and the Deputy has made more of it than is deserved. We have set out clearly that we are facilitating the filling of vacancies for the future. The Deputy might be satisfied to have those particular measures in place when there are 158 Independents in the Dáil. We will see how coherently business can be organised then.
Since taking office in 2011, the Government has introduced radical and significant reforms to the operation and financing of the political system, which Deputy Murphy failed to realise and acknowledge. The constituency and local electoral area boundaries have been reviewed and revised for local, European and Dáil elections, thereby improving the representational balance across the State for all elections. We have had a very busy programme of political reform, continuing with the general scheme of the Seanad electoral (university members) (amendment) Bill, which will provide for the election of six university Senators on a more democratic basis. That Bill was published recently for consultation. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2014 repealed the provisions in the Electoral Act 1992 and the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 which disqualified undischarged bankrupts from eligibility for election to or membership of the Dáil and European Parliament.
In 2010, the Group of States Against Corruption, known as GRECO, published a report on political party funding in Ireland. In December 2013, a final report on the implementation of the recommendations of GRECO was published. It recognised that the regulation and transparency of political funding in Ireland had greatly improved and stated that virtually all concerns raised by GRECO had been taken on board. In February 2014, the first EU anti-corruption report was published by the European Commission. It noted that Ireland had tightened the rules on the financing of political parties and promoted greater transparency as regards party accounts. The report also acknowledged the positive assessment given by the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption.
The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011, enacted in July 2011, provided for a reduction in the number of Dáil Deputies to 158 at the next election. It further provided that the writ for a Dáil by-election must now be issued within six months of a vacancy occurring rather than continuing the position in the past whereby such vacancies were rarely filled. During the lifetime of the previous Dáil there were many delays in the calling of by-elections. The spending limits for presidential elections have also been reduced from €1.3 million to €750,000, while the maximum reimbursement payment to candidates was reduced from €260,000 to €200,000. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 brought into force restrictions on corporate donations and considerable reductions in the maximum amount a political party or individual can accept as a political donation, reduced the donation reporting thresholds, and banned the receipt of all cash donations over €200. The Act introduced a new requirement that to qualify for full State funding, a party must meet a certain gender condition. Qualifying political parties must have at least 30% female candidates as well as 30% male candidates in the next general election, which will rise to 40% after seven years. If a party does not meet these thresholds, its funding will be halved.
In relation to concerns that Deputy Cowen and Deputy Stanley raised on the register of electors and other matters, we are examining the establishment of an electoral commission. I expect that to be in place between now and the next general election. The use of PPS numbers is one of the initiatives that is often suggested as a means to improve the register. It has been recommended by the joint committee. While PPS numbers and other unique identifiers could assist the registration authorities in ensuring the register of electors is as accurate as possible, there are a number of issues we should take into account. It is unlikely that the existing PPS database could populate the electoral register with PPS numbers due to the lack of matching identifiers between the two databases. There are approximately 7 million PPS numbers in the State, whereas the population is 4.5 million. There is a problem there. The PPS system does not necessarily capture the current residence of a voter or a person's citizenship status, which are essential for electoral registration purposes. However, it does make a contribution to the accuracy of the electoral register. The need to make the electoral registration process more accurate and up to date is a bone of contention on all sides of the House. We must find a way to do it, in which regard the Government is open to suggestions from across the House to maximise the accuracy of the electoral register and to ensure the issues identified by Deputy Stanley are actually dealt with. I hope they will not all have Northern accents going around Portlaoise at election time. We would not do that, would we?
I thank the Members of the House for their understanding in relation to this basic, technical legislation, which facilitates business at the occasional time when the Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad is not available to perform the role envisaged under the 1947 Act. I thank all Members for their kindness and co-operation over the last three and a half years.