Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

5:00 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann,

—mindful of revelations that up to 800,000 individuals may be inaccurately recorded on the elector register;

—aware of the huge potential for disenfranchisement and voter fraud that this situation causes;

—bearing in mind the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure a modern electoral system;

calls for

—the automatic registration of all individuals who turn 18 years of age, by utilising the PPS registration system;

—the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee all aspects of the electoral system;

—the scrapping of e-voting due to a lack of public confidence, which the poor state of the electoral register has exacerbated;

—the immediate setting up of a student summer scheme under which third level students would be employed for the summer months to work as enumerators in an effort to bring the register up to date as speedily as possible;

—legislation that would make it obligatory to produce photo identification when casting a ballot; and

—the granting of responsibility for the location of polling stations to local authorities, so that polling stations are located closer to new communities thereby encouraging more citizens to vote at elections.

The state of the electoral register is a total disgrace. The bedrock of any parliamentary democracy is its voter registration system which should provide a clear and concise record of who is entitled to vote in an election. It is extraordinary that we have entrusted the running of our country to a Government which, in an age of computerisation, cannot even complete an accurate list of the names and addresses of a mere 4 million people.

The maintenance of the register is a task that should not be beyond the ability of even this Government. We have a small population of approximately 4 million people. London alone has a population of 6.5 million, which puts the size of the task in perspective. London is just one city, so the task in Ireland should be potentially very manageable.

The Minister is charged by the people of this country to maintain an updated and accurate register of electors but he has ignored and neglected this duty. He has taken his eye off the ball and should be given the red card. Political responsibility lies squarely on his shoulders; there are no scapegoats. As I recently did with regard to the nitrates debacle, I call for the Minister's resignation. If this lame duck Government has any vestige of governance left, the Minister's head should be on the block.

As the Minister seems to be unable or unwilling to accept his responsibilities in this matter, an independent electoral commission should be established to oversee all aspects of the electoral system, with the updating of the register the first task to be undertaken as a matter of urgency. It is sad to consider that a small percentage of the more than €50 million wasted by the Minister and his colleagues on the e-voting debacle would have financed a full overhaul and update of the electoral register.

In June last year, the Minister told the House that there were 300,000 more names on the electoral register than eligible voters, mainly due to the slowness in removing the names of deceased people, the increase in the number of second homes and people moving without advising the local authority. Given that nothing has been done since then, one can only imagine it is far worse now, with estimates suggesting as many as 800,000 inaccuracies in the register.

My colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, in 2004 called for an explanation from South Dublin County Council as to why many people were removed from the electoral register in the run up to the local and European elections. Since the close of poll Senator Hayes was contacted by a number of people in the Dublin South-West constituency who were unable to vote because someone had removed them from the register of electors. This is a sinister development where law abiding citizens simply trying to exercise their right to vote were denied the ability to do so because a mystery person deleted them from the register.

As the responsibility for compiling the register rests with the relevant local authority, questions must now be answered as to why and how this occurred. When someone is removed from the register there should be a clear paper trail from the individual to the local authority. We must demand that all local authorities explain to voters who were taken off the register exactly who was responsible and why their names were removed. Equally, the law should be reformed to permit only the voter to remove his or her name from the register.

It is clear that the compilation of the register is haphazard and patchy. Little effort is made to get an accurate picture of exactly who is entitled to vote in the months before an election. Another key problem with the register is the nature of many new apartment developments. It is simply not possible to gain entry to most apartment blocks. This is not necessarily a bad thing as, for example, it offers residents a great degree of security. In addition, they probably do not want a bunch of Government politicians turning up at their front door.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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Or Opposition politicians.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Something must be done to ensure that these people are put on the register. It is already difficult to get young people to vote. They are busy, work long hours and, to be honest, are of a political generation that feels separated from the political process and, in many cases, let down by the Government. We should not make it harder to convince them to take part in the democratic process. There is no need for these massive inaccuracies in 2006. Other countries have had large scale apartment living for years and they can get their citizens onto the electoral register without much problem.

It would be interesting to know the level of registration among new workers in this country. EU citizens are entitled to vote in local and European elections, while non-EU citizens can vote in local elections if they are registered. Figures from the North are not promising and we have no reason to believe the figures for the South would be any better. Only four out of ten people in the minority communities in the North are registered to vote compared to more than nine out of ten in the general population. This figure compares unfavourably with England and Wales, where an estimated 83% of the black and minority ethnic communities are registered.

Moreover, of those minority groupings that are registered in the North, less than half bother to vote compared to an overall turnout in the North of 64%. Among minorities in the North, almost a third said they did not know how to register and a quarter said they did not know they had to register. I urge the Minister to examine this issue when he or his successor hopefully takes on the challenge of sorting out the mess in the electoral register.

It is timely that this issue is being debated as people hand over their census forms. Not only is the electoral register a vital electoral tool but it is, in essence, an annual "census" used by people such as historians, genealogists and others. EU instigated legislation, which Ireland has implemented, has curbed its use for the issuing of unsolicited junk mail.

The simple solution to the current fiasco is to automatically place people on the register when they have reached the age of 18 years. Employing the PPS number used by the Department of Social and Family Affairs would do this easily, provided confidentially is guaranteed. That guarantee is a matter many people have raised with me. Every person over 18 years of age already has a PPS number. When a citizen reaches the voting age, the Department of Social and Family Affairs could automatically inform the relevant local authority. Such a system would efficiently eliminate much of the confusion that reigns.

Employing third level students over the summer months to update the electoral register is a productive suggestion. With the academic terms of third level institutions about to end, many thousands of students will be looking for short-term employment until they continue their studies in the autumn. Employing them to update the register would not only provide them with a welcome opportunity to earn extra income but also engage them in the political process. Many young people are disillusioned by what they perceive to be the negative image of politics, the abuses of power and blatant waste of taxpayers' money associated with the Government. Involving them in the political process would give them a sense of making a difference by doing important remedial work on the register.

Legislation making it obligatory for voters to bring photographic ID with them to the polling station is a simple yet effective measure to prevent abuse of the system. In an age where people are used to producing photographic ID to travel, this suggestion is not tantamount to encouraging the introduction of ID cards but a simple and effective measure to protect the integrity of our democratic electoral system.

This weekend one Sunday newspaper referred to one of the most powerful images in modern politics, that of Margaret Thatcher's poster of a large dole queue accompanied by the slogan "Labour isn't working". What would she make of the inactivity and wastefulness of the Government? How would she portray the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Citizens are genuinely annoyed at the shambles in which the Government has left the electoral register. It is time for the Government to get its act together to correct it.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I second the motion and thank Senator Bannon for tabling it. The most fundamental issue in any democracy is the right of the people to determine its Deputies at elections and, consequently, who is in Government. During the last general election, in ten constituencies the last seat was determined by less than 300 votes. In some cases it was down to just two or three votes. From this one can see the crucially important task in devising an electoral register that is up-to-date and reflects the actual position of the electorate. Despite the money and personnel in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities, some political responsibility must be taken for the shambles of the electoral register.

It only became an issue because The Sunday Tribune made it one. Ten months ago, the paper, through Shane Coleman and other journalists, began to make it an issue. Slowly the political system reacted and recognised it as such. The root of the problem on all electoral matters is due to the electoral system being ultimately determined by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. An independent electoral commission must be established. A commission must be charged specifically to report to both Houses and not to the Government on electoral matters. Governments, be they Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, are naturally defensive. Governments never admit to problems but hide them. The job of the Civil Service and the Government in power is to obfuscate. An independent regulatory body is needed to report to the Houses about the state of the electoral register. When the issue was first raised ten months ago, the Government claimed it was not a problem. It only recently admitted it is. The result will be the census enumerators going back into the field to compile the register. Why does it take so long for the political system to react?

One reason I strongly opposed e-voting was because the proposal came from the Government. It is not the job of any Minister to propose such a radical shift in electoral procedure without consultation. The then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, with nothing to do, decided electronic voting would be a good idea. It would look fantastic and Ireland would be considered a big player in the IT world. That is nonsense. It is not the job of petty politicians to meddle in such an important aspect of our democracy. Inevitably people are suspicious of the Government when such a proposal is made. There is merit in Senator Bannon's proposal to establish an independent electoral commission to look after these matters. It is better than politicians, often here today and gone tomorrow, looking for a way to get themselves onto newspaper headlines.

Is the Government in favour of the continuation of the charade of e-voting? It has the opportunity to tell us where it stands on the issue this evening instead of hiding behind the Commission on Electronic Voting. The people on it have better things to do with their time. The usual suspects, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and others, were rounded up to provide protection for the Government on the issue. I do not want to hear from the commission. I want to hear from the Government as to what is its stance on e-voting. As the Progressive Democrats are against it, let them support our motion instead of trouping in behind the nonsense contained in the second last paragraph of the Government's amendment to the motion. The people do not want e-voting. Instead they want the system to remain as it is. The Government has already taken the hit for the gross expense that it put the taxpayers through for the e-voting machines. Finality and clarity on the issue is now needed.

On 29 March 2006, I wrote to the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the granting of responsibility for the location of polling stations to local authorities so they are located close to new communities where they will encourage more citizens to vote in elections. I did not raise it as an Adjournment matter or on the Order of Business. Local authorities should determine the location of polling stations because they know best where the new communities are and how to put in place voter-friendly polling schemes. I received a one-line, complimentary letter on 9 April 2006 and have not heard anymore since.

If the Department treats a Member with this type of disrespect, what happens to members of the public who attempt to raise more important issues with it? Despite the baloney of strategic management initiatives and the like to determine whether benchmarking should be awarded, seven weeks later I, a Member, have not received a comprehensive reply from the Department. It is a disgrace. Why have I been informed this evening that a reply is winging its way to me as we speak? Is it — surprise, surprise — because the motion is being debated tonight? Why did I not get a reply to my letter before this?

My letter makes one simple point. In the new communities I represent in the west and south west of the city, local councils should decide the locations of the polling stations. There are up to 6,000 new houses; people are not connected with the area and do not know where to vote. The local authorities should determine where the polling stations are sited. If that means having two polling stations in one district, so be it.

The Government amendment, however, completely misunderstood the point of the last part of the motion. The Government amendment has nothing to do with polling stations, it is to do with polling places, a different thing entirely. I will be told that it is a matter for local authorities to put together polling schemes — that is true — but the returning officers determine the location of the polling stations. In my letter of 29 March, I said that the law should be changed. It is simple and straightforward, the power should be given to the local authorities, which know best where new communities are located. Six weeks later I have still not received a reply. The debate is scheduled for tonight and I am miraculously informed that a comprehensive reply has been sent to my office.

I have no confidence in the ability of the Department to deliver if it cannot even reply to a straightforward proposal that I made with no publicity or fuss. We are in a mess in urban areas, particularly in Dublin, when it comes to putting in place polling stations people can get to quickly. The vast majority of people get home at 7.30 p.m. and only have two hours to get out and vote.

We must get our act together on this. If the Minister of State introduces enabling legislation, I will put it through this House in less than two hours to give the power to local authorities to do what I asked in my letter of 29 March. We must display some urgency in this. Those who have failed us in the past, and they are still in place to deal with this issue because the Government did not establish an independent commission, will fail us again.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:

—shares the concerns about the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the electoral register, which reflect the challenges presented by electoral registration in many jurisdictions, as recognised by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in its study of electoral system design in 2005;

—endorses the Government's programme to support and assist local authorities in working to secure significant improvement in the electoral register in the short term, through:

—updated and consolidated guidance to all local authorities,

—the use of census enumerators, or other temporary staff, to assist local authorities in intensive fieldwork as part of a new register campaign,

—provision of additional financial resources to local authorities to support intensified action on the register,

—an early start to the register campaign for 2007-08,

—new arrangements to delete deceased persons from the register,

—better on-line facilities to help people check the voting register, including an additional on-line facility through the website of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government,

—an intensive public information campaign,

—supports full consideration of longer-term options in relation to the electoral registration process on a cross-party basis;

—acknowledges the importance of strengthened controls at the polls and, noting that current guidance, which will be highlighted to returning officers and presiding officers at the next election, requires that at least 25% of voters be asked to produce an identity document, accepts that there is a need for balance between this requirement to maintain the security and integrity of the electoral process and providing a necessary degree of flexibility;

—notes that the Oireachtas agreed to the establishment of the Commission on Electronic Voting and that the timing of further use of the electronic voting and counting system is dependent on the progress made with the ongoing work of the commission, the Government's programme of further assessment, testing and validation of the system, the associated decisions arising in this regard, and dates at which future polls may be held; and

—notes that the Electoral Act 1992, in accordance with the principle of local responsibility, already provides that each local authority, in consultation with the relevant returning officer(s), is required to make a polling scheme dividing the county or city into polling districts and appointing a polling place for each polling district, and that this is a reserved function of the local authority.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to discuss this issue, which, as spokesman on the environment for my party, I have raised on a number of occasions, particularly the use of enumerators to compile an accurate register.

An accurate register is the basis of democracy and concerns were voiced in the Dáil about it, with the Taoiseach noting 80 people registered to vote in one house in his constituency. These concerns are not new and not even unique to the Republic of Ireland; the same issue has been raised in Northern Ireland, with efforts made there to make the register more accurate. There are also concerns about the lack of registration in rural areas. There was a gap of 300,000 between the 3 million eligible to vote in Dáil elections in 2002 and the census data for 2002 that showed 2.7 million voters over the age of 18.

I agree with Senator Bannon that only the named individual should be able to remove his or her name. I remember the lists given by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two major parties in my constituency in the 1970s, to the register courts. There was agreement on the majority of names to be included but there would be hell to pay over a small number of names where one party would object to the other nominating a person to be added to the register. Those register courts saw a lot of politics. The political parties are not as active as they once were in compiling lists of names to be included in or excluded from a register. The rate collectors did a good job in the past, with even school principals providing the names of those who had left school at 13 who still lived in the area.

We must focus on what must be done between now and 1 November when the draft register will be published. From February next year, the 2007-08 register will apply. I agree that we must take effective action and I welcome the Minister's announcement of a package of measures to improve the register. He mentioned the use of census enumerators or other temporary staff, such as students. If local authorities could be assisted by these staff in preparing the next register, it would be a good start to an intensive campaign.

Local authorities, however, cannot be asked to undertake such work without additional financial resources. That will happen and the Minister will make the resources available. In the amendment we mention the provision of guidance so that local authorities all work to the same template. The local authorities should also be able to cross-check the register with other databases. The new staff could deal with this. It is important to make an early start so that all information and assistance is given to councils. There should be an information campaign to launch this initiative.

The Minister mentioned that there are 30,000 deaths each year and that names should be removed from the register, something we do not hear about as much because we normally only hear about those who do not get a chance to vote. There should be an arrangement for that. In the amendment we mention an on-line registration process and search facility so that people can check if they are included. It is also important that there is a link between the local authority and the Department so the website can provide accurate results.

Events on polling day are important for both candidates and voters. We have introduced much legislation in recent years to prevent abuses of the system. This must be mirrored by vigilance by polling staff and personation agents on the ground to ensure only those eligible to vote are allowed. This is an issue that should be discussed with returning and presiding officers when considering their duties in the prevention of voter fraud.

Along with the question of inaccuracies on the register, we must deal with what happens on polling day. We have provided strong powers to election officials in recent years. The Electoral Act 1992 strengthened the powers to affirm identity and increased penalties for electoral fraud. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2002 introduced more stringent requirements for entry to the supplemental register. Previously, I raised the issue of the green form provided by local authorities for registration purposes. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 made unlawful possession or use of someone else's polling card a specific offence. Since 2002, election staff have been advised in departmental guidelines to require at least 25% of voters to produce an identity document, an increase of 5%.

We are dealing with a lead-in process for the next election and must focus on what we can achieve in the relatively short time up to November 2006. We must have practical, realistic and sensible proposals to show the way forward. I agree with Senator Bannon that the use of the PPS number for registration is important. Senator Brian Hayes said we should have consultation on these issues. We must have consultation in order to have consensus on a system.

The Fine Gael motion raises the issue of production of photo ID at polling stations. The Minister spoke about one in four people being checked for ID. There are issues with regard to ID checks. For example, this might create a difficulty for the elderly in nursing homes. We should have some flexibility in this regard.

On electronic voting and the location of polling stations, I cannot understand how someone can say we should scrap electronic voting when we are trying to develop the use of information technology throughout the country. Senator Brian Hayes may recall the Kildare by-election when he and I were involved in checking the validity of votes. Perhaps I should not mention that election, but at least our candidate topped the poll. We would not have to examine the validity of votes if we had e-voting. The e-voting worked well in two elections. The mistake with regard to electronic voting was that there was not enough cross-party consultation on the issue. That should not mean we should scrap it altogether. It worked quite well and should be discussed further with the commission.

We have made changes with regard to providing access to polling stations. In previous years we sometimes had unseemly situations where people could not get into their polling stations without being accosted. The Government decided then that election agents and supporters should not be closer than 100 m. to a polling station. Local authorities should devise a scheme to ensure polling stations are in suitable places with access for people with disabilities and where people can have unhindered access to the station, particularly in the rush voting hours. This situation has improved and I hope this will continue. Some people say others do not know where the polling station is as a result of removing the supporters 100 m, but this is a poor excuse for trying to bring back the support teams to congregate outside the polling stations.

I welcome the discussion of this issue. We have the opportunity between now and November to take some small steps to improve the system and hopefully will have a better system in place next year.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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It is good to hear Senator Kitt agree with some of what is in the Fine Gael motion. This is only proper as there should be common ground among politicians on what needs to be done. We all agree the electoral register is a shambles. The Irish Times reported today that between 300,000 and 800,000 names on the register should not be on it.

As Senator Kitt said, we are very dependent on officials for the register. This is a reason I agree with Senators Bannon and Brian Hayes on the need for an independent electoral commission. We are dependent on officials to keep the register accurate. I agree with Senator Kitt that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been less active in recent years with regard to detailed examination of the register. Both parties used to be more active on this. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it.

We must ensure clear guidelines and instructions are given by the Department to all local authorities. Much of the content of our motion is basic common sense as are many of the suggestions in the Government amendment. Between us, we should be able to devise what should be done in the best interest of all. We did well to remove those with political interests from polling stations, thereby ending the intimidation many voters felt occurred.

We cannot get away from the seriousness of the issue of the electoral register. Today's editorial in The Irish Times states: "The Government's lackadaisical attitude to the integrity of the electoral register and abuse of the democratic system has been nothing short of shameful". We all agree that there are gross inaccuracies that cannot be ignored. It is a basic duty of Government to ensure the register is correct. We will never get 100% accuracy as people will always move house or location. It is a significant failure of the Administration that the register is in the state in which we find it today. This could easily influence the composition of a future Government, which would be appalling.

We know the potential for abuse exists. The Government's responsibility is to protect democracy and correct the electoral register and we will support it on that. We are all together in that sense. There are various reports on the figures, but they are significant whether we go for the higher or the lower figure. The inaccuracies are not just in one constituency, but in many of them. I do not understand why the recent Labour Party proposal to use non-confidential information from the census was ruled out. According to The Irish Times editorial, the Minister has ruled out the request that personal identification be required of voters. I look forward to hearing the rationale behind that.

The editorial further states: "... you cannot conduct a bank transaction or travel abroad without identification. Local authorities will not even issue a parking permit in the absence of a personal utility bill. So what is the problem about producing such material when it comes to protecting democracy and electing a government?" We need an answer on this. The editorial is damning in its final statement on the matter: "Their failure now threatens the very fabric of our political system and they must put it right". We all want to see it put right. That is the reason we have not yet heard any specifics on the way that will be done. We await the Minister of State's contribution in that regard.

To deal with the points in the motion, if up to 800,000 individuals are inaccurately recorded on the electoral register, we all know what happened. Many of those, undoubtedly, are deceased. We are all aware of instances where the names of deceased persons were not removed from electoral registers. Forgive me if I digress for a moment but in the 1961 election in south Kerry the names of 40 deceased persons were on the register in a pooling booth in Glencar — I will not mention which of the three. There was something like a 99% turnout and, coincidentally, there were 40 "plumpers" in that box for a successful Deputy at the time who has gone to his eternal reward. That was only 40 names. How many are on the register now? That is happening everywhere. I fail to comprehend how the inaccuracies we are hearing and reading about occurred. There is great potential for disenfranchisement and voter fraud arising out of that and it is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure we have a modern, proper electoral system. We wait to hear from the Minister of State what is being proposed in that regard.

What is wrong with the automatic registration of individuals who turn 18 years of age by utilising the PPS registration system? Surely there is merit in that approach. I do not see anything wrong with that but we will wait to hear what the Minister of State has to say on it. Like Senator Brian Hayes, I am strongly in favour of an independent electoral commission because it would ensure greater accuracy of the register. That would be its specific function. It is falling between various stools, so to speak, at present and it must be improved.

On e-voting, I listened to the contributions of Senators Brian Hayes and Kitt and with no disrespect to the eminent people on the commission — we will hear from them whenever they produce their final view — there are three basic things wrong with e-voting. First, there is no paper trail and that does not instil confidence in anybody. Second, and equally important, it was not designed to cater for the intricacies of the proportional representation system. It may be appropriate for a first past the post system if there was a paper trail, of which there is not, and as a result there is no confidence in it. If there is no confidence in a system we would be foolish in the extreme to try to tamper with it or even improve it, if it can be improved. Third, as Senator Kitt said, there was a total lack of consultation. We await hearing from the commission but I do not believe we will be able to come up with a system to cater for proportional representation with a paper trail in which people can have confidence. If there is no confidence in the system, we will not get anywhere with it.

There is great merit in a student summer scheme. There is no mention of a student summer scheme in the amendment but I believe agreement could be reached on that issue. I do not see anything wrong with an obligatory photo ID. In addition, polling stations should be located closer to communities. With no disrespect to returning officers, who are often county sheriffs or county registrars, the local authorities should be better clued in to the areas where it would be more appropriate to locate polling stations, particularly if there was an instruction from the Department, which should be the case.

Regarding the appointment of presiding officers, and this is a frightful scandal — thankfully, it does not happen everywhere — there have been some noted cases in various constituencies arising from the last election. It is an essential part of the function of presiding officers to ensure each ballot is stamped. Members will be aware, when the disputed ballots were up for examination, of the shameful number of ballots that were disallowed because they did not have the required stamp. That is the first requirement. The voter often does not understand that it is necessary. That is happening for one of two reasons. Either the returning officer and-or the polling clerk are dithering or it is being done deliberately. In either case it is wrong, should not be tolerated and any such person should not be reappointed as a presiding officer by a returning officer. The Department should make an instruction in that regard and ensure it is carried through, and that any such person is not reappointed.

6:00 pm

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to speak on this motion. It is difficult to find major disagreement between the motion tabled by Fine Gael and the Government amendment. Valid points are made in both. The issue we are debating is above party politics. The inclusion on a register is necessary to give reality to the individual's right and responsibility to participate in the democratic system. An accurate register is integral to our method of expressing that democratic right. It is only eligible electors who should engage in the voting process and we must guard against multiple voting, personation, etc.

We all recognise that the accuracy of the register must be improved. The issue we are debating is what can be achieved in the short term to do that but, equally, it would be remiss of us not to admit that the current system is not working. We must take a long-term view, post the next general election, of the way we can change the method of compiling the register. We have two objectives. The first is to get the register as accurate as we possibly can between now and the next election and we should have a long-term strategy in that regard. We should not debate just before the next election how we can improve the system, or adopt a new system of compiling the register.

There are many reasons the register is in its current state, including the rapid population growth, the physical development of the country, increased personal mobility and increasing numbers of gated apartment complexes to which enumerators have difficulty getting access. A concerted effort was made over the years to get people on the register and not necessarily to remove those who should not be on the register — those who have moved, are deceased or have emigrated. Some people, particularly those in the 18 to 25 age category, are unable to vote because they are not on the register of electors. Based on the 2002 census, approximately 500,000 people aged between 18 and 25 are eligible to vote but research carried out by the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Central Statistics Office in recent years suggests that approximately 20% of that group may not be registered to vote and as many as 100,000 of the 0.5 million young people who have a right to vote may not be on the register.

There are discrepancies of some 300,000 between the number of people on the register in 2002 and the census figure of 2002. I am concerned about people being on the register who should not be on it. I am concerned about people in the Border counties coming across the Border and registering. We are open to that practice. A number of solutions have been suggested. The local authorities are legally tasked with compiling the register. Do they have the time, the resources and the expertise to do it?

In the past, when the system was based on rate collectors, there was a vested interest for the local authority in compiling the register. Local authorities have a vested interest in collecting charges. If a person does not pay his or her local authority charges, his or her bin will not be collected. The system works because local authorities have a financial interest in ensuring that it works. What financial interest do local authorities have in the compilation of the register? When we talk about making more resources available to local authorities, we should do so in a way that rewards them for accuracy. Alternatively, in the longer term, we should consider franchising out this process, be it to An Post or an independent commission, although I accept that this cannot be done before the next general election. There must be an attractive financial incentive for the agency compiling the register for it to deliver a degree of accuracy in the interests of our democracy.

It is a pity that the recent Labour Party Private Member's Bill was unworkable for a number of key reasons. One received the impression that the Bill would have created an all-powerful quango. The use of PPS numbers in compiling the register has been raised in this debate but it would present difficulties because not everyone has a PPS number. Going down this road in the short term between now and the next general election would not achieve the desired degree of accuracy. This does not mean that it should not be adopted as a strategy to include people in the long term. Under such a strategy, a person would be automatically entered on to the register once he or she received his or her PPS number.

A number of commentators have spoken about the use of photo identification. It is interesting that the people who promote the use of photo identification, with which I agree, raise the spectre of Big Brother whenever the introduction of national identity cards is mooted. A national identity card system has worked well for many years in France and the UK is considering adopting such a system. We may be forced to go down that road because of freedom of movement between this jurisdiction and the UK. If we are forced to introduce identity cards, will they make the compilation of the electoral register easier? People must produce personal identification if they wish to obtain an ESB connection and many other services yet if they wish to exercise their democratic right to vote, they do not have to produce such identification in all cases. We must examine this issue seriously. We cannot speak out of both sides of our mouths about it.

The Government is determined to take action between now and the next general election and local authorities must make a concentrated effort to improve the register. However, it is not sufficient to leave it at that. The package announced by the Government, which contains some very straightforward proposals, is welcome. Among these proposals are the use of census enumerators or other temporary personnel, such as the student scheme proposed in the motion, to gather information. From my practical experience as a politician who has spent time knocking on doors, such information gathering must take place during the evening. It is impossible for people to collect this information during the day because they will only obtain a 20% to 30% response. A higher response rate and concomitant accuracy can only be achieved by gathering information late in the evening between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Increased ring-fenced financial resources for local authorities to allow them to update the register are important. It again reinforces my point about making it financially attractive for local authorities to update the register. We should be able to link the register to every time a member of the public comes into contact with the State through agency like the Department of Social Welfare or the Revenue Commissioners. We and these agencies can interface with the public in an effort to keep the register accurate by including one more question on whatever forms members of the public are filling in or compiling. Given the existence of modern databases, why can this question not be forwarded to the relevant local authority? There should be a section or column dealing with the register in every form arising out of interactions between members of the public and State institutions.

New IT arrangements to delete deceased persons from the register have also been put in place. It is not acceptable that when we record deaths, we do not delete the deceased person's name from the register at the same time. It does not make sense. In our own limited way, we know the embarrassment this can cause when we communicate with deceased people using information from our own databases.

This is a serious topic which is being taken seriously by the Government. I hope we can inspire local authorities to take it seriously. Significant steps can be taken and local authorities can do more even in the absence of new packages. For example, new local authority housing estates have been constructed but their residents do not appear on the register. It is inexcusable for a local authority to allocate a house to someone but neglect to put him or her on the register at the same time. The variation in quality between one local authority and another is not understandable. Why is one authority more efficient than another? It comes back to my argument that it must be made financially attractive to maintain the register. Local authorities do not slip up when they are collecting their own charges.

The individual also has considerable responsibility. He or she is responsible for registering himself or herself. No matter what action we take, we must run parallel educational and information programmes and provide easier IT access to check the register and enter one's details. I am aware that this measure is coming forward. We must continuously remind people of the importance of checking whether they are on the register.

Short-term progress on this issue is most likely to be achieved by gearing up the local authorities, working with the current organisational framework and pushing them forward. However, we also need a long-term strategy for compiling the register. No matter how much Senators might protest otherwise, none of us can escape the reality that we must work with the system we have. There is merit in many of the arguments made here tonight and I hope the Government takes them on board.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I was intrigued to hear that the Bill introduced by my party was unworkable. All I heard was that our Bill would establish an independent quango. I paid a visit to Ethiopia last week as part of a delegation from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs. That country is in a state of considerable electoral chaos because both the Government and the Opposition have claimed victory in the general election and many members of the Opposition are now in prison. The most clearly articulated demand of the Opposition is for a visibly independent national electoral board. This is the core of the Bill proposed in the other House by my party. This Bill would move away from any hints of peculiar budgetary priorities by local authorities. Drawing up the register is one of a number of obligations imposed on local authorities but in a constrained budgetary situation, it is far from top of the list of priorities for county and city managers.

As an individual who has been presented with copies of registers by local authorities during all my years as a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas, I was always intrigued by the lack of any sense of the need to close circuits. A form anonymously stuck through the doorway of my house warned me that I could not vote if I did not register to do so. That form reminded me of two considerations in this affair. The first relates to the people who are deprived of the vote because they did not register to vote or disappeared off the register.

The second, and of far greater concern, is the number of people who are on the register but should not be. For many years, there was indifference to this problem, but the suspicion that a particular party, which developed its expertise north of the Border, is now using it in the South may have concentrated minds. If anything dubious is suggested, this type of remark is calculated to generate extraordinary levels of pompous indignation from at least one senior party official.

We could argue forever about the precise mechanisms to be used to provide a good, up-to-date, reliable and secure electoral register, but why has this situation occurred when the Government presides in a time of extraordinary affluence? Until 15 years ago, the excuse was that the country could only apply a certain amount of funds, but democracy is the bedrock of how we work. I should not need to say this in a House of the Oireachtas. Therefore, the most important mechanism or institution of the State is the process by which democracy works. When Ministers of a variety of political views get worked up about the need to defend the institutions of the State against attack, one agrees with them. These are the institutions we set up to govern the State, but what happens if the Government allows the most fundamental institution to rot and fall behind?

For a long time, mobility was limited in this country. People either stayed where they were or left the country. There was a bit of movement between Cork and Dublin, as the Minister of State is well aware since his father partook of that mobility, but it was usually a once-off movement. People moved to somewhere, stayed there, got married, moved to another place and did not move much more. Now, we have a fluidly migrant population. More young people live away from home than was the case 20 years ago. There are gated communities to which no one can gain access. Three or four different categories of people are moving into and out of the country, some of whom are entitled to vote in local elections, European elections and general elections while some of whom are not entitled to vote in presidential elections.

After so many years, why is the format of putting together the register haphazard, uneven and dependent on the whims and efforts of city and county managers? The Government does not need to accept all of the Opposition's suggestions on how to do this, but it must give Opposition Members and a significant number of Government backbenchers a sense that the same things will be done better. Adding €100,000 here and there to a budget that is inadequate will not work, nor will hoping that a few more people will be recruited and city and county managers, who tell us that they do not have enough money, will allocate a significant part of their budgets because we have made a fuss. Many other measures will not work.

One of Ireland's fundamental policy malaises is the degree to which we wonder why, after identifying pathetic or no resource allocations, something only happens in a half-hearted and sporadic way. Who will travel——

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Senator has one minute remaining.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I await the Minister of State's response. Who could disagree with anything in the motion? One hopes the Minister of State will accept the Opposition's views but that carries optimism too far. I do not want a hope for the best or a promise that the Government will try better in future, but a structured, funded and staffed plan to ensure a dynamically active and continuous review of the register instead of passing out a form once per year and waiting to see what happens.

All sorts of phantom figures appeared on the register at an apartment complex in my constituency of Cork South Central. One man of straight-laced habits learned that according to the electoral register, a woman was living with him. He was most disturbed by this fact but was even more disturbed when he went to vote at 9 a.m. and discovered that the woman had already voted. The Minister of State has the resources to identify the extent to which such anecdotes are true. If the Government leaves the register in a messy state, one must assume it has identified some advantage. Presumably, the advantage is the fact that older people tend to vote for Fianna Fáil in greater numbers than younger people. Therefore, the best course of action would be to keep youngsters off the register while retaining older people who vote for Fianna Fáil, do not move and are easily registered.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and this debate. I disagree that this issue has arisen due to media reporting. For example, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Local Government has discussed the matter for the past 18 months at least. Committee members discussed the draft guidelines in detail. In my local organisation, motions have been tabled and passed in respect of this matter in the past three or four years. The issue arises prior to each general election.

Senator Coghlan referred to a registered canvass, which my party thoroughly undertook in my area once per year. It provided much information and not only gave us an idea of the political landscape, but also the social landscape. It informed us of who had passed on, moved, turned 18 years of age or so on since we last called. This process can no longer be found in the majority of areas, which has created a deficit.

People have suggested a number of reasons for the register's condition but it is not in the level of disarray stated. There are issues with people being on it who should not be and vice versa but the problem has been exaggerated. According to last year's construction industry indicators, 99,352 residential unit planning applications were granted and it is estimated that 83,000 houses will be built in 2006, which will be an increase on previous years' figures. The census will prove that our population has dramatically increased. For these reasons, the register is not as complete or accurate as we would like.

Personation at polling stations has always existed in some form and Senator Coghlan referred to an election that took place in 1961. Presiding officers and returning officers have access to a raft of legislation pertaining to personation at polling stations. All Members will have encountered people coming to polling stations at election time.

In recent years, my constituency has experienced particular difficulties, whereby people who came from different jurisdictions have attempted to personate, using polling cards which they were either given or which they came across themselves. When this was challenged at election time, the presiding officers took action in some cases and not in others. The people in question turned around and walked out of the polling station.

Although guidelines exist and effective legislation is in place, they must be enforced and implemented. In this context, the highlighting of this issue, in the media or otherwise, will ensure that there will be a spotlight on polling stations and returning officers in the next general election.

As for unregistered people, some time ago my constituency was changed to incorporate what was then the new suburb of Cherry Orchard. There was neither a shop nor a telephone box in the area at the time. During the election, I examined the boxes from Cherry Orchard. One box contained 12 votes, while another contained 14 votes. We then had a discussion as to what should be done to encourage people to get involved. The local parish priest, Fr. Ó Cuív, who was a brother of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, initiated a process, starting with a local women's group, to educate them as to why and how they should vote.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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Was it a political initiative?

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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It was not. It was seen in the locality as being non-political because of who was behind it and how it was done. If the Senator knew the parish priest in question, he would understand why it was non-political.

Recently in East Wall, the Vincentian Partnership has begun a local education process. Last week, it held a public meeting on how to register and why one should so do, to which three people turned up. This issue must be examined and the role of schools must be emphasised. The civic, social and political education, CSPE, programme deals with politics and political issues. Members should encourage as many transition year students as possible to visit the Houses. Such students will shortly turn 18 years of age and consequently will be eligible to vote. This aspect must be strengthened because we are slipping badly, particularly with regard to second level schools.

I fully support the initiatives suggested by the Minister of State which are outlined in the amendment to the motion. They are not a knee-jerk reaction. This issue is raised at every general election. Anyone who knocks on doors or performs a register canvass will realise that the inaccuracies present are easily avoidable. A person who turns 18 should either be given an automatic opportunity to register or should be registered automatically, based on his or her PPS number. We should make use of the technologies available to us.

I wish to make a point regarding electronic voting. For the past four to six years, Ireland has been among the top three countries in the world, along with the United States and India, in the production of IT software. It is incredible that we are unable to produce what are essentially counting machines. This issue was discussed at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government with a number of experts and every possible obstacle——

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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Was the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, among them?

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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Every possible obstacle was put in the way. I find it incredible that one of the world's leading producers of software cannot come up with such a system. Electronic voting is used in countries such as France, Germany and Holland. Moreover, as countries such as India, in which hundreds of millions of people vote simultaneously use it extensively, Ireland must consider its adoption at some point. I welcome and support the amendment.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. Senator Brady should note that while such a system is used in the United States, they are unsure as to whether they elected the correct candidate in the presidential election.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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That was more a mechanical system than an electronic system.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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It was also an electronic system. Moreover, Ireland has a high failure rate with regard to IT systems and the voting system was not alone in this regard.

This is a cross-party task in which all parties have an input and to which all have an interest. Teachers, particularly civics teachers, should play an important role in this respect. They should visit the Dáil and Seanad for two or three days each year to witness the progress of Bills through both Houses and to learn how the democratic system operates. The great majority of teachers, who are responsible for teaching young people, do not have a clue as to how a Bill is taken through either House of the Oireachtas. It is not simply a question of educating the voter. Members must also educate the voters' educators. Civics teachers in particular have an important role to play in this regard.

Undoubtedly, major problems exist with the electoral register. Last year, before the November closing date, the Fine Gael Party canvassed every house in Castlebar town and dropped a registration form into every house. This engendered an enormous response and as a result of that canvass, more than 500 people in the town of Castlebar alone were registered. However, the supplementary register is not mentioned in the amendment to the motion. It is difficult to be included on the supplementary register. For example, before the last general election, I was contacted by someone from Naas, who was not on the register. The individual in question was obliged to travel from Naas to the Garda station in Maynooth to be included on the supplementary register. As nobody was present at the station, the voter was obliged to talk through the Garda's "green man" intercom system. Can Members imagine being obliged to use the "green man" system to be included on the voting register? The voter was obliged to go home and try again on another day.

Something must be done in this respect, because one is obliged to register at Garda stations to be included on the supplementary register. However, as many Garda stations, including some in our larger towns, are not manned on a 24-hour basis, this can be a significant problem.

I agree with some of the points raised by Senator Minihan. I also believe that local authorities have lost the incentive to register voters. In most cases in the past, they were responsible for refuse collection and rates. Hence, it was in their interest to register people, to ensure that rates were collected from everyone. That is no longer the case. When I was a member of a local authority it used to set £100,000 aside for election years, particularly for local elections, but no significant resources are devoted to compiling the register or set aside for election years any longer. This issue must be seriously examined because it requires funding. We cannot employ census enumerators every year to compile the register. We must have a system. The Minister of State's proposal in this regard is a knee-jerk reaction and we cannot continue with that system.

People should not receive social welfare benefit, planning permission, grants or council houses unless they are included in the register. While it would not prevent them getting the benefits, it would delay receiving these benefits until they register. This process should begin with the civics teachers in secondary schools who should tell students that if they are not registered to vote, their social welfare benefits, planning permission, grants and council houses will be delayed.

I am sure Senator Minihan would agree with this proposal, which should be examined. If people are aware when they apply for planning permission that it will be delayed for six or 12 months if they are not on the local register, I have no doubt they would ensure they are registered to vote. As Senator Brady said, there are approximately 90,000 planning applications annually and more than 80,000 houses built each year. I have no doubt these people would ensure they are on the register if these applications were delayed.

During a recent by-election, Meath County Council deployed temporary polling stations in some of the huge housing estates in Navan, which was a great idea. I would like to know what the turnout was in the housing estates that had the temporary polling stations. While some people did not agree with it initially, it was a great idea because it brought the voting process close to the people.

Senator Minihan is correct to say that the people who compile the register should be automatically made aware when the death of a person occurs. People who die should be deleted automatically from the register. Over the years, people who are deceased have voted and people have arrived at polling stations to find that someone else voted in their place. It would not be a big job if those responsible for the registration of births, deaths and marriages communicated with the local register of electors in the local authority.

Members on all sides of the House made good suggestions which should be examined because it is in everyone's interest. The amendment proposes that there will be an early start to the register campaign for 2007-08. As employing enumerators every year will incur significant costs, there should be other ways of dealing with the matter.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the Seanad on electoral matters. The opportunity is welcome because it allows for a greater sense of reality to be brought to the debate on the electoral register. We all recognise that the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register needs to be improved and that it should be done as quickly as possible, and certainly before the next election. This is why the Government is focusing on taking effective action in the period ahead.

In contrast, the Fine Gael motion is a knee-jerk and unrealistic reaction which smacks of headline-grabbing.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is incorrect. We have been highlighting this problem for two years.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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The proposers of the motion are well aware that the measures they are proposing are unrealistic in the short term. The Minister, Deputy Roche, has set out a programme of action which matches the timescale between now and November next when the new draft register is due to be published. The Minister's statement makes it clear that the Government is acting in this regard.

I will deal briefly with some of the measures proposed. While consideration is being given to use PPS numbers for voter registration, it is a longer-term measure and could not realistically be achieved before the next election. There are a number of complex and sensitive issues attaching to the proposal. As voter registration in Ireland is not mandatory, there must be a full debate on the issues involved before we can go down the road to compulsory registration.

Establishing an electoral commission has been mooted from time to time. Fine Gael can hardly be saying that a commission could be legislated for, established and made operational this side of an election. Perhaps it is a good idea, but not in the short term. Such a complex matter needs and deserves measured and careful consideration of the issues involved. For example, answers to the general scope and structure of the commission, its functions, whether it would be accountable to the Oireachtas, the Government, the Minister, who would be the members, the staffing arrangements and so on are not included in the Fine Gael motion.

There should, of course, be the maximum assurance about the credentials of people presenting themselves to vote. However, the Fine Gael proposal to make mandatory the production of ID cards at polling stations in all cases does not take account of the need for discretion to be used. Requiring identification documents in all cases would cause delay in voting and remove necessary flexibility from the system. For example, there would be no discretion to permit voting to elderly or other persons who may be known to polling staff but failed to bring the identity document. I have seen people being challenged in polling stations. I did not care who they were voting for, but I did not like to see very elderly people who had made a huge effort to get out of the house for perhaps the first time in months to vote being challenged. On one occasion, I saw a fool challenging someone who should have got a prize for turning up to vote. People should use their savvy. It would be dangerous to make voting mandatory because some people get carried away with their own power.

I will refer later to other issues raised in the motion. At this stage, it is clear that the motion misses the point. Setting out diversions in the motion would not effect any improvement between now and next November. What can be done between now and then?

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Government has taken its eye off the ball for the past three years on this issue.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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This is what we need to address between now and next November.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is charged with responsibility for the electoral register and he has failed to deliver on it.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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What the Deputy's party is putting forward would not solve anything by next June. The priority should be to concentrate on what can be achieved in the short term. After that we can discuss longer-term issues. If politicians are experts at anything, they are experts on the electoral system. We might have more in common with each other here than we have differences. We should deal with the issue on a cross-party basis and not get into the same spat we had on the other issue.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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There would be no need for the amendment if the Minister of State agreed with the motion.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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It is not practical in the short term. It is a fine theoretical proposal, but that is not sufficient. We are trying to get the register up-to-date for next year. At one time, we did this ourselves.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Did the Minister of State read the amendment?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Bannon, other Members want to speak. Irrespective of the attempts to have a go at the Minister of State, other Members want to speak and the Senator is wasting their time. I would be grateful if he would allow the Minister of State to continue without interruption.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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The task of compiling the register has become more difficult as a result of the rapid population growth, increased personal mobility, growing numbers of gated apartment complexes and increased rates of new household formation and so on. These are all challenges and many of the difficulties were made known to people during the recent census.

Problems with voting registers are not new. They present challenges in many jurisdictions. A study was carried out last year on electoral systems design published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. It commented that voter registration is the most complex, controversial and often least successful part of electoral administration. The Government accepts that the quality of the register is not satisfactory and that action is required. It is taking the necessary action, as reflected in the Government amendment now before the House.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, recently announced a package of measures to support local authorities in securing significant improvements in the register. These measures include the provision of updated guidance by the Department so that all local authorities work to the same template, as well as the use of temporary staff, possibly census enumerators, to provide local authorities with additional manpower in preparing the next register. An intensive, door-to-door campaign will be initiated and additional, ring-fenced funding will be provided to local authorities for this purpose. It is also intended to have an early start to the register campaign for 2007-08.

New arrangements are now in place to delete deceased persons from the register and an intensive information campaign is to be undertaken in tandem with the preparation of the register. Between what the Department is doing and what all the political parties can do, the register will be a much improved document by this time next year. The Department is working with a group of local authority managers and senior officials to help ensure that the above mentioned measures are implemented effectively.

It is proposed that each household will be visited and provided with forms at least twice. In the event that this process does not register the household, written notification will then be given, cautioning of the danger of the likelihood of household members being omitted from the register.

There is wide acceptance of the need for a more rigorous approach to compiling the register to ensure that electoral fraud is avoided. That is the key issue. Whatever about imperfections in the register, the main point is to avoid or remove the opportunity for fraud. There is, at the same time, a need to avoid disenfranchising voters or discouraging the fullest possible voter participation. A balance must be struck and there should be a broad political consensus on these issues. That is why the Minister has taken the initiative by asking the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government to have an early discussion on these issues. I understand that this discussion will take place next week, which should provide a good opportunity for all involved to work together, in a constructive manner, for consensus on issues which are of fundamental importance to the well-being of our democracy.

In saying that, the point must also be made that while the law places the formal obligation on the local authority to compile the register, it is essential that individual citizens play their full part in ensuring that they are entered correctly on the register. This is a question of personal responsibility. It cannot be argued that the citizen can just stand by and do nothing, leaving it up to the local authority to locate and register him or her. If the concept of citizenship is to mean anything, citizens must check if they are correctly registered to vote and contact their local authority if they are not.

My Department has asked all local authorities to ensure that registration information, including current registration forms, is prominent on their websites. An on-line register search facility is now available for people to check if they are on the register. I urge members of all political parties to engage with the electorate on this issue and to be proactive in encouraging everyone to co-operate. The Government is taking action. The local authorities will shortly begin the 2007-08 register campaign but the desired improvements we all seek require significant support from all parties.

There is a real difference between the registration and voting processes. While inaccuracies in the register can cause problems and must be addressed, what happens on polling day is what really counts. In that context, the Government has introduced more stringent controls in recent times to counter electoral fraud.

Strong legislation must be mirrored on the ground by vigilance on the part of polling staff and personation agents to ensure that only those eligible are permitted to vote. Standing guidance from the Department calls for one in four voters to be asked for an identity document, up from one in 20 before 2002. Presiding officers, poll clerks and party agents must carry out their vital task diligently and responsibly. They must also do so throughout the day of an election. There is no point in being vigilant only when elderly people are coming in during quiet periods. Identity checking must be done all day long, particularly at busy times, when people are more likely to attempt to engage in fraud.

All of the measures I have outlined are aimed at ensuring that local authorities make the maximum effort to improve the quality of the register in the period immediately ahead and that the citizen also plays his or her full part. Nobody is doubting that there are problems with the register. They have not arisen overnight and will not be fully solved overnight. A careful and considered approach is necessary. It is not practical to talk about radical change in the registration process over a short period.

However, with the measures proposed by the Minister, we can get the register into a far better state than is currently the case by November of this year, when the draft register will be published. The Government would not be serving the public interest, or the democratic process itself, by proposing fundamental change without sufficient thought, planning and consultation.

I call on all parties to support the measures outlined to improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register in the short term. The Government is also open to the consideration of longer-term options regarding the electoral registration process on a cross-party basis. That is the way forward and we can also learn lessons from previous debates. For the reasons I have set out, I commend the motion, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Cummins. I support the motion before the House. As the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, has just said it would be ideal if we had cross-party agreement on how the register can be improved and reached a consensus on a reasonable and responsible way to tackle the problem. He has argued that if we are experts on anything, it is on the voting register. However, if we claim to be experts, we should be able to make substantial improvements to it between now and next November, or at the latest, three months later, when the final register is published. In that period of time, we should be capable of doing a good job on the current register.

With regard to the possibility that 800,000 people are on the register who should not be, it is quite possible that the problem is far more serious in large urban centres than in rural areas. Many people in rural areas will go to the post office, Garda station or local authority office to find out if they are on the electoral register. That has been the custom for many years, although perhaps the younger generation is not so inclined.

Many people have referred to the fact that every citizen has a PPS number, which could be utilised in the compiling of the register. The old system of registration courts, held throughout the country, lent seriousness to the electoral register issue. They were an excellent way of verifying the authenticity of a person who wanted to vote. Unfortunately, they have disappeared. During the months leading up to the compiling of a new register, registration courts were held in various areas. The national and local press advertised the fact that specific areas were designated for such courts, which were held in towns like Loughrea, Portumna, Ballinasloe and so forth. An official presided over the court and people came up with legitimate reasons as to why, for example, a certain individual should be included on the register. The disappearance of the registration courts is regrettable. Perhaps some mechanism could be found for reinstating them. We can tax our cars on-line with a special PIN number from the car registration office in Shannon. I do not see why we cannot register on-line with a local authority which has on-line facilities with our PPS numbers, which can be easily verified. That may eliminate, in the short-term, vast numbers of people denied a vote.

I agree with the Minister of State that nothing is as revolting as seeing a person with a disability or old age who has made a supreme effort to cast his or her vote, regardless of who it is for, being challenged and turned away. That has happened in the past and caused great concern to elderly people in particular. Young people can walk away and decide it will not happen again. However, an elderly person in certain areas may not have another opportunity. Wider and easier access to a postal vote for elderly people should be examined, or providing another method of voting whereby they can register their vote at a particular time.

Many Senators, including Senator Brady, raised the situation with regard to schools, particularly second-level schools. Through the subjects taught in schools children have access to an element of politics, and work could be done on that. The number of people who reach the age of 18 during their final year in school has increased dramatically. There should be a way in which that information is transferred to the local authority. The information on the number of people who have turned 18 could be transferred in half an hour on a particular day.

How much time do I have remaining?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Just under three minutes.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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People temporarily working at a distance from home, wherever that may be, may not have ease of transport except on a Friday evening. Those people may want to vote in a particular area, whether it be here in Dublin or Kerry, Galway or Donegal. They should have——

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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A transferable vote.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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——a transferable vote, precisely. With the greatest respect to the Minister of State and other Dublin city based general election candidates, some people may not necessarily want to vote in Dublin. I am not discussing personalities. They may prefer to vote in their own local areas and we should have a mechanism to allow them to do so.

I agree that many of those measures would and can be incorporated in a long-term policy. In the immediate future there are difficulties. We should seriously consider a mechanism, which would not take a long time to develop, whereby local authorities use on-line registration for voting using a code or PIN for identification to verify a legitimate voter.

There is a problem in the short term in the proposal of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, regarding organising personnel within a local authority. The use of enumerators or a summer scheme for students can be operated quickly, efficiently and effectively. Many third level institutions have courses in politics and other related subjects. They would be particularly suitable for doing this. I am not sure how practical it is to have a second visit to a house between now and November for the registration of a vote.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is up.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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My apologies. I understood I had three minutes.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has now gone over that.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thought I had four minutes. Tonight's motion includes ways to deal with this matter in the short term.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for being inflexible but the time is being shared.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State mentioned our motion was a knee-jerk reaction to the situation. The motion may be a knee-jerk reaction, but at least it is a reaction. We have seen nothing from the Government during the past nine years. To quote the Taoiseach, it must be a Shank's mare exercise. It should have dawned on the Taoiseach that we should have done this a long time before now. The Taoiseach stated that in the last election a house in his constituency had more than 80 people registered to vote and most of them did. Did the alarm bells not ring with the Taoiseach four years ago that there was a problem with the register of electors? A knee-jerk reaction four years ago could have yielded a better register of electors and the problem we have now may not have existed.

The chairman of the Association of County and City Councils stated the registers are in a bad state, which we all know, and that any results could be legally challenged. This would make a farce of the democratic system. We suggest that third-level students be used. Much of the work must be done between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. when people are in. It is pointless to do it in the mornings and afternoons when only approximately 10% or 20% of people are at home.

The issue of e-voting machines is included in our motion. I presume that issue has been put to bed and that we will forget about the system once and for all. It costs in excess of €700,000 on an annual basis to store these machines. I presume that waste of public moneys will be attended to and that we will scrap the system. There is no confidence in it from a public point of view. I would like to discuss a number of other items but I know my time has concluded.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time equally with Senator MacSharry.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to speak during this debate. It was timely that it was put down. It allows us free rein to discuss a cause dear to our hearts. There is no doubt the registers are in an unholy mess. It is a cumulative mess, which continued from the last general election to the local elections to now. It did not arise today or yesterday.

I am sure all of the talk about fraud and personation is a smokescreen. The IRA told us it is done with criminality, which has been attested to. Criminality surely includes personation. I believe the greatest want in this matter is of those who want to vote and are not on the register. That is the greatest wrong done to a citizen. It is all very well to state citizens have a right to register. Local authorities have the mandatory obligation to keep the registers in order and in shape. I am glad to see the Minister will give them special ring-fenced moneys. I hope he announces the amount he will give them soon because local authorities have a degree of scepticism as to whether the money is coming.

I agree with Senator Cummins on the hours during which visits should be made, but I would say between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m rather than 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Those are the three hours in which people are in their homes. Everybody works, thanks be to the Lord and the good Government, and it takes time for them to get home.

I previously told the Seanad of my personal experience but I will relate it again. I went into an area of 548 houses in Rochfortbridge.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Is that in north Westmeath?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Rochfortbridge is outside Kilbeggan. The Senator should learn the geography of his constituency.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Bannon will be depending on knocks on the door.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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Give the Senator a compass.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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We will give him a little guide.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I heard the Senator was a little further north.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Some 200 people were not on the register out of 548 houses. It is opening up an appalling vista if that many people are not on the register in one small village. We asked if the people wished to be put on the register and they did, so we took their names and I went into the county council with them.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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There is no need for Senator Bannon to go down there now.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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It is done, the electoral register part at least.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Does the Senator have those voters in the bag?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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It is the greatest gap. The rate collectors only go to business premises now. They were the real heroes as they knew when a certain boy or girl was approaching 18 years of age. The names would be put down on the register. There was no disruptive element at that time and it seemed to work reasonably well. When people do not get their vote, they turn on whoever is at the station, arguing that they should be on the register. They should of course be on it, but they are not. Computers are capricious things, as some people may be 14 years on the register and be removed for no reason other than some malfunction within the system. There may be no explanation for it.

If people put in their names now on the register, there is no need for the attestation of gardaí, or the affidavit, which comes later. The process is open until the first week in November, when the draft register will issue. Between November and February, there is a period where attestation will be required. From then on, once the register comes out in February and once the election is called, nobody will be included unless a garda has stamped a document indicating that a person lives at a particular address. The process gets progressively more difficult, which I favour. If there is any element of impersonation, it would go on in the latter periods.

I commend the amendment and I hope we get working on the matter. There were many fine elements mentioned by Fine Gael. Senator Finucane spoke of good students, bright and intelligent young women and men, who would be very good at going around between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. getting the register in order. We have been talking forever about it and we should on with it.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator O'Rourke for sharing her time. I am glad to have the opportunity to make some points on the issue, and I will try not to be repetitive, although much has already been said. I am grateful to Fine Gael for airing the matter in their time, as there is much agreement that there is a problem and much needs to be done to rectify it. We would all like this to happen as soon as possible, but that is not realistic.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for the points that he made, indicating that steps are being taken to have the electoral register as up-to-date as possible, given the timeframe between now and the next general election. Much more needs to be done in order to have the comprehensive system that is required and should be in place for the electoral register. Senator O'Rourke has pointed out that since the abolition of domestic rates, we do not have the rate collecter calling and we did not for many years have the hearings that took place which allowed the register to be up to date. The North of Ireland still has hearings, and I was speaking to Senator Maurice Hayes about it today. It is very helpful there.

With regard to the bigger picture, a much more comprehensive system must be and can be put in place. This could be done by using students or other means. We need an overall cross-departmental database which interlinks the register of births, marriages and deaths, the electoral register, taxation, passports, licences and others. While I appreciate it would be a very big task which may take a number of years to do properly, if chip and pin technology is used — which we all have with credit and ATM cards — it is possible to aspire to a solution within a period of time. We could have a card which can be used for all State-related business, be it for voting, passport, national identification card or social welfare entitlement purposes, etc. There would be clear benefits for issues such as fighting underage drinking, general identification and the implementation of free travel.

We should aspire to this. It should be done through a commission or a national cross-departmental group set up to tackle the matter. Whoever is in Government, be it Fianna Fáil or others, should do this over a period of years. It would solve many problems relating to many different issues. Much needs to be done.

Senator Ryan mentioned a matter earlier and I resent its implication. He finished with the point that Fianna Fáil had by design kept the register in a way that only older people were voting, and suggested that this would suit Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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That is daft.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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As the youngest Member on the Fianna Fáil side of this House, I contend this is ridiculous. Is it not true that no outgoing Member of the Dáil for the Labour Party is under 50? I say this before Senator White accuses me of being ageist.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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She would murder the Deputy.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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The Senator can speak on the debate next week.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I would be delighted if the demographic profile of the register had more 18-year-olds rather than 80-year-olds. If that is not the case, we aspire to bring that about.

With regard to e-voting, I have a romantic view because I was brought up around count centres. I would like to have the old analogue method forever, but I am realistic. We are moving in a certain direction, so we should accept it. We should find the appropriate and foolproof technology to move forward. Much political football could be played on the issue, but we should rise above it, be realistic and move forward.

I fundamentally believe that voting in this country should be mandatory. I mentioned on the Order of Business some weeks ago, around the time we were in Arbour Hill paying due tribute. A person could spoil his or her vote, but the act itself should be mandatory.

Kate Walsh (Progressive Democrats)
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Yes.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Many people made great sacrifices over hundreds of years to give everybody that right. As a result, it should be mandatory.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Senators who contributed to this important debate. I saw in the media recently where the Taoiseach stated that he witnessed 80 people voting from a one, three or four-bedroom house. I wonder why he did not take action at that time. The Taoiseach always looks for a way out. He probably slept on it for a few nights and discovered it was a bad dream or a haunted house.

The electoral register is a pivotal element of any democracy, and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is charged by the people to maintain it in a proper and correct manner. That is what we are asking for in our motion.

It is evident that the Minister has taken his eye off the ball with this issue. It is ongoing, and I referred earlier to Senator Brian Hayes highlighting matters when he wrote to the Minister of the Environment and Local Government after the last local and European elections. He highlighted the issues which we have again highlighted in this motion. The Minister has failed to discharge his duties in this manner.

This is the second debacle on our political system in the past two years. We witnessed the e-voting matter and now it is the state of the electoral register. It is the political responsibility for the Minister to deal with the register and ensure its accuracy. It is not an issue where blame can be placed on public servants. I heard the Minister in a radio interview last week where he was attempting to blame local authority officials and public servants in the local authorities. He stated that all local authorities in the country were awash with money.

The Minister must realise this is not true. We are all familiar with particular regions and are all aware of local authorities which have been waiting for several years for funding for sewerage or water schemes but have still not received it. The Minister had the cheek to say on a radio show that local authorities were awash with money. Several mayors have contacted me to point out that this was not the case. A special contribution will have to be set aside for the upgrading and correction of the registers.

The electoral register is a fiasco, not just in Dublin, Cork and Galway but in every county. It is up to the Government to amend it to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of errors that exist. It is important that it is checked because if it is not it will distort the election result next year and debase our democratic process.

University students will be seeking employment when third level colleges close for the summer recess. They would be ideally suited to undertake the work and carry out important remedial works to the register. The Government must not ignore the ability and energy of our young people, which its amendment does by suggesting the re-employment of enumerators who worked on the census. Student schemes operate in every local authority in the country and most can take on approximately 12 students. The exceptions are smaller local authorities which are starved of cash by the Government. The Government should ensure a plan is put in place for students to be taken on because they are ideal and it would introduce them to the political process.

The Minister cannot hide his head in the sand on the issue, which is what he is trying to do. Our proposal for a link between PPS numbers and the electoral register and for employing third level students to make door to door inquiries must be accepted and put into action. As I said earlier today a small percentage of the €50 million squandered on the e-voting system by the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and his colleagues would have financed a complete overhaul of the electoral register.

There was no mention in the Minister of State's speech of new polling stations to cater for the increased population and to take into account new developments that have taken place at various locations throughout the country. He must take that on board and order them to be opened in the relevant areas. He also quoted the report of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. One would think there were billions of people to cater for. The population of the country stands at only 4 million people, little more than half the population of London, yet the Government still cannot get it right.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is up.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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One would also think the Government only came to power last night or last week. It has been in power for the last nine years and the shambles the register is in is a late wake-up call. I plead with the Minister of State to take the Fine Gael proposal on board and abandon the Government amendment. There is very little in it and it constitutes a name and blame game which blames public servants for the situation.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has gone way over his time.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I have not. We want action not information. The Minister should take our sensible proposal on board because it would deal with the inadequacies in the register of electors. He should abandon the amendment which has been put down. It is a little silly.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Shane Ross, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 16 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Bannon and Cummins.

Amendment declared carried.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Shane Ross, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 16 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Bannon and Cummins.

Question declared carried.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.