Thursday, 30 November 2006
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second Stage
The main purpose of the Bill is to provide for specific arrangements for postal voting by prisoners. In Ireland there is no legal prohibition on voting by prisoners once they meet the standard qualifying criteria under electoral law which apply on a general basis. However, while a person in legal custody may be registered as an elector, under section 11(5) of the Electoral Act 1992, he or she is deemed to be ordinarily resident in the place where he or she would have been residing but for his or her detention and there is no specific mechanism to enable prisoners to exercise the franchise. The Bill will modernise existing electoral law in this area and provide a practical framework for prisoners to vote. It will bring certainty to Ireland's position in meeting fully our obligations under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This follows a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights last year in a case taken against the United Kingdom by a prisoner, Mr. Hirst, who challenged successfully a prohibition on voting.
The scheme contained in the Bill is modelled largely on existing postal voting procedures and mirrors most closely the occupation and student category of postal voter. Postal voting procedures are well established. They are simple, flexible and inexpensive and registration authorities and returning officers are familiar with them. It is prudent, therefore, that we carry them into this legislation.
The Bill provides for applications by prisoners for entry to the postal voters list and, if necessary, the supplement to the postal voters list and the supplement to the register. It also sets out the detailed procedures for prisoner voting. Prisoners will continue to be registered at their home address and, for voting purposes, will be deemed to be ordinarily resident in their home constituency. A prison location will not be used for constituency purposes. Prisoners must be able to establish that they were ordinarily resident in the State prior to being imprisoned in order to avail of the postal voting arrangements. As is the case with all voters, citizenship will determine the type of elections at which prisoners can vote.
There is also a limited number of provisions in the Bill containing miscellaneous amendments to electoral law. A number of additional amendments were made to the Bill during its passage in the other House, primarily related to the register of electors. Senators will be aware that earlier this year I brought forward a package of measures to assist local authorities in their work on preparing the 2007-08 register of electors. As Members of the House will be aware, it is my view that it is an ongoing scandal that the register of electors has been allowed to fall into such extraordinary disrepair. Additional funds were provided this year, a common set of guidelines agreed and a publicity campaign, costing approximately €1 million, undertaken. Amazingly, a common set of guidelines had not applied throughout the country. This has resulted in the most serious and sustained effort to improve the register ever — a registration campaign unprecedented in its extent and intensity. The Bill includes a number of provisions which will further enhance the quality of the register and to which I will return.
I now turn to the detail of the Bill. The first substantive provision is section 2. It allows an applicant who satisfies the registration authority that he or she would be unlikely to be able to vote in person on polling day because of his or her detention in prison to be included in the postal voters list. Prisoners will be registered at the address where they would be ordinarily resident were it not for their detention. A prison location will not be used for constituency purposes and there is no question of an election in a particular constituency being disproportionately influenced simply by the location of a prison within its boundaries. As with all electoral codes, determination of ordinary residence will be a matter for the registration authorities.
Section 3 sets out the procedure for applying for inclusion in the postal voters list. Application forms will be accompanied by a certificate signed by the relevant high level prison official verifying that the applicant is a prisoner for postal voter purposes. The prison official arranges for return of the documentation to the registration authority. There can be no fraud in that regard.
Section 4 provides that the applicant must furnish the registration authority with the necessary information to allow it to decide on the application. The authority can request additional information or documentation. On foot of concerns about possible time constraints on prisoners, a previous mandatory requirement to set a deadline for response by the prisoner was amended in the Dáil. The section now gives a reserve power to local authorities to set a deadline where necessary. If a deadline must be set, it should be a minimum of seven days but, in practice, should often be much longer.
Section 5 provides for public notice each year by the registration authorities of the electors entitled to apply for inclusion in the prisoners postal voters list, how they may apply and the time and place at which application forms may be obtained. This must include every prison located in the authority's area and forms will be supplied free of charge.
Section 6 sets out the procedures to be followed by the registration authority following examination of the application, including the granting or refusal of an application and notification of the decision. Applications cannot be accepted by a registration authority after 25 November but there will be scope to vary this deadline for the first year in which the new arrangements come into operation. This will facilitate prisoners who wish to vote at an election or referendum which may be held in the period immediately following enactment.
Section 7 sets out the procedures for voting by prisoners entered in the postal voters list such as the issuing and return of ballot papers and related documentation by post and the completion of the declaration of identity and ballot papers in secret. Section 7(2) ensures these modifications to postal voting in Dáil elections will also apply to presidential elections and referendums. Sections 8 and 9 amend European Parliament and local elections law governing postal voting to ensure consistency across the electoral codes in the new arrangements. Section 10 amends section 15A of the Electoral Act 1992 to allow a prisoner who is not on the current postal voters list to make an application for inclusion in the supplement to the postal voters list.
Section 11 is a new provision inserted by way of Government amendment in the Dáil. While it is not related to the scheme of postal voting for prisoners as such, it is to help ensure this year's electoral registration process is as effective as possible. The deadline for any person wishing to make a claim for a correction to the draft register has been extended from 25 November to 9 December. Local authorities must prepare and forward the list of claims to county registrars by 12 December as opposed to 30 November. County registrars must return an endorsed list of claims to local authorities by 12 January. As a result, local authorities will have until 2 January to carry out their own amendments to the draft register of electors. The final date for publication of the register for 2007-08 will remain 1 February and the register will come into force on 15 February as normal. If it were to be otherwise, we would have a lacuna and no valid register of electors.
Section 12 amends Rule 14A of the Second Schedule to the Electoral Act 1992. This provision establishes specific procedures for a prisoner not already on the register of electors to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the register and, therefore, qualify for inclusion in the postal voters list.
Sections 13 and 14 amend the principal legislation relating to Seanad elections. They incorporate the expressions "relevant official" and "prison" into both the University Members Act 1937 and Panel Members Act 1947, which are given the same meaning as set out in section 1 of this Bill. The key amendment is in section 14(d)(ii), whereby a relevant official is designated as an authorised person to carry out the specified functions regarding Seanad voting procedures for panel members. In essence, the relevant official is now being included in the list of authorised persons under Rule 8(2) of the First Schedule to the 1947 Act. Existing authorised persons include, for example, the Seanad returning officer, Clerk of the Dáil, county registrars, city and county managers, etc.
The provisions also implement minor procedural adjustments to take account of standard prison postal arrangements. The onus is placed on the relevant official of the prison, rather than the prisoner, to arrange for the voting documentation to be sent to the returning officer through the normal prison postal system. The provisions reflect prisoner voting arrangements under the other electoral codes.
Section 15 allows a prisoner to have his or her name deleted from the postal voters list; for example, this would apply if he or she were released from prison. Where a prisoner is released but still on the postal voters list coming up to an election, alternative procedures are provided to allow him or her to vote outside prison.
Sections 16 to 18, inclusive, are miscellaneous amendments to electoral law which I am taking the opportunity to introduce in this Bill. Section 16 amends section 6 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 by the insertion of a new provision which authorises a member of the Garda Síochána or an official of a registration authority to witness the statutory declaration which EU voters are required to submit when registering for the first time in this country to vote in European Parliament elections here. This widens the categories authorised to witness such statutory declarations and will make it easier for voters eligible to vote in these elections to get into the voting system.
Section 17 makes technical amendments to the Local Elections Regulations 1995, mainly relating to the local elections count rules. It deletes qualifications regarding surpluses and exclusions no longer relevant. The purpose of the original provisions, now being deleted by paragraphs (a) and (b), was to ensure individual candidates were given every opportunity to save their deposits by being credited with a number of votes in excess of one quarter of the quota. As the deposit system was found to be unconstitutional, these qualifications are no longer required. This section also repeals provisions relating to the order of election. This is no longer required since the term "alderman" was abolished in 2004, a change which I regret.
Section 18 amends the Presidential Elections Act 1993. It makes technical amendments to the presidential count rules to ensure candidates are given a full opportunity to qualify for recoupment of election expenses. The amendment will bring the presidential count rules into line with the Dáil and European codes. A procedural amendment to allow more time for consideration of nomination papers of presidential candidates is also provided.
Section 19 is another new provision inserted by way of amendment in the Dáil. This provision will enable local authorities to make publicly available lists of persons on the current register but not on the draft register — the so-called "deletions list". It will help make the register more accurate overall and has been widely welcomed by politicians anxious to see it introduced. I regard this as a support to the democratic process. Section 20 is a standard provision dealing with the Short Title, collective citation and construction of the Bill.
This is a short but significant Bill. It modernises existing electoral law in an important way and provides a practical framework for prisoners to vote in future elections and referenda. It goes further than many other nations have gone. It provides an opportunity to build on and maximise the impact of the intensive work on improving the accuracy of the register of electors. I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for finally taking this debate which I have continually requested. I feel as if I have run a marathon and I am on my last gasp. The finishing post is either just ahead or an illusion. It has been a long road but I hope we are about to reach a conclusion to the ongoing electoral fiasco. The register of electors is undoubtedly in a mess and no amount of debating the issue can change this. Regardless of how much talk there is about the problem, the Minister cannot pass the buck and blame anyone other than the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government.
The Government has failed in its duty to introduce an honest, fair and transparent system of voter registration to allow voters to cast their votes without fear of electoral fraud in any guise. Compounding the felony, while the Minister plays dumb and insists that everything is fine, the Taoiseach accompanies and supports him in perfect harmony, attempting to convince us that all is well. Such a chorus is a pathetic attempt to drown out the voices of dissent, the voices that demand accountability on the issue and access to our legitimate right to have a register of electors that adheres to certain guidelines and to bring uniformity to the process in every county.
Hand in hand with the tens of thousands disappearing from the register of electors, figures in some areas, including my area of Longford-Westmeath, show a high number of errors. I have frequently highlighted the puzzling number whose names have been removed from the register. However, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's own statistics show that the numbers on the draft register strangely and suspiciously exceed the total adult population in some areas, particularly in the Border region. The total number of errors in the register could reach 300,000.
The total adult population of County Longford is 24,810, yet the draft register contains 27,132 names, giving an excess figure of 2,322, or 9%. County Westmeath has a total adult population of 57,141, yet there are 59,791 names on the draft register, a gap of 2,650, or 5%. While I welcome the extension of the deadline for registration from 25 November to 9 December, it should be further extended until at least 31 January to allow time for such discrepancies to be rectified. The extension until 9 December will not allow sufficient time to sort out this electorate mess.
What of the thousands who are likely to be turned away from polling stations and the candidates who will narrowly miss out on a seat and issue a legal challenge? What of Members of this House who are obliged to put up with extraordinary statements from the Leader who, when replying to the call I made last week for a debate on the electoral register, said, "A person can vote only once, but his or her name can appear ten times on the register". In light of the shambles that is the register, what is to stop people voting ten times? Is the Leader stating she is happy to accept errors?
The turnout in the forthcoming election will be false. Europe will monitor the position in that regard. We always boast about the level of voter turnout at elections. However, the problems with the register will lead to false figures in respect of the turnout.
Fine Gael has proposed that all citizens should be automatically added to the register when they turn 18, which is a logical and self-regulating proposal. I have repeatedly called for the use of PPS numbers to update the register in a simple efficient manner, as is the case in Northern Ireland. If the current fiasco is to be satisfactorily resolved, a further realistic extension must be put in place to allow the register to remain open for change until the end of January.
The Data Protection Commissioner suggested that the Oireachtas should ensure local authorities can publish the names of people deleted from the register, which would allow individuals to seek clarification of their position. The Minister continues to make a dog's dinner of what should be a relatively simple administrative matter. A total of €12 million of taxpayers' money has been spent in attempting to sort out this fiasco and a further €60 million was wasted on the e-voting disaster. If ever we were seeking a resigning issue, this is it. The preservation of our democracy demands it.
It is now the responsibility of voters to check the draft electoral register to see if their names are still on it. However, this has been made extremely difficult because the register is not readily available and voters cannot check whether their names have been struck off. The register must be made available on-line as a matter of urgency. This mechanism would allow everyone to check his or her status and it can be used at almost no cost. Copies of the register should be available in schools, post offices and community centres in every parish. The electoral system belongs to the people, not to one political party or Government, and it is the responsibility of the Minister of the day to preserve and enhance it as the outward manifestation and driving mechanism of our democratic process.
In the Dáil on Tuesday last and in his initial contribution here, the Minister stated that all political parties have long been aware that the electoral register has not been as accurate as should be the case and that, over the years, efforts have been directed towards facilitating people to get on the register. However, the reality is that the register is a mess because the Minister has failed to listen to and has refused to learn from the wishes of the people and the Opposition, and even from the dissenting voices in his party, of which there were many in respect of this matter.
The Government must pass control of the register to an electoral commission. The recent political rows and debates on this issue would have been prevented if an organisation such as the Referendum Commission had been given responsibility for managing the franchise, the voting system and the register of electors. It is clear there is no central control of the register. Until we have an electoral commission with statutory powers to run elections, to deal with the register of electors and to examine issues such as electronic voting and voting machines, problems will continue to arise. What can one expect from a Minster and a Government that proceed to buy electronic voting machines for more than €50 million, despite their unproven reliability and openness to fraudulent activity? These obsolete machines are now kept in cold storage at an annual cost of at least €1 million. How much longer will the Minister continue to hoard them at the taxpayers' expense?
The Government is extending is remit on a daily basis. We have an elected Government, an Executive Government and a "Department of Cronyism", which appoints its own personnel to positions throughout the country and which wastes taxpayers' money on one fiasco after another. In other words, we have what is bordering on a dictatorship.
Perfecting the electoral register has occupied all parties for far too long. The Fianna Fáil Party has held the reins of power for 18 of the past 20 years. I am not suggesting there is any correlation between that and the state of the register, but if ever the register was a shambles, it is under this Minister. He needed only to examine the position in Northern Ireland where the authorities have competently managed to get the system right. The system in the North avoids electoral fraud while allowing for the names of voters, for example, those who have died or new residents, to be removed from or added to the electoral register. Is it beyond the capacity of the Government and Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce a similar system here? Consideration should be given to the system that is in place across the Border.
As already stated, the authorities in Northern Ireland use the equivalent of PPS numbers to compile their electoral register. Fine Gael has been calling for the introduction of such a system here but the Government has failed to listen. This raises serious questions about the Government's actual commitment to rectifying the debacle relating to the electoral system.
The Minister stated that it is easy to have one's name added to the supplementary electoral register at election time. Once the new register is issued on 12 February, those seeking to have their names added to it will be required to complete forms and attend at Garda stations where officers will be obliged to attest that they are living at the address indicated on the form. The latter must then be forwarded to the county council, which must then send an official to check the address. These requirements were introduced for good reason, namely, to avoid fraud. They would be fine if the register were correct. However, the register to be issued in February will not be correct. The Sunday Tribune and Sunday Independent analysed the registration process and noted significant problems with it. We will not be in a position to determine the existence or extentof such errors until the register becomes available.
The Commission on Electronic Voting has been disbanded and we must rely on the Minister's good offices to ensure the machines are tested. We are concerned about this and it is happening because the Minister refused to listen and because the Government believes it owns the system. All of its systems are failing at present. Fianna Fáil has been in government for 18 of the last 20 years and it now believes it owns the country. This is evident when one sees press releases from various Ministers to the effect that they have provided money for this, that and the other. Such statements do not take account of the fact that it is hard-pressed taxpayers who have delivered the funds to provide services in different areas. At times, one would swear this money was coming out of Ministers' pockets.
The Minister cannot extend the deadline for inclusion on the register by two weeks unless we amend the Bill. He stated it is not possible to extend the deadline beyond December. However, he should ask the Attorney General to re-examine the matter and to extend the period until the end of January. Whatever date is chosen, the register would then at least be final. This would give everyone an opportunity to ensure they are on it. Unless that is done, and I acknowledge the procedural difficulties that exist, a catastrophe will occur. The latter is what the media says and it is what the figures show.
We must take control of the register from the Minister as a matter of urgency and give it to an independent body if we are to tackle this problem and ensure the register is updated monthly and that anyone who wishes to be included is included. That will not be possible under the system outlined in the Bill and there will be a great deal of unnecessary confusion in the run-up to the general election.
An independent authority should be established to register people automatically in conjunction with an agency such as An Post, which delivers mail every day. The latter organisation knows where people live and should be allowed to deal with this matter in the future. In this regard, I ask the Government to take its hands off our rural post-offices and allow them to survive in order that they might carry out this important work in conjunction with the other important roles they play within our communities. It is time for local authorities to move away from the issue because where significant population increases have occurred, they do not have the time or resources to ensure an accurate register. Many constraints on funding have been imposed by Government, including an embargo on the recruitment of staff.
The Minister says the local authorities are awash with money but I have been knocking on doors on a daily basis and I have witnessed the road conditions in rural Ireland where I drive over pothole after pothole. It is undeniable that the electoral register is a mess and it is of the Minister's making. I take exception to his statement that the local authorities are awash with money.
I wish he would visit south County Longford and County Westmeath to witness at first hand the conditions of the roads, which have been on the roads programme for the past four or five years, but he has failed to deliver sufficient funding to upgrade them. When I was canvassing in these areas during the past few weekends, I told my constituents I would highlight the issue in the House at the earliest opportunity. The Minister has let down the people of rural Ireland and he has also let down the entire electorate regarding the electoral register.
I thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for coming to the House to introduce this important Bill and I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science who has replaced him. Simplistic solutions have been proposed to address the electoral register issue with the previous contribution being the most simplistic. If it were that easy, it would have been addressed a long time ago. I congratulate the current Minister for having the guts to take on this difficult issue.
I did not interrupt the Senator. No electoral register in the world is 100% accurate. Successive Governments have had to deal with individuals who attempted to alter the effectiveness of the register. However, we are in Government and we must take responsibility. Taxpayers' money must be spent and we cannot throw it around.
The Minister has put in place a framework, which will result in the most accurate register in the history of the State. This will not happen by accident because significant work has gone into this. Local authorities must take responsibility under the law for the electoral register and councillors have a role in this regard but that point has been lost in the debate. The Minister and the Department are being blamed for the condition of the register but that should not be the case. Each local authority has responsibility for drawing up a register for its electoral area and it must ensure it is as accurate as possible.
Anybody who has been involved in a local, national or European election or a referendum will know the electoral register has become increasingly inaccurate for many reasons, the primary reason being the significant increase in our population.
It was suggested the census enumerators should have been used to gather statistics for the electoral register but the census is a sensitive operation.
People do not provide information lightly and it was not sustainable to ask them whether that information could be used for a different purpose. Individuals, therefore, could not be asked to provide that information. This was one of the simplistic solutions suggested.
The most positive aspect of this debate is it has highlighted the importance of being on the register for the wider population. Transition year students in inner city schools in Dublin are discussing why they should register and vote and what happens when they register. The turnout at local and national level has reduced over successive elections and education is an issue. People must be encouraged to vote. It was suggested people should be obliged to vote but that would not work. Our democracy has been stable for ten or 11 years and we should not interfere in this regard.
According to the most recent statistics, 380,000 names have been added to the register with more than 500,000 corrections and deletions made since February. That will make a significant difference at the next election. Electoral fraud has been perpetrated on a wide scale in my constituency over successive elections. Politicians have talked around this issue for a long time and nobody has tackled it head on. That is why the Minister will be thanked in time for the work being done on the electoral register. Stories have been told anecdotally of van loads of people travelling from polling station to polling station on election day, handfuls of registration cards being taken from apartment blocks in Dublin and people being registered at addresses with no connection to the area who turn up on the day to vote. At the last general election in my constituency, a person who had passed away voted twice. Unscrupulous people took advantage of the confusion over the register. However, the most important outcome of this debate is that people will be aware of the significance of being on the register and voting.
Local authorities have done a great deal of work on the register this year. I have been canvassing at all hours of the evening, particularly at apartments blocks, and it is extremely difficult to gain access because the people pay a premium for security to keep people out.
The enumerators did great work. They have proven they are capable of ensuring the register is correct. The census was a huge success with the majority of addresses being reached and we can build on that in the future.
The extension of the deadline to register by two weeks to 9 December, which was called for by Fine Gael at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, was agreed and I do not know about what is the hullabaloo. This will give people an opportunity to ensure they are registered and the attention given to this issue in recent weeks in the media has focused people's minds on it, which is welcome.
The local authorities have until 2 January to make corrections to the register and the legislation provides for them to publish the list of people who have been removed. This will make it easier for people to check whether their names have been removed and, if so, have them reinstated if their cases are legitimate.
Given that 3 million people are registered, this is a considerable and expensive undertaking and the Minister should be congratulated on putting the resources in place to tackle the matter. County registrars can make changes until 12 January and those who are interested will have a legal right to have their cases heard. I am aware of a case recently where a woman was in hospital for a month, the local authority called to her home, sent a second letter, but she was unable to respond. That is a legitimate case. All circumstances must be taken into consideration. While the change to the date will ensure that we have a complete register in February, if we continue to mess around with the date, we will be in trouble every year and be in the same position again in four years or five years.
A number of local authorities, such as Dublin City Council, have made significant efforts. I have encountered enumerators trying to get access and to contact people, leaving notes and calling back at all hours of the day and night, not just between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. because people in many cities work during the day or on a shift basis.
I cannot understand the PPS number argument. There are some 5 million PPS numbers in the country, but only 3 million people are on the register. Citizens of new EU member states have PPS numbers. Should young people of 19 years or 20 years of age who may not have numbers be disenfranchised?
For a long time, I have made an argument concerning prisoners in this regard. Through visits, I have first-hand experience of Mountjoy Prison. According to a number of people, including the prison's visiting committee, voting has always been an issue. While it is not always an issue for the prisoners, it may be for their families.
Many studies and surveys reveal that the majority of prisoners in Mountjoy Prison come from a small number of postal districts in Dublin city that are particularly disadvantaged. The thrust of a speech given by the governor, Mr. John Lonergan, was that prisoners lose their freedom when they go to Mountjoy Prison, but they do not need to be punished further. The Bill's changes in respect of prisoners are to be welcomed. In many cases, prisoners do not have an issue with whether they vote, but their parents do. Opportunities to register by post or at home addresses would provide additional support to prisoners. Their freedom has been taken away, which is as it should be, but nothing should be done to make the prison system more difficult than it is. Prison authorities have always supported this issue, that is, prisoners should have the opportunity to vote.
I welcome the changes to section 11 and the improved accessibility to voting in European elections afforded to citizens of EU member states. Some Italian friends of mine visit Ireland regularly and can vote in their national elections using Italy's system. Given that, according to surveys, Ireland is the best country to live in, we are one of the better destinations, but we must make Ireland more attractive.
The Bill is a small, but important change. Despite statements on the electoral register, the changes will help to improve our situation because it will make the next and subsequent general elections easier. The best result of the debate is that people are discussing the register, registering to vote and using their votes.
I welcome the Minister of State and the Bill. Regarding the establishment of a new draft electoral register, none of us could have believed that the register was in the mess it proved to be. I am glad that the Minister took the initiative by trying to address the matter before the next election and that he gave the facilities and money to local authorities to do so.
We should ensure that local authorities do not allow the register to become such a mess again because, by law, they are responsible for it. That many dead people are still on the register and others are registered at different addresses or in two locations is a serious issue. The methods used by some local authorities, such as examining newspapers to determine who has died, are not good enough. For example, they should examine the deaths register, be more efficient and report on their progress to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
From the universities' registers, which have experienced many problems due to people failing to alert changes of address, I know how difficult and expensive this process can be. People need to be encouraged to realise that their votes are of significant value and that they should be involved in the democratic process of an election. They should try to inform the local authorities or the universities' registrars of their addresses. That many people seem to be acting casually is disappointing.
Senator Bannon referred to the electronic voting machines, which are in cold storage. We would be better off selling them. I do not agree with the Taoiseach that, by going on with our pencil and paper system, we would be the laughing stock of Europe. Giving amusement to fellow Europeans should not be of concern because ours is a good and open system. The most technologically advanced country in the world, the United States of America, has a seat hanging in the balance——
I thank Senator Bannon for summoning a crowd for my words of wisdom. I was talking about electronic voting. Events in Florida remind us that such systems are not infallible. We all remember the dreadful spectacle in Florida in 2000, when George W. Bush was first elected President of the United States, of a vote which lasted for six weeks, while there were discussions on hanging chads and pregnant chads. Just because something is technologically advanced does not mean it will be more reliable than pencil and paper. We should be very careful before we discard the present system. A Florida seat in Congress has yet to be filled because of concerns that the software was interfered with and a considerable number of votes cast did not register. I suggest the electronic voting machines should be retired, as suggested by Senator Bannon.
As for how we should compile the electoral register, I do not think anybody in this House suggested census forms be used, nor do I believe it was suggested in the other House. I am concerned about the proposed use of PPS numbers, in view of the dreadful debacle in the Department of Health and Children concerning PPS numbers. The present system probably represents the best means of compiling the register and I congratulate the Minister on retaining it.
As the Minister said, there is no legal prohibition on voting by prisoners in this country, nor is there in many countries. I have always felt it odd that my constituents or those of Senator Quinn could vote for us by post if they were in prison. The forms are sent to home addresses but I have never heard of electoral registrars having to check whether a person was in prison.
We have a few. Some of my constituents are in prison, although I do not know about Senator Quinn's. They are in prison and other places of detention for serious crimes so why should they be given preferential treatment? Is it because they have a third level degree? Those in Mountjoy Prison or Portlaoise Prison were not in a position to vote. The governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. John Lonergan, is correct, as he frequently is, to say the deprivation of liberty is the penalty people pay in prison. Those Senators who have been inside Mountjoy Prison, which is worse than most of our prisons, will understand that that is quite a penalty.
It is important for people in prison to become as involved as possible in normal activities so that the recidivism rate of almost 90% is reduced and people coming out of prison can make a better contribution to society. It would be much better if they were to discuss the merits of political parties than the various criminal activities in which they have been involved.
I am pleased with the provision and believe it is being implemented in the right way by means of a postal vote to a prisoner's original place of residence. As Senator Brady pointed out, many are from the same deprived postal areas, so it will benefit them to influence politics in some way. I wonder if prisoners will one day be able to stand for election, although I have not heard that matter discussed yet.
Senators should remember that many people are in prison in certain countries for political crimes. I am in correspondence with Dr. Berhanu Negga, who has been in prison in an African country for over a year. He visited this House last year and spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Deputy Woods and me. If the electoral process in which he took part had progressed as it should, he would now be the mayor of Addis Ababa, but he has been on trial since May this year. It is important to remember that people are sometimes imprisoned in countries where, without the democracy we enjoy in this country, they have to argue their case in such circumstances. I wonder what the situation would be if such people put themselves forward for election again. In other countries political prisoners have put themselves forward for election and it would do no harm to consider that possibility. I was pleased that Senator Ryan visited Dr. Berhanu Negga in Addis Ababa earlier this year, as did other Members of the Oireachtas. It is important to remember that not all members of parliaments are elected representatives or as fortunate as we, sitting in our comfortable seats today.
I have no problems with most of the provisions in the Bill. The exception is section 11, which extends the deadline to 9 December for any person wishing to make a correction to the draft register. That is not a long enough extension and the Bill will barely have passed before the extension expires. I do not think there has been enough time for the message to reach people that an opportunity exists to put one's name on the updated register. It will help but it does not go far enough.
The work on the register has produced many positive outcomes, not least the fact that it has been cleaned up. Substantial work was carried out by local authorities in that regard, probably more than in other years, while the Minister provided extra staff.
The problem is that while a new system has been put in place, people are used to the old system. People who in previous years did not have to return a form and whose names remained on the register, despite ignoring leaflets dropped through their letter box, expected that the same would happen this year. People lead busy lives. Certainly where I live many leaflets are dropped through the letter box, including leaflets from people like me. People tend to just glance at them without examining the detail.
The extension granted to local authorities to put people's names back on the register should have been longer. I understood that during this month the local authorities were to engage in an intensive information campaign, involving visits to supermarkets, urging people to check the register and informing them that if their names were not on the register, they could still be included in it. I have not encountered that campaign. It might be ongoing but I have not seen it, although I am out and about regularly and visit the supermarket. It is important that such campaigns take place.
In the next few days councils should target areas where there has been a high number of deletions from the register. Council staff should be placed at shopping centres or groups of shops located near those areas in order that they can put back on the register the names of those that have been wrongly deleted from it. Political parties do a great deal to put people's names on the register, particularly in the period preceding elections. When party workers are canvassing an area, they use the electoral register and mark it as they go along. They can tell people if their names are not on the register and will often return to the house to deliver an application form for the inclusion of a name on the register. It would be helpful if political parties could get information on those whose names have been deleted from the register. If I looked through such a list, I would be able to indicate the names that have been wrongly deleted and should be returned to it. The people concerned are still living at the same address and probably want to vote. Political parties and independent candidates will play a role in getting people's names back on the register. Therefore, they should be provided with the information to do this.
My party leader asked the Data Protection Commissioner if a list of the names deleted from the register could be published. I do not know if the Minister took the issue any further but in his reply the Data Protection Commissioner suggested legislation could be passed to permit the publication of such a list which would be very helpful. If I were provided with a list of the names deleted from the register, I would do my utmost to get as many as possible back on it, regardless of a person's political persuasion. In many cases, I do not know their political persuasion as nowadays people are less open with such information. It is in my interest to have as many on the register as possible and to enable as many as possible to vote. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this suggestion.
The Labour Party spokesperson on the environment and local government has suggested it should be easier for people whose names have been deleted from the register to have their names returned to it. They should not have to get declarations and so forth. I would support anything that could be done in that regard. Obstacles will prevent people from putting their names on the register. Nowadays people do not have time to think; they do not have time to read the newspapers or watch television. We must make registration as easy as possible while, at the same time, ensuring the register is accurate and preventing abuses.
Where people had their names on the register already and had voted in previous elections, we should make their return to the register easy. A voter is required to have his or her declaration on the form witnessed by a garda or somebody in the local authority. This provision applies to European Parliament and general elections. However, if I recall correctly from previous experience, the form states a person should get a garda to witness it and if he or she cannot do so, he or she should go to the local authority. To make it easier, a person should be able to go to the local authority, make the declaration and have it witnessed there.
As I did not participate in this morning's debate, I take the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, for her contribution to public life over a period of almost 30 years. She was a Minister and a Minister of State. Her first contribution to public life was to seek vigour in national policy. I hope she is reasonably satisfied that it has been in place since and that she contributed to it. She has left her mark in many areas, not least the arts and culture. One such mark is the Excel Heritage Centre in Tipperary. Being a close neighbour of County Clare, I am aware of the monuments with which she will be associated in Ennis and elsewhere. I hope she feels proud of her contribution to public life. I was in India earlier this week when I was again forcefully reminded of the close links between Ireland and that country, not to mention between some of the leading Indian nationalists and the Minister's grandfather. There was a fascinating letter in the Nehru Memorial Museum, dating from 1909, drawing the attention of Nehru's father who was also a politician to the emerging importance of Sinn Féin. Another nationalist leader, Chandra Bose, came to Ireland in 1933 and met Mr. de Valera and his Ministers, from whom he received valuable advice.
I will now turn to the legislation. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his patience.
Now and again, a Chathaoirligh, but I am not alone in doing so.
I welcome the Bill which is less an electoral reform measure than a contribution to penal reform. There is value in prisoners being able, in so far as it is possible and practicable to do so, to exercise their civic rights. If anything, they might have a greater propensity to vote than the general population to the extent that they might not have so many pressing alternative demands on their time. The act of voting might make them reflect on the stake they have in society. I welcome the Bill from that point of view.
Some 25 years ago prisoners, albeit outside this jurisdiction, were elected to the other House. It is strange that people can be elected to the Dáil from prison, yet they cannot vote.
Senator Bannon gave me the rare privilege of hearing the quorum bell. However, when my party is challenged, we present ourselves in strength and depth. I note the Senator did not call for a vote.
The criticisms made by Senator Bannon of this Bill, which could have been equally applied to any other legislation before the House, were that it was a disgrace, a shame and an embarrassment. His accusations reminded me of the great 18th century English writer who said: "There is a lot of ruin in a nation." If windy rhetoric were able to blow a party out of Government, then Senator Bannon would do so single handed.
It is nonsense to suggest that all the problems in the register are the fault of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This country has experienced extensive social and demographic changes. Twenty years ago, for example, few people lived in private apartments. People have an unprecedented degree of mobility and many dwellings can now only be accessed through security gates.
The Minister is making a conscientious effort to ensure the register is as accurate as possible, which is not a particularly easy task. As was noted during the debate on the National Development Finance Agency with regard to cost overruns, an element of trial and error is unavoidable in many areas of administration. If a measure is not working as perfectly as it should, appropriate action is taken to adjust it. That is not a reason for criticisms based on the assumption that everything can be perfect from the beginning.
When I examined the register, I recognised some familiar names because public representatives in my county were issued with a list of people whose names were deleted from the register but who were living around the corner. I welcome the extension because, while it is inevitable that some people will have fallen through the cracks, it is important that adjustments are permitted until the last possible moment before the general election. The penal reform at the core of the Bill is also welcome and I am confident that the next general election will be a fair and accurate reflection of public opinion.
I welcome the Bill but I do not think we should be proud of ourselves on passing it. The need for this legislation is an implicit criticism of our society and us as legislators for allowing this state of affairs to continue for so long. I should have been aware of this matter but, like many others, I was ignorant of it. I do not believe we ever intended to bring legislation to prevent prisoners from voting. However, prisoners must have tried to draw attention to the anomaly preventing them from voting and the fact that we turned a blind eye indicates our lack of regard for the purpose of prisons.
Last week, when the Prisons Bill 2006 was before this House, the debate centred on the reasons for prisons, which include protecting society from criminals. However, one of the primary reasons for a prison is rehabilitation. We have allowed that to escape our attention, with the result that prisons are becoming universities of crime. I recently met the former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who told me about his pride at ridding New York of crime during his time in office. However, he did not seem to have any sympathy for the concept of preventing prisoners from being reincarcerated subsequent to their release. The large prison population in the United States is in part due to the lack of attention given to rehabilitation in that country.
In that context, I am impressed that we have been directed by Europe to put our house in order. Some time ago, an eastern European politician appearing before the Joint Committee on European Affairs said he had put up with a Big Brother in Moscow for 40 years and was less than enthusiastic about a new Big Brother in Brussels who would impose European regulations. However, I can see the benefit of being criticised by Europe when we do not behave. This Bill does not arise from a conviction on our part to do right by prisoners but from a European Court of Human Rights ruling which suggested our system for dealing with the voting rights of prisoners was unsustainable. Not for the first time, we have been forced by Europe into taking an action we should have taken on our own initiative. Accordingly, the Bill is certainly not a reason for congratulation.
The way in which prisoners are treated in this country is little short of barbaric. Once we send people to prison, we tend to forget about them. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that we throw away the key because we keep our prisoners both out of sight and out of mind. By doing so, we forget that when we imprison people, we take away their freedom and their status as citizens. Recently the concept of prison as a place of rehabilitation has become a joke. More often than not, they serve as universities of crime. While we pay lip-service to the rehabilitation principle, we make it almost impossible to achieve by virtue of the conditions we allow to persist in prisons. That is hypocrisy of the worst kind.
One of the difficulties in defending prisoners' rights is that if one does, one is accused of being soft on crime, which is quite ridiculous since there is no correlation or connection between the two. Our attitude to prisoners' rights does not demonstrate toughness towards crime. Instead, it shows our readiness to ride roughshod over the rights of fellow citizens on the flimsiest of justifications. There is no inconsistency in being tough on crime and defending prisoners' rights, the aim being to ensure that they become useful members of society.
I argue that the tougher we are on crime, the greater is our responsibility to ensure that we treat those whom we imprison according to the highest standards. In this Bill, we deal with a right that is important in our eyes, but it may not be so important to the majority of prisoners. There are many other rights that prisoners would choose to see implemented before they even mention the right to vote. In passing this measure, we should give some thought to the very many other ways in which we infringe prisoners' rights and on which the Bill does not touch. Passing this measure should encourage a better attitude on our part to the situation of prisoners generally, but I doubt very much whether that will happen.
The objective is not just to do good, rather it is an effort to rehabilitate and make good citizens of those prisoners so that they re-enter society with the objective of staying out of jail. From that perspective, I welcome the Bill. I am reluctant to congratulate my fellow Members on passing it, since it is a reflection on society that we have had to introduce it at the behest of Europe.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House. Like other Members, I am pleased to see the legislation. We have known for some time that it would come. I am not as certain as my colleague, Senator Quinn, on this question, which I have debated many times. If someone is being punished by society, should that include depriving him or her of the right to vote? We deprive them of a normal constitutional right, their liberty. Whether it is right to deprive them of a vote too is open to question, but on balance I would agree with Senator Quinn that ultimately we must come down on this side of the debate. It is right because it is part of making people aware that they are still part of society and must be rehabilitated.
While it is welcome, I would like to raise several issues to which I hope the Minister of State will respond. I may not be in the House for it, but I will certainly consult the Official Report. Article 16.1 of the Constitution determines the right of persons to stand for election and vote. The right to vote is distinguished by citizenship and various other criteria. The Electoral Acts we are amending today also stipulate that to exercise a vote, one must do two things. First, one must be normally resident in a constituency. Second, one must be registered. I would like to discuss those two matters and ask a question.
The Constitution always envisaged that there would be no more difficult a bar to standing for election than having the right to vote. However, one must have normal residency in a constituency to cast a vote. Am I right to conclude that one need not normally be resident in a constituency to stand for election in that or any other constituency? That leads me to the second question. Does one have to be resident in the State to stand for election? I raise that because it touches on such issues as the rights of emigrants. From my reading, it seems to me that a person need not normally be resident in the State to stand for election. I will return to citizenship shortly.
However, to cast a vote, one must be normally resident. Is that legally and constitutionally sound? Does the fact that a person need not be normally resident in a constituency mean that he or she can be living outside the State? Can an Irish citizen who is an emigrant to another country stand for election here? If that be so, is it not quite extraordinary that a person living abroad should have the right to stand for election but not the right to cast a vote? Is there not an inconsistency there and a conundrum never contemplated by the Constitution? I would like to hear the Minister of State's view on that, since it raises issues not dealt with hitherto.
That brings me back to postal votes. We are doing something about which many of us have talked over the last ten or more years, that is, introducing postal votes. With a hopping industrial, economic and social scene in Ireland, and the complications of study at home and abroad, many people cannot be at home to vote. Why is it so difficult to cast a postal vote? Many prisoners will be doing information technology courses. How can one shift thousands of pounds at the click of a mouse as long as one enters one's code and password but not vote electronically? Would it not be more secure than the kind that we have currently? Is it envisaged? At times we have passed technical legislation to say, for example, that IT transmission shall also include postal votes. Will that cover this case?
I recently went to the trouble of consulting www.checktheregister.ie. I was appalled by what I found, which was a classic example of what happens when we get consultants in to set up a website when departmental staff would do a better job. The problem is as follows. Imagine that I want to check Joe O'Toole, Thornton, Kilsallagh, County Dublin. I hope that the advisers take this on board and alert the Department, since it is quite appalling. I keyed in my correct address and townland and then entered "OToole" to see how many family members were registered. The site required a first name, which I thought was rather strange, since it should surely be able to recognise "OToole". I entered "Joe", but the site stated that there was no "Joe OToole". Having spoken to the person going from door to door renewing the electoral register, I knew that I had gone through the process correctly, so I persisted. It occurred to me that I might be registered under the name "Joseph", which would please my mother. I keyed in "Joseph OToole" but found that I was not listed. It then occurred to me that although most such systems do not recognise an apostrophe, I should perhaps try it in that format, entering "Joseph O'Toole". This time my details came up.
That is appalling, stupid, badly organised and mismanaged. Someone should be kicked around and told that things should not be done like that. I should be able to enter my address in the ordinary register of electors, keying in the street and house number, and see how many Faheys or O'Tooles are in that house. It should just come up in front of me. Surely it would take only two minutes for someone to adjust. It turns matters on their head instead of making them easier, rendering them more difficult. I was delighted to see that it could be done so easily on-line, but I was appalled to find that the search feature was so deficient. I should be able to enter "O-Toole", "O Toole" or "OToole", in upper and lower case, with all variants recognised. That is what would happen if one did it using Google or on any site trying to sell one something. I ask the Minister of State to consider making this change to the system. I have no doubt those charged with doing so within the Department will be able to make it as effective as any external system.
I support this legislation and look forward to its enactment.
I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate. The comments referred both to the Bill itself and to the general electoral agenda. It is not possible to respond to all the comments made but I will attempt to cover as much as possible. We will go into matters in more detail on Committee Stage.
Senators broadly welcomed the extension of voting facilities to prisoners. It may be helpful to set out how the prisoner voting system will operate. The practical arrangements for individual prisoner voting may vary from prison to prison, but I am assured it is the Prison Service's intention to maintain the integrity of the voting system. Arrangements will be put in place for prisoners to exercise their vote in the presence of the relevant official, away from the scrutiny of staff or other prisoners. The relevant officials will usually be at governor level and will be peace commissioners.
As a practical example, prisoners may cast their votes in their cells in the absence of other prisoners, in a designated area on a landing or at a location to which prisoners would normally have access during cell unlock times, such as libraries and recreational areas. The aim, where security allows, is to keep the arrangements as similar as possible to those that pertain for regular voters. Voting areas with booths, for instance, may be used. Once the ballot paper is marked in secret by the prisoner and sealed by him or her in the accompanying envelope, it will be handed by the prisoner to the relevant official, who will arrange for all votes to be forwarded to the appropriate authority in a secure manner.
Senator Bannon argued that there is potential for voter disenfranchisement when the current electoral register process is complete. This is simply not the case. There is no reason any eligible person should not be included in the final register. The draft register has been available for consultation for almost a month, and voters have until 9 December to notify their local authorities of any errors or omissions. Even when the final register is published next February, eligible persons may secure their votes via the supplementary register until 15 days before polling day. Claims that voters will be disenfranchised take no account of the systems in place to accommodate people in this way.
Senator O'Toole related some difficulties he had experienced with the www.checktheregister.ie website and requested some changes to its functionality. I do not have information on this but I will ask the departmental officials to communicate a response to the Senator. I agree with his observation about the illogicality of the lack of some particular functionality.
I agree with Senator Brady's comments on the good work done by local authorities in preparing the register. Much of the publicity surrounding this issue has been most unfair. Mistakes undoubtedly have been made but one must bear in mind that it is a complex exercise. The constant movement of people, for example, especially in cities, means it is almost impossible, on any given day, to be clear on who is resident in a particular house. There is room for improvements. The recent campaign urging citizens to check the register will be useful. Ultimately, it is each individual's responsibility to ensure his or her inclusion on the register, and we have provided adequate opportunity to effect that inclusion.
Senators Tuffy and Bannon suggested a further extension of the deadline for inclusion on the draft register to the end of January. This proposal is simply not sensible. The current register will cease to have effect on 14 February 2007. If the deadline were extended to the end of January, it would be impossible for local authorities to have the new register ready in time to replace the existing one. I do not believe anybody would seriously suggest the life of the current register, which was prepared in the autumn of 2005, should be extended. Such a suggestion would be completely illogical given the scale of activity that has been invested in the quality of the new register.
Senator Bannon also suggested that PPS numbers should be used to compile the register. Such a system would not solve the problem of inaccuracies in the register before the next general election. PPS numbers are not immediately adaptable for electoral purposes. There are more than 5 million PPS numbers in existence but only some 3 million voters on the register. PPS numbers do not reflect the current residence of many voters or their citizenship status for electoral purposes. A national electronic register that interfaces with the PPS database would have to be put in place if PPS numbers are to act as a security check. We know from experience how long major information technology projects can take to complete. A PPS number linkage would require starting the register from scratch, which would be a potential major inconvenience, particularly to elderly people who may not be accustomed to producing their PPS numbers. It is not a practical suggestion.
I am pleased to advise Senator Tuffy that section 19 provides for the lists of deleted electors to be made publicly available by local authorities.
I thank Senators for their contributions and I look forward to further debate on these important issues on Committee Stage.