Tuesday, 5 December 2006
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2006: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, subsection (1), lines 27 to 31, to delete paragraph (b) and substitute the following:
"(b) the application shall be—
(i) signed by the applicant, or
(ii) if the applicant is unable to write, he or she shall place his or her mark on the application form, or
(iii) if the applicant is unable to place his or her mark on the application form, it shall be signed by a person designated for that purpose by the applicant,
and, in any case, the form shall be completed in accordance with the instructions provided thereon;".
This is a technical amendment which allows for someone who cannot write to get on the electoral register. It proposes on page 4, subsection (1), lines 27 to 31, to delete paragraph (b) and substitute the following:
(b) the application shall be — signed by the applicant, or if the applicant is unable to write, he or she shall place his or her mark on the application form, or if the applicant is unable to place his or her mark on the application form, it shall be signed by a person designated for that purpose by the applicant, and, in any case, the form shall be completed in accordance with the instructions provided thereon.
Perhaps a peace commissioner or somebody else could sign. There are only a few people who cannot sign or make their mark, but this amendment should be accepted to provide for them.
I am at something of a loss to understand the basis for the amendment. The provision as it stands provides under section 3(1)(b) that the application form must be either signed by the prisoner or if the prisoner is unable to sign, the applicant can make a mark which somebody will witness. Therefore, the provision exists already. I fail to understand how a situation would arise whereby somebody would be in prison and not be able to make his or her mark. I understand a person in prison might not be literate, but it is unlikely that somebody would be so incapacitated that he or she could not make some mark.
I apologise I had to leave the Seanad when the Bill was being discussed on Second Stage and did not get the opportunity to make this point. This provision is not appropriate for a person who requires specialised medical or other care. I am convinced the existing arrangements are sufficiently flexible to take into account all the circumstances we can foresee. A person can sign or make a mark. The amendment goes a step too far as the provision concerns only the completion of the form and not the actual voting. The point is the amendment has no great practical impact.
To be clear, the current arrangement is that a person who cannot sign can make a mark. This covers all the practical situations likely to arise. We are talking about a person getting on a postal vote system in a prison.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 10, before section 10, to insert the following new section:
"10.—The Act of 1992 is amended by the substitution of the following for section 7:
"7.—(1) A person shall be entitled to be registered as a presidential elector in a constituency if he has reached the age of eighteen years and if he was, on the qualifying date—
(a) a citizen of Ireland, and
(b) ordinarily resident in that constituency.
(2) A person who reaches the age of eighteen years and is or shall be, on the qualifying date——
(a) a citizen of Ireland, and
(b) ordinarily resident in that constituency,
shall be automatically registered as a presidential elector in the constituency referred to in paragraph (b), unless he or she instructs the registration authority otherwise.
(3) For the purposes of—
(i) the Presidential Elections Acts, 1937 to 1992,
(ii) the Referendum Acts, 1942 to 1992, and
(iii) this Act,
'presidential elector' means a person entitled to vote at an election of a person to the office of President of Ireland.
(4) In the Presidential Elections Acts, 1937 to 1992 "elector", when used alone, means a person described in subsection (1).".".
I propose in these amendments that all citizens should be added to the register automatically on turning 18 years of age. This is something on which we spoke in great detail on Second Stage and it would be a logical and self-regulating proposal. I have repeatedly called on the Minister to use PPS numbers to update the register which would be the simplest method. The equivalent of PPS numbers are used in Northern Ireland and the system there works in a very satisfactory manner. There have been no complaints with regard to registration in the northern part of this island. The Minister agreed the register here is a mess, a point we cannot move away from.
The electoral system belongs to the people and one political party should not have dominance over the electorate. It is the responsibility of the Minister of the day to preserve and enhance it as a driving mechanism for democracy. It is an important issue. The various amendments deal with presidential elections, general elections, European elections and local government elections and allow for the automatic registration of voters when they turn 18, which would allow those who do not wish to be on the register to opt out if they wish to do so.
Registration is not happening. A person contacted me today to tell me they had been on the register in my county of Longford for the best part of 45 years but were no longer on the register.
That person had submitted a claim form and so on, and checked the Internet, but was not on register. I told the person I had written on their behalf but nothing happened. This is what is happening in many cases. It is not fair that such people will be disenfranchised at the next general election.
I know others will not make the same effort in this regard. I am working hard in my constituency. People think much of the Fine Gael team in the Longford-Westmeath constituency and they are enthusiastic to register to ensure we get two out of the four seats at the next general election.
We had this discussion on the use of the PPS number on Second Stage. Given there are 5 million PPS numbers but 3 million people on the register, who will collate the information? The comparison with Northern Ireland does not stand up, given they started from scratch there. The Senator knows the problems and issues we have had with regard to the changes we are trying to make to the register at present. He can imagine the furore that would result if we suggested we should scrap the current register and start from scratch.
A certain amount of personal responsibility arises in this regard. God be with the days when we are at school and were taught civics. One of the first things we were taught was that when a person reached 18, he or she would register to vote. Unfortunately, over the years that practice has dwindled but there is still a responsibility in this regard. The present debate has shown that people are interested in registration and have a concern whether they are registered. If anything good has come from this debate, it is that it has highlighted the effect of not being on the register. The information coming from the Department is clear. It included the campaign to "have your say", which explained that people are not in a position to complain if they are not registered and do not vote in elections. As public representatives, that is an issue of which we all have experience.
A substantial number of foreigners have come to Ireland for employment and so on. Many of those are from other EU countries and will eventually be able to vote in local elections, which will give them an opportunity to have their say. It will be found that many of them take that opportunity, a point we, as Irish people, will have to consider. The amendments do not help the situation. The Bill is framed correctly at present.
We can belch all we like, give out about the personnel on councils and all the rest, but for the first time since I have been involved in the electoral process, somebody has taken the matter of the electoral register by the scruff of the neck and decided to do something about it. While I might not like how some of it is unfolding owing to the slowness of council officials to believe the Minister with regard to third parties — people are quick to blame the Minister — his guidelines stated we were not to accept recommendations from third parties. The Minister said we should authenticate them, and it will then be seen how right they are. The amendments would have people from EU countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who have PPS numbers, on the register although they cannot vote in general elections. On my rounds, I have told many Poles to register for the local elections so they will be able to vote. However, the amendments do not help the situation.
Under legislation it is the duty of county councils to enforce the correct register. Senator Bannon's county council is a wonderful one, which has been chaired by his party for many years. The council must have been very slothful in performing its duties when it did not tackle the register. I accept the amendments are well-intentioned but they would mean that 2 million more people than are on the register would have the right to vote, including those of other nationalities who should be entitled to vote in local but not in general or presidential elections.
The amendments refer to the automatic registration of voters, which is a matter we should simplify for local authorities. We live in an era with modern systems of communication which can simplify the registration process. This should be done rather than going around, knocking on doors.
People are away from their homes all day, including in Dublin. In recent days a woman told me she spent four hours in a traffic jam. She left Dublin at 4.15 p.m. and did not get home until almost 9 p.m. That is the fault of the Government, which is responsible for jams throughout the city.
There are traffic jams throughout the country. People are not at home when public representatives call owing to the neglectful way our transport system, including the public transport system, operates. I want a simpler system of automatic electoral registration, which the amendments call for.
I am delighted the Senator has given me the opportunity to touch on a number of points. There is no silver bullet solution to preparing an electoral register. A quote I made in the other House pointed out that one of the international bodies that considers this area states the most difficult and intractable area, and the one most fraught with difficulties, is the preparation of the electoral roll.
It is important to deal with the specific points. A view seems to have taken hold that somehow the use of PPS numbers is a simple way of drafting the electoral register. The unfortunate truth is that this is not so, for the following reasons. First, there are well in excess of 5 million PPS numbers. Second, PPS numbers are frequently given to people who are under the age of majority, or the age at which they can vote. Third, PPS numbers are not directly related to one's address so there is no way of automatically relating one's PPS number to the place where one should be entitled to vote.
Exactly. I have changed my address several times, as many of us have done. There is no automatic way for the PPS number system to note that one has changed one's address, or moved in or out of the country. I accept that Senator Bannon's amendments are well-intended, but they are simply not practical. They would not work for the reasons I have given.
Over 250,000 people from the ten new EU member states have been added to the PPS number system since 1 May 2004. Some of them have come to this country, worked for six or seven months and left again. Such people do not necessarily stay at the same address. If they are over the age of 18, they are entitled to be on the register of electors and to vote in certain elections, although not in Dáil elections, referendums or presidential elections. The idea that the PPS number system can be used to solve this problem is false and mistaken. If it was operating successfully elsewhere, it would be operating here.
The North of Ireland has been mentioned on several occasions in the context of this debate. The authorities there stood down the entire register of electors in that jurisdiction, in effect, as Senator Brady said. They then invested tens of millions of pounds in the development of a new register. At the end of that process, approximately 85% of people in Northern Ireland over the age of 18 were registered. There was chaos because hundreds of thousands of people had been disenfranchised.
The fascinating and attractive proposition that people should be automatically registered to vote when they reach the age of 18 has been made by some speakers. Such a system could not be brought into operation, however, for practical reasons. Even if we had a device, such as some form of tracking system, which would allow such records to be kept, we would still need a debate on the concept of compulsory registration. As the issue does not arise — we do not have such a tracking mechanism — it is an argument for another day.
I was born in one part of County Wexford, but I spent most of my early life in another house in a different part of that county before moving to a third place. I subsequently moved to seven or eight addresses in Dublin before I moved to three addresses in County Wicklow. I mention that to illustrate the fact that most people change addresses several times during their lives. How could the automatic registration process be secured in that context? Who would tell who what and when? If a person who was born in Senator Bannon's home county is living in Dublin by the time he or she reaches the age of 18, how would the system work at that time to ensure that the person is automatically registered to vote? It would be difficult to put in place a system that would track automatically every citizen from the moment of his or her birth to the moment he or she turns 18.
While this proposition is theoretically attractive, there are real and practical reasons for opposing it. Which registration authority would receive the information leading to automatic registration? How would the process be triggered? This country does not have a system of personal identification that tracks people automatically from the cradle to the grave. There is an argument for providing for a national identity paper, or a national identity number. Even if we had such a number, we would still have huge practical difficulties in tracking people through different stages of their lives. Automatic registration would probably work if a large proportion of the population was static, but that is not the case.
I have never subscribed to the argument that local authorities, which have legal responsibility for preparing the register of electors, have been lazy or lethargic in fulfilling that duty. That suggestion is not fair. When the local authorities argued they did not have enough resources, I doubled their resources for 2006. When they said there was not enough publicity about registering to vote, I allocated €1 million of taxpayers' money for such publicity this year. If we establish a system of automatic registration, we will have to underpin it with an elaborate system to track the movement of every voter.
Ireland does not have such a system. It exists in some continental countries, at least in theory, but it does not apply here.
I would like to debunk the myth that some marvellous work was done in Northern Ireland and that it worked. When the work that was being done there encountered some very serious difficulties, tens of millions of pounds had to be invested in it. Hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland were disenfranchised at the end of that process.
Senator Bannon made a final point about people who have submitted their forms since 1 November. Such people have been unable to use the automatic on-line system — www.checktheregister.ie — to track whether they are registered. The on-line system, including the registration system on the websites of individual local authorities, is based on the draft register, which was published on 1 November. There is no continuous tracking and updating. The draft register is not updated every day. There may be an argument for updating it every day, but such an approach would necessitate the use of a great deal of resources. I told the local authorities to use their resources to prepare the best register of electors we have ever had.
It seems to have been forgotten in this debate that over 370,000 people have been added to the register of electors since we started to review it. Such people had been disenfranchised because they were never on the register. There have been 507,000 deletions from the register, including 170,000 people who received written notice that they were about to be deleted because the local authorities could not track them. Tens of thousands of people who are dead were removed from the register. The local authorities cannot be blamed for the fact that they were on the register, because until this process was started they had no way of automatically tracking dead people. Local authority officials were doing their best in this regard, for example by tracking the death notices in local newspapers. It just did not work. When the officials in the city of Waterford undertook the review process, they discovered that 1,400 dead people were on the register.
When one considers that an average of 30,000 people die in Ireland every year, that last year, 90,000 new homes were sold, a further 50,000 homes changed hands and that 45,000 people over the age of 18 came to this country to work, it is likely that there were over 500,000 changes of address in 2005. I am not sure that all those changes could be tracked by some kind of automatic system without the use of substantial resources. The only way it could be done would be to give everybody a unique number — a discrete number like a PPS number — and then to put in place a system to track automatically their changes of address as they happen. Such a system would have to differentiate automatically between the different types of people who reach the age of 18.
Another problem with PPS numbers is that a small number of elderly people who have been through the system do not have PPS numbers. The cost of producing a system that would automatically edit the details attached to PPS numbers every time a person changes address would be astronomical. It may well be a good way to proceed, but we need to debate whether we want to provide for a national identification system.
I would like to mention one set of circumstances in which PPS numbers would be useful. I have already said I would be disposed to consider this approach in light of further reforms. When one fills out one's registration form at present, there is no requirement for one to cite one's PPS number. We may well provide for such a requirement in the future, but it is not currently intended. While the suggestion that the PPS number system could be converted to be used to update the register of electors is attractive, vast investment would be needed before that could be done. It has been suggested in the media that we could provide for automatic updating by establishing some sort of automatic national computer. I have been around for long enough to know that if one really wants to make a mess of something, one should use a great big computer system.
While a great deal has been written and said about this issue, we should bear in mind that at the end of this process we will have the most up-to-date register we have ever had. I do not think anyone should be blamed for the fact that the register has been in a disgraceful condition for the last 20 or 30 years. When the Irish people went to the polls in 2002 to elect a Dáil, over 330,000 people who should not have been on the register of electors were on it. I estimate that 250,000 people who should have been on the register were not on it. We need to consider how such errors arose.
The local authorities have the legal responsibility to prepare the register but it is not fair to blame the local authorities because, as Senator Brady said, there is personal responsibility on us all in that regard. We would be the first people to complain if we lived in a Big Brother state where we were all tagged, measured and "barcoded" through everything, and rightly so. As a person who has an interest in civil liberties, I would not like the idea of automatic tracking of all movements, which would be costly. When we take time to analyse it, there is, regrettably, no easy solution to preparing the register.
I started this process last year and I said then I did not intend to allow the problem with the register to continue because it was a scandal. The Sunday Tribune did excellent work on this, although I would quibble with it about its methodology, suggesting that there were up to 800,000 errors and omissions on our register. We cannot accept that. We must give the councils credit for what they have done. We must also give them, as I have done, a doubling of the resources to do it this year because it would not be fair to expect councils to put in place that kind of work. It should be noted that I also gave them the authorisation to employ the census enumerators to do the job. It would not have been a good idea to try to do that work and the census at the same time for practical reasons.
I ask the Senator to accept my word that if the PPS number was the magic bullet I would have gone for it as someone who has some technical interests but it would not work. Sadly, unless we put in place an automatic tracking system for every citizen from the cradle to the grave, it will not work. That happens in France. When someone moves to a new area in France they are supposed to register. We have not done that here and until we do, we cannot do what is proposed. I regret I cannot accept the amendment.
On another issue, the Minister said there are a number of elderly people who do not have PPS numbers. When a person reaches the age of 70 he or she automatically qualifies for a medical card and is required by the Health Service Executive, and prior to that by the health boards, to ensure he or she has a PPS number. There are people in their 90s, however, who never claimed anything.
Not everybody in the State has a PPS number, although I do not know of anyone who does not have one.
I would be concerned about our national security. The Minister talked about not being able to track everyone. Some years ago there was a serious default in the Department of Social Welfare to do with people claiming and at the time the Government was able to track people by their PPS numbers. It is only a myth that people cannot be tracked. Less than a decade ago evidence was produced in the media that people were collecting pensions in one city and then moving to another city and collecting pensions there. The Government told us at the time that it had addressed that problem by tracing people through their PPS numbers. I would be concerned about our national security if it remained the case that the Minister was unable to track the movements of certain people. I would be concerned also if people were still ripping off the State in various forms if they cannot be traced from one part of the country to another. The Minister said a person born in Wicklow, Longford or Westmeath but who may be living in Dublin cannot be tracked down. I ask the Minister to examine in the future the idea of automatically putting people on the register of electors.
As someone who is from Waterford city, I was surprised to hear that the names of more than 1,400 people who had died were still on the register. I can understand how it can happen but the large number was surprising.
Will the Minister indicate if the council field officers who went out to many areas revisit those areas after the draft register was compiled or did that happen in some areas and not in others?
The responsibility for the field work lies with the councils. I recognised that this was a huge task for councils, and I appreciate that councils are working very hard. For all the negatives one hears about local government, much good work is going on in the local government sector. I would not blame a small city council like Waterford for the names of 1,400 people who have died being on the register. It should not have happened. Incidentally, the Senator will be interested to know that Waterford city has the lowest proportion of registration to population over 18, at approximately 67%, whereas in other parts of the country it is 97%. We must come up with an explanation for that. It may be that people are living on the outskirts of the metropolitan area where there are issues about boundaries and so on.
I make the point to Senator Bannon that there is no automatic registration of people's addresses. If we did what Senator Bannon is proposing, we would create something equivalent to the automatic system of registration with one's local authority which applies in law in parts of the Continent. We would have to have a debate before we go in that direction. It is a different issue from the voting register. The voting register is a compilation of people who are over 18 collected in a particular area at a particular time. If we are to go the direction suggested by the Senator, we would have to have a different debate.
Senator Cummins made the point that the guidelines were universal. That was one of the strange findings I made when I decided I would tackle this long-running problem. Senator Cummins made a good point. When I raised the issue first and we began to have discussions about it, I discovered to my amazement that no common system was adopted from local authority to local authority. Over the years and through generations, each local authority went about it its own way. They went about their business because legally the responsibility of preparing the register lies with the councils and, quite correctly, the Ministers were not interfering with or micro-managing the work of any individual council, which would be wrong. One of the reasons for the anomalies, and there were different levels of registration from place to place, was that different principles and guidelines were put in place. We prepared a set of guidelines which the City and County Managers' Association and its representatives signed off on to ensure a common approach was taken for the first time to preparing the register.
Senator Cummins asked if there were two levels of visit. The answer is "yes". The specific instructions to the enumerators were that they were to take the register and check houses. If they found people were not at home, they were to put the written notices in the letter-boxes. If they could not track the people they were told they had to write a letter to those households. It is extraordinary that when we do something progressive in this country people fall on our heads because they do not take the time to listen to what was done. When people were crossed off the register previously, they did not get letters informing them of that. They will on this occasion.
What is unique now is that the councils have not just the staff to do the field work but the staff to do the back office work, which is the major part of compiling the register. They sent out 170,000 letters. Analysis of those letters, and analysis I have done also because I visited a few estates to check them out——
They stated that the occupant had until 9 December to contact the council indicating he or she was off the register. Those letters went out in early November. The response to those letters has been huge; replies to 20% to 30% of them are being received. That does not mean the remainder are disenfranchised. Some of the remainder of those 170,000 are people who have changed address. I did an analysis of a number of estates in Arklow, a town that has not experienced a great deal of change until relatively recently, and the field work was uncannily accurate because the field workers were able to trace people who had changed address. These people's names at their old addresses were removed from the register but prior to that being done, the field workers followed the guidelines correctly. They wrote to inform the elector, say, Joe Bloggs at No. 6, XYZ Street, that he would be taken off the register. The fact that Joe or Josephine Bloggs is now living up the road in a new estate means that he or she is properly registered.
There is no simple way of compiling the register properly other than field work. We do not have a system of automatically tracking every citizen through his or her entire life. I have changed my address more than a dozen times and there is no way of automatically recording a change of address on the register. I had an interesting experience recently in tracing prize bonds I bought when I was 21. I had to think back to where I was living when I was 21.
With regard to Senator Cummins's question on whether the field work has been followed up, I issued a circular letter to councils advising them that when I checked the list of deletions in respect of cases in my area — a list which Senator O'Rourke has not yet received which I regret because local authorities should operate within the spirit of this process — I noted that in some areas there were a disproportionate number of deletions. For example, in one housing estate of 100 houses, there may be 30 deletions, in another housing estate of a similar size, there may be 30 deletions, which is proportionate, but in another housing estate of a similar size there may be 60 deletions. Clearly, there could not be twice the number of deletions in one estate proportionate to the number in another estate of a similar size. In areas where a disproportionate level of deletions have been recorded, we have told the field workers to return to those areas to check the register.
I, like Senator Bannon, am diligent in the matter of the voting register. One of my field workers, a good hardworking cumann member, was in Wolfe Tone Square this morning and discovered council staff were doing precisely what Senator Cummins asked about. Where disproportionate deletions have been recorded councils should exercise prudence.
I wish to mention another matter to Senator Bannon, although my colleagues might not agree with my mentioning it to him but I will mention it to him because I like him and I want to give him every possible opportunity——-
I do, he is a nice man. We also gave an instruction to councils that before they deleted, for example, the name of a person from the register living as a tenant in a council house, they should use the other resources available to them. Where they had access to other databases, they should have been prudent and used those, particularly in areas where a disproportionate level of deletions have been recorded.
Regrettably, there is not a simple way of compiling the electoral register. To the credit of local government, if there was a simple way, it would have been done. We can all point the finger and lay blame but that is what people find maddening about politicians. We know that for a variety of regions the register has been a mess for years. We are all complicit in that. The stories concerning the register told to those of us who canvassed in the by-elections in Meath and Kildare were appalling. Whole areas were disenfranchised. That is unacceptable. If I were the kind of Minister who wanted to play it safe, I would leave the register unchanged as it was previously. However, none of us would respect democracy if we know that something so fundamental is wrong and did not try to correct it.
Senator Bannon made a point, which has been made by Deputy O'Dowds on several occasions, namely, that the register belongs to the people. That is true and the people should take a great interest in it, which is a positive outcome of this process. We need an electoral commission, but it will not be put in place before the next general election. I will call for ideas in that respect. Nobody on any side of the House should claim that he or she knows everything. We should listen to each other, learn from that experience and put in place a register that will work. That is the way I would approach this.
The county register records the registration of all births, marriages and deaths. Every church body, whether it be the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland or the Methodist Church must make such registrations. Has the electoral register been cross-checked against parish registers?
Until this process started, the straight answer to that question is "No, they were not". When the guidelines were being put in place I created a link between the register of births and deaths and each council office. Now when a registration form indicating a person is dead is received in the central office in Dublin, an automatic electronic list is passed to each council indicating a Mr. X or Mrs. X died in a council area. Council staff will then use that information to delete the name from the register. They will have the name, address and the date of birth of the person, which will allow them to automatically correct the register by deleting that person's name. It is extraordinary that was not done previously. This development is a positive outcome to this process.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 11, subsection (1), between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(a) in paragraph 4, "20th December" for "25th November",".
Amendments Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, are dependent on the acceptance of amendment No. 6. It proposes extending the deadline to the end of January. The Minister extended the deadline by a mere two weeks following much pressure, but that is not enough time. I have spoken to the staff in various local authorities throughout the country and they are at their wits end trying to amend the draft register by that deadline. Voting registration is a problem, which is blatantly evident in some areas. The Minister was made aware of this problem by myself, other spokespersons in this House, local authorities and the media but he refused to act. He only consented to extend the deadline by a short period at the eleventh hour.
I have called in recent years for the Minister to act on this matter in time to avoid total confusion. We now face a situation where thousands of people are at risk of having to go to the revision court to get their name restored to the register of electors in time for next year's general election. That is not fair. All I ask the Minister to do is to extend the deadline to the end of January. This could and should be done. We make the rules and regulations. The decision to extend the date rests with us, the politicians. I would very much appreciate if the Minister took on board this proposal.
It is not acceptable today for the register of electors to be in its current state. The Minister admitted that today and in the past but it was at the eleventh hour. He was arrogant about the register in some of his earlier statements to the effect that it was as good as could be expected. We are only months away from a general election and it is important to ensure the register is correct. This is typical of how the current Administration operates; it delayed extending the deadline and extended it by only a mere two weeks after much pressure. The Minister did not do that voluntarily but as a result of pressure brought to bear from the Opposition.
I am a foot soldier on the ground and I have listened to people and staff who are compiling the register and they want the deadline to be further extended. The Minister might take on board this proposal and extend the deadline until the end of January. That is what this amendment seeks.
This issue was discussed at length at the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The bottom line is that we must have a complete register by 14 February and the next general election will depend on that. The Minister's extension is to be welcomed and I understand that it was at the behest of a small number of local authorities who were not in a position to provide the required information. Whether it is the media or the Opposition that is putting pressure on him, this Minister caves in to neither. The bottom line is that we must have the register in place. The further one pushes out these deadlines, the less likely the register will be in place. It is crucial that we get as much of this work done now. It is open to everyone to apply to go on the supplementary register for the next general election. We use that fact in my own constituency to encourage people to put themselves forward for the supplementary register. It is quite a simple process. They must get it signed by a garda, but that is not an issue for most people, especially if they have nothing to hide. The bottom line is that we need a register.
I agree. We could ask for two weeks, another two weeks and another two weeks. I smile when I see "massive U-turn" written in the newspapers. The Minister just responded that an extra few weeks were needed. I congratulate him for having done that. Having pressed for and got a couple of weeks, people could ask for another two weeks and another two weeks.
When I left the House a while ago my director of elections called to say that he got a list of the deletions from the county council. I do not know whether the Minister's magic wand was at work, because I could not get that list for ten days, yet it has now miraculously appeared. My director of elections was told it was because the council was waiting for the issue to be made law. If we kept on deleting names, we could be here for a long time. The election would be upon us and there would be no register at all.
Every day we go out, we receive more and more names, and one must wonder how they will all fit in. Senator Brady does not mind, but I find the Garda aspect irksome. The person who wishes to register must go into the barracks and the garda in charge of the register may not be there, so the person must come back again. One would want to have a big ambition to get on the electoral register before all those conditions were fulfilled. However, to push back the date again would be a negation of justice for many people.
There is now a great interest in the electoral register which never existed before. Ordinary people are now talking about the register all the time. One woman told me that she found her name on the register after checking the Internet and that she was delighted about that. People who were not on the register before felt it was the fault of the politician who landed on the person's doorstep. I think we will have an accurate register.
Since I have the Minister at close quarters — close enough, anyway — I must tell him that I do not agree with the "two strikes and you are out" policy, for when the enumerator calls to a house twice but there is nobody there. Senator Bannon is right about that. People are gone from dawn to dusk in many houses, and if an enumerator calls twice and they are not there, people on the councils are automatically taking them off the register. It is vital to get the list of deletions so that we can work through that list and put forward the names that should not have been deleted.
I fully approve of the deletion of the names of those who have passed away. We know the old adage that dead men do not vote, but unfortunately they did in some areas. However, the "two strikes and you are out" policy is harsh. It all depends on the enumerators. Some of them are utterly zealous and they wish to follow through on whatever orders they received by the Minister, as translated by the county council.
People should appreciate that we got the two extra weeks, and much work has gone on in that time. We had a county council meeting last Friday week and I could not believe that everybody was bent over the pink sheets. The room was full and everyone had a pink sheet in front of them. They were ticking, checking and shouting.
Senator O'Rourke made the point well. When the register was being drafted previously and the field worker took the view that the person was not there and should not be eligible for the register, the person was struck off and no written notice was given. This time we gave councils the resources to recruit additional field personnel, and I specified that the councils should recruit the census enumerators as they had been around the houses and they knew different areas very well. Previously, people got no notice and they would only know that they were off the register when politicians knocked on their door when canvassing.
I had two complaints about field workers during this process. One was from a lady who called me when the Mayo versus Dublin football match was being played. She was incensed because an enumerator had just called to her house trying to check the voting register, which shows that great effort went into this.
We have a terrible habit in this country of long-fingering everything and not doing anything. We do things badly because of that. Deadlines mean nothing and we wait until the last minute to do anything. At the joint committee meeting on this, I said on several occasions that if I received any request from a local authority for an extension of time, I would look on it sympathetically. I do not want to put the gun to the head of any local authority. At the eleventh hour, I got three separate requests from councils for time extensions and I said I would grant them.
However, our electoral law is not very prudently drafted. The exact dates are specified in law, which gives a degree of inflexibility. I had said to the committee that I would grant a request if I got one. Rather than granting the requests only for the three councils involved, I granted it for every council. That is why my amendment was introduced, namely, to give everybody the additional chance.
I do not believe that there is any benefit in putting the date back from 9 December to 20 December. A number of years ago, the voting register process was brought forward so that it would not coincide with the Christmas period. Very few people would be thinking about the voting register on 20 December. Any of those 170,000 people who have got written notices will have made their submissions back to the councils if they are really interested. I do not believe that there will be many people five days before Christmas suddenly deciding they should quickly submit forms to the council office. It is a reasonable enough ploy for the Opposition to put forward, but it does not have practical benefit.
There is one good reason why we should not do this. We know that the current voting register was compiled in November 2005. The current register for 2005-06 was compiled over 12 months ago. To leave us in a position where that is the only extant register, beyond 15 February, would be an act of political irresponsibility. I am not anticipating a general election between 15 February and 15 March. However, it would be politically irresponsible to create a situation where we know the best part of 500,000 names have to be deleted and that some 400,000 people who should be on the register are not. That is a total of 900,000 deletions or errors. If we were to allow that to continue, it would be wrong. There is no practical benefit in extending this further.
The Senator is concerned about the back office process such as the work of the councils. The councils will have until 2 January to do the back office work. It will not be a big deal to sign off on this since everything is on computers these days. The register will then transmit to the county registers who will have access to the electoral court, as it is called.
The deadline for the local authorities is 2 January. The completion date for work on the register will be 12 January. That gives until 15 February for the hard copy to be produced. The register, of course, will be published on 1 February.
The courts will all have to be in the early part of January. Under the existing arrangements they had to be, effectively, the week before Christmas. One can always say there is never going to be a good time, but the reality is that there is no practical benefit from a further extension. All that happens is that we do what is normally done in this country, namely, that everything is put on the long finger.
We procrastinate and matters are not improved by doing so. It would be much better to tell the councils they have until 2 January, that they have the resources and can get the back office work done. They should therefore get the job done. Once there is a proper register the big challenge for the politicians to maintain it in that condition. When we are back in Government, we shall do that.
The Minister is being political now. I want to come back on a couple of issues. If the Minister had acted on time and given the resources to the local authorities we should not now be in the mess we are in. I mentioned on Second Stage that there was a role for the involvement of the local post offices and postal personnel. Those people are very familiar with who lives where and the residents of particular areas because they visit them on a daily basis.
I still feel there is a role for them in carrying out this work in conjunction with other service providers within communities. It would mean more work for the post offices which would be of use in keeping them open. As the Minister knows, without making a political point, a quarter of the post offices around the country closed under the term of this Administration. Local authorities are very prudent, and he knows that. I was a member of a local authority for 17 or 18 years.
They are very prudent and conscious about taxpayers' money. They hold one meeting per month. I am told by councillors throughout the country that they tabled motions at these meetings regarding the extension of the deadline. Unfortunately, they had been expecting action from the Minister and had not anticipated matters reaching the 11th hour. That is why only three local authorities had time to submit a motion before the deadline. My local authority as well as Westmeath County Council and several others had tabled motions and were looking for an extension of the time deadline. Unfortunately, it did not happen.
That is all right for those in the cities. However, it is not true for rural parts of Ireland. I have to travel 16 miles, but I have transport. However, there are elderly people who depend on public transport, which is not accessible, to visit a Garda station——
——in order to sign forms. That is a serious problem for people in rural areas. There is no public transport to Granard or several other smaller towns. If people have to go the Longford, the county town, the gardaí there cannot sign forms for people who are not resident in that immediate area. That is something the Minister needs to look at. People must sign in the Garda area in which they reside and this should be reviewed. For example, people in Ballycarriga, County Westmeath——-
If the green man is in operation there, they will be there for an hour. However, if it is not convenient and they are working, and the gardaí are occupied during normal working hours, they must go to Garda headquarters in Granard to get forms signed. The same is true of Ballymahon, and I am only referring to the local territory I know. People in Ballymahon must go to Athlone to get the forms signed.
It is often not convenient for people to sign, and the Minister should look at this in respect of rural areas because it is a major problem that needs to be addressed. It is not helped by the poor public transport in such areas. He should perhaps review matters so that any garda in one's county can sign. It should not be confined to a particular Garda station. I know of an elderly woman who, in the run-up to the last local elections, had to get a form signed because her name was not on the register. She went to a Garda station fairly close to her home. A garda there said he could not sign the form and that she would have to go to her local Garda station, which was 16 miles away. Perhaps this is something the Minister could look at.
Hands off the rural post offices. The Minister should give them a role in this area. It would be an extra service they could provide, and it would help to keep the rural post offices open. They are a vibrant part of the rural community and it is important that he does what he can. I see that Senator O'Rourke agrees with me on that. It is important they be kept open. We have called for more work for them, and this is an ideal opportunity, which will also give them a role in maintaining the register.
As a former postal worker, I tend to agree with the Senator. There is a small point to be considered, however, namely, that we could not take the job away from the councils without causing some difficulties. I did not exclude the idea of postmen and postwomen being recruited. However, there were some industrial or human relations issues that had to be dealt with.
To return to the general point, there is no benefit in further extensions. We must start being decisive in this country in terms of getting things done, setting up timetables and working on them. With regard to the supplementary register, this only kicks in when all of this process is over——
——and that is a cogent reason for people getting on the register now. The Senator will be surprised to learn that for the last general election, 50,000 people used the device of the supplementary register. The supplementary register was introduced because people were changing houses, and also because young people were reaching 18 and being disenfranchised, in effect, for long periods of time. However, there is no purpose or benefit to continually pushing out this. One must put in the effort and get the job done well, which is what is happening. Councils have until 2 January to carry out all their back office work. They have more resources than ever before and this year a sum of €12 million has been put into this task.
While Senator Bannon made the point that councils do not have sufficient resources, I must disagree because councils determine their own budgets. Councils that were serious about democracy would devote sufficient money to preparing the register. As for the registration process, I am critical of councils in one respect, namely, their failure to assign sufficient priority to this task. Preparing the electoral roll, which is fundamental to democracy, is one of the councils' most important tasks.
I was somewhat angry with one or two councils that stated they lacked resources to so do. I made the point to one or two council officials that, while there are never problems as far as going to the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York is concerned, there is something of a problem when it comes to doing the democratic thing in Ireland. As I did not wish to quibble with the councils this year, I doubled the amount of money. No Minister in the history of the State has ever put resources into this issue. Although Ireland will have the best register it has ever had by the conclusion of this process, it will not be perfect. No country in the world has a perfect register because as soon as one finishes preparing one's register, people will die or move house and it goes out of date.
No one will be disenfranchised. The supplementary register will be available to every citizen from 9 December up to the 15th day before voting. There is adequate capacity to get on the register.
The Senator is correct to state that going to a Garda station is more inconvenient than simply filling out a form. However, the Senator must be cognisant of another issue, of which his party is aware. If one has a supplementary system in which people add themselves to the voting register, some protections must be put in place to ensure electoral fraud is not intended.
As the Senator can see, the issues are not that simple.
Two weeks will not be sufficient for local authorities to get it right. I have received representations from local authority staff nationwide. I am a former general secretary of the Local Authority Members Association and I had built up networks with local authorities.
On another issue, I am disappointed the Minister stated that local authorities are not introducing enough stealth taxes.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 12 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, Kathleen O'Meara, John Paul Phelan, Joanna Tuffy)
Against the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Maurice Hayes, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Pat Moylan, David Norris, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ann Ormonde, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Bannon and Cummins; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.
Amendment declared lost.
I thank the House for the interesting contributions here today. As ever, I thank Senator Bannon for his interesting contributions. He shares my passionate interest in democracy and, of course, in returning a good Government to office next June.
I also wish to thank the Minister and his officials for bringing the Bill before us. It is important that it be enacted as soon as possible. We all look forward to the general election and this Bill, when enacted, will ensure that as many eligible voters as possible are on the electoral register. Hopefully, the Minister will take on board my comments, especially the proposal that any member of the Garda Síochána can sign a form to ensure that a person can be included on the supplementary register. This matter needs to be examined because currently it may be difficult, particularly for those in remote rural areas, to access a garda. If a person is properly identified to a member of the Garda Síochána, however, they should be facilitated in adding their name to the supplementary register. The Minister should ensure that will happen.
I again thank the Minister and his officials for bringing the Bill before the House. I wish him well.