Seanad debates

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008: Second Stage

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

11:00 am

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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The main purpose of the Bill is to implement the recommendations in the report of the independent Constituency Commission published in October 2007 on revisions to Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. In addition, the Bill amends the law relating to the constituency revision process and provides for the introduction of alternative procedures for the nomination of non-party candidates at European Parliament and local elections.

Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill provide for implementation of the recommendations of the Constituency Commission's report on Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. In considering these Parts, it may be helpful for the House if I outline the principal constitutional and legal requirements in these matters.

Article 16.2.3° of the Constitution provides that: "The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country". This provision was considered by the courts in two cases in 1961, namely, the High Court case of John O'Donovan v. the Attorney General, and the Supreme Court reference case relating to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 1961. It was again considered in a High Court case in 2007 taken by Deputy Finian McGrath and former Deputy Catherine Murphy where it was argued that the constituencies on which the general election was being fought did not comply with the constitutional requirement contained in that article. In none of these cases did the courts quantify the precise degree of equality of representation required by the Constitution. Examples of significant disparities in terms of population to seat ratio based on census 2006 include: 21% above the national average in Dublin West; 18% above the national average in Dublin North; 14% above the national average in Meath East; and 10% below the national average in Dún Laoghaire.

Article 16.2.4° of the Constitution provides that: "The Oireachtas shall revise the constituencies at least once in every twelve years, with due regard to changes in distribution of the population". This, in effect, requires that the constituencies be revised whenever population changes, as shown in a census, lead to population to Deputy ratios in individual constituencies that are significantly out of line with the national average. That is the case at present and the Oireachtas must respond accordingly.

Section 5 of the Electoral Act 1997 provides that, on publication of the relevant Central Statistics Office report on a census, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must set up a commission to report on Dáil and European constituencies. The terms of reference of the commission are specified in the Act and subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions.

As the House is aware, for more than half a century after the founding of the State, changes in constituencies were formulated and advanced by the Government of the day. The first Constituency Commission was set up in 1977 to report on constituencies for the direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. The first Dáil Constituency Commission was established in 1980 on a non-statutory basis and such commissions continued to report on constituency revisions until the enactment of the Electoral Act 1997. The commission which reported in October 2007 was the third statutory commission established under the Act.

Volume 1 of the 2006 census reports was published in April 2007. This showed an increase in total population from 2002 of more than 322,000, giving a total population in the State of 4.24 million. Thus, each of the 166 Deputies represented an average of 25,541 persons in 2006.

As I stated, the detailed population figures for each constituency showed that there were serious variances from the national average population per Deputy in a number of constituencies. Nineteen constituencies had variances from national average representation in excess of 5% and 11 had deviations in excess of 8%. The most under-represented constituencies were Dublin West and Dublin North with variances of +21% and +18%, respectively. The most over-represented constituencies were Dún Laoghaire and Cork North-Central with variances of -10% each. Clearly, significant changes have become necessary in some areas to secure equality of representation between constituencies based on the 2006 census. Therefore, in accordance with section 5 of the 1997 Act, a Constituency Commission was set up in April 2007, chaired by Mr Justice larfhlaith O'Neill. The other members of the commission were: Mr. Kieran Coughlan, Clerk of the Dáil; Ms Deirdre Lane, Clerk of the Seanad; Ms Geraldine Tallon, Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; and Ms Emily O'Reilly, the Ombudsman. I thank the commission members for the conscientious and impartial manner in which they carried out their work.

The main features of the commission's report on Dáil constituencies are as follows. First, there should be no change in the existing level of Dáil membership, that is, 166 seats. Second, the total number of constituencies should remain at 43 and no change should be made in 19 constituencies. Third, there should be an increase of one seat in both the Louth and Dublin West constituencies, together with changes in the areas covered by the constituencies. Fourth, there should be a reduction of one seat in both the Dún Laoghaire and Limerick East constituencies, with the latter to be renamed as Limerick City, and there should be changes in the areas covered by the constituencies. Fifth, the area and name of two constituencies should change, with Kerry North and Limerick West to be amended to Kerry North-West Limerick and Limerick, respectively. Sixth, changes, many of them small, should be made to the areas of 18 other constituencies.

The main features of the commission's report on European Parliament constituencies are, in a context of 12 Irish Members of the Parliament, a reduction of one seat in the Dublin constituency and the transfer of the population of counties Longford and Westmeath from the East to the North-West constituency. The Government has accepted the commission's recommendations as a single package of interlinked measures bringing Dáil and European Parliament constituencies into line with the prevailing population patterns, in accordance with constitutional imperatives and other legal requirements. We can all recognise that it might have been possible for the commission to suggest solutions other than those recommended in the report and I appreciate fully the concerns that arise, including relating to breaches of county boundaries. However, the commission has completed its work in accordance with its statutory terms of reference and its independent determination of the issues should now be respected. Cherry-picking individual recommendations would undermine the reasons for establishing an independent commission in the first place. It is the Government's firm view that the precedent of adhering to the commission's advice should be adhered to.

Part 4 revises the procedures to be followed by constituency commissions. In terms of the form of this element of the Bill, it was decided that in view of the importance of these procedures, the amendments should be made by way of repeal and re-enactment with amendments of the full part of the Electoral Act 1997 dealing with the constituency revision process. In this way, the two Houses, in considering the Bill and others subsequently, will be able to see in one place the full text of the law regarding a commission.

As regards the substance, most of the existing law in this area is being retained. The main change is that in the future commissions will be established on publication by the Central Statistics Office, following a census of population, of the census report setting out the preliminary result of the census in respect of the total population of the State. A commission will have to report as soon as possible after publication by the CSO of the census report setting out the final result of the census in respect of the total population of the State and not later than three months after such publication. Previously, commissions had to await final results before starting work and then had six months to complete their task. This change responds fully to the High Court judgment in the case of Murphy and McGrath v. Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and others in June 2007. The court concluded that, having regard to constitutional requirements and the high quality of CSO preliminary population data, consideration should be given to initiation of constituency revisions on publication of the CSO preliminary report on a census, with the revision work being completed when the final data were available. This is an important new provision which I hope will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

The opportunity is also being taken in the Bill to update and improve the consultation processes followed by a commission in the course of its work. The Bill requires a commission to allow at least three months for the making of submissions to it. At present, a commission has discretion as to the length of time allowed which is inevitably influenced by the six-month time limit on a commission to produce its report. With future commissions commencing work on the basis of preliminary data, greater time can be made available for consultation with interested organisations and individuals, for which specific provision has been made in the Bill. This will ensure a fuller opportunity for political and wider public input to the revision process.

The Bill also expressly provides that background information statements prepared by the commission are to be made available free of charge. Previous provision that fees had to be paid to obtain copies of submissions made to a commission has been replaced by a requirement that they also are to be made available free of charge. A requirement in the existing law regarding physical inspection of submissions at specified times and places has been revised to allow the commission to decide on the detailed arrangements for making these publicly available. In this way, best use can be made, for example, of the Internet to allow access to submissions. Taken together, these are significant and worthwhile improvements to the consultation processes followed by constituency commissions during the course of their work, while retaining the essential features of commission procedures which have operated effectively for many years. This part of the Bill also updates the fines provisions in sections 14 and 15 of the 1997 Act and references in the law to specific offices and other legislation that have changed in the decade since the Act came into operation.

The final elements of the Bill, Parts 5 and 6, deal primarily with providing alternative procedures for nomination of non-party candidates at European Parliament and local elections. The need for alternative procedures for nomination of such candidates arises from a judgment of the Supreme Court in November 2006 in the case of King, Cooney and Riordan v. Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Attorney General and others. The judgment deals with the assentor requirements for the nomination of Dáil candidates who are not members of registered political parties. In particular, the court upheld the main requirement for obtaining assentors to help ensure the proper regulation of elections but struck down the provision requiring personal attendance by all assentors at a single location in a constituency on the basis that it could involve excessive demands on the time of assentors. The court found the provision was disproportionate to the objective to be achieved, namely, the due authentication of nomination papers and declared the relevant section of the Electoral Act 1992 to be unconstitutional.

The implications of the Supreme Court judgment were dealt with by the enactment of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2007. Owing, however, to the limited time available and the urgent need for enactment and implementation before the 2007 general election, the text of the 2007 Act provided for alternative nomination procedures, nomination deposits or assents, for non-party candidates at general elections only. Corresponding procedures for European Parliament and local elections are required in advance of the upcoming elections and are included in the Bill on that basis. The procedures proposed follow those enacted in 2007 for general elections.

Parts 5 and 6 provide for two alternative mechanisms to regulate the nomination of candidates at European Parliament and local elections who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation. The first mechanism is by way of assents requiring the completion of statutory declarations, 60 in the case of European Parliament elections and 15 in respect of local elections, by assentors in the constituency or local electoral area which may be witnessed by a commissioner for oaths, peace commissioner, notary public, garda or local authority official. The second mechanism is by way of the candidate, or someone on his or her behalf, lodging a deposit with the returning officer. The amount required is €1,800 for European Parliament elections, €100 in the case of the election of members of a county or city council or €50 in the case of any other local election.

The nomination procedures for candidates not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation standing at European Parliament and local elections are being brought into line with the procedures in place for such candidates at a general election. This alignment of the nomination procedure, in Parts 5 and 6, represents a necessary improvement on previous arrangements and fully meets the relevant constitutional requirements. Parts 5 and 6 also include two other provisions. Section 13(a) increases the number of replacement candidates at European Parliament elections. Section 20, reflecting developments in the law relating to use of primary and secondary legislation, provides that local election regulations shall have statutory effect as if they were an Act of the Oireachtas.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to examine spending limits at local elections as part of the Green Paper on local government. Such limits already apply to other categories of election. Submissions made in the course of preparing the Green Paper which was published in April 2008 were generally supportive of some expenditure limit.

I met the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on 7 October last, at my request, to seek the committee's views on the introduction of spending limits at local elections. Members of the committee were generally in favour of this. Following on from that, I indicated that I intend to introduce spending limits at local elections and to have the limits in place in time for the local elections to be held in June. I also indicated that my preferred legislative route was to introduce the required changes by way of amendment to this Bill on Committee Stage during its passage through this House.

However, I have recently been advised by the Attorney General that in view of the important issues provided for in the Bill it is essential that it be enacted at an early date and that the spending limit provisions should be brought forward in a separate Bill. Work is therefore proceeding on the preparation of such a Bill to implement spending limits at the forthcoming local elections and I intend that it will be before the Houses for consideration as soon as possible.

I stress the need to maintain the long-established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of constituency commissions. The Bill now before the House does this. The Government believes this is the right approach. The Bill also makes significant and worthwhile improvements to the processes followed by constituency commissions in their work, as well as implementing measures to facilitate the holding of the upcoming European and local elections.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of John EllisJohn Ellis (Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order, will the Minister clarify something in his speech? With regard to the commission's 2007 report, he stated:

The main features of the commission's report in relation to Dáil constituencies are as follows: firstly, no change in the existing level of Dáil membership — that is to say, 166 seats.

Is that the true position?

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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That is correct.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. This side of the Chamber embraces the principle of an independent electoral commission. As the Minister said, the commission is composed of eminent and suitably qualified people. I thank the members of the commission for their diligent work. It is not an easy task to represent the people by reviewing, redrawing and planning electoral boundaries. Those of us who are old enough can remember the Tullymander of 1977 which was meant to insulate the coalition Government, and what happened afterwards. Since the 1980s we have had an independent commission, which is welcome. However, I have a difficulty with the fact that the commission receives a ministerial order concerning the type of constituencies — whether they should be four or five-seat constituencies. I refer to the commission that changed the boundaries for the local elections, with specific reference to the city of Cork. That did a complete disservice to the north side of Cork city by moving seats from the north to the south side. The cynic in me would say that by taking six and seven-seat constituencies, the commission has favoured some of the smaller parties, the Minister's included, which normally win the last seat in some Cork constituencies. That move was wrong and has done a disservice to local government. I hope people will recognise that in the June local elections.

The Minister referred to various changes to the commission. I hope the commission will take to the road and meet people at town hall meetings to get their views. The system is a bit off-putting for ordinary citizens who may not be well versed in making submissions to Departments. They have the right to do so, as outlined in the commission's advertisements at appropriate times, but the commission should hold public meetings to hear their views.

As the Minister knows, there has been a proposal this week to reduce the voting age for local elections to 16 years. I am not necessarily sold on the idea of reducing the age to 16, although I am open to a debate it. Perhaps the commission could use third level institutions and transition year modules to elicit students' views. It is important to hear public opinion because people can feel excluded despite the good will of the commission.

Anomalies undoubtedly occur in the composition of electoral districts and constituencies. The people of Leitrim rightly feel aggrieved in this respect. Senator Ellis has eloquently put the case for that county, as has the former Deputy, Gerry Reynolds. By the same token, some of the changes made by the commission in some counties do not make sense. They do not take cognisance of the recommendation to examine natural county boundaries. In the case of Cork, the Minister has left my constituency alone but he has changed Cork North-Central to a four-seat constituency. Meanwhile, part of Cork East has been moved into Cork North-Central. I had hoped Cork would be re-examined in an imaginative way. The current composition of Cork constituencies has, by and large, been the same since the 1980s. It needs to be changed.

I am intrigued that this week the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, said there will be no sports capital programme this year, yet the local elections will be held in June. Meanwhile, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has done a complete U-turn on what he said last weekend. On national radio he waved the flag. I support him regarding spending limits for elections, which is the best thing we could ever do. Today, however, he has retreated on that.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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No, I have not.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I will explain my position. We have 19 weeks to the local elections in June.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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There will be spending limits for that.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I hope the Minister will bring that in. My party may not be in favour of it, but I am.

12:00 pm

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Good.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I am in favour of it because it is most important. During his reign, the Minister might also look at the issue of spending between elections. In my humble opinion, that is a joke at the moment. There is nothing to stop a candidate spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of euro up to the day the election is called. When an election is called, however, we bring in a spending limit but it makes no sense. Democracy should not be about getting elected through spending money. Despite what people think of President Obama in America, if one looks at the amount of money he and the other candidates raised and spent, it is wrong. Democracy is being fixed at a price but it should not be that way. The Minister assured us that we will have spending limits, but I hope they will come into effect long before the elections so that we can have a meaningful debate on them. Many people are afraid that to become involved in politics and get elected to any office requires a big expenditure, but we should not exclude anybody from running for office.

The Minister referred to Mr. Justice Clarke's judgment, which makes for interesting reading. In the context of the next census — if this Government runs its course and stays in office — will we have a new review before us for 2012? If so, what will that present to us? Will we have the former Deputy, Gerry Reynolds, and Senator Ellis appearing on the plinth to talk about Leitrim and other parts of the country?

The commission took a minimalist approach the last time, but it missed an opportunity in doing so. Perhaps it is time for the Minister to re-examine Article 16.2 of the Constitution which refers to the ratio between the number of Deputies and the population of each constituency. Given the way in which the country's population has grown towards the east, there is a fear that Cork and other areas will lose representation.

I do not subscribe to the view that Ireland begins and ends at the Red Cow roundabout because people living in Kiltimagh, Bishopstown or Ballinamore deserve representation. I accept changes had to be made to the European Parliament constituency boundaries because of the reduction in the number of seats. However, natural boundaries have been changed for Dáil elections and I am worried that people will not be represented by Members from their area. The Schedule lists the townlands and boundaries, and the way some are fitted together does not make geographical sense and does not provide proper representation in a number of counties. West Limerick and north Kerry are close but the ethos of representation in the area has been changed, as is the case in Cork East and Cork North-Central.

Is the Minister willing to examine Article 16 and hold a constitutional referendum on the number of seats? We do not have too many Deputies and Senators but we need to ask whether the population is best served by the current number of politicians. This week the Government treated both Houses of the Oireachtas with disrespect by not engaging properly with Members on the economic framework document.

I had hoped the Minister would spell out in his contribution what he meant by introducing spending limits for local elections. The composition of the independent review group is a matter for him and I do not have a difficulty with the people on it because if the Minister appointed people associated with different political parties, he would be accused of gerrymandering, cronyism and so on. The composition of the group is fair.

The Bill has taken a long time to come to the House following the report in 2007. We have no difficulty with it in principle. I hope there will be meaningful reform of spending limits and that, in future, the Minister will desist from making recommendations regarding the number of seats in constituencies and leave it to the commission because it is important that it has a free hand in this regard. I also hope the practice of reducing representation in areas suffering from depopulation will cease. I understand the principle underpinning this approach, but it is wrong. We will not oppose the Bill but we will table amendments. I am pleased the Bill has been introduced but I hope the running of elections, the composition of the electoral commission and decisions on Dáil boundaries will be independent because that would best serve democracy.

Photo of John EllisJohn Ellis (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I do not welcome the Bill and I have made statements in this regard long before today. The Minister is committed to the legislation because he inherited the commission report, which has become the most secretive document we have had in the country for a long time. I have made requests under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 regarding the report, only to be told that no information can be provided and this is a sacrosanct decision. I also contacted the Ombudsman who made the same decision and said the only place it could be challenged was the High Court. That is not transparent. Issues such as this are of grave importance to people throughout the country.

Over the past 14 or 15 months, I have put on record my disgust and that of the people of County Leitrim at the way the county has again been gerrymandered. The county was divided for 20 years until 1981 when it was reunited as part of the Sligo-Leitirm constituency. The Murphy judgment and population figures are used as a cover by the commission for its actions. The judgment states equality should be achieved but, in doing so, there were other means for dealing with the situation in Leitrim. Some 75% of the submissions to the Constituency Commission prior to its most recent report came from Country Leitrim. I am reliably informed that individuals, including the chairman of the commission, wanted the county to remain intact in one constituency. I could not say this outside the House but I have privilege to say that. That is the reason the relevant documents are being kept from the public. It is wrong that the people of Leitrim, no more than the people of west Limerick who have been kicked into Kerry or the people of north Meath who have been kicked into Louth, are subject to the commission breaking every one of its terms of reference, yet its recommendations are accepted as a fait accompli. However, the Minister's comments today will ensure the report is not a fait accompli.

The Minister confirmed that the decisions taken by the commission in the order in which he gave them, mean the members of the commission were not fair and objective in their assessment of everything that came before them. Their terms of reference stated they had the right to increase the number of Deputies from 166 to 168. As Senator Buttimer said, people might think there are too many Deputies and Senators but those who do not have representation in County Leitrim do not think so. The people of west Limerick who have been kicked into Kerry or the people of south Offaly who have been moved into a Tipperary constituency do not think that either.

The county boundary has always been sacrosanct in the State. Football is played to the county boundary while local authorities are county-based, yet the Dáil electoral system is not county-based but it should be. A constitutional amendment is needed to make county boundaries sacrosanct and to allow the number of Members to vary according to population. That must be done because it is open to challenge. The Minister might not be happy with a number of the Bill's provision but the precedent had been set for him. If we could read the documentation that was produced before decisions on boundaries were reached, we would understand why the commission delivered its recommendations.

The commission members broke their terms of reference, which stated that county boundaries should be adhered to where possible and, if not, natural boundaries should be adhered to. The trust placed in the commission by the Houses of the Oireachtas to prepare this review under the Minister has been broken. Even at this late stage the Minister should seek a legal opinion on whether the breaking of the terms of reference means the report is flawed.

I acknowledge that the Minister has a problem regarding the constituencies for European Parliament elections. We all accept they are what they must be, and are going to be, as they are European Parliament constituencies. There is time to review the Dáil constituencies. The Bill will disenfranchise people right across the country. Instead of being represented by their own, people will be represented by outsiders. I am not being critical of any of the people who represent Leitrim at the moment and who live outside the county. However, if it comes to loyalty everyone accepts that they will stand up for their own county first and take that position.

The Constituency Commission could have dealt with the problems of Leitrim and other areas had it changed from having 166 Members to 168. It would have allowed the tolerances to be such that county boundaries would not need to be broken. There were a number of opportunities open to it even to have left all of Leitrim in the one constituency. Leitrim and Cavan would have had exactly the numbers for a four-seat constituency. I accept that the six-seat constituency comprising Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon was not within the commission's terms of reference. However, it was a constituency that would have ensured no breaking of county boundaries.

A number of other permutations could have been considered elsewhere in the country to prevent what has happened here. I wonder how far the commission went within its terms of reference and how clear-cut it was. I am convinced there is a cover-up here. I have made applications under the Freedom of Information Act right up to the Ombudsman, which was as far as I could go short of the High Court, in an attempt to get the detail that was not being made available. No other papers are unavailable in this way. Even with a freedom of information application to discover what goes on in government, a certain amount of information will be made available. This is the nearest thing I have seen to somebody handing out a report and saying: "This is our report and there is no come back on it." While I can understand there being no comeback, the documentation used to produce that report should be made available to the public.

I have no doubt that if this is challenged — as I believe it will be — the commission will be found not to have acted within its terms of reference in the report it prepared. If it decided at the outset that it was going to have only 166 Members rather than examining having 168, which was within its terms of reference, it was not being objective or constructive within its terms of reference. That is quite obvious. That is why I asked the Minister to confirm that the first decision taken by the commission was to have only 166 Members in the Dáil. When it decided not to examine the possibility of having 168, it broke its terms of reference. The public should be made aware of this. It is the sort of thing that probably could not be said on the street, but it can be said in this House. The Minister has a responsibility to have the report reviewed in the context of the legal advice available to him and I hope he does so.

Some of the people in Meath have been moved into the Louth constituency, with county boundaries being broken again. Part of Westmeath is in the Meath West constituency — a double break. Based on natural geography, areas that were divided in Meath down the years have been subdivided again. I wonder if personal agendas were involved with regard to some of the action that was taken. I know there could have been, but to prove that is beyond the capacity of any Member of this House or of the Minister. Certain people had certain agendas when it came to dealing with this situation, which is very wrong. It is very unfair that somebody with local interests should be involved in this process. That matter needs to be investigated.

Let us consider west Limerick. Kerry is a natural five-seat constituency because as we discussed earlier, rural areas are being depopulated of Deputies because of the change in the balance of population. It is considerably easier for a Deputy to run a five-seat constituency in Dublin when it takes a maximum of ten or 15 minutes to get from one end of it to the other, than to run a five-seat or even a four-seat constituency in a rural area, which might be 100 miles from one end to the other. These are the sorts of problems we all face.

The Constituency Commission has made a total mess of its terms of reference in producing its report. I appeal to the Minister to review the Bill even at this late stage. I ask him to ask a new commission to act within the terms of reference provided, which have been totally broken, as the Minister has confirmed to me today. It is important that the Minister has it reviewed. I am convinced that the commission was not objective when it decided not to review every situation before reaching its decision. The net result is that the people I represented in Leitrim no longer have a voice in the Dáil and following this revision have no chance of having it for the foreseeable future.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Bacik.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and I express my respect for his keen interest in local and national democracy. It has been very helpful that he has offered views on it regularly since his appointment as Minister. I very much agree with the comments made by the previous speaker. I am very concerned about the shift eastwards of the representatives in Dáil Éireann. There is a problem there. I do not disagree with what the Minister said in his speech. I recognise and accept what is in the Constitution. However, I believe representation should be based not just on population, but also on geography. While I accept that would require a constitutional amendment, I would like to have a debate on it.

I believe I have heard the Minister say that county boundaries should be kept and we should stick with those to some extent. I am not sure I would agree because the shift in population might overrule that and counties could be left with their boundaries intact but without representation. We need a combination of both, which meets the point the Minister is making and the other points made about it.

It is appalling that in my time in politics places like Mayo, Leitrim, Kerry, Limerick, Monaghan and others have lost representation which is moving to the east coast. That will result in an imbalance that will be contrary to the philosophy of the Minister's party, if I may say so. Although he is an urban Deputy, I am sure he knows the point I am making about the importance of regionalisation and regional representation. There is a rational argument to be made along those lines.

The Constituency Commission bottled it in the sense that it could have increased the number of Deputies. The reason it did not do so is because it is afraid of the media. I will give a good example of why that should be faced up to. It is either a good idea or a bad idea and let us talk to reasonable people about it. If people believe we have too many Deputies, to get rid of that argument once and for all, the Minister should have a referendum in every county to ascertain how many counties want to lose a Deputy. We can then ask the question as to whether the number of Deputies should be reduced. That will finish that argument.

There were appalling reports yesterday by media people, who should know better, informing the population that only two or three people were sitting in the Dáil Chamber for a debate. There is a very simple answer to that. By the way there was only one person in the Press Gallery. What were the journalists doing? All 36 of them are being paid in here. They were not in there at all. In reality the members of the press, like Members of the Houses, were watching it in their offices. They were doing work, watching it on television monitors and coming in when their speaking time was allocated to them. It would have been a total waste of time to have them sitting in the Dáil Chamber listening to the debate if they could not make a contribution, which they would subsequently make in their own time. That is not a difficult message to get across to people. I am not saying that cynical people will accept that, but ordinary people need to hear that message. I ask the Minister to examine this issue. Some counties, particularly in the west, will lose their voice in national politics.

The Minister referred to local democracy and stated he would bring forward introduce legislation. I look forward to reading the White Paper in the next few weeks. I would like him to indicate the date of its launch, rather than saying it will be in a few weeks. Two issues concern me with regard to look democracy, one of which relates to my home town of Dingle and which I will not raise now. The other relates to respect and funding for local democracy, even if it means bringing back local charges. We must give power to local democracy, which means spending money. People must see the money they are contributing being spent in their area for their good by those they elect to represent them. People will gravitate towards direct mayoral elections, which should not be restricted to a couple of large cities. Local democracy is enhanced all over Europe by the fact that in small towns and villages people of significance are honoured and respected because they will run for mayor.

The Minister should press ahead with Seanad reform. There is a cynical view that many of us who call for such reform are not really looking for it. We want this done. I understand the difficulties of the Independent Senators and those elected through panels but let us find a way forward. The Minister should give us enough time to do so. As long as we take irrevocable decisions, I am not opposed to allowing colleagues a full electoral period to adjust; therefore, the necessary changes would not have to come into operation until after the next election.

I wished the Minister well with the White Paper on local government and the subsequent legislation. I have also referred to the need for a geographical element in the determination of Dáil representation and the need for Seanad reform.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing time with me.

I support some of the reforming elements of this legislation. It is welcome to hear the Minister say he intends to impose spending limits on local election candidates. That is an important change and will ensure greater democracy and equity in the running of local elections. I am concerned to hear, however, that this matter was not considered sufficiently urgent to be dealt with in this Bill. The Minister might clarify whether the reforms he is proposing will be in place in time for this year's local elections. I am conscious that some people have been selected as candidates and are already spending money on canvassing.

I am concerned about some aspects of the Bill such as Parts 5 and 6 on the nomination of non-party candidates for the European Parliament and local elections. While I understand the imperative for introducing an alternative procedure, I wonder why it was considered necessary to include a procedure, albeit as an alternative, whereby money would be lodged. A sum of €1,800 is required for a non-party candidate who wishes to stand in the European Parliament elections. The lesser sum of €100 is required for those who wish to stand for Dáil elections and €50 for local elections. While the Dáil and the local elections sums are less significant, I wonder why it was necessary to include that measure that one should have to pay money to stand as a candidate if one could not get 60 assentors for the European Parliament elections or fewer in the case of other elections. A challenge was made to the idea of a monetary deposit in Redmond v. Minister for the Environment, Ireland and the Attorney General. Why has the Minister seen fit to include it in the Bill and why is the sum so high, to the extent that it will be off-putting, for European Parliament elections? What is the problem with allowing individuals to put their names forward for election on whatever basis they wish? It is a matter for the electorate to decide whether they are worth supporting. I do not see why we need this proviso.

In Part 6 I welcome the Minister's commitment to adhere to the advice of the Constituency Commission in respect of the revision of constituencies. However, the Bill is a missed opportunity because establishing constituency commissions on a similar basis as before misses the opportunity to provide for a more far-reaching commission in the form of an independent electoral commission which would have a more permanent and long-term role in the running of elections as recommended by an independent think tank on which I sat with people from a variety of political perspectives. It was established under the auspices of the think tank for action on social change, TASC. It set up a democracy commission under the chairpersonship of Mr. David Begg which reported in 2005. I do not know if the Minister is familiar with the report entitled, Engaging Citizens — The Case for Democratic Renewal in Ireland, which made a number of interesting and important recommendations. One of its primary recommendations was that there be an electoral commission in Ireland which would have a variety of roles but its primary function would be as an independent regulatory agency to supervise and assist in the running of elections at local and national level. This idea is important because it would oversee the revision of constituency boundaries and also provide for outreach, research and voter education programmes, with the aim of increasing participation.

The Minister is well aware of the disturbing figures indicating low levels of participation among young voters. The National Youth Council of Ireland provides research showing that the level of participation in elections among young people has been declining. This can be contrasted with very high participation rates among the older population. In the general election of 2002 only 40% of young adults aged 18 and 19 years voted, whereas 90% of those aged between 65 and 74 voted. Something must be done to increase participation. There is a campaign to do so, run by the National Youth Council of Ireland. Voter participation levels in socially disadvantaged communities tend to be lower than in middle-class communities, something an independent electoral commission could address. This is a missed opportunity to provide for something of that nature on a more permanent and statutory footing than the more limited functions of the constituency commissions replicated in the Bill.

Senator O'Toole referred to the missed opportunity in respect of Seanad reform. I accept that this is a matter on which the Minister is engaged and hope to see the fruits of that process sooner rather than later. In the long term we should examine the basis for our electoral system. Others have called for a reduction in the number of Deputies and Senators, although Seanad reform is a separate matter, one on which we have a number of reports. There are a number of far-reaching proposals on how the Seanad could be reformed.

On how we elect our politicians, changing the basis of election for some Deputies from a geographical constituency basis to a list system might be beneficial in strengthening our democracy. The Ceann Comhairle recently commented on the need to change procedures in the Dáil. His comments could apply equally to the Seanad to make Dáil and Seanad proceedings more accessible to the public resulting in greater interest and relevance but perhaps that is outside the scope of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill and a matter for the Houses. If we examined the need for reform, we might examine our somewhat archaic procedures and how we might reform them to make them more relevant, to make people more aware of what is taking place in the Dáil and the Seanad and to make us more accountable and our procedures, transparent.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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This Bill is narrow in focus. It does not go anywhere near meeting many of the commitments in the programme for Government on electoral and democratic reform. There is already a clear commitment to establish an independent electoral commission and I look forward to that legislation. There is also a commitment to local government reform and democratic reform in general. The Minister will publish a White Paper soon and I hope it will help that process.

Recent court judgments allow individual citizens to participate properly in elections, some of which will be held this year and this is a welcome change. The idea of individual citizens choosing to forsake a political party banner should be a consideration in every democratic system. The Bill proposes a combination of showing a degree of support that would allow a nomination along with a relatively small charge. In the old system as I recollect it, the court judgment decided that the money was used as a barrier to people taking part in elections. The fee for European elections was £5,000 at the time of the judgment.

There is a value in the retention of the current electoral commissions in that they are not set up on a needs basis and therefore the formation of electoral boundaries will happen as a matter of course. However, this work needs to be informed by changing the terms of reference on an ongoing basis.

There is a curious situation with regard to the European elections. Because Ireland has 12 seats in four constituencies of three seats each, my party is at a particular disadvantage even though we have won two seats in European elections in the past in five-seat and four-seat constituencies, when Ireland had 15 MEPs. There is a case to be made that for the following European elections in five years' time, we should at least debate the notion of a 12-seat Ireland constituency. While PRSTV has served this country well as it is one of the better systems in terms of reflecting in seat numbers how people have voted, Ireland now has one of the least democratic systems for electing MEPs.

I refer to the report of the commission set up a number of years ago and which the Minister, by obligation and by custom and practice, and I am pleased he operates on that basis, is bound to accept. This is the same principle that informs the boundary report on general elections. I know there are ongoing concerns about how particular areas are represented and under-represented. In the first instance there is a constitutional difficulty to overcome in that the Constitution refers to the minimum number of seats required in a constituency. I would not be averse to such a debate or such a constitutional change. Perhaps the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution could examine this aspect and also whether the time is right for introducing different electoral systems. This would be a useful debate. The Constitution does not specify the upper number of seats per constituency. The Minister has been obliged to accept the report which refers to three-seat, four-seat and five-seat constituencies.

In the early life of this country some constituencies had nine and 11 seats. I would like future boundary commissions to consider not having County Meath divided into two constituencies but rather to have a six-seater constituency——

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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A seven-seater.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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——and not having two three-seat constituencies in County Donegal. It should be whatever the population demands. I would like to see County Donegal having five or six seats and I would like to see County Kerry having five to six seats. North-east Dublin has three three-seat constituencies and I would like to see two constituencies of five seats and four seats as this would better reflect the votes of the people in this country. The terms of reference given to the commission governed its recommendations and the Minister, by custom and practice, as is right, has accepted those recommendations and we also need to accept them. However, we can seek to change the future terms of reference of the ongoing commissions in order to bring about those democratic changes and we have an obligation to do so.

Other issues have been referred to such as Seanad reform and the participation of young people. The National Youth Council of Ireland has been promoting the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 years. My own party was the first party to suggest this change in the case of local elections. There is one such example in the European Union, where last year young people at age 16 participated in a general election to the national Parliament in Austria. Unfortunately one of the effects of this change to include new voters between the ages of 16 and 18 was a rise in the vote for far-right parties. I am not sure if there is a link.

There should be a mechanism, at least at local elections, by which people between the ages of 16 and 18 could be encouraged to participate. This might help overcome one of the significant difficulties whereby participation by voters between the ages of 18 and 25 is only half that for the general population. We need to concentrate on education and ongoing programmes and we need particular mechanisms to involve young people in electoral life. This Bill deals with the minutiae of electoral boundaries and the procedure for nomination. The wider question of the quality of democracy, about participation in democracy and how we can become a more democratic country, will happen in future debates which will be informed by the White Paper on local government and other democratic reforms such as the reform of this House. We should use that opportunity to try to ensure the best quality democracy possible.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. In the context of our current difficulties it strikes me as rather an academic exercise to be discussing this Bill. I concur with Deputies in the other House and also Members of this House who questioned the usefulness of spending further time on a Bill that is more or less out of date before it is even enacted.

However, I commend the useful work undertaken on Committee Stage by both Deputies and Senators. I do not wish to speak at length about the Bill in general but I will make a few specific points.

For those of us who have paid attention to the Green Party policies over the years there is no doubt that the Minister is personally committed to ensuring that electoral reform is carried out. I refer to a point raised by Senator Boyle about allowing younger people to vote in local elections. I am disappointed the Minister has not taken the opportunity, bearing in mind the time between now and June, to include an amendment to allow 16 and 17 year olds vote in the local elections. As I said in this House before, many German länder now allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections and this is also the case in Austria and in a number of Swiss cantons. A referendum would be required to allow such young people to vote in a Dáil election but it could be made possible through legislation in the case of voting in the local elections. It is a missed opportunity not to include an amendment and I am in agreement with Senator Boyle that we need to extend the vote. Time is moving on and it is only 18 short weeks to the local elections.

While I admire the Minister's commitment to electoral reform, I worry about the capacity of the Minister to deliver. I do not question his bona fides but there has been inertia on the part of the larger Government party, Fianna Fáil, on this issue throughout the years. Successive Fianna Fáil Governments have had little interest in changing the system and this is one of the reasons we have seen such tardiness on the subject of reform.

I welcome the Minister's general announcement of his intention to set up a new electoral commission. The successful operation of our political system and electoral process has been more or less outsourced to local authorities. While I do not wish to denigrate the work of the local authorities in this regard, it is clear they have consistently proved that this task is a step beyond them and this is a question of resources. We need to remove the responsibility from local authorities. I refer to difficulties with the electoral register and attempts to match the electoral register with the people on the ground. This is an area which requires a lot of work and currently falls short of the mark. This issue arose at the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I am a member, in discussions with the Minister. I am glad he is set on addressing and improving the whole process.

According to recent media reports, it is expected the new commission will take responsibility, not just for the electoral register, but for party registration and the administration of nominations, and so on. If this is true, then it is an eminently sensible idea as these tasks should not belong with local authorities. An efficient, independent and focused central electoral authority would have much more success in dealing with this and more public confidence would be gained in the overall electoral process.

The establishment of such an agency would be of enormous historical value as a one-stop-shop for electoral records. Most other European countries have a central government system for maintaining information on previous elections whereas Ireland does not. It would be valuable if such a function were contained in the remit of such an agency. Will the Minister make available the full report on the proposed commission? Will he give a commitment that its recommendations will be implemented during the Government's lifetime.

The issue of proportionality and equality of representation also arises. We are moving away from five-seat constituencies — which up to recently were seen to be fair — to three-seat constituencies. This does a disservice to smaller parties. It is in the interest of the larger parties to maximise the number of three-seat constituencies but it does not do much for the democratic process. I agree with my colleague in the other House, Deputy Tuffy, when she addressed the commission's terms of reference and called for avoidance of three-seat constituencies unless they are necessary.

Senator Ellis spoke about the redrawing of the Leitrim constituency boundary and other Members have similarly referred to Kerry and Limerick. It is also an issue in the Meath East constituency. The current ban on six-seat and seven-seat constituencies means the commission has no alternative but to split counties to ensure proper representation. The problem is that such a split means the constituencies bear little resemblance to the counties they are meant to represent. For instance, when the Bill is enacted, thousands of people living in east Meath will vote in Louth, thousands in the west of the county will vote in the Meath East constituency while people in Westmeath will vote in the Meath West constituency. It is clear county boundaries are being crossed and I am not sure this was the House's intention when it gave the commission its remit.

Some Members in the Lower House raised concerns over the delivery of the Constituency Commission's report. While the independence of the commission is not in doubt, the validity of every decision it arrives at is. It is desirable that a draft report should be presented in advance of the final version.

I reiterate the Labour Party's support for general reform in the electoral area. We would also like to see more such as extending the voting age to 16 for local elections and Seanad reform. We have awaited these for some time and the Government, in its lifetime, needs to deliver. The Labour Party supports the Bill. The establishment of an empowered, efficient and independent electoral commission would represent a considerable body of work. I look forward to the Minister providing a timeline for this and further detail on the formulation and implementation of such a body.

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Hannigan is correct that young people are more tuned into politics, despite what some people claim. The points made by the Senator in this regard are relevant.

It is agreed changes in the electoral boundaries were needed to secure equality in representation. There are many articles and comments claiming there are too many Deputies and Senators. Senator Buttimer is correct that it should be established if there are too many, or not enough, to put the matter to bed once and for ever. It is interesting that when the State was founded, the ratio for representation was 16,000 people per Member while today it is 25,000 people.

Senator O'Toole referred to direct elections for mayors such as those held in France. I recall asking the mayor of Montpellier about his terrific light rail project for the city and if he had any opposition to it. He informed me he did not have opposition because as a directly elected mayor he had no problem in bringing the people with him on the project. Directly elected mayoralties is a terrific system. The mayors have their own funding with no layers of bureaucracy, allowing them to do their job quickly. It is an efficient way of doing business. Doing public service business in Ireland has become too cumbersome for everyone because there are too many layers blocking the system. This must be reduced to make it easier and will, in turn, ensure better value for money.

It has been established, as the Minister stated, that the Constituency Commission's terms of reference were not adhered to. From my days in the trade union movement, if terms of reference were not adhered to when making a decision, the decision was declared null and void and we had to go back to the drawing board. In this instance, the opposite happened. Those who challenged the findings were told they had to go to court. In a democracy that type of answer is not acceptable. With all of this, people were deprived of the representation to which they are entitled. As in Senator Ellis's area, if one got 75% of the electoral quota, one could still not get elected. Is that democracy? Is that fair? It is about fairness for those in the political arena and the people, giving them the service to which they are entitled.

Another issue is spending on local elections. There is not an even playing pitch in this area. If I were up against a millionaire in a local election, I would not stand a chance. He would have the spending resources to beat the band, give people holidays and take out advertisements everywhere. What are the plans for spending limits in local elections? In the last local elections, one candidate spent €60,000 on his campaign. What chance has, say an unemployed person, running in an election against such a candidate?

When I spoke to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government privately, he indicated he intended to ban election postering. I would like to know what proposals have been made in that regard. I do not personally have a problem with the issue but a person beginning his or her career might find it a challenge. Many members of the public do not agree with election posters from an environmental perspective and we could save a lot of money given that they cost €8 each. I am not completely opposed to that perspective.

I have nothing against anybody sitting on the commission but we should examine its composition and the views and range of experience of its members because, as Senator Ellis noted, a vested interest must have arisen somewhere along the line if the terms of reference were not adhered to. Its response to queries was to give the two fingers and to say that the courts should be used if people wanted to do business with it.

I think we are at one on this issue and several Opposition speakers have made valuable contributions to the debate. It is important that we respect each other and reach agreement.

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. I wish to make some comments in regard to my area and other constituencies, as well as raise broader political issues on how we should proceed.

While I respect the fact that the commission is an independent agency, some of its proposed changes make no sense. Several Senators referred to changes in the Kerry and Limerick regions. Any reasonable person would find it impossible to justify merging parts of County Kerry with County Limerick to form a new constituency rather than the straightforward arrangement of leaving Limerick as two constituencies while taking one seat from the two Kerry constituencies and merging them into one. To put it mildly, the decision suggests that inappropriate influence was brought to bear. I fail to see how we have arrived at this arrangement. It makes neither political nor geographical sense to include people in the western part of County Limerick with Kerry North. I appreciate that the present regulatory regime requires that demographic considerations are to the fore in decisions on constituency configurations but common sense is also necessary. Constituency, county and parochial traditions appear to have been disregarded in the case of counties Kerry and Limerick.

I am again disappointed, as I was when we last debated electoral boundary legislation, that County Leitrim remains the forgotten part of Ireland in terms of politics. I accept that the county is represented by Deputies who live in adjacent counties and I am sure they do their best to represent it. However, if we had told the people of Leitrim when the State was founded that the day would arrive when they would be politically irrelevant or find it impossible to be elected to the Dáil, they would have regarded themselves as having a very limited form of independence. I hope we will reconsider the constituencies of Roscommon-South Leitrim and Sligo-North Leitrim. They may be electorally fair or demographically proper but it is unfair to set an impossible obstacle before those people of the proud county of Leitrim who want to become Members of the Dáil.

I wish to introduce an element of political parochialism to this debate by expressing my disappointment at the changes that have been introduced to County Cork. When these changes were announced more than 12 months ago, much of the reaction was focused on the potential political winners and losers. The fact that nobody seemed to note that my prospects for election in Cork East were affected is an indication that I have fallen off the political radar. The unusual decision to remove a chunk of the most northerly part of Cork East and a part of the former Cork North-West stretching almost to the Kerry border and to include these areas in a Cork city constituency makes no geographical or socioeconomic sense. Residents of the centre of Cork city will now be in the same Dáil constituency as people living on the Limerick and Kerry borders. I am aware this decision will not be reversed but I want to formally express my disappointment with it.

I concede that every Electoral (Amendment) Act has introduced changes which do not appear sensible and realise that we need to consider the broader picture. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or his officials were reported in the media last weekend as suggesting the possibility of fixed Dáil constituencies, although I do not know how these could be made to withstand constitutional challenge. From the perspective of political certainty the present situation whereby people can be moved from A to B literally overnight does not make for good politics or governance. It would be helpful if we could have greater certainty regarding constituency boundaries.

We have a duty to examine our electoral system regularly. We have fooled ourselves into believing that multi-seat proportional representational politics is good for democracy and governance. To be blunt, many of the economic, cultural and social successes we have enjoyed since the foundation of the State have happened accidentally rather than due to political leadership. We have at times succeeded despite the system rather than because of it.

Our present political system, which makes colleagues compete against each other, means that the competition for ideas takes second place. That does not make good sense but as long as multi-seat proportional representation remains, the easiest way for any Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael candidate to win is by taking the seat of his or her party colleague because there will always be a seat available for the bigger parties. That does not make for good politics. Election results reveal that multi-seat constituencies have not lived up to their aspiration of bringing people in from the margins. Perhaps the reduction in the number of five and six-seat constituencies will give a broader spread of representation.

I hope we will have further debate on electoral reform because we need to consider other fair electoral systems, including single-seat proportional representational constituencies and list systems. There would be a bonus for political parties to fight on the question of their policies and programmes rather than in-fighting among candidates within constituencies.

We must remove the internal contest between party colleagues and focus political debate on a battle of ideas and skill between the various political parties. The present system of proportional representation within multi-seat constituencies does not help in that regard. The current legislation does not provide for debate on this but if the Minister is looking at the possibility of reforming politics and making it more real, relevant and responsive, we must admit that what we have been doing in our elections should be reviewed.

I refer to local elections and government which are so important. These have been neglected from a funding and reform perspective, although the Minister made some comments on electoral expenditure for local elections. The local elections are coming down the tracks and trying to change the goalposts four or five months from an election date is very difficult. If the Minister has proposals, they would need to be published very quickly and I hope he will consult widely in any changes he may wish to make.

We can sometimes get hung up on the expense of local elections and what candidates may spend. Considering the electoral areas down the years, the people who have spent the most money did not necessarily get all the votes. Local elections and government are generally more locally oriented, and the track record or reputation of the candidates can account for much more than money spent on a campaign. Large sums of money would not necessarily dictate results to the same degree as general elections.

There may not be a problem in this regard so before we go fixing an issue, we should check how severe the Minister believes the present problem to be. I look forward to him returning pretty quickly with any ideas or proposals he has on local elections. It would be very unfair to only tell local election candidates the new rules of engagement in April.

I formally express my disappointment, and not only from a personal perspective, about some of the constituency changes, including those in Cork. They are ill-thought out and make no geographical sense. One can argue about the political sense they make but in the context of our current electoral system, all people in the constituency should feel close — politically and geographically — to their representatives. Some of the new configurations of constituencies do not provide for this and seem to have been made up as we went along. I am disappointed as a result.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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I have found the contributions so far from both sides of the House very helpful. A common thread has run through most of the contributions, which helps to underline our realisation that democracy is a very precious concept, although the implementation of democracy can be very delicate at times.

There is a fair degree of unanimity on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, which reminds us of the various levels of democracy as they operate in the different councils, the Oireachtas, the European Parliament and so on. We are particularly fortunate, if one considers local authorities for example, with the amount of media coverage by local newspapers and radio. At that level, one is very much at the coalface. I recall sitting on Cashel Urban District Council and on the night of an estimates meeting I would hardly be outside the front door when the locals would be waiting to discuss what happened inside. That is how close we would be to the operation of the system.

In those days there was very little money and not much of the debate would deal with anything except how to keep the ship floating and how to survive. I have one anecdote in this regard. I recall going to a particular county in later years and meeting the county manager on the day a large project was being officially opened. I went to say "hello" because the person had formerly been the town clerk in Cashel. I told him things had come a long way since he was in Cashel as we looked at the multi-million euro development we were celebrating. He said he would tell me how much it had changed with a story of how he was working on the estimates and wanted to buy a small calculator. He went to the chairman, a businessman, to see if he could buy one. The chairman said that a calculator should not be bought, and the man in question could have the use of one in his shop. A calculator may have been £3 or £4. We all know exactly how much we have changed in the intervening years.

As a result of this one must look at the system and consider how to adapt it and what is currently required. I have always believed that the essence of democracy is where the elected members have the maximum input into what is happening in policies, expenditure and so on. With the County Management Act, certain restrictions were brought in and some were understandable. Like any corporate business, there had to be a professional input.

I have always believed that local councillors in particular bring with them significant expertise and have an ear to the ground. They know the consensus in the community and often they are so wise that they would even be ahead of the professional input. Whatever happens in the reorganisation of local authorities, I would like to think we will always see the member as being paramount. After all, the member must go back to face the electorate and take responsibility for decisions. It is the greatest test of all.

When people speak of accountability, in how many walks of life does a person put himself or herself back before an electorate indicating what has been done and asking whether the people are satisfied to re-elect that person? That is precisely what happens with local authorities so I would not like to see the role of members being diminished or sidelined.

We must be careful about any kind of a populist caricature of local authority members. This is unfair in the main and one can see this if one takes time out to see the amount of work put into a local authority. I know business people in my area who gave more time to the local authority than they gave to their businesses. One cannot buy that sort of input so we must be careful not to respond to a kind of contrived lobby each time somebody wants to have a go, as it were, at local councillors. I hope that whatever happens, we will strengthen, consolidate and copperfasten the position of local councillors.

Senator John Ellis has very strong views on the issue of the geographic identity of constituencies, which is very understandable. I find much the same views coming across from the other side and the Cathaoirleach is probably aware of what is happening vis-À-vis Offaly and north Tipperary and the crisis of identity there. I know of this because I have spoken to relatives in that part of the country. There is a belief that the problem is superficial or there is no hurt as a result but this is wrong. People are shocked by the identity they had being taken from them.

We must balance the numerical notion of how many people are to elect a single member of a statutory forum with the tradition of an area. County Leitrim played a major role in the War of Independence and the development of the State. As a small county, it also provided a lead in the development of the tourism industry. There are many issues which should be taken into account in the context of Leitrim's proximity to the North of Ireland. I do not wish to take from the work of the commission but it is impossible to justify the removal of a county's identity.

As Members are aware, people's loyalty to their counties is probably the strongest form of loyalty across which one will come. Regardless of whether it be in the context of sport, the Tidy Towns competition or whatever, the county is the identifiable geographic entity. This matter must be revisited and county boundaries must be maintained. Even if a degree of slippage occurs in the context of numbers, I do not see the problem. This will be compensated for in other ways. I do not believe the numbers are sacrosanct or written in stone. There must be flexibility so that social, cultural and other aspects are taken into account in the interests of maintaining the identity of a county.

The terms of reference must be considered in a clearer way. We have a major advantage in respect of this matter. If only one political party was arguing in favour of this, matters would be extremely difficult. However, there has been a cross-party response on this issue because Members are receiving representations from their constituents and others in respect of it. If one talks to those who are to all intents and purposes disenfranchised, one will discover that they are of the view that they will never vote again because they are not part of the system.

This happened previously when constituencies in our cities were redrawn. The position with regard to cities is somewhat different because the communities there may be fragmented or only recently devised. However, even in cities, the response to which I refer would be forthcoming. In the rural or provincial setting, that response can be extreme.

I hope this matter can be revisited as a matter of urgency. If this is not done, we will merely diminish the democratic system by failing to take into account the many variables that exist in the many constituencies.

The suggestion that the voting age should be reduced to 16 is worthy of debate. Young people are very much to the fore at present. Unfortunately, however, there is not as much interest on the part of young people in the electoral system or in the workings of democracy as we would like. When we were their age, we would have had a greater interest in this area. Any mechanism that might be used to bring them back into the loop is important. As already stated, society is changing and we must be in a position to respond in this regard.

The concept of public representation has taken somewhat of a battering, but only as a result of isolated incidents or particular scandals. However, 99% of the time our system is well served by public representatives with diverse views. There is nothing wrong with being critical of public representatives. However, it behoves those who engage in such criticism to try to be fair. Such criticism must be fair because if we damage the body politic or undermine it in a general rather than a specific way, we do harm to ourselves in the process, especially in a competitive world.

I hope there will be a greater understanding among people of the work of public representatives, their responsibilities and the transparency, accountability, etc. attaching thereto. If the Electoral (Amendment) Bill makes a contribution to the process in that regard, then it represents a step in the right direction.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to comment on this legislation. I am not sure whether I welcome the Bill. Nevertheless, it provides a good opportunity to remark upon our electoral system as it relates to general and local elections and how it operates.

Everyone agrees in respect of the case that has been made for Leitrim. People do not fully appreciate the strength of county boundaries. Such boundaries are so strong it is unbelievable. I live in the third largest county in the country, Mayo, which has five Deputies. Mayo previously had six Dáil seats but it lost one a number of years ago. The smallest county in the country, Louth, also has five Deputies, which makes its level of representation equivalent to that of County Mayo. I agree with Senator O'Toole's assertion that assessments should be carried out in each constituencies to discover whether people want to lose their Dáil representatives. I am sure it would emerge that they do not want to lose them.

When Mayo was divided into two constituencies — Mayo West and Mayo East — two areas of County Galway, namely, part of Headford and Milltown, were included in one of these. The people in these areas of Galway did not appreciate being included in the constituency of Mayo East and did not feel at home there. I can understand why that was the case. These people continued to align themselves with the constituencies in which they lived — Galway West and Galway East — and the next review of the constituencies saw them returned to these.

When the terms of reference of the commission are being drafted, as Senator Ellis stated, it should be stipulated that county boundaries should not be broken. There is a somewhat farcical situation in the constituencies surrounding the area in which the Leader lives. Part of County Westmeath is incorporated into one of the constituencies of Meath East and Meath West and part of County Meath is incorporated into the constituency of Louth. In addition, part of County Louth is also incorporated into one of the Meath constituencies. This level of gerrymandering is farcical. I have great sympathy with counties the boundaries of which are broken in the interests of creating electoral constituencies.

Senator O'Toole inquired whether there are too many Deputies. There may not be too many of them and if the election of a further two meant that county boundaries would not be broken, I would have to agree with the number being increased. The Senator made the point that the western seaboard and rural areas are losing Deputies who are gravitating towards the larger urban areas around Dublin. In my opinion, this matter will have to be examined not only on the basis of population but also in geographical terms.

The Minister stated that he has been advised by the Attorney General to introduce separate legislation in respect of the spending controls relating to local elections. Far be it from me to question the advice of the Attorney General. Quite a number of the sections contained in the Bill before us relate to local elections but the Attorney General has advised that we should introduce further legislation in respect of spending controls. I am mystified as to why provision cannot be made in respect of those controls in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill in order that the various matters relating to elections might be dealt with in one fell swoop.

In the past, emergency legislative measures were tacked on to various Bills. I do not understand why the spending controls relating to local authority elections could not have been dealt with in this Bill and why they have to be catered for in separate legislation. Like Senator Bacik, I hope the Minister will introduce this legislation in the not too distant future in plenty of time for the local elections. We will then be able to see where we are going in that regard.

I will ask a number of questions about the Bill on Committee Stage. Once the census report is published, the Constituency Commission will automatically be put in place. It comprises a judge of the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, the Secretary General of the Department and the Clerks of the Dáil and the Seanad and must report back within a given period. The census report may be published six or 12 months before a general election or there could be a snap election. In that case would the commission have to report back within a couple of months and would the new constituency boundaries be put in place? Are there safeguards to ensure the boundaries would be those decided by the previous commission? This should be spelled out more clearly. The Bill does not state the new commission should report back before a general election takes place.

I thought this legislation would cover the electoral register. Two or three years ago there was great anxiety over its compilation. It is an issue at which we should look in detail. We are back to where we were before Members raised concerns about it. Despite the money given to local authorities, new structures have not been put in place to compile it. I hope the Minister will use the legislation he proposes to introduce before the local elections as an opportunity to provide for them.

I have much to say on the Bill but do not have the opportunity to do so now. However, we will have time on Committee Stage to go through some of the issues raised. The Bill covers Dáil and local elections and how candidates are nominated. A number of years ago in the run-up to the presidential election there were arguments about how independent candidates could be nominated. Will this issue be dealt with in the forthcoming Bill? I hope it will be put to bed in it.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and have listened with interest to the debate. We are living at a time when the status of politicians is not very high. It is popular in the media and elsewhere for the denigration of politicians to be the order of the day but a better system than the democratic one in place has not been devised. It is very easy, therefore, for people to be critical of every move those who put their names forward for election make.

When I was in school and we learned history, I was struck by the actions of the good leaders during the centuries who were referred to as "benevolent despots". They governed with a degree of concern and compassion but for each one of them, there were at least 100 malevolent despots who oppressed the people. The essence of the democratic system is that it is the people who decide, whether it be every four or five years, who will represent and govern them. We should be open to criticism where it is fair, valid and balanced but much of it is not and is designed to sell newspapers or attract listening audiences. There is a void in the system, an absence of a voice to support and defend where criticism is most unjustified. This should be looked at. If we do not value and defend our democracy, others will not do so and the result will not benefit anyone. We have seen examples in the recent past and at present of undemocratic systems under which people suffer horrendously as a consequence. The Bill will be an important component of regulating how our system operates.

Senator Ó Murchú mentioned voting at 16 years of age. I am inclined to think the right to vote is valued and that the current age limit is not in need of revision. One needs to reach a certain age of maturity before one should cast one's vote. It is a privilege and an honour which we should protect.

Senator Ellis has mentioned County Leitrim a number of times. It is almost unconscionable that there is a county which does not have a Dáil representative. The system which allows this to happen must be questioned and the Bill does this. The number of counties, the boundaries of which have not been contravened by commission recommendations, is small. Under the Constitution, there is a criterion which must be met as regards representation on the basis of population. Applying exclusively a mathematical formula to meet this requirement is highly questionable. There are geographical and boundary considerations. We may need to refine some local election boundaries such as in urban areas which are contentious. However, county boundaries should not be contravened. That is my opinion.

A number of Members raised the issue of the multi-seat constituencies. We have a requirement that there should be three, four or five seat constituencies. I listened with interest to what Senator Bradford said. I have long been an advocate of a system of single seat constituencies. I live in a five seat constituency.

Debate adjourned.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of John EllisJohn Ellis (Fianna Fail)
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At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday, 3 February 2008.