Seanad debates

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Dáil]: Second Stage

 

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

3:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Michael Kitt, to the House.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Local Services, Department of Health and Children; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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The reason for bringing forward this Bill is to provide for spending limits for candidates and political parties at local elections. The Bill passed all Stages in the Dáil on 12 March 2009.

There are currently no limits on local elections expenditure. Under the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 as amended, all local election candidates are required to submit a statement of election expenditure and donations received at the election, and the source of the funds to meet that expenditure.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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On a point of order, is a copy of the Minister of State's speech available?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister of State have any copies?

4:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Local Services, Department of Health and Children; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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They are on the way. These requirements were put in place in 1999 and operated for the 1999 and 2004 local elections.

A commitment in the programme for Government provides for spending limits at local elections to be examined in the context of the Green Paper on Local Government. Submissions made in the course of preparing the Green Paper were generally positive towards the introduction of a cap on local election spending. This Bill has therefore been brought forward to give effect to this aspect of the programme for Government.

The Bill provides, accordingly, for the amendment of the 1999 Act to introduce a scheme of limits on expenditure by candidates and political parties at local elections. It is the intention that the provisions of the Bill will be effective for the local elections to be held on 5 June next.

The approach being adopted is to amend the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, to provide for a cap on spending at local elections, as well as any other incidental provisions which may be necessary. The introduction of spending limits will be provided for by way of the insertion of a new Part IIIA in the 1999 Act specifying limits for spending in each electoral area.

The purpose of introducing spending limits is to create as level a playing field as possible to ensure that candidates of modest means are not put at a disadvantage in contesting local elections. The putting in place of the limits on expenditure at the 2009 elections will bring local elections into line with the other electoral codes where spending limits already apply.

In October 2008, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, consulted the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue of spending limits. A policy research document prepared on behalf of the committee and presented at that meeting offered useful practical guidance. There were a number of complexities that needed to be considered and these were discussed with members of the committee.

The various views expressed by stakeholders have been taken into account in establishing the scheme of spending limits. The Consultative Committee on Local Government Reform, which was involved in the preparation of the Green Paper on Local Government, also considered the issue of expenditure limits. That committee included representatives from all of the main local government associations and representative bodies, the Association of County and City Councils, the Association of Municipal Authorities in Ireland, the County and City Managers Association and the Local Authority Members' Association.

In deciding on the actual spending limits, a balance had to be struck. The limits have to be both realistic and reasonable. If they were set at too low a level, they might unduly impede campaigning, particularly by new candidates. Were the limits too high, it would defeat the objective of discouraging excessive spending.

Based on past experience, expenditure by candidates varies widely, with candidates in more populated county and city council areas tending to incur greater expenditure. There is also considerable variation in the population of electoral areas. For example, among the county and city councils, the electoral area with the smallest population is Drumlish in County Longford, with 6,453 people. At the other end of the scale, in Dublin city, the Pembroke-Rathmines electoral area, with a population of 60,277, is the largest electoral area.

In setting the spending limits, account has been taken of these differences. Therefore, candidates in more populated county and city council electoral areas will be able to incur greater expenditure. For the 34 county and city councils, a sliding scale with four separate spending limits, based on the population within each individual electoral area, will apply. A top limit of €15,000 will apply in the most populated areas, with limits of €13,000, €11,500 and €9,750 to apply to candidates in other county and city council electoral areas, depending on their population.

Given their different administrative responsibilities, the Government decided there was a case for setting different limits for county and city councils and borough and town councils. It was also decided that all candidates standing for election to borough and town councils would be subject to a flat spending limit of €7,500. As Senators are probably aware, it is common for candidates to contest local elections simultaneously for both a county council and an urban-based borough or town council. In these circumstances, a candidate will be able to spend up to the limit for the county council electoral area, plus one quarter of the limit for the borough or town council electoral area. In view of the economies of scale for a candidate who contests two polls on the same day, it is reasonable to reduce the limit for spending in the case of the relevant borough or town council election. The spending limits will apply at the next June's local elections and future local elections.

Each section is explained in the explanatory memorandum. I will give a brief summary of the principal provisions. Section 2 provides for amendment of the 1999 Act to update definitions of expressions used in that Act. Section 3 provides for the repeal of section 6(1)(b)(v) of the Act of 1999 to take account of the Supreme Court judgment on the use of public funds for electoral purposes in the case of Desmond Kelly v. the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Ireland and the Attorney General, 2002. Section 6(1)(b)(v) of the 1999 Act deems certain types of expenditure not to be election expenses, including certain payments, services or facilities provided from public funds by a range of individuals and bodies. That provision is contrary to the judgment in the Kelly case and, accordingly, it is proposed to repeal it.

Section 3 also provides for the amendment of section 6(3)(a) of the 1999 Act which determines the spending period at local elections for the purpose of disclosing election expenses. The existing formula in section 6(3)(a) of the 1999 Act refers to the period commencing with the making of the order by the Minister appointing the polling day and ending on polling day. The Bill provides that the spending period will now be specified by a separate order of the Minister made after the order appointing the polling day. The spending limit period will commence between 50 and 60 days before polling day and end on polling day.

Section 4 provides for the insertion of a new Part IIIA in the 1999 Act. This Part contains two sections which deal, respectively, with spending limits at local elections and the setting of a spending period for the reckoning of election expenditure incurred by or on behalf of candidates or political parties at a local election. The new Part IIIA inserts a new section 12A in the 1999 Act which will provide for the introduction of spending limits at local elections. It sets out the specific limits on election expenditure by candidates and political parties for each category of electoral area, calculated on the basis of the population of such areas. For the 2009 local elections, population data from the 2006 census report are being used as the basis for determining spending limits in county and city council electoral areas. It is important that the scheme of limits takes account of the fact that shifts in population will occur. If the population of an area increases, it is important that allowance is made for revising spending limits in that area where appropriate. An amendment made to the Bill by the Dáil provides that population data used in setting spending limits will be from the census report setting out the final result of the most recent census of population for the current time.

The new section 12A of the 1999 Act, as amended, will also provide that the spending limits for local elections will apply to individual candidates in the first instance. Candidates nominated by a political party will be deemed automatically to allocate 10% of their spending limit to the party's national agent for use at a national level. However, there will be scope to vary this figure upwards or downwards by written agreement between the candidate and his or her political party.

The new Part IIIA also inserts a new section 12B which includes a revised formula for determining the period for the reckoning of election expenses incurred by or on behalf of a political party or a candidate at a local election. It provides that after the Minister has made an order under section 26 of the Local Government Act 2001 fixing polling day at a local election, he or she may by order specify the period during which election expenses at the local election concerned are to be reckoned for the purposes of the new Part IIIA of the 1999 Act. The new section 12B also provides that the date on which the spending period commences at the election must be not less than 50 and not more than 60 days prior to polling. The spending period ends on polling day.

The existing requirements provided for in the 1999 Act with regard to the furnishing of statements of election expenditure by political parties and candidates at local elections will continue to apply at the 2009 and future elections. The key additional requirement is that candidates and political parties are required to comply with the relevant spending limits specified in the new section 12A of the 1999 Act. Political parties and candidates at the election will have to continue to comply with the existing requirements of the 1999 Act on the furnishing of statements of election expenses and donation statements within 90 days following the polling day at the election. These include statements by the national agent of a political party to the specified local authority and by the designated person of a political party, a candidate at the election, or a third party to the local authority concerned.

For election candidates, the statement of donations and election expenses must include details of the election expenses incurred and the source of income, including details of each donation exceeding €635. Statements by political parties and third parties of expenditure at a national level will be made available for inspection by the specified authority, which is Dublin City Council. In the case of a candidate whose candidature is authorised by a political party, the national agent of the party may, by agreement in writing, authorise the designated person of the party within an electoral area to incur a proportion of the election expenditure at the election which the candidate is entitled to incur at electoral area level under section 12A(1)(a). The designated person must submit a declaration of spending to the local authority, as he or she was required to do heretofore under the existing provisions.

Section 5 provides for the insertion of a new subsection in section 19 of the 1999 Act to require local authorities to include in their annual reports the aggregate details of election expenditure in respect of each candidate as well as details of donations received by candidates. This will assist in publicising the information contained in the statements of election expenditure and statutory declarations furnished to elected members of local authorities as required by section 14 of the Act of 1999. This Act requires local authorities to register every statement of election expenses and every donation statement they receive under section 13 of the Act and to acknowledge receipt of the statement. A local authority must also give public notice in a newspaper circulating in its functional area indicating the time and place that statements can be inspected. The notice must also include the names of those who have not furnished statements.

Local authorities are required to retain for a period of at least three years from the latest date for the furnishing of statements every statement of election expenses and statutory declaration, as well as any relevant court orders arising from legal proceedings connected with a local authority election. A local authority must permit any person to inspect, free of charge, any document furnished to it by a national agent or designated person of a political party or candidate at the election and to take a copy of such document or an extract from the document on payment of a fee not exceeding the reasonable cost of copying.

Under section 18 of the 1999 Act, local authorities are required to draw up and issue guidelines to candidates and political parties on matters provided for in the Act. This will also include guidance on spending limits at elections. Such guidelines on local elections will be of great assistance to candidates and political parties and provide for a greater understanding of the requirements of the legislation governing local elections and spending limits.

Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 19C(1) of the 1999 Act to widen the scope of section 19C by inserting in it a reference to section 12A. This will enable the Minister to vary the spending limits at local elections from time to time to take account of changes in the consumer price index since the commencement of the provision. This will be done by order of the Minister under section 19C and will obviate the need for primary legislation in this regard. Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the 1999 Act. The amendment provides that where a member of a local authority elected at a local election who incurs expenditure greater than the limits set out in section 12A of the 1999 Act, as amended, and he or she is convicted by a court following proceedings initiated under section 21(3A), in addition to any penalty which the court may impose, he or she will be disqualified from membership of any local authority.

Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the 1999 Act. The amendment provides that where a member of a local authority elected at a local election who incurs expenditure in excess of the expenditure limits set out in section 12A of the 1999 Act, as amended, and he or she is convicted by a court following proceedings initiated under section 20(3A), in addition to any penalty which the court may impose, he or she will be disqualified from membership of any local authority. The disqualification in such a case will apply and will have effect for the remainder of the term in office of the members of that authority.

Section 8 of the Bill provides for the amendment of section 21 of the 1999 Act to strengthen provision for offences and penalties in that section and to introduce additional offences and penalties in respect of non-compliance with spending limits at local elections. It provides respectively that a national agent or a designated person of a political party or a candidate at the election is guilty of an offence if he or she incurs election expenses in excess of the relevant expenditure limits.

The amendment of section 21 also provides for offences and penalties where a person incurs election expenses on behalf of a political party unless the person is the national agent or a person authorised by such agent acting within the limit of such authorisation or on behalf of a candidate, unless the person is a designated person or a person authorised by such person acting within such authorisation.

Penalties of up to €25,000 are provided for where a person guilty of an offence is convicted on indictment or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years or to both the fine and the term of imprisonment.

Section 9 of the Bill deals with the position in litter legislation on the existing exemption from prosecution for exhibitors of public meeting, election or referendum posters. That legislation is silent on the start date from which such posters may be erected. In practice, many local authorities do not allow candidates to erect posters until an order appointing polling day is made.

The Local Elections (Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, as amended, will allow for a spending period for the purposes of determining candidate expenses for local elections to be specified, by order of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Minister has already indicated that he has decided that this period will be not less than 50 and not more than 60 days prior to polling day at a local election as the date for the commencement of the spending period, and the polling day at the relevant election as the date on which the spending period ends.

This may inadvertently result in candidates believing that they may lawfully erect election posters for a period of 50 to 60 days prior to local elections, a time period which is too long and may lead to greater levels of litter arising from these posters. To control litter arising from posters and to remove any uncertainty which could be created, it is proposed that the maximum time period prior to an election during which posters may be exhibited should either commence from the date the polling day order is made or be a designated time period of 30 days prior to polling day, whichever is the shorter time period.

In the case of any future referendum, the Minister has indicated that he does not propose to restrict the time period involved to 30 days, instead allowing posters to be erected from the date the order appointing polling day is made. Following the amendment to the Litter Pollution Act, posters which advertise a public meeting for up to 30 days prior to the date of that meeting will be permitted.

This amendment to the Litter Pollution Act will clarify the position regarding the time limit for the erection of posters for public meetings, elections and referenda and remove any confusion which may exist in this regard, leading to greater control of postering and a reduction in the risk of litter arising. It is not proposed to amend the provision which currently allows exhibitors seven days after a poll to remove any posters that they erected.

The putting in place of the spending limits will ensure that national and local elections will all be subject to similar regimes on the rules governing the electoral system and spending at elections which should contribute to simplifying the law on expenditure at elections. The amendment to the Litter Pollution Act contained in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill provides clarification both for exhibitors and for local authorities who are responsible for enforcing the legislation and will create a level playing field for all candidates.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for a comprehensive outline of the provisions of the Bill. It was almost longer than the Bill itself but it spells out clearly the intention of the Bill.

Fine Gael supports the general thrust to introduce spending limits for candidates in local elections. The Bill comes late to the House, however, because it has not yet passed into law and we are only ten weeks from the local elections, a cause of concern to local authorities. Candidates, parties and local authority staff must be informed of their obligations under this Bill. The Minister of State mentioned the sanctions that can be imposed on candidates who do not comply and they are serious so it is important everyone involved in the process is given time to find out their obligations under this Bill. The Department and the local authorities must send the information out as soon as possible.

Fine Gael agrees with spending limits. I have been involved in local elections in the past and some people spent huge amounts. I could not understand why people went to such trouble, elections are about knocking on doors and meeting as many people as possible, not the amount of money spent. Statistics around the world show that the more money a candidate spends, the better the result so perhaps there is a contradiction there. It is all about communicating the party's message to the electorate, that is fundamental in any democracy and we must strike the right balance.

That is the challenge the Minister faced when he introduced this Bill. We should not restrict democracy in any way, or the number of candidates that might want to put their name forward for election. That would be unhealthy in any election, be it local, general or European. The fact that people are interested in putting their names forward for election should be welcomed and they should be facilitated in every way.

For areas with a population in excess of 32,500, there is an expenditure limit of €15,000. That is appropriate but I have heard concerns expressed about large rural areas. I live in a new electoral area in Waterford which has six seats, the Comeragh electoral area, and it covers half of the county, divided by mountain ranges, with vast rural areas to be covered by the candidates. There are also two large towns and a number of small villages. It is a wide area to cover but going by population the candidates in that electoral area will have a maximum spend of €9,750. There are many miles to cover and many roads to be postered. The Minister has attempted to strike a balance when setting these limits, we will see how it goes in these elections, but he should have an open mind to see if adequate coverage by candidates is reached in rural areas. It is a concern.

The larger areas need more resources and higher limits because there are more people to reach, but they are more condensed spaces. In larger towns much of the coverage can be achieved using shoe leather. Rural areas have been neglected in many policy areas and I do not want to see them being further marginalised because people do not have the resources to communicate their message to the people there.

There is a table of expenditure limits that will apply according to population. We will wait to see how things pan out in the coming local election. There should be a report to the Minister or the committee after the election to see how the expenditure limits operated. That would be no harm because we need to inform ourselves continuously.

I wish to comment on some other points that are contained in the Bill, including how parties can incur 10% of the spending limit or an alternative amount that is agreed in writing. That is a fairly open statement which leaves many avenues open. I know the total expenditure accrued by candidates is restricted, but I understand this provision allows parties to extract a percentage from each candidate for national campaigning. The Minister of State might clarify that point. Candidates in general elections have allocated a percentage of their expenditure to the national party for national campaigning. That facility is required and must be provided for, so I acknowledge the inclusion of such a provision in the Bill.

On a wider issue, we must not put barriers in the way of candidates who want to run for election. One of the biggest barriers in the past was what might be termed intimidation by expenditure because a new person entering the political field saw the vast campaign resources available to existing councillors, TDs or Ministers. Prior to general election campaigns, before the period of expenditure is accounted for, I have seen Government Ministers produce glossy brochures and booklets on all they have achieved. These ten or 20-page brochures went to nearly every house in the constituency but this over-expenditure is very unfair. It is not counted because it falls prior to the date from which permitted electoral expenditure is assessed.

I have also seen large billboard signs being erected and campaign lorries for Ministers going around their constituencies. Independent or Opposition party candidates tried to compete with that in the past, but it was not a level playing field. It meant people with potential who could have genuinely offered representation locally or nationally were intimidated by that amount of expenditure.

It will be interesting to see how many glossy brochures are produced at the next general election. Many of them may be fired back in a Minister's face because of the Government's lack of achievement and the waste involved in producing such brochures. It is important to discuss such matters because that is what turns people against politics. The Bill makes a genuine effort to have a more level playing field whereby people of modest means can put their names forward and stand for election. They have every right to do so and should be facilitated.

I acknowledge the Minister's consultation with the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I and Senator Glynn are members. The Minister sought the committee's views on expenditure limits, which were diverse but at least he listened and was willing to acknowledge them. In addition, it was important to seek the views of elected members through the local authority representative associations. I acknowledge that the Minister consulted them in preparing the Bill.

In recent weeks we have seen how democracy can function in time of strife when our economy is under pressure. Many people — some for genuine reasons because they are under serious financial pressure and others with more cynical motives — may try to undermine our democracy in various ways. Recently we saw how this House has been seriously undermined by journalists and other media commentators — people who in my view probably know very little of what goes on here. I saw some Senators on national television at the weekend rightly trying to defend much of the good work that is undertaken in this House. On the other hand, I saw journalists getting national TV coverage for five minutes on a soap-box. These are guys who, I recall, wanted to legalise cannabis among other things. I wonder where the genuine motive is in a lot of this. I believe in democracy with elected Members representing the people and various sectors of society.

While Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann constitute the National Parliament, local elections are every bit as important. I would hate to see the day when politicians of whatever party or hue were vilified in the media or society generally. These people represent society, including families, workers and communities. It is a sorry day when one sees the media attacking democracy. It should not happen. The media should grant democracy more respect. Potential candidates who may have been considering running for election prior to the last few weeks might now ask themselves why they should canvass on the doorsteps when politicians are being vilified like this. I know the general public are more reasonable, however, and will debate with candidates on the doorsteps. The views of all candidates who put their names forward for election should be respected. The people will have their say on polling day and will decide who represents us locally or nationally.

In the past, election postering has been quite controversial and can be a reason for hitting politicians over the head. Posters may be erected before the prescribed time and at local level candidates and parties try to beat each other by introducing all kinds of strategies. There is a role for posters because candidate recognition is important, especially for new candidates. It is all very well for established candidates who are well known in the media, including newspapers, radio and television. If new candidates are to enter the field, however, which is what democracy is about, they will require an element of recognition. Posters play an important role in that respect, including leaflets and any other canvassing mechanisms that get the message across either for candidates or parties. It is important to have such facilities.

I acknowledge that the Bill permits spending levels high enough to allow an adequate level of postering in various constituencies. It gives new candidates a fair chance. Many posters are now made from plastic corrugated board, whereas in the past they fell off poles as they were made of cardboard. They were a nuisance then as they caused litter. Posters are now of a better standard, but if party workers or candidates do not remove them promptly they can be there for a long time. In that respect, I welcome the fact that people can be prosecuted if their posters are not removed within the specified time limit. Posters are an essential item in elections and while parties and candidates make a genuine effort to remove them, they often operate with limited resources.

By chance, I found a use for my old posters when I met a delegation of boy scouts who were planning a jamboree. They asked me what I was doing with my old posters and I said they were stored away. They then asked me if they could use them for camping, walkways and placing under tents. I agreed on the understanding they would not dump them illegally afterwards. In fairness, they did not do so and have used the old posters continuously. That is one way of recycling posters, but the Government should examine other ways of utilising them.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Were they all from the Senator's party?

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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They were all my own posters, not to mind my party's.

The Bill could have missed an opportunity to standardise poster sizes. The standard posters are 8 ft. by 4 ft., or 4 ft. by 2 ft., but the legislation could have been used to stop much of the unusual material one sees during election campaigns. It may have complicated the Bill but I feel we may have missed an opportunity to standardise posters. We are looking for a level playing field after all and such a measure could have achieved that in one respect.

Some towns, through the tidy towns committee for example, may request candidates not to put up posters at all and such requests are mostly complied with. If that is agreed locally I do not see any problem with it. It may be something that could be expanded upon in time.

The Minister of State referred to guidelines to be issued from local authorities on spending limits. It is late in the day now but have they already been prepared? What resources are available for local authorities to advise candidates in this respect? Is there a dedicated person in a local authority to provide such guidelines and explain them? Have those guidelines been published, considering the Bill will be enacted by the end of this week?

I referred earlier to periods of expenditure and the move from 30 days in a general election to 60 days in a local election. We will watch closely to see if candidates will begin spending before the 60-day period begins for the forthcoming local elections. I do not believe they will. Candidates will accept the Bill's provisions in this regard with trust and understanding that everyone should operate on a level playing field. On the day of the election it is the best candidate that wins. That is what democracy is all about and the Minister's intention, through this legislation, is to create a level playing field for as many local election candidates as possible.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

I welcome the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2009 which amends the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 to provide for the introduction of limits on expenditure by candidates and political parties at local elections. These new limits will be put in place for the forthcoming local elections to be held on 5 June 2009.

There are currently no limits on local election expenditure. During the last local elections, an inordinate amount of money was spent by certain candidates. It was, however, interesting to note they were not successful. It is important to remember one cannot buy the hearts and minds of people. An election, whatever its status, is about the candidate's standing in his or her area. That is reflected in the ballot box which gives the true meaning to the concept of democracy.

The Bill tidies up any confusion as to what can be spent by candidates. What obtained heretofore with no limits on spend put some candidates at a real advantage. Spending on flashy posters and advertising was a practice pursued by some. I have always believed resources are far better invested on canvassing on the doorsteps, which is free. Where I come from, the vote is won on the doorstep. It is not won by posters on telegraph poles, walls or trees. It is won by candidates knocking on doors, giving an account of their stewardship to the electorate. The electorate will then give account when they cast their votes. It is a very fair system.

There was an idea abroad that Fianna Fáil candidates were consistently the highest spenders in local elections. Such an idea is outdated and inaccurate. Every party has its high fliers and we may have had some in the past. However, Fianna Fáil would not be alone in this and would not have to go too far to find partners in this House.

The introduction of spending limits will create as level a playing field as possible to ensure candidates of modest means are not put at a disadvantage in contesting local elections. As local election campaigns become more professional, these new standards will bring local elections in line with other electoral codes where spending limits already apply. In preparing this legislation, a variety of stakeholders was consulted by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. I compliment him on his fairness and his commitment to his brief. He has discharged his brief in the most exemplary manner. Representatives from the main local government associations were consulted, including the Association of City and County Councils, my nominating body, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, the County and City Managers Association, the Local Authority Members Association and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The committee examined how to strike a balance in determining the limits. If limits were set too low, they might impede candidates' chances. The committee also had to consider the differences between campaigning in larger electoral areas. The legislation reflects the committee's recommendations that candidates in more populated areas should be allowed spend more money. The legislation also sets different limits for town and borough councils.

For the 34 county and city councils, a sliding scale with four separate spending limits, based on the population within each individual electoral area, will apply. A top limit of €15,000 will apply in the most populated areas, with limits of €13,000, €11,500 and €9,750 to apply to candidates in other county and city council electoral areas, depending on their population size. Due to their different administrative responsibilities, a standard spending limit will apply to all 80 of the borough and town councils. Candidates standing for election to these local authorities will be subject to a spending limit of €7,500 in all cases.

There are town council areas with a greater population than some county council areas. The five borough councils, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Wexford, Clonmel and Sligo, and the three 12-seater town councils, Bray, Dundalk and Tralee, all cover large populations. There are other large town county council areas such as Mullingar, where I am privileged to live, Athlone, Ennis, Leixlip and Greystones. Bray, for example, has a larger population than two particular county council areas. However, the spending limit for candidates in the borough council areas has been set at €7,500. I respectfully suggest the Minister revisits this limit because it is not fair on candidates. It is as expensive for a town council candidate in these large population areas to buy posters as it is for a candidate in a county council area. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, has made an honest effort in getting these limits right but I do not believe they are fair, as currently set. I have used the word "fair" on a number of occasions about this Bill, and will continue to do so. To be fair to the Minister and Minister of State, when drawing up this legislation they set out to ensure it reflected what is fair and right. I believe the Minister of State, who has vast experience over 30 years in public life, will agree it is an area that should be revisited. It is too little for the candidates who are standing for election in the local authorities I mentioned.

Postering was referred to in some detail by my colleague. There have been instances where candidates have put up three, four and even five posters on a structure. Am I correct that in future a candidate will only be allowed to put up one poster on a pole, wall or other structure? In many cases the multiple posters squeeze out the opposition as there is no room left on the pole or structure for other candidates' posters. That is not right. There should be a single poster for the candidate on the structure.

The time limit for the removal of posters is correct. There is nothing as annoying or infuriating as posters still in place saecula saeculorum after the election is over. It might be carelessness on the part of some candidates or triumphalism on the part of others, who wish to remind the people that they won. Whatever the reason, they should adhere to the time limits for the removal of posters. In cases where Tidy Towns committees have asked candidates not to indulge in postering, they have mainly complied with that. If no candidate puts up posters, the playing pitch is level and the issue does not arise.

I started in public life 30 years ago in 1979, when I was elected to Mullingar Town Commission, as it was known then, and Westmeath County Council on the same day, 8 June. Public life has changed dramatically since then. At that time there was one meeting per month of the county council. There might be an odd area members' meeting, a roads meeting, lights meeting, an estimates committee meeting and a statutory estimates meeting. There might also have been one or two sub-committees. One also might make a few visits to the planning or housing sections. Life is very different now for local authority members. Now, it is a full-time job. Giving any type of commitment to a county council, county borough council, borough council or a town council — I have already named some of them — is virtually a full-time job. I ask the Minister of State to liaise with the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to consider what other supports could be put in place to assist local authority members. There is no doubt that matters have improved for them but there is room for further improvement.

Deviating again a little from the content of the Bill, I am pleased with the establishment of the policing committees. I am a member of a couple of them. I am pleased the then Minister of State in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Willie O'Dea, acceded to the request of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland that he ensure each town council had a policing committee. Crime is committed by people and people generally live in towns. I am a countryman living in a town and I am very proud of my country roots, but there are many areas with large populations that do not have local authorities. I ask the Minister to examine that situation.

The Bill is welcome. The Minister and Minister of State made a serious effort to address the inadequacies in the existing legislation. I could speak at length but I will simply take this opportunity to wish the Bill well. I wish success to all the people who will contribute to the concept of democracy by standing for election in the local elections. All of them cannot win but one cannot have winners unless there are losers. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Nuair a bhí mé an-óg ar fad bhí a ainm i measc na hainmneacha a d'aithin mé, i dtús báire i toghcháin áitiúla agus ansin in olltoghcháin. Is cuimhin liom go raibh páirt beag agam i roinnt de na feachtais sin, ag cabhrú le colcheathar liom. Ag an am sin, ní raibh aon teorann leis an méid póstaeir nó ní raibh ard caighdeán ag baint leis na póstaeir sin. Ag deireadh na seachtóidí bhí an chuid is mó díobh dubh agus bán agus iad déanta as páipéar. Nuair a thiocfadh an bháisteach, ní bheadh mórán fágtha le feiscint. Tá póstaeir an lae inniu nua-fhaiseanta i gcomparáid leis na laethanta sin. N'fheadar conas ar éirigh linn ár córas polaitiúil a bheith againn gan na rialacha seo ar fad, ach d'éirigh linn. Mar sin féin, tacaím leis an prionsabal lastiar den Bhille seo agus leis na moltaí ann don chuid is mó.

I welcome the Minister. The core principle we should always have in mind when dealing with electoral legislation is the need to achieve a participative democracy. We live in a time when there is much scepticism towards institutions of various types. In fact, institutions have had to take their turn as, one by one, the media, perhaps the most unaccountable of all institutions, turned their attention to them. Often the scrutiny of these institutions, be it the church, banks, politicians or political parties, has been necessary and has brought matters to light which needed to be exposed. However, there is always a danger at a time of scrutiny, particularly when the scrutiny is active and occasionally harsh, that the necessary scepticism that people should sometimes have towards institutions can tip over into an unhealthy cynicism. That is certainly the case to a considerable degree with regard to politics and politicians at present. I believe that is a very bad thing.

It is, of course, legitimate for people to be critical of politicians and of the political process. My colleague, Senator Coffey, referred to the debate about the Seanad on the national airwaves in recent days. To a degree that debate has been healthy and positive. However, and because it is their profession those who are involved in politics are required to know a little more than the average person would, one often feels that many of the criticisms of politics and politicians miss the point. In the context of the Seanad, for example, there is a certain amount of pub talk creeping into the debate, where people call for its abolition and criticise the "mercs and perks", although the "mercs" do not apply in this House, when they should really have a more searching debate about where reform would be a good thing. That debate could be very dramatic but it needs to be led, and led well, by people in the media in particular to facilitate the public by identifying the hard questions, as distinct from the obvious, attacking questions. There is a difference between the two. The reason I say all that is because I wish to return to the point about the need to promote a civic culture and a participative democracy at a time when there is a danger that the many problems we face and the many disappointments that people have endured at the hands of bankers, people in finance, Government and politicians could cause them to descend into a kind of cynicism that would not be healthy for our democracy.

I was reminded of that in the debate about the Seanad. What we need is more parliamentary scrutiny, not less. We have seen how social partnership did not protect us from becoming very uncompetitive to the detriment of us all. More scrutiny at parliamentary level of social partnership and how it was operating would have been a good thing. By the same token we need more active local politics, especially at a time when people are concerned about social unrest as a consequence of the economic crisis, when they are talking about the fracturing bonds of community, and of people being more alienated from each other. All these issues point to the need for active local citizenship. There are many ways to be an active local citizen and the work of many voluntary organisations is to be commended.

Done for the right motives and in the proper way politics, local or otherwise, can be one of the most noble of activities. People need people to mediate for and assist them, not just in the achievement of their rights but in addressing their core needs. That is why everything we do politically should be aimed at strengthening our political system and increasing the number of people in our community who respect politics in principle and who give consideration to whether they are called to be in politics, either by putting themselves before the electorate or, just as importantly, being the right-hand people who assist politicians and who bring influence to bear in that way. That is the context in which the Bill is particularly important. Despite the criticism of politicians and the political process we need more active participation in politics. It is important we seek not just candidates but quality candidates.

I give a cautious welcome to the Bill. I would prefer an approach that tends towards freedom and non-regulation in this area, in so far as that is possible, for democratic reasons. People have a right to private property and they have a right to use their financial and other resources to advance their viewpoint within society. People consume in all kinds of ways using the resources at their disposal and there is an argument, which is not absolute and is subject to its limitations, that people should, in so far as is possible, be allowed to employ their means in the pursuit of their political objectives, whether that is in terms of their own election or in the advancement of causes or candidates who will promote the kind of ideas in which they believe. That is a self-evident truth.

A balance is needed in all that because we do not want a situation where people effectively buy elections. The balance is achieved in a number of ways, the first being by limiting the amount of money people can spend in elections. I welcome that essential point. However, that in turn must be balanced against not making that absolute in regard to time. It is fine and proper to have a period of 50 days or 60 days when there would be limits on expenses. I believe amendments were tabled in the Dáil by the Labour Party — but I am open to correction on that — that proposed an extension of the time in which people would be subject to limitations on their expenditure. If that is the case I would consider that unhelpful, not because I want to see the rich person thrive and survive at the expense of the rest but because of the principle, which is perhaps even a constitutional one in terms of the constitutional right to private property, that people would be allowed to engage their resources in advancing either their own cause or a cause in which they believe.

The Bill does not address certain anomalies. In first principles I welcome the idea that for the first time we will have limits on local election expenditure for a certain time period. One anomaly is the whole business about how and to what extent donations have to be declared. That is covered by the 1999 Act and, in so far as I can recall, provides in terms of local elections that people have 90 days to make a statement of their expenses and donations. One does not have to declare the identity of the donor for donations below the limit of €635. That leaves us with a rather unreal situation. I am speaking in general about political donations. I am sure it has been said in the House that people can collect any number of donations below a certain limit and not have to declare them as long as they come in under €635 but if they collect donations above that threshold they have to declare them all. It seems to me that this may be a recipe for potential corruption, albeit at a small level. For example, in the organisation of race nights people are invited to buy masses of tickets which would put their contributions far in excess of €635, but that is not declarable. I accept this is a system that is difficult to regulate but we should never ignore the anomalous situations that may arise once we try to regulate.

There is a need for transparency to be the key word. I do not mind how much money people spend on their election campaign as long as we get to know exactly what they spent and the source of their campaign war chest. In that regard it is worth noting that in legislation we should draw a distinction between campaigns and causes on the one hand and political and electoral campaigns on the other. It strikes me that a person who wants to donate to a particular political cause should not necessarily – I am open to debate on this – have their privacy unduly interfered with. To a certain degree, people should be entitled to donate anonymously, but such donations must come under much more scrutiny when it comes to local, national and European elections campaigns and referenda. I would warn against excessive intrusion into people's property rights and into their right to privacy in so far as donations to causes and campaigns are concerned. That said, I accept the principle that there must be necessary transparency for elections and referenda.

I wish to comment briefly on the role of the media. One of the reasons some people would be fearful of being too prescriptive on spending limits and limits on donations or that people would be very concerned about any system that would ban electoral donations completely is that invariably power goes somewhere else when one does that. Our media, which are very strong — a good thing in many ways — but also very unaccountable, can then be selective in terms of whose cause and what cause they seek to champion. One of the antidotes to that is that people have the right to employ their resources to some degree in the advancement of their political views, ideas and preferred candidates.

I wish to speak about postering and there are two brief issues I wish to mention. One relates to the date. The Bill proposes to provide that in the case of local elections there can be no postering for either 30 days before the election or the period of time between the election date being announced and the election day itself, whichever is the shorter. Is it wise or proper to limit the dates on which people may poster to that degree?

I am concerned about litter, but I am also concerned about generating public interest in the electoral process. We should allow a generous amount of time for people to put up posters in advance of an election and should not just see these posters as some kind of a nuisance with which we must live. In my travels to various countries I have found it a pleasure to visit a country in the middle of an election campaign and to see the different styles and approaches and how politicians in different countries present themselves to the electorate. Perhaps that is the political anorak speaking. I am concerned about excessive restrictions. Would it not be better to provide that posters should be allowed to be displayed for the maximum period, between the announcement of the election date and the election or 30 days, whichever is the longer?

I note the Bill does not seek to interfere with the seven-day limit for politicians to ensure posters are removed. I am a completely disinterested party in this regard, given that election posters are not and will not be part of my election campaign. However, is the seven-day limit excessively narrow? I am not casual about litter, but posters generate interest in the election process. In the case of electronic voting, for example, the drive for regulation and modernisation of the system completely overlooked the social and cultural value of having elections followed by long counts — sometimes painful and worrying counts — that generated interest in the process among the public. For the same reason, we should not be too restrictive about the dates allowed for people to put up posters. We should also be generous in giving them adequate time after the election, to use a phrase from another context, give them a sufficient reflection and recovery period, to allow them to retrieve their posters. Then, if they exceed that more generous limit, we should hit them with all the necessary penalties. Is the Minister open to some tweaking in those areas?

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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While this is welcome legislation, the question is why has it taken so long. The reason is that local government legislation, in terms of electoral reform in general, has always been bottom of the list. However, we now have legislation that addresses the question of spending on elections at their most basic, where people contribute and participate most.

I first contested local elections in 1991 and my budget then was £250. I had as few posters as possible and only a basic leaflet, but I still managed to get elected.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator has come a long way since then in terms of expenditure.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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One of the reasons costs were kept so low in Cork city was that we were not only able to campaign at doors, but we were well served by local media. We had a community television channel, an RTE local radio station, a commercial station that was talk-based and a national newspaper in the form of The Examiner. Those are not attributes which most candidates have in local elections and, unfortunately, some of those have changed since.

There is unnecessary pressure on candidates in terms of expenditure, particularly with regard to traditional media and in the case of elections to county councils. There is an unfair expectation of candidates, particularly from weekly newspapers in rural areas which see election candidates as a mainstay of their income. While those newspapers are important publications and provide a valuable service to their communities, the fact that candidates will pay large amounts of money on advertising for political purposes does not necessarily mean people will vote for that candidate over another. However, this sort of advertising is still too large a feature in political life here.

By the time we contested local elections again in 1999 — the eight-year gap is a story in itself and, gladly, we left those times behind with the introduction of a constitutional amendment on local government — my budget had increased to £1,200.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator was going places.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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I had something in mind anyway.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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He got fewer votes.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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I did not. I stood in a second ward and got elected in that.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Boyle, without interruption.

5:00 pm

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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We achieved the desired effect in both elections and I am grateful to the people in both electoral areas.

In terms of influence, money pays and has influence. This is as true of political parties as it is of individual candidates. This Bill is the first legislation that tries to measure this so that we have a level playing field for most participants in the electoral system. The spending and time limits proposed are generous. We know local government elections take place every five years and there is a time period within which effective campaigning can start. Anyone who is serious about being elected to the local council has been knocking on doors and spending money on the election for several months already, perhaps for up to six months. This legislation does not measure that type of expenditure, but it tries to control the expenditure at the most intensive period as election day approaches and at a time when candidates are more nervous about their election and are tempted to spend more money. The Bill is welcome in that regard.

Useful points have been made with regard to postering. However, we have overkill in the use of postering in our culture and there is no aesthetic effect with regard to how they are placed, whether on poles or in prominent locations. We seem to think that if we put four or five posters of the same candidate in the same location people will be more inclined to vote for that candidate. We should learn from models in other areas. The Minister has it in mind to put a voluntary code in place for the forthcoming elections to see whether the rules he has in mind can be adhered to by all candidates and parties. Other systems might be even more effective, for example, central postering points and information centres where voters can get information about their candidates, see them and what they represent or stand for. These options impart far more information than a grinning, inane picture of a candidate on a telegraph pole.

If we are honest, we will admit that the impact of many of our posters is extremely limited. It is said that a poster has no effect whatsoever three days after being put up and that a leaflet given out on a doorstep has only 30 seconds to make an impact, if one is lucky. We should consider whether the amount of money spent to achieve that impact could be spent differently and to greater effect. What we try to do in elections is increase participation of the public in the decision making bodies that affect their local communities. We want to get the best individuals possible involved in that process. We want them to stand for election and to be elected. That does not always happen, but it is our aspiration.

In bringing forward this legislation and the forthcoming White Paper on local government, my party leader can eventually leave office saying he has been the most effective Minister with regard to reform of local government. For far too long, local government has been the poor relation of electoral politics in this country. We have had cases where local elections were postponed year after year, for example, as mentioned between 1991 and 1999. I am convinced that if the constitutional referendum — I acknowledge the work of Deputy Brendan Howlin as the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government — had not taken place, we would have an argument now not to have local elections this year because of the economic situation. The argument would be made for the elections to be put off again and again and the same people would be in situ.

We must leave those days behind. It is important for our local communities and councillors that we renew our local authorities and give people a choice. They must know that every five years they have the opportunity to refresh the ideas and contributions of people on their local councils. Without that, we would still have the abuse of electoral guidelines as in the past. It is for this reason we need legislation on the control of spending in elections. In the 2004 elections, a sum of €35,000 was spent in one electoral ward——

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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Was it by one candidate?

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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——by one candidate. I believe the candidate was successful. When this occurs, it suggests that money can win votes.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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One can still spend that amount but not within the accounting period.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Boyle without interruption.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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I did not mention names.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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He is correct.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Boyle without interruption.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I was not mentioning names either.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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The reality is that when such a sum is spent, be it in the accounting period or not and even if campaigning begins the day after the previous election, it is still a phenomenal and unacceptable sum of money. In political life, people need to be confident that their efforts, knocking on doors and meeting people, the power of their ideas and the force of their personalities will be the determining factors in their being elected. Legislation such as this is needed to ensure other factors cannot come into play.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss again the issue of electoral reform. My party has been campaigning for limits on election expenditure for a long time. We are glad, therefore, to see this legislation before the House. It is important but it is only one of the electoral reforms we would like to see. It is not before time. There are obvious disappointments, which are perhaps unavoidable given the rushed and last-minute nature of this Bill. The 60-day spending limit is unlikely to stop a determined candidate with considerable financial resources from trying to spend his way to election victory.

In my area, some candidates have been advertising since Christmas in the local papers with a view to making their names known. I do not know their names but know their pictures and it is therefore clear the advertisements are having some effect. One of the problems is that people with vast sums of money can spend like there is no tomorrow until the limit kicks in. I regret that the Minister did not accept an amendment in the Dáil from my colleague, Deputy Ciarán Lynch, that sought to extend the period in which spending is limited. However, given that this Bill is late, I accept an issue arises with regard to retrospection.

Local and town council elections should never require election war chests comprising tens of thousands of euro. Even if one ignores the questionable ethics of spending such large sums, one will note there is a basic cost-benefit equation to be considered. In an article in The Sunday Business Post in 2005, the political scientist Liam Weeks pointed out that in the local elections of 2004 a Fianna Fáil candidate in the north inner city spent €28,000 on a campaign but was beaten by a Sinn Féin candidate who spent just €2,000 and an independent candidate who spent just €4,000. Therefore, it is not always a question of how much one spends. As Senator Coffey stated, it is about meeting people and ensuring one gets ones point across and, as Senator Boyle stated, it is about ensuring one convinces people one is the best person for the job. I accept money is not always the means by which one wins an election but there is no doubt it helps.

It has been stated that one of our colleagues spent approximately €40,000 on the local election campaign in 2004. I happen to believe this colleague would have won a seat having spent only half that sum and therefore do not believe it is fair to criticise the Senator in this case. During the last local election campaign in my county of Meath, two candidates, both of whom were elected, spent more than €25,000. There is no doubt that money helps but it does not guarantee one a seat by any means.

Professor Alan Ware, professor of politics at Oxford University, described electoral spending limits as the most effective way to stop the feeding frenzy that happens when one candidate starts spending money, thereby forcing others to do so as well. Research on spending in Irish political campaigns is thin on the ground but an interesting study was carried out in March 2003. It was a quantitative study on election spending in the 1999 local elections to determine whether money mattered. The study examined the amounts spent in each constituency and found that increasing total spending from 2% to 25% increased a candidate's chances of getting votes by 6.6% for a challenger and 6% for an incumbent. This is very significant given that the average vote obtained by candidates was just 8%. While it might be outlandish to apportion 25% of the total electoral spend to any one candidate, it has occurred in numerous constituencies. While it is not always successful, it is clear that it is dangerous and setting an unnecessary precedent. The authors of the study concluded by arguing that candidates who spend a larger share in their districts win a larger share of the votes. This applies in general terms. It is clear that even in the smallest constituencies, spending can win one votes. This raises a question about democracy in that the more money one has, the greater one's chance of being elected. For poorer candidates, candidates associated with parties with less money than others and independent candidates, it is more difficult to get elected.

Let us consider the sources of election funds. Senator Mullen mentioned race nights in this regard. Given the nature of such events, people do not necessarily have to say how much they are spending on horses. As a consequence, it is difficult to know whether the limits on donations to a campaign are being observed. The sources are very important because very few people contribute to election campaigns for altruistic reasons. People contribute because they expect to see a financial benefit. I know of candidates who have taken contributions from developers. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this but it begs the question whether the developers expect favours in return, such as rezoning. The ethics of taking money from those who expect a financial return must be considered. In some other countries, one way of obtaining an ambassadorship is by making contributions to the funds of particular politicians. It is clear there are benefits in this regard. Senator Mullen mentioned that individuals contribute to campaigns if they hope their investment will lead to a change in the law that might benefit them or endorse their points of view. The sources of funding and the reasons contributions are made must be considered.

On the issue of posters, reference was made to the timeframe in which postering is allowed. I am glad there is additional clarification on this issue. I ask for leeway with regard to poster removal. Like Senator Mullen, I believe the seven-day period for removal is very narrow. Most candidates enter local arrangements with their local authority regarding the removal of posters. Many candidates in this House will have experienced posters going missing during election campaigns for whatever reason. I do not know whether it is due to devilment.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That would not happen at all in Cork.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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It might not happen in Cork but I can guarantee it happens in my constituency. It happens to most candidates but we do not know who is responsible. It certainly was not my team and, to be fair, I do not believe it was any of the teams of the major players in this House.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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In the middle of the day.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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The posters go missing from the poles and reappear six weeks after the election down culverts, in rivers, on roads and all over the place. Luckily we have a very good working relationship with the local litter authorities which are aware of the problem. Any time a poster goes missing from one of our poles, we inform the local authority and, in this way, it recognises we are doing our best to ensure the posters are accounted for. Over the past five years, I probably had to pay the guts of €1,000 in fines because of missing posters. We therefore need some arrangement that will make it clear whether candidates have tried to obey the law and take their posters down within seven days of the election. Some leeway should be given regarding the rogue posters that appear every now and then. Will the Minister of State think about this?

The proposed section 12B states the spending period ends on polling day of the election. If somebody is to pay for the removal of the posters, it will constitute spending after the date of the election. Will the Minister of State clarify whether this would be independent of the electoral spend? More and more candidates, particularly after elections when people might be a bit glum if they were not successful, find it easier to buy in the removal of posters as opposed to getting their teams to take them down. Often, teams are completely wrecked by the time the count is over.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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They are gone to ground as well.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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Will the Minister of State clarify whether this spend will be included in the overall cost?

I urge the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to broaden and hasten local government reform and I respect his desire to change the status quo and compliment him on some of the work he has done on this. Reform of local government is long needed as it does not work to the best of its abilities. I welcome this legislation and certainly I will not be opposing it.

Photo of John EllisJohn Ellis (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, who is here in place of the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. Controls on election spending are long overdue. Abuse of spending at every election and referendum during the past ten years has been rampant. If the posters that some groups put up during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign were only 5 cent each, they would have been outside the spending limits despite the fact that they claimed they finished within the limits. They drove the proverbial coach and four through all the regulations made by the Oireachtas.

Introducing controls on the amount of money to be spent by candidates levels the playing pitch. As Senator Hannigan stated, we have seen candidates spend enormous amounts of money and not succeed. We have also seen candidates who spend much smaller or nominal sums succeeding. Local elections are about local issues and local people. Particularly in rural Ireland, people can identify their local councillors and local newspapers identify the local candidates. However, in the city it is not as easy for candidates to project themselves. They do not have the same access to local radio or newspapers. This justifies their entitlement to spend more.

We will see abuses of these spending regulations and we have seen it already. In his speech, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, stated that notices for public meetings can be left up for 30 days. Today in this city, I saw posters for a public meeting with a picture of a candidate on them. I do not know what date the meeting will take place but I know the posters are designed in such a way that when the public meeting is over the stickers advertising it can be whipped off and the posters will become election posters. The candidate will take the 30 days, which will bring him close to the pre-election period. This is where already a coach and four is being driven through the legislation.

Seeing this being done will lead people to think that if this is the attitude being taken, what will be the attitude of other candidates. This is a grave concern. Most politicians get seven days' notice for a public meeting. One is told to turn up and if one cannot do so, so be it, and one will be criticised and ridiculed from the high heavens. To allow 30 days for notice of a public meeting is wrong. It should have been restricted to a maximum of 14 days. This would give people sufficient time to arrange all the public meetings they want.

All of us have run into trouble after elections with regard to litter pollution. We are all aware of the odd individual who gathers up a few posters belonging to the other side for some devious purpose and who, ten days after the poll, will stick them up where they were never seen before. One then receives a fine for litter and one can do nothing about it. This has happened and it needs to be addressed.

Another issue that must be addressed is that every election poster and leaflet should have proper identification on it with regard to who printed and circulated it and anybody found guilty of not doing so should be penalised very severely. I know this might not be the easiest rule in the world to enforce but it needs to be done. During the most recent referendum campaign, we saw that certain groups put up posters with no information on who supplied them or put them up or what purpose they served other than to confuse the electorate. This needs to be addressed in the context of legislation on elections.

With regard to local elections, various attitudes are taken in various parts of the country. In the local electoral area in which I live in Leitrim no posters were erected by any candidate in the previous two local elections. All candidates agreed they would not do so. Afterwards I asked some of them whether this affected them and they stated that it did not because they had the advantage of local recognition. Some of them had been there for some time and the area covers a maximum of 20 square miles. The candidates received plaudits from all the tidy towns committees, which were delighted. In other areas, tidy towns committees spent all their time complaining about posters affecting them when it came to assessment, and rightly so.

The amounts of money being spent in local elections have been mentioned. Some of the amounts which one hears have been spent by candidates are phenomenal. However, candidates have an opportunity to circumvent the limits by spending prior to the date from which all spending is to be counted. This is one of the concerns I have as it provides an advantage to those with major resources.

At present, the political parties may not be the best resourced. Some of the fringe groups in this country are better resourced than the political parties. They are in a position to spend and not account for it. This concerns me with regard to local and general elections, referenda and every other type of election that takes place. If we cannot put in place proper controls the coach and four will be driven through many of these projects on a regular basis. We have seen this happen and I mentioned the referendum campaign on the Lisbon treaty during which the coach and four was driven through all the electoral rules.

I hope that in future we will have a full electoral Bill which will deal with all expenditure, nomination of candidates, sourcing of funds and documentary proof of where they come from. At present one makes one's return with proper invoices and that is it. Nobody can tell whether Joe Bloggs printed 500 or 1,000 posters. If a receipt for 500 posters is produced nobody will count to see where the other 500 went. Physically, it cannot and will not be done. The coach and four is being driven through this legislation. Perhaps it should be mandatory that those who print should be forced to register with the Department or the Electoral Commission prior to being able to print election literature. This would be one way to prevent abuse of the system. We need this because over the years we have seen people and parties abuse it and we can do nothing about it. We just have to accept it. I believe there will be much tighter scrutiny at the forthcoming local elections. I have no doubt that the candidates will be more prudent in their spending due to the recession. There will be no bouquets for those who run lavish campaigns in the local elections because that will be like giving two fingers to those who are suffering in the current economic downturn. It is something that will definitely have to be examined by the Department.

We have all spoken about the nomination of candidates, and there should be no problem with this. In the old days, one could sign one's own nomination paper for a local election, even if one was a non-party candidate, but one could also be nominated by someone else. In my early days, it was important that the local senior party activist was on the nomination paper. In modern days, candidates have nominated themselves. Independents should have the right to nominate themselves and nothing should be done to prevent them from doing so, as long as they stand legitimately and they have an affinity with the area in which they wish to stand. There are changes in this Bill on how people are nominated and the nomination procedure has been tidied up, but every citizen of this country has the right to stand in a local election.

People realise that many of our migrant workers are now eligible to vote in local elections. In some parts of the country, there is practically a quota of votes in council areas that is made up of economic migrants or refugees. It is an opportunity for them to get a voice when it comes to local politics and to be able to make a contribution. Many of them have come from countries where they were not able to make a contribution and they had to put up with whatever system was there, which sometimes was not democratic. The important thing is that the regulations laid down in this Bill are fully implemented and that the resources are put in place to ensure that is done.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire Stáit. I welcome the Bill. The Electoral Act 1997 and the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 have served us well. Democracy is about people participating through the ballot box and through the political process. The best form of democracy is being able to go into a polling station, put a pencil mark next to the candidate of choice and vote accordingly. The best way to empower people is through the ballot box. Many people in other countries are looking for the right to vote, and we spent a long time in this country looking for political independence.

I welcome the Bill, but I feel personally that it has not gone far enough. I am completely in favour of having a lower threshold of expenditure and having a cap on spending in the years between elections, be they local, national or European. That is a missed opportunity and, like Senator Ellis, I hope that the regulations will be implemented, monitored and policed properly. In future referenda, I hope that some of the groups to which Senator Ellis referred will have their expenses opened up for scrutiny. Democracy is not enhanced by groups such as Libertas, which do not show transparency on how they fund their campaigns.

Senators referred to words such as "renew", "empower", "enhance" and "control". I look forward to the Minister's White Paper on local government, because I have not seen any evidence of local government being renewed by Fianna Fáil led Governments. We have taken away power from local councillors and we have given more power to officials, which is wrong. I have served on a local authority and I believe we should give more power to local politicians because politicians are from the community and 99.9% of them serve the people well. Senator Boyle referred to the power of ideas and the force of personality, which is good in theory and is an effective way to get a message across. As somebody who likes canvassing, it is the most effective way of meeting people. No money can buy the ability to meet people.

This Bill is just one small piece of the jigsaw. The 60-day limit is too short because people have front-loaded spending before the cut-off point in April. Even though this Bill will be enacted and used for the forthcoming local election, we should use it as a precursor to future legislation. It should be the start and we should revisit the legislation to put in a stricter timeframe and a more pronounced spending limit. In fairness to the Minister, the spending limits are good on paper, but they do not go far enough. I listened to the Minister of State's speech and he made some points about distance, geography and so on. We need to put a stop to people spending exorbitant amounts of money on elections, and I include the political parties in that. Much of what we do is a waste and is irrelevant to people. We all need to look at how best we can manage resources and how we can get our message into the homes of the voters.

I have serious concerns about the time period between elections, be they local, national or European. I know of cases where people have spent thousands of euro prior to the calling of elections, yet there has been no accountability for this. That is wrong for a number of reasons. We are putting a certain onus on people to spend money and we are making politics the preserve of the rich by allowing people to spend money between elections. I cannot comprehend how some people can publicly claim that they spent a certain amount, when a tally of their expenditure on letters, posters, billboards, public meetings and so on does not add up. It is time we brought in a cap on what we can spend between elections. I agree with Senator Coffey that meeting people is the only way to electioneer, but we cannot get to everybody during the timeframe of an election campaign.

I also have concerns about the role of the media, although those obviously cannot be addressed in this Bill. We had a very good debate on the role of the media when we debated the Broadcasting Bill 2008 and on the Order of Business. I agree with some of Senator Walsh's comments about this. There is now a blurred line between commentary and analysis in the Irish media. Some of the people are writing tomes of information about elections as opinion pieces and we get confused. A few of them are nothing short of being political hacks and they should desist from doing that.

The Minister looked at the different geographical areas and the different seat allocations in towns, cities and local rural areas. The Carrigaline electoral area in my constituency of Cork South-Central is very sizable and almost as big as Limerick West. We must re-examine the way we divide areas geographically for local elections and the way we allocate seats to areas. It is important we do so. When the Minister was in the House some months ago I stated that although there is already an independent electoral commission which charts the boundaries for local and general elections, there should also be an independent commission to run elections. In 2004 when I first ran for election, I knocked on every door three times, which was a good deal more effective than placing an advertisement in a free sheet or on the back of a bus. I would not be the most photogenic person anyway so such posters would not gain me any votes.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Is that what the Senator's wife says?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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She is gone. One cannot beat knocking on doors, which is a maxim in which I have always believed. The former Senator, Mr. Denis Cregan, has a great philosophy whereby he states that one should not peak too soon. The three weeks of an election campaign are the most effective. However, the Minister has missed the point in the Bill, because he has not extended the period beyond 60 days, and that period is too short.

I have concerns about the reference in the Bill to the 10% to be attributed to parties. How will this be quantified and by whom will it be monitored? Let us suppose Senator Walsh, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael P. Kitt, or I has a constituency office used by a given candidate which we support to run an election campaign. Let us further suppose that candidate uses the premises to photocopy, send e-mails, use the telephone or hold meetings after canvassing. How will the Minister quantify such use?

I have concerns regarding the funding of democracy. I am a great believer in funding political parties, for which I make no apology. I say as much in a time when people say that we should restrict expenditure on election campaigns, a view with which I agree. It serves no one to have lavish posters and a great deal of glossy literature going through doors in a time of economic recession. However, we should fund democracy and I make no apology for this view. I am involved in a European Parliament election campaign and a fund raising dinner will take place as part of this campaign. I have no difficulty with people being asked to subscribe to a candidate or political party regardless of what party is involved, because there must be a democracy which is properly resourced by all political parties, whether Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or whichever.

I respect the right of everyone to have a viewpoint. However, there are some sections in the media which do not share this view. Such people believe that anyone who spends money on elections or who makes a political contribution is a bad person, which is not the case. Earlier, Senator Hannigan referred to the need to address the issue of the register of electors. In many cases the register is a shambles. Money is wasted in this area of managing elections because certain sections of the register bear no resemblance to reality.

It is time we got rid of the e-voting machines. We must draw a line in the sand, throw them into the sea off Roches Point and let them be gone. We have not examined the role of technology and it is not referred to in the Bill. There are some great websites such as www.politics.ie in which people engage by bloging. I have begun bloging and a person in my party, namely, Mr. Stephen Spillane, is teaching me. It is a great way of communicating with people. Twitter, Facebook and Bebo are not mentioned in the Bill. They are a means of advertising, but will the cost of using them be measured?

I welcome the Bill. It is important we engage with people and that there is restriction and control. One issue I wish to see addressed, which is not referred to in the Bill, is the matter of cable ties left up on polls after an election. I do not know how the Minister will fine people, but people should be fined for leaving cables ties on poles. There is a great regime for getting rid of posters, but it does not apply to cable ties. The Minister has not gone far enough. We must have a properly funded democracy, but we must also control spending. The Bill is a step in the right direction and the bottom line is that money cannot win elections, but it can fund elections and give people an additional advantage over others.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael P. Kitt, to the House. This is a reasonably important Bill. Democracy is a tender enough flower. Other speakers, including Senator Buttimer, may have adverted to the fact that democracy is under a good deal of attack. It is unfortunate that we are probably experiencing a tsunami of negativity, cynicism and populism, all of which in their own way erode confidence and corrode politics. That is not to say that politics should not be constantly under scrutiny. It is imperative that there is a free press in a democracy. However, as with all freedoms, a free press brings certain responsibilities which are not always exercised as they should be. It is important to recognise that democracy should be accessible to all sections of society and to every citizen, regardless of means. I welcome the Bill, which is an attempt at levelling the playing pitch in that regard. It is important that it does so, but it is equally important that the limits set are sufficient to enable candidates to convey their message and promote their candidacy. This assists the electorate in coming to its decision on who it wishes to have as its representatives. It is an honour to be elected and to represent the public, whether in a county council, the Seanad, the Dáil or the European Parliament. That honour brings responsibilities and it should also bring accountability, which it does through the ballot box on a regular basis.

I have some reservations concerning the structure of the Bill. I advocate keeping it simple, but the Bill before the House is not as simple as it could be. We should recognise that councillors are not resourced in the main. They do not have secretarial backup or office administration available, unless they have sufficient means to provide it from their own resources. We should recognise this, which is another argument for keeping it simple.

Some councillors have asked me if they must keep track of every envelope sent out or every stamp bought in the two month period and the answer is "Yes", which is ludicrous. It puts an onus on people to maintain a level of administration which is unnecessary if the objective is to keep a level playing pitch, to keep things simple and allow people to promote themselves. I do not see why expenditure could not be limited to areas of literature which promotes the candidate and to advertising on posters.

I ran in many local elections as the Cathaoirleach, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael P. Kitt, and the Senators on the opposite side of the House have done. There are areas in which the expenses incurred can skew the process. I have seen people with very high profiles who incurred expenses by using vehicles and advertising lorries. People can execute a widespread high quality postering campaign. Such campaigning can skew the process and, therefore, it should be examined. Whether someone sends 1,000 envelopes with 1,000 stamps is immaterial. We have gone too far in this regard. I see no need to have a stepped expense regime. This may follow from the system for Dáil elections under which different expenditure levels are set for three seat, four seat and five seat constituencies. It is not necessary to gear expenditure limits to population in local elections. City wards and county council electoral areas tend to be broadly similar in size. It is the competition in the ward or electoral area that necessitates an injection of funding to promote the candidates. While I do not have a difficulty with the amounts, whether €15,000 or €7,500 in the case of town and borough corporation areas, I cannot find a good reason to tier expenditure limits, as proposed in the Bill.

As Senator Buttimer correctly noted, knocking on doors on the campaign trail and convincing those one meets that one is the candidate to represent them frequently yields the best results. Nevertheless, literature also be an important and influential factor in election campaigns, particularly now that is has become more difficult to reach people at home. In the period of full employment it was very difficult to reach people unless one confined the canvass to tea time or shortly afterwards to ensure one captured people at home. This difficulty may have eased.

On the amounts proposed as expenditure limits, a proportion of the set amount is allowed as a deduction if one belongs to a political party. This needs to be factored into the system. It is appropriate that information technology, including websites and so forth, are excluded from the expenditure amounts. Obviously, candidates will work on their websites and gear them up for election prior to the date on which the expenditure limit period commences. Those who are skilled in information technology will have their websites available to them while serving as councillors and the expense will not be incurred in the 60-day period. It is correct, therefore, that new candidates, as opposed to councillors, should not have the cost of establishing a website counted as expenditure.

The legislation has the hallmarks of being drafted by people who have never run for election and does not appear to have had an input from elected members. I agree with Senator Buttimer's point that it is meaningless to apply a 60-day period. While it may catch people in the forthcoming election because they will not have expected limits to apply — they will commence in early April on this occasion — as is done in the case of general elections, the bulk of election expenditure in future local elections will be done in the months prior to the date on which the 60-day period commences. For this reason, I suggest applying a longer period of perhaps 120 days. I also suggest simplifying the overall expenditure limit by introducing a figure of €15,000.

If a limit of 120 days were to be imposed, an acute anomaly would arise. The €30,000 or €35,000 expenditure limit for a five-seat constituency in a general election is restricted to the date from which the election is called, which is 21 days prior to the general election. In recent times, as Parliaments have run their full five-year term, sensible politicians have spent the bulk of this sum in the period six months prior to the election. The procedures for expenditure should be as simple as possible and should be easily understood by candidates running for election, particularly new candidates who are not au fait with many aspects of elections.

There is also an inherent risk that someone will inadvertently breach the legislation and find himself or herself hauled over the coals. In the event that he or she has been elected, his or her electoral success may be jeopardised by virtue of having, perhaps technically, breached the terms of the legislation. Such persons will find themselves in a sticky and awkward position. The provisions on election expenditure should, therefore, be made simple.

I seek clarity on one or two technical points on which I am not certain from reading the legislation. Under section 4, in the new Part IIIA, section 12A(1)(c)(ii) states: "The election expenses which a political party may incur under subparagraph (i) may relate to expenditure in the electoral area concerned, or otherwise". I am not sure what is meant by the words "or otherwise" in this connection. I assume they mean that if a political party spends money on a national advertising campaign which does not relate specifically to an electoral area, some proportion of this expenditure will be attributed to each electoral area. I ask the Minister of State to clarify this matter. How would this amount be determined in the context of different constituency sizes, expenditure limits and so forth? While I can understand the reason a deduction would be made in such circumstances, what would be the position on expenditure limits in the event that a general election and local election were to coincide? Would the general election and local election limits be combined? In that case, given the much higher expenditure limits applied in general election campaigns, to what extent would such a measure inhibit the ability of local election candidates to spend on their campaigns, particularly when the parties at national level may try to take a much larger proportion from the candidates involved?

A proper balance must be struck in the legislation. We need to promote democracy and ensure the pitch is level for everybody. Politics should be accessible to everyone, regardless of means, but we should also ensure expenditure limits are set in a clear and easily understood manner and are pitched at a level which enables candidates to get across to members of the public their message, policies, viewpoints and the reasons they deserve support. For this reason, the terms of the Bill should be refined.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I concur with many of the points made by Senator Walsh as I have never been a great believer in limits as an appropriate means of controlling and regulating electoral expenditure. It is always possible to circumvent such limits and they always give rise to confusion. For these reasons, I do not believe it is possible to apply spending limits effectively.

Every donation or contribution to a candidate, however large or small or whether given by gift, grant or otherwise, should be recorded in the candidate's accounts of his or her election. Such accounts should show what moneys were received and from where and on what they were spent. In the previous general election the number of people listed as making donations declined significantly because people made donations below the threshold at which it was necessary to declare. Consequently, these contributions were not declared and we were worse off in terms of transparency than previously. Limits are, therefore, less important than transparency about sources of funding. If I stand for election and receive a grant from the INTO political fund and this is recorded, people will know from where I am coming and my views, background and priorities etc. This is more important than applying expenditure limits.

While I do not have a problem with expenditure limits, they do not appear to be enforceable, as became evident from the recent row between the Standards in Public Office Commission and Libertas. Given that they can be circumvented or ignored, it would be much better to spell out clearly in law that every penny received and spent must be accounted for. That is something I have done since 1982, long before any legislation was brought in, because there is nothing to hide. It is quite straightforward.

Another aspect of these limits that bothers me is that it almost appears that people can only support a party or a candidate through some sort of subterfuge. We should have a society where people would be delighted to make a contribution to support their particular party or candidate as their contribution to the exercise of public representation. We have turned all that around. Lists appear in the newspapers that are presented in such a way that if someone makes a donation to a political party or a candidate, it is as if there is dirt attaching to that or that some question must be asked about him or her. It is as if there is some reflection on the person who would do that. I do not like that.

Over the years I have seen stories of huge sums of money being spent by candidates who failed to get elected to local authorities, and that tells its own story. Money is not the be-all and end-all of it. It is not possible to work out the costs involved in texting, mailing and all the other variations of information technology which can be put into play at second, third or fourth hand from any place in the world, and that cannot be controlled.

This reflects another age. We can examine costs for various items. There is no reason somebody could not employ a person in Sydney to overwhelm every person they know in Castlebar with an e-mail or text for the local elections. One can get people working around the clock on the far side of the world and there is no way one can track that down or come back at it. Indeed, in terms of phone canvassing, with voiceover Internet facilities no one knows from where the phone calls are coming. They are freefone calls and therefore a person can phone from Auckland to Castlebar for less than a cent. This reflects another age and it does not deal with the issues before us today.

The reason for this legislation is because of the finger being pointed at graft and questionable activities among politicians and in local authorities. We would be far better trying to raise the public awareness of the good work of local authorities, increasing the level of trust and confidence in them, giving them real power, perhaps by giving them back rates, and undoing some of the damage we have done to them in the past 30 years.

I have never stood in a local authority election and never intend to. I do not depend on local authority votes for my election. I have a disinterested view on this but when I go to other countries, especially in continental Europe, it appears there is a cachet about being a member of the local authority or mayor of the local village and making a commitment to the local community that people appreciate. People pay their rates or local taxes or whatever they are called and that money is spent on better footpaths, some seafront attraction, fireworks on the national holiday or feast day or whatever it happens to be. That is how people make local connections.

We have not done enough to recognise the good work done at local authority level. Local authority members are treated and presented as being some sort of gombeen people who are on the local authority for what they can get out of it. Their commitment to the community, public representation and their local area goes unrecognised. That bothers me and we are paying the price for that.

Politics is at a low ebb in society currently. All politicians are low on the levels of trust and confidence. We are barely above bankers, and that is a recent development. We have a responsibility to address that and we should begin at local authority level. I would like to see the Minister of State's Department running an advertising campaign encouraging people to stand for local authority elections and indicating that we value that contribution and that there is no higher involvement in a democracy than public representation, whether that be at local, national or European level, or the President of the country. We must recognise that if somebody puts their name on the ballot paper they give their time to improve their local community, the living standards of local people and whatever else they can do. We have failed to sell that message.

Every time I hear somebody making a general attack on politics I defend the political system. If they attack a particular individual I will make a judgment call on that but if it is a generalised dismissal, contemptuous remark or cynical approach to politicians as a group or class, everybody has a duty in a democracy to question and challenge that, but it is not happening. It is so easy, whether it be in the media, the local pub, the sitting room or whatever, for people to write off many genuine people at local authority level. That has happened because, like all other aspects, we have become aware of various levels of graft, things that are wrong, bribes taking place, etc.

I live in Fingal, previously known as north Dublin, which is a cause of a lot of activity in Dublin Castle. I have lived in Fingal for 40 years and I would say that 98% of the decisions made by Fingal County Council or its predecessor in our area, Dublin County Council, have been good in terms of planning. We know everything that was done the wrong way in terms of graft and so on but there were many right things done as well. That should be recognised and appreciated. My local authority was the first in the country to introduce the European required standards of insulation for building projects which were disgracefully ignored by the Government and the Minister's Department from 1998 until the Green Party came into office and before the new building regulations were introduced. Various attempts were being made to create new measurement systems and new systems of heat losses as opposed to insulation and various other aspects. Fingal County Council is an example of a county council which took a lead on that which was then followed up by others like South Dublin County Council and a number of others throughout the country. I understand Clare was one of them and there were some others.

County councils and local authorities can give a lead in many ways, and they do. They have a feel for their local area and very often we do not trust them. A classic example was the major brouhaha about 20 years ago because we could not trust the Board of Works or some other body. We apparently decided that anything to do with local development of interpretative centres, etc. would be given to the local authorities. That was fine until local authorities took a number of decisions such as the Burren interpretative centre. Many people in south Dublin did not like the decision of Clare County Council and they whipped up a great deal of opposition to it but what happens is we take back centrally again that authority from the local authority because we do not trust it. That is one side of the argument. The other side is that some local authorities have been afraid to take decisions on issues such as waste or passing their budget annually.

Putting all those aspects together it is clear we have a job of work to do to replace trust and confidence in local authorities. They do good work. They should be complimented on it and recognised for it. Their work should be acknowledged and this legislation fails to do that. It is media driven. This did not come in the first place from politicians. It came from the media and I am always concerned about that. It is a populist approach to running in front of the media in the hope of getting it right. I have no particular problem with it but as I said at the outset, limits do not do what they set out to do. Transparency is about keeping a record of everything that is done in the campaign and every cost, and making those available for the world to see without putting limits in front of it. As well as this, given advances in information technology it will not be possible to police this legislation.

6:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and am glad of the opportunity to say a few words on this legislation. I find myself agreeing with some of the comments of Senators O'Toole and Walsh. Like Senator O'Toole, I question the spending limits. While I welcome them, I do not think they are the be-all and end-all. The Senator put his finger on it when he asked how we could put a price on text messaging or communicating by e-mail or on Facebook, or all the other modern methods of promotion. There is no way a price can be put on these methods. There is no doubt that, as Senator O'Toole said, this is media driven.

The kernel of local democracy is the election of ordinary, local people. I agree with Senator Walsh that we must simplify this legislation. This is a golden opportunity to do so. The Bill is not simple; it is very complicated. We have seen much debate over recent weeks about the Seanad and what it does and does not do. There is a good opportunity for us, as the Seanad, to simplify this Bill.

Local elections are about the election of local people to represent their areas. That has been the case since the foundation of our State and our democracy. Many Bills have been passed over recent years which attempt to put local democracy on a sound footing. For example, legislation was passed a number of years ago to ensure elections are held every five years. We have dealt with those issues and now we are dealing with election spending, an issue which, as Senator O'Toole said, is media driven. I agree with the Senator that all spending should be accounted for. There should be no problem in seeing where a person is coming from if his or her spending is documented. That is the most transparent option and the best way forward. However, I agree we should have limits. As I have said, we have a golden opportunity to simplify the Bill in certain areas which I will outline. Senator Walsh alluded to a number of them.

Some of the issues I wish to raise can be dealt with on Committee Stage. One question I have for the Minister of State is how much a political party can spend at local elections and on what this is based. Is it based on the number of candidates put forward by the political party? It is stated in the Bill that 10% of a candidate's allocation can go to the national party. Does that mean, for instance, that if a party has 600 candidates it can spend six times the amount spent by a party with 100 candidates? Does it mean that a political party at national level can spend whatever it wishes? I do not think this is spelled out in the Bill. Senator Hannigan mentioned the removal of posters. I ask the Minister to clarify whether, if one pays a person to take down posters, this is included in the overall accounting. If one pays a person after the election, is this included in one's spending?

There are a number of areas in which changes are required to streamline the process for candidates. The major political parties have an advantage in the legislation as it is drafted because they can pay for legal advice and for someone to go through the relevant documents, Acts and so on, while an ordinary individual running as an independent candidate must do this him or herself, including consulting Acts that go back to 1994. This is a ferocious challenge for an independent candidate. There is no choice but to simplify the system. We should put an onus on local authorities to draft simple guidelines in conjunction with the legislation. For example, a local authority should notify candidates of the population in its area. Otherwise there will be confusion. One candidate will be able to say he or she thought the population was different from the actual figure and spent accordingly. An onus should be put on the local authority to tell candidates the population in its electoral town council area. The local authority should also spell out simply and in detail the spending limits in its area. As the Minister has outlined, various spending bands are provided for in the legislation. Local authorities should specify the spending limit for a particular electoral area. They should also specify when the accounting period starts and finishes.

I have a question for the Minister of State with regard to the accounting period for the upcoming local elections. I can see that for future elections the accounting period will be a certain number of days or will be from the date the Minister calls the election, but does the Minister now have to make a further announcement to say when the accounting period commences? The Bill states the accounting period is to begin not more than 60 days and not less than 50 days before polling day. Will the Minister announce a particular date within that period? The Bill should be simplified in this regard and state that the accounting period is either 50 days or 60 days. Why must there be ambiguity? Why must it be a question of 50 days or 60 days? Why can the Minister not put a specific period of either 50 days or 60 days into the legislation? He should also specify that there are 30 days for postering. If the legislation specified this it would be much simpler, but as it is currently drafted there is a certain amount of ambiguity. I suppose parliamentary draftspeople do this to ensure there are complications.

Local authorities should also state in simplified terms, when sending a leaflet or similar to candidates, the allowed composition of electoral spending. How can one quantify text messaging and so forth? As Senator O'Toole said, text messaging or e-mailing could be done from outside the country and even the candidate might not know about it.

I asked the Minister about spending by national parties and the removal of posters. All of this information should be sent to every candidate on one leaflet. We are talking about seven or eight main points. I agree with Senator Walsh that any ambiguity should be removed from the Bill. The number of days for postering and for the accounting period should be specified. I propose that more of an onus to spell out the detail is placed on the local authority because we are dealing with local candidates who in some cases will not have the resources or time to go through this legislation, particularly where there is ambiguity about population, accounting periods and spending limits.

I welcome this Bill because it provides a degree of accountability. It is unnecessary, however, for local authorities to provide an annual report. Why should spending for local elections be included in the council's annual report? Some parties have still to finalise their accounts from the last referendum. If that occurred, would a local authority have to delay its annual report because one or two candidates had not furnished their details? There is no need for this to be included in an annual report, all of the information must be made available under the Freedom of Information Act and all of it is held for three years. There is no need for this provision and it should be removed on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill but I hope the Minister will consider streamlining it to make it more user-friendly for candidates.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Minister of State with special responsibility for Local Services, Department of Health and Children; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators from all sides for their contributions and welcome their comments. It is not possible for me to respond to all points made but we can go into matters in more detail on Committee Stage.

I welcome the acknowledgment that the scheme of spending limits seeks to bring fairness to the electoral process. The joint committee did a great deal on spending limits and the contribution of stakeholders in the field of local government in developing this scheme. I made the point that limits should not be too low or too high when I introduced the Bill.

We must work together on electoral matters, which are central to the effective functioning of democracy. Senators Buttimer, Hannigan and others mentioned the spending limits and the period proposed in the Bill, with many Senators feeling it was not long enough. Bearing in mind the proximity of the forthcoming local elections, 60 days is the maximum period that can be realistically set for the 2009 elections. This period will be double that currently available for Dáil and European elections. It will also be more than double the period for which local election spending had to be declared under current provisions in the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999.

Senator Coffey sought clarification of arrangements for candidates of a party. Spending limits for local elections will apply to individual candidates in the first instance. Candidates nominated by a political party will be deemed automatically to allocate 10% of their spending limits for use by the party's national agent at national level. A party candidate with a limit of €7,500 would be deemed to have allocated €750 for use by the party. There is, however, provision to allow this figure to be varied upwards or downwards by written agreement between a candidate and the national agent of the political party. The maximum the national agent of the party can spend will be the sum of the amount allocated by the individual candidates. Under the current arrangements for Dáil elections, candidates can allocate a portion of their limit for use by the national agent of their party and this must be done in writing. Given the number of candidates involved in the local elections, however, this approach would create significant administrative difficulties. A default position will therefore apply whereby 10% of the candidate's limit will be deemed to be allocated for use by the national agent.

Senator Coffey also raised compliance with the new provisions and the need for guidelines. While the requirements on compliance with election expenditure limits at local elections may result in some inconvenience to candidates and parties, this should not be significant as statements of election expenditure at local elections had to be provided by political parties and candidates at the 1999 and 2004 elections. Existing councillors who contest the elections will be familiar with the requirements on the disclosure of donations and expenditure at previous local elections. The effect of the new requirement should be marginal, having regard to the fact that the net additional work involved in ensuring the expenditure is not excessive. In the case of new candidates at the election, it is envisaged they will be assisted by the issue by local authorities of comprehensive guidelines setting out the details of the spending requirements.

Senator Glynn asked why larger borough and town councils have smaller limits than county and city council areas. I appreciate the point but while borough and town councils are a key part of local government, the county and city councils have greater administrative responsibilities and are treated differently.

The Minister recently informed the Government that on foot of the public consultation in autumn 2008 on election postering, he intended to initiate pilot schemes in a number of local authority areas during the upcoming local and European elections. These pilot schemes will investigate how various options identified through the consultation process will work in practice with a view to informing future policy development in regard to the control of postering. The options could include a restriction of the number of posters per pole and designation of display areas. The scheme will be voluntary but the Minister will request the support of all candidates in participating areas.

Current legislation is silent on the start date from which posters advertising public meetings, elections or referenda may be erected. The amendment in the Litter Pollution Act will clarify the position. The Minister does not propose to amend the existing seven day post-poll limit for removing posters, as this has operated successfully in previous polls. Once the election is over the posters serve no purpose and can annoy the public. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to require those responsible to remove the posters within a week after the poll. Responsibility for removing posters lies with the candidate who arranges their erection and it is a matter for the local authority to enforce the legislation. Effective enforcement of any legislative requirement is essential to ensure the legislation serves its purpose.

Senators Paddy Burke and Hannigan raised other issues related to post-election posters and I will clarify some of them on Committee Stage but we must check the guidelines first.

Senator Burke raised the issue of the census. I mentioned in my opening remarks that it is important the limit takes account of the fact that shifts in population will occur. If the population of an area increases it is important that allowance is made to revise the spending limits in that area where appropriate. An amendment made to the Bill in the Dáil provides that population data used in setting spending limits will be from the census report setting out the final result of the most recent census of population for the time being in force.

I thank Senators from all sides of the House for their input. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow at approximately 11.30 a.m.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 25 March 2009.

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

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.