Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Election Management System
I ask that young graduates, professionals and people who are competent but cannot get a job in Ireland because of the appalling economic downturn be given the opportunity of a day's work on the day of the referendum on the EU fiscal compact treaty. It makes absolute sense and would send out a clear message that the Government is serious about jobs and giving people an opportunity.
During the presidential election a number of people contacted me to say they were disappointed that people who had already served in various aspects of society, whether as members of An Garda Síochána, former teachers and so on, were getting the day's work in polling stations as presiding officers and polling clerks while they had no job. It is a straightforward, easy win for the Government to make a conscious effort to direct the registrars throughout the country to set up a panel of competent, capable, professional graduates or competent capable professional individuals who, through no fault of their own, are on the live register. I would go further and say that their social welfare entitlements should not be deducted because of the day's work. That would send a clear message to the people who are suffering and to their families and loved ones, that the Government is serious about equal opportunities and about ensuring the less well-off get the opportunity to have a day's income. Those who are already in receipt of pensions or in employment, but take a day's holiday in order to do this work, should be replaced by people who need a chance. This is not rocket science and it can be done. If there is a willingness it should be done and I sincerely hope it will be done.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, would have been here only for he is on Government business this evening.
The primary role of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in electoral matters, is to provide an appropriate policy and legislative framework for a modern and efficient electoral system. Within that framework local returning officers are responsible for all matters connected with the conduct of elections and referendums, including the selection, appointment and training of polling staff in accordance with the relevant provision of the electoral law. To assist returning officers the Department issues guidance to them in advance of each election and referendum. That guidance emphasises that the smooth conduct of polls is dependent on maintaining a cadre of sufficiently skilled and experienced people. Having regard to the overall objective of the smooth conduct of the polls, returning officers are advised to employ competent and efficient persons as polling staff. They are also asked to give consideration, wherever possible, to employing suitable persons who are unemployed and that point was raised by Senator Conway. The approach taken in the Department's guidance strikes the right balance. Clearly, there are competent unemployed individuals who could, with the appropriate training, undertake duties relating to the conduct of polls. However, it would be unwise to dispense entirely with the experience and skills of all of those who have successfully undertaken the role in previous elections and refrendums. That is not what the Senator proposes.
We are dealing with the fundamentals of our democracy. When someone votes at a polling station the tasks undertaken by polling station staff may seem quite straightforward to anyone familiar with electoral matters. However, polling staff must be able to deal, in accordance with the electoral law, with the myriad of problems that can arise on a case by case basis. They must also be capable of carrying out the detailed instructions at the end of the poll, such as the completion of the ballot paper counts and handling spoiled ballot papers and the marked copy of the electoral register for their stations. Many of these tasks are critical for the next stage, the count.
To assist in maintaining consistency and the highest standards at polling stations the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government issues a manual for presiding officers at each election and referendum. Local returning officers supplement this with appropriate training to ensure that all staff are familiar with their tasks and responsibilities. Clearly, previous experience is important in building up the type of knowledge and understanding that ensures a successful conduct of polls. The correct approach is for returning officers to continue blending experience with new talent and that is important. Earlier the point was raised that opportunity should be given to people whenever possible. The Department will continue to encourage local returning officers to employ suitable unemployed people wherever possible for the conduct of the polls. Returning officers should do so while maintaining a cadre of sufficiently skilled and experienced people to ensure that elections and referendums are conducted to the highest of standards.
There is a perception that this work is a closed shop. Guidelines are only guidelines and it will be like judges' pay unless there is a willingness to meaningfully engage. I take on aboard what the Minister of State said about experience but a lot of these areas are systems driven. Once a system is in place they can be, and necessarily are to a large extent, foolproof. I hope that we see new blood. The closed shop image exists in many polling stations throughout the country where the same people have done it for years and nobody else is given an opportunity unless one of them dies.
We need to move away from that system. We need a citizens panel of competency that gives a fairer balance for what amounts to between €300 and €400 for a day's work. As far as I am concerned, it is an easy win. Instead of issuing guidelines we should be a little harder and deliver the message that it is Government policy to have at least a 30% to 40% employment rate of people who need the money. Some polling stations have three to four polling booths with two people assisting at each one. There is no excuse for this and action must be taken. I take on board the experience element but the job is not rocket science. It is important and needs to be done correctly but there are plenty of competent people that can do it.
The tone of the reply which I have given on behalf of the Minister is in keeping with what the Senator said because the presiding officer has huge autonomy to recruit new people. For the presidential election there was quite a turnover of staff and new people were employed by presiding officers. The Minister will take on board the Senator's comments, which are important. There will be a message delivered direct to every presiding officer highlighting that when vacancies arise that a job opportunity be given to suitably qualified people. As the Senator said, the training is straightforward and should be easy to accommodate. I will express the Senator's concerns to the Minister. I am sure, from the comprehensive reply that I delivered here, that such consideration is in the Department's mindset. The message will be relayed to each presiding officer that where a vacancy arises that preference should be given to a suitably qualified unemployed person.
The motion has merit and I thank the Senator for tabling it. The Government should listen to him and not give lip service but accept his recommendation that where new people are qualified they should be given a job opportunity.