Seanad debates

Friday, 19 July 2013

Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013: Second Stage

 

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

12:40 pm

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013, which I am commending to this House today, is a diverse bill. As the name suggests, it provides for amendments to existing electoral, local government and planning and development law. The Bill puts in place legislative provisions that are needed now, across the electoral, local government and planning areas, in order to advance implementation of the Government's programme of local government reform. The Bill provides a structure for the review of European Parliament constituencies as well. It also provides for the transposition of an EU directive on nomination procedures that must be in place for next year's European elections. Finally, the Bill presents an opportunity to rectify an omission in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 and to make two other small but important changes in electoral law.

I will now outline the content of the Bill in greater detail, setting out why the proposed legislation is required or recommended to the House, as the case may be. The provisions in the Bill dealing with the register of electors follow on from the Government's programme of local government reform that will see single new local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford after next year's local elections. In preparation for those elections and in view of the mergers, we have looked at the arrangements for the preparation and publication of the register of electors in these areas. In the normal course, this would involve all six existing councils in these areas progressing this work in their respective areas for the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014. Having reviewed the position, I am satisfied that the preparation and publication of one register of electors in each area for the 2014 to 2015 period is the correct approach to take. This view is underpinned by the recent report of the local electoral area boundary committee where it can be seen that the local electoral areas recommended straddle existing administrative boundaries in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. The amendments in the Bill provide a legal basis for the preparation of a single register of electors in each of these new administrative areas.

We cannot wait until next year to put in place the necessary arrangements. We must do so now because a detailed work programme must be undertaken each year on the preparation of the register of electors that will be published the following February. This work programme is undertaken in accordance with dates set out in the Electoral Act 1992. The first of the deadlines to be complied with is the requirement on registration authorities to give public notice of the categories of electors entitled to be entered in the postal or special voters lists. This must be undertaken in the period of 14 days ending on 1 September. The amendments should come into effect therefore before that date. My Department has discussed and agreed the provisions proposed with all of the local authorities involved. Limerick, south Tipperary and Waterford county councils will be the registration authorities for their respective combined areas for the next electoral register. That is the register that will come into force on 15 February 2014, the preparation of which will commence before the end of the summer.

In the area of planning and development the reform of local government structures presents an immediate challenge for town councils which are to be dissolved and city and county councils which are being merged. That is because these councils continue to have to meet their statutory obligations in regard to development planning, including where they all have different review cycles for their development plan reviews. In the case of planning authorities that are due to be dissolved, I am of the firm view that reviews of borough and town council development plans, as currently obliged under the Planning Acts, are wasteful of resources and confusing for the public given that the authorities will not likely be in situ to finalise and adopt these development plans.

As regards amalgamated planning authorities, I propose to give them the discretion to not review their plans, particularly given the different cycles they are currently locked into in terms of review of existing development plans. For example, while south Tipperary commenced review of its development plan in February 2013, it is not due for adoption until February 2015 and while north Tipperary is due to commence its development plan review in July 2014, its plan is not due for adoption until July 2016. As Tipperary county council will be a newly merged authority, it would be seeking to finalise two separate development plans for the county, which makes no sense. At the same time, I want to ensure that there will be a timely, cohesive and coherent unitary development plan made by the newly amalgamated planning authorities. Consequently, I am proposing to give those planning authorities which it is proposed to amalgamate or dissolve the discretionary powers under the Planning Acts to extend the lifetime of their existing development plan and to cease any development plan reviews already commenced.

I am also proposing to place a mandatory obligation on planning authorities that are being amalgamated to commence preparation of a development plan within one year of the making of regional planning guidelines which affect the area of the development plan given that it would be important to ensure that there is a time-bound obligation on the new amalgamated authorities to commence the process of preparing a new cohesive and coherent unitary development plan for the entire new administrative area of the council. These are pragmatic proposals to give the necessary flexibility to planning authorities in meeting their statutory obligations under the Planning Acts in light of the local government reform programme.

I am taking the opportunity afforded by this Bill to provide for the appointment of a dual manager in Waterford county and Waterford city. Provision for the dual management of the Limerick and Tipperary authorities was provided for by way of an amendment to section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2012. The decision to merge the authorities in Waterford had not been taken at that stage. Provision is being made in this Bill for the further amendment of section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 to allow for the appointment of a dual manager in the case of the Waterford authorities. A local government Bill, to be published later this year, will give expression to the wider reform measures in the action programme for effective local government, which sets out Government decisions for local government reform. Provision for the full merger of the three sets of authorities and consequential and related matters will be provided for in that Bill.

Arising from the accession of Croatia to the European Union, there was a need to adjust the distribution of seats in the European Parliament. The European Council made a decision of 28 June 2013 on the composition of the European Parliament for the 2014-2019 parliamentary term. This provides for a reduction from 12 to 11 in the number of members to be elected in Ireland. A review of European Parliament constituencies is therefore necessary. The Electoral Act 1997 provides only for the establishment of a constituency commission to review European constituencies following the publication of preliminary results of a census of population. The constituency commission established following the 2011 census recommended no change in the configuration of the European constituencies. However, at that stage there was no change in the number of members to represent Ireland in the Parliament.

As there is no provision for the establishment of a commission in the period between the taking of one census of population and the next, an amendment to the legislation is necessary to provide for a review. The Bill deals with this by providing that whenever a constituency commission has completed its work in the normal course and it is necessary afterwards to review the configuration of European constituencies because of a change in the number of members to be elected in Ireland, then a committee will be established for this purpose. The committee will present its report within two months of establishment, having allowed a period of at least one month for the receipt of submissions from the public during that two month period. Apart from this, the same provisions that apply to a constituency commission as regards terms of reference, membership, procedures and disclosure of information will apply to the committee. It is my intention that this committee should be set up as soon as possible so that the constituencies will be known in good time for next year's European elections.

European elections are set to be held again next year. All EU citizens have a right to stand for election to the European Parliament, irrespective of where they live in the European Union, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements. Those set out in Council Directive 93/109/EC are transposed into Irish law in the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. Up to now, non-national candidates putting themselves forward for election were required to produce, with their nomination papers, an attestation from their home member state certifying that they did not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate for election to the European Parliament in their home member state. While this measure safeguarded the member state of residence from including an ineligible candidate on the ballot paper, it was not working well in practice. Potential candidates were being deprived of the right to stand simply because they could not get their attestations from their home member states in time. Against this background, new arrangements have been put in place to remove this barrier to the exercise of the right to stand for election. These are set out in Council Directive 2013/1/EU, which amends the earlier directive and which must be transposed by 28 January 2014.

This directive abolishes the attestation requirement and includes in its place an additional element to the formal declaration that candidates were already required to complete when seeking a nomination to stand for election. Candidates will in future directly declare that they do not stand deprived of the right to stand as a candidate in their home member states. It will then be a matter for the member state of residence to check this with the candidate's home member state, which must respond within five working days or fewer if so requested. If the information provided invalidates the declaration, the member state of residence must then take appropriate steps, in accordance with national law, to prevent the candidate from standing for election or, if that is not possible, to prevent the candidate from being elected or exercising the mandate. This is a significant shift in approach for potential non-national candidates. No longer will it be their responsibility to establish their eligibility - this responsibility will lie with the member state of residence in which the candidate proposes to run.

We have an obligation to ensure that we facilitate any non-national candidate who wishes to seek election in Ireland to the European Parliament in accordance with the provisions of the directives. At the same time, we need to take steps to minimise the possibility of ineligible candidates making their way onto the ballot paper or possibly being elected. The directive provides that if the candidate's home member state does not respond to the member state of residence in time, the candidate is to be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to stand for election. This Bill proposes new nomination arrangements that will meet the requirements of the directive, while ensuring that the chances of including ineligible candidates on the ballot paper are minimised to the greatest extent possible.

The preamble to Directive 2013/1/EU recognises that different deadlines can apply for the submission of nominations by national and non-national candidates. The new arrangements for Ireland proposed under this Bill build on this recognition. They provide for more time between the making of the polling day order and polling day than at present. This should allow sufficient time to check the declarations of non-national candidates. The Bill provides that the polling day order will be made not later than 50 days before polling day, instead of the current 35 days. It provides that, excluding Sundays and public holidays, the returning officer will publish the notice of election not later than the 35th day as opposed to, as currently stands, the 28th day before polling day. This then enables different nomination timelines to be put in place. The current period of seven days, excluding Sundays and public holidays, allowed for submission of nomination papers to the returning officer will continue to apply in the case of non-national candidates. In the case of national and UK candidates, however, this period will be extended to 14 days, excluding Sundays and public holidays. The seven days between these two periods will be used to check the declarations made by any non-national candidates with their home member states. The aim is to ensure that all necessary checks are completed before the end of the period for withdrawal of candidature, at which point the returning officer adjourns the election to take a poll or declares candidates elected, as appropriate. I am satisfied that these arrangements will both address our needs and the requirements of the directive.

The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 expanded the requirements in respect of the information that individuals must provide when making a statement of donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission or to a local authority. It provides that information must be supplied on whether the donation was solicited, the name of the person soliciting the donation and whether a receipt was given, and the date the donation was given and received. The Act applied these information requirements to elected representatives and election candidates but, through omission, they were not applied to political parties. This Bill rectifies this by providing that the information requirements in respect of the disclosure of donations that apply to elected representatives and election candidates will apply also to political parties.

I am bringing forward two small but important amendments to electoral law in this Bill, and depending on the timing of the enactment of this Bill and the passing of the constitutional amendment Bills regarding the Seanad and the court of appeal, these amendments may not apply to the autumn referenda, having regard to Article 46.2 of the Constitution. That article provides that every proposal for an amendment of the Constitution shall, having been passed or deemed passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people in accordance with the law for the time being in force relating to the referenda.

The first of these relates to the time that is available following the announcement of an election or referendum for eligible people to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists. I note Senators have tabled amendments to this part of the Bill and I welcome their interest. I will address those amendments in greater detail later. I will outline the general position at this stage. The reality is that any eligible person can apply to be included on these lists at any stage. However, it is human nature to put off making the application. If a person waits until after the announcement of an impending election or referendum, he or she then only has a two-day window in which to submit an application to his or her registration authority. These arrangements have been the subject of some criticism. I felt it appropriate, therefore, to examine what could be done to improve the position. The Bill provides that, in future, the timeframe in which to make an application for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists will be based on the date of the polling day rather than the date on which the polling day order is made. The Bill provides that applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters lists need to be made 21 days in advance of polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum. This matches the arrangement already in place where applications for inclusion in the supplement to the register need to be made in advance of 14 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, if they are to be considered in the context of the impending election or referendum. However, in the case of applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' lists, additional time must be provided. This is to allow for the issue of postal voter documentation in good time and for making arrangements for special voters to cast their votes.

Given the very tight timelines that can arise between the moving of the writ or the making of the polling day order and polling day, the new arrangements will not apply for general elections or by-elections. They will apply for referendums and for presidential, European and local elections, for which the polling day orders generally are made at an earlier date relative to polling day.

The other amendment to electoral law relates to the requirement of An Post to make copies of referendum Bills available for inspection and purchase in post offices in the run-up to referendums. The context for this provision has changed completely since it was introduced in 1942. It effectively has become obsolete and should be repealed. In 1942, copies of Bills were not accessible online and there was no Referendum Commission to provide information to voters. This has all since changed and referendum Bills can now be read on or downloaded from the website of the Houses of the Oireachtas at any time. While the establishment of a Referendum Commission is not mandatory, a commission has been established for every referendum held since 1998. The commission's role includes the preparation of statements for the information of the public and the publication and distribution of these statements to bring them to the attention of the electorate. In addition, a statement for the information of voters may be prescribed by the Houses of the Oireachtas whenever there is a referendum. Such a statement has been prescribed and issued to voters for all referendums held since 1937. The Bill provides for the commencement of the provisions dealing with the supplement to the postal and special voters lists and the availability of referendum Bills in post offices by ministerial order. I will be considering commencement dates in the light of the date of enactment of this Bill and the dates of passing of the constitutional amendment Bills.

In conclusion, as I stated at the outset, this Bill puts in place legislative amendments that are needed across the electoral, local government and planning areas in the context of the programme for local government reform, the change in the number of MEPs to be elected in Ireland and the need to transpose a Council directive. This Bill takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to meeting all these requirements and I commend it to the House.

12:50 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank the Minister and I agree with his statement that the Bill takes a pragmatic approach. My comments concern participation in elections and I will let my colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, speak to the issues around the amendment we have put forward as a group. When the Bill was being drafted, was any consideration given to the Constitutional Convention and its results? It is a representative sample of Irish society drawn from 66 citizens and 33 parliamentarians who voted on whether to lower the voting age. I appreciate the Government has decided to refer the matter to a constitutional referendum but, as was discussed at the Constitutional Convention, there is no constitutional bar with regard to local and European elections. Countries like Austria have had trials of lowering the voting age at local and European elections to see if it would work, and they are expanding the concept.

The Constitutional Convention agreed that we should reduce the voting age, with the majority indicating it should be reduced to 16. On 26 March the first report of the Constitutional Convention was laid in the Oireachtas Library, with a recommendation that the voting age for all Irish citizens in elections should be lowered to 16 from the current age of 18.

Why? The Minister can do so using similar legislation. This is the perfect type of legislation to include such a provision, and I ask him to consider doing so.

I welcome the changes that the Minister will make to the special voters' list. I view the list from a personal point of view because it deals with persons who reside in hospitals, nursing homes or similar institutions who have physical disabilities or illnesses that prevent them from going to the polling station. They can vote at their hospitals or nursing homes if they are on the special voters' list. Obviously, a person can register each year on 25 November, but one cannot tell if one is going to be in hospital during the year ahead. The Minister has accepted that the provision has been criticised and is trying to make some changes.

I wish to refer to the two-day period. My father was in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook, receiving stroke care during the children's referendum. As one can imagine, he was particularly keen to vote in the referendum, having instilled the importance of voting in me. I could not believe the amount of bureaucracy that had to be gone through in two days, even though everybody was helpful and co-operative. The hospital is in a different Dublin constituency from his usual one so I had to approach a different authority. Hospitals are not always in one's constituency, which is a matter that must be examined for the special voters' list. Very often - it is happening more and more in Ireland - a person may be in a hospital that is not in their constituency and, therefore, is not used to dealing with the local authority.

The process involves filling out a form and supplying a medical certificate, and I understand the inclusion of the latter. It was just a coincidence that led me to experience the process, because I happened to be visiting my father when he voted. The returning officer and a member of the Garda Síochána went to his hospital bed in order for him to vote. Why was a medical certificate necessary? Was it to prove that he was going to be in that hospital bed at that time? My father was in the rehabilitation wing but young people and older people avail of the rehabilitation services at the hospital. The returning officer informed me that the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook is a polling station, so it was not a big inconvenience to facilitate my father. I was disappointed to learn that my father was the only person there who voted in the children's referendum, which made me think there was a participation issue.

My third question is on referendums. Logically, I understand what the Minister said about An Post making copies of referendum Bills available and the availability of the Internet. Perhaps he could advise us about requests made during the last few referendums, either the children's referendum or the various EU treaty referendums. How many requests were made to post offices for copies of the Bill? I will be more comfortable supporting the legislation when I know the figures. That is all I wish to say, because my colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak on postal voting.

1:00 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to welcome the Bill. As the Minister has said, the legislation allows for the establishment of the European Parliament constituencies. We all know that they will be changed and we will lose one of our Irish MEPs when the European Parliament elections take place. At present, there are many MEPs in the North-West constituency and it must take into account people from one end of the country to another. The constituency is huge and the change will make it larger. The area will be so large that it stretches from Dingle to Tramore in the south and from Wexford to Dundalk in the east. Each constituency, including Dublin, has three seats, but the number of MEPs will be reduced from 12 to 11. There will be a change and the Boundary Commission has reported.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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No.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I thought it had, and had recommended no change.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Bill is about reform.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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Yes, I know. The Boundary Commission illustrated the comprehensive reforms that the Minister intends to make in order to ensure the change comes into play.

I have read the Bill and noticed that the constituencies are large. Some countries have single-seat constituencies or a national list system, but Ireland has never considered adopting the system and it has not been mentioned in the Bill. We like the proportional representation system in Ireland. Perhaps we should consider single-seat constituencies, particularly as some of the European Parliament's constituencies are large. I have been talking about section 24, which provides for the total number of European persons.

As a result of Article 29 of the Constitution, the Seanad, when discussing the European Union and changing European laws, must give prior approval to EU proposals for enhanced co-operation as laid out in the Schengen Agreement. We have not used the Seanad to the best of its ability in that regard and often take European issues without debate. It would be good to provide a time slot in the Seanad in order to ensure that European issues are discussed, as provided for in the current European Union proposal.

The Minister outlined changes for residents who are non-nationals, and I shall not repeat his comments. The change is good because it will give such residents an opportunity to participate in elections.

Section 9 provides that notice of the European Parliament election must be given not later than "the thirty-fifth day" before polling, an increase of seven days from the current 28 days. The provision is a welcome change.

Two amendments have been tabled on the supplement for the postal electorate and I received notice of an amendment this morning. Earlier, the Minister said that he would elaborate further on the matter when we reached Committee Stage. Anything that gives the electorate more time to consider a matter is good because people have been at the pin of their collars trying to register their names over two days. The aim and objective of the Minister and Senators is to make participation easier, and we all want everybody to vote. Members will have heard what Senator van Turnhout said about her experience when her father was in hospital. I urger that we remove bureaucracy and simplify the system in order to allow people to easily avail of the postal and special voters' list. The changes outlined by the Minister is a welcome first step. Perhaps the matter should be further examined. I ask him to comment.

At the start of the process the register of electors will be changed nationally due to new local authority arrangements. That must be done and it is welcome. However, we cannot give anyone a mandate to do anything. I suggest that undertakers notify local authorities when somebody dies so that it can remove the person's name from the register. Such notification should be made in all instances.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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This is rural Ireland.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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Notification should happen. It is legislatively important that death certificates be forwarded. It costs local authorities a great deal of money to maintain the electoral register. We would save money. If a person dies, he or she is dead and cannot vote, yet he or she is still on the register. How can we approach this?

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Is the Senator sure? It has happened in the past.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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That is why I am trying to ensure there is no duplication of votes. The Minister should consider how to approach this issue. There must be a legislative method. Every death is published online. A link between www.rip.ie and the local authorities would make the process easier, cheaper, more efficient and more straightforward. The Minister might revert to me on this suggestion. IT works in wonderful ways and it is easy to do things at the stroke of a pen.

Senator van Turnhout welcomed the provision on the availability of Bills containing referendum proposals for inspection in post offices. Bills are not often inspected at post offices, but they may be sometimes. I presume that copies will be available in libraries. The information is online, but those who are not IT-friendly could visit their nearest libraries. Thanks to local authorities, we have a system of local libraries around the country. They are almost as available as post offices.

The Bill sets out additional requirements in respect of political donations, but I will say no more about that other than to compliment the Minister on the openness, honesty and transparency that he has brought to the Government in this regard. Parties must disclose more information about the nature and specifics of donations, making the process more transparent.

Sections 20 and 21 provide for the supplemental register for applications regarding presidential and European elections. Given the Minister’s comments on these, I will not reiterate them.

Section 28 deals with planning and development reviews and the Minister has outlined what will happen with the amalgamated counties. That is a welcome change because there is no point in having one development plan going one way and another going the other way. I ask that the new district plans for district authorities be statutory plans. The Minister has mentioned that this new arrangement is being brought in for the counties being amalgamated. In counties in which there will be new district committees instead of town councils I presume the district plan will have the same statutory effect as an area plan to ensure input at local level, statutory rights are given to district councils and a devolution of functions for district plans as well as county plans.

I refer to the devolution of functions to local authorities, about which Senator Michael Mullins who is in the Chair is always talking. The Minister has said the new Bill will be published shortly and I look forward to its publication. He has asked various Departments to give him information on it. He has devolved functions to district councils, but I look forward to even more being devolved to district councils and the principal towns in districts having the same functions as town councils. This is a bold move by the Minister which has had to be made to ensure councils do not duplicate work. However, we must ensure the good work town councils were doing is replicated at district level, particularly at area planning level. We must ensure what was being done by Westport Town Council, for example, will not be lost, but I know it will not be because the Minister has this in mind with the district councils and the devolution of functions to same.

The Putting People First report sets out the reforms the Minister has made to the structures which had remained largely unchanged but which should have been changed since 1898. I fully support the Bill and the reforms the Minister is making which no previous Government attempted to make. We look forward to the devolution of functions not only to county council level but also to district council level in order that people will be able to play a good part at that level. I thank the town councillors for the part they played. The district councils will replicate some of the good work done and ensure what the Minister is doing in regard to counties comes into play.

1:10 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister on this sunny day. I have three ambitions today - first, to get some sunshine; second, to get the Minister to accept one of our amendments; and, third, to increase voter turnout, at which I hope he will look. We have gone toe to toe before and his doggedness has come through. What we are looking for is very simple. The ultimate objective of every parliamentarian should be to increase voter turnout which would increase trust between citizens and institutions and participation among citizens.

In today's modern world technology is quite efficient, as is online security. I will make most of my arguments on Committee Stage, but this would be a small but visionary, simple and cost effective way for the Government to acknowledge that times are moving on, that people are now much more mobile, that citizens travel, holiday abroad and work all over the country and that the notion of having a fixed abode is no longer applicable. The Minister has gone some way towards this, but Ireland is still significantly behind many other world democracies. In the United Kingdom the earliest postal ballot papers can be sent out is after 5 p.m. 11 working days before polling day. In the state of Oregon there is nothing but postal voting, although its position different in that it is a large state. In Australia the relevant time is 6 p.m. three days before polling day. This is a wonderful opportunity and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to our amendments on Committee Stage when we will argue the toss with him.

The deadlines the Minister has given do not acknowledge modern lifestyles. His point about everybody leaving it until the last minute is well made and there is no one better than the Irish to always leave it until the last minute, but that is not a good enough reason not to make it easier because we know there is clear evidence of the increased likelihood of postal voting and supplemental postal voting, an issue I will deal with in detail on Committee Stage. I acknowledge that there is some evidence of fraud but not enough, although I expect the Minister will make that argument. One can argue there is much potential for fraud in the use of ordinary ballot papers.

I would like to hear the Minister's vision on why he would not make it easier for Irish citizens to vote because sine qua non the rate of turnabout will increase and, therefore, voter participation and trust will increase. Ultimately, it is about trust and how we can get citizens to become much more active. I do not think the Minister means it, but this is almost a preventive instrument.

One of the most encouraging things to emerge from the Constitutional Convention is the need for an independent electoral commission which, ultimately, would mean the Minister not coming near us to discuss the date a supplemental postal list should be issued. In fact, we should not be dealing with this issue at all. An independent electoral commission should deal with everything from online registration, postal voting to registering to vote while an election is taking place. I was in North Carolina four or five years ago and noticed that one could register on the day of an election, which has an impact in terms of increasing trust and participation. I know it is outside the remit of the Bill, but I would like to hear the Minister's views. I hope this will be the last time legislators will deal with this type of technical amendment because an independent electoral commission would be the right body to deal with it.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister and commend him and his county for their progress in the championship this year so far.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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What has that got to do with the Bill?

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I will link it.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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We do well every year.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome this-----

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Tipperary might win.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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The Bill legislates for Tipperary; that will do us for now. We will handle the hurling end of it ourselves.

I welcome the Bill which is practical, pragmatic and necessary. The first thing I noted in it was a reference to my county of Tipperary and also to counties Limerick and Waterford. Given the amalgamations, we will need a new register of electors before the next local and European Parliament elections which are due to be held in 2014. The Minister and I am sure the local authorities involved rightly spotted this in advance and have seen that there is a crossover between Tipperary North and Tipperary South and electoral areas in the county.

The Minister, the Department and the local authorities involved have quite rightly spotted the need for this. They have seen that there is a cross-over between north and south Tipperary in electoral areas within the county. It is important for candidates and voters in the election to be aware of exactly where the votes will be cast. There is a great deal of confusion. I can think of one or two councillors who are affected. I know a councillor who was not able to vote for himself before these changes were made because he lives half a mile outside the boundary. Now that he can vote in the area he represents, I am sure he will be telling all his neighbours they can vote for him as well. There are many such cases across the country. I am glad we are doing some work in this regard in this legislation.

I would like to welcome the section of the Bill relating to development plan reviews. The Minister has ensured such reviews are provided for in the Bill. I spoke to him about this issue five or six months ago when it became apparent to me that reviews were about to take place in my own county of Tipperary. Indeed, new development plans were about to be commenced in some urban local authorities. When I communicated with councillors across the country, it became apparent to me that is a national issue and that a great deal of money was about to be spent on plans that would never come to fruition because of the proposed changes in the local government system.

I would like to mention the example of Cashel, which is a very small town in County Tipperary. I was advised by officials in the local authority that it would cost approximately €80,000 to do the work needed on the Cashel development plan. It seemed before this proposal was made that the plan in question would be washed away because of these changes. I am glad the Minister has taken account of this and provided for discretion to be given to local authority officials and members to decide to allow the existing plans to roll forward, or not to commence the review stage of the plans. That will ensure money is not unnecessarily wasted. I am glad that pragmatism has again taken centre stage in this instance.

I welcome the Minister's decision to tidy up - if I can use that term - the situation regarding the manager in Waterford. Can the Minister tell the House whether that specific appointment will be a full appointment or an interim one? I live very close to County Waterford, as the Minister knows, and I have an interest in this situation as a result.

I was pleased to note in the Minister's speech that a new local government Bill will "be published later this year". Could the Minister be a little more definitive in relation to the timescale in that regard? We had hoped the legislation would be published before the summer recess, but obviously that has not been possible. Many people are interested in the Bill for various reasons. Can we get some information on it?

As Senator Keane has said, it is hoped that the forthcoming legislation will be ground-breaking in terms of devolving power from central government to local government and providing a full range of powers to the existing town councils, which will give way to the new municipal district councils in due course. When the relevant legislation is passed, in effect the municipal district councils will be the relevant arm of local government in built-up areas that are surrounded by rural areas. As part of that legislation, it is important for financial autonomy to be given to the municipal district councils so that those who are elected at municipal district council level will be able to collect and spend finances at their discretion.

In that context, I would like to ask the Minister about 15% discretion that applies to the local property tax. Will the moneys in question be available at municipal district council level? If, for example, a local municipal district council that has a town within its area wants to undertake a specific project, will the legislation allow them to collect money to undertake that project? This is a very important matter. I would like the Minister to respond to me in this regard.

Can the Minister give the House an indication of when he expects the boundary commission to be established? I know it says in the Bill that it will be established "as soon as possible". Can the Minister indicate when we can expect to have the commission's report? In other words, when will we know where the boundary lines for the new European Parliament constituencies will be drawn?

I will not go into the issue of the transposition of Council Directive 2013/1/EU in any great detail because it is quite self-explanatory. It makes sense. We have to do it. I think we are meeting it in the right way. We are coming forward to tackle that. I am pleased to note that it is the first directive of 2013. Under previous Administrations, many directives were not transposed into Irish law for many years after they had been published.

I am pleased that the Bill provides for further transparency on donations. I welcome the decision to close off the loophole which meant that up to now, it was possible for a donation that was received by someone who had not asked for it not to be included in the report.

With the indulgence of the Chair, I would like to support what has already been said about the postal vote and special voters list. It is a very serious issue. Many people are being deprived of their right to vote. As Senator van Turnhout said, an understanding of that right is generally instilled in us by our parents. I am sure the Minister and Senator Keane will appreciate the funnier side of this matter. When politicians at local level visit hospitals and nursing homes, the first thing we are generally asked is whether there is about to be an election. That has happened to all of us on many occasions.

1:20 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I thought the first question they asked was "am I going to heaven?".

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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There is a grain of truth in what they ask because any person worth their salt on the ground should be seeing who is not on the register.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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That is right.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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Some people who have gone into a nursing home or a hospital might not be on the register at their home address. They deserve to be given an opportunity - even if it is the local politician who gives it to them - to be made aware that their right to vote will not be made available to them. As I said, there is a grain of truth in what we are asked.

I fully agree that the register of electors needs to be modernised. I appreciate that this legislation does not deal with that. I ask the Minister to comment on the possibility of creating a link between one's right to get a personal public service number at birth and one's right to vote when one reaches the age of 18. If we can provide for the updating of the electoral register to be administered through the PPS number system, we will ensure nobody is deprived of his or her right to vote.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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As there are no other speakers offering, I call the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to respond.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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On a point of order, I am disappointed that democratically elected representatives of other parties are not in the Chamber to offer their opposition.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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That is not a point of order. The Senator's point is taken nonetheless.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, it is especially disappointing that they are not here for a debate on a Bill that is of particular importance for the local government sector.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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That is not a point of order.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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Is it not? I am disappointed that they have not fulfilled the duties they were democratically elected or selected to do, as the case may be.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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It is not in order to refer to the absence or presence of any Member of the House.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I am not referring to the absence of an individual Senator, but to the fact that a whole party is missing.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators who contributed to the practical and pragmatic debate on the issues we are dealing with in this Bill. As I said at the outset, the legislation deals with a few urgent issues, such as the setting of electoral boundaries for the European elections. I can inform Senator Landy that I hope to have a report on the matter in early October. We have to allow for a period of time during which people can make submissions. I know it is not the optimum time of the year for people to notice newspaper advertisements, etc. I hope political parties and others who have an interest in this matter will be able to alert those who may wish to make submissions. The Senator also mentioned urgent issues relating to development plans in County Tipperary and other parts of the country. I do not believe in local authorities having to waste money on plans that may be invalid shortly afterwards. The section of the Bill dealing with non-national voters is also urgent.

I would like to refer briefly to a few matters that came up in the course of the debate. The situation described by Senator van Turnhout is the very reason the amendment is being made to the timelines for the supplement to the special voters list. I am taking the initiative in the course of this legislation to do something about that.

Yesterday, in the other House, I gave the Government's response to the first report of the Constitutional Convention. We have accepted the recommendation to put to the people a referendum on reducing the voting age. I suspect we will put a number of other matters to the people on the same day. We did not have sufficient time, in a legislative sense, to put this proposal in the context of the forthcoming referendum. Timelines are laid down in the process that must be-----

1:30 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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A referendum would not be necessary to reduce the voting age for local and European elections.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Government wants to do all of this at the same time as part of our comprehensive response to the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. Irrespective of whether I agree or disagree with the convention's recommendations, I will provide it with the comprehensive response one would expect.

Senator Fiach Mac Conghail made perfectly valid comments on increasing voter turnout, making it easier to vote and encouraging voting generally. The Government is trying to meet all these objectives. The Referendum Commission gives ample notice and provides information, both for and against each referendum. My Department places newspaper, television and radio advertisements reminding voters to check the electoral register, special arrangements are made for some people and voters can register at any time. The political parties have become a little lax in these matters.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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Surely the Minister is not referring to the Fine Gael Party.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Yes, Fine Gael has also become a little lax. I would not expect Independent Members to be as involved in the voter registration process as the political parties.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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We have the same interest in the matter as the parties.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Independents are not as active in this matter as the political parties. The latter have traditionally played a useful role in providing volunteers to check the registers in all the parishes and polling stations in the country. I regret, however, that they have become a little lazy in this regard.

We must ascertain what other arrangements can be made in this regard and I am making changes in the Bill to deal with the issue. A closing date always applies in respect of the supplementary electoral register but people will always try to get on the register at the last minute.

We made some inquiries regarding post offices and while we do not have figures, anecdotal evidence from the post office network suggests demand from people seeking to check the electoral register is insignificant. We will make alternative arrangements in council offices and libraries, as Senator Keane suggested. Informal feedback suggests there is little demand from members of the public to peruse documents of this nature in local post offices.

Registration authorities have been advised for some years to use the death event publication service, although inaccuracies are inevitable if one takes this option.

Public representatives in Dublin do not generally attend constituents' funerals.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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One only does so when one knew the deceased well.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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People in rural areas know many more people. Busy bodies in every rural community, much more so than in Dublin, make it their business to know who is moving in and out of various places.

Improving the accuracy of the electoral register is a major challenge. Senator Landy referred to using personal public service numbers, PPS, for this purpose. There are approximately 7.4 million PPS numbers compared to approximately 3 million names on the electoral register. One can see immediately what difficulties would arise, particularly in terms of fraud, if one were to use the PPS number system. PPS numbers are not a reliable source of information. While they can help, they are not the be all and end all one might expect.

I agree that an electoral commission is necessary and the programme for Government contains a commitment to establish such a commission. The Government will commence work on this task in 2014 when my Department will give much greater priority to the issue. We had many other priorities recently in respect of the political reform agenda but we will proceed to address this commitment after the local and European elections.

The manager in Waterford city and county will be appointed on a full-time basis. I expect, following the enactment of this legislation, that we will be able to proceed at the earliest suitable time to advertise the post or make an appointment, depending on what the Department decides. I expect an appointment will be made to the role.

The local government Bill will be presented to the Cabinet in September and enacted by the end of the year. The EU boundary report will be available to us in early October. In such a large geographical area, people need time to move around the European Parliament constituencies and make themselves known, regardless of whether they are standing as Independent candidates or for a political party. This requires considerable work and graft on the ground.

I believe I have addressed most of the points raised by Senators whom I thank for responding to this urgent legislation. The purpose of the Bill is to make practical arrangements for various matters that need to be addressed immediately.

Question put and declared carried.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?