Wednesday, 5 July 2023
Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following: “ “Act of 2022” means the Electoral Reform Act 2022;”.
Amendment No. 1 is a technical amendment which defines references to the Act of 2022 as meaning the Electoral Reform Act 2022, which we propose to reference within amendments Nos. 11 to 13, inclusive, in the proposed functions given to the Electoral Commission.
Amendment No. 11 seeks to address a core issue with the Bill, which is that the provisions of section 8 of the 1937 Act relating to the register of electors are not amended by the proposed legislation. Currently, section 8 provides:
The governing body of every university which is a university constituency shall cause a register ... to be kept in accordance with this Act of the persons who are for the time being entitled to be registered as electors in such constituency.
In the case of a single six-seat constituency made up of various universities, the provision would not be workable as one would need a single register for a single constituency.
We propose that a new section 8 be inserted into the 1937 Act. The new section would provide that the Electoral Commission "shall cause a single register ... to be kept in accordance with this Act of the persons who are for the time being entitled to be registered as electors" in the university constituency. The new section would further provide:
The register of electors kept under this Act in respect of the University Constituency shall be in such form as ... [the Electoral Commission] shall, with the sanction of the Minister, direct.
We also propose, as a transitional arrangement, that both registers previously kept under the Act for the National University of Ireland constituency and the Dublin University constituency shall be deposited with the Electoral Commission and combined to form the single register of electors for the university constituency referred to in subsection (1), a register to which, of course, we would want to add.
The new section we propose mirrors the existing section 8 and would go a way towards ensuring that an election could be conducted. While we did not explicitly state this in the amendment and may return to the issue on Report Stage, we would hope that the Electoral Commission would return with the NUI head office and the Trinity academic registry not only to combine both registers but to extend the work they are already doing on local authority electoral registers to updating and revising the university constituency electoral register that we want deposited with them.
Our group has consistently called out the shameful omission of Seanad reform from the Electoral Commission's mandate. I hope this new entity, which we have sought for a long time, will have a role in overseeing the electoral processes of this House.
I concur with Senator Ruane on this and on a central register for the universities and the Electoral Commission. I do not want to stray into the Supreme Court considerations, but I was there with my colleague, Senator McDowell, and was conscious that one of the judges is central to the Electoral Commission. The comments were interesting. One could ask, what are we really doing about all this, and is this all a bit premature, given that a substantial further announcement by the courts is expected by 31 July? We do not have to wait very long. Having listened intently to the engagement of all seven Supreme Court judges, who are all actively engaged and spoke on it, I learnt a lot about this whole process, but that is for another day. In only the next two to three weeks we will hear something very substantial about Seanad reform and the electoral process. I want to say in support of Senator Ruane that I think this makes sense and there is a huge role for the Electoral Commission in the administration of the university electoral registers.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí as a gcuid leasuithe. I thank the Senators for their amendments. I again thank Senator Malcolm Byrne and the other sponsors of the Bill for progressing it. I will address some of the remarks made. I want to focus my remarks directly on amendments Nos. 1 and 11 but, following on from what Senator Boyhan mentioned, it is worth reflecting on the issues the Bill attempts to address.
Senators will be aware that the Government did not oppose the Bill when it was discussed on Second Stage in this House, as recently as last October. At that time we highlighted the real importance of ensuring that the Bill covered all the main elements that would be expected in the legislative electoral code.My position has not changed in that regard since then. Senators will be acutely aware of the important judgment delivered by the Supreme Court on 31 March, since the debate on Second Stage, and Senators have referred to it. The case in question related to an action brought by a graduate of the University of Limerick, UL, seeking the extension of the voting rights at Seanad elections for the university panel to graduates of third level institutions other than Trinity College Dublin, TCD and the National University of Ireland, NUI. To speak directly to the Senator's point, there is no question about the court ruling but the Government and the Office of the Attorney General are engaging with the Supreme Court at the moment and we await its further response, which will be assessed by the Government.
The applicant claimed that by not extending voting rights to other graduates, the State had negelected to take account of the outcome of the referendum held on the issue back in 1979. In the recent judgment, the Supreme Court determined that sections 6 and 7 of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937 that provide for the election of Members of the Seanad by certain university graduates are unconstitutional because they are not consistent with Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has suspended its declaration of invalidity on sections 6 and 7 of the 1937 Act - and therefore, the practical effect of the judgment it issued - until 31 July 2023, that is the end of this month. The court subsequently received submissions from both the appellant and the respondents on the issue of how long the suspension of the declaration of unconstitutionality might be extended for, to give the Oireachtas time to resolve the issue. The Government is committed to resolving the issue. The court has reserved judgment on the matter of the extension until 31 July 2023, at the latest. The requirement to extend voting rights to graduates of third level institutions other than the NUI and the University of Dublin has therefore been established following the Supreme Court judgment.
As I mentioned, the Government fully accepts that and I reassure Senators that the Government will not delay in responding to the judgment and will work with all stakeholders to ensure the Oireachtas can fully respond to it. I have kept my colleagues in the Government informed of the developments, as has the Attorney General. My Department and I, along with the Office of the Attorney General, are considering the judgment with a view to preparing options for consideration by the Government. I assure Senators that this work is progressing as a matter of priority.
I will turn to the specific amendments, Nos. 1 and 11, if I may. I thank Senators Ruane, Black and Flynn for proposing the amendments. Amendment No. 11 provides for the compilation and maintenance of the electoral register for the proposed extended franchise. It further proposes to give a central role to An Coimisiún Toghcháin, the newly established Electoral Commission, in maintaining the register of electors for the extended franchise. Amendment No. 1 is consequential to amendment No. 11. As Senators will be aware, the establishment of The Electoral Commission was one of the key electoral reform commitments set out in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future. We have delivered on that commitment with the enactment of the Electoral Reform Act 2022.
I am pleased to provide an update that since its formal establishment in February of this year, An Coimisiún Toghcháin has been active in building its capacity and expertise. Led by a full seven member complement, it is chaired by Ms Justice Marie Baker. It is currently focused on reviewing the constituency boundaries for the Dáil and European elections and those reports are due to be published at the end of August. The coimisiún will have an important role in conducting research on electoral policy and procedure and will consult with the Oireachtas as required on its research programme. It will also run educational and information programmes to promote participation in electoral and democratic processes and electoral events. The coimisiún will also perform important functions in explaining the subject matter of proposals in referendums. It will promote public awareness of referendums and encourage the electorate to vote in electoral events. In summary, the commission will play a vital role in safeguarding our democracy.
I have outlined the main functions of the commission. It has an oversight role in respect of the register of electors that is compiled and maintained by local authorities. We have been looking to reform the electoral register and to ensure it is robust. As people will be aware, the register is open throughout the year now. We have moved away from the archaic practices of the past. Section 68 of the Electoral Reform Act 2022 assigned the commission responsibility for the oversight of the register of electors for the Dáil, presidential, European and local elections. This involves researching and considering the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register across registration authorities and activities undertaken by registration authorities in updating the electoral register. The commission's findings will be set out in an annual report, which will include an assessment of how well electoral registers are functioning and the commission's recommendations on how improvements could be made. It will be open to the commission to set standards for registration authorities and make recommendations to me, as the Minister, on legislative changes to the electoral registration process it feels may be required.
However, importantly, the commission was not assigned the role of compiling and maintaining the register of electors and I do not envisage that the commission will be assigned such a role in respect of the Seanad university franchise. For that reason, I do not support amendment No. 11 and the consequential amendment No. 1. However, I acknowledge - this is important - that the register of electors is an important element in any electoral code. I support the inclusion of relevant provisions in the Bill as it progresses. It requires careful further consideration. Finally, I note amendment No. 12 was disallowed and I am not sure whether amendment No. 11 can operate in isolation without it. That is another reason I cannot support amendment No. 11 at this point, but I acknowledge that the extension of the franchise, as the Supreme Court has ruled, will require further updating of the law and a clear look at how the register of electors for Seanad elections is maintained. We must ensure it is maintained in a robust and accurate way. I thank the Senators for tabling amendments Nos. 1 and 11 but I cannot support them.
On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I take the opportunity to commend Senator Malcolm Byrne on bringing forward the Bill and getting it to Committee Stage. We have had a lot of conversations around Seanad reform in the Chamber in this and previous terms. We all accept that the way the Seanad has been established and the fact that only graduates of certain universities have a vote needs to be addressed and the courts have acknowledged that. I understand a body of work is being done in the Minister's Department to deal with it. We are now working to a timeline.
On this side of the House, we are on the record as saying that it does not stop with university seats. I am sure others take the same position. The Seanad is much bigger than that and a bigger body of work on Seanad reform needs to take place. However, it is important. In recent years, we have seen the establishment of the technological universities, such as the Atlantic Technological University, ATU, in my consitutency in the west and north-west, taking in Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, where we now have a broad campus covering the western seaboard. No graduate of ATU can currently vote in Seanad elections and that needs to be addressed. We have come a long way as regards reforming our third level institutions. I am proud to say that I now live in a university town, Castlebar. It has been a huge boost for the local area. The qualifications obtained in all third level institutions are of the best quality and highest standards and compete on an international stage. With that in mind, for example, graduates of UL do not have an opportunity to vote in Seanad elections.It was a graduate of that college who took the case to the courts which has now resulted in moving us further along in respect of the reforms required. I commend that body of work. I say that because it is no small thing to take a case to the courts to challenge the State. It is a big undertaking and does not happen very often, so the graduate who did that work is to be commended. In the Fianna Fáil Party, Senator Malcolm Byrne, who drafted this Bill, and I know other legislation was on the books previously, has been a strong supporter of Seanad reform. He chose to focus in this legislation on the university element because of the referendum result that was never fully enacted. This was one element of Seanad reform and he is focusing on this predominantly because he is our spokesperson on further and higher education.
He has been receiving many representations from students and graduates of universities not currently part of the electorate of Seanad Éireann. This is the motivation behind the Bill. He has had the full support of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party and our Seanad group here in the Chamber to move this Bill forward. He has been vociferous in advancing this legislation and in working with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to try to get it advanced and achieve some progress. Having spoken to students, including members of Ógra Fianna Fáil, and there are many of our youth members in many colleges throughout the country, they have told us about the unfairness and inequity of the situation and that there is an imbalance in this situation. Reference was made to the fact that, for example, Trinity College Dublin, TCD, has three seats and the National University of Ireland, NUI, has just three seats as well. There is an imbalance there as well. The rationale behind this initially-----
I take the point on board. One of the amendments concerns the register of electors, so I was giving voice to this aspect. I can understand the Minister's point in the context of the amendment not being accepted but it was concerned with expanding the register of electors. The point I was making regarding the TCD panel is that when it was set up as it was, it made sense and there was a good rationale behind it. We have a small number of colleagues on those panels, and out of fairness and interest as well to those individual Senators, there is also a broader demand for reform.
I campaigned to retain the Seanad in the referendum held several years ago because I believe in the power and force for good that our second Chamber brings to bear. We can see this in much proposed legislation, where numerous amendments debated in this House come through in our final legislation. There is also more time in this Chamber to get into the detail and have in-depth discussions on legislation. Frequently, it is our Senators from the university panels who make some of the most considered contributions to discussions on Bills. It is important to point out that while there was a vote by the public to retain the Seanad, this came on the back of a mandate we have been given to reform the Seanad as well. This proposed legislation is just one element of that undertaking. I understand, though, that work is under way and that we will see some changes. This is only the beginning of it.
On the register of electors, what will be the position in terms of all institutes of education beyond secondary level? How will we go about differentiating in this regard? Where will we draw the line? How might this work? Perhaps this work is still ongoing and the Minister may not be in a position to answer this question today, but he might be able to come back at some point to address it.
I will stick to the amendment, but I might take the liberty to add one thing at the end. To respond to the Minister regarding his response concerning the Electoral Commission, and I do not want to get into the Supreme Court's judgment last week, what we do know and can take away from it, because I was there and listened to the seven Supreme Court judges, including Ms Justice Marie Baker, who is the chair of the Electoral Commission, is that the Supreme Court judgment stands. It was just suspended. The decision has been made. This man has won his case and the Minister accepts this. I know he does because he mentioned it. It is only a question of time now. The clock is now ticking to 31 July. I was there and heard the Attorney General spell out, to some extent, what he was doing. Given the constraints of Cabinet confidentiality, he clearly could not share all that information, even with the court, and he made this point clear.
There is a strong case to have the entire Seanad electoral process managed by the Electoral Commission. Why not? We must have the same system in this regard across the board. This is not to pass any remarks on anyone operating the system now. This is an important proposal. Regarding vesting the central registration of the university electoral registers in the Electoral Commission, this amendment is a strong and good one. We have an expert and a capable person with vast experience leading this off. This is important and I support it.
I will finish by asking people to remember that this Bill stipulates that a candidate in the university constituency must be a graduate. This provision does not exist now, so I will not be supporting this Bill. This is a crazy Bill. This process is not about excluding but including people. The proposal from Senator Malcolm Byrne of Fianna Fáil, though, is to exclude people who are not graduates. People who are not graduates will not be able to stand for that constituency.
I can rock up to stand for the TCD constituency now. I do not have to be a graduate of that university. I could have had a primary school education but I am entitled to register, be a candidate and seek a mandate from the people. This proposal from a Fianna Fáil Senator, a member of the Minister's group here, is proposing to stipulate that a candidate in a university constituency must also be a graduate. I say "No", and therefore I could not support any of this legislation.
These first amendments are not about expanding the register. A lot of time was spent talking about this aspect. We put a lot of work into scrutinising legislation and proposing amendments, trusting it reflects what we are about to do. It feels like there is a desire here, though, to say things on the record concerning what is being done on reform and what has happened already in this regard, but not to actually engage in the meat of this work.
Regarding the expansion of the register, under this legislation as currently proposed, without amendments Nos. 1 and 11 being accepted, there is no workable register. It would not even be possible to have an election now. I do not think it is good enough not to be able to engage in the meat of these proposed amendments concerning an important reform without looking at the vocational panels as well. A million people still cannot vote. To say reform is being considered without Senators looking at their own seats does not feel like this process is being meaningfully engaged with. Without considering amendments Nos. 1 and 11, nothing in this Bill now provides a way to run an election. I refer to it not even having been said that consideration will be given to this issue between now and Report Stage, and this aspect is a big gap in this legislation. I refer to there being no working register and it not being possible to run an election under this legislation and no mention being made regarding engagement on this issue between now and the next Stage to ensure this legislation could do that.
I have a couple of points on these amendments. Regarding amendment No. 2 from Senators Ruane, Black and Flynn on the inclusion of additional institutions, as a graduate of the University of Limerick, UL, I want to see the expansion of the university panels. I also support the element in this regard concerning such universities as established or that may be established under the Technological Universities Act 2018. We have graduates in my county of Waterford that have not been able to vote on university panels. This is wrong, in the same way as it is for graduates of UL. An attempt is being made to rectify this situation. We must be fair to the people who have put work into this Bill in good faith to try to make a genuine attempt to improve the election processes for this House.
This is not to say that other areas do not need to be addressed and considered. This is one specific area, though, where an attempt is being made to consider existing issues. I am not certain whether I would go beyond the technological universities and the institutes of technology, as is contained in this proposal, but we are here to debate the merits and demerits of this possibility. The expansion of the franchise to the technological universities, the institutes of technology and those universities that have not been included heretofore is the right way to go. The courts have had their say on this issue.To be fair to Senator Byrne, there is a genuine attempt to address that issue. My comments relate mainly to amendment No. 2.
We take this legislation and the amendments very seriously. I served in the Seanad for five years and have great regard for it. I campaigned for its retention. Thankfully, it was retained. I believe in a bicameral system. The Seanad does important work. All Senators, be they from the university panels, elected from the other panels through local government or nominees of the Taoiseach, are Members of an important Chamber that I fully respect. I will get to the point on the register of electors in a moment. I reiterate that the Government fully accepts the decision of the Supreme Court. This is a legacy issue going back to 1979. I cannot speak for previous Governments that did not effectively vindicate the decision the citizens made in the referendum almost 45 years ago. Senators should be clear regarding the work we have to do with the Supreme Court in accepting its judgment. I want to make sure we not only respect and accept the Supreme Court judgment, but work towards putting it into effect. That will be complex and there is a timeframe.
As regards the register of electors, particularly in the context of amendment No. 11, the Senator may have missed me making the point that I acknowledge the register of electors is an extremely important element in the electoral code. It is vital. An election cannot be held without it. I support the inclusion of relevant provisions in the Bill as it progresses, however. The Senator may have missed that bit. I know that was a frustration she outlined in her response.
As regards the work we will have to do, there could potentially be 2 million electors. The Senator will know from her university that there have been issues in the past with how the register of electors has been managed within the universities. Amendment No. 11 provides: "The register of electors previously kept under this Act for the National University Constituency and the Dublin University Constituency shall be deposited with An Coimisiún Toghcháin and combined to form the single register of electors." I understand the principle of that but the Senator may agree that a significant amount of work will need to be done in that space to make sure that register is robust. I refer to even taking what is there now and depositing it with An Coimisiún Toghcháin. Knowing people who participate in Seanad elections as electors, she will be aware of the difficulties there have been in being able to vindicate the rights of people who already have the right to vote. The maintenance of the register and things like that are difficult and onerous tasks on the university. I am not ruling out that in future but we have to look at what the breadth of electors will be and how we make sure people register to that. If everyone who had and has a right to vote were to vote, it would be approximately 2 million people. It is a significant electorate. I am open to proposals as this progresses. The timing of it and the Supreme Court judgment will require the Government to bring forward more comprehensive legislation as well. The Bill does help.
I take Senator Boyhan's point on the potential exclusion of certain parties from standing as candidates. Following the work the Attorney General is doing and when I go back to the Cabinet in autumn with options, it will require a Government decision. Flowing from that decision will require primary or Government legislation on this matter and that can encompass previous Bills that were brought froward. I commend the Senators on bringing forward the Bill because we are having a good discussion on it. Other legislation was brought forward in the past. We will be looking at a composite consolidated Bill. That will be important because the judgment of the Supreme Court was clear. There is no question the Government has accepted that and wishes to move on it and implement that. There will be people with different views.
There is a wider Seanad reform agenda that has been discussed for many years but not implemented by successive Governments. Let us be clear that it is not in the current programme for Government. The Seanad does a very good job on the work it is asked and charged to do, particularly with regard to providing checks and balances on legislation. Obviously, the Supreme Court has pointed out issues relating to the electoral franchise and how far it should extend, particularly in the context of the university Senators. I assure the House that if the Bill or a Government Bill is to progress, we will have to address the issue of electoral registers.
An Coimisiún Toghcháin is important. It has only just been established. We made a commitment in the programme for Government to have a standing permanent electoral commission. That is clear on what its main role is and I outlined that in my response on the amendment. People are clear on it, so I will not repeat it. It is good that the commission is up and running and fully populated. Its staff and offices are in place. The first piece of work it needs to do is to ensure we have the boundaries for the Dáil and European elections by 30 August. That report will come in to both Houses. That is the final date by which we need to do that. There is pressure in that regard, given that the census was delayed because of Covid. There is a constitutional imperative for this work to be done. It is not that we cannot do it or bring forward a boundary commission report. We have some of the infrastructure in place now. An Coimisiún Toghcháin is in place and could potentially have a role in this but we need to consider it further. That is not fudging the point. The Senator understands the issue in her university relating to the complexities in the context of the register and its maintenance. I thank her for tabling the amendments.
That gives me much more comfort. There was far more detail there regarding the process that are needed. I am happy to withdraw the amendment and resubmit it on Report Stage. I would not have been able to do so if the Bill had gone through the Houses sooner. I did not graduate from Trinity until 18 months after I became a Senator, so I would not be here to debate the legislation had such an Bill made its way through.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, lines 18 and 19, to delete “as determined by the Minister” and substitute “as provided for by law”.
Amendment No. 2 is a technical amendment to insert ""Act of 1947" means the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947;" into the definitions section. I will come to my amendments in this grouping in due course. If we are serious about Seanad reform and giving every citizen a vote for this House, which they value - they saved it in 2013 - we will need to look at those vocational panels as referenced in the amendment.
Amendment No. 3 relates to a broader issue with the legislation, namely, that it gives a large amount of discretion to the Minister when it comes to the electoral law and process the Bill seeks to establish. The amendment seeks to amend the definition of "university constituency" in section 1 by amending the provision that: "“University Constituency” and the “Universities Constituencies” means all graduates of universities in the State, and of institutions of Higher Education in the State, as determined by the Minister." I do not think this is the intention of the proposer or the Minister but the Bill could have the effect that a future Minister could determine that a certain institution does not meet the definition and graduates of that institution would not, therefore, be entitled to vote in the university constituency. I am proposing that we replace the phrase "as determined by the Minister" with "as provided for by law" in order that the right to vote is firmly secured in the legislation and the decision on who gets to vote is not left to determination by a Minister. I hope colleagues will support this constructive amendment and similar amendments tabled in order to ensure that we are creating a robust electoral system.
Amendment No. 5 relates to a similar issue in the proposed new section 6. Section 6(1) currently states:
All Universities in the State, and Institutions of Higher Education in the State as provided for by the Minister, shall be a constituency (in this Act referred to as the University Constituency) for the election of six members of Seanad Éireann.
The phrase "as provided for by the Minister" is not appropriate. While I recognise that the Government has certain powers with respect to the establishment of universities under the Universities Act 1997 and the Technological Universities Act 2018, we need tighter language in this regard. The phrase "as provided for by law" would cover this element because it would deal with circumstances where the Government decides to establish a university under either Act but firmly links this to its legislative basis, which of course may change, rather than giving carte blanche for recognition to a single Minister.
There is also an issue in that the Minister named in this Act is the "Minister for Local Government", which is appropriate as he or she has responsibility for electoral law. However, it is inappropriate in this context. Section 9 of the Universities Act 1997 gives the power collectively to the Government to establish additional universities and section 36 of Technological Universities Act 2018 gives the power for establishment orders to the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education. The phrase "provided for by law" is a much clearer provision because it would allow for higher education institutions established by law, currently a power given to the Government in legislation, to be recognised within the constituency rather than there being some form of an additional legal hurdle in the context of recognition by the Minister with responsibility for local government. I urge that both amendments be accepted because they would greatly improve the legislation.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir. As she outlined, amendment No. 3 proposes to amend the definition of “University Constituency” in section 1. The current definition is "University Constituency" and the "Universities Constituencies" means all graduates of universities in the State, and of institutions of Higher Education in the State, as determined by the Minister". I will deal with that in a moment. The amendment proposes to replace the phrase "as determined by the Minister" with "as provided for by law". Amendment No. 5 would make the same change to section 2. I understand the rationale behind the amendments and Members might give me a little time to explain. I do not support them as is, as I do not believe they are needed from a purely technical viewpoint. If we were providing for something by law then the Bill should simply set out the relevant provisions without the need to refer to the requirement to provide them in law.
I support the intention behind the amendments. If it is this Bill - and it may not be this Bill, for as I said earlier I am certain it will be a more comprehensive piece of legislation - then significant amendments would be required to ensure the full electoral code is spelled out in the Bill itself, rather than being left to regulations made by a Minister. The Government legislation we bring forward will have to have the electoral code clearly set out. The substantial elements of all our existing electoral codes are all provided for in primary legislation. I do not see why that would be different in instances to do with the Seanad. I support that broad approach. For the purposes of this Bill, I have given the rationale for not accepting these amendments as they are more than technical. These are ones we would have to think through to a much greater degree and detail what the electoral code is. I give a commitment that, from a Government perspective, when the comprehensive legislation is being drafted, the whole code will be spelled out in it.
It has been useful to have this legislation in the Seanad and to listen to Senator Ruane's views on it. While I welcome that and welcome the fact she is here and has taken the time to table amendments, there are a number of issues with this Bill that require more analysis and further consideration. I can outline them now if Members like. The Senator might prefer to respond and then I can come back in and give a broader view on other elements of the Bill.
To respond to what the Minister said, I feel much more comfortable about how the legislation will be in relation to this constituency. I am happy to withdraw this amendment at this point. It would be beneficial to hear what the other concerns are because they will inform later amendments.
I thank the Senator. I will go through them briefly. The Bill is useful, as I have mentioned. What I am about to say is not a criticism of the Bill itself, but it will show the types of things we need to address.
There appears to be no clear definition in the Bill of what is meant by "institutions of Higher Education in the State", which is the term used in Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution. That would need to be defined. I acknowledge Amendment No. 4 attempts to address this and will be a useful starting point for consideration.
In addition, further detailed consideration needs to be given to which third level qualifications should be recognised as providing a right to vote in Seanad elections. Should it be a degree or a diploma from the institution, as set out in the Bill? If that is the case, should the holder of that certificate from the institution also be granted a right to vote, or should only the holders of degrees be permitted to register? If so, should it be the holders of ordinary degrees or higher degrees? These are the types of things that need to be teased out. If the qualifications were to extend to postgraduate qualifications should it be all of those, including postgraduate diplomas and higher diplomas or only certain postgraduate qualifications? These details need to be worked out. As stated, this mus also be underpinned by primary legislation in order that it is crystal clear.
I expect there will be very detailed engagement as we move forward on drafting of the Bill. I expect there will pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill as well, depending on the timeframe the court says it wants this in. Senators Ruane and O'Reilly and other stakeholders and graduates should be feeding into that process on the publication of a draft Bill. It is also worth noting that when a previous Government published a general scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill in 2014. My Department conducted extensive consultation with stakeholders back then on issues concerning what higher education institutions should be covered by the legislation as well as what qualifications would make graduates eligible to vote. That general scheme covered the institutions of higher education, the franchise, the register of electors, the contents of the register of electors, provisions for the returning officer, nominations of candidates - which was pretty detailed - and the filling of casual vacancies. The outcome of the consultation that informed that scheme, parts of which I believe are still relevant, and indeed any fresh round of consultation will be required before we could settle on those policies and principles in the legislation.
A related question arises about what type of appeal process should be in place for determining whether or not a qualification is adequate. There are so many qualifications and so many more people accessing third level education, and though different avenues. We have seen the expansion of the technological universities, post-leaving certificate courses leading into university diplomas and all the things we have discussed as well, so we will need to be clear there will be an appeals process. What it will look like for determining the validity of a qualification? Will there be a difficultly with third level courses undertaken in Irish institutions of higher education by Irish citizens where the awarding authority is not Irish?
These considerations are not straightforward. They are complex and need to be teased out. At present we have two university constituencies of three seats each. Senator Ruane knows this because she came from there. Both constituencies have their own register of electors. The widening of the franchise is proposed in the Bill. Should each institution hold its own register or should there be a centralised register? This is something we discussed with the Senator's previous amendment. How would the logistics of managing the electoral register work? I covered that in some detail and looked at the scale of it. It is going to be a big job.Importantly, we must ensure that the first election carried out after the extension of the franchise is robust and that people can stand over the register.
Regarding amendments Nos. 1 and 11, I do not envisage An Coimisiún Toghcháin being responsible for the compilation or maintenance of the register. The question of what organisation or institution would maintain the centralised register needs to be considered further. I acknowledge that amendments further down the list attempt to deal with many of these issues, but Senators will accept that any proposal would require what we have already discussed.
The Constitution provides that Seanad elections must be conducted by postal ballot. Extending the franchise will undoubtedly lead to a significant increase in the number of postal ballots and we would have to consider the planning and logistics involved. Although such challenges are not insurmountable, we would need to plan for them carefully, particularly in light of the dependence on the postal ballot, issues arising with people not receiving their postal ballots, etc.
When the primary legislation is published, we will need to consider the cost. No costings accompany this Bill, but there will undoubtedly be an additional cost to the Exchequer in implementing the proposals.
While I do not support amendments Nos. 3 and 5, Senator Ruane has indicated that, following this good discussion, she will withdraw them.
I have commended Senator Malcolm Byrne on introducing this legislation and bringing it to Committee Stage. We have already concluded the first pairing of amendments. I also thank Senator Ruane and her colleagues for their input and amendments.
In drafting its legislation, I urge the Government to engage with those of us in the Civil Engagement Group, CEG, who have been championing this issue since we were elected in 2016. Doing some of the heavy lifting and ensuring that legislation addresses all concerns before it even hits the Chamber is always welcome. I accept the Minister’s comments. We look forward to engaging and working on the Bill.
My apologies for running late. There was the minor matter of sitting on the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, where there may be one or two situations going on that clashed with this debate. I also held a briefing on CERN at lunchtime. As someone observed, speaking about black holes and explosive revelations does not just apply to CERN in Leinster House today.
I see Mr. Tomás Heneghan in the Public Gallery. I recognise his work in this area as well as the work of so many others who have campaigned strongly.
The amendments that have been tabled are worthy of debate. The Bill sets out the structure of a single six-seat constituency. Administratively, how it operates will be crucial. I am in favour of giving the Electoral Commission oversight of it, but we can discuss that later.
Regarding the paper-based point, it should be a case of people opting in. For example, if I want a ballot, I will say I am Malcolm Byrne and I am a graduate of UCD, and the ballot can be sent out to me. Unlike as has happened with many other elections, I do not believe we will suggest moving to electronic ballots.
Yes, but we could land people in a great deal of difficulty by doing that.
The system needs to be administered easily. As part of this process, I suggest that there be consultation with the graduates and student unions of the institutions, the Irish Universities Association, the Union of Students in Ireland and so on so that we can arrive at a model.
I hope that we see this legislation being implemented in time for the next Seanad elections. The referendum took place on 5 July 1979. Today is the 44th anniversary of that vote. There are many people who were not born at the time.
The Minister and I were, although I am sure we cannot quite remember what was going on in our lives at that time. There have been many graduates since then. I ask the Minister to please expedite this legislation and ensure that, when the next Seanad elections happen, graduates from other institutions will finally have a vote.