Thursday, 6 May 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen): The Houses of the Oireachtas in passing the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 and this Bill, when enacted, will approve the use of the electronic voting system. There is no constitutional recognition of political parties for the purpose of enacting or implementing legislation. The political parties opposite have all indicated in the House that they agree with the use of electronic voting and counting. Therefore, the terms of the amendment are slightly superfluous. While there may be some differences on the detail, the principle is agreed. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment and I suggest it be withdrawn. The Bill sets out the framework for electronic voting but does not prescribe any particular system.
Mr. Gilmore: I welcome the Minister back to the debate. He should not have been absent yesterday, particularly as we were dealing with amendments, one of which related directly to the conflict of interest in his role as director of elections for Fianna Fáil and as the Minister responsible for the handling of the Bill and the making of orders under it. He is aware the Opposition parties are happy to facilitate him and are understanding of him in regard to his functions as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Government business which must be transacted. However, when the Government ordered and insisted that a Bill be taken in the House although it was the view of the Opposition that the Bill should have been withdrawn for the reasons stated, the least we could expect was that the Minister responsible for the Bill would be in the House to hear the debate and respond to it. In any event, I am glad the Minister is present today to respond to the issues being raised. I support Deputy Allen’s amendment.
|Allen, Bernard.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Bruton, Richard.||Burton, Joan.|
|Connolly, Paudge.||Costello, Joe.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Crowe, Seán.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kenny, Enda.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McHugh, Paddy.||Mitchell, Gay.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Murphy, Gerard.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Pattison, Seamus.||Ring, Michael.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Brady, Martin.||Brennan, Seamus.|
|Browne, John.||Callanan, Joe.|
|Carey, Pat.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Collins, Michael.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||Davern, Noel.|
|de Valera, Síle.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Dempsey, Tony.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Dermot.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Glennon, Jim.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Hoctor, Máire.|
|Jacob, Joe.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGuinness, John.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M.J.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Donoghue, John.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Ryan, Eoin.|
|Sexton, Mae.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Smith, Michael.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
These amendments seek to correct errors in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001. When that Act updated the reference to the Electoral Acts 1992 to 1999, account was not taken of section 29(4) of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. Accordingly, an ambiguity has arisen as to which of the 2001 Acts is included in the reference to the Electoral Acts 1992 and 2002. Our amendment seeks to revert to the point at which the error occurred and to insert the correct references from that point forward.
As the amendment relates to the Standards in Public Office Act, which in turn relates to the issue of electoral expenditure, I wish to pursue with the Minister a number of issues in respect of expenditure on this now redundant electronic voting system. During the course of yesterday’s debate, Deputy Allen and I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to provide us with information regarding expenditure on the publicity campaign. The Minister of State told us that instructions had been issued to stop the broadcast of advertisements for the electronic voting system on radio and television and their publication in newspapers. I also understand the roadshow has been taken off the road.
However, we are anxious to know how much money has been spent on the publicity and promotional campaign and how much money is committed to be spent. Deputy Kehoe drew attention to the possibility that there may be hotel bookings for the roadshow or commitments which had been entered into and must still be honoured. We would like to know how much is still committed. How much of the €5 million earmarked for the publicity campaign will be spent and how much can we expect to be saved, if anything? The Minister has argued that the expenditure on the machines for the system is a prudent investment since they will last for 20 years. In that context, will the Minister indicate the estimated depreciation of the machines, how much it will cost to store the machines for the 20 years and what arrangements have been made for their eventual disposal? The machines cannot and may never be used and at some point the issue of disposing of them will have to be addressed. I understand strict European regulations govern the disposal of electronic and electrical equipment.
Will the Minister confirm that some county councils were so convinced that the Minister would be able to see through the plans to implement electronic voting that they sold their old ballot boxes? I am told that Fingal County Council has sold all its ballot boxes and will have to buy new ones for the election on 11 June. What is the Minister’s knowledge of the availability of ballot boxes for 11 June and how many county councils have sold their old black ballot boxes?
Mr. Gilmore: I expect issues will arise regarding the purchase of new ballot boxes. Presumably the publicity campaign had some impact and the fact that electronic voting will not proceed has received a considerable degree of media attention in recent days. Assuming that the publicity campaign worked and people were convinced they would be voting by pressing buttons on 11 June, has any arrangement been made or has the Minister given any thought to how they might be disabused of that notion and reinformed that they will be voting by the traditional method?
Mr. Allen: I am glad the Minister is back since it was an insult to the House that he went to a conference yesterday which a Minister of State could have attended. Instead he left us here to pick up the mess. Like Deputy Gilmore, I asked a number of questions yesterday. Fingal County Council had budgeted €30,000 for electronic voting and now estimates the cost of running the election will be €250,000. Has the Minister checked with all local authorities about the cost implications of his costly cock-up and who will pick up the bills for the local authorities? Will the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government cover the liability for their increased costs?
Will the Minister supply details of the contract placed with McConnell’s Advertising? Is there an opt-out clause or will the Department be liable for the full cost of the contract? I read in a newspaper recently that despite the fact that the commission was in session, the Department placed further orders for extra machines. Will the Department be faced with that extra liability or is there an opt-out clause in respect of these extra machines which were ordered?
I suggested yesterday that instead of spending €4 million on a roadshow, the Government could have spent it on a campaign of public information to highlight people’s entitlements to add their names to the supplementary voting register and to exercise a postal vote. How much has been spent on educating voters about their rights and encouraging greater involvement? My information is that the Department placed only one advertisement in a national newspaper regarding the entitlement of citizens to be placed on the supplementary register.
On Committee Stage I asked about the use of the contingency fund under section C1.5 of the public financial procedures, a non-statutory fund to defray urgent or unforeseen expenditure, but I was unable to get a straight answer. That fund is not covered by an ordinary Vote and can be used when the Dáil is not sitting. There is a strict condition of use for that fund in that it can only be used for new services of a non-controversial nature. The introduction of electronic voting and the funding of a commission could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as a non-controversial issue. How was the fund used to draw down money for the commission when it was in direct contravention of the provision on non-controversial measures? The Minster should tell me how he can justify the spending of public money without the authorisation of the Dáil.
Also, will he now make all the files in his Department available if requested by the Committee of Public Accounts to assess the totality of his liabilities, negligence and incompetence? The committee can then judge the taxpayer’s exposure to this costly cock-up and the damage done to confidence in our democratic system. Will the Minister make available all the documentation on this costly venture?
Mr. Morgan: What proportion of the money allocated to the e-voting information campaign will be returned to the Exchequer as a result of this catastrophe? How much will the local and European elections cost the State in light of what has happened? Perhaps the Minister could make some suggestions as to how these former ballot boxes might be used.
The commission is satisfied that the electronic voting machines can be used provided its recommendations are acted upon. The Department and I have no difficulty in working with the commission to ensure that that happens. In spite of the desire of the Opposition to see that those machines are not used, electronic voting will be introduced in Ireland. It has already been tested.
People keep raising end to end testing but the truest end to end testing of any system is to do it in a live context. We have done this in three constituencies in a general election and in seven constituencies in a referendum, and all of that was done successfully. The commission confirmed that all the voting that took place in those constituencies, as far as it is concerned, was accurate, secret and delivered the proper result.
The commission stated: “The Commission wishes to emphasise that its conclusion is not based on any finding that the system will not work.” Those are the commission’s words, not mine. In spite of the bleatings of Opposition Members and their forlorn hope that the system will not be introduced, it will. If I am embarrassed about one aspect, it is that the rest of the world is clearly embracing electronic voting, with 700 million people in India embracing electronic voting in recent weeks with no difficulties. I did not see the six o’clock news yesterday evening but I was informed that it carried a report on electronic voting in India, which showed people from all walks of life, some of them illiterate or suffering other problems, who were delighted with the system. This is an embarrassment to Ireland, and we are competing strongly with India as the largest exporter of software in the world. It is appalling to see the gloating of the Opposition in seeing Ireland damaged in this way.
Mr. Cullen: Testing has been carried out by the most reputable international institution in Germany, which verified that everything regarding this system works extremely well. There are also the commission’s conclusions:
People should bring some balance into the debate, particularly in discussing my position, given everything the commission is confirming to me. It is quite clear there is only one matter at issue. The commission wants to do the kind of testing that international institutions have carried out. I have no objection to that but there is a time factor involved, and that is the reason we are not proceeding in June. The commission raised some other questions but there are no other findings in the report other than questions it wants to satisfy for itself. The commission refers to issues involving the software of the counting system, which I have dealt with and to which other Members will refer also.
The one place where the commission found a glitch in the counting system was pointed out to it by the Department. It was not found by the commission. Interestingly, the paper trail out of the voting system itself confirmed that there was an error in this area, but that error was of such an infinitesimal nature that it had no bearing on the outcome of the result. That should be borne in mind.
The commission stated that security systems safeguarding against access to the software could be strengthened and I have no argument with that. If the commission feels those security systems need to be strengthened, that is fine. However, we should put this point in context. The commission’s point involves an unknown person walking into a count centre with roughly 1,000 people in it comprising candidates, party representatives, returning officers, presiding officers, and those counting the votes, and going to the middle of the room — a secured area — where he or she is allowed to sit down at a computer, break down all the codes in the system and sunder all the election results in front of those 1,000 people.
While that is possible, the likelihood of such a scenario occurring is so extreme as not to be worth considering. However, if the commission wants the systems hardened up we will harden them up. It is true that there is probably not a system that has not been broken into or that cannot be broken into. I understand the Pentagon systems were broken into by expert hackers. The presumption is that these systems are easily accessible, but they are not accessible. The point has been made that we might not trust all the returning officers, those who have been involved in elections since the foundation of the State. Neither I nor my party nor any other political party has any function in the administration of elections. I subscribe to that position. No political party, Minister or politician should have any involvement in it.
For the information of the House the amount advanced in the education and awareness campaign to date is €1.125 million out of €4.5 million. Some €1 million of the total budget was to deal with voter apathy and to try to encourage young people, in particular, to take part in the electoral process. The reports I heard earlier today suggest that 70% or 80% of young people questioned in a survey said they would vote. That is not what happens among 18 and 19 year olds in all elections. They simply do not vote. I suggest to them — I see many of them in the Visitors Gallery — that they should exercise their franchise. It is their right to decide. If they do not exercise their right to vote, they have no right to criticise. Unfortunately the number who go out to vote has fallen below 50% on average. In some countries voting is compulsory. For example, in Australia, if one does not vote one receives a substantial fine from the State. I do not want to go down that road and none of us do. However, it is an issue and people should go out and exercise the franchise.
On the issue of what commitments are outstanding on the awareness campaign, the Department is in contact with the companies involved. I do not know whether there are bookings or what commitments have been made. The indications are that somewhat less than half the total budget put in place will be saved. I cannot say that with absolute certainty and the Deputy will appreciate I have to get that information. There are a large number involved in the campaign. I am confident that we are in or around that ballpark. I await the outcome.
On the question of ballot boxes, these are purchased at almost every election by returning officers throughout the country as population areas grow. The Deputy said he understands that some returning officers sold off ballot boxes. Obviously that was public money so I presume it went back into the local authority. The purchases for and organisation of the elections are matters for the local authority and returning officers and have nothing to do with me and the Department does not provide funding for them.
Deputy Allen made an interesting point of which I was not aware. He said that in Fingal the proposed budget for electronic voting for the local elections was €30,000. He is now saying that because we have to use a ballot box system the budget will be €250,000. Does this not make my point?
Mr. Cullen: The Deputy made the point that it is more expensive to conduct a paper ballot election than an electronic ballot election. There is no question about that. The facts are there for all to see. These are matters for the local authorities. The indications are that there are no difficulties out there and that the local authorities and the returning officers will deal with the matter as they have always done. The storage of the machines is a matter for the returning officers as the storage of ballot boxes had been. In many cases there is no extra cost to store them. These are not matters for me or my Department but are matters for the returning officers and the local authorities.
Mr. Allen: How did the contract for storage in Waterford happen to come within the Minister’s Department? I got sight of a contract for Shannon which showed a storage cost of €25,000 and was adjusted manually in handwriting to €50,000 for storage in Waterford.
Mr. Cullen: No. On the one hand the Deputy is accusing me of taking powers away from local authorities and on the other he wants me to be responsible for storing everything for them. I will not do that. The costs are matters for local authorities and not matters for me. Does the Deputy want me to do their job for them?
Mr. Cullen: The reality is, whether the Opposition likes it or not, this is a good investment by the State and will be proven in time. It will be shown to have been a good investment in value for money terms. It is important to put on the record, despite what has been said here, that these machines will be used. There is no question about that. In fact, the commission has said so. It looks forward to the day when they will be used.
Mr. Cullen: The commission makes the point that in working with the Department and others on the recommendations, once the recommendations are implemented it will not have any difficulty in approving the use of the machines.
Mr. Cullen: I hope it gets the testing under way as quickly as possible to enable us move forward on all these issues. With regard to the amendment about which we are supposed to talk, I am guided by the Parliamentary Counsel in the Attorney General’s office who are experts on drafting legislation and I am therefore, not in a position to accept these amendments. They are technical amendments.
Mr. Gilmore: The Minister did not tell us what has been factored in for the depreciation of the machines. Perhaps he would do so when responding. It is welcome news that approximately half of the budget for the publicity campaign is likely to be saved. Will he tell the House if any of the budget for the machines and the software is likely to be saved? All the machines have been delivered. Has he or his Department issued any guidelines to returning officers on the storage of the machines? With regard to his defence, and I compliment his spirit to continue to defend something after it has been well and truly put away, he should take up new reading material. He is reading from the report of the commission and it is not helping his mood. He reminds me of a pupil who gets a bad school report. Instead of facing up to the long list of F grades——
Mr. Gilmore: It does not disguise the fact that the Minister failed the exam. He persists in reading page 1 of the report where, to be frank, the commission was being very gentle towards the Minister in providing——
Mr. Cullen: I do not wish to be argumentative. However, does the Deputy accept that in page 1 of the report the commission is talking about the machines? What it is actually doing in the other pages is commenting on the software. The commission has an issue with the count software but it clearly does not have an issue with the machines themselves.
Mr. Allen: It is very difficult to focus on the amendment when the House is dealing with amendment Nos. 8 and 9 out of 88 amendments. The Minister quoted liberally from the interim report. He did not answer the question regarding the order placed for extra machines, whether it contains an opt-out clause or whether the machines must be taken. I invite the Minister to read pages 20 to 23 of the report.
Mr. Allen: His attendance is only four out of ten because he did not attend for the court sessions.Last week on Committee Stage I asked whether all the tests had been done on the software and if the Department was happy. I was informed that everything was completed and there was no further testing required. This is completely at variance with the facts as set out in the report. I refer the Minister to pages 20 and 21 of the report.
Mr. Cullen: As I said in response to another Deputy I much prefer to do as Churchill said, when one is going through hell, keep going. I assure the Deputy I intend to come out the other side of it. He will not get me to lie down under——
Mr. Cullen: I think it is a very good quote. It is one that has imbued me in the last few days and steeled me to keep going on this issue. The more I read the report, the more confident I am that what will come out of all of this will without question be——
Mr. Cullen: I am big enough and long enough in this House to know that. The other thing I know and I believe the Deputies opposite also know, is that electronic voting will be introduced in Ireland. Most of the western world has introduced electronic voting and even in the developing world, such as in India, it is being introduced. Ireland will also do so. Unfortunately, unlike the public in this country, who took to electronic voting with great gusto and gave it a substantial thumbs-up when the research was conducted following its use in the general election and in the referenda, the same cannot be said of the politicians opposite, even though the former Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael went out with a brochure saying it was as simple as one, two three. Obviously the current leader of Fine Gael——
Mr. Allen: On a point of order. The Minister is referring to a former Taoiseach. I read a letter into the record of the House yesterday which stated the views of the former Taoiseach. The Minister was shaking hands in Wexford yesterday. The former Taoiseach stated his views in correspondence with the present Taoiseach in April 2002.
Mr. Cullen: To conclude on the point, I am happy to confirm to the House that the money invested in the technology and the electronic voting machines is secure. The machines will be secured. The Government will work with the commission. It will deal with any questions and recommendations from the commission and allay any concerns it may have. The Government will assist the commission with any testing if required. The commission is entitled to carry out the testing to satisfy itself. I look forward to the commission completing the testing it requires to be carried out. The commission’s emphasis is clearly on the count software and not on the electronic voting machines. The report hardly refers to the electronic voting machines. The pages of the report referred to by Deputy Allen deal largely with the counting software which is separate.
Mr. Cullen: The commission is at pains to state it is not in a position to confirm one way or the other. It is interesting that the commission has stated that the burden of proof for giving a negative finding in its report is far lower than it would have been for a positive conclusion. I hope the commission will be in a position as soon as possible to have all the testing completed so we can move on from what is really a spurious debate. I look forward to seeing the system being vindicated. I am opposing the amendment.
Mr. Gilmore: I will reply to the debate. I wish to refer in particular to a number of points made by the Minister. I agree with him on something; I agree the day will come when electronic voting will be used in Ireland. Contrary to the impression the Minister wishes to give, this debate was never about whether electronic voting would be used or not used. This debate was about the way in which it was being introduced and the system the Government wanted to introduce unilaterally, about which serious concerns had been raised.
Mr. Gilmore: I do not know that. Since the Minister has raised the question of the procurement of the system, there is an issue relating to the procurement of the system for which I have never received a satisfactory explanation. During the course of the Committee Stage debate, the Opposition was told that the tender for the system was advertised some time in the second half of 2000. That was my understanding of it. The tender competition took place sometime in the summer or autumn of 2000. I found it puzzling that the initial legislation allowing for electronic voting in the first place was not even published until Christmas 2000. I cannot recall if the Minister or the Minister of State was present during Committee Stage on that occasion. I referred to it on Committee Stage and I am puzzled how the Government could proceed to have a tender competition for a system when the enabling legislation had not been passed and no decision had been made. The Oireachtas had not decided to move to electronic voting and no law provided for it, yet the Government unilaterally decided to plough ahead with the competition and effectively committed the State and taxpayers to considerable sums of money before legislation was passed. We were told in the course of the debate in committee that the decision to proceed with the purchase, through tender, was based on a Government decision, which I understand was a formal one. This decision was not publicly announced at the time, nor was the House informed of it. Some information about it emerged during the Committee Stage debate of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, with further information emerging later.
The Minister asked me to accept that no political party was involved in the procurement process. While I am not making such an accusation, in the circumstances I have described I am certainly not prepared at this point to accept that no party was involved in the procurement because the parties in Government were obviously party to a decision to buy a system before authority was given for it. That aspect of this matter, which I appreciate, arose before the Minister’s appointment——
Mr. Cullen: To avoid confusion as regards the point raised by Deputy Gilmore, I will outline the sequence. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which made legal provisions for the acquisition and use of electronic voting machinery, was enacted on 24 October 2001. The letter of intent, subject to conditions, to purchase 600 voting machines for the 2002 pilot at the general election issued on 16 November 2001. The Government, on 19 February 2002 subject to satisfactory testing of the system software approved the use of the system in the 2002 general election. The cost of the equipment used was not paid until after that date and well after the legislation was enacted. Expenditure on the purchase of six voting machines and testing costs in 2001 were paid out of the Department’s Vote which was approved by the Dáil and by the Appropriation Act of that year. The tender submitted by Nedap-Powervote was accepted in January 2001 for phase one of the project, namely, the purchase of six voting machines and ancillary equipment.
Mr. Gilmore: That does not clarify the point I have been making. I am aware of the sequence beginning with the letter of intent which issued on 16 November 2001. My point is that the tender competition was held in 2000 before the legislation was published and either the Government, the Department, the Minister or his predecessor decided to accept the tender from Nedap-Powervote some time in late 2000 before the legislation was published.
The first question that arises, and one I posed in committee, is how was it decided to hold the tendering competition and then select the successful tender, in this case the Nedap-Powervote formula. That decision amounted essentially to selecting the system before the enabling legislation was even published. The answer to that question, when I raised it on committee, was that the decision to hold the tender competition and, as a consequence, select the successful Nedap-Powervote tender, was taken on foot of a Government decision.
In answer to the Minister’s question as to whether I accept that no political party had an involvement in the selection of the Nedap-Powervote system, I cannot accept that statement because, according to what we were told on committee, the two Government parties made a decision, in Government and before the legislation was published or legal authority had been given to move to electronic voting, to hold a tender competition to select an electronic voting system. Moreover, the Nedap-Powervote system we are now debating was selected some time in late 2000 before the initial legislation was published. That was, therefore, a political decision, for which there was no legal authority or legislative basis. The House had not been consulted or informed.
Mr. Gilmore: The Government made a decision to use electronic voting and select a system before it had legal authority to do so. I do not know what was the motivation for this decision or what was pushing it because the House has not been told, but I will not give a blanket absolution to the political parties in Government that they had nothing to do with selecting the system. They had everything to do with it because they took the decision.
The Minister is clutching at one page of the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting, namely, page 19, for comfort in these, his hours of trauma about the electronic voting system, but ignores what the commission stated about the system. Basically, the report states that while the software being used has been updated many times, the Minister continues to rely on tests or reviews done on earlier desk versions of the software. It states that some components of the system have not been tested, the source code is not available and the tests carried out to date are insufficient to establish its reliability for use at elections in June. It also points out that end to end testing had not been carried out in full or independently.
Mr. Cullen: I do not have an issue with the report. If that is the view of the commission, that is fine. If it wants to carry out testing to replicate testing already carried out, that is fine with me. I do not have an argument with the commission.
Mr. Cullen: What does the Deputy propose I do? The commission has given its subjective view. One group told me the system is efficient, while another group takes a different view. That leaves me in the middle.
The point is that the commission has found that this was not properly tested and that it needs to be fully tested. I have only one difficulty with the assurances the Minister is now giving. We tabled two amendments yesterday and the Government defeated them. One amendment stated that this should be done by all-party agreement, but the Government voted against it. This seems to indicate that there is still an intention to run with this issue unilaterally. I proposed the other amendment, which stated that we should not proceed with electronic voting until the commission gives it the green light. The Government again voted against the amendment.
This is a flawed Bill as the commission is confined to looking at the Nedap-Powervote system. The Minister may choose other systems if he wants to do so. There is no legal requirement that the system can only proceed with the agreement of the commission or on the basis of a sufficient level of political consensus. For all these reasons, this is a flawed Bill.
I am prepared to accept the Minister’s statement that the Attorney General’s office and the parliamentary counsel are satisfied with the technical and legal issues which arise in the amendment and I will withdraw it.
Mr. Cullen: I would have had no wish to be here all week if I did not think the Bill was necessary. The basic problem that forced me to come in here was that I had to give the commission a statutory basis. I am not here for any other reason. There are other issues which I am legally obliged to get in situ before the election. As a politician, the Deputy knows that we would be much better off if this was not happening this week and that the issue had passed on the basis of the report. I agree with him and have fundamental views on the operation and running of elections in this country. These views are not far from what he has been saying in the House.
However, there is a commission sitting that has been charged by all of us to report and it should be allowed to do that job. It may do the State a great service if there is something fundamentally wrong of which I am unaware. This will only happen if it is allowed time and the right to carry out specific testing. I am persuaded by august international institutes which have examined the system and informed me that it is perfect. I am not a technical expert but I cannot ignore that kind of advice. With hindsight there may have been a number of problems, but one finds oneself with what one has and tries to plot a way through it.
I also agree that there should be an objective of all-party agreement. If I made one mistake, it was a presumption, after the pilot phases and the public reviews, that there was one clear issue which arose, namely, the presentation of the results. I immediately tried to resolve this in the committee and acknowledged the issue in parliamentary questions in the Dáil to much acclaim. I stated that I would change how the results were presented and go back to the old way of doing it count by count. That was the major issue at the time, not the current issue. I thought we still had a general consensus on this issue. That was my position, but it was a mistake or, rather, a presumption. I should have tested it with the House at that time. That is hindsight and I wish I could reverse the clock to think it through. It was a reasonable presumption at the time. I had no grounds, on contractual commitments, to sunder the system when the decision was made in December 2000 to roll it out fully after the pilot stages. I could not expose the State to massive lawsuits. The Deputy has accepted my point on the amendment, but I agree that there are issues.
This is to bring section 22 of the 2001 Act into effect. That section related to the provision of the address of polling stations on polling cards. It was introduced into the 2001 Act as a result of an amendment that I proposed at the time. The district electoral divisions, particularly in urban areas, may sometimes not correspond to the areas as people generally know them. There are occasions where people find that their polling station is not their local primary school. It can be some distance from where they expect it to be and that can create confusion on polling day. The provision in the 2001 Act, which, disappointingly, has not yet been implemented, was that the polling card would state the address of the polling station. The polling card arrives in the door a few days before an election and it contains the voter’s number, name and address. It does not state the address of the polling station.
I was given an assurance on Committee Stage that it could not be done in time for the upcoming elections but that it would be done shortly afterwards. I am disappointed that it could not be done for the elections this year. There was plenty of time between 2001 and the present to have put it in place. If it can not be done for the upcoming elections, can I have an assurance that it will be done in time for the presidential elections? If I get that assurance, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Allen: I want to set out my party’s stance on this issue. Fine Gael is in favour of the introduction of electronic voting provided that there is full consultation with all the parties and the public. There must also be an independent statutory commission set up, with broad terms of reference to address the issues. It must have responsibility for the introduction of changes in the electoral law. We insist that the details of the source code should be made available for examination. We also insist that there must be a verifiable paper audit trail to ensure that the system is accurate and reflects the wishes of the people operating the machines. These are the core issues that I set out from the start. The commission report has agreed with those reservations I had and I ask the Minister to draw back and consult. He will find the Opposition parties responsible and responsive to get a system in place that will be democratic, secure and safe, and in which people will have confidence.
After the turmoil, controversy and debate of recent months, there is time to examine what needs to be done. There should also be respect for the critics who have reservations and the political parties that may have opposite views so we can all learn from this debacle and have an open, honest discussion before any decisions are made.
The Minister indicated some months ago he is considering more comprehensive electoral law. In doing so he should examine the role of the commission. It should incorporate all the other commissions dealing with elections and should be comprehensive and responsible for running elections.
What has happened has happened, the consequences should be faced and lessons should be learned for the sake of the people we represent and for the democratic system for which people fought and died. The damage that is being done cannot be quantified. I hope that in June, the electorate will have confidence in the fact that this House works and that the Opposition can bring about change and prevent wrongs.
Mr. Cullen: I share Deputy Gilmore’s frustration over the fact that this was not done and I agree that it should be done — it is as simple as that. I am not in a position this afternoon to give him a guarantee that it can be done before the presidential election. I wish that was the case and hope it will be the case but I am not in the driving seat regarding this issue. The Labour Party view is a positive one, which I accept and which was accepted, and I have no argument with the Deputy over the content and intent of his proposal. If there is to be a presidential election, I will do my best to push this along if it is possible to do so, but I do not know at this stage whether it is.
Picking up where Deputy Allen left off, I believe we should bear in mind that the commission is reporting to the Houses of the Oireachtas, for good or bad, and not to the Government. We should respect that it is still sitting and allow it to reach its conclusions. We have no choice but to do so and it would be foolhardy for anybody to suggest that I, or others intervene to stop it in its tracks and go off in a different direction. We need the commission to complete its work, regardless of what conclusions it reaches.
Mr. Allen: The Minister must agree there are very narrow terms of reference, which preclude the commission from considering some of the issues about which there is still concern. It has said this in its report.
Mr. Cullen: The reality of the matter, until that rancour was reintroduced into the debate, was that the figures provided in response to the Deputy’s parliamentary question included the 300 machines. There is no extra cost that has not been included.
Mr. Allen: I was making the point that while the commission was considering the future of electronic voting and the use of machines, the Department purchased 300 more machines at extra cost. When were the variations made in the contract to buy 300 extra machines? The Minister and the Department went headlong into a further commitment while the whole system was under consideration. If that is not contempt, I do not know what is.
Mr. Gilmore: I am conscious of the time and I know I am entitled to make a further intervention. I will do so to give the Minister an opportunity to gather his thoughts. When he was speaking earlier, he said he was constrained from intervening or causing the system to be halted at an earlier stage because of his concern that the State would be exposed in some way to claims for compensation by the company supplying the system. At least this is what I understood him to have said. How could this be? I understand the contract for the system was not signed until 19 December, the day after the meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. As we know, the decision of that committee cleared the decks for the final signing of the contract. The Minister could certainly have intervened before that time unless he was constrained by some commitment that had been entered into with Powervote/Nedap in advance of the contract being signed. If so, what was this commitment? This should be clarified before we conclude the debate.
Mr. Cullen: We did not do so. Arising from the holding of a referendum, returning officers considered that they would require more machines due to the number of ballot papers. The company was asked if it would be possible to provide more but it was unable to do so. The order was put on hold as the system will not be used in June and until matters raised by the commission are addressed. Therefore, the order to which the Deputy is referring is on hold.
Mr. Allen: Will the Minister and his Department subject themselves to a full investigation of this whole issue by the Committee of Public Accounts given that over €50 million, possibly €60 million or €70 million, of taxpayers’ money has been wasted?
Mr. Cullen: The system will be used. It will be shown to be an exemplary system that can deliver what it claims to deliver in a secure, safe and accurate manner. That was what was always intended. We should now respect the commission and give it time to produce its final report.
Acting Chairman: As it is now 1 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: “That the amendments set down by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill.”
|Ahern, Dermot.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Brady, Martin.||Brennan, Seamus.|
|Browne, John.||Callanan, Joe.|
|Carey, Pat.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.|
|Coughlan, Mary.||Cregan, John.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Davern, Noel.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Dempsey, Tony.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Ellis, John.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Fitzpatrick, Dermot.|
|Fleming, Seán.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Hanafin, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||McCreevy, Charlie.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGuinness, John.|
|Moloney, John.||Moynihan, Donal.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Flynn, Noel.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||Power, Peter.|
|Power, Seán.||Sexton, Mae.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Walsh, Joe.||Wilkinson, Ollie.|
|Woods, Michael.||Wright, G. V.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Boyle, Dan.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Bruton, Richard.|
|Burton, Joan.||Connolly, Paudge.|
|Costello, Joe.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|Enright, Olwyn.||Ferris, Martin.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Gormley, John.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Lynch, Kathleen.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McGrath, Paul.||McHugh, Paddy.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Murphy, Gerard.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
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