Thursday, 4 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Roche: In law, preparation of the register of electors is a matter for each local registration authority, as was recently recognised in a press release issued by the Deputy Sherlock’s party. It is their duty to ensure, as far as possible and with the co-operation of the public, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. In this, the broad approach has always been to ensure that people are entered on the register and can exercise their right to vote and I am sure that Deputies will continue to support this key objective.
The measures include the use of census enumerators or other temporary personnel to support local authorities in preparing the next register as part of an intensive registration campaign to be conducted this summer. Related to this, I am prepared to make increased ring-fenced financing available to local authorities this year to update the register.
An early start will be made to the local authority registration campaign for 2007-08 and there will also be an intensive information campaign. My Department will issue updated and consolidated guidance to ensure that all local authorities work to the same template because it was recognised in a previous debate in the House that this has not been the case. The guidance will tell local authorities to make maximum use of databases available to them to cross-check the register. New information technology-based arrangements to delete deceased persons from the register have also been put in place.
My Department is now working with a group of local authority managers and senior officials to put in place an enhanced programme for improving the next register of electors. This would include ensuring that each household is visited and provided with forms and information at least twice if necessary. In the event that this process does not satisfactorily register the household, it is proposed that written notification would then be given cautioning of the danger of being omitted from the register. I recognise that Deputies of all parties will wish to avoid disenfranchising voters who have been on the register for many years. However, Deputies have equally expressed concern that a more rigorous approach to compiling the register should be taken, a concern with which I agree.
There should be a broad political consensus on these issues because sensitive matters will be raised in the editing of the register. For this reason, I have written to the chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government requesting that it arrange an early discussion of my proposals.
Mr. Gilmore: How much money will the Minister make available to local authorities for this new exercise? Has he considered a suggestion made by the leader of the Labour Party in the House yesterday, namely, that the Minister should introduce short legislation to empower the Central Statistics Office to transfer the names, addresses, nationalities and ages of the people included in the census to the registration authorities? It is not confidential information, could be readily transferred and from which an accurate new register could be compiled.
Mr. Roche: I showed the Deputy the courtesy of listening to him and I am trying to answer his question accurately. If he would allow me to do so, he could then ask a further supplementary question. This is the way in which courtesy normally operates in conversations.
Mr. Roche: I will not mention the figure, which will run to millions of euro, because I do not know the precise cost. We do not know what the staffing requirements in each local authority will be. I have told the local authorities that I will make money available. I will discuss this issue with the Deputy, other spokespersons and the committee as required. Regarding the proposition to transfer names and addresses, data protection and privacy issues will arise post hoc, but I will consider the suggestion.
Mr. McCormack: I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that he does not know how much money is available. Does he accept that local authorities do not have the staff, facilities, resources and, in some cases, the will to have a correct register? What good will changing the register do? The current register will be in force for any election that takes place after February 2007. Will this supplementary register be adopted if any corrections are made? Will the Minister provide the necessary resources to do so?
Ms C. Murphy: The Minister obviously met the county managers’ association, which would clearly advise the Minister on whether the registers are universally bad or just particularly bad in high development areas. Will varying amounts be allocated depending on this information or will there be a blanket response?
Mr. O’Dowd: Owing to the fact that urban areas are worse than rural areas in respect of registrations, built up areas and apartment blocks especially so, will the Minister immediately employ students to start the work instead of waiting until September as suggested by the Taoiseach yesterday? Thousands of young people out of college would be ready, willing and able to do the work. We should not wait for the cold weather and dark nights.
Mr. Broughan: I asked the Minister a question during last week’s debate. Is there some way in which the An Post database could be utilised, given that it definitely includes every adult in the country?
Mr. Roche: I will address the last point first because some confusion arose from comments made by an official in a newspaper during the week. I have made it clear that I want every possible database examined. Deputy Broughan is right, as the suggestions that it would cause an outcry are not valid. I have asked that all databases be examined. Every possible option to cross-check the information should be used. Deputy McCormack’s proposition that local authorities, which are better funded and staffed than ever before, do not have the money is nonsense.
Mr. Roche: Some local authorities do the job very well. If Deputy McCormack believes that a local authority does not have the will, he should let me know. I will deal with the authority’s manager because I take this matter quite seriously.
Deputy O’Dowd raised the issue of whether we should engage new personnel. This is unwise for the following reasons. The enumerators have been around the country, are very familiar with the space and have established a lot of knowledge that should be used. As Deputy Broughan stated previously, if we cannot use enumerators, we should consider other personnel. Postal staff would be the best way to address the issue.
Deputy O’Dowd was correct when he stated that the situation in urban areas would probably be different, a matter raised by Deputy Catherine Murphy. In certain areas where there are many apartments or gated estates, the issue will be more challenging. As such, it is not possible to say where resources will go. Deputy Murphy asked whether the amount will be specific to each authority or if an average will be given. Giving an average is not a proper way to do this. I will examine the requirements of individual circumstances, which the amount given will reflect. For example, it would not be sensible to suggest that a small county should get as much as a county with a large urban area.
Deputy Cuffe asked whether I refused funding to any authorities. I refused a specific blanket request from Kildare County Council because it is not appropriate to dole out money to local authorities on an asked-for basis. As was pointed out in Deputy Gilmore’s press release yesterday, there is a statutory requirement on the local authorities to do this job, which some are doing in a spectacularly good way. However, while they make real efforts, others do not. I do not intend to reward those who are not doing their jobs. Rather, I intend to force them. I stated previously that I have spoken to a number of local authority managers and franchise officers and I am convinced that all of them have a serious interest in resolving this issue.
It is important to say that over the years, we have concentrated on putting people on the register, which is as it should be. We will now concentrate on editing the register and including those who should be on it. This will require the co-operation of members of the public. I do not want Deputies informing the House next November that X, Y and Z has been written off the register. There is a challenge to get it right. For example, if two visits are made to a household, an official notification and a warning that people could be taken off the register are sent and the people are then removed from the register, we should discuss it. I have written to the Chairman of the committee and suggested that we sit down and discuss the matter in detail. It would provide us with a better opportunity than Question Time.
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