Thursday, 5 October 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
The main purpose of the Bill is to provide specific arrangements for voting by prisoners. In Ireland, there is no legal prohibition on voting by prisoners, once they meet the standard qualifying criteria under electoral law which apply on a general basis. While a person in legal custody may be registered as an elector under section 11(5) of the Electoral Act 1992, he or she is deemed to be ordinarily resident in the place where he or she would have been residing but for his or her detention. The law provides no specific mechanism for prisoners who are on the electoral register at such places to exercise their franchise. In other words, they cannot get out for the day to go home to cast their votes.
The Bill will modernise existing electoral law in this area and provide a practical framework for prisoners to vote in future elections and referenda. It will bring certainty to Ireland’s position in meeting fully our obligations under the relevant provisions of the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This follows a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights last year in a case taken by a UK prisoner who challenged successfully a prohibition on voting. While the legal position in the UK differs significantly from that in this country, in light of the judgment it is appropriate, timely and prudent to implement new arrangements to give practical effect to prisoner voting in Ireland.
Postal voting in Ireland is provided in respect of a number of specific categories: persons living at home who are unable to go to a polling station to vote because of a physical illness or physical disability; persons whose occupation is likely to prevent them from voting at their local polling station and full-time students registered at home who are living elsewhere while attending a college in the State; whole-time members of the Defence Forces; Irish diplomats and their spouses; and members of the Garda. Extension of postal voting arrangements to prisoners is the most appropriate way to proceed and the Bill provides accordingly. Postal voting procedures are well established. They are simple, flexible and inexpensive and registration authorities and returning officers are familiar with them.
In broad terms, the legislation provides for applications by prisoners for entry in the postal voters list and, if necessary, in the supplement to the postal voters list and in the supplement to the register itself. It also sets out the detailed procedures for prisoner voting. Under the Bill, prisoners will continue to be registered at their home address and, for voting purposes, will be deemed to be ordinarily resident in their home constituency. This will allow prisoners to vote for candidates in their own locality. It is not intended that a prison location will be used for constituency purposes. The new arrangements will apply to prisoners who can establish that they were ordinarily resident in the State prior to being imprisoned. Under electoral law, citizenship determines the type of elections at which people can vote and this will apply in the same way to people who are in prison. The scheme of postal voting contained in the Bill is modelled largely on existing postal voting procedures and mirrors most closely those used for the occupation and student category of postal voter. The procedures have been modified, where necessary, to take account of prisoner circumstances, for example, in the witnessing of signatures. A limited number of provisions contain miscellaneous amendments to electoral law.
I turn now to the detail of the Bill. The first substantive provision is section 2, which requires the local registration authority to enter in the postal voters list the name of an elector who applies for entry and who satisfies the authority that his or her detention is such that he or she would be unlikely to be able to vote in person on polling day. Applications must be made not later than the last date for making claims for correction in the draft register — 25 November. This is the same cut-off point for all applicants wishing to register. The section provides that a person seeking registration under the terms of the Bill will be registered at the address where he or she would be ordinarily resident were it not for his or her detention. It is not proposed that a prison location would be used for constituency purposes. There will be no question, therefore, of an election in a particular constituency being disproportionately influenced simply by the location of a prison within its boundaries. As with all electoral codes, determination of ordinary residence will be a matter for the registration authorities.
Section 3 sets out a procedure for applying for entry on the postal voters list. It is based on the existing application provisions for the occupation and student categories of postal voter. The application must be in a form directed by the Minister and must be accompanied by a certificate from the relevant prison official. The certificate must be signed by the official to verify that the applicant is a prisoner for the purposes of inclusion in the postal voters list. The relevant official must arrange for the documents to be sent to the registration authority via the normal prison postal system.
Section 4 requires the applicant to provide the registration authority with whatever documentation or information they may request to enable the authority to determine their eligibility. Under this provision, the applicant has at least seven days in which to submit the necessary information before the application is deemed to be withdrawn. The intent of this section is that the registration authority is satisfied that the circumstances of the applicant’s detention are in accordance with the qualification criteria set out in the legislation and it will be a matter for them to take steps that may be necessary to come to a decision on the matter. This is similar to existing provisions in electoral law.
Section 5 requires a registration authority to give public notice each year within 14 days before the qualifying date for registration purposes — 1 September — of the category of electors eligible for inclusion on the postal voters list, the manner in which and the time before which they can apply, and the time and place at which application forms may be obtained. This must include every prison located in the authority’s area and forms must be supplied free of charge.
Section 6 sets out the procedures to be followed by the registration authority following examination of the application, including the granting or refusal of an application and notification of the decision. Applications cannot be accepted by a registration authority after 25 November. There is, however, scope to vary this deadline by way of ministerial order for the first year in which the new arrangements for prisoners come into operation. This flexibility in the transitional period will facilitate prisoners who wish to vote at any election or referendum which may be held in the period immediately following enactment. There is also provision for an appeal to the county registrar in the event of an application for entry in the postal voters list being refused by a registration authority. This is based on similar provisions for other categories of postal voters.
Section 7 sets out the procedures for voting by prisoners entered in the postal voters list. It applies to prisoners the existing procedures which operate for other categories of postal voters, with appropriate modifications. Generally, the procedures include matters such as the issuing of ballot papers and other appropriate documentation to prisoners by post, completion of the declaration of identity and of ballot papers in secret, and instructions and envelopes for the proper return of ballot papers and supporting documentation to the returning officer. In this regard, the relevant official must arrange for the documents to be sent to the returning officer via the normal prison postal system. Section 7(2) ensures that these modifications in regard to postal voting in Dáil elections will also apply to presidential elections and referenda.
Separate rules in European Parliament and local elections law govern postal voting, although they are virtually identical to the Dáil electoral law. Sections 8 and 9 amend these codes by inserting provisions corresponding to those in section 7, thereby ensuring consistency across the electoral codes in the new arrangements.
Section 10 amends section 15A of the Electoral Act 1992 and inserts a new provision to allow a prisoner who is not on the current postal voters list to make application for inclusion on the supplement to the list. This amendment will allow the same procedures to be used by prisoners when applying for entry in the supplement to the postal voters list as apply to applications for entry in the postal voters list itself, but with appropriate modifications. It will assist an elector who may not have been registered, nor even in custody, and therefore not eligible for inclusion on the postal voters list, by the specified date of 25 November — in other words, if he or she was incarcerated after that date.
Section 11 amends Rule 14A of the Second Schedule to the Electoral Act 1992. Any person who wishes to be included on a postal voters list must already be on the register of electors. This provision establishes specific procedures for a prisoner who is not already on the register of electors to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the register and therefore qualify for inclusion on the postal voters list.
Sections 12 and 13 amend the principal legislation relating to Seanad elections and are similar in content. They implement minor procedural adjustments to take account of standard prison postal arrangements. In this regard, the onus is placed on the relevant officer of the prison, rather than the prisoner, to arrange for the voting documentation to be sent to the returning officer through the normal prison postal system. The provisions are necessary to facilitate voting by prisoners who may be eligible to vote in Seanad elections, whether for university or panel members.
Section 14 takes account of the particular circumstances that a prisoner, or former prisoner, may be in when an election is called. It enables a prisoner to have his or her name deleted from the postal voters list; for example, this would apply if he or she was released from prison. Once the registration authority is notified in writing of this on or before the second day after the dissolution of the Dáil at a general election, or on or before the second day after a polling day order is made at all other elections or referenda, the name may be deleted from the postal voters list allowing the elector to vote in person at a polling station in the normal way.
Where a prisoner is released but is still on the postal voters list coming up to an election, and the relevant prison official of the prison returns the ballot paper documents to the returning officer before polling day, the returning officer can re-address the documentation to the elector’s home address. The elector can then vote at a Garda station in the same way as an occupation or student postal voter. There is also provision for the ballot paper documentation to be re-addressed to a prisoner who has been moved to another prison in the State. These are practical and relatively minor adjustments.
Sections 15 to 17 are miscellaneous amendments to electoral law which we are taking the opportunity to bring forward in this Bill. Section 15 amends section 6 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 by the insertion of a new provision which authorises a member of the Garda Síochána or an official of a registration authority to witness the statutory declaration which EU voters are required to submit when registering for the first time in this country to vote in European Parliament elections. The services of the two new categories of authorised witnesses are free and readily accessible. Of course, the declaration can continue to be signed by a notary public, a commissioner for oaths or a peace commissioner, as at present. It is a matter for individuals to choose from the range of authorised people.
Section 16 makes technical amendments to the Local Elections Regulations 1995, mainly relating to the local election count rules. It deletes qualifications regarding surpluses and exclusions that are no longer relevant. The purpose of the original provisions, now being deleted by paragraphs (a) and (b), was to ensure that individual candidates were given every opportunity to save their deposits by being credited with a number of votes in excess of one quarter of the quota. As the deposit system was found to be unconstitutional, these qualifications are no longer required.
The term “alderman” was abolished under the Local Government Act 2001 and there is now no statutory order of election at local elections. The amendments at paragraphs (c) and (d) reflect this position, repealing remaining provision in the local elections regulations relating to order of election.
Section 17 amends the Presidential Elections Act 1993. It makes technical amendments to the presidential count rules to ensure that candidates are given a full opportunity to qualify for recoupment of election expenses. This amendment has its genesis in Article 3 of the Presidential Election (Reimbursement of Expenses) Regulations 2004, which made provision for recoupment of some election expenses by presidential candidates if they are credited with more than one quarter of the quota at any stage of the count. Section 51 of the Presidential Elections Act 1993 is being amended to ensure that candidates are excluded separately in cases where this could give them the opportunity of qualifying for recoupment of election expenses. The amendment will bring the presidential count rules into line with the Dáil and European codes.
In addition, a procedural amendment is also being made which reschedules, from 12 noon to 3 p.m. on the last day for receiving nominations, the time for the start of the formal ruling on nominations at a presidential election. As the law currently stands, both the deadline for receipt of nominations and the start of the process of ruling on them is set at 12 noon, which may not allow sufficient time for consideration of nomination papers.
This is a short Bill but a significant one. It modernises existing electoral law in an important area and provides a practical framework for prisoners to vote in future elections and referenda. It will also bring certainty to Ireland’s position in meeting fully our obligations under the relevant provisions of the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. O’Dowd: My colleague, Deputy Gay Mitchell MEP, has done much work in this area. In fact, he published the Electoral (Amendment) (Prisoners’ Franchise) Bill 2005, which was the precursor to this Bill. We on this side of the House are very pleased that the Minister and the Department have taken on board the views expressed by Deputy Mitchell, as well as other views. Therefore, Fine Gael will support the Bill on all Stages.
As the Minister explained, the background to the Bill is that prisoners in Ireland have the right to vote but there is no mechanism by which they can vote. The Bill is in response to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005 that the United Kingdom laws preventing prisoners from voting contravened the fundamental human rights of prisoners.
Prisoners currently have the right to vote in Ireland but, as they are registered to vote in their constituency of residence prior to conviction, they are physically unable to do so. The Bill proposes to introduce a mechanism through which prisoners can use a postal vote.
What we are basically doing is encompassing the decision of the European Court of Human Rights and building on the issue. There are clearly many issues that come to people’s minds with regard to prisons. I accept this is not a justice debate and we are not discussing those issues today. Nevertheless, they should be addressed. The issues include Mr. Justice Kinlen’s report into prisons, an independent inspectorate and the important matter of what is happening in St. Patrick’s Institution, particularly rehabilitating and working with young first-time prisoners who have been convicted and incarcerated. I hope the Government will bring forward other legislation dealing with these matters.
It is important our prison system forms part of our reform agenda. It is also important that our criminal justice system is framed with the hope that this measure will in some small part go towards the rehabilitation of prisoners. It is an important social step and democratic reform which will, my party believes, strengthen our electoral process.
The question internationally is very interesting. We have done some research on it with the help of the Oireachtas Library. That work will match the Minister’s word for word and argument for argument. I acknowledge as an important step the extension of staff in the Oireachtas Library to approximately 40 researchers, as it helps all of us on this side of the House who do not have the ranks of excellent civil servants. It will add to debate and it is a very constructive move. The Minister will know how good the researchers are from my comments today.
Internationally, there is a wide spectrum of approaches in different countries. Canada, the Ukraine, Iran — believe it or not — and South Africa allow prisoners to vote but bar some categories of prisoners. For example, in Australia, prisoners with a sentence of over five years cannot vote. In China, prisoners on death row cannot vote.
It extends to a blanket ban in some countries, such as Russia, and countries which restrict even ex-prisoners from voting, such as the United States. Added to this are prisoners in many countries such as Ireland who can legally vote, but there is no practical organisation or process for them to do so.
The main arguments for giving prisoners the right to vote include the fact that prisoners usually overwhelmingly come from disadvantaged backgrounds and different racial or ethnic groups. Therefore, the exclusion of prisoners’ votes discriminates against one ethnic racial class or group. Exclusion from voting may contradict Irish laws against discrimination and possibly the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of which Ireland is a signatory.
We know of no research that finds racial groups to be disproportionately represented in Irish prisons. However, there has been a change and there is a significant increase in the number of non-nationals in Irish prisons. There is some evidence to suggest that increases in racism are linked to increased disenfranchisement policies.
The aim of modern criminal law is to rehabilitate offenders and orientate them positively towards a society when they are released. That is the kernel of what we are trying to do here. Our legal system deals with the prisoner’s body, but we do not deal with the mind. Having properly served due process and due time, we try, if possible, to help prisoners get back into society when they have fully discharged their duty to it.
It is argued that the process is assisted by a policy of encouraging offenders to observe their civil and political obligations. This is the prisoner’s identification with, rather than alienation from, society. That should be the guiding principle. To deny prisoners a right to vote is to lose an important means of teaching them democratic values and social responsibility. Elections are examples of communities working together for the common good. If some members of the community are prohibited from engaging in elections, the communitarian ideal is undermined.
A citizen’s right to vote should depend only on the ability to make a rational choice. The suggestion that prisoners lose the right to vote because they have violated a social contract implies they have a certain type of rationality, and that they have deliberately chosen criminal activity with the knowledge they would lose their voting rights. Without this foreknowledge and rationality — both are highly questionable — this logic fails.
There is no evidence that disenfranchisement deters crime. It may actually foster further criminal behaviour. It can stigmatise citizens. A small portion of research indicates that prisoners feel stigmatised because of a lack of a right to vote, even if these prisoners did not vote in the past. It can become a political football, as it has done in the United States, for example.
Article 2 states that this applies to “all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. The European Court of Human Rights has upheld that a blanket ban violates the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no obvious logical link between losing one’s liberty and losing one’s right to vote.
The arguments that have been used against prisoners voting would include that of equal importance to the concept of rehabilitation is the concept of deterrence. This seeks, by the denial of a range of freedoms, to provide a disincentive to crime. Prisoners have violated a social contract and therefore forfeit the right to participate in the civil process for the duration of their sentence.
This argument is usually not popular. In the United States, a Supreme Court is quoted in upholding the prohibition against prisoners and ex-prisoners. In the United States, 2% of the population is currently disenfranchised. Research indicates that approximately 13% of African-Americans, or 1.4 million people, are disenfranchised. It is a high number. These disenfranchised people represent just over a third, some 36%, of the total disenfranchised population.
In two states in America, research has shown that almost one in every three black people is disenfranchised. In eight states, the number is one in four. If current trends continue, it is projected that the rate of disenfranchisement for black people could reach 40% in the states that disenfranchise ex-offenders.
This relates to the medieval concept of civil death. If a prisoner is not executed by the state, by imposing a civil death the prisoner will suffer as if they were physically dead in that he or she would have no rights of succession or to vote. The concept has a medieval origin, but in modern times it was brought from Europe to the colonies, where many people fully supported it in the 19th century.
Deprivation of the right to vote is not an inherent or necessary aspect of criminal punishment. Neither does it promote the reintegration of offenders into lawful society. Defenders of these laws have been hard pressed to justify them. In a modern democracy like Ireland, there is no place or case for these arguments.
I have spoken about America and the European states. Five other countries in Europe have no provision to allow prisoners to vote. However, these countries are not in the majority. Some 18 states place no voting restrictions on prisoners, and it should be pointed out that Ireland is among them. Although there is no particular ban on prisoners voting in this country, as established by a court case in the past decade, prisoners are currently unable to exercise the right. In France and Germany, courts have the power to impose a loss of voting rights as an additional punishment.
Mr. O’Dowd: He had many people working for him disenfranchise all the people who had a previous conviction. It gave a terrible picture of a democracy for people who were no longer in prison and had discharged their obligation. They were pursued to get them off the electoral register because of their race and political situation. That was terrible. In Florida, it is estimated that one in three of all black people are denied the right to vote.
It is worth making the point that although our country is only recently getting used to multiculturalism and we do not have a particularly high number of ethnic minorities in prison, there is a certainly a class issue with regard to the prison population and the denial of prisoner voting rights. It impinges much more dramatically on the votes of working class members of the electorate.
In the transnational context, the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right of everyone to vote. We are not legislating in isolation, nor is this just some altruistic measure by the Government or the Oireachtas. We have been remiss in not doing this earlier and it is good that we are finally acting in this regard.
It is entirely right that the Bill seeks to extend the postal vote to prisoners. When this issue was first mooted, there was some alarm that voting booths would be set up in prisons with all the accompanying costs to the State. As an aside, I note what has happened to those wonderful counting machines which the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, ordered and the Minister, Deputy Cullen, delivered. We have now learned that one can play video games on them, as well as corrupting the entire voting process by means of a simple key. It shows just how unrealistic the whole process was. It is unacceptable that it can be interfered with so easily, quickly and effectively. While one may have been voting on such machines in Wicklow. Louth or elsewhere, the reality is that the process is now in serious doubt. Much money has been spent on it but the Minister of the day should have listened to the views of the Opposition, particularly those of my colleague, Deputy Allen, who strongly argued that the Minister should have sought alternative opinions.
The voting system is a matter for all of us. It is not the Government’s voting system, even though Ministers have made it their system; it should be a collective system. Unless our work on issues such as the franchise and how we change the voting system is done with everyone’s consent and agreement we will continue to have a debacle such as the current one. It is politically unacceptable that on these important matters the Government did not listen and is still not heeding the voice of the Opposition. We now have hundreds of electronic voting machines which are costing a fortune to store in air-conditioned offices. Perhaps they should be preserved as a work of art dedicated to the memory of this Government when the time comes.
I also wish to raise the issue of voter education. It is difficult enough to get the general population to vote. Typically, almost four out of ten voters do not vote. I know we are trying to improve the electoral register so we will have to re-examine that voter turn-out figure again after the next election. Prisoners, in particular, come from disadvantaged backgrounds and a large number of them cannot read or write. They may also have medical and other problems. We need to educate more people across the board to vote in this regard. If we spent half or a quarter of the €50 million that was wasted on electronic voting machines in getting people out to vote, and in educating them in the process, we would get a far more effective return for our money.
The Bill also states that prisoners who are registering to vote need to establish that they were ordinarily resident in the State prior to their imprisonment to avail of the postal voting arrangements. Where does this leave EU nationals who have the right to vote in local and European elections, and non-EU nationals who have the right to vote in local elections? Are these groups to be included in the extension of voting rights? If not, we should discuss this matter on Committee Stage.
On a practical level, what arrangements does the Minister envisage around election time? Will there be an opportunity to canvass? Will there be public meetings in prisons? I can imagine how lively they would be. What access will prisoners have to the media or the arrangements currently in place? I pose these questions because if we are going to extend voting rights we should ensure that people will have the opportunity to avail of them.
My colleague, Deputy Gay Mitchell, has been a strong voice on the need for prison reform. In 2003, he observed that the response to criminal activity has been to promise more laws. He went on to say that we have passed 40 Criminal Justice Acts since 1973. If all this law was put before the Dáil in one Act or in four or five Acts, alarm bells would have rung and we would have questioned whether all this legislation was needed.
Prison reform is a difficult area and, as Deputy Gay Mitchell has pointed out, politicians are fearful of raising the issue lest they come across as being unsympathetic towards victims or soft on crime. Recidivism is high, however, and many of those who go to prison have few skills, while a significant number have mental and other illnesses.
Prisoners are, by definition, deprived of their liberty but to deprive them of the right to vote as well is to dehumanise them. Fine Gael believes in rights and responsibilities and to deny prisoners votes releases them of responsibility. If prisoners are to take responsibility for their actions they should be encouraged to feel that they are still part of society and can be rehabilitated. To punish an individual for a criminal offence should not mean that person is also automatically deprived of other rights.
It is the view of my party that giving votes to prisoners would not only acknowledge their rights but would also underline their responsibility for themselves and to society. Furthermore, it might encourage politicians to take a greater interest in penal reform and to invest greater effort in considering why 75% of Dublin’s criminals come from five identifiable areas.
If we give people an opportunity to be rehabilitated while in prison, if we require prisoners to confront their own role in society and make a contribution by way of fulfilling a civic duty — that is, the duty to vote — we will have a better chance of changing prisoners’ views of themselves and their role in society.
There are without doubt victims of crime who will be offended by this Bill. However, the objective is not to be soft on crime or the criminal but to examine how best we can change their behaviour once they have served their time. If we can head off the causes of crime, we will be better able to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners into society. This in turn should reduce crime. Locking prisoners away in poorly-equipped prisons — social dustbins as it were — is not a contribution to solving crime. As Deputy Gay Mitchell has said, it is little more than a way of recycling prisoners in a subculture which is excluded from the mainstream of society.
This Bill has important implications for our electoral system and I would like to put on the record that Fine Gael has further proposals in this area. One such proposal is to allow for automatic voter registration upon reaching one’s 18th birthday. The simple solution to the difficulties we are currently having with regard to the electoral register is to place people automatically on the register when they reach the age of 18 years. This could be done quite simply by employing the PPS number currently used by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Every person already has a PPS number, so when someone reaches the voting age, the Department of Social and Family Affairs could automatically inform the relevant local authority. Such a system would efficiently eliminate much of the confusion that currently reigns. In addition, the exclusion of 18 to 21 year olds from standing for election to Dáil Éireann makes no sense. In time this matter will have to be sorted out.
I have already referred to the debacle of electronic voting, an episode which has cast the entire political and electoral process in a bad light. Taxpayers are paying exorbitant rates for the storage of unused electronic voting machines thanks to a complete lack of direction from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and its Ministers. On foot of a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Paul McGrath, it was revealed that the State is paying widely different annual rates for storing these machines. The costs range from nothing in Sligo to €1.62 per machine in Louth, which I think is very good, and an incredible €271 per machine in Waterford. That shows just how out of control the situation has become.
The Bill is progressive and timely. It has been based on a decision of the European Court and will make a real difference to the campaign for prison reform. I wish it a speedy passage through the Oireachtas.
Mr. Gilmore: I welcome this Bill, which the Labour Party will be supporting. It arises from the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Hirst v. the United Kingdom, which established the right of prisoners to vote. The Labour Party supports that right.
There are a number of issues I wish to raise at this stage and, perhaps, pursue further on Committee Stage. I have received a commentary on the Bill from the Irish Penal Reform Trust which has identified three areas where it considers the Bill needs to be amended. The first issue is the requirement in section 2 that proof of residency in a particular constituency be shown by the prisoner concerned. It points out that many prisoners are homeless or have no fixed abode at the point where they are committed to prison and, therefore, may not be in a position to prove they have residence in a particular constituency, and if they cannot prove they are resident in a particular constituency presumably they cannot be registered to vote. That is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The second issue is the requirement in section 4 that a prisoner applying to register as a voter may have to provide additional information or documents to satisfy the registration authorities that he or she is entitled to be registered to vote. Again the Irish Penal Reform Trust points out that prisoners may not have access to those documents while in prison and that they could be disenfranchised if they cannot produce the documentation. It raises the question whether it is necessary for such documentation to be presented since, clearly, the State already knows the identity and has satisfied itself of the identity of the prisoner, as have the courts, and that there should be another way of dealing with that issue.
The third issue raised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust is that if the legislation is to be effective it will require accompanying complementary prison policy governing access to registration and to ballots. It is one thing for prisoners to have a right enshrined in legislation but it is another matter when it comes to be operated in the prison. The whole issue of the way this will work in practice needs to be teased out somewhat further on Committee Stage.
There is a further issue which is not concerned with registration of the prisoner as a voter but with the prisoner’s exercise of his or her right as a voter, the actual casting of the vote. As I understand it, the procedure being provided for is a postal voting procedure. A process is set down whereby that is to be witnessed. There are obligations on prison officers and so on to ensure the vote is returned. The difficulty that arises, one that will have to be addressed, is how the privacy of the prisoner’s vote is protected and how the integrity of the prisoner’s voting intention is protected.
People who are in prison are not free. We have become aware, as recently as this summer, of the degree to which the State is failing in its duty to protect those committed to prison, of the stories about the way in which prisoners are brutalised and the way in which a prisoner was killed during the summer. We have had the report of the visiting committees and the criticisms that Mr. Justice Kinlen made of the way in which the prisons are run and the way in which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is supervising the running of prisons. To be blunt, if the State cannot protect the lives of prisoners, their physical safety and bodily integrity, while in prison, I do not have a great deal of confidence that the administration of our prisons would be able to protect the secrecy and the integrity of a prisoner’s vote.
I will need to hear more, when this issue is debated on Committee Stage, about how steps are taken to ensure that prisoners are not subjected to undue pressures, either from fellow prisoners or, possibly — I am not casting reflection on prison staff — from prison staff or individual members of prison staff when they come to exercise their voting intention. They are not free in the same way as every other voter. That is an area that will have to be addressed on Committee Stage.
The Bill is essentially about the registration of voters, in this case the registration of prisoners as voters, but there is a wider issue relating to the registration of voters which has been the subject of discussion in the House which I and other colleagues have raised here on a number of occasions, that is, the state of the current electoral register. In response to raising the matter with the Minister, to be fair to him, he has engaged in a new voter registration process and has provided some additional resources to local authorities for same. As we speak, the staff who have been engaged by local authorities are out there trying to improve the electoral register.
I have a concern about the way in which that is being done and I wish to put it to the Minister. We raised concerns about the electoral register, the multiple entries of people on the register and the fact that the register was out of date in many places. Clearly, many were on the register who were no longer living at the addresses at which they were registered. In putting it right, there is a grave danger that another very serious wrong will be done to many people, that is, that people will be removed from the register.
Mr. Gilmore: People who have been on an electoral register for many years do not give it a second thought. It is not something that occupies their minds. They have always turned up to vote and they will now be removed from the register because the method that is being used to correct the electoral register involves the sending out of letters to people and calling to people’s houses and if they do not respond to those approaches from local authority officials they will be removed from the register. A paragraph from a report on this matter which was produced recently by South Dublin County Council reads: “Based on recent indicators projected from the work undertaken so far by the council, thousands of South Dublin residents who would otherwise be eligible to vote will not be placed on the register of electors for 2007-2008 because they have not furnished up-to-date information regarding persons eligible to vote to South Dublin County Council.” I believe that is repeated elsewhere throughout the country. When the new electoral register is produced and people who have always voted turn up to vote at the next general election, they will find they are not on the register. When they ask why they are not on the register they will be told they are not on the register because they did not return the form to the county council.
The Minister needs to act to ensure people who have every entitlement to vote are not removed from the register. The business of saying that officials called to the door and nobody was in, that two letters were sent to which there was no reply, following which the person was taken off the register, needs to be stopped. That is not the way to correct the electoral register. During the course of the past year we proposed many ways in which the electoral register could be amended and brought up to date, but the Government chose not to take up any of those suggestions. The method now being used will deprive citizens who have always participated in the electoral process of the right to vote. If local authorities do that, they will be in breach of their duties because it is the duty of the registration authorities to ensure the electoral register is accurate. The issue must be addressed urgently.
Another issue which arose during the course of the summer is the result of the preliminary census. The preliminary census figures published show that some constituencies are out of line with the limits set down in the Constitution. The constituency of Dublin-West, for example, will have a ratio of TD per population which exceeds the upper limit of 1:30,000 provided for and quite explicit in the Constitution. Also, a number of constituencies will vary from the norm in terms of the ratio of TD to population, in some cases by up to 10% or 12%. We will have a situation where a constituency with roughly the same population as an adjoining constituency will have three seats while the adjoining constituency has four seats.
The courts have previously insisted there must be equality of representation and that the principle of equality must be protected. Based on the preliminary census figure, the existing constituency boundaries, which were based on the previous census, are vulnerable to legal challenge. The Minister has stated publicly that the Government has decided not to do anything about this and that it will not do a new revision of the constituencies nor bring a new constituency boundary Bill before the House. He has said this conclusion is based on the advice he has got from the Attorney General.
I have asked the Minister publicly, and asked in the House yesterday through the Taoiseach, for the advice from the Attorney General to be published. To date, the Minister’s response has been that the Government does not normally publish advice it receives from the Attorney General. I accept that is the case when dealing with routine Government business, but this is an area which is not about routine business. It is about the electoral process and whether the general election we will have in the next six months or so will be vulnerable to legal challenge.
The issue is urgent. If the issue is allowed to drift and the Minister hides behind the advice of the Attorney General, which nobody else has seen, we are in danger of a challenge being taken. We do not know what the courts will do in that situation or what they will decide. I remind the House that on the last occasion a challenge was taken to our electoral Acts — the Kelly case taken at the time of the 2002 general election — the judgment was handed down the day before polling day. Imagine the mess we will be in if the courts hand down a judgment stating the formation of constituencies on which the general election is based is unconstitutional. The issue needs to be addressed. The minimum I ask the Minister is to publish the advice he has received from the Attorney General. This is an issue in which we all have an interest and the advice should be available to the House.
The other development which occurred with regard to electoral matters during the summer was the publication of the second report of the Commission on Electronic Voting on the secrecy, accuracy and testing of the chosen electronic voting system. It was published on 4 July, just as the House was going into recess for the summer. I raised this matter this morning with the Minister for Finance who was taking the second phase of the Order of Business and asked him to make time available for a debate in the House on the report. The report of the Commission on Electronic Voting was made to the House, not to Government. Therefore it should be debated and discussed in the House. I repeat my call for it to be debated here.
It is interesting that we are having today’s debate on the very day a report is being published in the Netherlands by a group of citizens with concerns about the electronic voting system in use there, essentially the same system and hardware and provided by the same company as that advocated for this country. The Dutch have found it is possible to hack into the voting machines and demonstrated that it was possible to play a game of chess on them. We were told repeatedly by the former Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputies Cullen and Noel Dempsey, and by the Taoiseach that the machines were secure and safe.
I have been going back over the history of the electronic voting debacle. The Government spent over €50 million purchasing an electronic voting system which will not now be used and we spend €750,000 per year to keep the machines in storage. It is clear the equipment will never be used in an Irish election, not least because the public has no confidence in it and the commission, which was established by the House, has roundly and conclusively condemned it to the dustbin.
The Labour Party raised concerns about electronic voting in 2003 and in November 2003 we published a document entitled Electronic Voting in Ireland — a Threat to Democracy? In that document we set out a number of concerns about the electronic voting system the Government intended to use. We pointed out there were problems relating to the physical and operational security of the system and that has been confirmed by the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting. We pointed out that no end-to-end testing had been carried out on the system and the same conclusion is made in the commission report. We pointed out that the quality of the software being used was inadequate and this too has been confirmed in the report. We pointed out the source code had not been made available and the commission has drawn attention to this also. We drew attention to the lack of independent verification of the system being proposed and this has been confirmed by the report. We pointed out the dangers of using CDs and floppy disks to transfer data from the voting machines to the counting system and this too has been criticised by the Commission on Electronic Voting. We also drew attention to the issue of voter confidence, which has been commented on by the Commission on Electronic Voting.
I ask the House to bear in mind that this report was published by the Labour Party in November 2003, following which the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government examined the electronic voting system and had expert witnesses appear before it as well as representatives of the Department and of the companies supplying both the hardware and the software. Notwithstanding all the criticisms which were made of this system, the Government and the then Minister, Deputy Cullen, proceeded to buy it anyway. When the Labour Party published its report and when the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government examined the electronic voting system, the contracts had not been signed and the payments had not been made. It was after the problem had been flagged and after it was known that the Opposition was unhappy with the electronic voting system, after the expert opinion had been given and communicated, that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, went ahead with it anyway.
In the past week, this House has heard much about the issue of accountability and it is not yet finished with accountability for the waste of taxpayers’ money on a system that will not be used in circumstances where the Minister concerned was repeatedly told that this was a mistake and where the flaws in the system which have now been confirmed by the Commission on Electronic Voting were already pointed out to him.
The commission has done an excellent job and has produced two reports. The second report, which is its major opus, has now been presented and is before the House.. The House will need to discuss what is to be done arising from that report. It must discuss what is to be done with the voting machines. It must discuss what is the future of electronic voting, if any, in this State. It must discuss the question of holding to account those Ministers who wasted such a huge amount of Irish taxpayers’ money. When will the Government provide time for such a discussion?
We are approaching a general election. On other occasions in advance of general and local elections the Government has suddenly pulled electoral legislation from the bottom drawer to be presented and rushed through the House. I recall legislation being brought forward in the run-in to the 2002 general election which increased quite significantly the spending limits to be allowed in the course of that election. I want a clear statement from the Minister. Is any further electoral legislation contemplated by the Government between now and the general election? If it is contemplated, I want to be told about it now, not when it is being published and presented in an attempt to rush it through the House.
I have raised the following issue with the Minister by way of a parliamentary question. What action does the Minister propose to take about the spending limits? Is it intended to increase the spending limits for the forthcoming general election? It is in the interests of the entire political system that this information be known. It is unacceptable that the existing Government would have a game plan with regard to spending on the general election which is not available to other political parties and to the general public. I await a clear statement from the Minister.
I welcome the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2006 and its proposals for dealing with the right of prisoners to vote and the provision for postal voting to allow for that. This provision arises from a decision from the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005, whereby a prisoner in the United Kingdom took a case and the court found in his favour. This legislation is being introduced on foot of that decision. I welcome the decision and the right to vote which it gives. I welcome the provision that this voting be allowed by means of postal voting. Details on the implementation of the voting and aspects of security will need to be discussed and teased out on Committee Stage but I support this aspect of the Bill.
The Bill deals with a number of other matters of electoral law. I have drawn the attention of the House to the question of the review of the electoral register. I have discussed it with local authority officials and with the Minister’s officials. I refer to the current status of the register, the method of that review and what will be the result of the review. There is a significant difficulty with the current register in the bigger cities but this is not the case in the majority of provincial areas. In my view, the Minister’s actions are a threat to democracy. The method being used on the instructions of the Minister will ensure that thousands of voters will be wrongly deleted from the electoral register as a result of those instructions. Local authority officials are concerned and county managers have raised these concerns with the Department and at meetings of the County Managers Association.
I appeal to the Minister to review his instructions as he is using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. He has turned the review of the register on its head. I was a local authority official. I am aware that until now, the key element in the methods of reviewing the electoral register was that no person was removed from the register unless he or she had died, unless a duplication was clear to the local authority or it was clear to the local authority that the person had moved. The Minister has turned the situation on its head. One must either meet a field officer or send in an application in order to be put on the new register. While I had not heard of the report from South Dublin County Council, referred to by Deputy Gilmore, it is consistent with everything I know and have heard from local authority officials throughout the country in this regard. The instruction sent by the Minister would prevent local authorities from using their own records in putting people on the register of electors. For instance, it would prevent local authorities from using their housing rental records to put people on the register of electors, which is insane.
Mr. Healy: It is true and if it is not true, the Minister should advise local authorities that they may use their current records regarding rent, service charges etc. to put people on the register of electors because they do not believe they can do so under the instructions issued by the Minister. The Minister should clarify this to the local authorities if what I am saying is wrong.
Mr. Healy: It is not very good to return to it here. The officials involved need to know what they are entitled to do. As of now they believe they cannot use those records to put people on the register. I ask the Minister to extend the time period for the review of the register. Under the present timescale it is not possible to review the register in the manner the Minister wants and that we all want. When this matter was raised in the House, the Minister promised that there would be a significant high profile publicity campaign on the review of the register of electors.
Mr. Healy: I am serious. Local authority officials are concerned that the campaign is lacklustre, that there is insufficient focus on the campaign and that the vast majority of the public do not even know the review is taking place.
Mr. Healy: Unless the instructions the Minister issued are changed, unless he extends the timeframe for the review and unless he puts in a proper campaign, we will end up with a register, which is ten times worse than what we have at the moment. I plead with the Minister to put the resources into the campaign, to make the changes I have outlined and to ensure we end up with a proper register. I am not alone in believing that there will be thousands of electors wrongly deleted from the register as a result of this exercise.
I turn to the preliminary figures of the 2006 census. The constituencies must be redrawn on the basis of the preliminary census figures, which will be final figures by next February, well before the general election. With a number of my Independent colleagues, I will be pursuing the matter to its conclusion, legally if necessary.
Mr. Cuffe: The Green Party welcomes the Bill. It is vital that the prison population is facilitated in exercising their most fundamental democratic entitlement. However, this is just one of the many steps needed to bring Ireland in line with the accepted European human rights norms regarding prisons, prisoners and places of detention. There is a slight irony that we are simply following the legal precedent established in the UK rather than leading on the issue. The issue has been festering for many years and repeatedly we have asked the Minister to move forward on the issue.
Mr. Cuffe: I appreciate that. However, it took the UK case to move the issue forward here, where the issue was already live and many bodies had been seeking this change for some time. I compliment the Irish Penal Reform Trust on its initiative in lobbying and pushing the issue forward. Without its good work our views of the need to reform the Irish penal system would not be so well advanced.
I worry about the detail of how the franchise will be exercised. I repeat many of the concerns raised by Deputy Gilmore which have been communicated to us by Rick Lyons of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Mr. Lyons clearly states that in its current form the Bill would not have the desired effect of enfranchising the greatest number of Irish citizens in upcoming elections and does not take into account the specific institutional obstacles faced by prisoners. On Committee Stage the Minister can address the issues concerning place of residence, the documentation necessary to be included on the list and the other details that will ensure that an adequate number of prisoners exercise their democratic right to vote.
On the mechanics of the process, I worry about the confined system of prisons. Given the extent of video surveillance in prisons, it is important that prisoners feel they are exercising their franchise in complete secrecy. Some memorandum should be extended to the Irish Prison Service to ensure that this is the case. We need ongoing monitoring of how exercising the franchise works out in practice. For instance can we ensure that prisoners incarcerated in one prison will receive election literature from the candidates running in the Dáil constituency in which they are registered? In some areas where people have voted at a remove from their local polling station they find that while literature is available it is in a heap on the floor and the onus is on them to sort out what election literature is relevant to them. That matter needs to be resolved in the detail of the Bill.
Allowing the franchise to be exercised is just one small step in facing up to the appalling vista of staff shortages, cutbacks and deplorable conditions in our prisons. I hope that in addressing this issue, which comes under the remit of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, attention will be drawn to the problems of recidivism, overcrowding, lack of education and training programmes, and lack of psychiatric facilities in the Irish Prison Service. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has used the prison population as the fall guy in an ideological battle between him and the prison officers on overtime reduction. However, the most vulnerable should not suffer from that ideological debate.
It is important to safeguard the rights of the most wretched in our society. The Government should reinstate programmes, such as CONNECT, which have never been afforded the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of prisoners. The Government must also invest in training and education programmes for prisoners, particularly for young offenders, who deserve the opportunity to equip themselves for life outside prison.
I note in passing my concern about the closure of Shanganagh Prison, which provided decent facilities for juvenile offenders. As well as having purpose built extensions and an attached farm, the prison was located close to public transport routes. What better place to provide decent programmes for young offenders? Unfortunately, the facility was lost in the rush by Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to build a super-prison in north County Dublin.
I cannot allow this debate to pass without commenting on the events which transpired this morning in the Netherlands. I have not yet had the opportunity to find out what was revealed in the press conference at which the deficiencies in that country’s electronic voting system were demonstrated. I am concerned that a single master key could be used to open every electronic voting machine in the country and that the technical information relied upon by the Dutch hackers came from an Irish report on electronic voting. While I would not describe myself as a Luddite and I believe in using electronic tools where they are the most efficient option, electronic voting should not be pursued unless a verifiable voter audit trail can be produced. There is little sign of such a trail at present. The best advice I can give the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is that he should take advantage of the recent reduction in waste electrical and electronic equipment charges to recycle the electronic voting machines.
Mr. Cuffe: He could lead by example and demonstrate that recycling is a good way to deal with electronic equipment which has passed its “best by” date. This morning’s events in mainland Europe indicate that the time has expired for a system which cost tens of millions of euro. The Minister should take action on the issue to save on storage costs and he should think in a more considered way about e-voting rather than follow the line taken by his predecessor in terms of rushing to buy the wrong equipment.
I welcome this Bill and my party will support it. However, substantial commitments will be required on Committee Stage if the fundamental rights of prisoners are to be honoured in law and in the forthcoming election.
Mr. Morgan: I will begin where my colleague, Deputy Cuffe, finished, by welcoming this Bill. However, it is a shame that a judgment was required against Britain in the European Court of Human Rights before the Government brought the law into line with best international civil rights practice. It is time the practice of denying prisoners their democratic right to vote in elections was ended and this Bill will attempt to ensure that is done. However, my party has a number of concerns regarding the implementation of the Bill’s provisions.
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental tenets of democracy, yet this Bill as it currently stands will not make it easy for prisoners to exercise that right. Section 2(1)(c) states that, before a prisoner can be eligible to vote, he or she must provide proof of the ordinary address at which he or she resided before entering prison. Given that a considerable number of people who have no fixed abode or are homeless in every sense of the word are incarcerated in this State, is it necessary to demand proof of address before allowing them to exercise the right to vote? People can become homeless for numerous reasons, such as poverty, drug and alcohol misuse or a history of residential care. It is no coincidence that these are some of the factors which explain why somebody is put in jail because they are a direct result of the consistent failure of Government policies to support these sections of society.
Have the people in our prisons not been penalised enough by their incarceration? One is sent to prison as, not for, punishment. The proposals in this Bill could have the effect of making it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote. The fact that a person may not have been in permanent accommodation should not be a deciding factor in allowing them to vote in prison and an experience of homelessness should not be a reason to deprive a prisoner of one of the most basic of civil rights.
Section 4 of the Bill provides that a prisoner who wishes to be included on the postal voters list must provide documentary evidence of eligibility to the registration authority within a period of not less than seven days. That period should be extended to at least 28 days because how can someone who is locked within prison walls for 24 hours per day submit the appropriate documents on time? Not only is the seven day timeframe wholly unreasonable, it is a ridiculous stipulation to impose on a prisoner. If this section is intended to verify the identity of a prisoner for the purpose of voting, are we then to presume that the State, which has incarcerated the prisoner in the first place, has doubts as to his or her identity? The criteria proposed in this section borders on the bizarre.
Given that the Bill proposes to provide a prisoner with the right to vote, it is reasonable to ask that he or she is facilitated in doing so. The Bill makes no provision for prisoners to be informed of their right to vote, to get advice on the procedure for registration on the postal voters list or for somebody to assist them in completing registration forms. That is an oversight, given the poor literacy levels among our prison population.
In 2005, 85% of committals were for non-violent offences and 39%, or 55% in the case of women, were for three months or less. Why should they be deprived of their right to vote? Is the denial of the right to vote to non-violent or petty offenders really proportionate?
This legislation was not introduced because the State suddenly decided to allow prisoners their rights but because the Government had to act. This is a civil rights issue and the Government has to acknowledge that the people who occupy our prisons are not lesser beings and that their opinions and right to be represented in this House are just as important as those of anybody else.
An issue has been brought to my attention by people in many parts of the State with regard to the register of electors. One instance concerns a person who ordinarily resides and is registered to vote in Milford, County Donegal, and works in Dublin, but is being refused registration by the local authority. I ask the Minister to investigate this issue because similar cases have arisen elsewhere.
People have told me that a significant number of local authority representatives have been calling to homes to ensure people are registered. That has made me a little more positive about the campaign, at least in my constituency. However, there are still unusual circumstances in some local authorities or a lack of clarity in some cases. Clarity must be brought to bear as quickly as possible to ensure that all people who are entitled to be included on the register of electors are included. We have a hard enough job getting people to vote as only approximately 50% do so. We must ensure that as many as possible——
Mr. Morgan: I am probably ahead of the posse in my constituency. The Minister should not start heckling me; if he does I will retaliate by getting Deputy Kenny back into the House and he will deal with him.
Mr. Morgan: I cannot conclude my contribution without referring to electronic voting. Does the Minister propose to provide electronic voting in prisons? Has he finally concluded that he will recycle the useless machines purchased by his predecessor? In future proposals, as well as giving fair play to prisoners, could we also give fair play to taxpayers? Spending €52 million on these useless machines is extremely unfair to the taxpayer.
Ms F. O’Malley: We did not prohibit it and that is important. The Deputy is misrepresenting the rights people have enjoyed in this country. It was ironic and showed the danger the country might be subjected to should Sinn Féin get into Government——
Ms F. O’Malley: ——when Deputy Morgan questioned whether proof of address should be required for inclusion on the register of electors. This should be a basic requirement. Many people have worried about the state of the electoral register, and did so with good reason. They have seen people arrive in busloads——
Ms F. O’Malley: ——and fill single occupancy houses so they can vote for an individual. Proof of address is a basic minimum requirement for the important duty and responsibility of voting, which should be treated with the dignity it deserves. I am surprised that Deputy Morgan suggests otherwise.
The Bill only refers to persons imprisoned in the State. This imposes a responsibility on us to get people registered. However, what about Irish citizens held in prisons overseas? Does the Bill put an obligation on the State to ensure that those people are registered? Take, for example, a person who goes on holiday to Thailand and finds himself or herself in prison there. The person is ordinarily resident at his or her address here and would presumably be entitled to vote. However, if the person is incarcerated abroad, is he or she entitled to vote and does this put an onus on the State to ensure the person receives a polling card? How can this be managed?
I listened with interest to Deputy Gilmore’s contribution. He was worried about undue influence being imposed on prisoners. It could be said that Members who are keen canvassers bring undue influence to bear on people because we are trying to persuade them to support us. If people were to canvas in a prison, why should they be different and why should it be assumed that they are trying to bring undue influence to bear? That raises the issue of access for canvassing in prisons. Will this be provided? How will it be done? Will it be left to individual candidates to decide what they want to do?
Sections 12 and 13 are somewhat ironic given the political climate over the past two weeks. These sections relate to the electorate for the Seanad. With the exception of the university panel, the Seanad electorate comprises, by and large, public representatives who would like to think of themselves as honourable, upstanding people. This caused me to wonder, given the cloud that has been hanging over the political establishment and political profession over the past two weeks, how to provide for members of the political profession who find themselves incarcerated. Are we getting to a stage where it is far more likely that we will find people from our political class being incarcerated, with access having to be provided for people who are on the electoral register for the Seanad? This is significant.
Like previous speakers and in view of the report about the electronic voting machines, I will take this opportunity to discuss the machines and what we will do with them. There will be an election, although we do not know whether it will be sooner or later. We need to prepare for that election. We need to make the brave decision, once and for all, that the electronic voting machines will never be used and that we must stop wasting public money on them at the current rate. It is outrageous. We need a clear, firm decision from the Government——
Ms F. O’Malley: If there were no other reason, it would end the storage costs. The Government needs to grasp this issue quickly. Faith in the electronic voting system has fallen apart. Unquestionably, we will have to continue with the tried and true system. I find nothing wrong with it. I have observed and contributed to political life for many years, both as a candidate and as that valued commodity, an election worker. The drama surrounding the count and voting system and how people finally get elected adds to the interest in politics. It can be described as a bloodsport but it is a bloodsport we in the profession enjoy, whether one is the victim or just on the sidelines. It shows how interested Irish people can get in elections. An instant result with the press of a button would make elections dull.
However, the purpose of an election is not to add to the excitement of life but to select a government, and to do so accurately. That is an advantage the electronic system had over our traditional system. It had the capacity to be 100% accurate in allocating voting transfer preferences. However, the system we had selected did not allow for this but provided a random selection in the last element. This was most unfortunate because the best reason for using electronic voting machines was ignored. We will have to look at this again. The sooner the Minister makes the decision on the electronic voting system, the better, given what we heard this morning about hackers and electronic voting machines in Holland.
I welcome the Bill and the fact the Minister has moved quickly to facilitate the voting rights of prisoners in the next election. My query relates to prisoners imprisoned overseas and the responsibility of the State to them.
Mr. G. Mitchell: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank my colleague, Deputy O’Dowd, who mentioned some of the points I made when I published my Private Members’ Bill last November. Following a European Court of Justice ruling, I published a Private Members’ Bill to give votes to prisoners which was entitled the Electoral (Amendment) (Prisoners’ Franchise) Bill 2005. I, therefore, welcome moves by the Government to take on board aspects of my Bill.
This part of the Bill and my Private Members’ Bill are not about being soft on criminals. Fine Gael strongly believes that people have rights and responsibilities. That is one of the cornerstones of the Christian Democrat Movement in Europe. People not only have rights but they also have responsibilities. It is time to stop recycling prisoners as if they were some sort of commodity and creating an environment in which prisoners have rights but no responsibilities, which takes from their dignity. That was the essential point I wished to make when I published my Bill.
For the rest of us, one of our public duties is to vote, so we should start the process of prison reform by requiring prisoners to start the process of reintegration into a free society from day one by taking their share of public responsibility and duty. Including them on the register of electors would allow them to do that.
I found it extraordinary, when I tabled a parliamentary question earlier this year asking the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the rate of recidivism among prisoners, that the reply I received was that the Department did not know but it had set up a study presumably as a result of my question. If we do not know the rate of recidivism, how can we take seriously any talk of prisoner reform? How can we measure the success or failure of reform if we do not have such a basic statistic?
Some 75% of prisoners in Mountjoy Prison come from five identifiable areas of Dublin. The House will know that more wealthy suburbs do not appear on this list. Mr. Justice Kinlen, the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, has repeatedly reported on the dreadful standards in our prisons. The ministerial task force on drugs, of which I was a member, recommended on my proposal that Mountjoy Prison be closed. I remember it was greeted with a certain amount of disbelief and derision at the time but it was the ministerial recommendation. I encountered resistance to that proposal but I am glad that ten years later, it is now a real prospect.
I wish to make one other comment on prisons. Do we ever wonder why we now have such a high rate of suicide? I consider that, in part, it is because of the absence of mercy in society. That is a contributing factor. We are all into condemnation and are always condemning others, whether by way of radio programmes, tribunals, courts or parliament. Condemnation has become the norm and very often that norm is not tempered by mercy. This is causing a certain hopelessness in society. We all have our shortcomings; none of us is a saint. Every one of us depends, to some extent, on people pardoning our shortcomings. We need to inform ourselves of that in the way we treat prisoners.
I am not a bleeding heart. I have no time for criminal activity or bullying which is often what criminal activity amounts to. However, where a person makes a real effort to reform, we should meet him or her half way and be informed in our approach by the quality of mercy. We are not here as economists but as politicians. Many will ask where in the world prisoner reform works. Almost hopelessly, that question will be thrown out. We are not elected and paid to merely ask questions. We are elected and paid to find solutions. In an Ireland with unprecedented wealth, we should strive to make the Irish prison system an international model for others to follow. In that regard, extending the right to vote to prisoners is the right thing to do.
When I published my Bill 11 months ago, some people probably thought I was a little crazy. I do not believe I will win much support among the electorate for publishing such a Bill. I certainly do not believe the prison population will queue up to vote for Fine Gael for publishing such a Bill. Members of this House must not always publish legislation or give the impression that we only take action if there is something in it for us. That is why I welcome this section of the Bill. I would have welcomed acceptance of my Private Members’ Bill but, nonetheless, I welcome this in principle.
We are not just in the business of doing what is cute or smart. Our job is to do what is right. Sometimes we need to cut through the politically correct and the anticipated smart move and simply do what is right. There is a tendency for people in Irish society to say “Sure doesn’t everybody know that will not work”. This House should be about debating and critically examining ideas and about leadership. We should not be fearful of putting forward ideas because somebody in the media is stuck for a story on a slow day and will lash us for it. So what if he or she does so? The idea of doing what is right should be to the forefront of our minds.
As a former councillor and former Lord Mayor of Dublin for a protracted period, I find it extraordinary that the register of electors, primary responsibility for which rested with local authorities, is constantly an issue among public representatives, in particular. We have all had the experience in the past of standing outside a polling station — although we cannot do that anymore — when somebody came up to one and said he or she had voted for the past 20 years but was not on the register of electors. That has happened left, right and centre. The improvements made in recent years are welcome in that people can go on the register much later.
When canvassing in my constituency I came across a house in Walkinstown which had a “For Sale” sign outside it. I knocked on the door and the couple inside were from New Zealand and had lived here for a number of years. Their contracts had expired and they were returning to New Zealand. They had just voted in a New Zealand general election. A country on the other side of the world with roughly the same population as ours is able to operate a register of electors to include its own diaspora yet we cannot even properly operate a register of electors which includes people living here. That is not a criticism directed at the Minister or at anybody in particular. It is an issue we have raised for years yet we cannot seem to get it right. This is such an important issue that we should make special efforts to get it right. It is important that we are as inclusive as possible while ensuring that the tradition of voting early and often is not accommodated by any of the provisions in place.
I broadly welcome the contents of the Bill. The provisions for people to vote in prisons should be followed up with a study of what we can do to start a process of prison reform so that we can begin to try to reintegrate prisoners into society. Even if we do not get it right, the fact that we are trying to get it right will speak volumes for us as a decent society. So what if the begrudgers do not like it?
The system we have at present of recycling prisoners does nothing for victims, it only creates more victims. If we want to reduce the number of victims then we must try to reduce the number of people going into prison and coming out to re-offend. That is one contribution we could make to reducing the number of victims. I accept that victims do not want to hear that. There are times when we are all victims and we all know what we would like to do when we come out in the morning and the mirror has been broken off the car yet again.
In all of our policies the quality of mercy should inform us. It is time we returned to some of this thinking because the middle ground is becoming very crowded with everyone trying to compete for very small margins. Some of us are telling a good number of people what they want to hear instead of coming up with new ideas and showing leadership. That is something about which we should be more concerned as we address these issues.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I thank all Deputies who made contributions which were wide-ranging and interesting. I single out for particular thanks Deputies O’Dowd and Gay Mitchell. I wish to take up the last point made by Deputy Mitchell which was a very good one. It does appear to me that there is a degree of savagery in the way we do public business and this does us very little credit. The point he made about mercy and occasionally standing back from cases and saying, there but for the grace of God go I, might have a wider application than just the issue of the Bill itself.
Deputies O’Dowd and Gay Mitchell spoke about the disadvantages of marginalised groups and their participation in normal, civic activities. I accept this as a principle to which I sign up personally. The Bill is a modest but worthwhile step in this regard. I acknowledge that Deputy Gay Mitchell has campaigned in this regard. I also share both of these Deputies’ views that it is important to take forward electoral reform on a cross-party, consensual basis. I wonder therefore at some of the other contributions that were made in the House today but I will not be contentious in that regard.
The question was specifically raised by Deputy O’Dowd and a somewhat tangential but not unrelated question was raised by Deputy Fiona O’Malley. Deputy O’Dowd’s question related to non-nationals. The point is that everybody has to be on the register of electors before they can vote. This applies to non-nationals in exactly the same way as it applies to nationals, EU voters, UK citizens and everybody else in the country. There is no differentiation here. It is a prerequisite that a person be ordinarily resident in the State in order to be included in the voting register. Therefore, any non-national who can establish that he or she is ordinarily resident in the State immediately prior to his or her detention — in the case of non-nationals who are in detention — can of course vote in local elections. I wish to reassure Deputy O’Dowd that no change is proposed in that regard.
Deputy Fiona O’Malley queried whether Irish citizens in prisons abroad are entitled to vote. It is a somewhat surprising question because I would have thought, particularly by reference to the closing comments of Deputy Gay Mitchell, that the definition of prison in section 1 of the Bill is confined to prisoners in the State. The rest of the Bill adheres to this definition. Postal voting has been provided for prisoners in this country only. It is not a global extension.
Deputy O’Dowd referred to canvassing in prisons. It is a colourful thought to which I have not given much personal consideration. I think he would acknowledge that it would not be appropriate to make a provision in the Bill for the issue of canvassing in prison, although we will give some thought to the issue of how information gets through to prisoners.
Deputy Gilmore asked a most serious question as to whether the Prison Service could protect the integrity and the secrecy of prisoners’ votes. I would hope the answer to that question would be “Yes”. He also asked if a prisoner could be subject to improper pressure to vote in a specific way. It would be the responsibility of the Prison Service to ensure that no improper pressure is brought to bear on a prisoner who is exercising his or her right to franchise. Certainly, that is the case in all other institutions in which people may find themselves resident.
Deputy Gilmore also raised a number of technical but important issues. He specifically related this to the work of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. I will reflect on the issues he raised and I look forward to the necessary detailed discussion on Committee Stage. A couple of points he made are certainly ones which require further consideration. I may make arrangements for my staff to contact the trust on the issue.
A number of Deputies made specific points on the electoral register. It is a bit choice at this stage for Deputies to try to have it both ways. Earlier this year there was something approaching hysteria on the matter of the electoral register and Deputies and the media pointed out — correctly in my view — that the register was in a mess. Deputy Gay Mitchell asked why it is in such a mess. It is a good question because local authorities have a statutory responsibility to keep the register up to date. I believe the criticism which was made about the register earlier this year is correct. There is of the order of 300,000 people’s names on the register which should not be on it and there are many hundreds of thousands of people who should be on the register who are not on it. In this day and age, this is not appropriate.
Mr. Roche: Absolutely. I agree with the Deputy. We have this nonsensical figure. It is the case that if 100,000 people are on the register and 50,000 people vote, ipso facto, the turnout is only 50%. If the register is only 80% correct, it is five eighths of people who voted so the calculation of the turnout would be rather different.
The more important point is the efficacy of the register and whether it provides a basis for a proper, democratic election or, as Deputy Gay Mitchell asked at the end of his contribution, if it provides the wherewithal that people can fraudulently present themselves to vote. That is a big concern which we should all share. It does not matter on which side of the House we are, we should all be very concerned about that.
I put an unprecedented amount of money into the upgrading of the voting register this year. The only appropriate way to compile the voting register is to do it in the same way as the census is done — to make sure that every household is visited. I was amazed, therefore, at the contribution of Deputy Hayes, who suggested that somehow or other we should pedal back on this process. The criticism which was rightly made earlier this year was that sufficient resources had not been put into the register. The specific criticism that was made, which was a valid one for which we all have to accept some responsibility, was that no effort had been made to edit the register — in other words, people appeared on three or four different registers and no effort was made to take them off. Likewise, no effort was made to take off people who had died.
What is under way at the moment is, effectively, a door to door call on every household in the State, not once, not twice but three times. Deputy Hayes asked why we do not have a media campaign under way. He clearly leads a very sheltered life. I have seen the advertisements on television. They have been focused in particular at the youth end of the spectrum. The advertisements are also being run in the print media. I think they are very effective. If the Deputy does not watch television or read newspapers there is very little more I can do about that but the point is that a genuine effort has been made.
More than twice the resources have been put into this area this year as compared to other years. That is why I have provided a fund of up to €6 million to assist local authorities in this regard. All councils have been given the right to engage additional staff, including additional backroom staff, for the process. Deputy Hayes also made an interesting point in regard to his local authority area. He stated that staff were prohibited from using common sense or information in the council’s possession. I hope people would use common sense. If the council knows a house is occupied, I expect it to pay the house the requisite number of visits, put the notices in and ensure the people living there know what is happening.
Deputies Fiona O’Malley, Gay Mitchell and Gilmore made the point that local authorities have a legal responsibility to ensure that the voting register is compiled. I am giving them more resources, which I expect to be used prudently. It was suggested that we extend the deadline for voter registration, but I am unsure as to whether that would be a wise move. The deadline is set and we should stick to it. I do not see the point in its extension. If local authorities have not done their jobs, I want to know why. They have had adequate notice, circulars and——
Mr. Roche: That comment is interesting and I take it that the Deputy is correct, but I notified every county manager and county registrar early this year that they should and could recruit the census staff for this purpose. The manager and registrar were not confined to those staff if they were unavailable. I will not accept any local authority arguing conveniently that it did not have enough resources.
Mr. Roche: The Deputy is right. We have a responsibility and it is not a politically contentious issue. The political classes will have a right and responsibility to check the register when it is published because there will be deletions. The register is awash with inaccurate information and must be corrected. Both of the Deputies present have been positive and constructive, but it is not right for one or two Deputies to suggest that this is a bad or anti-democratic exercise. It is an untrue claim and will be dealt with on the day.
If any Deputy feels that there are inadequate resources in his or her area, I would welcome being told so that I can contact the electoral authorities. I have done so in a number of cases. I travelled around the country and told county managers in particular that I wanted this job done. I do not want any Deputy to tell me in November that a big chunk of this or that constituency has not been done. I will not take an excuse for not doing the job. I have provided resources, the campaign is under way and local authorities have long since been notified. We all know what must be done and I expect a modicum of common sense.
A Deputy on the opposite side raised the issue of students. The traditional arrangements for denominating where students are registered will continue to apply and no one should feel forced to register somewhere. Like all Deputies, I want to ensure that no one is registered two, three or four times.
Mr. Roche: In an interesting contribution, Deputy Fiona O’Malley made the point that the purpose of elections is to elect, not amuse, but she undermined her contribution by suggesting that we should look for a dramatic electoral system. I like high opera, but the purpose of elections is to elect, not amuse. This relates to the matter of electronic voting, which was raised by a number of Deputies as a fair point. I was asked to clarify whether I intend to use the machines in 2007. I have said several times and will do so again that it is not my purpose to use the machines. There is nobody so deaf as those who are not here. We all know that the machines can be interfered with by dismantling their backs. Notwithstanding the press conference in the Netherlands, this is not news. Security is clearly an issue and was mentioned in the second report of the commission. It must be taken into account.
As I said previously, I have issued instructions for the voting machines to be taken to a central location and do not intend to use them in the 2007 election. We have established a commission that has made specific findings, the applicability of which we should examine. While Deputy O’Dowd has read the second report, it is not bedtime reading, but anyone who reads it will see that the machines can be modified with relatively small and low cost adjustments. Given the report and what has been spent, a decision to recycle the machines would be an act of political irresponsibility and taxpayers would rightly ask why we behaved in that way.
Two Deputies referred to the current electoral registration process. If a house is visited three times and two notices are put through the door — I have seen staff delivering voter registration forms in a number of constituencies — voters have some responsibility to register.
Mr. Roche: I do not say that in a way that is pompous, smug or anything else of which I am accused. It is the reality that such actions must be taken. We all have a responsibility to play our roles in that regard. Rather than Deputies who are not present contemplating difficulties——
Mr. Roche: In the past week or two, documentation handed to a tribunal by the Taoiseach has apparently gone. We do not know the leak’s source, but neither the Government nor anyone here blames the tribunal. However, the documentation left the source in which it was deposited and appeared in a newspaper office. This is a serious matter.
Deputy Gilmore and another speaker touched on the issue of the constituency revision. Any party that has been in government in the past 20 years knows the position. The Attorney General advised the Government that constituencies can only be revised on the basis of final census figures. This is not new advice as it is in accordance with the advice of previous Attorneys General. Constitutionally, the preliminary figures cannot be used to revise the constituencies. We have not only advice in this respect, there is also case law.
The Electoral Act 1997 provides that a constituency commission should be established upon the publication of the census report, which is the final report on the census. As Minister, I do not have the right to put to one side the constitutional reality I face. I intend to establish the commission when the census report containing the final figures is published. There will be no delay in appointing the commission. The good electoral legislation on which this reality is based was introduced by Deputy Gilmore’s party colleague. He knows from the advice given to his colleague that the suggestion that I could do something unconstitutional is mendacious and disingenuous. The advice given to me is not different from previous legal advice and it is not possible to do as Deputy Gilmore has suggested.
My ministerial function in the context of these procedures is to establish a constituency commission to review and report on the Dáil election in accordance with the relevant constitutional and statutory requirements. I will discharge that statutory duty to the letter and spirit. As soon as the relevant CSO census report is published, I will establish the constituency commission as the legislation provides. Under the Electoral Act 1997, the commission will be required to report to the Ceann Comhairle, not to the Minister, within a period of six months of its establishment. The report shall then be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and any necessary changes made. That is a process of which everybody in this House is aware and which is established in statute. The previous process and any ambiguities in it were dealt with in the Electoral Act 1997. There has been much deliberate muddying of the water about this issue. The reality is that it does not matter who stands here as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We cannot decide to take a pick and mix attitude towards the Constitution.
This has been a positive debate. Deputy O’Dowd, who was outside the Chamber momentarily, made a good point to which I want to refer while he is here. I believe that cross-party consensus is necessary for electoral change.
Mr. Roche: I agree with Deputy O’Dowd in that regard. I have said that several times and I want to say it here in his presence. I am grateful that it has always been the approach he has adopted in this area. I have also acknowledged Deputy Gay Mitchell’s previous interest in this and the fact that we are making a modest, but welcome, change and we are doing so with consensus.
In the longer term, we must evolve a better way of doing things. I have already indicated my personal views on issues like, for example, an electoral commission. With regard to all of that, my responsibility at present on the voting register is to get it right and I have issued the necessary resources and instructions. If any Member of the House feels that the work is not being done, I would greatly appreciate hearing from him or her. I will deal with it in confidence or if the Deputy wants to be acknowledged, I will deal with it in that way. It is important that we do that work.
I am grateful for the debate. I will listen, in particular, to the points made about rights of prisoners. I will suggest to my staff that we make contact with the relevant NGO to see what, if any, improvements can be made because this is a consensus issue on which we can move forward. I am grateful for the contributions in the House.
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