Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
The Bill proposes a reduction in the number of TDs. Sinn Féin wants to make real savings in the cost of government and in our view this can best be done by cutting the wages of salary holders and officeholders, especially Ministers and senior civil servants, rather than the cosmetic exercises as proposed in the Bill. The Sinn Féin view on multi-seat constituencies is that in the past there have been constituencies with up to five seats. We favour four, five and six-seat constituencies over a larger geographical area. This would better reflect the wishes of the electorate in the representation in the Dáil. The number of people elected to the Dáil from various parties compared with the vote they achieve shows a significant discrepancy. In the past, parties with 3% of the vote have taken eight seats and parties with 7% of the vote have taken four seats.
Sinn Féin asks for the publication in full every year of the accounts of political parties, to be published not later than 31 January. Sinn Féin publishes its accounts for all to see. Political parties are now part-funded by the taxpayer in various ways and their accounts should be published.
On amendment No. 8, in the case of summer elections, many electors may be away on holidays on the polling day. It can be frustrating for electors who may have booked a holiday before an election is called and will then be absent on polling day. This is also the case for patients in hospital on polling day. At the general election, a man gave me his number one vote and he died the following weekend. One of his last acts on this earth was to put a number one beside my name on the ballot paper. The bed of heaven to him and I hope he is looked after in the next life. Facilities have been given to prisoners to vote and we should be able to find some way to facilitate people who are hospitalised on election day so that they are not disenfranchised.
Amendment No. 9 is a proposal regarding the register of electors which is currently in rag order. I do not wish to discredit the electoral system but we cannot continue to limp along from one election to the next with an electoral register which may contain names included four times while other names have been excluded as a result of an administrative error. I appeal to the Minister to use this opportunity to improve the system. My amendment on Committee Stage proposed the use of the PPS number. We must protect the integrity of PPS numbers and I refer to the information that 7.2 million PPS numbers were issued. There is clearly a problem with regard to this number of PPS numbers. Sinn Féin would like this problem resolved. Any abuse of PPS numbers or of the electoral system must be eliminated. However, we cannot stand over an electoral system where, at best, in many counties, the electoral register is 70% accurate. This situation will worsen because people move house more often than in the past, they may live in rented accommodation and others may have emigrated. It is no longer the case that people grow up in one house, get married, buy a house or move into a local authority house and stay there until they die. The population today is more transient and we must find a way of connecting the electoral register to a voter’s identity rather than to his or her address. I appeal to the Minister to accept this amendment. Another simple procedure to make the electoral register more accurate would be for the local authority to remove a name automatically from the electoral register once a death certificate has been issued.
I note that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that local authority staff are not available to provide an up-to-date register. The Minister will know from speaking to county managers that most local authorities are not sending out field workers every year to check the validity of the electoral register. Political parties do not have the manpower as in previous decades because they have fewer members. The situation must be remedied. A party colleague of the Minister’s, Councillor Bonham, a very good councillor, was elected to Laois County Council by one half or one third of a vote — a fraction of a vote. The count lasted for weeks and court challenges were in prospect. A book was written about it. If the outcome of elections is to be decided by such an arduous process and on the basis of a percentage of a vote and second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth preferences, the priority should be to compile an accurate register of electors.
Sinn Féin complained about inaccuracies in the register and about the multiple registration of people at a property in a county. A large number of people were registered at the same property and a certain candidate topped the poll in that area who had never come near such a result in a previous election. Sinn Féin has a genuine interest in an accurate and fair electoral register in order that every person has one vote and one vote only.
Deputy Niall Collins: Fianna Fáil has not re-entered on Report Stage the amendments tabled on Committee Stage. We do not propose to delay the proceedings. I agree with Deputy Stanley regarding the accuracy of the register of electors. I ask the Minister to consider — not in this Bill — issuing guidelines as to how the field workers engaged by the local authorities should go about their work of auditing and updating the register of electors. As practising public representatives we have all met people who have been removed from the register of electors, not by their own choice or their own doing. They cannot explain why they have been removed from the register, as in many instances individuals will have lived at the same address for many years. There are many examples of people who have been removed against their will. The only explanation offered by the local authority is that a field worker called to the house on a number of occasions and there was no one there. The issuing of guidelines may be a responsibility of the new electoral commission in the future but in the interim I ask the Minister to consider issuing such guidelines or a directive to the local authorities. Field workers are engaged on a temporary basis to collect the information and it seems to be a hit and miss operation which needs to be improved. We hear many examples at election time when constituents call at the last minute to say their names have been removed from the register of electors.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: The section as amended by the Minister allows the commission a range of between 153 and 160 Deputies. Obviously the Minister originally intended the minimum number to be 152, which would have clearly been unconstitutional according to the preliminary census results as it would have meant that there would have been less than one Deputy for every 30,000 people. However, the new figure of 153 comes very close to that constitutional limit as I pointed out in my Second Stage contribution. It would only take a population increase of 8,731 or more and the new range the Minister has defined would become unconstitutional. In 2006 the preliminary census results were incorrect by just under 5,000. It is quite feasible that the preliminary census results could be out by even more; they could be out by up to 10,000 this time.
A recent newspaper report indicated that the census office is still receiving a number of unreturned census forms. I know it has estimated the number of people who would be accounted for by those unreturned census forms, but that is just an estimate. The census enumerator who came to my door did not go through how many people were in my house. So I would be concerned over the reliability of those estimates. The precedent exists: in 2006 the preliminary census results were inaccurate by almost 5,000. If there is an underestimate of 8,731 or more when we get the final census results, the Bill will have been passed and have become an Act, and the commission will have been given its terms of reference. Midstream in its work, the terms of reference it will have been given will be unconstitutional and the Minister will probably need to introduce amending legislation.
There is no point in the Minister shaking his head. If the final census results show that the preliminary results underestimated the population by 8,731 or more, the range the Minister has defined in the Bill will be unconstitutional and so will be the terms of reference for the constituency commission. I will be making all these points in my submission to that commission, but it is important to point it out here. The Minister should have set the minimum number at 155 at least. On Committee Stage the Minister said he had changed the lower figure from 152 to 153 because the number of members was not feasible. If that is the case and if there is an underestimate when we get the final census results, his new figure of 153 will not be feasible either.
On Committee Stage the Minister said: “I did not expect the population to have increased by 380,000. That was a surprise to everybody.” If that is the case why did the Minister only adjust the lower figure in the range and why did he not increase the upper figure in the range? If the population has increased, surely the Minister wants the people to be properly represented. If he was going to increase the lower number, the logical thing to do would have been to also increase the upper figure — if the Minister is not just doing this for populist reasons, which is what I believe.
While I am not sure if it was raised elsewhere, on Second Stage I mentioned that political scientists highly regard a formula known as the cube root law of assembly sizes. The law basically states that the lower house in a legislature should have a number of members of parliament which is the cube root of that country’s population. It just so happens that the cube root of Ireland’s population according to the latest census results is exactly 166. If that formula is used countries such as Britain and France are overrepresented. The author of that formula stated that: “the cube root rule should prevail because it would maximize efficiency and reduce the influence of non-elected congressional staffs”. He was talking about the US Congress. Obviously the same thing applies here. He makes the point that if a parliament has too few representatives, as the population grows, there is a growth in the number of non-elected officials in political parties and all the support staff. That has been happening in Ireland. We have the same number of Deputies as we had when there were 1.2 million fewer in the population. While we have kept the same number of Deputies, there has been a twentyfold increase in the number of unelected employees associated with parliamentary duties. By reducing the number of Deputies at a time when our population is increasing, as it will continue to do, it will reduce the influence of the elected people in favour of unelected advisers, PAs etc.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: Articles by Shane Coleman in The Sunday Tribune a few years ago drew attention to how overstated our register of electors was. Those articles showed the potential for manipulating an election given that there were more people on the register than there were electors. After that field work was done an initiative was taken to correct it. The door-to-door arrangement might have worked fine when there was a reason for a council official to knock on every door. That tended to be at a time when people paid their domestic rates by cash to the rate collector — it might even have been done on an incremental basis. However, there is no reason now and the local government system would not have the capacity for that kind of door-to-door arrangement to take place. It is essential that we consider how we might get a correct register of electors. I believe the PPS system would be a good system. On Committee Stage we discussed the number of PPS numbers relative to the population. Clearly the number of people over 18 would be smaller than that again. If that is to be taken on board, what could be done to clean up the register of electors database?
I ask the Minister to outline what is intended to deal with the issue of people who are on holidays when an election takes place. People express pure disbelief when they discover they will miss out on voting because they have planned a holiday and had no prior knowledge of when an election was likely to take place.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: I will try to be brief given that people want to deal with a number of other amendments. Two substantive amendments in the name of Deputy Stanley deal with a range of issues. One, close to my heart, is to reverse the change that happened in the supplementary register system in 2002. I have no problem with a system that would ensure everybody on the register of electors had to produce a form of identification or at the very least when it came to the supplementary register to avoid any type of electoral fraud or any kind of rush of blood to many people’s heads to register several times. In many ways this year we were very lucky that the register of electors had come into being and that most people had the opportunity to be on it. However, normally elections are held in either June or October. There is a substantial period between the creation and confirmation of the register in November and February, respectively, during which time people may have reached the age of 18 years or moved house. Their only facility to register is to sign the supplementary register. However, people in working class areas are not inclined to attend Garda stations to have forms stamped. In most cases, politicians only find out that people are no longer on the register or have not submitted their forms when they knock on doors in the run-up to an election. This causes a difficulty. Every Deputy in the Chamber and everyone who took part in the general election will have found people who were not on the electoral register and did not manage to record a vote and enjoy the benefits of citizenship.
The amendment would return us to the old method, whereby people were able to submit a form to be placed on the electoral register. The change would require everyone seeking to be placed on the supplementary register to produce identification. When the last change was made, people claimed it would prevent electoral fraud, but that has not been the case, given how some are still being arrested and charged. The mechanism proposed in the amendment would prevent it in this instance.
The other change has to do with the system of postal voting for persons away on service, in hospital or on holiday. In almost every other country there is a better and quicker mechanism that recognises that people can be absent during elections and allows them to be enfranchised in advance. People could be allowed a postal vote if they have documentation proving they have booked their holiday. Many families take their holidays in June. For example, many teachers, shift workers and so on are away for the month of June because they cannot afford to take expensive holidays in July and August. They could show that they would be travelling and convey their preference to be temporarily included in a register of postal voters. The same is true of patients in hospital. In the light of long waiting lists, one would not want to turn down the chance to undergo an operation or other medical procedure because one also wanted to cast a vote. It should not be an either-or. If one has proof that one will be confined to hospital, one should be able to enjoy the benefits of a postal vote.
The proposed changes are logical and were requested of the previous Minister. No Minister with whom I have spoken so far has opposed our proposals, although no one has ever managed to include them in legislation. Deputy Stanley’s amendments would facilitate them.
On amendment No. 9, when the previous Minister for Social Protection introduced what was then the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill 2010, I asked her to make this facility available, as she was changing the groups which could use PPS numbers. I asked that she include local franchise offices to facilitate the proposal contained in the amendment. However, she stated that it was a rushed Bill and that the Electoral (Amendment) Bill which was to be introduced would be the appropriate place in which to include the provision. We are trying to include it, but its inclusion is being blocked. This mechanism would prevent multiple registrations because a person only has one PPS number. While there are problems with the idea, we could address them to ensure live PPS numbers were used. It would also allow automatic registration on someone turning 18 years and for automatic deletion when someone passes away. A little more work needs to be done on the mechanism, but it would form the starting point for an electoral register based on PPS numbers. The amendments should, therefore, be accepted.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy: I support the sentiments expressed in amendment No. 8. We all met people on the campaign trail who, for one reason or another, could not be present in the country or their constituencies at the time of the election. For example, they might have been working in Dublin while being registered at home because that was where they wanted to vote, which is acceptable. The issue needs to be examined. Simultaneously, we need to consider the case for giving a vote to people who are forced to move abroad because of the country’s circumstances. If they are forced by a Government’s actions to leave their country, they should have a right to vote that Government out of office from abroad in favour of another which they hope will one day make things right and allow them to return. However, this Bill is not the place for that amendment; it should be included in more appropriate legislation. The proposal should be considered. Therefore, I urge the Minister to take the idea on board to determine whether the proposal could be incorporated further down the line.
Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan): To reiterate my Committee Stage comments, the purpose of this short Bill is to deal with three distinct aspects of electoral law. It was never the intention to provide for a more wide-ranging review of electoral procedures or to address issues such as the register of electors. While Deputies’ comments were made in good faith and I agree with the sentiments expressed by all Members who have addressed this matter, they would be more appropriate to the electoral commission legislation that I intend to introduce next year. The matters arising in respect of the register of electors are fundamental to our democracy. It would be far better to engage in a comprehensive examination of the issues, for people to have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote and to address the issues together in the context of the electoral commission proposal contained in the programme for Government. I hope to be able to introduce proposals in 2012.
To address Deputy Tuffy’s points, the provisions of the Electoral Act require a constituency commission to wait until the Central Statistic Office’s final results have been published and reported to the Ceann Comhairle. The matter to which she referred will not arise, as the commission must submit its report three months after the CSO’s final figures have become available.
Deputy Phil Hogan: ——because I have just told her. Any difference that emerges between the preliminary and final census figures will be taken into account by the commission before it presents its report.
The terms of reference as set out in the Bill will require the commission to recommend a set of constituencies based on a number of Deputies between 153 and 160, but these terms of reference are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions. As such, a commission cannot recommend constituencies that do not meet the constitutional requirements. It will have an opportunity for three months after the final figures have been published to make any adjustments required to ensure its recommendations are within the constitutional provisions. The matter does not, therefore, arise.
This amendment is intended to delete the provision in the Bill that allows for the number of Deputies to be reduced to as few as 153. It would not be correct for the number of Oireachtas Members to be reduced without a corresponding enhancement of local authority powers. This is a fundamental issue and the provision is, therefore, unacceptable.
The constitutionality of the Bill is still in question. Reducing the number of Deputies will not make the Dáil more representative or enable people to participate more effectively in democracy on this island. It will not provide for the involvement of more people from low-income or rural backgrounds, who are voiceless in political debates and depend on us to represent them. The provision is all about being seen. The image is of something occurring, but not much is happening other than a reduction in the number of Deputies.
Reducing the number of Deputies raises considerable issues, given that a further population increase between now and the next census is likely. The minimum requirement is one Deputy per 30,000 head of population. On Committee Stage, the Minister stated he did not expect there to be a further increase in population during the next two or three years. The maternity ward in Portlaoise is literally bursting at the seams. I do not know what it is like in the rest of the country——
The Government has talked a lot about reducing the number of quangos and unelected officials. The Minister knows that it drives elected representatives crazy to see important decisions being made by unelected officials, regardless of whether we come from the right, left or centre of the political spectrum. At all levels, elected representatives would love more control over things. Too often, unelected bodies and unrepresentative groups make important decisions. This is an opportunity to hand more power and responsibility to TDs. We would then be accountable to the electorate for the decisions we make. Everyone in this Chamber should be busy with important decision making and there is no reason it should not happen. We could cut down on administration costs by reducing the massive outsourcing of government that has occurred in the past 15 years. We regularly hear that an issue has been devolved to some body or a commission is now making decisions on it. Why are elected Members not making decisions and taking responsibility for them?
Sinn Féin wants to reduce the cost of government and administration. If we are serious about doing that, the best way to go about it is to reduce the wages of officeholders, starting with TDs. Our salaries should be reduced along with those of Ministers, Ministers of State and senior civil servants. This State makes up three quarters of the island and there are people being paid massive salaries that are far greater than those in other European countries that have huge populations. We should look at the examples of the wages paid to senior officials in Italy, France, Holland and similar countries when they are dealing with much larger populations.
This is an opportunity to do more than window dressing, more than what looks good and gets a soundbite in the Sunday newspapers or poor quality publications. Here is an opportunity to reduce the cost of government by reducing salaries.
Deputy Niall Collins: We fundamentally oppose the proposals on the number of TDs. This is a dilution of democracy in the absence of total reform of how we do business in this House. We do not agree with the published band of 153 to 160 TDs.
In recent years the cost of delivering democracy has been reduced substantially. We fundamentally disagree with reducing the number of TDs for the sake of it. This should have formed part of a total reform package for the Oireachtas, be that in the context of the electoral commission or a wider reform package. The Minister himself acknowledged in his speech on Second Stage that this is a piecemeal approach and that is not the best way to do business.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: The Minister has misunderstood me. I know he said the final report will not be issued until after the final census results. My point is that he thought it necessary to change from 152 to 153 in case 152 TDs was unconstitutional. I am saying that if the final census results show a greater population, the 153 TD provision could also be unconstitutional and, therefore, the Act establishing the commission will also be unconstitutional.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I realise that it may not come to pass but if it did, that is what would happen. Never in the history of the State has a commission been asked to make the decision about cutting the number of TDs. It is only in the last two Electoral Acts that a range has been set. Previous commissions, however, ignored that and left the number at 166. In both 1998 and 2006, both commissions stated they had decided not to recommend a change in the numbers because they were satisfied membership levels allowed for a reasonable arrangement of constituencies in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions and terms of reference.
The Minister is making the commission’s job very difficult. Under the Constitution, the Dáil and the Seanad should set the numbers. That is my interpretation. The recent case on joint labour committees stated the Oireachtas should not hand decision-making functions to an outside body, especially without proper guidance. The Minister is not giving the commission any guidance because he does not want to wield the knife. He wants someone else to do the dirty work. The Minister is wrong in doing that. It has never been done before in the history of the State. Under the last two Acts, both commissions ignored the range that was set and left the number of TDs at 166.
A Fine Gael TD stated on Committee Stage that people want the numbers to be cut but we should not do things because the public or a focus group want them. What is the right number of TDs? What is the right kind of representation? The Minister has not analysed those questions. He is doing this purely for populist reasons and is mistaken for that reason alone.
The population has increased by 20,000 per year and everyone knows the prediction is for that to continue. In 2016 there will be another census and the Minister will have cut the number of TDs for one election only and then the cut will have to be reversed for the following election. This is a total waste of time and it will not save any money. It will only save money from the period between the next election and the follow election, which could be a couple of years. This is a totally cosmetic exercise. I will make these points to the commission but I believe the Minister is mistaken on this.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: The case Deputy Finian McGrath and I took sought to have preliminary figures used to start the process. I was amused that the Bill was published the day before the census figures came out, jumping the gun. The size of the population growth between now and the next census does not matter. The last census will be used to decide the number to ensure it is constitutional. I am concerned that a limit on the size will take away the option of whole county constituencies. I have issues with this that I raised on Committee Stage.
A clear vision across the entire range of representation, from local to national level, is lacking. I would like substantial, almost revolutionary, change in how we do things. People want to regain control and that will not happen unless we change the system that is at fault.
Deputy Michael Colreavy: It is unusual to see the name of a specific county in an amendment like this. It is, however, the only way I could raise the issue. I am not a constitutional lawyer but I know the difference between right and wrong. Attempts were made before to right the wrong whereby Leitrim was split in two, rendering it virtually impossible for the county to elect a representative. I ask the Minister to do the right thing and ensure Leitrim is never again cut, even part of it, so that it is not in a position to elect a TD.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As it is now 6 o’clock I am required to put the following question in accordance with an Order of the Dáil of this day: “That Report Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed.”
|Bannon, James.||Barry, Tom.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P..|
|Burton, Joan.||Butler, Ray.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Byrne, Catherine.|
|Byrne, Eric.||Carey, Joe.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Collins, Áine.|
|Conaghan, Michael.||Conlan, Seán.|
|Connaughton, Paul J..||Coonan, Noel.|
|Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.||Costello, Joe.|
|Creed, Michael.||Creighton, Lucinda.|
|Daly, Jim.||Deasy, John.|
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|English, Damien.||Farrell, Alan.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Ferris, Anne.|
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|Flanagan, Terence.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Griffin, Brendan.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Harrington, Noel.||Harris, Simon.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Heydon, Martin.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Humphreys, Heather.||Humphreys, Kevin.|
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|Kelly, Alan.||Kenny, Seán.|
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|McHugh, Joe.||McLoughlin, Tony.|
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|Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.||Mulherin, Michelle.|
|Murphy, Dara.||Murphy, Eoghan.|
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|Penrose, Willie.||Phelan, Ann.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
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|Ryan, Brendan.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Spring, Arthur.||Stagg, Emmet.|
|Stanton, David.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Tuffy, Joanna.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Varadkar, Leo.||Wall, Jack.|
|Walsh, Brian.||White, Alex.|
|Adams, Gerry.||Boyd Barrett, Richard.|
|Browne, John.||Calleary, Dara.|
|Collins, Joan.||Collins, Niall.|
|Colreavy, Michael.||Cowen, Barry.|
|Daly, Clare.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Ellis, Dessie.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Luke ‘Ming’.|
|Fleming, Sean.||Fleming, Tom.|
|Healy, Seamus.||Healy-Rae, Michael.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McGrath, Michael.||McLellan, Sandra.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Murphy, Catherine.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Brien, Jonathan.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||Pringle, Thomas.|
|Ross, Shane.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Stanley, Brian.||Tóibín, Peadar.|
|Troy, Robert.||Wallace, Mick.|
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