Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015
First Stage: 7 May 2015
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2015050500002?opendocument#A00100
Report of Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015: Statements
Wednesday, 8 July 2015
I welcome former Senators, Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole, to the House again. I thank the Leader for organising the debate which follows the debate on Seanad reform that we had on 5 May, and in particular on the findings contained in the report of the working group on Seanad Reform. I commend both of them on producing the report. We all share in the hope and expectations expressed by Senator Cummins that this would be the last report on Seanad reform. I very much welcome the announcement that there will be an implementation group established in early course which is long overdue. It will be quite an achievement to get a Bill through the Oireachtas before the general election even if the implementation group is set up very quickly.
Like Senator Darragh O'Brien, I am concerned that the Taoiseach is meeting the Dáil leaders today. I hope that Seanad group leaders will be met but it is not a matter for either former Senator present. Clearly, it would be important that the Seanad group leaders also meet the Taoiseach to discuss a timetable for reform. I also agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Cummins on the status of the Seanad, the importance that should be ascribed to the Seanad and that priority should be given to the work of the Seanad.
Senator Cummins and myself, on the previous occasion, spoke at length about the procedural changes we have made to the workings of the Seanad. We spoke about the initiatives we have taken. For example, public hearings were held with interested groups and bodies on matters of public interest. We have produced some excellent reports through the initiative. Most recently, we produced a report on farm safety and the previous reports dealt with lifestyle changes to prevent cancer and the human rights of elderly persons. We have produced a whole range of different reports through the new forum of the public consultation committee. As Senator Cummins has said, we have also held a series of debates with MEPs and we have made a number of changes to the way in which the Seanad works. All of those aspects are hugely important.
I very much hope that the current Seanad will have some representation on the implementation group. Others have spoken on the matter. Indeed, I have spoken previously about the lack of representation by serving Senators on the working groups. Having said that, and as I pointed out previously, very few former or serving Senators made submissions to the working group even though clearly it was open to anyone to do so. I made a submission on behalf of Senators in the Labour Party and I went through the submission in more detail on the previous occasion we debated this matter. Now that we are coming back again, and in light of the publication of a draft Bill which seeks to implement the recommendations in the report, I might refer to some of the changes we proposed that I think might be stronger, in some ways, than some of the provisions in the Bill.
In general, the Bill and the recommendations in the report would lead to a hugely improved and more democratic Seanad. We may disagree on some of the detail but, in general, the principle of extending suffrage for the Seanad is a hugely important issue. There is agreement across the House on the need to do so. We can debate to what extent it should be extended, for instance, whether it should be extended to our diaspora or beyond the general election register to the local election register as proposed by the Labour Party group, and I have no doubt the implementation group will also consider these issues.
I have stated on a previous occasion that the report somewhat glossed over how universal suffrage for the 30 seats would work in practice. Looking through the Bill, more detail is clearly available, but there is still some issue about university Senators, which Senator Cummins raised. The issue is whether it is to be based on the existing register for the current institutions initially and for it then to be extended to all higher level education institutions. I am not clear on the point and I could not quite make it out in the Bill so I would be grateful for clarification on it.
I raised a particular issue the last time and, looking at the Bill, it is still an issue for me. The report recommends, on universal suffrage, that individuals who elect to register will choose the vocational panel of their choice and that university graduates may choose to remain eligible to vote on the university panel or transfer to one of the vocational panels. My concern is that such an approach could skew the panels. Looking at section 8 of the draft Bill, I am concerned that it could lead, in the first instance, to very uneven numbers of electors or voters across the panels, which would be a fairly obvious consequence. There might be 100,000 people opting to vote on the arts panel-----
Senator David Norris: Or 850,000 in the universities.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am just coming to that point. That is a very particular instance. How many people would be eligible to vote on the university panel if it is extended to all higher education graduates? The estimate is between 500,000 and 700,000-----
Senator David Norris: I would have said 850,000
Senator Ivana Bacik: -----and that would be for six seats, while there might be just 100,000 electors on another panel, resulting in very skewed numbers on different panels.
There is a further possible consequence from the proposal in section 8 and I am offering this point in a constructive spirit. It is likely or possible that people would organise registration campaigns on a particular panel to ensure they were elected to it. The problem with one voter, one panel is that that would be a likely consequence of it. Our submission was brief but we did think through this issue a little. We suggested that each person entitled to vote would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the five panels and that university graduates could opt for a vote on the university panel instead of just one specified panel. This would guard against the skewing of voter numbers on different panels. We argued this would be like a multi-seat constituency. A person would have five votes on five panels and a person would vote 1, 2 and 3 on each of those panels. This would get over the problem of different numbers registering to vote for different panels. Under our system, people who opted in to register would register for all the panels. These are some of the details.
An issue which I did not get to address in detail on the last occasion but which is addressed in great detail in the report and is reflected in the Bill is the use of online facilities. Excellent suggestions have been made in the report about facilitating more efficient registration so that people can register online and also download ballot papers online. The Constitution requires that ballot papers are returned by post and provision is made for that in the Bill but it would be more efficient and effective if people could register and download ballot papers online.
I wish to make one further suggestion, which could be applied to current panels of voters on the university seats. This is something about which I have been thinking for some time. We should move to a system whereby those who are currently registered to vote on the Seanad Éireann register, that is graduates of the NUI and Dublin University, should be able, as one can in a general election, to check the register. A person should be able to go to a register like checktheregister.ie. Currently people can check the register but they must look at the hard copy of the Seanad Éireann electoral register, which is available in the libraries of the various institutions of the NUI and Dublin University. The NUI register is available for examination in the reception of NUI offices, but there is currently no facility for people to check an online register.
Since we were here last on 5 May, we have seen the huge amount of people who came home to vote, who, having checked the register, saw they were still eligible although they had lived abroad for a short period of time. We saw the huge strength of the Home to Vote campaign, but it relied on people being able to check the register. It struck me that the referendum on 22 May highlighted how important it is that people can check if they are registered. Whether one moves to the universal suffrage model here, or even if it is just in respect of the six university graduate seats, we should have a mechanism for people to check a register online to see if they are registered for Seanad elections. I make that pitch now and I will also make it to the appropriate Minister, who I think is the Minister for Education and Skills. It is clear an online register is available to public representatives so it should not be too difficult a system. There are security issues but reading through the detail in the appendix to the report from the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, many of the security issues concerning online registration systems have been addressed. That would also apply to existing registers for the university seats. That is one very particular issue I did not get an opportunity to address on the last occasion which became more pertinent following the marriage equality referendum.
There is a lot more in the report and the Bill but I wish to raise a couple of other points. There is the issue of giving councillors a continued say in a number of seats - 13 I think - in a reformed Seanad. It is a good idea to give councillors some continued say in the make up of the Seanad. We sought to address this issue in our submission to the working group by suggesting that one of the panels under the Constitution and in accordance with Article 19, the public administration panel, could be reserved for election by city and county council members, which would preserve existing links with local government. There would, therefore, be no need to set aside as many as 13 seats to preserve that link. There are other ways of achieving what I agree is a worthy aim, which is to preserve the link between those who are elected locally and the Seanad.
We recommended that if we were moving to universal suffrage, as we favour, that all those entitled to be registered to vote in the local election register should be entitled to vote in Seanad elections. Dáil elections are clearly confined to those on the general election register. Using a local election register for Seanad elections would maintain the link between local representation and local government and the Seanad and would give us a broader franchise.
We already have diaspora votes for the university seats so there is an argument that that would be one way of extending the franchise without encountering the problems others have addressed. In principle, I agree that it would be positive to have votes for those who live abroad without the current restrictions that one can only live abroad for a very limited period of time while retaining one's general election vote. There is plenty more to say and I am sure we will get more opportunities. I thank the former Senators for engaging with us today.
Senator David Norris: I want to welcome back my two very valued colleagues, Mr. Joe O'Toole and Dr. Maurice Manning. They were two very distinguished Members of this House and their contribution to the discussion about reform of the Seanad has been invaluable. I am a little surprised, however, that there is no Bill yet because the last time our two friends were here with us, I think they promised a Bill within a matter of days. It has not materialised, which is a pity, or at least I do not think it was suggested there is a Bill.
The compulsive interest of Members of the House in this matter has led to a situation where there are 11 Members present - I counted them some minutes ago - and that has been about the average throughout the afternoon.
Is that a Bill I see?
Senator Ivana Bacik: It is a draft Bill.
Tuesday, 5 May 2015
Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015: Statements
I welcome the former Senators Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole, as well as former Senator Pat Magner, and commend them for producing this excellent report. My colleagues and I have sought an opportunity to debate it and issues arising from it. I am delighted to learn that a Bill is ready today. As the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, has pointed out, we will have an opportunity to debate that Bill further once we study its contents.
The report contains a number of detailed proposals. Having made a submission to the working group on behalf of Labour Party Senators, I welcome the opportunity to engage on these proposals. Of the 69 submissions made to the working group, just eight were from serving or former Senators. I do not think the group met any sitting Senator in the course of its work. While I am conscious that a number of members of the group have inside knowledge of how the Seanad works, the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, outlined some of the innovations introduced by this Seanad, including the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and a series of debates with MEPs. Perhaps these significant changes might have been given greater acknowledgement in the report.
I emphasise that my comments are intended to be constructively critical and that I warmly welcome the report in general. I especially welcome the proposals on universal suffrage and giving a vote to people in Northern Ireland and the diaspora. Logistical issues certainly arise, as Senator Denis O'Donovan noted, but the report engages with these issues.
Other reforms we have made to the Seanad under the leadership of Senator Maurice Cummins include a change to sitting times to enable us to engage better with committees. The report might also have acknowledged our sectoral engagement through joint committees. Arguably, for example, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights is a better forum than the Seanad to scrutinise justice and home affairs directives from the European Union. It might be worth debating in more detail the specific bodies in the Oireachtas that are best placed to scrutinise EU matters.
A technical or logistical issue arises in respect of the online registration of voters and the issuance of ballot papers. I disagree with Senator Denis O'Donovan on the constitutionality of this proposal. I note that Mr. Michael McDowell states in the second appendix that the Constitution requires ballot papers to be returned by post. I agree with him that there is no impediment to allowing ballot papers to be distributed online for downloading. Certainly the Constitution requires ballot papers must be returned by post. Having read the Constitution, I agree there is no impediment to having the downloading of ballot papers online. That would deal with the cost issue, especially the huge waste in respect of the university seats and the number returned ballot papers with "addressee unknown" on them. Those are welcome changes which the working group is recommending.
I welcome the recommendation on universal suffrage. It was one of the issues the Labour Party Senators addressed in its submission. The report somewhat glosses over how this would work in practice. The witnesses say it would be a matter for the implementation committee, and certainly it would. There are, however, some key questions that need to be addressed specifically and I presume they will be addressed in the Bill. For example, if all the university graduates chose to opt for one vocational panel, that would skew the electorate for that panel. Similarly, on the nomination process, I was slightly disappointed that they seem to recommend retention of the current nomination process, which is controlled by the political parties. Maybe I have misread that. In our submission, we make some more radical recommendations for change.
Some of the changes the Labour Party Senators put forward, in the same spirit as the recommendations in the working group report, are slightly different. We thought the Convention on the Constitution should reconvene to consider what substantive changes could be made through constitutional amendments, such as changes to the Taoiseach’s power to nominate 11 Senators. I am conscious, however, that is beyond the remit of the witnesses’ group.
We made four points about changes that could be made without a constitutional amendment. The first was the expansion of the electorate for the university panel, which is in hand because the general scheme of the Government Bill has been published. We note the logistical difficulties raised when between 500,000 and 700,000 graduates would be entitled to vote on the new six-person panel. In principle, we absolutely agree with that. Second, we dealt with universal suffrage for election to the five vocational panels. We recommended that all those entitled to be on the local election register should also be entitled to vote in the Seanad elections. The witnesses confine it to Irish citizens. We thought the local election register would be better because that is a broader franchise and is in keeping with the link with local representation and local government. That is perhaps a minor detail.
We also said that rather than have one person, one vote, each person entitled to vote would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the five panels, like a multi-seat constituency, and that university graduates could opt for a vote on the university panel instead of one of the panels - we recommended the national language, culture and literature panel. Similarly, we suggested reserving one panel, the public administration panel, for election by city and county council members. We thought it important to preserve the existing link with local government but we felt that was a simpler method. I am grappling with the witnesses’ panel and sub-panel method, which is more complex and given how complex the panels already are, there is some merit in the greater simplicity of our proposal.
We say powers of nomination should be extended beyond the existing nomination bodies. This could be done in terms of the Constitution. Michael McDowell acknowledges that. For example, we could have popular nomination by 500 persons on the Seanad electoral register. Finally, we recommended Seanad election should take place on the same day as the election to the Dáil. That is constitutionally permissible and would make sure, to a greater extent, that the Seanad is not a mini-Dáil and it would break the direct link between Dáil and Seanad elections. I welcome the report. It would make a huge improvement to the Seanad were it to be implemented and I look forward to further debate on the text of the Bill.