Header Item Prelude
 Header Item Business of Seanad
 Header Item Commencement Matters
 Header Item Gambling Legislation
 Header Item Medicinal Products Availability
 Header Item Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Provision
 Header Item Harbour Authorities
 Header Item Order of Business
 Header Item EU Regulation on Internal Security Fund: Motion
 Header Item Electoral Commission: Statements

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 260 No. 5

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Chuaigh an Cathaoirleach i gceannas ar 10:30:00

Machnamh agus Paidir.

Reflection and Prayer.


Business of Seanad

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I have received notice from Senator Jerry Buttimer that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline the steps he has taken on loot boxes and online video games and their relationship with gambling behaviour.

I have also received notice from Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to outline his plans to approve access to the drug Spinraza for children who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, SMA.

I have also received notice from Senator Máire Devine of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to outline when the vacant clinical psychologist post at the Linn Dara child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, in Cherry Orchard will be filled.

I have also received notice from Senator Victor Boyhan of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to make a statement on his Department’s function and role in respect of the expressed preference of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council that Dún Laoghaire Harbour operate as part of its local authority structure and whether he will consent to the order of transfer and confirm the official date for the transfer of the harbour to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

I have also received notice from Senator Colm Burke of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the changes to be made in the allocation of school transport places.

I have also received notice from Senator Maura Hopkins of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to provide an update on plans to develop a greenway between Athlone, County Westmeath and Ballinasloe, County Galway.

I have also received notice from Senator Anthony Lawlor of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to provide an update on affordable childcare services.

I have also received notice from Senator James Reilly of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Justice and Equality to outline his plans to reopen the Garda station in Rush, County Dublin.

I have also received notice from Senator Maria Byrne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to extend further the paid maternity leave entitlement of mothers of premature babies.

I have also received notice from Senator John O'Mahony of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the teacher allocation for Shraheen national school, Knockmore, County Mayo.

The matters raised by the Senators are suitable for discussion. I have selected the matters raised by Senators Buttimer, Ó Ríordáin, Devine and Boyhan and they will be taken now. The other Senators may give notice on another day of the matters they wish to raise.

Commencement Matters

Gambling Legislation

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and thank him for being here. The issue of loot boxes and gambling has grown into national and international prominence in recent months. Loot boxes could pose gambling risks for children and at-risk adults. They represent an area of huge and growing concern for parents and people prone to gambling addiction. I have raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions and have also raised it in light of the Irish representatives signing a declaration at the 2018 meeting of the Gaming Regulators European Forum, in which the Minister for Justice and Equality's Department was involved. It is important to acknowledge that this matter is on the Minister of State's radar.

  Loot boxes are a consumable virtual item which can be redeemed to receive a randomised selection of in-game items ranging from customisation options for a character to game changing equipment such as weapons and armour to increases in in-game currency received. I must admit that the matter is one with which I am not 100% familiar. I am very fortunate that I have a very good friend who advises me on many ongoing developments in this area, Mr. Eoin Barry from Cork. Both of us have been in discussion with representatives from the gaming industry and the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, ISFE, for a period of time. I acknowledge that we have met Mr. David Sweeney. The declaration which emerged from the European forum stated: "Our authorities are committed to the objectives of their public policies with regard to consumer protection, prevention of problem gambling and ensuring the safety of underage persons."

  Cork has been become pronounced as a city associated with gaming and it is fair to say computer gaming is a hobby enjoyed by millions of people around the world and that e-sports have become a global phenomenon in recent years. Unfortunately, there are concerns regarding the potential exposure to addictive behaviour such as gambling. That is where loot boxes have crept into the gaming scene and have become a topical issue not only for gamers, but for parents and governments around the world. We are not trying to change the experience of those who are committed to, and who participate in, gaming in any way. We are, however, trying to look at the aspects relating to addiction, gambling and compulsion, which is what loot boxes play into. There was an example in Cork when the story emerged of a young boy who spent a month of his mother's wages on FIFA 18.  This gaming uses a loot box system whereby players are distributed randomly from packs. Even videos of people unboxing loot boxes are a genuine phenomenon. The important thing is that loot boxes can be compared to traditional gaming in a number of ways. First, the win state of a loot box is a gamble. Second, in the loot box models there is a way to force a win state. The important point is that there have been changes internationally that have emanated from various countries. For example, the Belgian Gaming Commission deemed in May 2018 that many forms of loot boxes constitute gambling and recommended prosecutions against companies which did not desist in their sale. Electronic Arts, which has a studio in Galway, has a different viewpoint from Belgium's interpretation and has chosen not to remove them from games sold on the Belgian market. A couple of cases are taking place this month.

  My time is nearly up. I thank the Minister of State for being here. I know that he has been very proactive on the issue of gambling, including online gambling, and this particular matter. This is a conversation we are starting to have in this country. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting the matter for discussion. I again thank Mr. Barry for advising me and his work with me.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy David Stanton): Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I thank the Senator for raising this issue and his continued interest in this whole area. The issue of loot boxes and online video games has received significant media attention in recent days. There are three elements to this matter which I wish to highlight. First, Ireland was happy to join in the declaration from the Gaming Regulators European Forum, GREF, on the undesirability of games, particularly those with huge popularity, crossing the line into offering services that might normally be described as gambling. GREF is a voluntary association of European gambling regulatory authorities in which Ireland participates. Second, while the declaration does not have legal effect, it reflects concern among national authorities that online gaming products should be appropriately licensed if they offer gambling possibilities. A key purpose of the declaration is to alert parents to potential issues arising from in-game purchases. Parents have primary responsibility to protect their children in this regard. Third, where a game offers the possibility of placing a bet or taking risk for financial reward within the game, it must, in my view, be licensed as a gambling product. To offer gambling products in Ireland, a licence is required under the Betting Acts 1931 to 2015 or the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956.

  The Revenue Commissioners are the primary responsible licensing authority under both Acts, with some involvement of the Minister for Justice and Equality. However, it should be understood that if a game offers in-game purchases - be they loot boxes, skins, etc. - which are promoted to gamers as increasing their chances of success, such purchases are essentially a commercial or e-commerce activity. This activity would fall within normal consumer law. If there is dissatisfaction with the purchase or how it is promoted, objections should be directed to the appropriate authority. My Department has no role either in the regulation of game developers as to how their games work or in the offering of in-game purchases.

  Work is ongoing on modernising aspects of gambling law. The Government has approved a number of my proposals to update and modernise the 2013 general scheme of a gambling control Bill. These included the establishment of an independent regulatory authority for the gambling industry to conduct the complex range of licensing, regulating, monitoring, inspecting and enforcement tasks required for the industry. An interdepartmental working group on gambling has completed its review of the 2013 general scheme of a gambling control Bill and is preparing its report for submission to Government very shortly, in autumn 2018.

  What the Senator has highlighted is the complexity of this area and how quickly it is developing and changing. I reiterate to parents my call for them to become more aware of what is going on with these loot boxes and online video games. The issue of addiction is a matter for the Minister for Health, as are all other addictions.

Acting Chairman (Senator John O'Mahony): Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony Does Senator Buttimer wish to ask a brief supplementary question?

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer Yes, I will be very brief.

  I thank the Minister of State for his reply and welcome both the ongoing review and the legislative modernisation of the general scheme of the gambling control Bill that is under way. The debate this morning is welcome and necessary. It is a conversation that is happening internationally and nationally and it is an important debate. We have, as the Minister of State said, complex regulation that we need to update for loot boxes. Part of the debate is about digital safety and whether loot boxes enable gambling. This is a global conversation of which we are a part, and I believe we need to provide learning benefit and tackle the negative impact and effects of unsupervised access to technology. I thank the Minister of State. We will have a further conversation on the matter and I hope that as part of it we can reach out to those in the know. I again thank people like Mr. Barry who brought the issue to my attention.

Acting Chairman (Senator John O'Mahony): Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony Does the Minister of State wish to respond briefly?

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I thank Senator Buttimer for his further comments on this matter and his interest and support. I have endeavoured to separate the various elements involved. The declaration referred to is intended to let the gaming industry know that where their games involve in-game purchases, which are offers to gamble, these games would fall to be regulated under gambling legislation. Many other states share our concern in that regard. Where the games do not involve invitations to bet, they fall under the appropriate legislation dealing with the sale and-or distribution of video games. This is the Video Recordings Act 1989, under which video games are exempted works for classification purposes unless they fall within the terms provided for in section 3(1)(a) or (b), which cover the grounds for their prohibition. Ireland is part of the Pan European Game Information system, which is a Europe-wide voluntary rating system for video games.

  Debate on this issue has highlighted the need to progress the modernisation of the gambling laws to ensure there is clarity and protection for all those who use gambling services. A significant amount of work has been undertaken, as I said, within government to develop revised proposals to better reflect the required extent of the State's engagement with a modern Irish gambling environment. I am a little frustrated that we have not progressed the matter further than we have done, but it is very complex - far more complex than many of us had realised. We are working as hard as we can to bring forward this modernisation.

Medicinal Products Availability

Acting Chairman (Senator John O'Mahony): Information on John O'Mahony Zoom on John O'Mahony The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is welcome.

Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I thank the Minister of State for being here. I very much appreciate it and know that she will feel strongly about the issue I am about to raise. I also appreciate that her Department is working as best it can to find a resolution to the issues I raise. I welcome in the Gallery Ms Fiona Bailey, the mother of Sam Bailey. I met the family of Grace O'Malley from Mayo last week.

  Last week there was a demonstration outside Leinster House, of which I think the Minister of State was aware, about the 25 children in this country who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy type 2. It called on the Government to speed up the process of making the wonder drug, as it is called, Spinraza available to these children. It is a vitally important intervention that these children greatly need. What the families are asking for is the exact timeline for negotiation between the HSE and Biogen, the manufacturer of this drug. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, who I know is engaged in this issue and seeks a resolution of it, tweeted last week to one of the parents involved in this campaign that the issue is currently with the HSE, that there needs to be engagement between the HSE and the company, that he will make sure it happens and that he knows how important it is to families.

  What the families are really asking for is clarification as to where the process is. It is understood that Biogen made an offer on 29 July and that a high-level meeting on the issue may be held in the Department tomorrow. Spinal muscular atrophy type 2 is a particularly difficult condition with which to live. The families are doing their absolute best and they appreciate that there are people working in the Department who are doing their best to ensure we can come to a resolution of this issue. I know from my time as a Minister of State in that Department and from working in these Houses that no one in politics tries to be a blocker or to increase the suffering of children. The 25 children are doing well but, having spoken to their families last week and again this morning, I understand they fear facing into winter, even at this time of year. The impact winter could have on children with this condition is frightening.  This drug could make all the difference. It is freely available in 20 countries in Europe, but for some reason, two do not have it, one of which, unfortunately, is Ireland. We know the process and campaign the Government went through to find a solution for children with cystic fibrosis in the case of Orkambi. It was much appreciated. I think it is within the Minister of State's capacity to give the families affected by this condition some hope. They want clarification of where the Government is in negotiations with the company. Can we hope and expect Spinraza to be freely available for the children in question in that they can look forward to having more complete lives and fulfilling their potential?

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne): Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

  Medicines play a vital role in improving the overall health of Irish patients. Ensuring access to new and innovative medicines in a timely manner is a key objective of the health service. The challenge is to deliver on the objective in an affordable and sustainable way. However, new medicines are often very expensive. There is a large number of applications in the reimbursement process which, if all approved, would have a significant impact on an already overstretched health budget.

  Spinraza is indicated for the treatment of 5q spinal muscular atrophy, SMA, a disorder characterised by progressive muscle atrophy and weakness. The Minister understands access to potentially beneficial drug treatments is an important issue for all people with serious illnesses and fully appreciates that SMA sufferers and their families face enormous day-to-day challenges in dealing with this progressive and debilitating condition. The Oireachtas has put in place a robust legal framework in the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013 which gives full statutory powers to the HSE to assess and make decisions on the reimbursement of medicines, taking account of a range of objective factors and expert opinion, as appropriate. The Act specifies the criteria to be applied in making reimbursement decisions, which include the clinical and cost effectiveness of the product, the opportunity cost and the impact on resources available to the HSE. In reaching its decision the HSE will examine all of the relevant evidence and take into account such expert opinions and recommendations as are appropriate, including from the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE. This ensures reimbursement decisions are made on objective, scientific and economic grounds. The NCPE is a team of clinicians, pharmacists, pharmacologists and statisticians who evaluate the clinical benefits and costs of medical technologies and provide advice for the HSE. NCPE reports are important inputs to assist the HSE in its decision-making process. The HSE received an application for the reimbursement of the drug in question in July 2017 and referred it to the NCPE for advice. The NCPE conducted a health technology assessment of Spinraza and did not recommend reimbursement at the price sought by the applicants.

  I make it clear that the HSE has yet to make a final decision on the pricing and reimbursement application submitted by Biogen for the reimbursement of Spinraza and that the statutory process is ongoing. The HSE is the decision-making body for the reimbursement of medicines under the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013 and will make the final decision on whether Spinraza will be reimbursed, taking into consideration the statutory criteria as specified in the 2013 Act.

Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin I appreciate the answer and the fact that the Minister of State has outlined the process involved, but what the families really need to know is when it will happen. I know that the Minister of State may not be in a position to give me that answer now, but I ask her to impress on the Minister the importance of this matter. I understand the HSE has yet to make the final decision, but I think the Minister of State appreciate that the families listening to this debate, including a mother who is in the Visitors Gallery, want to know when it will be made. Will the Minister of State impress on the Minister the importance of the matter? Is he in a position to meet representatives of the families? Will he give an assurance, as he did, in fairness, through social media last week, that he cares passionately about it? Will the Minister of State ask him for clarity on the timeline involved? That is what the families really want. While they appreciate that negotiations are ongoing, that there is a cost issue and that these matters are technical and complicated, the issue is of critical importance to the children. Will the Minister of State impress on the Minister the importance of meeting the families to outline the timeline involved? We cannot live off an answer that a final decision has yet to be made, with no sense as to when it will be made. As a compassionate politician, the Minister of State will appreciate this. I ask for clarity on the issue. I know that the Minister will listen to the Minister of State and wants to engage with the families to bring the matter to a successful conclusion.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I say to the Senator and the parents that I do not believe any of us in this Chamber or elsewhere wants to see seriously ill children suffer. The Minister is true to his word. He has said he will fix this problem and I believe that will happen. The timeframe is crucial for everybody present. I did not know about the meeting with the Minister. I will inform him that the Senator has raised the issue. Sometimes the cost of a drug should not be an issue when it comes to life-changing medicines for children. I adhere to all of what the Senator has said. I will convey what he said in his contribution to the Minister this afternoon.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Provision

Senator Máire Devine: Information on Máire Devine Zoom on Máire Devine I welcome the Minister of State. This issue relates to the Cherry Orchard campus in Dublin 10. My last Commencement matter on it was in July and dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. It was tabled in response to desperation and queries from patients - children - their families, the staff and others at the coalface with experience of how day services were being shut down. On 11 June the consultant was told by the director of services of concerns about staffing in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, to cater for the Linn Dara day programme. The problem arose because a supporting CAMHS service in Clondalkin was in dire straits. The consultant was willing to support the service in Clondalkin and, with staff, formulated a solution to help with capacity in Clondalkin. Staff travelled to Clondalkin in the morning and returned to Linn Dara in the afternoon to carry out assessments, attend appointments and provide therapies included in the diary to provide long-awaited services for adolescents and children. Nothing else happened between 11 and 27 June.

  On 27 June an email was circulated by senior management advising of the closure of the day hospital programme on 6 July. The senior manager went on to say families should not be informed directly about the closure and that appointments should continue to be made for children who had been on the waiting lists for a long time. The order not to inform families was the entire concern of management at the time. It refused to communicate directly with families and stated it would not issue letters to cancel appointments because it did not want them to end up on the Joe Duffy radio show. The closure was kept quiet and low key. I urged the Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care to visit the campus in July prior to the recess and the House recommencing last week, but the issue remains unresolved.

  As the Minister of State is aware, I spent more than 30 years as a psychiatric nurse. From a service provision perspective, I know only too well the deficits and the impact on children and families. I want to talk to the Minister. I spoke to one of the mothers, whose story exemplifies the failings of CAMHS.  Her child has been on the waiting list since May. He was waiting for a particular psychologist, to whom he was allocated, but the psychologist has since moved out of the area, leaving the Cherry Orchard campus one psychologist post short. I am sure the Minister of State is aware and I am sure she also gets this all the time. I have been inundated with requests for help from parents of young children in dire need of the mental health services. This child's waiting list has been frozen and the parents were told that, realistically, it would be at least another six months before a replacement psychologist was hired. This child is just one of many children who are in distress. It is unacceptable. The child is ten years old, is isolated and has major socialisation issues. He is boiling with frustration that is destructively displayed at home. I am aware of parents who care for and are concerned about their children and family members and are trying to keep them safe being advised to call the Garda to deal with children as young as five years of age. Some have done so. I ask the Minister of State to outline how the position at Cherry Orchard campus will be improved. Will she provide concrete, tangible plans for day services and fast-tracking recruitment to the vacant psychology post?

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne As Senator Devine's colleague in the same constituency, I am all too familiar with the issues she raises. The work done by staff in the child and adolescent mental health services is challenged daily by the shortage of professionals in the service.

  On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is the policy of the HSE, as reflected in its annual service plan, to provide an age appropriate mental health service for those under the age of 18 years. I reiterate the Government’s commitment, in view of the significant additional funding given over recent years, to the development of all aspects of mental health, including that relating to young people. The Minister of State will continue to make the case for further resources annually, in line with evolving demands and in accordance with A Programme for a Partnership Government commitments.

  The HSE's national service plan 2018 also commits to further developing child and adolescent services through CAMHS. This is against a background of demand for CAMHS increasing by 26% between 2012 and 2017. Various initiatives on youth mental health other than the specialist CAMHS are also being progressed. We have 69 CAMHS teams and three paediatric liaison teams supported by 75 CAMHS beds nationally. Further beds are planned to come on stream as quickly as possible. Some 18,500 CAMHS referrals are expected in 2018, with 14,500 young people set to be seen by this specialist service. It should be noted that this figure of 14,500 is up from 8,600 in 2011. On behalf of the Minister of State, I pay tribute to the staff of mental health teams for the work they do daily in dealing with this rapid increase in demand for their services. Cases assessed by professionals as being urgent are seen as a matter of priority.

  The Government has funded an extra 130 psychiatric nurse undergraduate places each year to help improve the planning and delivery of services in the next few years. A key difficulty being addressed by the HSE is the issue of staff recruitment and retention, particularly in CAMHS. The recent appointment by the HSE of 114 assistant psychologists and 20 psychologists will help to develop counselling services in primary care. It is anticipated that these posts will deal with the less complex child and adolescent cases, thereby reducing the demand on CAMHS.

  In addition, the Minister of State recently approved ten new posts for advance nurse practitioners, ANP, who will be specifically directed to the CAMHS service nationally. These new ANPs will play a key role in delivering better service co-ordination where local service pressures are greatest.

  The HSE's Linn Dara CAMHS service covers County Kildare, west Wicklow and south Dublin, reflecting a total population of some 420,000. There are seven multi-disciplinary community CAMHS teams for these areas. The HSE has confirmed that there is a psychologist on each CAMHS team and the current vacancy in psychology, in this instance, is due to a temporary absence and will be filled as soon as possible.

 The HSE has a statutory responsibility to ensure that safe, adequate and sufficient services are provided by all areas of CAMHS. The Linn Dara inpatient unit remains fully operational as normal, with 22 beds available as well as functioning community teams. I assure the Senator that the Minister of State will keep the matter under close review and that all efforts will continue to be made by the HSE to address the ongoing needs of Linn Dara to a maximise its services.

Senator Máire Devine: Information on Máire Devine Zoom on Máire Devine I also pay tribute to the staff working at the coalface. They have the solutions, as was clear in the case of the closure of the day programme at Linn Dara when they were ignored. Around 80% of A Vision for Change has not been implemented. This is especially glaring in the delivery of child and adolescent mental health services. We are spending €300,000 per week or €3.2 million per annum on agency staff in nursing and psychiatry. I acknowledge the extra undergraduate nursing places that have been introduced but, as nurses told me last week, no one with sufficient experience is available to mentor these undergraduates. While we fill the vacancies with graduates, the experienced staff who would normally mentor them have left the health service, leaving young and inexperienced staff running wards and clinics. The 700 vacancies in the service is a matter of concern.

  Will the Minister of State revert to me with a timeline and process for filling the vacant psychologist post in the Cherry Orchard service? There are many children on the waiting list who will still be waiting in six months. Let us try to fast-track this. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care would like to know when the day programme will reopen. Perhaps the Minister of State can engage with the HSE on the Cherry Orchard campus.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne Zoom on Catherine Byrne I thank the Senator and bow to her expertise in this area as I know she spent some working in that area of medicine. I cannot give the Senator answers to her questions but I will follow up with the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, and ask him to revert to her. I am also concerned that there are numerous children who have to wait a long time to access CAMHS. The Minister of State is doing his utmost to recruit people to the service. Unfortunately, some people find this line of work very difficult. As the Senator is aware, mental health issues can be very complex, especially with children. I will speak to the Minister of State about this matter and ask about the day-care services in Cherry Orchard and whether he can provide the timeline the Senator seeks.

Harbour Authorities

Acting Chairman (Senator Gerry Horkan): Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan The next matter is in the name of Senator Victor Boyhan. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, who will speak on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Harbours are not the Minister of State's usual brief.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I welcome the Minister of State. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter for discussion on the Commencement. I am delighted to see Senator Horkan, a former member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, in the Chair. I was also a member of the council and was first elected to it in 1999.  More importantly, I served two terms as a director of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company.

  I am conscious that I am in the Houses of the Oireachtas and that I have privilege. I have checked the limitations and possibilities under that privilege and I want to be responsible. It is too easy to come in here and start roaring and shouting without getting very far. I record, however, that I received two days ago from a very large legal firm in Dublin some communication in respect of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. I reflected on it, as I do on every item of correspondence crossing my desk, and contacted the firm to say I would facilitate it as best I could.

  The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has responsibility in this area. This is a complicated matter and many people may not quite understand harbours come under the transport portfolio. The Taoiseach was one of the Minister's predecessors and he possesses a lot of knowledge of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. It is important to state that because I make a plea today to the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Ministers for Finance and Housing, Planning and Local Government that no order be signed to transfer Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council until they meet all Senators, Deputies and county councillors from the functional area of that local authority and provide an absolute commitment and indemnity to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's executive and elected members that the local authority will not be saddled with a massive debt. Correspondence I studied late into the night advises me that there is a potential exposure of €43 million which is spread over many areas, including pensions, the deficit and other liabilities. This falls out of part of a due diligence document which I have seen. I am not sure there has been full disclosure in relation to this company. I challenge all of the political masters of the relevant Departments, who I have just named, to plead with the Minister not to keep the pressure on to have this company transferred. It is unfair to place that liability on the local authority.

  I single out the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of regard notwithstanding our challenges and difficulties, because he is acutely aware of the issues. He has promoted the idea of spending capital funds from that local authority on Glenalbyn swimming pool, a running track in Marlay Park, arts, culture and sport, a master plan for Marlay Park and the roll-out of phase 2 of the Fernhill Park project. That cannot happen if the local authority's capital funding is to be bled off. I acknowledge that the Minister of State in attendance is not the line manager, but my message is that the Government should not expose the councillors or executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to a liability and debt which will ultimately fall on taxpayers. The Minister of State and I know that this is what will happen. There will either be an increase in the local property tax in that local authority area or a clearing out of the capital budget in circumstances where it will be simply impossible to roll out the capital plan. For any Minister to tell me that the local authority has capital or can cash in assets is wrong. It should not have to cash in the assets. It should be given a remuneration package, compensation and an indemnity and it should not be exposed.

  I will not be found wanting - from today until the process is closed - in pursuing all of the political people I have mentioned. Common sense must prevail. This should not be inflicted on the local authority. What is the rush? Before I came to the Chamber, I received a call to my office from a member of the Minister's staff to ask if she could be of assistance to me. There is no point coming to me ten minutes before a Commencement matter to offer assistance. Last night, I received another official acting on the Minister's behalf asked for a press statement that I may or may not have issued. I am sorry but I was burning the candle until 1.25 a.m., fielding questions and telephone calls and I was back in here at 7.30 a.m. It is too late. The politicians have left it too late. It is time to row back from exposing this local authority. I appeal to the Taoiseach, who has a great deal of knowledge of this company, to contact the Minister and direct him not to put pressure on or sign off on a transfer until the issues I have raised have been explored in great detail. I thank the Acting Chairman for granting me time and latitude to discuss what is a very important issue.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I thank the Senator for raising this issue and I am glad to have the opportunity to provide him with an update on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan. The Minister is answering questions in the Dáil at this time and sincerely regrets that he cannot be here.

  The national ports policy 2013 provides for the transfer of certain ports to relevant local authorities and sets out the arrangements for giving effect to this aim. In that context, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has sought the agreement of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the proposed dissolution of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and the transfer of the company's harbour to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has an important prudential role with regard to the financial integrity of all local authorities to ensure their finances remain, as far as is practicable, on a sustainable footing. This is a role that the Department must discharge in the context of significant issues affecting the local government system or individual local authorities. The transfer of a harbour company of significance to a local authority, as in the case of Dún Laoghaire, is a substantial issue, as the Senator has said, and its implications must be fully understood. In particular, it is vital that the relevant local authority is not unduly encumbered or exposed to risk by the effective transfer of a commercial body to its control. This principle has been well established in respect of previous port transfers. The Department must, of course, give effect to the Government's policy on ports of regional significance and bring the matter of the transfer of ports more generally to a conclusion. In doing so, however, it must ensure that there is a clear understanding of all of the issues involved.

  Government policy regarding local government is very clear that responsibility at central government level in respect of any matters of policy, legislation, resources and accountability relating to functions discharged at local authority level rest with the relevant Department. For example, central government responsibility in relation to the roads functions discharged at local level by local authorities rests with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Similarly, responsibility at national level for the transfer of certain ports to relevant local authorities continues to rest with that Department. That applies to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company transfer and any other transfer taking place in the future, either as a result of a transfer of shareholding or by dissolution of an existing company, as well as to all regional harbours already transferred to local authorities.

  Regarding the Dún Laoghaire harbour transfer specifically, I advise the House that the Minister has now consented to the signing of the necessary statutory instrument. This follows on from a previous consent provided by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is now a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to complete the process using his powers under section 28 of the Harbours Act 2015 to dissolve the company and transfer the harbour to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan Clearly, the Minister has let it be known that this is signed. He knows the ramifications. I do not threaten people at all. I have in sight a letter signed by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, from which I will read. The letter is dated 16 July 2018 and in it the Minister thanks me for my correspondence. I have a lot of correspondence from many people and I intend to put into the public domain in the next few days after I have further legal advice on it. It is substantial. The Minister states:

Matters in relation to the transfer including any transfer of liabilities or costs are currently being discussed between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and this Department. Unfortunately, I cannot comment further on this matter as it is still under negotiation.

That is fair enough. The Minister has a responsibility also to protect his Department. All I can say at this point is that I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Finance and Transport, Tourism and Sport to meet as soon as they can and to hold back for the moment. It is their call not mine. I am not a Minister and I am not in the Cabinet. However, a substantial number of questions will be prepared and they will be up next week or the following week and the Taoiseach will have to answer them. I caution him in that regard and note that there are issues which have not been addressed and which will be placed in the public domain within days. As such, I say "Festina lente".

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to the floor of the House. I will certainly make sure the points he has raised are brought to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Acting Chairman (Senator Gerry Horkan): Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan I thank the Minister of State. I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important matter.

  Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.

Order of Business

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and the European Council establishing the Internal Security Fund, back from committee, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, statements on the proposal for an electoral commission, to be taken at 12.45 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes each.

Senator Catherine Ardagh: Information on Catherine Ardagh Zoom on Catherine Ardagh In the past few days my office has been inundated with reports of very aggressive burglaries and street muggings. Very worrying young people, I would call them thugs, in packs and gangs are targeting women with bags on the street. It is not just confined to the evening but there are instances of muggings during the day. We hear repeatedly of increased numbers of gardaí, but I do not see them on the beat. We should ensure there is a scheme in place so that community gardaí are more visible and more funding goes into direct community policing. The people who are living their lives and going to bed at night, wake up to find that their back door has been smashed in but do not find that the Garda is protecting them. We need to give more resources to the Garda Síochána because at present the resources seem to be spent on dealing with the gangs in the city. We see road blocks but we do not see community gardaí out on the beat looking after ordinary citizens. I would like to hear the comments of the Minister for Justice and Equality on the increase of neighbourhood crimes in our city.

  My second point relates to mortgages. Many people do not know the benefit of switching mortgages and the savings one can make if one switches. I encourage people to examine their mortgage and see if they can save by switching. In the majority of cases when one is not locked into a mortgage one can save. Consumers need to be made a lot more aware of the savings available in the market.

  I welcome the imminent introduction of legislation by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, that will enable the safe termination of pregnancies up to 12 weeks.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to come to the Seanad to debate the national ports policy. This policy is presenting difficulties in various ports around the country and it needs further teasing out. This is ultimately a matter of responsibility for the Minister. Given the pressure points that are coming on a number of harbour authorities and the impact it may or may not have on their local authorities, we need proper accountability. We need an explanation for some of the things that have been happening in the past few weeks. I request that the Minister be invited to this House to give his side of the story and I hope we will have an opportunity to put questions to him.

  I acknowledge the presence of ten people in the Houses of the Oireachtas with the word "OWL" printed on their T-shirts. These ten people with intellectual disabilities are participating in an Oireachtas work and learn programme and will be placed across a variety of the services in the Houses. This is a really important initiative and I want to thank the Cathaoirleach, the Ceann Comhairle and the various officials in Leinster House who make these things happen. It is important that we embrace diversity. It is a positive story coming from Leinster House and I hope we can learn more about the programme and what these people are doing here. This is the first parliament in the world to have done this and as somebody said to me, this programme will enable young people gain real transferable work skills and we all look forward to working with them. Today, if one meets a person with the word "OWL" on the T-shirt - Oireachtas Work and Learn programme - one will know why they are here. I wish them well and acknowledge the people behind the scenes, including the offices of the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for making this happen. It is a positive story.

Senator Rose Conway-Walsh: Information on Rose Conway-Walsh Zoom on Rose Conway-Walsh I request the Leader to ask the Minister of State at the Department of Finance to inform the Seanad of the position in the implementation of the recommendation made in the report on the cost of motor insurance.  We need a review of the status of the recommendations and the progress made to date. What is the status of the Central Bank (National Claims Information Database) Bill and how can it be speeded up through the Houses? What part can we play in that regard? I would also welcome an update on the heads of the Bill for the fraud database legislation which is to be introduced. The legislation is urgently required. Despite the figures that are given to us about reductions in car insurance premiums, we all know from our constituency offices that there are still extortionate rates of premium being demanded of people for mandatory insurance. That must become a priority for the Government. It is a priority for many political parties, certainly for Sinn Féin. We urgently require the Minister to come to the House to give us a full and frank update on the status of the recommendations and the legislation.

  We had a meeting with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, this morning on the investment that is needed in healthcare. We must listen to the IMO and to clinicians within the system. We do not need to bring in external consultants who have a hands-off approach to the system and pay them millions of euro. We must listen to people inside the system. The three nurses working in the accident and emergency unit in Mayo General Hospital could tell us what the solutions are. They know they are doing the work of seven nurses. The registered doctors know what needs to be done within the system. It is worrying to hear the IMO say that, unfortunately, the Government has shown little commitment to date to even the minimum investment required. The National Development Plan 2018-2027 provides for €10 billion for a number of major investment projects but they are not being done. We need a multi-annual investment plan to provide the 2,600 extra beds that were promised. We are wasting money all of the time because people cannot get their procedures and operations done because the hospital beds are not available. I call on the Leader to bring the Minister for Health to the House to specifically discuss the 2,600 beds.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome yesterday's launch of the campaign to re-elect President Michael D. Higgins to the Áras. He has served an exemplary term of office of seven years with enormous respect and support from all over the country. I look forward to working hard during the campaign to secure his re-election.

  I also welcome the announcement by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, that he is bringing the legislation to give effect to the referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment to the Cabinet. It is anticipated that the legislation will be before the Dáil next week. I reiterate what I said previously on the issue, namely, that I hope we will have the Bill before this House as soon as it comes through the Dáil. I think you indicated previously, a Chathaoirligh, that that might be following the mid-term break. It is incumbent on all of us to give effect to the clearly expressed wishes of the people to ensure that services are available to women from 1 January 2019 and that the legislation passes without delay in this House. I look forward to working with all parties and all colleagues on that legislation.

  Will the Leader also provide a debate on higher education? I attended a briefing from the Irish Universities Association yesterday, as did many other colleagues. It is important that we take note of its call on the Government to increase core current funding for universities, specifically by €130 million, given that State funding for students has fallen significantly by 50% since 2008. The representatives present at the meeting told us how concerned they are at the impact the reduction in funding has had and will have on the quality of education in a sector that we badly need in order to drive forward the economy. The association supplied us with a quote from the Taoiseach from June 2017 when he said: "We need to drive this sector forward, give it autonomy and resource it adequately." That is very welcome. I hope we can have a debate on the issue and that we will see the funding increase in the budget.

  On a university theme also, I commend the Trinity College Historical Society on last night's debate, which I was delighted and honoured to chair, on the right to die. The guest speaker was Tom Curran, whose partner, Marie Fleming, died tragically of MS after a long campaign in which they took cases to the High Court and the Supreme Court seeking recognition of a right to assisted suicide in this country. That is an issue on which we have never legislated but the justice committee is due to report shortly on the issue and a potential amendment to the 1993 Criminal Law (Suicide) Act to provide for assisted suicide. It is urgent.

  Another person present at last night's debate was Gail O’Rorke, who remains the only person ever prosecuted under section 2 of the 1993 Act for assisted suicide. She was acquitted, but her case illustrates the difficulty we have with the current law, the lack of compassion it shows and the need to ensure that we legislate. I call on the Leader for a debate in this House on the justice committee report when it is published. Last night's student debate was instructive to me in illustrating the various issues and concerns that arise, in particular to ensure safeguards against abuses in any legislation, but to ensure that we act with compassion to meet the needs of people with terminal illness and others whose needs are currently not being met in this country.

Senator Anthony Lawlor: Information on Anthony Lawlor Zoom on Anthony Lawlor I, too, support Senator Bacik's call for a debate on assisted suicide. It is important that we would have such a discussion, look at how other countries deal with the issue and get the perspective of individuals who have different views.

  I call on the Leader to invite the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, to the House for a debate on renewable energy. We have targets to meet by 2020. Greenhouse gas emissions are supposed to be reduced by 20% and renewable energy is supposed to be increased by 16%. Each and every one of us is paying a public service obligation, PSO, levy for our electricity usage and virtually all of the money is going to big business. I spoke to the IFA yesterday and it would like to see 20% of the levy being diverted from big business to community and farming organisations. There is huge potential in the farming sector, as farmers have sheds and facilities which could accommodate solar panels to generate electricity.

  As far as I can see, the problem is the inability of ESB Networks to allow those involved in microgeneration to access the national grid. We could debate that issue with the Minister. Small operators are delayed in getting access to the grid. ESB Networks has a lot to answer for in causing such a delay. Not alone does it not allow microgenerators to connect to the national grid, but it alsos delay the connection of other developments around the country to it. Something must be done to address the issue because the people involved are overpaid for what they do and we need to get more production from them.

  I welcome the Minister's introduction during the summer of a pilot scheme to support microgeneration. I would welcome further details of that and how it is progressing. We must also examine a scheme whereby the agricultural community could add to our renewable energy targets by allowing it to access the PSO levy. Perhaps the Leader might ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the entire renewable energy area.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to bring the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to the House to discuss a matter of grave urgency. I understand that last night the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, signed an order consenting to the necessary statutory instrument to transfer Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. Significant due diligence has been done by the county council liaising with the harbour company on the costs involved. It is estimated that up to €33 million in liabilities will be transferred across by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the local authority with no reference to date to compensation being provided.

  As of 7.30 a.m., I understand the matter still rests with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and I do not know whether the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has signed the order at this stage. Senator Boyhan raised the matter this morning on the Commencement and in his contribution on the Order of Business. It is not acceptable for a local authority to be asked to take on such debt. It is extremely urgent that we examine the matter and that a local authority would not be expected to take on an existing harbour company with very significant liabilities that arise out of pension liabilities, contributions and other ongoing maintenance issues.   I do not see the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport transferring Dublin Airport and its profit-making business to Fingal County Council, much as the latter might like to have them, but he seems to be quite happy to transfer a loss-making entity from his Department to a local authority without the compensation required to leave the local authority at least in the position it was in beforehand, notwithstanding that it will have management issues and other problems to deal with if it takes it over. The local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown has two constituencies, Dún Laoghaire and Dublin Rathdown. The Minister is a Deputy representing one of those constituencies, as are the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. It is their constituents who will suffer if €33 million for services currently going into parks, playgrounds, roads, libraries, swimming pools and so on will have to be rerouted. This needs to be addressed urgently, ideally before the Minister signs off on it. I propose amending the Order of Business to bring the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to the House today to discuss this matter. I do not do this very often, but I would appreciate if the Leader could have the Minister come to the House.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile I second the proposal.

Senator James Reilly: Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly I support my colleague, Senator Lawlor, in asking the Minister to come to debate renewable energy and our obligations in that regard. He and I have raised on several occasions the many wonderful sheds around the country that could be covered with solar panels and photovoltaic panels to generate electricity. A lot of work has been done in Germany in using land with elevated platforms for solar panels, while still getting 80% productivity from the land.

  In three days' time it will be a year since the legislation on plain packaging passed. As a wash-out period of one year was allowed, from this Sunday on, all tobacco products must be sold in plain packaging, as designated by the Government. I thank all those who supported the Bill and those who supported various non-governmental organisations and the Government in standing up to big tobacco and its attempt to bully our sovereign state into submission. Every year, 6,000 people lose their lives to tobacco. That is 6,000 families rent asunder, loved ones lost, and further countless hundreds of thousands who suffer ill health because of this poison that we sell. I commend all those who were involved.

  I request that we ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to debate and outline his plans for the new land agency and lay out how it can help us address housing policy. Reverting to the solar energy issue, the selfsame Minister needs to bring in regulations as a number of local authorities are using the lack of national guidelines as a reason for refusing planning applications from farmers who want to install solar panels. I know of one farmer in Fingal who had to go to An Bord Pleanála to get planning permission. This is a spurious argument. The Minister needs to make a statement on it and give clarity to local authorities.

Senator Paul Gavan: Information on Paul Gavan Zoom on Paul Gavan I wish our comrades in the Abortion Rights Campaign well for their march on Saturday. To restate Sinn Féin's position, we believe in full abortion rights in both the South and the North. We will make that point clearly as part of the march on Saturday. We need equality and choice throughout this island.

  I raise the issue of adult literacy. I have met the National Adult Literacy Agency a couple of times now and it has been very impressive in its submissions. I am conscious that we are just a couple of weeks away from the budget and I want to make a plea for additional funding and request a debate on the matter. To be fair, I do not think people fully realise, as I did not, the extent of the challenge in respect of adult literacy. One in six people struggles with everyday texts like a bus timetable, instructions inside a packet of paracetamol or reading medical prescriptions. That is over 500,000 people. One in four struggles with everyday basic maths, such as working out 20% discounts on shopping items or helping their children with maths homework. That is 750,000 people. Despite that, the budget currently allocated to adult literacy is just €31 million, which equates to 0.3% of our total education budget. That sends the message that if we cannot achieve adult literacy through primary and secondary education, that is more or less it. Surely all of us can agree that the figure of 0.3% needs to be raised substantially in the coming budget.

  I urge colleagues to read the pre-budget submission made by the National Adult Literacy Agency. It contains some excellent ideas on developing blended and distance learning courses, developing family literacy and financial, health and media literacy programmes, bridging programmes and so on. There is so much more that can be done. All that is lacking is the funding. Adult literacy strikes me as being another of the poor relations at budget time. For that to change, we need voices across the Chamber, in particular in the Government parties, ahead of the budget to demand the financing that is required to make a real difference to adult literacy.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Horkan in respect of the transfer of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Commission to the council and the consequences of that decision.

  Yesterday, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, had a briefing for Members of the Oireachtas at which it put forward a very strong case for support in the forthcoming budget. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, to the House to discuss the issue. As everyone is well aware, farming has gone through a very difficult period this year with the extreme weather conditions in spring and summer and the fodder crisis. Now the price of suckler cows has dropped sharply. If a farmer does not have suckler cows, he will not have calves or the method of producing our stock. Of all times, now that we are facing into Brexit we have to keep our stocking levels up. Being based on a farm, I can tell the House that the prices for young weanlings are less than they were a year ago. People who have kept them for a year are facing losses between the cost of fodder and all the other issues.

  There is a proposal to make a targeted payment of €200 per suckler cow to farmers this year, which would be a major boost. For sheep farmers, it is also proposed that there be a €5 payment per ewe. These are genuine requests by the IFA. They are very good lobbyists and we had a very good lobbying session yesterday at the Alex Hotel in Dublin. I am putting forward some of the urgent issues that arose. We would have a better opportunity if the Minister would come to the House. Most Senators have a direct interest in the farming community, including our spokesman and I am confident the Leader of the House will arrange it in the next few weeks if possible.

Senator Maria Byrne: Information on Maria Byrne Zoom on Maria Byrne I draw the attention of my colleagues to an app that was launched by the mid-west skills forum in Limerick yesterday. The app deals with apprenticeships and informs students about what is available. These apprenticeships can be anything from two to four years' duration and involve work-based learning. The app provides a connection between the employer and the student and provides information on the range of apprenticeships. Ireland and the Department of Education and Skills are striving to double the number of apprenticeships in the next few years. As many of them are now recognised by third level colleges, the students end up with a degree.

  This is a very important app. It was designed by Appiercom, led by Declan Hayes and his team. I pay tribute to them because they put an awful lot of work into it. The app makes much information available to those who download it onto their phones. The more we can promote apprenticeships and skills, the better, especially among students who feel they do not want to go on to third level education. It is very important that we draw attention to the issue and that people are made aware that the app is available.

Senator Máire Devine: Information on Máire Devine Zoom on Máire Devine I want to follow up on yesterday's Order of Business and can confirm that the nurses' unions have recommended that their members reject the disappointing Government pay proposals which do not address the emergency of recruitment and retention in the health service. Members will be balloted over the next three weeks with a further ballot about industrial action. That is always a serious and significant step for nurses who are responsible for people's lives and well-being.

  It is welcome that the text of the abortion legislation will be before the Cabinet today, endorsing the wishes of more than 66% of the people in the May referendum. I note the need for separate legislation for safe zones to prevent women being intimidated when seeking services. It is a phenomenon that is often seen in the USA and that I hope it will not occur here. I ask Members of both Houses who campaigned to retain the eighth amendment, some very vocally, to publicly state that such harassment and threats to women seeking health services are unacceptable and insupportable.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I join Senator Ardagh in calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House at the earliest possible time to discuss the increase in anti-social behaviour not only in the capital city but also throughout the country. It is something that is unfortunately happening in all major towns and gardaí do not seem to be around to deal with it.

  I would also like the Minister, when he comes to the House, to address the cut in the budgets of the Garda divisional districts. Those budgets have been cut, in some cases, by up to 80%. They are struggling to provide a skeleton policing service in most parts of the country. I appreciate there is a gangland difficulty in this city. While that needs to be stamped out and requires a huge amount of resources, it should not be to the detriment of districts like Cavan and Monaghan and other Garda districts throughout the country. I look forward to the Minister coming to this House and addressing the situation. It is an unfortunate fact that the Garda does not have the resources to carry out the day-to-day duties necessary to protect the ordinary, law-abiding citizens of the State.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus guím tráthnóna maith ar an gCeannaire.

  I congratulate the Government on the announcement of its proposed Getting Ireland Brexit Ready events. It includes a series of engagements to take place across the State, one in the Leader's home place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, one at NUI Galway, one at the Four Seasons hotel in Monaghan and one in Croke Park, Dublin. It is a glaring omission that there is not going to be one of these events held in the North. I have written to the Minister and expressed my disappointment. I raised it with officials last week also. The Irish secretariat in Belfast will host a book launch later today. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held important and significant interventions and events during the decade of centenaries to mark the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, etc. All of those events were positive and it is right that they took place. I cannot understand what practical barriers there are to the Irish Government hosting an event of this nature which does profess to get Ireland Brexit ready, not just part of Ireland. I encourage the Government to reconsider and host an event that would accommodate the 1.5 million Irish citizens in the North. Many organisations and individuals want to engage with the Irish Government. The Leader will recall that the British Government's advice to businesses and others was to go and talk to the Government in Dublin about Brexit. It would be a positive intervention on the Government's behalf if it would reflect on that and hear from the entirety of the country.

  October is upon us and we are at a crucial juncture in Brexit negotiations and the Council of Europe meeting. At the end of the last term, we discussed having statements on Brexit and the negotiations, and the Leader committed to doing that as early as possible in this new term. I appreciate the sensitivities and dynamics involved and I am not seeking to undermine them in any way, but the Minister could come to the House to update us as to the current state of play.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I thank the 12 Members of the House for their contributions on the Order of Business. I agree with Senator Ardagh that people who perpetrate attacks on innocent citizens are thugs; short and simple.

  Senators Ardagh and Wilson raised the issue of crime. It is important to recognise that, under this Government, the Garda Training College in Templemore was reopened. More gardaí are being put in place. Issues of recruitment, modelling and community policing have been addressed in the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, chaired by Kathleen O'Toole. As a member of the Cork city policing forum, I attended a meeting last Monday which heard from the chief superintendent that there are now plans to recruit more community gardaí.

  In addition, the Government's response to crime, particularly burglaries, has focused on two key objectives. The first of those is investing in the capacity of An Garda Síochána to tackle criminals and enforce the law efficiently and effectively and updating and strengthening the law where necessary. In tandem with that is Operation Thor, which was introduced to tackle the threat of mobile burglary groups and there has been significant investment in An Garda Síochána in ICT, overtime and the purchasing of high-powered vehicles. I note the remarks of the Garda Commissioner regarding overtime, but the Government has committed extra resources to the Garda. It is important to recognise that the numbers of burglaries are down 24% from 2015.

  In saying that, I also draw Members' attention to the fact that last week at the ploughing championships the Minister for justice announced details of a text rebate scheme where €150,000 is available for communities in Cavan-Monaghan, Dublin, or Cork, to run a local text alert scheme.

  The points made by Senators Wilson and Ardagh are ones about which we must be vigilant. We must be working to reduce crime levels. We are told at policing forum meetings that criminals are mobile in some cases, coming down the motorway to Cork or up the motorway to Cavan and we need to establish a system whereby people can assist An Garda Síochána by giving it information. The points the Senators make are very relevant.

  Senator Ardagh is also right about the issue of switching mortgages and the importance of being aware of what is available to mortgage holders. I agree with her.

  I join Senators Ardagh, Devine and Bacik in welcoming the Cabinet's decision to publish the Bill to give effect to the referendum result that people voted in their droves to support. I also join Senators Gavan and Devine in welcoming safe zones.  They are important. We have seen people in other jurisdictions killed, injured or harassed. We should not have that in this country. A woman who goes into her hospital to have a pregnancy terminated does not do so lightly. She deserves the support, respect and resources of a very caring environment when going in to have her wishes - in whatever shape or form - carried out. I know that all of us, as public representatives, will uphold the law and will support and stand by women. It is important at the beginning that we do not allow a situation to arise in which that becomes part of the norm. As I said, it is a very sensitive and personal choice and we should support women and their families in that situation at all times.

  Senators Boyhan and Horkan referred to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the ports policy. Senator Horkan had to go to another meeting but if Senator Wilson, as the Fianna Fáil Whip, or Senator Ardagh, as the leader of Fianna Fáil in the Seanad, will accept it rather than divide the House, I will endeavour to have the Minister in next week at some point. As he is at a Cabinet meeting, we cannot get an answer, but I will endeavour, as I have done in the past in other areas, to have the Minister come to the House.

  I join Senator Boyhan in congratulating the participants in the Oireachtas work and learning programme. It is a wonderful programme for those young men and women with intellectual disabilities. I commend the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle on their initiative and on driving this programme. I hope we can all support people who come into this House to work, to learn and to be educated. They will also help us as part of our life and work.

  Senator Conway-Walsh raised the issue of insurance. We had the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy, in the House on a number of occasions. I would be happy to have him come to the House again in respect of car insurance and in respect of health and the INMO briefing. I would be happy to have the Minister of State come back in again in that regard.

  Senator Bacik, in a very partisan way, made reference to the presidential election. As Leader of the House, I wish not just one of the candidates but all of them well in the campaign. I really hope-----

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Senator Bacik is non-party.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I know that. I accept that. I did not say she was-----

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am leader of an inter-party group. That is true.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer Níor chuala mé an méid a dúirt an Senator.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan I am trying to protect the Senator.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer It is welcome that there is a presidential election. It will endorse the tenure of the new President. I wish all of the candidates well. I hope the debate will be healthy, respectful and tolerant.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson The Leader will be one himself in seven years' time. That is my prediction. I mean a candidate, not a President.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I look forward to Senator Wilson and renewing our friendship. As an aside, 35 years ago, Senator Wilson and I kindled in our friendship at college. We are still friends 35 years later. We are a few hairs lighter on the top, but we are still friends.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I will sign for the Leader.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan That surprises me.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer It should not surprise the Cathaoirleach because we are both very well measured people.

Senator Diarmuid Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson We are well trained in theology.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer We are well trained in theology, yes. I join Senator Bacik in expressing the view that I hope the legislation, when it emanates from the Cabinet to the Dáil and on to this House, will be dealt with in a very positive and expeditious manner-----

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Yes.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer ----while being debated thoroughly.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Yes.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer It has been very well discussed at this stage by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution during pre-legislative scrutiny and also in the referendum debate. I hope it happens quickly.

  I commend the Irish University Association on its briefing in Buswells Hotel yesterday, which I attended. It made a number of explicit asks of Government in the budget in respect of core funding, capital development and being able to hire staff. I also thank Senators Bacik and Lawlor for raising the issue of the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on end of life. I look forward to having that debate as part of the next term in the Seanad.

  Senators Lawlor and Reilly raised the issue of renewable energy. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, is available and will come to the House to discuss the matter.

  Senator Horkan has returned from his meeting. I am sure he will be briefed by his colleagues. If he will allow me to have the Minister in on a date next week, I will endeavour to do so.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan I will respond when the Leader has finished.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I commend Senator Reilly on his stewardship of the legislation on plain packaging as Minister and welcome the new regime that will be put in place in respect of plain packaging. Tobacco kills. We should try to move away from smoking in this country. I certainly hope all of us will promote an alternative to smoking.

  Senator Gavan raised the very important issue of adult literacy. I join him in having that debate. As a former adult education director, I commend the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, on its advocacy and the work it does. I know that it had a new campaign last year called "Take the first step". It is important that we all support people - our friends, neighbours and work colleagues - who have a difficulty in reading and writing. In some cases they do not recognise that difficulty and in others they do not have the confidence or freedom, in their own minds, to go and take that first step. The Senator is right about what we should be trying to do. I commend all involved. We all know people who have returned to education, started from a very furtive, nervous beginning and blossomed. I want to be associated with the comments made. I certainly hope it will be recognised in the budget.

  Senator Leyden raised the issue of support in the budget for farming. The Minister For Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, was not available this week because he was in Austria and came back yesterday to a series of meetings. We have, however, put a request in to have a debate on agriculture. I look forward to having it.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden I thank the Leader very much.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I join Senator Byrne in praising the new apprenticeships app. I know that the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Halligan, is due to come to the House to discuss the issue of apprenticeships. We have an issue with apprenticeships. The Government has taken a variety of initiatives in respect of the national apprenticeship scheme, but also in respect of the hospitality skills oversight group report which clearly shows that there are deficiencies in the hospitality sector. We need to promote and advocate for that sector more.

  Senator Devine raised the issue of the ballots of the nursing unions yesterday, which were disappointing. We need to have an honest conversation about what is available in terms of the amount of money we can spend. We agreed a public sector pay agreement before the summer and we cannot go cherry-picking at this stage. The Government has a finite amount of money. This is about taking a prudent approach to the public finances while improving pay for, in this case, nurses, who do significant work every day and who participate in and enhance the health service. It is important to recognise that there needs to be an alternative put forward in terms of how we fund all of the public sector pay demands. We have a public service stability agreement and it behoves all of us not to undermine it. We need to ensure we recognise and value those who work in our public sector. That is what Government is trying to do. It has recommended, through the Public Service Pay Commission, a 20% increase in the location and qualification allowance for nurses along with accelerated promotion in terms of senior positions. The unions have a right to make demands and to put forward their own proposals. I am for that, but it should be done as part of a conversation about the prudent management of the nation's finances.

  I addressed Senator Wilson's remarks. I am not familiar with the issue which Senator Ó Donnghaile raised around the scheduling of the meetings on Brexit preparedness. I am sure meetings are being held in the north of the country, close to the Border. I am not sure of the logistics of going beyond the Border. I am not personally against the idea.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile I know.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer In saying that, it is important that we be Brexit ready. Equally, I would be happy to have statements on Brexit in the coming weeks because the Senator is right; as the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, has said, we are now in the endgame.  I commend the Tánaiste on his work on and in handling our negotiations on Brexit. We need to see a resolution. As I have said in the House many times, and this needs to be said more often, there is no good outcome from Brexit. It will be a net loss for us. It has been foisted on us by a decision of the people of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, we will be the net and the biggest loser, apart from the UK. The Government is committed to getting the best deal for Ireland for the future. I will be happy to have the debate in the coming weeks.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Senator Horkan has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the proposed transfer of responsibility for Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan No. I apologise for having had to step out for a few minutes but I heard from my colleagues in this respect. I do not seek to divide the House and do not propose an amendment to the Order of Business very often. However, there is a very pressing and urgent nature to this matter. I hope the Minister will not sign the order for transfer before he comes into this House because he needs to be aware of the consequences of doing so without adequate compensation being paid. I certainly accept the Leader's bona fides on it and perhaps Wednesday of next week would be a good day for us to discuss that matter with the Minister.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden As the seconder of the amendment, I support its withdrawal. I take the opportunity to welcome the members of a delegation from Strokestown, who are guests of Deputy Eugene Murphy, namely, Brother John and Mrs. Murphy. I hope they have a very nice day in Leinster House.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan My grandmother was from Strokestown and I support it too.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer This is the Order of Business, take two.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan We have very important people here from County Roscommon.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I join in welcoming the visitors from County Roscommon. They had a very good summer on the Gaelic football field until they ran out of steam.

  I advise Senator Horkan that my office will communicate to the office of the Minister, Deputy Ross, the immediate importance of what the Senator has said. I am sure the Minister will take notice of what we have said. I will endeavour to-----

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan And sign it as quick as he can, but anyway.

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I will endeavour to organise for the Minister to come to the House on Wednesday. As I said - I apologise for labouring the point - the Minister, Deputy Ross, is at a Cabinet meeting.

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan I accept that and the Leader's bona fides.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan Is the amendment to the Order of Business being withdrawn?

Senator Gerry Horkan: Information on Gerry Horkan Zoom on Gerry Horkan Yes.

  Order of Business agreed to.

EU Regulation on Internal Security Fund: Motion

Senator Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:
Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the Internal Security Fund,
a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 9 July, 2018.

  Question put and agreed to.

  Sitting suspended at 12.25 p.m. and resumed at 12.45 p.m.

Electoral Commission: Statements

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, and invite him to make his contribution.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy John Paul Phelan): Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to contribute on this issue. When I was a Member of this House and merely a backbencher in the other House, I spoke about this issue on many occasions. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the proposal for an electoral commission, a matter which will have a significant impact on the electoral process in Ireland in the next few years. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and answer questions Senators may have on this very important matter.

  The Government is committed to the establishment of an electoral commission which will broadly bring together under one umbrella the functions and responsibilities of the electoral system. A number of important steps have been taken to advance this commitment. I will give Senators a potted history of progress so far and then outline the next steps to be taken.

  In January 2015 the Department published a consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland. The paper set out a series of issues for consideration, including, for example, which functions should be assigned to an electoral commission; what roles should those involved in electoral management continue to perform; the cost implications, as well as membership and accountability arrangements. Based on the consultation paper, a public consultation process on the establishment of an electoral commission was undertaken by the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. In January 2016 the committee published its report on the consultation. The report contains a series of recommendations for establishing an electoral commission. It proposes that the commission take on functions such as managing elections and referendums; maintaining the register of political parties; undertaking research on electoral matters; voter education; and the transfer to the commission of the regulation of political funding and spending which are currently under the control of the Standards in Public Office Commission and local authorities.  Importantly, the Oireachtas committee's report found that there was a relatively high level of trust in the electoral system and that that trust should not be undermined by the introduction of any new electoral management arrangement without adequate time for bedding down. The report, therefore, recommends a phased approach to establishing the commission and that the change should happen gradually. A big bang approach is not favoured by the report.

  The report refers in some detail to an issue that exercises many of us, namely, the modernisation of the electoral register. The report makes recommendations on how that might be addressed. However, rather than waiting for an electoral commission to commence this work, and on foot of a Government decision to put the extension of the franchise for presidential elections to the people in a referendum, work is now under way in the Department on scoping potential improvements to the electoral registration process. In some local authorities, people have to fill in up to 23 documents to join the register, seek a postal vote, change address or so forth. The Department's work is being done with a view to, among other things, facilitating the registration of voters resident outside the State should the referendum regarding presidential election voting rights be passed.

  The electoral register modernisation project is considering a range of possible improvements, including recommendations made by the Oireachtas. General issues regarding the governance of a revised registration process, including the potential role of the electoral commission, will also be considered as part of the project. Key proposals being considered include a single national register, continuous registration and online options for public interaction.

  Given the importance of the electoral register in our democracy, the process being planned includes a significant public consultation element and the overall process is anticipated to take some two to three years. Technical consultations with registration authorities and other bodies, including the political system, will also form part of the deliberations. Those consultations are under way. Given the nature of the electoral system where there are always elections around the corner, it is important that the integrity of the register be protected when being updated.

  Meanwhile, work is ongoing in the Department on the preparation of an electoral commission Bill. In the first instance, the Department is preparing a regulatory impact analysis, RIA, for the Bill. This RIA will identify and compare a number of policy options for establishing a commission. Each option will set out a possible range of functions, together with membership, accountability mechanisms and timelines for establishing a commission. The RIA will analyse the cost, benefits and impacts of each option. The completion of the RIA, which will happen relatively soon and involve a public consultation later this autumn, will inform the drafting of the heads of an electoral commission Bill. There is a considerable amount of work involved in each of the steps I have just outlined, but we are well on the way to progressing these matters. I look forward to hearing Senators' views.

Senator Aidan Davitt: Information on Aidan Davitt Zoom on Aidan Davitt I welcome the Minister of State. This is a progressive step. As elected Members and having served in different forums as politicians, we all know that many elements of the register of electors could do with being streamlined. For example, changing address on the register is complicated. Fianna Fáil welcomes the steps being taken by the Minister and wholeheartedly supports his proposals, which we look forward to seeing in more detail. I thank the Minister of State.

Senator Victor Boyhan: Information on Victor Boyhan Zoom on Victor Boyhan I apologise for missing some of the Minister of State's welcome contribution. We have had some discussions on this matter previously, but it is worth pointing out that just eight people - I am open to correction - work in the franchise section in the Custom House. They effectively run every aspect of a referendum. That number may be higher or lower; therefore, the Minister of State might clarify the position. Regardless, that situation is not sustainable. The importance of ensuring independence and accountability has been mentioned. I am not suggesting that there is not independence or accountability in the system within the Custom House, but if the whole process is really to be independent, this issue must be considered.

  We must increase turnout and participation rates in the election process. Educating people on the democratic process is another important function. The Minister of State might touch on the RIA. When is it expected to be completed and published? It would be important.

  I welcome this significant initiative. It is one of many initiatives involved in the issue of electoral reform. For example, the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, recently published a report and asked that we consider legislating to address the issue of political campaigns that were financed from outside the State. I do not want to rehearse the relevant politics of the past few months, but SIPO has recommended that we consider legislating to deal with digital campaigns as well as the issue of people outside the State trying to effect change within it.

  Many challenges will arise in this work. I wish the Department and the Minister of State well with it.

Senator Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey I welcome the Minister of State back to the House, a place with which he is familiar. He has discussed this topic numerous times. He has a depth of experience from local authority level, the Seanad, the Dáil and his current role as Minister of State that he will use it to steer these necessary reforms through his Department and the Oireachtas. The reforms will improve and enhance the integrity of the electoral system. In a democracy, the fundamental franchise of the vote is critical; therefore, we should recognise that there are areas in which we could have done better if we were to have a modern electoral system that had the confidence of the people. For this reason, I welcome the inclusion of an electoral commission's establishment in the programme for Government.

  Consultation has already taken place on the commission's design and structure, how it should work and its responsibilities over the management of elections and referendums. The commission should also be involved in ensuring the information made available tocitizens in a referendum is distributed in a robust, fair and objective way. Issues of political funding and expenditure and how parties are registered also need examination and, where necessary, reform.

  Will the Minister of State clarify the position on the modernisation of the electoral register? For years, local authorities have been charged with keeping the register up to date. While the majority of people exercise their franchise, there have been instances of people who, when going to vote, discover that they have been removed from the register unbeknownst to themselves. It is one of the worst things to witness. I have seen such people being turned away from their local polling booths many times. They are devastated. We must devise a structure that eliminates this mistake.

  The Minister of State might clarify whether modernisation entails continuing with local authorities as the bodies that are charged with keeping the register up to date or giving responsibility to the new commission. How will it work? Speaking as a representative, I am open to it lying with the commission just so long as the situation improves. We are utilising outdated mechanisms to keep the electoral register up to date. Reform of the voter registration system is necessary and new technologies and methods of identifying people should be utilised. There are many ways to do this that would ensure the requisite levels of confidence and integrity.

  We must do away with duplication and inaccuracies. When people die, many remain on the electoral register for years. That is unacceptable. To be honest, when we as politicians write to people using information contained in the register, we find out that some of them have, unfortunately, passed away. It is not a nice thing to happen.

  A number of agencies have electoral responsibilities. Local authorities are over the electoral register. The courts, through registrars, and the nomination process for elections and referendums also play a part.  As the Minister of State has said, the Standards in Public Office Commission also plays a part in the areas of regulation and standards. With a new commission there are opportunities to streamline all of these areas to bring them under one area of responsibility. I suggest it has the teeth to act because there is no point in establishing an electoral commission unless it has the powers and the sanctions to enforce what it is we want to achieve. I ask the Minister of State to elaborate on that matter and explain what his plans are in that area.

  I remember years ago as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht visiting the electoral offices in the North of Ireland. We could learn from our neighbours in the North of Ireland about how they managed to improve the integrity of the electoral registers. There were issues in the past in Northern Ireland, which are on record, whereby the voting system, unfortunately, was abused. They now have a very successful system to ensure integrity and confidence in that process. There is a lot of work still to be done. We should always evaluate all systems in our Departments but this area is in the interests of integrity, confidence, public awareness and education on voting rights, Much work has been done in schools with various civic educational programmes, and I am aware that many politicians visit schools to try to enhance that experience. It is very important that we educate the next generation on the franchise to vote, what it means in terms of a democracy, what it means for local, national, regional and European politics and what it means for the fundamental constitutionalism in the State through referendums. We need to continue enforcing that idea.

  I am not being ageist - I know that colleagues will say this - but I have always found that older people have put a lot of emphasis on the vote. In my community and household when I was growing up I was always told about the importance and the significance of the vote. I sometimes fear that, given the tough years Ireland has been through, politics has suffered and, as a result, democracy has suffered. There is possibly less respect now for the politician and less respect for the vote. In the interests of democracy we need to reclaim that ground. Leaving aside party politics and all policies, we need to educate young people on the importance and the significance of the vote. The reform of the electoral system and the establishment of an electoral commission is an ideal opportunity for the Minister and us as colleagues to promote the idea that the vote is critical and fundamental in a democracy. I look forward to the improvement that will be made in this area.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Information on Fintan Warfield Zoom on Fintan Warfield I welcome the Minister of State to the House. When we speak about people engaging with an online system, Estonia has one of the highest levels in Europe of citizen engagement with the state using online platforms. Ireland is quite a good deal lower down the list. There seem to be many documents that are produced by the Minister's Department that are unavailable on the website. It was most frustrating recently when the mayoral issue for Cork and Dublin was in the news. A previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, had produced a Green Paper on the issue, which is unavailable, as are many other documents on that website. I do not believe this is good for transparency.

  We can only achieve a thriving democracy when all of our society has a stake in that process. The activism and involvement of young people in the referendum for civil marriage equality and the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment is evidence that, when engaged, young people demonstrate an interest in mobilising and participating in the political process. This is despite the obstacles, including a lack of formal education. I have, however, heard very good reports about the politics module from those who are on the pilot programme. There are also issues around promotion and difficulties in registering to vote.

  The processes by which people register to vote and where active citizenship is promoted has not changed in decades now. Calls for changes in how institutions engage with younger people and first-time voters, including my proposals, have always been batted away - this happened especially around the time of the repeal referendum - with promises and commitments on the establishment of an electoral commission. It is very welcome that the heads of the electoral commission Bill are being prepared and that considerable work is being done on that front. It has also become apparent, through the work of the Seanad reform implementation group, that the Department does not have enough resources. We are now dealing with the next presidential election and the next referendums. More resources are needed for the Department and the staff working in the area of reform.

  The establishment of an electoral commission was first raised in the Oireachtas in 2004 and has been in programmes for Government since 2007. With regard to the functions it could have, online voter registration facilities could be part of it. It is a glaring omission from the registration process. Galway County Council has online voter registration but it is up to individual local authorities. There appears to be a lack of instruction or guidelines from the Department in that regard. Voter registration by paper hard copy is no longer the norm. It is an exception around the world now. According to some responses we have received to parliamentary questions, there are no legislative barriers to bringing the process online. As I have said, local authorities such as Galway County Council have rolled out their own process. Registration windows could be on a one-month rolling basis and the register could be centralised.

  The role of the electoral commission could also be to collect data. For example, the CSO collected data on voter turnout during 2011. When we hear that young people do not vote, we should be conscious that in 2011 the overall turnout was 69.9% and the turnout among 18 to 25 year olds was 62%. It is not entirely true to say younger people do not vote. There are no such data on the recent referendums on marriage equality and the eighth amendment but I suspect that the younger voter turnout was much higher than the 62% from 2011.

  We need to target those areas of our society where there are minorities such as prisoners and people from working-class communities where voter turnout is lower. That is our responsibility. I accept that people are distracted by the struggles of their everyday lives. That should be taken into account. It is not just about confidence in politicians. We need to target the demographics.

  It is welcome that legislation is forthcoming. It is important that we remember Ireland is 137th in the world for voter registration processes. We need to be very ambitious about rectifying that position. I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State in the future.

Senator Lynn Ruane: Information on Lynn Ruane Zoom on Lynn Ruane I thank the Minister of State for his time and his statement on proposals for an electoral commission. It is welcome that this issue is gaining traction in the Oireachtas. I express my strong support for the establishment of an independent, empowered electoral commission with broad responsibility and remit across elections.

  We are lucky to live in a country in which public trust in the electoral system and elections is relatively high, but the turnout in elections and referenda varies wildly and is on an overall downward trend. I would welcome the creation of an electoral commission that was specifically empowered not only to regulate, oversee and manage elections but also to play an active role in electoral outreach, fostering political engagement and spurring democratic innovation.

  There is much research and work from which to draw in this area in the Irish context such as the report of the committee on the consultation on the proposed electoral commission 2016, the August report from the working group in the Department of the Taoiseach, and Deputy Lawless’s 2016 legislation, all of which I hope will inform our discussions on the commission’s role.

  When looking at the roles, responsibilities and functions of such a body, it should be ambitious. Ireland is a small country where administrative hurdles to electoral reform are low and we could easily pilot major reforms, with Ireland becoming a world leader in democratic innovation, a reputation that has started with the successful Citizens’ Assembly initiative.

  I would like to see an electoral commission with strong regulatory and oversight powers, that would administer the register of political parties and dictate the rules on spending in all elections and referenda.  The functions of the Referendum Commission in respect of elections should be transferred to this new body, as should the responsibilities of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in respect of elections, in order that strong, fair and comprehensive rules on media balance can be assembled and issued. Posters and the regulation of poster content should also be placed within the commission's remit.

The regulation of online advertising, the tackling of proliferated disinformation and financial transparency must be crucial functions of the commission. Election tampering has moved on from the days of stuffing ballot boxes or rigging counts. One only needs to surreptitiously target undecided voters with false information via social media to swing entire elections. The integrity of elections are under threat across western democracies, especially in the light of extraordinarily advanced techniques used in the US presidential election. The commission needs to safeguard citizens and their democratic choices against these threats.

The current ad hoclocal authority electoral register system is a mess. It should be consolidated and managed within the new electoral commission and major reforms implemented to simplify and modernise the registration process. It should be possible to register online without cumbersome administrative barriers such as the requirement for a garda signature to make a simple change to address. The many forms for different categories should be consolidated in one simple online form. I am sure the Minister of State, who is responsible for eGovernment, can see the obvious value in my suggestion as it is obvious, doable and possible once the required security safeguards are developed and in place.

The electoral commission should be responsible for running national information campaigns around the electoral process and registration deadlines. It should also collect national data on registration and run targeted campaigns aimed at communities with low democratic participation. I would also love to see a commission that helped tackle the lack of awareness of the roles of the different elected officials and bodies. I would like explanations of the role of a Member of the European Parliament or a councillor's responsibilities on a local authority to become commonplace running up to election time.

In terms of the voting process, the commission would need to investigate methods by which we can make it easier to vote. Access to postal votes for those away from their place of residence on polling day should be expanded, as should options for voters overseas, whether through Irish embassies or other means. We should also introduce early voting as happens in many US states and consider options for limited voting accessibility in the days before elections to allow for greater flexibility. A commission could examine the feasibility of synchronising elections with public holidays or weekends to promote higher turnout and engagement.

Furthermore, an electoral commission is not the only electoral reform coming down the pipeline. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Government has committed to a referendum to extend voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad. Moreover, here in the Seanad, the implementation group for the Manning report will shortly publish its report and draft legislation that will allow for a significant expansion in the Seanad electorate. Critics of these two proposals always cite practical and administrative barriers to their implementation. If we had a developed and experienced electoral commission that relied on best international evidence, it could start the policy development process immediately, with the view to being given responsibility to administer these elections once they are held. We have an opportunity to get in front of and prepare for these big practical changes now and I urge the Minister of State to take it. The current Seanad electoral process is also in dire need of reform, especially the university seats. I hope the electoral commission will make quick and minor changes that would greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the system, such as the introduction of a supplementary register.

I would like the electoral commission to monitor and seek inspiration from international developments in electoral reform and democratic innovation. For example, the growth of the international fact-checking movement, especially in the face of the proliferation of fake news, could be easily adopted by a commission empowered to fact-check claims made in election and referendum campaigns. This would be a valuable public service offered to voters as they make their electoral decisions. If a referendum commission were empowered to issue a balanced and fair analysis of the voting options before a referendum campaign, it would only be a small extra step for it to provide such analysis during a campaign.

In more general terms, other countries have responded to issues with voter turnout and democratic engagement in new and innovative ways from which Ireland could easily draw. These include the compulsory voting system used in Australia, online democratic innovations in Europe and the use of public petitions to trigger parliamentary debates in the United Kingdom. An ongoing and continuous role in recommending legislative and constitutional change in a similar vein to the reports produced by the Standards in Public Office Commission would be a valuable and important function.

I have outlined electoral reforms that are in place in other countries. None of them is impossible and all of them could easily be incorporated into an electoral commission's functions. I wish the Minister of State well in his efforts to establish the commission and hope he will be as ambitious as possible when deciding its roles, functions and powers.

Senator Kevin Humphreys: Information on Kevin Humphreys Zoom on Kevin Humphreys I welcome the Minister of State. I do not intend to repeat all of the points that have been made because Senator Ruane has covered the vast majority of issues that need to be raised.

  The first memorandum on establishing an electoral commission went to the Cabinet in September 1996. That gives us an idea of how long this matter has been knocking around. As it got caught up in electoral cycles and recessions, there has not been time to proceed with the proposal. I urge the Minister of State to press forward with reform because we all agree on the need to reform and improve the electoral system.

  One measure that would greatly benefit the various commissions in future is the complete removal of the Minister from having any hand, act or part in the electoral process. I do not suggest that anything untoward has happened. However, if we want openness and transparency, we must ensure electoral candidates or potential candidates do not play any role in overseeing elections. I hope legislation on this issue will pass in both Houses in this term. We have an opportunity, with all-party support, to press ahead with legislation to modernise the electoral system and get an independent commission in situ.

  As I walked up the stairs to the Chamber someone mentioned to me the role played by the Minister. We will send observers to the forthcoming mid-term elections in the United States. The flaw in that system is that a candidate can play a role in an election. For this reason, I propose that the Minister and all elected representatives step away to make sure proceedings are transparent. As I stated, I do not question anything that happened previously because all Ministers have acted properly in the past. There is a flaw in the legislation that could be exploited and, therefore, we must remove it from the legislation. I pledge my support to facilitate legislation going through both Houses as quickly as possible once drafting has been completed.

Senator Grace O'Sullivan: Information on Grace O'Sullivan Zoom on Grace O'Sullivan I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, and thank him for his opening statement on the proposed electoral commission. I am glad that we are finally making a move on this important issue.

  As democracy faces challenges across the world, Ireland is a beacon of reason and toleration in the face of waves of hate and disruption, but we cannot take for granted that this will continue to be the case. We must move to strengthen the institutions that ensure the long-term health and fairness of our democracy and avoid what is happening in previously solid democracies such as the United States. The Green Party was the first political party to advocate for a fully independent electoral commission almost two decades ago. In government our Ministers initiated work on the establishment of such a commission. I want to see a body that is independent and operational with broad responsibilities and accountability to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It should assume all of the existing responsibilities for election management such as constituency boundary reviews. Such reviews should be more transparent, with the reasoning and responses to submissions explored in greater detail.

  The commission should be independent of the Government and not reliant on a specific Department for resources. Such resources must be guaranteed by law and provided by the Oireachtas. For a commission to do its necessary work, it must be given statutory powers to put its decisions into practice. The commission needs to examine how we can effectively regulate election campaign spending in a time of dark Facebook advertising and external interference in domestic political campaigns.  The disparity between online and other media regulations has become glaring and it is difficult for a non-independent body to correct it.

  The commission needs to have the power to consider the franchise and whether it would be possible and appropriate to expand it to include those who are currently excluded. My colleague Senator Lynn Ruane has mentioned the campaign to enable young people to vote at 16 years. I specifically mention the plight of those who have recently emigrated. This is one of the few democracies that does not facilitate postal voting for this significant cohort. I am not talking about the descendants of the diaspora or passport holders but those who are denied a vote in their country of residence as well as in their own. This disenfranchisement is indecent and unfair and I hope it could end with a properly resourced commission. I want to see any commission examine the possibilities for automatic voter registration, thus putting an end to the exclusion of people, especially first time voters. We have seen the need for such a strong body with these extensive powers as democracy seems to weaken across the western world.

  We need to see a strong independent commission to ensure the renewal and strengthening of the electoral system in order that it can maintain the confidence of citizens and ensure the long-term health of elections, our society and democracy. As a member of the Seanad reform group, this is an area in which we would like to see the concept of one vote, one person. Perhaps the commission could look into it once it is established.

  I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in drafting the heads of the Bill and hope it will be brought to the Dáil as soon as possible.

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile: Information on Niall Ó Donnghaile Zoom on Niall Ó Donnghaile Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus fáiltím roimh an deis an cheist seo a phlé leis. The Minister of State is most welcome.

 Like other colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important proposal. I note that during the course of his remarks, the Minister of State referred to the important preparatory work under way within his Department to implement any potential outcome of next year's planned referendum on presidential election voting rights. I am glad and acknowledge the impetus that there seems to be in that regard. I know that it has been a complex and laborious process, but we are now in the final furlong and it looks like there will be a referendum, please God, next May. That in itself logically warrants the establishment of a commission that will be fit for purpose and meet the ever changing and bespoke arrangements that will be required to provide for this change in the electoral architecture and also for all of the reasons outlined by colleagues across the Chamber with regard to the outdated nature of what has been in place previously.

  While, for obvious reasons, I have stressed the issue of presidential election voting rights for people resident outside the State, other potential changes, to which colleagues have alluded, are coming down the line. When the Taoiseach was before us earlier in the year to discuss Seanad reform, he laid out clearly that, politically, for him and the Government, he wanted to see a universal franchise in Seanad elections. It would include citizens across the Thirty-two Counties and I assume those qualifying within the global diaspora such as those who have recently emigrated. Another perhaps unusual but, given the legal advice presented to Ms Martina Anderson, MEP, very doable proposal involves the allocation of two additional seats following Brexit to represent the North. I do not know if this has featured in considerations related to the commission, but I am sure it has featured more broadly. If it has not, I commend that legal advice and recommendation to the Minister of State that the two additional European Parliament seats be utilised. How the mechanics of the election would work is something to be looked at, which is why the legal advice is important. It gives us the potential to do something different and positive which would be inclusive. It would give people the most basic right and entitlement - the right to vote.

  Has the Minister of State looked to the North and the electoral commission in place there? I am not saying it is perfect by any stretch, but much of what has been called for and proposed by colleagues in the Seanad is happening just up the road. There may be an opportunity to engage, share best practice and look at existing best practice. As we know, the commission operates entirely independently from the Executive and the political structures in the North.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to say a few words on this important topic. I note from the Minister of State's observations in his statement that he favours the local authorities having a big say in compiling the electoral register. I believe they should have a role to play, but there should be oversight. A number of years ago pressure was put on one of the Minister of State's predecessors, Dick Roche, to do something with the electoral register which was in a very poor state. He provided a sum of €100,000 for all of the local authorities to make a special effort to get the register up to date, to try to get everybody who should have been on it on it and to get people who should not have been on it off it. It required a big effort on the part of the local authorities at the time to do this and, in fairness, they responded.

  The electoral register is ad hoc in nature because many people contribute to how it is formed. There are rate or rent collectors, political parties, gardaí and ordinary citizens involved. In the long run, it is left up to people to sign on. In some cases, this can be quite cumbersome because one has to go to a Garda station which may, in some cases, be 20, 30 or 40 miles away. There is, therefore, a big onus on the citizen to travel in order to register. The process should be simpler. The electoral commission should be the basis in having some oversight of local authorities.

  In the last part of his statement the Minister of State said the Oireachtas committee's report found that there was a relatively high level of trust in the electoral system. He went on to refer to the setting up of the commission, the bringing forward of the heads of the Bill and the Bill. The best way for him to proceed is by putting a Bill together and bringing it to this House. He can have a very responsible debate on it in all sectors of society, with Senators across the political divide and backgrounds. Even if he was to make many changes to it before it went to the Dáil, it would be a very worthwhile exercise and a way of moving forward on the issue.

  On Seanad reform, I believe there will be a second register, probably bigger than that for general elections to the Dáil, because one may have people from Northern Ireland, America, England and countries all over the world on it. The way forward is the way the Minister of State is proceeding, with local authorities having a say in compiling the electoral register, with oversight by the electoral commission. If the Minister of State brings forward a Bill, he will receive a great response and there will be a fabulous debate in this House with all and sundry.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson The next speaker is Senator Higgins. I note that for the next four weeks, the election will be very much part of her life.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins: Information on Alice-Mary Higgins Zoom on Alice-Mary Higgins I welcome the Minister of State. We spoke on these issues previously. I think it was in December 2017. I thank the Minister of State for his statement. The proposal for an electoral commission has been on the table for a very long time. We have had not one but perhaps two new generations of voters who have grown up while this issue continued to be considered. As such, I really welcome the progress made.

  The Minister of State said he did not want to see a "big bang" approach and that he wanted it to be gradual. Let us not, however, have that graduality around the establishment of the electoral commission. Rather, let us move ahead and establish the commission. It may then be, absolutely, that the Oireachtas and the Government will choose to expand or enhance its powers as matters develop. We cannot, however, go into the next election with just another report on the table or piling up on the shelf for consideration. I notice that the Minister of State is developing legislation and I would really like to see it progressed. Even if each decision around the specific powers involves a cautious or expansionary approach, we will at least have legislation and be able to move more swiftly whether by statutory instrument or debate to expand those decisions.

  An electoral commission is necessary to ensure we have an ongoing understanding of democracy and how it works. Democracy and everyone's participation is not something that happens every now and then in an election. It is not something we call on citizens to be part of every now and again. It is a permanent and ongoing thing in which everyone has a stake. An electoral commission would give ongoing clarity around the rules of engagement and how we conduct elections. For example, we see a patchwork of measures. In the recent referendum there was a debate on who regulated billboards and where billboards came. All of these questions arise. That patchwork of measures and the different timings in the arrival of rules for each vote could be addressed by a permanent electoral commission. It would give clarity and an equality of participation for all those who put themselves forward or seek to participate in any way in an electoral process, whether a referendum or an election.

  A key matter I have spoken about in the House on many occasions is the regulation of online advertising relating to elections or referenda. Political advertising is an area in which Ireland is being looked to increasingly to give a lead. This is one of the places and one of the locations where this debate has happened. Ireland was looking at these issues at the same time that they were being looked at in the US Senate. The measures which have been piloted and tried in Ireland are likely to be rolled out elsewhere and, in fact, have been rolled out in the Mexican elections. That points to one of the ways in which an electoral commission will be so powerful. It will not be tied to our electoral moments but will be able to look at electoral best practice internationally, drawing on it and noticing problems and opportunities as they arise in other countries. That would be very important. For example, one looks at the issue of e-voting, which was something that was lauded as wonderful but which has now been rolled back on in other countries. An electoral commission would allow a constant monitoring of good practice in order that at the moments when we called on the public to make crucial decisions, they would be fully informed and we would know that a good system was in place.

  From the outset, it must be recognised in the philosophy informing any electoral commission we put forward that its role is not simply one of oversight. It should also be to inspire. Its role should not only be to ensure we have accountability in our democracy but that we actively seek engagement. This is the centenary year of suffrage and I have been very proud to be part of the Vótáil 100, a cross-party Oireachtas group to commemorate the expansion of suffrage to a number of women. However, it is an ongoing process. After millennia of different forms of power, we now have democracy as one of the greatest ways to ensure all are engaged and involved. We need a mandate of enthusiasm not simply to ensure correct registration but to drive and encourage registration and the act of voting.

  Key areas which need to be addressed include voting at 16 years. I was concerned to hear the Minister of State refer to one referendum which is planned to be held to expand the franchise abroad in that many are expecting that there will also be a referendum next May or June in line with the European elections on the right to vote at 16 years. Will the Minister of State confirm that such a referendum will take place? It is something on which young citizens have been very active and about which they have been passionate in pushing for. If people vote when they are young, they are more likely to continue to vote throughout their lives. I am glad the Minister of State referred to the role of public education. An electoral commission could have a very active role engaging with CSPE programmes and with young people in school around democracy and their participation in it.

  Postal voting is very important for people. Ireland is unusually restrictive in that regard. For example, tomorrow is the last day for students to be able to register to vote. People face huge obstacles. A number of solutions have been outlined eloquently by my colleague, Senator Ruane, around flexibility in voting data and making postal voting more accessible. There are many things we can do about postal voting. The supplementary register also raises issues of concern. Often, people who believe they have registered have, in fact, fallen off registers.

  I was an advocate of Seanad reform long before I came to the House or even thought I might do so. It is very important and I understand proposals are to be brought forward. However, we cannot wait for an electoral commission on either voting at 16 years or Seanad reform. These are issues on which we must advance apace, even while we are working separately to develop an electoral commission. I am sure we can create space in a Seanad reform Bill, which we should pass in the current term, to ensure a future electoral commission will be able to engage with it in an appropriate way. We must ensure these things move in parallel and that one is not used as a reason to delay another. We need a universal franchise for our Seanad. That is the mandate we were given and we must deliver on it following the referendum on the Seanad.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson I welcome Deputy Eamon Scanlon and his guests in the Gallery.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy John Paul Phelan): Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan I thank the Senators who have contributed and will try to refer to as many of the issues they have raised as possible. To take the last issue first, I note that the formation of a commission will have no impact on Seanad reform legislation. Several Senators raised this matter. We have committed to the implementation of meaningful Seanad reform. As Senator Paddy Burke pointed out, a commission would have a role to play in the future regarding what the register of electors for the Seanad elections would be. It will be a significant function.

  Senator Davitt expressed his support and that of Fianna Fáil.

  Senator Boyhan spoke about when the RIA was due. The original intention was that it would be published at Hallowe'en and we remain on course for that target. We will not publish it in advance of the presidential election. It is important to keep things separate and to protect the integrity of the voting process that will be engaged in at the end of October. Immediately following that, however, it is our intention to publish.

  Senator Boyhan and others also spoke about possible outside interference in elections. That is certainly a matter I envisage a commission having a role in in future.

  Senator Coffey referred to the modernisation of the register. In fact, every second Senator referred to it. Something always strikes me about election turnout. I was in a discussion this morning on local government in other parts of the world, in particular in Britain where local authorities have more functions. Whether they operate better is arguable, but the turnout in local elections in Britain is abysmal. The turnout here in local elections is, however, quite good. The accuracy of the electoral register varies nationally.  I think we could add between 5% and 10% to the turnout in most elections and referendums in this country fairly easily because of people who are incorrectly included or even excluded, as Senator Coffey said, from the register.

  Senators Coffey and Paddy Burke and others mentioned the role of local authorities. The commission, as I envisage it, would be responsible for the electoral register. As for being on the ground, as Senator Paddy Burke said, rate collectors are a rarer breed now than they were, but it is interesting that in my local authority area, where the rate collectors are still on the ground, the register is more accurate. The commission will have an oversight role but the local authorities will still have a very important function.

  There are other functions. Senators Warfield and Ruane referred to online voter registration, which is provided for in many other parts of the world. It is our intention, as I outlined in my opening comments, that, following the presidential election, that renewal process, which will take a number of years, will allow for online registration into the future and the elimination of the 23 forms currently used in favour of one standard form, as Senator Ruane said, be it in electronic or paper format. There are people who will still want the paper form. This matter is very much still on course and will be part of the commission's responsibility.

  The single identifier is the issue when it comes to online registration, whether it be the PPS number or other options. There is still work to be done in that regard to decide what route we will take. We must avoid the duplications and exclusions of people and the inclusion on registers of people who are deceased. What is particularly prevalent in Dublin city is that there might be ten people on an electoral register at one address but some of them have not lived there for ten years. To avoid these situations in the future, there will need to be some identifier.

  Several Senators spoke about the need for this body to have teeth. It absolutely will, including some of the teeth that may reside with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Referendum Commission, when it is established for referendums, with additional teeth.

  I emphasise what the two Senators at the back - I am like a teacher now - Senators Higgins and Ruane - said about being ambitious. I am very ambitious. I have wanted this myself for a long time and see the merits in it. As someone who has observed elections all over the world in my anorak capacity - in another life, if you like - I see the benefits. It happens in many other countries. What happened with the electronic voting fiasco of 20 years ago was a kind of top-down "this is what we are going to do" approach and the public rebelled against it; therefore, we must protect the integrity of what we have. I think this will, as Senator Higgins said, mean that other functions and roles will be bolted onto the commission in the future, but I assure the House that there will be no delay from the Government's perspective in getting the commission up and running. That is why there has been a renewed impetus in recent months.

  Senator Humphreys expressed his support for the proposal and spoke about the first memo for the Cabinet in 1996, which is a long time ago. He spoke about the removal of the Minister and the Department and he is right. This commission needs to be independent. Currently, the eight people who occupy the franchise section in the Department, who are exceptional civil servants, become the commission at election time, whether it be a referendum or an election. Many of their functions will be moved to the new electoral commission once it is established. As I think Senator Humphreys emphasised, there have never been any questions raised about the roles of the franchise section. They are the most dedicated bunch of civil servants I have ever dealt with. Like me, they are a little anoraky, so to speak, when it comes to elections.

  Senator Grace O'Sullivan spoke about Ireland being something of a beacon of democracy in the current world and she is right. I agree with her fully. This is where some differences will emerge because there are so many issues for which people believe the commission should be responsible. Senator O'Sullivan said the commission should be responsible for boundary commissions. Ultimately, while I believe the Oireachtas must still retain responsibility for establishing the terms of reference for boundary commissions, the commission should receive the report and should be responsible for ensuring that the committee reviewing the boundaries is established and that it is independent and separate. We cannot, however, remove from the public, whom we represent, the responsibility for drawing up the terms of reference under which such boundary reviews operate.

  Senator Grace O'Sullivan said automatic registration was important. Again, this is part of the review of the registration process that will happen following the presidential election.

  The Seanad reform group wants one person, one vote. I myself do and await any development in that regard with interest. I know that Members have contributed greatly to the workings of that committee in recent months. It was our intention at the start to have a report sometime around Hallowe'en and I think that is still pretty much on target.

  Senator Ó Donnghaile acknowledged the current impetus for the referendum on voting rights next May. The reason this referendum was mentioned is that it is specifically about registration and how registration in the future might need to change dramatically to facilitate people outside the State. There has been no change in Government policy such that the referendum on the minimum voting age would be held at the same time.

  I was here when the Taoiseach spoke in the Seanad about his interest and desire to see reform of the Seanad. This is one of the reasons it will happen.

  Senator Ó Donnghaile also spoke about the allocation of the two MEP seats to the North of Ireland. The two seats were allocated on Monday to the Dublin and South constituencies. There is one thing that always strikes me. Yesterday we had a debate on town councils in the Dáil in which Deputies referred to the fact that people from certain towns are no longer the mayors of those areas. Anyone can stand for election anywhere in Ireland. We have had a fine tradition in this House and especially in the European Parliament of Northern Ireland representatives being elected in constituencies here. We cannot under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and so many other terms have a European Parliament constituency for Northern Ireland but we can have, have had and should have into the future Northern people elected here. Senators Ó Donnghaile and Coffey spoke about looking at the Electoral Commission in the North. That is very much part of our considerations.

  Senator Warfield expressed disappointment that the website of the Department did not have information on directly elected mayors. I came here from a meeting of the Cabinet at which the matter of directly elected mayors was discussed. The Department gets blamed for many things, by me as well as others, but it cannot put up information that has not been agreed by the Government. I suspect that that information will be put up once the Cabinet minutes are done. Senator Warfield did, however, welcome the establishment of a commission. He urged that it have more resources. He spoke about online registration, CSO data and targeting demographics. He cited an interesting statistic that Ireland is 137th in the world on voter registration. I would like to know under whose measure that is the case. We have problems with voter registration, but 137th seems quite extraordinary.

  Senator Ruane spoke at length about her support and the importance of fostering outreach and involvement. She is absolutely correct. We have, by international standards, high enough participation rates in elections but they vary a lot across the country. I see one of the key roles here being to tell people what their local councillors do. The Senator is right to make that point. Sara Moorhead, senior counsel, is conducting a review of the role of councillors and their remuneration. It is the first time anyone has ever looked at what councillors are doing, what we think they should be doing and whether they should have more functions. The education aspect the Senator talks about will be an important part of the commission. She spoke about compulsory voting. It works well, I am told, in Australia. I do not like anything that is compulsory. I like the idea of it, but I still think people should have the option. Sometimes people choose not to vote for reasons that are legitimate or valid or whatever word one wants to use and that is a protest in itself. I am not sure about compulsory voting.

  Senators Ruane and Higgins spoke about limitations on postal voting. We have done a little work in that regard.  There is more to be done on the categories of Irish people who are overseas who are currently entitled to vote. Diplomats are entitled to vote yet if one works for Enterprise Ireland in an embassy overseas, one is not entitled to vote, which is extraordinary. I hope we will be able to do something in the course of the next few months to extend it somewhat. The commission will have a role in that regard into the future.

  Senator Paddy Burke spoke about councils and also about bringing the Bill into the Seanad first. I have no problem with that and think it would be the right thing to do. We would have more time to discuss it and have a less politically charged shouting match about what should and should not be in it.

  Senator Higgins referred to the debate last December and spoke of the importance of establishing the commission. It might be a gradual process and that is why we are where we are.

  I have already spoken about voter turnout. On the issue of postering in general, there are two very different frames of thought. There are some people who think we should ban election posters, most of whom are incumbent politicians. We should at least look at what is done in large parts of the Continent and elsewhere, where there are places where posters should be located and places where they should not. This would also be fair in terms of cost because posters are costly and people with deep pockets can afford more than others. However, it is an inherent injustice to new candidates if they cannot put their face up and let people know who they are and what they are about. Nonetheless, the current free-for-all is an issue at which the commission should look.

  On another note of discord, the issue of who regulates posters, advertising and billboards, notwithstanding the recent referendum when some fairly horrific posters were erected, I have reservations about anyone deciding what can be put on a political poster other than the people putting it up. My reservations are connected with free speech, but, in fact, I believe grotesque posters like that serve to damage the cause for which they are erected, as they did in the last referendum. They might not have done that in the past, but I think people are more open nowadays than they have ever been and I do not think they accept things word for word. I have historic posters in the hall of my house. One is the old Cumann na nGaedheal one, "Keep the Red Off Our Flag", from the 1932 election. Another is "The Shadow of the Gunman" poster, which is another Cumann na nGaedheal poster. Those posters probably would not be allowed nowadays, but they were in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were many gunmen around. Now, they are historic artefacts. People are often the best judges. I would not be comfortable with deciding who would judge the content of what should go on posters, although the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland has some role in ensuring they are not obscene and so on. If people go down that route ultimately, I believe it would be counterproductive to their electoral prospects in any case, but that is a job the commission should have. I look forward to it having that role. When we have the legislation, I will certainly endeavour to make sure it is in the Seanad first.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson The Minister of State is always welcome in the House.

Senator Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey I wish the Minister of State a happy birthday. I believe he enters his fifth decade today and I am sure the Acting Chairman will join us in wishing him a very enjoyable day. He was one of our youngest politicians at one time but no longer, unfortunately.

Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): Information on Diarmuid Wilson Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson He will be glad to be eligible to stand for the Presidency. When is it proposed to sit again?

Senator Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey Next Wednesday at 10.30 a.m.

  The Seanad adjourned at 1.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m on Wednesday, 3 October 2018.


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