Dáil Éireann - Volume 673 - 05 February, 2009

Priority Questions. - Election Management System.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the date for the introduction of the cap on local election spending; the spending limits and the framework which will be introduced to monitor spending; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3939/09]

  Deputy John Gormley: I intend to bring forward proposals in the near future for legislative change to allow for the introduction of spending limits at local elections. It is my intention to have the limits in place for the local elections to be held this year. The programme for Government contains a commitment to examine spending limits at local elections as part of the Green Paper on local government. The Green Paper, published in April 2008, outlined two possible approaches, a fixed expenditure ceiling of a set amount per candidate or limits linked to a proportion of Dáil expenditure.

The purpose of introducing spending limits is to create as level a playing field as possible to ensure that candidates of modest means are not put at a disadvantage in contesting an election. It will also bring local elections in line with other electoral codes where spending limits already apply.

[694] In October 2008, I consulted the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue of spending limits. A policy research document prepared on behalf of the committee and presented at that meeting offered useful practical guidance. There are a number of complexities that need to be considered and I discussed these with members of the committee.

The consultative committee on local government reform, which was involved in the drafting process for the Green Paper on Local Government also considered the issue of expenditure limits. This committee included representatives from all the main local government associations and representative bodies including the Association of County and City Councils, the Association of Municipal Authorities in Ireland, the County and City Managers Association and the Local Authority Members Association.

Under the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, all local election candidates are currently required to submit a declaration of campaign expenditure, and the source of the funds to meet that expenditure. I believe that these provisions should be built upon, and that candidates should be required to comply with spending limits.

However, in setting the limits, a balance has to be struck. The limits have to be both realistic and reasonable. If they were set at too low a level, they might unduly hinder campaigning, particularly by new candidates. Were the limits too high, they would defeat the objective of discouraging excessive spending.

Given their different administrative responsibilities, there may be a case for setting different limits for county and city councils on the one hand, and borough and town councils on the other hand. This is something that is being considered.

Preparatory work is now at an advanced stage, and I expect to publish a Bill shortly to introduce spending limits for candidates at local elections.

  Deputy Ciarán Lynch: I thank the Minister for his response. It is exactly the same response we received on 7 October 2008 when the Minister briefed the committee. A number of questions must be asked. Has the Minister brought this matter to Cabinet? In correspondence from the Taoiseach to the leader of my party in December there was discussion of complexities. There are no complexities in this. Local candidates must furnish financial information on their campaigns. What they need is a limit to be placed upon it. If this creates difficulties in terms of administration it also creates many benefits and a level playing field. It is an important factor in safeguarding against corruption. The Minister is on record, and I have stated in this Chamber and in committee, that there is a direct correlation between election spending and election outcome.

The Minister has not delivered on this issue. He has given us the same response he gave to the committee on 7 October. There are 16 weeks to go to the next local elections, which is just over 100 days. When will the Minister bring forward this legislation? The Minister mentioned two approaches. There are several approaches. Which one will the Minister choose?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I will call on the Deputy again.

  Deputy Ciarán Lynch: It is unsatisfactory that the Minister is still prevaricating on this issue.

  Deputy John Gormley: On the one hand Deputy Lynch states there are issues which need to be examined and, on the other, that there are no complexities. There are complexities and there is no question about it. If one considers the variation in population, and this will be based [695] on population, the electoral areas range from a low of 6,470 to a high of 51,803. This is a huge variation. How does one allocate spending on this basis? This is what we must try to do.

In my reply, I stated there are issues with regard to some of the borough councils and these must be teased out. Next week, I hope to be in a position to announce this. Given that Deputy Lynch has highlighted the difficulties, stated that people have advantages and agreed with me that this needs to be done I hope he will welcome my initiative. I am sure he will find a way to criticise it in some shape or form.

The limit for a three seat Dáil constituency at present is €30,150. The Green Paper recommends this is halved to €15,000. We must examine this and consider whether this is the way to go. My thinking is that it is and I hope that next week Deputy Lynch will be out on the plinth welcoming this.

  Deputy Ciarán Lynch: I did not intend to ask a supplementary question but as the Minister did not answer a number of my questions I will restate them. Yes, there are complexities but they are not unknown complexities. The complexities are related to population, various limits and urban and rural areas. I have discussed these with the Minister at committee meetings. Has the Minister brought the matter to Cabinet? Will next week’s announcement give us a specific date? Candidates in the field need to know the limitations of their expenditure. I welcome the indication this afternoon that the Minister is beginning to move on this matter at last. However, the vast majority of the Minister’s response is a repetition of what we heard on 7 October.

  Deputy John Gormley: I assure the Deputy that candidates will have clarity. Deputy Lynch must remember that I am a leader of a party and I have people running in the local elections also and they are as anxious as him to have the details. They will have those details next week.

  Deputy Ciarán Lynch: Has it been brought to Cabinet?

  Deputy John Gormley: These matters have been discussed in detail, and as I stated because they are complex issues they must be teased out. However, I will be in a position next week to make a firm announcement.