Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 837 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen] It is a further punishment for events that have often been far beyond their control. A democracy has to be better than this. It must reflect, not exclude, the experience of the people under its rule and this law moves towards this. The Bill, while dangerously rushed, is a welcome measure towards including greater numbers in the democratic process. We have taken strides in Dáil Éireann through gender quota laws to encompass a broader range of members of society in our ranks. This will enhance legislation, heighten scrutiny and bring fresh ideas to the table. The lessons of the past few years have shown the limits of group think and the need for challenging voices. Removing the bankruptcy ban will usher in another part of Irish life that needs to be heard in these Chambers and local authorities and at the heart of Europe. The underlying morality behind the ban does not reflect the reality of modern Ireland. It excludes the people worst affected by the crisis that has defined the past five years. We need to move on from this and put in place legislation that mirrors the kind of country we have. A Dáil that is removed from the people is not worthy of the name. Ultimately, it will be up to the people to decide who goes forward to carry their message in these fora. The Bill gives the citizens of Ireland that choice. We support its thrust and will help in so far as we can to provide for its clear and safe passage through the House.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley I am happy to support the Bill which will remove what is probably an outdated ban on persons who have been declared bankrupt in putting themselves forward for election. It also redresses the anomaly whereby people can contest local elections if bankrupt but not elections to this House or the European Parliament. Thankfully, the law barring people from standing for the local elections was changed 40 years ago. Being without it for 40 years has done no damage to local authorities or representation at that level. At one time bankruptcy was probably a fairly exotic condition, but we have seen many people being declared or declaring themselves bankrupt during the fallout from the economic crash and financial crisis that brought an end to the so-called Celtic tiger. There are, undoubtedly, cases where certain individuals and institutions were to blame for much of the collapse and a number of related cases are proceeding in the courts. It could be argued that it is expedient for certain people to declare themselves bankrupt in this or other jurisdictions in order to save some of their other assets. I regard some of the individuals and institutions such as Anglo Irish Bank in a different light from people who found themselves bankrupt from causes beyond their control while trying to run a business, buying a house or putting a roof over their family's head. That is very different and we all know of people who found themselves in that position in recent times. Many of them lost businesses, farms and homes and found themselves bankrupt as a consequence. A huge section of Irish society may not be legally bankrupt but are in a perilous economic state. It has never been known before for people to be in such debt. Never in the history of the State has the level of debt been so high. There is potentially a huge number of people who could be made bankrupt.

The legislation is motivated by the case taken by Ms Jillian Godsil whose home was repossessed and who has expressed an interest in contesting the forthcoming European elections. It would be unjust to deny her that opportunity, especially, as I understand it, she wants to run to highlight the plight of people who have had their homes repossessed as part of the fallout from the Celtic tiger and the economic crash. The issue at stake is whether people who have been declared bankrupt ought to be denied exercising one of the fundamental rights of any citizen in a democracy, the right to stand for election and represent one's peers. Members may question the sanity of people who want to subject themselves to running for election, but it is a right that should only be removed in particular and extraordinary circumstances. Is it right, for example, that someone who is bankrupt should be denied the right to run for election, while former prisoners are, rightly, not denied such a right? Had they been so denied in the State, a huge number of people - some on this side and a few on the Government side - would not have been allowed to run and take up office. We have moved beyond that position.

There is something Victorian in highlighting bankruptcy as a sin to be particularly reviled. The ban on bankrupts contesting elections is a hangover from the pre-revolutionary period. The implication is that someone who cannot manage his or her financial affairs is unable to manage the finances of the State and should not be trusted with legislation. Many who are not bankrupt have played a huge role in bringing the State to the edge of bankruptcy and causing the economic crash of recent years. They will never be declared bankrupt as they are high and dry and safe.

The most famous case of someone being barred from the House as a result of bankruptcy was Big Jim Larkin. He was elected in 1927, but he was disqualified in 1928 for being an undischarged bankrupt. Interestingly, he ran again in the by-election in 1928 but failed to keep his seat; I am not certain, therefore, how he would have fared. He would have been barred had he been successful.

I will take the opportunity to address other issues in the electoral laws. It would be a good idea to have people automatically listed on the electoral register once they have a PPS number and reached the age of 18 years. That would do away with many cases of people not being registered to vote in elections when they should be eligible to vote. It would also do away with cases of people being registered two or three times. People who house move do not change their registration details. The list is linked solely by address and people of the same name may live at the same address. A father, son, mother or daughter may be removed from the list because two people with the same name live at the same address. A council official will see Mary listed twice in a house and, thinking there is something wrong, knock off one of the names.

There are also cases of people being on the list a number of times. Notwithstanding data protection issues, there must be a way to address the issue of people not being on the electoral register. The first time I ran for election, I learned a lesson. People went to vote for me and a small handful - no more than four or five - who would have got me over the line were not on the register of electors. We must try to have the electoral register in good shape. Candidates, councillors and local authority staff help, but the problem is that electoral registers are, at best, 60% or 70% accurate. I raised this issue with Laois County Council at the last local election. In some cases, there were seven adults registered where two adults lived. It is a serious issue, but it could not be addressed because of the construction of the electoral registers and the timeline involved. A special meeting of Laois County Council was called to address the matter. We are talking about barring people from standing but people are barred if the electoral register is skewed. Individuals who campaign to the best of their ability can only canvass the people who live in a house. If five people are registered at an address but do not live in that house, it is fair only to one person, namely, the person playing that for an advantage. The other 15 candidates are disadvantaged. Some 27 people were registered as living in a house in Monaghan.

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