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 John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan] As a result of a change in the way society works, people are not as familiar with their own neighbours and communities as would have been the case in the past. Many of those older rate collectors have retired and their expertise and knowledge has gone with them. As a result, electoral registers in many parts of the country - in most parts of County Kilkenny the electoral register is pretty good - are not as accurate as they should or could be. One of the benefits of an electoral commission would be permanent responsibility for the redrafting of electoral boundaries. I refer to the recent farcical situation in which the Minister was attacked by the Leader of the Opposition about the matter of local electoral boundaries in a desperate attempt to hide his own embarrassment before the upcoming elections. Several members of the independently appointed commission had to state publicly that their decisions were completely removed from any intervention by the Minister or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Its decisions were enforced uniformly across the country without regard to any other external interests. In the future, the establishment of a permanent electoral commission could provide a mechanism for the upgrading and the renewal of electoral boundaries for local, European and general elections and also for the upkeep of electoral registers. I suggest that the Minister consider introducing that reform over the course of the next couple of years.

Deputy John Browne: Information on John Browne Zoom on John Browne I welcome the Bill. Our spokesperson, Deputy Barry Cowen, has signalled that Fianna Fáil will support it. In 1974 the bankruptcy disqualification was removed in the case of local elections. It is difficult to understand why this ruling did not extend to European and general elections. We have moved on since then. Changing the electoral law in light of the ongoing legal action reflects the principles of equality and representation enshrined in the Constitution. Allowing undischarged bankrupts to contest elections brings Ireland into line with most member states of the European Union. It also mirrors broader changes in Ireland with regard to the issue of bankruptcy, which has been highlighted in the current economic crisis that has affected almost every household in the country. Bankruptcy should not be regarded as a moral failure but rather as a financial decision. The Minister wants to pass this Bill as quickly as possible and it will enable undischarged bankrupts to contest the local and European elections in May, as well as future Dáil and Seanad elections.

The Bill arises from an action before the High Court. Ms Jillian Godsil has brought a case arguing that the legislation banning her from contesting elections as an undischarged bankrupt is unconstitutional. The case will be heard in full in July but this Bill, if enacted, will remove the need for a legal dispute and potential financial repercussions for the State in the future. The principles at stake are equality, in the form of freedom of choice, and discrimination because of socioeconomic status, both of which are components of the Constitution. Removing the ban would bring Ireland into line with the European norm. Bankruptcy bans are more prevalent in common law countries. Traditionally in Ireland the ban was viewed as being a moral issue. The impact of the economic crisis has caused this perspective to shift, and the Minister's Bill reflects this change.

The removal of the personal insolvency legislation will result in a significant increase in bankruptcy numbers in the State despite the onerous three-year period and additional financial draw-down time which will alienate people from the process. The elections will be held on 23 May and the Minister wants to ensure that the Bill passes all stages by that time. The cut-off date for nominations is 28 April. If passed, this Bill will allow those in financial difficulties and bankruptcy to contest the election.

Currently, the law denies people who are declared bankrupt the right to contest elections. However, if the bankruptcy is pursued elsewhere, and in countries where the period of bankruptcy is significantly shorter, the ban does not apply. The rationale behind the law that bankrupts are incapable of being representatives due to a moral or judgmental failure has been bypassed. By denying bankrupts from contesting elections, the principle of equality and political representation is completely undermined. People seeking bankruptcy tend to be drawn from embattled socioeconomic groups who are unable to meet their financial obligations. As the Minister pointed out, this would mean a section of society is penalised for its financial problems. Ordinary business people in every community and county are facing financial difficulties and are engaged in processes with banks. In many cases the banks are very reluctant to do deals or to work out a suitable repayment schedule. This aspect has been debated in committee and in this House. There seems to be no solution on offer to the current mortgage crisis. I hope the Minister and the Government will do everything possible to bring the banks into line to ensure they do deals for people who are in a position to make some repayments, including interest-only repayments if they are not in a position to make a full repayment. The banks should be prepared to meet them halfway and to devise solutions.

The prevalence of bankruptcy bans in common law countries displays a displaced sense of morality where financial difficulties are viewed as a failing. This is not the case in the majority of EU countries. By removing the ban, Ireland will be brought in line with the international norm. Changes to Irish bankruptcy laws mean that greater numbers of people will move through the system. While still onerous, this should lead to more pressure for change in order to mirror the deeper changes. This Bill will remove the need for the pursuit of the court case in July and any possible costly civil or European actions that may arise.

Fianna Fáil will support the Bill. Deputy Cowen may put forward amendments on Committee Stage, although the Bill is straightforward and it will result in significant change for those who are declared bankrupt. As the Minister noted in his contribution, it is farcical that people can be declared bankrupt in other countries and still contest elections in this country. I do not understand why in 1974 the ban was removed in the case of local elections but this was not extended to included Dáil, Seanad or European elections. There was a reason, but it would have made sense to have changed the regulation. The economic crisis has brought this issue to the fore and the Minister has acted as quickly as possible to deal with the court case, which would have been one of many in advance of the general election in two years' time. I welcome the Bill, which I hope will be enacted before the declaration date this month.

Deputy Eamonn Maloney: Information on Eamonn Maloney Zoom on Eamonn Maloney Deputy Browne has alluded to the current situation. Under normal circumstances I would be opposed to this Bill, for two principal reasons.

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