Presentation to Joint Oireachtas Committee on the role of the Standards Commission at elections

Presentation to Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government - 18 December 2007

Below is a link to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's report on the future of the Electoral Register.  Please note that this is a link to a microsoft word document and that the link will open a new window.

First Report of the Joint Committee on The Future of the Electoral Register in Ireland and Related Matters (Published on 23 April 2008).

1. Introduction

On behalf of the Standards in Public Office Commission,  I thank the Chairman and the Committee for your invitation to make a brief presentation to you on the role of the Standards in Public Office Commission at elections.  The Standards Commission's remit in relation to elections is provided for in the Electoral Act 1997.  The Act has been amended a number of times, most significantly in 1998 and 2001.

In terms of the Standards Commission's remit, the Act provides for:

  1. the disclosure of donations received by political parties, Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, MEPs and candidates at Dáil, Seanad, European Parliament and presidential elections, and
  2. the limitation, disclosure and reimbursement of election expenses at Dáil, European Parliament and Presidential elections.  (The limitation and disclosure of election expenses do not apply to Seanad elections.)

The Standards Commission understands that the purpose of these provisions is to provide for openness and accountability in the relationships that exist between, on the one hand, political parties and individual politicians and, on the other, those who would support them politically, whether by way of financial assistance or otherwise.  The legislation also seeks to achieve a degree of equity in the electoral process by limiting expenditure at elections and by providing a system whereby candidates at elections can, in certain circumstances, recoup some election expenses.

The Standards Commission has supervised the provisions of the Act at the Dáil general elections of 2002 and 2007, the European Parliament elections of 2004 and the Kildare North and Meath Dáil by-elections of 11 March 2005.  This presentation concentrates on the Standards Commission's supervisory role at Dáil and European elections.

2. Role of the Standards Commission at Dáil and European elections

The Act requires the Standards Commission to monitor and, where it considers it appropriate to do so, to report to the Chairman of Dáil Éireann on matters relating to -

  • the acceptance and disclosure of donations received by candidates;
  • the opening and maintenance of political donations accounts by candidates who receive a monetary donation exceeding €126.97;
  • the limitation and disclosure of election expenses incurred by candidates' election agents, the national agents of political parties and by "other persons";
  • the reimbursement of election expenses to qualified candidates.

A key function of the Standards Commission at elections is to provide advice on compliance with the requirements of the Act to candidates, their election agents, the national agents of political parties contesting the elections and other persons engaged in the election.  As part of this process, the Standards Commission issues guidelines to all candidates and agents.  If necessary, candidates or agents may contact the Standards Commission for advice on particular matters.  Section 11 of the Act provides that guidelines and advice issued by the Standards Commission must be complied with.  Representatives of the Standards Commission secretariat also meet with political parties and with candidates' election agents to ensure that they are familiar with the requirements of the legislation.

3. Reporting role of the Standards Commission

Section 4(1) of the Act provides that the Standards Commission may, where it considers it appropriate to do so, furnish a report to the Ceann Comhairle on any matter arising in relation to Donation Statements and Election Expenses Statements furnished to it under the Act.

The section requires the Standards Commission to consider each Donation Statement and Election Expenses Statement furnished to it.  It is the practice of the Standards Commission to examine all of the material furnished by candidates, election agents and national agents.  In general, unless there is evidence to the contrary, Donation Statements and Election Expenses Statements and supporting invoices, receipts or vouchers are accepted as being accurate, subject to any amendments that may be required to correct minor errors or omissions.  The Act provides that where the Standards Commission considers that there may be a minor error or omission in a Donation Statement or an Election Expenses Statement, it may afford the election agent 14 days to rectify the error or make good the omission.

The Standards Commission is also required under the Act to lay a copy of each Donation Statement and Election Expenses Statement furnished to it before the Houses of the Oireachtas and to facilitate the inspection and copying, by any person, of these Statements (including invoices and receipts).  The Standards Commission regards this requirement as a very important element of the legislation as it facilitates a more broadly based assessment of these statutory returns by interested parties, including, for example, the media, competitors in a constituency and others who are involved on the ground and have detailed knowledge of the level of activity in the case of specific candidate or party campaigns.  If such scrutiny gives rise to a valid complaint that a particular return is false or misleading, the Standards Commission will inquire into the matter and will take whatever further action may be appropriate.

The Standards Commission is empowered under section 4(4) of the Act to conduct whatever inquiries are necessary in the discharge of its statutory functions.

4. Dáil general election of 2007

In accordance with section 4(1) of the Act the Standards Commission furnished a report to the Ceann Comhairle on 13 December 2007 concerning Donation Statements and Election Expenses Statements received by it in relation to the Dáil general election of 2007.  In accordance with section 4(5) of the Act this report must be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The report, which gives details of donations disclosed and election expenses incurred, also makes a number of recommendations as to how the Act might be improved.  After the 2002 Dáil general election, the Standards Commission was invited by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Martin Cullen TD to furnish its views on its experience of supervising the Act.  These views were set out in a report, Standards in Public Office Commission Review of the Electoral Acts 1997 to 2002, which was sent to the Minister in December 2003.  That document set out a number of recommendations both general and specific as to how the legislation might be improved.  None of these recommendations were implemented.  The Standards Commission encountered many of the same difficulties with the legislation at the 2007 general election as it had at the 2002 general election.  Accordingly many of the recommendations contained in the review document of 2003 also feature as recommendations in its report on the 2007 election.

The report discloses reported election expenses of €11.08m.  300 candidates qualified for reimbursement of election expenses totalling €2.64m. Donations disclosed by unsuccessful candidates amounted to €0.53m.  Donation statements from successful candidates are due to be returned by 31 January 2008 and statements from political parties are due by 31 March next. If trends evident in recent years are maintained, then the total disclosed by these statements will amount to less than €0.3m. It is not apparent to the Standards Commission, or to the general public, therefore, how the parties and candidates finance their election campaigns.

Some of the main recommendations contained in the Standards Commission's report on the 2007 Dáil general election are as follows:

  • The proposed establishment of an Electoral Commission, as set out in the current programme for government, affords an ideal opportunity for a complete review of the Act. Other reports from the Standards Commission have pointed out that there is a strong case to be made for a new approach to funding of political parties, for increased transparency in such funding and for greater scrutiny of party expenditure.
  • As the body with responsibility for supervising the Act, the Standards Commission should have a statutory role to review the operation of the Act and report on its findings.
  • During the election there was considerable evidence of and much comment about pre-election spending by parties and candidates.  This expenditure was not required to be accounted for if the materials were not used during the election period.  There are legitimate concerns that such "front-loading" of campaign expenditure undermines the effectiveness of the expenditure limits and may create the perception that accounting for expenditure at elections is little more than a paper exercise.  The Standards Commission recommends an election period of 2/3 months duration and considers that expenditure on goods, property or services used for electoral purposes during this period should be subject to the statutory expenditure limits and accounted for.
  • The Standards Commission considers it imperative that an offence be provided for failure to open a political donations account when required to do so.
  • The use of public funds for electoral purposes is a major issue which requires to be re-evaluated and clarified in consideration of future changes to the electoral law.  The provision of such clarity should be within the ambit of the electoral code.
  • The term "election agent" as defined in the Act is causing confusion among candidates and should be amended.