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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Feb 1930

Vol. 33 No. 1

In Committee on Finance. - State Lands (Workhouses) Bill, 1929—Second Stage.

I move the Second Reading of this Bill. The Bill is intended to provide for the better control and management of workhouse lands and buildings formerly vested in the Local Government Board and held by it for the purposes of the Poor Relief Acts. Clause XI of the Constitution secured that State lands could not be alienated, and that they would have to be controlled and administered by the Oireachtas. The State Lands Act of 1924 laid down the procedure for the regulation and control of these lands. For a time it was not clear that workhouses were State lands within the meaning of that clause in the Constitution and within the meaning of the State Lands Act. It was subsequently decided that they did come under that clause of the Constitution and under the State Lands Act of 1924. The procedure, as the result of that, has been that the workhouses are vested in the State. The letting and the renting of them is controlled by the Minister for Finance and the proceeds of the lettings are brought into the Central Fund. A rather elaborate procedure dealing with lettings was introduced. While taking the control of these lands and their rents into the Central Fund, the responsibility for maintaining these lands and other property still rested on the local body.

This Bill proposes that the workhouses will be taken from under the operation of the State Lands Act, that the Minister for Local Government, who has administrative responsibility for administering the Poor Relief Acts, will take the position of the Minister for Finance in the State Lands Acts, and that the lettings of land and property in future will be on the following lines: it will still be impossible to alienate these lands, or to grant a lease or a licence to anyone for their occupation for more than 99 years. Proposals to lease or to let these lands for a period of more than five years will be tabled in the same way as such proposals have been tabled up to the present, but it is proposed that the Minister for Local Government be given powers to make regulations under which the local body, in whose functional area the workhouse is, can grant a lease or a licence for a less period than five years at a rent and subject to conditions that will be in accordance with regulations made by the Minister and subject to his consent. The Minister for Local Government will be given power as well to make regulations under which lettings for a shorter period than twelve months can be made by the local body without reference to him at all. A large number of small lettings of lands for plots and other purposes are made annually. The present machinery is too complicated very often, so that the period of a letting has expired before the Department is in full possession of the particulars which, according to the State Lands Act, ought to be laid before the Oireachtas before the letting becomes effective.

Moneys to the extent of about £1,100 have already been paid into the Central Fund as a result of these lettings. It is proposed that these moneys will be returned to the Minister for Local Government. It is also proposed that the annual lettings, which at the present moment amount to about £707, be handed over to the Minister for Local Government, and that these moneys will be used for suitable purposes in connection with poor relief in the functional area of the authority from which these moneys come. Generally the purposes of the Bill is to simplify the procedure for dealing with these lands. The local authority was responsible for the upkeep of workhouses formerly. As a result of the passage of the State Lands Act there has been a doubt in certain cases whether the local authority was responsible for the upkeep of workhouse buildings or not, and in many cases a certain amount of serious neglect has taken place. The Bill proposes to make it the duty of the local authority to keep and maintain in good tenantable order and repair the buildings that are involved in the matter. The State Lands Act was passed in August, 1924. Previous to that, in August, 1923, an agreement for the making of a lease was entered into by the Minister for Local Government with Messrs. Watt and Co. with respect to certain parts of the workhouse in Letterkenny. There was no statutory authority at the time to do that, but that was not then understood. This Bill proposes to make valid and good the agreement for a lease then entered into and to authorise the Minister for Local Government to enter into the leasing for twentyfive years as from August, 1923, at a rent of £100 to Messrs. Watt.

I do not intend to oppose the main principle of this Bill, but I would like to draw the attention of the House to a very important issue which is raised by the measure in an incidental manner. I refer to the proposal which the Bill contains for the allocation of the State revenue which will arise from these lands. This Bill proposes to allocate to the Department of Local Government certain functions of this House which nobody, I think, ever proposed to interfere with before. I do not know if the Minister for Local Government has read a book entitled "The New Despotism," by the Lord Chief Justice of England.

More English authorities.

If he did so it was probably in the same spirit that the criminal reads detective novels—that is, for the purpose of getting useful hints. He certainly is proposing in this Bill to infringe on the powers of this House to an extent greater than anything attempted heretofore. This Bill may conform to the provisions of Article 11 of the Constitution, but I think it interferes to a great extent with the principle of Article 61 of the Constitution, which provides that all revenues of the State from every source shall be paid into one fund, and shall be paid out of that fund only in accordance with the manner decided on by this House. The revenue accruing to the State from the leasing of these State lands has heretofore been paid into the Central Fund. It is proposed to cease that practice if this Bill becomes law, and to provide that this revenue shall be paid to the Minister for Local Government, who shall be entitled to apply that money for such purposes within the functional area of the local authority in whose functional area the land the subject of such lease or licence is situated as he shall think advisable. That is a very new and, in my opinion, a very undesirable principle. The Minister has told us it is his intention to use the money for the purpose of poor relief. We are glad to know that that is his intention. It is not, however, so stated in the Bill. In any case, it is an old proverb that hard cases make bad laws. The mere fact that the money is going to be put to a good purpose should not induce us to give assent to a very dangerous principle.

The Bill proposes to interfere with the Dáil's absolute control over finance. The Dáil, I think, should resist this infringement of its powers at this stage before the Government goes any further in that manner. The spirit of bureaucracy is developing in the Executive Council. We have had numerous examples of it in recent measures introduced here, but this is, I think, the first time in which they have come to the point of taking from the Dáil the absolute control over finance which we have exercised up to this. It does not seem impossible to devise machinery which will enable the Minister to do everything which he may wish to do following the passage of this Bill, while at the same time preserving the right of this House. Why cannot the money accruing from the leasing of these lands be paid into the Central Fund and thus made subject to the survey of the Comptroller and Auditor General and of the authority of this House? I cannot understand what purpose it is intended to serve by inserting this provision in the Bill, unless I am correct in assuming that the Ministry hope to establish a precedent which can be used in more important measures later. I would like if the Minister would deal with that specific point in replying, because it raises a matter of very grave importance.

There is another section of this Bill which raises a somewhat similar issue. That is Section 4. The ostensible purpose of that section is to preserve the authority of the Dáil over the leasing of these lands. Any person who read the Bill casually or accepted the definition of it which appears upon the margin would be inclined to believe that that section was inserted to ensure that the Dáil would have the right of veto over any proposed lease or to amend that lease; that section is, I think, identical in every respect with a similar section which appeared in the State Lands Act of 1924. Deputies will recollect that last year Deputy Hogan attempted to operate the machinery provided in the State Lands Act of 1924 with respect to the leasing of lands attached to the Scariff Workhouse in County Clare and failed to do so because the machinery was defective.

I would like if the Minister would tell us why the power of the Dáil over these leases cannot be made positive instead of negative? In other words, why cannot it be enacted that these proposed leases will not become effective until the Oireachtas has given positive assent to them? The Bill as it now stands merely provides that a Deputy can, during twelve sitting days following the laying of the papers relating to the lease upon the Table of the House, introduce a motion to amend it or to express objection to it. There is, however, no provision in the Bill to ensure that a motion of that kind must be considered by the House within the period specified. From one example of the working of the machinery which we had last year, we know that the safeguard there provided is absolutely useless unless it is also provided that the motion moved to amend the proposal is given priority over all other business during the period provided. In my opinion, the best course to take is to ensure that the Dáil will have positive power; in other words, that no lease will become effective until the Minister has brought a motion to the House expressing positive approval of it. In 99 cases out of 100 that would be a mere formal motion introduced in the usual way of public business and would occupy only a couple of minutes. It is only in the 100th case where a Deputy would have definite objection to the proposal that a debate would ensue. If that course is adopted, the power of the Dáil to interfere directly with the administration of this Bill will be preserved and I think the members of the Dáil irrespective of party should be anxious to preserve the power of the Dáil. This is not a party question. The Government now in office will not be always in office. The Deputies now supporting the Government may be in Opposition some time in the future when they may find their powers interfered with or curtailed in respect of these matters unless they interfere now to preserve this power. This is a question in which the ordinary Deputies will find themselves in opposition to the members of the Executive Council who naturally believe that they are the best fitted to regulate affairs and will endeavour to secure that power to themselves. While, however, we have, in theory, a democratic Government in office, we should endeavour to ensure that the forms of democracy will be preserved. We have here an opportunity of doing so and I would ask the Deputies to insist when this Bill comes before them in Committee that the necessary alterations are made in Sections 3 and 4 so as to ensure that no future dangers will arise from them.

I do not propose to go very deeply into this matter, but in some respects I differ in my view of it from the view expressed by Deputy Lemass. He suggests that the Dáil should have control over the revenue obtained by leasing or letting these buildings. I have another point of view. I think that the party that has charge of the responsibility of maintaining these buildings, the authority that cared for these buildings when they were going concerns, should be the authority to whom the revenue and control of these lands and buildings should continue. I suggest to the Minister that when workhouses were used more generally than they are now under the amalgamation scheme, the local authorities were charged with their care and preservation in a habitable condition. At that time, the local authorities had large responsibilities for the care of these buildings, and I think the Minister will agree that these responsibilities were in the main well discharged. I suggest to the Minister now that those local bodies within these functional areas should have control. The Minister may suggest to me that the district councils have disappeared and that the boards of guardians have disappeared in various districts. But we have still the county councils and boards of health and they will be capable of seeing that these institutions are properly looked after.

I see the Minister proposes that the local authorities should act as collectors of this money, and I also see that the Minister proposes that the local authorities should maintain these buildings in a habitable condition. Yet, while he proposes they should look after them, he does not propose that they should have any say in the leasing or letting of them. Of course, in the ordinary course, the Minister would have the right of sanction or disapproval of what these local bodies would do. I think, however, considering the entire position, that the local people would have a better knowledge of what it would be proper to use those buildings for and the proper method of dealing with them. When I saw the Bill, I thought the Minister had relented in the matter of the State Lands Act of 1924 and that so far as the State lands were concerned he was going to change the whole position in this Bill. The Minister is evidently going to stereotype the position and make it worse than it has been, if that be possible.

In some places a number of these buildings were destroyed at one time or another and grants have been given by way of compensation, but there are some doubts as to what became of the compensation that was paid. These buildings were destroyed as an act of military necessity and one would expect that there would be something in this Bill dealing with that. It is obvious from what Deputy Lemass has said that unless some new machinery is introduced or the present machinery altered, the laying on the Table of the Dáil of leases or lettings of this property will be of no value in the way of preserving the rights of the Dáil.

I do not know whether any machinery has been introduced that will make these matters purely Government matters and that will ensure that Government time is given for their consideration. One may be obliged to put down a motion at the end of a long litany of motions, and it may not be reached for months. I do not know whether that comes within the province of the Minister or somebody else, but I do suggest that it should come within the provence of somebody and it should be attended to. I do not agree that the letting or leasing of these plots should be in the hands of the Local Government Department. They should be left to the local authorities, who are the proper authorities in the matter of leasing or letting, because they are conversant with the position in the district. The local authorities have full knowledge as to the proper use that should be made of these lands. That is the proper way in which to administer this Bill, and not by any other means.

I wish to support Deputy Hogan in his contention that local persons should be the persons to receive the revenue from the letting of lands, if they are to be the persons liable for the repairs to the workhouses. If I have read Sections 10 and 11 correctly, they mean that the local authorities will have to keep these buildings in order. Since the amalgamation nothing has been done with some of these buildings, and it would take anything from £500 to £2,000 to put them in order. I have in mind Delvin workhouse. Part of it was destroyed during the troubled times and the rest of it has been left derelict since. To put it in repair it would mean at least one penny in the £ on the ratepayers, and to keep it in repair would mean some hundreds annually, maybe £100 or £200. If this Bill is passed, and if that responsibility is put on the local authority, the Westmeath County Council, that Council should be made responsible for receiving the revenue, and it would know best how to get the biggest price for the letting of lands and buildings there.

We have been endeavouring for the past year or two to let portion of Delvin Workhouse in the way of flats to some families, and we have been in communication with the Minister's Department for a long period without any result. That means a big loss of revenue. If the Department is as slow in other matters as in the instance I have given, then I must say that they would not be as quick in getting revenue as would the Westmeath County Council. I think it would be undemocratic in every sense of the word if the receipt and the application of revenue were taken out of the hands of the local authorities. I think the first charge against that revenue would be the maintenance of the buildings and land, meaning by the maintenance of land proper fencing and upkeep. I am not very clear on the whole Bill, but perhaps I will be in Committee. As I have read the Bill, there seems to me to be much room for improvement. I support Deputy Hogan in his contention that the local authorities should be made responsible for the receipt of revenue and that the revenue should be devoted primarily towards the maintenance of lands and the repair of buildings.

I think this is one of the most ridiculous proposals the Minister has ever introduced. From my experience as a member of a board of health, caretakers in charge of those derelict workhouses and hospitals are paid out of the local rates. The Minister suggests that the revenues shall be handed to him to be used in any manner that he thinks fit. From our experience of the manner in which the Minister thinks fit to use revenue he is scarcely a trustworthy person, and I do not think that he should be allowed to receive any revenue. He suggests that the money should be paid to him and that it will be applied by him as he shall think advisable in the functional area of the local authority. I do not think that will appeal to any local authority, no matter what county it is in. The Minister's attitude to local bodies is well known, but his attitude in particular towards the funds of local bodies is anything but desirable.

It is a scandalous state of affairs that any responsible Minister here should suggest that the ratepayers, who have loads enough on their shoulders, should pay caretakers to keep these buildings in repair and at the same time should not be allowed to retain the revenue. I think the Minister would be well advised to withdraw this Bill altogether and bring in another Bill to hand over the workhouses and lands to the people who had to pay the rates in the first place for the building of them and who have had to maintain them for the last forty, fifty or sixty years. The coolest proposition we have yet had from the Minister is that the revenues out of these places are to be handed over to him. That is only what one would expect from the Minister, and it is only what persons in public positions, in Cork County at any rate—I do not care from what party they come—expect from him.

The Bill states that the land to which it applies was land vested in the Local Government Board for the purposes of the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act. I take it that in the case of all these lands that were possibly regarded as the property of local authorities they were in reality vested in the Local Government Board. Would the Minister mind answering that, first of all?

The lands were vested in the Local Government Board. The local body was not empowered to buy land or to build. Workhouses were built. They were vested in the Local Government Board, but they were vested only for the purposes of the Poor Relief Acts. Therefore, they were definitely related to the area in which they were built, and in that way they were local property although vested in the Board.

The point I wanted to get at is how did these lands become State lands? They were State lands when they were vested in the Local Government Board. They were not vested in the local authority and therefore they did not belong to the local authority. If the Minister were to propose to give these lands to the local authority it would be reversing the procedure that had hitherto been adopted. I take it that would be a correct statement. The lands heretofore belonged to the Government, whatever Government was in power, and there is no change in that ownership, so to speak, so far as this Bill is concerned. I find myself in considerable agreement with the points made by Deputy Hogan as to the right of the local authority to the revenue arising out of the leasing of these lands, if they are to have put upon them the charge of maintaining the lands. Section 10 refers to the liability of local authorities in respect of lands to which this Act will apply. There will be a certain amount of outgoings for the upkeep of the lands, fencing them and doing other things of that sort. Would it not be right and proper that at least such outgoings as are essential to keep the lands in proper condition should be allowed to the local authority? It seems unfair that all the revenues should be centralised in the Local Government Department, with that Department, through its head, having full authority to dispose of the revenue. I understand that the Minister says he will dispose of that money in the particular area for poor relief or something of that kind, but, as Deputy Lemass pointed out, that is not in the Bill.

The liability is put into the Bill and, while it is there, I think that there ought to be, as a quid pro quo, authority in the Bill to credit the local authority with such amount of money as, in the opinion of the inspectors of the Department, is necessary to be expended annually to keep the lands under local control in proper order and condition. The local authorities are, at least, entitled to that. Somebody has said that the power to make leases is taken out of the hands of the local authorities. I do not think that that is exactly correct. Local authorities have power to make leases for a period less than five years. In all probability there is not, I think, much change there as local authorities have not been in the habit of making leases for a period longer than five years. That is so, at least, according to my limited knowledge of the matter. I think it is unfair that local authorities should be bound under legal obligation to expend moneys for which they can get no return.

Will the Minister introduce an amendment to carry out the suggestion of Deputy O'Kelly?

Is the Minister clear that the word "land" in Section 2 includes the buildings on it?

Yes. I think there is more misunderstanding than conflict of opinion on this question. So far as the control of local authorities goes, Section 5 proposes that the Minister shall have power to make regulations under which a local authority, acting as agent for him, can give a lease or licence for the use of land up to five years with the consent of the Minister and for less than one year without any reference to him.

Who gets the revenue?

It goes to the local authorities who devote it to the purposes indicated by the Minister. It could be made more explicit that that revenue will be devoted to the purposes of the Poor Relief Acts because there is no intention to divert this property which must certainly be regarded, while vested in the Minister, as being vested for local purposes. There is no intention to divert it from such purposes nor is there any intention to divert the revenue from local application.

I want to be clear about this matter. It is, of course, quite clear that local authorities have power to make certain leases, but I am not clear, and I do not know whether it is stated in the Bill, that the revenue is to come into the local authorities. Further, I am anxious that if the revenue comes to a Central Department—I am not referring to the present Minister, as the Minister may be a Fianna Fáil, a Labour or an Independent Minister—the local authorities will know what the amount of that revenue is. I suggest that local authorities rather than a Central Department will be well able to satisfy the ratepayers as to what is being done with the revenue. That is why I suggest that local authorities should administer it.

Local authorities will know how much to expect in the case of leases for a period of five years. The line of application in the case of leases for a longer period can be the local authority or the Minister, but there will be no desire to enter into such lease or licence without reference to the local authority. It is simply for the purpose of bringing it more effectively under the system in the State Lands Act as contemplated by the Oireachtas that you make provision for fairly long leases, and you discriminate in the case of leases over five years by making the Minister the person who enters directly into the lease and by providing that he will be the collecting body, but he will be the collecting body for the amount of rent which the local body will be aware of and can expect to get annually. It might be more explicitly put for the purposes of the Poor Relief Acts. There is no conflict of opinion in regard to the control of the local authority in the matter of giving a lease of a particular kind and in the matter of receiving revenue coming from buildings in their area. So far as the application is concerned, it will be application for the purposes of the Poor Relief Acts. In regard to the control of the Oireachtas, it was never contemplated in the State Lands Act that every lease that was entered into would be discussed by the Oireachtas. Any Deputies who have read the discussions at local council meetings about the allotment of labourers' cottages would not ask that that kind of control would be exercised in that particular way here by the Oireachtas. The Act of 1924, with the intention of shortening the period in this Act, arranges that a lease shall become operative when both Houses of the Oireachtas have passed a definite resolution. That would only take place for a particular purpose, where there was a question of particular urgency and where the Minister desired to have a resolution passed to give effect to a lease. The other method has the effect of informing the House by laying the facts on the Table. It does not suggest that any Deputy who objects to Michael So-and-So getting a particular lease and getting it for £5 rather than for £10 should have facilities for raising and discussing such matters.

What is it for?

It is merely for the purpose of informing the House, and there is nothing to compel the Minister for Finance, who is responsible for entering into the lease, or the Executive Council, to give Parliamentary time for the discussion of such leases.

The question is why there should not be something to compel him to do that.

For the reason that the time of the Oireachtas is limited and that it would only be a waste of time to offer opportunities for the discussion of leases here in the same way as discussions take place in regard to labourers' cottages at local councils.

Do I understand the Minister to say that a section was introduced into the State Lands Act which says that certain things shall be laid on the Table of the Dáil and that the intention was that Private Members were not to be allowed to discuss the question of such lettings?

The Executive Council control the time of the Dáil and there was no necessity, and I cannot imagine that there was any intention, to put a section into the State Lands Act stipulating that time should be given to Deputies who wanted to raise discussions over the granting of particular leases.

Permit me to say that the particular matter which I raised was not raised through want of confidence in the Executive Council. I may have want of confidence in them in regard to certain matters, but my point was that a particular Minister was not utilising the ground in the best manner. I was within my right in putting down the motion and having it on the Order Paper, and the Minister has suggested that we should not be allowed to consider it.

When the Minister says that the Government control the time of the House, he means, of course, that the Government control the time of the House which the Standing Orders allot to Government business, and that they may by special resolution control private members' time. This matter of the discussion of a motion dealing with the annulling of an order made by a Minister, where the motion must be discussed within a certain period, was raised in May last at a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, at the instance, I think, of Deputy Corish. It may be within the recollection of Deputy Hogan as, I think, he himself raised a question about it. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges at that time recommended that motions in regard to Orders, which, to be effective, had to be decided within a certain period, would be placed first amongst private members' business. The Minister's point is the point which was then made by the President, that the Government would not itself give Government time. At the present moment that is the arrangement that exists. The Government does not give Government time for such motions, but precedence is given in private members' time.

Perhaps Deputies will consider what it would mean. The instance which Deputy Hogan has referred to, the letting in the Scariff Workhouse, is one of a number of others. If he considers that the case of the Scariff Workhouse might be duplicated in, say, 60, 70 or 80 other places round the country, I do not know that the Deputy would have sufficient time in the whole Dáil year to discuss the different lettings that Deputies might desire to discuss.

Mr. Hogan

Does the Minister suggest that I am not entitled to raise in the Dáil a matter which affects the letting of property which belongs to the entire community and is vested in the State?

Will the Minister say why a section is inserted in the Bill which purports to give Deputies power to question these leases if it is the intention of the Government that it should not be exercised?

It is the intention of the Government that that power should be exercised in a reasonable way, but the Deputy can read no more into this section than is in it, and I take it that he can appreciate that the Executive Council is not going, in ordinary cases where State lands require to be leased, in a small or trivial way, to give Government time for its discussion.

It is not a question of giving Government time. The question is whether a section which appears in the Bill requires another sub-section, if it is to be effective, to provide that a motion tabled by a Deputy under sub-section (2) (b) must be considered within the statutory limit of time fixed.

The Deputy can raise that matter, but I do not see that effective control of that particular property warrants it. The Minister is generally answerable for his conduct in the House. He is generally answerable for all his actions in connection with leases. In regard to the other point raised by Deputy Lemass, that this is dealing with State lands in a way in which State lands have never been dealt with before, there is a very close analogy between these workhouses in that they serve, or were intended to serve, a particular public service and, say, labourers' cottages which are intended to serve a particular public service, or, say, the present county hospitals. The present labourers' cottages are the property of the local body. They are not vested in any Minister. It was only a matter of arrangement originally, I take it, that these instead of being made the property of the local body were vested in a Government Department. If Deputy Lemass were to drive his argument to its ultimate conclusion, he would have to say that not only should moneys which come in for the rent of these lands or for the weekly tenancy of rooms in these buildings come into the Central Fund, but that the rents of labourers' cottages should also come into the Central Fund or that the fees received from patients occupying rooms or wards in the hospitals should come into the Central Fund.

Is that State revenue?

It is really as much State revenue——

It is not really what it is but what it actually is.

Actually it is as much State revenue as the income from the letting of workhouse land. In law only it is different, but if we are simply concerned with the safeguarding of public moneys and say that for the proper safeguarding of these rents of workhouse lands they should come into the Central Fund, then you will have to go and take in the rents of labourers' cottages.

I take it that the Minister's argument is that if this is an infringement of the Constitution it is only a slight one and therefore we should not bother about it.

There is no infringement of the Constitution, as the Dáil passes legislation which gives the Minister power to make certain regulations to deal with these matters, and whatever leases will be entered into will be entered into on the authority of the Minister acting for the Dáil.

Do I understand the Minister to say that he will introduce an amendment on Committee to make more explicit sub-section (2) of Section 3?

That is, that the moneys the Minister shall receive shall be applied for the purposes of the Poor Relief Act? That can be put in more explicit language in Section 3 and in other sections where necessary.

Do I take it that the Minister will bring in the amendment himself?

Is there a guarantee that the purposes to which the money will be applied will not be to increase the doctors' salaries?

Sub-section (5) says: "All rent received by a local authority under any lease or licence granted by them under this section shall be applied by such local authority in such manner and for such purposes within the functional area of such local authority as the Minister shall direct." Would not the Minister amend that so that he could direct the application of the revenue towards the repairs in these buildings?

It is practically clear that one of the first charges on this revenue would be the keeping in repair of these buildings.

Question—"That the Bill be read a Second Time"—put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 19th February.