I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
The explanatory memorandum which was circulated to Deputies last June summarised the main provisions of the Bill. I shall only refer now to its more important features. The changes in the extent and nature of the duties of local bodies since 1923 have been very marked and, as events have turned out, it is perhaps as well legislation of a permanent nature was not adopted before the system of local government had taken definite shape. When the County Management Act of this year is brought into operation the administration of the towns and counties, as well as the four larger cities, will then be organised on the same model—the council-manager plan—and it is appropriate when the managerial system is being given effect throughout the country that as many as possible of the old laws should be replaced by new enactments.
The extension of the work of local authorities was accompanied by a large increase in the number of persons engaged in the administration of local services, and one of the main features of this Bill is the provision contained in Part II relating to offices and employments under local bodies. The system of employment of staff which was followed when the duties were of a limited range is not calculated to achieve the best results in prevailing conditions. The Bill contemplates the placing of the conditions of service of local officers on a uniform basis, and the gradual devolution of control of staff to local bodies within the conditions so laid down.
Up to the present there has been no age limit for local officers and it is rare for a local officer to retire until he is well advanced in years or permanently incapacitated. Local bodies have not felt certain of their powers to require an officer who has passed sixty-five years to relinquish office when his capacity for work has seriously diminished. For fifty years compulsory retirement at a fixed age has been the rule in the Civil Service and it is generally felt that a similar condition should apply to the local service. Some men possess full energy of body and mind beyond 65 years and, no doubt, if retirement is enforced at that age, many such exceptions will be pressed. We cannot found a rule on exceptions. Experience has shown that in most cases there is a marked deterioration in efficiency with advancing years. In some employments, owing to the physical nature of the duties, retirement should be earlier than in others. It is not, however, proposed to fix an age for retirement in the Bill, but to let the appropriate Minister fix the limits by classes, grades or descriptions.
The Bill makes provision for the fixing of an inclusive salary for an officer holding one office only and also for an officer who holds two or more offices as, for example, in an urban district, the position of town clerk, executive sanitary officer and clerk of the burial board. Effect will be given to the system of inclusive salaries as the circumstances permit. The Bill provides reasonable safeguards against any tendency to arbitrary and unjust action against local officers. Formerly many offices were held at the pleasure of the local authority, but that position was modified and the consent of the central authority has been required to the removal of almost every officer.
With regard to the exercise of the power of removal, a matter which was discussed on the County Management Bill, I would like to make it clear that no local officer is removable without being given an opportunity to answer any charges against him. The holding of local inquiries for that purpose is not necessary, and in fact in some cases it would be undesirable to do so. A local officer may be permanently incapacitated by illness medically certified, and unable to tender his resignation. A case may arise where an officer may have been tried and convicted of an offence, such as misappropriation of public funds, and be held in custody. In any such cases a formal local inquiry as to fitness to retain office would be quite unnecessary. The Bill provides all reasonable safeguards against arbitrary action against officers. Section 10 gives a right of appeal to officers who are aggrieved by decisions in relation to their remuneration, duties or conditions of service.
Under the Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) Act, 1926, the prescribing of qualifications for specified offices rested with the Local Appointments Commission with the concurrence of the Minister. The appropriate Minister will in future prescribe qualifications after consultation with the commissioners. The only section of the Act of 1926 which it is proposed to repeal is Section 11, relating to the suspension of officers and servants. Section 27 of the present Bill has been substituted for it.
Part III. of the Bill deals with the constitution of local authorities. In 1925, on the abolition of the rural district councils and the establishment of boards of health, the membership of the county councils was increased. With the transfer of executive functions to a county manager it is proposed to effect some reduction in present membership. It is not practicable to fix a general formula for determining the number of members of a county council. Any such formula would give strange results, if applied to Carlow and Cork counties equally. It is desirable that a county council, no matter how small the county and the number of its inhabitants, should consist of a minimum of 20 members. It will be possible, within the limit of the reduction of the total membership proposed in the Bill to keep a fairly standard ratio between population and membership, and at the same time preserve the representative character of the council, since it will be elected by county electoral areas. Within a county the ratio between population of each county electoral area and the number of members to be returned therefor will be as far as practicable the same.
From an examination of the last Census figures it is unlikely that any general alteration of the existing county electoral areas as fixed in 1925 will be found necessary. Where the population of any particular electoral area has fallen substantially since 1926 the number of members may be reduced by more than one for that area, but generally the reduction may be taken as one member for each county electoral area. There will be not less than three members for any electoral area. Provision is made in Section 34 for the making of a fresh division of the county into county electoral areas. Any general alteration of existing county electoral areas is not contemplated, and only such changes will be made as are essential to keep the representation of the areas equal within the county. In urban districts the numbers of members of the several councils will be reduced by approximately one-half, but not so as to cause the number to be less than nine. The provisions of the Bill in regard to a reduction in membership do not extend to any of the four county boroughs, or to the boroughs of Dun Laoghaire or Galway.
The provisions of Section 41 regulating the procedure at the election of lord mayor, mayor, or chairman of a local body are designed to overcome deadlocks such as have occurred on a few occasions at annual meetings. Part IV. is in substitution for the present law enabling local authorities to be dissolved. Under the new provisions only the members are removed while the legal continuity of the corporate body is preserved. No other important change is made. The purpose of Section 56 in Part V. is to disqualify rate defaulters for membership of local authorities. The provisions of Section 60 with regard to the rating of divided hereditaments are intended to meet the case of divided holdings which do not appear as divided on the valuation list.
The provisions of Part VI. confer borrowing powers upon the public assistance authorities similar to those exercised by boards of guardians under the Local Government Act, 1898. Part VII. deals with the audit of the accounts of local authorities, the fixing of fees for such audits, and clarifies the law with respect to the recovery of surcharges. It is proposed to introduce a yearly period of account and audit as the normal period, while leaving it open to the Minister in special cases to provide for a half-yearly period. This change is made on the ground of administrative convenience.
Since this Bill was introduced at the end of last May there has been a notable development of voluntary local councils, or parish councils, as they are called. In July it was considered advisable, in view of the emergency, to invite the people in every parish to set up a body to deal with problems that might arise in the parish and to make the necessary preparations. The response to the invitation was immediate and widespread and in every county parish councils were set up. Other bodies had come into being, and in August, in order to clarify the position of these councils in relation to the Red Cross, the Local Security Force and A.R.P. Services, a circular letter was addressed to the secretaries of county councils indicating the activities which were appropriate to each of these bodies during the emergency period.
These local councils have no formal connection with existing statutory bodies, but that does not mean that they cannot help statutory bodies in carrying out their functions. When the Public Assistance Act of last year was under discussion in this House it was pointed out that the public assistance authority could, in the administration of public assistance, set up committees to perform duties in connection with their functions in any locality. It will be a great advantage to the statutory body to have at hand councils that can be consulted and whose local knowledge will be of advantage in dealing with local questions. But this, of course, is merely one field in which parish councils will probably fulfil a useful function in future. If there is a genuine desire of the people in a parish to get together in promoting their social betterment I think a parish council cannot fail to be of great advantage to a locality, particularly in rural areas. They will accustom people to acting in co-operation in what concerns the community as a whole, and if they are active they will find that there is much pioneer work to be done which voluntary bodies can more appropriately undertake than statutory bodies.
The last part of the Bill has been fully covered by explanatory memorandum. As stated in that memorandum, it is intended to bring the Bill, when it becomes law, into operation at the same time as the Public Assistance Act, 1939, and the County Management Act, 1940.