I move the Second Reading of this Bill which proposes a number of changes in the law relating to local government. Some of these changes are important and will, if adopted by the Oireachtas, alter existing local government practice in several respects; others represent little more than a clarification of the law, as it stands, in order to remove doubts and difficulties in its interpretation. Local authorities now deal with a great diversity of matters and it is inevitable that local government law will reflect that diversity and contain provisions regarding matters whose only relation to each other is that local authorities are in some way concerned in them.
In the past, by reason of this diversity, it has been found convenient in Bills of an appreciable length, dealing with many different subjects, to divide them into parts, grouping the sections according to the subject matter. That course has been followed in the present Bill, which is in five Parts, with three Schedules. Part I of the Bill, I think, does not require any explanation. It is the usual preliminary and general sections containing certain of the definitions forming part of the Bill.
The second Part relates wholly to financial matters, and before referring to particular sections it will be agreeable if I refer generally to the existing position and the changes which are proposed in this Part of the Bill. In every urban district or borough, other than a county borough and the borough of Dun Laoghaire, there are at present at least two rates levied by the urban or borough council as the case may be. One of these is the poor rate, by which the amount of the demands of the county council is raised, the other is the town rate. This term, town rate, is in general use in urban districts for the rates raised to supply the expenses of the urban council in carrying out their own functions. The term "town rate", I may mention, is not statutory. The town rate includes the rates under the Towns Improvement Act of 1854, and may include rates under the local Acts. In a borough there is also the borough rate under the Municipal Corporations Acts. The borough rate is levied on the same basis as the poor rate in the county. The expenses of an urban authority under the Public Health Acts are raised under Section 226 of the Public Health Act, 1878. This section begins by declaring that the expenses of an urban sanitary authority are to be defrayed, in the case of the corporation of a borough, out of the borough rate, and in the case of an urban district council, out of any rate leviable by them as town commissioners over the whole district. The section continues with provisos relating to the nature of the rate to be used and its special incidence. The effect of this is to produce a diversity of practice for which there is no justification. For example, in Drogheda Borough, the sanitary rate is a flat rate on all hereditaments, whereas in most urban districts land and railways are rated as one-quarter of the valuation. In Galway Borough it is difficult to determine by what rate or with what incidence the sanitary expenses of the Corporation should be raised.
A somewhat similar position existed in every county borough before the passing of the several City Management Acts. Those Acts altered the position by substituting one municipal rate with one definite incidence for the various rates with different incidences. In framing the City Management Acts a difficulty arose, by reason of the fact that hereditaments of certain classes had been exempted from some of the older rates, and it would, therefore, be unjust to require the occupiers to pay the whole of the new municipal rate. The difficulty was met by ascertaining the average amount in the £ paid by hereditaments of each exempted class over a number of years, immediately before the passing of the relevant Act, and the proportion which that amount bore to the average rate in the £ in the same period paid by an ordinary hereditament. For instance, if it were found, as it was in the case of Dublin, that agricultural land was assessed at a sum that was approximately equal to about half the rate on the full valuation, then the fraction for agricultural land was fixed at one half.
The present Bill, in Part II, proposes to do for the urban districts what has already been done for the county boroughs and Dun Laoghaire, that is, to consolidate existing rates in each area into one rate. The provisions of the City Management Acts have been adopted for this purpose. As the House knows these provisions have worked in the county boroughs satisfactorily and without confusion. The effect will be that in future there will be only one rating law for all rates. That law will be the existing law relating to poor rate. It may be suggested that the poor rate is not, perhaps, in every respect ideal, but it is more certain and easier to ascertain than any other rating law. No doubt, in time, when the question of valuation for rating has been disposed of a comprehensive rating Bill will be undertaken. That cannot be properly undertaken until the question of valuation has been settled. But any such comprehensive rating Bill will be rendered easier by the present Bill, which will eliminate the divergencies created by local Acts promoted by various towns during the 19th century.
There is, however, one matter in which the introduction of the municipal rate into the urban districts and other boroughs is more difficult than in the county boroughs. As I have already indicated, each county borough was dealt with by its own special Act so that in ascertaining the valuation fractions it was only necessary to consider the incidence of the rates in the particular borough to which the Act applied. This Bill, on the other hand, deals with a great number of areas wherein, as I have already explained, the incidence of the rates is not uniform. The burden of rates on the particular hereditaments could not, therefore, be kept substantially the same in every area, except by the inclusion in the Bill of valuation fractions for each area, as was done by the City Management Acts. I did, I may say, in this connection, for a time toy with the idea of the fractions being fixed by Order of the Minister for each area, but, on full consideration, I decided on the alternative method of applying the same fraction for each type of rateable property that under general law gets partial exemption at present.
There are altogether four different types of property which will get a reduction in valuation when the new municipal rate is being assessed. They are agricultural land, canals, land used as railway and half rents. The first three at present enjoy in most towns exemption from the town rate to the extent of three-quarters of the valuation. The fourth, half rents, is half the annual rent derived by the owner or other person interested in any rateable property which is exempted from poor rate by reason of being used for public or charitable purposes, or for the purposes of science, literature and fine arts. The owners of these half rents are rated to poor rate but not to town rate. It is proposed in Section 22 to alter the method by which commissioners of a town that is not an urban district will obtain expenses and assimilate it to that method by which a subsidiary of the county council obtains funds. At present, as the House knows, the commissioners raise their own rate. They have separate rate books and collectors. Their rate is limited to 2/6, but that limit may be exceeded if the excess is caused by housing expenses and expenses of school meals.
There are 23 of these towns, in five of which elected commissioners are no longer functioning, their business having been transferred to the respective county councils. The total aggregate sum raised in rates in these towns is about £15,000. What is proposed in the Bill is that the county council shall levy on the town the money required to meet the expenses of the commissioners. These small towns are usually unable to employ whole-time officers or maintain the same standard of service as larger authorities. We hope, by relieving them of this troublesome business of levying and collecting rates, they will be freer to attend to other business entrusted to them.
Section 23 is designed to deal with a situation which has arisen in recent years where cases have occurred in which inadequate estimates have been adopted, and insufficient rates levied to meet the service of the year. Under the law as it stands—under the normal law—once a rate has been made and assessed, nothing can be done until the following year to correct the position. It is proposed now to allow a local authority that has made an insufficient rate either to revoke their action and make a new rate, or, if that is not a convenient course, to make an additional rate. I think I can say, with regard to Part II generally, that it will be found that, with the exception of the last two sections to which I referred, Sections 22 and 23, most of the remaining provisions in this part of the Bill are adaptations or provisions which the Oireachtas has already approved of in the City Management Acts.
Part III relates to officers and employees and is intended to be supplementary to Part II of the Local Government Act, 1941, which is the principal code now dealing with the staff of local authorities. Section 24, of course, is the definition section, relating particularly to this part of the Bill. Section 25 is a more elaborate provision for amalgamating offices than that contained in Section 32 of the Act of 1941. Section 32 of the Act of 1941 only applied to what are called major offices. This new section, Section 25, applies to all offices. Section 26 is intended to meet the cases of officers whose conditions of appointment required them to retire on marriage, and who have not, in fact, complied with that condition. It will not apply to officers to whom such a condition did not apply on appointment.
The performance of the duties of a particular office by a deputy during absence or illness of the holder of an office is already provided for by the Act of 1941, but in some instances it is doubtful whether the certificate of a deputy or substitute would be valid where the officer cannot act in person. Section 27 is intended to regularise this position.
Some misapprehension appears to have arisen in the minds of some persons who have read the Bill regarding Section 28, which gives the Minister power to make regulations requiring an officer to devote the whole of his time to his official duties. I should like to emphasise in that connection that under this Section there is no intention whatever of converting existing part-time officers into whole-time officers against their will. The purpose of the section is to enable the question of whole-time or part-time service to be settled in the same manner as other conditions of service.