I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Local Government Bill, 1991: Second Stage.
That is not agreed.
The Minister is in order in moving Second Stage now.
On a point of order, the Minister is moving a motion by moving Second Stage. The House is entitled to oppose that motion, if it so wishes. We are opposed to that motion and we wish to vote on it.
The question of fixing the Order for Second Stage does not arise now. It has already been provided for in the motion proper, if Deputies will observe the motion. Second Stage has been fixed——
You are incorrect in calling the Minister to move Second Stage.
——in the motion.
If the Minister is moving the Second Stage Reading, then we are entitled to oppose that motion to move Second Stage.
Not now, Deputy; at the termination of the debate, yes.
We can oppose it now. We have done so on numerous occasions.
It is covered by paragraph (5) of the motion proper.
Item 2 is an Order for Second Stage.
The House has decided on that matter. I assert that the Minister is now in order in moving Second Stage.
On a point of order, we have agreed that the Bill may be taken now but the Minister is ordering Second Stage and we are entitled to oppose that order.
I must bring to the notice of Members the motion proper and paragraph (5) thereof which states: "the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill, 1991, shall be taken today and the question necessary to bring the proceedings on the motion for the Second Reading of the Bill to a conclusion shall be put at 4 p.m. on Friday, 10 May."
On a point of order, surely paragraph (5) is subject to the proviso that the Order for Second Stage is agreed?
There is no need to get the House to fix a time or dates now. The taking of the Second Stage is already provided for in paragraph (5) of Item No. 8 which has already been agreed to.
On a point of order——
On a point of order, I simply want to clarify this point. What we have decided in paragraph (5) is that the Second Stage of the Local Government Bill should be taken today, the question put and so on. The Minister stood up and said "I move Second Stage". We are opposing that and we are asking that there be a vote on it.
I have already stated the position in the matter, Deputy. I have nothing more to add.
On a point of order——
The last point of order.
While the Chair referred to paragraph (5), that deals with the Second Stage proper and surely as a prerequisite to that being taken up, this House must agree on the Order for Second Stage being made initially?
That is not covered in the motion.
The Minister is in order.
May I make this point——
You are wasting time now.
A point of order——
I have allowed the Deputy to make his point of order. I have called on the Minister to move that the Bill be read a Second Time.
I move: "That the Bill be read a Second Time."
This is the second potential legal flaw in the proceedings of this House.
Please, Deputy McCartan——
I will not be waved down by you or anybody else in this House. I am making the point that we are——
If the Deputy feels there is anything fundamentally wrong with the procedure he knows what to do.
I am making my protest as a Member of this House.
Just 12 months ago——
We are introducing a second serious flaw into the process.
There is ample precedent, as the Ceann Comhairle has already said, at least in the proceedings of another House, that we are subject to review in these matters by a higher authority in the courts. I am merely asking for caution in the way we deal with this matter. It is in order for us to put the question and have it decided as to whether——
The Chair is completely satisfied in respect of the matter under discussion. I have called the Minister a number of times to move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. There is no ambiguity in the matter in so far as the Chair is concerned. I am calling on the Minister to proceed with the Second Stage of the Bill.
Just 12 months ago both Houses of the Oireachtas confirmed by resolution an order postponing the local elections due in June 1990, until June 1991. The reason for that postponement was to enable the carrying out of a full and urgent review of the local government system so that legislative changes could be put in place before new authorities are elected. That review was carried out and the Government's proposals for the implementation of a local government reform programme were announced in a detailed statement issued two months ago on 7 March 1991. Every Member of the House has, therefore, had a good opportunity to consider these proposals and I expect that this will help to ensure an informed and positive debate on this Bill.
I will return presently to the substance of the reform programme in general and the contents of the Bill in particular. First, however, I would like to set these in perspective by sketching, in the briefest possible terms, some of the key events in the evolution of our system of local government and the reason reform and reorganisation of that system is now necessary.
On the foundation of the State we inherited a system of local government which was, in large measure, a product of a series of 19th century statutes culminating in the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898 which consolidated the principal structural features of our local government system.
Since independence, the local government system has been adapted and extended in a number of respects. Certain functions have declined in importance, others have increased, some functions were removed — health services for example — and many new ones added in environmental, planning and development and other areas. This continuing change in functional responsibilities, adapting to meet the needs and demands of the day, has continued under a succession of statutes to the present time. A management system was in operation in all authorities by the early forties with various key functions and decisions reserved as the exclusive prerogative of the elected members, but there has been no significant change in organisational or structural arrangements since then.
The question of overall reform and reorganisation has been a consistently recurring theme in the local government area for several decades past. It is a debate which has displayed some remarkably consistent features. For example, opinions as to the shape and direction which reform should take have tended to conflict sharply. Secondly, it seems that there has always been a sort of inverse relationship between the volume of discussion about reform and the extent of the action resulting from this. Thirdly, whenever it looked as if decisions and real action were about to be taken, this proved to be an illusion and a further period of stagnation ensued.
It was at one such period that I came to office as Minister for the Environment. It quickly became clear to me that if progress was to be made a new approach must be adopted. I became convinced that if the interests of local government were to be properly served the reform question should not be treated as a political football. It was, and is, my view that, in order to achieve the desired results, proposals must be formulated on the basis of a thorough consideration of all views and they must have the support of a solid across-the-board consensus.
This is precisely what the Government set out to achieve in their approach to local government reform. An Oireachtas all-party committee on the matter was initially proposed, as this seemed to offer the best prospect of securing the desired consensus. Regrettably, this proposal did not seem to meet with favour on all sides of the House and the main Opposition party refused to participate. I hope this is not to be taken as a measure of their commitment to the local government system.
At that stage, it would have been very easy to turn aside and allow local government to once again slide off the political agenda. The Government were determined, however, to press ahead with developing reform proposals through alternative mechanisms. A Cabinet sub-committee was established in April 1990 and an advisory expert committee was appointed to assest them. By adopting this approach, the Government ensured that the issue would receive due priority by being considered at the highest level while, at the same time, facilitating a wide input to the review process and bringing special expertise to bear on the issue.
I am pleased that this mechanism has worked extremely well. The advisory expert committee, which received a large number of submissions from interested individuals and organisations, completed their report just before Christmas and, as Deputies will be aware, the report has been published. The Government had hoped that the committee could have completed their work some months earlier, but the complexity of the assignment and the number of submissions received, made it necessary for the committee to seek an extension of the time limit set for them. I cannot let this opportunity pass without paying tribute to the chairman and members of the expert committee for the time and effort they devoted to their task. I am sure that all Members of the House will concur when I say that we are indebted to them for their work in the interests of local government.
The Cabinet sub-committee, which I chaired, considered the report of the expert committee in January and February this year and made their own report to the Government. After due consideration, the Government decided on the reorganisation programme and a full statement of their proposals was made on 7 March last. The substantial Bill now before the House has been drafted, as a matter of high priority, in the relatively short period since then and has been brought before the House at the earliest possible date.
I have set out in some detail the sequence of events since April 1990 in order to show that there has been no avoidable delay on the Government's part in preparing and presenting this Bill. On the contrary, once it became clear last year that an all-party approach was not possible, we moved with top speed to meet the commitment to put legislative changes in place before the coming elections.
It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should also explain at this stage why it is necessary that the Bill should be passed by both Houses no later than 17 May. The legal requirements concerning the timescale for the holding of the local elections are as follows. The elections must be held in June and, as already announced, the polling day will be on 27 June which is just about the latest practicable date. In turn, this means that the final date for publication of the notice of elections by returning officers is 24 May. This means that the Ministerial order appointing the polling day will have to be made not later than 22 May. The final date for the signature of the Bill by the President is, therefore, 21 May and — even assuming early signature — the final date for the Bill to be passed by both Houses is 17 May. If the Bill is not passed by that date, elections cannot be held in June in County Dublin or postponed at the sub-county level. While this timescale is tight, the blame cannot be laid at the door of the Government. As I have already explained, there has been no avoidable delay on our part in dealing with this matter. Furthermore, an ample amount of time is being made available for consideration of the Bill by the Dáil.
The decisions already taken by the Government make it clear that there is to be no more long-fingering of local government reform and no seeking of pretexts on which to dodge decisions. The statement of 7 March spells out both what is being done immediately and what must, for practical reasons, be dealt with on a progressive basis. On this point, however, it must be stressed that the programme will be a fully integrated one. There is no question, for example, of adopting only a minimal range of provisions now for the sake of short term expediency and postponing those which are of real importance to some vague future date. Although further legislation will be necessary to complete the programme and deal with all consequential matters, the Bill which is now before the House provides a broad framework for reform within which implementation can proceed in an ordered, progressive fashion.
I will return very shortly to the contents of the Bill itself but first I think it is important in the context of a Bill of such fundamental significance, to reflect briefly on some underlying principles of the reform programme.
It is my belief that one of the main reasons previous promises of reform failed to bear fruit was the fact that, although there seemed to be general agreement on the need for reform, this was not, for the most part, based on a clear understanding of what is really involved. The reasons for reform and, indeed, the essential purposes of local government itself may not have been rigorously thought through. As a result, the "reform movement"— and by that I mean both promises of, and demands for, local government reform — has enjoyed neither the degree of authority nor conviction necessary to carry a realistic programme through to finality. Regrettably, local government reform has often tended to be little more than an empty catch cry.
Why do we need reform of local government? In order to approach that question perhaps I might first try to dispose of some popular misconceptions on the subject. The reason we need reform is not that local authorities are doing a bad job, since not only do local authorities provide many of the essential services, such as water and sanitation, without which civilised, healthy living would be impossible, but they also provide a remarkable range of amenities and facilities such as swimming pools, libraries and parks, to mention but a few, which serve a valuable social and community role as well as helping to enhance greatly the quality of our lives. They have an indispensable role in the area of social housing. They provide much of the infrastructure essential to economic development while at the same time ensuring that development proceeds in a rational and orderly manner and that the valuable resources of our environment are protected and enhanced.
Problems may arise occasionally, or in certain areas, and these tend to attract disproportionate attention, but this should serve to point out how much we take local authority services for granted in the normal course. We seem to think of local authorities only when a problem arises or, perhaps, when we are asked to contribute towards their services.
This brings me to another common misconception. Prophets of doom have, in the past, claimed that the local authority system was on the verge of collapse and that the local authorities were in financial crisis. While that does not reflect the position today, some Members will inevitably attempt to find fault with the Government's reform programme on the grounds that it does not have enough to say about local authority finance. Such a criticism would, however, indicate a flawed perspective and a lack of appreciation of the correct sequence of events.
The first requirement is to get the structures, systems, functions and operations of local authorities right — to attempt any financial adjustments in advance of this would, quite simply, be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Moreover, if we get these things right, that in itself will go a long way to ensuring continued financial wellbeing. We have already come a long way on that road over the past four years. In line with the Government's own programme to restore the national finances, local authorities have achieved greater budgetary discipline. The need to contain expenditure within available resources is now the guiding principle. As a result, serious deficts which had been accumulated over a number of years have now been considerably reduced. This, as any sensible person will appreciate, has had to be the priority. The Government have also helped in this regard by implementing several sound practical reforms and rationalisation measures such as the elimination of the circular loans and subsidies system and reduction of extraneous financial burdens. A further example this year is the new arrangement for court-house maintenance.
The continuation of this practical and disciplined approach will continue to be the Government's priority in relation to local finances, with other adjustments being considered, where necessary, at the appropriate time.
A scoping study was conducted by the London Institute of Fiscal Studies, at the request of the Advisory Expert Committee, regarding central funding for local authorities. Their report, which was published along with the advisory committee's own report, concludes that our system of funding and our range of grants stands up quite well by international comparison. The report does, however, see scope for greater equalisation, primarily in the distribution of the rates support grant. I have, therefore, commissioned the necessary follow-up study to examine precise options for achieving greater equalisation among local authorities.
The present Bill is not, however, a financial provisions measure. It does not purport to be, it was never intended to be and, for the reasons I have outlined, it is not appropriate that it should be.
Another popular cliché in recent times has been the claim that local authorities have become powerless. The facts, however, do not support this. The powers and functions of local authorities have been added to considerably in a whole series of statutes which have been enacted in recent years. Indeed, during my own time as Minister, the Oireachtas has seen fit to enact several important pieces of legislation conferring significant powers and responsibilities on local authorities. There have been, or are currently in preparation, Bills dealing with air pollution, water pollution, housing, roads, planning, urban renewal and derelict sites. Regulations made to give effect to various EC Directives have also added considerably to local functions.
In recent years, local authorities have been given a new and more dynamic type of role in the pursuit of some important social and economic objectives. New departures such as the urban renewal scheme and the recently announced social housing plan are examples of this, involving increased discretion and scope for initiative on the part of local authorities. At the same time, I can point to the very significant increase in discretionalry road grants — from £23 million in 1986 to £68 million in the current year — as an example of how local authority discretion has been enhanced even within a very traditional sphere of operations.
It is clear, therefore, that a simplistic or superficial approach to local government reform will not suffice. It is necessary to be clear about the essential purpose of the local government system and the raison dere of the authorities which constitute it.
I think that the Members of this House will appreciate my meaning when I say that there is an important distinction to be drawn between "local government" and "local administration". "Local government" involves much more than just the provision of services — important though that role is. What gives local government a unique character and sets local authorities apart from other executive type agencies, is their democratic representational role. Thus, it follows that a fundamental purpose and objective of local government reform must be to strengthen local democracy.
The fact that local authorities are democratically elected does not of itself guarantee that they will be able to discharge their representational role as effectively as they should. Despite the considerable achievements for which local authorities can take credit, the public perception of them is frequently a negative one. This, I believe, is largely because they often appear as simply bureaucratic institutions remote from the community.
The structures, functions and operating methods of local government must be correctly attuned to the demographic, social and economic circumstances of today. Local authorities must interact with the communities they represent and that interaction must be a two-way process. It must operate in such a way as to ensure that the authority are fully cognisant of the problems, needs, priorities and aspirations of their community and that such awareness is properly reflected in the way they discharge their powers and functions. Local authorities must be accountable to the people for how they perform on their behalf.
At the same time, the local authority must have the capacity to promote the interests and development of their area, not just in a direct way through the exercise of their functional powers, but also as a catalyst of local energy and initiative and a facilitator and supporter of the efforts of individuals and groups within the community. Above all, local government must be made relevant and close to the people, and community participation with local authorities must be fostered. Local government is, after all, the level of government which relates most closely to the day-to-day lives of the people. If we allow flaws in the system to create a sense of alienation between communities and their representative authorities, a great disservice will be done to our whole democratic system.
The other side of the local authority persona is, of course, that of being a provider of services, an undertaker of works and a regulator of various local affairs. It is essential that local authorities achieve the optimum level of efficiency, cost effectiveness and value for money in the provision of works and services. I believe they have made good progress in this regard over the past few years. However, what is achieved has to be done in an operating environment which, as the law stands, is not always conducive to efficient operation in modern-day conditions. It is a primary aim of the Government's reform programme to ensure that the structural, legal and operational framework within which local authorities operate is suited to today's circumstances and that it will facilitate and promote effective service.
It is also important that the representational and functional roles of local authorities are complementary rather than conflicting. The system must operate in such a way that the democratic representational role is not subjugated to the role of the local authority as a provider of works and services. Operational and administrative efficiency must be pursued as a means towards providing the best possible quality of service to the people. On the other hand, local authorities must be prepared to operate in a mature, responsible and effective manner and be willing to make choices and, where necessary, take difficult decisions. The achievement of the correct balance between the operational and representational roles is an important consideration in the reform programme.
If we are to have a meaningful system of local government the "local" element must be enhanced as far as possible. Local authorities must be locally focused and there must be an appropriate level of locally-based power and discretion. However, it is obvious also that local government functions have significant implications beyond the local authorities own sphere of operations. Thus, the question of maintaining a correct balance also arises in this context. The overall structural set up, and the allocation of powers and functions, must both reflect an appropriate balance and co-ordination between local authorities and other public agencies and with central Government.
It is clear, therefore, that local government reform involves consideration of a fairly complex matrix of inter-related factors. Unfortunately, this is not a case where a computer can be programmed and fed with date so as to get a precise solution at the touch of a button. Nor is it possible to conduct controlled experiments to ascertain the likely results of particular changes. It is, instead, a matter of judgment and I am satisfied the Government have taken the correct steps to ensure that their judgment is well-informed and soundly based.
The strategy for implementing reform is crucial to success. Reform and reorganisation of local government cannot be completed at the stroke of a pen or indeed the passage of an Act. It must be a process rather than a single action. In other countries where the local government system has been reformed and revitalised with great success, this process has taken several years to complete. The report of the expert committee also stressed this point. However, we are not content merely to issue a set of proposals and wait until every "t" can be crossed and every "i" dotted. That is the approach that has produced inertia in the past.
The present Bill will get the reform process under way immediately. In addition, it will provide a legal framework within which a very large share of the detailed components of local government reform can be put in place progressively in an ordered and structured way. This will, for example, involve the making of various orders and regulations under the enabling powers in the Bill. Other matters will, of course, require further consideration, for example, the results of the proposed fiscal study, the consolidation and modernisation of the general code of local government law and the question of local government structures at the sub-county level, which I will come back to shortly. However, the strategy which the Government are following will allow decisions on these matters to be slotted into place without delaying implementation of the reform programme in general.
I hope I have given the House a reasonably full indication of the general approach underlying this Bill. I now propose to outline the main features of the Bill itself.
Part I contains provisions for citations, interpretation, regulations and the like.
Part II of the Bill contains provisions relating to the functions of local authorities which are of fundamental importance to the entire reform programme.
Section 5 provides, for the first time, express statutory recognition for the representational functions of local authorities which, as I have already said, is one of the essential purposes of local government. The section contains provisions in relation to the role of the local authority in representing and promoting the interests of the local community including the representation of views to other public authorities, the promotion and facilitation of involvement in local affairs and the carrying out of local research, surveys or studies. This will put the local authority to the forefront as the voice of the community and the upholder of its interests.
A general competence is also being conferred on local authorities to take action in the interests of their local communities. This measure, which is contained in section 6, is designed to give local authorities discretion and flexibility of action in local matters where they are at present unduly constrained by the operation of the ultra vires principle which has often been perceived as a form of legal straitjacket. It will, therefore, constitute a very significant change in the legal position relating to local authority operations and will bring the position of Irish local government into line with that of local government systems in many European countries. The section instances various types of measures which a local authority will be empowered to take within the general competence power. Certain necessary safeguards are being provided to avoid, for example, activity by local authorities under the section that would prejudice or duplicate the functions of other public bodies. Matters to which local authorities must have regard in performing functions generally are provided for at section 7, while section 8 will remove doubts about local authorities power to do things which are ancillary or incidental to their specific statutory functions.
In pursuance of the commitment in the Government statement of 7 March to provide for the expansion of the role of the local government system, there is provision at section 9, to devolve new functions from the central level to local authorities. This provision will enable the Government to transfer by provisional order, to be confirmed by an Act of the Oireachtas, particular functions which they consider can be effectively discharged by local authorities. The advisory expert committee mentioned, in their report, various functions which might be considered for devolution, some in areas where local authorities have an involvement at present, others in areas to which the committee felt the local authority role could be extended. The provision in the Bill will enable specific devolution proposals to be formulated and implemented in a way which is compatible with the reformed system of local government as it evolves, taking all relevant factors into account. The section provides a flexible mechanism which will allow for devolution of functions in specific areas on an ongoing basis. A full evaluation will be required, of course, before decisions can be taken as to whether particular functions are appropriate for devolution and factors such as cost, staffing and administrative implications will have to be taken into account. The section will also allow for the necessary adjustment of functions between classes of local authorities by way of order of the Minister for the Environment.
Although it is included in Part VII, rather than in Part II, I must also mention at this point section 52, which gives power to the Minister to dispense with certain controls affecting local authorities. This would, for example, enable regulations to be made for the removal or modification of unnecessary procedures or restrictions on local authorities and is, in itself, capable of being used as a powerful instrument for devolution.
In carrying out their new and wider role in the local community, it is desirable that elected councils should have flexible methods of operation available to them. That is why Part VI, which comprises sections 36 to 40, contains provisions in relation to the establishment of local authority committees, either advisory or with delegated functions. There is provision also for joint committees to consider matters of concern to two or more authorities. These provisions will be of assistance where local authorities consider that the use of committees would be beneficial in the discharge of their functions, either from the point of view of operational effectiveness or for the purpose of advice and consultation. It is not the intention, however, that these provisions should pre-empt in any way the decisions which will have to be taken by the Government in relation to future sub-county structures and section 37 (1) (c) of the Bill makes this absolutely clear. Part VI, is, in effect, a modernisation and consolidation in a flexible form of existing outdated legislation dating back to the 1840s.
I turn next to the question of powers and functions. The aspect of local government most obviously in need of review is the structural set-up, which remains in essentially the same format as that created by the Local Government Act of 1898. It is essential to ensure that the structures themselves do not inhibit good local government and that we have a system which is conducive to both operational efficiency and effective local representation.
The Government have already indicated general agreement with the advisory committee's recommendation that the local government system be structured on three levels. They have confirmed that the county or county borough, as the case may be, will continue to be the primary unit of local government and that eight regional authorities will be established to promote regional-level co-ordination. The necessary powers to establish the regional authorities and to provide for their functions and other operational aspects are contained in Part VII of the Bill.
Pursuant to an order which will be made by me under section 43, there are to be eight regions as follows:
North West: Donegal; Leitrim; Sligo.
West: Galway city and county; Mayo; Roscommon.
Mid-West: Clare; Limerick city and county; Tipperary North Riding.
South West: Cork city and county; Kerry.
South East: Carlow; Kilkenny; Tipperary South Riding; Waterford city and county; Wexford.
Midland: Laois; Longford; Offaly; Westmeath.
East: Dublin city and county; Kildare; Meath and Wicklow.
North East: Cavan; Louth; Monaghan.
I should emphasise that the regional dimension will derive from the local government system rather than being imposed on it. The regional authorities will be composed of elected members from county councils and county borough corporations within the region. They will not, however, be local authorities themselves. The role of the regional authorities will be to promote the co-ordination of public services in the regions and there is no provision in the Bill for any transfer of local authority functions to these bodies. The formal designation of regions will encourage a greater convergence in regional structures and operations of other public agencies. The need for co-ordination of this kind becomes apparent when one considers the range of services which are organised regionally, not only through bodies formally constituted on a regional basis but also in terms of various national bodies and services operating through regional or divisional structures.
The present Bill does not provide for any alteration in local government structures at the sub-county level. The expert advisory committee failed to produce agreed recommendations on this aspect. Two radically diverging alternatives were discussed in their report. One would have the effect of eliminating the directly elected sub-county tier entirely. The other would increase very substantially the number of such authorities and of elected members at this level.
In the circumstances, the Government must give further consideration to the most appropriate type of local government structures at sub-county level. Because of this, section 14 in Part III of the Bill provides that elections will not be held next June to authorities other than county and county borough councils. Residents of those authorities to which elections are not being held will, of course, be entitled to vote at county council elections in the normal way Part III also contains consequential matters relating to appointment of members of harbour authorities and vocational education committees together with other electoral provisions, including a technical provision to prohibit plural voting at local elections.
Due to an oversight in the Local Government Reorganisation Act, 1985, in relation to the county borough of Galway, the existing provisions relating to revision of local electoral areas in the longer established county boroughs, which are scattered over a number of different Acts dating from 1929, are being consolidated and applied to all five county boroughs, thus rectifying the Galway situation. I would like to emphasise, however, that it is not the intention to use this provision prior to the local elections in June. Besides, section 12 confers no draconian or improper new powers on the Minister contrary to the claims of some Members opposite.
Ministers and Ministers of State will be excluded from concurrent membership of a local authority under section 13. This measure, which was annunced in the Government statement of 7 March, is designed to emphasise the separate roles of the respective levels of representation in their own right.
While the Government's local government reform programme is a national one, the need for reform, especially from the point of view of structural change, is most acutely felt in the Dublin area. The scale and intensity of development, population growth and social change require the implementation of special measures for local government in Dublin. The Government are determined to ensure that this matter will be addressed urgently and effectively and that appropriate, more locally-focused structures will be put in place, with authorities capable of responding effectively to the needs of their communities.
As previously announced, the Government have decided that the local government system in the Dublin area should be reorganised to take account of the large-scale housing and other development which has occurred since the Dublin structures were last substantially revised 60 years ago.
Dublin Corporation will remain and three new authorities will be established at the earliest possible moment to replace Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation.
The June elections will take place on the basis of the three counties determined for electoral purposes in 1985 (but with new titles) as follows: Fingal — the county area north of the Liffey; Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown — the county area from Dún Laoghaire to Rathfarnham; and South Dublin — the county area from Rathfarnham, west to the Liffey.
Following the elections, the boundary advisory committee provided for in the Bill — which I will refer to further in a moment — will review the boundaries of these electoral counties, including the boundary between South Dublin/Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown which the expert committee felt might run along the main Bray Road.
In the light of any changes in boundaries which may be decided upon, and taking account of the preliminary results of the April 1991 census, any revision which may be necessary in the membership of the new Dublin Councils can be considered at a later stage. This will not, of course, affect the June elections.
The decision to set up three new county councils is aimed at ensuring more relevant and accessible local government with a sharper focus on the needs of the areas served. We need to take definite steps now, even in this first Bill to get the process under way, rather than repeat the half-hearted measures provided for in the 1985 Act. Accordingly, as a first practical step in the process of transition to the three new county councils, three statutory committees of the newly elected county council, corresponding to the new county council areas, will be established under the Bill after the elections, one for each of the proposed county areas, and composed of the Members elected for those areas. Dublin county council will be required to delegate functions, and to operate as far as possible through these committees, and each will have its own area manager to be appointed through the Local Appointments Commission. Pending this, three existing assistant managers will be assigned responsibility for the area committees, each exercising delegated functions appropriate to the area.
Over a period, the role of the committees will be progressively widened. The area managers after necessary consultations with their area committees, are required by the Bill to submit a joint report on preparations for the establishment of new county councils for the three areas. In the light of that report, the Minister will make regulations in preparation for the establishment of the new county councils, the dissolution of the present authorities and the transfer of staff, assets, liabilities, property etc. to the new bodies.
While further legislation will be required formally to abolish Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation and to establish the three new county councils, I would like to emphasise that, unlike the arrangements made in 1985, the provisions in Part IV of the Bill in relation to Dublin will not cease to have effect after the holding of the local elections. In fact, the provisions which I have alluded to, will ensure that all of the necessary preparatory steps connected with the structural reorganisation in Dublin can be worked out and given effect to in anticipation of the further legislation.
An aspect of local government structures where anomalies are readily apparent is in certain local authority boundaries. Moreover, the existing procedures for alteration of boundaries are cumbersome and the legal provisions fragmented. A revised set of provisions relating to boundaries is contained in Part V of the Bill.
Section 28 provides for the establishment of independent boundary advisory committees to review local authority boundaries, including local electoral boundaries or other local government matters referred to it. Provisions relating to the referral of matters to a boundary committee and the submission of reports on boundaries by a committee are contained in sections 31, 32 and 33, respectively. New streamlined proccedures for review and alteration of local authority boundaries are contained in sections 29, 30, 31 and 34. These include provisions relating to matters such as formulation of boundary proposals, consultation between local authorities concerned, powers of the Minister to alter boundaries and provision for dealing with the various transitional and consequential matters which arise from boundary alterations — for example, such matters as financial adjustments, transfer of staff, application of Acts or by-laws, etc. All reports of boundary committees will be published and boundary committees will be independent in the performance of their functions.
Under this Part a review of local authority boundaries can be initiated by a local authority or by the Minister but the Minister will be obliged to refer the matter to a boundary committee where there is disagreement between the local authorities concerned or where he considers, on his own initiative, that a boundary alteration should be made. In the case of an order altering the boundary of a county or county borough, section 3 provides that the order will have to be approved in draft by both Houses of the Oireachtas before it can be made by the Minister.
The provisions relating to boundary alterations will constitute an important element of structural reform and reorganisation of the local government system. It is proposed, as I have already indicated, that a boundary advisory committee will review the boundaries of the new electoral counties in Dublin after the forthcoming elections. It is envisaged that a committee will also examine situations where existing boundaries of counties or cities are unsatisfactory and advise on any issues which may arise as a result of decisions on sub-county structures, in due course.
The strengthening of the system of democratic local government requires that the status of local authorities as public institutions and of their elected members be enhanced. Part VII contains a number of important provisions towards this end.
The role and status of the elected members of local authorities is fundamental to the democratic system of local government. The powers of the elected members are, in law, founded primarily on the concept of "reserved functions". These are the functions which, under the City and County Management Acts, are reserved as the exclusive prerogative of the elected members as distinct from the "executive functions" exercisable by the manager for the authority.
The Bill directly specifies a considerable number of important powers and functions as being reserved to the elected members, for example, decisions in relation to representational functions under section 5, a decision under section 6 regarding activities of benefit to the local community, decisions under section 29 in relation to alteration of boundaries, establishment of committees under Part VI and delegation of functions to certain types of committees. That list is not exhaustive by any means. In addition, section 41 (2) will provide a new general power for the Minister to declare additional reserved functions by order. I intend that a special review group, to include elected members, managers and representatives of my Department, will be set up after the elections to advise on this matter.
In addition to their role in performing the specific functions reserved to them, the elected members of local authorities occupy a special position of authority and status in relation to the determination of local authority policy and general overview of their authority's operations. This is appropriate in view of the mandate which they receive from being directly elected. The reserved functions already tend to correspond with policy making aspects and there are specific powers to impose various requirements on the manager. However, the fact that the policy making role of the members is not spelt out clearly and succinctly in law has, I believe, caused the role and status of the elected members to be understated. Indeed, I suspect that very many elected members themselves are insufficiently aware of the full extent of the legal power and authority vested in them. In order to reaffirm and emphasise the paramount role of the elected members in the local government system, section 41 (1), therefore, provides explicit formal recognition of the policy making role of the elected members.
Part VII deals also with certain other matters pertaining to the conditions of local authority members and contains provisions designed to enhance the civic role of local authorities generally as representative public institutions. Section 48 empowers local authorities generally to confer civic honours. Section 49 will provide a statutory basis for local authority involvement in town twinning arrangements. The major local authorities will be obliged under section 50 to produce annual reports which will be available to the public. Local authorities will be empowered under section 46 to organise special events for purposes such as receiving distinguished persons. All local authorities will be empowered to pay allowances to their chairmen under section 42 and section 51 sets out a new flexible statutory framework for the payment of expenses to members of local authorities and representation of local authorities at conferences.
Section 4 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, provides one of the single most important powers available to the elected members of a local authority. However, its use in relation to planning matters in certain instances and areas has, on occasion, given rise to some disquiet. The Government are concerned to ensure that this important channel of democratic input to the decision making process is not brought into disrepute and that it will continue to be available to the elected members to use in a responsible manner and in appropriate cases. They have decided, accordingly, on certain changes in its operation. In future, for such a resolution to be valid in the case of decisions on individual planning matters, three-quarters of the total membership of the local authority must vote in favour and the notice of motion must be signed by three-quarters of the members from the electoral area or areas concerned. This is provided for in section 44 of the Bill. The corresponding provisions in relation to material contravention of a development plan are also being amended so that three-quarters of the total membership must vote in favour; this is contained in section 45.
In line with the now established practice in the Civil Service in relation to the appointment of secretaries of Departments and the general trend towards encouraging mobility, there is provision in section 47 to prescribe a maximum term of office for future city and county managers.
It is evident that the Bill which is now before this House is a very substantial measure indeed. However, in the outline which I have just given of its main features, I would not claim to have dealt with any more than the broad headings of the reform provisions. These powers will, in turn, as I have already indicated, accommodate a wider range of specific matters which can be dealt with in a flexible manner as implementation of the reform programme progresses. This is in keeping with the need to treat the programme as an evolving one, the elements of which must be built on progressively, and with specific measures being formulated with due regard to the programme as a whole and to its particular stage of implementation.
The reform programme will open a new era for local government but it will also require new attitudes and approaches on the part of local authorities. The very fact that many of the reforms which have been called for over the years are now being provided will, in a sense, represent a challenge to local authorities and to local authority members. Local authorities will be compelled to display an even greater sense of responsibility, maturity and self-reliance. The elected members of local authorities will be expected to play the central role which our democratic system always intended that they should. There will be an onus on them to utilise their enhanced position to the full so as to discharge effectively their duty of representing the interests of their communities and to be more fully accountable to the people for the performance of their councils.
There will also be new challenges and opportunities for local communities. Among the chief objectives of the reform programme are the need to make the local government system more meaningful and closer to these communities, to make it more responsive to local needs and problems and to foster initiative in communities. This also implies a greater degree of participation in local government affairs on the part of individuals and groups in the community. I was extremely heartened to note the results of a recent survey indicating a high level of public interest in and support for local government. This is something that was also reflected in the very high volume of submissions made by individuals and groups during the course of last year's review. It gives grounds for believing that, in the years ahead, a reformed local government system can, with community support and participation, prove to be a very productive force in the local interest and, as a consequence, in the broader national interest. I think it shows also that we are on the right lines with the reform programme and that those who may have believed that the public attitude towards local government was one of disinterest or even cynicism had given insufficient credit to the people of this country.
I have no doubt that the Members of this House will have taken note of that message, that the debate on this Bill will be positive and productive and that it will reflect the degree of commitment which is owing from the Oireachtas to the local tier of our democracy.
The debate on this Bill is taking place four years and two months after the present Minister took up his term of office in the Department of the Environment. When he took office there was no housing crisis yet fewer people were emigrating then and a major road building programme was in place which the Minister reduced. There were also very few potholes on our county roads, which now are littered with potholes. The Minister's record in office is very sad; indeed, not only has he failed utterly in relation to housing and virtually stopped building of all local authority houses but he has also abolished all house improvements grants, including grants for thousands of houses, many of them within walking distance of his plush office, which still have no bathrooms or inside toilets. During his term of office and for the first time in the history of this State we have had an abortive review of the constituency boundaries because of his attempt to manipulate those boundaries. We heard his very unfortunate comments on radio about our President during the presidential election campaign and we saw also his utter determination to resist the Government reshuffle which would have taken him out of the Department of the Environment.
It is with great sadness that I cite this Minister's record because, contrary to what he would have us believe, his tenure in the Custom House has coincided with the run down of local government, less and less discretion is allowed to councils and, therefore, people have less and less influence over local affairs.
The Minister did not repeat in his speech the allegations which he twice made about me over the weekend, first at the press conference on Friday and second on the RTE news programme on Sunday. He had tried to convey the impression I had broken some confidence or convention by making a statement on Thursday night on the proposals now before us. The Chief Whip of the Fine Gael Party is present and can confirm that printed on the back of the copy of the Bill we had received from the acting Government Chief Whip on Thursday, was the following "Presented by the Minister for the Environment, 1 May 1991." Today, the copy of the Bill which all Members of the House received states "Presented by the Minister for the Environment 2nd May, 1991"; in other words last Thursday. The Minister knows I was well within my rights to comment on the Bill we were told was being circulated on that day. I want to express my anger at what the Minister sought to convey — I cannot use the word lies — not once but twice that I had somehow broken a confidence or a convention when, in fact, the Minister had broken the convention and had delayed the circulation of the Bill. The Bill was ready, it states printed on 2 May, yet he delayed circulating it until he had held a press conference at 4 p.m. on Friday, 3 May, which was one day later. By doing so he thought he would grab the news headlines on Friday evening and would not be subjected to the rigours of Opposition comment on radio programmes such as the "Gay Byrne Show", the "Pat Kenny Show" or "Morning Ireland" the following day.
——or "Scrap Saturday".
Or "News at One". I challenge the Minister to explain why he broke this convention and why he misled the public. In his book published last week, Deputy Brian Lenihan raised the question of the truthfulness of certain leading members of the present Cabinet. I will say no more. The Minister should not underestimate my anger.
It will tell in Athlone.
The Minister tried to convey the impression that he had shown me the courtesy of providing me with an advance copy of the Bill. He showed no such courtesy. At midday on Thursday last, the Acting Government Chief Whip presented the Opposition Whips with a copy of the Bill which, as I have said, already stated "Presented by the Minister on 1 May 1991", 1 May, being the previous day, Wednesday. There was then no question of confidentiality or no question of us being bound by any convention. In fact, the Acting Government Chief Whip was embarrassed by the lack of notice and at the fact that the Bill had not been circulated. I want to repeat what was said in the course of the exchanges on the Order of Business, that the explanatory memorandum was circulated only today. Some Members received the explanatory memorandum only two hours ago. It will be a long time before I believed the Minister for the Environment again and it is reasonable to say that Members of this House will have similar reservations about the Minister's word.
The Minister promised to fill the potholes in 1987 and we are still waiting.
They will be filled now.
The Minister has tried to convey the impression that this Bill in its entirety must be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before 17 May and that it was a difficult pernickety Opposition that was griping about this matter. The reality, however, is that a small section of the Bill needs to be passed before 17 May to enable the local elections to proceed on time. I made it clear that last Thursday and on every occasion I have spoken publicly on this matter that, notwithstanding my deep reservations about the postponement of local elections in borough councils, other than Dún Laoghaire, in urban district councils and in town commissions, I was prepared to facilitate the speedy enactment of legislation which would provide for that postponement and the necessary consequential provisions dealing with the onward elections of representatives to vocational educational committees, etc. That is all that needs to be enacted before 17 May. The Minister could have introduced two Bills, a short Bill that would provide for that enactment and a Bill with more substantive provisions, thereby enabling this House and the Seanad to give due and proper consideration to a major piece of legislation.
This Bill does not stand up to rigorous consideration. It is a dangerous Bill. Anyone who knows anything about local government will appreciate the point made by the Barrington Committee that the first requirement of local government reform is to return to local people power and influence over local things, in other words, to give local people power to get rid of that ugly derelict site near their houses, to get that pedestrian crossing that the senior citizens of their town need, to get the street cleaned, to get the road repaired etc. Our people have been robbed of that influence because of the centralised nature of our local government structures. The Barrington Committee rightly points out — and their point of view is reiterated in many other independent studies — that of the 12 countries of the EC no country has a more centralised system of local government than this State. I hope to demonstrate in the course of this debate that this Bill will centralise decision making even further. It will almost require local authorities to get permission from the Minister in relation to even the colour of the toilet paper they use in their lavatories.
Fine Gael reject the Government method as much as the Bill. It is not reasonable for a Minister, after two years and four months in office, to rush in major legislation at the last minute and not provide adequate time for proper analysis and the giving of due care and attention. Fine Gael reject this Bill as unsafe and unsatisfactory. It is unsafe because in 29 of its 52 sections the Minister, or in one or two cases that Government, takes on extra powers over local authorities. In several cases these powers include power to amend or overrule existing laws of this and the Upper House by regulations which may never be debated in the Dáil. This is Government by fiat, this is Government by Flynn. It is unsatisfactory because of the shortness of notice as much as the amount of debating time. It is just not possible, in less than two weeks, for a parliamentary opposition spokesperson to table amendments, undertake the necessary consultations and seek the necessary legal and other advice which is almost always a prerequisite for proper examination of legislation. This Bill refers to 36 other Acts and seeks to amend 23 other enactments. All of these 36 Acts and 23 other enactments need to be studied. This takes time. It is not possible for a parliamentary opposition spokesman to do that in ten days while engaged here in a Second Stage debate. It is unsatisfactory also, to say the minimum, because it is very doubtful that it will do the most urgent thing necessary in local government reform, that is, return to local people power and influence over local matters. My fear is that local councillors and local people will have less power, and my belief is that the Minister will have more power.
The Minister may argue that in some of the 29 sections which give him additional powers some are only reserved powers. However, they are extensive and, sooner or later, they are likely to be used. I will give some examples. The Minister may make regulations without any prior Dáil approval — which will almost certainly be never voted on or discussed in the Dáil — for general purposes or for any particular purpose. This may relate to all local authorities, to some local authorities or only one local authority. It may even relate to part of one local authority or parts of different local authorities. They give power to the Minister to give directions for any specific purpose in any specific place or places. He could, for instance, direct that they should not plant trees in Donnybrook. That is a serious point, not made in jest. Under this law the Minister could prohibit a local authority from planting trees in a particular place or could order them to plant trees in another place.
Or dig them up.
Indeed the former Minister for Local Government, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Ray Burke, had trees planted one night before the by-election in 1982 and unplanted the next night: now you see them now you don't.
It was Deputy Lenihan who promised them in the first place.
The society for the protection of unplanted trees.
This is power indeed. The Minister may prescribe matters in which local authorities shall not exercise power or he may lay down conditions on the way in which they do exercise power. The local authorities, regardless of their political majority, must have regard to the policies and objectives of the Government or of any Minister. Now, a Chathaoirligh, I can well imagine you gracing the Mansion House in Dublin with a Fine Gael-Labour majority in the City Council having to expouse the policies of the Minister for the Environment. I do not think you will, but this is what is required of you under this legislation. The Minister may specify terms, conditions and restrictions on how any function is discharged. The Minister may alter the boundary between one local authority and another without (a) abiding by the recommendations of a boundary committee which he himself, solely and without consultation, appoints or (b) even accepting the agreed recommendations of the two local authorities concerned. Let us say there was agreement between Dublin Corporation and Dublin County Council to include some land from the county in the city: the Minister can vary that. That is not an extensive list of the powers the Minister is taking unto himself in this Bill.
One of the most worrying parts of the Bill is Part VI which raises very serious questions. Committees of local authorities are a necessary method of conducting the affairs of most local authorities. Most authorities, as anyone in this House knows, already have several committees. I want to pause for a moment here to reflect on two matters. The Minister is legislating here for a number of matters. He is making provision for what already exists. We will all have heard him saying on radio over the weekend that he already has the power to rig electoral areas in county boroughs and wondering what I was on about. If he has that power, why is he providing for it in legislation again?
To be sure, to be sure.
We all know that local authorities have power to set up committees, and we all know that every county and county borough council in the State has committees. Why then is the Minister legislating in Part VI of this Bill to provide for committees? This is where the Minister is at his most dangerous. This is why my description of this Bill as dangerous legislation is most justified, as I intend now to explain.
What is new about this Bill is that it allows a simple majority on the council to delegate, without restriction if it likes, to a committee their full functions in respect of any given area. For instance, they could delegate to a committee their housing function or their function in respect of a development plan. One may ask what is new about this, or if we do not have a planning committee and a housing committee on Dublin Corporation, but they are committees set up under existing legislation. This committee would be set up under this Part of this Bill. I repeat, the local authority can delegate to a committee, without restriction if they like any of their functions except that of striking the rate. They can set up any number of committees and can delegate their functions to those committees.
However, the most worrying aspect of this provision is that it apparently permits a return to the position where a party with a simple majority on a council could appoint to any committee set up under this Bill its own members only, exluding members of other political parties. This would permit Fianna Fáil to revert to their practice on most local authorities prior to the 1985 Act of excluding other parties from representation on boards and committees where Fianna Fáil have at least a simple majority. If this analysis is correct, it could place in the hands of one party, without vetting by any other, major and potentially corrupting powers.
Back to the TACA days.
If they were ever gone.
Members of the House may say the Minister is hardly proposing this; I will quote the legislation. Section 40 (2) provides that committees set up under this Part of the Bill shall be "governed by the provisions of this Part and the regulations, and such previous provisions (whether made by or under statute) as may be specified in the regulations applying to that authority and relating to those matters shall cease to have effect as respects that authority". Here is hidden power to overrule even existing laws. As I have said, this is one of the provisions which makes this Bill dangerous.
If any section will be the subject of amendments, this section and this Part will be. The Minister is taking onto himself the power by regulation to amend and override legislation which has been already passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and signed by the President. Here, by the backdoor, the Minister is taking this power. One of the reasons this Bill is being presented in such a rush is to avoid the due care, attention and analysis of this House. The Minister may make regulations which say that any committee set up under Part VI of the Bill shall not be subjected to the requirements of the relevant sections and Schedules of the 1985 Act. The Minister said this is power to the people, it is power to the Minister.
Moreover, while enabling provisions to create regional authorities are not unworthy in principle, here again the Bill concentrates too much power in the Minister's hands and too little to directly elected local authorities. The ministerial powers go on and on. The Minister now proposes to take power to issue directions to local authorities in such matters as twinning with local authorities outside the State. Why does the Minister in the Custom House want to get involved with such symbolic items as twinning between one local authority and another? Why does he want to have his dead hand involved in almost every action, no matter how insubstantive. In short the Minister goes too far in centralising power in his own hands. As I said earlier, even the colour of toilet rolls used by local authorities could, in theory at least be subject to Ministerial direction. The Minister, Deputy Flynn, cannot be the policeman of the lavatories of the nation. Neither fir nor mná na hÉireann would like that much.
Local government is about local power over local matters. Ideally, local people should be able to influence the environmental, planning, housing and recreational matters which arise in their locality and which can so disturb the peace and tranquility of their lives. The principle of subsidiarity should be the first rule of local government legislation. That is a principle to which the Minister never once adverted in his very long speech. The principle of subsidiarity is the principle that all decisions should be made at the most local point possible. This cannot be achieved without reform of local government finance, and on this basic criterion alone this Bill fails. As long as the Minister, Deputy Flynn, pays the piper he will insist on calling the tune.
The Minister, in the course of his long speech, repeated something the Taoiseach said in the exchanges on the Order of Business, accusing Fine Gael as the party who refused to participate in an all-party committee on local government reform. We certainly did because from beginning to end the Government proposal was a sham as it excluded the crucial question of local government finance. No matter what hypothetical role the Minister purports to give to local authorities, the local authorities ultimately are restricted by the fact that they have to take direction from the Minister, especially when the Minister is paying the grant. The proposal for an all-party committee on local government reform was a sham just as this Bill is in essence a sham.
Localised decision-making may at first sight conflict with another desirable principle, namely, that of regional co-ordination and development. The Minister makes provision in section 43 of the Bill for the setting up of regional authorities. I do not fundamentally disagree with these provisions in the Bill except to say again that the Minister over-involves himself. The Minister's role is too large and the role of the directly and democratically elected county and county borough councils is too small. The dead hand of the Minister infiltrates everywhere with phrases like "the direction of the Minister", "the Minister may prescribe", "the Minister may, specifically by regulation or order" throughout the Bill.
The proposals in this Bill are flawed. Fine Gael will be launching their own local government policy before the local elections. Our policy, unlike this Bill, will address some real local government issues. The Minister did not refer to real local government matters; he did not refer to the potholes which have become the subject of a competition on the most popular radio programme in the country, "The Gay Byrne Show".
The Minister did not refer to the impact of local government reform on the housing crisis; he did not refer to the impact of his local government reform proposals on those unfortunate people who do not have bathrooms, which includes 6,000 local authority homes and many more thousands of private homes. He did not say how his reform proposals would have an impact on unfortunate mothers of young children living in high rise blocks with lifts which do not work because of cutbacks imposed by the Minister.
He did not say how his local government reform proposals will affect the awful environmental conditions prevailing in so many parts of our cities, many of them within walking distance of his office. He did not say how his local government reform proposals will address urban dereliction, which is so manifest in our city; he did not refer to how his proposals will affect the question of rural depopulation and ways and means of arresting it.
The reality is that the Minister's local government reform proposals will have no impact on any of these things even though they all affect people who expect improvements from local government reform. Nobody should have to live in nightmarish environmental conditions in unkept blocks of flats run badly by local authorities mainly because of lack of commitment by the Minister to refurbishment, maintenance, hygiene and basic standards of human decency.
We will be happy as a party to place our proposals for local government reform for comparison with this Bill and to allow the people to decide whose proposals are best to improve and maintain the quality of local life throughout the country.
There are parts of the Bill with which I agree or with which I have very little difficulty. I agree that in the main the behaviour changes imperative of Fianna Fáil councillors in a small number of local authorities has made in relation to section 4 motions dealing with planning matters even though that runs counter to my own strong feeling and instincts that we must return local power to local people. However, we cannot return local power to local people by further reducing the local power of local councillors. While I welcome the Minister's proposals from a symbolic point of view, he has tried to crack a nut with a sledgehammer. The implication is that elected representatives are more liable to wrongdoing or — worse — influences to wrongdoing than public officials at local or central level. How will the Minister's proposals get to the core of the concerns about corruption in planning procedure? What in the Minister's proposals gets to the kernel of the problem?
Local representatives are answerable to local people. I agree that section 4 motions should not be allowed unless moved by councillors for the area affected. We know the ruse in Dublin County Council where Fianna Fáil councillors from Malahide moved motions in relation to rezoning in Lucan. That should not be allowed; only councillors directly answerable to the affected electorate should have the power to move section 4 motions. I agree with the Minister in that regard.
I also believe that the Minister's proposals are inadequate because they do not provide for a consultative role for the local people affected by section 4 motions, material contravention or rezoning motions. There should be a requirement in legislation to have a public meeting and the local electorate affected should be invited to it to express their views on any section 4 motions in relation to planning, rezoning or material contravention matters.
There should still be power in the local council to overrule, in given circumstances, the manager or even An Bord Pleanála because at least the public representatives are accountable to the people of their area. If that power is taken away, which is effectively what the Minister proposes to do, it means that we will be further reducing the influence and power of local people over their environment. While I do not quarrel with the Minister's objective I quarrel with his modus operandi.
I do not have any difficulties — although I will have comments and amendments in relation to some of them — in relation to sections 2, 4, 10, 11 and 13 to 26, inclusive, although I am slightly worried about section 25. Sections 44 and 45 are subject to what I already said because they deal with section 4 procedures and I may be tabling amendments to the Minister's proposals. I do not have any difficulty in relation to section 46 which allows councils to entertain or section 47 which provides for similar restrictions on the length of the term of office of county managers as is the case at present for departmental secretaries. I also do not have any difficulties in relation to section 48 which provides for the granting of civic honours — although one part repeals the present powers available to certain county boroughs; the same applies to section 49 on twinning even though I think the Minister should mind his own business and keep out of it. I also do not have a difficulty in regard to section 50 regarding annual reports of local authorities. The same applies to section 52 (1). Indeed, I welcome some of those sections and I will come back to them in a moment.
I have some difficulties in relation to section 1 (10). I also have some difficulties with sections 5 to 9, inclusive, which purport to give new functions to local authorities which, in reality, is only giving expression to what local authorities already do, they have that broad representational role to which the Minister referred. However, the Minister then goes on to take the power — the sting in the tail — to direct and restrict local authorities in that broad representational role. This, again, is evidence of the dead hand of the Minister in the Bill. They cannot talk about condoms or the GAA. I think section 9 gives the Minister the power to restrict the powers which local authorities already have.
I have some difficulties with sections 27 to 35 which deal with changes in boundaries. I want to deal briefly with this issue. I broadly welcome the Minister's proposals in regard to the changing of boundaries as between local authorities. Some people get confused about the boundaries of the functional area of an authority and the boundaries of local electoral areas within authorities. I welcome the Minister's proposals, which are much better than the existing ones, in regard to the making of arrangements as to the swapping of territory between two neighbouring local authorities. His proposals in this regard are much better than the existing arrangements. However, the Minister is yet again intruding too much. He is giving himself the power to override the boundary committees. He is also giving himself the power to override even an agreed transfer between the two local authorities concerned. Why does the Minister want to have his finger in every pie?
Section 42 will give the Minister and the Minister for Finance power to decide effectively on the amount of remuneration for a chairman of an authority. While the Bill will do this under the guise of enabling local authorities to pay an allowance to their chairperson, I want to point out that many authorities already do this in practice. As the Minister may know, I was Lord Mayor of Dublin 15 years ago and I was paid an allowance. Under this Bill the Minister will have the power to say to the local authority, "you cannot pay the Lord Mayor that much". Why does the Minister want that power?
Perhaps the Deputy was paid too much.
Why does the Minister not keep out of such matters? Under 29 of the 52 sections the Minister will be able to intrude in the affairs of local authorities.
He likes to mess things up.
I have some reservations about section 51. I would bet my life on it that, like other councillors, Fianna Fáil councillors have some concerns about section 51 which will allow the Minister to dictate the limit of expenses paid to councillors. I have no doubt that over the years some councillors have abused this system but the reality is that the vast majority of them have to incur enormous personal expenses as members of local councils. For example, they do not have free post and do not receive a telephone allowance in most cases, or a travelling allowance in some cases. Most councillors have to take time off work to represent people at committee and council meetings at enormous cost to themselves. Yet, again, the Minister is intruding in an area he should keep out of. He wants to control everything. The amount of abuse in this area is negligible compared to the overall situation and I believe local authorities should be able to deal with that abuse.
I am not sure I agree with the provision which will enable the Minister to set the limit or provide an overall figure for expenses for councillors. Although it is not clear, the inference I draw from that section is that whether or not one attends council or committee meeting one will get paid. The Minister should clarify this provision as that is an inference which can be drawn from the section as it is currently drafted. The Minister is again intruding in an area in which he would be wise not to intrude. If they are to discharge their representational duties properly, councillors in every local authority deserve more consideration and help than they are getting at present.
I have some slight reservations about section 54 which provides that the Minister may institute an inquiry into a local authority and impose on that local authority the cost of the inquiry even though that local authority may have no say in the inquiry or how it is run. The dead hand of the Minister can be seen in every section of the Bill.
Those are my minor reservations about the Bill. I want to refer to my major difficulties with it. Over the weekend I carried out as much research as I possibly could and also had consultations. I have serious reservations about section 3. I also have serious reservations about section 12 which deals with the arranging of local electoral areas in county boroughs. Regardless of whether the Minister has that power already, I consider that these are not wise powers. Under section 12 the Minister may decide — I think he said in his speech that he will not do this before the June local elections — on the shape and the boundaries of local electoral areas in every county borough and on the number of councillors for each such electoral area and the number of aldermen. In addition, he will not have to have any regard to proportionality. For example, the Minister may decide that there should be five councils in an area where there are 10,000 people and three councils in an area where there are 20,000 people. It will be possible, in theory, for the Minister to do that under this legislation.
The Minister argued over the weekend that the Bill would merely re-enact powers which he already has. I am not convinced about this, just as I am not convinced about why he should provide powers for committees when most local authorities already have committees. Why is the Minister re-enacting powers which he already has? Why has he not taken the opportunity to insert a requirement of proportionality, proportional representation, which is the very basis of our form of democracy? There is no requirement on the Minister to be proportional. Indeed, the representation in some of our county boroughs is not porportional. I will be tabling amendments to section 12.
Over the weekend the Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, ran to the defence of the Minister for the Environment. He said, among other things, that I had misread the Bill. I had the good fortune to be on a radio show with him at lunch time today during which he repeated that claim and went on to give a misrreading of the Bill, which I had the opportunity to put right. The Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, said that the Minister for the Environment would have to consult a boundary committee about local electoral areas within county boroughs and that he would have to have the approval of the Dáil. The Bill states that the Minister may consult the boundary committee, not that the Minister shall consult the boundary committee. The Minister is not obliged to consult the boundary committee. On the radio I forced a concession from the Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, to accept an amendment from "may" to "shall". I hope that when we reach Committee Stage the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Flynn, will live up to Deputy Molloy's promise because Deputy Molloy had been misreading the Bill, having accused me of misreading it.
I will be substituting proposals to the effect that the number of seats in each electoral area will not allow an unfair advantage to any political party. Section 12 will be the subject of major amendments on Committee Stage.
I have grave reservations about the Bill, particularly about sections 36 to 40. On my reading of it, and having received detailed legal advice, these sections allow the Minister to overrule the pro rata requirement of the 1985 Act, by regulation. We will return to a situation in which one party with a majority can appoint only members of their party to committees and then delegate very significant powers to them. As a result the elected council would not have a say in those matters and decisions could be made in private without being analysed by the opposition on that council. When the Minister replies to these points on Friday I hope he will assure me that he will accept the necessary amendments to avoid doubt in this respect.
I have major reservations about section 43 which provides for the creation of regional authorities. The Minister glossed over this in his speech. Under the Bill regional authorities, which will not be directly elected by the people, can be assigned functions with a large ministerial involvement and then the directly elected local authorities can be levied to pay for those decisions by the regional authorities. Local authorities, already strapped for cash, have limited ways of raising money. I do not disagree with the principle of regional authorities. The Fine Gael proposals, which will be published before the local elections, will have provisions in relation to regional authorities but they will not be like the crass proposals of the Minister.
I do not agree with the regions suggested by the Minister. To put Wicklow, Meath and Kildare with Dublin is to constitute a far too complex region which does not correspond with an existing region of any authority. I know that there are health board regions, IDA regions and so on and that an attempt is being made to correlate those regions. The Barrington Committee wanted to make things simple and suggested that we should create institutions and areas which people can readily identify. If their wish is to be fulfilled surely the basis for any future regional organisations should be the Euro constituencies. Should not the regional authorities relate to Brussels on some matters? Yet the Minister is proposing a region comprising Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow.
Meath is not in the Eastern Health Board Region. It will mean taking it from the North-Eastern Health Board Region. Meath, Wicklow and Kildare are in the Leinster Euro constituency. Dublin already has one-third of the State's population and now the Minister is proposing to add another 300,000 people into the Dublin region. That will mean that about 40 per cent of the population of the State will be in one region. That does not make sense. I agree with the need for regional representation but I disagree with what the Minister is proposing.
I do not have any problem with section 52 (1) but I have serious problems with section 52 (2) and (3). Those provisions will allow the Minister by regulation which may never come before the House to change statute law. Section 52 (2) states:
(2) Where it appears to the Minister—
(a) to be necessary or expedient for the purpose of remedying an inconsistency between a provision of an enactment and this Act, or
(b) to be necessary or expedient for the purpose of enabling such a provision to have effect in conformity with this Act,
the Minister may in relation to such a provision by regulations provide for—
(i) its application with any modification or adaptation specified in the regulations,
(ii) its amendment otherwise or its repeal, revocation or termination.
We ought not give the Minister those powers even if under a positive order the Minister must come into the House to have it approved. In all other cases I referred to the Minister need not come into the House. If precedent is to be followed, even if a motion is tabled by the Opposition under the 21 day rule to reject regulations, it is up to the Government to order business and the Government can simply refuse to order a motion rejecting a regulation, as they did before.
This is a hasty Bill. It is not good enough to expect this House to deal with it in two weeks. I am not saying that the length of debating time is not enough, but that the notice is too short. The Opposition spokesmen will certainly be confined to this House for the rest of this week and when can they sit with their advisers to analyse the Bill and come up with suggested improvements, if Committee Stage is to be taken on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week? It is not good enough that the Government should seek to rush legislation like this through the Houses on the pretext that it must be enacted by 17 May. Only two or three sections of the Bill need to be enacted by 17 May. Even though we do not necessarily agree with the Government on the postponement of local elections, we would have been prepared to facilitate that to allow for the deferment of the consequential provisions. This is rushed legislation. It is dangerous legislation which needs most careful consideration.
This party will resist the Bill and will, if time allows, table extensive amendments to the sections I have indicated. Let me suggest, in conclusion, that the Minister might redeem his hand somewhat by showing a willingness to accept some of the amendments to be proposed by this side of the House.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
"having regard to:
the clear intention of the Government to provide by law for the gerry-mandering of electoral areas in the County Boroughs of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway; and
the undemocratic and incompetent arrangements proposed by the Government for the debating of the Bill; and
the failure of the Bill to deal effectively with the crisis in local services, including housing, roads and local financing;
Dáil Éireann declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill."
Never before have I witnessed circumstances where the Government refused to supply, at the time of publication, an explanatory memorandum to complex and wide-ranging legislation. I share the anger of other Opposition spokespersons who had their first sight of the Bill last Thursday at the Whips' meeting when they were handed a draft by the acting Government Whip who was, as other people have said, apologetic and indicated that he had just got it. When questioned about an explanatory memorandum, his officials did not know the answer and said they had only just caught sight of the Bill and were trying to make arrangements for taking it.
It may be of interest to the Minister that the previous week, the Whips discussed and reached agreement on the business to be taken this week and no reference was made to the Local Government Bill. If, as the Minister said in his speech today, the Bill was in gestation for some months, why was a version of it only made available on Thursday and then circulated on Friday, when Members had left Leinster House, with the result that most of them only had their first sight of the Bill yesterday? The explanatory memorandum was circulated only this morning. This is a wideranging Bill which has taken a long time to prepare, which has attracted a great deal of outside interest and will affect many aspects of local government; yet, the Minister and the Government insist that it must pass all Stages before we have had adequate time to reflect on its implications or the framework within which local government will work for decades to come. That is a bad way to do business and, as I said, even Government spokesmen, at the end of last week, were very sheepish and apologetic. To put it at its mildest, this is a recipe for bad law and we can be absolutely certain that the Bill has ramifications which are not yet apparent.
The process of examination of legislation has been designed to ensure that the legislation passed by these Houses is as good as it can be. If this process is to have any meaning both sides of the House, including Government back-benchers need to reflect adequately on legislation which will impinge on the lives of every citizen. The arrangements proposed by the Minister for taking the Bill and insisted upon today through a guillotine motion are totally undemocratic and run counter to the spirit in which legislation is passed through the Houses.
This House is more than a decision-making body. It has been designed as a representative deliberative assembly where the interests of minorities, as well as the interests of the majority, can be effectively represented. Regardless of how annoying it might be for the Minister and the Government, Members have been sent here by the people to carry out their duties and functions and they do this not only when they vote but also when they speak. The Standing Orders of this House have been drafted in such a way as to ensure that every single Member, irrespective of whether they are a member of a party, has the democratic right to speak on every provision before the House and to ensure that the Ceann Comhairle cannot accept a motion to close a debate if it appears to him that that motion would infringe on the rights of the minority or individual Members of the House. Each time the Government introduce a guillotine motion the Standing Orders of the House, which have been designed to prevent such pre-emptive action, have to be set aside, and we witnessed that awful spectacle once again today. On such occasions Standing Orders of the House which have been carefully thought out and which were intended to facilitate constructive debate are simply laid aside by the force of numbers on the Government benches.
This is not the first time that the Government have used such tactics. They used them at the end of last June on a range of measures, including one dealing with broadcasting. At that time I said that their behaviour was a good illustration of Fianna Fáil's contempt for parliamentary democracy. It was also a fair reflection of the hypocrisy of the other party in Government who it is alleged desire Dáil reform. That comment holds good again today. Indeed, their hypocrisy is all the more pronounced on this Bill. After all, this is supposed to be a Bill dealing with local democracy. Even the most partisan Government supporter must be prepared to reflect on the deep irony of a Bill being rammed through the Oireachtas, in a most undemocratic way, in a matter of days and the Government riding roughshod over the rules which we ourselves set down to govern debate. Even the promoters of the Bill must feel that this runs counter to the essence of democracy. How can such a measure be seen to reinvigorate local democracy in any way?
If this Bill dealt with the powers of the courts or was introduced following a terrorist outrage one might be forgiven for accepting that it was an emergency measure, but it is alleged to be a Bill dealing with democracy. One is being dishonest therefore in arguing that it is an emergency measure or that the matter is so urgent that the Bill had to be parachuted in on Friday and has to be enacted within ten days. All the elements of the Bill need to be examined in detail. That is what we have been sent here to do. If we accept the Minister's timetable and his view that some of the local government elections must take place on June 27, there is only one part of the Bill which needs to be enacted between now and 17 May and that is Part III dealing with the postponement of elections in some authorities, the consequent extension of the life of some subcounty structures and the debarment of Ministers and Ministers of State from participation in local authorities. That fact was accepted by the Minister, so the rest is cobbled together and forced through under the pretext of urgency. When this sort of thing happens every democrat has cause to worry and we have cause to ask one question: what is the hidden agenda?
There is no good reason that this Bill has to be forced through the Dáil in the way this Government are setting about it. By any objective standards it would be a better Bill if the Minister allowed adequate time for debate, reasonable time for reflection, and if there was openness with the Opposition parties. No Member of this House, no party and no committee have a monopoly on wisdom.
I have been involved in many Bills in this House in the last few years and the best legislation came after we had open consultation, ample time for reflection and a Minister who was open to listen to another point of view. For example, the Child Care Bill took a very long time to pass through this House, but we had a Minister who said he was not monopolising the amendments to be tabled or the understandings to be enacted into law. He wanted the views of the country; we sought them from every agency and every individual involved in the child care area and we put together one of the best pieces of legislation to go through this House. Local government reform is no less complicated, no less important and also involves all the community. There are many experts who want an input into this Bill. There are many people whose comments and contributions would be of immense value but often they are simply ignored because the Minister has set himself a timetable, and is determined that it go through at all costs. We have had a few days to do some analysis on this Bill, and it is totally inadequate to be a framework for local democracy for decades to come. Unfortunately, it is not the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat way to involve all the people. If they succeed in ramming this Bill through they will be telling the electorate that it represents a promise kept, the most systematic — I can hear the word echoing now — and profound reform of local government in the history of the State. I can hear the hyperbole ringing around the country from the backs of lorries as they canvass votes heading up to 27 June.
This Bill will, no doubt, be sold as the solution to all local government problems; all the difficulties will be solved in one stroke. Of course, it would not be possible to make that claim if this Bill was fully understood by the electorate. It does not solve the fundamental problems of local government. In fact, it barely sets out to address them. It does not provide a penny by way of extra resources, build an extra house or fill an extra pothole. In fact, it establishes a set of empty and meaningless principles, important principles but empty and meaningless, because the two parties responsible for this Bill in the last number of years have contrived between them to bring local government to its knees and to make local government a hollow concept. That has been accepted even by many Government spokesmen in recent times. I hope when this electoral team get on the hustings and talk about this Bill in the glorious terms I have described as a promise fulfilled, the people will remember that this is the same team who made them all those promises in 1985.
It is fitting that the present Minister for Energy has been to the forefront in recent days defending his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, and this legislation, since it was he in his pre-Progressive Democrat incarnation who was the principal architect of the 1985 promises.
I intend to return to that era later in my contribution, but first I feel I must say a few words about the principles of this Bill and the way in which they are going to be dealt with. I said detailed analysis of this Bill has not been made easier for any Member by the method of its introduction and the scheduling of its taking, but one thing is clear: the Government in drafting the Bill are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. All the experts — there have been a number over the years as the Minister will know — who have examined local government and the whole concept of local democracy have expressed a range of views all broadly committed to the notion of spreading outwards and downwards and empowering and enabling local communities to have control over their own affairs. These views have tended to be crystallised in an argument about two major and important principles which fundamentally affect local government, the doctrine of ultra vires and the principle of subsidiarity. Both these central principles raise their heads in this Bill and I will refer to them in turn.
In our initial comment on this Bill on Friday, we said the inclusion of the utterly banal clause — and I quote from the blurb — that "a local authority may represent the interests of the local community in such manner as it thinks appropriate" sums up the attitude of this Government and what Deputy Molloy only last week called the charade of local government. The Labour Party went on to say it is clear that the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat Coalition are determined to perpetuate this charade and have no intention of fundamental reform despite the smoke screens that have come from the Custom House in the last few days. Last weekend the Minister for the Environment referred to this clause and the way it is elaborated in the Bill as a significant widening of what is known as the ultra vires rule affecting local government. Under the existing ultra vires rule, local government is limited by the statutes which regulate it and can extend no further to act in any way other than what is specifically prescribed by statute. Everybody has long recognised that that was and is an impossible limitation on local government. It stifled real development. It stifled imaginative councils and imaginative management from involving the potential of community to solve the range of problems, and that stifling force has long been targeted as something that needed to be removed.