Last night I moved a reasonable amendment that would deny the Bill a Second Reading for the reasons I listed. I outlined the Labour Party's opposition to the method of introducing the Bill and to the scheduling of the debate on it. It is important to underscore once again the absolute frustration of Opposition Deputies in this House, a frustration probably shared by many on the Government benches, in regard to what is ostensibly a very elaborate system of local government reform.
I do not share the view that it is an elaborate system of local government reform but I daresay that in the next few weeks the Government benches will be singing to the tune of promises kept to bring in major reforms and put structures in place to guide local government and local democracy into the next century. The reality is far from that. It is bad that we should begin the process of local government reform by running counter to the basic principles of democracy at national level. It was most unfortunate, and unacceptable, that copies of this Bill should be handed to the party Whips only last Thursday when this week's business had already been agreed by the party Whips. It was most unfortunate that the explanatory memorandum of a long Bill should become available only hours before the debate was to begin.
There are many interested parties up and down the country who have a passionate interest in local government. There are many interested organisations and individuals who work in local government, who want a say in this Bill and whose contributions would be worthy of consideration and should be taken into account. However, the action of the Government in parachuting this Bill at the last possible minute and setting a time scale for its enactment which was designed to minimise contributions from the Opposition benches and minimise debate and proper scrutiny around the country has meant it is a bad day for democracy.
It was said some time ago that people who like sausages and who respect the law should watch neither being made. Today people will be dismayed at the way laws are made here if what is in effect a decision of Cabinet is taken without amendment and without proper time for scrutiny. I will make that point again before I go on to deal with the principal issues of the Bill. The issues have been decided. The Bill is before the House and Members on Government and Opposition benches have a responsibility to subject it to the maximum scrutiny allowed by the time and the method of introduction.
Yesterday I mentioned the two overriding principles that affect local government and which are of fundamental importance from the Labour Party's point of view. The first is the doctrine of ultra vires and the second is the principle of subsidiarity. Those two concepts probably mean nothing to people outside of local government when stated in those bold terms but they are at the core of what most people who have looked at local government in recent years want to achieve. They want real devolution of powers to communities so that they can have control over their own affairs. That is what we should be about. Unfortunately that is not what this set of proposals will achieve.
The suggestion made by the Minister yesterday that real power was in some way being extended is a mere pretence, as one will see when one scrutinises the provisions of the Bill.
A close reading of the Bill makes it clear that there are so many conditions attached to the representational functions of local government that the expressed intention in the Bill to widen the scope of local authorities is meaningless. For example, under this Bill no local authority can undertake any activity that would prejudice or duplicate activity arising from the performance or the statutory functions of any person within the functional area of the authority or that would, having regard to the activities or proposed activities of that person in relation to the area, involve wasteful or unnecessary expenditure by the authority. Who is going to make these decisions? These are the hidden barriers that are being put into legislation to thwart the ambition of empowering local government.
What is meant by that? Does it mean that in any county where one of the State's industrial agencies is operating, whether it is the IDA or SFADCo, the local community in that area is precluded from any industrial development activity? Is that the Minister's intention? It certainly could be implied from the content of the Bill. As it is drafted that section would prejudice existing industrial development efforts, not to mention the fact that it is being portrayed as giving new scope and authority to local authorities to involve themselves in new industrial or job creating activities.
Precisely the same applies to tourism development and the development of sporting facilities. In any area where the Minister for Sport chooses to intervene, the initiative of local communities or local government to act can be stifled. It can even be argued that a national organisation like the Arts Council can prohibit the involvement of local authorities in the development of art and culture that is a statutory body charged with a particular function. Is that the intention of the Minister? Is that what we are to understand by broadening the scope and breaking the old ultra vires provision?
As if all this were not enough, the Bill gives a general power to the Minister to prescribe matters in respect of which a local authority shall not exercise the additional powers conferred in this Bill. He is given the power to determine the amount of money which local authorities can spend on additional activity and to attach any condition he wishes to any grant to be made available to local authorities in respect of any of these additional activities. The scope, when one looks at it in detail, for extra empowerment at local level is a lot shallower and hollower than the rhetoric the Minister sought to impress upon us last night.
Finally, the Minister, under the provisions of this Bill, can ensure that local authorities have full and total regard to the policies and objectives of the Government or any Minister of the Government in carrying out these functions. That makes a pretty kettle of fish. A local authority, perhaps dominated by parties other than the one in Government, can be forced to have regard to the policies and objectives of the Government or a Minister in taking on any of these additional activities. This provision effectively makes every Minister of the Government a potential dictator in relation to local government matters.
Even though the Bill debars for the first time members of the Government and Ministers of State from being members of local authorities, they can influence a local authority to an extent far greater than any individual member. Having regard to all these restrictions and conditions it is quite nonsensical to argue that the ultra vires rule is being relaxed in any meaningful way and that the scope of local democracy is being widened. That quite clearly is a sham. As I have said, it could quite rightly be argued that the opposite is the case.
The second principle I mentioned is that of subsidiarity, a word that has come into vogue in recent years. In essence the principle is a simple one. It means it is desirable to carry out at local level every function at local level that is capable of being carried out at that level and to make all decisions at local level that are capable of being made at that level. It is a principle that nominally every Member of this House, or every party represented in the House, subscribes to. It is a very straightforward principle. In the Northern context it can be called devolution, and it is bandied about by all parties in this House in relation to that position.
What does this Bill do in relation to that principle? Does it seek to move downwards real power? Does it seek to divest the Minister of the stranglehold he has in relation to virtually every decision of local authorities? Those of us who are currently members of local authorities know it is frustrating that in order to fill a pothole or fix a back door a local authority must have specific sanction from the Custom House. This is a system that is designed currently to stifle initiative from any creative public servant at local level or imaginative council or councillor. It is there to strangle them by surrounding them with so much bureaucracy and red tape that they just get frustrated and happily comply with the directions from the Custom House.
How does this Bill seek to achieve that objective? All the Bill does towards devolving powers downwards to local communities is to establish a vague framework under which the Government may — I stress "may"— transfer some functions from the centre to local administration, but again this is hedged with so many restrictions and qualifications that it is virtually meaningless. More importantly, no programme of devolution has been spelled out by the Government. Barrington and his expert committee wanted that. Most people have identified in policy statements or discussion documents the powers that can be efficiently and effectively carried out at local level, with the best interests of the communities served at local level. We did not get a single clue from the Minister's statement last night, from his press conference or from the contents of the Bill the nature of the functions this Government consider suitable to be devolved to local authorities.
However, we have had some experience of the attitude of the Government to local communities in the last few years. This is, after all, the Government which rejected European Community funding simply and solely on the grounds that it had to be administered by local communities. They are a Government who, by practice over the last number of years, are centralist and seek to give all power to themselves. They have worked consistently to stop real power from moving outside the close confines of Government Ministries.
The advisory expert committee on local government reorganisation and reform, which were rightly praised by the Minister for the Environment last night, have done a tremendous job. On behalf of the Labour Party I acknowledge, congratulate and welcome their report. They set out in the report a wide range of headings under which there could be extensive devolution. While the Minister paid lip service to the work they did, he was much less inclined to accept their recommendations lest to do so would weaken his position one iota.
The specific functions and areas that the expert advisory committee thought could best be devolved to local communities included areas such as education. Most European countries already have local democratic control of education. The expert committee identified issues such as health, social welfare, transport and traffic, heritage and amenities, tourism, the police, courts and justice, consumer protection, development and information services, as being issues that could reasonably and effectively be devolved to local level. However, the Minister is not prepared to make a single specific commitment on any of those issues. Perhaps in the Minister's reply to the debate there will be a clearer picture of what the Government intend.
Claims made in support of the Bill that there is to be a real devolution of powers to local level are once again seen to be what they are — a sham. All of that is underlined by the fact that the Bill confers on the Minister for the Environment an overriding power to make regulations. The Minister has that power virtually as he sees fit about anything that arises under the Bill. He has the power to ensure that such regulations have the force of law, virtually on a de facto basis, because none of them will require a positive resolution of the Dáil. The power is, therefore, an annulling order, but the Minister of State present knows well that the Government controls the agenda of the House. Too many stark examples of that have been seen in recent days and months. It would be virtually impossible, if the Government so chose, for the Opposition to have an annulling motion put before the House. Under the provisions of the Bill the Minister will act and can act by fiat. He can decide what regulations are to be made, what conditions are to be put in place and can ensure that they have the force of law. The general competence of local authorities, the issues to which local authorities must have regard in their functions, and so on, will all be directed by the Minister from the Custom House. The net effect of this provision is to centralise more and more power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment, while at the same time creating a veneer, and I emphasise the word “veneer”, that it is broadening the scope of local demoncracy. It is shameful that the opportunity is missed when there seems to be a consensus that the real way forward — not only in local government reform but also in the resolution of many of the fundamental issues that beset the country, from unemployment to the administration of efficient policies to combat poverty — is best found in strong local government. The Bill gives a veneer of moving in that direction, but, as I have pointed out in the past few minutes, it is simply that, a veneer.
I shall go on to other aspects of the Bill shortly, but at this point I should say that it should not come as a surprise that the Government are prepared to promote legislation at this time and call it reform. As I said earlier, this is the Government that gave the promises of the 1985 local election manifesto — and I am sure that the mere mention of the 1985 local government elections will redden the cheeks of the Minister and the Minister of State. The present Minister for the Environment was active at that time. The present Minister for Energy, who in recent days has rushed to the defence of his colleague in Government, was also active and, indeed, was the principal architect of that manifesto.