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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 8 May 1991

Vol. 408 No. 1

Local Government Bill, 1991: Second Stage (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by the Minister for the Environment on Tuesday 7 May 1991:
That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
Debate resumed on the following amendment:
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 gerrymandering 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."
—(Deputy Howlin.)

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.

Birds of a feather.

The House should consider for a moment some of the promises made to the electorate in 1985. I shall quote from that manifesto:

Fianna Fáil will ensure that each local authority gains the maximum benefit from EEC Regional Funding and will introduce procedures whereby local authorities can make direct application for regional funding and receive such funds directly from the Community.

We all know what happened to that promise when the EC actually offered to make money available provided it was applied for and administered by local communities. In direct contradiction to the promises made in the manifesto, Fianna Fáil turned down these funds rather than allow local communities to have any say in their use.

I have another good quotation for the Minister from the same manifesto, and if this does not redden faces on the Government benches I do not know what will. I quote:

Fianna Fáil will raise the annual housing output to 30,000 (including 6,000 local authority houses per year). The 50,000 unemployed building workers and their families and the 35,000 families waiting for homes can look with confidence to Fianna Fáil to meet their needs.

As anyone of the 25,000 people on the housing list can testify, that is a particularly sick joke. The latest review of housing was due to be published in April 1991. I have no confidence that it will be seen in print this side of the local elections. Even the Minister for the Environment and his Government colleagues could not shamefacedly meet the electorate with that promise and commitment hanging around their necks, given the reality of the past four years. I am absolutely certain that when the figures are published they will show another dramatic increase in the number of families in urgent need of housing — an increase that will not be met by the 200 or so houses that are to be built in 1991 by all the local authorities combined and that certainly will not be met by what I describe as the Legoland policy of social housing, designed to cobble together a few good ideas that are peripheral to the real issue of building local authority houses for the tens of thousands of people up and down the country in urgent need.

The same 1985 local election manifesto stated:

Fianna Fáil views with concern the rapid deterioration of the county road system which represents 80 per cent of the public road network. A special five year programme to assist local authorities to deal with the problem will be drawn up for the maintenance of county roads. We believe that the preservation of the investment of over 60 years in county roads is essential.

As everybody knows, Fianna Fáil in Government have presided over the most substantial deterioration of the county road system in the history of our State. There are parts of Ireland where it is now virtually impossible to travel even a very short distance without running the risk of serious damage to one's motor vehicle. The condition of county roads has become a national joke, with pot-holing competitions replacing more traditional amenities as tourist attractions up and down the country. I have heard of local authorities having recommendations put before them by distraught engineers who seek to put up signs saying "Proceed at your own risk" because they cannot properly maintain the county road system. In order to save his face the Minister summons people to the Custom House and instructs them to do something about the problem between now and 27 June. However, in the space of three weeks the Minister cannot repair the damage done over four years. He certainly cannot do so without providing money, which is the one thing he did not do when he met county engineers some weeks ago.

In every area the Minister's promises have been recognised as completely shallow and completely without substance. I wish to make another quotation from the 1985 manifesto so that the record can be complete:

It is vital that substantial green belts be provided and maintained before our cities and towns become sprawling concrete zones.

Within the last couple of months, while 150 acres lie derelict in Dublin city centre, proposals to rezone about 2,000 acres of Dublin's green belt for housing — enough for a new city the size of Limerick — have been tabled in the current review of the development plan for Dublin. That is on top of the rezoning for 3,800 houses and 65 commercial developments by way of section 4 motions or variations in the development plan pushed through Dublin County Council since Fianna Fáil took majority control of that council in 1985.

TACA days are back.

It is disgraceful that the Minister should stand idly by and allow such an abuse of power.

Friends are friends.

We can see what importance we can attach to promises from the Government or the Minister. In the 1985 manifesto Fianna Fáil strongly attacked the then Government's record on job creation, pointing to "an all-time high level of 230,000 unemployed and emigration at 20,000 a year". Has the Minister any sense of shame at sitting in a Government where 200,000 people have emigrated since he became Minister for the Environment and when, for the second consecutive month, we have the highest unemployment levels in the history of the State? Despite driving 200,000 people out of the country, the Minister has achieved record unemployment levels; so much for the promises of the Government.

My last quote is from the manifesto published by Fianna Fáil for the local elections in 1985:

Since the Coalition Government came to power Fianna Fáil councillors on the eight health boards have opposed the savage cutbacks which are having a detrimental effect on the level of health care. Fianna Fáil will continue to fight against the dismantling of our health services which it has taken so many years and so much hard work to build. On return to Government we will continue the progressive development of our health services to ensure the highest quality of care is available to everyone, including those who are unable to provide it for themselves from their own resources.

They were the cruellest of all promises and deceptions. We had to deal with the horror stories of the last four years. So well may the Minister turn away to talk to somebody else because he certainly does not want to hear the truth that promises from Fianna Fáil are worthless. Twenty hospitals have been closed, 4,000 beds were taken out of public hospitals and 5,000 health workers have been unemployed since those promises were made. It is quite clear that, when it comes to promises, the Government have no credibility.

I could give many more examples. I could talk about the promise to restore financial stability to local authorities by repealing the Coalition Government's Local Government (Financial Provisions) (No. 2) Act, 1983, which the Minister promised to repeal on returning to office. The Minister has been in Government for four years and it has still not been repealed. However, I will give the Minister a chance to do so as I will table an amendment to this Bill and we will then see whether he will live up to this one promise to restore financial stability to local authorities. That power was introduced by the then Government in 1983 when there was an emergency in relation to public and local government finances. The Minister knows that the alternative to introducing it at that time would have been the immediate layoff of 4,000 local authority workers and corresponding cuts in local services.

It is also well known that these local charges were introduced at that time and were stated to be — the records are there for the Minister to see — a temporary measure. The reality is that, since being returned to office, Fianna Fáil have allowed local authority charges to double — where they exist — at the same time they have starved local authorities of resources and allowed staff and services to be decimated. Local government today, six years after the list of promises I mentioned, is in an appalling and lamentable condition. The Minister has statutory responsibility for that.

In investigating the resources available to local authorities I tried, so far as it has been possible, to have recourse to the Government's published figures. This has meant, to a considerable extent, relying on the comprehensive public expenditure programmes published by the Government every year up to 1989, the most recent figures to date. These publications enable individual programmes and services to be examined rather than the aggregate sums found in the Book of Estimates. I want to look at three major areas which reveal the following allocation of resources, and these are taken from the Minister's figures. In 1984 we spent £295 million on roads, in 1985 we spent £315 million, in 1986 the figure was £330 million, in 1987 the figure was also £330 million, in 1988 the figure was £301 million and in 1989 we spent £321 million. In 1987, when the Minister came to power, with the legacy of the promises I mentioned, we were spending £330 million on roads but by 1989 that had decreased — not taking account of inflation but in real terms — to £321 million.

In 1984 we spent £255 million on sanitary services, in 1985 we spent £271 million, in 1986 we spent £270 million, in 1987 we spent £276 million, in 1988 — the first year in which the Minister was in office — we spent £155 million and in 1989 the figure was £160 million. When the Minister came to office we were spending a sum of £276 million on sanitary services, but, after two years of his stewardship, the figure had collapsed to £160 million.

In 1984, we spent £562 million on housing, in 1985 we spent £585 million, in 1986 we spent £627 million, and in 1987 we spent £698 million. The last year before the Minister came to office we were spending just under £700 million on housing but, during the Minister's first year in office, that figure was slashed to £377 million and it was reduced further in 1989 to £296 million. In two years he more than halved the housing expenditure budget in spite of giving pledges and promises to the unfortunates up and down the country living in grotty accommodation, caravans or rat infested hovels. At the root of these figures lies what the Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, called the charade of local government. Indeed, in a recent article the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Deputy O'Malley, referred to the shambles of local government.

It is quite clear that Fianna Fáil since 1987 — and in concert with the Progressive Democrats since 1989 — have systematically starved local authorities all round the country of resources. The bottom line must be that all local government reform is absolutely meaningless if councillors, managers, community groups and concerned individuals are powerless to address problems or to seize opportunities because of the lack of resources. The Minister saw fit last night to try to deflect attention from this point. We were not supposed to mention funding as this is a Bill about structures — the Government are going to put nice structures in place and devolve power. As I have illustrated, that power is in a shambles already. We were not to mention what is really the most important aspect of local government, the item highest on the agenda — if you ask any councillor in the land — that is funding. Without money to do the work there is no point in giving functions and responsibilities to anybody. There is no point in telling county engineers to fix the roads when they are not given any money to do this work. There is no point in telling local authorities to solve the homeless problem while at the same time the housing programmes are slashed. The Government should be realistic and face up to these issues. The Minister should try to address these issues in a concerted way and not hide from them.

Under this Government we have seen the emergence of a housing crisis in every part of the country, the collapse of our road network and thousands of local authority employees losing their jobs. There are libraries which have not received new books for four years. Fire brigade officers are worried about their capacity to respond to a real emergency. Derelict areas in our towns and cities have not been addressed. There are no facilities for children in many local authority estates and no funding to put these facilities in place. There is the huge problem of access for people with disabilities. All of these problems have been caused by a Government who are prepared to pay lip service to reform but who do not believe in allowing local authorities to have effective control over the affairs of their own areas.

I want to deal with some aspects of the Bill. This Bill will establish a complicated and complex procedure for dealing with urban boundaries in a geographical sense but will preserve the power available to the Minister to deal with electoral boundaries, particularly in the county boroughs, in whatever way he chooses. It is important to make that differentiation. The Minister is putting elaborate but good systems in place to deal with boundary extensions but he has separated from those the power he wishes to keep to himself in relation to dividing electoral areas within county boroughs, nominating the number of members in county boroughs and deciding on the number of aldermen in each ward. A number of questions arise from this state of affairs.

Why has the Minister separated the power to change electoral boundaries from the general powers outlined in the Bill in regard to geographical boundaries? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question when he is replying to the debate. Why has he chosen to establish a framework of boundary committees who can never be truly independent since they will all be appointed by him and remunerated by him as he determines? Why has the Minister not chosen to follow the procedure, now generally accepted as appropriate in the case of Dáil electoral boundaries, of appointing a High Court judge or some other independent person to chair such committees? Alternatively, why does he not adopt the procedure contained in a Bill from his Department, the Environment Protection Planning Bill, so as to allow nominated bodies to put forward the names of members of the boundary committees to ensure that they are not only independent but can be genuinely seen to be independent?

In the absence of satisfactory answers to these questions the suspicion must remain that the Minister is no more committed to independence and the objective drawing of boundaries than he was in regard to Dáil boundary redrawings, on which he was forced to change his view by a majority decision of this House. Even though none of them is here to listen to me, I must say I find it surprising that the Progressive Democrats appear to be content to allow this situation of ministerial carte blanche to remain unchanged in this area.

They took the shilling.

I am afraid it looks like that. This Bill is, of course, silent on the future of urban authorities. We still do not know what plans the Government have for urban authorities. There is reason to believe that once the local elections are out of the way they will be perfectly capable of adopting the less favourable model suggested by the advisory committee, that is, set up sub-committees of county councils to run the affairs of urban areas. In effect this would abolish the urban authorities, the oldest model of local democracy in existence.

That is not true.

Is the Minister saying it is not true that that is the intention? We do not know the Minister's intention because he has not told us. Two models are put forward in the advisory committee report, one is to have the affairs of the areas run currently by the urban authorities run by a sub-committee of the county council, and the other is to establish new district committees. Which option does the Minister favour? He should put his cards on the table for once in advance of the local elections. He should not tell us it is not true and keep his cards to himself as if it is a State secret. The Minister should have a view on these matters.

I will do so in due course.

If neither of those models is acceptable the Minister should tell us what model he envisages including in legislation. That is what we are asking him to do.

I want to say on behalf of Wexford Corporation, a very progressive local authority, of which I am a member, that much of the imaginative and constructive work done in relation to urban renewal, the advancement of drainage schemes and various other projects and initiatives was spearheaded by imaginative and creative urban authorities.

And supported by me.

Indeed they have been supported by the Minister.

They have been treated very generously by this Minister.

I acknowledge, in particular, the positive contribution of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy Ger Connolly, in relation to this matter. However, that is peripheral to what I am saying. Essentially I am asking the Minister what his intention is in relation to these local authorities. These authorities consist of members of the Minister's party and every other party who have worked for many decades serving their communities. I am afraid — I put this down as a marker to him — that the Minister will not have the same cohesiveness in relation to urban development if he dilutes urban authorities with a huge rural hinterland which is not focused in the same way on the urban authority. I put that down as a marker and I would welcome a debate on it. We have nothing before us at present and I hope the Minister's intentions in this regard, if not addressed in the context of this Bill, will at least be the subject of some discussion document in advance of the local elections on 27 June.

With regard to Dublin, all the signs are that the Government have no intention in the final analysis of dividing Dublin effectively into four separate local authorities. All that is proposed in the Bill is a clumsy and bureaucratic framework which seems almost to have been designed to enable reform in Dublin to be put on the long finger. In spite of the fact that the reform of Dublin along the lines suggested here was first proposed in that infamous year of 1985 — the structure outlined in this Bill seems to represent little more than a slight extension of the proposals in the Local Government (Reorganisation) Bill of that time — page after page of this Bill is devoted to demonstrating to any democrat who wishes to peruse and read it carefully, exactly how the process of reform in Dublin can be delayed ad nauseam.

I want to refer briefly to the "Sir Humphrey" measures in the Bill. We are all familiar with the "Yes, Minister" programme — I am sure it is compulsive viewing for all of us in politics. There is a famous episode in that series called "The Middle Class Rip Off" in which the Minister of the day and his senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey, grapple with a particularly difficult problem which is almost certain to cause offence to local councillors on a wide scale.

Is this relevant to the Bill? We are talking about local government reform and not about a television programme. I ask the Deputy to get back to the Bill before us.

I think you will find in the contribution I have made that I have dissected every section of the Bill, and it is my intention to do so. If the Chair has some difficulty with my doing so in a humorous way, I am sorry but that is the way I will deal with this section.

Acting Chairman

It is a local government reform Bill we are discussing, not a television programme.

The Minister referred to television programmes in his contribution last night and the spokesman for the Fine Gael Party referred to several radio programmes, "Scrap Saturday" among them, in his contribution last night.

I will develop the point. The problem related to doing something designed to cause offence to local councillors and Sir Humphrey's solution to soften the blow was brilliant and simple. He coupled the councillors' acceptance of the Minister's unpalatable proposals with increases in their allowances and entertainment expenses — a small price to pay for the acceptance of something which is totally unpalatable. I do not know whether or not there is a Sir Humphrey working in the Department of the Environment, but it is interesting that there are sweeteners in the Bill which do not deliver on the real meat that is required by every local authority member up and down the country, the power to control their own authorities, to serve the community in a real and meaningful way. Even Sir Humphrey nods.

Who else but a bureaucrat who has completely lost the run of himself would want the Minister for the Environment to have the power to issue directions to local authorities in relation to twinning arrangements? The Minister will have those powers also. Of what is the Minister afraid? Is the Minister afraid that Mullinavat will want to twin with Moscow, that Castlebar might twin with Capetown or that Portumna would want to twin with Peking? Can anyone argue that this absurd provision has anything to do with local government reform? Why must the Minister reach to control everything that a local council seeks to do? Does he not trust them to do anything without his guidance or the guidance of his Department? The more one analyses this Bill, the more one comes to the conclusion that the Bill is considerably less than the sum of its parts and that the parts of the Bill have little or nothing to do with the major question of local government reform and the provision of essential services for the people.

Throughout Ireland there are voluntary groups consistently working not only to address local problems but to harness the potential and dynamic that is visible on every corner of the country. This Bill says nothing to them or to the many frustrated and genuine local authority members who are committed to the improvement and development of their locality. It says nothing to those who believe that industry and tourism development are intimately tied up with the issue of infrastructural development. It says nothing to the communities who are in despair about the state of the roads and a wide range of local issues and it says nothing to the neglected thousands of families awaiting a home.

This Bill is not urgent. In fact it is not needed. The total sum of reform in this Bill is minimal. The Bill requires substantial amendments if it is to have any meaning for people. For years we have promised communities the power to run their own affairs but, while the rest of Europe moves to empower local communities, we continue to hug power to the centre. When the smoke has blown away, this Bill, like the Minister's programme for social housing and like the discredited Fianna Fáil programme of 1985 will be seen to lack substance, commitment and vision. The Minister has crushed the great promise of new horizons for local government.

I will now propose The Workers' Party amendment.

Acting Chairman

The Labour Party amendment is already before the House and I am advised that The Workers' Party may not move their amendment now. The Deputy may refer to his amendment in his contribution.

I will do that. The previous two speakers referred to the record of the Minister for the Environment in the four years he has held office. I have been observing that record at the close quarters of this House for the past two years or thereabouts, and the one thing that strikes me most forcibly about it is not just the lack of performance by the Minister in the areas for which he is responsible, but the contempt in which he holds this House in virtually every area of responsibility. The Minister has studiously avoided bringing his proposals into this House and having good honest debate on them. In each area the Minister has taken himself across the road to a hotel to announce his policies to a press conference and then avoided coming into this House to debate them.

The serious housing crisis has been mentioned. I have no doubt that some time after the local elections, when the Minister gets around to counting the number of people who are on housing lists which have been or are being submitted to his Department he will find that the number waiting for housing is closer to 30,000 than to the 20,000 which the Minister claimed. He will find that the number of homeless persons is over 5,000 and not under 1,000 as the Minister claimed. Yet the Minister has studiously avoided debating the issue of housing in this House.

The Minister three months ago produced a policy document to a press conference. Three months later, not a single iota of that policy has been implemented. Not a single extra unit of accommodation has been provided and only this week in anticipation of questions in this House yesterday, circulars have been issued to local authorities to give effect to those policy statements. Those circulars merely repeat what was contained in the original policy document.

Over a year ago we had another example of it. The Minister announced an environment action plan. A sum of £1 billion was to be provided for environment programmes over the next ten years. When one strips away the public relations rhetoric which surrounded that policy document all that was contained in it was the Minister's capital programme for the next ten years, spiced up by the structural funds which will become available to his Department. The high points of that environment action plan were the proposals to deal with smog in Dublin which certainly contributed to the elimination of smog in Dublin. However, that has been done at a price, and the price has been paid by people on low incomes who are now paying more than double what they paid previously to heat their homes and who have been denied conversion grants to convert to low smoke fuels. The smog has been eliminated at the price too of the 100,000 homes in Dublin city and county who are not connected to the gas grid for which the Minister is not providing any relief. We have had something similar in relation to local government. One year ago we had a debate in this House about the postponement of the local elections. Since then, it has been a question of public statements being made by the Minister rather than a debate in this House.

The debacle surrounding the circulation of the Bill is yet another example. Two months ago, on 7 March, the Minister announced his intentions with regard to the Local Government Bill. It took him two months to produce the Bill and he then avoided circulating it honestly with the result that Members have not had adequate time to study and debate it. While four days have been set aside this week for Second Stage, only two days are being set aside next week for Committee Stage, even though the Bill contains 55 sections in seven Parts. We will have little more than ten minutes per section. That is not the way to deal with local government reform or with any issue of such importance. Given that the Minister has such contempt for national democracy, we can hardly expect any better from him on the issue of local democracy.

It seems we have a problem with the Minister. Not only is he not performing in the Department but he has the worst record on housing for many decades, he has failed to reform local government as I will demonstrate in the course of my contribution, has presided over massive reductions in local government expenditure and he is not prepared to come into the House to debate the matter honestly. I say this with respect but I think it is time we had another Minister for the Environment.

We have been waiting for this Bill for two years. It was first mentioned in the Programme for Government. Anticipating a postponement of the local elections due to be held in 1990, it proposed the establishment of an all-party committee to examine local government reform. The Workers' Party were quite prepared to participate in an all-party committee and very much regret that the Fine Gael Party did not agree. That was a tactical mistake which may have had more to do with their concentration on apparent opposition than real opposition. To be fair to them they indicated at a very early stage that they were not prepared to participate in an all-party committee. The Minister had no excuse for trying to justify the nine or ten months delay in bringing forward a motion to postpone the local elections by blaming Fine Gael and their unwillingness to participate in the all-party committee.

We did not want to get involved in a charade.

The Minister delivered while they fiddled about for ten years.

We did not want to get involved in a charade.

What the Minister has delivered is an empty bucket.

A smokescreen.

It was disingenuous to blame Fine Gael for the Government's failure to bring forward proposals.

We have brought forward proposals.

The fact is the Minister knew, as far back as July 1989, that there was no agreement on a proposal to establish an all-party committee; yet, it took him until May 1990 to put something in its place and we did not get that until exactly one month before the local elections were due to be held. In other words, the Government lost the best part of a year during which time they could have addressed the question of local government reform.

The Minister then came into the House to make a fine sounding speech about local government reform and set himself a timetable which he knew could not be met. He indicated that the Government committee would report by the end of September 1990, that the legislation would be circulated by December 1990 and that it would be enacted by February 1991. I do not often quote myself but I would like to quote one sentence from my contribution to that debate, I said: "Quite frankly, I do not believe that this timescale is feasible." I went on to argue that there was no necessity to postpone the local elections, that they could have gone ahead and that the Government could still have proceeded with a programme of legislation to reform local government.

It is said that the cruelest thing one can say to anybody is "I told you so" but I did tell the Minister so. The advisory expert committee reported at Christmas but it then took the Government two months to make up their minds on what they should do about that report. They made their announcement on 7 March. It took them another two months to produce the Bill. The Whips got working copies last Thursday and, as we know, it was not circulated to Members until Monday morning.

I now want to deal with the substance of the Bill. There are nine areas in particular that I would like to cover. First, I would like to deal with the postponement of the local elections and the provisions in the Bill dealing with the local elections. Yesterday afternoon the Taoiseach stated quite clearly when defending the Bill that the reason the Bill had to go through was that the newly elected councillors would be elected to reformed bodies. I wish to deal with that assertion.

Second, I would like to deal with the functions of local authorities as the big claim made for the Bill is that it will extend and widen the functions of local authorities and that the old ultra vires rule will be dispensed with. Third, I would like to deal with the system of local government in Dublin which will not be reformed by this Bill, which will remain essentially the same as it was in 1985 and which, for the foreseeable future, will be even more chaotic than it has been during the past six years. Fourth, I would like to deal with the question of local authority boundaries. The Minister claimed that we will now have an independent procedure. Fifth, I welcome the planning proposals contained in the Bill. I wish to explain the reasons I welcome those proposals.

Sixth, I would like to deal with the question of regional authorities. Seventh, I would like to deal with some of the miscellaneous provisions contained in the Bill, in particular those relating to the appointment and tenure of office of city and county managers. Eighth, I would like to deal with the recommendations in the Barrington report which have not been addressed in the Bill. Seventy five recommendations have been made in the report of the expert committee, 63 of which are either not going to be implemented or effectively reversed by the Bill before us.

Finally, I wish to deal with local government finance not least because just before I came into the House I was informed that yet another householder in Cork, a prominent trade union official, Mr. Brendan O'Neill, has now been jailed for his protest against service charges, charges which the Minister for Energy, when director of elections for the Fianna Fáil Party for the local elections in 1985, promised would be abolished.

When the local elections were postponed last year it was said one could not elect people to bodies which had their origins in the last century. Yet the elections that are going ahead this year — those to the county and city councils — are going ahead to bodies who owe their origins to legislation which was passed in 1898. The county councils and city councils are precisely the same bodies that this State inherited since the last century. Let me quote the Minister, because he described it quite colourfully in his contribution this time last year, as an age when roads were the preserve of the horse and the idea of democratic government was regarded as new-fangled and a slightly dangerous notion.

Section 14 of this Bill postpones indefinitely all local elections except those to the county councils, the four city corporations of Galway, Dublin, Waterford and Limerick and the Borough of Dún Laoghaire. It also postpones the elections of bodies appointed by urban district councils and town commissioners, whether they are VECs or members of harbour boards. There is no indication in the Bill as to the length of time for which these local elections are being postponed and the length of time for which these bodies will now continue to exist.

Here I want to refer to the Barrington Committee report which dealt very specifically with the question of the postponement of local elections. It says that local government elections should not be capable of postponement by central Government by order except in a state of emergency and that local elections should be held on a fixed date. Yet section 14 of this Bill postpones indefinitely the local elections to urban councils and town commissioners. Presumably the logic behind this is that the Minister has promised he is going to introduce further legislation at some stage to deal with sub-county structures, but how long are we to wait for this legislation?

If the local elections had gone ahead last year the five-year lifetime of those bodies would be expiring in 1995. I believe even if we are lucky it will be close to 1995 before legislation is through this House to establish new sub county structures. Therefore, effectively we will have bodies who were elected in 1985 — which conveniently in many cases gave Fianna Fáil a majority on those bodies — continuing to exist for virtually a ten-year period. How that can be described as democracy I do not know. Of course, the reason is highly political. The reason local elections were postponed last year had little or nothing to do with local government reform. The local elections were postponed last year because Fianna Fáil did not want to face the electorate last year. The Progressive Democrats had some slight difficulty with that. They need local elections in order to tee up candidates for a future general election. They are not interested in the minor details of local government that would have to be dealt with by urban councils and town commissioners. They are interested only in the larger bodies where they can elect people to county councils or city councils who will be able to get a high enough profile to be potential Dáil candidates at the next general election. Therefore, a compromise was worked out whereby the elections for the county councils and the city councils proceed and the rest of local government can wait.

Let us look at the bodies who are going to be elected on 27 June and see to what extent those bodies are reformed. As I said, the bodies themselves are precisely the same as were established in the last century, so there is no structural reform to those bodies. Let us look at the question of representational reform. Has anything changed there? It has not. Let us look at the proportion of population which is represented by councillors and will continue to be represented by councillors after 27 June. In County Leitrim there will be one county councillor per 1,228 population. In the city of Dublin there will be one councillor per 9,668 population. Those are the two extremes. In between, you can compare County Carlow with one county councillor per 1,951 to the county of Dublin which has 6,650, and on and on it goes. One can compare the degree to which the level of representation between different parts of the country has become very unrepresentative and disproportionate since these bodies were established in the last century. That should not come as a surprise to us because, of course, this country has changed enormously since 1898. For a start, it has become more urbanised. There have been very big shifts in population from some of the rural counties to the more urbanised areas.

Like the Deputy's own fatherland.

Indeed. There are very few genuine "Dubs". There certainly were not 10,000 Dubs to every councillor in 1988 when the structures we are still operating on and will be after this Bill is passed——

Do not rubbish your ancestral county.

Talking of the ancestral county, it might interest the Minister to know that the proportion is——

It is well known to me. I know his people there.

My ancestral county does very well comparatively. It is one councillor per 4,382 which compares very well with the Minister's own county of one to something in excess of 3,000.

Not bad.

Therefore, there are degrees of unrepresentation. Each of these councillors, whether in County Leitrim or the city of Dublin, has the same status. Each has the same vote in Seanad elections. Is it any wonder the Seanad is beginning to look and sound more and more like "Grand Ole Oprey"? The bodies who are to be elected on 27 June are bodies who are now quite unrepresentative and this Government have failed to deal with that aspect.

The second area I want to deal with is the functions of local authorities. The Minister has claimed these functions are going to be extended. Let us again look at the Barrington Committee report. First, it recommended that Ireland, as part of the reorganisation programme, should ratify the European Charter of local self-government. There is no mention of that in the Bill, and this Bill would have given the Government an ideal opportunity to ratify that charter. The Barrington Committee recommended that the opportunity be taken to give constitutional recognition to local government. There is no reference in our Constitution to local government, which explains why Governments can with impunity interfere with the system of local government and undermine it very seriously in the way this Bill does. I did not expect the Bill would have made a proposal for constitutional change, but I would have expected that the Minister would have at least included that in his speech here yesterday evening if he was serious about it.

The principle of subsidiarity was the whole basis for the Barrington Committee report, a principle of public services being devoted to the lowest practicable level at which they can be discharged efficiently and effectively. The Minister made no concession to the principle of subsidiarity in the contribution he made in this House; in fact, the provisions of the Bill go very much in the opposite direction.

The Minister makes great play of the fact that the representational functions and general competence of local authorities are being extended and strengthened. Reading the Bill one is inclined to go along with that. Reading the sections dealing with the representational function and the general competence of local authorities, one is inclined to say that this is marvellous, the powers of local authorities are being increased. Reading the section dealing with reserve functions, one is also inclined to go along with the idea that the powers and functions of local authorities are being increased. Then we come to subsections where all the alleged new functions that are being given to local authorities are being reined in. For example, section 3 provides that "The Minister may make regulations for the general purposes or for any particular purpose of this Act". If local authorities take at face value the new extended role which is allegedly being given to them, the Minister can make regulations to circumscribe it.

That will not happen.

Acts of faith from Fianna Fáil Ministers ring very hollow indeed when we consider the record of the Fianna Fáil Government in relation to promises and assertions.

Many councils have powers which they will not use.

Section 6 deals with the general competence of local authorities. Subsection (5) states:

(5) A local authority shall not, by virtue of this section, perform any function (including the incurring of expenditure or any liability, whether contractual or otherwise) which is conferred on the authority by any other provision of this or of any other enactment.

Let us consider the question of housing. Those of us who are members of local authorities know how frustrating it is that a local authority cannot build a house without going back to the Department of the Environment for everything from funding to design and approval of the contract. Presumably any other enactment under this subsection would relate to the housing Acts under which local authorities are required to refer at all times to the Department of the Environment. That will continue.

Deputy Howlin has referred to subsection (6) which states:

(6) A local authority shall not, by virtue of this section, undertake or provide assistance for the undertaking of any activity that would prejudice or duplicate activity arising from the performance of a statutory function by any person in 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 local authority.

There was much talk when the Fianna Fáil Government after the 1987 local elections abolished health committees. Let us suppose that after the passage of this Bill a local authority decided that they would like to take an interest in the health of the community and to establish a health committee to provide some representational leadership in the matter. Under this subsection that would be prejudicing or duplicating activity which the Minister would claim is a matter for the health board.

If existing legislation does not succeed in roping in the local authority, subsection (7) will give the Minister power to do so. Subsection 7 (a) states:

(7) (a) The Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, prescribe matters in respect of which a local authority shall not exercise the powers conferred by this section or in respect of which such exercise shall be subject to prescribed terms or conditions.

Let us say that a local authority decide to engage in some commercial activity, a joint venture for the establishment of some recreational facility. The Minister can proscribe the local authority from engaging in that activity. The general competence and representational role of local authorities is being taken away by these subsections.

Section 7 is remarkable. Local authorities will have to have regard to certain matters in performing their functions. Some of those matters are perfectly in order. For example, local authorities must have regard to the law of the land, legislation passed by the Oireachtas, and their own financial resources. That is perfectly understandable. Will the Minister explain what section 7 (1) (e) means? It provides that local authorities must have regard to the policies and objectives of the Government or any Minister of the Government in so far as they may affect or relate to their functions.

North Korea.

That is going a little too far, a bit overboard.

It is one thing for the Government to insist that local authorities must have regard to legislation enacted by the Houses of the Oireachtas, but they must now have regard to the Fianna Fáil manifesto. That is what this means. Local authorities must have regard to the wishes of any Government Minister. Let us consider the controversy that arose in the past month or so when the Office of Public Works wanted to build an interpretative centre on top of one of the Wicklow mountains. Wicklow County Council said they did not want a centre there. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works says it is his policy and he wants the centre there. Does that mean that Wicklow County Council cannot object and must have regard to the views of the Minister?

Let us consider the major question of the tolling of the western ring road in Dublin. We have known since the beginning of 1989 that it is the policy of the Minister that it should be tolled, to the point that he even advertised for tenders without the approval of the county council whose reserved function it is to make a tolling scheme. He even awarded a tender and arranged for the erection of toll booths on the road before the county council had made a decision on the matter. As it turned out, the county council instructed that the toll booths be removed and made it clear that they had no intention of making a tolling scheme for that road.

A disgraceful waste of money.

Those reserved functions are to be taken from the local authorities under the Roads Bill, which we are to debate after the local elections, and given to the Minister and the National Roads Authority. Even if that were not the case, this means that Dublin County Council could not instruct their manager to remove the toll booths because they would have to have regard to the policy of the Government and of any Government Minister in relation to the performance of their function. It means that local authorities are being reduced to extensions of the arm of the Minister.


Deputy Howlin quoted the TV programme "Yes, Minister". The whole system of local government is being reduced. Section 9 deals with the transfer of functions to local authorities. The Barrington Committee recommended that a large number of Government functions should be devolved to local authorities. These involve housing grants, group water schemes, driver testing, foreshore licences, non-commercial State harbours, non-national parks, the protection of historical and archaeological sites, the maintenance of public buildings and so on. Those are matters which would be within the existing general competence of local authorities. The report went on to deal with other Government Departments and listed heritage and amenity, tourism, police and courts, consumer protection and social employment schemes as functions which could be devolved to local government.

The intention of the report was that the legislation to be brought forward would incorporate the devolution of those powers. Section 9 does not devolve any of those powers. It provides that the Government may by provisional order transfer functions. That provisional order would have to come before the Oireachtas. We know what the agenda of the Oireachtas is like and how often we get an opportunity of confirming a provisional order of that kind. The last thing Government Departments want is to devolve any of their functions. This is dog licence legislation. Unless certain identified functions are specified in the legislation to be devolved to local government it will not happen. The whole practice of Government is increasingly to centralise powers. That degree of centralisation is reflected in this Bill.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.