Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
(Dublin West): On a point of order, what is the time allocation for the debate?
The debate on Second Stage is to conclude not later than 6.30 p.m.
(Dublin West): How much time is allocated for party spokespersons?
Contributions by spokespersons for the Government, Fine Gael and the Labour Party shall not exceed 30 minutes. Contributions of other Members shall not exceed 20 minutes.
(Dublin West): As it is now 4.55 p.m. how does the Chair propose to manage time?
I appreciate that, but the matter has been agreed by the Whips.
I assure Deputy Higgins that I will not speak for 30 minutes.
I feel privileged to be in the position of bringing the 20th Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill to the Dáil on a number of counts, historically because, as Members know, it is 100 years since the first local elections were held in 1899 and personally given my own background in local government. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has made the renewal of local government a priority issue since taking office. Indeed the Department was renamed the Department of the Environment and Local Government as a reflection of this commitment. The Minister is unavoidably tied up on other parliamentary business today, but I think all Members are aware of his longstanding commitment to local government which is very much mirrored by the Bill.
The Bill seeks to give recognition to local government in the Constitution and so strengthen and enhance its democratic legitimacy as a funda mental element in our system of democracy. It also recognises the role of local authorities in providing essential services and in supporting and promoting the development of local communities. Local authorities are the only bodies, other than the Dáil and the President, which are directly elected on the basis of universal suffrage. It is this uniqueness compared with all other public sector agencies which merits recognition in our Constitution.
It is also very fitting that the referendum to accord such recognition will be held in the centenary year of local government. The local elections on 11 June 1999 will serve not only as the date on which the electorate will have the opportunity to elect 1,600 local authority members but also that on which we will move to safeguard the future of local government. Such recognition will give local government the boost it deserves and will bring our Constitution into line with our continental neighbours. The date 11 June will indeed be a red letter day, a symbol of our commitment to move ahead with the renewal of local government. However, it will also have a very clear practical effect in that in future local elections will be protected by the Constitution.
It is perhaps a good time to reflect on the significance of local government. We have come a long way from the fledgling county councils established under the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, which was described as 'virtually an unwanted gift to the Irish people'. County councils played their part in the emerging county loyalties which have become such a strong feature of our cultural identity spurred on by sporting and other commitments. Such intangible factors have served to underscore in a very real way the legitimacy of our current local government system – loyalty to county, town and city.
Local government has seen tremendous change this century and has had to adapt and cope with this change both in bad times and in good. It has played an important role in modernising the State through the provision of infrastructure, such as water and waste water facilities, roads and bridges, and in providing almost one third of our housing stock. Local authorities have had to adapt not only to think in terms of these essential services but to facilitate and assist private development through proper planning and development, to promote the renewal of urban areas and to protect rural areas. They also promote the community interest generally and the cultural identity of their areas. Local authority operations affect each and every one of us every day of every week. Perhaps it is their everyday nature that obscures their true value, be it clear drinking water, street lighting, refuse disposal, the fire service or developments in areas such as the arts, libraries, parks and tourism support. We can be proud, but not complacent, of local authority achievements. All of us must be prepared to learn from past mistakes, be it at central or local level.
I am pleased to be involved in the programme for the renewal of local government which is now taking place and of which this Bill forms a part. In this regard the Minister has several times acknowledged the work of former Ministers over recent years in moving forward with the development of local government. The programme of renewal now under way builds on that work. The Government's renewal programme is aimed at tackling several key areas to ensure our local government system will be able to face the challenges of the 21st century. The programme of local government renewal is aimed at putting local authorities at the heart of their communities, strengthening and widening the opportunities for participation in local government, enhancing the policy-making role of councillors and promoting a customer service approach and greater efficiency and effectiveness.
Renewal and reform cannot and will not take place without financial reform. That is why we made such efforts last year to bring the Local Government Act, 1998, to fruition. The local government fund has been in operation since January and will play a pivotal role in promoting accountable and cost-effective local democracy. The new system will deliver significant additional resources to local authorities. Moneys from the fund will be, as far as possible, made available to local authorities as general grants over which they have discretion as to their use. Therefore, it will largely be a matter for the authorities to decide how this extra money is to be spent and they will be accountable for their decisions to their local electorate.
A range of other initiatives are also well under way to modernise management structures, improve financial management systems, provide more integrated local authority and public services with a pilot programme of one stop shops and in individual service areas. A major planning Bill will also be published this year.
I like to think that this programme of renewal which is now being implemented and which will be underpinned later this year with a major local government Bill reflects both continuity and change: continuity in that a system of local government has endured for a century and has the capacity to flourish in the next century; in so far as the positive elements of our local government system which are good and strong are enabled to flourish, such as the close relationships between councillors and the public they serve and the dedication and commitment of councillors and staff; change to enable local authorities to develop further to provide better services for everyone, to reposition themselves with a central role rooted in their links with local communities, in their capabilities to engage with and support the local community, and to harness the dynamism, resources and commitment in society and to channel them in the interests of the common good at local level.
The integration of local government and local development systems is a central feature of the renewal programme. The recent task force report on the integration of the two systems charts the way forward not just for local government and local development but for the delivery of public services at county and city level. The proposed county and city development boards will be led by local government. In this process, councillors will have the opportunity to play a decisive role to bring about a more effective and inclusive era of local governance. This will bring together not only local government and local development but the State agencies, the social partners and the local community. Recruitment by local authorities of directors of community and enterprise who will support the new boards is under way and the boards will be provided for in the forthcoming Local Government Bill.
The renewal programme will be underpinned by a major Local Government Bill which will consolidate and modernise local government law and implement a range of reforms. It aims to provide a modern statutory framework for local authorities so that they will have a sound context in which to work. The Bill will also strengthen and enhance the role of the elected member and promote the greater involvement of communities in local government. Work on the Local Government Bill is well in hand. Constitutional recognition will provide the clear context within which work on the Bill will be completed and it will be published later this year.
Constitutional recognition for local government has been recommended by various reports and commentators over the years, including the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, the Constitution Review Group and recently by the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government and the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland. It was also proposed by the previous Government. I am pleased, therefore, that on foot of this Bill the proposal will be put to the people by way of referendum on 11 June.
The proposed amendment, if carried by referendum, will insert an additional article – 28A – in the Constitution. Paragraph 1 of this new Article recognises the role of local government in providing a local democratic forum, in carrying out the wide range of functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of local communities. In effect, this recognises the principle of local government as envisaged in the European Charter of Local Self Government.
Paragraph 2 of Article 28A recognises the institutions of local government, the directly elected local authorities, the members of which will be elected on the day the referendum is held. It provides that local authorities are established by and operate subject to law.
Paragraph 3 deals with local elections. Over the years local elections have been deferred at different times by different Governments, sometimes for lengthy periods. Such deferral has served to devalue our system of local government. Paragraph 3 will guarantee local elections will be held no later than the fifth year after the previous elec tions were held. It will be no longer possible, by legislation therefore, to postpone local elections for lengthy periods . For example, this means the next elections after this year will be held in 2004 whereas we have had intervals of up to nine years in the past.
The world has changed dramatically and, as the pace of change quickens, so must local government respond to meet the needs and aspirations of local communities. Local authorities must, in consultation with other relevant agencies, plan for and provide the essential infrastructure necessary to sustain our economic growth and protect our environment. They must also stimulate and support action to meet local needs and aspirations by engaging with and involving local communities in the process of local government, a central aim of the strategic policy committee system. Our objective is to ensure the system is perceived to make a difference and has a level of legitimacy and direct accountability which will reinforce its validity. The forthcoming Bill will also reflect these aims.
We are on the cusp of the new millennium and there is no doubt but that it will bring considerable changes and advances to our lives. It is important, therefore, that our democratic institutions, especially local government, will be renewed to face these changes and to bring the public along with them. I am confident this programme of renewal, underpinned by legislation and reinforced by constitutional recognition, will more than adequately prepare local government for the challenges which lie ahead. I urge every voter to vote "yes" for the proposed amendment as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. If the Bill is passed by both Houses, that proposal will, in the words of Article 46 of the Constitution: "...be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people..." on 11 June this year. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the publication of the Bill. As the Minister of State pointed out, this was a step proposed by the previous Government and I am glad to see it before us. It is proper that our system of local government should be specifically recognised in the Constitution and that is more relevant since, having listened to what the Minister and his colleagues have said, I believe we may be on the verge of long overdue development in local government.
We should find a way of phrasing the constitutional amendment to emphasise that, like our system of national government, our system of local government is one of representative democracy. In other words, we elect people to do certain things on our behalf within the confines of the Constitution and the law. That is an aspect of local government which unfortunately has tended to fade into the background. I hope we will change that and I am a little encouraged after hearing what the Minister for the Environment and Local Government has said. He made some remarks about this in a different context at a meeting of the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government this afternoon. I would like to see it made clear in the text of the constitutional amendment to be put before the people that local government is a system of representative democracy and I will propose a suitable amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage to make that clear.
It is important we do it now because the Minister of State referred to two Bills we all await with great interest. One is the Local Government Bill, to which the Minister of State referred, and the other is a planning Bill. One is a general Bill to deal with structures, procedures and powers of local authorities and the other a more focused Bill to modernise our planning legislation. The Minister of State will not be surprised to hear me say that, in the context of each of those two Bills, I will seek with the support of my colleagues on this side of the House, to restore to the elected members of local authorities functions proper to people elected in a system of representative democracy.
There are some indications we are in a slight muddle about this at present. Perhaps that is characteristic of a transition period because we undergoing some transitions in local government which I hope will produce results. So far, the scheme of strategic policy committees has yet to settle down. We will shortly go through the process of setting up county and city development boards. I know there are a number of rather knotty issues to be sorted out in the context of that work, but it is important to emphasise that we have a system of representative democracy. That is not to say we should not have close consultation with groups which represent various interests in our communities, give them a voice or assist them. It is important that we put the onus of responsibility for decision making on the people who are elected to do so. I hope there will be a large turn-out on 11 June when people will vote specifically to elect people to do things on their behalf. We should expand the scope of what those elected people may do on behalf of the people who elect them.
The proposed constitutional amendment also deals with the frequency of elections. In general, I approve of the Government's proposal, although I have some hesitations about it. I have always believed it is unwise and undesirable to defer local elections. I say that in the knowledge that last year in the Chamber I suggested to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, that he need not worry about the reaction from this side of the House if he proposed to hold the local elections in 1999 rather than in 1998. I could see many advantages and a good deal of logic in aligning the date of the local elections with the date of the European elections.
Why does the Government believe it must leave a window in the period from June to December up to the end of 2004 for the next local elections and for subsequent local elections? It is not obvious to me why that should be so. The Government may have a reason which will clearly commend itself to us, but I want to know what it is.
There is nothing in the text of the proposed constitutional amendment to prevent this or a future Government from holding local elections earlier than five years after the date of the previous local elections. Again, the Government may have a reason for doing that, but it is certainly not obvious to me. It would be logical to state that local elections will be always held on the same day as the European elections. That would have the effect of providing, without any qualification, for a five year interval. I wonder why that is not being done. I doubt the Government wants to retain the option of having local elections sooner than five years after this year's elections, but the question arises from the way the text is drafted.
Why did the Government not take this opportunity of having a constitutional referendum to align the age of qualification to be a candidate in a presidential election or general election with the age of qualification to vote. While this would involve an extra ballot paper for voters on 11 June, it would be an appropriate time to do it. As far as I know, there is a good deal of support in the House for that proposal. If my memory serves me correctly, there is a Private Members' Bill on the Order Paper to this effect which, of course, has not been reached due to the pressure of other business, but this is a good opportunity to do that.
Although I appreciate that some changes and improvements have been made to the operation of the local government system and more seem to be in prospect, I take the Minister's encomiums about the local government fund with more than a grain of salt. It is all very fine to state that as far as possible this local government fund will be disbursed in the form of general grants which allow local authorities to make up their own minds about how they spend the money. In reality, of course, the proportion of the local government fund which is available to local authorities in that way is rather limited and the proportion of the total funding which is available to them in the form of general grants, over which they have full discretion, is also rather limited. That is not entirely desirable.
It is a happy coincidence that the local elections are taking place on the same day as the European elections. That serves to make a political point that there are different functions at different levels of government. It is no accident that many of the functions which are carried out by local authorities in all of the important environmental areas are carried out to apply the provisions of a great many EU directives at national level. It is important to recognise the important link between local government and European policy in its widest sense, which makes it more than symbolically important that these two elections are being held on the same day. However, it raises the question of our commitment to the principle of subsidiarity. We are far from expressing that principle as clearly, widely or comprehensively as we might in the context of local government. As I said, that is one of the reasons I will be proposing an amendment to the text of the proposed constitutional amendment on Committee Stage, but it is also one of the reasons I am happy we are taking this step at this stage and making this amendment to the Constitution.
The Labour Party believes the principle of local democracy should be enshrined in the Constitution and that the system of local government should be underpinned by the Constitution. We also believe the intervals between local elections should be fixed at not more than five years. During the debate on the Local Government Bill, 1991, I recall seeking to have legislative provision made to that effect so that local elections could not be postponed in the way they have in the past. It is, therefore, with some regret that I say we cannot support the Bill and will oppose it on Second Stage. I have given this matter much consideration. There are a number of reasons for this stance. The first is one of principle which has to do with the way we treat the Constitution. It is not acceptable to put before the people an amendment to change the people's Constitution which is getting only the slightest consideration in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Second Stage will be debated for less than two hours this evening, to be followed by Committee and Remaining Stages tomorrow morning which will be guillotined at lunch time. There will not be an interval between Committee and Report Stages; indeed, there will not be a separate Report Stage. The entire Bill will then be rushed through the Seanad and on to Áras an Uachtaráin before midnight tomorrow to be signed by the President in order that the amendment can be put before the people on 11 June. That is not the way to treat the Constitution. The people should not be presented with a proposal to change the Constitution which has received very little consideration and about which there has been little public debate.
I am not happy with the proposed wording of the amendment. The wording is ambiguous, particularly in the first two of the three sections of the proposed Article. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that it is meaningless; at worst, it may have the unwitting effect of undermining local democracy and government rather than strengthening it.
Just one month from now, on 11 June, the half of the electorate which will turn out to vote will be given three ballot papers, four in some cases. They will be given one for the European elections, one for the city or county council – in some cases a separate ballot paper will be issued for urban district councils or town commissions – and, if this Bill is passed, one on the proposal to amend the Constitution. This constitutional referendum will bewilder many voters. Some vot ers will have heard little or nothing about it before polling day, many will not know what it is about and, once again, citizens who value their Constitution will resent the apparent attempt to change it with little or no advance notice and with hardly any public debate.
We value our Constitution and are aware of its importance. We know it can only be changed by direct decision of the people and we know that any proposal to change the Constitution must be fully considered, explained and debated. The proposals put before this House by the Government today do not satisfy any of those conditions. The Bill, Second Stage of which is being debated today, was only published on 30 April with an interval between publication and Second Stage which does not even satisfy the accepted minimum two week interval for new legislation.
The subject matter of this amendment may be one on which there is general political agreement. The Labour Party strongly supports the granting of constitutional recognition to local government; we particularly support the proposition that the Constitution should provide for a minimum five year interval between local elections. This requires the insertion of new text in our Constitution and we need more time to consider that text even if the underlying principles are generally agreed to.
When the Minister first announced his intention to hold this referendum in conjunction with the local elections, I requested that Opposition parties would be consulted on the proposed wording prior to the Bill's publication. No such consultation occurred and the Bill and its wording are the product of the Government's unilateral thinking on the matter.
Following the Bill's publication, the Minister contacted me and offered to discuss the wording with me. I thank him and his officials for the valuable meeting we had last Friday morning. However, the Labour Party still has a fundamental difficulty with the way in which this proposal is being advanced. We strongly believe that amendments to the Constitution should be fully examined by the Oireachtas before being put to the people. This House has a particular responsibility to ensure this is done. It is not acceptable to go to the people with a proposed amendment to the Constitution on which all parties may, in principle, be in agreement but which has received the most scant of examinations in the Legislature. What does this amendment say? What does it mean? Will we be any wiser following the debate this evening? How well informed will the public be by the time it votes on this proposal on 11 June?
The Government is at fault for not having presented this proposal on time. The current Minister has been in office for almost two years and, in spite of the postponement of local elections, has still not produced any legislation to reform local government. Now, at the last minute, to amend the Constitution, he has introduced a Bill which has been badly thought out and for which insufficient time has been provided for adequate debate.
While the primary responsibility for the hasty, poorly considered amendment rests with the Government, the media must share some responsibility for keeping people in the dark. It is very disappointing that, to date, virtually no media attention has been given to the proposal to amend the Constitution. People have a right to know what changes are being proposed to the Constitution and what arguments are being made about it. It is the media's job to inform people of this but so far it has failed to do so.
There is a virtual press encampment outside the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights in Kildare House, with people looking for a constitutional crisis where one probably does not exist. However, in this House in which there is a real proposal to change the Constitution, nobody appears to be interested.
The wording of any proposal to amend the Constitution is critical as it must stand the test of time and of the courts. We must be clear about what the words mean and about the manner in which they may be interpreted. We know from experience that the words inserted in the Constitution may turn out to mean something quite different to what was originally intended. Those who insisted in 1983 on the particular wording of the constitutional amendment on abortion did not envisage that the Supreme Court would subsequently interpret it in a way its advocates hardly intended.
Today, we are presented with a proposed new Article 28A of the Constitution which is divided into three paragraphs. This is the first time an article of the Constitution is being enumerated as an ‘A'. I do not like that as it is suggestive of afterthought, putting an agusín in the Constitution. What do the three sections mean? Paragraph 3 sets down a maximum interval between local elections. I welcome this and have called for it for some time. Eight years have passed since we have had local elections for city and county councils and the previous elections to urban district councils and town commissions were held following a nine year interval. We must not allow that to happen again. The proposed Article 28A.3 will prevent this. What exactly does it provide for? Does it provide for a maximum interval of five or six years? At the meeting I attended last week with the Minister's officials, I was informed that the clause reading "not later than the end of the fifth year after the year in which they were last held" means five years. I would like the Minister to confirm that.
What exactly do paragraphs 1 and 2 mean? Do they amount to anything and how will they be interpreted? Article 28A.1 begins by stating that the State recognises the role of local government. What is the significance of such recognition? The term "the State recognises" appears elsewhere in the Constitution, not in relation to an arm or structure of Government but to concepts outside of Government. In Article 41.1.1 the State recognises the family. In Article 43.2.1 the State recognises the principles of social justice. It is nonsensical for the Constitution to declare that the State recognises local government – an arm of the State recognising it. If the Constitution was to state that the State recognises the principle of local democracy it would mean something, but the phrase which is presented to us does not mean that.
What is being recognised? We are told that the role of local government is being recognised. What does that mean? It is clear from the text that the role, powers and functions and, if we look at Article 28A.2, the very existence of local authorities which the Constitution will recognise, are confined to those conferred by law. At most, all that is being recognised by this proposed constitutional amendment is what is provided for in law. That makes the proposed constitutional provision superfluous.
The proposed wording does not set down any principles for local government, such as the principle of local democracy or subsidiarity. The wording means that the Constitution will be pliable as regards local government. Whatever local government legislation is enacted will automatically be constitutional under this provision. A legislative measure to weaken local government would be made constitutional by this proposed amendment. A Bill to take powers and functions away from local government would be constitutional because the Constitution will recognise the role of local government as prescribed in law. Law is something which changes. Instead of strengthening local government, Article 28A.1 in particular could probably be used to undermine local democracy and to weaken the constitutional rights of the citizen. Since whatever is prescribed in law is being given constitutional status, any local government law will now be constitutional. This will deny the citizen the right to challenge any local government legislation on constitutional grounds.
Where does it leave the issue of abolishing councils? Under the Local Government Act, 1941, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government has the power to replace an elected council with a commissioner where the council fails to adopt an annual estimate. Would such an abolition be constitutional now under Article 28A.1 or would it be unconstitutional under Article 28A.2, which states explicitly that there shall be directly elected local authorities?
What about equality of representation? At present, the ratio of councillors to population is about 1:1,200 in counties such as County Leitrim but it is almost 1:10,000 in Dublin city. Each of these councillors has the same status and the same voting entitlement in elections to Seanad Éireann. Is this inequality of representation constitutional under our existing Constitution? Does the amendment confer constitutionality on a legislative and electoral arrangement which is clearly unequal and unfair?
I support the constitutional recognition of local government. If, however, we are going to provide in the Constitution for the recognition of local government and for the recognition of the principle of local democracy, we should do it in a meaningful way. We certainly should do it in a way which does not expose the text of the Constitution to an interpretation which was probably not intended by its proposers.
Our Constitution is a document for the setting down of basic principles upon which law is based. It is not a document for the expression of political platitudes. The constitutional amendment to be put to the people should provide for a recognition of the principle of local democracy, and not only of local government but also of regional government – a requirement of the European Convention on Local Self Government which this constitutional amendment appears to address.
There has been a debate in this State about what constitutes regionalisation and how regions are to be formed. The Government attempted to form and reform regions in a totallyad hoc manner. Clearly there should be a constitutional basis for our approach to regionalisation in this State. This is the place to provide for that.
The constitutional amendment should state who is entitled to vote. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state who is entitled to vote in local elections. As we know from practice, the entitlement to vote in local elections is wider than it is for Dáil or presidential elections. The Constitution should set that down. It is important that it should do so now as we are likely to become a State with a multi-cultural population. It should also, as Deputy Dukes mentioned, state who is entitled to stand for election to local government. I see this as an opportunity to extend the entitlement to everyone who is entitled to vote.
It should deal with equality of representation. I acknowledge that there are geographical and demographic considerations which must be taken into account in local democracy, but inequalities exist in the local government system – the disparity in representation between some parts of the State and others and the type of local authority which represents the population. There are towns which have town commissioners with populations which are much higher than other towns which have urban district councils. That must be addressed.
The principle of subsidiarity, to which there has been a great deal of lip service, should be provided for in the Constitution. A set of principles which underpins local government should be inserted into the Constitution to which legislative provisions can then be subsequently addressed.
We needed much much more time to address these issues than the Government allowed. I see enormous dangers in putting a constitutional referendum to the people which the House has not properly teased out. There are many issues which may arise in the course of the debate. The Mini ster said it would be a nice idea to have the referendum run in conjunction with the local elections and it would have been if he had produced the legislation on time, but he did not and, consequently, he has left us with too little time to give proper consideration to this proposal in order for it to be put to the people on 11 June. There is no urgency to have the referendum on 11 June.
The practical provision in the Bill – to have a five yearly interval for local elections – will not come up for some time. Even though we would all like to have a constitutional amendment on local government run in conjunction with the local elections, the requirements of proper debate and reasoned consideration of the proposal being put outweigh the convenience and desirability of that. This proposal should be debated more fully by the Oireachtas and a longer period should be provided for the public to absorb what is being proposed.
Members of local authorities are holding their final meetings before the local elections. At the very least, elected members of local authorities should have a reasonable period of time within which to consider the proposed constitutional amendment to underpin local government. There is no point in coming into the House, as the Minister of State has done, and making platitudes about the importance of the elected members. The fact is the elected tier of local government will not have a real opportunity to properly consider the constitutional amendment which is about their own existence.
The lack of time given for consideration of this amendment to the Constitution leaves us with no option but to oppose the Second Stage reading of the Bill. I say that with considerable regret because I support the principle of giving constitutional recognition to local government and including in the Constitution the five yearly interval for the holding of local elections, but we should not play fast and loose with the Constitution, as I believe the Government is doing on this occasion. Our Constitution is too important a document to have amended in the way the Government is proposing this evening, even if it is on an issue on which there is general political agreement.
We have not had the opportunity, and we will not have it during the limited time available for the Committee Stage debate tomorrow, to give detailed consideration to the wording that is to be put to the people. We have not had the opportunity of hearing the views of interested people outside this House including, for example, constitutional lawyers or those involved in local government who may have valuable opinions on what we are proposing to put in our Constitution. This is not the way to treat the Constitution. This amendment should not be put to the people on 11 June, not because there is any principal objection to it, but because the Government which has produced it has given us far too little time to consider it.
I support the Bill. It was wrong of various Governments to defer local elections. I thought eight years was the longest deferral, but Deputy Gilmore has reminded me that there was a nine year interval between 1985 and 1994 for the town commission and urban council elections. Long deferrals of eight or nine years devalue the system of local government.
I agree with the speakers who said we should examine other issues on Friday, 11 June, but there could be confusion if a second referendum were held on the issue Deputy Gilmore put forward in his Private Members' Bill. There will be a ballot paper for election to town commissions, urban councils, county councils, corporations as well as the European elections. I would like to see a Bill at some stage which would state a fixed term for Dáil elections. I understand there is a fixed term in most European countries as well as in the United States. Fixed terms for governments have also been put in place in the emerging democracies in eastern Europe. I hope that issue will be examined at some time in the future.
I hope this legislation and the other Bills to be brought forward will restore functions which are proper to local authorities and to the councils. In recent years, the administration of water schemes in my county was delegated to the county council. That is welcome. The collection of motor taxation has been diverted to the local authorities, another welcome development.
It is fitting that the referendum will take place in the centenary year of local government. In County Galway, new local authority offices were officially opened in the past two weeks by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey. On that occasion the Mayor of Galway said she usually welcomes visitors to Galway, but she was now welcoming a new building. That building is in the heart of Galway city.
I also welcome the alignment of local elections with the European elections. This is not the first time that has happened. In 1979, when the first European elections took place, elections to the local authorities were held on that day. In 1994, the European elections were held in conjunction with the urban council and town commission elections. I realise this may be seen as an opportunity to bring out all the voters, something which has not portrayed us in a good light, but it is an opportunity we have availed of in the past.
For years, local authorities considered the question of improving existing services and providing new ones. During my term on the county council, I have seen the establishment of committees, such as the arts committee to which the Minister of State referred. The arts committee in Galway has been quick to respond to the famous Galway arts festival and to bring events organised by groups like Druid and Macnas from the city to the rural areas of County Galway. Another area which has seen development is the library services. We have a new library in the city and there is provision for new libraries in other parts of Galway, particularly Oranmore and Loughrea.
The county council has also played a major role in improving our health services. The council was the original health service provider, but the councillors are represented on health boards and vocational education committees. An interesting committee in County Galway is the inter-county railway committee with representatives from the five counties of Connacht. It has been shown that county councils and councillors have a role in setting up new committees and providing necessary new services.
The new councils will be busy and there will be a new role for county councillors. There is representation by councillors on the new body for the regional authorities and in the western regional authority there has been much debate over the past number of years on Objective One status for the western region. The western regional authority committee has been to the forefront in pressing for Objective One status which we can now say has been a successful campaign. Last Friday, the Taoiseach and the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bruton, attended the official opening of the Western Development Commission. Our councillors are represented on that commission which has its headquarters at Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon. I hope the ambitious £3.7 billion plan which has been published will be debated in this House and supported by all Members. I know it has the support of our local representatives.
The Minister of State referred to loyalty to county, town and city. That is a noble aspiration but there is not always sufficient co-operation between the city and county councils. There should be co-operation but sometimes there is jealousy when, for example, cities are granted urban renewal status or a similar designation. There is also the issue of cities expanding their county borough status where they have to literally get territory from the county council. We have problems concerning town and urban council boundaries and town commissioner areas. I hope there will be more co-operation in the future between those bodies. I welcome the fact that urban renewal status has been granted to smaller towns in recent years. Later this year I hope the Minister will announce village and rural schemes. This will be a welcome development for smaller towns and villages.
Councils have done much good work with regard to the national tidy towns competition. More towns and villages become involved in this competition every year. The new councils have an opportunity to become more involved in this competition and the whole issue of litter prevention which the Minister of State, Deputy Danny Wallace, has been active in promoting. I hope resources will be provided to keep our towns tidy.
Local authorities have also been active on the issue of heritage. Galway County Council recently received an award for its work on heri tage projects. Towns such as Athenry, Portumna and Kilmacduagh, a monastic site, are three areas which have benefited from the input of Departments and local authorities. I congratulate Galway County Council on its award.
Waste management is a critical issue for local authorities. Every county has been looking at landfill sites even though the Government has stated that landfill will be a last resort. There has been a move towards regional landfill sites. It is time that county councils clearly stated the policy for each county. Information is not being made available – there are no seminars for making information available to the public on landfill sites, recycling or the separation of refuse. These issues should be dealt with by every local authority.
Ballinasloe in the largest town in my constituency and is taking refuse from two other counties as well as from County Galway. Some communities fear that without discussion with them, incinerators and landfill sites will be located in their areas. I hope the new councils will look at these issues and that education and information will be provided so that as in most European countries every household will separate refuse into a number of bins. Recycling is the way forward and I would like the new authorities to adopt this approach.
I thank the Minister and wish him well. I support the Bill and I hope the question will be carried by the people.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Joe Higgins.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am in favour of this Bill in principle but I have some criticisms of the Government regarding the constitutional provision. Unlike my colleague in the Labour Party, my criticism is that there is not enough in the Bill concerning the constitutional amendment.
This proposal was recommended by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution more than two years ago. At the time, the committee carried out an analysis of whether there should be a general recognition of local government or whether specific powers should be mentioned. The committee came down in favour of a general recognition.
My biggest complaint regarding local government was the regular postponement of elections. The all-party committee was adamant that a constitutional provision should be inserted stipulating that elections be held on a five-year basis. I am glad the Minister accepted that provision and agreed not to pursue his seven-year proposal.
The constitutional review group sat for 18 months under Dr. Whitaker and produced 121 recommendations. The all-party committee produced three reports with many unanimous recommendations. In that context it is a meagre result to find only one provision in this Bill. A package of measures should have been proposed to the House months ago so that there could have been an adequate debate. That package should then have been presented to the people on 11 June along with the election ballot papers.
I have always held that we should avail of normal electoral arrangements to amend the Constitution rather than going to the expense of a special referendum. This would allow us to put forward many of the recommended changes to the Constitution in a cost-effective way. It is ridiculous that the Government did not adopt the views of the all-party committee on that. There were specific proposals concerning issues such as the constitutional recognition of the Ombudsman and minor, technical amendments which could have been put through. In particular, there was a proposal to reduce the age for membership of this House to 18 which was agreed on an all-party basis. There is no reason that package should not have been presented to the House in good time rather than presenting this single measure. That is my main criticism of the Government. I support the proposal in the Bill as it mirrors that of the all-party committee. My criticisms refer to what is not in the Bill – not what is in it.
With the exception of the UK, all member states of the EU have a written constitution. Each of those countries, apart from Ireland, gives constitutional recognition to local government. One hundred years after the establishment of local government under the 1898 Act, it is time we inserted such a constitutional provision.
There was a low opinion of local government at the time of the Free State Constitution. The impression was that local government was amateurish and that there was a high degree of venality in its operations. From a constitutional viewpoint, there was also a view that we should change our system to that of the UK.
Subsequently there was not any constitutional recognition of local government in the 1937 Constitution. The European Charter of Local Government specifically asks members of the Council of Europe to accept the principle of local self-government and to recognise that role in their constitutions. We are behind time in introducing this provision, but it is better late than never.
The five-year provision is the most important measure of all. Local government was substantially discredited by the regular postponement of local elections to suit the Government of the day. When it came to the crunch, every Government was more than happy to postpone local elections. It is a disgrace that on 11 June county councillors will be facing the polls for the first time in nine years. That is outrageous. That is why many of us were so keen on having an absolute constitutional requirement to have an election every five years.
In relation to Dáil elections the constitutional provision is seven years and the statutory provision is five. It would be appropriate to provide for five years in the Constitution in respect local government elections because our culture and tradition are such that it would be unthinkable for any government, even a government virtually on its last legs, like this one, to propose a change in the statutory provision when it was approaching the end of a five year term and, accordingly, to get an extension. The culture in relation to local government on the other hand has been the opposite. It has been virtually unthinkable for governments to go ahead with local elections within the appropriate five year period. That is why it is so necessary that we stick with five years in relation to local government elections as opposed to the seven year provision in relation to the Dáil.
The issue of whether there should be just a general recognition of local government or a provision which would give details for the system and for the relationship between local government and central government was looked at by the Constitutional Review Group and by the all-party committee. There are arguments for and against, but the Constitution is not the place to provide for specific powers; these are a matter for statute. In terms of the relationship between central and local government, I would not be in favour of having that specifically spelt out in the Constitution because I am in favour of stronger local government, of more devolution, of a dynamic within local government. If specific powers were spelt out in the Constitution we might be providing a straitjacket which would prevent the development of local government. Now that we are putting local government into the Constitution the next step should be to see how we can develop local government and give it a dynamic far beyond what it has at the moment.
That raises a very difficult problem that has never been fully and adequately addressed, that is, the financing of local government. Since the abolition of domestic rates, it has never been fully addressed by any party or any government. However, that is for another day. I hope it will be fully addressed in time and that we will see that development of local government that has produced such creativity and innovation in other countries where it has also been a safety valve for the expression of local views and has otherwise actually been what it is called, local government. We have not yet reached that stage and it will be some time before we do.
There is a danger that, unless all the political parties in this House raise the profile of the constitutional amendment, people will be faced with an extra ballot paper on polling day about which they will not have a clue. There is a duty and responsibility, particularly on the political parties when they are talking about the European elections, county council or corporation elections, town commission or urban council elections, to mention this proposal so that canvassers will be reminded that it is worth putting into the Constitution and that they will ask people to support it.
Unfortunately, I was not here for the opening of this debate, but I had a quick look at the Mini ster of State's speech and it does not seem to cover the question of how the arguments for and against this amendment are to be presented to the people and whether we are to have a commission in that regard. Perhaps when replying he could give an indication as to his proposals, in the post-McKenna judgment era, on how the people are to be fully informed about the proposed amendment and how the arguments for and against, if there are any against, are to be presented to the people.
(Dublin West): Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, agus mo bhuiochas don Teachta O'Keeffe.
It is totally unacceptable to rush this amendment through in the way provided for by the Government. I am in full agreement with Deputy Gilmore on that. By pushing this amendment through with such unseemly haste, for the simple reason that it was not introduced on time, a very fine opportunity is being lost to have a proper discussion on local government and how it should be changed and improved.
The most important provision in the Bill is that future governments cannot play fast and loose with the timing of local government elections. That is something that badly needed to be addressed. It would have been entirely appropriate if, in the presentations of the Minister and of the principal spokespersons of the Fine Gael and Labour Parties, there had been some confessions and public wearing of sackcloth and ashes with regard to the postponement of local elections. The four biggest parties in Dáil Éireann were all party to the situation where, on 11 June, it will be eight years since the people last had an opportunity to vote for their local councillors. Fine Gael and Labour postponed those elections. I am surprised that Deputy Dukes did not take a very strong stand against that since he frequently lectures me here on the evils of Stalinism and the lack of democracy in the former Stalinist states which he wrongly labels as socialist.
It was a gross infringement of the democratic rights of the Irish people that the local elections have been manipulated in this way for nakedly political purposes. The local government elections should have been held in June 1996, but in 1996 the main political parties in the local councils around the country, in 1994 in the case of Dublin, had introduced the hated local taxes, water charges in particular in the case of Dublin, which introduction was a U-turn by them all on what they had said to the electorate in 1991. Naturally they evoked enormous anger among ordinary people and compliant taxpayers throughout the country and in June 1996 those political parties would have found themselves in the eye of a terrible storm when the electorate would certainly have shown their disapproval of them by voting in their droves for people who would have stood by what they said in opposition to these unjust local taxes. It was because of fear of what the electorate might do that the local elections were delayed. That is an unforgivable manipulation. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats exacerbated the situation by allowing a further delay to June of this year. Undoubtedly, that was motivated by the questions of tribunals, planning scandals and so on.
As a result of the anger on the ground, the Government recognises there should be no more tampering with the time of local elections. While I disagree totally with the method by which the Government is bringing this forward, that particular provision is to be welcomed. I support the motion to defer this issue so that there can be a longer discussion on it; however, if it is put to the people on 11 June, I will call on them to support it.
My other main problem with this is the huge missed opportunity in regard to other crucial items affecting local government which the Government should have put on the agenda for constitutional change. I refer here, in particular, to the price of building land. When we discuss the appalling suffering caused by the housing crisis and when some of us call for stringent controls on building land and the need to stop speculation and the scandal of inflated land prices, the constitutional position is thrown up against us. The Kenny report believes a constitutional amendment is not required to control the price of building land and that view was echoed in the report of the four local authorities. However, if the Government feels that is the case, why did it not avail of the opportunity of putting a constitutional amendment before the people which included a provision whereby the price of building land could be controlled by legal means and local land bank authorities could be set up, or could be part of local government, to peg building land in urban areas at agricultural prices? That would dramatically reduce the obscene price of housing at present. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.
Fáiltím roim an cuid den Bhille a chuireann iachall ar an Rialtas toghchán áitiúil a chur ar siúl gach cúig bhliain agus tá an íde a thug rialtais éagsúla do na toghcháin áitiúla le fada náireach. Tá an locht faoi sin ar an gcuid is mó de na páirtithe polaitíochta anseo. Tá sé ocht mbliana ó bhí na toghcháin áitiúla deireannacha againn agus bhí na toghcháin a bhí againn i 1991 curtha ar athló chomh maith. Tá sé náireach go raibh na príomh páirtithe polaitíochta sa Dáil páirteach sa chinneadh sin na toghcháin sin a chur ar athló.
Ba cheart an reifreann seo a chur siar go dtí an fómhar, go mbeadh níos mó díospóireachta agus níos mó ama le go bhféadfaí rudaí tábhachtacha eile a chur isteach sa Bhille. Ba cheart go háirithe go gcuirfí leasú isteach ann chun an Bhunreacht a leaú chun srian a chur ar phraghas talún. Is scanall é go bhfuil an Rialtas ag seasamh i leataoibh agus ag ligint do lucht mór tógála dul i mbun speiciúléireachta maidir le talamh tógála de agus de dheasca sin go mbeadh praghas na dtithe £30,000 nó £40,000 níos daoire ná mar ba cheart dó a bheith.
Iarraim ar an Aire mar sin an leasú seo a chur ar athló go dtí an fómhar, go mbeadh díospóireacht cheart ann agus go dtiocfadh an Rialtas suas le leasaithe eile faoi mar a lua mé anois díreach.
I thank Deputies for their contributions which covered a wide range of topics. I doubt I will have time to reply comprehensively to all the points raised, for which I apologise. However, many of the topics are relevant to the local government Bill, so beidh lá eile againn for more in-depth debate and discussion.
I must emphasise that the purpose of this amendment is to recognise the principle of local government and to fix the maximum interval between local elections. This gives effect to the recommendations of the all-party committee on the Constitution, which considered the form any amendment might take. It would be against the prevailing spirit of the Constitution if the amendment were to go into detail about the types of local authority, the range of functions which they may perform or the precise electoral arrangements. These are matters best left to legislation – such legislation could, of course, only operate within the constitutional framework now proposed.
I am glad to be here today to introduce this Bill. It is the outcome of a lengthy process with origins in the 1991 Barrington report which recommended that constitutional recognition be accorded to local government. This recommendation was endorsed by the previous Government in its White Paper on Local Government and in various reports and by different commentators over the years, as I outlined in my earlier speech.
It is especially pleasing and fitting that, in this local election year, the electorate will have the opportunity to ensure local elections are no longer postponed indefinitely. This is a positive development for local government and will help to underscore the many reforms which are now taking place.
Another noteworthy aspect of the proposed constitutional amendment is the reference to promotion by local government of the interests of local communities by its initiatives. These few short words belie their significance. The days when local authorities had to operate within the straitjacket of theultra vires rule have been gone for almost a decade. Section 6 of the Local Government Act, 1991, conferred a general competence on local authorities to act in the interests of local communities. This constitutional amendment copperfastens local government's role in promoting the interests of communities.
I hope the outcome of this amendment, with the implementation of a renewal programme currently under way, will be to boost local authorities as a catalyst of local energy and initiative and as a facilitator and supporter of the combined efforts of individuals and groups within the community. Indeed, that is the ethos behind the current initiative to bring local government and local development closer together, and for local government to regain its central role at local level in bringing together the various players to promote the development of local areas and communities.
Constitutional recognition is but one element in a major programme for the renewal of local government which is under way. It sets down a clear marker for the Government's commitment. The renewal programme involves a new funding system for local government since January; a move for greater community involvement and real engagement with local interests via the SPCs; a major initiative to improve staffing and management resources and a push for better value for money, financial management, efficiency and customer service.
A major local government Bill is currently being drafted to underpin the renewal programme and to modernise and consolidate local government law. It will provide for the enhancement of the role of the elected member, with better training and back up, and a new role for cathaoirligh, with a longer term of office and direct elections. There is also recognition of the distinctive status of local government, with the elimination of the dual mandate from a future date. Local government will form the central hub of the new arrangements in each city and county, bringing together the various States agencies, local development groups and social partners to provide the focus and co-ordination for local social, economic and cultural developments.
Deputy Gilmore alleged undue haste as regards the proposed referendum. I wish to make a few points about that. The matter was considered in considerable detail by the review group on the Constitution, whose report was published in 1996 and copies of which have been available to all Deputies. Constitutional recognition was also considered by the all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution whose first progress report, published in April 1997, set out a proposed text. Members of this House comprised a substantial portion of the membership of that committee. It is difficult therefore to see how the issue can now be considered almost as if it were an unexpected thunderbolt from the blue.
Local elections are being held in June and what more appropriate occasion could there be on which to hold a referendum to accord constitutional recognition to local government? This point is further reinforced by the fact that this year marks the centenary of our local government system – local elections having first been held in 1899. Surely it is a most appropriate time to hold the referendum.
If the referendum were not to be held in June, when would it be held? Apart from cost implications, which are minimised by holding it in conjunction with local and European elections, no Government in recent years – including the one of which Deputy Gilmore was a member – has undertaken to hold a one off referendum on this issue. Now is the obvious time to deal with the matter, in conjunction with the June elections. I make no apologies therefore for bringing this Bill before the House.
Deputies Dukes and Gilmore referred to the period of the fifth year for holding local elections, that is, up to the end of the fifth year. The use of the phrase is intended to give some flexibility, especially as there is discussion at European level to move the date for the European elections to May instead of June. Also, there is provision in European legislation to hold the European elections in July in the event of a major development. It is necessary, therefore, to have flexibility in the Constitution to allow for changes at European level so that both elections can be held on the same day.
As regards the matter raised by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, a Referendum Commission has been established for the referendum on local government recognition. The primary role of the commission is to explain the subject matter of a referendum to the population at large as simply and effectively as possible.
I agree with Deputy O'Keeffe that the Constitution should have a simple provision on local government and this is what is proposed. I agree also that we should then move on to develop our system of local government. That is what the Government's programme of renewal is aimed at. A major local government Bill will follow this year. I have already outlined a series of initiatives that are now under way.
Cuireadh an cheist.
Ahern, Dermot.Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Ardagh, Seán.Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Harry.Brady, Johnny.Brady, Martin.Brennan, Matt.Brennan, Séamus.Briscoe, Ben.Byrne, Hugh.Callely, Ivor.Carey, Pat.Collins, Michael.Cowen, Brian.Daly, Brendan.Davern, Noel.Dempsey, Noel.Dennehy, John.Doherty, Seán.Fahey, Frank.Fleming, Seán.Flood, Chris.Foley, Denis.Fox, Mildred.Gildea, Thomas.Hanafin, Mary.Harney, Mary.Haughey, Seán.Keaveney, Cecilia.Kelleher, Billy.Kenneally, Brendan.
Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Séamus.Kitt, Michael.Kitt, Tom.Lawlor, Liam.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McCreevy, Charlie.McDaid, James.McGennis, Marian.McGuinness, John.Martin, Micheál.Moffatt, Thomas.Molloy, Robert.Moloney, John.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.Ó Cuív, Éamon.O'Dea, Willie.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Donoghue, John.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Hanlon, Rory.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Keeffe, Ned.O'Kennedy, Michael.Power, Seán.Ryan, Eoin.Smith, Brendan.Wade, Eddie.Wallace, Dan.Walsh, Joe.Wright, G. V.
Broughan, Thomas.Gilmore, Éamon.Higgins, Joe.Higgins, Michael.Howlin, Brendan.McManus, Liz.
O'Shea, Brian.O'Sullivan, Jan.Rabbitte, Pat.Sargent, Trevor.Stagg, Emmet.Wall, Jack.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.