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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 8 Mar 2001

Vol. 532 No. 3

Order of Business. - Local Government Bill, 2000: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is a unique occasion in terms of local government legislation. For the first time ever in this State we have the opportunity to consider a Bill to provide the statutory framework for our local government system. The last such legislation for local government, the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, was before the Westminster Parliament at the end of the 19th century. We must, therefore, acknowledge that, since the foundation of the State, the legislative priorities of successive Governments and of all political parties, seem to have largely by-passed local government. The result is that at the start of the 21st century we must delve back to 19th century UK statutes, which still apply, for the basis of local government law. However in the last few years things have changed.

The Local Government Acts, 1991 and 1994, were indicative of a new direction and the amendment of our Constitution by referendum in 1999, to accord specific recognition to local government and guarantee local elections, marked a key turning point for local government and provides a sound basis on which to build our new legislation.

Few people doubt the need for renewal of local government but the means to achieve it and the shape of a renewed and changed local government system can be less clear in people's minds. I must first declare my interest. I am a passionate believer in local government and I speak from experience as a former councillor. I know the system intimately and because of this I am in a position to separate the theory from the reality. I approach these commitments, therefore, as a realist in terms of local government reform.

Local government is different from other public sector bodies. Often people tend to think of local government primarily as a service provider at local level but it is also much more. It is the democratically elected body closest to the people and it has a constitutionally recognised role of democratic representation for local communities but, for two decades or so, up until recently, local government was not doing well, often through no fault of its own. Its funding base contracted, it was by-passed by new local development initiatives and it began to lose its rightful place at the heart of local communities.

Within the system the central policy role more often than not fell to the manager and full-time officials with the elected council relegated to the position of reacting to management proposals. Taken together, these developments devalued our democratic system and local government. It became increasingly apparent that action was needed to reverse these trends.

The Bill before the House cannot be looked at in isolation. It is an important element in the Government's ongoing programme to redress the imbalances to which I have referred and to renew our system of local government. The size of the task should not be underestimated but we have made a good start and excellent progress already in a short time. Real and worthwhile change can only be achieved taking account of the needs of all involved. The diverse functions of local government, the number and range of authorities and the input of 1,600 councillors and 30,000 staff must be recognised, their work and commitment valued and important local traditions and heritage safeguarded while adapting the system substantially to meet the demands and needs of Ireland's people in the 21st century.

The Bill seeks to achieve these aims. In that context I would like to place on record and acknowledge the work of others. The Local Government Acts, 1991 and 1994, set the tone for a more enlightened approach to local government, removed statutory controls and relaxed the ultra vires doctrine. My predecessor, Deputy Howlin, published a wide ranging White Paper, Better Local Government, in 1996. The Bill incorporates and builds on much of that work. The renewal of local government was a commitment of this Government in An Action Programme for the Millennium and is now endorsed by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. I am very proud of our achievements over the last three and a half years.

What have been my priorities in the programme for the renewal of local government? On becoming Minister, my first priority was to put in place a proper funding system. Over the past 20 to 25 years there was a constant argument about whether we should tackle the functions or the finances of local government. Most of my predecessors concentrated on trying to change and adapt the functions.

However, it was essential to secure the necessary resources for the ambitious programme of local government renewal that we planned. For that reason the new local government fund was established by legislation in 1998 and it is delivering significant additional resources as borne out by this year's allocations. In 2001, £730 million is being provided to local authorities. In terms of the general purpose needs of local authorities, the fund is delivering almost 64% more than in 1997. In addition, the improvement in current funding is complemented by the major increase in capital funding for local authority projects under the terms of the national development plan to provide the essential services and infrastructure for a modern society.

My next priority was to develop a broad range of ongoing initiatives in a drive for better efficiencies, to modernise local authority operations and to support local authority members. Actions which have made significant advances already or on which work is currently well in hand include an equalisation model to facilitate the allocation of resources from the local government fund in a way which takes account of local authority needs and resources. Deputy Gilmore referred to this during the earlier debate on the financial resolution on motor taxation. He reminded me of an offer I made to the local government committee to make a presentation on the needs and resources model. I have no difficulty with that but I am not sure whether any invitation was extended. We can renew the offer to the committee because it is important that everybody is aware of what is the basis of the needs and resources model and of the ongoing changes that will need to be put in place.

The democratic input mentioned earlier is also important. We have also put in place modern, financial management, accounting and audit systems, proper service indicators and new corporate plans, a pilot programme of one-stop-shops, support for necessary IT systems to underpin these initiatives and a major programme of information and training for councillors. This began with a series of seminars for new councillors. The second phase saw an intensive focus on the chairs of SPCs to support them in key policy areas such as roads, housing and planning. The next phase, which is currently in planning and which will be discussed shortly with the representative organisations, will extend to all councillors.

Strategic policy committees are beginning to operate as intended. They will allow elected members to develop a central role in policy development in partnership with relevant sectoral interests and with proper back up. I very much regret that progress here was long delayed owing to industrial relations issues. However, I now anticipate that the modern management systems necessary to support the process, with the directors of service, is finally about to be put in place. It is already in place in many local authorities.

Another significant step in repositioning local government was the establishment last year of county and city development boards. These bring together, under the local government umbrella, the wide range of State agencies operating locally, together with the social partners and local development bodies. These dynamic new bodies are providing a unique opportunity to maximise the combined impact of State agencies at local level. Working in partnership with the various local interests they are devising a strategy for economic, social and cultural development attuned to the needs of the county or city concerned and will oversee its delivery. This represents a new way for the public service to come together and operate on a collective basis for the common good and, crucially, under the democratic leadership of local government. The CDBs are now up and running and have directors and support staff in place.

These initiatives which I have listed are already putting into practice the theory and objectives behind much of the Bill, from county development boards to new financial management systems, from better training for councillors to service indicators, to SPCs, to modern management systems, improved funding and better partnership arrangements. All are interlinked. Each has its own role in the drive to renew our local government system. The Bill confirms the importance of all these initiatives and provides the statutory framework by which they will be carried forward.

All in all, what is involved here is a renewal programme designed to build on progress to date, tailored to Irish circumstances, and which can significantly improve the position of local government. Of course, local government systems vary widely across different countries. Local government in any country derives from the particular tradition, history, culture and circumstances of that country and prospects for change must bear this in mind. The delivery of functions such as policing, public transport, health and social welfare, comes within the local government system in some other countries. However, if we are realistic, given current Irish circumstances, it is unlikely that in the short term these will be subsumed within our local government system or that there is a demand for such, much as we might wish it so.

In short, if local government is to progress in this country, it demands that we approach change in a realistic way, taking account of how functional responsibilities have evolved and how they are currently organised. We must, therefore, start from where we find ourselves today and move forward in a planned and progressive fashion to renew our system of local government.

I have no doubt there will be criticisms that the Bill does not go far enough. However, reaction to date to some of the more innovative proposals, for example, the directly elected chair, is a reliable indicator that radical change is unlikely to find widespread acceptance in local government circles. Would a system like the Scottish one, with similar legislative origins to our own but now with 32 local authorities, find acceptance? What about a complete redrawing of the current local government map? I have said before in public and repeat in the House that if I had a blank sheet of paper to devise a local government system I would not devise the one we have currently.

However, as I said earlier, I approach the task of renewing local government in this country as a realist. I recognise that we need to walk before we can run and so the Bill attempts to strike a balance between the change required to enable the local government system to meet the demands of a modern inclusive society of the 21st century while retaining the solid foundations which have served us well for over a century. I see this Bill as a blueprint for change and modernisation and a platform or springboard for further change in the future.

The Bill does not, therefore, abandon local government as we know it, but rather builds on past work and current structures. The county/city system is maintained, as are the town local authorities, in all a grand total of 114 elected local authorities. In future, these authorities must operate on a new basis with a new ethos, building on the concepts of partnership and inclusion. We must place greater emphasis on working together, be it town and county or adjoining counties and cities, and the Bill provides for this. While the policy and executive roles are continued, they are subject to significant change and rebalancing designed to enhance the role of the elected council. Many provisions in the Bill present members with a renewed opportunity to reclaim their rightful role as the policy makers. What the Bill aims to promote is a strong but workable framework in which the executive operates within policy parameters determined by the elected council, in which local government operations are overseen by that council and with the provision of necessary supports.

The Bill emphasises the links with local communities from which local government derives its mandate. It supports community involvement in a more participative local democracy and will provide for improved financial and organisational systems and procedures and for more efficient service provision.

I have already mentioned that the Bill strives to reinforce the rightful position of the elected council in determining local authority policy. It places the executive under a duty to implement democratically settled policy and for executive functions to be carried out in accordance with it. However, no matter what legislation is put in place, any system is only as good as the people in it and the commitment borne out by the service of councillors throughout the local government system. We acknowledge this in a real way by providing for practical supports to assist members by way of a salary type payment, allowances and training, and with provision for pension arrangements.

There are already many demands on councillors' time. Along with the practical supports just mentioned, the ending of the dual mandate will facilitate a dedicated corps of councillors to focus on local authority affairs, free to organise business and without the constraints of parliamentary schedules.

It is my intention also to promote another powerful impetus for change in the internal dynamics of local government through the direct election of a full-time cathaoirleach of cities and counties with a term of office for the five year life of the council. I am talking about a cathaoirleach who is directly answerable to the people and accountable to the elected council, who must work with the council to deliver on the full potential of the office, which is highly visible and accountable, a person elected by the people who draws on powerful democratic legitimacy to speak and negotiate on behalf of the whole community with influence well beyond any formal powers and with the capacity to bring together the various elements of local governance. Experience elsewhere bears this out if the opportunities being presented are grasped and acted upon in a spirit of collaboration for the common good. When the SPCs involve councillors from the outset in policy development and the key role of the corporate policy group are also considered I believe the Bill provides the opportunity for genuine change and will place the elected council central to local authority operations where it belongs.

None of this can happen of course without the continued commitment of local authority staff. While some of the faces are well known, most are never in the headlines but they all continue to provide a quality service every day of their working careers, even in difficult and dangerous situations. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who play their part to provide clean water, run emergency services, build our infrastructure, maintain our parks and streets, protect our environment and provide a range of services every day and night, 365 days a year. Despite some occasional problems and difficulties, such as those which have come to light recently, it is clear that the ideal of a high standard of public service is still alive and well in this country and in the local government service. I am confident it will continue.

One of the aims of this Bill is also to consolidate and update our local government law to provide a modern statutory foundation for local government and to place between two covers general local government law in a format which is accessible to councillors, staff and public, as against the current situation of a variety of overlapping provisions scattered over a wide range of enactments with archaic terminology that is complex and well nigh impenetrable. The Bill provides a modern statutory framework for local authority operations and a range of general powers available to all local authorities and also provides for the repeal of legislation dating back a century and a half. Separate Bills to follow, one to update rating law and the other dealing with water services, will complete the process of modernising the service codes and repeal the remaining pre-Independence statutes.

I do not have time to deal with all aspects of this wide ranging Bill. However, its various provisions will receive full attention during its passage through this House and I will confine myself to some of its provisions.

Part 1 contains standard provisions of a general nature such as title, definitions and commencement. To allow for adequate advance notice certain provisions will not, however, come into effect until the next local elections in 2004. These are the direct election of the cathaoirleach for cities and counties and the ending of the dual mandate. Other provisions will be commenced on a phased basis, starting soon after enactment as the necessary preparatory work is completed.

Part 2 contains key provisions in that it establishes our local authorities within a modern legislative format and follows directly from Article 28A of Bunreacht na hÉireann which provides: "There shall be such directly elected local authorities as may be determined by law . . .". That law is this Local Government Bill.

Section 10 divides the State into local government areas, counties and cities. Within the counties, and forming part of them, are the town local authorities. Each of these areas, county, city or town, has a local authority known, as appropriate, as a county council, city council or town council. I know the borough authorities have expressed particular concerns as to the modernisation of terminology in this way and how their own local authorities are to be styled in future. I have met with the five mayors through the AMAI and propose to introduce amendments on Committee Stage which, while retaining the overall integrity of the Bill, will deal with these matters.

Parts 3 and 4 deal with local authority membership and local elections. From 2004 the dual mandate will end. However, I will bring forward amendments to provide for continued access to local government information for Oireachtas Members. The termination of the dual mandate was recommended by the Barrington report, the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, the Commission for the Status of Women and, I noticed recently, Fine Gael among others. Also, the Bill provides that in future co-optees to a local authority must be nominated by the party for which that member was elected. I will look again at this provision from the point of preventing possible abuse and to better reflect the position of councillors generally. As previously indicated, local elections are fixed at five yearly intervals to be held in the month of May or June, with the next local elections in 2004 now guaranteed by the Constitution, thus ending a long history of post ponements which served to diminish local government.

Finally, a mechanism is included in section 22 for an alteration in the number of members of a local authority. This involves a report by the independent Local Government Commission provided for in Part 11. This commission also has a role regarding the review of local electoral areas, the alteration of local authority boundaries under Part 8 and the establishment of new town councils.

A number of changes apply under Part 5 as regards the cathaoirleach which, as under existing law, is the generic title. Existing mayors and lord mayors continue and it will be open to any local authority to adopt the title mayor or cathaoirleach. As stated previously, from 2004 the cathaoirleach of counties and cities will be elected by direct vote of the people and will hold office for the life of the council. While in office and for 12 months afterwards he or she is disqualified from standing for Dáil elections. The Bill as published allows anyone qualified to stand as a councillor to put themselves forward for election as a directly elected chair. However, I know the local authority associations consider that some level of experience should be required for the post and I have undertaken to deal with this aspect by way of amendment, if this is legally and constitutionally possible.

Regarding meetings of local authorities, Part 6 establishes a statutory right of public access and restricts the right to meet in committee to special cases and subject to special procedures. Schedule 9 sets out a comprehensive, updated and consolidated code for local authority meetings. The framework for local authority committees and joint committees is set out in Part 7.

Part 9 contains a general statement of local authority functions while individual services such as fire, waste, planning, etc, are carried out under specific legislation which for convenience are listed in Schedule 11. The Bill provides a range of general powers available to all local authorities.

The Bill also emphasises the need for town and county authorities to work together, to combine their operations to the fullest extent as well as the need for all authorities to focus on serving the public to whom rigid organisational distinctions are often seen as unhelpful.

Part 10 allows for necessary inter-authority co-operation in the performance of functions and provides the flexibility for service arrangements to be made on foot of local agreements between town and county authorities. Part 12 will allow for the modernisation of financial management, accounts and audit to provide transparent, user friendly and comparable data for all authorities. For reasons of greater effectiveness, the water services function is consolidated at county level in Part 9, as was proposed in Better Local Government. In saying this, however, the Bill allows for joint arrangements to be worked out locally where this may be more appropriate.

Part 14 sets out the respective roles of the elected council, manager and staff. An array of mechanisms is provided to enable the elected council to maintain a proper overview, to develop, make and steer policy and to oversee the executive, with proper supports and back up as referred to earlier. Local authority personnel and management law is also consolidated and updated.

Part 15 provides a comprehensive new ethics framework for members and officials. It is regrettable that the actions of a few can bring the system into disrepute. While the vast majority of members and officials have worked long, hard, honestly and in the public interest, we realise that recent revelations, affecting a small minority, have damaged public trust. That trust must be restored.

This Part provides an open and transparent framework which will apply to all aspects of local authority operations and will involve disclosure of interest in any matter which arises, an annual statement of interests, a public register, active implementation and a role for the independent Public Offices Commission. These measures will be complemented by codes of conduct which will supplement and expand on the Bill's provisions. Amendments will be brought forward as the Bill proceeds to further strengthen this Part and to take account of changes related to the prevention of corruption legislation, the Standards in Public Office Bill and other ongoing developments.

I wish to thank the three local authority associations – AMAI, GCCC and LAMA – with whom I have had intensive consultations before and since publication of the Bill. I met with them collectively and individually on several occasions. They put forward a number of amendments, some of which I indicated I would introduce to meet their concerns. We will not agree on every point but this Bill has already benefited as a result of this dialogue. Many others have commented on the Bill, including Opposition Deputies. All comments will be considered carefully. It is good there is such interest in this Bill and, in keeping with the approach I adopted on the Planning and Development Act, I will be open to amendments from the Opposition as it proceeds through the House.

The local government renewal programme should be seen as work in progress. A task of this importance and magnitude cannot be accomplished overnight, nor summarised in a single soundbite. This Bill is a vital element in an undertaking of fundamental importance to the Irish people. It is designed to improve local government both in its operations and its relevance to the communities it serves and to modernise its procedures. It sweeps away statutory cobwebs dating back two centuries to provide a modern legal foundation for our local government system, one which is founded on principles of democracy, partnership and community. It provides the framework to carry forward the renewal programme already well under way. It will significantly enhance the role of the elected councils and will give local government the freedom to develop in the new directions essential to the development of our democratic system.

It is a landmark Bill for local government and I confidently commend it to the House.

For as long as I can remember, certainly for as long as I have been involved in politics, there has been talk about the reform of local government. At every election, local and national politicians have the aspiration to reform local government. People who are interested in and care about this subject have eagerly anticipated this Bill. However, it has been a gross disappointment.

When one considers the potential of local government to meaningfully improve the quality of life of every citizen within their environment, the need to strengthen the local sphere of influence, to balance the ever increasing trends toward centralisation both nationally and at EU level, the effect of globalisation and the increasing sense of alienation it inculcates, the sense people increasingly have that they have less and less influence over any decisions, however small, that impact on them and on their families, this Bill offered a unique opportunity to redress the balance. Unfortunately, it has been a lost opportunity and a bitter disappointment to local representatives and local authority officials.

It would be a bitter disappointment too to members of the public if they still retained any interest in or expectations of efficient and effective local government. They no longer have that. Local government has been so neglected, under-funded, abused, centrally controlled and made so irrelevant that people have not just lost interest in it, they have a cynicism about it that borders on contempt. I am not exaggerating. That is certainly my experience in Dublin. One need only look at the turnout at local elections to see the irrelevancy local government has become for the public. We wonder at the lack of interest in national elections and worry about the turnout but that turnout is almost halved in local elections. Effectively, it means people are withdrawing their consent to local government.

It is a heartbreaking and demoralising development for the 30,000 local government officials and the more than 800 councillors who believe in the potential of local democracy. They see what they could do but cannot, what is needed and what they cannot deliver. They want to be able to respond to local needs but see themselves regarded by the public not as their representatives and the people who are on the same side and share a common objective but as being in confrontation with the people they seek to serve.

Local government in Ireland has a proud history. It has served the country well and administered democracy through difficult years. It has a sound administrative structure rooted in the county system which has helped to grow and reflect a local sense of place and county loyalty. It has done more for public health through the provision of water and public sewerage systems than all the money poured into the medical services.

I do not wish, in any way, to diminish or to belittle the ongoing efforts of councillors and officials who are trying, against all the odds, to respond to the needs of citizens. However, the system is creaking at the seams. It is simply no longer appropriate in its administration, structure, functions, representation or its method of funding. The system that served us well in slower and gentler times is hopelessly inadequate to cope with the demands of the 21st century. Members of the public are working longer and harder than ever before. They are making huge and stressful demands on themselves to be efficient in the exercise of their jobs and they expect and demand that all agencies of the State be equally efficient. They expect their local authorities to deliver – efficiently, effectively and on time – the infrastructure, facilities and services required by increased urbanisation, a growing economy and by a population that is expanding, mobile, stressed and merciless in its judgment of politicians.

Local government is not geared to respond to these changing demands. By its nature, as a creature of central Government, it is doomed to fail to meet these expectations. It is a miracle that it has coped as well as it has and enormous credit is due to councillors, managers and officials throughout the country whose sense of public service has motivated them to continue struggling to deliver more and better services to their communities against a background of increasing public cynicism.

The challenge to transform local government, to empower community leadership and to give a vibrant responsive system of democratic representation to a society which in recent decades has undergone radical social and economic transformation is enormous. I accept the Minister's declaration that he is passionate about improving local government and that he genuinely wants to improve it. However, the accretion of layers of bureaucracy, functions, relationships, legislation and regulation by successive Administrations needs to be untangled. There are vested interests, systems inertias and resistance to change to be overcome and none of it will be easy. The only thing on which there is agreement is that a new beginning for local government is required. However, this Bill does not come close to providing it.

The Bill comprises 241 sections, all of which do little more than move the deckchairs on the sinking ship of local government. There are three or four proposals of interest. If they have not exactly exercised the public, they have caused intense debate among councillors. I welcome other minor changes. The vast majority of the provisions, however, are merely restatements of existing provisions, albeit in more moderate language, or give a legal basis to existing practices.

Much work has gone into preparing the Bill over three years, but all that work has brought forth the most timid of creatures. The Bill does not have the teeth to undertake the thorough modernisation and reform which would equip local authorities to meet the needs of citizens in the 21st century.

It is difficult to see how any section of the Bill does anything fundamental to achieve the Minister's stated aims of enhancing the role of elected members, supporting community involvement, underpinning the programme of local government renewal or modernising legislation. By definition, the Bill does modernise legislation, but not in the radical way required to promote efficiency and effectiveness. If the Bill disappeared off the face of the earth, no one would miss it apart from the provision regarding the payment of councillors.

The Bill is lacklustre and devoid of a single innovative idea. There is nothing radical, no fundamental reform, nothing to even merit comment. One gets the impression that the Minister cast around for a headline making measure which would ignite even a modicum of public interest in the Bill – something to put in the press statement. That is how I regard the suggestion for directly elected mayors.

I have nothing against directly elected mayors, and on the face of it there is nothing wrong with this proposal. I understand the reason this idea has intuitive appeal to the public as it conjures up images of the great European cities where powerful personalities drive and forge change and where they have the budgets, the majorities and the administrations to make a fundamental difference to their citizens' quality of life.

This idea is, however, a nonsense in the context of the Irish electoral system. Worse still, it is a dangerous nonsense. Europe operates a list system of elections in order that when a mayor is elected he or she automatically brings a majority. That ability to command a majority gives mayors their standing in the community and their mandate and ability to effect change.

Given our electoral system, any directly elected mayor would be a meaningless animal without a function, a majority, a budget or an administration. At best, he or she would be a figurehead, a distraction and a deception, designed to fool the public into believing that voting for such a person would have some meaningful impact on peoples' lives.

Is that a declaration of Fine Gael's support for electoral reform – single seat constituencies and list systems?

The Minister should wait for it. At worst, this is a dangerous experiment establishing a leadership figure who has no one to lead, creating constant strife and tension between a council and its mayor and grossly inhibiting the decision making process.

The Minister has complained about the decision making process in local government. Surely, that process is slow enough without creating conditions which almost prevent any decisions being made. If this is such a good idea why are we only suggesting it for local elections and not for national elections? What if Fianna Fáil came into the House at the last election with an overall majority, but Deputy Noonan was the directly elected Taoiseach? Has the Minister given any thought as to how that might work and the effect it might have on the governance of the country?

If the Minister finds that prospect too appalling, would he consider Deputy Joe Higgins, for example? I do not wish to cast aspersions on Deputy Higgins as I am sure he would be a great Taoiseach. I cannot see Fianna Fáil, however, supporting a single policy proposal of his.

Fianna Fáil would support anything if it meant power.

I would like to be a fly, however, on the wall at Cabinet meetings. Such a Taoiseach would be only a figurehead in constant conflict with the Dáil with potentially catastrophic consequences for the efficient transaction of Dáil business. That is the scenario the Minister is proposing to visit on every council.

The Minister has taken one hit on this proposal and agreed to introduce an amendment to require an aspiring mayor to serve five years in advance of putting himself or herself forward. This would overcome the problem of getting a personality such as a pop star or sports star. It does not address, however, the fundamental problem of the lack of a majority and the potential conflict it would have on decision making.

The scenario in councils is even more fraught than in the Dáil. Unlike the European situation where new mayors bring in an elected council majority, in most cases they also bring in their own administrations. Councillors in Ireland share power with an appointed manager and there is no provision in the Bill to transfer powers from managers to new mayors or elected councillors.

The directly elected mayoral system introduces an unwelcome new layer between managers and elected members. That relationship is, at best, a fairly delicate balance and depends on the relationship for its effectiveness. That relationship depends on the personalities involved and varies from county to county.

This new proposal will fundamentally change the relationship between councils, mayors and managers. This measure has the almost unavoidable potential to grossly disrupt and destabilise the functioning and decision making process in every council.

The Minister is creating a monster whose havoc wreaking potential we can only begin to guess at. This will be the Minister's legacy to local government for which he will be harshly judged. The public may find the notion of directly elected mayors appealing and believe it is giving it a say in local government. It will not easily forgive, however, when it discovers it is a measure of image, not substance, when it sees the damage it does and when it realises how it has been deceived. The Minister knows this. He knows how functionless and meaningless this position would be. He described the main functions of the mayor as someone who could nominate people for civic honours and entertain visiting guests, including guests from overseas. These are important functions, but they are not what local government or the public are crying out for.

The Minister favours the introduction of the list system of elections. If that is what he wants, he should bring forward those proposals to the House and the public. In that context, directly elected mayors would make a great deal of sense. Before Committee Stage I advise the Minister to drop this daft proposal before it irreparably damages local government. We do not have the majority to stop this proposal, although we might be joined by the Independents, but the Minister should consider introducing it on a pilot basis.

The dual mandate is the other issue exercising some of the Minister's backbenchers and his Independent supporters. Fine Gael supports the principle of abolishing the dual mandate. If local government is to be truly local and if the status of elected councillors is to be enhanced in order that they become real leaders of local opinion with the courage to make the decisions which that status entails, then we must break the link with central government.

Ending the dual mandate will not on its own end the double jobbing. Dáil Deputies will still be lobbied on local issues and that will continue for as long as the Department keeps control of the funding, policy and detail of local authorities' work. Consequently, the Department and the Minister are the final arbiter of local decisions. This will continue for as long as other functions now outside local government, but which could and should be provided for locally, remain centrally controlled. If the Minister wishes to enhance the role of locally elected members, to end the dual mandate and separate local from national government, these issues should be attended to.

The Independents are right when they say their Dáil seats are being jeopardised. Worse still, we are disenfranchising the public. For as long as local issues are dictated centrally the public will continue to appeal to Deputies as it cannot get local satisfaction. The inability of Deputies to respond means that seats will be lost. We cannot fool ourselves about this. Unless we make the break and distinguish between areas of local and national competence we cannot make an electoral distinction.

Independents also voiced a valid concern that the Minister is building a one-way gate between local and central government which prohibits any cross-over from national to local politics, but facilitates passage from local to national politics. This is a problem the solution to which may be found in other countries. We should examine how they deal with it. In Denmark, for instance, where there is strong local government, a five-year waiting period applies to candidates seeking election to the national parliament. This option is worth examining because it has the virtue of forcing candidates to make the initial decision and encourages only those with a genuine interest in and commitment to local government to make that choice. It will not solve the fundamental problem that so few people will commit themselves only to serve in local government when its control is still so deeply centralised.

I welcome the provision for the remuneration of councillors. I share the sense of outrage felt by so many councillors around the country who have waited so long for this measure. The Minister paid gratuities to departing councillors, amazingly at the expense of the those councillors who were willing to participate in the democratic process by putting themselves forward for election. They were hard working councillors, committed to public service, who were most likely to achieve re-election. The concept of paying people not to involve themselves in local government is one which I still find difficult to understand. A firm commitment was given to pay councillors and give them some recompense by way of a salary for their time and effort. They should not have had to wait two years for that commitment to be met. When the Minister finally introduces the measure, I hope he will backdate it to June.

This is the one section for which there is any urgency or public demand. The Minister should remove it from this Bill, which is going nowhere, and introduce it as a separate provision which would have the support of everybody in the House.

The issue of payment for local representatives raises a more fundamental question which has not been addressed; that concerns where the next generation of councillors will come from, and if there will be any. Who will they be and whom will they represent? Gone are the days of voluntary service by gentlemen or ladies of means, the self-employed who formed quite a large proportion of those in local government. Such people face increasing costs if they neglect their businesses to attend to council matters, and that is a real deterrent. We can no longer draw from the ranks of the unemployed, which we did for some time, because they do not exist any more. Thus, representation is not balanced and the calibre of representation is becoming a real problem. Women are under represented as are PAYE workers who cannot devote the necessary time to local authority work. Business people, with the exception of farmers, are less and less attracted to such work . One used to talk about farmers, publicans and auctioneers as forming the basis of local government but such people are now less attracted to it.

Thousands of people who work in high-tech companies like Intel and Hewlett Packard are not represented in local government at all and that is a genuine problem. Part of the explanation why people are not tempted into public service concerns the low esteem in which all politicians are held, but there is more to it than that. If the job of councillor is to be well done then it is really no longer a part-time job comprising a few hours of public service per month. Not only is it now more demanding and time consuming, it also requires an increasingly complex, technical and scientific knowledge and an exacting appreciation of a wide range of issues. Councillors are now being asked to make decisions on complex and sophisticated matters which will have huge and far-reaching implications for the public. As the Minister knows, local issues are often hugely emotive and the public can have access to greater levels of knowledge and expertise than councillors, the very people who are supposed to persuade and lead public opinion. If the Minister wonders about the lack of progress on his waste management strategy, he need look no further than this explanation. I doubt that the small salary being envisaged will make any difference to that trend.

Over the years there have been calls from every source for devolution and greater funding for local authorities. I am inclined to agree with the Minister in that I am loath to seek greater devolution until such time as councillors are adequately funded to perform the statutory functions they already have. Almost on a monthly basis, additional new responsibilities are being thrown at local government by way of legislation or regulation without any commensurate increase in funding or in the technical resources required to implement them. If local authorities fail it is not because of any lack of commitment by elected members or by council personnel, it is simply because they have not been allowed to succeed.

One of the biggest barriers to success is the big brother attitude adopted to local authorities by the Minister's Department. This attitude is based on a total lack of trust of local authorities and a complete failure to accept that they are independent and accountable units of local government. There is a yawning gap between the way in which policy is dictated from the top and the real problems of implementation on the ground.

Funding for projects increasingly comes in parcels for specific use, thus removing all local discretion, flexibility and potential for efficiency. Who among the public could believe a system operates whereby a council receives specific funding for resurfacing a road, but in no circumstances is it allowed to touch the footpath beside it? How can local representatives who are forced to participate in this kind of nonsense be anything other than figures of ridicule. It does not end there. Every single scheme, from a single house to a major water supply, must have its design checked and re-checked at every phase and its funding audited and re-audited, as if there was no professional expertise or integrity at local level.

The result of this overly intrusive big brother attitude is that we have a major infrastructural deficit, no spatial planning, a housing crisis and a looming waste management catastrophe. When councils fail to deliver, and fail they must in these circumstances, there are inevitable calls to set up new bodies to replace them. These quangos include the EPA, the DTO and the NRA. Amazingly, these bodies attract adequate funding. It is an irony that completely unaccountable bodies such as these have the trust of the Minister's Department in a way that the democratic and only truly accountable bodies of local government do not.

The biggest travesty of all is that the power of local government is being eroded at local level. When it was decided to encourage and fund local development – and I support this – instead of channelling funding through the bodies best placed to know about local needs, more quangos were established. I accept that many of these programmes, including the Leader programmes, did excellent work, but they were totally unaccountable. The decision was, rightly made to rein in some control to local government over the millions of pounds that were being distributed in that way. Instead of rationalising the bodies, however, we have added to the layers of such bodies meeting at local level, with county development boards and so on. There is such a multiplicity of bodies administering local affairs that the whole system is groaning under the weight of meetings required just to keep the various actors involved in touch with one another. It is absorbing thousands of hours of local officials, councillors and the public we have dragged in to participate in this farce. It is wholly inefficient and unproductive. All the participants are now so busy attending meetings that they have no time between meetings to do anything. We have created a monster. It is not participative democracy, but anarchy. I believe in local partnership but there is no public demand for the system the Minister has given to us. If the public had any appreciation of what is being done in their name there would be a national outcry.

The public want effective representation and efficient implementation. It is that simple. It should have been the focus of the Bill but, unfortunately, it is not. We will oppose the Bill on Second Stage on the grounds outlined in the amendment I have submitted. The Minister should withdraw the Bill and go back to the drawing board.

The publication of and debate on this Bill has been delayed for a long time. Its contents are disappointing and its future is in serious doubt. This Bill should have been published and enacted two years ago, before the local elections in 1999. Those elections were deferred in 1996 to allow the Government to bring forward proposals and legislation for the reform of local councils. The Minister, despite being in office between 1997 and 1999, failed to produce the Bill in time for the local elections in 1999. The Bill was eventually published last May and it has taken the Minister ten months to bring it before the House.

The contents of the Bill are extremely disappointing. It contains no fundamental reform of our 19th century system of local government. There are no changes in local government structures or local authority boundaries, no devolution of new powers, functions or resources to local authorities and there is no change in the undemocratic imbalance between the power of county managers and the role of elected members. The Bill is mainly a repetition of existing local government law – in so far as it consolidates that law, it is welcome – and a restatement of existing structures such as strategic policy committees and corporate policy groups.

I understand that the only two significant proposals in the Bill, for directly elected mayors and council chairpersons and for the provision of the end to the dual mandate, are currently being negotiated by the Minister. I further understand that the Minister intends to restrict eligibility for election as mayor or chairperson to politicians with five years service as public representatives. The Labour Party considers that such an approach would be undemocratic and would be an attempt to deny to members of the public the freedom and right to elect a city mayor or council chairperson of their choice. We will not subscribe to the creation of a political closed shop in local government.

It is an open secret that the four Fianna Fáil Independents will not agree to the abolition of the dual mandate. I was disappointed that the Minister did not inform the House about the current position regarding his discussions and negotiations with those Deputies. It is clear that his ability to progress the Bill through the House will rest on his ability or otherwise to carry with him Members on the that side of the House.

There are few subjects which have been discussed as often or as exhaustively as local government reform. Since the publication of the Barrington report in 1971, there have been three decades of discussion and debate about local government. We had the IPA report, the White Paper in the early 1970s, new proposals in 1985, a new Barrington report in 1990, more recently the Lacey report, a succession of Local Government Bills in 1991 and 1994, the constitutional amendment referendum to which the Minister referred and the postponement of local elections in 1984, 1990, 1996 and 1998 to allow for the introduction of local government reform. With what have we been presented following those three decades of discussion, debate, consultation, White Papers, documents and postponement of elections? The answer is this Bill.

If the Bill is ever passed, with what will we be left? We will end up with the same structures of local government that existed 100 years ago. These will be based on the county model, with municipal authorities acting, in the main, as sub sidiaries of the county authority. We will be presented with a system where, effectively, city and county managers, not the members and councillors elected by the public, will exercise the real power and executive functions in local authorities. We will be left with a system of local government where there will be no change in the functions which are carried out at local level by local authorities and those carried out at national level by local government.

The Bill will make no fundamental change to our current local government systems, structures and practices. During the past three decades, when the discussion and debate to which I refer was taking place, the position of local government has been seriously diminished. Rates, domestic and agricultural, were abolished which removed the independent funding base of local authorities. A range of new national bodies, such as the National Roads Authority, the EPA and others, were established, all of which removed functions from local authorities. The functions of local authorities in relation to the health services were removed with the establishment of the health boards and the Eastern Regional Health Authority in the greater Dublin area. Even the local health committees were abolished. The functions of local authorities in relation to agriculture, through the old county committees of agriculture, were also removed.

Despite the best efforts of the elected members—

The Deputy should not forget the sheep dipping committees.

The trouble is that, in light of the problems with which we are currently faced, we may not have any sheep to dip and we may be very glad to have need of such committees.

I agree with Deputy Mitchell that tribute must be paid to the service given by elected members and officials of local authorities in the past. Despite their best efforts, however, there is a declining public respect for the local government system and for local authorities. That is reflected in the declining turnout at elections, in the declining number of people willing to stand as candidates for election to local authorities, in a reduction in the number of functions carried out by local authorities and in a decline in the quality of service provided by those authorities. There is a serious level of demoralisation in the local government system at present. This, and the attendant decline in motivation, has been contributed to by the Minister's decision to abolish the senior professional positions, such as county planner, county architect and county engineer, in local authorities, which has removed the career path of professionals working in the local government system.

In accordance with better local government.

No, the Minister entirely misinterpreted what is meant by better local government. He did not reform the system as originally intended and professional staff in local authorities are now seriously demotivated because they can no longer aspire to the top positions within their professions.

They can become assistant managers or directors of services.

They are moving into the private sector.

There are people who want to work as engineers, architects and planners and not necessarily as managers. It was a great mistake to abolish the top positions to which they might have aspired, both from the careers point of view and from the point of view of the service provided to the public. It is a mistake that larger authorities will not have county planners and, in the course of time, that there will be no county or city architects or engineers.

The problem with discussing local government reform is that, up to now, the debate has concentrated too much on structures. We would be better to commence any discussion of local government by addressing the question of functions. If we are serious about the principle of subsidiarity – to which we all pay lip service – the development of local government and our commitment to the concept and principles of local government, it follows that there should be a fundamental devolution of functions from central Government to local government. There should be a fundamental reappraisal of the functions performed by central Government and by local government.

To some extent we almost need to reverse many of the functions because we have ended up with local authorities being essentially responsible for the provision and management of the physical infrastructure. Many of the public services which in other countries are delivered through the local government system, such as social services, education, health, policing and so on, are being delivered by central government.

To some extent there is a case for switching much of that around. Let us take, for example, the delivery of water service in Dublin. There is a case for saying that there should be a Dublin water authority and if one takes into account Wicklow, Kildare, Meath and so on, the greater conurbation of Dublin now has six or seven local authorities delivering water to it. We have a situation where local government is responsible for the delivery of a major area of infrastructure yet if a school wants to build on an additional classroom, it has to get approval from a central Government Department. Similarly, we have the situation, albeit with the existence of the National Roads Authority, where the local government is centrally involved in the actual contracting and provision of the primary road network. Deputy Mitchell and I share membership of a local auth ority. We were recently allocated £95 million in respect of the south eastern motorway yet if a sports club needs £10,000 to do something with its pavilion, it has to apply to a central Government Department for a national lottery grant.

To some extent we have got it the wrong way around. There is a strong case for centralising some of the delivery of infrastructure that we have seen traditionally in the local government service and shifting to local authorities. I refer to areas such as the education service, the management and running of our schools, hospitals, the health service, areas of policing and, I would argue, aspects of law making, particularly in relation to public order and estate management which in most countries are functions proper to our system of local government.

The Minister is right when he says that many people talk about local government reform and the devolution of functions to local government. His own wish is that some of these services would come into the local government area. He questioned whether there is a real demand that such services should be in the local government area and that is something that has to be addressed. It is all very well for us to talk about local government reform and subsidiarity but we have to think this through because if we are serious about local government reform and subsidiarity, we have to talk about the devolution of huge chunks of what is currently being done in central Government Departments to the local government service. We also have to think through the logic of that in the context of the size of this country because what we have is a centralised system of Government with much talk about local government which is not carried through in practice.

Similarly, if we think in those terms about the functions of local government and about creating a local government system where the functions relate to the way people live and the way they have settled, then it has implications for our structures of local government. We have to unclutter our heads about counties and about traditional cities and towns and examine the way people live here in terms of where they settle and ask ourselves basic questions which will give us certain answers about local government. Where do the children go to school? Where is the nearest third level college? Where do people go to the cinema or to the theatre? Where are the local sports facilities? Where is the swimming pool? Irrespective of our system of local government, with all its artificial, 19th century boundaries, what in reality is the way people are relating? If we do that we will find that, for example, the town of Bray has much more in common with Leixlip and Drogheda than it does with Baltinglass, or that the town of Gort in County Galway has more in common with Ennis than it does with Clifden, which is in the same administrative area. That has huge implications for the way we see local government structures.

I have spoken before about the need for directly elected and full-time members of a greater Dublin Council which would have responsibility for the strategic planning of the greater Dublin area and, within that context, having a network of 15 or 16 borough councils based on the communities and the areas with which people identify so that we would have a Tallaght and a Clondalkin local authority and so on based around the communities in Dublin.

It is a pity that the Minister has chosen to go for what he has called the realistic approach rather than the radical approach because at the start of a new century, we are making a big mistake, in bringing forward local government legislation, if we simply take the 19th century model that we have inherited, that we all know and with which to some extent we have all got comfortable and restate that in modern language and try to make a few adjustments to it here and there rather than taking the blank page the Minister referred to earlier and rewrite the map of local government. We would be doing a better service for local government, local democracy and for the quality and efficiency of the delivery of local services if we took out the blank page and rewrote a structure, a set of functions and an approach to local government which relates to the way people are living now and the way in which we anticipate that our society will develop.

What we are doing is simply making adjustments to a system which is over 100 years old. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of local government a number of years ago. It was right to do so. It was right to acknowledge the enormous service that both members and officials of local authorities have given this country over that 100 year period. It was right to say that the local government system has served this country well. It took it through the period of independence. It has delivered a huge range of infrastructure, public services, housing and so on. It is right to acknowledge that and pay tribute to the people who put enormous time and effort into it. Acknowledging it, however, and staying stuck in the groove is not doing any service for the future of the people of this country. We should acknowledge it, move on and develop a new system of local democracy and local government.

I want to make particular reference to a number of specific aspects of the Bill. The first, which I mentioned earlier, is that there is no significant change in the respective roles of county managers and elected councils. I know that some of the representative bodies have suggested to the Minister that he might consider transferring the executive functions of city and county managers to the new CPGs. That is an area we might explore on Committee Stage.

I have some reservations about it, one of which arises from a very bad experience I and my party group had in our local authority where despite constituting a quarter of the membership we were frozen out of the chairs of all the SPCs. It has conditioned my thinking in this area. If there is to be a "winner takes all" attitude in local government it would worry me.

We also must look at how accountability will be exercised in such an arrangement and the interface between what are now executive decisions being taken by elected members and the advice given by officials and professional staff.

On the question of the directly elected mayors and chairpersons, I have already expressed a degree of favour for the idea. To some extent I may have been clutching at any reforming straw in the Bill. I have reservations about the manner in which it is proposed. First, there are no real powers for these directly elected mayors or chairpersons and without real powers for them, we will end up with the worst of both worlds. On Committee Stage, I will propose that these directly elected people have real powers.

The messages we get on the grapevine that the Minister is contemplating a qualification period for eligibility to stand for election to these positions will not find favour with the Labour Party. If we have people elected to positions then the public ought to have the right to nominate. I am putting down a marker that we are not in favour of the development of a closed shop qualification for these positions.

On the question of the dual mandate, I agree the time has come to separate the conduct of national and local politics. However, this cannot be done simply by abolishing the dual mandate which allows Members of the Oireachtas to be members of local authorities. We must also make clear what are the functions of national and local government. As long as we continue with a system where functions which ought to exercised at a local level continue to be exercised by central Government Departments and while we continue the absurd "over the shoulder" supervision of local authorities by the parent Department, we will not be able, even without the dual mandate, to draw the line between the exercise of local and national politics.

I agree with the proposal that members of local authorities should get paid. Down the years they gave of their time literally freely to serve the public. There is a problem developing in local government, and Deputy Gay Mitchell alluded to it, which is part of the manifestation of what is the developing crisis in politics. Many talk about the decline in voter turn out and about people becoming cynical about politics, but that is not the real problem. The real problem is that we will run out of people to serve the public because people are not offering to do it. That is becoming clear at local government level. It has not yet been considered or debated in the context of the crisis in politics. We hear of the cynicism about politicians but that will solve itself in the course of time, because as respect for politics, the service of the public and the elected service of the public declines, the number, and more worrying the calibre, of people willing to do it will decline with it and ultimately the public will be the loser.

I am not sure that paying councillors alone will resolve that. It will require more. However, it is an indication that this is valuable public service that should be rewarded, properly remunerated, and I support the proposal that it should be done.

I am concerned about the provision in the Bill proposing to remove from urban authorities the sanitary services functions they currently have. I will return to this subject on Committee Stage. There is a very serious worry, which I share, among the urban authorities that the net effect of this Bill will be to further undermine their position and powers and make them more subsidiary to the larger counties or cities they belong to or are beside. There is a corresponding worry about how the SPCs and MPCs were established, giving a low level of representation to some urban authorities. I will return to this also.

One of the advantages of the delay in the debate on this Bill is that in the 10 months we all had an opportunity to receive submissions of different bodies and to meet them to discuss their views on local government and on this Bill. The submissions from the General Council of County Councils, the Local Authority Members Association and the AMAI were excellent. Like the Minister, although for different reasons, I do not agree with all the points made, but I look forward to teasing them out during Committee Stage. Fine submissions were also made by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, the Community Workers Co-op, Comhdáil Náisúnta na Gaeilge and many individual submissions, as well as those from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. Senator Jim Walsh, from the Minister's side of the House, did excellent preparatory work for this Bill.

In preparing for this Bill I engaged in consultation with local authority members of my party. An issue of concern to them, and to which I will also return on Committee Stage, relates to the right to time off from work to attend local authority meetings and to participate in them.

We have waited a long time for this Bill to be brought to the House. We are anxious to facilitate its passage through this House as quickly as we can because within the local government system, there is anxiety that progress should be made on this matter. It is a big Bill and we have to spend a great deal of time in Committee on it. We will not be obstructive. We will be critical certainly and will table a range of amendments. I made the point on the Order of Business that it is not scheduled for the week after St. Patrick's Day. I want to see the Second Stage of this Bill progressed quickly. I appreciate the political difficulties which the Minister has in making progress with the Bill, but sooner or later that will have to be put to a test in a division in the House. I urge the Minister to reschedule the remainder of the Second Stage and we will co-operate with him in having the Committee Stage addressed and in progressing it as quickly as possible.

Debate adjourned.