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.