Deputy Clune was in possession. She has 13 minutes remaining.
Local Government Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).
I wish to share my time with Deputy Hogan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Fine Gael supports the abolition of the dual mandate. There have been many rumours concerning this issue and I do not know if the relevant section will remain in the Bill. However, I look forward to further clarification on the issue on Committee Stage. Will the Minister clarify whether the section which proposes the abolition of the dual mandate still stands?
The Minister will deal with that matter when replying to Second Stage. The Deputy should proceed with her contribution.
My contribution is based on the value of removing the dual mandate. Elected representatives would benefit from its removal due to the increasing workload involved in serving at local and national level. Its removal would enhance democracy and result in the provision of better service for the public. However, I firmly believe that some provision should be made for Oireachtas Members to receive reports or sit in as observers at local authority meetings. I intend to table an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage. The majority of representations I receive concern local issues and unless we are privy to local authority information, we will be powerless in getting answers for constituents. There are some 20 Oireachtas Members from Cork and some 46 county councillors. Significant demands are placed on planners, engineers, county managers etc. to whom public representatives make representations and with whom they are in contact on a daily basis.
I want to refer to the recent report of the Ombudsman on local authorities. The report was quite critical of the service provided for the public and while I agree with this to a certain extent, we must bear in mind that local authorities are grossly understaffed and that those trying to provide services labour under very heavy workloads and pressures. Planners in Cork County Council only take telephone calls between 9.30 a.m. and 10.30 a.m. in order to have an opportunity to make a dent in their workloads. As an elected representative, even I cannot arrange a meeting with them or contact them by telephone. The Ombudsman's criticism should be viewed in this context.
The provisions in regard to payment, the dual mandate and the direct election of a cathaoirleach are probably the three main elements of the Bill. I am not particularly opposed to mayors or cathaoirleachs being directly elected. I would welcome such people being elected by the public on the basis of their manifestos. However, I have serious concerns about the limited nature of the powers proposed in the Bill for the position of cathaoirleach. It would be impossible for anybody elected to the position to fulfil his or her mandate or have the level of powers which would be expected of him or her by the public.
Under the terms of the Bill cathaoirleachs can propose a person for a civic honour and be informed by the manager of overspending. From 2004 they will be entitled to chair city or county development boards and the corporate policy group. Where the corporate policy group requests a report from the manager on any matter relating to a local authority function, the cathaoirleach may direct the manager to refrain from acting in the matter for a period up to two months. The cathaoirleach can require the manager to furnish information and request councillors appointed to any external body to report on its activities. These functions are very limited and would not fulfil people's expectations of the powers which should be held by directly elected chairmen.
The Bill, while it contains some worthwhile elements such as those to which I referred, certainly does not represent the total reform of local government which is, in many cases, creaking at the seams and deserves far more attention than it receives in the Bill.
I thank Deputy Clune for sharing her time. Local government in Ireland has a proud history. Since 1898 the system of local democracy has been well served by dedicated officials and councillors. Successive Governments have acknowledged the importance of local government to the citizen and, on many occasions, advocated reform of the system. Fianna Fáil's claim in its 1997 election manifesto that it would abolish rates ensured local sources of financial power were eliminated. This was the beginning of a retrograde step for councillors' decision making powers and their powers in regard to discretionary finances were irrevocably diminished.
The publication in 1996 by the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Howlin, of a document entitled, Towards Better Local Government, indicated that some changes could be forthcoming. The delays experienced in establishing the SPCs and achieving agreement among trade unions and the absence of reform in the delivery of services generated frustration among councillors and officials alike and created the perception that local government is no longer geared to responding to changing demands in a time of major economic growth.
I record my appreciation of the tremendous work carried out by the General Council of County Councils and the Local Authority Members Association. I commend them on meeting departmental officials and Oireachtas Members in an effort to modify the Bill's provisions to make local government more meaningful for members of the public.
The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, made many promises in An Action Programme for the Millennium, contingent on Fianna Fáil being returned to power in 1997. He stated he would remove the democratic deficit by restoring real power to elected members. He regularly criticises county managers and the county management Act of 1940, but has done nothing to provide an alternative vision or improved structure. Under the recent Waste Management (Amendment) Bill he decreased elected members' power and gave more power to managers. Managers will make decisions on local waste management plans, irrespective of the views of councillors.
Under this Bill the Minister seeks to create a new layer of bureaucracy between managers and elected members with his proposal for directly elected cathaoirleachs but fails to indicate whether any additional powers will be accorded to these new office holders. In his contribution on the Bill he indicated that a mayor or chairperson could nominate people for civic honours and entertain visiting guests.
I question the Minister's commitment to local government as he was so out of touch that he could not understand the furore in Kilkenny in regard to the definition of "cities" in Schedule 5 to the Bill. How could he be so out of touch in regard to the pride, status, symbolism and heritage enshrined in the corporations of Kilkenny, Sligo, Clonmel, Wexford and Drogheda? I compliment the five mayors who waged a major campaign to force the Minister to give a commitment to retain the status of these corporations in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, will indicate whether an amendment will be introduced on Committee Stage to ensure the commitment given by the Minister and the Taoiseach will be upheld. I compliment Councillor Cuddihy, Lord Mayor of Kilkenny, who was to the forefront in representing the people of Kilkenny city and county in this campaign.
Kilkenny was established as a town in 1230 and granted city status by King James I in 1609. I acknowledge that in Cromwell's aftermath the status of many places, Kilkenny included, was uncertain. However, Kilkenny received a second city charter in 1687 from King James II. A royal charter signed by Queen Victoria in 1862 refers to the city of Kilkenny. I want the status of the city of Kilkenny acknowledged by the Government on Second Stage tonight.
The issue of the dual mandate has generated controversy, particularly with independent Deputies. I want the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Wallace, to be forthright and honest with the House as to whether the relevant section is to remain in the Bill. There have been many meetings during the day as well as some indication as to the attitude of the Independents and the Government to the legislation. We want to know tonight, before we vote on Second Stage tomorrow, what is the Government's intention. If the section is deleted, it will be another political slap in the face for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, and a massive U-turn given his stubbornness to leave the section in the legislation. It will make his position untenable. He has had a number of very bad experiences in proposing legislation and having to climb down and were the section deleted it would be the biggest climb-down of all.
He should realise that his record as Minister for the Environment and Local Government is not a good one. Numerous legal cases are being taken against him in the European Union on issues such as water quality and waste management. We have the worst record in Europe on greenhouse gas emissions and nothing proactive has been done to achieve EU objectives on recycling of waste, even though the target is that 60% of domestic waste must be recycled by each member state in the next five years. The Minister promised efficiency in the local government system, but staff are leaving for the private sector on a weekly basis, particularly from the planning sections. He has delayed, or been forced to delay, this legislation for two years. He has also been forced to backtrack on the Electoral Bill and the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001. His impractical approach to the Planning and Development Act, 2000, ensures there will be a reduction of some 6,000 housing starts this year alone. Builders and developers are finding it exceptionally difficult to get the necessary approvals from financial institutions.
The Minister has talked a lot and spent £1.6 million on public relations since becoming Minister for the Environment and Local Government. I can only conclude that public relations companies have done their bit dealing with a difficult product. The Minister's tenure of office, particularly if he has backtracked on the dual mandate, will go down as a political failure. Having come in with a gung-ho approach, he will go out with a whimper.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Haughey.
In common with most Members of the House, and of the Seanad, I am a member of a local authority and have been for almost 16 years. The reason I stood for election in 1985 was that I believed I could get much needed things done which local councillors were unwilling or unable to tackle. The first thing I learned on being elected was that it was not quite that simple. The standard reply for a number of years to every question tabled by any councillor regardless of party was that a request would be considered in the context of priorities in the following year's estimates. Very foolishly, or naïvely, I asked a senior council official how I could ensure traffic lights at a very dangerous junction in the area I represented would become a priority. He sneered and suggested that it was for him to know and me to find out. That was the way I experienced local government in the early years.
I am aware from the Bill that estimates will be replaced with budgets, but – this is not clear from the legislation – unless budgets are presented in a simpler, more easily understood format, councillors will have little or no control over how money is being spent within their local authority areas. I may not be an accountant, but I am certainly no fool. Estimates of expenditure as they are presented, and have been presented up until this year, are double Dutch to most councillors and will remain so. I therefore urge the Minster to ensure budgets for local authorities are designed and presented to their members in a form that is easily understood. Things have changed and managers and staff are much more amenable to being helpful. In the early years I remember, as a member of Dublin County Council, attempting to establish estimates committees, but there was no way it would be entertained. They have had them in Dublin Corporation and certainly managers have been helpful to councillors in ensuring expenditure is incurred in the way councillors want.
I would like to comment on salaries for councillors which ties in to the issue of the dual mandate. Regardless of what we say, most of those elected to county councils see themselves as aspiring TDs and want to go on to the Dáil and Seanad. If we do not enlarge the work of local authorities, this will always be the case. Much comment has been made on the position of the independent Members and their opinions regarding the dual mandate. During the lengthy debate within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party I supported the abolition of the dual mandate, but was in a minority. If there are changes to the Bill, I urge Members on the other side of the House not to presume it is because Independents have called for them. There may be much opposition on this side as well.
It does not look like it.
If the dual mandate is to be abolished, I have requested that the Minister look favourably at the right of Deputies to attend council meetings and submit questions. They would not vote as they would not have been elected, but that would be a way to expand the role of a Deputy within local government while abolishing the dual mandate.
I very much welcome, thought it is not specified in the Bill, that local councillors will be paid. For many years after I was elected I was working in the home and did not have an independent income. I remember my husband asking if it was costing us money and it was. It costs every local councillor an amount of money to do their job properly. In Dublin if one wants to run for the Dáil or hold on to one's local council seat, one is marking a Deputy in the area and certainly issuing a substantial amount of circulars. This is all done at one's own cost. I did it at the expense of the only income earner in my home and it took him a while to realise it. Councillors will be very glad to see this provision put in place.
I do not know if directly elected mayors, or cathaoirligh as they will be called, will make much difference given the limited powers provided for them. However, the five year mandate is worthwhile and I welcome the fact that the cathaoirleach will be disqualified from election as a Dáil candidate while he or she holds office and for a 12 month period thereafter. This is good and innovative and marks a separation of local authority members from Dáil candidates.
Section 52 allows for joint committees of two or more local authorities. Some local authorities have been very proactive. When I was a member of Dublin County Council we had a joint management committee for the Liffey Valley which straddled Fingal and south Dublin. It withered on the vine because management was opposed to it and meetings would have to be cancelled. If such committees are established, they must achieve their objective.
When I stood for election in Dublin in 1985 the major source of reform of local government was the Barrington report. Were it not for it I would not have been elected as a local councillor. It substantially increased the number of seats in the Dublin local authorities' area. One of the buzzwords during that period was subsidiarity. Power was to be devolved and I suppose we believed that, though perhaps I have more experience of local government now. The Minister said the delivery of functions such as policing, public transport, health and social welfare comes within the local government system in some other countries but that if we were realistic, in the short-term in our circumstances these would not be subsumed within local government nor would there be such a demand, much as we might wish there were.
What the Minister is saying, and he is right to a certain degree, is that even when local councillors make brilliant presentations to Ministers for the Environment – and I have been one of those councillors – looking for such functions, local councillors often do not use the functions they already have and are afraid to make decisions. The Minister has pragmatically and rightly recognised that if other functions were to be devolved to local government, members would probably not exercise the powers given to them. If we did that we might see local government becoming completely separate from the Dáil and Seanad. However, I understand the reasoning: we do not exercise the powers we have. Local government is seen as just stopping things, which we tend to do. We want the power without the responsibility.
The new system of local government is built on partnership and the SPCs are a main plank in that. We will have a function regarding policy, although we may have always had that function and we did not know it. Part IX sets out the functions of local authorities and states that it is to provide a forum for the democratic representation of the local community and to provide civic leadership. I have highlighted the fact that sometimes we are lacking when it comes to giving that civic leadership. Part IX goes on to say that we should take action to promote community interests. That may give ammunition to protest groups to direct local councillors to do what they want. I know regarding a particular issue in my area that that was cited as our function: to promote community interests. We have not broadened the scope and function of local government enough to get that separation and to allow the dual mandate to wither on the vine but there is a great deal in this Bill which I welcome and support.
This is a substantial Bill. It consolidates local government legislation to date, it gives legislative recognition to many existing provisions for local government and it proposes a number of new reforms. The recent result in the Nice treaty referendum demonstrates clearly the view of the people that government institutions on international, national and local levels must be open, transparent and accountable. In short, they must be democratic and responsive to the real needs of people. That is what this Bill is about as far as local government structures are concerned.
The people recently voted for the specific recognition of local government in our Constitution by inserting Article 28A in Bunreacht na hÉireann. This decision alone compels all Members to ensure that local government operates effectively and efficiently in the interests of all citizens.
Local administration in Ireland consists of local government bodies which are part of the local government system or which are closely allied to it. Those bodies are the local authorities, which are well known and understood, but also the regional assemblies, regional authorities, county and city development boards, health boards, regional tourism authorities, vocational education committees, central and regional fisheries boards, harbour authorities, county enterprise boards, Leader groups and partnership companies.
Some of these bodies were established recently by the Minister as part of his ongoing programme of reform, while others are well known and established. It is important that the newer bodies put mechanisms in place to ensure that a so-called democratic deficit does not emerge. They must engage fully with the public they serve and ensure that they operate in a democratic manner.
The Bill stipulates that local government elections must be held every five years and cannot be deferred. This is welcome as what happened in the past was outrageous. The frightening reality is that nobody really noticed or cared when local government elections were deferred in the past. That is the real challenge of this Bill: to ensure that the public participates fully in the local government process.
I fully support the proposal in the Bill for a directly elected mayor or chairperson. An election for this position would be keenly contested and would bring about greater public participation in local government generally. A directly elected mayor or chairperson, with a mandate from the people, would be a respected figure and would be a powerful force for change and development. At present this office is largely ceremonial and terms of office are generally for one year. This gives the unelected city or county manager a greater role and effectively puts him or her in the driving seat. The lord mayor or local authority chairperson has a key role in ensuring that the council and its committees operate effectively and efficiently. He or she has a leadership role, especially after a new council has been elected. Therefore the lord mayor or chairperson must have some experience in public administration or public life at national or local level. I understand the Minister said something in this regard and may return to the matter on Committee Stage to ensure that that is the case.
The mayor or chairperson should also be adequately paid. From my experience in Dublin, the lord mayor is an extremely busy person. It is a full time job dealing with half a million people and if we are to attract people of the right calibre the income should be set somewhere between the income of a Minister and that of a Minister of State. As other speakers have said, if we opt for directly elected mayors or chairpersons, more powers will have to be devolved to local government. That would be essential for local democracy generally.
In principle I favour the abolition of the dual mandate. This is something we should work towards, as local government is now a very complex area. It can be difficult, though not impossible, to do both jobs effectively. Nevertheless, if we are to achieve this a major change in the political culture of the country is needed. In their hearts and souls the electorate still wants Deputies to be available locally and to attend to local matters. Their legislative role, important as it is, is still seen as secondary, which is unfortunate, though the results of elections demonstrate this. Before we abolish the dual mandate it would be in our interests to initiate a comprehensive education of the electorate regarding the differ ent roles played by Deputies and councillors in the political system. The Bill and its proposed reforms make up the first step in that process.
The Minister is doing away with the term "alderman", which is a mistake. That is a tradition peculiar to this country and I see no good reason to do away with the term. It is a keenly contested title in the cities and we should not do away with it in the interests of tradition and local government generally.
The strategic policy committees are given statutory recognition in the Bill but they are not working properly. Management is not committed to real partnership in decision-making through these committees. Management tends to dictate the agenda of these committees and is not responsive to ideas from the membership. If we are to give statutory recognition to the SPCs we need to deal with that problem and to think it out more to ensure that is not the case in the future. Local government has, on occasion, failed the citizens. In the Dublin area in particular, the taxi issue is an example. Insufficient taxis were available and local government did not deal with the problem effectively. Central Government had to step in. The local authorities are also failing to deal with the issue of waste management. Again, central Government must step in here. It has brought forward the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill, 2001, which I fully support.
Local government has faced major challenges in the past in housing, sewerage and public water supply. Local authorities dealt with these matters effectively. However, we have had our failures in relation to taxis and waste management. We need to be conscious that from time to time central Government will have to step in to deal with problems which are not being tackled at local level.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill for salaries for local authority members. It is a recognition of the work which local authority members do. I fully support the position in relation to ethics. Revelations from the Flood tribunal make such provisions in the Bill very relevant. It is interesting to note that we will no longer have the famous and much abused section 4 motions throughout the local government system. The section dealing with this issue will now be section 139. We will have to get used to the new terminology and I hope the new section 139 will not be abused in the way the old section 4 was.
Local authorities need to be increasingly responsive, customer orientated and less bureaucratic; that is the tone of this Bill. Section 225 deals with reclaimed land and the position in relation to planning permission. I oppose the application by Dublin Port for the infill of 52 acres of Dublin Bay. Section 225 will be relevant to that and I have no doubt Dublin Corporation will refuse planning permission when the effective legal framework is in place.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Dukes. I am far from satisfied with the main thrust of this Bill. It proposes to give more power to local councils and local councillors and I would welcome that if that were to happen. However, I have been in local government for a long time and am a county councillor. I have severe reservations about the thought that lies at the back of this Bill. I find it very difficult to understand that tonight, the day before the Bill goes on to its next stage, a Minister would try to con this House into believing he is on the side of local democracy. In fairness to the Minister, I have heard him talk on this subject for many years, and before he was a Minister. He gives the impression that there is little about local government that he does not know. Perhaps he is right. However, what people do in opposition is very different to what they do when in power.
If one was to take this Bill at face value, it is hard to see much wrong with it. However, next week in this House, in front of the same Minister, we are to have another Bill that will over-rule 30 Galway councillors of every shade of opinion, from every location in the county. These are 30 people who would literally not join each other in saying the rosary, or on any other topic other than waste management. On two occasions in Galway County Council they have unanimously refused to pass the Connacht waste management plan for a variety of excellent reasons. Everyone except the Minister would appear to be wrong on this issue at the minute.
The same Minister tells the House tonight that he is in favour of local democracy. When I see what is happening I take this with a grain of salt. I hope to get the opportunity of speaking further when the Bill comes back to the House, but it is a most draconian measure and the greatest attack on local government in several generations. I will fight it tooth and nail the next day the Bill is in the House because it is an insult to me and my 29 colleagues on Galway County Council, and members of several other councils.
The news around the House this evening is that the dual mandate as contained in this Bill will be withdrawn tomorrow. I do not know if that is true but, usually, the voices are not wrong on such matters. If that is the case I find it difficult to understand what is going on in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. It takes only Deputy Healy-Rae to overturn the whole thing. To bring legislation to the House, the Minister must have the backing of his party and it must be Government policy, which I assume this was. The situation is similar to the Nice treaty referendum result. The Government failed to deliver. It could not deliver then and it obviously cannot deliver on this matter either.
Morally, the Government is bankrupt. If it is decided through a party machine and through Government that a measure is to be implemented in the House, and then at the final moment the most important leg of the stool is pulled out from underneath, the Government is on a very weak wicket. It is time to ask who runs this Govern ment. I hope the Minister in his reply will let us know whether this part of the legislation is to be withdrawn tomorrow. Members deserve to know. If the Minister set out to help local authorities – and I assume that was the basis of this Bill – then I agree with the principle that councillors should be paid. They have been used as a mud-splasher for years. Theirs has not been a nice position in community life. They deserve what they are to get. I am amazed that it took so long to bring this measure in but I hope that, at least, it will go through tomorrow.
I begin by repeating an old grievance of mine. I have consulted Standing Orders, particularly the provisions of paragraph 3 of Standing Order 111, under which interventions in this House on the Second Stage of a Bill are limited to 20 minutes for Members other than Ministers. That is a totally anti-democratic provision. To properly discuss a Bill of this size in 20 minutes is an impossibility. Any Member of this House with a real interest in local government, and who is not a member of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government, is seriously constrained in what he or she can say on Second Stage.
There is no need for me to be reminded what Government was in power when the Whips agreed to that. However, it is fundamentally anti-democratic and was a piece of this mindless political correctness that we give in to far too often in the House. We should have the confidence in ourselves to believe that if a Deputy has something to say, he or she should have the time to say it. I do not take the view that I got elected to keep my mouth shut and I would like to see the back of that Standing Order. I have little hope that I will be in a position to do that in the near future, but perhaps some day, common sense will break through and overcome this nonsensical political correctness.
To come to the Bill, I agree with Deputy Connaughton that the claim of the Government that the Bill is part of one element of a broad programme of measures for the renewal of local government is entirely spurious. Members of local authorities have, in law, the power to settle their policies. This is repeated in section 129. However, the role of local authorities is very restricted in practice. Neither individual councillors nor groups of councillors have the resources or the backup required to play a full part in determining local authority policy. In practice, the power rests with the city or county managers. As long as this is the case, we will not have true democracy.
The Bill proposes to have a directly elected cathaoirleach who might and is most likely to have no connection with any group and possibly no experience of local government. Faced with the existing management structures, this popularly elected cathaoirleach will have no real power, although public expectation will be different. This is not a criticism of any local authority manager or local authority managers in general. It is far from it because they are also seriously under-resourced. Successive Governments in successive and ill-judged so-called reforms of local government have added new functions to, and have made new demands of, local authorities without a commensurate allocation of resources.
Although section 129 solemnly states what are the powers of councillors, I defy any Member in the House to say with a straight face that it is councillors who decide the policy of the local authority having examined the operations of any local authority. Meeting after meeting councillors are faced with a large bundle of documents containing a series of proposals that they do not have time to read, let alone digest. They are told the proposals have to be passed before a certain time or the Minister, or the county manager, will do the job for them.
Most county councils make the decisions recommended to them by the county managers. As I said, I am not criticising county mangers. I know many of them and they are, largely, upstanding people who provide a good and dedicated service for their communities. However, the law, which states that it is councillors who make the policy and managers who execute it, is just a fiction. I am not accusing councillors of incompetence in saying they merely rubber stamp the policies made by the managers. As long as this is the case, the Bill will not be part of any programme of measures for the renewal of local government. We will not have local democracy as we are supposed to have it. We have only the appearance of local democracy – the reality is very different.
Recent high growth rates in the economy, which we are delighted to see, have caused a boom in construction and infrastructure provision generally. Local authorities have been severely restricted in their ability to respond to emerging demands. Not least of their problems has been the very tardy adoption of information technology in the local government system.
Infrastructure provision was discussed in the House earlier. Those who think or pretend that the local authority system is doing its job must ask themselves the reason the Government has apparently been converted to public-private partnerships. The Government has had several Pauline conversions on its road to Damascus. Some time ago it would never have dreamed of selling off a State asset. Now, it is talking about a car-boot sale of Aer Lingus. It is a Government which would never have dreamed of allowing a bank in national ownership to pass into private ownership, but it later tried to put three banks together and sell them off. The Government would never have accepted that the private sector had any contribution to make to public infrastructure, but what is happening is that it is touting public-private partnerships as a way of getting roads built quickly. We know this is not the case. It is doing it not because of a conversion to the more liberal economic doctrines of its smaller partners, but because it knows our local authority system cannot handle the volume of work that needs to be done.
The Bill, like many of its ill-judged predecessors, adds new obligations to local authorities at a time when they are coping with the formidable challenge of drawing up housing programmes to comply with the provisions of last year's Local Government (Planning and Development) Act. In addition to this, the Bill requires them to prepare a corporate plan – more politically correct rubbish being foisted on them. This plan must be prepared in addition to the county development plan. On top of this, they have to prepare a rolling three year capital programme as if it were not part of a county development plan or a proper corporate plan. County development plans spawn a series of town and area action plans, all of which require close and detailed attention by the manager, his staff and councillors.
The local authorities are being told to do all these extra things and I am not sure anybody has thought out their function. Local authorities will now spend virtually all their time making plans and no time doing anything constructive. Is any Minister prepared to acknowledge what we are heaping upon local authorities and ask if it contributes one jot to human health, wealth and happiness, which should be the proper job of local authorities? Local authorities are being buried in bureaucracy and drowned in plans, thus making it difficult for them to provide the infrastructure and services people expect. The net result is that our local government system is becoming inefficient through over-burdening.
We have planning departments throughout the country which are unable to cope, partly because they cannot keep staff. I am sure all Members have had the experience of finally making a connection with the relevant, responsible person in the planning department of a local authority only to find that he or she was gone in a few months having been headhunted by the private sector which can afford to pay them better. Local authorities are engaged in an unequal contest with the private sector. I am not accusing anybody of bad faith, but the local authorities simply cannot keep pace. The result is that an increasing number of matters are being kicked upstairs to An Bord Pleanála and everyone becomes more frustrated.
The Bill also provides for the partnership modelvia strategic policy committees. I know such committees are not an invention of the current Government; they were invented by a previous Administration. I did not like them at that stage and I do not like them now. This is not because I object to proper consultation with the people, quite the contrary. I ask the Government to consider what is being done. We have gradually reduced the power of councillors and their ability to respond to the communities they represent.
We have taken away councillors' powers and they now cannot add new expenditure or programmes – they cannot even shift expenditure. As a result, communities have become completely disenchanted with councillors and the entire system of politics. On recognising this, the Government, instead of seeking the root cause looks for a politically correct response to it. The politically correct response to such disenchantment is not to give councillors the resources to do their job, but to make them directly available to community groups. Councillors who have for many years been trying to get things done are finding that community groups no longer need to consult them because they can obtain funding through any other of the myriad other programmes we operate. We are surprised that people are fed up and becoming cynical and sceptical about the value of our political system, when we deliberately set out to undermine it by not giving councillors adequate powers. In addition, we deliberately undermined it from the other side by giving other people greater powers to deliver. That is nonsense and any Bill that rests in part on that kind of process is doomed to failure.
Will we obtain a reply tonight in respect of question about the dual mandate? Has anyone in the Government ever considered whether it would be constitutional to do what the Minister proposed to do? Is it constitutional to say that membership of the Houses of the Oireachtas constitutes a disability in law from being a candidate for election to a local authority? Is it constitutional to inform a Member of this House – for the numerous reasons that have been put forward, including the fact that we are very busy – that he or she has a job to do here and, therefore, cannot seek another job with a county council? Is it acceptable to inform a person who might be the managing director or financial manager of a company, a farmer, a self-employed auctioneer, etc., that it does not matter how busy they might be in their occupation, they are entitled to serve as a councillor? What sense does that make?
I know it is not politically correct to say this and I should not do so, but sometimes the truth must come out. If we have seen the end of that provision – I do not know to whom the thanks for this are due, it could be Deputy Healy-Rae or someone else – that would not be a bad development. I agree with the Government if it intends to give a different kind of mandate to councillors. I can foresee the day when, if we are serious about local government, councillors will be full-time, elected, properly paid officials. If the Government wants to proceed in this manner, it should do so and should not present us with a rag such as this Bill.
I wish to share time with Deputy McGuinness.
That is agreed.
This appears to be a major Bill and it is certainly large enough. It is probably the most wide-ranging legislation which has appeared for a long period and I hoped it would have been fundamental in nature. However, that is not the case. Perhaps it will prove otherwise when the Committee Stage debate commences.
There is a great deal of discussion in the Bill about enhancing the role of public representatives. I do not see how the Bill will achieve this and it has certainly not been achieved in recent years. I have been a member of a local authority since 1985 and the powers and the role of public representatives has been continuously run down. I would hate to set out on a career as a councillor now because the local authority system is not as good as it was 15 or 16 years ago and it is much more difficult for new arrivals to make a meaningful input.
There has been a great deal of discussion on the part of the Government, the Minister and the previous Administration about enhancing the role of public representatives and giving them additional powers. The Department has been pushing this policy for the past six or seven years. I am a councillor in this city and I was extremely annoyed when the council's powers relating to taxis were removed. Other powers will be removed by the Waste Management Bill, but at least this is being done through the avenue of legislation. The taxi issue was dealt with by order of the Minister. There has been a great deal of talk, but to date people's actions have failed to back this up.
I am concerned that the policy to which I refer is being pushed by the Department. The explanatory memorandum states that the aims of the Bill are to enhance the role of the elected member and support community involvement. That latter is probably the real purpose of the Bill, because it is the direction in which local government appears to be going. I am extremely concerned about that. I agree with Deputy Dukes that the role of public representatives is being reduced and they are being sidelined. Many of the changes to the SPCs have not been fully implemented and there have been industrial relations problems. However, in the past six or seven years there appears to have been a policy to remove all power from councillors. Anything the Department can get its hands on is being transferred to those involved in community involvement, namely, various quangos – be they established under the community pillars, the area partnerships or, more recently, the RAPID programme – which are answerable to no one.
And they are given fancy names into the bargain.
The city and county development boards have been strongly pushed by the Department, but they are a disaster. These boards use a dual form of reporting to the city or county manager and to the Department. That is a crazy model and I do not know who was responsible for developing it. It is similar to placing a cuckoo in another bird's nest, because all that is happening is that internal tension is being created. The Minister often states that county development boards come under the aegis of local authorities. However, all they do is fight and squabble which is an extremely negative development.
Some of the boards to which I refer display a strong anti-public representative bias. As far as I can see, they consult the agendas of elected public representatives and try to arrange to hold committee meetings, seminars, functions, etc., on days when those representatives are otherwise engaged. On budget day, the diary of every Member was full of functions being run by these quangos because they knew public representatives of all shapes and sizes would be tied down. They chose that day to hold events and exclude public representatives.
Some of these groups believe they are the Cabinet in waiting. Before every city council meeting, one is usually given a cup of tea and a sandwich. However, I have heard rumours that city and county development boards hold their meetings or barnstorming sessions at some grand hotel or castle. I do not know when the Department of the Environment and Local Government will wake up to this fact, but I do not believe it will be before some of these partnership groups storm the gates of the Custom House and instigate a coup.
The jargon used in the Bill, such as "empowering" the community, is fine and it sounds great. However, there are people, be they in this House or outside, who put their necks on the line and, while they may fight and squabble among themselves, they were elected to the offices they hold. It is all very well to put in place structures and encourage involvement from community representatives. However, public representatives have been sidelined and all power and resources is being transferred to the groups to which I refer. This has gone too far. The Department's policy, which it has pushed strongly, is wrong. Officials of the Department and Ministers will state that it has been a great success but it has been a flop. However, they continue to issue propaganda in favour of it in the hope that someone will believe them.
As a member of a city council for 16 years, I am strongly opposed to the notion of abolishing the dual mandate. If all the rumours are true about a recent development in this regard, I very much welcome it. It is vital for larger parties with a number of candidates running for office to be involved in local government. If the referendum on the Nice treaty last week showed anything, it is that the people want their public representatives to be involved locally and not always to be in Dáil Éireann debating international issues. We often wonder why only 65% of people vote in a general election, but it would be much lower if we had this pure system where we were not as close to the people. At the same time, power is being given to people who do not stand for election. I hope there is a change in the Bill regarding the dual mandate. It is more difficult for public representatives for Galway, Kerry or Donegal to attend corporation or county council meetings than for those in Dublin where they manage to combine the two.
It was proposed that councillors be paid, but that is unnecessary. The expenses system should be left as it is and any amendment to it should give people the option to drop out or stay in as they require. At least two councillors on Dublin City Council do not want a salary because they are on invalidity pensions and want to remain on the expenses system. The idea is that TDs must vacate their council seats because councillors will be paid, but I do not want any payment. I am happy with the system of expenses and many councillors and TDs do not want payment.
The concept of a directly elected lord mayor or chairman sounds fine in theory, but there is no point in changing it unless real powers are given to the position. The present set-up is that every councillor has a turn in the position which is mainly ceremonial. The notion of a strong, political figure driving the needs of the city or county is good, sound logic and is how many cities and counties progress, but there is no point in having him or her directly elected unless powers are brought to the position. Those powers are not provided for in the Bill. If they were to be provided, it would require a change in the legislation governing city and county managers, something which might take 20 years if the small changes made under the strategic policy committees in recent years are anything to go by. I do not see the point of having directly elected lord mayors or chairmen unless they are given real powers.
That raises another point about these changes. I thought the Minister had it in mind a few years ago to change the electoral system. The Bill is putting the cart before the horse in that the electoral system needs to be changed to single seat constituencies and some form a list system before we can begin to discuss abolishing the dual mandate. Ramming through this part—
The old Fianna Fáil dream comes back again.
No, I am talking about sequence. The sequence is wrong of itself. Electoral reform should come first and, if it did, perhaps the changes in the Bill would be a natural follow-on. The sequence is wrong. Dáil and electoral reform seem to have been forgotten about and we are left trying to enact this legislation.
I hope all the rumours about the Bill are true and that there will be a change. I generally support local government but we need to be fair. I agree with the previous speaker that we need to give power to public representatives. If they are given the resources and support, be they Members of the Oireachtas or members of local authorities, progress will be made.
I wish the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, well. I understand he is ill which is why he is not taking the Bill.
I consider the legislation to be an opportunity and platform for Members to debate the issue of local government. The 246 sections in the Bill should have led to a more widespread debate among Members of the House and more time being made available for Committee Stage. I agree with Deputy Dukes that the system in place whereby we are limited will not be helpful in debating a Bill of this size.
The guillotine does not help either.
The Bill is a Pandora's box which, now that it is open, has allowed a number of issues out into the open which many of us want to tease out, tackle and understand more to bring forward legislation which deals with them in a much better way.
I stated publicly my position on the status of Kilkenny city. I publicly declared my interest in ensuring the city status for Kilkenny was maintained. The Minister and the Taoiseach not only gave a commitment to me but echoed it on their visit to Kilkenny city for the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting that specific amendments would be tabled on Committee Stage to protect the charter of Kilkenny, given to us in 1609 and later in 1687 and 1862, which declared Kilkenny a city.
We are very proud of the rich heritage and culture which exists there and I consider the trappings of local government, be it the robes or name of Alderman, to be part of our history and heritage. We are proud that we have been a corporation for so long and a city since 1609. We are anxious to retain that structure and I ask that the appropriate amendments be made available as soon as possible so that we can relax in the knowledge that the city status is protected in the Bill.
I also make perfectly clear my position on the dual mandate. I know it was represented throughout the country, perhaps by people who did not have my interests at heart. It reminded me of Chinese whispers. My position, by the time it reached the final whisper, had been drastically distorted. I support the dual mandate. Local government lost a certain amount of its strength when many of the long-serving public representatives were bought out. That weakness still exists and newer members are only now coming to grips with what was and is involved in local government and what we expect to be involved in it in future. A huge learning process is in train.
To remove Members of the Oireachtas from the local government system would weaken it further and would break a unique connection established through generations of politicians between local government and Members of the Oireachtas. It would also kill off the platform of information on many issues confronting the country which we end up airing in this Chamber. As bad as local government might be and as much as it needs reform, this House needs a great deal of reform to make it much more meaningful to the lives of ordinary people.
I have been a local councillor for 22 years and my father spent 50 years before me on the local authority. My family service to the local authority dates back to the early 1900s. I appreciate the role local authority members play in the make-up of democracy in Ireland. It is high time we acknowledged the voluntary role they play by giving them a direct payment. Whatever form it takes, be it payment or expenses, does not concern me. What does is that councillors would at least be compensated for the work they do.
As regards the dual mandate and expenses, as a Member of the Oireachtas, I do not expect to be paid. I want to play a role in local government. I have raised the point directly with the Minister that I have a constitutional right to fight local elections if I choose to do so. I do not notice any cry from the public to change my mandate as a local government member and as a Member of the Oireachtas. They had the opportunity in 1999 but they did not take the seat from me. They endorsed my position. As a result, I support the role played by Oireachtas Members in local government. The only time I will change my mind about that is when the Oireachtas is overhauled and we are given a more meaningful role.
The election of mayors and chairmen was discussed.