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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Nov 2007

Vol. 641 No. 4

Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007: Committee and Remaining Stages.


Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, and 6 are cognate and amendment No. 4 is related. The amendments will be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 25, to delete "inserted" and substitute "as substituted".

These amendments are to tidy up some contextual interpretation of what is happening, replacing the word "inserted" with "as substituted" as a substitution is taking place. I am keen to be informed by the Minister of State what approach his Department is taking on these amendments. Will they be accepted or is there a resistance to doing so? If there is such resistance, what are its grounds?

My motivation in putting these amendments before the House is to assist the Bill. Recently we witnessed that the intention of a Bill and the roll-out of an idea can be two entirely different concepts. My intention is to assist the roll-out of this and ensure the legislation as drafted and read is clear for comprehension and interpretation.

At the end of his speech on Second Stage, the Minister of State seemed to assure us there is nothing to worry about and the legislation only facilitates the transfer of functions from one Department to another. He has made clear his good intentions and assurances that there will be no other effect. If that is so, what is the purpose of the Bill? Was the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government not doing the job right?

The Minister outlined last night in his speech the rationale for the Government decision to transfer these functions. As I stated at the end of my summary on Second Stage, the functions relating to road safety, in particular, are a matter of very grave concern, as are the matters of having roads dealt with in one Department. That was the initial rationale for the decision.

I thank Deputy Ciarán Lynch for going to the trouble of trawling through the Bill and addressing issues of this nature. From my previous experience with Bills, I have often found technical amendments, when put before us and considered, sometimes present issues of considerable importance in terms of interpretation of legislation, should the need subsequently arise in the courts or in other circumstances.

We asked officials to take up this list of amendments with the Parliamentary Counsel. My initial reaction, grammatically, was that this was a case of substitution. The strong legal advice we have received from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel is that the term "as substituted" is not used in this context and the terms used in the Bill are more appropriate to the situation.

I may press the amendment. I take on board the Minister of State's response but the legal advice I have received tells me these amendments are accurate. I accept this has been through a lengthy drafting process and would consider withdrawing the amendment this evening if it was agreed to look at the issue on the next Stage so it can be debated and examined further.

Is the Deputy withdrawing the amendment?

If the issue can be raised again on a later Stage.

We will be moving on to Report and Final Stages after Committee Stage. Is the Deputy withdrawing amendment No. 1?

Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, and 6 are all the same, with the words "as substituted" inserted. If the Minister of State has legal advice, I would be prepared to withdraw the amendments this evening. I would prefer to argue the more substantive point in amendment No. 5.

Just to clarify, the intention is to deal with all Stages this evening and the provision that would frequently arise, where I would undertake to look at the amendments before Report Stage, does not arise this evening because we are proceeding directly to Report Stage.

This comes back to the position this morning, when the Taoiseach said he wanted to fast-track this Bill. I would like to have seen the legal advice the Minister of State has but because of the processing of the Bill that is not possible. There is a deadline for the Bill this evening. I will not hold up the business of the House over one word but it is an unfortunate precedent, as was stated this morning, that simple amendments like this cannot be looked at and given time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 1 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 not moved.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following subsection:

"(4) Regulations made in whole or in part under section 12 of the Roads Act 1920 which relate to matters other than those referred to in subsection (3) and are in force immediately before or upon the coming into operation of the Local Government (Roads Functions) Act 2007, continue in force and may be amended or revoked in respect of those matters by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.”.

I would like a detailed explanation of this before I make a decision on it. My initial reading is that this was an omission from the Bill. The amendment clarifies the role and responsibilities of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the intention of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister of State will explain this and give the legal advice he has received to the House as to why this should not be in it.

Under section 12(1) of the Roads Act 1920, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government currently has the power to make regulations about changes in vehicle ownership and the issue, inspection and surrender of vehicle registration certificates.

The purpose of the amendment to section 2 is to provide a statutory basis for the Minister for Transport to make regulations in respect of the NVDF functions being transferred to him. If I understand the Deputy's concern, it is that the remaining functions under section 12(1) currently reside with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am assured the power to make regulations under the 1920 Act about all other elements that have not been removed by section 2 remains with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If I was to accept this amendment it would, de facto, restate superfluously that the remaining powers of the 1920 Act under section 12(1) are left with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is unnecessary and not advisable in legislation for a variety of reasons, not least clarity.

I assure the Deputy that I have checked this and I am sure the remaining functions under the 1920 Act that have not been removed by this section and transferred to the Minister for Transport still reside with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

If the Minister of State understands my intention he will agree this is an omission and the amendment would clarify it. If it clarifies the matter and the Minister of State takes on board the need for clarification, we are in a catch 22 situation. If the amendment does not create harm, why leave it out when difficulties could arise if we do not include it? If the Minister of State can assure me that the intention of the amendment is covered in the Bill so we do not find ourselves back here in six to 12 months to amend the legislation, I will take his word for it.

Now is the time to clarify exactly what functions will remain with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Many times in the past we have had to amend legislation that has been rushed through because of deadlines imposed under EU regulations. What will the Minister's functions be for secondary roads and the register of vehicles?

To answer comprehensively I would need a copy of the 1920 Act, which I do not have to hand. I undertake, however, to provide the information for Deputy McCormack.

I understand Deputy Lynch's concern, that the impact of the change in section 3 might be to leave none of the 1920 powers with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but I have taken legal advice on the point and I have been assured that only the functions specified for transfer to the Minister for Transport will be transferred and all previous functions held by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are retained by him.

Only a couple of years have elapsed since the then Minister, who is now the Minister for Transport, introduced a Bill before this House to abolish the dual mandate. He almost cried in the House, such was his dedication to the task before him and his sincerity regarding how in future, all matters that had been under the Minister's control previously and for which the Minister was accountable to the House, would be answered and replied to in parliamentary questions in future. He was so devout in his dedication to that particular concept that he almost made other Members cry too. However, as other speakers have noted, that is not what happens at present.

I am worried about an emerging matter, namely, that the transfer of powers from one Department to another will eventually result in this House ending up as a kind of no man's land. Members will be talking to themselves, asking questions of themselves and being informed the Minister has no responsibility to the House and that whatever matter is in hand is not part and parcel of those powers that were transferred to another Minister.

I will repeat what I believe to be true as it relates to this issue. In recent days I received a letter from the Ceann Comhairle, who is sincere in his duty, telling me that an issue I raised was not appropriate and the Minister was not accountable to the House. However, he is accountable. A Minister is accountable to the House for any matter that he or she funds from his or her Department's budget to any subsidiary body and in respect of the general policy applied by that body thereafter.

While the following example does not relate to roads, it is highly pertinent. The Road Safety Authority took responsibility to make a policy statement in respect of the holders of provisional driving licences. Obviously the Minister was embarrassed by the alacrity at which the policy statement was taken and decided to pull the hand brake and perform a hand brake turn on the issue.

The Deputy should avoid going off on tangents.

The Acting Chairman will find this to be a graphic example and if he allows me to finish he will be pleased with the manner in which I intend to put it.

The Minister correctly made the decision as to how the system would operate in future. The Acting Chairman knows I am correct in this regard. Having so done, Members are entitled to consider him to have correctly exercised his powers. However, what happened? I revert to the amendment. What will happen? There will be apologies to the effect that the Minister is not accountable to the House. The Minister is accountable outside the House. He can speak at local or national Fianna Fáil meetings or on RTE. He can speak to the local or national newspapers. He can speak to everyone.

Deputy Durkan is wandering from the amendment under discussion.

However, this scenario is similar to the amendment in that it constitutes a transfer of powers to another body. Members rightly query the meaning of this development. Does it entail a diminution of the entitlement of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas to raise questions on any or all of these issues?

I am grateful to Deputy Durkan because his contribution has enabled me to find at least part of the answer to Deputy McCormack's question, which might be helpful. First however, I will respond to the point made by Deputy Durkan. The point was also raised by Deputies McCormack and Ring, as well as several others on Second Stage.

It is important to bear in mind that the effect of this legislation is to transfer functions from one Department to another and not to——

——one of the bodies of which Deputy Durkan is clearly a great admirer. I can assure him on that point.

I have found a note on the 1920 Act. Under section 12(1) of the Roads Act 1920, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has power to make regulations regarding changes to vehicle ownership and the issue, inspection and surrender of vehicle registration certificates. In addition, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will continue to have power to make regulations pertaining to the issue of new motor tax discs in place of discs that have been lost or destroyed and so on. The issue that was of major concern to Deputy Ciarán Lynch centred on motor tax and the powers which, under section 12(1) of the Roads Act 1920, resided with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am assured they will continue to be held by him.

Unfortunately, the explanation provided by the Minister of State in this regard is less than satisfactory. Assurances differ from evidence and I wish to allow this amendment to stand. While I have withdrawn the others, this amendment should be put to the House.

I am now even more concerned since the Minister of State's clarification of part of my question. It now appears local authorities and their managers will be reduced to only having responsibility for issuing new tax discs to replace lost discs. What will be the destination for the money that will be raised from car tax in my county or any other? Will it be retained within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Will it be ring-fenced for the provision of non-national roads within counties? Will it go to the Department of Transport? Members have debated this legislation for a short time. It is vague regarding what will happen. The key issue for Members concerns how funding will be provided for non-national roads under the remit of local authorities in future.

Until now, the local councillors, who have intimate knowledge of non-national roads within their counties, could direct where funds might be spent. As this function will be transferred to the Department of Transport, will it be removed entirely from duly elected members of local authorities? A difficulty has arisen in the House that I foresaw when the dual mandate was abolished. At present, no Member is also a member of a local authority although many have great experience in this regard. However, it is possible that in a few years the House will be filled with individuals who have never been members of local authorities. Therefore, Members must take responsibility in November 2007 for what will happen in future if they allow this Bill to pass in the manner proposed without possessing full knowledge of what will happen or whether the Department of Transport will be answerable for expenditure to members of local authorities in future.

I will raise another issue that has not been clarified as this probably will be the Minister of State's last contribution. What will happen to the money that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, is able to throw out everywhere in Connemara and other CLÁR areas for the construction of roads? Will this power move to the Department of Transport and will some other Ministers be making such announcements on Galway Bay FM every day, rather than the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs? Alternatively, will he still have a budget to give money indiscriminately to any road he likes within his constituency, provided it is located within a Gaeltacht or CLÁR area? What is the status of the fund in question? Will it be transferred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? I raise this issue because some concerned constituents have already asked me questions about how I could allow such legislation to be passed without having such matters clarified.

On the last question, I assure Deputy McCormack that the legislation before the House has no negative implications or consequences for his constituency colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. He can rest assured in respect of this matter, which is of great concern to him.

I am delighted, as will be the Minister.

On the other point that he raised on the local government fund or, to be more specific, on the motor tax and driver licence fees, they will, as heretofore, continue to go into the local government fund, which will be administered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 6, line 27, to delete "inserted" and substitute "as substituted".

I will be in a position to withdraw this amendment and amendment No. 7 in order to move the Order of Business on. The Minister can see that the intention of amendment No. 7 is to rename the citation of the relevant Acts. It encompasses the broader aspects of the Bill. What is the Department's interpretation of that amendment?

The Deputy may be anticipating a later debate.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 3 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 6, between lines 43 and 44, to insert the following subsection: "(2) The Roads Act 1920, the Roads Acts 1993 to 2001 and section 2(3) may be cited together as the Roads Acts 1920 to 2007.”.

I ask the Minister for an explanation of the point I mentioned earlier.

I thank Deputy Lynch for raising this issue. We have taken it up with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The Roads Act 1920 and subsequent amendments to it — not all of which were contained in Roads Bills, as some of them were in Finance Bills, as Deputies Durkan, McCormack and others will be aware — were not cited together in the Roads Act 2007 which, if it was to be done, would have been the appropriate place to do it. The placement of a citation is not something we can do in a Bill of a technical nature such as this, since it would normally be done in a substantive Bill. That opportunity was not taken in the 2007 Bill.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 4 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I do not wish to go over the ground I went over before, but I reiterate that it is with increasing concern that I note a gradual and inexorable drift towards a lack of accountability in the matter of legislation which confers or transfers new powers to different authorities. Ministers wish to hear or see no more about it after the day the Bill is passed in the House. It makes life extremely difficult for members of the Opposition in terms of accountability. One of the strengths or weaknesses of any Government is the degree to which it can be held accountable by the Opposition. While Ministers may feel this is to their disadvantage, it is actually to their advantage. The more accountable a Government, Minister or Department is to the Houses of the Oireachtas, the greater the chance of the Minister being a successful and authoritative one.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, will be glad to know I was congratulating him on his handbrake turn a few minutes ago before he arrived back in the House — in an oblique way, needless to say. It did at least assure everybody that the Minister was in control and responsible for what was going on and that he and nobody else was to decide on policy. In this he is correct. However, I would also like to see the Minister being accountable when we ask a question in the House about such a matter. This also applies to all other Ministers and Departments. Inevitably, everyone in this House has a period in Opposition and it is only when in Opposition that people really begin to understand how important it is to ensure that true democracy applies at all times and that every Department, Minister and Minister of State is accountable to the House. I hope I and my colleagues do not have to revisit this subject, but I will enjoy doing so every time there is an opportunity. Even when opportunities are limited I will still be prepared to raise it.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and myself I thank the Members opposite and on this side for their contributions, particularly Deputy Ciarán Lynch for putting much thought into his amendments. In the normal course of events I am well disposed to amendments from the Opposition side but on this occasion, for the reasons I outlined, we were able to manage without them. It is helpful when people make constructive statements or contributions.

Question put and agreed to.