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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Vol. 766 No. 2

Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I would like to share time with Deputy Farrell.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2012. Everybody in this House will acknowledge that the reform of local government is badly needed. To be honest, it should have been tackled a long time ago. The Government has no choice other than to find savings. If we are to do this, we must eradicate any identified inefficiencies in services. When examining the Bill, I noticed some of the bodies being dissolved are of the type most people will never have heard of, let alone know what they do. For example, the Local Government Computer Services Board was established in 1975 to provide advice and to help local authorities with their ICT systems. That was all very well and good in 1975 when the world, never mind Ireland, was very much in its infancy with regard to ICT, software and so on. However, we now live in a very high-tech society and children as young as five or six are equipped to use computers. Admittedly, there can be problems with any system which will require outside assistance but this cannot justify the existence of an entirely separate body.

Every business in this country has to constantly re-examine how it works. They are always looking at new ways of doing things to see how they can work smarter and more efficiently to improve margins and to reduce costs. This is particularly the case since the economic downturn. Businesses must now eliminate waste and increase efficiency to survive. It is important that the public service follows this example and continues to look at more efficient and effective ways to deliver services.

Dissolving these bodies and transferring functions back to local government is a step in the right direction in terms of creating a more accountable service. I am firmly of the belief that a one-stop shop for services is the way forward. There are times when people almost feel they would require a sat-nav to find out to where they need to go when trying to locate the right Department or section, never mind trying to find the right person. This is not good. It means people can be brushed off and told it is a matter for a different section, which creates a lack of accountability and serious frustration for the customer.

The Local Government Efficiency Review Group recommends the establishment of a number of joint administrative structures covering two counties for the purpose of joint management teams and pooled corporate functions. I agree shared services are a positive move, particularly with regard to IT, HR and financial services. However, it is important that each county should have its own county manager. Each county is, after all, individual in its own right.

I can speak only for my own constituency and we are very lucky in that I know the respective county managers in Cavan and Monaghan do excellent work. I strongly urge the Minister not to allow a situation whereby we would have only one manager serving two counties as this would cause problems in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. There would be, no doubt, certain areas that would feel they were being left on the periphery, depending on where the managers are based. I do not believe this is desirable as it has the potential to create a "them and us" mentality between the two counties with regard to various projects and funding allocations.

Local government is often seen as the poor relation to central government. However, I am proud to say I served as member of Monaghan County Council for eight years prior to my election to Dáil Éireann. In that time, I saw first-hand the positive side of local government. It is important that, while recognising reform is necessary, we also give credit where it is due. County councils were the first to feel the effects of the downturn and bore the brunt of initial cutbacks. This means that, in recent years, local authorities have managed to deliver a very good standard of service on vastly reduced budgets.

I do not share the views of Deputy Luke ‘Ming' Flanagan regarding the service he received from the county council. My experience of Monaghan County Council was a much better one. Genuine, hard-working engineers and council staff do their best and often go way beyond the call of duty to serve the people of the county. It disappoints me to hear elected Members making disparaging comments about county council staff because they are always an easy target - it is a populist thing to do.

I commend the Minister on bringing forward the Bill and on his continued efforts to reform local government. I would impress upon him the importance of consulting and involving local authorities, both staff and elected members, in the reform process as they have much to offer in this regard. They have on-the-ground experience and I believe it is buy-in at local level that will ensure success. While central Government is often more detached from events on the ground, there is a great level of connectivity between people and the members of the local council. It is very important that this sense of community and connectivity is not lost.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, for her earlier speech. It was said already, and I would like to repeat, that while the Bill is quite a technical document, it was refreshing to receive such a frank and simple explanation from the Minister of State.

There is a requirement on the part of the Government to continue to abolish unnecessary and superfluous agencies and quangos in an effort to streamline the delivery of services within local government and, ultimately, improve delivery for our customers, the taxpayers. The pooling of resources and expertise into one agency will save money both in terms of manpower and the procurement services offered until recently by separate agencies and by local government.

The centralisation of local government is a piece in the jigsaw of a larger reform structure in the centralisation of services and procurement processes across all Government sectors in a bid to elicit further savings for the taxpayer. For example, in terms of procurement processes, which have been spearheaded by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in recent months, the reformed framework for managed print services is expected to generate savings of up to €22 million annually and a pilot project regarding e-invoicing across the public sector could lead to further millions in savings by reducing administrative and transactional costs.

Yesterday, in a move welcomed by many, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, announced plans for a large procedural change involving a human resources shared services centre, HRSSC, consolidating administrative roles throughout all of the Civil Service while freeing up resources and staff and reducing cost of service delivery. I believe both great progress and savings can be made with the deployment of this strategy with regard to shared services of office facilities, better resource management, control of expenditure, better service and performance delivery and, of course, monitoring. There are clear benefits to be gained from introducing shared services in areas such as HR, payroll, ICT and finance, and we must use the flexibilities under Croke Park to ensure reform is driven and that we deliver public services in a more efficient, cost-effective way.

It can be difficult for both staff and the wider public to understand that while processes and structures change, even on a radical level, we have to remember that, as a Government and as a service provider, times are changing and we must evolve with them. As a nation, there is a fear of losing the personal touch or of change in terms of reduction in the number of people or agencies providing various services. The reality, of course, is that modern facilities allow us to do a lot more with far less, and we still have the opportunity to make savings for the taxpayer, which must be placed high on the agenda.

That is not just in the provision of local government or local services. The same could be said, for example, of the banking sector, with the AIB chief executive giving a briefing not far from this House earlier today, when he proposed amalgamating services to provide a better product for the customer at the end of the process. That is similar to the aim of this Bill.

While amalgamation means a reduction in the number of people providing a service, it does not mean the quality of the service has to suffer. At local government level, the amalgamation of both Limerick and Tipperary councils, with the suggestion of other amalgamations to follow, presents us with a fairly rare opportunity to realise significant savings for the ratepayers in those counties as well as offering savings to the taxpayer. To echo the comments of Deputy Heather Humphreys in regard to single managers for counties, it assists in regard to the identity of those counties in continuing to deliver services.

In the context of local government reform, the amalgamations of local authorities should not be viewed in isolation. I am certain that future announcements will yield further savings as well as perhaps instilling greater confidence in the ability of local councillors and officials to deliver and to be held accountable. While we continue to deal with the fallout from the economic crisis, we must be fully aware that the world in which we live is changing at an accelerating rate. That is the reason I believe these changes are essential, both in terms of saving money for the Exchequer and the ability of the Government to deliver on the commitments it made in the programme for Government.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this Bill, but I object to the manner in which the Bill is being guillotined and to the manner in which it has been presented. I object in particular to the intention to introduce significant amendments on Committee Stage, thereby introducing an almost new Bill. I object that this is happening with a Bill dealing with important issues such as the amalgamation of county councils. This is wrong and is something the Government promised it would not do. However, once again we have guillotines and significant changes being introduced to a Bill on Committee Stage by amendment. This is being done without any real consultation with stakeholders and is certainly not best practice.

I notice some of the amendments to be introduced refer to the amalgamation of local authorities, in particular, that of north and south Tipperary County Councils and Limerick City Council and Limerick County Council. I am sorry the Minister is not here to hear what I have to say on this. I am concerned by the fact that although the group that recommended the amalgamation of various local authorities recommended the amalgamation of Carlow-Killkenny County Councils among others, there is no proposal in this legislation for that amalgamation. Is the Minister looking after his own patch? Is he looking after his own patch in the same way he looked after St. Stephen's Barracks in Kilkenny, to the detriment of Kickham Barracks in Clonmel? He was reported on the front page of the local Kilkenny People making the same criticisms and comments we in Clonmel made with regard to the closure of Kickham Barracks. He said that any closure of St. Stephen’s Barracks would be a huge blow to the local economy and would put soldiers and their families at a huge disadvantage. He said a closure would impose hardship and mean they had to move to other locations. I am sorry he is not here to hear me say this, but I believe that he - as many Ministers did in the past - is looking after his own patch and ensuring that Carlow-Kilkenny is looked after, to the detriment of other areas.

I say this specifically in the context of the proposed amalgamations. If one considers the ten areas recommended for amalgamation, the amalgamation of north and south Tipperary does not strike one as the most suitable. It involves two different economic regions, two different tourist regions and two different HSE areas. This to my mind is not a combination that jumps out at one as being suitable because of the significant differences between the north and south of the county, differences that have not been addressed at all. Again, it is a pity the Minister is not here to hear me say this. It needs to be said as, unfortunately, it is a fact.

I want to address the issue of local government reform. We now see a situation where the idea that "big" is best is on and centralisation is back on the agenda. Anybody who considers the situation carefully knows that big is not always best nor is it always cheaper. In the case of local authorities, big is less democratic and less responsive to local people. Take for example the establishment of the Health Service Executive. That body is not accountable to the public, to local public representatives and accepts no input from them or from local people at the old health committee level. This is not an example we should follow. The recent centralisation of the medical card system within that body is an absolute and appalling mess and is an indication once again that big is not best and centralisation is not always good nor cheapest.

We need local government to remain local. We need it to respond to local people and to deliver services locally. However, it also needs to take decisions, but it is about taking decisions as closely as possible to the level of the citizen. The opposite of this is what is happening with this Bill and with what we understand the Minister is considering with regard to proposing the abolition of town councils. Local public representatives and their representative organisations, such as that AMAI and LAMA, have serious concerns about this. They believe the Minister is in the process of announcing the abolition of town councils in the near future. What we need is more local government, not less. We need more local services delivered, more responsibility for local people and more local democracy. This must be done by properly funding local authorities and by giving them additional powers, not by removing them.

The suggestion that there is too much local government and that we are over represented is flawed. The AMAI has issued a presentation which shows clearly that Ireland is not over represented by local government. A table in its presentation indicates that population per elected councillor is significantly higher in Ireland than in 15 EU member states. In Ireland, population per elected councillor is 2,815. The closest to this is the United Kingdom, with 2,664 per councillor and the figure goes down to that of France, with 118 per councillor. The principle of subsidiarity, whereby decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the citizen is enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht treaty. This is embodied by an active, functioning local government. Ireland also signed up to the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1997, which asserts the role of local government in a democratic process. The provision of a strong and meaningful democratic forum and delivery of effective services are at the heart of local government. However, local government needs to be properly funded and given additional powers if it is to fulfil these roles.

I am disappointed with the manner in which this Bill is being present and the guillotine that will be used on it. I cannot support the Bill in its current form.

I welcome this Bill, which commits the Government to reforming the system of local government while maintaining an efficient service for local communities. It is crucial that communities continue to have access to adequate services in these lean times. The Government has made clear its desire to reform the local government sector. We have committed to reorganising local government structures to give communities more decision making on what happens locally.

Given the size of councils and the number of councillors involved it is clear that a significant amount of money can be saved in this area. This Bill will decrease the number agencies and bodies which are at present under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government from 21 to 12. It is being introduced on foot of the recommendations of the local government efficiency review group, which set out 106 recommendations for cost efficiencies and savings. If all the recommendations were implemented the combined savings would be €500 million. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has established a review group on the implementation of the recommendations and it is expected that sizeable savings can be achieved in shared services and procurement. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is satisfied that progress is being made in these areas.

Local authorities have become leaner through a reduction of 6,600 in staff numbers since 2008 and a new financial management system has been introduced. The Croke Park agreement has played a role in the transformation of work practices and the public services reform programme has achieved combined savings of €162 million.

The Government is committed to giving councillors more say in what happens in their local areas and rewarding efficiency and local initiatives with ring-fenced money. We want to give communities more control over education and transport at regional and county levels. Policy reorientation will be considered in due course.

It is important that the level of service for the public does not deteriorate. We need to achieve more with a lot less and through this Bill the Government is trying to reform local government to provide greater efficiencies for the public.

I welcome this Bill and the language it uses. I have criticised Ministers previously for the language they have used in legislation. This is the first time that the explanatory memorandum, or what I describe as the Ladybird version, is more difficult to understand than the Bill itself. Words are clearly defined to mark out what the Bill purports to do. For example, section 3 uses words such as "efficiency", "effectiveness" and "economy in the organisation". These are simple words that people in the street understand. This Government is trying to get across the message by using simple words that can be implemented easily.

In amalgamating local authorities I hope councils can achieve more efficiencies by coming together of their own free will to increase their bargaining power. If three counties need to purchase vehicles, for example, they could get a better deal if they bargained collectively. This makes more sense from a business perspective.

I welcome that the Minister is abolishing or amalgamating a number of State bodies. I will be keeping an eye on this issue because we will be creating a new body, the local government management agency, through the amalgamation of local government computer services, the local government management services board and An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. Everyone thinks the local government computer service is a simple board but its membership is restricted to county managers and certain officials in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. It also happens to have sub-committees in areas such as change management, ICT and audit. God forbid that the Minister would put in place a new body that encompasses the three boards only for us suddenly to find all these sub-committees. That is the last thing people want to see. Put a board in place and let it operate. All the members of this board are county managers. We should not make jobs for the boys.

The election gave this Government a strong mandate for reform. This Bill is part of our overall objective for public sector reform in terms of agency rationalisation, local authority mergers and making substantial cuts to the number of State bodies and companies. The reduction in the number of State agencies will bring about savings in pay and administrative costs, although the challenge will be huge.

The main purpose of the Bill is legislatively to underpin any exiting or new bodies created under the Local Government Acts and facilitate the reorganisation, merger or abolition of State bodies and agencies in line with the Government's commitments. It specifically provides for the dissolution of a number of bodies established under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971, as well as the transfer of functions, properties and liabilities of these bodies. It will allow the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to finalise arrangements for the rationalisation of State agencies under its control from 21 to 12.

The Government has approved the amendment of the Act to provide for the establishment of appropriate management arrangements for Limerick city and county councils and north and south Tipperary county councils prior to their respective mergers in 2014. The principal objective of this change will be to enable the same individual to be manager of more than one city or county council.

A single agency, the local government management agency, will provide shared services for industrial relations, ICT procurement and library services for each of the 34 local authorities. The two Limerick regeneration agencies will be dissolved. Their roles will be replaced with one joint management arrangement for Limerick city and county council. This is a step towards the merger of the two councils. Transformation can be difficult but the Government has the strong political commitment and conviction to implement the reform. Ireland has shown itself to be resilient and we pride ourselves on our adaptability. The legislation is part of our Government's agenda to reform for the future, to ensure we provide services in a more streamlined and efficient manner and to continue to make savings wherever and whenever possible. A strong and fit for purpose local government will be of benefit to all people of Ireland.

The principal of the Bill, that we should rationalise services and economise where possible, is sound. In this contemporary age of ICT, the use and availability of ICT and broadband for every function of Government and administrative situation makes the rationalisation of services a desirable possibility. It is desirable to pool resources and share services over a range of activities, such as ICT services in local authorities, paying people and HR services.

By way of cautionary note, I point out that the county structure Ireland is strong, with deep historical roots. It goes back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and is rooted in Ireland. I welcome and accept the sharing of services as a logical process of modernisation and rationalisation to ensure value for money for the taxpayers. No alternative to the legislative proposals - on which I compliment the Minister, Deputy Hogan - could be contemplated or posited. However, the idea that a county manager might manage two or three counties is unsustainable. Even though it might seem reasonable from a theoretical, desktop situation, rivalry would exist and there would be a perception of discrimination or that one county had an advantage over another. We must maintain management at county level but we can share services and resources. The county structure is sufficiently strong and historical for that to be the case. The agency dealing with computer technology, which has its origins in the mid-1970s, is anachronistic and archaic in a modern context. It is right that it is subsumed into the normal local government structure. It is pivotal that we get as many services as possible administered centrally through the local government structure, with public accountability.

I welcome the principles on which the Bill is based, the objectives and what will be achieved. Ultimately, we are the custodians of the taxpayers' money and it is our duty to maximise the outcome to the advantage of the taxpayer and to eliminate waste where possible. However, I offer a cautionary note on the strength of, and loyalty to, the county structure and how well it works. I caution against a reduction or elimination of that structure and I humbly put my view to the Minister for consideration.

I thank the Members for their contributions. There is always a very good, informed debate on local government and Members are interested in the issues. There will be an opportunity for further debate on further legislative measures and when the Minister announces his proposals for the reform of local government.

The Bill is relatively short but it is important to allow the Department to move forward on a number of very significant State agency rationalisations. Many Deputies referred to the opportunity to rationalise and reduce the number of agencies. The Minister will be able to dissolve bodies established under the 1971 Act and to dissolve An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, which was established under its own Act in 1947.

I did not have time earlier to recognise the good work and contribution to our communities made by the bodies established under the 1971 Act. While the Department is reducing the number of agencies, we intend to maintain the services provided by those agencies.

It is important to address the issue of the Bill's role in the amalgamation of local authority structures in Limerick and Tipperary, which were referred to by many contributors. Tomorrow, I will introduce amendments that will enable dual management arrangements to operate in Limerick and Tipperary. This will allow for the appointment of a single manager to both sets of authorities pending their full merger in 2014. It will ensure there is clear and cohesive leadership of the reorganisation process in both areas. I know more about Limerick than Tipperary but I recognise the need for that kind of leadership as we approach 2014. More substantive legislation will be required to implement the merger of the two authorities in Limerick and Tipperary. The situation in Waterford is under examination but no decision on any other mergers has been made at this point. I reject Deputy Healy's criticism of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, in this regard. We are only talking about mergers within counties, not mergers of counties. That discussion is for another day.

What about town councils?

The Bill does not provide for the establishment of the new amalgamated unitary local authorities in Limerick and Tipperary. That will require further, separate legislation. The Minister will bring forward wider local government proposals shortly on regional, county and sub-county structures. The overall reform programme will also reflect other work in progress on various aspects of local government, including the merger and restructuring processes that I have referred to, the local government efficiency review implementation, local government financing, local development and local government alignment. A wide range of policy proposals will give rise to further legislation in this regard.

Regarding the Bill, the principle of a Minister in a sector such as local government having the power to establish bodies to provide shared services for local authorities is long-established and recognised by the courts. It is even more important in today's environment that the Minister has the power, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to establish bodies to deliver shared services. We all recognise that we want to rationalise in this way.

This Bill clearly establishes in primary legislation the principles and policies that the Minister must have regard to in establishing such bodies. The matters that will guide the Minister are clearly set out and are aimed towards efficiency and effectiveness of operation. There is substantial support on all sides of the House in this regard.

The bodies are now effectively established under primary legislation and therefore it has not been possible to establish, on a statutory footing, the amalgamated bodies required to give full effect to the Department's agency rationalisation programme but the Bill will allow the Minister to dissolve eight bodies in total. It is only intended to establish two new bodies. The housing and sustainable communities agency will take over the work of the affordable homes partnership, the Centre for Housing Research and the National Building Agency.

As Deputies said, the Local Government Management Agency will take on the work of the LGCBS, LGMSB and An Comhairle Leabharlanna. Deputy Lawlor, in particular, spoke about that area. We all understand what is happening with the Limerick regeneration offices. Limerick Regeneration will now report directly to the manager designate of the new unitary authority in Limerick once that person is appointed.

This has been a wide-ranging debate and there will be further opportunity tomorrow to discuss the issues. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate and I thank the House for the prompt consideration of the Bill.

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 84; Níl, 19.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Keaveney, Colm.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Nulty, Patrick.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O’Donnell, Kieran.
  • O’Donovan, Patrick.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.


  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke ‘Ming’.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • O’Brien, Jonathan.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Wallace, Mick.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Brian Stanley and Jonathan O’Brien.
Question declared carried.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 May 2012.