Role and Remuneration of Elected Members of Local Authorities: Discussion

At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure that, for the duration of the meeting, their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device used. It is not sufficient to leave them in silent mode as it maintains a level of interference with the broadcasting and recording systems.

There will be two sessions, in the first of which we will review the role and remuneration of the elected members of local authorities. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, and his officials.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I apologise for being a few minutes late. It is hard to predict the volume of traffic on the Naas Road, as Senator Victor Boyhan pointed out.

I am pleased to attend to provide the members of the joint committee with an update on the position in the review of the role and remuneration of the elected members of local authorities. I am joined by Mr Diarmuid O'Leary, Ms Louise Purcell and Mr. Grant Cooper from my Department.

The issue of supports for councillors is one to which I have devoted a lot of time and attention during my first year in office. I have attended the Seanad on four separate occasions to listen to the varying views of Senators on the matter. During this time improvements have been made to the supports provided for councillors. In November 2017 I co-signed amending regulations under section 142 of the Local Government Act 2001 with my colleague, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Pascal Donohoe. The regulations provided for a new allowance for councillors, worth €1,000 per annum and backdated to 1 July 2017, in recognition of their additional workload following the 2014 reforms. The amending regulations also gave effect to a new optional vouched expenses allowance worth up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, for which councillors may choose to opt in place of an existing unvouched allowance worth approximately €2,500 per annum. The terms of the allowance are based on the public representation allowance for Oireachtas Members. This means, in effect, that councillors can now claim for the same range of vouchable expenses as Deputies, given that they similarly have a constituency base to serve.

A range of other supports are already in place to assist councillors in performing their functions. The main support is the representational payment which recognises the work councillors volunteer to undertake when they stand for election and subsequently serve their community. The representational payment is currently linked with a Senator's salary and was increased on 1 January by €246 to €16,891 per annum in proportion to the increased amount of a Senator's salary from this same date. Councillors also receive a composite annual expenses allowance designed to defray in a structured way reasonable expenses incurred by them in attending council meetings. The travel and subsistence elements of the allowance are based on the current Civil Service travel and subsistence rates. This ensures payments may be made on a tax free basis. It is important to bear in mind that the annual expenses allowance is just that, an expenses allowance. It is payable on the basis that it offsets costs incurred by the individuals claiming it. It is not and should not be considered as an income. However, I also believe it is equally the case that councillors should not be forced by circumstance to rely excessively on remuneration from travel expenses as a means of financial support. Many times I have expressed my strong belief that it is of great importance to support councillors appropriately, with due regard for transparency and accountability, to ensure they can carry out their role as elected representatives effectively and continue to give expression to local identity and concerns and set local priorities.

With that in mind and being fully aware of concerns expressed by councillors and in these Houses about the current remuneration regime, I agreed with the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to the commissioning of a review of the role and remuneration of councillors. On 21 June I announced the appointment of Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, to conduct the review. I have provided the terms of reference for the review for the committee. As committee members can see, it is intended that the review will involve an in-depth examination of the role performed by councillors, including their statutory reserved functions, the political and community leadership role they perform, their governance responsibilities as council members and their representational role within communities.

An outcome of the review will be in defining fully for the first time the role of councillors. It is intended that it will inform an examination of the current system of remuneration for councillors, with a view to making proposals for a remuneration package representative of and commensurate with that role. The review will be informed by input from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and consult fully with elected members and their representative organisations. In that regard, Ms Moorhead has met officials of both Departments and had preliminary consultations with delegations from the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA. I understand it is her intention in the coming months to consult more formally through various means councillors and their representative organisations, as well as wider stakeholders, as appropriate. I am sure members of the committee will have an opportunity to have an input into the review in due course.

The review will produce an interim report within five months, with the timing of a final report to be considered thereafter, most likely in the spring or summer of next year. When the review is completed, its findings will be the subject of discussion between both Departments. It will be submitted thereafter for consideration by the Government.

I welcome the committee's continued interest in this matter and thank committee members for their initiative in placing it on the agenda.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating me by allowing me to speak first. I must leave because I am attending the funeral of a former councillor who served in Navan for 16 years. As the parish priest said last night, the councillor epitomised everything that was good about public service. On the morning that is in it, I am glad to be able to speak on this subject matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I agree with him on his dedication in addressing the matter, bringing forward a range of proposals and engaging with Senators, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and councillors' representative groups.

I was elected as a councillor in 1999. In the intervening 19 years the role of councillor has evolved greatly. When I was elected as a councillor, there was no salary, but there was a payment for attending meetings. The point was made that the motivation in being elected was not remuneration but public service. No councillor has ever gone looking, cap in hand, for money because councillors are dedicated to serving their local communities. That is the motivation, but the nature of the workload has changed massively. The abolition of the dual mandate has proved very successful. What people wanted to see being achieved in Deputies no longer being able to sit on local authorities has come to fruition. They can now see the differences between parliamentarians and local councillors and go to councillors as their first port of call in dealing with a local issue. As a result of urbanisation during the boom, councillors are seen as having much broader scope when it comes to social policy and the development of an area, particularly in the context of development plans. The national plans brought forward in the Oireachtas have an impact on local councillors who have to be adept at dealing with them at local authority and regional assembly level. They give a huge amount of time to them and make a huge effort to be involved.

Councillors are subjected to the same visceral scrutiny by the public on social media as national politicians. We should be cognisant of this. They do not receive remuneration similar to that of a Senator or a Deputy, but they are attacked when things go wrong at local level. We should also speak about this as it is having an impact on our ability to attract new people into public service at local government level. If we want to see local communities being served well, we need to have a system under which we, as parliamentarians, can attract new people to serve their communities. This is tied with the issue the Minister of State is addressing. The scope of the work of councillors has been broadened. We see new economic sides being attached to it and there is also their involvement in planning. We have to be aware of this.

The Minister of State has said he wants the review to report within five months of its commencement. He has also said its report will be submitted thereafter to the Government for its consideration, with a view to producing a clear direction in advance of the local elections which are to be held in May next year. There is, however, no commitment to the introduction of the scheme, an issue I want the Minister of State to address because it is important. We might have a clear direction, but there is no guarantee that the outcome of the review will be implemented. Is there a commitment between the Minister of State and the Minister for Finance to implement the recommendations made not only on pay but also on the provision of supports?

Councillors are not just talking about an increase in salary, they are talking about the functional supports that allow them to provide services to their constituents. I would like the Minister of State to address that matter.

I thank Deputy Cassells, that was bang on five minutes.

I did not realise that Deputy Cassells was elected to the council in 1999. We started at the same time. The world has changed for councillors in the interim. I was a student at the time and I was extremely happy to get a cheque for a couple of hundred quid at the end of the month in order to keep my little Renault 19 on the road. The number of meetings we were obliged to attend was very different. The Deputy and I were present for the 100th anniversary of the introduction of local government in Ireland. The current system was introduced in 1899 and the centenary in 1999 really marked the end of an era. Many people the Deputy and I would have served with on councils in those days would have held their seats for 30, 40 or 50 years. They would not have been paid salaries, rather they just got a cheque for a small amount at the end of each month. Despite that, it was not always the wealthy or self-employed who served; it was often just the ordinary Joes who became local authority members.

The role of a councillor is such now that many employers are less than enthusiastic about allowing staff, particularly in light of the positions they hold in their places of employment, to serve on local authorities. One of the things that I hope will be included in the review is an examination of how it might be beneficial for employers to allow people to serve, particularly as there are a lot of people working for multinational companies. I am thinking of the guy who was elected with me in south Kilkenny in 1999 - Senator Grace O'Sullivan might know him - who was the manager of the warehouse of Bausch & Lomb in Waterford for 20 years. He found it horrifically difficult to get time off work. He is still on the council but he left his position with the company in question many years ago because he could not marry the two roles.

The Deputy is correct to state that it is not all about money. There are many other supports needed for councillors such as, for example, those relating to childcare and caring. Many councillors provide care for family members, whether it is their children or their parents. Whatever it is about the nature of people who are caring, they are sometimes attracted to the local authority role of, in effect, caring for their communities. What has also changed in the past 20 years is that there are some councillors now who talk a lot more about remuneration than there were in the past. Some 90% of councillors do not do it for the money but the other 10% do them a terrible disservice by whingeing about money all the time. That is not to say that there is not a case to be answered. That is why this is happening but sometimes it can cause rancour with the general public, which we are all here to serve. As I said, 90% of councillors do the job excellently but there are a few here and there who get the message a bit wrong.

In terms of the Deputy's statement on the treatment of councillors on social media. There is a broader discussion as to how public figures are treated on social media but he is correct that it is something that would make people think twice about standing for local election.

On the Deputy's next point, I made it clear from the start that, as well as remuneration, this is about softer supports for councillors, such as those provided by secretarial assistants and research assistants. Fingal County Council is the only local authority that provides these supports. I do not know if it does so across every one of its municipal districts but I know that it provides secretarial support to councillors. Equally, if a person is running from his or her job to a full council meeting at 3 p.m., he or she needs to know what is his or her reserve function regarding a particular aspect of policy that is being discussed. In that context, it would be a fantastically useful - for both councillors and the public - if there were the equivalent of parliamentary assistants within councils who could obtain the necessary information. When I attended council meetings 20 years ago, often the waters were a bit muddied and councillors had to feel their way through in order to find out exactly where they stood. Some of the older councillors had a method of putting the boot into some of the officials but that was not always necessarily the best way to operate.

On the question of whether there is a clear intention to implement the outcome, for me there very much is such an intention. It is no secret that this process has been delayed because the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guards the purse strings very tightly. However, the Government has made a decision to proceed with the review and to have it implemented before the next local elections. The idea is to ensure that people who are considering standing in those elections will know, before the end of this year, what will be their remuneration package and what their role will involve. That is the intention behind the interim report. I do not know how much information, etc., Sara Moorhead will include in the interim report - knowing her, it will be a lot - but it will be the Government's job thereafter to implement her findings. There is no shortage of willingness on my part to deal with this issue, which has been kicked around for a long time now. We might as well take the bull by the horns at this point. Given that we are in the run-up to the next local elections, this is the opportune time to do so.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before us to discuss the remuneration relating to councillors. I was taken by his comment on the apathy of the general public regarding the pay and remuneration of councillors. This is an opportunity for me to place on record the fact that the representational payment is worth €16,891. This is subject to PAYE, PRSI and USC, with which I have no difficulty. That is the position and we need to send a message to the public in respect of it. Members of the public do not believe this to be the case. People I meet outside of politics tell me that there is great pay and that politicians get to go on jollies and have access to "chances", whatever they mean by that. That is how cynical people are but the reality is that we are paying our councillors a little over €16,000 each. Quite frankly, that is not good enough. Endless promises are made. I could paper the wall with the promises made by people in government to their party members. I make no secret of the fact that I circulate the agenda to people the day before every meeting of this committee. I tell them what is happening. Yesterday, I told them that the Minister of State would be here and that this matter would be up for discussion. I always invite comment. In that context, I received 12 emails before I left here at ten o'clock last night from people expressing their views. In summary, they used phrases such as "Not again", "More promises" and "What is going on?" They are frustrated. That is the effect. These people are of all parties and none and they are saying that despite all of the promises and commitments we are no further on. I would say that we are a bit further on. The Minister of State has appointed Sara Moorhead to compile a report and let us focus in on that.

I want to be positive and move forward. We need greater clarity on the timeframes. I know that it is an independent process. The Minister of State established the process and is limited in the context of his own involvement. However, councillors observing these proceedings will want to know when the process will conclude. That is important, as is the engagement with councillors. We are not clear whether the review will engage with the AILG, which has done much hard work in respect of this matter, or LAMA. If it does engage with them, how will that happen? Does the Minister of State have any indication from Ms Moorhead or her secretariat as to how they will interact with councillors?

We do not need any more analysis because we know what are the problems. Councillors need proper payment. I will go out on a limb. Some members might consider it irresponsible of me to say so but I believe councillors should be receiving €25,000 to €35,000 a year. That is a fair level of remuneration for city and county councillors. I will make a submission to Ms Moorhead if I am invited to or have the opportunity to do so because I am of the view that is the sort of money needed. Let us stop messing and thinking it is about pence. It is not a few pence or a few pounds and, as the Minister of State pointed out, councillors should not have to rely on expenses. I am talking about proper pay for the proper work they do. In other words, a fair deal for councillors.

I will shut up at this point because I do not wish to keep repeating myself. I continuously engage with sitting county councillors of all parties and none and, right across the board, they tell me that they are frustrated with the process and what they perceive to be Deputies, Ministers and Senators on a cosy old jolly in Leinster House. They want action. I am saying that I believe the right and proper remuneration package for city and county councillors must be in the range of between €28,000 and €30,000. We should work towards that and I am committed to doing so because it is right, proper and fair.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend.

I am just trying to take a note of what Senator Boyhan was saying. He covered-----

On the large sums I am talking about.

It has been my intention all along that this review will be completed and that the interim report will give people who are considering running - be it for parties or as independents - an idea of the position before the end of this year. The final report will be competed in the spring. That has always been my intention. I cannot really direct Sara Moorhead. I had a preliminary meeting with her to lay out my position and to discuss public submissions and councillors' submissions, as referred to by the Senator. She is very keen for the widest possible range of views to be submitted.

Sometimes when one reads contributions by Ministers from different Departments, the phrase "stakeholders" is used. Who is or is not a stakeholder is considered. When it comes to councillors everybody is a stakeholder because everybody has a local councillor or six, depending on where a person lives.

The basic pay of €16,800 for councillors is low and this is why the review is happening. I am trying to do my basic maths and I believe it is below the minimum wage for the hours that many councillors put in. The Department conducted a survey of councillors last year directly though the local authorities. More than 50% of councillors responded and said they were spending 26 or 27 hours on council business per week. This emphasises that it is not a full-time role. Some people spend full hours on it. While they should be remunerated on the basis that they hold part-time positions, councillors should not be paid less than they would get in the private sector for working the number of hours to which I refer. If Sara Moorhead's report comes back with findings in that regard, it is my intention to implement them.

On submissions from councillors, as well as submissions from the general public, there have already been face-to-face meetings with the representative groups. Ms Moorhead will survey councillors and she will try to dig down deeper into that 26 or 27 hours. Part of the scope of the review will be the genuine question regarding what we should and should not pay for in the work done by councillors. I suspect that we should be paying for a great part of the work, but perhaps there are elements of the work that do not represent value for taxpayer's money. I put it to Senator Boyhan that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is not always wrong. This is an opportunity to have an in-depth look at what councillors. Ms Moorhead is determined to do that. The review will not be informed by just the usual stakeholders, it will also involve the wider public and the local authorities. On the basis of what was said at the preliminary meeting held nearly a month ago, I understand that councillors will be surveyed.

The Senator referred to the 12 emails. I understand the point he is making because promises have been made over the years. I would be disappointed if people thought "Not again, more promises". This review is, however, being conducted by an outside person who will be an independent chair, which is what councillors sought from the start. This person has no skin in the game but has a deep interest in the State and in how public affairs here might operate. She will come back with her independent report. She will issue an interim report in October or November and a full report in March. I cannot spell matters out more clearly other than to say that I absolutely intend to implement it. Earlier, I included a caveat to the effect that dealing with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is not a simple matter. However, there is a political will to grasp the nettle and it is my job to try to ensure the report's recommendations are implemented.

I hope we will all still be in the Oireachtas in a few months' time to see the Minister of State implement the report. It seems, however, that nothing will happen on this issue prior to the local elections next May. Given the consultations with Departments and the Government and in view of lead-in times, etc., let us be honest and fair and tell the people this.

Many of the people who are listening to this debate would be offended if they thought their job was being described as part-time in nature. There are many councillors for whom the role is full-time. The Minister of State's party is full of such councillors and I am talking to them. The Minister of State knows them well because he knows the system. I was elected in 1999 and there was no money then. I am not saying that money is everything but there are councillors who must dip into their own pockets and into their families' money in order to subvent their incomes.

A Fianna Fáil councillor in the midlands who has two children studying at UCD told me recently that she came home one day and her husband told her to get a real job because being a councillor does not pay. She said that she was making a commitment to her community and that she was a community advocate. He said that it was not paying the bills, that they had two children studying at UCD and that she could just get out of it because being a councillor is a waste of time. She was very disappointed but had to face the reality that she could not afford to stay in the business.

The role is full-time for many people and they do not want to hear that it is a part-time role. These people are full-time because they give it the commitment. The position needs their commitment. Not all councillors develop and progress at the same level, but there are many who give to the role seven days a week. They are in the Minister of State's own group and his constituency. I am sure they are great supporters of the Minister of State. He knows them. I do not have to convince him. We need to be clear that a lot of people are doing this seven days a week. This is not an exaggeration. All I ask is for a fair deal for the councillors and a fair day's pay. Senators, Deputies and Ministers are well paid. I want a fair crack of the whip for these councillors, who are local politicians. They deserve that recognition.

I acknowledge all of the Minister of State's comments, but let us be clear with Ms Moorhead going forward. I would not like to think that she might be told that being a councillor is a part-time role for a part-time salary. For many, it is a full-time role. Councillors also serve on sub-committees and educational boards and with other agencies that are affiliated to local government. It is important to note that many do this on a full-time basis and that the remuneration they receive is their only source of income. They could not do anything else because they devote so much time to being councillors.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee. We now have greater clarity. Correct me if I am wrong but the reality is that there will not be a new remuneration package for councillors prior to the local elections. If there is different information, perhaps the Minister of State will outline it.

I do not think there is. If I had the report in by February or March, I would love to implement it immediately. However, it has to go to through Government and it has to go through other Departments. Being perfectly honest, the new local authorities that will be elected at the end of May next year would be the obvious starting point. If it could be sooner, I would love it to happen.

I must reiterate that the discussions I had with Sara Moorhead were principally in respect of the scheduling of reports and who will be making submissions. I was keen - and I was impressed by Ms Moorhead's keenness - that there should be different levels of public consultation and with the councillors.

The report I referred to predates my time in the Department. It was compiled by the Department in conjunction with each local authority. More than 50% of councillors in the State responded. The average number of hours worked by them was reported to be 26 or 27 per week. The Senator is correct when he says that for many councillors it is seven days per week. If 26 or 27 hours is the average, then half the councillors put in less than that while half put in more. I cannot remember the exact number that responded. It may have been 55% or 60%. The councillors in that survey themselves said it was a part-time job. It is not me saying this; it was based on the survey commissioned before I even became Minister of State.

It was great to hear about the Minister of State's experience as a councillor. However, was at a different time. We now have a new, growing demographic and we are living in a new and, it is to be hoped, progressive Ireland. In my two years as a Senator, I have seen the work done by councillors.

I have engaged a lot with councillors. I see what a competent councillor with ambition can deliver in the future to local and national democracy. I view councillors as the eyes and ears of local democracy that inform the national Parliament. As Ireland progresses councillors must have decent working conditions. That is necessary if we want to attract the best people to local democracy in towns and regions. Like a business, in order to attract the best people one must offer attractive remuneration and decent conditions.

I want to convey to the Minister of State the feedback that I received from councillors about the Department's latest review. To be honest, it was met with a certain scepticism. Many councillors noted that reviews have previously been conducted by the Government, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and others yet they have not been significant improvements in pay and conditions. I hope that the review by Ms Moorhead will lead to a better outcome for councillors.

I will relay a number of specific points to the Minister of State. Some carry more weight than others and I will refer to them in chronological order. Councillors should have franked envelopes just like the Members of the Oireachtas.

One councillor said that he had serious trouble accessing social welfare payments as the local authority will not acknowledge him as an employee. The councillor is a father of five children and only receives the income of a councillor yet he cannot access the working family supplement or any other supports. Does the Minister of State know how the councillor can be better served?

Councillors are obliged to pay their share of PRSI yet find themselves in the legal limbo of not being deemed an employee or self-employed contractor. Therefore, they cannot access the family income supplement, FIS. It seems unfair to expect councillors to pay the going rate of PRSI in such circumstances.

All of my questions can feed into the review being conducted by Ms Moorhead. The payment to representatives, as currently configured does not include work on bodies such as the strategic joint policing committees and transport policy committees. I know of a particular councillor who does this essential work. His or her work is not taken into account even though an extra 16 meetings a year take place and that includes time spent on preparing for and attending the meetings. Will this matter be considered as part of the review?

Another councillor noted that after tax is paid that the municipal allowance is of little or no benefit. It is also inaccessible to councillors in Dublin despite the fact that they represent far more constituents than most rural based councillors. I ask the Minister of State to correct me if this information is incorrect.

Another councillor mentioned the need to link a councillor's pay to a grade in the Civil Service. I know that the suggestion has been made a number of times. The proposal was meant to be considered by the Oireachtas committee on councillors' pay and conditions. Unfortunately, the committee has only met on a handful of occasions and has had little impact to date.

Some councillors want town councils to be restored, which I know the Minister of State will have heard before, to assist with the considerable workload. Town councils would recognise the different nature of local government representation between urban and rural areas. The councillors and I want to hear the Minister of State's view on re-establishing town councils. Will consideration be given to providing councillors with maternity leave or other supports to councillors who are parents, particularly of young children?

We know how much more difficult it will be for all parties to meet the next general election quota of 40% female candidates. If one cannot draw from a pool of female talent and conditions and supports are not made available to women then how will the 40% female quota be reached?

Many councillors are teachers. Unfortunately, they face issues when it comes to leave. They are entitled to ten days of leave during term time, which is subject to approval by the board of management of the schools. This matter can cause serious problems and clashes when it comes to covering council work adequately. There is another issue with vouched and unvouched expenses.

The review is welcome. I hope that Ms Moorhead conducts an indepth review and meets representative councillors from around the country or a cross-section of them so that she gets a deep view of local government at present rather than the same old story. I want councillors to receive decent remuneration and decent working conditions. If that is done then more people will be attracted to serving the public.

The Senator is right. I was a councillor 20 years ago and it was a very different world. She has asked a lot of questions and I have noted as many as I could. She should put these matters in a submission to Ms Sara Moorhead. There are issues that are under consideration, such as the maternity leave issue. There is a local government Bill coming up and we might make a small adjustment to the Bill.

On the gender quota issue, I intend to submit a proposal to the Government. The status of gender quotas for general elections is a stick approach rather than a carrot approach. By that I mean that any political party that does not reach the 30% quota, which will ultimately increase to 40%, will have its State funding cut in half. We do not have that stick approach for local elections because the funding of political parties will always depend on the vote that they get in a general election. That situation will not change and should not change. That is not to say that there cannot be an incentive scheme. Many political parties, or maybe all of them, have a gender equality or diversity officer. Perhaps some contribution can be made towards the cost of that role if political parties reach the 30% quota in this election, which will increase to a quota of 40%. I am working on the issue at present. Progress will take some time. I am only expressing my preliminary thoughts today. Local elections are vitally important to political parties because if they want to reach the quota targets for Dáil elections then local elections are a training or breeding ground for a lot of people who end up running for Dáil elections. Therefore, the parties would be foolish not to reach the quotas themselves.

In terms of the interaction that Senators have with councillors, a review of this nature has never before been conducted in the history of this State, and even before the State was formed, as to what councillors do, what we want them to do and how we want them to be paid. The outcome that I want at the end of the review, which is the same as what Senator O'Sullivan has just touched on, is to link councillors' pay to a grade in the public sector. Also, no politicians in the future will decide the matter, and it will not be decided by anyone here or the people who will come after us, but as part of public sector pay deals. That is what most councillors would prefer. That aspect is one of the primary purposes for the current review.

I am familiar with a councillor, and it is probably the same person, who has encountered social welfare issues. Councillors do not pay the correct stamp to get the PRSI benefits but that is not right. That is why linking councillors' pay to a grade in the public service is so important. I am sure that there will be a battle about the matter when the time comes and I look forward to enjoying the support of the committee when that happens.

The municipal allowance is payable in Dublin. The term "area committees" is used rather than "municipal districts".

The reason there are no municipal districts for the large urban areas is that while it makes sense in large geographical rural areas to divide local authority areas, it is often the case that it could lead in an urban centre to unnecessary duplication. Where that geographical spread is not an issue, it can be easier to provide services from central local government. That municipal allowance is payable, however.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. We welcome the review that is taking place. As the Minister of State identified, it is long overdue. People here have some understanding of the role of councillor, as most of us have been through it. Regrettably, the level of work councillors have to do is lost on the public. The evolving and changing nature of councillors' work must, equally, be recognised. One of the significant challenges facing us is whether we continue to see the role of councillor as a part-time one or whether it is becoming a full-time one as we move forward. I was selected in 2004 and saw huge changes in the type of work we had to carry out. One looks at the public side of it and how we interact with them. However, the whole administrative end of it is becoming more cumbersome and logistical. There are more legal implications behind it all. Just this week, we passed the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill to provide for the office of the planning regulator. It will have an impact on local authority members and the way county development and local area plans will interact legally with regional plans, the national planning framework and how the Minister and others are directed. That whole area consumes more and more of a councillor's time.

Since 2014, an economic role has been taken on by local authorities. We then have the LCDC, which is a positive step but is insufficiently resourced. Anyone who has chaired an LCDC, especially in respect of trying to involve the Leader programme, has found it very challenging and time consuming. We are placing a greater administrative burden on local authorities. The Minister of State referred to the role of employer. As an employer, if someone came to me and said he or she wanted to run for the local elections, I would nearly tell them "Good luck, because it is not going to fit in". The Minister of State is right that it is a challenge for employers. We do not see it as a positive thing any longer to have an employee who is also a local councillor due to the complications around it. We had many issues in Wicklow where meetings are held during the day and are not family friendly. They do not suit employers because councillors have to take time off. Are we attracting people any longer, given the complexities of the role moving forward?

The Minister of State mentioned soft supports. As a councillor, I felt there was nowhere to go for independent advice. A lot of that would have been around county development plans where one might have a different view or idea but must approach the author of the report with which one disagrees. One is stuck. They know the legislative background whereas one struggles to know what powers one has and what one can or cannot do. These issues arise more and more often as national policy impacts on local policy. We have a number of challenges in relation to wind policy, for example. Councillors do not understand fully their legal role in that process. I understand, as do most of us here, the huge role a councillor plays in delivering services to his or her local community, but the public, I think, does not understand the depth of that work. The challenge for us in the review is to determine whether the role remains a part-time one. If that is the case, what supports should we provide to allow councillors to carry out their work? It is more a few points than questions for the Minister of State, perhaps.

I take on board fully the Deputy's points about employees. While Ms Moorhead is aware of the issue, devising a solution that would be satisfactory for employers is difficult. However, it is an issue that has to be grasped. Otherwise, councils will be composed solely of wealthy, retired or unemployed people. We need a mix. The question is whether a system can be devised to provide people with more time off. There is also the lack of family-friendly arrangements. When I started 20 years ago, many of the meetings were held in the afternoons and evenings. That has changed to a great extent. Council employees and management have lives and families as well and the question of how to strike a balance is being considered. The role of the councillor has changed considerably and Deputy Casey is correct to state that the public has a view of what councillors do whereas the actual role involves a great deal more. However, I think the public still greatly values a good councillor in their area.

I am not saying that is not the case.

Deputy Casey struck on one of the key issues I referred to earlier, which is who councillors can approach for advice. That is one of those soft supports. I do not know whether it should be one person. In some of the larger authorities such as Dublin City Council, which has the second-largest elected chamber in the country at 63 people, it might need to be more than one person. In any case, there should be someone there whose role and function is to give the elected representative the full knowledge of what his or her reserved functions are in relation to a particular policy issue before a local authority. There is a gap in that regard currently but the whole area will be considered.

A review is worthwhile because, as others have said, it is particularly dangerous for spouses and partners of councillors. I hear reports of people losing social welfare payments because their partners are councillors. This is happening. It has happened to one of our own and to several other councillors. The danger of the way it impacts on a family's income is that one will get council chambers populated by people who are retired or who otherwise have very flexible self-employment or business jobs.

I was a councillor for 11 years in an extremely busy ward. Not every councillor has the same workload, to be frank. It varies dramatically. There was massive development taking place in Fingal, for example, which meant it took hours on end every single week just to read the planning lists. In more settled areas, however, a councillor would have a much more stable workload. It is not a full-time job, although some councillors make it one because they decide to go to the opening of every envelope in the community. It should not be a full-time job. If it were to be one, we would need to review local government. In reality, local authorities have very few functions left. Bin services and water services are gone. There is practically no housing being built. Compared to the position a number of years ago, we must ask what councils are actually for when their powers have successively been taken away from them by a number of Governments.

I raise the issue of maternity leave. When I was on the council, I had a baby and was informed by the Department of Social Protection that I would lose my maternity benefit as a teacher if I went to a council meeting or fulfilled my council duties. Officials on the council batted on my behalf, however. To receive maternity payments, one is meant to be sitting at home with one's child at all times, which is complete discrimination against anyone who can become pregnant.

What we are saying then is that there is no maternity leave and a woman has to take time off. The councillor would be absent for six months, which is simply impossible for her.

The child benefit section of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection needs to be spoken to about its handling of, and dealings with, female councillors. It is quite stressful for anyone in that situation. A woman has a baby and then finds out she may lose her maternity benefits because she happens to have been elected as a councillor. She might wish to continue going to meetings or reduce her workload or keep it at a certain level. Then she is told in a patronising fashion that she is meant to be 100% at home with her child to keep maternity benefits. Clearly, the message is that women are not meant to be councillors if that is to continue. We know there is under-representation. It is the same for all people with young children, unless they have a wealthy background or a good job that is flexible. There should be a system introduced whereby people can get leave from work. Otherwise, we will continue to have the type of councillors we have and not necessarily people who come from across the workforce, including the private sector and the public sector, which is what we need.

I agree with virtually all of what Deputy Coppinger said probably for the first time in my life. She is correct about the workload varying dramatically. It also varies even within wards in the sense that some councillors do far more than others. Some councillors do many things that are not things the taxpayer should be paying for. That does not apply to every councillor. Senator Boyhan should reserve the grunts; no one interrupted him. No one here is seeking to whitewash every councillor. Senator Boyhan can rest assured that I will not do that; he should know me well enough. Anyway, it is proper that Ms Moorehead should look at the activities that councillors conduct and decide, from a taxpayers' point of view, which activities should and should not be funded.

It is also factually correct - Senator Boyhan is a man who normally deals in facts - that councillors were surveyed last year. More than half responded. The average put in 26 or 27 hours per week. That is not Deputy Coppinger's view, my view, the view of the Chairman or of the Department. The survey was carried out in each local authority and it came back showing that councillor hours are not full time. That is not to say that some do not work full-time hours.

The workload varies dramatically as well, for example, in some of the large rural districts. I have in mind west Cork and south Kerry, where virtually half of the county of Kerry is in one electoral area. It has changed a little with the recent review of boundaries. Anyway, councillors attend events and meetings and carry out their role as representatives. This brings an extra hardship and workload in terms of travel. In west Cork, councillors may have to drive for a couple of hours to get to the monthly plenary session. There are differences between the role of councillors in urban centres and rural areas.

Deputy Coppinger raised the issue of maternity leave. The Bill approved by Cabinet this week will go before the Oireachtas next autumn. I hope the issue of maternity leave can be dealt with in it. We may need to have a discussion with the Department of Education and Skills and other Departments, probably at Cabinet level, to ensure there is some co-ordination between Departments when it comes to maternity leave. We need to ensure we do not present the image or reality to female councillors that they are not wanted or that they are supposed to be at home minding their child. That is a very old-fashioned view of the world.

Reference was made to people losing benefits. Means-tested benefits will always depend on the income coming into a house and what is deemed as income. If councillors' pay were to increase dramatically, it might mean that spouses might lose benefits. That is an issue primarily for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We have no wish to see any adverse effects, for example, family members losing benefits. The job we are about relates primarily to the councillor, how to keep more people at it, how to make more people interested in running and allowing them to do the job effectively.

I have some points to make as well. I concur with Deputy Coppinger's points on maternity leave. It is not the mere fact that a female councillor does not get maternity leave; it is that if she misses a couple of meetings she is completely out of the loop. Local authorities move fast. A female councillor is not marked down as on maternity leave; she is marked down as absent. If there are votes, it is as if the councillor did not bother to turn up rather than that he or she is at home with a child, whether the father or the mother. I welcome the fact that this is the first Government to undertake such a review and to take these issues into account.

Many committee members were on councils for many years. I served with Senator Boyhan for a long time. I was 12 years on my local authority. I saw a major difference between the time I started and when I finished, in particular with the workload involved. I did not go to the opening of every envelope. I did not see that as my role. My role was to be at meetings but I made sure to do my work and research before I got there.

Councils deal with development plans and that creates the environment to develop a given area. It is up to the councillor to ensure he or she is informed to make proper and accurate decisions that do not have unintended consequences. It takes hours for councils to deal with development plans or economic plans. I fully accept that not everyone does that, and that it is a choice. I chose to do it full time as did Senator Boyhan while Deputy Casey gave it everything. It is a choice for the individual to make. I ran knowing that it was a part-time role and I fully accepted that. I knew what the remuneration was when I ran and we have to fully accept that. When a candidate makes a choice to run, she knows what she is running for. However, the role is underpaid and I accept that not everyone does the same hours. We also need to accept that the hours local authorities meet vary depending on where they are in the country. Even in Dublin, the four local authorities meet on different days and different hours. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council met in the evening. This meant a councillor could work during the day and attend meetings in the evening. Some councils meet during the day, which means councillors need time off work. We need to consider looking around the hours that committees and county councils meet to streamline it and make it more accessible.

It is important to make it more attractive to run for a local authority. That would strengthen the role of the local authority and the functions it has and the training required. In recent years, local authorities have changed dramatically. The focus was on taking the money away from training and conferences because of the allegation that people were abusing the system. Many councillors were not abusing the system and valued the training available. Those who did not abuse it valued it. However, not everyone did and that is out there.

To fulfil the role of councillor a person has to be accessible 24-7. Like Senators and Deputies, if a councillor is not accessible then people do not think that she is doing the job. Since the advent of mobile telephones, emails and text messages, a councillor is always following her job and always trying to keep on top of it. My local authority furnishes councillors with a telephone, laptop and printer. I presume that is the same in other local authorities. I can only speak from my experience, but when a councillor sought training in something it was provided.

The role of strategic policy committees could be strengthened. We see local authority members coming forward with housing plans. I know Deputy Coppinger said they were not doing anything, but they are. I completely disagree with that remark.

I did not say anything of the sort. I simply said the functions had gone down.

The Deputy said they are not delivering in housing.

Yes, they are not.

Some of them are. Some local councillors are proactive. When someone wants something done, that person must ensure she gets involved and does it. Some local councillors are doing that. Senator Boyhan will concur in this regard. Councillors in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have come up with a good plan on housing on a cross-party basis. Sometimes when we want to get something done we have to involve ourselves and ensure that we are part of it rather than always being against something. In that way we can get delivery.

Another question is the ability to contact staff in local authorities since they work set hours.

If one is working full-time in another capacity accessing answers to queries is not always possible. Issues like this need to be examined as well. We need to appreciate the work local councillors do. The majority of them become councillors because they want to make a difference in their communities, not because of the salary. Councillors across all parties get a hard time. There are good people in all parties and this needs to be recognised. If we had indicators regarding what they are doing, how they are performing and recognition of that work, it would go a long way.

I want to make a few brief comments on which I do not expect the Minister of State to respond. I do not doubt his personal capacity and eagerness to get on with this job but my role is to articulate what sitting councillors want me to articulate on their behalf, which is reasonable and fair.

Deputy Coppinger is of the view that being a councillor is not a full-time job. My experience of councillors of the left, specifically People Before Profit in Dún Laoghaire, is that they are full-time councillors and they perform their role effectively. My experience of engagement with city and county councillors on the left is that they more than any group of councillors perform the role of councillor on a full-time basis. I ask the Deputy to take that message back to her group and her political contacts in this House and the council of which she was a member. They are engaging full-time in the hope that they will gain election to this House, as in the case of the Deputy. Let us be fair; how councillors use their time is their choice. It is about choice. Some people are less involved in the committees but they take on other responsibilities. Good county managers and good county councils work well together. I acknowledge chief executives throughout the country who work hard and who are pragmatists. Good councillors and good chief executives work well together. They assist each other in the work of the council. Councillors are the first port of call when there is a crisis in a community, be that drought, flooding and so on, often receiving calls at 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Deputy Maria Bailey will know that when we were councillors we were that first port of call.

I wish the process well. I do not doubt the commitment of the Minister of State to it. The sooner it is up and running the better. It would be helpful if Ms Moorhead could set out the timeframe for the engagement because as of yet we do know when or where it will start. Keeping the communication flowing to councillors would also be helpful and might allay some of their fears. This is how it should happen in modular terms,.

The Deputy's suggestion is not unreasonable. I will bring it to the attention of Ms Moorhead but ultimately she operates independently of me, as must be the case. I will ask Mr. O'Leary to relay the message regarding timeframes for submissions and the surveying of councillors.

I will now address a question from the Chairman. Councillors are accessible 24-7. The provision for councillors' laptops, phones and printers is not universal across the country, which is one of the issues that will hopefully be considered by the review. Senator O'Sullivan raised the issue of vouched versus unvouched expenses. The days of unvouched political expenses are over forever. That said, Ms Moorhead might say something different in her report. Politically, they are gone. There was a lot of flack from councillors when they did not get an increase in their unvouched expenses. No politician will be increasing unvouched expenses for councillors or any other politician into the future. Those days are done. There will be fully vouched system for councils similar to that for the Oireachtas. Prior to my appointment as Minister of State I was audited two years in a row. It is a time-intensive operation getting everything in order but everything was in order. This is the future for councillors as well. Not only will expenses be vouched, councillors will be subject to audit to ensure they are adhering to the rules.

I thank the committee for its involvement. I am sure we will have further engagement on this issue. The local government Bill was approved by Cabinet during the week. I urge all members to get stuck into it. I understand the committee has had some discussion on the Bill but there are important changes in it relating to Cork and Galway, in particular, and to the new joint structures for cities and towns across county boundaries that need to be implemented in advance of new local authorities being elected next year.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending this meeting and for their ongoing engagement with the committee. I propose that we suspend to allow them to leave.