This is an exciting and challenging time for local government, a time of change and renewal. Local government is now recognised by our Constitution as a fundamental part of our democratic system and I am privileged to be here in the Seanad today to take Second Stage of the Local Government Bill, 2000. It follows directly from the earlier constitutional Bill, on which I was also honoured to speak in this House.
I want to set out the context in which the Local Government Bill was drafted. It has long been recognised by all political parties that the local government system in Ireland is in need of overhaul. At least we can all agree on that, even if not on every detail of the way to go about it. Those of us within the political system and the local government system in particular recognise that local government is different from other public sector bodies. Local government is seen by many primarily as a service provider at local level. It is this but it is also much more. Unlike other organisations, it is democratically elected and now has a constitutionally recognised role of democratic representation for local communities. For the past 20 years or so, until fairly recently, local government was overshadowed and was not doing well, often through no fault of its own. Its funding base contracted, new local development initiatives did not connect with it and local government began to lose its rightful place at the heart of local communities. Within the system the central policy role more often than not fell to the executive, with the elected council taking a back seat as regards policy development. All of these developments combined to devalue our democratic system. They devalued local government and local democracy. It was obvious that action was needed to reverse these trends.
The Local Government Bill is just one part of an ongoing process which started in earnest four years ago, a process which has been driven relentlessly by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, throughout that period. It will facilitate continued improvements and lasting change long after we are all gone. It is important that I acknowledge the work of others.
The Local Government Acts of 1991 and 1994 set the tone for a more enlightened approach to local government. They removed statutory controls and relaxed the ultra vires doctrine. Deputy Brendan Howlin, Minister for the Environment in the rainbow Government, published a White Paper, Better Local Government, in 1996. The Bill before us today incorporates and builds on much of that work and I acknowledge this fact. The Government programme, An Action Programme for the Millennium, contained an explicit commitment to local government renewal and this is now endorsed by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
We have come a long way and achieved much in the past four years. In considering the Bill, we must look at it against the broader canvas of the local government renewal programme. It is one component of an overall package. It is incumbent upon me to outline some of the other measures that make up that package and what has been achieved to date. Local government is now constitutionally recognised with a fixed electoral cycle and guaranteed local elections, with a consti tutional basis which now provides a solid foundation for this Bill. The new Local Government Fund, established by legislation in 1998, is delivering significant additional resources, as borne out by this year's allocations. In 2001, somewhere in the region of £720 million is being provided to local authorities, delivering almost 64% more than in 1997 for general purpose needs. On top of that, the national development plan is delivering major increases in capital funding for local authority projects. It is providing essential services and infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing economy and a developing society.
Strategic policy committees are up and running and it is encouraging to see them beginning to operate as intended. They will allow the elected member to develop a central role in policy development, in partnership with relevant sectoral interests, and with proper back up. The disappointing delay in getting them started due to industrial relations issues is now behind us and I look forward to the introduction of modern management systems which are necessary to support the process, with directors of service now being put in place. I am delighted to say that the recruitment process is almost complete.
The establishment of county and city development boards was another milestone in repositioning local government and raising its profile. These bring together the wide range of State agencies operating locally together with the social partners and local development bodies under the local government umbrella, a unique opportunity to maximise the combined impact of all involved at local level. Working in partnership, they are devising a strategy for economic, social and cultural development attuned to the needs of the county or city concerned and will oversee its delivery. This represents a new way for the public service to come together and operate on a collective basis for the common good and crucially, under the democratic leadership of local government. The CDBs are now up and running and have directors and support staff in place.
Another key objective in the Government's renewal programme was to achieve better efficiencies, to modernise local authority and to support local authority members. An equalisation model to facilitate the allocation of resources from the Local Government Fund in a way which takes account of local authority needs and resources has been put in place and will be further refined in co-operation with local authorities. Modern financial management, accounting and audit systems are well on the way to full implementation. Proper service indicators and new corporate planning systems have been introduced. Support for necessary IT systems to underpin these initiatives is being provided. There is an ongoing pilot programme of one stop shops with funding support from the Department. A major programme of information and training for councillors began with a series of seminars for new councillors.
The second phase saw an intensive focus on the chairs of SPCs to support them in key policy areas such as roads, housing, planning, etc. The third phase sees this programme now being extended to all councillors, in co-operation with the representative associations. New management structures in local authorities are being implemented to strengthen management and staffing capacity and to provide clearer accountability and responsibility, as well as opening up better career prospects in local government.
Senators will understand from what I have outlined that this is a renewal programme designed to build on progress to date. It is tailored to Irish circumstances and can significantly improve the lot of local government. We have recognised that local government systems vary widely across different countries. In any country it derives from particular traditions, history, culture and circumstances, and prospects for change must provide for that. In some countries functions such as policing, public transport or social welfare are delivered by the local government system but we must be honest and ask ourselves if this is a realistic goal. Given Irish circumstances, is it likely that in the short term at least such services will be subsumed within our local government system? Is there public demand for that to happen, much as we might wish it?
The bottom line is that we have to approach change in a realistic way taking account of how functional responsibilities have evolved, and how they are currently organised, if local government is to progress. Thus, our starting point must be where we find ourselves today. From there we must move forward in a planned and progressive fashion to renew our system of local government. On that journey we should be open to all possibilities as anything is possible. We must move from a realistic assessment of where we are, from an assessment grounded in reality, not in unrealistic expectations.
Before and after the Bill was published the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, engaged in an intensive consultation process with local authority members through the local authority representative associations. Through their submissions, and an extensive series of meetings, the Minister was able to hear their views first hand. As a result of that dialogue the Minister promised to look again at some of the issues raised, and many of the amendments brought forward during the passage of the Bill through the Dáil reflect that commitment. The Minister very much appreciates the hard work and effort the associations invested in the process and he has conveyed his thanks personally to them. Indeed, I add my own thanks to the GCCC, the AMAI and LAMA.
I would like to flag some of the more significant amendments which were made to the Bill in the Dáil. The title ‘borough' will continue in local government law, as promised to the Mayors of Clonmel, Drogheda, Kilkenny, Sligo and Wexford. For the first time ever in local government law the special historical position of Kilkenny has been recognised. The proposed ban on the dual mandate has been omitted. A new provision dealing with the prohibition of multiple membership of local authorities is incorporated in the Bill in response to suggestions from the local authority associations. The period of persistent non-attendance giving rise to loss of membership of a local authority has been extended to 18 months. The provisions dealing with access, information and transparency in relation to local authority meetings and agendas have been further strengthened. Specific provision has been included to deal with incompatible outside work being undertaken by local authority officials. A substantive new section has been inserted to promote local authority support for the Irish language. Various amendments throughout the Bill underpin the developing local authority role in promoting social inclusion. The ownership of Temple Bar Properties Limited is transferred to Dublin Corporation. The foregoing gives an indication of how some of the concerns expressed by the local authority associations, the Opposition and other interests have been taken on board.
The Bill is not a stand-alone measure and it cannot be looked at in isolation. It is an important element in the Government's ongoing programme of renewal which is already putting into practice the theory and objectives behind much of the Bill. The Bill provides the statutory framework to carry forward the wide range of initiatives mentioned earlier. Real and worthwhile change can only be achieved by taking account of the needs of all involved, which in this case means 1,600 councillors, 30,000 staff and the electorate from whom local government draws its mandate. The Bill aims to provide a framework to facilitate change in such a way as to encourage those involved to take ownership of the process. At the end of the day people are the key to success. The Bill is designed to allow local government to evolve in new directions and facilitate progressive change.
There have been criticisms that the Bill does not go far enough. However, reaction to some of the more innovative proposals has been controversial. I see that as a reliable indicator that radical change is unlikely to find widespread acceptance in local government circles. For example, no amendments have been put forward to redraw the map of local government as we know it. The Bill attempts to strike a balance in terms of the change required to enable the local government system to meet the demands of a modern, inclusive, 21st century society. At the same time it retains the solid foundations which have served us well for over 100 years.
The Bill is a blueprint for change and modernisation as well as a platform for future change. It does not therefore abandon local government as we know it, rather it builds on past work and current structures. The county and city system is maintained, as are the town local authorities, in all, comprising a grand total of 114 elected local authorities. In future these authorities must operate on a new basis, with a new ethos, building on the concepts of partnership and inclusion. We must place greater emphasis on working together, be it town and county or adjoining counties and cities, and the Bill provides for that. While the policy and executive roles are continued they are subject to significant change and rebalancing designed to enhance the role of the elected council.
Many provisions in the Bill present members with a renewed opportunity to reclaim their rightful role as the policy makers. The Bill aims to promote a strong but workable framework in which the executive operates within policy parameters determined by the elected council and local government operations are overseen by that council with the necessary support. This legislation emphasises the links with the communities from which local government derives its mandate and supports community involvement in a more participative local democracy. It will provide for improved financial and organisational systems and procedures as well as for more efficient service provision.
The Bill aims to reinforce the rightful position of the elected council in determining local authority policy. The corporate policy group, with an elected Chair, will have a key role to play in this process as a kind of cabinet to deal with over-arching corporate affairs. That is the corporate plan for the life of the council, the annual budget and overseeing of the executive. The Bill places the executive under a duty to implement democratically settled policy and provides for executive functions to be carried out accordingly. However, any system is only as good as the people in it, the extent of their dedication and their availability to do the job in hand. No amount of legislation, no matter how reforming, can achieve that. The kind of commitment I am referring to is borne out by the service of councillors throughout the local government system. This too is acknowledged and the Bill provides for practical supports to assist members by way of a salary-type payment, allowances and training. There is also provision for pension arrangements.
Another aim of the Bill is to consolidate and update our local government law to provide a modern statutory foundation for local government. At long last general local government law will be found between two covers in a format which is accessible to councillors, staff and the public. That will represent a definite improvement on the current situation of a variety of overlapping provisions, scattered over a wide range of enactments with archaic terminology which is complex and impenetrable. In contrast, the Bill provides a modern statutory framework for local authority operations with a range of general powers available to all local authorities. It provides for the repeal of legislation dating back a century and a half. Separate Bills to update rating law and water services are being prepared and will complete the process of modernising the service codes and repeal the remaining pre-independence statutes.
I will mention briefly some of the specific provisions in the Bill. Part 2 contains key provisions establishing local authorities within a modern legislative format. It follows directly from Article 28A of Bunreacht na hÉireann which provides that there shall be such directly elected local authorities as may be determined by law. That law shall be the Local Government Bill now before us. Section 10 divides the State into local government areas of counties and cities. Within the counties, and forming part of them, are the town local authorities. Each of these areas – county, city or town – has a local authority known, as appropriate, as a county council, city council or town council; or borough council in some cases.
Parts 3 and 4 deal with local authority membership and local elections. Local elections are fixed at five yearly intervals to be held in the month of May or June, with the next local elections in 2004. This is now guaranteed by the Constitution, thus ending a long history of postponements which served to diminish local government. A mechanism is included in section 22 to allow for alteration in the number of members of a local authority. This involves a report by the independent Local Government Commission provided for in Part 11. This commission also has a role as regards the review of local electoral areas under Part 4; the alteration of local authority boundaries under Part 8; and the establishment of new town councils. As regards co-options, section 19 provides that in future, co-optees to a local authority must be nominated by the party for which the departing member concerned was elected.
Part 5 deals with the position of the cathaoirleach which, under existing law, is the generic title. Existing mayors and lord mayors continue and it will be open to any local authority to adopt the title mayor or cathaoirleach. From 2004, the cathaoirleach of counties and cities will be elected by direct vote of the people and will hold office for the life of the council. The directly elected chair will be a powerful impetus for change in the internal dynamics of local government. The cathaoirleach will be directly answerable to the people and accountable to the elected council; a full-time cathaoirleach who must work with the council to deliver on the full potential of the office, which is highly visible and accountable; a person elected by the people who draws on powerful democratic legitimacy to speak and negotiate on behalf of the whole community, with influence well beyond any formal powers and with the capacity to bring together the various elements of local governance. Experience elsewhere bears out the undoubted potential of such an office.
As regards meetings of local authorities, Part 6 establishes a statutory right of public access, and restricts the right to meet in committee to special cases and subject to special procedures. Schedule 10 sets out a comprehensive, updated and consolidated code for local authority meetings. The framework for local authority committees and joint committees is set out in Part 7.
Part 9 contains a general statement of local authority functions, while individual services such as fire, waste, planning, etc., are carried out under the relevant specific legislation, which for convenience is listed in Schedule 12. However, the Bill itself provides a range of general powers available to all local authorities, including democratic representational role broad powers to promote the community interest, including provision of local amenities; flexibility to take action ancillary to any express statutory powers; by-laws to regulate matters of local concern; land acquisition and disposal; establishment of a community fund to support local projects; discretion to introduce a community initiative scheme whereby an annual contribution can be introduced for a specific community initiative, but only following extensive local consultation; and an office of mayor, civic honours and the ceremonial role.
The Bill emphasises the need for town and county authorities to work together, and to combine their operations to the fullest extent and with a focus by all authorities on serving the public by whom rigid organisational distinctions are often seen as unhelpful.
Part 10 allows for necessary inter-authority co-operation in the performance of functions. It provides the flexibility for service arrangements to be made on foot of local agreements between town and county authorities or between adjoining counties and cities.
Part 12 will allow for the modernisation of financial management, accounts and audit to provide transparent, user-friendly and comparable data for all authorities. For reasons of greater effectiveness the water services function is consolidated at county level in Part 9, as was proposed in Better Local Government. In saying this, however, the Bill allows for joint arrangements to be worked out locally where this may be more appropriate.
Part 14 sets out the respective roles of the elected council, manager and staff. An array of mechanisms is provided to enable the elected council to maintain a proper overview of local authority affairs, to develop, make and steer policy and to oversee the executive, and with proper supports and back-up as referred to earlier. Local authority personnel and management law is also consolidated and updated.
Part 15 provides a comprehensive new ethics framework for members and officials. It is regrettable that the actions of a very small few can bring the whole system into disrepute. This Part provides an open and transparent framework which will apply to all aspects of local authority operations and will involve: disclosure of interest in any matter which arises, an annual statement of interests, a public register, active implemen tation, and with a role for the independent Public Offices Commission; along with codes of conduct for staff and members.
Part 21 restates existing law as regards the non-performance of certain functions and Part 23, as already mentioned, provides for the transfer of Temple Bar Properties Limited to Dublin Corporation.
This is a unique occasion in terms of local government legislation. For the first time ever in this State we have the opportunity to consider a Bill to provide the statutory framework for our local government system. The last such legislation for Irish local government, the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, was before the Westminster Parliament at the end of the 19th century.
The Bill before us now is designed to improve local government, both in its operations and in its relevance to the communities it serves, and to modernise its procedures. It provides a modern legal foundation for our local government system, one which is founded on principles of democracy, partnership and community. It provides the framework to carry forward the renewal programme already well under way. It will significantly enhance the role of the elected council and it will allow local government the freedom to develop in the new directions essential to the development of our democratic system.
It is a Bill worthy of your trust and confidence, and a salute to local government. I confidently commend it to the House.