Before commencing, I remind Senators that they may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also on Report Stage each amendment must be seconded. As amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, are related to amendment No. 1, I suggest they may all be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed?
Local Government Bill 2003: Report and Final Stages.
I do not agree to the grouping outlined.
What is it that the Senator does not agree with?
I do not agree to the grouping of amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are definitely related.
No, they relate to substantially different points. One deals with the right to run for election, while the other deals with the dual mandate. I have separate points to make on each issue.
As the House has not agreed to take them together, we will discuss them individually.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, line 17, to delete "either House of the Oireachtas" and substitute "Dáil Éireann".
This amendment recommends that the abolition of the dual mandate, which will be found to be unconstitutional, should not apply to Senators. On previous occasions, I referred to various articles of the Constitution. For example, I spoke about the constitutional amendment which gave rise to Article 28A. I also referred to Articles 2, 40 and 15.14. The latter requires that a person cannot be a Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas and the position regarding the President is similar in Article 12.2. The legislation is worded in such a way as to stop a person running for election – not just to disallow them from holding both seats – and is a recognition that a constitutional problem exists with regard to making an elected person surrender their seat. The mandate in a local government election comes from the people. A county councillor running for election following enactment of the Bill will have the right to challenge legislation which forces him or her to surrender the council seat to which he or she was elected by the people.
There will be particular difficulties for independent councillors elected to the Oireachtas. Such people do not have an assurance that the person co-opted in their place will be an independent candidate. He or she could be replaced by a majority of the council because he or she is not a member of a political party.
The wording of the Government amendment raises the issue of primacy of the elected local authority member and is a recognition of Article 28A. We should not be legislating on the dual mandate. We should trust the electorate. I referred in my Second Stage contribution to the remarks of the 1961 Electoral Committee that we should trust the electorate and let them take the consequences of their actions. I strongly believe that rather than placing limitations on who can be elected, we should be removing some of the existing ones.
Parties could choose, as the Green Party has done, to ban the dual mandate within their organisations. Those who do not wish to hold the two roles should not force that position on everybody else. If one cannot perform the two roles, then one should make a personal choice to give up one of them.
There are many issues within local government besides the dual mandate which need to be tackled, such as how we organise our politics, fund our Government and the powers given to councillors and politicians at national level. What is important is not what role one holds, but what one does. There are many limitations at local government level on what can be achieved. County councillors, irrespective of whether they are Members of the Oireachtas, find it difficult to obtain funding. We should address that issue first.
The fact that PR and multi-seat constituencies will remain in place means the Dáil and Seanad will continue to meet mid-week to allow Oireachtas Members to nurture their work at local level. If the Minister is considering the abolition of PR and the introduction of single seat constituencies, I urge him not to lose the run of himself because the people are against such an idea. They prize their ability to choose. I know Fianna Fáil wishes to introduce single seat constituencies in the long term, but it is not something to which the people will agree. It does away with their right to elect representatives of smaller parties and independent candidates. The Government will fail in this regard and the Dáil and Seanad will continue to meet mid-week.
We also need to look at ways of improving how we organise our debates. Many people mentioned that recently when speaking about the House of Commons debate on war with Iraq. The administrative way they organise business contributes to a better quality of debate. It is the manner in which we organise our business, not the quality of politicians, that is at fault. We should undertake reform in that area.
The reality is that there will be pretend councillors due to the amendment the Government has published today. There will be Deputies and Senators who will have no responsibility but who will receive all the information. That is because they want to remain involved in local government. If the Government wants to do this, it should do it properly and allow them to be elected and take on the responsibility of being local councillors.
Local and national politics are complementary. What a practising councillor can bring to national politics – and what a national politician can bring to local politics – is important.
The Senator is making a Second Stage speech.
I wish to make a number of points to support the case for Senators. The Government should let the practicalities determine who runs for what office. Few MEPs also serve as Deputies because it is not practical to do so. However, it is clearly practical to hold a local government mandate and be a Member of the Oireachtas. Why ban that? There are anomalies in that there will be the dual mandate of Deputy and MEP. Why not ban that dual mandate first? The dual mandate will not be gone in 2004 because Deputies and Senators will still be running for the European Parliament and will be allowed to retain their Oireachtas seats for a year or two afterwards.
I am not setting up Senators against Deputies. My personal view is that the dual mandate should not be banned. For the purposes of proper debate, it is important that this view is put in the House. The step being taken by the Government is so significant that it is important we debate it fully, irrespective of party political views.
I sympathise with the argument for ending the dual mandate but, overall, feel it is a wrong move. A special case can be made for Senators because their electorate is largely made up of county councillors. That should still be the case in respect of Seanad reform and councillors should have a role in electing Senators, which would be one way of keeping the worthwhile local government link. County councillors should be allowed to run for the Seanad while remaining on county councils. Practising councillors remain in touch with the operations—
The Senator's points are very general. She should stick to the amendment.
The Senator is repeating what was said on Second Stage.
I am sticking to the amendment, which relates to Senators. I think I should be allowed to make my point. The Minister will probably speak for as long as I do.
There is value in having the voice of local government in the House. One of the problems that will arise is a high turnover of Senators because councillors like to elect sitting councillors to the Seanad. Nominated Senators have a particular problem because they are practising county councillors who are in the House for just one term. If they are not nominated on the next occasion and are not elected to the Seanad, they will be left without the vocation which they may have practised for a long time at local government level. This is despite the fact that they may have been very good representatives both at Seanad and local government level. We are doing people in that position a disservice. It is ironic that I am putting this argument when all the nominated Senators are on the Government side.
To have a dual mandate is more manageable for a Senator than a Deputy, though I am against the change in general. There is no question but that Seanad Members spend less time in the Houses. This is evidenced by the fact that we are paid substantially less and have substantially fewer resources than Deputies. Senators do not have a local mandate and are not elected by their local constituencies, as are Deputies.
The Senator is embarking on a Second Stage speech.
I am addressing the amendment.
The Senator can address it without—
This is what the amendment is about. All politics is local, as Tip O'Neill said. All legislation has a local dimension and vice versa. I realise that political correctness says otherwise and says that legislation and local issues are somehow separate. I totally disagree and those on the ground say different by electing national representatives at local government level. There are practising professionals and others bringing their perspective to the Houses and to local government. Why can we not have that in this House?
Those who have a dual mandate and want to retain it do so because of their passion for local government, not for any other reason. I want to be involved in local government and combine my roles because it is worthwhile to do so.
I second the amendment. We examined and discussed the various sections of the Bill in great detail on Second and Committee Stages. The Minister said he would bring forward legislation to address the lack of powers vested in elected representatives, the main area of concern mentioned by Senators, at a future date. I would like to ask the reason there has to be a delay, however, as we should be placing confidence in local representatives. Voters should have the ultimate say in relation to who represents them; they should be allowed to decide whether a given man or woman is capable of representing them on local authorities or in the Oireachtas. Many are concerned that they will lose contact with the Oireachtas.
On Committee Stage I mentioned that a perfect report about waste management had been submitted by my local authority but the Minister decided that it was inadequate and the council did not receive funding as a result. I argued the matter on behalf of the local authority in the Oireachtas and received a favourable response. It is being re-examined at local level, where it matters. I agree with Tip O'Neill who once said, "All politics is local," as it is important that there is a link between local authorities and the national Parliament.
The Bill recognises that Senators and Deputies are equal but we do not enjoy the same standard of facilities as our colleagues in the other House. It is important that Senators are given the same facilities as Deputies but no steps are taken in that regard in the Bill. We are not provided with the secretarial services made available to Deputies. We are not considered to have a constituency, as such – the entire country is our constituency.
But all politics is local.
There should be a link between local authorities and the Oireachtas. I have no problem with the present system which links local authorities with the Seanad. A Senator who is also a member of a local authority does not receive two salaries – as dual mandate holders, we make a commitment of work. My local authority sent me my P60, rightly so, on the day I was elected to this House. It is important that Senators are given the facilities such as secretarial services in our constituencies that are enjoyed by Deputies. We carry out the same functions as Deputies in our constituencies; for example, we are contacted by those involved in the various development associations. We play a significant role in the development of our communities. I hope we will continue to be involved in such matters for a long time but the Bill is making it less likely.
I am convinced, as a result of contact with my constituents, that people believe this change is not needed. I have spoken to many people in community and development organisations since the Bill was brought forward and not heard any great calls for change in this area. Who has requested it? Was it the County and City Managers Association?
It was the General Council of County Councils.
It was definitely not the Local Authority Members Association which represents the members.
It was the local authorities' own organisation.
The Minister did not mention the association when he made his Committee Stage speech. Not all members of the General Council of County Councils requested the changes. Members of the Minister's party are annoyed about the proposed changes. I do not think Senator Brennan who is smiling on the Government back benches is entirely supportive of them. The Minister should reconsider the matter. I support Senator Tuffy's amendment.
I respect the points both Senators have made on this subject which we have debated in great detail, not only on Second Stage but also on Committee Stage. The termination of the dual mandate is the stated official policy of practically all the political parties, including the Labour Party and Fine Gael. It is important to keep this at the forefront of our minds.
Senator Tuffy's amendment proposes to end the dual mandate for Deputies but not for Senators. She knows well that this would change considerably the relationship between the Seanad and the Dáil. To be eligible to stand for election to the Seanad one has to be eligible to stand for election to the Dáil and vice versa. If the amendment was made, the Seanad would be on an unequal footing in the Oireachtas. That would be a foolish move.
There have been many opinions expressed on this subject, including those of the General Council of County Councils, the Barrington report on local government, the Second Commission on the Status of Women and the National Youth Council of Ireland. Moreover, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe made similar recommendations last year in its report on local government in Ireland. Therefore, we are not short of eminent reports on the issue.
Some Senators are making the mistake of thinking that one has to be part of the local government structure and that it almost cannot function without them. There is no point in furthering this argument. If one really wants to reform local government, the Dáil and the Seanad and address the issue of sitting days, the issue of the dual mandate must be addressed. We receive a lot of flak from the public because of how it perceives the fact that we sit in plenary session only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I disagree with this perception very strongly but it is a bone of contention. Our present sitting arrangements create the wrong impression. There is no reason we could not sit on Mondays like other parliaments. Local authorities have to sit on Mondays and Fridays to accommodate Oireachtas Members. This makes it difficult to have a serious reform process.
I do not think Senator Bannon expected the Government to have dealt fully with the Local Government Bill in the nine months since it took office because there are other things happening in tandem. The review of the Seanad has to be conducted. The Taoiseach has asked me to chair the proceedings and I have accepted the position. All the issues cannot be dealt with at the same time. This Bill is part of a much wider process that has been discussed and voted upon over the past ten years. The European Parliament has set an example in that, from 2004, one will no longer be allowed to be a MEP and a member of a national parliament at the same time. Other examples pertain to Ministers, Ministers of State, Cathaoirligh, Leas-Cathaoirligh, civil servants, gardaí and judges.
The Senator is correct in saying it is a matter for the electorate to decide. I am not preventing anybody from making the decision to stand for election to local government. Anybody is eligible to do so. All I am saying is one cannot be in both the Oireachtas and local government at the same time. Standing for election before deciding which role one would assume would be hoodwinking the public. I do not envisage anybody knowingly standing for election to local government who is a Member of his or her national parliament, getting elected and then deciding to give up the latter position. This argument is spurious and I could counter it for the next two or three hours. However, we have other aspects of the Bill to deal with and I am not prepared to accept the amendment as brought forward.
The Minister has mentioned the example of the European Parliament. The dual mandate will not be abolished in the next election because it will operate in respect of European Parliament Members and Deputies. There are stronger arguments for first abolishing the dual mandate of a Deputy and MEP or a Senator and MEP. The Minister has mentioned groups, including political parties, which want the dual mandate abolished.
Including the Senator's party.
I know that, but we want a proper debate in the House. I will not be muted by political correctness. We should be free to debate these issues and do what is right.
The dual mandate is presented by the media and the Government as the solution to local and national government problems. This is a red herring. There are more important reforms needed in local government and national politics. The Minister asked why we should differentiate between Senators and Deputies. I do not think the abolition of the dual mandate should be achieved by legislation. It should be a political party choice – mutual or individual. I believe they do not have similar legislation in the UK.
In the Europe Union there is a committee of the regions which, by many people's standards, would be the equivalent of the Seanad. That has county councillors on it. Why can we not have something similar here? What if this Bill is found unconstitutional? Where will Members, and in particular the Government parties, be then?
The Minister referred to local authority meetings being timed to facilitate Oireachtas Members. In south Dublin, council meetings are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I have to make the effort to attend. My main difficulty in attending is traffic congestion, not Seanad business. Local authorities sit at inconvenient times for many groups of people, whether one is a full-time homemaker—
That is a different argument.
That is more important in getting more people involved in local government and making it relevant to people's lives. Again I would say—
That is an extraordinary assertion that more people should not be involved in public life.
I did not say that.
The Senator did. The Senator said, "That is more important than getting more people involved in local government."
I said, "That is more important in getting people involved." It is more important to reform local government in the holding and timing of its meetings. Getting greater numbers of people involved in local government is more important than the abolition of the dual mandate, which is a red herring. I fear that local government will be then cast aside and left to defend itself. Government moves are taking away powers from local authority members. If the Government does what it is hinting in introducing reform in terms of single seat
That has nothing to do with the amendment. The Senator is wasting time.
Many Members will not be Senators in the future because of the amendment the Government is introducing. I ask the Minister to reconsider.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, line 18, to delete "from being elected or co-opted to, or".
An Oireachtas Member should be allowed to run in local government elections. This Bill provides that Oireachtas Members must first give up their seats in the House before they run in local elections. If they fail to be elected to a local authority, they end up without any mandate. At all other political levels, a Member is allowed to keep his or her seat. For example, Deputies can run in the European Parliamentary elections and still retain a seat in the Dáil. If successful, they can then decide to stand down from the Dáil. Similarly, county councillors can run for the Dáil or the Seanad without giving up their local authority seat.
This is a profoundly unfair proposal which will prevent national politicians from transferring to local government level, yet moves from local to national, and national to European levels can be made. The Minister has stated in the House, both today and at Committee Stage, that he could not foresee someone wanting to move from national to local government level. I give the example of Ken Livingstone, who transferred from national politics to local government level. Why is it so unforeseeable? If we value local government and if, as the Minister has said in previous debates on this Bill, it will be reformed and made more attractive, why would someone not want to transfer from national to local government level?
Some Senators may be here for only one term and as they are now precluded from running in the next local election they could find themselves after the next general election without a seat in either the Seanad or in local government. It is very difficult to get back to local government level and that is very unfair. The Minister has mentioned the plans at European level. I am sure the Government will not force a Deputy to give up his or her seat before going to the European Parliament, so why should that happen in relation to an Oireachtas Member running for local government?
I will be interested in hearing the Minister's comments.
I have dealt with this issue. I am not preventing anyone from running for local government. One presumes if a Senator or Deputy has made the decision to run for local government and wants to be part of that structure in the future they will have no difficulty in resigning their Oireachtas seat to do so. It is as simple as that.
I am not prepared to create an artificial system of local authorities where the Deputies and Senators can stand for election then suddenly opt for the Oireachtas, thus co-opting members who are not elected by the people. That would be to disregard the electorate entirely. We know that would happen and various pressures would be brought to bear.
I am bringing absolute clarity and certainty to the system. It makes it clear from the public's and the politicians' point of view. If we are to attract young people and new candidates into the system we must ensure that they do not get caught in a situation where Deputies and Senators run in their area, with all the consequences that would entail. That is not the way to do business. The principle underlying the Bill is that we end the dual mandate. People make a choice and I respect the choice they make. That is the way it is.
This amendment does not add anything to the Bill, except to row back and try to find another way of cutting across the legislation. It is only ducking and diving around the issue. The Bill as it stands is better and it provides absolute clarity for the public.
The Minister has said he would not tolerate a situation where a Deputy or a Senator could run for a local authority and then not take the seat, yet in the Bill he is permitting a person to run for two local authorities but hold one seat. That creates an artificial situation which contradicts what he has just said.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, line 21, to delete "2004" and substitute "2009".
The purpose of this amendment is to allow an adjustment period because people at national level are being disallowed from running for local government. Some of the present Deputies and Senators came in on the basis that they were local authority members. They are now suddenly in a position whereby they are not only prevented from running in the next local elections but also will come under heavy pressure to give up their seats early, which is totally unfair.
That is entirely a matter for the political parties.
I know it is a matter for the parties, but the Minister is being unfair to his own colleagues. I am sure they will not be too happy when Independent Members, who will probably stay on until the end, remain on the local councils, while the Minister's party is pressurising his colleagues to give up their seats.
The reason for this amendment is to allow an adjustment period. If the Minister makes such a dramatic change and takes away the members' rights it should not happen while they are within the period of change. They should have a chance to adjust. As the Bill affects Oireachtas Members initially, and local councillors later, the change should be deferred at least until the next general election. I have put in the date for local elections because we can be more certain of that than the date for general elections.
It is like St. Augustine saying, "Lord make me pure, but not just yet."
It is not that. I am sure a case will be taken and one of the bases for that will be that people who came in under the present regime are to be disallowed their rights when they are in midstream. Why is the European Parliament allowing Ireland a derogation? The Minister said it is because we hold our European elections at a different time from our general election. I wonder why that is. We can have a Deputy who runs in the next European election and is elected to the European Parliament but does not have to give up his Dáil seat until the following general election.
In terms of the derogation that Ireland has sought in relation to the European Parliament it seems, to judge from what the Minister has said – I do not have much information on this – that he recognises a need for a period of adjustment, yet he does not recognise that in relation to Oireachtas Members. He is being very unfair to Members who are county councillors but he is not extending that disadvantage to Deputies or Senators who run in the next European elections, as they will. It suits the Government parties to allow the dual mandate exist in relation to the European Parliament.
On a point of order, we are on amendment No. 3 but the arguments being used are exactly the same as those used on amendments Nos. 1 and 2. I do not understand why we cannot group the amendments.
They are not. One was to do with the holding of dual mandates.
The House has decided and I am not taking that as a point of order. Senator Tuffy may continue.
They are different.
We will make it a point of order. The point of order is whether we can establish the relevance of the arguments to the amendment.
Senator Tuffy is speaking to amendment No. 3.
The purpose of this reasonable amendment is to allow a period of adjustment so that the people elected under the present regime have a chance to choose between local and national politics. Senator Dardis may well be in that position himself. I certainly will be.
If there are legal and constitutional difficulties it allows time for this to be thrashed out. I know people in Senator Dardis's party who have already given up their seats and who may well find that they have done the wrong thing. It would be better from a practical point of view to allow the legal and constitutional issues to be aired to establish whether this provision is unconstitutional and to allow people to adjust and to make their choice. They are not being allowed to run without giving up their seats first, therefore there should be a period of adjustment. That is the relevance of the argument. I cannot see how the arguments I have made are irrelevant to the amendment.
I second the amendment.
The substantive reform of local government should have taken place before 2004. We are only 12 or 14 months away from a local election and we want to see exactly what reform is to take place. We have better local government but it has become more bureaucratic. We all know most local authorities are top heavy with administration. We have seen situations where there are several people sharing responsibility in each section of a local authority. Some of the counties they run are quite small with less than 30,000 people, like my own. There is a need to reform and change this huge structure.
That is up to the councillors.
There is a need to involve communities and so on. It is provided for in the Bill and the managers have implemented it – the councils have not power in that area. We have to modernise the way councils work to get away from some of the old traditional systems and develop positive partnerships with the quangos set up in recent years. A partnership arrangement with a local authority would be better than those bodies now in existence which meet behind closed doors.
On a point of order, the amendment seeks to substitute one date for another. Can somebody please advise me on the relevance of this discussion to the amendment?
Senator Bannon is seconding the amendment.
I am speaking to the amendment. An opportunity was missed in that the Bill should have provided for the radical shift of power from the executive to the elected members before this proposed legislation came in.
There should be a clear-cut distinction between local and national government, which is the reason I agree with Senator Tuffy's contention that the deadline should be extended until proper structures are put in place to let us know which direction we are taking. If local government was properly structured, some of us might opt to serve at that level rather than nationally. The first, second and third class rates in place should be examined and dealt with. Councillors need new powers to lead their communities but there is no provision for them in the Bill which should be more substantive and ought to include the new sections it is proposed to introduce down the road. I would like the Minister to tell the House whether reform will take place before local government elections are held in 2004.
The financing of local authorities is very important.
The Senator should speak to the amendment.
Financing is an issue that should be taken on board before the next local elections.
That has nothing to do with the amendment.
It is important to examine the financing structures of local government quickly to address the huge inadequacies and shortfalls in local authority budgets which were very much in evidence in the run-up to the adoption of the budgets of 2003 when several local authorities were threatened with abolition. Smaller counties have infrastructural plans they wish to implement but do not have the funding they need.
The Senator must speak to the amendment.
Proper funding structures must be linked to the enhancement of local government.
The amendment under discussion proposes to extend the implementation date to 2009. The previous Minister was criticised for failing to abolish the dual mandate in 1999 and it is very cynical to propose that it be put off again. One is either in favour of abolishing the dual mandate or one is not. Most parties were in favour of doing so in 1999 when the previous Minister was criticised for failing to secure Dáil approval for the proposal. The amendment is limited but the debate has been wide-ranging. It would be cynical to defer the matter again.
I thank Senator Kitt for his intervention. I intended to make the same point. It is extraordinary that Fine Gael and, to some degree, the Labour Party say they are seeking certainty in terms of the direction in which we are going when that is exactly what I am providing. It is quite obvious that Fine Gael does not know where it is headed. The abolition of the dual mandate is a policy of the party and has been debated since 1999. The proposal has been included as one of the party's fundamental principles in a recently published document, yet Fine Gael Members come to the House to oppose it.
That is nonsense. The Minister is out of order.
The Minister, without interruption.
As Senator Dardis has pointed out, Senator Tuffy's proposal to postpone implementation until 2009 is like saying, "Make me pure, but not quite yet." Either we take this step or we do not but it should be noted that underpinning the proposal is the policy position of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. There is no getting away from the fact that both parties are tabling amendments this afternoon which directly contravene their policy positions. I have been asked to provide certainty in terms of the direction we are taking but the amendments tabled seek to reintroduce uncertainty which I am not prepared to do. No new element has been brought to the discussion since Second and Committee Stages and I do not intend to waste the Seanad's time by responding further.
This new amendment was not tabled on Committee Stage. If, as the Minister says, we either do this or we do not, why was a derogation sought in relation to the European Parliament-Houses of the Oireachtas dual mandate? It would be useful to provide for a period of adjustment to address anomalies concurrently or in order. Reforms to address the European Parliament dual mandate could be put in place at local and national government level while dealing with financing issues.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, lines 24 and 25, to delete "or Seanad Éireann".
This is consequential on the last amendment. I do not need to say more than I already have but ask the Minister to reconsider the timing of the proposal and its application to Senators.
I have answered the question prompted by the amendment.
I am glad we have had time to deal with this amendment which addresses issues at the root of much of the debate on Second and Committee Stages. The amendment seeks to provide that when Oireachtas Members leave the local government system, their dealings with the local authorities at a representational level will be secure. I bring it forward in direct response to concerns expressed by Members of the House during earlier debates. Where Deputies and Senators cease to be local authority members, they are likely to continue to interact with such authorities on behalf of their constituents. Oireachtas Members have a legitimate case. As a politician who lives in the real world, I acknowledge that elected representatives in the national Parliament are justifiably interested on behalf of constituents in the policies and operations of Departments and other agencies. Given the wide range of local authority activities, it is usual for Oireachtas Members to approach them concerning policy matters or individual constituents. I have recognised these facts from day one and provided for such matters in the published Bill through guidelines. Having listened to the concerns voiced by Members of this House across all political parties and met colleagues from the Dáil, I fully accept what has been said. I am strengthening the provisions of the Bill which relate to local authority dealings with Members of the Oireachtas.
The amendment will replace section 3 of the Bill. Senators will see that under the Act, regulations which have the force of law will be made by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in place of guidelines to address local authority dealings with Oireachtas Members. It was very strongly believed by all political parties that provisions should be put on a statutory footing. The general thrust of the regulations will be that local authorities should, as a matter of course, put in place systems and procedures to provide that relevant documentation supplied to councillors is also supplied to Oireachtas Members. Such documentation would include notices of agendas, minutes of meetings, annual reports, audit reports and corporate plans. My list is not exhaustive but it conveys the general intent of the provision. Section 3 is formulated to provide for the making of regulations covering such matters as access to documentation, information and communications generally.
I emphasise that all local authority customers are entitled to expect a high standard of service in accordance with local authority customer action plans. This overarching principle should guide the actions of local authorities and common sense augment the regulations in informing the operation of the new arrangements. One can only legislate so far. While the amendment seeks to secure the position of Oireachtas Members in their dealings with local authorities, the representational role carried on in the normal way by councillors is in no way affected. That they will not be treated any less favourably is reflected in subsection (4)(c) of the amendment. Senators will agree that it is in everyone's interest to adopt the balanced approach the amendments seeks to achieve.
I bring the amendment forward in good faith and ask Senators to accept it in this light. I have no doubt that in the years following the ending of the dual mandate, the roles of local and national representatives will evolve to a point where local government matters will be of less significance to Members of the Oireachtas who will operate in the context of a fully developed committee system. For now, the amendment is my attempt to meet the real concerns of Members. In discussions of section 3 access was their overriding concern. Arrangements to facilitate access on a statutory basis are key to the amendment which exceeds the requirements of Members in this regard.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this positive amendment. It reflects what was stated during the debate on Second Stage and subsequently. It is a fundamental and positive change to the Bill.
I note that the word "regulations" has replaced the word "guidelines" in the original Bill. There is obviously a much greater force to a regulation than there would be to a guideline—
The force of law.
Yes. I welcome the inclusion of "minutes" in subsection (3)(a). Subsection (3)(b) refers to the supply by local authorities of other specified documentation or other specified information. I assume that is as specified by the Minister in the regulations.
I note that the Minister agrees with that point of view and that is important. It is unrealistic to expect that there would be a Chinese wall between the local authority and the Member of the Oireachtas. There should be free and easy access between them and it should be so for members of the public also. They should be entitled to as much access as a Member of the Oireachtas.
I ask the Minister to consider the right of access to officials. I leave it to the Minister's discretion whether there should be a statutory right to allow Members of the Oireachtas to have access to local officials such as planners. I have an open mind on the matter. I suggest that it may come within the scope of subsection (3)(e) which mentions “such other matters as the Minister may consider appropriate for the purposes of subsection (2)”. I believe there should be some right of access to county council officials.
I support this amendment in principle. I believe the abolition of the dual mandate is taking away something which Members of the Oireachtas formerly held and this is an attempt to deal with that. The Constitution states that there shall be directly elected local authorities. This section is either toothless or could be challenged on constitutional grounds. The amendment recognises that there is a problem because it says one thing and then qualifies it. It refers to the functions of a local authority as specified in section 63(1)(a) of the Local Government Act which relates to the importance of democracy and local government. It recognises the primacy of the local authority member. I do not believe that one can have it both ways. This is in effect to allow Deputies and Senators to keep up their work as local councillors without having the responsibility that attaches to being elected.
I sympathise with the view expressed by Senator Dardis that Oireachtas Members should have access to local authority officials. The problem is that it gives an importance in terms of accountability to local authority members that is in contradiction to the Constitution. My attitude is that any member of the public who writes to a local authority should receive a reply.
In some way this indicates that the Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas has pre-eminence in a sense. The wording recognises the problem and for that reason it is either meaningless or, if it means anything, it will be open to a constitutional challenge. I read in The Irish Times recently that an independent councillor has said he would be willing to take a constitutional challenge to any such measure.
There are many contradictions. The Minister said that he will not treat councillors less favourably. That should be the case because elected councillors have primacy over Oireachtas Members if they are not members of a local authority. That is as it should be. The Minister said that in time people will focus less on local government, but I doubt that. He spoke about the separation of the duties of legislator from those of a local authority member. The abolition of the dual mandate creates a problem for Members of the Oireachtas and this is an attempt by the Minister to deal with this issue.
In fairness to all Members of the Oireachtas I ask the Minister to publish the regulations so that we can see what is proposed by this section. Section (3)(a) proposes “the supply, without charge, of notice, agenda and minutes of local authority meetings to members of either such House”. I can obtain this information from the Internet, as can my next door neighbour or anyone else. Subsection (3)(b) refers to the “supply by local authorities of other specified documentation or other specified information”. I ask the Minister to spell out what this means because it is very important from our point of view and for our rights as Members of the Oireachtas. Subsection (3)(c) is also meaningless because Members correspond with local authorities in the same way they correspond with residents' associations and various bodies.
This amendment is like the Emperor's clothes and its purpose is to keep backbenchers on board. Members who vote for this amendment are making a mistake.
I am pleased that the Minister has listened to us because I included some of those amendments in my proposals on Committee Stage. I wanted to replace the word "guidelines" with the word "regulations". While I am pleased that the Minister has done so, I do not think he went far enough. He could have gone a step or two further in that regard.
I ask the Minister to include "all reports" in subsection (3)(a).
I am doing that by regulation.
It would also be important to include "index by subject matter, service committee and electoral area". We are busy people and it would make things a lot easier.
I am concerned that Oireachtas Members may not be in a position to meet planners and county managers. It is important that provisions are made for us to meet them as we did before. I ask the Minister to consider the incorporation into the regulations of a director of services in the local authority who would have responsibility to deal with Oireachtas Members. I ask whether Senators will be given the same facilities as Deputies when this Bill is adopted. We do not have the same facilities at present and it is important that we are accommodated in a similar fashion.
I welcome the Minister's positive contribution. We spoke about access to officials and I know that local authority officials would welcome interaction with Oireachtas Members and local authorities. Area meetings are very important and I referred to them on Second Stage.
Senator Dardis referred to planning matters. Oireachtas Members should be allowed discuss matters such as prior notice provision with council officials. I do not mean they should try to exert influence but rather discuss issues of planning with the officials. I would like to see those issues covered in the regulations.
As it is now 4 p.m., I must put the following question in accordance with an order of the House today.
On a point of clarification, we could allow ten minutes more. However, the Minister for Finance is outside waiting to take the Finance Bill. Perhaps we could ask Members how they wish to proceed.
Is the Leader making a proposal?
Members wish to have the time available to them to deal with the Finance Bill, for which there is a timetable. I am prepared for the House to continue with Report Stage of this Bill until 4.10 p.m, but the question should then be put.
Is the Leader changing the Order of Business?
I am extending the time for Report Stage from 4 p.m. to 4.10 p.m., but the question must be put at that time.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I appreciate what Senators said. This is a reflection of many concerns raised with me. In the majority of cases, there is no need for such a section. From speaking with colleagues in my party and other parties, I am satisfied that the vast majority of Deputies and Senators have a good working relationship and that there is no need for this provision. There are, in some cases, certain difficulties in regard to access. When one considers some of the people who raised these points, I understand why there might be difficulties in regard to accessing information. I included the amended section in order to clarify matters in regard to subsequent regulations.
The provision is sufficiently broad. As politicians, we have learned collectively that if we try to define everything we will end up trying to deal with local government through the Electoral Acts, etc. No one will be able to take action because the legislation will prevent them from doing so. There is a danger of going too far. I am pleased with the way in which Members, including Senator Bannon, responded to what is set out in the legislation. We will consider regulations subsequently. However, I will not introduce a tome of regulations because people operating at official level would begin consulting it to see what they can and cannot do. The provision works extremely well. This is a broad framework to keep everyone at local authority level aware of what is going on. I respect the Senator's perspective on the issue.
Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related and will be discussed together.
These are merely technical amendments.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 6, to delete lines 1 to 5.
I am disappointed this provision was not tried out because it would have brought something new to local government. I sympathise with Senator Bannon's suggestion that perhaps it should have been tried on a pilot basis. I do not know if this could be arranged by way of regulation.
I have no doubt about this issue. From the perspective of all politicians, including those in the Oireachtas and at local authority level, there was absolute unanimity in regard to this issue. People did not want to proceed with the directly elected chair for many reasons to which I have already referred. I do not intend to repeat what I said previously. Perhaps the issue can be revisited at some future date. I believe it is the correct course of action and there was absolute unanimity on the matter.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 6, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:
8.–Section 5 of the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 is hereby repealed in so far as the section relates to limitation of election expenses and accordingly sections 72 and 75 of the Electoral Act 1997 are hereby revived to that extent.
I put it to the Minister that there should be an expenditure limit in regard to local elections. I know there are difficulties in respect of limiting election expenses for general elections. However, it creates a level playing pitch for candidates. There is a great deal of money wasted during general election campaigns even within current expenditure levels. If unlimited expenditure is allowed, it will put pressure on people to spend more money because they will believe themselves to be in competition with everyone else. It would be a good idea to limit local election expenditure. This would end the waste of money, level the playing pitch and limit the amount of money candidates would spend. It would also prevent the making of donations, behind which there is a particular impetus, to cover election campaigns.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. There is general acceptance that the provisions in regard to expenditure limits for local elections worked exceptionally well from the point of view of the public, politicians and the various political parties. We are aware of the difficulties in this regard at national level. I am more inclined towards national legislation rather than local authority legislation. This provision is excellent and works well from everyone's perspective. It is easily understood, implemented and adhered to. I have no intention of complicating matters.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 6, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:
Delete the section.
This is a repeat of an amendment tabled on Committee Stage. If people are allowed to become members of local authorities, one should accept the consequences of their vote. This rarely happens, but there have been occurrences in the past. The problem arises in terms of what people voted for as a result of a casual vacancy arising on a local authority under the principal Act.
I have already dealt with this issue. I understand the thinking behind the amendment, but the balance is correct following previous legislation. I have spoken to all the parties in relation to a town council member being a member of a county council. Town councils' planning applications are dealt with at local authority level, therefore, there would be no conflict of interest. It is what all politicians and political parties wanted.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 7, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
(a) In paragraph (a), delete ‘may' and substitute ‘shall'.(b) In paragraph (b), delete ‘12 months' and substitute ‘2 months'
I tabled this amendment because the Government's amendment refers to section 63(1)(a) of the principal Act – which refers to democracy, the role of the local authority members as locally elected public representatives – recognises the argument I made that the current wording in section 217 of the Act, allowing for a non-elected commissioner to be appointed by the Minister to serve for up to four and half years, is unconstitutional. In recognition of that, the Minister has taken away the reserve function in regard to waste charges. However, problems could still arise because people might vote against the Estimates and, therefore, there might be a threat to abolish a council. This would mean a council could be abolished but that there would be elections, which would be in keeping with the Constitution. If the Minister does not accept the amendment, he should consider the issue as soon as possible. Despite the recent environmental legislation which makes waste charges a reserve function, problems will arise in relation to local authorities that are threatened with abolition and being replaced by non-elected commissioners. A constitutional challenge will arise at some stage.
We discussed this issue at length on Second Stage and Committee Stage. This law works extremely well. Only four local authorities have been removed in more than half a century. This is great credit to the local authority system. The last removal was Naas UDC in 1985, almost 20 years ago. Prior to that one would have to go back to 1969, when the members of Dublin Corporation were removed. The law works extremely well and it would be foolish to tamper with something which has been well tried, well tested, well understood and well implemented.
I will withdraw the amendment, but I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter.
Bohan, Eddie.Brady, Cyprian.Brennan, Michael.Cox, Margaret.Daly, Brendan.Dardis, John.Dooley, Timmy.Fitzgerald, Liam.Glynn, Camillus.Hanafin, John.Henry, Mary.Kenneally, Brendan.Kett, Tony.Kitt, Michael P.Leyden, Terry.Lydon, Don.
MacSharry, Marc.Mansergh, Martin.Minihan, John.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.O'Rourke, Mary.Ó Murchú, Labhrás.Ormonde, Ann.Phelan, Kieran.Quinn, Feargal.Ross, Shane.Scanlon, Eamon.Walsh, Jim.Walsh, Kate. Wilson, Diarmuid.
Bannon, James.Bradford, Paul.Browne, Fergal.Burke, Paddy.Burke, Ulick.Hayes, Brian.
Higgins, Jim.McDowell, Derek.McHugh, Joe.Phelan, John.Terry, Sheila.Tuffy, Joanna.