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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Jun 2012

Vol. 215 No. 13

Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2012: Second Stage

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

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to the House and invite her to address Members.

I am pleased to bring the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2012 before the Seanad today. The Bill is required to facilitate the Department's agency rationalisation programme, to underpin legislatively any new body established under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 and to provide that one person may be the manager of Limerick city and county councils and north and south Tipperary county councils.

The Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 provides that the Minister may, by order, establish corporate bodies to provide services to local authorities or to the Minister. It remains the case that the Minister should have the capability to establish bodies, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to provide services to local authorities or the Minister where it is more practical, efficient and economical to so do. Thirteen bodies have been established under the 1971 Act and of those, seven still exist in law, namely, the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency, the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency, the Local Government Management Services Board, the Local Government Computer Services Board, the Affordable Homes Partnership, Irish Water Safety and the Fire Services Council. Generally, the bodies were established to provide specified services for local authorities with the benefit of having a single expert provider, rather than each local authority acquiring or providing the service.

Members may recall that in 2008, the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) (Confirmation of Orders) Act was enacted. That legislation was required to address the possible unconstitutionality of section 3 of the 1971 Act. This followed advice of the Attorney General in respect of the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act 1961, which contains similar provisions to the 1971 Act. Article 15.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann explicitly confers on the Oireachtas the "sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State". In various constitutional challenges over the years concerning whether secondary legislation infringed Article 15.2 of the Constitution, the need for the Government to have a mechanism to establish corporate bodies has been recognised in judgments of the High Court and Supreme Court. In his judgment on the Pigs Marketing Board v. Donnelly case, Mr. Justice Hanna acknowledged that “the functions of every Government are now so numerous and complex that of necessity a wider sphere has been recognised for subordinate agencies, such as boards and commissions”. The then Chief Justice, in his judgment in the Cityview Press v. AnCO case, outlined that the test of the constitutionality of the legal instrument establishing corporate bodies is that it gives “effect to principles and policies which are contained in the statute itself”. Basically, when a corporate body is being established, it must be underpinned with principles and policies contained in the primary legislation.

This 2012 Bill is required, inter alia, to address any legal uncertainty surrounding bodies established under the 1971 Act. The intention behind the amendments contained in this Bill in respect of section 3 of the 1971 Act is to set out the principles and policies, in primary legislation to which the Minister shall have regard in his consideration of the requirement to establish any bodies by way of statutory instrument. It is very important to note the Bill is not being pursued for the Minister to increase the number of State bodies under the Department’s aegis. On the contrary, the Bill is required to give full effect to the Department’s State agency rationalisation programme. This is in keeping with the Government’s public sector reform plan announced on 17 November 2011. The plan announced an expanded programme of State agency rationalisation within the Department, which will rationalise 21 such bodies to 11. In this regard, the Bill will allow the Minister to abolish existing bodies and, where appropriate, to establish new bodies to carry out the functions. As for the bodies established under the 1971 Act that still exist, they will be dissolved and merged or subsumed into other public bodies as part of the rationalisation programme.

I will outline the proposals in respect of each of the bodies. The Local Government Management Services Board, LGMSB, and the Local Government Computer Services Board, LGCSB, already are merged in an operational sense and now operate on a joint administrative basis pending the establishment of the merged body, namely, the local government management agency, on a statutory basis. The Local Government Computer Services Board and the Local Government Management Services Board provide services to local authorities including shared ICT services and collection of public-facing charges on a shared basis for local authorities, as well as industrial relations and human resources shared services. The local government management agency will take on the LGMSB and LGCSB functions and will also take on residual functions from An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. I will discuss An Chomhairle Leabharlanna later in greater detail. Section 12 of this Bill contains a provision that will allow the local government management agency, when established, to continue to carry out LGCSB and LGMSB functions in respect of the administration of the household charge.

The Affordable Homes Partnership will be dissolved and its functions, as well as those of the Centre for Housing Research and the National Building Agency, have been merged into the interim Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency, IHSCA. This agency is currently operating on an administrative basis and will be given statutory footing through this Bill. Senators will recall that the Affordable Homes Partnership was established in 2005, a very different time in terms of the housing market in Ireland, to co-ordinate and promote the delivery of affordable housing in the greater Dublin area. The Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency works with the Department, local authorities and approved housing bodies in the delivery of housing and housing services. The agency brings together, under one body, a broad range of support and advisory services in respect of housing and other construction-related matters. Although this Bill allows for the establishment of the agency, further and more complex legislation will be required to define its roles and functions.

The Fire Services Council was established in June 1983 and provided a central training programme for local authority fire service officers which provided courses and seminars that complemented training organised locally by individual fire authorities. The Fire Services Council's term of office expired on 30 June, 2009 and no new appointments were made to the council after that date. The Minister announced that the work of the council would be absorbed into the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management. The national directorate was established on 22 June, 2009 and operates under the aegis of the local government division of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The establishment of the national directorate was in keeping with the desire to reduce the number of agencies while providing appropriate political accountability.

The Limerick regeneration agencies were established in June 2007, with a term of operation for five years to 14 June 2012. The agencies were established to secure the social and economic regeneration of four areas of Limerick city. This Bill will provide for the dissolution of the two regeneration agencies. Their functions will be taken over by the new office for regeneration which has been established in Limerick city. The regeneration office was set up initially with administrative support from Limerick City Council but will report directly to the manager designate of the new Limerick unitary authority once appointed. This post was recently advertised. The Bill, at sections 8 and 9, provides for a modest extension of the existence of the Limerick regeneration agencies from 14 June 2012 to the 31 July 2012. The orders under which the Limerick regeneration agencies were established contain so-called "sunset clauses" which will see them cease to exist from 15 July 2012. The short extension provided for in this Bill is to ensure an orderly transfer of their functions, assets and liabilities to Limerick City Council.

Irish Water Safety is relatively small, with six staff members, but it facilitates a huge amount of volunteerism in the area of water safety in Ireland. Its role is to educate people in water safety best practices. The agency also represents Ireland on the international stage. Under the provisions of the Bill, IWS can be dissolved and it is proposed that it be re-established under the amended 1971 Act.

An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, the Library Council, was established by the Public Libraries Act 1947. An Chomhairle Leabharlanna has served the country well in terms of the promotion of libraries and library services, the co-ordination of training and dissemination of best practice and interaction with national bodies such as FÁS, SOLAS, and EU and international organisations. However, it is necessary to amalgamate State agencies to ensure the most efficient delivery of all services. In this regard, the local government management agency will not only amalgamate the Local Government Management Services Board and the Local Government Computer Services Board but will also amalgamate the residual functions of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna.

Part 4 of the Bill contains three sections which will amend chapter 2 of Part 14 of the Local Government Act 2001, dealing with the position of city-county manager. I introduced these provisions on Committee Stage during the Bill's passage through the Dáil. They are relevant to the Government's local government reform programme and in particular to the reorganisation of structures in counties Limerick and Tipperary. As Senators are aware, the Government approved proposals to establish single local authorities to replace Limerick County Council and Limerick City Council and north and south Tipperary county councils by mid-2014. In both cases, the establishment of interim management arrangements, whereby a single person would oversee both authorities in the run-up to full merger, was also approved. Existing local government law does not allow for such a position and this Bill amends the Local Government Act 2001 to provide that in the case of Limerick County Council and Limerick City Council the same person shall be the manager of the authorities and the same provision will be made in regard to north and south Tipperary county councils. These provisions form an important early element of an evolving programme of local government reform related in this instance to reorganisation in Limerick and Tipperary. More substantive legislation will be enacted at a later date to provide for the establishment of a new unitary authority in these areas and the transfer of the functions and relevant finance, assets, liabilities and staff from the existing councils to the successor authorities.

I now turn to the main sections of the Bill. Section 1 contains the usual provisions of a general nature dealing with such matters as Short Title, collective citation and commencement. Sections 2 and 3 are standard technical provisions. Although no direct expenditure in implementing the Act is anticipated, it is prudent to include a standard provision. Section 4, or the amendment of section 2 of the Act of 1971, deletes the reference to "health board" as an authority to which this Act applies.

Section 5 inserts an important amendment to section 3 of the 1971 Act to deal with the link between the policies and principles of primary legislation with bodies established by statutory instrument under the 1971 Act. When the Minister is considering the establishment of bodies the amendment will require that he have regard to such key issues as the promotion of efficiency, effectiveness and economy; the resources available to the Minister or local authorities; and the desirability of reducing the number of bodies providing the services. Furthermore, the Bill would also amend section 3 by the addition of subsection 9 to clearly establish the types of services that are envisaged to be provided. Services included at subsection 9, paragraphs (a) to (k), include shared services, ICT, training and research and procurement.

Section 6, which amends section 5 of Act of 1971, provides that in the case of a revocation order the Minister may transfer or distribute the property, rights and liabilities of a body subject to a revocation order to a Department of State, with the relevant Minister's consent. The 1971 Act already allowed for transfer to this Department, the agencies under this Department's remit or local authorities. Section 7 provides that the Minister may transfer the assets and liabilities of any of the bodies listed in section 10, namely, bodies to be dissolved. The Minister may make provision for the transfer of a body and its functions, property, rights and liabilities to the Minister, to another body, to a local authority or to another Department. If the Minister is transferring a body to another Department it has to be done with the consent of the receiving Minister. The Minister may also make provision in the transfer order to preserve existing contracts, the continuance of legal proceedings, the transfer of staff, arrangements for pensions, the preparation of final accounts or reports.

Sections 8 and 9 provide for amendments to the respective establishment orders of the Limerick northside and southside regeneration agencies. These amendments provide for a short extension to the existence of the Limerick regeneration agencies, from 14 June 2012 to 31 July 2012. This extension is necessary to ensure an orderly transfer of their functions, assets and liabilities to Limerick city.

Section 10, on the dissolution of bodies, provides that the list of bodies in section 8 be dissolved. The bodies to be dissolved are as follows: the Local Government Computer Services Board; the Fire Services Council; the Local Government Management Services Board; the Affordable Homes Partnership; Irish Water Safety; Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency.

Section 11, which deals with the revocation of certain orders is self-explanatory. Section 12 contains a provision that will allow the local government management agency, when established, to continue to carry out LGCSB and LGMSB functions in respect of the administration of the household charge. Section 13 provides that An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, the Library Council, be dissolved. Section 14, a transfer order, provides specifically for the transfer of the assets and liabilities of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. The transfer will require the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. In addition, any transfer orders made will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and can be annulled by resolution within 21 days. Section 15, repeal and revocation, is self-explanatory.

Section 16 amends section 144 of the Local Government Act 2001 so that a single person may be appointed as dual manager in the cases of Limerick county and city councils and north and south Tipperary county councils. Sections 17 and 18 deal with a number of related aspects of the position of manager to ensure that the new dual manager position is incorporated into pre-existing arrangements. Section 17 amends section 145(3) of the 2001 Act to provide that the provision relating to the automatic appointment of a manager, where a recommendation by the Public Appointments Service has not been approved by resolution of a council, would apply to a county or city council in a group of authorities, as in the case of Limerick and Tipperary. A new subsection (3A) is also inserted in section 145 which, in relation to the first appointment after the commencement of these provisions, allows the Minister to appoint, by order, a person who already holds the office of manager in a city or county that is part of the group of authorities to the office of manager of a group of authorities.

Section 18 makes a number of amendments to integrate the interim dual manager arrangements with the provisions dealing with the appointment of a deputy manager contained in section 148 of the 2001 Act. Section 18(a) provides that in the case of a group of authorities, the manager must consult with the cathaoirligh of both authorities concerned before he or she appoints an employee to be deputy manager. The amendment at section 18(b) seeks to cover circumstances in which the manager has become unable to act and no deputy has been appointed, or there is no current appointment, or the deputy manager is unable to act. Given the possibility for delay and disagreement in respect of an appointment in such circumstances, it is proposed to give the Minister the power to direct which one of the two cathaoirligh will make the appointment.

I look forward to discussing these provisions. I expect that we will consider constructive and helpful Government and Opposition amendments on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive outline of the Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Seanad. I suppose I should be reluctant to speak about activities in the Minister of State's back yard. The primary provision of this Bill is the abolition of the regeneration quango. I understand that is the term now being used. I am sure the Minister of State will have a robust response to the criticisms of the decision that has been taken. The bad news that comes out of Limerick is not merited. All of us are appalled that two thuggish families have besmirched the name of a very old and respected city. I commend the various forces of the State that have been doing everything they can to ensure the people of Limerick can sleep soundly in their beds. I refer particularly to the Garda, the local authorities and local representatives in general. I include the Minister of State in that.

I am not sure whether the abolition of the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency will address the challenges that are being faced by the people of Limerick and by the statutory agencies in that city. The outgoing chief executive of the agencies, Mr. Brendan Kenny, highlighted the depth of the challenge that remains in tackling the problems in Limerick when he said that despite over €100 million having been spent on the project, some families are worse off compared to when the regeneration process began. His comments have received widespread media attention in recent weeks. I am sure the Minister of State will reiterate that Mr. Kenny has had many achievements since the board first came into being, including the demolition of 900 houses and the rehousing of 300 families in other parts of Limerick city.

The Minister of State has announced that some 100 new homes will be built this year. It is clear that major work remains to be done to achieve the objectives set out in the Fitzgerald report, which led to the establishment of the Limerick regeneration areas. As I recall it, we all welcomed this initiative as an integrated, cohesive and co-ordinated approach to the many social problems that have developed in Limerick over recent decades. I am sure the Minister of State will take this opportunity to set out exactly what the Government plans to do when all the powers of the outgoing authorities are given to the revamped Limerick City Council. I suggest there continues to be a need for a coherent approach to advancing the regeneration of the blighted areas of the city. That might be put on the back burner when the agencies that were established to tackle social problems in these areas are abolished as a cost-cutting measure. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State speak about the priorities she would like the new Limerick City Council to adopt when it takes on board what the original agencies were tasked with doing. Given that all local authorities have widespread problems, is she satisfied and confident that this new authority will address the priorities that were outlined in the Fitzgerald report and implemented to date by the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency?

I will bemoan the loss of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, which was established in 1947. It survived successive Administrations because it did valuable work. Having represented the Library Association of Ireland in this House for many years, I am aware that An Chomhairle Leabharlanna is the Cinderella of our semi-State agencies. When the annual estimates were considered at local authority level in previous years, the book fund was often the first thing to be cut. Over recent years, a more mature approach to the importance of our public libraries has been taken at local authority level. Great credit is due to all of those who work in such libraries. They have managed to get away from the stereotype of the old Carnegie approach, which was solely about lending books. They have adapted to the new technological age by providing essential services, such as free Internet access, particularly to the unemployed and those seeking employment who need to access technology. A wide range of services is being provided in our library system. I ask the Minister of State to reiterate the Government's commitment to ensuring our libraries will continue to comprise a central and essential building block in the recovery of this country. Some of us might have taken them for granted over the years. As a result of the sad increase in unemployment, an increasing number of people are having to reskill and upskill. The libraries in our towns and villages have proven to be an enormously important resource. I hope the abolition of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna will not diminish that role in any way.

It is interesting that this legislation will change a system of local government that has been in place since 1899, when the first Local Government Act established Tipperary North Riding and Tipperary South Riding. Those Anglified names are not particularly used now. They give an indication of the background to this Bill. I often wondered why Tipperary was split in two. In England, Yorkshire was similarly split into north and south ridings. The same thing happened in some other parts of the English local government scene. We need to consider what will happen next. I know the Minister of State is not responsible for answering that question at this time. It is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, who has already indicated in this House that he plans to establish a local authority review commission as soon as the revised Dáil constituencies have been agreed. Perhaps the Minister of State can tell the Seanad the date that has been set for the publication of the recommendations of the Constituency Commission on the redrawing of Dáil constituencies. The timing of that announcement will have an impact on the date of establishment of the new commission, which will consider the redrawing of local authority boundaries. The Minister has already committed himself to publishing the results of the commission's findings by January of next year, which would be 18 months in advance of the next local government elections.

This Bill proposes to reconfigure Limerick City Council and to merge North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council. I am curious to know why it was decided to do this in a piecemeal fashion. What is the purpose of including this proposal in this legislation at this time? Why is it so urgent? The Minister, Deputy Hogan, has promised that the Government will develop a much wider reform initiative. Many councillors around the country are not sure of their futures, but it has nothing to do with the electorate. They are more focused on the Minister's plans. I would like clarification on the proposed or rumoured reduction in the number of councillors in each local authority, the proposed or rumoured abolition of town councils and the rumoured abolition of borough councils such as those in Kilkenny and Sligo. There are no sub-authorities in my own county. It is a single local authority area. It has been suggested that it will suffer as well as a consequence of its low population. I know the Minister of State will not be in a position to answer all of these questions. I am sure it is like the budget in the sense that even if she could provide these details, she would not do so. I am raising it because I suggest it is germane to the proposal to reconfigure two local authorities.

I welcome the overall thrust of this legislation, which is to reduce the number of quangos. I have been informed that "quango" is an acronym for "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation". As many of these agencies are State-registered and State-funded, it might not be exactly correct to refer to them as quangos.

However, the suggestion that by doing so it will have a major impact on the economy raises that question. I would remind the Minister of State that the programme for Government stated: "The Government will make substantial cuts to the number of State bodies and companies." I suppose we must concede that at least a start has been made in this regard.

I note that Irish Water Safety is to be abolished under the proposed scheme. In her speech, the Minister of State said it would be re-established but perhaps she will clarify exactly what she means. If it is being re-established, why is it being abolished in the first instance? I commend the officers of Irish Water Safety for their outstanding work at local swimming pools around the country, including in my own town of Drumshanbo. Since the pool opened in the mid-1970s, at least a generation has learned about water safety under the expert guidance of representatives of Irish Water Safety. I hope the body's future will be strengthened rather than diminished in any way. Once again I wish to thank the Minister of State.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I welcome the Bill before the House, which addresses the reform of local government. Senators will be aware that reform of the public sector has been on the political and administrative agendas for some time. When I was elected back in 1991 the terminology "reform of local government" was around then, but we have seen very little reform in the interim. We must obviously start somewhere, so I commend the Bill to the House.

In 2008, a Government efficiency review required Departments to examine overall administrative spending, including that of State bodies and agencies under their remit. The final report of the local government efficiency review group contained 106 recommendations, some of which are being implemented under the provisions of the Bill before us.

A number of other reports have also been published outlining the best way to reform the public service, including the OECD review of the public service and the Green Paper on local government reform. The previous speaker referred to local government reform so I will not say too much about it. However, I hope that when the forthcoming reforms are announced the Minister will attend this House to consult with Senators, as our electorate comprises local government councillors. That may change with the review of the Seanad, however, if it is not abolished.

The programme for Government draws on many of the recommendations made in many of the reports to which I have referred. The programme also contains a commitment to transfer back to local government many of the functions currently being performed by these agencies. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that, where possible, functions of agencies should be transferred to the responsible local government body.

Section 4 refers to the abolition of the reference to health boards but a lot of good work is being done in the health area through local councils' community departments, particularly for youth mental health. For example, the Headstrong agency works with local councils and, given current suicide rates, local government could be utilised in this area. Headstrong has six or seven groups around the country, so it should be possible to utilise this facility as part of the current reforms. Many people who are on the brink of committing suicide require somebody to talk to, so a lot could be done by local government community departments in conjunction with voluntary agencies.

I realise that the health function of local government has been gone for some time, but it is time to consider bringing back something similar to the community, rather than abolishing agencies. Local government is closest to people who are in trouble, and such services are easier to access than those that are centralised.

Last November, the Government's statement on public service reform set out a rationale for reducing the total number of State bodies. The Minister of State has already referred to the number being reduced. The objective of the measures will deliver enhanced services and efficiencies, together with ensuring a more focused and democratically accountable public service. The measures are therefore to be welcomed. The Bill will facilitate the agency rationalisation programme currently being undertaken by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, thus reducing the number of agencies.

While discussing the reduction or abolition of such agencies, it is nonetheless important to pay tribute to their good work. They can, however, continue the same work with fewer bodies following amalgamation. The Minister of State referred to the Limerick regeneration agencies whose term of office expired this year, and the fact that everything is up for review to see how it can be done better.

The Local Government Computer Services Board did fantastic work at a time when local authorities were not as au fait with computerisation as they are now. In the computer age, it is now possible to do so much more with fewer people and less office space. One can now put into a computer information that long ago required a storeroom to hold. The objective of the Bill is to deliver enhanced services through this streamlining process.

Section 5(2) provides for the provision of services, training and equipment relating to ICT. I am curious to know if this will apply to councillors as well as administrative staff who run the councils. I have spent long enough on councils to know that training is an important element for councillors as well as for staff. I look forward to the Minister of State's positive response on that point. It is a prerequisite in every area for people to be IT proficient, so such training should be facilitated. Most people are IT literate, but there may be some who are not.

Section 5 further provides for the streamlining of administrative services, which is also to be welcomed, along with cost-effectiveness and centralisation where necessary. The section also provides for the promotion of public safety awareness and the organisation of training measures on public safety. This is an important provision and there is a lot of ambiguity among councils on how safety guidelines are being implemented or interpreted.

It has been brought to my attention that safety regulations can vary between councils. In some instances, it may take a man and his mother to put out cones on a road or to cut a bit of grass. Another council, however, may not need to close a road for 24 hours to cut grass. Guidelines on the interpretation of safety regulations in this area would be useful.

The same section refers to the provision of research and advisory information services. Consultancy is also mentioned, but that should be greatly reduced as many people can undertake their own consultation through Google and Wikipedia. There are many such research aids, so the use of consultants should be cut back.

In the last Dáil debate on local government legislation, the Minister of State spoke about the Limerick regeneration agencies, which are being amalgamated into a new organisation under the auspices of Limerick City Council. I hope that will carry out the relevant work for the entire Limerick area, thus ensuring that the job is done.

I welcome the disbandment of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, the Library Council, although in its day it did good work. I worked in the UCG library but local and county librarians have now taken over the role of An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. One librarian — who is not from Dublin in case anybody may think I am identifying a librarian from the capital — told me that the Library Council turned out to be a total and utter talking shop in the end. I do not know if that is true but it was said to me. Nonetheless, An Chomhairle Leabharlanna did valuable work, but that body has now been subsumed by the county librarians' body and all the staff have been transferred.

The overall pooling of resources is good, but how much are we saving? The Minister of State mentioned quite a small amount of savings that will be achieved in this initial tranche. Another Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, recently reformed the framework for managed print services for all the organisations and it is expected it will result in savings of €22 million. We are not talking about peanuts in terms of the savings that will be achieved from amalgamating bodies; we are talking about achieving efficiencies and increasing effectiveness and work productivity.

The Minister of State is welcome. It was a joy to listen to her speak and also a joy to listen to Senator Keane who has a great deal of experience in this area. I have met her in Rathfarnham where she is actively involved in a committee.

I have had an interesting morning. I attended the business improvement district conference that took place in the Westbury Hotel. A great deal of work is under way outside local government to attempt to improve the district. The real threat is to the high streets, the main streets, and how we manage to keep them alive and retain shops and retailers there when many planning decisions are being made throughout the country that are damaging the infrastructure of towns.

I welcome the Minister of State's reforms. They will hopefully make local government that little bit more efficient and finalise arrangements for the rationalisation of State agencies under the control of the Department. However, I am concerned there are no cost savings figures available or, if there are, I do not see them. There is much more we can do in terms of local government. We need to empower our local government structures in order that Deputies have the ability to think of the country in terms of our national interests instead of the current structures that we have. The Seanad is notable for Senators thinking that way on the much broader national level. The debates in this House are different as a result of the way we are elected to this House. However, on a much more basic level, local government needs to be run much more efficiently. We must find more efficient ways of doing it. We simply have too many structures for such a small country. Do we need 29 county councils, 75 town councils, five city councils and five borough district councils for a population of 4.5 million in the Republic? Does Dublin need four local authorities? Marc Coleman made the point on Newstalk that the inefficiency of local government in the South compared to the North is massive.

He is a main source.

He is very good. Dublin City Corporation alone has 6,000 employees, half of whom are administrative, that is, they do not work in the fire services or the libraries and nor are they street cleaners. Red tape under this bureaucracy can also be bad for business. With local government reform I would like to see, like many others, the planning process streamlined. The process of making an application for planning permission where a business may have to deal with any number of the 88 local planning authorities is inefficient, as is the system of appeals. We simply do not need this layer of bureaucracy for such a small population in such a small area. In addition, the original report by the local government efficiency review group recommended that social housing rents due to local authorities should be deducted from social welfare payments in order to reduce the overheads required to collect rent and to reduce arrears. The report also proposed that the online motor tax system — a topic I have raised previously — should be expanded to allow owners of commercial vehicles to pay online and a handling fee of, say, €10 could be introduced to encourage online motor tax applications among other easy to implement measures. Why are these not being pursued as these inefficiencies could be removed with the stroke of a pen? Will the Minister of State explain what she is doing in this area?

The Revenue Commissioners collect income tax, the universal service charge, capital gains tax and corporation tax. Local authorities meanwhile collect commercial rates, business improvement tax, district taxes, levies and the non-principal residential tax. An Post, of which I have some experience, collects the television licence fee and the dog licence fee. The latter used to be seven shillings and sixpence; I do not know what it is now but I am surprised it is still in place. The Private Residential Tenancies Board collects the residential landlord tax, not to mention new taxes such as the water charge or the septic tank charge. The various tax collection systems seem to be highly inefficient.

For example, in France rates are collected with the electricity bills. In addition, people who do not have television sets must opt out of rather than opt into the licensing system, and I know we are changing the system here. The French system seems to be much more efficient. We should have a look at how they handle it there. I have a daughter living in France and she impresses me with their systems that seem to work so well.

This matter needs much more discussion. As I also mentioned, we need to tackle the hundreds of millions in revenue lost to this country through fuel smuggling. We could stop that by forcing commercial users to get refunds, perhaps applying online. There is great potential there. A reform of local government would hopefully get people to engage more with politics. We should also examine the citizens' initiative mechanism that is in place in Switzerland. It is a very interesting one. It allows voters to change the Constitution directly or to veto legislation. Thus, there is much greater involvement and engagement with voters. In analysing local government and the overall lack of engagement with politics, such a structure would at least foster much more interest in the political system and that would be very useful and healthy. Last year, almost 1,000 Belgian citizens were brought together to discuss the future of their country. Why can we not do something similar here as a starting point? The constitutional convention might be a way to do that.

We can make structures more efficient quite easily. There are many concentre examples for the reform of local government that merit discussion. For instance, in England, Suffolk County Council is in the process of cutting its workforce from 27,000 to just a few hundred staff. It is attempting not to cut services, but rather it plans to get the private sector and social enterprises to take over the vast majority of those services. The council said that it "had a [sterling] £100 million overspend by the end of the ten year contract period with BT [British Telecom]". Similar inefficiencies are reported here every day and we must try to take similar steps here. It was reported earlier this year that Sligo Borough Council was continuing to pay a bullying expert almost €1,000 a meeting to monitor the behaviour of councillors. It is paying that expert €1,000 a meeting despite finding no evidence of bullying in the past two years. A human resource consultant is to be paid €19,000 this year for sitting in and taking notes on the conduct of those attending the council meetings. I note the Ceann Comhairle is indicating that I have spoken long enough. This will bring to €54,000 the amount the council will have spent on having a private human resources consultant observe and report on all its meetings. This is absurd. Other councils in the UK are also transforming the service delivery side of the councils, from housing to benefits, into an arm's length commercial style business with at least just 14 staff. There is an awful lot we can do. The steps the Minister of State is taking are in the right direction. I congratulate her on that and support them but we can do an awful lot more. The challenge is there for us to do it and that challenge is open to be taken now.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I cannot let the opportunity pass without responding to my learned colleague, Senator Quinn who, on the one hand, criticised the number of local authority elected members in the country and, on the other, referred to England as a good example of the way local government operates there. He also referred to the system in France. For his information, for every 130 citizens in France, there is an elected representative. Also, in Great Britain the Conservative Government last year re-introduced parish councils with statutory powers because of the failure of local people to engage in local democracy. Figures of below 30% and, in some cases, just over 20% were recorded in local elections. Therefore, they decided to re-engage with people. Ireland has one of the lowest per capita rates for elected representatives in Europe and to say that we have too many and that this is a cause of inefficiency is a simplistic assessment of the situation. Reference was made to bids and to the best of my knowledge this happens only in Dublin, Cork and perhaps Galway. I wished to clarify these matters prior to making my contribution.

I welcome the legislation in so far as it attempts to deal with the abolition and merger of bodies in the remit of the Minister of State. It proposes a reduction of more than 50% of those listed. I recognise that savings can be made and it is important we make these savings. I support the comments of Senator Keane with regards to An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. My knowledge of the organisation comes from almost a quarter of a century in local government. It never fed back to local government despite the fact many of its members were elected representatives. As outlined by Senator Keane it eventually became a talking shop. This must not be confused with the fact that the function of libraries throughout the country will remain and they will get stronger under the Government. In my opinion we can do without An Chomhairle Leabharlanna.

I wish to mention the regeneration companies in Limerick. The media suggest regeneration will stop in Limerick because these bodies, which were established in 2007 for five years, will come to an end. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because of the Minister of State's drive to ensure the work continues that it will do so.

The main thrust of the section on local government gives power to the Minister to allow a manager to operate for two local authorities, namely, south and north Tipperary and Limerick city and council. My colleague, Senator Heffernan, will speak about Limerick but in the case of Tipperary, which is where I am from and I know a great deal of detail about it, an implementation body was established last year which consulted very widely with staff and their representatives. However, consultation with elected members has been in stark contrast, with only one joint meeting of the two local authorities to discuss the matter. The whips of each political group in the county have met on a number of occasions but not at minuted meetings. Rather they have had casual discussions and conversations. Much more information needs to be provided to members in the areas.

I concur with Senator Mooney's comments on the urgency to deal with the local authorities in north and south Tipperary and Limerick city and county prior to the Constituency Commission's report on Dáil constituency boundaries and electoral areas. Local councillors in Tipperary and Limerick have been kept in the dark and they do not know what will happen in their areas. They do not know whether the area they represent now will remain in the same electoral area. It is quite unfair they were picked out ahead of the changes to be made. The cart has been put before the horse.

The Minister of State knows my views and will not be surprised to hear me say local government should be strengthened. The role of local government at town level should be enhanced and strengthened. I have made it quite clear I do not concur with the views of Senator Quinn and others who stated we have too many councillors. We have a great system of local democracy, albeit many powers have been stripped down. The role of local government should be enhanced and I do not subscribe to the view that if we had fewer councillors we would have more efficiency. The cost of elected members in any local authority per annum is approximately 0.01% of the cost of running the local authority. Those who say fewer councillors would mean more efficiency are not speaking about economic efficiency. Most have their own agendas with regard to rezoning and as far as they are concerned the fewer councillors they have to deal with the better.

The implementation group established in County Tipperary was supposed to present its report to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on 31 May but I understand this has not yet been done. When this is done and a decision is being made on local government, particularly with regard to boundary changes, we should be given an opportunity to debate it in the House with either the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Hogan. We deserve this because it involves our electorate and we should be able to discuss it first hand with people throughout the country. During the referendum campaign I met many councillors from all parties. Many of them asked about local government reform and what it would mean for them. Everybody is concerned about his or her own area. Every Deputy and Senator is concerned about the boundary commission report. It is a topic of discussion.

Fine Gael seems to know what is in it already.

Deputy Byrne is very friendly with Fine Gael. He may be able to tell me then.

I am not accusing the Labour Party.

Councillors are also interested in the changes which will affect them. It is important that this information is brought out as soon as possible.

Local government should be enhanced by the provision of extra powers and local government at town level should be retained, albeit if it must be outstretched to rural areas. I am in favour of the retention of local government at town level.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While my party supports the Bill and is supportive of a rationalisation in the local government sector, the Minister of State would probably admit the Bill is limited enough in its scope. We are speaking about the Limerick regeneration agencies being merged in tandem with the merger of the local authorities in Limerick.

The Local Government Management Services Board and the Local Government Computer Services Board already operate together. Unfortunately the Affordable Homes Partnership served its time and I am not sure whether it did a very good job. Certainly the affordable homes schemes put in place during the boom were not effective and have left people in considerable hardship. Irish Water Safety does fantastic work.

The existence of the Fire Services Council shows in some ways the rationale for having more centralised services in local government in Ireland. Many services could be done nationally and not on an individual county basis. The issue with regard to the Fire Services Council dates back to 2009 when the term of office of the board expired. Nobody has been appointed to it since and its functions have been taken over by the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management established by the previous Government in 2009. Much has already happened and the Bill is merely putting this in place. It is a pity it does not go substantially further.

I have not had any dealings with the Library Council. I presume it has done a good job over the period of its existence and the Minister of State has said it has. However, I will speak about a local issue. The Laytown town library in east County Meath, which has an expanding population, was closed by Meath County Council in late 2005 or 2006. Ever since, Meath County Council has been waiting for funding from the Department, and I believe consent from the Library Council, to open a new library in the area, which is the second largest urban conurbation in the county. Nothing has happened in the meantime. I do not blame the Department, which has a role to play, as have the Library Council and Meath County Council. Between the three bodies something has got stuck and there is no proper library provision in east County Meath in the Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington areas. It is a shame and a disgrace that has been allowed to happen as a result of the dispersal of responsibility with no one directly responsible. When I raised it with Meath County Council I was told it had to wait for the Library Council or for funding from the Department. If I raised it with the Department I am certain I would be told of something somebody else would have to do. I am not trying to blame the Department in this. I had understood that some funding had been applied but nothing has happened. With this plethora of bodies no one is in charge and things do not happen.

We must go further down the road of merging bodies and getting the best practice. Councils need to work together and share best practice in order to be more efficient and get better value for the taxpayer. If every household is now expected to pay €100, people will expect the best possible services from their local authorities. People will not accept a lack of services in a particular area when they are paying the same household charge — or property tax as it will be next year — as everybody else. People will need to get value for money and fairness, and they have not got that under the existing system where we have had too many bodies.

While the Bill is welcome it merely tidies up things that happened under the previous and current Governments. The Minister needs to go much further in local government reform. I understand there is a master plan for that and it is a pity that these types of tidying up arrangements were not done as part of that because they would only be an add-on to whatever the Minister is planning in this area.

I thank the Minister of State for her contribution. While the Bill is limited in many ways, it forms part of the reorganisation of local government to which we all look forward. Members of this House who were elected by local authority members would have a keen interest in this area. The previously established bodies, to which the Bill refers, including the Limerick regeneration agencies, have served their terms at this stage. The Affordable Homes Partnership had its day. The area I represented on Cork City Council had a considerable amount of affordable housing. People now find themselves with unaffordable mortgages. However, at the time it was a very real solution and gave young people the opportunity to live in an area of the city in which they had grown up. It was good for the cities and provided new blood and potential for the schools and for the local services. While it is easy to look back now, at that time it provided a solution for young people in areas where housing had become unaffordable for them.

Much has been said about local government reform and much can be done. I read the recommendations of the local government efficiency review group, one of which was reforming the payroll and the cost of local government. It recommended a reduction in the numbers of the county and city managers by 30%; directors of services by at least 20%; senior and middle managers by 15%; and staff working in corporate services planning, roads and engineers by 15%. This is what people want to see in terms of efficiencies and reducing payroll in local authorities. That is where they want to see the cuts because salaries as we know have become excessive in many cases.

The payroll budget of local authorities has expanded over the years. The number of whole-time equivalents in local authorities has reduced by 18% from 951 in 2008 to 783 today. In my experience many of those reductions have come in frontline services and have directly affected the services to the local community. Most obvious is the landscaping and cutting of grass. I do not know why any manager or engineer responsible for a budget would not prioritise such an item because in many cases it is the first impression one gets when one arrives, particularly into the city of Cork. The verges coming into the city and at the airport have been affected by the cutbacks and there is insufficient funding to cut grass. Do people responsible for these budgets really think about what their function is? It should be to provide a good impression of the city for visitors. I am picking on a small thing, but I see many instances where the decisions made to cut corners, which have necessarily been forced on local authority managers, have been in the wrong areas. We need to see reductions in staff numbers across the directorates and across senior staff members. That can be done very easily.

Within Cork city and county there is great scope to share services, particularly in the housing area. There is a boundary that does not really exist as far as the public is concerned and yet it does in terms of local authority management areas. I welcome the direction the Minister is taking in establishing a national water authority, which makes sense in bringing efficiencies to the area. We have had the establishment of the local employment offices, LEOs, and the one-stop shops. That is an ideal area in which we could have cross-administrative area shared services. Procurement, including the purchasing of computers, library books etc., could be done on a cross-county basis. There is considerable scope and we need to use our imaginations and be innovative in how we reduce costs across local authority areas. The efficiency review group pointed to many areas. We might have another discussion on another day when I am not limited to five minutes in which to speak.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. What we have embarked upon today is very important. We know we need to be able to live within our means, which will occupy us all in coming years. I assure the Minister of State that she will have support from these benches because it is vital that we be able to return to the markets and run our finances in an economical way.

The problem with which we are trying to grapple is put very succinctly on page 12 of the report of an bord snip, which pointed out that from 1997 to 2009 the number of senior Civil Service managers rose by 82% as opposed to a 27% increase in the Civil Service as a whole. That is reflected in local government in the McLoughlin report, which found that there were ten surplus county managers; 50 surplus directors of service; 112 surplus corporate services staff; 171 surplus planning staff; and 250 surplus roads staff. It recommended the reduction of Dublin City Council and Cork City Council by 1,185 giving total reductions at the management level of 1,778. A comprehensive survey on this issue was carried out by Jennifer Hough in the Irish Examiner on 9 April last. She found that Carlow, with a population of 54,500, had five directors of services while Westmeath, with a population of 89,000, got by with just two. These managerial layers must be discussed. Sometimes one wonders at the ostentation of the titles of directors of services, such as community and enterprise; economic development; corporate services; finance information technology; transportation, safety and emergency services; housing; recreation, amenity and special projects. These are small counties with grandiose titles. One cannot have a separate economic policy for Carlow and for Westmeath. The rationalisation by the Department, which the Minister is embarking on today, is commendable. We must run public services within the capability of the public purse to finance them.

I commend the Minister of State and wish her good luck in her endeavours. The McLoughlin report shows that a great deal of work is required in this area and, as I know from talking to them, most people in the local authorities know that. They tend to hanker after the time when a road engineer was the person with a shovel who cleared up drains, and there was a county engineer and a county manager. The citizens or customers of local authorities also wonder how all these layers were introduced between them and the people with whom they deal. I wish the Minister of State every success in tackling this problem.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is nice to have another Limerick person in the Chamber, for a change.

Someone to commiserate with on the hurling.

I understand Senator Landy spoke about the amalgamation of north Tipperary and south Tipperary county councils. I wish to raise some points about the amalgamation of Limerick City Council and Limerick County Council. There was division for a long time between city and county perspectives, with one side wanting a boundary extension and the other side favouring amalgamation. I praise the Department for driving the process of amalgamation. It is now in full swing in the county.

However, one of the queries I have received, and the Minister of State will have received it too, is from elected representatives, councillors, who have an eye on the next election and want to know where they will be standing for election. There is talk of super-electoral areas, taking in great swathes of County Limerick. Limerick is an unusual county. County towns such as Kilmallock, Rathkeale, Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale are big towns but they are not big enough to support town councils, such as exist in other counties. In County Cork, for example, the towns of Fermoy, Mitchelstown and Charleville, which border the Limerick area, support town councils. As a result, Limerick has 45 elected representatives covering the entire county and city. I appeal to the Department to keep that number of representatives in so far as possible as it is quite disproportionate to the number other counties have. Counties like Tipperary, Wexford and Donegal, for example, have up to 60 and 70 elected representatives between town councils and county councils. What changes does the Minister of State envisage in that regard and when can we expect those changes to be announced so the electorate can get used to their representatives if they have to move into new areas and so councillors and prospective candidates can know where they stand and what areas they must cover?

There was another query arising from the amalgamation of the city and town councils. It is the concern about cash flow and the money that can be raised. The county's rates are currently much lower than those collected in the city. I presume rates would have to be equalised with the amalgamation. That would leave a deficit of approximately €6 million per year, assuming the city rates were to decrease to the county rates. A number of businesses have made representations to me about rates and the burdens they impose. The shop owners in Kilmallock, the publicans in Croom and the small business owners in Bruff, for example, are put to the pin of their collars at present, so any increase in rates would hit them very hard. I presume, therefore, that if there is to be equalisation, the city's rates might come down to the county levels rather than the county rates having to increase to the city's levels. That would leave us with a deficit of approximately €6 million.

Last year there was a cut of €2 million in the local government grant to the county. Given the unique situation with the amalgamation, special treatment will be required and I appeal to the Minister of State to provide that, perhaps through the local government grant, for at least the next few years leading up to the amalgamation. Can the Minister of State give me any indication in that regard?

I welcome the Minister of State. The first thing we should ask ourselves when we examine or discuss reform of local government or government generally is what principles should underpin the reform. For me, it is about adding value, achieving benefits and improving services. All I have seen so far from this Government, including what is contained in the Bill, is reduction and subtraction, with no addition.

An earlier speaker spoke about property taxes potentially being introduced next year or the year after. However, a range of services have been removed from local authorities, such as waste services. Water services are due to be removed and the privatisation of the maintenance of local authority housing is now on the agenda as well. Increasingly, fewer services are being provided through local authorities, yet we are talking about reform. The reform is all about reduction, cutting numbers, cutting councils and amalgamations and mergers. I do not see where the improved services will arise. I agree with Senator Barrett about the directors of services. Waterford is a good example. There are five directors of services in the city and there are five or six in the county, which makes no sense. However, that is the reality and it is an area we must examine.

Other Senators have mentioned Tipperary and Limerick so I will discuss the situation in Waterford and what might happen there. There is also a proposal to merge Waterford City and County Councils. It appears to be a good idea, on the face of it. Amalgamating the two authorities should save money and provide better services, but I am not sure that will be the case. Take the example of Waterford city. It is Ireland's oldest city and has an individual history and heritage. It would be mad to have a situation where some towns will continue to have councils, whatever format those councils will take, yet cities such as Waterford and Limerick might not have their own local authorities. It makes no sense.

The national spatial strategy identified Waterford city as the gateway of the region. It must be the economic hub and driver of the region. However, there has already been a loss of services. Waterford is fighting for a university and is the location of the regional hospital, but it is having a hard time getting the resources it needs to create the jobs that will sustain not just Waterford but the entire south-east region. Removing the city council and its status will be a retrograde step and could undermine the city's gateway status. However, if one has a unified council — to put this in crude terms — the balance of power will be with the county in terms of numbers and this must be considered. Consequently, there is real concern one could see a drift away from building and expanding the city, which is what is needed, towards something different. Moreover, the county in Waterford has its own outlook, which often is rural when compared with the urban outlook of the city. Consequently, forcing an amalgamation with the potential diminution of the city's status — and certainly removing city council status from Waterford — is perceived by many people from across all parties and by many parties as a retrograde step that must be re-examined. I make the case that Waterford must be supported culturally, socially and economically to be that economic hub and driver which will ensure it can then function as the economic engine of the south east. However, removing its city council status will not help in this regard. I agree the Minister should examine shared services as an area in which potential savings could be made. It could be a compromise between amalgamations and wishing to achieve savings and improved services and would be a far better approach for the Government to take. However, I wish to put on record Sinn Féin's opposition to any merger of the city and county councils for the reasons I have outlined. The concerns of the people of Waterford, from both the county and the city, are genuine in respect of a merger.

I do not wish to limit my comments to Waterford city because Limerick also is important. Limerick city and county have their own unique outlooks and like Waterford, Limerick county has a rural outlook. I will comment on the regeneration projects and the disbandment of their boards. I note that when those projects were first launched, many promises were made by the previous Government in respect of doing huge work to regenerate Limerick. However, since that major announcement was made five years ago, 1,000 homes have been demolished but only 34 homes have been built. This constitutes a failure of the political system and one must be highly cognisant of this point when considering the abolition of such boards. What will replace them and will the necessary funding be made available to ensure the people of Limerick get what they deserve, especially in those communities that have been so greatly disadvantaged by Government policies over the years? One must ensure they are not forgotten about simply because money is tight and we are in straitened economic circumstances. This should not mean such communities, which are suffering the most at present, are not looked after as I argue they should be shielded as much as possible.

While I welcome the abolition of some of the boards as proposed in this Bill, I have real concerns about giving the Minister powers in this regard and there is an issue regarding consultation. If the Government decides to opt for amalgamations, why not put such proposals to the people in those areas? Why not hold a plebiscite in Limerick and Waterford and let people there decide? This was done in the most recent elections in the United Kingdom concerning directly elected mayors, in which some areas went for the proposals and others against. It would be wrong for the Minister simply to hold the power himself and to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for the people of Waterford, Limerick and elsewhere. Democracy must prevail and the people who live in those communities should have their say. The best way to do this would be through a plebiscite.

I thank the Senator. The Minister of State might be afraid the Senator would campaign against it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and have listened with interest to the contributions of my colleagues and in particular to those of the previous speaker, Senator Cullinane. As the Minister of State is aware, this is an interesting and expansive topic that certainly requires more than a limited five-minute slot in which to make a decent contribution. While this is a matter for Members themselves rather than for the Minister of State, they should attempt to hold a thorough debate on local government and its reform in the near future. During this week in two years time, the public will vote on local election day. Thousands of people nationwide will offer themselves as candidates to become councillors in their parishes, counties, towns, cities or whatever and between 50% and 60% of the Irish electorate will cast a ballot on that day. While it is important to get the structures right, with a short window of two years remaining I am worried there is as yet no clear picture as to what will be the structures and what will be the size or scale of the council areas. Consequently, it is important that the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and her colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, will make progress on these matters in the near future. I note the constitutional provision for local elections every five years that necessitates the holding of such an election in 2014. However, as a person who is dis-interested from an electoral perspective but is highly interested in local government, I am a little worried that at present, sufficient time is lacking to put in place proper structures.

As the Minister of State and the Minister work towards their target, it will be important to try to see the bigger picture of local government because at its best, it can be a huge driving force of economic activity and regeneration across the country. It is not simply a question of bigger or smaller councils or of less or more local government but is a question of better local government, which is the title of a document published some years ago. Over the past 30 years, virtually each Administration has attempted to put in place better local government and new structures and new plans. However, as they have not worked tremendously well, some detailed thinking is required over the next few weeks. I was advised yesterday that the Minister has now asked each local authority to liaise with each individual councillor, who will be asked his or her views on the question of local government reform over the next week or two. While this is important, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, must now lead the charge. One must be brave and radical in respect of local government reform. One must focus on strong, better local government and avoid getting hung up on questions of whether there should be fewer or more councils. The Bill's proposals are quite modest and it certainly makes sense.

I note with a degree of sympathy the points made by Senator Cullinane on the level of representation for Waterford and Limerick cities, which is highly important. However, one must move as quickly as possible to a phase in which the structures, electoral areas, powers and functions are known. There is some scope for imagination and flexibility in this regard and unlike Dáil constituencies, about which there are constitutional limits regarding maximum and minimum populations that require change of such constituencies after each census, one can have somewhat more certainty in respect of local government. A plan must be put in place that will not simply last but will work well for the next 25 or 30 years. This constitutes a major challenge for the Minister of State, her ministerial colleagues and the Department because what they set in stone now will not be changed in five or ten years' time but will last for perhaps a quarter of a century and, consequently, one must get it right. However, Members are talking in something of a vacuum at present. Moreover, while they debate particular components of this Bill, I note that in recent months and years, significant local authority powers have been taken away in respect of roads, housing, the environment and taxation. There is even talk of removing some of the decisions with regard to zoning and planning. Consequently, it is no wonder that some councils are asking what is their role at all, when all those serious roles from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have been reduced. One must aspire to local government being more than a form of training school for national politics or a retirement home for former Deputies and Senators. Local government must be a dynamic place of politics in which politicians at local level interact with their local community, local business and local development and make a real difference. If one reflects on the local government structures that obtained in the Ireland of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, they appear to be much more dynamic. For instance, there was a much more significant role for local government in education and in the delivery of health services and we have gone considerably backwards in this respect.

I had better mention the Bill before concluding, as it is what Members are meant to be debating. I welcome the Bill but look forward to early progress, as clear signals are needed before the summer recess as to what are the Government's intentions in respect of local government. I have been expecting such a development since January but the summer is almost upon us. While I acknowledge consultation is important and I welcome how the aforementioned broad consultation appears to be under way, action is now needed. It is unfair to ask people to contest elections in two years time unless it is known fairly soon what are the structures and electoral areas and what are the powers, roles and responsibilities.

There are very many good people who are not involved in politics at present who might be willing to get involved. There are many hundreds of very effective councillors who wish to remain involved. We need to clear up the picture as soon as possible and must aspire to have local government, not as a mini-Dáil or mini-Seanad, but as a place of serious importance where major decisions are made and there is a fulcrum of local economic development and regeneration.

I have high aspirations for local government and I hope they are matched by national government. What the Minister of State and her colleagues put in place will last for a quarter of a century. It will be their local government legacy and I hope it will be worthy of the name "reform". I have seen too much reform with a small ""r" during the past 30 years that was reform in name only. We need to see real progress on this occasion.

As there are no further speakers, I call the Minister of State to respond.

I thank all Senators for their participation in the debate. As usual in this House, there is very wide knowledge and interest in local government and that entire area and it is very useful to hear all the contributions. I will convey to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, those points that are specifically relevant to the decisions he and the Government will make in the near future. I note in particular the request for having information provided as soon as possible while acknowledging that widespread consultation is important, particularly with those who will be directly affected in local government. It is important to provide information and to do so as soon as possible with regard to the reform of local government. I note, especially in Limerick and Tipperary, the concern to know what will happen with the councils in those areas and, indeed, with councils in all areas for 2014 because there will be changes for everybody. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is quite close to providing that level of certainty. He will come to talk to this House about these issues which are very important. I agree with all Senators that local government is hugely important in Irish life. I acknowledge this is a relatively modest Bill but what we are trying to achieve with it, and also in subsequent legislation, is to ensure we save money where we can and then, in turn, we will have the money for the kind of front line services to which many Senators referred. We do not wish to spend a lot of money on having many bodies and large numbers of back office staff; we want to have it for the front line services. That point was made by a number of Senators.

I will give some indications in regard to what is happening in this area. Local authority staff numbers, for example, have been reduced from the figure of 2008 by about 23%. Specifically, the number of directors of service has been reduced by more than 20% since 2008. There is, therefore, some progress in that regard. On the merging of the various agencies, again there have already been savings. One example is the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency which will operate with half the number of staff from the three agencies being amalgamated. The National Building Agency has already sold its building for €2.8 million. Other buildings will become available for sale or for other use as a result of the various amalgamations taking place. There are real savings. Senator Quinn in particular asked about quantifying some of these savings. Some of that has been done in regard to the amalgamation of Limerick city and county. Whether they will all be realised remains to be seen but the anticipation is that there will be savings. I certainly support Senators who want to see that this money goes to services for the public. That has been very clearly articulated in this House.

Some other specific issues were raised. Regeneration was raised by a number of Senators, starting with Senators Mooney, Keane, Landy and others. I have quite an amount of experience of the Limerick regeneration process and I absolutely assure the House it is intended not only to continue with regeneration, but to accelerate its progress under the new arrangement. A director of service for regeneration has been appointed, provisionally at this stage. When the new manager comes into play and that appointment is made as we expect it to be made during the summer, the director of service will report directly to the new manager of the combined council which will be finally established in 2014. Offices will be retained in the regeneration agencies. The representation of local voices will be maintained with the local forum, etc. What will be speeded up is the construction of houses, compared with the current situation where, as Senator Cullinane outlined, much of the focus has been on moving people rather than on construction. That will be accelerated. However, we want to maintain the good elements of regeneration which were referred to, in particular social regeneration, which has been very positive as I know from my experience. Some €27.5 million has been allocated for Limerick regeneration this year and we intend to spend the money wisely. What I want to achieve is greater benefit for the people in the regeneration areas and for Limerick as a whole, as a result of the amalgamation and the change in the structure. It will all be under one umbrella from now where there had been parallel processes which sometimes caused delays. That has been acknowledged and we want to ensure it works efficiently and effectively in the interests of the people concerned.

A number of issues were raised with regard to Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. The intention is to clarify exactly what will happen with the finances in respect of the councillors and their numbers, as raised by Senator Hefferman. Waterford is not yet at the stage that Limerick and Tipperary are and there is ongoing consultation. Everybody has acknowledged we need reform and that, in a relatively small country, we need to ensure we do not duplicate. Shared services were referred to and there is much scope for that, perhaps among other local authorities that are not proposed for amalgamation at this point.

Some other specific issues were raised. In regard to An Comhairle Leabharlanna, differing views were expressed. The intention is that the functions will be maintained and there will be no loss of service but we will not have this extra body. Some Senators suggested this is a good thing. Senator Mooney raised the issue of the re-establishment of Irish Water Safety. I reiterate its work will continue. It is a very lean organisation with only six members of staff but has a great deal of volunteerism and much good work being done. The Bill will allow it to be re-established by statutory instrument, as per the original intention envisaged. I assure the House the work of IWS will continue and the body will also continue but under the new legislation.

There were some other issues. Senator Keane was concerned about IT training and I will pass on her views that councillors should be included in that. Senators Clune and Barrett raised the efficiency review group's recommendations. That is what this Bill is doing, in effect, implementing the recommendations in these particular areas to ensure we save money. Obviously, much work remains to be done in regard to those recommendations.

I believe I have covered the points raised. Most speakers made general points about savings, the importance of reform and regeneration and spoke about having an opportunity to continue with the debate. There will be further legislation to deal with the full amalgamation of Limerick city and county councils and Tipperary north and south county councils. With regard to the amalgamation of the two local authorities in Limerick and Tipperary, the present element is intended to facilitate this work. For example, in Limerick the new manager will be able to do the amalgamation work in advance of the actual amalgamation. That is the limitation as proposed in this Bill with regard to those amalgamations.

I again thank Senators for their contributions. I look forward to Committee Stage which I understand will be held in the very near future.

I thank the Minister of State.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

As business is ordered for 5.45 p.m., I propose the suspension of the House until that time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 5.45 p.m.