I welcome the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, for this very important debate.
Amendments to Councillors' Conditions: Statements
I am pleased to have the opportunity to provide the Members of Seanad Éireann with an update on improvements to the financial supports for elected members of local authorities. Local authority elected members are now midway through their first term of serving under the new framework established following the implementation in 2014 of the most radical changes in local government structures for many decades. The changes include enhanced roles for local authorities in local and community development, the dissolution of local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and the establishment of new merged entities in their place, the replacement of town and borough councils with municipal districts and the reconfiguration of regional structures.
There was also a series of new governance arrangements such as an enhanced policy-making role for elected members, new citizen participation measures, local authority service delivery plans, the redesignation of the position of manager to chief executive and stronger oversight powers for elected members in the implementation of policy. Together, these measures represent significant reform. Benefits from the measures include efficiency and economies of scale from the local authority amalgamations in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. At sub-county level, municipal districts now cover the entire territory of each county, reflecting European norms. We have removed outdated boundaries and ended the anomaly of small towns having municipal starters and dual representation, while some larger centres and rural areas lacked any sub-county governance.
In July 2015 the Department initiated a review of how the new structures were operating on the basis of the experience to date. The objective was to consider the operation to date of the revised local government arrangements. The work included a survey designed to secure the first-hand views of elected members. It focused mainly on the operation of the new system of municipal districts but also dealt with relevant questions on the operation of plenary councils and councillor workload. A modified survey was also issued to the six local authorities where no municipal structures were in place. The surveys issued to all 949 councillors and more than 500 participated. The results indicated the revised structures are generally operating well but need more time to bed-in fully. Particular concerns were expressed about growing work demands and the increased size of electoral areas, particularly in rural areas where local electoral areas can be very big in terms of the geographical footprint.
I am fully aware of the extraordinary number of hours given to provide the optimum service to the public at local level. Serving as an elected member of a local authority is not a job of determinate hours. Councillors are continuously on-call for their constituents. The unique nature of their duties also means they incur expenses in their role as public representatives. As the House is aware, a range of financial supports is already in place to assist councillors in their vital work. These include a representational payment, fixed annual expenses allowances, travel and subsistence allowances, a mobile phone allowance, a retirement gratuity as well as conference and training provisions.
A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to review the supports provided to councillors, involving consultation with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA. Shortly after taking office last year, I met representatives of the AILG and LAMA, as well as attending the autumn seminars of both organisations.
I listened carefully to the concerns of elected members abiyt the increased workload being experienced. I also reflected on a range of important issues at stake in this area. I spoke to quite a number of Members of this House, from all parties, about their concerns in that regard. Last month my Department advised local authorities that, in order to support elected members more fully in their public roles, I had decided to alter the arrangements governing elected members' annual expenses allowance. These changes are a response to the increased workload experienced by elected members arising from the reforms of 2014 and, in particular, to the allocation of new statutory functions in that regard. Elected members now generally have a broader portfolio of functions and represent larger local electoral areas than before. There has been a substantial decrease of 41% in the overall number of elected members, from 1,600 to under 1,000, combined with a growing population of constituents to serve.
I intend to make changes on two fronts. At present, elected members are able to avail themselves of a fixed allowance to cover expenses, other than travel and subsistence, which are reasonably incurred in the discharge of their official functions and duties. This amounts to between €2,286 and €2,667 per year, depending on the council concerned. It operates on an unvouched basis. In the future each elected member may choose to continue receiving the current unvouched fixed allowance at the existing rate or opt to receive a new expenses allowance, which will be up to a maximum of €5,000 per year and operate on a fully vouched basis. The allowable expenditure categories and documentation required of this new vouched system will be aligned, as appropriate, with the arrangements in place for Members of the Oireachtas. It is envisaged that the following categories of expenses could be claimed for under the new vouched system: leaflets and newspaper distribution; web hosting and other related computer costs; hiring rooms for clinics and other meetings; advertising related to the performance of duties as an elected member; and the purchase of secretarial support. Fuller details of allowable expenses will be issued in due course.
The second change I have made is to bring in a new municipal district allowance. The new municipal districts require councillors to service larger local electoral areas than previously was the case. At the same time, the reductions in overall councillor numbers were concentrated in areas that now have municipal districts. The 2014 reforms involve the formal assigning of specific statutory functions to be performed by municipal districts themselves. In recognition of these specific new factors arising from the 2014 reforms, there will be a new municipal district members allowance worth €1,000 per year to apply to the 25 local authorities that now have municipal districts. I intend that the new arrangements will come into effect from 1 July 2017 following engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and consultation with the Revenue Commissioners and, of course, local authorities.
I am aware that there have been calls for an increase in the representational payment that councillors receive. Since its introduction in January 2002, the payment has been linked to a Senator's salary under the relevant regulations which provide that when a Senator's salary is altered, the payment also changes by the same proportion. Elected members benefitted from this link to a Senator's salary over the period 2002 to 2008 when the payment increased by 60%, from €11,000 to €17,604. The payment was then reduced by €1,039 to its current level of €16,565 in the period 2010 to 2013 in line with the reductions in a Senator's salary under the FEMPI Acts. Of course, councillors will benefit proportionately from future pay-restoration measures that will increase a Senator's salary. In addition, my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, recently introduced changes to the PRSI status of elected members. These changes mean councillors, by virtue of their PRSI payments, will now have access to relevant social insurance benefits.
This is an area in which it is very difficult to reach a broadly acceptable solution because different people have different priorities. Different people structure their local public representation differently. The voter-councillor ratio is higher in some built-up urban areas than in some rural areas, where there are huge footprints to be covered. As Senators know, the changes resulted in many more councillors per local electoral area in many cases. I intend to consider a review of local electoral area boundaries after we have the review of Dáil electoral areas, which will be finished at the start of the summer in a few months' time. There are issues that we need to consider.
I know that there are councillors in the cities of Dublin, Cork and Galway who, in the light of the allowance of €1,000 for all the councillors with a new statutory responsibility for municipal districts and the associated workload, feel somehow left out of that particular element of the reform. As a Minister, however, I have to ensure taxpayers' money is spent in a way that is transparent and that it is fully accounted for. I must have clear reasoning as to why we should introduce new allowances. There is very clear reasoning in the setting up of municipal districts and all that comes from it. The truth is that, in some of the urban areas, there was far less change in terms of the numbers of councillors representing those areas and the new structures that were necessary to put in place after the abolition of town councils. I have to be honest about it. Obviously, it would be more politically acceptable for me to simply grant an allowance for everyone but I have to be accountable for the decisions I make. I have to go through a process and obtain a series of recommendations that are independently put together based on statutory responsibilities that people have and not based on how hard people work. I know how hard councillors work. I was a member of Cork County Council before any of these supports were in place. Some councillors work extremely hard. The vast majority do; otherwise they would not stay elected. Local government is now a very competitive environment.
Not quite, but nearly half of councillors at local level, are full-time. It is from this that they derive almost all their income. It is important for the public to understand someone who is a full-time local public representative is not paid well. They choose this because they are seeking to change their local community and improve circumstances for people. They get a buzz from public representation and politics and it is fair to say they are certainly not in it for the money. Sometimes they get very bad coverage in respect of the motivation behind the decisions they make. From my experience with local government, I believe people are sincere, hard-working and operating in a very competitive environment from election to election. They put very many personal resources into trying to stay elected. I am happy to make the changes because I do not want circumstances in which people cannot afford to stand for local government. That is what we are approaching in some cases, which is why it is necessary to consider further support in respect of legitimate expenses incurred by public representatives. It is also important that there be transparency in that regard, which is why it is very important that expenses be fully vouched and accounted for under the increased package.
I ask Members to work with me.
I know that many Senators in this House are very engaged with local government and ccouncillors. Many have come from local government in advance of coming into this House and talk to representative bodies on a regular basis. Some people are very happy with these changes; some wanted me to go further and some feel left out. Others believe it has been handled in a fair and transparent way. There has been no change to the supports for councillors for over 15 years, through very good times and through a very dark period in the economy. What I am trying to do is recognise the increased workload that has come from the changes made through that period and recognise the increased statutory responsibilities in law that councillors have to accommodate in their day-to-day lives, particularly in municipal districts, and reflect them in a modest new allowance. I also want to recognise the increased professionalism within local government, where a much higher percentage of people now than ever before are full-time councillors. We need to try to reflect that in the supports available in a transparent way for legitimate expenses incurred in the work that they do. That is my only motivation and I hope this House will recognise what we are trying to do and work with me on it.
I thank the Minister. There are 68 minutes left and I have 25 names. Unfortunately,not everyone will get to speak. Senators might, therefore, consider sharing time. The bigger parties will suffer. I will be extremely strict on time. As everyone wants to speak, if a Senator has two or three minutes I will cut him or her off when the time is up as otherwise there will be mayhem. If we had two further hours, we could use them, but we do not.
I wish to share time with Senators Mark Daly and Diarmuid Wilson.
I thank the Minister for his kind words. As I was a councillor for 18 years, I know exactly how councillors feel. My bugbear is the fact that town councils were abolished in 2014. In 2014 we had 1,627 councillors. We now have 949, giving a loss of 678 councillors. That is an absolute disaster. From the funding for local authorities, extra workload and even the survey to which the Minister referred which shows that 500 councillors replied, the issues were extra work and bigger areas.
I have spoken to many of the councillors and they are happy that the Minister has agreed to give a payment, which is good to see. However, the payment should be left as is and the €2,500 the Minister has agreed to give should be vouched with the other payment. That is a balance. We need to have a balance because the issue is the extra workload as result of 678 councillors not being there anymore.
With regard to city councillors, we have four Dublin municipal councils and Cork and Galway councils. They did not receive the extra payment of €1,000 a year. That is unthinkable. There are 232 councillors who deserve that payment. That is something the Minister needs to address urgently.
I thank the Senator.
Am I finished? I have so much more to say to the Minister, but I have to share time.
I presume there is no objection to anyone sharing time.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House.
If anyone is rushed, I am happy to speak to anybody after the debate offline if they have issues they want to raise.
I would prefer for it to be on the record, if the Minister does not mind me saying so.
I am sure the Senator would prefer that to be the case.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I have to reflect the views of the people who have contacted me and say there is grave disappointment about the offer on the table. In many counties and in many cases, even with what is on the table, people will be €5,000 worse off than they were five years ago.
The feedback I am getting is that the fixed allowance which is obviously an increase in many instances should continue under the current system and the €1,000 under the municipal district payment, while welcome, is discriminating against councillors in Galway, Cork and Dublin, as my colleague pointed out. The Minister has explained it, but that is the feeling and we should have equity wherever we go.
The Association of Irish Local Government and the Local Government Members Association have engaged with the Minister, as have many Senators and other public representatives, but what they are looking for is fairness. When one looks at the overall issue regarding their payments compared with what happens in Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, there is not the same parity of esteem, to use a term from the peace process, when it comes to public representatives at a local level. If we want public representatives to continue in the role across the country, we must ensure we give them the payments and the supports that will ensure they will be there. Otherwise we will have mass retirements as happened in Dublin City Council, when in one year, 20% of the councillors retired because of pressure of work in one election term.
I welcome the Minister. To save time, I endorse everything that my previous two colleagues said.
As the Minister is aware, a Fianna Fáil motion supported by all parties and none was passed in July last year. That called on us all to work together to see what we could do to benefit hard-working councillors. The Minister was good enough to meet us and we had a long, detailed meeting. We put forward the arguments that we felt best supported councillors. I am disappointed that the Minister did not come back to us before he made his announcement. However, he has made the announcement and we are where we are. We accept what he has put before us, with concerns that we will outline privately, as well as what my colleagues said. There is not enough time to do it and repeat it again.
We are all proud, as is the Minister, of councillors. I am proud of the work they do for their communities. They are at the coal face on a daily basis in their communities in working hard for them. It is time that we gave them the respect they deserve and tackle head-on the representational allowance. Taking bits from here and there is not good enough. They should be linked, at a minimum, with one third of a Senator's salary and given some of the basic respect to which they are entitled .
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to listen to us. I will keep my remarks to the circular issued by Mr. Gary McGuinn, assistant principal officer, which was circulated to us, which was really the announcement of what the Minister is talking about. I want to address a few points the Minister raised in the circular and which he outlined. I note that he was a county councillor in Cork County Council. That is one of the councils not affected by the withdrawal or cutback of €1,000.
The Minister is very aware of the councils and their role and functions. I commend him, as I have done before, for Rebuilding Ireland and his reform of local councils. However, his brief covers housing, planning, community and local government, which sometimes people forget. He is often seen as just the Minister for housing, but we know that his brief is far bigger than that and that there are many more issues that he wishes to bring before us. I know how it works, having been a councillor first elected in 1999. I am not going to give a history lesson on councillors. We know that there are 949 city and county councillors. We know from independent surveys that they work approximately 44 hours per week. We know that 40% of the councillors are full-time and that their only earned income is their €16,000. We know that many councillors, particularly women, tell us that they are constantly dipping into the family income, their housekeeping money, to subsidise their work on behalf of their communities. Councillors are usually the first responders at crises in their communities, as the Minister knows. There are a variety of councillors, be they party councillors or independent councillors working for communities.
The reality of the Minister's decision regarding not giving the €1,000 to some councillors will affect 31 Cork city councillors, 18 Galway city councillors, 62 Dublin city councillors, 40 in South County Dublin Council and 40 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, of which I was a member for many years. That is a total of 232 councillors out of 949. As many of the Senators present were councillors, they know and understand how it operates. I have told the Minister that many young people have told me in the past few months that they are considering leaving local government.
They are good, young, talented men and women who want to bring something to their communities, but they simply cannot afford it. Not all councillors have ambitions to be in the Seanad and not all have ambitions to be in the Dáil. They are happy, content and fulfilled working for their local communities and we should support them. Not all of them will be doing newsletters, making circulars, photocopying or all the other things the Minister mentioned regarding expenses. They are happy to communicate with their little parish, their ward or their community for their betterment. Councillors want to work with the Minister. He spoke about boundaries and the reform of local councils and he has a lot of things on his agenda. He knows what all 31 councils are up to. I am looking for fair and equal treatment of all councillors which the Minister can deliver.
I will ask a few things of the Minister. We do not have to make a decision today and he can go away and think about it. He has time to reflect on it. If councillors had fair pay in the first place, they would not be coming back to us all the time. I want fair pay for a fair day's work for county councillors and the Minister to look at pay restoration. I am in receipt of a circular from a senior staff member in his Department who set out the relationship of Deputies, Senators and councillors and how councillors could possibly benefit from pay restoration. It makes for a sad picture. In 2008 there were in excess of 1,700 councillors and there are fewer now. I want the Minister to reconsider the question of doubling the existing fixed allowances. I acknowledge hhis colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and what he has done in respect of making the PRSI system more fair and have no doubt that the Minister played a part in it. Let us have equal, fair treatment of all councillors. I ask the Minister to come back to us and we will have opportunities to discuss it at the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.
I thank the Minister for the initiative and for acknowledging the presence of the councillors in the Visitors Gallery from the AILG and LAMA. The Minister has engaged with representative groups of councillors and with us. It is the first time in 15 years that we have seen the advancement of the cause of councillors. Many of us have served on local authorities and recognise the importance of being a councillor. As Senator Victor Boyhan said, many are happy to have a role developing their city or county and community. This debate is about how we can collectively enhance the supports available to councillors and local authority members.
As the Minister has heard the concerns of the representative groups, I will not articulate them. However, I reiterate the importance of the allowance for city council members. It is also important to pay tribute to the members of LAMA and the AILG for the presentation they gave us today in advance of this debate, which outlines in stark terms their increasing workload and the increase in their geographical areas. I welcome the announcement made by the Minister on the possible change to boundaries in that regard.
We also need to look at how we can change local government and the Minister spoke about changing the role of the Lord Mayor of Cork City Council. I will support him in that regard. We are working to ensure we can take on board the concerns articulated to us by members of the AILG and LAMA in order that the package - the first in 15 years - can be really tangible. Other Ministers have talked, but the Minister is delivering. It may not be perfect for everybody but there are changes which will be of benefit. We must ensure, together, that we bring more change and more benefits. In the cities the workload has increased and the number of meetings have increased. We are also probably dealing with more people than in similar rural constituencies, although I recognise that rural constituencies and municipal districts have a wider geographical area.
I welcome the Minister and all of our councillor colleagues. We all accept that councillors up and down the country do tremendous work serving their communities and that for too long they have been grossly underpaid, and maybe undervalued. Equality is very important and we cannot make fish of one and fowl of another. Quality of treatment is a sine qua non and the imperfections must be ironed out. I look forward to engaging in further constructive dialogue and welcome what the Minister said about boundary changes which are very necessary in lots of cases.
Of the total of 949 councillors, 232 in Dublin, Cork and Galway do the same kind of work, with similar duties and workloads, but are now involved in community and economic development. The Minister has found a formula for municipal areas, but cities have area committees which are exactly comparable and it is essential we iron out imperfections such as this. I know tdhat the Minister will engage further with us to make the improvements that are necessary and tweak the details.
I thank the Minister and broadly welcome the recent changes he announced, as well as the modest increases in salary and expenses. They should be applied across the board and not just to rural councils. Being a county or city councillor is more than a full-time job and all we are looking for is equality and fairness across the board. I was elected to serve the west Mayo area for seven years and covered an area stretching 123 km, requiring a four-hour round trip. Like many councillors, I worked day and night and tried my best to serve the people who had elected me. The increases of €1,000 in salary and €2,000 in vouched expenses will improve the situation but they must be only a start. Sinn Féin recognises that the increased workload of local representatives should be reflected in increased remuneration.
I acknowledge the work done by the AILG and LAMA and their determination to get a fair deal for councillors. It is important not just to retain local representatives but to make it attractive to those who may consider representing their community's interest in the future and that includes representation from all walks of life. People should not be deterred by the low remuneration and barring those with children or other expenses from being local representatives is not tolerable.
We have one of the weakest systems of local government and Sinn Féin would like it to be strengthened. There are two key deterrents to councillors influencing policy. One is the imbalance of power between central government and local government which needs to be seriously addressed. The other is the imbalance between the chief executive and local representatives. The chief executives of councils have all the authority and the councillors are left with low remuneration and all the responsibility. I did a thesis on this issue as part of a master's degree in local government and would be happy to provide it for the Minister to give him an in-depth analysis of local government in this and other countries. The pay of councillors has to be set against the massive salaries paid to CEOs and the upper management of local authorities. In Dublin the city manager earns €189,000 per year. How can that be comparable with the remuneration councillors receive? More powers need to be transferred and local representatives rewarded, valued and respected in local government.
We need to recognise the role of the councillor.
They provide this public service in an admirable and hard-working manner.
The councillor is undervalued, as we have all said. There is an increased workload on local councillors who are now expected to be available in the community on an almost 24/7 basis, 356 days of the year. The proposal that rural councillors receive an outright pay increase while their urban-based colleagues receive zero is ludicrously unfair. There is no justification for it. The Minister's assertion that it is clear and reasoned is also ludicrous. Hundreds of councillors and I disagree. Nobody could support the unfairness, inequality and lack of parity involved. It would be like me asking Members to support unfair measures in other occupations. We could not do so in all sincerity. It even makes less sense not to give the urban councillors of Dublin, Cork and Galway the increase, given their higher cost of living, higher rents, parking charges, child care fees and household taxes. Funds to pay these increases need to be found by the Government, rather than by local authorities which have been stripped in the time of austerity.
Sinn Féin wants to see the terms and conditions of councillors improved. They provide a vital public service and are at the coal face. In their own right, they are first responders in the many crises in their communities. We are happy to engage with whatever Minister, Department, committee or forum is required to play our part in delivering adequate remuneration for our colleagues. I hope the Minister will listen to us and the councillors' forum on which I sit.
I thank the Senator for being so concise.
I wish to share time with Senator John Dolan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge the planned changes to the members' annual fixed allowance. In particular, I note his acknowledgement that the changes are a response to the increased workload of elected members arising from the local government reforms of 2014, in particular the allocation of new statutory functions. I also welcome the city and county councillors who are in the Visitors Gallery. They do very hard work, as the Minister said.
I have never been a councillor, but my experience with them was when I sought election to the House. It was my first time understanding and realising the fantastic work they do. I see Councillor Joe Malone in the Visitors Gallery. I got to meet people who worked extremely hard every single day. I was really amazed by it. In my work with the RISE Foundation and working with the drugs task force, on which many councillors sit, I see every day the fantastic work they do. I got a really good understanding of their work. It is safe to say that no one becomes a city or county councillor for financial reward, about which there is no doubt. The rate of pay works out below the minimum wage for most of them when the long hours are taken into account.
The Minister mentioned the survey. I am glad that he did because I was struck when I read it by some of the quotes from county councillors, in particular. One woman said it was nearly impossible to be a mother and an elected representative while holding down another job on the payment councillors received. On my travels, I met a woman who was a county councillor who also had to do nursing at night. Her husband was ill. She was an amazing woman. She really wanted to do the work, but she could not, unfortunately. This is really important.
I encourage the Minister to think about the €1,000 allowance and the inequality and unfairness of the fact that Dublin, Cork and Galway city councillors are not getting it. I wish he would consider that issue. I would like to work with him on it.
The Minister is welcome back to the House. He brings a good heart and good intentions to this issue. Reflecting on it and listening to other Members, it appears to me that the ways and means committee might need to do a little more work on it. However, it goes in the right direction. The whole issue of having a fair and equitable system which is seen as such by all involved is critical.
I focus more on context, ambition and where things are moving to. Certainly, there have been many developments in the past few years. I note the community development element, the economic side of it and whatever. That is very important. We have three Houses of the Oireachtas in the Presidency, the Dáil and the Seanad. As such, it is time to have the ambition to see local government and councillors stretching to be involved, while staying rooted in their communities, in whole-of-the-nation issues from a local perspective. That is important.
Councillors need resources. There is an income issue, but there is also the issue of resourcing them to be better able to do their work. I am thinking of one thing, in particular. There are a lot more civil society groups in Ireland today than there were 20, 30 or 50 years ago, including sports clubs, disability groups, local cultural groups, economic groups and farming groups. Councillors should be able to work in a more consistent and organised way with those groups and bring that thread into it. We have seen the change in the last number of years as councillors have stretched themselves to new areas of work. I see no reason that will not continue.
Like Senator Frances Black, my experience over the course of the Seanad election campaign was of meeting people with good hearts and intentions who were looking to do the right thing. They were stretching themselves beyond regular local authority and health issues to help people. We have a lot of people who are not happy about politics and politicians in general. The place to start to bed down, consolidate and bring people back to an involvement in politics is at local level with local authorities and organised groups.
The next speaker is Senator Catherine Noone. I remind Fine Gael Senators that eight want to speak but the maximum who will get in is four because they are not prepared to share time. Eight speakers will need over 40 minutes and even if we were to extend the time, we would not finish.
To be helpful, if Members want to share time or extend the time available at the end, I am happy with that.
I welcome the Minister and those in the Visitors Gallery. I commend the Minister for his work to date. It must be said he is the first Minister to make some positive change for councillors, which has to be welcomed. I welcome broadly the measures that have been made. All of us who are in regular contact with councillors are aware of their immense dedication and workload. The reality of councillors' day-to-day lives is that they are on public duty full time and available to all citizens in their areas day and night. One of my colleagues said that if one were to break down the hourly rate, they would be well below the minimum wage.
Since the reform of local government structures in 2013 there have been positive changes, but there is no disputing the significant increase in the workload of elected members arising from new structures and legislative obligations. I will elaborate on them later. While I have said I welcome these positive moves and do not want to be overly critical, the most pressing issue is one of equality for all councillors. That must be addressed as a matter of priority. While I welcome the €1,000 increase, it is not fair, as other speakers said, that it has not been extended to councillors in Cork, Galway and the four Dublin authorities. That is a total of 232 councillors. Like their county council counterparts, they do a tireless job. However, they are excluded from receiving the municipal districts members' allowance of €1,000.
Inequality, especially when it comes to this positive change, is hard to take for the councillors in question. To give an example, among the councillors present in the Visitors Gallery, we have Councillor Geoghegan from Waterford, Councillor Cronnelly from Galway and Councillor Ward from Dublin, only one of whom will not receive the additional allowance, despite doing largely the same job. This is unfair and hard to take, especially for local authority members in Dublin, Galway and Cork.
Another glaring example of inequality is that local authority members are one of the only groups who cannot present a medical certificate to explain absences from work or meetings in their case. While it is fair enough to require members to attend more than 80% of meetings to receive allowances, there are instances when people cannot attend meetings for reasons of illness, bereavement, maternity or paternity reasons. I ask the Minister to address this issue because it could be easily changed. If a councillor is unavailable for work due to illness, bereavement or, most glaringly, maternity reasons, he or she should be allowed to present some form of presentation to excuse an absence.
As previous speakers noted, the substantial increase in the workload of councillors has been exacerbated by the reduction in the number of councillors from 1,627 to 949. Many councillors are faced with much larger electoral areas, for example, in west Mayo, west Clare and south-west Kerry, and must provide a service for areas that take a four-hour round trip to cover. It must also be remembered that councillors in city areas are serving areas with growing populations.
I welcome the positive changes in respect of PRSI and the efforts being made by the Minister who is the first Minister to face up to this issue. The longer term objective for Senators must be to seek an increase in and realignment of councillors' representational payment to bring it to a realistic level, perhaps to one third of the salary of a Senator, as Senator Diarmuid Wilson stated. This would reward them for their hard work and commitment. As previous speakers noted, there is a danger that we will lose great people. While campaigning in the recent Seanad election, I met councillors who asked what they were doing with their lives and why they were working so hard for so little remuneration.
I welcome the Minister and the councillors present in the Visitors Gallery. I thank councillors from across the country who have contacted me since the circular was issued. I will try to address a number of specific issues. On the vouched list, the Minister stated fuller details of allowable expenses would be issued in due course. I could list items that should be added to this list based on my experience as a public representative for almost 30 years, including 23 years as a councillor. The current list is very short and not suited to the types of expenses councillors incur daily.
What is the rationale for excluding city councillors from the proposed measures? The Minister's argument, which I am sure was presented to him by the officials who drew up the circular, is at best weak and frail. He indicated that the statutory responsibilities of municipal districts constitute the reason for the proposal to provide an increase for municipal district councillors and not for city councillors. The latter, whether in Cork, Galway or Dublin, have the same responsibilities as the former, albeit in city hall. They have the same responsibilities, even if they do not exercise them at a lower level. I ask the Minister to reconsider his position on this matter as his argument does not stand up.
The Minister referred to the review initiated in 2015, during the term of the previous Government. I was the only Oireachtas Member on the review group, which was top-heavy with officials as opposed to elected representatives. The only councillor on the group was Councillor Padraig McNally from County Monaghan. I am disappointed the group did not issue a final report. The Minister should ensure the group's work is finalised. One of the facts to emerge from its deliberations, one which was not disputed by the officials on the group, was that councillors worked at least 35 hours per week. This is a critical issue in any discussion about payment. The linkage with Senators' remuneration must be removed because it is no longer relevant. It was established more than 20 years ago when salaries for local authority members were first introduced as a means of comparing the work of councillors with the work of Senators and Deputies. This approach is no longer relevant because the workload of councillors has increased substantially in the meantime. Rather than having a link to Senators' pay, the Minister should establish an independent commission of three members to examine local authority members' pay. It would not have an axe to grind and I am confident that if we allowed the axe to fall - no pun intended - it would result in councillors being paid a proper and fair wage for the work they do on behalf of their communities. They are not being paid a fair wage and two and a half years into the current term of local government, councillors from all parties are resigning because they cannot make a living or sustain a second job. Local authority membership has become a full-time job.
The Minister referred to the review initiated in 2015, during the term of the previous Government. I was the only Oireachtas Member on the review group, which was top-heavy with officials as opposed to elected representatives. The only councillor on the group was Councillor Padraig McNally from County Monaghan. I am disappointed tthat the group did not issue a final report. It is important the Minister ensures the group's work is finalised. One of the facts to emerge from its deliberations, and one which was not disputed by the officials on the group, was that councillors worked at least 35 hours per week. This is a critical issue in any discussion about payment. The linkage to Senators' remuneration must be removed because it is no longer relevant. It was established more than 20 years ago when salaries for local authority members were first introduced and some way of comparing the work of councillors with the work of Senators and Deputies was considered necessary. This approach is no longer relevant because the workload of councillors has increased substantially in the meantime. Rather than having a link to Senators' pay, the Minister should establish an independent commission consisting of three members to examine local authority members' pay. It would not have an axe to grind and, no pun intended, we should allow the axe fall because I am confident that this would result in councillors being paid a proper and fair wage for the work they do on behalf of their communities. They are not being paid a fair wage and two and a half years into the current term of local government, councillors from all parties are resigning because they cannot make a living or sustain a second job. Local authority membership has become a full-time job.
Two speakers described the allowance of €1,000 as an increase in salary. My understanding is that it is an allowance.
It is an allowance, rather than part of a salary.
Following representations, I have been unable to obtain clarity on whether it will be treated as a taxable or non-taxable allowance. Will the Minister clarify the position? I am informed that Revenue is examining the issue, which is not good enough, given that the circular was issued approximately one month ago.
Some 43 Senators work for the betterment of those who put them here, namely, councillors. I acknowledge that the Minister has introduced a package of measures. Councillors have endured a terrible period in which they did not receive any increase in pay. This was necessary to reflect the economic climate but the economy has picked up and unemployment has declined and this should be reflected in the treatment of councillors. I ask the Minister to consider the points I have raised.
I understand Senators Aidan Davitt, Robbie Gallagher and Keith Swanick are sharing time in the next slot. As with Senator David Norris, I will allow Senator Brian Ó Domhnail, who is not a member of any group to contribute for two minutes. I wish to be fair to the Senator as he has indicated that he wishes to speak.
I acknowledge the work the Minister has done on this issue, on which there have been a few false dawns. In my time as a member of the executive of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, I was involved in a number of negotiation processes involving the AILG and Local Authority Members Association, LAMA. A number of those in the Visitors Gallery were instrumental at the time. They include councillors Pat Daly and Damien Geoghegan who have all been members of the AILG executive.
I ask the Minister to make two amendments to the circular. The €1,000 increase in remuneration should be for all local authority members. With regard to the additional €2,500 in expenses, I ask the Minister to maintain the status quo and require only that the additional expense be vouched. These changes are reasonable and would not give rise to a significant cost. While we can seek all things, I am a firm believer half a loaf is better than no bread. I ask the Minister to give wholeheartedly in that regard. He has come this far and made a genuine effort and shown much more sincerity than some of his predecessors. I would appreciate if he would consider the points I have raised.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. "Respect" and "fairness" are two words that should be central to any debate on councillors' remuneration. Having been a county councillor for 18 years, I have no doubt that being a county councillor is a full-time job. The workload has increased and is now unrecognisable. Unfortunately, the salary available to councillors does not reflect the fact that they perform a full-time role.
I challenge anybody to live on €16,000 per year and still afford to run a car or pay a mortgage. This package will chase people out of local government at a time when we should be encouraging them to become a councillor. We are fortunate to have dedicated people working as councillors. They are definitely not in it for the money. God save us and bless us, if they were in it for the money, they chose the wrong job. The councillors are dedicated and want to help the communities in which they live. No one should be scared to raise his or her hand and fly the flag or colours for councillors' terms and conditions. All they seek is fairness and respect, which they deserve.
I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to the House to address the concerns of local authority members. While not always a common feature in this House, there is unanimous support to have councillors' pay and conditions comprehensively addressed.
Last year I compiled a comprehensive research report on mental health among local authority members that I sent to the Minister's office. The findings give a stark insight into the immense pressures on local authority members. In 2014 local government legislation reduced the number of local authority members, but, as the Minister will know, increased the size of the areas covered. The measure had a knock-on effect on workload. It is little wonder that 82% of local authority members believe their responsibilities had increased in recent years; 79% said the role had impinged on family life; 68% said the demands of the job would make them consider not running for office again, as alluded to by Senator Victor Boyhan; 67% have experienced mental stress as a direct result of their role; and over 50% have experienced sleep disturbance. The term "24/7" was by far and above the most used phrase that appeared in the responses provided by the local authority members. The duties undertaken by local authority members are endless. As one respondent said: "Councillors are like social workers and sometimes we are the first to get a call when people are in trouble."
There is a direct correlation between the terms and conditions of local authority members and the work, stress and pressures in their lives. One only needs to consider the sensible and realistic solutions given by councillors on how to alleviate some of their concerns. I beseech the Minister to listen to them and sort out this matter once and for all. I concur with Senator Aidan Davitt's approach and proposals.
I call Senator Joe O'Reilly as he is next on my list. Does the Senator propose to share his time?
No. The next two colleagues are sharing their time. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I welcome the Minister. I acknowledge his sincere engagement with this question and that this is the first time that this issue has been debated in a while. I also welcome the representatives from the AILG and LAMA.
Councillors are the cornerstone of democracy. They should not and cannot be taken for granted. They act as a buffer between the public and the Houses of the Oireachtas. There is enough going on in the world to underline the importance of democracy and the fact that it can never be taken for granted. That is all the more reason we should support local councillors. They operate in an increasingly challenging environment. It is one of multi-media where instant responses are needed. We also have a multicultural and multiracial society. The role of local councillor is very challenging.
I agree with my colleagues that city and county councillors face similar challenges. I appeal to the Minister to look at the question of city versus county and to bring parity as he fine tunes his proposal. The point has been made that area committees must be serviced in the city. I join in the appeals that have been made to the Minister to extend the increase in pay and allowance to personnel in the city. It would be fair to extend the increase. We do not want to create a division between city and county. We do not want to create an unpleasant competitive atmosphere among colleagues who work for the good of everyone.
Councillors have meetings at least two days a week and more in some instances plus related constituency work on other days. Therefore, they cannot hold down a normal job. This morning I met a councillor who told me that he physically could not get a job because of the amount of meetings that he must attend. He chatted to me and the LAMA people. He told me that he possibly had three days free to do other work but nobody wanted him. In other words, he cannot have a normal job. That is a shocking state of affairs that needs to be addressed.
There has been a 41% decrease in the number of elected members. The number has decreased from 1,627 down to 949. The decrease has greatly increased the challenges faced by the remaining elected members. The job requires a huge time commitment, a considerable amount of personal expenses and additional meetings. Plus the job is much more complex.
What has been done so far is welcome. We need to extend the measures further and continue to engage. I appeal to the Minister to consider the equality issue. I appeal to him to continue an engagement with councillor organisations or the two representative bodies, with a view to addressing councillor issues on a continuous basis and addressing the salary. There is a real issue. I do not think it in any way diminishes the great amount of voluntary work that councillors do. No matter what we do, even if there are radical changes, we will not come close to compensating councillors for the amount of hours involved. It is good and I am glad that there has been unanimity in the House on this issue. There is general recognition of this issue across communities. As somebody who has been involved at both Seanad and Dáil level, if one took councillors out of the equation then democracy would be threatened and thus the link with the public. Councillors play a serious and important role in democracy. Anyone who studies the current situation in the world and the potential threats in Europe should value what we have and realise it is worth supporting.
I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. I congratulate the AILG and LAMA and their executive members for the extremely good and conscientious work they have done for a long period. Today's proposal is the best news since Noel Dempsey was the Fianna Fáil Minister who introduced the best changes ever to local government, as far as local authority members are concerned. I recognise his work today.
As far as linking the salaries of councillors with those of Senators, I encourage an increase of at least 30% of a Senator's salary as I believe it would be fair and equitable. My daughter, Orla, is a councillor and chairman of a local municipal authority. Therefore, I know from personal experience about the enormous amount of work that she and all of her colleagues do. Roscommon County Council was reduced from 26 members to 18. Nothing concentrates the mind greater than the guillotine or the leadership of a political party. I wish the Minister well with his proposal which involves a figure of 10% for councillors.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Like many of my colleagues said, this package is welcome.
I also want to speak about the unequal treatment of the 232 councillors in the Dublin local authorities, Galway city and Cork city. They do not qualify for the extra €1,000. I understand the reason given is that they are not part of municipal areas. They are all part of area committees that undertake the same work as municipal areas, a fact that should be acknowledged. There are more councillors in city areas, but they must deal with a high population. The issues with which they must deal such as housing put a great strain on councillors and result in very large workloads. Being a councillor is not ideal. We will be unable to attract people with the appropriate level of commitment that a local authority member requires if we do not address this matter. I urge the Minister to address this unequal allowance.
I welcome the Minister and the councillor representatives. I agree with everything that has been said. It is most unusual in a debate to agree with everything that has been said by all parties across the House and none. Such unanimous agreement about an issue gives it greater validity.
As a former councillor, I know that councillors work 365 days a year. If a water main bursts on Christmas Day it is the same as a Wednesday in the middle of June because a councillor will still be called, even though he or she earns just €16,000 per year. We have a fear of being seen to give politicians a pay increase. If anyone else was on-call 24/7 for 365 days a year, he or she would not be expected to work the same conditions as a councillor. We do not want to be seen to give a fellow politician a pay increase. We are running scared just because they too are politicians. That is the kernel of the issue.
I do not know why the Minister decided to have a different allowance for city and county councillors. I am afraid that he used the old battle ploy of divide and conquer.
How could one discriminate against councillors who are working equally as hard doing a similar job with the very same responsibilities based on their geographical location? I think the Minister will have to revisit that issue.
I understand Senators Gabrielle McFadden and Maria Byrne are sharing.
I was to share with Senator Kieran O'Donnell.
Senator Maria Byrne is next and I had thought she was sharing with the Senator.
I am sharing time with Senator Frank Feighan.
I thank the Minister for being in this House to discuss this very serious issue and his work on it to date. I had mixed views on the Local Government Reform Act 2014, which was the most radical reform of local government in over a century. This legislation has led to large-scale reorganisation of local government throughout the country. With the reduction in the number of elected councillors by more than 40% and the reorganisation of structures, as well as the allocation of additional powers, the work of a councillor has increased dramatically. This increase in workload has brought to the fore the issue of the remuneration of councillors.
I am very conscious in this Chamber that councillors elect the members on the panel to the Seanad. It is very important that we would not be tempted to look for headlines but would be encouraged to look for solutions. As chairman of the cross-party group representing councillors, this is not my first time to speak on the topic.
Last week I welcomed the Minister's announcement on the increase in expenses and allowances for councillors. I see that announcement as an acknowledgement that the remuneration up to now was insufficient, but I also see it only as a first step rather than a resolution of the issue. Having previously been a town and county councillor, I know how strongly many councillors feel about the issue. I know first-hand the workload and the long hours involved in representing constituents, writing letters, making calls, arranging clinics and attending meetings. The increased workload, combined with a negative media portrayal of public representatives in general, is having a very demoralising effect on public representatives and is making public service a less attractive option for many.
For many, being a councillor has become a full-time commitment, as has been said previously, and the allowance they are paid represents considerably less than the minimum wage if calculated on an hourly basis. Therefore, I believe we must increase the basic salary paid to all councillors to reflect the long hours worked every day of every week by each and every councillor in order to represent their constituents.
I am asking the Minister, together with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to use the opportunity of the upcoming negotiations on the successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement to look anew at the remuneration for public representatives. I urge him to please reflect on the basic representational allowance currently on offer to councillors and put in place a remuneration package which reflects the actual work carried out by these councillors, the long hours, the meetings, the clinics, the travel and e-mails, as well as many community events that councillors must attend.
With the local elections not too far away, many councillors are considering whether they will contest the election. If the remuneration package on offer currently is not improved, many will decide to call it a day. We do not want to see this as a situation where we only have people who are independently wealthy, those who have other objectives or agendas or those sponsored by wealthy interested groups can afford to run for office. In local councillors we have an experienced cohort of able individuals whose contribution is for the good of their community. They are willing to serve.
As the Minister said, nobody gets into local politics to make money, but in setting their terms and conditions we should not exploit that willingness to serve, rather we should reimburse all councillors appropriately.
I am delighted to be able to speak. I welcome the representatives from both the AILG and LAMA in the Visitors Gallery. We are speaking about politicians, but I think the most important thing is that the debate is not turned into a party political issue. I was a councillor and there is a completely legitimate and empirical reason given as to why this should happen. The AILG and LAMA have been very constructive in putting forward the arguments as to why councillors require these increases. They are not huge. The issue in terms of the €1,000 allowance not applying to more than 230 councillors needs to be considered. When one looks at the changes in the boundaries since 2014, the increase in the area and the increased workload in terms of the economic remit with more and more coming under the local authorities, there is an empirical and logical reason it should be extended, apart from parity.
The second issue is many councillors are now full-time councillors. The role has changed with the advent of social media and mobile phones. The type of work that a councillor carries out has changed beyond recognition. It is very much welcome that the Minister has brought forward these measures. This is a constructive debate and we should find cross-party support for a fair solution.
Senators Ned O'Sullivan, Catherine Ardagh and Brian Ó Domhnaill are sharing time.
I commend the Minister for being, as Senator Terry Leyden said, the first since the former Minister Noel Dempsey to address the question of councillors' pay and remuneration. The then Minister brought councillors' terms and conditions from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, but the Minister has the chance to change the whole lot in what he is offering. However, he is light years away from what is required. Nonetheless he is making a start and I encourage him to keep at it.
Senator Denis Landy's suggestion of establishing a commission on local authority pay and conditions is the way forward. I entered into local government in 1985 and was 22 years a councillor before I was elevated to this House. For the entire period I served I lost money every day. I was a self-employed businessman and had to put in replacement staff when I was away. Some of my colleagues were employees who had to take their holidays and time off to cover the council meetings. All of that went unheralded. The media would have a major expose on councillors' expenses, never looking into the sacrifices they made. Councillors are never away from work as long as they have a phone in their pocket. We all know that so well.
The Minister will have to do better. Councillors deserve better than this. Councillors are the sinews of their communities. They love their communities. They are not doing it for money. They love their communities and work to serve them. They give leadership to them. It will be a bad day for democracy when that effort goes unrewarded.
I thank the Minister for being present in the House. I agree with all of the sentiments my colleagues have expressed. I was very proud to be elected to Dublin City Council in 2014, having run in 2009. I was doing the work of a councillor for many years without being an elected councillor. I enjoyed the work and did it with pride.
Being a public representative and being elected to the local authority is a full-time job, but it is not just a full-time job. It is very much a vocation. I grew up in household similar to that of the Minister, where our hall door was open 365 days a year. As soon as I could read and write, I was taking notes for my father for his clinics. We all took on board his job and tried to relieve him of some of that pressure. He was self-employed, just like Senator Ned O'Sullivan, and made a great many sacrifices in his business in order that he could enter public life on a vocational basis.
We have discussed the concept of a living wage and for those full-time councillors and for those who make sacrifices, we have to look at it, not just for other members of our community but for councillors also. Councillors need to have a living wage. They need to be able to pay a mortgage, have a car loan and live a life. A great many councillors are not doing so. The idea of increasing the basic wage from a meagre €16,000 to a little less meagre €23,000 is not unreal. I really hope the Minister will push this because it is not a massive concession to make, rather I think it is a fair concession and if the Minister could do it under the umbrella of a living wage, that is how it should be approached.
I am conscious of the time.
I commend the Minister for having the courage to come forward with these proposals. However, there is a question of equity, whereby 25% of the total number of councillors in the country have been excluded from the additional €1,000, which is wrong. That issue needs to be addressed immediately.
All councillors should be treated equally in terms of the payment.
When we consider councillors throughout the country, many of them are earning less than those in receipt of social welfare payments and doing nothing on behalf of the State. We have to take a reality check and decide whether we want democracy that is fully functioning and responsive to the needs of the citizen. If we do, we must resource those who provide it. For example, the average county manager earns between €124,000 and €175,000 in Dublin, plus allowances and expenses. Councillors do at least half the workload of any county manager and are on call 24/7. I am not sure a county manager is available after 5 p.m. but councillors are always available. I agree with the concept of setting up an independent commission, which has been done in other jurisdictions. I have studied and examined it. It does work. If we take the example in Scotland and England, the average councillor earns approximately £17,000 sterling as a base pay, which is about €20,000 to €22,000 given today's exchange rate. That is the point from where we should be starting and then we should examine the possibility of the commission and take it forward from there.
Senator Maria Byrne is sharing with Senator Frank Feighan. Is that correct?
I agree with all that has been stated. I served as a councillor for the past 17 years - 15 years on a city council and then two years on the amalgamated council - prior to being elected to the House. It is welcome that the Minister is bringing forward increases and that changes are coming is to be commended. I went full-time into politics in 2008 when I was on the city council, the reason being that the workload was increasing and I was very busy. We are now looking at the creation of a two-tier system. At the end of the day, councillors, be they city councillors, county councillors, or both, are all public representatives. The document that was circulated by the Department referred to public representatives in a lot of cases but then there was the division into a two-tier arrangement. This is something that I would like the Minister to examine. From my experience as a city councillor and as a councillor in the amalgamated council, the workload has increased for everyone, regardless of whether they represent city or county. They all have local community development committees, LCDCs, both in the city and the county, and there are many voluntary organisations. Further, the work of a councillor is not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. Often there are meetings at night-time or early in the morning. Councillors link the community with the local authority and the national authority. This is something that we perhaps have to examine on a cross-party basis. All public representatives should be supported and councillors should be given a proper salary and considered in a fair manner.
I thank the Minister, the Local Authorities Members Associations, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, for working so hard to bring this to a virtual conclusion. I broadly welcome these commitments. I would like to see the 230 councillors included in some way and know that in working together we may be able to do it. I was elected to Roscommon County Council in 1999. I was twice elected in Roscommon-South Leitrim as a Teachta Dála and have been twice in the Seanad. I can absolutely say I worked as hard as a councillor as I did as a Teachta Dála and a Senator. I think most people agree. That was when we had 26 councillors. I was in the fortunate position of having my own business and would have bank-rolled to a certain extent what I was doing because the council certainly did not pay my way at the time.
At the last local election, we lost many local councillors. They were very disappointed and hurt but they did tell me that, although they were honoured to be elected, they are probably better off financially and in terms of their family lives by being out of the council. We need to work extremely hard to ensure that these are the bridge between the communities and the councils. They work in the best interests of the municipality or the council and need to be paid a fair wage for the vast amount of work they do.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and welcome the Minister. I also welcome the support given to councillors, who in this day and age should be on the living wage. I live in Chicago most of the time and can tell the House that the aldermen in the city council there are not alone paid more than the living wage but have a fund-raiser every second week as well where us business people have to go digging in our pockets. I think the councils here are barred from doing anything like that. Those aldermen receive a living wage. When I go home to Galway at the weekends, having been here in the Seanad, every time I see my friend and colleague, Councillor Conneely, his phone never stops. It is going morning, noon and night. I am sure it is the same with councillors throughout the country. They must be supported because they are at the coalface dealing with our citizens.
I acknowledge the work the Minister has done on this issue and his efforts to resolve it. Like Senator Frank Feighan, I too was elected in 1999. Working in the private sector, one finds oneself working 16 to 18 hours a day between the private sector job and trying to do what basically was and is a voluntary undertaking. If we consider the salaries paid to councillors, when more and more councillors are expected to be engaged on a full-time basis, especially in urban areas, in many ways we are excluding ordinary people from being active in democracy. It is a thankless job in many ways, but they are expected to be available to the public 12 to 14 hours a day. In urban areas, they have to attend area committee meetings, local forums and policing forums - the list goes on - as well as having several directorships and being on regeneration boards, which are all unpaid and are all demanding. There is also the criterion that if one does not attend X amount of meetings, one loses one's position.
If we want to allow what I would call an ordinary working person to be involved in democracy in some way, we have to recognise that there is a cost to them and their families. If we are going to pay them a very low amount, people that are working in the private sector who are not self-employed or members of the legal profession will not be able to get involved in their communities and councils. Given how driven it is, it is not possible to manage a career in the private sector and make a contribution to one's local community.
I have asked the Minister to re-examine the situation concerning urban councillors and their treatment under the legislation and to re-examine the work done on the area committees and whether a chair of an area committee should get some financial reward. I was chair of an area committee. Having looked back on the records relating to the workload involved, there would possibly be four or five meetings with the area manager on preparing the area committee and ensuring that the right people were there to deal with the questions and the issues raised and then to follow-up with the area committee. That is what a proactive chair of an area committee does. In fact, many city councils would not work effectively without active area committees because local area issues keep coming to the surface at city council meetings when area committees do not work.
I honestly recognise that the Minister has made sincere efforts in this area, but jI ask him to look at how urban councillors are being treated. I also support Senator Denis Landy's proposal. We need to break the link between their salaries and that of Senators and have an independent look at what they are paid.
I propose that we extend the debate by 20 minutes.
Is that agreed? Agreed. I have four speakers left on this side and call Senator Maura Hopkins who is sharing time with Senator Tim Lombard.
I too emphasise the very positive work being done by councillors. I also emphasise the positive work that has been done by the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy simon Coveney, in the past few months.
I speak to councillors on a daily basis. I completely understand the value of the work they are doing, whether dealing with flooding, safety, meeting individuals in regard to housing and many other areas, with the obligations of attending council and committee meetings. We know - the Minister has stated it - that the role of a councillor has changed in the past few years. Councillors have been given increased responsibility under the Local Government Reform Act 2014, particularly with regard to local economic and community development. The number of councillors has been reduced. Many councillors have been faced with larger electoral areas, some have to represent an area of more than 100 km from end to end. In the cities they are representing ever-growing populations. I am fully aware that the Minister has engaged with LAMA and the AILG which I compliment on the hard work they have done and are doing in working constructively with the Minister in requesting proper financial recognition for the true costs of being a councillor in terms of the workload and the legitimate expenses incurred.
Different areas have different demands, whether that be geographical challenges in rural areas or an ever-increasing population in urban areas. I too join other Senators in asking the Minister to consider reviewing the proposed allowance of €1,000 and extending it to all councillors.
Having been one of the youngest councillors on Roscommon County Council for two years, we need to ensure we encourage young, capable and able candidates to put their names forward for election. The Minister has stated correctly that we are reaching a point where councillors cannot afford financially to stand for local government. We need to ensure councillors are treated fairly and with respect and that the terms and conditions reflect the work they do.
I was a member of Cork County Council for 13 years. It was a great honour and privilege to be co-opted on to the local authority in place of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. I think the work councillors do on the ground is very important. That must be recognised.
Members have made good statements on the terms and conditions of councillors. We have to look at local government in its entirety and how we will drive that agenda forward. A young Fine Gael county councillor aged 28 years, Mr. Noel O'Donovan from Clonakilty, stepped out from Cork County Council. The issue is how we can ensure we can get the talent and the people we require to serve in local government. Senator Maura Hopkins is correct, that is the real challenge and the issue of the debate. The Minister has brought forward good proposals. They are the most ground-breaking proposals since those of the then Minister Noel Dempsey in 2002.
The real debate will be on having a template in place between now and 2019 on how we will have a local government structure put in place to ensure people will put themselves forward to serve in local government. My real fear is that people will not come forward to serve and that it will not be viable financially to serve on the council and they will not give it the time required.
We have to reform the boundaries. The local area electoral boundaries were set up in the 1850s and we need to step away from them. We also need to look at the ten-seat constituencies because they are not working. These issues need to be looked at and sorted out in the next year in order that they will be sorted out before 2019. I think we must adjust the terms and conditions to attract young people to serve on local authorities.
I understand Senators Colm Burke and Martin Conway will share time.
I will be brief because what I wanted to say has been said.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I thank him for the work he has done to date; however, I think the proposals by LAMA and the AILG must be taken on board.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan raised the issues that arise for councillors who are self-employed and trying to take time off work while managing a business. It is getting more difficult for those who are employed to take time off work and try to hold down a full-time job while serving on a council. It is not easy for employers to be flexible with time. We are losing some very good people.
We also need to take on board the position of young people serving in local government. In the case of a people with a young family, there is a loss of income if they take time off work and then they have to manage to find the time to make representations and serve on the council. We need to have a broad range of people involved in the council. If we want to ensure we will have that, we need to ensure there is adequate provision made to cover their expenses and their costs in serving and giving leadership in the community.
The vast majority of those who end up serving on a local authority are there because they have already been providing the leadership in their local community and have already made a significant commitment to their local area. They now want to continue that and make a contribution to further development and forward planning.
An expert consultant making a presentation advising a meeting of 20 councillors for one hour will be paid more for that hour in all likelihood than what the combined 20 councillors could claim in expenses for the same hour. We have to view the matter in that context.
What the AILG and LAMA are looking for is not unreasonable. Their views need to be taken on board.
One could not but agree with everything that has been said. The vast majority of Members have come up through the local authorities and still work closely with them. Members have lifelong friends who are councillors and members of local authorities.
I commend the Minister for at least responding to the calls that have been made over time. I believe the municipal district structure is unworkable in many parts of the country. I know that the Minister will realise, on reflection, that the scenario where urban councillors are worse off than rural councillors needs to be put right.
I have a further proposal. The Minister recognises that the workload of councillors has been undervalued. When he brings forward the proposal to ensure that this takes effect in July, I suggest he backdate the payments to 24 May 2014 because the work has been done by councillors since they took up office on that date. That would be an appropriate gesture to councillors who have been short-changed. Whether we like it, councillors have been short-changed and this would be a token of respect and engagement with those who serve on local authorities. I ask the Minister to rectify the urban-rural difference and to backdate the payment to 24 May 2014.
I thank all those who have contributed.
I should have taken the opportunity when I was speaking earlier to acknowledge the presence of the councillors in the Visitors Gallery. I thank the AILG and LAMA for their engagement on these issues. We have had multiple meetings at which we have had honest and blunt discussions with both organisations on what we need to try to do.
Those meetings have been honest, blunt discussions about what we need to try and do. They have reflected the concerns of many councillors around the country through representative bodies that have been very effective in putting arguments together.
There is a broader perspective that I think we all need to consider. My job is to provide good local governance in Ireland or to at least put a policy framework in place to ensure we can, and to work in partnership with local authorities right across the country, in cities and rural areas, in suburbia and so on. We have many challenges to resolve together and we have just come through a period where there has been a real shortage of financial resources for many local authorities and nationally. When we make choices about how we spend money, we need to think about all of the competing demands that are looking for and deserve increased resources. That is the context in which I am making a decision to spend and commit more taxpayers' money to support councillors in the work that they are doing. I am also trying to look after people who are living on our streets. I am also trying to get a new housing strategy up and running. I am also trying to get social housing provision intact. We are trying to get roads, footpaths and all the other things that local authorities rightly have to try and deliver for the constituents that they represent.
It would be very strange if we were to make dramatic changes on remuneration, supports and pay at a time when resources are still very scarce for a lot of basic services. People would rightly question my priorities if I did that. That is why I have gone through a process that has been very robust and transparent where I have asked others in the Department and outside the Department to look in an independent way at the role the councillors play, the importance of that role, and whether or not they can function in that role in a fair way with the financial pressures that are put on them. Of course, it would be a popular thing for me to make dramatic changes. We are spending nearly €28 million a year to support councillors through representative payments, which is not actually a salary, but a representative payment. A distinction was made when that was put in place. It is approximately €16,500. It is true that it is linked to a Senator's salary. That is still a considerable amount of money and we are proposing to add to that, with approximately €1.8 million for improved levels of support, primarily through a vouched expenses system. We also recognise that there is a statutory legal change in the responsibilities that some councillors are now required to accommodate through a municipal districts structure.
I am not trying to create two tiers of councillors. This is not adding to the representative payment. This is a separate allowance, just like if somebody is on the Council of Europe, or if somebody is chair of a committee that has an allowance that comes with it. It is a separate allowance, because of an increased statutory responsibility that goes with it. I am not advocating and I am not proposing to increase the representative payment for rural councillors by €1,000 and not for city councillors. That is not what we are proposing. What we are proposing is an allowance to match the increased statutory responsibility that is there for councillors that now have to make the municipal structures work. I really hope ity councillors do not take this up the wrong way because I know many city councillors work just as hard as councillors in county areas. However, if one looks at actual numbers in terms of changes that were made, while the vast majority of parts of the country have seen a significant reduction in the number of county councillors in particular, by more than 50% in some areas, if one looks at Dublin, the number of councillors has increased from 139 to 183. We have seen big changes moving both ways. That increase in Dublin was justified because the population has increased significantly and I am not suggesting otherwise.
What I am saying is there is a consequence to abolishing town councils. The consequence of the policy of having town councils, in towns represented by councils, being replaced by a municipal district system and structure, is that there is a statutory legal responsibility on some councillors and not on others in the country because municipal districts were not rolled out in urban areas. All we are doing here is reflecting the fact that there should be some recognition of that increased statutory allowance. I am not creating a difference. There is a difference and it has been legislated for. It is part of the last local government reform process. I am simply reflecting it now in a €1,000 allowance that reflects what town councillors would have received on an annual basis in recognition for the work that they are doing on town councils.
We are in a process of reviewing the three cities with city councils that are subject to not being able to access the allowance. Local authority structures there are all under review. In Galway we have a report recommending a merger between the city and county, for example. We have to move through that process. Many councillors do not want to do that, but some do. We have a process by which we are going to finalise how that is going to work. Undoubtedly, that is going to impact some change on Galway city, and if there is a change in statutory responsibilities, I will respond to that when that happens, by recognising that and with allowances. Likewise, I am going to get recommendations in the next couple of months around whether Cork city and county should be merged, or if not, if there could be some new structure for the relationship between the city and county. There will be change in Cork just like there will be change in Galway because there needs to be. We will have to work out the form that that takes together.
In the context of that change, if we ask increased statutory responsibilities of city councillors, of course, we will have to reflect that in any future allowances. Likewise, as other parties will know, we are working on changes in Dublin too, to see if we can have a directly-elected mayor in Dublin. We are working, in particular, with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, but I am sure Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and others will input into that process also. When there is structural change and when that has a knock-on impact on the statutory responsibilities of councillors, we cannot just make that change and expect the councillors will adapt with no financial recognition for that change. All I am reflecting on the municipal district allowance is what has happened historically which was not recognised with regard to the supports that need to come with that increased statutory responsibility. On the other side, which is something from which I hope everybody will benefit , is a system of a more realistic assessment of what it costs a councillor to operate on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, for communicating with the people that expect instant responses and so on. I have heard what the Senators have to say and I hope I have shown that when I come into this House, I do listen to what is said.
Senator Catherine Noone, although she has left the Chamber, raised the issue of councillors essentially not being able to get a doctor's note for being at meetings and needing to meet a certain quota in order to be able to get basic supports. We will look at that issue. Unless there is some legal impediment to me changing it, we will change it. It does not seem to be a fair system and if it is-----
The Minister's time is just up.
If I can, I will finish one or two points.
I am bound by the order of the day.
On the issue of vouching, I hope everybody recognises that we now live in a very different world from 20 years ago. The public expects a very different level of accountability and transparency for how public money is spent.
We want to make that as easy as possible within councils, in terms of how it functions, and I hope people will work with us. It would, of course, be simpler to have no vouching and automatic payments, but I cannot stand over such a system. We all recognise that point.
The changes made by Noel Dempsey were welcome at the time, but it was a very different Ireland in terms of the availability of resources for local and national government. I have a responsibility to make sure the budget I have for local government is spent primarily in the interests of the thousands of people and families who rely on local government to deliver services. The majority of the new money we have to spend has to go on delivering those services.
In order to ensure services are delivered, we must have councils that function and councillors who feel valued, respected and want to stand for election for local government in order that talent is willing to put itself forward. That is why we are making changes. I am sure I will get some criticism from outside the House for even touching the issue of councillors' conditions and support. I have already received such criticism. The approach to date has been fair and balanced. I have listened to the comments of Members and will bear them in mind, but, if I am honest, it is unrealistic to expect backdating.