I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to the House. We will now commence the Second Stage debate on the Local Government Accountability Bill 2018. I call Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill.
Local Government Accountability Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I also welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for the local government sector, Deputy Phelan, to the House and acknowledge the work he has done to date in listening to the concerns of local authority members across the country regarding remuneration and terms and conditions. There was a widespread welcome for the establishment of a commission to examine the issue of remuneration and I hope that it undertakes its work programme as quickly as possible, with a conclusion reached in the autumn. We would not want to let the commission run on too long because we do not know what the political landscape may bring. In that context, it is vital that the conclusions of the commission are brought to bear as quickly as possible.
The purpose of the Bill before us is to support those same local government members who number 949 and who make a massive contribution on a daily basis to Ireland's democratic process. I welcome Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy to the House this evening. She is a member of Kildare County Council and has garnered a lot of experience in a system in Kildare of tracking representations made by councillors. The issue of representations made by councillors is more fundamental than what is contained in this Bill because it gets to the core of Ireland's democratic system.
In 2017 local government in Ireland had a budget of €4.4 billion expended across various services. The budget increased in 2018 to €4.8 billion and is distributed across 31 local authorities. Over 30% of the budget is spent on housing while the roads allocation is €913 million, or 19% of the overall budget. Environmental services account for 13.6% of the budget, approximately 10% is spent on recreation and amenities, 8.7%, or €415 million, is spent on development management and 7.9%, or €378 million, will be spent on water this year. The remaining budget is broken down under two subheadings, the first of which includes agriculture, education, health and welfare and the second is miscellaneous services. Miscellaneous services is a budget line that is open to all sorts of interpretation and more transparency is required in this area but that is a debate for another day.
Local authorities have a massive budget which is spent on crucial services for local communities all over the country. I have brought the Local Government Accountability Bill before this House because the practitioners of democracy at the closest level to the citizen, namely, the councillors, are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain substantial answers from senior officials within the local authority system. These senior officials are paid in excess of €100,000 but according to councillors are not democratically accountable.
Changes were introduced at local government level under legislation passed in 2014, some of which were welcomed while others were not. That legislation was introduced by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, former Deputy Phil Hogan, from County Kilkenny. The changes were brought in on the understanding that elected councillors would be better positioned to hold the chief executives of local authorities to account but that has not happened.
I conducted research in preparation for this Bill and surveyed all local authority members across all political persuasions. I received in excess of 80 communications from members from Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Independent groupings, the Labour Party and so on. The universal theme that emerged was that when councillors made representations on behalf of an individual citizen or group, they found it very difficult to get a timely response from senior officials or from the chief executive of the local authority. The purpose of this Bill is to provide for such timely responses. The Bill provides that an acknowledgement must be sent to the councillor making the representation on behalf of a citizen or community group within seven working days and that a substantial response must be provided within 14 working days. That response must deal in its entirety with the issue of concern. Under the Bill, the Minister has absolute discretion in providing for a regulation.
Given the Minister of State's record to date I believe he will welcome this Bill. Indeed, I have no reason to believe that this Government will not be fully supportive of this Bill, especially as it will not impose any costs on the taxpayer. The Bill is simply about providing more transparent and accountable local democracy, which will help the citizen and the practitioners of that democracy at a local level. It enhances the ability of councillors to hold the executive or the council management to account. That was the objective of the 2014 legislation introduced by the Fine Gael-led Government so I do not see why this Bill would not be supported this evening.
There are many State agencies which sit at arm's length from the Houses of the Oireachtas but which provide an excellent service to Deputies and Senators. They provide timely responses to queries, often within three to four working days because of directions issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Those State agencies were clearly instructed to provide timely responses to queries from Members of the Oireachtas.
The very least we could do is extend this privilege to local authority members by way of enactment of this Bill. There are data protection issues emerging owing to the coming into force of the general data protection regulation this year. The directive applies to Deputies and Senators who have the services of swift responses such that I do not see how it could be used to impede the process provided for in the Bill. We are looking for fairness for local authority members, transparency for the public and democratic accountability of management at senior level, particularly chief executive officers who are managing a budget of €4.8 billion this year. This level of accountability is necessary because the chief executive officers are not accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. They should be, but they are not. If councillors are finding it difficult to hold them to account in getting responses to queries, that is unacceptable. Councillor McLoughlin Healy who is in the Visitors Gallery had to use the freedom of information process to garner a response on behalf of a constituent. That is disgraceful. I am assuming that the Government will support the Bill. Any attempt to block it would be very damaging to the work of councillors as they carry out their difficult roles in dealing with complex queries on behalf of citizens.
I have received huge feedback on the Bill from citizens who are frustrated with the process. For example, in County Donegal councillors who make representations on behalf of constituents often have to send three, four, five, six or seven emails or letters to the chief executive and senior management before they receive a response to a query. That is unacceptable. They are often fobbed off with a couple of acknowledgements in the hope the query will go away. That, too, is unacceptable. If we are to improve the level of democratic accountability in local government, we have to start somewhere. The Bill will not resolve all issues, but it is an attempt to improve the structures in place. I am open to suggestions from the Minister and will be happy to work with him on the Bill. As Senators and Members of the Oireachtas, our aim is to serve our communities better and try to ensure the citizen receives a better service from the State. Very often, we do not hear from citizens unless the system is broken. If we had a perfectly functioning system which is probably not in place, there would be no need for politicians to make representations and we could focus solely on policy at council level or legislation at national level. However, we do not live in that ideal vacuum; therefore, the representational route is crucial to citizens and communities. We must ensure the system is as fluid as possible and one of the ways by which we can do this is by providing for a binding obligation.
I hope the Minister of State will support the Bill. I have carried out some analysis of local government systems across various jurisdictions worldwide within the context of the OECD, some of which has been published. There are systems such as this in other jurisdictions which work effectively and there are no issues with them. I hope there will not be an attempt by the county managers' association to block this measure, but I should not be so pessimistic as to even think that. I look forward to hearing the contributions of the Minister of State and my colleagues. I thank my co-sponsors, Senators Victor Boyhan, Gerard P. Craughwell and Diarmuid Wilson. I look forward to listening to the debate.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan. As a former councillor, he is aware of the important role councillors play in communities. I am speaking to the Bill on behalf of the 949 councillors across the country who represent people daily. Local representatives need greater support in working for their constituents. The Bill will provide that support. It provides for the setting of a statutory timeframe of 14 days for replies to queries from local authority members, thereby ensuring the representative and the citizen will be heard.
The Bill is also about members of the public who seek the assistance of councillors daily. When I was a councillor, I received many representations. We must listen to the public. In that regard, the first port of call is a councillor. We need to ensure we represent them. There has to be a response when representations are made on behalf of a member of the public. We will tie the hands of the local councillor if we do not insist on this. For some time local representatives throughout the country and their constituents have felt that they are unheard because everything seems to happen in Dublin. Often representations are passed from one Department to another, which is unacceptable. When a councillor, a Senator, a Deputy or a Minister makes a representation on behalf of a member of the public, he or she deserves to have them responded to quickly because that is what the member of the public expects and deserves.
We need to empower local representatives to ensure they can play an active role in addressing the concerns of their constituents. We need to strengthen, rather than weaken, local democracy. Ireland has the lowest number of councillors per head of population. Public representatives are the first port of call for citizens. Therefore, we need to ensure local government is strengthened. A major change in councillors' conditions was the expansion of local electoral areas to cover much broader geographical areas. As a result, they now represent broader and larger populations. The Bill will reflect this change by further empowering them, which is good. Like me, the Minister of State was a member of a town council. The abolition of town councils has been a disaster. Following on from their abolition, there are fewer councillors and smaller budgets but larger geographical areas. The Bill will go a small way towards helping councillors to achieve the best results they can.
Fianna Fáil's empowering communities policy document calls for the establishment of town councils in towns with a population of over 7,500 people and the creation of new voluntary community council structures in areas with no town councils. The abolition of town councils has been detrimental to the people.
The former Minister, Phil Hogan, played a massive part in their abolition which I have always believed was unfair. We advocate having directly elected mayors with executive powers in every city and subsequently every county such that every area would have its own town council. We need to see a return of town councils, combined with a new Cabinet-style system that would offer enhanced, effective accountability and a greater role for councillors in shaping policies. We also need to look at overhauling the commercial rates system, combined with full implementation of the local government efficiency review and enhanced auditing facilities to ensure value for money and efficient spending. Achieving value for money and efficient spending are crucial. The public depends on local authorities, the Seanad and the Dáil. Local authorities are key to everything that happens in an area. Therefore, we need to ensure councillors have their say. We need to support them.
I support the Bill and will be very disappointed if the Minister of State does not support it today. As a former councillor, a Deputy and a Minister of State, he is aware of the vital role played by councillors. He should, therefore, give the Bill his full support.
I acknowledge the sponsors of the Bill and the aims and objectives contained therein to support and enhance the role of councillors. Most of us were councillors for a number of years and bring that experience to the House.
I acknowledge the work of councillors who are, in a democracy, the closest elected representatives to the citizens. It is important that we acknowledge the mandate of locally elected members who do untold good work for their communities.
As the Minister of State, who is a democrat, knows, democracy brings accountability and with accountability is the right of elected members who have the mandate from the citizens and the electorate which represents them to make representations on behalf of the communities they represent. How elective representatives and councillors can best function is a fundamental issue. It is a fundamental issue that they are democrats who are elected by the people and who have a mandate. They need to be supported to operate and represent those people efficiently and effectively.
We operate in a democracy, not a bureaucracy. As a Member of this House, I am concerned that bureaucrats can sometimes dismiss or ignore legitimate representations made by councillors and Oireachtas Members. We are very dependent on the co-operation of officialdom, whether in local authorities or other public agencies. We are dependent on timely and accurate responses when representations are made. We are also dependent on consistency in how those responses are made so that there is not favouritism in any way to one Member over another. I fundamentally believe it boils down to respect for the mandate a councillor carries when he or she is elected.
I have to put on the record that many officials in local authorities give an excellent service and respond in an excellent way, and we should acknowledge that the vast majority of officials, from CEOs down to directors of services and the various managers of housing and local authority departments, are excellent in their responses. There are always some outliers and that is why concerns have arisen.
The Bill is before the House today because some people do not give fundamental respect to the councillors who make recommendations to them. I agree that is not acceptable. The Minister can clarify the position. Local authorities have customer charters and objectives within their corporate governance structures which require various managers within local authorities to respond in an effective and efficient way. If they are not working, I am not sure what the sanctions are. Is there a slap on the wrist? Where does a councillor go if he or she is not getting adequate responses?
I served for eight years on Waterford County Council as an elected councillor. The monthly meeting was the ultimate in accountability. Monthly reports were provided by the management teams. Any councillor had a remit to raise any issue in the public domain on the record and have it properly minuted and reported by the Fourth Estate. The system worked well.
Given the significant demands on councillors and executives, the monthly meetings alone do not suffice. There are corporate policy groups, strategic policy committees and various metropolitan and municipal district meetings. There are opportunities for councillors to adequately raise issues of concern. When they are raised and put on the public record, it is important that councillors get the responses they deserve. It can be frustrating when that does not happen.
I have always believed that there should be a healthy tension at council level between the executive and council membership. We all recognise the executive functions of the management teams and the reserve functions of councillors in terms of policy and decision-making and the adoption of development plans, estimates and the budget. They are all very significant decision-making responsibilities of councillors and that should be reflected in the respect that officers of the councils give to those very same directors of the council, as I call them. They are the members and directors of the board of that council. Officials should be held to account. If they are not doing their job and responding to councillors, we need to review the situation more closely. While I recognise the aim and ambition of the Bill, I am not sure legislation is the correct way to go about it. The Minister might be able to clarify that.
Freedom of information has been mentioned. Councillors should not have to seek answers via freedom of information requests. As I said, common decency and respect should mean that councillors are responded to in a timely and efficient way. I understand that regulations are already in place under the Local Government Act 2001. I am trying to be helpful. Perhaps we should consider a review of those regulations to take into account the proposals in the Bill and the concerns people have expressed.
Should we review and perhaps engage with the IPA, representatives of the CEOs, management of local authorities, the AILG and LAMA? I suggest that we establish some type of committee to examine and scrutinise performance levels within local authorities and how they are responding to councillors, and engage with councillors around the country and survey them to see how responsive local authority officials are to them. We would then get real feedback on how well the system is working. If one has an elected mandate and raises an issue of concern which is being dismissed or ignored that is unacceptable.
The ambition of the Bill is good, but I am not sure it is the way to go about addressing this issue. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State. We should come together and not divide the House if possible. We should consider a cross-party and independent approach, engaging with all of the stakeholders including, as I said, representative bodies, the IPA and management teams in local authorities, and see whether we can find a way forward which will satisfy the very real concerns of councillors in terms of having their legitimate representations addressed.
This is a worthwhile debate. I again thank the proposers of the Bill. We should never underestimate the importance of an elected mandate, whether it is a councillor, Deputy or Senator. Any citizen of the State who puts his or her name on a ballot paper deserves respect. I have been in public life for almost 20 years, having been a Senator, councillor, Deputy and former Minister of State. I have encountered occasions where officials have ignored legitimate representations. There should be some element of scrutiny of that and some sanction if necessary. We cannot allow bureaucrats to dismiss or ignore the mandate of elected representatives. This is a worthwhile debate and I look forward to hearing the contributions of others.
I welcome the Bill and compliment the proposer, seconder and those who brought it forward. I find it hard to believe that we are discussing the Bill today and that it needs to be put forward as a Private Members' Bill. I cannot believe it has not been passed and we need to discuss it at this stage.
Section 237A of the Local Government Act 2001 refers to Oireachtas Members. The current situation is very demeaning and belittling of councillors who are equally and in many cases more important as public representatives at the coalface in communities. As Senator Coffey said, most of us were councillors and we all entered councils and joined public life because we wanted to represent and better our local communities. It was always with the best intentions for those local communities and the people we represented that we went into representative life.
I remember being frustrated as a councillor. I agree with Senator Coffey. The vast majority of officials in councils are 100% reliable in getting back to councillors and responding. This is not in any way tarring everyone with the one brush. In some cases, an official did not get back to me because he or she was on leave or was transferred to a different department before getting around to dealing with my representation. Nothing was more frustrating than not being able to get an answer for a member of the public who had contacted me about an issue and having to ask for information a second time. That belittled councillors.
I note Senator Coffey's statement about having monthly meetings and the SPC. As he knows, people come to councillors with many issues which are of a private nature. A public meeting would be the last forum for raising such matters.
Putting something on the record at a public meeting as leverage to get an answer on the day or on the public record from which the person one is representing will benefit does not work and will not work in respect of the vast majority of representations. Councillors receive many representations of a private nature which are not intended to be put in the public domain. The only way to deal with the people concerned is to provide an answer. If I do not receive the answer, they feel let down and become frustrated with the system. I am accountable to them every five years, whereas the officials are not. It is a matter of common decency, respect and mannerliness to get back to somebody who makes a request of a public representative.
According to Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill's survey, many councillors are frustrated. Officials, unfortunately, do not respond to queries and it is unfortunate, as Senator Paudie Coffey said, that this issue has to be addressed through legislation. I cannot believe we have to do this and that there is statutory provision in that regard. At the end of the day councillors are accountable. All they require when they make representations is an explanation or answer. We all appreciate and accept in our roles as public representatives that every representation we make will not have a positive outcome. In some cases, rather than give a negative response or say something is not possible or cannot be done or that they are not prepared to do it, officials will avoid telling public representatives anything, but that does not help the councillor or the individual with the problem. All we are seeking in the Bill is an acknowledgement of the receipt of representations within seven days and an answer within 14. The Bill does not state the answer has to be positive, but it is only a matter of common decency to provide an answer. I agree with the Minister of State that the vast majority of public servants are helpful and respond as soon as they can, but a number do not. It was frustrating as a councillor when I was dealing with them. As an elected representative, I often felt the tail was wagging the dog. Perhaps I was an exception, but I was often frustrated regarding who had the power in the chamber. Was it vested in the officials or where it should have been - the councillors who were elected by the people?
The Bill is straightforward and should be accepted. It is glaring that, as Oireachtas Members, we have rights that councillors should have. They are what Senator Brian Ó Dómhnaill and his colleagues are seeking. Most local authorities have a customer charter. If a member of the public contacts the local authority directly, he or she must receive a reply within a specific time period to meet its ISO standard or whatever standard to which it is working, yet councillors are not regarded as customers and, as such, not covered by it. They do not have to be given responses in accordance with the charter. That alienates councillors, whereas members of the public can go directly to councils.
I hope the Government will accept the Bill. I will be disappointed if it does not.
Councillors are one of the most crucial elements of this democracy. They have in-depth knowledge of a particular local area, its community, infrastructure and vitality as a part of wider society. The work we do in this House is largely focused on national issues, while their focus is largely local. While that is the way it should be, many issues such as housing, health, the provision of local services, etc., are usually reflections of a State-wide context. The work we do is complemented and made transparent by the different Oireachtas tools with which we may be satisfied such as governmental, ministerial or departmental responses, all of which are open to public scrutiny through parliamentary questions, the transcripts of debates and live televised debates. That is the minimum standard for any democratic chamber that proclaims itself to be accessible to constituents. I welcome the moves made by Dublin City Council, in particular, which live streams and records its meetings for online consumption and the swathe of other local authorities that are investigating doing the same.
My party supports the Bill. Its objectives are clear and provide a more grassroots aspect to local government. When local election candidates put themselves forward, they present their proposals for how they would enhance their local community in terms of services, infrastructure and raising the standard of living. These proposals realistically cannot be implemented without a strong relationship between councillors and council staff as they work together, rather than having two autonomous bodies attempting to resolve the same issues. There are difficulties in that regard and the Bill works to resolve, rather than deepen, them. According to the supporting documentation provided by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, there has been preliminary consultation on the legislation with councillors. However, the Bill should proceed with full consultation with councillors and staff, with their representative groups. The same should apply to proposed guidelines for the Minister.
I commend local authority staff, many of whom work tirelessly with little or none of the praise or acclaim councillors receive. For example, many of them worked diligently to ensure many young people would be registered prior to yesterday's deadline to vote in the upcoming referendum. The objectives of the Bill, while necessary, could place greater demands on local authorities which need to be adequately resourced both with funding and staffing, particularly those that are stretched to their limits. The Department should undertake a wider scoping exercise of local authorities to see how they could improve transparency. Some local authorities stream their proceedings online. South Dublin County Council has rolled out a database for its councillors in order that they can track their representations made to staff.
Bearing in mind that the Government intends to hold a referendum on a directly elected mayor for Dublin - it is tentatively scheduled to take place in October this year - I urge the Minister of State to ensure the Bill will consider the mayoral apparatus in London and the role a new mayor of Dublin could have in ensuring the accountability of local authority staff. What progress has been made in holding the referendum?
My party will support the Bill and we are happy to lend our support to an excellent initiative that will enhance local democracy. It is evident from the responses received by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill that this is, unfortunately, an issue throughout the State and that it needs to be addressed.
I welcome the Minister of State and support the Bill. As a co-signatory, I consider it to be a measure that will support and strengthen local democracy. I often refer to the outstanding and unacknowledged work city and county councillors do on behalf of the people who elect them. Not only are councillors the cornerstone of our democracy, the issues with which they deal encompass every aspect of citizens' lives. The number of representations they receive on behalf of their constituents makes theirs a 24/7 job. Unlike Senators, they do this without a full-time secretary or research assistant and are the most under-resourced elected members in our democracy. More importantly, they are charged with oversight of local authority performance across all indicators, including budgets and programme performance. To do to this work, they need timely, authoritative and reliable information which answers their queries on behalf of the public and enables them to assess how the executive is performing. In the past decade local authorities have invested heavily in management information and reporting systems and it is now easier than ever to harvest requested information. They should also be congratulated on putting in place customer service charters setting out clearly and unambiguously the nature and quality of service people can expect in their dealings with them.
While members of the public are customers, we must remember that councillors are also customers - very important ones - and should be afforded the same high level of service, if not higher. It came as a large disappointment to me to learn that legislation was even needed to guarantee what was promised in those charters and to ensure a uniformly high standard of customer service to councillors across all local authorities. We in the Oireachtas are all well looked after, in that the Local Government Act 2001 (Section 237A) Regulations 2003 set out statutory provisions for local authorities in their dealings with Members of the Oireachtas. The regulations provide that each local authority must deal with requests for access to information by Oireachtas Members, "as expeditiously as may be and in accordance with a proper level of customer service." It was a major oversight not to have included councillors in that regulation, so I welcome the way in which Senator Ó Domhnaill's Bill addresses this serious omission. I cannot see why local authorities could not have dedicated email addresses to deal directly and promptly with councillors' queries or why a member of staff in corporate affairs could not be assigned to deal solely with such queries, gather information from all relevant sections and feed it back to councillors within the agreed timeframe.
The successful introduction of freedom of information legislation across the local authority sector has shown us that, if a regulation makes it compulsory, information will be provided within the timelines. It is not just the timeliness of information provision that is essential, though, but the quality and completeness of the response. This must be guaranteed.
The proposed legislation is not a criticism of the information and query service currently being offered by local authorities to their members. We know that many councils have excellent relationships with their councillors and go the full mile to ensure that councillors have the information they require. These are relationships built on trust and mutual respect that facilitate a two-way flow of information and knowledge sharing. Instead, the Bill addresses the unevenness of the essential core customer information provision across all local authorities. It reminds us yet again of the ways in which previous legislation has failed to acknowledge fully the role and workload of city and county councillors. This is an opportunity to redress that situation and send a strong message to councillors and the executive of local authorities that representational work at local level continues to be a valid and significant part of the democratic process. I support the Bill and I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
When Senators discuss local authority issues, many draw attention to the fact that they have also been city or county councillors. I am privileged, in that I have never been one, which allows me to see through a different lens. Legislation has not been kind to councillors.
Our treatment has not been kind to them either. I agree with my colleagues, in that we must review the situation and ensure that councillors get the highest level of service. One councillor told me that they could not go to the pub toilet without someone raising a query. That is what being a councillor is about. I have never suffered it, thank God, but I understand the theory behind it.
Will the Minister of State look favourably on this legislation? I look forward to his response and thank him for his time.
Next is Senator Swanick, whom I understand is sharing time with Senator Horkan.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend Senator Ó Domhnaill on his initiative in introducing this legislation, which I wholeheartedly support. It sets out a new statutory framework for the reply to queries from local authority members.
We have discussed the public's connectivity and engagement with local politics. It is important that citizens feel that they are in touch with the local government system. They do that via a conduit, namely, the local authority member. I welcome that a binding obligation will be put in place whereby that member will have a full and comprehensive response from the local authority within 14 days. I also welcome the publication of league tables. Senator Craughwell will agree with me from his days in the teaching world that, regardless of what aspect of life one is in, be it the public sector or the private sector, competition fosters excellence. I know that from my own days in school, particularly medical school. As such, I welcome Senator Ó Domhnaill's decision to include quarterly published league tables in this legislation.
Major changes in councillors' conditions occurred with the geographical expansion of local authority areas. Consequently, councillors now cover broader areas and larger populations. This legislation would reflect the changes imposed on the councillors and empower them further, which is another reason to welcome it.
The Government wants to reduce the size of local electoral areas, LEAs, to between five and seven seats, with provision for some even smaller areas of three or four seats in sparsely populated locations, for example, where I live in north-west Mayo. This imposes further pressure on councillors in rural locations. As such, the Bill is apt and timely. As Senator Coffey stated, the Bill is about respecting our first line of democracy, namely, our councillors. I hope that the Government will support this pertinent legislation. I also hope for the Minister of State's acknowledgement that the Bill is supported by the AILG and LAMA.
How much time is remaining?
Four and a half minutes.
I may not use all of it.
I support this legislation, which has been introduced by Senator Ó Domhnaill, the Acting Chairman, and Senators Boyhan and Craughwell. I do not mean it in a bad way, but it is difficult to draft a Bill that is just two sides of one A4 page and has an explanatory memorandum that barely exceeds one page. I congratulate Senator Ó Domhnaill on being able to distil his thoughts and explanation down to one page. This is not the most complicated idea, but it could transform the lives of some councillors when dealing with specific individuals with whom they have been having difficulties.
With the exception of one or two of the Senators present, all of us have been members of local authorities. I was a member for 12.5 years. Senator Murnane O'Connor was a councillor for even longer. Others spent a long time in local authorities before being lucky enough to be elected to this House. We have had dealings with incredibly effective officials along the chain in every local authority department as well as good directors of services and county managers, who are now chief executives. Senators Boyhan and Richmond were also members of my authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, where our experience with the bulk of staff was great. Occasionally, however, there was a different approach. For example, someone who was getting too many voice messages once disconnected from voicemail.
People not getting responses is not good enough. As Senator Paul Daly pointed out, while a response was often negative, people just wanted the answer. I dealt with a query once to which the answer was that a lovely 200 year old tree could not be cut down simply because it was blocking someone's satellite reception. Such questions are asked, but people are usually happy with the response once it is given and only get frustrated when they do not get one. For example, a resident cannot have a ramp because he or she is in a cul-de-sac of eight houses. The council's response might be that it will not spend money on putting in that ramp, but the councillor simply needs a response to give to the resident, who can then take that information and go somewhere with it. Perhaps the resident could approach the issue in a different way or accept the response.
Where I have been given bad responses, I have told officials that the responses do not stand up to scrutiny and need to be revisited.
On many occasions officials have done this.
I am certainly not saying most officials are bad, quite the opposite, but this is good for councillors who are experiencing frustration with individual members of staff in various local authorities throughout the country. I read Senator Ó Domhnaill's brief on what he received back from certain councillors in certain areas. I will not go back over the debates we have had in recent months on councillors' terms and conditions as they are all on the record. This is about this Bill. The Government should embrace it. I do not know what could be done to change it. It is not overly complex in terms of regulation. It would be a great idea. People would receive acknowledgement within seven days and a response within 14 days. Even if it is a holding response in certain complex situations, all of us could live with getting something. There is the occasional official in the occasional local authority who refuses to engage or will not come back to someone or answer the phone or an email and who will give a fairly poor response to a question. They are the exceptions, but it is very helpful of Senator Ó Domhnaill, along with his colleagues, to table the Bill, and I am certainly happy to support the thrust of what he is trying to do. I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome my independent colleague, Councillor Fiona McLoughlin Healy, to the House. Many councillors from all parties are listening and I acknowledge what Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill has done. Not only has he prepared the Bill, and I was very happy to co-sign it with him and jointly present the Bill here today, but his communication with councillors throughout the country has been phenomenal. Before I got a letter from him I had received letters from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin councillors, so clearly he had networked exceptionally well and I acknowledge this. A few people told me today they had received an alert to tune in here today. I thought this was particularly interesting, but how sad that only ten Senators are here. I never apologise for working hard for councillors of all parties and none.
I was elected by them and honoured to be elected by them. I received a very good vote from them and I am here to represent them and advocate for councillors and support them in their work. I was a councillor myself and I know what is required to do the job, particularly to do it well. I am happy to stand up and advocate for city and county councillors who work exceptionally hard.
The Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, has a brief for local government reform. It is one of his many briefs. I know he has vast experience of local government himself, and I do not doubt his commitment. I want to put on the record and acknowledge the enormous work that public servants do throughout local authorities, but they have an issue. It is not that they do not necessarily want to communicate with councillors. They have an issue with resources. They need more resources and staff to get on and do the job. It is in the interests of every chief executive and county manager to work well with councillors and vice versa. It is in the interests of every city and county councillor to work well with their chief executive.
This is a very simple Bill, and I do not understand what the complication is about it. It is a Bill to provide for better replies and response times from local authority officials to local representative queries. That is all very simple. I would expect that for the public. Every member of the public should also have this particular right that we are trying to achieve. What are the aims of the Bill? They are simple. They are to provide a consistency of response times across the entire local government system, the introduction of a binding obligation on local authority officials to issue an acknowledgement to the member within seven working days, the introduction of a binding obligation on local authority officials to issue a comprehensive response to the member within 14 days, and the introduction of a league table scheme or system compiling data on response times from each local authority on how replies to members are delivered, to include quarterly publications. I hope the Minister of State will stand up and fully embrace all of this.
I remind people that the AILG and LAMA are supportive of the Bill. There are Senators in here who bellyache about reform for councillors, but I do not see them in the Chamber today. Are they afraid to come in here and make a case for city and county councillors? Do they simply just not give a damn? Where are they? Where are their excuses? I appeal to anyone looking in today to call on all of the Senators elected to Seanad Éireann to account for their absence this evening, when they were given an opportunity and given notice to support something very basic to support city and county councillors in their work. It is exceptionally disappointing. It must be exceptionally disappointing for the Minister of State to look across at every single seat empty in front of him. That is the reality of it. They are not empty on this side of the House.
Senator Coffey is present for the Government but he is not in his seat.
I am making the point that this is the case on the Government side. There is no due respect for anyone.
The Senator is being misleading.
This is our opportunity to advocate on behalf of elected members. I hope the Minister of State will support the Bill. It is reasonable and fair. I appeal to our colleagues here this evening to stick with it and vote on it, and then go back and ask people why they were not here to support what is critical legislation to support and empower city councillors to do their job.
I support the Bill and its aims. It is about transparency in Government. It is about accountability, an issue that is very prevalent this week. Accountability has to start at the very base of democracy, and the front line of democracy is at local authority level. We are not asking for anything huge in terms of issues such as response times, but as there has to be a response, why not set a target and why not meet it? Why not have an obligation that elected members would get a comprehensive response to queries they make on behalf of their constituents, who are the citizens?
What the Government is saying is it is not putting in place any targets and does not want to put any obligation on local authorities or civil servants to come back to elected members within a reasonable time. If the Government feels the timing is not reasonable, it is welcome to table amendments and we can debate them here. As for any idea of putting this down for another report, along with other reports that have been promised, reports do not do anything and guidelines do not do anything. Legislation would mean obligations on local authorities, and the people who are paid by the taxpayer to deliver services on their behalf, to give timely responses. Local authorities were forced under planning law to give responses within eight weeks and then a further four weeks, because they were not giving responses. There was no end to a planning application until the law set down a set amount of time by which responses had to be given. That changed the system. People could plan and would know what they would face in terms of an application. They had a reasonable expectation that there was a timeline within which the local authority had to respond to a planning application.
What we are doing with the Bill is expanding this concept, which was earth-shattering at the time, so that local authorities would now have to do the same. We have done this in the Dáil and we do it here. A question is answered for a Deputy within three working days, and it is the same here with a Commencement matter. We are taking the requirement for a response time from local authorities with regard to planning issues, and the requirement at national level in the Dáil and Seanad where a response time is required for elected members, and we are bringing it to local authority level for all issues raised by members that are covered by the legislation, and we are introducing a statutory code for this, including a requirement to reply and a timeline. This is very reasonable and we need to ensure it is done and put in legislation so local authorities are accountable to the democratically elected people and to the citizens who put the councillors in place to represent them and their views.
This is an important debate and I understand what Senator Ó Domhnaill is trying to achieve. I will not pre-empt the speech of the Minister of State, but it is important in the context of the contributions of Members on the Order of Business today that we understand that accountability means accountability.
That has many different facets, one of which means those of us who are public representatives having our queries or representations answered. The second one is us being able to avail of information in our role as Oireachtas representatives in terms of reports, agendas and minutes of meetings. In saying that, it is equally important we recognise that many of us have come from local authorities, as in we have been councillors and we have been involved in the process.
This is about ensuring that we enhance local government, that we consult, and that we do not alienate or divide, or do not move away from a cross-party collaborative approach to better local government. I note Senator Ó Domhnaill has had consultation with AILG and LAMA in the context of this debate. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, in his speech, will lay out how we can facilitate better local government in terms of accountability for local authority members. What Senator Ó Domhnaill is trying to achieve here is to support local authority members.
Councillors, such as Councillor Deirdre Forde to whom I spoke today, would be of the view that this Bill is important and necessary. There are misgivings in Government about the Bill and there are concerns and frustrations with it. It is important that we get the balance right. There is always, as Senator Coffey stated, that healthy tension between the Oireachtas and local authority. There is also that tension between the elected member and the executive in charge of the issue. What we are trying to do is make local government better. For example, at one time I had a different view regarding directly-elected mayors and I have now come to the view that we should have a directly-elected mayor in Cork city under the new local government structure. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, on piloting in the end the new local government structure for Cork. In fairness, the Minister of State was amenable. He was accessible. He had his own strongly held view, as many of us did. They did not sometimes agree, but that is fine. However, the Minister of State was there walking and talking with Members of the Oireachtas and with local authority members. I am digressing for a second, but in terms of the new local government structure for Cork city, I hope we might look at how we could extend the number of councillors to be elected. I believe we are gaining an enhanced city population base with 31 existing councillors being returned. Some will say we have too many politicians elected. I do not buy that argument. My point is we need to have more local authority members elected in Cork City Council.
The other point in the explanatory memorandum worth looking at is the statutory obligation to reply to elected members. The Dáil has parliamentary questions. There is no obligation on the Minister to come to this House on a request by a Member on the Order of Business. Ministers do not have any statutory function to come in to answer queries from Members which, I accept, is a different debate. I believe part of what we should try and do is to make accountability part of what we all should do. We are accountable in terms of us going before the electorate to be voted in or voted out, and that is part of what we do.
The import of what Senator Ó Domhnaill is trying to achieve in the Bill is a principle that we all share. I certainly hope that we can avoid a split in the Oireachtas tonight on that particular issue.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. I do not want to pre-empt his speech but when we see words such as "binding", "obligation" and "statutory", it scares everybody. The bottom line is we need to see accountability in what everybody does.
I commend Senator Ó Domhnaill for bringing the Bill to the House. Many members of our party at local and national level are supportive of the Bill. It is about making local government better. It is about enhanced accountability. It is about creating a better, efficient model of delivery of service to the elected public representative on behalf of the citizen who has put that politician into a position of importance which is called a democratic decision taken by the people.
That is the bottom line.
I thank Senator Ó Domhnaill and the co-sponsors for tabling the Bill.
The Government has considered the Bill and will not be supporting it. Before the Opposition jumps on me completely, I will outline the reasons and outline why this, in itself, is not the end.
At the start, Senator Ó Domhnaill spoke about the setting up of the group on councillors' remuneration. I would like to inform the House that we are just about finished with its terms of reference. I indicated to the House that it would start in May and finish at Hallowe'en and we are still on schedule for that to happen.
Part of that exercise is, for the first time in the history of the State, a proper scoping out of the role of a councillor, what it is now in terms of not only the legislative provisions and the reserved functions but what a councillor does and what into the future we would like to see councillors doing. Part of that will be a full consultation with the AILG and LAMA as well as with local authority management. Officials from the Department will be on that group, as will officials of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am not averse to following that process, reviewing the guidelines or, indeed, for the first time, introducing regulations under section 136(3).
The main reason the Government does not support the Bill is that the existing local government legislation largely already allows for its main aims. It is a question of how we implement it.
Notwithstanding the fact that I have come across some examples anecdotally of local authority official responses that have been less than timely, there is a general good response level from most local authority officials. As I have said, I have come across a few stories regarding local representatives that are not acceptable. I acknowledge Councillor McLoughlin Healy who is in the Gallery. Other councillors have spoken to me about the Bill but, in the context of the review of the role, as well as the remuneration, I caution against acting in advance of the review. It might well be that some of the provisions of this Bill need to be implemented following the completion of that review in the fall of the year but the House should not divide on the issue because everybody is in favour of information flow. This Bill is about quality information. Whether it is local authority staff and management deciding that an issue cannot be resolved, there is no excuse for the absence of a response in a timely fashion.
However, I must point out that the Oireachtas is different than local authorities in the sense that parliamentary questions have a distinct role. As part of the scoping mechanism for councillors and their role, if some sort of a comparable function could be devised at local authority level I am not averse to that proposal either.
That is why it would be better for us all to contribute to the scoping exercise that will be carried out.
As I stated, the Government is of the view that the existing provisions of the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, meet the principal aims of the Bill. In particular, section 136 of the Act, which concerns the furnishing of information by the chief executive to the elected council, is applicable in this instance. Subsection 136(1) provides that the chief executive shall, whenever requested, provide to the elected council or its cathaoirleach, municipal district members, a strategic policy committee, local community development committee, LCDC, or any joint body all information that may be in his or her possession. Subsection 136(2) provides that the chief executive must submit a monthly management report to the council by the seventh day of each month. Subsection 136(3), to which I have referred, states that the Minister may provide by regulations the nature and form of those management reports. Such regulations have never been drafted but that may be the key subsection of the existing legislation under which that may be done.
Subsection 136(4) states the Minister may issue general policy guidelines for the purposes of subsections (2), (3) and (5). Although regulations have not been made, the Minister issued guidelines under subsection 136(4) on the preparation of monthly management reports on 2 July 2014. There is no provision for elected members to specify additional elements to be included in the monthly management report but the guidelines issued allow for such reports to be accommodated.
The Government is also of the view that the customer complaint guidelines for local authorities are applicable in this regard. The guidelines, issued in July 2005, address the handling of customer complaints as an important part of service delivery in local government. They specifically address the issue of how complaints made by elected members should be dealt with. The guidelines endorse the practice that complaints made via elected members are handled in a similar manner to those made directly by members of the public. That is so because local representatives are a conduit for complaints.
As Senators pointed out, it is unacceptable that in some cases councillors in some local authorities would move to the bottom of the queue in terms of their issues being dealt with. However, in such cases the complainant is still the member of the general public. It is in fulfilment of their elected role that councillors are the conduit of requests from members of the general public and that role should be protected and enhanced. At local authority level, the same approach is generally taken for dealing with representations from elected members as from members of the public and that approach is in accordance with each local authority’s customer charter. The customer charter was mentioned by Senator Mark Daly. It is up to each local authority to have, draft or update a customer charter and members of each local authority have the final say in that regard. It would be worthwhile for local authorities to review the contents of their customer charter on a regular basis.
Although it could be argued that the aims of the Bill are consistent with the provision of high-quality customer service, its approach is disproportionate and overly prescriptive in terms of direct legislation for the range of services provided by local authorities. I am not averse to there being a timeframe for a substantive answer to issue, but it is very rare for such a timeframe to be written into primary legislation and almost non-existent in terms of State authorities and agencies. It may, however, be possible to specify such a timeframe through regulations or guidelines.
In certain complex areas of policy, and where policy is in the course of development, there is a risk of damaging the efficient and effective delivery of services through such an overly-prescriptive approach as that proposed in the Bill. Responding to correspondence is only one of the services local authorities provide in their communities and it must not take precedence over more front-line services, although it must be dealt with. We must strike a balance between ensuring that queries are responded to and that the wide variety of services local authorities provide continue to be enhanced. The quality of answers to representations should also be enhanced. I am strongly of the view that the objectives of the Bill are best delivered through clarity in and adherence to local authorities’ customer service charters, in conjunction with the scoping exercise for the role of the local authority member upon which we are about to embark. The customer service charters are broadly compatible with the response timelines in the proposed Bill but have been set locally having regard to specific circumstances, which is crucial.
Local authorities, being autonomous bodies, are somewhat different to Departments. Although I understand and regret that certain powers were removed from local authority members around the country, some of which powers I hope to reinstate, I am somewhat averse to imposing at a national level a specific timeframe in terms of responses to queries from elected members unless those local elected representatives collectively reach agreement at member level, followed by consultation with the executive and management. There may be instances, of which I have no doubt that all present have heard examples, of local authorities falling below their standards. However, customer service plans include procedures to resolve such issues as they arise and to identify and address systemic weakness.
Furthermore, the Bill seeks to impose specific statutory standards regarding response times in a single part of the public service. The Government is of the view that any initiative along the highly-prescriptive lines proposed in the Bill would best be developed in a holistic manner for the wider public service while bearing in mind the review process which is about to commence.
The Government takes the view that the Bill is inconsistent with the approach set out by the Local Government Act 2001 (Section 237A) Regulations, SI 274 of 2003, in regard to the manner in which local authorities deal with Members of the Oireachtas. The regulations aim to ensure that Members of the Oireachtas continue to be kept closely informed about local authority issues following the abolition of the dual mandate. In the context of quality customer service for all persons in contact with local authorities, the regulations include provision for the following: the objective for each local authority when responding to Deputies and Senators to apply systems, procedures and timeframes equivalent to those used by them when communicating with local authority members; local authorities to seek to deal with requests for access to information from Deputies and Senators as promptly as possible and in accordance with a proper level of customer service; and, in dealing with correspondence by parliamentary representatives, equivalent systems, procedures and timeframes as operate for councillors should apply. It should be stressed that those regulations do not set a statutory deadline for local authorities to process representations from Members of the Oireachtas.
It is important to point out that in responding to representations received from elected members about their constituents, local authorities are bound by data protection and right to privacy provisions in respect of the residents with whom they are dealing. Consequently, great care must be taken in ensuring that personal information is not released in contravention of the legislation.
It was not possible to carry out an analysis of the cost of the Bill to local authorities within the time allowed. It appears that there may be no additional costs to the Exchequer. However, as local authorities aim to respond to correspondence within the prescriptive deadline imposed, there is a risk that the mandatory requirements proposed would inhibit efficient and effective delivery of services generally if resources had to be diverted to comply with this specific requirement, with consequential impacts on optimal staffing levels, particularly for the delivery of front-line services. Potential efficiencies could be lost, with a direct cost to those paying for local government and those relying on its services.
These are the reasons the Government will not support the Bill.
I will comment further on the scope of the review exercise that is about to start. Part of the scope is the possibility of additional secretarial services. Some local authorities already provide some limited secretarial assistance. The local authority in north Dublin, for example, provides limited secretarial services for local authority members. One of the terms of reference being looked at is the extension of that service nationally and the extension of other research facilities in the context of the reserve function of local authority members, such as those for Members. The administrative support would not just be secretarial; the scope would look at the value of having a person within the local authority who is responsible for conducting primary research on behalf of local authority members. This is included in the draft terms of reference that I have already looked at.
Rather than dividing the House, because we largely agree on accurate information being provided in the fullest form that it can be within a practical timeframe, I put it to Members that the first part of the process is the full scoping exercise on the role of a councillor. In a sense, while this legislation is deemed necessary by many Members of the House, it might be putting the cart before the horse until that review is actually completed.
I thank the Minister of State. I just caught the end of his speech but I appreciate his words. I support the Bill and commend Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill on bringing it forward. In recent years, there has been a significant shift in power away from our local councillors who are the people working on the ground day in, day out. This power has shifted into the hands of officials in the council. We need to shift this power back and this is a significant step in this regard.
Fine Gael in government abolished town councils, which was a retrograde step. It diminished local democracy. Massive local electoral areas were formed and this led to an extra workload for councillors. The Minister of State spoke of striking a balance in the workload of councillors, but if we want to attract people into public office and keep them there, we must offer more support. I am glad to hear there are some plans in that regard. We need a strong local democracy and this Bill is a significant step towards that. I look forward to seeing what the Minister of State has in store.
I thank the 12 Senators who contributed to the debate, all of whom expressed their support for the Bill. The two Government Senators who spoke were constrained by officialdom in the Custom House. Their contributions were maybe a little more muted.
I welcome all the contributions and the engagement from my Seanad colleagues to a very real and live issue. It was not my intention to divide the House this evening. I am shocked that the Government is opposing the Bill, which I hoped would receive cross-party support, allowing it to go forward. If there is a vote this evening, it is because we want to progress the issue.
The Minister of State spoke of the scoping review that could take place within the terms of reference of the newly established pay and conditions commission for local authority members. The view on this side of the House is that the commission was established to look solely at the pay, terms and conditions of councillors. It was not established to look at the remit or other issues. I would not like to see that important work diluted in any way, or for the timeframe to be extended in any way. I could not support the dilution of that particular work.
I am willing to work with the Department. Last week when the Bill was published, I told the Leaders' office that I was available, even over the weekend, to meet with officials or with Government to discuss the Bill. I believe Fine Gael councillors and Independent Alliance councillors, many of whom have spoken to me about this, are fully supportive of this Bill. The Bill was not required as a regulation could have been made by the Minister. However, I brought the Bill forward to try to force the issue.
Many councillors across the State are at breaking point on this issue. The local elections are just over 12 months away and we need action on the matter now. It is very wrong that a councillor would end up being penalised or scapegoated by the electorate because he or she was not able to garner sufficient responses from the council on representations made. I met with a councillor in my county last weekend. He had made a representation to the local authority seven times and did not get a response. The constituent, who is a citizen, and the community group he represents probably feel the councillor was not doing his job but this was not the case. This is a fundamental issue. I would not like to see the pay, terms and conditions issue or this issue diluted. It is such a simple issue and it has the support of the Association of Local Government and the Local Government Management Agency.
I carried out a survey of 949 councillors from all parties and received more than 80 responses, which were all favourable to this particular Bill. I am available to work with the Department, but I will not sideline the Bill tonight or move it into a committee. When that happens, very often things do not get done.
A quote made famous in later years by Mr. John Bruton is that the pursuit of perfection is noble, but unless we are willing to settle for good, we may have to settle for nothing at all. I am not prepared to settle for nothing at all. While the Bill may have its imperfections, I am willing to work with the Government to iron out those imperfections on Committee Stage. I want to see the Bill progress from here today. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is a very good and capable Minister of State, not just because he served in this House and is from Kilkenny. I believe he has the best interests of elected local authority members at heart and, therefore, I hope he will not stand in the way of this very practical measure we are trying to bring in with this Bill.
- Boyhan, Victor.
- Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
- Conway-Walsh, Rose.
- Craughwell, Gerard P.
- Daly, Mark.
- Daly, Paul.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Horkan, Gerry.
- Kelleher, Colette.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Swanick, Keith.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Butler, Ray.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Maria.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Hopkins, Maura.
- Lombard, Tim.
- McFadden, Gabrielle.
- Mulherin, Michelle.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- Reilly, James.
- Richmond, Neale.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.