Direct Election of Mayor Plebiscite Regulations 2019: Motion

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House for item No. 2, which we have limited time to deal with but we will go as far as we can.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:

Direct Election of Mayor Plebiscite Regulations 2019,

a copy of which was laid in draft form before Seanad Éireann on 1st April, 2019.

Spokespersons have eight minutes each and, if there are no other Senators, the Minister is to be called at 2.54 p.m. which we cannot reach because of subsequent events. Does the Minister of State wish to speak to the motion first?

One way or the other we will be caught at 3 p.m. If the Minister of State wishes he can take the ten minutes. I cannot see any other Member having time to contribute.

By way of background, Part 6 of the Local Government Act 2019 provides for the holding of plebiscites on the direct election of mayors in Cork city, Limerick city and county and Waterford city and county. Section 41 of that Act provides that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government may make regulations for the purposes of holding a plebiscite.

The draft regulations were laid before both Houses on 1 April. It is intended that the plebiscites will take place on the same day as the local and European elections. The draft regulations before the House provide for procedural and administrative matters on the conduct of the plebiscites. They apply many provisions of the Local Election Regulations 1995. They also provide that a plebiscite returning officer is responsible for giving public notice, the holding of the plebiscite, the distribution of information, the printing of ballot papers and making arrangements for postal and special voters. The draft regulations set out who can attend the counting of votes, who can handle the ballot papers, and the arrangements for opening, extracting and counting the ballot papers. On completion of the count, the draft regulations set out the procedures that must be followed by the plebiscite returning officer, including the retention and disposal of documents and the preparation for signature of the plebiscite certificate. Electoral offences set out in the draft regulations apply many of the provisions regarding electoral offences contained in the Local Election Regulations 1995. These include matters such as breach of secrecy, offences relating to ballot boxes, ballot papers and official marks, and obstruction of the poll and interference with electors. These draft regulations provide for the procedural and administrative arrangements for the conduct of the plebiscites. They simply mirror provisions that are already there for the conduct of other polls and Members will be familiar with those arrangements.

I know there are other speakers and that we only have a few minutes.

It has to be concluded today.

I will be brief. I know that Senator Boyhan wants to speak. Fianna Fáil will support the plebiscite because it is for the people. However, the Government's approach to informing the public about the plebiscite risks losing the votes. There are serious questions about the Government's campaign and whether it really wants to implement this. It is not just about talk. The Government's decision to send the idea for the mayor of Dublin to a Citizens' Assembly is a delaying tactic. Dublin should lead the way in this new form of local governance and leads the way on much more. The Minister of State can see that we are now in the midst of Brexit. Dublin is our capital. We hear how Dublin is thriving every day here, yet Dublin is not included in this proposal. I feel there was a lack of communication with the public. I am out canvassing with people who are standing for the local elections on 24 May along with the plebiscite and the referendum. People do not even know that this is happening. This lack of information and awareness will be the most significant issue. People do not know what is happening on 24 May. I am concerned about it. I make sure to ask, when I go to doors, if people realise what is happening on 24 May. They say that they do not. I do not know what outcome will come from this because I feel that there was not enough information made available and awareness created by the Government. I am concerned about it.

I will be short and sweet. I know this matter pretty well by now. The Leader informed me earlier that I had contributed at some length to the last debate. I welcome the Minister of State. I have always found him to be honourable, an easy man to deal with and extremely helpful, whatever sides or differences we might have.

(Interruptions).

It is working because we have a good working relationship and I acknowledge that. I will actively engage in Cork, Limerick and Waterford on the hustings for the mayoral elections. I have already indicated that I will speak in three venues. I will play an active role. I note that previous to this being approved, the Minister of State's party launched its campaign and I wish it well with its side of the argument. In case there is any misunderstanding, I absolutely support the concept of a mayor but this is a bit of an ad hoc arrangement. To date, the councils have not spoken to say if the local authority will deliver on paying for it. They cannot pay councillors. They are still waiting for the Moorhead report on the €16,500. Many, including members of the Minister of State's party in Waterford and Limerick, have told me that they will oppose this. I spoke to two or three members of Fine Gael in the Dáil who say they are strongly opposed to it. One is in Waterford. Everyone has a right to take a different standard. I am concerned about the capacity to pay the councillors for their job. They are rightly angry and disappointed and they will use this as an opportunity to put pressure on the Minister of State and the Government to deliver on their pay and conditions.

A local property tax report has been sitting on the desk of the Minister for Finance for quite some time and it has been deferred again. We need an honest and frank discussion about how we will fund local government and we have not had it. It is being deferred for political reasons. The Minister of State has not made a strong enough case yet about how he will fund local government and pay elected members. There is some suggestion of what he might pay these mayors. He and Fine Gael opposed empowering councillors and waiving a fee of €20 for planning applications, so much so that he could not even produce tellers for a division here and we won it hands down. I was personally overwhelmed by the support from councillors in Fine Gael and others who said that they could not rely on their own people to support councillors. Not only did we pass it, we had to put pressure in a number of quarters to have that legislation signed through.

The Minister of State has no strong argument or policy for how he will fund local government. That is the reality. He has sat on a report about local property tax and done nothing about it. The Minister of State has not, as of today, delivered on the long-promised Moorhead report to give councillors fair pay and fair remuneration. His party took a stand to launch a campaign in advance of this motion being approved in this House. The Minister of State should do what he has to do. He and Senator Buttimer have jobs to do. I understand Senator Buttimer might be the director of elections, from the media reports.

I wish Senator Buttimer well and look forward to a robust engagement with him in Cork, with a number of Fine Gael's councillors and other councillors. I support the concept of a mayor. I will not oppose anybody having the opportunity to vote because I am a democrat. The task that we have is to convince the people that this is a flawed, not comprehensively thought-out suggestion, and I predict that the Minister of State will not succeed in Waterford or Limerick, and there is an outside chance that he might not succeed in Cork. He has his argument to make and I have my argument to make. I intend to engage in robust and respectful debate on the issues.

It is important that we have more time for this debate at other opportunities in the public domain. I support the opportunity for a plebiscite for the electors of Cork City Council, Limerick City and County Council and Waterford City and County Council, where the people will decide the outcome of the plebiscite, not Senators or Deputies. It is democratic for them to get that opportunity. The Minister of State is aware of concerns. Minds and votes are to be won by properly informing about and clarifying this debate. In principle, I support the role of a directly elected mayor but I am concerned with the current detailed proposals from Government. Many pros and cons need to be carefully considered. That needs to be debated. There is a concern that there could have been more time and consultation with local authority members, the chief executive officers of councils and with staff who will be directly impacted. In the end, I know that the Minister of State wants to improve the delivery of local government and services, which is important. We need to clarify the relationship between the directly elected mayor and the chief executive officer, and the elected council. There are long-established functions reserved for the executive and with the new role of a directly elected mayor, there will be some confusion. There already is and that needs to be clarified.

The Government's detailed proposals state that where a directly elected mayor can present a strong performance, he or she could potentially strengthen the case for further devolution of powers. Is that up or down? Is it devolution from central government down to the directly elected mayor or is it up from the elected council? We need to clarify that and the Minister of State might address that in debates over the period before the election.

There is also a further quote that the mayor can make a case to Government to devolve more powers to him or her. We need to clarify what that is about in the interests of the balance of power with the elected council. We need to reassure the electors and indeed councillors that there cannot be some arrangement between a mayor and the Government of the day that will sidestep and sidetrack the local authority. This just a critical analysis I am giving to the Minister of State about issues that need to be clarified if this plebiscite is to be won, as the Government wants to happen.

The detailed policies state that the elected council should be able to direct the mayor to refrain from doing a particular act. Under section 140 of the Local Government Act, a particular act should remain with elected council. That is not definite enough. It should be either "should" or "would". We need clarity on the roles and responsibilities. I welcome the plebiscite and that there will be more debate on the pros and cons. That is democracy in action.

Unfortunately, democracy or otherwise, there are three other speakers who cannot get in. I will give the Minister of State 20 seconds to answer. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is waiting outside because the other business should have started at 3 p.m.

To answer many of the questions, the report from Government is just a report from Government. There will have to be legislation to follow up on that. The Bill we debated in the House mandates that the Minister has to reflect the outcome of the plebiscites in the report that he or she gives to Government, and the legislation on establishing the role will go into detail as to pay, in particular, but also the extent of functions.

The issue of a lack of information is the classic political red herring for when there is no argument against something. The referendum commission on divorce has not launched its campaign yet. The plebiscite commission launched its campaign in the three cities on Monday. We are restricted by the judgements in the McKenna and McCrystal cases as to the information that the Government can put out. We have to give both sides of the argument. I have not heard of any other political grouping groupings either launch or moot a launch of a campaign on the issue.

While I get on well with Senator Boyhan, most of his contribution had nothing to do with the regulations or to do with this issue. He stated that I had sat on a report on the local property tax, LPT. This is the responsibility of the Department of Finance. I can assure the Senator that there has been no such sitting, as it were.

There were multiple consultations with representative groups of councillors on the Moorhead report, and those groups felt that this report should not be published during a local election campaign. If the Senator was in touch with his councillors, he might be aware of that. What the people are being asked is effectively a public consultation on the question of whether they favour the idea of a directly elected mayor in those three areas, nothing more, nothing less. If the Senator states that his position is that he does favour such a role, then the idea that he is campaigning against it, just-----

I did not say I was against it or campaigning against.

Hypocrisy exists in politics, but that would be rank hypocrisy.

The powers of elected mayors-----

I will have a robust--------

Can I make a final point?

It will have to be final.

On what is contained in the report, and the report is clear and Senator Coffey asked a good question, this is about a rebalancing of the functions between the unelected executive of a council and what has been heretofore a ceremonial role as mayor. There will be no removal of powers. In my two years I have not taken a single power off councillors. The Moorhead report will recommend giving more powers to councillors.

That is not true. The Government did take powers off local councillors over the past two years.

Is the motion agreed?

Perhaps the Minister of State might correct the record of the House. Powers have been taken off local authorities and councillors over the past two years.

They have been moved to an Bord Pleanála. One hundred units-----

Is the motion agreed?

Question put and agreed to.

Councillors never had the power to make individual planning decisions.

On a point of order, we are not-----

(Interruptions).

Please. I call on Members and on the Minister of State to respect the Chair. What is the point of order?

The motion has been agreed. Is that correct?

Yes. Some people were still chatting but we are already over time. It was Senator Boyhan's vote that decided the order of the day.

I am very happy with the outcome of the day and thank the Cathaoirleach for his endorsement.