That Seanad Eireann:
- the increased workload of city and county councillors since the passing of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, and the subsequent restructuring of local government in Ireland;
- the willingness of councillors to take on additional duties, travel further across their constituencies and to fully engage with the reform process;
- the number of representations made by city and county councillors to members of the Oireachtas since 2014, to have their representational payment increased to reflect the substantial expansion in workload;
- the representations made by the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) and the Local Authority Members Association (LAMA) to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on their behalf;
- the promises made by three successive Governments to address the issue of councillors’ representational payments;
- the issue of councillors’ pay has been the topic of several motions and debates during the 24th, 25th and now the 26th Seanad;
- the publication in June 2020, of the Independent Review of the Role and Remuneration of Local Authority Elected Members by Sara Moorhead SC;
- the recommendation in the Moorhead report that councillors' pay be increased by €8,000 a year;
- that the Programme for Government includes a commitment to the full implementation of the Moorhead report;
- that no further progress has been made on councillors pay since the Minister of State with responsibility for Planning and Local Government, Deputy Peter Burke, presented proposals to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform last year;
calls on the Government to:
- act on its commitment in the Programme for Government to increase councillors’ pay;
- provide an update on the status of the recommendations of the Moorhead report since proposals were sent to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath;
- confirm when the proposed increase of €8,000 per annum will be added to councillors’ salaries; and
- outline when the other proposals recommended in the Moorhead Report will be implemented.
I am sharing my time with my colleague, Senator Keogan. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is ironic that we are debating this matter on the very day when a headline in the Irish Independent reads "Revealed: TDs in line for pay rise to push their wages back over €100,000". As recently as last week we had yet another Commencement debate on the issue of councillors' pay, one of dozens since I first took my seat in 2014.
We could paper the walls of this illustrious Chamber with the emails and newsletters Senators have sent to councillors, each promising to secure a pay increase for them. I bucked that trend and told a shocked meeting of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, in Inchydoney in 2015 that there would be no increase in councillors' pay that year, or any other year, because they are not respected for the work they do and, at any rate, there was no political will to increase it. I was told by then president of the association, who is now a Minister of State, that there was no room for people like me to make solo runs on the matter and that it would be handled by Government. This was in 2015. I was stunned by this because I was the first person to raise the issue of councillors' pay in the Seanad in 2014, soon after the local government reform programme was rolled out. At that time, many told me that I should not have spoken publicly about politicians' pay. Why is that? Should we only deal with these issues in back rooms, out of sight of the taxpayer? Councillors work hard for their communities and, as such, they are entitled to a decent salary.
Why did I speak out on pay and PRSI back then? I did so because it was immediately obvious to me that the Local Government Reform Act 2014, associated with the action plan entitled Putting People First, had put councillors last. As a result of the reforms, the workload of councillors and the distances they had to travel across their constituencies were greatly increased. I am a committed trade unionist and I subscribe fully to the mantra that if one does more work, one should get more pay.
If I have learned anything over the past six and a half years, it is that, as constituents, councillors are treated appallingly by members of Government and that it takes a court case or some other metaphorical gun to the head to get results. In 2016, I was rapporteur for class K PRSI on the education and welfare committee. This class of PRSI is charged at 4%, which is the same rate as for class A, but there are absolutely no benefits associated with it. I had raised the matter through Commencement debates in the Seanad but the Government was unwilling to act, so I assembled a group of county councillors who were willing to take a massive risk with regard to cost and take a constitutional challenge to the High Court against being charged class K PRSI. The outcome of the challenge was that Government changed councillors' class of PRSI to class S. How much money was spent trying to preserve the arrangement regarding class K PRSI only for the Government to capitulate at the last moment? It is deeply regrettable that this has been the only major achievement in respect of councillors' terms and conditions in all those years and it would never have happened if those brave councillors who joined with me had not moved on it in the first place.
Promises are made, especially at Seanad election time and during the formation of the present Government. These are soon forgotten once Deputies and Senators secure their seats and offices. As someone who came to this House from outside the political establishment, I find this disgusting and I applaud councillors for their patience, particularly with their own political parties. I am horrified every time I hear a Government party Senator calling on the Minister to resolve the issue of councillors' pay. It is window dressing of the worst kind. One councillor asked me whether these Senators think that councillors are stupid enough to believe a word of it. Over the past six and a half years, Fianna Fáil has blamed Fine Gael for this failure. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been in power since this time last year and still nothing has been done. If there is any reason for this unforgivable heel dragging, it can only be cowardice. We have political parties that are afraid to upset the public by giving pay increases to those who are on the lowest rung of the political ladder, but it is this rung that is arguably the most important. As is evident from today's newspaper, however, they are not afraid to accept pay increases and increased numbers of ministerial positions and advisers themselves. It really smacks of pulling the ladder up behind them.
In 2018, the long-awaited Moorhead report was published. Some of the report's ten major recommendations have been contentious, especially those relating to pay, allowances, expenses and pension entitlements. I acknowledge the difference of opinions on how best to remunerate councillors for their work, but this cannot be used as an excuse for delay. It is now 2021 and the commitment in the programme for Government to implement the pay element of the Moorhead report's recommendations is fast approaching.
Can the Minister of State confirm for us today if what was reported in the media is true? Has the Cabinet signed off on the proposals which we were told he brought to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, before Christmas? I am certain that his reply is eagerly awaited by the hundreds of councillors who are watching the debate today. Perhaps there is a plan somewhere to price ordinary people out of politics. Perhaps the Government would prefer it if only the wealthy could enter politics on the lowest rung of the ladder. Many councillors are unemployed and many more will be unemployed at the end of the pandemic. Many of them are women and the council salary is their only income. Perhaps the Government would prefer it if they did not run for election.
The media are also listening to the debate. I ask the esteemed political press corps to stop adding to the problems of councillors by framing this debate as "whopping pay increases", "very generous allowances","big expenses", etc. This not only reduces public trust in democracy, it undermines the councillors' case. I can tell the Minister of State that they are sick to the teeth of being portrayed in this way. The miserly pay increase recommended in the Moorhead report has been reported in the media many times already yet not a single cent has been paid. I ask the media to stop. We saw what happened in the USA when the democratic process was undermined. It may sell newspapers but it is grossly unfair to councillors and to democracy itself.
I appreciate that the Minister of State is only in office a short time and he has been confronted with this issue. Could he guarantee that no councillor will be worse off if the recommendations in the Moorhead report are implemented? Could he tell me what the rate of pay will be? Will the payment match a grade in the public service or will it be linked to the pay of Senators and Deputies? If the payment is linked to a public service grade, will it track that grade always? Will there be an incremental scale, or will the payment be a flat payment? When precisely will this payment commence? Will the pay be made retrospective and be paid from the date of the election, as was promised? Will the Minister of State remove the requirement for travel accumulation for councillors, as recommended by the Moorhead report? Many councillors, for example, travel significant distances for council meetings, but they are also members of education and training boards, the health board and they are involved with various other public services. This is becoming a major problem and is a disincentive to them getting involved in these organisations.
Those are the questions that have been put to me in recent days by county councillors from all parties and none. It is most regrettable that nothing has been done six years on. Not only are county councillors the go-to people in local authority areas, but they work extremely hard. They are committed to their communities and their own political parties. At election time they are the foot soldiers of political parties. We should not be embarrassed about arguing the case for pay for county councillors. They deserve what they are getting. We reduced the number of councillors significantly in 2014 and we increased the local authority areas. It is time that we took on board the difficult task of getting the remuneration correct for them so that they are paid and looked after. There are a number of other matters I might bring up later but for now, I will hand over to my colleague, Senator Keogan.