I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House.
Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements
I thank the Acting Chairperson for placing this item on the agenda of the House and for his invitation for me to contribute. It is important that the Members of Seanad Éireann, who are keenly interested in and strong advocates for local government, have an opportunity to air their views on a recent television programme that examined a wide range of matters in local authorities. The report at issue is the "RTÉ Investigates: Council Chamber Secrets" programme broadcast on Wednesday, 23 March 2022.
The programme cited a specific number of cases in local authorities which it used to identify issues of governance and a lack of accountability and transparency within the local government system. The irony is that the programme makers relied to a significant degree on the findings, work and diligence of the Local Government Audit Service in making their programme. Many of the cases highlighted in the programme were identified from the Local Government Audit Service reports and management letters issued to local authorities in the course of the annual audit and the remainder through investigations and reports. I would argue that the reporting of these audit issues by the Local Government Audit Service is an example of the positive impact that service is having on systems and procedures in local authorities.
The programme also highlighted instances where disciplinary proceedings were pursued by local authorities against members of staff and reports referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation. It is, in my view, correct that details of such cases would not be put in the public domain for reasons of natural justice but also in case doing so would prejudice any Garda investigation.
Article 28A of the Constitution recognises the role of local government in providing "a forum for the democratic representation of communities, in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law". Local authorities are entirely independent corporate entities. Their constitutional basis gives them responsibility under the law for the performance of their functions, the discharge of their governance and other responsibilities. As the House will be aware, democratically elected councils are responsible for reserve functions, that is, those functions which are reserved for the elected council acting by majority resolution. These include passing an annual budget, housing policy decisions and policies on environmental protection, among many others. A key role of elected councils is the governance and oversight of their local authority, including in relation to risk and audit practices and holding the chief executive and his or her officials to account. These reserve functions are set down in law. Everyone in the House will agree that elected councils and individual councillors take this governance role very seriously. The Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, local authorities and councillors work hard to ensure they are equipped and fully trained to fulfil this role.
As Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, I am responsible for policy, legislation, Oireachtas accountability and, at a broad level, oversight in respect of the local government system. It is not my role to step in to a local authority to fulfil the governance role of the elected council. That said, my Department, working with local government stakeholders, is currently developing a code of governance framework for local authorities. The aim of this framework will be to encourage improved accountability by establishing a benchmark for aspects of good governance resulting in a culture of better service delivery overall. It will offer guidance to officials, the elected council and other stakeholders on their governance obligations and responsibilities.
I also wish to mention the Local Government Reform Act 2014 which dealt substantively with accountability arrangements and further strengthened governance in all local authorities. The Act reinforced the operation of the audit committees in local authorities and established the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC. Among other matters, audit committees review financial and budgetary reporting practices and procedures within local authorities. They also review any audited financial statement, auditor's report or auditor's special report in relation to a local authority and assess actions taken by the chief executive in response. NOAC is the national independent oversight body for the local government sector in Ireland. NOAC's functions cover all local authority activities and involve the scrutiny of performance generally and financial performance specifically. NOAC also has a role in supporting best practice, overseeing the implementation of national and local government policy and public service reform by local government bodies.
In February 2017, NOAC, in accordance with its statutory functions, began a review of the performance of individual local authorities. This is a two-stage process of meetings between NOAC and the local authority, the minutes and presentations from which are all published. Stage one typically involves face-to-face meetings with the chief executive and some of the management team with the chair of NOAC and the secretariat. The stage two meeting is an opportunity for the local authority to meet the full board of NOAC and respond to any questions it may have on the local authority and its operations. To date NOAC has completed 18 of these two-stage processes and the reports on these meetings are published on the NOAC website. These processes will continue in 2022. Representatives of NOAC periodically attend the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss its annual reports and annual performance indicator reports.
The RTÉ programme also made reference to a 2012 critical review on merging the Comptroller and Auditor General's office with the Local Government Audit Service. This review arose in the context of the Government's overall approach to the rationalisation of State agencies at the time. The then Government decided in October 2012 that the proposed merger should not proceed. That decision recognised that these Houses have set down a system which regulates the affairs of local government, including by providing a separate system of auditing procedures for ensuring an open and public consideration of audit issues. It also recognised the constitutional position of local government and addressed the legitimate question of the appropriateness of the Oireachtas overseeing the performance of an independent sector with its own system of democratic accountability and oversight.
The Local Government Audit Service has a very strong working relationship with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Since the review in 2012, arrangements have been put in place for enhanced co-operation between the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Local Government Audit Service, having regard to differences in scale and the relative priorities of the two organisations. The director of the Local Government Audit Service also appears regularly before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss the work of the audit service and will do so again in the coming days.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating today's important discussion. I look forward to hearing the views of Members during this afternoon's debate.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House again. I am not sure who requested this debate. It is an important debate but I do not believe the Senator who requested it is in the House, which is a shame. If Senators request debates, they should be in the House when those debates take place in order to contribute.
While this discussion on local authorities and the investigation that was carried by RTÉ is important, it cannot cloud the fact that local authorities right across this country do excellent work on a daily basis. There will always be errors, omissions and bad practices in every organisation and we must put structures in place to minimise the risks but we must acknowledge the excellent work done, not only by councillors across the country but also by the executives and employees of local authorities.
I was elected to Waterford City and County Council in 2009 at the age of 21 and was proud to represent the council as mayor on two occasions. The diligent work that I saw during my time on the council, over 11 or 12 years, was exceptional. I saw nothing short of absolute dedication and commitment to the people the council serves and that applies to every section of the local authority.
I will now address some of the criticisms levelled in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, one of which was the toothless nature of the auditor.
We would not be here having this discussion today if it were not for the Local Government Audit Service identifying these issues and irregularities right across the country. In one sense, therefore, you have to say that the system is working, in that it is able to identify them. However, the follow-on criticism was the sanction was not there to fit the “crime”. In one sense, I understand that criticism because I raised concerns on my own council in Waterford in relation to credit cards and the volume of prepaid credit cards that were in existence within the local authority. That was one of the issues that was ultimately identified in this "RTÉ Investigates" programme in respect of one employee. It had been highlighted by the auditor. The follow-on nature is something we have to look at as a Government.
The programme also cited issues regarding investigation reports not being published. The Minister of State has referenced the concerns about ongoing investigations, as well as prejudicing any cases that might come forward to An Garda Síochána at a later point. This is something that obviously has to be put on record.
In the last minute that I have, I will make reference to the NOAC reports the Minister of State highlighted in his contribution. They are excellent. They provide an image of where every local authority is on all of the indicators across housing, environment, roads, transport and so on. It is good to be able to compare local authorities around the country and how they are stacking up in averages.
The issue that I have in relation to the NOAC reports is their timing. We discuss a NOAC report nearly two years after the fact, because of the timing. This is because the reports for the previous year come nearly a year into the following year. Therefore, they are nearly out of date by the time they are being discussed, albeit they do show trends. It would be far more effective were the NOAC reports finished and completed in early course at the end of the year. Then, we could discuss the previous year by May or June of the following year. This is not the case at the moment. Perhaps that is something that the Minister of State can take on board. The work that the auditors carry out is very valuable for public representatives, so that they are able to see what is working well, where it is going well and how we can replicate good practice. In addition, it shows them what is going wrong in their local authority and where they have to put measures in place to rectify that. Perhaps that is something the Minister of State can take on board.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad today to discuss local government. I do not know who requested this debate but I always welcome the opportunity to talk about local government. It is right here in my heart. I was first elected in 2004 to the country's largest local authority, Dublin City Council. I do not think there can be any greater honour than to be elected to represent your local community.
Today's debate, as I understand it, was triggered by an "RTÉ Investigates" programme. We are talking about local government, about governance and about media coverage of those matters. Our role as legislators also comes into the discussion. When we are talking about local government it is important that we first and foremost recognise it as a cornerstone of our democracy. We need to recognise and acknowledge that local government is made up of 31 local authorities with more than 949 elected representatives from their local communities. There are 30,000 employees in local authorities around the country. They have the responsibility for championing local communities and for championing and defending local democracy. They do that through delivering services, which include everything from the most utilitarian services such as sewerage and waste management, as well as housing, planning and traffic. They also include culture, such as our parks, our libraries and our local community festivals. This weekend, in the constituency in which I live, Phizzfest, which is supported by Dublin City Council, will be held in Phibsborough while in the north inner city, there is the Five Lamps Arts Festival.
All around the country, in the 31 local authorities, local authorities support local communities to deliver and to sustain one another. They ensure to a large extent community cohesion, as well as the healthy, vibrant communities that can be found in all of our local authorities. They are funded to the tune of €5 billion a year. That is a significant amount of funding. It is appropriate that our local authorities should be funded to that level and I probably would argue for more funding and some more autonomy for our local authorities. They are independent corporate entities, established under the Constitution. You cannot get greater authority in our State than to be established under Bunreacht na hÉireann, which they are. It is from that authority that they conduct and carry out their responsibilities.
One of their key responsibilities, and the elected representatives work with the executives on this, is to ensure that there is good governance. I believe that all councillors and all executive functions - or the vast majority of them at least, allowing for the human failings - take their governance responsibilities extremely seriously and diligently. Not only do they take them seriously, in my experience they go beyond what is required under legislation.
While the "RTÉ Investigates" programme had the title, the “Council Chamber Secrets”, these were not secrets. These were publicly documented failings documented by the Local Government Audit Service. That is right and that proves to us and to the public that the Local Government Audit Service is doing its job. Each local authority has an audit committee. The executives and the councillors work together to ensure that the highest of standards are achieved. That is as it should be. The Local Government Audit Service, and NOAC as the Minister of State mentioned, work to support the local authorities to catch where standards fall below what they should be, to identify those failings and to trigger corrective actions.
What the "RTÉ Investigates" story did was not actually reveal any secrets of the chamber, but it amplified what was already public knowledge and what was already publicly documented, and rightly so. I say all of that not to in any way belittle the issues, because anybody who saw the programme would be upset. I know from talking to the Fianna Fáil councillors from the local authorities around the country that they were really upset by it. They are upset because these are people who give of their time to go out, to get elected and to represent their local communities in order that they can do the best for their local communities and to ensure that the local authority delivers for their local communities. This tarnishes everything that the local authority does.
At any time in an organisation when there is a failure to achieve the highest for standards or when standards fall below that which should be expected and should be delivered, that reflects badly. I know from speaking to the Fianna Fáil councillors in Waterford, Clare, Mayo, Cork and in the other local authorities that have been mentioned, that this really upset them. It is important that they have the support of the Minister of State’s office, of the Department and of the Local Government Audit Service.
When these issues are identified, there should be follow-through. I accept, as do most reasonable people, that where an issue has been referred to An Garda Síochána and where it is before the courts, that has to follow due process. Everybody is entitled to be treated fairly under the law. It is important that transparency, accountability and the highest of standards are championed and are delivered. This is because there is not just a financial cost. There is also the cost of reputation and the damage that does to the local authority. There is also the cost and damage to, and the loss of opportunity for, those local communities and those local authorities when projects that are funded and that should be delivered are not delivered.
I have run out of time. I thank the Minister of State for giving his time today, his interest in this issue and his support for local government and the local authorities around the country.
I agree with previous speakers. The RTÉ programme made for some uncomfortable viewing because any case of misuse of public funds, we can all agree, is troubling and uncomfortable. The lack of oversight, the way in which these cases were investigated and the failure to publish reports were concerning.
I will use this debate as an opportunity to touch on some adjacent ethics legislation. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, initiated a review of all ethics legislation last November and that is very welcome. That review should be completed with a sense of urgency. I believe there is a commitment to have it completed by the end of next month. We all look forward to getting sight of the review of ethics legislation.
Section 212 of the Local Government Act 2001, which allows for the Minister to conduct public inquiries at local level, has yet to be commenced. My colleague, Deputy Denise Mitchell, tabled a parliamentary question on this matter a couple of weeks ago. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, responded that he did not have any intention of commencing section 212 of the Local Government Act at any time in the near future. He said there were perhaps constitutional issues with conducting inquiries locally and stated:
The potential costs of public local inquiries would also need very careful consideration and whether such an option would represent best value for money as a means for addressing issues of local concern.
While I take that point, moments such as this, including the broadcasting of the “RTÉ Investigates” programme, highlight money being wasted. Will the Minister of State consider commencing the relevant section of the 2001 Act?
The role of the Standards in Public Office, SIPO, in the oversight of public officials also needs to be reviewed. I hope the Minister, Deputy McGrath, will think about reintroducing the relevant Bill once his Departmental review has been completed.
Unpublished reports into investigations should be published where no criminal investigation is currently ongoing. That is vital from a transparency point of view.
Councillors serving on audit committees should probably have independent financial advice and training if they ever require or want it. I am not certain that is currently available.
The RTÉ programme was a very worthwhile piece of journalism. It showed the importance of public service broadcasting. When we discussed the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill we heard about the commercial pressures facing RTÉ and public broadcasters. Programmes such as “RTÉ Investigates” show the importance of public service broadcasting.
I have spoken in this House time and again about the continued failure of some local authorities. To name just one issue, I will focus a little on their failure to provide Traveller accommodation year after year. During my ten years of working in this area with members of the Traveller community and in the area of accommodation, I have found that things in local authorities fall apart more often than they fall together. Government does not hold local authorities to account. In the two years I have been a Senator, I have focused on accountability and transparency in local government. Let us put our hands up.
To be fair to local county councillors who are independent of political parties, they have little or no power. I speak to county councillors up and down the country who tell me they have absolutely no power. While they may be able to pass motions here and there, when it comes to drawing down money, building roads, etc., they do not have the power. We should, by right, give power back to the people who are voted in by communities. If a local authority member is voted in by the Ballyfermot community, he or she is there to represent the community of Ballyfermot. Unfortunately, that is not the case because the system underpinning local authorities has failed and will continue to fail unless we do something about it.
After watching the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, one Senator said there were no surprises in it. As a member of the Traveller community, given the continuous failure I have seen in Tallaght, Ballyfermot, Clondalkin and other places all over the country, I was not surprised. However, I was surprised at how a local county councillor could not get an independent inspection done in relation to what was going on in local authority. For me, the most striking part of the whole programme was that a person who was voted by the community could not get an inspection done after all of the work she did to get an inquiry.
I could talk all day about the programme. The truth of the matter is the job of the Government and local government is to govern. Unfortunately, we are not seeing that in local authorities. Local government belongs to the public. It is a trust fund of the people. As legislators, we need to listen to the people. We have not done that. I remember when Dublin City Council was known as Dublin Corporation. It failed then and is failing now. Again, that is not a failure by the individuals who are voted in by communities because, unfortunately, they have little or no power. It is the system and we need to rebuild it. I am aware that legislation is under review and I welcome that.
If we take anything from this investigation, it should be that real reform of local authorities is needed, not just changing names but genuinely reforming the system so that it works for the people on the ground and our county councillors. We have been failing our county councillors. As a member of the Traveller community, I gave out to my Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and People Before Profit councillors for ten years. Until I came to this House, I did not realise that county councillors had little or no power. It is the system that needs to be fixed.
I will end by saying again that we are talking about public funds that benefit our people. Members of the public must be able to trust their local authority and, right now, they cannot do that. I welcome the current review and people on the ground would genuinely welcome better, sustainable local government which the Government held to account. Local authorities must answer to people and cannot be left to monitor themselves
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. I was elected as a Galway county councillor. As with Senator Flynn. it was a brand new world for me.
I had little understanding of what is done by a local authority. It was a steep learning curve to understand how the local authority in any particular county, such as, for example, Galway County Council, is involved in so many aspects of our day-to-day lives. In terms of water supply, Irish Water is working with Galway County Council and local authorities and councils across the country, but the local authorities took the lead on that. We are trying to put other supports in place to support them in how they deliver these services. It was a shock to discover that there is a lack of resources or staffing within certain county councils and that this affects their ability to deliver the services that are required. In order to ensure that Ireland has county councils that are fit for purpose and that deliver the services, it is crucial they are staffed adequately and that we understand there are challenges within certain areas. Under Housing for All, the Government is allocating staff to work within the local authorities to deliver on the massive target of 30,000 houses per year, and to ensure that we are working within our towns.
The reason I ran for election was that, to my mind and to my community's mind, there was an inappropriate planning decision for a waste transfer station, whereby they were planning - and are still planning - to force hundreds of trucks through the middle of the town of Ballinasloe, which has a population of 6,500. At a national level, we talk about air pollution, clean air, clean water and environmental standards and demands. We need to ensure for the public that the national policies and initiatives are being correctly managed within our county councils and authorities.
Perhaps this also comes down to communication. Local authorities are doing so much in so many areas that it can be hard to get the message out there. It is crucial, however. People in every town and village need to understand what their local authority does for them, even at a municipal district level. For example, Ballinasloe has had major flooding in the past. Under the OPW, it is one of the catchment flood risk assessment and management projects for flood relief with regard to the River Shannon and one of its main tributaries, the River Suck. Many towns across the country prioritise tackling flooding. It is incredible that chief executives, managers, directors and the teams of local authority staff on the ground are the ones bringing out the sandbags. They are the ones working with businesses and residents in times of crisis. When a crisis hits, it is the teams working in the local authorities that people go to. They are the ones who help people on the ground, in particular the most vulnerable. For the most part, they prioritise that. I know there are also huge issues in Roscommon around flooding and trying to protect families and homes.
While things need to be challenged and we need to have appropriate services in place, it is also important to talk about the activities that local authorities do and what they deliver to our communities and our businesses. We talk about rates. At a Government level, we are aware of the supports in place for businesses through the employment wage subsidy scheme and so on, but we also put a pause on rates over the past year or two years. We need to make sure that our businesses understand what they receive in return and what are the benefits of the rates they pay, be it lighting, footpaths, street enhancement or all the projects we see rolled out at Government level. Those town enhancement projects are coming out of the Department of Rural and Community Development. We see how that makes a difference when we have street enhancement and town enhancement to tackle dereliction and vacancy. We want to make sure towns in all areas, particularly in regional and rural areas, are fit for the future and that we encourage more people to come back to live, work and invest in our local areas.
That is down to having teams within our councils. We have fantastic engineers in municipal districts across our country, trying to deliver they best that they can, but we need to ensure they have wraparound supports and administrative services. I am very conscious of this because Galway County Council is always ranked low in terms of financing, and that is something we need to be conscious of. Again, I want to acknowledge the communication of everything that is done well by our local authorities.
I welcome the Minister of State, who is a great attender of debates in this House. This is a great opportunity to discuss this very important issue with him. It arose out of the RTÉ programme, which local authorities did not come out of very well. There were certain local authorities involved but one could say it represented every local authority because I am sure there are a lot of shortcomings in a lot of local authorities.
As Senator Fitzpatrick pointed out, when all of the local authorities are amalgamated together, it is quite a sizeable organisation with 30,000 employees and more than €5 billion of a budget. That is a great deal of money and many employees. Those employees do an awful lot of work. When we go through the work they carry out, it includes all of those essential services, from utilities to houses, to business and the arts. The local authority is involved in everything.
It is a great honour to be elected as a member of a local authority and to represent one's community. From the time I was elected as a local authority member, I have witnessed huge changes in the local authority system. I have to say they are not all for the best. The powers of local authority members have been stripped away, year after year, Government after Government. This Government has to do something about it.
Local authorities in the main are not efficient. When people go to their local authority or to a local authority representative or councillor, they should be able to get answers but the public cannot get answers. What I would like to see the Minister of State do is to pick one local authority on a pilot basis and see what it takes to make it completely efficient. In other words, to run it like a business and provide all of the services. This could mean dealing with staff, with management, with councillors, with unions and with whoever it takes to make it more efficient. It could well mean there would have to be bonus payments or some form of incentives for staff or management. However, all of those things should be taken into consideration on a pilot basis, and who better to do this than the Minister of State. He was a councillor, and he is a Deputy and a Minister of State. He knows the system and how it works, and he knows the management of local authorities. What I have outlined would be a very worthwhile exercise from the Department's point of view.
No matter what public representative one talks to, whether it is a councillor, a Senator or a Deputy, they are all frustrated when trying to get work done. When I was first a councillor, local authorities were responsible for housing, water, sewerage and planning. Nearly all of those are now stripped away from the local authorities, mainly because councillors were afraid to make decisions in many cases. We should look at generating new services to be brought into the local authorities but to do that, we have to make the local authorities more efficient and more service friendly. As I said, a pilot scheme would be a great start.
We have all seen the decay in every town centre throughout the country. Councillor after councillor, council after council, and Deputies and Senators have been raising this issue for years. The local authorities were not able to do anything in regard to improvements, even though it was then within their jurisdiction. Now, because we have the hand of the Government and the funds from the Department involved, something can be done in every town centre and in every local authority - and rightly so - because this was sucking the heart out of towns.
If right was right, the local authorities should have been making a case, whether a financial case or otherwise, to whatever Department. When they make a case like that, they should be heard, but they were not heard because no heed was paid to it, with the result that we all know, namely, the decay in the centre of towns, with businesses closed. At the same time, there is a great deal of upstairs accommodation that could be turned into worthwhile and very nice living accommodation. This would bring the heart back into towns and encourage people to live in towns.
There is nothing nicer than going through a town and seeing doors open downstairs or windows open upstairs. Where there are people, there is life. We need people to have life and if people are living in those buildings, there is life in them.
What could you say about the "RTÉ Investigates" programme? It was picked up by the Local Government Audit Service and the Department auditor, which goes to show that those organs of the State are working. I can see how it happened in the case in Mayo. The council did not want to say that it did not want any more money so it was probably saying it would work the system. If it was worked in a transparent way, you might say that was fair enough but it was hard to hide something like that. It did give back the money. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is waiting for an independent report from the county manager regarding this issue. I hope that she will see that this is resolved quickly and that the continuation and flow of funds to County Mayo, which has stalled, will continue. I have more to say but I do not have time on this occasion.
The point I want to address is the concept of local government as we know it today. I spent five years on Louth County Council. The current format is fundamentally flawed. The reason is because the people who are supposed to hold the chief executive and director of services to account are technically the county councillors. They are the people who supposed to hold them to account to make sure things are happening the way they should. Let us be blunt and call a spade a spade. If I am a county councillor who wants to try to achieve things that need to be done on a county council, it will not be to my advantage to go out of my way to hammer a chief executive or director of services week in, week out to make sure he or she is doing a proper job. This is why the system is flawed. The county councillors, who are supposed to hold the executive to account, need the executive to be able to progress stuff through a local authority. This is why I firmly believe chief executives and directors of services should be accountable to a higher body, namely, the Oireachtas in order that at some stage they are called in once a year, be it before the Committee of Public Accounts or the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to explain why a particular county is consistently the lowest collector of rates in the country, consistently has the highest number of maintenance requests, is not building enough affordable homes or why so many people are on the housing transfer list and there has been no movement. They must be accountable to somebody at a higher level, which is why the Oireachtas has a real role to play.
Chief executives and directors of services are not accountable to anybody. They are not accountable to the public. They are technically accountable to county councillors. This is why overall reform is needed. I do not mean to be radical when I say this but I think we should see directly elected mayors in all local authorities, not just for Dublin or Cork. It should be done for places like Louth or the Minister of State's locality. The reason why is because we would then have an elected official who is running on a campaign pledge to introduce certain measures, be they more active travel ways or greenways or efforts to rejuvenate town centres. The politician must then deliver on the issues on which he or she campaigned. There is then a driving force within local authorities and a figurehead in a mayor moving forward. We see a similar situation with local authorities in Great Britain where political parties are in control of councils and allocate different portfolios to different councillors. They are councils that can really achieve things. The fundamental flaw in Ireland in terms of local authorities is the current system.
It is so easy for me to come into this Chamber and say the system is wrong and we need to fix it. I am advocating taking a sledgehammer to local authorities, breaking them into 1,000 pieces and building a brand new system. This is what we need to do. As Senator Paddy Burke rightly said, local authorities have been decimated at every point over the past 30 or 40 years. More powers have been taken away. At the end of the day, councillors do nothing more than rubber-stamping approval for the executive. I do not know why Senator Fitzpatrick is shaking her head; I am being honest about this. This is my experience as a councillor on a smaller county council unlike Dublin, which with the finance it has, is the Real Madrid of local authorities compared to my local authority. This is why it might be easier on larger local authorities but I am giving my experience of what happens in County Louth. In such a local authority, the executive can turn around to say that the issue can be kicked into a strategic policy committee, SPC, to be examined there, but then, six months down the line, nothing comes from it.
What I am talking about is fundamental change in local authorities. A lot of great things are done by local authorities but they are totally inefficient. That has been my experience in my county over the years. If we really want to be radical about it, and it is not pie in the sky stuff, we should do something different. What Senator Burke said is a good idea. It involves running it as a pilot in another local authority. There needs to be a key person with responsibility in any local authority who is held to account publicly. If this is a directly elected mayor, great. If it is a chief executive, he or she should be held directly to account by an Oireachtas committee where he or she can be called in every year and questioned on various issues concerning what is and is not going very well in his or her local authority. One thing I am very clear about is that there is no accountability in local government today and this needs to change. If we can start there, it would be a good process to move forward with.
The Minister of State and I were the chair and the vice chair of the HSE's regional health forum for Dublin - mid-Leinster a long time ago and worked well together. A lot of people in this Chamber have come from a local government background and are very familiar with how local authorities work, both what does and does not work well. If we want to be honest about it, even in the past ten years we can see that when Irish Water was created, it took responsibilities away from local authorities. It must be said that this was not done by a Fianna Fáil Government. The strategic housing development, SHD, process, which I opposed very strongly in this Chamber, was well meant. I remember a phrase at the time that whatever the problem was, An Bord Pleanála was unlikely to be the solution. We are talking about An Bord Pleanála and the challenges it faces at present. Many of those SHDs that were approved by An Bord Pleanála in contravention of development plans have been rightly held up by judicial reviews because the courts have said they should never have been granted in the first place.
I have no issue with chief executives coming in and talking to an Oireachtas committee but this further strips out oversight and brings it all back to the centre. Perhaps we need a stronger audit or governance committee or a stronger corporate policy group in local authorities that can hold to account those directors of services or chief executives who are not up to scratch. I also want to put on the record that of all the chief executives with whom I worked, from Derek Brady through to Owen Keegan, Kathleen Houlihan, Philomena Poole and more recently the new chief executive in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I note that getting to the top of the tree in local government is no mean feat. They are usually incredibly hard-working and diligent but sometimes, they are trying to steer a very large ship. Dublin City Council has about 6,000 employees. With the best will in the world, the chief executive can only do so much. This is not taking responsibility away. We tend to see problems in public sector organisations because of FOI. I am sure private organisations are not perfect either. We just do not get the same transparency levels about them. We need to acknowledge what works well in local authorities as well as acknowledge that when there is failure, there should be a level of accountability. I remember how when I was on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, of which the Minister of State was a member at the same time as me, we brought in Robert Watt when he was Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and asked him about managing out, which is a phrase used in the private sector, those kind of employees who may be burnt out or not up to scratch. His reply was "we don't do that". The private sector can pay people off but we do not do that. Sometimes people are not in the right jobs. They might be very good if they were moved into a different job but the job they have is not the best fit for them. We need more flexibility in how we hire people, how we manage staff and how we look after their needs and to make sure that if people are not performing to the level we expect them to, there will be counselling and training to bring about further improvement.
We need to acknowledge that the local government sector provides many services but, through the years, whether it be Irish Water, waste services, regional waste management plans or strategic housing development, SHD, processes and planning, central government has repeatedly sucked powers away from local authorities. In some cases, that may have been because the local authorities were not willing to grasp the nettle on various matters. The Planning Regulator is another example of that. I have no issue with the Planning Regulator as such; it is more that local authorities are not being left to do their own thing. There may be a need for better oversight of what they are doing but that should be at local level and with those who are elected in their areas. They understand their counties. I refer to the Acting Chairperson in the context of Kildare, me in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown or another person in Dublin city, Waterford or wherever it happens to be. All Members are aware of the idea of subsidiarity. Moving powers down the chain is probably a good thing but, historically, we in Ireland are very bad at doing that. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
In the context of the concept of a directly elected mayor for Dublin, I am concerned in respect of from where the powers of the directly elected mayor will come if there are four local authorities. If those powers come from the councils, there will be nothing left in the councils because they have so little already. If the directly elected mayor will get powers in respect of policing, education, public transport, tourism promotion or whatever it may be, there will be nothing left for the councils. There are many things that are done by central government but that could be devolved down. I have rarely seen any Government of any colour in this State devolve powers from the centre to local government, however. I know the local enterprise offices may be an example of that to a certain extent but they only replaced enterprise boards that were there anyway. Typically, power has left local authorities and gone up the line. Rather than identifying what is wrong with the system at local level and fixing it, the power is taken off the local authorities and they are left with less to do. All they have now is grass cutting, graffiti removal, drain unblocking and so on. Even in the case of water leaks, they have to be reported to Irish Water, which then telephones or emails the local authority and asks it to fix the leak under a service level agreement. In the old days, one could just ring the local authority and get it done directly.
All Members present have a lot of experience. I was on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for 12 and a half years. Senator Burke was on Mayo County Council for a long time. The Acting Chairperson was a councillor, as were the Minister of State and Senators Fitzpatrick, Cummins and Warfield. I know Senator Flynn has experience of being involved with local authorities in other ways. There is so much experience here at local and national levels. Let us acknowledge what is good but always be driving to make it better.
I thank Members for their contributions. In the context of this discussion on reforming local authorities and governance structures in the 31 local authorities, it is interesting that 75% of the speakers in the debate were from the Government side, exclusively from my party, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil. That demonstrates in terms of debates in this House how much the Government is interested in solving the issues in respect of local authorities. I note there is 45 minutes remaining of the time allotted to the debate. That is an interesting point.
One of the things I took on when I took over my brief was to be an advocate for local councillors. I refer to the responsibility that has been placed on them. With the reduction in the number of local authorities, from 114 right down to 31, the geographical area councillors have to cover increased significantly. In addition, there are 360 statutory bodies across the country to which local authority members have to be nominated, as well as approximately 400 external bodies. There are well in excess of 2,000 nominations of local authority members to bodies on which they serve the public. There are also other issues such as the public participation networks. In the first instance, I wish to acknowledge the work done by local councillors. I hope that we will get a lot more reform done in my remaining time in the Custom House, such as providing for maternity leave for female councillors. I refer to what are almost significant human rights that councillors have been denied. We have a lot more reform to do in that regard.
As regards the powers councillors have, it is often forgotten that the county development plan is the cornerstone document that unlocks and develops the potential of the county right across its geographical area. Local authority members have control of determining that policy. They have control in terms of development levies - how much of levies should be ring-fenced and at what rate - to develop key public infrastructure to underpin all that development in their county. Those are significant powers. In terms of revenue-raising powers, they have powers to strike a rate, adopt a budget and implement property tax. All those issues are being enhanced, especially under the property tax review that is currently ongoing. Obviously, they have total control in terms of the disposal of property and the granting of permissions under material contravention. There have been significant votes in the latter regard right across the country. There is a formal process for them to input into many SHD planning applications. I know that process is now concluded but local authority members always had an input on some of those major issues.
As regards accountability, local authority members have significant powers, including suspension, to hold a chief executive to account if they believe he or she has performed inappropriately. Those powers are at their disposal. Those are facts. It is the reality under the Local Government Act.
As regards the work of local authorities, in the context of directly elected mayors reference was made to the programme of reform we are progressing. We are aiming to hold a plebiscite in all the local authority areas that wish to have a directly elected mayor. Obviously, it will be their choice, but that is significant reform. Senator Horkan referred to devolving power down to local authorities. Local authorities deliver more than 1,000 services for citizens. The response of Ministers to attempts to bring more reform down is interesting, however. It can be difficult. I refer to the Government decision in respect of a mayor for Limerick and the devolution of autonomy and authority to the local authority there. When one goes about that process, however, it is challenging. I have first-hand experience of that in the context of trying to have bilateral engagements with various Departments. We are working at pace to do that. The Senator referred to the Citizens' Assembly under the chairmanship of Jim Gavin in terms of what the response will be in respect of a directly elected mayor for Dublin. That is interesting. There is no doubt it is a complex issue. The Senator pointed out some of the issues in that regard.
As regards transparency, I referred to the Local Government Audit Service, as well as the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, which provides that service. Senator Cummins raised issues relating to timing. One of the challenges relates to when the data are certified and ready. I refer to linking or mirroring Departments having their accounts done with local authorities having the end-of-year figures certified. As an accountant, I know that can be frustrating. The Revenue Commissioners will attest to that also. The gap between a problem first happening and it being identified can be significant. Unfortunately, a lot may have happened by the time one gets to change or even identify it. That can be challenging in every sector. I hear the Senator's points regarding an enhanced role for NOAC in terms of carrying out performance reviews. I know that I and the other Ministers at the Department have powers to request it to review positions within the local authority system. That is a good power that is at the disposal of the Ministers under the Act.
Senator Warfield referred to section 212 of the Local Government Act 2001, relating to public inquiries. I understand there are several reasons the provision has not been commenced, not least the potential cost of local public inquiries and concerns that individuals involved could subsequently seek to assert their rights through the courts. It is important to recognise that in October 2011, a referendum was held on a proposed amendment to the Constitution that, if successful, would have granted full investigative powers to Oireachtas Members to hold inquiries. That amendment was rejected by the electorate. Concerns cited at the time related to how the granting of judicial powers to a non-judicial body would operate in practice and, in particular, how sufficient safeguards in respect of the constitutional rights of individuals subject to inquiries could be provided. Those are significant items that would have to be considered first. The Government currently has no plan to commence the section.
I thank Members for their interaction. It is important that we work hard to reform local government. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future has a clear body of work to deliver that reform.
We all know from our various roles that it is challenging in our local authority system but I cannot think of another body or authority that, when Covid came, responded within 48 hours through the community call. These staff members were men and women throughout this country who protected the most vulnerable. They were there to organise a system within 48 hours to protect our community.
As we see in respect of the Ukrainian crisis, local authorities are again stepping up to the mark. We all know there are areas where we have to improve and there are deficiencies. Sometimes, as a society, we throw everything at our local authorities and expect them to deliver everything. That is one thing I would say in life. Significant responsibility is placed on the shoulders of staff who work in the local authority system and sometimes we have to realise it can be difficult when there are so many competing interests in society. In the main, however, I am confident and comfortable that the majority do the best job they can, sometimes in very difficult circumstances.
I thank the Minister of State. I assure him of my party's commitment to local government, which is very important for us all.
I will point out to the Minister of State that the Government has about 40 Senators in this House. My own group numbers four. A member of the Labour Party group is in the Chair, while members of the Civil Engagement Group and Sinn Féin are in the Chamber. We are all very much in it.
It is important to clarify that. There is additional time. If someone is passionate and wishes to speak on this issue, the time is there on the clock.
The debate has concluded. When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.