I welcome the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, and the officials from the Department. We agreed to meet today from now until 1 p.m., from 2.30 p.m. until 6 p.m. and from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. We will also meet tomorrow from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. and resume at 2.30 p.m. to continue until 8 p.m. Yesterday we completed section 26. We will resume on section 27, amendment No. 44.
Local Government Bill, 2000: Committee Stage (Resumed).
I move amendment No. 44:
In page 36, subsection (2), lines 26 and 27, to delete paragraph (r) and substitute the following:
"(r) election of the same person in more than one local electoral area, or to more than one local authority of the same class within the meaning of section 15;
(s) casual vacancies that occur in the circumstances specified in paragraph (r), or occurring in other specified circumstances related to local elections;”.
Amendments Nos. 101, 187, 188, 191, 202, 203, 204, 209 and 219 are related to amendment No. 45. Is it agreed to discuss all the amendments together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 45:
In page 36, subsection (2), between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:
"(u) information in the Irish language.”.
Ba mhaith liom tús a chur leis an díospóireacht seo. Ar dtús báire, we believe it is critically important that the references to the first language are incorporated as appropriate throughout the Bill. This series of amendments not only facilitates that but clearly stresses the importance of the language in the Bill and in the delivery of local governance and administration. Amendment No. 45 relates to the various elements of subsection (2). The provision states that regulations under the section may include provision for all or any of the matters listed in relation to local elections. In this regard, it is a glaring omission that there is no reference to the Irish language. The proposal in the amendment is to include a subparagraph (u) between lines 32 and 33 stating: “information in the Irish language”.
The other proposals seek to incorporate the Irish language in equal standing with the English language in the appropriate sections. Amendment No. 101 seeks the inclusion in subsection (6) of: "This report shall be available in Irish and in English". I do not know the Minister's response to this and I will reserve further comment until after I have heard what he says. It is self-evident. I hope the arguments in favour of the inclusion of these references under the amendments as tabled will be accepted by the Government because they are of critical importance in affirming the importance and primacy of the first language of the State. I await the Minister's response.
The same amendments are also tabled in my name. They have been recommended to the committee by Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge. Their purpose is to ensure that the local government system responds to people who wish to use the Irish language in their dealings with local authorities. The local authority system has responded positively to the wishes of people who wish to use the Irish language. Most local authorities make a reasonable attempt to ensure that members of the public who wish to conduct their business through Irish are enabled to do so. Most local authorities have a coiste Gaeilge and a national convention of coistí Gaeilge is held every year. A number of councils, including the one in my area, have introduced a córas aistriúcháin for council meetings. The Bill should reflect these amendments and be positive about the language.
There has been a traditional approach to this in that there is a requirement that all staff above a certain level have a minimum standard of leaving certificate Irish. I am not sure that is necessarily the best way to proceed. The fact that the entire staff of a local authority obtained a pass or a grade C in their leaving certificate Irish ten years ago but cannot speak a word of it today is of little use to someone who wishes to use the Irish language in their dealings with the council. It would be better if councils made arrangements to ensure that some members of staff can speak Irish. For example, some health boards and councils have one or two specific officers who have a good working knowledge of Irish. This means there is someone to deal with people who want to do their business in Irish and to ensure that documents are available in the Irish language. I strongly recommend these amendments to the Minister and I hope he will respond positively.
These ten amendments tabled by Deputy Ó Caoláin relate to the provision of information, such as annual reports, local government commission reports etc. in Irish and English. They also request that various statutory notices be published in Irish and English. Our commitment to the Irish language and the Gaeltacht through the local authority system has been manifested in the Planning and Development Act, 2000. This Act provides that one of the statutory objectives of the development plan is the protection of the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Gaeltacht, including the promotion of Irish as a community language, where there is a Gaeltacht area in the area of the development plan. This provision regarding the promotion of the Irish language is echoed in the Bill which provides in section 44(2) that local authority meetings may be held in Irish or English, or both, and that a local authority may take steps, as it considers appropriate, to encourage the use of the Irish language. At a practical level, many local authorities are to the fore in promoting the use of the Irish language, as Deputy Gilmore stated.
These provisions will undoubtedly be further enhanced and strengthened by the provisions of the comprehensive Official Languages (Equality) Bill. This Bill, which is being prepared, will encompass public agencies, including local authorities. Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach when the Bill comes to the House to discuss in detail the extent of the use of our two official languages in the forms and notices issued by local authorities. I accept, however, there is some room for improvement in the Bill in relation to the Irish language and local authority affairs. I intend to come back on Report Stage with a substantive amendment to deal with this matter. Cé nach bhfuil mé in ann glacadh leis na leasaithe atá molta ag na Teachtaí, táim sásta teacht tharnais le leasú eile. Ceapaim go mbeidh siad sásta leis an iarracht atá á dhéanamh againn.
What we need is a more substantive amendment which would eliminate the necessity for the type of amendments which have been submitted in a raft of areas. We need an omnibus amendment which would cater for the same principle and bring about the same result. I intend to come back on Report Stage to meet that need as far as I can. In those circumstances, I ask the Deputy to withdraw the amendment.
Cuirm fáilte leis an méad atá le rá ag an Aire. Is rud an-tábhachtach ar fad é seo. Táim sásta leis an spioraid atá ag an Aire agus an Rialtas chuig an teanga sa méad atá ráite aige mar fhreagra dúinn. I welcome the Minister's response to the arguments presented this morning in support of the amendments tabled. I recognise the spirit of the Minister's comments. I look forward to seeing the substantive amendment the Minister proposes. I accept the Minister's intention. This is not an issue to create division. We want to be united because I accept and recognise there must be a common purpose in moving towards this need.
I understand that in the coming week Donegal County Council will relaunch its Irish language service to service users in that county. It has organised a comprehensive training programme within its existing staffing arrangements. Outreach work will be done in many of the Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. The hunger and need is probably as great or even more acute in non-Gaeltacht areas where people are anxious to conduct their business in Irish. It is infinitely more difficult to do so. I am aware, from my experience as a member of a county council, that the plan gníomhaíochta we have adopted, which is the guiding position in relation to the provision and delivery of service as Gaeilge to the community in County Monaghan, is a welcome and progressive document and is supported by all the political groupings in the council. It is an issue on which we worked together in a sane and sensible way. I accept the Minister's commitment and I will withdraw the amendment in support of the Minister's approach. I look forward to seeing the detail on Report Stage.
Cuirm fáilte freisin roimh an gheallúint a thug an t-Aire dúinn go bhfuil sé ar intinn aige leasú Rialtais a thabhairt isteach ar an tuarascáil. Dá bharr sin, tá mise sásta freisin na leasaithe atá molta agam a tharraingt siar. Mar sin féin, níl sé sásúil dom fanacht ar an Bhille Ghaeilge atá geallta ag an Rialtas mar táimid ag fanacht le fada an lá le sin agus níl aon chosulacht go bhfeicfimid é roimh deireadh na Dála. Cuirim fáilte roimh an méad atá ráite ag an Aire agus táim sásta na leasaithe a tharraingt siar.
Yes, the Deputy will see the Official Language (Equality) Bill much earlier than he anticipates.
I thank the Deputies agus buíochas a ghabháil leo as ucht an chabhair a thug siad dom. As I said, the firm commitment that has been given concerning Report Stage will be honoured in full. In recent years, we have seen a very interesting new commitment in respect of some areas of the country with regard to spreagadh na Gaeilge. It is a welcome development and we have to respond to that in the way we do our business. New technologies and communications systems have advanced so much that a lot of the difficulties involved have been overcome.
I move amendment No. 46:
In page 36, subsection (2), between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:
"(u) the provision of marked copies of polling station registers to candidates at election.”.
This is one of the amendments I agonised over because I felt it was almost out of date at this stage to have marked registers at polling stations. However, the intent of the amendment is to provide the information, not only to candidates but also to the public so that it will be known who votes and who does not. I realise that under the terms of another Bill we will probably be moving to electronic voting. The main purpose of this amendment would be to make voting easier but also accessible to people. In some countries voting is compulsory and I certainly would not go that far, but it is no harm to bring home to people that it is a civic duty to vote. In the interests of openness and transparency, everybody should know whether others voted - there is no reason for this information to be kept secret. I do not think that members of county councils or Members of the Dáil are particularly entitled to this information over and above any other member of the public. It is the kind of information that should be publicly available.
I realise that we are moving towards electronic voting and the amendment is probably inappropriately worded in that this kind of information would be available in some other form. The intent of the amendment is that it would be known who votes and who does not, should people wish to have that information. It is probably the sort of information one can obtain under the Freedom of Information Act, although I am not sure. It should be available easily without having to go through the tortuous process of seeking it under the Act.
I have tabled the same amendment as Deputy Olivia Mitchell. It would be helpful if the Minister were to put on record what one is currently entitled to, including who is entitled to get this information. A certain large political party, which had the resources to have somebody sitting beside the poling clerk at every polling station, marking off simultaneously with the polling clerk a copy of the register, always had this information concerning who went out to vote.
That was available to the weaker parties as well.
That is not my experience.
We will show the Deputy how we do it in north Tipperary.
This information became available after the last local elections, largely arising out of the European election.
Yes, but this is something the public does not know.
The Deputy is right.
The public does not know that it is possible to establish not how somebody voted, because that is a secret ballot, but who went out to vote. It is important that the public is made aware that this information is available under the Freedom of Information Act and that if somebody has not gone out to vote for years the information is available, as it is also available on who has voted. The information should be made publicly available because the public is entitled to know this.
I do not propose to introduce a requirement that regulations would provide that marked copies of polling station registers be given to candidates at an election. The existing regulations provide that the register of voters is available for six months after the election, in accordance with article 94 of the Local Elections Regulation, 1995. Electoral documentation, including registers, must be destroyed after six months. I do not propose to strengthen this requirement further, as suggested by the Deputy, to automatically give such marked registers to candidates. Strengthening the existing requirements to facilitate candidates, as suggested, would be perceived as an invasion of privacy and would not be acceptable to the electorate. In those circumstances, I ask the Deputy to withdraw the amendment.
One is, of course, entitled to go into the polling station to ask, and to be told, who has voted. As the Deputy concluded, one can obtain this information through the Freedom of Information Act. That means that people who are interested in getting the information, for one reason or other, can have access to it without the obligations the Deputy is seeking to impose. It is not as if this is something that is not already accessible in a fairly significant way through one channel or other.
Yes, but there is a big difference between wandering into one polling station to find out if one's neighbour voted and having available a list of those who voted constituency-wide or county-wide. The Minister said the entire electoral register is available for six months in each electoral area. Will he clarify that?
For the whole constituency or electoral area.
Is that under the Freedom of Information Act or is it kept on a register somewhere? How is this information accessible?
It is under electoral law.
Where does one go to get it?
I am sure it is the local authority in the case of local elections and the county register in the case of Dáil elections.
The national returning officer has available marked registers from the counties, whether for a local or a general election. Any Deputy is entitled to get the full information with fully marked registers at that source, although one is asked to pay a small charge. I am not sure whether the public is entitled to get it but I have always obtained the information and have had no problem in doing so. Is the public entitled to obtain that information, as are Deputies?
I would like to check that matter out fully. I know for certain that elected members are. My view is that the public is equally entitled to obtain it but I would like to double check that matter for the Deputy. I have not sought one myself and I have no intention of doing so.
The Minister would get a shock.
I will leave it in the lap of the gods.
As regards the advertising of elections, polling days and even polling cards, is the public aware in broad terms that people can find out whether they went to a polling station to cast their vote? It would be important to do so in future.
I do not know. I suppose there are different views about this matter and they may differ considerably from mine. The facility is there to obtain this information. I am not sure whether promoting an election or having advertisements would encourage people to go down this road.
From the individual point of view, however, most people believe that it is a secret ballot. It is a secret ballot in the sense that we do not know how people voted, but it is not a secret ballot in that we know they went to the polling station. One would expect that they should be made aware of that, that people can find out whether they attended the polling station.
My intent is not whether they can find out but that it should be available in libraries or wherever, that it should be readily available. I do not see why it should be secret information. Openness and transparency is required of all of us and information on whether one goes out to vote should be available. I do not see why it should be kept secret. In many European countries, it is obligatory to vote.
I am obliged to take account of the views expressed here, and I accept that. I do not have a strong feeling about the real benefit of a widespread public interest being served by having this more available than it is, but I am prepared to listen.
It might encourage people to vote.
I would have real doubts about that but it is a matter on which we can agree to differ.
Maybe it is something that is more appropriate to the electoral Bill.
I do not mind thinking over it again, but I do not have this strong feeling about the benefit the service would provide.
I will withdraw the amendment then.
I ask that the Minister make available to us information on whether this information is available to the public.
Not only to the movers of the amendment, but to all members of the committee. Will the Minister respond to us?
To all sinners.
Amendment No. 48 is an alternative to amendment No. 47 and both may be taken together by agreement. Agreed.
I move amendment No. 47:
In page 36, subsection (2), between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:
"(u) procedures for providing full voting opportunities to polling station staff.”.
This amendment aims to provide full voting opportunities to polling station staff. Some effort is made on the part of returning officers to facilitate this but it does not happen in all cases. I know of instances in my electoral experiences over the years where people have been disenfranchised by virtue of the fact that they provide an essential service in offering the machinery of election day to the system and to the electorate. This is an anomaly that needs to be addressed. We would all be of one mind on that. As regards the methodology, we are non-prescriptive in relation to the amendment but this matter certainly needs to be addressed. People providing an essential service need to have their franchise respected and accommodated, as with all other voters on the register. Without labouring this point, I hope the Minister will be in a position to respond in the affirmative and accept the amendment. I hope we will have one amendment accepted in the course of our deliberations over these days and this seems to be one likely to find favour with the Minister. I rest my case.
I would like to outline to the Minister a difficulty I encountered on the day of the last referendum. The evening before the referendum I met a polling clerk, a constituent, who told me that previous practice at the polling station was that the returning officer would go around with the register and provided one had one's polling card, the returning officer was enabled to issue a ballot paper, to mark it off and so on. On this occasion she believed she would not be issued with a ballot paper because her polling card had not arrived on time. There are issues that arise in relation to polling staff which need to be streamlined. That is the purpose of the amendment.
We have to break for a vote in the Dáil.
Perhaps we can deal quickly with this amendment. I had the opportunity when I was Minister for the Environment to introduce some changes in regard to facilitating people to vote, particularly the amendment to add people to the register after an election is declared. One consistently meets people who, for one reason or other, are not on the register. This is an area which needs to be remedied. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill, which will be before the Dáil on Friday, contains a specific provision to deal with this anomaly so that it should not arise in the future. I accept the points that have been made that there was a different approach in different places and that the system should be tidied up. That is being done in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill rather than in this Bill.
Is that the supplemental register about which the Minister is talking?
No, I made the point that this is something that we should have done when dealing with the supplemental register because one constantly meets people who, for one reason or other, are left off the register. In this case it is different, but it is being dealt with in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. The necessity to introduce a provision here does not arise.
I accept the Minister's assurance that this is provided for. We will have the opportunity to start deliberations on that Bill on Friday. I, accordingly, withdraw the amendment in line with the Minister's assurance.
Members are doing really well this morning.
The Minister has acted very well.
I move amendment No. 49:
In page 38, subsection (2), line 33, to delete "former".
I move amendment No. 50:
In page 40, subsection (3), to delete lines 34 to 39 and substitute the following:
"(d) in the case of a borough council in the Irish language ’Méara Bhuirg . . . ’ and ’Leas-Mhéara Bhuirg . . . ’ followed by the name of the borough in Irish, and in the English language ’Mayor of the Borough of . . . ’ and ’Deputy Mayor of the Borough of . . . ’ followed by the name of the borough in English.”.
I oppose this section. It may not be appropriate to speak at this stage because I have tabled related amendments to this. This chapter deals with directly elected mayors and I oppose the proposal. I can speak now, push it to a voice vote and proceed to amendment No. 52 to section 40, a section which, with section 42, I also oppose. I am surprised the amendments are not grouped.
If it is agreeable, we can group them together and deal with them all.
I could just push this to a voice vote and move on without speaking.
Perhaps we should group them all together and discuss the directly elected mayor issue.
I am happy with that.
It appears we are agreed on that.
That is fine.
It will not come as a surprise that I oppose this section. It is not that I oppose the idea of a directly elected mayor, which has attractions for and appeal to the public. We can all think of great mayors we have known and of efficiently run European cities which have had strong mayors who have led the cities and brought major changes and efficiencies to them. That is not what we are getting, unfortunately.
I recognise that the Minister, when he introduced this idea or conceded to it, may have been thinking in the context of his proposals on electoral reform which, unfortunately, did not come to anything. These proposals were for single seat constituencies and a list system. European countries with strong mayors operate on the basis of a list system so that when a mayor is elected, he brings with him his own majority so that he has the strength and ability to effect change within his city, town or county. In our case, we will not get a Mayor Giuliani, rather someone who has no function, finance, majority or powers.
One could look on it benignly and say that if the mayor does not have power, he or she will not do harm. The reality is that the proposal has great potential to be disruptive in local government. It will slow down decision-making if not stymie it altogether. One of the problems in local government is the delay in making decisions, given that there is always tension between the elected members of the council and the manager.
According to the Minister, when he was asked what the new mayor will do, he said he would have special powers to receive dignitaries and award civic honours. When pressed on whether there was anything more important the mayor could do over and above what any chairman of a council can do, the Minister said he would have influence which would surpass mere formal powers.
It is a nonsense to sacrifice local government and its efficiency and ability to operate on the grounds that there might be a person with some standing in the community. It is of no use having standing in the community if one cannot deliver anything. It will introduce new tension between managers and elected members.
The tension is already high enough. Co-operation between the manager and elected members is difficult to achieve. It is always just on the edge of not working. To introduce this other element of a mayor who does not have support within the council and to add this extra layer between the elected members could be catastrophic. I realise the Minister may think it will always be one of the larger parties which will elect the mayor but that is far from true. It may be true in some rural parts but it would not be so in the cities. The latest football or pop star could end up as mayor.
This was pointed out to the Minister and while there is nothing wrong with football or pop stars, some level of knowledge and experience of how local government works and an appreciation of how to handle that terribly delicate balancing act between elected members and the manager is definitely needed. To put in someone without that experience, however skilful he may be on the football pitch, could be devastating to a local authority. The Minister will rue the day he proceeded with this and it will not take long for that to happen. This legislation will be repealed when we have had experience of it. I urge the Minister to re-examine it.
There is one provision he intended or promised to include, which was if we were to have directly elected mayors, they would have five years' experience on a local authority first. No amendment has been tabled to this effect by the Government. I heard a rumour that it was possibly unconstitutional. An amendment to this effect would have given some protection to the workings of a local authority. If this provision cannot be included, the Minister should remove the section. This is the one section which I will press to a vote. I do not want to delay the work of the committee or speak at length on it, but it is the one measure which could have catastrophic effects throughout the local government system.
I agree with everything Deputy Mitchell has said on this issue. It would be a fundamental error at this stage to introduce this provision. In all my time canvassing for local and national elections, I have never met anyone who said we should have elected mayors. I do not understand the Minister's thinking on this issue. When he first became Minister, Deputy Dempsey mooted the idea of single seat constituencies. I do not know whether this influenced his decision regarding elected mayors. However, this proposal will introduce another layer of bureaucracy.
The work of councils is held up by delays in making and implementing decisions. This proposal will place managers on one level, elected mayors on another level and councillors on a third level. It is bad enough having two layers, but this proposal will create a third. There is tension between councillors and managers and it would be a grave mistake to introduce a third layer.
I have long experience working on Wexford County Council which is not a large council, but it has to deal with 100,000 people. There is a county council and three urban councils which try to work together as much as possible. However, under this proposal there would be an elected mayor in Wexford and, perhaps, there would also be mayors in Enniscorthy and New Ross. That would be wrong.
The Minister is trying to draw a parallel with the US and large cities in Britain. However, we must bear in mind that such bodies have authority over education, health and policing. Councils in Ireland do not have such powers as such matters are the responsibility of central government and the Dáil. I do not understand the Minister's thinking and I am sorry he is not present to explain his proposal regarding elected mayors.
By and large political parties are clever enough to ensure elected chairmen of councils are experienced and have leadership qualities. The chairman of a council has an important role as he or she will lead the council. The chairman is also the link between members of the council and officials. There is no doubt that elected mayors will get up on their high horses and think they are God Almighty, or the nearest thing to Him. If one were unfortunate to get someone with, perhaps, a sporting background and no practical knowledge of the workings of county councils, such a person would ruin a council over a five year period.
I strongly object to this provision which is a serious mistake. There is no demand for this measure as I have never heard anyone express a desire for an elected mayor or complain about the chairman of a council. I do not understand why this provision is being introduced and I ask the Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, not to press this matter now. I would like to hear Deputy Dempsey's views on this issue and have him explain why this provision is being introduced.
I call Deputy Gilmore.
Chairman, I will wait until the Minister has spoken, if that is agreeable.
I agree with the previous two speakers in one respect, namely, the failure to transfer significant powers from city and county managers, and to decentralise powers from central government to local authorities. This is a major deficiency in the proposition before us and is one element in the usefulness or otherwise of the creation of directly elected mayors or cathaoirligh.
However, we must strive for the necessary changes - the devolution of powers to local government. This issue needs to be addressed. The project of directly elected mayors is a worthwhile proposition which I support. However, my support for this proposal is only on the basis of a devolution of powers to local government so it will have an opportunity to play a substantive role in improving ordinary people's lives. I will use every opportunity to ensure such a development.
It is interesting to hear Deputies speak about sporting personalities and others from the entertainment world who have been mooted.
We should not denigrate sportspeople because there have been people such as Jack Lynch and Clint Eastwood.
The Minister is trying to steal my line, but that is a compliment in itself. I was thinking of the many personalities mentioned by the Minister. Deputy Deenihan would be a case in point and there are many other examples where political parties have been happy to have the services of high profile and well known persons from sporting and other endeavours. The Chairman will be aware of this from his county.
The possibility that people from a particular walk of life would become involved in the democratic process is no reason to object to proceeding with this proposal. Such a stance is a little hypocritical in that yesterday we spoke about encouraging and facilitating greater participation in local government. That is an eminently worthwhile and desirable project of which this proposal is an additional element. I support this proposal. However, the Minister must recognise the need to address the deficiencies in local government - the powers and functions of local authority members and the new positions which will be created. It is not sufficient to suggest that they will have titular responsibilities and that they are there for only ceremonial events. We must see some substance.
Chairman, I wish to defend myself. It is disingenuous of Deputy Ó Caolain to suggest that I am trying to prevent participation in local government. I am trying to increase such participation. I am in favour of elected mayors who have powers and functions and who can achieve things. However, I object to this proposal in the context of our system where such mayors would have no powers, functions, majorities, administrations or purpose. The Deputy knows this. He complained that I spoke too long on this issue.
Fine Gael does not seem to know what it wants. On the one hand, in amendment No. 52, it wishes to restrict the candidacy for directly elected chairmen to those with five years experience as councillors.
What about my plan B?
On the other hand, it wishes to delete all other sections in Part 5 which are necessary for the establishment and operation of directly elected chairmen in county and city councils. It is a gross misunderstanding of the role of chairmen to describe them as having no powers or functions. Local authorities carry out an extraordinary amount of work which is orchestrated by elected members. We should at least acknowledge this work and the powers they have.
I must intervene. I am local government's greatest supporter. I am talking about a mayor and the Minister is deliberately misunderstanding my point.
The Minister has maintained all along that the local government system needs the introduction of directly elected chairmen. Change can be difficult but the Bill provides that the position of directly elected chair will be operative from 2004, so we have at least four years notice. The directly elected chair is a novel approach in Irish terms and deserves to be given a chance. It is easy to have negative criticism but what positive proposals are there to improve the current weak annual merry-go-round? We must move on and, hence we begin this experiment in democracy to install an elected person, a civic leader, and put his or her election in the hands of the city or county.
The chair's power derives from democratic legitimacy. He has enormous potential in dealing with other interests and agencies, in acting on behalf of the elected council in dealings with the executive and in asserting the role of local government as the key democratic focus at local level. In the end, it will be the personal qualities of the elected chair which will, as in all systems of Government, determine the success of the new arrangements. If the chair is elected by the people, he or she must work with both the elected council and the executive to develop the potential of the office to bring together the various local interests to lead, facilitate and promote the development of the area. A system such as this operates in New Zealand where the elected chair has few formal powers but, supported by a democratic mandate, coupled with drive and initiative, is a powerful player in providing leadership in negotiation and trade-offs with other agencies and interests and in the promotion and development of their cities. In a number of comparative international studies, New Zealand local government with the elected chair, council and chief executive officer, comes out as a particularly well run system.
Our current system is a weak one, with annual rotation which places the executive in a strong position, therefore, inadvertently promoting a democratic deficit. The new system will provide a direct election with a five year term. This term, which will coincide with the life of the council, gives the chair the time and experience to contribute fully. The new system will alter current internal dynamics by rebalancing in favour of the chair and the council. The chair will be elected by the people and, therefore, will be answerable to the public and the council. I do not believe there will be a narrow party focus. The directly elected chair, even if nominated by a particular party, will be elected by the people and, once elected, will be representative of all the people and will act on behalf of all councillors. By way of comparison, it is not suggested that the presidency operates on a narrow political basis. The introduction of a directly elected chair will help to promote greater interests generally in local government. Elections will be keenly contested, which will raise the profile of local government.
The question of a full executive role was considered but it was felt we must walk before we run, hence the need to maintain checks and balances. These current proposals are a first step. When these bed down, the question of an executive type role can be considered for the chair. The current executive role in day-to-day operational matters will be maintained. Staff appointments, house allocations, enforcement proceedings, debt recovery, planning applications, etc., will be subject to proper oversight by council and within democratically settled parameters and, for the first time ever, with proper back-up and support for members.
The role envisaged is essentially ade facto one of community leadership, based on democratic legitimacy coupled with capability, credibility, motivational skills and commitment of the office holder. Experience elsewhere bears out the undoubted potential of such an office. Policy decisions will still rest with the elected council whose support the chair will have to foster in promoting initiatives. The chair will not be an all-powerful individual in a position to act independently of his or her colleagues in the council. Ultimately, he or she may be removed from office by the council. This elected chair will head the corporate policy group, comprising the chairs of the SPCs, as a kind of a cabinet. As each elected member will be represented on at least one SPC and as the whole council is the ultimate decision-making body, elected members will have the opportunity to make known their views at all stages on policy matters. The chair, council and executive will work together within this new framework, subject to the necessary checks and balances, with the scope of the chair to adopt a proper leadership role and in conjunction with the council to oversee the executive arm.
The Bill sets out the functions conferred on the Cathaoirleach, chair and the corporate policy group. These functions are necessary and will include the Cathaoirleach, chairs and corporate policy group. The draft annual estimate must be prepared in consultation with the CPG and it may appoint three external people to assist in the work. Likewise, the authority's corporate plan, which is submitted to council for adoption, must be prepared in consultation with the CPG. The CPG can require the manager to report on any matter. The chair of the county development board will be held by the directly elected chair. This has potential for local government to bring together all the players in working towards economic, social and cultural development in a more integrated way. The chair can require the manager to defer a decision or action on any matter on which the CPG requests a report. Pending consideration of such a report by the council, this is subject to the necessary safeguards.
In addition to these specific matters, the chair has ade facto community leadership role. However, because legislation is the bread and butter of the Oireachtas, we can lose sight of the non-legislative role the motivated, energetic, directly elected chair could play in promoting local government through his and her presence and leadership capabilities. It is this role which may have most public impact and help to turn round public perception in relation to local government. Such a democratic mandate provides a powerful stimulus to local government in exercising a lead role as the key focus for local development generally.
There have been criticisms that this proposal will move power away from councillors. This is not accepted - quite the contrary. It will enhance the role of councillors by counter-balancing the substantial power of the managers. That the chair will be elected by direct vote of the people and will hold office for the life of the council will alter the current internal dynamics of local government and significantly enhance the position of the chairvis-à-vis the executive.
Ultimately, effective and strong local government is the overall aim. This will not be achieved without change and a new vision. The proposal for a directly elected chair is the ideal opportunity to establish a credible democratic role for local authorities in the minds and hearts of the public. It is an opportunity to engage the public perception with the concept of strong local government leadership if the aim of restoring local government to its rightful place at the heart of the community is to be fulfilled.
The first thing that must be said about the issue we are discussing is that local government is in serious trouble. It occupies just a tiny proportion of our total governance, unlike in most other European countries. There has been a great deal of talk in recent weeks about our remoteness from decision-making in Europe and so on. At least in other European countries European Union development is complemented by a very strong local and regional government, which we do not have. Consequently, we have the worst of both worlds. People feel increasingly remote from decision-making and that they do not have control over the issues that immediately affect their lives and environment. Even though people will elect the council every five years they very quickly discover that in our system of local government there is an arrangement whereby much of the real power rests with county managers, either by way of the executive powers conferred on county managers or by default, because the reserved functions, which are the functions of elected members of local authorities, are not being exercised. In addition, recently there were very damning criticisms, with which I concur, by the Ombudsman of the way in which local authorities function. A recent report described the operation of the planning system in local authorities as being in a state of collapse. It described local authorities as operating in a way which is not open, accountable or transparent. To be fair, these criticisms cannot be levelled against the members or the staff of local authorities who give enormous commitment to the service of their local communities. The problem is a structural one. We have a system of local government which is at least a century out of date.
The problem could have been tackled in a number of ways. We could have a Bill which would devolve real powers. The type of powers exercised by local government in other countries could be devolved to local government. These would include powers in relation to education, health, policing, transport and so on. We have a local government system which is responsible for nothing other than infrastructure. The Bill could seriously restructure local government. The same structures of local government are being proposed as were in the 1898 Act, even though in reality, cities, towns and so on have developed beyond county boundaries and this is not reflected in the Bill. There could have been a rebalancing of the powers between county managers and elected members in the Bill.
The only reforming proposal in the Bill is the one to have an elected mayor. There is some attraction in the idea of creating a democratically elected third pillar in local government and having someone do that job full time. Local authorities face a difficulty in exercising their reserved functions because, on the one hand, a county manager, who is a full-time executive with an entire administrative apparatus backing him up, is responsible for the executive functions and, on the other, elected members of the council are part-time, come to meetings at 5 p.m. after a day's work and are snowed under with an increasing load of documents and reports. Their every decision is interpreted by the manager who advises them of their powers and if they seek legal advice they are offered the legal opinion of the council's own law agent who also advises the manager and tends to give to the council advice which is appropriate to the manager.
It would help to have a full-time democratically elected office which would help to shore up the democratic side of local government. This does not have to be done by the election of a mayor or county chairperson. It could, for example, be achieved by the council electing a full-time leader for the period of five years. There is merit in the idea of a universal election for the office. It would enhance public interest in local government and give it democratic legitimacy.
My party and I are sympathetic to the idea of an elected mayor because, with the state of local government, some reform is better than no reform. My difficulty with the proposal before us and my reason for waiting to hear what the Minister had to say is that in the absence of any significant powers being given to this office we may be creating more problems than we are solving. If a mayor is elected who does not enjoy the support of the council, a gridlock could be created. In that case the mayor could become the alter ego of the manager, depending on the calibre of the mayor. There will also be a public expectation that a directly elected mayor or county chairperson is in charge of the city or county and every time the bins are not collected or something goes seriously wrong the citizens will demand that the mayor or county chairperson solve the problem. In reality, he or she will have no executive function and will be unable to do any more than any other public representative.
I would like to support the proposal but I cannot support a proposal for a directly elected mayor or county chairperson in the absence of real powers for that office. I do not agree with encircling the office with qualification periods. We do not have qualification periods or apprenticeships for political offices and I do not agree with the idea. When a person reaches the age of 18 and is entitled to vote he or she should be entitled to stand for any office. It should be up to the people to decide whether to elect a candidate. Neither do I agree with the idea of term limits. That does not apply to other offices. Perhaps it should, but that is a matter for another debate. It should not be introduced in local government if it is not the norm elsewhere.
Unless the Minister can convince me that real powers will attach to this post and introduces such powers as amendments on Report Stage I cannot support the proposal. I would like to support it because I believe local government needs to be reformed. However, reform which does not have meat is not reform and is likely to make the situation worse rather than better.
When the Minister announced this idea at a meeting of the local authorities members' association he indicated that the elected mayor might have co-decision powers with the manager. That proposal is not in the Bill. There has been speculation that, just as the Minister was persuaded by the chairman and his colleagues to change his mind on section 14, he had previously been persuaded by the county managers to change his mind on this idea. It is a good idea but if the office of elected mayor does not have powers it will be a paper tiger.
Like Deputy Gilmore, I support the concept of a directly elected mayor with genuine power and functions, his or her own administration and a mandate from the public as well as majority support in the council. The limited powers which elected members have now would be enhanced if there was a re-balancing of powers between managers and elected members. The proposal contains none of these elements and is, therefore, a power for disrupting the operation of local government. An elected mayor who cannot achieve anything and who may be at odds with the elected members - this will happen - will damage the local government process. It will damage people's faith in local government, such as it is, because it seems to promise much but will deliver only chaos.
I am reluctant to place a qualification on people standing for election. However, in the case of an office such as is proposed with no administration, majority support or prior knowledge of how local authorities function, such a qualification might have given some protection to the public. I accept that it is not an ideal solution and I merely suggest it as a plan B should I fail to have the sections deleted, as I suspect I will.
The Minister for the Environment and Local Government accepted the proposal that a prior knowledge of local government should be a condition of being elected mayor. Why was this amendment not brought forward?
Before the Minister replies, I wish to add more to what was said. I listened carefully to the Minister's reply and know that they are Deputy Dempsey's views and he uses words like "novel idea" or "effective and strong local government". About 90% of that is aspirational and nothing else. Deputy Gilmore and others referred to the devolution of powers which is the one thing we all ask for. He also referred to responsibility for structure but we do not have even that. If a county council wants to build an SI cottage, it must get approval from the Department. We are not trusted to build one single house in a rural area. We are discussing a Bill which is important for every citizen as everyone comes under a local authority. It is foolish to believe that a directly elected mayor can be effective in the present circumstances. He will not be. The problem is the devolution of power. We failed to persuade successive Ministers that we are responsible enough for the working of our county and should be given the power to do it. In 1977, the Fianna Fáil manifesto did more damage to local government than was done 50 years before or since. It gave free car tax, abolished rates on houses and the rest but we were never given back the authority to raise revenue.
Does the Deputy not remember the 1960s?
I did not interrupt the Minister. That manifesto did more damage than anything else. There was no corresponding increase in authorities' income. However, there is little we can do about that now. Extra functions are pushed on to local authorities but they are not given the finance to carry them out. Rates are restricted too. It was 4% last year and it is more realistic this year, which we do not like to admit. The deficits in the council are the Department's responsibility, which failed through the years to finance us to carry out the functions. Now there is gridlock everywhere. We must tell the public that planning permission entails contributions for roads, water, sewerage and other facilities because the money is not there.
There is nothing in the Bill about devolving power to local authorities. The Department of Finance is more to blame than the Department of the Environment and Local Government. It is the same with houses, water and sewerage. We fight over technical points. As this stage in our development as a State, we should have confidence in local representatives to do the job and give them the power to do it. Only the commercial sector, which carries enough already, is left. Our party in Government removed the water rates and the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, promised to change that but did not. Revenue is lost to the county councils. The Chairman would agree with me. Things are getting worse, not better. This Bill will not improve the situation. Putting on another layer in the form of an elected mayor is crazy.
For the local authority system to work properly, three parties must co-operate - the elected council, the chair and the executive. Some of the contributors have no confidence in this but it must happen and the public expects it. The chair will chair the county development board, which brings together the State agencies, the social partner and the SPC chairs. For the first time, the local authority under the directly elected chair will be able to influence public bodies operating locally. This is the first attempt at real devolution. We and the committee examined other countries' models. Many were impressed by the progress of local government under directly elected mayors.
Do they have majorities?
We are at an embryonic stage. Traditionally, notwithstanding the fact that local authorities could have had more power, we tend to underestimate the powers of elected members. My own experience as Minister for the Environment and Local Government revealed the extraordinary difference between what members of one local authority and another do. The map shows an unbelievable divergence. People said the same about the Presidency, but a raft of changes, under existing law and statute, were introduced by President McAleese and her predecessor. The position is the same regarding a directly elected chair. There is the opportunity to advance the cause of local government and prepare the ground for further change. We do not say that this is the be-all and end-all or that we have all the answers. We are sure that we should not leave things as they were but must attempt some change. It is unfair to say that local authorities have no funds to do things. In recent years the Minister made unprecedented effortsto underpin local authority funding. It is up by 63%. Decisions originally taken by the Department are now taken at local level.
Can the Minister give an example?
Deputy D'Arcy knows that when many functions are delegated to local authorities, hard decisions are delegated back to the Minister.
Who gets rid of them as fast as he can.
The Minister must give us examples of what was handed to county councils. I want to know.
We are discussing a proposal which we believe is in the interests of local authorities and the people. We ask for it to be given a fair chance. There is cross party support for it, if not in the detail. There is no more for me to say.
In the other countries which were looked at was there any which had directly elected mayors running a council for five years where they did not have a majority?
What exactly does the Deputy mean by a majority?
Somebody to support decisions.
It has not been——
I am surprised to be asked what I mean by a majority. That is the whole point of my argument.
I have not had that experience. In my younger days I chaired my own council and——
The Minister was there because there was majority support.
If I had been depending on support from my own political party only in terms of policy change, there would have been occasions when I might not have been able to have it. The fact that I was able to enjoy cross-party support meant that——
Why does the Minister think he had cross-party support?
Elected representatives of all political parties set out to——
They voted for the Minister.
No, of course they did not vote for me.
They had to vote the Minister into the chair. That is how the system operates.
That is one function. Afterwards the work of the local authority, including policy implementation, has to proceed in which case one tries to get the support of as many members as possible to make changes and improvements. That option is always available.
Does the Minister know, therefore, of any country where this system is operated without a majority?
It seems there are plenty of examples we could give the Deputy but I cannot give them off the top of my head.
Are they on the other side of the world?
I have no doubt that there are plenty and they include some in this country.
Nobody has bothered to find out where they are or how well they have worked.
Let me ask about the question of examples, at some of which I have looked but not in great detail. There are examples where the directly elected mayor in some American cities has complete authority over education, health and policing. In some of the cities concerned the percentage vote is about 22% or 23% and there is continuing conflict between the directly elected mayor and the sitting council and the administration. I have asked my brother over there to do some research for me on the issue but have not yet received the results. In some American cities where mayors have complete authority about 80% of funds is raised locally, although a certain amount is received from central funds. I assure the Minister that some of the directly elected mayors concerned are disasters with regard to decision making.
The Minister says there are examples. I would like to know which cities he is talking about. It is easy to give examples - I do not accuse the Minister of selecting ones to suit himself - but we would like a mix. With the Minister, we should be entitled to pick examples where directly elected mayors are operating.
I can certainly give some of the examples we have from New Zealand. The variety of systems across the world is infinite. There are systems where the mayor has considerable power and where a considerable amount of funds is raised domestically. Such a system would not operate well here. There are also successful mayors whose powers are extremely limited but yet do an excellent job in providing leadership.
We are not copycats. We are not attempting to copy a specific development in another area. We have looked at other areas and are proposing this option as a step in the right direction. We seek change, greater public involvement and a more co-operative approach in local government and believe this is one instrument that can be of help in this regard. We will let committee members have some of the examples we have from New Zealand in particular. There are wide differences in different parts of the world.
Does the Minister accept that the question of finance is fundamental to the success of local government?
Yes. There has been a very significant change made by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in ensuring certainty for local authorities in terms of the funds they receive. Funds are not unlimited. People are looking for funds in every area. For example, there has been a phenomenal increase in funds for the county road system which have trebled in recent years and with which excellent work has been done.
Neither I nor my party can support it.
We have a difficulty here. If something real was being created, we could support it but it must be borne in mind that the Minister has a Waste Management Bill which purports to take powers from the members of local authorities and give them to county managers. Every time an issue arises in local government where the Minister does not like the decision made by the elected members he takes power from them and gives it to the county manager. In this context the concept of directly elected mayors is a bit of a fig leaf. The only new power being given to directly elected mayors is the one to delay a county manager's decision by two months. I do not see any other power in the Bill that an existing cathaoirleach or mayor does not already have. They already chair meetings and various committees depending on Standing Orders. Giving mayors the power to propose initiatives is not new. Will the mayor be paid the same salary as the county manager? That is the test.
That will be a matter for the local authority to decide.
Will it change annually?
That will also be a matter for the local authority to decide.
This is becoming more and more farcical.
What will happen is that the mayor will be directly elected, the county manager will quickly suss out whether the mayor or cathaoirleach will do his or her bidding, and if he or she will play ball with the county manager, he or she will be included in the loop. Some mayors or cathaoirleachs will go native and become part of the problem while others will not. Those who do not will be allocated one secretary and put in an office at the end of the corridor.
That is a poor understanding of our democratic system.
That is how it will work.
That is exactly how it works.
Democratic legitimacy means that one gives powers to those who are elected. If the mayor is sent to the end of the corridor with one secretary, there is nothing that he or she can do about it.
The Deputies do not seem to have any confidence in themselves to do a job.
That is not correct. We do not have confidence in the Bill to do the job. Having been discussed by every local authority it is the decided opinion, even of the administration——
The Deputies do not want to change anything even by one iota——
No, it is the decided opinion——
While we seek change, we do not want the same thing. This is the one measure that could have brought change had it been done properly.
It is also the opinion of the administration of councils that this is a bad Bill.
It is a waste of time Bill. It does not change anything.
Almost everything has been thrown into it from the waste Bill. There will be no local authority where the county manager will make a decision on waste policy unless the elected members fail to do it themselves. There will be no circumstances where those powers will be used unless the local authority themselves fail to do what they are obliged to do.
Local authorities are set up to fail. They should be allowed make their own mistakes and not always have the fear that the Minister is going to step in. The Minister changed the road in my constituency against the will of the elected members and against the will of the people. That road is now being built. That is why people have no faith in local government.
I do not decide where roads go.
The Minister present was the Minister who did it. He certainly did not allow the local members decide it. A letter came back saying that the Minister was unhappy with this——
I do not decide where roads go.
The decision was taken to remove the powers in relation to waste management from the elected members. In the area in which I participate I was the author of ten amendments that went forward. Eight of them were adopted by the council and each one was very important and eminently sensible. Unfortunately we have a situation now where the powers have been taken from us and given to the county managers. They can now impose a procedure to address the mountains of waste that was not the view of the elected members. I have to concur with the other councillors that this is patently unacceptable.
In relation to section 39, I have already recorded my welcome in principle for the proposition for the establishment of directly elected mayors and cathaoirligh of comhairle conntae. Deputy Gilmore and myself have indicated in clearer terms that we view the proposition to have directly elected mayors and cathaoirligh as something to be achieved. The common thinking among all of us is that there is a huge deficit in terms of the powers and responsibilities of local government and the absence of the wherewithal to make a significant difference in the daily life of ordinary people for whom we are expected to administer a system of local government. I ask the Minister to consider the grave concerns of members. This is an issue that can secure cross-party support if the Government would address some of the areas of concern that have been highlighted. The Government should seek on Report Stage to introduce parity in relation to further powers and functions that should be vested in these positions. I urge and encourage the Minister to do that.
When a request of that nature was made to me up to now, if I felt it was realistic to do it or if I could hold out a hope that there was a prospect of being able to meet it, I would definitely give that indication. As I do not see the scope here, I do not wish to get engaged in that commitment. We tend to under-rate and underestimate the powers of the elected members; we tend to denigrate what is now about £730 million allocated to local authorities, which is 63% or 64% more than what was allocated in 1997. There has been significant funding for a range of activities and we seem to play that down as being not significant. The best part of £1 billion which is being given to local authorities is significant funding and it is now underpinned in a manner which will safeguard it for the future. I am not in a position to indicate that there is great scope for hope on Report Stage in the context of this proposal.
We will attempt to proceed. We have discussed the sections relating to direct elections, sections 39 to 43, inclusive. If we make the same amount of progress with the next 20 or 30 sections, we could be here until 15 August which is a very big fair day in Kenmare. I do not know what we should do.
This is the most important section in the Bill and it needs to be thrashed out. I will be voice voting all of the amendments with the exception of section 40 on which I will call a division. I will withdraw amendment No. 52 if the Minister could just tell me whether it is unconstitutional. I understand that is the rumour going around.
The Deputy requested that a person qualified for a position as cathaoirleach must have served at least five years.
The Minister indicated his acceptance of this.
The advice available is that there is a constitutional problem.
If it is unconstitutional I will withdraw amendment No. 52.
I move amendment No. 51:
In page 45, lines 5 to 9, to delete subsection (6).
I will take legal advice and may resubmit this amendment on Report Stage.
- Haughey, Seán.
- Healy-Rae, Jackie.
- Kelleher, Billy.
- Killeen, Tony.
- Molloy, Robert.
- Moloney, John.
- Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
- Power, Seán.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- D’Arcy, Michael.
- Gilmore, Éamon.
- Mitchell, Olivia.
On a point of order, Chairman, I was outside the door while the bell was ringing. On my understanding, four minutes are allowed after the bell ceases ringing and before the door is locked. Today, the door was locked immediately the bell ceased. I wish to be recorded as objecting to that procedure, which I believe is illegal.
I was not on the door, Deputy McCormack.
I want to find out who ordered the locking of the door immediately the bell ceased. That is not the procedure laid down. The procedure is that the door remains open for four minutes after the bell ceases. I was there when the bell started and, as Whip, I waited outside to contact some of our members.
Under Standing Orders, we are obliged to wait eight minutes, or until the full membership is present, before proceeding to take the division——
That is correct, and the full membership was not present since I was not present.
——and the division was taken after ten minutes, to be precise.
Let us clarify it. Maybe my interpretation is wrong. My understanding is that four minutes are allowed after the bell ceases. If that is not the case, it should be clarified for all members and I will then clarify it for my members.
The procedure is the same as in the Dáil, Deputy. I am sorry.
That is correct, but "the same as in the Dáil" means that there are four minutes from when the bell ceases until the doors are locked.
I am informed that it rang for eight minutes.
The issue is not about how long the bell rang. I want to know is there a length of time after the bell ceases before the doors are locked. What is the regulation? I simply want clarification for the future; there is no point complaining about the past.
The time allowed is a total of eight minutes from when the vote is called.
Is that eight minutes of bell-ringing, or four minutes bell-ringing and four minutes afterwards?
It is a total of eight minutes, Deputy.
The Chair is not answering my question. I want an answer to the question, either now or later. Is it eight minutes of bell-ringing or is there a period between the end of the bell-ringing and the locking of the door? I just want to know the procedure. I am sure members of the other parties would also like to know.
All I can say is that the total period allowed is eight minutes and in this case, the actual period was ten minutes.
I am not complaining about the past. I simply want to know the position for future reference. Does the bell ring for eight minutes and is the door then automatically locked or is there any leeway from the time the bell stops ringing until the door is locked? It is a very simple question. I want to know for future votes.
As far as I know, Chairman, there is leeway from the time the bell ends, but there is no question of it ringing for eight minutes.
There was also some confusion yesterday when a division in this committee coincided with a division in another committee.
The normal practice seems to be that the bell rings for six minutes and then there is a further four minutes leeway.
That is right. That is a total of ten minutes. I want it recorded that I missed the vote because of the malpractice, misunderstanding or mistake in locking the door without allowing any time - not even a second - after the bell ceased. I was standing at the door when it was locked.
I am very sorry that happened to you, Deputy McCormack. You are not one who misses votes.
The concerns raised by Deputy McCormack are serious and require clarification.
As Whip - I am sure Deputy Kelleher will agree - I only wish to know the procedure and I will ensure my members abide by it.
Could we get clarification during the recess? From a Government point of view, it is equally important, if not more so, that I have all my members present.
We will do that.
I move amendment No. 53:
In page 45, subsection (1)(d), lines 41 to 45, to delete all words from and including “and” in line 41 down to and including “office’.” in line 45.
Amendments Nos. 55, 220 and 222 to 225, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 55:
In page 47, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) A local authority shall ensure that advance notice of local authority meetings is posted regularly at a public place adjacent to or at the offices of that local authority and in all public libraries.".
The thrust of all of these amendments is to increase public awareness of council meetings, to facilitate access by the public and the media and, generally, to make the workings of local authorities more transparent and accessible to the public. They are self-evident. There is no need to go into them in any great detail. I hope the Minister will see the reasons for them. They will not make a great deal of difference to the Bill if he accepts them.
My amendmentNo. 222 reads:
In page 193, paragraph 8(1)(a), line 14, after “principal officers” to insert “and in each public library within the functional area of the authority.”
In line with the last speaker, I believe this is a natural extension of access to the critical information now under discussion. I hope the Minister will accede to this request.
The purpose of my amendment is to increase the public information available about meetings and about other notices which are posted by the local authority. The specific proposal I am making in this batch of amendments is that the notices be published on the council's website. Most councils have websites and those that do not will have them in a very short period. Increasingly, that will be the source to which the public turns for information on public affairs. Notices of meetings and minutes of meetings and public notices should be on the council's website.
These amendments relate primarily to the advance notice of public meetings displayed in public libraries. One of the underlying objectives of the Bill is to increase openness and transparency in relation to local authority operations. The substantive provision in section 45 gives a right of attendance to the media and the public to attend local authority meetings. In addition, the Bill provides in Schedule 6, paragraph 8, that public notice must be displayed in or at principal offices of local authorities, convenient for public inspection.
For the first time, this provision makes it clear that such notice shall include the agenda or specify where the agenda can be inspected. In addition, paragraph 8(3) makes it clear that public notice may also be given in such other ways as radio, newspaper, Internet, electronically, etc, as the elected council may decide by resolution. This provision needs also to be read in the spirit of section 126 which concerns consultation with the local community and which provides that local authorities further facilitate the process of consultation and participation by making available such notice and other material at suitable locations, additional to those required by law.
I have, however, tabled amendment No. 225 to Schedule 9, paragraph 8, to include a reference specifically to public libraries in the context of additional locations where the notice of local authority meetings can be displayed. This is in recognition of the importance I attach to our public library service and the way the service has grown to interact and communicate with the public. The question of additional locations for public notice is left to the decision and discretion of the elected council. I feel that this is the correct approach. I have gone all the way with Deputies except where local authorities have discretion to themselves add to that list, if they so decide by resolution.
As the mover of amendment No. 222, which relates to the extension to the public library service, I welcome the Minister's amendment No. 225. I accept that the thrust of my proposal is reflected in the Minister's stated intent. Accordingly, I withdraw amendment No. 222 in favour of the Minister's amendment No. 225. I welcome his remarks.
The Minister has not made specific provision for advertising on council websites. We are at a point in our history and development where that should be provided for in legislation, or did I miss something?
Paragraph 8(3) deals with electronic information.
Where is that?
Page 193, paragraph 8.
Amendments Nos. 56 to 59, inclusive, and No. 65 are related and may be taken together
Before we move on, I indicated, in the last series of amendments discussed, that I was moving amendment No. 225. The others are withdrawn in order to meet the requirements in the other amendments. Is that amendment taken as agreed?
It is agreed.
I move amendment No. 56:
In page 47, between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) A local authority shall make reasonable efforts to inform the public and representatives of the media of meetings of the local authority and to inform them of how access to such meetings can be obtained.".
The thrust of this amendment is the same as recently discussed amendments. It is to ensure that information about local authority meetings is disseminated to the public and that the media have access to meetings and are informed how access to meetings is to be obtained. The thrust of the amendment is to ensure that it is known when meetings are taking place, where they are taking place, the agenda for those meetings and how the public and the media obtain permission to attend those meetings. It is about openness and encouraging interest in the procedures and work of local authorities.
This is about public and media attendance at council meetings. More often than not, the public gallery at meetings of councils is empty or almost empty. It is only on occasions of controversy or of particular interest that the gallery will fill up. On those occasions, it is often the case that the space is not there to meet demand for access by the public.
The public has a theoretical right to attend meetings of the council but this cannot be met in practice. My amendment suggests that there should be a procedure for allowing members of the public to obtain the information they seek. If the public cannot be admitted due to space considerations, they should have the right to the minutes of particular meetings if they had offered to attend those meetings.
It is now possible for council meetings to be relayed on the Internet. If there are television or audio facilities available in the chamber - this is not expensive or complicated technology - it should be possible for meetings of councils to be available to any member of the public over the Internet. As digital television and the linkages between digital television and the Internet develop this will be commonplace. The technology will soon be there. If a member of the public wants to find out what a council discussion on a roads or housing programme was about, they should be able to access that via the Internet and hear that discussion taking place in the council chamber. The Minister and the Department should encourage local authorities to move from the theoretical public access to council meetings we have had up to now to, which has been limited to a small number of people, to universal access which is technologically possible. It should be encouraged, facilitated and promulgated as quickly as possible so that people have direct access to council meetings. It is one of the ways in which a greater degree of public interest and participation in local government can be encouraged.
My amendment No. 59 is an advance on earlier amendments as it particularly specifies the need to ensure access to council meetings for those with disabilities. We have all experienced the limited accommodation for the public in council chambers. It is extremely important that councils do not adopt a merely aspirational view of access for the public. They must create space to allow the public to access their meetings. I agree with Deputy Gilmore that Internet access can be used, but it is not available to everyone. There is a critical need to accommodate the public and to develop the facilities necessary to ensure safe access for people with disabilities. Great efforts have been made over the years to ensure that members of the press have been accommodated, but facilities are sometimes archaic.
My amendment suggests that it is not enough for council members to agree to take action, but then to limit access. If the construction of chambers limits access, the council should move elsewhere for its monthly meetings. It should hire a local public or private facility to ensure there is access. It is not enough to aspire, action must be taken. Many council chambers are on the second or higher floors and do not have lifts for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities. I hope the Minister accepts the thrust of my amendment and I look forward to his response.
I support previous speakers as these amendments are very worthwhile. While access is provided to members of the press, facilities are not great. Journalists should be able to record the proceedings of the council on television or radio. Many council chambers cannot facilitate members of the public, or can only take a few people. My experience with Wicklow County Council is that a maximum of ten or 15 people can fit into the chamber, but there are development plans. There have been difficulties during contentious debates and the Garda have had to be called on a number of occasions to quell disturbances.
Is the Deputy speaking about football matches or county council meetings?
They are very similar in County Wicklow and it is sometimes difficult to differentiate.
Is it that they do not play the ball?
A colleague of the Minister on Bray Urban District Council was kicked while going to a council meeting in the recent past. Regrettably, one of the difficulties is that many groups are mobilised by politicians trying to intimidate and bully their way to a certain decision. While I like to see public galleries full, the groups that turn up are not representative of the public. I welcome further access, but the safety of members is an important issue.
I apologise for not being here earlier for an amendment dealing with a related issue, the publicising of meetings. On Wicklow County Council, I have had bad experiences as a result of the tremendous amount of misinformation that emerges from meetings. Certain individuals lie about what took place and the stances taken on issues. As well as publicising meetings, it is important that we publish the minutes of meetings so that people can stand over what was said.
My final point is that the voting record of local authority members should be available. The shortage of housing is a contentious issue at the moment, yet the claim is made that local authorities are trying to block housing in various areas. Everyone says the Government should buy land banks, but they cannot come up with a suitable place for purchase. I do not wish to be caught up in a Fianna Fáil debate, but we should take our lead from the United States by "Americanising" our voting records so that people can be judged on how they voted. I look forward to the day when a housing estate will have a sign outside it saying that it was built despite the fact that certain named councillors voted against it. In County Wicklow, the people who object to the construction of certain estates are the first to try to court favour with the residents who move in. I thank Members for indulging me.
The chamber in Kildare County Council is quite new and there are better facilities for those who wish to attend than in most other counties. There is a lack of public interest in county council meetings, which is why there is such a poor public attendance. It is only when contentious issues, such as landfill sites, are under discussion that groups come to put pressure on councillors to take a certain line. Poor attendance is caused by a lack of interest or possibly by people not being aware of their right to attend. It is important that we let the public know it can attend county council meetings. The local media plays an important role and is given every facility and assistance from local authorities to that end. As politicians, we appreciate that our meetings are not always reported as we might want, but that must be accepted as a consequence of a free press. We should encourage the local media as far as possible as it has to sit through unexciting debates. Local newspapers and, more recently, local radio report on meetings and it is important that members of local authorities use this avenue to inform the public.
Deputy Gilmore made a good point about changes in technology and it is only a matter of time before we begin to use the Internet to a greater extent, although many local authorities use it to a certain degree already. I would not like great expense to be incurred in making facilities available if they are not to be used. If poor attendance at meetings is an indication of a lack of interest among the public, it is important that we do not go to any great expense to report our meetings or make them available to the public.
The Bill, as published, provides for the right of attendance but there is clearly a wide variety of offices serving local authorities and reasonable efforts should be made to facilitate the public. Not everything can be achieved over night so the word "reasonable" is clear enough. The important point is that we are moving in the right direction. I accept the point about people with disabilities. We have come a long way in recent years and it was time for us to do it. The world appeared to be built by mostly able-bodied people, mostly men, without taking into account the needs of women or, in particular, those with disabilities. The Equal Status Act, 2000, and the Employment Equality Act, 1998, apply to local authorities and will create much more pressure on everybody to take account of people's needs and ensure those are met as fully as possible. The provisions of the Bill are solid and do not require amendment.
A number of points have been raised and Deputy Timmins usually comes in with something new. I have good reason to know Wicklow people can be threatened now and then but I did not associate that with attendance at local authority meetings. I thought it was more likely to happen on wider fronts, out on the green fields. There are problems that have to be addressed and the safety of councils is an obviously important matter. If there is too much congestion and insufficient space there can be problems so local authorities have the discretion and the powers to address that themselves. Though it cannot be done over night, councils know what they have to do and they are encouraged to do it.
I support the concept, which is a good one. With the technology now available it should be the way local authorities go.
I am sorry for the over-run on time. As agreed, we will resume at 2.30 p.m.
We resume our deliberations on the Local Government Bill, 2000.
I move amendment No. 59:
In page 48, between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) A local authority shall make reasonable efforts to accommodate access for members of the public, including people with disabilities, and representatives of the media at local authority meetings.".
I move amendment No. 60:
In page 48, before section 46, to insert the following new section:
"46.-The manager shall from time to time as may be necessary assign the duties of meetings administration to an employee (referred to in this Act as a 'meetings administrator') of a local authority.".
The intention in this section is to provide for the assignment of functions in regard to the administrative work associated with local authority meetings to an employee. It is also intended that a member of staff would be assigned these duties within the context of the normal corporate procedures along with whatever other duties might be appropriate in the local authority concerned. The revised section which is the subject of the amendment better reflects this position than does the more formal "nominate" as in the original which seems to indicate a procedure outside the normal remit of corporate assignments.
Amendments Nos. 61 and 62 are related and will be taken together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 61:
In page 48, subsection (3)(b), to delete lines 43 and 44 and substitute the following:
"(ii) the term of office of-
(I) members of the strategic policy committees, and
(II) chairpersons, which shall not be less than 3 years, and".
Strategic policy committees are an important element in placing members at the heart of policy development from the early stages. The Bill provides a key role for the corporate policy group comprising the cathaoirleach and SPC chairs in key corporate policy areas such as the annual budget, corporate plan for the life of the council and overview of SPC operations. These are major responsibilities and will demand commitment, knowledge and experience which will be gained over time in order to work effectively and maximise the potential of the new system. If the opportunities are to be grasped and the SPCs and CPG co-operate on a proper basis as intended, the chair is supposed to be prepared to specialise to an extent in the field of his SPC. The Minister is concerned that the position of chairpersons of SPCs has been weakened by the current practice of rotating the post on an annual basis and negating the benefits of the position, particularly the role of the membervis-à-vis the executive. This amendment seeks to fix a minimum period for the term of office of chairpersons, which will not be less than three years. SPC chairs will also be paid an allowance under section 141(c), with the intention that the CPG will operate as a mini-cabinet, which is impossible if there is to be an annual merry-go-round.
The purpose of my amendment No. 62 is to apply the provisions of section 27 of the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, to the election of chairpersons of SPCs. That was the section of the 1985 Act which provided for the grouping arrangement for the election of committees and the election of nominees to various bodies.
I have had practical experience of how this operates on the council on which I serve. My party comprises a quarter of the membership of that local authority. A post-election arrangement was made between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the chair of the council and various other nominations. While I may have views on that arrangement, I accept the political reality that parties make arrangements following elections. When we came to elect the chairs of the SPCs, the majority took all, and in this case members who comprised a quarter of the total council membership were excluded from holding any SPC chairs. This was despite the fact that in the guidelines that were issued by the Department relating to the election of SPC chairs it stated that they should comply with section 27 of the 1985 Act - that the grouping arrangement should apply. They were just guidelines and had no legal effect and so could not be enforced, which is why I am seeking that this arrangement be written into the Bill.
The chairs of SPCs will constitute the corporate policy group which will have a function in regard to the preparation of council estimates. The Minister of State has said it will in time develop into a form of cabinet for the local authority and it is critically important that we do not arrive at a position where a majority of council members can effectively take all of the chairs of the SPCs and consequently the entire corporate policy group. If that happens it will create a very difficult situation in local authorities. A precedent has already been established that in the election of committees and the appointment of nominees the principle of proportionality should apply in the way in which these elections are conducted. If there are five chairs of SPCs then a grouping arrangement should apply to that.
I put it very strongly to the Minister of State that this amendment should be accepted because if it is left to following departmental guidelines these will be set aside when it is convenient and, unfortunately, we already have an example of this occurring.
Deputy Gilmore's amendment seeks to apply the provisions of section 27 of the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, to the appointment of councillors to SPCs and to SPC chairs. Section 27 was designed to ensure an element of proportionality in the making of appointments by a local authority and is now re-enacted in schedule 9, paragraph 18, of the Bill. Section 48(3) provides that SPCs are to be established in accordance with guidelines issued by the Minister and that these guidelines must include provision for the procedures to apply to ensure fairness and equity in the appointment of chairpersons. Such guidelines are being placed on a statutory footing for the first time and the local authority will be obliged to operate in accordance with them. The current guidelines specify that where agreement is not possible, section 27 procedures are to apply to the election of chairpersons. That should meet the Deputy's concerns with regard to the chairs.
With regard to the appointment of members of SPCs, the position is somewhat different; the non-councillor members are appointed on the nomination of relevant sectoral interests. The current guidelines were prepared in close consultation with the social partners and the councillor associations. As regards the councillor members, the guidelines specify that every councillor must be on at least one SPC and depending on the SPC framework adopted by the council, some may be on two. It is not possible for every councillor to be on every SPC. That would negate the rationale where SPCs are intended to develop expertise in their own field. That being the case, section 27 is an inappropriate mechanism to use as it applies on a separate basis to each committee. What is required is an overview of all the SPCs taken together to ensure representation by all councillors in an equitable way. The matter should be left to the guidelines, which now have statutory backing.
Schedule 9, paragraph 18, lists all the different circumstances where the grouping arrangement is to apply and it does not refer to either the SPCs collectively or the chairs of the SPCs collectively. It should do so. As I understand it at the moment, it is open to a local authority to take each SPC chair individually and claim that because there is only one post being filled, it is a majority situation. There is no requirement that where there are five SPC chairs they must be taken as a grouping for the purpose of the application of the grouping arrangement. If a council decides to elect the housing SPC first, then that is called and has its own division, then the next one is taken and the grouping situation does not arise.
Where the SPCs are concerned, it is in the guidelines.
The guidelines do not have any statutory basis.
They are statutory now and one must comply with them.
Where does it say that? If it says it, I will accept it.
Section 54(2) states that "The Minister may issue general policy guidelines to local authorities for the purposes of any provision of this Part and the authorities shall comply with any such guidelines". That states that they are statutory guidelines and must be complied with.
If the guidelines are issued, must they be complied with?
Until now, because they were not statutorily based, they did not have to be complied with. Now they are statutorily based.
Will the Minister of State say whether the guidelines issued regarding SPCs must be followed? Is there anything to prevent a Minister changing the guidelines?
The intent is to have fairness and equity in the distribution and to ensure there is representation on the different SPCs and that each councillor is on some SPC.
I do not disagree with the principle, but I want to make sure it is tied down. Before Report Stage, will the Minister of State examine the possibility of adding the SPCs to either Schedule 9 or having his own amendment that would make it explicitly clear that the grouping arrangement applies to SPCs and chairs of SPCs?
It is already provided for in the guidelines, which are to be made statutory. Is Deputy Gilmore asking if the Minister can change the guidelines?
Does Deputy Gilmore want this written into the Bill?
Yes, in the same way that it is included in the Bill for——
We would have to leave it open as it might be desirable to have a change in the guidelines at some stage, everybody being in agreement - not in relation to that point but to others.
That is correct.
One could not have it inflexible so that legislation would be required to make changes to the guidelines.
I am not suggesting that at all. The only thing I am concerned about is the grouping arrangement. That can be done either by adding it to a list in Schedule 9 or by having a separate section. However, it must be clarified.
We will consider the matter. I have the same interest in ensuring that it operates correctly.
There is no question of any groups in local authorities being kept off SPCs.
I will not be drawn on this subject.
Are they kept off SPCs? I have not ever heard of it happening any party or group.
Every member should be on a committee——
The chairs are kept off.
That is correct. The chairs are different.
I move amendment No. 63:
In page 49, subsection (1), line 37, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
In this amendment, the inadequacy of language is a problem. The word "may" is vague and the word "shall" is possibly too prescriptive. What I am trying to encourage is the development of area committees so local authority administration and decision making will be as local as possible. There is a need, as demonstrated in the referendum, to provide some counterbalance to the increasing centralisation of decision making, both nationally and at EU level. Also, it provides more geographically based and integrated services than the kind of programme services that we have had in the past. It is accepted as the way forward for local government. I am anxious to ensure local authorities are aware of this and that they choose to move in this direction.
It is important in the context of growing populations that there is flexibility in increasing the number of local authority representatives in a growing area so that there are sufficient representatives to make a meaningful area committee. I am trying to encourage the use of area committees. It is an enabling provision for local authorities and I do not want to force them into anything they might not chose to do.
I also wish to change the word "may" to "shall". It is my experience over the past 15 years that area committees are certainly the functioning elements of local government. They are important for the business of local government and we should affirm the role they play, now and in the future. The word "may" is extremely weak. An optional approach is not desirable, but a more directional one is, and the word "shall" is intended to achieve this.
With regard to section 50(2), I welcome the recognition of the role of the cathaoirleach of a town council in area committees, who may not be an elected member of the county body that would make up the area committee. They should have access and be entitled to direct participation. Is it provided for in the event of the direct election of the cathaoirleach of a county council, who may not be an elected member representative on any of the four or more areas that constitute the county council or may be such in only one area, not in the others? Where the directly elected chairman of a county authority is concerned, the town council chair is being facilitated, but what of the chairman of the county body directly elected and without representation from any of the constituent ward areas, or from one of them, and what of access to the area committees of the others? Will the Minister of State address this in his response?
It is clear from where the Deputies derive their argument for this amendment. Strategic policy and strategic issues are the foci of SPCs. There is a need for a locality based dimension to the delivery of services, the purpose being local community and area development. The traditional types of area committees have a value in removing minor and detailed operational issues from the full council.
Moreover, an area committee can be adapted to act as an appropriate vehicle to facilitate the new role for local authorities in community development, as provided for in the task force report on the integration of local government and the local development systems. It is a route favoured by the Minister. However, much depends on local circumstances and it would be inappropriate to be overly proscriptive on this issue. The provision allows plenty of scope for flexibility and respects the fact that different authorities have different ways of doing business. What works well for one often will not work at all for others. In any event, more and more authorities are adopting the system of area committees. The local democratically elected members are making these choices, not the Minister or the Department. It is really returning decision-making powers to our local councillors. There is a practical difficulty in the sense that some of the smaller local authorities, like the town councils, would not necessarily need an area committee. Councils will feel that matters can be dealt with at the council. I can see a need for what is suggested here in the case of county councils where there would be larger county areas.
The section states "a local authority which is a county or city council". The opening line of section 50 is quite specific. The Minister is quite right, smaller town councils would not require such fragmentation but in this——
The section as worded in the Bill says "county council or city council".
Or city council.
Yes. What I am saying is that it would not be necessary in most city councils. The amendment might be more suitably focused on requiring it for county councils. I am not objecting to the principle if the section needs to be amended, if it needs to exclude city or smaller councils.
I do not have direct personal experience of involvement at city council level but even by the list of those who have been designated as city councils I presume - and I could be wrong - that the greater number of them operate on a ward basis. The district representative areas——
It is still the one town.
Cities are fairly large bodies. Even the smallest of those the Minister quoted yesterday, Waterford, has a population close in size to the county I represent. The Minister talked of a population of 45,000. Our population is only just in excess of 50,000 and yet we have four electoral areas and operate on the basis of area committees. I do not think that Waterford, as the smallest city in terms of population of those listed in the Bill, would suffer a disservice by having area committees. While I cannot be prescriptive I take the view that we are looking at equalisation. I think the ciall is correct in this instance. Will the Minister reflect a little on the questions I asked vis-à-vis directly elected chairs of county authorities and their access to area committees?
The directly elected chair of county councils?
Yes, county councils, where they may not be a member of an area council. Has provision been made for their access? This is a deficiency. We are providing in Part 2 for the cathaoirleach of town councils. I hope it is not too late but I am only pointing this out. The reason for doing that is that the Minister might take it on board and seek to address the discrepancy on Report Stage.
I serve on a county council whose area includes 100,000 people. We have four area committees the purpose of which is to allow locals send deputations to it. Does the word "shall" mean that the chairman of the county council must attend all those area committees? He will not thank us if that is the case. Apart from the four area committees we have general purposes, sheep dipping and all sorts of committees. If the word "shall" implies that he must attend all those committee meetings there is no way he could do it.
If the councils want to enable the chairperson to attend area committees they can provide for that in their own standing orders. I agree with the Deputy's argument. If we make it compulsory——
We are not making it compulsory even on the cathaoirleach of a town council. We are saying "Be a member of such area committees", that they have access. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The cathaoirleach of a county authority may not be a member or representative of any of the constituent areas by virtue of the new directly elected mayor/cathaoirleach procedure.
I understood the previous position to be that the chairperson of the council would be,ex officio, a member of most committees that were set up. Some standing orders provide for that. I do not see any difficulty with them doing that in their own standing orders.
In view of the fact that some of these are quite small they may not thank us if it is made a requirement that they must have an area committee in Dundalk or Drogheda, for example.
That is a slightly different argument than that of who chairs the meeting. A small town that does not need two area committees does not necessarily negate the thrust of the amendment. There can be an area local committee which is coterminous with the town. I do not want to spend a lot of time on it.
The area committees consist of the elected councillors.
Exactly, but there is no reason that a council itself cannot decide on an appropriate area committee to serve it no matter what its size.
It may do that as the section stands.
The reason for putting this amendment was to encourage it. I call for a voice vote.
We need to be careful that we do not put in legislation all kinds of things that we want local authorities to do. We already have in the legislation that the local authorities must have SPCs and MPCs in the case of municipal authorities. That is a standard formula that applies to all authorities. Beyond that, if a council wants to conduct its business by way of area or programme committees it should be left to the council itself. That should also be the case on the question of allowances attached to chairs of committees and so on. The council should have the freedom to organise their business through whatever formula of committees is appropriate to that council. It may differ from county to county or city to city.
The structure of the first part of section 50 leaves that fluidity in the hands of the councils. They can establish area committees of one, two or indeed all areas. It does not preclude that process or procedure. It is the principle of the committee of addressing specific areas of responsibility, be they in relation to roads, housinget al. We have all of those functioning in my county. I think the word “shall” applies. The Minister’s response earlier was interesting because he instanced smaller towns but we are not talking about smaller towns, county or city council areas.
He had mentioned Drogheda. Yesterday he denied Deputy Gilmore the opportunity to give Drogheda city status.
Waterford is the smallest city.
Waterford was the one I instanced earlier. I think the argument is that Waterford has a sufficient population base to accept a "shall" rather than a "may". I also call for a voice vote.
I did not think 31 years ago that I would be sitting here discussing area committees. A study of local government history would reveal that in a Green Paper published in 1971 I proposed the establishment of such committees. Time has moved on and Deputies have come around to our way of thinking.
Which "our" is that?
There was strong opposition to my proposal to establish area committees in 1971.
Mostly from within the Minister's party.
We have had them established for 30 years in Wexford.
I move amendment No. 64:
In page 50, subsection (2)(a), between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
"(ii) the power to adopt a development plan,".
This amendment relates to matters which may be delegated to a committee by resolution. There are a couple of exceptions in the Bill. The powers to adopt the Estimates and strike the rate are excluded from matters which can be delegated to a committee. I propose that we should add to that list of exceptions the power to adopt the city and county development plan. The reasons are obvious. The adoption of the Estimate and the city and county development plan are the two main functions of local authorities and should be done by the full council rather than by a committee.
This amendment proposes to add a new paragraph to subsection (2), the effect of which would be to preclude a local authority from delegating to a committee the power to adopt a development plan. Section 50 deals with the establishment of committees within local authorities. Subsection (2) empowers the local authority by resolution to delegate functions to a committee but precludes the authority from delegating certain very significant reserved functions, including the powers to adopt a budget and determine the annual rate. The amendment proposes to list the power to adopt a development plan among those reserved functions which cannot be delegated to a committee. I agree with this proposal and will consider for Report Stage how the amendment might be incorporated in the section.
I move amendment No. 65:
In page 53, subsection (1), between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:
"(c) providing for the attendance of members of the public and representatives of the media at meetings of joint committees or committees other than those
(i) specified in the regulations, or
(ii) at which the local authority concerned, in accordance with such procedures as may be specified in the regulations, determines such attendance is not permitted,
and section 45(3) and (4) shall apply to such attendance at meetings of joint committees or committees subject to any necessary modifications,".
I move amendment No. 66:
In page 55, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) Where there is agreement between the local authorities concerned regarding the changing of a boundary, the proposer may send the application directly to the Minister who shall be obliged to decide on the application within three months.".
I will not go into this amendment in detail as it is self-explanatory. The changing of boundaries is a contentious issue in local authorities other than those with which I am familiar. It was contentious in the past and will become more so as population changes occur throughout the country accelerating upwards or downwards. If there is agreement between two local authorities, there should be no need for third party intervention in the form of a commission.
I welcome the establishment of a local boundaries commission on a permanent basis because one of the problems, which we discussed this morning, relates to inflexibility on the question of changing boundaries to respond to changes in population and areas of settlement. Where there is agreement, however, there should be no need for investigation. An application could be made to the Minister who, presumably, would not seek to thwart the wishes of local authorities where there is agreement.
I agree with that. This is one of the amendments recommended by the three local government associations. I also agree with Deputy Mitchell that the prospect of getting agreement between two local authorities on this will not be easy. On those occasions where agreement is reached, therefore, it should be a case of sending it to the Minister and there should be no need for third party involvement.
Part 8 of the Bill makes provision for a report by the independent Local Government Commission on all boundary alteration applications before they are submitted for decision by the Minister. All applications must first be considered carefully at local level with full consultation between the communities and local authorities concerned. The application is then submitted to the Local Government Commission which will, in most cases, prepare a report on the application for the Minister, with any other recommendation he considers necessary in the interests of effective local government.
Under the new system proposed in the Bill the Minister will have the benefit of a detailed examination of the proposal by an independent commission. For this reason it is not proposed to accept the amendment, which would have the effect of eliminating the Local Government Commission totally from the examination process. Even where cases are agreed they must have at least some preliminary oversight to see that this is done on a realistic basis. There would be no point in both local authorities agreeing, subject to an unrealistic assumption, a proposal having no financial implications. These, too, must be examined and the details agreed by the local authorities.
In the past there have been instances of resolutions passed for boundary changes providing funding was provided from some unidentified source. The boundary change was agreed to without looking at the financial aspect, the cost and who would pay. That could not be regarded as a properly agreed proposal in those circumstances. It is, therefore, a good safety barrier to have the commission. It is necessary that a boundary change go through smoothly and works, and that all the difficulties that could arise are worked out in advance.
I recognise that in certain uncomplicated boundary extension proposals where full agreement on all aspects has been reached locally between the local authorities it should be possible to process them much more quickly than those of a more controversial nature. I propose, therefore, to bring forward an amendment on Report Stage which would require the Local Government Commission to give priority to reporting on applications agreed at local level, in other words, to try to fast-track the ones where there is agreement.
I am pleased to hear that. I thank the Minister of State.
This is a vexed question, particularly in counties where there are three or four towns and the urban councils want to extend their boundaries into large sections of the rural area to develop housing or industry. This has financial implications for county councils which could be rendered useless in such circumstances. I ask the Minister of State to bear this in mind before making any changes.
In my experience, these matters can be worked out and a cost allocated to them. Galway Corporation and Galway County Council agreed to a major extension of the city boundary and the city, in lieu of the expansion, was required to pay substantial sums to the county council for many years. It should be possible to reach agreement on the compensatory aspect. It is tragic to see groups interested in their own locality opposing each other and stifling growth because one will not give way to the other when they could work out the financial aspects and agree on adequate compensation for the changeover. There are cities and towns which are obviously in need of a boundary extension. In terms of local fears and attitudes, many of which arise as a result of not understanding the system, in most cases they can sit down and work out something. If a boundary is being extended into another county, with the type of GAA loyalties to the county that exist other aspects can come into it. It is interesting that in the 1970s there was an extension of part of Meath into Louth, and other counties ceded some of their lands into other counties. They are rare events, however. One long-running issue in Clare and Limerick has not been resolved yet and it is affecting the growth of Limerick.
The Minister is not comparing like with like when he makes a comparison with Galway. Galway is a city and it has the resources to fund county councils whereas some of the other town councils do not have the resources. What happens in Galway is somewhat different. Wexford or perhaps Waterford could also afford it but some of the other town councils and UDCs do not have the resources to fund the taking in of large chunks of land, and they will not have them for years. What happens in Galway is slightly different. I am simply making the point in relation to the extension of these boundaries.
If they were only taking in land——
They are interested in taking in commercial and industrial development and housing. They are not interested in land.
If commercial and industrial properties are being moved, they pay rates so that revenue could be paid to the authority which lost out for a period of years to compensate it. They should at least try to work out financial arrangements. It is not a job for me to do. We have done it. It took several months——
Galway would be different from most other counties.
Nothing is different. Deputy D'Arcy knows about local allegiances.
Amendment No. 68 is in the name of Deputy Ó Caoláin. Amendments Nos. 69, 70, 73, 77, 78, 80, 81, 82, 83, 114, 115, 132 and 146 are related and I propose to take these amendments together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 68:
In page 58, subsection (1)(a), line 10, after “community,”, to insert “creating, where appropriate, structures of participation to maximise engagement with the democratic system,”.
This is quite a list of amendments and it would take some agility to flick from one to the other.
Can we draw back for a moment? I am lost.
We are dealing with amendment No. 68. Members were circulated with a list of the groupings.
The addition of the statement of intent in amendment No. 68 enhances the proposition before us in the Bill, and I commend it to the Minister. Amendment No. 69 goes back to an earlier discussion on the words "may" and "shall" and, once more, I urge that the word "shall" be substituted for the word "may" in the last line on page 58 which states, "Without prejudice to the generality ofsubsection 1, a local authority may for the purposes of giving effect to that subsection . . . ”. It then lists the critical areas they must address including (a), (b), (c) and (d). These are important responsibilities and functions that must be carried out. It is not optional. We should recognise what is incorporated and, without reading each of them individually and taking up more time than is necessary, I hope the Minister of State has given due consideration to that substitution.
Amendment No. 70 seeks to insert after the word "people", "and people experiencing social exclusion or poverty". Many of the other amendments are concerned with ensuring there is adequate address to poverty proofing. I hope that will be reflected in the Minister of State's response by accepting the importance of the inclusion of that phraseology clearly marking out the intent of the Bill.
In amendment No. 83, which I share with Deputy Gilmore, we address the issue of poverty and seek the inclusion of the additional (g), (h) and (i), which deal with the need to tackle social exclusion and poverty, the need for consultation with service users, members of the local communities, etc. and the need to poverty proof - the point I made in relation to the previous amendment - local authority decisions, policies and programmes at the design and review stages.
Amendments Nos. 114 and 115 are connected. They seek to delete "and programmes" and substitute ", programmes", and after "development" to insert "and programmes to promote social inclusion and tackle poverty".
Amendment No. 146 seeks to insert the following: "(d) the policy group shall ensure, in carrying out its role, that adequate consultation and participation of the local community has taken place on policy matters and that all disposals relating to the corporate plan have been poverty proofed”. I do not intend to extend my contribution on these amendments. I hope that each of these changes, which are self-sustaining, stand up. I hope the Minister of State will accede to each of them in turn.
Some of these amendments are in my name. They relate to the requirement to make positive statements in the Bill on the responsibility of local government to play its part in tackling poverty and disadvantage. I spoke about this when we debated definition amendments yesterday and I do not propose to repeat that now but, in responding, the Minister of State indicated that he proposed to address this issue by way of including provisions in the Bill which addressed social inclusion. It would be helpful if he were to indicate those to us. I want to make a few comments about this section generally, but I will leave those until we come to discuss the section.
These amendments relate mainly to the issue of social inclusion, poverty proofing and involvement or participation of the community, including the socially excluded, in local government. This issue was discussed yesterday, as mentioned by Deputy Gilmore, when I indicated that I am prepared to examine the question of providing some definition in this area for Report Stage. The Department has been to the fore in widening the local authority role in this important area. This is happening through the expansion of its involvement in community development in line with its lead in the county-city development board process under the PPF umbrella.
Practical implementation of this new role is taking place with the establishment of nine pilot social inclusion units in local authorities and the involvement of local authorities in the RAPID programme targeted to contract social deprivation in the worse hit areas. The national anti-poverty strategy has been rolled out to local authorities and a local government anti-poverty network has been set up. My Department has also been working closely with the Combat Poverty Agency and the NAPS unit in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.
The Bill as published, statutorily underpins the county city development boards and strategic policy committees, the explicit right of public access to meetings and specific provision regarding consultation with the community as well as wide powers to promote the community interest. It provides a strong facilitative framework for promoting greater participation among all sectors in local government as well as promoting social inclusion, which will be given explicit recognition in the amendments to section 68, amendments Nos. 78 and 80, which are consequential, and also amendment No. 73 to section 66, which allows a local authority to take action to specifically promote social inclusion.
I am not convinced that it is necessary or even appropriate to insert all of the many references to social inclusion and poverty proofing as requested by the Deputies. I have tabled amendments to ensure, if there was ever any doubt about it on a practical level, that under section 68 local authorities are required to take account of the need to promote social inclusion in developing their policy and performing their functions. Social inclusion programmes are among the range of activities which they can undertake to promote community interests under section 66. These are over-reaching provisions which will apply generally across all local authority activities. Amendment No. 82 to section 68 is significant in this regard.
Some of these Opposition amendments also relate to the question of structures of participation. Section 126 provides for the first time that local authorities may take steps to promote effective participation by local community in local government. These new provisions signal a more progressive local government regime involving local communities.
These provisions, coupled with the underpinning of the other mechanisms, SPCs, CPGs, recognised associations, etc. in the Bill will provide sufficient scope for local authorities and the community to develop effective ways of participation.
In addition to my amendments, I am prepared to bring forward an amendment on Report Stage substantially in line with the proposals of Deputies Gilmore and Ó Caoláin as regards section 108. Deputy Olivia Mitchell has also included amendment No. 81 regarding the need for local authorities to promote sustainable communities.
Section 68(1)(f) already provides that a local authority performing its functions must have regard to the need to promote sustainable development. In its broadest sense, sustainable development encompasses a dynamic economy, social inclusion and a high quality environment. It requires a balance between these three dimensions in order to achieve a better quality of life now and for future generations. While the achievement of sustainable communities is vital, it would be inappropriate in a Bill such as this to single out any particular facet of sustainable development. It is not clear what would be added to the principles of sustainable development merely by inclusion of the amendment put forward. While I can appreciate the thinking behind the proposed amendment, I do not believe this is the right approach to follow and I might add that sustainable development is at the core of the planning code, as embodied in the Bill.
In these circumstances and in view of my reference to the proposal to bring forward some amendments, I respectfully suggest Deputies might withdraw the amendments, the intent of which is already fully covered.
I welcome the Minister of State's response. It reflects on our address on this area in other terms yesterday. I look forward to the text of the Minister of State's composite position reflecting on these amendments on Report Stage. I am willing to withdraw the series of amendments that bear my name and await the Minister of State's submission on Report Stage.
I too welcome that the Minister is endeavouring to meet what we are seeking to do in these sections and I am prepared to withdraw the amendments I tabled.
Much of Part 9 appears to be lifted out of the Local Government Act, 1991. A provision in that Act brought to an end what used to be known as theultra vires rule. I recall that when I was elected to Dublin County Council the then manager of the county council, Mr. George Redmond, used to tell me that different motions I tabled were ultra vires because at that time a local authority could only do what it was enabled to do by legislation. The 1991 Act introduced a section on the general competence of local authorities. In other words, a local authority could do anything except what it was explicitly prohibited from doing by legislation. The 1991 Act seems to have been somewhat recrafted in this and in subsequent sections, the effect of which I believe is to reintroduce the ultra vires rule. Section 6 of the 1991 Act deals with the general competence of local authorities, but that effectively has gone. A good deal of the terminology of it is rewritten in different ways in different sections of this Bill, but the net effect of what is being done in section 63 and in subsequent sections is to reintroduce the ultra vires rule. The general competence section is not repeated or if it is, it is repeated in a way that is qualified.
I am surprised Deputy Gilmore makes that interpretation. If there was any attempt to reintroduce theultra vires rule, I would be totally opposed to it having been involved in removing it under 1991 Act.
Section 66(3) repeats part of what is in the 1991 Act. This is consolidation legislation. Subsection (3)(a) states that subject to this section, a local authority may take such measures, engage in such activities or do such things in accordance with law, including the incurring of expenditure, as it considers necessary or desirable to promote the interests of the local community. That is fairly well expressed. Subsection (3)(b) states that for the purposes of this section a measure, activity or thing is deemed to promote the interests of the local community if it promotes, directly or indirectly, the social, economic, environmental, recreational, cultural, community or general development of the administrative area, or any part of it, of the local authority concerned or of the local community, or any group consisting of members of it. There is a provision somewhere else to also cover everything in this regard. It is comprehensively covered.
I support Deputy Gilmore on this. Why were amendments tabled by Deputy Gilmore and me rejected as out of order? For instance, amendment No. 74 in my name and other amendments were purported to be out of order, but surely the purpose of local government is to provide local services where they can provide them more efficiently and effectively. If following the removal of theultra vires rule, local authorities are empowered to do anything that would promote the local interest and if they have any purpose, surely these are powers that should be permitted to local authorities. These amendments were ruled out of order on the basis of that they propose would impose a charge on the Exchequer. Everything local authorities do imposes a charge on the Exchequer, but they are still bound by the overall constraints of adopting an annual estimate and not accumulating overdrafts they cannot meet. If local authorities are to have a purpose or to be effective, they must have some discretion to provide services that are not being provided. This is what brings local authorities into contempt in the view of the electorate. On one side of the town, for example, the council builds houses while the industrial estate is located on the other. As a result, people cannot get from their houses to the industrial estate to work. There is no local bus and nobody else provides a service. If the local authority does not do it, no other body will. I would be worried——
The problem previously was that unless it was provided for specifically in legislation that the local authority had such a power it could not perform a particular task. That was theultra vires rule. By giving a general carteblanche to local authorities to undertake activities for the benefit of the community the ultra vires rule is removed. The sections are taken from the 1991 Act.
That is the point. It is as if all the sections and subsections of the 1991 Act have been tossed up in the air and rewritten in a different order. Why was it necessary to do this when the legislation is only ten years old? Looking at the sequence of sections in this Bill, the governing section is section 63, the statement of local authority functions, one of which is the promotion of community interest. There is a subsequent subsection which outlines how community interests can be promoted. It includes the general provision that a local authority can do anything to promote the community interest but appears to be subordinate to the governing section, section 63, which defines functions. In the 1991 Act the governing section was the general competence section which was to the effect that a local authority could do anything provided it was not prohibited by law from doing it. This was defined and extended by subsequent sections.
I accept the Minister of State's long held view in relation to theultra vires rule. However, I wonder why this part of the 1991 Act has been rewritten in this way. It would be helpful to have an opinion from the Attorney General in relation to the ultra vires rule. Perhaps the Minister of State could arrange this. I am a little concerned that the way in which this provision is written might reintroduce ultra vires by the back door and want to ensure this does not happen. If I can be reassured in that regard, I do not have an issue with the section. However, I cannot see any other reason for it being rewritten. In the 1991 Act there was provision for general competence from which everything flowed but in this Bill there is an outline of the functions of the local authority and the competence relates only to the pursuit of community interests. There is a difference.
If the Deputy is concerned, the fall-back is the fact that there is now a constitutional provision which recognises the existence of local authorities whose role is to promote the interests of local communities.
Only as prescribed. The constitutional provision is that the recognition of local government is a recognition of local government as prescribed or determined by law. It is not, therefore, a blanket coverage.
It is circumscribed.
It gives constitutional protection to whatever is in the law.
It is more wide ranging and comprehensive than the section to which I referred.
Yes, I am aware of what the Minister of State referred to. That provision is a subsection of a section which relates to the promotion of interests of the local community and, in my interpretation, is about giving grants to community organisations and assistance of one kind or another to community bodies building community centres and so forth. The problem is that the section to which the Minister of State referred in the 1991 Act was the lead provision. The 1991 Act, in the leading section 6, provided that a local authority, subject to the provisions of the section, could take such measures——
We will not resolve that here. The Deputy has suspicions and concerns which I do not share. He suggested that I consult the Attorney General and ask him to confirm that theultra vires rule which was abolished is not being reintroduced in any way in this section. I will be happy to do that.
The difference between the former situation, as we understood it, and the current one is that the removal of theultra vires rule effectively allowed local authorities to do anything to promote the community interest they were not specifically precluded from doing. In this Bill the functions are laid out, which automatically precludes everything else except the promotion of community interest, which is not defined or is circumscribed in its definition. There is a difference in emphasis and it is an important one.
We will have it examined.
Amendments Nos. 88, 89, 94, 102, 134, 136 to 138, inclusive, 154, 174, 177, 206, 207 and 215 are related to amendment No. 71. Is it agreed that we discuss them all together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 71:
In page 59, subsection (2), between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:
"(e) promote the use of the Irish language and support Gaeltacht communities.”.
These amendments cover a range of areas of local government responsibility, from the county development board to the local government commission to public information meetings and consultation processes organised by local government. The critical common thread is the acceptance and promotion of the important role of the Irish language in Irish society. While a number of the amendments are intent on ensuring the roles and functions of local government and the various bodies to which I have referred conduct their business in Irish in the Gaeltacht area, there is also the common thread of the requirement to provide and proactively encourage the service and the roles and functions for which the local authorities are responsible in Irish to people throughout the jurisdiction.
The amendments include a requirement for training in the Irish language for officers of local government at various levels. There has to be competency not only in relation to the provision of an Irish language service for those who are daily users in Gaeltacht areas but also for those who aspire to be or are daily users in non-Irish speaking areas of the country. The amendments cover the right to give statements and evidence in Irish in public inquiries and provide that county development boards have access to representatives of Irish language groups. In the list of those bodies to be invited to participate in county development boards, there is no provision for access to those who are at the coalface of the promotion of the Irish language. I am talking about people who have stoically promoted the Irish language in their respective communities and who have a valuable contribution to make. As regards the Local Government Commission, oral hearings must be accommodated in Irish, as appropriate, but it should go further. It should seek not only to facilitate people who wish to engage in Irish but to proactively encourage the use of Irish in the consultation processes. As regards public information meetings, these amendments reflect that need.
I appeal to the Minister of State not only on behalf of the Irish speaking community, but on behalf of many of us whose proficiency is not all we would wish it to be, as in my case, to accept these amendments. There is a huge and growing body of young Irish people leaving the gaelscoileanna who expect and rightly demand an opportunity to exercise their competency and fluency in the first language of this country in every way imaginable. They have had a positive impact on local government awareness of this issue in my county and that is reflected throughout the country. It is important that we meet their needs, translate their school experience into an everyday experience and allow them to look forward to using their chosen language in every walk of life in the future. I urge the Minister of State to accept these amendments which are designed to facilitate such an intent.
We had a discussion about the Irish language earlier and I do not want to repeat what I said then. This is a question of language rights which applies in Gaeltacht areas but it is not confined to such areas. There is a growing number of people who want to use the Irish language either as their everyday language or when dealing with official bodies. That is evident in urban areas to which the gaelscoil movement has contributed enormously. It is encouraging that we are beginning to see, probably for the first time since Independence, a growth in the use of the Irish language. Increasing numbers of people not only have a smattering of school Irish but are competent and fluent in it and they have a right to use it when dealing with official bodies. It is important that the local government system, with which many people interact on a regular basis, facilitates that. The purpose of these amendments is to allow for that.
These amendments relate to the competency of local authority staff and the Local Government Commission to deal in Irish and to the overall question of the business of the local authority being conducted in the Irish language, where appropriate. As was referred to previously in an earlier similar batch of amendments, our commitment to the Irish language and the Gaeltacht through the local authority system is manifest in the Planning and Development Act, 2000, which provides that one of the statutory objectives of the development plan is the protection of the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Gaeltacht, including the promotion of Irish as the community language where there is a Gaeltacht area in the area of the development plan. The Planning and Development Act, 2000, provides that oral hearings in Gaeltacht areas are to be held in Irish unless the parties wish otherwise. That is a real commitment to the Irish language.
The promotion of the Irish language is echoed in this Bill which provides in section 44(2) that local authority meetings can be held in Irish or English, or both, and that the local authority may take such steps as it considers appropriate to encourage the use of the Irish language. At a practical level, many local authorities are to the fore in promoting the use of the Irish language. It has been accepted that there is some room to improve the Bill as regards the Irish language. I intend to come back on Report Stage with a substantive amendment in this regard. I am prepared to accept amendments Nos. 71 and 102.
I am sure the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, referred to the proposal to bring forward a comprehensive official languages equality Bill where all the issues raised in the amendments will be adequately provided for. However, as that Bill has not yet been published it is not fair to say that is the answer to the issues raised by Deputies Gilmore and Ó Caoláin. I have not fully worked out the terms of the amendment I will table, but a group could be set up to make recommendations about guidelines which could issue to local authorities about providing staff and documents and showing a commitment to the promotion of Irish. It would be better to give a general direction in this area rather than tabling an amendment to every section. The proposed official languages equality Bill will make recommendations in this area which will apply across the public sector. I have no problem with most of the amendments, but a more efficient and reflective way to meet the requirement would be to table a comprehensive Report Stage amendment which would support the Government's intention in regard to the official languages equality Bill, which is being drafted. The Cabinet approved the heads of the Bill in recent weeks.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an méad atá ráite ag an Aire faoi leasaithe Uimh. 71 agus 102. The Minister of State indicated he will accept amendments Nos. 71 and 102, and I welcome that. I thank Deputy Gilmore who sponsored both of the amendments. While I accept the Minister of State's points and his intent, I am concerned about the facilitation of access to county development boards. It is slightly different from the rest which is to ensure competency, opportunity and use of Irish. However, the county development boards are to access representatives of Irish language groups who are active in the community as an identifiable sector.
Amendment No. 138 refers to section 128 which deals with county and city development boards.
Amendment No. 138 seeks, in page 100, Ísubsection (3), between lines 27 and 28, toinsert the following: "(e) such representatives of organisations involved in the promotion of the Irish language and culture;” after “subject to and in accordance with guidelines issued under ÍsubÍsection (9), the membership of a board comprises. . . . ”. This is the one that differs from the others in some respects. Access by membership of county or city development boards would recognise representatives of organisations involved in the promotion of the Irish language and culture as an identifiable sector and group for inclusion in the make-up of these bodies. I strongly urge the Minister to reconsider the matter and comment on it at this juncture. It is an important area that goes beyond the main thrust of the other raft of amendments to this section. I indicate my willingness to accept the Minister’s thrust. I welcome his acceptance of amendments Nos. 71 and 102. I am prepared to withdraw the others in view of the Minister’s intent to introduce a substantive amendment on Report Stage that would reflect on the other areas of focus. This is the one area, however, that is markedly different. I am anxious to press that amendment.
I also welcome the indication from the Minister that there are to be Government amendments to underpin the use of the Irish language and the rights of Irish language speakers and users in the local government system. The point that Deputy Ó Caoláin makes is worth considering. The amendments to which he refers are ones with which I agree. This has practical implications in counties like Meath where there is a Gaeltacht, and i gContae Phort Lairge, Contae Chiarraí, Cork and other areas, particularly where there are smaller Gaeltachtaí The requirements of those Gaeltacht areas for economic development may be driven by the county development boards. That matter needs to be examined in a special way. There is a point in examining that matter because there are particular requirements, as the Minister of State knows, in relation to economic and social development in Gaeltacht areas.
I have indicated my intention to bring forward a proposal on Report Stage which will seek to meet the points that are being made here. I am reluctant to accept any more of the amendments which range across different activities in local authorities. I have a bit of work to do on the amendment itself to try to meet the number and extent of the areas that are being covered. I am not yet certain what format the amendment might take so it is better to leave it in general terms. It would be the best way to tackle it, rather than to start singling out county development boards and other boards and activities.
Will the Minister take on board the points that have been made on county and city development boards? Will he consider the importance of that?
That will be included in the consideration, yes.
Amendment No. 72 has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Revenue.
I have spoken about the amendment already. To be honest, I cannot understand why it has been ruled out of order. Everything local authorities do involves a charge of some sort and this is circumscribed by the need to strike an estimate each year and remain within budgetary constraints. I cannot understand, therefore, why this amendment is out of order. Is there an explanation for it?
I am sorry, Deputy, but it has been ruled out of order. The Deputy can take up the matter with the Office of the Ceann Comhairle, but——
I would be wasting my time.
That is probably the direction the Deputy would be taking.
Amendment No. 73 has been discussed with amendment No. 68.
I move amendment No. 73:
In page 60, subsection (3)(b), line 11, after “indirectly,” to insert “social inclusion or”.
Amendment No. 74 is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Revenue.
I move amendment No. 75:
In page 61, subsection (10), line 30, after "appropriate" to insert "with due regard at all times to its duty to make its services accessible on an equitable basis".
This is an addition to what appears in the section which reads: "A local authority may make such charges for the use of, admission to or otherwise in relation to amenities, facilities, services or any other thing provided under this section (including matters mentioned insection 67) as it considers appropriate.” This is in the area of promotion of interests of local communities. I wish to add the wording “with due regard at all times to its duty to make its services accessible on an equitable basis”. Given the serious gaps in our society, the continuing and ever-widening gulf between those who are suffering in poverty and those who continue to grow and prosper in this so-called Celtic economy, I am afraid that local authorities will see the opportunity to enhance their own coffers based on charges for access, use of and admission to a range of amenities. They will fail to take on board that a significant section of society is disadvantaged economically. Many of those who will suffer will be the young people, further penalising them, creating untold hurt and sowing the seeds for serious disaffection within society. Deputy Mitchell is winding me up and wants me to conclude. I appeal to the Minister to recognise that we should give a clear direction to local authorities that they should have due regard for those in society who continue to strive where need is the reality.
Section 66(10) allows a local authority to make charges in relation to services and facilities provided by it under section 66 or section 67. Amendment No. 75, proposed by Deputy Ó Caoláin, would add words to the effect that a local authority must have regard to the need to make services available on an equitable basis in considering such charges. I do not see the need for such an addition. Local authorities, after all, are not for profit organisations and recreational facilities have, by and large, been made available by local authorities at very reasonable, or nominal, charges and in many cases with no charge if one looks at playing fields, playgrounds, parks and so on. It is a function of the local authority to determine these charges and the history has been that they have been reasonable and have provided facilities for the public in their areas. It seems to express some lack of faith in local authorities' desire to facilitate their residents. In regard to the level of charges imposed by local authorities, the councils are there to comment on them and to draw attention to them if they believe that in some cases they are excessive or that some special provision should be made. That has been the practice throughout the country. It is certainly not a matter of which I or the Department would be conscious or about which there have been many complaints.
There is growing pressure on local authorities, managers, town clerks,et al, to enhance the existing services. Finance continues to be a major issue. There is a change in the thinking in local authorities as against what applied heretofore. I see a drive on the part of a new, younger and very vigorous management where financial return for the provision of services is a critical factor and the whole sense of community and acceptance of the need to be inclusive and to have equity in terms of access will not, and does not, always apply. The amendment would enhance an understanding and appreciation of the importance of local authorities, recognising their traditional function of serving all the children of the community equally.
I trust local authorities. I do not see the need to include a statutory requirement. What will it mean anyway? They will decide what level of charge is appropriate. There are elected people there representing the community who will be charged with this and there is a good balance there. I do not see the need for the amendment.
I will not continue the cut and thrust with the Minister on this. We will not agree.
If I was conscious of excessive charges being imposed by local authorities for access to recreational facilities, I would have sympathy with the idea but I do not believe that is happening in Ireland. We have a very caring society and councillors are very caring and are anxious to provide facilities and to ensure that people who are underprovided have access to them. The wide range of facilities made available by local authorities are available free, gratis - there is no charge. That is the history of it and that has been the practice.
I will not dispute the history, I am concerned about the future. That is the reason I tabled the amendment.
If communities believe excessive charges are being imposed and that certain sections of the community are being denied or deprived of the opportunities to avail of the facilities, the elected representatives can influence the situation where it may or may not occur. I do not believe it is a feature of local government - it is the opposite.
I would like to throw in my three ha'p'orth in support of the point Deputy Ó Caoláin made. I do not dispute what the Minister said about many facilities being made available by the local authorities free of charge. There are also many subsidised facilities. There are situations where people operating on a not for profit basis are charged heavily by local authorities. At lunch time I received a casual representation from the Irish Red Cross Society which is converting a building in Limerick to an office. By any standard, the society would be regarded as a charity and a not for profit organisation. The local authority waived its planning application charges on the basis that it was a charity but it required planning contributions from it to the extent of £5,500, which it simply does not have, for matters like contribution to open space in the area. Apart from the fact that there was no open space in the area or potential for open space, one would wonder why there is a requirement on the Irish Red Cross Society to contribute to the open space in the area. There are many ways in which a local authority can charge people for services. I am not against local authorities charging for services but there has to be some consideration of the hardship it may cause and the type of service the people affected are giving to the community. Local authorities are not the only people who give to the community and there should be some recognition of cases such as that.
Yesterday I highlighted the position of these questionable charges in the planning stage in relation to the provision of car parking spaces where no prospect of saving is in hand over the seven year period. I have no doubt that is probably reflected in the situation Deputy Mitchell raised. Changes are taking place, the Minister should make no mistake about that, and that is why I have reflected as I have.
In regard to development charges and the provision of amenity, recreation and other facilities, as described in the section, is it the intent of the Bill that development charges would be brought before the elected members of the council to decide on the level of charges in the same way as we strike a rate for the funding of the council? After this Bill is passed, will it still be a function of management to decide on development charges?
Under the new development plan, the development charges will be part of a scheme that is adopted by the elected councillors.
The councillors would have a say in development charges.
I move amendment No. 78:
In page 62, subsection (1)(e), line 36, to delete “and”.
Amendments Nos. 86, 93 and 139 are related to amendment No. 79 and all amendments may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 79:
In page 62, subsection (1)(f), line 37, after “environmental” to insert “, cultural, linguistic”.
The amendment would mean that subsection (1)(f) would read as follows: “the need for a high standard of environmental, cultural, linguistic and heritage protection and the need to promote sustainable development”. Each of the other amendments, amendments Nos. 86, 93 and 139, reflects that change as it applies throughout the Bill. It is to recognise that heritage does not reflect on the critical areas of culture and language. We need to reflect on all these important areas in this section, which deals with local authorities having regard to the performance of their functions. Cultural and linguistic protection must be reflected in this subsection and it is repeated in amendments Nos. 86, 93 and 139. I strongly urge the Minister of State to accept that heritage does not include culture and language, contrary to some people’s mistaken belief. These must be specifically stated. Environmental, cultural, linguistic and heritage protection are deserving of reflection in each of these areas.
I do not have a problem with the intent and I would be happy to table a similar amendment on Report Stage, but I want to have a look at it in the cold light of day in case there are other implications which I cannot see here. Looking at it here, it seems to be an amendment I should be able to accept. I will bring forward some wording on Report Stage which I hope will meet the intention of the Deputy in these amendments.
I thank the Minister of State for his positive response and his indication that he will consider these for Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 80:
In page 62, subsection (1)(f), line 39, to delete “development.” and substitute “development, and”.
I move amendment No. 82:
In page 62, subsection (1), between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:
"(g) the need to promote social inclusion.”.
I move amendment No. 84:
In page 63, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) A local authority shall in carrying out its functions have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and outcome on the basis of the nine grounds identified by both the Employment Equality Act, 1998 and the Equal Status Act, 2000, that is-
(b) marital status,
(c) family status,
(g) sexual orientation,
(h) religious belief,
(i) membership of the Traveller Community.”.
This is a continuation of section 68, which contains four subsections. The amendment involves the insertion of a new subsection (5), that a local authority shall in carrying out its functions have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and outcome on the basis of the nine grounds identified by both the Employment Equality Act, 1998, and the Equal Status Act, 2000. I have listed the critical areas in the amendment. They are gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, and membership of the Traveller community. I hope in this section, which deals with local authorities having regard to certain matters in performing their functions, the Minister of State will concede to accept the inclusion of this proposal. I reserve a response until I hear his decision.
The provisions of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, and the Equal Status Act, 2000, already apply to local authorities in so far as they are employers and service providers to the public. An amendment as suggested by the Deputy is not required and could have the unintended consequences of casting doubt on the existing applications of those Acts. There is little point in Acts such as those mentioned applying on a general basis if their import had to be restated in other Acts relating to particular bodies, such as local authorities in this case. In view of what I have said, I request the Deputy to withdraw his amendment. The amendment is superfluous.
I accept it is contained in legislation already. I am seeking to reflect the intent of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, and the Equal Status Act, 2000, in the Local Government Bill, 2000. It is a salutary reminder to everybody involved in local government of the critical commitments in both of these Acts and my intention was that it would enhance an understanding and acceptance of the two Acts referred to and also the legislation before us. I did not think there would be a conflict with either of the two previous Acts, as described, but I felt it was a reaffirmation that was complementary.
It is absolutely unnecessary. It duplicates a legislative provision, which is not required. If we were to do that in every Bill, we would fill all the rooms in Dublin with legislation. We must trust the legislation in place, which contains adequate provision for it. There is no reason it should not apply properly in the case of local authorities as it applies in the case of all other providers of services, who must comply with it. It is superfluous.
I withdraw the amendment but reserve reconsideration of it on Report Stage. I am listening to what the Minister said.
I move amendment No. 85:
In page 63, lines 6 and 7, to delete "or jointly by the town council and county council concerned" and substitute "by the town council or county council concerned or jointly by both".
Towns are democratically represented by two authorities, a town council and a county council, both of which are voted for by residents. Both elected councils have an interest in developments affecting a town. Various amenities in a town may be provided by the town authority itself, by a combination of the town and county authorities or, at times, by the county council. The purpose of this amendment is to recognise this position and democratic representation under section 64, or actions to promote community interest under sections 66 and 67. Section 69 does not affect other functions or a town authority under other enactments.
I move amendment No. 87:
In page 66, subsection (2)(b), line 29, before “continued” to insert “membership and”.
This is a technical amendment which widens the scope of regulations which will provide the legislative basis for the joint library committee. Currently one joint library committee is established by the two Tipperary county councils. The committee's legislative basis originated in the 19th century library legislation which has since been repealed. Section 76(1)(c) and regulations under section 76(2) will provide the new legislative basis. The purpose of the amendment is, therefore, to clarify that the scope of the regulatory power is sufficiently wide to deal with the continued membership of the joint committee.
This section proposes to refer the water functions of a town sanitary authority to the respective county councils. I have received representations from municipal authorities and from my party colleagues, who are members of municipal authorities, strongly objecting to this section. They argue strongly, as I do, that to remove the water functions from town and municipal authorities is to take away one of their major functions. This, in effect, is to downgrade municipal authorities. We should be moving in the opposite direction and increasing the powers and functions of town and municipal authorities rather than taking functions away from them. One of the major functions of a town or municipal authority is the responsibility for the water supply within the town. To take away this is to take away one of the major functions of that local authority. There are very strong views on this issue within the municipal authorities and, therefore, I propose that the committee oppose this section and retain the water functions with the town and municipal authorities.
The Bill was drafted against the backdrop of a fragmented system of local government service delivery, which is referred to in the 1996 report on town local government and which is also adversely commented on in the recent OECD report on regulatory reform in Ireland, April 2001, particularly in regard to water services.
One of the key aims of the local government renewal programme underpinned by the Bill is to promote closer co-operation and more integrated customer service between town and county. In this context, section 82 of the Local Government Bill, 2000, provides for the consolidation of water supply and waste water treatment at county level. Such functions will transfer from sanitary authorities, that is, borough corporations and urban district councils, to county level. Thereafter, the relevant county council will be the designated sanitary authority for the whole county area. This development was clearly set out in the rainbow Government's White Paper, Better Local Government: A Programme for Change, published four years ago, which refers to consolidating water or waste water service functions at county level with provision for special inter-county arrangements where appropriate.
There are strong arguments in favour of the reorganisation of water services where there are 88 separate water authorities. Consolidation of water functions at county level will bring greater efficiency and economies of scale, focus resources and ensure that resources and expertise are concentrated in sufficient critical mass to address the complex management and operational demands of modern water services delivery.
The national water study, completed last year, identifies and supports the need for such an approach. The streamlined organisation structure will also facilitate implementation of Government policy in the application of the polluter pays principle to water services, which requires that local authorities recover the full operational and marginal capital cost of providing water services to non-domestic users. It would also complement the implementation of the river basin district manager approach which is envisaged under the forthcoming European Union directive establishing a framework for community action in the field of water policy. By way of comparison, we will still have 34 water authorities under the new arrangement, while there are three public water authorities for Scotland with a population of five million.
It would be impossible for the Bill to satisfy all the competing and often conflicting expectations from the various interests involved. There are opposing views on this proposal within local government. The AMAI, which represents the urban authorities, objects to the proposal while the General Council of County Councils supports the transfer of water functions. As one of the custodians of the local government system, the Minister has an obligation to take account of the broader long-term view to try to strike the right balance, taking account of the common needs of the whole community, town and county. Notwithstanding this fact, it is recognised that it may sometimes prove necessary for special arrangements to be made locally between local authorities for the provision of water services. In these circumstances, the Bill provides the necessary flexibility for such an inter-authority arrangement to be made locally by the authorities concerned. I ask the Deputy, therefore, to withdraw the amendment, particularly as it puts into effect the policy of the previous Labour Party Minister for the Environment and Local Government.
On the last point, it does no such thing. The Minister has a habit of selectively quoting out of context from the better local government document. As the Minister of State said, the Association of Municipal Authorities in Ireland, which represents the town authorities, is strongly opposed to this section. I have discussed the issue with it and I agree with what it has to say. What I am proposing reflects this and the Minister of State should agree to it. However, judging by his response, it appears he is insisting on retaining the section as proposed.
Drawing a comparison with what has happened to water authorities in the United Kingdom is not a very happy analogy. I hope the Minister of State is not contemplating going down the road of privatising water supply. Drawing an analogy with Scotland is not appropriate either because the concentrations of population there are different from those here.
I do not wish to get into a political argument but page 73 is explicit in regard to what the Labour Party Minister proposed.
It is a pity the Minister of State did not refer to everything in the document.
What I was referring to in regard to Scotland was not privatised water but the public water authorities. I just gave it as an example. What is proposed in the Bill is a practical move which was advocated by the previous Government and by recent reports on the Irish economy. The Government is bringing forward this proposal which will be to the benefit of many communities. These schemes are paid for in total by central Government. They are designed by technical people and built by contractors. People want water in the pipes, an adequate service and good quality water, and the sooner that is in every home the better. Most homes have piped water but the quality is not always as desired. Given the huge growth in the economy, the massive house building programmes undertaken in recent years, the increase in the numbers at work and the industrial need for piped water supplies, the demand is phenomenal. A huge programme is to be undertaken in regard to public water supply and waste water disposal. This has been accelerated under the national development plan under which billions of pounds have been committed to this work. The population wishes to see as much progress as possible in putting in place the infrastructure. Happily we are in an era when the economy is going well and the finance is available. It is not so long ago——
The previous Government put the country back into the black.
We must ensure we use the finances well, particularly in regard to capital expenditure.
It is wise to invest in infrastructure and this is the foundation for future growth. This is a wise move. It will benefit all of the residents in the different sized authorities.
I can see the Minister of State is going to use strength of numbers to force this measure through against the wishes of the Opposition and the town authorities.
Amendments Nos. 91, 92, 95, 96 and 97 are out of order as they would involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
I appreciate that some amendments have been ruled out of order. However, the three representative local government bodies, the Local Authority Members' Association, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland and the General Council of County Councils made a joint submission in which they argued that there should be councillor representation on the Local Government Commission. A number of formulae have been proposed, in amendments which have been ruled out of order, to deal with this. One proposal was that a representative from each of the three associations be appointed to the commission. Another was that there be an agreed representative of the three associations. My own proposal was that there be nominations from the three associations but that no two members could be members of the same political parties. This would have provided for a broad spread of political representation and made sure that the same political party did not rise to the surface in all three associations. That would have had a distorting effect on the composition of the commission.
The commission will be dealing with local government boundaries and a range of issues relating to local government. If there were councillor representation on it, such councillors could not take part in meetings where the boundaries of their own local authority areas were being discussed. Councillor representation would bring a practitioner view to the work of the commission. This would be important.
It is important that this issue be raised and the Minister of State have an opportunity of addressing it.
This is further reflected in amendments Nos. 98, 99 and 100 to the next section. These amendments seek to facilitate the access of members of local authorities to the commission. The amendments to section 90 have been ruled out of order. Nevertheless, I join Deputy Gilmore in appealing to the Minister to accept the spirit of these amendments and to reflect this by his acceptance of the amendments to the next section.
Amendments Nos. 96 and 97 are out of order.
Does that preclude the Minister of State from responding?
The issue raised by the Deputies may be discussed under amendments Nos. 98, 99 and 100.
Amendments Nos. 98 to 100, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
Amendment No. 99 appears to be a mistake and will not be moved.
I move amendment No. 98:
In page 77, subsection (3)(a), line 19, to delete subparagraph (iii).
The purpose of this amendment is to allow at least one elected representative to be a member of the commission. There appears to be a movement to assume that any elected representative is suspect and cannot be objective. Things established with that in mind do not always prove themselves above reproach. There are many good reasons at least one public representative should sit on an electoral commission. Such bodies can show political favour, like politicians. Elected representatives can make positive contributions through having local knowledge. There is no reason they should be excluded by virtue of being chosen by the people.
I support Deputy Mitchell. I equally believe that excluding members of a local authority from the commission is flawed. The Minister present and his colleague talked about trust regarding access. They have critical information and experience that must be welcomed and accommodated. I urge acceptance of amendments Nos. 98 and 100.
It is a remarkable comment on the state of our democracy that a commission to deal with elected authorities excludes people elected to anything from an urban council to the European Parliament. These people have most experience and knowledge of the matters dealt with by the local government commission. The people with the best grasp of the delicacies, subtleties and sensitivities of these matters are elected representatives. No one has a better grasp of the issues involved in, for example, changing a town or county boundary than elected representatives yet they are the only people excluded from the commission. It is ironic that someone defeated in an election can sit on it while someone with a mandate cannot.
The amendment proposes to delete subsection (3)(a)(iii) which disqualifies a member of a local authority from being on the local government commission. The commission has a range of functions, including reports on local election area boundaries, establishment of new town councils and proposed boundary extensions. It is important that it is, and is seen to be, independent of particular interests. Section 90(3) requires the Minister to appoint to the commission a person with knowledge or experience of local government affairs. This permits him to choose from a broad range of people and does not preclude the appointment of a former councillor. Deputies are not members of the Dáil Constituency Commission. I long advocated the establishment of independent electoral boundary commissions for the Dáil and local government. The work of political party representatives, who were empowered to redraw Dáil boundaries, was undertaken frequently with political bias and all parties were at fault. I wanted it out of our system and we know how that came about. I was involved in establishing the committee on local government headed by Donal Barrington which made this recommendation. I welcome it and will not change from having an independent commission. Honest, upright people would come under pressure to meet the demands from their own political interests. There is no intention of accepting these retrograde amendments.
The commission is not guaranteed independence under the proposed formula.
Independence from elected persons.
It is not. It is appointed by the Minister. The officer of the Minister is independent but a person having knowledge or experience of local government, as the Minister stated, could be a former councillor of the Minister's party. It could be the general secretary or the party's full-time officer charged with running local elections who might know better than anyone else the party's requirements. A person with a knowledge of the field of business, commerce, administration or community development could be anybody. Not even the qualifications for nomination to the Seanad are as broad as subparagraph (b) where it is hard to contemplate anyone who would not qualify under that definition. This body is appointed by the Minister. I accept that——
Charged by the Bill to act independently. I would favour amendments to make it more independent.
I take up that invitation and will propose amendments on Report Stage. There should be a formula. There are nominating bodies and the Dáil boundary commission. We should be able to devise a formula to make it more independent.
That is a wiser route than what is being suggested. It is the opposite to what is being suggested.
I seek guidance in terms of what might be proposed on Report Stage. There are two ways this can be done, either by nominating particular offices as is the case with the Dáil Boundary Commission or by sticking to the formula here - leaving out the office of the Minister; the other two could be persons drawn from nominations made by particular bodies.
I will have a look at it on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 102:
In page 79, subsection (6), between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
"(e) An oral hearing may be conducted in Irish or in English or in both languagesand the Commission shall take appropriatesteps to encourage the use of the Irish language.”.
Amendments Nos. 103 and 104 are related and may be taken together by agreement.
I move Amendment No. 103:
In page 81, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) A list of all payments made undersubsection (2) shall be made available to the members of the local authority at monthly intervals.”.
This amendment proposes that a list of the payments made which are authorised by the manager or by an officer of the manager should be made available to the members of the local authority on a monthly basis. That is self explanatory and is a matter of accountable accounting. The second proposal is that the payments for the acquisition of land should require the approval of the council. At present a proposal to dispose of land requires approval and disposal is a reserve function of the council. However, a county manager can acquire land and consequently commit the council to expenditure without approval from the council.
I do not propose that a manager should be required to come to the council to say he or she intends to purchase a particular plot of land. That would have implications in terms of the buying of the land. However, when the manager has completed negotiations or arrangements for acquisition of land there should be an obligation that before the contract is concluded he should come back to the council to seek approval for the expenditure and payment of the money. That is an important safeguard for the council and would not obstruct the practicality of acquiring land. It is important that it has this function in terms of good management and to ensure the elected council is in control.
A major programme to revamp local authority accounts and financial management systems is well under way. This will provide transparent, comparable and user friendly data and this is how the aims of these amendments can be met. Such data will be readily available and as financial information technology systems develop even further, for which the Department has provided some funding, we will see the complete modernisation of all aspects of financial management. Improved staffing arrangements in the financial area are also currently being put in place. I see these developments as a far more practical way to deal with the matter rather than legislating for lists of payments. In any event, under section 104 it is open to the council to seek whatever financial data it wishes to determine thedetails and the intervals at which it is to be submitted.
The second amendment indicates that payments for land acquisition would require approval, I presume that means prior approval.
To negotiate for land acquisition demands a measure of flexibility and discretion. In many cases potential sellers do not want the business conducted to be made public until the deal is done. From the local authority point of view premature release of details can sometimes bid up prices. Such transactions cannot be undertaken by committees. It is perfectly reasonable that prior council approval is not required in such cases.
I accept that the intent of amendment No. 103 is met by what the Minister has said and I am prepared to withdraw it. I drew the distinction on the question of acquisition of land that I was not suggesting that when a manager negotiates the purchase of land that he or she be required to get approval from the council to negotiate. That would bid up the price and would compromise the position of the manager. It should be possible in the case land acquisition for the manager to negotiate with a potential vendor and then the contractual arrangement would be effective only on the approval of the council. That is normal. If a chief executive of a company was to go out to buy land it would be normal that he or she would make it clear to the vendor that the purchase was subject to the approval of the board. The same principle should apply in relation to the council.
I acknowledge what the Minister said about confidentiality etc. and I am sure it is possible to make suitable arrangements to provide for that. It is not an acceptable practice that a manager has absolute carte blanche to buy what he or she wants without any approval from the council. The purchase of land commits the council to decisions down the line. A manager can influence and effectively decide housing development or any other development by where he or she buys the land. That commits the council and there should be provision for approval by the council for land acquisitions. It is an important function which also commits the council financially.
I have some experience as a member of the local authority in Galway where we were anxious to build up a land bank to facilitate the development of the city. The manager at the time was very progressive and was in the market looking to acquire land to facilitate a very expanded house-building programme. He came back to the council and said he had negotiated for the purchase of a substantial tract of land and had arranged the price. He found that when he got approval from the councillors the owner of the land had taken other bids on the strength of knowing how much the corporation would pay. The manager was not able to conclude the deal and spent a great deal of time searching for suitable tracts of land which were serviced or could be serviced within the programme within a reasonable period of time. This was back in the 1960s but it is relevant today. We gave the manager authority to use his cheque book and to pay the deposit and seal the deal. In that way, large tracts of land were purchased by the manager. We assured him that we trusted his good judgment in the matter. Large tracts of land were bought and this facilitated the kind of growth for which Galway is now renowned. It would not have happened if the local authority had not been able to build up the land bank.
In my capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for housing one of my big concerns was that the local authorities were not active enough in the market place. They did not acquire land and were beaten to the punch by developers who bought the land and who could anticipate where the services would be provided and where development permission would be granted. It became quite common to hear people saying that the developers owned all the land because the managers were not out there building up land banks. We have been in a growth period for a long time now and due to our urgings the managers have now built up very substantial land banks. This has greatly facilitated the increased public housing programme. There are problems in Dublin where some of the local authorities would not have the same choice of green field sites and they must consider brown field sites instead.
I want to facilitate managers who have agents who can acquire land for the local authority's purposes at an efficient price without paying a penalty or a percentage because it is for a local authority. He may miss out on deals if he has to come back for approval which may slow down the process and expose his hand. In those circumstances the land can be lost altogether to a developer who has a few pounds more at his disposal and is quicker on the draw.
The Deputy proposes that payments for the acquisition of land shall require the prior approval of the local authority. The manager needs funding to enable him to acquire land as the need develops and he should be able to pay a deposit and have some hold on the land. I am anxious to see local authorities acquire as much land as possible and I would like them to zone more land. Land prices are sky-high. I cannot understand the argument for zoning only a limited amount of land and parcelling it out, creating a false scarcity. The present position seems to be working satisfactorily. At least the managers are acquiring land and I do not wish to make any change that would discourage them.
Our point questions the pre-eminence of the managers.
The manager would not do it himself. He would use an agent.
The agent would work for the manager but not for the elected members. This is the point we are making. We are trying to re-balance powers in favour of local representatives——
We are dealing with a free market where anybody can bid for the land.
I can see the difficulties but nevertheless our next motion is similarly motivated to try and pull something back for the elected members. Managers are doing things that do not meet with the approval of the elected members and using the excuse that time was of the essence or that money was available from the Department. The local authority may then be faced with a fait accompli with regard to something which may not be its choice at all.
No more than designing something, a committee is the wrong body to try to buy land. Some individual has to——
I am not necessarily just talking about land.
I started out on this road trying to increase the role of local authorities and to devolve the functions from the Department and give them better funding. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey has gone a long way down that road and I want to see him continue. I will try to increase transparency at local authority level and reduce the involvement of central government as far as possible. I have been advocating a subsidiarity principle for the past 20 years. It has made some progress over the past few years and I hope it will make further progress.
This is an issue of accountability. I want to see local authorities buying much more land to build up land banks. The Minister is being provocative when he attempts to pat himself on the back when it comes to housing. It is not the area about which the Minister should choose to congratulate himself. The record has been pretty dismal.
That is your hymn sheet and you will keep singing that no matter how many houses we build.
How many houses were built last year?
The Minister is the only one clinging to that.
There has been a big increase in public housing activity.
The Minister has been four years clutching at quarterly straws. The cumulative has caught up with him.
We are changing stations I am sorry to say.
There has to be some procedure whereby what the manager does in relation to buying land gets an approval at some point from the elected members. There is a difference between having a free hand for negotiating purposes——
If you give a man a job you let him do the job.
There is such a thing as accountability, even for county managers.
The elected members have a certain role in relation to the manager. They may feel that the manager's actions have not been in the best interests of the local authority. If he buys land in out of the way places where it is not suitable for building, it would be serviced for 20 years and he pays too much for the land. Elected representatives can be critical of them and can take steps to deal with that in their own way. The manager is responsible for ensuring that the funding that is available is properly spent and accounted for. That will all be transparent in the accounts. I can see where the Deputy is coming from, but I made the other argument as well. It could create obstacles that would interfere with the free flow of his acquisition plans that we have been encouraging him to get involved in. It may be that the directly elected chairman on behalf of the elected members should be kept informed of these kinds of activities with regard to major capital acquisitions and I expect that the manager would get involved.
I move amendment No. 104:
In page 81, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) Payments for the acquisition of land shall require the approval of the local authority.".
I move amendment No. 105:
In page 84, subsection (8)(c), line 15, to delete “copies”.
This is a technical amendment to delete double reference to "copies" as the word "copy" appears in the main body of the section 102(8). The second reference to "copies" in subsection (c) is superfluous.
Amendments Nos. 106 to 108, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 106:
In page 85, subsection (6)(a), line 26, after “environment” to insert “provided that the manager takes reasonable steps to obtain the prior consent of the Cathaoirleach and notifies the elected members forthwith.”.
The arguments for this amendment are the arguments we made on amendment 103 and seek to achieve the same effect. There is no point in repeating the arguments so I do not propose to discuss it but I would like a voice vote.
Once again this is about introducing a level of accountability. There is a significant deficit of accountability and little interaction between the county manager and the elected representatives in several areas. This seeks to ensure that the approval of the cathaoirleach is secured and members are notified within a specified number of days. It is a reasonable step in seeking to address and redress a major deficit that currently exists not just in this area but right across a whole range of areas relating to the functions and responsibilities of local government. I urge its acceptance.
This section provides for the circumstances under which a local authority may exceed the budgetary provisions beyond those adopted at the annual budget meeting. In general the manager is obliged to obtain authorisation from the elected council to exceed the budget provisions adopted. The only time the prior authorisation of the elected council is not expressly required by the manager to incur additional expenditure is in cases of emergency or where expenditure arises solely due to additional funding becoming available. Generally funds of this nature become available at short notice and have a relatively short life span.
The amendments proposed deal with the cases I have outlined where the manager is not expressly required to obtain prior authorisation from the council. In these circumstances, the manager must inform the cathaoirleach of the fact at the earliest possible juncture and also inform the elected council of the details and implications of such expenditure for the local authority budget at the next practicable meeting.
Emergency expenditure is by its nature exceptional and occurs outside normal operational procedures. In most cases a rapid response is essential and any restrictions that delay a manager's reaction could further aggravate the position.
Similarly, if funds become available at very short notice, for example if central funds are made available to a local authority in mid December with the proviso that the money be spent within the week, as can happen where a Department is trying to spend its full allocation by the end of the year, then local authorities should not have to forfeit those extra funds if they can be spent quickly and put to good use. In addition, seven days notification to the full council is not always possible or practical as any councillor would reasonably agree.
Having regard to all the circumstances, I am satisfied there is a valid need for the manager to have this power and there are adequate safeguards built into the provision. I do not propose to accept the Deputies' amendments.
I move amendment No. 107:
In page 85, subsection (6)(b), line 31, after “function” to insert “provided he has made all reasonable efforts to notify and get the prior approval of the Cathaoirleach and informs the members of the local authority by notice within 7 days”.
I move amendment No. 108:
In page 85, subsection (6), between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
"(c) providing he secures the approval of the Cathaoirleach and that he notifies the full council within seven days of overspending occurring.”.
Amendment No. 109 is in the names of Deputies Ó Caoláin and Gilmore. No. 110 is related. Nos. 109 and 110 may be discussed together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 109:
In page 85, subsection (1), line 41, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
A local authority or a joint body may by resolution require the preparation and submission to its members of statements of the financial position of the local authority or joint body as the case might be. The amendment proposes to delete "may" and substitute "shall." This is an area we have addressed previously. The submission of financial statements and reports is a critical responsibility. It is not optional. The word "may" does not reflect the importance of the issue addressed. I urge the adoption of the amendment.
There is not much to add to that. The requirement is that these reports be presented at quarterly intervals, which is the purpose of amendment No. 110. It is to ensure that statements on financial position will be made on a regular basis.
This amendment requires that the local authority must require the preparation and submission of financial reports at quarterly intervals. The subsection establishes the right of a local authority by resolution to have a report on the financial position of the local authority submitted to its members. Subsection (3) allows the members to specify the detail and intervals of such reports. To specify quarterly intervals, as specified in this amendment, could be against the wishes of some authorities who may want more regular reports. The use of "may" allows full discretion to the council whereas "shall" eliminates that discretion. Therefore, I do not propose to accept to amendment and I ask the Deputy to withdraw it.
That is not my interpretation of the matter. The Minister and I differ on that. It is important that it is a requirement. Amendment No. 110, which seeks to insert "at quarterly intervals", is a further requirement. Of the two, the important reference here is the changing of "may" to "shall." It should be changed and I will press amendment No. 109.
Councillors and elected members will have full discretion in this matter. They can call for these reports at whatever intervals they desire. They have full discretion under the existing legislative proposals.
This amendment was recommended to us by the three organisations representing local authority members.
I know. I have sat on the opposition benches and have seen such proposals made before in differentfora. I am not taking away from the genuine nature of the association’s intentions. However, the amendment reduces the power of local authority members.
The amendment has come from the organisations representing the members of local authorities. Their judgment as to whether it enhances or diminishes their position is relevant. They are unlikely to have recommended an amendment that will diminish their discretion.
It was not done with that intent but that would be its effect.
I move amendment No. 111:
In page 86, subsection (3)(a), line 32, after “Borrowing” to insert “of amounts greater than 10 per cent of its annual budget.”
I want to put the Minister's belief in the discretion of local authorities to the test. The Bill says borrowing by a local authority shall only be with the sanction of the appropriate Minister. Borrowing of small amounts should be at the discretion of the local authority. It should not be necessary that the sanction of the Minister be obtained for every borrowing. I propose that borrowing be limited to 10% of the council's budget.
I have no hard and fast view on the percentage. However, 10% is the simply the figure that I have selected. The local authority would be allowed to borrow up to 10% of its annual budget without having to seek the sanction of the Minister. That allows discretion to the local authority. If the local authority is to borrow greater amounts of money, the sanction of the Minister would be required. The idea of allowing a local authority to borrow a certain amount is reasonable. The members know what they are doing and it should be left to their discretion. They know what their repayments will be and they must publish the figures in their estimates. It is a reserve function.
Deputy Gilmore's amendment relates to an amendment of the existing provision in subsection (3)(a) regarding borrowing so that only amounts greater than 10% of their annual budget would require the consent of the relevant Minister. I am not aware that local authorities have been unreasonably restricted in the past in terms of their borrowing requirements and as a result there have been no calls for an amendment of existing practice by local authorities.
Local authority current expenditure at present exceeds £2 billion. To accept the Deputy's amendment could conceivably lead to unapproved borrowing of more than £200 million by local authorities in addition to approved borrowing. In the case of Dublin Corporation, this could result in unapproved borrowing of some £40 million. Given the potential scale of such borrowing, the potential implications this could have for the local government fund and given the implications such borrowing could have for the general Government deficit, I cannot accept this amendment.
Deputies will know that the government deficit - borrowing is a part of that - is a part of how the national finances as a whole are managed. In subsection (3)(b) “paragraph (a) does not apply to borrowing which the appropriate Minister may exempt for the purposes of this subsection”. There is some discretion. The amendment makes a certain amount of sense for smaller amounts but the over-riding consideration is the management of the national finances. It may not be as important a matter as it was when we were in dire straits in relation to borrowing and its relationship to our capacity to earn.
However, for Report Stage I will see if any further discretion can be given at the lower levels. I am not sure there is much leeway but I will look at the matter again. It is a part of the philosophy of giving as much local autonomy as possible within reason. There are overriding financial considerations in terms of management as the Department of the Environment and Local Government does not have full discretion. We need to check with another Department, but I am not sure which Department is involved.
The Minister's proposition is reasonable.
I move amendment No. 112:
In page 87, subsection (2), line 35, after "statement" to insert "not later than 30 June".
This amendment seeks to insert the words "not later than 30 June" in relation to the preparation and presentation of the annual financial statement of local government bodies. In my experience, there has been uncertainty about the timeframe for the presentation of annual accounts. To stipulate a particular deadline will help to focus the administration of local government. It will ensure the presentation of the annual financial statement for the consideration of elected members within a reasonable time of the conclusion of the financial year. It is noted in the presentation of this amendment that the financial year and the calendar year are now the same. The presentation to elected members of a local authority's annual statement of accounts within a six month period following the conclusion of the financial year is reasonable.
This is one of the amendments which was recommended by the three associations, who argue it is necessary to tighten financial reporting procedures.
Section 106 requires local authorities to maintain records and proper accounts in accordance with the accounting code of practice which the Minister may amend from time to time. The section also provides that the existing accounting code of practice shall be deemed to have been issued in accordance with this section. For the first time, the accounting code of practice will have a basis in law. Section 4(6) of the code stipulates that a local authority's annual financial statement should be prepared by 1 April, and published on 1 July, of the year following that to which it refers. This must be seen against the major revamp of local authority financial management systems which is currently under way.
Deputies are aware that there has been an exceptional change in terms of how local authorities deal with financial matters, as a result of the accounting code of practice. There has been a phenomenal improvement in recent times. As the accounting code of practice has a basis in law, it should be adequate to meet the requirements of Deputies.
Can I ask for clarification? In his response, the Minister mentioned specific dates such as 1 July, but by what date should reports be prepared?
Where is this provided for?
It is provided for in the code of practice which now has a basis in law. The accounting year will end on 31 December and the annual financial statement should be prepared by the following 1 April and published on the following 1 July.
Does the code of practice result from legislation? Has it been legislatively provided for?
It is now.
In which Bill?
I do not mean to be awkward, although it may seem that I am. Just to be certain, in what section of the Bill is this catered for?
Section 106(2) does not make the specific statement to which the Minister has referred.
I refer to section 106(2) which reads "which are consistent with such accounting code of practice"——
——"as the Minister may issue from time to time".
That is always the way it is with Ministers.
That is the current requirement as issued by the Minister.
If something else should arise in the future which we do not foresee, the legislation provides for the Minister to make whatever changes he deems necessary.
I am not going to split hairs on this matter, given that the Minister has presented his understanding of the situation. The requirement is not crystal-clear in the legislation and there remains the flexibility offered by "as the Minister may issue from time to time". I will defer to the feelings of my colleague, but if my amendment is provided for I will consider withdrawing it.
Let us look at the matter from Deputy Ó Caoláin's point of view. Under the code of practice, the local authority has no discretion to divert from the provisions of the code, which is legally new and a big advance on where we were.
I accept that.
I agree that it is a big advance as over the years local authority audits were way behind. We will not go to the wall on this matter.
We withdraw the amendment on the basis of the Minister's explanation.
I move amendment No. 113:
In page 88, subsection (5), line 2, after "subsection (3)” to insert “and the elected members may seek an independent assessment of the necessity for any extra expenditure incurred”.
This amendment proposes to increase the powers of scrutiny of elected members and to make possible independent decision-making by elected members where there may be conflict or tension with managers, which is quite often the case. I am not sure, but I seem to recall that this Bill makes provision for the chairs of SPCs to expend money in order to obtain independent advice, but there is an increasing need for the council as a whole to have such a facility. A later amendment tabled by Deputy Gilmore relates to legal opinion and I am seeking a similar facility in respect of financial expenditure. Knowledge is power and managers have all the knowledge. People can be led to a decision if a particular line is taken. If, therefore, elected members are to make meaningful decisions, they have to be able to receive independent advice. The provisions of this amendment would not be used often, but there are cases where such advice is badly needed. If this amendment is accepted, the scrutinising powers and decision-making ability of elected members would be enhanced.
The proposed amendment seeks to have an independent assessment of additional expenditure which may be incurred by the manager without the prior approval of the council in certain circumstances, for example, in emergency cases under section 103. However, in the context of consideration of the annual financial statement this emergency expenditure would have to have occurred in the previous financial year.
There are several relevant issues here and I want to address the issue of an independent view first. The facility for an independent view is provided by the audit procedures of local authority accounts. Section 114 provides that every local authority or joint body must be audited by a local government auditor in accordance with the provisions of the Bill. Moreover, the council may also include outside persons on their budget estimates committee which is another opportunity to avail of expert advice. I go back to the question of incurring the extra expenditure. Annual financial statements necessarily relate to expenditure incurred in the previous year and this amendment's provisions are after the event. It is possible the additional expenditure would have been incurred six, 12 or more months before consideration of the annual financial statement takes place. Controls and checks regarding additional expenditure need to be in operation during, or very soon after the event if they are to be effective or meaningful. These controls and checks are provided for in section 103, which concerns the limitation of expenditure.
In general, exceeding the local authority budget must be authorised in advance by the council. Special provisions apply in emergencies or where extra grants become available, usually at very short notice with a limited period for expending the money, and where these cases are dealt with at the next meeting of the council. In the circumstances I am satisfied the controls provided in section 103 are sufficient to address any concerns about extra expenditure by the manager. He or she is accountable to the elected members in this regard. There are already two mechanisms for independent assessment available to the elected members and I therefore do not propose to accept the amendment. This is another case where the local authority members may at their Estimates make provision for a decision such as that referred to by Deputy Olivia Mitchell. It is not something they need additional powers to do.
Amendments Nos. 116 and 117 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 116:
In page 88, subsection (1), line 11, after "development." to insert "In this section, 'person' means any person or any voluntary, business or community group.".
The reason for tabling this amendment becomes apparent in subsections (5) and (6). Subsection (2) refers to acceptance of contributions from any voluntary, business or community group or other local authority or public authority or other person. Subsections (5) and (6) only use the word "person". That strikes me as being a little odd and I wonder if we need to define what we mean by a "person". I am trying to envisage circumstances where a council could, without leaving itself open to all sorts of accusations, negotiate with a person. I would rather think the council should negotiate with persons or groups, be they business or voluntary ones. Should we define what we mean by a "person"? I am not terribly happy with the term though at the same time I do not want to be too prescriptive. The term is a little bit loose.
The concern here is the implication that the term "person" means an individual. The three representative local government organisations have expressed concerns about the implications and possible perceptions of arrangements and negotiations with individuals. I am happy with Deputy Olivia Mitchell's amendment and propose the deletion of the reference to "person". I am happy to withdraw my amendment in favour of it.
Section 108 introduces a provision to allow local authorities, individually or jointly, to establish a community fund for the financing and support of projects deemed to be of benefit to local communities and described as community initiatives. Deputy Olivia Mitchell's amendment seeks to clarify the meaning of the word "person" so that for the purposes of section 108 it embraces voluntary, business or community groups as well as persons. The Deputy's amendment is unnecessary given the definition of a person in the Interpretation Act, 1937. The definition of "person" in that Act comprehends the bodies mentioned by the Deputy. The term "person" is to be construed as "importing a body corporate, whether a corporation aggregate or a corporation sole and a non-incorporated body of persons as well as an individual". I am therefore satisfied that the intention of the Deputy is fully met.
What about the old 1937 Act? I withdraw the amendment.
I know. We have all had reason to look again at some of those descriptions.
Amendments Nos. 118, 119 and 121 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 118:
In page 89, lines 9 to 13, to delete subsection (2).
This part of the Bill deals with the establishment of a community fund. I agree with the idea of there being a separate fund in the local authority for the purpose of supporting community initiatives. I agree with arrangements whereby the local authority itself, or business or voluntary and community groups, may make contributions to that for specific purposes. I can see enormous potential for it, particularly in the context of funding available through some State schemes, urban renewal schemes and some of the social programmes.
However, section 109(2) effectively proposes the reintroduction of rates by local authorities. It proposes that where a local authority considers it appropriate it may in accordance with this section adopt, by resolution, a scheme for the making of an annual contribution, by the occupier of each dwelling in the area to which the scheme applies, toward particular community initiatives specified in the scheme. There is nothing voluntary about that. That is the local authority making a decision that there will be some community charge, local rates, household tax or poll tax - whatever you want to call it. I am not in agreement with that.
There will not be widespread public welcome for this provision nor am I sure there will be widespread welcome for it by public authorities. Emerging from this, every time there is a proposal to carry out improvements to parks, or other necessities, county managers will say it can only be done if there is a community charge or an increase in an existing charge. What may well start as a small contribution for a particular purpose will grow and grow. In the 1980s right up to the mid-1990s we had the dispute about water charges. More recently we have had disputes and difficulties over refuse charges and problems associated with the introduction of parking charges. There is an increasing tendency in the local government system to introduce a charge for every service. This will impose a charge on community development and activity.
The proposal has the potential to open up huge gulfs. Take, for example, a local authority. One can foresee a scenario of a well heeled neighbourhood being in a position to charge for a specified local purpose, while a less well off neighbourhood would be unable to levy a charge for a similar purpose. This is a very dangerous proposal. I will not support it and ask that it be removed from the Bill.
Section 109 deals with the community initiative scheme whereby funding for a specific community initiative may be raised. This concept was first formally mooted by the White Paper, Better Local Government, in 1996 to introduce a mechanism for local authorities to sponsor, in partnership with local community or other groups, discretionary development projects which would not otherwise proceed within available resources.
That is not what the Bill states. Will the Minister repeat the sentence on discretionary development projects?
". . . a mechanism for local authorities to sponsor, in partnership with local community or other groups, discretionary development projects which would not otherwise proceed within available resources."
That is not what the Bill states.
There are strict rules set out to govern the setting up of such a scheme. The decision is at the discretion of the elected council, at least half of whose members must vote in favour of a resolution to introduce a contribution.
Prior to it being voted on by the elected council, public notice must be given of the council's intention to consider adoption of a draft scheme to provide for the contribution in respect of a specific community initiative. The process allows maximum scope for public comment on any or all aspects of the proposed scheme including a decision by the council to hold a plebiscite within the proposed area prior to deciding on the adoption of the scheme.
What Deputy Gilmore is proposing in amendment No. 118 is to take away the power of the elected council to adopt a scheme for the making of an annual contribution by residents which would fund the initiative. Without this power, there would be no funding base. I have outlined the broad consultation process, including the plebiscite option. A scheme may provide for a different contribution in respect of different categories of occupier in the relevant area and may include provision for a waiver in respect of certain categories. Only one contribution applies per dwelling, irrespective of the number of residents. Certain conditions must be met regarding the manner in which the charge is notified.
The various safeguards will ensure this will not be imposed on the community without its support and councillors will be careful in this regard. The legal basis for the contribution allows a local authority, in supporting a community initiative, to overcome what economists would term the free rider issue that affects many community fund-raising efforts. In these circumstances, the Deputy might reconsider his amendment.
I have also referred to the provision of a waiver in respect of certain categories. Amendment No. 119 by Deputy Gilmore seeks to insert an additional clause regarding ability to pay. However, personal hardship, which is provided for in the Bill, includes all types of scenarios. Ability to pay would be an obvious one but specific reference to this might narrow the wider intended interpretation of "personal hardship". Ability to pay is well covered and I ask the Deputy to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment No. 121 seeks to ensure that default of payment will not result in local authority services being withheld. However, this brings me back to the free rider issue. There are always people willing to ride on someone else's coat tails and this is no different. There are wide consultation procedures involved in setting up a community initiative scheme and waivers are provided for genuine cases. Non-payment of statutory contributions in whatever forum should always be discouraged. That said, local authorities are obliged under various statutes to provide a wide range of services within their functional area. The statutory obligation on authorities to provide these services would in no way be diluted or removed in the event of default in payment of a community initiative contribution.
In the circumstances, I do not believe the Deputy's amendment is necessary. We have the White Paper on local government as well as the safeguards provided for in the Bill. These offer a better solution to the kinds of problems with which the Deputy wants to deal.
What is in the Bill is quite different from what was recommended in the White Paper, Better Local Government. The record will show that it related to proposals which otherwise would not proceed. In other words they were add-on initiatives. That is not what is being proposed here. Let us take the scenario I have already described. If there is a proposal in a neighbourhood to upgrade the open space, it will be used to draw up a scheme to define the upgrade as a community development initiative so that householders in that area can be asked to pay for it. I am opposed to that. The Minister's response has not changed my view.
Amendment No. 119 would ensure the issue of ability to pay is included. There is a difference between hardship and ability to pay. The question of hardship might give rise to circumstances in which a person is not in a position to pay. The question of ability to pay might give rise to circumstances in which a lesser payment might be accepted from a person on a lower income. For that reason it should be included in the criteria for waivers.
This is a form of re-introducing rates. It should be explicitly stated in the Bill that where a person is in default there is provision for that to be pursued as a contract debt. I accept that is the case. However, the normal services provided by the local authority, for example, refuse collection, delivery of water and payment of student grants, should not be withheld in cases of default of payment. The local authority should pursue the matter as a debt in the normal way. It should not, as has happened in the past, refuse to provide a service, for example, the issuing of the deeds of a house, to people who have not paid a certain charge. That practice is probably illegal.
The legislation should state explicitly that people in default should not be deprived of services like refuse collection provided they have complied with the conditions that normally apply for the provision of that service. Many local authorities now have a refuse collection charge. If people have paid for that service but have not paid a community charge, they should not be deprived of their refuse collection because the county manager decides to lean on them. We need to have that safeguard built into the legislation. Having said that, I am against the idea of this type of charge.
We have had fundamental differences on these questions and I will not resurrect them. The Deputy is correct to say that not everything in the Bill was contained in the White Paper, Better Local Government. One of the Bill's improvements is the discretion it affords local authorities to hold a plebiscite. The majority of people make a genuine effort to meet their commitments.
That is right.
Sometimes they feel aggrieved when others, who may be in a financially stronger position, decide not to meet their commitments. There has to be fairness. The Deputy is being fair and straight in saying he opposes the principle. We will not solve our differences on that issue this evening.
The Minister is re-introducing rates.
The last time the Deputy accused me of that, his party lost so many seats that I thought he would not ever do it again.
This is what is called a stealth tax.
For heaven's sake.
I move amendment No. 119:
In page 89, subsection (5)(d), lines 29 and 30, after “hardship” to insert “, ability to pay”.
I move amendment No. 122:
In page 91, before section 110, to insert the following new section:
"110.-The local authority or authorised company may enter agreements with developers and beneficiaries of tax reliefs in order to achieve social and economic benefits under the integrated area plan concerned. These agreements may include social regeneration levies, local labour pacts, joint private-social housing schemes, public-private community/voluntary partnership and other similar initiatives".
I propose a new section where the local authority or authorised company may enter agreements with developers and beneficiaries of tax reliefs in order to achieve social and economic benefits under the integrated area plan concerned. These agreements may include social regeneration levies, local labour pacts, joint private social housing schemes, public private community-voluntary partnership and other similar initiatives. This is an extension of the concept of the public private partnership idea into the community development urban regeneration area. It marries the benefits which accrue, in many cases to private developers, in urban renewal or urban regeneration circumstances with the social objectives of local communities. There is considerable scope for initiatives being implemented on a joint basis, and for the local authority to take the initiative and lead in proceeding with these developments and initiatives.
The amendment relates to the urban renewal code, specifically to the Urban Renewal Act, 1998, and is therefore not appropriate for inclusion in this Bill. The Urban Renewal Act, already provides that an integrated plan must include objectives for the social and economic renewal on a sustainable basis of the area to which the plan relates. The Act also states that an integrated area plan may include objectives for employment, training and education, particularly for persons living in the area, and for the provision of community facilities. In line with the guidelines for the scheme, a number of local authorities included in their IAPs community games proposals which involved a partnership arrangement with the private sector and community groups. It was a matter for each local authority to prepare and implement the IAPs, having regard to the specific circumstances pertaining to the areas selected. I am satisfied the existing provisions in the Urban Renewal Act, are sufficiently broad to encompass the objectives in the Deputy's amendment and to enable the local authorities to enter into various forms of partnership arrangements in order to achieve the objectives set out in the IAPs. I ask the Deputy to withdraw his amendment.
I move amendment No. 123:
In page 92, lines 4 to 11, to delete subsection (2).
The purpose of this amendment is to get rid of a Victorian relic in our local government legislation - the concept of surcharging members of a local authority. I am surprised to see it reappearing in this 21st century Bill. It does not happen in practice and I cannot recall any occasion in recent history when members of a local authority were surcharged. I know of many cases where members of a local authority were browbeaten by their county manager into taking a particular decision with the threat of him imposing a surcharge on them. To my knowledge we do not have a surcharge in any other area of public administration.
Members of the Cabinet are not surcharged if a decision which they make incurs some loss to the State. If a Department is taken to court and an award is made against it on the basis of some decision made by a Minister or senior official, there is no surcharge. There was no surcharge for the beef fines that were imposed on the country, or in regard to the late payment of social welfare entitlements which the Government had to pay after many years of litigation. In the Minister's Department there are many cases currently being taken by former Army personnel. The only place where surcharging applies is to members of local authorities. If there is a proposal before a local authority and a county manager disagrees with that, it is perfectly reasonable that he puts it on record in the same way that the Secretary General of a Department does in respect of a decision being made by a Minister. The record will stand and people can subsequently form their judgment on it. If it is sufficiently serious for proceedings to be taken against the individual for any loss which may have been incurred, then so be it.
I do not think that the principle of surcharging should apply in local government when it does not apply anywhere else. It was a Victorian idea that members of local government could not be trusted to make a decision, were inclined to stray and, using the threat of surcharge, had to be whipped back into line by somebody who knew better. It has not operated in practice anyway, although it has been threatened on a few occasions. I cannot recall a case of a member of a local authority being surcharged. Will the Minister let me know when there was one? The threat has been used frequently and inappropriately. It was used in the past year or so, for example, in Cork County Council, when members of the council rescinded a planning decision. The decision concerned the ESB pylons in Cork harbour. The county manager threatened to surcharge the members who voted in favour of the rescinding motion.
We should abolish surcharging. Nowadays, we have a different system of accountability where local authority members and public officials are concerned and we should stick with it.
Deputy Gilmore has requested that subsection (2), which deals with surcharging arising from votes on proposals involving illegal payment, deficiency or loss, should be deleted. Our democratic system is dependent on an array of checks and balances. While the concept of the surcharge seems very outdated in the 21st century, there are grounds for its retention. It can act as an important break in difficult circumstances. In general, power of surcharge covered both officials and councillors. We all know and may have experienced the intolerable pressures that can be brought to bear on one to make very populist decisions. This can be especially acute at local level, given the proximity of both councillors and staff to their communities. In these circumstances, some overall check is required - this is where the potential threat of the surcharge is useful.
The surcharge is not a blanket sanction, but is precise in its application. Only those who vote in favour of the illegal proposal will be surcharged. We can be thankful that there are very few examples of the surcharge, which demonstrates its deterrent effect.
I have sympathy with what Deputy Gilmore is saying. We have looked exhaustively at alternative types of deterrents, a process that has progressed for a considerable period, but nothing as useful as the surcharge has emerged.
Deputy S. Haughey took the Chair.
"Deterrent" is the kind of language one uses regarding people who are charged with serious criminal offences. We are talking of elected members of local authorities. We have a system of accountability. There are elections and requirements for declarations of interests. If one does something that is improper or illegal, there is a code of law to deal with it. That code of law is continuously being strengthened.
Will the Minister tell me if there is any other category of people in our system of public administration to which the principle of surcharging applies? Surcharging is a relic of the old legislation from the 19th century. When local authorities and councils were being established, in what was then the UK, the idea of surcharging arose because the Victorian grandees were reluctant to accept the idea of local democracy and did not trust local people running town councils, etc. We have inherited their idea of surcharging in our legislation, where it has no place. If one accepts surcharging, one might ask why it is not in place for Members of the Oireachtas, directors of State companies or for anybody in the system of public administration. If they make a wrong decision, they are surcharged.
Poor decisions are made in local authorities and councils. I can remember many, but in a democracy we elect people to make decisions. They get advice and may not accept it. The advice is put on record in whatever terms are appropriate, and ultimately the electorate has to make up its mind on the matter. Has there ever been a surcharge applied since Independence? I do not think so.
I cannot say for certain. There are certain mitigating circumstances in which the Minister has discretion to relieve authorities or individuals from the surcharge. I sympathise with the views of Deputy Gilmore. The legislation needs to be updated but it may not be possible to do it here. There are other legal instruments concerning finance that might afford an opportunity to do so.
I withdraw the amendment, but I will re-introduce it on Report Stage. I appreciate that the Minister sympathises with what I am saying and I hope the Government will reflect on my amendment.
I move amendment No. 124:
In page 93, before section 115, to insert the following new section:
"115.-For the purpose of overseeing the audit of local authority accounts, either or both Houses of the Oireachtas may designate a Committee which shall enjoy upon such designation all statutory powers of the Public Accounts Committee of Dáil Éireann.".
This amendment is not unrelated to the previous topic. It provides a more appropriate way of exercising a check on the finances of local authorities. The Committee of Public Accounts does not have the power to examine the accounts of a local authority. However, it has the power to examine the accounts of, for example, a vocational education committee.
The Bill provides for new arrangements for the auditing of local authority accounts. I welcome those proposals, but the report of the audit should afford a role to a committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It need not be the Committee of Public Accounts. More appropriately, it should be this committee or its equivalent at the time of auditing. I say that because local authority expenditure includes a huge amount of central State expenditure, both in the money that is contributed to local authorities from the local government fund and in money made available for housing, roads and so on. Other than the annual examination in the Estimates, the Oireachtas does not exercise any subsequent supervision or examination. There should be a provision whereby a committee of the Oireachtas should be able to examine the reports of the audits of local authority accounts and, if necessary, question the accounting officers concerned.
I am disappointed at this amendment. The thrust of this Bill, and the thrust of Better Local Government, published by the previous Government, is to strengthen the powers and independence of local government and to remove a wide range of restrictive controls imposed by central Government. This is based, at least in part, on the principle of subsidiarity. Local authorities are the only directly elected democratic bodies, outside of Dáil Éireann, and it is the Government's objective that they should have as much autonomy as possible. The changes already made and proposed aim to bring Irish local government into line with European norms and the European Charter of Local Self Government which it is intended to ratify. Article 28(a) of the Constitution, inserted by referendum in 1999, further underpins the constitutional independence and autonomy of local authorities.
The proposed amendment is also unnecessary on its own merits given the new provision in section 121 of the Bill. This section enables local authorities to appoint audit committees to consider and report on matters identified in the course of the audit. These committees, all of which will be open to the public, will function in a similar manner to the Dáil Committee of Public Accounts. The audit committee will be entitled to require the attendance of a local government auditor and local authority manager to assist in its consideration of any matter arising from the audit or auditors' report. The findings of the audit committee shall be reported to the local authority. The Public Accounts Committee type body, envisaged by Deputy Gilmore, would have the impact of sidelining this important question of audit outside the control of locally elected members. The proposed amendment would reduce local authorities to the level of subsidiary bodies of the Oireachtas, which they are not.
The Department exercises this control on local authorities. It requires local authorities to apply for approval for this, that and the other, before they can spend money. In some cases they require double and triple approvals before they can proceed with certain projects. Yet we have a reply like this which says it is fine for the Department of the Environment and Local Government whose officers may exercise that controlling function, but the elected Members of the Oireachtas may not have any role in it. We are going to disagree on this.
I move amendment No. 125:
In page 94, between lines 33 and 34, to insert the following subsection:
"(2) An audit shall be completed within 12 months from the date on which the accounts in question are submitted.".
This is to put a time limit on the completion of the audit. The amendment proposes a limit of 12 months.
There is no statutory timeframe for the completion of audits of local government accounts by the Local Government Audits Service at present. The completion of annual audits depends on a number of factors, including the timing of their completion by the local authority and the availability of the local government auditors. In addition, the complexity of the audit and consequently the time taken by the auditor are factors which must be considered. Local government auditors are statutory independent officers and must be given resources to carry out a fully independent audit of bodies under their charge.
In recent years the scope of their remit was extended to include a value for money audit in accordance with section 15 of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1997. To date 20 value for money reports have been published. Its remit has been widened further since with the introduction of EU regulation 2064/97 in 1998 which requires specific audits of EU-funded projects. The Local Government Audit Service, being an external audit service, provides independent scrutiny of the financial and regulatory stewardship of more than 150 bodies including local and regional authorities, regional assemblies and other bodies. It is imperative that local government auditors are in a position to undertake full and extensive examinations of the affairs of bodies under audit to give assurances to local and central government and the general public.
Clearly not all the audits will take the same length of time to complete. Not only will the audit of larger bodies generally take longer than smaller bodies but the time needed to prolong the audit could be prolonged if the auditor is required to consider complex issues to questions of surcharge or objections raised. I agree that in so far as possible it should be desirable that audits be completed within one year of completion of accounts. This is something that would be included in the business plans of the Local Government Audit Service. However, it would be inappropriate to impose statutory time limits on auditors in the performance of their duties. To introduce such time limits could prejudice the effectiveness or completeness of particular audits by restricting the time which the auditor may consider necessary to fully and comprehensively examine these matters.
In the circumstances I do not propose to accept the amendment. As I have said, I accept that in so far as possible it should be an attainable objective. It is something that local authorities should seek to achieve, but I think Deputy Gilmore will understand that putting an absolute time limit on that system covering such a range of authorities and bodies could restrict their freedom to complete their job. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 126:
In page 95, subsection (3), lines 6 and 7, to delete "to satisfy himself or herself" and substitute "to be satisfied".
The wording "satisfy himself or herself" might appear to be too personal in the context in which it is intended. It may not accurately reflect the objectivity to be applied by the auditors. Accordingly, these words are being deleted.
Amendments Nos. 127 to 129, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 127:
In page 96, subsection (1), line 44, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
This is not unlike, in intent, the previous amendment tabled by Deputy Gilmore. This amendment proposes to give greater focus at local authority level to the importance of the scrutinising function of elected members of the accounts, audit and auditors' report. The reason I submitted this amendment stems from a personal experience of the auditors' report for 1998 or 1999 - I am not sure which - in respect of my local authority. A strong recommendation of that report was ignored and has been ignored for two years. The amount of money involved is significant and the matter has not been discussed at council level. That is why I think there needs to be greater focus. If there had been an audit committee, even if it met for only half an hour, these matters would have to be put on the agenda and scrutinised. These kinds of issues can slip through unless there is a specific focus. I do not like the thought of setting up yet another committee, perhaps it could be one of the jobs of the corporate policy group. This is something that should be tightened up at local authority level.
I agree with Deputy Mitchell on that point. In addition I propose, in amendment No. 128, that the provisions of section 27 of the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, should apply to the appointment of an audit committee. That is the grouping arrangement. There will be seven members on an audit committee. The provision for grouping is to ensure that there is a sufficient spread of political representation in the membership of the audit committee. The logic of that is self-evident.
The Bill as drafted allows local authorities discretion to set up an audit committee depending on their circumstances. An audit committee, if established, would meet in public to consider the audited financial statement or audited or special report within three months of receipt by the local authority. It will consist of members to be decided by the authority and cannot exceed half of the total number of members or seven members, whichever is the lesser. This discretionary provision is in line with the general thrust of the Bill which has been designed to provide a framework to facilitate effective and efficient local government.
The Bill is not intended to tie the hands of local authorities by being overly prescriptive. This provision is one of the many which recognised that local authorities are often best placed to make decisions for themselves, taking account of local circumstances.
While a certain level of uniformity is necessary, the ability and necessity of decision-making must be respected at local level. It surprised me, therefore, that amendment No. 127 would impose a statutory obligation on all 114 local authorities, from large city and county authorities to very small towns, to set up audit committees, whether they consider it necessary. This is overly bureaucratic. In addition, it would place unnecessary and unreasonable demands on the resources of both local authorities and the audit service.
Amendment No. 129 also provides discretion to allow the audit committee to consider audited financial statements, audited reports, etc. and any other relevant matters. Surely the audit committee is capable of determining such matters. I reiterate my earlier point that I do not want to bring forward legislation that will tie up local operational matters or impose diktats on local authorities or, in this case, audit committees which are at the coalface and which can make decisions in light of local circumstances or current developments at a particular time.
Deputy Gilmore's amendment No. 128 seeks to apply the provisions of section 27 of the Local Government (Reorganisation) Act, 1985, to the appointment of members to audit committees. Section 27 was designed to ensure an element of proportionality in the making of appointments by a local authority. Schedule 9, dealing with meetings and proceedings of local authorities, contains these provisions. It provides that this group of arrangements is applied to committees of a local authority, which would include an audit committee. There is no need, therefore, for these amendments.
Amendments Nos. 130, 131 and 135 are related. It is proposed, therefore, to take these amendments together.
I move amendment No. 130:
In page 98, subsection (1), line 17, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
This has echoes in the earlier deliberations when we debated the use of the words "may" and "shall". In this instance, on consultation with the local community, it is imperative that we use the word "shall". The current wording provides that a local authority may take such steps as it considers appropriate. That leaves it the option of not taking steps to consult with and promote effective participation by the local community in local government. It is important that we change the wording to provide that a local authority shall take such steps as it considers appropriate. It still leaves it with control and decision-making powers on the specific steps to be taken but clearly provides that steps must be taken, and that is very important. Consultation with the local community is an essential element for new and better local government so I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.
Section 126 sets out for the first time in law a role for the local authority to consult with and promote participation by the community in local government. Amendment No. 130 seeks to make this provision mandatory. The Bill, as published, provides for a range of mechanisms to facilitate participation by the community, including the county and city development boards, SPCs, right of public access to meetings, recognised associations, etc. The spirit of the Bill, in particular section 126, is to foster good relations through openness and transparency and by facilitating greater participation by the community in local government. I make the point here, as I have done elsewhere, in relation to the argument on the use of the words "may" and "shall", that this Bill is in important respects permissive. That is, it provides legislative cover and the ammunition to allow local authorities to undertake certain activities, in this case, community consulted ones.
I do not want this Bill to become overly prescriptive by having the Oireachtas tell local authorities what they must do, especially in relation to community matters. This provision is one of the many which recognises that local authorities are often best placed to make decisions for themselves, taking account of local circumstances. While a certain amount of uniformity is necessary, especially in respect of the national responsibilities local authorities carry, we must respect the ability and necessity of decision-making at local level. That is the essence of local government. Amendment No. 131 aims to substitute "shall" for "may" in relation to the indicative list of actions a local authority could take to achieve the aim of the section. I do not think it appropriate to insert the word "shall" in relation to this list for the general reasons I have outlined.
Amendment No. 135 relates to the provision in section 126(3) about a local authority taking additional steps to publicise or promote the consultation process through local radio, websites, etc. in cases where there is a statutory requirement to publish a notice in a newspaper. I do not propose to make the taking of such additional steps mandatory. Each local authority needs to decide what is appropriate in the context of its own community.
The gulf remains when one looks at the continuation of section 126 and the areas where Deputy Gilmore's amendment would substitute "shall" for "may". In established strategic policy committees, among so many more, this is hardly an area of option. It is an area of requirement and the language should reflect that. The whole purpose of the Bill is to indicate what is required. I strongly take the view that the word "shall" should apply in the opening segment of this section and, accordingly, I intend to press the amendment.
This argument has continued during the afternoon and there is a difference of emphasis between us. I know what the Deputies want to achieve but they will also accept that leaving discretion at local level is an important component of successful local government. Each time we impose a mandatory demand to undertake the type of activities people at local level should do, it is an unnecessary interference. I am not suggesting the Deputies opposite are thinking that way but that is the way it is interpreted by people. They see it as a diktat from the centre. We all want to achieve most of what is sought here but we must do that while leaving local authorities free to do that kind of work of their own volition. Ownership of the work is an important part of successful local government rather than doing something because it is dictated by the Minister or the Department of the Environment and Local Government.
Following that logic, what is the point of subsection (2)? Why do we need a subsection stating that a local authority may, for example, consult with local sectoral community or other groups? There should be an obligation on a local authority to carry out these consultations. The section is unnecessary. If we are saying——
The problem with the section is that it does not state the matter about which we have to consult. There are some matters on which we obviously would not consult, for example, which library books to buy, but there are other matters on which it is important to consult. It is a little vague.
We are dealing with primary legislation. If we ever reach the stage where, unwittingly or otherwise, we prescribe every detail in primary legislation, the principle of subsidiarity will be gone out the door completely.
I move amendment No. 131:
In page 98, subsection (2), line 21, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
I move amendment No. 133:
In page 98, subsection (2)(g), line 36, after “meetings” to insert “and the dissemination of information to the public”.
This amendment is in response to suggestions from the local authority representative associations that provisions included in the Bill recognise the role of local authorities in communicating with the local community, hence the reference to "dissemination of information" by way of newsletter, open days and so forth.
I move amendment No. 138:
In page 100, subsection (3), between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"(e) such representatives of organisations involved in the promotion of the Irish language and culture;”.
I indicated earlier that I would press this amendment, which relates to access to the representative organisations by the county and city development boards. The Minister indicated that he might take this amendment on board between now and Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 140:
In page 102, before section 129, to insert the following new section:
"129.-It shall be a general function of the members of a local authority to determine by resolution the policy of the local authority in accordance with and subject to the provisions of the enactments relating to that authority.".
This amendment is a verbatim copy of the corresponding section in the 1991 Act, which states that it shall be a general function of the members of a local authority to determine by resolution the policy of the local authority in accordance with and subject to the provisions of the enactments relating to that authority. That was a general power given to the elected members of local authorities to determine the policy of the local authority. I am curious as to why that section was rewritten in a different form in this Bill. The form in which it has emerged is that the policy of a local authority is expressed by the elected council in the exercise of its reserved functions, "subject to and in accordance with this Act and the other enactments relating to that authority".
This version appears to be more restrictive for the elected members of local authorities. It restricts them solely to the exercise of the council's reserved functions, which was not in the 1991 Act. That Act made it clear that the policy of the council could also include the policy of the council in relation to the exercise of executive functions. It obviously could not direct the manager in relation to a specific executive function but, under the 1991 Act, the council had the power to make policy which would govern the way in which the manager exercised executive functions. That has been removed in this Bill and the power of elected members of a local authority is being restricted. I propose that the section in the 1991 Act be included in this Bill.
Amendment No. 140 proposes a substitute for the existing section 129. The substance of the revised section 129 seems to be met by section 129 as it stands, coupled with section 130(1)(a), which together declare that the council expresses its policy through the reserve functions by resolution at a meeting of the authority.
The 1991 measure is a stand alone provision. This Bill, however, consolidates a number of enactments. I will look at this with the parliamentary counsel to ascertain whether there is validity in the doubts expressed by Deputy Gilmore and in the proposal to incorporate the provision in the 1991 Act. I should have that completed before Report Stage.
I will withdraw the amendment but I intend to re-enter it on Report Stage. I have some practical knowledge of this and of attempts to use the 1991 Act with regard to who makes policy, and I can give an example. Somebody in the local authority of which I am a member decided to stop pre-selling plots in the cemetery to families - it was the practice to pre-sell plots to families - and now one cannot get a plot until one is dead. Who makes that policy? The manager says it is an executive function but I contend that under the 1991 Act the council makes the policy. The council would be entitled under that Act to make policy in relation to cemeteries but it would not be so entitled under this Bill. One can only do so under this Bill if it is expressly a reserved function. I will withdraw the amendment because the Minister has undertaken to consider the matter on Report Stage. It is important we get it right.
Amendments Nos. 142 and 143 are related to amendment No. 141 and all amendments may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 141:
In page 102, before section 130, to insert the following new section:
"130.-(1) The elected council of a local authority or the members of a joint body may directly exercise and perform by resolution at a meeting of the local authority or body any function for which the authority or body has responsibility, except for functions which are executive functions.
(2) Executive functions are functions performed by the manager. They are:
(a) matters relating to staff;
(b) decisions on individual planning applications;
(c) the allocation of dwellings in accordance with a Scheme of Letting Priorities which has been adopted by the local authority;
(d) financial management and legal actions which do not require the approval of the local authority.”.
This amendment is an attempt to address the rebalancing in the respective roles of the county manager and the elected council and to clarify the relationship between reserved functions and executive functions. As I understand it, the way in which local government law is constructed and the way in which this Bill is constructed means that reserved functions, which are functions of the council, are defined. Anything after that are functions for the manager. I propose that that should be reversed so the council may exercise any function except clearly defined executive functions. I accept there are areas where it is appropriate that the functions are exercised by the manager, such as in regard to staffing, industrial relations and decisions on individual planning applications, the allocation of houses and certain legal matters. The list of executive functions is included in one of the Schedules to the Bill. The proposal in my amendment is in line with that.
Let us define those as executive functions and ring-fence them as things the manager does. The elected council can exercise the functions after that. It is important to reverse the order because the manager does everything at present except what is defined in law as reserved functions. The areas of great sensitivity would still be protected, such as staffing, planning permissions, housing allocations etc., but the scope of what the elected members can do would be widened.
I have little to add to what Deputy Gilmore said. The same motivation lies behind all the amendments, namely, to try to make local government meaningful from the point of view of being democratic and of taking power from the managers and giving it to the elected members. That was the thrust of the Bill which was heralded as initiating local government reform. I am afraid it has failed dismally in that regard. I support Deputy Gilmore's amendment.
The Deputy's position is undoubtedly the preferable approach. I support his amendment rather than amendment No. 142. However, we are looking at an extension of the two critical paragraphs (a) and (b) in section 130 in terms of reserved functions. Paragraph (c) of amendment No. 142 states that “A council may by resolution require that any executive functions be exercisable by it as reserved functions except functions relating to human resources, financial operations and urgent legal action.” That coincides broadly with Deputy Gilmore’s proposition. Paragraph (d) of that amendment states that “The Minister shall, on the coming into law of this Act, issue each elected member with a printed document clearly setting out reserved functions and executive functions.” If Deputy Gilmore’s amendment is accepted, we would only need the executive functions. We would know afterwards that everything else was the reserved function and the responsibility of the elected member, which is decidedly more preferable. If amendment No. 141 is not accepted, I will press amendment No. 142.
Amendments Nos. 141 and 142 relate to the functions of the elected council. Amendment No. 141 seeks to introduce what are termed certified functions. The elected council would seem to be responsible for all functions other than the certified or executive functions. This could present obvious practical difficulties. Would land acquisition negotiations and agreements have to be conducted by the elected council? Would decisions regarding individual Traveller resettlement matters be conducted by the full council? Could the many detailed administrative decisions about the running of the organisation be handled by the council? All these would seem to be matters within the council's remit.
Section 130 sets out what are reserved functions. These are the major policy decisions which set out the parameters for local authority operations. Section 148(6) provides that the executive functions, which are not reserved, must be performed in accordance with the policy determined by the elected council. Amendment No. 142 provides that any or all executive functions could be declared to be reserved functions by resolution, with certain exceptions. This would have the effect of dismantling the entire policy executive framework which is the current basis of local government law. It is not apparent that decisions on individual cases of enforcement action, planning applications, housing allocations or similar matters should at this stage become reserved functions, as would seem to be the case under amendment No. 142. The White Paper, Better Local Government, which was published by the rainbow Government, proposed to maintain the policy executive framework. The Bill envisages a fuller role for the elected council so it can reclaim its rightful place at the centre of policy making and maintain a proper overview of local authority operations with proper support and back-up.
Section 130(3) allows the Minister to designate additional functions as reserved. I have no doubt that as the system evolves in the way intended, this can be used progressively over the next few years. If the corporate policy group is to grasp the opportunities on offer, future legislation will be likely to see it evolved to a more executive type role, as identified in the recent Council of Europe report which saw it on probation in the initial phase.
Amendment No. 143 seeks a list of reserved and executive functions. While I am not prepared to give a definitive commitment, I will ask the officials to see if some indication of a range of reserved functions could be added to the Bill by way of amendment on Report Stage to the Schedule or whatever. This may not be possible, but I will ask the officials to look at it. As regards the production of some form of booklet outlining the role of councillors and management, this can be done. Members should not think we are legislating for booklets. I seem to recall in the late 1980s that such a booklet was produced. The officials tell me the work programme following the Bill includes such a booklet. In the circumstances, perhaps the Deputy will consider not pressing the amendment.
I will press this amendment. It is disappointing we have a Local Government Bill and much talk about local democracy, subsidiarity and the other terms applied to local government, yet not one extra power is being given to the elected members of local authorities. We will retain the same old executive and reserved function relationship. There will be no rebalancing in respect of the powers and responsibilities of county managers and elected members. That is corroding local democracy. The public is frustrated that it elects councillors, yet it perceives them as not having power. All the power rests with the county manager. We will not get healthy local democracy until that is turned around. I propose a formula for doing that and I am disappointed the Minister has not accepted it. I want to put this issue to the committee and, depending on the outcome, I may reserve my position and put it to the House.
I move amendment No. 142:
In page 102, subsection (1), between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
"(c) A council may by resolution require that any executive functions be exercisable by it as reserved functions except functions relating to human resources, financial operations and urgent legal action.
(d) The Minister shall, on the coming into law of this Act, issue each elected member with a printed document clearly setting out reserved functions and executive functions.”.
I hope Deputy Olivia Mitchell shares the view that in the event of the defeat of amendment No. 141, for which I indicated a preference, I feel obliged to press amendment No. 142. The Minister will note that paragraph (d) of amendment No. 142 coincides with paragraph (c) which is the substance of amendment No. 143. Despite the indications by the Minister that such a printed document might be considered, I think that paragraph (c) of amendment No. 142 covers the matter better. Strangely enough, this is a situation where we are recommending a “may” rather than a “shall”, yet the Minister is not accepting it. Therefore I am afraid I will have to press it.
As the law exists, I understood that the disposal of property was a reserved function but it seems the Minister is making it a managerial function. Am I correct in that?
No, it has to come before the council.
But it is listed as a managerial function in the Schedule. Is that not correct? It is on the very last page of the Bill.
It needs a managerial order but the decision is first taken by the council. I am told that there is a later amendment in relation to that aspect.
Amendments Nos. 144 and 180 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 144:
In page 103, before section 132, to insert the following new section:
"132.-A local authority may by resolution make arrangements for the provision of legal advice and services to the elected local authority, independent of the advice available to the manager.".
I am proposing that the elected members of a council "may by resolution make arrangements for the provision of legal advice and services to the elected local authority, independent of the advice available to the manager". At the moment, the advice that is made available to members of a local authority is the advice of the council's law agent who also advises the manager. I do not wish to cast any reflection whatever on the integrity of the law agents who are engaged by local authorities, and for whom I have enormous respect, but there are occasions when the views of the manager and the council may be in conflict, for example on issues such as whether a function is a reserved function or an executive function, or who may make a decision on a particular matter. I already mentioned areas such as where the elected council may adopt policy and issues relating to the general competence of the council. In those circumstances, the council should be free to obtain independent legal advice. Most of us who have served on councils can identify many issues where independent advice would be helpful. The council should be free to make such arrangements and make provision in the estimates for obtaining legal advice for the council as an elected body where it is required.
These amendments seek to give a very specific power to councils to engage their own legal advice independent of whatever advice the manager receives. The local government operates on the principle that the manager advises the council on decisions appropriate to the council. The council is free to accept or reject that advice and in the process to probe the manager on the reasons supporting his or her advice. In essence, it is one system where the policy and executive arm should be working in harmony. One of the strengths of the system - and, indeed, of our whole Government system, whether at central or local level - is that the political process can avail of specialist advice from a political/administrative system. Sometimes this advice may not suit the political pressure of a particular time but the advice is impartial and usually delivered competently. I would fear for a situation where councillors, when confronted with advice that does not suit, would be encouraged to resort to their own advices. Very quickly, we would find that this would become the norm in the politically controversial choices which have to be made with growing frequency nowadays. This would damage the decision making relationship between management and council and could grind to a halt the essential services required for the common good.
Section 148 explicitly provides that the manager must perform his or her functions in accordance with the policy of the local authority, as determined by the elected council. This clearly puts the manager's role as one of servicing the elected council. In my view, we should not therefore be creating an alternative channel of advice for the council.
The requirement for separate advice arises from the fact that there are two pillars - the executive and the reserved functions. There are occasions where differences of opinion can arise and it is not possible for the same law officer to advise both the manager and the elected members on an issue where there is conflict. This goes back to the argument we had about surcharging. It is not an equal arrangement because the manger at any time can put the elected council under the cosh by producing a report expressing an opinion which if council members breach it can lead to them being liable to be surcharged. There are such circumstances. For example, there was a case in Cork where the manager took the view that rescinding a planning decision could result in surcharging members of that council. The members of that council ought to have been in a position to obtain independent advice.
We should avoid situations where councils and their managers end up in court disputing things. There might be some requirement for a resolution of disputes by reference to the Minister or some other formula which could deal with it. The arrangement we have at the moment does not prevent it. If I am not mistaken, I think some members of Wicklow County Council ended up in the courts contesting an issue with their own county manager. The clout of elected members would be severely undermined if they do not have available, collectively, legal opinion to support their position where conflicts arise. Inevitably, the lawyer advises the manager. It would be a bit like the Opposition here seeking advice from the Attorney General whose primary function is to advise the Government. The primary practical function of a local authority law agent is to advise the county manager.
There is a clear distinction here. In the case of a local authority we are talking about one local authority.
With two heads.
We have discussed this before but I do not actually see it that way. Councillors form policy. Sometimes, in the absence of councillors realising the powers they have for forming policy, it can lead to the view that Deputy Gilmore tends to have. In those circumstances, managers can be more dominant than they may be in other circumstances. What we really need to create is a much more dynamic and, at the same time, harmonious circumstance. Where we try to reach agreement, we get the business done. Where we get stuck on legal arguments, we end up paying considerable funds for legal services. Usually what happens in the long run is that the service to be provided is thereby delayed.
Between now and Report Stage I will look at a particular circumstance. It would want to be fairly well circled so as not to be an open door. Where there is deadlock, a stand-off or whatever one might call it between the policy makers, the council and the manager, whoever he or she might be, that is the only type of circumstance where I would envisage this type of development as I understand it. It might be possible to ring-fence some part of what Deputy Gilmore seeks to achieve, and what I seek to achieve in all of this. I certainly would not like to see this as an open door policy.
I will await that. I will withdraw my amendment and resubmit it on Report Stage.
Amendment No. 147 is cognate on amendment No. 145 in the names of Deputies Olivia Mitchell, Ó Caoláin and Gilmore. I propose to take amendments Nos. 145 and 147 together.
I move amendment No. 145:
In page 103, subsection (2)(a), line 33, to delete “may” and substitute “shall”.
This amendment refers to the use of the words "may" and "shall". From the point of view of the primacy of the elected members as opposed to any subgroup of the council or a manager, it is important that the policy group shall advise and assist the council and, for that purpose, make arrangements for the consideration of policy matters.
One of the things about which I worry - I reserve judgment because they are not long enough in place to make a judgment on them - is the SPCs and, in particular, the corporate policy groups, particularly as their membership is for quite a long period in a sort of inner layer of councillors - those in the know and those on the outside. There are signs of that happening already. Everybody is elected and should have the same level of input into policy development. If it came into the ownership of a small group exclusively, it would be a worrying development. I am a little worried about it. The use of the word "shall" here would do no harm.
Amendment No. 147 proposes to replace the word "may" with "shall" so that the manager may consult the policy group in the preparation of the local authority's draft budget and the policy group shall for that purpose avail of the assistance of three or more additional persons. This is essential and refers back to several other amendments. It is to ensure that whoever prepares or scrutinises budgets or accounts has the capacity to do that job properly. It is essential that professional advice is taken by councillors and that it is available to them. I realise that this section permits it to happen but it should happen. If there is to be any synergy from having this joint preparation of budgets between managers and a policy group, it has to be on equal terms with equal access to information and professional advice.
I find it hardly credible that we will have situation where the corporate policy group would have such an uncertain remit as the word "may" prescribes in section 132(2)(a). The opening paragraph is very much locked into the shall mode and I hope the Minister will concede in this one situation. It makes eminent sense because to do otherwise poses untold questions in my mind as to the role of the corporate policy groups if they “may” which constitutes equally “may not”. It is just incomprehensible.
As drafted, section 132(2)(a) allows the CPG flexibility and discretion in its dealings with the elected council. This respects the fact that different authorities have their own way of doing business. It also make allowances for the various ways relations between the CPG and elected council will evolve in individual authorities but within the context that ultimately it is the elected council which is the primary decision maker. These are important considerations in the real world of local government. The provision as drafted allows each authority, at their discretion, to work out their own arrangements and this is essential if the embryonic CPGs are to be given a reasonable chance to develop to their full potential.
The amendments proposed by the three Opposition Deputies takes away the element of discretion that could be seen to undermine the primacy of the elected council. The word "may" allows flexibility and, in this instance, will work better than the word "shall" which is overly prescriptive for what is intended. I do not, therefore, propose to accept the Deputies' amendment.
Deputy Mitchell in her amendment to section 132(4)(a) also proposes to make it mandatory for the CPG to engage outside persons to assist them in their consideration and input to the draft local authority budget. The Deputy obviously has no faith in the ability of the local elected members to contribute to the process without recourse to outside assistance. The provision in the Bill is designed to allow the CPG to avail of independent expertise in what can often be a mind boggling exercise. Significantly, it allows the CPG itself to determine whether to avail of this assistance. As a discretionary provision, it provides the CPG with an opportunity to avail of expert assistance if it so chooses. It does not undermine confidence in the ability of the CPG on its own to make a valuable contribution. The Deputy will understand why I do not propose to accept the amendment.
We have been chatting about local government discretion, local powers and about people at local level deciding how they should manage yet while seeking those extra powers, Deputies are proposing amendments which take away discretionary powers.
To clarify that, I do not want some councillors to have certain powers and others not to have them.
It is at their own discretion.
It is at the discretion of a small group of councillors.
They are the policy makers. They are part of——
No, the elected members are the policy makers.
Yes, that is what I mean. The elected members are the policy makers.
Yes, but the Minister is giving the discretion to the policy group.
Which is part of the overall system.
I give up. I am pressing the amendment.
Do not give up. Just do not take away the little power they have.
They have none.
As amendment No. 149 is an alternative to amendment No. 148, amendment No. 150 is related and amendment No. 151 is an alternative to amendment No. 150, I, therefore, propose that amendments Nos. 148 to 151, inclusive, be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 148:
In page 104, subsection (6)(c), line 36, to delete “2” and substitute “3”.
The need for this amendment is self-evident.
The amendment is accepted.
I move amendment No. 150:
In page 104, subsection (6)(c), line 37, to delete “2” and substitute “3”.
Amendment No. 153 is related to amendment No. 152 and both may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 152:
In page 105, subsection (3), line 16, to delete "The manager" and substitute "The policy group shall prepare the corporate plan in consultation with the manager who".
This is another attempt to try to retrieve some of the powers of county managers in favour of elected members. The amendment provides that the corporate policy group should prepare the corporate plan in consultation with the manager rather than the reverse.
Section 133 requires each county and city council to prepare a corporate plan and statement of strategies. Subsection (6) sets out the matters to be covered in the corporate plan while subsection (3)(a) provides that the manager shall prepare the plan in consultation with the policy group. The amendments propose to reverse the sequence and provide that the policy group should prepare the corporate plan in consultation with the manager. I assume that the purpose of the amendments is to highlight the primacy of the elected members in the policy group and in that regard I am glad to see there is support for this concept. However, acceptance of the amendments is not necessary to support the primacy of elected members.
The practicalities of everyday operations of local authorities, even on work as significant as the corporate plan, require a practical approach. The standard procedure for initial documentation on projects shall be prepared by the executive. The Bill provides a major statutory role for the CPG in the preparation of the plan. The manager is required to prepare the plan in consultation with the policy group and for this purpose he or she must fix a schedule of meetings, provide assistance, including by way of consultancy, to assist the preparation and consideration of the plan by the group. This ensures it a full role.
Time limits apply to the preparation of the plan and the necessary administrative work must be undertaken quickly by the manager and the cathaoirleach. The manager must report delays to the council and the primacy of elected members is specifically and statutorily recognised in the following: approval of the corporate plan with or without amendment is a reserved function, as set out in section 133(9); a local authority may at any time decide on a resolution to renew its corporate plan, as provided for in section 133(8)(a); the manager must prepare an annual progress report on the plan to be submitted to the elected council either at the time of the draft budget or such time as the council may decide by resolution; and under section 132 the CPG may require a manager to produce a report on any matter. The primacy of elected members in the policy making process is not in doubt. This provision parallels the requirement on the Secretary General of each Department to prepare a statement of strategy for the Minster.
This is being considered from two different perspectives. The Minister's comments are sustainable but the legislation attempts to underscore the primacy of the elected member. On that basis I consider my amendment to have merit.
I move amendment No. 153:
In page 105, subsection (3), to delete lines 16 to 18 and substitute the following:
"(3) The policy group shall-
(a) prepare the corporate plan in consultation with the manager,”.
I move amendment No. 155:
In page 107, paragraph (a), line 35, after “council” to insert “or by an individual elected member”.
The Bill provides a structured procedure for obtaining information and everything is available to the cathaoirleach of the elected council. The CPG may require a report from the manager on any matter, as provided for in section 132(5). It would be unwieldy and impractical to make all information available to all on demand, for example, negotiations on land acquisition cannot be conducted in public. If sensitive technical discussion papers on possible road lines and halting sites were available to all at the outset, there would be a danger that emerging proposals may be stymied at the embryonic stage and that consideration of such issues would be blocked. It would also be likely to promote competition between members as to who could first deliver information, although that is always a problem. The Freedom of Information Act gives right of access and ensures openness and transparency.
The intent of the amendment is to ensure all elected representatives would have the same powersvis-à-vis the manager. I do not like to see a distinction drawn between any group of councillors and individual members. Will the Minister accept the amendment?
We could consider a provision whereby the manager would be required to keep the council informed of significant developments but we are not prepared to accept the amendment as proposed.
The argument here is for equal access to information. It is flawed to draw a distinction between the cathaoirleach and the other elected members of the body in this area. In practice it may well occur in most instances but the Bill provides legislatively for what is in many instances the reality. It is a matter for the disposition of managers and in my experience some are forthcoming and co-operative. However, there is a need to assert the rights of elected members on an equal basis. The cathaoirleach, holding a special position, should not have any special rights of access in this instance to critical information as against the rights of other elected members of the body. It is important that this is reflected in the text of section 135. Accordingly I support amendment No. 155.
In fairness, it would present a difficulty if one were to try have an absolute right in that context. I am reminded of a particular case where a county manager asked me to negotiate in a problem regarding the acquisition of land which was needed for a scheme which was about to start. The contract was signed and the machinery arrived but there was no wayleave. I asked for full powers to conclude a deal before I would go in. I received those powers and negotiated a deal and got the scheme started.
There are day to day activities which sometimes can be quite sensitive where perhaps some members have a capacity to deal with a particular problem in a different way than others. Would the Deputy agree that there must be room to manoeuvre——
What about where it is by an individual member on request?
——without feeling that everybody else must be told about this before it starts and maybe blow it into the sky before it gets going? There are plenty of instances which come to mind for all of us - this is not meant as a significant condemnation - where people move with information or partial information before it has matured only to see real damage done to the interests of the public.
I was just testing the Minister in bringing in the point about it being on request because that is actually stated in the preamble to section 135, which states, without prejudice to the various sections named, "a manager shall, whenever requested". It is not that there is an obligation to furnish information to all members but if a member requests the information, why should Deputy Mitchell's right to request and her authority be any different than the chairperson's right? If there is this two tier approach to the dissemination of information from the manager to the elected members, we are setting a very poor and dangerous precedent here. It is important that we address it in the way suggested in amendment No. 155.
We must agree to differ then.
I want to raise a matter here because I want to raise it on Report Stage. I am concerned about the right to information, not just of members of the council but of Deputies representing the council area. Deputies should have access to information, for instance, to do with agendas and reports if they request them at the beginning of the year. I wish to submit an amendment to this effect on Report Stage. I did intend to table such an amendment to section 14, where it would be more appropriate. However, as the Minister deleted it, I found myself in a position where I could not do so. I want to let the Minister know that I will be tabling such an amendment on Report Stage.
I would have some sympathy with that.
I would be grateful if the Minister would table an amendment along those lines. It would also encourage some Deputies to resign from local authorities, which is what the Minister intended.
It would help deal with the seriously disadvantaged position of officeholdersvis-à-vis their local authority.
It is a serious disadvantage. I hope some of the other advantages compensate.
Amendment No. 156 is in the name of the Minister. Amendment No. 218 is related. Therefore amendments Nos. 156 and 218 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 156:
In page 110, lines 18 to 23, to delete subsection (11) and substitute the following:
"(11) This section is without prejudice to section 34 of the Act of 2000 in so far as the said section 34 applies to notices under subsection (3) and resolutions referred to in subsection (7).".
This amendment is consequential on the enactment of the planning Act, which post-dated publication of the Local Government Bill, 2000. It maintains the special arrangements which apply under section 34(6) and (7) of the planning Act in respect of the operation of section 4 - now section 139 - of the Local Government Bill, 2000, as regards certain planning functions.
Minor amendments are also being made to section 34(6) and (7) of the planning Act in Schedule 4 in order to include references to the Local Government Bill. Under the planning Act, a three quarter member vote is required in respect of a resolution to direct the manager to grant a planning permission and special arrangements shall also apply in respect of a notion of motion.
Section 139 is this Bill's version of the old section 4 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955. It involves some changes. The most significant change is that under the old provision the requirement was that three members of the local authority would sign the section 4 motion. It is proposed to increase that requirement from three to five. What is the reason for that change and are there any other changes?
We are going to change it back to three.
I take it that it will then be exactly as it was in the 1955 Act.
Amendments Nos. 157 to 162, inclusive, are out of order as the involve a potential charge on the Revenue.
I move amendment No. 163:
In page 112, subsection (5)(f), line 29, after “she” to insert “shall be required to sign in and sign out each day of conference attendance and”.
Chairman, I welcome the fact that you have not ruled amendment No. 163 out of order, although I received a written notice from you earlier that it was ruled out of order. I could not understand it because there are no such consequences arising from amendment No. 163.
That was a typographical error and I apologise.
If that is the case, there is another amendment of mine which has been disallowed. Amendment No. 163 seeks to address a situation which is very much in the public mind, that is, an abuse of conference attendance. I will not refer to junkets and will stick solidly to the term conference attendance. Conference attendances, where the subject matter and the focus of discussion, debate and information dissemination are relevant to the local authority, the membership and the community which they are there to serve, are a worthy and worthwhile part of the work of local councillors. There are a number of exceptions to that. However, there is a practice which requires us to face up to the fact that it is certainly recorded and noted by the public and has a serious effect in terms of public acceptance of the commitment and dedication of many elected councillors because of the abuse of a few. I do not suggest it is widespread but it happens and I do not believe there is anyone here who is not aware of that.
Councillors sign in having travelled great distances and return home again and some are not able to relate what the business was, let alone what was said, reported or discussed. That needs to be addressed and confronted and some mechanism must be found to stamp out abuse. The Bill will fail in its role and responsibility in addressing this issue if it does not introduce a mechanism that requires more than the current provision, which is simply signing in. Signing in is fine but the car is turned and faced for home again. It is not acceptable and brings into disrepute the very important work we all do at local authority level as concerned and committed elected representatives of all political views. I believe very strongly that a mechanism must be employed that is seen to address this issue which the public can accept so that they can see a serious effort is being employed to stamp out this abuse.
In a simple way, I propose the insertion of the words "shall be required to sign in and sign out each day of conference attendance". I cannot say with my hand on my heart that this is the foolproof way of addressing the problem but an acceptance of it would indicate the Minister's and the Department's serious intent to face up to the fact that abuses are taking place. I reserve any further comment until I hear what the Minister has to say.
I appreciate the Deputy's concern. He may be aware of recent correspondence between the Minister and local authority associations to try to overcome problems with proper and meaningful attendance at conferences. To this end, section 141 provides for a system of authorisation to attend conferences with the proviso that a member who attends a meeting or a conference must submit a summary of the proceedings to the next ordinary meeting of the local authority. The Deputy's amendment, while well intentioned, is perhaps over-prescriptive for primary legislation and more suited to guidance/exhortation ideally from the local authority associations themselves. We recognise there are concerns but they should not be addressed in primary legislation.
This issue has gained such currency that people see it as a serious abuse of the current system of local governance and the holding of public office. We are talking about public money. It is a matter that requires redress in primary legislation. This is not a small and isolated problem. It needs to be addressed seriously and the import and seriousness of it needs to be reflected by the inclusion of some means or method of address at primary legislative level.
I accept the Minister's point that the co-operation of all the representative organisations of local government, be it from general council through LAMA, AMAI et al, is an imperative. Nevertheless I indicated I did not have a monopoly on wisdom as to how this problem could be properly addressed or stamped out but the purpose of the amendment is to highlight the seriousness of the issue and to underscore the need to secure address. Accordingly, I regret I must press the amendment to a vote in order to underscore the point, although I do not want to create an interface between us because I accept the Minister is as keen to address the matter as I am,. I hope in the interim the Minister might consider what measures could be introduced and I have no doubt with some thought and consideration that others, the Minister included, could come up with a better formula.
The Minister thought this matter was serious enough to get involved in correspondence with the associations.
The section provides for the introduction of the payment of allowances to councillors. What formula does the Minister for the Environment and Local Government intend to use for the payment of an allowance or remuneration to councillors? Figures and formulae have been bandied about in the press for some time. The Bill is a long time in gestation and it is time the Minister made a formal statement as to what is intended.
On what date is it intended to make the payments? The Minister for the Environment and Local Government promised that members elected in 1999 would receive payment with effect from that date. Is it intended to make any such remuneration pensionable? Is it intended to continue the severance arrangements that were put in place for the 1999 local elections?
I have similar questions to Deputy Gilmore. I am particularly interested in the superannuation arrangements. Payments to councillors and superannuation arrangements were signalled at the time the famous scrappage scheme was announced and many councillors made decisions to stay on in local government perhaps seeing pensions as of more interest to them than a lump sum. What does "specified classes of local authority" mean? Will some councillors not qualify for the superannuation scheme? Does it apply to everybody who was a councillor at the time of the scrappage scheme, except those who availed of the scheme?
I tabled an amendment relating to section 141(d) primarily because I did not know what it was about and it was disallowed. Many councillors may fear this measure will not give them the payments they were promised at the time by the Minister or the superannuation, something they would see as unfair because they chose to offer themselves to the public for re-election and to work for some time while others took the scrappage route. What is section 141(4)(d) about, at whom is it aimed and why is it included?
Time is short so I will try to deal quickly with the questions which have been raised. The decision on the salary or representational allowance to be paid to councillors has yet to be made. The Bill provides for these promises to be put into effect by regulation. No decision has been taken on retrospection but it has been decided that there will be anex-gratia payment to cover some period although it is not specific on what that period will be. There will be some retrospection in the form of an ex-gratia payment. The severance was a once off and will not be introduced again. The reason for the different allowances is the different categories of local authorities. Section 141(4)(d) provides the Minister with some discretion in the determination which will have to be made.
These are matters which will exercise the Minister for the Environment and Local Government over the next few weeks. What is being provided here is the legislative mechanism to put into effect a new scheme which has been awaited for some time and with interest by local authority members. It needs to be done on an equitable basis.
We are obviously not going to finish this section tonight. As I am a serving councillor and we are dealing with the section covering allowances, expenses and payments, it is important I declare an interest, something I understand we are required to do formally when matters of this nature are being discussed.
It is likewise for me.
And also in my case. As I have advised, with great regret I cannot be present tomorrow. I therefore wish the remainder of the deliberations every success. I regret I cannot be present to pursue my amendments, especially those keenly opposed to the Minister's power to abolish councils. I hope other Members will take them up in my absence.