I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Local Government Bill. I have been a member of a county council since September 1996 and, therefore, speak as someone who has experience of working in the local government sector. When I first joined the county council there was a perception among councillors that our main job was to rubber-stamp policy decisions put forward by officials of the council and the county manager. Many were of the opinion that the councillors were ineffective and I am delighted that this perception will be changed as a result of this Bill's introduction. I am surprised that all Members do not fully support many of the provisions it contains.
It was interesting to hear my colleague from County Mayo speak about the importance of the dual mandate, particularly when one considers that on local radio earlier this week he stated that our local county council is ineffective. The Deputy has now stated that it is vital for him to continue to serve as a representative for County Mayo.
It is important for public representatives to be able to sit on local authorities – I do so myself – because it keeps us in close contact with the people. The system that operates in Ireland, when compared to those in Britain and throughout Europe, allows public representatives to be fully aware of what is needed in their constituencies. This makes us more effective in terms of our ability to act on behalf of our constituents at both local and national level.
In the Bill the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, has set about trying to give power back to the democratically elected representatives who are closest to the people. Having served as a member of a local authority, the Minister recognises the important role played by county councillors and urban councillors. He has also dealt with one of the most significant issues in this area, namely, funding for local authorities, and introduced measures in recent years which have enabled local authorities to put in place policies that are in the best interests of communities. In addition, he has provided funding to allow them to do so.
For many years before I became a councillor in 1996, local authorities had been starved of money. Funding was being allocated to other local development initiatives operated by people who had not been elected. This meant that power was being taken away from those who had been democratically elected. Matters will now be set to rights, however, in the light of the additional powers being conferred on the elected members of councils. That is the reason this Bill is so important.
I compliment the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, who set down as one of his priorities when entering office the putting in place of the local government fund. He achieved this through the introduction of legislation in 1998 and the fund is delivering significant additional resources. In 2001, £730 million is being provided for local authorities. In terms of the general purpose needs of local authorities, the fund is delivering almost 64% more than in 1997. That is a true measure of the success of the policies the Minister is implementing at local level.
For a county the size of Mayo, the diameter of which is 140 miles, particularly in terms of promoting better efficiency, new measures are badly needed and they are being provided in the Bill. People in the county are obliged to travel to Castlebar to tax their cars. For many of them, this involves a round trip of 130 or 140 miles. It is simply unacceptable in this age of technological advances that this type of archaic system remains in operation. I welcome the provision in the Bill which will allow for the creation of one-stop-shops. Everyone is in favour of providing services and this mechanism will give us an opportunity to do so, thereby replacing the outrageously outdated system which obtains at present. I welcome the establishment of these pilot programmes which will be of major benefit and make councils much more efficient.
County councils and local authorities are only as good as their members. Many criticise both the level of debate that takes place in local authorities and the nature of some of the items which appear for discussion on their agendas. However, councillors are not provided with the information and training programmes they require, the level of debate that is expected and needed at local level will not be achieved.
An important element of the provisions in the Bill centres on the strategic policy committees. These provide an opportunity for elected members to produce policy in co-operation with local interest groups and have it properly debated at council meetings. I welcome the fact that strategic policy committees are already in place. In my county a number of committees are operational and will begin bringing minutes to the main council meetings in September.
I wish to address a number of issues with which this sizeable Bill deals. I will first comment on Part 3, section 19, which relates to co-options. I welcome the provision which will allow a party which loses a member on a council to nominate a replacement. I was co-opted to Mayo County Council in 1996 and I am delighted that the system was in place at the time. However, I am aware that in other local authority areas throughout the country parties which lost members were not always allowed to co-opt replacements.
I also welcome the fact that under Part 4, section 26, elections will take place every five years. Accountability is the number one priority for local councillors when dealing with members of the community who are entitled to voice their opinions on the effectiveness of the council which represents them. They can only do so if there is a guarantee that elections will not be postponed and that they must be held at five year intervals.
I wish to deal now with the issue of committees and, in particular, the fact that statutory recognition of the strategic policy committees is catered for in section 48. Anyone who tries to argue in the future that county councils are ineffective will have only themselves to blame because it will be the responsibility of members to give the dedication, time and energy required to develop policies at the committees which will be meaningful and of real benefit to the constituencies they represent. I welcome the fact that this is provided for in Part 7.
With regard to the functions of local authorities, the objective for county and town councils to take steps for a more unified and improved customer service for the public is critical, particularly in counties similar in size to Mayo. It is vitally important that we provide a service for the people we represent and make it easy for them to access that service.
On the question of finance, I wish to take up a number of points raised by Deputy Fleming. I agree with his comments in relation to the budget, particularly in terms of the view he expressed about county managers being solely responsible for capital programmes and also for deciding how development levies and proceeds from the sale of lands are spent in council areas. I will support the Deputy's attempt to have this amended on Committee Stage because, in light of the millions of pounds spent by local authorities each year, the only people accountable to the public every five years will be the elected members. It is vital that they be given a say in respect of the operation of the capital and revenue programmes of councils.
I welcome the fact that managers will be obliged to submit reports on capital programmes for three years with draft budgets. They will also be able to submit periodic reports which may specify an authority's financial position. That will only be effective if the council has a say and real clout in how the money will be spent. There can be reports galore, but the democratically elected members need to have the clout to make proposals and changes.
I welcome the fact a local authority will have the power to establish an audit committee when it receives the audit report. We have seen the effectiveness at national level of the Committee of Public Accounts in monitoring how money is spent in the public interest. I welcome the potential for these mini-committees of public accounts to operate at local authority level. It is important local authority members are satisfied the vast funding available to the authorities is spent in the best possible way and that they can justify how it is spent to the electorate to whom they will be answerable every five years.
In Part XIV the manager is responsible for the effective and efficient operation of the local authority for ensuring implementation without undue delay of decisions of the elected council. This has been a matter of great concern to me over the past 12 months in that I find county councils do not have sufficient staff nor are they paying those they have well enough, especially in areas such as engineering and planning, to enable them fulfil that specific task. If properly trained staff are not in place to implement decisions taken by the county council, it becomes ineffective. The salary structure for these professionals in local authorities needs to be examined.
I commend the Bill to the House. This is brave and innovative legislation the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has put forward.