Local Government Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In the course of last night's debate, Members were referring to "community", which is part and policy of local government, what it stands for and the need to be all-inclusive in that regard. One need only take the message from the GAA on all-Ireland day and witness the type of community spirit that exists in that organisation and how it flourishes. One should note it is represented from Croke Park right down to every single parish in the country, which is true democracy and a true reflection of the input of people into an organisation. This is the type of volunteerism and enthusiasm one should try to harness in the context of local government.

Instead, however, with this Bill the Government is moving in the opposite direction. It is moving away from community and is closing the county enterprise boards. In addition, it is closing a number of councils and is removing people's direct access to their public representatives. Moreover, both Government parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, have closed the different voices that were beginning to emerge and have banished them to the backbenches, where they have very little time to contribute to debates. That is the Government's view of democracy.

The Government tried to close down the Seanad in the referendum, which was another attempt to remove a structure within our democracy and to grab power for central Government. This Bill does nothing but move power to central Government. That is all it does. In the course of the Seanad campaign the Government argued that member states across Europe had only one house of parliament and that there was no need for our Seanad. However, the Government failed to tell the people that in all other countries that it cited, particularly France, they have a democratic process and structure that takes the power right down into local communities where real decisions are made. Comparing the position of county councils now and that of how they will be, the one problem they all have is funding and they have a structure that makes them connected with their community but the Government is taking all of that away. It is reducing the number of politicians and on one side it is reducing the cost, but how better off will democracy and local communities be? I do not believe they will be better of. This Bill does nothing to reflect what is happening across Europe, what people are demanding in terms of their politicians and the representations that are required by them locally.

The issue that is being debated up and down the country is that of pylons. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, said the pylons will go ahead. That was said in the last few days in the middle of a process-----

I do not think he said that.

The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, should ask Sue Nunn.

I know the Deputy is friendly with her.

She has it well recorded. It was said that the process will go ahead. How can it be an independent process when the Minister who is responsible for local government and An Bord Pleanála say that it will go ahead at a time when the ESB-----

Fianna Fáil made that decision.

Fianna Fáil made that decision.

Minister of State, please allow the Deputy to continue.

I will tell the Minister of State what has happened. The Minister of State does not listen to the people. That is what is wrong with him.

Fianna Fáil made the decision for it to go ahead-----

The Minister of State is becoming as institutionalised and as arrogant as the rest of them.

-----and the Deputy is not prepared to accept that.

The Minister of State has to accept that people up and down this country are stating clearly-----

That is on the record. The decision was made.

Minister of State, Deputy McGuinness has a short time remaining.

-----that they want the independent process to be just that - independent.

The Deputy knows that well because he was a Minister of State in the previous Government

That is what the Government needs to ensure happens. A decision might have been made in the last Government but the decision was that there should be an independent process and that is not the case.

It made that decision and now the Deputy is-----

Deputy McGuinness has the floor.

A decision might have been made in the last Government but the decision was-----

With all due respect, the Deputy should tell the truth for a change.

-----that there should be an independent process and that is not the case.

Fianna Fáil made the decision and it foisted it on the people.

Furthermore, the company that is essential to it is not giving out the information that the communities are demanding, and that is all they are asking. They are asking that their voices be heard. The Government is not willing to let that happen, just as it put some of its members over here on the backbenches because it would not listen to them either. That is how arrogant it is. In terms of what is happening with regard to electricity and pylons, an awful lot of them have been taken down, particularly in urban centres and in the construction of ring roads-----

When the Deputy's party made the decision to go ahead with this why did it not think of that?

-----and the cable has been put under ground.

When it made the decision-----

Minister of State, please.

As arrogant as the Minister of State is, he is entering into a process where he is refusing to listen to the people. He is attempting to talk me down in this House where I have a right to speak and a right to my opinion.

No, the Deputy has to tell truths. He should tell truths in this House.

I am telling the truth-----

The Deputy does not tell truths. He is a bluffer and that is what he is at.

-----but the Minister of State and his colleagues do not like the truth over there. They are used to twisting and turning it------

The Deputy does not like what I am telling him either.

Let us have respect.

-----and putting it out into the public domain. They are failing to get that message across and that is why the public is outraged with what they are attempting to do in regard to this issue. They are a disgrace. They should listen to the public.

We are listening to the public but the Deputy is not telling the truth.

I hope that very soon they might have their say. All they are asking is a proper consultation process, proper information to be delivered to them, a forum to achieve that and an understanding that there is mixture of pylon and undergrounding needed to ensure that people's health and the local communities are protected.

We have not problem with that.

That is absolutely what is needed and that is what the Government should stand over and that is what it should insist that EirGrid and that company absolutely deliver. For once, please listen to the public.

The other issue I wish to raise is the reference to reform in the Bill. All that is being done here is that instead of blowing away a few cobwebs from a system that was not perfect, the Minister has decided to huff and puff and blow the system down and take large chunks of democracy with it and ignore the public but he fails to take on the basic question of accountability and transparency that I have put to him and others in this House. Why is it that there are two separate audit systems in this country? Why is it that local government has an audit system, which is not fit for purpose in my opinion, and that the Comptroller and Auditor General has no authority to follow the money or how it is spent in regard to the projects that are delivered by local government with little or no accountability? When was the last time we heard a debate in this House on the spend in local government on foot of an audit from the auditors of local government? Never, I would suggest. Very few value for money reports and audits have been done and in terms of their exposure in the public arena and the questioning of country managers, it simply does not happen. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has suggested that there is room for greater transparency and a greater co-operation between the auditors and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

If we consider what happened in Poolbeg and the cost of rectifying the problems in dumps, it was the Comptroller and Auditor General who highlighted the very poor spend and the very poor value for money achieved, not the auditors, yet the Minister has chosen to ignore completely that aspect of local government. He has not addressed it in spite of the fact that reports have been given to the Department and others to support the notion that there be one all powerful Comptroller and Auditor General who would deal with every item of money spent by the Government that it collects in taxes. Millions of euro are being allocated to local government but that money is not properly audited in terms of the Comptroller and Auditor General because he is not allowed to do that.

I ask the Minister in the context of this Bill not to be afraid of the real reform that is needed and not to be afraid of the vested interests that are there and to bring about a situation where it can be accommodated in this Bill that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts can oversee the spend of public money. There are existing projects on which up to €5 million of taxpayers' money has been spent, yet they are unfinished and there is no attempt by the Government to examine those projects and determine how best the taxpayers' money can be protected. It is easy to toss around the name of a mayor or a cathaoirleach, to burn our history and forget about it and our heritage and past, to walk away from communities and pretend that they are being represented. However, let us look at what is happening with the county manager. He or she will be given a fancy new title and a lot of power and the members will find it more difficult in this process being proposed by the Minister to get the voice of communities heard because it will be officialdom that will dictate the agenda of county councils throughout this country.

As for the commission and the approval given to it by the Minister to redraw the constituencies in the way that it did, it has cut towns and cities, cut up counties, and mixed urban with rural to an extent that I do not know how public representatives, when elected in these areas, will have the ability or the time to represent the huge geographical areas that they are being given. However, there is no cut down on the side of the officials. They are looked after and given fancy new titles.

There will be as many of them after this so-called reform as there was before it. The easy targets are the politicians and the people. The more difficult targets in terms of audit or administration, are the officials and they and their powers have not been tampered with at all.

I will deal briefly with valuation and rates. The new valuation being undertaken with the amalgamation of city and rural areas will mean that business rates - it may be some time after the enactment of the Bill and after a process - will increase dramatically. That is the evidence now being brought forward by the Valuation Office. A Bill to allow ratepayers to make a self-assessment revaluation needs to be brought in immediately and could be accommodated in this Bill. The one single expense which a company or a business cannot adjust is what they have to pay to the county councils for a service that is itself of questionable value. I question the system by which that rate is struck and by which the ratepayers are being forced to pay. Promises were made that the rates and the structure of rates would be looked at but that promise is being back-tracked, day in and day out, similar to the money that was to go from the property tax to the local government to ensure that the various projects and schemes could go ahead, which is another broken promise.

The Government cannot keep on doing this and changing the system, taking power or representation away from people, without there being consequences. The consequence in this case is that not only will it break down the familiar local government democratic structure but it will break the backs of communities and those who volunteer to keep their communities alive and well represented and in place. Yet there is no recognition of that in this Bill. All the people on the other side of the House have changed their opinion since opposition and they have moved down the road with the departmental officials to deliver a local government Bill that will be easier for them. They will no longer have the nuisance of a public representative hanging around them watching out for what is best for his or her local community. There will be less democracy. It seems to be the intent of this Government to remove democracy in every way, shape or form from the system, to remove the rights of people to be represented right down to parish level. That is a disgrace because along with taking it away, the Government is also disconnecting and burning the bridges between our history, our heritage and local government as we know it, with no regard for the representations being made by its own councillors and by single individual local authorities. It is steam-rolling the process through this House as it has done with many pieces of legislation.

Deputy Ciara Conway is sharing time with Deputies Joanna Tuffy and Dominic Hannigan.

With the permission of the House I will take Deputy Hannigan's slot.

The Bill will have significant consequences for the constituency I represent as it is an area which will be one of the first to be amalagamated, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes' constituency in the amalgamation of Tipperary South with Tipperary North. Those of us whose constituencies are undergoing such significant changes hope that this will be the kind of change that will ensure services can be delivered more effectively and more efficiently for our constituents.

The establishment of local enterprise offices, LEOs, within the local authority, is to be welcomed. The one-stop-shop approach is a positive development because local businesses or those looking to create local employment often encounter high levels of bureaucratic red tape. I have an issue with regard to the change in the Leader programme and partnerships which are to be brought under the remit of the local authority. There are ongoing difficulties with some community workers who work on these programmes. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to engage with these workers in an effort to find a solution. The people who work in the partnerships and in the Leader programmes all around the country are delivering innovative community-based services. The only way to ensure a successful reform and amalgamation process is by talking to people. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister to engage with SIPTU and with these workers during the amalgamation process.

Waterford city and county councils are due to amalgamate and we will suffer the loss of three town councils, Lismore Town Council, Dungarvan Town Council - to which I was elected in 2009 - and Tramore Town Council. It is regrettable that the town councils are to be lost considering we are looking for ways in which to engage local people with their communities. There is no better way than by the establishment and the maintenance of town councils. Local communities are proud of their town councils. No one has come to me to express delight that town councils are being done away with. The Minister is establishing community councils as a means of engaging with local groups and communities but one would ask why not leave the town councils in place. Rural communities in particular may feel more disconnected from the bigger urban areas and town councils served a real purpose in providing a bridge between such areas. They have a long history of delivering for their local communities.

I hope that the amalgamated Waterford county and city councils will continue the sterling work of both bodies. I refer in particular to the development of tourism. Bord Fáilte has invested nearly three quarters of last year's capital budget in the beautiful medieval museum in the Viking Triangle. I hope we will be able to continue that work to establish Waterford city and county as a prime tourism destination. The constituency of Waterford has had its difficulties but we are fighting back and tourism will be a key aspect. I encourage Waterford city and county councils to continue their sterling work on tourism and to continue to fight to attract more local and international investment into the constituency in order to create employment.

I would have liked to have spoken at greater length but I do not wish to delay the legislation. A number of issues arise. I was reading about the history of Youghal. It is notable that Youghal received its charter in 1209.

There has been a mayor in Youghal since 1209 and this rich tradition is invaluable. The history of Youghal is mind blowing. Walter Raleigh lived in Myrtle Grove, Youghal, and he brought tobacco and potatoes to Ireland. The Clock Gate was built in 1777 and it was used to hang people. There is a great deal going on in the town. I am sad that this history and tradition will come to an end. I ask Members to consider what we mean by leadership in a locality. Often in towns and cities in the US and Europe, the mayor is the leader and focal point. He or she has a responsibility and authority to make things happen and to lead the people. Last year the mayor of Cobh visited New York and attended a number of functions and because he was wearing the chain, he represented the people of the town. I am sad that this might be lost. Perhaps there are ways and means to prevent this tradition being lost completely. Will the Minister and officials examine whether there is a way to preserve this tradition, which has been unbroken in Youghal since 1209? Youghal had its charter before Dublin, which received its charter in 1229, and Belfast which received its charter in 1613. We must move carefully to see what we can do.

County Cork is large and it has eight municipal districts, although they do not have any authority. A number of these districts have more people living in them than some of our smaller counties. For instance, Fermoy district has more people than County Leitrim. The west Cork district has eight seats and it is extraordinarily long. It extends from the peninsulas almost as far as Kinsale. Where will the centre of leadership be in this districts? What powers will the new committees have? Will there be a mayor in each district? Where will the staff be located? It must be borne in mind that they have local knowledge, which they have built up over many years. It must be clarified how they will be organised given their concern about their future. They know the people, houses, streets, roads and so forth in their areas and they work well within them.

Deputy Conway pointed out community councils will be established. Carrigaline, Glanmire and Ballincollig are large towns that do not have local councils but they are working well. I acknowledge what the Minister is trying to do by establishing districts with a critical mass of people. There are rural areas in the hinterland of towns which are represented currently by county councillors rather than town councillors. I would like the smaller districts to be cohesive, thereby making leadership clearer.

Where will the responsibility for budgets lie? The members can have a discussion with the new chief executive officer but they will not have control of their own budgets or the ability to raise money locally. The property tax is linked to this. It is important that there should be clarity. If somebody pays the local property tax, he or he should know what he or she is getting in return. This legislation presents an opportunity for major reform of the local authority system and to inform people how the property tax is being collected and how it is being spent.

Debate adjourned.