I am glad the Minister is present because, in the first instance, I wish to ask a question of him. On 30 October 2013, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe issued a report on local democracy in Ireland. While the congress report welcomed commitments and some progress made in the area since it had last drawn up a report in 2001, it noted that constitutional protection of local government is rather weak, that local governments only manage a modest amount of public affairs and that the administrative supervision of their activities behind the central level remains high. The report also drew attention to the highly limited powers of local authorities to levy taxes or set rates within the limits of the law. In another point of relevance to this legislation, the report also "recommended to the Irish authorities that they revise their legislation in order to ensure that the subsidiarity principle is better enshrined and protected in the law". The report also made a recommendation that the Irish authorities should "sign and ratify the Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority".
In respect of that report, I have to hand correspondence from Westport Town Council, which made a submission to the congress. It was highlighting to members the contents of that report from the Council of Europe. In its letter, however, the town council stated that the chair of the monitoring committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe had specifically asked the Government not to pass the legislation until adequate consultations had taken place with the local authorities.
If the Minister intends to respond in the course of the Second Stage debate, I would appreciate it were he to address this point. First, what is his response to the calls from the Council of Europe that the legislation be revised? Second, how does he respond to the call of the chair of the aforementioned monitoring committee that the Government should not pass the legislation until adequate consultation has taken place with local authorities?
As I noted, Westport Town Council is one of a number of town councils that has made submissions to the Council of Europe. Moreover, I understand the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI, also has done so, in which it has been constructively critical. It is not as though the association is entirely critical of the Bill but it has criticisms of it. I noticed a paper given recently by Dr. Aodh Quinlivan to the AMAI, in which he pointed out there is much evidence on the efficiency and autonomy of town councils, that is, they are the most efficient and autonomous units of Irish local government at present. I accept the point that there was an inequality in this regard, as town councils only cover approximately 15% of the population. Consequently, there was a need for reform to provide a unit of government equivalent to the town council throughout the rest of the country. While I accept the municipal district is a step in this direction, that unit is a lot weaker than the town council with regard to its powers pertaining to money in particular. For example, in an article published recently in The Irish Times, Willie Callaghan, who is president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, stated that town councils currently have the power to determine local charges, such as commercial rates or parking fees, and to decide how these moneys should be spent within their towns. This power is being taken away. Consequently, we are losing something by the abolition with regard to the extent of the town councils' powers.
Another point is that while I welcome the idea of municipal districts and welcome the provision under the reforms of additional councillors for the Dublin area, I am greatly disappointed that municipal districts will not apply in Dublin. I simply cannot see the logic of that. If the idea is to bring in a unit of local government that would apply across the board and across the nation, it should also apply in Dublin. I do not see any argument against that proposition and am sure it would work. I represent a Dublin constituency that includes the towns of Lucan and Clondalkin and, as Dublin has towns and villages, the concept of the municipal district could apply just as easily to Dublin. I do not understand this decision and note that Dublin is not really getting anything new in respect of structural reforms under this legislation.
As for the main point I wish to make to the Minister, Members were provided with a very good paper by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which deals with the Government's proposals on local government. One issue examined is the size, structure and level of representation of Ireland compared with other countries and the point is made that a body of opinion exists, with which I agree, to the effect that size is a good indicator of citizens' access to representation and the responsiveness of local government to the population. Ireland is greatly under-represented and the entire argument about representation in Ireland is completely wrong-footed and misinformed. I refer to the supposition that Ireland has too many politicians. In fact, Ireland is not over-represented at national level and is greatly under-represented at local level. It has very few regional governments, although I would not argue for them as I believe the levels in Ireland that are important are national and local government level. After the next local government elections when the number of councillors will have been cut from 1,650 to 950, Sweden will have 20 times more elected representatives than Ireland, even though it only has twice the population. In other words, following the next local elections, Sweden will be 20 times more represented than Ireland at local government level. While Sweden has devolved more powers at local government level, the point pertains to the size, where there is a huge difference. Similarly, the Taoiseach made a big thing about comparing Ireland with Finland and Sweden and so on during the Seanad referendum campaign. After the next local elections, when cuts have been made to the number of councillors, Finland will have ten times the number of local elected representatives per head of population than Ireland and, as the Minister will be aware, Finland has a population of similar size to Ireland.
I will turn to the information provided by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. If one goes by average population of local authorities and average ratio of councillor per head of population, Ireland's current councillor per head of population ratio is 1:5,196, whereas in France, the ratio is 1:120. Ireland simply does not compare, and with the exception of Britain, one simply cannot compare Ireland with any other country, as it is so under-represented at local government level. Incidentally, Ireland is set to become less represented than Britain after the reforms of the Minister take effect. Even when taking into account the municipal districts, Ireland still will be greatly under-represented after the reforms because at that stage, one will be talking about a ratio of councillors to population of 1:4,212. That is not per head of population. That is when one goes down to the local authority unit. If one compares local authorities in other countries and the average ratio of local authorities and population, Ireland will still be greatly under-represented when compared with other countries in the European Union. In fact, we are about to become the least represented country at local government level.
Moreover, size is important because what is important at local government level is not simply the powers that local government wields. The actual closeness of the people to the representatives is very important. If people wonder what is the reason constituents contact Deputies about local issues, it is because they are so under-represented at local government level by councillors. The obvious thing is that if one has an issue, one will go to one's local representative and if that is the Deputy down the road and there is no councillor in the vicinity, one will approach the Deputy.
The main criticism I have of the Bill in terms of reforms - it is more the reforms than the Bill that are at stake here - is that we will be left too under-represented at local government level to have a proper system of local government. That is a mistake by the Minister. I believe it is something we will regret down the line. I welcome the municipal districts in the sense that such units will be in place throughout the country with the exception of Dublin, of which I am critical, but the municipal districts will not have anything near the power the town councils have had. There are no real reforms in terms of the power of the manager. They will only be rubber-stamping the appointment of the new chief executive. A decision will be made and all they will be able to do is to rubber-stamp it or not to do so but they will not be able to amend or change a proposal regarding the appointment of a chief executive. There are no profound reforms in the Bill and the reforms provided for are welcome up to a point but I believe we will regret the cutting of the number of councillors.