However, I think on the whole, the best opinion in Ireland at that time was not altogether in favour of the '98 Act. That Act was passed following upon the English Act of 1888, which was a very good measure from the English point of view. But the conditions in England differ very greatly from the conditions in Ireland. England was even then a highly industrialised country, with dense populations, and with much higher valuation than in Ireland, and the areas, such as counties and districts, had very different values from the administrative standpoint, from what they had in Ireland. So that from the outset local government in Ireland was not a very complete success. The 1898 Act served its purposes tolerably well for a time, but during the last 25 years we have had something like a revolution in the condition affecting local government in Ireland, and it is necessary to make changes to correspond with the changed conditions affecting local government. It is for that reason that this Bill is brought in. The principal functions of local government, at the present time, are those in connection with poor relief, asylums, cure of disease, the prevention of disease, and roads. Those functions dealing with poor relief, and the curative side of public health, have already been dealt with in the county schemes, and those schemes have received temporary sanction in The Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Bill. Before giving a permanent character to that Bill I thought it advisable to set up a commission to inquire fully into the whole position as regards poor law relief and as regards asylums. Senator Sir John Keane remarked it is highly desirable that some change should be brought about in regard to the incidence of taxation in respect of asylums. That is a matter that can be considered when bringing in a Bill based upon the findings of this commission. The present Bill purports to deal mainly with two phases of local government—the preventative side of public health and with the roads. A revolution has taken place in regard to the conditions with which both these two branches of local government deal. Probably no phase of civilisation has made greater strides in the last 50 years than that in respect of the prevention of disease.
Never has the old proverb that "Prevention is better than cure" had more meaning than at the present time. More lives have, undoubtedly, been saved by improvements in sanitary science, and in the development of the prevention of disease, than in the developments on the curative side. Very great advances have been made in development of the curative side of public health, but from the point of view of saving life and of preserving the health of the community, it is only a flea-bite in comparison to what has been done by legislation ensuring that the food supply and the water supply of the people shall be pure, and that overcrowding shall be prevented in cities, and that the people on the whole shall be able to live under proper hygienic conditions.
One plague, like the Black Death, which was a frequent occurrence before sanitation became a great factor in civilisation, was responsible for many deaths, and the measures that have been taken to check such scourges have been responsible for saving more lives than all the doctors who have devoted their attention to the curative side of public health. For that reason it is very essential that every civilised country should devote very serious attention to the science of preventing the spread of disease, and if the Free State is to maintain its character as an enlightened State it is necessary that we should bring our sanitary science up to the highest point of perfection.
Now, at the present time the preventative side of public health is carried out in a very haphazard way. In fact, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the preventative side of public health is scarcely carried out at all in Ireland. The sanitary officers who are responsible for looking after nuisances and for seeing that people comply with the sanitary laws are only part-time officers and are at the mercy of every local potentate in their bailiwick. These people are afraid to put their foot down and insist in a straightforward way on the carrying out of the sanitary laws. Hence we have imperfect machinery of that kind. No matter what legislation we may bring in here it will be impossible to have that legislation efficiently carried out. What we really require is efficient machinery to carry out the laws that have been passed. The present sanitary laws, if properly enforced, are sufficient to bring the preventative science of public health up to a very high standard in Ireland. In every country it is necessary to improve public health measures, and this is particularly so in a food producing country like Ireland, for food produced under insanitary and unhygienic conditions can never expect to realise the same price in foreign markets as food produced under proper conditions. So, for that reason we have deemed it necessary to change the whole position with regard to public health. Germs are no respecters of boundaries and, therefore, it is no use in having sanitary laws efficiently carried out by one district council if, in an adjoining district council, things are allowed to go as they please. For that reason, in every county, we are making one body solely responsible for carrying out all the sanitation of the board of health.
Not only is it necessary to have one body responsible for such measures, but it is also necessary to place the responsibility on the shoulders of a competent officer, and do away with those halftime officers who were most of their time trying to serve two masters, and serving neither efficiently. The Bill provides for the appointment of a whole-time medical officer of health, a man who must possess the highest qualifications, including a diploma of public health, and who must have had ample experience in carrying out public health measures. Those are the principal measures dealing with public health. In large counties, where one board of health would not be able adequately to deal with the whole area, power is provided for the appointment of two or more boards of health. That would get over any difficulty on the score of throwing too much work on one small board of health. It is not necessary, at this stage, to go more fully into this question of public health.
The next big change the Bill brings about is in connection with roads. I am well aware the opinion is prevalent in the country that it would be a good thing to have our main roads established on a national basis. Experience in other countries goes to show that roads maintained on a national basis are not administered as economically as roads maintained by local authorities. In France they have a Ponts et Chauseés Department for maintaining their roads. The cost of the upkeep of those main roads is exceedingly high; probably they would not go in for such costly maintenance were it not for the fact that strategic reasons make it necessary for them to keep their roads at a very high standard. The conditions with regard to roads are continually changing. Roads have always performed very useful functions in the civilisation of every State. The Roman Empire probably owed its extension more to its roads than to any other factor. Here in Ireland, in the ancient days, the Brehon code dealt very fully with measures for the upkeep and maintenance of roads and for the charges that should be made on different people for keeping the roads in repair.
Roads continued to be an increasingly important factor as civilisation advanced in this country up to the time of the invention of the railways. Roads were always regarded from a national standpoint. After the invention of the railways, the roads, for the time being, had to go into the background and, accordingly, they more or less assumed a parochial aspect. In recent years roads have been looked at more and more from the parochial point of view. The tendency has been to allow the standard of maintenance of national roads to fall very low, and the tendency of rural district councils, who were responsible for the initiation of policy with regard to roads, has been to concentrate attention on the construction of new, unimportant little by-roads.
The advent of the motor car has again changed the whole position with regard to transport. The railway is no longer the great national medium of communication. The roads are again becoming the most important medium of communication in every civilised country. The question of roadways in the United States has been adverted to here. In the United States, railroads have been brought to a higher state of perfection than in any other country in the world. The whole energy of that great country was in later years concentrated on the building up of the railways. Experience goes to show that it is no longer a paying proposition to run railways for a shorter distance than 100 miles. In a country like Ireland, where the distances are very short, it is very likely that railroads will cease to be of the great importance that they were in the past.
In America, for some considerable time, roads have been looked upon from the national point of view. They have built there thousands and thousands of miles of ferro-concrete roads, which have been found to be the only type of roads satisfactorily to bear modern traffic. If I were in a position to deal with the question in vacuo, and if I had nothing in mind but purely local government considerations, I would be in favour of building a fan-work as it were, of concrete roads from Dublin to all the main cities on the northern, western and southern seaboards. But that would cost a very great sum of money, and because of our present financial condition we would not be in a position to do it. If it were insisted that the State should bear the cost of national trunk or main roads of a type that would suit modern traffic, it would probably mean an increase in Income Tax of another 6d. in the £, and I do not think any member of the Seanad or Dáil would look forward to such a prospect with any great enthusiasm.
This Bill does not nationalise the roads, but it goes as far as it is possible for it to go in that direction. Heretofore, every district council had power to make a road declaration as to what particular road should be maintained at a certain standard. Some County Councils adopted the system of road declarations in regard to main roads; others did not, and the result was that you had no continuity of good roads in the country. Under this Bill that position is now changed, because it is left to the Minister to decide what roads shall be main roads. Those roads can be mapped out on a national principle, and the standard rate of maintenance can be kept up along those roads over their whole length. That is one important provision in the Bill.
Another important provision gives the Minister power to decide what kind of material is to be used on the roads and to prevent the use of soft limestone, which is one of the causes of the roads going to pieces so rapidly under modern traffic. The main provision in the Bill is that which amends Section 8 of the Development of Roads Improvement Fund Act of 1909, which gives the Minister power to construct or maintain any road. Heretofore we had only power to construct a new road. Under this Bill my Department would have absolute power to maintain any road and to use the Road Fund for that purpose. It is not quite true to say all the burden of expense with regard to roads is being thrown on the unfortunate farmer. The proceeds of the Road Fund amount to a very considerable sum, and that will increase every year as motor traffic increases. In addition to that the State made available over one million pounds last year for roads, and it is expected that as occasion requires the State will be always ready to do the needful in the matter of road work.
It would not be a wise thing under present difficulties to make it compulsory on the State to maintain national roads at a high standard of efficiency. The Bill takes the initiation of policy with regard to roads out of the hands of the rural district councils, who looked at the problem solely from the parochial standpoint and were never capable of rising to the level of visualising the roads from the national point of view. In future the county councils will be responsible for all the main roads, including those passing through urban districts, with some exceptions, and the charge will be a county at large charge. There had been some objection to the section which permits the taking down of houses in order to ensure the safety of people travelling on the roads. It is not always to safeguard the motorist that these provisions are adopted. Very often it is the pedestrian on the road suffers when, as a result of not being able to see where he is going, the motorist crashes around a blind corner.
It is not true either to say that the unfortunate man, whose house is going to be taken down, is thus deprived of his dwelling, because there is a provision in the Bill indicating that before a house is taken down the council will have to see that there is accommodation of a similar kind for the person who is being deprived of his house. From that point of view the Bill is water-tight.
The provisions with regard to petrol pumps are not made to facilitate the people putting down the pumps, but to facilitate the users of the roads. So far, there were no restrictions on the erection of those pumps. People could place them at dangerous corners or anywhere they liked, and local authorities had no power to insist on their removal. Under this Bill people can only erect pumps after getting a licence from the county council, and the council is entitled to charge for granting such a licence. If, at any time, it is necessary to remove those pumps, the owner will have to do so at his own expense.
Having recasted the whole machinery of local government with regard to roads and public health, it is necessary to deal with the bodies at present in existence for that purpose. At present roads and matters connected with public health are being dealt with by rural district councils. As I have explained, those bodies are not at all suitable for dealing with those matters.
I think it is generally admitted—it was admitted in the Dáil, and I have heard no dissent from the view here— that the rural district council is not a suitable body to deal with roads and public health. It has been generally agreed that it is advisable to take these powers from the rural district council. That being so, I am at a loss to know on what ground we can justify the continued existence of rural councils. These bodies cost something like £65,000 every three years for the election of their members. The maintenance of their staffs amounts to something like £85,000. The work which is being done at the present time by the rural councils can be performed in about three hours every month. When these duties will be taken from them the work can be done in about a quarter of an hour every month. It is very hard to justify an expenditure amounting to over £100,000 a year on these bodies for doing work of that character.
There is no sentimental reason why these bodies should be maintained. They have not sprung out of the history of the country in any way. They are not historic bodies or areas like baronies or dioceses. They have no root in the history or topography of the country at all. They are unwieldy and unmanageable bodies that are absolutely impossible from the administrative standpoint. At one end of the scale you have a rural district like Tuam, which is as large as a good-sized county. At the other end you have a little rural district like Idrone, in Carlow, which is not larger than a parish. Yet these two areas, from the administrative standpoint, are exactly similar, and are entitled to the same powers, duties and privileges.
Under the present Local Government code it is very difficult to devise any system of local government that will apply equally to the rural district of the size, valuation and population of Tuam and at the same time apply to a rural district of the size, valuation and population of Idrone. It is accordingly proposed to do away with these district councils. That, by no means, will mean doing away with local representation. Under the Electoral Act, county councillors are elected for the electoral areas. Five, six, or seven members are elected for each electoral area, and these areas are, approximately, the same size. So that there is no district of any size in the country that will not have its own representative on the county council. Along with that, each county council and board of health will be in a position and have the power to set up committees. These committees are of two kinds, general purposes committees, and committees dealing with particular matters. Every parish, if so inclined, can set up its own committees, and these committees will be much superior to the old district councils, because they will not be stereotyped in any way. It will be possible for these committees to make use of the services of many men in these districts who would not, under any circumstances, go up for election as rural district councillors. Any part of the county that feels in need of a committee for any particular purpose will have the power to set up such a committee. Most of those committees will only have advisory powers. But greater powers can be delegated to them by the board of health. There is no danger that the work of the county councils will be increased under the present Bill. All the functions of the rural district councils, or the greater part of them, those with regard to public health, will be performed by the board of health, not by the county council.
The county council functions will be restricted to finance and roads, and it is not anticipated that their duties will be very much more onerous than at the present time, although perhaps for the first year or so, while they will be getting the machinery into working order, there may be a little more work than previously. In order to make up for that, provision is made for increasing the number of the county councillors, and also provision is made for paying travelling expenses to the members of these bodies. Having recast the machinery of local government, certain changes will take place with regard to the officers of those bodies, and provision is made for paying those officers who disappear as officers of the rural councils to become officers of the county councils. The county council will have the power to retain them in its service, or transfer them to the board of health, or, in cases where they think it desirable, to dismiss them and pension them off. That brings us to the pension provisions in the Bill. The present superannuation code of local government is like a Chinese puzzle; very few officers of local authorities know what their own rights are under the present code, and even expert lawyers who have devoted their lives to the study of such matters oftentimes are at loggerheads as to the rights of the various officials under different sections. To make confusion worse confounded there was inserted in the Bill of 1909 a section (8) dealing with pensions which has so complicated the present position with regard to superannuation, that very few people really know what the rights of anyone are under the law as it stands. We consider it a good opportunity to recast the law with regard to superannuation. This part of the Bill is a part that lends itself to future development. Later on it would be possible to work out a proper scheme. We may bring in a superannuation code on a contributory basis, like what they have in England at the present time, and what we have here under the Asylum Acts. Such a measure will take a great deal to work out, and we are not in a position to bring in a Bill on these lines at the moment. The Bill, so far as it goes, takes a long step towards the codification of the law with regard to superannuation. I have not consented to allow any new officers to come in under the superannuation code. There is no provision in this Bill for superannuating any person who had not superannuation rights up to this.
In the present condition of the rates, which are abnormally high throughout the country, I considered it necessary to hold out against the admission of any new class of officers to our superannuation code. That has been responsible for pretty warm tussles in the Dáil. Generally speaking, the superannuation code makes three changes. That is with regard to officers generally. One of these changes places existing officers perhaps in a slightly worse position than they are at the present time, namely, officers who leave the service. Because an officer cannot become pensionable until he is 65 years of age. Heretofore, his pensionable rights began after 20 years of service, and when he had reached 60 years of age. This change is considered desirable, as very many men are in a position to give very valuable services to local authorities after they pass 60 years of age. Of course, if an officer becomes incapacitated before that age, or if it becomes necessary for him to vacate the service owing to old age, he can do so. Counterbalancing that slight change, the officers of the local authority are placed in a better position in two respects. First of all, an officer under the present Bill has the right of appeal to the Minister if he is not treated fairly by his own council. Often times, for political or other reasons, a local council may not wish to grant a fair pension to one of its officials who retires, and it is unjust that such an officer after long service should be deprived of his pensionable rights as he can be under the existing law. Now he has the right to appeal. The second provision enables an officer to transfer his service from one local authority to another and to carry his pensionable rights from his former office to his new office. This is a very good thing both for the officer and for the new authority. It will mean that promotion for officers will be much more rapid, and they will have a much wider field of duties and at the same time it will mean that the local authorities can avail of the services of officers who have acquired experience in minor capacities under other local authorities. On the whole, we consider it a very good provision in the Bill. Provision is also made in the Bill for the transference of officers from the local authorities to the central service. Oftentimes an officer who gave most useful services to the Central Authority is an officer who has acquired experience under the local authority. Heretofore it was hard to get the services of such officers, because they did not carry pensionable rights from the local authority to the central government. That would be changed under the present Bill. It is not necessary to go any further into the superannuation code at the present stage.
There are also various provisions in the Bill for tightening up the expense of local government machinery. One important provision cuts at the root of an anomaly which existed in local government heretofore. When a member of a local body became disqualified through absenting himself from attendance or through any other reasons, his colleagues on the local authority passed a resolution qualifying him. Such a member was in a very peculiar position. He was in somewhat the same position as the director of a company who was not properly qualified to act. The actions of such a local authority which were invalid as regards himself, left him subject to a penalty while acting. The action of such a member with regard to third parties was valid. The result was that often-times a member of a local authority absenting himself from a meeting for a considerable length of time became disqualified. But owing to the esprit de corps that exists amongst members, nobody would insist on his disqualification. He would never be prosecuted and he would never suffer the penalty of acting. This Bill provides that the Minister can himself prosecute in cases where a member acts after being disqualified. That will get rid of that anomaly. There is also a provision which will greatly help in tightening up the position with regard to surcharge. At present no matter how outlandish a proposal may be, and no matter how patently illegal or irregular, if a member of a county council proposes or votes for a resolution which results in an illegal expenditure by a local authority he cannot in practice be surcharged. In order to surcharge a member in such a case it is necessary to prove crassa negligentia on his part, which in practice it is impossible to do. There is some doubt as to whether the person who signs the advice note in such a case can be surcharged, but at all events such a person is not morally culpable. The person who is really to blame is the person who proposes the resolution in respect of which the illegal payment is made. The present Bill gets over that difficulty by throwing the onus in the first instance on the clerk, or other responsible officer who is present when such a proposal is made. If that responsible officer considers that this proposal will lead to an illegal payment the obligation is placed on him of warning the person who makes the proposal. This warning will be entered on the minutes, and would itself be sufficient evidence to prove crassa negligentia against that councillor. If the resolution is proceeded with the name of every councillor who votes for or against it or who abstains from voting will be entered on the minutes, and those who vote in favour of such illegal payment can be surcharged in the ordinary way. This is, I think, a provision that will lead to very satisfactory results.
Provision is also made for the payment of expenses to members of local bodies and their committees. Under the Bill there will be a number of committees, and probably members of local committees will have to devote somewhat more time to their duties than they did in the past. For that reason it is considered desirable that some slight payment should be made to cover their out-of-pocket expenses. The scale of payments will not completely cover such expenses, but it will go a considerable way towards it, and will at all events place them in a much better position than they were in heretofore.
There is also a provision for placing the Libraries Acts on a county rather than on a district basis. All who are familiar with such matters will agree that that would be a great improvement. In England it has been found that the Libraries Acts when placed on a county basis worked very much more efficiently than on a district basis, and it will promote a great advance and a great improvement in the circulating system, which has been found in practice to be the most desirable for the development of libraries. I am very glad to see that on the whole the Bill has been given a very favourable reception, and I hope the same atmosphere will continue during its passage through the Seanad.