This Bill is the third of the three measures under which the system of local government will be changed and reorganised. The first of the three measures was the Public Assistance Act, 1939, which made further and better provision in relation to public assistance and which assumed the establishment of the county manager system. The second was the County Management Act of last year which extended the council manager plan of local government at present in operation in the principal cities to the remainder of the country. Having regard to the explanatory memorandum which was circulated with the Bill I do not think it is necessary at this stage to refer in detail to its provisions.
As regards Part II of the Bill it is essential, in view of the necessity for having a proficient personnel at the service of local bodies, to establish a system of recruitment and control calculated to achieve that result. Conditions of service will be placed on a uniform basis and much of the detail which at present is dealt with by the central authority can under the Bill be dealt with locally under general regulations. An important change was made in the Dáil in regard to officers and servants of vocational education committees and committees of agriculture by excluding them from Part II of the Bill as it was felt that they should continue to be dealt with in separate Acts. Section 23 contains new provisions with regard to age limits on retirement. At present there is no limit for retirement of local officers and in practice officers remain in service until well advanced in years unless they become permanently incapacitated. It was suggested to local bodies some years ago that they should fix age limits but they felt uncertain of their powers and very few took any action. Experience has shown that it is desirable that there should be some rule with regard to compulsory retirement on the ground of age. The same age of retirement may not be suitable for every class of office and so it is proposed to allow the retiring age to be fixed by grades and classes, as well as for particular offices.
The Bill provides safeguards against arbitrary and unjust actions against local officers. Section 25 lays down the procedure to be followed before an officer can be removed. It gives statutory recognition to what has become the practice in cases of this kind. Every officer who is charged with dereliction of duty in relation to his office is given an opportunity of answering such charges. This customary procedure will be given statutory force. Section 10 gives a right of appeal to the Minister by any officer who is aggrieved by a decision in relation to his remuneration, duties or conditions of service.
There is a small amendment of the Local Authorities (Officers and Employees) Act, 1926, under which certain posts are filled on the recommendation of the Local Appointments Commissioners. Under that Act the commissioners prescribe qualifications with the concurrence of the Minister. Under the Bill the Minister will prescribe the qualifications after consultation with the commissioners. Section 27 of the Bill is a re-enactment in slightly amended form of Section 11 of the Act of 1926, relating to the suspension of officers which will cease to have effect except for those local officers and employees such as officers of vocational education committees that do not come within Part II of the Bill.
Part III deals with the constitution and procedure of local authorities. As the executive functions of local bodies will be carried out by county managers it is proposed to effect a reduction in membership. Where the number of members of a county council is less than 30 the number of members will be not less than 20 and in other cases not less than two-thirds the present membership. For urban areas the Minister will fix the number of members in accordance with an amendment introduced in the Dáil.
It will be possible, within the limit of the reduction of the total membership proposed in the Bill, to keep a fairly standard ratio between population and membership, and at the same time preserve the representative character of the council, since it will be elected by county electoral areas. Within a county the ratio between population of each county electoral area and the number of members to be returned therefor will be as far as practicable the same.
From an examination of the last census figures it is unlikely that any general alteration of the existing county electoral areas as fixed in 1925 will be found necessary. Where the population of any particular electoral area has fallen substantially since 1926 the number of members may be reduced by more than one for that area, but generally the reduction may be taken as one member for each county electoral area. There will be not less than three members for any electoral area.
Provision is made for the making of a fresh division of the county into county electoral areas. Any general alteration of existing county electoral areas is not contemplated, and only such changes will be made as are essential to keep the representation of the areas as far as possible equal within the county. Section 43, relating to the election of mayors and chairman, is designed to overcome the deadlocks that have occasionally occurred in connection with such elections.
Part IV is in substitution for the present law enabling local authorities to be dissolved. Under the new provisions only the members are removed while the legal continuity of the corporate body is preserved. No other important change is made.
The purpose of Section 57 in Part V is to disqualify rate defaulters for membership of local authorities.
The provisions of Section 61 with regard to the rating of divided hereditaments are intended to meet the case of divided holdings which do not appear as divided on the valuation list.
The provisions of Part VI confer borrowing powers upon the public assistance authorities similar to those exercised by boards of guardians under the Local Government Act, 1898.
Part VII deals with the audit of the accounts of local authorities, the fixing of fees for such audits and clarifies the law with respect to the recovery of surcharges. It is proposed to introduce a yearly period of account and audit as the normal period, while leaving it open to the Minister in special cases to provide for a half-yearly period. This change is made on the ground of administrative convenience.
Part VIII of the Bill deals with approved local councils. Last year the Seanad debated at some length the question of the establishment of parish councils and it is not necessary for me now to retrace the ground covered then. The Bill contains four sections under which local councils established in rural areas may be approved by the county councils and can be assisted in the provision of a building for the use of the local council and in equipping it and paying in whole or in part the cost of caretaking. The county council may utilise approved local councils by delegating functions which can be suitably entrusted to them. The present emergency has, I think, brought home to the people generally the necessity for acting together in voluntary cooperation in order to promote their own interests. There is much work to be done which voluntary bodies can more appropriately undertake than statutory bodies.
As stated in the explanatory memorandum it is intended to bring the Bill, when it becomes law, into operation at the same time as the might be rightly described as a Public Assistance Act, 1939, and the County Management Act, 1940.