Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Mar 1955

Vol. 44 No. 12

Local Government Bill, 1954—Second Stage (Resumed).

It is true to say that this Bill is one of many pieces of local government legislation over the past few years. It is surprising to members of this House how many such Bills have had to be introduced from time to time, tightening up, if you like, the whole administrative system in regard to local government. This Bill does not, in any way, increase the powers of the elected representatives of the people. It does not increase the powers of the local councils. If it does anything at all, it extends and tightens up the power of the Department in their control over local administration. It could be truly said at the present time that, so widespread is the control of the Local Government Department throughout the length and breadth of the country, even if a local council were composed entirely of imbeciles it would be almost impossible for them to do wrong. County councils, and borough councils, are shepherded, protected, guided and directed from the first moment they are constituted, until they are finally dissolved at election time.

I think Senator O'Brien raised a very important question when he asked what are the principles that guide us in regard to our system of local government. The point he raised was: is it desirable to continue this process of having what appears to be a system of local government, while in actual fact it is the central authority that directs the operations of local councils? If we look back 40 or 50 years, we shall find that the local councils then had power to decide many important questions which they cannot decide now without the authority of the Department. While there may have been abuses under the old system, in many ways it was possibly more desirable than what we have now, because, while it is, or at least it was up till recently, fashionable to condemn County Management Acts as being responsible for all the controls which are exercised over our local authorities by the central authority, that is not the exact position, because even before the County Management Act was enacted, there was that ever-increasing tightening up and control over local bodies and their officials by the central authority.

The question is how far are we going to continue along these lines? We know that legislation will come before us in regard to the County Management Act and the county managers' powers, but it does not affect the position to any extent, so that we are continuing in this Bill the general tendency to keep our locally elected representatives under complete control by the central authority and that is, in the main, what this Bill sets out to do. There is no doubt that the officials of the Department are highly efficient and there is no doubt that in most cases they are right in their decisons. I have found very few cases in which they have been wrong. If you take a small housing scheme in any remote village, nothing can be done in the matter of the acquisition of the site without the sanction of the Department. The Department inspector must see the exact site. The plans cannot be drawn up for the development of the site without the sanction of the Department and, finally, the houses cannot be built without the sanction of the central authority, so that all along the line the local body and the local officials are being guided, shepherded, controlled and directed. There is no doubt that that situation did not begin with the passage of the County Management Act. It is being continued in this Bill and will be continued in the new County Management (Amendment) Bill.

Senator O'Brien raised a question as to whether all this is or is not desirable and whether it is making our people more responsible, if you like, in the operation of democratic government to have their representatives elected on a local authority and then to see them left practically without any executive or administrative power. The net result of all this control and direction is that the sense of responsibility is, to a great extent, withdrawn from the local council. It is so difficult for a county council to make a mistake that there is a tendency for these bodies to take up a carefree and, to a certain extent, a not-too-responsible attitude. All that local authorities have become now is simply advisory bodies— advisory to the Department—and I think it is time that we paused and considered where we are drifting in regard to this whole trend of legislation.

As Senator O'Brien said, it would be better to take from the local authorities completely any functions which they cannot discharge independently without direction and control from the central authority. He referred to main roads. It is true to say that the central authority must exercise a certain amount of supervision in the planning of the main arteries of transport and therefore he suggested that, since they must exercise that control, it would be far better if the entire administration of main roads were taken over by the central authority; but if it is considered that the local authorities can deal with county roads, they should be left absolutely to deal with the maintenance and construction of these roads, without any interference whatever from the central authority.

Any other functions which local authorities are capable of discharging, they should be left to discharge, without interference, and if they are not capable of discharging a certain function without interference, then I think that function should be transferred to the central authority completely because it is a bad principle in administration, in any form of administration or management, to have dual control, to have two bodies responsible for the one administration. I think it is time to consider this whole question seriously to see if we cannot make more fundamental changes in the whole system of local government.

Senator O'Brien was also right when he said that it is desirable that political Parties should contest local council elections and secure representation thereon. He said it is good for the political Party and good for local administration. It is good for local administration to have members who look upon themselves as standardbearers of a national movement and who, in dealing with local affairs, try to uphold a high standard of administration. In the same way, it is good for a national political Party to have its members taking an active interest in local affairs because the very life of any national movement depends upon the interest which its members take in the lives and affairs of the ordinary people and in local matters generally.

It was said repeatedly in recent years that only the Fianna Fáil Party were responsible for the introduction of political representation on the county councils, but that, of course, is not true. All political Parties sought representation there, and quite rightly, and I know that that will continue. It will be good, as I say, for the local authorities and good to an even greater extent for a national organisation which seeks and secures representation on these local bodies.

This raises another question which is dealt with in Part V of the Bill, that is, the provision to extend aid to local councils. Under existing legislation, local councils—parish councils, if you like—have the right to seek aid from the county council and to be granted assistance in the provision of halls and other amenities. They have the right, in the first place, to be approved as approved local councils and that is apparently being extended in this Bill to local bodies in our cities. The amazing thing is that the decision to extend this system has been taken on the result of the experiment in the county councils. In the rural areas, this provision has been an absolute failure and has never been availed of or put into operation. Apparently guided and encouraged by this complete failure, it is now proposed to extend the provision to the larger towns and cities. I am not against the proposal to make this class of legislation applicable to our cities and county boroughs but I think it is a pity that it did not succeed and it would be desirable to examine the reasons as to why it did not succeed. In the main, the average county council would be rather loth to encourage expenditure in this way by giving grants to a parish council because it would be involving the county council in additional expenditure which is not at the moment a statutory obligation.

In the existing legislation, there is no clear definition as to what constitutes a parish council which would seek approval. The whole position has been so vague and remains so vague that I do not think this particular part of the Bill can ever become operative. I think that, if we are serious about this matter, instead of contenting ourselves with putting vague provisions into this Bill, we should try to explain in it what we mean by parish councils. I think we should assert boldly that we are in favour of parish councils. In the existing legislation the parish council is not mentioned but there is a mention of approved local councils. Why should we not go on and define what would constitute an approved parish council? What do we expect the people of a parish to do in order to become an approved parish council? If those things are defined clearly, then we will have a number of parishes availing themselves of those provisions but as long as the matter is left in the undefined condition that it is in at present, nothing can come of it. It is merely a gesture to the people who think that the parish council is a good thing and that it should be extended to the larger towns and cities.

I believe the parish council is a good thing and if we want to have a real system of local government and not the inefficient system that we have at the present moment, we should encourage, not the elected representatives on the county councils, but the electors themselves and the people in each parish to get together and elect a council. Meeting as a guild or by way of general meeting, the electors of the parish could consider the needs in their district and take measures to solve the problems that affect them directly. I think that one of the reasons why our system of local government has to a great extent failed is that it is neither one thing nor the other. It is not sufficiently centralised to have the efficiency that comes of centralisation and it is not sufficiently local to be fully and truly democratic. In dealing with Part V of the Bill, we ought to seek to broaden it so as not merely to give to a county council or a borough council the requisites for improved local government, but we should also introduce a provision to enable the people of a parish to secure approval whether the local authority desires it or not by merely complying with certain statutory obligations. Then it would be the duty of the county authority or the city authority to assist that parish council in providing itself with the means to carry out the various functions which such a parish council can carry out.

I am not very much in favour of giving substantial grants to those parish councils. If these councils are to be a success in this State, it should be on the basis that they are self-supporting. Somebody has already mentioned that parish halls should be in the main self-supporting and that they should produce sufficient revenue to enable them to be maintained. It would be more important, therefore, for the local authority and the central authority to give a loan to the parish council to enable it to start off and perhaps a small grant-in-aid which would be shared by the central authority. In that way this movement for the provision of parish councils would be given a real send-off. The vague paragraph in the Local Government Act of 1941 and in this Bill regarding the establishment of those local councils is of no value whatever.

There are a few other matters with which I would like to deal. I believe that a major effort should be made to have all our local roads put into better condition. The Department of Local Government are insisting on too high a standard in regard to those roads. I do not think that is entirely desirable. Most road construction at the present time is carried out by means of grants from the Road Fund and a very high standard is being insisted upon by the Local Government Department. I think that could be modified so as to get our local roads and our rural roads into a reasonable condition at the earliest possible moment.

There is a provision in this Bill which I think is objectionable and that is the one that seeks to enable the local authority to erect a bridge across any river regardless of whether, by so doing, they interfere with the navigation or not. I do not think that is desirable. The River Shannon, of course, is exempt, but there are other large rivers which I think should also be exempt. I believe any of these rivers that can be used for navigation should be so used. It is all to the good that such waterways should be utilised as far as possible, not only as an aid to transport, but as an amenity for the benefit of tourism.

I do not know exactly whether I am in order in this particular matter, but there is a very great grievance amongst superannuated local officials who retired some years ago on pensions which are, having regard to the present cost of living, entirely inadequate. I think some provision should be made for those people.

There is another grievance which has arisen—the Parliamentary Secretary may be aware of it—and that is in regard to county council employees. Under the provisions of the present superannuation scheme, it was provided that any employee of the council could opt to come in under that scheme when it came into operation in 1948, I think. Those who failed to opt were given six months' grace, but, as they failed to opt within six months, they have no redress since. They have now no redress whatever. Many of those who were employed by the county councils, years before the passing of this legislation, are still employed by them, but they cannot benefit by the present superannuation scheme.

I assume there is no deduction made from their wages for the scheme. In many places they now realise the benefit of coming in under the scheme but they are denied the right to revoke the decision they took when the scheme first came into operation. That appears to be a little harsh. It is not always possible for an ordinary manual worker to realise the full implications of a particular scheme, especially when it is completely new. Even though it may be explained to them they may still not grasp its significance or know how it will affect them. I think there ought to be provision in this Bill—if it is not in it; I am not sure—which would enable those people who have been left out to be included in the superannuation scheme and thus enable them to derive the benefits which are available under that scheme.

Having more than one personal reason, I am extremely grateful to the members of the House for the helpful and constructive way they received and dealt with this Bill. This Bill is not entitled to be, and cannot be, described as a Party-minded measure. I do not know whether Senator Hawkins, who undoubtedly dealt with the matter in a very constructive way, knows that this Bill was prepared over a long period of years by the previous Government and that it was finished and printed on White Paper when this Government took up office in June of last year. So far as the present Government is concerned, they merely took over a measure which was previously printed in white, sent it to the printers and handed it to the Oireachtas as a Green Paper. Therefore, any of the defects that are in the Bill, as it was introduced, cannot in all cases, at any rate, be placed at the door of the present Government or on the doorstep of the Minister for Local Government.

The Bill could be described as a sort of brother-in-law of the other Bill with which the Minister is at the moment dealing in the Dáil, namely, the City and County Management (Amendment) Bill. I would appeal to the Senators that between now and the Committee Stage of this Bill, they should have the two Bills beside them when they are considering whatever amendments they want put down because the City and County Management (Amendment) Bill, as introduced, will definitely help to clear up some of the doubts expressed and the inquiries made by some of the speakers during the discussion this evening.

I hope Senators do not expect me to deal in detail with the many proper points which they put forward this evening. As a matter of fact, a few of the points were fully explained in the White Paper circulated with the Bill itself. I have no authority to impose a political penance on any of the members of this House. If I had the power and the desire to impose a political penance on the members of this House, I would urge them to read the Official Reports of the discussion that took place in the Dáil over a period of nearly 80 hours when the Bill was before that House.

The Minister had to go through what I described elsewhere as an endurance test. I am not exaggerating—I checked up on this—when I say that two senior members of the Opposition Party in the other House, who must share some responsibility for the framework of the measure now before you, spoke between 120 and 130 times during the discussion that took place in the Dáil. I agree it is perfectly right and legitimate that the members of this House should, if they so desire, make the same inquiries as were made and answered elsewhere. Between this and the Committee Stage consultations will have to take place as Senators know. I am merely acting as an understudy for the Minister because he could not be here himself this evening. I have his assurance that he hopes to be here when the Committee Stage comes up for consideration. It is far better that he should be here on that occasion because he had the task of piloting this measure through the other House. However, I can tell the Senators that all the suggestions that have been made will be carefully considered between this and the Committee Stage.

Some of the matters on which I sympathise with Senators will be brought in and dealt with as Government amendments on the Committee Stage. Members of the Seanad who put forward amendments and suggestions on constructive lines this evening can have my assurance and the Minister's assurance that they will be carefully and, where possible, sympathetically considered. I hope the House will not ask me to go beyond that.

There were certain points of policy and principle raised this evening— properly raised. Senator O'Brien, partly supported by Senator Cogan in the speech to which I have just listened, raised this whole question of the Department of Local Government. The members of this House know and those who have studied the measure in conjunction with the City and County Management (Amendment) Bill will admit, that the desire is—it is expressed in several sections of both Bills—to pass back to the local authorities as much power as possible. That is being done but personally I have not heard any good case made as to why the Department of Local Government, the present Government or past Government, should surrender their right to supervise the administration of huge sums of money voted to local authorities from the Central Fund for roads, the building of houses, sanitary services or any such services. For instance, this year it is hoped to hand over to the local authorities a sum of about £6,000,000 for the upkeep, improvement and maintenance of main and county roads. That money will have to be spent on the basis of a prepared plan—a plan which will be carried out inside of a period of from five to ten years.

Is it suggested that, having handed over approximately £6,000,000 from the taxpayers or from the people who make their contributions to the Road Fund, the Department of Local Government or the Government of the day should surrender their right to see that that sum of money is properly expended? Some of the money will be used for the purpose of improving the trunk or main roads between Dublin and Cork or between Dublin and Limerick. If the Department of Local Government did not hold a control, which I contend they have a perfect right to hold, over the expenditure of that money, you might have a different standard of improvement in the County Kildare from the standard in the County Dublin. You might have different standards of improvement if it were reasonably possible amongst county engineers in every county between Dublin and Cork. That would not be a desirable state of affairs. I am giving the Seanad that kind of case as, to some extent at any rate, a justification for exercising authority and supervision over the money which the Department of Local Government allocates from the taxpayers' pocket or from those who make a big contribution to the Road Fund.

Senator Cogan, as an experienced member of a local authority, will admit, I hope, that there is something in the argument which I have made. The same applies to Senator O'Brien. Senator O'Brien raised the same point in a reference to swimming pools. The same argument applies there. If the Department of Local Government, acting as the agent for the Government, makes grants for the provision of swimming pools in the same way as it makes huge grants for the improvement of our main roads, for the building of houses and for other national services, then I give him the same answer and I put forward the same argument. I suggest, at any rate, it should be considered by the Senator.

Is there any Senator who would say that, having voted £6,000,000 from the taxpayers' pockets and from the Road Fund, that should be the end and the aim of the Department and of the Government? I have not heard any member either in this or in the other House put up that kind of argument. Neither the present Government nor past Governments over the long period of years that I can remember would dream of accepting that as a good sound argument.

The same, to a certain extent, applies to grants that are made available for housing with this difference, that the local authority is the body which initiates proposals for the provision of housing schemes. The Government then comes along and gives substantial grants, representing a high percentage of the total cost, and makes further provision, where necessary, where the local authority provides supplementary grants. Surely the body that is responsible for making these allocations to cover a high percentage of the cost of providing houses by local authorities should not there and then, having made the grants, surrender its right to supervise the expenditure of the money. You must have conditions, and conditions are always laid down, for the purpose of compelling people who build houses, local authorities or individuals, to build according to approved plans.

I do not think it is necessary for me to delay the House any longer in pursuing that kind of argument because one could apply it in many cases. I hope that Senator O'Brien, whose views I highly respect—when I do not hear him speak I read what he says in this House—will favourably bear in mind the answer which I am giving on behalf of the Minister and on behalf of the Government.

Many sections of the Bill have been referred to by the Senators who have spoken. The most explosive section of the Bill appears to be Section 40. There is no harm in telling the Seanad that, until this Bill is passed and comes into operation, there is not the slightest fear that anything at all in connection with Youghal bridge, or other bridges that are causing a certain amount of contention at the present time, can be done. Many individual cases, such as the case of Youghal bridge and matters of policy —they may be minor matters as well as major matters of policy—are being held up, pending the coming into operation of this Bill, and no bridge Order will be made, as far as I know, either in connection with Youghal bridge or any other bridge until the Bill comes into operation. I am sure that when the Minister comes here and speaks on the Committee Stage of the Bill, he will give the assurance, and will carry out whatever assurance he gives, that there will be no intention of interfering with the navigation rights of a river like the Blackwater, or any other river, for bridge building purposes.

There was another matter referred to, and, personally, I was glad to hear Senators refer to it, and that was the question of the provision of grants for the erection of parish halls. Senator Cogan is a long-standing member of the Carlow County Council, and I thought that he would have known that the matter that he referred to, regarding the constitution of the local body that would qualify for financial assistance in a case of this kind, is contained and clearly defined in the Act of 1941. It is no harm to point out that until this Bill was brought in—I give the Opposition of to-day their share of credit for it in the same way as I claim credit for the present Government because they laid the foundations and we are building up to the top on the basis of whatever amendments were carried in the other House or will be carried here— grants were not available.

There was no power given to a local authority under any previous legislation of this kind to make grants for the building of parish halls. I have been deeply interested in this question for a long number of years, and I may say that I share the view of every Senator who has mentioned the matter, including Senator Cogan. But I want to point out that, when this Bill becomes law, all local authorities will be entitled to make grants under whatever conditions they, in their wisdom, decide on. The constitution of the bodies to whom they will be empowered to make these grants is contained in Section 72 of the Local Government Act of 1941, and it reads:—

"Where the inhabitants of a locality in a county health district have, either before or after the commencement of this section, established a council, committee, or other body, whether corporate or unincorporated, for furthering the general social and economic interests of such inhabitants, the council of the county in which such county health district is situate may, on the application of such body, by resolution declare that such body shall be an approved local council for the purposes of this Part of this Act."

It is for the inhabitants, under the fairly wide terms contained in that particular section of the 1941 Act, to set up the body. They can, in their wisdom, and in my opinion they would be wise to do it, put on that local council the local members of the local authority.

I have the greatest possible sympathy with everyone who has expressed a desire that everything possible should be done to provide parish halls wherever they are required. We are passing that authority and that responsibility on to the local authority to enable them to give whatever grants they desire and to lay down whatever conditions they desire for the repayment, if necessary, of those grants. I think parish halls are badly needed in every part of the country. That is one of the things which will help to hold in rural Ireland some of the rising generation at present anxious to leave the rural areas. There is no need for me to elaborate on that point and I do not know if there is any other matter of general interest or any issue of policy with which I should deal now.

Might I ask the Parliamentary Secretary a question which I think may help? Would he ask the Minister to have an answer for us when he appears next session to the following question on Section 40? Why is the Shannon expressly singled out, amongst Irish rivers, for having its navigation preserved? Unless the Minister can give an answer to that question, as to why the Shannon in particular is singled out, I for one and I think others, too, would support an amendment to change that section.

I said that Section 40 related to the Shannon and in every other way is the most explosive section in this Bill from my experience in the other House. I am certain that the Minister—who is much more eloquent than I am as his understudy here— will be able to give a very satisfactory explanation, a full explanation, and one I hope which will be accepted by the Senator, when he appears here before this House on the Committee Stage. At any rate, I can give a definite assurance to Senator McHugh and everyone else who mentioned the matter and who seemed to think that someone was going to interfere with the navigation rights of people on the Blackwater, on the Shannon and other places where bridges of a certain type are to be built. I could deal, from my knowledge of the file, with the Youghal bridge but it is too explosive a matter for a junior member of the Government to engage in a discussion of that kind here this evening.

May I ask the Minister another question? Is he aware that unless the reply is a very satisfactory one on this matter, a large number of Senators will vote against the section? I ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he is fully aware of that.

That does not arise to-night.

I said in the beginning that this is not a Party-minded measure. In the Dáil the Minister invited Deputies to put down amendments to the Bill—and his invitation was accepted to a greater extent than he might have desired. I am sure I speak for the Minister when I invite the Senator to put down his amendment. That is the way he will induce the Minister to give him a satisfactory explanation or a satisfactory answer to his question.

I hope I am not to be taken as disrespectful to any of the members of this House, as this is the first time I have had the privilege of being here in an official capacity. I trust Senators will allow me to leave over the other points, mainly pertinent points and questions that were asked, for consultation—I must have consultation with my Minister and with the ministerial advisers—with the assurance again that every one of these matters will be dealt with and a straight answer will be given. Perhaps amendments may be brought in by the Minister himself—I will give no guarantee of that—to meet the desire of many Senators who have so considerately dealt with this measure here this evening.

May I ask a question? The Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with Section 52 in connection with parish halls and it seems to me that the making of the contribution will be confined to bodies whose constitution is defined in the Local Government Act, 1941. Does that prelude the possibility of such bodies as Muintir na Tire, Macra na Feirme, and the Irish Countrywomen's Association getting a grant?

And towns improvement committees, and so on?

If and when this Bill comes into operation, if it comes into operation in the form in which it appears now, the local authority will be empowered to make the grants only to bodies which comply with the constitution I have just read out.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 20th April.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.5 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 20th April, 1955.