An Bille um an bhFichiú Leasú ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 2), 1999: An Dara Céim. Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, 1999: Second Stage.

No. 2a on the supplementary Order Paper, motion pursuant to section 23 of the Referendum Act, 1994, prescribing a formal statement for the information of voters to be included on the polling card, will be debated in conjunction with Second Stage of the Bill and will be formally moved when the debate on the Bill is concluded.

Tairgeadh an cheist: "Go léifear an Bille don Dara hUair."

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

The Seanad has a special affinity with local government and I feel privileged, therefore, in bringing the Bill before the House because of my own background in local government and the fact that it is 100 years since the first local elections were held.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, has made the renewal of local government a priority since taking office. Indeed, the Department was renamed the Department of the Environment and Local Government as a reflection of this commitment. The Minister is unavoidably occupied with other parliamentary business today but Senators are aware of his long standing commitment to local government, which is mirrored by this Bill. The recent Seanad motion on the achievements of local government gave him the opportunity to stress his aim of achieving local government which is real and truly local and I know this aim is shared by all Senators.

The Bill seeks to recognise local government in the Constitution and, therefore, to strengthen and enhance its democratic legitimacy as a fundamental element of our system of democracy. It also recognises the role of local authorities in providing necessary services and supporting and promoting the development of local communities. Local authorities are the only bodies, other than the Dáil and the office of President, which are directly elected on the basis of universal suffrage. It is this uniqueness compared with all other public sector agencies which merits recognition in the Constitution.

It is also fitting that the referendum to accord such recognition will be held in the centenary year of local government. The day of the local elections, 11 June, will serve not only as the day on which the electorate will get the opportunity to elect 1,600 local authority members, but it will also safeguard the future of local government. Such recognition will give Irish local government the boost it deserves and will bring the Constitution into line with our continental neighbours. It will be a red letter day – a symbol of our commitment to move ahead with the renewal of local government. However, it will also have a clear practical effect in that local elections will be protected by the Constitution in future.

Centenary celebrations inevitably make us reflect and compare. We have come a long way from the fledgling county councils established under the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, which was described as "virtually an unwanted gift to the Irish people". The county councils played their part in emerging county loyalties which have become such a strong feature of our cultural identity spurred on by sporting and other commitments. Such intangible factors have served to underscore the legitimacy of our current local government system – loyalty to county, town and city.

Local government has seen tremendous change this century and has had to adapt and cope with this change in good and bad times. It has played an important role in the modernisation of the State through the provision of infrastructure, such as water and waste water facilities, roads, bridges and almost one third of our housing stock. Local authorities have had to adapt to think not only in terms of these essential services but to facilitate and assist private development through proper planning and development, to promote the renewal of urban areas and to protect rural areas. They also promote the community interest generally and the cultural identity of their areas.

Local authority operations affect all of us every day. Perhaps it is their day to day nature which obscures their true value, whether it is pure drinking water, street lighting, refuse disposal, the fire service, developments in the arts, libraries, parks and tourism. We can be proud of local authority achievements but not complacent. We must be prepared to learn from past mistakes whether at central or local levels.

I am pleased to be part of the programme for renewal of local government, of which this Bill forms part. The Minister appreciates the important work being carried out by the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government and its sub group on local government reform. He recently met members of the committee to discuss its report on local government reform and was in the pleasant position of being able to agree with many of the points raised.

The Government's renewal programme is aimed at tackling several key areas to ensure our local government system can face up to the challenges of the 21st century. These include putting local authorities at the heart of their communities, strengthening and widening the opportunities for participation in local government, enhancing the policy making role of councillors and promoting a customer service approach and greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Renewal and reform cannot and will not take place without financial reform and that is why such efforts were made last year to bring the Local Government Act, 1998 into being. The local government fund has been in operation since January and will play a pivotal role in promoting accountable and cost-effective local democracy. The new system will deliver significant additional resources to local authorities. Moneys from the fund will, as far as possible, be made available to local authorities as general grants over which they will have discretion as to their use. The authorities will decide how this extra money will be spent and will be accountable for their decisions to their local electorate.

A range of other initiatives are well under way to modernise management structures, improve financial management systems, provide more integrated local authority and public services with a pilot programme of one stop shops in individual service areas. Good customer service is an area in which I am interested. At the end of the day that is what local government is about. The customer must be served well. In this regard, many local authorities are currently engaged in one stop shop projects which will enable the provision of decentralised, integrated public services through co-operation and co-ordination with other public service providers. These projects will provide customers, on a local basis, with a wide range of local authority services as well as other public services. My Department is contributing funding of approximately £12 million to these projects over a three year period.

I would like to think that implementation of this programme of renewal will be underpinned later this year with a major local government Bill and will reflect both continuity and change. Continuity in the sense that as a system local government has endured for a century and has the capacity to flourish in the next. The positive elements of our local government system are good and strong, such as the close relationships of councillors with the public they serve, and with the dedication and commitment of councillors and staff it will be able to flourish. Change in the sense of enabling local authorities to develop further and to provide better services for everyone; to reposition themselves with a central role rooted in their links with local communities, enabling their capabilities to engage with and support the local community, to harness the dynamism, resources and commitment in society and channel them in the interests of the common good at local level.

The integration of local government and local development systems is a central feature of the renewal programme. The recent task force report on the integration of these two systems charts the way forward not only for local government and local development but also for the delivery of public services at county and city level. The proposed county and city development boards will be led by local government. In this process, councillors will have the opportunity to play a decisive role to bring about a more effective and inclusive era of local governance. This will see the bringing together not only of local government and local development but also State agencies, the social partners and the local community. Recruitment by local authorities of directors of community and enterprise who will support the new boards is under way and will be provided for in the forthcoming local government Bill.

The renewal programmes will be underpinned by a major local government Bill which will consolidate and modernise local government law and implement a range of reforms. It aims at providing a modern statutory framework for local authorities to have a sound context in which to work. The Bill will also enhance the role of the elected member and promote the deeper involvement of our communities in local government. Work on the local government Bill is well in hand. Constitutional recognition will provide the clear context within which the work on the local government Bill will be completed and published later this year.

Constitutional recognition for local government has been recommended by various reports and commentators over the years, including the all-party committee on the Constitution and the Constitution Review Group and, very recently, by the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government and by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland. It is only fair to say it was also proposed by the previous Government. I am pleased that on foot of this Bill the proposal will be put to the people by way of referendum on 11 June.

The proposed amendment, if carried by referendum, will insert an additional Article 28A in the Constitution. Section 1 of this new article recognises the role of local government in providing a local democratic forum in carrying out a wide range of functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of local communities. In effect, this recognises the principle of local government as envisaged in the European Charter of Local Self Government.

Section 2 of Article 28A recognises the institutions of local government – the directly elected local authorities – the members of which will be elected on the same as the referendum is held. It provides that local authorities are established by and operate subject to law.

Section 3 of Article 28A deals with local elections. Over the years, local elections have been deferred at times by different Governments, sometimes for lengthy periods. Such deferral has served to devalue the system of local government. Section 3 will guarantee local elections must be held not later than the fifth year after the previous elections. It will no longer be possible by legislation to postpone local elections for lengthy periods. For example, this means that the next elections after this year's will be held in 2004 whereas in the past we have had intervals of up to nine years.

The two new sections have been inserted as a result of this Bill's passage through the other House. These amendments arise from the Labour Party proposal that reference should be made in the Constitution to the suffrage for local elections. The effect of section 4 is that every citizen who has the right to vote at an election of Members of the Dáil and other persons as may be determined by law shall have the right to vote at a local government election. I am pleased that since 1963 every resident, irrespective of citizenship or nationality, has had the right to be registered as a local government elector and to vote at local elections. The rights of resident non-nationals in this regard are identical to those of Irish citizens.

Article 5 is a consequential amendment which recognises that casual vacancies are being determined in accordance with law. A further drafting amendment was also made to section 3 by the addition of the words "in accordance with law".

The world has changed dramatically and as the pace of change quickens, local government must respond to meet the needs and aspirations of local communities. Local authorities must, in consultation with other relevant agencies, plan for and provide the essential infrastructure necessary to sustain our economic growth and protect our environment. They must also stimulate and support action to meet local needs and aspirations engaging with and involving local communities in the process of local government, a central aim of the SPC system. Our objective is to ensure that the system is perceived to make a difference and has a level of legitimacy and direct acccountability that will reinforce its validity. The forthcoming Bill will also reflect these aims.

We are on the cusp of a new millennium which will bring considerable changes and advances to all our lives. It is important, therefore, that our democratic institutions, particularly local government, are renewed to face these changes and to bring the public along with it. I am confident that this programme of renewal, underpinned by legislation and reinforced by constitutional recognition, will more than adequately prepare local government for the challenges that lie ahead.

I urge every voter to vote yes for the proposed amendment as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. That proposal will if the Bill is passed, in the words of Article 46 of the Constitution ". . . . . be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people. . . . ." on 11 June this year.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister, who is very much aware of what local government is about. He has given much of his time to ensuring that local government structures are seen to be working and is very conscious of the importance of local authorities.

Reference to local government is contained in the Constitution but at long last it is to be recognised in its own right. The recommendations before us are, therefore, proper and right. We must look at what local government has done for Irish society. It has, in many ways, provided a structure and infrastructure for the people of the Republic giving them the type of recognition that could not have been afforded at national level. If it were not for local authority members, be it at city or county level, who adopted proposals, policies or plans for the future, their areas would have been left behind. I say that with no disrespect to any Government.

For many years, the benefits of central Government have not reached local level. I say that from experience of being involved in local government for the past 20 years. There have been many frustrating times trying to get moneys from central Government to local government. That problem has prevailed for far too long and is most unfair. I would like to see more recognition of the role of local government. I wonder if people appreciate the loyalty of those who work in local government, not just the elected members on urban, city or county councils but also the management teams involved.

Let us look at the infrastructure that has been built in Cork over the past three years. The idea for such development did not come from central Government or from any Minister. It came from people from various political circles sitting down together and deciding on what is best for the region. It is a sad reflection on central Government that the benefits sought by local councillors or management have not filtered down fast enough in many areas. Many parts of my constituency should benefit from the money available at central Government level but do not. I am not attaching blame to anybody. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace has done more than his share in ensuring his area benefits at local level.

Construction of the Blackpool by-pass was held up for many years during the planning stage and then by the refusal of successive Governments to allocate money to it. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace who pushed to ensure Cork received some benefits. The benefit of that by-pass to the north side of Cork city, even though it is not yet completed, has been enormous. If local government is coming up with excellent development plans – and this is relevant to other cities and towns – why then are we not moving faster? Should block grants rather than individual ones be given?

I am involved in canvassing for the upcoming elections. I can well understand why people do not cycle while canvassing. I would not like to have to cycle around Cork city where the infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating. We, at local level, cannot say we have the money to improve that infrastructure or provide better facilities for the people generally. The same applies in the area of street cleansing and litter collection. We should lead by example. The Minister in his speech said local government is to be given more authority. There are many areas – the prevention of cruelty to animals and the provision of litter wardens – where we show by example.

There is a rapid deterioration of fine infrastructure in the older areas of our cities. We do not seem to be able to cope with its upkeep. I know that the Minister is very much aware of this. It applies throughout our cities and towns. It is very sad. How do we deal with it? How do we tell people they need to deal with this problem themselves. For far too long we at local government level have had to go to central Government for our money. The Minister in turn has to seek that money from his Cabinet colleague, a task I know he is well able to perform. More recognition should be given to local government. I could speak for a month on the ways which money should be provided.

Very little house construction was required in the 1987-1990 period but that money was not diversified into other areas at local government level. When I sit with councillors from all political walks of life to discuss what is best for our area we are unable to make definite decisions. The development plan for my area which commenced in 1979 was passed by the city council in 1978. That is only now coming to fruition with the opening of the tunnel next month by the Taoiseach. Those ideas did not come from central Government; they came from discussions, arguments and considerations at local level. Money had to be provided at central level and we did not receive the benefits of it. The Minister will also be aware that money was provided for a particular road project which, fortunately for me, was on the south side of the city. Money for the construction of the other side of the road, thanks to the Minister, was provided 12 months later. The Blackpool by-pass should have been constructed ten years ago. Is it possible that local authorities will be in position to spend the money as they want? There are those that say a certain amount of money is allocated so they can use it for their own benefit. I would like local government policies to be agreed for a five year period and the local authorities should be allowed get on with their policies and spend the money as they see fit. They can be judged on their performance.

Local government officials or councillors can generally blame the Government if they do not have money for repairing or replacing roads or footpaths. If programmes are set out by local authorities for five years they should be allowed to get on with it and use the money that way. For example, does the benefit from the money spent on housing really go to the cities or towns? It does not. It is unfortunate that so much money, in relative terms, is spent on housing when we cannot build the infrastructure around it. We are putting the cart before the horse. I feel very strongly about this issue. If I had more time I would expand on it.

We should not be afraid to consider a yearly block grant allocation to councils. Who would act as watchdogs to ensure the money was being spent correctly? Members of the Oireachtas are elected to ensure this and they should have the responsibility to address local authorities when the money is allocated and the job is not being done properly. That would be authority at national level. Those elected by the people of a city or town would say whether the money is being spent correctly and whether questions should be asked at national level. I see nothing wrong with that. I know some councils may spend money but they will now be accountable every five years. None of them will be able to sit back for seven or eight years thinking that need not do anything for another five years. They are accountable and must get on with their programme. I am saying they must get on with their development plans.

The opportunities are enormous given we are amending the Constitution. For example, Cork city spends approximately £55 million to £65 mill ion on infrastructure and general spending. This does not include spending on capital grants, housing or roads etc. If the Minister gave £60 million and allowed Cork city to move on, he would be giving power to local authority members who must, at the same time, assume responsibility. If they do not assume responsibility, Oireachtas Members are watchdogs at national level. Senators, Ministers and Deputies are the watchdogs on behalf of the bodies granting the money.

Local authorities must be given an opportunity because there are very committed people at local government level. Ideas flow from these people. They could speak for ten minutes with two good lines, but those lines would be very good. The Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, knows what I am saying. There is no question about the commitment of the many people who contest local council elections again and again. They do not have to do it and it is certainly not worth it financially. However, that is not the point. The commitment of councillors from all walks of life to their local authority, be it an urban, city or county council, is enormous. They are very committed and they will do little wrong. That has been proved not only at council level in Cork city but also generally with a development plan relevant to the county council. We tied in other members, had joint meetings with county councils and ensured the money was spent correctly. It was spent very wisely on behalf of the region. There is an opportunity here to provide a block grant to each council to do what it feels is best for its area.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him on the job he is doing. I also compliment the Minister for the Environment and Local Government for his work in local government reform since he took office and for the changes he has already made, the changes he is about to make and for the way they have been handled. Everyone is getting a say in the reform and the Minister has considered all submissions. I welcome that.

I was amused to hear Senator Cregan mention the Minister's involvement in Blackpool, County Cork. Perhaps he could come to north Kerry and give some money to its infrastructure.

Mr. Cregan

The Senator is doing a "Jackie Healy-Rae".

He is in the south of the county. I am speaking about the northern part of the county. It shows what a little bit of power in the right spot can do.

I am delighted this legislation is before the House. It is historic as it arrives during the centenary of local government. I was astonished to discover local government and authorities could have been abolished by a Minister heretofore.

Mr. Cregan

One was abolished.

I have heard of local authorities being abolished or perhaps being taken over by a commissioner in the past when they could not strike their rate, but I did not realise the Minister had the power to abolish local authorities altogether. If we had known that, perhaps we would have made noise long before now. I am glad this legislation is being put on the Statute Book and we will have proper recognition in the Constitution for the rights of councillors.

Much has been said about local authorities and their work over the years. Local government is at the core of local democracy and it must get more power. For the past 20 years or more, powers at local authority level have been eroded and removed and it is high time they received proper recognition. I look forward to the new local government legislation which the Minister intends to introduce before the end of the year. I am sure it will be meaningful and there will be meat on the bones for those elected to local government so they can make proper decisions on funding and spending in local communities.

I compliment and congratulate councillors on work done over the past 100 years. I am sorry many older and senior councillors are retiring this year. I wish them well. I congratulate them for their work in local government. They worked through difficult times when there was a lack of finance. There was a lack of everything – the lack of planning has already been mentioned, there was a lack of policy and everything was done centrally.

Like other Senators, I will face the electorate in the local elections. We are in the front line and are taking the flak from people over the problems with which they are faced. Years ago when one contested local government elections there were numerous problems, including water, sanitary, housing, road and local group scheme problems. However, this has improved through financial arrangements over the years.

Before I emigrated, there was no running water in our village. We had to go to a well for it. Then pipes were laid, the work was done and we had running water on tap – we thought it was magic. That is the way things happened and it was not too long ago. I could say the same about the roads. I remember dirt roads and the first steamroller coming down the main street. I remember new sewerage systems being introduced. A lot of meaningful work has been done through local government and it is high time that is recognised.

I am pleased that meaningful funding is being made available to local authorities, particularly for roads infrastructure, and I compliment the Minister on putting this in place. However, extra funding is needed. I live in a rural area in Kerry, a county with approximately 2,500 miles of county roads. Rates support in the county is very weak and the local authority depends to a large extent on the 12 per cent of people who pay rates. However, we are doing the best we can. We have provided new sewage treatment plants and water schemes but much remains to be done. I am pleased that funding is being made available to enable us to continue with these schemes. We are drawing up priority lists so that the work can be carried out as soon as possible. A new five year programme has been put in place for the provision of a roads network in my area.

I am pleased that elections will not be postponed any longer and that the next election will take place in June 2004. If election candidates give commitments that work will be carried out within a three year or five year period and funding is not made available to fulfil these election promises, the electorate will say that we did not honour them. I appeal to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to provide extra funding for county roads in next year's programme. The money which was made available this year has been used to resurface roads. This did not happen for 30 or 40 years in some areas. Many people in these areas have never seen a steamroller and it is good to see this type of machinery in operation again.

Motor vehicle testing will be introduced next year. I would be in favour of this once the infrastructure is in place. I know of people whose cars are being damaged on a daily basis because of inadequate infrastructure. Roads in my area have not seen a spoon of tar in the last five or six years because the funding was not available. This year meaningful sums have been provided and work is being carried out on the ground. I compliment the local authorities on this.

The legislation incorporates many provisions, some of which are not obvious at first glance. Apart from giving constitutional authority to elected members, it will put local authorities on a very sound footing and make them accountable in the future. The legislation will enable community groups and SPCs to be brought on board. While many may have resented these people dictating the future of local authorities, their inclusion is important because many of them are community leaders in various walks of life. Their views, together with the views of local authority representatives and the county manager, can be taken into consideration and a programme for development put in place. This programme can be implemented once the funding is made available.

The new local government Bill will be watched with interest. I would like the Bill to give real teeth to local authority members. These candidates will be putting their names on ballot papers, going before the public and putting up with all the hassle. I am aware of the hassle Deputies endure regarding local services and so on, but county councillors, urban councillors and town councillors are first in the firing line. In the past local authorities did not get sufficient finances from central Government but they nevertheless introduced much meaningful legislation. Some years ago when water rates were abolished, Kerry County Council re-introduced them. It also introduced a sanitary service charge in order to get extra funding to built up the infrastructure. Now that we have a buoyant economy, the total infrastructure must be looked at. I would not like to see this confined to the big towns and cities. Under the Constitution, people living in rural Ireland are entitled to the same rights as those living in Dublin 4. People living in areas such as Lyrecrompane are entitled to proper services such as running water and sewerage services and a good roads infrastructure. Those in rural Ireland who are deprived of bus and train services need a car to get to and from work. They need a car to get to and from the shops because all the smaller stores are closing down and people must travel ten or 15 miles to supermarkets.

I welcome the Bill and I am pleased that the legislation is being enacted. I appeal to the electorate, and to the people of Kerry, to support the Government by voting yes because in the future elected local authority members will be made accountable. I compliment the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Dan Wallace and Bobby Molly, on the work they are doing to enhance the future of local government. I look forward to June 11.

I regret as a member of two local authorities that I am unable to share in the enthusiasm for the Bill. Perhaps the enthusiasm is a little deceptive because in a House where the majority of Members are members of local authorities, one would think that a proposal such as this would engender widespread support and a strong wish on the part of many to contribute to the debate. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The reason for this is that the amendment, by and large, is meaningless.

For the past couple of days I have been canvassing in the local elections in an area where there will be four ballot papers, should this provision be passed. It has proven impossible to explain the reason for the four ballot papers. Last night a woman asked me what difference this would make and I had to tell her it would make no difference. I think this demeans what could be a very powerful and important change to the Constitution. We have sought for a long time to achieve proper constitutional recognition of local government. However, this will not do so and in some respects it may make the lot of the individual citizen worse because it is providing that local government is whatever the law says it is and the law can do whatever it wants as regards local government. That is not a good way to amend the Constitution. Local government deserves better after 100 years. The Labour Party will oppose this legislation.

We have seen in recent years a greater awareness among citizens of the need to be vigilant and to examine, test and inquire about proposals put before them, particularly proposals to change the Constitution. The people value the Constitution. Some people were taken aback last year by the size of the vote against the Amsterdam Treaty. It was not that they were opposed to it but that they did not know what was in it. The lesson we should take from that referendum is that referendum proposals should be drafted with care following a consultation process. They should be debated openly and at length and then put before the people for an informed and educated decision.

This proposal does not meet that test. The Bill was published on 30 April, which is less than two weeks ago, and it was rushed through the Dáil yesterday and today. It is proposed to rush it through this House today and to bring it to the President tonight so it can be put to the people on 11 June. Although I support the idea of saving costs by holding this referendum with the local and European elections, it is a disservice and an insult to local government in its centenary year.

The Government has not presented this proposal in time, although it has been in office for two years. Despite the postponement of local elections to allow a local government Bill to be published, that has not happened. The people standing for election will be elected to something which will change in a short time. The Government has at the last minute published a Bill to amend the Constitution which is badly thought out and does not allow for proper debate. The people will be suspicious of something which has not been discussed in the media because it has only been published. Many people will either not take the ballot paper for the referendum on 11 June or they will take it and vote against it because they do not know what it means. That is regrettable because I am sure the people would be enthusiastic about the proposal if there were a proper debate on it.

Senator Dan Kiely said the Minister will not be able to dissolve councils. However, this proposal will not limit the Minister's powers to interfere in or dissolve councils or do anything he currently can do with local government. It imposes few, if any, limits on the power to chop and change by law the requirements for local government. It seems to be the opposite of a meaningful constitutional provision. Rather than outlining principles, it gives the green light for almost anything to be adopted by law. I hope a citizen who tests local government law in the courts will not be told that relief might have been given if this provision had not been enshrined in the Constitution. I would welcome the Minister's assurance that that will not be the case.

While I welcome the fact the Minister has listened to elements of the debate in the Dáil, particularly proposals by Deputy Gilmore, on the additional sections 4 and 5 of the proposed new Article, I regret he has not conceded one iota on the basic principles of this amendment, namely sections 1 and 2. What do sections 1 and 2 of Article 28A mean? How will they be interpreted? I compare them to other provisions in the Constitution where institutions are recognised. In Article 41.1 the State recognises the family. In Article 43.2.1º the State recognises the principle of social justice. It is nonsensical for the Consti tution to declare that the State recognises local government when local government is part of the State. This means the State is recognising a part of itself. This is like a person's head saying it recognises the arm. It is not extraneous to the State. Fundamental principles of local government and what it should do are not laid down. It is a meaningless provision.

If the Constitution was to state that the State recognises the principle of local democracy, for example, that would be meaningful, but not the phrase presented in this legislation. Recognition of the role of local government is being sought. What does that mean, particularly when it is clear from the text that the role, powers and functions of local government and, in Article 28A.2, the existence of local authorities which the Constitution will recognise are confined to those conferred by law? As the woman said to me last night, that is not much of a change. All that is being recognised by the Constitution is that which is provided for by law, which makes the proposed amendment superfluous.

The proposed wording does not set down any principles for local government, such as the principle of local democracy or the principle of subsidiarity. We heard much talk about subsidiarity when the Amsterdam Treaty was being negotiated. We were assured that powers would not be given to Brussels and that as many decisions as possible would be made at national and local level. If we fought as a country to have that included in the Amsterdam Treaty because we believed it was important, why do we not enshrine the same principle of subsidiarity in the Constitution as it relates to interaction between local and national government? This is a missed opportunity. Enshrining the principle of subsidiarity in the Constitution would give a strong recognition to the unique role and ability of local authorities. I regret the Government has not included it in this proposal.

The wording before us means the Constitution will be completely flexible as regards local government. Whatever local government legislation is enacted will be constitutional under this provision. A legislative measure to take away powers and functions from or weaken local government must be declared constitutional if this amendment is accepted on 11 June. Instead of strengthening local government, Article 28A 1 could probably be used to undermine local democracy and to weaken the constitutional rights of the citizen. Since whatever is prescribed in law is being given constitutional status, any local government law will now be constitutional. This will deny to the citizen the right to challenge on constitutional grounds any local government legislation.

I regret the Minister did not listen to the concerns expressed by Deputy Gilmore about numbering this Article. One might say that numbering is not important. However, Article 28A suggests an addendum to something else. It is making it clear how little force this provision has. Deputy Gilmore suggested a series of redrafting proposals which would allow this amendment to have its own place in the Constitution instead of being tagged on to something else.

This is the first time it has been sought to insert a provision outside the normal numbering system of the Constitution. It is a bad precedent to use A, B or C. The Free State Constitution was famously amended to insert an Article 2A. This change contributed to de Valera's description of that document as "a thing of shreds and patches". I hope the drafting of this amendment to the 1937 Constitution, which was adopted by the people and for which they still have a high regard, will not start a similar process of patchwork amendments, which will result in the same phrase being applied to it, outside an overall framework for reform which might be put before the people on foot of the deliberations of the committee on the Constitution. This is the people's document and there is no need under the Constitution to adopt the drafting provisions of the Finance Bill.

I regard this proposal and the proceedings today as a sorely missed opportunity. A commitment to enshrine constitutional protection and recognition for local government was given by Deputy Brendan Howlin, as Minister, in the previous Government, in the better local government proposals. These were taken on board by the current Government. Today's proposal does no justice to local government in its centenary year. I call on the Government to reconsider its position and to resubmit this proposal for further consideration to this House. Local authorities should be consulted on whatever amendment is to be put to the people to recognise local authority. In the absence of a commitment by the Government to that and to give meaningful constitutional recognition to local government, my colleagues and I will oppose the Bill.

Ba mhaith liom an Bille agus na leasuithe don Bhunreacht a mholadh. Ba mhaith liom chomh maith comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis mar Chomhairleoir i gCathair Chorcaí agus as an méid atá déanta aige ó ceapadh ina Aire Stáit é.

I support the Bill and the amendment to the Constitution. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, on the role he has played during the year. This has been reiterated by his Opposition colleague, Senator Cregan. I recognise the role all county councillors played. The Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, has made a major contribution to local government and has put legislation through both Houses, including the Litter Act to help clean up our county and country. That plus much more will always be to his credit.

I am sorry Senator Gallagher has left the House as I wish to point out that since 1980 the Labour Party has been in Government more than any other party in the House. I did not see any great change to the Constitution or local govern ment under a Government of which the Labour Party was a member. My party has been in Government about two years and day after day we are criticised for policies we did not introduce, policies we rush through the House and so on. While other parties did their best in Government they have to do a great deal to catch up with this Government.

I pay tribute to all county councillors and all local authorities, even though this was done as recently as two weeks ago on the centenary of local government. The contribution which local authorities and local authority members have made in the past 100 years is immense and has been almost totally voluntary. It was voluntary in the sense that they had to attend the launch of every water scheme etc. without monetary reward.

The Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Minister of State, Senator Dan Kiely and I would agree there are various organisations looking after the west which have major clout when it comes to developing their region. The west is being developed along the lines proposed by this group. We live in the most westerly point of Ireland and yet are not part of this organisation. Limerick, Kerry and Cork are excluded from this group which maintains it is looking after the west in all its development and infrastructure. It is about time west Limerick, Kerry and west Cork formed an organisation to highlight the inadequacies in these counties. I hope the Minister gets the message.

The roads the Minister traverses from Limerick to Kerry, Cork to Kerry, with the exception of Killarney to Macroom, are in need of major funding. The road which Senator Kiely travels from Limerick to Tralee is only a by-road in comparison with roads throughout the country. Cork, Kerry and Limerick are being left behind. It is time a group was formed, excluding politics, to begin shouting for our part of the country. Recently there was much hullabaloo about Objective One status. I maintain west Limerick, west Cork and parts of Kerry should be included for Objective One status.

I agree with the Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution, which is coming 100 years after the formation of local government. I agree with Senator Kiely on fixing local elections on a certain date. If we knew there would local elections in June 2004 we could work towards that date. I am aware of local authorities which got ready for elections about three times in the past couple of years.

My advice to the Minister of State is to keep up the good work. He is doing a mighty job.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He is diligent in his Department and does a great deal of good work. I wish him well. We could debate all day aspects of local government but we are meant to confine our remarks to the Bill before the House dealing with a referendum. It is no harm to add to the Constitution aspects which strengthen local government reform and local democracy. However, this will not be enough and the Minister will need other improvements and changes.

I have done a little canvassing for next month's elections and there is apathy among the public. Many people feel local authorities are performing well in some areas, but are not working in others and that even basic things are not done, for example, cleaning up litter. It appears this problem is not being attacked in the right manner and I am sure the Minister of State agrees there is room for improvement. We advocate the promotion and development of tourism in areas, but we will suffer if we fall down in relation to cleaning up and maintaining areas.

The crux of the issue is often finance. The inability of local authorities to raise finance themselves is a major problem and frustrates members. In the context of adopting estimates, much of the global budget which is provided is used to pay salaries and to fund other areas. The authority is then faced with having to decide whether to impose, against its wishes, extra charges for water and sewerage services. To avoid this, soft targets are chosen, such as cutbacks in the library and book allowances.

The development of libraries in recent years has been a success. There have been many changes since the time libraries only had papers, manuals and a few books. They are now a focal point for learning with computers, word processors, e-mail, videos, tapes and language learning materials. Libraries are now a fund of information. Whatever reforms take place, if sanction has been given for the provision of books or other facilities for libraries, it should not be possible for this to be reduced easily to provide funds for other areas. Ward schemes operated in Dún Laoghaire where sums from £10,000 to £30,000 were provided for small projects in local areas, such as cleaning up an eyesore or improving facilities in a park. The ward schemes worked well but it has not been possible to provide funds for them in recent years.

It is fine to pass legislation in the House and to put the matter before the people in a referendum. I am sure it will be passed, although I doubt people will rush to us on the doorsteps to find out about it. From the response I have encountered to date, people are concerned about their local areas but they feel that certain events are not relevant and that local authorities are not delivering in particular areas. Councillors are the buffer zone at times between officials and the public and there is room for greater accountability and a more consumer friendly atmosphere. If a member of the public goes to the local authority seeking information or trying to have something done in the area, he or she should be treated as a paying consumer. There is room for great improvement.

Part 5 provides that casual vacancies in the membership of local authorities referred to in section 2 of the Article shall be filled in accord ance with law. Does this refer to by-elections or the system of co-option? This system, which has worked well in most counties, operates on the basis that the party or group to which an elected person, who must be replaced due to death, retirement or appointment as a Minister, belonged fills the vacancy. What is envisaged in that regard? I ask the Minister of State to outline the position in his reply. As Senators Dan Kiely, Cregan and Tom Fitzgerald are aware, in most counties the party fills the vacancy. There may be some justification for that, although I am not sure whether it should extend to by-elections. A council term is to be for five years and the co-option system has worked in most counties, although it has broken down in some areas. Perhaps the Minister of State could refer to this matter in his reply.

Will extra briefing be provided in relation to the measure? There have been problems in the past regarding the cases for and against a proposal. I am sure this referendum will be passed but people are more interested in the legislation which will be introduced in relation to finance and making local government more relevant. SPCs have been established but to date they have not been entirely successful. People have been brought in from outside but the discussions have been fairly theoretical and general. At times, there is nothing better than sitting down with the relevant officials of a department and discussing a problem and, hopefully, action follows.

I also pay tribute to the many people who have served on local authorities. It is some time since the last elections but county, borough and urban district councillors and town commissioners each play a part. They do much unsung work. Representatives are disturbed at all hours of the day and night and the lives of their families are also interrupted. I wish all those who are retiring health and happiness and I hope all of us who are in the fray will be re-elected. I thank the Minister of State and ask him to outline whether further legislation is in the pipeline in relation to funding and other matters and whether other changes will be made.

I thank Senators for their contributions which covered a wide range of topics. I doubt I will have time to reply comprehensively to all the points raised and I apologise for that. However, many of the topics are relevant to the Local Government Bill so beidh lá eile againn for a more in-depth debate. I emphasise that the purpose of this amendment is to recognise the principle of local government, to fix the maximum interval between local elections and to recognise the franchise for local elections. This gives effect to the recommendation of the all-party committee on the Constitution which considered the form any amendment might take.

I am glad to introduce the Bill which is the outcome of a lengthy process. The Bill's origins relate to the Barrington report in 1991 which recommended that constitutional recognition be accorded to local government. This recommendation was endorsed by the previous Government in its White Paper on Local Government, in various reports and by different commentators over the years, as I outlined in my speech. It is especially pleasing and fitting that in local election year the electorate will have the opportunity to ensure that local elections are no longer postponed indefinitely. I was pleased to note the broad range of support for this proposal. It is a positive development for local government and will help to underscore the many reforms taking place.

Another noteworthy aspect of the proposed constitutional amendment is the reference to the promotion of the interests of local communities by local government initiatives. These few short words belie their significance. The days when local authorities had to operate within the straitjacket of the ultra vires rule are gone for almost a decade. Section 6 of the Local Government Act, 1991, conferred a general competence on local authorities to act in the interests of the local communities and this constitutional amendment copperfastens this role of local government. I hope the outcome of this amendment, with the implementation of the renewal programme currently under way, will be to boost local authorities as a catalyst of local energy and initiative and as a facilitator and supporter of the combined efforts of individuals and groups within the community. That is the ethos behind the current initiatives to bring local government and local development closer together and for local government to regain a central role at local level in bringing together the various players to promote the development of local areas and communities.

Senator Cregan referred to the age old problem of funding and we are making progress in that regard. The new local authority funding system, which came into operation last January, has a pivotal role to play in promoting accountable and cost-effective local democracy. The new system will deliver significant additional resources to local authorities. Moneys from the fund will, as far as possible, be made available to local authorities as general grants over which they have complete discretion as to their use. It will, therefore, be largely a matter for the authorities to decide on how this extra money is to be spent and they will be accountable for their decisions to their local electorate. Hand in hand with the provision of extra resources, I am also ensuring that local authorities get the best possible use from these resources by means of a heightened emphasis on value for money. Local authorities will be required to show that they are obtaining value from the money spent.

The renewal programme for local government is also being boosted in a practical way. Capital investment in roads, water supply, sewerage treatment and social housing, which are the cornerstones of economic and social development, will increase by over £176 million this year compared to last year.

Senator Dan Kiely referred to county roads and 1999 will be another record year for funding of non-national roads. Over £242 million will be available by way of grants for non-national roads, an increase of almost 19 per cent on the initial funding in 1998, which was itself also a record year. We are committed to maintaining the programme. This means further substantial progress will be made in the coming year in restoring and maintaining the network of non-national roads. In particular, the restoration programme, which is designed to restore all regional and local roads in county council areas, will be fully funded as promised by the Government. This programme is on target for completion in 2005. Significant work has already been carried out and restored stretches of road can now be seen the length and breadth of the country.

Senator Gallagher is of the view that the amendment makes no difference. The last county council elections were held eight years ago in 1991 and a gap of nine years applied at one point in the past. This cannot happen again. The people will decide that the next elections will be held in 2004 and that they can no longer be postponed.

Section 1 of the proposed Article 28A sets out the essence of local government and gives general recognition to local government in its various roles. This is in line with Article 2 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which states:

The principle of local self-government shall be recognised in domestic legislation, and where practicable in the constitution.

It is also in line with the report of the all-party committee on the Constitution which recommended that a new article should be inserted in the Constitution providing general recognition of local government. Presumably this was agreed by the Labour Party members of that committee.

Section 1 recognises three roles of local government. The first is the provision of a forum for democratic representation at local level. This derives from the fact that local authority members are elected by direct vote of the people. It is also reflected in section 5 of the Local Government Act, 1991, which recognises the representational role of local authorities.

Second, the role of local government in exercising functions conferred by law is also recognised. A wide body of law confers an extensive range of functions on local authorities. Planning, water and waste water services, fire services, water pollution, library facilities, litter, housing, roads, traffic management, higher education grants, environmental protection and motor tax are all the subject of statutory codes within which local authorities play a major role.

The third role recognised is the promotion of the community interest through local government initiatives. This reflects the broad powers of initiative conferred on local authorities by the Local Government Act, 1991, which was a move away from the straitjacket of the ultra vires doctrine which previously applied.

Section 2 provides that local authorities are established by and operate subject to law. This affords protection to all citizens in their dealings with local government. It also ensures that local authorities are constitutionally recognised and by virtue of the imperative nature of the wording of this section –"There shall be such directly elected local authorities"– it ensures they must remain as part of our democratic system. Such wording replicates that used in other Articles of the Constitution relating to institutions of State – the President in Article 12.1, the Government in Article 28, the Attorney General in Article 30, the Council of State in Article 31 and the Comptroller and Auditor General in Article 33. The reference in section 2 to "subject to the provisions of this Constitution" is to Article 12.4.2.ii, which allows county and city local authorities to nominate a candidate for the Presidency.

Section 3 provides for periodic local elections. Elections must be held no later than the end of the fifth year after the year in which they were previously held. This will mean the next local elections after this year must be held no later than the year 2004 and it is no longer possible by law to extend this period. Over the years frequent and sometimes lengthy deferrals of local elections have served to devalue local government but this will no longer be possible. Section 3 guarantees this.

The Local Government Act, 1994, specifies that local elections must be held in the month of June. The question of the months to which local elections might be restricted will arise for discussion when the local government Bill, now being prepared, comes before the House later this year. There may well be a case for widening the timeframe within which local elections must be held to include an additional month or two, for instance, to May or June. Under EU law, the European elections are held within a three day period in June. There have been suggestions in the European Parliament that the European elections should be fixed in May. If an exact five year interval were to be fixed in the Constitution, local elections held in early June could not be followed by subsequent local elections held in mid or late June.

For these reasons section 3 of Article 28A does not rigidly fix an exact five year period but allows for elections to be held no later than the end of the fifth year. This would allow some limited flexibility should the need ever arise. For example, at some time in the future the Oireachtas could decide to bring the date of the elections forward to coincide with European elections in May or move it backwards to coincide with other elections or to take account of some other unforeseen event or national catastrophe. This could only be done by an Act of the Oireachtas.

The net point is that it is no longer possible to postpone elections to beyond the end of the fifth year. The forthcoming local government Bill will provide ample opportunity for consideration of restrictions that might be applied to any time frame within the fifth year. The current restriction is to the month of June. Indeed the Oireachtas would be free at some future date to fix the intervals between local elections at shorter periods because Article 28A merely specifies a maximum interval. By way of comparison, the Constitution currently fixes the term of Dáil Éireann at a maximum of seven years but allows, under Article 16.5, for a shorter period to be fixed by law.

A number of Senators alleged that we are being unduly hasty in respect of the proposed referendum. I wish to make a number of points. The matter was considered in great detail by the Review Group on the Constitution whose report was published in 1996 and copies of which have been available to all Deputies and Senators. Constitutional recognition was also considered by the all-party committee on the Constitution and its first progress report published in April 1997 set out a proposed text. Members of this House were represented on that committee. It is difficult, therefore, to see how the issue can now be considered in terms of its being a thunderbolt from the blue.

The next point is that local elections are being held in June. What more appropriate occasion could there be on which to hold a referendum to accord constitutional recognition on local government? That point is further reinforced by the fact that this is the centenary year of our local government system. Local elections were first held in 1899 and surely now is a most appropriate time to hold the referendum.

If the referendum were not held in June, when would it be held? Apart from the cost implications, which are minimised by holding it in conjunction with local and European elections, no Government in recent years has undertaken to hold a one-off referendum on this issue. Clearly now is the obvious time to deal with the matter in conjunction with the June elections. I make no apologies, therefore, for bringing the Bill before the House.

I refer to Senator Gallagher's point about people not knowing what the constitutional amendment entails. A referendum commission has been established which will explain the amendment to the public as simply and effectively as possible.

Senator Cosgrave referred to libraries. Additional funding is being made available to libraries this year and special allocations were recently made for book stocks. We are moving towards a multi-annual budget for libraries which will allow local authorities to plan properly for the future.

Casual vacancies on local authorities are filled by co-option. This is a matter for the members of the local authority concerned. The most recent law on this matter is section 11 of the Local Government Act, 1994. A minimum period of 14 days must elapse between the occurrence of a vacancy and its filling and a minimum of three clear days notice must be given to each member of the authority of a proposed co-option. A person may not be proposed for co-option without his or her prior written consent.

The provisions on casual vacancies are among those which will be incorporated in the forthcoming local government Bill. The practice in most local authorities has been that the co-optee is a person proposed by the party whose member occasioned the casual vacancy. Placing this practice on a statutory footing is being considered in the context of the Bill. In the case of non-party members it is more difficult to fill vacancies and this matter is also being examined.

Co-option is considered a more realistic alternative to holding by-elections. With over 1,600 local authority members, there would be frequent by-elections which would have cost and organisational implications and would lead to the likelihood of election fatigue on the part of voters. However, the Constitution would not rule out the Oireachtas considering the holding of by-elections in the future. The question of casual vacancies is among the issues which will be fall to be considered by the House when the local government Bill comes before it later in the year.

Cuireadh an cheist.

Question put.

Bohan, Eddie.Callanan, Peter.Cregan, JohnDardis, John.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Liam.Fitzgerald, Tom.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.Gibbons, Jim.Keogh, Helen.

Kett, Tony.Kiely, Daniel.Kiely, Rory.Lanigan, Mick.Lydon, Don.Mooney, Paschal.Moylan, Pat.Ormonde, Ann.Quill, Máirín.

Níl

Costello, Joe.Gallagher, Pat.Henry, Mary.Norris, David.

O'Toole, Joe.Ross, Shane.Ryan, Brendan.

Tellers: Tá, Senators T. Fitzgerald and Keogh; Níl, Senators Gallagher and Henry.
Faisnéiseadh go rabhthas tar éis glacadh leis an gceist.
Question declared carried.

When it is proposed to take Committee Stage?

Now.

Agreed to take Committee Stage today.