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.