I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Dara Murphy.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. In putting this Commencement matter to the Minister of State I wish to emphasise - the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has acknowledged this - the terrible persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa by Boko Haram, Daesh and various other bodies. There is a growing awareness that this is a systematic killing of minorities such as Yazidis and Christians and Coptic Christians in the case of Libya. There is a need for the international community to do more than it is doing. Rhetoric is fine, but it must be backed by more concrete action which will I hope, in the first instance, make the perpetrators of these atrocities begin to think they will be held accountable. Many politicians in the United States and Britain have been calling for this to be recognised for what it is - genocide.
The Minister of State might be aware that shortly before Christmas a group of 75 British politicians sent a letter to the Prime Minister to express their concern about the genocide being perpetrated by Daesh against various communities, including Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable groups. They pointed out that there was clear evidence that genocide was occurring, including the assassination of church leaders, which we have seen, mass murders, torture, kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, sexual enslavement, which is very common, the systematic rape of Christian girls and women, forcible conversion to Islam, destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries and Christian artefacts, and the theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity. Daesh has made statements taking credit for the mass murder of Christians; therefore, it is not as if these things are happening unknown to the world. Daesh has made these statements through the media.
One incident is an example of what is happening. Last December Daesh tortured a young child with two other Christians and crucified them to death. In an attempt to force the child's father to convert to Islam from Christianity the boy's fingertips were cut off. The bodies were left hanging on crosses for two days under signs reading "infidels". That is a clear indication that what is happening is tantamount to genocide. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide makes it clear that genocide is not simply the random killing of individuals but the systematic killing or serious harming of people because they are part of a recognisable group which may be national, ethnic, racial or religious. The convention identifies it as acts committed with the intent to destroy the group in whole or in part.
The purpose of this Commencement matter is to call on the Minister and the Government to use all the influence at their disposal, at both the United Nations and the European Union, to obtain an agreement that the word "genocide" be used. That will have two main benefits. It will send a clear message to those who are organising and undertaking the slaughter that at some point in the future they will be held accountable for their actions by the international community and that they will be caught, tried and punished. It will also act as an incentive and encouragement to the other 127 nations that are signatories to the convention to face up to their duty of responsibility in this regard. It will be a sad reflection on Europe which has a strong Judeo-Christian tradition if it fails when our Christian brethren are being slaughtered to such an extent across the Middle East and parts of north Africa. The time has come for governments and Ministers to step up on this issue. I hope ideological groups within the public service in the European Union and the United Nations will not thwart this because of their antipathy to some Christian religions. It would be a sad day if that were to happen.
This is an appalling episode in our midst. I hope the Minister of State will give a strong reply and that the Government will deny some of the reports that it is reluctant to classify it as genocide.
I thank the Senator for his concern and the efforts he has made consistently to highlight the plight of the Christian minority in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The Government is in no doubt that Christian communities in many parts of the Middle East, especially in areas facing the rise of extremist groups such as Daesh, have been the victims, as the Senator said, of appalling crimes, including murder, sexual violence, enslavement and forced conversions. The Government has repeatedly condemned crimes that have been committed against many religious minority communities, including Christians.
In 2014, as I am sure the Senator is aware, Ireland, in conjunction with 57 other states, sponsored a resolution calling for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Unfortunately, the resolution was vetoed by two permanent members of the Security Council - China and Russia.
In recent years Ireland has provided over €43 million in humanitarian support for the victims of the Syrian and Iraqi crises and will make a further significant contribution at the forthcoming London conference on the Syrian crisis. The conference takes place in two weeks time. We have also accepted over 200 refugees from the Syrian conflict through our resettlement programme and, together with the United Nations, have also volunteered to take in, as the Senator will be aware, a further 4,000.
In line with international law on refugees, we do not discriminate between refugees on the basis of their ethnicity or religion. Furthermore, we do not believe the solution to persecution is to remove Christian communities from the Middle East, as this would effectively mark the destruction of Christian heritage at the very place of its birth. The only means of securing the protection of Christian communities and other minorities across the Middle East is through the promotion of sustainable political solutions to the conflicts which have for so long destabilised the region and have been the key factor in the promotion of radical and extremist ideologies. Ireland has been a key supporter of the United Nations' efforts to achieve an end to the conflict in Syria and Libya and for a unified Iraq free from the threat of Daesh crimes.
The Government has no doubt that horrific atrocities amounting to grave war crimes have been committed in the Middle East, including, as the Senator noted, those that have deliberately targeted Christian communities. The crime of genocide is, however, specific and unique. In order to not to undermine the status of this crime or weaken its definitional elements, very careful consideration is required before making a determination that genocide has been committed. This should include an assessment of the evidence supporting such claims. Ireland fully endorses the views of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that, subject to a determination by an independent and competent court, ISIS may have committed war crimes against humanity and genocide.
I note that the largest number of victims of jihadist terrorists and terrorism attacks have, in fact, been Muslims whom Daesh and other terrorist groups have murdered for their lack of religious observance, homosexuality or commission of petty crimes. As the Senator is aware, Ireland's capacity to obtain direct information from the areas in which the crimes are taking place is limited. It is considered appropriate, therefore, that the matter be properly investigated by an independent and competent court or tribunal. It is a determination resulting from such an investigatory and adjudicative process that is likely to assist in bringing these crimes to an end. It is for this reason that Ireland has, for example, called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, the role of which in the investigation and prosecution of international crimes we have consistently supported.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. He dealt with the issue of genocide which, as he went on, I thought he would not. We need to be careful. There are radical ideological groups within the United Nations, in particular. It is not an organisation that is as kosher as it would like to pretend. If our blood brothers and sisters were being taken, raped, forced to convert and forced into sexual slavery and if elderly people were being killed, we would cry out to the high heavens about it. These people are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, our concern should be equally strong.
There is evidence of genocide in all of the reports that have been published. The killing of Coptic Christians in Libya and what has happened in Syria have been put on video. It is pretty clear that there is an attempt to wipe out the Christian community. I have views about whether we should be selective about immigrants, but that is a separate issue.
I agree with the Minister of State. It is important that we not do not denude the Middle East of its Christian community. The Patriarch of Antioch has made a statement in that regard and appealed to Christians to remain there. I urge the Minister of State to ensure the Government takes a much stronger position than it has in this regard and press for the latter to be defined. Most objective people agree that what has happened is tantamount to genocide. The definition may have to be met, but it should not be allowed to be blocked by one or two countries.
As I said, the Government believes that to date the United Nations and the Security Council, in particular, have not fulfilled their obligations to uphold the UN charter or international law in Syria. As the Senator said, genocide is defined under international law as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, radical or religious group. However, proving the crime of genocide requires a comprehensive investigation of the evidence and having that established by a competent international court. We, with other members, have been strong on this issue and believe that, ultimately, this proof from a competent court will provide what we all want to see, namely, an end to the terrible violence, not just against Christians but also against Muslims and others.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. I am disappointed that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, is not present. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State in saying that and I am aware that the Minister is currently speaking in the Dáil, perhaps on the same matter.
I have tabled this matter because there is a great deal of concern in the agriculture industry, especially among farmers, who are the primary producers, about the proposed takeover of Slaney Meats by ABP Food Group. Such a development would place the latter in a dominant position in the market and that could be to the detriment of farmers. The matter I have tabled asks the Minister whether he belives it would have a positive or negative effect on the future of agriculture and whether he will make a submission to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. The commission has been in correspondence with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which I am a member, on this matter. It has stated it cannot make a comment until the takeover goes ahead. I am concerned about the timing of the takeover. If it takes place within the next couple of weeks, during a general election, no Oireachtas committee will be able to deal with it. The current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be operating in an acting capacity. The takeover may, therefore, proceed without due scrutiny.
In the past couple of years there have been many problems in the beef industry. Rules on full beef, steer beef, specs and weights were imposed by factories and retailers and they worked to the detriment of the farming community. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine had to intervene in the beef sector at different stages because it was in crisis. He established the beef forum - whether it is working is another question, but at least it was established and is trying to solve our problems in the beef industry.
The beef and sheep sectors, including the export of live cattle and meat, employ nearly 280,000 people. It is important that these sectors have the support of the Minister and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission in order that something like this will not happen. If the ABP group takes over Slaney Meats, it will have 29% of the beef kill, 40% of the lamb kill and 50% of rendering plants in the country. A big problem on the previous occasion was the rendering plants because rendering is a by-process which must be undertaken. If the ABP group has 50% of plants, it could lead to a lack of competition.
Following the past year, the price gap between our beef and beef produced in Britain is now €293 per head. It was €97 per head on average in the past ten years. This is because the factories and the retailers have now applied specifications that live Irish exports cannot be killed and put on the shelves in Britain as British beef. That is why it is important that the Minister intervene to sort out the problem with Northern Ireland. We have a big problem in that our beef cannot be sent across the Border to Northern Ireland to be slaughtered and achieve the Red Tractor standard.
The reason I have raised this matter is that I am worried this will have a detrimental effect. I note that the Minister is dealing with it in the Dáil and I am interested to hear his reply. The takeover could be timed to occur when this House, the Dáil and the Oireachtas joint committee are at their least effective. It is important that we keep an eye on it and that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission intervene to ensure the agriculture sector is not ignored. Livelihoods are at stake if this goes ahead and is not dealt with properly.
I am interested to hear the Minister of State's reply. I know that he will pass on what I have said to the Minister who, I suppose, will also be able to see it in the Official Report. I note that the Minister is dealing with it.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It shows that the Senator's ear is to the ground because in my constituency in County Donegal it is very much a concern in the farming community, not only regarding the proposed takeover, but in general regarding the price of beef in the factories. When the Senator's colleague, Senator Michael Comiskey, and I meet, we talk about that significant challenge in relation to price.
The Minister apologises that he cannot be here. Not alone will this be included in the Official Report, but the Minister and the officials will also be listening to the Senator's contribution.
On the proposed takeover, an issue raised by the Senator, there is a well established independent regulatory process involved in the assessment of such takeovers. This is to ensure consumers, other businesses or the agriculture sector in Ireland does not suffer or that the proposed takeover will not lead to a reduction in competition in any individual sector. As the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has stated, neither he nor any other Minister has any function in the process of assessing company mergers in Ireland.
The State, through the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, has an existing and well established infrastructure for the assessment of mergers and acquisitions of business organisations generally. As part of this assessment, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission examines any proposed merger or acquisition involving business organisations to ensure there will be no substantial lessening of competition. However, in situations where a proposed merger or acquisition breaches certain thresholds, the matter must be notified directly to the European Commission. In such situations, my understanding is that the Commission may investigate the takeover or refer the matter back to the Irish authorities, depending on the circumstances. As part of this process, the investigation of the proposed takeover will involve either a one or two stage investigation by the relevant authorities. At the end of the process, a number of outcomes are possible, including that the authorities may unconditionally clear the merger, approve the merger subject to remedies or prohibit the merger if no adequate remedies to the competition concerns have been proposed by the merging parties.
The structure of the beef processing sector has been the subject of much discussion during the years and one of the recurring themes has been the question of rationalisation in the processing industry to improve its efficiency. However, it is clear that any such rationalisation must avoid distorting competition within the sector. That is why the process of examining the proposed takeover is of utmost importance. The process of investigation by the relevant authorities is detailed and robust. Furthermore, the process is transparent, with, if the matter is notified to the European Commission, details of any new notification being published on the Commission's competition website. This will allow any interested party to contact the Commission and submit comments on the merger. There are also timelines laid down for the completion of the different stages of the investigation to ensure it is completed in as timely a manner as possible for the sake of all parties.
The Minister is very conscious of the need for competition in the beef sector, as well as other sectors in Ireland. I also emphasise that in addition to the number of meat processors, competition in the marketplace is dependent on a number of factors, including the number of markets available for sellers of Irish beef to place their product on and, of course, as the Senator said, a vibrant live export trade. Live exports are an important means of providing alternative market outlets for cattle farmers in Ireland, thereby increasing the level of competition surrounding the purchasing of cattle. While 2015 was challenging in terms of live exports due to, for example, political difficulties in north Africa and new veterinary requirements regarding IBR in Belgium, it should be noted that increased domestic prices also contributed to a reduction in live exports for the year to 180,000 head, down on the figure in 2014. It is expected that 2016 will see an increase in the export of live cattle due to the improving economic situation in other countries such as Italy and Spain which have traditionally provided an outlet for the export of Irish cattle. Additionally, there are three dedicated and three roll-on-roll off vessels approved for the carriage of livestock by sea from Irish ports and three more vessels are currently at various stages of the process for similar approval.
On a more general note and entirely independent of the proposed merger, it is widely accepted that there are imbalances in the relative power of primary producers compared to other operators along the supply chain. With this in mind, the Minister is finalising regulations for the recognition of producer groups in the beef sector in order to permit farmers to benefit from the advantage of scale when it comes to selling their produce or purchasing inputs. I am sure this proposal had its genesis within the beef discussion group which the Senator mentioned.
It is in the interests of all stakeholders in the beef industry that there be healthy competition at all stages of production to ensure the future of Irish agriculture is positive, one which will allow the industry and the beef sector to continue to grow in a sustainable manner. I am satisfied that the regulatory process for the assessment of mergers are in place and will ensure a thorough and independent assessment of the impact of the proposed takeover, having regard to the requirements of competition law.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minister of State has mentioned that live exports are down this year, which is not a good development, and predicts that they will be up next year. One must bear in mind that over 50% of the live exports from this country are female dairy exports which does not help the beef sector, for example, steers, because that is what one needs to get out. I encourage the Minister and other Departments, for example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to continue to liaise with countries such as Turkey and Libya in order that we can try to export live cattle because it is important that there be competition in the market.
The Minister of State has said mergers go through the relevant bodies such as the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and also the European Commission, but it is important that the Minister give a lead because he represents the primary producer. He is not here to represent the meat factories or those involved in the meat industry. He is here to represent over 140,000 farmers, 100,000 of whom are involved in beef production. It is important that whoever is the Minister in the next Government, whether it be the Minister or someone else, make a submission to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Commission. If someone has the weight of a Minister behind him or her, it adds credence to the worries of people. It is important no matter what. Regardless of whether the Minister thinks he can, it is important that he do so because the weight of a Minister on such a submission will help to ensure farmers are not ripped off by somebody with a dominant share of the market.
Before I conclude, I forgot to welcome Mr. John Bambrick, chairman of Kilkenny IFA.
I thank him for coming to the House to listen to this debate. He is a former neighbour of mine. We used to live on the same road until he got a bit richer and moved on. He is very welcome.
It is good that the Senator is raising this matter, particularly as he is articulating grave concerns. There was a lobbying session organised by the IFA a couple of weeks ago and the matter is very much on its radar. The Minister cannot refer anything to the Commission until the merger happens. Prior to it taking place, the Senator is raising the matter publicly, creating awareness and notifying the Minister. There is a robust process to go through if there are concerns. It is obviously that the Senator has concerns at this early stage. If the merger were to happen, there are mechanisms in place, through both the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the European Commission. That is a mechanism that is open to the Minister. It is important that the matter be raised. Every farmer who is involved in the beef industry has grave concerns about it. They are articulating them and the Senator has added value by raising the issue publicly.
Housing Adaptation Grant
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.
I also welcome the Minister of State. The issue I am raising relates to the allocation of funding to local authorities for house adaptation work. One local authority with which I am dealing was allocated something in the region of €1.9 million last year and that money was allocated to people who owned their own houses to complete adaptation work on them. The same local authority received only €560,000 for carrying out adaptation work on local authority houses. I am raising this issue because there is a huge backlog in the adaptation work required in local authority houses. One case with which I am dealing involves a family where the child has serious intellectual and physical disabilities. In July 2008 the family was advised that the house needed to be adapted because the child had to be lifted out of bed every morning, washed and tube fed. There is a great deal of work involved. The house in which the family lives is not adequate for idts needs. In fairness, after seven and a half years and as a result of pressure from me which the media highlighted the local authority has responded and the work is now being done. However, seven and a half years is a significant period to wait for work to be done. There is a now a waiting list with Cork City Council of between seven and eight years for adaptation work to be done on local authority houses. I am asking that for this year - I am not asking for every year, just this year - local authorities be entitled to use the money allocated to them in whatever way they can in order to reduce the waiting time to have adaptation work done on local authority houses. It is in that context that I am raising this matter. Local authorities need to deal with the backlog. The only way this can be done is by giving priority to local authority housing for one year.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I know that it is an extremely important issue, particularly for the people on the lists who are waiting for work to be done to their homes in order that they can alleviate the impact of some of the situations to which the Senator referred.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government provides funding for local authorities under housing adaptation grants for older people and people with disabilities in respect of private homes and, separately, funds adaptations and extensions to social housing stock in order to address serious overcrowding and, in certain cases, meet the needs of tenants with a disability. The suite of grants available to private homeowners is 80% funded by the Department, with a 20% contribution from the resources of each local authority. Three distinct grant types are available. The housing adaptation grant for people with disabilities assists those with a disability to have necessary adaptations, repairs or improvement works carried out in order to make their accommodation more suitable for their needs. The mobility aids grant is available to fast-track funding to cover a basic suite of works to address the mobility problems of a member of a household. Qualifying works include the provision of stair lifts, level access showers, access ramps, grab rails and other minor adaptation works. The housing aid for older people provides grants to assist older people living in poor housing conditions to have necessary repairs or improvements carried out.
Grant-eligible works include structural repairs or improvements, rewiring, repairs to or replacement of windows and doors, provision of water supply and sanitary facilities, provision of heating, cleaning, painting, etc. Over 7,600 households benefited under the schemes in 2015. It is expected that approximately 8,500 grants will be provided in 2016, which will assist with adaptation works to enable older people and those with disabilities to remain living independently in their own homes for longer. In 2015, €40.4 million in Exchequer support was made available countrywide for these supports and this figure has been increased by 10% for 2016. At local level, the detailed administration of these schemes, including the assessment, approval and payment of individual grants to applicants, is the responsibility of the relevant local authority.
Separately, my Department provides a range of supports for local authorities to upgrade, maintain and adapt social housing to meet tenants’ needs. This includes works to improve energy efficiency, provide extensions to deal with overcrowding and facilitate adaptations for people with disabilities. As funding to local authorities for adaptations to social housing is part of a broader range of improvement funding for the authorities' own stock, it is budgeted for separately from the funding provided for private houses. Adaptations to council houses are funded to the value of 90% by the Department, with local authorities providing the remaining 10%. The implementation of works under these supports for local authority tenants is a matter for the authorities themselves. It is for them to determine, in the first instance, if the works are needed in order to make the accommodation more suitable for the tenant and to prioritise the use of available resources. In recent years, a concerted effort has been made to protect expenditure in respect of extensions and adaptations to local authority homes. In 2015, funding nationally for this area was approximately €11 million and it is expected that the funding for 2016 will at least be maintained at this level.
While local authorities do not have the discretion to reassign funding intended for private house grants to grants for the improvement of local authority stock or vice versa, my Department is responsive to the needs of individual local authorities in respect of the two separate schemes. Local authorities are asked to submit details of the works proposed under both schemes, including identifying priority cases. Where, for example, a local authority has less need for one stream of funding over another, a rebalancing of the budgets will be provided in line with the overall national availability of funding. My Department is very much aware of the social benefit accruing from these schemes in terms of facilitating the continued independent occupancy of their own homes by older people and those with disabilities and also in the facilitation of early return from hospital stays. The Department will, therefore, continue to work constructively with local authorities to meet priority needs for adaptations, whether to private houses or the local authority housing stock.
The answer is what I expected, but the problem is that Cork city and county councils have waiting lists of seven years duration for adaptation works. The reply I have received is not going to do anything about this.
For instance, in two cases the family has gone to the Ombudsman for Children. I have one family which has been waiting more than six years. The child has Canavan disease which is related to cystic fibrosis. The parent has to lift the child up and down the stairs every day to go to the bathroom because there is no downstairs bathroom. The child is now seven years old. It is more difficult every day to lift the child because the child is getting bigger. I have a number of other such cases. That case has been referred to the ombudsman's office which is dealing with the local authority directly.
There is another problem with house adaption work in that no rating is given to the seriousness of the disability. Once someone is deemed to require adaption work to his or her house, he or she is just a number on a list and there is no priority list whereby, for example, the most serious case is five and the least serious, one. That is another issue with which local authorities must deal.
I have people waiting seven years with Cork City Council and the response I have received has done nothing to help me to solve their problems. The solution I have come up with is to deal with this backlog over one year to make serious inroads. This suggestion should be taken on board.
I understand there are complexities and acknowledge the level of priority about which the Senator is talking. If he will forward the list of the most urgent cases with which he is dealing, I will undertake to bring them to the Minister's attention to see if we can examine them in that way. Now that the Department is aware of the position in Cork, I will undertake to look into the matter to see if we can move on that list and see what needs to be done.
That is appreciated. I thank the Minister of State.
Local Government Reform
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask the Minister of State to outline the current position on the promised review of the 2014 local authority boundaries, workload and ancillary matters. The reform of local government in 2014 which resulted in the abolition of town councils and the creation of municipal districts was a sea change in local government. In retrospect, many people have come to the conclusion that some of the changes have had a negative impact. In particular, there is a growing view that local government structures at town and community level must be reviewed again. I am sure many municipal districts are working effectively, but some of them are large. For example, a number in County Cork are 18 miles long. Once a municipal district is of that scale, the word "local" is removed from the concept of local government and local democracy. We are more than three years away from the next local government elections. Unfortunately, these elections are held on a fixed five-year basis, but we have time to plan ahead.
In the immediate aftermath of the changes, a number of senior Ministers and Ministers of State, led by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, stated they felt a review was required and consideration should be given to a town council structure, in particular. If there is a willingness to do this, we must look beyond the traditional town councils. Many large towns and urban areas never had a town council and I hope a review would consider areas where new structures were required. What is the current status of the operational review? Where is it heading from the point of view of its thinking and philosophy on local government reform and local structures? We still complain in this country about top-down decision-making in Brussels and about centralised thinking and political decision-making, but that is what have begun to do at local government level. If we want to empower and engage citizens and if we want communities to work with and on behalf of each other, driving local services, newer and small local government structures will be required.
I hope all of this is being considered in the review. I am simply seeking an update. Will the Minister of State put on the agenda the possibility of returning to sub-county structures by way of town and community or district councils? We are beginning to learn that removing councillors from communities was a retrograde step. Town councils and town councillors did not have all the answers, but they were a visible form of local government and local decision-making and people could engage almost on a daily basis with at least one of their town councillors. This brought local government and politics closer to people, which is where it should be. Smaller councils should have a role to play in the fruits of any review. I am seeking an update on the review and the Minister of State's thinking. She served on a council in Kilkenny and will be aware of the fantastic work that can be done in a non-political, non-partisan way at local government level. This was done on a daily basis without any fanfare and I would like to return to that place. I would like the Minister of State's views and observations.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue, as it gives me an opportunity to update the House on the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly.
The majority of the policy decisions, first announced in the action programme for effective local government, Putting People First, and subsequently given statutory effect under the Local Government Reform Act 2014, came into effect on 1 June 2014. These changes include enhanced roles for local authorities in economic development and local and community development; the dissolution of local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and the establishment of new merged entities in their place; the replacement of town councils by municipal districts; and provision for the reconfiguration of regional structures. There were also a series of new governance arrangements such as provision for an enhanced policy making role for elected members; new citizen participation measures; local authority service delivery plans; the redesignation of the position of manager to chief executive; stronger oversight powers for the elected council in the implementation of policy; and increased obligations on the executive in respect of the elected council.
The new structures and reform measures are still at an early stage of implementation and it is likely to take a full five-year period of operation before a definitive assessment can be made. It is important, nonetheless, to ensure the reformed system is operating effectively and as intended. To this end, the Minister initiated an operational review of new arrangements in 2015 involving an advisory group, on which both elected members and local authority chief executives are represented, together with a local government forum for engagement with the Association of Local Government in Ireland. The feedback to date from these groups suggests the revised structures are generally operating quite well but will need more time to bed down fully. The discussions at the forum indicate that there is no significant demand for any reversion to the pre-reform structures and the Minister has indicated that this is not an option.
However, if adjustments to the operation of the system are needed, they can be considered.
One aspect about which concern has been raised is the pressure on councillors owing to increased demands. The Senator spoke of the size of the districts a councillor now has to represent. This is partly a result of the increased governance, oversight and policy responsibilities of elected councils, which are positive developments in themselves. It also reflects issues that can be addressed in the future such as the size of local electoral areas. There may also be issues around how council business is organised and the need to take account of the fact that local authority membership is not a full-time occupation for most councillors. I also stress the need for the executive to provide maximum support and appropriate facilities to enable the members to perform their new roles effectively. Already, some adjustments to the local authority budgetary process have been implemented, arising mainly from the work of the advisory group. The next stage of the review process involves surveys of elected members and the executive in relation to the operation of the new structures and related matters. This process is well advanced and the results should be useful in helping the advisory group to report on how the system is operating and whether adjustments might be warranted.
The Government’s intention in this area is that local government will act as the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level, with the potential for improved subsidiarity, coherence and efficiency resulting in better value for money and, ultimately, improved service delivery for citizens. The review under way will provide a sound evidence base on which to consider the operation of the new structures and arrangements generally and whether further changes to local government and local democracy, structural or otherwise, are warranted.
Does the Minister of State agree that if the advisory group is made up of representatives of local authority chief executives etc., as we have learned, and if, as we are being advised by the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, there is no going back to pre-reform days, the people most affected by the changed structures, the people who would have represented town councils which have now disappeared, are not in a position to have an input into this dialogue? This is the converted speaking to themselves, but the group needs to stretch beyond the comfort zone of the representatives of the current system. My argument which I will keep pressing as strongly as I can is that we need to look at the fact that local government is no longer local, given the size of municipal districts and towns. Town councils and, in previous eras, town commissions and other such structures gave a very strong democratic imprint to their communities and people. While we are nationally demanding subsidiarity from Brussels and talking about the power of communities and local people, we are actually stripping away that power in the name of local government reform. I am disappointed that the Minister has indicated that a return is not an option. Clearly he is at odds with some of his party and Cabinet colleagues who have spoken in a different vein. I hope all possible structures of local government are being considered and not simply how to slightly improve the status quo.
The good news is that there is a three-year window until the next local elections and I am the first to concede that it is not the biggest issue on the doorstep, but the concept of local government, local democracy and local representation at the lowest and most local level feasible is very important and we have to have a very open mind on the work of the advisory group. I would be very disappointed if its hands were already tied behind its back by what the Minister is saying is not on the table for discussion. I ask the Minister of State to pass my comments on to the Minister. I am sure he is aware of the town councils in Templemore, Thurles, Nenagh and Cashel, all of which worked very effectively and gave us low-cost democracy. I would like them not to be permanently consigned to the scrapheap.
I take the Senator's points on board and, perhaps at some point in the future, they might deserve to be debated. However, the process with the advisory group is well advanced and, because the process has begun, it is prudent to hear what the group has to state before we begin to make more changes and see how the changes are bedding in before we try to undo the process. I draw the Senator's attention to the fact that the Association of Local Government in Ireland could raise this issue and would do so in a very forceful way if it was a burning issue. The association represents the elected members and is well able to do this. I have an open mind on the matter and if it is a burning issue, after the general election, we can return to it, with the help of God.