Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Nov 2017

Vol. 254 No. 5

Councillors' Conditions: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House.

I am aware that this a matter close to the Leas-Chathaoirleach's own heart, which is why I made myself available at short notice. I thank Senator Buttimer for the invitation to attend this afternoon so as to update the Members of Seanad Éireann on the important issue of supports for elected members of local authorities across the country.

Effective local government structures are an essential part of our democracy. In turn, effective local government cannot be achieved without the hard work and commitment of elected members in service of their communities. A range of financial supports are already in place to assist councillors in their vital work. These include a representational payment that, I think, was introduced in 2002 or 2003, an annual expenses allowance, travel and subsistence allowances, a mobile phone allowance, a retirement gratuity as well as conference and training provisions.

It is recognised that the workload on councillors has increased following the implementation of the 2014 local government reforms and the introduction of municipal districts across the country. In general, councillors now have a broader portfolio of functions at sub-county level and represent larger local electoral areas than before. At the same time there has also been a substantial decrease of 41% in the overall number of elected members from over 1,600 down to 949.

The Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to review the supports provided to councillors, in consultation with representative bodies, to enable councillors to continue their important work. During his time as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, my colleague, Deputy Simon Coveney, gave consideration to the issue. In January of this year he announced intended new measures to better support councillors. It was intended that these new measures would be implemented with effect from 1 July. However, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, requested that further consideration be given to the terms and conditions that would apply. I subsequently met an AILG delegation shortly after assuming office to understand its views on the matter. A particular concern raised, which I acknowledged, was to ensure there was an appropriate recognition of the workload of all councillors at sub-county level throughout the country. While the matter took longer than intended, it is important that the measures are implemented in a manner that is fair to all councillors from the outset.

One of the changes introduced in 2014 was the removal of a dual system of local representation. I refer to a situation where town councillors were treated differently from county councillors and, indeed, electors in towns were given two local election ballot papers as opposed to electors in the rest of the country, including the big cities, that only got one ballot paper. It is one of the most important, equitable and fair changes that was introduced by the former Minister, Phil Hogan, when he was in office. It was important that any change to the allowance provided to councillors would not reintroduce a two-tier system by the back door. Ensuring that city councillors are treated the same as county councillors is largely responsible for the delay.

I am pleased to inform the House about the following. Last Friday, 10 November, my colleague, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, and I signed amending regulations to introduce these important new measures to support councillors in all local authorities. The regulations give effect to the commitment given in the Programme for a Partnership Government.

I am also pleased to inform the House that the main provisions of the Local Government (Expenses of Local Authority Members) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 (Sl 494 of 2017) will be applied retrospectively to all councillors with effect from 1 July 2017. Directions concerning the implementation of the new regulations have now issued to local authorities, representative associations for councillors as well as to the members of this House.

The new arrangements for councillors will comprise of the following new elements. There will be a new allowance for elected members of all local authorities worth €1,000 per annum to reflect the additional work carried out by elected members following the local government reforms of 2014. There will also be an optional vouched annual expenses allowance worth up to €5,000 per annum that councillors may opt for in place of an existing unvouched fixed rate annual allowance of approximately €2,500. This vouched allowance will bring the annual expenses regime for councillors more in line with that available to members of this House.

Councillors will be able to claim vouched expenses against the following categories of eligible expenditure: the purchase of home office furniture or equipment; the purchase of stationery; the hiring of meeting rooms; leaflet and newsletter printing and distribution; advertising relating to functions as an elected members; and the purchase of temporary secretarial support from a licensed employment agency. We are also examining whether the list might include more categories. These categories of eligible expenditure are similar to those allowed for Oireachtas Members. I have had the great privilege of being audited for the past two years and I am sure that other Members of this House have also been audited. I can attest to the fact that it is a rigorous audit process. It is equitable that all local representative are treated in the same manner when it comes to audits of expenditure.

Councillors will be required to retain relevant documentation that shows proof of purchase and payment. They must also submit the documentation to their local authority on a monthly basis. All documentation submitted may be reviewed by the internal audit of a local authority or the Local Government Audit Service. The directions issued to local authorities also provide for the alignment of the annual travel rate component of the annual expense allowance for councillors, with the general travel rates set by the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. The revised annual travel rates will come into effect from 1 January 2018. I appreciate that this sets a lower rate for councillors travelling shorter distances to attend meetings. In terms of those who accumulate fewer than 1,500 km annually, and in the interest of fairness and equity, it is important that the travel rates that apply to councillors are consistent with those that apply to local authority employees and other groups across the public sector.

It should be noted that the revised rates set a higher travel rate for councillors who drive intermediate to longer distances of up to 5,500 km annually. Councillors in this range will stand to benefit under the new arrangements. This is consistent with the position set out by the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to the general travel rates.

Finally, while these measures address the issue of the impacts of the 2014 local government reforms on workload, it is important that the supports provided to councillors will continue to be fit for purpose into the future. In particular, it is important that experienced and hardworking councillors are incentivised to continue to stand for election while at the same time new entrants are encouraged to stand and participate in local democracy. It is my intention that a broad ranging review of the supports provided to councillors, as well as associated terms and conditions, should take place. The review should focus on the evolution of pay trends in the public sector and on how remuneration provided to councillors compares with other jurisdictions. Further details will be announced in due course. The current system of remuneration is tied to that of Senators, a fact that is not mentioned in my notes. That situation is unsustainable and instead the system should be tied to a grade in the Civil Service.

The public service commission will be employed, in advance of the next local elections and regardless of who the Minister is in the future, to ensure that councillors' pay is related to that of civil servants, and that councillors and their representatives will not have to go cap in hand to a Minister. Instead, they should get the same incremental supports that the Civil Service grade would achieve in national wage agreements.

I think that we can all agree that this issue would benefit from a structured approach that is consistent with that applied to other groups in the public sector. Let us remain mindful that supports provided to councillors must compete with other demands placed on local authority finances.

In conclusion, I thank everyone who has previously engaged with me on this issue, which includes many Senators. I thank them for their interest and patience in bringing this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am glad to have an opportunity to address this issue. I wish to apologise on behalf of my colleague, Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, for her unavoidable absence. She is the Sinn Féin spokesperson on this area and a constituency colleague of the Minister of State. She has done Trojan work on this issue and has made an enormous amount of representations.

Like most of the Senators here, I am a former local representative. I genuinely believe that what is on offer here today is, to coin a phrase, tokenism. Expenses are expenses just like it says on the tin. The additional money that has been bandied about has been wrapped up in ribbons and bows. It is a token gesture to satisfy a long time request from councillors to be treated fairly. Expenses are expenses so the Government is just reimbursing councillors and local representatives for money that they have already paid out of their own pockets. I for one can vouch, as a rural representative, that during my days on the council it was a miracle if I broke even at the end of the year. The work costs the vast majority of local representatives money, in particular rural ones. These people choose the job because they are local activists and community workers. They take the step to become public representatives in the interest of representing their areas and improving conditions in their local communities.

As all Members will be aware, the councillor is the politician who operates at the coalface of society. They meet the people they represent on a daily basis in their communities. A councillor is the go-to person. Irrespective of what problem an individual or constituent has, the councillor is the go-to person.

It is a 24/7 job. Based on the new rates to be announced today by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, whereby €1,000 will be added to the representational fee, which is taxable, the average earnings of a councillor who works 24/7 will be far below the minimum wage. This is not acceptable for the hours of dedicated work that councillors put in. It is tokenism. The Minister of State inherited this issue which was on the desk of his predecessor. The offer today is made in the hope that this issue will go away, but let me assure him that it will not go away. I think I would have the support of all Members, because most of us would have been local representatives. We know first-hand the workload and how minuscule the remuneration is.

The change in the travel allowance that is also being introduced will in essence reduce the net income of many councillors. The taxable representational increase, the vouched expenses, which are already in existence, means councillors have been out of pocket for the period they have been public representatives, and in my opinion some councillors will quite possibly have a net reduction in income when all is taken into consideration. The requested 40% increase in the representational fee from the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, would be a more realistic move. It would be a start.

I believe the powers that be are afraid to be seen to give something meaningful to fellow politicians as this would be frowned upon. The Minister of State, his predecessor and all involved are shirking from the issue. I do not think that is fair, and there is no justification for it. There is no recognition of the local representatives, be they members of political parties, Independent and non-party councillors who work at the coalface and are the people who are the first port of call for constituents.

While progress is being made, this is the first baby step in a long journey and we are a long way from satisfaction.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, for being a man of his word. He said he would deliver within a period, and I think he was probably a week or two late. I also welcome his remarks on putting a review in place. It is about time that somebody had the guts to stand up and say we need to look at the work of our local representatives. Let us reflect on the role of our councillors. They are the foot soldiers for the political system in Ireland. They are the people who will go out on a rainy night when an election is called and will walk the length and breadth to get those of us who are elected to this House elected one way or the other. What reward have we given them down through the years for this? Very little. What recognition have we given them? Very little. As my colleague, Senator Paul Daly, said the local councillor is the first point of call for members of their community. One councillor told me that he cannot go to the toilet but some fellow will stand beside me and talk to him about a planning issue, a medical card, a bus pass or a septic tank, you name it. Nobody else in politics suffers the same level of exposure to the community as county councillors. They are in their community 24/7 for 365 days a year.

Naturally in the course of the election for the Seanad I met councillors. I met councillors who sit into their cars and drive to people's homes to help them with official documentation. They sit in people's houses late at night, filling in forms and helping people because they understand the system. There is nothing sharp about what they are doing, they are doing what they were elected to do.

I cannot understand why we always take the mean approach. Why can we not stand up, clap these people on the back and recognise them for what they do? We should not be ashamed to tell the public that we are going to pay these people a decent wage. What is the problem with that? I know Deputy Phelan is a decent man who is trying to do a decent job. I make no apology to anybody in Ireland for the salary I am paid, for the salary that Deputies are paid or for highlighting the miserable pittance that county councillors are paid. I make no apology for asking for the 40% increase that my colleague just adverted to for county councillors. In fact 40% is too little.

I want to focus on the word "allowance", because I get a representational allowance as a Senator that is not my salary, on which tax and PRSI is not charged. Why do we have a different rule for county councillors? They are not employees. There is no contract of employment and yet we apply tax, social insurance and the universal social charge to the miserable few shillings they get. Let me illustrate what the knock-on effect of that for a councillor who lost his or her job that paid €60,000 per annum. Having lost his or her job, he or she moves to a social welfare payment and now this individual councillor has been told, following an appeals process, that his or her entitlement is €4 a week. Why? He or she has a county councillor's salary. It is not a salary. It is an allowance. We need to go back and look at this. It is an allowance and not a salary.

I cannot dwell on PRSI because I have a High Court case pending on class K PRSI, which I intend to win and I think that Members will find at the end of day that I will win the case. I am not going to comment on class K PRSI. Under the auspices of the PRSI system the State has been stealing 4% of the income of councillors, if we are going to call it income, and we need to sort out whether it is an allowance or an income, from men and women over 66 years of age. There is no other citizen in this country who pays PRSI beyond that age. When will that PRSI be refunded to them? Better still, could the Minister get councillors their contributory old age pension from the money they paid, because they have paid the equivalent? The pension entitlement for county councillors needs to be looked at retrospectively. Anybody who paid the 4% is entitled to it.

I do not want to dash what the Minister of State has done regarding the increase. He inherited an issue on which he delivered and for which he must be complimented. An increase of €1,000 works out at €10 a week after tax. That would not put three gallons of petrol in the car. It is an outrage, an insult. We need to go back and I would like the Minister of State to give us a timeline for the review.

I wish to raise the issue of equality that applies to the female representatives in Leinster House and in every county council in the country. A county councillor delivers a baby on Friday and on Monday he or she-----

We have not got to that point yet.

The Senator is a true believer in equality.

She is expected back in the Chamber straight away. We need to implement a system whereby elected representatives can have maternity leave. That will require using technology to allow remote voting, child care facilities in the councils and to allow facilities for mothers who are feeding in the council offices. We need to do that.

The travel allowance is very beneficial for those who are travelling 50,000 km, 60,000 km or 70,000 km a year. It is of no value whatsoever to a councillor living in a city, it is of very little value to councillors who are living close to their council. We have to go back and look at that. We have to look at a more egalitarian way of dealing with transport.

Perhaps we should look at something like a fixed transport allowance based on something similar to what we have in Leinster House for elected representatives which, depending on how far away one is from the local authority, one would get a fixed travel allowance. Perhaps that is the way to look at it.

I am glad to hear the Minister of State say today that he will look at additional items on the expenses list published because the list excludes certain issues. It excludes: rent; rates; utilities and other charges of office accommodation; electoral expenses, which I can accept; services purchased from a person who is on the pay role of a local authority, which I can accept; and expenses incurred which are covered by other allowances, which I can accept. There are county councillors all over this country who have offices where they hold their clinics. There are full-time county councillors all over the place. When the Minister of State is reviewing those issues, he may do us a favour and include utilities, rent and all of the other items that are associated with running an office.

I thank the Senator.

The Leas-Chathaoirleach is telling me to sit down.

I am telling Senator Craughwell he is into injury time.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here today. I sincerely hope that we can get from him clear indications of where we are going regarding the reviews and the modification of the expenses. One would need Senators' expenses for councillors.

Senator Craughwell has everything covered.

That is very close to Senators. We need to break that as well.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House and I congratulate him and thank him for making a move forward on expenses for councillors. He stated that he would do it and he has done so. While it is a small move, it is a move in the right direction.

It is nearly 20 years since I was a member of a local authority but I am a bit mixed up when I read the 20-page regulations that confirm how much extra a councillor gets, whether in travelling expenses, an increase in pay or an increase in an allowance. I was certain in my opinion in certain circumstances but I am much more mystified when I listen to Senator Craughwell. I was of the belief that I was familiar with some of the issues but, certainly, Senator Craughwell is not familiar with the full facts either. The Minister of State might outline how much councillors get and how their expenses are broken down. They get a representational payment for expenses on the same basis as we in the Seanad do. Senator Craughwell stated that they did not.

A councillor's pay was linked to a Senator's salary, a Senator's salary was linked to a TD's salary and a TD's salary was linked to a certain grade in the Civil Service. When the late Deputy Brian Lenihan was Minister for Finance, that link with the Civil Service was broken but I always was of the belief that the Seanad was tied to the Dáil and councillors' salaries was tied to those of Senators. This extra €1,000 that the Minister of State is giving them seems to be a special payment. Is that because it would break the link to a Senator's salary?

If that is the case, I would hope that it would be index-linked. Otherwise this €1,000 will be hanging out there on its own and it will never increase or decrease. I hope it will not decrease. How will it increase? Will it be by ministerial regulation or will it be index-linked? I would ask the Minister of State to look at that. My reading of the €1,000 is that it would be different. Therefore, the councillor's salary will still be linked to the Senator's pay in all other aspects and this is an additional payment.

As regards travelling expenses, it is complex the way the Department has it all put together. Councillors' pay and expenses, and the regulations, should be simplified. Councillors have gone through those regulations and they do not seem to know what they are entitled to or how their pay and expenses are made up. There should only be one band of expenses per kilometre, whether it is 30 cent, 50 cent, 60 cent or whatever, rather than for a certain number of miles here and there because it will balance out at the end of the day anyway.

Members who choose to claim vouched expenses for the period 1 July 2017 to 31 December 2017 must provide written notification to the local authority within ten days of the circular letter that the Department circulated in the past number of days. Councillors may have expenses between now and the end of the year that they will not be able to claim for. The Minister of State has come with this new circular and they may not have time to submit all of their expenses. I would ask that the Minister of State allow some leeway in that regard or else postpone the commencement until 1 January, the first week of January or whatever, so that expenses councillors would have incurred will not be left out.

We are all familiar with the work and value of councillors in an area. It was spelt out by the two previous speakers. We have seen the considerable areas that councillors are looking after and representing since the previous local elections. In my area, the third largest county in the country, there are four municipal districts some of which are nearly 100 miles long. One of them goes from the Sligo border to the Galway border, right through Mayo. These are huge geographical areas. To be quite honest, councillors are not half compensated to attend community council meetings and various other meetings within those large areas. There should be no vouching at all. Councillors should get a specific amount of money. The vouching issue should be looked at. After all, their time is valuable.

Many councillors are working in addition to being councillors. They are trying to keep record of where they are and what meetings they have to go to, and keep account of their expenses, etc. As I said this to the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I repeat to the Minister of State, what is €2,500 one way or the other, whether it is vouched or unvouched? It is only peanuts in the long run. I would ask that the Minister of State would look at the vouched end of it and get rid of vouching completely. It is €100 a week. It is nearly a miscellaneous expense for councillors but they have to keep records, etc., throughout the year to get it.

In response to Senator Craughwell, the Taoiseach brought in the contributory pension for councillors.

That will never happen.

I am not sure whether it is retrospective or not, but it is in place. It is one of the issues that was raised during the previous Seanad elections with councillors. Some of them are full-time councillors who were not entitled to the contributory pension. This will entitle them to a contributory pension. It was a big move. I compliment the Taoiseach for doing that.

I thank Senator Paddy Burke.

It did not do much for Independents.

I am delighted that Senator Craughwell acknowledges that. The Minister might outline the breakdown for us and for Senator Craughwell as well.

Given that there are many anomalies and various tables, will the Minister of State outline the breakdown for us? Some councillors believe they have to give up their representational allowance and claim the €5,000 in vouched expenses or, alternatively, that they will lose their representational allowance if they claim the €5,000 in vouched expenses. Will the Minister of State clarify the position for them?

I acknowledge the great work done by all councillors but especially by my colleagues in Sinn Féin. There is a list of them. They include a nurse, a social worker and even a DIYer. Others are the local activist in the community. Let us face it - most councillors do a full-time job for remuneration of approximately €17,000 which, frankly, is an insult. Many of them travel large distances to attend meetings and are available 24/7 by phone, email, etc. We also now have Facebook and Messenger. I was counting the ways by which people could contact us and the number is growing. It can also be quite intrusive. It happens in all aspects of all politicians' lives but mainly for local councillors.

Local councillors in Dublin South-Central embed themselves in their communities for which they put in so much work. While I welcome the announced increases, they are paltry and mean-spirited. Increasing the payment for fully vouched expenses per year is probably a sensible way to ensure councillors' reasonable expenses will be met, while ensuring full transparency and accountability. Ireland has one of the weakest systems of local government in the European Union. We expect our elected representatives to be full-time professional politicians, yet we only pay them part-time wages. If we want the system of local government to work in the best interests of local communities, we need to give it the power and resources it needs.

I refer to the invaluable support councillors give Deputies and Seanadóirí. The councillors in my area support me in my local work. They provide updates on what is happening and note planning applications and objections. They also know what the environmental issues are. We work together to have safe, secure and thriving communities. If we want to replicate the local government set-up in other countries and become more stringent legislative scrutineers, we will rely even more heavily on councillors. We need to give them the resources they need for this extra work and responsibility.

Serious issues for councillors were outlined elegantly by my colleagues. I have alluded to the most pertinent of them, the wage level, but I again state councillors work full time. It is an emotional and distressing experience to be a councillor. I remember when I was one at the beginning of what is now the homeless emergency. One can find oneself completely powerless and unable to help someone in distress. One day a family of five arrived at my clinic at 8 p.m. They had nowhere to go and I ended up paying for a hotel for them because I could not let them sleep in a car on the side of the road. That impact on people's mental health has grown exponentially in the past few years. It is the number one issue, followed by health.

Councillors work approximately 60 hours a week. At least I did. If my maths are correct, under €18,000 per annum works out at approximately €5.60 an hour. The salary needs to reflect the work done. I also have serious concerns about the lack of access to maternity leave. Last month my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, asked the Minister of State about the issue but all he got was a vague reference to the Government's responsibility under the national strategy for women and girls 2017 to 2020 and working towards having greater female representation. However, there was no indication as to when the issue would be resolved. My colleague, Councillor Janice Boylan, was recently back at work a couple of weeks after giving birth. If a councillor is out sick for six months, he or she will receive sick pay. If money is available in the unfortunate case where someone falls ill, it should be available to support new mothers and fathers. What a disincentive it is for young families and, in particular, young women to become involved in politics if they cannot access the maternity leave they deserve or do not receive a proper wage to support their young families. There is a need for greater female representation, but we are not going about it in the right way in encouraging it.

The changes are welcome, but they are long overdue and do not go far enough. I urge the Minister of State to re-examine the issue and truly recognise the work done by councillors by giving them the wages appropriate to the job.

I would like to share my time equally with Senator Frances Black.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State spoke about additional work, which certainly there is. He also spoke about the intention to have a broad-ranging review of the supports provided for councillors, which is very welcome. Despite the reference to the amount of work done, his presentation was silent on the value of that work. I will not go over the same ground, except to note that Senators have spoken about welcome but modest improvements in allowances, etc. It is probably not the intention, but I get the sense that there is almost a feeling of embarrassment at doing the right thing for those who serve on local councils. In some way, is the Government and are we, generally, embarrassed by or afraid of councillors? I do not know the answer to that question. However, I do not get a sense that we are challenging them and really value the important place they hold.

Councillors are the first responders, the people with an overview. I was elected to this House as an advocate for people with disabilities. I would have known some councillors from attending various party conferences in my work with the Disability Federation of Ireland. My point is that councillors do not just deal with local authority matters; they also deal with health, education, transport and income issues. There are 15 or 16 Departments and 15 or 16 committees in the Houses of the Oireachtas covering all of the different silos of government. However, at community level, the councillor picks up on and tries to deal with whatever comes his or her way. People live in communities and local authority areas. They do not live in the Department of Education and Skills or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. That is the key issue. We, therefore, need to look at the value and extra support councillors give to the political system.

As Senators and Deputies, we are no different from councillors. We are public representatives elected to act in the public good. We need to see councillors in the same light and give the same status and respect. It is important that we value their role. Recently I supported councillors in bringing forward a motion on the inclusion of people with disabilities. Approximately one third of councils have passed the motion, while the rest are on the way to doing so. They are all supportive and want to pass the motion which they have not questioned. They have said it is great to get good background information on the subject, including on how many people there are in County Tipperary or County Longford who have a disability and their level of education. I do not want to speak about disability issues only, but that is where councillors can really shine. We have to consider strongly how we can pay them better and examine the extra productivity that can be achieved. I would love it if the Minister of State engaged on that issue in the review.

I welcome the Minister of State and wish to speak in support of the huge contribution councillors make to their local communities, a contribution which is often forgotten.

I was lucky enough to meet councillors across the country when I ran in the Seanad election last year. I was blown away by the work they do and I feel terrible that I had not been aware it until then. I was in Sligo last month with the Association of Irish Local Government to get further input. Wherever I have gone across the country, particularly in regard to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, I have relied on hard-working councillors to engage with local communities. It has been a real insight into the daily reality of the job, particularly the long hours. There is not enough awareness of the vital role councillors play.

Deputies work very hard to represent their constituencies, but they must spend considerable time here in Leinster House and must think nationally as well as locally. It puts a big demand on their time and their attention. As a consequence, local councillors often become the first port of call for people with a problem. They are the people who can identify and track local issues and try to get them sorted quickly. This is particularly important when it comes to vulnerable people, which is the area in which I work, where many may not know what kind of support they entitled to, or how to access it. Councillors step in here, and their role can be almost like that of social workers or therapists. In my work with the RISE Foundation and on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, I see a big crossover between the people sitting on local councils and those working on local drug and alcohol task forces, for example. They must be there for people, and if one take this responsibility seriously - and the councillors I meet definitely do - one ends up working extremely long hours on top of one's regular job. This leaves councillors in a difficult position where they are doing another full-time job, but they are doing it after work or are taking unpaid leave to follow up with constituents. They spend less time with their families as a result. The low pay means it just is not viable for most people and many feel it is unsustainable, particularly for those on lower incomes or those who do not have very flexible conditions in their primary job.

This was made much worse when council sizes were cut in 2014. A smaller number of councillors are now expected to represent a much larger number of people, often across huge geographical areas. I have often been told by councillors, particularly rural councillors, that they cover thousands of kilometres to see constituents and attend meetings. One councillor described it to me as a daily routine of being on the phone, being in the car, grabbing a coffee and getting back in the car, with returning home after midnight being standard.

In this situation, the car or van is one's office. Many councillors would like more engagement on how the small expenses allowed can be vouched and used. For example, meeting rooms are sometimes less important than being able to cover the costs of wear and tear and driving thousands of kilometres every week. People do not serve on councils for the money, but if we make it financially impossible for them then many good councillors will drop out, or not step forward in 2019.

Many councillors have also spoken to me in recent weeks about the proposed cuts to constituency sizes for local government. I urge the Minister to reconsider this. It will have a hugely negative effect on independents and smaller parties. As an Independent Senator, I am proud of the achievements that I and my fellow Independents have had in this House, from putting forward Private Members' Bills to amending Government legislation. Irish politics needs strong, independent voices, particularly those who will represent the most vulnerable in society.

I welcome the Minister for State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to the House to discuss pay and conditions for local councillors. I welcome the changes which the Minister signed off on at the weekend and acknowledge his work since his appointment to progress this issue and other issues concerning councillors. He said he would and has proved true to his word. It is only a good first step, but we have some way to go in the discussion on how councillors should be remunerated and supported. Local councillors do very valuable work and deserve to be paid a fair salary for it. It might not be popular among the public when a politician calls for better conditions for other politicians but I must stand up for councillors because they are underpaid and undervalued. Many of us in this House and in the other one have been councillors. Having been a town and county councillor, I know from first hand the work load and long hours involved in representing constituents, resolving problems, making applications, writing letters of representation, making calls, arranging clinics and attending meetings. The increased workload, combined with a negative media portrayal of public representatives generally, has a demoralising effect on excellent public representatives and makes public service less attractive. No one gets into local politics for money. Anyone who does will be very disappointed. The vast majority of public representatives get involved because they want to serve their communities. We should actively support them to do so.

Those of us who have the honour of serving as Members of the Oireachtas work hard for our communities and are well paid for it. Our salaries are linked to grades of public servants who are well paid for their work. Councillors are the one category of public representatives who are almost regarded as hobby politicians. They work hard for the communities and give their time, energy and expertise but they are not paid fairly for it. As a society, we are taking advantage of their desire to do their best for their local communities and pay them an allowance that often works out at less than the minimum wage.

One reason to pay councillors properly is that it would signal to the public our regard for their role and the true importance of the role of the public representative. It may not be a position that is popular with the public and the fear of a public outcry that could follow from a significant pay increase to councillors is one reason given for not doing so. However, if we are willing to weather the storm in increasing our own salaries we should show parity of esteem for our council colleagues.

One of Fine Gael's five core values is equality of opportunity. Among councillors, the current position favours those who are self-employed, who are independently wealthy or have plenty of spare time. All these groups are entitled to serve but we should not exclude the many very able people who could make an equal or better contribution but are excluded because they cannot afford to be a councillor. There are many competent people who would like to do so but who can earn more money in other fields. We must attract them.

There is no guarantee that paying councillors more would improve local government but we must put a fair value on their work. It would be a bad idea to pay teachers, nurses or public servants half what they could make in similar roles in the private sector so why does the same logic not apply to councillors? There has been academic research on the topic. A 2009 paper by Ferraz and Finan argues that higher wages increase political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession and the political experience in office. In addition to this positive selection they find that wages also effect politicians performance which is consistent with the behavioural response to a higher value of holding office.

Nothing I say here is by way of criticism. I welcome the Minister's initiative and good intention. I welcome the Minister of State's remarks today so long as there is a positive outcome. We cannot conclude that this matter has been resolved and move on to the next issue. Tús maith leath na hoibre. I urge the Minister of State to continue with the determination and ability he has shown so far.

The Minister of State spoke of consistency. The only thing that is consistent is the inconsistency. The report states: "In the interests of fairness and equality, it is important that travel rates that apply to councillors are consistent with those that apply to local authority employees and other groups across the public sector."

The Government wants them to have the same mileage rate, but it does not want them to have the same allowances or rates of pay.

Their allowances and pay are not consistent with that in the public sector, yet they are being told now that their mileage rate is dropping from 46 cent per kilometre up to 6,438 km to 39 cent. It has been admitted that many councillors will be worse off. I welcome the idea of reviewing pay although it should be named the low pay commission. Hopefully there will be a timeline. The €1,000 being provided is not being back-paid, even though it is acknowledged that since 2014 the amount of work being done and the area being covered has extended enormously for the 949 councillors that remain from the 1,600 that were in place previously. The back pay only applies as far back as last summer and not 2014. The €1,000, for the benefit of Members, is an increase of €2.74 per day. If the tax is taken from that, it comes to €1.42.

My words are not half as good as those we received when I sent out the circular that was issued to us last night. I received these from the public representatives. One contribution was, "The current proposals are an absolute insult to me and to the vast majority of my elected members". Another said, "With regard to the idea of the €1,000 for municipal members, there is no allowance to backdate the allowance to the date the workload actually increased", which was in 2014. On the issue of the vouched expenses, "The small increase was to compensate councillors for the additional work, not to add to their workload", which the vouched expenses system will do. Another contribution was, "Unlike TDs and Senators, humbler councillors are not exempt from commercial rates on dedicated constituency offices". They cannot even buy ink. If someone wants to go to a conference, he or she will not be reimbursed and, therefore, if he or she does not have another job, he or she is unable to attend. They cannot buy paper, ink, stationery or any smaller items with the expenses they receive. Ten days a year are provided for teachers, but there is no substitute cover. That is another issue that needs to be addressed by the low pay commission. A final contribution states, "This is a joke. How many civil servants work for this kind of money?". I received many other contributions.

I will not rehash the arguments that Senators Paul and Mark Daly have made already. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have been involved in different debates on this issue over the past four years, since my time in the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, executive, and there has been very little progress. Much work has been done on this issue by the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I appreciate that the increase in wages, as small as it is, is a step in the right direction, but my welcome for this measure stops there. The mileage presents a serious problem. One example that is given in the schedule is of a person living 26 km away who will now be €300 or €400 better off in category one. I am sure that the Minister's civil servants have created that nice story. However, most people fall into category two, which includes Carlow, Kilkenny, Westmeath, Sligo, Longford, Meath, Monaghan, Laois and Leitrim. In the same example under category one, these people are losing money, but that example does not paint a nice picture and so it is not given.

The Department has to go back to the drawing board on this matter. It is a very unfair comparison. Perhaps these people think they are dealing with dummies. In any public, private or civil body or entity, a person is paid for any mileage they do, but that is not the case here. Will the €5,000 allowance be claimable if a councillor does something apart from his or her council meeting? For example, if a community meeting is 30 km or 40 km away, can the mileage be claimed as part of the allowance available? In any other business entity, a civil or public servant can claim the money for that meeting. That is a must. In different bodies, such as the council, the AILG, and the HSE, mileage is assimilated differently. They are not assessed together. This does not happen anywhere else and I believe this will be heavily contested. It does not happen anywhere else. It is a fraud to the councillors, and it is showing them serious disrespect.

I welcome the Minister of State. I do not know if I have had the opportunity to congratulate him in public on his appointment. Having worked with him on the Council of Europe, I am well aware of his great ability and commitment and I know he will bring that to his Ministry. I am also happy that he has been proactive and come forward with an improvement package very early in his term. I also share the concerns about some aspects of it and I hope the review will improve matters, but I acknowledge what the Minister of State has done.

It merits repetition that our democracy depends on our councillors. They keep democracy going. We have both served on the Council for Europe and know that democracy should not be taken for granted. The functioning of our whole community depends on councillors in many instances. They provide leadership and initiative at local community level. The output from their work is quite enormous for the quality of life of so many people. Their work is challenged now by the larger areas and it has made it very difficult. On the way here I checked with one or two of my colleagues and they have had around ten meetings this week of various types.

I am happy with the increase of €1,000 and that it is now available to all councillors in the country. It is an improvement on the initial proposal. I hope that will increase in the review, but it is a step in the right direction. The extra €2,500 is welcome, but I share the concerns raised about vouching. The amount of money in question is small; Senator Burke suggested it amounts to about €100 a week. Vouching for that is a very onerous task. If it was a larger sum of money, I would support the principle, but it is a very onerous task for that sum of money. It is almost a job in itself, with the collecting of receipts and organisation that is to be done.

I also believe that the list of allowances is very constrained. It would be better if the list more accurately reflected the work done. I was a councillor for years and remain very close to my councillor colleagues, and I know that they are asked for money for various causes on the road. If there is a charity function, they are asked for money for it. Also, when the councillors bring people out canvassing or doing voluntary work with them, they have to offer that person basic refreshments while they are on the road as a basic courtesy. Even if it is only toasted sandwiches after a day's voluntary work in the community, it is still a big expense for councillors, especially if it happens on a regular basis. That is not in the vouched allowances. There are many incidental types of expenditures and I appeal to the Minister of State, at a minimum, to increase the list of items that qualify as vouched expenses and to be much more liberal in that regard. Indeed, I believe that list should be more liberal for all elected representatives, but that is another matter.

I ask the Minister to extend that list and to look at the whole concept of whether it is wise in the first instance to vouch a small amount of money like this. If the Minister of State is not going to radically increase the list and consider increasing the amount, I think the concept of vouching should be out.

Like other colleagues, I would like to know how long the review will take and when we will have results from it. The review, if it takes full account of the situation, will be generous to councillors, I would have thought.

The areas to be covered will need to be smaller. One councillor I spoke with this morning told me it is about 55 miles or 60 miles from one end of his area to the other, which is very challenging and difficult. This needs to be looked at in the review. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. If we do not look after our councillors, we put our democracy at risk.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House. I am conscious that he was a councillor for a long period and, therefore, knows about local government and the importance of city and county councillors who do their work for local communities. I will use my speaking time as constructively as I can and I will not repeat what others have said.

I want to thank the AILG and LAMA for the ongoing work of their executives and members in regard to councillors' remuneration, pay, conditions and the terms of their roles as local councillors. While I do not think that has been altogether successful, that is not to criticise them or their executives. Clearly, from the number of emails and telephone calls I have received, people are very angry, annoyed and disappointed.

I am an Independent Senator. The majority of my votes, though not all, came from Independent councillors and I never apologise for representing them and all councillors from all parties. I am amazed, having sat here and listened to the debate, because I would almost get the impression that those sitting here are not members of political parties and that there has not been a period of consultation. I would have thought that, within Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, they would have discussed all this. We have a Government in place, supported by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, that can command the attention of the Cabinet and people who matter in this country in regard to important issues. It is a bit rich to come in here and bellyache about the condition of councillors and let it get to this stage.

We have to be realistic. A statutory instrument has been signed and that is where the matter stands. This is not a debate. Let us be honest and let us have an honest response from the Minister of State. He is not going to go away tomorrow and rubbish this statutory instrument and change it all. We are talking in a vacuum to some extent. I want to make that point as I think it is very important. All parties have councillors and all councillors from all parties are at some level disappointed at what has happened here today. Let us call a spade a spade.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to look at councillors' pay. Councillors, on average, are paid €16,500 and they pay tax on it. It is simply a disgrace. There is a suggestion there will be a commission or that somebody will review their pay, and there will be recommendations. However, I am hearing that those recommendations will not be implemented until 2019, which is not good enough, given this is 2017. If we really want to address the basic remuneration for councillors and put in place a system of remuneration that is respectful of their work and remunerates them for their enormous workload and additional responsibilities, it should be fast-tracked. This commission should get about its work and deliver its report quickly. Whatever that report recommends, it should be implemented. We should not be talking here in 2017 about some sort of pay for councillors that may be delivered in June 2019. There are many sitting county councillors today asking whether they will stay in this business. I got remuneration last year for my period in the council and, when I settled my tax bill with the Revenue yesterday, I can tell the House I was shocked by the level of remuneration I had to pay over to Revenue. It is not all kosher and it is not all cash for our pockets. This is something we need to look at again, although that is for another day.

It is important that the Minister of State tells us what he means by a commission, when he intends setting it up, what the timeframe is and whether he can bring forward the delivery of those recommendations.

I join with the statements of my colleagues on the hard work that our local government representatives do. County and city councillors put in a phenomenal amount of work to represent their constituents, create a better standard of life in their areas and support and strengthen their communities. They do this sometimes in a difficult political climate and without much compensation for their time and energy, which is worth noting.

We have discussed already the Minister of State's statements on the changes planned for councillors. On that point, I will reiterate what I have said already at the committee on councillors’ pay and conditions, namely, a simpler increase in the basic rate for all local authority representatives would be the most efficient and fair way to recognise their increased workload in the face of the reduction of total numbers. I would also ask that the committee be reconvened again and more regularly. We have not met, for example, since the Minister of State took up his current position and a meeting with him to discuss the concerns I am about to outline would be very welcome.

We have heard recently of proposals from the Government, or at least the Fine Gael part of the Government, to reduce the size of the local electoral areas in the upcoming local government review. I consulted with councillors in advance of my contributions today to seek their views on these proposals and, safe to say, the feedback was not positive from most who were in touch with me. Independents and councillors from smaller parties, in particular, highlighted that changes to the size and representation level of each local electoral area would severely lower the rate of representation and serve only the interests of the big parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in getting a stronger hold over local government across the country.

At the same time, it would lower the diversity, not only of party political representation and competition on our councils, but also the diversity of representatives themselves. The changes we have seen suggested would cut the representation of Green and left-wing councillors by about 75%, which in itself would cut the female representation by about 25%. That would mean a reduction in the number of local electoral areas with at least one female representative from 80% to 60%. In turn, that would mean a subsequent reduction in the number of women in a position to be selected and available to run in general elections, something that will pose real challenges in the next election, when a 40% candidate gender quota will apply.

The noted UCC academic, Liam Weeks, suggested that a minimum representation of five or six is needed to ensure proper proportional representation for an area. This was also the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention in 2013. This needs to be wedded to the need for local electoral areas to go some way towards reflecting natural and coherent communities.

I can understand the attraction of a more homogenous and less diverse vision for local government for the larger parties, but I hope the Minister of State will join me in agreeing that a system of smaller local electoral areas would make our councils less diverse, less competitive and simply less interesting overall. Independents, Social Democrats, Labour Party representatives, socialists, and, yes, Greens, should all be united in opposing this power grab. I would hope the Independent Alliance especially will not allow this issue to stand when the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, publishes the terms of reference.

I wish to share time with Senators Tim Lombard and Catherine Noone.

Like other Senators, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House. As I am under time constraints, I will make a few key points. I have to disagree with Senator Grace O'Sullivan's view of the local electoral areas. I live in the Boyle municipal district in County Roscommon, which is a huge geographical area that from end to end is probably 80 km. There is nothing local about that.

We need councillors to be rooted in their local communities. The intensity of their workload and the increase in it is completely unmanageable. I ask that greater consideration be given to the need for smaller local electoral areas in order to reflect the fact that we want local public representatives to be rooted in their communities.

Obviously, the €1,000 allowance and improvements in the expenses represent a step in the right direction. However, the bottom line is that we need to properly reflect the work that is being done by councillors. These people are on duty, no more than us, 24-7. They have to deal with a wide range of issues, including working with local engineers, dealing with housing issues, attending meetings and being involved in different committees right across their communities. It is essential that we remunerate them properly. Speaking as one of the youngest councillors elected to Roscommon County Council, I am of the view that it is going to be exceptionally difficult to attract new people, or even incumbents, to stand in the local elections in 2019 and into the future. It is critical that we remunerate them properly.

I thank Senator Hopkins for sharing time. This is a very important matter. There are several issues that need to be dealt with. One of these relates to the size of constituencies. As I stated on a Commencement debate, constituencies are ludicrously large. I hope the Minister will bring forward legislation as soon as possible in order to amend the position in this regard. The vouched annual expenses allowance worth up to €5,000 for which councillors may opt instead of the existing unvouched allowance of €2,500 is not the appropriate route to take. The administration that will be necessary to deal with this will place another burden on councils. We are just creating more paperwork. This change will not do anything for local government. We are trying to audit a system that makes no logical sense. In the context of the amounts of money about which we are talking, officials will be obliged to act as auditors. That does not make sense. What will be the administration cost to which this change will give rise? We need to examine these issues.

There is a major issue in the context of local government and it is the responsibility of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to deal with it. We have never had a real audit of the establishment of local government and what I would refer to as "the problem government". These bodies have never been brought before the Committee of Public Accounts and they have never been asked to account for themselves. Councillors and politicians have been brought to book on foot of their expenses, etc., but I am not aware of this happening in respect of staff of local authorities. That is the anomaly in the system. The legislation before us relates to councillors but the Minister of State has brought nothing forward about the executives of local authorities. That is a major issue with which he and his Department can deal. However, it has not been dealt with. An audit system is being put in place but that will not address the problem. The Minister of State needs to deal with this matter.

I welcome the Minister of State. I have to say, Senator Boyhan is more enlightened than the rest of us if he knows who voted for him.

I used the word "some." I got Fine Gael votes too.

In fairness to the Minister of State-----

The Senator knows his own vote.

-----he has made great strides. As someone who previously served as a Senator - for two terms - and a councillor, he is very well placed to make changes in this area. That must be acknowledged.

It is rare that I agree with Senator Gerard Craughwell, but I did so when he mentioned maternity leave. Obviously, that issue is close to most women's hearts. A problem exists in this regard. We are not getting things right from the top down, and that applies to these Houses as well. This is something at which we need to look and to which we must take a more mature, professional approach. The wage that councillors earn is an insult, to be quite honest. It is not something that Fine Gael created. Successive Governments have denigrated politicians in general. We are not happy unless we are criticising ourselves, getting rid of cars and all these things of which people do not take any notice. They just notice when we do the opposite.

Contributory pensions have to be acknowledged as a positive. Obliging councillors to travel around the country in order to get some money is also an insult. I received a great deal of feedback from councillors to which I will briefly refer because it would be remiss of me not to provide constructive criticism. A number of councillors contacted me to describe the €1,000 figure as miserly and inadequate. Regarding the €5,000 for vouched expenses, some councillors have indicated that it has not been made clear to them what is deemed acceptable as a vouched expense. Others argue that a €5,000 vouched expenses allowance will leave them worse off on the basis of the rules and regulations that apply. I am just giving the feedback. A vouched system is a joke. Why not give €1,000 and increase the existing expenses instead of creating all the hullabaloo to which this proposed change has given rise? I do not want to be overly critical of the Minister of State because he has not created this situation. He is very well placed and I hope that he will really take a lead on it. I wish him good luck with the consultation that will take place in the coming months.

I thank Senator Noone. I apologise for being somewhat strict on time but I am trying to facilitate as many contributions as possible. Senator Gallagher has five minutes.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this very important issue.

My initial thought on what has been presented to use is that it is very disappointing. I will go as far as to say it is insulting to the hard-working local authority members - male and female - who serve their communities so well throughout the country. This Government, like that which preceded it, is presiding over the destruction of local democracy. We are actually chasing people out of their roles as local authority members.

I have read through some of the proposals contained in the Bill. The figure of €1,000 is, as previous speakers indicated, a pittance. The entire document sticks two fingers up to local authority members. I get no satisfaction from saying that. Councillors will be able to claim vouched expenses of up to €5,000 but they will have to send documentation to the relevant local authority each month. This will add to their workload. Instead of trying to reduce their workload, we are adding to it. The expenses for mileage are also very disappointing. The one positive I take from this is the fact that, by his own admission, the Minister of State is a former county councillor and Senator. He should have sympathy and understanding local authority members in the context of the work they do.

The Minister of State referred to a review. I sincerely hope this is not a situation where we are kicking the can down the road. I would like the him to indicate what will be the timeframe for the review and when we can expect the results to be forthcoming.

County councillors do great work. In the Cavan-Monaghan constituency in which I live, three councillors have left during this term and all cited the fact that they found it impossible to hold down jobs while serving as members of the local authority and trying to do their work in this regard properly. It is clear that there is a crisis here. I would ask the Minister of State, as a former councillor, to grasp this opportunity and come back with proposals on a specified timeframe in order that we might not only retain the members of local authorities we are so fortunate to have but also, come the next election, will be able to attract and encourage other people to seek election.

This debate centres on the terms and conditions of councillors. The changes in the Local Government Reform Act 2014, introduced by the Minister's predecessor, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, have not worked. They have increased the workload of each local councillor to an astronomical degree. The Minister of State inherited this problem. It is a major problem because there has been a 40% cull in the number of practitioners of democracy at a local level. Those people have been providing a service. What happens when one takes 40% of the workers out of a factory?

Clearly either one gets robots in to do the work or one increases the workload for the remaining workers. There are 949 workers left in the factory of local democracy and they have an increased workload. The AILG has carried out an analysis on this and I carried out my own analysis as part of a master's degree programme and, according to the councillors themselves, their workload has increased by more than 60% but they are not being remunerated for that. I am sad to say that the proposals brought here today are not sufficient. We can tinker around the edges, talk about €1,000 here, an overnight payment there and so forth but that is not dealing with the problem. The problem is that we are going to lose more councillors from the democratic system because they cannot afford to stay in the system.

We live in a democracy which consists of both democratic and Executive institutions. The proposals before us today have come from the Executive arm of the State and are being forced upon the democratic arm of the State because the former does not hold the latter in high enough regard. Public representatives and the leadership in all political parties - I am not singling any one out for blame here - have an obligation to stand up for those who practice democracy at the local level. Otherwise, it is a race to the bottom. We should not be here today talking about an additional €2.50 per day or an annual allowance of €1,000. That is an absolute travesty. It will not work and we are going to see the further demise of local government as a result. I ask the Minister of State to get the commission up and running immediately.

Who cut their pay on the first day? It was the party of which Senator Ó Domhnaill is a member.

I lay the blame for this at every party's door.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, without interruption please.

The leadership of every party and those who have no party are responsible here. There must be a real willingness among the political establishment to take on the Civil Service and to demand a proper, functioning democracy and to insist that those who provide it are remunerated accordingly. That is not happening at the moment and until we come to that day, we can forget about providing a proper service to the citizen who deserves better. A councillor phoned me the week before Christmas last year and told me that he was not able to buy a turkey to feed his family. That is the situation that the Government and the Opposition are presiding over and it is unacceptable.

We must bring forward the commission immediately and have it report within eight weeks. Let us be imaginative and let us resource the councillors adequately through the provision of pay. Let us forget about all of the other allowances that SIPO and various other quangos are going to scrutinise anyway. Let us pay the people properly for an honest day's work. Let us provide them with a pension. They are going to get the contributory old age pension anyway so let us provide a local authority member's pension in line with the pension provided to local authority employees. Separately to that, let us provide them with proper administrative backup. There was talk here about agency staff but I am not sure if there is an agency in Mayo, Donegal or Sligo that could provide such a service to local councillors. We are trying to recreate the moon here for something that is very simple.

I know that the Minister of State is trying to do his best and I have the highest regard for him. He inherited this problem from former Deputy Phil Hogan, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and is trying to fix it. I stand with him on that. I will help him and work with him in every possible way but we must get real. Otherwise, the foundation of Ireland's democracy is going to fall apart because no new young people are going to go forward at the next local elections.

I am very sorry that not all of those who indicated got a chance to contribute to the debate. The Minister of State has to leave now but he has given a commitment that he will come back next week so that we can continue this discussion.