Gnó an tSeanaid - Business of Seanad

I have received notice from Senator Mark Daly that, on the motion for the Commencement of the House today, he proposes to raise the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to outline when the report by Sara Moorhead, SC, on the role and remuneration of local authority elected members will be published.

I have also received notice from Senator Michelle Mulherin of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to review planning and housing policy so as to regulate and incentivise the construction of modular housing.

I have also received notice from Senator Maria Byrne of the following matter:

The need for the Minister for Health to make a statement on the measures being taken to address the overcrowding in the emergency department at University Hospital Limerick.

The matters raised by the Senators are suitable for discussion and will be taken now.

Local Government Reform

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. We were expecting the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan.

That is not a problem. The Minister of State is welcome so long as he has good answers for my colleagues.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come to the House. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this matter which has been raised in this House many times, namely, the terms and conditions for local public representatives. I thank all my Seanad colleagues in Fianna Fáil for supporting this important matter. Following the local elections, I congratulate all those who were successful in election to local authorities to represent their communities and constituents for the next five years. What concerns me and many of my colleagues is that they are not adequately resourced or compensated for the enormous job they have to do.

There were 1,627 councillors at the election previous to the 2014 election, but going into the 2014 election we were down 678 councillors. We have the lowest public representation per head in the European Union, worse than the United Kingdom which is second lowest. Our figure is one representative for every 4,000 people where the United Kingdom has a representative for every 2,000 people. In France, which is the best, there is one public representative for every 78 citizens. This shows the scale of the gulf between what other European countries do and what we do in Ireland. That is bad enough but the powers given to public representatives at local authority level are the lowest in Europe. The responsibilities given to councillors are the worst in Ireland of all EU states. They must look after more constituents than anywhere else while central government has taken more and more powers and decisions away from them, year in, year out.

The consequence, as we have seen in the local elections, is that some areas had few candidates. In one area, only two candidates were not elected. Many constituencies had 19 and 20 people running for seven seats but in many areas parties - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the rest - struggled to find candidates. Many conventions were not contested because the workload increased while the amount of money that councillors are given and the supports they are given did not. Some councils have secretarial supports for local representatives but this is not uniform, and it must be made so. There have been various proposals. We are anxious to see the report which was supposed to come out at the beginning of the year but has not. Clearly, no one on the Government side wanted it to be published prior to the elections as it might dissuade more people from running. Many people who did not know what the future would hold have decided not to run again.

Will the Minister of State say what is the Government's plan? Why has it not published the report? I hope that when it is released, the Minister will debate it in this House and in the Dáil. At the next local election and the one after that in ten years, there could be entire local electoral areas where there will be no contest. We will be looking for people to run at local authority level. Not only are people struggling because they cannot get supports from the Government and they are not adequately compensated but also they do not have the power that they should have and that other countries give to their local authority members, and that has to be addressed.

It is a two issue problem. The terms and conditions are important because, as the country reaches full employment, people will have more demands on their time and they will not be able to give the time. I note that the survey, which was one of the reasons given for a delay in publishing this report, was based on the previous set of councillors. While many of them have been re-elected, we need to look to the future. As the Minister of State and the Government are well aware, the concern is that very soon we will not have enough people going forward for local elections.

I usually do not make a comment, but as a former local authority member, I wish to acknowledge the great effort by people who put their names forward for election. I congratulate the victors and empathise and sympathise with the vanquished because it is very stressful physically, mentally and emotionally on all those who ran and on their families.

It is particularly good to see young people here in the Gallery, and they are more than welcome. In my own county a young lad of 19 standing as an Independent was elected. In my home village of Schull a young woman of long-standing political pedigree, Katie Murphy of Fine Gael, was elected. I had the good fortune to meet her during the campaign. She is just 20 and still in college. It is great to see the youth involved from whatever party.

I compliment all those who stood. I congratulate those who were successful and sympathise with those who were not. Most of us in this House have been elected by local authority members. I wanted to make that comment in as balanced a way as possible. I apologise to the Minister of State. I will let him give the formal answer Senator Daly is seeking. I am sure he has good news for him.

I wish to be associated with your remarks, a Chathaoirligh, and those of Senator Daly. I thank him for raising the issue which is very important. It is certainly timely given that we have more or less completed all the counts of the local elections. I congratulate all those who were successful in winning a seat in recent days. I commiserate with and thank all those who ran but were not successful. Many knew it might have been difficult to start out in their first campaign. The majority have to run once or twice to become councillors and they should not lose hope. It is a big deal for people to decide to put their names forward in a public contest and face public scrutiny. We all know now that politics has changed considerably, with the scrutiny of people's work, their families' work, their background, history and so forth. It is a big deal to agree to run. It is great when it works out and one wins, but it can be hard for those who lose. I again thank all the candidates because democracy is very important. We fought hard for it and it is important for us to respect that at every opportunity.

I note all the young people present and it is great to see so many young candidates becoming involved. A big issue in the campaign was climate change, and that agenda was certainly driven by the young people in Ireland and across Europe, and rightly so. I congratulate them on doing that as it means they are also involved in politics from a very young age.

The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I are very passionate about local government. As a Minister of State in the Department looking after local government and electoral reform, I want to ensure that the critical role of local councillors is clearly defined and fairly remunerated. Everybody recognises the pressures on that job and the long hours the majority of councillors put in over many days a week. It has been well commented on here.

I am strongly of the view that councillors must be appropriately supported and that they need to carry out their work effectively and to the highest standards of integrity, transparency and accountability. To do that they need to be well remunerated and well supported throughout the system. To that end and taking on board significant concerns raised by councillors and in debates in this House regarding the current remuneration regime, we agreed with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to commission a review of the role and remuneration of councillors.

On 21 June, 2018, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, appointed Ms Sara Moorhead SC to carry out an independent review. Ms Moorhead has consulted widely with local authority elected members and their representative organisations, political parties, local authority chief executives and other appropriate stakeholders. Ms Moorhead submitted an interim report to the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, which was published in November 2018.

It was necessary to survey all local authority members and to seek financial information from all local authorities to progress towards the final report. The survey has now been completed and the financial data collected. In both cases, deadline extensions were granted to allow sufficient time for comprehensive responses to be made. The delays were not of the Government's making but were due to requests and to ensure all the responses would be received in time. The drafting of the final report is progressing well and the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, expects to receive it shortly.

Following the necessary consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the review will be submitted to Government in due course and published thereafter. The review will more comprehensively define the role of councillor. This informs the examination of the current system of remuneration for councillors, with a view to proposals for a remuneration package that is modernised and representative of, and commensurate with, the role. Supports to councillors of a non-remuneration nature are also considered and are important, as Senator Daly noted.

Recognising that immediate action was required, and separate to the review, we have made a range of improvements to the supports provided to councillors, although we know they are only a step in the right direction. These include providing for a new allowance for councillors of €1,000 per annum, backdated to 1 July 2017, in recognition of the additional workload following the 2014 reforms and the greater areas being covered. Certainly, massive areas have to be covered in counties such as Mayo, Roscommon or Kerry, which is well recognised. We also introduced new optional vouched expenses of up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, which councillors may opt for in place of the existing unvouched allowance of up to €2,500 per annum. That has worked out quite well for many councillors, who are able to spend that money wisely on the supports they need to be able to do their job. In addition, the representational payment paid to councillors, which is linked to a Senator’s salary, was increased to €17,060 per annum with effect from 1 October 2018. I understand it is to be increased further in line with adjustments arising from the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020.

I welcome the continued interest of Seanad Members in this matter and I thank the Senator for placing it on today’s agenda. I confirm that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, will brief him further once the report is finalised and published in the near future.