Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 1 Dec 1993


I move:

In page 10, line 3, to delete "The Minister shall by order appoint a day to" and substitute "1st January, 1994 shall".

Before we commence, it has been agreed that we will adjourn for lunch from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. and also from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. to facilitate Members who are receiving deputations. We will resume at 5 p.m. to finish. Is that agreed?

I wish to query that.

This Bill must be finished today.

The Taoiseach's Question Time is a matter of some importance.

We could break for lunch at 1.30 p.m. and resume at 3 p.m.

The Taoiseach is due to be questioned about the Summit meeting and, presumably, there is an interest in that.

We can break from 1.30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.

This minor amendment proposes that the establishment day, 1 January 1994, be stated in the legislation. It would save the Minister being obliged to write or sign documents over the festive season.

I understand the reason for the amendment and I am determined that establishment day will be 1 January. The reason for the flexibility is in case of any unforeseen event. I do not want to be absolutely tied should something happen which would make that impossible.

I will not hold up the discussion on this.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 7 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 10, before section 8, to insert the following new section:

"8.—Elections for the Councils of South Dublin County Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council shall be held on 9th June, 1994; and thereafter, succeeding elections shall be held in the month of June at five-yearly intervals.".

We are establishing new county councils under this Bill. Although the elections held in 1991 were on the basis of the electoral counties of Fingal, South Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, most voters in those elections, if asked, would say that they voted in elections to Dublin County Council or Dún Laoghaire Corporation. The people who realised that they voted for members of the new county councils would be the few well informed followers of local government politics in those counties.

A great deal of work has been done since 1991 to pave the way for the establishment of the new county councils. That has included a certain amount of publicity to bring it to the attention of citizens that they will be citizens of new local authorities from 1 January 1994. However, in order to give the new county councils full democratic legitimacy it will be necessary for fresh elections to be held to these county councils.

This amendment proposes that, coinciding with the elections to the European Parliament due to be held on 9 June 1994, there should be fresh elections to the three county councils on that date. That is probably the best way of involving the public in a practical way in the establishment of the new authorities. It will give the public a great interest in the establishment of the new authorities. It should bring home to the public, in a real way, that these are new county councils. In the interests of democracy an opportunity should be given to the public to vote afresh for these new authorities to ensure that they start off their life with a fresh democratic mandate.

There are probably many other reasons why it would be useful to have fresh elections in what was the old County Dublin. It would be interesting, for example, to ascertain the view of the people of County Dublin on the performance of the members they elected in 1991, especially in relation to the review of the County Development Plan which is now complete. Many people in County Dublin at the time of the 1991 elections believed they had elected a county council with was going to care for the environment of County Dublin. There is a great deal of disappointment among them that what they thought was a council with a greener tinge which they elected in 1991 has turned out to be not much better, if at all, than the councils which preceded it as far as their attitude to rezoning land and the development, extension and problem of urban sprawl around County Dublin. That is a political reason for holding fresh elections. However, the most important reason is that of democratic principle. The elected members of the new councils were elected in 1991 to electoral counties, but there was not the same public understanding in 1991, as there is at present, that the candidates were being elected to new county councils.

This is a worthwhile amendment, but Deputy Gilmore's last point may be sufficient reason for the Minister not to accept it. However, I hope that the Minister will consider the broader rather than the political perspective for the reason that there is a feeling, which is recognised in Government, of cynicism regarding politics in general. The welcome, if overdue, ethics Bill is part of the effort to tackle and dispel that cynicism. This cynicism also relates to local government and this amendment would help the same process at local level.

In my area of Ballbriggan there are town commissioners. I am aware that town commissioners are established by a slightly different electoral process, but given that they have been in the same position since 1985 the make-up of that body has been altered because of the long time span through death, ilness, absence due to change of life, or the tiredness of members waiting for changes in legislation to catch up with the changing nature of local politics. This amendment attempts to tackle that lingerng feeling which exists in local politics and the cynicism which that breeds.

The reference to rezoning is an issue about which I feel especially sensitive. Unless that investigation is carried out fully this election would be a trial by the electorate of the various allegations that were made over the past few months. That is not the way matters should proceed. Such allegations should be clarified before the election and I hope such clarification will be made before June 1994. I would agree with an amnesty being declared for the purposes of getting witnesses to acquaint the Garda Síochána of all that they are aware is happening. At present there is a reticence and an unwillingness that is impeding the investigation, which I hope will be concluded well before the date indicated in the amendment.

If the amendment is accepted it will serve to accelerate the investigation process and open up the possibility of an amnesty to allow that to happen. There would then be some conclusive end result to that investigation which at present is stuck because of the fear some people have of revealing what they know. I am concerned about that and perhaps the Minister would comment on that.

We will not be supporting this amendment for different reasons, which I will indicate presently, even though I see some merit in allowing the electorate in the three new authorities to make up their own minds on the basis of who they wish to represent them and perhaps also on the basis of who they would like to control their development plans for the years to come, especially in areas where there has been some unhappiness and unease about proceedings on Dublin County Council in recent years. However, we should make it clear that the vast majority of councillors — in fact, any councillor I know, of any political persuasion — does his or her work diligently.

While there have been allegations in relation to what we call the rezoning controversy nothing has been proved. That should be made clear. Any investigation the Minister has underway should be thorough and every effort should be made available to ensure that every councillor who has nothing to fear, will have his of her good name restored and that everyone will not be tarred with the one brush.

If there have been instances which would not bring credit to local government in terms of how decisions were arrived at in relation to the review of the County Development Plan, we need to be aware of them.

I have no evidence of brown paper bags being passed or of any other types of inducements, but to read the press or to listen to those who claim to be close to what is going on, one might be led to believe that all is not as it should be. The Minister should bring his investigation to a conclusion and consider the point I made some months ago that, if necessary, to ensure that the truth will out witnesses should be free from prosecution.

I am not referring to those involved; I am not speaking of cases where, it was subsequently proved that any councillor had behaved as he or she should not have done, but of the many of the fringes who were involved or were allegedly involved. If information can be forthcoming the Minister owes it not only to Dublin County councillors — any of whom I know have acted according to the principles of good local government — but to local government throughout Ireland to clarify the procedure by which development plans are reviewed. He should also indicate that the method Dublin County Council used to review its development plan was above board. At least let us not smear all councillors with the same innuendo and allegation and see if there is any truth in what at this point are only allegations in relation to procedures.

We will not be supporting the amendment because the co-ordination of local government elections is rather chaotic at present. I gather from the Minister's answer to my parliamentary question in the Dáil yesterday that urban elections will be held on 9 June next year, the same day as the European Parliament elections. That will be three or more years after the date from which they were originally postponed. It will also be three years since the county council elections took place. If elections to the three new county councils were held next June they would be out of step with the other county councils. That would add to the chaos in local government elections.

Could the Minister say what his plans are for bringing the councils into line again? The urban elections are due next year and the county council elections are due two years later. Would it be possible to have local government elections every seven years, which would probably be sufficient? The nine years we have had the present urban authorities, be they town commissioners or corporations, have proved there is a natural timespan for any elected body. The best before date for the present urban authorities has long since passed, for the reasons Deputy Sargent gave. There is a general jadedness in the appearance, profile and interest of the members. The electorate's interest in their representatives has also waned. Some members have become old, or tired; others have lost interest, or moved house or job. The bodies are no longer representative.

In considering this amendment I ask the Minister to advise the House of his thoughts on this area. Could all local government elections be brought back in step by postponing county council elections and making the period for seven years? The urban elections could be held next June, on the same date in 1997 and then every seven years local government elections could be held. They should be then kept strictly in line. That is a possible way to proceed. If matters stay as they are, the urban elections will be held June 9 next and the county council elections two years later. There seems to be no point in having them out of step with whatever urban structure the Minister will put in place. His views would be welcome. Could he also confirm that the two by-elections will be held on June 9? It would tidily complete the picture?

Deputy Doyle, by-elections are far from this amendment.

I will return to the amendment straight away. Since we are talking about possible local government elections next June, could the Minister say what he proposes to do about the future of town commissioners? Chairman, I shall move on now.

Where will the Deputy move to this time?

Back to the amendment. Excellent points have been made by the previous two speakers, but we shall not support the amendment because of concern about the untidiness of local government elections and the need to bring them into line. We would not like to see two phases of county council elections, which would happen if three county councils were elected on June 9 next and the others elected two years from that date. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

The next to speak will be Deputy Broughan, followed by Deputy Currie and Deputy Keogh. I do not wish to sound divisive, but I ask Members to be as brief as possible in making their points. There are 56 amendments to the Bill and we are now on amendment No. 10. The committee is aware that we have had to curtail our time today to facilitate Members. I do not mind staying here until 12 o'clock tonight if need be, or indeed the following morning. However, we could be dealing with the amendments much more quickly. I call Deputy Broughan.

I accept that Deputy Gilmore has due cause to put forward this type of amendment, given the issue of rezoning. Deputy Doyle's words are merely pious, because no matter what investigation will be carried out we will not find any smoking guns. This Minister has made clear his disapproval of the planning shenanigans in Dublin County Council during the last year and a half. The real question is why we expect part-time councillors, whether working or unemployed, to make huge decisions about the future of this city under the current system of local government. It is extremely unfair to them. Having said that, there is no doubt a number of councillors made extraordinary decisions for reasons that are impossible to comprehend and an investigation is necessary.

When the new council was elected in 1991 there was an expectation throughout the city and county that we were entering a new era. My party, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Community Group, The Greens, The Workers Party and subsequently Democratic Left all tried to bring forward a vision of how Dublin should develop over the next five years. The council of which I am a member is in the middle of that process. We are similarly well embarked on the process for the three new counties and the area committees. Deputy Gilmore's colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, has a clear line of policy which he has advanced while chairman during the final period of Dublin County Council.

To be fair to the great majority of the 78 councillors, they should be allowed serve out their term as the first councillors of the three new counties. Then in 1996 the electorate will assess them on their work during the previous five years and, to echo Deputy Gilmore's point, to assess a number of people. I do not expect we will ever find a smoking gun or that any brown paper bags will be presented in evidence in court. Having said that, it would be fair to allow councillors to serve their term and then be judged by the people of Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. They will remember the behaviour of a number of councillors.

Chairman, I will abide by your advice and be as brief as possible. I have expressed on a number of occasions my concern about some of the rezonings by Dublin County Council. I have put down amendment No. 18 in order to deal with some of these problems. It is necessary to emphasise that we should not tar all of the councillors with the same brush, as Deputy Doyle has said. We should not say anything that would cast suspicion over individual members of the council; that would be unfair. The allegations made are serious and to some extent they have lowered local authority members in the esteem of the public. Any allegation of impropriety does that. We hoped certain past occurrences would disappear because of the fate of certain candidates at the 1991 election, but these allegations have resurfaced.

I am therefore strongly in favour of the Minister declaring an amnesty. It might not only encourage councillors, but also people against whom allegations have been made, to come forward in the knowledge that they could give the information and would not risk prosecution as a result. I agree with Deputy Broughan that smoking guns are unlikely to be found, but at least in an amnesty there is a better chance. This should be done in the interest of democracy. It is the interest of all councillors, particularly the innocent ones, that the general public should see that the maximum effort has been made to get the truth about any allegations and suspicions that are floating about. I encourage the Minister to grant such an amnesty.

In relation to time limits on councils, it really is undemocratic that councils elected in 1985 should still be in existence. By the time the election comes those councillors will have served nine years in office. That is ludicrous. Those responsible — I do not care which party or Government were involved — would need to have a good reason for postponing these elections, where people elected for three to four years end up serving nine years. I do not wish to prolong the business of the committee, but I remember being surprised on one occasion when I was in Taiwan to find that their legislature consisted to a substantial extent of people who were elected either in 1949 or before they left the mainland to go to Taiwan. They were continuing in office and representing constituencies in New York, San Francisco, Rome and other places. I do not suggest that this could happen as far as Balbriggan councillors are concerned, but if one serves for nine years as the result of one election, it is a substantial start.

There is a certain tradition in this country, among people with a certain strand of so called "republican" opinion, which asserted that only those elected to the second Dáil had any legitimacy. Therefore, the last surviving member of the second Dáil, who died recently, was up to then the Government of this country. We do not only have to look at the Chinese, we can look at our own situation. Nine years is a fair start and whatever happens in future, that sort of practice ought to be controlled because it is a violation of democracy.

This amendment has again succeeded in throwing up a debate on the controversial rezonings of Dublin County Council. The investigation is to be pursued most vigorously and I hope that what Deputy Broughan said about no smoking gun being found is correct. If there is no smoking gun found, I hope it is because the allegations are untrue. If the allegations are true, I sincerely hope that the culprits will be brought to justice.

Politicians are not held in the highest regard — it is like giving a dog a bad name — in this country and that impinges on us all as politicians. At a time when there is a lot of business controversy as well as this unfavourable attitude towards politicians, I have often said that I was nearly embarrassed to tell people that I was a businesswoman and they looked at me twice when I said I went into politics. I feel strongly that one must uphold the highest standards in public life. Not only must this be done, but it must also be seen to be done.

The Government refers to transparency in its Programme for a Partnership Government and that should hold true for every aspect of public life. I am pleased that an investigation has begun, but I would like to see its findings. I believe it will be absolutely thorough and that those of us who feel we are tarred with the same brush as people who have something to answer for will feel vindicated as a result. It is grossly unfair to have this blanket condemnation of people who are in the main assiduous, decent and hard working. If there are a few individuals responsible for damning the rest, they should be weeded out and removed from not only Dublin County Council but any county council.

When Deputy Gilmore was framing this amendment I thought it would be to do with the five year term of office for councillors. I believe that it is undemocratic to have the power that one can postpone elections. All county councils should have to adhere to that rule. I do not like the way it is framed here, although I have a certain sympathy with the people in the new county councils because they would have to put themselves before the electorate again. I would not like to stand for another election next year — every politician feels the same way — but I would not have any fears about putting myself before the electorate and I would be confident in doing so.

I am mainly concerned with the situation in the county councils, and especially the urban district councils, because it is currently a farce. It is beyond belief that people can be in an elected office for nine years; it is like a banana republic. I am pleased that the Minister has said that elections will take place next June. I would adhere to the principle that there should never be a postponement of elections. It is undemocratic and it gives people the opportunity to sidle out of responsibilities they would rather not face.

I believe — and Deputy Doyle made this point — that all county council elections should occur at the same time. It would be utterly unmanageable to have separate sets of elections within different county councils. It is unmanageable for that reason, but I would agree with the principle of it. Perhaps it might be possible to reframe an amendment for Report Stage which might take the five year principle on board.

I sympathise with you, Chairman, in trying to rein in the debate on these matters. Most of us know that Deputy Doyle has a special interest in the equine business, but whatever coach she was driving this morning it has gone off the track on a number of occasions.

Deputy Currie was not reined in and I did not go as far as Taiwan.

I am going to relieve some of the pressure by telling the Deputies that the by-elections will be held in 1994. Synchronisation of local elections is a priority. When arguments are made about not having elections in 1996, I would say that whoever is successfully re-elected to an urban or other council in June 1994, and should there be elections in 1996, will have gone before the electorate twice in 11 years. There are people sitting here who have gone to the electorate three times in 18 months. This puts it into perspective. In this Bill we will not get into deciding the postponement or otherwise of due elections.

In relation to the question of having a five year term, the Local Government Electoral Acts specify the time limit. There is something to be said for taking that away from the business of postponement, except where there are exceptional circumstances. If we were to move down that road I am sure Deputies would appreciate that perhaps the term of Government should be set rather than——

The Minister might get some support on that around this table.

——the practice that we all underwent in the early eighties and the resulting instability, costs and losses.

That demand first surfaced 150 years ago in the Chartist movement.

It is for a wider debate and so also are some elements of planning which will arise later. We will not get into that business here. We have no real chance and I have made public my views on this. The question of the adoption of the plan is now a matter for the final stages of decision at council level and I am reserving my position.

I am very proud of the fact that I am a politician. I very much resent loose statements about public cynicism as if everyone who says something derogatory about a politician represents the total public view. I say that as somebody who represents a marginal seat constituency where there has been, on about four or five occasions, the highest turnout of an electorate anywhere in the country. I pay due respect to all those who support our system and who may have differences of one sort or other. I will not go down the road of believing that just because there are problems from time to time the public has lost support for our democratic system and the Independents and various party nominees who go forward. There are individuals in every profession, it is not just associated with politics, who occasionally take decisions with which many of us might not agree. I would like to put every other profession up for the same scrutiny and see what would emerge before the public. I will not stand back from supporting many of the colleagues, in every political party, with whom I worked over a long period and who have the credentials, integrity and ability to work in difficult, strained circumstances, facing contradictory public demands.

There is no easy solution to planning with which everybody will agree. Sometimes if one is satisfied one is not anxious to look at the needs of others. It is a complicated area and the best we can do, when we are satisfied that the very many people in public life and local councils throughout the country are doing their best, is to support their efforts. At the same time, where they are not doing that we should not be shy in pointing it out and resolving the position as best we can.

I will leave that aside and deal with the amendment. The council elections were held in 1991 — Deputy Gilmore knew I would say this — and everybody going before that electorate went in the electoral counties. The number was increased from 36 to 78. They went forward for a five-year span and they would now be put out of step with all other councils around the country.

One point I wish to make — it has not been made, although almost every other point has been covered — is that there is a good reason for some type of continuity, as we move into the transitional period in the next couple of years, for the people who have the experience and who have been involved in the reorganisational arrangements and all of the tedious work that has been done to get this process to the stage it is at now. The sensible approach is ultimate synchronisation of all local elections, not putting the counties out of step with the rest of the counties and allowing for considerable continuity in the exrecise of this whole operational process at the present time. That is the sensible and only course we should take.

We have had a very wide ranging debate, from the town commissioners in Taiwan to Chinese leaders in north County Dublin. Regarding the question of the public perception of politicians, it is time that we began to put greater emphasis on the fact that whatever individuals from time to time may think of individual politicians, or politicians collectively, people who are in public life are accountable to their electorate and can be changed, removed or replaced by the electorate. People who are critical of politicans have the option of putting themselves forward for election. We are in the unique position of having that degree of public accountability which is not shared by, for example, the readers of a newspaper who may feel bad about the editor but who cannot do anything about it, whereas something can be done about a politician. That is as it should be and that is the essence of democracy.

This is why I am keen that there should be fresh elections to the three new county councils now being established. I have given the reason already. It would be a public vote of confidence in the establishment of the new councils if there were these fresh elections. On the question of synchronisation, there is no absolute need to have the elections to every council synchronised and on the same day. That does not happen in other countries where there are local elections perhaps only in one part of the country. It is not happening here either as the elections to the county councils were held in 1991 and the urban elections will now be held in 1994. As has been mentioned, by-elections are now almost a year overdue.

The Deputy is wandering.

The Chairman is very prickly. Taiwan is all right but not the by-elections.

The Chairman is anxious that we should not mention the by-elections. I am surprised at that because as a Deputy for Sligo-Leitrim, I thought you would have——

You mean you want me to take my holidays in West Mayo.

——been keen to have them. On the question of the relationship between the holding of these elections and what has happened on Dublin County Council over the past two years or so with the review of the development plan, it is very regrettable that what happened has resulted in a Garda investigation. My understanding is that that Garda investigation is continuing. It is regrettable from the point of view of public confidence in local politics. It may be, and I am inclined to agree with some of the points that have been made, that a smoking gun may not be found. It took a long time to find the smoking guns in Italy and that has had fairly devastating electoral consequences recently.

The immunity from prosecution for witnesses was the real factor there.

It was a long time coming. If there was never a question of corruption in the process by which Dublin County Council arrived at its decisions on the review of the development plan, there would still be a case for having elections to these new councils. No matter on what basis decisions were made about rezoning particular plots of land, ultimately a question of public interest comes into it. The public of County Dublin, manifested in the three new counties that are now being established, should have the right to decide who the members of those councils should be. They may decide not to re-elect certain members of the council, as the people of County Dublin did in 1991. In 1991 planning was an issue and the people of County Dublin exercised a skilful degree of surgery on members of the county council who were perceived to be abusing their position with regard to planning decisions.

A Garda inquiry which may not get anywhere is not the only way to deal with the situation in Dublin County Council. The people should be given the opportunity to make those elected in 1991 accountable. For the reasons I stated, they should be made accountable now. I want to put the amendment to the committee because we have had a long discussion on it.

This discussion may help us with future amendments.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 8 agreed to.