Adjournment Debate. - Appointment of Rate Collectors.

Tuesday, 18 April 1972

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 260 No. 3

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Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  My purpose in raising this matter on the Adjournment is to expose what many consider to be a national scandal. I refer to the current system of appointment of rate collectors by county councils. There is evidence—there has been evidence for many decades now—of blatent political corruption in the making of these appointments. To the most unenlightened political observer it is obvious that there is extreme political chicanery in operation. It is obvious too that political patronage of the most perverse kind exercises considerable influence in these appointments. It is obvious there is bribery—I use the term advisedly—in some of these appointments. It is obvious that there is rank political jobbery with its con-commitant corruption. There is also evidence of nepotism. All this is, I submit, both undesirable and unhealthy in an alleged democratic system of local government, a system which should be seen by the electorate to have elementary integrity, and it is [513] both undemocratic and unhealthy to allow the present system to continue.

I have been in political life now for 15 years. I know very many councillors from many political parties. I know a number of rate collectors. I know that aspirants to the job of rate collector must be prepared to offer bribes, bribes equivalent to a year's salary, in advance if one wants to get the job. The instructions sent out by county secretaries to applicants specifies that there must be no question of using influence and no question of canvassing. Both are allegedly prohibited. Nevertheless corruption takes place.

Who gets these jobs, one may ask? Is it an ordinary unemployed worker? I doubt it very much. Is it someone from the ranks of the ordinary working people seeking promotion? I doubt it very much. Are these jobs given on merit? Again, I doubt it very much. Are they given on the basis that the person appointed will be full-time and permanently employed? I doubt it very much. We have evidence to the contrary. These appointments are given to political supporters. Those appointed may be farmers seeking an additional perk, or shop keepers wanting a second income. It may be a local auctioneer looking for a sideline. It may be a middleman. These are the kind of people who seek such appointments. One has to be a person of some political substance and influence.

Many councillors will maintain that the appointment of rate collectors is one of the few reserved functions they possess and to take this power from them would be to lesson their democratic rights and would be hurtful to their efforts at local democracy. I suggest that it is a perversion of democratic procedure to continue to tolerate such an alleged right. It is no secret that the party which benefits most and which has practised this odious perversion most is the Government party, the majority party in many county councils. In saying this, I do not exonerate Labour and Fine Gael councillors who might feel they should share in this kind of practice. The fact is we cannot tolerate this from any political party. I am convinced that the leader of my party shares the view that [514] it is high time for a general reform and if the Minister wants support in bringing in reform he will have the support of the leader of the Labour Party in that reform. I am confident that the spokesman on local government in the Labour Party, Deputy Sean Treacy, would wish to see a reformed system introduced. None of us has precise ideas as to the areas of reform, but we would all wish to see councillors relieved of the pestering which goes on in relation to these appointments of rate collector.

I have never heard the Taoiseach on the occasions on which this matter has been raised say that he is opposed to the present method of appointment. With his typical ambivalent attitude, he will simply say to one to go ahead and bring in the reforms or he will maintain an utter silence and exhibit a hypocritical innocence. Deputy Cosgrave has not spoken out against this system. In respect of a recent appointment in Dublin County Council he saw his party take its share of the loot. He did not say: “Let us call a halt to this”.

Mr. Coogan: Information on Fintan Coogan  Zoom on Fintan Coogan  What happened in Limerick?

Mr. Corish: Information on Brendan Corish  Zoom on Brendan Corish  Deputy Desmond is not exonerating anybody.

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  I exonerate nobody —Labour, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. We had a typical example in Dublin on 14th March last when two brothers of two councillors, one Fine Gael and one Fianna Fáil, were appointed as rate collectors. Kevin McMahon, a brother of Councillor Larry McMahon, who is also a TD, got one of the jobs and the other was given to Mr. Tom Murphy, brother of Councillor Jim Murphy. These were not selected by the Labour councillors, the Fine Gael councillors and the Fianna Fáil councillors working together. They were selected in the back rooms of both political parties. That is where they were selected.

Recently in Donegal we had evidence of a newfound conscience by the Fianna Fáil Party. Senator Bernard McGlinchey, who is going to purify the remnants of Deputy Blaney's rate [515] collectorships, has now taken over. He stated that educational qualifications are not necessary and a knowledge of the Irish language is not necessary either. That is what Senator Bernard McGlinchey said as reported in the Sunday Independent. Indeed, in an area where many electors speak the native language, in a Gaeltacht area, Senator Bernard McGlinchey, because he has to ensure that “a certain very important person in Fianna Fáil” gets the job, a person who is not qualified educationally nor qualified to speak the Irish language, Senator Bernard McGlinchey, the heir apparent of Deputy Jack Lynch in Donegal, decides that he is going to screw this job out of the corrupt system and by about 16 votes to ten the man got the job and the Minister for Local Government has the responsibility of sanctioning that kind of approach or not.

With respect to County Dublin or Donegal and I represent a part of County Dublin, we are not the only people who act undemocratically and act with injustice on our hands on such a matter. The Minister is well aware of this. How many rate collectorships in County Galway go to anybody other than a Fianna Fáil nominee? Deputy Coogan could, perhaps, inform us. I do not intend ever to be a Senator. I would rather emigrate than be a Senator because I would never, I am sure, get the votes of the county councillors. I am sure anyway the Minister is aware that in County Galway Fianna Fáil rule the roost.

Mr. Coogan: Information on Fintan Coogan  Zoom on Fintan Coogan  Last Monday week.

Mr. Molloy: Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  Sinn Féin.

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  County Carlow in a fortnight's time. County Meath in another fortnight. I gather that in County Galway the Fianna Fáil bloc vote is exercised with such skill under PR that they can put forward two nominees and know that one or other is a certainty to get the job. It is down to a fine art in County Galway. Deputy Bobby Molloy knows of the protests in this House when ratepayers in County Galway have had to go [516] through pubs, into backyards, to pay their rates and so on. We have protested about that kind of practice. Whether it is Dublin, Galway, Donegal or elsewhere the notorious practice is there and it is something which should be stopped. It gives me no pleasure to raise it.

Is this the kind of democracy into which we would invite the minority and the majority of Northern Ireland? Who are we to dare to lecture the Unionist Party on corruption in the matter of public appointments? Who are we in the Republic and who, above all, are the Fianna Fáil Party to issue such strictures? They are a political party who have been in office for so long and have had umpteen opportunities to remedy this. Therefore, I want to assert that the Government party in particular—the party in power has the prime responsibility in this area—is, indeed, just as corrupt as the most hard-faced, wheeler-dealer, bigoted member of an Orange Lodge in Northern Ireland when it comes to giving jobs to the boys. We cannot tolerate this situation any longer. Are we to invite into the new Ireland the Taoiseach talks about or the Ireland of the Seventies that Deputy Dr. Hillery talks so fluently about—he is not very articulate at the best of times —the people of Northern Ireland, into that kind of political situation?

It gives me no pleasure to raise this and may be the Minister will reply that I am casting aspersions on unfortunate rate collectors. I simply state the practice and I do not propose to impute anything to any particular rate collector. I am attacking basically the system. If there is a corrupt system the temptation is to avail of it. The Irish Local Government and Public Services Union has repeatedly, at successive annual conferences, asked the Minister to change the system of appointment, to change what they have called a rotten system of corruption. There are many areas where the Minister can bring in reforms.

Mr. Crowley: Information on Florence Crowley  Zoom on Florence Crowley  Why did Labour not do it when they were in government?

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  We were never in government, Flor, and you need not worry, if we were we would do it.

[517]Mr. Crowley: Information on Florence Crowley  Zoom on Florence Crowley  You appointed a son of a Labour Minister as a rate collector.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin  Zoom on Cormac Breslin  Deputy Desmond.

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  I assure Deputy Crowley that I will advise him about what happened in Cork County Council.

Mr. Crowley: Information on Florence Crowley  Zoom on Florence Crowley  Michael Pat Murphy will fix you. You would do anything for publicity.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin  Zoom on Cormac Breslin  Order.

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  The Minister should consider amending the County Management Act, 1940, in terms of the reserved function. He could easily insist that there be introduced the system that operates in the urban area generally. There are substantial variations available to the Minister. I am referring now to county council rate collector appointments. The whole procedure could be developed on the Local Appointments Commission. I do not think that is necessary. I think we have a much more effective system in operation. In Dublin Corporation we have a special system for the creation of such collectorships. It is a question of internal competition. Notices are made out, basic educational standards apply, a full interview system is in operation by an impartial general board composed of representatives of the legal, the valuation and the personnel departments of that corporation. They do the general interviewing and candidates emerge on merit. This is the most fair system and the most effective.

The Minister should not adopt the attitude of wiping his hands clean and saying this is the responsibility of any county council who wants to do it and that he as Minister will support it. This is not good enough. He should take his courage in his hands and not slide away from the responsibility which is his. We should not bring democracy into disrepute any further. The electorate are disillusioned and disenchanted enough with Dáil Éireann. The electorate are apathetic enough in relation to Dáil Éireann, cynical enough about politicians, but [518] when there is exhibited, as in recent weeks, such examples of political corruption then it is high time the Minister stood up and said he will change the system for the better and make it much more effective and democratic than it is at present.

Minister for Local Government (Mr. Molloy): Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  I should like to correct the impression given by Deputy Desmond when he referred to the vacancy for a rate collector in Donegal. I did not give my sanction; I refused to give it to the person proposed by Donegal County Council as that person did not meet the minimum qualifications required for the post.

I should like to draw a clear distinction between the role of the Minister and that of the local authority. Under the law as it stands the actual selection of county rate collectors who possess the standard qualifications as regards age, health and education is solely a matter for the county council. It is true that at one stage the appointment was subject to the sanction of the Minister but this power, together with a wide range of other powers, was devolved on local authorities on 2nd March, 1970. The usual criticism is that too much power is centred in the Custom House and this devolution was one of a series of steps to meet that type of criticism. The recent appointments in Dublin, assuming that the persons appointed possessed the qualifications declared for the office, are entirely a matter for the county council. It is possible to question the wisdom of a policy of devolution not only in relation to the appointment of rate collectors but many other matters in relation to which allegations are often made. I am only mentioning this in passing. My main purpose is to stress that the appointments referred to are entirely within the competence of the county council and that no proposals were submitted to me as this was not necessary.

I should like to outline briefly the relevant procedures dealing with this matter. Under the provisions of section 16 (7) of the County Management Act, 1940, the appointment of county rate collectors is reserved to the elected county members. All other appointments [519] are executive functions, that is, the appointments are made by the managers. But, subject to some preliminary procedures aimed at establishing that candidates have the necessary qualifications, the actual selection of the collectors is left to each local authority to decide for itself. The method of selection generally used is that of selection by ballot by the elected members. Some local authorities have resorted to the appointment of county council officials as office rate collectors.

The power of the county council to decide the method of selection is given in Article 26 (g) of the Local Government Officers Regulations, 1943. Specific sanction of the Minister to the individual appointments is no longer required because general sanctions have been given to local authorities covering a wide range of staff matters and I have referred to that.

Arguments which have been put forward in the past by county councillors for retaining the present system are that the appointment of rate collectors could be said to be related to the council's control of financial and rating matters; that the office of rate collector does not require the qualities best assessed by competition or interview; that it is important that a local man be selected who will have knowledge of and be sympathetic with local conditions and the financial circumstances of the ratepayers. As against this, it is well known that there is extensive canvassing before appointments and the possibility of underhand abuses always exist under the present system.

To remove this power from the elected members would require amending legislation. In March, 1955, a proposal to change the method of appointment of rate collectors was put to a free vote of the Dáil and was lost by 77 votes to 18. The proposal was by way of an amendment to the City and County Management (Amendment) Bill, 1954. The arguments which were used by those who were opposing the amendment were to the effect that this represented a whittling down of the existing powers of members of local authorities.

[520] I have gone back to that debate and, contrary to what Deputy Desmond has been saying here that if Labour were in government they certainly would have changed this law, it is rather strange that a Labour Deputy, who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government at that time, defended the present system. I should like to quote from the Official Report of the 29th March, 1955. This Deputy, the Parliamentary Secretary at that time, said:

When I sought the votes of the people of my native constituency for the 14th time during the last general election campaign I promised them, among other things, that I would use my influence to secure the restoration of some of the powers that had been taken away from local authorities by the various City and County Management Acts, Acts against which I myself have voted on almost every occasion. I never even hinted privately or publicly, either in my election address or in any speech, that I would proceed to take from local authorities one of the few powers left in their possession.

In addition to that, I was present with the Minister when he met a very representative group of the members of the Laois County Council. There are three groups there, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. There are no Independents. On that occasion they unanimously asked the Minister to allow them to retain this power of appointing rate collectors.

When it went to a vote, it was a free vote and quite a number of influential Labour Members voted to retain the present system. Among those were Deputy James Everett and Deputy William Norton, who was the leader of the Labour Party at that time. Both of these gentlemen have since——

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  It is significant that the Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy the Minister has mentioned are dead and buried.

Mr. Molloy: Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  ——passed on to their reward. May they rest in peace. That was the position at that time.

Mr. Corish: Information on Brendan Corish  Zoom on Brendan Corish  How did I vote at that time?

[521]Mr. Molloy: Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  Deputy Corish, of course, did the cute thing and did not turn up for the vote that day.

Mr. Corish: Information on Brendan Corish  Zoom on Brendan Corish  I am on record in the House as supporting the views that Deputy Desmond has put forward tonight.

Mr. Molloy: Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  To come to the posts that are referred to in the newspaper report. These posts that the newspaper refers to were new posts which the council created after an intensive examination of their collection areas and which examination, in the local authority's view, established that the rate collector was more successful and less costly than the office method of collecting. That was their opinion at that time. The question that the Deputy has raised here on the Adjournment states that the method of appointment of rate collectors has been criticised from time to time by the Irish Local [522] Government and Public Services Union. This may be so but no recent communication from the union about this appears to be on record in the Department.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that, as I have indicated here, this is a matter which has been considered on a number of occasions in the House. It was considered in 1940 and again in 1955 and, as is evident from what I have said, opinions differed among the Opposition parties who were in Government at that time. The Fine Gael and Labour Members differed on it. All I can say finally is that when the House gets an opportunity to discuss legislation dealing with the general question of the powers and functions of members of local authorities, this matter would fall to be considered in that context.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 19th April, 1972.

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