Wednesday, 21 February 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
1. Miss Quill asked the Taoiseach whether he has received a report from the Devolution Commission on the devolution of central government functions to local government; and when he proposes to publish such a report. [3373/96]
I understand that the Devolution Commission is working on an interim report to the Cabinet committee and  hopes to finalise this before mid March. The Devolution Commission was established to recommend a renewed system of local government in accordance with the principles and specific mandate set out in the statement on local government reform on 4 July 1995. Copies of this statement have been laid before both Houses.
The commission has been asked to develop statements on the specific steps, including legislative and financial provisions and transitional arrangements, recommended to renew the local government system and to do so in a series of phases. These statements are to be considered in the first instance by the Cabinet committee and then put to Government for consideration and decision. The report or statements will be published when this process is complete.
Miss Quill: The Taoiseach stated that there will be an interim report in mid-March which will leave about 12 months between its publication and the termination of the life of this Government. Is there any real political will in this Government to drive the devolution process forward? If so, will there be a substantial transfer of powers from central to local government during the lifetime of this Government?
The Taoiseach: It is precisely because there is a political will to deal with this matter that we have not simply set up a body to prepare a report but have committed ourselves to setting up a Cabinet subcommittee to deal with it and make decisions and recommendations thereon. That is an indication of the Government's political will in the matter. Obviously, there are many problems involved with the devolution of power. We want the best available expert advice in order to ensure we overcome those problems, which is why we established this commission to assist us.
Mr. M. Kitt: I am disappointed that there is going to be another interim  report. Is the Taoiseach aware of the disappointment expressed by voluntary and community groups at their lack of representation on the commission? Could they be included at this stage? If they cannot be included, could they make a submission or presentation to the commission?
The Taoiseach: Voluntary groups are represented on the body — a number of people involved in voluntary activity are on it. Obviously, those practically involved in local government are also represented on the body, including a councillor from the Deputy's party. We have to have a blend of practitioners of local government and voluntary organisations without having a body which is too large. There are also representatives of different aspects of public administration such as county council administration and the Combat Poverty Agency.
Miss Quill: There is a saying in my part of the country that we are always one report away from action. I asked the Taoiseach if we would see action on devolution during the lifetime of this Government and that question was not answered.
The Taoiseach: The transfer of powers from officials to elected people is a separate issue from the devolution of powers from central to local government. However, it is an issue upon which the Minister for the Environment is taking action and it is a course which I strongly favour. We have a very sophisticated electorate and elected representatives and they should be given greater responsibility for decision-making in the local government process.
It is my firm intention that there will be action on devolution during the term of office of this Government. However, we have first to get the report which will outline precise proposals and how to overcome difficulties before we can make decisions on them.
Mr. M. Kitt: I wish to refer specifically to the community workers' co-operative which sought representation and wishes to make a presentation to the commission. I hope that will be agreed. Will education and water schemes be devolved to local authorities? Will the co-ordination between the local authorities and the Leader programmes and area partnership boards happen under this commission?
The Taoiseach: The Minister for the Environment is always looking at possibilities for devolution and he will not delay any proposals which he can make in this area simply because the commission is sitting. The commission is looking at a wider range of Government activities, apart from those which come directly within the purview of the Minister for the Environment and the existing local authority structures.
I will take account of what the Deputy said about voluntary organisations. There is a difficulty in that the body is probably big enough already and we tried to achieve political balance and balance between the different aspects of local government and central administration. Gender balance is also important. However, I note what Deputy Kitt said about various groups wishing to make submissions and I am  more than happy to ask the chairman, Mr. Phil Flynn, to advise on how best that can be done.
Miss Quill: Is the Taoiseach prepared to put in place a timeframe for the publication of the report, the consideration of its recommendations, their agreement by Government and their implementation? Those living in the regions, who are in despair because they feel that local government will not be reformed by any Government, need to be given an assurance that the Government is serious about such reform.
Miss Quill: Will the Taoiseach accept that people in the regions need to be given an assurance that this Government is serious about implementing whatever the feasible recommendations of this body will be? Will he put a timeframe in place?
The Taoiseach: There is a timeframe in that we expect the first report from the body in March and we expect the Cabinet sub-committee will meet immediately thereafter with a view to making decisions on it. I have already told the Deputy that I expect decisions to be taken and implemented within the Government's term of office.
I do not see a lot of merit in going any further than that and saying that X will have happened by May, something else by July and something else by September. Those sorts of timeframes frequently lead to cynicism because, often for reasons which are entirely understandable, they cannot be implemented immediately or fully. I do not see any point in being any more specific. There is a political commitment to achieve a significant measure of devolution and that is what is important. This process will not end with the presentation of the first report in March. The commission will continue in being and will produce further reports on other aspects of Government, each of which will be  presented in turn to the Cabinet sub-committee. Both the Cabinet sub-committee and the commission will remain in being until the entire range of Government has been reviewed with a view to establishing maximum opportunities for devolution. That is a pretty concrete political commitment and the best that could be expected, bearing in mind the difficulties with which the Deputy is all too familiar.
Mr. M. Smith: Since there is no balance or coherence among the three parties on the question of local government finance, will this new empowerment of people involve the question of raising additional local finance to run local authorities?
The Taoiseach: There is perfect harmony in the Government on these and all other matters. Local Government finance is not the subject matter of the question of Deputy Michael Kitt or Deputy Quill. It is a separate matter being studied separately upon which the Minister for the Environment has given exhaustive answers on many occasions in this House. I have no doubt he will be happy to give those answers again to Deputy Smith.
Mr. M. Smith: Will the Taoiseach accept that there is no such thing as true local government reform and empowerment of people if the question of local finances is not addressed in a serious matter, that it is not possible to isolate one from the other?
Mr. B. Ahern: Does the Taoiseach accept that Ireland is the most over-centralised country in the western world? In the recent report on world competitiveness Ireland came 48th out of 48 countries. Does he agree that having to seek approval and sanction for all kinds of things within the Government area, whether it is the Garda, defence or the environment, is now a habit in our system which creates great inefficiency? Is that not really central to the issue of devolution?
The Taoiseach: I have heard that comment made by many who fail to recognise that the entire population of this country is no greater than that of some local authority areas in other countries. Comparing, for example, the degree of centralisation in Ireland with that of Germany is meaningless because Germany has a population of 90 million and Ireland has a population of 3 million. One is not comparing like with like.
I accept that Ireland is over-centralised but I do not think we should advance bogus international comparisons to bolster that case. It is obvious to anyone that there is over-centralisation in this country which needs to be addressed, regardless of comparisons by the OECD or anybody else which are frequently based on comparing apples with oranges.
Mr. B. Ahern: I just want to defend the OECD. The Taoiseach has stated that the OECD produces bogus reports. The world competitiveness report is one of the longest established and best reports of that organisation. The Taoiseach is talking nonsense.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy has reached the stage of adopting a sort of inverted colonial attitude in saying that international organisations necessarily know better than we know ourselves. We do not need——
The Taoiseach: ——international comparisons to tell us that this country is over-centralised. We do not need bogus comparisons of small countries with large countries to tell us that this country is over-centralised.
The Taoiseach: We need further decentralisation. This is a matter which stands on its own merits. With due respect to everybody who may comment on it internationally, we accept it and this Government is doing something about it.
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