Wednesday, 7 May 1997
Seanad Éireann Debate
The role of councillors and the time and effort they put into doing constituency work has not been appreciated in the past. People may be of the opinion that this matter is a red herring but it is not. If one considers the local authority system, approximately 30,000 people are employed in local government and they service the needs of our 883 county councillors. People working in local government are eligible to receive pensions while councillors who work on behalf of the public are not rewarded, except through the payment of expenses. I welcome the introduction of the new form of expenses but the efforts of some councillors who live a distance from their local town hall or place of business have been hindered. These people are not rewarded for much of the committee work, etc., they carry out.
The councillors with whom I deal work almost on a full-time basis. They receive between £8 and £10 per day but they do as much work as the majority of Deputies and Senators. Many of them have opened full-time advice centres, etc., and are paying for these from their own funds. In addition, like Deputies and Senators, councillors attend every meeting and activity that takes place in their constituencies. They are obliged to pay their own expenses and receive no reward.
The General Council of County Councils asked me to raise this issue on the Adjournment of the House and I promised to do so. I also raised it with my colleagues in Fianna Fáil at a meeting of our parliamentary party. In principle, my party supports the concept of a pension for councillors. A draft proposal was submitted to the Department of the Environment from the General Council of County Councils and it should be given careful consideration to see if it can be implemented. I am aware that there may be some difficulties but councillors who spend 20 to 30 years representing their localities should be rewarded at the end of their period of service.
As the Minister of State is aware, a councillor's door is always open. With modern telecommunications systems, he or she takes telephone calls from early morning to late at night. The people councillors represent expect to have access to them at all times. Most councillors have full-time jobs and the bulk of their social time each evening is taken up with constituency work. They forward any problems with which they are  unable to deal to their local Deputies to try to have them resolved. The 30,000 people employed in local government, with the exception of the 883 councillors who service it, are eligible to receive pensions. For that reason, pensions for councillors should be introduced.
People may state that councillors receive vast amounts of money in travelling expenses. That may have been the case in the past but a new system was put in place whereby councillors receive a salary to attend the 40 to 60 meetings held in their constituencies each month. Some councillors are obliged to attend every one of those meetings. A number of them attend 50 meetings per month and only receive payment for attending 30 meetings. A quota system was introduced by a former Fianna Fáil Minister in this regard which should be increased in some local authority areas. The Minister should take this into account when considering the overall situation.
The draft proposal submitted to the Department of the Environment provides a suggested breakdown on how a pension scheme should be introduced. The General Council of County Councils proposes that 25 per cent of the contribution should be paid by councillors, 25 per cent by local authorities and the remaining 50 per cent should come from central funds. In addition, there must be an age requirement in respect of when a person should be entitled to draw his or her pension.
There is good reason for the introduction of a pension based on the amount of work they do and the number of hours they work. If they were paid per hour worked, no system would be able to pay them enough. If one adds up the hours they work in a week, it would total in the region of 40 to 60. Some councillors work continuously. They finish their day job and then attend council or committee meetings. They must find people to replace them in their workplaces, whether they are farmers, publicans, teachers, etc.
At the end of the day, a pension would be a small reward for the amount of work they do for society. They are social workers in their own right. They advise groups on how to get schemes for their towns or villages, organise grants and so forth. They improve the appearances of towns and villages in conjunction with local development associations and other active community groups. Councillors are at the beck and call of the groups and try to meet their needs. They also take care of a great deal of work for local Deputies and Senators and bring various problems to their attention.
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gilmore): I thank Senator Kiely for raising this matter and I welcome the opportunity to place on record the Government's recognition of the enormous contribution of councillors to our local government system and the measures taken by the Government to support councillors and to enhance their role. Aganist that background, I will deal with the question of a pension scheme for councillors.
One of the first things the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, did on entering office was to carry out an indepth review of the system of expenses for councillors. As a result, a number of improvements was notified to local authorities in August 1995. A key change was the automatic linkage of alterations in councillors' travel and subsistence rates to those for senior local authority officers. Another significant change was a relaxation in the threshold for attendance at meetings in order to qualify for the full allowance.
In the case of regional authorities an allowance for the Cathaoirleach was introduced to give proper recognition to the important role of this office. A new independent system of funding based on contributions from local authorities is in operation for the local authority associations — the General Council of County Councils, the AMAI and LAMA. The position of councillors who are members of the committee of the regions has also been improved through the provision of significant ongoing logistic and administrative support.
These support measures, welcome though they are, are but one element of the Government's strategy to improve and strengthen the position of councillors in the local government system. Fundamental to this strategy is the major programme for the renewal and reform of local government entitled Better Local Government — A Programme for Change which was published by the Minister for the Environment in December 1996. The enhancement of the role of councillor is central to the programme. Implementation of the programme will result in councillors being more meaningfully involved and better equipped in fulfilling their policy role. This will be achieved by a radical overhaul of the local authority committee system with the establishment of strategic policy committees mirroring the major functions. The new system will provide the necessary support and improved information and training for councillors. A working group, on which councillors are represented, is currently developing the detailed arrangements for implementation of this new committee system.
The General Council of County Councils has, as Senator Kiely said, made a submission to the Minister for the Environment on a pension  scheme for councillors. The submission is being examined by the Department and the Department of Finance, but it would be wrong to anticipate the result of the review. However, I should make it clear that this is not a simple issue, and I am sure the general council appreciates this. There are practical difficulties involved, not least the fact that councillors' allowances constitute an expenses system rather than a salary or remuneration.
 I listened carefully to the Senator and will pass on his views to the Minister for the Environment. I reiterate, however, that this Government has a record second to none in furthering and promoting the role of our councillors in the local government system. We will continue to do so with the implementation of the reform programme — Better Local Government.
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