Wednesday, 5 March 2003
Seanad Eireann Debate
(b) the Bill deprives the people of an opportunity to vote for directly elected mayors in each administrative area, and
(c) the Bill makes no provision to further devolve powers to locally elected councils”.
Acting Chairman: I welcome the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. Senator Browne was in possession but as he is not present, I call Senator Fitzgerald.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I welcome the Minister once again and commend him for his commitment to the passage of this important Bill. Senators appreciate the time and commitment he is giving to our deliberations on it.
Certain cynics have put it about that this is a minor step compared with what was flagged but we know to the contrary. The Bill is a significant step in the process of local government reform. However, I welcome it with some regret. I was elected to the Oireachtas in 1981 and to a local authority in 1985. I sharpened my teeth, politically speaking, in the council. I concede that the Leader of the House also helped me to sharpen my teeth in the Dáil as her Minister of State when she was Minister for Education. The Minister will, therefore, understand when I say I welcome the Bill with a tinge of regret.
Another related reason there should be a tinge of regret is that since 1981, even when I was not a councillor, up to 75% or 80% of my work would have involved the local authority. It is understandable that Members like me who have unashamedly used the local authority to enhance the quality and quantity of their input to political life would find that having to withdraw from direct local authority involvement would create a lacuna for us in our political careers.
In that regard I am encouraged by the Minister's commitment to build into the legislation regulations to copperfasten the input of Oireachtas Members to local authority business. That is welcome and the Minister is to be commended for the manner in which he has listened to Members express their concerns and anxieties that the input should be strengthened by way of regulations.
The Bill, although short, is significant at national and local levels. It deals with the process of devolution of local government. During the past ten to 15 years there has been a phenomenal development in the level of activity of politicians within the Houses and at local authority level. Those of us who have been Members during those years will be aware that the extent of committee involvement is huge compared to what it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. There has also been a phenomenal expansion in the range and complexity of activities and involvement at local level. With that simultaneous development at national and local levels the break was inevitable.
It has been well flagged by a number of developments, through legislation, since the early 1990s, when initially ceann comhairligh, cathaoirligh and Ministers were barred from taking part in local government politics. Subsequently in 1999 Oireachtas Members were barred from becoming chathaoirligh, leas-chathaoirligh or mayors. This Bill provides for a further follow up. It is logical, sensible and rational, as we progress this development towards a distinct role for local government that the dual mandate at national and local levels should come to an end.
The response of a few scribes in the media has been ambiguous. Some have said that on the one hand the Minister and the Government flagged something huge and on the other hand all we get is this. It is clear to me they do not know what they want or, if so, they want to be the moulders of progress and evolution in local government. As the Minister has rightly said, the sensible approach is to take one further step, that is, to separate national politics from local authority politics. The plans he has in train will prove significant and effective in the further development of local government. I welcome the commitments the Minister has put on the record today as being sensible, logical approach and well-staged towards what he has ultimately in mind. I shall comment on that later.
I referred to the simultaneous developments in the work and input of politicians at national and local level but concentrated mainly on national level. Before coming in I tried to prepare a list of the demands on local government today compared to ten or 15 years ago when I was first elected to the council. It is amazing how many aspects of work are involved today as distinct from then in terms of range and flexibility. There is the development plan which is becoming more difficult, given the rapid economic expansion and the concomitant demand for private and public housing. There are many planning related matters, private and public housing, infrastructure, tourism, local economic development, environmental services, environmental enhancement, social inclusion, community development groups, health boards and various related committees, education at community level in terms of vocational education committees and school management boards. The list is huge and it is increasing. One has commitments in terms of time, travel, expense and huge sacrifice in foregoing other interests. A impressive duty of service is being performed by local councillors.
I am in favour of the idea of full-time councillors which the Minister has flagged. Effective and efficient local government cannot come cheap. The Minister has his critics, but they are few, who say they want effective and meaningful local government. However, one or two have been quick to scoff at the idea of a councillor's role being that of a full-time local politician. There is little or no justification for that view. I am supportive of what the Minister has proposed and it is a logical and sensible thing to do. In its absence one will not get the quality and efficiency of delivery of services at local level. The Minister's proposal to move towards full-time paid councillors is fully justified. The huge plethora of activities and the boards associated with them warrant full-time, properly remunerated councillors for the future.
The Bill which provides for the ending of the dual mandate also repeals the legislation providing for directly elected mayors and cathaoirligh. I was never enamoured of that provision. While there is a case for it in the future, the level and quality of activity at local authority level does not warrant it now. I can understand the justification for continuity on the part of a chairman or a mayor, but I cannot understand the claim that locally elected representatives do not have the collective wisdom to decide on a chairperson to lead them forward for the term of that council.
That is not to say the previous legislation implied a slur on the ability or competence of councillors to make such a decision. I know where the previous legislation was coming from in terms of continuity, but I do not necessarily accept the process to achieve that continuity by way of directly elected mayors. I laud the Minister on the decision he has taken to repeal that legislation.
Given the renewal which will take place at the next local elections, taking into account the outgoing councillors who will not run again, that new councils will be elected and the changes arising from the ending of the dual mandate, there will be a refreshingly new collective voice at local government level. I am confident that the new voices will make wise decisions at various councils. I ask the Minister to consider the idea of continuity for a chairperson or mayor in the future. There is much to be said in its favour.
I referred earlier to the regulations the Minister has flagged which will allow for an input by Oireachtas Members into local authority matters. Oireachtas Members will be called upon to get involved in many activities at local level for the foreseeable future. I have no doubt the regulations the Minister proposes will be enabling, providing them with the means to perform those functions.
There is a cynicism in certain quarters regarding the necessity for this. Those who hold such views fail to realise the ongoing link between national and local politics. That link will be there into the foreseeable future and mechanisms should be in place to enable it to continue for as long as is logical and reasonable. To attempt to wrench the two systems apart – which this Bill does not attempt to do – would be to fly in the face of reality. The Minister is not doing that and I commend him.
The connection between Senators and their electorate was raised by a number of colleagues. That connection must continue. We are the natural national representatives and voice of councillors, and the Minister will say he is too in another respect, which I accept. We are the direct spokespersons in that councillors are our electorate. A case has been put to the Minister to provide a mechanism to enable Senators to attend the four or five major conferences of local authorities, such as the general council, the Local Authority Members Association, the health boards, the vocational education committees, etc. I too urge the Minister to ensure there is a mechanism to enable Senators to be officially present at such conferences. It could only enhance the continued connection between Senators and their electorate. I have no doubt Senators will seek to maintain that connection but I see no reason the Minister could not facilitate them now that there is no longer the dual mandate facility for Senators.
I commend the Minister on taking this important step. He has a range of ideas and initiatives to be brought forward in future legislation, which is appropriate. In the review of strategic policy committees and so on, the Minister has promised to look at the idea of continuity for chairpersons and mayors. He will take account of our collective wisdom in regard to legislation he will bring forward.
Mr. Norris: This Bill is a bit of a mixed bag. I thoroughly approve the ending of the dual mandate but I regret the opportunity to elect mayors and cathaoirligh of city and county localities has been removed. I tabled a motion a number of years ago seeking this measure until my co-signatory joined Fine Gael and ran for the council. That was the end of that motion but I continued to believe the dual mandate was a bad thing and that it weakened politics in a number of ways.
As was pointed out by a colleague, perhaps I am speaking against my own interest when I say that one of the difficulties is that it is impossible to hold meetings on Mondays and Fridays because councillors are away doing their work. When I said this to a colleague in this House, he asked me if I really wanted to meet on Mondays and Fridays as well and said that it was rather nice to have that time to spend in the office. A balance must be struck. However, if one is committed to the Upper House of the national Parliament, it should be a greater commitment than one which puts council business first. On occasions I have seen Members of this House put council business first. That is an insult to a national Parliament.
I welcome the ending of the dual mandate. I am sure the Minister would agree that the ground was prepared for him by the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and that he took a toss over this because the so-called grassroots rebelled against it for their own mercenary reasons. We chided the Americans on the Order of Business on the way they use cheque book diplomacy and we were pleased the attempt to bribe their way backfired on them in the Turkish Parliament, but the Minister has had the same experience. He has had to offer sweeteners –€5,000 or €7,000 to people to get off the council. It has taken an awful lot to budge these people.
I am absolutely dumbfounded at the gall of some councillors who are attempting to take to themselves the right to nominate their wives in their place when eventually hoofed out of the place. All I can say is shame on them. They have damn all regard for the intelligence of the electorate if they think it will put up with that.
Mr. Cullen: It is more a figment of the media's imagination than reality.
Mr. Norris: Although a member of the NUJ, I have often chid the media but I was aided and abetted by members of the Government party who went on the airwaves to claim that right. I heard them doing that, so it was not a figment of the media's imagination. It was a tidbit fed to the media by people who are obviously out of touch.
In regard to cheque book diplomacy, I would have thought given the history of the tribunals and so on that Senators might have blushed a little bit before queuing up with their tongues out for the €5,000, which is actually €2,000 more than some of them got for fiddling the votes on planning matters.
There is a great argument in favour of cutting the link. There is something incestuous in it. It is not just that they arrogantly wanted to appointed their wives or husbands. Do they think they are in the House of Lords?
Acting Chairman: Some of the comments you have made are not very appropriate.
Mr. Norris: Which ones?
Acting Chairman: Your comments about Senators taking bribes or fiddling planning. On reflection, I think you—
Mr. Norris: I withdraw that until the tribunal reports and then I will re-enter it. I will suspend judgment.
Acting Chairman: It would be very wise.
Mr. Norris: Thank you. I will accept your guidance on that, but I will come back to it when the tribunal reports.
Acting Chairman: You may not have to.
Mr. Norris: That is all right.
Acting Chairman: You should not prejudge.
Mr. Norris: With the help of God, I might not even be here. I might be occupying a higher sphere.
Acting Chairman: In Áras an Uachtaráin maybe.
Mr. Norris: Hardly. I was thinking of a cloud and a harp.
Acting Chairman: We will concentrate on the Local Government Bill.
Mr. Norris: There is something incestuous in it, not only because some wanted to appoint their spouses or relations but also because in the nature of things and the way the Seanad is composed, exactly as has been pointed out by Senator Fitzgerald and others, councillors are the electorate for the Senators. That tends to create a distortion because of the intrusion of sometimes important but also quite petty local affairs into the business of the national Parliament. That is not a good idea because it tends to bring matters to a fairly parochial level, which is regrettable.
This is an argument for looking at further local government reform and at further Seanad reform as well. When dealing with Seanad reform, we should not only look at the easy target of the university seats which have between 40,000 and 120,000 voters who are ordinary citizens. Let us look at the whole Seanad and at whether only councillors should elect Senators. It was interesting to hear Senator Fitzgerald say he was the voice of the councillors. That is admirable in its way, but I prefer in a Republic to be the voice of the people on all sides. Those holding university seats accept this needs to be broadened, but we cannot really deal with regenerating the whole House by simply looking at those six seats. It must be much broader. The link, which has sometimes served us well, between the Seanad constituencies and the councillors should be looked at.
I regret that it has not been possible to continue with the measures aimed at introducing directly elected chief officials, such as lord mayors, cathaoirligh and so on, because that is real democracy. The reason this is not being proceeded with is not a matter of principle but rather a question of patronage. In Dublin, for example, the job of Lord Mayor is parcelled out by party agreement in a process that is accompanied by a great deal of undignified horse-trading. It would only strengthen Dublin as a city if – like certain American cities – it had a kind of chief executive elected by direct popular vote.
I have no ambition to be Lord Mayor of Dublin. I say this because the former environmental correspondent of The Irish Times has a bee in his bonnet about this matter and has been saying that I want the job. He eventually included the claim in a book, although in the second edition he printed a disclaimer in which I said it was a job I would not touch with a barge-pole. Let not fear of Norris be a reason for introducing—
Ms O'Rourke: What about the Presidency?
Mr. Norris: If it is offered to me, I will do my best to occupy it with due decorum. I would, of course, come to the Leader of the House for lessons in courtesy and presence. I definitely need a degree of extra presence.
I hope this matter of direct election to this important office will be examined again. It would strengthen democracy in this area.
Ms O'Rourke: I welcome the Minister, who has been very good about coming before the Seanad. I do not know whether that will last because, after a period, he may become fatigued by being obliged to travel from one Chamber to the other. Nevertheless, we are happy that the Minister has been prepared to come here on several occasions in recent weeks.
This week should see us pass two important items of legislation, namely, the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 and the Local Government Bill 2003. We tend to call the latter the “dual mandate” Bill because that is the issue with which it deals. Last week, when the heat was on and the parliamentary plinth was again called into service as a very useful venue for expressing veiled antipathy to particular legislation, I was reflecting on the amenable way in which a Minister such Deputy Dermot Ahern – and, if I may be so immodest, I when I held office – can be relied upon to listen what Deputies and Senators have to say. On behalf of the Senators on this side of the House, I thank him for meeting them and also Deputies last week.
There can be little argument about the abolition of the dual mandate. I became a member of urban and county councils at a very young age. I was in my early thirties when I became the only woman on the council and, with two children, I had to try to make arrangements for babysitters, etc. I will always remember my first day as the only woman among 23 members in the chamber. I had read a magazine article the night before which advised that if one was going to an important meeting, one should speak up at the first opportunity. I trotted off full of dread to the first meeting of the county council where the leader, a very nice man, told all the new young councillors not to contribute until we got to know our way around. Having read that I should speak up on the first day, I was now being told not to do so. A matter on housing came up for discussion and that was something I knew about, so I put up my hand and spoke and have not stopped since. It was, however, a useful exercise.
There is no doubt that local government is a terrific form of democracy. Some of us were councillors when the rate of pay was £2.58 per month to cover travel to Mullingar from Athlone, a distance of 30 miles. Decimalisation had just been introduced and I recall my husband telling me I should give back the £2.58 because he thought the county council was hard up and that I should not be getting the money when I was earning a salary from teaching. The amount in question was not sufficient to have one's hair done at the time.
Like many others, I cut my teeth on local authorities. However, it was a juggling act to try to balance home, teaching and the county council. I cannot understand how Members of the Oireachtas can manage their Dáil, Seanad and local authority work, although I did so for two years after I was elected here in the early 1980s.
Local government has become increasingly more complex as a result of having to process European directives and translate them to local level. Given that councillors must deal with areas of special conservation, SPCs, planning and many other aspects of running a county council and carrying out their duties as local representatives, the dual mandate is a huge contradiction. It means representatives must compartmentalise their time and deal with the various facets of their work, such as agendas for local council, health board, VEC, and many other matters.
There is no doubt that local government is extremely fulfilling. Giving that up to move on and fulfil a national duty, while retaining strong connections with the local council, is an important concern. The Minister has expressed a willingness not just to make regulations, but also to include a clause in the Bill to strengthen the connection between Members of the Dáil or Seanad who are giving up the dual mandate and their local authorities. I have no doubt that there are many county managers and county engineers who will be glad to see the back of Deputies and Senators. Local managers and engineers are fine and wonderful individuals in many cases, but it remains a fact that the less they are approached by people, particularly those with knowledge of legislation and the system in the Oireachtas, the better they like it.
At a meeting of my party, a certain Senator told us that a county engineer had said to him on the previous day that he would not be seeing much of him when the dual mandate was abolished. I, therefore, stress that there is a great need for proper regulation – detailed and documented in legislation – to ensure access and proper consultation for Deputies and Senators as representatives of the people. It is hugely important that provision should be made for this. It should not be done in a grace and favour way or on sufferance, but properly legislated for so that the mandarins at local level will be clearly aware that Senators or Deputies have every right to meet them and put forward their points of view.
I regard this legislation as part of a transition for local authorities, the Dáil and the Seanad. This House is reforming its business and I am sure the Dáil, to a certain degree, is doing so as well. The Minister is going about his business, namely, reforming local government, but this will not be achieved overnight. Many esteemed Ministers, from various political parties, who had responsibility for local government trod the same path and made various and good changes. However, change does not happen overnight. It takes time.
This is an important step which attaches far greater importance to the work of local councillors and, equally, greater emphasis on the importance of the work of the Seanad and the Dáil. In order to attend meetings of committees of the Houses, Members are obliged to ration their time; they arrive late and leave early. It is nearly impossible to manage. In 1982 Deputy John Bruton, a former Minister for Industry and Commerce, implemented great changes in the committee system. The system is really only now finding its feet, but committees cannot meet on Mondays or Fridays because to do so would conflict with health board and county council meetings. This Bill will, therefore, attribute much greater importance to each role. When the cat is away the mouse will play.
Mr. McCarthy: It would be a big mouse.
Ms O'Rourke: It would. There is that fear. However, when they settle down to their roles and when ways are found of making contact with local people and working with them, it will receive its due measure and will be leavened into a middle way. That will take time and this is an important step towards that. I agree with Senators Fitzgerald and Norris that the then Minister, Deputy Dempsey, paved the way even though he was knocked at the last hurdle by a Kerryman we all know.
Mr. Browne: He is in the other House.
Ms O'Rourke: I cannot mention his name because he is not a Member of this House. That man played a blinder – as many Kerrymen do – at the last joust, and he won the day. However, a change of mind began to set in after that as people asked what strange animal the dual mandate was and what its reform would mean. That paved the way for this Bill.
I was in favour of directly elected chaothairligh and mayors of town councils and county councils. It is an interesting idea to bring in people who are a bit different, thought I realise there is a zany aspect to it and that it could be quite disruptive. The jury is still out on Mr. Ken Livingstone; if his congestion charges work, he will be seen as a dream but not if they do not work. He remains a formidable person and I foresee equally formidable people leading local areas here. That would provide a fresh touch.
There is a well-founded fear that a charismatic person forwarding a particular cause would gain notoriety and publicity for that cause, then arrive on the local scene and become a mayor but would not have the guts to carry through the role required in a local democracy sense. It is a far different thing to be popular because of a cause than to have to spread oneself across a variety of modes and models in the work of the caothairleach of a local authority.
It is an important Bill. Members are grateful that the Minister is present in the House and will continue to be here during the passage of the Bill. If he can get two Bills under his belt before Easter – that may not be possible – he will have done well in his first year in office. I wish the Minister well in his work.
Mr. McCarthy: I welcome the Minister to the House. This is wide-ranging legislation and there have been many fine contributions. There has been much debate about this matter in recent days and weeks.
Two years ago, there was massive opposition when the then Minister, Deputy Dempsey, attempted to introduce this legislation, especially from three Independent Deputies – one in particular – and that drove this issue out of the legislation. It was easy at that time to be in Opposition and to pledge support for a Government that wanted to abolish the dual mandate because it was known that the measure would not come in, and that a particular Deputy from Kerry was driving the issue. On that occasion, the opponents of this measure were successful.
I made my view known in the council chamber long before I had parliamentary status. I was a strong supporter of abolition of the mandate. One council area in Cork had two Deputies standing for three county council seats. That left just one seat uncontested by well established, hard working and high profile Deputies, which was grossly unfair to anybody who wished to come up through the system.
There is an argument that Senators should not be debarred from being members of local authorities, and I do not say that as a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is an intrinsic link between local government and the Upper House of the national Parliament.
Mr. Cullen: Now that the Senator is in the House.
Mr. McCarthy: The Minister should recognise this. The electorate for the Upper House largely consists of members of local authorities. Those who went through the rigours of meeting councillors around the country prior to the election picked up on a lot of issues. There was a sense that those contesting the Seanad election might be in a position to improve local government.
A particular issue was severance for long serving members, which goes back many years. Some retiring members of local authorities have served for up to 30 and 40 years. It is unfortunate that their length of service will not be recognised under the gratuity scheme. That brings home the role that local government plays across the country. This is expected to be a superior form of local democracy and it is incumbent that this is looked at in greater detail before the legislation goes through.
There has been much recent talk about the constitutionality of abolishing the dual mandate. It was interesting that yesterday, not many miles from this House, a meeting was attended by a noted senior counsel. He was asked for a legal opinion on whether a Deputy, who intends to take this matter to the Supreme Court if it leaves both Houses successfully, had a chance of testing its constitutionality. The senior counsel thought that the Deputy in question stood a good chance.
Mr. Cullen: What else would he say?
Mr. McCarthy: When it is considered that the senior counsel was of a particular political persuasion, it gives room for thought.
Mr. Cullen: That is worse again.
Mr. McCarthy: It should be looked at in greater detail by the parliamentary counsel. I was elected to Cork County Council three years ago at the age of 22. One soon cuts one's back teeth sitting on a council; one learns the hard way as one is dropped in at the deep end and it is a case of sink or swim. Council chambers could be seen as dodgy waters full of sharks.
The many areas in which local authorities function – from roads to housing, education and the health boards – play a vital role in the context of the workload of a councillor. The majority of councillors harbour ambitions to be Members of the Lower House, and the Upper House in some cases when the first plan does not work out. Local government is a fundamental part of the passage into national politics and the system has operated in that way since the foundation of the State.
There is genuine fear with regard to the abolition of the dual mandate. In some cases, there is too much concentration on whipper-snapping and people biting at the heels of others. If Members of the House are cute enough, they will make sure that they keep their work rate up on behalf of their constituents and need not be afraid.
Nonetheless, the abolition of the mandate divorces Oireachtas Members from what is happening on the ground. They are divorced from residents' committees; if there is an issue concerning lighting on a public estate, the residents do not care whether one is looking for a council vote or a Dáil vote. They want their local politicians to work for them. There was a good system in place which allowed for issues to be brought to roads meetings, for example, in the form of deputations. There were many other areas where the role of the councillor allowed for facilitating people in their communities, staying in touch on the ground and working for the electorate. It is understandable that there is opposition to the abolition of the mandate.
One issue is of particular concern to me. I know the Minister had a meeting on this matter with some of his party members last Thursday but if this legislation is passed and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, I doubt that we will continue to receive the same level of service from council officials after the abolition of the dual mandate. I know one can argue this is covered in the legislation and that officials will be obliged to liaise with Members but we have not examined the issue sufficiently and the guarantees that have been provided are not set out in sufficiently strong terms.
I am concerned that, in some cases, county managers will be delighted to see the back of Oireachtas Members. While I am only a member of the council since 1999, I have noticed that some of the finest contributors at our meetings have been Members of the Oireachtas. They were aware of what was happening at national level and were able to apply their knowledge to local government in the council chamber. They teased out information with county managers in a different way from ordinary councillors. Therefore, it is important that we get strong assurances from the Minister that whatever system he puts in place is 100% foolproof because we need to be guaranteed access to vital information in our constituencies through our councils and to officials if we want to see them.
There are many difficulties in many local authorities in respect of the planning process which concern logistics, staffing, the rate of refusals and the external influence of the heritage organisations and others who have an input into planning. Planning takes up most of my time as a councillor in Cork, as well as that of many of my colleagues.
The same will be expected of Members whether they are members of a a council. Therefore, it is vital that there be provision in the Bill entitling us to due access to officials. Access should not only apply in theory but also in practice. It is frightening to think of circumstances in which requests for information or to meet officials could be met only on a limited basis or on a basis that would not be sufficient to meet our needs and, more importantly, the needs of those who elected us.
Consider how the role of councillors has expanded. My predecessor was elected to Cork County Council in 1974 at which time there were very few issues to be addressed. Housing applications and medical cards had to be dealt with but planning was a very minor part of his role. Economic success and the actions of many good Ministers with responsibility for the environment have resulted in the role of a councillor becoming multi-functional. There is a host of reasons people approach their councillors. I refer not only to the old reliables such as potholes and medical cards which in a sense do not have anything to do with local authorities, although they are expected to address the issue, but also to social work, for example. In many cases, one feels like a social worker when listening to people who come with their queries, idiosyncratic as they can be.
The level of remuneration for councillors needs to be examined. The remuneration I received did not compensate for what I was losing in my ordinary occupation. I lost out heavily. If I had not been elected to this House, I would have seriously considered not standing in local elections again. It is not such a problem for the self-employed such as publicans or farmers, although I acknowledge that they have time constraints also. However, those in the PAYE sector in local authorities are under considerable pressure because there is no legal provision for them to get time off to attend meetings. The number of meetings of the council and sub-committees can amount to 16 or 20, apart from the meetings one is asked to attend in one's constituency. It is crazy to think that people who are giving up so much of their time are losing out personally. I lost overtime benefits, allowances and promotional opportunities. I have been raising this issue for ages. To be fair, a particular individual in the General Council of County Councils was always very helpful and provided advice and guidance.
It is not worthwhile financially for PAYE workers to be members of councils if they are not given a certain number of hours off per week or month. That would be difficult to achieve but it is far more difficult for a councillor to balance the demands of work, the council and his constituency. It puts considerable pressure on him or her in an era in which there is too much pressure exerted already. People who are regarded as leaders in society should be setting an example in this regard. I welcome a positive proposal from the Minister because I feel very strongly about this matter. The length of service of people who have devoted so much of their time to councils and will not be standing in the next elections should be considered fully to ensure they receive adequate financial compensation when they retire from the council.
I look forward to the next Stage of the Bill on which we will table amendments. I hope the Minister will take on board the points I raised in respect of councillors who will be standing down after long service and councillors in the PAYE sector who do not get time off to attend meetings and their duties as councillors.
Will the Minister state who demanded the abolition of the dual mandate? Was it the councillors' associations, county managers or somebody at the Cabinet table?
Mr. Cullen: Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats all mandated it.
Mr. J. Walsh: I was interested in what Senator McCarthy said. The many contributions to the Bill illustrate clearly the interest Members of the Houses have in local government. The issue most frequently discussed in respect of the Bill concerns the abolition of the dual mandate, on which there are various views. Like many Senators, I have served on a local authority for many years. Obviously, I would like to retain my position but it will have to be conceded—
Mr. McCarthy: The Senator can do so if he passes through the “Níl” lobby with us.
Mr. J. Walsh: —that the betterment of both the Houses of the Oireachtas and local government is probably best effected through the abolition of the dual mandate. The Minister has displayed courage in advocating this change. However, that is not to say there are not identifiable benefits in the circumstances that now obtain. It is important that changes do not occur at the expense of the beneficial aspect of the dual mandate because this would work to the detriment not only of Members but also local government. The Minister is right to ensure there will be an entitlement to proper notification from county councils and that we will be as informed as we are at present through literature we will receive.
There are two parts to being a national politician, of which the first is the legislative role while the second involves representation of one's constituents. The second part is equally important in respect of which a controlled flow of information from the local authorities will assist. In the South Eastern Health Board area all communications to the members are copied to Members of the Oireachtas who are not on the board. This is very informative and helpful in making us aware of the issues and perhaps allowing us to lend our support at crucial stages on issues to do with our own locality and region.
I concur with Senator McCarthy's comments regarding the necessity for the Minister to ensure that representations made by national politicians to their local authority are properly dealt with. I made this observation during the lifetime of the last Dáil to the Minister and some departmental officials when I said that it was sometimes difficult to get responses from county managers. They told me that the Department encountered the same difficulty. It was consoling but not very helpful. If Better Local Government is to mean anything, people should be given an acknowledgement and a response to communications. I ask the Minister to acknowledge in the legislation the importance of liaison between national and local politics.
I listened to Senator Norris's contribution earlier and I thought both his tone and language displayed quite an ill-informed basis for some of the points he was arguing. I do not believe that any inducements would be an encouragement to people either to stay or to go. My experience over the years in local government has been that if one is not imbued with some philosophy of public service then one would not do it. Most people in politics suffer financially because of the time devoted to politics rather than making an gain from it. In that regard I welcomed the introduction in 2000 of a salary payable to councillors. Modest though it was, at least it was a start, a step in the right direction.
The democratic process should be made accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. There can be a preponderance of self-employed, unemployed and retired persons in local government because of the amount of time involved. The representative associations raised this issue during the preparation of the Local Government Bill in 2002 and the Minister raised the matter with the social partners. Employers' representatives objected to having a statutory entitlement for people to participate.
I am mindful that there have been dramatic changes in local government. I welcome the Minister's recent comments recognising that because of the functions and duties of those participating in local government it is no longer just a part-time position; it is becoming full-time. The preparation of a development plan is a huge undertaking and councillors must also examine retail strategies, wind farm strategies and a plethora of other matters that are part of the overall county development plan. Only a small proportion is being read thoroughly because it is so voluminous and as a consequence the system is not enjoying the benefit. Local councillors have insufficient time to deal comprehensively with all their responsibilities.
I ask the Minister to make the necessary changes to ensure that local government continues to play a pivotal role commensurate with the needs of a more modern operation of local government. If the Minister makes a serious attempt to change our centralised system he will be applauded for transforming local government.
There is a failure to recognise that the rates of remuneration and expenses for those participating in local government are inadequate. Further changes are required. Councillors will have to make a decision about whether they will go forward again for election. Many of them will have served for more than 20 or 30 years. They will walk away with only four years' gratuity, which is inadequate and does not recognise the service they have given. There is an arrangement in the Houses of the Oireachtas whereby a Member moving from this House to the Lower House can buy back service as in pension schemes. Because of the structures in local government, people are staying on longer than they need and this is not conducive to the renewal of local government. I suggest that councillors should be allowed participate in a scheme for buying back pension contributions.
I readily admit that mine is a minority opinion regarding the direct election of cathaoirligh. That provision had the potential to effect a significant transformation in local government. I readily concede that most councillors did not welcome the change. I have been chairman of a local authority on ten different occasions and I valued that opportunity. The job is changing almost on an annual basis. It would have been far more effective to hold the chair for a period longer than one year. That lack of continuity retards and inhibits local government. The annual rotation is not a good practice. Anybody who has been chairman of a county council or a city council will readily acknowledge that it is no longer just a part-time position but an onerous and a full-time job. If these two tenets are recognised, it will just be a question of who elects the chair.
If local government is to move forward in the future, the Minister put his finger on it when he said one must consider full-time councillors. Obviously, the chair should be a full-time position. In another interview the Minister drew an analogy between directly elected cathaoirligh and the way the Taoiseach was elected. Perhaps we will follow through on this in the case of local government because we are just a little more than 12 months away from the next elections. Going into a general election, everyone knows who the alternative Taoisigh are likely to be. Perhaps parties will nominate in advance of the elections who the chair should be. If we do this, we will put the focus on local government.
I listened with interest this morning to reports that Fine Gael had launched a discussion document. Many of the headlines are worthy of consideration. It would be ideal for local government if Government and Opposition could work together. I have seen changes made in local government which had more to do with political reasons than with better local government. If we could harness consensus as to the best way forward for local government, serious and effective improvements could be made. I say to the Minister, “Carpe diem,” seize the day, if there is an opportunity do so. There is no better man. I wish him well.
Mr. Browne: I welcome the Minister and thank him for being here a second time. He is acknowledged on this side of the House for his courtesy and manners in attending the continuation of the debate.
I agree with Senator Jim Walsh's last point regarding councillors who are in office for years.
Mr. McCarthy: I am surprised he has not lobbied the Senator at this stage.
Mr. Browne: The Leader of the House referred to the fact that she had got just £2.58 for her first few council meetings. There is no doubt that many councillors served for years on local authorities and got very little for it. It cost them dearly, both financially and in their family life. I am thinking of County Cork where councillors travel 100 miles from Castletownbere to attend county council meetings.
Mr. McCarthy: Over 100 miles.
Mr. Browne: I was not aware of it until I embarked on the Seanad campaign.
Mr. McCarthy: I did not know the Senator was going to canvass there.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Browne, without interruption.
Mr. Browne: It would be appropriate if something could be done for councillors who have given long public service. The words “public service” are very important. The amount involved is not important. What is important, however, is the fact that they should be acknowledged for their service during the years when there was no pay, very poor expenses and much inconvenience both to their family and personal lives. The Minister should consider this aspect in the context of the Bill.
I listened with amusement to Senator Norris's contribution. I thought it ironic the way in which he attacked the localisation of issues by councillors in the light of the fact that he is well able to speak about Dublin, his local turf, at every opportunity. I do not apologise for speaking about Carlow or the south-east, the area with which I am familiar. I assure Senator Norris that Fine Gael Senators will not be nominating their wives to positions because, as far as I know, half the Fine Gael Senators are young eligible bachelors. Unless we all get married very quickly, that will not happen.
I listened with amusement to Senator O'Rourke on Today FM on Sunday morning and the Chief Whip and Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, the previous week. They spoke about the busy schedule of the Dáil and Seanad and the fact that the Houses could not sit on a Monday and Friday because of county council, town council and health board meetings, which all sounded very plausible. However, if one looks at the calendar for Dáil and Seanad sittings, one will realise that we got our Christmas holidays on 13 December last and did not resume until 29 January. I recently spoke to Ms Avril Doyle, MEP, who told me that they went back on 6 January. We should be totally honest with the electorate. While the point is valid to some extent, we could sit far more often. The fact that we are off during the months of July, August and September is crazy. As a teacher, I was used to long holidays but the fact that I now have three months holidays does not reflect well. There could be give and take on both sides if we sat for longer during the summer and had a far shorter Christmas holiday. I am not sure about the Easter break.
I am very cynical about the Government. Since taking office, the first effect of Dáil reform has been to ensure the Taoiseach is present in the House one day less per week. In the future that will make whatever Taoiseach is in office less accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I question the sincerity of the Government in this regard.
Since I became a member of the council, I have seen an erosion of power from town councils whereby responsibility for sewerage and water works has now been transferred to county councils. I can understand centralising the service in one local authority rather than sharing it between two but query the main reasons for doing so. Why has the Minister not tackled the anomaly between town and county councils? Perhaps we should move towards having one local authority in an area. People are confused as to the reason they can vote in local elections for one person in a county council area and then vote for a person in the town council area. This means they have two votes in the same area. There is overlapping. The issue of borough councils and corporations should also be looked at. The Minister should consider the idea of qualifying conditions for town councils versus borough councils. By definition, they are entitled to greater funding. Carlow is a rapidly growing town, which I hope will be upgraded in the future.
Concern was expressed last week by Fine Gael Members about the constitutionality of the Bill. We did not do so to be mischievous but for genuine reasons. It might be helpful if the Attorney General's advice on the Bill was published because it seems likely that we will be going to the Supreme Court on the issue. In the light of the fact that either President McAleese or Deputy Ring, together with Fianna Fáil backbenchers and Senators, will refer it to the Supreme Court, it might save everyone time and money to get a ruling on it. It might clear up the issue involved.
I was confused by Senator Fitzgerald who spoke about not having directly elected mayors but continuous chairpersons on councils. Either there is one or the other, he cannot have both. Fine Gael believes we should have directly elected mayors, particularly in the cities. Perhaps we should see how it would work in the main cities of Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Galway and Limerick and then extend it. The idea is worth pursuing but the Government is scared of the topic.
Compulsory voting is not mentioned in the Bill. It is outrageous in this day and age that people do not vote, particularly as our ancestors fought for the right to do so. We know our history. Therefore, people should vote. There is no excuse for not doing so. A turnout of 40% or 50% in local elections is outrageous. Invariably, the people for whom we do most work do not vote. This happens across parties. The reality is that people come to us the next day, clap us on the back and tell us that but for their vote we would not have been elected. However, if one checks the register of electors, one will often find that they did not even vote.
Mr. Brady: Did the Senator find many such people?
Mr. Browne: There were plenty of them.
There is a system in place in Australia which we should consider. How we would implement it is another question, but I believe there would be cross-party support for it in the House. It would encourage people to vote and would explain why they should do so. In England, a turnout of 20% is expected in the forthcoming local elections. We might be more democratic if we could emulate Saddam Hussein's turnout of 99.5%.
The Minister was disingenuous in pretending that he is giving us concessions in the Bill in terms of the fact that agendas will be made available to us. He also said that he would bring forward further legislation in respect of making county managers and other council officials reply to us. It is a pity that such provision is not made in the Bill in order that we would know where we stand. It is like agreeing a price for a second-hand car with a dealer and being promised the car in the future. A person would like to know what exactly he is buying and would like to get the car there and then.
Mr. Cullen: I will try and do that before the Bill is finished.
Mr. Browne: That is a generous gesture. The agendas are already available on websites, but I would be more interested in the outcomes of meetings. I would be interested to know what decisions were made.
Why are city and county managers so keen to see Oireachtas Members off the councils? Do they perceive us as a threat because we have a fair idea about legislation passing through the Houses? Oireachtas Members bring something extra to council meetings that perhaps ordinary councillors cannot. We have the experience of enacting legislation week in and week out. Many people have informed me that the councils will be the poorer for the withdrawal of the Oireachtas Members.
The issue of being full-time politicians has been mentioned by many speakers. We should not have full-time politicians at local level. Politics is an extremely volatile profession and there is a huge turnover of those involved in it. The average life of a Deputy in the Dáil is 11 years. If a Deputy spends three terms there, he or she is doing well. If we move towards having full-time local politicians, what will happen when some of them lose their seats? Will they be unemployable? People in other employment can bring their daily experiences to council meetings. Before becoming a Member of the Seanad I was a teacher and was aware of education issues which I could raise at council meetings. That experience is a benefit. A nurse on the council could raise health issues from first-hand practical experience. We would lose that benefit if we decide on having full-time council politicians.
We seem to have gone to the extreme on the idea of having full-time politicians. It is almost a sin now to be a part-time one or to have an interest in any other area. This sends the wrong signal to business people. It says that they should not get involved in politics or they will have to give up their business. That is unfair. If someone has spent 20 years building up a business, why should he not be entitled to retain that business and earn money from it just because he has entered politics? Some businesses are more suited to politics than others. We should not go to the extreme of having full-time politicians at local and national level. We still need to get out among the people and bring with us to the Chambers – Dáil, Seanad or council – our experiences.
The more people are paid, the less they do on a voluntary basis. Money can be the ruination of all and does particular damage in the voluntary sector. We have seen that with the passage of time. If people are appointed on a full-time basis to voluntary charities, it is guaranteed that the number of volunteers involved will drop. Why should they volunteer if someone is being paid full-time? We must be aware of that danger. We should be careful about paying people because it might have the wrong effect.
I have heard rumours about MEPs. Will they have to stand down as Deputies or does this legislation apply to them? If Senators and Deputies have to resign from local authorities, will the same rules apply if a Deputy is elected as an MEP? Will he or she have to resign from the Dáil immediately or is it appropriate for them to have a dual role as Deputy or Senator and MEP?
We have missed the opportunity to initiate serious local government reform in the Bill. However, I am glad the Minister said that he will bring forward further details in this regard before the Bill is enacted. I hope he takes my advice and tests the constitutionality of the Bill now, rather than being forced to do so later.
Mr. Minihan: I congratulate Senator Browne on his selection as a candidate for the forthcoming European elections. This legislation may affect him.
Mr. Browne: I was thinking of my constituency colleague.
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The main issues are the dual mandate and directly elected mayors. I am a holder of a dual mandate because I was elected as a councillor for the first time in 1999. I have strong feelings on the subject. I fully support the abolition of the dual mandate. That is something I have felt strongly about for some time.
If we are to be serious about government at national and local level, we must set about the process of differentiating between legislators and local politicians. There is a major fundamental difference between the two. Those of us who have stood in general elections are aware of the number of local issues that become topical when we are seeking office as legislators. We not only have to educate politicians about the change, but must also educate the public about their politicians' responsibilities and what they can expect from them. This will take time because it involves a major change to the culture that has obtained in recent years. Traditionally, Deputies filled out forms for people and performed other simple tasks these people could readily do for themselves. People became dependent on Deputies for the smallest of things. In my opinion, this has detracted from the proper legislative role we, as Members of the Oireachtas, should play.
It would be interesting if a survey was carried out which would provide information on the amount of time that is spent by national legislators on fulfilling the duties of local politicians. We do not need such a survey because we all know what it would contain. It would, however, make interesting reading. I understand the concerns of certain holders of the dual mandate, particularly those who have come to the Oireachtas by that route. I understand that they may be concerned about what they see as their power base. I ask them to look at the long-term view and see what can be achieved to improve the political process in this country. This legislation is a step in the right direction towards improving that process. Such improvement, will, however, take some time.
In our own party structures we can put in place mechanisms to separate the two rules. I encourage parties to do this. I am not trying to place barriers in people's way, but I want to encourage and facilitate the change that is necessary. This change can be brought about by selecting people for different strands, namely, those seeking nominations, those seeking election to be legislators and those seeking to be local politicians. In doing that one can in some way counteract the fears that have been expressed by certain Members. Basically, one must make a career choice to be a local politician or a legislator and one's party will facilitate that. Should one wish to change direction one can do so by opting out of one stream and moving into the other.
I agree it is important for Oireachtas Members to have access to local issues. The bigger parties will have access through their councillors with regular meetings and briefings. Those of us in smaller parties who do not have a team of councillors behind us in our respective local authority could have a bigger problem in this regard. I am glad the Minister is to look more closely at providing greater access to local authority decisions, agendas, meetings, etc. I encourage Oireachtas Members to set up regular briefing sessions with their city or county managers. This will have a twofold purpose; the first is to be briefed and brought up to date, while the second will allow for a Deputy to work at national level, bringing forward issues that pertain to the area he or she represents.
Reference has also been made to the way the voting register is administered and the inaccuracies it contains. As someone who ran in the recent general election I have to say that even in this modern electronic age there are serious concerns in this regard. In some cases deceased people are still on the register and people who change houses within local authorities are still shown as residing in houses they no longer occupy, even though the local authority is privy to this information having been involved in the house allocation. There is a need for a serious approach at national level to insist that the local authorities bring the register up to date.
It is one's civic responsibility to vote. I am appalled when I contrast what happens here with television images of people elsewhere queuing for miles, some having walked overnight to exercise their democratic right. We tend to pay lip service to that right although we spent a long time trying to achieve it. I urge the Government to redouble its efforts to encourage people to vote. We should go so far as to make it compulsory to vote. With the advent of electronic voting easier access should be promoted so that people could exercise their democratic right even if they were not in their constituency on election day. We should be moving in this direction. Given how working life has changed, people are not always in their constituency on polling day. Equally, I recognise the right of people to register a protest vote, but that is not the same as not voting at all. There is a subtle difference there and we should look more closely at this matter.
In principle I do not have a difficulty with the notion of directly elected mayors. However, I have difficulty with the fact that this office was brought in without giving it any firm responsibility in the sphere of local government. I regard that as a retrograde step. We have to examine the responsibility of county managers in legislation and when we re-visit the issue of directly elected mayors we should do so in an all-encompassing manner. While we are not ready for it yet, we should come back to this matter in the future. I have a difficulty with electing someone into a primarily ceremonial role without giving him or her some serious managerial responsibilities as well. This is not a reflection on existing county managers. We need to look at the separation of authority between executive powers and directly elected mayors or chairpersons.
A question has also been raised in regard to full-time politicians at local level. We have come a long way in regard to the introduction of salaries. The current salary is insufficient to allow somebody to give up his or her job in order to become a full-time politician, which is a problem. Equally there is a difficulty for people who cannot get time off from their workplace to enter into local politics. They need to hold their job. We cannot have it both ways. If we encourage full-time politicians at local level they must be paid. In so doing we are not disenfranchising a person who has an existing job from taking on such a role. Having said that, I would not advocate that we have full-time politicians at the level of town commission or urban district council, although we are heading fast in that direction at city and county council level. There is some way to go before we reach that point.
Reform of local government is both necessary and welcome. Although there is more to be done, we have come a long way. Some of the outstanding issues include the implementation and working of SPCs, area committees and so on. They are working well in certain local authorities but have not been embraced in the same way by all. I hear varying reports on this. We must introduce reform on a step by step basis. The bottom line is that there must be a fundamental shift in the thinking of politicians and in the public perception of politicians and what they should do for their communities. We have to be more conscious of our responsibilities as legislators, which will take time.
I urge those opposed to the abolition of the dual mandate not to think in a short-term way. They need to ask themselves if it will result in better local government and national government in 15 years' time. They need to ask if local politicians of the future will be more focused, better rewarded and more capable of representing their local communities.
This is the right step and I congratulate the Minister on taking it. I am sorry the measure did not come forward before now, but we all know its history. We should embrace the Bill as a positive step and not allow fears in regard to our personal political survival to get in the way of progressing the governance of the country at both national and local level.
Mr. P. Burke: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill. While I regret that the Minister is not present, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid.
Dr. McDaid: The Minister will be here in ten minutes.
Mr. P. Burke: Local government reform deserves a much wider debate than we are having in regard to the Bill before the House. There are two Bills from the Department of the Environment and Local Government on the Order Paper of the House; the Protection of the Environment Bill 2003 and the Local Government Bill 2003, which is currently being discussed. One takes away the power of local authority members and gives it to county managers, while the other takes away the dual mandate with the intention of totally reforming local government.
I cannot see where the reform is in the Bill – apart from the abolition of the dual mandate. When the last local government Bill came before the House, I supported an Opposition amendment proposing the abolition of the dual mandate. I also supported the direct election of mayors. I still think that is a very good idea. However, directly elected mayors would have to have more than mere token powers, as local authority chairmen have at present. That is the reason we need a wider debate on local government reform.
We have had better local government in recent years. I have yet to meet a local authority member who has said that better local government makes it better than it was. It is not working. In our county two or three months after a strategic policy committee meets it meets again to adopt the minutes of the previous meeting. At that stage its decisions go before the next full meeting of the local authority which deals with the decisions taken by the SPC three months previously. This is how the work of SPCs is filtering into the system. No one can say the system is working effectively or efficiently. It is holding up progress. This year the decisions of my local authority relating to local improvement schemes were dealt with by an SPC which had to send its decisions directly to the main body of the council before being referred back to another meeting of the SPC to be ratified. A decision which had been ratified by the main council could be changed by a subsequent meeting of an SPC. I ask the Minister and his officials to examine this matter. SPCs are holding up progress within local authorities and slowing down the process of local government.
Of the representatives of outside bodies brought in to SPCs, some have good ideas but the majority are not working at all. In fact, the majority do not even turn up at meetings. Why should they when they cannot attend the meeting of the main council when concerns of their SPC are decided? Better local government is a step backwards and means less power for councillors. In the Protection of the Environment Bill the Minister proposes less power still for local authority members. Where is the reform and when and how will it happen?
I have heard Senators say the job of local government members should be full-time. The Minister has said he will bring this about. I do not know how it will happen. Ratepayers and taxpayers are paying the wages of local authority members. Will the Minister provide a bigger financial allocation to allow councillors to be full-time? Will a teacher or solicitor give up his or her job to become a full-time local authority member? If this is what we want, we must begin a bigger and wider debate about how it is to be funded.
The Bill proposes that Members of the Oireachtas be given special powers to get information from county managers. This section of the Bill is quite flimsy, although the Minister has promised to say more about this measure before the evening is out. If he says something, he will have to amend the Bill on Committee Stage to strengthen it. The Bill now merely states that if a Member of the Oireachtas writes to a county manager, his or her letter must be answered within one week, ten days or a number of weeks and that he or she is entitled to have the agenda of local authority meetings, if requested. He or she will probably receive the agenda one week after the meeting has been held. I would like the Bill to contain a provision granting Oireachtas Members the right to have questions answered by county managers in the manner of parliamentary questions and within a specified time. Otherwise, this measure will be a waste of time.
How will the Minister deal with health board members? The Minister for Health and Children appoints a number of persons to health boards. Can they still be Members of the Oireachtas? The Bill is an attack on local authority members. Almost every Bill establishing a State or semi-State body includes a provision precluding local authority members from membership of the board of the body in question. The Bill also precludes local authority members once they have been elected to the Oireachtas. What is so wrong with being a local authority member? When the Taoiseach appoints his 11 nominees to the Seanad, do the people concerned have to give up their jobs in order to be Members of the Seanad? I do not know of anyone who has given up a job to be a Member of Seanad Éireann. Very few did so. Why should a local authority member have to give up his or her job? As membership of a local authority is a part-time job, why should we have to give it up when elected to the Oireachtas?
Dr. McDaid: What about the Fine Gael framework document, A Democratic Revolution? Has the Senator read it?
Mr. P. Burke: Was the Minister of State listening to what I said at the beginning of my speech? I am talking about a much wider debate on total reform of local government which we do not find in the Bill. Can the Minister of State show me local government reform? While the Bill speaks about reform of local government, there is nothing in it about reform. The Minister says he wants to make local authority members full-time. He says he wants to do this and that but none of his reforms is contained in the Bill. Of the two Bills before the House, one is taking power away from local authority members while this one is doing away with the dual mandate. There is no reform. I am surprised that the Minister of States asks such a question. The Bill should be called the abolition of the dual mandate Bill because that is what it is.
Dr. McDaid: There will be a Bill in 2004, one in 2005, another in 2006 and so on. Local government reform has been ongoing for years.
Mr. P. Burke: Of course it is. We are moving one step forward and two back. We have seen U-turns on most of the proposals of the previous Minister for the Environment and Local Government. We have passed legislation after legislation to change what Deputy Dempsey did as Minister. He wanted to have directly elected mayors. That proposal has been discarded. There were huge changes to his planning measures. I am disappointed because I am in favour of local government reform.
While there should be a local and a national system I am disappointed at the narrowness of the Bill because the Minister could have broadened it. There is no point in his broadening it out in his contribution if appropriate provisions are not contained in the Bill. He is telling all Oireachtas Members he will do this but the Bill does not provide for it.
I have been a member of a local authority for many years and I see problems with the dual mandate. It involves a huge workload. Part of the workload arises from Better Local Government. There are meetings and more meetings, all of which clog up the system, and none of them does one damn bit of business. That is the reality. Business is done only at the annual meeting, the roads meeting or at full meetings of councils. The Minister does not have his head in the sand and must be aware of this from listening to councillors.
I am disappointed with the Bill. I hope the Minister will table an amendment to section 3, which provides for the guidelines, and strengthen the provision for Oireachtas Members to ask questions and get answers from county managers.
Mr. Wilson: I welcome the Minister to the House. In 1999 I was honoured by the people of the Cavan electoral area in my native county of Cavan to have been elected to serve them on Cavan County Council. Having failed by a narrow margin in 1991 I worked hard for the following eight years and used as a model the way Senator Brian Hayes, the leader of the Fine Gael group in the Seanad, campaigned to get elected to the other House.
I would like to remain a member of the council and to continue to serve the people of the Cavan electoral area, the village of Ballinagh and the townland of Blenacup. These are placenames that have never been heard before in the Seanad but I am not ashamed to mention them. However, we must face reality. The Bill will pass through both Houses and will be enacted.
Mr. J. Phelan: Not if the Senator votes against it.
Mr. Wilson: I will reluctantly vote for it .
Mr. Bannon: The Senator has acknowledged dictatorship in his party.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Wilson, without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: Unlike the Fine Gael Party, there is discipline in our party and the country has benefited from it and will continue to do so.
Mr. Bannon: Dictatorship.
Mr. Wilson: I understand from the Minister's speech that the Barrington report of 1990 recommended the abolition of the dual mandate. I welcome Senator Coonan to the House. He is not here that often. He had to sleep in because he kept us all up late last night.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I remind Senator Wilson he should not say those things in the House.
Mr. Coonan: Did the Senator discover his voice? He was quiet last night.
Mr. Wilson: I understand the Commission on the Status of Women and the National Youth Council have also called for the abolition of the dual mandate. Contrary to reports from Members on all sides, the General Council of County Councils called for the abolition of the dual mandate for Deputies, not for Senators. As a member of the General Council of County Councils I clarify that.
On behalf of the GCCC I wish to make the following comments. The removal of the dual mandate will also remove a link in the chain of communication between Leinster House and the council chambers throughout the land.
Mr. Bannon: Is this the document the Senator is about to read into the record?
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Wilson, without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: Senators will no longer be entitled to sit on local councils.
Mr. Fitzgerald: It is better than the stuff Senator Bannon produces.
Mr. Wilson: We in the General Council of County Councils believe that one way of ensuring communication between national and local policymakers is maintained at a vibrant level is for the channels of communication provided by the General Council of County Councils to be used to the full. The general council, with its representation from each of the county and city councils, is well placed to channel concerns between national and local government and vice versa. It has the resources of its experienced chairmen down through the years and an executive committee who can react at short notice to emerging issues, while the plenary body which embraces representatives of all counties and political parties is another effective sounding board.
All of the 883 members of the General Council of County Councils should in future be consulted in relation to any legislation concerning local government. I firmly believe in that. The GCCC has made important inputs to the construction of the main Local Government Act, part of which we are discussing today. It also prepared a thorough review, in writing and verbally, of the SPC system, which is being furnished to the Minister. The general council was the only local government association to make an input into the national spatial strategy. As a Cavan man I thank the Minister for including my native county and the other town in my constituency, Monaghan, in the national spatial strategy. I am proud to say that.
Mr. Coonan: The Senator should thank the Government for closing the hospital as well.
Mr. Bannon: End of script.
Mr. Wilson: I am pleased Senator Bannon can read. I welcome the fact that the Minister will introduce regulations to compel county councils and health boards and so on to respond to the queries of Deputies and Senators. Neither I nor my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, has any difficulty in dealing with our manager, whom I believe to be the best manager in the country, or his staff.
Mr. Bannon: That is a huge slight on other managers and it should be withdrawn.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Wilson, without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: I agree with Senator McCarthy in relation to time off for PAYE workers. Regulations should be put in place to allow these workers time off to attend council meetings.
The term of the council should be extended from five to seven years. As one who was elected only in 1999 it took time to get to grips with council business. When I became a Member of the Seanad it became even more difficult. Colleagues on all sides will agree. To run the local elections in conjunction with the Presidential election would be helpful but would probably require a constitutional referendum. It is worth considering and would help increase the turnout for local elections.
The Minister's intention to consider the question of full-time councillors is welcome. In the meantime, will he increase the amount of money being paid to them? It is costing them dearly to maintain their phones, cars and attend meetings all over the place. That they have to run around the country to conferences to make a few pounds is not acceptable and I ask the Minister to examine that matter.
I ask the Minister to also consider the gratuity for long-serving councillors, some of whom have held their positions for almost 40 years. When they retire, they are entitled to €7,800. This is not acceptable, it is a disgrace. Senator Browne referred to introducing legislation to compel people to vote. Perhaps that is something at which we should look.
I understand we are not allowed to mention Members of the Lower House, but I would like to mention that well-known, boisterous Deputy from Westport who claims he will challenge the constitutionality of the Bill.
Mr. J. Phelan: Will Senator Wilson support him?
Mr. Wilson: He has also claimed that his “ears are red” from all the Fianna Fáil Deputies and Senators telephoning him to give him the €500 he needs.
Mr. J. Phelan: The Senator must be one of them.
Mr. Wilson: I ask Senator Bannon, who belongs to a party which is interested in freedom of information, to ask his colleague from Westport—
Mr. Bannon: The Senator is making dreadful insinuations about a Member of the Lower House.
Mr. Wilson: Let him name the people from this side of the House—
Mr. Bannon: This is unfair.
Mr. Wilson: —he claims have contacted him. He will have difficulty doing so because no one has contacted him.
Mr. J. Phelan: Two of them were on the television last week outside the gates of the Houses.
Mr. Wilson: That is the reality.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Wilson, without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: I would like confirmation from the Minister in regard to the constitutionality of the Bill because I have some concerns about it.
Mr. Bannon: The Senator is contradicting himself.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Bannon should allow Senator Wilson to conclude.
Mr. Wilson: If Senator Bannon is not able to listen and follow a train of thought, it is not my problem.
Will the Minister consider the constitutionality of the Bill? I do not wish to vote in favour of it and then contradict myself by standing at the local elections a year from now.
Mr. Coonan: We will ensure that does not happen.
Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister and the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, a great neighbour from County Meath, for the efforts they have invested in the area of local government. I compliment the Minister on the strides he is making towards better local government. It is with regret that I will vote for the Bill, but I am confident the Minister will not lead us down the wrong path. I look forward to walking through the lobbies.
Mr. J. Phelan: It is with great pleasure that I will vote against this legislation. I agree with much of what Senator Wilson said. He spoke about consistency, party loyalty and so on, but the word “hypocrisy” sprang to mind when I was listening to him because he will be voting in favour of the Bill. That is disappointing, but it is what we have come to expect. In that past week Fianna Fáil backbenchers stood outside the gates of Leinster House and said they were opposed to this legislation, but, miraculously, they will vote in favour of it when the time comes. It is nothing new for politicians to say one thing at home and another in the House. It is good to see Fianna Fáil is keeping the old traditions alive.
I am not persuaded one way or the other in regard to the abolition of the dual mandate. As somebody who was proud to be elected to Kilkenny County Council in 1999, it is with regret that I will not be able to stand at the next local election. I would prefer to remain a member of the county council, but it is an argument on which I have an open mind at this point. I am not sure of the procedure in regard to MEPs, whether they are allowed to remain as Deputies and Senators once elected to the European Parliament and whether they are allowed to remain as members of—
Mr. Cullen: Not from 2004.
Mr. J. Phelan: What about MEPs who may be members of Údarás na Gaeltachta? Will they have to resign their membership of that organisation after the European election? If there is to be consistency in the legislation, it should cover more than Deputies and Senators who are members of local authorities.
The legislation is entitled the Local Government Bill, but it is really all about the abolition of the dual mandate and does not reform local government. That is my main objection to it. I agree with Senator Wilson's comment that the Minister has taken many good initiatives in his time in office and, thankfully, he reversed many of the decisions of his predecessor. I urge the Minister to look at membership of MEPs on other bodies as well as the membership of Deputies and Senators on local authorities.
Better Local Government was mentioned by Senator Paddy Burke. As somebody who was elected to the council in 1999, when the old regime was in place, and who saw the transition to the new set up under Better Local Government, I note there has been a considerable decline in the operation of the county councils since the introduction of Better Local Government. Large numbers of county council employees have been promoted to senior management positions for which they earn large salaries, but, ultimately, this only creates an extra layer of bureaucracy.
We have moved from the position where county managers were more accessible. I am glad Senator Wilson has no difficulties in Cavan. Our county manager is quite an amenable man but when Oireachtas Members or councillors approach him, they are inevitably sent to the nearest director of services with their queries.
The introduction of the new layer of bureaucracy to which I refer has not helped local government. Before its introduction, it was clear that the manager was the man in charge, the engineer was the person who whom one went if one had a problem in regard to roads, sewerage, water or planning and the county secretary was the legal adviser to the council. Their roles were clear, but those of the directors of services are far from clear.
Senator Paddy Burke mentioned the operation of the strategic policy committees. I am a member of two SPCs on Kilkenny County Council. It is very much a mixed bag. One of the SPCs, that which deals with the environment, works well and many good decisions are made. It leads the way in the county in terms of awareness of environmental issues, increased recycling and other initiatives. The other SPC of which I am a member, that which deals with planning, is somewhat toothless and does little, if any, productive work. I also agree with Senator Paddy Burke in respect of the delay in SPC decisions being carried through to county council meetings. It is often a couple of months before something discussed at a SPC is brought before the full county council. It would be better if there was no delay.
Contrary to the ethos of Better Local Government, we have seen a continuous erosion of the powers of county and city councillors. The most recent example is contained in the Protection of the Environment Bill, which seeks to limit the role of councillors in the area of waste charges. I have spoken about that issue previously and my views on it are widely known.
Local authorities are becoming a rubber-stamp for decisions made by central Government and that is a retrograde step. As somebody involved with a local authority, I have become increasingly disenchanted with its workings because county councillors have little say in what local authorities do. That is something we should try to reserve rather than speed up. Unfortunately, the two most recent Administrations have been accelerating the decline of local government.
I agree with Senators Wilson and McCarthy that there should be a statutory provision enabling people to get time off work to attend county council and city and town council meetings. In Kilkenny there are a number of councillors who have difficulty in getting time off. If we are serious about encouraging people to involve themselves in local government, such provision should be made.
I would be concerned about the idea of full-time county councillors. There are six councillors in my electoral area. I was elected as a student. There was a retired teacher, farmer, factory worker, bar worker and chef on the council, all bringing a different perspective to the role of county councillor. There are many different professions represented on local authorities. I would not like to see this made difficult by turning council positions into full-time ones, depriving local authorities of the vocational influence of people practising as farmers, solicitors, teachers and so on. Having them as members of local authorities adds something to county council meetings. If that was to cease, it would be another retrograde step for county councils.
I am glad Senator Wilson raised the constitutionality of the Bill. I do not know if it is unconstitutional. It would be worth examining the constitutionality of prohibiting a person from running for election to local government. It is a question that needs to be answered and I am sure it will be asked in the course of the next couple of months.
I oppose this legislation because it is simply about the dual mandate and not, ultimately, about reforming local government. In recent years we have seen a continuous erosion of the role local councils play in society. We should be trying to reverse that decline rather than hastening it. Local authorities will be diminished without Oireachtas Members who can bring another dimension to local government. I am a new Oireachtas Member and have been a council member for three and a half years. The membership of the council included four Oireachtas Members and I never felt they were overpowering or that I could not stand up and express a different view to theirs at a meeting. They brought another dimension to local government. I question the validity of the abolition of the dual mandate and remain to be convinced one way or the other. I oppose the legislation on that basis.
Mr. Mooney: Like my colleagues on all sides of the House, I welcome the Minister. I also applaud him for his reforming zeal. He follows in a very impressive tradition because his predecessor was and remains, within his new portfolio of Education and Science, a politician of vision. I have often felt that because of the clientist nature of our political system we have not appreciated those who have shown vision. There are many politicians across the political spectrum with whom one might not necessarily agree but whom one cannot but admire for the deep thought they bring to the parliamentary process. On the Fine Gael side, there was the late John Kelly and, currently, Deputy John Bruton in his various roles and, on the Government side, without casting any reflection on anybody else in the context of local government reform, the current Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey and Deputy Cullen, Minister for the Environment and Local Government.
That is the good news. The bad news is that I stand here as a loser, having lost the argument. Like my colleague, Senator Wilson, I will vote reluctantly for this legislation. I will do so because, the argument having raged within my political party for the past four years, the majority view prevailed. That is the democratic process. My main reason for opposing it was narrowly focused. It was because I was elected to this House by county councillors and, therefore, had a rather unique relationship with them and local authorities in general. I felt we should have been treated separately but, unfortunately, no Minister can do this constitutionally. The two representative Houses cannot be separated. What goes for one goes for the other in legislative terms.
I share the opinion of Senator John Paul Phelan that Oireachtas Members enhance rather than diminish local authority business by their presence. Perhaps the Minister will clarify something on which we have corresponded, which is not contained within the legislation but is, I presume, part of the regulatory process he will initiate once the Bill is passed. I refer to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and appointed members of statutory bodies and sub-committees of local authorities, for example, the vocational education committees, library committees and SPCs, in which they play a very valuable role. I am the only Oireachtas Member on Leitrim Vocational Education Committee. I am an appointed member and value my presence on the committee. In a political sense, my colleagues on all sides of the House see my involvement in education matters as essential, because it links the local county committee and the national Parliament which means that on any national policy or impending national policy they get the inside track, given that many initiatives and policy areas are discussed here before they reach local authority level.
It has never been adequately explained – I will not ask the Minister to explain it – why it was felt necessary at this moment in our political development to implement the proposal to abolish the dual mandate. I say this period in our development because we are really in a half-way house. Reference has been made to the local government reform document, the publication of which resulted in the establishment of the SPCs. It also, as alluded to on all sides of the House, created a bureaucratic jungle, a maze, which has benefited civil servants. It has created a whole layer of new jobs and also given local authority members a little bit of status and a few bob in their pockets. Sometimes the priorities are the other way. People see it as an extra few bob rather than as a job. When one thinks about it, they may not be too far wrong because not one comma of the County Management Act has been changed. County managers still retain the power they have always had.
In that context, I welcome the repeal of the proposal to elect mayors directly. In the earlier internal debate, which Fine Gael, the Labour Party and other parties will also have had, a strong argument was made for electing mayors directly. It was argued that it would be very democratic and give the people a direct involvement in the process. However, behind the public relations and spin, all it would do is provide a platform for people with other agendas, who were not part of the local government system and have no experience of it to come into the system but with no extra powers. It was essentially a cosmetic exercise. I argued for the creation of an office of mayor or cathaoirleach with its own staff and resources. I am sure the Minister or one of his successors will revisit this at some point because the principle is not a bad one. In the original Bill, what was offered with regard to directly elected mayors and chairpersons was status and a few bob. It was not giving anything positive to local government. I am glad the Minister has gone down this road.
Politicians in the Oireachtas have been pilloried in various editorials in national newspapers for opposing elements of this Bill as if it is a crime to do so. One broadsheet newspaper, in particular, had the cheek to complain about what goes on in the Oireachtas despite rarely reporting its proceedings, certainly not those of this House, except for tabloid purposes. The editorials took the high moral ground and pontificated about how dreadful it was for democracy that politicians wanted to hold on to their power at local level. That shows a lack of understanding of the role of the Oireachtas and local government which needs to be further defined. I realise the Minister is working on a rolling reform programme but it is not enough to take this in isolation. There is a need to marry it with real power and influence for Oireachtas Members.
Some years ago at the beginning of this debate a Fianna Fáil Deputy, now a Minister, asked the then Minister whether he would outline what the brave new world for Deputies would be like. He asked what the role of Deputies would be when the dual mandate was taken away. That is the reason I say we are only at the half way stage of our development. There is a real need to consider urgent reform of the Houses in the context of how legislators can directly influence policy in the way that happens in other countries.
We have yet to discover the Minister's thinking on this but I will not labour the point today because I want to focus on the legislation. That is our side of the equation but there is also a need to consider how local authority members – stripped of Oireachtas involvement and provided with a framework for further development – will respond to the new challenges presented to them. The omens are not good. The Minister has had to intervene with regard to waste management because certain local authorities did not implement proposals. It is an emotive issue but the nettle must be grasped.
Because of the size of the country and the close relationship between locally elected councillors and the electorate, a small but vocal and highly motivated group can influence national policy to the extent that a county councillor looking over his or her shoulder towards the next election will go with the flow and bow to the political cliché that, “I am the leader of the people, I will follow the people,” when leadership is required. It is sad that a Minister has had to take away the power of local authorities in a key area because policies are not being implemented in the national interest.
That is the challenge for local authority members in the brave new world that will follow the passage of this legislation. Local authorities will be on their own in their administrative areas, with a range of powers but with responsibilities also. From conversations with previous Ministers for the Environment and Local Government – not just from my party – I know that this is a real concern among those drafting reforming legislation to provide more power for councillors. How will councillors rise to the challenge? How will they separate their electoral interests from the wider public interest? It is not enough to provide an administrative or legislative framework to give power to local authorities unless they are prepared to implement policy and take necessary decisions in the public interest. That is the dilemma facing local authority members because of the unique nature of Irish society.
Ireland has no tradition of devolving power downward. It has one of the most centralised administrative structures in western Europe. Those who have seen how structures work in other EU countries will testify to this. It is a new ball game for local authorities as well as legislators.
I endorse what has been said about the need to recognise the commitment made by county councillors and the greater commitment that will be expected as we move along the road of reform. It is not right that employers should hold, like the sword of Damocles, the threat of dismissal or diminution of a person's responsibilities in his or her job because he or she has decided to seek election – there should be no discrimination in that regard.
The Minister should consider the possibility of compulsory voting. I accept that it would not be an easy road to travel but voter turnout has declined in recent local and national elections and there is a disconnection from politics.
This afternoon I attended a meeting at Kilmainham of the National Economic and Social Forum, of which I am a member, where there was a report on the most recent plenary session held at the end of January, the theme of which was the national anti-poverty strategy. Over 300 people attended and the main point of consensus that arose among a very disparate group – from those representing the elderly to the hard of hearing to mentally and physically handicapped people – was a sense of disconnection from the centre of power, despite the architecture put in place, both from the perspective of locally elected representatives who meet voters daily, to national legislators who hold clinics on a variety of levels, to all of the social partnership structures put in place. In spite of this many in society feel disconnected and do not vote, because of which democracy is the poorer.
There is a need to consider how this sizeable group can be encouraged to feel more included. The Minister is attempting to bring power to a local level – the purest form of democracy – in which he should be encouraged. While I am reluctant to act like a turkey voting for Christmas, I accept that the argument has been won and lost. On this occasion, I bow to the inevitable.
Mr. Coonan: I welcome the Minister. This is my first opportunity to wish him well in his portfolio. It is important in the interests of local government that he does well and gets this legislation right, although I have reservations about it. I also compliment Senator Wilson on his excellent contribution and hope he has the courage of his convictions, does his mother proud and votes as he feels, against the Bill.
Mr. Wilson: I will vote in that way if the majority of Opposition Members, who wish to vote with the Minister, do so.
Mr. Coonan: With regard to the Bill, the Minister is putting the cart before the horse. He spoke earlier in the context of two items of legislation, namely, the Protection of the Environment Bill, which will take powers away from councillors, and the Local Government Bill, which will give them powers. Essentially, this is double-speak. I and many of my colleagues would love to support the Bill if it was accompanied by genuine reform of local government and of this House, in particular.
It has been stated, and I have no doubt, that the Minister, like many of his predecessors, has great reforming zeal. Previous Ministers embarked on campaigns to reform local government, but they all made the fatal mistake of failing to reform the financial aspects. Local government is totally starved of funds and unable to deliver the services that are so necessary to the public. There are some examples of this which never cease to amaze me. In the economic boom that has just passed, a decision was taken by the Minister to cap the rates pertaining to local authorities at a time when ratepayers could have afforded to pay an increase and when local authorities could have garnered money to deliver services. When there was an economic downturn and when things started to go wrong – I am not suggesting that this is because of Government mishandling – the first thing the Minster did was to lift the cap and put an onus on members of local authorities to pass on increases in rates to the public. The latter happened this year. If that is reform of local government, I do not understand it.
In north Tipperary, for example, the physically disabled person's grant, to which Senator Mooney alluded, is now frozen because the funding required to enable applicants to draw down the grant is not available. The local authority does not have the money and is not in a position to raise it. The same applies to housing aid for the elderly. Applications made in 1998 and 1999 are only being dealt with now. The message is clear: old or disabled persons should not live in north Tipperary under this Government because there is no help for them.
There is a national housing crisis. The waiting lists in my county are getting longer and people are losing faith. They wonder if they will ever receive a house from the local authority. The funding for the repair of local authority houses to keep them in respectable condition is also gone.
There are many more examples. When I was first elected to the county council in 1991, we had a county manager, a county engineer, a county secretary and a finance officer. Now we have five directors of service and a county manager – six managers, in effect – each of whom has adequate staff. However, most of the money is being spent on administration and we do not have enough staff on the ground where services are being delivered. How long is it since the Minister was on the Ennis road where Mike Murphy used to see the council worker leaning on the shovel? There are no longer any council workers to deliver the service the community wants.
Mr. Mooney: They cleared the water tables and did a great job.
Mr. Coonan: Absolutely. That is what I am saying. It is regrettable that we do not have them now. I would support the Bill if it was accompanied by genuine reform of local government. I have outlined the instances in which this is lacking. I have presented the facts and the Minister can correct me on them afterwards if he wishes.
Mr. Cullen: The Senator is absolutely correct. I never sold it as anything else.
Mr. Coonan: I will provide another example. I was already double-jobbing on two authorities before I became a Senator. The NRA has responsibility for national primary and national secondary roads. The N62 runs through the heart of the jurisdiction of Templemore Town Council, which I represent. The council cannot spend money on improving streets or footpaths. It has to get permission from the NRA if it wants to do so, but the latter will not provide funding. The same applies in respect of improvements to the town square. As an elected member of two authorities, I have no say in the matter and must depend on the NRA. I do not know who are the members of the authority. They are certainly not elected by or accountable to the public.
Senators, more so than Deputies, will be particularly adversely affected by the Bill. If the Bill was accompanied by genuine reform we could certainly support it. Senators do not have the facility to put down parliamentary questions and do not have the same access to Ministers and Departments as Deputies.
Mr. Cullen: The Senator has good access to me.
Mr. Coonan: Yes, but we cannot put down parliamentary questions. We have the right to raise matters on the Adjournment, but only three matters are accepted each day. The Minister knows that the matters are rarely addressed adequately. One gets a public servant's reply, which often—
Mr. Mooney: The Senator is a quick learner.
Mr. Coonan: —fails to reflect the issue raised.
The Minister should consider the fact that councillors elect many Senators. When he abolishes the dual mandate, we will no longer be able to serve on councils or attend conferences. Where will we meet councillors? Does the Minister propose to put in place a mechanism that will maintain the link between Senators and councillors so that we can continue to serve our electorate until the next Seanad is elected? That is very important.
The promised right to access to information, officials and documents is not very explicit and I hope the Minister will enshrine it in the Bill because it would go some way towards alleviating our concerns. It is also important that he would assign a director of services, if not the manager, who would be responsible for responding to the needs of Senators. Then, when Senators contact councils, the issues they raise will be taken on board and addressed promptly and not, as another Member observed, after a week or three months.
When the scrappage scheme was introduced in 1999 the leadership of Fianna Fáil encouraged Senators and Deputies at the time to stay on and contest their seats in the local elections because of their ability to attract votes and bring other candidates in with them. In other words, the party's taking control of various local authorities was a power and money exercise. The party must be congratulated for this because it has great tacticians and always seems to get it right.
However, one of the motives for introducing the Bill is reversing the trend because the last election was won – it was bought rather than fought – on the pretext of promises and commitments made on the doorsteps. These promises and commitments, even though they have not been honoured, have been abandoned. The Minister and his colleagues know they will get a rollicking during the local election campaign when they knock on doors. The Minister's tactic is to remove the people who made the promises and put in fresh blood. The new candidates will be able to make the age-old plea of Fianna Fáil: “We knew nothing about those promises. We had nothing to do with them”.
Mr. Mooney: It is a good tactic. I thank the Senator for the advice. I had not thought about it.
Mr. Coonan: I compliment the Minister on his remarkable patience and endurance in listening to this debate in recent days. He has lent credibility to the Senators by listening to them. There was merit in the proposal when mooted two years ago by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey. However, it was withdrawn due to the influence of Independent Members and deemed not to be a good idea. The then Minister was roundly condemned by some of his own backbenchers. The current Minister is in a better position because he does not have to bother about his backbenchers.
Mr. Mooney: The Senator was not at our meeting.
Mr. Coonan: All he has to do is deal with a few awkward ones and, hey presto, the Bill will go through. However, the ending of the dual mandate will not save money. All it will do is add an extra layer of local representatives who will be paid from the public purse. It will not deliver better local government. Senators and Deputies from all parties have made excellent contributions to and helped reform local government. The Bill may well be bad for local government because it will take away what those representatives have to offer. While it will encourage more people to become involved in local government, I genuinely believe it is the electorate which should decide who should represent it. If I stand for election, it is up to the people to elect or reject me. They are the ones who will decide whether I am failing in my duties locally by being involved in national politics. It is the right of the ordinary citizen to elect whoever he or she wishes to represent him or her.
I thought the Minister would have had better regard for Senators and Deputies. The only persons debarred from contesting local elections are those who are insane or declared bankrupt. The Minister is putting us in with lovely bedfellows.
Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Cullen): There are a lot more than that. I will tell the Senator about them.
I thank Senators for their contributions to the Second Stage debate. It has been a learning experience listening to the diversity of views and perspectives and in terms of the genuine high regard in which local government is held. It has a relationship with central government, While this proposal defines a clear separation, it is also a move to recognise the strengths of each system and their complementary roles. In recent decades there has been a substantial move in this direction.
Ten years ago we decided that Ministers and Ministers of State would no longer be allowed to serve on local authorities. This rule was then applied to the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of this House and MEPs. Judges, holders of EU office, gardaí and civil servants are also debarred. Therefore, it is not just the mad and insane who are debarred; there are a large body of persons from all walks of life who are precluded. There has been a progression leading to this point. We have been moving for many years to get to this position today.
I never suggested that the contribution of Oireachtas Members at local authority level was anything but important; it has always been significant. That is not to say, however, that the contribution of local authority members is not equally important and significant. It would be reasonable to suggest that in some cases -certainly not all – the role of the Oireachtas Member has been somewhat dominant or allowed to be dominant by virtue of the office he or she holds in the national Parliament. We are dealing with this matter in the context of ending the dual mandate.
With regard to the issue of the constitutionality of the Bill, there is nothing for me to say. Any issue of constitutionality, as with any legislation, is a matter for the courts. I have confidence in the drafting of the Bill which, like all legislation, passed through the Office of the Attorney General. It stands up to scrutiny; otherwise, I would not be standing here if I had any doubts.
It is a bit of a ruse by those who oppose the Bill to say it might be constitutionally dangerous. I will always accept an argument from any side. I have had great and very detailed discussion and debate with my party colleagues and respect the views expressed to me. They made a positive contribution in terms of my formulation of regulations. Moving from guidelines to statutory regulations is good. I hope to flesh out the proposals by the time the Bill passes through this House. I am always open to Opposition amendments and hope I am known as a Minister who has accepted many such amendments, as demonstrated when dealing with the Protection of the Environment Bill. I have never suggested that I am the font of all wisdom on any particular issue. The same applies to any one individual or group of individuals in the Department. The process of bringing Bills with great care through so many Stages in the Houses is designed to ensure we tease out what can be improved or remove measures that clearly were not thought through. I am always happy to discuss and debate.
I am really confused by the Opposition parties' view on the Bill, particularly that of Fine Gael. I do not say this lightly other than to wonder why it has qualms when it actually proposed the ending of the dual mandate. It is still my view that the public position of the leadership of Fine Gael and Labour Party is that their parties are in favour of ending the dual mandate. To my knowledge, neither of the party leaders has suggested that there has been a reversal of policy.
I did not present this Bill or suggest it last year. Neither Fianna Fáil nor the Government ever suggested that it was being brought forward as part of a huge reform package. I said last year that we would deal with this issue. There was no demurring from Fine Gael or Labour Party at the time; they congratulated and encouraged me. Not too long ago Fine Gael with great fanfare published a policy statement entitled, A Democratic Revolution – A Thorough Overhaul of the Institutions of the State. It is worth quoting from it:
Dual mandates for councillors and Oireachtas Members will be prohibited. Sitting Deputies or Senators will not be allowed to seek election to a local authority. Sitting councillors will be deemed to have resigned their seat on election to the Dáil or Seanad.
Ms O'Rourke: When was that?
Mr. Cullen: That is Fine Gael policy—
Mr. Bannon: We promised real reform of local government.
Mr. Cullen: —as enunciated in its recent publication, A Democratic Revolution – A Thorough Overhaul of the Institutions of the State.
Ms O'Rourke: A revolution.
Mr. Cullen: I do not think there is any equivocation—
Mr. Coonan: We are on the way to a revolution all right.
Mr. Cullen: —unless I am gravely mistaken about the position of the Fine Gael Party. It is written in very strong terms. It is described as A Democratic Revolution. Fine Gael could not have been more explicit with regard to its views on the dual mandate. This has not been withdrawn publicly by the Fine Gael Party. To my knowledge, the Labour Party and its leadership have not changed their view on the dual mandate. I do not mind arguing with Senators about the difficulty of the dual mandate.
Mr. Bannon: Will the Minister explain why he changed his mind about the directly elected chair?
Mr. Cullen: I will.
Mr. Mooney: As secretary of LAMA, the Senator should know the answer to that because he looked for it.
Mr. Cullen: When the Bill was previously before the House, the Fine Gael Party tabled a motion insisting on the removal of the provision for directly elected mayors and cathaoirligh.
Ms O'Rourke: They did not want them but now they do.
Mr. Cullen: What I did in the context of the Bill is to transpose the position of the Fine Gael Party into legislation, and I thank them for that.
Mr. Bannon: We wanted real powers to accompany the positions.
Mr. Cullen: I find the reversal of all these positions very difficult. It is happening for no reason other than to make hay in the House.
Mr. Coonan: I am delighted the Minister has consulted our document for ideas.
Mr. Mooney: There is a psychology at work here.
Mr. Cullen: Many important points were made on both sides of the House.
Mr. Wilson: Fine Gael scrapped it.
Mr. Bannon: The Minister has muzzled his own crew who are very angry here this evening.
Mr. Cullen: The democratic revolution meant almost the disappearance of Fine Gael as a serious political entity.
Mr. Bannon: The Minister will see about that in the next election.
Mr. Cullen: I appreciate the contributions of Senators in regard to the relationship that must exist in light of the fact that Members of this House and the Dáil are public representatives, remain so and deal with many inquiries from individuals, community groups or whatever at local level which require a system at local government level. This must be put in place in regard to the official side on the local authority, that is, the managers and directors of services, and how they interact with Members of the Oireachtas.
Mr. Coonan: The Minister should read A Democratic Revolution and he will find out how to do it.
Mr. Cullen: We should not forget we are changing the roles in the sense of enhancing the whole discipline of local government. We are giving it its own raison d'être in the context of its members. Its members will be just local authority members and we will be just Members of the Dáil and Seanad. We are making that separation and the system must be fair and efficient. I will not give Members of the Oireachtas a superior position to that of elected councillors because it would not be acceptable to anyone.
The issue has been about access, responses and how we deal with the situation. I am confident I will be able to meet the challenges posed fairly and openly by colleagues in my own party and by other Members of the House. Before the Bill finishes in the Seanad, I propose to make changes to it. I will tease it out with colleagues and we will have a clearer picture of what is involved, which Members deserve. I have given a lot of time to the Bill which reflects my interest in local government and my respect for the Seanad. The debate has been of enormous help to me in clarifying what the real issues are in regard to the relationship that must exist at local level.
I would say to Members of the House that this is important legislation which will expand the political representative base throughout the country. By bringing more people into the system, we will increase the general stock of politicians available to serve the people, which is our primary focus. We can then move on to the point made by Members on all sides regarding real reform. This is a defining moment.
I listened to what Senator O'Rourke, Senator Mooney and others said earlier. This affords us a three pronged approach in some respects. We can now look at the whole local government structure. The Seanad has already decided to look very closely at strengthening its role, including its operational functions, judicial review, legislation and so on. The same applies to the Dáil in terms of sitting times. We have been frustrated for a long time in terms of expanding our role, times of sittings and so on. Much springs forth from the ending of the dual mandate which will benefit the three democratically elected Chambers, that is, local authorities, the Seanad and Dáil Éireann.
I commend the Bill to the House and thank Senators on all sides for their positive, helpful and well thought out contributions.
Question put: “That the words proposed to be deleted stand.”
Kitt, Michael P.
Mooney, Paschal C.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
White, Mary M.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Bannon and U. Burke.
Question declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
An Cathaoirleach: I declare the Bill read a Second Time.
Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 6 March 2003.
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