Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Local Authority Members Association
I welcome the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, to this meeting and invite it to make its presentation. Following the presentation, we will have questions from members. I am particularly happy to welcome my colleague from North Tipperary, Councillor Kennedy, and Roscrea man, Councillor Noel Burke, who might deny he is a Tipperary man. I understand Councillor McElvaney is making the presentation and invite him to commence.
Councillor Hughie McElvaney:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. I am delighted to lead a strong delegation here from LAMA. We were here before on taxi and other business, but this morning's meeting is not as daunting. First, I know the Vice Chairman and we also know a number of members of the committee, in particular Senator Cáit Keane who was our vice chairman prior to her elevation to Seanad Éireann. When she reached this lofty arena, she did not forget where she came from and she is very good to the LAMA executive.
Councillor Hughie McElvaney:
I just want to say hello to Deputy James Bannon and Senator Denis Landy. I am also delighted to have the backup of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland here.
We made a submission, as requested and while the general council is more or less a policy organisation for local councillors, we would be seen as a union for councillors. We are concerned with good facilities and conditions for our members. While we are getting used to the new regime introduced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, regarding the change in electoral areas etc., we are more into the business of ensuring councillors have good working conditions etc. Members have had the opportunity to read our submission and they may have questions for us. We are prepared to accept their questions now.
Councillor Noel Bourke:
I join Councillor McElvaney in saying we are glad to attend this meeting. What we are trying to do is put conditions in place under the new local government structures whereby councillors can carry out their work as local, elected representatives in an efficient and effective way, without duplication and with as little red tape and bureaucracy as possible. This is a new situation for councillors. We will now have fewer councillors, with the number reducing from over 1,600 to 949. Councillors will now have a greater workload and with larger electoral areas there will be fewer councillors in all counties except in Dublin and the eastern seaboard, which will have increased numbers on county and city councils, although the towns outside of Dublin on the eastern seaboard will lose their town councils. In the midlands and most of the counties on the western seaboard, there will be fewer councillors, taking into account the reduction in the abolition of the town councils.
This presents a big challenge to the councillors who will be elected in the elections next May. What we are trying to do is to put a package of regulations in place that will enable councillors to carry out their work in an efficient and effective way.
Councillor Tom Crosby:
I support but will not reiterate what has been said. One issue that affects councillors across the board is the 50 years of age eligibility requirement for councillors retiring or leaving politics due to a council being abolished. This is an issue high on the agenda and I would like to see it being addressed in the local government Bill if possible. Many councillors in their 20s, 30s or 40s will leave the system, but they will not be eligible for the gratuity. We have outlined 11 points in our submission, but this is one that arises for every councillor throughout the country.
Councillor John Kennedy:
I support the submission fully because it is well presented and points out the major shortfalls in the Bill. In my area, Roscommon, we will lose eight county councillors. However, the two adjoining counties, Leitrim and Longford, which combined have the same population as Roscommon have double the representation. The provisions are unfair for counties like County Roscommon.
With regard to social welfare entitlements for councillors, most committee members would be aware that PRSI contributions are deducted from our representational payments, yet we are in class K of the social welfare code. As a result, we have no benefits, including no pension benefits. In category K we are with an elite group category, the senior Judiciary. The public believes we are entitled to social welfare benefits under category A and that is something this committee should drive for us. Many councillors do not have any benefits when they retire and this is an issue that continually arises among our members. Our group is working on this and we look forward to receiving the support of the committee on it.
I thank Councillor McElvaney and his colleagues for coming in to make their case. LAMA is an organisation that carries out the specific role of representing the rights and welfare of councillors and has done this successfully over many years. The issues that have been raised here are pertinent and while not dealt with specifically in the legislation, they are important.
As someone from rural Ireland, I know electoral areas are going to be bigger and that fewer councillors will represent people. There will be a greater requirement of councillors to cover a greater geographic area and it will cost more for them to carry out their functions. For example, in the Tipperary-Cashel area - an area familiar to Senator Ó Murchú - there are currently 27 sitting councillors. This number will be reduced to six. Therefore we can see the consequences the change will have in that area.
The issue of the gratuity needs to be addressed. In normal employment, if somebody voluntarily leaves employment where there is a gratuity or redundancy package, there is no age limit for receiving that. However, in the case of councillors, for some unknown reason, the 2001 Act, inserted a qualifying age of 50 years for receipt of gratuity. I served on my local authority with a colleague who was in school with me and who finished on the council in 2009 and had to wait a number of years to get his gratuity.
That is unfair. It is something that can be addressed, perhaps not in this legislation but it is something we should deal with as soon as possible now that we are looking at local government reform.
The other issue which was raised by Councillor Crosby was that of social welfare. Councillors are the Cinderella of the social welfare system. In effect, they pay in but receive nothing in return. The Bill provides an opportunity to allow councillors who are full-time public representatives to have, to use the old term, a "full stamp" to give them the entitlements every other employee has in another employment. We should request the Minister to provide for this as soon as possible. It would be a good provision. It would be only right and proper to do this. I do not see why councillors should be treated any differently from any other employee.
I will pursue these issues on behalf of LAMA and thank its representatives for coming.
I welcome all of my old friends from LAMA. I do not know whether one would call it elevation because local government is the primary sector of local democracy, but I am looking for a greater devolution of functions from central to local government. What is local is still the most important, regardless of where one sits.
This is the first body of representatives we have had here today who have come with no secretarial support. They must do it all themselves. The other two bodies had such support. Those who provided such support did not contribute, but they were present. The two bodies each have an office and backup support, whereas the Local Authority Members Association does not have any of this. Stating councillors should bear the brunt of all the cuts is demeaning. To function well, councillors need backup services, including social services. One cannot expect one voluntary body to do this on its own. It is an issue about which I have spoken previously and about which I will speak more; it is one I will not let go.
It should be recognised, particularly having regard to European legislation, that LAMA when engaged in collective bargaining on behalf of its members plays an important role which we should recognise. Whereas policy is important, those who implement it need training and support. That is why it is important to have LAMA recognised as a training body for councillors. If one does not receive training in good planning, one will not be a good councillor and who better to provide such training?
A positive aspect on which LAMA lobbied is the second legal opinion. This has been recognised in local government thanks to organisations such as LAMA.
There will be fewer women involved in local government it if is the case that - I will not describe them as "salaries" as they are representational payments - it is not recognised that child care, which is important, costs money. One of the councillors mentioned the issue, particularly in rural areas where people have miles to cover and fuel is not getting cheaper. If we want to encourage more women to become involved in politics, one cannot expect only those with money, those who are able to fund themselves by putting petrol in their cars to be councillors. One must recognise that it costs money to be a councillor.
Class A PRSI has long been mentioned as an issue. I do not know how we will get a hold of it. It is unfair if one pays into something - I did it for 20 years - and does not receive anything for it. There are many matters that need to be looked at.
There are many positive measures, responsibility for which has been devolved to districts. LAMA is the first to welcome many of them, but I will not go into this matter because we are tied to time. If I have more time, I will come back to them.
It is nice to have LAMA members here to brief us on what we should be addressing in the forthcoming Bill. In that context, I ask them, if they could make one or two significant changes to it, what would be their No. 1 priority?
We have discussed the welfare and well-being of local representatives, rightly so. As the late Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. I recall that in its submission the County and City Managers Association stated this legislation could leave local authority members in a vulnerable position. It is important that we focus on that issue. What does LAMA see as its role in the future of local government in terms of the municipal district councils that are being set up?
As the LAMA representatives will be aware, we had a number of groups here this morning when we discussed various matters. That is our role as legislators, to try to make the best possible legislation. One of the groups stated, for example, that the local property tax would make no difference whatsoever to local government. On the other hand, the County and City Managers Association stated it would put local government on a much more sound footing. What is LAMA's view on the issue of the local property tax and the financing of municipal authorities? Will the proposals give local representatives more power and greater capacity to raise funds or will they, as one organisation stated, make no difference whatsoever?
Councillor Noel Bourke:
As the chairman of LAMA stated, we are focusing on the conditions under which councillors work. In answer to Deputy Noel Coonan's question on the role of the local elected councillor, we see ourselves as being closest to the people who elect us and whom we represent. Frequently, we are the first port of call for those with particular difficulties in our constituencies, whether they are related to the local authority or other agencies such as the HSE. We see ourselves in that role. We may then take the matter to persons such as Deputy Noel Coonan. What we are trying to do is have put in place a structure that would facilitate us in doing this in an efficient and effective way, in having the necessary wherewithal, with contacts in the various State agencies or wherever else it might be whom we would have the authority to contact to raise issues of particular concern to us. We want to be efficient and effective. It is particularly important that we be so, given the reduced number of councillors. Their numbers will reduce from 1,627 to 949 after next May.
We have listed a couple of points in the document which we have tried to keep as short and as simple as possible. The first refers to the funding of LAMA. We receive a contribution from each local authority and there was a suggestion in Putting People First that this might not happen. We have discussed all of these matters with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, with whom we have had a constructive and positive discussion. We are hopeful he will see our point of view and make the necessary changes. One matter we want to see dealt with in the Bill or the regulations, wherever it applies, is that of local authorities continuing to make a contribution to the running of LAMA. As I said, there is a suggestion in Putting People First, on page 149, Ref. No. 11.6.5, that this might not happen. We would certainly like the current arrangement to continue. There are 38 local authorities affiliated to LAMA. However, there will be only 31 local authorities after the next local elections.
Our income stream will be reduced in any event. It is important that we should still receive the same level of contribution from the 31 councils.
We take our role of running seminars for our members very seriously. We do not merely run them for the sake of doing so or in order to bring people away somewhere for a day or two or whatever. We do a great deal of work on the seminars we run. As is stated in our document, we run two seminars each year - one in spring and the other in the autumn. We recently held a very successful seminar in Ennistymon, which was addressed by eight excellent speakers and was very well attended. There was a great deal of discussion and interaction between members and the people who addressed the seminar. The theme of the seminar was "Local Authorities Driving Economic Development". Our spring seminar took place in Gorey, County Wexford, and the theme was "Local Authorities in Ireland: New Challenges - New Opportunities". Again, there were some excellent speakers at the seminar, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, addressed us on the issue of Irish Water. The latter is a subject that is very important to councillors. The Minister of State delivered an excellent presentation and there was a great deal of interaction, discussion and questions on the matter. The Minister of State provided clarity on a number of issues. I mention this in order to underline the point that we take our role in running these seminars extremely seriously.
In the Putting People First document, the Minister refers to specifying particular organisations that will run these seminars. LAMA is not mentioned in said document, which does refer to the amalgamated Association of County and City Councils, ACCC, and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, AMAI. We want LAMA to be included and we would like the committee to ensure that this will happen. We do not want to blow our own trumpet but we are of the view that we have a very good record in running seminars appropriate to councillors at the particular times to which I refer. We want to continue running these seminars and providing this service to our members. As a result, we want to ensure that LAMA will be named as one of the bodies deemed suitable by the Minister to run seminars and conferences.
As far as the powers and functions of district councils are concerned, we want these to be devolved as much as possible to local level. As we state in our document, however, we want it to be done in a sensible way that will avoid duplication. We would like local district councils to have as much authority and power as possible without creating additional work that will not give rise to any additional benefits.
Councillors are paid one quarter of the amount paid to Senators, or just over €16,000. This money is taxable and we pay PAYE, the universal social charge, the pension levy and PRSI in respect of it. As a result, our net pay is approximately €8,000. Our remuneration was recently reduced in line with the Haddington Road agreement. This was because Senators' salaries were reduced and ours were automatically reduced as a result. It was not much of a reduction, but we think it was wrong.
Some of the larger councils have supports for their members, including IT support and stationery, but most do not provide such supports. One could argue that it is our responsibility to provide for such supports in our budgets. However, at a time when money is scarce - it always seems to be scarce at local authority level - we are somewhat shy about allocating money for this purpose at the expense of some local service that is important to the people we represent. When we met the Minister, we stated that we would like his office to issue some guidelines on that particular topic. Again, we would appreciate it if the committee would pursue the matter on our behalf.
I thank our guests for attending. Will the indicate whether they foresee any difficulties with regard to how the new municipal district councils will operate? The reaction to the proposal to abolish town councils has been mixed. Many town councillors are very concerned about the local knowledge and ownership that will be lost as a result of this move. Do our guests foresee any difficulties in this regard?
I served as a councillor for ten years and I benefited enormously from the training that LAMA provides. Have our guests examined whether any mechanisms might be put in place to encourage women to enter local government? I am of the view that it is a terrific learning environment for people and provides great preparation for national politics. The fact that LAMA is focusing on the application of social welfare entitlements to councillors would be a tremendous asset in the context of encouraging women to enter politics. That is not to state that men are not great, because they are, but in order that we might strike a balance, perhaps LAMA and other representative bodies might examine - in a serious way - what might be done in respect of this matter.
I also welcome the delegation from LAMA. I compliment that organisation on the leadership it has provided for many years. There are two matters that are worthy of consideration. The first is the remuneration and conditions of councillors and the second is the overall position with regard to reform. I will deal with reform first. Have our guests given any consideration to where their organisation and its members fit not only into the reform of local government but also into the overall reform of the democratic system? A very interesting debate took place during the campaign for the referendum on the proposed abolition of Seanad Éireann, and one of the issues that arose regularly was how the Upper House could be considered in isolation from the overall reform of the democratic system. The position is the same in respect of local government, which does not exist in isolation from the remainder of the system. If one were to ask a constituent which representative was most available-----
I apologise. If one were to ask a person which representative was most available to him or her and followed up on the relevant issues, I am of the view that councillors would come out ahead of Oireachtas Members. This is simply because they operate at the coalface and are obliged to deal with such issues on a daily basis. We should continue to engage with the Government on the question of overall reform, which involves the Dáil, the Seanad and local government.
The only public debate that has taken place in respect of reform was that which occurred during the Seanad referendum campaign. One of the arguments put forward in support of the abolition of the Seanad involved a reference to countries that have only one house of parliament. It eventually emerged that such countries have numerous local authorities which have very extensive powers, even in respect of finance. From where will the model come in respect of the new reform we are discussing? I am of the view that LAMA and other representative bodies should engage with the Government on where they fit into the overall picture.
On conditions and remuneration, it is unfortunate that on some occasions certain sections of the media dictate the tone of debate. If it suits those who operate in those sections of the media to refer to local authorities and their members in a somewhat jocose manner, then this becomes the centre of the debate, which is totally wrong. I suggest that the Government should engage a professional person to assess what precisely local councillors are engaged in doing. If one considers the hours they work, the number of meetings they attend, the expertise they bring to the table, etc., then one will reach the conclusion that they should be remunerated at a much higher level. An answer in respect of this matter will not be forthcoming via letters to or headlines in the newspapers; it will only be obtained if a professional examination is carried out. Local councillors deserve to be the subject of such an examination.
The first matter about which I am concerned, therefore, is whether our guests have considered where they fit in the context of the reform of the overall system and not just of local government.
The second matter concerns remuneration and conditions. We should put it to bed once and for all by undertaking a professional examination of the time, services and expertise local councillors bring to their job.
Councillor Noel Bourke: I will respond to the points made Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy who spoke about district councils. That will present a major challenge to those who will be elected next May, particularly in areas where town councils have been operating effectively, which is true of most towns, but which will not have town councils after next May. A problem arose in the sense that some towns did not have town councils, while some large towns had town commissions. There were many inconsistencies in that regard and something had to be done. We would prefer if what is happening now did not happen, but it will happen from the time of the next local elections onwards. That will present a major challenge for those who will be elected in the different areas to expand on that role to make it constructive and positive. That is an issue to which LAMA is giving attention in that we want to make a success of district councils. On attracting female candidates to become public representatives, we recognise that this is a problem. In addition, attracting young people, both male and female, into local politics is becoming a problem because many employers do not want to employ a member of the local council who may take time off to attend meetings or make telephone calls during the day. If a young person, be it a male or a female, wants to develop his or her career in tandem with becoming involved in local politics, that can create an obstacle in that would-be employers do not want to hire such individuals. They might not admit it, but it is an issue. There is no easy answer to it, but it must be addressed. We will all have to put our heads together to try to address it.
Councillor Hughie McElvaney: Deputy Noel Coonan asked what was the biggest change we would like to see introduced. I would like to see an extension of the period between one election and another. Five years is far too short. On the overall issue of reform mentioned by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, the office of the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, was wielding an axe against town councils and we all took cover in case we would all be wiped off the face of the earth, so to speak. If reform is required, we certainly have suffered as local public representatives. Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy spoke about female participation in local government. LAMA would not be the right authority to encourage women to become involved in politics because we are all public representatives and one never knows who is coming up the back way, particularly a good looking lady who might take one's seat. I will not be hypocritical and say we should take it on board. Municipal authorities will never do the work of town councils which are authorities that look after the interests of their towns. The know what their boundaries are. Excellent public representatives were members of town councils and had good staff whom people knew. People are codding themselves if they believe a county council will do the work in municipal authority areas that has been done by town councils.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: At least Mr. McElvaney is being honest in not encouraging women to become involved in politics. However, I do not agree with him. We need diversity in councils to bring new ideas and so on. Female participation in politics is to be encouraged and it is disappointing to hear it is not being encouraged by Mr. McElvaney's organisation. Municipal district authorities, essentially, are glorified area committees. One of the demands that will be put on councillors relates to the so-called direct relationship between the local property tax - it is not really a local property tax because it is collected nationally and we are not sure how much of the money raised will be delivered to the local authorities - and the general purpose fund which is being dramatically reduced. The local property tax is a replacement tax and there will be great expectations for councillors when people see they are paying a great deal of money without any improvement in services. The demands on councillors will change dramatically because there is a perceived relationship in that regard, but at the same time there will not be any additional funding. How do the councillors believe this issue will be handled at district council level? The legislation appears to indicate that the manager or CEO will talk to the district council before the county budget is decided on, but that does not mean anything has to be included. Even if something is included, the proposal is a schedule will be drawn up for the following year for roads and footpaths. I served for a long time on both a town and a county council. Town councils do work that is entirely different from the work county councils do. Can the councillors indicate if the discretionary fund will be available? Will it be sufficient for the district council to deliver services that have been provided by the town council? How will councillors handle complaints when it becomes clear that people want a better level of service, given that they believe they are paying for it? This is a missed opportunity and some of it is about ticking boxes to reduce numbers. There are perceived savings will not materialise because some of the town councils were almost funded completely by a town charge. There is not a huge amount of public funding and town councillors have been on a much lower salary than members of a county council. I ask the delegates about their organisation's funding. They have said 38 councils contribute funds to LAMA. The number of councils will be reduced to 31. How many of the 38 are town councils? Are they mainly county councils? Also, in meeting training needs, the legislation proposes training should be more focused and provided locally rather than being provided by way of a type of conference arrangement. What input has LAMA had in that regard?
Councillor Noel Bourke:
We dealt with some of these issues before the Deputy came into the meeting. I made a point on seminars which I will not repeat in detail, that we have a long and successful record in running seminars for our members. We put a good deal of work into designing them. Our recent seminar was held in Ennistymon at which we had eight excellent speakers and a very good discussion took place between the speakers and councillors present. At a previous one the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, spoke to us about Irish Water and answered the many questions people had. We place a good deal of importance on these seminars and want to be part of that process in the future.
We recognise there will be locally run training sessions in addition to what we do on a national basis. We have no problem with that. Currently 38 county and city councils and four of the five borough councils are affiliated to LAMA. Each council makes a contribution. The AMAI caters very well for the town councils but we cater for county councils, city councils and borough councils. Putting People First makes reference to the possibility that LAMA member may have to fund the organisation fully and it appears to suggest there will not be funding from the local authorities. We ask the committee to ensure the current arrangement continues. We will be down to 31 councils and we will need their contributions if we are to survive and continue with our work.
Councillor John Kennedy:
I will respond to a point that Deputy Catherine Murphy raised earlier by referring to the example of my own county, Tipperary, where North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council are being amalgamated. The county currently has seven town councils, with four in the south and three in the north, and 47 county councillors. We will go from 113 councillors to 40 councillors for the entire county. As somebody who sits on both Thurles Town Council and North Tipperary County Council, I will find it extremely difficult to manage the demands that will arise in the areas I have to cover. I have a young family of two children and a mortgage to pay. I am similar to many councillors across the country. I do not know how young people coming into the system will be able to juggle council responsibilities with their jobs and families. It is a demanding job at present but the demands are set to increase. I acknowledge that we have put ourselves forward for the job and I am glad I have done so. This needs to be considered in the context of local authority boundaries and the areas we will have to cover. Tipperary is no different from any other county or city. Demands will be greater and supports will have to be put in place for councillors to make their lives a bit easier, particularly in respect of young people coming into the system. From my experience as a town councillor and county councillor, the demands from a town are greater than those from a county. One is at the coalface and cannot go shopping or socialising without encountering issues.
Councillor John Carey:
I come from Waterford County Council, which is being amalgamated with Waterford City Council. I regard this as a takeover by the city rather than an amalgamation because the county will come out worst at the end of the process. It is very unfair. Waterford is a proud city but we should be left alone to do our business. It is a retrograde step for the county. Lismore, on the border of Cork, might as well transfer to Cork because it is getting nothing. I do not know if it is because the county has weak management but we are getting very little. We had a beautiful office which was opened in 2002. The city councillors hold their meeting around something that resembles a card table. It is too late but I want to let the committee know that we are not happy about the amalgamation.