Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Role and Remuneration of Local Authority Members: Discussion
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and visitors in the Public Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting, their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device. It is not sufficient to just put phones on silent mode as this will maintain the level of interference with the broadcasting system.
On the agenda today is the role and remuneration of local authority members. I welcome to today's meeting the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, and the officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
I draw the attention of the officials to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
It has been agreed by the committee that we will take the Minister of State's statement as read and we will go straight to questioning. The first member who indicated, Senator Boyhan, will be followed Deputy Cassells.
First, I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to this committee. I also welcome the representatives of the Association of Irish Local Government AILG, the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA and anyone else who is tuning in.
I read the Minister of State's statement last night and there was nothing new in it. I have a few questions.
The Moorhead report was commissioned in June 2018. We are now heading into Christmas 2019. It has been a long time and people are frustrated. The Minister of State will be aware of this because I have seen the correspondence that has gone to him. I passed correspondence on to the Minister of State from people of all parties and none in the matter.
To set the context straight here in this public meeting, councillors are on €17,359; it is a pittance for the work they do. The Minister of State himself started in the General Council of County Councils with me in 1999. I know he is committed to local government. This is not a dispute with the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, whose hands are perhaps a little more tied than he wants to say. The reality is the Government made a commitment in advance of the local elections, in which in excess of 900 councillors were elected, that we would address it. I suppose I am asking the Minister of State what is the delay. Has he seen additional drafts of this report in the past two or three months? Can the Minister of State tell this committee whether he has seen any drafts of this recommendation? Is there a reticence or reluctance on the part of Government to acknowledge the important work that county councillors do?
As I say, it is frustrating. Members of all parties, including the Minister of State's own, are frustrated by the lack of progress. I am trying to get confirmation. What is the Minister of State's plan?
I have stated previously I believe city and county councillors should earn approximately €30,000 - 50% of what Senators earn. I believe their earnings should be linked to Senators and have said so previously. I do not support decoupling county councillors from other politicians. We are all politicians. We are all elected. We are all serving our communities and our constituents.
I will not dwell on it. As I say, I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment but it is time that we had clarification. At this stage, where is this report? When will it be published? What is the process for publishing it? I would also like the Minister of State to give a commitment that he will continue to engage with this committee, as he is doing today, on how we will progress it and to say what is happening.
Finally, I did not have an opportunity, because I left early to come here, to hear what was said on "Morning Ireland". The Minister of State might enlighten us as to what he is talking about in relation to "Morning Ireland" and his commitment for additional or interim funding. I simply do not know. I came down the stairs today to be told that there was an announcement on "Morning Ireland". The Minister of State might share that with the committee.
I thank the Minister of State for attending.
Much in the same vein as what Senator Boyhan has already stated, we in this committee are a year on from discussing an interim report that had little in it to begin with and spoke only to the factual position. Given that we were due to have this report at the end of the summer recess, if we could have clarity this morning that this process will be put to bed it would be welcome.
I welcome the clarification on "Morning Ireland" this morning. As with all major announcements of significance in this country, such as the budget, the national development and all internal Committee of Public Accounts documents, it went on that programme first. I welcome the "Morning Ireland" clarification. If, perhaps, as Senator Boyhan said, we could get official clarification for the record of the Houses as to the standing, I would appreciate that.
I have a couple of questions. Can the Minister of State confirm that the increase would cost €7.5 million per annum? Has the Minister discussed the cumulative amount with the Minister for Finance and has he committed to the process? Has the Minister of State discussed it with the Taoiseach and has he committed to the process?
I refer to the discussions and the position of the AILG, representatives of which are in the Public Gallery and whom I welcome. Has the Minister of State discussed it in terms of the indicative figure with the County and City Managers Association and local authority directors of finance in the context of future budgets?
Is it going to be a situation where this will be funded in the interim by the Exchequer or by internal financing? Can the Minister confirm, in respect of his statement on committing to the back pay, that the increment that would be put forward would be backdated to the point of the election in 2019? If the Minister's position is still the same, can he enlighten us on where that funding will come from on the basis that county council budgets for the current year, 2019, would have been put together in November 2018? Councils which currently pay local representatives would not have adjudicated for such expenditure in the 2019 period. Is it the case that such moneys due to councillors in 2019 would be met from central Exchequer funds? How is that going to be accommodated going forward into 2020?
That is not a problem. On that final point, in the context of a report being adopted and agreed in 2020, is it a case that funding on an ongoing basis, in terms of that deficit that would have to be made up, will be met by central Exchequer funding or will be anticipated, because the budgets for 2020 are being agreed this week by county councillors across the country and they would not be in a position to facilitate any potential increase in representational pay?
I thank the Vice Chairman. This committee has a really good working relationship and we work in a very collegiate way. I think we should continue that in all of our discussions, notwithstanding people's different points of view.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in. Particularly for anybody watching this, it is important we put this discussion into some context. We have been having conversations over the last year or so, both in this committee and with the Minister, in respect of some forthcoming legislation, about strengthening the powers of local government and increasing the responsibility of our local elected representatives, not just in terms of the directly elected mayors but in terms of some of the other structural reforms the Minister has been proposing. At the same time, we all acknowledge that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract as broad a spectrum of people into local politics as all of us would like. One of the reasons, although it is not the only one, is the very limited financial remuneration for city and county councillors. People from low-income families, mothers with children and people from a variety of backgrounds find it very difficult to take on the ever-growing responsibilities. We have to acknowledge that and it is important the public knows that.
It is also important that we state again that city and county councillors do not get a full-time wage. There are lots of people out there who think city and county councillors get a wage commensurate to some who work in the Houses, but that is not the case. In fact, there are many local authority representatives who either make very little money or who lose money because of the cost they incur in doing the work. That is particularly the case for county councillors from larger rural communities, and I say that as a Dublin Deputy and a former full-time councillor. Our conversation here is about trying to look at ways of improving the throughput of talented and capable people into local government, particularly at a time when their responsibilities are growing, and we are looking to give them more power and responsibility.
The Minister of State is probably not going to be able to answer a lot of the questions because he is going to tell us that the report is being finalised and we will have to await the outcome of that. In respect of the report by the journalist from the Irish Examineron "Morning Ireland", is it the case that the Minister of State is considering rolling this issue into broader public sector pay negotiations? If that is the case, or if that is one of the options, can he talk us through what that would mean, what that could look like, who would be responsible for negotiating that and what the kind of timelines would be, because it is the first time I have heard that publicly and that is certainly a very significant bit of information?
Can the Minister of State give us a commitment in terms of the timeline of the publication of the report his Department has commissioned and a timeline for the period within which he is going to come back with formal recommendations? One of the difficulties this committee has is that when the Government commissions a report, it takes a very long time to produce it. It then sits with the Minister - I am sure the Minister and the officials work very hard on it - and there is a long period of time before any action is outlined. I am looking for some timelines in respect of that. As the Minister knows from my submission to the Moorehead review, we strongly favour a shift to full-time, paid city and county councillors. We have made an interim proposal where there should be a kind of a two-grade payment for part-time and full-time councillors.
We are strongly of the view that all unvouched expenses should be abolished and replaced with a basic rate of pay for full-time and part-time councillors and a fully vouched system of expenses for additional cost of work, and we argued for that in the Oireachtas also. I am hopeful the Minister of State will move somewhere in that direction.
The Minister of State is most welcome to the committee this morning. This whole debate on councillors' remuneration has been going on for quite a long time, and I respect the fact an independent body has been set up which has already given an interim report, but not a final one. As colleagues said, what we need here are clear timelines. Obviously, the Minister of State is privy to an awful lot more information in terms of what may be contained in the final report than we are, but the whole narrative before the 2019 local elections was that there was an expectation in respect of councillors that this whole issue would be addressed, because the system that pertained between 2014 and 2019 was quite unsatisfactory.
There were electoral areas but particularly in rural Ireland that had ballooned. The workload of councillors had, in some cases, quadrupled because town councils had been eliminated and the redrawing of boundaries had moved some electoral areas from being four-seaters or five-seaters to eight-seaters or nine-seaters. There has been a recalibration there in recent times, and those areas have been reduced, but the workload has not been reduced.
The idea of a fair day's wages for a fair day's work is something we all want to see. There is cross-party support for dealing with this issue. While it is not popular in the media to increase the pay of politicians, whoever they are, most fair-minded people would accept that county councillors who are at the coalface dealing with issues on a daily basis are not earning a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
In my nine years in this House, I have never been told by anyone from any side to pipe down. It happened under the Vice Chairman's stewardship. Usually when people say things off-the-cuff that they do not mean, they withdraw the remark. It comes as a very great disappointment to me that that remark was not withdrawn.
I thank Senator Conway. I will move to non-committee members. I am very conscious of the time as I want the Minister of State to come in. I ask non-members to keep their contributions to a minute so the Minister of State can come in and questions can be answered. I call Senator Daly.
I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing us to come in on this issue. I welcome those from the AILG and members from the representative organisations. Those from LAMA were here yesterday.
Many questions have been asked already. In a speech, it was indicated that there would be back pay. My colleague, Deputy Cassells, asked where that back pay would come from. Back pay has been promised. Will there be back pay going back to the local elections in 2019? The 2020 budget was a missed opportunity in regard to this issue.
The other clarification we seek relates to what was announced on "Morning Ireland". Is that going to be implemented and when? We need details about where that funding will come from. Is the ultimate aim to link this to public sector pay and to include that as part of it? We cannot continue to have an argument on this singular issue every few years with nothing being resolved. Can we have clarification on whether it will be linked to a Senator's pay or to some other grade in the public service?
The main issue here is timelines and when we can expect action on this issue. The Moorhead report has been in process for almost two years. The Minister of State wrote to me on 6 November and said that he had not received the report and hoped to receive it shortly. Following receipt of the report, he said he would liaise with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform before submitting the report to the Government for consideration and that it was his objective to publish it thereafter. That could take a substantial amount of time. What is the timeline involved? Can the Minister of State give an indication about the pay, including what was mentioned in "Morning Ireland" this morning? I believe councillors deserve a salary that is at least 50% of a Senator's salary, as was mentioned earlier. The work they do is comparable to the work of a Dáil Deputy albeit they might have smaller constituencies than Deputies. However, their work on the ground is key to our democracy and they should be rewarded for it.
I have a question about pension entitlements. Councillors have access to a State pension since 2016, but until then they were paying the class K scale. No retrospective action was taken. Will the review investigate this?
My second question is about councillors' maternity leave. Section 37 of the Local Government Act 2001 states that the councillors shall be deemed to have resigned from membership of a local authority if they miss meetings for a period of six months. In addition, they must attend 80% of the meetings to receive payment and expenses. The obstacles to women are obvious and have affected all political parties and others. I am aware that the Minister of State is interested in this, but can he give a commitment to having a discussion and tabling an amendment to the Local Government Act 2001? Will he consult with the main parties, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, LAMA, the National Women's Council and so forth? I am sure we can reach agreement on it.
I will be brief and try to answer all the questions. I might be repetitious but I will reply anyway. I thank the members for their ongoing interest in this matter. It has dragged on a little longer than anticipated over the past two years. I would have expected to have the full report at this stage. Senator Boyhan asked when it will be delivered. I am told that it is being finalised and that I will have it in the next ten days or so. It is now my intention to publish it when I receive it. When I receive it I will have to engage with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but at this stage the least I should do for the councillors is ensure that it is published once it is received. I acknowledge what Senator Ó Domhnaill said, which is that the process outlined a month ago could be very long. I believe it should be published when I get it.
Senator Boyhan asked if I had seen a draft. I saw one draft and I sent it back two months ago. As to the parameters of the delay, I cannot outline the reasons but I expect to have it in the immediate future. I am a little reticent about giving timeframes in light of the fact that I previously gave a timeframe that I expected to meet. These things are outside my control. Senator Boyhan also said that he does not support decoupling from Senators. I do. I believe all public servants, including councillors, should be treated the same and that, as Senator Ó Domhnaill said, we should not be returning to councillors as a stand-alone item at any stage in the future. They should be treated like every other public servant. I have no problem giving a commitment that I will continue to engage.
I did not hear the radio programme this morning, but I received a report on it. What was contained therein was a fair synopsis of all the speculation I have heard in the last few weeks. However, as the final report has not been published I am not in a position to talk about final figures. Deputy Cassells asked about a specific figure of €7.5 million per annum. Again, this was in the context of this morning's radio programme. That may well be the figure from this morning's programme, but having not received the final report I cannot confirm or deny that figure.
I have discussed this with the Taoiseach. In fact, it was the Taoiseach and I who decided that we need to do something in this area and that is why Ms Moorhead was appointed. I have also discussed it with the Minister for Finance. Both of them are committed and share my view that councillors should not be the worst paid people in the room among local authority staff, which is the current position. Essentially, councillors work for the minimum wage and even slightly less in some cases. That is why this group was established. The proof of the pudding in respect of my colleagues and the Minister for Finance will come in the next stage of this process, but he has been very committed up to this point to ensuring that councillors are paid better than they are at present.
On the initial payment, having discussed it with the County and City Management Association my view is that the Government will have to provide the initial funding, particularly in light of the fact that many budgets are already finalised, but it will have to be built into local government funding thereafter. Several members of the committee asked about that, including Deputy Cassells.
Deputy Ó Broin is right that we have given extra powers not just to directly elected mayors, which is starting in Limerick, but also in respect of the rates alleviation measures. I am not sure whether councils acted on them in the most recent budgets, but that power for them to reduce rates is now in place. It is a new role that councillors did not have previously in terms of a targeted scheme built around their local area plans or county or city development plans.
One of the reasons it is difficult to attract people is certainly low pay. I am aware of the Sinn Féin submission with regard to full-time and part-time councillors. I do not agree with it. I do not believe there should be two types of councillor. We had that previously with regard to town councillors and county councillors and the issue of some areas having two ballot papers and others having one. There is value in having a mix of people who are members of local authorities - people who are not just other public servants or people who are retired or who are students but also people who are in full-time employment and who wish to serve their local community. They should be accommodated without being a second class. I realise that is not the intention, but it might be the result of having a differentiation between full-time and part-time.
As regards publication, I will do it immediately upon receipt of the report, which should be in the next couple of weeks and well in advance of the new year. Then there will be discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. After that the people in the Department will decide on where the money comes from, what the rate will be and what the path will be. There is a strong possibility that it will be part of the public sector pay talks which are due to commence next year. However, that decision has not yet been made so I cannot comment further on it. It will be part of the discussions I will have with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
On Senator Conway's contribution, I commented on the timelines. He is correct that the matter was discussed a great deal before the last local elections. I gave commitments that it would be addressed and I am still determined that it will be. I acknowledge that councillors are underpaid at present for the work they do and the amount of time that goes into the job. I am committed to ensuring that whatever is in the report is implemented, but that will be a process of negotiation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
I know that I have the support of members here, and other members, in terms of those discussions that will take place in the near future. Reference was made to a reduction in the size of the local electoral areas, which has helped councillors to be able to better serve their local communities. I have always believed that local councillors should be local and that we would not have the monster electoral areas that were created in 2014. It is correct to say that the issue is not popular but I too share the view that it should be a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. It is my position, as I have stated previously and I will restate it here, that the expenses councillors generate in the pursuit of their work in terms of mileage, which are on the same rates as Oireachtas Members and other public and civil servants, should be retained. That element of the job is not going to change. Equally, there is an inherent value in the education and training budgets councillors get because they allow for an exchange of information and an opportunity for councillors to network and to learn from one another, and those funds facilitate that.
I assure Senator Mark Daly that I have not diverted from my view that this should be dated from the last local election. It is a bit like boundaries when it comes to elections; there should be natural boundaries and elections are natural boundaries politically. I have not moved from that. Again, as I said at the outset, central government will have to pick up any increases or a substantial amount of them, but after that it will have to be built into the budgets of local authorities. From my point of view, as I stated it from the start, the aim is very clearly to link it to public sector pay so that this never happens again and that there will not be politicians in the future deciding the pay of other politicians. That should not happen. It is the last vestige of that. It should have been done when Oireachtas Members were linked to the public service. A similar arrangement should have been introduced at that time rather than to Senators.
In response to Senator Ó Domhnaill's question, I addressed the timeline. He said that pay should be 50% of the pay of Senators. I do not agree with that, but it should be substantially more than it is at present. I have not received the report. I expect to receive it very shortly and I will publish it immediately.
The change Senator Warfield referred to in relation to pensions is the reckonability of councillors' PRSI contributions towards their State pension. As I understand it, and this is the position I will enter into in negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the pension gratuity system that existed up until the most recent election should remain.
I am almost finished. From the date of the last election and when the new regime kicks in there should be a knock-on pension of a type that will link to the public sector grade to which Senators will be linked.
My final point relates to maternity and paternity leave. The issue at the moment comes down to the fact that expenses cannot be claimed when they are not earned because people are unable to do their job because they are out on maternity leave and paternity leave. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I will do work shortly on the issue of equality because it affects all politicians, including Oireachtas Members. We are the only public servants, whether councillors or Oireachtas Members, who have no entitlement. I know the Minister of State is anxious to do something on it and I wil ljoin him to add the perspective of councillors.
That is fine because what I have to say is that I fully support the proposals. Councillors need to be properly paid and they are not. I welcome the suggestions that have been made. I appreciate that the Minister of State is not showing us his entire hand of cards at the moment. Councillors cannot just be sitting there quietly. They must have real powers to challenge officials and they also need access to other specialist knowledge. If there is a policy difference between a council and the executive the elected members should be able to get legal and other advice separately.
Yes. I could not agree more. I echo what Deputy O'Dowd said. I do not know what will be said in the report on the matter but I think councillors should have access to outside advices, and not just have to rely on the legal advice of the council.
My own local authority used independent legal advice on several occasions. It is available.
I thank everybody for attending this morning's meeting. I regret the very tight timeframe. I wish to put on record my understanding of the level and depth of work that councillors do. Having served as a councillor for 12 years, I fully understand the diverse role they play and the amount of time and commitment they give. It is vitally important that we bring this process to a conclusion. I thank all the witnesses for attending today's meeting and for engaging with the committee. The select committee will start in 15 minutes.