Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Question 8: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on whether there is a necessity to introduce legislation to protect local authority employees who wish to report allegations of corruption; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9502/06]
Question 47: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will introduce legislation to protect employees of local authorities and elected members of local authorities against reprisal where a bona fide report or complaint was made by an employee or a councillor who believed that they were being required to act in a manner which was illegal, improper, or unethical, was in breach of constitutional convention or a professional code, may involve possible maladministration or was otherwise inconsistent with the relevant code; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9468/06]
Question 92: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if, in relation to the codes of practice for both employees of local authorities and councillors, he will introduce a whistleblowers charter as recommended by the Standards in Public Office Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9467/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 47 and 92 together.
The Local Government Act 2001 sets out a new ethical framework for local government, including provision for the publication of codes of conduct for the guidance of members and of employees of local authorities.
Two codes, one for members and one for employees, were issued in June 2004. The two codes are similar in that they each cover certain common areas such as general conduct and behaviour, conflict of personal and public interest, planning, gifts, hospitality, personal dealings with a local authority, regard for council resources and satisfactory working relationships. The emphasis obviously varies to some extent to fit the respective circumstances of councillors and employees.
The codes of conduct are a relatively new development in the local government sector and I am keeping their operation under close review. In the light of experience, I have decided to amend the code of conduct for employees, in consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of Finance, on the employment of senior local authority officials following their retirement or resignation.
The Local Government Act 2001 does not contain provisions concerning complaints and protection similar to those in the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. In light of relevant developments in other sectoral codes and having regard to ongoing contacts with SIPO, I am open to the development of suitable provisions within the local government legislative code, subject to detailed consideration of the specific issues arising in a local government context, and to Government approval. I would be disposed to bring such provisions forward at the next appropriate legislative opportunity.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The 2004 report of the Standards in Public Office Commission requested that the Minister do something about this but so far he has taken no action. The chairman of the commission asked for legislation to protect employees of local authorities and elected members from reprisal when a bona fide report or complaint was made by an employee or councillor that they were being required to act in a manner which was illegal, improper or unethical, in breach of constitutional convention or professional codes and which could result in maladministration. The Minister could simply introduce a planning code.
A major issue that arises at the Mahon tribunal every day is that people like Frank Dunlop approach councillors outside meetings to secure commitments to support motions on rezoning. I do not doubt that this is still happening throughout the country, and that is a matter of grave public concern.
In England there is a standards board and if someone feels the public good has been brought into disrepute, he reports that fact to the board, which then investigates. County councils in England have a planning standards policy whereby a councillor cannot give a commitment prior to a meeting on a planning decision and meetings cannot be called to discuss votes on controversial motions. There is transparency in the planning process and the due consideration of the quasi-judicial function of the elected member.
Fine Gael would co-operate fully with the introduction of such a standards board and planning code. The Minister could achieve this without legislation through discussions with local authority members and county managers. The public would then know where they, their councillors and their officials stand on the massive rezoning decisions that are being made in areas under pressure for development. That will root out corruption.
As ever Deputy O'Dowd is positive and I will consider the points he has made. The Department is in consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of Finance regarding the review of the code for local authority employees. These decisions which address the general issue will produce some changes in the code.
The discussions with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of Finance were not expanded to address the issue of providing immunity, the main point in the question. The discussions, however, will deal with people who in good faith make a complaint.
The general point about the influence of lobbying in the wider sense is interesting. The Deputy is aware a major debate is taking place on this matter, on which a considerable amount of literature has also been published. I am not certain the process he has in mind would provide a balanced outcome.
The Deputy, in his wildest dreams, does not believe I would condone such cases. Some of the revelations are horrifying.
That is not a fair, reasonable or accurate comment. I have outlined the steps I have taken and I am prepared to listen to proposals on what other steps could be taken. The Deputy and I share a common interest in ensuring the taint of the past does not persist in the future.
Would it not be beneficial to protect in law conscientious employees and members of local authorities who wish to expose irregularities or corruption? We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend such corruption does not exist. I had the privilege of being a member of a county and city council for many years. Serious lobbying takes place prior to the production of development plans. I adopted the principle of telling anyone who made representations on planning matters that I would not indicate my position until I had listened to the manager's report on the relevant issue. Councillors should be obliged to hear the county manager's report on all submissions related to development plans before making public commitments or adopting a position. As the Minister will be aware, officials must prepare a report on all submissions and councillors must not commit themselves to any course of action until they have heard the county manager make his or her report.
Council employees have a role to play in this regard, having frequently drawn my attention to various practices. In doing so, they told me they were not in a position to voice their concerns because they would face discrimination as a result or would be liable to face a charge for exposing issues which required investigation in a local authority. Such employees should be offered legal protection. This would improve matters and remove a difficulty members and employees of local authorities encounter in some circumstances, particularly in the area of planning.
Members of local authorities are placed under colossal pressure prior to the adoption of development plans which can increase land values from a couple of hundred thousand euro to several million euro. Those with responsibility for making such decisions are entitled to be protected should they expose irregularities.
I agree that members of local authorities face considerable pressures, the reason being that we have vested in local councillors the right to make decisions on these matters in an open, transparent and democratic manner. It is a matter for each individual councillor to make moral and ethical decisions. The Deputy stated that councillors should not be pressurised to give a commitment regarding a forthcoming planning decision. I am not certain it is legally practical to require a councillor not to indicate what is his or her view on a planning decision.
I agree it is foolhardy for councillors to give commitments, particularly ones produced by an inducement which is illegal.
Is this another justification for the Government to accept the Labour Party Bill on whistleblowers which will be taken in Private Members' time tonight with the support of the Fine Gael Party? The Minister referred to the introduction of regulations in respect of employing or engaging the services of senior officials of local authorities following their retirement. When will such regulations be made?
I am trying to progress that matter rapidly because, as I have already stated, I am anxious that regulations are introduced sooner rather than later. The local government code must be brought into sync with the code applied centrally because it is, in some ways, more urgent given the local and specific nature of local government affairs. The type of cases the Deputy and I discussed illustrate that a person retiring from a particular local government service could exercise significant influence. I am not yet certain how we will address this issue but I am anxious to make rapid progress.
I do not propose to add to the comments the Taoiseach made on whistleblowers on 1 March. To return to my main point, we can make as many laws as we wish but ultimately it is up to each councillor to adopt ethical standards. While this is an interesting debate, I do not know how one would prevent someone from forming an opinion.
The Minister should not misunderstand me. My proposal was to preclude members of local authorities from making commitments to vote either one way or another before a matter is debated. That is the problem. Everyone has a right to form an opinion.
In addition, the public interest should be the prime interest in every planning decision. Across the country, on the night before development plans are passed, developers and landowners make numerous telephone calls to councillors with the result that the public interest is the last issue on councillors' minds when they meet to discuss the development plan. It is the Minister's duty to protect the public interest, councillors and officials by immediately introducing a code of conduct. People are fed up with the rank corruption in public life and local government. They are sick to the teeth of tribunals and amnesia and want the Minister to take action now.
They can expect action from me. It is wrong to suggest there is still rank corruption in local government. That is not the case.
Like other Deputies I have some experience of local government. The vast majority of the men and women in local government, of all political parties and none, are honourable people. To be fair to them, the public interest is the main priority for the vast majority of them.
As I stated, I am interested in a code of practice but it would be wrong and silly to rush into the issue without first concluding ongoing discussions with stakeholders.
Does the Minister accept that councillors, in making decisions on rezoning matters under their reserve functions, exercise a quasi-judicial role? As such, they are expected to take into account the arguments made by professionals and technical staff. A judge would not offer an opinion as to the guilt of a defendant before hearing evidence in a case. I ask that this be taken into account as a benchmark for the manner in which councillors will be expected to behave with regard to planning matters, which have serious financial implications and major consequences for communities. Will the Minister consider requiring local authorities to establish an ethical point of reference, for example, by appointing an officer to provide training in the ethical standards and parameters which should apply? It could also be a point of contact for those seeking to report suspicions that ethical standards are not as they should be. Such persons should be given senior positions and provided with appropriate training.
We need to get over a particularly shameful period in our history about which the tribunals continually remind us. Can we address the issue of the Kenny report, for which, according to the all-party committee, we would not need a referendum and can be implemented if the political will exists, and which should remove the enormous temptation that continues to pertain to such decisions? Despite the Minister's belief that all is well in local authorities, the temptation has not gone away. That is a fundamental source of many of the problems raised at the tribunals and the Government needs to address it because it will not go away of its own accord. I concur with Deputy Gilmore that legislation on whistleblowers is long overdue and I ask the Minister to support that.
The Deputy asked a number of separate questions. On the issue of behaving in a quasi-judicial manner, local authority members are often cautioned that they have to make decisions with planning specifically in mind. For example, that admonition is frequently given with regard to the operation of section 140 of the Planning Act 2000. Case law exists in which decisions of members have been struck down where they transgressed in that regard. That exists within the current arrangements.
It exists in practice and strong county management teams certainly make recourse to it. On whether there should be a central point for dealing with ethical issues pertaining to local authorities, my understanding is that officials have been designated with this responsibility, although the code has only recently been introduced in a number of local authorities. I will find out whether it is a general practice because I concur with the Deputy that there should be a senior official in the local authority who can be consulted in a value free manner.
On the Kenny report, the Deputy will be aware of the differing opinions on the issue of constitutionality but I suggest that we will not discuss these today.