Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 June 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Local Authority Access.

8:00 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this item, as I hold the distinction of being the first person to receive a P45 as a consequence of the abolition of the dual mandate. While it might be thought I am joking, that is exactly how it happened. I was happy to receive it because it meant that I had been elected to the Dáil.

I supported the end of the dual mandate. For several years, I worked as a full-time county councillor. There was more than enough work in a rapidly developing area such as Kildare to justify that time and it would be difficult to imagine how one could have adequately done that job on top of the workload of an Oireachtas Member.

Recently, I have visited the public gallery of Kildare County Council a number of times. The issues of unfinished housing estates were being debated and I wanted to get a feel for how that matter was being treated. Having been in a council chamber before and after the abolition of the dual mandate, I do not doubt that a valuable link between local and national levels and a great deal of institutional memory have been lost because many Deputies and Senators had served for considerable durations on various councils.

As a Member of the Oireachtas, I deal with more county council related matters than I did when I was a councillor, particularly in respect of housing, planning, transportation, sanitary services and so on. Those issues are raised with me as a consequence of the mandate I received on 11 March 2005. Like all Members, I see this as part of our day-to-day work. Indeed, I have opened a constituency office to deal with it.

I will outline a number of difficulties that have presented. I will be absolutely and abundantly clear when I state that I am not being treated differently from the other seven Members from Kildare. Kildare County Council moved to new purpose-built offices last January. The offices are open plan with security doors at the entrance to every section operated by swipe cards. After a protest, councillors were provided with swipe cards, but five months after the move and numerous complaints later, provision for Oireachtas Members remains by way of the public counter. All of Kildare's Members served on its county council, we know individual officials and we can rely on goodwill to get work done. Staff who have known me for years have told me that they do not know whether they are allowed to let me in and that the situation is ridiculous.

On one occasion I sent an e-mail of a list of planning files I wanted to check. I stated that I intended to visit to inspect the said files, but found that I needed to take a number and join the queue at the public counter. The files began to arrive approximately 25 minutes later and 35 minutes after that I was advised the offices were closing for lunch and I would need to leave. I made a complaint on 9 May and received the following reply:

I have received your e-mail re access and services at planning department. The situation you have outlined is unsatisfactory and the appropriate staff have been so advised. Arrangements are in hand to improve access for elected members visiting the planning counter and revised arrangements for telephone access. These arrangements will be advised shortly.

Nearly three months later, I have still not been advised of any new arrangements. The next time I sent an e-mail, most of the files were available at the specified time. Last week, I telephoned the council to speak to a planner and was told that I would only be dealt with between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

I do not want to carve out through ongoing complaints a means of interacting with the council's officials, nor do I want to rely on goodwill because I happen to know a particular official. Some reasonable working arrangements should have been put in place. When a Green Party councillor, J. J. Power, proposed that the same arrangements put in place for councillors should be extended to Oireachtas Members, he was told that he and other councillors had no function in that regard, as it was an executive function and the manager would make the decision.

The executive has locked us out and the P45 I referred to earlier has been taken literally. I am angry about this, as I am not trying to deal with matters on my own behalf. Rather, I am trying to deal with matters that affect the county's citizens who contact me. Often they contact me as a last resort, having failed to resolve the matters themselves. I visit the council's office approximately once a week, part of the reason for which is an overdependence on voicemail. Often such mail goes unanswered.

I do not know how other local authorities operate. I have discussed the Kildare situation with other Members who are astonished. Therefore, I suspect the situation is not universal. It was not the intended outcome of abolishing the dual mandate. Will the Minister examine the executive function referred to and will the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government issue guidelines on Oireachtas Members? Will those Members be surveyed on their interactions with their local authorities so that a more appropriate arrangement is put in place between them?

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for raising this matter. I reply on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but I am conscious that the reply does not address the precise points raised by the Deputy. It is more general in scope but I assure Deputy Murphy that the complaints she makes are not unique to herself as a Member of the House. Irrespective of whether Members hold executive office, the difficulties to which she refers have been encountered with some local authorities, though others have established a high standard in the way they deal with the matter.

I am not in a position to comment further on that but the points the Deputy makes are highly relevant. I will transmit her views to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche. A review of the matter is under way in the Department, conducted at an official level, the findings of which will be studied by him with a view to considering what improvements can be made to regulations which he introduced.

The Local Government Act 2003 provided for a single local authority mandate. Concerns were expressed at that time about the continuing role of Members of the Oireachtas in respect of the various local authority activities, with the abolition of the dual mandate. When the single mandate for local government was introduced, arrangements were put in place to provide Oireachtas Members with a right in law to access documentation and information and to communication generally with local authorities.

Regulations, which came into operation on 1 August 2003, apply to local authority dealings with Members of the Oireachtas. As part of these arrangements, local authorities are required as a matter of course to supply or make available free of charge a range of documentation to Oireachtas Members who register their interest in receiving such information with the local authority. The range of information to be made available includes agendas, notices and minutes of local authority meetings, including committee meetings if so requested, the corporate plan, the local authority budget, draft and actual development plans, development contribution schemes, weekly lists of planning applications and decisions, draft and final by-laws and annual reports.

Most important, a local authority, in dealing with correspondence from a Member of the Oireachtas, is required to operate to equivalent systems, procedures and timeframes as apply for county, city or town councillors. Members of the Oireachtas may attend a meeting of a local authority or of its committees. In addition, managers are required to meet at least annually with local Oireachtas Members and thus provide an opportunity for an update on developments, and for any difficulties encountered to be raised and addressed. I do not have the regulations to hand but if Members are free to attend meetings by virtue of the regulations they must have access to council property and rooms, to answer one of the Deputy's specific questions.

The above is, of course, additional to normal and regular contacts between public representatives and local authority officials regarding particular problems or issues. Above all, it is an objective of local authorities to deal as expeditiously as possible with requests for access to information from Oireachtas Members. The Minister expects local authorities to facilitate parliamentary representatives, in the spirit and the letter of the regulations, in the timely provision of local authority documentation.

Officials at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have just completed a review of the practical operation of these arrangements at local authority level. The Minister will study the findings with a view to issuing supplementary guidance to local authorities if required.