Thursday, 8 July 2010
Local Government Elections
The introduction of a directly elected mayor for Dublin will deliver significantly strengthened leadership for the city and region, with enhanced accountability and a direct connection with the citizen. The mayor will have a powerful role in setting out strategic policy across Dublin and oversight of operational implementation. He or she will also have a strong mandate to integrate the activities of local government and the wider public service in and across Dublin.
The mayor's powers will include the capacity to ensure activities across the Dublin region's local authorities are consistent with the regional strategic framework. I have agreed with the Minister for Transport that the mayor will have a strong role on transport planning in Dublin. The mayor will chair a greater Dublin area transport council within the National Transport Authority, responsible for approving and monitoring the implementation of the key transport plans for Dublin, the greater Dublin area transport strategy and the strategic traffic management plan. In doing so the mayor will be well placed to ensure coherence between Dublin's spatial and transport planning.
My aim is that the election of the mayor will take place this year. My Department is engaging with the Dublin local authorities to make the necessary practical and operational preparations for the mayor's election and introduction. The general scheme of the legislation to provide for the mayor was published on my Department's website in February, as an opportunity for further consultation before its finalisation and to facilitate early implementation of the Bill's provisions once enacted. The Bill, which must provide for the mayoral electoral process as well as the powers of the mayor and regional authority, is a large and complex item of legislation. I hope to publish it shortly following Government consideration.
I am glad the Minister mentioned that this is a complex item of legislation in light of his efforts to reduce complexity in legislation by introducing 90 amendments to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill without debate. If the best he can do is to acknowledge the complexity of the legislation, while at the same time stating that an election will be held this year, which is likely to be in either October or November as he probably will not hold it on Christmas Eve, the Minister should be more specific. He should state there is no intention of holding the election this year-----
-----and that the Government will not approve both the Bill and the election date within this year because of the requisite time lag to ensure one gets the legislation right and that all the electoral processes are put in place to make sure it happens.
Second, the Minister should indicate what will be the status or powers of the other four local authorities arising from the election of a directly elected mayor. The latter will be an overarching person without a regional authority with autonomous elected members. Does he plan to change the existing four authorities in light of the creation of the new position?
When I published the framework on the website, I wanted feedback from Opposition parties because I am not doing this for political gain for the Green Party or our coalition partners.
I repeat that when the legislation is published, I hope the Opposition parties will revert to me. If they consider that there are deficiencies or areas that need to be changed, I will listen to that. I make this point genuinely.
In addition, other matters must be addressed very shortly. There is the question of the White Paper, the efficiency review and the boundary changes in Limerick, all of which are extremely important. Many of these measures must be seen in context and they are interconnected.
Deputy Hogan asked about the powers of local authorities and yes, the regional authority will work with the mayor, as outlined in the framework Bill but I believe that the role of the local authority itself must be strengthened and that is one of the objectives of the new White Paper
I have a brief question. The Minister has mentioned many times that the election will take place in 2010. Is he giving an absolute assurance in this regard and what date has he in mind? Second, Members on this side of the House and certainly Fine Gael Members, wish to see proper devolution of government from the centre to the local. However, they do not wish to see the creation of another quango in the form of a directly-elected mayor without properly thought-out processes. Opposition Members had a meeting with the Minister at which they expressed some views.
The Minister indicated in previous comments on the White Paper that it would be launched concurrently with the announcement of the mayoralty. Has the White Paper being brought before the Cabinet or has the Minister a date on which he envisages it will be brought before the Cabinet?
Second, we are a million miles away from a mayoral election if one operates on the assumption that the legislation must be passed in this House first before such an election can take place. Moreover, the Bill itself has not even been finalised. There are a number of aspects to the Bill, particularly in respect of transport. Has the Minister or his departmental officials been in contact with the Minister for Transport, his officials and the NRA to deal with aspects of the Bill that are not covered at present, such as the issue of transportation for the Dublin area?
I am bewildered by the Minister's comments in respect of considering submissions. Deputy Hogan is correct to state that Opposition Members had a meeting with the Minister earlier in the year. However, I thought the purpose of the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin and everyone else was to deal with this legislation by amendment and debate in this House and not to participate in some sort of consultancy programme that the Minister might have in mind. Moreover, when the Bill does come before this House, the Minister should allow ample time for it to be debated. If such time is allocated, I do not know how the Minister will achieve the goal of holding the election this year.
I intend to take some poetic licence and I hope the Minister will not mind, given the day that is in it. This evening in the Seanad there was apparently a highly emotional conclusion to the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. It was an historic moment and I noted that points of view were aired in the Seanad that were not necessarily aired when the Bill was debated in the Dáil. As someone who was a Member of the Seanad for five years, I believe it plays an important role in the Oireachtas. In that context, I noticed that the Minister was mentioned in an article that appeared in The Irish Times today on the issue of Seanad reform. The article gave the impression that the Minister was unable to achieve cross-party consensus in his sub-committee on the issue, of which I was a member. However, that was not my impression from our final meeting, as I thought there was consensus that progress could be made in certain areas, including broadening the franchise of those who elect the university Senators to all third level graduates. The Minister might outline what steps he has taken in this regard, because issues pertaining to the mayor and the Seanad are related.
While the Seanad is not directly elected, I wish to facilitate the Deputy. I did not read the article to which she referred and will take it on trust that it says something along the lines of her comments. The Deputy and I discussed this issue recently and as for the issue she raised regarding the third level panel, I agree there was a certain consensus on that issue and I wish to implement that change.
To revert to Deputy Ciarán Lynch's query, I believe one can get through legislation quicker if one tries to develop a consensus before one enters the Chamber. I hope that Members could short-circuit many issues by meeting to talk through them, to ascertain where a level of agreement exists on those issues and where they wished to go with it. Earlier today, the Deputy mentioned the idea of adversarial politics. Sometimes it is necessary and sometimes it is a hindrance. In this case, I believe it would be a total hindrance because after all, this is something to which the Labour Party aspires. We want to get it right as best we can. Therefore, I repeat that my door is open and I genuinely wish to meet people to discuss these issues and tease them out. While one hears about the summer break, etc., I will be around here for a long time during the summer-----
-----and will have plenty of time, as I am sure will Deputy Tuffy. It is an opportunity for the parties opposite to come forward with written submissions on which Members can then focus. I can honestly state that I will devote as much time as is necessary over the summer months to deal with this issue.
Question 7: To ask the Minister for the Environment; Heritage and Local Government when legislation to ban corporate donations will be published and presented the Houses of Oireachtas; if he make a statement on matter. [30574/10]
I am currently giving consideration to the approaches that are to be taken to implement the commitments in the programme for Government regarding political donations. I intend to bring my proposals to the Government later this year. I believe there is widespread recognition that the manner in which the Irish political system is funded needs to be changed.
I therefore will be addressing definitively the relationship between business and politics in Ireland. In this regard, I note the recent comments of the Director of Public Prosecutions. In a speech to the Burren Law School on 1 May 2010 entitled, Prosecuting Corruption in Ireland, he stated, inter alia:
a continuing weakness of the regime to prevent corruption is that private donations to political parties are still not limited although they have to be declared above a certain amount [and] I do not believe that so long as the private financing of political parties is allowed in an unlimited way it will be possible to eliminate political corruption.
In bringing forward legislative proposals, I will have regard to the recommendations of the Council of Europe's Group of States Against Corruption and of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The Council of Europe's Group of States Against Corruption published its third evaluation report on Ireland in January 2010, Transparency of Party Funding. The report acknowledges that Ireland has developed a thorough system of regulation of party finance and is quite positive about the proactive and independent role of the Standards in Public Office Commission.
The banning of corporate donations is one of the very serious matters the Minister regards as a high priority. That is why he has taken three years to do something about it. It was part of the programme for government for 2007 but nothing has happened in that regard.
I am surprised that the Minister was quoting from the Director of Public Prosecutions. Surely he is not agreeing with the fact that all corporate donations are corrupt or lead to corruption. Limits are already in place. We are all in favour of transparency. There are issues involving corporate donations on which we would be pleased to engage with the Minister but my party is in favour of retaining them for people who wish to contribute to the political process on an individual or corporate basis.
I put it to the Minister that given that he has done nothing on the matter in three years he is not serious about it and that his colleagues in government are not in favour of it and therefore it will not see the light of day before the next general election.
The party always had but it was a different position. As I recall, under the leadership of Deputy Noonan the position was that Fine Gael would not accept corporate donations but then the party reverted.
I wish to ensure consistency across the board so that people know where they stand in regard to political parties because there is a perception-----
-----that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. We want to eliminate that and ensure we have the highest standards and levels of transparency and that influential groups cannot influence the political process.
I also believe we must examine the activities of certain lobby groups. We have seen the extensive and amazing campaign that was launched by a group called RISE! recently.
I assure the Deputy that I am interested in animal welfare. I made that point forcefully today. There are elements who deliberately try to mislead people who are extremely well funded. It is very difficult to compete with that. In a sense it undermines the democratic process. I will embark on and deliver this initiative in the autumn because it is necessary for a properly functioning democracy.
On the one hand I am sympathetic to what the Minister has in mind. Personally, I do my best not to take corporate donations. I have returned cheques I received. However, there might be the odd exception where one might get a donation from someone where there was a personal relationship and it was a small donation. When one has a fundraising event such as a race night if a person buys an advertisement then one is getting into the area of corporate donations if the business is incorporated.
I have a few difficulties with the proposal. One is that when one limits who can donate to parties one could be putting the onus on the candidate to come up with the money and that might favour the rich or a person might mortgage his or her house and then there is the possibility that he or she might become bankrupt and the attendant dangers that go with that such as being ineligible for a position on various elected bodies. That problem needs to be taken into account. We need to think through the proposal. If one says corporate donations are bad then the implication is that individual donations are good. Then one could have a wealthy individual making donations.
In addition, the Government parties have an advantage. We have had the experience, such as prior to the 2007 election, where Ministers took out big advertising campaigns which put them to the forefront and a regular candidate cannot compete with that. The issue is extremely complicated. Donations should be limited. Transparency is important. We should also limit the amount that can be spent. I am in favour of the proposal but the Minister needs to be careful about how he does it.
I do not think Deputy Tuffy asked a question but I understand where she is coming from and that issues need to be considered such as what constitutes a corporation and whether it is a limited company. Those are questions that must be considered in detail. A large measure of credit must go to Eithne FitzGerald for the existing legislation which has served us well. We must learn lessons and we must enhance the legislation.