Friday, 18 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second Stage
I welcome the publication of the Appropriation Bill. It is the signal for the end of the legislative term and the fiscal year. It covers the spend on all Departments and State agencies for the next year from the offices of the President and the Taoiseach to our newest Department, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I also acknowledge the Department of Community and Rural Development, where I had the privilege to serve with the former Minister, Deputy Ring, and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. We should never be afraid to establish new Departments to cover very important areas. They give a focus.
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, covers two Departments - the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Rural and Community Development. It is important to recognise that. Key supports for health, business and social welfare play an important role every year, but they were very much in focus this year because of the pandemic. The Department of Health has been on the front line protecting our health. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has provided so much support to people and businesses over the last year to maintain the key link between businesses and workers. Obviously, the Department of Social Protection has administered the pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and all the supports that were enacted over the last year. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is responsible for rates, which are so important for businesses in what has been a very challenging year. No one could have imagined that 2020 would end up like this. This time last year, we were looking forward to growth in the economy. We had full employment and balanced books. The challenges of Covid have changed all that. The supports put in place by the Government are accounted for in this Bill for the year ahead.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is important. As a Senator who is elected by councillors, as well as Members of the Oireachtas, I will focus on local authorities. My county of Galway has had difficulties with the funding model in place for 20 years over successive Governments. I do not think the model is fair for a county of its size which has numerous challenges, including offshore islands, a long coastline and a large geographical area. It receives proportionately less money per head than many neighbouring counties. It does not have the same rates base as some neighbouring counties because the city of Galway is a separate local authority. This presents challenges. The Department wanted to amalgamate, which I support, but a decision was made not to proceed. As a result, Galway county is still left behind. We are told that the Department will wait for the review of the local property tax to look at the whole funding model. The officials were not fully sure how the original funding model came up. A mix of 600 different criteria for each county was used in the formula which decided how counties would be funded. The officials were not sure precisely how this was arrived at. The historical bias is still there and is particularly prevalent in Galway County Council's funding. It has knock-on effects in the delivery of services and the annual debate over whether rates are increased and so on. No one wants to do that but it can be necessary.
I acknowledge the very important work done by the Minister of State with responsibility for local government, Deputy Peter Burke, on councillors' pay. He has presented proposals on their pay and conditions which are with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Councillors do very important work for everyone and deserve to be better recognised than the present system where their pay and conditions have not changed since 2004. I hope the Minister of State brings that back to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, as an issue that needs to be dealt with very soon.