Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Sharon Keogan (Independent)

I thank Senator Craughwell for bringing this matter to the House today. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for coming to the Seanad to take on board our considered views on the role and remuneration of councillors. Since I have been elected to the Seanad, the inadequate pay structure of councillors has been high on my agenda. I was told by the Leader of the Seanad that a day would be set aside for my colleagues in this House to discuss the Moorhead report. A Private Members' motion had to be brought by three Independent Senators to force the hand of the Government to account on this issue. The Government should be utterly ashamed of itself for failing to take this matter more seriously. County councillors are the loyal foot soldiers of political parties when it comes to canvassing at election time. As a former county councillor, I enthusiastically welcome the opportunity we now have to deal with this topic and to introduce meaningful reform in this area.Surely all present can agree that this matter concerns not only the role and pay of local authority elected members, but also the quality and effectiveness of local government for the people of Ireland.

What do I want? I want better local government that will enhance the lives of people in all 31 local authority areas across the State. How can we achieve this objective? One important step towards achieving it is the fair and proper recognition of the work of councillors and the extraordinary time commitment the role requires. How do we do this? We do this as any good and fair employer would, that is, by paying councillors properly. We do it by providing them with a pension in the same way as for all other public servants and public representatives. We do it by providing them with properly structured and expertly delivered training and testing, thereby equipping them to serve their communities in a more effective and professional way. We do it by dropping the pretence that the role of the councillor is a part-time one. In reality, it is not. It is a full-time role and should be paid accordingly.

What I propose is not mere constructive and conservative tinkering with the existing system but, rather, true reform of local government that will allow councillors to dedicate themselves to the task of providing better local government to citizens. Key elements of this reform are the recognition of the full-time role of councillors in representing their communities and exercising their local authority functions. It is noteworthy that councillors administer a combined budget of €5 billion annually. It is important, therefore, that supports are put in place to educate and empower councillors and provide them with the skills needed to exercise good governance and compliance in the distribution of this significant budget.

Since May 2019, there have been 72 co-options onto local government. Some of these co-options have been due to members being appointed or elected to this House or the Dáil, while others have resulted from vacancies arising from workload involved in being a councillor. Good people are being lost to local government because of our failure to support them as they deserve in accessing a living wage. It is impossible for young councillors to stay in local politics. The wage is paltry and the job is temporary. It is impossible to obtain a mortgage, car loan or any form of finance in that situation. In recent years, the media have announced more than six pay increases nationally for councillors but, in fact, none have been delivered.

The financial imbalance between Deputies on six figure salaries and councillors on pocket money may suit the local Deputy in terms of dominating his or her constituency. The dual mandate may have been abolished but, in reality, it lives on. The local Deputies and Senators in waiting for the national ticket must remember what their role is; it is a national role. The go-to person on local matters for the general public should always be the councillor. However, the minute any funding is announced, the national politician is the first to claim credit for it. There are ten Senators who had their office granted to them as a gift from their political masters in Cabinet. The master of the local politician or county or city councillor is the ordinary citizen.

I note that Fine Gael has tabled several amendments to the motion. It is worth noting that Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Labour Party, which claims to be the party of the working person, have not put down any amendments. They have remained silent on the issue. Just like in December, they had an opportunity to include councillors' pay in the budgetary expenditure but they opted not to do so. I reject amendment No. 3 on the basis that councillors cannot wait until December 2021 for action to be taken. They have waited for long enough.

On the issue of maternity leave, paternity leave and other forms of statutory leave that are currently unavailable to councillors, it is important that local authorities look at the provision of childcare in-house. We must remove barriers to the entry of women into politics. Amendment No. 1 speaks to the national issue of the inadequate provision of childcare by the State.

The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, who is present, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, have been dancing around the fire of councillors' pay for the past eight months and, indeed, for the past six years. I have asked for their views on the Moorhead report. I have asked for a meeting with the Taoiseach on the subject of councillors' pay. He passed the buck back to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien.The Minister has told me that it is within the gift of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to sanction the pay increase for councillors. I want to know what recommendations went from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to the Minister, Deputy McGrath. Every councillor in this country wants to know if this Government values them to the tune of more than €17,600 a year.

All councillors are motivated by the same thing, namely, a commitment to their communities. Councillors have a multifaceted role and all they want is a living wage. Please give it to them.

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