Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

John Cummins (Fine Gael)

I welcome my party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House. I thank him for his commitment and dedication to resolving this long-standing issue of pay for county councillors. There is cross-party support for this motion, which is most welcome. Although the amendments tabled by the Fine Gael group are not being moved, those amendments are not without merit as they refer to the working group that has been established to examine the non-pay elements of the Moorhead report. The Minister of State might refer to those aspects in his later reply.

This is an issue that has been kicked around for as long as I can remember. A report was commissioned by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in June 2018 to review the role and remuneration of elected local authority members. An interim report was produced in December 2018, and the full report was furnished thereafter. Local authority members were informed that the proposals would be implemented prior to the local elections in June 2019. When the deadline was missed, the councillors were then informed that any changes would be backdated. Here we are, however, still debating this issue some 18 months after the local elections.

I welcome the commitment contained in the programme for Government to implement the Moorhead report. If we are honest, as has been referenced already, these changes have been reported in the media multiple times at this stage which could give the false impression that councillors have had multiple raises in their representational payment, which, as we all know in this House, is not the case. I am very proud of Fine Gael’s record of raising the minimum wage seven times since July 2011, from €8.65 to its current rate of €10.20. Some will still argue that this is not enough, and that is a debate we can have on another day, but I am sure everyone agrees it is only right and proper to pay workers at least the minimum wage, and that is precisely what we have not been doing with city and county councillors. It has resulted in the loss of some exceptionally talented people from local government over the years, which is a terrible shame.

The role of councillor should be one that is available to all. It should not be exclusively for those of independent means or who are retired and do not have to worry about supplementing their income to support their family or run a household. The remuneration available to councillors should be sufficient to support an individual who puts him or herself forward to represent his or her community. There is no greater honour than to be elected to represent the area one is from or the place one has made one’s home. Before I was elected to Seanad Éireann, I had the honour of being elected to Waterford City and County Council on three occasions: 2009, 2014 and 2019, and I am lucky enough to have served as mayor on two occasions. In that time, I can safely say the workload associated with being a councillor has increased dramatically. There are significantly more meetings, further distances to travel, the local electoral areas are bigger, the volume of representations has increased, the paperwork and compliance measures associated with the role are onerous but necessary, and the accessibility of the public via social media on a 24-7 basis has brought an added dimension into the mix.

The Review of the Operation of Local Government Reforms 2014 survey of elected members reported that councillors spend a mean average of 32.25 hours a week undertaking their role. A 2015 AILG workload survey indicated that councillors were spending 33.15 hours per week on their role. The report by Ms Sara Moorhead proposed a salary of €25,066 euro per annum, or €2,088 per month, before tax, with other elements for travel and subsistence being vouched. Assuming the workload has stayed the same since 2015, which as I have said is not the case, we are actually talking here about a salary of €14.50 per hour before tax. The reality is it is even less for those councillors who work longer hours, of which there are many. One of the most important recommendations in the Moorhead report is the ceasing of the historical link to a Senator’s salary and instead the linking of it to a point in the public sector pay scale. This will fulfil the objective of removing the political decision-making from remuneration of councillors into the future and further brings it into line with public sector norms. Thankfully, as a result of that, this will be, it is hoped, the last time we will ever discuss the issue in this House.

I wish to address some points on the language contained in the Moorhead report which was unhelpful. The dismissive attitude by the author towards the representational role of the councillor was all too evident. The suggestion that assisting constituents with form-filling for the likes of social housing, housing assistance payment, HAP, applications, housing adaptation grants and medical card forms or giving advice on planning and planning-related matters is in some way not relevant to the role and that councillors should be concentrating their time on policy and governance issues is all well and good in theory but in practice is so far removed from the reality on the ground. It is not a case of one or the other. Councillors do both roles and do them very successfully and exceptionally well in many cases.

The Minister of State has done exceptionally speedy and diligent work on this issue. He is committed to resolving this issue and I ask that he engage further with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on it to bring it to a conclusion as a matter of urgency.

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