Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Rebecca Moynihan (Labour)

This issue has been raised many times in this House and has certainly been raised since I was elected back in April. I thank Senators Boyhan, Keogan and Craughwell for bringing this motion to the Chamber again. It is not the first time we have heard about it but movement on the issue has been sadly lacking.

I acknowledge the grave mistake my party made in the reform of local government back in 2014. Town councils were abolished and local electoral areas were increased but the corresponding respect was not given to councillors. The reform took away power, loaded on work and did not tackle the key issues of local government reform, which should have been a great opportunity for us.

We have all spoken about the Moorhead report. While I welcome its recommendation of an increase in pay for councillors, I, like other Senators, have grave concerns about the tone it adopted. The report's author was patronising toward what she called "clientelism", which is also known to many people as representing one's constituents and dealing with the system that those constituents are not necessarily able to navigate. The report should not have adopted that tone.

The report is written through the lens of somebody who does not have difficulty accessing State services and who can advocate by themselves. It reminds me of an opinion column on politics in The Irish Timesby somebody who has never knocked on a door, has never had difficulty filling out their own forms and has never had to deal with constituents. I will give an idea of many of the groups and committees that one has to be on as a member of local government. From a statutory perspective, councillors are on the main city council and the strategic policy committee, SPC, but if they want the SPC to do any work, they will also be on subgroups of that SPC. They are also on subgroups of committees to try to progress things. They are on their local area committee but they are also on subgroups of it. They are part of community groups. They are on many boards to which they were appointed through the council, including partnership boards, things like the drugs task force and subgroups on specific issues.

Senator Fitzpatrick referred to the development plan. Not only do councillors go into meetings on the development plan for six, seven or eight hours at a time - sometimes until midnight - they also meet constituents about it. They talk to each of the separate groups and meet constituents from all over the city about that development plan. They plan information meetings, local meetings, residents' association meetings and hospital board meetings for the many groups that want to speak to them about different issues. Students also contact them about planning their dissertations. There is also the corporate policy group, CPG, councillors' own group meetings, issue-specific group meetings, the emails and the leaflet drops when something is going on in an area. Then people coming up and say either that they never hear from the councillor or that they do not want them to put junk mail in their door.

To be a good councillor, and I would like to think I was one because I was elected three times when times were not particularly good for my party, requires a huge amount of work and effort that goes far beyond the clientelism to which the report author so dismissively refers. Reading the report, I got more and more angry about the lack of understanding of what it takes to be a councillor and what is expected from constituents, as well as the lack of respect the report shows. Councillors get no backup. Every single email and post has to be answered by them, after attending all the meetings I have just listed. After any part-time or full-time job, they have to keep up with a very basic life. Every leaflet is written, printed and folded by them and is delivered by them with the help of a few other people.

The women also do that while pregnant. I have friends who knocked on doors when they were nine months pregnant. People I know have gone to local meetings straight after having a baby. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to hold babies in the tea room or in the chamber because people were forced to be there right after giving birth. Councillors get no maternity leave, no backup, no childcare and no support. Local government and local councillors are the hardest working people I know. Local communities deserve good councillors from all backgrounds, ages and genders. Councillors who have children should have a very basic right to maternity leave and maternity pay. This goes to a deeper issue of local government reform. A strong and vibrant local government is essential to our democracy as it is the closest step to people. People have a connection to their local authority that they do not have to Departments.They are the first to get the blame when things go wrong and the last to get the credit for the varied daily work that they do. Councillors have much responsibility, a great deal of expectation, no power and little respect from officials, or indeed from the officials in the Departments they deal with. I welcome the Minister's commitment and I know that Senators on the Government side of the House are committed to reform in the face of officials in the Department that are very dismissive of the work that councillors do. I hope that the Government is able to promote this because, at the very least, people deserve a minimum wage. As Senator Craughwell said, a committed trade unionist will look for a decent day’s pay for a decent day's work.

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