Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)

This issue cannot be separated from real and genuine reform of local government and of the power structure in Irish politics. Governance and decision-making should be made as close to the people as possible. It should be made by people who are elected by the people. The current management structure was introduced in 1940. We consistently, for decade after decade following partition, followed a colonial policy of centralisation. Looking at it today, where do we find ourselves? We have one of the most centralised politics in Europe. Our council buildings are hollowed-out shells where there is no governance of water or waste, never mind what other European countries have, such as governance of health. Town councils were abolished in 2014. The list goes on.

Sinn Féin will be supporting the motion but I am adamant when I say the issue of pay for councillors and local representatives should not be separated from the powers they are given. This has to be a dual process where we streamline councillors’ pay and increase the powers of local authorities. If powers are increased, then we must ensure councillors are able to take on the full-time workload and not be hindered by other considerations.

We also want to see an end to unvouched expenses. Unvouched expenses, as I remember from my time, are basically treated as income because the pay is so bad. Expenses are not income and should not be treated as such. The pay should be increased. Unvouched expenses, meanwhile, affect people's confidence in the work our councillors, politicians and public representatives do and they should be scrapped altogether.Most other democratic systems have long-since gotten rid of unvouched expenses regimes. We have called for a basic rate of pay for full-time and part-time councillors and a fully vouched system of expenses for additional costs of work. Full transparency around who is full-time and part-time is key to gaining public support for such a measure. Applying a fixed salary to the work of councillors and scrapping unaccountable expenses represent progress in scrutiny of the spending of taxpayers' money. Every euro in salary payments to councillors and expenses would be accounted for and open to scrutiny. That would be a significant advancement of the status quo.

I have said already that we have one of the most centralised systems of politics in Europe. In recent years, Ministers have grabbed power from local authorities, often to stifle opposition to scrutiny of their plans. Sinn Féin has consistently resisted efforts to take power away from councillors. Only this week in the Dáil, there was an attempt to do precisely that. The Land Development Agency Bill seeks to remove councillors from the oversight of the transfer of public land to the Land

Development Agency. It is difficult to believe that a Minister with responsibility for local government drafted a Bill that seeks to minimise the input of members of local authorities. Is that the case or is it simply consistent with what I have been saying about how we centralise power every decade? I am concerned that this happened after elected members of local authorities in recent times have robustly opposed the forcing of local authorities to use public land for unaffordable private housing. Councillors with local knowledge and expertise showed clearly that there is a better way to deliver genuinely affordable homes. The Minister should not seek to silence elected local representatives who are doing exactly what they should be doing.

My party sees a vital role for local authorities in solving the housing crisis. We firmly believe that the development of public housing and public land should be delivered by local authorities. This will be based on regional five-year development plans and regional knowledge about what demand exists. This requires the retention of public representatives who have built up local knowledge and expertise. However, many councillors are forced to vacate their seats before completing their terms due to financial and family considerations. That has been articulated by Senators throughout the House today. Recent reports, such as that by the ESRI, have confirmed that it is significantly cheaper for local authorities to construct public housing. The ability to do this depends on local authorities being adequately funded and staffed and retaining public representative expertise.

Not only do I seek proper pay for the workload of current councillors but I want to see a greater variety of people running for and holding office in local government as well. The current system means that people from low income backgrounds, mothers of young children and members of marginalised or minority groups are under-represented. The issue of pay is a barrier to many people putting their names forward.

I welcome the amendment arguing for the implementation of the non-pay aspects of the Moorhead report, such as maternity and paternity leave. I know it will not be pushed by the Members. However, I hope this proposal will attract more people to stand for election and serve our communities. The situation as it stands excludes members who miss meetings for more than six months. I have raised this issue previously, as others have mentioned. A Sinn Féin councillor in Cork, Danielle Twomey, found out only after having a child that there was no provision for paid maternity leave. That was in 2017. We have had elections to the local authorities since then. It is a major disincentive to women who decide to have children that they are not entitled to the benefits and protections afforded to all others working in public services. The Maternity Protection Act 1994 states that a self-employed or employed woman is entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave together with 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave.

Since 2017 two tranches of legislation have been before the Dáil dealing with parental leave. One Bill was introduced by Fianna Fáil. There is a consensus on that issue and we need to have action.

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