Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House today and thank him for all the work he is doing in these trying times. I commend Senators Keogan, Craughwell and Boyhan for putting down this motion. It is of utmost importance to the councillors who elect us to the Seanad. It involves their remuneration and conditions, which are absolutely vital.

We all know all politics is local. In a nutshell, this shows the importance of our local authorities. City and county councils are our most accessible form of democratically elected government. They are the most useful bodies for highlighting local concerns and solving problems in their communities.

My colleague, Senator Flynn, and I have been in contact with many councillors over recent weeks. In the long conversations we had with them, they talked a lot about the love of their job and how honoured they feel to be representing their constituents in these extremely difficult times. They are inspiring people. One man said he actually organised shopping for the older people in his community. Another man was on to me about trying to get one of his constituents into an addiction centre. He had worked tirelessly on this issue. Another woman asked me to get somebody into a mental health institution. That is going to be a bigger problem going forward.

These councillors are very passionate about the work they do and about working with their constituents. Their main issue is that they feel undervalued by the Government. The failure of the Government to implement the Moorhead report fully in line with the commitment in the programme for Government has led to widespread anger and disappointment. Local government has never been as important as it is at now. Councillors really are working on the front line and on the ground. Our local representatives are the first point of contact for many people who feel anxious and alone in these strange times. Again, I had another woman on to me who told me that she had to deal with a single mother with two young children. She had to go round and collect food for her. It is a real dedication.

Local representatives will say that their jobs are full-time positions but their pay does not reflect this. The rate of pay for our public representative has meant that many dedicated and able people can no longer afford to serve as councillors. The loss of these people and the problem with attracting new people to local government is and will continue to be an enormous problem. Councillors need to know soon when the proposed increase of €8,000 per annum will be added to their salaries.

I would like to express my appreciation for the Local Authority Members Association and the Association of Irish Local Government for their valuable input on these issues. They represent councillors throughout the country and have made it clear how poor working conditions and remuneration badly impact local representatives and local government. Since the Local Government Reform Act 2014, there has been a serious change in the role of local councillors. A small number of elected representatives try to cover larger geographical areas. For many, it is just not possible. This is especially true in rural areas with vast constituencies. The increase in the workload of councillors since 2014 must surely warrant the backdating of their increased payment to that date. Councillors do not get a full-time wage but theirs is effectively a full-time role. The expectation is that if a constituent asks for help, his or her local representative needs to be able to respond quickly and appropriately. If local representatives want to do a job well, they need to be available as the first port of call for their constituents, not least for vulnerable people who may need help accessing vital supports and services.

As one will learn from any councillor or anyone who served in local government, it is impossible to do the job properly on a part-time basis. Many councillors do it out of hours or by taking unpaid leave. Some are lucky enough to have flexible working arrangements but many do not. Sadly, the current system squeezes people on lower incomes out of local government. Ultimately, we will need to make a decision as to what role we want for local councillors and local government. Will it be an inclusive position available to all? We are currently stuck between two poles. It is not a voluntary position with a low level of commitment but neither is it a full-time position with the resources available to do it properly. All councillors I know make the same point, namely, no one takes up the role for a high earning career. It is absolutely a vocation. They just want it to be feasible and sustainable to ensure they can be involved in local government.I urge the Minister of State to support a move to sustainable, full-time pay and to outline when the other recommendations of the Moorhead report will be implemented. The programme for Government negotiated by the three parties commits to implementing the recommendations of the Moorhead report on the remuneration of all city and county councillors in Ireland within 12 months of taking office. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that the issue of councillors' pay and conditions will have to be raised in this House and that the Government will be true to its commitment.

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