Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)

I thank all the Senators for their contributions. We can hear very clearly the frustration that has been articulated by all Members of this House and by members of all 31 local authorities throughout the country. I fully empathise with them and understand that because this issue is going on far too long. I fully accept that. We need to find a way forward very quickly.

In terms of the Moorhead report, I wish to outline what happens with local authorities, where we are in terms of my work and where we aim to end up. I will also mention the non-pay aspects of the Moorhead report. One of the key bones of contention contained within the report is the view that local authority members work 18.5 hours a week. That is a determination the independent senior counsel made at that juncture.

I was elected to Westmeath County Council and I had the privilege and honour to get a chance to serve my local community in 2009. I also had the chance to serve as cathaoirleach of my county, chairperson of the town council and mayor of the town in my last year. I could see at first hand the significant effort required for public representation at local authority level. In a recent report I noted that the local authority provides 600 individual services to citizens in each of the 31 local authorities. Local government is the closest arm to the citizens. There is no doubt about that. When I reflect on the conclusion about the 18.5 hours and look at the 360 statutory bodies that have to be filled by nominations from the 31 local authorities, that adds up to 1,100 nominations.In regard to the roles on the 400 external bodies that have to be filled through our 31 local authorities, there are 1,010 individual nominations. That is 2,140 nominations that have to be filled by the 949 councillors in this State. That is a significant voluntary role that councillors take up day in, day out. Looking at, and reflecting on, the public participation network that was established in 2004, there is an average of 360 community groups engaging with each local authority. Councillors deal with these groups on a daily basis, advising them on grants and of the various different ways to improve their community and society at large. I also think about the vulnerable people our local authority members engage with, day after day, week after week - for example, helping elderly people complete housing adaptation grant forms, or helping families in crisis to access housing supports and social housing. Those are the key roles undertaken by our local authority members day by day and week by week. The AILG and LAMA have done research on the length of the working week of a local authority member. We are all agreed on the fact that it is longer than 18.5 hours. The representation role is vital. It is the lifeblood of how a local councillor engages with the community and how they get feedback on the ground, and the views of society at large and its direction.

Second, I want to set out the trajectory of where we are. In June 2018 Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, was appointed to commission a report into the pay and conditions of local authority members. In June 2020 the report was published by the Government. Subsequent to that, the programme for Government has committed to endorsing the report and implementing it within 12 months of the formation of the Government. When I had the privilege of being appointed to my current role, I immediately set about engaging with our local representatives. I operated an open-door policy from day one. I spoke and met with many councillors across the country. I engaged with the AILG and LAMA, and held a series of meetings with them to get their views on the Moorhead report. I also engaged with many Members of this House and Dáil Éireann to get their views on the report.

Ms Moorhead has made her recommendations. I listened and I attach huge value to the views local authority members have expressed on the recommendations in the report. I attach great value to that. On the foot of that, I have crafted a proposal, which I hope will reflect the role played by councillors and will be robust, transparent and will stand up to the highest scrutiny of public probity. That is most important in any proposal chosen. My engagement was fruitful in what I learned of the current frustrations of councillors. The fact of the matter is that the proposal has been crafted by me and the Minister and it has been presented to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for approval. We need consent from his Department in order to approve any proposal. I look forward to working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks and with the Government to deliver the proposal within the timeframe of the programme for Government. It is most important that we do meet that commitment. An important commitment was given on the formation of the Government. As I progress this proposal through my Department and further afield, the programme for Government is the cornerstone that sets out the direction of travel for the next five years for any Government. This commitment is time limited and is set out in the programme for Government. I hope to work and deliver on it.

I was struck by a few of the contributions made today. Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of maternity leave. I know that the non-pay issue raised in the Moorhead report is important. More broadly than that, a number of local authority members raised issues with me. They are very frustrated by situations confronting them and I understand that.That is why we immediately established a working group, which has already met. I attended the first meeting at which we set out how we will improve efficiencies within the local authority sector and how we are going to support councillors. When I look into a council chamber, I want to see a reflection of society at large in terms of gender and diversity and how society operates because that is how we will get the best decision-making. I want to support local authority members to achieve that.

I hope that the working group will come back to me in quarter 2 with a series of recommendations on supports for councillors, including, for example, in respect of maternity leave and training. Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about having a baby and being asked why she was not at a council meeting. We do not want that in this country. As a progressive person and a young father, I know that is not right. I want to offer councillors real maternity leave. We had a situation where we falsely believed that we could change an instrument and that would provide maternity leave. I want a system people can use, can feel free to operate and that will offer significant support to bring more women and people generally into the local authority system. I am committed to working to deliver that and will not leave any stone unturned in my efforts.

A number of Senators mentioned retention, which is so important at the moment. Very good people are being lost from our local authority system and that is a crying shame. We really need to respond to that challenge and ensure that supports are in place. As I said earlier, we want society at large to be reflected in our council chambers and we will do everything we can to ensure that is the case.

Senator Moynihan was very fair in her contribution. She outlined the various challenges we have come through and pointed out that everyone in this House wants the same thing and is in agreement on this issue. I value the fact that we are all working together to try to deliver on this. The Minister and I are working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this. Whether it needs a Government decision or a new regulation, the proposal is there and we must get on and implement it. I know, having spoken to councillors all over the country, that this issue comes up consistently but I want to move on to talk about reform and the real issues that matter so much to members of local government and to our citizens. It is vital that we get the opportunity to do that as soon as possible. Having listened to Senators today, the frustration on this issue is clear. Senators are obviously liaising with local authority members and reflecting the feedback they are getting. Obviously, I am also liaising with local authority members.

Senator Seery Kearney has contacted me several times about the issue of maternity leave. I agree that it is a significant issue and one that we really need to solve. Hopefully, we will be able to deliver on it and a number of other non-pay issues.

Senator Wall mentioned online bullying, which is of grave concern to many young councillors. People are afraid to run for election when they see some of the online behaviour of a minority of people, which is very frustrating. I will raise this issue with the reform group that we have established. We will try to work out how best to respond to it, particularly in terms of putting key supports in place for people who find themselves in a position like that.

I thank Senators for affording me the opportunity to discuss this matter. Obviously, the Government is not opposing the motion. We are all working together on this because we all want the same outcome. We all want this resolved as quickly as possible and I assure this House that I am doing my utmost to do so. I say that sincerely and in good faith. We want to get this done urgently and I believe we will do so.

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