Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House again. I am not sure who requested this debate. It is an important debate but I do not believe the Senator who requested it is in the House, which is a shame. If Senators request debates, they should be in the House when those debates take place in order to contribute.

While this discussion on local authorities and the investigation that was carried by RTÉ is important, it cannot cloud the fact that local authorities right across this country do excellent work on a daily basis. There will always be errors, omissions and bad practices in every organisation and we must put structures in place to minimise the risks but we must acknowledge the excellent work done, not only by councillors across the country but also by the executives and employees of local authorities.

I was elected to Waterford City and County Council in 2009 at the age of 21 and was proud to represent the council as mayor on two occasions. The diligent work that I saw during my time on the council, over 11 or 12 years, was exceptional. I saw nothing short of absolute dedication and commitment to the people the council serves and that applies to every section of the local authority.

I will now address some of the criticisms levelled in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, one of which was the toothless nature of the auditor.We would not be here having this discussion today if it were not for the Local Government Audit Service identifying these issues and irregularities right across the country. In one sense, therefore, you have to say that the system is working, in that it is able to identify them. However, the follow-on criticism was the sanction was not there to fit the “crime”. In one sense, I understand that criticism because I raised concerns on my own council in Waterford in relation to credit cards and the volume of prepaid credit cards that were in existence within the local authority. That was one of the issues that was ultimately identified in this "RTÉ Investigates" programme in respect of one employee. It had been highlighted by the auditor. The follow-on nature is something we have to look at as a Government.

The programme also cited issues regarding investigation reports not being published. The Minister of State has referenced the concerns about ongoing investigations, as well as prejudicing any cases that might come forward to An Garda Síochána at a later point. This is something that obviously has to be put on record.

In the last minute that I have, I will make reference to the NOAC reports the Minister of State highlighted in his contribution. They are excellent. They provide an image of where every local authority is on all of the indicators across housing, environment, roads, transport and so on. It is good to be able to compare local authorities around the country and how they are stacking up in averages.

The issue that I have in relation to the NOAC reports is their timing. We discuss a NOAC report nearly two years after the fact, because of the timing. This is because the reports for the previous year come nearly a year into the following year. Therefore, they are nearly out of date by the time they are being discussed, albeit they do show trends. It would be far more effective were the NOAC reports finished and completed in early course at the end of the year. Then, we could discuss the previous year by May or June of the following year. This is not the case at the moment. Perhaps that is something that the Minister of State can take on board. The work that the auditors carry out is very valuable for public representatives, so that they are able to see what is working well, where it is going well and how we can replicate good practice. In addition, it shows them what is going wrong in their local authority and where they have to put measures in place to rectify that. Perhaps that is something the Minister of State can take on board.

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