Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements

 

10:30 am

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

I thank the Acting Chairperson for placing this item on the agenda of the House and for his invitation for me to contribute. It is important that the Members of Seanad Éireann, who are keenly interested in and strong advocates for local government, have an opportunity to air their views on a recent television programme that examined a wide range of matters in local authorities. The report at issue is the "RTÉ Investigates: Council Chamber Secrets" programme broadcast on Wednesday, 23 March 2022.The programme cited a specific number of cases in local authorities which it used to identify issues of governance and a lack of accountability and transparency within the local government system. The irony is that the programme makers relied to a significant degree on the findings, work and diligence of the Local Government Audit Service in making their programme. Many of the cases highlighted in the programme were identified from the Local Government Audit Service reports and management letters issued to local authorities in the course of the annual audit and the remainder through investigations and reports. I would argue that the reporting of these audit issues by the Local Government Audit Service is an example of the positive impact that service is having on systems and procedures in local authorities.

The programme also highlighted instances where disciplinary proceedings were pursued by local authorities against members of staff and reports referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation. It is, in my view, correct that details of such cases would not be put in the public domain for reasons of natural justice but also in case doing so would prejudice any Garda investigation.

Article 28A of the Constitution recognises the role of local government in providing "a forum for the democratic representation of communities, in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law". Local authorities are entirely independent corporate entities. Their constitutional basis gives them responsibility under the law for the performance of their functions, the discharge of their governance and other responsibilities. As the House will be aware, democratically elected councils are responsible for reserve functions, that is, those functions which are reserved for the elected council acting by majority resolution. These include passing an annual budget, housing policy decisions and policies on environmental protection, among many others. A key role of elected councils is the governance and oversight of their local authority, including in relation to risk and audit practices and holding the chief executive and his or her officials to account. These reserve functions are set down in law. Everyone in the House will agree that elected councils and individual councillors take this governance role very seriously. The Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, local authorities and councillors work hard to ensure they are equipped and fully trained to fulfil this role.

As Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, I am responsible for policy, legislation, Oireachtas accountability and, at a broad level, oversight in respect of the local government system. It is not my role to step in to a local authority to fulfil the governance role of the elected council. That said, my Department, working with local government stakeholders, is currently developing a code of governance framework for local authorities. The aim of this framework will be to encourage improved accountability by establishing a benchmark for aspects of good governance resulting in a culture of better service delivery overall. It will offer guidance to officials, the elected council and other stakeholders on their governance obligations and responsibilities.

I also wish to mention the Local Government Reform Act 2014 which dealt substantively with accountability arrangements and further strengthened governance in all local authorities. The Act reinforced the operation of the audit committees in local authorities and established the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC. Among other matters, audit committees review financial and budgetary reporting practices and procedures within local authorities. They also review any audited financial statement, auditor's report or auditor's special report in relation to a local authority and assess actions taken by the chief executive in response. NOAC is the national independent oversight body for the local government sector in Ireland. NOAC's functions cover all local authority activities and involve the scrutiny of performance generally and financial performance specifically. NOAC also has a role in supporting best practice, overseeing the implementation of national and local government policy and public service reform by local government bodies.

In February 2017, NOAC, in accordance with its statutory functions, began a review of the performance of individual local authorities. This is a two-stage process of meetings between NOAC and the local authority, the minutes and presentations from which are all published. Stage one typically involves face-to-face meetings with the chief executive and some of the management team with the chair of NOAC and the secretariat. The stage two meeting is an opportunity for the local authority to meet the full board of NOAC and respond to any questions it may have on the local authority and its operations. To date NOAC has completed 18 of these two-stage processes and the reports on these meetings are published on the NOAC website. These processes will continue in 2022. Representatives of NOAC periodically attend the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss its annual reports and annual performance indicator reports.

The RTÉ programme also made reference to a 2012 critical review on merging the Comptroller and Auditor General's office with the Local Government Audit Service. This review arose in the context of the Government's overall approach to the rationalisation of State agencies at the time. The then Government decided in October 2012 that the proposed merger should not proceed. That decision recognised that these Houses have set down a system which regulates the affairs of local government, including by providing a separate system of auditing procedures for ensuring an open and public consideration of audit issues. It also recognised the constitutional position of local government and addressed the legitimate question of the appropriateness of the Oireachtas overseeing the performance of an independent sector with its own system of democratic accountability and oversight.

The Local Government Audit Service has a very strong working relationship with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Since the review in 2012, arrangements have been put in place for enhanced co-operation between the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Local Government Audit Service, having regard to differences in scale and the relative priorities of the two organisations. The director of the Local Government Audit Service also appears regularly before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss the work of the audit service and will do so again in the coming days.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating today's important discussion. I look forward to hearing the views of Members during this afternoon's debate.

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