Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

9:00 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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In raising this Adjournment matter I call for the establishment of a comprehensive review of the Local Government Act 2001 with a view to addressing the democratic deficit through greater empowerment and resourcing of local public representatives. A competitive report carried out a number of years ago found that Ireland had the most centralised system of local government as against any other country in the world. When one looked at the centralised systems of many of the eastern bloc communist countries, and China, that speaks volumes for the system we have. Coupled with that is the City and County Management (Amendment) Act 1955, which took much of the democratic powers from local authority members and handed them to the county managers. The whole area of subsidiarity needs to be injected into the system.

The reason for my proposal is that there is widespread dissatisfaction among the public and members of local authorities that the good purpose and intention of the 2001 Act has not been realised. One of the purposes of the Act was to put the councillor centre stage, so that he or she had a real democratic input into the system. I have done some surveys and find that four councillors to one are dissatisfied, which equates generally with countrywide discontent as regards the workings of the Act. One of the main purposes of the Local Government Act 2001 was to shift the balance of power towards members and this has not happened.

The corporate policy groups were to be a pivotal and fundamental part of that initiative. Dissatisfaction with the operation of the corporate policy groups, according to the surveys, accounts for 70%, as against 30% who are satisfied. This disparity reflects a significant level of dissatisfaction. The corporate policy group, in effect, was expected to operate on the basis of a mini-cabinet. From a trawl I have carried out of the minutes of many local authority corporate policy groups, it is obvious that nothing of fundamental importance is being included on their agendas. These routinely comprise administrative and ordinary matters that are scheduled and dealt with at county council meetings.

This raises a question and I am not sure whether the Minister of State will have the answer. What specific training was given to the cathaoirligh and mayors of local authorities, particularly county and city councillors as well as members of corporate policy groups, to ensure that they would operate effectively? Again, that was one of the areas identified at that stage in the 2001 Act, namely, that training of councillors was to be an essential component for improving the system.

There is somewhat more satisfaction with the strategic policy committees, SPCs. Some 57% declared themselves dissatisfied, but 43% are satisfied that they make a contribution to councils. That probably illustrates that if the positives from many councils, where they seem to be working effectively, can be identified and transferred to other local authorities, and the negatives addressed by perhaps giving much greater scope to the chairs of SPCs, we could see a significant improvement in that area. A question put to councillors as regards leadership within the councils showed that 47% were in favour of a full-time cathaoirleach. The question of a directly elected cathaoirleach, which was opposed by many councillors at the time, now has support among 43%, with 57% opposing.

Among the chairs of SPCs, some 18% believed they should be full-time posts and just short of a quarter of the councillors believed that given the enormous workload and various reports coming before councils, there was now a demand for their far greater and even full-time involvement. The submission of the three representative bodies, General Council of County Councils, the Association of Municipal Authorities in Ireland and the Local Authority Members Association, prior to the enactment of the 2001 Act, suggested that there should be a transfer of executive decisions to the corporate policy group, which should function as a mini-cabinet, with a full-time chair, and other members — whether chairs of SPCs or area committees — in part-time positions. There is a real need for every councillor to have, at least, an office in the council, so that he or she may have a base from which to operate and undertake his or her responsibilities.

As part of the review I suggest that the whole area of councillors' recompense should be looked at. Good progress has been made in this regard, and that has been acknowledged in recent years. Nevertheless, some 43% of councillors expressed satisfaction with the small salary being paid but significantly, 57% were dissatisfied with it, which I considered to be relatively high. However, there is probably a need for this to be reviewed to bring it to the equivalent of a third of a Senator's salary, the level that was sought by the representative bodies at the time.

With regard to the vexed questions of councillors' pensions, which has been raised in this House on a number of occasions, this has support among 89% of councillors, with just 11% opposed. While I acknowledge that justifiably, the gratuity has been significantly improved, much rubbish has been talked by those who oppose the pensions initiative. Many councillors, as all of us know, in order to meet their commitments as public local representatives, have undertaken part-time job sharing. They do this with a commensurate loss of income and subsequently the loss of pension entitlements. They should not be discriminated against, as the only public servants who do not qualify. This should be part of the overall comprehensive review. Given the level of dissatisfaction and valleys in customer service from local authorities, the system would benefit from an impartial review. Any such review, as happened on the last occasion, should not be crowded with county managers, all of whom have vested interests and an axe to grind. If they are to be involved, there should be a balancing opinion from elected local authority members and independent reviewers. The local government system which annually spends billions of euro and employs 35,000 people must be optimised to meet future demands.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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The enhancement of the role of the elected local authority member has been a fundamental objective of the ongoing local government reform programme. Key features of the programme include the introduction in 2004 of a single electoral mandate for local government to underline the unique role of local government and the distinctive representational role of councillors; the strengthening of the councillor's policy making role through the establishment of the strategic policy committees; the introduction of the corporate policy group, which provides a forum for the committees' chairs and cathaoirligh to consider policy positions affecting the entire council and act as a mini-cabinet for the council; the widening of the councillor's remit through important structures such as the county and city development boards and joint policing committees. This has been underpinned by comprehensive and modernised legislation in the Local Government Act 2001 and constitutional recognition for local government with guaranteed local elections every five years.

The Local Government Act 2001 provides that the elected council is the policy-making arm of the local authority, while that of county and city managers is one of day-to-day management. Elected members are the board of directors of their authorities. Their functions span a range of important matters including the adoption of the annual budget, the development plan and development contribution schemes. The elected council has various oversight powers for the discharge by the manager of his or her duties.

Strategic policy committees have been introduced to local government bringing elected members together with the social partners and other interests to formulate, monitor and review policies across the major functional areas of local authorities. The committees, designed to be a significant resource for councillors in their policy-making functions, complement the work of the corporate policy groups.

Local government's sphere of influence has been widened through its leadership of the county and city development boards. The boards, on which the corporate policy group sits, represent a real attempt at improving the co-ordination of planning and service delivery across the public sector at local level. It is important that elected members on these boards play their leadership role in this regard to the full.

The remit of local government was further extended last year with the establishment of several joint policing committees on a pilot basis. These committees introduced a partnership process involving local elected members, members of An Garda Síochána, and others to collectively consult, discuss and make recommendations on matters affecting the policing of local areas.

Senator Jim Walsh raised the important issue of the proper resourcing of councillors to enable them to carry out their duties as public representatives. Councillors must have the necessary support to carry out their responsibilities and to serve their communities. Considerable improvements have been made in this regard and, following the enactment for the Local Government Act 2001, councillors now receive an annual representational payment, linked to the salary of Senators. In addition, a gratuity scheme has also been provided for retiring councillors. The gratuity has recently been substantially increased along with other significant improvements to the councillors' expenses system.

With these tangible supports, a major training and development programme has been under way for some time to facilitate the effective participation of councillors on their councils. The programme has been developed in partnership with and with the active involvement of the three elected member associations.

Taken together, the above steps have substantially strengthened the role of local government and its elected members. The immediate focus is to ensure the benefits of the reform programme continue to feed through in better service delivery to our communities. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will continue to work to intensify and consolidate the gains being made under the programme. Elected members will play their part to the full in this regard.

I am more familiar with the Dublin local authority scene and it might not be typical of other areas. However, after the last local elections as there was a large turnover in new councillors, the corporate experience was lost. There was too much movement and it may take several years for newly elected councillors to find their feet. The legislation can be in place but it is up to councillors to work the system. The red carper cannot be rolled out for them every day. In some instances, councillors are effective in determining policy but others may expect it to be presented with a ribbon.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response and positive remarks. Will he convey to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the compelling arguments for a comprehensive review to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the system?