Thursday, 28 February 2008
Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) (Confirmation of Orders) Bill 2008: Second Stage
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the House for facilitating today's debate. I appreciate the opportunity to introduce the Bill in the Seanad and I look forward to positive contributions from Members. The Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 was first debated in the Seanad, so it is fitting that this short confirmatory Bill relating to the 1971 Act is introduced in this Chamber.
Before referring to the Bill, I will provide some background information on the 1971 Act. The purpose of that Act was to enable the Minister, by order, to establish corporate bodies to provide for the local authorities and-or the Minister such services as are specified in the establishment orders. The immediate need in 1971 was to establish a body to enable the local authority conciliation and arbitration scheme to operate effectively. The Act was framed in general terms so that the powers it conferred could be used to establish bodies to provide other services for local authorities, if that was found to be necessary or desirable.
Since 1971, 13 bodies were established under the 1971 Act, of which seven are still operative. Some of the bodies established were merged with other bodies or dissolved, depending on the demand for the service specified. The initial body established, the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board, still exists but is now known as the Local Government Management Services Board. Due to changing circumstances, the National Road Safety Association, the Fire Prevention Council and the Irish Water Safety Council were merged in 1987 to form the National Safety Council. Since then, the National Safety Council has merged with the Road Safety Authority, while Irish Water Safety has been re-established.
In general, the bodies were established to provide specified services for local authorities where it was more useful to have a single provider rather than each local authority acquiring or providing the service. A good example is the Local Government Computer Services Board which provides large computer systems that can be used by each local authority. The other services generally related to fire safety, water safety and road safety. In total, 41 orders were made under the 1971 Act. Apart from the 13 establishment orders, the balance consisted of orders amending the establishment orders, revoking various bodies and designating bodies for which bodies established under the Act could provide services.
The legislation we are discussing today is a short Bill to address matters concerning bodies established under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971. Following the advice of the Attorney General in regard to the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act 1961 and the subsequent passing of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2007, the Attorney General advised that the possible unconstitutionality of section 3 of the Act of 1961 in respect of health related bodies also extended to local government bodies established under section 3 of the 1971 Act. This arises as the 1971 Act contains similar provisions as those found in the 1961 Act.
It is not a question of any of the corporate bodies concerned having "no legal basis". I assure the House that all were properly constituted under the 1971 Act by way of statutory instruments. However, given the advice and recommendations from the Attorney General, this Bill is required to confirm the orders for existing bodies. In view of the importance of the bodies established under the 1971 Act to the local authority service, it would not be appropriate to allow any doubt to exist in this matter. Therefore, early enactment of the Bill is desirable to confirm the establishment orders of the seven existing bodies in primary legislation.
Apart from the amendments to the Limerick regeneration agencies establishment orders, the Bill involves no policy change and no additional charge on the Exchequer. It clarifies the areas covered by the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency and provides for two additional appointments to the board of each agency, one from FÁS and another from the local community or local business community.
These two bodies were established in June 2007 on foot of the findings of the April 2007 report, Addressing Issues of Social Exclusion in Moyross and Other Disadvantaged Areas of Limerick City, by former Dublin city manager, Mr. John Fitzgerald. The agencies are tasked with driving forward the development of comprehensive measures to tackle issues of social exclusion in Moyross, Southill and adjacent areas. Given the need for urgent action in this matter, the agencies were established under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971. The ambitious work programme of the agencies has delivered, in recent weeks, vision documents for Moyross and Southill housing developments and lands adjacent to these developments, which were launched by President McAleese. Comprehensive master plans for regeneration of the areas concerned will be drawn up by the summer.
I will now deal with the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 are standard technical provisions setting out the definitions used in the Bill and making provision for the payment of expenses incurred in the administration of the Bill out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. While no direct expenditure in implementing the Act is anticipated, it is prudent to include this standard provision.
Section 3 confirms the establishment orders made under the 1971 Act for current bodies and provides that these orders have statutory effect as if made in primary legislation. Subsection (3) provides for the standard provision in legislation of this nature to ensure that the confirming provisions cannot be construed in such a way as to infringe any person's constitutional rights. Subsection (4) takes account of the provisions of the Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 which provides for certain staff to continue in employment after the age of 65.
Section 4 confirms the validity of acts carried out by dissolved bodies in accordance with the establishment orders of the bodies concerned. Subsection (2), in the same manner as provided in subsection 3(3), provides that, if this provision were to conflict with the constitutional right of any person, its operation will be subject to such limitation as is necessary to ensure it does not so conflict.
Section 5 and the associated Schedule amend the establishment orders for the two Limerick regeneration agencies to provide for the appointment of two extra members to each board and to clarify the areas covered by the agencies. Section 6 is a technical provision stating that the Act may be cited as the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) (Confirmation of Orders) Act 2008.
The Bill is a short document but nevertheless important. It is considered that the Minister should have authority to establish bodies to provide services to local authorities where there is a specific purpose and where it would be more practical and economical to provide the service by a single body rather than each of the 34 major authorities acting separately at much greater cost.
The 1971 Act was brought forward initially to permit the establishment of the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board, now the Local Government Management Services Board, to provide industrial relations expertise for the local government system. Prior to its establishment there was no formal central forum to discuss pay issues relevant to local government in general. The wisdom of this move has been demonstrated over the years by the excellent service provided to local government management by the Local Government Management Services Board and its predecessor, the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board. These boards have provided a central centre of excellence in industrial relations, human resources and other management services to local authorities in the last 30 years.
In various constitutional actions over the years concerning whether secondary legislation infringed Article 15.2 of the Constitution, the need for the Government to have a mechanism to establish corporate bodies has been recognised in judgments of the High and Supreme Courts. In his judgment in the Pigs and Marketing Board v. Donnelly case, Hanna J. acknowledged that "the functions of every Government are now so numerous and complex that, of necessity, a wider sphere has been recognised for subordinate agencies, such as boards and commissions". However, as was stated by the then Chief Justice in the judgment in the City View Press case, the test of the constitutionality of the legal instrument establishing corporate bodies is that it gives "effect to principles and policies which are contained in the statute itself". I intend to review the relevant section of the 1971 Act to ascertain what strengthening it requires to meet the constitutionality test or whether new legislation is required.
This is a short Bill. It follows from the advice of the Attorney General to ensure there is no uncertainty attaching to the seven existing bodies established under the 1971 Act and follows the same provisions as contained in the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2007 which the House passed last December. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister of State for explaining the necessity of this Bill. Fine Gael recognises that necessity and has no difficulty with the legislation. I would like to speak about the agencies and boards covered in this legislation. When I was a councillor between 1999 and 2007, I was not fully aware of the functions of the Local Government Management Services Board, for example. I thank the Minister of State for furnishing Senators with an explanatory document. I now understand the need for the board which interacts with management at local authority level. When I first became a councillor in 1999, the board employed 19 staff at an annual cost to the Exchequer of €1.9 million. By the time I resigned as a councillor in 2007, the board employed 30 staff at a cost of €9.5 million. Can the Minister of State explain this large increase in costs? Is there a real need for such an increase? Perhaps the Minister of State will examine this matter.
I am sure the Local Government Computer Services Board plays a necessary role at local authority level. In 1999, the board employed 93 staff at an annual cost to the Exchequer of €5.8 million, but by 2007 it employed 96 staff at a cost of €15 million. The cost of running these boards has increased significantly. Would it be possible to evaluate the performance of each of the many boards that serve local authorities in the context of the forthcoming Green Paper on local government reform? Some of the boards could be amalgamated to streamline their operations, cut their costs and deliver better efficiency in the running of our local authorities. We need to maximise the return on the expenditure of public funds.
One of the boards I mentioned is responsible for overseeing public service indicators at local government level. I accept that systems need to be in place to measure the delivery by local authorities of services to our citizens. As local authorities operate at the front line, they deal day in, day out with issues of concern to citizens. In my role as a member of a local authority corporate policy group, I have seen the results of studies of public service indicators. I question some of the figures which emerge from such studies because they seem too perfect to be true. I ask the Minister of State to examine this matter. Given that we do not live in a perfect world, as we all know, I do not accept the 100% returns on some of the indicators. Having been a councillor for eight years and had discussions with councillors throughout the country, I believe we have a long way to go before we attain the figures which have been delivered under some of the performance indicators. Perhaps the Minister of State agrees that the reality is nowhere near what is suggested in such figures. We need to consider this matter. Almost every councillor from all parties will agree with my views in this regard. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State were to take this point on board.
Fine Gael has doubts about the future role of the Dublin Transportation Office, which is also mentioned in the Bill, because it is toothless. The proposed new powerful Dublin transport authority needs to be established quickly in the interests of transport planning and delivery in the greater Dublin area. The Dublin Transportation Office would then be made redundant because we do not want overlap, duplication and the waste of public funds. We need to take a more stringent approach to such matters.
It is important for Senators to acknowledge the work of the Limerick regeneration agencies which have made a positive contribution to the regeneration of troubled areas. Fine Gael supports the work of the agencies which can serve as useful models when problems arise in other local authority areas. As I said at the outset, Fine Gael does not have a difficulty with this Bill. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, will pass my views on the issues which need to be addressed to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials, Mr. Devlin and Mr. Greene. As the Minister of State has said, this legislation was introduced after concerns, some of which were mentioned in his opening remarks, were expressed by the Office of the Attorney General. I agree with Senator Coffey's remarks about the purpose of the Bill which is to confirm orders made under section 3 of the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 in respect of bodies established under that Act. The bodies concerned are the Local Government Computer Services Board, the Dublin Transportation Office, the Local Government Management Services Board, the Affordable Homes Partnership, Irish Water Safety, the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency.
Senator Coffey made some important points about the various bodies. The two Limerick regeneration agencies are the only two bodies on the list whose functions I am familiar with. We do not receive progress reports about any of the other organisations. I congratulate the former Dublin city manager, Mr. John Fitzgerald, who is doing an excellent job in Limerick. I wish him all the best in his endeavours. He tends to achieve 100% success in everything he tackles. I congratulate the Franciscan priests and brothers who are doing an excellent job in certain parts of Limerick. I have read a lot about them. I hope to visit them at some stage to see how they are getting on. The work being done as part of the Limerick regeneration projects represents one of this country's success stories.
I agree with Senator Coffey's remarks about many of the bodies covered in this legislation. Like many people, I do not know what they do. We need to establish whether the continued existence of such organisations is of any value to society. Could they be amalgamated so that they function in a more meaningful manner? I agree with Senator Coffey that the Minister of State should examine this matter. Perhaps we should ask representatives of these agencies to attend a joint committee meeting. If they play an important role which we do not know about, it would be no harm for us to investigate it and learn about it. The Bill amends the establishment orders for the Limerick regeneration agencies to provide for two extra members to be appointed to each agency board and to clarify the areas covered by the agencies.
The Minister of State has explained to the House the purpose of each section of the Bill. There is no need for me to repeat what he has said. I thank him for his explanation of the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House. I thank Senator Coffey for his valuable contribution. I was thinking along the same lines myself.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House. The Labour Party will not oppose this technical Bill. I welcome the clarification we were given about the areas covered by the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency and the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency. I agree with the comments of the previous speakers about the work being done there. The model being used in Limerick seems to be working. We wish the regeneration agencies every success in their endeavours. It must be acknowledged that they have made good progress to date. I welcome the additional appointments which have been made to the boards of the agencies. It is particularly good that community representatives and a FÁS official have been appointed to the boards.
Like Senators Coffey and Brady, I am not familiar with the functions of some of the bodies covered by this Bill. As I come from an information technology background, I have some knowledge of the role of the Local Government Computer Services Board. I ask the Minister of State to examine the increases in the board's costs. My knowledge of this area means I have specific concerns about information technology projects. I often find that the economies which are supposed to be gained from the amalgamation of various local authority computer services do not actually materialise. Such problems are not caused by the systems themselves but by issues relating to the reasons the various computer services were being brought together in the first place. The systems analysis, as it is known, of the economies that should be achieved is probably not being done. I have seen some over-runs in my time. I would be concerned if there were any over-runs in this instance which would contribute to costs. The Minister might examine that.
We will support this technical Bill. In view of the impending Green Paper the Bill affords me the opportunity to make a number of observations. Local government reform is badly needed. In Ireland we have a form of local government which is one of the weakest in Europe. It is essentially a form of central government dominating local administration, more appropriate to mini-states within a larger country rather than an independent modern European country. Unlike European local authorities, local authorities in Ireland have little say on issues such as education, health, policing and transport.
The crux of the matter and the benchmark by which we will know if there is real reform in future is the area of funding. We have been on a slippery slope since 1977. I am not making political points but that is when the funding of local authority underwent change. The result today is that the only sources of direct revenue are rates on commercial and industrial properties, housing rents, some service charges, motor tax and development levies.
There is an over-dependence on development levies. In my constituency some people cite these levies as the reason why some planning applications are granted. With the downturn in the economy I am concerned that councils anticipated certain levies that will not now materialise. This may affect the construction of some roads and other infrastructure projects dependent on levies. Local councils may have included levies in their budgets for development and local area plans which will not now materialise.
The Minister said that reform legislation will be further delayed. I would like to know exactly when it will be published. Yesterday in the other House he was not clear, only saying it would be published soon. How soon is soon?
A key issue for reform is the provision for directly elected mayors. The Labour Party supports this proposal as it will mean greater accountability. In this context local government will not be reformed unless there is a re-balancing of the allocation of powers between elected councillors and the executive. It is appalling that we have centrally appointed managers making executive decisions for cities, counties and towns over publicly elected representatives. This lack of accountability results in un-elected managers of the local authorities being too powerful. The cross-over between reserved and executive functions needs to be addressed and clarified.
The Labour Party argues for changing the role of county manager to chief executive of the council. Chief executives should have no policy making functions other than to assist and advise the elected council in making policy. That is very important. While they would have reserved functions they would exercise a limited number of executive functions, similar to those originally intended in the city and county management Acts. The strategic policy committees were meant to deal with some of these issues, including the cross-over of reserved and executive functions and the role of elected representatives. Unfortunately in some cases the committees have become talking shops. This needs to be addressed.
Another issue that needs to be addressed in the reform of local government is the role of town councils and the disparity between local populations. This is evident everywhere, as I am sure many senators can demonstrate. For example, the Roscrea community development association has been arguing for years that it has no town council, yet its near neighbours in Birr and Templemore each has one.
For years a particular person has been fighting for association status which is covered under the 2001 Local Government Act. This is an in-between position that acknowledges a town without sufficient population to have a town council but one nonetheless able to perform certain functions from a representative point of view. I brought the issue of association status to the Department of the Environment and Local Government and asked how it might be achieved. I believe I was the first person to do so because they required clarification about the request.
Roscrea will be looking for potential association status in the near future, which will be a precedent. This issue needs to be addressed in the Green Paper. If it is not, there will be anomalies and people will feel disenfranchised. We need a system for all towns that is equitable across the board and based on population.
The Labour Party believes there should be two levels of local government: regional authorities, to include city authorities for the larger cities, and local authorities to include county town and district councils. The city and regional authorities should have responsibility for areas such as strategic planning, implementation of the national spatial policy, transport and traffic, economic development, employment services, health and communications infrastructure. We also believe in the creation of a greater Dublin regional authority.
What key services should councils provide? It is essential to look beyond the obvious services. The Labour Party believes councils should have a consumer protection role in relation to private sector services. It should be possible to question private refuse collectors, cable television operators and personnel from telecoms operators, schools, rail companies, airlines and local banks within the council chamber.
The Labour Party also believes in strengthening the role of the elected council to provide the citizen with accountable public services. Councillors should have the power to seek accountability from any agency, public or private, that provides public services within their area.
The Government should look at the issue of decentralisation of Government functions, not merely the relocation of offices, with an eye to providing services locally. The allocation of national lottery funds could assist in the areas of sport, leisure and tourism. There is no reason regional offices of IDA Ireland or FÁS could not work with local authorities regarding the industrial sector. Similarly, in the area of social and family affairs, relevant offices could work through local authorities.
The Labour Party also calls for the establishment of a national forum on the financing of local government. This is a key component and a fulcrum of local government reform. I was not convinced by yesterday's reply by the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding the cap on a candidate's expenditure during a local election. Given that we know the date of the election, more progress needs to be made on this. In response to a question from Deputy Ciarán Lynch yesterday, the Minister was far from convincing in saying that we would have legislation to cover this area.
I wish that citizens and community members were involved on the consultative committee on local government reform. Three councillors from my party were brought onto the committee, which is welcome. It is regrettable, however, that no one representing citizens' or community groups was invited. Reform of local government first must take into account the requirements of people and communities at local level. Reform in itself is not the point. It is about how best to deal with the public and help people and communities at local level. One example of reform for reform's sake in organisational structure is the Health Service Executive, thereby demonstrating that reform on its own is no guarantee of success. We need to go beyond such examples in looking at local government reform.
I welcome that not only are we debating this Bill today but also that this is the first Bill to be initiated in the 23rd Seanad. The record of the 21st Seanad and 22nd Seanad in initiating legislation was very good. As members of this Seanad we should be seeking similar access towards progressing legislation.
This is a technical Bill and the contributions to the debate so far have been brief, indicating the depth of the legislation. It does not contain many issues of note but is important in terms of having the issues properly and legally clarified. That said, it also offers Senators an opportunity to talk briefly about the general situation regarding local government. At very least, we are on the threshold of a wide-ranging debate on this issue. The Green Paper on local government reform will be published in a matter of weeks. This will initiate a process confirmed in the programme of Government and it will be followed by a White Paper and relevant legislation. Unlike previous speakers, I am confident that will result in wide ranging reform and will address matters that were comprehensively answered in other chambers, particularly restrictions on spending for local government elections. I look forward to a comprehensive local government Bill at the end of this year or in early 2009, which will confirm these amendments. It is important that reform extends beyond the bodies covered by this legislation and the technical changes as to how they operate and what they are called and introduces 85 years after the foundation of the State a real system of local government.
We have had a system of local administration and while Ireland is a small country, there has been an imbalance between how decisions are made by the Government and local government agencies. This must be corrected to introduce vibrancy into our democratic procedures. This will help the nature of our society and it will have an economic impact. Local government needs to be local. Not only has that imbalance existed throughout the years, there has been a worrying trend in the past 20 years, which has been confirmed by Governments of various compositions and all political parties, of not only properly centralising powers and taking them from local authorities but also putting them into a less accountable tier under which a plethora of agencies has been established, which lack accountability and whose make up is questionable in the context of membership and nominations. When the local government process begins in earnest with the publication of the Green Paper, I would like that issue addressed.
When I was elected to Cork Corporation in 1991, many of these agencies were being set up and their establishment was assisted through EU funding. I recall having conversations with other councillors who were afraid of people involving themselves in these community structures on the basis of a lack of accountability and the establishment of a parallel political system. Those elected to local authorities are subject to an imbalance in decision-making between national and local government and between executive and reserve functions. Since the early 1990s, councillors have had very few decision-making powers, particularly in allocating resources within their communities. The agencies covered by this legislation are in place to advise but they exist in the shadows. These bodies are seldom mentioned in the House nor are they the subject of further examination, accountability or discussion. Perhaps, as part of the reform process, annual reports should be laid before the House, even though they form a weighty pile in our offices. However, the job of knowing what these agencies do, asking questions of them and examining their effectiveness is not being done by either House or through the committee system. Very often, the only opportunity we have to refer to these bodies is through legislation such as this.
While this is a short Bill, it is important for us to take the opportunity to highlight that accountability is a central role of ours, as a Parliament, and we are collectively failing in this regard. If, in dealing with the legislation, we can address that issue and devise proposals to overcome that failure, we will have done part of our job as parliamentarians. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I welcome the use of the Seanad to initiate the Bill. I look forward to this being the first of many Bills relating to local government reform about which both Houses will be exercised, at least for the next 18 months.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. While this is a short, technical Bill, it affords us the opportunity to comment on other aspects of local government. I welcome Senator Boyle's comments on the proposed Green Paper and White Paper on local government reform because that is the core issue. A significant shake up in the funding and organisation of local government is needed.
I wish the Limerick Southside and Northside Regeneration Agencies well and I am sure they will do a great job. Will the agencies be in place for a limited time? Similar agencies, which were established under similar legislation previously, are still in place. Will the Limerick agencies be retained? These projects have come about because of the failure to fund and pay attention to local government. As a last resort, projects have been set up in Limerick because of the lack of power and funding available to the local authority in the city. The people have been failed because funding was not in place. The Government was left with no choice but to set up an agency to put in place a plan for those areas and back it with funding. Now there will be no problem at all with funding.
I look forward to the Green Paper on local government because it is needed. Many local authorities are experiencing a financial crisis. Senator Kelly referred to the dependence of such authorities on development charges. The reason for this is they have few means of generating revenue. I hope the Green Paper will address the issue of both the Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government dealing with local government issues. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should be in charge of local authorities and the transport issues for which they are responsible. Local authorities have few sources of funding and they have depended heavily on development charges in recent years. With the downturn in the economy, the only way they can raise funds is through water and sewage charges. For example, my local authority, Mayo County Council, charges businesses supplied with water and sewerage services more than €10 per 1,000 gallons of water and sewage. That equates to €500 per house based on the 50,000 gallon allowance to households. Is the Government giving €500 per house to local authorities annually to run the services given that it is supposed to fully recoup the charges incurred on water and sewerage services?
The Minister of State might supply us with information on how much the Government is giving local authorities because I am aware that not all of them charge for sewerage services even though the Government insists they have to do so under the polluter pays principle. This is a heavy burden on service industries, such as small restaurants and pubs, and major businesses like Baxter Healthcare in Castlebar. The latter's sewerage and water bill has increased by approximately €2 million, which is a huge amount for an employer to absorb.
The funding of local government is an important issue. When the Minister was in Athlone two weeks ago, he stated that local authorities would have to pay pound for pound for the moneys spent by his Department on county road improvements. Where will local authorities get this money given that their only means of raising funds is by means of rates and water and sewerage charges? In my county, the local authority contribution for water and sewerage services can be 20% or 30% of projects that cost as much as €50 million. How are local authorities to finance themselves in the future given their dependence on development charges which are dwindling due to the downturn in the economy?
I asked questions about the duration of the north and south Limerick regeneration agencies and the age factor for those over the age of 65. People who have been in other employment may want to continue working in agencies but that is not provided for in local government or Civil Service legislation.
I welcome the Bill and wish the Minister of State well.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) (Confirmation of Orders) Bill 2008. It is a small but important Bill in light of the advice of the Attorney General on its necessity. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, is in the Chamber because he has a long and distinguished background in local authorities, having started his career in Clare County Council. In the many years I have known him, I have found him a strong champion of local authorities and their elected members.
This Bill is not about reform per se but it none the less affords me an opportunity to speak about the Green Paper on local government reform. I warmly welcome the Green Paper because it will provide us with an audit of local governments' current performance in respect of service delivery.
I have been involved in local government for 25 years and served on Westmeath County Council and Mullingar Town Commission. I am pleased a proposal has been agreed by the Government to establish new town councils where towns have experienced a growth in population that merits the establishment of such bodies. The upgrading of the former town commissions to real town councils is also welcome. In recent years, the term "town commission" has been replaced by "town councils" but nothing has changed beyond the name. As a former member and chairman of a town commission representing a large number of people, I found it the most frustrating of experiences because the commission just about had the power to pass a vote of sympathy.
Town commissions previously had powers as housing and lighting authorities and as regulators of fairs and markets but they gave these away. A former town commission member who has since gone to his eternal reward once told me that Mullingar Town Commission did a great job by passing responsibility for lighting to the county council. I told the member that Westmeath County Council has 23 members but Mullingar Town Commission has only nine members, so he would get one 23rd if he was lucky as against one ninth formerly. That was not a good balance. The blame for this loss of power cannot be laid solely at the doorsteps of Ministers because locally elected members have given up many of their powers, which I bemoan.
I ask the Minister of State to use his vast experience of local government to give a real basis to the former town commissions. Rapidly growing towns such as Shannon in the Minister of State's constituency, Mullingar in my county, Leixlip, Greystones and Newbridge have no powers. Their influence begins and ends with an elected voice.
I commend the Minister for Defence, Deputy O'Dea, who as Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform had town councils included in policing committees. It does not require rocket science to realise that the bulk of crime is committed in towns and cities.
When we speak about performance audits we have to consider how local authorities have performed. Regardless of whether it operates at national or local level, if an authority does not have powers to raise and spend money it has nothing. It is an exercise in self-delusion.
I look forward to the upgrading with great enthusiasm. There are a number of options for funding. I remember in 1988-89 when I was chairman of Westmeath County Council we brought in paid parking. I was threatened, received anonymous telephone calls and people said they would stand against me but I, along with a number of my colleagues, stuck to my guns. As a result of that decision, many important infrastructural works were provided in Mullingar, including roundabouts, traffic lights, bridges, car parks, etc. More importantly, there has been an increase in the level of commercial activity and shoppers can get parking so almost everyone is happy.
When we refer to funding we talk about service charges about which there has been much hoo-ha. The Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1978 partly abolished rates. When the Government of 1977 took office, one third of rates had been abolished. We then had the grant in lieu of domestic rates and the grants of those who did not collect service charges were reduced. Government always wins when it comes to funding because if there is a shortfall, there are no marks for guessing who suffers — the local authority.
The Local Government (Financial Provisions)(No. 2) Act 1983 provided the basis for the service charges we now have. There was also much hoo-ha about that. As I said previously, the three main parties took the line of least resistance in terms of the funding base of local authorities, which was the rates system. The High Court case taken by the Wexford farmers resulted in the abolition of agricultural rates. As a nation, we have not been clever in regard to local government funding. If any system of government, local or national, does not have the power to raise finance and spend it, it is nothing but a talking shop.
We also have looked at other ways to raise funding. Paid parking is self-explanatory and anybody who knows anything about it knows it regulates the length of time for which one can park, generates income for the local authorities and complements commercial activity.
Considerable efforts have been made by successive Ministers in regard to littering but we are not winning the war. We must be more proactive and the only way to hit the litter bug is in the pocket where it hurts most. The litter bug will not listen to anyone. One can put up all the signs one likes but the litter bug takes great pleasure in disregarding them.
The Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies)(Confirmation of Orders) Bill is a short but important one and I commend it to the House.
I thank Members for their constructive comments. A number of interesting points were made, although not all necessarily confined to the remit of the legislation before the House. They were, nevertheless, interesting for any of us who have served on local authorities, who acknowledge the wonderful work they do and who suspect they could do much better work if the framework was more user-friendly.
Senator Coffey raised a number of questions which were raised in one format or another by almost all speakers. Senator Brady and others referred to the role and remit of these bodies, whether we all know what they do, whether we have all heard of some of them and so on. That is a reasonable point and Senator Brady said it would be useful to invite them in to explain what they do. The Oireachtas committee system has very much facilitated that in respect of many bodies. Perhaps the system could be used in this instance and I might come back to that.
I refer to the Local Government Computer Services Board. The increase in costs arises mainly from an increase in the workload. The e-Government project and other projects have assisted in saving money through increased efficiency at central level, although Senator Kelly asked whether that was the case. The evidence strongly suggests it is.
The annual cost of the Local Government Management Services Board includes almost €4 million for the workplace partnership process at local authority level and the balance is for the cost of administrative staff and arises from an increase in the functions of the board such as the performance verification group and a larger body of employment legislation, especially in the area of health and safety. It is charged with assisting local authorities in delivering and understanding that.
I cannot answer the question about performance indicators at this stage. It is a critical one in terms of an element of the role of the bodies. If I am successful in getting additional information, I will be more than happy to revert to Senator Coffey with it but I cannot promise I will.
A review of the roles of the Local Government Management Services Board and the Local Government Computer Services Board is taking place to consider their future roles, which will be important. The issue of the Dublin Transportation Office was raised by a number of Senators. It has been within the ambit of the Department of Transport since 2002 but it was set up in 1995 under the 1971 Act. That is the reason it is listed on this occasion as part of this legislation. I understand the Minister for Transport has indicated he intends to set up the Dublin transportation authority in the not too distant future and that it will subsume the role of the existing agency. I believe it will have a much wider remit and perhaps more powers.
I refer to the timescales for the Limerick regeneration agencies. The establishment order for both agencies set a date of 14 June 2012 for the agencies to conclude their operations. It is fair to point out that until the agencies deliver their masterplans this summer, it will be very difficult to predict the timescales because we do not know exactly the extent of the job with which they are charged.
I believe Senator Burke raised the question of people in the various bodies retiring at 65 years. I understand entrants to the public service following the enactment of the 2004 Act will not have to retire at 65 years. Others are guided by the previous legislation, or at least their terms and conditions are.
I will come back to Senator Coffey on the details of the remit of the Limerick agencies. The important point in regard to their inclusion is that any doubt which might have arisen in terms of their validity, having been set up under the 1971 Act, is removed by their inclusion. However, I will come back to the Senator with additional information.
Senator Brady said the roles of the bodies should be examined. As I said, two of them are under examination. There was some examination of the role of Irish Water Safety, or at least a proposal that it go elsewhere. It has been found to be efficient and performing very well. It is a body about which I knew relatively little prior to being appointed to this post. Having had the opportunity to examine the type of work it does, I am convinced it plays an important role in ensuring a much better water safety regime and that fewer people die by drowning.
When one applies the criteria under which bodies were set up and one finds they are working reasonably well, one tends to continue with them. Senator Kelly also made a point about the role of the bodies. As I pointed out to a committee the other day, I am under considerable pressure to set up an additional body, a fire safety authority. That is something which must be considered on its own merits. It is not always correct to state that there are too many bodies in existence, particularly if people do so only because they feel they do not know much about a large number of them. Sometimes there are areas where the process of obtaining outcomes is best served by having in place a national authority of one kind or another. The Senator also inquired whether IT savings always arise in circumstances where a central body is in operation.
Senator Boyle and others referred to the Green Paper. The Senator made an important ancillary point in respect of the accountability of agencies under the normal procedures for the auditing of their accounts by the relevant local government body or the Comptroller and Auditor General. Questions of policy and accountability also arise and these might well be examined by the relevant Oireachtas committees, which might deal with them more efficiently than those operating at local government level.
Senator Burke referred to domestic charges for local authorities and inquired as to whether these are fully recouped by the Department or are, de facto, charged to businesses in order to make up the difference. I will forward to the Senator figures in respect of the current position in that regard.
Like other Members, Senator Glynn referred to the role of locally elected representatives and local authorities. He voiced concerns that perhaps this role has diminished, particularly in the case of town councils in respect of which the Senator has an interest. The point he made was almost the reverse of the central principle, namely, "No taxation without representation", behind the Boston tea party. Many of us are of the view that local authorities would have no great power or relevance if they were not in a position to raise revenue.
The question of financing is not relevant to the debate on the Bill. It will be relevant, however, in the context of the Green Paper, in respect of which the Minister, Deputy Gormley, answered questions in the Dáil yesterday. It is important to remember that a Green Paper sets out the framework for discussion that will allow us to proceed towards developing a White Paper. It is of major importance that Members of this House — rather than their colleagues in the Lower House — have access to and dealings with local authority representatives at a particular level and that they have an insight that will be critical in moving us through the three steps from Green Paper, to White Paper, to legislation and on to setting out a framework for local government which could well serve the country for the next two generations or perhaps even a century.
The role of the House in examining the policy and the legislation that will emerge from it will be critically important. I hope I will still be with the Department when the legislation is introduced in the House and that I will be here for at least some of the debate on it. The House has a perspective — this does not just reflect that of local authority representatives — which will enable it to be extremely constructive in respect of this matter.
I thank Senators for their contributions. I also thank my officials for the briefing notes provided and for their assistance. I look forward to the Committee and Report Stage debates on the Bill.