Thursday, 16 July 2015
Local Authority Members' Remuneration
There is a need for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to recognise the additional workload county councillors have since the enactment of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 and to carry out a survey of all councillors, in conjunction with their representative bodies, to ascertain how these changes have affected their personal, professional and public lives.
I welcome the Minister and I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for facilitating this debate as it must be held. The number of local authorities has been reduced from 114 to 31. Members of the public talk about political reform but they need to know what is really happening. There were 114 councils and that number has been reduced to 31, including the abolition of town councils. That is 83 fewer councils. The number of councillors has been reduced from 1,627 to 949, a reduction of 678 or almost 42%. Some might call that rationalisation, but that reduction in the number of councillors is phenomenal. I believe the public does not realise what reductions have been made. Counties have been divided into municipal districts, with county councillors also being district councillors. Any councillor who is not doing 30 or 40 hours a week is not doing their job. That is a fact.
My brother is a councillor, although I am not raising this matter on his behalf. We all know councillors and we are in this House because of councillors. The additional workload that has been put on the shoulders of councillors is unbelievable. As I said, any councillor who is not doing 30 or 40 hours a week is not doing their job, so it is a full-time job. However, the remuneration package and the supports in place do not recognise that. They are not appropriate to a full-time job. I am afraid that this will decimate the calibre of the councillors we will have in the future. It will be a case of only the wealthy need apply, due to the workload involved. It will be interesting to see what happens.
One of the terms often used in politics, which I absolutely hate, is "unintended consequence". One often hears it. The unintended consequence of this legislation being enacted will be that councillors will walk away. I have been talking to councillors and I can genuinely state that they will walk away unless something is done on their behalf. Waterford's city and county councils have been merged, as have Limerick's city and county councils and North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council. I am a former councillor so I know the workload that is involved, but since the municipal districts have been introduced for councillors there are meetings every day of the week, so councillors are engaged in their job every day of the week. If they are expected by us as legislators or by the public as their representatives to do a full-time job, they must be given the required supports and remunerated properly.
I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and I thank the Senator for raising the issue. The Minister would like to have attended but he is taking parliamentary questions in the Dáil. It is an important issue, as the Senator said.I am sure that Senators are already aware of the extraordinary number of hours local elected members contribute in carrying out a wide range of functions to provide the optimum level of service possible to the public. As the Senator has said, between 30 and 40 hours are worked. The majority of councillors put in long and serious hours. Being an elected member of a local authority is not a job of limited hours. Councillors are continuously on call to provide assistance to their constituents. The ending of the dual mandate had an additional impact. It increased pressure to provide services to constituents on local authority issues.
Elected members may be financially disadvantaged in representing citizens, especially if it necessitates them taking time off from full-time employment. To assist councillors in their work, a range of financial supports are already in place. These include an annual representational payment, an annual expenses allowance, travel and subsistence, a mobile telephone allowance, and an allowance for the role of Chair as well. Elected members have a commitment to their role that extends beyond the financial. Councillors know that the annual representational payment, and other measures, are not fully commensurate with their workload but they continue to undertake their functions with an admirable degree of dedication.
The House is aware that significant changes have been made to local government structures by the provisions of the Local Government Reform Act 2014. These are the most far-reaching changes to have ever been implemented and affect the Irish local government system, a matter referred to by the Senator as well. The changes will need considerable time to bed-in and to fully demonstrate their long-term value. In the meantime, it is important to keep the position under review and to be open to operational improvements should they be needed.
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has initiated an evaluation process on the operation of the new structures and arrangements, through a broadly based advisory group, together with a forum for engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government. These processes will examine how the new arrangements are impacting when consideration is taken of financial and non-financial matters at municipal district and plenary council levels. I understand, from the Minister, that the review work will include a survey of what is happening on the ground in local authorities at both the elected member and executive levels. The AILG and other relevant interests will be closely involved in working out the detail on this issue. The review, and the surveys planned to take place, will provide the necessary sound evidence base upon which the Minister can consider the operation, to date, of the revised structures and arrangements, and the ongoing implementation of the reform programme. The workload of local authority members, in the context of the new structures and the associated financial arrangements, will inevitably arise for consideration in the course of the review. The House can be assured that full account will be taken of all views expressed on this matter and other matters as the work proceeds. Again, I thank the Senator for raising this issue today.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply. I have been in discussion with the Minister. I understood that he could not be here this morning but he did want to be here. I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on the Minister's behalf.
This issue is not about money. Councillors need other supports. When we say councillors are working between 30 and 40 hours that includes working on Saturdays and Sundays. I am glad that the Minister has initiated an evaluation process comprising a review and surveys to collect evidence. If he asked the councillors or any Senator here they could give him all the evidence that he needs. I do not want the Minister of State to use the term "unintended consequences". I do not want the enactment of this legislation to lead to us losing the calibre of people who work on the ground. Councillors are the foundation of democracy in this country and are the first port of call for everybody. I want the system enhanced and councillors properly remunerated and supported. It is not all about financial support. I want councillors to be properly supported to carry out their work.
The Minister probably agrees with most of what the Senator has said. I shall convey the Senator's comments to him as well even though I know he has made direct contact with him. Most of us here have been a councillor at some stage in our lives so we understand the work of councillors. Most people do not understand the workings of a local councillor and one could not explain it to them either. Most of us in this House probably do recognise that work because we have come through the system. It is important that the workload of councillors is facilitated and increased in a professional way when we can do so. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.