Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Local Government Review: Statements
I thank the House for inviting me to discuss this important topic. I thank everyone in the House, including Senators from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, for the cross-party support for this motion. It is admirable and should be acknowledged. This provides me, as the Minister responsible for local government, with an important opportunity to update the Members of Seanad Éireann on the operational review of the new local government arrangements and the role of elected members in that regard.
I hope, irrespective of political backgrounds, we can all agree that effective local government structures are an essential part of our democracy. In turn, effective local government cannot be achieved without the hard work, dedication and commitment of the elected members who give so much of their time in service to their communities. Local authority members are now operating within an entirely new framework following the most radical change in local government structures and governance in more than 100 years. The majority of policy decisions first announced in the 2012 action programme for effective local government, Putting People First, and subsequently given effect by the Local Government Reform Act 2014 came into operation on 1 June 2014. Those changes include enhanced roles for local authorities in economic and local and community development, the dissolution of local authorities in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford and the establishment of new, merged entities in their place and the replacement of town councils by municipal districts. A series of new governance arrangements was also put in place, such as provision for an enhanced policy-making role for elected members, new citizen participation measures, local authority service delivery plans, the re-designation of the position of manager to chief executive, stronger oversight powers for the elected council regarding the implementation of policy and increased obligations on the executive in respect of the elected council. Together, these measures constituted a radical reform process designed to yield significant benefits. For example, at county and city level, greater efficiency and economies of scale are among the objectives of the amalgamations in Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. Over time, benefits will arise following the establishment of single authorities that will be better positioned to lead economic, local and community development, deliver efficient and good value services and represent citizens and communities effectively and accountably. In addition to creating a more rational and comprehensive structural arrangement, the new system should result, over time, in more effective and community-focused decision-making and implementation.
The new structures and reform measures are of course still at an early stage of implementation and given that issues were arising, it is very important that they be addressed. In the meantime, it is important to ensure the reformed system is operating effectively and as intended. Consequently, in May 2015, I established a local government reform review group to advise me on how the new structures are operating on the basis of the experience to date. The objective is to consider the operation of the revised local government arrangements and implementation of the reform programme and to provide ongoing advice, views or proposals in that regard. The review involves an advisory group, chaired by my Department, on which both elected members and local authority chief executives are represented and Senator Landy from this House, who is sitting in front of me, also is a member. In addition, there is a local government forum for direct engagement with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. The advisory group and forum have met on six occasions thus far with further meetings scheduled to take place shortly. The overall feedback to date from the process suggests the revised structures generally are operating quite well but will need more time to bed down fully. I have made clear that if adjustments to the operation of the system are needed, these can and will be considered and I assure Members they will be acted upon. The next stage of the review process involves detailed surveys of elected members on the operation of the new structures and related matters, including workload, which obviously is raising its head continually. This work is now well advanced and the results, which will be available shortly, will be essential in helping the advisory group to report to me on how the system is operating and whether any adjustments might be warranted.
One aspect on which concern has been raised is the pressures on councillors due to considerably increased work demands. These pressures appear to be felt particularly in the councils with the new municipal districts. I have seen that in my travels throughout the country. I probably travel the country more than do most Ministers and I see this directly wherever I go. The workload issue is partly a result of the increased governance, oversight and policy responsibilities of elected councils, which are positive developments in themselves. It also reflects issues that can be addressed in the future such as the size of local electoral areas. In the nearer term, there may be issues in respect of how council business is organised and the need to take greater account of how local authority membership is not a full-time occupation for most councillors. There also is a need for the council executive to provide maximum support and appropriate facilities to enable the members to perform their new roles effectively. In short, there is a need to be sure we are not just addressing the symptoms of the problem. The workload problems should be tackled at source. I wish to inform the House I am deeply aware of these concerns through contact with councillors nationwide and Members of both Houses and if, arising from the review, proposals come forward to take account of this issue, I will give every consideration to them and will not be found wanting.
All Members are aware of the extraordinary number of hours given by councillors to provide the optimum level of service to the public. I commend them all, across all political codes, on that. The role of the elected member is almost something of a vocation and certainly being an elected member of a local authority is not a job of determinate hours. Councillors are, to all intents and purposes, continuously on call for their constituents and they work extended hours. With this in mind, I regard it as very important to engage with elected members on issues of concern to them. I met representatives of the AILG and the Local Authority Members' Association, LAMA, last July to hear at first hand their views on the supports in place for elected members and I note some Members of this House facilitated that meeting and process. I attended and addressed the AILG annual conference in Inchydoney in October as part of the ongoing engagement. As I have indicated, the AILG is well represented on the local government forum and a special meeting of the advisory group was held last November to hear directly from the association, including from its president. Consequently, I am conscious of the strong view that there is a need for improvements to the range of supports available for councillors and I note specific proposals have been made by the AILG in this regard. I am, of course, very sympathetic to these concerns. I also am conscious that to further this issue, there is a need to be able to document the extent of the workload now involved. The work of the advisory group will provide necessary data on the situation and will provide key context and content for me for decisions to be made in this area. I also wish to proceed to build some form of civic acknowledgement of the role of councillors in respect of all the work they do because it is not merely about the terms, pay and conditions under which they work. Many councillors work for many hours far beyond the call of duty and at some point in the future, this must be acknowledged on a regular basis. I intend to bring forward some proposals in this regard within the next week or so and will announce them to Members.
In conclusion, a Chathaoirligh, the Government side is content to support the motion before the House. It is excellent that the motion has been put forward on a cross-party basis as, in that way, maximum progress is likely to be achieved. In fairness, I believe all Members who are engaging in this debate from all the different parties do so with the right intention. The amendment proposed by the Independent Senators does not take into account that the specific terms of reference for the advisory group have been settled since last May and the group has been operating on that basis since then. In any event, Members can be assured that the workload issues affecting councillors and the range of options for responding to them will be considered fully when decisions are being taken. I look forward to receiving the recommendations of the advisory group and continuing to take forward this important issue on a cross-party basis. I encourage all Members present to operate on a cross-party basis in future as I believe this to be the right way to do things on this issue uniquely. I also believe a great deal more will be achieved by adopting such a stance. Consequently, I congratulate all the parties for the motion they have tabled.
I thank the Minister and remind Members that as there is a short timeframe, we need to stick to the time of three minutes per Senator. I will ring the bell with half a minute to go. I acknowledge the presence in the Public Gallery of former councillor Mr. Pat Crimmins.
I thank the Minister for his encouraging words and I again compliment all my colleagues representing all the party groupings in this House on the manner in which they have approached this issue. I believe it is a case of strength in unity and the Minister himself has acknowledged this is the way forward, hopefully on the basis of the recommendations made thus far. Although these recommendations are not covered in the all-party motion, the Minister is aware of them through the advisory group and through the ongoing process of engagement with the two representative bodies, namely, AILG and LAMA. However, I wish to refer to one or two comments the Minister made. One point he made here was that local authority membership is not a full-time occupation for most councillors, but I must state that since the last election, many more of them have been forced into it. I believe the age profile of local authority members will increase into the future because one increasingly will find that councillors will be unable to combine this increased workload with that of their existing job. This is already happening in that people who wish to continue in local government have been taking early retirement. The Minister has acknowledged the reason for this is the provision in the reform Act of 2014 for an enhanced policy-making role for elected members, stronger oversight powers for the elected council regarding the implementation of policy and that councillors would lead economic, local and community development, deliver efficient and good value services and represent citizens and communities effectively and accountably.In a nutshell, it encapsulates the reason the two representative organisations, as reflected by the all-party group that has met the Minister, are attempting to secure some meaningful reform in this area. Certainly, the vast majority of the people realise and accept that democracy does not come cheap and costs money. That is why we need strong democratic institutions which provide strong support for those who put themselves forward for election in order that they will be able to provide the service provided for in the reform Act and which the Minister has outlined. It is in that regard that I have great concerns. It seems elected councillors over the age of 66 years are the only ones in the country who pay PRSI. This matter should be addressed immediately and we do not need to wait for an advisory group to tell us.
It is unacceptable in this day and age not to have pension provision. We have elected members who are ineligible to receive a contributory pension in their other walk of life and the age profile of councillors is increasing. It should be mandatory for pension contributions to be made. That would mean that they would receive a pension at the end of their term in office like most others in the working population. I accept that such a provision would cost money, but that is the nettle the Minister and his successor must grasp. I hope the availability of money will not dictate decisions. If recommendations are made along the lines I think they will be and as the Minister will hear, I hope money will not be an obstacle. I hope the Minister will be able to provide the necessary resources to ensure we implement the reforms outlined and which councillors have embraced.
I welcome the Minister to discuss this important subject matter. As he will know from representations made to him and meetings we have had, there is an agreed all-party position in this House, as laid out in the motion and as he kindly acknowledged. It was an honour for me to work and serve with Senators Diarmuid Wilson, Denis Landy and David Cullinane. Together, we agreed to the motion which speaks for itself.
We commend the Minister for initiating the operational review of the new local government arrangements under the Local Government Reform Act 2014. In the light of his consideration of these various matters, we are very grateful for his attendance and what he has said. As he will know, councillors are the front-line troops in our democracy. They work hard and are extremely dedicated, as he has admitted. The size of their electoral areas has been greatly enhanced, with a consequent increase in their workload, not to mention the additional meetings they have to attend and the other functions imposed on them. They are at everyone's beck and call at any hour of the day and night. Many of them work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like everyone else in the public service, they accepted the cutbacks and what was necessary in the national interest and got on with the job. Surely now is the time to review their position and make some necessary improvements. The PRSI system imposed on them is totally unfair and the matter does not need further elaboration by me, as Senator Paschal Mooney has already referred to it. As recovery is well under way and has taken hold, surely now is the time to reward councillors. The Government has, correctly, increased the national minimum wage and improved the tax system. Other incremental increases are working their way through the public service. In the light of this, we must not leave local public representatives out of the loop.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said, in particular his references to the recommendations made by the advisory group, from which, please God, fruit will flow. I look forward to this happening in early course.
I welcome the Minister for this important debate. Local government is a fundamental plank of our democratic institutions. Councillors are the point of contact closest to the citizen. As many as 80 units of local government - town councils - have been removed from the system, while the workload of councillors has been increased. While there is much that could be said about local government finances and the autonomous role councillors play, in this debate we are assessing their right to earn a fair living. I agree with my colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, that many councillors have no alternative source of income. I know many young councillors across the country who are unable to make mortgage repayments from their council remuneration. As Senator Paschal Mooney said, they make PRSI contributions. However, if they become ill, are made unemployed or lose their seats, their contributions will not be worth anything to them. Neither will they be worth anything at the end of their tenure in office in terms of an entitle to receive a pension. This anomaly must be addressed urgently.
Another issue is the increased workload of councillors. Their number has been reduced. Some 744 town councillors have been taken out of the democratic system. There has been a small increase in the numbers of county and city councillors from 883 to 949. Their workload has increased as a result of the abolition of town councils and the creation of the new municipal districts. Two things must occur. First, the level of remuneration must be increased to reflect the increased workload of councillors. Second, they must have a backup system in the form of secretarial assistance, as otherwise the balance of power will be skewed in favour of the executive at council level. It is unfair that the county manager, whom councillors are supposed to hold to account, has backup in the form of full-time staff. The system will end up being broken.
I urge the Minister to raise and deal with these matters. This is a cross-party motion. I thank everyone who was involved in the working group, particularly my colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson, who cannot be here but who represented Fianna Fáil's view on it.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock. The Minister had to leave to take part in a debate in the Lower House on homelessness. I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State because, unlike the Minister, he served his time in local government. Perhaps the Minister might not like me for saying he came to the Seanad straight off. The Minister of State served in local government for a number of years and, therefore, knows what we are talking about in the context of its day-to-day functioning.
I welcome the Government's decision to set up a local government advisory group. I also appreciate the fact that the Minister has appointed me as the sole Oireachtas member of the group. He has acknowledged that I have 20 odd years of experience in local government to bring to the table. I am satisfied with the group's eight terms of reference. Previous speakers have alluded to the terms and conditions of councillors and I am satisfied that they are encompassed by the terms of reference. As I was concerned about the issue, I raised it at one of the first meetings I attended and I am now quite happy that they have been incorporated in the terms of reference.
As I have only three minutes, I will cut to the chase. Councillors cannot continue to function with the payment they receive. It is impossible to work full-time as a councillor and hold down another job because council work requires one's full attention and councillors must be properly remunerated. No one expects to be become wealthy by being a public representative, but one does expect to be able to maintain one's wife and children, if one has them, and pay bills. The process which the Minister started and I welcome greatly is about looking at this and many other matters. It is also about looking at how work is done.
It must be recognised that the geographical areas councillors must cover have multiplied in size by three and four times. The review group must also examine in an objective way whether councillors can be expected to carry out their work on their current wages and the current level of expenses. They cannot do so. To address the matter, we must collate data. The group is conducting a survey.The next forum meeting, which I will attend, will be held during the first week of February. I expect that this survey will be complete and that arising out of that meeting and possibly the one after that, a set of recommendations will go to the Minister. Among other things, I believe they will include changes in remuneration and expenses.
Senator Mooney mentioned pensions and the PRSI contribution. This is being dealt with separately by the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. This matter needs to be addressed as well and I am confident it will be addressed. It cannot continue. A councillor who is a member of my party and who lost his seat in 2014 told me that he went to the local labour exchange and signed on to discover he was not entitled to a single cent. This is unacceptable. If a person loses their job, they should be entitled to a payment. I am happy that we are where we are at this point. We must keep driving this issue on and ensure we continue until we get a full result.
I have already expressed my outrage at what has taken place this evening. Members on the other side of this House contacted councillors all over the country and told them that we would be debating No. 81, motion No. 10, an all-party motion with an amendment put forward by a number of Independents and me.
Could the Senator allow me to finish? I tabled an amendment seeking a review of the representational payment and the treatment of councillors in respect of PRSI, sick pay and pensions. Perhaps the Minister of State will tell me why when Members of this House get elected, they get a booklet giving them all their terms and conditions of employment. One of the things mentioned in this booklet is the opportunity to make voluntary contributions under PRSI to secure an entitlement to an old age pension. Today, I received from county councils the terms that are handed to councillors. No councillor is advised of his or her entitlement to make voluntary contributions to PRSI thus leaving him or her without a pension. There are councillors in this country over 66 years of age who do not have a red bloody cent and we are sitting here pretending we care about them. We are supposed to be debating their issue and we talk about all-party motions. I set out to try to put something together under class K PRSI. I asked for the assistance of all parties and got bloody well none.
What we are doing here is an outrage. We should be debating the motion and putting the Minister on the spot because councillors around this country get a miserable €8,000 per year. Does anybody take a cent out of Members' public representative allowance? Nobody does. Why are we calling the representational payment a salary when it is not? Councillors are not paid salaries. They do not have terms and conditions of employment. They are being treated in a most appalling way and the 2014 Act has only made their terms and conditions worse.
If we really cared about councillors, we would be doing something about it and not talking about it. Perhaps those old parties we are talking about are more concerned about their electoral possibilities in the forthcoming general election and do not want to be seen to increase any politician's pay. Councillors are getting a miserable €8,000 after tax, USC and other deductions are made. It is simply not enough. We have doubled their areas. There are councillors who cover hundreds of miles. It is not right. I do not know how many councillors are here. Councillors expecting a report from this and they expected we would have done them the courtesy of providing one. Members' told them we would debate the motion and I asked this morning that we would also be given time to debate the amendment to the motion. What has happened here is disgusting and an outrage. I am deeply disappointed in the Members' of this House.
They are working with him in an established forum to give rights to the councillors. I look forward to that report. As Fine Gael spokesperson on local government, I am working with the Minister on that. We have seen the extra workload councillors have been given in the most radical reform of local government. There is stronger oversight and powers in respect of policy, drawing up of service plans, the introduction of citizens' participation and the extra workload that brings with it and the re-designation of manager as CEO. This all results in increased obligations on councillors. The Minister said that he recognises that and will do something about it. Many councillors must have jobs but there are only 24 hours in the day. I was a councillor for 20 years and I had to give up work when I was a mayor and not take up work again. It is getting more difficult by the day, particularly since the reform. I know what I am talking about. The Senator was never a councillor. I was a councillor for 20 years. The Senator can crow from his height-----
Their wives, partners, sisters and brothers answer phones and e-mails and are unpaid, unpensioned and unrecognised. I recognise the councillors and ex-councillors in the Public Gallery. I have only three minutes so I will concentrate on secretarial services for councillors and the PRSI class K that they pay at 4% and for which they get nothing. When I was on the North-South body and the Confederation of European Councillors with other councillors here, we carried out a survey of all councillors in Europe, including the UK. There is not a councillor in the EU who is asked to pay a contribution but who gets nothing for it. If a case was taken under the Constitution, we would win it for the councillors because in Europe, they pay for nothing. It would not cost that much to get rid of it. I did the sums. If one takes 949 councillors who pay €669 each and multiplies that, one will get the total of €634,881. That is what it would cost to get rid of the PRSI rate of 4% for councillors.
Will the Minister do that because those over the age of 66 are the only people in the country who are asked to pay class P without getting anything for it? The regulation concerning 4% PRSI was introduced in January 2011 before the Government came into office. I know we are blamed for everything but it was actually introduced before we came into office. Will the Minister get rid of that because councillors, AILG and LAMA have asked that they be given an opt-in or opt-out clause in respect of class A as that brings some recognition with it and pension entitlements? If councillors do not pay the voluntary contribution, they end up losing all the rights that come with it.
As party spokesperson on local government, I want to mention training because many councillors have mentioned accredited training. Councillors are not be able to avail of many of the training options for councillors if they are unemployed under a certain class. That is another issue. Council staff are at an advantage compared to councillors in that they can avail of accredited training while councillors can only do so to a lesser extent.
I welcome the review and look forward to the report, which the Minister said would be brought forward shortly with the new arrangements and recognition for the increased workload of councillors. I will revert to the Minister on this issue.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad to have an opportunity to say a few words on this matter. We are having statements and I concur with the sentiments expressed very strongly by Senator Craughwell that there was a motion before the House requesting that certain actions be carried out or contemplated. While statements are useful and may be an opportunity vent our feelings, little may come from them.
Given that we are discussing the operational review of local government, I wish to discuss the current structure of local government, particularly the decision taken some time ago to abolish town councils. I had thought that this was also part of the operational review until last Thursday in this House when I put a Commencement matter to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I was advised by the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, that while much was on the table for discussion, as far as the Minister was concerned, there was no intention of returning to the level of town council government. I was, therefore, glad to read the intervention today, which I think was the second intervention by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform claimed that as far as he was concerned, the decision to abolish town councils, of which we might all have been part, was a mistake. To use that abused phrase, "on mature reflection" - not recollection - I certainly think it was a mistake to abolish that tier of local government.Any operational review of local government should look at the structures. The Minister of State, and his father before him, served on Cork County Council and Mallow town council. Anybody who looks at the new structures, in particular the size of the municipal divisions, must concede that we have absolutely removed the concept of local from local government. My problem is that we have no respect for local councillors in this country because we have no respect for local government.
Local government is seen as a necessary nuisance. We occasionally allow it to bring forward councillors who advance onto the national stage of politics but, uniquely in Europe, we squash local government and the functions it should be carrying out. Its purpose is replicated here in this Chamber and in the other House. In the strange type of politics that we practise in this country, we refuse to allow local councillors to conduct the genuine business of local authority membership and governance. If, on the issue of town councils, this review ties the hands of its members, I am not sure how broad it can be. We need a much deeper review of politics and local government. This unwillingness to respect councillors stems from the fact that, if we are honest, we do not respect local government. There was great drama and excitement a number of years ago when we held a referendum to recognise local government in our constitution. Absolutely nothing has flown from that. There are so-called municipal districts where half the constituents have nothing in common with the other half and see no natural boundary or hinterland. The next Government should go back to the drawing board. We should stop this window dressing.
When communities have a problem, whether housing, roads, or grants, the local councillor is normally the first port of call. As has been mentioned, councillors pay class K PRSI and derive no old age pension or other benefit. The workload of councillors has increased significantly since local government reforms were introduced and in some cases, the areas which some represent are bigger than many constituencies. There is an urgent need to amend existing bands and reform them to take cognisance of the increased areas nationwide. This should be done as a matter of urgency because they have not been changed since they were introduced.
The ludicrous situation of meals being deducted from the small subsistence that councillors receive for conferences - which have also been curtailed - must end. The Minister of State gave me an assurance that this would be addressed and it needs to be done now. There is no standardisation - some councils are introducing and adhering to it and others are not. Meals should not be taken away from the small subsistence. When conferences were curtailed, many councils had several thousand euro in their budget for them. The former Minister, Commissioner Phil Hogan, suggested that some increase in councillors' salary would be necessary to compensate them for this loss. It has never happened and it needs to be addressed. Recently, some councillors raised the question of privilege for councillors, which is enjoyed by Members of the Oireachtas and perhaps it is something that could be considered. An annual health check for councillors could replace some of the benefits that have been stripped from them over the last number of years.
In most cases, council meetings take place in the mornings and afternoons which means that in future people who work in the private or public sector will find themselves unable to attend meetings or represent their constituents. It is something that needs to be addressed and the Minister of State mentioned it in his comments. The allowances of mayors and chairmen have been cut drastically. If a chairman's headquarters is 40 or 50 miles away he may have to go there every day, and it all has to be taken out of his allowance for activities.
Councillors nationwide have been treated very shabbily. They seem to be the whipping boys of Ministers, Government and the media. I believe that 99% of councillors from all political persuasions are decent and honest people who wish to represent their communities in the best possible manner. They should be provided with adequate resources to fulfil their mandate.
Some 19 years ago when I was first elected to this House, I said at one of our parliamentary party meetings that having spent 18 years on Wexford County Council, I was not entitled to anything when I left it. I would get no payment or pension, yet when I arrived here I got a booklet telling me all my entitlements. I felt that it was manifestly unfair and discriminatory against councillors. At the time, many Members campaigned strongly against it, including Senator Cáit Keane who was with me on the executive of LAMA at the time. I acknowledge the constructive approach of the former Minister, former Deputy Noel Dempsey, took at the time and we made some progress. Unfortunately when I rolled out the boat about the salary, I rolled it out too low, at a quarter of a Senator's salary. When we came to put our presentation together, we looked for a third and I think it should be brought to that level. Councillors are the only people in the public service who do not have a pension entitlement, which is blatantly discriminatory and wrong. The issue is compounded by the fact that they pay class K PRSI, which deprives them of any social welfare entitlements. The whole thing needs to be looked at.
Remuneration is not the only issue; the whole system of local government has not improved in the interim. At that stage, the 2001 Act was introduced which provided for directly elected mayors or chairmen of councils which I think would have considerably transformed the system. I am a long-time advocate of transferring all executive powers from the manager to the chairman and council.
Perhaps a mini cabinet could be formed by the chair of the council and the chairs of the SPCs working together, which was part of the proposals we made at that time. Unfortunately Noel Dempsey was not reappointed to that ministry, where I think progress could have been made.
We urgently need a devolution of powers from the Department to the council. I am astonished to learn that Department officials are not dealing with the housing crisis and officials at council level are unable to take the initiatives, which they had the power to take 10 years ago, to address the difficulties in the housing situation and provide housing. It is a disgrace.
There needs to be a complete rebalance not only between the Department and the council but also between the executive and its members. Members will act responsibly when given responsibility. They have been denigrated by politicians and officials. It is simply not good enough.
I commend the initiative taken and I urge independents to work with the parties and work as a team to get justice for councillors. I say that-----
I welcome the Minister of State to the House this evening and thank him for taking the time to address this most important issue. Local government and our councillors are the lifeblood of public service. The workload of councillors is onerous and we need to ensure they are adequately provided for. The Local Government Reform Act 2014 brought about great changes to the operation of local councils. It provided for the dissolution of town councils and a review of council area boundaries.The upshot of this legislation means that in practice councillors now represent a much larger council area and work on behalf of a much increased electorate.
The Act has now been in force for over a year and an operational review began in May 2015 to ensure that these structural changes operate effectively. The intent of the legislation was to provide the electoral areas involved with a more balanced representation, generally with less variation in ratios of councillors to population across the State. It is crucial that this is being achieved. While I strongly welcome the review, it is imperative that it focuses on the effect that the Act has on councillors and their workload. It is important that the review would also incorporate the view of local government organisations such as the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA.
I am glad to see there is an AILG representative on the advisory group that is carrying out this review. Due to the vast job of work associated with the role of councillors, many are full-time councillors serving the needs of our communities and it is important that this is recognised and they are sufficiently compensated for the important role they play in our society. We need to highlight the important work carried out by the councillors and the valuable contribution they make as public representatives. I agree with my colleagues in the House that the workload of councillors right across the State must be recognised. In my own county of Leitrim we have been reduced from 22 councillors to 18 with the workload remaining the same. Our neighbouring county of Sligo has been divided into two vast areas with 18 councillors. We could call for a review of those boundaries, especially in counties such as Leitrim and Sligo where the two areas are very large.
The necessary resources must be provided for our councillors. We have seen the work they have done, particularly during the recent storms when councillors took calls day and night to look after people. I thank the Minister of State for joining us in the House and I look forward to hearing how these concerns will be resolved in the context of the review of the Local Government Act 2014.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to debate this issue. I thank also Senator Walsh who is possibly retiring at the next election and who did much work regarding local government. Senator Walsh was one of the first to propose a representational payment for councillors and the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey took that on board. Councillors around the State have the former Minister and Senator Walsh, among others, to be thankful to.
Senator Walsh has spoken on the PRSI payment and councillors' lack of pension provision. In many instances this is a councillor's only job and this should be of concern to us all. The days of being a voluntary councillor are long past because there are so many competing alternatives. If one wants the best people one needs to make sure they are properly catered for and compensated appropriately.
Reference was made to the powers of councillors which have, in reality, been eroded by central Government. We have the most centralised government in the world which, in reality, is down to four Ministers who control the Government. However, when it comes to local government, over the last number of years we have seen the roads transferred to the National Roads Authority, housing authorities have taken over the provision of housing for groups and organisations, driving licences have been removed from local government and water has been removed from local government. The power that was once held, controlled and decided locally on issues of importance to local people has now been centralised. Senator Walsh and I have long advocated that giving councillors power is an issue of rebalancing. Appointing a chief executive who is a public servant and who is elected would be a transformation entirely in the way we do democracy in this Government and for decision making. Ultimately, it is the chief executive rather than the public representatives who has the final say in so many areas . We often see this in this House and in the Dáil where it is the Secretaries General who make a lot of the decisions, depending on who the Minister is. There is a lot that needs to be done for public representatives into the future.
It is unfortunate that the survey results on local government reform will only be issued in the next few days, by which time there will be no action in the lifetime of this Government. Action is, however, required.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock and I welcome that the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Alan Kelly, attended the House to commence the debate. In fairness, the Minister hit all the right notes in his speech. He recognised the very significant change in the role and workload of the councillors since 2014 local government reforms were put in place. I also welcome his reference to the operational review which he established in May 2015.
I come from a county that had three town councils. A total of 27 councillors have been taken out of the system as a result of the abolition of town councils. There has been a significant consequent increase in the workload of the county councillors with very increased representation, especially those who represent the towns of Ballinasloe, Tuam and Loughrea. I welcome the establishment of the local government advisory group and I compliment Senator Landy on his positive influence on the workings of that group.
The councillor has an increasingly responsible role in decision making that impacts significantly on all citizens. This must be reflected in the remuneration and conditions of employment of our councillors. The sum of €16,500 is a totally inadequate level of remuneration to reflect that workload. Many councillors are now full-time and trying to raise a family and pay the bills on that income. Those who are not full-time councillors have to take time off - if they can get it - with a subsequent loss of earnings from their other employment. The whole issue of PRSI and paying 4% in respect of class K was raised by me when I was a councillor but it never seemed to get a sympathetic ear from the relevant Minister. I hope that everything is on the table on this occasion when the advisory group comes to its conclusion and that the next Minister - be it Deputy Kelly or his successor - puts together a proper package for councillors who do such a wonderful job representing the citizens on the front-line of democracy.
Along with remuneration, back-up secretarial services and expenses for meal allowances should be revisited. The small-minded reductions were made by officials without the blessing of any particular Minister, so today is important. The AILG and LAMA want us all to work together on this matter. I am disappointed that there has been some discord on the issue.
I note that many Senators have been involved in bringing forward the issue of councillors and their remuneration. I particularly wish to acknowledge my colleague Senator Denis Landy who has been tireless in his efforts to improve the lot of councillors.I am not going to reiterate the many points that have been made on issues such as the level of remuneration, the level of support and the PRSI benefits to which councillors are entitled. We must acknowledge that there is an advisory group in place and I am confident that when this group examines the role of councillors, it will have no option but to make a positive recommendation on pay and conditions. As a society, we must ask ourselves what we want. We have given local authorities more resources, in terms of funding, and more responsibility. We must now ask whether we are going to be serious about the remuneration we give to councillors who take on this responsible role. I do not want to see a scenario where only people who can afford to, namely, the noblesse obligetype, contribute because they have the resources behind them. They should not be the only people who end up representing local communities, sometimes in areas that are most important to those communities, as we saw during the recent flooding crisis. We must decide what we want and we must want a proper system of local government. We will not have that, unless we remunerate councillors properly.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, for his contribution.
There is no doubt that since the abolition of town councils, county councillors have taken on a more significant role, involving more travel, longer hours and greater responsibility. I acknowledge the work being done by the reform review group on this issue. Senator Mooney mentioned that Senator Walsh approached a former Minister, Noel Dempsey, on this issue. Prior to that, I was part of a delegation of five from my county who approached the then Minister, Charlie McCreevy, on the issue. He gave us a fair hearing. I was a councillor for 15 years and I note that other Senators served on councils for as long, with no remuneration whatsoever. Both former Ministers listened to the case we put forward in respect of this issue.
I have made personal approaches to the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and the Taoiseach on the issue of remuneration for councillors during the past 12 to 18 months, in recognition of the fact that the young people who succeeded in obtaining positions as councillors following the local elections did not realise the workload they were taking on. They are not complaining about it but they did not realise how the role had changed. The Minister, in his travels to councils throughout the country, has recognised the responsibilities and work councillors have taken on. They have greater responsibilities and longer working hours but are only getting half the minimum wage gross. When tax and PRSI are taken into consideration, they are left with approximately €8,500 a year for working 50 to 60 hours per week. They are not recompensed to the level they should be. As far as I am concerned, all councillors deserve the minimum wage, regardless of whether they operate in the role on a full-time basis. Some councillors have to take time off work and pay somebody to take their place.
I am encouraged by what the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, said and I look forward to the findings of the review group. The Minister said he would work on the recommendations he receives from that group and I have no doubt he will do so.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, for coming to the House. A great deal has been said during the debate. The vast majority of Members served as local councillors before they came to the House. This issue revolves around remuneration. People do not like to hear mention payment for politicians because many of them feel politicians are well off and should not be remunerated. We have often heard what a former Minister said here, namely, that if one pays peanuts, one will only get monkeys.
In the years following the coming into force of the 1905 Act, local government was the preserve of the landed gentry or professional people and they were not paid for their work. In 2002, remuneration for councillors was introduced. I was elected to the local authority in 2004 and I received a salary. At present, councillors are not even paid the minimum wage and have no PRSI entitlements. We have made changes to local government, some of which have been for the better. However, we need to review the changes made and to admit we got some wrong.
Under the new Local Government Acts, we gave councillors more powers, more responsibilities and asked that they attend more meetings and cover more ground. When Oliver Twist took his bowl and asked for more, he was refused. We took the bowls of councillors and filled them. However, we filled them with more work rather than remuneration. They deserve a review of their position and I welcome the fact that the Minister intends to consider the situation. A councillor's salary was set at a quarter of that of a Senator. It is time to change this. Such a move may be a cost for local government but we must do this if we want proper people in the job. The job of a local councillor has almost become a full-time occupation. It is no longer the position that somebody can do the job on a part-time basis. Some professionals may be able to do the work at times but people in the public service or another job find it very difficult to get time off work to attend more frequent meetings. There are significantly more meetings due to the new municipal areas.
I do not want to delay this debate further. The review group, in conjunction with the two main groups, the AILG and LAMA, must get this right. Councillors deserve payment. People should not be afraid to say that. As politicians, we are afraid to say that politicians should be paid more. Councillors do an unbelievable job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The proof of this was seen during the flooding crisis, when councillors, the locally elected people, took the lead. It is time we reviewed what they are paid. As a result of the changes made in recent Local Government Acts we got some things right. However, we also got some wrong. We must ensure councillors are rewarded properly or we will not have the calibre of people in local government that we want to lead our communities.
Like most colleagues, I am a former member of a local authority and we know better than most the workload involved in being a county or city councillor. However, having been here for over four years, we do not know what the workload is like now. In County Clare, the electoral area of north Clare was amalgamated with the electoral area of west Clare and the eight councillors in north-west Clare must now service a geographical area that is 50% of the land mass of the county. They must travel the bones of 80 miles, from Ballyvaughan to Kilrush, over to the borders of Ennis and back up towards Corofin. This is unworkable, unrealistic, unreasonable and unfair. It is anti-democratic and does not allow councillors the scope to do their work the way they want to whereby they know every part of their areas inside out. Unfortunately, a land mass of the size they must cover is more like a Dáil constituency. In the UK, a constituency of that size would elect an MP.
We must be realistic. The creation of these large council areas was a bizarre notion. I suspect these large areas were created in order to support smaller parties.That is fine in itself but it is totally unworkable.
The dramatic reduction in the allowances payable to local authority members that took place in the aftermath of the 2014 local elections was totally unfair. A clear indication was given at that time that the pay scales and remunerations would be favourably looked at after the elections, when the reduced number of councillors serving areas of increased size came into effect. That did not happen. What happened was the total opposite. The situation with regard to PRSI is bizarre, indefensible, inexcusable and unrealistic. If councillors were to take a case, they would certainly win on equality grounds. Why in the name of God would anyone pay PRSI to get no benefit? This is the type of thing that happens in a cuckoo republic, not a democratic state like Ireland.
These are the issues. I welcome the review group. I would like to know when it is proposed that it would come back with its recommendations. We could write out the recommendations for the review group, in particular those regarding PRSI, a review of the huge municipal districts and equitable remuneration, which would be properly vouched and controlled but fair. I believe the vast majority of people want to see public representatives paid fairly. Perhaps the media do not, but the vast majority of decent Irish people want to see people get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.