Thursday, 29 March 2018
Councillors' Conditions: Statements
We will soon see. I appreciate the opportunity to attend the Seanad today to provide Members with an update on the position concerning supports for elected members of local authorities and the associated terms and conditions.
We were due to have this discussion when Storm Emma came but the snow got in the way, as it did with many things that week. This issue is one to which I have devoted much of my time and attention during the past eight months.
I note that the issue is held in similarly high regard by Senators. This is the third occasion that I have been invited to attend the Seanad in recent months to speak on the matter and listen to the views of Senators. Since the last time, some improvements have been made to supports provided to councillors. On 10 November 2017 I co-signed amending regulations under section 142 of the Local Government Act 2001 with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. The amending regulations gave effect to and improved on the measures first announced by the former Minister with responsibility for local government, Deputy Coveney. In implementing these measures we have ensured that a new allowance, worth €1,000 per annum, in recognition of the additional workload following the 2014 reforms is provided to all councillors to avoid any suggestion of a two-tier system of local government. While the new allowance is backdated to 1 July 2017 I am aware that some local authorities are only now making payments to councillors. While this is regrettable, I imagine Members fully appreciate that payments made to councillors must be fully compliant with tax law.
The Revenue Commissioners commenced a review of the terms and conditions of the supports provided to councillors following commencement of the amending regulations. The review was not completed until January, when all associated matters relating to implementation of the regulations were finalised. The Revenue Commissioners ruled that the new allowance is taxable income - this was thought to be the case beforehand - and this was promptly communicated to local authorities by the Department. This clarification should allow for outstanding payments to councillors backdated to 1 July 2017 to be issued.
The amending regulations also gave effect to a new option of a vouched expenses allowance for councillors' work up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, which is also backdated to 1 July 2017. The terms of the allowance are based on the public representation allowance payable to Members of the Oireachtas. All Members will be familiar with this.
When I last addressed the House I informed Members that the categories of eligible expenditure for the new allowance would be further extended. The need to further extend these categories was expressed by Senators during that discussion. I have since issued directions to local authorities along the following lines. Councillors may now claim expenses incurred in respect of rent, rates and utilities for offices, including home offices. Councillors may also pay any person to provide secretarial support so long as the person is eligible to work. These measures have been backdated to 1 July 2017. The measure also includes provision for carers and child care. This means in effect that councillors can now claim for the same range of vouched expenses as Deputies and Senators given that they have a constituency base that they serve. I am aware that the take-up by councillors of this new vouched allowance option has not been high thus far. Such a new allowance will take time for fuller acceptance and I believe it should be given that time.
A range of other financial supports are in place to assist councillors in performing their functions. The main support is a representational payment, which recognises the work that councillors volunteer to undertake when they stand for election and subsequently serve their community. I recall that when I began my political career as a member of Kilkenny County Council in 1999 supports for councillors were limited to expense payments for attending council meetings. This puts in context how far we have come in the past two decades in recognising the importance of local government and improving the range of supports available. The representational payment was introduced in January 2002. Since that time it has been linked to the basic salary of a Senator. In line with adjustments made to a Senator's salary, the representational payment was increased on 1 January 2018 by €246 to €16,891 per annum. The payments will further benefit councillors over the term of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 in proportion to further increases in a Senator's salary.
I have previously addressed the House on the establishment of a review of this basic payment to councillors. The process has been somewhat delayed by the fact that the lead official from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has transferred to a different Department. It is still firmly the position of Government that a review will be completed before the end of this year. The review is to be chaired by an independent outsider who will consult with officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the local government section in the Department Housing, Planning and Local Government and councillor representative organisations, including Local Authority Members Association and the Association of Irish Local Government. The review will devise a system of linking councillors' pay directly to a Civil Service grade and bring all the ancillary benefits that such a change would entail.
Councillors also receive a composite annual expense allowance designed to defray in a structured way reasonable expenses incurred by them in attending council meetings. It is calculated using a formula based on the distance from a councillor's residence to the council offices, current Civil Service travel and subsistence rates and a notional number of meetings that a local authority would be expected to hold in a year. The alignment of the current Civil Service travel and subsistence rates ensures that payments may be made on a tax free basis.
As Members are no doubt aware, the Civil Service travel rates and bands that had been in place since January 1999 were revised last year by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe. My understanding is that the new revised rates reflect changes in technology, road conditions, commuter behaviour and car ownership patterns. The key changes include an increase in the number of distance bands from two to four with a lower recoupment rates for the first 1,500 km of travel followed by an increased recoupment rate for distances between 1,501 km and 5,500 km. A lower rate applies for distances in excess of 5,500 km. These rates now apply throughout the public sector and have also been applied to councillors' travel expenses. I am aware that this has had a mixed impact on councillors, depending on individual circumstances, as it has had across the public service. Some councillors have benefitted while other have seen a reduction – significant in some cases – in annual travel remuneration. Those councillors who have seen their travel allowance reduced include those who live close to council headquarters, such as members of city councils, as well as those based in larger geographic counties who commute long distances. I am most familiar with some of the concerns of those based in west Cork.
It is important to bear in mind that the annual expenses allowance is just that. As with any expense allowance it is payable on the basis that it offsets costs incurred by the individual claiming it. The allowance is not and should not be considered as income. Having said that, councillors should not be forced by circumstances to rely excessively on remuneration from travel expenses as a means of financial support. I appreciate that travel is an integral part of a councillor's duties. Councillors are perhaps unique in the public sector in the range of public bodies to which they may be appointed or nominated to represent their local authorities. Given the extensive revision of Civil Service travel rates, the Department is examining the methodology for calculating councillor's travel and subsistence expenses to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. It is also the case that the complex means for calculating the annual expenses allowance imposes an administrative burden on local authorities and individual councillors alike and there could be benefits in a simplified approach. It is of great importance to support councillors appropriately with due regard for transparency and accountability to ensure they can effectively carry out their role as elected representatives and can continue to give expression to local identity, concerns and the setting of local priorities. Ensuring that supports for councillors are sustainable and appropriate in future will require further consideration between the Department and relevant stakeholders.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the councillors, who are representing their colleagues and members of the AILG, to the Public Gallery. I wish them continued success in their great endeavours to ensure that their representatives achieve fair play, fair pay and fair terms and conditions for the great work they are doing.
I note that the Minister of State alluded to the fact that the debate was to be held during the week when Storm Emma landed. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, it had to be postponed. Storm Emma was another example of the great, valiant and un-rewarded work that councillors and public representatives do in their local communities throughout the country.It was a time of crisis for many communities. The first people at the coalface were councillors and public representatives. Without reward or pay, they led the lines of action, which helped many people to overcome the severe storm.
Fianna Fáil supports fair and appropriate pay and conditions for local representatives. Moreover, we believe it is time to overhaul and reform the local government system and to put additional powers and responsibilities into the hands of our local representatives. A major change in councillors' conditions was the expansion of local electoral areas to cover a much broader geographic area. Some councils were abolished and others were amalgamated, and the number of local representatives in Ireland was reduced from a previous high of 1,627 to the current number of 949. This means that, on average, each councillor represents approximately 4,500 constituents, which is a dramatically increased workload for each individual councillor.
The Government proposes to reduce the size of all local electoral areas to between five and seven seats, with provision for some even smaller three seaters and four seaters in sparsely populated places. However, the overall number of councillors across Ireland will remain the same at 949, so this will have no effect on the number of constituents that each councillor serves. In fact, the workload will increase even further, as the population continues to grow in virtually all areas of the country.
As the Minister of State is aware, councillors were surveyed in July and August 2016 and asked about their conditions. The overwhelming conclusion from that survey was that their workloads had greatly increased as a consequence of recent changes. The results of the survey show that 74% of councillors are spending ten hours or more attending meetings every week and 68% of them are spending an additional ten hours or more attending community events. As former councillors and current public representatives, the Minister of State and I both know that councillors work 24-7. One cannot quantify it by attendance at meetings or community events. A councillor is on call 24-7 and cannot go outside the door even at a social event without people making representations to him or her. The survey's figure of 20 hours is staggering, but the fact of the matter is that people at the coalface of the democratic system are working and are on call 24-7 and we still cannot agree proper pay, terms and conditions for them.
Against the background of much larger workloads, the Government introduced changes to councillors' expenses in January. It was clear at the time - I even said it to the Minister of State in this Chamber - that the proposed changes would lead to at least some councillors being worse off. That is exactly what happened, as the Minister of State has acknowledged. I am given to understand that more than half of all councillors are in a financially worse position than they were before the changes were introduced. I am at a loss to see what possible justification there could be for introducing what in reality amounted to a punitive measure against councillors, especially when it was well known within the Government the level of effort and commitment that councillors showed everyday serving their constituents.
It should be remembered that all of this occurred against a background of the economy growing by 7.8% in 2017 according to recent GDP figures released by the Central Statistics Office. Even if there are problems with GDP as a measure of economic performance, it is clear that the economy is growing and it is time for the Government to give proper recognition to the unique and vital role of councillors across Ireland.
The system as it currently stands is not fit for purpose. The Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform announced in February that he would establish a review of councillors' pay and conditions. This review should take place as a matter of urgency under the direction of a strong and independent chairperson. The issue of councillors' pay and conditions must be properly addressed and resolved once and for all.
I will repeat a caveat. The major issue with the lack of urgency shown in addressing this situation is the fact that the people in government - the people in power - do not want to be seen giving something that might be viewed as beneficial to fellow politicians.
That day has to go. If we, as public representatives, cannot look after the hard working members of our own establishment, we cannot look after anyone else. The notion that this issue should not be touched because the media might play ball with it is a figment. We must stand up to the plate, be strong and reward people as they deserve for the rewardable jobs they are performing.
-----I have to say the Minister of State's commitment to this issue is honourable. I am not sure where the logjam is, but I believe that the Minister of State wants to solve it.
It is important to put this debate on councillors' pay, terms, conditions and employment, or the lack thereof, in context. There is no master-servant relationship. They are not employees. It is the same with the Minister of State and me, in that we are not employees. We must get that point straight first.
On 21 April 2015, the then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government advised the House during a Commencement debate that the representational payment to councillors was a recognition of the work they chose to undertake when they stood for election. According to her, that payment was never meant to be a salary and councillors knew this when they took on the commitment. Clearly, that response was prepared for her by the Department, so it must have reflected the Department's thinking.
In the same debate, the then Minister of State acknowledged that the annual representational payment was not fully commensurate with the workload of councillors. Having been a local authority member, I am sure that the current Minister of State would agree with that. Indeed, we could not pay them. As my colleague just pointed out, it is a 24-7 job. One councillor told me that he could not go to the toilet without someone standing beside him and telling him about a problem that person wanted solved. That, I am afraid, is part and parcel of local representation.
We were told in the same debate in 2015 that the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government had indicated his intention to start a review of local authorities following the passing of the 2014 Act. The review was to be broadly representative and the advisory group would include within its working group members of the Association of Irish Local Government, . That debate was almost three years ago to the day, but we have still not seen the establishment of that group.
Let us deal with the real issue, that being, the money people are paid. Something like 30% of councillors are dependent on the representational payment. It is all they have. That is their employment. We have had to bring this country kicking and screaming to change councillors' conditions. I have with me the rapporteur's report that I presented on class K PRSI. Until it was presented, councillors were paying class K PRSI and getting sweet damn all for 4% of their incomes. I made the point this morning that the same rate applied to Senators, but we have not had the guts to stand up and do anything about it yet. Following the report, the then Minister - the current Taoiseach - changed councillors to class S PRSI. At least now there is a pension for those who are young enough to benefit from it, but what about the ones who have been serving their communities for years, are well past 66 years of age and have no pensions despite having paid PRSI for years? It is wrong in every sense of the word.
There has been a blurring of the lines. We have pay, allowances and expenses. The problem is that expenses have been used to augment the income of councillors. Doing so has been to the detriment of the vehicles they drive. As the Minister of State pointed out a few moments ago, expenses are only meant to recoup out-of-pocket losses.They are calculated to cover tax, insurance, servicing and replacing vehicles, replacing tyres and all these things. If that money is used to pay the ESB bill, it is being misused because it is not being set aside to replace the vehicle, for example. We have to get back to identifying where everything lies. We have to pay councillors a proper salary for the job they do. We should separate them from Members of this House and align them to a member of the public service, perhaps a clerical officer, an assistant clerical officer or someone like that. We should put them in at that level. Their remuneration will move up and down in accordance with public service pay.
County councillors have been promised that something will be done for them for the almost four years I have been in this House. They have been told we are going to look after them and we are going to do this, that and the other. The truth of the matter is that if we were willing to do something here and if the political will was there, it would have been done by now. I believe the Minister of State has the political will, is willing to put his neck on the line and take whatever public criticism will come with looking after those who serve their communities.
Why should we be embarrassed about it? These people work around the clock. My colleague asked who people went to during the recent storms. One county councillor told me that on Christmas morning a family arrived at his house to tell him they had no electricity and could not cook their dinner. He said what could he do but bring them in and give them a dinner. That is what public service at local representation level is about. We need to represent and recognise what is being done.
I want no more promises and no more statements saying we are going to look after councillors. By the way, I want a detailed explanation sent to councillors about what is meant by "travelling expenses". It was never meant to be a form of income. We need councillors to know that and to stop playing games with them. It is grossly unfair. They represent their communities not just on the councils but in the HSE and on university and institutes of technology boards, although, importantly, we have reduced the power of county councillors. Even in the recent Technological Universities Bill, we reduced the number of county councillors on the boards of technological universities. We are stripping away more and more power from these people.
If a group is being put together to look at the terms and conditions of employment of county councillors, we must first determine if county councillors are employed. We must give them a salary but, more importantly, the review group must have representatives of local authorities on it. We must also look at the allowances and the way they are paid and distributed across a council. We must make sure that there is fairness and nobody suffers in the long term. Everybody must get a chance at being the chair of a board or of a strategic policy committee, SPC. We need to be far more equal and egalitarian in the way we look after these people. What we do not need are promises of great things to come which have not happened so far. The ball is at the feet of the Minister of State. We will be looking to him-----
I realise that the Minister of State, as a Kilkennyman, might have a difficulty kicking a ball. However, what he can do is learn how to kick a ball. If he is not able to kick a ball, then we will give him a hurley and he can play the ball but, for God's sake, he must play the game and start to look after the people who get him elected. In a couple of months' time, when the Minister of State is looking to be elected, they will be knocking on doors on his behalf, saying that he is a great guy. I would hate them to say that he is full of promises and delivers nothing.
With the Leas-Chathaoirleach's permission, I wish to give two minutes to my colleague, Senator Kieran O'Donnell.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and acknowledge that since he came into office, he has taken this subject by the scruff of the neck and has been proactive. I know from private conversations with him, and from his returning the €1,000 lost to councillors, that he is sincere and genuine in trying to resolve this. I appreciate that. The important news in the Minister of State's speech today is that he has given a commitment to immediately set up the local authority remuneration review group. That is an important development. He has also agreed to give it an independent chair and he has not made it a long fingering exercise because he has agreed that it will report this year. Those three things, namely, the independent chair, the quick report and the broad terms of reference, will make that review group very effective.
The review group will quickly discover that councillors work 24-7 and that they are the front-line workers in our democratic system. They are the lightning conductors for public anger, rage and angst among communities and individuals. They are available to attend public meetings on behalf of councils on a round the clock basis. They now have huge areas to cover, which I know the Minister of State proposes to reduce, and that should be the case.
Some 30% of councillors are totally dependent on whatever income they get from being a councillor. Apart from that 30%, the other 70% are greatly disadvantaged in terms of their careers and personal income if they are in business or in farming and must be replaced, etc. They suffer huge financial disadvantage and they and their families give a commitment 24-7. They are at the front-line of democracy. That is why the review body must address the four key issues of concern to councillors.
The requirement to aggregate travel from a multiplicity of outside bodies is not a runner because of the sheer number of bodies on which councillors represent their councils. I will not read the full list which is enormous. It is virtually impossible to implement that, and the Minister of State said as much in his speech. This must be a key issue for the review body to study.
The other key issue the review body must study is that the changes to the travel rate are causing a drop in income for a number of councillors. Some 541 councillors are disadvantaged financially under the new system and they are getting less money. It is not a question of earning but a question of getting money back for the enormous losses they suffered on their election in 2014. They are in a very difficult situation. The losses range from as high as €280 to €291 in some instances. It is a very difficult situation.
Another issue this review body will need to look at under the independent chair is that we will have a huge deficit on the front-line of democracy if we cannot attract good quality people into local government in the future as well as maintain the existing people. Does the Minister of State have figures on the attrition rate in the current councils? I would submit that it is very high and will get higher if we do not deal with this critical question.The issue of vouching needs to be looked at by the new review group and it needs to be dealt with immediately. Vouching is not working. The pick-up of 3% to 5% is a clear indication it is not a success and is not something councillors can embrace. I admire the Minister of State's effort to be proactive and reactive to our demands. He tried to widen the terms of reference and the basis on which people could claim the vouched allowances. That is typical of the Minister of State's effort to resolve the issue. It is still not working and it needs to be studied. I am happy with the new authority being set up to do the examination. I am happy there will be a timeframe and it will not be an indefinite thing that will go on ad nauseamuntil some of the councillors have resigned. I am also happy it will have an independent chair. I would like an assurance from the Minister of State but I think it is implicit in what he has already said, that it will take a holistic look at every aspect of a councillor's income. The Minister of State is nodding assent that there will be a holistic approach. It should look at every facet of a councillor's existence and what he or she is losing. I appreciate the opportunity to speak. It is a very important issue if we want to preserve our Irish democratic system.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to the House. The role of councillors has changed significantly over the years. We now have metropolitan areas, much larger electoral areas and SPCs. The role of the councillor is virtually a full-time role. I welcome that the Minister of State is setting up the local authority remuneration review group. It is important it is established as quickly as possible. There will be an independent chair. It needs to be someone who has an industrial relations background, who councillors have confidence in and who the Government can work with. The timetable the Minister of State is talking about is that it will report back by the end of the year. I always feel that timetables should not be too long or too short. If they are too long, they drag on and if they are too short, they are not comprehensive enough. It is something that is extremely important. I also welcome that the two key elements for a councillor are salary and expenses. I welcome the revision of the Civil Service travel scheme. It has had a wide range of revisions. The Minister of State will look at the methodology for how it is calculated for councillors and maybe at simplifying the system. That should form part of the terms of reference for the local authority remuneration review group. Councillors do phenomenal work on the ground. They are a basic element of democracy. The key focus in setting up a local authority remuneration review group with an independent chair, for the public, councillors and Government, is to be seen to be taking a holistic view. It is long overdue. It should be transparent so the public can see what is involved in being a councillor, including how much time it takes, the hours people put in, the expenses involved and that it has key elements of what democracy is about. People should be remunerated in a fair way in terms of salary and expenses. The key things are the local authority review group is being established with an independent chair and that the issue of travel expenses is addressed. I thank the Minister of State.
In preparation for speaking on this matter I contacted councillors across the country to hear from them about their lived experiences of councillors. I got considerable feedback from a diverse range of elected representatives, including men and women, young and old, party and non-party and rural and urban. All of them were absolutely united in being dissatisfied with the current system of remuneration and the pressures they face as councillors. Many indicated difficulty in making ends meet with family to support, debts to pay and large outlays on the business of being a local representative. Some indicated they did not intend to run again in the 2019 local elections due to the pressures. Some talked about working up to 70 hours a week to represent constituents often with little support, only to feel let down by central Government which they work so hard to make more accessible to fellow citizens. I agree with Senator O'Reilly they are front-line people.
Some of the urban based councillors asked about the huge disparity between the representation levels and those of other councillors. A councillor in Dublin City Council north inner city ward, for example, represents an average of 8,375 people, while a councillor in Leitrim represents on average 1,765 people. Some disparity is to be expected but the north inner city ward has 3.2 times the number of people as Leitrim but less than half the number of local representatives. Unsurprisingly, those representatives are severely overworked trying to represent their constituents. This is something that needs to be addressed in any review that takes place. I have heard of the deprivation many councillors are facing, often caused by the way in which they are paid for their work. The current mishmash of expenses, direct payments, mileage, etc., has led to many unintended consequences and real crises. One councillor with five children to support had applications for family income support rejected as he is considered self-employed. Another could barely pay her bills and recent funeral expenses before her pay cheque was gone. These problems are real and serious and more immediate and drastic action needs to be taken.
Some specific demographics among councillors face particular challenges. Young councillors were in touch about their first time on the council. They find themselves with a lot of middle aged and well-established peers, all of whom are able to finance themselves and their local work through private means, which puts such new entrants at significant disadvantage. Women face various challenges getting a foot in the door on an equal footing in local authorities. There is no existing provision for maternity leave or cover which is an active barrier to women's full participation. I have heard this again and again from female councillors. It is little wonder that women make up 21% of councillors and less wonder again that we have a problem getting enough women to come to the Oireachtas though the local Government system. In Waterford, there are 32 elected representatives, of which just four are women. This needs to be addressed if we are to challenge the problem of female representation. Councillors also face rising costs in the performance of duties.
Other Senators have outlined concerns. What I have seen from the letters I have received, which we can send to the Minister of State's office, is that there are concerns among councillors. They need more representation and more respect.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I will try to be as quick as possible because I am aware we have limited time. I thank every councillor who called, emailed and texted me over the past weeks after I sought input on this issue. It is hugely important to hear directly from those affected. I wish I could put every email and testimony into this speech today. I will try to touch on as many of the issues raised as possible.
The first and broadest point is that there is a lack of awareness of the work that local and city councillors do and the role they play. In running for the Seanad and attending AILG meetings, I have met many people who do the job and it has been an eye-opener for me into the daily realities of the role and the long hours they work. It is almost a vocation for some of the councillors. They leave their families and everything behind.
For the majority of people, local councillors are the first port of call when one has a problem. This is aside from attending council meetings and voting and all the more formal aspects of the job.It is about making sure they are always available if somebody locally needs help. If a key service is not working or somebody needs State support to get by, it is the local councillor who is there to answer that call. This is especially true for vulnerable people, in whom I have a particular interest, who may not know what support is available for them or how to access it. For example, in my work with the RISE Foundation and on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, I have met many county and city councillors who are also working with drug and alcohol task forces in local communities to try to tackle this problem. All local representatives I have spoken to have told me that if they want to take their role seriously and if they want to be able to respond to each constituent with care, compassion and time, they end up working extremely long hours on top of doing their regular jobs. This is a real problem because councillors are then trying to do a full-time role, but through out-of-hours work after their job or by taking unpaid leave. They spend less time with their families and are under huge pressure at work.
The big impact of this is that it squeezes out people on lower incomes or people who do not have the flexibility and support that comes with certain professions. The low pay means it is just not viable for most people. That is making it unsustainable in the long run. A councillor who contacted me had agreed to go on a 3.5 days working week to allow for meetings and constituency work. That is difficult enough, but many people just do not have that option. Another young woman councillor is trying to do the job while raising her three young children. She felt it was essentially a choice between being there for her family or continuing in the role. There has been some movement in recent years where various expenses and allowances have been introduced, but the feedback on this process is that it is really complicated and difficult to get through. We have a patchwork process where one thing has been added to another and that has made it increasingly difficult to navigate. I spoke with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, which said that as a result it expects 3% to 5% of councillors to sign up for this. I am encouraged by the Minister of State's comments today on trying to introduce a simplified approach and the potential for linking remuneration to a Civil Service grade.
Ultimately, we must have a genuine debate about what role we want councillors and local government to play and how inclusive we want the positions to be. At present, we are caught between two poles - it is not a voluntary position with a low level of commitment and it is not a full-time position with the resources available to do the job that people expect. If we want people on lower incomes or people from less advantaged backgrounds to step forward into this role, we cannot leave it so that only those with a high salary and a flexible job can afford it. As an Independent Senator, I am proud of the achievements I and my fellow Independent Senators have had in this House. Irish politics needs strong, independent voices, particularly those who will represent the most vulnerable in society. This is as true for local government as it is for Leinster House.
I thank the Minister of State for attending this debate. I hope he takes on board what we say today. I was a councillor in the west Mayo area for seven years and, as has been said, the role of the councillor is changing all the time. I disagree with the urban versus rural issue. We have to be careful about that in terms of making chalk of one and cheese of the other. The role of a councillor is challenging regardless of where one is. For me, the challenge was that the area stretched to 123 km or a four hour round trip and being acutely conscious that one had to serve all of the area equally across the constituency. This is a challenge for rural councillors.
What challenges people across the board is the role of the councillor in trying to deal with very serious issues and in trying to fill in the gaps that exist because services are not provided. One might be dealing with a young person with mental health problems, the lack of infrastructure, education and, increasingly, with health problems. A councillor tries to serve all these roles. I commend all the councillors across the country who are doing Trojan work trying to support the people in their communities. They spend a huge amount of time doing this work. They are also dealing with people in extreme poverty and as a result they are often reluctant to come forward and say they cannot afford to do their job any longer. Other good people would like to be public representatives but the fact is that they cannot afford to do it. How could somebody who is trying to bring up children alone, for example, or in other situations become a councillor? Financially, people cannot do it, and it is a huge loss to society and to politics that they are barred from doing it. Are we going to end up with people who are elderly, and there is nothing wrong with that, and people who are already financially secure? That would be wrong. We need new and diverse voices. We need people at different stages of their life cycles to be public representatives at local and other levels.
I wish to focus in particular on councillors who are rearing a young family and trying to pay a mortgage and all the bills. Many of these councillors cannot access family income supplement, FIS, payment because their local authority cannot confirm that they work over 19 hours per week in order to qualify. If they have no other employment, they are relying on their representational payment of €302 per week. I thank all the councillors across the board who have contacted me about this and the other matters that affect them. One councillor I spoke to has three children. His spouse is not working and he is a full-time councillor. As the hours he works cannot be confirmed he is losing €98.40 per week. That is not right. Social Justice Ireland produced a report last week on 100,000 people living in consistent poverty in this country. Many of our councillors are in the working poor bracket, the people who are working day and night but cannot afford to pay the bills.
It was mentioned somewhere that a councillor works about 20 hours per week. I guarantee that I would never have stopped being a county councillor if all that was required was to work 20 hours per week. We all know that a councillor works well over 60 hours per week - I can speak for the hours I put into it - when one takes account of the meetings, the municipal district, the workshops and the myriad other occasions one has to attend. In addition, sometimes people are under the impression that when one attends an event as a councillor one is paid to do that. A great deal of material is put out in the media with regard to headline figures for what councillors earn and so forth, without looking into how much actually goes into their pockets. I worked it out on one occasion and I probably should not have done it, because I ended up calculating that I was being paid approximately €1 per hour as a councillor. I did the job because I loved doing it. It is a little like the curse of the cause because one gets into doing it and one wants to do more and more and to do one's best. Financially, however, that is what the rate was, and it is the rate for many councillors across the country. There has been an increase of €1,000 in salary and €2,000 in vouched expenses since then, but that has to be just a start.
I wish to clarify something relating to the vouched expenses. Some local authorities are requiring that home offices must be rateable offices before vouched allowance for home office and associated utilities will be paid. Can the Minister of State clarify that? I am perplexed as to why all the councils are not being compelled to implement the positive changes that have been made before now. Many young people who were elected in 2014 lack the support they require. That is the reason many councillors are leaving as well. Sometimes it can be put down to other issues but the enormity of the task they have to do without the resources they require to do the job is posing a problem. The aggregation of mileage returns becomes impossible when the entire spectrum of bodies has to be included.Very often councillors must represent their local authority at the last minute in front of bodies such as the Health Service Executive, education and training boards and regional assemblies etc., and this must be taken into account. New regulations on the annual fixed travel allowance are having an impact on councillors who were elected in 2014 and now must operate under this regime. That should be addressed. Many of these councillors also made financial predictions based on the system that was in place at the time of their election.
I could speak for much longer about this. It is not about "poor me" and we know so many people are in poverty in this country.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House again. Before I start giving out, I acknowledge the work he has done for councillors' pay and conditions. It is great to see him here but I cannot help but feel that we should not be having this debate again.
One councillor said to me recently that never has so much been said about so little money. In the 21 months since this Seanad convened, this is the third time we have discussed this matter, not to mention the times I and other Senators in the House have raised it on the Order of Business or at our own parliamentary party meetings. Most of us have been councillors, including the Minister of State, and all of us are aware of the great service that councillors provide to this country with their long hours. There is no need to rehearse over and over the reasons they deserve due recognition for their contribution because we already know them.
The time for talking is over and we need to just get the job done. In this regard I welcomed the undertaking the Minister gave us last November for a review of the supports provided to councillors, as well as the associated terms and conditions. I also welcomed the commitment from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in our parliamentary party meeting in February to the same review, with a board and an independent chair. If anybody is in doubt about that pledge by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, they can check it out because it was leaked to RTÉ after the meeting of 21 February. It is now time to stop looking and start doing. The review should not take a further eight months and this is not new, as we know all about it. Whatever the decision, it should be agreed and done before the summer break.
I know the Minister of State will take on board everything that has been said today and that he wants to bring closure to this. I acknowledge his hands are tied because the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has a say in it too. I nevertheless urge the Minister of State to stop the talking and let us do the job. Let us hope we will not have to come back here for another debate on this topic.
I thank Senator McFadden for sharing her time with me. I have spoken on quite a number of occasions on this matter so I will stick to a number of points. I welcome the Minister of State back to the House to debate the issue. As Senator McFadden has said, much has been spoken about what is a relatively easy matter with which to get to grips. I have no doubt but that with what has been done so far, there will be big improvements between now and when the review is finalised.
Having an independent chair, the setting up of the review and the timeframe for the review - it has been said it will be later this year - are very important. This must be done fairly quickly. I ask the Minister of State for a commitment today that when the review is finished, whatever the recommendations may be, they will be backdated to when all this started. The review has been ongoing, and we can allow it continue like that, but the Minister of State should give a firm commitment here on it. The review is most important, as this will set the standard and the framework for the future for local authority members. If it needs extra time, that is fair enough, but the Minister of State should at least give a commitment that the review, whatever its findings, will have its recommendations backdated either to now or a number of months ago.
I was first elected to a local authority nearly 40 years ago in 1979.
Huge changes have taken place in the role of the councillor. In my time it was part-time but now I do not know if a councillor's job is full-time, part-time or something else. In any event, it takes considerable time. To put this in context, somebody who is self-employed must more than likely employ somebody to do work every week, whether on a part-time basis like a day or half a day a week, and that would have consequences for business people. If these people are members of the local authority for five or ten years, they might have to pay redundancy at the end. Before the recession, a stipulation of two weeks of pay for every year of redundancy was used, with the Government paying 80% of the cost of the redundancy. Now the employer must pay the full cost of the redundancy. Somebody could be in the local authority for ten or 20 years employing a person part-time over that period and he or she could have to pay huge redundancy while getting a very small salary. This is important and should be taken into account in the review.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak. The Minister of State may look at Senators speaking passionately on the matter of councillors' rights with a small bit of cynicism. I would not necessarily blame him as the vast majority of Senators are here because we got elected by councillors, in the main. We did the circuit and we went around to all the different meetings. To be frank, the vast majority of councillors to whom I spoke were more concerned with national issues, although there were always concerns about the terms and conditions of the job at hand. Many people have spoken on this and I do not really want to repeat what has been said.
Before I came into politics, there was a general perception of councillors that was quite negative. Being from Dublin and having gone through the 1980s and the tribunals, the assumption was that a councillor's reputation was not great. I was elected to a local authority in 2004 and I was in the north inner city. I am very taken by Senator Black's comments on the responsibilities that councillors had in the north inner city, where I was elected. My mind was blown first because party whip and affiliation are well down the list of priorities when it comes to being a councillor. It is not like being in here or in the Dáil and there is not the same adversarial nature of party politics on the council. Councillors genuinely work across parties and there is not a strict whip system. If one goes to a public meeting, councillors generally work hand in glove in trying to get matters resolved. Councillors deal with matters that are very sensitive, such as parks, playgrounds and the public space, which is very important. I first ran for election because the library closest to where I taught in Sheriff Street did not open on a Saturday for some bizarre reason. I learned that was because the local authority decided it should not open on Saturdays. When I was elected we engaged with other parties, councillors and the city management and after a period the library was opened on Saturdays. It is that public space that they defend and advocate for and it is extremely important, as are the committees on which councillors sit.I was unable to sit on a remarkable number of committees because I was teaching at the same time as I was a councillor. They included the local drugs task force. I appreciate the comments made by Senator Conway-Walsh on the rural-urban divide and I accept that the comparison between rural and urban councillors is not necessarily fair considering the distances the former must travel. However, in various parts of the country, including cities, local authority members must attend crucial meetings dealing with life and death issues, for example, meetings of local drugs task forces.
Councillors have to become experts on everything overnight, from planning and drugs to traffic and ramps. Members of the education and training boards, previously known as vocational educational committees, must become experts in education. Councillors clearly take their responsibilities extremely seriously and the concern is that the only people who will be attracted to run for local election are those who have time on their hands or enough money to allow them to do the job. It would be a dangerous development if the only people attracted to local politics were those with time and money.
A large number of members of Dublin City Council resigned during my time as a councillor from 2004 until 2011. Most resignations were not related to political concerns or the reasons that Senators or Deputies resign but genuinely because some of those who ran for election in 2004 and 2009 did not realise the workload they would have and what was expected of them. A great deal is expected of local councillors. Following the resignations, those who were co-opted to take the vacant seats also found the job very difficult.
In fairness to the Minister of State, he gave a commitment on this issue at a meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. Perhaps Senators will be invited to the next such meeting. He also established a review with an independent chair, which will report by the end of the year. I am willing to accept that commitment and I will support the Minister of State in his endeavours in this regard. I look forward to the findings of the group. I will give him a fair wind by assuming the review will come up with the goods by the end of year.
I do not need to rehearse the arguments made by previous speakers. The jibes and jokes made about councillors are hurtful, for example, when they are asked how many brown envelopes they received in the previous week. Before I entered public life and ran for election, I made similar types of jokes. I subsequently observed that, regardless of political background or party, local representatives worked thanklessly, day in, day out on nitty-gritty issues and were always willing to engage with other political representatives. During my time on Dublin City Council, I joined the four other councillors in the north inner city, Christy Burke, Thomas Stafford, Emer Costello and Mick Rafferty, at many meetings across the north inner city which were attended by more councillors than residents. Sometimes people do not realise the commitment, time, dedication, knowledge and expertise councillors give to their work. They are supposedly part-time and if they are at a financial disadvantage and find they cannot keep going, they will resign which is a very difficult decision to make when one has secured a mandate and then finds one cannot continue to represent one's electorate.
If Members of the Oireachtas were honest, we would admit that between 80% and 90% of the work we do is council related. Who are at the front line of the housing crisis? It is councillors who must deal with local authority waiting lists and so forth. For this reason, having love bombed the Minister of State just now and another Fine Gael Party Minister yesterday, I was disappointed by the communication circulated by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to local authority members concerning their ability to make representations on planning applications. That was a bad, unfortunate and regrettable move because councillors know their areas well and are entitled to make representations on planning applications. Having said that, I agree with all the sentiments expressed by Senators on the work done by councillors. I am concerned, however, by the number of councillors who are resigning and the type of person who will be in a position to run for local office in future. We will support the review mechanism proposed by the Minister of State in the hope that it will produce the goods.
In that case, I will share time with Senator Robbie Gallagher.
Many of us understood that the review to which the Minister referred related to the holistic issue of terms and conditions for councillors. One of the proposals was to consider the type of system that operates in the Oireachtas. In his contribution, however, the Minister of State indicated the Revenue Commissioners had commenced a review of councillors' terms and conditions. While stakeholders will be consulted, I expect the review will deal only with the tax treatment of councillors' terms and conditions, for example, the matter raised by Senator Craughwell in respect of class K contributions. As such, it will not examine ways of improving terms and conditions. The Revenue Commissioners never improve anyone's conditions because rather than giving people money, they take money from people. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether the review has changed.
That is fine. I will look at the blacks because this is an important issue. The timeline is also critical. It will be important to consider a system for payments to public representatives similar to that in operation for Deputies and Senators. Local councillors are treated as but not paid as civil servants. They are not treated in the same way as national public representatives. The organisations representing local councillors made representations to Senators and Deputies and some are represented in the Gallery. They are also examining a scheme that would be appropriate and workable.
The abolition of town councils saved €5 million in direct payments to town councillors and €45 million overall. These savings should be used to improve the terms and conditions of the smaller number of local authority members and providing them with facilities such as secretarial supports.
I welcome the Minister of State. I acknowledge the work done by the representative associations, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA. The one word that springs to mind in this discussion is "frustration". Everyone is extremely frustrated by the time it is taking to make progress on this urgent issue. I speak with some authority on this matter having been a member of a local authority for more than 14 years. The Minister of State was also a local authority member and it is past time that we grasped the nettle and gave councillors what they deserve.The Minister of State mentioned he will put together a review group to look at this particular issue and I have a number of questions in this regard. I welcome the review group and it is important that local authority members are represented on it and that it would be chaired by a local authority member. I also understand that aside from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform through the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will be involved in it. Will the Minister of State advise us as to the current position in this regard? It is important a timeframe be set as to when the review group is meant to report back. As the Minister of State is aware, the local elections are scheduled for June next year and this does not give us much time. If we are to try to hold onto the elected members we have, we will have to get clarity on this issue because, as other Members have said, local authority members are walking away and we cannot afford to have this situation. Local authority members are the first direct contact above all other ranks of representation because they are on the ground 24-7. I would be delighted were the Minister of State to answer these few questions for us and give us some clarity on this issue.
We welcome the Minister of State and accept his good intentions. Across the House, we are all prepared to act in unison. We agreed this with the AILG and LAMA at the meeting in Buswell's not too long ago. I agree with everything that has been said and the Minister of State accepts it also. The system is a mishmash and needs resolution. It needs to be brought to a head quickly and we want that job done now. The councillors are fed up with the system and we are equally fed up with it. We depend on the Minister of State, in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to proceed with the establishment of the proposed local reform remuneration group with an independent chair who has the required industrial relations experience. I agree very much with the AILG and LAMA that we need a short timescale for the report to be finalised and produced. Equally, it is important to note there has been a very low uptake among councillors of the €5,000 vouched expenses. Perhaps this is a clear indicator that councillors simply do not see the benefit to them because there is a limited scope to what they can spend the expenses on. As I have said, we have spoken sufficiently on this and I understand the frustration all round. We are all united and we are prepared to go forward from the House united. We are very dependent on the Minister of State. We know his good intentions and it is over to him.
I echo what Senator Coghlan has said. It is very much the principle of all parties working together on this. I speak to councillors quite a lot, and they are fed up of receiving a succession of correspondence and email from practically every Member of the House about councillors' pay and conditions, stating they have made representations to the Minister and so on. We all make representations to the Minister. I have great time for this particular Minister of State and believe he is probably one of the most genuine people in Irish politics but ultimately, the Minister is the man with the power. None of us here have the power. What power do we have? We have the power to vote against legislation and we can be disruptive but we do not want to do this because the citizens of the country are the people affected when that happens. Moreover, it impedes legislation going through the House. This is the power that is open to us. We are in a situation where the people with the power are those in the Government.
The case has been very well articulated. We all have many examples of the length and breadth of the responsibilities and workload dealt with by councillors. My old electoral area of north Clare is now known as the west Clare municipal district. It starts down at the ferry in Killimer and goes right up to the Galway border. One could not service that. It is ridiculous and the Minister knows it too, which is why we are having a local government review. This will come out in June and will have more manageable constituencies.
Ultimately, the basic principle to which we all sign up is a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. It is reasonable to suggest the vast majority of councillors are putting in a fair day's work but they are not getting a fair day's pay. I know the Minister of State will respond, not today but on 24 April, and I hope that by then we will have some white smoke on this issue. Whatever the outcome will be, will it be backdated to cover the period of this review? If a payment is made, it should be a salary of €25,000 or €30,000. The AILG has suggested something along the same lines. Those for whom local authority membership is the primary principal occupation and a full-time job would pay the minimum rate of tax but if it is a second occupation, they would pay the higher rate of tax. This would create an equilibrium in its own right.
Ultimately, we should not be standing here talking about councillors' pay. It is an issue we should not have to debate in the Seanad. I encourage our colleagues in Dáil Éireann to have a debate on councillors' pay because they have a role in this as well. I do not hear very many of them standing up and fighting for councillors but when a general election is called, they will all be looking for them to go out canvassing. I would like to see a similar debate in Dáil Éireann and get the commitments of Deputies in this area. Members of the Seanad obviously have a vested interest because councillors vote for Senators and that is logical. The councillors have an absolute expectation that we will do the business for them as best we can and the vast majority of us do. I believe Dáil Éireann also has a vested interest in this because a properly functioning local government with active councillors is good for democracy. It is also good for Dáil Éireann. I encourage the Minister of State to have a similar debate in the Dáil where these issues can be articulated also. I am looking forward to good news from the Minister of State because ultimately it will come, but I hope the good has not gone out of it by the time it does.
I echo what has been said. I acknowledge the Minister of State's acknowledgement that there is an issue that needs to be addressed and that the impact of the revised payments to councillors had unintended consequences that need to be resolved. Whatever the resolution, it is vital it is backdated to when the problem first emerged. That would only be fair and correct. It would happen in any other scenario and it is important that it would happen here also.
We are speaking about an employment rights issue and individuals who give of their time for their local community but also for their local public service, which is the local council. The role of councillors should not be denigrated in any way to be less important than the role played by any other official at management level in the county council or city council structure. It is important this occurs. We have been speaking in here but as Senators, we do not have the capacity to introduce a Bill that would place a financial burden on the State by increasing the pay of councillors. We do not have that power. If we did we would do it, but we do not have that power and let us be clear about it. It is the Government that has the power to do this. The best way to do it is, as has been proposed by the AILG and LAMA, the establishment at arm's length of an organisation that would look into the remuneration of local authority members. Linked to this should be a re-evaluation of payment levels for all employees across the local government structure, including the chief executive officers. We do not have to go too far to learn of the experience of other jurisdictions in establishing such commissions. For example, there is an independent remuneration panel in Wales, and I have to hand a copy of its annual report. It looks at the payment of councillors, which is higher than here. It is independent.The chairman is independent, as are board members, and payment levels are provided to local authority members based on the public sector pay levels of officials. That is what we should follow. The same is evident in London regarding the remuneration of councillors. In London, it is divided into five bands with the lower band starting at a level of payment in the region of £15,000 to £17,000. It increases to a level of £65,000 to £90,000. They obviously treat democracy with the respect it deserves. We need to start doing the same and we need to stop listening to the media on this issue because if we do not, the people who will be disenfranchised will not be the councillors but the ordinary citizens because when the system is broken, people must ring up a public representative to get it fixed. That is the most important aspect of our functioning democracy at the level closest to the citizen, which is the councillor. One can look across the Atlantic to Canada, a jurisdiction with a local government structure similar to that in Ireland because our system is based on the British model, where they really value democracy. Canada has independent commissions in each of their councils. If one considers the independent council commission committee in Edmonton, I note average councillor pay is $93,000, which is around €60,000. An independent commission also operates in Deer Lake with the same level of remuneration. In Vancouver, the minimum is $80,000. There is lots of other information out there. The template has been established. Let us remove this from the politicians, get an independent chair and report back within a reasonable timeframe but let us make sure the findings are backdated to when the problem was first identified. That is vitally important.
The issue of councillors being obliged to attend conferences and meetings and sit on boards just to make up a living wage - it is not even a living wage when one breaks it down with all the hours - is not right or fair. Councillors deserve a proper level of remuneration - a wage. It is called a representational payment but it should be a salary and should provide for proper remuneration at a level that is comparable with other jurisdictions, our public sector and the chief executives in each local authority because they are protected by the trade union movement, while the councillors are not. The average wage of a chief executive officer is well in excess of €100,000. Some are in receipt of €150,000 to €200,000. Is their job more important? Some might argue that it is but do they deal with the public on a daily basis 24-7, seven days a week? No, they do not because they work nine to five and are protected by that. I am not in any way denigrating the role of chief executives because it is very important but so too is the role of the councillor. We need to get real and set the terms and conditions, establish the committee as soon as possible and make sure the chairperson of that committee has an independent ethos and a public understanding of the role of a councillor. There should be an opportunity for the representative bodies - the AILG and LAMA - to feed into that system as well and provide evidence if the opportunity emerges. I hope the Minister of State will deal with this as quickly as possible. What level of engagement and sincerity is being extended from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this issue? Has it given the green light to the establishment of this commission? If not, why not?
It is 2.14 p.m. Senator Dolan would have 16 seconds if he wanted to start. Rather than having a 16-second contribution today, it is probably more sensible for him to start the next day. We will resume on 24 April - I am not sure of the actual time - and Senator Dolan will be the first speaker on that day. Is that agreed? Agreed. It must be adjourned at 2.15 p.m. and it is now 2.15 p.m. That is the Order of Business that was agreed this morning by the House. I raised it myself but it must be adjourned at 2.15 p.m.