Thursday, 29 November 2018
Local Authority Finances
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to take this matter. In essence, I am seeking an update on the Government's commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government which states:
We will also examine the possibility of extending the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee to include expenditure by local authorities. We will ensure that local government funding, structures and responsibilities strengthen local democracy.
I do not doubt that commitment. Sitting county councillors tell me that they are experiencing some difficulty even in having time on their agendas to consider the local government auditor's report. We know that local authorities are audited through the internal structures of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government that deal with the local government audit service. Most local authorities have only received in the past two or three weeks the local government auditor's report for 2017. I know that in one case in Dún Laoghaire councillors only had approximately ten minutes to consider a very detailed report, in which a number of very strong issues of concern were raised by the auditor. We know that the Committee of Public Accounts has expressed an interest in having representatives of local authorities come before it and that the Government is committed to doing something. It is just a question of when or having a timeframe for it. There is a real need for accountability. Local government is spending an exceptionally large amount. I picked up the Supplementary Estimates for public services, in which document we can see the substantial amount committed to by the Government. I do not doubt its commitment to funding local authorities, but we must have accountability.
Yesterday when I contacted the National Oversight and Audit Commission, it told me that although it could inquire into matters, ultimately, there was no provision for sanctions. The local government audit service also confirmed to me that, ultimately, it had no powers to impose sanctions either. The bottom line is that county managers, or chief executives as we know them today, must be held to account. It is time we had them before the Committee of Public Accounts or a similar body to account for how they spend public money. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response.
The Senator is correct. The programme for Government outlines this commitment under the heading of local government reform. The Senator will be glad to know that in the past couple of months I have been doing some work on the matter with my officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I are former members of the Committee of Public Accounts, as is the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I have committed publicly to extending the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General to cover the local authority sector. There is no reason the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot cover local authority services. As somebody who served on the committee, I found it very frustrating that we were unable to have chief executives, or county managers as they were known, before it.
The Minister and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions. Within the Department we have worked up a proposal jointly with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I hope it will be brought before the Government shortly in order that we can examine the possibility of putting in place an implementation group between the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, with a view to extending the remit. There is no reason Members of the Houses should not have access to information on the funding voted by the Houses for the local authorities. They have access to that level of information, scrutiny, oversight and audit in every other single element of voted expenditure. I cannot explain and will not attempt to duck, dive or conceal the fact that it has not happened up to now, as it should have. There is no reason for the chief executives of local authorities not to be here. They should be held to account. It is what happens in the case of the chief executives of other agencies and Accounting Officers of Departments who are held to account by the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I was a member, as were the other two Ministers. The Senator is absolutely right that there is no reason this should not happen.
I can update the Senator as we move along, but he will be glad to know that this matter has been discussed by me on a number of occasions with the other two Ministers, both of whom agree with me. My officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have liaised with officials in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and I hope, as Minister of State with responsibility for this matter, to be in a position to bring a proposal to the Government shortly. It is very frustrating for members of the Committee of Public Accounts and other Members of the Oireachtas that there is no scrutiny to this level of such a large Vote from which funding is allocated by the Houses to the local authority sector.
I thank the Minister of State who clearly is very committed to dealing this issue. It is one of the strongest and most robust responses I have heard from any Minister in my short period in the House. I say, "Well done" to the Minister of State. I will have no doubts in leaving here today that the Minister of State and the Government are strongly committed to this initiative. I thank him most sincerely.