Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Local Authority Members' Remuneration
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan. I request an update on councillors' remuneration, pay and conditions generally. This is an issue that has been raised many times in the House and still very much a concern for many of the councillors to whom I speak on a regular basis. They believe they are not being properly supported in doing their job and that it is not worth their while doing it. As the Minister of State and everyone present know, the amount of time input by councillors on a daily basis is phenomenal. At a time when we are trying to encourage females and other individuals to enter politics which is a difficult profession, we need to support the foundation of politics, namely, councillors and to make sure they are properly remunerated for the work they do. They do not go into politics for the money. None of us does, but they should be remunerated effectively for the job they do on a daily basis. I know that these issues have been raised many times and that the Minister of State is fully aware of them, but we must be professional in how we do our business.From councillors to Senators, Deputies, Ministers and the Taoiseach, we need to be properly supported in the work we do. To my mind, councillors are not remunerated sufficiently for the work they do. That may be an unpopular thing to say. There is, however, a perception that they earn a lot of money and that anyone engaged in the political arena must be earning a lot of money. Councillors are poorly remunerated for the excellent work most of them do.
I look forward to the Minister of State's response and hope this issue is to the forefront of his mind in the context of his portfolio.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter which is to the forefront of my mind. Like her, I deal with councillors every day of the week and the underlying reality is that they are underpaid. The purpose in conducting the review was to examine how we should remunerate them appropriately into the future.
Following on from the feedback from local authority elected members and their representative bodies, as well as in debates in this House on councillors' current remuneration regime, I agreed with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to carry out a review of the role and remuneration of local authority elected members. Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, was tasked with carrying out the independent review, consulting key stakeholders, as necessary. An interim report on the review was submitted to me by Ms Moorhead in November 2018. It may be found on my Department's website. To progress towards the final report, it was necessary to survey all local authority members and seek financial information from all local authorities. The survey has been completed and the financial data collected, although in both cases deadline extensions were required. I expect to receive the final report shortly. In accordance with the agreed terms of reference, the report must be the subject of discussion between my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is to ensure that, in accordance with the agreed terms of reference, the review will have regard to the wider public pay and industrial relations context.
Following the necessary consultation, it is my intention that the review will be submitted to the Government and published immediately thereafter. My expectation is that the review will more comprehensively define the role of councillor and make recommendations for modernising the remuneration package in order that it will be commensurate with the role. Once the report has been published, I will be happy to return to the Seanad to discuss the matter further. In the meantime, I remind the House that in recognition that immediate action was required for councillors, since my appointment as Minister of State I have introduced a range of improvements to the supports provided for councillors, including a new allowance for them worth €1,000 per annum, backdated to 1 July 2017, in recognition of the additional workload following the 2014 reforms and a new optional vouched expenses regime up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, of which councillors may choose to avail instead of the existing unvouched allowance of up to €2,500 per annum. The payment to councillors which is linked with a Senator's salary was increased to €17,359 per annum with effect from 1 September 2019. It will increase further in line with adjustments arising from the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 to 2020.
I again thank the Senator for raising this matter. I take the opportunity to thank Senators for their keen interest in the role of councillor and the supports underpinning it.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I note that work is ongoing. On use of the terms "shortly" and "once published", does it mean that the report will be published in the coming weeks, or will it be published early next year? On the Minister of State's reference to Senators' keen and ongoing interest in the role of councillors, that is logical, as they are our electorate. We have close working relationships with many of them. It is incumbent on us as Senators to seek to improve conditions for them. I note that the Minister of State is also focused on the issue and know that he is genuine in his remarks, but I hope the matter can be expedited. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of State on his definition of "shortly".
It was intended that the report would be with me before the summer recess. To this effect, we met some of the representative groups, but a number of issues arose that prevented it from being finalised before the summer recess. When I use the word "shortly", I mean that I expect to be receipt of it within the next two weeks. At that stage, there will be consultation between my officials and officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform who, I am sure, as the Senator will understand, have a keen interest in this issue. With the officials in the local government section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, they were joint sponsors of Ms Moorhead's efforts to examine the role of councillors and the rate of remuneration.
From a cursory review of the results of the survey, councillors' remuneration is at or just below the national minimum wage in terms of the number of hours they put in versus pay. That is unacceptable. As I said, "shortly" mean that I expect to receive the report within the next two weeks. After it has been brought to the Government, it will be published. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I, with our officials, will have to discuss the report, with a view to implementing it. It will not sit on the shelf. There are a couple of key matters which I have been pushing, including that any change introduced be backdated to the last local elections when there was an expectation that the new regime would kick-in early in the new term for local authority members. Whatever changes are made should be backdated to the end of May when councillors were elected.
On when the report will be published in the wider world, including Senators and councillors, it will be post the tick-tacking with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government makes a decision either to accept, amend or reject it. I will be pushing very hard for its acceptance and a plan of action for the introduction of the changes recommended therein. It will be a number of weeks before this happens, but I hope it will happen before the new year.
I know that the Minister of State will be aware of this, but in the context of the overall budget of many councils, councillors' remuneration is minuscule. Therefore, there must be scope for improvement. I note what the Minister of State had to say about interaction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is key, but that point has to be to the forefront of people's minds in the negotiations on this matter. We all accept that councillors' remuneration is not sufficient. In the context of the overall budget of councils, councillors' pay is tiny. I again thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive and genuine response.