Friday, 18 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
I wish to respond to the Minister of State's remarks regarding councillors' pay and conditions. Schedule 1 at Vote 34 refers to the allocation of moneys to the office of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, "including grants to Local Authorities, grants and other expenses in connection with housing, water services, miscellaneous schemes, subsidies,grants and payment of certain grants under cash-limited schemes", while Vote 35 refers to retired pay, pensions and compensation. Political courage is needed here, as is a sense of reality vis-à-visthe pay and conditions of councillors. I am not going to labour the point but assure the House that this is not about us as parliamentarians reaching out to the people who elect us but about respect. This is about recognising the role of local authority members and ensuring that people will continue to come into politics who will not be beholden to anyone else. My greatest concern is that we are making politics at all levels the preserve of the few. We should not do that.
Ireland is very different from other countries in terms of the amount spent on elections. The amount spent in America, for example, on state, House of Representative and Senate elections as well as presidential elections is absolutely absurd. In terms of raising money to run for election, we have very strict limits on political donations in this country, which I fully support, and I hope we never deviate from that. In the old days, we had what was called "walking around money" in the context of local government and we all saw what happened at various tribunals of inquiry. We can never go back to those days. I do not know anybody in this House who wants to see politics demeaned. Nobody wants to see anyone other than voters - the citizens to whom representatives are accountable - having an influence over elected members. That is why it is important to take the bold but correct decision to improve the pay and conditions of councillors. The can has been kicked down the road and the buck has been passed repeatedly. The issue is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at this point. To be fair to the Minister of State, he has to work within certain parameters. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who has been in politics for a long time, both as a local authority member and as a Member of these Houses, should just sign the order to pay our councillors properly. The Leas-Chathaoirleach made reference earlier to the Moorhead report but that report did not get everything right and we should not pretend that it did. I appeal to the Minister of State to use the funding available.
I also appeal to him, as a member of the Green Party, to ensure that the lower Lee flood relief scheme in Cork is built. As can be seen from the Schedule, new Departments have been created and I welcome that. Today Mr. Barry O'Connor retires as president of Cork Institute of Technology, CIT. I mention this in the context of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and thank Mr. O'Connor for his leadership at CIT and for the way in which steered the amalgamation of CIT with the Institute of Technology Tralee, ITT, to form the Munster Technological University, MTU.
The aforementioned flood relief scheme must start. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy O'Donovan, was in Cork a couple of weeks ago following a serious flooding event. This week we had an orange weather warning in Cork, with more flooding forecast but thanks to the grace of God, the wind changed direction and the city was not flooded again. It is time for the talking to end. We have had a gargantuan consultative process and we must now ensure that the money that has been allocated is not lost. The former Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Moran, said previously that the money could go elsewhere but I do not want to see that happening in Cork. The lower Lee flood relief scheme is being held up by a very well-intentioned group, whose motivation is not in question but the project has been seriously delayed and businesses have closed as a result. Business owners are in constant dread and families living in the inner city are worried and fearful.
I appeal to the Minister of State to raise the aforementioned issues with the Minister. We are missing an opportunity here, especially as we are dealing with a Bill that speaks to salaries, expenses and administration costs as well as referring to local government. I thank him for his attention.
I also wish to speak about councillors' pay, which has already been mentioned by three Senators. I agree that the time for talking is over. A decision must be made and it should be made sooner rather than later. This has been a protracted process. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has been mentioned twice during this debate but he has only held that brief for the last six months. Previous speakers should remember that their party held that brief for a considerable number of years previously and no decision was made. I sat on the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government in the previous Dáil, which found it impossible to get access to the Moorhead report. Fianna Fáil actually had to include the report in the programme for Government to be able see it. I would not have said anything today except for the fact that a colleague of mine was mentioned and it was implied that he has sole responsibility. I just want to remind those Senators that their party has been in government for the past nine years and could have dealt with this issue. We all agree that councillors need to be respected for the work they do and the role they play in their communities. Everybody has accepted the principle but the decision has not been made. A debate was had in public at the previous committee meeting before the dissolution of the previous Dáil. The media ran with it so I do not know what we are waiting for at this stage. We just need to get on with it but I am not overly happy with how it has been portrayed here. Senators have suggested is that it is a decision for the Minister and have asked why he has not made it yet but the same Senators were in government for the past nine years and did not address the issue.
I do not disagree with Senator Casey; it should have been sorted out years ago but was not. The point I am making is that the Minister with responsibility is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. That is the context in which I referenced Deputy Michael McGrath.
I thank the Minister of State for his generous offer to discuss the issues relating to Galway, which I will certainly take him up on. I also concur with Senator Casey's point that many people think councillors have already received pay increases because they have been announced a number of times. A number of councillors have told me that people have said to them that councillors have received X amount over the recent period when they have not. It is time to make a decision on this very important issue.Councillors' pay is pretty much what it was when I entered a local authority in 2004 so it needs to be addressed. Successive Governments have been afraid to do anything that benefits politicians because politicians are almost regarded as bad people now. There seems to be a view that one could not possibly do anything for them, even though they have difficult jobs and do difficult work across the Houses of the Oireachtas and in local authorities. This view is regrettable because elected public representatives and other public servants have noble professions that we need to encourage people to embrace. If we did not have democracy, people who guard democracy and people who run for election, where would we be?
We have heard about many working from home during the pandemic. They have been doing so out of necessity but there has been a move across all Departments and agencies to encourage working from home anyway. Has there been any feedback from Departments on how it has worked? Obviously, it has benefited many people. What is the view of assistant secretaries and Secretaries General of Departments? Do they regard working from home as positive or are there drawbacks and limitations? It is worth having a review in each Department to determine whether it could be promoted. We are aware of its benefits in terms of reducing commuting times, the carbon footprint and pressure on roads and public transport, where it is available. I do not like asking whether working from home has improved efficiency but is it at least comparable with working in Departments or State agencies in normal times?
I want to speak on two issues. First, I concur with what everyone has said on several occasions in this Chamber over several years about councillors' pay. I am genuinely puzzled because, in my naïveté, I had assumed this problem would have been dealt with by now. I suppose I have an interest in the Sinn Féin councillors, in particular, because most of them tend to be full-time councillors. The problem we have is that it is almost impossible to live on the salary of a full-time councillor. It is part of the ethos that runs through our party, however.
In the five years I have been here, Senators from all sides have spoken about the need to address this matter. I take Senator Kyne's point that there may be reluctance to do anything for politicians but I would counter that by saying that we all agree on what is required. There is no one in opposition saying the councillors should not be given the money.
I take Senator Casey's point, that is, that this really should have been dealt with in the nine years in which Fine Gael was in government. It had ample opportunity to do something about it. It is inexcusable that nothing was done; let us be clear about that. The damage that was done to local governments by the Fine Gael–Labour Party Government was appalling. I refer to how it took apart many of our local government structures, town councils and so on. However, I do not want to revisit old history, particularly today, other than to make the point that I am genuinely surprised this was not dealt with in the expenditure items for this year. I would like to understand when it will be dealt with. Surely to God we will not have to have this conversation again in 12 months, or even six months. Surely this has to be dealt with sooner. Senator Kyne is correct that the public is under the impression that councillors have received pay increases although no such increases have been made.
My colleague Senator Craughwell has rightly been making the point about the special class K contributions that Senators make. I meant to raise this the other day but I did not get the opportunity. The contribution is absolutely useless to us. This really needs to be addressed as part of an overall review of finance. Solutions have been suggested. Senator Craughwell has been championing this particular issue in the House, again for five years or more. I really hope we will not still be talking about it in 12 months. The whole Chamber agreed something needs to be done because what is occurring is fundamentally unfair. Colleagues from all parties lost their seats in the last Seanad election and find they have no support from social welfare.
I have to raise the Coonagh Cross–Knockalisheen road project in Limerick and the fact that it has had 15 start dates postponed since 2012. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has admitted he is delaying the project for a further review. The project is crucial to the infrastructure of the north side of Limerick. It is a working-class area. The project is crucial to opening up Moyross, in particular. The good people of Moyross have waited for years. They have been disappointed by Government after Government and are at their wits' end. I appeal to the Minister of State to speak to his colleague, the Minister for Transport, because the project must not be delayed continuously. It is an essential part of the Limerick city infrastructure. It is essential to open up the north side, which is the most deprived side of our city. Action and an urgent start are required.
I thank Senator Gavan. Normally I would not try to curtail Senators' time but I am doing so now only for one reason and with a view to being helpful to colleagues. This motion has to be concluded at 12.45 p.m. There is just less than ten minutes left. I will call colleagues according the order in which they offered to speak. We have a burgeoning speaker list, for some reason. If Members want to co-operate and help each another, they should speak for a minimal amount of time.
On behalf of the Green Party, I wish to refer to how we recognise and value elected members of local government and to demand fair treatment for them considering the incredibly hard work they do. All Members of the Seanad bring their own experiences and they are all very helpful in offering their opinions and making suggestions on supporting local county councillors. I would like to believe my own journey can add some value to the debate because I may have the near-unique distinction of having served in two county councils in two provinces. Therefore, I am aware of what county councillors do at the front line. I am aware of meetings that take place after midnight, when the pizzas come in and when councillors have not got a chance to put their children to bed. I am aware that county councillors comprise the lifeblood and nerve centre of our democratic system. It is only right that they be recognised not with empty lip service but with concrete action. The Minister of State, having served as a councillor with distinction in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, has, like most of us, come through the school of privilege, hard knocks and excitement himself so he knows at first hand what I am talking about.
Nine years is a long time to wait for progress on this. The Green Party is now in government. I will expect words to be translated into action. Nothing else will be accepted. I acknowledge that I have the support of the Minister of State in this regard. We will be judged by our actions. I will not go down the road of populism and ducking for cover. Our county councillors deserve a salary rise — end of story. We are losing county councillors who got elected in good faith because they simply cannot continue in their privileged role as servants of the people due to the financial constraints. That is not good enough. We are also failing to attract people to this vital tier of democracy because they cannot make it work financially.
Why is there an anomaly in the system whereby county councillors have to pay rates on their offices, unlike MEPs or Deputies? A county councillor who is working really hard and wants a constituency office is treated differently from democratically elected people at other levels. Why do the county councillors not get leave from their workplaces? Some nearly have to beg their employers to go to a plenary session of the county council.
The Government will be judged on actions, not words.This Government will be judged on actions, not words. The time for talking is long since past. The Moorhead report is gathering dust. It behoves us to move in the right direction. We have to and I implore the Government to do so. There can be no more tokenism. We need real concrete support for our hard-working county councillors.
We have less than five minutes remaining. We will take the following speakers in this order: Senator Gallagher, Senator Crowe, Senator Craughwell, Senator Garvey, Senator Keogan and Senator O'Loughlin. If Members want to do 40-second speeches, everyone will get in. I cannot stop them if they do not want to.
I appreciate the latitude the Leas-Chathaoirleach is giving us and I appreciate that other Senators want to say a few words on this matter. With regard to the two previous speakers, Senator Martin mentioned that the time for talking is over. None of us need to say any more on what councillors do. Everyone knows what they do. Senator Gavan summed it up very eloquently in his contribution. This is not about a blame game or pointing the finger at Fine Gael and saying that it has been in government for eight years and has done nothing. We are not going to go there. It is Christmas. Fianna Fáil is in government.
I will be brief out of respect for other Members. This is straightforward. I was a councillor for 11 years. The reality is that we are losing young and ambitious people from local government because they just cannot give the commitment that is required. This is causing untold difficulties. I believe every Member has great respect for local authority members and the work they do, which we know at first hand. The majority of Members have been members of local authorities. Councillors must be respected. The reality is that the present terms and conditions are a farce. I am fully aware that this is the case on the ground. It is unacceptable. There is a race to the bottom, which we must stamp out. The time for talking is over. We must get on with it. I hope that, in the coming days, Santy will arrive for the councillors.
I will be as quick as I can. I brought this issue up on Inchydoney Island in 2015. I said that no government was going to increase the pay of councillors and, to date, I have been proven correct. How does any government or political party dare to treat these people in the way they have treated them over the five years I have been in this House? These are the foot soldiers for political parties. They are the guys who go out in the rain. Senator Kyne said a few moments ago that we do not respect local politicians in the way we should. Every other Senator has said the same. None of us have a monopoly on this issue. The Government should pay them. By the way, what is offered in the Moorhead report is not worth giving to them. They need a decent salary. If one is on social welfare and is elected as a councillor, one's social welfare payments stop. A councillor's money is not, however, a salary. There is no master-servant relationship between the council and the councillor. It is an allowance to assist them in doing the job they have been elected to do. When their salaries are fixed, therefore, they must also be taken out of the loop with regard to any social welfare benefit to which they are entitled. I respect those on social welfare in the same degree as I respect millionaires. I would love to go on for another ten minutes but the Leas-Chathaoirleach will not let me.
Not only do we need to pay councillors properly but we also need to look at the lack of power given to local authorities over the years. We have reduced the money and power they get and, as a result, the job of councillors, who receive this low wage, is even harder. They do not have money to fix water infrastructure or to fix houses. That has all been centralised. As we discuss the Appropriation Bill, I would like us to look at that issue and to rethink how we allocate power and money to local government in addition to considering the issue of councillors' wages.
I will try to be as quick as I can. Since I have come into the House, I have been advocating for councillors' pay. Today the ladies and gentlemen of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party will pass this Bill. Why do they not just amend it now to include the issue of councillors' pay? They should stop talking and walk the walk. They have the power to do so. They should not pass this Bill today. They should get the issue of councillors' pay into it. Today is their day.
Effective local democracy is the absolute cornerstone of a functioning society and that respecting and valuing the work that local councillors do is very important, as is supporting with resources the work that needs to happen at local government level.
I agree with my fellow Senators. The commitment Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party gave was one of the few things in the programme for Government to which a time limit applied. It will happen. I have no doubt about that. I look forward to that. I also appreciate the good work done by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, on this issue. It was not a simple matter. The full implementation of the Moorhead report would not have been good enough for the councillors. We have gone above and beyond that.
I thank Senators for their co-operation. We strained a point to get them all in. The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am now required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Seanad of this day: "That Schedules 1 and 2 are hereby agreed to in Committee, that the Title is hereby agreed to in Committee, and that the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without recommendation; that Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and that the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and returned to the Dáil."