Seanad debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authority Members

10:30 am

Marie Sherlock (Labour)
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It is good to see Senator Warfield in the Chair. I am sure that the Minister of State is in no doubt as to the frustration among councillors regarding their pay and conditions and that he does not need reminding of the clear and unambiguous commitment in the programme for Government on the implementation of the Moorhead report within one year of the Government's formation. We find ourselves just under 18 weeks out from the first anniversary of that formation but we still have zero inkling as to what the Government intends. We have word that there is a report, produced by the Minister of State, sitting on the desk of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, but we have not seen it and we have no idea what the Cabinet intends to do with it. That is not good enough because this is not just about the pay and conditions of councillors, who have had to put up with lip-service being paid in respect of this issue for many years. Rather, it is not good enough because this is about respect for the important role that councillors undertake in policy making, advocacy and representation in their communities. It is about affording dignity to those who serve their communities. As a newly elected councillor, something that made an impression on me was a former lord mayor of Dublin racing out at the end of a meeting to go to a job in an An Post sorting office over Christmas because of a need to supplement that person's income as a councillor.

This is about ensuring that we attract those who want to serve their communities and, importantly, retain them when they become elected. We know that, if we are to improve the gender balance in local authorities and the Oireachtas, we must crack the nut of attracting more women to contest local elections. We can then ensure a greater gender balance. This is also about recognising that local government is the backbone of services across our communities.

The Moorhead report makes ten recommendations. All of them are important, but there are four that are within the Government's remit to enact. These relate to salary, travel and subsistence expenses in the course of a councillor's work, travel and subsistence expenses in the course of attendance at external meetings, and retirement benefits. With respect, I do not want to hear from the Minister of State about the work that is being done on the six other recommendations, which relate to flexibility in holding meetings, administrative support and other supports to councillors. At this point, that work should be undertaken within local authorities anyway. If we do not resolve the issue of pay and conditions, we will not resolve the six other conditions. If we do resolve it, though, we will ensure that councillors can pay for childcare, are not racing out the door to try to attend other meetings and can actually depend on their incomes as councillors.

I am conscious that there is not unanimity on the precise recommendations in the Moorhead report, particularly the recommended income level, but that is no reason to delay what the Government intends to do. The Government has a mandate in the programme for Government. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the important matter of the role and remuneration of elected local authority members. She gave the example of a councillor who was working while also trying to hold down a council role. I, too, was that councillor. In 2009, I was elected to a council alongside Senator Davitt, who has also been active in the issue of reforming local government. I went through the pressures and experiences of trying to attend to my council duties while also holding down a full-time job. That was difficult.I assure the House and all Senators who have spoken that I understand the pressures they are under. Councillors are responsible for a wide range of important functions, particularly with regard to statutory policymaking, strategic development, governance of local authorities, leadership and local advocacy, which is key.

As Senators are aware, Ms Sarah Moorhead, senior counsel, was appointed in June 2018 to carry out an independent review to examine the remuneration of councillors. During the course of her review, Ms Moorhead consulted widely with local authority elected members and their representative organisations, political parties, local authority chief executives and other stakeholders. Local authority members were also surveyed and detailed financial information regarding councillors' remuneration and role was sourced from all local authorities. Ms Moorhead's final report was submitted to the Government and then published on Friday, 19 June 2020. It was also circulated to all councillors and Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. As the Senator mentioned, the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, has a commitment to implement the Moorhead report on the role and remuneration of local authority members within 12 months. Meeting this commitment is a priority for me and the Department.

Further engagement and input from elected members and their representative associations are taking place during the implementation process. In this context, I have met local authority and elected members' representative associations over the months since my appointment. On more than one occasion, I have listened to their viewpoints on the report. They have welcomed some aspects of the report and rejected others, offering alternative proposals. Implementing the Moorhead report can mean many things to many people. It is important their concerns are given proper consideration. This important engagement was very welcome and I appreciate the role of elected members in it.

Any changes to elected members' remuneration will require regulations under section 142 of the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, which must be given effect with consent by my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. Proposals in this regard have been provided to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for his consideration and will be brought to the Government thereafter.

In addition to this, a working group has been established to examine the important non-pay recommendations contained in the Moorhead report and how these will be progressed in consultation with key stakeholders over a number of meetings through the working group. These stakeholders include representatives from the County and City Management Association, the Association of Irish Local Government, the Local Authority Members Association and a number of Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage officials. If needed, throughout the process other stakeholders or officials will be invited to contribute to the working group. The objective of the working group is to examine these recommendations and explore options to allow for their implementation at the earliest opportunity. The first meeting of the working group took place recently and the outcome of the group will devise a plan of action setting the key and valuable outcomes we need in this area. The proposed completion date for the said action plan is the second quarter of 2021.

It is believed that addressing pay and non-pay issues of extreme importance, such as examining possible efficiencies, meetings, training supports and technological developments, would provide for a better balance between the role of councillors and their personal lives, thus facilitating the retention of existing councillors while maximising the accessibility of local government and future candidates. This is key and one of my strong views is that a council chamber should be reflective of society and a microcosm of society at large. We want to try to work to achieve this. I thank all Senators for their help in this regard.

Marie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State. I also understand the pressures as I worked full-time while I was a councillor. There is a four-page response, for which I thank the Minister of State. Two pages of it are dedicated to what is being done on the non-pay recommendations. One paragraph is on pay. This is the issue agitating and distressing councillors the most. This paragraph notes a report is with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for his consideration and will be brought thereafter to the Government. Is the Minister of State saying the issue is being held up by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and that there is a failure to progress the pay issue, as set out in the Moorhead report, because the Minister is sitting on the report and failing to bring it to the Cabinet? We need clarity on this in the House today.To be honest, councillors want to hear about all of the recommendations but the recommendation on pay is the single most important recommendation in this report, and they deserve to hear answers.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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First, there is no report. The time for reports is over. There has been enough talking done on this. There is a proposal to be signed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform because it requires his consent. I have completed the work on that. I believe I have a proposal that is fair, balanced and reflects the needs of councillors and, indeed, the reforms that we need in this area, which is key.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I cannot tell the House before the Government approves anything. I think we know that is the form of course. I am not going to announce that here today. I thank all of government for their work. Their work has been very engaging. The one thing I wanted to do when I came into this Department was to move this matter along because I know it has existed for too long, there has been way too much talk about it and we need action. I have done my work on this. I assure the House that there is a fair proposal.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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Just one paragraph is required to reform the pay and expenditure aspects. The non-pay issues are more complex. One could even bring in the key issue of maternity leave. We need to examine in a wider context all the key issues that councillors are facing.