Monday, 22 February 2021
Councillors' Pay: Motion
That Seanad Eireann: acknowledges:- the increased workload of city and county councillors since the passing of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, and the subsequent restructuring of local government in Ireland;notes:
- the willingness of councillors to take on additional duties, travel further across their constituencies and to fully engage with the reform process;
- the number of representations made by city and county councillors to members of the Oireachtas since 2014, to have their representational payment increased to reflect the substantial expansion in workload;
- the representations made by the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) and the Local Authority Members Association (LAMA) to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on their behalf;- the promises made by three successive Governments to address the issue of councillors’ representational payments;regrets:
- the issue of councillors’ pay has been the topic of several motions and debates during the 24th, 25th and now the 26th Seanad;
- the publication in June 2020, of the Independent Review of the Role and Remuneration of Local Authority Elected Members by Sara Moorhead SC;
- the recommendation in the Moorhead report that councillors' pay be increased by €8,000 a year;
- that the Programme for Government includes a commitment to the full implementation of the Moorhead report;- that no further progress has been made on councillors pay since the Minister of State with responsibility for Planning and Local Government, Deputy Peter Burke, presented proposals to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform last year;calls on the Government to:- act on its commitment in the Programme for Government to increase councillors’ pay;
- provide an update on the status of the recommendations of the Moorhead report since proposals were sent to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath;
- confirm when the proposed increase of €8,000 per annum will be added to councillors’ salaries; and
- outline when the other proposals recommended in the Moorhead Report will be implemented.
I am sharing my time with my colleague, Senator Keogan. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is ironic that we are debating this matter on the very day when a headline in the Irish Independentreads "Revealed: TDs in line for pay rise to push their wages back over €100,000". As recently as last week we had yet another Commencement debate on the issue of councillors' pay, one of dozens since I first took my seat in 2014.
We could paper the walls of this illustrious Chamber with the emails and newsletters Senators have sent to councillors, each promising to secure a pay increase for them. I bucked that trend and told a shocked meeting of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, in Inchydoney in 2015 that there would be no increase in councillors' pay that year, or any other year, because they are not respected for the work they do and, at any rate, there was no political will to increase it. I was told by then president of the association, who is now a Minister of State, that there was no room for people like me to make solo runs on the matter and that it would be handled by Government. This was in 2015. I was stunned by this because I was the first person to raise the issue of councillors' pay in the Seanad in 2014, soon after the local government reform programme was rolled out. At that time, many told me that I should not have spoken publicly about politicians' pay. Why is that? Should we only deal with these issues in back rooms, out of sight of the taxpayer? Councillors work hard for their communities and, as such, they are entitled to a decent salary.
Why did I speak out on pay and PRSI back then? I did so because it was immediately obvious to me that the Local Government Reform Act 2014, associated with the action plan entitled Putting People First, had put councillors last. As a result of the reforms, the workload of councillors and the distances they had to travel across their constituencies were greatly increased. I am a committed trade unionist and I subscribe fully to the mantra that if one does more work, one should get more pay.
If I have learned anything over the past six and a half years, it is that, as constituents, councillors are treated appallingly by members of Government and that it takes a court case or some other metaphorical gun to the head to get results. In 2016, I was rapporteur for class K PRSI on the education and welfare committee. This class of PRSI is charged at 4%, which is the same rate as for class A, but there are absolutely no benefits associated with it. I had raised the matter through Commencement debates in the Seanad but the Government was unwilling to act, so I assembled a group of county councillors who were willing to take a massive risk with regard to cost and take a constitutional challenge to the High Court against being charged class K PRSI. The outcome of the challenge was that Government changed councillors' class of PRSI to class S. How much money was spent trying to preserve the arrangement regarding class K PRSI only for the Government to capitulate at the last moment? It is deeply regrettable that this has been the only major achievement in respect of councillors' terms and conditions in all those years and it would never have happened if those brave councillors who joined with me had not moved on it in the first place.
Promises are made, especially at Seanad election time and during the formation of the present Government. These are soon forgotten once Deputies and Senators secure their seats and offices. As someone who came to this House from outside the political establishment, I find this disgusting and I applaud councillors for their patience, particularly with their own political parties. I am horrified every time I hear a Government party Senator calling on the Minister to resolve the issue of councillors' pay. It is window dressing of the worst kind. One councillor asked me whether these Senators think that councillors are stupid enough to believe a word of it. Over the past six and a half years, Fianna Fáil has blamed Fine Gael for this failure. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been in power since this time last year and still nothing has been done. If there is any reason for this unforgivable heel dragging, it can only be cowardice. We have political parties that are afraid to upset the public by giving pay increases to those who are on the lowest rung of the political ladder, but it is this rung that is arguably the most important. As is evident from today's newspaper, however, they are not afraid to accept pay increases and increased numbers of ministerial positions and advisers themselves. It really smacks of pulling the ladder up behind them.
In 2018, the long-awaited Moorhead report was published. Some of the report's ten major recommendations have been contentious, especially those relating to pay, allowances, expenses and pension entitlements. I acknowledge the difference of opinions on how best to remunerate councillors for their work, but this cannot be used as an excuse for delay. It is now 2021 and the commitment in the programme for Government to implement the pay element of the Moorhead report's recommendations is fast approaching.Can the Minister of State confirm for us today if what was reported in the media is true? Has the Cabinet signed off on the proposals which we were told he brought to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, before Christmas? I am certain that his reply is eagerly awaited by the hundreds of councillors who are watching the debate today. Perhaps there is a plan somewhere to price ordinary people out of politics. Perhaps the Government would prefer it if only the wealthy could enter politics on the lowest rung of the ladder. Many councillors are unemployed and many more will be unemployed at the end of the pandemic. Many of them are women and the council salary is their only income. Perhaps the Government would prefer it if they did not run for election.
The media are also listening to the debate. I ask the esteemed political press corps to stop adding to the problems of councillors by framing this debate as "whopping pay increases", "very generous allowances","big expenses", etc. This not only reduces public trust in democracy, it undermines the councillors' case. I can tell the Minister of State that they are sick to the teeth of being portrayed in this way. The miserly pay increase recommended in the Moorhead report has been reported in the media many times already yet not a single cent has been paid. I ask the media to stop. We saw what happened in the USA when the democratic process was undermined. It may sell newspapers but it is grossly unfair to councillors and to democracy itself.
I appreciate that the Minister of State is only in office a short time and he has been confronted with this issue. Could he guarantee that no councillor will be worse off if the recommendations in the Moorhead report are implemented? Could he tell me what the rate of pay will be? Will the payment match a grade in the public service or will it be linked to the pay of Senators and Deputies? If the payment is linked to a public service grade, will it track that grade always? Will there be an incremental scale, or will the payment be a flat payment? When precisely will this payment commence? Will the pay be made retrospective and be paid from the date of the election, as was promised? Will the Minister of State remove the requirement for travel accumulation for councillors, as recommended by the Moorhead report? Many councillors, for example, travel significant distances for council meetings, but they are also members of education and training boards, the health board and they are involved with various other public services. This is becoming a major problem and is a disincentive to them getting involved in these organisations.
Those are the questions that have been put to me in recent days by county councillors from all parties and none. It is most regrettable that nothing has been done six years on. Not only are county councillors the go-to people in local authority areas, but they work extremely hard. They are committed to their communities and their own political parties. At election time they are the foot soldiers of political parties. We should not be embarrassed about arguing the case for pay for county councillors. They deserve what they are getting. We reduced the number of councillors significantly in 2014 and we increased the local authority areas. It is time that we took on board the difficult task of getting the remuneration correct for them so that they are paid and looked after. There are a number of other matters I might bring up later but for now, I will hand over to my colleague, Senator Keogan.
I thank Senator Craughwell for bringing this matter to the House today. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for coming to the Seanad to take on board our considered views on the role and remuneration of councillors. Since I have been elected to the Seanad, the inadequate pay structure of councillors has been high on my agenda. I was told by the Leader of the Seanad that a day would be set aside for my colleagues in this House to discuss the Moorhead report. A Private Members' motion had to be brought by three Independent Senators to force the hand of the Government to account on this issue. The Government should be utterly ashamed of itself for failing to take this matter more seriously. County councillors are the loyal foot soldiers of political parties when it comes to canvassing at election time. As a former county councillor, I enthusiastically welcome the opportunity we now have to deal with this topic and to introduce meaningful reform in this area.Surely all present can agree that this matter concerns not only the role and pay of local authority elected members, but also the quality and effectiveness of local government for the people of Ireland.
What do I want? I want better local government that will enhance the lives of people in all 31 local authority areas across the State. How can we achieve this objective? One important step towards achieving it is the fair and proper recognition of the work of councillors and the extraordinary time commitment the role requires. How do we do this? We do this as any good and fair employer would, that is, by paying councillors properly. We do it by providing them with a pension in the same way as for all other public servants and public representatives. We do it by providing them with properly structured and expertly delivered training and testing, thereby equipping them to serve their communities in a more effective and professional way. We do it by dropping the pretence that the role of the councillor is a part-time one. In reality, it is not. It is a full-time role and should be paid accordingly.
What I propose is not mere constructive and conservative tinkering with the existing system but, rather, true reform of local government that will allow councillors to dedicate themselves to the task of providing better local government to citizens. Key elements of this reform are the recognition of the full-time role of councillors in representing their communities and exercising their local authority functions. It is noteworthy that councillors administer a combined budget of €5 billion annually. It is important, therefore, that supports are put in place to educate and empower councillors and provide them with the skills needed to exercise good governance and compliance in the distribution of this significant budget.
Since May 2019, there have been 72 co-options onto local government. Some of these co-options have been due to members being appointed or elected to this House or the Dáil, while others have resulted from vacancies arising from workload involved in being a councillor. Good people are being lost to local government because of our failure to support them as they deserve in accessing a living wage. It is impossible for young councillors to stay in local politics. The wage is paltry and the job is temporary. It is impossible to obtain a mortgage, car loan or any form of finance in that situation. In recent years, the media have announced more than six pay increases nationally for councillors but, in fact, none have been delivered.
The financial imbalance between Deputies on six figure salaries and councillors on pocket money may suit the local Deputy in terms of dominating his or her constituency. The dual mandate may have been abolished but, in reality, it lives on. The local Deputies and Senators in waiting for the national ticket must remember what their role is; it is a national role. The go-to person on local matters for the general public should always be the councillor. However, the minute any funding is announced, the national politician is the first to claim credit for it. There are ten Senators who had their office granted to them as a gift from their political masters in Cabinet. The master of the local politician or county or city councillor is the ordinary citizen.
I note that Fine Gael has tabled several amendments to the motion. It is worth noting that Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Labour Party, which claims to be the party of the working person, have not put down any amendments. They have remained silent on the issue. Just like in December, they had an opportunity to include councillors' pay in the budgetary expenditure but they opted not to do so. I reject amendment No. 3 on the basis that councillors cannot wait until December 2021 for action to be taken. They have waited for long enough.
On the issue of maternity leave, paternity leave and other forms of statutory leave that are currently unavailable to councillors, it is important that local authorities look at the provision of childcare in-house. We must remove barriers to the entry of women into politics. Amendment No. 1 speaks to the national issue of the inadequate provision of childcare by the State.
The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, who is present, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, have been dancing around the fire of councillors' pay for the past eight months and, indeed, for the past six years. I have asked for their views on the Moorhead report. I have asked for a meeting with the Taoiseach on the subject of councillors' pay. He passed the buck back to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien.The Minister has told me that it is within the gift of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to sanction the pay increase for councillors. I want to know what recommendations went from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to the Minister, Deputy McGrath. Every councillor in this country wants to know if this Government values them to the tune of more than €17,600 a year.
All councillors are motivated by the same thing, namely, a commitment to their communities. Councillors have a multifaceted role and all they want is a living wage. Please give it to them.
Before I call the next speaker, I point out that there are 949 local authority members, which is 678 fewer than there were a decade ago. We have the lowest rate of public representation at a local level of any country in Europe. The next nearest country in respect of the rate of local representation is the United Kingdom, which has twice as many public representatives per head of population as we do. It takes more to get elected to a local authority in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In France, there is one public representative for every 78 people, while the ratio in Ireland is closer to one public representative for every 4,000 people.
There used to be 114 local authority areas when we had town and city councils, but that has now been reduced to 31 local authority areas. Therefore, while the areas have increased in size, so has the workload. Speakers have also addressed the issue of diversity, which is also a challenge for us in having more people involved in local government. One blockage to achieving that increased diversity relates to the terms and conditions associated with the role of elected local representatives.
Those contributions are spot on. I was first elected as a city councillor in 2004. Over the past 16 years, I experienced at first hand how the role and its associated demands have changed. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House today to address this important issue which goes to the core of our democracy. I thank the Independent Senators for facilitating the House with this debate, but there is unanimity among Senators regarding the importance of the role of our elected local representatives and the invaluable service they provide in that regard, not just to their local communities but also the support they give to us as national legislators in doing our jobs.
I speak as the first member of the Fianna Fáil group, but I should probably apologise because we have the Minister of State tormented in his short six-month period in office. We pestered him about this issue. He is not alone in that regard, because we have shared out the torment with the Ministers, Deputies O'Brien and McGrath. The Fianna Fáil Senators have also raised this issue directly with the Taoiseach on several occasions. I also pay tribute to the councillors' representatives on the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, and the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, who have done a tremendous job championing the role of councillors and highlighting this important issue. I refer to the issue of pay, which is of course what the media will talk about, and the working conditions of our elected local representatives.
When a programme for Government was being put together, Fianna Fáil Senators insisted that it include a commitment regarding local authority members. While we do not have unanimity regarding the Moorhead report, as a person who has worked at local authority level for a long time I certainly take issue with several of the assertions. I have only three minutes left, however, so I will not get into that area. We did insist, however, that a commitment concerning local authority members was contained within the programme for Government. We also insisted that the Moorhead report be published and that this Government deliver for members of local authorities in its first year.
The Minister of State knows that is what we are looking for, and we will not stop making that demand until it is delivered. I hope the Minister of State has come to the House today with some information for us in that regard. As the Cathaoirleach said, the more than 900 local authority members are tasked with giving strategic direction to the executives in our 31 local authorities. Those local authority members are also tasked with passing some €5 billion in budgets and dealing with the strategic development plans which will take two years, engage all our local communities and drive development in those local communities.All councillors are involved in such work. They chair and are members of strategic policy committees that determine by-laws and determine the level of service that is being delivered for environmental services, housing, the parks, libraries, etc. They are involved in all of these incredibly valuable services in communities and all local authority members do this work. They operate seven days a week. They are on-call in their local communities. They do not get to leave their local communities and they do such work with a heart. They champion their local communities, sports organisations and schools. They deal with individual constituents on a personal basis. They progress queries for them on an individual basis. They also champion their wider communities and counties. For all of that, the sum of €17,600 is not a living wage. I do not exaggerate when I say that the vast majority of councillors hold down full-time jobs but some are financially impoverished by the role that they undertake for their communities.
Local government is the cornerstone of our democracy and we need to ensure that local government is diverse in terms of demographics. We need more women, young people and people with experience to get involved in politics. If we want to ensure that we have diversity at the most detailed level of local democracy then we must pay a living wage. We must also provide a pension to these invaluable public servants. That is not an unreasonable request. For the women who will give of their time and take time out from their families and careers to serve their local communities, the minimum they deserve is to be provided with maternity leave. I had my three children while I served as a local authority member on Dublin City Council. I remember being in labour in the Rotunda Hospital and being castigated in the media for not attending a meeting. The ridiculousness of it. I could not be in two places at the one point in time. Honestly, maternity leave is a basic right.
All that the Fianna Fáil group is asking for is respect and recognition that the councillor role is not part-time. We want recognition that this is an incredibly valuable role in our democracy. We also want fair pay and fair compensation for a fair day's work that local authority members undertake seven days a week.
I welcome my party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House. I thank him for his commitment and dedication to resolving this long-standing issue of pay for county councillors. There is cross-party support for this motion, which is most welcome. Although the amendments tabled by the Fine Gael group are not being moved, those amendments are not without merit as they refer to the working group that has been established to examine the non-pay elements of the Moorhead report. The Minister of State might refer to those aspects in his later reply.
This is an issue that has been kicked around for as long as I can remember. A report was commissioned by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in June 2018 to review the role and remuneration of elected local authority members. An interim report was produced in December 2018, and the full report was furnished thereafter. Local authority members were informed that the proposals would be implemented prior to the local elections in June 2019. When the deadline was missed, the councillors were then informed that any changes would be backdated. Here we are, however, still debating this issue some 18 months after the local elections.
I welcome the commitment contained in the programme for Government to implement the Moorhead report. If we are honest, as has been referenced already, these changes have been reported in the media multiple times at this stage which could give the false impression that councillors have had multiple raises in their representational payment, which, as we all know in this House, is not the case. I am very proud of Fine Gael’s record of raising the minimum wage seven times since July 2011, from €8.65 to its current rate of €10.20. Some will still argue that this is not enough, and that is a debate we can have on another day, but I am sure everyone agrees it is only right and proper to pay workers at least the minimum wage, and that is precisely what we have not been doing with city and county councillors. It has resulted in the loss of some exceptionally talented people from local government over the years, which is a terrible shame.
The role of councillor should be one that is available to all. It should not be exclusively for those of independent means or who are retired and do not have to worry about supplementing their income to support their family or run a household. The remuneration available to councillors should be sufficient to support an individual who puts him or herself forward to represent his or her community. There is no greater honour than to be elected to represent the area one is from or the place one has made one’s home. Before I was elected to Seanad Éireann, I had the honour of being elected to Waterford City and County Council on three occasions: 2009, 2014 and 2019, and I am lucky enough to have served as mayor on two occasions. In that time, I can safely say the workload associated with being a councillor has increased dramatically. There are significantly more meetings, further distances to travel, the local electoral areas are bigger, the volume of representations has increased, the paperwork and compliance measures associated with the role are onerous but necessary, and the accessibility of the public via social media on a 24-7 basis has brought an added dimension into the mix.
The Review of the Operation of Local Government Reforms 2014 survey of elected members reported that councillors spend a mean average of 32.25 hours a week undertaking their role. A 2015 AILG workload survey indicated that councillors were spending 33.15 hours per week on their role. The report by Ms Sara Moorhead proposed a salary of €25,066 euro per annum, or €2,088 per month, before tax, with other elements for travel and subsistence being vouched. Assuming the workload has stayed the same since 2015, which as I have said is not the case, we are actually talking here about a salary of €14.50 per hour before tax. The reality is it is even less for those councillors who work longer hours, of which there are many. One of the most important recommendations in the Moorhead report is the ceasing of the historical link to a Senator’s salary and instead the linking of it to a point in the public sector pay scale. This will fulfil the objective of removing the political decision-making from remuneration of councillors into the future and further brings it into line with public sector norms. Thankfully, as a result of that, this will be, it is hoped, the last time we will ever discuss the issue in this House.
I wish to address some points on the language contained in the Moorhead report which was unhelpful. The dismissive attitude by the author towards the representational role of the councillor was all too evident. The suggestion that assisting constituents with form-filling for the likes of social housing, housing assistance payment, HAP, applications, housing adaptation grants and medical card forms or giving advice on planning and planning-related matters is in some way not relevant to the role and that councillors should be concentrating their time on policy and governance issues is all well and good in theory but in practice is so far removed from the reality on the ground. It is not a case of one or the other. Councillors do both roles and do them very successfully and exceptionally well in many cases.
The Minister of State has done exceptionally speedy and diligent work on this issue. He is committed to resolving this issue and I ask that he engage further with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on it to bring it to a conclusion as a matter of urgency.
This issue has been raised many times in this House and has certainly been raised since I was elected back in April. I thank Senators Boyhan, Keogan and Craughwell for bringing this motion to the Chamber again. It is not the first time we have heard about it but movement on the issue has been sadly lacking.
I acknowledge the grave mistake my party made in the reform of local government back in 2014. Town councils were abolished and local electoral areas were increased but the corresponding respect was not given to councillors. The reform took away power, loaded on work and did not tackle the key issues of local government reform, which should have been a great opportunity for us.
We have all spoken about the Moorhead report. While I welcome its recommendation of an increase in pay for councillors, I, like other Senators, have grave concerns about the tone it adopted. The report's author was patronising toward what she called "clientelism", which is also known to many people as representing one's constituents and dealing with the system that those constituents are not necessarily able to navigate. The report should not have adopted that tone.
The report is written through the lens of somebody who does not have difficulty accessing State services and who can advocate by themselves. It reminds me of an opinion column on politics in The Irish Timesby somebody who has never knocked on a door, has never had difficulty filling out their own forms and has never had to deal with constituents. I will give an idea of many of the groups and committees that one has to be on as a member of local government. From a statutory perspective, councillors are on the main city council and the strategic policy committee, SPC, but if they want the SPC to do any work, they will also be on subgroups of that SPC. They are also on subgroups of committees to try to progress things. They are on their local area committee but they are also on subgroups of it. They are part of community groups. They are on many boards to which they were appointed through the council, including partnership boards, things like the drugs task force and subgroups on specific issues.
Senator Fitzpatrick referred to the development plan. Not only do councillors go into meetings on the development plan for six, seven or eight hours at a time - sometimes until midnight - they also meet constituents about it. They talk to each of the separate groups and meet constituents from all over the city about that development plan. They plan information meetings, local meetings, residents' association meetings and hospital board meetings for the many groups that want to speak to them about different issues. Students also contact them about planning their dissertations. There is also the corporate policy group, CPG, councillors' own group meetings, issue-specific group meetings, the emails and the leaflet drops when something is going on in an area. Then people coming up and say either that they never hear from the councillor or that they do not want them to put junk mail in their door.
To be a good councillor, and I would like to think I was one because I was elected three times when times were not particularly good for my party, requires a huge amount of work and effort that goes far beyond the clientelism to which the report author so dismissively refers. Reading the report, I got more and more angry about the lack of understanding of what it takes to be a councillor and what is expected from constituents, as well as the lack of respect the report shows. Councillors get no backup. Every single email and post has to be answered by them, after attending all the meetings I have just listed. After any part-time or full-time job, they have to keep up with a very basic life. Every leaflet is written, printed and folded by them and is delivered by them with the help of a few other people.
The women also do that while pregnant. I have friends who knocked on doors when they were nine months pregnant. People I know have gone to local meetings straight after having a baby. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to hold babies in the tea room or in the chamber because people were forced to be there right after giving birth. Councillors get no maternity leave, no backup, no childcare and no support. Local government and local councillors are the hardest working people I know. Local communities deserve good councillors from all backgrounds, ages and genders. Councillors who have children should have a very basic right to maternity leave and maternity pay. This goes to a deeper issue of local government reform. A strong and vibrant local government is essential to our democracy as it is the closest step to people. People have a connection to their local authority that they do not have to Departments.They are the first to get the blame when things go wrong and the last to get the credit for the varied daily work that they do. Councillors have much responsibility, a great deal of expectation, no power and little respect from officials, or indeed from the officials in the Departments they deal with. I welcome the Minister's commitment and I know that Senators on the Government side of the House are committed to reform in the face of officials in the Department that are very dismissive of the work that councillors do. I hope that the Government is able to promote this because, at the very least, people deserve a minimum wage. As Senator Craughwell said, a committed trade unionist will look for a decent day’s pay for a decent day's work.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Minister of State and the Independent Senators for bringing this matter forward.
At the outset, it is not correct to say that any of us - in any party or non-party - have been silent on this issue. As Senator Moynihan has outlined, having been on local authorities most of us are deeply aware of this issue and understand the amount of work that goes into being a councillor. I have also brought this up on the floor of the Chamber and the Leader has brought forward a letter to the Minister of State based on my representation there. I am also aware that the Labour Party has put forward Commencement matters on this issue. It is not correct to say that those two parties have been silent but we should not politicise this. This is something that we all want to work on and to see resolved.
It is a great honour to be elected as a councillor. As I have said, almost all of us here have been elected to local authorities. This usually comes after years of voluntary work with our communities. It can be really hard to put one’s hands up and say that life can be really difficult as a councillor. Councillors want to be there, but they are saying that they are underpaid and need to be paid a decent living. I was elected in 2019, after some of the other Senators here, but I did it full-time and did not get paid anything else other than the €17,700 a year. Many other councillors have served for much longer but the key point is that it was hard to make ends meet. I had no childcare for my children and it was not paid for. What happens is that women drop out of local government. How many years can such people actually stay in local authorities? When I became a councillor in Galway City Council, no mothers had been elected on to the previous council. There were women but none who had children. In fact somebody who was elected in the previous election in 2014 had to let go of her seat when she became pregnant and a man took it. I am not saying that we should not make way for other councillors if things change. I would hate to think that someone would stop being a councillor because of a lack of childcare or maternity leave. Councillors in rural constituencies, in particular, find that the amount of time they spend travelling on the road is just too much to bear. Even if one does not have a full-time job, one has other responsibilities.
I believe that the Minister of State is willing to make the necessary changes. As many others have said - it was particularly eloquently put by Senator Craughwell - these changes have taken years to come. Some €17,700 is not enough, even if things had not changed in 2014, since when a great deal more has been expected of councillors.
One of the councillors within my own party was a full-time nurse with five children, and as a councillor had to give up being a nurse because it was just not possible. Councils are supposed to be microcosms of society. We have councils across this country where we do not have people from diverse backgrounds. Women account for just 6% of the members of some councils.
I wish to give a shout-out to some of the caucuses and women’s committees. I know that Councillor Lonergan has written to the Minister of State on this issue and he responded last week.There are a lot more women on some councils than on others so, while there can be a caucus and a committee on some councils, if someone is on a council like Laois County Council, where there is only one woman, that person is a committee of one. How are they going to really advocate for themselves on that committee?
I would like to give a shout out to Councillor Mary Hoade, the first woman elected as president of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. One of her first acts was to call for maternity leave for women in local government because it is outrageous that they do not have maternity leave. However, this goes beyond maternity leave. I have a copy of the letter from the Department in regard to maternity leave. This issue is beyond leave. It is about the fact people cannot engage in proxy voting, so if a person does not turn up, their party cannot be confident they will be able to carry a vote, and that needs to be sorted out. There is no administrative facility to do all of the kind of work that Senator Moynihan has laid out. We need administrative support, at the very least, if we are going to be juggling work with having a very small baby. There are many things that need to be looked at apart from the increase in salary.
I know the Minister of State has set up the task force, which is a very good move. However, we have a commitment in the programme for Government for this to be addressed within 12 months. As I am sick of saying, 40% of the membership of this House are women and that is why these things really matter to us. I am sure that is why Fine Gael put forward a proposal on maternity leave. I want to see that happen. I do not want us to have to keep standing up and using our time in the Seanad to address this issue of councillors’ pay, which actually stands on its own two feet.
I have huge problems with the Moorhead report, as many people do. It shows a complete lack of respect for councillors in the kind of language it uses. As a councillor in the Green Party said to me, it is all very well telling us we should not engage in representations, but what are we going to do - not answer our emails, not answer the phone? What kind of a public representative would I be then?
I thank the Minister of State for his time and I look forward to hearing from him. I know that everybody in the House is going to keep on his back over this, so sorry about that, but that is what he gets paid the big bucks for.
This issue cannot be separated from real and genuine reform of local government and of the power structure in Irish politics. Governance and decision-making should be made as close to the people as possible. It should be made by people who are elected by the people. The current management structure was introduced in 1940. We consistently, for decade after decade following partition, followed a colonial policy of centralisation. Looking at it today, where do we find ourselves? We have one of the most centralised politics in Europe. Our council buildings are hollowed-out shells where there is no governance of water or waste, never mind what other European countries have, such as governance of health. Town councils were abolished in 2014. The list goes on.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the motion but I am adamant when I say the issue of pay for councillors and local representatives should not be separated from the powers they are given. This has to be a dual process where we streamline councillors’ pay and increase the powers of local authorities. If powers are increased, then we must ensure councillors are able to take on the full-time workload and not be hindered by other considerations.
We also want to see an end to unvouched expenses. Unvouched expenses, as I remember from my time, are basically treated as income because the pay is so bad. Expenses are not income and should not be treated as such. The pay should be increased. Unvouched expenses, meanwhile, affect people's confidence in the work our councillors, politicians and public representatives do and they should be scrapped altogether.Most other democratic systems have long-since gotten rid of unvouched expenses regimes. We have called for a basic rate of pay for full-time and part-time councillors and a fully vouched system of expenses for additional costs of work. Full transparency around who is full-time and part-time is key to gaining public support for such a measure. Applying a fixed salary to the work of councillors and scrapping unaccountable expenses represent progress in scrutiny of the spending of taxpayers' money. Every euro in salary payments to councillors and expenses would be accounted for and open to scrutiny. That would be a significant advancement of the status quo.
I have said already that we have one of the most centralised systems of politics in Europe. In recent years, Ministers have grabbed power from local authorities, often to stifle opposition to scrutiny of their plans. Sinn Féin has consistently resisted efforts to take power away from councillors. Only this week in the Dáil, there was an attempt to do precisely that. The Land Development Agency Bill seeks to remove councillors from the oversight of the transfer of public land to the Land
Development Agency. It is difficult to believe that a Minister with responsibility for local government drafted a Bill that seeks to minimise the input of members of local authorities. Is that the case or is it simply consistent with what I have been saying about how we centralise power every decade? I am concerned that this happened after elected members of local authorities in recent times have robustly opposed the forcing of local authorities to use public land for unaffordable private housing. Councillors with local knowledge and expertise showed clearly that there is a better way to deliver genuinely affordable homes. The Minister should not seek to silence elected local representatives who are doing exactly what they should be doing.
My party sees a vital role for local authorities in solving the housing crisis. We firmly believe that the development of public housing and public land should be delivered by local authorities. This will be based on regional five-year development plans and regional knowledge about what demand exists. This requires the retention of public representatives who have built up local knowledge and expertise. However, many councillors are forced to vacate their seats before completing their terms due to financial and family considerations. That has been articulated by Senators throughout the House today. Recent reports, such as that by the ESRI, have confirmed that it is significantly cheaper for local authorities to construct public housing. The ability to do this depends on local authorities being adequately funded and staffed and retaining public representative expertise.
Not only do I seek proper pay for the workload of current councillors but I want to see a greater variety of people running for and holding office in local government as well. The current system means that people from low income backgrounds, mothers of young children and members of marginalised or minority groups are under-represented. The issue of pay is a barrier to many people putting their names forward.
I welcome the amendment arguing for the implementation of the non-pay aspects of the Moorhead report, such as maternity and paternity leave. I know it will not be pushed by the Members. However, I hope this proposal will attract more people to stand for election and serve our communities. The situation as it stands excludes members who miss meetings for more than six months. I have raised this issue previously, as others have mentioned. A Sinn Féin councillor in Cork, Danielle Twomey, found out only after having a child that there was no provision for paid maternity leave. That was in 2017. We have had elections to the local authorities since then. It is a major disincentive to women who decide to have children that they are not entitled to the benefits and protections afforded to all others working in public services. The Maternity Protection Act 1994 states that a self-employed or employed woman is entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave together with 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave.
Since 2017 two tranches of legislation have been before the Dáil dealing with parental leave. One Bill was introduced by Fianna Fáil. There is a consensus on that issue and we need to have action.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House today and thank him for all the work he is doing in these trying times. I commend Senators Keogan, Craughwell and Boyhan for putting down this motion. It is of utmost importance to the councillors who elect us to the Seanad. It involves their remuneration and conditions, which are absolutely vital.
We all know all politics is local. In a nutshell, this shows the importance of our local authorities. City and county councils are our most accessible form of democratically elected government. They are the most useful bodies for highlighting local concerns and solving problems in their communities.
My colleague, Senator Flynn, and I have been in contact with many councillors over recent weeks. In the long conversations we had with them, they talked a lot about the love of their job and how honoured they feel to be representing their constituents in these extremely difficult times. They are inspiring people. One man said he actually organised shopping for the older people in his community. Another man was on to me about trying to get one of his constituents into an addiction centre. He had worked tirelessly on this issue. Another woman asked me to get somebody into a mental health institution. That is going to be a bigger problem going forward.
These councillors are very passionate about the work they do and about working with their constituents. Their main issue is that they feel undervalued by the Government. The failure of the Government to implement the Moorhead report fully in line with the commitment in the programme for Government has led to widespread anger and disappointment. Local government has never been as important as it is at now. Councillors really are working on the front line and on the ground. Our local representatives are the first point of contact for many people who feel anxious and alone in these strange times. Again, I had another woman on to me who told me that she had to deal with a single mother with two young children. She had to go round and collect food for her. It is a real dedication.
Local representatives will say that their jobs are full-time positions but their pay does not reflect this. The rate of pay for our public representative has meant that many dedicated and able people can no longer afford to serve as councillors. The loss of these people and the problem with attracting new people to local government is and will continue to be an enormous problem. Councillors need to know soon when the proposed increase of €8,000 per annum will be added to their salaries.
I would like to express my appreciation for the Local Authority Members Association and the Association of Irish Local Government for their valuable input on these issues. They represent councillors throughout the country and have made it clear how poor working conditions and remuneration badly impact local representatives and local government. Since the Local Government Reform Act 2014, there has been a serious change in the role of local councillors. A small number of elected representatives try to cover larger geographical areas. For many, it is just not possible. This is especially true in rural areas with vast constituencies. The increase in the workload of councillors since 2014 must surely warrant the backdating of their increased payment to that date. Councillors do not get a full-time wage but theirs is effectively a full-time role. The expectation is that if a constituent asks for help, his or her local representative needs to be able to respond quickly and appropriately. If local representatives want to do a job well, they need to be available as the first port of call for their constituents, not least for vulnerable people who may need help accessing vital supports and services.
As one will learn from any councillor or anyone who served in local government, it is impossible to do the job properly on a part-time basis. Many councillors do it out of hours or by taking unpaid leave. Some are lucky enough to have flexible working arrangements but many do not. Sadly, the current system squeezes people on lower incomes out of local government. Ultimately, we will need to make a decision as to what role we want for local councillors and local government. Will it be an inclusive position available to all? We are currently stuck between two poles. It is not a voluntary position with a low level of commitment but neither is it a full-time position with the resources available to do it properly. All councillors I know make the same point, namely, no one takes up the role for a high earning career. It is absolutely a vocation. They just want it to be feasible and sustainable to ensure they can be involved in local government.I urge the Minister of State to support a move to sustainable, full-time pay and to outline when the other recommendations of the Moorhead report will be implemented. The programme for Government negotiated by the three parties commits to implementing the recommendations of the Moorhead report on the remuneration of all city and county councillors in Ireland within 12 months of taking office. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that the issue of councillors' pay and conditions will have to be raised in this House and that the Government will be true to its commitment.
I fully agree with the general push of this Private Members' motion. I have worked with Senators Boyhan and Keogan for many years on councillors' pay and conditions, the latter during her time as a councillor and as a Senator. Most of this has been agreed by the Government parties and is due to be implemented during its first year in office. As far as I am aware, the Government has not been in place for a year, although maybe I am missing something.
I was lucky to have served on the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, executive in 2015 and 2016. Since then I have dealt with several Ministers on improving the lot of councillors. For the first time, we are at the pinnacle and can now deliver, due to the work of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who is here with us today. I will give the analogy of a bus. The bus has been pushed to the top of a hill, meeting much resistance on the way, and most of my old colleagues, from all parties and none, were instrumental in getting that bus to the top of the hill. These include ex-presidents of the AILG, such as Councillors Pádraig McNally, Pat Daly, Mick Cahill, Damien Geoghegan, and, currently, Mary Hoade and John Joe Fennelly and, indeed, Tommy Moylan who has been a great help and resource to them. Many Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, members, such as Councillors Micheál Anglim, Joe Malone, Damien Ryan and Paudie Taylor, have also been instrumental in the work that has been achieved.
However, now that the bus is at the top of the hill, all the hard work has been done and this document is nearly ready to go to cabinet, Senator Craughwell wants to jump in the bus and drive it down the hill. I suppose freewheeling it down the hill would be more like it at this stage. I spent many months picking up the pieces from Senator Craughwell's previous proposal. He talked about it today and I was surprised he brought it up. He talked about aggregated mileage in 2018. My phone was inundated at the time. I spent many months explaining to the then Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy John Paul Phelan, the damage this would do to councillors. It would have taken €5,000 of mileage from a plethora of councillors and none would have been better off with the proposal. I urge caution as implementing the Moorhead report, as proposed, would not be the best option for councillors, as most of us who have studied it and know how councillors pay and conditions work understand, as does the Minister of State.
To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, they understand that. The full implementation of the Moorhead report would not be in councillors' best interests and I know the Minister of State, as a former colleague when he was chairman of Westmeath County Council, has listened to councillors and has their concerns at heart. He was happy to change the recommendation in the Moorhead report that councillors work 18 and-a-half hours. As we know, 30 hours would be a better figure to work from or possibly even 40.
Councillors are not employees; they are officeholders. Any talk of incremental pay increases would be disastrous as this is long overdue. There has been enough about councillors' pay in the media recently, particularly in some of the red tops, which is not helpful. It would not, therefore, be helpful to pay this on three occasions, that is, if it is to be paid incrementally. This would be detrimental and something the Minister of State should veer away from at all costs.
Mileage under the Moorhead report would have the same effect as the aggregation. Councillors like Gearóid Murphy and Joe Carroll in west Cork, to name but two, would be €5,000 per annum worse off under the proposed new mileage system. People may ask where the money will come from.The money is already there, as the Cathaoirleach mentioned, due to the abolition of town councils and the cutting back of county councils. The Exchequer has saved approximately €10 million per annum. The Minister of State can add the figures up. The money is there. It has already been ring-fenced from cutbacks and savings.
Much work has been done by the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, and many Senators, including Senator Gallagher, who gave me some of his time to speak, so I should mention him. I would not be speaking, but for him.
The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has a comprehensive proposal and I look forward to it going to Cabinet soon. I thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for their great work in preparing the proposal. The sooner we get it through, the better. I am aware it is a high priority for the Minister of State. Everybody in this House has worked towards it. I appreciate the work everyone has put in over the years.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am aware he has not been long in office but anytime I have made contact, he has got back to me. It is a good omen. I also welcome Ms Mary Hurley, assistant secretary, to the House. Ms Hurley was an important player in housing and in Rebuilding Ireland and she is now in local government. The Minister of State has an able person by his side or perhaps he is by her side. I do not know which but they make a formidable team. I wish them well.
I also acknowledge the enormous work that Deputy Phelan did. He did not succeed where, hopefully, the Minister of State will. It was not through any fault of Deputy Phelan's but was due to the tricky politics around this issue for so long. That is a disappointment. However, I do not doubt his commitment, as someone who was elected in 1999 when I was first elected to local government. I want to acknowledge Deputy Phelan.
I also thank the city and county councillors for their ongoing work and service to local government. We do not state it enough. I thank them, in particular, for their work on the community call initiative. Their response was amazing. Local government is at its best when it is out there providing a service, when everyone is harnessed together for one thing - community gain and representing the people.
It is a wonderful honour to be elected a city or county councillor. Between the day I arrived in the county hall of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, to which I was first elected in 1999, and the day I came into Seanad Éireann in Leinster House, my first day in a local council was a greater day and sense of achievement. It is worth pointing out.
I thank the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, and their respective presidents - Councillor Mary Hoade, president of the AILG, and Councillor Micheál Anglim, chairperson of LAMA. The executive and directors of both these associations are responsible positions. Many other representative bodies would not have taken a longer or more pragmatic view. We have to acknowledge and respect the responsible roles they have played in this debate, conscious that they represent their membership.
I raise the issue of councillors' pay, expenses and allowances. We all agree in that regard. Before I came in here, I did a tot of how many Members would speak today and, more importantly, of how many of them were councillors. Almost everyone in this House, bar a few, have been councillors. I include the Minister of State in this. We are all on the one page. It is disappointing it has taken so long. It is perceived outside as internalising and as fighting about pay. Let us get it over the line and acknowledge the role these people play.
One of the hardest things to have to hear over the last few years in regard to councillors' pay is that men and women have had to dip into their household income to subsidise their work in local government. That is not right or proper. I do not want to get into a big debate about vouched and unvouched expenses but whatever regime applies to the councillors should apply in here. I will insist on it. We all have to be treated the same.
I do not support the idea that councillors are out on a limb, linked into public service pay. They are politicians, Senators are politicians and Deputies are politicians.Respect the fact that they are politicians. Reward them appropriately according to their work and their responsibility, which is important. Responsibility is also another important aspect of this, as is the issue of governance of local authorities and accountability. We do not hear too much talk about our elected members holding the officials to account. We need more councillors exercising more powers. They have plenty of them and they need to be exercised. That is important.
The time is over for empty promises, rhetoric and dodging the bullet. The Moorhead report is not the silver bullet. There are loads of issues, of which the Minister is aware. We must be careful what we wish for. We need to be clear that €17,000, with taxes and PRSI deducted on top of that, is simply not good enough remuneration for people who represent their communities, who have a very responsible role in county development plans, who advocate for enterprise and who advocate for their cities and their counties. It is not enough and it is wrong. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, knows this within his party with the very able Fine Gael councillors. Fianna Fáil and Independent Senators know likewise. Councillors are committed. They want to do the job but they cannot do it if they are dipping into their housekeeping money and shorting their own families for finances to carry out this job. It is very important that we address these issues.
I believe we want a better deal for local government. I too want a fairer deal for councillors. I want to work, as do the Minister of State and everyone in this House, to develop a stronger local proactive and pro-participatory democratic local government.
Colleagues, we need to join forces to unite and be in solidarity with our councillors up and down the country. We need to agree to financially support councillors who want to continue to serve. We need to provide an enhanced package and pension for those who wish to retire. We must proactively, encourage and support new entrants into the noble profession of city and county councillor.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I acknowledge the importance of this debate and those who have put down the motion. As a former member of a local authority, Galway County Council, I was privileged to have spent from 2004 to 2011 in that chamber and to serve as deputy mayor. I was due to be elected as Mayor of County Galway in 2011 but other things conspired against me that year when I was elected as a Deputy. I have a lot of experience and I know, as we all do, the very important role that councillors play. They are ambassadors for their area and work for the betterment of their counties. In the Galway County Council chamber and in interviews I often said that people have different party politics and hats, and are members of all parties or none, but everybody wants to do their best and do what they can for their local area. Effectively, that is the role of the councillor.
I acknowledge the role of the Local Authority Members Association and the Association of Irish Local Government for their advocacy on behalf of their members. I congratulate my colleague in Galway, Councillor Mary Hoade, as the first woman president of the AILG. I am aware that she is in regular contact with the Minister of State on behalf of her members with regard to the issue of councillors' pay.
I also acknowledge the work of the Minister of State's predecessor, the former Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, who together with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, invited Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, to carry out a review of the role and remuneration of the councillor. The interim report was published in December 2018 and the final report was published last year, although unduly delayed I must concur. I would also agree with some commentary of other Members that the reality of the role of a councillor was not as clearly expressed in the Moorhead review as it perhaps should have been with regard to the hours, the meetings and the accountability. Once upon a time a councillor would have received written letters in the post or would have met with somebody in the community. Nowadays the councillor is accessible by mobile phone, text message, Facebook, Instagram and all the other forms of social media.As a result of the fact that everything is now instant, people expect instant replies. It is not always possible to provide such replies in respect of what can be difficult areas.
Other Senators mentioned the array of committees and outside bodies of which councillors are members, such as SPCs, joint policing committees, municipal and local area committees and CPGs. When I was a councillor, I was on the board of Galway Rural Development, Forum Connemara, Galway Harbour Company and the Lough Corrib Navigation Trustees at various stages and in different terms. There are also all the meetings of local residents' groups that councillors must attend. There was much demand for speaking time during this debate and my colleague Senator Currie asked me to make a few points about the role of a councillor. She stated:
The role of a councillor is not part-time and nor do constituents expect councillors to be available on a part-time basis only. I worked full-time as a [councillor], which meant most of my salary went towards paying for childcare. If I didn’t have a supportive partner and family, as a mother, I would not have been able to take on the role. What does that say about the prospects of increasing women in politics and our political system? [Councillor] pay must be addressed. Common sense must prevail. Proper pay and measures to balance work and family commitments, such as maternity have to be introduced.
I acknowledge the work the Minister of State has done to get this resolved. He has been hands-on with it since early in his role and has engaged with the AILG, LAMA and other groups to ascertain councillors' views on Moorhead report, which was published shortly before he came to office. I ask him to reflect on some of the pitfalls in the report and to bring his proposals to the Ministers for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Public Expenditure and Reform, with the expectation that they would be brought to the Cabinet. I hope the Minister of State gets to present these plans to Cabinet at the earliest opportunity. That is very important. We have to ask whether we want councillors to work full-time or part-time. If we want the latter, they cannot have the level of responsibility that they do; that is neither right nor fair. They have responsibilities and it is important that they be paid for them.
When I was urging people to run for the council on the second to last occasion, I recall telling one potential candidate that the council meeting would be held every fourth Monday, starting at 2 p.m. As it happened, when that individual was elected to the council, the meetings were brought forward to 11 a.m. As a teacher, she was immediately on the back foot. It was as though I had sold her a pup and misled her, which, of course, I had not, but with the increase in the number of councillors, Mondays were effectively gone. The same is true of committees. I could not possibly say that politics were at play. It was ensured that municipal meetings were also held earlier in the day to disenfranchise that person.
They are, unfortunately, some of the issues. I appreciate that some local authorities hold evening meetings but in Galway, for example, where there are 39 councillors, the meetings when I was a member were held at 11 a.m., while the municipal meetings were also held early in the day. It did not fit for somebody who was working in another role as well. Many members, therefore, were retired or self-employed, whereas PAYE workers could not take up the role of a councillor because they would be disenfranchised and find it very difficult to carry out their role.
I commend the Minister of State on what he has done thus far. We need to get this over the line and he is the person to do it. I look forward to the final decision being made at Cabinet, whereby this issue will be brought to a conclusion and councillors will receive the pay they deserve.
I welcome the debate and I welcome the Minister of State. I commend him on all the work he is doing for local government, not just in regard to this issue but to a range of issues that he has tackled from the get-go. I was a member of a local authority for 17 years. I have a deep passion for this subject and it is evident that the Minister of State shares that passion. He is driving this issue forward.
I have in front of me two newspaper articles. The headline of one states that councillors are in line for a pay bump that will net them an additional €8,000, while the other article states, "Long sought pay rises [...] expected to be in the region of €8,000".They are for the most part, once the sensationalist adjectives are stripped away, pretty much the same article with one notable difference: one was written last week; one was written in 2019. That is where we are, a saga that has now been running longer than "Game of Thrones". I walked down to the committee rooms and to a meeting of the local government committee in November 2019 with Senator Boyhan. We went down to do our job and to question the then Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, on the imminent publication of the Moorhead report, only for it to be leaked to "Morning Ireland" that morning as we were walking down, before we got to the committee room. That was the manner in which business was conducted back then, and let us not forget it because there is a political narrative developing here surrounding the current situation and one wonders whether those spreading it are developing amnesia. I met the then Minister of State on 10 July 2019, back when I was shadowing him, in his office. He told me the memo on the report would go to Cabinet at the last Cabinet meeting of that summer. That was July 2019. That is what he told me. There were not two men in the room; Senator Mark Daly was with me in the room that day as well. We know what was said, and I made notes on what was said. That was the message that was delivered quite clearly by the Minister of State's predecessor. The message was that this would be sorted in summer 2019, and here we are nearly two years later and quite clearly it is not been sorted. It was sitting on the then Minister of State's desk for so long it could have mutated, sprouted legs and walked to the Cabinet room on its own.
I will move on from that period because, as evidenced by the speeches today, people want to get to a resolution of this report and the work that is carried out. I said at the outset that there are people who believe that the councillors must now be on a six-figure salary as it has been announced so many times. Let us be clear: what we are talking about is current remuneration of just €17,000 for the work they do. They are without doubt the lowest-paid members - not employees - of the local authority system yet they are the public persons who deal with the queries daily. They also act as ambassadors on behalf of the executive to promote the positive work done by local authorities. Prior to the publication of the report, as Senator Boyhan noted earlier, both councillor representative bodies, namely, the AILG, which at the time was led by Luie McEntire, thereafter by Mick Cahill and now by Councillor Mary Hoade, and LAMA, led by our late colleague, Mags Murray, to whom I pay tribute and remember today and Micheál Anglim, spent time setting out the work done by their members across a range of areas and how they are expected to be knowledgeable in a range of areas. The Cathaoirleach must have been reading back on my speech for the introduction of my local government Bill in 2017 when he quoted earlier the numbers of representatives. In France there is one councillor for every 78 citizens; in Ireland there is one for every 4,000, which is the lowest ratio in western Europe. The knifing of town councils was not just an act of barbarism towards local democracy; it also resulted in extra work from the urbanised areas being placed on the county councillors. The Minister of State would appreciate that as a Mullingar man. I acknowledge Senator Moynihan's comments earlier that Labour was wrong to have participated in the destruction of town councils. Her former party leader, Deputy Howlin, made a similar comment in the previous Dáil.
What is most worrying from the analysis of the Moorhead report, and other reports since the research has been carried out, is that as a body politic we will find it increasingly difficult, no matter the party and whether Independent or not, to attract new people into politics. It is okay for people to make derisory comments and scoff about these kinds of debates but that is the stark reality. The level of commitment to local office since I first got elected as a 21-year-old in 1999 has been immense. There are the legislative requirements with which we expect councillors to be au fait. There are the attacks to which they are now subjected on social media, which we at national level probably brush off, even though we should not. They are now part and parcel of local democracy, which is awful and wrong. Why would a young person subject himself or herself to that and become involved in our local democratic institutions? How will we attract the next generation? Again, it is all right for people to scoff at this but as we saw in America, there is a fine line and it can be destroyed. To those who scoff at this and at those who put themselves out there at a local level, I make the point that our local councillors are promoting and maintaining the very democracy we enjoy. The backdrop to this debate is the fact that several county development plans are in preparation at present, including in my home county of Meath and in the Minister of State's home county of Westmeath. These plans are highly detailed documents that set out the futures of our counties, towns and villages. A significant level of knowledge and commitment, as well as eight-hour days each day for weeks on end, are involved in the process. Remarks were made earlier about peoples' commitment to this process and this report but for the first time ever, we now have a commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Moorhead report in the programme for Government. All 20 Fianna Fáil Senators are behind that process and I say that on behalf of all the members we represent. I appreciate that the Minister of State acted in respect of this issue when he came into office. He put it on his agenda and put the wheels in motion. He is to be commended for that but now we need to see this process come to a conclusion. Effectively, this comes down to the simple issue of whether we value the work of our local councillors. If we agree that we do, then we need to put the appropriate support in place for them.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. The greatest honour I have ever had was to be elected to Tipperary County Council and subsequently to become mayor of my home town of Clonmel. My father was a county councillor for ten years and my mother served as a councillor for 18 or 19 years before being elected to Dáil Éireann. I have lived in a household of local representatives all my life and have known nothing else. I appreciate the role of local representatives and the job they do.
In the past ten years, the workload of local representatives has increased dramatically. It is no longer a part-time role, as I believe most people recognise. The work local representatives do goes above and beyond that which was done ten or 20 years ago. My home county of Tipperary is so large and long that a councillor living in Carrick-on-Suir must travel 100 km to get to council meetings in Nenagh. That is a 200 km round trip and a full day's work just to travel to a meeting and back. A salary of €17,000 is not even close to being enough. It prevents good, decent people from taking on the job and means the good, decent people who are in the job cannot stay in it for long. That is not acceptable. We need to make changes.
Proposing the motion, Senator Craughwell spoke about government having done nothing. Senator Keogan stated that Independent Senators forced the hand of government on this issue. I believe those statements are a little disingenuous. The programme for Government states clearly that this issue must be dealt in the Government's first 12 months in office. I cannot think of any other commitment in the programme for Government which has a timeline for delivery of just one year. The Minister of State has worked immensely hard on this issue from the start. He has answered all my calls, which I appreciate, so to suggest nothing is being done is wrong. This debate is a clear sign the Minister of State is succeeding in what he is doing. I have no doubt he will succeed in this work and the appropriate pay will be given to councillors.
It is a disgrace that we are even having this debate. It should be over.It is demoralising and insulting to councillors as they watch a wage agreement go through, pay increases for Oireachtas Members and an increase of €81,000 for a Secretary General. They have every reason to feel demoralised, undervalued and greatly annoyed. The last intervention for councillors that made a difference was when the now Tánaiste gave them a PRSI opportunity, which mattered a lot to them. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, has taken this issue by the scruff of the neck, following on the work of his colleague and former Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, in this regard. He has engaged with LAMA and the AILG and I am getting great feedback on that engagement. Now is the time for action. I appeal to him to push this change down the last bit of the road.
I had the opportunity of serving on Cavan County Council for more than 20 years, including as cathaoirleach. It was a huge honour. It is a very diverse council but, in general, one can only have a diverse council when there is proper pay and remuneration for councillors. People are not in it for money. Local government is a vocation and people love to do public service, but they also have to pay the bills and try to exist. The workload of councillors has risen exponentially since 2004 and is gone out of all proportion. If we are to reform local government properly into the future, we will need a taxation system that is effective for local councillors. That is not possible if councillors are not paid even to do what they have to do at the moment. We will not get good candidates and there will not be diversity in councils. The idea that there would not be some vouched expenses, as referred to by Senator Warfield, is not a runner because of the differences in councillors' situations.
I acknowledge my colleague, Senator Craughwell, for bringing forward this motion.
The Minister of State has heard many examples today of how hard-working councillors are. They are the most underresourced and overworked group of elected representatives in this country. In tandem with that, their role has been devalued by successive Governments since 2000. Since the introduction of the Planning and Development Act, power after power has been stripped away from local government. Sometimes those powers have been taken away altogether; in other cases, they have been taken from elected representatives and given to unelected officials and executives at local level, thereby rendering the role of the councillor, who is the representative of the people, increasingly marginalised.
There are still quibbles when we talk about the pay of councillors. Several speakers have noted that the latest provisions have already been announced several times, which means the public could well have the impression that the increases have already been given when, in fact, they have not. That is incredibly frustrating, especially when I think of the people in my own council. Councillor Frank McNamara, for example, who is a new councillor representing the Killiney and Shankill areas, is a trainee solicitor and somebody with options. What on earth is there to persuade someone like him to continue in local government? Siobhán Shovlin in Castleknock, a teacher, is another person with options and who is now doing two jobs. Brídín Murphy in Wexford is a social worker who has to travel to Dublin regularly. Serving in local government is incredibly difficult for these people and there is very little in it for them. This pay increase is not enough but it is the very least we can do to encourage people to remain in local government.
Unlike Senator Ahearn, I am not from a family of public representatives. It is great to hear the pride in his voice as he talks about his wonderful family tradition. I sometimes wonder why there has never, as far as we know, been anyone in my extended family involved in politics. Perhaps it is because we felt there was no place for us or we would not be welcome. Perhaps it did not seem like an attractive option for us, financial or otherwise. Many speakers today have outlined the very real financial issues associated with being a councillor. As I said, I am the first in my family to go into politics but, I hope, not the last. There is no question that being a councillor is not an attractive option for those who cannot afford it. We should not have public representation for communities and local groups based on those who can afford to do it. That is not good for democracy, public engagement and public representation.
Everything that needs to be said on this issue has already been outlined. I very often talk about who is not in the room, usually in regard to education and student nurses. I take this opportunity to remind the Minister of State to make sure the student nurses are paid. Several colleagues alluded to who is not in the room when we are talking about public representation. The people who are not in the room include mothers who simply cannot afford to be public representatives.Reasons for that include the absence of decent maternity leave and I am also speaking about paternity leave in this regard.
Migrant communities are desperately under-represented in our councillor groups, as are Travellers. We do not have the diverse representation that we absolutely need on our councils and we have to look at whether - I do not think there is any question about it - it is a difficult job. Councillors get an awful lot of slack online. People can be pretty rough to councillors and now it is compounded by the fact one is paid pretty shoddily on top of it.
There is also the time it takes to be a councillor. They have to give up so much of their personal time. Their phones are ringing and they are constantly on the go. I dream a dream sometimes of it being a nine to five job where councillors just get to turn off, and off they go and it is great, as opposed to midnight phone calls on a Saturday. However, that is also part of it and those of us who are in it would never go back and undo it. People give so much time to being councillors and public representatives and it needs to be properly remunerated. Loving the job simply does not pay the bills.
The clientelism referenced in the Moorhead report is all well and good and I have joked about the time I went for a stroll along the beach in Bettystown with my father and it was the best time I ever met people because he knew absolutely everyone. However, it is not practical to go strolling along the beach to meet people. I do not have time to do that or the capacity.
I offer my full support to the motion. It is high time we recognise the work our councillors do. It is not dramatic to say they hold our democracy together and we need to do an awful lot more than we do for them.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also thank Senators Craughwell, Boyhan and Keogan for tabling this very important matter during Private Members' time. Having had the honour of being elected to Kildare County Council for the first time in 2009, I have seen the role of local authority members change quite considerably each year since then. The increase in the areas to be covered and the increase in population size after 2014 have totally changed the way councillors are expected to work. There is no doubt that remuneration for the role has not kept pace with these changes.
Councillors work seven days a week and are definitely not limited to eight-hour days. Their work has progressed to a stage where they are expected to be constantly on. The old way, of course, was to contact a councillor by phone, a clinic or even email. Today, given the various and growing social media outlets, councillors are expected to cover every phone call, every text and every email, as well as every Facebook message, WhatsApp message and Twitter message. I am sure there are many other examples of social media in use today. The role of the councillor has changed dramatically over the years. Councillors are taking more and more calls from constituents who find themselves in a desperate situation. Councillors find they are the first point of contact and then have to suggest and arrange consultations with various professionals to help the person who has contacted them.
We cannot and should never prevent those who wish to run for local government from doing so because of the pay and conditions. If the Government does not change the pay and conditions we are simply saying that unless people have substantial additional income or, as has already been mentioned in the House, substantial family savings to support them, then we are, unfortunately, saying local government is not for them. This is not good enough.
The pay and conditions must also be changed for those who are serving at present. More and more councillors ask themselves and their families whether they wish to continue to serve given the time and cost of doing so. We must ensure that those who wish to continue in the service of their local area are properly paid given the hours and workload they put in at present. The simple fact is that remuneration for a councillor does not reflect these hours or this work.
We all know we need to improve the gender balance in local authorities and in the Oireachtas. We have to attract more women to contest local elections. We must ensure greater gender balance. We also need local government to reflect the many great changes in our communities that have happened in our country over the past 20 to 30 years.
I am aware that a working group has been established to examine the important non-pay recommendations contained in the Moorhead report and how these could be progressed. The Minister of State indicated the objective of the working group is to examine these recommendations and explore opportunities to allow for their implementation at the earliest opportunity. I would appreciate an update on this. Will the Minister of State include in this review the issue of abuse, online and elsewhere, of councillors? I have been contacted by and spoken to a number of local representatives who have been the subject of this abuse. We need to have this conversation as there is very little in the Moorhead report about it. We need to address it. Like other Senators, I would appreciate the consideration of the Minister of State of these matters.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.Since 2014, there has been a 40% reduction in the number councillors, electoral areas have significantly increased and additional duties involving local community development committees, LCDCs, climate action committees, the local property tax, LPT, the setting of rates, etc. have been introduced. If one wants to know the life of a councillor, then one must walk in his or her shoes. For 11 years until last year, I was a councillor and was very proud to be one. During my time in the council, many city and county council colleagues left public life due to the inadequate standards of pay and conditions, and pressures of being in public life. I find democracy is being greatly impacted by this. Councils need to be reflective of the people they serve. That is a necessity.
As far as I am concerned, €17,500 is not acceptable as a salary for a public representative. This amount must be increased significantly. As Members of the House have said, the time for talking is over. I take this opportunity to commend the president of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, Councillor Mary Hoade, and Tommy Moylan of AILG, and Micheál Anglim and his colleagues in the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, on supporting every councillor across the country and raising many issues in their quest for the improvement of conditions for councillors.
The Government has been in place since last June. I am extremely confident that this motion will be brought to Cabinet for approval in the coming weeks. This will significantly improve the pay and conditions of the 949 city and county councillors across the country, as per the programme for Government commitment.
I will briefly talk about aspects of this issue, which have not been covered by my colleagues. We all know the pressure councillors are under. It is an increasingly difficult job to do. I was glad to see a commitment to deliver on the Moorhead report included in the programme for Government. We all agree approximately €17,000 is not sufficient pay for someone doing the kind of full-time job councillors do. Being a public face to a very important role within a local authority is very full on. The Moorhead report was completed long before the Government was formed. There was no reason it was not acted on but I am glad we will see action on it. I pay tribute to Councillor Mary Hoade of AILG, Councillor Micheál Anglim and the executives of LAMA for their tireless work linking in with every group in this House and the Dáil in regard to this. Delivery of this is most important.
No one goes into politics for the money. People go into it for the love of their community and county. The reality is that they pay bills and have financial commitments like everyone else. The exodus of councillors during the last local elections really struck me. These were former councillors who had been elected in 2014 but due to the increase in the size of local authority areas and the increase in commitments, they felt they could not keep it up. In particular, these were people with young families who could not keep up the job because of the onslaught of work that hit them when they were first elected. I am glad to see the Labour Party has acknowledged it was a mistake to abolish town councils because they were a vital part of local government.
I want to briefly mention the lack of maternity leave rights for councillors. We cannot expect women to put themselves forward for election at local authority level if we do not ensure they have maternity leave rights. This in turn has a knock on effect on the female representation in both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a serious barrier to entry. I want to see this report, and other commitments around the conditions of local authority members, delivered on.
Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think that can be applied to The Mirror'sill-informed clickbait coverage around local government last week. It is a frequent problem in national media that we do not see proper coverage of local government. RTÉ regularly has discussion programmes about local government without involving councillors.
There is a need, and it is a challenge, for AILG and LAMA to explain more effectively the role of a local councillor. This is something Members have spoken effectively but it is a pity our national media has not looked at the other side. There is an obsession around salaries without looking at the workload on the other side. That is in sharp contrast with local media.Newspapers and local radio do provide good coverage of what goes on at local level. Senator Ward was right in what he said earlier concerning the challenges being faced in local government. We have seen local government lose power after power, so this issue is about more than just a salary. More is now expected of councillors who have fewer powers. Instead, we have organisations like Irish Water and the HSE involved in this context, as well as the Office of the Planning Regulator, which is increasingly engaged in a power grab regarding local authorities. At the same time, as the Cathaoirleach mentioned earlier, the ratio of councillors to citizens in Ireland is the highest in Europe, currently about 1:5,000.
I set the Minister of State a challenge. Yes, the recommendations regarding pay should be implemented. When the Minister of State leaves his office, however, I want him to be remembered as the person who again empowered local government and local councillors. The directly elected post of the mayor of Limerick presents an opportunity for that role to be imaginative and to drive that city and county. However, what I would love to see is the Minister of State being able to state when he leaves office that not alone did he ensure councillors were properly paid but also that local government was finally properly empowered.
The Moorhead report is the greatest work of fiction completed in recent times. This is the problem with having people, like academics in ivory towers, writing reports about what men and women are doing in their jobs in their communities and constituencies. What happens in a situation like that is we get works of fiction like this report, which is the most insulting such report I have ever read in my life about the work of local councillors. I put on the record that is what happens when we have people in ivory towers writing reports on stuff about which they have no idea.
I was elected in 2014 and I was on the council for six and a half or seven years. Many young councillors from my party of Fine Gael who were co-opted in 2011 or elected in 2014 left politics. All those people were talented and were going to be future Teachtaí, if they had had the opportunity to stay in local government longer. They could not do that, however, and they left because it was not paying well enough. Councillors are paid €315 a week. I got paid €630 every two weeks when I was on Louth County Council. It is a paltry amount.
My final point to sum up this situation concerns my memories of working in this House as a young councillor. Different Senators, who are no longer in the House, used to come up to me and tell me that they had sorted out the issue of pay, it would be done in six months and that I should not be worrying. Councillors are sick of this situation now. It needs to be sorted out. This Minister of State has done more about this issue in his role in the past couple of months than anyone else has previously, and I really hope he gets this change across the line. I state that because we are now beyond the point of talking and giving plaudits in this regard. The situation must be resolved.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on the great work being done on councillors' pay and the work of councils. Much more remains to be done, however. I could not do justice to this subject in the time I have, so I do not know what to say really. I congratulate the authors of this motion. Every Member of this House has spoken at some stage or other about the pay and conditions of local councillors.
Nobody knows this better than the Minister of State. He was a member of Westmeath County Council for many years, but he is now seeing the other side of the situation as the Minister of State with special responsibility for this area. He has studied the Moorhead report in great detail. That report was obviously written by somebody who was not a councillor or a public representative, and that is quite easy to see in the report. At the same time, however, the report gives us something to work on. I welcome having had the opportunity to have said a few words on the Moorhead report previously. I reiterate what previous speakers have said about the pay of councillors. Everybody realises they should be paid and should be paid immediately, and that they deserve to be paid because they are getting a pittance now.
I have seen over many years the erosion of the powers of members of local authorities. I refer to the different powers councillors had 40 years ago and the changes in what councillors do today compared with back then. There has been a huge change. Councillors now have much less in the way of powers than 40 years ago. The Minister of State is the man to lead the charge in this area, to bring back powers to local authorities and to make them more efficient. I refer to running them like a business. I remember when I was a member of Castlebar Town Council, I proposed the local authority members visit Bradford in England.There were several documentaries on how the town council ran its business. It operated like a business. When a member of the public went in, he or she got an answer there and then. That is the way all local authorities should work. I think the Minister of State is a man to do that. Knowing him, I think that he will put the train in motion to do that.
I thank Senator McGahon for sharing his time with me. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke.
This is an important topic. The Moorhead report has been a topic of considerable debate within the council and community for a long time. Action is required to implement the report's recommendations. The two main issues for councillors that the Minister of State probably hears about is pay, but also the lack of powers. We have seen an erosion of powers in recent years. We have done some of it ourselves. The introduction of a planning regulator was a sign that we did not trust the planning authority. We saw what that meant in County Cork in recent months when county development plan rulings were overturned by the planning regulator. That was a significant step, but it was a bad step for democracy. It is one of the key issues we must discuss. If the recommendations of the report are implemented, we must acknowledge that the councillors are the elected representatives of the people, not someone appointed by other bodies who determines what is happening on the ground.
Pay and conditions are a significant issue. When I was in county hall from 2014 to 2019, the five youngest councillors on Cork County Council across all political parties left. They were from Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The average age of those councillors was 28. They either did not stand again, resigned or just walked away from politics. That is a deficit in society, and it is due to the regime put in place. A significant amount of work is required to be done. Pay will be a step in the right direction and powers will result in a serious step forward. It suits certain quarters in Dublin not to have any power at local level, and because of that we have a deficit of powers on the ground.
That concludes the contributions of Senators. It is over to the Minister of State. We can sum up the debate in saying that pay and powers need to be addressed. I thank him most sincerely for all the work he has done since he came into office. Naturally, I would have liked to have tacked maternity leave on to the debate, but it has been withdrawn lest it be construed as a delay in what is rightfully in the hands of the councillors.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions. We can hear very clearly the frustration that has been articulated by all Members of this House and by members of all 31 local authorities throughout the country. I fully empathise with them and understand that because this issue is going on far too long. I fully accept that. We need to find a way forward very quickly.
In terms of the Moorhead report, I wish to outline what happens with local authorities, where we are in terms of my work and where we aim to end up. I will also mention the non-pay aspects of the Moorhead report. One of the key bones of contention contained within the report is the view that local authority members work 18.5 hours a week. That is a determination the independent senior counsel made at that juncture.
I was elected to Westmeath County Council and I had the privilege and honour to get a chance to serve my local community in 2009. I also had the chance to serve as cathaoirleach of my county, chairperson of the town council and mayor of the town in my last year. I could see at first hand the significant effort required for public representation at local authority level. In a recent report I noted that the local authority provides 600 individual services to citizens in each of the 31 local authorities. Local government is the closest arm to the citizens. There is no doubt about that. When I reflect on the conclusion about the 18.5 hours and look at the 360 statutory bodies that have to be filled by nominations from the 31 local authorities, that adds up to 1,100 nominations.In regard to the roles on the 400 external bodies that have to be filled through our 31 local authorities, there are 1,010 individual nominations. That is 2,140 nominations that have to be filled by the 949 councillors in this State. That is a significant voluntary role that councillors take up day in, day out. Looking at, and reflecting on, the public participation network that was established in 2004, there is an average of 360 community groups engaging with each local authority. Councillors deal with these groups on a daily basis, advising them on grants and of the various different ways to improve their community and society at large. I also think about the vulnerable people our local authority members engage with, day after day, week after week - for example, helping elderly people complete housing adaptation grant forms, or helping families in crisis to access housing supports and social housing. Those are the key roles undertaken by our local authority members day by day and week by week. The AILG and LAMA have done research on the length of the working week of a local authority member. We are all agreed on the fact that it is longer than 18.5 hours. The representation role is vital. It is the lifeblood of how a local councillor engages with the community and how they get feedback on the ground, and the views of society at large and its direction.
Second, I want to set out the trajectory of where we are. In June 2018 Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, was appointed to commission a report into the pay and conditions of local authority members. In June 2020 the report was published by the Government. Subsequent to that, the programme for Government has committed to endorsing the report and implementing it within 12 months of the formation of the Government. When I had the privilege of being appointed to my current role, I immediately set about engaging with our local representatives. I operated an open-door policy from day one. I spoke and met with many councillors across the country. I engaged with the AILG and LAMA, and held a series of meetings with them to get their views on the Moorhead report. I also engaged with many Members of this House and Dáil Éireann to get their views on the report.
Ms Moorhead has made her recommendations. I listened and I attach huge value to the views local authority members have expressed on the recommendations in the report. I attach great value to that. On the foot of that, I have crafted a proposal, which I hope will reflect the role played by councillors and will be robust, transparent and will stand up to the highest scrutiny of public probity. That is most important in any proposal chosen. My engagement was fruitful in what I learned of the current frustrations of councillors. The fact of the matter is that the proposal has been crafted by me and the Minister and it has been presented to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for approval. We need consent from his Department in order to approve any proposal. I look forward to working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the coming weeks and with the Government to deliver the proposal within the timeframe of the programme for Government. It is most important that we do meet that commitment. An important commitment was given on the formation of the Government. As I progress this proposal through my Department and further afield, the programme for Government is the cornerstone that sets out the direction of travel for the next five years for any Government. This commitment is time limited and is set out in the programme for Government. I hope to work and deliver on it.
I was struck by a few of the contributions made today. Senator Fitzpatrick raised the issue of maternity leave. I know that the non-pay issue raised in the Moorhead report is important. More broadly than that, a number of local authority members raised issues with me. They are very frustrated by situations confronting them and I understand that.That is why we immediately established a working group, which has already met. I attended the first meeting at which we set out how we will improve efficiencies within the local authority sector and how we are going to support councillors. When I look into a council chamber, I want to see a reflection of society at large in terms of gender and diversity and how society operates because that is how we will get the best decision-making. I want to support local authority members to achieve that.
I hope that the working group will come back to me in quarter 2 with a series of recommendations on supports for councillors, including, for example, in respect of maternity leave and training. Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about having a baby and being asked why she was not at a council meeting. We do not want that in this country. As a progressive person and a young father, I know that is not right. I want to offer councillors real maternity leave. We had a situation where we falsely believed that we could change an instrument and that would provide maternity leave. I want a system people can use, can feel free to operate and that will offer significant support to bring more women and people generally into the local authority system. I am committed to working to deliver that and will not leave any stone unturned in my efforts.
A number of Senators mentioned retention, which is so important at the moment. Very good people are being lost from our local authority system and that is a crying shame. We really need to respond to that challenge and ensure that supports are in place. As I said earlier, we want society at large to be reflected in our council chambers and we will do everything we can to ensure that is the case.
Senator Moynihan was very fair in her contribution. She outlined the various challenges we have come through and pointed out that everyone in this House wants the same thing and is in agreement on this issue. I value the fact that we are all working together to try to deliver on this. The Minister and I are working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this. Whether it needs a Government decision or a new regulation, the proposal is there and we must get on and implement it. I know, having spoken to councillors all over the country, that this issue comes up consistently but I want to move on to talk about reform and the real issues that matter so much to members of local government and to our citizens. It is vital that we get the opportunity to do that as soon as possible. Having listened to Senators today, the frustration on this issue is clear. Senators are obviously liaising with local authority members and reflecting the feedback they are getting. Obviously, I am also liaising with local authority members.
Senator Seery Kearney has contacted me several times about the issue of maternity leave. I agree that it is a significant issue and one that we really need to solve. Hopefully, we will be able to deliver on it and a number of other non-pay issues.
Senator Wall mentioned online bullying, which is of grave concern to many young councillors. People are afraid to run for election when they see some of the online behaviour of a minority of people, which is very frustrating. I will raise this issue with the reform group that we have established. We will try to work out how best to respond to it, particularly in terms of putting key supports in place for people who find themselves in a position like that.
I thank Senators for affording me the opportunity to discuss this matter. Obviously, the Government is not opposing the motion. We are all working together on this because we all want the same outcome. We all want this resolved as quickly as possible and I assure this House that I am doing my utmost to do so. I say that sincerely and in good faith. We want to get this done urgently and I believe we will do so.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I cannot say that I am not a little disappointed that the report in The Mirrornewspaper was clearly inaccurate. Somebody leaked a report to the newspaper that Cabinet had already signed off on pay for councillors.
I thank all of my colleagues for the respectful way in which this debate was conducted, which is a testament to all of them. Nobody here has the corner on councillors' issues.All of us are indebted, in some way or other, to the councillors who elect us and must ensure the representations they make to us are brought to the attention of the Minister of State and the Government. I recognise the AILG and LAMA in that regard. I had not been a local authority member when I entered politics, but I was always welcomed and treated with the utmost respect when I attended AILG and LAMA meetings.
I am happy that Fine Gael withdrew its proposed amendment, but I am unhappy that the issues in the amendment are not being dealt with immediately. On maternity leave, if we have learned nothing else from Covid-19, we have learned that we can use technology to get around the issues that impact young parents, not just mothers but mothers and fathers. That is something the Minister of State can examine as we move out of the pandemic. I believe it was in 2015 that a Deputy had to be in the Chamber three days after having a baby because there was an important vote. It is totally unacceptable that we would do that in this day and age.
Ms Donna Sheridan, a Fine Gael councillor and a great friend of mine from my teaching days in the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, pointed out to me that when she attends a council meeting she must take annual leave because she cannot get time off. That is unacceptable. She serves the public, as do many teachers, nurses and various other public servants. The least we should do is make arrangements so they can attend their council meetings, and if that could be done remotely it would be great.
There are some non-pay issues. It is not all about pay, as some of my colleagues pointed out today. For example, there is massive divergence around the country in the technology that is made available to councillors. Some of them are provided with laptops and printers while others have computers that are so out of date they are incapable of using technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Then there is the matter of postage and prepaid envelopes. I was talking to a councillor a few weeks ago who was spending €25 or €30 per week on postage. A stamp costs €1. The councillors are carrying out a public service so the Minister of State might consider the provision of prepaid envelopes for them. There is also the replacement of mobile telephones. Technology is progressing all the time and we must keep abreast of it for the sake of councillors.
As regards travel, one of my colleagues, Senator Davitt, mentioned the councillor who travels from west Cork to Cork city. It is a day's journey in and out. He stood to lose €5,000. I wrote to councillors some years ago and warned them about the accumulation of mileage. It is the one good thing I saw emerge from the Moorhead report. I am glad the Minister of State looked at that report and then consulted the practitioners on the ground. If I learned little else when I was elected to this House, I learned that most of us do not know what councillors do. I had never served on a council and it has taken me years to build up some knowledge of the amount of work and commitment involved for councillors.
I must say that I am leaving the House today on a bit of a low. I believe what the Minister of State said and I will be holding him to account. I am sure the county councillors around the country will hold all Members of this House to account for what was promised today. I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend the debate and I thank all my colleagues who spoke in favour of our electorate and who were not afraid to make a case for our colleagues on the front line.