Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authorities

10:30 am

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State’s role in ensuring action was taken on foot of the Moorhead report to address the terms of conditions for councillors needs to be acknowledged. The Minister of State provided great leadership in that regard and I know he continues to work closely with the representative bodies, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and Local Authorities Members Association, LAMA, in trying to ensure that the role of councillors is recognised and in making sure that their terms and conditions are improved. The implementation of the new regime, though, has resulted in a number of problems, particularly around the area of vouched expenses, where different rules or interpretations seem to be applied by the different local authorities.

Councillors are looking for consistency in the application of those expenses, so that when they submit applications for expenses, they will know that no matter where they are located in the country, the same rules will apply. A problem has arisen, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware, with regard to the chairs of the strategic policy committees, SPCs. That allowance has now been interpreted as a taxable form of income. This means that even though some councillors were financially better off as a result of the increase in the councillor’s salary, the net effect is that because their SPC allowance is now taxed, they may not be better off as a result of that change.

I would also ask the Minister of State to look at some of the questions around the travel bands. Obviously, the cost of travel has increased significantly and there are some issues around the levels given for travel expenses, depending on where within a county an individual councillor may be located.

Finally, there is, and I would appreciate the Minister of State’s views on this, some concern around the gratuity payments that have been made. There has been a reduction from 100% of final salary to 75% of final salary. Indeed, that will impact on a number of us in this House, whenever we decide to leave politics. I know much of the focus of the Moorhead report was around the terms of conditions, but part of the recommendations were about the devolution of more powers to local authorities. This would give councillors greater responsibility and more time and support in dealing with issues around governance and around policy development.

We know how hard the 949 councillors around the country work. All of us who are in this Chamber now would have come from that background, as have many others in these Houses. One of our challenges has been around juggling time. Frequently, local government in Ireland feels powerless. In fact, we still do not have local government. We continue to have local administration.

I would be interested to hear the Minister of State’s plans to look at devolving more powers and supports to local authorities. It is key that we look at encouraging - I know the Minister of State is doing this - a broader range of people into local government from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. The Minister of State is actively encouraging more female members and more people from minority backgrounds to come on board.

There is a general concern that applies across Government, and in the Minister of State’s capacity I would ask him to look at this, which is the habit in legislation to exclude councillors from appointment to State boards. It makes sense why Members of the Oireachtas are excluded, because we have a role in the setting of the legislation, and so on. We frequently deal with State boards. Even though it is an open application process, all things being equal, just because somebody is a councillor, they should not be excluded from a State board. This is particularly the case when we are trying to encourage as many people as possible to become involved in local authority.

I commend the Minister of State on his work, and I am very grateful that he continues to work closely with the AILG and LAMA. However, I would hope that he would be able to provide us with a response to some of those issues, as well as how he is enhancing the role of local councillors generally.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising these important matters on the implementation of the Moorhead report and the issues of the devolving local powers down to local government.

On 1 July 2021, new regulations came into effect to reform the framework of financial supports for councillors to allow them to continue to carry out their statutory functions and community representational role in an effective and sustainable manner. This gave effect to an important commitment in the programme for Government to implement the findings of the Moorhead report within 12 months. One of the main recommendations of the Moorhead report was that there should be a rebalancing of financial supports for councillors away from tax-free expenses allowances in favour of more normalised salaried income, as applies to other types of office holders. The new regulations that I, along with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, gave effect to provided for: the introduction of an annual remuneration payment that, since 1 February 2022, is worth €26,415 per annum; and the introduction of a new vouched local representation allowance worth up to a maximum of €5,160 per annum, with similar terms to the vouched public representation allowance that is available to Oireachtas Members.

The Senator has referenced two issues in terms of the calculation of the expenses. I met with both the AILG and with LAMA in response to that and we will resolve that issue. Across the 31 local authorities we do need clarity. My view, as Minister of State, is that I want to support local authority members in every way, so that they can discharge their functions to their communities. I do not want to make it any more difficult. We will therefore work to resolve that and I am confident that we will do so.

In relation to the SPC chairperson, in the first instance, when terms and conditions are reviewed by the Government, they have to be set to the Revenue Commissioners for approval. That is part of the rules and regulations, and unfortunately, the chairperson of the Revenue Commissioners notified us that they had decided or made the determination that SPC chairperson allowances were to be taxed. There were some negotiations and they decided to do it from 1 January. They had looked to do it earlier on prior to that. Unfortunately, however, this is an argument that we did not win. I have to be quite and frank and honest about it. Unfortunately, it is beyond my control. They are independent in the performance of their functions and they made that determination.

In relation to travel bands, essentially, the key issue here is that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as I understand, are reviewing the calculation for milage and expenses across the whole Civil Service. That will obviously apply directly to local authority members. Therefore, that is out of my remit and it is part of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Once it has its review done, that calculation will come back, and we will be advised of it through a Government decision.

In relation to gratuity, which is another significant issue, the Moorhead report was clear that in the first instance local authority gratuities or pension calculations work in line with the normal public service rules and they were looking to increase it up the normal 66 age retirement. Second, the report raised issues about the funding of the local authority pensions. In response to that, I have set up a group to have a look at bringing in local authority members to the Department to see if we can get a resolution. However, I want to be honest about this, which is to say that I am not promising anything with regard to that. This is because it is difficult in terms of the funding mechanism, as well as the fact that they will get payment when they are 55. Yet, I think that the change in the PRSI class S will assist local authorities. Subsequent to that, it is going to be difficult. However, I have put the process in place to try to resolve it and to address the concerns that many of the local authority members have brought to me, like Senator Malcolm Byrne has done. Hopefully, we will do that.We also have our action plan to tackle other areas such as maternity and paternity leave. Hopefully, we will be bringing proposals on this issue to Government soon. The issue concerning diversity is an important one and we must try to ensure our local authority chambers reflect the society they serve. It is important. A great deal of work and reform is under way in that regard. In a wider reform perspective, we have the property tax review, which will be key to local authorities retaining their funding. I refer as well to the directly elected mayor of Limerick, which is another exciting proposal bringing devolved government back closer to citizens. Additionally, a citizens' assembly will examine the same idea for Dublin. A right for a plebiscite to be held in all the other relevant local authority areas will also be contained in that legislation.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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That was a comprehensive response, and reflects the Minister of State's understanding of and passion for local government. Councillors around the country are full of praise for his work in this area. One issue he did not refer to, however, and I appreciate the time constraints at work, was the general policy concerning the exclusion of councillors from State boards. It is written into nearly all legislation.

A new media commission is being formed in the context of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022, which will be debated this afternoon. We again see an effort there to insert a provision to exclude from consideration for appointment to the board someone who is, or becomes, a member of a local authority. I am not asking for political appointments to boards, but if someone goes through the Public Appointments Service, and all else is equal, then that person should not be excluded from consideration because he or she is a councillor. Many councillors have a great deal of experience in areas other than local government and they should be entitled to be considered for appointment to State boards. This seems, however, to be a cross-Government policy. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to lead on this issue and to try to prevent this policy from forming part of future legislation.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for his kind comments. Regarding appointments, I note the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform oversees the Public Appointments Service and all appointments. I will liaise with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, regarding this matter. I fully understand the valid point being made by the Senator. As someone who served for a good length of time on a local council, I know local authority members have so much to give in respect of valuable contributions to the organisations they are members of. One mind-blowing aspect is the number of statutory and non-statutory authorities, and even public participation networks that local authority members interact with, work on and support the activities of to add value to our communities. I will discuss this point with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It has been raised with me before, so I will continue to work on it and I will respond to the Senator separately in this regard.