Firstly I welcome this Bill before the Seanad today. I think that legislation which addresses the area of local government reform has been required for some time and I commend the Government for implementing this legislation.
As we will all be aware, reforming the public sector has been on the political and administrative agenda for some time. In 2008, the Government announced an Efficiency Review which required each Department to examine its overall administrative spending, including that of State bodies/agencies under its remit. The final Report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group of 2010 contains over 106 recommendations, all of which the Minister Hogan announced last year would be implemented in full.
A number of other reports have also been published outlining the best way to reform the public service including the OECD Review of the Public Service and the Green Paper on Local Government Reform both published in 2008 to name but two. The Programme for Government (2011) draws on many of the recommendations made by these reports, in particular the recommendations to rationalise State bodies/agencies.
The Programme also commits to transferring many of the functions currently being performed by these agencies back to local government and ensuring that all property-related revenues are part of the income stream of local government. This Government has been pro-active in pursuing a comprehensive reform agenda in respect of local government and the wider area of politics including the passing of legislation that introduces gender quotas to increase female representation in national politics and the reform of the corporate donations area.
The Government’s Statement on Public Service Reform from last November sets out the rationale for reducing the total number of State bodies/agencies in existence, and sets out each Department’s target for 2012 which is, ‘a new and expanded programme of State Agency rationalisation’…will involve the rationalisation of 48 such bodies by the end of 2012, with a further 46 to be critically reviewed by June 2012.
The objective of these measures will deliver enhanced service efficiencies, together with ensuring a more focused and democratically accountable Public Service and they are therefore, to be welcomed.
This Bill will facilitate the agency rationalisation programme currently being undertaken by the Department of the Environment and it will reduce the number of agencies operating under the Department’s remit by 43%, from 21 to 12. This is a necessary course of action for the simple reason that we have too many agencies currently carrying out functions that could be done so by a lesser number and in a more efficient manner.
Since taking office last year, Minister Hogan’s department has already taken action in streamlining the functions of a number of bodies under its auspices which has meant that initial savings in the order of €1.9 million have been achieved in the process.
The restructuring of the bodies set up under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act of 1971 addressed by this legislation is a direct response to the current economic crisis and a necessary means to reduce overall public sector costs through enhanced efficiencies. This Government is taking action where previous administrations failed to, in reducing public sector spending in respect of state agencies which will result in the provision of more efficient, streamlined public services.
With particular reference to part 2, section 5 of the Bill, line 15 b provides for the provision of services, training, and equipment relating to IT and communications technology. I am curious to know if this will apply to elected local authority members and I ask the Minister if this is the case. Local Authority elected representatives have been advocating training for themselves for a long number of years and I would commend such a legal provision as I think that in a modern day and age where a high level of IT and communication skills are a prerequisite in nearly all fields.
Part, section 5 of the Bill at line 15 c which provides for administration services is also to be welcomed as it a must in today’s highly demanding modern world for adequate administrative supports be provided where it is needed.
Line 15e provides for the promotion of public safety awareness and the organisation of training and safety measures in relation to public safety. This is an important provision and there is a lot of ambiguity among Councils as to how guidelines are interpreted when it comes to certain public safety issues. We need guidelines to be put in place that can be collectively implemented in the same way. Health and safety regulations must be applied in a coherent and consistent manner.
Line 15f of the same section proposes the provision of research, advisory and information services. I am interested in finding out from the minister if this applies to Councillors. It is my belief that this provision should apply to them as the job of a public representative requires that one be informed and knowledgeable on a host of subjects and a great deal of research work has to carried out.
Line g which proposes consultancy and strategic planning services I would suggest be omitted and it can be debated in more detail at committee stage. In this day and age where we all have a range of technologies at our fingertips, research can be carried out independently by all staff and the need for consultants has certainly dwindled. For this reason, I believe the supply of consultants in this respect needs to be downsized.
I welcome the provision in line 15i for the legal underpinning of procurement services and I think it is advisable that these services be centralised in the interest of fairness and efficiency which will give legal provision for the dissolution of the Limerick Regeneration agencies.
It is my understanding from what Minister O’Sullivan said in the last Dáil debate on the legislation that, a new Limerick regeneration office has initially been set up with administrative support from Limerick City Council, but will report directly to the manager-designate of the new unitary authority in Limerick, once appointed.
I think it is a good move in amalgamating the two regeneration agencies into the new unitary authority. Rural members of Limerick Council should have an oversight role in the regeneration projects which are on-going in four areas of Limerick city. The work of the city’s regeneration projects has had far-reaching consequences for many rural parts of county Limerick. Therefore it is only right that public representatives from rural areas of the county, who will be members of the new unitary authority, should input to the project’s future direction.
In relation to section 10 of part 2 of the Bill, I ask the Minister who is to take over the functions of the Fire Services Council and Irish Water Safety, which has done a fantastic job of promoting safe practices in the water for many years.
I note that part 3, section 13 of the Bill provides on a legal basis for the dissolution of an Chomhairle Leabharlanna. I welcome this move as unfortunately, the body had become a talking shop and obsolete in terms of its functions. Its staff can and have been deployed for better purposes elsewhere to Local Authorities.
Part 4, section 17 will allow the Minister to re-appoint an outgoing manager of either Limerick and Tipperary city or county council at the time of the next appointment after the commencement of the 2012 Act provided that the functional area of the joint body in question extends into 2 or more counties or into a city and one or more counties, then such county or city manager as the Minister shall by order appoint shall also be the manager for such joint body. This would apply in the cases of Limerick and Waterford.
Overall, this Bill signifies a step in the direction of wider local government reform. There is a requirement on the part of the Government to continue to abolish unnecessary and superfluous agencies and quangos in an effort to streamline the delivery of services within local government and, ultimately, improve delivery for our customers, the taxpayers.
The pooling of resources and expertise into one agency will save money both in terms of manpower and the procurement services offered until recently by separate agencies and by local government.
The centralisation of local government is a piece in the jigsaw of a larger reform structure in the centralisation of services and procurement processes across all Government sectors in a bid to elicit further savings for the taxpayer. For example, in terms of procurement processes, which have been spearheaded by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in recent months, the reformed framework for managed print services is expected to generate savings of up to €22 million annually and a pilot project regarding e-invoicing across the public sector could lead to further millions in savings by reducing administrative and transactional costs.
It can be difficult for both staff and the wider public to understand that while processes and structures change, even on a radical level, we have to remember that, as a Government and as a service provider, times are changing and we must evolve with them. As a nation, there is a fear of losing the personal touch or of change in terms of reduction in the number of people or agencies providing various services. The reality, of course, is that modern facilities allow us to do a lot more with far less, and we still have the opportunity to make savings for the taxpayer, which must be placed high on the agenda.
While amalgamation means a reduction in the number of people providing a service, it does not mean the quality of the service has to suffer. At local government level, the amalgamation of both Limerick and Tipperary councils, with the suggestion of other amalgamations to follow, presents us with a fairly rare opportunity to realise significant savings for the ratepayers in those counties as well as offering savings to the taxpayer.
In the context of local government reform, the amalgamations of local authorities should not be viewed in isolation. I am certain that future announcements will yield further savings as well as perhaps instilling greater confidence in the ability of local councillors and officials to deliver and to be held accountable.
While we continue to deal with the fallout from the economic crisis, we must be fully aware that the world in which we live is changing at an accelerating rate. That is the reason I believe these changes are essential, both in terms of saving money for the Exchequer and the ability of the Government to deliver on the commitments it made in the programme for Government.