Category Archives: Politics

Tallaght courthouse to remain open after successful consultation process – Keane

Fine Gael bye-election candidate for Dublin South West, Senator Cáit Keane has today (Monday) welcomed the news that Tallaght courthouse will not close as previously proposed.

“Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald telephoned me directly this morning to inform me that Tallaght courthouse will not close as planned,” Senator Keane explained.

“I have been making representations to the Courts Service and my Government colleagues for months about the proposed closure and am glad to see that these have been taken into account and that the right decision for this area has been taken,” she continued.

“Tallaght is an ever expanding area of South Dublin with over 70,000 people living here. It needs key administrative services to serve this growing population and closing the courthouse would not have been in the best interests of the citizens who live in the area. Tallaght is the administrative centre of South County Dublin and to remove such a vital organ of the justice system at local level would have been a regressive and very damaging action.

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Seanad Reform Bill -May 2013

I welcome this Bill on Seanad Reform to the House today. I commend Senators Quinn and Zappone on its publication. The debate on the future of the Seanad has been on-going for years as we know – we have had 11 reports; all worthy documents in their own right but none acted on. This Bill has been drafted to transform Seanad Éireann without the need for constitutional change and it follows on from the Report published by Senators Zappone and Quinn last autumn on the same subject.

The most recent and extensive report published on Seanad Reform by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in 2003 remains a very practical framework from which significant reform can be implemented. As it is noted in this consultation paper, all 11 reports have advocated reform and not abolition. All of them concluded the same thing- that the Seanad should be retained but not in its current format. Senator Crown published a Bill on Seanad Reform only two months ago and he deserves credit also for the work that put into drafting such a document.

The fundamental purpose of this Bill is to extend the electorate of the Seanad on a ‘one person, one vote’ system which I believe makes sense and is fair and democratic and is probably the biggest area in which the Seanad is in need of reform. However, there are a number of technical issues I have with the Bill and I will address them through the course of my contribution to this debate.

In relation to section 6 of the Bill, provision is made for a six seat constituency for Universities and other higher education institutions. What would the name of this constituency be as it is not stated? Also, in relation to the proposed cultural and educational constituency, what would the criteria be for qualification into this group? Also the ‘constituencies’ will be very large.

I welcome the section 7 which provides for gender equality in terms of the composition of the Seanad being mandatorily equally represented by men and women. This is progressive and I think gender equality must be extended to other areas of political and commercial life. The Government published legislation last year that will provide for gender equality in the other chamber of Parliament but I believe it should be extended to local councils and to board rooms in companies. Hopefully over the lifetime of this Government, those changes can also be implemented.

In addition, the provision that each elector is only entitled to one ballot paper- seems a sensible proposal to ensure it is all inclusive and not elitist as is sometimes the criticism now. The present system where some of the electorate can vote under two or three categories is unfair and undemocratic. In section 8 the Bill provides for the disentitlement of any retiring member to receive a lump sum payment accrued during their holding of a seat – I think this is gone anyway?

Section 14 deals with the referral of legislation from the Seanad to the President and petition him to decline to sign a Bill on national importance grounds and put it to the people in a Referendum. Even though it is an outright majority required, I fear that this type of power to the Oireachtas may interfere with the legislative process in a negative manner.? The practice could prove unwieldy as the potential for multiple referendums would not be practicable for our country- if one only considers the cost alone, could this work in practice.

I move onto section 26 and I have a question in relation to the provision made for 1,000 signatures on a petition to hold for a Seanad Public Consultation Committee to hold a debate on a matter of national importance. Senator Maurice Cummins has already initiated this public debate forum and it is to be welcomed. When the Seanad was founded its emphasis on providing a voice for civic society meant that it offered real opportunities for building bridges to citizens. It was supposed to have developed into a political platform where citizens representing different sections of society were provided with a voice and given the opportunity to DEMAND DIFFICULT ANSWERES FROM THE GOVERNMENT. However I regret to say Seanad Éireann has not really developed in this way. This year as I said there has been an attempt to address this citizen input element.

I welcome section 27 which proposes that the ballot for the election of chairman and vice-chairman be secret- I think this would be interesting. I want to mention section 30 and in particular, the subsection which proposes that any Irish passport holder could vote in a Seanad election including those residing outside the state- I can see the rationale behind this and that is obviously to make the election process more inclusive but again on a practical level, I would like to know has any research been carried out as to the numbers that would qualify – or no qualifying period say 5 years – or does it cover everybody that ever emigrated and now holds dual passports etc. Could it lead to a situation where we have more citizens outside of the state voting in a Senate national election?

I note that in section 32, a proposal is made to that an elector must be at least 18 years of age which is in line with current voting arrangements but in light of the outcome of the constitutional convention which suggested that the voting age be reduced to 16, perhaps we must re-consider the voting age for all elections- national and local.

I jump to section 47 which proposes that any person nominated to one of the vocational constituencies must demonstrate ‘requisite knowledge’ of the vocational area they are being nominated to. What are the specifications for this ‘knowledge’ is it going to be specified -and how would they be qualified? Or is it going to continue as is re qualification? This needs clarification. Section 53 has a provision for an election expense threshold of €40,000 in one instance and €50,000 in another. I think this is excessively

I want to ask, in relation to schedule 2, which deals with nominating bodies, I presume that current nominating bodies will have to ‘re-qualify’ as nominating bodies? New criteria etc. laid down? Will the merged body of the AMAI and the ACCC retain its function as a nominating body?

As I said from the outset, I am in favour of Seanad Reform and I think reform is a better long term solution than abolition as I think abolition would not be in the best interest of democracy. As I have pointed out currently there are some questions I have on this Bill – but are not unsolvable I think. We all know we are promised a referendum on the abolition of this House – with a YES OR A NO answer is to be out to the people in the autumn, as there are 72 areas of the constitution that will require changing is it proposed to publish those 72 areas in booklet form? To inform the people on the choices they will have to make? I said it before and I will say it again I would like to see a preferendum and obviously there is much uncertainty surrounding the future at the present time.

Seanad Reform Additional Points:

Why we need a Bicameral Parliament:
The evidence suggests that bicameralism is not on the decline.
The majority of the world’s democratic countries have bicameral systems. 78 out of 178 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union countries have bicameral parliaments. Ireland is one of 13 EU countries to have a bicameral system and over five sixths of the population of the Union live in countries with bicameral parliamentary systems.

There are studies which have found positive effects of bicameralism on parliamentary democracy in terms of representation, the process of legislative bargaining, the quality of legislation and oversight of the executive.
Bicameralism affects policy and law-making more significantly where one chamber has enough leverage to keep the other from acting unilaterally. However, even where rules allow one chamber to decide policy on its own after the other has had its say, as is the case in the Irish bicameralism system. Bicameralism also has the potential to protect minorities from legislation reflecting the tyranny of the majority but importantly, this potential is clearly only realised if minorities are adequately represented in powerful second chambers and so wide representative scope would be required in a reformed seanad and I think this Bill does demonstrate how this could be achieved.

A number of political scientists argue that bicameralism should result in higher quality legislation by virtue of informational gains from parallel or sequential consideration in separate chambers; others that it can improve legislation by providing an arena for adversarial consideration of competing policy proposals.

Why we need the Seanad:
•If the foundations of the democracy continue to be weak, whatever we build on them will be weaker. That is why we need a stronger, reformed Seanad and not its abolition. Abolition will lead to less democracy and accountability. We must restore the democratic value of Seanad Éireann which is at the heart of our society and state.
•Senator’s must focus more on legislation and less on local issues. This however, cannot be done until reform takes place art local level. Councillors must be given real powers and revenue raising abilities taking the national politician out of the power-broking equation. However, it is also at the discretion of members of the Seanad to not allow local work to be prioritised when their role is legislator and this should be remembered by Senators as it is why they are actually here.
•The Seanad has a role in acting as a counterbalance to the Dáil and the executive authority of the Government. Although I agree the whip system does stymy any independence of voting on legislation but I think it is necessary in order for any legislation to get passed. If there was no whip system, it would make any decision making and policy enactment chaotic and weak. The 3 line, 2 line, 1 line whip system on issues
•The Seanad has a very important role to play in terms of EU function as well as other important functions in terms of checks and balances as we have discussed in this house during our debates on Seanad Reform. As a House of the Oireachtas, under the provisions of Article 29 of the Constitution, as recently amended, the Seanad must give “prior approval” to EU proposals for enhanced cooperation, the Shengen Acquis, and the “opt out” of Ireland in respect of EU measures on freedom, security and justice, including the ending of that opt out.

The Seanad and the EU -May 2013

I want to welcome you to Seanad Éireann Deputy Harkin t in the context of developing economic problems in Ireland you opted for the Committee on Employment & Social Affairs as your main focus when re-elected in 2009 and also a Substitute Member of the Committee on Agriculture & Rural Development –so you have a busy schedule as we all know the importance of those portfolios to Ireland particularly at this trying time.

I welcome this debate The Seanad and the EU: Strengthening the Link
You may be aware that this Seanad and our Leader Maurice Cummins has been very vocal in the need for this House to scrutinise EU legislation and I will say more about this later. Since Ireland’s ratification of the Lisbon treaty in 2010, we as a National parliament have been designated a strengthened role with the EU.
The Seanad has a very important role to play in terms of EU function as well as other important functions in terms of checks and balances as we have discussed in this house during our debates on Seanad Reform. As a House of the Oireachtas, under the provisions of Article 29 of the Constitution, as recently amended, the Seanad must give “prior approval” to EU proposals for enhanced cooperation, the Shengen Acquis, and the “opt out” of Ireland in respect of EU measures on freedom, security and justice, including the ending of that opt out.
Likewise, the State’s capacity to agree to a “passerelle ” (bypass) decision to end the requirement for unanimity on corporation tax for instance and to submit to QMV (Quality majority voting) in respect of other matters which could fundamentally vary or over-ride other constitutional provisions requires the separate prior approval of Seanad Éireann.

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Statements on Local Government -April 2013

I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on local government reform in the House today. As we are all aware, a comprehensive Action Programme; Putting People First was launched by Minister Hogan in October last to bring about the most fundamental improvements to the local government system in Ireland. The programme represents a very radical reform plan that will bring Local Government into the 21st Century. This new policy will bring about some of the necessary reform designed to increase the efficiency of local Government and will ensure that taxpayers money is translated into the services people expect and deserve in their local areas and is in keeping with the commitments made in the Programme for Government to deliver on radical reform for our economy, public services and our politics.

The vision that I have is one of a system of local government based on strong local democracy, community spirit and citizen empowerment allied to an effective and cost efficient service delivery. We must ensure that in creating an efficient system of local administration we do not wipe out local democracy and good local government.

What we have seen to date that in pursuit of reform over the years there has been an agenda of reductionism as opposed to real reform. We have had in the past tinkering with local government and no real attempt to reform it. We have seen powers and functions removed from local authorities. Certain functions are best administered centrally but central Government is not best equipped to grasp the inimitable conditions of each locality. It is preferable for local government to carry out that job because locally elected institutions employing their own specialist staff are better placed to understand and interpret the conditions and the needs of local communities. The over-centralisation of government here is inefficient and fundamentally incompatible with a healthy Republic. We need a cost efficient delivery of services.

The Barrington Report over 20 years ago recommended a system of District Councils and we now are going to have a system of Municipal Districts & Metropolitan areas. A part of the Reform programme the Government is to undertake, Town Councils are to be replaced by Municipal District Councils across the whole territory of the state (bar Dublin as it is deemed a special case) will be created. Each county is to be divided into a municipal district based around principal towns in a district. This will address weaknesses associated with the inconsistency of structures, inequality of representation and the fragmentation and duplication of functions between Town and County Council.

I ask the Minister in cases where there are is more than one principal town in a district, how will the name of that district then be chosen? I welcome this change as I think it will lead to greater power for the councillors within municipal districts as a significant range of reserved functions will be performed by Councillors at district level being devolved from county level including housing, budgeting and many roads and planning functions. The new model being adopted will give greater autonomy to the elected members and with a defined separation of functions at county and municipal levels, there will be no duplication and greater efficiencies achieved.

The system in Ireland where some voters have county and town votes is arguably unfair and undemocratic and the establishment of the municipal districts will correct this democratic deficit as there will only be one election for the district where the district will consist of a single electoral area with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 10 elected members in the majority of circumstances. Each district member will also be a member of their County Council.

The total number of municipal districts in the 25 counties involved excluding Dublin would be approximately 90 compared to the 80 town councils and 120 county electoral areas we presently have but does not mean we would have less representation. On the contrary, we could see a result of actually having greater, more consistent national representation through equalisation. A reduction in the number of councillors from 1,450 (with a cap of 40) to more no more than 950 would mean an overall representational ratio of 1 councillor to every 4,180 head of population which would balance out the representation nationally where the range at present goes from a low 1:1,444 to 1,8,398.

Ireland is anomalous in terms of European countries as the existence of town councils is very much the exception with municipal level districts being the norm in Europe. My understanding from the report is that cities and boroughs will retain mayoral status and also in the case of the new municipal districts with towns over a certain population which was stated as being 20,000 as an example in the report but I would ask the Minister if he can confirm this. In addition, I ask the Minister what the ballot paper will look like- will it state that is a municipal district election and a county council election? I didn’t see it alluded to in the report. The Minister has said that the scope for further extension of the reserved functions of the elected member will be fully considered and he has asked each department to come up with proposals which I strongly welcome as it would mean greater devolution of power which I have already alluded to and advocated.

I want to ask the Minister under what circumstances will the use of the term Chair or Cathaoirleach be confined to.

In relation to the ACCC and the AMAI, I would ask to ensure that suggest that the new merged body should have representation on the new Action programme’s Implementation body when it is established in the interest of democratically elected representation.

The onus on Councillors now is much greater than it was 20 years ago and I would be interested to know if anybody has done a review of the hours spent or even asked the local councillor about the time involved. Participative democracy, citizen engagement is to be commended and recommended and this all takes up all of a councillor’s time. I know this from my own personal experience and during my time spent as a County Councillor.

Councillors are not in the job for the money and I am of the view that you cannot expect women or men to pay for childcare and work entirely on a voluntary basis. I think it would be good to have this review published well prior to the 2014 Local Authority elections to let people know what they are signing up for and I here note the spate of resignations in the Dublin area shortly after last local elections – when people experienced the demands of the job. It is stated in the report the need to ensure sufficient incentive for high quality representation and I agree with this.

Under the Action Programme there are proposals to significantly increase the role of local government in local and community development programmes which I welcome. A Departmental Steering Group report was completed last year to examine the scope for greater alignment between the local government and local development sectors to advise on options for a more integrated delivery of local and community services. I ask the Minister if the procedure for this integration has been determined yet. And has consultation on this taken place with the Community Development groups? I know I chaired a meeting myself where we had a delegation from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ICTU community sector where they presented findings of their report to us – this was brought to the Ministers attention.

In relation to Participative Democracy arrangements, I am pleased that mechanisms to promote community and citizen engagement will be considered and I am wondering Minister, when the report on this is to be published?
The community alignment plan provides for a Socio Economic committee (SEC) in each city & County council area for planning and oversight of local and community development ensuring joint participation of the local community sector and the elected representatives. Programmes will be established. Those SEC’s will have responsibility for developing a 5 year City & County ‘local and Community’ development initiatives. A National policy on local & community devolution is to be launched before the 2014 local elections? I want to ask the Minister if this is on track.

I welcome the Government’s decision to integrate the local micro-enterprise support services currently undertaken by the County and Local Enterprise boards with Local Authorities and the establishment of Local Enterprise offices is as it will provide a strong platform for local authorities to play a leading and integrated role economically. I would ask to ensure that Councillors maintain their input to the local enterprise services and partake on the evaluation committees. Can the Minister confirm if this is to be the case?

Waste Management ‘ Planning ‘ will remain with Local Authorities which I welcome as local authority staff have significant expertise and experience in this area and retaining this will be an advantage to the planning process. However, the number of Waste planning regions will be reduced from 10 at present to no more than 3, taking full account of the proposed New Regional Assembly structure as set out in chapter 8 of the report.

Under reform proposals I know that the position of City/County Manager is replaced with a Chief Executive and measures are to be taken to support elected members to assert their primacy in policy using the existing legal and policy framework. Measures include new accountability mechanisms, a review of the Strategic Policy Committees and consideration to extending ‘reserved’ functions and to giving councillors a statutory role in ensuring the Chief Executive complies with policy.

In the case of Dublin, the issue of replacing the town authorities does not arise aside from Balbriggan but the same functions that will be performed by other members at municipal district level will be applicable to three County councils in Dublin where they can meet at a sub county level of each electoral area but I understand that as stated in the report ‘In light of recent major restructuring’ the utilization of this system in Dublin is optional at the discretion of the Councils?. I know that a special forum of the four Dublin Authorities will be set up to consider Mayor and I ask the Minister when this is to be?, I presume that the district system will be introduced to Dublin also?

In the case of metropolitan Districts which is applicable to the cities, the proposal that the metropolitan area in Limerick is to be in the region of 100,000 populations with a commensurate membership. I understand also that the intention is that there be a number of electoral areas within the Metropolitan Districts of Limerick and Waterford and the three City Councils of Dublin, Cork & Galway are to be retained. In total there will be 28 County Councils including the existing three in Dublin.

Local authorities will be locally funded through an equitable property tax and will, therefore, become less dependent on central government funding. Given the local nature of property, the link between community location and service demand and provision and the potential to provide for local discretion and accountability, a property tax is uniquely appropriate as the principal source of sustainable funding for local government. I know there is debate on the Dublin area being asked to pay more than the country and this is so, but as spokesperson on Local Government, I have also had representation on the other side of the coin from people in the country saying ‘they have no footpaths, no lights, no public water supply, no community facilities – so they ask where’s the fairness/unfairness. It is clear that greater financial independence and responsibility are essential to the development of a stronger, more efficient, mature, accountable and self-reliant system of local government whose relationship with national Government will no longer be characterised primarily by dependency, lobbying and centralised control.

The Putting People First report sets to reform the system of local government from structures that are largely unchanged since 1898; to modernise the approaches to ensure more is delivered to the citizen and to build confidence in the Local Government Sector by making it more accountable to the people it serves.

The overall programme will save the taxpayer over €420 million. Over €830 million in total savings has been achieved in the area of local government expenditure since 2008 & over €196 million in the last two years. This is a significant saving to the taxpayer and in the next two years alone the structural reforms alone will deliver €45 million in savings.

Local Authorities have already implemented a considerable degree of shared service arrangements, for example, in respect of the household charge, human resources, payroll systems and procurement. Local Government has achieved the highest proportionate staff reduction of any sector with Local authority staff having reduced by 8,478 from mid-2008 to 28,765 or 23% as of March 2012, representing a saving of €288 million and they must be commended for this.
In relation to VECs, a Government decision was taken last year to reform them and legislation is currently passing through the Dáil in the shape of the Education and Training Boards Bill which will provide for 16 education and training Boards to take over from the current VECs. The 7 River Basin District Advisory Councils which have responsibility for river basin management plans under the EU Water Framework Directive and has included two members of Local Authorities along with an elected member from a sectorial Strategic Policy Committee. I understand that the functions of the Council are to transfer to the EPA. Am I correct here Minister? I want to state that the issue of the River Basins is also an important North-South issue as the river erne straddles both sides of the border and greater inter-governmental co-operation is needed in this area.

At regional Level the membership will reduce from 290 to 62 with 2 members of each constituent City & County comprising a regional assembly. The Government opted not to abolish the regional authorities because they have an on-going and important role to play in policy development in line with the territorial cohesion agenda at EU level and their abolition would therefore be a mistake. They now play an increasingly effective role in relation to the development and implementation of Regional Planning guidelines and core strategies under the Planning and Development Act of 2010.

A new National Oversight Audit committee is to be set up under the aegis of the Regional Assemblies as I understand. I put the question to the Minister as to how the Councillors Representatives will be selected for this committee as a possibility of a merger ‘ with the Comptroller and Auditor general office is mentioned in the report?

The report has outlined that a performance indicator review group is being established to review current suite of indicators and I ask the Minister when that this is to be completed? Something I would strongly welcome is the addition of a dedicated customer service officer in each Local Authority (some have them already) to monitor and standards and service delivery. It states in the report that, ‘an effective modern system of public administration should incorporate a robust process of standards-setting sand quality assurance in relation to local government performance,’ and having an officer that would effectively oversee service delivery would be very positive. I ask the Minister when this is to be rolled out.

The Government has already demonstrated a firm commitment to political reform since taking office in March of 2011. Last spring, the Electoral Amendment Political Funding Act was passed which gives effect to anti-corruption measures which make the political funding process much more transparent and drastically reduces the donation thresholds that can be legally accepted by parties. The Act also gives legal effect to gender quotas for women in politics with the aim of increasing female participation in Politics.

The findings of the Mahon Tribunal last year Tribunal of Inquiry which was established in 1997 in response to serious public concern in respect of allegations of corruption relating to the planning process concluded last year and the government has decisively implemented its recommendations. Sadly by the actions of the minority, Powers of Councillors under section 140 will no longer apply ” in respect of planning functions and consistent with this, these powers will not apply to any decision by a local authority involving Financial or other benefit to an individual or specific organization ” and so as recommended in the report the powers under section 140 is diluted for Councillors.