"I had meetings with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government who had drafted the Act, but what I said fell on deaf ears. I now realise that he probably had his mind made up before that debate started on town councils."
PAC Meeting | March 5, 2015
Deputy John Deasy: I hope the Chairman will give me some latitude on this. This document arrived in our pigeonholes this morning. It is the annual progress report on the public service reform plan from Mr. Watt's Department. I find the section on performance and accountability, local government, interesting because-----
Mr. Robert Watt (Secretary General, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform): E-government or local government?
Deputy John Deasy: Local government, and it is slightly non-germane to what this meeting is about, but I will get to that.
Considering the comments that Mr. Watt's boss, the Minister [Brendan Howlin], made in recent days about the abolition of town councils being a mistake, the accountability and performance part of this document refers to the National Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government, which undermines that to some extent.
It states the national oversight and audit commission for local government will do a list of things but that it was mistake to do this in the first place. The funny thing from my perspective is that Mr. Watt might be right, but it needs to be spelled out what exactly the national oversight and audit commission for local government will do.
There is a relationship with the Committee of Public Accounts because one of its roles will be to engage in financial scrutiny of revenue collection across the 31 local authorities to see how efficient it is. That is of relevance to the committee, but is there a contradiction?
The Minister and the Department issue a document such as this which states, effectively, that it was a mistake to abolish town councils. I think, therefore, that Mr. Watt might be right. I had meetings with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government who had drafted the Act, but what I said fell on deaf ears.
I now realise that he probably had his mind made up before that debate started on town councils. I took my own town council in Dungarvan as an example - its staff, the town clerk in particular, were outstanding - and what I knew would happen when he left when it came to local administration is happening.
What exactly will the national oversight and audit commission do because already I see the cracks when it comes to services provided when town councils were in place? I am thinking, in particular, about housing and the way people are dealt with from Dungarvan to Waterford city. The consideration necessary when it comes to dealing with individuals and their families is missing.
Mr. Robert Watt: I did not get a chance to read the Minister's comments. In referring to town councils what I think he said was that he had regrets. I do not think he was making any comment about implications for the audit office or the oversight group being established. He was making a point about town councils because I am sure he supports the new-----
Deputy John Deasy: One does lead to the other.
Mr. Robert Watt: He supports the architecture put in place by the previous Minister, former Deputy Phil Hogan. He supports achieving more value for money and undertaking more assessments. I do not know whether there is a crossover from his views on town councils to the other, but he may clarify his comments.
The Deputy can ask him at a future date what he had in mind. I can speculate on his motives for making the comments, but it is beyond my remit. We are still friends and I would like to keep it that way, as long as we can manage it.
I do not see an issue in terms of the structures in place. The Chairman probed me on this question in the past and there were issues around the independence of the local government audit service within the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and whether it should be merged with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General in a new office and the need for greater oversight in this space.
I will support whatever mechanisms are required to ensure the achievement of value for money is pursued and that things are done properly. As the Deputy knows better than I do, the biggest reform introduced concerns how the vast majority of the money spent at local level is raised.
Over time, presumably, this will lead to councillors having much more oversight of what is going on within local authorities because they will be saying to ratepayers and property holders that they are paying to them; therefore, they will have to account for it.
Deputy John Deasy: I understand that; that is exactly what I am getting at. Mr. Watt knows that we have talked about rates during the years. It is devolving power to local authorities so far as revenue collection in their own areas is concerned.
Mr. Watt is announcing that this is happening around the country, but will he talk about the quality of the service provided, regardless of whether there are revenue raising powers locally?
What I have seen to date is a dip in the quality and level of service provided. I do not know what is within the remit when it comes to making a determination on how successful the change has been in the services provided for ratepayers and ordinary citizens, but that is an issue that needs to be looked at. How else is one going to find out if it is working?
Initially I advise that we survey ratepayers and ordinary citizens who have been subject to the change and speak to Deputies and Senators because they deal with the issue every day in their offices to find out if it has worked. What the Minister said might have been a political statement to a certain extent, but we need to revisit the issue if it is found that the service has reduced.
Mr. Robert Watt: One of the roles of the oversight group is to look at benchmarking across local authorities. Unlike other parts of the public service, there are many entities which provide comparable services.
I know that they are different as one cannot compare Dublin to County Leitrim or Dublin to County Waterford, but there should be a way to benchmark the cost and quality of services provided. One of the roles of the group, as I understand it, is to do this and, to an extent, respond.
If a different service is provided in Waterford with which people are dissatisfied, it might indicate where there is room for improvement. I am not exactly sure where we stand on this issue. If the Deputy wishes, I will come back to him and see what the remit is and what it is doing.
Deputy John Deasy: Yes. May we have a short passage on what thematic reviews of local authority function mean? The only point I am making, even though I might agree with the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, is that there is a slight contradiction and a subtle undermining of what those on the commission might be tasked to do, while at the same time saying the abolition of town councils was a mistake.
Spelling out the role of the group and how it will perform its functions and come to conclusions is important because I already see cracks since the town councils were abolished.