Deputy Anthony Lawlor: As a former county councillor, I welcome the Bill. I was in office when Better Local Government was brought in. It was not about councillors but about local officials, which created a layer of bureaucracy. It suited the Fianna Fáil Government at the time to centralise power in the hands of a few. I am thoroughly delighted that something as radical as this Bill has been introduced.
I refer to page 73 of the Bill which deals with the financial procedures and audit. When I joined the county council, we used to spend three days on the budget. Nowadays, because councillors do not have as much power as they used to, they spend half a day rushing through the budget. When I started off in 1997 and 1998 it was a big event. We scrutinised the budget for three days to ensure that whatever money was being made available and collected on behalf of ratepayers was being spent properly.
The Minister said that regulations will show the amount necessary for the functional programmes of the authority, but will this be done annually? If so, does the Minister need to make regulations to cover that properly? This is one of the key parts of the legislation. Municipal district authorities will operate as in the North of Ireland, but members of such authorities must be given more power than at present. As part of their function, I would like to see them discussing municipal budgets beforehand. When does the Minister expect council budgets to take place? Nowadays, most council budgets occur in December. Based on this Bill, however, I would see them taking place in October like the national budget. Some regulation needs to be put in place to that effect in order that the members who are contributing to the debate on local authority budgets can have adequate time to consider the matter and make a decision. Such local authority budgets should therefore coincide with the national budget in October or, at least, be concluded before the end of the month.
One of the most important terms used in the Bill is “reserve function”. Local authority members should recognise how powerful that term is. The making of amendments by municipal district council members is a reserve function. The fact that we are giving more powers to members is the key to this legislation.
The Minister of State might have a view on the membership of audit committees. Most county councils now have internal value for money committees. It is vital that new local authority members should be included as part of such committees. In that way, they will be able to give a fair assessment of the audit.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to training courses. The Minister has said that local authorities will have to establish audit committees. Members of such committees should have some sort of relevant knowledge, so some training should be provided to them in that regard. Audit committees will form a very important part of the whole structure. I have no faith in auditors because they are part of the reason the country was brought to ruin. I ask the Minister of State to take on board some of these points. I have been quite specific in what I am seeking, and I hope he will comment on them later.