Wednesday, 5 December 1956
Dáil Éireann Debate
Major de Valera: I want to approach the subject matter of the Minister's answer to this question by, as far as I can, trying to put myself in the Minister's own position in such matters. I notice that at the end of his answer the Minister spoke of his concern to protect, shall I say, certain sponsors of industry. I have a great deal of sympathy with him in his approach to this, but my reason for raising the matter on the Adjournment is another matter of principle.
Actually, I have no interest in whatever individual, person or name may be concerned in this matter at all, nor do I seek, in itself, to elicit that fact. The point I do seek to elicit and do wish to bring out is that a ministerial act of the granting or the non-granting of a licence, per se, is an act in public administration for which the Minister should be answerable, I submit, in regard to a question. I will go this distance with the Minister. If the Minister claims that the proceedings of the Industrial Development Authority should be privileged under Section  9 of that Act—and I think he quoted that in his reply—and treated as a document of the Minister, I freely concede that. I also think it only right that the Minister, including his document, should have privilege in relation to negotiations with him and matters of that sort: otherwise, business could not be done. A question of principle, however, arises when it comes to the actual executive act of the granting or not granting of such a thing as a licence, where the Minister in his capacity as Minister through that very act will, in fact, confer a pecuniary benefit, or what may be a pecuniary benefit, on any individual, interest or person, where he may also refuse—for good reasons—I am not impugning in any sense the reasons for the decision —to give that pecuniary benefit to, say, some other citizen or citizens and thereby create a situation in principle where some group of citizens may, at the Minister's discretion, be favoured as against another group of citizens.
I submit in the public interest, and as a matter of high public importance, that the Minister should answer such a question. I grant him he may very well limit it. If the Minister were to argue: “All right. I will say that that act was done, that that licence was granted, and I will reveal the terms and the nominee of that licence,” that is all, I think, that could be asked of him. The negotiations of the others are not ad rem perhaps. I submit that, in the work of a democratic Parliament within the terms of the Order that says: “Questions addressed to a member of the Government must relate to public affairs connected with Departments or matters of administration for which he is officially responsible,” a question of principle arises if the Minister grants a licence or a concession which carries with it some pecuniary interest, and the grant of an export licence in its very nature, whether it is used or not—again, I am arguing in principle: I am not interested in the particular case here, nor do I wish to press the Minister if the Minister does not wish to be pressed in the particular details— carries that implication. The point I want to make very clear is that when  a Minister for State has the power to give a licence to A and refuse a licence to B, when a Minister for State can, by virtue of his authority and as Minister, perform a ministerial act which thereby will very directly give a pecuniary, a money interest or advantage to specified groups of citizens, or a citizen or a firm, and at the same time refuse such a similar thing to other groups of citizens or another citizen or another firm, I think it is a matter of public importance and that is the reason why I raise it in principle on the Adjournment.
It might be different if it were something like an automatic thing, say, a driving licence. A person gets a driving licence, unless he is disqualified. Take a driving licence straightaway. Supposing I applied for a driving licence and was arbitrarily refused the licence. I know there are remedies in the law but, supposing it was through some ministerial action that I was arbitrarily refused it, would the Minister who did that not be amenable to this House and answerable for that? That is the net point I want to make in, I hope, a sober and responsible manner.
I know there are difficult problems for the Department. I want to give the Minister scope and I want to protect the other things that are there, and particularly we should be jealous in this House to protect the citizens or ourselves from abuse of the process of the House; but will the Minister not agree with me in principle that where he can give to any one he chooses who applies to him an export licence or some other similar concession—and it is very much in the power of a Mini ster of State nowadays and particularly a Minister for Industry and Commerce to do that—and, at the same time, refuse other citizens and therefore exercise a preference, is there not a principle involved there and is it not highly desirable that the Minister should frankly disclose, on request, such matters to the House of Parliament to which he is responsible? In saying that, there is not a tittle of a suggestion that the Minister or his Department would in any way abuse that process. I am making that completely clear in this matter.
I think the Minister will, on reflection,  see the force that caused me to intervene on this question in which I had absolutely no interest whatever to-day. I want to take the Minister's answer to me in regard to that. I think he was misinformed or that he did not convey his meaning across the House. He quoted the I.D.A. as a reason for not doing it. I understand he referred to Section 9 of the Industrial Development Authority Act. With the permission of the Chair, I will read that section. It provides:—
“ The authority shall not, without the consent of the Minister, disclose any document in their custody or under their control, production of which is sought in relation to any legal proceeding, and the Minister may claim the like privilege in respect of the document as if it were in his own custody.”
That is a very proper procedure. The Minister can claim privilege for these documents as if they were his own and, of course, he can claim privilege for his own. If I sought to get particulars of negotiations or applications, or something of that nature, from the Minister here, the Minister would be entitled to tell me that I was not entitled to that answer. But it is not the Industrial Authority that makes the decisions. It is not the Industrial Authority that creates an export, an import, or an other kind of licence carrying pecuniary value. It is a ministerial act and it is the Minister who, in his capacity as Minister for Industry and Commerce, exercises this act, by and with the authority of Dáil Eireann, and my plea therefore that, in principle, these questions should be answered must, I think, be heeded. To clear up the matter, I do know that under the ordinary rules of procedure it is no function of the Chair—if the Chair will allow me to make the observation to complete the picture— to charge or compel a Minister to make an answer. I also know that the proper way of compelling a Minister to answer is by motion, that is, also within the rules of order.
If you are going to create, as a ministerial act under legislation of this House, licences or concessions for one group which are not automatically  available to another group, and where you can refuse another group, all for good reasons, I think the Minister should be amenable to answer and the public will not understand why such answers are not given. Public confidence in Dáil Éireann and in the Government is founded on disclosures and full confidence in the public and, of course, due responsibility on the part of Deputies also. There is public confidence also in the Civil Service of this State and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to its integrity which, I do not think, can be beaten by any other Civil Service in the world. The standard is extraordinarily high, but it helps to maintain the integrity of the Civil Service if such matters are disclosed publicly and are answerable here in this House.
I will now sum up as I must give time to another Deputy who wishes to add a few points to what I have said. My point is that disclosures are in the public interest, even if it is only to allay suspicions. I intervened on this question only as a result of the Tánaiste's answer to a supplementary question, where I saw a matter of principle and of public importance involved. I was sure that the Tánaiste would be as anxious as myself, or as any other Deputy, to make full and public disclosures. I would like to stress this point of public interest. I also want to point out categorically that the suggestion that the Minister is precluded by legislation, and in particular by Section 9 of the Industrial Development Authority Act, from giving the information here does not hold water. There is no legislation preventing the Minister from making disclosures in this House, as no legislation can prevent him from giving information to Dáil Éireann. No legislation can prevent a Minister from making a statement in this House. I doubt if any legislation would be valid if it attempted to do that, within the terms of the Constitution which give an absolute privilege here.
Mr. Hilliard: I put down this question in the public interest and in pursuance of what I felt to be my duty as a Deputy. I put it down on behalf of vested interests. Vested interests are very much concerned with the issue of this licence. The Native Timber Merchants' Association have sent a deputation to the Minister's Department in connection with it. They consulted me on this matter. To-day the Minister could not tell me where these 220 logs of ash, oak and sycamore were exported from. I think he did not answer the questions I put to-day, either the question or the supplementary questions.
It is a fact that prior to April last a similar licence was issued for the export of 80 logs for a similar purpose. It is also a fact that such logs have been exported for manufacture into veneer for the past 25 to 30 years and the manufactured veneer returned to this country. The people engaged in this business were alarmed and were very doubtful about the reason given by the Minister previously and, again now, for the issue of the licences. I feel that the Minister should to-night give a full and detailed answer to the questions I put to-day and clear up the matter in the public interest, which is the only reason that I put down this question and I am not, as was alleged here by Deputy Tully, a “stooge” for anyone.
Mr. Norton: Dispassionate. The I.D.A. were charged by the Government with the task of bringing about a situation by which we could make veneers here and possibly establish a plywood industry. The importance of these two industries may be gauged from the fact that the annual average imports of veneers are worth about  £60,000 and the average annual imports of plywood are in the vicinity of £630,000. The I.D.A. were charged with the responsibility of trying to get some group interested, either on their own or with an outside group, to build up an industry for the manufacture of veneers and plywood.
One approach was made to the I.D.A. with a view to having this matter considered and in the light of the possibilities of establishing an industry here. Proposal No. 1 fell to the ground—nothing came of it. Another effort was made with another group. The first group was an internal group; the second was an external group. The I.D.A. negotiated with them on that matter. They, too, evaporated and nothing came of the proposal. Then the I.D.A. received a proposal from an existing timber industry here for the purpose of establishing what they said was a veneer industry. That was discussed with the I.D.A. at length. This was the only proposition left after the other two propositions had evaporated.
This industry represented to the I.D.A. that they were willing to join with another group outside the country in the establishment of a veneer mill here. They mentioned that the capital required would be in the vicinity of £140,000 and the question depended on the quantity and the quality of Irish timber which would be available for making veneers. The Irish group said they wanted to send out of the country for testing some sample lots of oak, sycamore and ash to have these cut into veneers, so as to ascertain what the quality of those butts were when processed for the purpose of veneers.
In the course of their discussions with the Industrial Development Authority seeking a permit to export those butts for veneer manufacture, they said that all hardwoods grown in Ireland were subject to the following conditions unusual for Europe, that there was a low light factor and a high moisture content and that there was a possibility that hardwoods closely grown under these conditions might fracture when being finely cut on the veneer knife. They said that, before cutting suitable hardwoods to veneer,  the timber must be subjected to a high temperature to give it the necessary strength for cutting by the fusing of the eyes in the timber grain and the annual rings, and that the possibility and the degree of fusing of Irish oak, sycamore and ash must be determined before anybody could make up his mind as to the suitability of Irish timber.
They also said that, in addition to Irish hardwoods being grown subject to a low light factor and a high moisture factor, they were also grown on a soil generally with a limestone basis and that it must be determined whether the alkaline content of the soil could have the effect of discolouring the veneer blue or tones of blue in the manufacture of high quality furniture when subjected to heat, high pressure and the use of chemicals and adhesives. They wanted to ascertain whether Irish oak would warp or bulge when used for the final manufactured article. They said it must be determined whether it is possible to impart to veneers of Irish oak, sycamore and ash a fine surface on finishing similar to that possessed by French veneers from these timbers.
They required permission to export 600 hardwood butts from various parts of the country so as to see whether the butts from different parts had different characteristics. The Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, who were consulted, verified that they had no literature about veneer logs but that it was known that the quality of logs for veneer purposes varied as between log and log much less between area and area. It was on the basis of all these pleas they set out on technical grounds that the Industrial Development Authority recommended to the Department of Industry and Commerce that they should give a licence not to export, as they asked, 600 but to export 300, and the licence to export 300 was duly issued. If there was any money for them in this, they would clearly have exported the whole 300, but what have they done? They have exported only 94. A quantity of 150 for which one licence was issued was not exported at all because the timber which they exported was, I think, winter-felled timber and they  wanted to get summer-felled timber to see whether that had the same characteristics.
The Forestry Section was consulted before the licence was issued and they said that they saw no objection to the issue of an export licence for 300 tree butts, pointing out that, as the export would be non-recurrent, it would have no appreciable effect on the home supply of hardwoods. Having, therefore, got the view of the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards, having got the view of the Forestry Section, the Industrial Development Authority, which is a State-sponsored body, consisting of responsible directors, said to the Department: “We recommend that a licence should be granted for the export of these timbers in order to try them out and let us settle once and for all whether butts got in this way from this timber would make suitable veneer tested under the latest methods of producing high-grade veneers.”
It was only in those circumstances that the Department issued a licence for their export. The Department took the view, while the Industrial Development Authority is the responsible body, it is charged with getting the mill set up. It looked at the thing from a national point of view and said that the licence should be issued.
Mr. Norton: The licence was issued to the firm, not to individuals. No individual got the licence and, while the firm sought a licence to export 600 and were finally given only 300, in fact they exported only 94. If there were fortunes to be made out of it, would you not imagine that the 300 would go out immediately? Let me deal with this one other point. It has never been the practice in the Department of Industry and Commerce to give the names of persons to whom licences are issued. They have never been disclosed. That has been the invariable and traditional practice in the Department of Industry and Commerce.
Mr. Norton: They have never been disclosed, and requests for these particulars have been refused traditionally by my Department, with the approval of my predecessor and, in this case, with the approval of myself. That has been long-standing practice. My predecessor took the same view as I have in respect of this matter. In this case the circumstances were more unusual still because, if the name was disclosed, it would be disclosed who was promoting the veneer mill in this country and the Industrial Development Authority, which has responsibility in this matter, came to the conclusion that the identity of the sponsors of the veneer mill project should not be disclosed. In the same way, if I were asked to-morrow by a Deputy, whether on this bench or that bench, who was going to establish such and such an industry, that information, being private and confidential, we would decline to disclose. To disclose who exported these butts of timber would disclose at once in the context of this question who was starting, or hoped to start, the veneer mill here.
Mr. Norton: The I.D.A. took the view that they are obliged not to disclose or indicate the identity of sponsors of projected industries for the  veneer mill and, while Deputy de Valera quoted Section 9 of the Industrial Development Authority Act, he did not quote Section 4, which is the operative section. The I.D.A. is bound to secrecy, not to disclose that information. I could only disclose that information to the House as to who got the licence and who was responsible if I misused the information which I received in confidence from the I.D.A. under the obligation of secrecy to which they are committed by Section 4 of the Industrial Development Authority Act.
Mr. Norton: The safeguard you had against my predecessor. We cannot argue this question in the last two minutes. It is not a month since Deputies on both sides of the House voted to pass the Control of Exports Bill under which the Minister for Industry and Commerce for the time being controls exports and may give licences to persons to export commodities, having regard to his judgment of the situation. Every Deputy opposite, including Deputy de Valera, who is now concerned for rectitude——
Mr. Norton: The Deputy wants to monopolise the time when he is speaking and then to interrupt me. The Deputy had an opportunity of putting into that Bill a section requiring me to table in this House every licence I issue under the Control of Exports Act.
Mr. Norton: If the Deputy had done that, I am sure Deputy Lemass would find himself in the same Division Lobby as myself, voting against it, because, on reflection, I think the Deputy will agree that whatever case might be made to satisfy curious-minded people in a particular case, if he stands back and looks at the question objectively, he will see that there is good cause for not having the private affairs of a company disclosed in public in a way which would not only react on the firm but possibly damage the national objective of getting new industries established.
|Last Updated: 19/05/2011 23:30:47||Page of 65|