Thursday, 9 December 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
On 17 November, I gave notice during the debate in this House on the amendment of the terms of reference of the planning tribunal that I intended to bring a short Bill before the Oireachtas. The Bill will give legal backing to the discretion granted in the amended terms of reference to the tribunal to decide which issues within its terms of reference to investigate. The Attorney General advised me that it would be important to underpin this new discretion with legislation.
On 3 December, I made the instrument giving effect to the amended terms of reference as passed by this House and the Seanad. Under paragraph J(7) of the amended terms of reference, the final date for receipt of any new complaint or request for investigation is fixed by the terms of reference as 16 December of this year. The exercise of the discretion by the tribunal on any new matters that come to its attention before 16 December is vital to the running of the tribunal. I was advised that otherwise an argument could be made that the exercise of the discretion may be considered to have been outside its powers.
The background to the tribunal is well known to the House but I will recap a number of points. On 17 November, I indicated the basis on which this legislation was arising. It has its foundation in the fourth interim report. Notwithstanding the fact that the tribunal was expanded to include three members in 2001, the work of the tribunal, based on its terms of reference, has proved to be very unwieldy. As a result, the tribunal itself in its fourth interim report issued on 15 June of this year requested a change to its terms of reference to allow it more discretion in the issues that it investigates, with a view to shortening the anticipated duration of the tribunal’s activities.
In the report, the tribunal indicated that it still has a large volume of work on hand which, if its mandate played out to its full extent, would all have to be investigated. The tribunal therefore indicated that it could see the work carrying on until 2014 or 2015. The tribunal itself recognised that this situation could not and should not continue. So it sought discretion to decide what matters it should investigate. In addition, if the tribunal decided the continued pursuit of its inquiries were of limited or of no further value in discharging its mandate, it sought the power to report that to the Oireachtas and to convey to the Oireachtas the wish of the tribunal that its investigations and inquiries should terminate on a date to be specified by the tribunal.
Following the publication of the report, the Government mandated the Attorney General to consult the tribunal on changes to its terms of reference, as provided for under the 1998 tribunals legislation. There were a number of queries as to why the Attorney General was the intermediary here. The answer to those is that it is a provision of the Act. The changes, to which the tribunal then consented, go further than those originally requested in the interim report. Both Houses of the Oireachtas agreed the amended terms of reference on 17 November this year, and we had a good debate on this topic on that date. The tribunal has indicated that the amended terms of reference together with the additional resources given will allow the tribunal to complete its public hearings by March 2007, a substantially shorter time frame than that indicated in the tribunal’s fourth interim report.
Since we have already debated the changes made in the new paragraph J which was added to the terms of reference, I will not repeat the detail. Suffice it to say that paragraph J enables the tribunal to complete its current investigations into planning issues in Dublin, including the Carrickmines and Quarryvale modules and interlinked matters. The tribunal must have received any new complaint or request for investigation by 16 December of this year. As this tribunal has been operating since 1997, I do not think this is an unreasonable time limit. Persons who wished to bring matters to the attention of the tribunal have had adequate time and opportunity to do so. They still have up until 16 December to make further submissions.
By 1 May 2005, the tribunal must decide what new matters on its books will proceed to a public hearing. To allow the tribunal to prepare its final report no new investigation can be referred to public hearing by the tribunal, other than matters that come to light during existing investigations.
The discretion being granted to the tribunal, and which is the subject of this legislation, is in Paragraph J(6) of the terms of reference. It will allow the tribunal: to decide to carry out any preliminary investigations as it thinks fit, in private, using all the powers conferred on it under the Acts, in order to determine whether sufficient evidence exists in relation to any matter before it to warrant proceeding to a public hearing if deemed necessary; to decide not to initiate a preliminary investigation or a public hearing of evidence in relation to the matter notwithstanding that the matter falls within the tribunal’s terms of reference, or; in any case where it has initiated a preliminary investigation in private, whether concluded or not, but not yet initiated a public hearing of evidence in the matter, to decide to discontinue or otherwise terminate its investigation notwithstanding that the matter falls within the tribunal’s terms of reference.
In exercising this discretion the tribunal must have regard to the following: The age or state of health of one or more persons who are likely to be in a position to provide useful information, including oral evidence to be given privately or publicly. This would include the age or likely state of health of any such person, at the possible date in the future when that person or persons might be expected to be called upon to give oral evidence, or otherwise to co-operate with the tribunal. In particular, the tribunal may consider whether or not their age or state of health would to be an impediment to such person being in a position to co-operate with the tribunal or to give evidence to the tribunal in private or in public; the likely duration of the preliminary investigation or public hearing into any matter; the likely cost, or other use of the resources of the tribunal, of such investigation or any stage of the investigation into any matter; whether or not the investigation into the matter is likely to provide evidence to the tribunal which would enable it to make findings of fact and conclusions or to make recommendations and; any other factors which in the opinion of the tribunal would, or would be likely to, render the continued investigation into any matter inappropriate, unnecessary, wasteful of resources, unduly costly, unduly prolonged or of limited or no probative value.
During the debate on the tribunal’s amended terms of reference, the issue was raised of using more positive language in relation to the discretion. However, the language used is that requested by the tribunal itself. The 1998 Tribunals Act requires that any amendment to the terms of reference must have the consent of the tribunal. I therefore pointed out at the time that my hands were tied on this matter. In any case the tribunal and the Government is happy that the language in the terms of reference will allow the tribunal to exercise its discretion flexibly and effectively.
In the course of the debate in the Houses on the amendment of the terms of reference in November of this year, questions were raised on how future allegations of corruption would be investigated. I think everyone here agrees that the workings of the existing tribunal have become too unwieldy. That is why we are here today.
The Government has in recent years, made a number of changes, first to make it harder to commit acts of corruption and go undiscovered, and second, to ensure that issues of public concern can be investigated.
The provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000, for example, have introduced a new level of transparency into the planning process, in particular into the process of adopting development plans and imposing development contributions. The Local Government Act 2001 has extended provisions on declarations of interest and codes of conduct to all members and more senior staff of local authorities.
Under the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2001 corruption is presumed where there is proof that certain persons in public office have received money or other benefits from a person who has an interest in the outcome of certain decisions, including planning decisions. This will make the prosecution of corrupt payments easier because it will be up to the individual to show that there was no corrupt purpose to taking the payments.
Other measures introduced by Government, which will assist in the prevention of corruption, include the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995. This Act requires office holders, members of the Oireachtas, the Attorney General, ministerial advisers and persons holding positions in a wide range of public bodies including the civil service to make a public disclosure of interests. The Standards in Public Office Act, 2001 established a commission with wide investigative powers. It is a permanent statutory body set up to monitor, investigate and regulate the conduct of those elected to serve the Irish people or employed in the public service.
As for the future of investigations on issues of public concern, the legislation brought forward by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and enacted as the Commissions of Investigation Act, 2004 in July this year allows for commissions of investigation to be established. It is envisaged that these commissions will conduct their inquiries in a less confrontational manner and will be more cost effective than tribunals of inquiry have proven to be. We all know the costs involved and the length of time taken to come to conclusions have been a cause of public disquiet and concern. In fact, Members of this House specifically referred to this during the course of the debate in November. Among other things, the legislation addresses a point that I know to be of concern to members of the Opposition, as well as to the Government. That is, to ensure that the legal costs of these investigations do not go out of control. Speaker after speaker made this point in both Houses in November.
The Commissions of Investigation Act provides that a competitive tendering process may be used in selecting persons to work with the commission, including barristers and solicitors. In addition, when a commission is being established the full costs of the commission will have to be estimated. The chairperson of the commission will have to seek authority from the appropriate Minister if the estimate is to be exceeded. It is also open to the Oireachtas to establish a new tribunal at any date in the future. The option is always available if the circumstances require it. It is important to put that on the record again. While I know Members of this House have no confusion in their minds, some public confusion exists and some people believe we are doing away with tribunals. This is not the case. If the Houses of the Oireachtas in their wisdom feel the circumstances require a tribunal, it can still happen.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will introduce legislation shortly to address the issue of legal costs of tribunals, in particular the third party legal costs. This matter was also raised by Opposition spokespersons. This will give this House an opportunity to debate the issue more thoroughly. The Law Reform Commission will also publish its final report on tribunals shortly. I am sure that the report will contain many useful recommendations on how tribunals should operate in the future.
Notwithstanding these many important changes, the Government is not complacent. When it was established, the tribunal was tasked with making recommendations “as to the effectiveness and improvement of existing legislation governing corruption in the light of its inquiries”. To date the tribunal has not recommended further action on legislative change. However, should such recommendations be made, the Government will give them full and early consideration.
The House will be aware that the planning tribunal has been given additional legal resources to allow it to complete its work within the time limit that it set. I know there is some disquiet in the House on the matter. However, this is in line with the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the work of the tribunal will be completed fully and properly. When allied with the changes to the tribunal’s terms of reference, the additional staff will result in a substantial reduction in the projected life of the tribunal and, as a result, an overall reduction in its final cost to the Exchequer, which is the point made in the fourth report.
The proposed legislation will underpin the tribunal’s exercise of its discretion as to which matters it will investigate or bring to public hearing. This will help the tribunal to complete its mandate in a timelier way and within a more certain framework. The changes in its terms of reference and this legislation will allow the tribunal reach findings and make recommendations to help ensure that the events it has investigated cannot occur again. It is important that we learn from the past. The combined wisdom of the Houses of the Oireachtas is evident in the infrastructure we have established in recent years to address the pernicious issue of corruption. In particular, I thank the spokespersons of the main Opposition parties who were very open to discussion with me on this matter.
Mr. O’Dowd: While I understand the many pressures on the House, in ways it is a pity that this debate is so short. Given the millions of euro that have been spent on the tribunals, I would like to have seen more time and more contributions from all sides of the House. I join the Minister in paying tribute to the work of the tribunals and particularly to Mr. Justice Flood, Judge Mahon and their hard working team, who have been dealing with this sore in society for many years. An appalling vista of corruption has been exposed by the tribunals. Those in public life, who were given the sacred trust of the people when first elected betrayed that trust and have been exposed at the tribunals. In time I hope they will face the rigours of the law.
We need to consider what should be in place now that it has been decided that the tribunal will finish only the investigations based on complaints reported to it to date and complaints that will be reported to it before the deadline the Minister has outlined. As the tribunal completes its work, insufficient ideas are coming from Government as to how to address such problems in the future. As the Minister said, the tribunal was asked to make recommendations on changes in the planning laws. From media reports of the tribunal, everybody is clear and I am sure the tribunal itself is also clear as to what recommendations it could make.
We tabled an amendment recommending that the tribunal would, by 1 July 2005, make proposals on changes to the planning laws. This is not an unreasonable request and I ask the Minister to consider it. While the amendment has been ruled out of order on a technicality, we should ask the tribunal to expedite this matter as it will help in preventing future corruption. The views of the tribunal on this matter will be very important.
During the previous local election campaign, Fine Gael proposed a rezoning board. When councils make changes to their development plans, particularly those rezoning large tracts of land, such decisions should be referred to a national rezoning board. This view was echoed to a certain extent in the manifesto of the Progressive Democrats, which I read recently. That party seems to feel as well that we need another national forum to which rezoning decisions could be referred. As the Minister and I know in our own counties, these decisions can be controversial issues. Having another layer to which rezoning issues could be referred for examination would be a positive development. It would allow other points of view to be expressed and perhaps the public interest could be considered in a more significant way than is sometimes the case with local authority meetings.
The local authority strategic policy committees may be able to play an important role in the area of planning and rezoning. When a particular plot of land is proposed for rezoning or a development plan is introduced, the strategic policy committee should meet and invite all the interested parties, members of the public, landowners, potential developers and everybody that could possibly have an interest and a view on the rezoning issue. In a public, open and transparent way, all players should attend the meeting and express their views fully and openly. In that way we would have total transparency about the representations, views and arguments. This would give everybody an opportunity to contribute to a public forum, which does not exist now.
Today representations are made directly to councillors in their homes, which can put extreme pressure on them. As I said in a previous debate, some councillors in County Louth have referred to the process being like spaghetti junction outside their homes, with a succession of planners and landowners impressing their views as to how the development plan should change at the following meeting. A more transparent and open system with such representations happening in a structured and formal way would lend strength to the valid arguments and point up the weak ones. Most importantly, the process would be transparent and open. This is a solid idea worthy of consideration.
To address the issue of lawyers’ fees, it is now accepted that we need a tendering process for lawyers contracted to work for the State. We should advertise for the additional lawyers required by the tribunal and applicants should be required to outline what they believe their fees ought to be. This would increase effectiveness and save money.
I note the Minister’s comments on the commissions of investigation, on which we have no difficulty. We should consider the role of the Standards in Public Office Commission. Politicians and office holders make their statutory declarations to that body. The tribunal and the Law Reform Commission will have recommendations and we will have our own views. As the Minister usefully suggested yesterday, these issues could be teased out at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government to get the best views possible. We can then work this out to everyone’s satisfaction. It is important that we get planning right, end corruption, have greater transparency and work together.
I welcome this legislation. It initiates a new process where we can put everyone’s best ideas forward. We know about probity in public life and the commitment displayed by the vast majority of public representatives and officials but it is those who have been before the tribunals and who have been corrupt who give us all a bad name. It is incumbent on us to put the most open regime possible in place to deny access to the corrupt.
Mr. McCormack: This Bill is before us because the Oireachtas approved a motion to amend the terms of reference of the tribunal on 17 November. The tribunal sought these changes to allow it to complete its work within a reasonable timeframe. It will now be able to exercise its discretion not to investigate matters that it believes will not bring tangible results. Time has been lost at the tribunal by going over evidence for days and the public has lost all confidence in its reaching a worthwhile conclusion. After seven years, people see that no one has gone to jail on criminal charges, despite serious planning irregularities coming to light ten years ago.
Many highly paid lawyers and others are employed on a full-time basis in the tribunal; their jobs are more secure than ours, we must offer ourselves for election every five years. It may not be in the interests of those people to come to a definitive conclusion. The tribunal goes over the same ground, asking the same question in different ways, and spends days dealing with the one problem. If what we are doing today allows for discretion not to investigate matters that will not bring tangible results, it will be a good thing and we will not oppose the Bill.
This problem would not have arisen if questions had been answered correctly and thoroughly in the Dáil and not just with the minimum information. Much of the fault rests with us. We have been in opposition for the duration of the tribunal and if some of our questions about planning matters had been answered properly, there would be no need for some of the work in the tribunal. The tribunal has cost millions of euro but the responsibility for that rests with those who prepare answers for Ministers that do not give full details in response to pertinent questions. The lack of a proper response led to the establishment of the tribunals.
Local elections can interrupt the discussion of a county or city development plan, as happened in Galway City Council this year, where we had spent a year and a half dealing with the city development plan before the elections and we were ready to publish the draft plan. At election time, however, at least four members could not stand for election and four more lost their seats or retired. As a result, almost half of the councillors dealing with the final stages of the development plan were new and did not have a clue. Experience is needed to deal with a local development plan. When a local election interrupts the consideration of a development plan, it makes the contributions of councillors null and void. Mistakes are then made because the councillors do not know exactly what is happening. The Minister should introduce legislation to ensure local elections do not interfere with development plans. If the plans coincide with elections in five years’ time, the plans should either be postponed for a year or brought forward by a year so they can be dealt with by the council that begins and ends the process. That would decrease the pressure on councillors in the serious and legitimate work they do.
Mr. Gilmore: The substantive issue underlying this Bill was debated in the House when we discussed the motion to amend the terms of reference of the tribunal. I will not repeat what I said on that occasion. It would be helpful, however, if the Minister set out where the area of doubt lies in the changes of the terms of reference that requires the support of a one-line Bill that gives the tribunal the authority in primary legislation to exercise the discretion with which it has been provided. There were a number of issues to which I referred during the course of the debate on the amendments to the terms of reference to which I refer again, not least because the Minister drew attention to them in his opening contribution. The first relates to the issue of legal fees. As I understand it, the proposal is that the new method of payment of lawyers at the tribunal will not take effect until after March 2007, the date by which the tribunal expects to have completed its public hearings. Two issues arise from that. First, I am surprised at the confidence the Minister has expressed on behalf of the tribunal that it will have completed its public hearings by March 2007. The experience to date has been that once the tribunal gets into public hearings it cannot know in advance what issues may be spawned by those public hearings which may give rise to either a continuation of the public hearings or to other issues which may of necessity have to be examined in public.
I question whether the public hearings will be concluded by March 2007. If issues are still outstanding by March 2007, perhaps aspects of modules that have not been completed, will we be faced with a situation in March 2007 where the Minister will come back here to say the new schedule of fees will not apply in March 2007 and that the date may have to be extended?
That gives rise to the second question which is why the new schedule of fees cannot be implemented from a current date or from a date with a reasonable period of notice. The new schedule of fees provides for very generous public service salaries to be paid to lawyers working in the tribunals. Allowing for a phase-out period of the present arrangements I see no reason the new schedule of fees cannot be implemented from a current date.
The second issue with which I am concerned is the exclusion of material that may arise after 16 December. Given that the tribunal has been in existence in 1997, it is well known that any planning issue that somebody wants to investigate has already been submitted to the tribunal or may be submitted by 16 December. If, for example, some issue comes to public attention after 16 December, it is unreasonable that the tribunal is, in effect, prevented from investigating that material. Some way may have to be found to allow for the admission of material which arises after 16 December.
Third, the tribunal may exercise its discretion under paragraph J(6) of the terms of reference. I expressed concern when debating the motion that those conditions are a list of reasons the tribunal may not pursue certain investigations or reasons the tribunal may drop certain matters and that that needed to be counterbalanced by a provision which would give the tribunal the right to decide positively that it should pursue an investigation of certain matters. The Minister referred to this in his contribution when he said that the issue of more positive language is used in regard to the discretion. He made the point that these terms of reference came from the tribunal and that his hands were tied. Perhaps he will clarify the following sentence: “In any case the tribunal and Government is happy that the language in the terms of reference will allow it to exercise its discretion flexibly and effectively.” Do I understand correctly from that sentence that since the debate on the terms of reference the tribunal has been consulted again, specifically about the amendment I proposed on that occasion, which would have given a more positive expression of the circumstances in which the tribunal could exercise its discretion, and, if so, perhaps we will hear the outcome?
Essentially the Bill is about giving a legal basis for the tribunal to exercise its discretion. We have to look back on it and acknowledge that some concerns were expressed in 1997 about the wide nature of the terms of reference of the original Flood tribunal. The difficulty with giving a tribunal wide terms of reference is that if the tribunal has referred to it a large number of issues it inevitably becomes bogged down and focus may be lost in respect of particular matters. It should have been recognised in 1997 that danger existed with the planning tribunal because we already had the experience of what happened with the beef tribunal. One of the criticisms of the beef tribunal, its report and its inability to reach decisive conclusions was that its original terms of reference were too wide. In effect, the beef tribunal was given the task of investigating everything and anything about the beef industry and, to some extent, the same has happened with the planning tribunal. It was given terms of reference to investigate everything and anything.
Often when a tribunal is asked to investigate everything and anything it finds it difficult to come to grips with specific matters. We now have a situation where because of the volume of material being dealt with, the tribunal has asked for a mechanism whereby it may be able to exercise its discretion as to what matters it should examine in private, what matters should go into public investigations and what issues might be left aside.
It is not for this House to second-guess how the tribunal might exercise that discretion. The tribunal has the information available to it on which it can exercise that discretion. There are a number of areas where we are entitled to suggest an approach. Obviously the tribunal will exercise discretion as to which matters should or should not be pursued but it would appear also from the terms of reference that it would have discretion as to how it pursues certain matters, whether in private by way of private investigation or by way of public examination.
From looking at the practice of the tribunal in recent years it appears there are areas where time could be saved. The business of bringing in planning officials at the beginning of a module to spend days describing how planning decisions are made, delineating pieces of land, showing maps and putting on the record matters which are simply matters of fact and are not in contention, should be capable of being done in private or by way of affidavit. Similarly, where there is evidence of a factual nature, that is, where there is no dispute about the evidence, where one party says one thing and the other agrees, it should be possible to have those matters recorded by way of affidavit or some mechanism rather than spend days in public hearings putting on record matters not in dispute, and the kind of adversarial cross-examination approach we have seen in the tribunal should not arise because they are not in dispute. Such matters would become part of the tribunal’s report over time.
I agree with Deputy O’Dowd that we need to pay attention to the changes to planning laws which are required. I do not accept the Minister’s implication that everything has been fine in the planning process since the Planning and Development Act 2000 was passed.
Mr. Gilmore: There have been significant improvements in respect of the disclosure of information and the declaration of interests. If the entire process that is now in place for elected representatives and appointed public officials had been in place in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the issues which have been investigated by tribunals would not have arisen. Such problems certainly would not have developed in the way they did.
Further changes need to be made to planning legislation, however. I refer, for example, to the development plan process. Deputy McCormack said that when a local election is called, the clock does not stop ticking on the time limits which are imposed during certain phases of the development plan process. That can lead to the type of circus that occurred in County Wicklow, for example. When Wicklow County Council met after the local elections, councillors had to address a glut of issues within a short period of time because there was a midnight deadline. Some of the changes to planning legislation which are needed are contained in a Private Members’ Bill that I recently published. I ask the Minister to examine the Bill seriously.
Perhaps the joint committee is the most appropriate place in which to address the new dynamic in the planning process. The driving of planning is different now from what it was in the 1980s as a result of the introduction of new residential planning guidelines, for example relating to density. The development of the construction industry and changes in the residential property market have contributed to a change in the dynamic of the planning process. The effects of such changes need to be re-examined and, if necessary, addressed in legislation.
The tribunal has been established as a result of corruption, which is the core issue being debated by the House. All Members are aware that money is the root of all evil. Corruption in the planning process is driven by the inordinate profits which can be made by speculating in development land. Such speculation has corrupted the planning process and ensured that home ownership is beyond the reach of working families.
I am disappointed that the report of the all-party committee on the price of building and development land, which was published last April, has not been debated in the House. It does not matter that we have established tribunals, passed legislation and put ethics procedures in place because the temptation to engage in corruption will remain until we remove the element of speculation, which can lead to enormous windfall profits, from dealings in building and development land.
Mr. Cuffe: The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments Bill 2004 is a necessary step in the convoluted process of dealing with the inquiry into past problems in the planning sector. Rather than climbing every tree, it is important that we should climb the right trees. We should find the needle instead of examining every piece of hay in the haystack. As Deputy Gilmore pointed out, we need to cut to the chase by dealing with these matters in a more time-effective and cost-effective manner.
I feel a slight sense of unease because issues which are now emerging may need to be dealt with by another tribunal at a later date. My unease is exacerbated because the factors which led to the original establishment of the tribunals remain in place. The stakes have got much higher in the intervening ten years, if anything. It is not all sweetness and light because the interests of landowners, auctioneers and councillors continue to collide in a dangerous way when the wholesale rezoning of land takes place. We need to grasp the nettle by finding a better way of making decisions. The discussion on the County Wicklow development plan in recent months epitomises the amateur fashion in which decisions are being made. Councillors were deceived when they were given information that indicated that industries would leave the area if certain options were not taken.
We need to establish a body to review development plans at a draft stage. With all due respect to the Minister, Deputy Roche, I do not think he is the appropriate person to review development plans to ensure that they comply with national strategies, such as the sustainable development strategy. We need a separate body to engage in such reviews. It would not be appropriate for An Bord Pleanála to be involved in such matters, given that individual planning applications can be appealed to it. We need a stand-alone quasi-judicial body that can sign off on development plans, in effect, and state whether they are sustainable.
As Deputy Gilmore pointed out, we need to consider the recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. That there can be a massive increase in the value of land at the stroke of a pen needs to be addressed. The committee’s recommendation that local authorities should be allowed to purchase land at the existing use value, plus 25%, is a good one. I feel a real sense of anger when I read property supplements which state that €40 million has been added to the price of a few fields in Shankill, €100 million has been added to the price of land in west Dublin and a site on Leopardstown has suddenly brought in a profit of an additional €40 million. While the chosen golden circle is reaping enormous profits, the ordinary people of Ireland who wish to put down roots in an area, for example by purchasing a home close to their parents, are denied the opportunity to do so. They are being pushed to the periphery of Dublin or to other counties because they cannot afford to buy land or housing in the neighbourhoods in which they grew up. That is fundamentally wrong.
There is a huge onus on the Minister to rectify the dangerous problems which are inherent in our planning legislation. Until he does so, I do not think we can be said to have dealt with the root problem of widespread corruption in the planning process. Those who facilitate property speculators have not gone away. Some of those who deliberately made appalling decisions in the past were re-elected earlier this year. We will have further tribunals in ten years’ time if we do not tackle the root cause of planning corruption in Ireland. I feel a palpable sense of anger because that core issue has not been addressed. We need to wed the review of the development planning process and the election of councillors. The development plan is reviewed every six years and the election of councillors every five years. During my 11 years as a councillor, incredible problems arose because councillors had to pick up the pieces of half-finished development plans before, during or after elections. Councillors should stand for election on the basis of a development plan with which they have dealt from start to finish. The Minister should ensure that the development plan review process and the local authority elections coincide such that there will be a sense of closure regarding the preparation of such plans. I acknowledge the work Deputy Gilmore and his party have put into considering these issues.
Mr. Morgan: This is one of those very frustrating Bills that we must consider every now and again. It is frustrating because there are so many things it could do but does not do, yet we are in favour of it because of its one good element, that is, it offers some kind of finish to the Mahon tribunal. One will recall that the report of the tribunal stated the tribunal could continue until 2014 or 2015.
In light of the one good element in the Bill, will the Minister address the question of how the tribunal can tell us reasonably that it is likely to conclude all its business by 2007? The tribunal has indicated that the amended terms of reference, together with additional resources — it was acknowledged that additional resources would help — will allow it to complete its public hearings by March 2007. I question the accuracy of this statement considering that there are still some days to go before the door is closed on people bringing matters to the attention of the tribunal. Perhaps the matter could be clarified.
It is important to acknowledge that the Mahon tribunal in particular has played a vital role in exposing the corruption that has been endemic in the State over many years. It brought the issue of corruption to the public domain and shed light on how certain individuals, such as Ray Burke and George Redmond, actually operated. It created a climate in which corruption is no longer acceptable. Nevertheless, the tribunal system is extremely cumbersome and obviously very expensive.
The Mahon tribunal is making some very slow progress. It is sometimes slow because of the non-co-operation of certain witnesses. Many in the public domain would like to see the tribunal take a tougher stance on such witnesses. It is frustrating that very few prosecutions have resulted from the tribunal’s work. The legal profession has been unashamedly exploiting the tribunal process as a cash cow for many years. The public feels the legal professionals are like parasites bleeding the taxpayer and it is outraged and annoyed.
This Bill did not deal with all the elements with which it should have dealt. It should have dealt with the issue of legal fees and implemented a ceiling pertaining thereto. It is proposed that senior counsel are to receive an annual salary of €213,000 plus, solicitors are to receive an annual salary of €176,000 and junior counsel are to receive an annual salary of €142,000. These figures are bizarre. I imagine that even these high salaries could be lower than those the recipients’ are currently earning.
I agree with the points made on the terms of reference. The terms of reference of the Mahon tribunal are manifestly too broad for it to deliver on the objectives for which it was established. It is clear that the terms of reference need to be made more specific and achievable. They should be set within a specific time frame if the tribunal is to be effective in exposing corruption and wrongdoing.
We need to ensure that the chairman of the tribunal does not have too much discretion in deciding what to investigate. Would it have been better to refer this decision-making process to an Oireachtas Committee? Such a committee could play a major role in ensuring that the discretion of the chairman is not too wide. I hope these issues can be reconsidered because it is clear that this bandwagon of a tribunal system will proceed for some considerable time.
Mr. McHugh: This Bill could be passed automatically, if that were possible. The matters it addresses were well and truly debated during a motion in the House a few weeks ago. Given the public fatigue regarding tribunals in general, the quicker we deal with this Bill and put the amended terms of reference in place to allow the tribunal to proceed at a speedier rate, the better.
That the fourth report of the tribunal states the completion date of the tribunal could be as late as 2014 brought home to the public the open-ended nature of the investigation. There is no need for a tribunal of any nature to sit for so long. There is no doubt that one reason for the Mahon tribunal’s longevity was the obligation to investigate everything that moved, irrespective of its importance or relevance.
It is partly the fault of this House that the tribunal is so long-winded. The House failed to bring proper, reasoned, definitive thinking to bear on the original terms of reference when putting them in place. That a provision to limit the discretion of the tribunal regarding what it could investigate was not originally included in the terms of reference defies logic and smacks of amateurism.
I referred to public fatigue regarding tribunals. The public has partly switched off and there is no doubt that the minute detail and seemingly irrelevant direction sometimes pursued by the Mahon tribunal are responsible for this. The tribunal should operate in a manner to which the public can relate, and it should be possible to follow and note the relevance of the proceedings. However, the looseness of the terms of reference makes this impossible.
When the tribunal was being set up, sensible arguments were met with cries of rigging and accusations of attempts to muzzle the tribunal in its work. If the intention of any action is to make the tribunal more efficient, it deserves a better reception. If there had been a better reception, we might have avoided the mess in which we are now. Everybody associated with tribunals in the future should learn this lesson.
I support the Bill because it attempts to bring sanity to the workings of the tribunal. It is tailored to impose a reasonable time scale on its proceedings. The work of the tribunal is vital to expose the dirty dealings that took place and, I hope, prevent such corruption in the future.
Mr. Ring: I understand the Government’s frustration over the cost of the tribunal. It is time that the public saw what is taking place at the proceedings. I have a proposal in this regard and I will ask the spokesperson for Fine Gael on this issue to table an amendment on Committee Stage to address the matter. The proposal is that the national broadcaster, RTE, should be instructed to televise the proceedings of the tribunal daily so the public can see what is happening and know for what the taxpayers are providing money. I hope the Government will take this on board.
It should be televised. I listen to it regularly on “Tonight with Vincent Browne”. It may be great fun for certain people who are tied up in the planning process and stand accused to represent themselves but it costs the tax payers a fortune. The people are sick and tired of it and would like to see it finished. They would like to see those who created this problem behind bars. That will not happen because there is only one law and that is for the poor, there is none for the rich. A recent bank report showed that this State and the Revenue Commissioners crucified the unfortunate people who had offshore accounts while those who committed the crimes are still in their big jobs in AIB and drawing large salaries. They will never be prosecuted.
If one is a certain age and does not feel well one does not have to attend the tribunals but one can go on holidays, go sailing, have a good time and laugh at us all. Maybe it is time to forget about the tribunals, call them off, prosecute those we know were involved in planning corruption and put them behind bars. Let that be the lesson for the future. What is the point in wasting our money and the taxpayers’ money when the only result will be more reports from judges to be put in the library? Meanwhile all the boys, the women and the builders will continue to campaign and will be in the tent at next year’s races in Galway, and they will not have changed. They will proudly run into the tent and put their cheques on the table. They will not care. There is no point in having tribunals, spending taxpayers’ money on this.
I was a member of a local authority for 25 years and thank goodness we did not have a problem with rezoning. Our problem was that we could not get anyone to build on the land, we could not get funding from the State to install sewerage and water schemes so we had no corruption. Maybe if we had, some of our members might be in the same position as those in the tribunal. One problem we did have, which I saw in the recent national development plan, was that the State and its officials came to the council to present documents on what they wanted rezoned. When we councillors wanted to get independent advice and bring in professionals to advise us we were told we could do that but at our own cost. That is wrong and should be examined. If councillors represent the people they should get independent professional advice rather than let the State with its full resources bring in plans when councillors do not know whether they are right or wrong. I agree with the previous speakers that something must be done about development plans carrying on from council to council. People will have to stand over the county development plan they adopt and present it to the people to decide if it is right.
I understand and support the Minister’s desire to wrap up these tribunals as soon as possible because the people are sick and tired of the new super-rich, namely, barristers. I am only sorry that I did not stay longer in school because if I was a barrister now I would be in the Four Courts every day and if I could make half the money these people make——
Mr. Ring: They pass over briefs to one another and if one is in or sounds as if one is in the right corner one will be well looked after. This has to stop. The people have had enough and they are paying for it. I would like to see an end to it and to see the people punished who have given politics and politicians a bad name. We are not all bad. At election time when one is on the doorstep and the person says “you are all the same” one knows it is a Fianna Fáil house. We are not all the same.
Mr. Ring: I support the Bill on the basis that we should wind this up as quickly as possible and bring it to an end. The tribunal has done a public service but RTE should be covering it daily because if people saw and heard what is going on every day there would be a revolution.
The world objected to the handling of the recent election in the Ukraine and how the votes were fiddled and so on. Now there is going to be a re-election but what is the difference here? We did not have an election but orchestrated that there be no election. We think this is a democracy but it is not. It is a dictatorship.
Mr. Durkan: One can hear varying degrees of expertise on planning according to who is speaking. An expert in the area is probably somebody who can define good planning. I would like to know that definition because I have been involved in planning for a long time too. I have been involved in the review of at least three development plans in my constituency and I never realised I was so ignorant of the fundamentals of good planning until so-called experts arrived and told me where I was wrong. I never accepted intimidation from developers or groups of any description. I felt it was my right, and my statutory duty, to make up my mind on what was right or wrong and to stand over it afterwards, in a democracy, with the full force and support of a democracy behind me.
That has changed. It is not uncommon even in this city and its environs to see an advertisement bearing the slogan “no development here” adjacent to it. Is that the ultimate in good planning? It is intended to be but like Pontius Pilate, it only calls on the multitudes to come out in support of the views of that group or person, essentially to exclude other people from their vision, send them elsewhere, far from their horizon. Until that attitude is tackled, particularly in this city, there will always be problems because there will always be people who attempt to circumnavigate the rules and try to do things that are totally illegal to combat them.
The population of Dublin is dropping. Why is that happening throughout its constituencies while the population in all other parts of the country is growing? It is because people are being forced out of the city to live in the country but they must drive back into the city to work. They spend two hours on the road every morning and evening, cluttering up all the routes built to alleviate traffic congestion. That is a fact that needs to be seriously considered because it is part of the cause for the tribunal. Other steps should have been taken. The extent to which corruption existed should have been visible to all and sundry. The Criminal Assets Bureau could have acted and dealt with the perpetrators without any nonsense or long-drawn out speeches. As Deputy Ring said, the sad part of the tribunal system is that it reflects poorly on the institutions of the State and all politicians. It is all very well for the Government to be able to spread the mire evenly across all politicians and taint everybody with one brush.
Planning should be in the hands of elected public representatives who are accountable to the public and can be dismissed at election time if they do something wrong. The decision on all land zoning and development should be taken in public, in the area affected by the review of the plan at a given time. When I was a member of my local authority in Kildare, I tried to get that measure approved. Of course, no one wanted it, since there were always politicians who wanted to give their own version of what was happening inside closed meetings. The version that appeared in the press was not necessarily a true or accurate account of what had taken place behind closed doors. I say that simply because I believe that it should be open to public scrutiny, above board, within the rules and in the public arena where everyone can see what is going on. People should not have a secondhand version of events.
Mr. Durkan: I am worried about what I see as the closure of the tribunal system since, whatever the agenda that it set out to follow, it has not yet achieved that to any great extent. I do not know what the purpose of the exercise was or is. I do not know what we have achieved, but we have spent a great deal of money. All we have got out of it is entertainment, something that Deputy Ring mentioned. I can fully understand why he feels somewhat aggrieved in not having advanced himself further at an earlier stage, in which case he would be able to perform on the radio at night. There is a difference between the carefully modulated tones of the senior counsel asking where the witness got the money and the latter’s reply, “I do not know, Your Honour. It just fell into me hands.” As the Minister knows full well, we hear it regularly. It is very entertaining but also very demoralising from the point of view of hard-working public representatives who try to do their job. I do not know what has been achieved other than certain aspersions being cast across the board on the entire concept. We are about to replace it now with something else of which I am simply not sure.
I find it very difficult to understand how someone can go to a group of public representatives involved in a process with a sack full of money, offer it to them and walk away. I simply do not understand how that works, but there must be someone out there who can tell me. If one applied the same principles to every other function that public representatives — or anyone elected, selected or delegated responsibility on behalf of the public — carry out, with someone going around offering a suitcase full of money pell-mell to achieve a purpose, there would be some extremely strange decisions.
Mr. F. McGrath: Before I address the Bill’s details, it is important that I state the damage done and the negative image of politicians among approximately 30% of the population. I am sick and tired of getting it in the neck when working or on walkabouts in my constituency. I call it the “you are all the same” syndrome and find it maddening when I hear that said. We are not all the same, and we are not all on the take. Those politicians who have damaged politics must stand up and be counted. Those corrupt politicians are responsible for approximately 30% of the population having turned their backs on politics. We must face that reality and end the cynicism, misinformation and corruption in society.
The media are not squeaky clean on this issue either, and I have been deeply disturbed by the lack of serious investigation into certain issues, particularly by the print media. I also have grave concerns at the lack of serious investigation into such issues as the theft of the sample from Cian O’Connor’s horse, Waterford Crystal. That operation took power, a great deal of money and sophistication, and it needs further investigation. I raise that issue now because not only is politics damaged; so is public trust in the media. I urge decent and honest journalists to stand up and be counted before it is too late. As well as social exclusion, there is also political exclusion. If one stands anywhere outside the box, one is a target for ridicule and misinformation with a clear political bias. I speak for working people on this issue and urge an end to the sleaze in sections of the media and also to corruption in politics.
For the next election, for example, in my constituency, over 10,000 voters have been removed from Dublin North Central and dumped in Dublin North East and Dublin North West. The current four-seat constituency will be a three-seater in 2007. There should be a public inquiry into how the north side of Dublin has been treated regarding representation and democracy. Three-seat constituencies are good for the major political parties and a bonus for the rich and powerful. However, I will fight on defending the interests of working people, the disabled and the poor. I have no problem taking on three millionaires in my constituency at the next election. I raise this issue because of the links between political and social exclusion and the scandals and tribunals.
On 17 November 2004, motions were passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas amending the terms of reference of the Tribunal to Inquire into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, the Mahon tribunal. This legislation is required to underpin the discretion given to the tribunal in paragraph J(6) of its amended terms of reference. The terms will permit the tribunal to decide on the matters that it will investigate. I welcome this legislation and will be supporting it. I long for the day when the tribunals cease and the entire people can have full trust in politicians and the political system. I also long for the day when the fat cats and wealthy sectional interests avoid politics and keep their noses out of it.
I despair when I see what is happening in Ireland and other countries. Big money and big business are choking democracy, and I urge all Deputies who respect our democratic values from all sides of the House to stand up and be counted by supporting this legislation. Whether in Dublin North Central or in Venezuela, people power must always be nourished and protected as a very important part of our democracy. That is why I welcome this legislation and will be supporting it.
We were once known as the land of saints and scholars. Ireland today is better known as the land of scandals and tribunals. Politics, banking, the church, business, law and the gardaí have all suffered from an erosion of public confidence in the wake of an astonishing proliferation of scandals. Moreover, Ireland has undergone rapid social, economic and political change over the last decade, which has had a profound impact on our value system. For example, the decline in authority and influence of the Catholic Church and other churches in recent years has forced many people to seek other sources of ethical and moral guidance. That is also very much part of this debate. People are now searching. They have lost trust in politicians, the church and sections of the media and big business; they are looking for a value system. We must be part of that debate and process.
Currently a debate is going on regarding the peace process in our country. All sides are directly involved in it, something that I welcome and encourage. However, we must also have a debate in this House on the direction of the country. Over the last few weeks, particularly in the budget, we have made some attempt to redress the balance. I have talked of the improvement of services to people with disabilities, which is a major step in the right direction; I commend those directly involved in it. However, we must waken up to the reality that it is merely a step. The negative drift in this country has been having a major, harmful impact on society and the economy. All that one need do is consider the anti-social behaviour, crime, social exclusion, litter and dumping problems. Such issues are symptoms of a society that is sick and has major difficulties. We should not have such a situation, particularly in an extremely wealthy economy.
Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century is a fairly prosperous country, yet that creates its own dilemmas. Difficult decisions about the distribution of resources raise awkward questions for society. How is the tension between the rights of individuals and the overall good of society to be resolved? To whom do we look for political guidance? Is it the political elite, the churches, the medical and legal professions, or business leaders? All of them have had their credibility seriously tainted by the damage emerging from scandals. We need a hard-hitting and incisive analysis of the ethics and values or the lack of same in Irish society. This must be linked with the debate on the tribunals. Many of us have suffered because of the actions of some politicians, business people and officials, and this issue is regularly raised by constituents. It is important that we stand up and say that today.
It is essential that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. We have had examples of corruption and sleaze in a number of the major political parties and among business interests and planning officials. From talking to Deputies, many of them are concerned about the potential for corruption by officials throughout the State. We will have to face up to that issue. In regard to such corruption, politicians get it in the neck, so to speak. We are trying to get our act together to clean up politics, but there is an undercurrent in society who believes that there are still major problems in our planning system. I have heard that view expressed by people in different counties and have talked to officials who were offered bribes in various cases and who ran the people who offered them. I have been astounded by some of the stories I have heard in the past two and a half years since I was elected to the 29th Dáil. These are important allegations which I do not make lightly. I have listened to and want to listen to further such allegations, but I want to ensure we get evidence. As part of the debate on the tribunals, we will have to face up to this reality.
We must move away from the money and greedy society where the winner takes all. The distribution of wealth and resources in our society must be seriously examined. We cannot have a system where 30% of the electorate do not participate in the democratic process. Usually, these people are totally excluded. Many of them are young people who do not care and who think politicians are all the same. Others include members of the public who have got sick and tired of the whole thing. There are also those affected by the spoilt brat syndrome. A section of our population do not vote because they believe they made the society wealthy without the politicians and they carry on as if they have no regard for politics. I meet many of those people in my political life. We must face up to these realities and deal with the facts and issues arising.
I urge Members to support this legislation, deal with the issues, reflect on what is happening in broader society, not only among politicians but also among those in officialdom and in the business sector. We have heard in recent days about what happened in the banks. These are all classic examples of what is going wrong in our society. I welcome the debate and the opportunity to record my views. I support the legislation.
Mr. Boyle: In this truncated debate it is difficult in the time allowed to properly assess the value of the tribunal as we explore how it can be structured to bring it to finality and, ultimately, to reach conclusions. It is worth reminding everybody concerned that the culture which brought about the need for a tribunal is something in which none of us in the political process should take great pride. The public cynicism that existed prior to the tribunals, that was fed by the revelations of the tribunals, exists to a large degree because the political system has not brought about the necessary changes to instil the necessary degree of public confidence that what has happened will not happen again, and it may still be occurring among some elements of society.
My party is generally supportive of the need to restructure the tribunals and put in place the suggested amendments to limit and bring about the final report of this tribunal. Our concern, which is shared by many others, relates to the modules that would be affected. Some would be lost, some would be left in limbo and some would be left incomplete. In the process involved in deciding which modules should come to a conclusion and in respect of those which should be left behind we need to ask serious questions. Ultimately, there are answers to a series of questions that we would like brought forward at the end of the process. We need to be clear about how that will happen.
This is a technical Bill about the administration of the tribunal. This debate offers us an opportunity to talk about the generality of the culture surrounding not only this tribunal but politics. It is curious that several years down the tribunal road we still have not brought about the necessary political reforms that would allow us to avoid the need for tribunals of this type in the future. It is still not possible for Members of this House to ask direct questions and get direct answers.
Mr. Boyle: It is not. We table questions on a regular basis to which we are given pro forma responses either on the basis of replies in some drawer in a Civil Servant’s desk or from the Minister who gives some political direction, but as little information as possible is forthcoming. That is not only the case with this Government, the previous Government also took that approach. It is almost taken as some type of political creed that if one does not ask the right question, one does not get an answer. In an open, participative, clear, opaque society-——
Mr. Boyle: I did not mean to use the word “opaque”, although we are an opaque society. Information given should not only contain what is asked for but what develops out of a given question. That is what happens in the Scandinavian model, and that is why it does not have these types of political and other difficulties that arise here far too frequently.
The Minister will have noted the amendment, to which I am sure my colleague referred, which we tabled to the Bill. We tabled this amendment to the original terms of reference of the tribunal and in respect of the assessment of the terms of the reference that occurred a number of years ago. The amendment proposes that the proceedings of the tribunal should be televised live, recorded or published by way of live-streaming on the Internet. The tribunal has had its most successful public impact not from the turgid accounts of written words we see in many of our newspapers but from the re-enactment of the proceedings on the “Tonight with Vincent Browne” show and other RTE programmes by Malcolm Douglas and the second actor who does most of the voices of the participants, Joe——
Mr. Boyle: When people can identify with the proceedings in terms of a personality and situation, the public impact of the greatest revelations of the tribunals in terms of what is being discussed, what people are being accused of and how they react to it have come forth. We believe there would be a value even in the remaining lifetime of this tribunal if the reactions of those who remain to be questioned and who remain to respond in respect of whatever modules remain to be investigated could be gauged through live media. Whether the Government is prepared to do this remains to be seen.
In the United States there is an ongoing procedure in terms of certain commissions inquiring into the quality of public life, and a dedicated television channel in the CSpan Network covers such proceedings. Given that we have the technology to record and transmit such proceedings, I see no reason the work of the tribunals could not be televised in a parallel fashion. To return to the question of lessons not learned and the lack of real change as a result of the tribunal process, it is sad also that while we no longer see large amounts of money changing hands or the speculation that necessitated the tribunals——
No lessons seem to have been learned at local authority level. Resources are not given at a national level to local authorities to allow them to improve their planning sections. There are still local authorities seeking and giving planning permission without trained planners on their staff. The planning enforcement sections of local authorities are a joke because they do not have the resources to act in cases of bad planning and seek proper planning or bring prosecutions. Planners cannot put sustainable planning in place through the development plan process because such planning is being overturned by representatives of political parties engaging in a repetition of the type of behaviour that led to setting up the tribunals. It is sad that after a long-running tribunal process which has been largely successful, which has brought in additional tax revenue, has helped to pinpoint where bad behaviour occurred, and even helped to improve some areas of legislation, the basic lessons, the first principles we should put in place in terms of public confidence in the planning process, do not seem to have been learned.
We have a new Minister and maybe he has something up his sleeve. Perhaps he will introduce legislation to improve planning departments in local authorities. Ultimately, however, that means providing resources, and we have seen nothing in the most recent Book of Estimates that targets that area. Since the tribunal process began there has been a glut of building development — 80,000 units in the past year alone. However, there is a total mismatch between what is being provided and the needs of the people who require housing. Many of the new units are second home or holiday home developments. Many of them are of a size that does not meet the needs of people on the housing lists. There is a mismatch between private developments and social housing. Because these imbalances exist, because there is a lack of clear policy, an absence of any strategy, the climate that brought about the events that led to setting up the tribunal of inquiry into planning matters exists now as much as it ever existed.
The job for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government involves not merely tweaking a few knobs to bring to an end a particular inquiry. The larger picture includes the job of bringing about public confidence in a planning process which is still as bad as it ever was before the tribunal of inquiry started.
Dr. Cowley: I support the Bill. Everybody is aware that Exchequer funds are limited and that we should strive to use them to good purpose. Value for money is something we hear much about. We are making changes in the health services and bringing in a new Health Bill to improve accountability. One problem with that Bill, which we can explore this afternoon, is that democratic input seems to have been thrown out. I hope that can be brought back by way of amendment. The new health legislation is about money and accountability.
People ask whether the tribunals have been worth the enormous costs incurred. The answer is that they have been worth it. What they did is magnificent. The other side of the coin, what really concerns people, is seeing lawyers getting a couple of thousand euro a day. People believe money would be much better spent in other ways. I have been raising in the Dáil for the past few weeks the case of a constituent who needs dialysis but he is too sick to travel. The treatment is available in his home town of Castlebar. However, there are not enough resources to put on an extra shift and allow this man and six others to be treated locally. The reason is lack of money and a recruitment embargo. The alternative is to travel to Galway, a distance equivalent to travelling from Dublin to Galway. It would mean travelling three times a week, a distance of approximately 1,000 miles.
That is an example of what has been happening. Members of this House constantly speak about the need for better health services, the need for more nurses and doctors. It boils down to resources and we are told that resources are finite. Therefore, anything that constitutes a move towards rationalising what is spent and what is spent unnecessarily is good. There must be a balance. This Bill is about getting a balance, about doing what needs to be done to assure the taxpayer that justice is being done, that there is openness, transparency and accountability, that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is not wasted but is used to good effect. I support anything that achieves that.
People welcomed the major bills sent to people who obstructed the tribunals, people who cost the taxpayer money by extending the time the tribunal had to spend in getting basic information from them in order to make a decision. The public very much welcomes the fact that people such as Ray Burke, George Redmond and others are being made accountable and made to pay the price for their activities, and admire strong moves to make them pay for obstructing the tribunal and wasting taxpayers’ money.
Openness and transparency in planning is extremely important, particularly in rural areas where the population has dropped. There are many people who wish to live in rural areas but are unable to do so because they have nowhere to live. Even if there are economic advances in a local area and an enterprise sets up there, it often transpires that the people who work in that enterprise cannot live in the area, and people blame the planners. I do not blame the planners. We have excellent planners in Mayo County Council who do a very good job. They work to guidelines and under direction. These guidelines and directions have very much a centralising agenda as far as I can see. There seems to be a city and town planner mentality in which planners have trained and towards which they are geared. The guidelines on once-off rural housing are a move in the right direction, but we must recognise what is happening on the ground.
As someone who has been involved in a practical way in trying to retain people in their own area, I described many years ago the vicious circle of depopulation and a continuing loss of services. If there are no basic services in an area it loses the people. Who wants to live in an area where there is no doctor, no chemist, no place to post a letter, where there is no garda, no protection from marauding criminals? Who wants to live in an area without the basic services that are necessary to allow people to live there? People have to go further and further to get basic services. There must be recognition that the people of rural Ireland matter also. For this reason, I welcome the appointment of the Minister, Deputy Roche, to whom I pay tribute for his positive comments in regard to supporting those in rural Ireland. This requires a person of courage. I know the Minister has courage and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, has been also been helpful in this regard. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is in a good position to make progress. I admire Deputy Roche and know he will do much in regard to planning issues.
We need openness and transparency. I previously suggested the development of a monitoring system, a matter with which I was involved in regard to the rural water programme. There is much begrudgery about what is available for rural services when compared with services in urban areas for which money is ploughed in on the understanding it is needed. It must be recognised that proper planning and balanced regional development can make all the difference.
To return to the local context of planning and transparency, what is a more basic infrastructure issue than housing and what is more important to a person than to have a place to live? The departmental guidelines refer to people as mere additions to cities and towns. What of those who want to live in rural areas? I have had significant local difficulty in extending St. Brendan’s village because there is a bias against this type of community development. There seems to be an open door for anyone with any difficulty with private enterprise. I have had objections from anonymous objectors. Objectors can write in, giving only a name and address, and this is taken as a legitimate objection. The Minister should investigate this issue as it delays the process and costs the taxpayer money. It is another area without openness or transparency.
This web of intrigue spreads within the planning system. What is wrong with an open system? Nobody agrees with speculation on land or the taking of massive profits at the expense of those who must live on that land thereafter and pay back with their hard-earned cash the original cost of the land. Instead, most are in favour of people being able to live in their own areas. This is not happening, which is why planning issues need to be investigated.
Arising from the operation of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, I suggested the establishment of a monitoring system which is in place and working well in regard to the rural water programme. The monitoring system is a way of ensuring the proper roll-out of the rural water programme but also a way of again bringing democracy to that programme. This could be achieved for the planning process with the establishment of a planning monitoring committee. The national rural water monitoring committee is composed of stakeholders from national organisations such as the National Federation of Group Water Schemes. It also includes the Minister’s representative and an independent chairman. Why not have a similar committee for planning issues? Just as the national rural water monitoring committee has an input into what happens locally, why not have a planning monitoring committee which would be composed of stakeholders from rural areas as well as elected representatives? The people are anxious to have openness and transparency but this extends across the board.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I thank Members for a thorough, wide-ranging and, on occasion, colourful debate. The basis of the Bill has been well explained as we have discussed this matter on a number of occasions. Members will agree with the Government that the tribunal must be in a position to efficiently, effectively and in a timely way do the job for which it was established. It needs to be able to uncover the truth of the events alleged and bring some finality to its work. At the same time, the Government is concerned to ensure the tribunal completes its work at the earliest possible date, with which most speakers agree. It is of concern to all that the matter would be brought to finality. It is certainly a concern that issues in regard to corruption in the planning process would be fully aired, and that we would have the benefit of the tribunal’s views, particularly in the matter of further improvements that could be made.
In advance of amendments being put forward, Members will know my hands are tied with regard to requests to make changes to the terms of reference of the tribunal. Under the 1998 Act, the tribunal must either request a particular change or consent in advance to the change. I would not disagree with the points made by a number of Members that we unduly tied ourselves in this regard. We will learn with the benefit of hindsight. Whatever my views on the amendments, I am not in a position to accept them.
Deputy O’Dowd made a number of interesting points, for which I thank him. His observations on the need for the tribunal to give some findings on the issue were interesting and I am sure they have been noted in the appropriate place. He also made a useful proposition that we need to continue the process of legal change. We have made significant legal changes but we need to make sure those work within the system. I welcome the positive points made by the Deputy and also the point made by Deputies O’Dowd, Gilmore and Haughey about having a discussion on the issue at the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government. I agree strongly with the view of all three Deputies that the Oireachtas joint committees have been under-worked in many ways and that they are the appropriate forum at which we can pool our resources and the combined wisdom of all sides of the House. It has become virtually a mantra that wisdom does not reside simply on one side of the House.
Mr. Roche: I sympathise with the intention. Deputy Gilmore made reference to events in July last in my county, Wicklow. I still believe planning should be decided at local level. It is a model which is widely followed in European countries, is open and transparent and, above all, democratic. I would not like some form of super-quango established effectively to carry out the business of planning behind closed doors. This would be a backward step, although I understand fully the motives behind it. Deputy Gilmore made a good point in regard to continuity within local authorities. In the recent past, at least one council got itself into trouble because it deferred making planning decisions before the election, which was the decision of the elected members. If the council had made the decisions, as it should have, it would not have found itself in a mess.
Deputy McCormack referred to the manner in which tribunals operate, as did many other contributors, and to the procedures applied. Deputy Ring colourfully suggested that RTE should televise tribunal proceedings. This matter was decided in the case of this tribunal by the original chairman and it is not up to me to visit the issue retrospectively. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, will bring forward further proposals in regard to the legislation on tribunals in the new year, which may be the time to consider this. Some of the more nonsensical procedures would not be in place if the public were allowed to know what was happening.
Deputy Gilmore reminded us why in general the Bill was necessary and we must remember that what happened did happen. However, the Deputy specifically asked why this Bill was required. The Bill is introduced specifically to address the issue which arises as to the use of discretion. The strong legal advice is that this discretion could not be exercised unless the necessary legal change took place. The Deputy referred to my confidence in the tribunals. He could have referred to my hope in the tribunals. It has been stated that this tribunal will conclude its work by March 2007. Public patience would certainly run out if it was to run beyond that.
With regard to Deputy Gilmore’s point that the wording of the Bill is rather negative, while I would not disagree with the Deputy, the words used were specifically requested by the tribunal. The legal advice is that the language in the terms of reference is sound and will work, allowing the tribunal to exercise its discretion effectively. Deputy Gilmore also cited the way in which the tribunal operates, as did almost all speakers, including Deputies McCormack and Morgan. Deputies Gilmore and McCormack made a specific and interesting observation about the manner in which matters of fact are dealt with. That is a matter for the tribunal and I have already said I am reluctant to start telling it how to do its business. However, the points were well made.
A number of contributions were very colourful, particularly that of Deputy Ring. It is a great loss to the legal profession that he did not go on to become a barrister. I am sure they would have enjoyed him in the musty corners of the Four Courts, although we would have been denied him if that had happened.
Again, I thank Members for their contributions. I am not in a position to accept the proposed amendments. That does not arise from either intransigence or arrogance, as somebody said recently in respect of legislation. It was said by another Member of this House — whoever secretly writes Drapier. The reality is I cannot accept the amendments because this is the basis on which we tied our hands as far back as 1998. There is a review of the tribunal legislation coming up. It, and the matter of greater public access to the tribunal, will certainly be looked at in the context of that debate.
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