Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Powers of Inquiry) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 702 No. 3

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  I welcome the Bill published by Deputy Pat Rabbitte on behalf of the Labour Party, which confers express powers on the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries. The Bill provides a foundation for very important discussion and debate on the function of this House, the standing of the constitutional powers conferred on it and issues of accountability which are of central concern to many outside the House.

The Labour Party Bill seeks to get around the difficulties created by the Abbeylara judgment in so far as it is perceived, as a consequence of that judgment, that this House cannot conduct meaningful inquiries into any issue that goes beyond the area of simple policy and towards the area of determining and identifying who may or may not be accountable for various decisions made or outcomes that have occurred, including some disasters of policy that have affected the country.

I note that in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, the view is expressed by Deputy Rabbitte on behalf of the Labour Party that we do not need a constitutional amendment and that the consequences of the Abbeylara judgment can be addressed without any such amendment by ordinary legislation. I disagree with that view. Two issues emerged from the Abbeylara judgment with which I am particularly familiar because I made direct submissions to both the High Court and the Supreme Court in this regard. The first issue was whether the Houses of the Oireachtas, under the Constitution, had inherent powers to conduct inquiries. The view of the majority of the Supreme Court was that it did not, although the minority judgment of the then Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Keane, was that it did.

The second issue was that it was inappropriate that a committee of inquiry — even if we did have such powers — in which Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas were involved should make a determination or express an opinion which had a detrimental impact on the good name [657]or reputation of an individual. The good name and reputation of a person is expressly recognised as something one has a right to protect under the Constitution. Even in circumstances in which the Houses of the Oireachtas applied proper procedures to protect and apply the principles of what is known as constitutional justice, the implication is that such findings cannot be made. That is recognised, to an extent, in the Labour Party Bill, in which section 4 seeks to delimit the nature of the inquiry that might be conducted.

The principle of the Bill should be supported, but we need to go much further. The real problem is that we do not do accountability in the House. Although the Constitution provides for a parliamentary democracy and Government accountability to Parliament, the reality is that there is little real accountability and no sense of obligation on the part of the parties in Government — both the Green Party, which has been there briefly, and Fianna Fáil, which has been there far too long. They believe, essentially, that whatever they do does not need to be explained and they should not be held to account for the mistakes they make.

There is also no sense of accountability in the wider public service. I am not trying to pillory individuals, but we must ensure that when policy decisions are made and things go badly wrong, the Ministers who make these decisions can be held truly accountable. Where those policy decisions are framed or substantially contributed to by public servants, they should explain the approach taken and be accountable for that approach. Where there is massive failure of regulation — such as the failures of the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator which have contributed to the economic and banking disaster with which we are confronted — it is not good enough that there can be a blancmange-like description of what went wrong, without any criticism of the decision makers who got it so wrong or identification of the extent to which they made mistakes to ensure they are not repeated in the future.

If we are to address this issue properly, we need to confer on this House the type of constitutional power that is expressly vested in committees of inquiry in the US Congress and Senate and in other European Parliaments. This Parliament, and its capacity to inquire seriously into issues and make findings of substance, was castrated by the Abbeylara judgment of the Supreme Court. There was only one judge, Mr. Justice Keane, whose decision seemed to give any insight into the functions of Parliament. In addressing the dichotomy between the right of an individual to have his or her reputation protected and the obligation of Parliament to properly inquire into issues of public importance and make decisions on accountability, he stated, “The right of persons in the position of the respondents to their good name must be balanced against the right, and indeed the duty, of the Oireachtas to inquire into and inform themselves as to matters which are relevant to the discharge by them of their constitutional functions.”

In this House, our constitutional functions are to enact legislation; to ensure legislation is properly applied in the context of the Financial Regulator — in the case of the predecessor of the current Financial Regulator, it clearly was not; to ensure the Central Bank meets its statutory obligations and, where it has not, to inquire into what went wrong; and, where policy decisions are made by Government, to address what went wrong and who is responsible. There should be an acknowledgment on the Government’s part that we need constitutional change.

I listened to the Taoiseach on this issue a few days ago and it was absolutely clear that he would prefer to stand on his hands and wiggle his toes in the air than to provide for a political ethos in which there is a true sense of accountability. The reason is that if this House had the proper powers that should be available to it, Ministers could be hauled into committees of inquiry and made to account fully and properly for some of the disastrous decisions they have made. The current position is extraordinarily cosy and protective of Ministers.

We have seen only today in the House how we do not do accountability. The reality is that in any other European parliament, or in the British Parliament — we have slavishly copied the [658]procedures of the British Parliament; the only difference is we are still stuck with the procedures of the 1950s, while the UK has moved into 2010 — if a Government Minister had sworn an affidavit which produced a High Court decision and effectively had been found to have been committing perjury, that Minister would have been held accountable and would have had to resign.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  It was due process.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  Indeed, the ethos in the British Parliament is that if one is a perjurer and a Minister, one does resign. It is different from the ethos we have in this House, which is to batten down the hatches, protect one’s position and not to regard one’s self as accountable. Is it any wonder this Government not only is opposed to the Labour Party Bill, but has no appetite for a constitutional referendum?

Why do we need a constitutional referendum? We need one for another reason — the general public has lost faith in the capacity of this House to hold people fully accountable. Generally, they cannot understand why our regulatory authorities failed to such an extent that we had a banking disaster. The general public wants to know what advice was being given by departmental officials to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance. Which disastrous decision was his sole responsibility and which was informed by others? We are entitled to know this in the context of the economic collapse with which we are confronted.

I revert to my point, namely, that we do not do accountability. It is time we in this Parliament did accountability. It is time we put to the people a referendum to facilitate full and proper inquiries being held. In this context, we should not inquire into issues and never hold anyone truly accountable for failure. Had the Abbeylara judgment been made before the DIRT inquiry, the latter would never have occurred.

We need to reform the way the Parliament operates root and branch. We need a different ethos, but we will not have it until the party opposite, which is more interested in self-service than public service, finds itself on the benches on this side of the House and the Fine Gael Party has an opportunity to blow the winds of change through the corridors of power and to put to the people the type of constitutional proposal required to reintroduce into our parliamentary democracy a true concept of accountability for Ministers and those who work in the public service and semi-State bodies for the disasters that have befallen this country.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  I understand I am sharing this slot with five other speakers.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputies Thomas Byrne, O’Connor, Moynihan, Nolan and Ardagh.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  With the permission of the House, I would like to share this 30-minute slot equally.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. I am not a legal expert like some previous speakers who have addressed this matter from a legal perspective, but we must pull back from the legal complexities and examine in more detail the Dáil’s current investigative powers and what they might need to be. The committee system works effectively within its terms of reference. Much of the work relates to subject matters that are not contained within the broad policy development framework of the House. Committees are used mainly, but not exclusively, to deal with bodies that fall under the auspices of various Departments and are a step removed from our work in the Chamber. To some extent, they [659]provide an opportunity to bring political accountability to entities funded by the taxpayer and give Deputies an opportunity to debate and, where necessary, make accountable servants of the State. This Bill, however, seems to be an effort to try to turn the committee system into something different, to take practices and principles that are relevant in other jurisdictions where there are different systems of administration and parliament and use them to create a system that will make the Government of the day stand before a committee of the House and seek, almost on a policy-by-policy basis, a level of inquisition or creation of a Star Chamber.

Deputy Shatter referred to the need to bring about accountability. Members of the House, be they Ministers, backbenchers or Opposition Deputies, are accountable every time there is an election when the public makes up its mind. I would hate to see some type of Star Chamber being created within the structure of the Dáil that sought to remove from the procedures agreed on the floor of the House in an attempt to assist in the misrepresentation of events, thereby allowing for the creation of a perception of some level of wrongdoing or lack of accountability when neither is the case.

We have yet to find an ideal way to conduct inquiries. We know what does not work. The Abbeylara approach did not work, a situation that this Bill seeks to address. I respect what Deputy Rabbitte is trying to do. For instances such as Abbeylara and when dealing with entities at a remove from the House, this type of approach might be the way to go. However, the Abbeylara approach did not work and there are difficulties about the inferred liability issue.

Tribunals of inquiry certainly do not work. They are a runaway success for some, particularly those in the legal profession, and we do not want to go there. There must be better ways of bringing out the truth and identifying wrongdoing without carrying a substantial cost and creating a bounty for others.

We cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. We must find a way to determine the problem, decide what we want to achieve and then try to fashion a solution. The Government’s proposal for dealing with the banking crisis is credible. It seeks to create two reports, one by the Governor of the Central Bank and another by two eminent, independent and wise gentlemen whose reputations are untarnished and whose bona fides are accepted by all sides of the House, namely, Mr. Max Watson and Mr. Klaus Regling.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy’s five minutes have expired.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  The Government’s approach will remove the partisan approach, in so far as is possible, until such time as the matter is returned to the House. At least then the discussion would be based on undisputed and independent fact. Let there be political jousting and regular debate, but on the basis of well-established and relevant facts.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  How many minutes did Deputy Dooley take?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Five minutes.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  I may not need five minutes.

Deputy Charlie O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Deputy can eat into my time.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  Perhaps it will be the opposite way. Although I respect Deputy Rabbitte personally for introducing the Bill, it must be said that the Opposition seeking special procedures to investigate matters is ironic, given today’s events during which the Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, was accused of all sorts of crime. Deputies and Senators discussed their referring files to the DPP and made allegations and statements of what they believed to be facts. The High Court judge was privy to the case’s proceedings and did not decide to [660]intervene at a time when judges in the High and Circuit courts regularly refer files to the DPP on grounds of perjury and abuses of the court system. As is regularly the case, the Opposition was ready to draw its own conclusion without the need for any procedures or fair play.

Evidence would be given at a tribunal and Opposition Members would eagerly listen to radio reviews that would last from the evening until the night. The next day, Leaders’ Questions revolved around the evidence given before the tribunal. Why did the Opposition introduce this Bill to investigate matters when our current investigative systems are used for political comment and advantage? People are always ready to jump to conclusions and make findings of what they view as fact based on what they hear on radio. Since I have been elected to Dáil Éireann, this is the situation in which the Opposition has found itself time and again. It is ironic that the Opposition introduced this Bill when it has generally shown no appetite for fair play or for listening to both sides of a story. The Opposition listens only to its own side of the story.

What kind of a sorry country would we be in if Deputies, Senators and other politicians could refer files to the DPP? It is what some of them wanted to do today. Some believe they have that power, but we are a Legislature. We are not an Executive or a prosecutor. We must bear in mind these facts when commenting on alleged crimes and so on. We are not the Judiciary. We are the people who make the laws and it is not for us to make the decision as to who broke them. With this in mind, certain of the intentions behind introducing the Bill are good, but it is slightly hypocritical.

I fully supported a banking investigation, but some people have the idea that it could be subcontracted to certain so-called wise men of the Opposition. Some of the names that have been put forward by Deputy Kenny to lead this investigation were ludicrous. The idea that they had some special ability to look into our banking system in a fair and impartial way was ridiculous, and I will not name names here today.

I welcome what the Minister has done. He has appointed people who know their business. They are people who will not be involved in the political process in this State, who will have no axe to grind and who have no advantage one way or the other. They will be totally independent in their investigations. We will have Patrick Honohan, Klaus Regling, Max Watson and others.

The advantage of having this investigation in private is that we will not have a leader’s question every time evidence is given before it about what the Taoiseach thought of that evidence. The leaders of the Opposition who would have asked those kinds of questions, as they have done previously, would not be privy to the evidence put forward. They would be privy only to second-hand radio reports of the investigation that would be broadcast morning, noon and night. I can trust these people to carry out the necessary investigation that is going on because they are independent.

There are issues regarding the Oireachtas committee system that can and will be examined, but we cannot put ourselves in the position of being prosecutor or judge because we are too political. Members, irrespective of on what side of the House they are, are always seeking political advantage. That is the reality. We cannot investigate — which is what the Opposition generally seeks to do — any of the so-called major issues of the day or any controversy that bubbles up on websites, is spread by the media for a few weeks and eventually comes before the House. If the Opposition was serious about dealing with an issue such as one that was dealt with today, why was it not brought up when it first became public knowledge? It was brought up when it became a political issue. The political is being mixed with the legal and the judicial. It is totally wrong for this House to do that. That should be left to the Judiciary and the prosecutors.

[661]An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I call Deputy Charles O’Connor.

Deputy Charlie O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The only time I was called “Charles” was by my parents and that was usually when I was in trouble.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I will call you Deputy Charlie O’Connor.

Deputy Charlie O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Ceann Comhairle said “Charles” earlier.

I compliment Deputy Rabbitte on bringing forward this legislation. My friend, Deputy Thomas Byrne, said that Deputy Rabbitte is respected in Meath. He is also certainly respected in Tallaght, and I am happy to put that on the record.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  I was not so comfortable about Meath after 1996.

Deputy Charlie O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  I am getting involved in something now, about which perhaps I should not have said anything.

Deputies Rabbitte, Brian Hayes and myself brought forward a joint matter on the Adjournment last night, which is proof that we work well together. We and the other colleagues in the constituency would want to support St. Joseph’s special school in Balrothery. I apologise for hijacking the debate in that regard.

I am happy to make a brief contribution on this Private Members’ business, the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Powers of Inquiry) Bill 2010. Other colleagues, including Deputy Thomas Byrne, have covered issues the detail of which I do not want to cover. We have had an interesting day in the Dáil and I will not rehearse any of the earlier debate. I wonder how the SDLP delegation led by Ms Margaret Richie, MLA, whom the Chair welcomed, found that business.

The business before us is important. While we are all entitled to express our point of view and make our views known on this Bill, we should compliment the Labour Party on raising this issue and bringing forward this Bill. The matter will proceed from there.

Other speakers made the point that the main purpose of the Bill is to address the legal implications of the findings of the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case for inquiries to be undertaken by the committees of the Oireachtas. Deputy Ardagh was the then Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights and he did a fine job in that regard. The jury is still out on that episode and I am sure many people throughout the country and in this House would want to see those issues dealt with.

We are advised that this Bill does not adequately address the complex legal issues which arose from the decisions of the Supreme Court on its ruling in the Abbeylara case regarding the powers of Oireachtas committees to conduct inquiries or to make findings of fact and conclusions as to personal culpability of an individual not a Member of the Oireachtas. The Bill, as drafted, might then be open to legal challenge, a point other colleagues have made.

While the Bill may present a starting point for this process, which is important and I am happy to acknowledge that, further examination of work will clearly need to be done to fully address shortcomings in the Bill, particularly regarding sections 4 and 9. I suspect Deputy Rabbitte would be very much part of that debate.

Section 4(3) allows for a committee of the Oireachtas not to be inhibited in the performance of its functions by the possibility of liability being inferred. It also allows for such provisions in section 8 regarding the performance of investigators. The advice from the Attorney General is that these provisions require further consideration relating to the issue of liability being inferred.

[662]Other colleagues, including Deputy Thomas Byrne, referred to the banking inquiry. The Government has already decided that an independent statutory commission of investigation be established to identify, examine and report on the causes of the systematic failures in the Irish banking sector following completion of reports by the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland and by other independent persons. The Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland is due to address a meeting in Cavan next week of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member. That will be interesting. Perhaps that kind of appearance should also be duplicated here in Leinster House because I suspect many colleagues would like to discuss those issues with our leader.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to say a few words on this Bill. Deputy Rabbitte has done fine work on it, which is a starting point. I suspect he understood what the Government’s reaction to it might be, but I wish him well. I look forward to further debate on this subject.

Deputy Michael Moynihan: Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. I was a member of the sub-committee, chaired by Deputy Ardagh, on the inquiry into the Abbeylara incident in 2001. Early last year, a committee of which I am a member, examined the possibility of a preparing a report on one or other of the banks and on the issue of compellability and so forth. An Oireachtas committee carried out the successful DIRT inquiry. Considerable preparation and work was done by the sub-committee dealing with the Abbleyara inquiry, but when it came down to the fine points the court found that an Oireachtas committee did not have the power to determine findings of fact.

I welcome this Bill and the discussion on it. Deputy Rabbitte must be complimented on it. A fundamental debate among all practitioners of politics in this House is needed on whether we want to go down the route of Oireachtas inquiries and committees having the powers to inquire into different issues. As other speakers said, there is no doubt that the tribunal system, particularly during the past ten or 11 years, has failed, it having incurred major expense for the public with no gain in the short term.

If we are to have committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas inquiring into issues to determine findings of fact, what is required is the fundamental step of having a referendum on this question. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Howlin, was also a member of the sub-committee that inquired into the Abbeylara incident. The advice we got at that time and, on the Monday morning our case was rejected by the courts, was the fundamental step of a referendum on the issue was what was needed. The Bill before us is to be welcomed. The debate on this issue must be about whether Oireachtas committees should have these powers. Parliamentary committees in other jurisdictions have powers of inquiry and they use them very effectively. Such powers can be seen, in some cases, to have been very effective tools that were used by elected members. They can be very effective tools used by people, as they elect the Members to the Houses, and they in turn can have inquiries. In other instances, such inquiries may turn into witch hunts in some shape or form. If properly constructed and dealt with, such processes can be welcome.

The advice from the Attorney General and the legal advice from staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas indicated there could be as fundamental a process as a referendum involved in this issue. A debate must ensue on whether we want to go down that route, and we should explore it. Some people have said that the Bill is a starting point. It is well drafted and has the right intention, but we should have a full debate on the powers being given to Members to determine a fact. We should explore the matter to the nth degree and ensure we get the best possible advice. The matter would have to go to the public in order to give that kind of power to the Oireachtas.

[663]Under the Constitution, there is currently a separation of powers, which has been very effective, by and large, since the 1937 Constitution. There is separation of the Oireachtas and Judiciary, which is seen to work extremely well despite some shortcomings which we have seen from time to time. We should take time to debate the issues.

There was a point on whether the Oireachtas should undertake a full inquiry into the banks and financial institutions, particularly regarding how much credit, etc., was made available over a period. Some of the newly-appointed people in the Central Bank and other places have expressed a wish for an Oireachtas inquiry.

Even with powers of compellability at a committee, it would not be enough to carry out such a task. All the committee could do is produce a report. Even if we undertook an inquiry along the lines of the Abbeylara process, every comma was contested by the legal advice from other parties in that case. If we had gone down such a route, we would not have got as far as the first fence because it would have been challenged by legal people. The debate concerns whether we need these powers and there should be a referendum if we go down this route.

Deputy M. J. Nolan: Information on M. J. Nolan  Zoom on M. J. Nolan  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. At the outset I join with some previous speakers in commending Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party on bringing it forward. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, I am unable to support it but the purpose of the Bill is welcome. I would like to see a change in procedures that would allow more Bills from the Opposition with the support of the Government and the backup that the Government can provide. Just because a party is in Opposition does not mean everything it brings forward is incorrect or wrong.

The main purpose of the Bill is to address the legal shortcomings arising from the findings of the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case as it related to the Oireachtas sub-committee of inquiry. To an extent, it focuses on shortcomings in the legislation relating to Oireachtas committees. I put on record the positive attitude of Deputy Ardagh and what that sub-committee endeavoured to achieve at the time.

The role of Oireachtas committees in general has been very positive. It is a role which we should encourage and we should put legislation in train to ensure that such committees become more effective. We have much expertise in the House that could be put to better use, as there are energetic Members who would bring much wise counsel to committee meetings. Although the Government benches have Ministers and Ministers of State, there is much expertise that is untapped within the House which could be better used.

Some very positive work has been done in Oireachtas committees. As a member of a committee dealing with small business issues in the last Dáil, I know that committee considered insurance. There was much bad practice in that area, with many business problems arising from the high cost of insurance. Under the chairmanship of former Deputy, Senator Donie Cassidy, the committee did much positive work by bringing in insurance companies and vested interests to find out where the problems were. In doing so we were able to identify and report on issues. During the life of that committee we saw significant savings in the insurance area.

Many other committees are also doing very fine work. I have seen legislation on Committee Stage in plenary session in the Dáil, and there is a far more in-depth consideration when legislation is put to committees and is debated therein. Committees are obliged to produce reports and they are a forum for organisations and individuals who would not be able to make a presentation to the Dáil or Seanad in plenary session. Such people or groups are able to come to the Legislature, make their cases and be heard and questioned about aspects of interest by using the committee system, which is positive.

[664]I accept there are shortcomings but the Government has legal advice from the Attorney General outlining various concerns about the legislation before us. It is a start nonetheless and the Government should consider it seriously. The identified shortcomings should be amended and the Government should come forward with the necessary amendments. It is a good start and we should progress on that basis.

Deputy Seán Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh  Zoom on Seán Ardagh  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. I do not have the time to lavish sufficient praise on Deputy Rabbitte for this Bill, as others have done. I have been involved in two major inquiries in the Houses. These are the DIRT inquiry, which I attended along with my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, and I was also the chair of the sub-committee on the Abbeylara incident concerning the tragic death of John Carthy.

This Bill is a valuable contribution as a template for legislation that may be required for an inquiry on some matter of great concern. In particular, the sections relating to the assessors and investigators are novel and will be relied on in future legislation. The major concern has been articulated by all contributors on this side of the House of inferred liability, and this is mentioned in sections 4(3) and 8(1)(b). Apart from findings that could reasonably be seen to attribute civil or criminal liability, the report of a committee under this Bill could make findings that could reasonably be seen to imply wrongdoing by a person. Such findings could affect the good name, reputation and livelihood of the individual upon whom the liability was inferred.

Article 43.1 of the Constitution concerns the personal rights of the individual which are to be defended and vindicated by the State. It is a strong right and there are issues of allowing that type of inferred liability. I agree with Deputy Moynihan that a referendum probably would be desirable to see if the people would consider it appropriate for the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries that might have that effect on individuals.

I have no doubt that with the banking controversy that has prevailed over the past number of years, people would like to see those who operated in a cavalier manner and undermined the system named and shamed should an Oireachtas committee find them liable. However, no referendum giving more power to the Oireachtas would be passed in this climate and to take upon ourselves that power by law would be unconstitutional. The primacy in the Constitution is of the personal rights I mentioned.

It is interesting that what we mainly talk about with regard to the Abbeylara case is the infringement of personal rights. As a report was never even drafted by the sub-committee, whether rights would be infringed in a report is questionable.

There will be big problems with the Oireachtas committee hearings on the banking system. Will it be possible for members of that committee to infer liability on behalf of people whose names have been bandied around the press and outside this House? The committee secretariat here is second to none, and it proved itself in 1997 at the DIRT inquiry. It is up to us. The Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case found that we did not inherently have the power because we messed up the procedures and the setting up of the committee. The committee members did not do so as they are not legally trained, but the advice and the procedures did not work at the time.

This an excellent piece of work that will contribute to developing inquiries that are relevant, pertinent and it will enhance the Oireachtas in the eyes of the people in future.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  I wish to share my time with Deputies Higgins, Burton and Tuffy.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Is that agreed? Agreed.

[665]Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  I am pleased to speak immediately after Deputy Ardagh, who chaired the justice sub-committee on the Abbeylara incident and on which I had the pleasure to serve. I fully agree with his assertion that it was bizarre that the presumption that we would breach the constitutional rights of citizens was argued out before we even embarked on our work. An imposition on that sub-committee and all future work of the Oireachtas flowed from that supposition, which I believe was wrong.

This is one of those debates where people outside think it is an insiders’ debate about the procedures of this House and how we conduct our business. It is one of the most important debates because it is about how public business is done and whether we in this House can do the business we are sent to do, and whether the erosion of confidence in political systems can be addressed by the Members of this current Dáil. I am often fearful that this is not the case. The ability of Members to do the people’s business effectively is a question that the public is asking now. The answer that we give in 45 minutes to this Bill will form part of the people’s conclusions. If we vote down this Bill, we will timidly say that we cannot push back the boundaries of our proper duty, that we will be circumscribed in our job by the actions of others, and that we will not assert the rights given to us by the people of Ireland to do our business.

Have these Houses the ability to hold inquires, specifically inquiries that might be critical of individuals? We clearly do not have such an ability. We are not a court of law. We do not make findings of fact about people who are not Members of this House. However, there are other important works into which we must inquire in order to inform the main duty of this House, which is our duty to be legislators. How can we provide good law if we have not the power to see the effect of laws? How can we carry out our other duty — to hold the Executive to account — if we cannot inquire into the conduct of people who work for the Executive? How can we carry out our third duty — to scrutinise the spending of money properly voted in the House — if we cannot hold public authorities to account and inquire into their actions, be they the Garda Síochána or any other agent of the State? How do we do our duty as the people’s tribune in ensuring that no agent of the State oppresses the rights of others? We have the duty to shape the laws and to serve the citizens, yet we have allowed ourselves to be pushed back in my time in this Dáil.

The official Government response outlined last night by the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, is profoundly disappointing. It was timid and the notion that the Bill “did not fully consider and address the important matters raised in the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara decision” is unacceptable. He stated that the Opposition has not fully analysed the implications of the decision after eight years. In his conclusion, he stated that the Bill “does not provide a complete solution, and further consideration needs to be given”. Nobody is suggesting it is a complete solution, but nobody could deny that it is a significant advance. Let us assert the rights of the people who send us here to carry out a proper inquiry in a constitutional way. If we need to broaden the parameters of that right, let us seek that mandate from the people and not shy away from it. Let us debate this Bill on Committee Stage by allowing it to pass Second Stage. Let the advice of the Attorney General come to bear on it on Committee Stage. At the end of the day, if we conclude that a referendum is needed as several members of the Government have claimed, then let us not shy away from that. Let us put that question to the people if we have to do so.

The scope, the power and the authority of this House has been diminished over the years by decisions of the courts, who have on occasions taken it upon themselves to act as legislators. They have sometimes done this reluctantly, due to the inaction or timidity of this House in shying away from sensitive but important issues. We have also been diminished by the actions of the Executive. I say this with all the passion that I can muster now. In recent years, the Executive has seen this place as little more than a rubber stamp or a cipher. If we are not to [666]be seen by the people as entirely irrelevant, it is time we take a stand to re-establish the authority and the power of the people’s Chamber. This is but one of the many initiatives that we need to make.

There is a notion that we on this side of the House want reform and power and that when we migrate over to the other side, we will want to delimit the authority to do the people’s business here. We have to get over that now and set out a proper structure where we can do the people’s business. In the proposal before us tonight, the Government cannot announce that it is a bystander. It is almost eight years since the decision was handed down in the Abbeylara case. We have done nothing constructively to address the difficulties imposed on this House to do proper work in those intervening eight years. The current Government has been in power all this time, so its members cannot now say that a proper, thoughtful and carefully crafted attempt by my party to rebuild the powers of this House given by the people are unacceptable and then offer no alternative. There were no suggestions in speeches from the Government side that it is seized of this issue and wants to provide its own mechanism, proposals or legislation to allow for the proper inquiry and scrutiny that falls to all parliaments.

When the decision was handed down in the Abbeylara case a tribunal of inquiry was established. While the tribunal did good work, it took years to complete and cost millions. The timeframe of the Oireachtas inquiry into the Abbeylara case, which would have been as effective as the tribunal of inquiry, was 12 weeks. People also want efficiency in how business is done. The delays and costs involved mean there is no incentive to hold further tribunals of inquiry, except in the most grave of circumstances.

A great deal of proper scrutiny will continue to be left undone due to a lack of proper facilities in this House. Let us take responsibility and pass Second Stage of this legislative measure when the opportunity arises at 8.30 p.m. We can then refine the Bill to the best of our ability and, in so doing, signal to those who are watching closely that the Oireachtas can do business and that we are determined to reform the way in which we work in order that this Parliament is made more effective in their name.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  It is of vital importance that a message go out from this House that we are in favour of asserting, defending and strengthening the power of Parliament. To do this we must make certain, however, that no misconstruction is placed on the Abbeylara judgment.

In moving this Bill, my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, referred to the opinion of Mr. Justice Geoghegan, Mr. Justice Hardiman, Chief Justice John Murray and others to clearly show that nothing in their judgment suggests there is a limitation on the power of committees. We are all indebted to Deputy Rabbitte and we, in the Labour Party, are proud that he has prepared legislation on whistleblowers, the Garda Síochána (Powers of Surveillance) Bill and the legislation before us which provides for enhanced powers for committees.

The assumption must be rejected that because one is elected to Parliament, one should enjoy a lesser degree of trust than those who, under the separation of powers, enjoy other powers under the Constitution. No one has the right to suggest that because one is elected to Parliament and gives accountability on policy, one can be assumed to possess a lesser level of objective ability than, for instance, someone who has been appointed by the Executive to the courts and enjoys an autonomy provided for in the Constitution. That would be an outrageous under-labourer version of Parliament and one that would be rejected by nearly all political science examinations of the role of parliament. The reason it would be so rejected is that it is to the state and the elective component of the state parliament that members of the public look for [667]the assessment of the success, failure or maladministration of policy. For a parliament to accept any limitation of its power in policy formation and review or performance in an administrative sense would be to breach a sovereign trust placed in that parliament by members of the public.

This is a tough time for parliaments. I have another opportunity to discuss the reform of parliaments. The weakening of Parliament is to some extent caused by the Executive of the day claiming a monopoly of the right of service in terms of framing, initiating and amending legislation. As someone who has examined this issue across many political systems in my other life, committee systems are weak in countries where the executive exerts a stranglehold on them. This statement can be proved in any of the different political systems. For example, I could cite the inquiry into the Iraq war in the United Kingdom. If one examined the inquiry closely, one would clearly see that accountability is absent where parliament is weakened.

In the same way as the individual citizen has the right to look to the courts for the vindication and protection of his or her rights, the individual citizen also has the right to look to parliament for policy and the review thereof. It is wrong to argue, as has been done by speakers who oppose the Bill, that somehow one can run accountability in policy against personal culpability.

In the Abbeylara case no one suggested that the committee would exercise its functions in terms of a court. One had reached the point where to answer a particular question could transgress into the culpability of an individual. It would, however, be an outrageous misconstruction of the decision in the Abbeylara case to suggest that there was any suggested impediment in the way of a committee doing its work. I share the view held by Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness that the committee could plough ahead and do its work, even without the enactment of the Bill before us, under the 1997 legislation and it would be unconstitutional to seek to place an impediment on Parliament doing its work in this fashion.

Interesting matters flow from this statement. As I have noted in the Joint Committee on the Constitution, it is important to note that, for example, in the European system the countries where committees work effectively are those where the executive does not seek a monopoly over legislation, the committee system is at arm’s length from the executive, the opposition has a role and so forth. The question we must ask ourselves is which poses the greater danger — making parliament weak by assuming a misconstruction of the Abbeylara judgment or accepting this Stage of the Bill, amending it in committee and rendering to the Oireachtas the work, duty and capacity of a parliament and rendering to the courts what they must do. At present, the attitude taken towards making the necessary changes and strengthening the powers of committees, an issue on which Deputy Rabbitte’s Bill makes a significant contribution, causes serious damage to Parliament. If one misconstrues the Abbeylara judgment, one then makes an assumption about the powers of committees in general. This is profoundly anti-democratic.

The performance of the Garda, banking system and agencies of State are policy issues. The contradiction of legislation agreed in both Houses of the Oireachtas and the performance of such legislation is an issue to which members of the public must correctly turn to Parliament, as they do. If something happens in relation to any aspect of the economy or the areas of State for which agencies have responsibility, it is to the elected Members that members of the public turn in the first instance.

We must remember that one of the justices in the Abbeylara case stated that the judgment refers to the particular instance and facts. The published judgments state that nothing in the decision should inhibit the work of committees. One must, therefore, react to the balance it suggested. It would be outrageous to suggest that the Judiciary must enjoy a higher level of trust than elected representatives. If we do that, it is a perilous road to go down in regard to Parliament.

  [668]8 o’clock

I would go further and say that in regard to the assumptions about this issue, and I say this as a political scientist, there are far more questions that might be put forward including the ideological bias of the judges themselves in the history of courts that might be over Parliament because, at the end of the day, the public have their chance. They put people in and they put people out but if we wanted to move forward, and we can do that, and have genuine reform in regard to Parliament, we would abandon the Executive monopoly, whoever is in power, over the public service. We would not seek to have a majority in all of the committees and we would allow the committees the power of initiation, amendment and change in legislation.

The day Parliament cannot, through its committees and sub-committees, address the concerns of the public in regard to policy and its administration is a day on which we have said the Parliament is so weak that it is no longer important.

It must be remembered that what we have seen is a dangerous leak from the accountability of Parliament. We cannot afford, in addition to that leak towards unaccountable agencies, to decide ourselves that we will spancel the committees to which we elect people in this House.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  I wish to share time with Deputy Joanna Tuffy. The Ceann Comhairle might tell me when five minutes have elapsed.

Anyone who is elected to this House as one of 166 representatives continually feels it is an honour and a privilege to be asked by citizens to be their representative in the Dáil. However, what has been lost on the Government, particularly the Fianna Fáil element of the Government which has now been in power for 12 years, is the fact that at this time of major economic crisis people in Ireland are not just watching coverage of the Dáil, but are also tuning in from time to time to coverage of other Parliaments, particularly the House of Commons and the Houses of Congress in the United States. Some people also watch coverage of the French Parliament. Most people who have television here have access to those channels.

What is stunning in the context of Deputy Rabbitte’s Bill is that we are currently enveloped in the greatest economic crisis this country and many other countries have ever seen since the 1920s and people’s interest in politics and political accountability is at an extraordinarily level. As politicians, all of us should welcome that fact.

In the United Kingdom, the bankers who have been deemed to be culpable to a degree in the collapse of banking institutions in the UK have already been before several committees of the House of Commons, individually and collectively.

In the United States there have been umpteen committee hearings. We have also seen the system the United States operates under Professor Elizabeth Warren, which is basically oversight, which reports to the Houses of Congress on everything to do with the banks. It is up on the website. One can “tweet” her and get information from her, yet this country appears to be locked in post-colonial aspic. It is as though we inherited our parliamentary system from the United Kingdom. They moved on but we did not to the same extent. I say that in a non-partisan way.

People endlessly confess now to tuning in compulsively to “Oireachtas Report”, which Deputy Rabbitte once said was for insomniacs and people who slumped in front of the television exhausted after a long night out. People are now consciously watching coverage of the Dáil and what Deputy Rabbitte has put forward in the Bill, and I congratulate him on this, is an opportunity for us to reform our procedures and meet the demand from people who believe this is their Parliament, we represent them and we will bring people like the bankers to some degree of account in explaining the policy that has led to our economic ruination.

[669]The Green Party Members are not present but I would have thought this particular philosophy would be a central belief of everything I have ever known about the Green Party, including those I served with on county councils when I was a councillor.

The British playwright, David Hare, has a play running in the UK at the moment called “The Power of Yes”. It deals with the issue Deputy Higgins raised earlier, which is that when we have a powerful Executive combined with a powerful establishment in banking and in the media, all of whom are telling us to say “Yes” in one direction only, very little stands between that enormous surge of power. The Government came in here on 29 September 2008 and told us that we must sign up to the guarantee to Anglo Irish Bank. We were told last year that we must put €11 billion in the banks at a time when the Government was cutting old age pensioners’ Christmas bonuses and social welfare recipients’ entitlements. The power of “Yes” in this country from the point of view of an establishment of professional people who were involved in banking — the bankers themselves, the developers and the Fianna Fáil Party — has combined to make it almost unquestionable.

Deputy Rabbitte is suggesting in his Bill——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Deputy is eroding Deputy Tuffy’s time.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  ——a way to get over the Abbeylara problem. He has provided an elegant solution to the problem, which will withstand legal challenge. If it does not withstand legal challenge, we need a referendum on this issue because, for the sake of all the people who are now unemployed, those whose incomes have been reduced or halved and social welfare recipients, we must restore to this country the power of parliamentary inquiry in a genuine way.

Deputy Joanna Tuffy: Information on Joanna Tuffy  Zoom on Joanna Tuffy  If ever there was an issue on which the Dáil should co-operate it is that of enhancing the work Deputies and Senators do in the Oireachtas. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O’Dea, said earlier that he has been a Member of this House for 30 years but the reality is that for most of us our careers are potentially very short. Many of the Deputies who lost their seats in the 2007 election had only been here for five years. I read at that time that the average amount of time Deputies spend here is becoming shorter.

We are not the only ones who make sacrifices. The staff who work in Leinster House make the same sacrifices as us. It is the same in other careers but we give up spending time with one’s family. We are away from our families. Time goes quicker when one is a politician and it is a waste to be in here and not use one’s time effectively representing the people who elected us. That is something we must co-operate on because if we do not, we all lose out, a point which has been made.

There is talk now about our electoral system but the electoral system is not the problem. Policies and ideas have caused problems in politics. We do not need a referendum to change political policies but there is a problem with the way the Dáil operates. Our failure to reform the procedures in this House and give ourselves more powers and more time to act effectively on behalf of our constituents is fuelling a drive to change our electoral system which may be a significant mistake in the long term and may make Parliament even more remote.

The reality is that our system is the most democratic it can be, with the voter having the ultimate say in terms of who gets elected and which parties are represented in the Dáil. Visitors to this country often remark admiringly on the type of one-to-one contact between Irish voters and public representatives that is not available in other countries. All the proposals that have been put forward afford the voter less say and are less democratic. It will be a loss to democracy if we move away from our current system.

[670]There are steps that can be taken that will make substantial changes to our electoral system unnecessary. Above all, we must stand up for ourselves as politicians. There is too much playing along with the agenda that Deputies spend their time running after constituents and so on. It is important that we are in contact with our constituents and that we are aware of their concerns. For example, a report was launched yesterday by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs with proposals to assist those home owners who are in negative equity and experiencing difficulties in repaying their mortgages. The reason that issue was raised so often by so many Members is that we are all contacted on a regular basis by constituents who have concerns in that regard.

We must enhance our role by focusing on the positive achievements of the political system. We should not forget that it was this system, through the Dáil and Seanad, which brought stability to the State after the Civil War that followed the attainment of national independence. In more recent times, we have had the DIRT inquiry, our contribution to the peace process and cross-party support for various progressive initiatives and legislation. This Bill seeks to allow us to do more of that. We must seek greater powers that will allow us to be more effective in our role as legislators and as local constituency representatives in terms of how the business of the Dáil is scheduled and organised. The Government is only working against itself if it does not take on this Bill either in its current form or in some amended form. We must stand up for the work we do in this House. Otherwise, we are merely helping to diminish our role.

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan): Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  I thank Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party for the considerable work that went into drafting the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Powers of Inquiry) Bill 2010. The Bill was first before this House on 20 January in the context of the Labour Party’s Private Members’ motion on an inquiry into the banking crisis and the desire for such an inquiry to be conducted in public by a committee of the Dáil. It is my view, reiterated by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, yesterday evening, that the proposed framework recently established by the Government provides the most effective way of getting to the heart of the issues in the banking crisis in order to inform the future management and regulation of the sector and to provide the most ample opportunity for the Oireachtas to have a substantial input at each stage of the inquiry process.

The Government decision states that the appropriate Oireachtas committee will meet the Governor and the independent experts at the outset of their work to be briefed on committee members’ priority for investigation. I understand that meeting has been arranged for tomorrow week. The Government decision states that once the reports of the experts are completed, the terms of reference for the commission of investigation will be finalised based on the conclusions of the expert reports and following consultation with the Oireachtas. We are fortunate that we had two such distinguished experts to do the scoping exercise. Under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 it is the Government which ultimately sets the terms of reference for any commission of investigation. The report of the commission must be laid before the Oireachtas for further consideration and action by the appropriate Oireachtas committee.

I fully appreciate that the draft Bill is an attempt to address the complex legal issues arising from the Abbeylara judgment. It is the Government’s view that these issues require further detailed examination and review. That is why, as the Minister of State outlined last night, the Government is opposing this Bill. It is worth noting that it appears to be established law that neither House can make a finding of criminal or civil liability against any person or make findings as to the personal culpability of an individual not a Member of the Oireachtas so as to impugn his or her good name. Given that this is the position, it is difficult to see how the banking inquiry can proceed other than by way of a commission of investigation. The only [671]alternative open to the Government is a sworn public inquiry under the tribunals of inquiry legislation. We all know how protracted, extensive and expensive such inquiries can be.

Therefore, it was entirely reasonable for the Government, in the context of the banking inquiry, to stipulate that any disputed issues of fact must be determined by a commission of inquiry. That is the quickest way they can be determined. This House is inherently unfitted to make determinations of fact in these matters. I have attended many debates and been rightly held to account in this House in respect of various decisions made in the banking sector. I have heard many references to individuals who might have come before such a committee which clearly indicate a prejudgment on the part of Deputies in regard to any disputed issues of fact about those individuals. It is difficult to see how individuals about whom there are disputes of fact could get a fair hearing in the House from a parliamentary committee.

The same problem developed throughout parliamentary history when we were part of the United Kingdom, which is why we have the 1920 Act. Committees of the House were found to be inadequate to determine issues of fact about their own membership. We can still appoint a committee to determine an issue of fact about our own membership. We can obviously appoint a committee to evaluate Government policy. However, we cannot appoint a committee to make judgments about outsiders. That appears to be the law of the land. In that context, the Government’s choice was obvious in regard to the banking inquiry.

It may be, as a result of the scoping exercise, that the issues of fact that are in dispute are quite narrow and that the commission can deal with its business in a speedy way. On conclusion of that, the findings of fact, together with the scoping exercise and the various issues relating to the banking crisis, can be the subject of comprehensive parliamentary discussion and investigation through a committee.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I propose to share time with Deputy Rabbitte.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I join in the words of congratulation to Deputy Rabbitte on bringing this reforming measure before the Dáil. We hear much commentary these days about the need to reform politics and, in particular, the need for the Dáil to reform its own practices and procedures and the way we do business. Deputy Rabbitte’s Bill is an important reforming measure which would give the House the power of proper inquiry.

Unfortunately, the way in which the Government has rejected the Bill is an all too familiar example of precisely the reasons that we need legislation like this. The Government, in its rejection, has been dismissive, arrogant, cavalier with the truth and contemptuous of the Dáil. We saw it last month in its reaction to a Labour Party motion calling for a banking inquiry. When even the Governor of the Central Bank had agreed an inquiry was needed, the Government was obliged to cobble together something, but it made sure it would be an investigation behind closed doors, with its own performance excluded from the terms of reference. As a result, the banking inquiry will serve only to reinforce public cynicism rather than addressing genuine public concerns.

All parties now pay lip service to the notions of accountability, scrutiny and oversight. We all say we are in favour of more openness, but the sincerity of our statements are tested when specific proposals for specific reforms are put on the table. The Labour Party is convinced that accountability, scrutiny and oversight are core components of effective democratic governance. Accountability helps keep Government open and honest. However, to be effective, accountability must be both informed and public. Anything less than that is window-dressing.

[672]We are strongly of the view that Parliament must be central to the process of accountability, scrutiny and oversight of central government and the wider public administration. The decision in the Abbeylara case undoubtedly creates problems but those problems are not insurmountable, despite the efforts of the Government to create that impression. Put at its simplest — I recognise it is a complex case — the applicants in the Abbeylara case won two arguments in the High Court but, on appeal, they won on one ground only. The High Court had declared that statutory powers to inquire and report could never, “consistent with the principles of constitutional justice and fairness, be conducted by a tribunal comprised of elected officials”. If that argument had succeeded on appeal, then there would certainly be an end to parliamentary inquiries. The Supreme Court, however, refused to uphold this argument. Instead, it relied on a much narrower ground: that the form of inquiry in that case was ultra vires in that it was “not within the inherent powers of the Houses of the Oireachtas”.

Many of the judgments went on to suggest that, although powers of compellability for Oireachtas committees had been provided for in legislation, no legislation conferring the basic “power to inquire” had been passed and there was no inherent parliamentary power to hold an inquiry of any sort at all. According to Chief Justice Keane, “If there is no inherent power in the Oireachtas to initiate such an inquiry, there seems no reason why the Oireachtas could not simply establish such a committee of inquiry by legislation”. On the other hand, Ms Justice Denham, who delivered the formula accepted by the majority, stated simply that this issue is one “to be determined by the legislature or by the people,” in other words, by legislation or by constitutional amendment. Ms Justice Denham was careful not to express an opinion as to which option may be required.

I admit we cannot be certain but to refuse to legislate because we are uncertain is simply to prevaricate and to abrogate our responsibilities. The only way we can finally know the answer is to test the question.

The official Government line, as delivered last night by the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, was that, “the Bill, as currently drafted, could be open to legal challenge”. That is absurd. Any Bill can be improved in its drafting, during the course of the legislative process, that is why we have a legislature. Also, all legislation ever passed could be “open to legal challenge”, that is why we have courts.

The Minister of State offered another reason for rejecting the Bill, which was relied upon by his party colleagues. He said:

Those few sentences show either a breathtaking ignorance of the true situation or a calculated determination to misinform and mislead.

The Minister of State says there are already considerable powers available. Surely he must know that, as long ago as 17 April 2003, the then Minister heading his own Department, Charlie McCreevy, announced that “Oireachtas Committees conducting inquiries under compellability provisions have been successfully challenged in the courts”. Surely he must know that, apart from a single case involving separate constitutional powers to examine the possible removal of [673]a judge from office, not a single Oireachtas committee has been able to avail of the powers Deputy Mansergh says are still available and that every Oireachtas committee has been told these powers can no longer be exercised, since the decision in the Abbeylara case.

The background to the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy’s announcement is that he had to find a reason to abandon his original commitment to implement all the recommendations made in the report of the DIRT committee. One of those recommendations was to provide for the appointment of parliamentary inspectors to assist Oireachtas committees. The original intention was that parliamentary inspectors could be appointed where an Oireachtas committee, carrying out inquiries under certain statutory powers, decided that it required such an officer to assist it. This was to be done by giving those inspectors a range of legal powers to compel citizens to give evidence on oath and to provide documents relevant to his or her inquiry. However, because Oireachtas committees conducting inquiries under compellability provisions had been successfully challenged in the courts, in the light of these developments, the Minister no longer believes that such legislation would fill a useful purpose.

Finally, we have been told that an argument for rejecting this Bill on Second Stage is that it is not considered appropriate, necessary or prudent to proceed with it: The Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, stated:

In all of this guff reproduced from the Minister of State’s last speech rejecting an Opposition party proposal, there is not even the vaguest commitment to actually undertake a detailed review and examination, let alone to engage on a cross-party basis with all members of the House who are affected by this decision. Treating the Dáil and its Members like this demeans us all, including, perhaps in particular, the Members on the Government backbenches.

The basic truth is this Government is talking out of both sides of its mouth. If we try to improve the legislation, we are told exiting legislation is already in place. If we try to use existing legislation, however, we are told it has been successfully challenged in the courts.

The reality is that this Government does not want any form of public inquiry at all, let alone an inquiry by its peers, by the Members of the Dáil and Seanad. The growth in executive competence and action has led to a generally perceived decline in the relevance of another branch of Government, our national Parliament. Part of the solution is parliamentary reform and part of the project of parliamentary reform is to put on a clear footing the relationship, and the separation, between Parliament on the one hand and the Executive and Administration on the other. The Labour Party believes that it should be a function of the national Parliament to engage in oversight of public administration, both in general terms and, through its committees, by way of detailed scrutiny.

Our main argument for the strengthening of the Houses of the Oireachtas is that it enhances public accountability. A vigorously active and independent Parliament with powers to investigate matters of serious public importance will ensure that systemic abuses and the breakdown of good government are less likely to occur.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  I thank all Members who contributed to this debate and thank them for their positive remarks, even if I have the feeling that in some cases I was damned with faint praise.

[674]The Bill is about enhancing the functioning, stature and relevance of Parliament. When we look at business transacted in this House today we must worry about the state we have reached. We spent the first third of the day with the Government unable or unwilling to intervene to match the available work to the high skills of 500 available redundant workers at Dublin Airport. We spent the second third of the day voting confidence in a Minister who swore a false affidavit in court. Now we will finish the last third of the day voting down a Bill that was designed only to enhance the authority and stature of Parliament.

I was struck by the remarks of Deputy Michael D. Higgins, that we are expected to welcome the other two arms of Government, the Judiciary and Executive, developing while Parliament diminishes. If we look across the water to the example the Deputy gave of the Iraq inquiry, and if one watches the inquiry proceedings when they are screened, there is no doubt that debacle occurred in no small way because of the diminished status of Parliament and a Prime Minister who rode roughshod over the Cabinet. Otherwise it is doubtful that Britain would have participated in that disaster.

I take the comments of colleagues on the Government side of the House at face value but I do not believe they are so naive as to believe what they said. Deputies Timmy Dooley and Thomas Byrne are good examples. Deputy Dooley stated that we cannot have a star chamber, where leaders would query the Taoiseach every day on the ongoing performance of the inquiry. Deputy Dooley knows full well that I spent considerable time last night pointing out why it could not be a star chamber. We know from the DIRT inquiry that it is not permissible in this House to ask questions while an inquiry is ongoing.

I did not refer to DIRT at all last night, but the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, devoted a third of his speech to it, while several other Deputies also mentioned it. I know how popular that inquiry was. I have heard the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan refer three times on radio, twice on “Today with Pat Kenny” and once on “The Last Word” with Matt Cooper, to how he enjoyed his role in the DIRT inquiry. He was no more close to the DIRT inquiry than someone who was not elected to this House at all, so it must have been popular.

Deputy Thomas Byrne said he was opposed to the Bill because he observed what happened today and instanced what happened to the Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, as a reason a committee of this House could not be given the power to inquire. He must be, however, well aware that no committee of the House could inquire into the matter in which the Minister, Deputy O’Dea, got himself involved. In the minds of ordinary people, the Minister became involved in something which involved a criminal action, namely, perjury.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  We dealt with this matter this afternoon and we are revisiting ground that should not be revisited.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  At this hour of the night, I will not persist. The point is, however, that this was the argument advanced in respect of our not being able to have inquiries by parliamentary committees. All I am doing is highlighting circumstances where one might allege that a political rival is a brothel keeper, make a sworn affidavit to a court to the effect that one did not make such an allegation and then state, when tapes which indicate that one did make such an allegation are produced, that one is innocent because one forgot that this was the case. How would it be possible to forget that one alleged that someone is a brothel keeper? That defies belief and it just could not happen.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  The Minister, Deputy O’Dea, has a bad memory.

[675]Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  What occurred today was insulting to the House. We need every instrument available to us in order that we might assert accountability in this Chamber. It is wrong that the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil Ministers corralled the Members of the Green Party earlier today and forced them into the Chamber to vote in favour of the confidence motion. We will rue the day that this happened.

Question put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 71; Níl, 77.

Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  Allen, Bernard. Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James.
Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  Barrett, Seán. Information on Joe Behan  Zoom on Joe Behan  Behan, Joe.
Information on Pat Breen  Zoom on Pat Breen  Breen, Pat. Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  Broughan, Thomas P.
Information on Richard Bruton  Zoom on Richard Bruton  Bruton, Richard. Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Burke, Ulick.
Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  Burton, Joan. Information on Catherine Byrne  Zoom on Catherine Byrne  Byrne, Catherine.
Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  Carey, Joe. Information on Deirdre Clune  Zoom on Deirdre Clune  Clune, Deirdre.
Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  Connaughton, Paul. Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  Coonan, Noel J.
Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Costello, Joe. Information on Simon Coveney  Zoom on Simon Coveney  Coveney, Simon.
Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Crawford, Seymour. Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  Creed, Michael.
Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  Creighton, Lucinda. Information on Michael D'Arcy  Zoom on Michael D'Arcy  D’Arcy, Michael.
Information on John Deasy  Zoom on John Deasy  Deasy, John. Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  Deenihan, Jimmy.
Information on Andrew Doyle  Zoom on Andrew Doyle  Doyle, Andrew. Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Durkan, Bernard J.
Information on Damien English  Zoom on Damien English  English, Damien. Information on Frank Feighan  Zoom on Frank Feighan  Feighan, Frank.
Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  Ferris, Martin. Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Gilmore, Eamon.
Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hayes, Brian. Information on Tom Hayes  Zoom on Tom Hayes  Hayes, Tom.
Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  Higgins, Michael D. Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  Hogan, Phil.
Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Howlin, Brendan. Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  Kehoe, Paul.
Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Kenny, Enda. Information on Ciaran Lynch  Zoom on Ciaran Lynch  Lynch, Ciarán.
Information on Kathleen Lynch  Zoom on Kathleen Lynch  Lynch, Kathleen. Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  McCormack, Pádraic.
Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  McEntee, Shane. Information on Dinny McGinley  Zoom on Dinny McGinley  McGinley, Dinny.
Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  McGrath, Finian. Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  McHugh, Joe.
Information on Liz McManus  Zoom on Liz McManus  McManus, Liz. Information on Olivia Mitchell  Zoom on Olivia Mitchell  Mitchell, Olivia.
Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Naughten, Denis. Information on Michael Noonan  Zoom on Michael Noonan  Noonan, Michael.
Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín. Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
Information on Kieran O'Donnell  Zoom on Kieran O'Donnell  O’Donnell, Kieran. Information on Fergus O'Dowd  Zoom on Fergus O'Dowd  O’Dowd, Fergus.
Information on John O'Mahony  Zoom on John O'Mahony  O’Mahony, John. Information on Brian O'Shea  Zoom on Brian O'Shea  O’Shea, Brian.
Information on Jan O'Sullivan  Zoom on Jan O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Jan. Information on Maureen O'Sullivan  Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Maureen.
Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  Penrose, Willie. Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  Perry, John.
Information on Ruairí Quinn  Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  Quinn, Ruairí. Information on Pat Rabbitte  Zoom on Pat Rabbitte  Rabbitte, Pat.
Information on Dr James Reilly  Zoom on Dr James Reilly  Reilly, James. Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Ring, Michael.
Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  Shatter, Alan. Information on Tom Sheahan  Zoom on Tom Sheahan  Sheahan, Tom.
Information on Sean Sherlock  Zoom on Sean Sherlock  Sherlock, Seán. Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  Shortall, Róisín.
Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Stagg, Emmet. Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  Stanton, David.
Information on Billy Timmins  Zoom on Billy Timmins  Timmins, Billy. Information on Joanna Tuffy  Zoom on Joanna Tuffy  Tuffy, Joanna.
Information on Mary Upton  Zoom on Mary Upton  Upton, Mary. Information on Leo Varadkar  Zoom on Leo Varadkar  Varadkar, Leo.
Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Wall, Jack.  

Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Ahern, Dermot. Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Ahern, Noel.
Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  Andrews, Barry. Information on Chris Andrews  Zoom on Chris Andrews  Andrews, Chris.
Information on Seán Ardagh  Zoom on Seán Ardagh  Ardagh, Seán. Information on Bobby Aylward  Zoom on Bobby Aylward  Aylward, Bobby.
Information on Niall Blaney  Zoom on Niall Blaney  Blaney, Niall. Information on Aine Brady  Zoom on Aine Brady  Brady, Áine.
Information on Cyprian Brady  Zoom on Cyprian Brady  Brady, Cyprian. Information on Johnny Brady  Zoom on Johnny Brady  Brady, Johnny.
Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  Browne, John. Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  Byrne, Thomas.
Information on Dara Calleary  Zoom on Dara Calleary  Calleary, Dara. Information on Pat Carey  Zoom on Pat Carey  Carey, Pat.
Information on Niall Collins  Zoom on Niall Collins  Collins, Niall. Information on Margaret Conlon  Zoom on Margaret Conlon  Conlon, Margaret.
Information on Sean Connick  Zoom on Sean Connick  Connick, Seán. Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Coughlan, Mary.
Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  Cregan, John. Information on Ciaran Cuffe  Zoom on Ciaran Cuffe  Cuffe, Ciarán.
Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  Cullen, Martin. Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  Curran, John.
Information on Jimmy Devins  Zoom on Jimmy Devins  Devins, Jimmy. Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  Dooley, Timmy.
Information on Michael Finneran  Zoom on Michael Finneran  Finneran, Michael. Information on Michael Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Michael Fitzpatrick  Fitzpatrick, Michael.
Information on Seán Fleming  Zoom on Seán Fleming  Fleming, Seán. Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn  Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn  Flynn, Beverley.
Information on Paul Nicholas Gogarty  Zoom on Paul Nicholas Gogarty  Gogarty, Paul. Information on John Gormley  Zoom on John Gormley  Gormley, John.
Information on Noel Grealish  Zoom on Noel Grealish  Grealish, Noel. Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Hanafin, Mary.
Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney  Harney, Mary. Information on Seán Haughey  Zoom on Seán Haughey  Haughey, Seán.
Information on Jackie Healy-Rae  Zoom on Jackie Healy-Rae  Healy-Rae, Jackie. Information on Máire Hoctor  Zoom on Máire Hoctor  Hoctor, Máire.
Information on Billy Kelleher  Zoom on Billy Kelleher  Kelleher, Billy. Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  Kelly, Peter.
Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  Kenneally, Brendan. Information on Michael Kennedy  Zoom on Michael Kennedy  Kennedy, Michael.
Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  Killeen, Tony. Information on Michael Kitt  Zoom on Michael Kitt  Kitt, Michael P.
Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  Kitt, Tom. Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Lenihan, Brian.
Information on Conor Lenihan  Zoom on Conor Lenihan  Lenihan, Conor. Information on Michael Lowry  Zoom on Michael Lowry  Lowry, Michael.
Information on Tom McEllistrim  Zoom on Tom McEllistrim  McEllistrim, Thomas. Information on Mattie McGrath  Zoom on Mattie McGrath  McGrath, Mattie.
Information on Michael McGrath  Zoom on Michael McGrath  McGrath, Michael. Information on John McGuinness  Zoom on John McGuinness  McGuinness, John.
Information on Dr Martin Mansergh  Zoom on Dr Martin Mansergh  Mansergh, Martin. Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  Martin, Micheál.
Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Moloney, John. Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  Moynihan, Michael.
Information on Michael Mulcahy  Zoom on Michael Mulcahy  Mulcahy, Michael. Information on M. J. Nolan  Zoom on M. J. Nolan  Nolan, M. J.
Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  Ó Cuív, Éamon. Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  O’Brien, Darragh. Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  O’Connor, Charlie.
Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  O’Dea, Willie. Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  O’Donoghue, John.
Information on Noel O'Flynn  Zoom on Noel O'Flynn  O’Flynn, Noel. Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  O’Hanlon, Rory.
Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Batt. Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Edward.
Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  O’Rourke, Mary. Information on Christy O'Sullivan  Zoom on Christy O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Christy.
Information on Seán Power  Zoom on Seán Power  Power, Seán. Information on Dick Roche  Zoom on Dick Roche  Roche, Dick.
Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  Ryan, Eamon. Information on Eamon Scanlon  Zoom on Eamon Scanlon  Scanlon, Eamon.
Information on Brendan Smith  Zoom on Brendan Smith  Smith, Brendan. Information on Noel Treacy  Zoom on Noel Treacy  Treacy, Noel.
Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  Wallace, Mary. Information on Mary Alexandra White  Zoom on Mary Alexandra White  White, Mary Alexandra.
Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  Woods, Michael.  

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan

Question declared lost.

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