Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions

Decisions on Public Petitions Received

4:00 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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We are in public session. We have had the opportunity to discuss and deliberate on a number of the petitions. We will now relay the decisions our committee has made in regard to them. The first petition is No. 00023/13 from Mr. Frank Mulcahy, former head of ISME, regarding the alleged reneging by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on an agreement made with Deputy Ruairí Quinn in 2004. The Department agreed, following an internal investigation, that if its files showed that the allegation re EU grants levelled at Frank Mulcahy never had merit, it would publish that evidence. This has not been done. What we have agreed today is to defer that particular petition for more consideration at a later date.

The next petition is No. 00028/13 from Mr. Ron Horgan claiming that his medical records were accessed without his permission or a court order. The petition appears to fall foul of Standing Order 165C(1)(d) and (e) in so far as it names individuals, contains language which is in the nature of being defamatory and is, therefore, inadmissible. The subject of the petition also appears to relate to an individual case that may already have been adjudicated on by the courts and, therefore, is also outside the remit of the committee. It is proposed to deem the petition to be inadmissible. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is also proposed to return all correspondence to the petitioner to avoid any scenario in the future where the petitioner may seek to claim privilege over said documents. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Petition No. 00030/13 from Mr. Desmond Lafferty is entitled "Requiring consistency in public office". The petitioner states that he is asking that Government Departments be required to develop an explicit set of rules for dealing with complaints to avoid vacillation and inconsistency, and that the handling of his case by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade be reviewed. He is also asking the committee to examine and evaluate his dealings with the Office of the Ombudsman and to recommend that appeals, including his against the Ombudsman's findings, be handled by a body separate from the Office of the Ombudsman. This is the second time the petitioner has submitted a petition.

Elements of this petition have already been considered and addressed in a previous petition submitted by the petitioner. It is proposed, therefore, that the petitions be deemed as inadmissible pursuant to Standing Order 165C(1)(f), which states that a petition is inadmissible if it "is the same as, or in substantially similar terms to, a petition brought by or on behalf of the same person, body corporate or unincorporated association during the lifetime of that Dáil and which was closed by agreement of the Committee". The petition was refused initially because we do not second-guess the decisions of the Ombudsman.

We are not permitted to do so because it is not within our Standing Orders. The committee notes that there is already an established appeals procedure within the Office of the Ombudsman. It is therefore proposed to inform the petitioner that the committee has found no grounds at this time to question the procedures followed by the Ombudsman's office. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Petition No. 00075/12 is from Ms Melissa Halpin. The petitioner had sought the revocation of a foreshore licence granted to Providence Resources to drill in Dublin Bay and a public inquiry into the granting of the licence by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on the basis that the public consultation process was inadequate. During the course of its deliberations, the committee noted that Providence Resources plc had voluntarily surrendered the foreshore licence. Therefore, the issue was deemed to be resolved.

However, the committee agreed to ask the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to inform it of any proposed changes to the relevant regulations. The committee has been monitoring progress in this regard. It was noted that during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill 2013, the Department emphasised that one of the main aims of the Bill is to transfer development-consenting responsibility for projects from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to An Bord Pleanála and local authorities. Once that transfer has been effected, the public participation provisions of the Planning and Development Acts will be utilised under the new consenting regime. Do members wish to comment on this petition?

4:05 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I accept that the committee has little choice but to respond to the petitioner indicating that the petition is closed. In the intervening time since Ms Halpin, on behalf of the Save our Seafront campaign, submitted her petition, the group's aim has been achieved in that Providence Resources has been forced to withdraw its application. The Government has indicated that the maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill will address the concerns expressed by the petitioner regarding public consultation and planning issues.

I acknowledge that the committee cannot take the issue any further, but it is right that we would indicate to the petitioner, as we have agreed, that if the Bill does not deal satisfactorily with the issues of public consultation, recourse to justice on planning decisions on the foreshore and so on, she should feel free to come back to us. The group the petitioner represents and other groups have argued, and I agree with them, that the proposed heads of the Bill do not deal adequately with the issues of public consultation and a proper regime for dealing with planning and development on the foreshore. I would like to think that will change. In the meantime, I accept that the appropriate forum for that debate is the environment committee. It is right and proper that the petitioner should have the right to come back to us when that is done and dusted if, in her view, the legislation is not satisfactory.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

The next petition is No. 00007/13, from Mr. Paddy Lambe, regarding concerns over inappropriate standards related to dive industry legislation. The petitioner has issues with the proposed new dive industry regulations which, in his view, will impose additional requirements concerning certificates of medical fitness to dive. The concern is that recreational instructors will be required to carry out the same medical examinations as those involved in heavy industry diving. The petitioner is proposing that dive instructors be allowed to perform the standard diving medical for recreational purposes, as per international standards and best practice. The proposed regulations, he argues, could put people out of work and impose excessive costs. The petitioner is also concerned about the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council being designated as the only registration body for first aid training and the Further Education and Training Awards Council being given the same designation for other instructor courses such as manual handling.

The proposed new regulation was the subject of public consultation, a process in which the petitioner did not participate. The Department's reply to the petition is very clear and comprehensive. Members will agree that the changes, although necessitating a stricter regime, are being introduced for all the right reasons in that this is ultimately a health and safety issue. It is proposed, therefore, that the Department's correspondence be forwarded to the petitioner for information and the petition be closed. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The next petition is No. 00010/13, from Mr. Pat Smyth, on the failure of the State to provide a framework for rectification of errors made by the banking system, especially in regard to indiscriminate over-lending, otherwise known as reckless lending. Mr. Smyth is seeking legislation to deal with this issue. Are there any comments on this petition?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I commend Mr. Smyth on bringing this proposal to the committee. Most people agree there was reckless lending by financial institutions, that these practices landed individuals and the country as a whole in a great deal of trouble and that legislation should be introduced to criminalise the type of behaviour that did so much damage. I accept, however, that the request for such legislation should, in the first instance, be presented to the Minister for Finance. Let us see what he comes back with, after which we can decide how to proceed.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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Is it agreed that the committee will issue correspondence to the Minister for Finance seeking a response on this matter? Agreed.

The next petition is No. 00018/13, from Ms Margaret Gilbert of the Killygordon and Crossroads Youth Club in County Donegal, calling for the introduction of legislation to make cyberbullying a criminal offence. The petition also seeks the banning of anonymous posting on websites. The committee has examined this proposal on several occasions and is sympathetic to its objective in the context of the tragedies that took place in recent years, particularly in Donegal and Leitrim in particular. It is proposed that a copy of the correspondence from the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland and the Office for Internet Safety be forwarded to the petitioner for information.

It is further proposed that the petitioner's attention be drawn to the Official Report of 24 January 2014, when the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources welcomed in the Dáil the report of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications on addressing the growth of social media and tackling cyberbullying, which was published in July 2013. The Minister informed the Dáil that late last year he established an Internet content governance advisory group under the chairmanship of Dr. Brian O'Neill of the Dublin Institute of Technology and comprising experts from industry, the legal profession and the child protection sector. The group is due to report at the end of May 2014. We have asked it to answer a series of questions on the most appropriate next steps in terms of policy on online content governance. It is proposed that a copy of the Official Report of 24 January 2014 be forwarded to the petitioner together with contact details for the Internet content governance advisory group, informing her of how she can engage in the public consultation. As cyberbullying is very much on the parliamentary agenda and plans have already been put in place by various Departments to tackle the issue, the petitioner should be encouraged to participate in the consultation process and the committee should then close the petition. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The final petition is No. 00024/13, from Mr. Kevin Sharkey, regarding recruitment policy at RTE. The petitioner is concerned that there is a policy within the broadcaster to employ only white people as presenters. The committee considered this petition at its meeting on 11 December 2013 and agreed to write to RTE seeking a response to the issues raised in the petition. At its meeting on 22 January 2014, the committee considered RTE's response but deferred making a decision on how to proceed.

The decision we have made today is to seek further clarification from RTE of its policy concerning the employment of people from different ethnic and racial groups, particularly regarding the appointment of presenters. It is proposed that the petition be again deferred pending receipt of that clarification from RTE. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank members for their co-operation.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 12 February 2014.