Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Ceisteanna — Questions
Tribunals of Inquiry.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the procedures in place in his Department for dealing with requests for files and information by tribunals of inquiry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3566/08]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the number of requests he has received since June 2002 to date in 2008 from tribunals of inquiry for files or other information held by his Department; the procedures in place within his Department for dealing with such requests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4659/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
From time to time, there have been requests to my Department for files and information from various tribunals. My Department has co-operated fully with all such requests and will continue to do so in the future.
Normally requests from tribunals are received by the Secretary General of my Department and assigned to the appropriate departmental officials by him. Appropriate replies subsequently issue when the requests have been considered and any relevant information or files have been identified.
All inquiries to my Department from tribunals and all replies that are issued by my Department to tribunals are dealt with on a highly confidential basis, as required by the tribunals themselves. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the substance or the number of requests received in my Department from tribunals. It is a matter for the tribunals themselves to consider if and when to disclose such information in the interests of ensuring that the work of the tribunals is not encroached upon.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach a number of questions on this matter. How many files have been supplied to the various tribunals by his Department? How many files have been requested and transferred to the various tribunals by his Department? Can he confirm that the file dealing with the State's purchase of the Battle of the Boyne commemorative site is one such file?
As I said in my reply, I am not in a position to discuss, with regard to any of these matters, issues which the tribunals themselves have stated are highly confidential. It is a matter for the tribunals to disclose if they so wish.
I wished to know the number of files transferred from the Taoiseach's Department to the tribunals, but the Taoiseach has not confirmed this. He is reluctant to say whether the file on the purchase of the Battle of the Boyne site was requested. He did say that his Department co-operates fully in supplying the relevant information, which is gathered on a confidential basis, to the tribunals. However, there is a great deal of public information available on the file to which I refer because of one person who was associated with the group that bought the site in 1997 for £2.7 million. The site was sold for £7.8 million two years later. Despite the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs was opposed to the holding of such a commemoration, it was taken to a point at which the Taoiseach's predecessor requested that a meeting take place between the then Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, former Deputy Síle de Valera, and Deputy Séamus Brennan to investigate whether it could be included in the millennium projects.
The former Taoiseach did answer one question on this matter but subsequently refused to answer any other questions. I do not know what the Taoiseach has in front of him but perhaps he would comment on what was actually going on between the Department of Foreign Affairs and his Department and whether the person associated with the group that originally purchased the site was directly involved. It is a matter of public interest. Will the Taoiseach confirm that if questions are asked about the Battle of the Boyne site he will answer them, unlike his predecessor who shoved them off somewhere else?
It is a question of appropriateness. We have set up tribunals of inquiry to look into various matters. The requests for information from the tribunal were made on a confidential basis and it would be improper for me to divulge the content of that correspondence. That is the situation as far as the tribunals are concerned. It is they who make the requests. People must understand that it would be totally inappropriate for me to divulge any information about the correspondence received in my Department from the various tribunals. All such queries comprise the private phases of the tribunals' work. For reasons of confidentiality required by the tribunals I am prohibited from going into any more detail. We must respect the tribunals in the conduct of their work. That is the reason I must give the answer I am giving.
No. In the body of my reply I confirmed that the Department has co-operated fully with all such requests and will continue to do so in the future. As I said, from time to time my Department has been requested by various tribunals to supply files and information, which has been forwarded to them. I cannot add to that. There is nothing outstanding as far as I know.
I am advised — it is a requirement of the tribunal — that, for reasons of confidentiality during the private phase of the tribunal's work, I am prohibited from going into further detail. If the tribunal wishes to pursue an issue, it will be put in the public domain in accordance with the tribunal's procedures. As far as the tribunals are concerned, I am not in a position to discuss this matter further.
Was the Taoiseach quoted accurately when it was reported that he stated there was merit in the view expressed by his predecessor that the tribunals of inquiry should be scrapped? The former Taoiseach has called for a review of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act. In what I have read of his comments, he called for future tribunals under new legislation to be under the supervision of an Oireachtas committee. Is it the Taoiseach's opinion that there is a proposition for a hybrid? Surely it is either a case of tribunals of inquiry under new legislation and procedures or what could be described as an investigation by an Oireachtas committee. To what was the former Taoiseach referring and does it reflect the Taoiseach's opinion on how these matters should proceed? Will there be further legislation in respect of tribunals of inquiry or will a mechanism be found? I suggest the merit of and seek the Taoiseach's opinion on the usefulness of engaging in a public consultation process as to the means that should be employed for addressing matters of such import as those referred to tribunals.
I cannot refer to the quote. I do not recall making that comment. I stated that there was merit in considering future procedures for investigating matters of public interest given that these proceedings have been ongoing for a considerable length of time, far beyond the contemplation of those who proposed establishing them originally.
The Tribunals of Inquiry Bill 2005 provides for comprehensive reform and consolidation of current legislation to put in place a modern and comprehensive statutory framework governing all aspects of the operation of a tribunal from the time of its establishment to publication of its reports. In large part, the Bill implements the recommendations contained in the Law Reform Commission's final report on public inquiries, including tribunals of inquiry, published in May 2005, particularly those relating to the more efficient management and operation of inquiries. The Bill contains a number of significant provisions to ensure greater control of legal costs at tribunals. Section 25 provides that a tribunal can only grant representation where it is satisfied that the person's constitutional or legal rights are likely to be affected by the proceedings before the tribunal or where there are exceptional circumstances for granting representation.
The Bill comprises a number of improvements. While a tribunal of inquiry can be established by a resolution of the Houses, there is no statutory basis whereby the Oireachtas, should it so wish, can suspend or dissolve a tribunal. In line with the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission on this point, the Bill provides at sections 9 and 10 that the Government may, for stated reasons and on foot of an order approved by each House, suspend an inquiry in whole or in part to allow for the completion of any other inquiry or the determination of any civil or criminal proceedings relating to matters to which the inquiry relates or to dissolve a tribunal for stated reasons. Before the Government makes an order under either section, the responsible Minister must consult with the tribunal.
Ensuring a clear statutory basis for a suspension or dissolution of a tribunal represents a sensible approach to a sensitive issue and closes a gap in existing legislation. It is self-evident that, if the Oireachtas has the power to establish a tribunal, it should have the power to dissolve one. The requirement for consultation with the tribunal and the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas prior to a suspension or dissolution will ensure these powers are exercised appropriately.
Having given that lengthy reply, will the Taoiseach indicate his position on the raft of inquiries currently sitting and his intent in regard to legislation in this area? Does he accept that the critical concern of the vast majority of the public is the exorbitant cost and the inordinate length of time that these inquiries——
Deputy Ó Caoláin is straying into the whole question of tribunals generally and that is not related to the questions under discussion, which deal with requests for files. We must stay within the parameters of the questions or we will be all over the place.
The questions under discussion relate to tribunals of inquiry. The key issues of concern are exorbitant cost and inordinate delay. Does the Taoiseach agree with that and does he intend to address it? Does he also agree the public has no issue with the process of probing for the truth that is under way? The critical issues are exorbitant cost and inordinate delay.
The Taoiseach was cited as indicating there was merit in the view expressed by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, in regard to the tribunals. If he is not familiar with the particular reference, I will send it to him. Does the Taoiseach agree with his predecessor when the latter referred to himself in an interview in last week's Sunday Independent as somebody who was being victimised and compared himself with Parnell and the former United States President, Bill Clinton?
My views on tribunals of inquiry are clear. They must deal with issues far more speedily, comprehensively and efficiently than we have seen. That is my honest view.
I understand the members of the tribunals currently sitting have indicated they will conclude their public sessions at the end of the summer. I look forward to receiving their reports and to getting on with our business here.
In his reply, the Taoiseach said the information in question was collected and forwarded to the tribunals on the basis of confidentiality and that it would not be appropriate to comment on that here. Answering questions on the Battle of the Boyne site on 1 May last year, his predecessor said he had made no recommendation to the Department of Foreign Affairs on the acquisition of the site. Notwithstanding the confidentiality requirements under the Freedom of Information Act, restricted though it is, letters were produced which clearly showed that the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, arranged for a meeting between the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the then Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Brennan, to see whether this could be accommodated as part of the millennium projects. Was it the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of the Taoiseach which drove this project?
Given that the Taoiseach's predecessor answered one question on this site, in respect of which an acquaintance of his made a substantial finder's fee when it was sold to the State for more than €7 million, is the Taoiseach prepared to answer questions on it if they are put to him? In other words, does it concern the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Foreign Affairs? The former Taoiseach answered one question and then said he would not answer any more. Is the Taoiseach in a position to answer questions as they come under his remit?
Further to Deputy Ó Caoláin's question and the Taoiseach's belief that his predecessor was telling the truth to the Mahon tribunal, does the Taoiseach have a view on Deputy Bertie Ahern's comment that the workings of the Mahon tribunal are "low-life stuff"?
They relate to the procedures and the number of requests since 2002. We cannot stray into other areas. If the Deputy wishes to put down a question about other matters, he is entitled to do so, but I have to stay within Standing Orders because otherwise we will be all over the countryside.
When I put questions to the Taoiseach's predecessor, he answered one of them and refused to answer any more. My questions to the Taoiseach are clear. If I put down questions about this site, will the Taoiseach answer them? Is the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of the Taoiseach in charge of this? I am entitled to ask him, as Taoiseach and leader of the country politically, whether he shares the view that the workings of the Mahon tribunal are low-life stuff. I have one further question to ask him when he answers these questions.
In respect of the matters raised by Deputy Kenny, any question put to my Department can be answered if the information is available as appropriate in the Department. I cannot anticipate whether a specific question about any matter is under my aegis since it predated my appearance in this office.
That is not to be taken as a prior commitment on what the answer will be.
The former Taoiseach is entitled to the same presumptions as any other citizen going before that tribunal. On Deputy Kenny's question about the particular phrase used, Deputy Bertie Ahern went to court and was fully vindicated in respect of some of the issues put to him which were not regarded as complying with fair procedures. Let the record speak for itself in respect of that comment.
I have three questions arising from the Taoiseach's responses. With regard to the file on the Battle of the Boyne site, I do not understand how the Taoiseach is prohibited from telling the House whether it has been requested by the tribunal by virtue of confidentiality of correspondence between the tribunal and the Department of the Taoiseach. We are not asking what was in the file or what was supplied to the tribunal. We simply want an answer regarding whether the file was sought by the tribunal.
The Taoiseach referred to the Tribunals of Inquiries Bill 2005, Second Stage of which began in this House in November 2007, although we have not seen it since then. Is the Government still proceeding with that Bill and where is it? Is it being withheld?
With regard to the costs of the tribunals, the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, announced in 2004 a new scale of fees which was supposed to come into effect in September 2006. That scale of fees was confirmed in February 2006 but was subsequently withdrawn by the Government in July 2006. A new deadline of March 2007 was set for the implementation of new fees. None of these have been met. Why has the Government not implemented the revised scale of fees for lawyers at the tribunal, which was set and announced four years ago, in 2004?
In regard to the first matter, as I said previously, the questions I was asked pertained to various matters and I had to answer in the way I did based on the requirements of the tribunal itself. I am not suggesting whether a particular file was sent there, I am simply making the point that whatever requests come to the Taoiseach's office in regard to its private business, I am required to observe the confidentiality it insists upon. All I can say is that whatever information was sought, it was provided. I am not indicating whether a particular file was sent to the tribunal. That is a matter that is confidential between the tribunal and the Department. Requests do not come to me, as political head of the Department; they come to the Secretary General, who sends them on to the relevant officer. That is the position and, unfortunately, I cannot be any more specific.
It was at the request of the chairperson of the tribunal that we were asked to defer the implementation of the new fee structure. This was on the basis of commitments that were received regarding the tribunal finalising its work. As the Deputy stated, that work has extended beyond the period originally envisaged. We understand, however, that it will be completed. If we had proceeded with the new fee structure against the chairperson's wishes, we could have been accused of interfering with the tribunal's work. In conjunction with the chairpersons of the tribunals, the Government is acting in good faith in the interests of having the matters being investigated finalised as quickly as possible and ensuring that there will be no necessity to replace personnel or whatever in the event of the arrangements relating to fees being altered. That is what we are trying to achieve.
As far as I recall, we received a commitment that the public hearings should end some time early in the second half of the year. We hope the preparation of reports will commence at that stage and that these reports will be forthcoming.
The Moriarty tribunal has missed a series of deadlines and it appears to be holding very few meetings at present. In view of the fact that this tribunal is sponsored by his Department, has the Taoiseach been provided with a timescale regarding the completion of its work? Would it be possible to encourage the Moriarty tribunal to produce its report as expeditiously as possible in order that there might be finality in respect of at least one of the tribunals?
I understand the tribunal's work is near completion. We hope to receive its report shortly after that work is completed. I will obtain a copy of the latest official communication from Mr. Justice Moriarty on that matter and forward it to the Deputy.