Tuesday, 19 January 2010
No issue in the past 30 years has consumed the minds of the Irish public like the crisis that has arisen because of the catastrophic failure of our banking system. It is necessary that we conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the reasons for regulatory failure, the adoption of policy positions which amounted to an endorsement of that failure and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irish people now have to pay the price.
Last week I published proposals on behalf of the Fine Gael Party on the kind of inquiry we would like to see. Under these proposals, the Oireachtas would be empowered to set out terms of reference for the collection of information necessary for an inquiry which would not cross the boundaries of the Director of Corporate Enforcement and the fraud squad. I am aware that the Labour Party has separately published a broadly similar set of proposals.
I reject the line that the Government has suddenly changed its position from opposing an inquiry to advocating an inquiry of sorts. I also reject the claim that the banking crisis was not caused in part by policy failures and lax regulatory reform while the Taoiseach was Minister for Finance. I do not accept the proposals published by the Government in response to the Labour Party Private Members' Motion for a number of reasons. First, the Government would commission the initial reports, the terms of which make no mention whatsoever of the responsibility and role of Government in the policy decisions which led in part to this crisis. Second, the establishment of the kind of commission being proposed by the Government would amount to a secretive whitewash, which is not in the interest of transparency or public accountability. Third, what the Taoiseach proposes would relegate the Oireachtas to a sideline position of no importance or centrality other than to be briefed by the Governor of the Central Bank and the regulator and to have reports laid before it which it would be invited to consider.
This proposal looks like a whitewash, a secretive concoction put together by Government. I contend that the Taoiseach, as leader of his party, is afraid to have the type of inquiry that the public wants, not in the interests of any individual but because of the ineffective regulatory reforms and lax approach the Government adopted and the policy positions driven principally by the Taoiseach in his former position as Minister for Finance, which put the economic ship of State on the rocks.
The only type of inquiry that will be fruitful, beneficial, transparent, accountable and that will be seen to work is one that has cross-party support in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I challenge the Taoiseach as Head of Government, if he is serious about sorting these matters out in such a way that the system will then be watertight and the same problems cannot recur, to leave aside his current proposal and to work with the Opposition parties to put in place an inquiry that will deal with these matters without crossing the lines of the Director of Corporate Enforcement or the fraud squad but in an effective manner such as the Oireachtas has proved in the past can be done. There must be that type of effective investigation into the regulatory and policy failures that occurred, and all those internal and external audit situations, in the public interest. It is important for our personal security, our international reputation and to ensure we have a functioning banking system.
Will the Taoiseach work with the Opposition parties to establish, by agreement, an Oireachtas committee with the capacity to deal with these matters in the way we know it can be done?
I reject Deputy's Kenny's political assertions on a whole range of fronts in respect of these matters. First, the Government has always said it will give careful consideration to this issue and that it requires such careful consideration. That is why we have come forward with our proposal. Second, we do not wish to cut across existing investigations, whether of a criminal or regulatory nature. Third, we wish to ensure that the Government, the Central Bank and an independent expert of stature will look at all aspects of this issue, including the background to and causes of the current banking and financial crisis. The documents arising from that process will be published and the Oireachtas will have hearings into those reports. Moreover, in consultation with the Oireachtas, we will agree specific terms of reference arising out of those recommendations from eminent persons whose integrity will not be questioned by anybody in the House. That will enable a commission of investigation to be established.
Far from what has been suggested by Deputy Kenny, this is a tried and tested mode of investigation that has brought results in the public interest in other matters and can also do so in this case. Once that publication has been brought forward, the Oireachtas or the appropriate committee may have further hearings on it. That is the view of the Government as to how we should proceed. We will put in place a timely, cost effective, proven procedure in order to ascertain the facts of the situation and the background to and causes of what has occurred and to learn whatever lessons are to be learned for the future as a result of that expertise being available to us.
There is no mention in the Government's publication of further hearings. It refers to the Oireachtas being briefed and reports being laid before the Houses for their consideration. In the public mind, the Government's publication is the response of insiders for insiders designed to protect insiders.
That is not the way it should be. The situation that has blown up in the faces of hundreds and thousands of people arises in the context of a situation where we were told on many occasions that our banks were the best capitalised in the world. Yet a High Court judge said yesterday he was astonished at the laxity of approval of loans including one for â¬550 million. As leader of the Opposition, I attended, with party colleagues, a briefing by representatives of Anglo Irish Bank in November 2008 where we were given so-called facts that were completely and utterly untrue in respect of the work being carried out by that bank. When I asked whether there was anything else we should know about the bank, I was told there was not. Three weeks later serious revelations began to unfold.
The Fianna FÃ¡il Party is being branded in the public perception as having been involved in some type of secret deal because of a fear of the truth that will emerge in respect of the regulatory and policy failures that occurred, many of which were conducted in the course of the tenure in government of the Taoiseach's party. If the Taoiseach is interested in rectifying that he should look to the inquiry conducted by the late Jim Mitchell in regard to DIRT. That committee worked on the basis of findings from the then Comptroller and Auditor General and did its work in a timely fashion and with great cost effectiveness. This House should not be sidelined to irrelevancy by a Government publication that says it can only talk about issues long after they have been considered by a commission of investigation set up by the Government.
The Taoiseach was involved in making policy decisions that in part have resulted in so many people facing negative equity, unable to pay their mortgages and being completely screwed by the banks when they seek credit. The Taoiseach must insist, in everybody's interest, that our Parliament may inquire with proper accountability, transparency and effectiveness into the regulatory and policy failures which led to the current situation. That is extremely important. What the Taoiseach has done, however, is to condemn himself to being perceived as secretive, operating behind closed doors and whitewashing the truth so that the public will never discover it.
That approach has been deemed by the public to be a self-protection racket. The Taoiseach should not be afraid of the truth. He has said on many occasions that he stands over every decision he has made. Now is the time to prove it by working with the Opposition parties to establish an inquiry that is open, accountable and transparent and which will deliver in the public interest.
Deputy Kenny has just displayed his incapacity to look objectively at any aspect of this issue. We need people with expertise who will objectively assemble the facts and on the basis of those facts enable the Oireachtas to deal with them and to come forward with whatever recommendations they wish based on whatever proceedings are proposed in the appropriate Oireachtas committee. That is what needs to be done.
In regard to the Deputy's attack on me, I have no problem with co-operating with an inquiry. Every Member of this House will assist in whatever way he or she is required to do in looking at the background to and causes of the banking crisis. I am no exception and I will willingly and fully co-operate in that respect. The point I have made is that the Government has decided, in the interests of not cutting across existing investigations, to utilise a proven means of investigation. Only last December the Deputy stood in this Chamber praising the commission of investigation procedure in terms of how it did its work on another important matter of public interest. That commission was able to uncover problems that were hidden in this society for decades. There is the capacity under that system to appoint people of expert ability to deal with these matters. All the documents that will emerge from this process will be available for public and Oireachtas scrutiny and further consideration and work by the latter as it sees fit. That is the way to proceed, namely, in a timely way that is cost effective and that will ensure matters will be dealt with properly and appropriately. We will take it from there. It is the Government's belief that that is the way we should proceed.
When I asked the Taoiseach just before Christmas about holding an inquiry into what happened in the banking sector he was very reluctant to agree that there should be such an inquiry. He informed us today that he and the Government have given the matter careful consideration. That is true. They have given it very careful consideration. In the face of the Labour Party motion that is before the House tonight they have come up with a cleverly designed amendment that is calculated to make this an inquiry in name only; to keep it firmly behind closed doors, to drag it out for as long as possible and to exclude political accountability. What the Labour Party is proposing, and what the Fine Gael Party has proposed, is essentially a two-stage process, one which would involve a specialist investigation that would establish a book of evidence-type of document that would then be the subject of examination by an Oireachtas committee.
What the Government has proposed in its amendment is not a two-stage process but one which is three, arguably four stages long, designed to drag it on for as long as possible. I have a copy of the statement made by Senator Boyle in recent days in which we are told the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, put a few principles to the Taoiseach that the Green Party had agreed on, that the inquiry would be "public, open and have Oireachtas involvement". I am quoting directly from Senator Boyle. The inquiry the Taoiseach is proposing is not public, it will be held in private. It is not open, it will be conducted behind closed doors and it will have only a minimal amount of Oireachtas involvement. If the Minister, Deputy Gormley, thinks he has a compromise, it is one which replaces his call for a public inquiry with a concession of two private inquiries instead. That is totally deficient. First, it is three stages, arguably four if one includes the stage where the Governor of the Central Bank will be reporting on his own institution. The inquiry will be dragged out. I accept the Taoiseach has included dates for completion of each stage but if one takes the commission of investigation, for example, it will be set up in June, then one has the summer holidays. The Taoiseach says it will report within six months. We can safely predict that the first report from that commission of investigation will be to seek additional time.
By the time that commission of investigation eventually reaches conclusions, we will be told, as we were in the case of the Murphy and Ryan reports, that we have to wait until persons who are named or identified in the report have seen the draft and have an opportunity to respond to it, all of which will put it safely beyond the next general election, which is where the Taoiseach wants to put it.
In case the Taoiseach did not get it, he has amazingly excluded himself in his previous role as Minister for Finance and his Department from the inquiry. According to the amendment the Government has produced, these reports will consider the international, social and macroeconomic environment which provided the context for the recent crisis in the banking sector. There is no mention of the political or governmental environment, the role of the Department of Finance or the Minister for Finance, namely, the Taoiseach when he was in that capacity.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach specifically why the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance have been excluded from the remit of this so-called inquiry. Why, for example, does it say that this inquiry will investigate banking up to September 2008? What does up to September 2008 mean? Does it mean 31 August? If it does, does that not exclude the very month in which the Government introduced the guarantee on the banking system? If that is only a drafting mistake, why would one in any event end it at September 2008 when several significant events happened after September 2008 which would now be outside the remit of the inquiry? For example, the telephone call from Anglo Irish Bank telling staff to the Financial Regulator in October indicating that the bank was manipulating its balance sheet and that the figures they had were not real numbers.
The amendment the Government has proposed to the Labour Party motion tonight is a dodge. It is an attempt to replace what we in the Labour Party, Fine Gael, the public, the Governor of the Central Bank and most responsible opinion is looking for, namely, an inquiry into what happened to our banking system and for it to be conducted openly and in public. The Government is replacing that with a privately conducted behind-closed-doors three or four stage exercise that will be dragged on until the Government gets to the other side of a general election.
Again, I reject the contentions made by Deputy Gilmore. First, on the question of the holding of an inquiry, I said it did require careful consideration. Absolutely. Issues require to be urgently dealt with by Government in the coming weeks and months on the restructuring of the banking system, the transfer of assets to NAMA, and the need to ensure that the recovery and stabilisation we are seeking to achieve in the financial industry is underpinned not undermined. That is the first point.
The second point is a two-stage process. I reject Deputy Gilmore's contention that it is our intention to have the inquiry continue for a long time. We have indicated the timelines we have in mind.
The benefit of the commission of investigation approach is that it provides tribunal-like powers without tribunal-like costs and tribunal-like timespans, which is what the public and everyone in this House is interested in. Deputy Gilmore quoted the Governor of the Central Bank. He indicated at the time that what we want to do is put the finger on any processes and structures in our entire system that contributed to this, namely, the background and causes to the financial problems we have. That is what we are seeking to do. Since then we have been involved in taking decisions, all of which have been opposed, with the exception of the guarantee which was supported by Fine Gael, a guarantee which obtained state aid approval from the European Union, precisely because and for the sole reason that it was necessary to avoid what it said would a meltdown of the financial markets in this country. That is what the European Commission said. That is how necessary it was, although it was opposed by Deputy Gilmore at the time.
Those decisions that have been taken by Government have been democratically debated in this House, have been legislated upon and are part of the recovery we are seeking to achieve not only in the financial area but for the economy as a whole. More urgent work needs to be done on that issue in the future weeks and months, which the Government is committed to doing, as the Minister for Finance has set out over the Christmas period. That will be done, but in the meantime an exercise will take place which will be carried out by the Governor of the Central Bank, a person whose appointment was welcomed by all and sundry, rightly so given his reputation, who was not involved in any past activities or policies in the banks. I presume people will accept he is in a position to draw up a report as set out in the Government motion. There will also be an independent expert of international repute who could also consider the broader issues in the banking system itself.
When it comes to those reports being made available publicly and debated in the House or elsewhere within the House, the terms of reference for a commission of investigation would be drawn up on the basis of consulting with the Oireachtas and also drawing on the conclusions of two people in whom we have full confidence regarding their integrity and objectivity in this matter. The terms of reference for the commission of investigation is not predetermined at this point precisely because a two-stage process needs to take place. It is for all of those reasons that the Government is anxious to ensure we address the issue.
I accept there is a need for an investigation into those matters. It must be carried out objectively and in a timely way with the required expertise. It will involve the Oireachtas at all stages in terms of meeting with the Governor of the Central Bank and the independent expert at the outset of their work to be briefed on the Oireachtas's priorities for investigation. An Oireachtas committee will be given the task of considering the findings of the reports when they are concluded. The terms of reference of the commission will be informed following consultation with the Oireachtas. The report of the commission of investigation will be laid before the Oireachtas for its further consideration and action by an appropriate Oireachtas committee if it so wishes. That is where the Oireachtas is getting involved once the facts have been assembled.
However, it is clear also, if I may say so, in regard to what Deputy Gilmore has had to say publicly on these matters, even as late as last Sunday, that he has predetermined his decision as to what the situation was regarding this matter, so his objectivity is not really available to us either. Let it be dealt with by people with expertise, let the Oireachtas deal with it on the basis of the facts as they are assembled and let us get on with the business of doing it in a timely and cost-effective way. That is what is required in terms of meeting the public interest, and that is what the Government seeks to achieve.
First, nobody has proposed a tribunal style inquiry, so the Taoiseach is trying to shoot down something that has not been proposed at all. What the Labour Party proposed was an Oireachtas inquiry along the lines of the DIRT inquiry and to support that-----
The purpose of it was to give an Oireachtas committee the power to deal with that.
The Taoiseach has not told us, first, why the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance have been excluded from the remit of what is being proposed.
He has not explained why this inquiry is to be conducted in private. The last time he made an attempt to say he was not too keen on the idea of an inquiry, before Christmas, he told us that he did not want the time of officials and of people in the banking sector to be taken up with having to deal with an inquiry in these times.
Their time is going to be taken up dealing with these various three stages now rather than having them conducted in public. The Taoiseach has given us no explanation as to why this should be done in private rather than in public. He has cited the precedent of the commissions of investigation leading to the Ryan report and the Murphy report. Those were appropriate commissions of investigation dealing with sensitive matters involving individuals. That is what the commissions of investigation legislation was about; for example, if somebody was assaulted or injured in a Garda station, that is the type of issue that could be investigated by a commission of investigation.
This is public business. This is business that affects every single taxpayer in the country, people who will have to pay for years to come for the failings that happened in the banking system. The public are entitled to have this inquiry conducted in public so they can draw their own conclusions and see it carried out as a public exercise.
The Taoiseach has not explained why it is to be conducted in private and why the Department of Finance is excluded. Neither has he addressed the issue as to whether September 2008 is in or not in the terms of this proposal he has put before us, and, if it is in, why is the period after September 2008 excluded from it?
The purpose of the inquiry is to look into the background and causes of the financial problems that arose. That is what we are doing. Since they arose, we had to take decisions, including emergency decisions. They have been debated in this House and their merits or demerits, according to how people have felt democratically, have been discussed and debated. Thankfully, the decisions have been taken because we now have a far greater degree of stability than would otherwise be the case if we did not take those decisions. That is the situation. When the governor first brought up these matters, we were asked to look into them and that is what we are going to do. We are in the process.
With regard to the question of exclusion, no one is excluded.
With regard to the idea that anyone is excluded, nobody is excluded. The terms of reference of the commission of investigation will be drawn up based on the reports which will be provided by Professor Honohan and the international experts.
In the meantime, in respect of any reports they bring forward, if they wish to speak to any personages in this House or elsewhere, we will all be available to talk to them as well. There is no problem in regard to any of that.
It is clear that the leaders and others in this House are not interested in getting to the facts. They wish to make a political point. I am confident that when the facts are established regarding any duties I had in regard to this matter-----
No. I am sorry. The Deputy wants to interrupt me as he has not been listening. I have explained the background to this as far as the Government is concerned. We want to see an outcome that assembles the facts-----
-----and allows the Oireachtas to discuss and deal with those matters as it sees fit thereafter. As Deputy Gilmore knows, there are problems in regard to how current committees work, based on Supreme Court decisions.