Friday, 19 July 2013
Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Committee and Remaining Stages
The reason none of the amendments is being moved is that the Fianna Fáil Party Members have left the House, because the House just conscripted a man onto a committee from which he tried to resign. I am afraid it is the atmosphere of Leinster House these days which is really worrying. I say that as a person who supports this Minister in his reform, because it is absolutely essential. We have been through it so many times and we all have to reform given the condition in which the country finds itself. There is not much reform around the Houses these days.
Members can be fired off a committee if the Taoiseach does not like them. Deputy Peter Mathews knew more about finance than anyone else on the finance committee. He also spoke more about finance than all the other members of the finance committee.
If I am to be removed as well as all the other Senators, then that is fine, but I think it is very important that we have some guarantees that there will be balance in the committees, because the committee structure stands discredited.
Section 3 states that "expenses incurred in the administration of this Act shall be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas." I do not think that should be controversial.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 59, subsection (1), lines 37 to 39, to delete paragraph (a)
I am the last person standing on this side of the House and I will keep my comments brief so as not to hold up the Minister. Amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, and 16 to 18, inclusive, seek to delete certain exemptions relating to the inquiries. Amendment No. 10 would delete the exemption of evidence from Government meetings or committees and would allow Oireachtas inquiries to request evidence from such meetings. This section is topical in terms of the banking inquiry and, as it stands, the section could mean that any documents or information from meetings of the Government relating to the bank guarantee or the nationalisation of the banks could not be called for by an inquiry. Our amendment seeks to delete that exemption.
Similarly, amendment No. 12 would delete or remove the exemption for evidence that may be prejudicial to the State in its relations with other states. We fear the exemption could hinder the work of the inquiry in terms of who decides or how it would be decided what prejudicial means or how it could be challenged. We seek to remove the exemption to make any inquiry more transparent.
I thank the Senator for the series of amendments. I will take amendments Nos. 10 and 11 together first because they relate to the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions. Section 71(1)(a) provides that the committee shall not direct a person to give evidence or documents relating to discussions at a meeting of the Government or a committee appointed by the Government whose membership consists of members of the Government. This section is based on section 5(1)(a) of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act 1997. Section 71(1)(b) relates to sub-committees of Cabinet and is based on section 5(1)(b) of the 1997 Act. A number of strict conditions must be met before a committee enjoys the protection of this section. It must be a meeting authorised by the Government, the proceedings of the meeting must be required by the Government to be reported to it and the Secretary General to the Government must confirm the position in a signed document to the Oireachtas committee of inquiry.
Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 propose to delete the protections related to discussions at Government. However, the Bill respects, as it must, the constitutional protection for the confidentiality of discussions at Cabinet. Article 28.4.3° was inserted in the Constitution following the judgment of the Supreme Court in Attorney General v. Hamilton (No. 1), deriving a principle of Cabinet confidentiality from the general principle of collective responsibility in Article 28.4.2° of the Constitution. The purpose of the amendment to Article 28.4 was principally to establish exceptions to the absolute principle identified by the Supreme Court, that is, to allow for disclosure of Cabinet discussions in the interests of the administration of justice by a court and the conduct of tribunals of inquiry. Article 28.4 does not provide for an exception in the case of Oireachtas inquiries. There is no constitutional means to do that by law. To do what the Senator has requested would require a further constitutional amendment.
Amendment No. 12 proposes to remove the exemption related to evidence that could be prejudicial to the State in its relations with other states. The existing provision aims to strike the appropriate balance between the interests of a committee conducting an inquiry and the interests of the State in maintaining its diplomatic relations with other states. It is important the committee would not request information that would prejudice the State internationally. I am certain that no committee would wish to do so in any event. I understand that Senators may have concerns about possible misuse of that provision. Consequently, I draw the attention of the House to section 94, which allows a person to seek direction from the courts about whether the prohibition set out in section 71(1) appropriately applies to a direction of a committee of inquiry. For these reasons I do not believe the amendment is necessary.
Amendment No. 18 proposes to remove the exemption relating to evidence that could be prejudicial to the State in its relations with other states for committees conducting their ordinary business, that is, not only in respect of an inquiry but in the normal business of committees. I have noted previously that this provision is necessary to ensure the State can maintain its diplomatic relations with other nations. Committees currently operate within these confines, which simply replicate the provisions of the 1997 Act that has been in place since the overarching compellability power was enacted by the Oireachtas in 1997.
Every committee has managed its day-to-day business within those constraints without seeking to trespass on damage that might happen between this State and its relations with others. This balance should be maintained. The challenge is to strike the appropriate balance between openness and protection of the interests of the State. I wish to reiterate the oversight rule of the courts in respect of any improper use of those provisions.
I regard this as one of the most important Bills that I have been privileged to introduced. It is an overarching power for the Oireachtas - either each House or both Houses acting in consort - to conduct inquiries into matters of public importance. It was the Government's opinion that we should strengthen the powers of the Oireachtas to find matters of culpability in respect of inquiries, but the people in their wisdom determined to constrain the powers of the Oireachtas in that regard. This Bill is crafted entirely within the constraints of the Constitution. Notwithstanding that, it is robust, overarching legislation that will be of use not only in the conduct of inquiries, but in the conduct of committees generally. It will enable the Houses to prove in the coming months and years that they can do the people's business in a more robust and transparent fashion.
I thank Senators for their consideration of the legislation and for their contributions on Second Stage. A degree of consideration was also given by those Senators who tabled amendments. I was aware from the Second Stage contributions that there was a large measure of consensus on this legislation and that it was not a controversial issue. However, it is important that it be enacted before the end of this parliamentary session so that we can get on with having inquiries established as soon as is practicable.
I commend the Minister on this important legislation. I thank and pay tribute to his officials for the efforts they have shown. This has been a particularly difficult Bill to get right. On a day when the House finds itself in a confused state, the consensus on the Bill is worth noting. The House recognises the importance of this kind of legislation, that it is a part of the Government's programme of reform and that the Minister has been pushing this agenda hard, as committed to under the programme for Government, particularly on the part of the Labour Party.
In the programme for Government, reform became necessary because people voted for change and reform in the way we do our business, and that is being reflected in this legislation and other Bills, including one to extend the power of the Ombudsman, forthcoming whistleblower legislation, a register for lobbyists and other matters relating to more transparency in the way we do business in this country and in line with other countries in Europe. It is an important day for this House, despite the apparent confusion in it, and we should put it on record that there is consensus for this Bill. We welcome it and I look forward in particular to seeing that the operation of the committees taking part and doing the business of the inquiries is in an independent way of Government. That is what the Minister has striven to put into the legislation, and I look forward to being part of a group of Senators and Deputies who will uphold that independence.