I welcome everybody to our public virtual meeting using Microsoft Teams. I welcome Leo Bollins and Margaret O'Donnell from the secretariat. I thank the Business Committee for agreeing to this public meeting of the Committee on Public Petitions during the level 5 restrictions. We have made every effort to mitigate the risk of the new variants of Covid-19 to members, witnesses and staff.
The first part of our meeting with the European Ombudsman is in public session. At the conclusion of the public session, we will suspend the meeting until 12 noon, at which time we will resume in virtual private session. Apologies have been received from Senator Warfield.
I will read some formal notices. Members, witnesses and staff are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean seats and desks that are shared so as to supplement regular sanitation. This will help to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spreading among the parliamentary community.
I remind members of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present within the confines of the places in which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House and-or the Convention Centre Dublin, to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. I ask that members make the secretariat aware of whether they are within the precincts of Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin.
I wish to explain to the witnesses some limitations to parliamentary privilege and the practice of the Houses as regards reference they may make to other persons in their evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected, pursuant to both the Constitution and statute, by absolute privilege. However, the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present. Witnesses may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if statements are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction.
On behalf of the committee, I extend a warm welcome to Ms Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, who is joining us from Strasbourg. She is joined by her head of cabinet, Mr. Aidan O'Sullivan, who is in Brussels. Ms O'Reilly is no stranger to the committee. In fact, on 20 July 2011, when she was the State Ombudsman, serving a population of 4.6 million people, she was the first witness to address the first Committee on Public Petitions. Here we are, ten years later, and she has been twice elected as European Ombudsman, serving a population of 448 million people. Whether we are dealing with a large or a small population or working at local, regional, state or European Union level, we are all facing the same pandemic of Covid-19 and the new devastating variants.
The committee would like to hear about the European Ombudsman's findings on how EU institutions have responded to the Covid-19 crisis, the transparency of the information provided by the institutions and how they have communicated with the public. The committee is aware that she has been monitoring EU institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission and agencies such as the European Medicines Agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Investment Bank in terms of how they have responded to the pandemic. The committee would like to discuss how greater transparency could be achieved to maintain the trust of the public. As EU member states continue to roll out Covid-19 vaccines, the committee looks forward to engaging with Ms O'Reilly on these initiatives and other works carried out by the European Ombudsman on pandemic-related matters.
I invite Ms O'Reilly to make her opening statement. She is welcome to the committee.