I would like to support the amendment in the name of Deputy Byrne. In principle, there is a good deal to be said for it. It suggests that, before a local authority is abolished, a public inquiry should be held, to be conducted by persons appointed by the Chief Justice. I would go further and suggest that the chairman of such a tribunal should be a qualified barrister or solicitor with a certain number of years' standing. In order to preserve the Minister's rights, I would be prepared to give such a chairman the benefit of expert assessors from his own Department. There is a good deal to be said for the point of view that, where a public inquiry is held which may have very dire consequences for particular officials or may involve the abolition of a local authority, the personnel of that inquiry should not suffer from the suspicion that they are the servants of a particular Department or Minister, and are thereby likely to be influenced by that Minister. The more open and independent inquiries of that kind are, the better it is both from the Ministerial point of view and from the public point of view.
I believe that the powers now sought by the Minister are unnecessary. After the holding of a local inquiry, if the Minister is satisfied that the duties are not being duly and effectually performed or that the local authority neglects or refuses to comply with any judgment, order or decree of a court, or refuses to allow its accounts to be submitted to audit, or that the members are not attending to their business, he may by order abolish that local authority. One would think that Section 44 of the Act of 1941 gave the Minister ample powers. In Section 47 of this Bill, the Minister is seeking to add to those powers, by the addition of a paragraph to the effect that, if a local authority refuses or wilfully neglects to comply with an express requirement imposed on it by or under any statutory enactment, the Minister may remove the members of that local authority. I suggest that where the members of a local authority refuse or wilfully neglect to perform their statutory duties, the Minister can compel them, by taking mandamus proceedings, to perform their functions. It would be better, to my mind, to have resort to the ordinary courts of the land to enforce the Minister's authority, rather than set up a tribunal of the kind envisaged by the Act of 1941 or this Bill.
These inquiries are subject to a certain amount of suspicion that the official holding the inquiry is a subordinate of the Minister, that he must have regard to his position in the Minister's Department and that, in case of a conflict of opinion between himself and the Minister, he has to be very wary as to what advice he may tender to the Minister or even as to what finding he may make as a result of a particular inquiry.
Deputy Byrne quoted, quite properly, from the Sankey Report on Ministerial powers as exercised in Great Britain. That commission went very fully into the whole question of inquiries and found that, where the inquiry involves a judicial or quasi-judicial decision, that decision should normally be entrusted to the ordinary courts of the land and, further, that their assignment by Parliament to a Minister or to a Ministerial tribunal should be regarded as an exceptional thing and should require justification in every case. They went on to say that, where Parliament found it necessary to depart from the normal course, it should entrust the judicial functions involved in the legislation to a Ministerial tribunal rather than to the Minister personally. Whilst they envisaged that the appointment of the personnel of the tribunal might be left to the Minister, they held that the tribunal should be independent of him in the exercise of its functions. They said, further, that in regard to the more important jurisdiction so set up, they thought the Lord Chancellor should be consulted before any appointments were made. So far as I understand it, Deputy Byrne's amendment appears to be on all fours with the recommendations of that very responsible body, which sat in England in 1932 to review the tendency to delegate legislation and Ministerial powers.
Undoubtedly, in all these matters where the Minister and the local authority are in conflict, it is idle to argue that the Minister has not some interest, that he is not impartial, and for that very reason natural justice would demand that the position as between the parties in such an inquiry should be at least equal, that every party before the tribunal should appear there on an equal footing, with equal rights. Now, rightly or wrongly, the impression is abroad, by reason of recent happenings at inquiries, that before an inquiry is even held under the auspices of the Department of Local Government, the dice is already loaded against the particular party before that tribunal. That may be an ill-founded impression, but it is nevertheless there.
I do not want to go into the duties of the inspector or the publication of his report—I have an amendment on that which I will raise at a later stage —but I say in all seriousness to the Minister, that it is high time we realised where we are drifting in these matters. The tendency of all legislation, as I have pointed out here before, is to get outside the courts, to get outside the law, as it were, to vest in the Minister such extraordinary powers as will make his decision in any particular matter final and conclusive, and to deny to any party the right to resort to the courts. I think that, from any point of view, and particularly from a legal point of view, is an intolerable position, a position this House should deprecate on every possible occasion. I think that where, as often may happen, matters of law are involved in these investigations, there should always be a right of appeal to the courts of the land and, furthermore, that this tendency to make Ministerial decisions final, to set up the Minister as the final arbiter in these matters, is to be deplored.
I do not want to say any more on the issue at this stage, but I think there is a good deal of merit in the amendment suggested by Deputy Byrne.