Section 14 reads:
The Board shall have an absolute discretion to hold an oral hearing of any reference or appeal to the Board.
I have been pointing out to the House that the explanatory memorandum circulated by the Minister quite clearly indicates the reason for section 14, and I quote:
This will help the Board to deal expeditiously with cases, particularly where an appeal appears to be ill-founded or vexatious.... The Act of 1963 required the Minister to accede to the request of any party to an appeal for an oral hearing and it seems clear that the provision was being used in certain cases.
We would agree with that explanation if we were satisfied that the wording of section 14 in the Bill did, in fact, carry out the intention expressed in the explanatory memorandum, but we submit that it does not. We also submit that the amendment in my name does cover the point made by the Minister in explaining what he wanted in section 14. I am sure the Minister must have seen this anomaly by now and realised the importance of having the words we are suggesting included. They are the very words which he uses himself in explaining the need for such powers to be given to the board. We have already stated the reasons why we feel this section giving sweeping and unrestricted powers to the board to withhold the right to the holding of an oral hearing should not be allowed to stand without amendment and there has been a good deal of discussion on this section already.
One point which has occurred to me is that the use to be made of this by the board could result in a drastic reduction—and it is the intention that it will result in such a reduction—in the number of oral hearings. Up to the present the Press have been admitted to oral meetings, and the public at large have been informed of developments and the intentions of developments by the reporting of happenings at oral hearings. If the right to hold an oral hearing is to be restricted in this way, and to be restricted very severely, I would submit, you will then have a situation in which a very important planning appeal could be lodged, possibly by a very active residents' association, a tenants' association, a community council or a group of concerned citizens objecting to a proposed development in their particular area and, to highlight their case, they would naturally demand an oral hearing at which they would present their views in order to convey their objections to the proposed development. Up to now the newspapers have been able to report the happenings and the submissions made at such oral hearings. In this way the community at large have been kept informed of the intentions of developers and they have had at their disposal this weapon by which to expose any undesirable developments.
The newspapers have done a very great public service in reporting, sometimes in great detail, what has gone on at these oral hearings. I submit that in many cases the only way in which the public at large were informed of developments was through the reporting of oral hearings. Many important appeals have been held and have been reported in the newspapers and the only real knowledge of the intentions of developers the community has been able to glean has been from such newspaper reports. If, as is the expressed intention in section 14, the board shall have the right to refuse an oral hearing without stating why, without giving any reason, without having any conditions attaching to their right to refuse, we shall have a situation in which oral hearings will be greatly restricted. There will be no guarantee in cases like the Central Bank building, where an oral hearing was held and citizens were able to give their views as well as official bodies, of any public awareness of the intentions of developers. The Minister will plead that it is unreasonable to suggest that in an appeal of such importance an oral hearing would be refused. I counter that by saying that if he is satisfied that the board should withhold the right to an oral hearing only in frivolous and vexatious cases and should grant the right in such cases as the Central Bank building and other controversial issues like that, then he should ensure that that is clearly written into the legislation. But the power being given to the board is not restricted. That is our great objection.
We have given many sound and valid reasons why our amendment should be accepted. I make one last appeal to the Minister to accept our amendment. It incorporates the Minister's own words and, if he accepts it, we will then be able to move on to another section of the Bill.