Special Report of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies: Statements.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies was established in December 1976. Almost 16 years later, it is a remarkable fact that this is the first occasion on which the Dáil has formally devoted time to consider any report. That this should be so is remarkable, given the basis put forward for the establishment of the committee. The Minister for the Public Service of the day, Deputy Richie Ryan, adduced three broad reasons in favour of establishing such a committee. First, misgivings in the Oireachtas about the deficit in the amount of information available on the commercial State sponsored bodies; second, the concern in public opinion at the lack of accountability of the State sponsored sector; and third, a long felt desire that the Houses of the Oireachtas should take a greater interest in the affairs of State sponsored bodies. Those reasons are as relevant today as they were in 1976. Ireland's State-sponsored sector has grown dramatically since the establishment of the ESB and the Agricultural Credit Company in 1927. A wide variety of factors has influenced their growth. By and large the bodies have been anad hoc response to different circumstances which are present from time to time. Among the reasons for establishment we can count the necessity to assist in resource development which was catered for by the establishment of Bord na Móna; job protection or job creation, by the establishment of Irish Steel and Arramara Teo., and the development of strategically important activities which were beyond the means of the private sector — for example, the ESB. Among the reasons, we can also count national pride in the case of Aer Lingus, the national flag carrier; private sector failures, which led to the creation of ICC, ACC and Irish Life; private sector excesses, which led to the creation of NET to break a cartel in fertilisers; strategic reasons, which led to the establishment of Irish Shipping and the purchase of the Whitegate refinery; and regional development, which necessitated the development of Min Fhéir Teo. Part of the rationale for the creation of the Sugar Company was regional development and the need to create opportunities in the west.

The interesting aspect about the creation of the State-sponsored bodies is that ideological considerations have never been a major factor in the creation of our State enterprises. Establishment has been largely pragmatic. Pragmatic considerations have also underpinned the move to privatisation in recent times.

Perhaps because the growth of Ireland's commercial State-sponsored bodies has been soad hoc, very little consideration seems to have been given to the institutional links between them and the Oireachtas or between the State bodies and the central Departments of State. In theory the Minister and his Department determine policy and the overall level of resources and control the bodies through their boards. The chairman and board in turn interpret the policy as handed down by the Minister and implement the Minister's and Government's wishes through operational policies which are established with the assistance of management. The boards and their senior management are responsible for day to day management of the individual companies. In this arrangement neither the Minister nor either House of the Oireachtas has any direct input into the day to day affairs of a State-sponsored body.

For many years prior to the establishment of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on State-sponsored bodies the lack of a parliamentary role in this overall picture gave rise to concern. A motion on this matter was debated in the 1950s. In the late 1960s the matter arose again, when the Committee of Public Accounts recommended that a review mechanism should be put in place. Nothing happened. In November 1972 the Informal Committee on Reform of Dáil Procedures recommended that there should be an early examination of the relationship between the Houses of the Oireachtas and State-sponsored bodies. Again nothing happened.

The matter next came to a head in both Houses in the debates on the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill, 1973. During the course of that debate the Minister for Finance gave an undertaking which was translated at long last into action in 1976. It is paradoxical that, having created the committee in 1976, both Houses, but in particular the Dáil, have largely ignored the operations of the committee, have allowed them to be stripped of resources and have, by and large, ignored the committee's reports.

Interestingly, this situation was forecast during the course of the debate on the committee's creation in 1976, when Major de Valera put down a query in the House. With remarkable prescience Major de Valera suggested that the committee's reporting system would not be enough to ensure that anything worthwhile would come of the individual reports it produced. The exchange as reported in the official Report of 18 November 1976 at column 346, where Major de Valera was in possession, was as follows:

We are all aware that the device of laying reports or other matters before the House is equivalent to a funeral rite. They are laid there and buried.

Mr. R. Ryan: We do not forget the dead in Ireland.

Major de Valera: Unfortunately, the multitude of the dead in that cemetery are too often forgotten when they deserve to be remembered.

So it has been for 16 years in so far as the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies are concerned.

Throughout the life of the sixth Joint Committee there has been a growing concern among members that the committee have been working hard but getting nowhere. There has been a common frustration that, while a certain amount of lip service is paid to Dáil reform and to the role that could be played by a fully operational committee system, there is very little practical effort to use effectively the committees which are in place, including the Committee of which I am chairman. This frustration led the committee last year to publish the special report on terms of reference and resources which we discuss today.

On the basis of their experience and on the basis of the experience of their predecessors, the committee have noted three major gaps in their terms of reference — the lack of power to enforce the attendance of witnesses; the lack of any parliamentary arrangement for a follow-up to the committee's reports, and the unresolved issue of privilege for witnesses appearing before the Joint Committee. The committee have further been experiencing difficulties arising from the lack of resources available to them and their experience with the application of thesub judice practice to their proceedings.

The Joint Committee are empowered to send for persons, papers and records in the fulfilment of their responsibilities. However, the only redress open to the Joint Committee in the event of non-compliance is to report the fact of non-compliance to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

There have been a number of instances over the years where persons have declined to meet with or make papers available to the Joint Committee. A number of these are outlined in the report. In 1984 three serious failures to comply with the then committee occurred during the course of the committee's examination of the affairs of Irish Shipping Limited. In August 1984 the Department of Communications refused to submit particulars of the five-year corporate plan of Irish Shipping to the committee. In November 1984 the chairman of Irish Shipping was invited to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee. In advance of the meeting the chairman was furnished with a list of draft questions which the Joint Committee wished to discuss with him. In a reply, dated 12 November 1984, the chairman of Irish Shipping informed the committee that it appeared to him that it would be necessary to obtain legal advice before he could respond and that in the circumstances he believed it would not be appropriate for him to attend the proposed meeting. A further invitation to the chairman to attend the meeting with the Joint Committee was declined by his legal advisers.

In December of 1984 the Departments of Finance and Communications got in on the act and informed the Joint Committee that it would be inappropriate for their officials to attend to give evidence during the inquiry into Irish Shipping. I submit that there are few parliamentary assemblies in the world which would accept that type of response from public servants. This, after all, is the assembly to which all organs of the State should ultimately respond. It is amazing that on three occasions, dealing with one serious report, public officials should be allowed to cock a snook with impunity at this House.

Faced with non-compliance in this most important case, the Joint Committee concluded that they were unable to complete to their satisfaction their examination of the company. A report was made to the Houses of the Oireachtas to that effect. In that report the committee recommended to the Houses that legislation be enacted as a matter of urgency which would empower them to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production to them of all relevant documentation. To date no such legislative change has been made.

In June 1985 the committee again ran into difficulties with witnesses. Officials of the Department of Energy refused to attend the meeting with the committee, stating that the notice had been too short and that further clarification of issues had to be discussed. In September of 1985 the Tánaiste and Minister for Energy was invited to meet the Joint Committee but did not attend.

Again, the committee reported these matters in their report of December 1985 on the affairs of Bord Gáis Éireann. The committee at that time recorded that they were gravely disappointed with the "negative response of the Department of Energy", concluding:

The Department's stance undermines the credibility of the Joint Committee and it has serious implications for the effective discharge of its functions by the Joint Committee. It also has implications for the committee system generally.

Again, in spite of the seriousness of these observations, no action was taken.

In March 1989, Irish National Petroleum Corporation were asked to cooperate with the committee in the course of an investigation. The INPC indicated that it had been directed by the Minister for Energy not to attend. On this occasionsub judice considerations were cited as the substantive reason for nonattendance.

The Joint Committee felt that it was a very shallow argument in view of the specific limited nature of the outstanding proceedings, then in abeyance, in the High Court. Following correspondence with the Minister for Energy, the Joint Committee again reported their difficulties to this House as recently as July 1990. Again nothing happened.

In 1989 and 1991, during the course of examination of the affairs of the Irish Sugar Company, the committee again ran into difficulties. In April 1989, members of the board of the Sugar Company were invited individually to attend a meeting of the committee. I personally made certain that the invitations were addressed individually to each member of the board and delivered to the head office of the company. Only the chairman, secretary and the then chief executive of the company finally, and reluctantly, appeared before the committee at that time. Other members of the board failed to attend, apparently having been advised within the company, and apparently by the chief executive, not to do so. At that particular time I and other members of the committee spoke individually with members of the board encouraging them and exhorting them to come and discuss the affairs of this very important company with the committee. The committee felt that something was wrong but we had not quite put our finger on the pulse. In spite of all the entreaties the board members refused to comply.

In September 1989 the Minister for Agriculture and Food declined to attend before the committee to discuss the affairs of the Sugar Company. In February 1991, there was a further example of non-compliance with the committee's request when witnesses from An Post declined in correspondence and during attendance to discuss the viability plan published for the company, or any matter connected therewith.

In the case of the Irish Sugar Company and An Post important matters which were of the gravest public concern came to the attention of the committee and the committee were effectively spancelled in their efforts to get to the nub of the issues concerned. I believe that if the Oireachtas Joint Committee on State-sponsored bodies had been supported in their efforts to examine, for example, the affairs of the Sugar Company some of the scandals which subsequently emerged would not have taken place. At least the Oireachtas would have been aware of those scandals at an early date. I, the vice-chairman Deputy Kavanagh, and members from all parties on that committee at that time made a valiant effort to get to the bottom of that issue and we were frustrated. Months later hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money had to be spent trying to disentangle the affairs of the Sugar Company. The reality is that we got nowhere.

Throughout their existence, the committee have always operated in a very non-aggressive way when dealing with witnesses called before them. Members of the committee are conscious of the fact that public servants occasionally have difficulty dealing with certain areas. Successive committees have always accepted the bona fides of people who decline to meet with the Joint Committee either by their own decision or as a result of Ministerial direction. However, this said, non-compliance can only tend to frustrate and perhaps thwart the Joint Committee in the discharge of their responsibilities. In effect non-compliance means that an individual public servant or an individual Minister has taken a specific decision, for whatever reason, to prevent an arm of the elected assembly representing the people from fulfilling their responsibility to the Houses of the Oireachtas and ultimately to the people of Ireland. In a democratic State that is simply not good enough.

Clearly, consideration must now be given to providing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on State-sponsored Bodies, and indeed other committees and joint committees of the Houses with powers to enforce the attendance of witnesses and with powers tosubpoena people to produce documents in the event of a refusal to comply with a request for attendance or for the production of documents.

The committee are also gravely concerned at the lack of privilege for witnesses. Before dealing with that question I want to add a small point with regard to the issue of asubpoena in respect of documents and cross-examination. I mentioned that the committee have always been non-aggressive in the pursuit of their particular aims. There is a procedure which has been observed time and again by the committee that we will not deal with issues of sensitive commercial importance, issues that could commercially damage a State enterprise. Nor would we deliberately try to use our position on the committee to individual political advantage. The reality is that the Oireachtas Joint Committee have always, throughout their history, operated in the most non-partisan manner. It is very frustrating not just for members from the Government side of the House but also I am sure for members from the Opposition, that, having effectively constrained themselves to operate in a non-political manner, their bona fides is not recognised and that their efforts are frustrated.

The committee are concerned at the lack of privilege for witnesses. Members of both Houses on the committee enjoy the absolute privilege provided by Article 15.12 of the Constitution in respect of their utterances. This privilege is extended by the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Privileges and Procedures) Act, 1976, to members of parliamentary committees but not to witnesses called by these committees. It is the joint committee's understanding that witnesses before Oireachtas committees enjoy qualified privilege. The joint committee further understand that this type of privilege can be defeated only by proof that the witness was not using the occasion honestly for the purpose for which the law gave it to him and was actuated by some indirect motive not connected with the privilege, for example, malice in the popular sense of the term or irrelevant statements of a defamatory nature. However, in some cases, qualified privilege will obtain only so long as no third parties, for example, representatives of the press, are present.

This, again, is a very serious lack. We are supposed to act here constitutionally as an open assembly. The people of Ireland cannot all attend this assembly but the press and media, on behalf of the people, can attend this assembly and the mere attendance of those people who are there to keep an eye on what we do can negate the limited privilege which exists, and that is simply not good enough.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the absence of the protection of privilege has hampered the present joint committee in their work. Indeed, members of the committee present will recall that on a number of occasions recently I had to pull up a witness and point out to him that he did not have privilege. Nevertheless, it would seem prudent to the committee that the legal position of witnesses before parliamentary committees as a whole should be made explicit in law.

This issue has dragged on for over 20 years. It is over 20 years since there was High Court action on this specific issue. At that time we were promised action and nothing happened. In its special report the committee recall, for example, that in 1976 an attempt was made in the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Privileges and Procedure) Bill, 1976, to address this issue but section 3 of the Bill, which would have conferred absolute privilege on witnesses, was deleted during the course of the Dáil Committee Stage.

The joint committee continue to hold the view that this matter requires urgent attention. In this regard, in a special report to the Houses of the Oireachtas in September 1982, the then joint committee requested the introduction of legislation which would provide that for the purpose of their inquiry into Údarás na Gaeltachta a witness before the committee and a person sending a document to the committee should be entitled to the same immunities and privileges as a witness before the High Court. The Joint Committee at that time also suggested that the two Houses might consider it worthwhile to provide legislation to cover this matter in all inquiries conducted by any committee.

In October 1983 and again in November 1984 there was correspondence between the committee and the private secretary to the leader of this House on this specific issue. In November 1984 the committee were informed that a draft Bill was in the course of preparation by the parliamentary draftsman. In January 1985 the then joint comittee met the Leader of the House to discuss,inter alia the privilege of witnesses. In spite of all of the activity in this area no progress has been made to date.

It is the view of the present Oireachtas joint committee that action on the question of privilege of witnesses is still required. However, the committee would not be in favour of conferring absolute privilege on witnesses and, in this, differs from the recommendation made by their predecessor in 1982. The most frustrating institutional shortcoming in so far as the Oireachtas Joint Committee are concerned is the failure of the Houses of the Oireachtas to adopt an appropriate procedure and mechanism to enable the joint committee's reports to be brought before the House for formal debate.

It is the view of the joint committee that a formal mechanism would go some way to validating their role in seeking to make the commercial State-sponsored bodies more democratically accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I understand that during the lifetime of one of the previous Joint Committees on Secondary Legislation of the European Communities sessional orders were made to enable any report of that joint committee containing a request for a debate thereon to be debated within a specified sitting period in the Seanad initially and, subsequently, in the Dáil. Incidentally, I regard that procedure to be incorrect because, ultimately, control over all the financial affairs of the State should lie with the Dáil and not with the Seanad. This provision was availed of to considerable effect on a number of occasions.

The Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies are of the view that a similar procedure should now be put in place in the Houses of the Oireachtas to enable any report of the joint committee containing a request for a debate thereon to be debated within a specified sitting period. I wish to assure the House that it would not be the wish of the joint committee that every one of their reports should be debated within a specified period but we take the view — I am sure Members would agree — that it is important in relation to reports which deal with specific, important and relevant current issues that we should have the right to highlight the need for an urgent debate.

It is clear that Major Vivion de Valera was correct all those years ago when he suggested that the procedure of laying reports before either House of the Oireachtas was the equivalent of a funeral rite. The members of the present joint committee and, indeed, of preceding committees feel that the purpose and point of an Oireachtas committee is undermined if the committee are reduced to being little more than a talking shop without any effective follow-up action. The first requirement for effective follow-up action would be for the Dáil and Seanad to at least note and adopt the committee's reports and recommendations and to request at a minimum a formal response from Ministers and their Departments to the recommendations and observations of the committees.

I should add in this regard that I have checked many of the reports and recommendations of the committees and found it distressing to say the least that very few of them have been acted upon. Like so many other reports and those of tribunals they have gathered dust on the shelves of this House and in a democratic institution that is nothing short of a scandal.

While I, as chairman of the joint committee, greatly appreciate the opportunity afforded by today's debate I am mystified as to the failure of Dáil Éireann to debate any report of the joint committee or their predecessors before this. It is of course difficult for any committee or anybody to be objective in reporting on or evaluating their own resources. The present joint committee are however, conscious that in the early and formative years of the joint committee that, in addition to the clerk and back-up staff, the joint committee enjoyed the services of a full-time consultant. In the early years they also enjoyed the services of a full-time consultant. In the early years they also enjoyed a substantial budget which enabled other specialist advisers to be engaged. In later years the joint committee have had no full-time consultant and have only had access to a reduced overall budget allocation.

It is a fact that the combined budget for all the committees of the Dáil is less than the budget enjoyed by this particular joint committee a decade ago and this is nothing short of a farce. It is also a fact — the members of the joint committee who are present in the House will bear this out — that when we examined the operations of the national lottery eighteen months ago we did not have the funds to engage a consultant with the result that the clerk, the members of the joint committee and I had to sit down and draft the report. As public representatives, we do not have the time to examine these issues in detail and it is obvious that if it is worth having the joint committee at all they need an injection of additional resources.

At their establishment, the joint committee were seen as heralding a new development of parliamentary accountability and appropriate resources were allocated to them. The passage of time has seen a diminution in the resources available to the joint committee to the point where reduced resources in terms of money for consultancies and the loss of a full-time consultant precludes the joint committee from ever doing an in depth examination of the State bodies under their charge unless they decide to allocate all their annual resources to one specific body. If that were to happen we would have a 30 year cycle before we could examine all the State enterprises. Clearly, this would be a nonsense. We would also negative the joint committee's broad monitoring role if we were to focus all our resources on one State body. In many cases we have to deal with major issues of great concern to the public in a superficial way.

In spite of the dearth of resources the joint committee have undertaken an impressive range of studies in recent years. One can just speculate as to how much more effective the joint committee would be if they were properly resourced. Currently reports are being prepared on Aer Lingus — this is an important issue at the moment — and Aer Rianta. The joint committee are also examining certain elements of the energy sector and a range of other issues but we do not have the resources to be effective and produce the reports in a timely way before this House.

The joint committee have also drawn attention in their report to thesub judice rule. We have, as I outlined, experienced occasions where the sub judice rule has been pleaded as an excuse for non-compliance with a request to appear before the joint committee. The joint committee recognise that work is in hand on this matter and would hope that the review of the sub judice practice is expedited as a matter of urgency.

There is one final area to which I wish to refer, this is, the huge number of State-sponsored bodies other than commercial bodies which operate within the public sector. Over the years, recognising the inflexibilities of operation within the traditional departmental structure imposed by the nonsensical concept of ministerial responsibility, successive Governments have, with the approval of the Oireachtas, hived off substantial areas of administration to non-commercial State-sponsored bodies.

In the initial debate on the establishment of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies it was suggested that these bodies should be brought within the joint committee's remit. It was argued at the time that this should not be so on the basis that the bodies concerned were in many ways extensions of Government Departments. I agree that there is logic in that argument.

While this may be an accurate characterisation of the activities of the non-commercial State-sponsored bodies the fact remains to this day that a huge area of public administration is not subject to any form of direct democratic oversight. I understand that proposals to be discussed in this House shortly regarding the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts will touch on this area.

While not making a case for the inclusion of non-commercial State-sponsored bodies within the remit of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies it is clearly important that some parliamentary committee, be it the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial-State-sponsored Bodies or the Committee of Public Accounts, be empowered to oversee and report on the general operations and effectiveness of the non-commercial State-sponsored bodies. It is wrong in a democracy that a range of public administration authorities are not subject to democratic questioning and it is wrong, for example, that there is no direct democratic manner of overseeing the operations of the Industrial Development Authority or the decisions made from time to time by An Bord Pleanála.

While I have focused on the many frustrations faced by the joint committee it would be remiss of me to ignore the positive contribution which the committee have made in terms of informing Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and the public in general of the activities of the commercial State-sponsored sector during the past 16 years. I have long believed that the joint committee serve both Houses of the Oireachtas and the people well.

I wish to place on record my gratitude to the members of the current committee, in particular the vice-chairman, Deputy Kavanagh, and to those who have served with me as chairman of the last joint committee. Throughout their operation Members have always put the public interest above narrow party or political interests and put a considerable amount of time and effort into the operations of the Joint Committee. Without that effort and dedication the joint committee would not work. Their efforts and investment of time are all too frequently overlooked.

I recommend that the House note the special report which we have laid before it and hope the Oireachtas will act upon the fundamental decisions and suggestions we have put forward in it. I know I speak not just on behalf of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies but on behalf of the chairpersons of all other committees when I say that if we are going to have a committee system in this House that works, and if we are going to become a modern democratic institution which oversees public administration, we need the necessary resources and freedom enjoyed by similar committees in other administrations. I commend the report to the House.

I am sure the Acting Chairman will agree that for any north-sider speaking about semi-State bodies either today or this week the only issue of concern would be that of the position of Aer Lingus and the 1,000 workers there whose jobs are threatened. I have to admit dismay at the Minister's response to this crisis. She seems to have spent the past 24 hours bawling out the management in Aer Lingus and carefully washing her own hands of any responsibility in the matter. It is depressing to see a Government after five years in office behaving as if today is their first day in Government and dealing with these problems as if they were never flagged in advance. The reality is very different. The difficulties in Aer Lingus have long been approaching. They have been evident from their accounts for several years. A significant part of their problem derives from the refusal of Government to act in a decisive manner in relation to key policy issues facing the airline industry here. Ministers must face up to the fact that they have ultimate responsibility and that they cannot bawl out Aer Lingus as the prodigal son. Aer Lingus are the docile son who stayed at home and accepted all sorts of indecisive policy from Government without a murmur. However, when things go wrong the blame is place on them as if they were the sole authors of the problem. That is not the case.

The Minister spoke of huge credibility problems with Aer Lingus and a lack of trust between Aer Lingus and the Government. Whom does she believe is responsible for creating a position of trust between Ministers and semi-State bodies? Who appoints those boards? Who but herself receives regular reports about their operations? The Minister is not being honest with the public or with Aer Lingus in her approach to this problem. She spoke yesterday of the need for major cost cutting measures and of the financial problems with which the company are faced. At the same time she spoke as if there was no conflict between cost cutting measures and maintaining jobs. She wants it every way. She wants to blame Aer Lingus for failing to keep their costs in line and yet be perceived as a Minister who wants to preserve jobs. The Minister is responsible for the decisions about which we are talking. She is not some hurler on the ditch who can afford to look two ways. There was no inkling in her comments yesterday as to what policy she wished to pursue.

I do not wish to interrupt the Deputy when he is in full flight, but we are discussing a special report on the terms of reference of the committee.

Yes, but the Clerk indicated that we had freedom to discuss wider matters and the first company on our schedule of companies in our terms of reference is Aer Lingus.

Acting Chairman

That matter is down for discussion in Private Members' Time next week. Therefore, while it is totally in order to refer to various sections within Aer Lingus, it is unfair to dwell on the Aer Lingus problem. The report basically deals with the terms of reference of the special committee.

I accept that point, Sir. However, as one who shares the same constituency as myself and who, I am sure, is equally concerned about this matter you will accept that the key to our terms of reference is the relationship between Ministers and their sponsored bodies. I am making cogent points which are very relevant this week. I will be brief because I want to deal with other companies.

Acting Chairman

I will allow the Deputy to make brief comments on this matter but he should not confine his remarks to one particular company.

I do not intend to do that.

Acting Chairman

There is a substantive motion down for discussion in Private Members' Time next week. The Deputy would be anticipating what will take place in that debate.

I am not anticipating that. I am merely making a few points in regard to what anyone listening to the Dáil debates would feel we should be talking about in discussions on State-sponsored bodies.

I will conclude my comments on Aer Lingus by pointing to some of the rather incredible things that are taking place where Ministers have direct responsibility. For example, it was stated yesterday that Aer Lingus should operate the Los Angeles route. The dogs in the street know that the reason they cannot do so is the difficulty in regard to flying times and the regulations which compel them to stop in Shannon. If they stop there they cannot comply with the flying times. Therefore, to suggest that there was something remarkable about the Los Angeles route not going ahead, when it is the Minister who refuses to get off the fence on the issue of Shannon, is missing the point.

Aer Lingus and many other State companies are faced with the problem that the Government have not faced up to the fact that such companies need access to equity if they are to grow and prosper. For example, in the past three years Aer Lingus have had to invest £500 million, predominantly by using borrowed money, and we are now expressing amazement at the fact that it be difficult to attract another company to enter into partnership with a company in such debt. It has been conscious public policy by this Government not to open up any other form of equity for Aer Lingus, despite the knowledge that they will require £1,300 million in equity in the next ten years.

We must realise that social obligations are imposed on such companies. In the case of Aer Lingus those social obligations are quite clear. They are obliged to operate routes which are loss making, to keep down fares, to maintain low cost access on our routes and to maintain flights even though seasonality factors indicate that it is non-commercial to do so. These are obligations which the Dáil, and particularly the Government, impose on a company; yet there is no willingness by Government to recognise that such social obligations carry a cost for Aer Lingus. We wring our hands and say Aer Lingus have failed us when they return losses of £40 million, but Ministers never face up to the fact that their policy of insisting on the imposition of such social obligations may contribute in a large part to the difficulty. If we want our commercial State-sponsored bodies to operate commercially we must treat them in a commercial manner. If we want them to operate in a non-commercial manner, we must be willing to face up to the financial implications of such policies. The Government should face up to this fact, not just in regard to Aer Lingus but in all other State companies. If we demand that they do something non-commercial, we must be willing to face up to the price tag which that may carry.

In the energy sector we have again been very poorly served in the relationship between Ministers and the bodies under their control. It was incredible to read in the papers yesterday that the INPC are now appointing a consultant to examine the possibility of a partner in their Whitegate operation. For the past five years we have heard the Minister talking about his efforts and the work he is doing in finding partners. Why is it necessary to bring in another consultant to examine this issue? The INPC are being frustrated in their work by their sponsoring Department. That Department have held back the progress of the INPC, not helped it. Our own dealings with the INPC resulted in total frustration because of the attitude of the Minister, who ruled that we could not raise any questions about Whitegate and the INPC because of an impending court case. That court case concerned outstanding costs, who would pay the cost of a court case that was entirely decided in Europe. The decision was complete, the issue of the compulsory off-take had been decided in Europe and it was clearly established that the compulsory off-take would and should continue. It was quite legal, but when the joint committee expressed an interest in investigating the affairs of the INPC, the Minister said no, that cannot be done because the cost element in this long since buried case has not been resolved. That was obstructionism and was, in effect, a Minister blocking a committee of the Oireachtas in their work. This did not just happen with the current Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, it also happended under the previous Minister for Energy, Deputy Burke, who adopted the same head in the sand approach. How can we as a committee carry out the duties imposed on us by the House if we are going to meet that type of attitude from Ministers?

In the energy area, the joint committee also met with frustration when they wished to examine Coillte in regard to the valuation that was put on forestry stock which was handed over to them in effect by the taxpayer on day one. As the House will recall, in 1984 a committee reported on the valuation of the forestry stock and it was valued at more than £800 million. That was transferred to Coillte five years later for a sum of £570 million, approximately £250 million less than its value five years previously. The joint committee should have been able to call witnesses to account for the reason that was done. The Department would only send the joint committee letters but would not send officials to appear to answer questions. Coillte decided that the question of valuation dated from before their time of stewardship and would not answer questions.

This matter is not something of inconsiderable importance. It is really the key to the whole assessment of the success of Coillte. If forestry resources are sold or handed over to Coillte at a written down price, their performance cannot be realistically assessed because their profits, based on sales of a written down asset, will not reflect their true earnings. It is quite obvious if I were sold a company dirt cheap I could then sell it at an exorbitant price and would appear to be managing the affairs of the company very well. The joint committee should have been entitled to ask officers of the Department account for how they reached that valuation and answer questions.

It is very frustrating for members of the joint committee to hear of the Government making decisions about selling off companies, that the Oireachtas is supervising through this joint committee, without any reference to the joint committee's interest or capacity to assess the issues involved on behalf of the taxpayer. To talk of selling off State sector companies like, the ACC, the ICC, Irish Life — we now discover Aer Lingus is for sale and it has been hinted that some elements of RTE may be for sale — and to make such important decisions without a White Paper spelling out the policy implications, which could be teased out by the joint committee, is not treating this House correctly. Any decision to sell off a company whose accounts the joint committee have a right to examine, and their relationship to the Government, should be carried out by way of presenting a White Paper to the joint committee. They can then examine in detail the issues involved, the protection clauses that should be inserted in the taxpayers' interest and in the interest of staff. In any subsequent sale of a State sector company the joint committee should be given a proper briefing on the assessed value of the company, the tendering for the company and the subsequent price reached. If no proper procedure and policy approach is followed in the sale of companies like those I mentioned people will be suspicious that there is something not quite right, that all the ends have not been tied up. There will be no proper coherent policy emerging. People will be feeling uneasy that if the Government are strapped for cash they may decide to sell off some of our State assets without regard to the long term interests of the taxpayer. The joint committee should be integrally involved in the process of deciding on any programme to sell off, in whole or in part, some of our State assets.

I would like to turn to the broader issue of the approach we should adopt towards State enterprise. This debate provides an opportunity to examine this area. We have to adopt a new approach to this. We must put companies on a proper commercial footing. The day Governments intervene arbitrarily and politically in the affairs of companies should be over. Sadly, that is not the case. We have, and continue to have, political interference in companies that damaged those companies. One recent example was the raiding by the Government of £3 million of the VHI's reserves. We know that the VHI have been reeling from a crisis from which they have been trying to recover and to have arbitrary political intervention in their affairs is not acceptable. We want commercial companies to conduct their affairs in a commercial manner in the interests of the taxpayers, their shareholders. There continues to be political selection of board members to State companies often for reasons quite unconnected to the person's ability to enhance the performance of such companies.

Another example of direct political interference recently was in RTE. Their ability to earn revenue was totally capped by the Government and they were left in the ridiculous position that regardless of how successful they were, or how many people were switching over to their channels their budget would be fixed. It was decided that the amount earned from licence fees would be used as an indicator and an identical sum would be capped from advertising. That is a ludicrous policy. We want to encourage our state enterprises to avail of opportunities, to be the best in their field and yet we say to a company like RTE, no matter how successful you are, your budget is fixed by the Minister. By saying to a company their budget is fixed and they have to operate within the confines of that budget, we are turning back the clock to a civil service type approach. This policy is a terrible blow to people working in the State sector, trying to do an honest day's work of managing the resources in their charge for the benefit of those who consume their services and for the benefit of the taxpayers who are their shareholders.

We need to adopt a radical new approach if we are to obtain the best value for the approximately £10,000 million we have invested in assets in our State sector. This requires that those companies must be given a proper commercial mandate. The regulations of those companies also need to be greatly strengthened. Many of those companies hold a monopoly and do not face any competition. It is very clear to me that in many cases Departments are not up to the task of regulating them.

For example, the Department of Energy, attempting to regulate the ESB, do not have the staff resources necessary to carry out that task and, as a result, there is no energy policy here. The ESB forge their own energy policy, they decide it is in their interest to keep down demand and, as a result, we have much talk about energy saving bulbs, etc. and of monitoring demand. We did not hear a whisper of such energy saving policy from the Minister who was their steward for the past five years. The Minister is the person who should be telling us it is time we managed our resources in the energy area, it is time we looked at conservation and stopped continuing to build for new generation capacity. It is the Minister's task to set those broad guidelines and supervise the ESB to ensure that they are complying with them. That is not happening.

Proper regulations are necessary and we must go down the line of having a separate independent body, similar to the Utility Commissions in the United States, to regulate such companies and ensure that they comply with competition rules and that they protect the rights of those companies trading with a monopoly supplier. Regulations should ensure that companies operate in a socially advantageous way, that they comply with State policy and that their price increases are proper and reasonable. I do not believe that the Department of Energy, to take one example, have the capacity to do that. Once in their lifetime they employed a committee — the Jacobson Committee — to produce a report on issues in the ESB, but that was not the launch of a new system to supervise and regulate the ESB. It was a once-off report which was put on the shelf and very little has been heard of it since. There should be proper regulation of companies that have real commercial power and can have a great effect on us all. There should be a proper policy in this area.

I know that Deputy Kavanagh might not agree, but I believe that there should be some element of private ownership in all our State companies. I say that for a number of reasons, one of which is quite germane at present. From time to time we as taxpayers put equity into companies but rarely do we get a dividend on it. The assets of our State companies amount to about £10,000 million but their combined profits amounted to no more than £200 million last year. If State companies are to succeed commercially they must face up to the fact that equity, even from the taxpayer, is not costless. We must earn a return on our investment. One practical effect of having some private equity in all our State companies is that it would underline that we as taxpayers expect a return on equity. Because we own 100 per cent of the companies we should get a dividend. Only one company have regularly returned a dividend — Bord Gáis — and we have learned that Telecom Éireann may in future return a dividend. However, these are exceptions to the general rule. As stewards of the taxpayers' resource, we cannot accept that as a satisfactory way to proceed.

I recognise that private equity is not a panacea for State companies. Merely changing the ownership of bodies will not create competition. The fact that there might be private ownership in the ESB or Telecom does not mean they are competitive and cost effective and that they give good service. That must be ensured by effective regulation from the Department or from a utility commission. It would be very unsatisfactory to go down the road of privatisation without proper regulation. The Government made the mistake of not regulating the companies they sought to sell off in whole or in part.

Private ownership does not guarantee customer rights — these must be ensured by proper regulation. Neither does it guarantee that social objectives will be met. Indeed there is the danger that social objectives will be pushed aside. That is why it is crucial that the State establish social objectives for its companies, and that it should be willing to face up to the cost involved. If decisions made are non-commercial they involve a cost which must be met. It is important to separate from the ownership issue the issues of giving a fair deal to the consumer, achieving social objectives and achieving competition. Too often in this House there is an idea that privatisation either solves or hinders all these issues. These are separate problems and they should be approached separately. That is my party's policy in this regard.

The main point in support of private ownership is germane this week when there is so much talk about Aer Lingus. There is no way the Minister opposite is going to produce £1,300 million for Aer Lingus's investment needs in the next ten years. Therefore if Aer Lingus continue to rely on Government for equity they will be slowly strangled and their opportunities to develop will slip away. We have postponed for too long facing up to that fact. In the last three years, that company had to dip into their banker's pocket for £500 million. It is important that private equity be introduced in these companies, perhaps contributed in part by employees. It would be very desirable that employees have a direct share and a direct interest in the success of their company. It would be a spur to better performance and greater efficiency, and I believe it is the direction we should take.

I will conclude by making a few comments on this report. The committee are rightly frustrated with their terms of reference and with the abuse of thesub judice rule to block some of our investigations. In the report we pointed out that at one stage we had a permanent consultant, an expert in the field of scrutinising State companies, but we can no longer afford a permanent consultant. Let us contrast our committee which supervises £10,000 million of State assets with the Committee of Public Accounts which scrutinises about £10,000 million of State spending. We do not have a permanent consultant whereas the Committee of Public Accounts not only have the back-up service of the Comptroller and Auditor General but also that of his staff. If there is to be accountability to this House by commercial State bodies it will involve cost, and the necessary resources and powers must be given to the committee. No chief executive of a State company walks into the committee room quaking in his boots. Whether we find a fault in the company, an important issue that should be investigated by the committee, is only hit and miss. The consultant may have only a few weeks to familiarise himself with the matter and if the material is not generally published it is very difficult for us to get to the bottom of it. If we want accountability and if these companies are to be put under proper scrutiny by the Oireachtas on behalf of the taxpayer we must face up to the issues spelt out in this valuable and important report.

At times we have to look to our own stewardship. As a committee we need to focus ourselves more cogently. At present we have seven different reports on hand and it is very difficult for members to encompass in their minds the issues of all these companies. Because each company may come before the committee at different times there is no cohesion in dealing week after week with their affairs. When a company appear before the committee we should work with them to the finish. The fact that this has not been the practice is not wholly the fault of the committee. It is partly due to the way in which the committee have been resourced. In order to get resources we must undertake several consultancies at the same time because we do not have a permanent consultant. If we want to get consultancy resources for the year it is natural for us to have seven consultancies under way. That is an unacceptable way for a committee to proceed. It would be much better to have a permanent consultant. This would help us to take a more coherent approach to each company that appears before us.

I know that I have exceeded my time and I thank the Chair for his forbearance. This is an important opportunity to take stock of the operations of the committee. I hope the Government will accept that the committee need more resources and more authority as well as a role in the selling off of companies in whole or in part. The Government should accept that we have a responsibility in that area.

For the second time today I have to disagree with a member of the Bruton family in this House. Deputy Bruton suggested that I would have some difficulty with joint ventures or private equity in semi-State companies. Neither I nor my party have a hang up about this. Indeed, I should remind the Deputy that when his brother and I were in an administration some years ago NET faced considerable difficulty which was solved by the creation of IFI which brought private equity to the company. Thankfully, the company are still in production and maintaining —although not at the level which pertained in the past — many valuable, well paid jobs in the Wicklow constituency. I hope they will show a renewed interest in Arklow and expand in the area.

I assure Deputy Bruton that I welcome anything which creates employment in semi-State bodies. The Taoiseach suggested today that Aer Lingus may require private equity to save them and I am sure that any reasonable person would be happy to consider any proposals which might come forward in that regard. I know that I will not be allowed to expand on the problems of Aer Lingus but the Oireachtas Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies deal with Aer Lingus and if their terms of reference had the latitude which they and Members of the House feel they should have, they would be the appropriate body to consider the situation, to consult the management and unions concerned to enable them to get an accurate appraisal of the problems in the company. We have heard that there are no accurate figures available as to the levels of redundancy but there should be a vehicle which would swing into action when there is a serious problem within any of our semi-State companies. The problems of Aer Lingus reflect what we are trying to suggest in the terms of reference which should be adopted by this House — or by the Government — because legislation would be required to implement our proposals.

The chairman of the committee very accurately reflected the views of all the Members in regard to what we would like to see achieved. His statement covered most of what we should like to see happen as a matter of urgency. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies seem to work in isolation from the activities of the Government and the Dáil. I hope that the time allocated today to discussing the special report of the committee is not a gratuitous response by the Government to the very valuable work carried out by the committee.

The Labour Party welcome the recommendations of the special report on the terms of reference and resources of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies and hope that the House will agree to their implementation. The Labour Party would like to see the recommendations extended to include all the joint committees of the House. None of the recommendations in the special report could be regarded as overdemanding, indeed they are basic instruments required to be put in place to make the joint committee as effective a body as possible.

The chairman of the committee, Deputy Roche, covered the recommendations but I should also like to comment on them. Consideration should be given to the question of compelling witnesses to attend or to produce documentation and there should be penalties for non-compliance in accordance with procedures to be determined by law. In that respect, the committee have been frustrated on many occasions; I have been a member of the committee for five years and during that time we have certainly been frustrated by the present terms of reference because we can only examine reports and accounts, which are generally reported accurately in the reports of semi-State companies but which may be two years old, by the time they are published. Indeed there has been particular difficulty for the last three years in getting a report from Bord na Móna. In those cases we are really dealing with reports in an historical context and it can take unduly long from the time an investigation starts to when it is completed. By that time the topicality of the report has lost its effectiveness, indeed some of the companies may disappear, sadly, when the report is being made.

It was frustrating in examining Aer Lingus — because of the failure of Aer Lingus Holidays — to be fettered by the existing rules because, at the same time, RTE on "Today Tonight" reported on the case and sent commentators abroad to report on the problems in countries where Aer Lingus carried out their operations. However, the committee of the House were told that thesub judice rule applied and that they could not discuss it even through the officers of the company were appearing before them. This demonstrates some of our frustrations in that area.

The chairman has already referred to Irish Shipping. I know that is a long time ago but we had the same problems then which leads me to believe that the first recommendation should be viewed very seriously by the Government. We asked that the question of privilege in relation to witnesses should be resolved by extending qualified privilege to those appearing before public meetings of the joint committees. Witnesses and representatives on the semi-State bodies claimed they could be in breach of the law because they do not have the same privilege which applies to Members speaking on the same topic in this House.

It is very important to have a form of mechanism provided to facilitate debates because, until we introduced regular Friday sittings, it was impossible to deal with reports in this House. A great deal of time is expended on making reports and people are put to the inconvenience of missing debates and Question Time in the Dáil to attend committee meetings. It is frustrating to find, when a copy of the report has been distributed to Deputies that, up to now, there was not any time to discuss it. I hope that the Friday sitings will be seen as the obvious vehicle for debates on these matters. It should be a statutory requirement to debate such reports regularly.

The resources of our committee have been depleted over the years and there is a recommendation that adequate resources be provided. A reduction from £200,000 several years ago to £80,000, taking inflation into account, certainly reflects the lack of interest in seeing that this committee do their work. I know that in the past few years many other committees of the House have been set up and I know that budgetary restrictions mean that savings have to be made in all areas; but it is unrealistic to demand here in the House that committees be set up to deal with crime, the Irish language, women's affairs and so on and then not provide money to enable those committees carry out their work adequately. Nor is it correct to take money away from an established committee in order to set up another committee. This issue has to be attended to. If the other recommendations are accepted it is of vital importance that additional resources be given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies.

I join Deputy Roche in commending the great work done by the staff of the committee. Tom Dwan and his staff work assiduously and do an excellent job with very little in the way of resources. Tom could certainly use additional staff in order to be more effective in his work.

The two previous speakers have asked that the review of thesub judice practice be expedited as a matter of urgency. There is no need for me to go back over instances that they have given. One example that does stand out in my mind is the very minimist use of the sub judice rule in the case of INPC. For years that rule has been used to prevent INPC from being required to come before the committee. It seems to me that any company that had some problem with coming before the committee would nearly want to be called into court on some minor issue in order that they could take advantage of the sub judice practice and avoid a proper committee investigation. In my eyes, that is what has happened in the case of INPC, who for many years now have steadfastly refused to come before the committee, and have been backed up in that refusal by Ministers.

The recommendations made are a reasonable response to the inadequacies experienced by members under the committee's current terms of reference. If this Government are really serious about the whole concept of open government they must feel obliged to ensure that these very basic recommendations are implemented. I believe that all-party support for these recommendations should easily be obtained.

I do not want to make a point about the rather cavalier approach to the committee system taken by successive Governments. Governments choose to ignore and refuse to act on very valuable reports published by our committee. Ministers and senior civil servants thumb their noses at the committee by refusing the committee the courtesy of even appearing before us. Indeed, it could be argued that Governments spend more time obstructing the constructive work and the very real contribution the committee could make than they do facilitating the members of a committee in their research and analysis.

I should like the Government to take a more pro-active approach to the whole committee system. The general reason for Ministers refusing to attend committee meetings is that their constitutional responsibility lies only with the Dáil. I believe that to be a rather spurious interpretation of our Constitution and that Government Ministers and Dáil Deputies fail to understand that the joint committees are part and parcel of the Dáil system and therefore they do have a constitutional responsibility to appear before the committees.

I think of the operation of the select committee system in the House of Commons and the very important debates that take place in those committees. Senior Ministers and their civil servants can have their actions in various areas of government examined, with particular reference to the various Departments they represent and the activities of those Departments. Here in Ireland we have steadfastly refused to model a system based on the British House of Commons system, but I feel that the establishment of a select committee system is a very important measure that could be taken now.

I also believe that the committee system operating in the Dáil is incomplete and works in a rather patchy fashion. I should like to have established in Leinster House a more extended committee system with perhaps a committee established for every Department of State. This extension of the committee system could also include an extension of the competence of the working of the committees in order to enable them to work on a legislative basis as well as in an investigative role. In the extension of those powers I would envisage the Committee Stage of Bills being taken in the relevant Oireachtas committee. As we know, this practice takes place in the US Congress.

Although I have had the experience of only one Special Committee, that set up to deal with the Roads Bill, I recognised how very effective the operations of that committee were. The many hundreds of amendments put down to that Bill were dealt with, whereas on the Committee Stage of the social housing legislation not even a third of the various sections of the legislation were dealt with and many Committee Stage amendments were dealt with under the guillotine system. I recognise that as an extension of the committee system we are dealing with today, and I think it would be a very effective way of dealing with our business. One advantage would be the ability for more concentrated debate by Members who are particularly interested in or have a responsibility for certain legislation.

In that respect I have requested that the House put the Electoral (No. 2) Bill, 1991, through a Special Committee. That Bill will be subject to many hundreds of amendments and there may be some urgency to have that legislation through the House and into force in time for the December referenda — at least, I hope the legislation will be passed in time for the referenda. As far as I am concerned, there is no way we could get through the Electoral (No 2) Bill without using the Special Committee system to ensure that every aspect of the problems being dealt with could be put through a committee.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies have experienced some evolution under the present chairman. Indeed, on a number of occasions the committee have used the opportunity to deal with problems experienced by some of the semi-State bodies. I recall that some members wished to deal with the problem concerning white goods and brown goods that had arisen between the private sector and the ESB, and that matter was dealt with by the committee. On other occasions, as in the case of Coillte, the committee have been able to deal with the operations of a semi-State body. In the case of Coillte the committee examined the reduction of staff throughout the country, the sale of property, the introduction of private contractors, the introduction of machinery from abroad and the resultant considerable redundancies within the industry. Within the narrow terms of reference of the committee we have been able to use the committee system to raise problems within semi-State bodies. Nevertheless, the committee could be much more effective if we were able to implement the new terms of reference recommended, which do not go too far and are not too demanding.

The committees are made up of representatives of both Houses of the Oireachtas and those of us who attend committees do so at a certain amount of risk to our continued existence within our constituencies. As I have said, the committees are not covered by television, although they are covered by the press. The use of the television system brings the operations of the Dáil and the Seanad into the houses of our constituents every night. I should like television coverage to be extended to the committees.

On Tuesday last three of us had to come away from a vocational education committee meeting in Wicklow, which was having very valuable discussions about the Green Paper on Education, in order to carry out our responsibilities as Dáil Deputies. Some people would say we should not be members of local authorities while others would pursue a seat in that way. As long as the system remains as it is, in order to get elected to this House we have to be attentive to local issues. When we leave an important discussion, where evidence is put before us dealing with RTE, it is reasonable that we demand that the publicity which the House receives should be available to members of the committees of the House. The report has dealt with these concerns. The changes we are requesting the Government to make would result in more efficient surveillance of semi-State bodies if they were acceded to.

I wish to join with the two previous speakers in congratulating our very active chairman, who ensures that as many semi-State companies as is humanly possible are investigated with the limited resources available to us. I thank my other colleagues on the committee for the valuable work they do and the opinions they express from every side of the House. I hope the House will agree to this report and that there will be urgent action by the Government in bringing in legislation to adopt the committee's terms of reference, which they consider necessary to carry on the work of the committee.

It may seem at first glance something of an irony that the report we are discussing from the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies does not deal with any of the commercial problems or prospects in any of the companies but rather the procedural difficulties encountered by the committee. That may not be a bad thing because it is timely that we looked at the role of committees of the House and how they could enhance the business of this House, provided we could remove some of the obstacles identified in this report and which have been referred to at length by other speakers. I would summarise them as follows. The committee has no power to compel attendance of witnesses orsubpoena documents. When report are produced there is no mechanism whereby the House is obliged to debate or take cognisance of them. This leads to a perception among some semi-State companies that the committee is only a token one — and I mean no disrespect to the members of the committee in saying that. Witnesses are not afforded the explicit protection of privilege enjoyed by members of the committee. The committee has a paucity of resources available to it to discharge its remit; and the application of the sub judice rule creates problems for the committee. All of these seem to be reasonable points. They have been made before. They are problems experienced by other committees of the House and they should be addressed by the Government.

The problem reflects a general unwillingness on the part of successive Governments, not just this one, to give Oireachtas committees any real teeth. Are they afraid to see committees developing into some sort of rival institutions to Governments Departments? Indeed, a number of committees have been cut and their resources reduced. This is a fundamental question for Government. We have heard it argued out in the Committee on Employment, where the essential issue that divided the House was the attendance of Ministers, as stipulated by Fine Gael. It would appear that Government Departments are fearful of powerful committees emerging as rivals to the orthodox input, especially from the Department of Finance. We had an explanation of that point when the Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Department of Finance attended the Committee on Employment. It was clear that what they were saying to the committee was that if they had any views on tackling the unemployment crisis they would put them through their Minister and would not waste them on a committee of backbenchers. They did not say that — the Department of Finance would never say such a thing — but that is essentially what was intended.

Committees with real power are an integral part of many parliamentary democracies. They play a major part in the work of the US Congress and are a long established part of the British system. An expanded and developed network of committees could help restore public confidence in the relevance of the Oireachtas, but they must be given proper finance and resources.

Much public attention has been focused on the cost of recent inquiries and investigations into the affairs of a number of State companies, more particularly Telecom and the Irish Sugar Company, as it was then known. If the Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies were adequately resourced much of this work could possibly have been done on a more cost effective basis; or, at least, the case could have been advanced to the stage where it could have been dealt with by the mechanism provided in the Companies Act.

In relation to the compulsory attendance of witnesses, which I agree with in principle, should those subpoenaed in this way be entitled to legal representation and, if so, who pays? A point worth making is that most prominent among those who have refused to appear are Government Ministers, and not Government Ministers of any particular persuasion. We have, for example, Deputy Spring when he was Minister in the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Government, right up to Deputy Michael O'Kennedy, who refused to appear on the Greencore issue. It should not take legal compulsion to require Government Ministers to give a lead in giving evidence to Oireachtas committees; it should be an automatic feature of Government policy.

The obligation to debate reports of the committee, and other committees, goes without saying. The fact that the report we are now discussing was produced almost 12 months ago speaks for itself. Long delays such as this are the norm, not the exception. The report we are discussing deals with procedures. I was involved in a different capacity in giving evidence before the committee on important issues, such as the future of B & I when it was in State ownership.

A properly functioning and adequately financed Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies could have anticipated the current crisis in one of our most prestigious and valuable State companies, Aer Lingus. The Government have weaved, ducked, changed Ministers and avoided the emerging crisis. If we had a properly resourced functioning committee that could have been a powerful force for the anticipation and resolution of that crisis. The chairman has made a strong case showing how a vigilant committee could have made a major contribution to averting the crisis in which we now find ourselves. It is improbable that we would have to resort to panic measures if a committee such as the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies had the necessary resources to investigate the problems in Aer Lingus, bring forward recommendations and bring its influence to bear on the urgency of addressing that crisis before we got into the present difficulties. It is worth pointing out that in spite of all the rows which took place during the life time of this Dáil and which eventually led to the setting up of the Oireachtas Committee on Employment, we already had in place a committee which I believe can potentially do more in the first instance to protect and, in the second instance, influence job expansion in semi-State companies than anything the Oireachtas Committee on Employment are likely to do.

Aer Lingus are the fourth largest employer in the country; they are larger than the Smurfit Group and Cement Roadstone. They have 7,600 workers in Ireland, and a total of 14,000 workers overall. There is a number of other examples. One has only to look at Telecom and the ESB in terms of their potential for economic growth. I believe the pendulum is swinging back from the hardline dogmatic position that under no set of circumstances should we ever advance equity for any of the major State companies to a realisation that the major State companies have real potential for expansion and for being an engine of growth in the economy, and that we cannot leave the task entirely to the private sector.

It does not really matter whether this is done by way of joint venture which, for example, Aer Lingus have done very successfully in their co-operation with Pratt & Whitney in terms of developing a company who are at the leading edge of technology and who have acquired an international reputation, although they have been in business only for a couple of years. Aer Lingus are also the major shareholder in another company in my constituency, Airmotive, who employ 700 highly skilled people and provide a very essential service. Some difficulties arose there recently as a result of the temporary downturn in the aviation industry but thankfully these dificulties have been resolved. This seems to be the type of enterprise, together with Pratt & Whitney, on which our industrial policy should be developed.

When one talks about job creation, there is no comparison within the economy which bears relation to the performance of TEAM Aer Lingus, the aircraft servicing aspect of the company. I think the number of jobs in that industry has increased from 30 in 1982 to 1,000 today. Not only do they have a good reputation in terms of skill and technology but they also have the capacity to make foreign earnings because of the nature of the service they provide. Those are examples of the things which could be done if the Government did not shackle committees such as the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies.

With regard to the question of privilege, it seems reasonable that witnesses should have the same protection or coverage as members of the committee. They are more likely to be frank and comprehensive in their evidence if they do not have the threat of legal action hanging over them. Could evidence be given where required on oath so that there would then be the same sanction for perjury as there would be in the courts? The Committee of Public Accounts have the same problem in respect of this question of privilege. Section 2 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Privilege and Procedure) Act, 1976, provides that Members of the House have immunity in respect of any utterances in or before a committee and all documents, reports, publications and utterances in a committee of the members, advisers, officials and agents of the committee are privileged. There is conflicting opinion on the position in terms of whether the 1976 Act extends immunity or privilege to witnesses appearing before committees. There has been some doubt as to whether privilege extends to witnesses under common law.

I have with me the senior counsel opinion — I do not have time to go into it in detail — which the Committee of Public Accounts received on this critical issue. This matter remains unresolved. It seems it is necessary, if the committee system is to work effectively, that we resolve this question. I wish to quote briefly from the report of the Committee of Public Accounts on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General in relation to the senior counsel opinion. It states:

The question of whether or not witnesses appearing before Oireachtas Committees have privilege for utterances made has been considered. The opinion of Senior Counsel clarifies the position.

It would seem desirable that privilege be available for bona fide witnesses. However, safeguards against abuse need to be built in.

The following possible approaches are indicated by Counsel:

(a) a removal of privilege for evidence given maliciously;

(b) no privilege for evidence not requested by the Committee i.e. if a witness were to volunteer evidence outside the scope of the Committee's requests;

(c) no privilege after a witness is requested to cease giving evidence.

We recommend that privilege be extended to witnesses but that safeguards along the above lines should be built into the enabling legislation.

That question needs to be urgently addressed if the committee system is to work effectively.

On the question of resources, I think all of the committees of the House are under resourced. The headlong rush that a multiplicity of committees is a good idea as we will all be seen to be working much harder is not necessarily the best option in a House which comprises 166 Members. It is not the same as a parliament which has 650 Members, which the House of Commons has, and where there is more flexibility in terms of establishing committees, attendance by members and the necessary range of skills. This House would be stretched if it were to take that approach. However, it would be of marvellous assistance to the efficacy of the committee system if adequate resources were provided for the committees which do exist.

The Dáil itself is under-resourced. All TDs should have access to research facilities through the provision of researchers.

I should not like to suggest that thePhoenix should be taken as gospel, but there is a reference in the current edition to the plethora of civil servants employed by Ministers in their ministerial offices. I think it suggests that the average number of civil servants employed exclusively on constituency business is six per Minister. I expect that the Acting Chairman would agree that it is disgraceful that that level of resources should be tied up in people carrying out the messenger boy role for Ministers in their constituencies. Meanwhile Opposition spokespersons who are required to deal with complex legislation every day in this House and to stay abreast of ever changing difficult economic circumstances have virtually no resources available to them. This is a major defect in the operation of our parliamentary democracy. I do not understand how one can reasonably be expected to be an expert on every topic under discussion and be familiar with the range of literature in any given area, without access to reasonable back-up facilities, especially in the area of research. I do not see how this would entail any additional budgetary provision.

The resources allocated to civil servants who are caught up telephoning people about whether they were successful in getting a medical card or were excluded for the purposes of export credit insurance — the question of whether they made the phone calls in question has not been established yet, but I hope it will be — could be divided more equitably between this kind of routine work in ministerial offices and the main spokespersons for the Opposition parties.

I agree with the comments made by other Deputies on thesub judice rule which impacts not only on the work of the committees but on the working of the Dáil itself. It has been discussed repeatedly by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. There is no rule on this matter, simply a convention. The opinion of senior counsel has been secured but action has not been taken. It is a totally unreasonable restriction on the work of the House and of the committees and it should be addressed.

It is extraordinary that we have not managed to find time to debate the acute crisis in Aer Lingus. This debate is on the report of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. Aer Lingus is one of our most prestigious and valuable State companies. Apart from a casual mention of the Adjournment, this House has not been provided with the opportunity of addressing this major issue which has such employment, revenue, strategic, tourism and other implications for our economy. I regret that very much and I hope that time will be provided for a major debate on the specific implications of the short term downturn in the aviation industry for the national flag carrier.

It is extremely gratifying that at last there is some recognition of the work of this and other committees in that we can present a report and have it discussed in the House. I am honoured to be a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. I have noted that my colleagues on that committee have over the years been dedicated to their task. It is extremely time consuming and many other aspects of their work have to be deferred. Our chairman, Deputy Roche, puts a huge amount of time into the business of this committee. The type of report which has been coming from the committee under his chairmanship reflects very well on him. This debate is the first sign of appreciation of the role of the committee. The acting chairman of the House, Deputy Barnes, is the eminent and respected chairperson of another committee, of which I was for a short time a member. I hope that she too will be able to bring her reports into the Dáil and the other House, giving meaning to the great work of the committee system. What is happening today is an indication that the open government promised by the Taoiseach isin situ.

Reference has already been made to a number of difficulties encountered by the committee, particularly lack of resources. No committee or business can effectively function without resources, but those available to the committee are negligible. This problem must be addressed.

Thesub judice rule frustrates and confuses and totally limits the progress of the committee. Deputy Rabbitte and others spoke about Aer Lingus. We were keen to investigate the case of Aer Lingus Holidays but were prohibited from so doing by the sub judice rule. I could cite other examples.

Virtually all my working life was spent in the commercial semi-State sector at management level and I have a good insight regarding the operations of the semi-State companies. They have skilful workers and professional managements and the vast majority of the employees, staff and management, are totally dedicated to their work and completely dependable. Nevertheless, it has been shown over the past 12 or 18 months that things can go wrong and there is a need for ongoing vigilance.

The Joint Committee, which was set up 16 or 17 years ago, has often been referred to as a watchdog committee; but I have had occasion to call it a watchdog without teeth, a harmless committee totally ineffective in its role due to the constraints put upon it, with nobody listening to its bark or whimper. That was in the past. I welcome the innovative procedure whereby the committee's report is being debated and I hope there will be further progress along these lines, allowing the work of the committee to be revealed to the House and brought into the public gaze.

The chairman of the committee has spoken comprehensively on the report and I will not go over that ground. I note that we are permitted in this debate to refer to other reports made by the committee. Deputy Kavanagh talked about the committee producing reports at an opportune time, perhaps in the light of some current difficulties. We began a report some months ago on Coillte Teoranta. We deferred the business for some time while we were working on some other reports. In recent times because of difficulties throughout the country we reexamined that report and decided to ask the board of Coillte and the senior representatives of that company to talk to us because there are specific difficulties there. Many of the difficulties are reflected in County Wicklow, which is the premier forestry county, and they are a good example of the type of difficulties that obtain in forestry.

Coillte was launched three and a half years ago in Wicklow amid great pomp and ceremony and with great expectations. We saw Irish forestry and the associated timber business forging ahead, doing well. These expectations have not materialised. In the intervening years 700 workers have disappeared from the books. They were ordinary industrial workers. There is a message for us there somewhere.

The company, who have terrific administrative staff with the interests of the company and the national interest at heart, employ foresters who are invaluable and have been responsible for putting great wealth into the country over the years. These foresters are under utilised. They have not the scope to express their talents and create welcome jobs simply because there is a commercial mandate. The Government and its predecessor are responsible for the mandate. They appointed Coillte Teoranta to manage all the commercial aspects of State forestry. That was a worthy brief but it needs to be looked at again because in reality, senior management in Coillte are hiding behind that mandate.

The ongoing economic crisis is biting deeply into our larger sawmills. On this very day in about ten of the larger sawmills the notice boards display protective notices for the employees. We as a committee can home in when appropriate on what needs to be done at a particular time. At this time Coillte Teoranta need to look at how they can help their customer, the larger sawmills who are at the moment sustaining several thousand jobs, but jobs that are in jeopardy. Coillte can help those customers to retain those jobs and survive the economic crisis by ensuring that they speedily get the supplies of sawlog they need. That can be done by renegotiating prices through the tendering system. It makes good commercial sense to do so. I appeal to the Minister and the people in Coillte to look urgently at this situation and let common sense and good commercial sense obtain. Let us not hide behind any commercial mandate.

The committee recently examined An Post and some very interesting facts emerged. The Chair will remember that virtually every Deputy in the House cried salt tears about the proposal that some post offices would have to close. I was and still am concerned about that. We were examining the company in a broader context but we decided to examine them with regard to this aspect. We invited An Post in and one group we invited in was the union who represented the postmasters. It transpired that some post masters were more interested in the size of the monetary package, or severance payments than in keeping the post offices open for people, particularly in rural Ireland. I was so astounded that I suggested to them that they were only interested in taking the money and running. That illustrates the type of thing the committee can unearth in their probings and how worthwhile the committee system is.

Previous speakers suggested that we should have televised coverage of the proceedings of the committee. I wholeheartedly endorse that suggestion as our deliberations should be public. However we would need to have a balanced portrayal of committee sittings. Too often the sensational or derogatory comment is projected and published and this gives an inaccurate and unbalanced account of the proceedings. It is most unfair to the commercial State companies and they can be damaged in that way. Because of human failing some people will find themselves unable to resist the temptation to seek a headline or a media inclusion for himself or herself by harsh criticism or by making a derogatory accusation or insinuation which could damage the company. An unbalanced projection would be very undesirable. It is up to the media to ensure that their reports are balanced and accurately reflect the interviewing session. I believe that proper and accurate public revelations will encourage those groups whom we ask to come into us for interview in order to explore the facts and figures of their organisation to be more co-operative and open so that our work will be more productive all round.

I hope that other Oireachtas committees will henceforth be given the same facility to bring their reports before this House. This will undoubtedly have the effect of making the work of the Oireachtas committee members more rewarding, productive and meaningful.

I welcome this report of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies. This is the sixth such committee to look into the affairs of commercial State-sponsored bodies; the first one commenced their deliberations in 1976.

I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the Chairman of the Committee, Deputy Dick Roche, and his colleagues from all sides of the House who work assiduously on this committee investigating and examining the various matters that come within their remit.

At the outset, I would like to place on record my belief in the importance of Oireachtas committees to our system of public administration. For this reason, I believe that the House should pay close attention to any comments which emanate from such a committee and which relate to their own perception of the problems which they face in carrying out their mandate. We must be ever willing to consider the merits of any suggestions which they make which might serve to strengthen the committee system.

The business of Parliament, together with the public and political perception of what Parliament should be doing and the manner in which it organises its affairs are evolving and becoming ever more complex. Equally the demands on Ministers — as I know only too well — as well as on other, non-office holding members of Parliament, seem to grow in an exponential fashion. Looking at the pressures under which all of us in this House now operate, it seems remarkable that so many Members of this House from the early years of the State until the sixties managed to combine their political activities with involvement in business or the professions. One concomitant of that arrangement was that Ministers, a group of full-time politicians backed up by a highly professional civil service, were expected to be the absolute repositories of all knowledge and wisdom on the areas covered by their particular briefs.

To a certain extent, and given the different levels of public and political expectation as well as accountability which surrounded the work of a Minister, it was possible for him to fulfil — or at least to appear to fulfil — these expectations in large measure. The widening of State authority, the growth of organised interest groups, a better educated public and the apparently insatiable appetite of the media for copy on controversity means that the Government Minister of today operates within an entirely different context — a context which lends considerable relevance to the role of the Oireachtas Committees. Chairmen of Committees and spokespersons in the House suffer the same difficulties.

Viewed from the standpoint of a constitutional textbook, our political and constitutional arrangements have been remarkably stable, yet the essence of democracy has changed in ways which are subtle and yet profound. We have largely moved away from a model where all policy formulation and decision making was held in the hands of a very few to a more complex model where "participation" is the keyword. We see this in so many different walks of life. I believe that to the extent that we embrace these changes we are embarking on a more advanced stage in the evolution of democracy. The development of a relevant committee system meets this requirement in a very significant way.

We are representatives of an electorate which is highly educated, discerning and with an appreciation, which is almost unparalleled elsewhere, of the nuances of the political system. To the extent that the view has, on occasion, been expressed by some of our citizens that the Dáil and Seanad are little more than a debating society where egos are fuelled and the ultimate purpose may seem to be to display brillance in cross-Chamber word play, we, as public representatives, should rightfully be concerned. Now, more than ever before with nightly broadcasts of the proceedings of the Dáil and Seanad, our activities are under the close scrutiny of the people whom we represent. I might add, that I believe that this negative view of the Oireachtas represents a distortion of reality and takes no account of the large volumes of critically important work which we as public representatives process, but which frequently does not receive the publicity which it deserves. We would be foolish in the extreme, however, to ignore the fact that this is a view which is held by some. Here again, the role of Oireachtas Committees is crucial. Committees are structured in such a way that inter-party rivalry and conflict is minimised and politicians are given more time to make constructive and positive contributions to the consideration of various important matters. I believe that the more the public become aware of the role which committees play, and the manner in which they conduct their affairs, the greater their appreciation will be of the relevance of the Oireachtas to their lives and, hopefully, of the work which public representatives on all sides carry out on their behalf.

I disagree with Deputy Rabbitte. I was involved in Dáil reform both in Opposition and in Government as Chief Whip and as leader of the House in the mid-eighties with Deputy John Bruton who at that stage had responsibility for Dáil reform and the setting up of the committee system. The mistake we made in recent years is that the House sits too many hours and the committees do not sit enough. The practice we now follow with the House sitting, as we did this week, into the early hours of the morning on two or three consecutive nights and on Fridays with the committees trying to work alongside, with shorter holidays and more and more sitting days might improve appearances statistically but it does not improve the work. I sincerely believe that committee work, if properly organised, is a much better way to go about things. Having had the honour of being before the Joint Committee on State-Sponsored Bodies and a number of other committees I have no doubt that the committee system does work extremely well and our aim over the next ten years should be to develop the committee system. I think we would get far more suport from the public for our work on that basis.

The science of public administration is growing ever more complex. On the one hand, society is now facing a range of intricate issues — both social and economic — which simply did not arise to any significant extent, say, twenty years ago. It is our duty as public representatives to tackle these issues. Equally, there is a growing demand that other problem areas which have long existed in our society but which were not given the attention they deserved should receive a higher place on the political agenda. The most effective means of tackling these problems is, very often, by what I might describe as an "interdisciplinary" approach where different people coming from diverse vocational and interest backgrounds can pool their knowledge and experience to develop suitable strategies for the handling of these complex issues. Both the Dáil and Seanad are composed of individuals who have; through their career backgrounds, their constituency work and often through the indepth research which they have undertaken on matters of personal interest, developed extensive expertise in certain areas of public concern. The Oireachtas committee system is uniquely suited for tapping into this reservoir to the benefit of the decision making process and, ultimately, of society.

It is essential to the health of a parliamentary democracy such as ours that panel discussions, chat shows or indepth reporting by TV or newspapers do not supplant the Houses of the Oireachtas as the real centre of informed debate on the issues which are vital to our society and our future and it is in avoiding this development that I see the specialist committees of these Houses as making perhaps their greatest contribution. We in this House are aware of the seriousness with which members of committees approach the tasks which are assigned to them and in preparing their reports which they present to the House — and in this respect Deputy Roche and his committee are a shining example — but there is another and, dare I say it, possibly more valuable contribution which they make. Members of the joint committee garner in the course of their work a knowledge of the detailed workings of State-sponsored bodies, a perception of the management thinking of these organisations and an awareness of their working environments, details of a kind which were previously available only to office holders. They share these insights with the rest of us, not only in the reports which they forward but in the manner in which they, perhaps even unconsciously, display that knowledge in what I may describe as the more routine and traditional debates in this House — for example, on the Estimates and on relevant legislation.

The Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies, which is chaired by Deputy Roche, is one of the longer established committees. It is charged with responsibility for examining the reports, accounts and operational results of specified State-sponsored bodies which are engaged in commercial or trading activities.

While it is not the purpose of the Government or of Parliament to exercise the same degree of scrutiny over the activities of commercial State bodies as it does over the Civil Service — indeed, such an approach would run totally counter to the wholeraison d'être for the establishment of such bodies — we cannot lose sight of the fact that these bodies are all State owned and thus, the State has a legitimate interest in their affairs. Their mandate, while commercial in essence, has and must have a clear national interest dimension. It is right and proper that managements of these companies should approach their tasks with the commitment and drive associated with the leading private sector companies; but since the risks they take are borne by the Irish taxpayer it is essential that we have some organisation which can fulfil for our citizens the role played in the private sector by the informed, persistent and questioning shareholder who at annual general meetings reminds management that it is his company, not theirs. Indeed, I would argue that the State has an obligation on behalf of the citizens of this country, who are the real owners of the State companies, to monitor their overall operation. Commercial State bodies are operating within an increasingly cut throat environment and even those which enjoy a form of monopoly are still faced with some form of competition. The ESB, for example, which is usually regarded as a monopoly, must still compete with companies which provide alternative forms of energy.

The Joint Committee's task is, indeed, a critical one. The Commercial State-sponsored sector currently employs some 65,000 staff. According to the latest available figures, the bodies in this category have an aggregate turnover of more than £5.2 billion and fixed assets of nearly £5.5 billion. I need hardly say that these bodies are of pivotal importance to the economic progress of this country. The Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies, constituted as it is of public representatives, plays a key role in calling attention to any problems which may arise in the management and operation of these valuable assets which belong to all of us.

The report under consideration today raises a number of important and interesting issues which, I feel, merit comment from me. It addresses the interrelated questions of the compellability of witnesses and the fact that absolute privilege is not extended to witnesses appearing before Oireachtas committees. The Joint Committee reveal that there has been a number of instances where persons have declined to meet with or to make papers available to the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee is of the view that non-appearance of witnesses tends to frustrate the committee in the discharge of its responsibilities. Furthermore, the committee considers that while absolute privilege should not be extended to witnesses appearing before their committee, the legal position of such witnesses should be made explicit in law.

These questions have been, and are continuing to be, given indepth consideration by myself and my Department in consultation with the Attorney General's Office and other Government Departments. Any changes in these areas would, of course, necessitate the enactment of legislation. The issues raised do not lend themselves to simple or "quick fix" solutions.

Let us take, first of all, the question of privilege. As things stand, witnesses who appear before Oireachtas committees enjoy only qualified privilege. This form of privilege provides a witness with a defence against an action for libel or slander unless it can be proven that the witness was motivated by some improper motive. There is, however, a doubt as to whether even this level of privilege applies if parties not directly connected with the proceedings — for example, reporters — are present at the hearing. Members of the Oireachtas, on the other hand, enjoy the same absolute privilege in regard to any statements which they make at Oireachtas committee hearings as they do at the full sittings of either House of the Oireachtas.

In so far as the question of compelling witnesses to attend hearings of Oireachtas committees or to provide evidence, whether in oral or written form, is concerned, the situation is that there is no facility available under existing law to compel such compliance on the part of witnesses or to penalise any witness who refuses to co-operate.

As I have said, these questions are complex and do not lend themselves to black and white solutions. On the question of privilege, I acknowledge that the absence of absolute privilege means that some witnesses, acting in complete good faith, are concerned that their answers to particular lines of questioning might leave them open to actions in tort for libel or slander. In looking at the possibility of conferring absolute privilege on such witnesses we must ensure that adequate safeguards would be built-in to ensure that no individual could abuse the absolute privilege to make unfounded remarks about another citzen. However, I am aware that some of the witnesses who, also acting in good faith, have in the past refused to appear before Oireachtas committees would have been equally reluctant to give evidence had they been conferred with absolute privilege. In some instances they were privy to confidential business information the public disclosure of which would, in their view, have had serious commercial repercussions. So, what I am saying is that even if we were to decide to extend absolute privilege to all witnesses — and I, for one, would see this as a good thing — a sizeable proportion of the cases which arose in the past where witnesses refused to attend or give evidence would continue to arise in the future and would still present the same difficulties.

This consideration leads me on to the question of compellability. It seems logical and reasonable to me that if a witness were to be conferred with absolute privilege, many of the arguments against compelling him to attend or to give evidence would be removed. Some such arguments would, however, still remain. The type of case relating to business confidences, which I have already mentioned, would continue to be problematical. Equally, safeguards would have to be incorporated which ensured that compellability did not extend to such issues as personal information, security matters, Garda investigations and, of course, in the light of the recent Supreme Court judgment, details of the deliberations at Government meetings. A legal right to compel the attendance and co-operation of witnesses is only meaningful if it is accompanied by a penalty which the courts may impose for non-co-operation. Devising an appropriate penalty, which is not on the one hand too draconian, or on the other hand such that it would represent an insignificant deterrent if it were ultimately to be borne by a large corporation, presents considerable difficulty. Here again considerable thought must be given to the matter to ensure that the appropriate balance is struck.

I am pleased to inform the House that our detailed examination of the ramifications of these matters is nearing completion and I would be hopeful that any proposals for legislative change which may emerge would be before the Oireachtas before too much longer.

The report also raised the question of the difficulties which are created for their deliberations when witnesses invoke thesub judice rule. The general issue of sub judice is a complex one and was considered in considerable detail in the Law Reform Commission's Consultation Paper on Contempt of Court which was published in 1991. As the Members of the House will readily appreciate, the question of the sub judice rule is intimately connected with the issue of privilege. As things stand, from a strictly legal standpoint the sub judice rule need not constrain the utterances of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In practice, however, by convention Members have imposed the constraints of sub judice on themselves and the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle will rule out any question or statement which seems to contravene sub judice.

The view has been expressed more than once that the existing practice in this regard imposes unnecessary constraints on the Houses of the Oireachtas. I understand that the Working Group on the Reform of Dáil Procedures are examining this matter at present and I expect that their deliberations will result in a loosening of the restrictions in this regard. While such reform would, of course, enable public representatives to speak more freely on matters of public concern both in the Oireachtas and in committees, it would not assist potential witnesses, such as the Irish National Petroleum Company in the case cited in the report. The only way in which this problem could be alleviated would be if witnesses were to be conferred with absolute privilege. My officials and I are considering this matter along with the many other issues which arise in our deliberations on the overall question of privilege and compellability.

I should like now to move on to make a few remarks about the issue of resources which is raised in the report. One statistic which I feel calls for a comment at the outset is the comparison of the £200,000 which was provided in the Estimates for Oireachtas Committee Services in 1986 with the £80,000 provided in 1991. We are not comparing like with like here. The composition of Oireachtas committees had changed considerably between 1986 and 1991 and an allocation which was considered adequate for the committees as they stood at one time might be considered excessive by reference to the number and functions of committees at another stage. Moreover, it is a fact of life, which may be unpalatable to some, that all areas of the public service have had to tighten their belts during the period since 1986. I do not think that even an area as important as the Oireachtas committees should be exempted from such restrictions. However, I have considerable sympathy for the case made today from all sides of the House for the re-enforcement of the committee's capacity to carry out their task. I expect to be discussing in the near future the expenditure proposals for 1993 for the Houses of the Oireachtas. In so doing I will be conscious of the comments made here today. Members referred to the time when the committee had the services of a full-time consultant. I am not convinced that a return to this position would be the only or, indeed, the best solution to the resources problem which the committee have outlined. The committee may request the services of certain personnel, consultants or others, when carrying out examinations, but when there is a divergent range of skills or backgrounds, specific proposals are best discussed in the context of the committee's immediate work programme. However we will certainly examine the requirements of the committee.

Nevertheless, within the constraints imposed by the need to restore order to the public finances, considerable efforts have been made to maximise the resources which are available to Oireachtas committees. In 1992 we have set aside £125,000 for services to Oireachtas committees. This figure represents an increase of 56 per cent as compared with the 1991 allocation. I am sure that most Members of this House would agree that an increase of these proportions indicates the extent to which a high priority is being given to the important work of the committees.

There are other committees, too.

I accept that and I hope that more work is being done as a result. It is on that basis we receive additional money.

The report comments adversely on the absence of appropriate procedural mechanisms to enable the joint committee's reports to be brought before the Houses for formal debate. Such a procedure would, in the view of the joint committee, assist in making commercial State bodies more accountable to Parliament. I must say that I have some sympathy with the views expressed by the committee in this regard. We are all too familiar with the situation — which arises in many different areas of endeavour — where considerable work — by researchers, consultants, commissions and committees — is carried out in relation to particular matters of concern, a report is produced and, apart from some initial publicity which it may generate, is then put on the shelf to gather dust. As somebody who is committed to the elimination of any waste of public resources, I find that situation unacceptable. In my view, two reforms are needed, and what I am about to say applies not just to reports of Oireachtas committees but also to comparable studies which are carried out in other parts of the public service. First, there should be more discrimination applied in relation to the number and scope of reports which are undertaken. I appreciate that many reports are required to be produced in accordance with the mandate given to a particular body and they constitute a separate category. Second, those responsible for the commissioning of reports should seek to ensure that appropriate structures for the consideration of the content of reports are in place.

I am pleased to note, therefore, that proposals are currently before the working group on the reform of Dáil procedures with regard to the debating of the reports of Oireachtas committees during the Friday sittings and this is receiving favourable consideration. Indeed, the motion which we are considering today is setting an excellent headline in this regard.

In conclusion, may I again thank the joint committee, their chairman, Deputy Roche, and Members from all sides of the House for bringing these issues to our attention. I hope that I have demonstrated that, while I may not agree with the committee in all their comments, I share with them a common interest in ensuring that any practicable changes which need to be made to assist the committee — and indeed all committees — to carry out their remit efficiently and effectively are put in place.

The Dáil adjourned at 2.45 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 27 October 1992.