Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Bill, 1995: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I am honoured to move the Second Stage of this important and radical legislation. It has taken much time to prepare and it will require detailed scrutiny by both Houses. For that reason I have specifically requested my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to undertake that task. One of her responsibilities within the Department of Finance is to improve the relationship between the citizen and the institutions of the State. This Bill is central to that mission. Accordingly, she will reply to the debate on Second Stage. She will also have responsibility for steering the legislation through the Oireachtas.

Any party coming into Government carries with it some vision of the direction which it wishes society to take. In the case of my party, it is such a vision of the needs and rights of the public — ordinary workers and the underprivileged — which has animated our representatives, activists and core supporters since before the foundation of the State. For most of us, when we come into Government that vision has been made real by the influence we bring to bear on expenditure decisions, spending programmes, tax strategy and instruments for the creation of employment and the alleviation of poverty. Given the normal life span of individual Governments and the time-scale against which policies in those areas must be developed and implemented, it is, however, easy to overlook what may be called the essential underpinnings of government, the institutional framework of the public service and the machinery on which we as politicians rely to put our policies into effect and the web of custom, assumptions and practice which constitute the culture of those who work within those institutions and which, to some degree, can come to influence those of us who preside over it in a myriad of ways.

I think no Minister has left Government for the Opposition benches without a sense of things left undone or things done less than well but time out of Government can be a learning process, a time to reflect upon and analyse the obstacles encountered and the improvements needed. What I and others concluded during such a period was that our policy development, the awareness and responsiveness of our political and administrative system to public needs, could be improved, provided engines of change were incorporated into that system and that disasters could be avoided if the circumstances from which they ultimately sprang were known at an early stage outside the circle involved and were open to timely scrutiny and criticism.

We recognised that monopoly of information, privileged access to material under the control of public offices, is power and that that power is as open to abuse as any other. We noticed that those who came to our clinics and groups which approached us about their problems relied on us, as public representatives, to gain access to information affecting their daily lives, entitlements to benefits or public concerns. We recognised that in an era of high State activity, of substantial regulation and of bureaucracy, unnecessary restrictions on access to information were as effective tools of disempowerment as denial of the vote was in another age. Even within the organs of representative democracy we detected the same imbalance between the temporary custodians of Executive power and other representatives of people.

I make those points to put the Bill in a wider perspective. It is, in one sense, a stand alone measure to meet a need which has been acknowledged in recent years by all parties of this House. On another level, it is a crucial part of a family of legislation which I and my colleagues determined should represent a wider and long-term response to the problem I have mentioned — a dramatic improvement in the transparency of the process of governance and in the accountability of office-holders and public servants. Our commitments in this area, which are shared by our partners in Government, were set out explicitly inA Government of Renewal.

One such measure — the Ethics in Public Office Act — designed to protect the integrity of public decision making by politicians and senior officials has already been put in place and I expect it to be followed shortly by the freedom of information legislation on which my colleagues the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, and the Minister of State, Deputy Fitzgerald, have worked so hard since coming into office. Work is well under way in my Department on other measures in this series, for example, a new Ombudsman Bill to strengthen the defences available to the individual citizen in situations where he or she feels that some decision or action of an administrative body has been detrimental to them, and an administrative procedures Bill which will set out, in statutory form, the basic tenets of proper administrative practice to be followed by public servants.

To put it succinctly, the Bill proposes to confer on those Oireachtas committees, whose terms of reference include provision for the calling of persons and papers, statutory powers to compel the attendance and co-operation of witnesses and the furnishing of documents. It further proposes to confer High Court privilege, virtually identical with the absolute privilege available to Members, on all witnesses giving evidence or, on direction, sending documents to such committees. Both elements of the Bill are, of necessity, intertwined. It would be manifestly unfair to compel witnesses to answer questions without according to them the safeguards essential to protect them from what might otherwise be the legal consequences of full and frank responses to the questions put to them.

Before discussing the provisions contained in it in more detail, it is worthwhile to first place the Bill in its proper context, to note the relevant background to it and to discuss some of the issues which have arisen over the past number of years which, in turn and collectively, have contributed to the realisation that legislation of this nature was necessary.

By articulating the important issues which in one way or another have given genesis to the Bill, all concerned here today will be better able to understand both the need for this type of legislation and the manner in which it is put before this House.

The current situation regarding privilege, compellability and immunity of witnesses is as follows. Under Article 15.13 of the Constitution, Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas have absolute privilege in respect of utterances in either House. Since 1976, this has been extended by legislation to cover them at meetings of committees. On the other hand, witnesses appearing before such committees only enjoy "qualified privilege". This does not prevent legal action being taken against a witness for anything she or he says before a committee but it does provide them with a defence against libel or slander unless it can be proven that she or he was actuated by a motive not connected with the privilege, for example ill will, spite or any other improper motive. The possibility of legal action with the attendant costs of representation, even where a good defence exists, constitutes a serious hazard for any witness. In addition, however, the privilege which they enjoy does not extend to other legal actions such as for breaches of confidentiality, breach of duty of care and so on which could result in their having to pay damages. One of the two major thrusts of this Bill is to correct this situation.

Certain Oireachtas committees include in their terms of reference provision for the calling of persons and papers. While these requests to attend have in general been honoured, there have been well publicised incidents which showed, all too clearly, that they have no statutory power to enforce such provisions.

It is also useful to bear in mind an important issue which has been raised in the past whereby witnesses have themselves felt unable to furnish specific information to Oireachtas Committees due to the lack of adequate privilege. While the sceptical among us may suspect that in some instances the legal ramifications provided a welcome shield for the reticent witness, the current state of the law undoubtedly provided genuine grounds to justify co-operative witnesses being cautious in the responses and comments they might offer to a committee.

The introduction of legislation to overcome this "democratic deficit" in terms of the effective working of committees of the House representing elected representative has been mooted for well over a decade. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended in 1988 that it should have the power to extend or withdraw privilege to witnesses appearing before Oireachtas committees. A resolution of this House in 1990 sought legislation to clarify the position of witnesses, specifically with reference to the broadcasting of Oireachtas committees. I think it is fair to say that many members of various committees have for some time been anxious to extend the success of the televising of the Dáil to committees, thereby having the deliberations of elected officials broadcast directly to the people who have elected them.

However, the privilege which they enjoy does not extend to other legal actions such as breaches of confidentiality, duty of care and so on. Committee members and witnesses do not, therefore, meet on a level playing field.

The time and cost involved in the establishment and use of tribunals of inquiry to carry out investigations is another issue which again and again has caused great concern in the past. While, of course, tribunals of inquiry have proved themselves incredibly useful in carrying out a wide range of investigations in the past, the length of time required for them to report, three years in the case of the beef tribunal, and the enormous costs associated with them, again in the case of the beef tribunal measured in millions of pounds, has understandably resulted in people asking if there is a better way?

There has, I know, been a knee-jerk response to that question from Members of the House, particularly those who serve on committees, who feel that such investigations could more properly be carried out by committees at distinctly less cost to the public purse and with greater expendition. I, too, think these would be desirable but my experience in getting the heads of this legislation transformed into the shape of the Bill before us at least provided me with a rudimentary and, at times, frustrating education in the requirements of our Constitution in relation to natural justice, constitutional justice and fair procedures. The fruits of those lessons have been embodied in various sections of the Bill which have the effect of imposing restraints on the manner in which committees using its provisions will have to operate, providing detailed procedures and certain rights of reply and representation.

The Bill gives committees strong coercive powers backed by serious penalties but there is a price to be paid for using them. That price is the sacrifice of the free-ranging, often spontaneous and sometimes idiosyncratic questioning to which Deputies often productively resort. That price may even be the replacement of the traditional chairpersons of committees by new chairpersons more disposed to restrict members to pre-ordained lines of inquiry. I do not see the committees involved utilizing the powers this Bill contains at all times. It will be a matter for each committee to determine when it is desirable to do so and perhaps for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to lay down some overall procedural guidelines about how the transition from traditional to "compelling" procedures should be activated.

That said, I do expect that the strengthened role of the committees involved will restrict the need for future tribunals. Evasiveness in parliamentary questions become a less attractive option when the possibility exists of frustrated Deputies or their colleagues looking behind the answer to the documentary and other information on which it was based. I am reinforced in this belief by the judgment of the beef tribunal chairman, who said his inquiry might not have been required had fuller information been provided to this House.

Before I speak about the specific proposals contained in the Bill, it is important to note that this Bill is not the first of its kind to be debated and enacted by the Oireachtas, although it is potentially more fundamental and wide ranging than its predecessors. Once off legislation has been used twice in the past to confer absolute privilege for specific inquiries, most recently under the terms of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security of Dáil Éireann (Privilege and Immunity) Act, 1994, which investigated the fall of the last Government and under the terms of the Committee of Public Accounts of Dáil Éireann (Privilege and Procedure) Act, 1970 which investigated the arms crisis. That included a compellability provision, although as with the other provisions in the Act, this was confined to one specific inquiry.

The specific provisions of the Bill are set out in the explanatory memorandum and I do not intend nor wish to confuse the Members of the House by now focusing on the minutiae of very complex legislation when the Members can read the detail for themselves.

I refer to the major provisions contained in the Bill. As I have already stated, the central aim of the legislation is to grant to those Oireachtas committees, who have contained in their terms of reference the provision to call for persons, papers and records, the power to call witnesses and evidence while also allowing those witnesses to speak or offer documents in evidence freely without fear. The Bill does not specify which committees fall into this category. It is for this House and the Seanad to determine individually or jointly, in framing the orders of reference of existing or new committees, whether they are to have the specific powers to send for persons, papers and records which automatically bring into play the powers conferred by this Bill.

At present, the committees which fall into this category include the Joint Committee on Commercial State-Sponsored Bodies, the Joint Committee on the Family, the Committee of Public Accounts, the Joint Committee on Small Business and Services, the Joint Committee on Sustainable Development and the Joint Committee on Women's Rights.

Under the terms of the Bill, virtually anyone a committee believes can provide information relevant to their mandate can be compelled to appear before them or provide evidence. This applies to individual members of the general public. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Ministers, Ministers of State and their officials are all compellable. In the case of civil servants, only one restriction applies — they are debarred in giving evidence from expressing opinions in relation to the merits of policy. This restriction extends to the Garda Síochána and members of the Permanent Defence Forces.

In keeping with convention, the President and members of the Judiciary are exempt from the application of this legislation. There are two possible contentious additions to this list. The Attorney General has, in addition to his role as legal adviser to the Government, other recognised functions which he exercises independently, for instance his role as defender of the public interest. As such, he and his staff will not, under this Bill, be compellable. He is, however, responsible for the general administration of the State's legal offices and in that capacity will be compellable before the committee of Public Accounts. A somewhat wider exemption is accorded to the Director of Public Prosecutions. In the light of developments last week, I am less convinced that this should still apply. The Taoiseach dealt with this matter at Question Time today. It is our intention to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to provide for compellability for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the details of that will be available in due course.

There are, I think, two other elements of this Bill which will draw fire in this House. The first of these is the list of matters to which compellability will not in any instance apply. This list is short and, I think, focused with reasonable precision. In preparing the Bill we did not find it easy to strike a universally agreed balance in areas where disclosure could in many instances pose unusual difficulties for sensitive Government operations. What we have come up with incorporates into the proposed law the requirements of Cabinet confidentiality as they now stand, protection of State security and criminal matters as well as tax assessment information and matterssub judice.

I believe we have arrived at a reasonable balance and thesub judice exemption may illustrate the point. This provision has already drawn the fire of some Deputies in the light of the relaxation of the sub judice rule in the House's own proceedings. This Bill does not trammel the House or any committee in discussing matters which are the subject matter of court proceedings; what it does is preclude a committee from utilizing its powers of compellability to question a witness and force him or her to disclose information which could prejudice him or her in the context of such proceedings.

A second category of exemptions which we have provided for deals in the main with issues of commercial or personal privacy. We have provided two distinct mechanisms to deal with disputes as to whether particular information falls into this category. One involves what, for convenience, I may term an "official witness"— a Garda, a member of the Permanent Defence Forces or a civil servant. If they claim that the information falls into one of these categories and the committee disputes that claim, the matter is settled by the issue of a certificate by the Taoiseach, but the Taoiseach is entitled to refuse such a certificate on the facts of the case or, despite accepting that it falls into those categories, if he or she considers disclosure to be in the public interest.

The second mechanism applies to other witnesses where the fact of the matter is determined by the High Court. Instances may arise where, while it is clear that the information comes within the specified categories, the committee is convinced that obtaining it is vital to its inquiries. In that event, it is left to the Public Offices Commission to determine whether the balance of public interest warrants disclosure — with the possibility of an appeal by either party to the High Court.

The core provisions on compellability and privilege have gone into this Bill — a battalion of ancillary provisions larger than I or any parliamentarian initially envisaged or wished for. The provisions are essentially safeguards, there to protect witnesses' rights and the rights of third parties to whom there may be allusions in the course of a committee's proceedings and to give explicit statutory recognition to the right — already acknowledged by the courts — of a member of the Oireachtas not to reveal the source of information provided to him or her.

While the focus of these safeguards is on those outside this House, they are intended to fulfil another and more vital function. They are intended to arm the committees with an essential protection to ensure that nothing in their manner of proceeding will provide a weapon which can be successfully deployed in the courts to frustrate Members of this House in exercising, through a revamped committee system, their essential role as guardians of the public well-being.

I do not claim the Bill cannot be improved and I know I speak for the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, in this regard. As it proceeds through the House, we will be open to suggestions as to how it might be perfected. Subject to that caveat, I commend it to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this long awaited Bill. When I first read it I gave it a guarded welcome, but the more I examined its nuts and bolts the more I found it to be fraught with difficulties. In his press release, and again today, the Minister at least acknowledged that it can be improved. It is unfortunate, therefore, that he has passed what is, in effect, a poisoned chalice to the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to deal with in the House. However, it is her responsibility to bring more transparency and accountability into public office and I wish her well in that respect.

I was taken by a number of the Minister's comments. He was a member of a previous Government but he appeared to come into this Government believing it would change the world and, to a large extent, that is what it led the public to believe. However, in his speech he stated, "when we came into Government, that vision was made real by the influence we bring to bear on expenditure decisions, on spending programmes, on tax strategy..." The Minister appears to acknowledge now that while it may be possible to seek changes while in Opposition, it is difficult to bring them to fruition when in Government.

I welcome the Taoiseach's response to questions from Deputy Harney and me regarding the position of the DPP. However, if it were not for Marian Finucane's intervention in this matter, the Government would not have acceded to our request that the DPP should be treated in more or less the same fashion as the Attorney General. It is obvious that in drafting the Bill it did not propose to allow the DPP to come before the Oireachtas committee. However, because of the fortunate coincidence of the DPP going on "Liveline"— apparently unbeknownst to his political masters — the Government was caught in a bind in that it was ludicrous that a man of his stature, dealing with very sensitive matters, was able to go on a talk show but not able to come before a committee of the Oireachtas. Hence, the Government's welcome conversion last week, but I await with bated breath the relevant amendment. On Question Time today the Taoiseach appeared to suggest, at least by shaking his head, that it was not intended the DPP would come before the Committee of Public Accounts. We will await the relevant amendment in that regard.

The way in which this Bill has been drafted copperfastens the view that this is the most secretive Government in the history of the State, a Government that came into office on a wave of openness, transparency and accountability. It gives me great pleasure to read the programme,A Government of Renewal, which the Government introduced at the fall of the last Government when members of some of the parties — Fine Gael and Democratic Left in particular — were surprised beyond their wildest belief that they were going into Government. In the second paragraph of that programme it is stated:

Government, too, belongs to the people. But the relationship between Government and the people it served has been damaged by a lack of openness. This relationship must be renewed.

Those are great ideas but, unfortunately, in the past year we have witnessed obfuscation and a lack of openness at every turn. While I accept the peace process is a sensitive matter, on Question Time today the Taoiseach, in effect, refused to answer merited questions on that subject. The same applied to a question on the granting of indemnity to Ministers involved in legal proceedings. In its programme the Government pledged to, "reform our institutions at a national and local level to provide service, accountability, transparency and freedom of information.

One example of how difficult this has made his situation is in regard to the Joint Committee on Commercial Semi-State Bodies. Paragraph 23 of the programme for Government states this committee's remit will be widened "in particular to enable the committee to investigate any matter involving unethical behaviour by a particular semi-State body in connection with its business or by any of its board members or employees." What better vehicle for investigating the Lowry affair debacle than this committee? If the Government had any willingness to have it properly investigated, it could have amended the terms of reference of that committee and not blocked everything. It pledged to do this in its programme for Government.

This Government also introduced a change to the repeat rule. The Minister referred in his speech to the chairman of the Beef Tribunal, who said that if wider information had been given in this Chamber there might not have been any need for a tribunal. That may be true but this Government introduced a repeat rule which, despite our objections, has made it more difficult for the Opposition to secure answers to questions instead of making the situation more open and transparent. I challenged the Minister of State responsible for Dáil reform, Deputy Doyle, to bring this matter forward immediately. It is acknowledged not only by those on the other side but also by the staff in the House that this change has made matters more closed and I await a Government amendment in that respect.

The Government says it is bringing forward a referendum on the possible relaxation of Cabinet confidentiality. There is an exclusion in this Bill in relation to Cabinet discussions. I understand — I stand to be corrected — that the Minister, in his briefing on this Bill to the correspondents, stated that in the event of this referendum passing and there being a relaxation of Cabinet confidentiality, this Bill may have to be amended. The Taoiseach said no such thing to me last week and I will check the record. There appears to be a conflict between the Minister, his Minister of State and the Taoiseach.

The Government has pledged to reform the Ministers and Secretaries Act to give more responsibility to secretaries of Departments. Members and anyone with experience of Government acknowledges it is ludicrous and unfair to make Ministers responsible for every scintilla of correspondence and other matters that pass through Departments and there must be reform in that respect. Heads of Departments or sections of Departments must be responsible for the work in their Department. They are there every day and are getting paid for this. It is their job to ensure matters are done properly. Politicians going into Government find it difficult to understand why they are responsible for every item that goes through other people's hands — there were examples of this last year. However, because of the hierarchical structure of our public service the Minister is ultimately responsible. We put together a strategic management initiative when in Government which tried to address the matter in a broad way and see what changes could be made and I expect this Government to carry on with this initiative.

This Government promised Oireachtas reform in its programme. It said it would make the Dáil more effective, efficient and businesslike. All we have seen, especially with regard to the questioning of the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Lowry, is obfuscation and blocking. It flies in the face of everything this Government has said.

It promised to complete and publish this Bill in its programme for Government and did so. However, it went on to say that "following enactment of the Bill, a committee of investigation will be formed to investigate matters of serious public concern from time to time." That flies in the face of what the Minister said today. He seemed to say that type of response was a knee jerk reaction and it would be far better to leave it up to tribunals. I have some sympathy with that statement, but the Government said when in Opposition that it would introduce a committee of investigation when it put this programme together. Where does it stand now? When the Minister replies, perhaps he can say if a committee of investigation will be allowed to be set up from time to time to investigate these issues.

I spent some time going through the debate on the once off Bill to which the Minister referred last year. When we had the difficulty of bringing the then Attorney General, Eoghan Fitzsimons, before the Select Committee on Legislation and Security, we pointed out long before he came that any witness coming before this sub-committee would have difficulties with privilege and compellability. We were accused at the time by some of the Minister's party members of filibustering, but we were proved right in the end when a Bill had to be put through to give some sort of protection to these witnesses. Even then the Bill did not contain any provisions on the compelling of witnesses to come before that committee.

The Minister of State at the Department of the Marine, Deputy Gilmore, made some interesting contributions on this Bill this time last year. He stated:

One of the reasons we have failed up to now to have the type of procedure in place in Ireland is that we have inherited the most centralised and most secretive systems of public administration anywhere in the world. Our entire public administration is surrounded by a culture of secrecy which promotes the idea that the people should not know, that they do not have the right to know and when they ask questions, they should be provided with the minimum of information. What passes for public accountability when Ministers are asked parliamentary questions is an exercise in avoiding straightforward answers. Replies to parliamentary questions are masterpieces in avoiding what is actually asked.

Deputy Shatter referred to the speech made by the then Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Dempsey, by stating:

He has failed to understand the central point which is the responsibility of a Government to be accountable to this House and the responsibility of the Taoiseach and Ministers, when asked questions, to give a full and truthful account of events in which they have been involved and for which they are constitutionally responsible to this House.

Deputy Mitchell said:

A new position of inspector general or general accounting officer should be created. Such persons would be accountable to the Ceann Comhairle and the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and they would have unimpeded access to even the most secret file, be asked to establish the truth of matters in cases where there are well established concerns and to report to the committee, who in turn would report to the House...

... A Bill should be brought forward outlining the powers and duties of the Ceann Comhairle in ensuring that Ministers give comprehensive answers in the House and are not protected by outdated procedures or rulings.

Where do Deputy Mitchell and his Government colleagues stand now? The unfortunate Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Lowry, did everything but answer the questions put to him in this House. There are 22 committees of the House, sub-committees and party committees. Sometimes I wonder how we manage to man all these committees and I pity some of the smaller parties in that regard.

We must provide increased resources not just for Deputies but for committees as the more power we give them the more resources they need. Unless we do so this legislation will be for nought. Those of us who sat on the sub-committee last year wondered whether we could employ a legal adviser. Finally we were given that facility but it occurred to someone that the only person to whom we could go for advice was the Attorney General whose office was an issue in the committee's investigations. Committees that are given the facility to compel witnesses to appear before them must have legal advice available to them which is not from the Office of the Attorney General

The Bill grants High Court privilege to witnesses which is a half-way house between qualified privilege and absolute privilege. The Minister was correct when he said witnesses are at a disadvantage when they appear before committees in that the playing pitch is not level.

Members of the House have absolute privilege under the Constitution which, unfortunately, was abused by some of those who are now in Government. It happened recently when the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Lowry, mentioned people who are not Members.

As a result of the intervention of Marian Finucane the Government decided to include the Director of Public Prosecutions among those who may be called before a committee. Why is the Director of Public Prosecutions treated differently from the Attorney General? Obviously, the Attorney General had his hands on the Bill when it was drafted. It is strange that although the two offices are somewhat similar they are treated differently. The Attorney General has two separate roles and will come before committees to answer on his general administration of the office as legal adviser to the Government. Yet he has another important role and that is overseeing the common good. It is important that the Attorney General come before committees to answer questions on matters of public interest and the common good and I accept that the Government proposes to review this aspect of dividing the two roles.

I am unhappy with the proposal to refuse to allow matters come before a committee which aresub judice. It is a blanket exclusion. It should be up to the person alleging that the matter is sub judice to establish that it is the subject of proceedings and is at issue in those proceedings. A person called before a committee need only issue a plenary summons and the matter will be before the courts. It costs £55 to do that. Alternatively they can put someone else up to issuing the plenary summons. That may be a flaw in the Bill which should be amended on Committee Stage.

We changed thesub judice rule in the House, although it did not appear to be so in the controversy surrounding the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, so that it can be invoked only after notice of trial stage.

I referred to the seeming difference of opinion between the Minister for Finance, Deputy Quinn, and the Taoiseach on the referendum on Cabinet confidentiality and Government discussions. I await hearing the Government's response.

Sections 6 and 7, and the other sections dealing with areas outside the scope of compellability but which may be included in certain circumstances, are convoluted. I accept what the Minister said but I wonder why civil servants, members of the Garda Síochana and others are treated differently. The Taoiseach is the final arbiter on such issues and I have difficulty with that. If a commission was brought in as an appeals procedure there would have to be an appeal to the High Court. Although this Government heralded change — openness, transparency, letting in the light and so on — this legislation is another example of its failure in that regard.

I welcome the fact that if a person considers he or she has been impugned by something said at a committee, he or she can come before a committee to make a submission. That is in line with the relaxation of thesub judice rule we brought in some time ago. It would deal with situations like the recent one where the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Lowry, said certain things about people outside the House. It remains to been seen whether the procedures in relation to that incident will be borne out.

I will go into more detail on the protection of people and fair procedures on Committee Stage. Nothing in the Bill puts an onus on the committee to vindicate the good name of witnesses. A section in the 1994 Bill, which related to the incidents which occured this time last year, obliged the committee to take all necessary steps to protect and vindicate the good name of witnesses. This Bill is bald in that respect.

The section 6 procedure differentiates between civil servants and others, which could cause constitutional difficulties. If a non civil servant who appears before this committee believes he is in a quasi defendant situation, the only procedure to vindicate his name is through the section 6 procedure. Yet under the Constitution, as interpreted in the Haughey case, he is entitled to cross-examine, get a copy of the statement and to a myriad of procedures which would allow his name to be vindicated. A difference is being made between civil servants and non civil servants and, indeed, TDs and Senators who are being given more rights in section 5(2) — I suppose it has something to do with absolute privilege.

While I welcome the Bill, it will be a grave disappointment to those who supported the change of Government. People who believed there would be a change for the better quickly began to realise this is the most secretive Government in the history of the State. I look forward to Committee Stage where perhaps coincidental events, like the intervention of Marian Finucane, might prompt this Government, out of embarrassment, to change this Bill to something which it pointed to inA Government of Renewal. To a certain extent, the Government hoodwinked the public, but I suppose it will be given its answer at the next election, which I hope will be in the not too distant future.

My party will not vote against the Bill on Second Stage, but we will put down substantial amendments on Committee Stage to tease out its provision to allow what most people feel is justified — opening up this House and the public administration of this State. Unfortunately, the message must go out that this Government is not fulfilling the promises it made when it came into power. In a number of instances, it has tended to be more obstructive and secretive than any Government up to now.

May I share my time with Deputy Michael McDowell?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This Bill was long awaited. It took a long time in the Departments and it was held up in the Department of Justice. If it was properly laid before the House, it would change the nature of the Department of Justice and our democracy as it applies to Dáil Éireann and its committees. It is clear the Bill was depleted by the Department of Justice because of the obsessive culture of secrecy which is part and parcel of the tradition in that Department.

This Bill should be a major part of Dáil reform and the evolution of the committee system, which is only at a fledging stage. We made a mistake allowing the committees to proliferate unnecessarily to 22. The main legislative committees would deal well with Committee Stages of Bills and inquiries, should they be necessary. The proliferation of committees serves to diminish the endeavours and time of Deputies and Senators. The commmittee system is in need of a mid-term review. As my party Whip, I will bring forward such proposals in the context of Dáil reform. We must look at committees to see how we can amend them. While they are important they need to be looked at with review in mind.

This long awaited Bill is intended to enhance the power of committees which have been disabled by not having the power to compel witnesses to attend or to offer them privilege as regards statements they may make. Movitation for the Bill was the need to give power to the committees to take evidence and to compel witnesses to attend, yet a menu of issues and people who are exempt from the Bill are listed. That is a negative way to approach what should be very positive legislation. It places a gag on public servants, for example. Section 14 prohibits a civil servant from expressing any subjective opinion on the merits of any Government policy or from producing or sending any document expressing such an opinion to a committee. Even if a civil servant expressed an opinion, the committee is prohibited from disclosing such a breach of the Act except to the superiors of the civil servant.

The Bill gives considerable powers to the Taoiseach which constitutes a type of veto on matters which can go to the committee. If an application is made to the Taoiseach for a range of reasons, including the security of the state, the Taoiseach may place a veto on the committee dealing with that issue.

The rule on Cabinet confidentiality is expanded in this Bill. Thesub judice rule is also covered in the Bill. Any matter that is sub judice may not be dealt with by an inquiring committee.

It is very important that the inquiring role of the Dáil be extended. The Dáil is a legislative body but the role of Parliament as a body to inquire into matters of public interest and make findings on such matters where the need arises is also very important. That role is seriously hampered at present and is not very much helped by the Bill. A wide range of issues, which should be properly included if the Bill is to have relevance in enhancing the inquiring role of the Dáil, is excluded.

One of the office holders of the State excluded from the Bill is the DPP. That exclusion is unacceptable and I said so when the Bill was published. For two years I have put questions to the Taoiseach about the office of the DPP. Currently that is the only mechanism of accountability, albeit limited, open to Members of the House. The Taoiseach believes that raising questions on the office of the DPP causes the office to be overly politicised. It is necessary in the public interest to pursue that matter if only to illustrate that the only way to elicit information on prosecution policy is by way of parliamentary questions.

I welcome the Taoiseach's announcement today at Question Time that the Bill is to be changed to allow a greater degree of answerability and accountability on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions. An annual report will be published and debated in the House. A welcome development is that the DPP is to be amenable to committees of the House. I will immediately arrange for an invitation to be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions to attend the Select Committee on Legislation and Security where issues of prosecution policy and statistical information on the operation of that office may be discussed. There has been a lack of administrative accountability by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I said in the past and I reiterate that it is unacceptable that such an important arm of the criminal justice system operates almost as an independent republic.

Today the Ombudsman, who has published an excellent annual report, willingly attended the Select Committee on Legislation and Security without prejudice to his independence — his is necessarily an extremely independent office. The Ombudsman believes his independence is not prejudiced by providing for a degree of openness and accountability to the committee. I look forward to the Director of Public Prosecutions and members of his office attending the committee to discuss modifications in prosecution policy, difficulties that may arise and proposals for reform. Independence can survive a greater degree of answerability and I welcome the Government decision to allow for that.

A range of issues is excluded from the Bill. The exclusion of matters relating to criminal prosecution is unacceptable. As I understand it, the position of the Garda Commissioner is not covered in the Bill. A difficulty arose previously when the Garda Commissioner refused to attend a committee. At a time when crime is a priority it is vital that every opportunity is taken to allow the Dáil to be effective in dealing with policy issues that directly affect crime. There must be an ability to influence operational matters in terms of policing, particularly in urban areas in the context of the drugs crisis. Many people believe that politicians have lost the war against crime and that matters are out of control. That is very dangerous in a democracy. The belief that there is inadequate contact between elected representatives and the people who make decisions on operational matters on the ground contributes to that perception. There needs to be more accountability in regard to policing. It is important that we debate policing and prosecution policies and other matters that impact on criminality. There are inadequate mechanisms in the House to bring about an impact on the escalating crime rate.

Section 6 provides that a person is not obliged to give evidence or produce any document where the evidence or document relates to information specified in section 6 (9). That information consists of information given to the witness in confidence by any other person without that person's permission; information relating to business, professional or occupational information which might prejudice the witness; information relating to the family life or other private affairs — whatever that means — of a person; and information which might be prejudicial to the State in its relations with other states. A declaration by the Taoiseach made under section 7 effectively prevents debate on the issues on which it is made. The Taoiseach is given a virtual veto over significant areas of potential investigation. One can only imagine that invocation of the confidential clause in section 6(9) (a) will benefit any person who wishes to avoid giving embarrassing evidence. Despite its controversial elements, Cabinet confidentiality protection is firmly established in this Bill. That is a very dubious rule and one on which reform has been long promised. It is extended in the Bill to proceedings at a committee appointed by the Government whose membership consists of public servants.

The Select Committee on Legislation and Security is expressly prohibited from giving direction to any person to give evidence in respect of any matter regarding the security of the State. The "security of the State" is a very wide, catch-all phrase which has been used down the years by successive Ministers for Justice to avoid giving information on matters they did not wish to be released into the public domain. It is a very open-ended phrase. The Government has a stated commitment to review the Official Secrets Act and bring in a freedom of information Bill. The fact that there are so many exclusions from the Bill flies in the face of the commitment on open Government. There should be a presumption that all information should be freely available unless there are particular reasons for doing otherwise. At present, however, the Official Secrets Act imposes a blanket ban on most State information.

The exclusion of the Attorney General may also be controversial. I understand that a compromise was reached with the Attorney General whereby he would be accountable only for the operations of his office but not for any other matter. Looking back at a recent controversy in the Office of the Attorney General, that would exclude calling the Attorney General or the chief legal assistant to discuss a matter such as not answering the letters relating to Fr. Brendan Smyth. Does the Bill make that situation worse? At least at that time there was the possibility of calling witnesses and hearing the evidence of senior officials in the Office of the Attorney General. It appears that this Bill places a restriction on that.

There is a reluctance throughout the Bill to offer real accountability — it will have to be comprehensively amended during its passage through the House — which is unfortunate because this was an opportunity for the Government to make a strong statement about its determination to change the administration of Government into an open system rather than a closed and restricted one. Apart from the publication of this Bill, there has been no effort to deal with the difficulties experienced by Deputies on a daily basis with regard to answering Dáil questions. The only means available to a Dáil Deputy of holding the Government to account is through parliamentary questions. My experience, as a persistent poser of such questions, is that the house is constantly misled by the manner in which parliamentary questions are answered.

Mr. Justice Hamilton, in his report on the beef tribunal, placed much emphasis on the fact that the débâcle could have been avoided if parliamentary questions had been properly answered. The lessons which should have been learned from the beef tribunal have been forgotten or not heeded and the standard and quality of parliamentary replies have deteriorated. I have frequently been disappointed to receive one line replies to quite complicated parliamentary questions and thwarted — like many Deputies — by the repeat rule which is constantly used as a way to avoid awkward questions. Another method by which parliamentary questions can be avoided is the transfer of questions from one Department to another. A question that contains argument is likewise ruled out of order.

If the Taoiseach and the Cabinet are serious about learning the lessons of the past about real accountability, the parliamentary questions system should be examined in a comprehensive way. If necessary, the Civil Service will have to be retrained in how to answer such questions. At present, the Government can hide successfully and mislead the Dáil through the many obstacles which are there specifically to confuse Deputies or to keep them in the dark. That is well known by Ministers, the Opposition and civil servants. Each Government has the capacity to come a cropper as a result of the failure to reply properly to parliamentary questions.

One section of the Bill provides for financial penalties in respect of any person who refuses to attend before a Dáil committee. One can imagine wealthy members of society who would prefer to pay the fine rather than expose themselves to cross-examination by a Dáil committee. What would happen if, for example, the Garda Commissioner, the Attorney General or the DPP refused to attend before a Dáil committee? Even though the Taoiseach has said that the DPP will now be amenable to a Dáil committee, there will still be opportunities under the Bill to rule out his attendance on the grounds that the committee is dealing with one of the excluded issues. It might be a matter in respect of the security of the State or information kept for the purposes of preventing, detecting or investigating offences or apprehending or prosecuting offenders. If it is something which he discussed with a civil servant and the Attorney General it could be excluded on the grounds that it is a Cabinet sub-committee.

This Bill has an attitude problem. Its stated task is to give powers to a Dáil committee. It gives the power but quickly takes it away by excluding important office holders of State and a huge range of issues which may not be the subject of evidence given to a committee.

The Ombudsman in his annual report and when he spoke to the Select Committee on Legislation and Security this morning dealt at length with the issue of administrative accountability. That has not been discussed at great length in the House. Members are very conscious of political accountability but administrative accountability has not matured well in this State. There is a need for civil servants to be made more accountable for their work. There is a need for maladministration to be identified and procedures put in place to address it when it occurs. Many of our citizens, as evidenced by the number of complaints to the Ombudsman, encounter maladministration in the public service, the health boards, local authorities and wherever the State interfaces with the citizen. The work done by the Office of the Ombudsman is crucially important in maintaining the goodwill of citizens for our democracy.

The Minister of State is involved with public service reform and with the strategic management initiative which will go a long way towards increasing accountability and answerability and, we hope, improve administrative procedures throughout the public service. That work is long overdue and the Minister will have the support of our party in that regard.

The Bill provides for secret court proceedings. There is a proposal to have High Court applications determined otherwise than in public. That is a complex section and we will have to look at it in detail on Committee Stage. We were extremely disappointed with the Bill when published. As it stands it does not improve the position. It needs to be drastically amended and we will be tabling amendments to it. I do not see the point in putting a gag on public servants as it defeats the purpose of the Bill. A prohibition on a civil servant from expressing an opinion on the merits of Government policy or from producing or sending to a committee a document expressing such an opinion flies in the face of the promised review of the Official Secrets Act and the introduction of a freedom of information Bill. It is driving a coach and four through the provisions of the legislation. If we are serious about allowing a committee system a full inquiry capacity, we should not replicate in this Bill procedures and a culture of secrecy which we are trying to eliminate from other Bills by way of a promised reform of the Official Secrets Act and the introduction of a freedom of information Bill. On those scores we are highly critical of the Bill in that it reflects an attitude problem regarding promised open Government.

Regarding the accountability of the DPP, I warmly welcome the Government's indication that it will amend the Bill as published to allow for an annual report from that office and for the DPP to be amenable to a Dáil committee. That is extremely important given the widespread dissatisfaction about the lack of accountability and the general lack of checks and balances on the exercise of the important discretionary power to prosecute. It is a generally held view that the independence of the office will not be prejudiced by allowing greater checks and balances, an annual report and a much improved victim liaison service ensuring that the victims of crime will be elevated in status under the criminal justice system. It must be fully recognised that the victim of a crime is as important as the accused. We can start by reforming the Office of the DPP to reflect that sensitivity and the importance the State places on an individual who has been harmed by a criminal act. That would go a long way towards improving the position.

Given the announcement that the DPP will be amenable to a Dáil committee, I presume I may still table questions to the Taoiseach regarding the DPP's accountability. During the past few months the Taoiseach has been reluctant to deal with issues relating to the DPP. I have been accused of political sniping and of overly politicising the office of the DPP, but my efforts have been worth it. I believe I had the support of the thousands of people who felt aggrieved by the operations of a high office of State which failed to adopt procedures sympathetic to the needs of the victims of crime. The independence of that office can survive accountability, answerability and reviewability. I look forward to the DPP coming into the House to answer Deputies' questions without fear. There is nothing to be afraid of in measured accountability——

Those are Marian Finucane's words.

——focused on the common good and public interest to improve the operations of that office and to enhance the role of the victim in the criminal justice system.

We all await with tremendous anticipation Deputy O'Donnell's elevation to high office and her openness in answering questions. I suspect she will be as evasive as and probably much more coy than any of the present Ministers or Ministers of State.

I give a qualified welcome to the Bill. I qualify it because I am here long enough to know that reforming legislation has come before the House in the past only to be buried somewhere along the line. We will wait to see how the legislation will perform and how the Government of the day wants it to perform before we pass final judgment on it.

There are two main elements to the Bill, that of privilege and compellability, something we have been seeking for many years, but it has been sought more enthusiastically in recent months because we have seen the committee system virtually grind to a halt.

The figure of 22 committees has been mentioned. That reminds me of the famous parliamentary committee in Britain known as the Committee of 22. As I stated in a debate several weeks ago, it is my belief that we could do with as few as six or seven committees and that 22 is far in excess of what is needed. Most of the committees have become almost irrelevant and certainly do not justify their existence. Perhaps this legislation will regenerate the type of enthusiasm that prevailed when the committees were originally mooted and formed.

Politics is all about answerability, not transparency or accountability. The public want answers to the questions they ask daily as a result of the problems that arise in society. They want real answers to real problems. What happens here is by and large irrelevant to the vast majority of the public; it is a cosmetic exercise. That is why I give this legislation a qualified welcome. If it works and we get answers and make progress as a result we will all applaud it, but we will wait to see if that will be the case.

This House is seen by the public as not doing a meaningful job. It is not seen to give answers or to solve the problems. The main problem is the epidemic of violence on our streets and in our countryside. It is not confined any longer to the inner city regions of Dublin, it is nationwide in every town, village and rural area. It is not the fault of the present Minister for Justice. It has been with us for years and has grown and spread like an epidemic disease which is eating into the core of our society.

It is unfortunate, as proposed in the Bill, that members of the Garda Síochána will not be allowed to express their opinions on matters when they attend these committees. Of course, they should be allowed to do so as they are in the front line, they are harassed and insulted daily and are not protected by this House or by the laws which have been implemented over the years. They see the breakdown of law and order daily at first hand. Surely they are the people who, first and foremost, should be asked for an opinion as to how the problem should be solved and the root causes of the problem. I take issue with that part of the legislation in particular.

I would not be averse to having the Judiciary appear before the committees to express an opinion because they see how crazy some of the laws are and their ineffectiveness in controlling the crime epidemic. The whole thing has resulted in a tremendous drop in morale. People do not see the point in going to the Garda to complain about robberies, assaults, even serious assaults or serious crime, because they feel the Garda do not have the resources and the courts do not have the powers to solve their problems. In other words, they feel the whole system has become irrelevant and that it is the case of "look after yourself because nobody is prepared to take care of you". That is a shocking indictment of the whole system and of this House. If the powers, which are being introduced in this Bill, help the committees to improve the position we would all be delighted but my experience has been the contrary. We will await the legislation to see how it works in effect.

In the past people — some of whom are employees of the State — who should have been delighted to come before the committees, give evidence and explain to the Members what they feel should be done have refused to attend. I refer specifically to the Garda Commissioner who, last July, refused to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Family which wished to speak to him about the drugs problem. He said it was not a matter for him but a matter for the Department of Education. I could not think of a more ludicrous answer to a very serious problem. It is a shocking state of affairs that the highest preventative law officer in the country should decline to appear before a committee, which merely wanted to discuss a very serious problem with him. It is indicative of the attitude in high places within the whole Civil Service and the State sector that you could thumb your nose at authority, politicians and the Houses of the Oireachtas and get away with it. That should not be the case. If we are to solve the problems of this country we must do so in unison. We cannot be in conflict. That type of refusal was petty, unnecessary and ill-thought of by the public in general.

The Garda and their representatives at all levels should be asked to give their opinions, contrary to what is stated in the Bill, before the Select Committee on Legislation and Security. The committee was set up to solve crime problems here. If they cannot express an opinion their contribution would be limited.

As a member of several committees over many years I have found that one does not get the end result one might hope for because, I suppose, primarily it has to do with Irish society and its parochial nature. In other countries with large populations decisions are made on the basis of whether they are right or wrong. In our society, far too often decisions are made on the basis of who you know rather than what you know.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Commercial State-sponsored Bodies for several years, I found it a most frustrating experience. I put it down to what I call parochialism and a large dose of the old pals' act. It was not an investigative committee as its parameters would lead one to believe. All the major issues seem to be sidetracked because of the fear of offending somebody in authority in a State or semi-State body. That is a shocking indictment of the system. I do not see how the legislation we are introducing will improve the position very much but, hopefully it will. If people want to be evasive and if Members of the committee are willing to accept that, the new legislation will not achieve any additional purpose.

There are tremendous problems within the State-sponsored bodies, many of which have come to the surface in recent times although we have known of their existence for many years. There has never been any real attempt to solve them. If the will is not there to pursue matters that need to be pursued the whole purpose of the committees and of this legislation will be defeated. There is no point in bringing people in and giving them the softly softly treatment when there is a need to ask pertinent questions, for example, why they are losing tens of millions of pounds every year; why they are grossly overstaffed; why they should not be profit-making when they have every advantage in their favour, such as a monopoly. Those pertinent questions are not asked and even if they are they are not answered. My experience is that the majority of members of committees often go along with the softly softly approach and the easy way out.

Some committee chairmen have shown a fine example in their leadership and in their investigative role. I do not say this because Deputy Jim Mitchell is present. His committees have always been a shining beacon when it comes to questioning and investigation of certain actions. He has shown good example in not letting people off the hook by asking relevant questions and demanding relevant answers.

The point has been made that if this legislation had been in place several years ago, the beef tribunal would not have taken place thereby saving the State at least £40 million. That raises the question of whether witnesses will be allowed bring their legal representatives with them into the committee. Will they be able to do what witnesses before committees in America do, namely, plead the Fifth Amendment if the question they are being asked is likely to indict them? Will we see legal teams accompanying witnesses who have been compelled to attend before committees to answer pertinent questions? Can they refuse to answer those questions on the basis that they might indict themselves?

Will the Minister allude to that in her reply because there is a danger that legal teams will attend virtually all committee meetings, that legal fees will be enormous and that the High Court or the Supreme Court will find that the Oireachtas, and therefore the taxpayer, is liable for the legal fees in question.

I can envisage a situation in which a series of tribunals would be held simultaneously. Leinster House would become more like the Four Courts than the location of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Members would ask each other which committee they are attending, the witnesses appearing before it and the legal teams accompanying them.

These issues will have to be teased out. This House introduces legislation, and judges frequently complain that we do not do our job properly and, as a result, they are required to let murderers and others who have committed serious crimes go free. We must tie up all the loose ends so that the whole system does not become a bonanza for legal eagles. We must ensure it does not become unworkable because of High Court writs being issued. This House must be supreme when it comes to law making and we must ensure those laws cannot be challenged or if they are, they will not be overturned in our courts. I have no doubt this question has occurred to other Members.

In his contribution the Minister stated the Bill does not trammel the House or any committee in discussing matters which are the subject of court proceedings but precludes a committee from utilising its powers of compellability to question a witness and force him or her to disclose information which could prejudice him or her in the context of such proceedings. It is obvious, therefore, that if somebody is involved in litigation, we can forget about bringing him before committees of this House.

The Minister stated also that evasiveness in answering parliamentary questions becomes a less attractive option when the posibility exists of frustrated Deputies or their colleagues looking behind the answer to the documentary and other information on which it is based. That is laughable and is a clear admission that there is massive evasion when it comes to answering questions in this House. That is nothing new; it has been true of Governments and Ministers for years. There is not just evasiveness in answering questions but in getting to the point of the question. As I often pointed out here, if there is a question on the Order Paper which might be embarrassing to the Government or to a particular Minister, Members filibuster on the preceding questions to ensure that question is not reached.

The whole structure of Question Time and the issue of openness must be addressed. The Bill does not specifically refer to this but the Minister referred to it in his contribution. Evasiveness must be eliminated from politics because it reduces our credibility in the eyes of the public. It is one of the reasons the public is extremely cynical.

I am anxious to see this legislation working but I have seen so much well meaning legislation come to nothing in the past that I am a little dubious about this Bill. I will wait to see how it translates into action. If it translates into action and witnesses are compelled to come before committees and tell the truth, thereby making this House relevant and this country a better place in which to live, the introduction of this Bill will have been a good day's work.

The Dáil is virtually dead. It is ridiculous that we should conduct our business in this Chamber today the way we have done since 1921. Every day Members address empty chairs. In so far as the Bill before us is another step along the road to reform, I warmly welcome it. The difficulty of introducing reform, however, is highlighted by the fact that between June and December of 1993, I asked the then Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, when this promised legislation would be introduced and on every occasion, up to the week before Christmas 1993, I was told the Bill would be circulated before Christmas. The week before Christmas 1993 I was told it would be circulated during the Christmas recess. After the Christmas recess I was told it would be circulated during that session. Two years later, we have a Bill on privilege and compellability, a long overdue measure on the road to parliamentary reform.

This Bill is a great opportunity for the Dáil to get its house in order but we must be wary because of many of the points referred to by Deputy Deasy. From my experience both as the former chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts and current chairman of the Select Commitee on Finance and General Affairs, I know there is a danger that the excessive number of Members could undermine the powers we now seek to give to committees.

It is difficult for polticians to avoid making political charges in the House. That is accepted among politicians, but compelling outside witnesses to appear before committees will greatly undo the work of those committees if politicians act in breach of natural justice or act politically rather than with balance and good sense. For that reason this Bill will almost certainly have to be followed by either another Bill or detailed procedures as to how committees conduct their affairs. A vital component of this reform will be the appropriate staffing of committees, which is currently a disaster. Committees must have the appropriate number of staff as well as the appropriate expertise to carry out necessary research and preparation. More importantly, this legislation will not work unless and until there is established a legal services office within the Houses of the Oireachtas. We cannot run down to the Four Courts to seek quotations from three senior counsel each time we need legal advice on how we should proceed in order to observe the rules of natural justice. Such a committee will have to be appointed if this legislation is to be effective. Legal and, at times, procedural advice will have to be given on a daily basis. Counsel may have to sit in on meetings if committees are to do their work properly.

When we talk about committees summoning and taking evidence from witnesses on oath — this is absolutely necessary — it has to be understood that they will remain political fora, not judicial fora. It was evident when the subcommittee of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security was appointed to inquire into the events surrounding the fall of the previous Government that it would not work as it was a political committee representative of the composition of the Dáil. This meant that the representatives of the outgoing Government were in a minority and were, in effect, to be investigated by the majority. It has to be understood that committees of this House cannot expect to be treated seriously or as impartial assessors when they examine political questions.

It is necessary and essential, however, that in future witnesses appearing before committees give evidence under oath. For instance, witnesses appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts have never given evidence under oath. It is, therefore, not an offence to give false or misleading evidence to the committee. To do so under oath, however, is an offence. If this is established the matter may be referred to the courts for decision and appropriate penalty. As a former chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts and current chairman of the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs, I believe such a power is necessary to ensure committees are told the truth.

The relevant provisions of the Bill appear to be wishy-washy. I ask the Minister to clarify that in all cases witnesses appearing before committees will be expected to give evidence under oath. This is fundamental. If witnesses appearing before committees are allowed to be economic with the truth, to give misleading evidence or tell lies and get away with it because it is not considered to be an offence the committees will only be wasting their time.

The party whip system, as we know it, will have to be eased. This is an important consideration if the committee system is to work. One of the reasons there are empty benches, even at Taoiseach's Question Time, is that everything is a foregone conclusion. This is destroying the House. Even on minor matters Deputies are not allowed to think for themselves. While Government and Opposition parties have to apply the whip on fundamental policy issues such as the budget the party whip system has been taken to ridiculous lengths. If Deputies sneeze, they may lose the whip. There was a time when this was withdrawn only where a Deputy voted against his party, but mere criticism or questioning of the line taken may now lead to expulsion. This has deadened the House.

The party whip system will have to be eased to liberate Members so that they may think for themselves and contribute to debates and the legislative process with greater freedom. Not only would this not harm the Government, it would enhance it. It must be remembered that the primary function of the Houses of the Oireachtas is to hold the Executive to account and keep it on its toes in the national interest. If the Executive is able to exercise tight control of Parliament it will become lazy as it will not have to worry about Parliament. Progressively, this is the trend in all parties represented in the House. Another Bill should be introduced laying down guidelines under which Members would have liberty when it comes to voting on particular issues provided always that the party whip would be applied on fundamental policy issues.

There is serious danger that a number of committees will cross each other's frontiers with the result that we may find ourselves in the ridiculous position where several committees want to summon the same witnesses thereby undermining the credibility of the Government. There is a need to establish a co-ordinating committee to decide on the appropriate committee in the event of conflict. I wish to give a case in point.

The Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs is responsible for the Votes of the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Attorney General appeared before the committee for the first time last week and the roof did not fall in. The Select Committee on Legislation and Security may also want to question those two officers of State.

The Joint Committee on the Family wanted the Garda Commissioner to appear before it. I am sure, however, that the Select Committee on Legislation and Security believes that, if any committee is to have the power to summon the Garda Commissioner, it should fall within its remit.

When I was chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts I recall that on one occassion I had to overrule the otherwise unanimous decision of the committee that it should summon witnesses from Telecom Éireann. I ruled that it would be inappropriate for the committee to do so even though the matter did involve the expenditure of public moneys, that it would be more appropriate for the Select Committee on Enterprise and Economic Strategy which is responsible for overseeing the activities of the parent Department or, alternatively, the Joint Committee on Commerical State-sponsored Bodies to do so. I had to stick firmly to this ruling.

There is a danger that the committee system will be discredited if several committees try to get in on the action on a particular matter and summon the same witnesses. There is a need to introduce either a new law or detailed procedures highlighting the need for co-ordination and stipulating the procedures to be observed in summoning witnesses. I was very glad the Taoiseach said what he did at Question Time today in relation to the Director of Public Prosecutions. I was astonished at the provisions in this Bill relating to the Attorney General and the DPP because for far too long there has been confusion in many people's minds, including those of Members of this House, about the concepts of independence and accountability. Of course, the law clearly specifies that the DPP must have absolute independence in the conduct of his office but that does not mean he is not accountable for its efficiency, effectiveness and the moneys it expends which are voted by this House. No public expenditure can be beyond accountability. Therefore, I was glad to note that the Taoiseach, in replying to questions today, indicated that this Bill will be amended to ensure that the Director of Public Prosecutions, in respect of the general administration of his office, will come before a nominated committee of the House to answer for it, excluding any specific case. That is, of course, correct.

The Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs of which I am chairman decided some months ago to call in the Attorney General to discuss the general efficiency of his office and how priorities are determined. With the exception of the inquiry held at the beginning of this year, no Attorney General had ever before come before a committee of the House. There was an exchange of correspondence, the ultimate result of which was that the Attorney General appeared before a subcommittee. I indicated that the Attorney General — even though not specified in any legislative measure or in the Constitution — had to be independent and was not accountable for his role as legal adviser to the Government because of the client-lawyer relationship rule, which was accepted.

We recognise that the Attorney General, as guardian of the public interest, may have to maintain independence in the carrying out of that role, although that is not as clear-cut. However, one matter for which he must be held accountable, as he has now accepted, is the overall efficiency of his office, how priorities are ordered, how fees are determined and his office performs generally. I am glad that accountability has been established. I hope that what the Taoiseach said today about the Director of Public Prosecutions will also apply to the Attorney General.

I disagree with Deputy Deasy's claim that there are too many committees. With the exception of the Committee of Public Accounts, we should abolish all the specialist committees and establish one for each Department of State other than that of the Taoiseach, all answerable to the House in plenary session.

Such departmental committees should be answerable for Estimates, all legislation and all policies of their respective Departments. We should abolish Question Time which has become extremely dull as a result of well-meaning changes effected in recent years that allow Ministers to read very long replies, sometimes to 16 or 17 parliamentary questions grouped together, in the full knowledge that they will not have to answer questions for another six weeks. Under the old system they had to continue to reply over three or four days until all questions had been disposed of. The well intentioned reforms have turned out to be counterproductive.

The transfer of parliamentary questions to departmental committees, where a Minister would have to answer questions posed by an individual Member pursuing a line of questioning before replying to another Member, would enormously enhance the effectiveness of this House in calling the Executive to account. Estimates should be submitted to such departmental committees before the beginning of the financial year, with a strict rule imposed that none can be approved on the nod. All should be scrutinised in detail before being approved and the moneys expended. This would be a necessary provision because successive Governments have got into the habit of submitting Estimates to this House very late and expecting them to be approved on the nod. Many errors have occurred in that process.

There is another essential feature of this overall reform. In plenary session of the Dáil it must be recognised that the Leader of the Opposition occupies a special place because it is up to him, principally, to hold the Government to account. He should be afforded much greater latitude than other Members. Likewise, in the course of committee deliberations, considerable latitude must be afforded the principal Opposition spokespersons. This would enhance the power of this House and the effectiveness of Government, ensuring members of the Government are kept on their toes. That is what parliament ought to be about.

This Bill has had a long gestation, if I recall correctly, over some 20 years. I do not think any Bill has taken so long to reach us. If its provisions were simple it could have been introduced a long time ago. My recollection is that the concept of a Bill such as this was first mooted in the period 1973 to 1977. Since then many different shades of Government have come and gone. The introduction of this Bill resulted from the developments of this time last year, so it is pertinent that we should be discussing it one year later.

Deputy Jim Mitchell claimed that some Members had lost the party whip in very dubious circumstances. Two Members present on this side of the House lost the party whip in somewhat dubious circumstances, myself and Deputy O'Dea, so I can agree with Deputy Mitchell's comments in that respect.

Probably the most significant change that has occurred in recent years has been our greater use of the committee system, on which I gave my opinion when we were establishing new committees at the beginning of this year. My greatest complaint was that the House would eventually find itself with less work to perform, with less attention being paid to its deliberations and a greater number of Members spending more of their time participating in committees, which would not be covered by the media as adequately as the proceedings of the House.

Because of our electoral system, my concern was that public representatives would be running around in circles without the necessary expertise and back-up to deal adequately with the powers vested in them. Within this session much of what I predicted has come to pass. While I am in favour of the committee system — given our multi-seat electoral system, the demands it places on public representatives and the limited back-up facilities available to them — it is difficult to operate and would be more appropriate to a parliament with a different electoral system from ours. I have been one of the most outspoken critics of our multi-seat electoral system without specifically advocating its replacement. There should be a debate on that matter at some time in the future.

These new committees are proving to be worthwhile and this Bill must be viewed in that light. Nonetheless, given my earlier comments, all Members should be aware of the restrictions and drawbacks to the further development of that committee system. I am all for openness, transparency and accountability, but in speaking about that topic, some of us might be at cross-purposes. It is not always possible for a Minister, with no bad intentions on his part, to answer completely because it might have ramifications for the national interest or be unfair to other people who are not in a position to defend themselves.

Debate adjourned.