Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Departmental Information Leaks.

Willie O'Dea

Question:

1 Mr. O'Dea asked the Taoiseach the number of inquiries regarding information leaks that have been instigated by him and/or his Department colleagues since the Government came into office; the number of such inquiries that have concluded; the result of the concluded inquiries; the action, if any, that has been taken as a result of such inquiries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1790/96]

I have instigated no further investigations beyond the four indicated by me in my reply on 4 April 1995. These inquiries have not reached any conclusions beyond those indicated then and on 17 May 1995 in my reply to Questions Nos. 6 and 7. They did not reveal any sources of unauthorised disclosure.

Since that date I have initiated procedures for each departmental secretary to investigate disclosure of information arising in their areas of responsibility. There have been no subsequent inquiries arising in my Department.

My question related not only to the Taoiseach's Department but to others. How many of these inquiries arose from press reports and how many journalists have been or are being interviewed in what have now transpired to be useless inquiries? How much Garda time has been wasted on them?

I am answering here for my Department and any inquiries about other Departments in respect of material which may have been prematurely disclosed should be addressed to them. I am not aware of any Garda time having been expended on any of the inquiries instigated by me or arising within the Department of the Taoiseach.

Is the Taoiseach aware that a number of journalists have been interviewed in inquiries instituted into Government leaks. In view of the information available to him, does the Taoiseach agree all of these inquiries have proved to be useless, have not revealed anything and were a waste of Garda time? Furthermore, would he agree that the level of paranoia demonstrated by all these inquiries contrasts strangely with his commitment to operate his Government as if it was behind a pane of glass?

Whenever Government is considering confidential commercial information from a company seeking assistance from the Government and that confidential commercial information is disclosed publicly, it can have serious disadvantages from the point of view of the competitiveness of that company and the security of its jobs. As I am sure Deputy O'Dea will readily appreciate, there is a very important public need to maintain the confidentiality of some Government transactions. Obviously there is also a need to maintain confidentiality only in regard to those matters that meet that test. It is with a view to allowing greater access to public information, without loss to the public interest, the Government is promoting the freedom of information legislation.

Can the Taoiseach confirm that aSunday Business Post journalist, writing on financial matters, was interviewed by two gardaí? Will he also accept that such behaviour is in conflict with the Government's promise of open Government and amounts to a serious interference with the freedom of the press?

I should prefer that persons outside the House were not referred to.

As I have explained, the premature revelation of information, given in confidence to Government by a third party, can be injurious to that third party. If that information is revealed in a manner damaging to that third party, it can damage the relationship which should exist between Government and those who furnish it with such confidential information. In pursuit of that ideal I consider it entirely reasonable, and in accordance with the law, that Government and relevant agencies should seek to ascertain who was responsible for revealing information that ought not to have been revealed. It is important to make the point that the Official Secrets Act, for example, has operated under successive Governments and to my knowledge, no previous Government has sought to amend or repeal it to restrict the level of secrecy that applies. However, this Government is doing so through its proposal for its amendment to provide for a freedom of information Bill.

The Deputy should realise there is a balance of rights here. There is certainly a right to public information but the Government also has a right to be able to assure people who give it confidential information that the information will remain confidential. Furthermore, the Government has a right when negotiating on behalf of the people with another party, not to have its negotiating position undermined by premature disclosure. There are a series of competing rights which it is necessary to balance in appropriately drafted legislation. In that respect, the Government is preparing its freedom of information legislation, on which I look forward to Deputies' contributions.

Whom does the Taoiseach regard as the offender: the person who leaks the information or the person who received the information?

Deciding where an offence is committed is a matter for the appropriate legal authorities and not for me. It is not for me to act as a judge in any case and I do not propose to do so.

I tabled a question to the Taoiseach on this matter along the lines of a question he answered here on 14 February 1995 but he has transferred it because it was about budgetary leaks. Will the Taoiseach accept, given the current crime wave, there is no justification for using scarce resources in having the Garda investigate leaks by one element of the Government against other elements of the Government?

We are having an element of repetition.

There has not been to my knowledge any leaks by one element of the Government against another element of the Government. There is no need, political or otherwise, for such to occur because the Government is operating in a concerted manner as a team in regard to the budget and all other matters. The Deputy referred to a question she put down in February which I accepted and said similar question was referred this time. The Deputy will recollect that in my reply here today I said that since February I initiated procedures whereby each departmental secretary now has the responsibility of investigating any disclosure of information that occurs in his or her area of responsibility. For example, the responsibility for initiating an inquiry into any unauthorised disclosure of financial information does not rest with me any more but with the secretary of the Department of Finance.

Passing the buck.

Any question the Deputy wishes to put down about investigations in that area should be addressed to the Minister for Finance and, in order to assist the Deputy, I refered the question to the Minister who will answer it for her.

We have dwelt now for nearly a quarter of an hour on this one question. I must be fair to the Deputies who tabled questions. It will have to be brief, Deputy Ahern.

Has the Taoiseach initiated a Garda inquiry into the leak to theIrish Independent last week of the Mitchell report? Will the Taoiseach give an assurance to the House that this report was not leaked with the knowledge or connivance of any member of the Government or its politically appointed staff?

The assumption the Deputy is making that this item was disclosed in this jurisdiction is not necessarily correct. I believe it is not correct. The appropriate Department to initiate an investigation of any possibility that the disclosure might have occured in the jurisdiction is the Department of Justice. I understand the secretary of that Department is considering what action, if any, he should take in regard to the matter. If the Deputy wishes to put down any question seeking further elaboration on that matter he should address his questions to the Minister for Justice.