Private Members' Business. - Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I support Deputy Rabbitte's Bill and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, has agreed, on behalf of the Government, to support the legislation.

Recent exposures of scandals in banks and other institutions have led to the need for legislation of this sort. It is difficult to believe that people did not know of the horrors which were being perpetrated against very young people in residential institutions but were afraid to speak out about them. Irish people have an abhorrence of being called a tell-tale or of informing on another. This stems from our history when we were, for 800 years, under the yoke of the British crown. We must not persist with the frame of mind which prevents us from reporting criminal activities which affect the health and safety of others or which pollute the environment. We must ensure that if an employee feels the need to make a complaint about his employer or co-worker, he will be protected. Deputy Rabbitte's legislation will do that.

I agree with the Minister of State that parts of the Bill need to be re-examined. The list of those to whom a complaint may appropriately be made must be carefully drawn up. When Deputy Rabbitte's legislation was published a newspaper reported that complaints to Deputies and to the media would be covered by it but I see no reference to that in the Bill.

The need to protect whistleblowers was recognised and legislated for in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of us remember the name of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power station worker who saw that procedures in the power station where she worked were liable to cause great danger to the people of her area. Karen Silkwood succeeded in publishing evidence of this danger and subsequently died in an alleged car accident. A television programme was made about Frank Serpico who spoke out about the activities of corrupt police officers. These two cases led to changes in the law in the United States.

When legislation to protect whistleblowers was being enacted in the United States, the US Congress said, "the best source of information about what a company is actually doing or not doing is often its own employees and this amendment will ensure that an employee could provide such information without losing his job or otherwise suffering commercially from retribution". Deputy Rabbitte's legislation attempts to ensure that anyone who feels he must make a complaint about his employer will be protected from civil action by the employer.

We must include in this legislation the possibility of a public servant who has made a complaint about his employer being allowed to transfer to another Department or section. Legal protection may not be sufficient to prevent such an employee being discriminated against or suffering abuse from a superior if it is known that he or she has made a complaint.

How many of us remember the name of Paul Van Buitenen, the EU official who leaked a report about corruption in the EU Commission? He was suspended for four months on half pay for breaking Commission rules by handing over information which led to the suspension of the entire EU Commission and highlighted enormous abuse of EU funds. Last November the European Court of Auditors laid bare mis-spending of £3 billion through fraud and mismanagement in the administration of the 1997 budget. If employees had felt they were protected, they might have reported at an earlier stage and may have prevented some of the misuse of EU funds. It was thought at the time that some of Mr. Van Buitenen's allegations could not possibly be true but the subsequent investigation showed that most, if not all, of what he said was true. His allegations included the awarding of contracts, involving great amounts of EU taxpayers' money, to members of Edith Cresson's family and to people with family links to staff in her Department. We must get over the sense that if we report wrongdoing we will be called cranks or tell-tales and we must make sure that people who report wrongdoing are protected.

It is difficult to believe the people in the banking system were not deeply concerned at some of the actions they were obliged to take. I am quite sure that the internal auditor who reported wrongdoing bore the brunt of his superiors' criticism when he began to disclose information. It is difficult to imagine that some junior bank staff did not wish to make information available when the wrongdoing was in progress. The information was eventually given to the media but it is a sad state of affairs when an employee must give information to a journalist whom he knows will not reveal his source.

People often come to public representatives with incomplete information about wrongdoing but will not reveal the full facts because they do not wish to be identified. Public representatives are often unable to stop wrongdoing for this reason. I recall a constituent speaking to me of a concern about a very young child in a household where the mother had died. Although I reported the complaint to a social worker, I did not have sufficient information to enable the social worker to deal with the case and it took more than two years for action to be taken and the child taken away from the source of danger. At the time, I felt that if somebody would give me the information something could be done, but they were afraid it would come back on them, that they would be prosecuted and would be accused of doing something they should not have done. It is a sad state of affairs that children continue to suffer because of people's silence, although at times that silence may be understandable.

I also want to raise the issue of contracts of employment. Today's Question Time with the Taoiseach was more like long statements with a very small period for asking questions. Contracts for people in public offices, such as PR people, political advisers or programme managers, often require them not to discuss their work with outsiders. I am not sure that Deputy Rabbitte's Bill affords any protection for somebody who is hired under such a contract which contains confidentiality clauses. They may be precluded from protection under this legislation and we should investigate this aspect on Committee Stage. Such a person may be the only one with access to knowledge about wrongdoing, but their contract may prevent them making the information available.

With regard to qualifying information for disclosure, I note that in some instances the Bill is quite similar to the UK's Public Interest Disclosure Act which came into force in July 1998. There does not seem to be anything in Deputy Rabbitte's Bill which protects the discovery of privileged information between a lawyer and a client. It is important that such information should not be disclosed because we must protect client confidentiality. Information will have to come in a different way.

Overall, I welcome the legislation and Fine Gael will support it. We will examine it closely on Committee Stage to make sure it is tightly drafted and does what Deputy Rabbitte seeks, which is to protect the civil and human rights of people who are willing and have the courage to bring forward information that will prevent criminal activity as well as protecting the environment, health, safety and perhaps the lives of individuals.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Briscoe. The novel title of the Whistleblowers Protection Bill conjures up various images. Perhaps it would be better to consider the title of the UK legislation – the Public Interest Protection Act. The term "whistleblower" immediately puts the employee in the wrong and may achieve the opposite of the legislation's aim, which is to protect them. We are trying to give such employees credibility in a vulnerable situation, but by calling them whistleblowers we are automatically adding a connotation of their being somehow in the wrong. Perhaps Deputy Rabbitte could re-examine the title.

While I welcome the concept of improving employees' conditions, either by direct or indirect action, I am disappointed that we have to discuss the need for such a Bill. In an ideal world workers should be automatically entitled to a positive working environment free from any form of harassment or intimidation. They should not be put in a position where they feel compromised by dubious practices. It is unfortunate that there is a need, however qualified, for such protection. I trust that the vast majority of employers in the country are good and have no fear of this measure. On the whole, employers respect the practice of consulting and informing workers. Anyone who has ever interacted with employees, or colleagues, will know that one gets the best responses and results from an open consultative approach where people are treated as equal partners and information is not withheld from them.

The Bill offers an opportunity for employees to blow the whistle on their employers by giving them protection to report to the appropriate authorities, including the Central Bank, the Revenue Commissioners, the Garda Síochána, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Safety Authority. I presume, however, that the relevant Government authorities and the bodies listed in section 1 will have to be consulted so that their views will be taken into account before Committee Stage. The approach should be similar to last year's legislation protecting those who report child abuse, so that no one is excluded who might have an important bearing on the matter.

If one is going to blow the whistle on employers about any dubious business practices, I agree with the Minister of State that safeguards must also be included to ensure the legislation does not become a stick for cranks to beat the establishment. One of the most important points that has been made in the debate is the need for the legislation to be balanced. On Committee Stage there will be opportunities to ensure that it is so balanced. The term "crank's charter" must never be applied to this Bill. As far as possible every effort must be made to ensure it is not used as a vehicle for dissatisfied employees to spread rumours or make false accusations against their employers for unfounded or personal reasons.

We are all aware of cases where employers can be put under extreme pressure by baseless accusations. In examining the Bill, particular care will have to be taken to guard against such false information. Unfortunately, malicious people will go to extremes to ensure their message gets across. The Bill offers protection to employees who make certain disclosures reasonably and in good faith, but what constitutes "reasonably and in good faith"? We must closely examine what that phrase means. It does not appear to address the question of disgruntled employees or ex-employees who deliberately set out to cause bother with malicious intent.

There are also cases where business clients have been let down and their faith in organisations has been undermined. It would seem that had employees felt safe to bring the matter to the attention of the appropriate bodies earlier, action could have taken place to avert the outcome. People in my constituency have lost their savings, but the discrepancies that caused this to happen were only recently discovered and brought to public attention. Such matters may have gone unnoticed in other institutions and organisations.

It is reasonable to assume that employees would be fearful of losing their jobs and, therefore, protect themselves with a veil of silence. I hope, however, that the advent of this Bill will offer security to such employees, thereby offering a greater sense of confidence to those who deal with such establishments. Nobody in my constituency wants to see a similar situation arising. They do not want to have their sense of confidence diminished in establishments they have always looked up to and felt were solid and dependable. If this Bill offers people sufficient protection to enable them retain confidence in establishments, organisations and institutions, it will play a positive role in their lives.

The consultation process with the social partners and other interested bodies is a key component of establishing a fair and balanced approach. This aspect of the matter will be dealt with on Committee Stage. We are all aware of the important role played by the social partners in every aspect of our lives and it would be, therefore, unfair and wrong to ignore their role in this legislation.

It is also important that all aspects of unfair dismissal are brought under legislation. Given that some forms of dismissal are dealt with in the manner that one wins some and one loses some, it does not always encourage the genuine people to clear their name and have their position reinstated. I hope this Bill will ensure genuine people believe that there is something stronger to back them. As Deputy Owen said, we all know that constituents visiting our clinics who are the quietest and who do not fight their corner often have the most genuine cases and those who make the most noise often are not as genuine. I would like if this Bill enabled people with genuine cases to believe they are protected.

Unfair dismissals legislation currently provides protection against unfair dismissal for certain employees if their dismissal results wholly or mainly from civil proceedings, whether actual, threatened or proposed, against the employer to which the employee is or will be party or in which the employee was or is likely to be a witness, and criminal proceedings against the employer, whether actual, threatened or proposed, in relation to which the employee has made, proposed or threatened to make a complaint or statement to the prosecuting authority or to any other authority connected with or involved in the prosecution of the proceedings in which the employee was or is likely to be a witness.

Existing legislation affords protection to persons who report child abuse, and sections of this Bill will mirror the protections in that legislation. This Bill will protect persons who make reports in good faith and it will provide protection and an avenue of redress for employees against penalisation up to and including dismissal. It will cover all employees, including agency workers, with no minimum service requirement, which is very important. It will also include those at present excluded from the provisions of the unfair dismissals legislation.

I question the use of the word "whistleblowers" in the title, although that word easily identifies such people. At present employees who are whistleblowers are penalised short of dismissal. They are limited in the action they can take. That position is not fair and it must be addressed. Under the Industrial Relations Act, 1969, it is open to employees to refer their disputes with their employers to a rights commissioner. An employer cannot be, however, compelled to attend and an employee may then refer the matter to the Labour Court under section 20(1) of the same Act. The employee must agree, however, to be bound by the findings of the court, which may not be legally enforceable. Irrespective of how we view the situation, it is not ideal at present; the rights of the employee need to be considered.

All employers and employees have a right to their good name. It is important that our constitutional rights in this area are upheld. Article 40.3.2º of the Constitution states that "The State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name and property rights of every citizen." The Supreme Court held that the State has a duty under this Article by its laws to prevent infringement of personal rights. We must ensure that employers and employees can work free from harassment, intimidation or any situation that may cause a person to feel they are being compromised.

While we are dealing with legislation to ensure that employees will have the right to work free from the threat of harassment from their employers, people – I refer particularly to my constituency – must have the right to work. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, to inform the Tánaiste and his fellow Ministers that people have the right to work in places like Inishowen and Donegal. The right to work has implications in terms of job creation. More and more companies are closing in places where they should not be closing. Our area is very accessible and we have a great labour force. This Bill should address the rights of employees and it should also ensure people have access to employment in their areas.

The IDA announced its 1998 report today, which shows – 2.5 per cent change in employment by region for the north-west region. We want to take on board this Bill and to ensure employees have the protection provided in it, but we also want to ensure jobs are created.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate Deputy Rabbitte on introducing it, although he might reconsider its title. I assume there will be maximum consultation with the social partners and the Government agencies to establish who will and will not be included in it. I hope all reasonable and good employees will have nothing to fear under this Bill. It should ensure that all employees have a basis and strength to move for ward confidently and to be able to assert their right to work in a free and harmonious environment. That happens in the majority of cases at present, but we must protect the minority who may be at risk.

I propose to share my time with Deputies O'Sullivan, Durkan and Ring.

Column 1181 of the Official Report of 13 May 1999 indicates that the Minister for Education and Science made the following statement on abuses taking place in industrial schools:

On 28 February 1968 most of the members of the committee visited Daingean Reformatory School. Their impression of it was of a dismal place which should be closed as soon as possible. In the course of their discussions with the manager he was asked about the corporal punishment procedures. According to the account on file, "He replied openly and without embarrassment that ordinarily the boys were called out of the dormitories after they had retired and that they were punished on one of the stairway landings." The manager was asked if the boys were stripped and he replied that at times they were. "Some other committee member asked why he allowed boys to be stripped naked for punishment and he replied, in a matter of fact manner, that he considered punishment to be more humiliating when it was administered in that way." That is a direct extract from the file.

District Justice Kennedy wrote to the Department of Education on this and other matters and received a reply which dealt with everything but the punishment. While giving assurances about the closure of Daingean, assurance about the punishments stopping seem, only to have been as a result of significant disputes, the exact details of which do not seem to be documented. The exception to this is an April 1970 letter from the Secretary of the then Department of Justice to the Secretary of the then Department of Education. The Secretary of the then Department of Justice wrote that the official of his Department who was a member of the committee had signed the report on the basis of assurance which their Department had received that the Daingean punishments would be stopped.

He wrote:

To sign a report which made no reference to the situation about punishment in Daingean would, in the absence of evidence that the practice had ceased, be to appear to acquiesce in a practice which is indefensible and for the continuance of which the Minister for Justice could not avoid some official responsibility arising out of his having registered Daingean as a suit able place of detention under the Children Acts.

His next comment reveals much about the approach to abuse even of concerned people:

On the other hand, to make any reference, however oblique, to this particular method of punishment in Daingean would be likely to lead to a disclosure of the situation and, in this way, to cause a grave public scandal.

The Minister continued:

This episode demonstrates, I believe, the need for everything to come out in the open. I have no doubt that there are many other such incidents in official records and that official neglect and ignorance was commonplace.

The issue here is the net moral point – what was in the public interest? Was it in the public interest that the inhuman abuse of children in the care of the State – which shocked people even then – should be made known to the public and stopped? That is not what is referred to as the basis of a grave moral scandal in the correspondence between two secretaries of Departments. What is referred to in this communication is the fact that it might come out and cause a grave public scandal.

Thankfully we have moved on to a time when there is freedom of information legislation, in the introduction of which my former colleague, Eithne Fitzgerald and the then Government, with the support of all sides of the House, played a leading role. It is in the context of that legislation that Deputy Rabbitte's Bill is proposed. It strikes a balance, leaving aside the cultural ethos which said that if we did not know about it, we might be better not knowing about it. I hesitate to say it, although I am afraid I must, but many of those who drew attention to terrible abuses in that awful system were referred to as cranks.

And snitches.

There will always be people who will want to draw attention to terrible abuse, whether in public or private and they will always be dismissed as cranks. However, Deputy Rabbitte's Bill explicitly cites the grounds on which disclosures should be made. He quoted the English Law Lord, Lord Wilberforce and said of the Bill:

Its purpose is to provide protection from civil liability to employees who make disclosures in categories listed in the Bill, so long as those disclosures are made "reasonably and in good faith". I stress those words and reiterate that I am not advocating a free for all for rogues or malcontents in our business and commercial world, still less in the public services...Many Members will agree with the views of the English Law Lord, Lord Wilberforce, expressed in a case involving British Steel and Granada Television. He pointed out that "there is a wide difference between what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest to be made known".

I agree with Lord Wilberforce because there is a huge distinction between taking both the spirit and letter of freedom of information legislation, including this legislation, and making it work in the public interest and a kind of voyeurism that seeks to find information on someone's public or private life on the basis that it was not known before, and for that reason and that reason only must be put into the realm of sensational comment. That is a responsibility which falls on those who use the legislation and those who operate it. However, it cannot be used as an excuse for obstructing this legislation.

It is accepted on all sides of the House that in one area of life after another, and right across the State system, it is important that we proceed to complete the process of accountability and openness in public office. To stop that process would be something for which the public would not forgive us. It must be extended and the procedures put in place. After that, the public must support the balance restored between the ethics required in public life and the right to privacy and one's good name to which those in public life are as entitled as any other citizen. It is important to bear that in mind.

The balance has been struck correctly in this legislation. I will not refer to recent publications, but there is a huge distinction as regards the voyeuristic pursuit of the detail of a person's private life, which is only of incidental interest to those who want to shift their gaze away from matters where public accountability is correctly required and insisted upon.

It is welcome that the Government parties are willing to lend their support to this legislation which I am also pleased to support. Those who might be worried about this legislation must consider that if, so long ago, there had not been such a requirement to hide matters and keep them away from the public gaze, how many abuses would have been prevented and how many lives would not have been scarred? Would it not have been much better if at that time the civil servant involved could have, although under terrible pressure, gone to the Secretary of the Department and said "I know you will want to make this known to your Minister and publicly" instead of exchanging correspondence which suggested "we must make sure this does not come out"? We are in a different era now and this legislation is of that era.

I welcome the publication of this Bill which, when enacted, will help end the culture of secrecy which has permeated much of business and public affairs for far too long. I also welcome the decision of the Government to accept the Bill on Second Stage. I am sure there is not a Deputy in this House who has not at some stage in his or her political life been approached by an individual with information of wrongdoing in the public or private sector, only to be told by the informant not to use the information or his name because if it gets out it will cost him his job. The enactment of this Bill will at least allow people who are approached in this way to be assured the person coming forward cannot be punished by an employer for acting in the public interest.

The Bill will ensure that any employee who blows the whistle on illegality, fraud or malpractice will be entitled to protection against dismissal or any other sanction an employer may wish to impose. There have been many instances in public life where society would have benefited if people who must have known of wrongdoing had come forward and notified the authorities. My colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, pointed out how difficult it was in cases of child abuse, which are most serious and most deserving of intervention and courage as regards reporting, for good people to come forward and for people in public positions to take action.

Many Irish women may have avoided unspeakable suffering and, in some cases, premature death had some of the employees of the blood bank been able to speak out against the poor standards which led to the hepatitis C scandal. It is a matter of record that employees of the beef industry approached Deputies with certain information, although in some cases Deputies could only put that information to limited use because of the fear of endangering the livelihoods of those who had come forward. There have been many instances where it has been difficult, if not impossible, for people to come forward in such situations. This legislation will change that.

There must have been people in the planning system who were aware of the irregularities which are now being highlighted by the Flood tribunal. Perhaps they might have come forward with information, which would have avoided a costly tribunal, if the protection afforded by the Bill had been available in 1989. There must also have been people in the banking and commercial sectors who, while not directly involved, knew of the extraordinary arrangements made to finance the lavish lifestyle of the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Perhaps if the protection of this Bill had been available to them they might have come forward with information and saved politics from the corrupting influence of that golden circle of Mr. Haughey's cronies. There is no doubt that some people in the financial services sector were aware of the extraordinary lengths to which certain banks went to facilitate tax evasion through, for example, the opening of offshore accounts. Would they have come forward, and saved the State the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds in tax revenue, had the protection afforded by this Bill been in place?

The purpose of the Bill is to encourage a culture of compliance with the law and with the highest possible standards in all walks of life. Its purpose is to move away from a culture where those who highlight illegalities or irregularities are seen as informers to one where they are recognised as civic spirited citizens. The Bill will change that culture because it will create an atmosphere where, even if no complaints are made, there is a feeling that a complaint could be made. That will put employers on their guard.

The Minister indicated in his response last night that he will be consulting with the social partners. He will probably receive some opposition from employers' representatives. However, I hope he will resist that opposition because it is in the public interest that those safeguards are present to create that culture in companies. Given the enormous amount of money which is to be made in property development and construction because of the housing crisis, it is particularly important to have that culture in that area, so that there are safeguards for employees who highlight wrongdoing and the cutting of legal corners and bring it to the attention of the proper authorities.

This Bill can be seen as another part of the package of legislation, introduced largely by the Labour Party, which is designed to promote the highest possible standards in public life. The package includes the Freedom of Information Act, which has given the public unprecedented rights of access to official files and documents; the Electoral Act, which placed limits on the amounts candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns and set strict standards in regard to the disclosure of donations to political parties; and the Ethics in Public Office Act, which, for the first time, placed obligations on Ministers, Deputies and those working within the political system to make public declarations in regard to donations they receive or interests which could conflict with their public duties. It was ground-breaking legislation but, as we have seen from recent events, it is still not being fully complied with.

I found it astonishing to hear the Taoiseach this afternoon dismiss as an administrative oversight his failure to comply with the clear obligations placed on him under section 19 of the Ethics in Public Office Act. This is the sort of feeble excuse put forward by people who fail to make proper tax returns. This is, after all, the same Taoiseach who is constantly talking about introducing new codes of conduct, tougher legislation regarding ethical matters and so on. Surely, before introducing any new measures, the first thing he should do is to ensure that everyone, particularly himself, is complying with the existing requirements and obligations.

I found it even more astonishing to hear the Taoiseach's account of the so-called investigation he initiated when the matter of a conflict of interest involving his closest political adviser was brought to his attention by the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, following representations to her by Deputy Dukes. This is clearly a matter of enormous importance, given the role of Dillon Consultants as advisers to NTL, a firm that was being allowed to acquire a prized State asset with a value of more than £500 million. Yet the Taoi seach's inquiries seem to have been about as probing and effective as the one he initiated when serious allegations were made about the former Deputy Ray Burke, when he asked, "Anything bothering you, Ray?". Despite the importance of the matter being drawn to his attention, he simply asked Mr. Duffy if he was a director of Dillon's. He took no steps to verify Mr. Duffy's denial, yet a simple telephone call to Dillon's by any member of his staff would have confirmed that Mr. Duffy was not being truthful. The Taoiseach must accept responsibility for his failure to comply with his legal obligations and for the consequences of appointing someone to such a key position whose judgment has been shown to be flawed and who was, at best, casual with the truth.

The Taoiseach's performance in the Dáil this afternoon seemed to reflect a resentment of the Opposition even raising these matters. We are now living in a different political climate, where everyone is accountable. The Taoiseach will have to get used to it because, whenever we have evidence of questionable activities by him or anyone in his employ, the Labour Party will demand answers and will not be silenced.

I listened with interest to the debate last night and I welcome the generally constructive approach of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Members. A number of speakers raised concerns about frivolous or vexatious matters being raised under the protection of this Bill, both last night and this evening. I suspect these comments may have been designed to disguise a more general unease with the sort of principles the Bill is promoting. In any event, I believe these concerns are groundless as there are protections built into the legislation to prevent it being misused or abused.

As I said earlier, the preventive aspect of the Bill – the fact that it changes the culture – will, in itself, achieve a great deal, perhaps without people having to report anything. That aspect will make a very big difference to people's approach when they see something being done in their places of employment which they feel is not in accordance with the law. The Bill does not just cover those aspects, it also covers other important areas such as health and safety and the environment. If someone feels what is happening in their place of employment will endanger people's lives or the environment they can come forward without being punished.

All these aspects of the Bill are important. I welcome the Government's decision to allow the Bill to go to Committee Stage. Any concerns can be raised at that stage. I commend my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, for introducing the Bill.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill, which I support for the very good reasons outlined by its proposers last night. I also acknowledge the Government's acceptance of the Bill and its principles.

The Bill contains sufficient protection for employees with genuine grievances or those with access to information which gives them cause for concern about the operation of their place of employment. It is understandable that people working in such sensitive positions may feel that if they do not disclose such information they may later find themselves in an embarrassing difficulty. It is in the public interest that that be known.

The Bill also contains sufficient safeguards to prevent vexatious, frivolous or mischievous reports being made in an attempt to get even with someone. Such people will not receive the protection of the Bill and they make such reports at their own risk. The existence of that risk will protect those who are going about their business in the normal way. It is important to have such a section in the Bill in order to protect the legislation's integrity; otherwise, it could become the instrument of groups or individuals whose only purpose is sensationalism. The previous speakers made some interesting comments. Deputy Michael D. Higgins referred to a number of issues that take us back a few years. It is interesting if we project our minds forward and ask ourselves will it have the desired effect, I certainly hope it will, but Deputy Michael D. Higgins also noted that people who raised so-called sensitive issues in the past were deemed to be dangerous cranks. Anybody who has anything to do with institutions, for example, in a visiting capacity, will know of what I speak. When it was suggested that such places would be closed, there was a fearful outcry that the economic viability of the region would be permanently interfered with and that no such measures should be taken. It was purported that those who raised questions on the activities in these institutions were in some way subversives.

I can remember debates in the mid-1980s when the then Minister for Health introduced legislation in respect of some institutions there were deputations to health boards and local authorities from local interest groups and well meaning people who had at their disposal clear knowledge that things were not in accordance with what is intended in such places. The public outcry was that the status quo might be affected and somebody's turf might be invaded. We also saw where well meaning delegations met the various institutions and pointed out all the very good reasons that nobody should interfere. Public meetings were called at which hundreds attended and it was suggested that the interference of the then Government was not in the interests of the general public and the people of the area. There were countless occasions in the past 20 years when well meaning people deliberately brought to public attention evidence of wrongdoing, but nothing happened for the simple reason that it was presumed that the person drawing attention to the wrongdoing was a crank. I hope when well-founded information is brought to the attention of the responsible authorities, action will be taken, otherwise people will say that they did not know it was happening, that they had insufficient evidence to deal with it or they did not want to do anything about it even though they knew the matter had been raised.

I can guarantee that in future the general attitude will be that we did not feel we should do something about it and consequently we did nothing about it. Let us ponder on the issues that affected the lives of many people 25 years ago and ask ourselves did we know about it? There are issues that the dogs in the street knew about, yet everybody is astounded that things were going on that were not in accordance with good practice. People will say now that they would have condemned it if they knew it had been happening, but that is not what happened.

This legislation is necessary. If it is used in the spirit intended, it will be effective. General public attitudes can be measured by the turnout in the recent elections. I saw where a scribe saw it fit to justify the low turnout on the basis that it was the thing to do. If that is the case, there is no sense in having legislation on any subject. If that cynicism is allowed to prevail or go unchallenged, we are wasting our time. Unfortunately it is likely that the cynical response to which I have referred will become the norm and people will only respond in that fashion. Consequently this will damage institutions and the quality of life in this country. We have a responsibility in relation to the matter within the ambit of this Bill. It will be no defence to say "It was not the right thing to do at the time" or "I could not do it because I did not have protection". It will not be sufficient for the scribes to say we knew about it and made an oblique reference to it, but it was not the political thing to do at the time. It will not be sufficient for the general public to say we knew about it but we did not respond. Everybody has a role to play in this arena. I hope the proposed legislation will put in place the necessary measures to ensure this House plays its role. It is up to those who are in a position to respond outside this House, including the scribes, to do their job.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and thank Deputy Michael D. Higgins for sharing his time with me. I congratulate Deputy Rabbitte on bringing this Bill forward. I feel angry when I think of the many examples which we know about and which when they flash across our memory we ask why somebody did not say or do something to protect those who were so obviously abused, particularly in the workforce.

Deputy Rabbitte has made a list of regulatory authorities, but I would have preferred if the Bill provided for a single authority to regulate complaints in so far as it would give greater focus to the threads of the Bill, to highlight the injustices that have been inflicted on so many people. Members know people whose lives have been destroyed because they had no protection and felt isolated on occasions in the past. For that reason Deputy Rabbitte is to be congratulated on bringing forward this legislation.

If trust and openness was the main thrust of the workplace, this Bill would not be necessary, but alas they are not present in many workplaces. I cringe when I think of the horrific experiences related by so many workers who were intimidated to such an extent that their lives were shortened by their experiences.

Mining companies established themselves in the early 1960s and prospered throughout the 1970s before closing their doors on the communities such as happenned in Tynagh in County Galway. Northgate Exploration Company must go down as the most monstrous employer in Ireland ever. I am being charitable to it when I say that. That company was responsible for scarring the environment. The results of that still affect east Galway.

The company was untouchable in its day. No organisation could go after it for recompense for its treatment of the environment or the workers of the area. It threw poison into the earth. It did not care what water flow it entered. One of the processes it carried out involved the use of cyanide. That was done without planning because the company came at a time when we encouraged multinationals to come to the State and there were no regulations to curtail their activities.

Northgate Exploration then abandoned the site. Deputy Michael Higgins was a member of Galway County Council when we tried to put a package in place which asked it to rehabilitate the site. It withdrew from agreeing such a package, giving two fingers to the local authority which tried to draw it back.

Many workers will say that if they had opened their mouths about some of the activities going on there, they would have been fired. Various organisations in the area were seriously affected. Farming organisations with land adjacent to the site found that poisonous dust was blowing over the lands and cattle were dying. Farmers lost their income as a direct result. The strongest organisation in the State, the IFA, was intimidated by the company into withdrawing and pretending nothing was happening. The company saw that farmers' livelihoods were being affected but because of its size and determination, it could steamroll away from it without accepting responsibility.

I tried to bring An Taisce into the matter as a last resort to highlight the terrible damage the company was inflicting on the environment but it had to withdraw as a result of blatant intimidation. It threatened that it would annihilate An Taisce if it crossed the company.

There is another example which makes me very angry, that of a female teacher in County Wexford who, because she had an affair with a married man, was sacked by a religious congregation. The case was taken to the highest court in the land and it upheld that what she did was wrong because it affected the religious ethos of the environment in which she worked. I wonder would that still happen in such a situation today. Would such a person have any protection under law in this State? That person's life and the lives of her extended family have been destroyed. Despite the fact that she was a colleague in my union, we were helpless to do anything.

If this Bill is to do anything, I hope it will rid this State of such examples and people suffering as a consequence. I congratulate Deputy Rabbitte for introducing it. The Hanrahan family was pushed to the extreme by a multinational because of its insistence that it was right. They were the whistle blowers but it fell on deaf ears. How many more examples of this are there? I hope that those who feel they are muzzled in their places of work can now come forward and say that enough is enough and will have an opportunity to present their case and bring to justice those who have perpetrated such injustices on individuals and families.

I compliment Deputy Rabbitte for bringing this Bill before the Dáil. As a Mayo man he got his wish a few weeks ago to wear the green and red but he let us down and did not turn out on the day. We will forgive him that. He had the best interests of the State at heart when he brought this Bill before the Dáil.

Deputy Ulick Burke mentioned the mining companies. One such company came to my county and ran a road up through Croagh Patrick. Big business talked and got the licences. I believe the licences are being requested again. I hope the Government will be more careful when dealing with such licences on this occasion.

I wish this Bill could cover the past 20 years. It could perhaps cover the 14 or 15 inquiries going on now. If the Garda Síochána and previous Governments had done their jobs, there would be up to 300 investigations ongoing in this State. There would be an investigation for instance into how people could get IDA land, paid for by the taxpayer and build a small factory, close it after 12 months, reopen it 12 months later, sell it off and build houses or hotels on the land.

That is still going on. My council in recent years has sold industrial sites supposedly for young people starting out in life. What happened? Of the 15 or 20 purchasers, there were five or six genuine buyers and the rest of the land was bought by investors, the money merchants – those who got money from the IDA in the past. Every time they wanted to upgrade their factory or machines, they would threaten the IDA that they would close and more taxpayers' money was thrown to them. They live in big mansions, drive around in BMWs and close the factory doors after a few years.

Where were the workers? The workers used to tell us, politicians, and the IDA, that this was going on. What was done about it? A blind eye was turned to it. I welcome this Bill and I hope it goes further.

I hope the workers will speak out about another sector in society. I am talking about a new craze that has developed in recent years. I hold regular clinics and speak with people when travelling throughout my constituency and during the recent election campaign I was delighted to meet people on the doorsteps. Many people asked if I would do something about the scanners used in supermarkets. If the price of an item is £1.25, £1.75 or £1.85, housewives discover when they go home it is £11.85. If that lady stole £10 from that supermarket the Garda would be called, she would be taken to the Garda station and charged. If she was unlucky to appear before a judge in Dublin or in the west she may be sentenced to a month in prison. I have asked repeatedly the following question, what is the penalty if Tesco, Dunnes or any of the multiples make mistakes on a regular basis? This does not happen once, twice, three times or four times. If those stores are not caught and the housewife does not seek a refund they are rewarded, they have stolen the money out of that lady's pocket. If they are caught they say they are very sorry and that this should not happen.

Legislation should be introduced and if Tesco, Dunnes or any other company is found operating a faulty scanner on a regular basis they should be prosecuted in the same way as a lady who steals a pound of butter. What is wrong is that there is one law for the rich and another law for the poor. The rich are rewarded while the poor are penalised or sent to prison.

When this Bill is enacted I hope the people who are making the reports will have the same protection as the employers. There is no point in having a law for one group and no law for the other.

For years, many people knew what was happening but the relevant laws were not enforced. We are great for passing legislation but the problem is that there is nobody to implement it. The same applies in regard to the legislation dealing with safety, health and welfare at work. When I encountered a problem in my own town some months ago I discovered that there is no safety officer in County Mayo; the nearest one is in Galway or Sligo. It is pointless passing legislation if it cannot be implemented. If this legislation is to be enacted—

I understand the Minister of State wishes to make a contribution so, perhaps, the Deputy would give way.

I have no problem with that. I was always a gentleman and I will be a gentleman tonight.

The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, and others on this side have listened with interest to the comments made by Deputies and these will be taken into account in the examination of the Bill and the preparation of amendments for Committee Stage. It is clear that many of the provisions of the Bill will need more in-depth examination.

In his opening speech Deputy Rabbitte recalled the Freedom of Information Act which came into force over a year ago. This was the most far-reaching legislation as regards dealing with the public sector and marked an important first step towards a new era of openness in Government and in public affairs. This Bill contributes further to the culture of openness and transparency. It is an important addition to the protective labour legislation already in place. Most employees will think twice before bringing their employers to book if they detect some serious fraud or malpractice at work. Employment contracts are frequently drawn up so that an employee is required to have a duty of confidentiality to their employer. Exposing such fraud or malpractice takes courage and they are putting their jobs at risk. Such actions would not be taken lightly by conscientious employees and such employees must be protected if they expose wrongdoing.

However, while the Government supports the Bill in principle, care must be taken as the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, said to ensure this does not become a crank's charter. Employers must be protected from malicious allegations which might be made by disgruntled employees. False accusations can damage both the business and the employment relationships in the workplace. Good employers, however, who have an open and transparent relationship with their workers need have no fear of the implementation of the measures envisaged in this Bill. While the employee's rights must be protected the personal rights of the employer must also be protected from unsubstantiated attack.

In examining the Bill further care will be needed to guard against the possibility of false information being given maliciously in the context of the proposed protection of the Bill. While the Bill offers protection to all employees who make certain disclosures, reasonably and in good faith, the question of dealing with those who deliberately and with malicious intent provide false information about their employer to any or all of the regulatory authorities must be borne in mind at all times.

The Bill also allows for disclosures of an exceptionally serious nature to be made to some other person. This provision needs to be examined in more detail. Safeguards must be put in place to ensure this protection is not abused. The Bill lists a wide range of regulatory bodies to which disclosures may be made. These include the Central Bank, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Offices Commission and the Revenue Commissioners, all of which come under the aegis of my Department. The Bill will have major implications for these bodies and consequently my Department as well as other Government Departments will need to examine its provisions thoroughly.

The question as to which officers in a public body are appropriate officers under the Bill or whether appropriate officers must be designated as such for the purpose of the Bill will need to be considered. Section 4 provides protection for an employee from civil liability for having made a protected disclosure. This provision must be examined to ensure it provides full civil protection for an employee while ensuring that this statutory immunity will not change in any way the defences already available to persons under common law.

I also note there is no provision in the Bill for a statute of limitations. This is a matter which will have to be addressed. I do not think the stringent provisions of the Bill could be applied retrospectively without any regard to time limitation. We also must examine the provision regarding the persons to whom protected disclosures may be made. This issue will have to be discussed in detail with the chief regulatory bodies concerned. Consultations will also be necessary with the relevant Government Departments, the parliamentary draftsman's office and the social partners.

The Government is committed to the maximum co-operation on this Bill to ensure we have the best possible legislation on this important issue. We look forward to an interesting and lively debate on Committee Stage.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate on this Bill. In particular I thank the Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for agreeing to permit the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. That is the correct decision and I acknowledge the Minister of State's generosity in facilitating that.

I wish to refer to the main points raised by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, some of which were repeated by the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen. It is fair to say no major points have been raised on the Government side. I know civil servants do not like to have major items of legislation sprung on them and therefore tend to protect themselves in terms of the language used. Having read the Minister of State's script again today, it is extremely cautious but it does not say what are the major problems. I have no difficulty with his view that various provisions will have to be closely examined on Committee Stage.

The Minister said there must be provision for consultation with the social partners and allowance must be made for consultation with the various regulatory authorities listed in the Bill. I accept that. It is desirable that there should be consultation with the social partners. It would also be desirable if they were to agree to enshrine in a code of conduct the principle of the Bill and to implement it at the place of work.

I see no reason the Bill should not have the allegiance of both sides of industry. Reference was made to this by Deputy Stanton and others. Deputy O'Flynn expressed concern about the terrible wrong that might be done to employers. I accept his remarks in the spirit in which they were offered. They appear to have been made withThe Examiner and the ISME members in Cork in mind. The Deputy can advise them he told me what they would or would not accept and that while the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, might have accepted the Bill, it was emasculated by the Deputy's intervention and was no longer the kind of legislation that would bring employers in Cork to their knees, and that on that basis the Deputy should be re-elected. That approach is fair enough.

However, the Government side has yet to point out where the Bill is a crank's charter. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, mentioned the phrase again tonight. The Bill expressly provides that such people do not have the protection of the legislation. If people are blowing the whistle for vengeful, malicious reasons or for personal gain they take the consequences. Given the disclaimer, they cannot fall back on the protection of the legislation. I do not know what is contemplated by the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in elaborating on that point and I accept and appreciate, in the spirit in which it is offered, his gesture that his officials and I maintain optimum contact on the progress of the Bill on Committee Stage.

The Bill does no more than put the original decision in the case of Gartsidev. Outram on a statutory footing and provides the employee who acts in the civic and public interest with the cloak of protection. It takes every care to ensure it is not a crank's charter and that it is only the publicly minded and civic purpose that attracts the protection proposed. Furthermore, the real blackmailers would be companies that deliberately damage or neglect the environment. Deputy Ulick Burke provided an excellent example in the case of the activities of Northgate at Tynagh, County Galway. I suspect the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Kitt, is familiar with the case. I and my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, are familiar with it. I dealt with the workers concerned in the late 1970s. It is extraordinary that any company can do what has been done at Tynagh, where the land has been poisoned, cattle and sheep cannot graze on it and the health and safety record, referred to by Deputy Ring, is even worse than that of the building industry.

The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, rightly said we must consult with, for example, the Health and Safety Authority. However, the mining and building industries must be mentioned. Huge profits are being made in the building industry and corners are being cut. There were twice the number of fatalities in the industry in 1998 as in the previous year. In that situation workers know what is going on and they ought to be protected when they bring the cutting of corners to the attention of the relevant authority.

What is the answer to the question raised by my colleague, Deputy O'Sullivan, regarding the Blood Transfusion Service Board? Is it credible that over all those years nobody in the service knew or suspected what was going on? The cost of various ongoing inquiries has arisen because nobody shouted. Despite the human cost of the problems in the Blood Transfusion Service Board, nobody spoke about what was happening. Workers are fearful for their careers and livelihoods and the implications in terms of raising their families if they raise matters. That is why this protection is necessary.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins raised the question of the Daingean Reformatory, which is another vivid example. The kind of macabre punishment imposed there could not be inflicted on young children without right-minded people knowing it was going on, yet nobody came forward. Last night I paid tribute to the legislation sponsored by Deputy Shatter in this regard.

Deputy Ulick Burke's reference to the Northgate example at Tynagh, County Galway, has left a permanent, ugly and poisonous sore on the landscape in east County Galway, yet nobody was able to shout stop. Deputy Conor Lenihan dealt with the question of beef. I recall his party colleagues taunting me in this House to say who told me about massive tax evasion in the Goodman organisation. I could not respond because the people concerned who presented that information to me would have been fired.

Or worse.

Or worse. That is the plight of the whistle blower in international experience. Across the US and in Britain where whistle blowers have exposed wrongdoing, for conscientious reasons or whatever, they may have been ultimately vindicated, but at a terrible cost to themselves and their families.

The record of the House will show that the outcome of the Hoffmann Liroche case was not as Deputy Conor Lenihan indicated. The law enforcement agencies of the Swiss Government supported the business organisation to the extent that the whistle blower, Stanley Adams, the first widely known whistle blower of the European Union, was maliciously imprisoned, resulting in his wife's suicide and his conviction for treason. The tears shed by my constituency colleague for Hoffmann Liroche must be viewed in that context.

The question of to whom these protected disclosures can be made and the Minister's point about an authorised or appropriate officer being designated within the regulatory authorities is a fair one. I do not have much difficulty with it. It is not intended that in making complaints to their regulatory authority, the Central Bank, about wrongdoing in their places of work, bank employees approach the bank's doorman. I do not have a problem with the designation of an appropriate officer.

On the question of the Statute of Limitations, I was under the impression when the Bill was being drafted that the normal six year rule would apply. I do not envisage that it would be retrospective. I did not know, and I am still not persuaded, that explicit provision is needed in the Bill to provide for the Statute of Limitations.

The Minister referred to the exceptionally serious situation where, for whatever reason, the regulatory authority was unable or unwilling to deal with a disclosure. In that circumstance it may be made to another person. However, that is only in the most grievous situation, which I dealt with last night. I thank the Members who contributed and I appreciate the Government permitting the Bill to go through to Committee Stage where I look forward to working with the Minister of State to ensure that this legislation, which will contribute to changing the culture that all of us have lived with for a long time, becomes law.

Question put and agreed to.