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Dáil Éireann debate -
Friday, 5 Mar 2004

Vol. 581 No. 5

Commissions of Investigation Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I will refer briefly to two matters I raised previously. Eminent people who are willing to serve the State as members of any commission should not have to suffer personal abuse from politicians or any other source about their appointments or results of their examination. To have to suffer insults such as being described as party hacks will discourage many suitably qualified people from accepting an invitation to serve on commissions.

Another route by which commission members are regularly sourced is the ex officio route, such as the Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad. It is unacceptable that aspersions should be cast on their appointment or integrity. Such comments are usually aimed at Government appointments and the intention is to suggest that the commission member is somewhat biased towards or in favour of the Government.

If we continue to question people's integrity, we will find it difficult to get them to serve in the areas in which they are needed.

I also have some concern about naming inquiries after the individual most closely associated with them. The same is true of reports, be it the Hanly report or any other. It puts people in the spotlight, which in many cases is not what they would wish. People should not have to suffer criticism because they are doing a job for the State.

The intention behind sections 9 and 10 is that, in future, we will have a less adversarial route to travel by taking the big legal team off the pitch as much as possible and allowing the work to continue in private. The following section deals with the matter of redress in cases where people feel they have been wronged.

I am concerned that the legal profession may try to find a route around this Bill to ensure that there is a full team at all times, given the level of potential earnings involved. I encourage the Minister to ensure that the Bill is watertight in terms of such a challenge to ensure that the State's money is saved.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is badly needed and, as I mentioned previously, the delay in bringing it forward was caused by the nonsense we get during the Order of Business every week. We should get on with the job.

Spending on tribunals of inquiry will continue to rise this year, mainly due to a steep increase in the allocation to the Moriarty tribunal. Its allocation will increase by a staggering 182% to more than €10 million.

The Estimates for the Taoiseach's Department show that €250,000 will be allocated to the McCracken tribunal, which is investigating the Dunnes Stores payments. This allocation is merely a contingency for unclaimed legal and other fees.

The allocation to the Mahon tribunal, formerly chaired by Mr. Justice Flood, is €12 million. The cost of this tribunal, which is the longest running and most expensive one in the history of the State, has risen to in excess of €30 million. The costs include legal fees and administrative costs, but not the legal fees for parties represented at the tribunal. Two barristers employed on it have already earned more than €2 million and another barrister has earned almost €1 million. Bills totalling more than €20 million have already been submitted by witnesses who appeared during the first five years of the tribunal. Future demands for an additional €20 million are expected from parties who have not yet furnished bills.

The former Fianna Fáil Minister, Mr. Ray Burke, whom the tribunal has implicated in corrupt payments, is to take legal proceedings this year seeking paying of his legal bill of €10.5 million. Any attempt to withhold legal costs from Mr. Burke, or other figures who may have hindered the work of the tribunal, will probably be stiffly resisted.

On the positive side, the tribunal's investigation into planning corruption has resulted in significant payments to the Revenue Commissioners. Last year the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, stated that the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau had so far recovered in excess of €35 million in payments related to under payments of tax as a result of the investigations of the Flood-Mahon tribunal.

The amount of money earned by the legal profession on tribunals of inquiry is substantial. The Flood-Mahon tribunal has completed five of 20 modules, which suggests that it may last a further 15 years. To date, the Morris tribunal into Garda corruption in Donegal has cost €2.84 million and the Barr tribunal investigating the Abbeylara killing has cost €1.72 million. These are only preliminary figures and the future liability of legal costs for the latter two tribunals cannot be determined at this stage as nobody knows how long they will last.

There is a great deal of concern about the tribunal system which is costing the taxpayer a fortune without achieving much. Nobody questions the need for tribunals, but there must be a better way of doing the job. Figures released by the Department of the Taoiseach revealed that the total cost of the Barron inquiry to date, is almost €2.6 million with an additional €600,000 allocated for other costs. This inquiry did not take the form of other tribunals. Mr. Justice Barron conducted private interviews with people he believed could aid him in his inquiry. Among others, these included expert witnesses, former Government members, victims of the atrocity and eye witnesses. The cost of the investigative work and the daily rate paid to lawyers in this case appears to be less than was paid for other inquiries. The cost, however, will continue to mount. Solicitors have yet to be paid for the work on the re-opening of inquests and the work they are currently carrying out in support of parties appearing before the Oireachtas sub-committee, which I understand will report to Government shortly. Its report could recommend a tribunal of inquiry to investigate the events of 1974.

The legislation appears to do little more than put on a statutory footing investigations, such as the one carried out by Mr. Justice Barron. This is an improvement due to costs being reduced, but the possibility of a tribunal still exists, which, in essence, may only add another layer to the several existing layers and delays in the inquiry-tribunal system. We all hope the legislation will lead to more cost-effective results.

The Bill contains fundamental flaws, which the Minister should address. The purpose of inquiries is to allay public concern. In order to do this, inquiries must have complete independence. The problem with the legislation is that it sidelines the Oireachtas. It is given no role other than making the original audit for an inquiry. In every other respect, the power of the Minister is paramount. Although previous speakers have referred to this point, it is worth emphasising the extent of the power that will be given to individual Ministers if the Bill is passed without amendment in this regard.

The Minister, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, can establish a commission of investigation by order. The Minister will have overall responsibility for the workings of the commission. The terms of reference will be set by the Minister. Costs and time frames are to be determined by the Minister. The Minister can amend the terms of reference without recourse to the Oireachtas. The Minister appoints members of the commission. Reports, in final, draft and interim form must be submitted to the Minister, who publishes the report. The Government will have power to terminate a commission at any stage.

The Minister's proposed role in the legislation is a cause for concern. Raymond Bradley commented——

I want to clarify that I am not the Minister for the purposes of this legislation, it could be any Minister.

I agree. What I said is that the legislation confers responsibility on a Minister and if an inquiry falls within his or her jurisdiction he or she has total power to initiate, monitor, change its terms of reference or abolish it if it does not go entirely his or her way. An article by Raymond Bradley in The Irish Times of 17 October 2003 states:

After years of inquiries and tribunals, Irish people are still waiting for a proper, impartial and effective investigation process to ensure that terrible events of the past are not relived in the future. Many of these events arose from the failure of State institutions to safeguard citizens' personal rights.

As the Laffoy episode has shown, Governments and their Departments often have different agendas for public investigations, usually financial considerations. The Department of Education and Science had a role in the Laffoy Commission and was under investigation.

The fact that the Department was then involved in altering the investigative process after the Commission had started would have resulted in a report that would certainly have been fatally flawed, and possibly subject to a legal challenge.

Miss Justice Laffoy's regrettable resignation was hardly surprising. The Government's intention to alter her mandate after the Commission had already begun its work, left Justice Laffoy with no alternative but toresign.

The truth of the matter is that Government Departments can have a vested interest in the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of the investigative process because in many instances it is these entities who are the subject of the investigation.

And the reality in Ireland is that the establishment of all investigative processes, including the Laffoy Commission, requires the victims to negotiate the terms of reference for their inquiry with a Government Department, which in turn becomes the subject of the investigation itself.

These negotiations are never a meeting of equals. The victims very often represent the most afflicted groups in society, such as those affected by institutional or clerical abuse.

These people have little or no direct experience of Departmental procedures, and find it difficult to adequately represent their own interests.

Some groups also do not possess the political knowledge or force required to achieve proper investigative entitlements.

As a result these victims are highly disadvantaged during negotiations with State entities and the dice are loaded against them.

In order to achieve a proper investigative forum for each of the numerous, major catastrophes affecting Irish citizens, the main principle must be to achieve equality of bargaining power, and respect for the position of persons afflicted.

This will never be achieved when the victims are negotiating with a vested interest, such as the Department or Minister that may be investigated. The article also states: "The appearance of impartiality must be maintained in all investigative-type forums."

The provisions in this Bill, which take powers from the Oireachtas and give them to the Minister, are a recipe for a repeat of the Laffoy episode. Section 3 allows the Minister, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, to establish an investigative committee solely by order. Section 4 allows the Minister to set the terms of reference without consulting the Oireachtas. Therefore, everything is in the hands of the Minister. This is no way to gain public confidence or support from the Opposition. The Oireachtas must establish the commission of investigation and set out its terms of reference, and the chairman of the commission must be answerable to a committee of the House.

The Bill could be improved greatly by transferring the powers given to the Minister back to the Oireachtas. Fine Gael appreciates the difficulty the Minister had in other areas: the balancing act between trying to devise an effective and cost-efficient system and, at the same time, protecting the rights of individuals as guaranteed by the Constitution. These considerations mean the Minister has had to give rights of attendance, representation and cross-examination.

Section 10 states that the commission must sit in public when a witness makes such a request or where fair procedures would require this. This is unfortunate because it could reintroduce into the process the public aspect to the inquiry, and this could result in the reintroduction of legal teams again at huge cost.

The right of a person, as protected in the Constitution, may prevent this system from being as effective as the Minister and the public would wish. The public accept and know from experience that the only successful public inquiry was the DIRT inquiry, which was carried out by an Oireachtas committee. Subsequent to this, the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights began an inquiry into the Abbeylara incident, but the courts put an end to it because of constitutional restraints.

Most inquiries should be held by Oireachtas committees where possible and the parliamentary system should be set up to deal with this. There is much precedent for this in other jurisdictions. In this context, the Committee on the Constitution should consider this matter to see if changes can be made to the Constitution that would respect the rights of the individual while bearing in mind the good of the community and address the concerns of many citizens who want proper investigations and commissions that do not cost the taxpayer a fortune.

Despite the good intentions of this Bill, it is unlikely, because of the constitutional restraints, to be successful in establishing a system of inquiry that would equal a parliamentary one. This may be the best available option without a constitutional review but to make it the best available the Minister must accept amendments that restore the balance in favour of the Oireachtas. Having said this, the best solution is to avoid, if at all possible, the need for inquiries or commissions. It was constantly said that if questions were answered properly in the Dáil there would have been no need for the infamous beef tribunal. Every effort must be made to reform the Oireachtas to allow as much probing power as possible. The role of the committees must be expanded.

The question of setting up independent boards that save Ministers being questioned on a varying and increasing range of issues must be addressed. A Minister must be answerable to the Dáil for the actions of a board he has set up and to which he has made appointments. There is no doubt that if these changes were made the need for inquiries or commissions would be lessened.

Continuous scrutiny and early detection of problems would deal with many issues that would otherwise end up in a commission. Having said this, the general aim of the Bill must be welcomed, if only as an interim step in trying to find the correct formula for carrying out inquiries.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is very timely given what is happening in other parts of the city. There is no doubt that the public is very concerned. I do not wish to cast aspersions on any ongoing tribunal in saying that cynicism is creeping into the public attitude to tribunals, particularly because of the cost of payments made to the legal profession and third party costs. If one adds up the tribunal costs to date, one will find that almost €100 million has been spent on them. It is possible that hundreds of millions of euro more will be spent on costs associated with third parties attending the tribunals. Therefore, we must welcome the provisions in this Bill, which is trying to establish a streamlined position in which we can have commissions of inquiry that will allay the concerns of the public.

I also welcome the fact that we have not changed the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act. That Act remains and can be used if the Commissions of Investigation Act does not facilitate an investigation which can be referred to a tribunal of inquiry. That provision is necessary if there is great public concern about an issue on which we must determine facts, reach conclusions and implement recommendations. This Bill has set out to streamline this process and bring about a more effective and efficient way of inquiring into issues of grave public concern.

In recent years tribunals have caused concern because they do not issue enough reports with recommendations and there are suggestions that some may run for another ten or 15 years. The public deserves a more speedy form of investigation, no matter how complex the issue the tribunal investigates. Tribunals are often set up in a politically charged climate and the terms of reference are set by this House but that creates a difficulty because the Opposition may set terms of reference too tightly, alleging that there is some form of cover-up. However, with broad terms of reference tribunals can roll on for many years without coming to any conclusion in a reasonable period. We need to set terms of reference on which everyone can agree without political charges being made at a later date if they are not broad enough to encompass almost every aspect of the issue raised.

This Bill tries to address the adversarial effect of tribunals by holding hearings in private, in a less adversarial manner. If the first commission established under this legislation runs smoothly and effectively that will encourage co-operation in the future and forestall the development of an adversarial mode even under the terms of the Act.

Some people propose televising tribunals but they exist to establish facts on issues of public concern. If tribunals are televised the process could become an entertainment, with a great deal of posturing and the editing could affect the public perception of the running of a tribunal. If tribunals are to be televised certain issues must be clarified first, such as whether broadcasters would have editing rights or have to report the full tribunal because the editing process could be used in a political way. I urge that we do not televise tribunals of inquiry.

Some Members have noted the provision that the members of a commission will be appointed by the specified Minister and that staff with relevant expertise may also be appointed to assist the commission. They have also noted that commissions will be required to establish or adopt rules and procedures and the primary focus will be on seeking and facilitating the voluntary co-operation of witnesses.

For the Bill to function its independence must be sacrosanct. If a Minister investigating an issue that falls within his or her remit, appoints a commission before which he or she might appear, that could undermine the independence of the commission. Is there some other mechanism for appointing the commission such that in the event of a Department being investigated for whatever reason by a commission, some other body would appoint the commissioners? The Minister is doing this to streamline the process and to ensure that there are tight controls so the terms of reference are set as to ensure there is a focused investigation guideline set down. However, if the public is to have confidence in this new format of investigation he should perhaps look at this point again.

In general this Bill is very welcome. It will work only if there is co-operation from witnesses called before a commission of investigation, something that has not happened at many tribunals. Witnesses have used every tactic possible to ensure almost no co-operation with the tribunals. That undermines the public's confidence in how tribunals work, with people regularly going to the High Court trying to stall the tribunals. I hope that in the various sections the powers will hold up if challenged in the courts to ensure that people will co-operate and that there are no loopholes through which they can escape the order to attend.

We must streamline the present process for establishing facts on issues of public concern. In recent years tribunals have lost the public's confidence because they have been so many, so expensive, and so lacking in focus due to their wide terms of reference. This Bill must take into account that the terms of reference should be tight. The terms of reference are set by Government order, with the approval of the Oireachtas. It would be important to have a cross-party consensus in setting terms of reference as well. Politicians of all hues say when an allegation is made at a tribunal, that it is for the tribunal to investigate it but the allegations often come into this House. Opposition Members have on many occasions used the tribunals for political reasons. That undermines the integrity of the tribunal which is set up statutorily by the Oireachtas to investigate something and that is where it should stay until the tribunal has reported and established the facts of the matter into which it is inquiring.

Everybody in the House welcomes this Bill which tries to streamline and reduce the costs of the tribunal process. People on the street regard members of the legal profession involved in the tribunals as obscene when they see the large sums paid to them. That too has done untold damage to the integrity of the tribunal system and is why we are discussing this Bill today.

We must consider how to address the issue of appointing the commission because no doubt if a commission is established, the Opposition will automatically claim that the Minister has set it up, appointed the members and set the terms of reference and the public cannot have confidence in it if it is not seen to be fully independent. Oireachtas committees do have a role to play in investigating issues of public concern that warrant some investigation. Certain constitutional issues must be addressed first. Given the nature of politicians we could arrive at a point where every committee was investigating something because each would like to be seen as the committee of investigation on some issue. It would be necessary to establish a committee of this House that would review the issue and then allow the committee proceed with the investigation. If it were up to the committees themselves, every committee would have an investigation ongoing, simply because it is in the nature of the politician to maximise publicity. This may not be in the public's interest but in the politician's interest. If we are to establish a system whereby committees have powers of compellability and if a change to the Constitution is required on foot of the High Court decision in the Abbeylara case, we should establish an independent group of Members of this House and others to consider a request by a committee to investigate a matter and give permission if an investigation is warranted.

I thank the Minister for presenting the Bill to the House and outlining its detail. I hope it stands up to any challenges that might arise. The purpose is to serve the public interest and ensure we have a streamlined system of investigation. While I commend the broad thrust of the Bill, the Minister might address some of the matters I have highlighted concerning the independence and appointment of the commissioners. There may be a problem if a Department were being investigated and its Minister had to appear before a commission he or she had appointed. I commend the Bill and look forward to its passage.

Deputy Kelleher makes considerable sense and has raised some valid concerns. It is good to see a Government Deputy being very objective and not simply trotting out a partisan line. I generally welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. The confidence of the public has been affected by the cost and duration of tribunals. I recall that the Government was dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to establish the Flood tribunal. While Government spokespersons often claim it established the tribunal, it was set up by the Houses of the Oireachtas. While I had expected it to conclude within a year, the Mahon tribunal will soon be running longer then "Glenroe" or "The Riordans" and may get to rival "Coronation Street". If it were possible to copyright the tribunals, they could be turned into a bestseller in time and it might be possible to recover the money spent, if I can be light hearted about it.

Some speakers have spoken about a potential expanded role for Oireachtas committees. The Committee of Public Accounts does an excellent job. We have much for which to thank the former Deputy, the late Jim Mitchell, for the money that committee recovered. Unfortunately the public were not as gracious in their appreciation.

I became a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights towards the end of the last Dáil when the sub-committee to investigate events at Abbeylara was established. I felt somewhat uneasy about that sub-committee. Despite what some Members say, it is not the role of the Oireachtas to turn us into a house of investigators like Colombo or Elliot Ness. Our role is to scrutinise legislation and keep a check on Departments. I agree with Deputy Kelleher that we could have every committee involved in sensational investigations, carrying out witch-hunts and bringing people in. Some of the questions put, especially during the Abbeylara inquiry, would make one cringe. Those with any knowledge of what happened would regard some of the questions as completely off the mark and may have put witnesses at an unfair advantage.

While there has been some very colourful language at the tribunals, nothing seems to shock us any more. This may be due to the media reporting. What we read in the Sunday newspapers seems to be like the song about the ten green bottles hanging on the wall. One is punch drunk on reaching the third paragraph because this has been seen so many times before.

There appears to be a passive acceptance of corruption in this country. I understand a local radio station carried out a survey in recent days showing that about one in five people would be willing to make a corrupt payment to get planning permission. I do not know whether this shows that 20% of us are corrupt or that we have very difficult planning laws. Like many others eight or nine years ago, I believed that much of what we were hearing was no more than unsubstantiated rumour. However, much of it was true. I have no doubt that some corrupt politicians still exist just as there are corrupt members of any organisation or facet of society. However, politicians should be above reproach and seen to be so, as we deal with money and should have the trust of the public.

When a politician is found to be corrupt there is an expectation that we are all corrupt. I have a theory in this regard. I believe that when the corrupt politician is making his or her hit off the person handing over the money, he or she creates the impression that he or she has to get the money to pay other politicians or officials. This is why those making the payments believe corruption is so widespread, but this is not so.

One of the downsides of the tribunals is that they have allowed some people to circulate rumours and bad-mouth politicians and people in society at large. There is nothing the public like more than a bad story about someone that they can relay to others. While I cannot comment about other places, in my county of Wicklow I could spend all week denying rumours I hear about myself or others. I expend considerable negative energy doing things I should not be doing.

It is very difficult to put a stop to this, as in the first instance the person making the corrupt payment is guilty. How can we get to the bottom of this? Garda inquiries and Oireachtas inquiries have been shown to be relatively ineffective. While the tribunals are costly, slow and painstaking, they have been relatively effective. While it is not addressed in this Bill, the Minister has referred to extending the role of the Criminal Assets Bureau so that it is more pro-active. It can be taken that those with money for which they cannot account got that money by unfair means and certainly did not pay tax on it. We need to hit these people in the pocket.

It is very difficult to get someone to come forward with prima facie evidence or information that a person is corrupt. A few weeks ago I spoke about having an amnesty. I am somewhat uneasy about amnesties as they had a bad reputation in the past. There are many people who gave payments to officials or politicians to do something in the belief that this was the only way to get it done.

These people do not believe they have done anything wrong and they will not come forward with information because they are afraid they will be targeted. The Bill refers to privacy. I do not know if it would be possible to extend to those to whom I refer an amnesty of some kind or some sort of anonymity or privacy which would provide them with protection if they come forward with evidence that leads to the seizure of assets or the prosecution of politicians or officials. It is easy to suggest such mechanisms but I do not know whether they would be easy to operate. Until such time as they are put in place, however, there will always be a whiff of corruption. It is sad that those who are corrupt are the very ones who surf on the wave of an outcry and make accusations about others.

A previous speaker referred to the delay with the Bill. Perhaps the Minister made a claim, be it right or wrong, that the Opposition had not co-operated in terms of facilitating the introduction of the Bill.

I said that if we spent less time on the Order of Business every day, this Bill would have been dealt with months ago.

On a point of order, if the Minister was available more regularly we would have dealt with it months ago.

That is not a point of order.

It is a point of order. The Minister should not have interjected in the first instance.

Given that the Taoiseach is not present, I do not believe I can share the Minister's criticism of him as the person in control, for making the Order of Business long and drawn out. I am doing for the Taoiseach what the Taoiseach did for the Minister one morning when he defended him from an attack by Deputy Rabbitte.

I welcome the concept of the Bill. However, I would like to see included a mechanism for capping legal fees. Someone informed me in the past that a senior counsel will not get out of bed in the morning for less than €10,000. I intend no reflection on the Minister but that comment was made by a person in the legal profession whose views I respect.

A top model would make that kind of money.

Charging high fees has knock-on effects. Many professions, not just the legal profession, have increased their fees in recent years.

I thank the Deputy for reminding me of the sacrifices I make.

One can only spend so much money in one lifetime.

We worry about the Minister on a daily basis.

I hope a consensus can be achieved in the House regarding how the commission should evolve. Deputy Kelleher raised an important point, namely, the concept of the Minister appointing the commission. I am not one of those who wants to establish 100 boards similar to An Bord Pleanála or Bord Fáilte and take power away from the Oireachtas. We are elected by and accountable to the people. If we say we cannot trust ourselves, it will be a sad day. Who will watch the watchdog? Many claims and accusations are made across the floor of the House. These are often unfair, unjustified and lack balance. The Minister's appointing the commission would be open to claims of prejudice. If one casts one's mind back a number of years to particular Administrations and the Ministers who held power in them, it is difficult to imagine them appointing commissions of inquiry into aspects of certain matters. I will not mention names but I do not believe such commissions would have been established. If they had, the riding instructions for their chairmen would lag far behind those given to some of the jockeys riding at Punchestown during the first week in April.

I commend the Minister for introducing the Bill, albeit it nine months after its publication. I hope on Committee Stage the various issues raised by Members will be taken on board. We often state that we are not all involved in corruption but we are all tarnished by accusations of corruption. People have lost respect for politicians and believe they can treat politicians like doormats. We should not accept such treatment. The vast majority of politicians from all political parties are honest, hard-working, decent people who make sacrifices of a kind which many commentators in the Press Gallery and members of the general public will never understand. It is important to stand up for our profession because at the end of the day someone must take responsibility and do the job with which we are charged. Despite newspaper headlines about politicians' wages and expenses, the vast majority of people, even those in humble jobs, who gain election to the Houses lose our financially. One incurs unusual expenses of a kind that one never imagined before being elected.

Money is not everything. However, I do not believe that any sum of money would compensate people for the hours they spend here and the efforts they make. I wish the Minister well with the Bill.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this welcome legislation, namely, the Commissions of Investigation Bill 2003. We live in an era dominated by tribunals. At present, the news is dominated by the workings of some of those tribunals.

All of the tribunals were established to inquire into aspects of life in Ireland, some from the immediate past and others which date back much further. They were set up because of high public concern about various matters. It is right and proper that they exist. Aspects of life, political and social, have emerged that have shocked and amazed everyone. In that regard, the work of the various tribunals has been welcome. However, it has also become apparent that, at times, the progress of some tribunals has become slow and has proved extremely expensive. Recent estimates that some of the tribunals may take many more years to reach conclusions have been greeted with amazement and shock.

With this slow rate of progress, allied to rising costs, which, in one or two instances, have hit very high levels, it is no wonder that there is a growing sense of resignation among members of the general public. This resignation is, in some cases, developing into a sense of anger. This anger has many sources. In the first instance, there is anger at revelations about conduct that is unacceptable, be it at a social, political or professional level. I do not wish to discuss any particular tribunal, especially those that are currently sitting. Suffice it to say, however, that many people are upset at some of the news that has emanated from these tribunals.

There is also anger about the cost of tribunals. It is perceived that a small number of lawyers are earning disproportionate amounts of money from the workings of some of the tribunals. A considerable amount of this money is being earned from the public purse. When other demands on the public finances — such as those relating to health, education and social welfare — are considered, it is easy to understand how public anger and, in some cases, antipathy is developing in respect of the long, drawn out workings of the tribunals.

People are also angry about the length of time some tribunals are taking to reach their conclusions. Six months or even one year might be a reasonable period for a tribunal of inquiry to reach a conclusion. However, where it is forecast that it may be many years before a tribunal will be able to publish its findings, a sense of weariness develops among members of the public.

I reiterate that I do not intend what I have said to be a criticism of any specific tribunal. Each tribunal was established by the Oireachtas with a specific mandate and it is important for public confidence in all aspects of life that all of them reach their conclusions. However, as an increasing number of tribunals have become bogged down in legal arguments, the reason for their establishment has tended to get lost and the need for alternative or supplementary methods of investigation of matters of public concern has arisen. That is why I welcome the Bill. I particularly welcome the fact that under the establishment order, there must be statements referring to timescale and costs when any such commission is proposed to be established.

There are two areas in respect of which there is growing concern among members of the public. If details are given at the commencement of a commission regarding how long it is proposed that its deliberations will take and how much they will cost, the public will be reassured that the work of each commission will be carried out in an effective and speedy manner.

I also welcome the fact that the proposed commissions will focus, in the first instance, on seeking and facilitating the voluntary co-operation of witnesses. In that regard, the fact that evidence will, in the main, be received in private should be of considerable assistance. In the event that such voluntary co-operation is not forthcoming from witnesses, however, the commission will have power to compel a witness to furnish evidence and that is welcome. It is all too easy to envisage circumstances in which a potential witness may not be willing to co-operate with the commission or may take steps to hinder or obstruct its workings. The availability of penalty provisions when a person is found to have hindered the work of a commission is welcome and should help clarify the mind of any person so disposed.

It is not inconceivable that inaccurate or malicious evidence may be given to a commission. The provision whereby a person named in evidence will have to be informed of such evidence is correct and proper in the cause of natural justice. It will then be open to such persons to give their side of the story if they so wish. Having all this done in private will, I hope, lead to a speedier resolution of a commission's work and put an end to the practice in some tribunals by which people go to the High Court to have their side of a story vindicated.

It is a perception that the workings of certain tribunals have proved to be a financial bonanza for certain members of the legal profession. The fact that the issue of costs must be addressed at the start of a commission is a worthwhile step in helping to address this thorny issue. While nobody denies the right of any individual to arrive at an estimation of the value of his or her work, a sense of proportion must be maintained, especially when costs are borne by the public. It is particularly worrying that certain people are reputed to have earned enormous sums of money during the proceedings of certain tribunals.

Likewise, I welcome the provision that before taking evidence, a commission will issue guidelines as to the limitations on the legal costs witnesses may recover. Each commission will be established to do a specific job, namely, to investigate and inquire into a specific matter of public concern. They are not intended to be a means by which people make large sums of money. This clear curtailment of excessive costs is, therefore, an aspect of the Bill which I particularly welcome.

The provision that any commission which exceeds its time limit — as may occur when unforeseen circumstances arise — must issue an interim report is a welcome step, as is the requirement that the a commission must respond to the relevant Minister should he or she request such an interim report.

Last night, I listened carefully to Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's contribution, particularly his request that the Oireachtas be fully involved in commissions. The mechanism whereby a Minister responsible for a commission may only establish a commission on the authority of the Oireachtas and said Minister may request an interim report ensures that the Minister and, by extension, the Oireachtas, will take a hands-on approach, while, at the same time, allowing the commission to fulfil its brief efficiently and effectively.

I welcome the fact that reports of a commission's findings will be sent, in advance of publication, to affected parties, who may request alterations if it is their belief that fair procedures have not been followed. This is proper and fair and will ensure that all those affected or involved in the process will be treated equally.

The Bill will be of enormous benefit in investigating matters of serious public concern without incurring high financial costs and will enable the findings of commissions to be presented to the relevant Minister in a speedy fashion. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and commend it to the House.

The lessons of the years since the beef tribunal are that the Oireachtas has frequently had resort to tribunals of inquiry and other investigations at enormous cost and with mixed results; that there are, at the same time, matters of public interest which must be inquired into and should not be susceptible only to a cost benefit analysis; that there is no desirability or obligation that only one method of inquiry be used; that alternatives to the conventional public inquiry under the 1921 Act are necessary; and that inquiry by parliamentary committee in certain circumstances is one such necessary alternative.

Unfortunately, this Bill seems to signal that the Minister and the Government are quietly resolved, for whatever reason, that there will never be another DIRT style inquiry by parliamentary committee, which shall not be one of the alternatives to the conventional tribunal of inquiry. The reason the Government, particularly the Minister, has decided to kill off inquiry by parliamentary committee is puzzling. The DIRT inquiry was an acknowledged success, while the mini-CTC inquiry would have been successfully concluded had it not been derailed by the Supreme Court decision on the Abbeylara inquiry.

The Minister knows better than I that the decision on Abbeylara did not forbid inquiry by parliamentary committee, except in the event that particular outcomes could arise. On reflection, most Members of the House would agree that Abbeylara was not appropriate to inquiry by politicians. However, just as this Bill acknowledges that in some instances public inquiry by tribunal under the 1921 Act will still be inevitable, similarly, instances will arise in which inquiry by parliamentary committee will not only be appropriate, but necessary for Dáil Éireann properly to discharge its duties.

The task of parliamentarians is often described as being to legislate. The late Mr. Justice Liam Hamilton described it in different terms in a ruling in the course of the beef tribunal, when he stated: "It is, inter alia, the duty of the Members of the Oireachtas to elect a Government, to legislate and to look diligently into every affair of Government. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents and to inform and be informed by them.” As we currently organise our affairs, we are not performing that duty.

As my colleague. Deputy Costello, stated yesterday in this debate, the Labour Party supports the thrust of the Bill, in so far as it goes. We would have very much welcomed its earlier introduction because its delay has been the main reason some crucially important matters have gone without necessary investigation. I refer, in particular, to the need to investigate serious allegations surrounding the handling of sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Dublin.

The Minister has implied to groups and individuals who are deeply concerned about this issue that while this legislation is a major priority for him, the Opposition has in some way been tardy in enabling the legislation to come before the House. As the Minister knows, nothing could be further from the truth. He appears to be completely unaware of the transformation he has undergone since leaving the Opposition and joining Government. In opposition, the Minister asserted his right to question, advocate and scrutinise measures which came before the House. Since entering Government, however, his view has been that the role of the Opposition is to automatically dispatch his Bills without query or scrutiny. He is genuinely completely unaware of the transformation which has befallen him.

I am happy to debate any Bill with the Deputy, but the daily debates ad nauseam on the Order of Business, which waste an hour and a half, get my goat.

The tedium must be terrible.

I cannot call to mind any Deputy who raised issues on the Order of Business more frequently than Deputy McDowell when he was on this side of the House.

The Deputy should check the record. I was in the Law Library most of the time.

It is extraordinary that the Minister impatiently looks at his watch when we perform the task of questioning the Executive during one of the few opportunities we have to so do. I appreciate that he may see the world differently since entering Government. I also understand that business must be attended to and that the tight schedule of the House makes it difficult for Ministers to have legislation debated on the floor of the House. However, the Minister has been niggling about the Order of Business consistently recently and shown that he is completely oblivious of how he behaved in Opposition. He ought to be grateful this Bill is before the House today. If it was not for the fact that the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis is being held tonight, the Dáil would not be sitting today and would not have sat until 7 p.m. last night. It is fortuitous that the senior party in Government is facilitating the Minister with this opportunity.

As Deputy Costello said, we are anxious to facilitate the Minister on the passage of this Bill. However, that does not mean we will easily acquiesce if the Minister chooses to guillotine the debate. This matter requires careful consideration and debate, as much for what is not in it as for what is in it. In the time available to me I want to concentrate on what I see as a missed opportunity in the Bill to develop a further alternative method of investigation, namely, investigation by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

While listening to Deputy Kelleher on the monitor in my office I heard him make some points with which I agree. However, I must comment on his shock and horror that allegations made at Dublin Castle were being raised in this House and his belief that they ought to be left there. It is amazing that so few of the allegations made at Dublin Castle over the past seven years have surfaced in this House. That is remarkable. I pay tribute to the Taoiseach in many regards. However, as regards his foresight in setting up the tribunal, in some instances he says it was he who set it up while in others he says it was the Oireachtas. However, let us give him credit, for it is the longest touch-kick in political history in terms of dealing with difficult issues. Regardless of what one thinks of the issues raised or their outcome — we do not know if there will be an outcome — the Taoiseach has taken them out of the political arena and insulated them in Dublin Castle. Deputy Kelleher must have had his tongue in his cheek when he said it was a pity such matters were finding their way onto the floor here. It is rare that they do.

Last week, I raised a question about Jackson Way. I have since received a communication from former Deputy Lawlor pointing out that he has no connection with Jackson Way. The point I was raising was, given the claim jump involved which, as I said at the time, one would not see in the Yukon in the 19th century, whether the Government and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, will take action to ensure taxpayers' money is not paid over to that company. I would like also to refer to something Deputy Kelleher said, with which I agree. He is quite right to point out that the Minister is establishing commissions of investigation that are driven by Government or a Minister. That is not right. I am amazed that this Minister is doing so. One can only imagine, as Deputy Timmins said, what would have been the situation in the past if a Minister had had that authority; the circumstances in which he or she would have chosen to exercise it or not, the terms of reference drafted and so on.

I remember coming into the House to support an amendment tabled by my colleague, Deputy Gilmore, former Deputy Shatter and Deputy Quinn which sought to establish an inquiry into a certain matter now in the public domain at another venue. I was putting the case regarding the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, former Deputy Flynn, and former Minister for Justice, Deputy Burke. One does not need to labour the point. We may not always have in the Minister's seat a man of the undoubted integrity and independence of mind as the present Minister. Given that the net point is accountability, does the Minister view this proposal as an adequate response to enforcing accountability when the Government appoints the commission and dictates its terms of reference? This is a serious flaw in a measure I am otherwise happy to support. The key issues are separation of powers and Government accountability to the Dáil. Clearly, the Oireachtas ought to have that role, not the Minister or the Government.

It is the job of this House to secure accountability in terms of public policy. We are obliged to scrutinise the operation and implementation of policy, something we are not equipped to do either in terms of resources or in terms of the law. Whatever about resources, we should not allow this legislation to glide through the House without at least questioning why the Minister and the Government have chosen to ignore the need for reform in this area.

We all know from recent experiences that there are many areas of public life on which a searching light deserves to be shed. We have had many examples in recent years where vast amounts of public resources have been wasted while pressing needs go unanswered. We have had examples of secret deals and insider trading, made without any proper basis, that have committed the State to unimaginable exposure. We have had an approach to the development of infrastructure that has generated chaos around the country and cost multiples of what it cost in other countries.

Only yesterday we had an announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government of new so-called guidelines that are, whatever worthy cause they are ostensibly designed to pursue, wide open to abuse and could do untold environmental and infrastructural damage if not adequately debated and developed. We have had naked political electioneering masquerading as policy under the guise of decentralisation. We have also had the charade of electronic voting, an issue, if ever there was one, that demands thorough investigation here in the home of our parliamentary democracy.

We strongly believe that if the Dáil is to truly represent the interests of the people, it must be a place where accountability is delivered and maladministration leading to injustice can be investigated and rooted out. It must be a place where independent, tough and fair investigation finds a focus. There will always be room for adversarial politics, but there must also be a time when Members of the House are prepared to work together to uncover things that should not be hidden, as was visibly and manifestly done in the DIRT inquiry which has, since its conclusion, uncovered some €677 million for the taxpayer

I will repeat some of what my colleague Deputy Costello said in this regard. If we do not succeed in this debate in developing a major role for the Dáil in carrying out public inquiries, we will do it when in a position to do so. As a consequence of the Supreme Court judgments arising from the Abbeylara case and the knock-on effects of those judgments for the mini-CTC inquiry, it is clear that if parliamentary inquiries are to be effective, constitutional change is probably necessary.

In our published policy documents we have already proposed a constitutional amendment to confer a clear mandate on the Dáil to inquire into and report upon any exercise of the executive power of the State or on the administration of any of its public services. As a logical corollary, we have also proposed the establishment of a powerful new Oireachtas committee of investigations, oversight and petitions, bi-partisan in structure and chaired by a member of the Opposition. The role of that committee would be to ensure consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman; to receive parliamentary petitions from interested groups in the community seeking the redress of grievances connected with the public services and with public administration generally; to arrange investigation of issues of urgent public importance which demand detailed and thorough investigation of the sort that normally only a tribunal can satisfactorily deal with; and to supervise an office of parliamentary investigator.

We have not proposed a full-time and permanent office of parliamentary investigator. We envisage that persons with particular requisite skills would be appointed to this office from time to time on the basis of specific contracts to carry out specific investigations and to advise the committee supervising this matter. In this way, we believe the model we propose would ensure speedy and cost-effective investigation of issues giving rise to significant public concern. As we know already, the Comptroller and Auditor General carries out similar functions, albeit on a permanent basis. The parliamentary inspector we envisage, underpinned by law, would have powers to secure attendance, direct answers to questions, direct the disclosure and production of documents, secure evidence and make determinations where privilege is claimed over information or documents.

Yesterday's meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, which was dealing with a matter of significant public interest, namely, the indemnity deal in respect of children in residential institutions, is a good example. The Comptroller and Auditor General says the bill ultimately could be as much as €1 billion. A deal was entered into that capped the liability of the religious congregations and left the taxpayer with unlimited exposure. We are now in a circumstance, some six months later, where the religious congregations have not yet assented to appear before the committee. The Attorney General's office has declined to come before the committee, perhaps because it thinks it might be examined on the legal advice it gave to the Government. That would not happen because I accept that is a matter between Government and the Attorney General, but there are other matters relating to the manner of conclusion of the deal in which the matters of the committee——

They were rendered non-compellable by a Bill brought through by the Government of which the Deputy's party was a member.

I am unaware of that but, if that is the case, we ought to examine it. I am not arguing in this instance for compellability in that there are matters connected with the formulation of that deal that do not relate to the legal advice given to Government and on which we would like to examine the senior people in the Office of the Attorney General. The Minister raises an important point, however, and if he says it, I am sure he is correct.

I protested about it at the time.

Where an institution like the religious congregations chose not to recognise the oldest committee of the sovereign Parliament and appear before it, it is unconscionable that we are left without any instruments to cause them to come and be examined on a matter of such public interest and which has a scale of exposure for the taxpayer like few we have seen in the history of the State. In that respect we see parliamentary inspectors generally taking evidence in private, without legal and other representation by other parties, to submit written reports, the book of evidence, so to speak, on matters of established fact which could be used as the basis for further investigation, including tribunals.

On the other hand, such an inspection could not arrive at conclusions on disputed issues of fact. As the Minister has provided in this Bill, on the conclusion of an investigation, the investigator would prepare a written report, based on the evidence received, setting out the facts established in regard to the matters referred for investigation. In other words, the function of an investigator would be to undertake the preliminary investigation and, in so far as possible, establish the factual position. In many circumstances that would be sufficient. Where the investigator is unable to establish clear facts, however, the report of a parliamentary investigator would, if necessary, be followed by either a formal parliamentary inquiry or a tribunal of inquiry, as appropriate.

It would then be a matter for the parliamentary committee to consider the reports of the parliamentary investigator and to make recommendations as to whether a further inquiry was required. Among the options open would be a choice between Oireachtas or judicial inquiry. Remarkably, there is not a million miles between our proposition and what the Minister is advancing. The net difference, however, is that the Minister's system of investigation is Government-driven. It is not a matter for the Oireachtas except in so far as the Oireachtas approves the Minister's proposal, and since Government is normally elected in this House on the basis of a majority, the Oireachtas will approve it automatically. That is the major difference between what I advocate and what the Government is doing.

We need alternatives to the system of tribunals of inquiry as we have known it, and there ought to be a number of such alternatives. There are certain examples in company law which are helpful in terms of the role of inspectors and so on. The kind of commission the Minister is now establishing will make a contribution but I ask him to re-think the particular area where initiation, terms of reference and membership of the commission are to be appointed and specified by the Minister. That is a weakness. Other than that, I am happy to support the Minster's measure.

I am nervous following a speaker who has had such experience of various Dáil committee investigations in the past, and facing a Minister with an extensive legal background. As someone who has been a Member of the Oireachtas for only two years, I am a little shy about speaking on such weighty issues as to how we should investigate the affairs of State. I will attempt to do my best, however, and give my humble opinion on this Bill and also on the broader question about the way we carry out our role, not just as legislators but as investigators here.

I will start with the Order of Business, which the Minister raised in a comment on the last contribution. If the Minister finds the Order of Business frustrating and difficult to get through, I can assure him that for those of us on the Opposition back benches it is pure torture.

Let us scrap it.

It is a system which allows, to a certain extent, leaders of the Opposition parties to make the occasional point or raise an issue on the Order of Business but if a backbencher has a serious concern it is almost impossible to determine where it can be raised during the day. It is almost impossible to raise it on the Order of Business. In my experience from my time in this House, there is nothing more frustrating than the system whereby I ask the Taoiseach a question, the answer to which I know is on a piece of paper in front of him but which he knows he can get away with not answering. That is a particularly frustrating and difficult system. I encourage the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to act on his frustration and, together with his party, determine what can be done to change the current system because it does not serve anyone in this House particularly well.

An example of that arose on Tuesday when I had asked the Minister for Transport what was for me an important question on an issue which has some consequence for the development of our city, Dublin. It was to ask the Minister when the Government had decided to invest in the upgrade of the M50, which was reported in the newspapers in recent weeks. It is approximately a €500 million project which no doubt will go to public private contract.

The Deputy should table a parliamentary question or raise it on the Adjournment.

Perhaps the Minister will let me explain. I tabled a question to the Minister for Transport to ask when the Government decided, as reported in the newspapers, to proceed with this project and I received a letter from the Minister for Transport stating that it is not his responsibility but that of the National Roads Authority. In other words, it is not a Government responsibility, which I find difficult to understand. I tried to raise a question on the Order of Business about the legislation under which this €500 million is being allocated but I was immediately stopped by the Ceann Comhairle and told that the matter was not relevant on the Order of Business because it did not relate to proposed legislation. This is a serious public issue about the way we are allocating money which no doubt will involve some very lucrative contracts, yet I cannot find out from the Government, in any way I know, whether it has come to a decision on the matter even though it is widely reported in the newspapers that it has come to such a decision. I would welcome a change in the Order of Business.

The first level of parliamentary investigation should be where I could ask a simple question, namely, whether the Government has decided to allocate €500 million to this particular project. To date I have not received an answer to that question. I agree with the Minister that we should start in our investigation on something as simple as how we can ask the Government about promised legislation or raise items on the Order of Business.

I am speaking mainly from my two years' experience here because, prior to that, I did not have experience in the various tribunals other than a passing interest as a member of the public. One of my positive experiences in the Dáil, and one of the things which perhaps is not much regarded outside of the House, is the work that can be done in Oireachtas committees. I am a member of both the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the sub-committee that looked into broadband. In credit to all the members of the committee, they did useful investigative work in recent years. There were two particular matters the committee investigated, one following a "Prime Time" programme. The media must be brought into any debate on investigation in society. "Prime Time" is one of the few decent programmes that engages in desperately needed investigative journalism.

Following a "Prime Time" programme on the fish farming industry in the west of Ireland, the committee decided to investigate it further. Fish farmers, various State agencies and anglers' representatives involved were invited to attend the committee. The meeting lasted nine hours and all parties were asked to comment on what was said in the programme. However, a far more extensive presentation was given allowing all parties to hear the issues of concern. Some of these were sensitive and may involve criminal investigations. In this nine hour meeting, the facts behind the issues and the opinions of those involved were put on the record. The significant benefit of this work was that it informed us as legislators in great detail of aspects of the fish farming industry. It allowed the media more access to the details of what the various parties felt about the matter. It also allowed the people and the various bodies in the industry to hear each other in a public forum. When an Oireachtas committee can work like this, it serves a useful function. However, it needs more support more with better research provisions and resources.

Following public controversy with the increase of fixed-line phone charges, the committee invited the telephone companies, the regulators and other bodies to attend a similar meeting. What was meant to be a two hour meeting, turned into a seven hour one. The work of the regulator was examined in detail. It was the regulator, rather than the companies, who was subjected to the greatest scrutiny. Our role as public representatives is to manage those public agencies that come under our remit. I find the committee system of investigation works well.

I recommend one simple change to the committee system to ensure its better working. I recommend that the chairmanships be divided up on the basis of party representation. It would lead to greater stature and interest in the leadership, management and development of committees if a chairmanship was seen as a position with responsibility by a party, be it in Opposition or Government. It would allow Members to prepare for ministerial roles — a future aspiration of us all — by giving them a minor role or control in the overall departmental brief, given that the committees are married to relevant Departments. This is one of the Dáil reforms I want to see. I understand it will be difficult for the Government to give up that bauble, as it is seen under current arrangements. The key to making the Oireachtas more relevant and work better is in the committees system. Ensuring political leadership in the committees will make this work.

Another change, which would be easy in this fast changing technological age, is to ensure that proceedings of the Houses and the committees are broadcast more regularly. There is no reason a channel cannot be available when the Dáil or committees sit to allow people to see the day's business. For example, someone in Connemara with an interest in fish farming could tune into a committee meeting on the matter. The Minister would be surprised how useful and beneficial such a service would be. Such a development would assist our role as investigators as well as legislators.

It can easily be done through Internet broadcasting.

Yes. Given that we already have the facilities——

I wrote a paper on this topic five years ago which RTE undertook to contemplate. However, none of the recommendations were ever implemented. We should have a system like C-SPAN in the United States.

I remember as an illegal immigrant in the United States when working nights in restaurants, one of the sad joys I had during the day was watching Congressional meetings as the minutiae of US society was investigated. It was a hugely educational and entertaining pastime. Maybe I am a political trainspotter in enjoying it but a significant number of Irish people would relish a similar service. It should be at the top of the agenda on Dáil reform as it would improve the standing of this House and the level of investigation conducted.

We could call it "Open House".

I agree with Deputy Rabbitte's earlier argument. If there is a concern about this Bill, it is about the initiation process of a commission inquiry. The Bill as currently arranged is coming from the Government with the approval of the Minister for Finance and that is of incredible significance in that ultimately like so much else in the running of our society it is the Minister for Finance who would have the "yea" or "nay" in its approval. I am keen to hear from the Minister whether he contends that the discussion on that process as to whether a Minister wants to initiate it would be open for public scrutiny, or would be public knowledge. I presume not, given the legislation regarding cabinet confidentiality. There could be no knowledge or understanding as to what sort of battle was going on or if there was a debate about a decision on whether we should set up a particular commission and that is the key failing in the Bill.

I welcome the broad principles and intent of the Bill. However, for it to establish this House as the initiator it has to be open to the members of the opposition or to the Dáil to initiate a commission. If the Government does not approve, then obviously it can be voted down in the House. It would be a difficult system to administer. We would want to avoid a situation where on every second day Deputies would clamour on the Order of Business for an inquiry on the lack of a hospital bed in some small village. It would have to be established in some way so that we would not have a Standing Order 31 of the day where we would have half a dozen people standing up on a matter of national interest seeking an inquiry in their local villages. I understand the Minister's concern in not setting up a system that could be used in such a manner.

The Minister's alternative proposal is that it is fundamentally decided within Cabinet by the very people who in a sense have probably most to gain from not having something exposed. What interest will the Minister for Finance and his Department have in exposing certain issues? The nature of the business that will be exposed will more than likely involve the State and the operation of the Civil Service within the State will obviously be a corner part of that investigation. The likelihood of a Minister deciding to take that route is slim. The likelihood of the Minister for Finance approving it is even more slim and of the Cabinet agreeing to it is yet more slim. The Minister needs to consider an amendment on Committee Stage that will allow a motion from the House to initiate a commission of inquiry even if the final "yea" or "nay" would be held by a majority in the Dáil voting it through.

My other concern is about the nature of such a commission. The presumption that the group should not comprise politicians is regrettable. As politicians we are well placed to be neutral arbiters in an investigation in a particular area. I am not sure whether it is better to get experts to investigate their own particular field. Sometimes it is better if the investigation is carried out by people from a different background who do not have a particular understanding of the area or a career involvement. They tend to ask fundamental questions that an expert who has spent his or her life's work in a given area might not see. Given the size of this country it is difficult to find an expert in a given field who will not have a close affinity at a high level with any of the people involved in a particular tribunal. It is difficult to get people close to an industry or particular area to investigate themselves. There is a strong case for political representatives taking on that role.

I do not know whether it will be possible under the legislation for politicians to be appointed as members of such a commission. I would not like to see that ruled out, however, because we tend to develop and evolve an expertise. One of the things we learn on committees is how to start asking questions, though perhaps not in the barristerial or quasi-judicial manner one sees in the High Court and elsewhere. One of things I have learned in the last two years is to have a nose for where the story is, what questions to ask and, on occasions, where the bodies lie. One does not find them most of the time, but at least on committees one learns how to work towards that objective.

I appreciate the Abbeylara case was an unfortunate one to fight in terms of the House's ability to compel witnesses to come forward. With hindsight it probably was not appropriate. There are a large number of other areas, however, where it may be appropriate for a committee of this House — whether it is specially set up or a sub-committee of an existing Oireachtas committee — to have some ability to compel witnesses. This is particularly appropriate where the investigation may be focused on a subsidiary organ of or an organisation within the State. Significant powers are now being given to the energy regulator, ComReg, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and other such bodies, all of which I have dealings with as a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

Some bodies are required by legislation to attend the committee. In other cases the powers to compel them to attend are much weaker. In the future it may be possible that the State or the Oireachtas will need to investigate in some detail the dealings of an outside, albeit statutory, body. If that were to prove difficult, there might be circumstances where witness compellability would be required. One could argue the Minister ultimately has the powers in that regard in terms of seeking answers from such boards. I have not been able to think of a particular instance where another DIRT-type inquiry might be needed. The example of the DIRT inquiry is a good one, however, and it is appropriate that this House should retain the ability to set up that type of investigation again. While not necessarily re-fighting the battle that was lost in the Abbeylara decision, I believe it is appropriate for the House to maintain that power.

I reiterate, public representatives can be good at this particular job, if we give ourselves this role. I recall watching some US congressional debates in the past. I still tune in to one of the American business channels, if Alan Greenspan or some other notable is on, for example, to get a feel for what is happening in the global economy. I often notice how good those public representatives are in the congressional hearings and committees and how their questioning is well-presented and focused. That is the direction this House should be taking with its committees, developing and honing expertise and asking questions on behalf of the members of the public. If we develop that skill it should be possible for us, on occasion, to provide special committees with powers of compellability. This would not arise in the ordinary everyday work we do, but as appropriate.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill which will allow future tribunals to operate in a more efficient and less expensive manner. I do not in any way share Deputy Kelleher's disappointment and cynicism about the work that has been done in the various tribunals. It comprises some of the most important work done in this State in my lifetime. To go back to what I said at the start, certain issues have enormous public importance. The biggest loss in my lifetime in this city has been the atrocious corrupt planning that has seen Dublin sprawl out in an unsustainable, unplanned manner. That will have a cost, not just in my lifetime but in that of my children, where we have to pay for the bad planning that was carried out. We will have to pay for the hours people spend in traffic because there are no schools close to where they live or because their jobs are such a distance away and no public transport is provided. That is the greatest ill that has been done by the State and the Government in my lifetime to people in this city and around the country. It has been mirrored in other cities and towns. It is right to allocate as much resources as are necessary to investigate why such planning was allowed and try to ensure it never happens again. Even though it is cumbersome, the work being done on the tribunals is among the most important that can be done. I fully support it.

I hope the Minister will consider the points I have made about the initiation of commissions and that this will be debated in more detail on Committee Stage.

I am broadly supportive of the establishment of commissions of inquiry. It must be accepted that the facility to hold tribunals or commissions of investigation is still needed. I understand concerns as regards the rising costs of holding such investigations and the vocal public disquiet, the legal fees paid and the length of time it is taking to reach conclusions. Unfortunately, it seems that we emphatically need such tribunals or commissions at this point.

Basic issues of natural justice are at play in this debate. The serious errors of the past — some distant and others more recent — require examination. The abdication of responsibility by those in control at different intervals also needs to be investigated. Most importantly, the failure to protect the most vulnerable people in this State when they needed such protection cannot go unchallenged, I will focus in particular on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in which I have a particular interest. It was established on 23 May 2000 following an apology by the Taoiseach to the victims of past abuse. It was rightly acknowledged at the time that these victims deserved to have their stories heard. In the past they were forgotten by our society and abandoned in a shameful manner. The remit of this commission was to hear their stories, investigate the abuse of children in institutions and publish findings and recommendations on dealing with the effects of this abuse.

Many of the victims of past abuse and neglect have had shocking and distressing experiences. It was right and proper they be given the opportunity to tell their stories and show how society failed them in the past so that we can try to ensure this does not happen in the future. Many of these victims of abuse are approaching old age. The commission should now be at work hearing their cases. These people have much to teach us and future generations about the kind of State-sponsored barbarity that can exist in a society that fails to be vigilant and to protect the vulnerable. We need to hear their stories so this is not forgotten.

It is an indictment of the Minister for Education and Science and the Government that the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has heard so few cases since it was established and has been unable to progress further since last September. That is why this type of legislation is particularly welcome. The resignation of Ms Justice Laffoy, as she said, was a direct result of the failure of the Department of Education and Science to engage with her commission in a proper manner. It was the lowest point in the history of commissions of inquiry since their establishment. I make that point to illustrate the importance of our having the power to establish commissions or tribunals of inquiry or investigation. A society that fails to examine painful issues from the past such as those from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is failing in its responsibility.

There are a few different issues regarding the proposed legislation that I would like to raise. I am concerned at the attempt in this legislation effectively to sideline the Houses of the Oireachtas, although the Minister would probably disagree. Under section 3, a Minister, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, can establish a commission of investigation by order. That order must then be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and requires the acceptance of each House before it comes into effect. Under section 4, the order establishing the commission may allow the Minister to set the terms of reference of the investigation without consulting either House of the Oireachtas. That is a significant and unwelcome aspect of the proposed legislation. It is clear that any commission of investigation must be independent of the Government. Not only must it be independent, it must be seen to be so.

To command the confidence of the public, especially taxpayers, a commission of investigation must be at arm's length from the Government. In that way it can fulfil its role without fear. The public must see that any commission is given the necessary independence and autonomy to fulfil its investigative role with no question mark over any future commission's impartiality. It is possible that such a commission could be investigating those who are part of or associated with the political world. Such a commission must be independent and seen to be so by the public. Unfortunately, sections 3 and 4 will not have that effect.

Fine Gael believes that the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in bodies of this type must be reinstated. We believe that commissions of investigation should not only be established by the Houses of the Oireachtas but have their terms of reference set by them. Those terms of reference are critical to the workings of any investigative commission or inquiry. When set correctly, they can greatly assist the work of the investigation and the speed with which such an investigation can reach a conclusion. Terms of reference should not be set by the Minister.

In addition, Fine Gael believes that the chairman of each commission of investigation should be required to be answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas or a committee of the Houses. It would be a positive step for the chairperson of a commission to meet and report to a committee of the House. Those meetings would allow the chairperson of a commission to answer questions on the investigative process but not on the content or detail of its investigations. Had Ms Justice Laffoy had that opportunity, rather than spending two years writing to Ministers and the Department, she might have had some of her very legitimate concerns dealt with at that stage. Recently we have seen the great difficulties that were encountered by her commission, established to investigate matters of grave importance, when dealing with a Department. Ms Justice Laffoy, the former chairperson of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, was left with little option but to resign following the unhelpful manner in which requests from her were dealt with by the Department of Education and Science.

It is also clear that there is an inherent conflict in having the Department of Education and Science as the sponsoring Department for this commission, as well as being under active investigation by it. That inherent conflict has been highlighted to an even greater extent in the third interim report of Ms Justice Laffoy. In her most trenchant criticism of the Department, Ms Justice Laffoy states:

The Committee is not satisfied that, since its establishment, it has received the level of co-operation which it is entitled to expect to receive from the Department of State which is its statutory sponsor. Moreover, it has experienced difficulty in securing compliance with its statutory requests and directions by the Department in its role as Respondent.

Ms Justice Laffoy was keenly aware of the conflict that existed in the dual role assumed by the Department of Education and Science. On the one hand, the Department was the sponsor for the work of the commission, involved in detail in setting it up and financing its work. On the other hand, the Department was the focus of the commission's investigative attention. That was a clear conflict of interest about which Ms Justice Laffoy was visibly concerned, especially as time went on and the obstruction of the Department became more and more evident to her and her inquiry.

On 29 January 2003, Ms Justice Laffoy wrote a paper to the Attorney General, entitled Position of Commission in relation to Government Review. The purpose of that paper was to set forth the considered position of the commission regarding the review announced by the Government into the remit of the inquiry. One of the key recommendations made by the commission to the Attorney General related to its independence. Ms Justice Laffoy wrote:

The Commission is concerned about public perception of the appropriateness of the Commission being reliant on the Department of Education and Science for its resources and that Department being the Commission's communication channel to Government given that:

The Department's conduct over the past 60 years is being investigated by the Commission, and

The Department has a contractual arrangement with the religious orders which managed residential institutions in the past, which might be perceived as not being conducive to support for the Commission's investigation of the conduct of those orders, which the Commission is mandated to conduct.

Ms Justice Laffoy continued to suggest that the Government consider that the functions resting in the Department of Education and Science regarding the commission instead be given to another Department, with the exception, for similar reasons, of the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Given those difficulties, it is hard to see how allowing a Minister to set the terms of reference for a commission is wise or welcome. Clearly, the Minister for Education and Science has political responsibility for his Department and the allocation of resources. From even a cursory reading of the third interim report of Ms Justice Laffoy, it is apparent that neither he nor his predecessor resourced the commission properly or enabled his own Department to respond to the commission's requests in a manner which indicated that he understood or appreciated the importance of the commission's work. I find it difficult to accept that the Department of Education and Science, or any other Department, should be in the position of setting the terms of reference for any future commission with responsibility to examine matters directly relating to that Department. It is a contradiction and, if we really want to get to the truth and this legislation is to have any teeth, we must ensure that that is not the case.

The Department of Education and Science was always going to be critical to the success or failure of the commission. Ms Justice Laffoy acknowledges from the outset that, for the commission to carry out its work in a "fair, proper, efficient and cost-effective" manner, it required the full engagement of the Department of Education and Science. However, that engagement was not forthcoming. Ms Justice Laffoy lists several specific concerns regarding the co-operation of the Department of Education and Science with the commission:

The Committee's principal area of concern ... relates to the manner in which the Department has complied with directions for discovery and production of documents.

She went on to say:

The Department, despite clear indications from the Committee that the prescribed form should be followed, has unilaterally omitted those averments from an affidavit of discovery sworn pursuant to a direction. This is not a state of affairs which the Committee finds acceptable.

Those are serious criticisms in which a commission established by the Government, with a senior member of the Judiciary as its chairperson, showed that it was being hampered and hindered in its investigation by a Department. It is difficult to think of a more serious charge being made against a Department. Those critical difficulties have meant that the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has heard only a fraction of the cases that it had hoped to deal with. The victims of past abuse are left with questions unanswered and their cases unheard.

The difficulties encountered by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse when dealing with the Department of Education and Science should serve as a caution to us when considering the Bill. Is it really appropriate to allow a Minister to set the terms of reference of future commissions of investigation rather than this House having the power to do so?

I also have concerns with regard to section 6(2) which effectively states that the terms of reference of a commission cannot be amended where to do so would prejudice the rights of any person who has co-operated or provided further information to it. That seems effectively to grant immunity from further and deeper investigation to those who assist a tribunal or commission, irrespective of what negative detail of their role later becomes available. To tie the hands of a commission in that way seems most peculiar.

Section 9(2)(b) is also unusual. It imposes a mandatory obligation on a commission to seek the voluntary co-operation of persons whose evidence is desired, and the commission must facilitate such co-operation. That section also warrants careful consideration. The practicality is again evident. We saw to it that Ms Justice Laffoy was given the powers that we thought necessary, yet a Department, as well as other people appearing before the commission, failed to facilitate it and grant such co-operation. To state that the commission can facilitate that is not as clear as it would at first appear. In practice, that section could turn out to be unduly onerous for the commission. An example would be whether the commission might be obliged to travel overseas to facilitate witnesses. If that were the case, the progress of future commissions could be impeded. That is the direct opposite of what the Minister is genuinely trying to achieve through the new legislation.

The costs of inquiries and commissions of investigation are frequently matters of public comment and criticism. In this legislation, the requirement that an estimated cost for any commission be prepared is an important step in curbing excessive costs and reducing the burden on the taxpayer. Commissions of inquiry will always place a cost on the taxpayer, but that should be managed effectively to minimise costs where possible. It is strange that the first time the Government became really exercised over this issue was when it was investigating the treatment of people by the State and various religious institutions, and it became exercised about the attendant cost of that rather than the issue in general.

It was reported last Sunday that lawyers have received more than €100 million in fees from tribunals to date. Understandably, there is considerable public disquiet about this, a point made yesterday by my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. In other areas projects must be advertised and tenders must be received and evaluated under the dual criteria of getting component work done for the State in a manner that is not wasteful of State resources. Perhaps the Minister would give consideration to adopting this type of methodology in this case.

I broadly support the legislation. When does the Minister intend to introduce legislation to reform all tribunals of inquiry legislation, which dates from the 1920s? Deputy Kelleher and Deputy Ryan spoke about the public's interest and wondered if it had waned. I believe it has waned and that is not surprising. The phrase "tribunal fatigue" is regularly used and that is understandable. However, people's interest will revive when the final reports are published. There have been leaks and a great deal of reporting on the tribunals and, in some ways, people have tried to manage information before the tribunals in such a way as to create tribunal fatigue before the tribunals report. That has an obvious effect in that people are familiar with the information before the judge makes recommendations.

The issues for the public, however, are the length of time and the huge costs. It appears to take us a long time to make a decision to hold a tribunal. Compare that with the Hutton inquiry in England. It was set up quickly and reported within a short time. If the same situation arose in this country, there would probably be a year or two of discussions before getting around to having an inquiry. That is a pity. If matters were dealt with speedily from the beginning, it would save time and money. There seems to be an assumption that the Bill will provide a solution to the problems of time delays and costs. I hope that will be the case but I am not convinced at this stage. If it is the solution, it will be helpful in terms of public perception.

The Bill deals with the conduct of commissions of investigation. There will be a chairperson and other members on the commission of investigation. In her report, Ms Justice Laffoy was strongly of the opinion that if her commission was allowed to operate through separate committees to investigate different areas — I believe she suggested four — it would speed matters considerably. She believed she would then be able to complete her work within two years. Mr. Justice Ryan, in his report to the Attorney General, was of the opinion that this would not be a good idea because it was possible that the four different committees might come to different conclusions, which would not be appropriate. He said there should be one group of people in charge of investigating all areas. This issue is not dealt with sufficiently in the legislation. It must be decided upon. There has to be a definite position on whether this will be done through various committees or if there will always be just one committee. The same rules will have to apply to all commissions of investigation.

Section 31 deals with reports and section 32 deals with the right of a Minister to request interim reports. Consideration should be given to the issue of interim reports. Perhaps they should be obligatory after a certain period of time or after particular modules. It is envisaged that these commissions will not take as long as tribunals but if they are taking a long time, other people as well as the Minister, particularly Members of the Oireachtas, should be able to seek an interim report.

This Bill is inadequate to meet the situation that exists in Irish society. Unfortunately, the ordinary citizen has serious concerns about how the financial, economic and political sections of the establishment behave. The Bill is supposed to provide for the establishment from time to time of commissions to investigate into and report on matters considered to be of significant public concern.

There is no doubt there are matters of significant public concern at present. The tribunals of inquiry currently sitting, the first of which was established in 1997, were set up to address public concern at that time about revelations of corruption in public life and the nature of the interaction between big business, developers, speculators and senior politicians at the interface of business and politics. I was a new Member of the House when I voted in autumn 1997 for the establishment of the first of these tribunals. I wholeheartedly welcome the revelations of corrupt practices which have been exposed through the work of the tribunals. Many of us who served on local authorities, and I served on Dublin County Council for a number of years, knew the extent of the corruption involving key councillors from the major conservative parties and developers and speculators. We smelt the corruption in the corridors of Dublin County Council but we could not prove it. Scandalously, I have no doubt that the leaders of those parties knew what their members were involved in but they accepted it. They did not move to stop it.

I welcome the fact that we now have a clearer picture of what happened and who was involved. However, the length of time it is taking the tribunals to get their work done and to get to the facts is now a source of serious public concern. The costs of the tribunals are a source of scandal to ordinary taxpayers. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in his remarks on Second Stage mentioned that the costs of the tribunals to date were a €100 million. What has happened is clear. The tribunals have been subverted from their initial and primary purpose, which was to ferret out the truth, flush corruption into the open and put the names of those responsible for it into the public domain. However, since then they have become the creatures of the lawyers.

In the early days, when the media spoke about millionaires at the tribunals, people assumed they were referring to the speculators and the people who are being investigated for having corrupted the political process and right wing politicians. If one now speaks of millionaires at tribunals, one is as likely to be speaking of the lawyers who have been made millionaires by the same tribunals. I remarked in the House some time ago, on the first revelation of the extent of the costs and fees commanded, that the tribunals were creating more millionaires than they were investigating. It is clear we are being held to ransom because this and previous Governments have refused to tackle the more privileged section of the legal profession regarding the fact it can demand any fees it wishes. It is no wonder that working people, PAYE taxpayers and people living on the margins look askance at what is happening in the tribunals. The situation is unsustainable and moves should have been made against it long ago.

We also see that those who have a great deal to lose, namely, those who fear the quick emergence of the truth, have taken to appearing in front of the tribunals with a virtual caravan of lawyers in tow. They spare no expense to delay and frustrate the work of the tribunals and, in particular, the pace at which they progress. The Government also has an agenda. There is no question but that the inordinate delay in the progress of the work and the issues suits the Government no end because it has minimised the political impact of the tribunal's horrific revelations.

Earlier in the first term of the Government, revelations of corruption touching colleagues of the Progressive Democrats in the Fianna Fáil party would send a frisson of nervousness through them. In some circumstances the frisson might even have developed into a shudder threatening the continuation of Government or even its fall. This would have been much more likely to happen had the revelations of corruption emerged quickly and succinctly because they would then have had the maximum impact.

Now, however, five or six years later, the Progressive Democrats Party has become much more sanguine about the goings-on of members of its partner in coalition. It would now take an earthquake to move the two parties apart. Apart from the revelations so far, the scandalous revelations of Mr. Gilmartin in recent days do not appear to have sent even a slight shiver down the spines of the Progressive Democrats in this Government. It is clear it would take an earthquake to move them.

As we have seen from the Minister of State, considerations closer to home have taken over. For example, on budget day when the Tullamore races were taking place, he almost fell over himself in his rush to his constituency to announce decentralisation. Such immediate electoral considerations are much more to the front of the minds of the Progressive Democrats. I was never really under the illusion that they would act as watchdogs in the Government, but some credence might have been given to that at one stage.

More like poodles.

What this legislation proposes is inadequate from the point of view of ordinary working people and taxpayers. The members of the proposed commission of investigation will be the creatures of Ministers who will control the process from beginning to end. The commission is to be established by the Government but based on the proposals of a Minister with the approval of the Minister for Finance. The terms of reference of the commission are to be set by the Government or the Minister and the members of the commission will be appointed by the specified Minister. This is most unsatisfactory. What about a case where grave public concern exists about the carry-on of a specific Minister or Department? In no sense can this proposal be seen as an independent process which will give confidence to ordinary people that their concerns will be investigated. I have little confidence in it.

It is time we discussed new genuinely independent structures for the rapid investigation of scandals or issues of major concern that emerge, the members of which would be ordinary working people. Perhaps we need structures which involve the victims of some of the corruption that has taken place.

The working class people of my constituency of Dublin West, and many others, have suffered appallingly as a result of the corruption between business and politics over the past 30 years. On a daily basis, they live with the consequences of that corruption. It is clear from the planning and zoning that was done that the only consideration was the major profits with which developers and speculators could walk away. Working class communities were left without proper planning and facilities. No consideration was given to the needs of the human beings who would have to live in these communities and resources were not provided for them. To this day working class communities suffer the consequences of that corruption.

I favour structures through which these people could democratically investigate the goings-on of big business, developers, speculators and politicians connected to them. As far as the ordinary taxpayer is concerned, the policies of the Government will give rise to new sources for investigation. For example, I was astounded to read in The Irish Times today that, two years after the privatisation of our telecommunications industry, championed and effected by the Government, four executive directors will walk away with €29 million. It is incredible that a resource which properly belongs to the people is now the plaything of international financiers and speculators and that private individuals can walk away with fortunes of this kind from a necessary service. These resources should be used to be paid for the stark services left in the lurch by the Government, such as health, areas of education, etc.

I was even more alarmed to learn that a leading trade union official has €562,000 in shares and a pension worth €1 million as a result of the privatisation process. The subsuming of the trade union leadership into the corporate agenda is of great concern to ordinary working people. What would the great Connolly and Larkin, the founders of the movement have to say? I have no doubt that working people will want to see the corruption of the ideals, aspirations and founding principles of the labour and trade union movement carried forward within the privatisation agenda, investigated as a matter of urgency.

Mar a bhíos á rá, táim an-mhíshásta ar fad leis an mBille. Deireann sé go bhfuil an Rialtas chun socrú a dhéanamh maidir le coimisiúin a bhunúó am go ham chun scrúdú a dhéanamh i dtaobh nithe a gceaptar gur cás suntasach leis an bpobal iad agus tuarascáil a thabhairt ar na nithe sin agus na socruithe a leanann a leithéid. Ó thaobh gnáthdhaoine agus lucht íoctha cánach de, áfach, níl sé seo sásúil ar chor ar bith. Is cinnte ón méid atáá lua i láthair na huaire sna binsí fiosrúcháin go raibh agus go bhfuil gá le hathrú. Táim ag smaoineamh ar na cinn atá ag suí i láthair na huaire a cuireadh ar bun i 1997 agus faoinar cheapamar uile ag an am go mbeadh an obair críochnaithe taobh istigh de am gairid, go mbeadh an fhírinne amuigh faoi bhráid na ndaoine, go bhféadfaimis dul chun cinn ón bpointe sin, agus go mbeadh an t-eolas faighte againn maidir leis an gcaimiléireacht agus lofacht a bhí ar siúl idir lucht mór ghnó agus lucht mór pholaitíochta.

Anois, áfach, seacht mbliana níos déanaí agus tar éis €100 milliún a bheith caite ar na binsí fiosrúcháin, is cúis scannail iad do ghnáthdhaoine agus do lucht íoctha PAYE go mórmhór. Is cinnte nach bhfuil lucht PAYE sásta go leanfadh an scéal seo ar aghaidh faoi mar atá i láthair na huaire. Tá sé scannalach, mar shampla, gur lig an Rialtas do roinnt áirithe dlíodóirí móra na milliúin a thógaint isteach as bheith ós comhar na mbinsí fiosrúcháin seo.

Ba é dá bharr sin a tháinig brú ar an Rialtas gníomh éigin a dhéanamh maidir le deireadh a chur leis an scéal seo. Níl an méid atáá chur chun cinn ag an Rialtas sásúil ar chor ar bith mar tá an chumhacht iomlán á thabhairt don Aire agus don Rialtas agus tá sé i lámha an Aire coimisiún a chur ar aghaidh, na daoine a bheidh ar an gcoimisiún a ainmniú, agus na horduithe a thabhairt don gcoimisiún. Níl sé sin sásúil ó thaobh na ciniciúlachta de. Táúdar maith leis an ciniciúlacht úd atá in aigne gnáthdhaoine i láthair na huaire maidir leis an maoinlathas polaitíochta agus an maoinlathas ghnó mór faoi mar atá i láthair na huaire.

Tá gá le níos mó díospóireachta ar an gceist seo, agus i ndeireadh na dála, ní chuirfear an fhírinne iomlán ós comhar na ndaoine go dtí go mbeidh struchtúir ann atá déanta suas de ghnáthdhaoine agus dóibh siúd nach bhfuil páirteach sa chóras polaitíochta faoi mar atá i láthair na huaire.

I want to take up where Deputy Rabbitte left off. I have come to the conclusion that there is a constant conflict of interest between the roles of Government and the Opposition and the only way around this is to hold committees of inquiry. When the parties in Government were in Opposition, they had a clear and distinct view of the way the business of the House should be run. They believed they should be able to ask questions on any subject and have impromptu debates.

I do not accept the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's proposition that the legislation has been waiting on his desk for the past nine months and that he would have brought it to the House several times were the Opposition willing to co-operate. That is rubbish. The Opposition was ready and willing to deal with the legislation as soon as it could be brought into the House.

This is not something that can be dealt with at the whim of any Minister. The Opposition also has rights in the House. It is a matter for the Minister to respect the House of Parliament and not treat it like an appendage. Parliament is the place where the Government is held to account and the Opposition intercedes, challenges and rightfully delays the passage of legislation if there is a need to do so.

When the Government was in Opposition in the 1980s, considerable latitude was given by the then Chair to raising questions which, strictly speaking, were not in order on the Order of Business. It was a common ploy to ask a Minister a leading question which he or she could brazen out, but it might lead to embarrassment, especially if the Member followed it up by suggesting that the item in question would be raised on the Adjournment that night. The Minister had two options in that case. He or she could answer the question there and then or have it hanging over his or her head like the sword of Damocles until 11 p.m.

Things have changed since then; everything has been regulated. The result is that the Order of Business has almost become inept with no allowance made for any kind of spontaneity because the Government is seeking to protect itself. Ministers become indignant if questions are asked. Some of them behave in a similar way as a certain Roman emperor who had a penchant for music and continued to indulge his passion while flames virtually consumed his nether regions. The Government should not become pompous, abrupt or in any way arrogant with the Opposition. It should learn from past experience and recognise that it is better to have open, honest and effective debate and provide answers to questions in the House. That would be preferable to the pretence that goes on here from time to time.

The Deputy is a tremendous example of pomposity.

When the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, is longer in the House, he will learn all about pomposity, although in the short time he has been here he has brought it to a fine art.

He must have a PhD in pomp, ceremony and arrogance. If he stays in the House a little longer, he might learn a little humility. It might sit uneasily on his shoulders but the longer he has it the more he will respect it.

The Minister of State is a long way from the barricades and the meat factories — that is for sure.

That was a typical example of the kind of arrogance I have been talking about, as if further illustration were needed.

What would the poor farmers in Ballinamore think?

Exactly. I am surprised the Minister of State has not rushed to Ballinamore to help them out and say, "Hello, I am on your side."

Having spent some time on a parliamentary inquiry with some other Members of this House — this has been mentioned already today — I feel I am in a position to comment on their value. Obviously, the legal profession is a little uneasy about parliamentary inquiries. This was evident in the Abbeylara inquiry, which was a parliamentary inquiry. There are also some other examples. Those who saw themselves as victims reflected in a poor light or not being able to defend themselves or vindicate their position in the early stages of that inquiry, would have a natural reluctance to engage in a parliamentary inquiry. However, because such an inquiry is different from a court of law, there should be no difficulty provided the rules appertaining to the inquiry are observed.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and others stated the Law Reform Commission recommended the enactment of legislation providing for a private, low-key inquiry which would focus on the wrong or malfunction that occurred in a system rather than on individual wrongdoing. What probably happened in the aforementioned inquiry is that the person who believed he was being accused felt he would not get a fair hearing, and therefore there was a legal challenge. A subsequent inquiry was set up, which is ongoing.

The people in this inquiry are like many other people. Unfortunately, unlike the parliamentary inquiry, it seems to take an interminably long time to reach a conclusion. I do not know whether this is because of the nature of the inquiry or because legal argument must prevail to ensure that fair play ensues. One should bear in mind that there will probably be an ongoing series of inquires for the foreseeable future which will cost the State a great deal financially. The sad aspect of this is that, at a time when there are so many pressing and competing demands and so many valid causes badly in need of resources, we have to operate in this fashion to ensure we uphold certain standards in the institutions of the State.

Members have asked who initiates inquiries. As some have stated, the Taoiseach sometimes says he set up various inquiries and at other times he says the Oireachtas did so. Alternatively, he says the Opposition set them up. Whether or not he claims responsibility depends on what is happening in the inquiries at the time he makes such statements. However, under this Bill, the Minister will almost have absolute control to initiate them. He or she, with the approval of the Minister for Finance, will establish commissions by order. The Minister will have overall responsibility for the workings of the commission. He or she will set the terms of reference and determine the costs and timeframe. We have already made reference to the costs and further reference will be made thereto at a later stage.

The Minister can amend the terms of reference without recourse to the Oireachtas. This is peculiar and the Opposition intends to contest it. Having come to the Oireachtas with proposed terms of reference in the first instance, the Minister should return to the Oireachtas if he wants to amend them. If he does not do so he is taking powers within his ambit that he should not possess. If a matter is valid enough to be brought before the House in the first place, the Minister should be bound to bring it back before the House if an amendment thereto is required.

The members of the commission are appointed by the Minister and the reports, in final, draft or interim form, must all be submitted to him. I presume he publishes them. The Government has the power to terminate a commission. I would have thought Oireachtas approval was required in this regard and that it did not necessarily fall to Government, of whatever hue, to take such responsibility upon itself, particularly if it were deemed appropriate for the House to establish the commission in the first instance.

The question of commission costs has engaged the public for quite some time. As a former member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I dealt with this issue on countless occasions. The members of the legal profession get very upset and sensitive if anybody makes a reference other than a positive one regarding the costs. I fully appreciate that they, like everybody else, are entitled to a fair wage or salary. Equally, a participant in an inquiry will obviously seek the best legal assistance he or she can obtain. It may well follow, but not necessarily, that the best legal advice will cost a great deal. In such cases, one cannot blame those who employ lawyers they believe will offer the best legal advice. However, in many inquiries the State ends up carrying a fairly substantial part of the bill.

I know there are proposals in this legislation to curtail the extent of excesses in this area but there is a concern that, for some unknown reason, the inquiry process seems to be endless. If there are inquiries for the foreseeable future, we will have to engage highly-respected and highly-paid legal people to conduct them. If we do not do so and suggest that the funds be reduced, people will no longer be willing to participate.

Over the past year or more the opinion has been growing that commissions of inquiry are too expensive and should be discontinued. I disagree. Once they are established and under way it is incumbent on us to ensure they continue and reach a conclusion which identifies the cause or causes of the inquiry. Otherwise, the money spent will be wasted and there is enough waste at present.

Scarcely a day goes by when one cannot point out major wastage. I am not just referring to the odd overrun here and there but great wastage of public expenditure due to bureaucratic duplication or where the State and the taxpayer must pick up the tab. It is not related to this inquiry but such matters should be incorporated in an inquiry at the earliest possible date. I refer to such cost overruns as the Carrickmines Castle controversy that has dragged on interminably and run up a bill of approximately €50 million. In part of my constituency before it reaches Parlon country, on another road, a slug appeared a couple of years ago which cost in the region of €10 million by his mere appearance in the area. There seems to be no concern about this in any quarter. There is a right of appeal in all these circumstances but no one anticipated that such matters would continue for so long that the taxpayer would foot the bill to the present extent without raising questions.

Is the Deputy referring to the famous snail that was on his party's election poster at the last general election?

When the Minister of State has been somewhat longer in this House and has some more experience he will recognise the snail. He should not forget the phrase "aithníonn ciaróg, ciaróg eile". He might even recognise more than the snail.

The Minister of State was oblivious to some of the things happening around budget time in his own Department. His senior Minister said he was an innocent lad, a bystander who knew nothing about this until he heard about it in a pub. The poor creature then ran out to have the photostats blown up to announce that he would welcome all and sundry into his bailiwick, including I hope l’escargot.

The Deputy has one minute left. Could he please confine himself to the matters at issue?

This is relevant. I am suggesting what might be investigated under the terms of the commissions of investigation. The snailwatcher opposite can take full custody of, and responsibility for, his Department which has an obligation to examine these areas of major wastage. It should ask the serious question of whether they should fall within the ambit of the Commissions of Investigation Bill at some early stage to ensure that the people are not treated to a repetition of investigations after the event. That is the important point: they should not happen after the event when no one can do anything about the matter. We can complain about why and determine how it happened but we can never recover the resources lost.

The Minister of State would be well-advised to take time out and examine those matters because they fall within his Department. He is upset at not being able to race off to Parlon country or wherever else he wants to be this evening. He is petulant at being, as he sees it, unnecessarily detained in the House. He has my deepest sympathy but he is paid to be here just as we are. There is more required of Ministers and Ministers of State in terms of enthusiasm than merely racing to Áras an Uachtaráin and accepting the seal of office.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate and I am pleased to see that the Bill has been broadly welcomed on all sides of the House. That indicates that it is not only a timely measure but that it addresses many of the major concerns about current arrangements. The Minister said in his opening remarks, "This Bill is a very significant piece of reforming legislation and in the fullness of time it will be seen as a major step forward in the way we conduct public investigations in this State." We are all aware of the increasing demand for public investigations as a means of dealing with issues of major concern. There is a reasonable expectation that such investigations will produce quick and satisfactory outcomes. However, these expectations have too often been frustrated and, as a result, the investigation process has been damaged by perceptions of delay, obstruction and serious cost implications. I believe the structures and processes provided for in this Bill will go a long way to remedy many of problems associated with the present arrangements.

No one has said that this Bill represents a solution to all the problems associated with public inquiries and investigations. However, I am satisfied that it provides the State with an effective additional means of carrying out such inquiries and investigations. More importantly, the new procedure is flexible and can be applied in a very wide variety of circumstances. It is user friendly in so far as it creates a less adversarial environment and facilitates witnesses who are anxious to co-operate with the commission. The Bill also provides a comprehensive framework for dealing with legal and other costs. Timeframes are established at all stages of an investigation, thus ensuring timely delivery of results. Overall, there is a balance between the public's right to know and the protection of witnesses' evidence. I believe that a commission of investigation established under this Bill will represent good value for taxpayers' money. It will be cost effective and timely, deliver a satisfactory result and help restore faith in the effectiveness of public inquiries.

I assure Deputy Costello that I will look again at section 31(2)(b) in light of his remarks. Several other Deputies raised concerns about the role of the Oireachtas, especially its role vis-à-vis the Executive in the establishment, operation and reporting of commissions under this legislation. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe in particular listed several examples of how, as he saw it, Ministers will exercise too great a role, to the detriment of the Oireachtas. It is necessary to consider this in light of practice. Under current arrangements for the establishment of tribunals of inquiry, the Executive brings the proposal before the Houses. This will continue to be the case in the new system. Under this Bill the reports are to be presented to the Minister. However, it must also be noted that under this Bill there is an obligation to publish the report, unless the High Court directs that publication should be delayed. Once published, a report can be raised in this House by way of questions, matters on the Adjournment, etc. There is nothing in this Bill to prevent the Minister from referring the report to the Oireachtas for further consideration. The recent inquiry into the Barron report is an example of how such an arrangement could work.

The question of a parliamentary inspector has also been raised, based on the idea that arose from the PAC's DIRT inquiry. The essential benefits of that proposal have been captured in the present Bill. A commission established under this Bill will perform factfinding functions similar to those envisaged for the parliamentary inspector. There is then the possibility of further inquiries by a tribunal or the Oireachtas based on the report produced by a commission.

The Bill contains new proposals regarding the setting and amendment of the terms of reference that differ from current practice. Unlike current practice, the Oireachtas is not being asked to approve the terms. As I said in my opening remarks, well-defined and tightly-drawn terms of reference are often the key to successful investigations. Terms of reference that are too broad or imprecise can lead to prolonged and costly investigations. As a result, public confidence in the investigations process is damaged.

The Law Reform Commission considered this issue and at pages 110 and 111 of its consultation paper it cites the comparative study carried out by the Office of the Attorney General in conjunction with the Department of Finance following the DIRT inquiry. That study outlined the steps currently followed by the draft terms of reference and notes, "There is a tendency for the terms to become wider as each step is taken." This is despite the requirements of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921 that the tribunal must inquire into "a definite matter".

The present proposals were drawn up in an attempt to overcome these difficulties. However, I think it unlikely that the role of the Oireachtas in setting up or amending the terms of reference has ended. Section 3 requires that the draft establishment order must, when it is submitted to the Houses, be accompanied by a reasoned statement as to the need for a commission, etc. It is likely that that statement will give a very clear idea of the terms of reference. In any event, the Houses can demand details about the terms of reference before they approve the establishment order. In other words, the terms will not be drawn in a vacuum from which the Oireachtas is excluded.

I am satisfied that the Oireachtas will continue to play an important role in investigations. I agree with those Deputies who see this as a very significant element of the role of the Oireachtas in ensuring accountability. I look forward to further detailed discussion on the Bill on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.