I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. It has been heralded as being able to facilitate a bank inquiry by a committee of the Houses and to inquire into the banking collapse which took place over five years ago. While it might be necessary and useful to inquire into what happened in the lead up to the banking collapse, I wonder what value it would have. Everybody knows about what happened and the outcome. Most people know what needs to be done in the future. I do not know whether an inquiry would arrive at a solution.
A lot of what happened during the banking collapse and the bank guarantee was a result of the subservience of politicians to senior bankers in giving them everything they want. I do not know whether an inquiry would improve that situation. We need politicians who are willing to stand up to bankers as easily as they stand up to people on social welfare and those dependent on the State for income and support. That would go a long way to making sure that we did not again have the type of collapse we had in the past.
There is a need for the Oireachtas to be able to inquire into issues of public importance. From that point of view, a legislative basis is required, in particular in regard to the Abbeylara judgment. I hope the Bill will provide a sufficient basis to allow inquiries to take place in order that Oireachtas committees can inquire into matters of important public concern in a timely way, which is vitally important.
While we have not had the basis to inquire into the banking system, five years on it is not worth investigating. Oireachtas committees should be able to respond in a timely way to matters of serious public concern by establishing inquiries to get to their root causes and offer scope for recommendations to strengthen the system in order to ensure the same issues cannot recur.
I have a number of specific concerns about the legislation. Section 12 provides that the establishment of an inquiry will require the approval of the Dáil. One of the reasons that several of my Independent colleagues and I were opposed to the 2011 referendum was the potential we had identified in that proposal for political abuse of an inquiry system. The referendum was subsequently rejected by the people. The requirement for approval by the Dáil in the Bill before us suggests the Government is seeking to retain control over Oireachtas inquiries. That is not a good sign in terms of the effectiveness of an inquiry system to be established under the legislation. Serious consideration should be given on Committee Stage to allowing for a system whereby a smaller number of Dáil Members could approve an inquiry. In Germany, for example, one quarter of the Members of the Bundestag can authorise an inquiry. There must be scope for a majority of the Opposition or a minority of all Members of the House to be able to vote to have an inquiry established. That is very important in terms of ensuring the Government is held to account and preventing the inquiries system from being entirely under the control of the Government of the day.
Other speakers have referred to the Whip system in the context of these proposals. A provision whereby the Whip would not apply in votes on Oireachtas inquiries would go some way towards ensuring we had an effective system. A requirement, for instance, that one third of Deputies must approve an inquiry would still, under the current make-up of the House, require a number of Government Members to vote in favour. That would only work in practice if the Whip was not applied. Otherwise, there is unlikely to be any inquiry into controversial matters which may cause discomfort for the Government. One of the types of inquiry provided for in the Bill will see Oireachtas committees inquiring into the actions of officeholders. The only officeholders in this House are on the Government side. We must have a system that allows inquiries to get past the first hurdle - the approval of Dáil Éireann for their establishment. I hope this issue will be given careful consideration on Committee Stage.
Another concern I have regarding the legislation relates to the issue of bias. This is an issue that will probably be tested in the courts very soon after the enactment of the Bill and there may, in fact, be no way of getting around it. When one considers what bias actually means, particularly in the context of the banking inquiry which the Bill is intended to facilitate, it is clear that there is nobody in this House who could not be accused of being biased. Practically everybody has spoken about what went wrong and laid the blame at the feet of bankers and the Government politicians of the day. How then could any of us satisfy a charge of bias in respect of an inquiry into events in the banking system? It is difficult to see how that problem can be overcome in the legislation. I envisage that as soon as the banking inquiry is established, assuming it is the first inquiry set up under the legislation, there will be a trip to the High Court to decide the issue of bias. It is something that will have to be tested in order that precedents are established. That is probably an inevitable outcome of the legislation and something we will have to live with and work through. The courts will have to make a decision and set a precedent on issues such as bias and how inquiries can be conducted without impinging on people's good name. These issues will be decided outside the House. In fairness, it is probably not possible for them to be decided entirely within the legislation.
An issue of particular concern to me in the context of these proposals arises partly from my experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann. Specifically, there does not seem to be any provision in the Bill to allow for an Oireachtas committee actively to investigate the circumstances of an issue into which it wishes to inquire. What I mean by investigate is the capacity, for example, to appoint an investigative officer whose role will be to gather evidence and present it in a format the committee can use in conducting its inquiries. This is something we have come up against on numerous occasions at the select committee where complaints are made about specific actions taken by particular Members. The committee is made up of four or five Deputies who, although they have some expertise, do not have sufficient to tease out the issues involved and test the evidence presented by the complainant. All we can do is write to the person making the complaint requesting him or her to furnish us with further information and evidence on the matter and write to the subject of the complaint asking him or her to do the same. We do not really have a way of testing whether what one side or the other is saying is correct, other than what our own intuition might indicate.
By contrast, the Standards in Public Office Commission has the capacity, under the relevant legislation, to appoint investigative officers and actively investigate a complaint. The investigative officer will gather evidence and present it to the commission. It could be argued that it is the role of the Oireachtas committee, as envisaged in the Bill, to gather evidence and investigate it. The reality, however, is that a committee must have the means to do so. That aspect is lacking in the legislation and should be revisited on Committee Stage. I cannot see these inquiries being very effective if committees do not have the power to appoint an investigative officer. I intend to bring forward amendments in this regard which would ensure committees would have the power to gather and interpret evidence in such a way that they would have a real chance of being effective in their work.
This legislation is necessary to ensure committees can work effectively in investigating matters of public interest. There will be a period following its enactment when the legislation will be tested in the courts, which will feed into the operation of the investigations system thereafter. It is a necessary evil of these proposals and will cause frustrating delays in the initial stages. I hope the Minister will consider amending section 12 to remove the requirement that the establishment of any inquiry will require the approval of a majority of Dáil Members. I ask him also to examine the powers committees will have to gather evidence and to consider affording them the capacity to appoint an investigative officer to aid them in their work.