Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I was speaking on this last night in the context of the referendum held last year. It asked the public to give more powers to Oireachtas committees and the public said "No" for a very good reason. It was not picked up by the media at the time or anyone else that many on the Independent benches spoke against it and voted against it with good reason. I have no faith in tribunals and their cost. It was mentioned during Leaders' Questions and the Order of Business. There was disgraceful and shocking plundering of our national assets in the amount they cost, with no prosecutions at the end. It was a pure waste of time. We need a different mechanism to hold inquiries and to hold people to account. We must be careful. I could not sit on banking inquiry committees because I have been too vocal. I was so shocked by what happened with our banks and how they got away with it. No one has been brought before the courts or charged and there has been no proper or meaningful hearing into what happened. The dogs in the street know what happened. The establishment, the last Government and this Government do not want to know what happened. They insist on making the people pay through misery, misfortune, tax, grief, trauma and shattering their dreams of having houses, educating their children, trying to make a life for themselves, paying their dues, rearing their families and living life to the full.

We met a group of pensioners from Permanent TSB, with Deputy John Halligan, who had taken retirement in good faith. They signed documents and contracts that are not worth the paper they were written on. There have been cuts of up to 58% and they say the Minister is imposing the cuts. They have planned their retirements with their families but now they cannot live. In case the Ceann Comhairle says I am straying from the Bill, I am putting in context what I want to say.

The principal themes of the Bill are that there will be five types of inquiries, fair procedures and fair play but that is not what is happening. We saw what happened with costs and expenses. Last night, I referred to what the former Senator Mark McAleese did for little money, €11,000. He produced an excellent report and it received unanimous acclaim for doing what he set out to do within time or shortly outside the time. I have worries about compellability, privilege, immunity and involvement of the High Court. When it goes down the quays, it gets lost in a logjam and it becomes mighty expensive. There is no end to the costs.

Inquiries under sections 8, 9 and 10 relate to officeholders or people directly accountable to the Dáil under the Constitution. The Oireachtas has the power to remove the President, the Comptroller and Auditor General or judges for serious misconduct. The Bill provides that, if this were to occur, in accordance with the Constitution the mechanism of a parliamentary inquiry, as provided for under the Bill, would be employed. No clear processes for such removal currently exist. I welcome that because our Judiciary has served us well. The Uachtarán and iar-Uachtarán have served us well. Our current Uachtarán serves us very well and is making some very right soundings if he is listened to as he should be.

We all remember the Abbeylara inquiry, which was found to have contravened constitutional principles regarding processes. One should hear both sides without bias. The Bill provides a wide range of measures to ensure the inquiries are conducted according to fair procedures. I heard the British inquiry into Google and I was interested in it because it affects this country. I was interested in the manner of questioning, the evasion of answers and the words used by the chairperson of the committee. It is in a different House. I am not a standard bearer for the former Senator, Minister of State and Deputy, Ivor Callely, but I think we rushed to judgment in that committee. He did not get fair process and he was proved right in the courts. I may be corrected on that but I think I am right.

Since the last Government, there has been a change in the committees. I was a member of three committees in the last Dáil and I enjoyed them. However, these committees are too big and unwieldy and there is a massive Government majority. In the previous Dáil, there was a report into the Lost at Sea fishing tragedies. There was coercion from the Government party and I was put under pressure even though I was without the Whip. It was still being waved around the room and I was encouraged to vote a certain way. I have direct experience of committees being dictated to by the Government of the day. I have personal experience of it, as do all Members if they are honest. It is very difficult for committees to investigate themselves. It is similar to the situation of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, the Garda Commissioner and the investigation into the controversy over penalty points. It is a case of the gardaí investigating the gardaí and it does not sit right. I could not investigate Deputy Healy Rae and he would not want to investigate me or our peers. There must be transparency. That is why I totally oppose the abolition of the Seanad. It should be reformed. A creative Bill has been proposed by Senator Quinn and Deputy Ross and others. We need that second House to oversee and to marshal the wisdom in it. It needs a broader electorate, elected by the people.

I hate going back to it but Deputy Buttimer was here last night and made reference to the proceedings in the Joint Committee on Health and Children from Friday to Tuesday and last January. The inquiry was a sham in its setup, the witnesses, the witnesses that were not brought in and the way it was conducted. I mean no disrespect to the Chairman but it was farcical. I have sent out press statements to that effect and said it in the committee. The Minister for Health came before us last Friday and I thought he and his three officials would be there for a two-hour session. He read a 12 minute script and disappeared. There were no questions. The Minister of State turned up on Tuesday evening but I did not attend because I was in this House. I did not mind missing it but he came in to tell us what was happening.

The Chairman issued a closing statement saying there had been fair and balanced reporting, appraisal, discussion and engagement and respect for all comments made by all of the guests who had appeared before the committee. I thank the guests for their attendance. I cannot thank the ones who did not appear before the committee because they were not invited, although they were willing to attend. Women hurt by abortion should have appeared before the committee, but they could not tell their story. It was not wanted. However, the Chairman then spoke on Newstalk radio station yesterday morning and said the Government was moving ahead with the legislation. He totally contradicted his closing statement. He said the Bill was moving ahead and would be law before the summer. That makes me wonder.

Many people attended the hearings and many made written submissions. However, the timeline for written submissions was far too short. In January it was still the Christmas season and the notice was not in the newspapers for long enough. It was rushed with indecent haste. That was a perfect example of a delicate and difficult issue, which has been facing us for 30 years. I accept it is a very difficult issue, on which I have my opinions and I am entitled to have them. I respect the opinions of other Members of the House. We are all elected in the same way and must serve the public which is very conflicted on this issue. The people who appeared before the committee were experts in gynaecology, psychology, medicine and so forth, but those who have been affected and traumatised by what happened to them were not allowed to appear before it. We just closed off that view.

Another group due to come here today holds the opposite view. I will not get to meet them, but they are people who have lost babies through miscarriage and so forth. They wanted to appear before the committee, but they must go to the AV room today. That is not right. Why is there a rush? We would not mind sitting for two weeks in August, if necessary. There is no big rush. After all, the Taoiseach promised that this issue would not be introduced under his watch. If we are to have proper committees, we should respect the ones we already have. There was an opportunity in that case to demonstrate how effective they could be.

The attendance at that committee was tremendous. It sat crazy hours, until 8.30 p.m. on the Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Again, that was too much, too fast. One could not take it all in. I can only speak for myself, but I have limited capacity and I am not an expert. There was too much information thrown at the committee, too much to comprehend in just one weekend. Again, why was there a rush? The Constitutional Convention is doing its work and this Bill was being drafted to be ready to be put before the House this week. I am sure the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Jerry Buttimer, and the powers-that-be knew this. We should have been cognisant of being watched and that it would be telling testimony when discussing the Bill.

There are lessons to be learned and I do not have all of the answers. I welcome the Bill, as an effort, but it has many shortcomings. We have to be cognisant of the courts, but we must also bear in mind that this is the Oireachtas which passes legislation and it is not compelled by any court to change or dance to its tune. That has been proved here time and again, most recently in the Supreme Court judgment last November in the middle of the referendum campaign. Five of the judges issued a unanimous opinion, with very harsh words about how the Government behaved in that referendum campaign and how it had misappropriated €1.1 million of the €3 million the Oireachtas had voted the previous March to run the referendum. We have an independent Referendum Commission that was established to do a job and while I might not agree with everything it does, it should be let do it. Why should the Government have taken more than one third of the money and spent it on advertisements and booklets which it had to withdraw? There has been no debate in the House or in any committee about this.

When it suited the Government to return to a 1992 judgment of the Supreme Court, it did so and gave it as a reason for the legislation, but the judgment in November was the most recent one. In addition, that judgment was not clear and unanimous, as I understand it, and no psychiatric reports were given to the court on Miss X. Contrast this with the lack of respect for what the Supreme Court had ruled in November. When that judgment was made, the Minister for Justice and Equality was interviewed by Sean O'Rourke and constantly referred back to the fact that the High Court had said it was okay - I challenged him about this on the Six One News - and had dismissed the challenge. The Supreme Court had upheld the challenge, but the Minister, a practising lawyer who knows more about the courts than I do, kept referring to the other decision. We have ignored it.

I made reference last night to the reform of the Companies Acts, which is badly needed and has been in gestation for 20 years. However, the Bill has 1,442 pages. How could anybody comprehend it, including a business person who is struggling with a small farm or a small shop? Big business will be able to hire experts to read and examine it. In addition, one must pay €100 for it. I could buy ten of Deputy Shane Ross's bestsellers for that and get better reading because I could read them in modules. However, one could not find anything in that Bill. I am not castigating the people who drafted it, but it is too much. It has to be condensed. Members could not get a copy because we were told it was too expensive to print it. One would have blurred vision in reading it on screen; therefore, I did not read all of it. As a small businessman, I would like to do so, but I could not comprehend it.

We have to get back to basics, act on our mandate and do what we are elected to do. We should have committees and processes that are accountable. I do not have all of the answers and look forward to the debate on this Bill. I hope amendments will be accepted. However, when the members of the Government were in opposition, they profoundly objected to the use of the guillotine for the four years that I sat on the other side of the House. Now, they are like a team on the last sprint leg of a relay race and have gone mad in their use of the guillotine. Everything is guillotined. I am told next week's schedule is colossal. The House will be sitting until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and will sit on Friday, with the threat that if it does not, we will be brought back in the week after the bank holiday weekend. Rushed Bills such as this and knee-jerk reactions do not make good law. Fair play is fine play in my book. However, I do not wish to be judge and jury of my peers. That is wrong. I, therefore, ask the Minister to look again at this, go back to the drawing board and perhaps look at the experience in other parliaments.

I welcome publication of the Bill and the early opportunity to discuss it in the Dáil. It is very important. Some of the discussion in the House has been about the relevance of Parliament and a number of Deputies have questioned our ability to conduct inquiries. In fact, it happens every week in this Parliament at the Committee of Public Accounts and various other committees, where we inquire and put questions to people, get information and compile reports. We do this every week the Dáil sits, yet Members are saying they would be incapable of doing it, that they would be biased and that they would be incapable of being relevant or a part of this. That is a contradiction.

During the last general election campaign when people were so cognisant of the failings of politics and the institutions of the State, many of us tried to put together a platform that would increase the Parliament's relevance, by making the scrutiny of different legislative functions, the organisations of the State and issues more relevant and by giving power to the Dáil and the Seanad to serve that function. Now, when we bring forward legislation which will make inquiry forums standard, which is what the American and most European democracies have as a standard, Members are saying they cannot handle it because they will be biased and incapable of doing it. Many of the contributions have been flawed. Members say they do not wish to be judge and jury or to make findings against their peers. That means they have not read the Bill. The Bill has been drafted in conformity with the Abbeylara judgment. There was an attempt to overturn that judgment in the referendum held in 2011, but as the people rejected it, we are still bound by that ruling. It specifically states the Oireachtas cannot make adverse findings against a person's good name as that is not the role of the Oireachtas. The proposals before the Dáil are different.

I was a member of the sub-group of the Committee of Public Accounts that drafted the report on an inquiry into the banking sector. We had a great deal of engagement with senior counsel and members of the parliamentary research team in the Dáil when we went through the different legal options. The inquire, record and report model, the first model proposed in the Bill, is very different from what is being said in ill-informed contributions in the House.

What it says is that, as a parliamentarian, one can inquire, which means one can ask questions, record responses and report what was said. It does not state one can make a judgment, cast aspersions and destroy someone's name, or otherwise. The model proposed in the legislation is very restrictive.

In many ways, I very much regret that the referendum held in 2011 was not passed because it would have allowed for a much broader type of inquiry into any topic, in line with fair procedures. However, the people, in their wisdom, voted against it. I can understand the reasons for its defeat but still believe that, after we have tested the new model with a number of inquiries, we should return to the people to ask for more powers and demonstrate that we can hold a credible, independent, non-partisan inquiry. However, we must prove that we are capable of acting in the way I have described.

The second inquiry model which we discussed at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and which is also covered in the legislation pertains to an inquiry that has a legislative function. The Oireachtas is entitled to inquire into matters within its remit. Legislation is clearly within our remit and we should be entitled to investigate and make findings to inform us in our role as legislators. Members have stated in the House that they do not want to be involved in inquiries. If, however, an inquiry is very useful to one's function as a legislator, one should surely be saying one is capable of and should be carrying out inquiries. There has been much ill-informed and ill-thought-out commentary on this matter.

There are sections in the Bill that provide for fair procedures. The main reason people were very uncomfortable with the referendum was they were uncertain that the language proposed to be incorporated into the Constitution would establish a legal right to fair procedures. Sections 14 to 25, inclusive, which pertain to the impugning of a person's good name, privileges for witnesses, immunities, guidelines for procedures and the role of the chairman, address that issue and establish fair procedures in statute. Given that this has been such a controversial topic, in that a referendum has been rejected, legislative scrutiny needs to be particularly strong. Having a very strong Committee Stage will be particularly important.

One of the issues the Bill will facilitate, which issue has been mentioned, is the holding of a banking inquiry. One could be forgiven for calling the Bill the banking inquiries Bill because it has been so intrinsically linked with the banking inquiry under discussion. Time may have passed since the bank guarantee in 2008, the collapse of the property sector, the doing of so much damage to the country because of debt taken on to bail out the banking sector, the mess that was Anglo Irish Bank and the promissory notes debacle that we just managed to get ourselves out of, but we must not forget that we may not have investigated and sorted out all of the events that led to these problems. I have often said inside and outside this Chamber that this term of government should be used for a number of tasks, the most important of which is to ensure that what got the country into such a bad place, thereby affecting its people so harshly through unemployment, debt and all of the social, medical and psychological consequences attached therto, will not happen again. In doing so, we must ensure we not only reform the political system but also that what happened will never happen again. I refer to what occurred in the banking system, land speculation and rampant property speculation having become the dominant hegemonic model of the economy. There are a number of questions that a banking inquiry, in particular, would allow us to address.

Consider the role of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. Why was it so deferential when regulating financial services? Why was the system closer to a hand-in-hand system rather than an adversarial one, which is what one would expect from a regulator? One would not expect a softly softly approach but an approach stipulating rules that must be followed. Why was the Central Bank not aware of the risks? Why did it not have the knowledge, capability and power to analyse what was occurring in the economy, including the property sector, and the banks' balance sheets? Why was it not able to see that there was a problem? Why did we believe the problem with the banks in 2008 was one of liquidity rather than solvency? Why did we make that mistake? Why was the expertise not available to spot it? What was the role of the Department of Finance? We need to find answers to these questions. What was the attitude in the Department of Finance? Did we have the same issue with deferential leanings towards the banking sector? Was it that the banking sector could do no wrong because it was making so much money? Was the relationship too close? Was the expertise in the Department of Finance sufficient for an analysis of what happened?

We need to examine the crisis management of the former Government. What was going through the minds of our leaders, both political leaders and leaders in the Civil Service, before the bank guarantee? We have heard that in early 2008 a group was set up to think about the banking crisis and examine balance sheets, share prices, etc., yet a decision was not made on the banking crisis until September 2008. Apparently, we were on notice for so much time regarding the potential eventualities. Why did we not see what was happening? We need to find out about crisis management after the guarantee. There was a significant gap between the giving of the guarantee and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. Was this wise? Was it wise to have a bank that was, in many aspects, economically challenged and capable of causing so much damage to the economy left out of State hands during the window in question? The bank's management could have been involved in a practice that could have put the State's interests at risk. Why was this allowed to happen?

What banking culture could have caused the collapse of the economic model so violently in the first instance? Why were the banks lending so much money? Why was property the only issue? What was the role of external auditors who were supposed to be auditing the banks effectively? There are many matters to be examined. This Bill will facilitate that process. I very much commend it and hope it is passed and will soon be on the Statute Book.

Like Deputy Derek Nolan, I welcome the Bill. It is a great pity that the inquiries referendum was voted down, largely because of a well aimed bomb fired at the right time by some people in the legal field. If we had not been discussing the inquiry proposal in conjunction with discussing the Presidential election campaign, people would have seen the value of making the proposed change to the Constitution.

I listened to two Opposition speeches in detail, namely, those of Deputies Shane Ross and Mattie McGrath. I found their contributions disappointing and depressing, primarily because they were both saying this was something we could not do and that politicians were not really capable of carrying out inquiries honestly. If we note what occurs in other countries, we must say this is something we must do and ought to do. One reason the country ended up in such a difficult set of circumstances was that we did not have scrutiny of the kind afforded by an inquiry.

There are two factors that greatly damaged our parliamentary democracy. One was that one party, Fianna Fáil, had held power for far too long and had been corrupted in the process. That is a danger for any party that holds power for too long. Second, there was insufficient parliamentary scrutiny, both at committee level and in the House, which had added greatly to the problems experienced. How useful it would have been during the crazier days of the Celtic tiger to have had the banking regulator scrutinised in detail before the system really went off the rails.

That sort of thing points to the need for good working committees that can really inquire into and get to the bottom of issues.

It is worth remembering our experience of tribunals and committee investigations, and the contrast between them. The Mahon tribunal sat for 917 days of public hearings, with an estimated cost of €247 million. All that was recovered by Revenue was €34.5 million. There was a huge net loss to the State. The Moriarty tribunal gained nothing for the State, I understand, with an estimated cost of €100 million.

On can contrast that with the DIRT inquiry in the 1990s. A committee of the House examined the operations of banks in regard to DIRT. It sat for a total of 26 days, cost approximate £3 million and generated £446 million for the State. Not every inquiry will generate money for the State, but it is a very good flag for how committees of the House can operate to the best of their ability. We need to learn from that experience, which was very good, and that of other countries. There is no reason we cannot.

The main inquiry which will be on people's minds is a banking inquiry. I presume it would be the first practical test of the Bill after it is passed. It is worth reminding people of the types of inquiry outlined in the Bill. They are to make provision for an inquiry limited to recording and reporting evidence and making findings of uncontested fact or findings of relevant misbehaviour; to make provision for an inquiry relating to the exercise of any one or more legislative functions, including whether there is a need for new legislation; to make provision for an inquiry in relation to the removal of certain officeholders as provided for in the Constitution or in other legislation; to provide for power of inquiry relating to the conduct of a Member of either House of the Oireachtas; and to give Dáil Éireann the power to undertake an inquiry into the conduct of a current officeholder, senior civil servant or CEO of a public body who was liable to be held to account by Dáil Éireann by virtue of the terms of his or her contract or statutory appointment. Had we had those powers in operation in the first decade of 21st century, this country would be in a much better place. For that reason, we have to be supportive of the Bill.

I appreciate the compellability section. It is important. I understand people will have the right to go to the High Court if they wish to contest something. If after the Bill is passed people traipse to the High Court, it will probably be an indication of its effectiveness. Why would they bother doing so unless they felt they had something to hide?

The Seanad is likely to be abolished. Therefore, it is really important that the powers of individual Deputies and committees are strengthened. If we do not have a second House it is very important that more examination of legislation takes place within this House. In that regard, it is important that we have Dáil committees with real and substantial powers and backbenchers with greater powers.

There is a need to examine the operation of the Whip system. There is a case, for example, for a free vote on Bills which do not have serious financial implications. Clearly, if one is a Government backbencher it is understandable why one is put under the hammer to support measures to deal with the financing of the State, although it is difficult at times to support them. I support the idea of a very strong Whip in that situation, but a case can be made to allow a weakening of the Whip on Bills without serious financial implications.

We have moved towards reform, in terms of having Friday sittings for Private Members' Bills. I look forward to a time when significant numbers of such Bills can be enacted. A free vote would be appropriate on many of them.

Debate adjourned.