Leaders' Questions

Last year, the Government brought forward the House of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill after the people voted down a referendum in this regard the previous autumn. The Bill was agreed by the Oireachtas and during his Second Stage contribution, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform outlined passionately the process of clarifying the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in securing accountability through investigations into matters of significant public importance. He stated:

This Bill will enhance the effective functioning of our modern parliamentary democracy by facilitating such inquiries and it is our duty as public representations to use our constitutional powers appropriately and responsibility and for the benefit of wider society and the economy. Used effectively, I anticipate that the framework established by this Bill will facilitate focused, constructive political discourse that will enhance our parliamentary system.

Those were the Minister's words this time last year when he brought forward the Bill to establish the banking inquiry.

By any stretch of credibility, what has happened over the past number of days has brought not only the House and the Seanad into disrepute but it has also brought the banking inquiry into disrepute. It is undermining the inquiry's credibility before it even starts its work.

My party from the outset has said it will co-operate fully. We said we would like a banking inquiry and we also highlighted the need for it to be impartial and without bias to ensure we could all leave the House knowing such an inquiry would go about its business and come to conclusions without political interference. Every Member knows this will not be the case.

Three years ago we were promised a democratic revolution. The Government parties swept into power with a massive majority and we have had nothing since but autocracy in terms of how they deal with the Parliament.

Ask a question please.

The proposal to add two Government members to the committee because the Government did not get its way in the selection process in the Seanad simply undermines the vestiges of credibility that it has left. The Tánaiste should take note that only two weeks ago the public was emphatic about the conduct of the Government parties. However, one would think that in their two remaining years in office, they would like to have an inquiry that has the support of the House and the people and will come to conclusions in which everybody will have confidence.

The banking inquiry should not be about trying to get at individuals.

A kangaroo court.

It should be about trying to find the truth to ensure things will not happen again that may have happened previously and to find out exactly why we ended up where we were and how we got through these difficult times. The Tánaiste said that he wanted to find out the truth.

The Deputy is over time.

However, the Taoiseach's conduct in the House when he sat in the same chair two days ago leaves an awful lot to be desired regarding whether I can believe the Government parties are interested in the truth.

I am not sure where the question was in that statement but the Government wants a banking inquiry to be established and working-----

Under its control.

A Government inquiry.

-----and getting to the bottom of what happened to the banking crisis in this country.

The Government wants to predetermine the outcome.

I am disappointed at what has happened over the past number of days regarding the appointment-----

About the ineptitude of his own-----

Will the Deputy please stay quiet? He can leave the Chamber if he cannot do so.

I am disappointed at what happened in the past number of days in respect of the appointment of the Seanad members of the banking inquiry.

The Government did not get its own way.

Why is the Tánaiste disappointed?

My understanding was that the intention was that two Seanad Members would be appointed to the inquiry-----

-----one from the Government side and one from the Opposition side. It appears that what happened was a bit of slick parliamentary footwork was performed-----

It was Government Members.

Government Members could not be bothered to show up.

It is called a vote.

It is called attendance.

Will Members please stay quiet and listen?

-----and we ended up with two Opposition Members proposed to be nominated as the Seanad members of the inquiry. If the Government had come in either to this House or the Seanad and had pulled a stroke like that-----

The Government is trying to do that now.

By adding two members, the Government is doing the same.

Why not add four while it is at it?

------to produce two Government nominees and no Opposition nominee, we would have a lot of noise from the Opposition about it.

The Government has learned nothing.

Fianna Fáil has forgotten everything.

Empty vessels.

The leadership of Fianna Fáil should use------

We will take no lectures from the Labour Party, which is on 4%.

Will the Deputy please take his tablets?

Cyanide is what the Deputy needs.

-----its good offices to ensure the membership of the banking inquiry - we have decided the Dáil members - drawn from the Seanad should be representative of the Government and Opposition as we normally expect.

That is democracy.

That is what balance is about.

It is up to the Government Members to show up.

It is evident that the Tánaiste has not taken note of what has happened over the past number of weeks regarding this issue.

Neither has the Deputy.

The Taoiseach stated in the House that the Government wants a majority on the inquiry committee to set the terms of reference. The committee should set the terms of reference, not the Executive. Deputies opposite should read the legislation. This simply is jackboot politics at its best. The Tánaiste is trying to stand over the Government not only setting the terms of reference but also the outcome. That is effectively what it is doing.

It is called democracy.

If that is democracy, I have great worries for this place.

Perhaps the Deputy will put a question.

The point we have made consistently is that the Oireachtas should set the terms of reference. The Government opposed the addition of a Member-----

Will the Deputy put a question? He is over time.

Why did the Government oppose the extension of the number of members on the committee? The Government parties stated it should be a tight committee comprising nine members when it was proposed that Deputy Mathews be added. They said it could not happen and the committee could not have any more than nine members. They had all the reasons there could only be nine members a few weeks ago.

Tell us why Senator MacSharry should be on the inquiry.

That is democracy.

Deputy Kelleher should resume his seat.

Let us be clear. Does the Tánaiste agree that the Government has undermined the credibility of the banking inquiry and the authority of the banking inquiry to call witnesses?

Fianna Fáil has undermined the country.

The composition of the banking inquiry committee was intended to be a chairperson, three Members of this House from the Government side, three Members from the Opposition side and two Members of the Seanad, one of whom was to be from the Government side and one from the Opposition side.

Who decided that? Was it handed down on a tablet of stone?

That is the proposed membership of the banking inquiry committee.

That is the Tánaiste's hypothesis.

Will the Deputy stay quiet?

What happened was that Fianna Fáil and others participated in a parliamentary stroke in the Seanad to end up with a situation-----

We prevented the Labour Party Senator from attending a meeting.

-----where the two Members of the Seanad would be from the Opposition side of the House.

Why have an Oireachtas?

Frankly, that is playing political and parliamentary games with the establishment of an inquiry which the public wishes to see up and running as quickly as possible. Members opposite should cop on to themselves, work with the Seanad, have the members of the inquiry team appointed, have a balanced committee as intended and let it get on with its work.

(Interruptions).

Talk in the Dáil about the good name of the Seanad is not doing the name of the Dáil any good, particularly with behaviour such as shouting and roaring across the Chamber.

You are quite right, a Cheann Comhairle, with the deputy leader of the State behaving like this.

Please refrain from shouting across the Chamber.

This morning people are reading in the newspaper that the HSE is backing down on the issue of excessive salary top-ups for senior managers of voluntary hospitals and section 35 organisations, as they are called. The Tánaiste will recall that people were shocked in the recent past when they learned about the scale of the top-ups received by some of these individuals. They were even more horrified to discover that, in some instances, the top-ups were being funded through charitable donations. Last December, for example, we discovered that the chief executive officer, CEO, of St. Vincent's University Hospital was receiving a top-up of almost €140,000, in addition to a HSE salary of almost the same amount, with a privately funded car allowance of almost €20,000. We also discovered that the total bill for top-ups was €3.2 million. The organisations that engage in this practice are fully funded from the public purse. Their employees are regarded as public servants. Front-line public services are strained after seven years of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party cuts. People could not and do not yet understand how such excessive pay was allowed for a small number within the public service. I remind the Tánaiste that the Government, like the previous one, was swift to introduce emergency legislation to drastically cut the salary levels of workers across the public service and the Civil Service, including those not just on modest salaries but low pay. Is the Tánaiste aware of the difficulties the HSE is experiencing in implementing public sector pay policy in these organisations? Will he inform the Dáil of the scale or level of this difficulty? What does the Government propose to do to ensure all of these individuals respect and comply with public sector pay policy?

I remind the Deputy that the issue of top-ups arose because the Minister for Health and the Government took an initiative to deal with it. It was the Minister for Health, in the first instance, who sought an audit of section 38 and section 39 agencies to examine the levels of pay of the top personnel in these agencies. The audit brought to public attention the top-ups being paid by some of the agencies to their chief executives and senior personnel. The Government's position is clear. The pay caps established must be adhered to. Engagement has been ongoing for some time between the HSE and the agencies on the levels of pay of some of the chief executives. I read the article in the newspaper this morning. I understand from it that there are a number of cases in which there are contractual arrangements that must be examined. I am not familiar with the detail of these contractual arrangements, but I am sure the Minister for Health would have no difficulty with addressing these issues in the House and responding to questions that arise.

This is not just an issue for the Minister for Health but particularly for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. It is also one for the Tánaiste and the Government. I am sure the Tánaiste is no different from me in that public servants still write to him and recount the level of difficulty they are experiencing following a series of very significant pay cuts and the imposition of a pension levy. I am sure they write to him, as they do to me, to tell him that, in many instances, they reckon they would be better off out of work than in work. That is the position for many in the public service and the Civil Service.

The Tánaiste is correct that an audit was conducted and that serious difficulties were identified on foot of it. The question is what the Government will do about it. The HSE has signalled clearly that it has run into difficulties with a number of the individuals concerned and it cites contractual obligations. Will the Government introduce emergency legislation to ensure all of the people concerned are in full compliance with public sector pay policy? In other words, will it ensure there is consistency, that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and that two levels or standards do not apply within the public service and the Civil Service? That is what the average clerical officer expects the Government to do. As there are difficulties, will the Government introduce emergency legislation and when does it propose to do so?

First, it is precisely because the Government believes there should not be two standards that it initiated the audit of section 38 and section 39 agencies to ensure they complied with public pay policy. The Government's position is that there must be compliance with public pay policy. I acknowledge, of course, the very strong feelings among many people who work in the public service about their pay levels. For that reason, when we negotiated the Haddington Road agreement last year, we ensured there would be no reduction in pay for those whose salaries were under €65,000 per annum and that where reductions were made on a progressive basis beyond that figure, there would be a way, for those earning between €65,000 and €100,000, to have that pay recovered over a period of time. That is built into the agreement.

I cannot speak about the specific individual contracts referred to in the newspaper article this morning, but if the Deputy wishes to pursue the detail with the Minister for Health, he would be happy to come to the House-----

Will the Government legislate?

Let us establish the facts first.

The facts are established.

I know that the facts and the truth are matters the Deputy does not bother with because she jumps to conclusions straightaway, but let us establish the facts first. That is the reason I suggest the Deputy table a question about the individual contracts to the Minister for Health.

I am sure he would be able to respond to it. We should be clear about the policy issue. The Government established caps and restrictions.

Sorry, we are over time.

We did not. Stick with the truth. Why does Deputy McDonald have such a difficulty with the truth? The reason we are dealing with these salaries for these agencies is that the Government decided in pursuit of its public pay policy to conduct an audit of the agencies and to pursue it through the HSE. That is what is being done.

So legislate for it.

I am very interested in the Tánaiste's views on Garda accountability and what happens next in the context of the Cooke report. We have heard from acting Commissioner O'Sullivan that gardaí have been exonerated from any wrongdoing in her opinion. Her words were very similar to those of former Commissioner Callinan who told us before the inquiry that at no stage was any member of An Garda Síochána involved. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, has told us that the report does not support evidence of actual surveillance much less that it was carried out by gardaí. The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, issued a press statement telling everyone he did a great job and had dealt with these matters in a straightforward, truthful and comprehensive way. GSOC welcomed the fact that it was found to have acted in good faith. In other words, everyone was right and we are where we were.

However, there is a very large elephant in the room. The fact that everyone is calling that a kitten does not make it any less of an elephant. The elephant in the room is the huge divergence between the report itself and the way in which it is being spun. The reality is that the Cooke report did not find any truth and it did not find any answers because it was constructed in a manner that ensured it would not. The title of the report refers to an investigation into unlawful surveillance. There was no attempt to discover whether lawful surveillance had taken place. As the Tánaiste knows, there is a legislative provision which makes it lawful for senior gardaí to allow other senior gardaí to surveil somebody else. We are told there was no evidence of Garda involvement. I was going to ask how Mr. Justice Cooke knows, but he is a former Justice not a Justice now. How does Mr. Cooke know this when not a single Garda was interviewed? There was no examination of logbooks and Garda equipment. There was no stock check on IMSI catchers and all the rest of it. The biggest security threat identified by Verrimus was the ring back, the chances of which being benign were virtually zero according to professionals. That was no explanation.

What does the Tánaiste think of the report? It tells us that the photographers at the airport photographing Verrimus could have been members of the Garda security branch.

A question please.

The person who leaked the story to GSOC could have tampered with the device inside GSOC. No explanation has been given of who tried to contact Verrimus in relation to its involvement in the inquiry and no explanation has been given of why the GSOC commissioner's phone's batteries were going down but now are not. Meanwhile, the report acknowledges that modern surveillance is not possible to detect.

What I am asking is quite simple. How can there be a new relationship when we still have not got the truth? The Tánaiste is the leader of the Labour Party and is supposed to have a history in justice and oversight.

The Deputy is over time.

Will the Tánaiste authorise a proper commission of investigation on a statutory basis so that people can get the truth they so badly need?

I have read the Cooke report, which is very comprehensive. It concludes that there was no evidence of surveillance of GSOC by anybody, not least the Garda Síochána. It goes through the different issues that were raised. The piece of equipment that was supposed to be for the conference facility was the focus of a great deal of the attention. It turns out that it did not have a microphone. There was an allegation that there was a second WiFi system, but the report concludes that there was not. The report makes it clear that the public interest investigation conducted by GSOC should have been reported to both the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner, but it was not provided until after the article appeared in The Sunday Times. The report questions whether the public interest investigation should have been conducted at the time it was.

I understand the Whips have discussed arrangements to debate the Cooke report in the House next week. If there are issues Members have on the content of the report, that will be the opportunity to ventilate them. The Cooke report is comprehensive and conclusive. If there are issues arising, particularly in respect of the recommendations, which the Government accepts should be implemented, they can be debated next week in the House.

It is bizarre that the Tánaiste refers to the report as comprehensive when Mr. Cooke himself talks about it being a personal evaluation and that it must not be read as a definitive determination. In fact, he is a retired judge and it is a personal opinion. The Tánaiste might as well have had the opinion of a retired dentist or a retired docker for all the difference it makes.

(Interruptions).

That is appalling.

There is not a single piece of new information in the report. If the Tánaiste did indeed read it, he would know that the five issues I just mentioned are still not answered. How could it be that comprehensive?

Question, please.

The Tánaiste has dodged the fact that the report does not deal with the issue of lawful surveillance. Why was that excluded? The Tánaiste talks about the public interest inquiry under section 102 which provides for GSOC to investigate wrongdoing by gardaí. If the surveillance was lawful, there would be no wrongdoing to investigate. The Tánaiste knows and Cooke reports that the backdrop to this was the Boylan affair and the strained relations between GSOC and An Garda Síochána. We do not know whether rogue or senior elements in the Garda authorised themselves to have lawful surveillance.

The Deputy is over time. Could she put her question?

In making his last point on the public interest inquiry and GSOC's observations, the Tánaiste's has again undermined GSOC by incorrectly repeating that it had an obligation to bring it to the attention of the Garda and the Minister. Section 103 excludes GSOC from doing so in the public interest.

I suggest the Tánaiste read the report again as he missed a few things in his comprehensive analysis.

No, I did not. The Cooke report is very clear. It is an independent examination by Mr. Justice Cooke of the issues relating to the alleged bugging of the GSOC offices. This arose when there was a newspaper article which stated as a fact that GSOC offices had been bugged by Government or high level intelligence gatherers. It went through the type of surveillance it felt was taking place. The Cooke report has gone through that and found no evidence of surveillance having taken place and no evidence of gardaí being involved. It goes through each of the different issues. It is fair and comprehensive and conclusive.

If there are issues people wish to discuss arising from the report, we will have a debate and a discussion next week. That will be the place to raise them. I am sure the Minister for Justice and Equality will be happy to respond to any questions which arise. Mr. Justice Cooke did a very good job. It is not fair to cast aspersions on his work or his integrity in the way in which he did it.

Read what he said himself.