I move amendment No. 1:
In page 18, line 42, after "and" to insert "such information shall also be published by electronic means and".
I welcome the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to the House. I thank her for adjusting her schedule to take Report Stage this week rather than, as was planned originally, to take Committee and remaining Stages on the one day. This legislation is a reminder of the need to take our time.
A number of amendments were tabled but none was accepted. I was afraid that the message might have gone out that the Minister did not plan to listen and improve the Bill. The fact that she waited until today to take Report Stage is evidence that she is willing to listen to us and to improve the Bill.
I resubmitted most of the amendments I tabled on Committee Stage. I did that not because I hope they will be accepted by the Minister but to give us an opportunity to discuss the quite important principles involved. It is for reasons of principle and expediency that I believe these amendments should be accepted. I hope the Minister will consider and accept them.
Let me begin by addressing the reasons suggested by my colleague, Senator Norris, last week. He suggested that the rejection of the amendments could be put down to a reluctance on the part of the Minister to go to the bother of returning to the Dáil to have my amendments passed there, especially in the run up to Christmas. Last week he bet his last polo mint that no amendments would be accepted. That is why I hope he will not come here today. I want to win his polo mint even if it is his last one. He got to enjoy his polo mint last week.
I am reluctant to accept Senator Norris's reasoning. I do not mind that I do not or cannot believe it. The truth is I do not want to believe that the Minister is not going to listen and take amendments, even if she agrees with them, just because we are coming up to Christmas and she does not want to go back to the Dáil. This is important legislation which has been in the works for many years. It has been in these Houses for well over 12 months. I cannot believe that Minister would rush it at the last fence. I prefer to believe, in my innocence, that she has come here with an open mind about the possibilities of accepting amendments and improving this Bill through Senators' scrutiny of it. We have had some very good debates on this legislation over the past couple of weeks.
Therefore, in good faith or, at least, with a suspension of disbelief – which is slightly different – let us take the Minister's arguments for rejecting these amendments at face value and address them on their merits. We run into a difficulty straight away because the most superficial glance at the case put forward by the Minister shows she has made an elementary error in constructing her Bill. That mistake is to read the sections I wish to amend as enabling clauses, which were the Minister's words last week, which empower the Minister to do something.
They are not enabling clauses. Instead, they are restrictive clauses. There is a huge difference. Without exception, they seek to put a boundary on the powers of the Minister and future Ministers to do what he or she likes, by specifying the occasions and manner in which certain information must be put into the public domain before the Minister can perform certain actions under this Bill. There is a big difference.
I drew attention on Committee Stage to the long-standing tradition in these Houses of bounding the powers of the Minister and future Ministers. I know the Minister intends this legislation to last a long time, so when I refer to "the Minister", I am also referring to future Ministers. It seems unfair to infer the present Minister will always be in office, although I am sure she will be there for a long time.
I drew attention to the long-standing tradition of bounding the powers of future Ministers in this way. The ability of the Legislature to put a fence around the way future Ministers can behave is one of the fundamentals of our democracy. That recognises the great truth that knowledge is power, and that by enforcing the dissemination of knowledge to the public, we put a constraint on the power of the Executive.
A set of publication tools has been developed over the years, each for use in appropriate cases. This has occurred over hundreds of years, if one takes other parliaments into account. The annual report and accounts that I talked about last week is used as the main public control mechanism over semi-State bodies, which have to publish an account, even if they do not want to. In recent years, they have had to publish that account within a certain number of months because some of us have insisted on that. There are also public registers of information, which are required to be kept up to date and open permanently to any member of the public. We also talked about that last week. They are usually only open during office hours, but that is the way things happened from the 1920s until now. There is also publication through advertisements or public notice, which is particularly appropriate when it is necessary to draw the attention of the public to an action the Minister is proposing to take.
Those three mechanisms restrict the power of the Executive and the Minister. They say the Minister cannot do something unless he or she fulfils that requirement. In all these cases, the intent and effect of the legislation is to restrict the future Minister's actions.
It is a fundamental misreading of those clauses to interpret them as empowering the Minister or whoever is involved. A requirement to publish an annual report does not empower a semi-State body to publish a report, rather, it disempowers that body from not publishing a report. I hope that huge difference is understood. I want the Minister to understand my concern at what I regard as her misunderstanding last week.
A requirement to keep a public register of certain information does not empower a Minister or other body to keep such a register, it disempowers those people from not doing so. A requirement to advertise certain information does not empower a Minister or other body to indulge in such advertising, it disempowers them from not doing so.
Such measures and restrictions serve to strengthen the rights of citizens. They are not there to widen the powers of the Minister or a semi-State body. That is why reviewing these restrictions and keeping them up to date is an important part of the task of the Houses of Parliament and of the role of the Legislature in preserving the very nature of democratic government. I know I am spending a long time on this, but we are taking a group of amendments together and I can only speak once on them.
We have an obligation to consider the possibilities opened up by new technology. As many Senators noted last week, these possibilities are very extensive. The worldwide web did not exist until about 1990. Although it was not invented to further the workings of democracy, it is poten tially a most worthwhile tool in achieving that task. The tools of publication that have been developed by our legislative tradition have not been perfect in achieving their effect. However, they were rightly employed as the best that were available at that time. When a new tool appears on the horizon that has the potential to bring the world of democratic publication a giant step closer to the ideal we are all seeking, we have an obligation to look at it, try it out and, if it works, embrace it.
We will never be inclined to do that if we misunderstand the whole process and see publication clauses as giving enabling powers to the Minister, which is a fundamental difference. That, I regret to say, seems to be the thrust of the advice given to the Minister in her response to the amendments I tabled on Committee Stage. This was summed up by the Minister's statement:
There is no need for a specific provision of the type proposed by Senators Quinn and Henry in the Bill. The requirements already included in the relevant sections of the Bill normally to publish such information inIris Oifigiúil and-or at least one local newspaper represent only the minimum such requirement on the Minister under the Bill.
In other words, there is nothing to stop the Minister taking additional measures to publish the information if she thinks fit. Of course there is not, but the point of my amendments is to require him or her to take the particular additional measures, whether or not he or she thinks fit. There is a fundamental difference in thinking between the advice the Minister has been given, the words she used last week and what I propose.
The point of my amendments is exactly the same as the point of the underlying section. They seek to restrict what the Minister might see fit to do or not do. That is fundamental. They seek to restrict future Ministers in the interests of achieving a very worthwhile end – the best possible kind of publication, from the democratic point of view.
I will cite the Minister further to illustrate how deeply entrenched is her mistaken view of the point of this part of the legislation. She said:
There is nothing in the Bill to preclude the Minister from disseminating such information in other ways also, including by electronic means, where it is considered necessary to do so. If I believe the information is not circulating satisfactorily to the people concerned, the use of electronic means to improve the situation will be considered. I do not wish, however, to have too many stipulations in the legislation as to how such information should be published.
That last sentence lets the cat out of the bag. While we should applaud the Minister's honesty in admitting it, she is saying she does not want her power to be further circumscribed. This is the fundamental issue. We are concerned with restricting the powers of the Minister to do what he or she likes in the future. The legislation requires her to do only a certain minimum by way of publication. It leaves it to the whim of the Minister and her successors to decide on the most appropriate means of achieving desirable democratic ends. I want to restrict that.
This is a practical issue. Belief in the future of the information society and of Ireland's role within it is patchy in the Government. To give him credit, the Taoiseach is among those who are converted. This was reflected in the award given to him on 9 October as the cyber champion of the year. In accepting the reward he renewed the Government's commitment to doing its business on-line. He said:
The Government itself is also working to use the power of the new technologies to do its job better by getting public services on line. Key steps we have taken include the Revenue on-line service, which provides an increasing array of on-line services and which went live on 29th September, and the FÁS on-line jobs service. Only a few weeks ago we launched the new REACH agency to work with the Government to find the best way to deliver their services electronically. We have also initiated the Cabinet Project which will bring the benefits of modern technologies right to the highest level at decision making in the Government – the Cabinet table.
This is realistic and forward looking. It is fully in line with the economic goal of making Ireland the e-commerce hub of Europe. Some Ministers share that openness towards the future and are working towards achieving it. For example, the Minister for Public Enterprise took a major step forward with the early passing into law of the Electronic Commerce Bill, which I am pleased to say she initiated in this House. Other Ministers who have recently introduced legislation to the House were very open to amendments of this kind.
However, belief in the information age is patchy across the Government. All reports of recent years make discreet reference to the problem, but certain Ministers and higher civil servants do not want to know. There is an excellent way of separating the sheep from the goats by looking at the websites of the different Departments. I do not want to add to the discomfort of the Minister, who every time she answers questions in the Dáil must squirm with embarrassment at the criticism of her Department's website.
There are some excellent Government websites, some are average and some are dreadful. Senator Norris would be safe in betting his last polo mint, as he did last week, on which of these categories the Minster's website falls into. The state of a Department or company website is a good indicator of where it stands in relation to the future. For some the information society is the present. They are exploiting it with a view to staying ahead. For others it is a nebulous concept to be adjusted to when it becomes more prevalent. Their websites are usually under construction, or, to use the jargon, "in re-design".
On a positive note let me tell a story against myself. At the beginning of 1987 a proposal was made to my company to buy a fax machine at a time when they were just entering the market. My board of management considered the question and decided not to buy one. I remember thinking at the time that the decision not to buy fitted in well with my personal ambition to cut down on the amount of paper we were using in running our business. My approach was to engage in talk rather than in sending memos. Within a few months we realised we had made a mistake because we were in a world – 12 or 13 years ago – that did its business by fax.
I offer that story to the Minister by way of gently encouraging her. No matter how ingrained in the past her officials and perhaps she may be, there is always hope of change in the future. I hope the next time she introduces legislation to this House it will be fit for the 21st century and does not seek to live in the past. However, I do not want to wait until then. We have an opportunity to proceed with this Bill and, therefore, I urge the Minister to accept these amendments.