I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on the Bill, which is fine legislation that will have a significant impact. I rise to discuss the same issues raised by my colleague, Senator O'Reilly. I have a few searching questions and I would appreciate the Minister taking the time to give a correct answer. I note the amendment put forward by Deputy Simon Coveney in the other House and I note the Minister rejected it. He did not accept the Fine Gael amendment that there would be a public hearing. With regard to those appointed following the nomination of the committee, I take it there would be nothing wrong or contrary to the law were the committee to decide as part of its process to have a public hearing with some of the people whom it intends to nominate. This is crucial information.
There are three members of the communications committee present. I would like to hear the Minister's view on whether we, as a committee, could decide that as part of the process of coming up with names, there would be a public hearing. I am not talking about a grand inquisitorial hearing but a place where the people to be recommended would come before the committee.
That is a specific point, but on a broader aspect I spoke to the chairman of the committee, Deputy M. J. Nolan, on a number of occasions and the committee has had a number of private discussions on how we would approach this issue, and there is a general consensus that at a time when politics has never been under such close public scrutiny and issues of transparency, accountability and so on are trotted out, often in a meaningless way — people use them without giving them thought — the Minister, as a Green Party Minister, should take the opportunity to plough what is a virgin furrow. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong but I do not recall a committee of the Houses effectively nominating people to the committee. I am aware that, strictly speaking, the names are presented to the Minister and the Minister nominates, but that is the normal procedure for everything. It might be the ICTU or IBEC, and that is the normal process, but effectively this is new and for that reason it will attract public scrutiny, which we should welcome. A committee decision has not been taken on this but I get the view from the members of the committee on both sides — there is no division on this matter — that we should be seen to do this business openly, unquestionably and in an unchallengeable way.
I said to the committee that in dealing with this issue we have an opportunity to show politics at its best. We should plan carefully and take time to put in place a process which would be as transparent as possible and above reproach in terms of fairness and balance and which would be sound in the event of a challenge to it. Above all else it should win the trust and confidence of the public, which I believe the Minister would want too. There is nothing in what I am saying here that any of my colleagues in any party or in government, including the Minister, would work against. I am not sure whether the Minister will be before the committee tomorrow morning but this is one of the issues that will arise and I would appreciate hearing the Minister's views on it on record.
To make it happen it is crucial that the committee goes through a process as rigorous as an appointment. In other words, before we make choices and recommendations to the Minister we, as members of the committee, should go through a process as rigorous as an appointment. The Minister knows what will happen. Regardless of who he appoints people will make some connections, and Ireland is a small country. People do not know their second cousins but the media will find out who are their second cousins. They will find out that they drank with the Minister one night 20 years ago in Rosslare, and immediately we have a headline. We can take it as read that something like that will arise.
I cannot tell the Minister what to do. I agree with Senator O'Reilly it is regrettable the Minister did not opt for some form of public hearing, not a place where people are turned upside down like the American system but where they are given the opportunity of showing their experience, expertise and knowledge in a calm environment. It should not be a place where people would be marked on that but where people would simply get over the line, in other words, the members of the committee or the public would say that the people they have seen know what they are talking about.
We must agree on the principles that will inform the process, but the Minister has not done that. There are two ways of looking at it. The Minister could rightly reply that it is the committee's business and the Minister should not be telling it how to do its business. On the other hand, it might reflect certain views of the Minister were he to insist that there must be certain principles informing the process of the recommendations of the committee on deciding how, for instance, advertising will be done or the way a job description will be developed and to determine the essential and desirable criteria.
The Minister should remember that all members of the committee have received communications and letters from people expressing an interest. There is nothing wrong with honest people reading the legislation and indicating that they would like to be considered. There should be a way of dealing with people who want to offer themselves and we must then go through a fair process to select but what I do not want to see happen under any circumstances is committee votes on nominations that come without any process. That would be madness and it would not do the Minister any good. I am sure it is not what he would intend but it could easily happen.
I would like to hear the Minister say on record that there will be a clear job description and a list of essential and desirable criteria which must be developed and a process which would include short listing, marking, interview selection, interview procedure, interview board composition and post interview committee approval. The post interview committee approval is the approach where we could make manifest the suggestions by Senator O'Reilly in that people could come before the committee but not to be marked. The selection board or the sub-committee of the committee, whatever way we decide to do it, would come up with three names, say, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole and Jim Walsh. They would come before the committee not to be questioned, harassed or embarrassed in any way but to outline the reasons they believe they are suitable people for the job. The persons would simply outline their backgrounds etc. Somebody else might do the job equally good but at least the committee would be assured those are people we can comfortably recommend for consideration.
That is the type of approach we must take. In my reading of the legislation there is nothing to prevent the committee, as part of one of its stages, bringing the people before the committee in public session in a controlled environment. It would not be done to control or embarrass them but to allow them display their expertise, knowledge, background, suitability and whatever else we talk about for the public.
Whatever way the committee does its work, it must be done in an open way. In other words, everything must be challengeable and accessible subsequently to ensure that disappointed candidates can say that they put their names forward and that the person who got it, say, Joe O'Toole, does not come near their level of expertise, knowledge or whatever. The marking system must be in place. People can disagree with it but it is all on the record. That is what happens with any appointment in the public service. If it is done by the Public Service Appointments Commission or whatever it must list the candidates and order them in priority. They must give a first, second and third and it all should be on the record. Apart from anything else it is an absolute protection for members of the committee because regardless of who we put forward we will be told we did it for all the wrong reasons, we had vested interests, we were pushing particular candidates and we had a private agenda.
For the sake of accountability and openness, the Minister's reputation, politics being seen to work, the public sector operating best practice and committee members being protected from their own procedures, that is the way we should go about this at committee level. I do not believe it is open to me to say that is the way we should proceed at ministerial level but I would like the Minister to put on record how he believes the committee should go ahead with that process. It is not binding but the Minister's views would be helpful to all of us in discussing this issue. When the process is over it would be a fine thing for a Minister to have left his mark as being the first Minister to put in place a process of appointment to boards which is open, transparent, challengeable, understandable and comprehensive.
That could be done another way. I am not proposing it in this situation but I refer to the fact that the Minister's party supported the recommendations of the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform. One of its recommendations was that the Seanad would have a role in the approval of people being appointed to certain positions. I do not say it anticipated what we are talking about today but it shows there is a political view that we need to have political involvement which is open and transparent. That is our best protection.
As the Minister said, a number of boards will be established. There is a 90-day limit on the period the committee can take to do its business. That is why we should do some of the work beforehand. We are already marginally compromised by the fact that certain people have written to us expressing an interest. It could be argued we should not have seen that correspondence before we developed a job description or essential criteria. We should now be working on this matter in conjunction with the Minister and his officials.
The Bill states: "the Minister in respect of an appointment...shall provide a statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee indicating the relevant experience and expertise of the persons or person nominated by the Minister for appointment". I presume that refers to the group appointed by the Minister. The Bill goes on to say, "the Joint Oireachtas Committee shall within a period of 90 days...advise the Minister of the names of the persons or name of the person it proposes that the Minister should nominate...giving reasons, such as relevant experience and expertise, in relation to the proposed named persons". I have no opposition to that whatever. However, it should go slightly further. The Minister should write to the joint committee saying that in his view certain matters should be taken into consideration. One does not want a board of communicators or media people. Obviously, one needs a certain number with a media background but one wants a balance of people with experience of the media, business and the public and private sectors. The Minister needs to give guidelines. The committee can then decide which road it wants to travel. It would be helpful if the committee worked in tune with the Minister. It is bad politics if a committee does work and does not realise until it is too late that it is moving in a direction different from the Minister's thinking. The Minister should take some influential control. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent him from doing that.
The Minister should write to the committee asking it to bear in mind the need for a balance of board membership along certain stated lines. Ministers do not have difficulty in requiring boards to have a gender balance. When the Minister has stated those guidelines, the committee can then develop the job description and the principles towards which it will work and how it will establish openness and transparency. The committee will then go through the process, presumably having appointed a sub-committee or sought outside help to carry out the process. The whole committee can hardly be involved in all the stages but the whole committee will have to approve the appointment. If the whole committee must approve a name, then at some stage the whole committee must have some engagement with that person. I am sure it is intended that the appointment would be more than a paper operation.
When the sub-committee or outside group selects two or three names, the committee must exercise discretion in order that its decision should not be challengeable. Recent case law is clear in stating that where people have discretion, they are required to show they have exercised it. There must be a reason for each member of the committee to approve the appointment of, say, Jim Walsh, Joe O'Reilly and Joe O'Toole. Therefore, each member of the committee must have some engagement with those people. The best way to do that is to have the process explained to the committee in great detail, the steps to be gone through outlined and the three people brought before the committee to explain their backgrounds and what they each have to offer.
Am I right in saying the committee could do all that? The members of the joint committee feel they will be under a magnifying glass in carrying out this process and the political system will be scrutinised. Will the Minister indicate how we should progress in that matter?