In order to restore the confidence and trust of the people in the institutions that serve them, we as a Parliament must reform what we do and how we do it. A key element of the parliamentary reform programme outlined in the programme for Government is the proposed constitutional amendment contained in the Thirtieth Amendment of the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill 2011. This Bill before us today will ensure the Houses of the Oireachtas, either individually or collectively, have the power to conduct full parliamentary inquiries that would be effective, cost-efficient and conclude within a reasonable timeframe.
The Abbeylara Supreme Court decision currently limits the ability of Dáil committees to hold full investigations into crucial issues of public concern. The same impediment would be felt by Seanad committees. A parliamentary power of inquiry is necessary and intrinsic to the proper functioning of a representative and responsible parliamentary democracy. General powers to investigate matters of public importance are commonly available to the legislatures of almost all member states of the European Union. Apart from Ireland, some form of parliamentary investigation is to be found in the basic constitutional law of 12 EU member states in the form of an express provision in their respective constitutions.
As public representatives, it is our responsibility to translate the wishes of the people into policies and programmes that further our economic and social development. Where issues arise regarding such policies and programmes, the Dáil and the Seanad should be able to inquire into them fully and make findings and recommendations accordingly. How can we provide good law if we have not the power to see the effect of laws? How can this Parliament hold the Executive to account if it cannot inquire into the conduct of people who work for the Executive? How can it scrutinise the spending of money properly voted in these Houses if it cannot hold public authorities to account and inquire into their actions? We have the duty to shape our laws and to serve our citizens. As a Parliament, we must be able to address the concerns of the public in regard to policy and its administration if we are to be strong, relevant, and active.
We need a position where the Houses have robust powers to obtain and analyse essential and comprehensive information and draw the necessary findings and recommendations. This is crucial for issues of public importance in order for the Houses to be better able to serve the people, and for the Houses to be better equipped to undertake their responsibilities. Giving the Houses the power to undertake full inquiries will ensure they are central players rather than mere observers in the examination and investigation of such issues. Such power will strengthen these Houses and in doing so enhance public accountability. Such power will help distinguish Parliament from the Government and demonstrate the capacity of Parliament not only to hold government to account, but to seek and get answers on matters of concern to our citizens. Therefore, we must ensure that we as a Parliament use this power appropriately and for the benefit of the wider society and economy. There are significant public policy benefits from the operation of an effective system of parliamentary inquiry, and we must harness these benefits.
It is now nine years since the Supreme Court, in the Abbeylara case, raised issues regarding the power of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries. There since has been important consideration and deliberation of the issues involved, including by the Law Reform Commission in its consultation paper on public inquiries, and more recently by the all-party Joint Committee on the Constitution in a report published earlier this year. The proposed wording of the referendum and the policy approach being adopted by the Government to provide a clear constitutional power to conduct inquiries is closely in line with the recommendations of the fifth report of the all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution of which I was a member. That was an extraordinary deliberative, balanced and protracted piece of work. We invited some of the finest legal experts on the Constitution before us and its final report and recommendations were unanimously agreed after almost a year of careful consideration.
One of the central recommendations of the joint committee was that a constitutional amendment expressly providing for an inherent power of investigation was needed. The joint committee found that the option would be open to the Oireachtas, in the absence of a constitutional amendment, of legislating for a statutory power to inquire. Under this approach the Oireachtas would seek to rectify the defects identified by the court in the Abbeylara judgment by revising existing legislation. However, it would be necessary for this legislation to conform to the constraints and limitations relating to the scope of Oireachtas inquiries identified in the Abbeylara judgment.
The implication of the Supreme Court's findings was that under the current constitutional position an Oireachtas inquiry could not investigate any matter which had the potential to impact adversely on a person's good name or reputation. This conclusion by the Supreme Court could potentially seriously curtail the capacity of the Oireachtas to carry out any meaningful inquiries. Consequently, a constitutional amendment is essential to overcome these core issues. A constitutional amendment will ensure that the Oireachtas is not severely restricted in the issues into which it can conduct inquiries and the scope of these inquiries. It also ensures that should the Oireachtas wish to conduct an inquiry, it can do it itself and it is not confined to either a tribunal of inquiry or a commission of investigation.
Both of those tools will remain available and not every issue will be suitable to be investigated by an Oireachtas committee. Some will require the old tribunal of inquiry mechanism under the 1921 Act, and some will be best suited to a commission of inquiry mechanism of investigation, as we recently saw with the Ryan report.
The proposed inquiry system will not displace the comprehensive work that committees of the House already undertake. On the contrary, it is intended that the new inquiry system would complement and reinforce the existing role of Oireachtas committees in reviewing important public policy issues. This will be achieved by providing committees with a new avenue to investigate and inquire into serious issues of significant public concern that may emerge from the committees' work. This is likely to encourage greater co-operation with the everyday work of committees in light of the strong new inquiry powers expected to be available to committees.
This is a critical part of a process to strengthen Parliament. Too often in the past we have seen the Parliament as the mere tool of the Executive, there to rubber-stamp decisions made in private. We must have a functioning Parliament that questions the Executive and agents of the State, and which can rigorously test policy issues and failures.
The primary issue that this proposed constitutional referendum addresses is the power of the members of the Dáil and Seanad, acting through a committee, to conduct a public inquiry. It addresses the source, nature and scope of the power of the Members of the Oireachtas to conduct a public inquiry, which is liable to result in findings of fact or expression of opinion adverse to the good name, reputation or livelihoods of persons.
Earlier this month, at the same time as the referendum Bill was published, my Department also published an explanatory note on the Bill as well as an overview of the proposed system of inquiry. To facilitate comprehensive discussion of and inform debate on the issues involved, the draft heads of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Powers of Inquiry) Bill were published with the referendum Bill.