I call Deputy Finian McGrath who is sharing time with Deputies Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and Richard Boyd Barrett.
Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Protected Disclosures Bill 2013. This debate is important in the overall debate on reform which is seriously needed. When discussing the Bill, we need to ensure at all times that the public good is served and that the interests of citizens are protected. Any whiff of corruption or malpractice needs to be rooted out of society - in private business and the public sector. The protection in law for workers provided for in this legislation is crucial. In recent days and weeks we have seen the urgent need to give maximum protection to people who genuinely want to serve the public good. Too many times they have been hung out to dry or marginalised by the Establishment. In recent days we have seen how Sergeant Maurice McCabe and Mr. John Wilson, the whistleblower, have been treated. The people are demanding that individuals with a genuine grievance be respected and protected. That is why I welcome many aspects of this legislation. We need to protect genuine whistleblowers who want to do positive things for their country. People lack confidence in the justice system because we are not doing the right things and not taking good people seriously such as Sergeant Maurice McCabe and Mr. John Wilson.
That is something that has been overlooked in the debate over the past three or four days, particularly in respect of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who seems to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land. There are many other cases. I have mentioned several of them in recent debates here. I was reminded this morning of another one, the James Sheehan case, in which senior gardaí planted a gun in the car of an innocent man. Nothing was done about that. It was absolutely disgraceful. When he was let off the gun disappeared within the system. We have to have justice for people like that.
I am glad to see that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is in the Chamber because he is dealing with this issue. People should not be afraid of reform, change and accountability. It is good for the vast majority of people. It is bad for the bad guys and girls involved. There are benefits to this kind of legislation and to whistleblowers. A good whistleblowing system within a public body or private company can deter wrongdoing. It can pick up potential problems in the system early. The recent scandal around the bugging of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, shows that picking up a problem early often stops it getting out of control. It enables critical information to get to the people who need to know and can address the issue. It also demonstrates to the public and to a court that the body or company is accountable and well-managed. People look for accountability and management of resources. The banking crisis and the economic downturn provide a glorious opportunity for reform. This legislation is part of that process.
A good system reduces the risk of anonymous and malicious leaks. There are cranks or people who can be malicious towards somebody in the public or private sectors. We have to get the balance right and make sure that the good people, like John Wilson and Maurice McCabe, who bring forward issues of genuine national importance, are protected at all times. A good whistleblowers' and disclosures practice in private companies and in the public sector minimises the costs and compensation from accidents, investigations, litigation and regulatory inspections. The real benefit of this system is that it enhances and maintains an organisation’s reputation.
I welcome the legislation. The Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 introduces a general protection in law for whistleblowers. It aims to protect workers from reprisals when they report suspected wrongdoing in their organisations. It applies to the public and private sectors. The events of recent days show that we need this kind of legislation. That is why I will support it strongly. The current whistleblowers, however, need to be protected and looked after. They are good, genuine people who have the interests of the public good at heart.
Is it a hangover from British rule in this country that one is not a whistleblower but a snitch? That is how one is classified if one blows the whistle. That is how this State has classified Maurice McCabe and John Wilson. The clinician who blew the whistle on the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest standard of care in the psychiatric institution in Galway is classified as a snitch. These people should be classified as heroes.
There might have been a reason for classifying people as snitches under British rule because the view was that one should not tell the authorities certain things when we were trying to run them out of the country. In this case, however, it is our country. We are running it and if someone comes with vital information he or she should not be classified as a snitch. When meeting the confidential recipient, who has been fired for doing his job - contrary to what Deputy Martin said this morning, he did do his job – one should not be told, “I’ll tell you something Maurice, and this is just personal advice, if Shatter thinks you’re screwing him you’re finished.” If one saw that in a film by Quentin Tarantino one would say it was a well-written script but fell down in one respect, that it was kind of unrealistic, a bit over the top but this happened.
I spoke to John Wilson this morning. I talk to him regularly. I do not speak to him on my iPhone and, on his advice, he does not speak to me on his mobile phone. On his advice, we go to landlines and change them regularly. I am talking about the whistleblower. This is the man who had a rat tied to his door for doing the right thing. Tittle-tattle and tales are told about him behind his back within the Garda Síochána for standing up for what is right and the law. His reward is to be pulverised and attacked by the State. A true reward for people like John Wilson and Maurice McCabe is that, instead of John Wilson having to run for fear of his life out of the Garda Síochána, he should have been promoted through the ranks of the Garda Síochána because he has conclusively proved that he is in this for one reason only, justice. He has been vetted by the highest authority, his conscience, and has done the right thing. Instead, he has had to leave the job he loved. He has to live on far less money. His quality of life has gone down. His reward for doing the right thing is that the whistle has been shoved down his throat and if it does not choke him on the way down it will poison him when it gets to his stomach. What is happening to this man is sick and twisted. It is wrong. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has said that one of his jobs is to build confidence in the Garda Síochána. Confidence has never been lower. The Minister told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions yesterday that he did not think it was a problem. He needs to go out and talk to the general public. As John Wilson said this morning, where can the gardaí go if they have a problem? If a particular garda spots a problem, for example, a murder not properly investigated, of which we have plenty of examples, or rapes not properly investigated, where does he or she go? They can go nowhere because the man they did go to was fired for doing his job.
Oliver Connolly was in a sense a glorified postman. His job was to take the documentation and pass it on. He was so concerned about it that he did not go to the Garda Commissioner, he went directly to the Minister. His reward is that he is out of a job today when the Minister should be out of a job. This does not happen only within the Garda Síochána, it happens in all walks of Irish life. If a county councillor tries to do the right thing by reporting pollution or spot that money is being embezzled or wasted, what happens? Is one rewarded? No. One is punished. On many occasions when I reported pollution or other things going on, a couple of councillors came to me out of fatherly concern saying that if I kept on saying the council was causing pollution I would get nothing done. When I said it is polluting they said, “Oh we know that but if you keep saying this they will get back at you.” It got back at us two years ago by closing our swimming pool for the month of June, for the first time since 1945. That was the reward. I know the council would have closed it completely but that it would not have been able to take the backlash. That is the reward.
We hear apologies in this Chamber for what was done to people in the Magdalen laundries and various institutions.
The reality is that if someone working there today blew the whistle on it, he or she would be the one that would be punished. One might say, "No, that would not happen. What happened in the Magdalen laundries was too extreme. We would certainly listen to these people", but in the past week a whistleblower, Joe, who is proud to put his name in the public domain, although he was worried originally, told us - I stated it yesterday in the Dáil - that 31 patients with mental health issues have only three showers to use. When he put that information in the public domain he was immediately contacted by the Health Service Executive, which threatened him with disciplinary action. As far as I am concerned, if one is a clinician in the health service and one has any mass on the Hippocratic oath on what is right, one should come out and tell people what is going on. These people who are doing this are being threatened with being fired, but they still do it. Sadly, the message from this Government is: shut up, keep quiet, know your place.
The Deputy did not read the Bill.
I will make some comments on the Bill but, following what Deputy Flanagan has said, we have to look at a Bill like this, the general thrust of which at least is welcome, in the context in which the Bill is put forward because the objective should be to give support and facilitate people who are blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, malpractice, corruption and other activities that could be damaging to society or to individuals involving criminal activity in corporate or State institutions. That is what it should do. We have to have a context in which the people blowing the whistle feel confident the State will back them up if they genuinely believe they have been victims of or witnesses to serious wrongdoing and abuse.
If that is the objective, we must then examine from where we have come and where we are at now. It would be a fair summary to say that, historically, we have lived in a State of fear and tyranny where those who are the victims of wrongdoing, abuse or corruption are terrified to speak out and believe that if they speak out, they will suffer dire consequences - vilification, loss of job, demonisation, victimisation and so on. That has been the history of this State, whether it is at the hands of the church, powerful and wealthy elites or of the State itself in terms of the Magdalen laundries or the background to the economic crash that has destroyed this country economically. Would it not have been wonderful if this was a State in which people working in the banking industry, local authorities, Government or wherever who knew what was going on in terms of banking, developers and so on had the confidence to speak out and blow the whistle on what was going on? That did not happen. That is the environment we need to create.
In that context, the events of the past few weeks would hardly give people confidence. I read the transcript of the conversation between Oliver Connolly and Maurice McCabe yesterday, and it is extraordinary. This is about a member of the Garda who took his life in his hands and spoke out about what he believes to be widespread, endemic corruption in the Garda, not just about penalty points but about murders not being investigated and people being set up for crimes they did not commit. These are the most serious allegations imaginable. He goes to someone whose job specifically is to be a point of contact for people who want to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in the Garda and, instead of getting support or being facilitated, this person who represents the Minister for Justice and Equality tells him to shut up and keep quiet, and threatens him that the Minister will go after him - will screw him - if he threatens to go public with his allegations. Thank God Maurice McCabe had the confidence to face down that sort of bullying and intimidation and continue to speak out.
Sometimes political credit needs to go somewhere and the people who deserve that credit are Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. Deputy Wallace told me he first raised the issue of Maurice McCabe more than a year ago-----
-----and it has taken until now for the issue to be taken seriously. Yesterday, we had the sudden sacking of the confidential recipient. That is good, but major questions remain. That person had been a political donor to the Minister in his election campaign. I do not know the exact nature of their relationship with one another but on the face of it they would seem to know each other quite well. The question, therefore, is when he made those comments to Maurice McCabe, was he acting with the knowledge of the Minister or with knowledge of the Minister's general disposition when it came to the allegations Maurice McCabe was making? It is difficult to believe he pulled these threats out of the sky, given his relationship with the Minister. At the very least, those questions must be answered.
I have much more to say about that issue but, on the legislation, there is a serious issue about people who are on contract employment. If their contracts are not renewed because they have been blowing the whistle, serious attention must be paid to that and to the issue of the relief they will get if they blow the whistle and lose their jobs, cannot pay their mortgages or whatever because it could be several years before they get that relief. That is a major disincentive to people blowing the whistle and therefore they need to be assured, and the legislation must pin down-----
I amended it in the Seanad to include that.
Fair enough, but we need to examine that closely to ensure people do not feel they will face a huge financial loss if they blow the whistle.
The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies James Bannon, Peter Fitzpatrick and Brendan Ryan. Deputy Bannon has ten minutes.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House and compliment him on the fine job of work he is doing in his portfolio.
The purpose of the Bill is to put in place a whistleblowers Act. This is an important Bill and I am delighted to see it before the House. It will provide for further protection of workers who make disclosures of certain information in the public interest and will apply to both the public and private sectors.
This Bill sends a message of support to potential whistleblowers to encourage their reporting of wrongdoing. The legislation is intended to provide a robust statutory framework allowing workers to raise concerns regarding potential wrongdoing in their places of work, safe in the knowledge that they can avail of significant employment and other protections if they are penalised by their employers or suffer any detriment for doing so.
The 2011 programme for Government stated that we will put in place a whistleblowers Act to protect those who expose maladministration by Ministers or others, and restore freedom of information; we are delivering on that promise. However, I am concerned that some claim no real regulatory impact assessment has been carried out in terms of assessing fully the potential impact and effects of this legislation in sensitive situations such as personality clashes between persons in the workplace.
Concerns have also been raised about the impact on Ireland's open economy and our dependence on foreign direct investment. It is important to get the legislation right if we are to protect businesses and companies, and this country's reputation as a prime location to do business. I understand that special rules will be required for disclosure of commercial information where a contract entered into between employer and worker provides for confidentiality. Such provisions will take precedence over any right to disclose.
The protections contained in this Bill are designed to encourage whistleblowers to come forward and to prompt higher standards. It is horrifying to think that people who make disclosures about wrongdoing in the workplace might be penalised by their employers. A number of bodies have called for publicity campaigns to ensure workers are made aware of and understand the protections on offer. It is critical to the effective operation of the legislation that people be aware that it is safe for them to step forward and say there is something wrong. We need to rid ourselves of hostile attitudes towards whistleblowers, whereby informing is seen as having traitorous qualities. Examples of the types of wrongdoing that may be reported include dangers in the workplace, misselling or price fixing, medical negligence, neglect of people in care and supplying food unfit for consumption. The old approach of offering varied levels of protection based on a person's employment or industry sector leads to uncertainty as to who can make a protected disclosure. This lack of certainty surrounding general protection has stopped some potential whistleblowers from coming forward. The Bill offers the same protection to all whistleblowers regardless of their backgrounds. This will greatly help the whistleblowing process by making it easier to understand how the law can protect those who make disclosures. It is also important that the legislation balances worker protection with employer protection. This must remain a truthful and fair process and the law must not favour one side over the other.
The Nyberg report on the banking crisis in Ireland raised the issue of whistleblowing. The report stated that the limited numbers of warning voices were largely ignored. Attempts by banking insiders to send cautionary signals to market participants about escalating property values were dismissed as ill-informed and wrong and there may have been a strong belief in Ireland that non-team-players, fractious observers and whistleblowers could be informally, and sometimes publicly, sanctioned or ignored, regardless of the quality of their analysis or their position in their respective organisations. I regard those who warned of the financial doom coming our way as heroes. These people knew that their reputations and even their jobs were being put on the line by doing the right thing. We must now do the right thing in order to help brave people like them to stand up and say something when they witness wrongdoing in the workplace.
I have some slight concerns about the Bill, however. The proposed protections do not go far enough and are not equivalent to those on offer in other jurisdictions. For example, the UK and many other countries provide for interim relief whereby individuals can apply to be reinstated to their jobs if dismissed, or kept on until their cases are finally determined. Without such reliefs, whistleblowers risk financial ruin while they wait for their cases to be finally resolved.
The Bill was amended in the Seanad to provide for interim relief.
I am glad to hear that.
The protection of whistleblowers is central to the struggle against corruption and is important in prompting higher standards. The Bill strikes a fair balance between the interest of the whistleblower who discloses wrongdoing and the employer who could be damaged by unfounded allegations. It is important that the legislation sends positive signals to international observers who are concerned about past standards of governance in this country. In future, no workplace will be above accountability and scrutiny. This Bill reinforces the demand for transparency and accountability as set out in Article 28 of the Constitution, which states that the Government shall be responsible to the Dáil and to the people of Ireland. That is something the previous Government appeared to ignore. I welcome the fact that the Bill will amend the Unfair Dismissals Acts to cover those who make protected disclosures. I commend the Minister and his officials on their introduction of the legislation.
This Bill introduces a general protection in law for whistleblowers. It aims to protect workers from reprisals where they report suspected wrongdoing in their organisations. The legislation will apply to both the public and private sectors. Protection is contingent on certain tests, such as reasonable belief. A number of channels are being provided to whistleblowers, depending on the individual circumstances of the worker, to disclose concerns. The Bill's protections are designed to encourage potential whistleblowers to come forward and to prompt higher standards. They will apply to those who make a disclosure of wrongdoing in the workplace and are penalised by their employers as a result. The definition of "worker" will include contractors and former workers, and protection will apply from the first day of employment.
Current legislation in this area is partial and inconsistent, offering varying levels of protection according to employer and industrial sector. This approach leads to uncertainty as to who can make a protected disclosure. The lack of general protection is believed to have stopped some potential whistleblowers from coming forward. The Bill provides a broad overview of the steps a whistleblower must take to receive protection. The disclosure must be made by a worker who reasonably believes the disclosure shows one or more relevant wrongdoings. The information must come to the attention of the worker in connection with his or her employment and the worker must decide to whom he or she will make the disclosure. Generally, a disclosure shall be made to an employer, but certain workers may take other avenues depending on the circumstances of their case. This includes making a disclosure to a Member of Dáil Éireann. Deliberately false reporting will not meet the reasonable belief test and is not protected under the Bill. Special arrangements have been put in place for disclosures relating to law enforcement matters and disclosures that could inadvertently affect Ireland's security, defence or international relations.
Protected disclosures will be included under the Unfair Dismissal Act 1977, with compensation of up to five years of pay. Protected disclosures have immunity from civil liability and are not criminal offences. The Bill also provides for the protection of a whistleblower's identity and a right of action in tort law for detriment caused by a third party. Employers are prohibited from penalising or threatening a worker for making a protected disclosure. Workers in State bodies will also be in a position to claim protection if they report their concerns to the sponsoring Department.
The definition of "worker" covers as many persons interacting with the workplace as possible, including members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. No form of information is excluded from the Bill.
In order to avail of the protection, a worker must have a reasonable belief that the information to be disclosed shows or tends to show one or more of the following: a criminal offence has been, is being or is likely to be committed; a person has failed, is failing or is likely to fail to comply with any legal obligations to which he or she is subject; a miscarriage of justice has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur; the health and safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be in endangered; the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged; an unlawful, corrupt or irregular use of funds or resources of a public sector body has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur; an unlawful, corrupt or irregular use of public moneys has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur; an act, omission or course of conduct by a public official is oppressive, improperly discriminatory, grossly negligent or constitutes gross mismanagement; and information tending to show that any matter falling within any one of the proceeding sub-paragraphs, whether alone or in combination, has been, is being or is likely to be deliberately concealed.
The Labour Relations Commission is in the process of preparing a code of practice for workers and employers relating to the manner in which protected disclosures are to be handled. Both ICTU and IBEC have engaged with this process, which will continue apace with the objective to have a code in time for the enactment of this Bill. With goodwill on both sides, it is anticipated that the code will serve to ensure that the majority of disclosures are dealt with successfully at local level and that any necessity on the part of a worker to access the protection in the legislation will represent the exception rather than the norm.
I am delighted to see this Bill before the House for debate and equally delighted to have an opportunity to speak on it. It is a pity, but I suppose understandable, that those in opposition are deciding to speak further on GSOC rather than the merits of the Bill and what it sets out to achieve.
This Bill is the delivery on a commitment within the programme for Government to put in place protections for ordinary workers who see injustice and malpractice in their workplace. As the Minister, Deputy Howlin, stated, the publication of this legislation represents a major step in the delivery of the Government's programme of political reform. I agree with him that it provides for the first time a comprehensive whistleblower protection across all sectors of the economy and addresses what has been a significant gap in Ireland's legal framework for combating corruption.
The lives of those born in the past 30 years have been set against a political backdrop in this country of tribunals, corruption, brown envelopes, rezoning and stroke politics. It is no wonder that the attitude of many young people is so negative towards politics in this country. Who can blame them? The legacy of corruption has left many with the belief, "Ah sure, they are all the same". We are not all the same. There were people, especially in the Labour Party, willing and able to stand up to political corruption. Given my party's strong stance against the worst excesses of political corruption which took place in this country, I am delighted that this Bill is being brought in by a Labour Party Minister.
This legislation highlights the real difference which can be made when a serious party of the left is in government. It is one thing eternally standing on the sidelines in perpetual protest but, ultimately, that will not deliver real change.
This is important legislation. It is long overdue and it will make a positive difference towards improving transparency and fairness in the country. Most importantly, it provides further protections for ordinary workers. In addition to the reversal of the minimum wage cut, the protection of the JLCs and the upcoming collective bargaining legislation, this Bill is a further strengthening of workers' rights brought in by the Labour Party in government.
This Bill amends the Unfair Dismissals Act 1997 to include the dismissal of a worker for having made a disclosure under the Bill. It also increases the maximum amount of compensation payable by an employer in the case of an unfair dismissal following a protected disclosure, from 104 to 260 weeks' remuneration. This Bill also prohibits the penalisation of a worker for making a protected disclosure and there is a non-prescriptive list of penalties contained within it. These are real improvements to workers' rights and protections.
If we are serious about stamping out wrongdoing, we need to empower the ordinary person in Irish society at all levels. Where injustice, malpractice and illegality occur, we need to provide the necessary protections for ordinary people to highlight this and thereby prevent it from happening again.
We have witnessed in the recent past instances whereby the glaring absence of any whistleblower legislation was brought into sharp focus. Five years ago, we saw the example of a figure in the Irish Red Cross losing his job for blowing the whistle on over €160,000 of unspent charitable donations. This money was donated to the Irish Red Cross five years previously in aid of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. A couple of years ago, we saw the example of a woman losing her employment in St. Brendan's Hospital after highlighting a practice of keeping some patients in a locked environment over the Christmas period. These are but two examples which highlight the need for this legislation.
This legislation, when passed, will not of itself end corruption and malpractice in this country. However, as the Irish Human Rights Commission states, it will demonstrate a maturity to accept legitimate criticism and to focus on tackling structural issues in the social, economic and political life of the country.
I look forward to seeing the Bill passed into law. I believe it is a milestone on the road towards a political, economic and financial society which is more transparent and free from corruption. Many of my constituents have said to me that not enough is being done to tackle white-collar crime. This is a good response from Government to tackle this type of crime. I genuinely believe that people will look back at the enactment of this legislation and say this was an important milestone in the fight against white-collar crime. I commend the Minister and the Government on bringing this Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill and the Second Stage debate that is taking place on it. It is important legislation.
On the penalties concerned, one size does not fit all and perhaps, in the context of amendments, the Minister would look at that. We must tailor it to the size of the companies involved and to the extent of the complaint or corruption put forward by the whistleblower, and apply the appropriate action. I come at this from the point of view that the biggest employer in the State is the State. The largest number of complaints, the largest number of whistleblowers and the largest number of those who have generally expressed concern come within the State's organisation.
Through the years, and different Governments, we have failed to protect the people. Protecting the people is the basic job of any government and we have failed miserably in that regard. In fact, our management of complaints and whistleblowers has been sloppy. It has shown complete disregard for their rights. It has shown complete disregard for the complaint that they are making even though it is in the interest of the State.
The person who in good faith comes forward with a complaint is often the one who will at the end of the process be the victim. The person's health will be broken. Their job will probably be gone. They will not be able to serve anymore. That is the history of this, if one looks back on it. They are the ones who have tried to do the State some service. It is an appalling situation.
In any Bill like this, we have to look at the issues that the State has faced over the past few years, particularly in recent times. There are different types of whistleblower. There is the whistleblower about the job. There is someone who comes forward out of the experience in dealing with the State and is willing to put his or her experiences in the public domain so the State can learn from the mistakes, and there is a need for the State to respond in a supportive way that protects that person's position in life, job or credibility, in terms of how he or she put forward the complaint in the first place.
A letter I received serves to inform me about what happened.
I will cite one or two cases. One lady, who is a hard-working woman, describes the State as "a little corrupt country". This was her experience, which we need to take into account. She expected the law enforcers, including the Garda, the DPP and judges, to protect, serve and tell the truth. In her correspondence she went on to outline what happened to her and her son who was killed in a hit and run incident. She outlined details of the person who was driving the car and killed her son: he was out on bail, his passport was in the Garda station, he was on a suspended sentence on both sides of the Border, he was well known to the PSNI and had served time in custody there. In addition, he was on a peace bond, had 40 convictions and 17 convictions outside this jurisdiction. He was also well known to Interpol. He was driving a completely defective vehicle on the night in question, with no tax, insurance or NCT. The man was on the probation books for six years for heroin before he killed on the roadside. He had previous convictions for road traffic offences, burglary, aggravated burglary, handling stolen property and drugs. Six weeks after killing this woman's son, he received two sentences of two weeks to run concurrently. He was asked to sign on at the Garda station in Carrickmacross, but as he was serving a sentence in another jurisdiction he did not sign on at the Garda station. However, nobody bothered to pick that up. In fact, some of the background information was never presented at his court case.
This lady's cherished son was a well qualified young man who had just finished university and was setting out in life. He was a man who cared for the community, worked with his neighbours and looked after them, but he was lost to the country and to his family. This lady decided to pursue the matter. On the one hand, the State had given the man who killed her son a senior counsel, junior counsel, an interpreter and a solicitor. On the other hand, the State gave her, her family and her lost son a junior counsel. At every hand's turn she complained to the State that is there to protect her, but she was not listened to. She would not give up on her son, however, and eventually wrote to the Attorney General, the DPP, the DPP's complaints department and the Garda Ombudsman. She made 19 different complaints, just two of which were upheld. No justice was served in this case so this lady turned to the authorities and asked for a public inquiry. She asked for all the actions taken by the State, and the inaction, to be examined so that this would never happen again.
In their grief and trauma, following the death of their son, the lady and her husband turned to their daughter for support and assistance in lobbying the State that is supposed to protect them for an inquiry into what I consider to be a serious injustice. Lucia O'Farrell, having lost her son Shane at 23 years of age, was refused. She then turned to the only other people who could help her. She asked those in the political system to look at the papers in a file that is 12 inches thick. The file is full of inaccuracies and issues that have not served her or her family well. She blew the whistle on all of this, including at the offices of the DPP, the Ombudsman and the Attorney General. She asked for action, and I must tell the Minister, Deputy Howlin, that that woman is sincere in her approach to this matter. She has a case that this State must answer. She has an absolute case for a public inquiry. She turned to her politicians, and wrote to the Taoiseach explaining that she had not received an acknowledgement. This woman, in absolute grief and traumatised by the loss of her son, appealed to the political system, yet she received no answer. I saw the answer that she got from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, and I have to say that it does not make me feel proud of this country. She got a cold acknowledgement. I challenge the Ministers, Deputy Howlin and Deputy Shatter, or the Taoiseach to meet this woman and her family. They should read the paperwork in detail and see how justice was not served in this case. They should demand a public inquiry. I have made these appeals before in this Chamber but nothing happens.
The Chamber is empty.
I know the Chamber is empty, but others may be looking in, and I respect that.
There is a Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions in the House.
I am sorry, but she appealed to the Taoiseach.
She can petition the committee of the House.
Do not give me that rubbish.
A committee of the House is rubbish?
Do not give me that rubbish. She made a direct appeal to the Taoiseach and to the Minister, who should at least have acknowledged it. They should at least have asked her to come in and put her case to them to see if she had a case, and then let her proceed with it. As the Minister sponsoring this particular Bill, I am asking Deputy Howlin to convey to the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Shatter, how this woman was let down. Deputy Howlin should insist that they meet with her and that they decide on a course of action that will bring justice in this case. That is the least he should do.
Last week, I re-echoed an appeal in the case of Una Halliday and FÁS. She is another whistleblower, but this week they are trying to take her in for a further interview while she is out on sick leave. Does the Minister, Deputy Howlin, condone that? Would he expect a State employer not to protect the rights of that woman? I ask SOLAS, FÁS or whoever is responsible there now to stop the persecution of this woman. She, like many others who blew the whistle, now goes to her office and is given no work, no telephone and no computer. They are humiliated every day they go in and are shouted at in front of other employees. Their rights are ignored. When I raised the matter here, as I did last week at the Committee of Public Accounts, nobody in this place listens or responds. That is no way for a State to behave. It just stubbornly sticks its head in the sand and ignores people's rights. That does not make me feel proud of this democratic system. I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Howlin, again in that case. He has been described as a Labour Party Minister who is going through the motions with regard to this Bill, and I respect him for it. As regards that employee, however, he should make a direct intervention and ask for some respect. The woman is out sick and her family are deeply concerned. The matter has been raised publicly, both in the Dáil and elsewhere. I am raising it again here today. I ask whoever is listening and whoever is responsible to leave this woman alone. They should deal with the matter in a far more constructive manner, and not in the way they are pursuing it at present. Above all, they should respond to this Parliament and a request that has been made by a Member of the Oireachtas to stop and treat that person like a human being.
I want to inform the House of how I believe the State should respond, but is not responding, in another case.
I will give the example of the special investigations unit in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Following a statement made by Judge Reynolds, I appealed to the Taoiseach that the special investigation unit in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine be investigated for the manner in which it conducts its business and forces down citizens of the State into a tormented state because of the way they are treated. I cited the case of a young special needs child in County Carlow who was terrorised in his home by those who visited. He still speaks about it to his father to this day. When the court case was heard, which concerned an issue with his father, a settlement was made. The special investigations unit was not covered in glory. In a different case, Judge Reynolds said the unit should be investigated by the Minister.
I raised a case in Kilkenny with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business. They bullied a pregnant woman who later gave up her job and who has not been replaced because of the antics of the people in the unit. There is also the case of John Fleury, where two detectives in the region have sufficient information to be of interest to the State. No one has asked them for the information and no one has asked them what type of information they have about the special investigations unit to cause someone to pursue them and correct them on the action they take in various instances. I know the unit has a job to do but when it steps beyond the line, the State must stop it and protect the citizens of the country, which it is not doing. There are umpteen cases where the special investigations unit has gone beyond its remit and it should be reined in. Cases have been reported in the national media in the Irish Farmers' Journal and other places and there is sufficient information to cause the State to at least ask the question and to determine what it did to the young child and what information the detectives have about other cases. Why does no one in this House respond? We are debating the Bill in Parliament. Do they not regard us as having any positive input? Is the permanent government continuing on its merry way and disregarding the political system and the complaints made to it? That is what seems to be going on. Issues outlined in the first case lead me to believe there is a complete cover-up, showing complete disregard for that woman's rights. For that reason, I appeal for a public inquiry.
There are many other cases, some of which concern the OPW and others the Department of Health. With regard to the HSE and the Department of Health, front-line nurses have come to me and have complained about the system, how they are treated and how they are promoted or not promoted. When I look at them, I see legitimate cause for concern. They make these complaints to me but they are afraid to tell their superiors and afraid to make complaints. Some of them live in fear because an example has been set where others have lost their jobs. Is that how the State should perform? If there is a complaint to the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, or the Taoiseach, the least any of the complainants deserve is a formal response and a listening ear. Maybe, thereafter, the political system might decide that we cannot do anything for them or that we will change legislation so that their voices can be heard. This is partly what the Minister is doing but I ask him to look back on the ones who have complained and see how their lives have been devastated and the state of health they are in now. They are broken people, appealing to the State and they probably have little or no respect for the State or the democratic process, having been in a position of having the greatest of respect for the State. The politicians and the democratic process have visited that upon them because we refused to respond.
Lastly, the Garda whistleblower has revealed many facts that have shocked people. Has he not been proved correct? He was poked at and made fun of but two weeks ago we discovered the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General was based on interviews with the same man. Nevertheless, the political system would not look after him or listen to him. They failed to protect their people. That is what this Government and previous Government did. I ask the Minister to stop the process as it currently operates and to, at least, deal with some of the cases to which I refer and to ask someone to listen to them. In the case of Lucia O'Farrell, I plead with the Minister to initiate a public inquiry into the death of her son and how justice was administered, or not, in her case. I also asked the Minister to deal with the aspect of the corrupt little country she believes we are.
I propose to share time with Deputy Peter Mathews. I welcome this timely legislation in the context of the recent negative events concerning the Garda Síochána and the bad treatment of a whistleblower. The Bill provides much-needed protection for whistleblowers. It is vitally important that those who witness wrongdoing in their place of work feel supported enough to bring these matters to light. People need to be encouraged to bring injustice to light and the importance of inside information cannot be underestimated. In 2012, the Mahon report recommended that whistleblower legislation be introduced, with increased protection for whistleblowers in the public and private sectors. Employees should have the right to report misconduct in the workplace such as price fixing, medical negligence, corruption or soliciting bribes. These are matters of public interest and should be exposed as soon as they come to a person’s attention.
It is of concern that legislation has not been introduced until now and the Minister, Deputy Howlin, must be congratulated on his political initiative, his campaign and what he has exposed in the past. The Bill should help to deal with underlying corruption in some areas of society. The public has become disillusioned with the culture of corruption in Irish society and the legislation should provide reassurance and bring certain matters to light.
If support had been available before now, we might not have seen the same level of corruption in all sectors of Irish society and it would have been a better alternative than what has happened. It is important that employers also be protected against false claims and if there is deliberate false reporting, there must be repercussions. These provisions are included in the Bill.
Why was the decision taken not to have an overseeing body to help a whistleblower? If a whistleblower has complaints about the way he or she has been treated following the making of a statement, to whom should he or she report? Who acts as a mediator between an employer and an employee in cases such as these? The presence of an independent regulator would ensure organisations implemented the legislation and that they would handle cases internally, fully and fairly. Until now employees have been, correctly, afraid to bring cases of wrongdoing to light out of fear of bullying, as Deputy John McGuinness argued. People may also be isolated at work and fear ultimately losing their jobs as a consequence of bringing that wrongdoing to light.
The recently publicised case of whistleblower Edward Snowden has shown the negative connotations associated with those who bring these matters to light. That was an exceptional case involving national security, but it was negatively reported on in the media and people may be deterred by the backlash. Ireland’s reputation internationally has been damaged, but the Government is doing everything to try to get the country back on track. Nevertheless, details of cases of corruption have been covered across the globe and are damaging. I hope that when this Bill is enacted, it will help to restore some confidence in Ireland and show that we are serious about tackling corruption.
In the financial sector at the time of the banking crisis there was a distinct lack of whistleblowing. One particular case involved Morgan Kelly, a professor at University College Dublin, who warned about the inevitable end of the property bubble. He was treated with disdain, as expressed by many people in Ireland, as he highlighted the problems associated with increased mortgage lending and the dependency on the housing sector. The Taoiseach at the time, former Deputy Bertie Ahern, publicly criticised him and those who attempted to forewarn about the impending crisis. It was a worrying practice. Previous speakers have discussed white collar crime and corporate negligence and these issues played a significant role in the global financial crisis. Certain white collar criminals have caused substantial damage to the economy and many seem to have got away with it and not been subjected to any punishment for their actions. It is refreshing to see the trial of Anglo Irish Bank executives up and running and I hope some justice will be seen to be served. I know the banking inquiry will help to restore some confidence to the general public.
When the Bill is enacted, will there be a national campaign to make employees aware of their rights? Workers need to be aware of the new supports that will be in place. The Bill provides that all public sector organisations will have to set out their own channels for disclosures and provide details of these for all workers in writing. It may also be a good idea to have a dedicated website or an automated helpline in place for employees who wish to disclose information in the ultimate interests of the taxpayer. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress made by the Labour Relations Commission in drawing up a code of conduct? Deputy John McGuinness spoke about the treatment of whistleblowers in the past, as I am sure the Minister is aware, and it is a shameful record. We hope this new Bill will make a big difference to those who wish to come forward with relevant information in order to highlight corruption or wrongdoing. I welcome the Bill.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the legislation. This is an expression of or testimony to the fact that there is now a stirring of conscience in the country. However, it is not enough that there is a stirring; as Deputy John McGuinness stated, we should now be fully awake. It is our duty, as politicians and legislators, to encourage this process. There seems to be a never-ending sequence of cases that are heart-rending and embarrassing in their import. The story of Louise O'Keeffe is just one; years after the shocking abuse she had suffered as a little girl, she went through the courts system to describe what had happened and the system shut her down and buried her under potential costs. That is a recent example and the resolution of the issue took place outside the country in the European Court of Justice. Shame on us that it happened at all.
The suppression of conscience has occurred through Establishment groupthink. Only a couple of days ago, on 18 February, one of the shortest Bills ever seen in the House was brought before it. It would be a further development along the lines of what Deputy James Bannon mentioned. Article 28.4.1° of the Constitution states, "The Government shall be responsible" to the people of Ireland, but the proposed Bill, the Thirty-Fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas) Bill 2014, states the Members of each House - there are two - "shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions", which would relieve them of the oppression that has been experienced in this country. They would be "responsible only to their conscience". When our consciences awaken, we will do the right thing. This would not forbid policy making by parties, agreements or coalitions, as some might carelessly or gratuitously argue. It just means that when we came to the raw brass of duties and responsibilities, one would not suppress one's conscience.
I apologise for interrupting the Deputy in full flow, but the time has come to adjourn the debate.