Committee of Public Accounts of Dáil Éireann (Compellability of Witnesses) Bill 2014: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to make further and better provision in relation to the Committee of Public Accounts of Dáil Éireann’s power to obtain evidence, including the compellability of witnesses, and to ensure the Committee has the right to examine where there is a risk to the public finances any person or body as it so sees fit, and to provide for the appointment of a parliamentary inspector to carry out a preliminary examination in cases where the Comptroller and Auditor General is precluded from doing so and to amend the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013 and to provide for related matters.

I seek leave to introduce a Bill because the Committee of Public Accounts as it is now operating is unable to do its work effectively. All Members of the House agree that the Committee of Public Accounts has worked in the national interest very effectively in recent months, but it is hitting a roadblock. The Bill is born out of frustration that certain areas of investigation have been stopped or delayed interminably as a result of the apparently limited powers of the Committee of Public Accounts. A less benign scenario is that the work of the committee is being deliberately nobbled and frustrated by other committees in the House and other Members because they do not wish certain activities to be properly investigated. I refer specifically to the investigation into Rehab and the Central Remedial Clinic. There has been an unjustifiable delay, which continues, at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.. Under the camouflage of legal opinion, it is not allowing us to continue to do work. The Bill is supported by at least three members of the committee, Deputies John McGuinness, Mary Lou McDonald and Sean Fleming. When it is accepted for introduction, I intend to circulate it to Government Members and to seek their support.

It is imperative that what we have been doing is not stopped in its tracks by legal niceties or deliberate political obstruction. The Bill removes the Committee for Procedure and Privileges from the equation. It allows the Committee of Public Accounts to appoint a parliamentary inspector who can examine areas about which we have concern, report to the committee in the same way as the Comptroller and Auditor General and tell us the findings in a short time. Then, the Committee of Public Accounts can compel witnesses to appear and compel documents to be brought to us. This is the only way around a logjam that has been put in our way, either deliberately or by accident, which is very convenient for those who do not want to see the committee do its work. That is why the Bill is being introduced.

The Committee on Procedure and Privileges operates behind closed doors, issues no record of its activities, does not allow other Members to attend its meetings and does not make its minutes publicly available. If that body is to control what happens in the House and, more particularly, within other committees, it is only right that it does not act like a politburo but in an open and transparent way so that the public, the press and other Members can react to its activities. The Bill is compelled to address the subject by bypassing the Committee on Procedure and Privileges because of the deeply secretive nature of its activities. I ask the House to allow us, as a committee, to appoint a parliamentary inspector to fill the gaps that may be left in legislation by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Any guidelines should be set by a body that is not the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which is totally and rigidly politically controlled, but by the Working Group of Committee Chairmen. This means less interference in the powers of the Committee of Public Accounts. I ask the House to recognise the serious difficulties in which we find ourselves and the frustration and the obstacles put in our way by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and lawyers, and give us the powers to compel witnesses.

Before I put the question, I take serious objections to the serious allegations the Deputy has made about the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which is an all-party committee and includes representatives from the Independent Members. The committee has not discussed the matter, but it has been advised officially that we are not empowered to deal with the issue and has sought further information from the Committee of Public Accounts. It is wrong for the Deputy to use the occasion to stand up in the Chamber, under the protection of privilege, to make serious allegations that the members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges are acting in a political fashion, which is totally and utterly untrue. Nor are the officials operating in a political fashion. I take grave exception to any suggestion officials and members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges are preventing the Committee of Public Accounts from doing its job.

The committee has powers laid down in Standing Orders in this House and if the Deputy chooses to read those Standing Orders, he will see the powers it has. He should not come in here and make serious allegations accusing Members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of acting in a political fashion and suggesting the committee is politically controlled. I object strongly to this.

Is the Bill being opposed?

On a point of order, will the Ceann Comhairle open the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to the public or to other Deputies or Senators?

I ask the Deputy to resume his seat. He has made enough allegations against Members of the House, using the occasion to make political points.

The Chair dare not allow this. It is a secret and solid organisation.

I declare the motion for leave to introduce agreed.

It is a politburo.

That is outrageous, coming from the Deputy. I ask him to withdraw that remark. It is a serious accusation to make against members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges who are acting in accordance with Standing Orders. I ask the Deputy to withdraw that remark and not to play politics with this isue.

On a point of order, will the Ceann Comhairle make a ruling that the meetings do not have to be held in secret?

The Committee on Procedure and Privileges has always conducted its meetings properly and all parties and Independent Deputies are represented at it. I suggest the Deputy should talk to his representative who is an Independent Deputy on the committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.

It is a serious abuse of privilege. That is all it is.