Rule of Law in the European Union: Discussion

I remind members, guests and observers that their mobile phones must be switched off. It is not sufficient to leave them in silent mode, as they may interfere with the broadcasting equipment. We have received apologies for his absence from Deputy Seán Crowe.

There are two items for discussion on the agenda. First, the joint committee will hear an update on the rule of law in the European Union, about which a number of guests will talk. Second, we will continue our consideration of the Europe 2020 strategy.

I am delighted to welcome Mr. John Devitt from Transparency International Ireland and Dr. Miklós Ligeti from Transparency International Hungary. As members will recall, we are examining the issue of the rule of law which is a fundamental pillar of the European Union. We held a number of hearings on this topic during the summer and are keen to receive a briefing from Transparency International on its views of the rule of law throughout the Union.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way that he or she is identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I invite Mr. Devitt to address the committee.

Mr. John Devitt

I thank the joint committee for inviting us to address it on a very important topic. I am joined by Mr. Miklós Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International Hungary. He is a former member of the Hungarian civil service, having worked for the public prosecution service, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior. He has been working with Transparency International Hungary for the past two years.

I draw members' attention to correspondence we shared with the Hungarian ambassador in June this year highlighting our concerns about allegations and reports that the Hungarian Government had led what could be described as a campaign against civil society organisations, including the blacklisting of a number of organisations such as Transparency International, gay rights and women's rights groups in Hungary, as well as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. We copied the correspondence to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the former Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to alert them to our concerns. We are particularly anxious that the Irish Government address what we believe is an existential threat to a number of civil society organisations in Hungary and what we see as an attack on fundamental European Union values by a member state.

I am happy to join the discussion, however I will now hand over to Mr. Ligeti.

Thank you Mr. Devitt.

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of this esteemed committee, I am honoured to be invited to speak to this committee today. I have prepared a statement which has been circulated, I think it would be wise to refrain from reading it and I would be really honoured to respond to questions from members.

I know that Mr. Ligeti provided a briefing paper going through various organisations that are currently having difficulties on their setup. It would be useful if he gave members a flavour of the existing situation and then I will invite questions.

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

Thank you Chairman. My briefing paper describes how the Hungarian Government, relying on its overwhelming majority in parliament, which it successively gained during the national elections in 2010 and 2014 has deconstructed the edifice of checks and balances and built a de facto upper house of government via appointees throughout the system of Hungary.

I am a lawyer by education and a representative of a civil society organisation. I am here to address the political situation and what I believe is going far beyond the structure of powers in Hungary. It is about the core values of any society in the European Union, a basic value is that civil society organisations are autonomous institutions of a society not part of the government structure, not direct subordinates to any government or state organ. These organisations, one of which I represent, are expected by law and by all due requirements to give real time and reliable accounts of their financial situation, their resources and the way they obtain and use these resources. However, they have the privilege to be audited, examined and investigated in a lawful manner and the possibility to seek legal remedy to appeal against any step or measure taken by a government institution against them to a court, where a judge who is independent, impartial and unbiased has the sole right to address such complaints and resolve the issues. That is not the case in Hungary, unfortunately. Civil society is being harassed and this is a sad and disappointing conclusion that I have drawn. It is not the fact that we are being audited that makes us speak up against the government steps, it is the way it is being done. A government institution, which in the English translation is the Government Control Office is conducting a financial audit of our incomes and the way we manage our income and expenses. This audit is a discretionary measure directed by the government. There is no possibility to turn to a court or a judge to seek legal remedy against the government's excessive demands for documentary information of personal data which we are compelled to comply with by force of law and by extreme sanctions such as the suspension of tax identification number, which is a first step on a downward slope that ends in the erasure of state registries and the ceasing of the existence of these organisations.

In addition the Hungarian Government's financial audit stands on shaky ground and on questionable jurisdiction, but there is an ongoing criminal investigation instructed by the prosecution and done by the Hungarian criminal police into the NGOs in the country funded by Norwegian Government's civil society funding. Some 43 police officers - the number of police required to combat a middle sized drug gang in the country - appeared in the premises of civil society organisations which is a clear intention to comply with government needs and government authorities, and a search and seizure happened. Documents were taken. We do not know where these investigations are going to lead. The only source of information upon which the police criminal investigation stands is an individual complaint made by a politician from the Government party against a non-specified person for alleged embezzlement and misuse of public funds. This is the general framework of the situation of civil society in Hungary. I wonder if I should go further by describing not the political but the institutional setting of the country as regards the rule of law and the legal institutions.

I wish to draw the attention of the distinguished members of the committee that Transparency International Hungary, a member of the worldwide Transparency movement to oppose corruption globally, is really a non-partisan organisation with a mission to assess and audit the national government's anti-corruption performance in an unbiased manner. Transparency International, TI Hungary did so. During previous administrations, when the government comprised different political parties, socialist and liberal parties, TI Hungary voiced its deepest concerns and criticism because of the then government's lamentable and questionable contribution to the institutionalisation of corruption in the country. We have to admit to a high level of institutional corruption and only a marginal respect for the rights of the political opposition. This has always prevented democracy from flourishing in our country. The country does not really have a robust record of democracy. After the fall of communism there was a prospect and a consensus that the power of the new government, of whatever political nature, needs to be controlled by independent institutions and that the main branches of power - the legislature, the executive and the judiciary - needed to be separated.

The current Government first took office in 2010 and, as I already pointed out, it is relying on a two thirds majority in parliament. In the Hungarian context, with a two thirds majority in parliament, the constitution can be changed and there are no legal barriers to constitutionally prevent the government from going upfront and going on its own path. The current government broke this consensus. As I mentioned it is building an upper house, which is not a democratic upper house but comprises appointees and nominees who are getting public positions with often questionable professional careers but unquestionable political bias. With due respect to this esteemed committee's guidelines, that we were not to touch on individual issues or pending legal cases, I will not do so. There are concrete and not just abstract risks and perils coming from the new setting of powers in Hungary. Once, the constitutional court, one of the most esteemed constitutional bodies among the newly independent countries of the post-soviet area was the most robust check to control the parliament and government's steps in the legislative terrain.

While the constitutional court did a very good job, its role as a robust control factor has been eliminated through the partial rewriting of its jurisdiction and competence and the packing of the court with justices who previously sat in parliament as members of the governing parties and who had no intention of meeting the formal requirement of becoming a constitutional court assistant justice.

The government has used its parliamentary majority to introduce laws that virtually confiscate proprietary rights. In every society persons have the right to presume, without reference to their social, ethnic, religious or other origins, that their honestly achieved and fairly owned properties or business enterprises are protected by the authorities and law against arbitrary interference or intervention. That is not the case in Hungary. As the regrettable example of the decision to nationalise whole segments of the free markets in tobacco retail and the savings co-operative sectors show, the constitutional court was either unwilling or incapable of providing a virtual or real defence for the former owners of tobacco kiosk licences and the former stakeholders of savings co-operatives. These sectors of the economy were nationalised by law and the relevant licences redistributed, through an utterly questionable procedure, to entrepreneurs and individuals who were not market incumbents but new players. In many reported cases the individuals in question had extremely close ties to the government.

This is an example of the cronyism emerging in Hungary. I do not propose to go any further in citing individual cases. I simply wanted to demonstrate that packing courts and interfering with or influencing the functions and capacity of independent control institutions was not just an abstract threat to democracy. On the contrary, it is a truth that corruption kills democracy because in concrete individual cases no effective legal remedies are available.

We, that is, civil society organisations, face being blacklisted and labelled as promoters of foreign interests in different jurisdictions in exchange for funding from foreign sources. We are being audited in a procedure that was designed to audit the functions of government offices. Under this discretionary procedure, we do not have any possibility of seeking a review by a judge or going before the constitutional court. The only domestic instance in which we had a feeble chance of seeking a remedy was the ombudsman. When we addressed the matter to him, instead of taking legal steps and referring the case to the constitutional court - he is the last instance available for so doing - he simply wrote a letter to a member of the government, the Minister in the office of the Prime Minister who is the No. 2 in the Government, stating he had serious doubts about the legitimacy of the audits.

I do not know if I should broaden the discussion.

It would be useful to pause at this point. Before I ask members to put questions, I invite Mr. Devitt to comment.

Mr. John Devitt

To draw a comparison, what Transparency International Hungary and other civil society organisations face is a state audit which is commissioned by the Prime Minister. It is a little like the Taoiseach deciding to order an audit of Amnesty International or Transparency International in Ireland. The relevant organisations in Hungary do not have recourse to a judicial review and the audits can result in their having their tax numbers removed. If an audit makes findings that the tax authorities or the government believe justify this step, it will result in the organisation in question being shut down on the basis that it could no longer trade. The organisations that have been subject to this audit appear on a government blacklist that was leaked over the summer. They are all entities that have been embarrassing the government and, in its eyes, making trouble for it and include Transparency International, gay and lesbian rights groups, women's groups and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

There are some parallels between what is taking place in Hungary and developments in Russia. The Russian Government has stopped overseas funding to human rights organisations and organisations that continue to receive foreign funding must declare themselves as foreign agents. This has negative connotations in Russia as it is tantamount to declaring oneself a spy. In Hungary we are seeing a parallel move by the government which is effectively branding civil society organisations enemies of the state. All of the evidence we have seen thus far leads us to the conclusion that a crackdown on civil society organisations is under way, one which is contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union, the letter of the fundamental law and constitution of Hungary and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Irish Government should address this issue. We are aware that the ambassador of Hungary will address the joint committee on Thursday and I am sure members will put to him some of the questions arising from this discussion.

Members will be aware that a session with the Hungarian ambassador has been scheduled for Thursday. I have no doubt that we will hear his point of view on these matters. Members will then have an opportunity to raise directly with him the issues discussed at this meeting.

Mr. Ligeti referred to the rule of law and changes in legislation and referred to one case in which work was allocated to a private contractor. What is preventing the courts in Hungary from dealing with these issues in terms of their constitutional position and power?

We heard about a delay in the European Union becoming involved. I was a member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee for two years. In my experience the issue of governance frequently arose when European Union funding was being provided for developing countries. I distinctly remember raising the issue of governance in Kenya when €40 million was provided for that country in 2008-09 because the country was experiencing serious conflict. What action has the European Union taken to address the serious issues raised by Mr. Ligeti? What role does it have in these matters?

I welcome our guests. I have read up on the issues raised by them and it is clear that the Hungarian authorities are engaged in a series of frightening actions.

The tragedy is that Hungary is a beautiful country and its people can be very beautiful too. Its parliament is a spectacular building which is the pride and joy of the people of Budapest. I would encourage anyone who has not visited it to do so. We think of parliaments that have been the seats of democracy and of the democratic process, engagement and progression. When I see and hear Transparency International's contribution, however, and I think of our membership of the EU - all 28 of us all working together as a cohesive force - and how we develop policies around human rights, civil liberties and all the rest, it seems to me that the government, with its overall majority and its clear popularity, is fundamentally threatening a lot of what we thought the European Union was about. For example, we are speaking about the funding stream for Mr. Ligeti's organisation. I am not sure what the Norwegian organisation is or who funds it, why they were founded or what their purpose is, except that Transparency International Hungary is a recipient of it.

I see attacks on structures and political movements as well as attacks on groups such as the Roma. It is argued that the Roma should be segregated in the schooling system, but I have seen the Roma districts in Budapest myself and quite frankly they are already marginalised, with a lot of alcohol abuse and homelessness. I thought our collective aim was to engage and integrate with them, and there is money from the EU for this. It seems to be the opposite position in Hungary. We get worried when we see attacks on the media and legislation trying to control the media. We get very worried when we hear of the Jobbik party, a very strong right-wing party that is openly anti-Semitic. We are talking about all of these issues within the EU.

We have a homelessness problem here, but nobody at the moment is advocating that we arrest homeless people or forcibly move them on, which seems to be the policy in Hungary. We are about to have a referendum on marriage, which I hope will be successful. In Hungary they seem to be restricting marriage to being between a man and a woman. This flies against the general direction in which Europe is developing. It would worry me that a privileged status for churches is allegedly being invoked, particularly given our experience in Ireland of white Roman Catholic power in the past. Mr. Ligeti might explain it to me. We amended our Constitution not to give but to take away the particular status of the Roman Catholic church.

With regard to the debate about the premature retirement of judges, it seems to me that one's hair must stand on end when one thinks of 274 judges being retired prematurely at age 62, whereas in Ireland judges go on to whatever age. There is a very strong argument against ageism, particularly in the legal profession, where judges can accumulate vast experience and knowledge.

They are all the negatives that have been presented to us. What does frighten me - I did not really know about this - is the existence of far-right militias in Hungary. There is a suggestion that Jobbik has links with an outlawed Hungarian paramilitary guard group. We had our paramilitary groups here but we took them on. I understand there may be selective assassinations of Roma and others going on in Hungary. If all of that is happening, the key question I want to ask is what my colleague asked. We are a family of 28, and we have been making progress away from those negative things that have been brought to our attention in relation to the role of Hungary in the Union. I understand that quite a number of people have expressed dismay at and strong condemnation of what is happening in Hungary. Could Mr. Ligeti tell us whether he thinks the EU is moving fast enough? It has a three-stage approach - governments talking to governments, Commissioners talking to parliaments, and so on. How would he like us to speed it up? Does he have faith in the process? It seems to be very long and tortuous. How best would he advocate for us, as parliamentarians in Ireland, to engage in a positive way with parliamentarians in Hungary with a view to trying to get them on board the European family's programme, which seems to be completely the opposite of what they are pursuing?

I might play devil's advocate and question some of the propositions here for the sake of balance, and also to give the witnesses an opportunity to clarify things. I apologise for not hearing Mr. Ligeti's presentation; I am just reading the documentation, which I presume is more limited than the presentation was. I believe it is an unreasonable proposition that countries in Eastern Europe that have come out of Communist rule should become totally transparent democracies of a Western type overnight, given the limitations within Western democracies and given that there is human imperfection in every system and that even well-established Western democracies have flaws and corruption scandals occasionally. Is it not a reasonable assumption that a country in transition from totalitarian Communism and all that went with it into democracy or modernity is not going to be a model of perfection en route and that there are going to be some hangovers from the old way of thinking? Mr. Ligeti has presented a wonderful desktop analysis, but it is not practical in the real world. Is that a reasonable proposition?

The background paper by Mr. Ligeti contains a lot of wonderful generalities and concepts and it alleges corruption and malpractice. However, it does not itemise or detail these alleged incidences. I have a certain intuition or instinct that tells me two things: first, this is a country in transition - all is not well, and one must accept that reality; and second, Mr. Ligeti has presented us with broad generalities and a very blasé umbrella attack on a country without specifics. I am very aware of an issue raised by Deputy Byrne in relation to rights for people with different sexual orientations. Of course one is not happy that there are not fuller rights in this sphere, and of course it offends all our values, but think of the situation in Russia and so on. Are we applying a whole set of standards to this that are not realistic? Are we generalising and being alarmist here? How specific are these allegations? How many specific cases can Mr. Ligeti cite for us of actual corruption? With regard to many of the issues mentioned, such as parties accruing income to themselves, one could have the same discussion in any Western democracy, except Ireland, of course.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly. He has raised some interesting points, because some would say that perhaps in the haste to expand the EU back in the early 2000s we were remiss in ensuring that some of the states that joined were up to speed, not just in terms of bringing in the laws that the EU requires but also with regard to changing attitudes within those countries. Many people now say that the various chapters involved in joining the EU are complex and quite cumbersome, but they are there for a reason - perhaps because we have learned lessons from the last big enlargement.

The lessons include that it is not just about passing domestic laws to align them with EU laws but also about trying to change mindsets and ensuring the values we expect in EU membership are shared equally across all member states.

A question was raised about gay pride marches in Russia, but Hungary is in the European Union and we expect certain standards of member states. Unfortunately, in some instances, it appears that certain governments are not living up to these standards. I want to ask about the Roma. Last year, when Ireland held the Presidency of the European Council, the COSAC meeting took place in Dublin. We were lucky to have a speaker from the Hungarian Roma community who talked about some of the pressures Roma citizens, particularly Roma journalists, were subjected to in Hungary. Will the delegates let us know what the situation is like? It would be useful to hear about this.

Deputy Eric Byrne mentioned the fourth amendment concerning issues such as the privileged status of churches and the arrest of homeless persons. There is also the issue of students not being allowed to leave the country unless they pay off the student loans they owe. The Tavares report was debated by the previous European Parliament. Does Mr. Devitt expect the new European Parliament to revisit the matter and issue further opinions on the fourth amendment?

Mr. Devitt may not be able to answer everything, but he should at least try to address some of the questions raised. This would be useful for us in advance of our meeting with the ambassador on Thursday.

Mr. John Devitt

I will not attempt to answer most of the questions put to us. I should take some of the blame for the lack of detail in my colleague's presentation or briefing note for the committee.

I did not mean it in an insulting way.

Mr. John Devitt

Largely because the nature of the conversation would be partly qualified by legal privilege, I thought it was important for us to set the context of our conversation with the committee and to help it in addressing some of the concerns we have raised.

It takes time for any democracy to meet universal standards expected of it by the international community. Hungary has signed up to UN and EU instruments. It has fundamental law and a constitution, under which it guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. We do not believe, however, that it is respecting its own commitment to meet these standards. Just because it is a relatively new democracy does not mean that it is not obliged to meet the standards to which it has signed up and which it promised its own electorate it would live by. No country is a model of perfection, as we know through our own painful history. We will continue to find imperfections in our systems, but that does not mean that we should not highlight and address them.

I will leave it up to Mr. Ligeti to address some of the more detailed questions.

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

First, I have to make a disclaimer because I forgot to mention this in my opening remarks. I am not here to attack my country or government. I think of myself as a true patriot. My country is democratic and a great place in which to live. Civil society in any given country has a mission to strive to make its own country a better place and a better democracy, as well as helping people to achieve their aspirations and live a decent life. To quote Shakespeare - "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." but I did not come to bury the Hungarian Government. However, I do not want to assume the position of praising it either because, as a critical civil society organisation, I want to point to those instances where it should do better.

Members of the committee have raised the question of what the European Union has to do with this issue. I would be the last to say it should impose Article 7 against Hungary, suspend the country's voting rights or cease funding it. One must bear in mind that 98% of the foreign direct investment reaching the country comes from the EU Structural and Cohesion Funds. Stopping this flow of investment would condemn the country to starvation, which would be extremely bad for the population. Who am I to ask for any political or intergovernmental step to starve my own nation or make my own population suffer and feel bad? It is not a question of striving to get rid of the government in Hungary, rather it is to help it to understand there are certain rules and standards which it is required to meet and expected to live up to.

I have to admit that a number of civil society organisations find that the European Union has a questionable role in this process. That is because supposedly there are no adequate answers to these challenges, whereby one country, that is, a member of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, as well as being a signatory to a number of international anti-corruption and human rights agreements, is deviating from this trajectory and the government is taking it towards an eastern type of post-communist rule. We always try to urge EU member states, as well as parliamentarians and officials - I ask the committee to consider whether it could possibly do this - to persuade the Union at an organisational level to find the key balance between Article 7 and funding a country with reservations. The Hungarian Government seems to have an inclination to perpetuate its power based on EU funding.

I turn more specifically to committee members' questions. Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of the ordinary law courts. In Hungary it is understood courts of law are not entitled to revise legislation issued either by the parliament or the government from a constitutional perspective. They are there to implement the law in individual cases. It is up to the parliament, from a political viewpoint, to decide whether laws meet constitutional requirements and are in line with standards enshrined in European law or in keeping with domestic constitutional traditions. Parliaments are political bodies that vote draft Bills and other instruments into law. Ultimately, the constitutional court will decide. Ordinary law courts may refer cases on a pending legal procedure to the constitutional court, seeking a revision or an opinion on certain constitutional aspects of the laws they are supposed to implement. This has happened many times. Even after being packed with questionable personalities, the constitutional court issued a number of decisions which were unpleasant for the government. However, the government used its regulatory power to rewrite the constitution on a daily basis and shrink the jurisdiction of the constitutional court to prevent it from issuing an opinion or revising laws on taxation, social contributions and public revenue matters, unless humanitarian issues were touched on.

I must stress firmly that the law courts are independent in our country. We have no evidence to indicate that in given individual legal proceedings a judge or law court showed partiality or bias towards the government's cause.

Their decisions are independent, impartial and unbiased. Of course, there are quality problems with the Hungarian judiciary. Cases were not rendered in a timely manner and sometimes the equal opportunities of clients were called into question, but no political influence was exercised in individual decisions of law courts, at least not to the extent that civil society could perceive it. We believe the law courts are the last line of defence and rely on their adjudications and deliberations.

Deputy Eric Byrne enumerated several issues which, one by one, go far beyond the scope of what I can address. Of course, there are several concerns, including the situation of the Roma population, media attacks, criminalising homelessness or certain human behaviours linked with underprivileged or homeless persons and the emergence of an understanding that the Roman Catholic group of churches should have prominence in public issues. There are many issues on which Transparency International, the organisation I am representing, has nothing to say because it is an anti-corruption organisation.

I draw the attention of the committee to a matter that partly reflects the comments of Deputy Joe O'Reilly. It is not necessarily the content of the laws voted on by the Hungarian Parliament that pose a problem or have questionable outcomes. Sometimes there are specific restrictions on individual human rights, but the process at the end of which these laws are introduced, adopted and voted is questionable. For instance, the fundamental law of the country, that is, the Hungarian constitution, was adopted by an opaque procedure. Virtually no one knows who drafted the text of the constitution. It is called a one-party constitution not only by the political opposition but also by human rights organisations and deemed to primarily reflect the needs and ideas of the governing political force of the country. The constitution which was supposed or expected to be a long-lasting modern constitution of an emerging new democracy has already been amended five times, not only from a technical point of view. As the Chairman pointed out, the fourth amendment brings to constitutional level several ordinary legal questions simply to prevent the constitutional court of Hungary from ruling further on certain issues. In the Hungarian understanding, if something is written in the constitution, the constitutional court is prevented from rendering it null and void on the basis that it is unconstitutional. The understanding is that the text of the constitution cannot be unconstitutional. Even the Council of Europe Venice Commission raised a concern stating the consistent pattern to constitutionalise ordinary legal regulations was undemocratic in how things were dealt with in my country.

Please forgive me if I am not covering all of the concerns raised by members. I am keen to take the opportunity given to me by Deputy Joe O'Reilly to further articulate my concerns and points. The background paper provided for the committee is rather general, with a top-down approach in highlighting only a number of key issues.

I am reluctant to say that, as civil society representatives, we should call for patience in respect of our government simply because Hungary has a hard and demanding historical background. It does not have a long track record of democracy, owing to our sad and sometimes disappointing history and communism. We do not expect immediate and overnight change from a totalitarian regime to a full western-type democracy, for such an entity only lives in the imaginations of people who have never lived in western countries. What we expect as true patriots - we are true patriots - is that our country or government will not change the trajectory of governance of the country which, at one stage, was set to take our society closer to a western-type democracy in which public decisions would be reached using the common wisdom of society in an inclusive manner and in which discretionary decisions, preferential legislation and regulations and questionable enrichment would be the exception rather than the rule. We have several specific individual corruption cases which I have deliberately not addressed in front of this esteemed committee because this is not a courtroom. There are cases of questionable enrichment due to excessive access to public contracts on behalf of government friends. Our government concluded a contract with Russia's President Putin for a major government loan from Russia to develop a new nuclear power plant in the country. Although the government had full indemnity and authorisation from the parliament to do so, this was an opaque issue and the amount of money involved, €10 billion, was unimaginable in an Hungarian context. A public debate on the issue would have been much appreciated by many members of society because it represented a major exposure to a country that had ruled our country for many years and from which we were happy to be freed only 25 years ago.

As the representative of a anti-corruption organisation, I am hardly entitled - certainly I do not feel entitled - to cover issues to do with the Roma, homelessness and religious groups. However, I will offer one last remark on the laws on churches and religious groups. One of the greatest achievements of the country was that religious groups which had been badly oppressed during communist rule were given the privilege of being registered by the courts. This involved a judicial decision to register a group of people as belonging to a church. Why is this important? It is important because judges are independent. The government accused several unspecified religious groups of being business churches which used the characteristics of being a church only to gain tax exemptions. This may be true and it is a serious accusation, but no government, police or criminal investigation followed. Instead a new law followed the accusation stating the registration of churches was to be removed from the courts to parliament, from a judicial to a political decision. Certain religious groups in the family of Christianity which engaged in a delicate social mission such as caring for homeless persons or providing prison pastoral care were denied on a political basis the possibility of registration as a church. This occurred because the parliament could not make a finding on a decision outside the sphere of political terrain; parliaments are political bodies.

I apologise for idly picking on certain issues, but committee members raised so many important questions. I am happy to answer further specific questions which I provoked with my scattered answers.

We will have a quick question from Deputy Joe O'Reilly. I understand the doctor has a flight to catch. We said we would have him out by 3 p.m.

It will literally take 30 seconds. I realise it is not included in his brief and that Mr. Ligeti has stated he works for an anti-corruption body, but will he enlighten us on how the homelessness law works in practice? Was the deal with Mr. Putin and Russia not born out of necessity rather than desire? Was there a choice in that case?

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

I will make one point in addressing the question on homelessness.

It is disturbing-----

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

When this law was drafted, I was working for the Ministry of Interior as a government employee, and I was personally involved in the drafting of this law. It was against my will, but as a civil servant I had to obey rules. I want to put this forward to make clear that I have a special involvement in this particular issue, while I must also say that I do not believe criminal law is the tool to be used to tackle the issue of homelessness. The law on criminalising homelessness was found unconstitutional by the constitutional court and was later lifted in the constitution, but it was then revised. The text now states that in specified areas of major towns where the municipality decides that begging and homelessness are not welcome, a harsh sanction may be attached to such unlawful behaviours, including incarceration in the last instance. This is a personal statement and is not made in my capacity as a representative of Transparency International Hungary, because TI Hungary has virtually nothing to do with homelessness. In our individual capacity we feel for homeless people, but this is beyond TI's capacity. I hope that was a clear statement.

As for the agreement with Russia, it is at the discretion of any government to conclude any deal with foreign governments which they believe to be in the interests of the country. However, in a democratic European country, it is required that agreements which expose the country and the population as taxpayers to an immense financial burden be publicly debated and that consultation take place. I do not mean that a plebiscite must be organised to legitimate every single international agreement, but the €10 billion loan from Russia seems to be money with no strings attached, whereas the funding from European Union resources comes with requirements to live up to democracy, human rights and the idea that we have in Europe a common era of freedom, security and justice.

In the interests of transparency, could Mr. Ligeti explain to me about the Norwegian foundation that was funding, part-funding or contributing to the funds of Transparency International? What is its fundamental function and role?

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

It is a government resource that finances civil society in Hungary. Norway civil society grants are Norwegian public money, flowing through the hands of civil society organisations which act as grant operators in our country. A consortium of four Hungarian civil society organisations operate the Norwegian NGO funds. Their mission is to enhance and promote democracy, equal opportunities, and the rights of vulnerable groups in society - for example, by protecting the rights of Roma and other minorities and helping to promote equal opportunities for females. This funding, however, is money from a foreign government - it is not the money of the Hungarian Government - so it is not public money in Hungary. It is operated by civil society organisations. There is much to say on this topic, and if I have five minutes to take from the time of this esteemed committee, I-----

We have our next session's guests-----

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

I understand.

Could Mr. Ligeti send an e-mail to the committee on that issue and answer the question in writing? I will ensure it is circulated, but I am conscious that we have a number of guests outside who were due to appear before the committee at 3 o'clock, so we must press on.

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

One last sentence, Chairman.

Mr. Miklós Ligeti

I will write extensively to the committee on this issue later. The police raids and the unfriendly and hostile government audits of the operation and allocation of Norwegian civil society funding served as an excuse, and a questionable legal ground, to start a harassment campaign against those civil society organisations and NGOs which are recipients of such financial resources. These organisations - 13 of them, including TI Hungary - are virtually blacklisted and have been accused of being a tool for embezzlement and misuse of public funding. This is because this money was intended to enhance civil society and democracy, whereas the organisations receiving the funds are, from a government viewpoint, clearly not enhancing civil society and doing a job for democracy but representing the interests of foreign governments in exchange for funding. I do not know how clear I was, but the Hungarian Government virtually suggests that allocating Norwegian civil society funding to those very recipients in Hungary that receive the funding is in itself an embezzlement, because it is an arbitrary re-purposing or re-channelling of money intended for civil society to politically biased opposition-leaning organisations. This is my closing remark, and I am grateful to be here.

We are very grateful that Mr. Ligeti has attended the committee today, and I thank him for his time. I also thank Mr. Devitt for attending the committee. Before we suspend the session, I remind members and guests that we will be having a further session on the rule of law this Thursday, attended by the Hungarian ambassador, so we can continue our conversation on this issue.

Sitting suspended at 3.07 p.m. and resumed at 3.14 p.m.