I retabled this amendment on the Report Stage in the hope that, having had a month to think this over, the Minister may be able to give us somewhat more satisfactory interpretations and assurances than we got the last day and, if he does not accept the amendment, at least he may be able to allay some of the fears we entertain about the use that can be made of this section.
The first thing I hope the Minister in his reply will be able to clarify for us is the position about boards—what boards are subject to the Official Secrets Bill and what are not. We went around the mulberry bush on the Committee Stage. At one point, Bord Bainne appeared to be subject to it and at another point it did not. The best way the Minister can elucidate the dividing line to be drawn between boards which get their funds wholly from State support and other boards is by means of concrete examples.
I hope that in the month that has elapsed the Minister has had the opportunity of reviewing the structure of our leading boards and so deciding whether or not they fall within the ambit of this measure. Such lack of precision is very dangerous in a Bill of this sort. We waited 40 years for this Bill without any ill effects and with only one prosecution in all that time. One would think the opportunity would be taken to scrutinise whether this Bill is likely to be used in connection with boards.
I am concerned in this amendment with protecting, especially, commissions. The commission is the most valuable instrument of inquiry we have in a democratic State. It is something apart from Government machinery and apart from the Civil Service inquiry. It is composed of independent citizens outside Government and Civil Service circles. They sit and take evidence and bring in their findings. Up to this, these commissions have been treated with the same respect as such commissions are treated in all democratic countries and there was a feeling that they were independent of ministerial control. Occasionally it has been suggested—I do not think that it has been established—that there have been some links in the background. I do not accept that, but it has been charged that as regards various commissions there has been that type of hidden control.
Now the Minister is coming into the open with this terrifying power of certifying what is official information and the power to bring members of commissions before a court under which they are liable to either a penalty of up to £100 or six months' imprisonment, or both. Since the last meeting, I have checked with many people both here and elsewhere who have sat on commissions. Such penalties or such dire threats are unheard of in England and the type of English independent expert and public-spirited citizen who condescends to spend his time, free, gratis and for nothing except for travelling expenses, sitting on a commission would not sit on such a commission if he were subjected to threats such as are being issued under this Bill. It would be regarded as altogether beneath the dignity of such independent citizens to be told that they themselves did not know their place and did not know what was confidential information without having the Minister to certify it and without having to drag them through the courts.
I cannot see the reason for this provision. There has not been any claim by anyone in either House that commissions have in any way abused their powers in the 40 years we have had self-government. On the contrary, the public-spiritedness and devotedness of members has been commented on and appreciated by all. Why then should this sword hang over their heads in the future? What have they done in the past to deserve this? From other sources, there are revelations of official secret information. Those sources are not included in this Bill. Every other day we read in the papers of the confidential happenings within the Board of Telefís Éireann. We know exactly whom they are considering for various posts. We had in the Sunday papers photographs and details of the candidates being considered for the post of Director General. Similarly in the case of the post of Controller of Programmes, we have had information coming forth as to who are being considered and how they are placed. Where is that coming from? Why does the Minister not concern himself with blocking these leakages of information that should not be leaked and information that would not be leaked by any self-respecting member of any commission that was ever appointed here?
That is why I want to protect commissions here. There is no need to protect the Civil Service from the effects of the Official Secrets legislation. First of all, the decision whether to prosecute or not is with their colleagues in the same Department and a lesser penalty can be brought in by the Minister concerned. He can stop an increment or reprimand a person. He can do any one of those things to show his displeasure with what has been done and then the decision rests with him as to whether to hand it over to the courts or not.
There is no such protection for the citizen who is outside the Civil Service. He is automatically prosecuted or he is not, and, as the Minister told us in his reply on Committee Stage, certification resides solely with the Minister and it is a certification that is not ruled on until the matter comes to court level. In other words, it may be ten or 20 years after the commission sat that some Minister has to pore through the files of the report of the commission and attach his signature to a certificate to the effect that some piece of information that is in question is official information. That is a deplorable situation, a situation in which no member of any Commission could have any confidence in the future because at some time or another someone might use this Bill, when it is an Act, to bring him through the courts.
There has been only one case in 40 years and it was a disgrace to our State. A highly respected man was brought through the courts on a flimsy charge, and when the document was finally exposed before the court, the judge threw it out, but the whole of the proceedings cost the unfortunate man a couple of thousand pounds. He had no means whatsoever of recouping that money. If you are dragged through the courts, win, lose or draw, you are the loser because you have to pay all the legal expenses involved.
That being the case, we should at least let the commissions be masters in their own house, and leave them to decide, at their final sitting, or at some late sitting, what information is to be held secret, and whether it should be held secret for three, five or ten years, or whatever the period may be. In effect, they make that decision in any case with regard to most of the material, because they write a report and they include in the report the evidence which they decide to submit to the Minister for publication. I submit that in that way they have already made a decision on what material is to be published, that there is nothing in their view prejudicial to the interests of the parties who have given evidence, and nothing to prevent its being published.
They make that decision. Why not let them decide also on the further items that are not considered to be sufficiently important to be published? There are two classes: that which is not sufficiently important to be published, and that which by its very nature must be regarded as confidential. Why not let them draw the dividing line between the two, so that members will know where they stand, rather than consign that work to some obscure part of the Minister's office to be dragged forth in ten, 20 or 30 years' time for the sake of a prosecution of a member of a commission? I think that is altogether wrong.
If the Minister takes the standpoint he was going to use, that boards wholly remunerated by the State should come under this, surely there is no remuneration at all for most commissions? If members of boards should be exempted from the operation of the Official Secrets Act, due to the fact that all their income does not come from the State, is the case not inevitably stronger for the exemption of the unpaid members of commissions who show their good citizenship by spending hours on such a thankless task as sitting on commissions?
I appeal to the Minister to clarify the points I have raised so that we will at least know where we stand. I appeal to the Minister to accept this very reasonable amendment which is only a poor substitute for the proposed deletion of commissions from the scope of the Official Secrets Act altogether. Since we failed to do that, let us at least pass this amendment and thereby protect commissions. Why should we impose on commissions penalties which are not imposed on commissions sitting anywhere west of the Iron Curtain? Why should we do that, especially since no one has come forward to say that there has been any abuse of confidence by any commission in our 40 years' experience? Why then are we chasing this phantom of leakages that might occur?
If 40 years of self-government have shown that our commissions are trustworthy, and in line with other democratic States—and our new State has been able to rise to the heights and has been able to have trustworthy commissions—why now should we seek to degrade these commissions by saying: "You have behaved properly in the past, but we will see to it that if you do not respect confidences in the future, we will have a £100 fine or six months in prison awaiting you"? I cannot see any self-respecting person serving on a commission if we are so to degrade them.