Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announces Government approval for comprehensive statutory framework for Oireachtas inquiries
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Mr. Brendan Howlin T.D. today announced the Government has approved the drafting of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2012.
On welcoming the decision Minister Howlin stated:-
“I am pleased that the Government has approved my legislative proposals for a comprehensive statutory framework for inquiries by the Oireachtas.The Government’s Decision to commence drafting of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2012, marks an important step in the process of enhancing the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in securing accountability through investigations into matters of significant public importance
The Minister also highlighted that his legislative proposals were drafted in close consultation with the Office of the Attorney General in order to ensure that they fully respected the constitutional parameters on parliamentary inquiries set down by the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case.
The Bill will provide for Oireachtas to undertake inquiries (outside their normal day-to-day functions) under five principal categories:
“Inquire Record and Report” style inquiries whose major function would be simply to record and report evidence and making findings of uncontested facts in particular with a view to establishing a factual narrative of particular events;
“Forward-looking” inquiries which would be empowered to make findings of fact in the context of investigations relating to the legislative functions of the House(s);
Inquiries relating to the removal of certain office holders as provided for in Article 12.10 (President), Article 33.5 C&AG) or Article 35 (Judges of Supreme and High Court) of the Constitution, or arising from legislation relating to the removal of other judges;
Inquiries in relation to the conduct of a Member of the House(s);
Inquiries and make findings of fact for the purpose of holding the current Government to account under Article 28.4 of the Constitution.
Under the proposed legislation responsibility is assigned exclusively to the Houses of the Oireachtas to determine the requirement for a formal inquiry, the terms of reference of that inquiry and the procedural and organisational aspects of the inquiry.
This is achieved under the proposed Bill by making provision for a ‘gateway’ mechanism requiring the Ceann Comhairle of Dail Eireann and / or the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad as appropriate, following consultations with the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, any relevant Minister as well as any other relevant parties, to evaluate proposals for an inquiry and report to the House(s) with his or her views and proposals as to how the matter should be progressed or not.
This will help ensure, for example, that a proposed inquiry is necessary in terms of the objectives of the legislation, to facilitate the development of clear and focused terms of reference, to pre-empt overlapping or duplicative inquiries and to determine what issues may be appropriate for inquiry by different committees.
The Minister said:-
It was a particular priority in drafting these legislative proposals to reflect the serious concerns signalled in the course of last year’s referendum campaign to allow the Oireachtas carry out full inquiries.
The proposals therefore provide extensive safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of witnesses, to confirm unfettered access to the Courts, to guarantee fair procedures and ensure the risk of any perception of bias in an inquiry committee is minimised – a significant constitutional issue highlighted in the Abbeylara case..
Notes for Editors
The Abbeylara case decided that Oireachtas Inquiries did not have power, in general, to make findings of fact adverse to the good name of any person who is not a Member of the Houses. However, there are many legitimate inquiries that the Houses can and should undertake which would not infringe the good name of private citizens or which are otherwise constitutionally permissible.
Following the defeat of the referendum to amend the Constitution to permit the Oireachtas to undertake full inquiries, the Minister obtained extensive legal advice from the Attorney General on the powers available to Oireachtas Committees to hold inquiries within the existing constitutional framework. The current Bill is the result of these consultations.
It is planned that the Bill will provides that the Ceann Comhairle and/or the Cathaoirleach, as appropriate, would notify and consult with the Committee on Procedures and Privileges and any other parties they consider necessary before reporting their views as to how the matter should be progressed to the House(s) concerned for a final decision by the House(s).
The proposed Bill will repeal the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997 but will provide a restatement of the immunities, privileges and powers contained in that Act while simplifying the process for invoking compellability powers;
It is intended that the Bill will also contain requirements on Oireachtas Committees to strictly observe fair procedures in the conduct of inquiries and make provisions in relation to the conduct of members of inquiry committees to avoid any perception of bias – a major concern in the Abbeylara case.
There are extensive provisions in relation to costs including provision for the Oireachtas Commission to prepare guidelines. The focus of the Bill is to provide for an application for costs where the good name of a witness is directly in issue.
In addition the Bill provides protection for confidential communication from members of the public who wish to draw wrongdoing to the attention of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas without having their identities disclosed. This is achieved through an express provision which provides for qualified privilege for private papers of Members, communications received in confidence by Members and for official documents of the Houses.
The Minister also announced his intention to forward the Bill to the Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee for its consideration and to send the Parts dealing with the private papers of Members, official records of the Houses and confidential communications with Members to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
31st October, 2012