Dáil Éireann - Volume 435 - 03 November, 1993

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Confidentiality of Parliamentary Questions.

1. Mr. Deasy asked the Taoiseach the Government's view on the concept of confidentiality, relating to material contained in answers to parliamentary questions, where there is a reasonable time span between the tabling of the question, and it being answered.

The Taoiseach: Parliamentary questions are submitted by Members seeking information and are replied to accordingly.

Given that information can be sought other than by way of reply to parliamentary questions there has never been a rule or practice, in any Government Department, stating that information contained in a reply to a parliamentary question is confidential until the question has been replied to.

Mr. Deasy: I categorically deny what the Taoiseach said. When I was [843] appointed Minister for Agriculture I specifically remember that one of the first items of information conveyed to me by the Secretary of the Department was that when a parliamentary question was tabled, its subject matter could not be released to any other Deputy or a member of the public.

An Ceann Comhairle: I want to help the Deputy to elicit information but we must proceed by way of supplementary questions.

Mr. Deasy: I know it is not bound by law but it was the Protocol and I would have assumed that it would be maintained. I gather from a number of other senior Ministers that they were under the same impression.

An Ceann Comhairle: This is not appropriate at Question Time.

Mr. Deasy: Will the Taoiseach agree that it defeats the purpose of the question and of Question Time, if good news resulting from the tabling of the question is leaked to Government backbenchers who immediately communicate it to the individual Deputy or the media? Will the Taoiseach agree that that undermines parliamentary democracy?

The Taoiseach: I have listened with interest to what Deputy Deasy said. I made inquiries with many Departments in relation to whether such a Protocol or practice existed and that includes the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, to which Deputy Deasy referred. They confirmed the position as they and, indeed, my Department see it, namely, that that was and always has been the case. If such a rule existed it would be contrary to the right of all Governments, which successive Governments have reserved to themselves, to announce matters of public interest or public policy in a way that a Government deems appropriate. If one were to accept what Deputy Deasy said it would cut [844] across totally what all Governments have adhered to.

Mr. Deasy: I did not use the word “rule”, I said Protocol, etiquette. I realise there cannot be a hard and fast rule and that it cannot be legalised but it undermines the whole basis of Question Time if the reply to one's question is leaked to members of the Government parties in advance of the question being answered. That is common sense and the practice that existed should be adhered to.

The Taoiseach: As I understand it, the problem that has arisen with Deputy Deasy and one which has been before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges arises from a question put down in September when the Dáil was in recess. If one were to accede to what Deputy Deasy says should be the practice, it would follow that any information in relation to questions put down during the summer recess could never be used or made available by the Government until such a question was answered when the Dáil resumed. It just would not work in practice. We are not addressing a question of confidentiality but a claim by a Deputy that he is entitled to the privilege of that information if he puts down a question, which has not been the practice.

Mr. Deasy: I do not know if the Taoiseach has read the question in full.

An Ceann Comhairle: I was hoping to call other Deputies also.

Mr. Deasy: It says “where there is a reasonable time span”. The specific question about which I complained to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges was tabled on 9 September for answer on 6 October. I would regard that as a reasonable time span. I could well understand the Taoiseach's misgivings if a period of several months was involved but we are only talking about a little over three weeks, the normal period for answering a question.

[845] An Ceann Comhairle: I am concerned that we are proceeding now by way of argument and debate. This is not appropriate to Question Time.

The Taoiseach: I am informed that the question that was said to be put down on 9 September arrived in the Dáil office on 14 September. However, it is not for me to get into that argument. I would certainly like to be more generous to Deputy Deasy on my birthday in relation to a reply to his question but I am afraid that my hands are tied.

Mr. Deasy: I may have caught the Taoiseach out on his birthday.

The Taoiseach: The Deputy is catching others out, not me.

A Deputy: The Taoiseach must have been a hairy minor.

The Taoiseach: I certainly feel a lot less than 61 today.

Mr. Flanagan: I do not wish to interrupt the festivities and the ceremonies that the Taoiseach might be engaging in on his birthday but in reference to the question and in view of the obvious difficulty that has been expressed, not only by Deputy Deasy but by other Deputies in the House, is he prepared to make an unambiguous statement that in his capacity as Chairman of the Cabinet he will ensure certain privileges are accorded to the status of a parliamentary question? Is he prepared to accept that it is now common practice within Government Departments that the information in reply to a parliamentary question will, in effect, be divulged to a Member other than the Member who tables the question some days in advance of the question appearing on the Order Paper?

The Taoiseach: I totally reject what Deputy Flanagan says, namely, that there is widespread complaint among Deputies. I am not aware that any other Deputy made a complaint in this regard. I will uphold the practice and the tradition [846] that already exists and which I spelled out quite clearly here today. That is the position.

Deputy J. O'Keeffe rose.

An Ceann Comhairle: I will not remain unduly long on this question. All the questions on the Order Paper are of equal importance to the Ceann Comhairle.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Does the Taoiseach accept that the trend complained of here is part of a wider trend whereby the Dáil is becoming more and more irrelevant and that, in fact, announcements are no longer being made in this House and are more likely to be made outside it? Will the Taoiseach accept that this trend is a dangerous one and that from the point of view of parliamentary democracy — and the basis of our system is parliamentary democracy — this trend should be reversed and primacy given to the affairs of the State in this House as far as possible?

An Ceann Comhairle: We are now having an extension of this question.

The Taoiseach: Deputy O'Keeffe will agree that the present practice is exactly the same as that which pertained under previous Governments. Successive Governments have always held the right to decide the most appropriate time and the forum in which to make public announcements. Of course, Deputy O'Keeffe will remember that one of the most important announcements of all time was the declaration of an Irish Republic and that was not even made in the country, let alone in this House.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick East): The Taoiseach is going back as far as 1949, he is getting there.

Ms McManus: As somebody relatively new to the House this debate has clarified something that was a mystery to me until now. I also have a complaint, a reply to a parliamentary question put down by me was made available to somebody else [847] before I received it. Is the Taoiseach interested in getting the details because I was astonished that information I had sought through the proper channels had been made available to another person?

Surely the fact that somebody from another House can obtain material in this way is extraordinary. Surely the Taoiseach would take that point on board — that we are conducting business according to the book and it is up to the Government to ensure that its response is conducted equally according to the book?

The Taoiseach: Deputy McManus can take it from me that we are conducting our business according to the book and are not deviating from it. I want to repeat that there is no question of confidentiality, or indeed, to be more precise, of privilege attaching to information. It is as I have stated and I have nothing further to add. But I will be as helpful as I can to any Member who may have any complaint. I might remind Members that there is also the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to which they can resort whenever they have any such complaint.

Miss Harney: First, may I extend birthday greetings to the Taoiseach? I hope he enjoys his birthday.

Would the Taoiseach say whether he has been able to inquire — which he promised some weeks ago he would do — into how a company that was the subject of a parliamentary question in the House tabled by Deputy Rabbitte two weeks ago had the information in relation to the question within a day or so of the question having been tabled? The Taoiseach told the Deputy two weeks ago that he would investigate how that had happened. Would he say whether he has concluded his investigation?

An Ceann Comhairle: We are now ranging from the general to the particular.

Miss Harney: I am sorry. It is in [848] relation to the confidentiality of questions submitted, a Cheann Comhairle. The Taoiseach did say that he would investigate the matter. Would he say whether he has concluded his investigation?

An Ceann Comhairle: I would prefer that a specific question were tabled in respect of that matter.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: That is the Taoiseach's nemesis now.

Miss Harney: A Cheann Comhairle, I am sorry. It is a matter about the confidentiality of questions and I think it is perfectly in order.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair decides these matters, Deputy Harney. I have advised the Deputy that if she is raising a particular matter I would respectfully suggest that she put down a question to that effect.

Miss Harney: I am sure, a Cheann Comhairle, that the question would be ruled out of order. Can the Taoiseach tell us whether he has concluded his investigations? If he has concluded his investigations why would he not want to tell us?

The Taoiseach: The Taoiseach will not be disorderly when somebody else has been declared to be disorderly by the Chair.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick East): Anyway, he does not remember the incident; he always says that but forgets about it.

The Taoiseach: Is the Deputy enjoying his short stay sitting there?

(Interruptions.)

An Ceann Comhairle: Order, please, Deputies.

Mr. McCormack: This is very important to the overall matter of Question Time. Would the Taoiseach not agree [849] that if we do not get satisfactory answers to this, it will have an effect overall on Question Time? I myself raised such a matter on several occasions within the term of the last Dáil when we had a famous Minister of State at the Department of Education whose answers to my parliamentary questions appeared in the Connacht Tribune the week before being answered in the House, although he is not now in the House——

Mr. Shatter: He must have got some rotten answers.

Mr. McCormack: Perhaps that is an omen to be noted by others using this system. Would it not have a serious effect on Question Time overall if this practice were allowed to continue? Would the Taoiseach not agree that it should be a matter of honour, not of rules or anything else, for the Minister or Minister of State concerned in responding to parliamentary questions at Question Time not to divulge or misuse information garnered in his file for replying to parliamentary questions?

The Taoiseach: I think the Deputy must not have listened to what I said earlier, which was that there is no such practice. The Deputy said “if this practice were allowed to continue”. In this respect I must point out to him that what we are doing is what has always been done, as I have stated quite clearly. I have checked with many Departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, because I thought that Deputy Deasy, having been a former Minister, might have been under that impression also. I am stating here what all of the Departments I have checked with have said to me — that there is no question of confidentiality or privilege attaching to information sought in a parliamentary question. If Members want to take that a stage further they should take it to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Taoiseach is presiding over low standards.

Mr. Deasy: A Cheann Comhairle——

[850] An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Deasy, I have allowed some wide discretion on this question. We must have a very brief supplementary question.

Mr. Deasy: I would ask the Taoiseach and you, a Cheann Comhairle, to ensure that the status of this House is not diminished by what is a very shoddy practice if it is allowed to continue. Would the Taoiseach please give us an undertaking that he will not allow leaks while a parliamentary reply is in abeyance?

The Taoiseach: I will give this House the undertaking that the practice which has prevailed under successive Governments will be upheld by me.