Dáil Éireann - Volume 459 - 14 December, 1995

Select Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann: Motion.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment (Ms E. Fitzgerald): I move:

(1) That, pursuant to the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, a Select Committee of Dáil Éireann, which shall be called the Select Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann, be appointed to perform the functions conferred on it by that Act.

(2) That the Select Committee consist of five members to be nominated by the Committee of Selection.

(3) That the quorum of the Select Committee be three.

(4) That the Select Committee, previous to the commencement of business, shall elect one of its members to be chairman, who shall have only one vote.

(5) That all questions in the Select Committee shall be determined by a majority of votes of the members present and voting and in the event of there being an equality of votes, that the question shall be decided in the negative.

(6) That, in the absence from a particular meeting of the Select Committee of a member, another member of Dáil Éireann, nominated by the party [1703] or group within the meaning of Standing Order 90 to which the absent member belongs, may take part in the proceedings and vote in his stead.

(7) That, subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance, the Select Committee shall have the power to engage the services of persons with specialist or technical knowledge to assist it in its consideration of any matter comprehended by the provisions of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995.

(8) That the first meeting of the Select Committee be held on Wednesday, 10 January, 1996.

(9) That no document received by the clerk to the Select Committee shall be withheld, withdrawn or altered without the knowledge and approval of the Committee.

We debated the Ethics in Public Office Bill, 1995, in detail and this motion is the final piece of the jigsaw. Under the Constitution this House regulates its affairs and the proposed Select Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann will deal with the interests of Members. It will offer guidance to Members on the provisions of the Act, particularly the Second Schedule which deals with registerable interests, and investigate complaints about Members. It is being given the powers conferred on other committees under the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1995, and will be required to act in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

The committee will be empowered to engage people with the relevant specialist or technical knowledge to assist it in the consideration of any matter. For example, it will be able to obtain legal advice if it deems it necessary. The committee represents the Members of the House and it will discharge its duties in a fair and impartial way. It will work for the benefit of Members and the public whom we serve.

[1704] Mr. Connolly: On the proposal to nominate five members to the committee, I presume these will represent the five main political parties. I am open to correction but it appears the Independent Deputies will not be represented on the committee. Regardless of what people may think, we have always tried to ensure a balance in terms of the representation of parties in the House. If the Independent Deputies believe they should be represented on the committee, my party has no objection to such a proposal.

We have discussed this issue in detail in the last two years and I will not repeat the points made. However, I would like to know when the order will be brought into operation and at what stage Members will be compelled to make a declaration of interests. I hope this will not happen for some time as this is a complex issue. During the debate on the Ethics in Public Offices Act, 1995, Deputies on this side of the House requested the Minister to publish a booklet setting out the details in regard to this matter. A document was published during the summer recess but it did not set out in detail the interests which must be declared. Will the Minister give further consideration to this. The trustees of GAA, soccer and rugby clubs must declare their interests even though they may be of no material benefit to members. I hope this order will not be brought into operation for some time.

It is proposed to hold the first meeting of the committee on Wednesday, 10 January 1996. I have no problem with this date but I hope Members will not be required to make a declaration before 1 April next year. The format of the declaration can be decided by the committee which may have to get legal or other advice on the operation of the Act. Members of both Houses want to make proper declarations to ensure there is no controversy or debate afterwards because they omitted to declare a particular interest. It is important that the order is not brought into operation immediately as decisions will have to be [1705] taken on how the returns will be made, the format etc. A booklet setting out in simple form the interests which must be declared by Members should be published by the Minister as early as possible in the New Year.

In conclusion, if any Member overlooks making a return on a certain issue, it could be fatal, particularly at election time. That is why I hope the Minister agrees that the date by which returns must be made should be extended. The select committee will then deal with this and all other relevant matters.

Mr. M. McDowell: I have said enough, possibly far too much, about this procedure. It is important that the committee is representative of every group in the House and that has been taken on board. It would have been difficult for any group to come before a jury composed of politically hostile or competitive Members. As Deputy Connolly suggested, the involvement of all Members in a consultative process, so they know what they are doing and are briefed as to what is required of them, is crucial. It would be a pity if, through an inadvertent error, a person was put in a bad light by this process.

I normally take the view that if we are to do something we might as well do it quickly but Deputy Connolly has suggested that there be a suitable lead in time for people to sort out their affairs. Knowing how much pressure is put on Members to do various things, especially at this time of the year, the timeframe he suggested is not unreasonable.

I have heard rumours, not in but about this House, that some Members of the Oireachtas will not under any circumstances make a declaration of interests and would prefer to end their political careers before doing so, which is interesting. However, when this procedure is completed I believe there will be a sense of disappointment that Members have so few interests. My entry will consist of one line, that I am a barrister. The vast majority of Members [1706] will put down one other occupation or something similar.

Mr. Cowen: “Seeking alternative employment”.

Mr. M. McDowell: Yes. Most of them will have nothing substantial to declare — to use the old airport terminology, we will all be going through the green channel. The public will be surprised at how poor and unencumbered by external interests most Members are.

I described this measure as a prophylactic worn by the Labour Party when in Government with Fianna Fáil and the more I think about it the more convinced I am. It will not clean up politics — if anyone wants to take a paper bag full of £10 notes, nothing in the Act will inhibit him from doing so. Politics is not cleaned up by legislative gestures of this type. It is kept clean by the people exercising vigilance, the media keeping politicians on their toes and the voters using discretion at elections as to who they trust. No amount of legislation can make up for the common-sense judgment of voters at election times as to who they wish to represent them.

Having made those points, I presume the Minister is sick and tired of this process and regards today as the last stage in the implementation of the Act. I should be gentlemanly enough to say she put a great deal of work into this measure — whether it is to much effect I will reserve my judgment but she has put much effort into bringing the Act into law and then into operation. That effort has been noted and while its importance may have been exaggerated I wish her well with it and the other measures, some of which are more important, such as the freedom of information Bill which we will deal with soon.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Mr. J. Higgins): I join Deputy McDowell in complimenting the Minister of State, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the tremendous amount of diligent work she has put into this area. She has been [1707] involved in a hands-on capacity from the promise of the measure to its delivery, the dates for which are quite clear. She made a commitment and involved herself on a day to day basis. We are now seeing the final fruits of her work and rigorous investigations.

I join Deputies from all sides in welcoming that the Dáil and Seanad will shortly have a public register of Members' interests and a system of disclosure of interests which compares well with practice abroad. I do not share Deputy McDowell's scepticism or his view that it does not get to the root of the problem. It is a measure well worth embracing but the manner in which it is implemented and enforced is fundamental. One may have many aspirations but unless they are rigorously applied they will not achieve their aim, which in this case is to ensure the system is open, clear and transparent with no hint of financial force being applied to the manner in which people discharge their obligations in the House.

The establishment of this select committee stems from the adoption by the Dáil of the Ethics in Public Office Act as it relates to disclosures of Members, interests. Deputy Connolly asked about the dates involved but, as he is aware, the registration date is the end of January and arrangements are well in train for the other dates. Under the Act, Members must make the first statement by 1 March 1996 to the Clerk of the Dáil. The committee will issue advice and guidelines well in advance of this.

The key requirements on Members under the Act are: first, an annual statement of Members' interests which will be entered into the register and laid before the House; and second, an ad hoc statement by the Member when speaking or voting in the House or one of its committees on a matter in which the Member or a connected person has a material interest. The role of the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests will be a positive one in assisting Members to meet these requirements. The committee will discharge its [1708] functions in three ways: first, providing guidelines to Members on compliance with the Act; second, issuing advice in individual cases where appropriate; and third, undertaking investigations of possible breaches of the Act and, where necessary, reporting to the House on such matters. In addition, the work of the committee will involve dialogue and a key task will be to establish and maintain close contact with the independent public offices commission and the Seanad Select Committee on Members' Interests in the preparation of guidelines and the application of the Act generally.

Developments in recent years have signalled the ever increasing importance of select committees of the Dáil. They have a proven track record in efficiently discharging the business of the House and, more recently, an effective framework for investigating key issues of national importance. It is worth bearing in mind their remit which has not been taken up to date, that is the powers vested in them to debate legislative proposals in advance of their publication.

The Taoiseach gave the House a commitment this morning in relation to the freedom of information Bill, the heads of which will be submitted to a select committee for detailed discussion on 10 January next. We are also examining the possibility of bringing one or two other Bills, in advance of their publication, to a select committee for consideration, when Members can debate their provisions and Ministers benefit from Members views, hopefully leading to better legislation in draft form rather than having to substantially amend it subsequently. We would exhort the chairpersons of the various committees to examine any such legislative proposals in advance and have them debated by their respective committees. Ministers have indicated their willingness to be amenable to this process.

It goes without saying that, in order to obtain results, a select committee must have effective powers. I am especially pleased to note, that section 32 of the Ethics in Public Office Act confers [1709] extensive powers on the select committee dealing with Members' interests, which include powers to summon witnesses and documentation and to require the giving of evidence before them. In addition, any evidence given to such committees will attract the same privileges and immunities as those afforded a witness in a court. Members will be aware also that the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Bill, 1995, at present before the House, is designed to enhance the powers of other select committees, thus enabling them to discharge their functions more effectively.

I strongly welcome the augmentation of the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs in order to consider Members' interests. First, it will be a key mechanism which will assist this House to follow best practice abroad in the disclosure of Members' interests; second, it will give direct, practical support to Members in meeting the requirements of the Ethics in Public Office Act, and, third, the augmentation of this committee marks a further milestone in the development of the important role of select committees not only in the business of this House but in our national affairs generally.

I commend the motion to the House.

Mr. Connolly: Will the Independent group be represented on this select committee? It would appear it will not. I should be grateful if the Minister would investigate their representation.

Mr. J. Higgins: I had intended to address that issue and it is something that merits re-examination. We will thoroughly investigate what can be done in that respect.

Mr. Connolly: Perhaps the Minister of State could have some booklet prepared for the benefit of Members of both Houses. I do not want Members of either House or their interests called into question.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, for the manner in [1710] which she conducted this debate, having been courteous to us at all times.

Question put and agreed to.