Sunday 23 October 2016

New Dail 'gagging' rule criticised

Move to silence committee clerks from speaking in public criticised

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Ruling: PAC Chairman John McGuinness has said he will be encouraging his committee members to defy the new ruling
Ruling: PAC Chairman John McGuinness has said he will be encouraging his committee members to defy the new ruling

Senior officials who run key Oireachtas committees have been slapped with a "gagging order" by authorities which will veto their right to speak during public hearings.

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It is long-standing practice at the all-party committees - including the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) - for clerks to speak freely with the political members who value their input and experience, especially in relation to legal and procedural issues.

However, the Dail's Oversight Committee on Procedure and Privilege (CPP) has written to committee chairs bluntly stating that clerks should no longer speak or be asked to speak at meetings in public session.

A number of committee chairpersons have branded the move as "heavy-handed bureaucracy."

PAC chairman John McGuinness said the move damaged transparency and accountability.

He said he will encourage his members and officials to "carry on as normal" despite the ruling.

In correspondence seen by the Sunday Independent, the CPP has warned that clerks should only speak in public in highly limited circumstances.

"The Dail CPP has decided that clerks should not address or be asked to address committees during public session apart from the following circumstances: when a vote in taken, if a quorum is not present 15 minutes after the time appointed for the start of the meeting and for the election of a chair," the letter states.

But McGuinness said: "The clerk is the main source of information in terms of correspondence and in relation to any interaction that may have gone on.

"To take the view that a clerk should not speak at a committee meeting, I think it damages the whole process of the meeting. It is retrograde move, it is not a satisfactory way for the committees to do business," McGuinness said.

"It is a throwback to the days where officials would be whispering in the ears of a minister or a chairperson. But we have moved on from those days. We are now more open, or at least we are supposed to be. That doesn't ring true when you say to a clerk: 'You can't speak but you can whisper in my ear'. It is a bureaucratic nonsense," he added.

McGuinness referred to the clerk at the PAC, Ted McEnery, and said he is often called to clarify issues, and such interaction is invaluable. "What are we supposed to do - go into private session every time we want an answer to the question?" he said.

McGuinness has said he will be informing his committee members of the direction but will be encouraging them to defy it and carry on as normal.

"You have to abide by the ruling, but the natural course of a meeting could dictate that the clerk will have to respond. If they have information they should be allowed give it. I will be encouraging members and the clerk to do their business as usual without any interruptions," he said.

Some Government committee chairpersons and vice-chairpersons have also poured scorn on the diktat, saying that it is counter- productive.

John Deasy, the vice-chair of the PAC, said: "The clerks are usually the most informed people in the room. It would be more useful if the CPP prevented certain committee members from speaking in public."

Fine Gael health committee chairman Jerry Buttimer said: "I don't have a problem with clerks being able to speak and articulate a viewpoint - a legal point or a clarification. I don't think it is the right thing to not allow them to speak.

"I would be very happy to allow my clerk speak. I have been very lucky and privileged to have very good clerks who I trust and who have a wide and varied experience. So I don't think it is a good thing," he added.

Rather than seeking to limit the speaking rights of officials, Buttimer is in favour of broadening it out to allow ministerial advisers speak.

"By the same token, ministerial advisers are not allowed speak, so I would be happy to have that situation re- examined and re-looked at, I wouldn't have any issue with that," Buttimer said.

In response to the criticisms voiced by the committee chairpersons, a spokeswoman for the Oireachtas told the Sunday Independent that the letter is merely restating an existing position aimed at reducing the risk of litigation against the Houses of the Oireachtas.

"The letter was to restate the existing position that staff giving advice/speaking in public session do not have the same absolute privilege that members and witnesses do; in order to protect them against any kind of legal proceedings, all advice should be given in private session," the Oireachtas spokeswoman said.

It comes in the wake of the legal action taken against the PAC by the former chief executive of the Rehab charity, Angela Kerins. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is defending the case, which is still ongoing.

The CPP decision is the latest in a series of disputes between the political members of committees and Oireachtas authorities.

Sunday Independent

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