independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Liz O'Donnell: How diligent TDs play a crucial role in holding people to account

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Chair of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

IT was a week when people stared slack jawed at the radio.

Such was the drama that if you missed a news bulletin, you were not at the races. Big Phil Hogan had a Houdini -like escape from the swirling waters of controversy about his department's responsibility for the establishment costs of Irish Water. That story has not gone away, with gaping holes in the explanations for the various outlay on consultants(€86m) and a mysterious allocation of €5.7m on a "county manager's group".

The minister appeared unfazed at the profligate spending of public monies. Looks like his mind is already in Brussels, where that sort of money is small beer. Memories of Pee Flynn lording it around Commission corridors like a modern prince come to mind.

Further horrors emerged when the HSE administrator lifted the bonnet of the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC). Startled deputies at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) learned that things were even worse than they thought. Former CRC chief executive Paul Kiely had essentially been given three-quarters of a million as 'bye bye money'. Bizarrely, the current CEO hadn't a breeze about all this; had missed the board meeting approving the package and it was all news to him.

When it came to questioning the hapless witness, Mary Lou McDonald was as unforgiving as a fearsome headmistress; while Kieran O'Donnell, a solicitor, was equipped for the forensics. Simon Harris spoke more in sadness than anger when empathising with the staff and fundraisers of the charity since this package was funded by monies raised for frontline services.

For a change the committee system is getting a bit of deserved attention. For too long, committee work was ignored by the media who tend to focus on the set-piece drama in the Dail chamber. Deputies and senators can spend hours in committee poring over amendments to legislation and listening to worthy delegations and never get a word of recognition for it. I recall sitting at meetings when visiting delegations outnumbered the committee members in attendance.

At one stage committees had proliferated like rabbits with paid chairmen, vice chairs and convenors providing the government of the day with opportunities for patronage for disgruntled backbenchers who didn't make the cut for ministerial jobs.

Now there are fewer of them, and some are more effective than others.

The PAC has always enjoyed the respect of the House and is generally chaired by an opposition heavy hitter, such as John McGuinness, and comprised of serious players from the respective parties. If nothing else the PAC proceedings on the CRC and Irish Water has shown that diligent and smart deputies can be powerful agents of accountability. What is frequently forgotten is that the Government is accountable to the Dail and if the Government misleads the Dail it is an offence against parliament. That is why the parliamentary question is such a powerful device in our democracy. It is why the Dail and its committees enjoy privilege or immunity from libel actions in respect of utterances made.

It is in the public interest that deputies can make allegations and statements, which otherwise would be libellous, so as to hold the government of the day to account.

As was emphasised in the Beef Tribunal report and illustrated in the findings of so many other tribunals of inquiry since then, if Dail Questions were honestly answered there would have been no need for expensive and lengthy tribunals. Who can forget the handwritten note in the margin of a draft reply to a parliamentary question about malpractice in the beef industry and the Department of Agriculture in the 1980s? "That should confuse the Deputy".

The fact is there is a long tradition in our civil service of minimalist replies to parliamentary questions, with an objective of protecting the minister of the day. When I was an opposition deputy, tabling questions to the Department of Justice and Health on issues like the Hepatitis C infection of women by Anti D was like a chess game with officials.

Over the years, I got to know the style of the drafter of the parliamentary reply, as a daily player gets to know the crossword.

But in committees, under direct televised questioning, the official or minister finds it more difficult to wriggle out of answering the question as evidenced last week. But deputies must be razor sharp. Too long a question, though tempting for grandstanders, enables the witness to escape. The PAC now has its sights on the pension arrangements of other Section 39 charities. There are over three hundred of them in receipt of public funding over €250,000. I imagine there is panic right now as they are "swinging into compliance" in advance of the PAC.

Irish Independent

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