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New plan to bolster power of Oireachtas committees

CIVIL servants will be allowed give evidence for the first time regarding the advice they gave to government ministers, under new plans to strengthen Oireachtas inquiries.

Despite the defeat of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum last year, the Government is bringing in new laws to give committees more powers.

These would allow:

• Inquiries into the impeachment of judges.

• Inquiries into the conduct of a TD or senator.

• Inquiries into the actions of a current government.

• Civil servants being enabled to express opinion on policy.

The Government is also going to allow the Oireachtas to decide which committee will carry out the banking inquiry.

The Dail Public Accounts Committee and the Oireachtas Finance Committee are both vying to hold this inquiry.

Until now, public servants have not been allowed to comment on policy matters.

The new powers on impeachment of judges are aimed at addressing the problems caused over the investigation into former Judge Brian Curtin, who faced impeachment proceedings after charges of possessing child pornography were dropped.

The powers on inquiries into the conduct of a member are aimed at resolving the difficulties encountered in the investigation into former Fianna Fail Senator Ivor Callely's expenses claims.

The Government plans to allow Dail and Seanad committees to conduct inquiries into matters of public importance, despite the electorate rejecting the idea last October.

The decision to allow civil servants give evidence could throw new light on the infamous banking guarantee, which is expected to be scrutinised by a banking inquiry. The inquiries would also have the powers to compel people to attend.

"We want civil servants to give their views on the advice they gave," one government source said. "Civil servants are legally not allowed to comment on policy; this puts in place a framework that's been lacking."

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said new laws allowing committees to hold inquiries under five categories would allow politicians to "secure accountability" through in-depth investigations.

The committees, and not the Government, will decide what subjects need further examination and will include, for example, removing office-holders -- including the president and judges of the High Court and Supreme Court -- from office.

Investigations

It will also allow committees to conduct "inquire, record and report" investigations, but they will not be able to make findings where facts are disputed. This could have major ramifications for the mooted banking inquiry.

The decision to give the committees the new powers will be contained in the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2012.

It comes after the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Dail committees could not conduct inquiries which made findings of fact against people who are not members of parliament -- the so-called 'Abbeylara judgment'.

The Bill will be forwarded to the Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee for its consideration, while the sections dealing with the private papers of members, official records of the Houses and confidential communications will be sent to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

Irish Independent