Tough new sanctions for politicians and remedies for citizens wronged by them are to be slapped on TDs and senators in the autumn following the Angela Kerins judgement.
Concerns have already been expressed by political leaders about the potential “chilling effect” such rule changes could have on Oireachtas committees in particular, but authorities are adamant change is needed.
Officials are already drafting new rules as to how committees are to be run after the Supreme Court found the former Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had broken the law in how it had treated the now ex-boss of the Rehab charity in 2012.
The Irish Examiner has obtained a letter from Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl to members of the Dáil’s oversight group which confirms the scope of the review of rules governing the running of committees and sittings of the Dáil and Seanad.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said:
He said officials are considering changes to the rules in four areas relating to:
The Ceann Comhairle confirmed that the plan is to implement changes to the rules and procedures by October or November “in response to the issues raised by the Court’s judgment”.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the Supreme Court made it very clear that the former PAC conducted a hearing which was “significantly outside of its terms of reference” and “departed significantly” from the terms of an invitation issued to Ms Kerins. As such, he said, the committee had “acted unlawfully”.
In his letter, the Ceann Comhairle outlined the four main areas highlighted by the Supreme Court which, in his view, need attention in order to “safeguard the constitutional rights of citizens in a parliamentary committee context.”
The letter to members of the Dáil’s Committee of Procedure and the Seanad’s Committee on Procedure and Privileges set out the need for committees to have clear terms of reference and to remain within them, as well as the need for clarity of invitations issued from a committee to witnesses and for the committee to adhere to the terms of such invitations.
The letter also spelled out the need to review the conduct of hearings and the supervision of same and the need for remedies to be available to persons who may be affected by a breach of their rights by a committee.
Fears about committees being “nobbled” have been dismissed by Melissa English, the chief legal advisor to the Houses of the Oireachtas, who has said she expected no “chilling effect” on the work of committees.
“There have been messages out there about this chilling effect on parliamentary committees which is absolutely incorrect,” she said.
Ms English said the Supreme Court had asked the Oireachtas to put in place procedures to remedy when a non-member felt they had been badly appreciated, and that once that was in place, the courts would give “a very wide margin of appreciation as to how you run your business”.
The committee heard the Oireachtas spent €485,000 defending itself in recent cases against Denis O’Brien and Ms Kerins. The service was awarded its costs arising from Mr O’Brien’s High Court case, but had to pay its own bill for the associated Supreme Court action.
Mr Ó Fearghail has sought for input from the various parties and groupings within the Dáil as to how the rules will be applied.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy have previously voiced concerns about committees being watered down and being stymied in holding top officeholders to account.