Oireachtas committees are growing into their role but need to sharpen questions

Opinion: Parliamentarians could learn from probing approach of RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke

John Tierney: forthcoming in the main as his interviewer established the main facts. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

John Tierney: forthcoming in the main as his interviewer established the main facts. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Sun, Jan 19, 2014, 00:01

‘What kind of money are you spending on consultants?” Sean O’Rourke asked John Tierney, the chief executive of Irish Water, at 10.18am on Thursday week last. Tierney initially obfuscated in his reply. He talked about what a big challenge setting up a new utility was. He even wondered aloud about how challenging setting up RTÉ in one year would be if that had to be done in modern times.

O’Rourke let him ramble around the issue for almost a minute before cutting him off with the blunt two-word question “How much?” “€100 million has been spent on establishment,” said Tierney, “half of that on consultants.”

“Fifty million,” O’ Rourke clarified for his listeners, adding with understatement: “It ain’t cheap.”

In a wide-ranging interview over 22 minutes that morning, the radio presenter elicited more information about Irish Water then several Dáil deputies had been given in repeated parliamentary questions over several months.

Public accountability
One-on-one, live on air, O’Rourke systematically took Tierney through the controversial issues that have bubbled under Irish Water. It was good radio, but it was also a top-class exercise of public accountability. There was no haranguing or grandstanding from the inquisitor – he just forensically established the key facts, and Tierney was, in the main, forthcoming.

Our parliamentarians could learn much from the O’Rourke approach.

Much of the information Tierney gave in replies on RTÉ radio 10 days ago has been known by the Department of Environment for months, but the department made a conscious decision, approved of by the Minister, not to provide that information in replies to parliamentary questions. This episode stands as indictment of the enduring weakness of our parliamentary system and the “tell them as little as possible’’ mentality that permeates the top levels of our Civil Service.

It has otherwise been a good few weeks for parliamentary scrutiny: the Oireachtas committee system has come of age. Usually in mid- to late-January, the political coverage focuses on the belated return of the Dáil itself. This year, however, all the significant political news is being made in Leinster House committee rooms where semi-State companies and State- funded agencies are being held to account.

In recent months the Oireachtas committee has not only had scheduled – and newsworthy – exchanges with the governor of the Central Bank and the new head of Eirgrid; it has also pursued Irish Water, the HSE, and HSE-funded agencies with appropriate vigour.

It is also noteworthy how Oireachtas committees have become the forum where State agencies have come to explain themselves at the height of public controversies to counter what they see as unfair coverage in the media. This is, for example, what Nama did just before Christmas on alleged leaks of private information, and what the Revenue Commissioners did in November on deducting card payments for property tax. They came, they were asked, and they answered, and the controversies settled somewhat.

Even before their effectiveness in the current controversies, the Oireachtas committees were set to play a more enhanced role in our parliamentary system in 2014. The Government has promised to send all non-emergency legislation to committees at a new pre- legislative stage. New European-wide budgetary procedures require greater parliamentary pre-scrutiny of national budgets. Together it is estimated these two changes will increase the work of Oireachtas committees fourfold.

The resources provided to the committees have not risen commensurate with their increased workload, however. The Journal.ie reported earlier this week that the chairman of the co-ordinating group, David Stanton TD, had written to the Ceann Comhairle on behalf of his fellow committee chairmen warning that the staffing and research support was not sufficient to enable them to effectively perform these enhanced roles. The Oireachtas committees are now it seems at the mercy of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which will have the final say on whether they get the additional resources they need.

More preparation and better use of their research staffing would facilitate TDs and Senators to be more forensic in their questioning. It should be noted, however, that about a decade ago deputies were provided with a full-time researcher in addition to their Oireachtas secretaries. Unfortunately, most of them diverted these additional staffers to constituency rather than parliamentary work.

A change of approach from TDs and Senators themselves would also assist. Too many see committee hearings as an opportunity to make lengthy speeches rather than elicit information from witnesses. In one instance from the environment committee’s meeting with Irish Water management this week – which the deputy himself proudly tweeted a link to on YouTube – the question took almost three-quarters of the allotted time.

Another weakness is a tendency in committees – other than in the public accounts committee – to group questions from different deputies together. This enables any witness under pressure to give more vague answers and to avoid those questions they don’t want to answer at all.

Surrogate spokespersons
Another major difficulty in our system is that too many of our Oireachtas committees are chaired by Government rather than opposition deputies and in most instances by Government deputies who see themselves as on the way up. These committee chairs often emerge as surrogate spokespersons for Government policy in the area and, having an eye on advancement to junior ministerial rank, are more likely to be partisan and protective of their Ministers.

That said, it is very good for our democracy that the Oireachtas committee system is growing in confidence.

Hopefully, in the coming months the committees will be as effective at holding Ministers and senior civil servants to account as they have been with agency chiefs.

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