Cabinet rejects majority of TDs' findings on compellability Bill

 

THE Government is ignoring most of the recommendations from a special Dail sub committee on the strengthening of powers contained in the controversial Compellability of Witnesses Bill.

It has also imposed a three party whip on the deliberations of the sub committee on Finance and General Affairs to break the all party consensus on the shortcomings in the legislation.

The Irish Times has learned that the sub committee, which has been considering the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Bill, 1995, for months, forwarded to the Government a number of recommendations for sweeping changes in the Bill. Most have been rejected.

This Bill would be required to compel certain witnesses, like former members of the Oireachtas and Mr Ben Dunne, to appear before the pending Dail inquiry into the Dunnes Stores payments controversy.

Following consultations with its independent legal adviser, Mr Patrick Hanratty, a lengthy report on the Bill was prepared for submission to the Government. Its contents were strictly confidential to the members of the sub committee.

The sub committee's draft conclusions, based on "what appeared to be consensus amongst members in the course of discussions at various meetings", concentrated on the necessary independence of committees availing of the powers of the Bill.

It was vital, the report said, that committees and their members act without interference. Imposition of a party whip, for example could, in certain circumstances, constitute an infringement in principle of Constitutional and natural justice and leave proceedings exposed to judicial review.

There was a clear consensus, the members decided, that the Bill was heavily weighted in favour of the Executive.

It recommended that the appearance of the Attorney General before the Committee of Public Accounts - as proposed by the Government in its amendments to the Bill - would be inappropriate.

While the Attorney General should formally be required occasionally to appear before the relevant committee to account for the administration of his office the committee which considered the estimate for his office would appear to be the obvious choice in this regard.

The sub committee also expressed the view that the functions of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions should be exempt from scrutiny under the Bill only in so far as was strictly necessary. Although Section 2 (5) of the Prosecution of Offences Act, 1974 provides that the DPP shall be independent in the performance of his functions, independence and accountability were not incompatible.

The report noted that the Ceann Comhairle, Mr Sean Treacy, in a letter to the Minister for Finance, dated January 12th, 1996, had drawn attention to the importance of making adequate provision for staffing in the light of the impact the Bill would have in terms of the need for access to expert legal advice and the increased demand it would place on existing services.

The definition of a civil servant might be defective on a number of counts, the sub committee told the Government. The Ceann Comhairle had drawn attention to the fact that discussions between Ministers and programme managers, who are not civil servants, did not appear to be exempt from the provisions of the Bill. There appeared to be no valid reason for treating programme managers, who were not civil servants, differently, according to the report.

The sub committee decided, at a private meeting yesterday, to meet its legal adviser, Mr Hanratty, next Tuesday to consider the Government's amendments and to debate the committee stage of the Bill on the following Tuesday and Thursday.