New rules for Oireachtas committees to follow Kerins ruling

Working group to report in autumn in wake of Supreme Court ruling

Angela Kerins was the subject of an in-depth inquiry by the PAC in 2014 about the finances of Rehab, including her own remuneration. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Angela Kerins was the subject of an in-depth inquiry by the PAC in 2014 about the finances of Rehab, including her own remuneration. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

New rules about how TDs conduct inquiries in Oireachtas committees are to be drawn up following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday which found the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had acted unlawfully in its treatment of the former chief executive of Rehab Angela Kerins.

The Oireachtas confirmed that a working group set up by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges is to report in the autumn in the wake of the court’s ruling yesterday.

It is expected the new rules, intended to offer some protection to witnesses before committees against unfair treatment and questioning by TDs, will be put in place after the next general election.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said work had commenced to look at the way in which Oireachtas committees work and to look at the role of the chair of those committees in ensuring fairness.

“There is a particular role for the chair to be fair to those in the committee and to intervene,” she said. “We are acutely aware that when someone is invited in front of the committee that we have to stay within the remit and I think some of those points were reiterated today. I think you will see a change in how the committee functions in relation to this.”

She said a “structure” was likely to be considered to address complaints of a committee straying beyond its remit.

Ms Kerins was the subject of an in-depth inquiry by the PAC in 2014 about the finances of Rehab, including her own remuneration. Some time after her appearances at the committee, which included lengthy and intense questioning, Ms Kerins became ill and was hospitalised. She later tried to take her own life, she said.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the committee had acted unlawfully in its treatment of her.

Mechanisms

However, the court – which had previously been reluctant to interfere in the work of the Oireachtas – stressed that TDs could themselves put in place mechanisms to protect witnesses in the event of a committee “acting inappropriately”, something which Oireachtas sources said was likely to be done.

Ms Kerins’s case will now return to a three-judge High Court where any decision on whether or not she is entitled to damages will be made at a later hearing.

Ms Kerins last night issued a statement through her solicitors in which she thanked people for their “kindness, compassion and support”.

The current chair of the PAC, Fianna Fáil TD Seán Fleming, said it was “a matter for the Oireachtas to consider the judgment”.

Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, who was chairman of the committee at the time, declined to comment last night.

Minister for Transport Shane Ross, who was also on the committee, said: “The Oireachtas has accepted the judgment and is already looking at any appropriate remedies.”

Former Labour Party TD Robert Dowds, who was also a member of the committee at the time, said there needed to be a “careful examination” of what the role of the PAC should be.

“At the same time I feel strongly that they should be able to examine the spending of public monies, whether it is by the State or charitable organisations,” he said.

“It is important that parliamentarians have the right to stand up and say what needs to be said.”