Oireachtas committees warned to stay within their remit after Angela Kerins case
TDs and Senators given extensive legal advice and told to treat witnesses with respect
A specific briefing was held for the chairpersons of the 20 parliamentary committees late last month which included a summary and analysis of the Supreme Court ruling in the Kerins case by three eminent lawyers: former attorney general Paul Gallagher SC; Brian Kennedy SC; and Catherine Donnelly BL.
There have also been specific briefings for committees who have been broaching high-profile, or controversial, topics. In advance of its meeting on governance within the FAI, the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport received two full briefings from parliamentary lawyers this week, one of which occurred on the morning of Wednesday’s hearing.
Most committee chairs contacted by The Irish Times believed the Kerins case would have a negative impact on committees inquiring into matters of public interest in the future.
Fergus O’Dowd of the transport committee said there was now a crisis of accountability for committees where something that could safely be said in the street or in the media could no longer be said in the Oireachtas where there was privilege.
He said the approach taken by the FAI of minimalist information made the case for stronger rules for production of documents and evidence on issues of public importance. He said a fortnight before the hearing the committee had specifically sought information on the €100,000 payment made by John Delaney to the FAI but none was forthcoming.
The legal summary commissioned by the Oireachtas argued that standing orders for committee had to “provide protection for individuals against inappropriate infringement of their rights”.
It also indicated the Oireachtas might now need to put in place appropriate mechanisms to remedy any wrong done. Ms Kerins, the former chief executive of Rehab, had been invited to discuss State funding for the organisation but was subjected to questions about her own salary and conditions during a long and fractious meeting. The Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges found the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had acted outside its remit but could not offer any remedy to her.
Chairs have been told that in the light of the Kerins case, their role was of particular importance. “The extent to which the chair seeks to impose appropriate limitations on the actions of the committee will be a relevant factor for consideration,” said the summary.
It was also pointed out that it seemed the PAC had invited Ms Kerins to attend before it on one basis but then dealt with her on “an entirely different basis”.
Committees have been advised to issue invitations to witnesses at least a fortnight in advance and to spell out clearly the topics and questions. The witness will be invited to submit an opening statement. In addition, there must be regular breaks for witnesses especially during long meetings.
“One of the things the lawyers mentioned after Kerins was we have to be fair,” said Mr O’Dowd. “Another factor was tone. Members cannot be hostile to witnesses. We have to be clear, fair and stay within remit. We cannot be a star chamber.”
Michael Harty, chair of the Health Committee, said there was a new onus on chairpersons. He said Minister for Health Simon Harris appeared before the committee this week on his department’s estimates.
“Members wished to talk to him about cervical screening and the PwC report on the national children’s hospital, which he was willing to do. Technically, if he had wanted to he could have refused and the chair would have had to impose the rules.”