Oireachtas Water Committee secret bussiness is a no go area

by James Quigley

Below is an appeal sent to the Freedom of Information Commissioner . It is the third step in a laborious process of trying to find out what took place in over thirty secret sessions of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water in Ireland.  The committee's business ended in April 2017 in acrimonious and dubious circumstances.  Buncrana Together has written extensively on the subject and to date we have not received a satisfactory explanation from any member involved in the Committee.  

The only little bit of information we were able to get was from the Committee secretary Mr Tom Sheridan who told us that:

"The content of the Report, which is mainly comprised of the Joint Committee’s recommendations, was agreed in detail by the Members over a number of meetings and approved by them in the normal manner."

Apparently the Oireachtas Committee business does not come under the FOI Act and according to the FOI Coordinator the department doesn’t give out information relating to Oireachtas Committees.

Details of our FOI request and initial appeal can be read here and here.

 Members of the Oireachtas Committee On Future Funding of Domestic Water

Members of the Oireachtas Committee On Future Funding of Domestic Water

Below is the appeal  sent to the Office of the Information Commissioner by James Quigley on behalf of Communities for Ireland's 9.4.

 

"My FOI request concerned the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water sent on Sept 8th 2017.  The request was dealt with and completely refused by the committee secretary Thomas Sheridan. I appealed his decision and my appeal was also refused by Vivian Uibh Eachach, Oct 13 2017, on the same grounds.

As far as I am concerned my request dealt with the administration of this committee, it's day to day procedures and in particular what each committee member voted and pushed for.

In the first place I find it difficult to accept that the person(s) dealing with my FOI request were directly involved with the issue. The question of impartiality arises here.

Secondly I find it difficult to accept that there is a carte blanche and total refusal of all information concerning such a public body, dealing with a public issue and in the interest of the public.

Surely there must be some information that is not totally restricted by the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 2013. I contend that that Act was dealing with sensitive issues and that is understandable.  However, it is not acceptable in this case where the issue was a public one, involving public representatives and witnesses.  In fact all witnesses' submissions are accessible to the public one way or another. 

As far as I can see there is nothing in that committee's proceedings that is remotely sensitive.  The committee was initially introduced  by Mr Coveney as a open and transparent process based on the recommendations of the Expert Commission.  One of this body's recommendations was that the public should have access and direct involvement in the water infrastructure affairs.  Surely a total refusal, hiding behind a bureaucratic 2013 act is contrary to this sentiment.

As part of my request I pointed out problems with the management of this Committee especially around the 30 odd secret meetings where, as far as I am led to believe, voting took place concerning what would go into a final report.  In particular I mentioned the session of February 15th and it's total omission from any report including the Confidential Draft Report sent to the committee members by Alan Byrne on April 5th.  I can send you his email which included the Draft Report.

I have read in the Oireachtas web site that it is a duty of the chairman to include all sessions in reports for members to accept or not for a final report.  That's as it should be and I contend that the Chairman and secretariat failed in this administration duty.  

It is significant that there was no mention of the February 15th session in the Draft Report especially as the Chairman himself commented on the day that this was a "very important discussion".  In my opinion this session was at the core of the argument, yet omitted entirely.

Again I would contend that the administration failed the public due to the controversial ending to committee's proceedings where the public was subjected to claims and counter claims by the members themselves who were openly at odds in the media.  

The administration did not protect the public by not making things clear especially as to what members voted for or agreed to.  No one was reprimanded and  official records and the truth has been withheld from public scrutiny.

To conclude I would suggest the reason given by both officials does not uphold nor protect citizens rights and as such goes against the very reason why we have Oireachtas committees in the first place."