Final FOI Appeal Turned Down by Commissioner and Sinn Féin Economical with the Truth about the Oireachtas Water Committee.

by James Quigley

Last month a senior officer from the Office of the Information Commissioner turned down my third and final appeal against the decision to refuse access to all records, not in the public domain, of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. In all there were some thirty secret sessions of the water Committee held between January to April 2017.  It now looks like we will never know what went on behind those closed doors.

The original request was interested in the management of the committee itself, how decisions were finalised and who voted for what. In particular the request highlighted the session of February 15th .  In that session the Water Framework Directive and it’s all important 9.4 paragraph that dealt with Ireland’s Water Charges Exemption was discussed at length.  For some inexplicable reason, that was the last we heard about the 9.4 Exemption and at the conclusion of the Committee's business in April 2017 there was not a mention of it in any final report.

The Constitution, transparency and accountability
It seems openness, transparency and accountability of Dáil Éireann and it's Committees are hidden in confidentiality and protected by Article 15.10 of the Constitution. The following is a section of the  Commissioner’s decision.  It can be be read in full HERE:

Section from Commissioners decision.

Section from Commissioners decision.

That’s the bureaucrats but what about those on our side?

I can understand establishment politicians and officials hiding behind bureaucratic excuses.  After all we  let them do it and keep voting them into office.  But you might think that you would get answers from those that were supposedly representing  the anti Water Charges side.  Sadly in my experience this has not been the case. The R2W leadership and their representatives on that establishment Oireachtas Committee including Sinn Féin, Solidarity, PBP and Independents have not addressed any of the concerns from dejected anti Water Charges campaigners.

Some basic questions that have not been answered are: 1) why there was no mention of the 9.4 Exemption in the report which they applauded on April 6, 2017?   2) why did they accept  Irish Water Ltd?  3) why did  they accept the principle of charging for excessive and the use of metering?

After repeated inquiries Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin TD, eventually posted this answer on Facebook:

Sinn Féin and the other Right2Water TDs argued very strongly in the Water Committee for the retention of the exemption contained in the Water Services Directive. Sinn Féin commissioned a Senior Council legal opinion on the issue, tabled the opinion at the Committee and challenged the European Commission on the issue when they came to the committee. Unfortunately as the final report to the committee did not commit to the full abolition of water charges Sinn Féin and the other Right2Water TDs opposed the final report. The Right2Water movement made a formal submission to the Governments River Basin Management Plan consultation which explicitly called on the Government to invoke 9.4 in their revised plan. That is now a matter for the Government which has yet to publish their final plan to be submitted to the European Commission.″

This is such a typical stock political answer.  It  contains enough truths to make it seem plausible but in substance the answer does not address the the most important question. I have watched the full February debate, well what was available to the public that is, and can safely say that the Senior Counsels, representing both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil by the way, indeed made very convincing arguments for the retention of the 9.4 Exemption.  So much so that one would have thought the 9.4 argument should have been included in any final report.  It was not and it was never even mentioned after February 15th.

I am convinced that the Right2Water representatives did not put up much of an argument themselves and at the end of the day they must not have believed the Senior Counsels themselves because they did not insist that the 9.4 be part of any final report.

See full video: Right2Water TD's at Leinster House claim 'Victory' Apr 5th 2017
                       https://oireachtas.heanet.ie/mp4/cr4/latest/cr4_20170215.mp4
                       Clouds of suspicion over omission of 9.4 Exemption in Oireachtas Water Committee report   


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."