[Deputy Alex White: ] However, the general rule is that we allocate medical cards on the basis of material means, which relates to the phrase "undue hardship" in the 1970 Act.
I understand the cards referred to by the Deputy are discretionary medical cards. On average, discretionary cards are valid for two to three years and the renewal processes that I outlined earlier also apply for discretionary cards. People should not receive, out of the blue, statements from pharmacists or anybody else to the effect that their medical cards are gone. I am most concerned to hear this is occurring in the manner that has been suggested, and I have no doubt the Deputy is raising the matter on the basis of information he has received. Even for the short-term discretionary cards of six months or one year, they will receive a renewal notice three months in advance of the stated expiry date. In setting review dates and to avoid causing anxiety, the HSE must be and is, so far as I can see, sensitive to the needs and conditions of the individual. The target turnaround time for discretionary medical cards is 20 working days.
Having said all of that, if the Deputy has specific cases which he would like to have examined, the PCRS would be happy to do so. If the Deputy needs any assistance in this regard, I will be happy to afford it to him.
Deputy Michael McNamara: I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive reply, which comes as a relief to me and, more importantly, to my constituents. As I said, I am a Teachta Dála, and I am bringing the message to the Dáil that this issue has arisen in my constituency. It may well be a localised failure due to a systems failure. I am satisfied with the Minister of State's reply and, if the problem persists, I will take up the matter with the PCRS, as the Minister of State has advised. If that fails, I will bring it back to the Minister of State.
Deputy Alex White: I cannot put it any more plainly than I have. If any further issue arises for the Deputy, I will attend to it.
Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Order for Second Stage
Bill entitled an Act to provide for the exercise by either House or both Houses of the Oireachtas (or by a Committee of either House or both Houses) of a power to conduct an inquiry into specified matters, to provide for matters relating to compellability, privilege and procedure in the Houses (and in Committees of either House or both Houses), and to provide for related matters.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): I move: "That Second Stage be taken now."
Question put and agreed to.
Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013: Second Stage
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Bill establishes a comprehensive statutory framework for the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries within the current constitutional framework. It is underpinned by a detailed legal assessment of the scope for Oireachtas inquiries on the basis of the outcome of the Abbeylara case. It is very clear from the Supreme Court's judgment and the views it expressed on that case that the Oireachtas is not empowered, in general, to make findings of facts adverse to the good name of any person who is not either a Member of the Houses, or an officeholder or otherwise directly accountable to the Houses.
In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, the Government sought in 2011 to empower the Oireachtas through a change in the Constitution to carry out full inquiries. The outcome of the autumn 2011 referendum was that the electorate endorsed the status quo whereby the scope for an Oireachtas inquiry to make findings that could damage the reputation of an individual was strictly limited. The extensive analysis carried out since the referendum has confirmed that there is broad scope under the Constitution for the Oireachtas to carry out legitimate inquiries into matters of public importance, including where the Oireachtas proposes to examine an issue related to the Oireachtas's fundamental constitutional function to make law.
The main caveat to the scope for such Oireachtas inquiries is that the terms of reference of such inquiries cannot focus on the conduct of individuals, rather, they must relate, for example, to the systems, practices, procedures, policies and the implementation of policy, and the effectiveness of legislative and regulatory systems. There is no constraint on such an inquiry making significant findings on these matters and the performance of those bodies responsible for and governed by statutory frameworks laid down by the Oireachtas provided these findings are fully consistent with the evidence adduced before the inquiry committee.
Such inquiries could represent a very substantial strengthening in the effectiveness and contribution of the legislature to our democratic system by not only helping us learn vital lessons from past events but, through their recommendations, identifying the legislative reforms and policy changes essential to making sure that egregious policy errors are not repeated.
The Bill before us, therefore, represents a very important step in the process of clarifying the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas in securing accountability through investigations into matters of significant public importance. The Bill will enhance the effective functioning of our modern parliamentary democracy by facilitating such inquiries. It is our duty as public representatives to use our constitutional powers appropriately and responsibly, and for the benefit of the wider society and the economy. Used effectively, I anticipate that the framework to be established by this Bill will facilitate focused, constructive political discourse that will enhance our parliamentary system.
I have long advocated the need for an effective and legally robust parliamentary banking inquiry into the events that occurred on the night of the bank guarantee and the systems failures that led to our current fiscal crisis. This Bill will facilitate such an inquiry provided the terms of reference of the inquiry are correctly framed. However, the proposed legislation does substantially more than facilitate a banking inquiry; the primary purpose of this legislation is to create a comprehensive legal framework which is of general application.
A critical consideration guiding the development of the detailed provisions of the Bill is that the Houses themselves, pursuant to Article 15.10 of the Constitution, are afforded significant autonomy to regulate their own affairs. This principle has been respected throughout the Bill, with provisions allowing internal matters pertaining to the Houses to be regulated by rules and Standing Orders, where possible. The Bill envisages a central role for the Houses of the Oireachtas in both initiating and conducting a parliamentary inquiry. Under the Bill, responsibility is assigned exclusively to the Houses of the Oireachtas to determine the requirement for a formal inquiry, the terms of reference of that inquiry, the appropriate committee to conduct the inquiry and the procedural and organisational aspects of the inquiry.
It was firmly established by the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara case that an inquiry carried out by the Houses of the Oireachtas must strictly conform with fair procedures consistent with the principles of natural justice. The outcome of the autumn 2011 referendum confirmed that fair procedures in respect of the interaction between the Oireachtas and the ordinary citizen were of paramount concern to the people of Ireland. Respect for the rights of the individual is enshrined in this Bill, and there are extensive provisions in regard to fair procedures for all types of inquiries carried out. The Bill will not impede the important and valuable work that is currently being conducted by Oireachtas committees. The Bill fully replicates and restates the powers available to committees under the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities) Act 1997, as well as providing for a simplification of the current process of invoking compellability powers. The 1997 Act will be repealed by this Bill.
Furthermore, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government relating to civil servants giving evidence to Dáil committees, the Bill makes provisions to expand the scope of evidence that civil servants may give. Civil servants will not be restricted from giving evidence for the purpose of establishing facts and giving the committee the full narrative of some series of events. The current prohibition on the Oireachtas committees from asking a public servant to otherwise express an opinion on the merits of policy will be maintained. It is not expected that disclosing policy-specific policy advice should occur other than in exceptional circumstances where it is central to terms of reference of an inquiry. This will be set out in revised guidance to all civil servants once this legislation is enacted.
The programme for Government contained a commitment to address the issue of confidential communications with Members through constitutional change. Following a detailed policy assessment and on the basis of legal analysis, it has now been decided to legislate in regard to this issue. The Bill provides for qualified privilege for confidential communication from members of the public to Members of either House. This will facilitate those who wish to draw wrongdoing to the attention of Members of the Oireachtas without having their identities disclosed. The Bill provides for qualified statutory privilege for private papers of Members and official documents of the Houses. These provisions are intended to apply in all circumstances and are not restricted to inquiries carried out under the Bill.
I would now like to turn to the Bill before the House. This Bill, as I have already indicated, establishes a comprehensive statutory framework for the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries, as was recommended in the Abbeylara judgment. I will now go through the Parts of the Bill and give a brief outline of its content.