White calls for change in tone of debate on Legal Reform

February 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alex White has called for a change in the tone of the current debate on legislation to reform legal services in the State. Speaking in the Dail Alex said:

“The tone of the debate in recent months has been unfortunate. There has been overstatement on the part of the professions as to the implications of some of the Bill’s proposals….but there has also been overreaction to that overstatement… including references to cabals, and allegations of people trying to stay in the nineteenth century. A change of tone in the debate is required in the coming weeks and months when decisions will have to be made regarding the final content of the legislation. We need to lower the temperature of this tense debate….so that we come to the best possible outcome – not for any one interest group, but for the citizens we represent.

“As a practising lawyer and a member of the Bar, I have been disappointed by the slowness of reform and an unwillingness in the past on the part of the professions to embrace or promote change. This has led to a situation whereby people now feel they are victims of change, instead of themselves taking the opportunity, when it is there, to advance proposals for change to the way things are done.

“For example, there is a need to address the question of equity within the legal professions, and in particular the distribution of work at the Bar, to facilitate younger barristers coming into the profession – people who are willing and well able to work. That has not been done but it is an area that should have been addressed and still requires to be addressed. People have been slow to embrace that.

“The independence of the legal profession is critical in any democracy. It is actually a test of the strength of a democracy. All litigants – rich or poor – are entitled to be represented by absolutely fearless advocates, who are never threatened by any attempts to trample their independence. They must not have any concern about repercussions, either from the Government or elsewhere.

“This issue is also related to economic rights. Prospective foreign investors need to understand and appreciate that we have a fully independent legal profession that is beholden to no one, be it the Government or anyone else. It is therefore absolutely vital that that independence should be protected.

“It is not a formalistic matter. I have heard people saying that there is nothing in the Bill that undermines the independence of an individual practitioner. It is a bigger issue than that, however. One must consider carefully the proposed new Authority, for example. The method of appointing the Authority is essential to ensuring the independence of the profession and it is not an incidental question. Nor should the raising of this issue be taken as a criticism of the Minister or the Government. It has to do with the manner in which people perceive that Authority. They need to be sure that it is entirely at arm’s length from the Government, and that it is independent not just in the operation of its functions – which one would assume – but in every way. There should be no sense on the part of any Authority members that they are beholden to the Government, even where is no such intention on the part of the Government.

“The Minister is open to amendments on the means of appointment to the Authority. It is necessary to amend the provision. There are many ideas on how this can be achieved. Other professions, including the medical profession, have a good statutory regime for the appointment of the independent regulator in their cases. These are the parallels we should be looking at”.

Extending the Guarantee

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last night, the Seanad was invited to extend the guarantee covering Irish banks that was first put in place in September 2008.  This was before we were told the final bill for Anglo Irish Bank, which was announced only this morning.  The extension was carried by a margin of 6 in the Seanad.  The following is an edited transcript of my speech…

It is not irresponsible to oppose, to test government policy or to seek to amend it. The opposition at any period of a country’s history performs a major task for the body politic precisely by being in a position to test, criticise, query and, if it judges it to be appropriate or necessary, oppose. It is for a government to ensure its policies are sufficiently well argued in public and in parliament and that it has sufficient support among the members of a parliament to get those policies through. Opposition parties must exercise a sense of responsibility and, especially at moments such as this, restraint in how they present their arguments, marshal their arguments and participate in the debate. I do not disagree with that for one minute.

I do not believe we have time at this point to rehearse all the arguments that were gone through in the days and weeks after 29 September 2008. I assure the House that at all times the position taken by my party, then and since, has been motivated by no other objective than the interest and common good of the country. The fact we took a different view and opposed a proposal brought forward by the Government does not and should not in anyone’s eyes lessen in any way or suggest to anyone, either in this House or outside, that a political party that takes an opposite view is somehow offside, cannot be relied upon or is in some way undermining the common good. The opposite is the case.

We do not have time to deal with or go back through all the arguments we had then. Some of them have been touched on because they are still live and relevant. That is the basis upon which the guarantee was presented at the time and the basis of the claims that were made for the guarantee. Senator Boyle says it has been very successful. I do not know how it is possible for anyone to say it has been successful. While it would be difficult for me to say definitively that it will historically be proven to be unsuccessful, I do not know how Senator Boyle can say it has been successful because it will not be possible to pass that judgment for many a long year from today. I can understand him defending it but to suggest it has been a success seems contingent on many different things that lie in the future such that it is not possible to make the point.

At the time of the original guarantee legislation in regard to which this proposal is an amendment, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated:

There is understandable concern that the Exchequer is potentially significantly exposed by this measure. This is not the case. The risk of any potential financial exposure from this decision is significantly mitigated by a very substantial buffer made up of the equity and other risk capital in the relevant institutions. It is estimated [he does not say by whom] that the total assets of the six financial institutions concerned exceed their guaranteed liabilities by approximately €80 billion, which is half of Ireland’s total GNP. By any measure there is, therefore, a very significant buffer before there is any question of the guarantee being called upon.

I note the narrative has moved in recent days and weeks in the view of Ministers and certainly former Ministers, such as Deputy O’Dea, and I saw the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, nod his head when someone made the point that the banks had lied to the Government. It may well suit the Government that the narrative now becomes “the lies the banks told the Government”. It may be that lies were told and that the Government can somehow seek to portray itself as being blameless in that regard and being the hopeless victim which has been misled. « Read the rest of this entry »

Civil Partnership Bill is major step forward in a relatively dark period for the country

July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this hugely important and momentous legislation.  The Labour Party enthusiastically supports the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations for Cohabitants Bill 2009.  We will try to amend it in some areas and, while we can to some extent predict the Minister’s response to our proposals, we will push them as strongly as we can.  We hope to expand on the vital work done on this Bill with further legislation when the Labour Party is in Government.

I think this is the first time since I entered the Oireachtas three years ago that I have commended the Government on any issue but I am happy to congratulate it on bringing this legislation before the Houses.  I also acknowledge the heavy lifting that was required from the Green Party in order to bring the matter to its present status.

When we discuss this Bill in more detail on Committee Stage, we should not forget that we are trying to improve the lives of individual citizens.  We should, therefore, also congratulate the thousands of campaigners who have fought for this legislation.  None of this would happened without people who were prepared to go to meetings, spend time on campaigns and work out how incremental change could be achieved.  Perhaps some felt they were compromising themselves while others wanted to progress their goals without being seen as incrementalists but they made the same intelligent political decision as so many other figures in history by accepting this Bill as legislation that could be achieved and leaving for another day the fight to build something better.  For that reason, I am delighted to be a Member of this House as this Bill comes before us. « Read the rest of this entry »

11 years after Labour Bill on Whistleblower Protection, we still wait

June 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the most frustrating things about debates on transparency and the need for new legislation and measures to deal with whistleblowing and related matters is the extent to which people give the impression that there has only been a recent discovery or realisation of the necessity for such measures. Senator Dan Boyle hopes there will not be another general election before something is done about this, but there have already been two general elections and we are well into the third Oireachtas since this issue was raised for public debate in 1999 by Deputy Pat Rabbitte who published a Bill that year to deal with this issue.

It is fully 11 years since this matter was first raised for public debate. It is simply not good enough for anyone, be they a Minister, supporter of the Government or otherwise, to imply that these matters are now coming forward for public consideration and concern and must be addressed in the light of what has happened recently. We knew about these issues many years ago. There is little use in people saying that now we have seen the dreadful things that have occurred which we never thought would happen – the subtext being that they never thought there would be a problem – but on which we have been proven wrong, we must do something about it. It is simply not good enough to give the people that excuse.

The Minister of State referred to the conclusion of the Company Law Review Group. Bluntly, the company law review group is wrong. When we are considering its report and when we are pointing out, as the Minister of State did, the fact that this group of eminent individuals came to this conclusion, we should bluntly state that the conclusion was wrong. Had these matters been considered in the depth and with the realism with which they should have been considered, the group would have come to a different conclusion. Mr. Paul Appleby and Mr. Michael Halpenny, the representative of the ICTU, were the two lone members of the group who maintained the view that it was necessary to bring forward a report that proposed robust whistleblower protection and legislation. When considering the balance sheet of what has occurred, I believe the best way for the Minister of State to view that group’s report is to conclude that it was wrong. We must do something different from what it recommended. « Read the rest of this entry »

Govt needs less wishful thinking in dealing with the economy

March 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Finance Bill began in the Seanad this morning. Following a speech by the Minister, I rose with my own contribution. You can read it below.

Particularly in this area of discussing the economy and our future, I am all in favour of hope. We all want to have a debate that is characterised by hope so that we can be genuinely positive and face the future in that vein. That is the basis upon which any of us would come to this debate. Certainly, there is need for a restoration of hope and confidence in the economy.

However, my problem with this debate is that while a number of speakers stated they hope that things will happen, it has been characterised by a significant degree of what I can only describe as wishful thinking, not entirely – in some cases, not at all – based on the facts.

It started out this afternoon with the Minister’s speech. The Minister treated us to an account of what he describes as “tentative signs that the economy is beginning to stabilise on a number of fronts.” He spoke of unspecified key macro-economic and fiscal data releases being generally in line with expectations. He repeated that growth is likely to return in the second half of the year and re-establish itself on a full-year basis in 2011. He also repeated his famous phrase from his Budget Statement that the economy is now turning the corner. On today’s lunchtime news, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, was somewhat less positive than this, couching his remarks along the lines that he felt we have come close to a situation where we might turn the corner, which is somewhat different.

I long for the day, as many people do, that the economy genuinely turns the corner. However, I vehemently disagree with politicians, particularly those in positions of power, seeking to persuade people on the basis of assertion that a new state of affairs has come about because, as of yet, it simply has not.

The second example of wishful thinking came from my colleague Senator Boyle. Earlier, he indicated he was initially sceptical when last summer the Minister for Finance, with little discussion, changed the configuration between cuts and revenue measures that would make up the €4 billion to be taken out of the economy this year. However, Senator Boyle came around to the view that the Minister got the balance about right. No one has explained to me, or could if they were being honest, how they believe the Minister got that balance right. « Read the rest of this entry »

Labour Bill to bring law in line with reality

March 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Speaking at the Launch of Labour’s ‘Guardianship of Children Bill 2010’

The Bill we are publishing today will bring our law and practice into line with the reality of life for many thousands of families in Ireland.

Largely because of the peculiarly strong Family provisions in Article 41 of the Constitution, we have failed to recognise that very many people nowadays live in stable and loving relationships and families which are not families in the traditional sense.

The emphasis in the Bill is not on competing or conflicting rights of parents, but rather on the rights of the child to the care and responsibility of both parents – married or not.

It will bring Ireland into line with important provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and also the European Convention on Human Rights.

Taken together with the significant potential for enhancing children’s rights represented by the proposed Children’s Rights amendment to the Constitution, this Labour Bill would bring a very real advance for children. It would also confer legal recognition in a more equitable fashion on the responsibilities of both parents for the care and upbringing of their children.

More :: Guardianship of Children Bill 2010

What service will politicians provide in response to floods?

November 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

When politicians ask themselves what service they can give to the people in the context of the flooding crisis, it pertains to what should be done in the future. In part, Members can give voice and have a role in giving voice to people who are faced with this situation on a daily basis. I refer to those whose homes and lives have been destroyed or almost destroyed in many cases. While this is important, others such as the media can do it as well and people can do it themselves. One can see and hear the frustration of people on radio and television. However, politicians operate in a completely different context. Most importantly, their role pertains to deciding what to do to ensure such things do not happen again.

Otherwise, they have no real role. Members have been debating the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill in this House in the past week or two. I consider it to be good legislation in the main and my party has made this clear in the course of the debate. If memory serves, it includes a reference in the context of development plans to the risk associated with flooding. The Minister needs to re-examine this legislation in the context of returning to this House on Report Stage and subsequently to the Dáil, to ascertain whether it can be strengthened further. I wager that in practically every case in which houses and developments have been built on flood plains over the past ten to 15 years, some lone voice who stood up to argue against it was told he or she was anti-investment, anti-building, anti-progress or anti-something and was shot down over it.

From my personal experience of being on a local authority in an urban area, I know this is what happens to people who raise genuine issues, including people in my party and in this House in respect of improper, ill-advised and inappropriate development and planning carried out in an improper and unsustainable way. This is the difficulty we face. It is not simply about the weather. Some people across this debate like to suggest this is about the weather and that the Government has no control over it and so they throw their heads back.

However, John Gibbons published a good piece in yesterday’s The Irish Times, reminding his readers that this crisis does not follow from a particularly serious period of storms. It has to do with our woeful lack of preparedness in many parts of the country. The kind of debate Members must have as politicians is to ascertain what service they will provide to the people through the planning system and otherwise to ensure there is no repetition of what has happened in recent days, rather than simply giving voice to the genuine hurt that exists.

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