Little attention is given in today’s papers to Brian Lenihan’s appearance before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service yesterday. There he answered questions on the proposed Commission of Investigation into the banking crisis and in doing so made some statements on how he sees his ministerial responsibility. Lenihan has received (rightly, I believe) some credit for his willingness to instigate a timely preliminary review of the Department of Finance and government policy. An emergent, more extensive review of the Banking system will cover 1 January 2003 to 28/29 September 2008 – when Bank Guarantee Scheme was agreed. It seems to be carefully constructed to avoid consideration of political actions/ decisions. The agreed draft terms of reference focuses mainly on the Banks’ own management and the failures of the regulator. It also looks somewhat at the relationship with the Department of Finance.
While he expressed a willingness to extend the dates to allow consideration of the nationalisation of Anglo-Irish Bank, Lenihan has ruled out inclusion of policy decisions and the political handling of the Bank Guarantee Scheme or the decision to nationalise Anglo (probably inevitable given the Bank Guarantee Scheme). He has also ruled out including the Department of Finance in the Inquiry (though there may be a separate review of the Department’s structures/ capacity). His line is that he is the minister and has been available and responsible to the Dáil.
“I am responsible to Dáil Éireann for the Department,…I have discharged that responsibility at all stages, and there is nothing established to date that would suggest that any of the decisions taken in relation to the management of crisis require a Commission of Inquiry” (5 July 2010)
There are a number of problems with this. First , it isn’t wholly consistent because the time investigated goes well beyond when he became minister. Charlie McCreevey hasn’t been available to answer question for the decision he made, yet his decisions are also exempt.
Second, it seems to suggest that ministerial responsibility excludes extra-parliamentary investigation of ministerial decisions. This is obviously nonsense – many Tribunals of Inquiry have investigated ministerial decision making. While it might make sense not to include ministerial decisions in this Banking Inquiry because it is about banking and the person who’ll run it will be an expert in banking and bank systems, he should then allow an inquiry into the political decisions.
Third, he says there is nothing established to question his handling of the crisis. Well nothing maybe established (that presumably is the point of such an Inquiry) but there are many who suggest that his decisions made the crisis worse than it could have been. His decision to extend the Bank Guarantee Scheme to bond-holders and to include Anglo-Irish Bank has cost the state tens of billions of Euros. It isn’t controversial to suggest that the line he gave at the time that the Scheme would be the cheapest bail-out in the world is shown to be wrong. He may know he did nothing wrong, but it hardly seems reasonable that we just have to take his word on it.
His defence that the minister is responsible to the Dáil and that the Dáil can ask whatever questions it wishes is disingenuous. The Dáil simply isn’t given the access to information needed for informed debates. It seems like he trying to avoid ministerial responsibility.