Friday, 18 November 2011
Private Members' Business: An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Fiche ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 2) 2011: An Dara Céim, Twenty-Ninth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill 2011: Second Stage
On a point of order, I seek the guidance of the Chair and I seek the adjournment of the House on the business before us to allow the Taoiseach to come to the House to explain how the finance committee of the Bundestag received detailed information about the forthcoming budget in advance of Irish parliamentarians. It is an unprecedented and a very serious situation and the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, should explain to Irish parliamentarians how this happened and whether the issues contained in the document were discussed by the Chancellor and the Taoiseach this week at their meeting in Berlin. Could somebody explain to the House the legal obligations that the German finance Ministry said obliged it to put this document before the Bundestag, in advance of it coming before the Dáil? Was our Department of Finance advised that the German finance ministry was taking this course of action with its parliamentarians? Has there been any contact or discussions between the Department of Finance and its German counterpart regarding this issue? Was it discussed by the Chancellor and the Taoiseach? I seek the guidance of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on this matter because I have been complaining for the past three to four weeks. In terms of respect for the Parliament, all the aspects of the budgetary framework, the capital programme, the comprehensive spending review which is due, and the fiscal framework, have all been published outside the House and now the budget itself has been put before the German Parliament before being put before this House. It is incredible, it is unprecedented and at least the Government owes the House an explanation. The Taoiseach should come to the House to explain how this has happened.
It is not actually a point of order because the taking of this Bill today was agreed yesterday on the Order of Business. The House agreed to deal with this Bill and there is no Order of Business this morning. I must therefore rule that this Private Members' Bill must be dealt with immediately. I ask Deputy Martin to move the motion.
I will do so but I ask the Government representative, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, if he would be prepared to amend the Order of Business so that the House could discuss and debate this unprecedented situation. I know the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is in a difficult position but it is absolutely unprecedented that another member state parliament would have access to our budget details before the Irish Parliament and, if we are to believe Ministers, before the Cabinet has seen them, although I doubt this somehow because the Cabinet would have been aware of the increase in VAT.
To be fair, the Government wanted Friday sittings to be meaningful and effective. The public who are watching find it hard to believe that the Dáil is not in a position to discuss or debate such an unprecedented issue-----
-----which demands an explanation and clarification from the Government side as to who knew what about how details of the forthcoming budget was put before 40 members of the German Parliament. It is absolutely unprecedented and I ask the Minister to agree to change the Order of Business.
This was agreed yesterday. I have to ask the Deputy to move the motion for the reading of the Bill. We are here for this purpose otherwise I adjourn the House, it is as simple as that. I again ask the Deputy to move the Bill.
If I could ask for the guidance of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Is it possible to arrange for a five minute suspension to allow a discussion between the Whips? If it cannot be agreed within five minutes, we will come back and discuss it. I propose a suspension of business for five minutes in order to have a chat with the Whips to see if we can reach agreement.
I am very disappointed. This reflects badly on the commitment to Dáil reform and to the promised transparency that we are unable to discuss this matter. I note the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is smiling but it is a very serious matter when the German Parliament discusses the Irish budget before the Irish Parliament does so. It is unprecedented.
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In February, nearly every Member of this House stood on a platform of banning corporate donations. There was no equivocation and no party put a get-out clause in the footnotes of its manifesto. This is a reform which the public demand and which we have a duty to deliver sooner, not later.
Deep restrictions on corporate donations can be introduced in legislation but a complete ban can only be implemented by amending the Constitution. The text which is contained in this Bill incorporates the simple and powerful premise that elections should be funded by the people entitled to vote in elections. No organisation or company has a vote and their complete removal from the funding of parties would be an important symbol in the battle to restore faith in Irish politics. This is the first constitutional amendment to be considered by the House since the Oireachtas inquiries measure was defeated. We have to consider the manner in which the Government mishandled that referendum and the public anger at being taken for granted. Inflexible and arrogant Ministers refused to accept that anyone else could have a valid opinion and they chose to attack people personally rather than consider their arguments. Therefore, we need to consider in this debate how we should go beyond the normal Oireachtas scrutiny procedures before this measure would be referred to the public. If this Bill is passed, there is time to hold inclusive consultations, agree amendments and facilitate an informed public debate. A vote can and should be held before Easter next year.
This is the second occasion since the general election that I have brought legislation on corporate donations before the House. In May, I introduced a Bill to enact a range of restrictions which would, to all intents and purposes, have led to an immediate end to corporate donations. At that stage I acknowledged that a constitutional amendment would be required for a full and unchallengeable ban. The core of that Bill involved measures which are indistinguishable from those which the Government claims it wishes to implement. At the conclusion of the debate last May, 99 Deputies who had been elected on the platform of banning corporate donations, voted against it. Speaker after speaker on the Government side did not talk about the Bill but instead made cheap political attacks. It was a cynical display which had the required effect. Both Government parties were left free to ramp up their corporate fund-raising ahead of the presidential election.
Labour targeted businesses through fund-raising letters and Fine Gael did it by means of exclusive events such as the K-Club golf fund-raiser.
Given that it failed to spend anything near that amount in support of Gay Mitchell MEP, it might use this debate as an opportunity to explain what has happened to the rest of the money. The only credible speech during the previous debate was made by the then Minister of State, Deputy Penrose. In spite of prompting from the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to be more partisan, he had the good grace to say that an enormous amount of regulation on political donations has already been introduced. He read a long list of measures that were enacted by the last Government. He supported the thrust of Fianna Fáil's Bill, but cited a series of technicalities in opposing it. Other than that, the Government speakers concentrated, as they do in most debates, on trying to cover their embarrassment by attacking their predecessors. New and seasoned Government Deputies spoke about people having the cheek to introduce the Bill and I expect we will hear more of this today.
Contributions of this nature confirm that the Government parties do not have the merest understanding of this issue. As far as they are concerned, they do not have to detain themselves with examining their own record. They think ethics should concern other people. Who can forget the attack made by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on journalists who had the temerity to ask why he was appointing a donor to a senior State position? During Leaders' Questions yesterday, the Government was challenged on behaviour worse than anything it had previously condemned. Its response was to shout down its opponents and shut down debate.
I have spoken at length in this House and elsewhere about past serious failings in my party in the area of fundraising. I intend to introduce further voluntary reforms as part of our reform of our rules. I will respond quickly and without equivocation to the findings of the Mahon tribunal when they are published. In contrast, we have never heard a single Deputy from another party willing to admit any failings in his or her party's history of fundraising. Justice Moriarty produced a detailed report which found that tens of thousands of euro were spent on targeting Fine Gael to get its assistance in winning a valuable State licence. Not one member of Fine Gael has been willing to acknowledge that evidence. Similarly, Fine Gael has failed to acknowledge how much of the Mahon tribunal relates to its councillors. For Fine Gael, accountability is for other people.
There are two differences between Fine Gael's fundraisers at the K Club and in Cricklewood and the Galway tent it loves to mention so frequently. First, the Galway tent stopped four years ago. Second, journalists could see who was there. It takes some neck for Fine Gael Ministers to talk about developers while raising funds from the same people. One of the first things the Taoiseach did when he became leader of Fine Gael nine years ago was to reintroduce corporate donations. Every time I raise the need to implement the promised ban on corporate donations, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, takes the lead in heckling me. He generally says that I have a nerve to raise the issue. It never ceases to amaze me that he and the Tánaiste believe no one has the right to ask about the fundraising histories of their parties. The Tánaiste claims not to remember the name of his first party. He cannot deny the overwhelming evidence of massive illegal fundraising, including robbery and counterfeiting, that was used to fund that party for nearly 20 years.
A number of Ministers plead amnesia about what happened in the building that housed their headquarters. They like to forget that much of their early campaign literature was printed by Repsol, the printing presses of which were used for the mass production of fake currency. Direct funding from a totalitarian dictatorship came on top of this. The operations of a body known as Group B are set out most clearly in an excellent book, The Lost Revolution, which is about the Ministers' former party. It would be good for the Labour Party's current and previous leaders to tell the public what they know about the funding of the party they were members of when they first became public representatives.
Sinn Féin has had much to say about the past fundraising of others. In light of its record, no one takes this seriously. Sinn Féin beats anyone when it comes to a history of sinister fundraising. Those who think the sins of the past concern other people do not understand the problem. Speeches that allow for no self-criticism are nothing but hypocritical cant. In answer to the old question about why we did nothing for 14 years, I remind the House that we did a lot.
The speech made by Deputy Penrose last May contained a great deal of good detail on how the legal regulation of political funding has been radically reformed since abuses were investigated in Dublin Castle. Nearly every piece of these reforms was proposed or enacted by Fianna Fáil Governments with the assistance of coalition partners. My former colleague, Michael Smith, was the first Minister to publish a Bill to regulate political funding. He proposed the framework of limiting donations that is still in place. Under that system, donations over a certain limit have to be declared and full declarations of campaign spending have to be made. Another of my former colleagues, John O'Donoghue, introduced legislation which put in place strong penalties for the breaching of various controls and required the establishment of separate political accounts. When we ended the practice of raising funds from non-citizens in other countries, it was loudly opposed by Sinn Féin, which claimed it would somehow endanger the peace process.
In international terms, Ireland has a tough regulatory regime for political fundraising and campaign spending. Our donation, declaration and spending limits are much lower than those in most countries. Many of the donations Sinn Féin has received in Northern Ireland over the past 14 years could not legally be made in this jurisdiction. Most of the abuses of the past are not possible under current law. None of the defences used to justify the worst behaviour can now be deployed.
Despite all these changes, the faith of the public in the cleanliness of politics is extremely low. Part of this is historic and part of it is a reflection of the opportunism of politicians who try to say it is nothing to do with them. Most of it results from a core belief that elections should be funded and decided by the people alone. Corporate entities, commercial or otherwise, should play no role when it comes to elections. Most politicians say it is unfair to assume they can be influenced by a donation from a business which amounts to a fraction of the cost of campaigning. While it may be unfair, it is clear that there were abuses in the past. That has been evident at the Moriarty tribunal and elsewhere. The public has a fixed will on this matter. The need to restore public faith in politics is the most important objective for this Dáil. The introduction of a ban on corporate donations will not restore public trust by itself. It is important to proceed with other measures to reduce declaration and donation limits, increase scrutiny of party accounts and address large-scale pre-campaign spending.
The text of the proposed amendment is simple. It specifies that the only funding which may be provided for political campaigns should come from those entitled to vote in the relevant election. It further provides that limits on donations and their public declaration may be prescribed by law. The intention of this is to copperfasten existing legislation and avoid the risk of future cases, such as those recently seen in the United States, which have dramatically undermined the control of political donations. The amendment, as drafted, would remove the right of non-resident citizens to make political donations. This is being done to underpin the idea that elections should be funded by those entitled to vote in them. It should be noted that the ability of the Irish authorities to properly oversee such fundraising is close to non-existent. They cannot compel the disclosure of information or the attendance of witnesses, or take any serious step to ensure laws are being complied with. In the past, the Labour Party argued for the retention of its privileged funding from trade unions. It lifted this demand last December. Such a ban would be covered by this amendment.
This text takes a core principle and enacts it in a simple and direct way. This is not to say I do not think improvements are possible. I do not subscribe to the Government's approach, which is to think that everything that bears its name should be pushed through the House unamended. Deputies who served before this Dáil will acknowledge that I brought a number of constitutional amendments through the Oireachtas in my time and accepted many changes to the text of both those amendments and supporting legislation. The legislative process must be seen to work and amending proposals during the passage of legislation is essential to this.
Irrespective of the issues Deputies raise during this debate, this is not a complicated issue. It is one on which we should all be able to agree a text on Committee Stage. In contrast to the handling of the recent referendums, the passage of Second Stage of this legislation should be followed by a new approach. Specifically, Committee Stage should first involve the hearing of witnesses on the implications of the text. Instead of waiting until the campaign to allow people have their say, they should be invited in at a stage where reasonable amendments can be accepted. Legal, academic and broader experts should be invited in and asked to suggest improvements to the wording. Once this is done, we could then reflect the evidence in the text. In addition, once a text is agreed, we should establish a referendum commission - at a minimum two months ahead of polling day - and reflect this when we pass the Final Stages and when the Minister signs the order for polling.
There is no need to delay proceeding with this matter. It should not be referred to the constitutional convention and it does not require negotiation on the core principle. If the Government is unhappy with the text, let it introduce amendments on Committee Stage. Following the debate in May and this debate, Deputies will have had more than enough time to reflect their views on the issue of corporate donations. What is required is detailed work on the exact text to be put to the people.
In the case of a number of Fianna Fáil Private Members' Bills, the Government has been eager not to be seen to vote against them but to stop them nonetheless. As a result, it has adopted the device of letting them through Second Stage but denying them any further time. This procedure has been used at different times over the years but it is now getting out of hand, with the Government working over-time to find ways to both support and oppose reform in the same vote.
If the Government is not going to allow this Bill receive a proper consideration and the chance to pass, then it should do the honest thing and vote against it today. It should not pretend to be in favour of banning corporate donations in open debate but stop it from becoming law through parliamentary manoeuvres. The Government has promised this referendum and the Opposition supports it. We do not want to waste any more time before getting to work on the specific proposal to be put to the people.
Political reform was one of the biggest themes in the general election. Since then, it has played a major role in the programme for Government and in ministerial speeches and yet there has been no actual political reform. In fact, even regressive moves like reducing the Taoiseach's accountability to the Dáil has been hailed by the Government as being political reform. This is the triumph of hype over substance.
When the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government can describe the potential reduction of the Dáil by up to six Members as a major reform, it is now clear that the reform agenda has not even begun.
Equally, when the German Parliament is given more information about the budget than the Dáil, the Government's claims that it wants to increase the powers of the Oireachtas are exposed as empty.
Let us all make a start on actually delivering on the promise of reform made in February by passing this Second Stage debate on this Bill and allowing the public and experts to contribute to shaping its final form. The broken promises are piling up every day for this Government. Even the clearest commitments made in front of the nation are being abandoned while fiscal circumstances today are exactly as they were when the promises were made.
The Government cannot pretend the IMF is stopping it from agreeing to quickly ban corporate political donations and it cannot claim that the budget is forcing it to abandon its promise to fast action. It achieved its objective of being able to fund the presidential election under the old rules by voting down the ban proposed in May. There is no excuse left.
Today, let us agree that all parties will combine to start delivering on a promise of reform we all freely made to the people when asking for their vote.
There are probably few times in life that if one struck a match, the irony would be so intense that there would be a combustion but this is certainly one of them. To hear Deputy Martin talk about hypocritical cant while delivering hypocritical cant is hard to stomach.
Fianna Fáil and the former Minister, Deputy Martin, clearly feel the need to purge themselves of the past and that is understandable. At least they now accept they have a past of which they might purge themselves. The fact that since the foundation of the State, Fianna Fáil has been in government for more than 60 years cannot go unmentioned.
Deputy Martin spoke about the need to change perception that big business can buy influence by financially supporting the election funds of parties or candidates, which is correct, but Fianna Fáil created this monster and not just over the past 14 years when it was in government but as far back as the days of Lemass. Fianna Fáil State board appointees were party people. That was an open secret. In fairness, there was little or no remuneration associated with these board positions but a deal with the devil was struck. The deal was political patronage.
Over time, this kind of cronyism infected every strand of public life. For instance, a young teacher could only get the job in the local school if the father knew the local Fianna Fáil Deputy who sat on the board and who would, in turn, give the local priest on the school board the nod.
Plum jobs in commercial semi-States were kept for "its own" and it was all about who one knew and not what one knew. The lads in the mohair suits introduced money into the equation and Taca was born and the people of this State are still paying the price.
The inflated price of land and corrupting relationship Fianna Fáil fostered with developers started way back in the early days of Taca. This, of course, has been well documented. Taca may have been shut down in the 1970s but lessons had been learned. Dublin's beautiful and historic architecture was torn asunder for a quick buck.
Over the years land continued to get more expensive and a small number of developers grew in size and capacity. Huge amounts of EU Structural Funds landed in the coffers for massive road building projects and the like and gradually the golden circle was completed. Colleagues on the Fianna Fáil benches will not simply eradicate more than 60 years of sponsored cronyism with a single Bill no matter how much they wish or need to cleanse themselves of their past.
Let us not forget that under the watch of its current leader, then a senior Cabinet Minister, Opposition Deputies over many years regularly and loudly demanded legislation to tackle corporate donations but to no avail. It was not interested.
Perhaps that was because to have introduced this kind of radical change would have been to completely alter the DNA of successive Fianna Fáil leaderships. Government policy was designed to help developers and speculators to make huge profits for which ordinary taxpayers are now paying.
A bank without any systemic importance to the State was bailed out because of connections between those involved and those in government.
This culture fostered cosy relations with vested interests, big business and those with the big bucks and it spread beyond any single party and corrupted the entire political system.
The confidence of citizens has been utterly shattered. To this day, we still have a situation in which the Judiciary is made up of those appointed by, and close to, Government. They are seen by citizens as an elite far removed from the realities of their lives.
Sinn Féin is clear on where it stands and whose interests it represents. Sinn Féin wants to dismantle the golden circles that for too long have been protected by the establishment parties. Sinn Féin wants accountability and transparency in public life. While Fianna Fáil may wish to tackle perceptions, Sinn Féin wants to break the corrupting culture of cronyism that has done this State and our people such a grave disservice.
We will support this Bill as we want an end to corporate donations but we also want root-and-branch reform in political life. We want to see an end to political appointments to State boards. There needs to be a transparent system of appointments to State bodies in which all vacancies are advertised, open to the general public to apply and full membership of boards easily accessed. Remuneration should only be what is required by appointees to carry out their responsibilities on the board. Giving the relevant Oireachtas committee a role in scrutinising appointments to State boards is necessary but not enough. The committees must have the final say and veto in these appointments. Anyone on a State body who acts in a proven way against the public interest should be removed from it.
Sinn Féin wants to end the culture of excessive high pay and pensions for the very few at the top. Of 300,000 public sector workers, just 7,000 people earn over €100,000 a year. The majority in the public sector earn a modest income and those salaries must be protected. Those at the very top cannot continue to be sheltered from the kind of necessary root-and-branch reform of public life. It is a scandal that the salaries of those in high office can often be 14 times the minimum wage. The Minister for Social Protection, for example, earns nearly 18 times what a social welfare recipient gets. How can it be acceptable that when a Deputy becomes a Minister, his or her salary more than doubles overnight?
We have called for a change in the law to allow for the impeachment or removal from the Dáil of any Deputy involved in corruption, deliberate misuse of public money or fraud. Whatever legislative changes are required must be made to go after and secure for the State the personal assets of those developers and bankers involved in NAMA and the bank bailouts.
Sinn Féin believes all political parties must publish an independently audited set of accounts each year including income and expenditure accounts and a party balance sheet. This is a requirement up the road in the North and is a routine exercise Sinn Féin does every year. I am not trying to claim credit but to set it down as an established practice for every political party.
We want legislation introduced to prevent former Ministers or senior civil servants moving straight from Government Departments, taking insider knowledge with them, to bodies trying to wield influence over Government policies. We want to see the establishment of a register of lobbyists.
The time for ending of corporate donations is long overdue. The Fine Gael-Labour Government has no excuse or reason to falter on this matter. It must act speedily and this Bill must be supported by all sides of the House. As critical an issue as corporate donations are, we would be gravely mistaken if we were to believe that by dealing with it alone we will have rehabilitated the political system, politicians and political parties. Sinn Féin believes other measures are necessary to build confidence in the political system among the public and to strengthen our democratic system.
On a separate matter raised earlier by Deputy Martin, I also believe the Government must make time for a discussion in the Dáil for the turn of events yesterday which saw a committee of the German Parliament scrutinise a document in respect of the Irish budget.
Those of us on the Oireachtas finance committee heard about this during a plenary session of the committee. Public confidence is not assisted in any way when politicians from Germany have access to information on budgetary measures which will affect the citizens of this State.
Fianna Fáil's rotten relationship with big business, developers, bankers, and the super-wealthy has destroyed our economy. It has plunged 500,000 people into unemployment with tens of thousands leaving the country. Some of the most vulnerable sectors of our society are being punished in the most obscene way for the crimes Fianna Fáil committed.
They do not have jobs now thanks to Fianna Fáil. The Fianna Fáil Members should be holding their heads in shame for what they have done. I could take this Bill seriously if those Members put their hands up to say they were guilty of wrecking our economy and imposing unbelievable suffering on working people, the vulnerable and the poor.
Fianna Fáil Members, however, have not done so. They have not acknowledged their role in doing untold damage to the economy. We do not know if we will ever recover from what they have done. The idea of Fianna Fáil Members standing up here to pretend they are the champions of cleaning up political corruption after their rotten relationship with big business is simply staggering. Fianna Fáil is the A-Team of creating the conditions for political corruption which has devastated our economy and our society. The new Government, and specifically Fine Gael, is the B-Team which is coming up fast behind Fianna Fáil.
How can one take seriously the Government's commitments on dealing with political corruption and the rotten relationship between big business and politics when at the recent forum it held in Dublin Castle to discuss how we can get out of this crisis it had present Mr. Denis O'Brien, a man who we know from the debate here on the Moriarty tribunal has major questions to answer, to put it mildly, about the way he got the second mobile telephone licence and the involvement of a former Fine Gael Minister in taking money from Mr. O'Brien during the time that licence was up for grabs? It beggars belief that the Government would invite this man who is a tax exile to discuss how we should get out of this crisis which was caused by corporate vultures and people who did not believe they should pay taxes or that taxes were only for the little people. How can we take seriously the commitments of a Government which rightly condemned the Galway tent but is involved in organising golf classics where developers and wealthy individuals make significant contributions to the huge election campaign fund of Fine Gael in the last election, a fund that was clearly boosted in a very significant way by major corporate donations? I find it very difficult to take any of the Members opposite seriously. We will support this proposal but we need to go much further.
One simple measure we could start with is to put severe limits on election spending. We would be doing the ordinary members of the population who are inflicted with posters on every lamp post and inundated with leaflet after leaflet or wall to wall advertisements during elections-----
-----in terms of them being able to serve on the boards of corporations where there is a conflict of interest. That is a practice that continues where people walk out of very senior jobs in Government and the public service and go straight on to the boards of big business, which often they have been dealing with directly in particular areas only weeks or months previously.
We cannot deal with the issue of political corruption unless we deal with the gross inequalities in wealth. As long as 5% of the population have 40% of the wealth they will always corrupt politics. Anyone who is serious about dealing with the corruption in politics must deal with the gross inequalities in wealth, and that means imposing taxes on the super wealthy in our society whom both Government parties cosset consistently and refuse consistently to take some of their wealth off them to make a contribution to our society.
There is no wrong time to do the right thing. In that context I will support this legislation but it is only a small part of what is needed. If the Government is to put forward a proposal such as this one, it must have the moral authority to do so. It is a little like having one's house robbed and then inviting back the robber to design the security system. I cannot think of anything that more aptly describes for me how I feel about the people who are proposing this measure.
Moral authority is important in terms of this legislation. If we look back to the foundation of the State, and we must do that in terms of examining the culture of our political parties, and Fianna Fáil in particular, and my grandparents were involved in Fianna Fáil-----
Fianna Fáil rewarded loyalty and embedded its people in the early part of the State to change the culture, which was understandable at that time. All of those who took part in the Easter Rising were looked after. My own grandparents took part in the Rising and that is the reason they were looked after, but that loyalty began to change. Deputy McDonald was right, and it is a point I have made also, when she stated that this loyalty changed mid-way through the decade when instead of rewarding those who were loyal to an organisation, a philosophy or a culture TACA was established.
It transferred the loyalty to a powerful elite and the rewards were given to those who funded the party and who kept it in power, and the object was to stay in power. I would say many of its membership believes their influence was lost in that context.
We have ended up with a corrupting influence in terms of that ethos where industries such as the construction industry decided the kind of development we had in this country. For example, we have ended up with a dispersed pattern of development where it is difficult and more expensive to provide public transport systems, water and waste water systems or build communities rather than just building houses because it has been dictated by the elite. We ended up with an inflated bubble in terms of the property market where people's homes became commodities. It was not even good for the construction sector because many of the people who worked during that era are working in Australia, Canada or other countries, if they are working at all. The relationship in terms of power, the elite and money has determined all of what happened. Moral authority and political culture are important in regard to this legislation.
Elections can be run very cheaply. I have done it on a number of occasions. When we consider the donations under the Standards in Public Office Commission, we see people in constituencies who have used big billboards, have three or four different headquarters and take out full page advertisements in the newspapers, yet they say they have spent less than other candidates. One knows that cannot be possible and that the declaration cannot be right but if one complains about it, one is told it is sour grapes. The Standards in Public Office Commission is toothless because it does not have an enforcement arm which can act when a complaint is made. For example, in the past nine years the Fine Gael Party has not declared a single corporate donation, while the Labour Party has not declared any corporate donations in the past four years. It appears only the smaller parties make declarations. These facts tell us something about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the Standards in Public Office Commission. Enforcement must mean something and declarations must be about more than form-filling. We can see where the money is being spent and every year SIPO draws attention to the gap between what is spent and what is declared. The current position brings to mind the black hole which was suddenly plugged when a tax amnesty was introduced in another context.
The proposed amendment to the Constitution is necessary. While I will support the legislation, I find it offensive that it has been proposed by those who created the problem through their political culture.
The debate on this Bill is timely. The Government will, in the coming weeks, publish its own legislation to bring about sweeping reforms of political funding arrangements which my predecessors failed to do. The legislation will be based on the general scheme of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill the Government published in June.
I remind Deputy Martin that it was the Government which placed the issue of political reform on the agenda. We raised these issues during the general election campaign following 14 years in which his party did not do anything about them. We received an electoral mandate on political reform on which we will deliver.
I could talk about corporate and political memory from the point of view of Fianna Fáil.
Deputy McDonald outlined many of the proposals which form part of the programme for Government and we look forward to her support in these matters. She would make a major contribution if she were to inform the House about the balance sheet to which she referred in respect of the golden circle Sinn Féin has in the United States. Perhaps she will tell us how much money her party has raised since 2007 and what it did with these moneys. It would be an important development in terms of Sinn Féin's bona fides on the issue of cleaning up politics if the Deputy were to indicate what her party does with the extensive funding it raises outside this jurisdiction.
Most people in public life have come to the conclusion that corporate donations need to be curtailed. It is better to have a system of funding based on a large number of small donations from citizens, rather than a small number of large donations from big business. The Bill before us represents a conversion to that position by the Fianna Fáil Party after 14 years in office during which this issue was neither mentioned nor mooted. While I welcome its conversion, it is a form of hypocritical politics to which I do not subscribe.
What action did the Deputy's party take in 14 years in power?
Unfortunately the Bill, as framed, would not achieve its apparent objective and the Government is pursuing a more practical approach. I also recall that Deputy Martin, when he introduced a Private Members' Bill in May, indicated that if the Government approved the Bill, it would not give rise to any difficulties. In the middle of the debate, however, his party changed its mind and stated it would require constitutional amendment. Today we see the result of its change of mind in May.
The Government opposed the Fianna Fáil Party Bill on the basis that the party changed its mind during the debate. We outlined a number of flaws in the legislation which Fianna Fáil accepted.
This is a little like the old story of standing at the bus stop. After 14 years of waiting for legislation from Fianna Fáil in government to regulate corporate donations, two Bills have shown up in quick succession from Fianna Fáil in opposition. We have long since given up waiting.
The Government has a mandate to reform political funding and is fulfilling that mandate. We will welcome any support we receive in this work and we will be open to ideas and suggestions from any quarter when our legislation comes before the House.
The Bill before us is an attempt to make constitutional provision for an outright ban on corporate donations to political parties and will not work in its current form. It is proposed that an additional article be inserted in the Constitution. Only citizens and others entitled to vote at elections in the State would be entitled to make political donations to organisations or people involved in political campaigning. An exception is made for voters entitled to elect persons to the six university seats in the Seanad. If it was inserted, the amendment would result in the total burden for supporting politicians, political parties and political campaigns falling on voters and taxpayers. Rightly or wrongly, that would be the consequence and if that is what the House wishes to do, perhaps we can arrange a debate on the issue in the next couple of weeks.
It is proposed that a new Article 29A be inserted in the part of the Constitution dealing with international relations. I assume this is an attempt to acknowledge there are international commitments that need to be considered in attempting to ban corporate donations. Even if it was feasible in the context of the Constitution to ban corporate donations to political parties, issues arise in the context of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights deals with freedom of expression, article 11 addresses freedom of association, while article 14 is entitled "freedom from discrimination and the enjoyment of convention rights.
Article 63 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union makes provision for the free movement of capital. The regulations governing political parties at European level do not distinguish between donations from natural or legal persons - both categories may give donations.
Has the party opposite given sufficient attention to the compatibility of its proposed amendment with these legal instruments? It would appear it has not done so because the proposed insertion does not make sense in the context of its intended placement in the Constitution. Aside from the wording of the amendment and other technical issues, it is reasonable to suggest the amendment is being made in the wrong place. International considerations are a factor but political donations are not about international relations.
As the Deputies opposite will be aware, an outright ban on corporate donations raises particular questions with reference to the provisions of Article 40 of the Constitution on freedom of expression and freedom of association. The proposed amendment would need to be balanced against these rights and it is not clear that the Fianna Fáil Party amendment would do this.
The Bill proposes that the restrictions would apply to "political donations to organisations or people involved in political campaigning". The terms "political donations" and "political campaigning" are not defined further. The terms used in the constitutional amendment are different from those used in the legislation that regulates political funding, namely, the Electoral Act 1997. We could end up with one set of terms and definitions used in the Constitution and another set used in legislation enacted by the Oireachtas. This would not be a desirable outcome. While I acknowledge that these are technical points, in proposing to amend the Constitution we must be precise about technical matters.
This amendment, as worded, could also have far-reaching consequences which may not have been considered. As framed, the constitutional amendment could reasonably be interpreted as including philanthropic contributions to charities or non-governmental organisations which engage in advocacy work. After all, advocacy work could be regarded as political campaigning. Many organisations that provide services for the marginalised also act as their voice. Such groups could face a stark choice and either be curtailed in providing services or silenced. Neither option is palatable. For example, the functioning of a group which provides services for people with disabilities while also promoting awareness of their needs could be restricted by this Bill. This refers not to the hidden hand of some large corporate donor seeking to influence politics but normal, acceptable activities in a democratic society. As presented, Ireland's public sphere of policy debate could be significantly diminished as a result of this constitutional amendment, which appears to say one thing but could end up doing something else.
In proposing a unilateral constitutional amendment it appears regard has not been had to other possible consequences that could arise. Currently there are mutually compatible systems for the regulation of political donations operating in both jurisdictions on the island. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin should be well aware of these arrangements. A constitutional amendment would, therefore, have implications for North-South and east-west relations. The regulatory regime for donations to political parties in Northern Ireland allows donations by certain Irish citizens and bodies in accordance with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The system in Northern Ireland, which differs from that applicable in Scotland, England and Wales, was the outcome of negotiations between the authorities in both jurisdictions.
Adjustment of the regime for political donations in this jurisdiction may have implications for the British system as it relates to donations from this State to Northern Ireland political parties. These issues are being examined in preparing the Government's Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. Consideration of the impact of a constitutional amendment on the maintenance of the agreed approach to the regulation of political funding would be advisable before such an option is pursued.
In being critical of the proposed constitutional amendment before us, I also want to be constructive. In finding fault, it is also important to offer solutions. In a matter of weeks the Government will publish a Bill to reform and further regulate political funding. I will outline some of the main provisions of that Bill. I will return to these in greater detail when I will hopefully have an opportunity to speak further in this debate.
The Government Bill will restrict corporate donations to politicians and political parties through a system of registration of donors. It will significantly reduce the amounts that can be accepted as political donations and will significantly reduce the thresholds for declaring political donations. The Bill will require the submission by political parties of their annual accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication. As an incentive to encourage political parties to apply a more equal gender balance in the selection of candidates, State funding for political parties will be halved if they do not have at least 30% female and 30% male candidates at the next general election. This will rise to 40% after seven years.
I am serious about bringing about change to a political system badly in need of reform. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 was enacted on 25 July 2011, less than five months after the Government took office. As part of the agenda to make the political system leaner and more efficient for citizens, the terms of reference for the Constituency Commission have been changed by this Act to provide for a reduced number of Deputies. The Act also reduced the spending limits at presidential elections from €1.3 million to €750,000 and reduced the amount that candidates can be reimbursed for expenses from €260,000 to €200,000. These revised arrangements were in place for the presidential election. This signal of restraint in spending by those in public life is exactly the kind of thing that we need to do in these difficult times. The Act also provided that all Dáil by-elections are called within six months of a vacancy arising. As the recent holding of the Dublin West by-election demonstrates, we have shown our commitment to both the letter and spirit of this new law.
The party opposite set out its stall for reform with an incomplete and ineffective political donations Bill. That Bill is now accompanied by a constitutional amendment that in a generous interpretation needs further work, and from a less benign perspective could do more harm than good.
I do not take issue with much of what has been said so far. I want to reiterate that the potential exists for undue influence to arise, to the detriment of the wider public good, from the corporate funding of politics. In addition to the potential for actual corruption to exist, the perception that there is some form of mutually beneficial relationship in operation between politics and business can have a corrosive impact on public trust. This is based on the view that the corporate funding of politics contributes to a public belief that those who pay can exert inappropriate influence in the formation of policy.
The Government approach in reforming political funding is more comprehensive, ambitious, and in a crucial test which the proposal before us today does not pass, it is an approach that will work. On behalf of the Government, therefore, I am opposing this Bill.
l welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue of corporate donations in the House. The issue of funding political parties has been debated over many decades. In Ireland, we have always favoured political parties doing their own fundraising and we have the declarable amounts for which we are all obliged to account to the Standards in Public Office Commission. These regulations are important and most of them were implemented by the Fianna Fáil Party in government. This will never be acknowledged by the parties in the current Government.
I believe in politics. Politics is important to a functioning democracy and is something that this House should protect and seek to enhance. All Members believe that we can do without the smears and innuendo that result from corporate donations to political parties. This was even mentioned in the infamous Fine Gael Party five point plan during the recent general election. The Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party made many promises before the election in February and we have seen how they have cynically played out over the past nine months.
Over 20,000 students demonstrated on Wednesday about a brazen pledge - one of many - to reverse the registration fee. The Labour Party cheated the students. They knew they would not be reducing the fee as the Minister for Education and Skills and the Tánaiste were both well aware of the economic circumstances in which Ireland finds itself. It was an empty cynical pre-election promise.
The Fine Gael and Labour parties promised in the programme for Government "to introduce the necessary legal and constitutional provisions to ban corporate donations to political parties". If today's Bill is voted through, it will allow us to do that. The Government voted against our legislative proposals last April on political donations. Is it the case that the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party have become so arrogant that they will not take any constructive proposals from this side of the House? They should keep their promise and accept this Bill.
There are many members of all parties who sacrifice their time organising draws, golf classics and church collections as part of their political activity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this practice. Elections are an expensive business as everyone in this House knows. What is unfair is the perception that all fundraising for political parties is wrong or that people only donate because there is something in it for them. This is a very cynical view of political activity and it is nearly always applied to people in my own party.
It was a rare occasion indeed over the years when we heard people discussing the rights and wrongs of a percentage of trade union subscriptions automatically going to the Labour Party or how the Fine Gael Party went about its fundraising. We all know that the Fianna Fáil Party had a tent in Galway and the Fine Gael Party had a tent in Punchestown, not to mention a recent under-reported fundraising event in the Crown Moran Hotel in Cricklewood, London - attended by the Taoiseach - and other fundraising arenas at home and abroad. To be fair, no one can accuse the Fine Gael Party of robbing a bank. I find it rich to listen to Sinn Féin Members speaking about the Fianna Fáil DNA and Fianna Fáil Party fundraising activities. It was the Sinn Féin policy of the balaclava, the boot boy, the sawn-off shotgun and the army fatigue that spilled the DNA of a garda in my constituency in Adare, County Limerick.
The Fianna Fáil Party is committed to banning corporate donations and this commitment was in our last programme for Government. We tried to introduce legislation in April but it was rejected by the current Government. Our Bill would have effectively introduced a ban on the receipt of direct donations to political parties from businesses and corporations, including trade unions. It was hoped that the Bill would bring more openness and transparency to how all political parties are funded. Perhaps it was too soon after the Moriarty tribunal was published and the Government did not want to support the Bill in case the timing was not right.
Notwithstanding the rejection of our Bill in April, I firmly believe that huge damage has been done to the public perception of politics due to the allegations of improper payments from business to politicians of all parties that have flowed from the Moriarty and Flood tribunals over the past 20 years. Our proposals in April would also have legislated for how non-party independent candidates were funded. This is also important as this Dáil has the highest number of independent candidates in the history of the State.
If we, as elected representatives of the people, want to ensure that there is no misinterpretation of donations, there should be an outright ban on corporate donations. This referendum Bill is clear and unambiguous. We should all want public confidence in the operation of the political system. Elections should only be funded by people entitled to vote in them. Accepting this Bill will dramatically increase levels of transparency in political funding and expenditure in Ireland.
If Fine Gael Party and Labour Party Members claim they are against corporate donations but vote against this Bill, that would be yet another cynical act of hypocrisy. As recently as 11 April, the Taoiseach told Midwest Radio that banning corporate donations is a priority for the Government. This Bill will specifically test that commitment. It gives everyone the opportunity to deliver on their election promises and to walk the walk on the issue of banning corporate donations.
It is an absolute disgrace that we are here for a Friday sitting when we hear of events in the German Parliament on Irish budgetary matters, yet there is only one member of the Government and one Minister of State. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and all other members of the Government are not here, with one exception. It is a disgrace that Dáil Éireann is sitting on a Friday and we do not have the wherewithal to discuss this issue. Irish budgetary matters are being discussed in a foreign parliament yet are not being discussed in this Parliament. It reflects badly on the Government that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are not here, having created this charade of a Friday sitting, when all we are allowed to do is debate Second Stage of a Bill. We cannot have any direct questions to Ministers or get to the bottom of how these documents appeared in the German Parliament and not here first.
A number of Deputies, particularly on the Fianna Fáil benches, have expressed their anger and dismay about the fact that the German Parliament had a look at documents concerning a VAT increase in Ireland. It is extraordinary hypocrisy for Fianna Fáil members to mention this, given that it was they who did their deal principally with the German taxpayer, who is paying the Deputies' wages and mine at the moment and keeping the lights on in this House.
They are kicking up a fuss about the release of information that every dog in the street knows, about a possible increase in VAT. There are more important issues, to do with the number of young people leaving the country and the lack of employment, which we might spend more time talking about rather than being offended by German parliamentarians seeing a document.
With regard to the Bill we are discussing, I want to declare my position on corporate donations. All parties in principle support the banning of corporate donations to political parties. I am delighted to say, as one of the new people on the block, that I have never applied to any corporate entity for a donation, nor have I have never taken one. I am sure I am not the only one in the House to be in that position. Other people can express their own opinions about it, including people in my own party, the Labour Party. I am not opposed to corporate donations per se, but what I am opposed to is undeclared donations, as in other jurisdictions. As a Labour Party Deputy, I am opposed to corporate donations, but if they are to exist, let us make sure we know who is giving money and who is receiving it.
I listened to Deputy Martin at the beginning of this debate and previously, some weeks ago, when the Bill was introduced initially. He expressed some anger at the attitude of people on the Government side, in Sinn Féin and among the Independents who raised the hypocrisy of Fianna Fáil in introducing a Bill to ban corporate donations. I do not know why it should surprise Deputy Martin or others on the Fianna Fáil side - this is all I will say about it apart from expressing my dismay that they would raise the issue - because it is a bit like Al Capone applying for Frank Daly's job as a Revenue Commissioner. For Fianna Fáil, of all parties - the party that destroyed the country and survived on corporate donations from the time of its foundation up to today - to introduce a Bill on political donations is unbelievable. It is extraordinary that the Fianna Fáil Members would have the cheek to come into this Parliament and lecture others about donations.
Another thing mentioned on the Fianna Fáil benches this morning was the relationship between the Labour Party and trade unions. I am not sure to what extent Fianna Fáil Deputies read their social history of Ireland or their labour history of Ireland, with a small L, but now and again they and some journalists throw out the issue. I am a trade unionist. Those Deputies are making a judgment that the relationship between trade unions and the Labour party is equivalent to that between big businesses and Fianna Fáil. It is not. One of the differences is that the trade union movement existed in Ireland long before the Labour Party did; in fact, it was out of the trade union movement that the Labour Party came, 99 years ago in Clonmel. We celebrate our centenary next year. The people at the first meeting where the Labour Party was set up were ordinary people, most of them with the arses out of their trousers. They were not big business people. I ask people to reflect, when they try to make this comparison between people with different histories or somehow throw in the trade union movement when they talk about donations to the Labour Party, on the fact that one came before the other. I make no apologies for the relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party, given the role that trade unions have played in this country in improving the quality of life of ordinary workers. I am proud of it.
I reiterate that, as part of this Government, I will be supporting the new legislation if, as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has outlined, it is transparent. If there are corporate donations, we need to know who applied for them and who gave them. Ultimately, I will be happy with that.
There is probably no one here who will argue in favour of corporate donations, and rightly so. We have learned the damage that can be done. I am actually wary of any donations. I know it is difficult to organise an election campaign and it could probably prevent a person from standing for election if he or she could not get a dig-out somewhere to start up. However, political donations should be confined to sums of less than €1,000, and anything over €100 should be declared. If somebody wants to give a politician or someone standing for election €100, we should know who he is. Sometimes a political donation can be genuine, and that is fine; if it is genuine, one should have no problem putting one's name to it. However, much of the time, as we know from our history, people who give money to politicians expect something in return.
The maddest example of this in today's world is America, where it can cost €700 million to run for election - it certainly costs that much to get elected. It is hardly surprising that the individual elected shows great favour to the arms industry, for example, which is one of the biggest providers of donations. The amount of money the arms industry puts into election campaigns, and how it picks a side, is frightening. The industry actually supports both sides, but in the last US presidential election it gave more money to Barack Obama than to the Republican candidate, which is interesting. We probably should not be surprised that troop numbers in Afghanistan have increased since then, as has the number of drone attacks in Pakistan. Some things just do not change. Palestine's attempt to gain UN recognition and membership was scuppered by America principally because of its alliance with Israel. That is still a bit frightening. We would have expected a lot more from Obama, but the fact that he had to accept so many millions of dollars to win his election campaign has had a major impact on how he behaves once in office.
Money creates major problems in how our society is organised. Money buys privilege in every way. It privileges people in terms of health, education and job opportunities. If one can afford to send one's kids to a private school, one can be sure the number of pupils in the class will not be as large as in the State school down the road. It is certain that when writing one's CV in later life, it does not do any harm to mention that one went to a private school. Sometimes it does one no harm in the courts if one is wearing the right school tie.
It goes to the core of our society when people can buy into the political process by giving donations. We imagine that among the principal aims of any Government should be to fight the inequalities that exist in our society and to work towards re-balancing that deficiency. It is difficult to achieve these aims when those with money can buy their way into the favour of a political party and it separates the ordinary people from the Legislature because money makes such a difference.
Let us consider a simple example. If a person comes from Darndale it is not especially easy to get into a Minister's office no more than it is likely that the same person would be invited to a golf classic, where there might be the opportunity to rub shoulders with people of influence in the political arena. Inequality is deep-rooted and the opportunity to give donations to political parties drives this on and enhances it. We should seriously consider a complete ban on donations or, at a minimum, a limit of €1,000 should be the maximum that anyone is allowed to give. Anyone who gives more than €100 should put their name to it.
This sitting of the House need not be a charade unless we make it one. We have before us an opportunity with this Friday sitting to discuss important issues relating to the funding of political parties and causes. I choose to ignore the hypocrisy of those sponsoring this Bill because I believe we should take the time to discuss its content, the issues arising and also many of the issues Deputy Wallace raised in his contribution. The Bill is good in general terms because of what it seeks to do.
Political donations are a good thing. They represent individual support for the public good and, in the vast majority of cases, people spend their hard-earned money to support a political party or cause which they believe to be in the best interests of their country or State. Democracy must be funded but were the State to fund political parties, causes or individuals directly and do so exclusively it might constitute a certain threat to our democracy. Nevertheless, there is a significant problem with donations when donors seek to influence or give money in the hope that they can influence a politician or a political decision or outcome. We will never be able to legislate against a person's intentions or against how they might intend to pervert the course of politics or justice, whether this involves the donor or the recipient.
We must hope that our elected representatives will act with integrity and honour and with good political judgment in respect of how they conduct their affairs. Unfortunately, history tells us that we cannot simply hope alone and that we must tightly control this area of public life, the area of donations to political parties and to individuals acting in the political arena. The Bill seeks to do something about this issue but, crucially, it allows for donations.
It is important - Deputy Wallace adverted to this point - to allow for private donations. People should have the right to make private contributions to public life in a financial form. The Bill and the future Government Bill seek to put a cap on the amounts so that we can see, past a reasonable threshold, who is making what might be considered to be if not too much of a contribution then a contribution that should be noted. It is important that people can associate with a political party or cause in a democracy.
The Bill makes a significant leap in respect of corporate donations. Effectively, it seeks to ban them. This is necessary because it attempts to address the crucial area of influence whereby corporate entities, as opposed to individuals, may seek to influence political decisions or outcomes. However, influence is not wielded solely by financial means; there are other types of influence. One person may have more influence upon me than another who gives me a political or financial donation because I know the former or respect their opinion. Legislation will never be able to address that aspect.
Corporate political donations are not the only way to use finances to influence a politician. Someone could give a private donation and may seek to influence a decision that one may make. Legislation will not be able to address that either. We must depend on the good judgment and integrity of the people we elect. We must keep this in mind because some activities cannot be and never will be seen. Legislation cannot address these aspects.
We must do something about corporate donations because of the history of politics in this country, because of the association that some corporate donations have had in public life and because we can state, almost without doubt, that corporate donations have been given in an attempt to influence a political decision or outcome. Unfortunately, such donations or the intention of such donations have been successful.
We must strictly regulate against corporate donations. What the Government hopes to do and what this legislation seeks to do is to ban corporate donations. We must tighten up controls and bring down the limits beyond which one must declare a donation. We must increase transparency in this field. We must get at what exactly is happening here and how political parties and people are funded so that it is done properly and so that people can operate and be seen to operate in the public interest free from influence. We must always be wary of those transactions, whether financial or human, that cannot be seen or which cannot be legislated against, such as a telephone call that occurs on an important night in the history of the country or a game of golf with a certain person. Such relationships are not financial but human but they can have as much of an influence on outcomes in public life as donations of €500 or €1,000 from a particular company in a particular area. We must be mindful of this. We must remind ourselves that, as elected public representatives, we have a duty to the State and not to individuals, regardless of what donations they may give.
I return to the crucial point that it is good to make political donations. It is good that a student from a university can give €20 online to Barack Obama's campaign or that someone may give €100 to a new candidate because they wish to see a new politician in place and they take the view that it is commendable for such a candidate to put themselves forward. One may simply wish to help to pay for that candidate's posters. This is a good thing. It is good that one can do this, that one's name need not be printed in a newspaper somewhere and that one can keep a political affiliation to a certain person or party private. This is important for democracy and how it operates.
However, it is necessary to regulate when donations exceed a certain amount, including when they may be considered to be improper. We should legislate to reduce the size of such donations and make it transparent in respect of who and what entities are funding political parties and politics. Given our history it is essential to ban corporate donations. It is good that this Bill tries to do so. The Government will bring forward a Bill containing similar provisions.
Another important aspect of this Bill from a financial point of view is that it brings those participating in referendum campaigns into the public sphere and ensures they play by the same rules as all of us. We need to know who is participating in referendum campaigns as much as we need to know who is participating in political campaigns.
I welcome this Bill and I will support the Government Bill when it is brought to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Bill. While there is a difference of opinion about some aspects of how we should deal with the area of donations to the political system it is right and fitting to address it and, where possible, to try to find a compromise. The lead speakers from all sides have spoken and, to some extent, anger has been vented. Nevertheless, it is necessary that we work collectively to try to resolve the situation that has evolved in the country. Whether we like it or not there is a perception among the public that, in many cases, politicians of all colours and politics, regardless of the high moral ground that some have sought to take today, have been corrupted and are corruptible. I do not believe this is the case. Notwithstanding events that have taken place in the past and decisions taken by my party, the party opposite or any party in the House, I believe, by and large, decisions are taken for the right reasons.
Unfortunately we, as a Legislature, have lost the confidence of the people and we have to address that.
I too recognise the fundamental right of citizens and individuals to involve themselves in the political process through the provision of a donation of whatever size. As other speakers said, at a certain stage certain views are taken into account, such as that somebody is attempting to buy influence or impact the outcome of certain decisions which taints the entire process. We must be very careful about the funding of the political system because if the provision of donations is banned completely the capacity for people who are not part of the political process to participate is limited.
A speaker on this side referred to reducing the amount of spend, leafleting and posters. That is fine if one is in the system but if a person who comes from outside wants to participate and does not have the benefit of having a position in a local authority or the national Parliament he or she does not get the same access to the media. It is costly for a person who may have great ideas to capture the variety of media available now. We cannot suggest that the solution to the problem is the banning of all donations. It is necessary to ban corporate donations.
Having said that, I am not casting a slur on genuine politicians who over successive generations have accepted donations from corporations. Such donations were not given with any expectation or malicious intent. Some were given with intent and perhaps very few others were taken with the expectation that something would be delivered at a later stage. Such cases comprise a minute blip in the system but it has been enough to damage the entire political process. It is incumbent on all of us to accept that perception is the reality, and we must address it and put the appropriate measures in place.
I am disappointed by the contribution of the Minister. I am not being partisan but he seems to have identified all of the legislative and constitutional issues that arise, as well as referring to the charter of fundamental human rights and European legislation. While I am sure he is well-intentioned we have to find the capacity to move beyond those concerns. If necessary, we should put a system in place to which politicians could sign up on a short-term voluntary basis if it is not possible to put in place the constitutional ban required. We have to do that if, as politicians, we are prepared to show the entire parliamentary process is amenable to the electorate and not special interest groups. That is the perception that is out there but I do not accept it is the reality.
I made clear that the vast majority of donations are given because people have a view or like the particular vision, work ethic or direction of a particular party or group of parties on the management of the country. People do that for the right reasons, if they are in a position to do so.
I am disappointed by the Sinn Féin contribution. I have great regard for Deputy McDonald. I admire her work in the European Parliament and here, but she does no justice to politics or her party when she seeks to take a political cut at Fianna Fáil. We are well able to handle and address that. However, she sought to involve the teaching profession and suggested in some cases a county councillor on the board of a national or a secondary school would be in a position of influence in terms of who got jobs. For many years it was suggested in most instances a parish priest made the wise decision in consultation with the board and principal of the school. In all instances decisions taken on the appointment of teachers are done in a fair and equitable manner. I reject the suggestion that there has ever been any influence by the elected members of our or any other political party. Much of the commentary has been taken completely out of context.
There have been suggestions it is a brass neck effort by our party because of our history, the perception that existed and evidence deduced at various tribunals that the current crop of elected representatives should be shy about introducing reforms. We on this side of the House were elected at the last election and have a mandate for reform. We will not be blinded, blighted or diverted from introducing appropriate legislation to deal with the reform agenda. We will not be deterred by any slurs, innuendo or reference to the past sins, either direct or by omission, of members of our party.
There are issues in most political parties in the House, to which previous speakers have referred, with malpractice or adding to that perception. For that reason it is brazen of Deputy McDonald to call into question the bona fides of those of us who are elected to this Parliament to introduce the reform agenda. I will not discuss the issues of the past.
Deputy McDonald has to be taken at face value in terms of her mandate. I will not raise some of the tenuous and not so tenuous connections to the past sins or malpractice of members of her party, some of which were carried out by people who were elected and are part of the current crop of Members of this House and in another jurisdiction.
We have to work collectively and it does not help the process to get into a contest about who can rake up the greatest amount of dirt from the past. It is a requirement for all of us to work collectively to regain the faith of the Irish people. We need to show them that politicians are largely noble in their desire, work ethic and ability to introduce legislation and do the right thing on behalf of the Irish people and the country, rather than of one interest group, sector or corporation.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this issue. It would be politically easy to storm in here and make party political judgements on the sentiment behind the Bill. I do not think the House or Bill deserves that.
I appreciate the tone used by Deputy Dooley in trying to be constructive, and referring to the past and future and what we can achieve together. Any new Member of the House will realise it is not in any way reflective of Ireland. It is almost exclusively white, very middle-class and 13% female. There is a question mark over corporate donations, money and who does and does not get into power.
I spent five years as a political representatives in the north inner city and 11 years teaching in the area. There is a question mark over who has power and who has the power to influence power. Unfortunately we all accept that sometimes money talks and those from a particular financial background do not feel they have a stake in the political system. Their participation rates, turnout in elections and level of voter registration are lower. There is a perception that if one does not have financial purse strings one does not have influence on the political system. The Bill enables us to have a good look at the heart of Irish politics and consider how we can move on. We have had a sordid past and there has been a perception of influence over politics. We have had problems, not just in terms of shady brown envelope dealings and backroom meetings. Legislation has been passed in this House which had legitimate objectives and enjoyed the support of various political parties. For example, the Part V provision of the Planning and Development Act 2000, whereby 20% of all new developments would be set aside for social or affordable housing, was broadly welcomed. However, because of the undue influence of a particular interest group, that provision was watered down, with nine different ways introduced to allow developers to side-step their obligation. During the boom many of us on local authorities, who struggled to accommodate people on the incredibly lengthy housing lists, were left with a gut feeling that particular vested interests were wielding an undue influence on the political system to such an extent that they were able to change the Minister's view on how social housing would be provided. As a result, most of the most vulnerable people in society did not have their housing needs met.
We must consider why political parties need money and to what end that money is spent. Reference was made to postering, leafleting and so on. How is a person without the required financial capacity supposed to compete in that game? Elections are games in the sense that it is all about how many posters one erects, how many leaflets one distributes, how many fund-raisers one holds and how much one is willing to invest in a campaign. Interestingly, in the recent presidential election the candidate who was topping the polls for a good deal of the campaign did not use any posters. This gave pause for many of us to reconsider the validity and effectiveness of postering.
What is at issue here is access to the democratic process. In many ways, Irish politics is fundamentally broken. I am a former teacher and I count people from many professions among my parliamentary colleagues. It is amazing to observe the difference in how one is perceived as soon as one enters politics. When one is working in a community or in a school, nobody second guesses one's bona fides or motivation for taking a particular stance. However, as soon as one stands for election or becomes involved in a political campaign, one's motivations are consistently and constantly questioned. Any position one adopts is liable to be dismissed as a means of winning votes, as only being taken because somebody has given one something or one is trying to defend this or that vested interest. It is difficult to argue against that attitude in the context of the donation system as it currently stands.
Reference has been made to the subscriptions the Labour Party receives from trade unions. If we are to have a proper system of financing of the political system, all parties must play their part. As such, I would be happy to see an end to the connection between my party and the trade union movement. However, as Deputy Eamonn Maloney observed, there is a great difference between a trade union making donations to a party in the hope it will protect the rights of workers and a corporation doing the same with the objective of safeguarding its right to make profit. There is a fundamental difference in that. Nevertheless, if we have a situation where people are, even for a moment, second guessing politicians' bona fides in respect of their policy or legislative positions and suspecting they are owned by any vested interest, then there is a need for change. Therefore, I agree that the donations the Labour Party receives from the various trade unions - although they amount to only a small percentage of our income - should be ended, if that would help the political process.
We must be constructive in our approach to this issue. There is much talk at present of creating a new republic, ensuring every citizen has a stake in the country, reassuring people that they have political representatives who will defend them and reflect their concerns, and inspiring confidence in people that they have as much say through the ballot box as anybody else. In this regard, I am confident that the legislation we bring forward will iron out any flaws in the Bill and offer a constructive way forward. This must be part of a process and we must all go through it together. When presented with a Fianna Fáil Bill on corporate donations, there is an instinctive and easy temptation to dredge up the past and engage in a party political muzzling exercise. However, that does nobody any favours, either Members of this House or the people who have put us in here to clean up the political process.
It is time to accept the bona fides of Members on all sides of the House on the question of how we can change politics. There has been some suggestion that this debate is merely a tokenistic gesture, and I understand why some may be of that view. However, that we are here on a Friday says something about how things have changed. We must take a different approach to our engagement with these important issues. If there is a willingness across the political spectrum, from Members of all parties and none - Independent Deputies have argued strongly that they find it far more difficult to engage in the political system - then we might get somewhere. We must ensure that people feel they have a stake in the political system, that their vote counts and that it is as valid and has as much power as that of the person with a large cheque book.
Deputy Murphy Catherine referred to the cost of running in an election. The first time I ran for political office in 1999, I was amazed at the amount of money opposition candidates had to spend, with their fancy offices and colour leaflets, amounting to an enormous outlay on what was basically a local election. I grew up in the inner city and went to the local primary school and vocational school. None of my friends can open up a cheque book and hand over €100 or €150. The vast majority of them are currently unemployed for various reasons. Access for people from my community is extremely restricted because of the financial barrier that exists. We did not go to private schools and we have no friends in the Law Library. If we take time off work we will lose the salaries on which our spouses and children depend.
Entering politics was a difficult decision for me to take and one for which my family suffered. For the first election in which I stood my father gave me money from his pension. He was a staunch Fianna Fáil supporter; the first time he voted for the Labour Party was when I stood for election. Loyalty to Fianna Fáil was ingrained in the family.
Unfortunately, he has passed away. The barriers to participation are there and one of them is the system of donations. If we wish to open up this House, we must examine how politics is funded. Deputy Mick Wallace mentioned €50 or €100 - those are huge sums for people living in Pearse Street and Ringsend who are dependent on social welfare. The reality is that access to this House is exclusive. The ideas that come from this House are exclusive.
My community suffered badly from the watering down of the Part V provisions regarding the allocation of 20% of all units in new developments to social and affordable housing. When I first ran for election candidates were knocking on doors in my area and reassuring people that every phase of the gasworks redevelopment, which is just down the road from me, would include a 20% allocation of social housing. However, what happened was that the get-out clauses were brought into service. When it comes to the deprived and people working for the minimum wage, there always seems to be get-out clauses. The legislation which allowed that situation to develop came from this House. When the State was founded, a broad spectrum of society was represented in this Parliament, and rightly so. The reality today, and for a long time past, is that people on social welfare, people working for the minimum wage and people working on building sites - if there are any left - have no opportunity of access. We must level the playing field. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue in the House. It is extremely important we have these debates. While today we are discussing corporate donations we need to review all donations in terms of funding of the political system in this country. We need to ensure the doors of the Oireachtas are open to people from all financial backgrounds. The biggest barrier to election is money. We must address this if people of low means are to have an opportunity of election to this House so that their views and needs are represented. Election to the Houses is constantly blocked by money and privileged parties which can fund candidates. Let us be honest: a call from a person who has donated €1,000 towards one's election will be answered. It is our responsibility to bring about change in this area. For as long as I am a Member of this House I will fight for that change. Following the next general election, I want to see more people from my background elected to this House. I apologise if I appear angry but this is an issue about which I am passionate.
I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing forth this legislation, which gives me an opportunity to express my views. The golden circle is wide. Who will give one money to stand for election is often dependant on where one went to school, what level of education one obtained, who one's friends are and whether one attended a good secondary school or a private one. For far too long my community has been excluded from election to this House. We need to change that and to change it soon. I am angry on this point and at the level of unemployment in my constituency which affects my friends, people with whom I grew up. We need change and that change needs to come fast.
The Minister stated earlier that the Government proposes to introduce legislation in this area. I intend to have an input into that legislation. I will work to ensure the doors to membership of this House are open to everyone.
Like other speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I agree with previous speakers that it is important we bring into this House our experiences on the opportunity for ordinary people to stand for election and represent their communities here. Heretofore, membership of this House was confined to a privileged group of people. It depended on from what family one came, what school one attended, how much money one had and one's connections with developers, big business and so on. As stated, this had to change. Ordinary people must be given an opportunity to stand for election.
From my point of view as a former post office worker, standing for election was difficult financially. It was only through small donations from people within the community that I was able to meet the financial cost involved. It is not easy for ordinary people, who are up against the financial might of the big parties, to engage, in a meaningful way, in the election process. Corporate donations must be banned. I do not see any reason a donation should not be accompanied by a name. I do not believe that people who are prepared to donate money, even if only €20, €30 or €50, would mind being identified. What is important is that there is transparency in respect of donations. This, in turn, will ensure transparency in terms of Members representing big business who support the passage of legislation in that area and Independent Members like me who support legislation in respect of a particular group of people in my community. The support one gets should be clearly reflected in one's work here.
While today we are discussing the issue of corporate donations there are other important issues that need to be discussed, including, as referred to by other speakers, scrutiny of State appointees. This is important to people in the street who believe what we are now getting is more of the same. Fianna Fáil was hammered in the last general election because of its connections with developers, section 23 tax exemptions, the 20% social and affordable housing provision, the cost of land and so on, legislation in respect of which was passed by the Houses. It is no accident that no Fianna Fáil candidate was elected in the Dublin South-Central constituency. Working class people in that area were aware of the corruption, cronyism and elitism linked to that party and what that did to their communities.
State appointees should be scrutinised. Also, there must be accountability from Members of this House. Rather than having to wait five years before having an opportunity to hold Members to account, in terms of decisions made at the polls, people must be able to hold Members to account in respect of what they promised pre-election and what they did post-election. I would like to see introduced a system whereby 1,000, 500 or 200 people could put together a petition in respect of the holding to account any Member who subsequently breaks promises made pre-election.
This is an important debate. As stated, the majority of Members of this House are white and male. We need people from the minorities, women and disabled people to be elected to this House, thus reflecting in legislation passed by the Oireachtas the needs of their communities. I will during my time in this House seek to influence change to allow this to happen. We must change the view that membership of the Houses is open only to the privileged. I am not opposed to donations. Without them, people like me would not be able to stand for election. We need that support unless the Government proposes to introduce State funding of candidates in an election. I do not believe such a move would be welcomed by people in the community.
We must first clean up politics and the perception that there is corruption in this House. That will be one of the most important challenges we face in trying to bring about change. I reiterate my point that the electorate must be able to hold to account parties or candidates who make promises pre-election which they subsequently break post-election, as was done by many Members of the previous Administration and is now being done by members of the current Government. People are angry about this.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on this new Bill dealing with corporate donations. I am totally opposed to the principle of corporate donations. It played its part in the downfall of the country. We were once known as the island of saints and scholars and now we are known as the island of tribunals and corruption. I strongly agree with Deputy Kevin Humphreys in his earlier contribution when he said we need to open up the political system, particularly to include working-class people. I agree with his view that this Chamber can be a very exclusive type of club. It took me ten years and four general elections to get into the Dáil. I was elected after a lot of hard work on the ground. I know there are many good quality people who should be involved in public life and we should all play a part in assisting them to become involved in politics. I refer in particular to people involved in their communities who are familiar with the issues affecting local people and have a direct link with them. At times, it seems that we in here are living in a bubble and this is noticeable in some of the statements and comments made in the House. There is nothing wrong with Deputy Kevin Humphreys getting angry and it is about time everybody got angry.
I refer to the tradition of political family dynasties and to the practice of candidates running for office because their parents were Deputies before them. That day should be gone. We should be prepared to bring in as many people as possible into politics and we should ensure that disadvantaged communities have a voice in this Chamber. We have seen over the past number of years how there has been a significant erosion of public confidence in politics, banking, the church, business, the Garda Síochána and the system of justice, and one must all include the scandals and tribunals of inquiry. There has been a negative influence on the democratic process. I do not accept that if a person is given a donation of €5,000 or €1,500 that this will not affect any decision made. The reality is that corruption was a fact in the past and there is still an undercurrent of corruption in Irish politics. People are still giving donations to particular candidates and after an election those people are appointed to State boards or become members of some important and exclusive committee. This type of cronyism should be ended immediately.
It should be remembered that the State currently funds political parties to the tune of €13 million. This has been highlighted by Independent Members. I have been in debate and had rows with some of my colleagues when members of political parties accuse the Independents over the so-called leader's allowance. That money has to be spent for political purposes and some of us use this funding to employ extra staff so it does not go into the Deputy's personal bank account. However, we should not dodge the issue of the funding of political parties. I suggest if the Government is looking to cut expenditure and to reform the Dáil and it plans to take a couple of million euro away from funding for special needs assistance, it should take €7.5 million or 50% of the funding provided to the major political parties and then make the tough decisions and retain funding for services.
A candidate who is backed by wealthy people in a constituency or in society in general has a much better chance of being elected. Those who do not belong to political dynasties or who are outside the political party system find it very difficult to get into politics. In my experience, I was always very grateful to people who donated €15 or €20 to help my earlier campaigns. They had a stake in my campaign as a result. These were always small amounts but I always made a big deal of such donations because that €20 or €30 assisted me in paying for campaigns.
I refer to the negative influence of donations on decision-making. We have all learned this difficult lesson over the past number of years. Such negative influence is also evident in the United States and in England, when very wealthy people can distort the democratic and political system. It should be noted how the arms industry has managed to increase sales by getting certain countries to become involved in wars.
I advise the Minister to be aware of this happening with regard to the NATO countries who are members of the European Union. I think they are losing the run of themselves and Ireland, as a peaceful and neutral country, has much to contribute. We should be aware that these people are influencing decisions across Europe because they have big bucks with which to fund political organisations in government.
I wish to put on the record of the House that I have accepted donations over the years from my trade union, the INTO, and it has assisted my campaigns. I have since retired from the INTO so those donations no longer exist. I was always very proud to be a member of a trade union and I was always proud to support the interests of education, particularly education for disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. I was always very proud of my INTO background and my Dublin Council of Trade Unions background. However, I have an open mind and one cannot just ban donations from the rich guys and not from the trade unions. At the same time, those of us with a trade union background should never apologise for that. I will support issues relating to education, disability, the unemployed, the rights of workers because these are part of my brief and part of who I am.
This Bill proposes that only citizens may make political donations. I think a broader debate on this provision is required to include emigrants and others who live outside the State who should be allowed to make a contribution. I have a concern about the limitation provided for in the Bill. Many emigrants now living all across the world retain their concern for this country and they would wish to be part of its life. I refer to the recent Dublin Castle summit and many emigrants are keen to give us a hand in solving our problems. I suggest that small donations from outside the State should be permitted.
I support this Bill as being a step in the right direction. However, there needs to be a clear statement on proxy donations and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, plays a significant role in this regard. There may be a conflict with the constitutional right to freedom of expression and association. It seems that associations of individuals, for example, companies, may have a right to make donations under the Constitution and perhaps an amending clause is needed. This point has been raised by a number of people.
The powers of enforcement need to be tidied up. I would hope any amendments proposed will not be lazy amendments, so to speak. It is accepted that much broader reform is needed.
I referred to the disastrous influence of corporate money on our political system in the past. An electoral commission is urgently required to replace bodies such as the Referendum Commission, the Constituency Commission and SIPO. I think SIPO needs greatly enhanced powers of enforcement.
Major mistakes have been made in the past. The three largest political parties in the State have been involved in issues to do with fundraising and corporate donations. I am looking to the future. I want to make sure that genuinely good things happen in this country in the future. Many people have asked why the Green Party was prevented from introducing a ban on corporate donations during the last Government's term of office. That is a legitimate question. It is very important.
I would like to speak about the role of councillors throughout the country. Some of them have been in the news for making very bad decisions. Questions of bribery and corruption have arisen in recent years. I am trying to give an objective view on these issues.
The issue of cronyism has been touched on. It is linked to this debate. In the last few weeks, amazement has been expressed about the promotions that have been given to people who happen to have given donations to certain Deputies or Ministers. Such behaviour is not acceptable. As far as I know, the need for Dáil reform was pushed on the doorsteps by politicians from all parties. I know from talking to the other Deputies in Dublin North-Central that there was agreement on the need for cronyism to be brought to an end. We have seen in recent weeks that it is still going on. I do not think that is acceptable. Something has to be done about it.
The proposed new Article 29A of the Constitution is relevant in this context. The details of the wording, as set out in the Bill before the House, are important. I do not know if Members have touched on it. It states:
Only citizens and such other persons in the State as may be determined by law who have the right to vote at any election or referendum referred to in this Constitution, including an election to the European Parliament but excluding elections to Seanad Éireann by the Universities as provided for in Article 18.4, shall be entitled to make political donations to organisations or people involved in political campaigning. The limits upon and declaration of such political donations shall be prescribed by law.
That is the actual wording. It is very important. I am strongly supportive of it.
As I mentioned earlier, I would be concerned about excluding people. If people want to make a small donation to a politician, that is reasonable. I have major concerns about the donation of influential amounts of money. I welcome the legislation and the broad debate on it. I also welcome the opportunity to hear the views of all Members of the House.
We need a new kind of politics in this country. We need to clean up the whole system and reform it. We need to be radical and creative and to bring vision back to the country again. We need to get on with it. I know the Minister and the Government are in a difficult situation. We all appreciate that difficult decisions have to be made. I would argue that difficult decisions have to be made about the distribution of resources. Such decisions will raise awkward questions at times. The tension between the rights of individuals and the overall good of society has to be resolved. The rights of the individual have been prioritised in this country for the last ten years. We now need to focus on the rights of society and the rights of the people of this country as a whole.
People are looking for guidance. When they look at the political elite, they look up to heaven. When they look at the church, they look up to heaven. When they look at business leaders and bankers, they look up to heaven. We need to wake up to the reality that people have lost confidence. We need a Government that is straight with the people. Everybody in this House needs to understand that. My political experience has taught me that if one is straight with the people, one will be forgiven when one cocks up. We all cock up every now and again. It is important for one to say where one stands and then get on with it. If what one is doing is unpopular, one has to take the hit and get on with the job of delivering. That is important.
Irish people have an inclusive and open-minded approach to politics. They do not like the wool being pulled over their eyes. Everyone in this House needs to get on with it. If Deputies have ideas about job creation, they should make them known. If they do not agree with cutting services for children with disabilities, that is okay but suggestions for how such services might be funded will be needed. That is the kind of politics this country needs. I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. This is an important debate. It will lead us on, broaden our minds and open us all up to a bigger debate. We need a just society. We need equality in this country. We need honest politics.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the funding of politics. I welcome the legislation before the House. I commend the holding of this debate on a Friday morning. Many speakers have addressed wider political issues, such as the involvement of ordinary people as members of elected bodies throughout the country, not just in the Dáil or the Seanad. It is time to move beyond corporate donations. Fianna Fáil has had issues in this regard. In 2008, we moved to get rid of the Galway tent and dispel the myths surrounding it for once and for all. Figures that are available to us suggest it was not very lucrative. It gave us a bad impression. I compliment the former leader of my party for moving us beyond it.
Many Deputies have spoken this morning about the damage corporate donations have done to politics. In recent years, a great disservice has been done to the image of politics as a profession. We should acknowledge that many of those who have graced the floors of this House, the Seanad and the county and city councils since the foundation of the State have done so in a spirit of dedicated public service, without accruing any great benefit - financially or otherwise - to themselves or their families. In many cases, it cost people money to be members of elected bodies and to give sterling service to the nation on a vast range of issues. We have to acknowledge that. We have to accept that is the case.
The most important thing for us to do is to make sure our profession is respected. The politicians who are elected to various bodies should reflect what society wants. A number of Deputies spoke about the need to facilitate the election to Dáil Éireann of other bodies of people from different brackets of society and socioeconomic backgrounds. That is true. I spoke to one of the lads in the office this morning about the effects of the crisis on the lower classes, including people in social housing. Their income levels have decreased as a consequence of the bad policy decisions that have been made since the 1960s and 1970s. I refer to putting people in ghettos, for example.
This major step forward should be welcomed by everybody. The Government has said it will produce its own Bill. It is important that we acknowledge that this needs to be done with immediate effect. The Bill before the House is a very good document. Almost six or seven months have passed since it was last discussed here. Nothing has been done in that time. We cannot allow so much time to disappear without action being taken. We have to do it for ourselves, as practising politicians, as well. The last thing any profession wants to do is denigrate its own name. The vast majority of people have contributed enormously to society. Some of the decisions that have been made are wrong. We can have partisan debate across the floor of the House, but that does not serve anybody. It does not serve the real interests of ordinary people. It is important that we pass this legislation immediately and move forward form there.
Various decisions have been taken over the years. I refer to what happens during election counts, for example. Those who think they can influence politicians are in the background at this stage, by and large. The ordinary punter has moved forward. People at the lower end need the services of the vast majority of politicians, regardless of the body to which they are elected. The wealthy will always be able to get their own people. The less well-off need the services of good county councillors and good Deputies to ensure they can access their entitlements without incurring the costs associated with legal services etc. It is important that we ensure such people are better served. Their voices, rather than those of businesses etc., should be heard. I commend the Bill. It is vitally important for all of us, every other politician and every aspiring politician to ensure this legislation is passed and that the good name of politics is restored.
In my contribution earlier, I analysed the legislation before us but nothing I have heard in the meantime has caused me to change my view that we should not oppose the Bill as there are a number of issues that are required to be dealt with before we proceed with this proposal. I thank the speakers for their constructive suggestions in regard to the funding of the political process.
Reform of political funding was promised for years but nothing was done about it. I mentioned the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2011, which is now on the Statute Book. In June of this year, I published the general scheme of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill and in the next couple of weeks the Bill will be published.
The Bill aims to increase transparency in political donations to ensure there is no question of unhealthy relationships between politics and business. As every other Member of the House indicated, I want to see the funding and operation of politics carried out in a very open and transparent manner. This legislation will address issues of serious public concern in the operation of political funding.
Corporate donations of more than €200 will be prohibited unless the donors meet the most strict and exacting conditions. They will have to provide details of their membership and shareholders and copies of their accounts and annual reports to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Details of donors will be included on a public register. Each donation will have to be approved by a general meeting of the members of the corporation or body. These provisions will apply to all corporate and unincorporated bodies. The provisions will apply to companies, partnerships, trade unions, trusts, co-operatives, societies, building societies, charitable organisations, non-governmental organisations, clubs, associations and any other unincorporated bodies of persons - in other words, all bodies and organisations other than natural persons.
There will be a reduction in the limits on political donations that may be accepted. These limits will fall from €6,348 to €2,500 for donations received by a political party. For a candidate or elected representative, the limit will fall from €2,539 to €1,000. There will be a reduction in the thresholds at which donations must be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission. For a political party, the limit will fall from €5,078 to €1,500. For a candidate or elected representative, the limit will fall from €634 to €600. Companies, trade unions, societies and building societies will have to report all donations of more than €200 in their annual accounts. Previously, such bodies had to report donations of more than €5,078, so the scale of the reduction is of a very large order. The threshold for all other donors, other than companies, trade unions, societies and building societies, in reporting their donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission, will also fall from €5,078 for aggregate donations given in the same year to an aggregate figure of €1,500.
The Bill will address the need for improved transparency in political funding arrangements by providing for the submission by political parties of financial accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission. The information will be published to facilitate greater transparency for citizens in knowing where political parties get their income and where they spend their money. Political parties which do not comply with these new requirements face having their State funding withdrawn.
Under current law, the use for electoral purposes of public funding provided to political parties is prohibited. There is, therefore, a continuing need for political parties and candidates to raise money to fund election campaigns. The purpose of the legislation that the Government is bringing forward is to further regulate political funding from private sources and to further enhance the openness and transparency of political funding.
As an incentive to encourage the selection of a greater number of women candidates, the new legislation includes a provision that political parties will face a cut of half their State political funding if they do not have at least 30% women and 30% men candidates at the next general election.
These are far reaching and comprehensive proposals. The Government's Bill will implement specific commitments contained in the programme for Government in regard to political donations. It will also have regard to recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal report published in March of this year. The Moriarty tribunal has been mentioned on a number of occasions during the course of this debate. The tribunal's recommendations represent a substantial contribution to consideration of policy in this area. They are made in a report that lays bare the failings in the system that existed at the time. While rules and regulations have been changed since the 1990s, some of the failings identified still prevail.
On the matter of corporate donations, the tribunal did not actually recommend that they be banned. It noted that the desirability and feasibility of a complete ban on private political funding is pre-eminently a matter for the Oireachtas and for public debate and consideration, having regard to constitutional issues that might arise and to the national financial exigencies.
The restrictions to be placed on corporate donors in the forthcoming Bill will go beyond what the tribunal was in a position to recommend. The provision in the Bill for the publication of political party accounts will address the Moriarty tribunal recommendation that all income of political parties be disclosed. In fact, it will also go beyond this recommendation by providing that the expenditure of parties is also reported and open to public scrutiny.
The tribunal recommended that all political donations, apart from those under a modest threshold, be disclosed. The reductions in the donations thresholds we are introducing are substantial and significant and will go a long way towards addressing this recommendation.
It is clear from the extensive and detailed range of recommendations made by many Deputies in this House over the years and, indeed, by independent bodies, including the Standards in Public Office Commission, the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption and Transparency International that there is no shortage of analysis on the shortcomings in Ireland's arrangements for the funding of politics.
The Bill I will bring forward can be seen as one part of a wider programme to reform our system of politics and the funding of politics. Also on the Government's legislation programme is the electoral commission Bill, which will be enacted during the lifetime of this Dáil. The programme for Government provides for this commitment.
I thank all Deputies who contributed to the debate. I was disappointed with the Minister's response in not facilitating the passage of this Bill to Committee Stage. I want to debunk the myth that nothing has happened over the past decade in regard to political funding. Clearly, there has been incremental regulation of political funding and contributions to political parties, such as declarations,thresholds, transparency and so forth. In my opening speech, I outlined the changes in regulating political funding and political donations over a long period of time. My party, in government, took lead positions on many of those changes.
What I said at the outset still stands in that every political party which went before the people sought a mandate on the basis of banning corporate donations and not just further regulation of political funding, increased and enhanced transparency or declaration thresholds and so forth. They sought an actual ban on corporate donations founded on the principle that it is only those who vote in elections who should be in a position to contribute to the campaigns of political parties which fight in those elections.
The Minister's response was such that it clearly indicated he does not intend to ban corporate donations. That is a fair summary of the Government's position. Would that be fair?
-----has not contradicted me confirms what I said - basically, that he does not intend to ban corporate donations but rather to produce a Bill which will bring in increased regulation, which I would welcome, in terms of transparency, declarations and so forth, but which would stop short of a ban.
That represents a U-turn on the position the Minister's party and the Labour Party took in advance of the general election when they said they would ban corporate donations. That was made very clear during the campaign, and right before election day. I cannot understand why these commitments were made so strongly days before polling day. I recall the election campaign well because the Labour Party had been clear about banning corporate donations for quite some time but Fine Gael had been less clear. It was kind of dragged out of Fine Gael towards the end of the election campaign when it confirmed in its presentation that it would ban corporate donations. Now the Minister is basically saying he does not believe that is a good idea and does not intend to pursue that and he has an alternative viewpoint.
Much of what he has articulated in terms of increased transparency, reduced thresholds, publication of party accounts and the sending of those accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission and so forth were all contained in the Bill we brought before the House in May which the Government voted against. In fact, we incorporated the recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal in our Bill in May in regard to transparency, disclosure and so forth. I remember in the immediate aftermath of the Moriarty tribunal's report the Minister was somewhat coy or doubtful about some of the aspects of the recommendations of Moriarty in so far as they related to political funding and contributions. I am glad he has, to some extent, had a change of heart on that and I hope he is going the full distance in terms of what Moriarty recommended.
I hope the Minister will not pull short of the clear recommendations from the Moriarty tribunal on the regulatory framework to govern political donations in the future.
The message, however, today is that corporate donations will continue albeit in a new regulated framework. The commitment and promise made by the Government to ban corporate donations will not now happen. This merits a more open debate than what we have had. Earlier, the Minister invoked the Good Friday Agreement and EU treaties as the reason, although not stated explicitly, a constitutional ban on corporate donations could not be introduced.
The Constitution is the only place in which a ban on corporate donations can be introduced. This is why we introduced this Bill. We acknowledged that in May when we brought forward this legislation.
We introduced the legislation in May and I am glad some of its measures will be included in the Government's Bill.
Anyway, the previous Government had a Bill in this area prepared already.
If the Minister is honest enough, he will inform the House the previous Government had drafted a Bill. That Government fell before it was due so it could not be introduced. The mid-term review of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party's programme for Government stated legislation to ban corporate donations would be introduced. The Bill was actually drafted when this Government came into power.
Our Bill in May contained some of that Bill's measures along with the Moriarty tribunal's recommendations. For some reason, the Minister keeps on with the untruth that there was no Bill ready.
The Minister queried some of the text of our Bill. In my opening speech, I outlined a novel way of allowing this Bill progress to Committee Stage. In turn, external experts could address the committee to ensure different perspectives on our proposed changes would be available. This would be a novel way in the parliamentary system to deal with proposed changes to the Constitution. If there are flaws in the Bill's text — I did not claim infallibility — we would welcome amendments or enhancements to it.
The Minister, however, has decided to mow it down before it gets off the ground. I am disappointed with this approach. I had believed the Minister would have allowed the Bill progress to Committee Stage at which all parties and external contributors could have made observations on it. All parties — that includes Fine Gael and the Labour Party — signed up to a ban on corporate donations. It is regrettable they are no longer going to do so. Neither should they have made the commitment in the first place if they did not intend to follow it through.
Cuireadh an cheist agus ar vótáil a éileamh cuireadh siar é de réir Bhuan-Ordú na Dála Uimh. 117A(4) arna mhodhnú le hOrdú on Teach, go dtí Dé Máirt, 22 Samhain 2011.
In accordance with Standing Order No. 117A(4), the division is postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Tuesday, 22 November 2011.