Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014, which deals with an issue that has been a passion of the Minister for some time. This legislation was included in the programme for Government and has been long sought by the Labour Party. Similar legislation has been introduced on four occasions since 1999, including, on one occasion, by the Minister when he was an Opposition Deputy. Unfortunately, the legislation was rejected by Fianna Fáil led Governments on each occasion. If legislation on lobbying had been passed in 1999 or subsequently, we may have avoided some of the wrongdoing that has taken place in the intervening period which has given lobbyists a bad name.
Yesterday's announcement by the Minister of a new process for ministerial appointments to State boards coincides with his introduction to the Dáil of the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014. This Bill and the new arrangements on appointments are timely and interconnected in that they both deal with transparency and accountability in the manner in which public policy is practised. If all appointments to State boards had been advertised openly on the State boards portal and applications and assessments has been processed by the independent Public Appointments Service, PAS, as proposed by the Minister and agreed by the Cabinet, the shambles of the current by-election to the Seanad would not have occurred.
I recall an event that took place in the early 1990s when I was a new councillor in Dublin and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, was also a Labour Party councillor. At that time, Dublin City Council had responsibility for taxi plates. A professional lobbyist, who was subsequently jailed for corruption, strongly lobbied city councillors not to increase the number of taxi plates. At the time, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 taxi plates in the capital, a figure that has since increased to more than 14,000. Councillors proposed introducing a modest increase of 800 in the number of taxi plates over a three year period. We were informed by the lobbyist in question that any increase would create a tide that would engulf the entire taxi industry. The lobbying did not work and councillors persisted with their plan to increase the number of plates. However, the Taoiseach of the day subsequently intervened by effectively preventing the local authority from implementing the wishes of councillors. We all know what took place subsequently.
There is nothing wrong with lobbying per se. Most of us have spent some time this week attending meetings with various interest groups at which we listened to them make their respective cases for special consideration in the forthcoming budget. Such lobbying is beneficial to the democratic system as it ensures that no group's concerns are overlooked in the run-up to the budget. Our function, as public representatives, is to reflect the needs and concerns of our people through policy decisions and legislation.
The value of regulation of lobbying in fostering a culture of integrity is supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which states that "a sound framework for transparency in lobbying is crucial to safeguard the public interest, promote a level playing field for business and avoid capture by vocal interest groups". The key objective in introducing a register of lobbying is to make information available to members of the public on the identity of those who are communicating with local and national government and senior civil and public servants on public policy matters. Members of the public have the right to know who has lobbied, is lobbying and will lobby politicians and for whom and for what reason lobbying takes place.
The shocking disclosures by Mr. Frank Dunlop, lobbyist extraordinaire and former Fianna Fáil Government press secretary, revealed the web of intrigue, bribery and corruption spun by one professional lobbyist to secure the interests of his clients, namely, big business and developers. This was a chilling example of how a corrupt and ruthless lobbyist could poison the planning process for the entire city of Dublin. If a register of lobbying had been in place, Mr. Dunlop, his clients and their activities would have been a matter of public record. Moreover, the web would not have been spun and politicians and public servants could not have been ensnared.
A well functioning democracy requires communication between the Government and citizens. It is important that policy makers are informed of the opinions of interest groups, representative bodies, industry and civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and charities. While these groups can offer useful input into the decision making process, at times their aims and objectives may be at odds with the wider public interest. The Bill does not seek to prevent this flow of information into policy making or legislation but rather brings about significantly greater transparency. It is appropriate that this activity is open to public scrutiny as part of the desirable checks and balances that help to ensure any attempt to wield undue or improper influence on the conduct of policy development and decision making is discouraged.
Moreover, members of the lobbying profession support the introduction of a fair regulatory framework, such as that proposed in the legislation. They have expressed annoyance at the bad name their profession has acquired as a result of the actions of some lobbyists. Recently, I was lobbied by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, PRII, which states categorically that it strongly supports the aims and principles of the Bill.
I cannot understand the reason an organisation such as the Irish Farmers' Association, the most effective lobbying group in the European Union, if not the world, is opposed to this legislation as it could only benefit from the transparency the Bill will deliver.
As I stated, I have been lobbied by the PRII and I am inclined to agree with it on one point. I ask the Minister to reconsider the exemption from registration provided for companies with fewer than ten employees. While I can understand the reason for introducing this provision, namely, the need to spare small companies from excessive bureaucracy, a number of companies with a small number of employees have a large turnover and exert considerable influence. I ask the Minister to note that there is not always a direct correlation between influence and size.
I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister on introducing it. I am aware that introducing legislation on this issue has been part and parcel of his political interests for a considerable period. It is particularly welcome that the Bill is to be placed on the Statute Book at this time.
I too congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill. It is about time action was taken to regulate and bring greater transparency to lobbying. Lobbying is part of political life and is not inherently bad. Ensuring that different voices are heard is an important function of democracy.
However, when something like lobbying is not done openly, it undermines our democracy. Exactly the same sentiments can be expressed concerning appointments to State boards. Recent events have not cast politics or my own party in a good light. I am ashamed that my party did not move more quickly to fully reform the area of board appointments, as we promised. Old habits die hard, but now at least it would seem this old habit has suddenly died very quickly, and rightly so. It should not have had to happen this way. We should have had the courage of our convictions. That perhaps is the greater failing in recent events. The important fact to take from all of this is that in our commitment to have all board appointments now made through the public appointments system, a cultural problem inherent in the practice of politics in this country since the foundation of the State has been eradicated overnight. I do not welcome the events that brought us to this point, but such change is welcome. The Minister has moved swiftly to bring in this change. He has seen the opportunity in this crisis and I congratulate him for that.
It is also welcome that we are now moving to bring some regulation and transparency to the area of lobbying. I have been lobbied on the Bill, which I have read in detail. It is an important first step. We need to move together to enact it as quickly as possible. We should use it as a foundation on which to build in order to continue to bring greater transparency and regulation to this area of political life.
I wish to raise a couple of points which I hope we can debate on Committee Stage in order to get further clarity on them. Under the legislation, lobbyists are required to register. However, my understanding is that the civil servant, adviser or other person being lobbied has no obligation to ask if the lobbyist is registered. Such an obligation should be put in place. There has to be a balance between the lobbyist and the person being lobbied to ensure that things are done in accordance with the new law. It is my understanding that the person can still be lobbied even if he or she knows the lobbyist is not on a register. I think that is a mistake. If that is the case, it also needs to be amended.
Under the terms of the Bill, categories of people included as the lobbied include Secretaries General and assistant secretaries, along with their equivalents on local authorities. I wonder if we are pitching this too high in terms of responsibilities. An assistant secretary has a huge amount of work coming across his or her desk and cannot always be on top of all the details. I wonder, therefore, if we might include one or two levels below, just as a safeguard. If they were excluded because it was felt they were not relevant for lobbyists, there should be no harm in including them.
Excellent. I thank the Minister.
I wish make another point already raised by my colleague Deputy Costello concerning companies with fewer than ten employees. I often get lobbied by small companies on the same issue. It has been brought to my attention that large companies might create small subsidiaries just for this purpose, if they think it is important enough. If we can find some sort of language to capture that without putting an unnecessary regulatory or financial burden on small businesses, that would be welcome.
As for the code of conduct, my understanding from the legislation is that the lobbyist must have regard to the code but it is not binding on them. There are no sanctions or penalties for not following the code. If there are no consequences for breaching the code then it will not be adhered to as we would like it to be. We need to ensure that it cannot be ignored. If that is for the next phase it is absolutely acceptable, but we need to find sanctions to ensure integrity.
The HSE is not included in the legislation, but it should be.
My final point concerns off-book meetings, which are not covered in the legislation. A skilled lobbyist will earn his or her money in this area. They will be able to arrange an accidental or coincidental meeting because they know a particular person's habits. Irish society is so small that we know where people will be or we can guess at it. We need to do something to try to capture that as best we can, although it may not be possible. The best lobbyist, however, will be able to arrange chance encounters. Therefore, a duty-to-inform provision is required, so that if a person feels he or she was the subject of lobbying on an issue outside the formal structures of a meeting in a Department or elsewhere, he or she should have an obligation to state that. It may not be a perfect mechanism but we should try to capture that area of lobbying that will continue out of the public eye.
I congratulate the Minister on taking this first step. When I said it was about time, it was not a criticism of the delay; a huge amount has come through in the past three years. It is great that we have seen it come about in this session and at this important time. I welcome the Minister's moves in recent days to protect the integrity of the political system and ensure that work on publicly appointed boards that receive public money is not done because of who one knows but because of what one knows and one's abilities.
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House. It is timely as regards the overall reform of politics, because lobbying is a central part of politics. As Deputy Costello said, part and parcel of a Deputy or Senator's life is to be lobbied by a variety of groups. Unfortunately, because of past history, the word is synonymous with wrongdoing, although it should not be.
The Bill addresses present shortcomings in the registration requirement and will provide the foundation for a more transparent political system. It will make both politicians and lobbyists more accountable to the public. I hope it will work towards rebuilding the public's trust in the political system, most especially this week, given the goings-on over the last few days.
The final report of the Mahon tribunal, which covered many areas of Dublin and many former public representatives, stated that legislation regulating lobbying would be "likely to decrease the corruption risks associated with that activity by increasing transparency and accountability in the policy making process." The report went on to say:
Such regulation would not however, adversely affect the positive role played by lobbyists in the political system. On the contrary, it could well help promote a more positive perception of that role.It is also important to note that while it is necessary to regulate lobbying, and while lobbying is often perceived as a dirty word, it can have a positive impact on political decisions, policy formation and legislative drafting. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, whose work on e-conveyancing is being televised on the Oireachtas channel. Prior to that, we spent a lot of time debating and hearing from various interest groups. That is a form of lobbying which is happening in the public domain. The Bill before us, however, will deal with lobbying that we do not see. It has gone on for decades behind closed doors and has often led to questionable decisions, particularly on planning matters. As a public representative for ten and a half years, I can attest that in the first few weeks of my career I was met by an individual in my office in Fingal County Council. This person was a one-man company representing a number of development clients or landowners. There were all sorts of commitments made, none of which was financial. That happened in 2004 at the height of public awareness of wrongdoings that had occurred in previous years in the planning process, yet it was rife. I am sure I am not the only public representative to have experienced that. It stopped a couple of years after that, but even in 2004, when there was a sea change in local government representation, it was still occurring. It is a regrettable thing in our history. We are now required to conform with international best practice by bringing forward this legislation.
On a couple of occasions I have travelled to the United States and have been to Washington DC, including Capitol Hill. Lobbying firms are operating all around those government institutions. As a number of contributors to this debate have said, that does not make the lobbyists bad people; it is simply a way of making representations on behalf of clients or shareholders.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy made a point about companies with fewer than ten employees. Sometimes the most effective lobbyist, as he outlined, is the individual who takes advantage of knowing about a politician's or other individual's diary to make a representation. That person might simply be one individual and not even a company. I urge caution concerning the requirement that these companies do not have to register as lobbyists.
Are we talking about a financial burden on companies that register as lobbyists? I do not believe we are. Therefore, what is the issue with ensuring everybody who makes representations, particularly to public representatives and particularly regarding the zoning of land, is required under legislation to register as a lobbyist and with ensuring the public has an opportunity to see who is registered and who they are representing?
Section 8 of the Bill outlines the provision for the registration of lobbyists. A lobbyist must be registered before carrying out lobbying activity. When a person is lobbying for the first time, he or she must have his or her registration completed before the next return date, with three return dates being set in a year. Perhaps I misunderstand it. What we are talking about - forgive me if I am wrong - is a regime where there is no requirement on those lobbied to ask whether a lobbyist is registered or representing a firm or landowner, for example. If I am correct, perhaps we might consider this again and examine it in the next stage of the process that the Minister has mentioned.
Perhaps there should be an onus on individuals who are lobbied, particularly public servants and public representatives, to ask whether a lobbyist is registered. Having been a public representative for just over ten years, I see no harm in asking that question of a person who wants a piece of land zoned by councillors in my local area, for example, or a person who wants legislation changed to benefit him materially or the company he represents. I see no difficulty in that. With regard to transparency in the public domain, I do not imagine one could make a case for regarding the question I describe as onerous.
On appointments to State boards, I welcome the collective decision to take further steps announced by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, following yesterday's Cabinet meeting. I accept fully that the Minister has a very busy portfolio. As he is aware, I do a lot of work in the area of public expenditure and reform in Fine Gael, but while I accept the Minister's bona fides on his having received agreement only yesterday, I believe the reform agenda needs to be accelerated, particularly regarding politics.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Catherine Murphy.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014. The word "lobbying" conjures up all sorts of images, including bribery, corruption, brown envelopes, secret decision-making, undue influence and cronyism. All these concepts are in the public mind when the word "lobbying" is used. That is not surprising at all, because the public has been made cynical by a series of issues that have arisen over recent years, including revelations from various inquiries and tribunals, and particularly because of the wholesale reneging on election promises and commitments made by all the main political parties over recent years. The current Government is operating to a policy that it opposed during the election campaign. Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party opposed it. The policy was commenced and introduced by the Fianna Fail-Green Party Government. What is being done by the current Government is the exact opposite of what it campaigned on prior to the last general election. This gives the public reason to be cynical about politics, politicians and political parties.
Water charging has been introduced today, 1 October. This again leaves the public cynical, confused and angry. Water charging has been introduced by a Government containing the Labour Party, which absolutely opposed it during the course of the last general election campaign. Not only that; it warned the public not to vote for Fine Gael on the grounds that it would introduce water charges. One should remember its take on the famous Tesco advertisement. Today, however, a Labour Party Minister is introducing water charges, so it is not surprising that the public is cynical and angry about lobbying, transparency and accountability. The latter two terms have been tarnished badly over the years, including in recent weeks. The words "transparency" and "accountability" are now regarded by the public as meaning their exact opposite. The use of these terms by any politician now immediately generates unease among the public because it takes it to mean that the individual will not be accountable or transparent. A registration of lobbying Bill will be helpful, but only if every i is dotted and every t crossed and if it covers every area comprehensively and significantly.
Other speakers referred to the various appointments to State boards. What has occurred in this regard is totally at variance with the so-called democratic revolution that we were promised by the current Government. The new process for appointing members of State boards announced yesterday gives no certainty at all that cronyism will be outlawed. The fact of the matter is that a political decision will ultimately be made by a Minister - a politician - to appoint people to State boards. The process should obviously be overseen by the Commission for Public Service Appointments and we should ensure that representations of any kind would disqualify applicants from posts in which they are interested. The ultimate appointment must be made by some body other than the Minister, an independent body.
There is evidence to suggest that even where the public appointments process has been used, the vast majority of appointees have been and are connected to political parties.
This legislation is certainly welcome, but we need every i to be dotted and every t to be crossed. There are obviously areas that need to be examined, and significant amendment will be needed during Committee and Remaining Stages. If a professional lobbyist, in return for payment, makes a relevant communication about a relevant matter to a person who is not a designated public official, this is not considered lobbying. If an individual who is an employer directs an employee to make a relevant communication to a designated public official solely about the implementation of a particular public policy, this is not considered lobbying.
We need to deal with these and other areas.
I welcome the introduction of a register of lobbyists, the monitoring of that register and the reporting of returns by lobbyists. However, there are questions to be answered about the Bill. What, for example, is meant by "in return for payment"? Does this refer solely to a financial payment? Is it possible that a person could be a lobbyist without being in receipt of a financial payment? That could and will happen. This issue must be addressed.
On the exclusion of a business with fewer than ten employees, the Bill refers to an employer or lobbyist where a business has more than ten employees. This should be amended as I do not see any good reason an employer of a business with fewer than ten employees should be excluded from the process.
I wish to refer to another area the Bill should deal with. I refer to particular categories of civil servants which do not appear to be covered by the legislation, for example, principal officers and assistant principal officers. Also, in the Bill the onus is placed entirely on lobbyists to declare their activities. This section is not strong enough. An onus should be placed on the person lobbied to disclose the lobbying.
This legislation is important, but it will need significant amendment before enactment. We must accept from the evidence that ethics go out the window when they clash with profit and financial advantage. We need to ensure we dot every "i" and cross every "t". The jury is out on the Bill and we must see significant amendment of it before it is passed.
Changing the law can change behaviour if the law is right and if there are adequate sanctions. Therefore, it is important that we have legislation that goes to the heart of some of the worst practices we have seen in Irish politics to date. The Bill can contribute to this, but the Minister should accept suggestions to improve it on Committee Stage. It is important that the Bill go as far as it can on this issue and I will put forward some suggestions in my contribution.
We are all aware of and many speakers have given a long list of examples of how the system can be corrupted that would not inspire one with confidence in the political system. We had the beef tribunal, the Ansbacher accounts report and the Mahon and Moriarty tribunal reports on the planning system. We also had the report on the taxi licence system. There was war about the taxi licences at the time and there are mixed views on how it played out, with taxi drivers not being too happy with the result.
There is a huge cost to the State of corruption of the processes. Take, for example, the planning process. We only have to look around the country to see how difficult it is to provide public transport because of our dispersed population or how expensive it is to provide for water and wastewater systems because we do not have a normal settlement pattern. The provision of these facilities is not without cost to taxpayers. The problem is that we are providing facilities in the least cost effective way. When the regional authorities, the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines were put in place, behaviour changed because people had to comply with the regime. This brought an improvement. However, I am somewhat concerned about the construction sector in terms of its strength. Looking, for example, at the position of items planned for the Order Paper, there is significant lobbying, including looking for a reduction in the windfall tax, development contributions and a range of other measures. I have noted, for example, the position of particular Bills on the A list. First, we have a Bill to do with Construction 2020. I would be first to argue there is a deficit in construction, but there is a deficit also in regard to problems which have been neglected, for example, the building control Bill which proposes to regulate builders, the housing regulation Bill which will provide for the likes of the housing associations to be formalised and the planning and development Bill which will include some of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. These Bills fall way behind what is on the A list. What is on the list is precisely what the construction sector most wants to see changed.
As a public representative at both local and national level, this is the second time I have experienced a crash in the construction sector. We are moving back into construction without having repaired the problems or addressed the issues involved. We are starting the process again. The Government just has a short time left in office and the important changes that should have been made before construction started again have not been made. I am concerned about the strength of the construction sector and the fact that, as a force, it may not engage again where it can because it wants to see changes made in the budget.
I brought forward legislation that was not opposed by the Government and which sought to rebalance consumer protection in the context of planning. My legislation proposed the introduction of a national register to register bonds or development contributions and builders with a history of non-compliance. However, while it is accepted that some of these proposals will find a way into legislation, that is very far down the line. We do not seem to have dealt with this issue and I am concerned about the lobbying that continues to be carried out.
Every day in this House we see thousands of pieces of communication, most of which are fine. They come from individual constituents who are trying to access services and facilities or informing us of what they think should be done. That is not what the Bill is about, rather it is about professional lobbying. I often wonder about individuals who ask about how they can be effective from the point of view of lobbying and I have put together a guidance document to give to people as too often there is an imbalance between professional lobbyists and individuals. These individuals are equally as entitled to have their voices heard in a proportionate way.
I will show it to the Minister. One obvious piece of advice is not to arrange a march to Leinster House on a Saturday. This is a small country and we are all aware of the informal lobbying that takes place, whether in the Galway tent, on golf courses or wherever else.
We can see through the document which was put together by TASC to map the golden circle the relationship, for example, on a small number of boards of a small number of people. While I know it relates to different legislation, it shows just what a small country this is and how difficult it is to deal with this issue because a person is getting to somebody who might have influence, yet it is not regarded as lobbying. It will be quite difficult to curtail it. We also need to look at the other areas and perhaps suggestions will be brought forward on Committee Stage.
With regard to the cooling off period, people the county managers have been excluded, although they are no longer county managers but CEOs. Nonetheless, I most definitely believe they are a group of individuals who should be included. The cooling off period is one year, although the programme for Government stated it would be two. For a planner going to work for An Bord Pleanála, for example, it is two years that the person cannot adjudicate on something that affects the area on which they formerly worked. Two years would be a more reasonable period and is the kind of safeguard we should be putting in place.
We see people who have been incredibly lucky in this country and they seem to be in the know. We are not supposed to mention names, but when one starts to look at mobile phone licences, water meters, owning hospitals and newspapers, it is very difficult not to think of one particular individual who is all-powerful. It is quite incredible how a small number of people have become so wealthy and powerful and that they have not done so without influence and having access to individuals who have power. That in itself shows the need for this legislation; not only that, it shows the need for this legislation to work and for us to make sure it is made to work.
One of the areas in which I would be concerned about it being made to work is staffing levels in and the resources of the Standards in Public Office Commission in order for it to be able to follow up on issues in a meaningful way. Its members have a remit about which they complain from time to time and they are quite open about this in terms of politics. They complain about some of the functions they would like to have in order to be able to do something more substantial but which they cannot do because of the lack of resources. If we are to give them extra responsibility, we have to give them the resources they need to carry out that function. Otherwise, we will be accused of what many Governments and Parliaments in past decades have been accused of, namely, introducing plenty of legislation with not enough enforcement provisions. It is equally important that we have the resources right to ensure enforcement.
The Bill is most definitely welcome and will move in the right direction. It can be strengthened and I hope the Minister will take on board some of the suggestions and amendments that will be brought forward following Second Stage. In the main, I am supportive.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Bill. The first point I would like to make is that we in this House are in a very privileged position to be elected and representatives of the people. Obviously, that honour is something we should cherish and not in any way tarnish by our activities. I sometimes very much regret the willingness within political discourse to undermine the actions and words of our political opponents in such a way as to imply incorrect motives to them. Obviously, in the cut and thrust of political debate there will be disagreements on policy and ideology, which is very acceptable. However, very often we cross the line in our efforts to make political points to such an extent that, in fact, it draws the profession of politics into disrepute. Collectively, that is something on which we should reflect.
There are very many people who are willing to subscribe to a view that this Chamber is a heaving mass of corruption and self-indulgence. The truth is different and I acknowledge this across the political divide in regard to people with whom I would be uncomfortable ideologically. I would not second-guess the bona fides of all those sent here. It is true to say that, in all of my time here, there have been a small minority who have betrayed the public interest by promoting self-interest ahead of the public interest and, of course, we should always have adequate checks and balances and laws to deal with this. However, our willingness to undermine the profession of politics marks a slippery slope that will ultimately fracture the close links between public representatives and the public they serve. We would do well to reflect on the dangers of creating a "them and us" approach where the public's confidence in the political process - not in Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Independents, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin but in the process itself - is damaged. That is something on which we should reflect.
I acknowledge this is not the perfect week or day for me to be making these points. I put up my hands and say the current debacle in which the Taoiseach is involved in respect of the appointment of a Fine Gael candidate in a Seanad by-election to the board of the IMMA is regrettable, to say the least, and has not done much to dispel the image of malpractice and cronyism. In preparing for the debate on the Bill I took to reading what some might call works of fiction, although it is interesting reading. One is the Fine Gael manifesto in 2011 and the other is the programme for Government. It is interesting to note that a lot has been achieved in the area of political reform on which our absent friends in the press gallery are very often reluctant to report, whereas they use as a stick to beat us the things that have yet to be ticked off and delivered on.
I welcome this legislation, although I have some concerns which I will bring to the Minister's attention in the course of the debate. However, it is important to acknowledge that quite a lot has been done, while other things remain to be delivered on. One of the interesting things I found in the Fine Gael manifesto of 2011 is, in the context of the current controversy, worth reading. It states: "Vacancies for all remaining paid directorships on public boards will be advertised on the website of the Public Appointments Service, and short-lists of qualified applicants will be presented to Ministers". I welcome the Minister's recent announcement in this regard. It is something that will serve to reinforce the fact that the overwhelming majority of Members today and during the history of the State have always been and were motivated by public service. We run a risk in continuously undermining and second-guessing their motivations and by making unsubstantiated political charges that we will actually bring the profession of politics into disrepute. I suppose what I am saying is that we need to play the ball all the time, not the man, something that is at times lost here.
As I said, I consider it to be a great privilege to be a representative in this Chamber of the people of my constituency of Cork North-West. We live in a representative parliamentary democracy. I would be very slow to introduce or support legislation that in any way undermined the interaction I have on a daily and weekly basis with my constituents, or placed any impediment between my constituents and me or between any representative here and his or her constituents in terms of their unfettered access as individual citizens to their public representatives. That has to be something that should be subject to the closest possible scrutiny.
I made reference to the question of whether this was a heaving mass of corruption or whether most Members of the House were well motivated. I believe they are.
It is interesting to note that Transparency International, which is an international body of some standing, reported in 2009 that we were the 16th least corrupt nation out of 180 nations it surveyed in its index of corruption globally. That is something for which this Chamber should take a bow. However, I accept that this must be assessed side by side with the results of various tribunals of inquiry, which have put a stain on the reputation of our system of parliamentary democracy. One can go back as far as the beef tribunal, the Mahon tribunal and the plethora of incidents that have been referred to by other colleagues in this debate. We must tread very carefully in respect of that interaction that is critical to our functioning democracy and the social cohesion we enjoy, and anything that puts an impediment in the way of the link between our representatives and the public. I would be very slow to support legislation that raises a question mark about the entitlement of a constituent of mine to step into my constituency office in Macroom or any of my clinics around the constituency from Ballincollig to Charleville. That would be a flawed piece of legislation. I raise this issue in the context of the Bill because I wonder whether this will be a lobbyist's charter. If a citizen cannot walk into my constituency office unfettered, must he or she then pay money to get a lobbyist to come in? It is a very interesting time to have this debate because we are in the middle of the pre-budget season and lobbying is at its peak. Today alone I had breakfast with Teagasc and elevenses with the Irish Road Haulage Association, while tomorrow it will be-----
Tomorrow it will be the turn of the INTO and the Simon Community, while earlier this week it was the Society of the Irish Motor Industry. I have heard from the drinks industry and the IFA. One has the whole gamut of society from the business community to the trade union movement to non-governmental organisations. They often raise general issues about which individual constituents come to me for 12 months of the year. For example, the IFA, which is probably one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, has had its day in Dublin and met with all of us. We jump when it says it is having a lobbying session because it is an important voice for rural communities, as are the other farming organisations from whom I have heard, such as the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association and Macra na Feirme. Very often, what happens is that subsequent to that lobbying session, the local IFA activists will come to my constituency clinic. As I understand, a particular interpretation of the legislation before the House could mean that the local branch of the IFA could no longer come to me. It would have to send its PR company or lobbyist. I see the Minister shaking his head and I hope that is correct, because that would be a real danger.
I am a lobbyist and I am lobbied. That is my duty as a public representative. I am lobbied all day every day, and rightly so. If a woman comes into my constituency clinic who has a problem with the Department of Social Protection about her social welfare payment, a parent comes to me who is concerned about the number of children in a classroom or the pupil-teacher ratio, or a farmer comes to me with concerns about Common Agricultural Policy reform, I am being lobbied. That is part and parcel of what I do. I must be able to differentiate between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Ultimately, I am held to account in the most telling of fashions, and I have been on the winning and losing sides of that telling procedure, which is an election every so often. That is the ultimate form of accountability. We need to tread carefully in terms of placing impediments before my constituents in having unfettered access to me, as is their right.
I know the other side of the argument and I understand the motivation behind the legislation. I think it is coming from a significant number - I will not say a small number - of high-profile events relating to planning corruption. As I said, I am a lobbyist and I am lobbied. I am a lobbyist when I come here. I am invariably at the back of the Chamber bending a Minister's ear. It might be the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when I am looking for something in my constituency. It might be the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in respect of the N22 bypass from Macroom. It might be any one of a range of Government Ministers. Where do I fit in? I am at the receiving end of this legislation insofar as I am one of the aforementioned people who will have legal requirements placed upon them as people who are lobbied. On the other side, I am also a lobbyist.
In respect of the organisations covered, could the Minister dwell in his reply on why certain organisations are not mentioned? For example, the Judiciary, the gardaí and the HSE are not mentioned. I am interested in knowing why they are not specifically mentioned in the legislation, given the very significant roles they play. The HSE would seem to be a glaring omission given the size of its budget.
On balance, it is a step in the right direction. I would like to be reassured by the Minister that this in no way interferes with the traditional engagement between a public representative and his or her constituents. I know there is a view out there and among our absent colleagues in the Fourth Estate, who are not listening to this debate now, that rural Deputies in particular are excessively involved in clientelism and spend too much time listening to our constituents and that the country would be far better if we did none of this menial stuff and got on with the business of fine flowery intellectual contributions in this Chamber about the important issues. I consider myself to be best informed in debates by virtue of practical experience because of the engagement I have with ordinary people - I do not use the term in any pejorative sense - whose lives are affected by the daily decisions we make. The challenge as public representatives is getting that balance right. Obviously, we must be our own moral guardians in the interim between one election and the other, when the public will adjudicate on us. I acknowledge that the actions of a small minority within this Chamber have betrayed the overwhelming commitment to public service that is manifest in all Members across all political parties.
I am pleased to have the chance to contribute to the debate this evening. Back in October 2012, I asked the Taoiseach when we would be given a date for the introduction of this Bill. The response was that it was not possible to indicate at that time. Therefore, I am glad to see that the Bill has been published and that I am getting a chance to speak about it nearly two years later. I believe this Bill is long overdue. For far too long, lobbying in Ireland has been an unregulated activity that at times has been shrouded in secrecy. Due to the behaviour of Fianna Fáil, towns and villages throughout the country have been destroyed by over-zoning. There were reasons for that. We see the ghost estates that have been built up in some parts of the country and the cost to the State when developers walked away from finishing projects. The report of the Mahon tribunal showed what happened when vested interests, unnamed lobbyists and self-serving individuals became involved in the decision-making process. It was a great lack of transparency and accountability in the policy making process that allowed this to happen. With the publication of the report of the Mahon tribunal and its recommendations, we now have an opportunity to rebuild public confidence in policies and the business of Government. This Bill will increase the responsibility of decision makers while at the same time provide greater openness to those who want to influence public policy.
I do not think this Bill will impinge on general lobbyists such as the bodies and organisations outlined by Deputy Creed. It will be aimed at regulation and establishing a code of practice which will govern the conduct of lobbying, while at the same time facilitating the appropriate public scrutiny of lobbying activity. It will finally place accountability and integrity in an area of public policy where previously there was none. There are many aspects of the Bill by which I am impressed and which I welcome. However, given my short speaking time I would like to focus on a few points.
I am pleased to see the introduction of an online register of lobbyists which will require those on it to disclose their lobbying activities at the end of every April, August and December. However, I would have liked to have seen the Minister go a little bit further with those disclosures and have them on a quarterly basis. This is important because it reveals what is happening and removes the haze of secrecy which previously existed. This Bill, when enacted, will offer much greater transparency to the process of lobbying as we will be able to see clearly who is lobbying whom and the issues they are discussing. After all, the fundamental objective of this Bill is to create greater transparency and openness. I am certain that the introduction of an online register will play a huge part in the broader process of reforming lobbying in this country.
I am pleased to see that the Bill provides for a cooling off period. For example, a former special advisor to a Minister will have to seek approval to lobby former colleagues during a one year period after he or she has left public service. I had hoped that could have been extended to a period of two years as this would create a more level playing field and would ensure equal access. It would also work towards reducing the image of former politicians or staff having a direct line to a Minister.
Finally, despite its tarnished image over the years lobbying plays a helpful role in the formation of policy. It ensures that all viewpoints can be assessed and determined upon during the legislative or policy making process. The public perception of lobbying will be enhanced and improved by the Bill. This new perception will be underlined by clear and workable guidelines for those the public elect, officials and civil servants. It is my firm belief that the Bill will foster a culture of integrity in the decision making process that has been sadly lacking for quite some time.
I compliment the Minister for being in the Chamber to listen to the viewpoints of Members. The Bill is long overdue and it is important that it is passed. It was in the programme for Government. The Minister is doing a very good job in his portfolio and has introduced a lot of legislation. He is, and has always been, a forward thinker.
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution. I welcome the Bill. It is very important and should have been passed a long time ago. I have examined legislation in other countries. In Australia the lobbyist register requires that upon making contact with a representative or minister, a lobbyist must identify that he or she is a lobbyist, an employee, a contractor or somebody engaged by a lobbyist. I understand a person must also state whether he or she is currently listed on the lobbyist register and that he or she is making contact on behalf of a third party, the name of which must also be disclosed as must the nature of the issue involved. The inclusion of such a provision in the Bill might make for even more transparency.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act 1995 in the United States extended the definition of lobbyists to include those that lobby directly as well as those who hire lobbying firms. This is something which should be considered. I understand that if people contribute moneys towards lobbying activities in the United States, any organisation which contributes more than $10,000 towards lobbying activities must also be registered. We know of situations in the past where individuals were alleged to have given money to lobbyists to carry out lobbying activities, but it might be useful to examine that because one could find the organisations and individuals behind the lobbyist.
Section 22(1) refers to the cooling off period. It states that:
A person who has been a relevant designated public official shall not—There are exemptions, on which we need more clarity. We need to know the nature of the exemptions and how the decision is taken as to what they should be. In Canada the cooling off period is, I understand, six years. The cooling off period here will be much shorter and I wonder whether we need to consider extending it. The federal prohibition period in the United States is two years.
(a) carry on lobbying activities in circumstances to which this section applies, or
(b) be employed by, or provide services to, a person carrying on lobbying activities in such circumstances, during the relevant period except with the consent of the Commission.
As I understand it, nothing in the Bill requires a lobbyist to disclose how much he or she is being paid and from whom he or she is receiving payment. Perhaps it should be a requirement that a person should disclose by whom he or she is paid to lobby.
Section 13(3) states that:
Where the Commission consider that any information contained in an application made by a person under section 11 or a return made by a person under section 12 is inaccurate or misleading, the Commission may immediately remove from the Register the information contained in the application or return pending provision of corrected information; and the person shall be treated for the purposes of this Act as never having made the application or return unless and until the corrected information is provided.As I understand it - I stand to be corrected - there are possible fines for an offence, but anybody found to have made a misleading application should be barred from ever applying again, in addition to the fines listed in the Bill. There could be a mandatory period of exclusion before such a person could apply to be on the register again. It would be a fairly serious thing to do. Nothing in this section requires lobbyists to identify specifically who they intend to lobby. I am not sure if it is possible to change that. They are required to identify who they lobbied after the fact, but not before.
It is a timely Bill. It is part of the programme for Government. A lobbyist can lobby directly or indirectly, but we are examining how to make the process far more transparent and visible. There are issues in regard to cooling off periods and so on. The Bill will take a lot of activity out of the shadows. It is important that if somebody is a lobbyist and approaches a Minister, Government official or public official, he or she should identify himself or herself as a lobbyist. That should be very clear from the outset, as should the fact he or she is on the register of lobbyists and is engaged in lobbying.
If somebody approaches a public official or a Minister and is making a case, is he or she lobbying?
When is lobbying not lobbying or vice versa? We need more clarity on that. That is my contribution - I said I would be short.
I thank all Members from across the House for their contributions. It was a broad-ranging and well-informed debate on an important Bill. While it is intrinsically a simple Bill, it is hard to balance - this was implicit in virtually every contribution - the proper right of every citizen, organisation and company to have its view heard and its impact and assessment valued by law makers and the Executive, which is very important, with an experience in which some people had the inside track. We use euphemisms such as "the Galway tent" to refer to the way in which the powerful could bend the ear of policy makers and have policy formulation crafted to their own interest.
I have been working on this area for some time as part of a suite of reform measures. It has been two years since the initial announcement and its presentation to the House but, as I indicated in my opening remarks yesterday, we have had a huge amount of consultation, formal discussion papers and a formal seminar follow-up to ensure that genuine lobbying organisations that have expressed concerns, including the IFA, can be accommodated and given to understand that they have nothing to fear in genuinely pursuing the interests of their members, which is their right. Ordinary citizens should be fully protected in their right to have their voices heard about public policy, and it is about doing this in a transparent and open way. The main goal is to establish a register of lobbying to make information available to the public on the identities of those seeking to influence public policy as well as to provide a framework for holding those engaged in such lobbying accountable for the manner in which they conduct that lobbying. No one should have any fear - and the IFA, the trade union movement, or IBEC would not have a difficulty - about being publicly identified as lobbyists. If we have that in a robust, transparent way, we might restore the tarnished view of lobbyists that many Members of the House have expressed.
I will comment on some of the observations made by Members during the course of the debate. I will have careful regard to all the views expressed and hope we will have a robust discussion on Committee Stage in due course. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Fleming made a general comment relating to State board appointments. Many comments were made by various Deputies on that issue. It is not intrinsically part of the lobbying Bill, but timing is everything. I am very pleased that I secured agreement yesterday on a comprehensive revised model for appointments to State boards. One might say it was handy that I had a prepared brief on the matter, but I have had that for some time. Opportunity is a great thing and I felt we could have consensus about its presentation yesterday. I was very glad to be asked to do that by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste.
Within a number of weeks, I will present the overarching set of guidelines for appointments to State boards to the Government for approval. I say honestly that it will be a fundamental change for the good which will be manifest over time. It will encourage many people who would not have considered putting themselves forward for State boards to go to stateboards.ie, look at the panoply of State boards which are available, the criteria expected for each board, say "I could do that," and send in their curricula vitae to be independently assessed by the Commission for Public Service Appointments. I disagree with those who say the ultimate decisions should not be made by elected Ministers as, whatever else we are, we are accountable to the people here. I will probably be murdered for saying so, but we often appoint judges or others who are supposed to be above reproach but who are accountable to nobody. If Ministers make mistakes, they are hauled over the coals here at least and held to account, which is as it should be.
Deputy Fleming referred also in his contribution to social contacts. That was a point made by others in the course of the debate today. Any contact which falls within the scope of the legislation that constitutes lobbying is covered, whether it takes place at the Galway races or, to be comprehensive, the Wexford Opera Festival. It would be captured.
As regards the public servants who come within the scope of the Bill, as raised by a number of Members, I will have discretion as to the timing of the application to persons beyond those listed. In the first instance, those captured will be Secretaries General and assistant secretaries. It is my intention to include principal officers and assistant principal officers in due course. This will be done by way of regulation. I will have regard to the strong views expressed by a number of Members that it should happen sooner rather than later. Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to what we used to call county managers but are now chief executive officers of county councils. They will be captured from the outset by the legislation.
Deputies Fleming, McDonald and Kyne raised the issue of the cut-off point for small businesses. The issue resonated in comments made by a number of Deputies this afternoon. I said in my opening Second Stage speech that I did not have a fixed view on the matter. Listening to the views of those I have discussed it with over the last number of months, I did not want to put a burden of registration and thrice-annual reporting on small companies. Some people think it is not onerous, but it is a burden. Some of these are one-man operations - for example, a local painter and his son seeking to make an approach in respect of a new grants system for household repairs. If people feel the way I have designed it to cover companies employing more than ten people is not tight enough, I will consider some of the suggestions made by perhaps looking at company turnover. It is something we will examine between now and Committee Stage, when I will, again, welcome robust debate.
Deputy McDonald commented on the period between reviews in the legislation. The legislation will be reviewed within a year of enactment and every five years thereafter. Deputy McDonald accepted the initial annual review but felt it should be every three years thereafter. I have an open mind on the matter as long as we have sufficient evidence and a robust body of information to review in the timeframe provided for.
Deputy McDonald referred also to the exemption applied to communications between public officials. If everything had to be captured, the sheer volume of communication between public officials would risk overloading the register. I am working diligently to ensure that other transparency mechanisms capture this sort of thing, including the very wide extension of the freedom of information provisions. I look forward, hopefully, to concluding the legislative phase of the freedom of information legislation tomorrow in the Seanad. If we pass it in the other House, that should be law. It will go a long way to addressing the concerns raised by the Deputy.
Deputy Finian McGrath gave us some examples of what he termed "good" and "bad" lobbying. The aim of the Bill is to secure transparency in all areas of lobbying. We could all instance examples of what we would classify as "good" and "bad" lobbying. Deputy Ross raised the issue of judicial appointments. The Department of Justice and Equality is finalising a report on the consultation process recently undertaken on the system of judicial appointments. I have my own strong views on the matter. I was a member of the Government which initially put forward the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board system as an improvement, but we can go further. It is something we can look at.
Deputy Wallace raised concerns about the influence of big business on Government decision making. The intention of the Bill is to assist in informing the public about who is contacting whom about what.
That is what we need to know, and that will give reassurance to people.
Deputy Connaughton talked about the importance of a good fit between the legislation and the political culture. I agree that is an important point, underpinned by the experience of similar legislation in other jurisdictions, and I am keen to hear the practical experience of Members regarding that. We have had a good debate about those matters.
I acknowledge Deputy Kenny's view that this Bill represents an important step in rebuilding public trust, which no doubt every Member of the House would agree has been sundered in recent years. A number of Deputies, including Deputy Ó Cuív, touched on the cooling off period; other Deputies touched upon that earlier. Deputies were right to say that in the original proposals I put forward and agreed in the programme for Government the cooling off period was two years. I am trying to achieve a balance in terms of what is reasonable. I listened to Deputy Fleming yesterday who suggested that there is nothing inherently bad with a senior official in, say, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine working in an export company that will advance Irish exports and bringing his or her expertise to bear. Having consulted a good deal and having regard to people's constitutional rights to work, and trying to obviate the need to pay any compensation to people for limiting their employability in legislation, which is another point that might have arisen should we have gone too far in this regard, it is a better process to hand it over to an independent, robust and trusted body like the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPOC, for it to make the evaluation whether the proposed work is a real conflict of interest. In my judgment that is the way it would be best to go.
To deal with some of the points made this afternoon, I thank Deputy Costello for his warm welcome for this legislation, and that of other Deputies. He laid out the history of lobbying and our unfortunate experience. He also raised the issue of concern about limiting the legislation to impact on companies with greater than ten employees, and I will have regard to that.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy again referenced the current controversy about board appointments and welcomed the new regime, which I am glad Government approved yesterday. The Deputy posed a question to me that I will reflect further on, namely, whether there should be an obligation on those who are lobbied to ask the question: are you a lobbyist and for whom do you work. I will reflect further on whether that is a valid question, but I do not want to put in a legal obligation on every Deputy in the House that every time somebody approaches them they have to say, "Stop. Are you a lobbyist?", and if they do not ask the question that somehow they are in breach of legislation. That would not be welcomed by Members of the House. The better way of proceeding is what I have set out, which is the requirement on those who wish to lobby to register on a public platform.
Deputy Alan Farrell rightly identified the complexity of the issues before us and that are being addressed in this legislation, and spoke about the American experience. For clarity, he said there should be no limitation to those who are lobbying in regard to land zoning, and I can give that assurance. Anybody who is lobbying in regard to the zoning of land is fully registerable under these provisions.
Deputy Healy gave his standard revision of history relating to my party and the broken promises malarkey. My then party leader, the former Tánaiste, went on the "Late Late Show" in advance of the last election and said we would not be reversing the 2011 budget. We said that publicly in advance of the election. That is just for history. I know people-----
-----do not often want to hear these facts, but that is true because we knew what we were facing into. We went into government not to decry the darkness but to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem. Objectively, most people think we have done a fair job in the past three and a half years of bringing us not from the edge of the abyss but from the deep end of the abyss to a better place.
Deputy Catherine Murphy made a very important point, and it is something I am very conscious of because in many ways the easiest thing to do is legislate. It is much more difficult to change behaviour or change a culture. There is a tiny minority of people whose first attitude, no matter what we legislate for, is to find a way around it as opposed to saying, "This is a cultural change". The changes we brought about yesterday regarding State appointments are cultural shifts that will have a huge impact. There are ways around everything but the suite of measures this Government has put in place - the broadening of the powers of the Ombudsman, the deepening of the powers of SIPOC, the extension of freedom of information into so many areas, the register of lobbyists - will be transformative of the political horizon. There is no doubt it will take a while to bed it in. Will it cure all ills? Of course not, but it will be transformative and I hope will be the basis for the maintenance of trust in politics into the future.
I have already said that county managers will be incorporated. That question was posed by Deputy Catherine Murphy. She made one other point of which I want to make mention, namely, that somehow corrupt planning has provided accommodation in a dispersed way for people. It is an interesting point. In the county council I was a member of at the time, when all the Dublin controversies about corruption were rife a member of Wexford County Council stood up and said, "We'll give planning permission to somebody for a stand alone house anywhere, and the only pay-off we want is their vote". That might be a form of corruption but all of us believe that people have the right to live in rural Ireland as well. We cannot simply say that we can determine centrally where people have the right to live.
The funny thing about democracy is that we do not always have to agree with the decisions. The Green Party members were great believers in democracy, in the law of administration, as long as people did what they believed in, and they believed anything outside that scope was somehow a corrupt decision. Sometimes a democratic decision, impartially, without corruption coming about, gives us a result we do not like.
Deputy Creed talked about the general view of politics and the reform of politics, and I strongly agree with him. We will see that the suite of measures we have enacted and have still to enact in our five-year term will be transformative. He makes a very important point about which I want to reassure him, that is, the right of citizens to access their Deputies. That is not to be impacted upon good, bad or indifferent by this legislation or any other legislation. It might be something many people talk about. Many people write about clientelism but I believe it is not only a very important strength of our democratic system, it is an anchoring strength. My dear friend and colleague, the Minister for Finance, is in the Chamber and he, no more than myself, will know that one can attend very important European Council meetings, come back and still have to deal, rightly, with the minutiae of one's constituency problems. That is very informing of the way we do business in this country and a unique strength of our democratic system.
Deputy Bannon talked about the two year process of bringing the Bill to this current Stage. I believe that was a good two years. A pre-legislative engagement with people is a good thing in that we are not presenting a finished package, so to speak, but setting out our thoughts, engaging with those concerned and taking on board people's concerns even before we bring a Second Stage presentation to this House. I thank the Deputy for his warm welcome of the Bill and the principles that underline it.
Deputy Stanton talked about the experience in Australia and the United States. All of those have been carefully considered in the crafting of this legislation.
As we are culturally different and different in scale, we need a bespoke solution to problems that are unique to us.
I have dealt with the issue of the cooling off period.
I thank all Deputies for their contributions and look forward to a robust debate on Committee Stage. As with all legislation, particularly reforming legislation, I will approach the debate on Committee Stage with an open mind to hear suggestions that would improve it.