Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Corruption Perception Index
89. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on the statement of caution by Transparency International Ireland that, despite the recent improvement in the State’s ranking in the 2014 corruption perception index 2014 published on 3 December 2014, there are still significant corruption risks to be addressed, including in public procurement. [47950/14]
Question No. 89 refers to the country’s recent improvement in the corruption perception index score of 74 out of 100, tied for 17th place with the United States of America, Barbados and Hong Kong. Those putting together this data sounded a particular note of caution and warned against complacency, identifying in particular the area of public procurement as one that was rich with opportunity for corruption and malpractice. I raised this theme with the Minister in previous questions on the new EU rules on procurement that are to be introduced. What plans has the Minister to safeguard the area of public procurement? Does he accept there is the potential for corruption in this area? What does he propose to do about it?
While I welcome the findings of the recently published Transparency International's index for 2014 which shows an improvement in Ireland's score for the second year in a row, there is an active debate among commentators on the robustness of such measures which indicates the results should always be treated with some degree of caution.
My priority in implementing a suite of reforms under the programme for Government to enhance openness, transparency and accountability has been to take concrete measures to reduce corruption risk permanently. In this context, a wide range of measures to facilitate more open, transparent, accountable and ethical public governance arrangements have been introduced. These include legislation for lobbying, whistleblowing, freedom of information, open government and Civil Service accountability. These comprise important elements of the broader policy framework necessary to ensure the ethical performance of public functions.
On account of important reforms previously put in place, employees in the public sector are required to adhere to ethical standards under the ethics Acts. As an essential part of the overall reform programme, my Department is finalising a review of the current legislative framework for ethics in public office, taking account of international best practice. In this regard, it is completing a detailed draft general scheme of a Bill designed to have a consolidated, modernised, simplified and streamlined set of arrangements, including a strengthening of the current investigations and sanctions regime.
I expect to submit proposals in this regard to the Government early in the new year. Subject to Government approval, I intend to publish, alongside the draft scheme, a policy paper on the legislative proposals to inform and encourage public debate and to act as a basis for further public consultation on the proposed Bill. I look forward to hearing the views of Opposition Members and all Members of this House on these proposals.
In order to address concerns relating to procurement corruption risks, Directive 2004/18/EC requires contracting authorities to exclude from the tender process any tenderers who have been convicted of various types and categories of offence, including corruption, fraud, money-laundering and participation in a criminal organisation.
I accept that the data to which we refer is difficult to collect because corruption is illicit and illegal and, thus, does not facilitate data collection. I also accept the Minister's points on ethics legislation, but I want to focus on the public procurement process. The new rules define conflicts of interest in a way that requires member states to prevent, detect and redress such conflicts. Detection measures include the development of red flag indicators and the rules refer to remedial measures also. Grounds for exclusion from procurement have been strengthened to include companies that have unduly influenced the decision making process. All of these elements are new and welcome. Some €8.5 billion is spent through the public procurement process, so I would like to know the specific changes that will be introduced.
The provisions I have outlined and the requirement for high standards are reflected in the model tender and contract documents for the procurement of goods and general services, as well as in instructions to tenderers and conditions of contract, where the standard forms of contract are used. These documents require that any conflict of interest or potential conflict of interest on the part of a tenderer, individual employee, agent or subcontractor of a tenderer be fully disclosed to the contracting authority as soon as it becomes apparent. Withholding information may result in elimination from a competition or termination of a contract, but this may also occur due to information disclosed. The provisions also prohibit gifts, consideration or commission of any kind as an inducement or reward relating to the award or performance of any public contract.
A public consultation process on the provisions of this directive, which, among other things, provides for additional grounds for exclusion from tender processes, has recently been concluded. The Office of Government Procurement will take full account of the responses received, though I am not sure whether the Deputy took the opportunity to make a submission. In consultation with the Attorney General, it will consider all proposals submitted and the necessity for any further measures by contracting authorities to prevent any form of corruption in procurement in Ireland.
I am sure the Minister agrees when I say it is of the utmost importance that the public has full confidence in the public procurement process. People must know that contracts are awarded on the basis of merit, efficiency, cost and other social considerations, but this is not the case at the moment.
Transparency International is a very credible organisation that has raised real concerns on public procurement. Notwithstanding issues on data collection, the Minister will be aware that, to use a contemporary example, there has been considerable public disquiet about the awarding of the contract to install water meters throughout the State. The perception is that there was a conflict of interest around this this issue relating to the big beasts of the Irish commercial field but seeping into politics. It is important that we get this right. I know that consultations have now finished but I want to know that the Minister is minded to include the most robust measures possible to give effect to the directive.
I believe the establishment within my Department of the Office of Government Procurement represents a sea change in taking away procurement from a range of organisations throughout the State and into one centralised body that has standard rules of operation. This will be not only cost-effective but far more transparent in operation. The enactment of the new EU directive will further strengthen this development. It was right to have a period of public consultation about its implementation. I assure the Deputy and the House that I will be rigorous in ensuring that we have a procurement system in this State that is transparent, open and free of corruption.