Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
I appreciate the Deputy giving way. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, we have been monitoring proceedings from our offices, and a number of questions before No. 98 were not dealt with so I was not here in time.
This question relates to the Minister's plans for a wider regulation amendment to the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. There has been discussion about section 22. Earlier today, the Minister brought forward a motion, without debate, which is unprecedented. Debates have occurred in the House about appointments to the Standards in Public Office Commission, but the Minister decided to appoint somebody who was a National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, lobbyist. Can the Minister tell the House if he was aware that Ms Geraldine Feeney was a lobbyist on behalf of the NAGP when he made the recommendation, and did he inform the Cabinet of it?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 114 together, although Deputy Paul Murphy is not present.
Section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that certain designated public officials are restricted from being engaged in lobbying in certain circumstances for a year after they leave their employment or office, unless they have obtained permission from the Standards in Public Office Commission. In effect, they are subject to a one year cooling-off period. The general purpose of section 22 is to manage the potential for conflicts of interest between the public and private sectors and to place restrictions on what is often referred to as being a revolving door between the public and private sectors.
The Taoiseach recently outlined to the House that section 22 of the Act should be reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This review is under way in my Department. The review will include the following: seeking and considering the advice of the Office of the Attorney General on the range of possible enforcement provisions to be applied in respect of section 22; consultation with, and consideration of the views of, the Standards in Public Office Commission; review of recent Bills published on the matter - Deputy Nash has published a Bill on this and Deputy Mairéad Farrell has indicated that Sinn Féin intends to do likewise; reflection on relevant proposals made in public submissions to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of either the first, 2017, or second, 2020, statutory reviews of the Act.
This is a complex matter. Any amendment to section 22 has to factor in issues such as the rights of a person to work and the proportionality of any sanctions that may be imposed. Sufficient time is required to allow for full consideration and deliberation, prior to any decision being made and subsequent actions being taken. The commitment I have given in respect of this Act is that section 22 will be reviewed. That is taking place and I will bring proposals on that issue to the Government.
This Act deals with the regulation of lobbying and the requirements for lobbyists. I am revisiting this issue again because the Minister forced through a vote that did not allow debate on the motion earlier. The Minister brought forward a name for the approval of the House - Ms Geraldine Feeney, with whom I served in the Seanad. Ms Feeney is also a lobbyist and she lobbied on behalf of the NAGP, the organisation that is in the middle of the controversy about the Tánaiste, and then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, leaking a confidential document to his friend. Was the Minister aware that Ms Feeney was a lobbyist and that she only lobbied on behalf of the NAGP? That was the question before he put the proposal to the House. Did the Minister get an opportunity to talk to Ms Feeney about whether she had a role in the lobbying activity that took place in the audiovisual room on 21 March? If she did, was she required to submit a return to the Standards in Public Office Commission? Why did the Minister break precedent and shut down debate on this issue? It is a fundamental issue regarding appointments to the Standards in Public Office Commission, which has been seeking changes to the law for many years and which successive Governments have ignored.
The Deputy is going beyond the terms of the normal level of questioning that takes place here, in bringing up an individual issue that was very well aired this morning and that is not really relevant to the question that he has asked.
The proposed appointment to SIPO is not being made under the Act cited by Deputy Doherty in his question tabled for oral answer. The Deputy is entitled to ask the question. The appointment is being made under the Standards in Public Office Act. The former Senator Geraldine Feeney is a qualified person for that role. As a former Member of the Oireachtas I think she has the skills and the experience necessary to perform the functions to a high standard.
I am aware of the material that is on the lobbying.iewebsite in terms of her former role lobbying for the NAGP. I have been assured that there has been full compliance with the legislation at all times, including the legislation cited by the Deputy in the question. The returns have been made and published in an open and transparent way, as is the norm in these matters.
I respect your view in regard to that, a Cheann Comhairle. This relates to the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which is policed, if one likes, by the Standards in Public Office Commission. I do not think it was ever envisaged that somebody who was a registered lobbyist up until three weeks ago would be appointed by these Houses as one of only two of the appointees to the Standards in Public Office Commission. The other four are automatic appointees. There is a serious breach here. The Government has run away from accountability and has shut down debate and we only have an opportunity to raise it under these type of questions with the Minister. Why did the Government avoid the debate on this issue?
Of course I have looked at the returns and I did receive a letter from Deputy Doherty's colleague, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, to which I responded. I read the returns, which are available online, primarily relating to lobbying in the early part of 2017, which is what is defined under the Act. It essentially involved setting up a number of meetings within the Oireachtas. If memory serves me correctly, the last entry I saw online relates to a meeting with the then Minister of State, Finian McGrath, on 1 February 2018, and concerned asking him to speak at a healthcare conference. I do not believe that former Senator Feeney had any involvement whatsoever in the issue that became controversial in recent weeks.
In my view she is qualified and well capable of fulfilling this role. When she served in the Seanad she had a reputation for fairness and decency. She is somebody of integrity and her good name should be protected at all times.