Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Open government is a culture of governance that promotes the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation in support of democracy and inclusive growth. Ireland is fully committed to upholding the Open Government Partnership principles of open and transparent government. Significant progress has been made in progressing the programme for Government commitment to "Continue and reinvigorate participation by the public sector in Open Government Partnership". Milestones achieved to date, with civil society, include: the provision of open government in Ireland webpages on gov.ie; the co-creation of terms of reference for the open government round table multi-stakeholder forum; a public call for expressions of interest to join the open government round table multi-stakeholder forum; a public call for submissions for the next and future open government national action plans; and the nomination of public sector round table members from relevant Departments. Ireland is also in the running for an international Open Government Partnership impact award for the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and our deliberative democracy journey.
The first meeting of the open government round table, to be opened by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will take place online on 29 November 2021. There are no predetermined issues or commitments to be addressed at this stage of the process. It is a cornerstone of the process that the round-table members will collaborate on the issues to develop the next open government national action plan commitments through this multi-stakeholder process, with the active engagement of citizens and civil society.
The round-table members will have the opportunity to consider the breadth of submissions received from the public call; updates on relevant programme for Government commitments and other activity, for example, the transposition of the EU whistleblowing directive; ethics legislation; the review of the Freedom of Information Act; and open data, etc. The national action plan, which emerges for the round table's deliberations, will focus on the Open Government Partnership values of transparency; civic participation; public accountability; and technology and innovation enablers.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Many people would agree that there have been major concerns regarding transparency and accountability. I do not need to rehash those concerns because I think we have debated regularly in this Chamber. It is welcome that there will be an open government round table multi-stakeholder forum and that the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will be attending. Equally, however, it is important that the collaborative effort consists of more than discussion and that firm action will be taken by the Government in this regard. It is important as well that the Government listens to what comes out of that process and that a real strategy emerges to improve accountability and transparency in the Government. I say that because we have a deficiency in that regard. We can see that with the Government’s review of the freedom of information legislation, and we need legislation to be introduced to strengthen all those aspects.
I point to the work streams we have under way in this space, because it can seem quite abstract when we talk about it in respect of what it means in practice. For me, it means transposing the EU whistleblowing directive and strengthening the protected disclosure legislation. The Deputy is aware that I will shortly be bringing forward legislation in that regard. We have commenced a review of the ethics legislation and that is a significant body of work. We still have outstanding recommendations from tribunals of inquiry that reported several years ago and I am determined to make progress in that area.
As the Deputy is also aware and has acknowledged, we have commenced a review of the Freedom of Information Act. That will be a comprehensive and genuinely collaborative review. The Deputy will be aware too that we have legislation on the way on the regulation of lobbying. I acknowledge that the Deputy has also brought forward legislation in this regard. Therefore, I think that I have demonstrated my good faith in respect of open government through the various reforms under way in the Department.
I will also be introducing legislation on protected disclosures. It will be intended to strengthen the legislation in this area, because it does need to be strengthened. Turning to freedom of information provisions, I have been clear that the current regime needs to be strengthened and that is why I have brought forward legislation and submitted amendments in that regard. The same goes for the issue of lobbying. When we have a situation where Bills intended to strengthen transparency and accountability are ready to go, then the Government should support them. This should be a collaborative effort. When Bills already exist, then they should be supported. Regarding regulation of lobbying legislation, that could have been implemented when I introduced my Bill on this subject, rather than kicking the can down the road for nine months. When legislation exists already, then, I will give the Minister credit if he supports the passing of these Bills.
I acknowledge the work that the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach has been doing on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed protected disclosures (amendment) Bill because, as the Deputy is aware, we are obliged to transpose that EU directive by the end of this year. I look forward to receiving the committee's report. It was a comprehensive scrutiny process and I anticipate that we will be getting that report shortly. We are now at an advanced stage of the drafting of the Bill, in conjunction with the Attorney General, but I want the committee to be afforded the opportunity to table its ideas, proposals and the outcome of its scrutiny before I bring forward this proposed Bill. I am now in the final stages in respect of the drafting of the heads of the regulation of lobbying Bill and I anticipate that will come up over the course of tonight's discussion.
In the coming months, we can make a lot of progress, whether through the Deputy's Bill or the Government Bill, to introduce important reforms in this area.