Tuesday, 3 July 2007
Ethics In Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007: Second Stage
As Senators will be aware, there is already a substantial body of legislation in place to regulate the ethical standards of people in public office. This includes the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, as well as the Electoral Act 1997. There is also a statutory code of conduct for office holders and this House and the Lower House have adopted codes of conduct, drawn up by the Select Committee on Members' Interests of each House, for their non-office holding members.
Last year, the Taoiseach and the then TÃ¡naiste decided that the ethics legislation should be strengthened to deal with the circumstance where friends offer support for personal reasons and accepting such support would not be likely to influence an office holder or Oireachtas Member in the discharge of his or her functions or duties. It does not take much imagination or experience of life to realise that there can be very human circumstances in which it would be entirely legitimate for an office holder or a Member of this House or the Lower House to accept such support. At the same time, it is legitimate to expect, because of the position he or she holds, that such an office holder or member would not be the only person to make that judgement but rather that the matter would be subjected to judgement by an independent body before the support is accepted.
Accordingly, the Government decided that the ethics legislation would be amended to require an office holder or a Member of the DÃ¡il or Seanad who proposes to accept a significant benefit from a friend for personal reasons only to seek the confidential opinion of an independent body â the Standards in Public Office Commission â that acceptance of the benefit would not be likely to influence the recipient in the discharge of his or her functions or duties. The Bill does this and so gives us an opportunity to reinforce the integrity of public life in Ireland.
I will now outline how the Bill will operate. Senators will be aware that the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 provides that gifts given to office holders, that is, the Taoiseach, the TÃ¡naiste, Government Ministers, Ministers of State, the Attorney General, and the Chair or deputy Chair of the DÃ¡il or Seanad by virtue of their office, are deemed to be gifts given to the State unless the gift is a political donation, in which case it is subject to the Electoral Acts; given by virtue of some other office held, for example, the position of chairperson of a local sports club; or given by a friend or relative for personal reasons only.
This Bill relates to the last exception. It requires officeholders and non-office holding Members of the Oireachtas not to accept benefits worth in aggregate more than â¬2,000 from a friend for personal reasons only in a period covered by an ethics statement unless they have obtained the Standards in Public Office Commission's opinion that acceptance would not be likely to influence the recipient in the performance of his or her functions or duties as an officeholder or member.
There can be times where a benefit is offered on an occasion when it is not practical to refuse it, for example, if it is offered without prior notification at a public function. The Bill provides that in such circumstances, the officeholder or member must seek the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission on the benefit afterwards.
The Bill defines a benefit as including a gift or loan of money or property or the supply of services. The â¬2,000 threshold will apply to benefits from the same friend in a period covered by an interests statement under the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, typically a calendar year. For a gift or loan of money, the amount of the gift or loan will be what counts. For services or a loan of property, the value will be the commercial value less any amount paid by the recipient. If more than one benefit is involved before the threshold is exceeded, it is the one that brings the total over the threshold that the Standards in Public Office Commission must be consulted about.
I should say a word here about the choice of â¬2,000 as the threshold at which the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission must be obtained. As usual, there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, the figure needs to be small enough to be meaningful as an ethics requirement. On the other hand, it needs to be big enough that officeholders and Members do not have to spend their time valuing and counting every ordinary gift they receive from their friends. It also needs to be big enough to avoid the Standards in Public Office Commission having to deal with applications about relatively minor gifts. An amount of â¬2,000 is a fair compromise between these two sorts of consideration.
The Standards in Public Office Commission will have power to ask the officeholder or Member applying for its opinion to provide any further information it considers necessary for it to decide on the application. Such information might include, for example, details of the officeholder's or Member's official duties, the purpose of the benefit, the name and occupation of the donor, how long the donor has been a friend and whether he or she has given similar benefits in the past.
When it has formed its opinion, the Standards in Public Office Commission will notify the officeholder or Oireachtas Member in writing. If the officeholder or Member does not receive a favourable opinion from the commission, he or she must not accept the benefit or if it has already accepted, must return the benefit to the donor. If the donor refuses to take it back, the benefit must be surrendered to the Secretary General to the Government for disposal under the 1995 Act. If the benefit is non-returnable, the officeholder or Member must pay back its value, or if this is refused, must pay the value to the Secretary General to the Government. In such cases, its value will be its commercial price as determined by the Standards in Public Office Commission less any amount paid in respect of it by the officeholder or Member. Where a benefit or its value is surrendered to the Secretary General to the Government, it is regarded as a gift to the State and disposed of accordingly.
The process of obtaining the Standards in Public Office Commission's opinion will be a confidential one. The commission will be precluded from disclosing information about an application for its opinion without the consent of the person concerned or the Minister for Finance. This is appropriate, given that the application will be about benefits offered or given by a friend for personal reasons only. As the Bill is drafted, the prohibition will not apply to an investigation by the Standards in Public Office Commission or to a report by the commission to the Oireachtas, but as I will mention later, I will propose an amendment to provide that the commission's investigations of possible infringements of the new requirement are to be held in private unless the commission considers that there are compelling reasons otherwise.
The Bill will oblige officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas to make a statement to the Standards in Public Office Commission that they are in compliance with the new requirement at the same time as they make their annual statement of registerable interests or "nil" statement. It will not be necessary to say whether the opinion of the commission was sought or to provide details of any benefit. All that will be necessary will be a simple statement in writing that the person has complied with the law.
Overall, these new provisions represent a balanced way of dealing with a very human situation. On the one hand, there are occasions where support from a friend for personal reasons only is reasonable and would not be likely to influence an officeholder or Oireachtas Member in the performance of his or her duties or functions. On the other hand, there is an obligation on officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas to observe the highest standards of behaviour. The Bill proposes a way of balancing these considerations by ensuring while support from a friend is permissible, nevertheless where such support is significant the opinion of an independent public body â in this area the Standards in Public Office Commission â must be obtained before it is accepted or retained.
The Bill also updates the thresholds for registerable interests in the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the threshold at which a gift given to an office-holder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State. These monetary thresholds have not been increased since the passage of the Act, apart from being changed into convenient amounts in euro at the time of the euro changeover in 2002. They have effectively stayed the same for 12 years, and I see no reason for the House to be defensive about increasing them to levels that are more realistic in today's world.
Criticism has been made of the Government's decision to propose increasing to â¬2,000 the figure of â¬650, which applies to gifts, to property supplied or lent or a service supplied at less than the commercial price, to travel facilities, living accommodation, etc., and to gifts received by an office-holder by virtue of office. I do not accept this criticism. The Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 was the first attempt to set thresholds in this area, and it is by no means unreasonable that this first attempt should be reviewed now in the light of much experience in 12 years. The world is a much different place from what it was 12 years ago and while â¬2,000 is not an insignificant amount, it is not a large amount either. After 12 years, the amount is being set not just for 2007 but for the next period. The â¬2,000 for these thresholds is the same level set as the threshold beyond which the Standards in Public Office Commission must be consulted about benefits from a friend for personal reasons only. It seems to me to be a reasonable figure.
A misconception has emerged that the â¬2,000 figure relates to election expenditure or political donations seems. It does not, as political donations are covered by the electoral Acts. I am confident the Members of the House, and of DÃ¡il Ãireann, will agree it is desirable to require an independent opinion before office-holders and Oireachtas Members accept significant benefits from a friend for personal purposes and that it is also desirable to update the ethics thresholds to reflect the realities of today's world. This confidence is based on the fact the committees on members' interests in both Houses were consulted about the Bill's key provisions, including the increased thresholds, and both are in agreement with the proposed changes. The DÃ¡il's committee welcomed the proposals and considered they would further strengthen the accountability of Members to the Oireachtas and to the public in the performance of their official duties and responsibilities.
I welcome the Seanad's committee's technical amendment to state clearly that nil statements â where an office-holder or Oireachtas Member has no registerable interests to declare â are, like statements of interests, to be sent to the Standards in Public Office Commission rather than to the Clerk of the relevant House.
I intend to introduce several amendments on Committee Stage. Some are technical such as that concerning a statement of compliance with the new requirement is a stand-alone statement and not part of an annual declaration of registerable interests. Other amendments deal with the obligations vis-Ã-vis the new requirement of an Attorney General who is not an Oireachtas Member and to set the test for benefits as those not likely to materially influence the recipient, as this is the terminology already used in ethics legislation, for gifts as registerable interests. The amendments also state the Standards in Public Office Commission has the power to investigate infringements of the new requirement and that such investigations are to be held in private unless the commission considers there are compelling reasons otherwise.
One amendment addresses a long-standing concern of the Seanad's committee on Members' interests that it be stated that non-office holding Oireachtas Members are treated the same as anyone else to whom the ethics legislation applies in investigations of complaints on specified acts. This is separate to the subject of the Bill but it provides an appropriate opportunity to address the matter and I am pleased to be able to do so.
The Bill will provide assurance to the public that where an office-holder or Oireachtas Member is offered a benefit or benefits â be it a gift, a loan or the use of a service â worth in aggregate more than â¬2,000, typically in a year, by a friend, for personal reasons only, then the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission must be obtained and that acceptance would not be likely to materially influence the office-holder or member in the performance of his or her functions or duties. I commend the Bill to the Seanad and I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on all sides of the House on it.
This Bill is just not good enough. The Ethics in Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007 does not achieve all that it could and does not go far enough in making elected officials accountable for gifts and benefits they receive.
The Bill does two main things. It increases the threshold for gifts to Ministers and creates a new system for moneys given to Deputies and Senators by friends. Under the Bill, a Minister will be able to keep gifts given to him or her in an official capacity as long as they are worth less than â¬2,000. This figure is more than twice what it should be if adjusted for inflation, â¬997.80, and that means that Ministers get more into their pockets from property that would otherwise belong to the State.
The Bill creates a new system whereby a Deputy or Senator would have to seek the approval of the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, before accepting a gift of â¬2,000 or more. If SIPO feels that the gift would not compromise the Member of the Oireachtas, he or she may accept and keep it. Otherwise it cannot be accepted. This begs the question why such a high threshold was chosen by former Deputy Michael McDowell and the Government. The sum of â¬2,000 is very significant and it seems that the Bill de facto legalises gifts of up to â¬2,000 to politicians without any scrutiny.
My party campaigned in the previous general election on a manifesto that included a commitment to introduce a new code of conduct for elected Members and officials to deal with complaints. This would be administered by the Standards in Public Office Commission which would have the powers to suspend or fine or both if, after due process, elected Members or officials were found to have acted unethically. It is a great shame that the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party decided to prop up Fianna FÃ¡il and hold back real ethical reform. It is difficult to take seriously any ethics legislation coming from the present Administration. The reason we have this type of politics goes back to the attitude the Taoiseach has taken. He refuses to set standards, either for himself or his Ministers, and that is a core issue. Politics must command respect because it sets standards for those who assume high office.
Fine Gael does not pretend to believe standards of personal propriety have not been damaged by this Taoiseach. We abhor the notion that it should be acceptable that a Minister for Finance would allow a "dig out" to be organised on his behalf when speaking in his capacity as a sovereign minister of a government. That is wrong.
Much media focus in recent times has concentrated on Deputy Flynn. We are talking about legislation imposing a cap of â¬2,000, yet Independent Deputies are claiming the deals they made were secret and involved millions of taxpayers' money. In the interests of openness and transparency, whatever deals were done with those Independent Deputies should be made public by the Government. I disagree with what Deputy Flynn said recently to the effect that in her case, it only mattered to the people of Mayo what deal was done. That is not right or proper in politics.
Much of the media reporting has focused on RTE's action in recent times. Despite what the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, said on "Questions and Answers", as regards the intervention of the Taoiseach, I believe a nod and a wink in the right direction was good enough for RTE in making a decision. All the nods and winks were given by the Taoiseach in his intervention. What he did on radio at the time was deliberate and calculating as regards Deputy Flynn and was not prompted, as such, by the interviewer.
RTE's vision, mission and values document states clearly that it will deliver a value for money service and be honest and transparent in all of its activities. To meet these commitments, the station must now spell out the nature of this settlement and the reasons behind it. It must also spell out exactly how it will ensure that the costs it has incurred as a result of the settlement, and the wider import of the decision, will not negatively affect investigative journalism in the future.
There is precious little in this Bill concerning the need for root and branch reform of the ethical framework governing local government activities. These debates occur against the backdrop of a decade of revelations relating to the planning system and the perception, perhaps based on fact, of a major systems error in local government.
It is the view of my party that at the commencement of a meeting or if an interest becomes apparent during the course of a meeting to discuss planning permission, councillors should be required to declare whether they have personal or prejudicial interests. That is one area I would like the new Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to examine. Councillors who are auctioneers should not be involved in a decision-making capacity in the framing or reframing of draft development plans for local communities. Like it or not, they have a vested interest in submissions and their success, from which they may benefit. I have said at local level that councillors, regardless of their party affiliation, should not be involved in the drafting of draft development plans for local communities. The sooner there is movement in this direction, the better. We also favour the establishment of an independent local government standards board with dual responsibility for issuing guidance on the code of conduct for local government members and investigating allegations of breaches of the code.
No doubt the three Government parties and the Independents that have decided to run alongside them feel somewhat smug today. They are passing a weak Bill, perhaps in the belief that the electorate does not care about ethics or clean Government. In the future many people will become conscious of the defects in the ethics legislation, and in this regard the Bill is a missed opportunity. It was framed on foot of developments involving the Taoiseach and the former TÃ¡naiste, Michael McDowell, and introduced as a fig leaf by the latter to cover up certain deficiencies that existed and to placate certain members of his electorate.
I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive explanation of the Bill. There is no doubt that, on occasion, we see opposition for the sake of it. I often wonder whether the Opposition, if in Government, would introduce a similar Bill to the one before us. The Acting Chairman can have no doubt that it would because of its practicality in today's world.
Unfortunately we again heard criticism of our Taoiseach, who consistently does exactly what he says. This is proven by the fact thatââ
He does exactly what he says and the truth of what he says is often revealed subsequently. In this regard, the attacks on Deputy Flynn have annoyed me because we often write in the sand all the good that people do while we chisel in marble the few mistakes they make. The Opposition has the chisels out tonight.
The Ethics in Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007 has been drafted to fulfil the political commitment given in October that the ethics legislation would be amended in respect of gifts or loans to officeholders and Oireachtas Members from friends for personal reasons only. The Bill requires that an officeholder or Oireachtas Member must not accept benefits worth, in total, more than â¬2,000 from a friend for personal reasons only in a period covered by an ethics statement without first obtaining the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission that accepting it would not be likely to influence him or her in the performance of his or her official duties. If offered a benefit on an occasion on which it would not be practical to refuse it, the recipient must seek the opinion of the commission afterwards.
A gift can be a gift of money or property and includes a loan, be it of money or property. It also includes the supply of services. The commission can ask the recipient for any supplementary information it needs to form its opinion. If it cannot form an opinion that a benefit would not be likely to influence the recipient in his or her official duties, the recipient must refuse the benefit. Obtaining the opinion of the commission will be a confidential process. Officeholders and Members will have to make a statement at the same time that they make their annual ethics statement to the commission to the effect that they are in compliance with the new requirement. However, they will not have to state whether they have actually consulted the commission on any benefit or, if they have, provide details thereof.
In addition, the Bill amends the threshold for registerable interests and the threshold at which a gift made to an officeholder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State. These thresholds are raised to amounts deemed more realistic in today's world. This is appropriate because the monetary thresholds listed in the primary legislation have not been increased since it came into effect in 1995.
Some time ago the Minister consulted the Select Committee on Members' Interests on the Bill. The committee welcomed the fact that the Bill, as introduced, met one of its two concerns regarding the existing ethics legislation. The Minister has announced that he will be introducing an amendment on Committee Stage to meet the second concern of the committee.
To demonstrate the comprehensiveness and detail of the Bill in terms of ensuring the maintenance of good practice, I will refer to the explanatory and financial memorandum. It states that the purpose of the Bill is to provide that ministerial and parliamentary office holders and Oireachtas Members are not to accept benefits worth in aggregate more than â¬2,000 from a friend for personal reasons in a period, usually a calendar year, comprehended by an interests statement prepared under the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, unless they have obtained the Standards in Public Office Commission's opinion that acceptance would not be likely to influence the recipient in the performance of his or her functions or duties.
If offered a benefit on an occasion where it would not be practical to refuse it, the recipient must seek the opinion afterwards and must return or give up the benefit or its value if the Standards in Public Office Commission is unable to issue such an opinion. The Bill also increases the monetary thresholds for registerable interests and the monetary threshold at which a gift given to an office-holder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State, as in the 1995 Act.
Section 1 defines the term "Principal Act", as meaning the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995. Section 2 provides that the statements prepared each year under the 1995 Act by office-holders and Oireachtas Members and sent to the Standards in Public Office Commission are to include a statement that they have complied with Section 4. It also provides that "nil statements", where the person has no registerable interests, are to be furnished to the Standards in Public Office Commission instead of to the Clerk of the relevant House of the Oireachtas, as is currently the case. Section 3 increases from â¬650 to â¬2,000 the monetary threshold at which a gift given to an office-holder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State.
Section 4 defines Ministers, including the Taoiseach and TÃ¡naiste, Ministers of State, the Attorney General, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of DÃ¡il Ãireann and of Seanad Ãireann, and Members of DÃ¡il Ãireann and of Seanad Ãireann, as "relevant persons". It provides that such persons are not to accept benefits worth in aggregate more than â¬2,000 from a friend for personal reasons in a period comprehended by an interests statement, unless they have obtained the Standards in Public office Commission's opinion that acceptance would not be likely to influence the recipient in the performance of his or her function or duties as a relevant person, including the performance of such functions or duties by a person under the relevant person's direction. If offered a benefit on an occasion on which it would not be practical to refuse it, the relevant person must seek the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission within 30 days of accepting it.
A benefit can be a gift of money or property and includes a loan, whether of money or property. It also includes the supply of services, including travel facilities, accommodation, meals and entertainment. The value of benefits from the same friend in a period will be aggregated in determining whether the â¬2,000 threshold has been exceeded. For a gift or loan of money, the amount of the gift or loan will be what counts; for services or a loan of property, the value will be the commercial value less any amount paid by the recipient. Benefits received before the Bill comes into operation will not count.
The Standards in Public Office Commission can ask the relevant person to provide such further information, such as the purpose of the gift, the identity of the donor, his or her occupation, the length of time he or she has been a friend, whether he or she has given similar gifts in the past, as it considers necessary in order to consider the application for its opinion. The commission will notify its opinion to the relevant person in writing.
Unless the person receives the opinion of the commission that acceptance of the benefit would not be likely to influence the recipient in the performance of his or her functions or duties, he or she must not accept the benefit. If the person has already accepted the benefit, he or she must return it to the donor or, if the donor refuses it, must surrender it to the Secretary General to the Government. If the benefit is non-returnable, has already been consumed or used, the relevant person must pay its value to the donor or, if refused, to the Secretary General to the Government. In such cases, its value will be its commercial price as determined by the commission less any amount paid in respect of it by the relevant person.
A relevant person who is obliged to return a benefit or its value must do so within 30 days or such longer period as may be determined by the commission. Where a benefit is surrendered or its value paid to the Secretary General to the Government, it or its value will be disposed of as if it were a gift to the State.
The commission will be precluded from disclosing information about an application for its opinion without the consent of the person concerned or the Minister for Finance. This prohibition will not apply to an investigation by the commission or to a report by it to the Oireachtas.
Section 5 requires the Attorney General, if not an Oireachtas Member, to furnish a statement of compliance with Section 4 to the Taoiseach and to commission at the same time as his or her annual statement of registerable interests under the 1995 Act, or, where he or she has no registerable interests, to furnish a statement on compliance at that time in any event. Section 6 updates the monetary thresholds for registerable interests in the 1995 Act. These are interests that are disclosable in annual statements of registerable interests under the Ethics Acts, and refer to items such as a remunerated trade or profession, shares, interests in land, property supplied or loaned.
This is a comprehensive Bill which covers every possible combination of events. The increase in the amounts and thresholds is a practical application for today's world. I commend the Bill to the House.
I commend my distinguished colleague on the Government benches on his brilliant rendition of the explanatory memorandum of the Bill. I hope he is a member of Irish Actors Equity because it was a superb performance. Senator Hanafin knew just where to draw the line. He did not treat us to the table of the existing thresholds. I thought for one wonderful moment he might but he did not luxuriate in that indulgence, and for that much I say: "Thanks."
The bits he read out were quite exciting but were not, as my friend and colleague, Senator Quinn, pointed out to me, up to the standard of his original intervention which had a certain kind of punch. All that old rubbish about things written in sand and chiselled in stone and that we must turn a blind eye to people's faults because they were in the past is not ethics.
As I said on the Order of Business, one of the problems with this is there is no definition of ethics. That leads me to conclude the Government does not have the slightest idea what ethics are, which is pretty plausible. I would have to say that not only does the Government not know, neither do the principal parties. The Minister knows perfectly well what happened the last time with all these limits and rubbish like that. Those in political parties charged with soliciting donations sent missives throughout the country soliciting contributions for approximately threepence ha'penny underneath the limit. They received millions which they did not have to declare. That is precisely the understanding of ethics of all the principal parties and not only Fianna FÃ¡il. They are all at it.
This is a kind of subterfuge and fig leaf to fool the public. The Minister kind of glanced at that in his concluding remarks when he said this was to reassure the public. I hope the public is not that gullible because this will do nothing in terms of ethics. This is because the people involved do not know what ethics are nor do they have the slightest understanding of what standards in public office, or in any kind of office, are.
I have been horrified over recent years by the number of people of all parties in this House who are plainly on the take over planning issues. I am not prepared to say we should turn a blind eye because they are human and that we should forgive them. That is fine in a Christian sense but we must attack the rot. I do not believe this Bill will do that. It is another little farrago which pretends to address the issue.
Decent people in this House â they exist in all parties and I presumptuously include myself among them â are put to the expense, trouble and irritation of signing off on all these blasted documents, which mean damn all, and then taking them off to get them notarised. Why do I have to pay â¬15 or so to get a declaration sworn that I have not got anything from anybody? Is it to keep the noses clean of the people who have been on the take for years?
I refer to the language here. We have heard people say at tribunal after tribunal that it was a political donation. It is a political donation when it suits and it is not one when it does not.
I sympathise with the Minister who I think is a decent and honourable man, but I refer to the company he keeps. I refer to this stuff about the gene pool and persons of like mind. As I said earlier, have a look at them. There is a whiff off them which would blind Almighty God.
I would say to Senator Hanafin that I do not believe it is fair to pillory people, especially those who are not in this House, but there was a public libel action as a result of which somebody who is a Member of the other House was found to have no reputation. Now that person just assumes she will be brought into Cabinet at some stage. The Minister can shake his head but I would like to see the Taoiseach shake his.
Even in regard to that individual, if we are serious about ethics in public life, let us have a look at banks. They got away with murder. Many people in this country who were bank officials, including this particular woman, were put up to it by banks. What about their ethics? Allied Irish Bank, for example, threatened a journalist who told the truth and said the late Mr. Haughey owed a million pounds. It denied that in public, undercut him and exposed him to the dangers of libel. Did anybody ever do anything about that? That is where the real issue lies and not in saying I got sixpence ha'penny and the loan of bicycle from my granny, which is the kind of nonsense involved in this legislation.
I refer to so-called dig outs, Paddy the plasterer and all this type of stuff. I have great affection for the Taoiseach. While there are many ways in which he has done a good job, as Minister for Finance he received very large and confusing sums of money for which he has offered very peculiar explanations. His excuse was that legislation was not in place then and he says it is being introduced now to ensure people know how to act.
The point about ethics is that if one does not know behaviour is wrong until it is included in legislation, one is on very shaky ground. I agree with that branch of philosophers on the law who say it is almost impossible to legislate for morality. They observe that when such legislation is enacted, it is for public consumption. If there is someone in either House with malign intent, the TÃ¡naiste knows as well as I do that the Bill will not stop them. The legislation is designed to tell the public that we are doing something, but it is an enactment which is unlikely to be effective where someone has a serious, fraudulent intent. The Bill is a waste of time which will not prevent dig-outs and all the rest of it.
I pay the TÃ¡naiste a compliment through the Chair. He would have made a very fine barrister as he has a command of detail and can home in on it as I found out this afternoon. I do not know if the TÃ¡naiste was watching the politics programme I saw last weekend on which it was said that while Government parties spent â¬15 million on the election, they returned only about â¬6,000. While I cannot stand over the figures, I will not withdraw from the contention that there was a great deal more in the coffers, mostly from business interests, than was accounted for openly. The contributions of business have had a disastrous effect on the American political system. Such contributions, especially those from sectoral or industrial interests, should be monitored carefully.
I would not give a damn if everything had to be recorded. I received a couple of offers of financial assistance in this election. I wrote back to say that while I was extremely grateful because nothing could be a more convincing indication of the genuine nature of a person's support than the tangible offer of money, I did not feel I could accept. I have an income as a public representative and receive allowances and certain secretarial services. The offers were not for significant sums of money, which was what was terribly moving about them. Of the offer of â¬10, I thought "God bless that lad down in Kilkenny who offered it". While I was touched by the offer, it would not have been honourable to accept it. If I had, why should I not have had to record it? The whole lot should be recorded, especially by political parties and not just by individuals.
The legislation is a lamentable waste of time. It is a fig leaf intended to gull the public because we are, rightly, concerned that there are some in our midst who do not have the standards expected of people in Irish public life.
The Bill represents a considerable step forward in consolidating the legislation which was put in place previously. I was a member of the sub-committee established by the Committee on Finance and the Public Service which considered the so-called "blue book" and formulated recommendations for the original ethics legislation. It is a complex area. While we all know what we would like to achieve, to formulate wording and effect legislation is very difficult. One is either ethical or not in one's outlook. One of the problems I have with the legislation, not of itself but with regard to the people who are governed by it, is that I am not sure it will make those who wish to be evasive or who are guilty of misconduct compliant and correct. Unfortunately, the people who are compliant and who do their best to submit their returns in a proper, timely and accurate manner are the people who sometimes find themselves in difficulty as a result of questions that are then raised by the Standards in Public Office Commission. There is a mismatch there but how it can be addressed is a different matter.
The threshold of â¬2,000 is perfectly reasonable and appropriate. The Minister made the point that we live in a different time so the increase from â¬650 to â¬2,000 is reasonable. I have lifelong friends and last year I visited them in their villa in Spain. I stayed there for several days and we dined out a number of times. Frequently they paid for the meal. Travelling home on the aeroplane it occurred to me to wonder if I should have to declare the visit. It is entirely unreasonable that one should. These are people I have known all my life. I will bring them out when they return here, and probably return the compliment. There must be some degree of balance and proportion.
Consider also events such as the Ryder Cup or a rugby international and the situation where people are offered tickets. These events, particularly in the corporate sector, have become extremely expensive days out. Again, one might query the propriety of accepting such tickets. However, if one has been going to Lansdowne Road for the past 45 years for each match, as I have, and, on the way out of a function before a game, somebody offers one a ticket, what is one to do? I am aware that something that is given on the spur of the moment is covered, but it can reach a point where the system gets so silly as to be wrong.
Senator Finucane made a point about the requirements that might be imposed on auctioneers and people at county council level. The important issue is that one is aware of the vested interest and that it is declared. The interest should be declared and if one is prudent, one will probably not intervene in the debate and, if one is even more prudent, one will not vote on the matter. Again, however, I am not sure whether we are going overboard in terms of the minutiae or the degree to which we ask people to be conscious of their obligations under law. That is not to say that ethics are not required.
Senator Norris spoke about the definition of ethics. Enough volumes have been written over enough generations to make it problematic as to how one would define ethics. There are enough textbooks on the matter in the universities to occupy academics for many years. However, if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. We know it when we see it and we should know what ethics are.
I have always considered the nil return to the clerk silly. One had to make a nil return to the clerk and if one was making a different return, it went to the standards office. That did not add up.
There is one large defect in the reporting requirements. Quite legitimately, we must report investments, property, farm land and so forth. However, one could have â¬10 million in cash deposited in the bank or elsewhere and one is not required to report it. If people intend to get up to mischief, it is more likely to happen with cash. I do not know how one overcomes that problem. If somebody has a large amount of cash on deposit, they should not be required to declare how much cash they have, just as one is not required to declare how much one has in investments, but simply that they are over a certain level. It is reasonable that people should be required to declare that. Perhaps it might be considered in future legislation.
This legislation represents an improvement, although not a major step forward. Some of the major steps were taken in the past and this measure adds to that legislation. Such legislation was absent at one time, which was wrong.
I know from reading Roy Jenkins's life of Gladstone that when Gladstone was Prime Minister, he accepted an invitation from somebody whose name I cannot recall to go on his yacht to the south of France and stay at his villa for approximately two months during a recess. I doubt he had to pay for a bottle of wine or a meal. It was all regarded as perfectly acceptable by the standards of the time. It would be perfectly unacceptable by today's standards and I understand why this is the case. However, a question of proportion is raised and I will return to the point that if people want to misbehave, they will do so in spite of legislation. Sometimes, the main onus falls on the people who are most compliant and most anxious to fulfil their obligations under legislation and a balance must be struck.
It is a great pleasure to debate ethics with a man who recently and famously on television told us he did not need anybody to put him straight. I accept the absolute ethical compliance and standards of the Minister for Finance. My debates with him are more about what he tolerates in others. I am taken by Senator Dardis's comment that the use of cash deposits would be the type of thing associated with questionable behaviour. I do not believe the man sitting in front of me will ever sit in his office in Tullamore and wait for somebody to arrive with a suitcase full of cash. To put it mildly, he does not need me to put him straight.
It is a question not of ethics for which one can legislate but the conscientious sense of what one should not do, not because a law or rule states one should not but because one knows it is wrong. Waiting in an office for a suitcase of money is wrong. I am indifferent as to how the public interpreted it. I am satisfied it was wrong.
I had an unfortunate accident with the electorate in 1993 and lost my Seanad seat. I had a debate and argument with the returning officer on whether I was entitled to the full recount which I was refused. I threatened to go to the High Court but did not do so. I received a phone call from a friend of mine who is a very successful business man living in Switzerland and working in banking. He asked me why I would not go to the High Court and I stated I could not afford it and I thought I would not win. He offered to pay the total cost of going to the High Court and Supreme Court. I refused the offer and he then offered to pay for my next election which would have been entirely legal in those days. I refused and I do not claim any wonderful moral superiority. It was obvious to me that it would be wrong. Under present legislation it would be illegal.
This is an Irish matter. I have no doubt that if the stories which emerged about the Taoiseach did so in any northern European country, he would have had to leave office. I am also fairly convinced that if they emerged in the United States, he would probably have had to leave office. Recently, Senator Dardis, the Cathaoirleach and I visited the United States. The legislation we have is extraordinarily generous by the standards of the Untied States. Senator Dardis can correct me if I am mistaken in my recollection that members of the United States Congress are not allowed accept a gift in excess of $50.
I think it is $25 in the Maryland Assembly. It is either $25 or $50 for the US House of Representatives. For example, when one of the people we met was prevailed upon by a supporter to be his guest at a major sporting occasion â the supporter was a successful businessman who had an expensive box in the stadium â the member of the House of Representatives ended up paying out $1,000 that he had to pay back for accepting the hospitality. It was so much in excess that the only solution was to do that.
I thought what we had learnt and, incidentally, what the Standards in Public Offices Commission reported during the week was that people are learning how to be clever. I am not imputing to anybody in this room any false standards. I am simply saying that some of us, perhaps, tolerate things because they have always been there and we need to stand back from them. I do not believe it is correct that I can accept gifts up to â¬1,999 from a person or a number of persons on an annual basis and not have to declare them. I should be prohibited from that. That is the price one pays. That level of generosity handed out on a regular basis by a number of people outside politics is not the way to persuade the public that we are above suspicion.
I am not disputing for a second that those who want to be crooked will be crooked no matter what we do. That is not the issue. The issue is the statement we make of what we believe to be right behaviour. I should say, before I bring the considerable wrath of the TÃ¡naiste down on my head, that I am not claiming some kind of moral superiority. I claim that I live by standards that I think most ordinary people do. I think most ordinary people will believe that saying it is fine for a member of the Oireachtas to accept gifts of that magnitude regularly for personal use and without anybody knowing about it is wrong. That is not the way to persuade people we are what we claim to be, which is above suspicion. That is really the problem. What we would tolerate in other people, what would be acceptable in ordinary life is not acceptable for us.
As a result of what has happened, and the greater proportion was from and within one political party, we are left in a position where we have to earn back trust, and we have singularly failed to do so. Putting in place legislation such as this, as Senator Dardis has correctly said, will not make the crooks honest but it will probably turn the honest into the appearance of crooks in the eyes of the public because that scale of generosity is unimaginable to most people.
Most people cannot imagine getting a gift of â¬2,000. We are setting it as the standard below which there is no disclosure. That is wrong and I profoundly disagree. Those figures should have gone in the opposite direction, although I appreciate the argument is about inflation. Those figures should go in the opposite direction if we are to be seen to be serious about what most of us are trying to be serious about.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation. The TÃ¡naiste's statement that the ethics legislation should be strengthened to deal with circumstances where friends offer support for personal reasons and accepting such support should not be likely to influence an officeholder or Oireachtas Member in the discharge of his or her functions or duties is correct. However, I fundamentally disagree that the â¬2,000 threshold is an insignificant amount in the Ireland in which we live where the basic minimum wage is â¬8.65 per hour. For a person working 39 hours, this comes to â¬335 per week or â¬1,453 per month gross. An amount of â¬2,000 is almost six times the weekly rate for someone on the minimum wage. I do not know where the TÃ¡naiste comes from but in Galway, â¬2,000 is not an insignificant amount. In my household â¬2,000 is not an insignificant amount and it is not good enough to suggest that it is acceptable for Members of the Seanad, Members of the DÃ¡il and officeholders to accept gifts for personal use up to a value of â¬2,000 in a calendar year from any number of people.
Since I became involved in politics in 1995, the view of people has always been that politicians are dishonest, unethical and corrupt. We strengthen that image by maintaining that â¬2,000 is insignificant and can be accepted by officeholders without influencing them. Perhaps â¬2,000 would not influence me, but I would not like to put it to the test and I do not believe others should be asked to put it to the test either. If Members of this House or officeholders need to get a "dig-out", so to speak, from their friends, then let us allow them to get such a "dig-out" from their friends but only in the context that the old threshold of â¬650 is enough. A sum of â¬2,000 is too much for Members of the Oireachtas or officeholders to be allowed to accept.
Multinational organisations throughout the world have what they call a no gifts policy. They advise people dealing with their organisations not to send gifts and not to take any of their employees to lunch, send Christmas presents or buy them a drink in the local bar because they are not permitted to accept it. That represents worldwide corporate ethics. However, the Government is stating that such a level of ethical behaviour is not good enough for Members of these Houses and officeholders. We will allow a person to take â¬2,000 from Joe, â¬2,000 from Paddy, â¬2,000 from Paddy's wife and â¬2,000 from Paddy's girlfriend and it is all acceptable. An officeholder could get â¬8,000, â¬10,000 or â¬12,000 every year for personal reasons.
Let us say that I spend all my salary on paying my election expenses, or on gambling, drink or whatever the problem is. If people give me a "dig-out" and I am a Member of this House, I should not be entitled to such a "dig-out" without declaring it. A sum of â¬2,000, which is six times the weekly minimum wage, is unfair and only serves to reinforce the image that every politician is corrupt. I will not support the Bill and will call for a division on it.
I welcome the TÃ¡naiste back to the House. He is being kept very busy today. As I was not sure about the Bill, I asked myself a few questions about it. Is the Bill necessary? Is it sufficient? Will it achieve its objective? Will it inhibit worthwhile or other action that might not otherwise have happened? Is it fair to raise the threshold from â¬650 to â¬2,000? Unfortunately, the Bill is necessary. Since I entered the House almost 15 years ago, a number of ethics Bills have been enacted but the issue of gifts has not been covered. However, last October, the Taoiseach promised this would be addressed. Times have changed and Senator Dardis referred to Gladstone. When he sat in his office one day, he discovered he had posted at the expense of the state a letter using a penny stamp. He took a stamp out of his pocket, tore it in half and threw it in the waste bin. That standard is far removed from where we are today.
I am not sure the Bill is sufficient but the Standards in Public Office Commission will decide whether it is acceptable. The legislation will set a standard that will help people to decide whether gifts are acceptable. It is unlikely the Bill will achieve its objective but it is a step in the right direction. I dislike the thought of more legislation because the Bill will inhibit otherwise worthy objectives. There is a possibility people who have been successful in life and who would be valuable Members of the Houses may decide there are too many disadvantages to seeking election and devoting time and attention to working in the Oireachtas where they would have done so 20 years ago because there was less intrusion into people's daily lives.
I sat on the better regulation forum, established by the Government earlier this year. Impact analysis was considered for better regulation in that before legislation is introduced, its likely impact should be analysed. One of my fears about this legislation is that it could inhibit and disadvantage those who might have been tempted to enter the Houses and give of their time to help the State. I do not have a problem with the increase in the threshold from â¬650 to â¬2,000 but I acknowledge Senator Cox's comments and I understand why people are concerned about this because it might not be a large amount to some whereas it may be to others. However, the Minister has in mind continuing inflation because the threshold will be in place for a number of years.
Reference has been made to the regime in the United States. I am on the board of an organisation that collects political donations. It has a number of rules, one of which is it only allows contributions by individuals and not companies. The organisation does not allow contributions by foreigners and, therefore, I cannot support its political activities. There are difficulties in accepting a gift.
Senators Ryan and Dardis referred to accepting an invitation to attend a football match in the US and then discovering the cost of the package. A friend of mine accepted an invitation from a US biscuit company to attend a golf match in Florida every year but when he was told by his company that he could no longer accept the gift, he sought to pay for the package because he still wanted to attend. However, it was embarrassing for shareholders of the biscuit company and the shareholders of the companies whose executives accepted the gifts when the cost of the golf package emerged.
The legislation is a step in the right direction but it is a pity we must move in this direction because it presents disadvantages. However, the Minister has it right and I congratulate him on it.
The contributions of Senators Cox, Dardis and Quinn were very interesting. As Senator Cox said, the public has a problem with politicians. If one says one is a politician, it is presumed one is up to something and one is not 100% honest. However, based on my experience as a business person, one is either honest or one is not. Senator Dardis has already stated that one either plays it straight or does not. From my own experience, as human beings we must every day practise and discipline ourselves so we can have a standard of ethics and honesty.
With my own company I used to put the young people I employed on the straight and narrow, telling them not to take anything not belonging to them. If they asked, it may be given to them. This was particularly true as chocolates were so tasty.
When being elected to the Houses of the Oireachtas, the people, our electorate, place great faith in us. We are here to represent the people and be accountable to them. Being elected places great responsibility on us to behave and be seen to behave in a way that respects the people and this House.
The Bill before us is a start. It specifies the amount which relevant people, such as Deputies, Senators and Ministers, may receive from friends for personal reasons before the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission must be sought. The Bill clarifies the mechanisms by which a recipient must declare and return donations when necessary, that is, when the Standards in Public Office Commission cannot state that accepting it would not be likely to influence him or her in the performance of his or her official duties.
I am especially pleased to see there are a number of ways in which the commission may ensure that an unacceptable donation may be reimbursed. For example, if the donor will not take the donation back, the recipient must give it to the Secretary General to the Government. If the donation was not financial in character and the donor will not accept reimbursement, the recipient must pay an amount to the value of the donation to the Secretary General to the Government.
This provides strong direction to recipients as to how they should proceed when they have received a donation from friends for personal reasons only. This is to be heartily welcomed. We should be grateful for this legislation as it clarifies the matter for us and may help us confront the media and public citizens. As the Minister stated in his speech, this Bill gives us an opportunity to reinforce the integrity of public life in Ireland.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Legislation such as this is necessary but raising the limits from â¬600 to â¬2,000 is ludicrous. The current requirement to disclose the acceptance of donations of even â¬600 is more than sufficient in my opinion.
In the past ten years I probably received less than â¬1,000 in total donations and I find it incredible to think politicians on any side of the House could accept several donations of up to â¬2,000 from individuals in the wake of this legislation. That is unacceptable and the public would not view it as acceptable for public representatives and politicians, who are paid well, to accept contributions such as this. It is wrong.
It is also wrong that people who do not get donations must go through red tape from the Standards in Public Office Commission. It is ludicrous that people not in receipt of donations must have everything noted down and have it signed by a peace commissioner or notary public. Such a procedure may be necessary for people in receipt of large donations but for those receiving minimal donations, or none at all, it is ludicrous for them to have to go through the red tape. Raising the limit to â¬2,000 sends out the wrong message to members of the public. After all, it is taxpayers who pay us and they pay us well. To allow people to accept several donations up to â¬2,000 without declaring them is despicable.
I thank the Senators who contributed to the debate. I will try to deal with a couple of the points that were made.
A number of Members do not seem to realise that gifts given to officeholders by a friend or relative for personal reasons only are, regardless of the amounts involved, exempt under existing legislation. We need to address that situation in light of controversies that arose. In 1995, it was felt that we should exempt gifts given by relatives or friends for personal reasons from the provisions of the ethics legislation. I am now trying to find a threshold â before now there was none â that would be reasonable in all circumstances. This is a matter of judgment and there is no scientific accuracy involved.
If people want to do wrong or if they are involved in doing wrong, they will, regardless of the legislative framework, proceed with what they are doing. What we are trying to do is show the public that there are rules and regulations with which Members must comply. We are also trying to highlight the fact that there is a commission which oversees matters in this regard.
I am trying to strike a balance. Senator Quinn referred to trying to avoid intruding into a person's personal affairs, regardless of whether he or she is an officeholder or Member of the Houses â who may, no more than any other citizen, require or be obliged to obtain assistance from a relative or friend. There are a number of circumstances, for example, a person falling ill, in which a family would come together to deal with matters. However, it is not for me to speculate on the exact nature of such circumstances. I merely wish to emphasise that there are no limits in place at present and that payments such as those to which I refer are exempt.
We are intent on reducing the level of exemption to amounts of â¬2,000 or less which are being used for personal reasons and which were provided by a relative or friend. A person would be obliged to obtain the agreement of the Standards in Public Office Commission that accepting an amount greater than â¬2,000 would not in any way materially influence or compromise him or her in the performance of his or her duties. There may be circumstances where that is the case but at least we are providing a third party interest to help determine the position rather than, as is currently the case, allowing an individual to make a judgment call on his or her own.
Relative to where matters stand, the Bill represents an improvement in terms of what will become subject to third party confirmation. It is a legislative response to this specific issue and to statements made by the Taoiseach and the then TÃ¡naiste.
The other aspect of the Bill relates to updating the position in respect of what should be the amount which applies to gifts, to property supplied or lent or a service supplied at less than the commercial price, to travel facilities, living accommodation, etc., and to gifts received by an officeholder by virtue of office. I am stating that, for consistency purposes, this amount should be set at â¬2,000. Again, it is a matter of judgment. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. There are some who suggest that the amount should be no more than â¬50, while others regard the figure of â¬2,000 as striking the right balance. There are arguments on both sides and individuals have their views.I am trying to strike that balance. I do not accept that everybody regards politicians as corrupted. We have had a general election in which everyone has participated.
People have come out and voted. They have not voted because they think the people they elect are corrupted or unfit for public office. They entrust the running of the country, the parliamentary functions under our Constitution and our executive functions to us on the basis that they believe at this time that whatever Members have been successful, we will face the same sort of outcome. I wish those in this House who must go through that process in the coming weeks well.
We must not be so defensive as to characterise this profession as starting from the wrong place. Public accountability means that whatever mistakes are made or where a breach of trust occurs, they are dealt with and have consequences. Accountability is about putting in place mechanisms and systems to ensure we do not have a systems failure of the magnitude that may have caused the breach of trust in the first place so that one learns from that lesson, there are consequences for the individual and one moves on with the system, its reputation and that of the profession intact. There are circumstances where the finger can be pointed and a breach of trust occurred in respect of certain individuals or instances in the past. That is a fact.
Since the mid-1990s, we have sought to set up a framework, given the interaction of business and politics and the cost to individuals of engaging in public life and seeking to be elected to public office. We have devised a legislative framework, including codes of conduct, for officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas. On the one hand, from his perspective, which I am sure is sincerely held, Senator Cummins made the point that we should have certain limits. He also made the point that since he is not involved, why should he be asked to sign all these forms. If we are to have credibility, we must all undergo the discipline of adhering to whatever framework we are being asked to deal with so that the public can have confidence in the generality of all of us. The fact that we are being asked to do it is not to suggest that there is a suspicion that one is not right. It is a question of providing an objective and transparent method by which people can see that one is abiding by the rules set down in the legislation.
As I have said, that is the principle of accountability we are trying to discharge. There can be a view about levels and amounts and there will always be a debate about this issue. It is for me to emphasise in a context of winding up this Second Stage debate that the present law provides a full exemption in respect of support from relatives and friends for personal purposes only. We are introducing a threshold where none existed before and learning the lessons for the purpose of maintaining public confidence. If there was any confusion or controversy about it in the past, we are now saying that this is the clarification in legislative form that we wish to bring to the table at this stage based on the balancing of necessary issues concerning on the one hand, intrusion and accountability and on the other, personal arrangements within a family that may be required. We can all think about human circumstances where that would be necessary and where no public trust is in any way at risk by reason of the availability of that for the person concerned. It is about finding that balance.
I know that in this politically correct age, there are people who can go to a total de minimis rule of having no exemption or an exemption of â¬50. Someone could make an argument for an exemption of â¬200, â¬300 or â¬2,000. The impact of such a move must be gauged. We must be mindful of the extent that it could deprive us of people entering public office if they believed such intrusions would not allow them to go ahead. Various Members gave their perspective on the provisions but I am trying to strike a balance and improve the current arrangements. I am taking the opportunity to update the various thresholds which have been in place for nearly 15 years. We do not need to be as defensive as some are in this area. One does not legislate for integrity but instead provides a method of transparency that gives confidence to the public that Members are abiding by certain rules and regulations in ensuring public life is not tainted by corruption.