Wednesday, 4 July 2007
Ethics In Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007: Committee and Remaining Stages
Section 2 amends section 5, statements of Members' registerable interests for clerks, of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 in two ways. First, it amends the 1995 Act to require Oireachtas Members, including officeholders, to furnish to the Standards in Public Office Commission a statement that the Member is in compliance with the new requirements on benefits from friends that have been inserted into the 1995 Act by section 4 of this Bill.
Second, it amends the 1995 Act to provide that where a Member, including an officeholder, has no registerable interests during the period comprehended by his or her annual ethics statement, he or she must furnish a statement in writing of that fact, together with a statement of compliance with the new requirement being proposed by this Bill, to the commission.
Section 2(a) amends section 5 of the 1995 Act to require Members' statements of registerable interests to the Standards in Public Office Commission to include a statement that the Members are in compliance with the requirement being imposed by section 4 of the Bill to obtain the opinion of the commission on benefits received from a friend for personal reasons only and worth in aggregate more than â¬2,000 in the statement period.
Section 2(b) replaces section 5(2) of the 1995 Act and requires Members, including officeholders, who do not have any registerable interests to prepare a statement in writing of that fact, as is provided for in section 5(2), and where this is the case, also to furnish at the same time as their nil statement a statement that they have complied with the new requirement on benefits from friends. The nil statement and the statement of compliance are to be furnished to the Standards in Public Office Commission.
I have a question that only cropped up in my mind since last night. On Second Stage I expressed my concern that the restrictions in this legislation might inhibit someone who has been successful in life in another career and who would like to contribute time to the Oireachtas. However, if they decided that it was too much of an invasion of privacy, they might not be tempted to do so.
I do not have a serious concern in one respect but perhaps the Minister could comment on the case where somebody has been in business, probably still is, becomes a Member of the Oireachtas and is offered, let us say, hospitality as part of the business. One could say it is a friend who is offering it, but it is perhaps a supplier to the business. It would be in order for that person to accept that hospitality from a business point of view but it would not necessarily be acceptable under this legislation unless it were reported. In what manner would it be reported that an offer has been made by a business acquaintance or a business friend â and I use the word "friend" because that is the word used here â and that it is intended that it be accepted? To what extent would it be necessary, under this legislation, to request permission?
There is a code of conduct for Members of the DÃ¡il and Seanad which outlines that it is open to people to accept hospitality up to a certain value. The issue is that people need to be able to see that there is no conflict. It is more about people believing there is in place a regulatory framework which ensures no conflict will arise. As I stated last night, currently there are no limits in respect of a person receiving a benefit for personal reasons from a friend. There is a blanket exemption in that regard under the current Act. A controversy arose in the second half of last year which resulted in the Taoiseach and the TÃ¡naiste subsequently making a statement on the Government's intention to legislate to tighten up this area by creating a threshold in that regard. Under the current legislation a person is not required to register his or her acceptance, for personal reasons, of an amount up to â¬2,000. Where a person receives more than â¬2,000 he or she must bring the matter to the attention of the Standards in Public Office Commission. If it believes the circumstances and context are such that the sum involved in no way materially influences the officeholder in the conduct of his or her public office, no issue arises.
This legislation provides that where an officeholder receives more than â¬2,000, he or she is required to bring the matter to the attention of the Standards in Public Office Commission which will deal with the matter first in a private manner, given its personal nature, and will then decide whether the sum received is declarable. The circumstances, context and content will be taken into account. I think that answers the question.
Apart from this legislation, it has been suggested that where a person receives something for political purposes, for example, an invitation issued by virtue of the office he or she holds, limits on the declaration of such gifts should go up to, say, â¬2,000, which is included in this legislation, and that anything less than that figure should not be regarded as a political matter that should go into the public domain. An example would be the McCracken tribunal which dealt with other issues. From my recollection, Mr. Justice McCracken dealt with those issues expeditiously and brought forward a very succinct report. It was quickly suggested thereafter, if memory serves me correctly, that any sum under â¬10,000 should not be a matter for consideration by the tribunal. There is a threshold under which it can be accepted that people are not engaged in something which requires public scrutiny or imprimatur . The normal social intercourse that takes place should not require that everything of value should be declared and that where a person omits to do so, consequences will result. We need to avoid that level of intrusion.
The controversy that arose during the second half of last year brought about the tightening up of this legislation which requires that there be some threshold above which the Standards in Public Office Commission should have a role to play in terms of determining whether there should be someone other than the officeholder who decides on the matter. The legislation provides that the Standards in Public Office Commission can rule on whether an issue arises in respect of a gift or benefit and whether a person may retain it bearing in mind the circumstances which brought about its involvement.
It is best to recognise that there is a threshold above which a body or person other than the officeholder may be involved. People need to know this in the context of deciding whether to accept a benefit. I accept many people in the course of their business lives become involved in this type of situation. However, we are trying to strike a balance between recognising that and recognising that public culture in this country now is such that one has to have in place a framework which sets out, in a transparent way, what is permissible. The acceptance of a gift per se is not to suggest that people are any less independent or honest now than in the past. I do not buy that argument. As I stated, one can be corrupt in respect of â¬30 and as straight as an die in respect of â¬20,000. The issue is what one does as a result of this.
Our public culture, as a result of what has happened in Ireland, requires that this framework of transparency and accountability reinforces and confirms that those involved in public life are reputable people in whom the public can entrust the performance of public duties based on their membership of Parliament, Government and so on. That is the context in which these regulations are being introduced.
The focus, ambit and scope of the legislation are quite specific. It deals with one of the three existing blanket exemptions which are not declarable, namely, gifts from a relative or friend for personal use. By maintaining a private consideration of such a gift between the Member and the Standards in Public Office Commission we recognise the need to avoid unwarranted intrusion into personal matters while, on the basis of a value threshold which is a matter of judgment, protecting everybody, including the recipient of such a gift or benefit.
As the Minister knows from my words last night I do not have a difficulty with what he says. However, I entered the House 14 years ago and my concern is that in the past five or six years a number of people have told me they had considered entering parliamentary life but felt the intrusions being developed make it much less attractive than it used to be. Perhaps the Standards in Public Office Commission might consider a way to make it clear to such people that the effort is as the Minister has described. I know people who would be worthy Members of either House but have been reluctant to put their names forward because of the requirements which have developed in recent years, which they feel are intrusive. I would like to encourage them to come in and make sure they are not inhibited from doing so by new legislation which has been introduced, understandably so, in the past ten years.
I agree with the Senator that the regulations may not add to the attractiveness of having a public career but I hope they are not an insurmountable impediment for those who are determined to do so. I take the Senator's point. People have that disposition when they think about public life.
In the framework we are developing by way of a series of legislative enactments during the past ten or 12 years, including this Bill, when people declare their interests and clearly indicate the context of benefits received, such declarations should not relegate them to the bottom of the premiership below others who have nothing to declare. A person who has nothing to declare should not be seen as more pristine and pure than a person who has something to declare. If we want a declaratory culture we should not attach a negative sentiment to making a declaration. A declaration simply confirms a benefit which required declaration.
For example, I was not au fait with the various thresholds when I held a golf classic in preparation for election expenses. When I completed my declaration forms I was told that any donation above â¬650 was declarable. A number of people had entered golf teams amounting to more than that figure and I declared them. I was faced with numerous questions as to the nature of these donations and was asked what they were all about. If I had been aware of the various thresholds I could easily have escaped the need to declare them. When a threshold is applied and Members work within it they are criticised for not declaring benefits even though the regulations make it clear that benefits below the threshold are not declarable. If one does not know what the threshold is, exceeds it and then declares benefits above the threshold, as was my own situation, one will be faced with questions. I was happy to deal with those questions because nothing untoward had taken place. However, one often says to one's self that there may well have been other fundraisers involving amounts which were under the threshold which raised far in excess of what I was able to raise, or what was raised on my behalf at that particular function. There is some suggestion that I have something for which to answer while others do not. There is that sort of mentality. If one enacts legislation and thresholds are set, then people work within those parameters because there may well be people who want to offer support but who do not want to see their names all over the place not because there is anything untoward but because there is a culture that is promoted which suggests there is. That is the problem and we see it all the time in this area.
The purpose of this is to ensure there is not a relationship between business and politicians or between any individual and politicians which can, in any way, compromise people in the performance of their duty. As we all know, if anybody was to come to one and say he or she supported one at some function and he or she wants A, B and C, one would ask what that had to do with anything. One would give the person his or her money back if that was his or her attitude. One would not even tolerate that for two minutes.
The issue of the threshold always comes up. I am 24 years in politics and in my experience people do not come up to one and say, "Here is a gift for you." In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the interests of transparency and openness, we have provided a framework within which people can see what is happening. None of us has any problem handling that. It is just a matter of finding thresholds which do not result in unwarranted intrusions into a personal matter about which there is no public issue and where â regardless of whether there is, or is not, a public issue â someone else confirms to the recipient that it is within the spirit of the legislation. It is always a matter of judgment and it is not an issue which is open to absolutist argument.
The Minister will remember from our discussions yesterday that while I welcome the legislation, it is sad there is a need for us to put this type of framework in place in an effort to rebuild confidence in politicians. As I said yesterday â the Minister disagreed with my view â in the past ten years in which I have been involved in national politics, I have seen a change in the attitude of people towards politicians. People will say the public does not believe all politicians are corrupt because they re-elect them. However, nobody actually believes individual politicians are corrupt but believe that, as a group, they are. There is an onus on us as politicians when creating the framework against which we will measure ourselves that we create one which is measurable and which meets the standards of normal people.
Terms and conditions for politicians have improved significantly over the past ten years and with that people's attitudes have changed. There is an onus on us to create legislation which stipulates thresholds which people accept are feasible.
The Minister said that if he had been more aware of the thresholds in regard to the fundraiser about which he spoke, he could easily have escaped the need to make a declaration. I received a cheque from somebody during the general election but I returned it. It was for an odd amount. It was obvious that a similar cheque was being sent to every candidate for an amount that was just under the threshold. That is what people do.
The threshold is being increased to â¬2,000 but I believe that is too high. The majority of people would consider a threshold of â¬650 fair. I am not suggesting the Minister or any officeholder or Member of the Oireachtas would do a favour simply because they received â¬1,999 or â¬2,000. That is not the issue. The issue is to have a threshold which most people would consider fair. The Minister is correct that people do not constantly give officeholders gifts. Nobody will come up to me on the street in Galway and offer me a gift. That does not happen in politics and, as that is the case, we should keep the thresholds low. In circumstances where a gift is given, the person can make their declaration to the commission and have the matter recorded and dealt with transparently. If the office believes there is no need for the gift to be declared, it is not declared. That is a matter for the office.
Yesterday, the Minister said it was important to find a balance. He said the â¬2,000 threshold will apply to benefits from the same friend in the period covered by the interests statement, typically a calendar year. He also said the amount of money must be big enough so that officeholders and Members do not have to spend their time counting every ordinary gift they receive from their friends and also to avoid the Standards in Public Office Commission having to deal with applications about relatively minor gifts. He described â¬2,000 as a fair compromise. Given that Members do not continually receive gifts, how often is this expected to happen and how often will the commission have to deal with an item worth more than â¬650? It does not occur often. For that reason there is no justification for increasing the threshold to â¬2,000. The current threshold of â¬650 is low but if somebody wishes to abuse it, they will not use this legislation anyway. My fear is that somebody could receive â¬2,000 each from a number of individuals and it will become a way of avoiding declarations.
That is the reason I oppose this section. There are no grounds for increasing the value of the threshold to â¬2,000. I am aware it is a new threshold but its level should be â¬650.
It is a matter of judgment and I do not claim to have exclusive wisdom on this. Political donations are not covered by this legislation. The legislation is not changing the threshold to â¬2,000 for the amount of a cheque one might receive in support of one's election campaign. That is covered by the Electoral Acts, so there is no change in that regard. Indeed, the example I gave earlier was with regard to the Electoral Acts and my experience of having to declare anything at any time. I would not personally be aware of any of these thresholds. Where somebody was doing something on one's behalf to prepare for an election, I had to find out about what applied and whether something was over the limit. If somebody asked me about it, I told them to declare it because there was no big deal about it. That was my point.
Where thresholds are in place, people who work under them are not doing something wrong. They are working within the legislation. We want to avoid a situation where people are regarded as donating politically to the extent that one's political duties are in any way affected by small support such as for a golf classic or the like. Those issues are unchanged. This legislation does not broaden or reduce our commitments or obligations under that legislation. That legislation remains in situ.
What we are discussing in this legislation is two sets of situations. The ambit of this legislation is quite narrow. The Ethics in Public Office Act contains an exemption whereby a threshold does not exist if one receives support from a relative or friend for personal purposes. This Bill will create a threshold and because it is for personal purposes only it will be a different threshold to that for donations connected with one's political career. This is to do with one's personal life and family circumstances. One can imagine circumstances within a family where supports are given by other family members when a particular issue might arise. It is a private family arrangement and one must protect it as such even if one is a politician, in public life or an officeholder.
In my best judgment I propose a limit of â¬2,000 under which it is not an issue for anybody except within the family. If the amount is greater than â¬2,000, then in the interests of transparency and to avoid any perception or suggestion of wrongdoing the Standards in Public Office Commission should be notified and it can consider privately whether it is declarable.
With regard to gifts received by Members, if a company presents one with a gift, benefit or corporate entertainment the limit should be at a similar level of â¬2,000. Normal fundraising activities which take place in politics, candidacy and election campaigns are subject to the Electoral Acts and those limits and thresholds will not be changed in the Bill.
The Bill deals with specific issues which arose in recent months. It became clear people want to see a tightening up so we can confirm that thresholds exist in this area, even if the money is for personal purposes. In the interests of upholding the public's trust and confirming transparency, in this personal arena as well as in one's public duties, people want to see we are prepared to state a threshold will exist with regard to assistance from a relative or friend for personal purposes. This is as well as other obligations we have as public representatives in respect of our public duties, candidacy and election requirements which are separate to what we are discussing here.
As I see it, the challenge is that as the threshold will create a differential level, it may be possible or permissible for somebody who wishes to avoid the legislation to hand me a cheque for â¬1,999 as a support for personal reasons. By placing it in my personal account I have an additional â¬2,000 to put against my political fundraising or work such as a leaflet drop or an advertisement in a newspaper. The people who will do so are those who want to avoid the legislation. As I understand it, and I may be incorrect, a definition of "support for personal reasons" is not included. In view of the absence of a definition, and by the nature of the fact one cannot legislate for every personal circumstance, the challenge will be to know whether it is personal or political. Much of the political support we get comes first from our friends. My biggest supporters are my best friends. If I was still in politics they could, if the need arose, give me â¬2,000 for personal reasons and that could assist me politically. That is a matter for me obviously and I am breaking the law. It is an ethical matter. I fear that by creating two separate levels â â¬650 for political donations in the Electoral Acts, which we are not amending, and a different level in this Bill â we are allowing that exploitation to take place. This was not the case previously but we are creating the framework that will allow that to happen.
If we look at the recent report and the limit of â¬5,000 for donations to political parties as aggregate value, my concern is whether no party received an amount exceeding â¬5,000. They probably did not because that is what the legislation allowed for. That is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. Let us not create an unlevel playing field where under one piece of legislation one can give â¬650, and above that amount one needs to declare it, and under this legislation one can give, for personal reasons, â¬2,000 without the need to declare it.
My second point concerns the amount of money one can give to support people. There is no doubt that all of us will go through times of need. If the limit is â¬650 or â¬2,000 and somebody gives us â¬750, â¬3,000 or â¬5,000 in a time of need and it is over the threshold, I understand from the legislation that one can go privately and put one's case to the commission and it makes a decision. Therefore, if it is private there is no need for the matter to be taken further. If it fulfils the definition of personal reasons and there is no political element to it there is no need to declare it because it is unlikely to influence one. Whether the limit is â¬2,000 or â¬650 will not make a difference because it keeps the playing pitch level. It is neither too much nor too little. If for personal reasons somebody needs to make a declaration in the particular circumstances and if the commission agrees with the particular point of view, it is never declared and nobody knows anything about it. Given that it is private and, hopefully, will not happen too often for most people, it is not too onerous on the commission to deal with amounts of money exceeding â¬650.
It is entirely reasonable in a case where a near relation or lifelong friend would allow somebody to stay in an apartment, rather than finding oneself on the wrong foot at the start and trying to explain away the relationship and trying to row back. This legislation ensures that does not happen. It is useful and gratifying that the legislation has provided that level of comfort to people who find themselves in a genuine situation as it ensures they will not be wrong even before they start.
On another note â the Acting Chairman can rule me out of order if he so wishes â although I participated in the debate on the Finance (No. 2) Bill, I omitted to mention that Senator Finucane is not standing again. He is a fine colleague and a good and decent man who is friendly any time one meets him. I wish him the very best and I look forward to meeting and discussing with him again every aspect of politics, hurling and other matters.
For the purposes of clarity, section 3 increases from â¬650 to â¬2,000 the monetary threshold at which a gift given to an officeholder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State. We are not talking about ordinary members but officeholders and increasing the threshold from â¬650 to â¬2,000 for gifts given to an officeholder by virtue of his or her office to be deemed to be gifts to the State.
That is what we are discussing. That argument would not hold on the wider issue Senator Cox was discussing because the money is not being used for personal purposes but for political purposes, in which case it would be regarded as a donation. The purpose to which a person puts the money given determines whether it is regarded as a donation. To use the Senator's example, if she received â¬1,999 for personal purposes and she subsequently used it for political purposes, it is a donation and registerable. As a Member, she has an account to show receipts of political donations. If she were spending money outside that and not applying her expenses from that account, she would also be answerable to the commission for that.
The hypothetical case is beyond the scope of the amendment we are discussing. For us to be logical, we should go through the line of arguments as we go through the amendments. This section is about the threshold at which a gift to an officeholder by reason of holding office should be regarded as a gift to the State. Twelve years ago it was â¬650. I believe that â¬2,000 is a fair assessment of the value above which it should go to the State. It is a matter of judgment.
This amendment amends section 15A to be inserted in Part III of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 so that the opinion to be sought from the Standards in Public Office Commission about acceptance of a benefit from a friend is whether it would not be likely to materially influence the recipient in the performance of his or her official duties. The term "materially influence" appears three times in the proposed new section regarding the opinion to be sought from the Standards in Public Office Commission by an officeholder or Member proposing to accept the benefit from a friend for personal reasons only, the opinion to be sought by an officeholder or Member who accepts a benefit in circumstances where it would be unreasonable to refuse it and the opinion to be notified by the Standards in Public Office Commission to the officeholder or Member who requested it. In all these cases the commission, as a result of this amendment, will be asked for its opinion whether acceptance "would not be likely to materially influence" the officeholder or Member in his or her official functions or duties.
The effect of the amendment is that the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission would be framed in the terminology used in the Second Schedule to the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 regarding gifts. Those covered by the legislation and the Standards in Public Office Commission are already making judgments about what could materially influence them and no new interpretations will therefore be required to be made by officeholders, Members or the Standards in Public Office Commission.
I move amendment No. 5a:
In page 7, line 16, to delete "â¬2,000" and substitute "â¬650".
By creating a difference between thresholds it is open to individuals to avoid the legislation in place under the Electoral Acts and accept gifts which might otherwise be defined as donations. The recipient, therefore, can accept a gift of greater value than â¬650 up to the value of â¬2,000 without having to declare it if it is defined as such by the person making the gift. That person could say, "This is a gift for you. It is a dig out. It is to help you out. I understand things are tough. It is hard being in politics. It is very expensive and I want to help you out on a personal basis. I know how hard it is to run a home, look after the kids, bring them to college, buy a car and so on. It is for your personal use." Given that the Oireachtas Member can avail of the gift, he or she has more of his or her own funds available to further his or her political aims. The issue of a political donation will not arise. The Minister is as aware as I am that the reason this framework is being introduced is in the past things were done in politics of which we are not particularly proud. For that reason, a problem will be created by providing two different playing pitches. Somebody could hand me a cheque for â¬1,750 for my personal use because times are hard. If I had â¬1,750 myself to use for my political work because I did not need to use the gift for this work, should the gift not be classed as a political donation? That is my difficulty. If the threshold remained at â¬650, I would have to declare this gift as a political donation. I agree with the Minister this is a judgment call and a threshold of â¬2,000 is not too high. However, the challenge in this regard is the limit differs from those set in other Acts. People will use the excuse that such gifts are for personal use.
The section relates to gifts to officeholders and Oireachtas Members for personal reasons only and no limit is in place in this regard currently. A limit, therefore, needs to be imposed, and this is agreed. The issue then centres on the definition of "personal reasons" because it has nothing to do with political donations, the performance of one's duty, funding campaigns or one's politics. A balance must be struck between the intrusion into a Member's personal life and his or her role as a public representative. In private life, these limits would not apply. One must make a judgment on what is the best action to take. In the absence of any limit, given the controversy that has arisen, and if the gift is intended to alleviate an individual's personal circumstances, is for his or her personal use and his or her politics are not germane to the reasoning for the gift, a sum of â¬2,000 is a fair limit. For gifts that exceed that amount, the involvement of the commission in determining that it has been given for personal reasons is a guarantee to the public that the provision is not being abused or the gift is outside the ambit of what would be regarded as reasonable in the circumstances, given it is for personal use. That is the balance the Senator must think about. I am providing for a limit where none exists and, therefore, I am tightening, not loosening, the legislation. The â¬650 limit in respect of political donations under the Electoral Acts concerns a separate set of circumstances which are clearly involved in the performance of duties as a politician and the financing of campaigns, etc. That is dealt with. For that reason it is a public issue and there must be a rule for a minimum amount. We have set it at â¬650, which found the agreement of everyone in the House at the time, because we regarded it as reasonable and it would avoid having to deal with everything that came up.
The question is one of finding the balance. The â¬650 amount was regarded, for that purpose, as being reasonable. If there is a separate case where no limit exists, but it concerns personal reasons, use or issues, â¬2,000 is a fairly judged figure. Others may not agree but it strikes that balance. The circumstances are different.
One scenario involves the public having a right to know how campaigns are funded. A person may be funded beyond an aggregate of â¬650 during the course of the term of the statement which must be provided every year, and the public would know a special account would be set up by every Member for that purpose and the funds must be drawn down from that account to show the money is being spent for political purposes. There is a transparency and openness about the process, which includes a threshold all parties would see as reasonable.
This is a different scenario. This may concern someone being in receipt of support for personal reasons only, as an officeholder or a Member of the Oireachtas. If, as the Senator mentioned, there was some effort to say that support received was subsequently used for political purposes as a way of circumventing rules, it would be deemed by the commission as being a political donation. In such a case the person would be open to sanction because it was not declared. The money would have been used for another purpose, specifically involving public work.
These are the considerations. It is a matter of judgment but I believe this figure is reasonable for the reasons I have outlined.
I have listened very carefully to the Minister. I now realise what Senator Cox has been getting at. She is not speaking now about the difference between the sums of â¬650 and â¬2,000. Clearly this is an improvement on previous standards. I believe the Senator is making the point that up to now, somebody who wished to find a way around the existing legislation could have accepted a personal gift from a friend or relative and then used their personal money for political use. That possibility always existed, it seems. Senator Cox is pointing out that the flaw is perhaps still there.
The Minister is making the point that if a â¬1,999 sum is used immediately for political purposes, the person in question is breaking previous legislation. If, however, the person used it for personal expenses and used other money for political reasons, that person is clearly in breach of the other legislation rather than this Bill.
We are clearly better off now than we have been. Senator Cox is pointing out there is a possibility of somebody getting around the legislation through subterfuge, but there is now at least a limit. The Bill does not attempt to solve the problem. I understand Senator Cox's concerns. The dilemma will not be easily solved, and it certainly will not be solved by this legislation, as the Minister has stated. Perhaps the issue could be considered at some later stage.
The Minister has indicated that â¬2,000 will be the new figure. I believe Senator Cox is indicating there will be an element of confusion out there. Taking the recent election as an example, as a defeated candidate I have to present a statement to the Standards in Public Office Commission. If I received any funding in excess of â¬125 I had to produce a bank statement, with the magic ceiling of â¬650. Although there was an impending election and people made contributions to me, they did not stipulate they were political in nature. Instead, these individuals indicated that they had been friends of mine for years and that they were making personal contributions.
When does a personal contribution become a political contribution? Is there a timeframe involved? There may not be another general election for four or five years. Could a person who makes a personal contribution to me still state that it is such a contribution if it is made within three months of a general election? The amount involved could be in excess of â¬650. It could, for example, be â¬1,000. With the different limits on the political side and in view of the fact that a new limit of â¬2,000 is being put in place on the personal side, how does one balance personal and political donations? In many instances, people who give one donations towards future elections perceive that they are making personal donations. They do not believe they are offering corporate style gifts. I am concerned that confusion might arise in this regard.
There is a great deal to be said for increasing the figure of â¬650 which applies in respect of the Standards in Public Office Commission to â¬1,000. There is also much to be said for abandoning the new limit of â¬2,000 on personal donations and setting it instead at â¬1,000, thereby ensuring uniformity. It would not then matter whether a donation was personal or political in nature because the limit applying would be the same. An element of confusion is going to arise and I do not believe it will be resolved by the legislation.
I hate to harp on about the same matter. That is something people do for political reasons and it annoys me. I ask the Minister to have patience.
I am obviously beginning to make sense and to get my point across. This year represents the first of five before the next general election. Let us consider a scenario where someone might give me a personal donation of â¬1,500 this year to help me out and where I might lodge that money to my personal bank account. If that process continued annually, I would be able to save â¬1,500 or perhaps a little less in each of the next five years. By virtue of receiving these dig-outs, I might be able to save a total of â¬5,000. I would keep that money in my current account, into which my salary also goes. I took the money I used in the recent election from my current account and from that of my husband.
I accept the Minister's point that there was nothing in place previously and that he is including something new. I welcome that development. However, there is no way to prove that an amount of â¬5,000 that I might withdraw from my current account, a credit union account or wherever did not come from personal donations. As a result of the difference in the limits, the legislation could be circumvented in this way. If the limits were the same, people would not go to the bother of trying to get around them. However, there is a significant difference between â¬650 and â¬2,000.
I appeal to the Minister to consider putting in place the same limits in order that there will be uniformity. If, during the lifetime of the next Government, there is a need to increase one limit, all of the limits relating to various items of legislation should be increased in order to maintain uniformity. That is my final word on the matter.
As already stated, there are different views on this matter. I respect from where people are coming because everyone is trying to find the right balance.
To take the example of a person receiving a donation of â¬1,500 and using it in conjunction with other moneys he or she might be saving for political purposes, what he or she received would not then be for personal purposes only. In my opinion, that is how the commission would view the matter. The money in question must be for one's personal use. If one is enabled to use money one would not otherwise be in a position to use because it is destined to be used for political purposes, such money is then regarded as a political donation.
If one is involved in active politics, one is required to have a separate account into which political donations one receives should be placed. If one does not have such moneys in a separate account, one will be asked why that is the case. What Senator Cox is referring to would raise issues with the commission.
It has been said that one does not legislate for honesty. We are not in a position to turn someone of a malevolent disposition into a virtuous paragon of the community. What we are providing in this legislation is a code of conduct. It is a regulatory framework which people are expected to live up to by reason of the fact that they are in public office. We are indicating a threshold or circumstances where a commission set up under an Act of the Oireachtas would have to advise a person what he or she should or should not do in any given circumstances by reason of the amount being provided for his or her benefit by a third party in the form of a gift. If the gift to the officeholder is from a relative or friend, that officeholder must also obtain the advice of the commission. For the rest of us who, as Members of the Oireachtas or officeholders, receive gifts from third parties who are not relatives or friends, what is regarded as a gift that is declarable is set out in this amended legislation. That is where it is at.
Senator Finucane made one suggestion, while Senators Cox and Quinn have also made suggestions. The Government believes the proposals I am bringing forward strike the correct balance. Given the different considerations concerned, I do not pretend that mine is the font of wisdom compared with that of everyone else. It is the collective view of the Government that this is where the correct balance is struck. It is incumbent on us all to perform our duties conscientiously and within this regulatory framework in the interest of providing transparency and some reassurance to the wider public. The public entrusts to us these responsibilities not because it thinks everyone here is malevolent but because it thinks we can do the job and that we are the best available in this democracy to do so. We all get that vote of confidence and do the job. Given the political culture that now exists and the change that has occurred, we need to provide ourselves with a regulatory structure that meets the requirements of the situation, enables us to do our job effectively and enables the public to be satisfied that everything is done above board and that there are no issues of conflict that would debar us from doing that job conscientiously and well. That is what we are all trying to achieve in this legislation.
I explained on Second Stage why this has come about. There were no limits in these areas before. We are imposing limits now and I am also taking the opportunity to update thresholds which will serve us for the years ahead in respect of officeholders and non-officeholders in respect of gifts for personal use only for the purposes of ensuring that we can continue to do our job effectively and that the people can be reassured as to what we are doing in the first place.
This amendment of section 23 of the principal Act inserts new provisions for an investigation by the commission under the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995. The new provisions will provide that the standards commission, where it considers it appropriate to do so, will be able to investigate possible contraventions of the new requirement. The new provisions also provide that any such investigations are to be held in private unless the standards commission decides there are compelling reasons not to do so.
They also address a concern expressed by the Seanad Committee on Members Interests that if the commission were to investigate an ordinary Member on a specified act, an act or omission, that is inconsistent with the proper performance by the person of the functions of his or her office or position, or with the maintenance of public confidence in such performance, and the matter is one of significant public importance, then exclusions that are available to everyone else to whom the ethics legislation applies might not be available to ordinary Members. The exclusions relate to personal matters unrelated to office or function and incompetence and inefficiency.
We have already dealt with the principle behind the figure of â¬650 being raised to â¬2,000. As regards the other thresholds covered in section 6, remuneration from a trade or profession is being increased from â¬2,600 to â¬5,000; and the value of shares from â¬13,000 to â¬20,000. The section also covers interests in land and contracts for the supply of goods and services to the public sector which will increase from â¬6,500 to â¬10,000. These thresholds have not been increased for 12 years and the new ones will last for a period. On that basis, these increases are reasonable.
I thank those Senators, both last night and today, who contributed to what was a good debate. I wish well those Senators who are present, and also those who are not because they are involved in the upcoming campaign. I wish Senator Hanafin, on my side of the House, well, as well as Senator Cassidy and I congratulate Senator Cassidy on his appointment as Leader of the House. I wish Senator Cox well in the future, and also Senator Finucane. Senator Quinn, I know, will be engaged in the university hustings, virtual or actual, wherever they may be, giventhe information communications technology involved.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Burke, will, I am sure, be seeking support with the blessing of his leader, apart from his many more friends. I wish him every success as well. I thank the staff and my officials for their assistance in bringing this legislation forward. I thank the House again. It is always a pleasure to come here.
I thank the Minister for coming in over the two days, giving us of his time and making the Seanad well aware of the legislation that was being discussed. He made an outstanding contribution for something approaching 40 minutes yesterday and it was a pleasure to be here. I want to wish him well in the next five years and congratulate him again on his appointment as TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Finance. He is doing an excellent job. The country is in safe hands. I have every confidence in his great ability.
I wish the Leas-Chathaoirleach well and Senator Quinn. Senator Hanafin and I are on the one panel and keeping the old priorities today. Then, of course, there is Senator Moylan, who has been a wonderful Government Whip here in the Seanad on behalf of us all. He is someone we all respect. My thanks to the staff of the Houses and to everyone concerned, as well as to Senator Quinn, of course. His presence in this Chamber, as I have said before, has enhanced the proceedings. I also wish him well in his election.
I wish the Minister well as regards this legislation. In the five years that I have been in the Seanad I have noticed that he has always treated this Chamber with respect. He has appeared in this House on many occasions. From my experience in the other House over 13 years and the five years I have spent in the Seanad, the standard and level of debate is far superior in this House. I have participated in excellent sessions here and found the Seanad process to be a very good one. It is a place I am going to miss, but time moves on for all of us and I have made my decision.
I thank Senator Hanafin for his kind words earlier. Senators might often jibe at each other in this House, but it is noteworthy that a great level of camaraderie tends to develop among Members in this rather than in the other House. Perhaps this is because the Seanad is a smaller unit, with 60 Members, and we get to know each other much more on a personal basis.
I have enjoyed my experience in this House. I wish the people well who are contesting the Seanad. I was on the labour panel in the past. I wish them all the best of luck. I particularly want to wish my colleague, Senator Burke, well. He has been an excellent Leas-Chathaoirleach, as I said earlier today. I have always admired the contributions of Senator Quinn and wish him well on the university panel. When asked by my local paper about my favourite Senators, etc., I acknowledged Senator Quinn's contribution in particular. I believe Senator Cox will be a loss to the House because although she might be an irritant to the Government Whip at times, she livens up debate in the Seanad.
I should like to add my words to those which have been said already. I thank the Minister, in particular, for coming to the House and for the patience and control he has shown with regard to legislation. He could not have done so without a great deal of help from his team. However, the manner in which he has treated this House over the past five years in partaking in its debates is particularly praiseworthy.
I appreciate the very kind compliments Senator Finucane paid me in his local newspaper. I did not read the article but was told about it after its publication. I echo the Senator's sentiments regarding those of us who are running for re-election and those for whom this is their last day in the House.
I was impressed by Senator Cox's commitment to this Bill and by the fact that she gave it deep thought. While some of us did not understand the point she was making initially, she kept making it until we did understand. We will miss her when she is gone but I am sure she will continue to succeed in her very successful business and in other ways.
I wish every success to those Senators who are standing for re-election. Those of us who can do something would love to see a very similar House in the next session as long as there is a team of Independents to keep manners on Members of both sides.
I thank everybody for their very kind words on my time in the House and, in particular, I thank the Minister for his patience. I am sure I tried him today when he would have preferred to have the legislation passed more quickly. However, the debate was useful and I accept the differences in our judgments.
I thank the Bills Office because its staff very kindly helped me late last night when I finally got my head around how I would word my amendments. It wrote them in a form acceptable to the House. I pay tribute to the staff of the Seanad and all the various Departments. Their work, which is not always acknowledged by the public, reflects the great commitment of the Civil Service and the institutions of the State whose job is to run the country successfully. I commend the staff of this institution and those from all the Departments who dealt with legislation in the House.
I congratulate the TÃ¡naiste and wish him well in the years ahead. I wish Senators Cassidy, Hanafin, Moylan and Quinn the very best of luck in the election. I wish Senator Cox and my party's deputy leader in the Seanad, Senator Finucane, the best of luck on their retirement.