Thursday, 29 January 2015
Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2014: Second Stage
I am glad to be back in the Seanad again so soon.
Active lobbying is an essential element of a well functioning and mature democracy. The purpose of lobbying by individuals or groups is to inform government as to different societal and sectoral perspectives on policy matters and to seek to influence decisions taken at political and administrative level. The institutions of government need to hear from these varying interests in order to make well informed and grounded decisions balancing wider societal needs against the needs, expectations and experiences of varying interests across the economic and social spectrum. The aim of the Bill is, unequivocally, not to restrict this flow of information, opinions, perspectives or proposals feeding into policy making or legislation but rather to bring about significantly greater transparency around this process. There is a strong public interest in identifying "who is lobbying whom and about what". This Bill is specifically designed to achieve this goal, through the establishment of a web-based registration system of lobbying activity.
On a daily basis, interest groups, representative bodies, industry and civil society organisations, NGOs, charities and third party professional lobbyists all provide important input and feedback to the political and public administration systems, through communication of their views and concerns to government. However, they also clearly seek to influence the policy and decision-making process in order to align them to their goals and objectives. These goals and objectives may reflect a private, commercial or sectional interest or what may be represented as a wider public interest or benefit. It is appropriate that this activity is open to public scrutiny as part of the desirable checks and balances in a modern democracy. Such transparency also helps to ensure that any attempt to seek to exert undue or improper influence on the conduct of policy formulation is discouraged and brought under the public gaze.
The reports of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals have highlighted inter aliathe risk that the legitimacy of the political system could be eroded by the corrosive impact of secrecy and undue influence. The regulation of lobbying Bill is one of a suite of measures which the Government is taking to address, through an extensive programme of political and Government reform, the serious concerns which have emerged in this area. However, since communication is the essence of good policy making, the introduction of lobbying regulation cannot be allowed to obstruct the proper information channels to the political system. The international experience of lobbying regulation reassures us that regulation has not given rise to such unintended harmful effects, nor is there evidence that it has made it more difficult to gain access to key decision makers.
My Department's task was twofold, first to formulate legislative proposals to meet the objective of registering lobbying activity in a transparent manner and second to address the cultural shift required to ensure successful implementation of regulation in this area. From the outset, therefore, the Department sought to engage as many stakeholders as possible in the change process and to tailor the legislation, based on the feedback from that consultation process and from best practice overseas, in order to develop a user friendly registration system which meets the transparency objective, but minimises compliance costs in terms of both time and resources.
We have given everybody time to make an input into this process. As far back as December 2011, advertisements were placed in the national newspapers inviting submissions from interested parties on key issues relating to options for the design, structure and implementation of an effective regulatory system for lobbying in Ireland. The consultation process was based on the agreed OECD principles for transparency and integrity in lobbying which were the subject of a recommendation by the OECD council in February 2010.
The response to the consultation process was encouraging and approximately 60 organisations and individuals initially submitted views to my Department. A number of these contributors were subsequently invited to meet with officials from the Department to discuss specific issues contained in their submissions. In addition the Department undertook a review of international approaches to the regulation of lobbying. Research was undertaken of lobbying regulation in Canada, USA, Australia and several European countries. The regulations in place in the European Union institutions were also analysed, as were the proposals at that time for the introduction of a regulatory regime in the UK. In preparing my proposals, I have had regard to five Private Members' Bills published on the topic of regulation of lobbying since 1999, four of which were introduced by the Labour Party - several by me - and one Fianna Fáil. The Fine Gael draft lobbying Bill, included in its New Politics document which was published in 2010 was also reviewed.
In July 2012, my Department published a policy paper entitled Regulation of Lobbying Policy Proposals. That paper sets out the policy rationale for the regulation of lobbying as well as an overview of the proposed policy framework and recommended options for further consideration on key features of the proposed legislation, including definitions, disclosure, exemptions, exclusions, format of the lobbying register, the lobbying registrar, sanctions, code of conduct, registration fees, the cooling-off period and the review of the legislation.
Following the publication of the policy proposals, a public seminar on the regulation of lobbying in Ireland was hosted by my Department in July 2012, with contributions from myself and Ms Lynn Morrison, Integrity Commissioner of Ontario. This provided an opportunity for a full and frank debate of issues emerging from the consultation process and options for improving the proposed regulatory system. Following the public seminar, a further consultation phase on lobbying took place, focusing on the issues raised at the seminar. My proposals have been carefully framed to take account of the issues raised throughout this exhaustive consultation process. Full details of the consultation process, including all the submissions received and the reports of meetings which took place with stakeholders have been published on my Department's website.
The Bill has also benefited from an informed and positive debate at all Stages in the Dáil. I approach this House with the same openness as I approached the Dáil. I do not believe the Government has a monopoly on wisdom on this. In many ways, all the ground-breaking legislation in the ethics sphere is a work in progress and we will only see in practice how it works. It will probably need to be tweaked in the future. I am open to suggestions and will be happy to accept them and bring them back to the other House when we get to that stage.
A number of changes were made to the Bill in the Dáil and I would like to briefly update the Senators on the more significant amendments. Following consideration of an amendment tabled by Deputy McDonald on Committee Stage, I agreed to revert to the original Title - Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2014 - as this captures better what is intended.The published Bill provides for periodic review of the legislation. The first review of the operation of the Act will be one year after commencement. An amendment was agreed to reduce the second and subsequent review periods, from five year intervals to three year intervals. This more frequent review will allow us to closely monitor the implementation of the legislation, and as we build up knowledge of the operation of the provisions, we will be a position to ensure that any issues arising are more promptly addressed.
The Bill as published requires the Minister to consult with the Standards in Public Office Commission in conducting a review of the legislation and to take into account any relevant report of a committee of these Houses. An amendment was made which will also require consultation with people who carry on lobbying activities and bodies which represent them, along with other persons or bodies the Minister considers appropriate, in the course of a review. I believe that such consultation is appropriate and a proper part of the review process.
Many legitimate organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association, IFA; the trade union movement, IBEC and the vintners organisations have engaged in lobbying and voiced concerns about it. They have legitimate views that should be heard. The Bill, as published, brought within its scope consultant lobbyists acting on behalf of a client, employers with more than ten employees and individuals on development and zoning matters. Any lobbying on matters pertaining to development and zoning is captured by the legislation. An amendment was agreed to ensure relevant communications by representative and advocacy bodies, that is, those established to further particular issues, would come within the definition of lobbying, where the organisation had at least one employee. A further amendment clarifies that the reference to employees is to full-time employees. An amendment was included in order that a definition of “full time employee” would be included in the Bill.
It was always my policy intention that unpaid volunteers would not be captured by the requirement to register under the Bill. This was signalled on its publication. This is primarily to ensure the Bill will be workable from a practical perspective. During the consultation process stakeholders made it clear that, very often, they did not have information on the communications their volunteers were conducting, particularly in a large and dispersed organisation such as the IFA. Their concerns centred on the administrative burden of capturing such information. The IFA is one of the organisations which brought the issue to my attention. While it has professional lobbyists, it also has thousands of individual farmer members who might meet Members of the Oireachtas in the local shop or on a Sunday. If such people mention that they are concerned about the price of cattle, for example, they should not have to be registered as a lobbyist. There must be practicality, which is why voluntary, unpaid members of an organisation are not captured.
From a policy point of view, I am also happy that many of the communications undertaken by local volunteers would not be of a sufficiently high level to warrant inclusion in a public register like this. For example, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul might be very active in local communities and not every volunteer would have to register as a lobbyist. Following consideration of an amendment tabled by Deputy Sean Fleming, I proposed an amendment to clarify that a representative or an advocacy body which existed primarily to take up particular issues would only be required to register a relevant communication where it was made by an employee of the body or a remunerated office holder whose functions related to the activities of the body as a whole.
The Bill, as published, exempts from registration requirements requests from a public service body for factual information to be submitted to that body. Such a request is not deemed to be lobbying. An amendment was made to ensure this exemption also covered requests for factual information directed to a public service body, for example, if a journalist acting on behalf of a newspaper contacted a designated public official to seek factual information on a public policy. We would not want such factual information requests to be captured as lobbying. In the published Bill "public service body" is defined by reference to the Public Service Pensions (Single Scheme and Other Provisions) Act 2012.
The purpose of another amendment was to insert a full definition of "public service body" within the Bill. This will bring greater transparency to the definition included in the Bill. I am now listing more clearly many of the bodies which come within the scope of the definition. Full definitions of "pre-existing public service pension scheme" and "single public service pension scheme" have also been included.
An amendment was made to change the timeframe available to an applicant to make an appeal on a "delayed publication" application from 30 days to 14. A further amendment changes the timeframe available to an appeal officer to make a decision on a "delayed publication" application from 21 days to 14. An amendment was agreed to in the Dáil to ensure that where a person wished to appeal a decision of the commission in respect of delayed publication, the information in question would not be published until the appeal mechanisms were fully completed.
A further amendment was agreed to clarify that the commission had a specific statutory role in promoting awareness of the legislation. This amendment was requested by SIPOC to ensure the role of the commission in promoting awareness, as well as better understanding of the Bill, was emphasised.
I will go through each Part of the Bill. Part 1 contains sections 1 to 7, inclusive. Sections 1, 3 and 4 deal with standard preliminary and general matters, including the Title of the Bill and provisions for its commencement.
Section 2 provides for a regular review of the operation, implementation and effectiveness of the legislation. The first review should be held no later than one year after commencement. Each subsequent review should be held every three years thereafter. Reports on the findings and the recommendations of each review will be presented to both Houses of the Oireachtas within six months of the end of the relevant period.
Section 5 provides the definition of lobbying. It establishes that lobbying activity is carried out by consultant lobbyists acting on behalf of a client, persons with more than ten employees, representative and advocacy bodies with at least one employee, and any person on matters of planning or rezoning of land. It defines the communications which constitute lobbying and those that are excluded. It determines that normal citizen interaction with public representatives relating to his or her private affairs will not be included in the register, unless the communication is in respect of land rezoning or development. Planning matters relating to an individual's private residence will also be exempt. It clarifies that unpaid volunteers of a representative or an advocacy body that exists primarily to take up particular issues will not be required to register under the Bill. Representative or advocacy bodies will be required to register a relevant communication only where it is made by an employee of the body or a remunerated office holder whose functions relate to the activities of the body as a whole.
Section 5 also sets out other exemptions to the regulatory requirements set out in the Bill. Such exemptions include those relating to international relations, factual information or other information sought by and published by a public body and matters posing a threat to the safety of persons or the security of the State. It also exempts communications between public officials acting in an official capacity such as the normal interaction about policy between two officers working in a local authority, which would not be seen as lobbying. Communications between members of a group established by a Minister or a public body and including persons from outside the public service are also exempt, subject to a requirement to comply with a transparency code.
Section 6 sets out the meaning of "designated public official". This term includes Ministers, Ministers of State, special advisers, Deputies, Senators, members of local authorities and Irish MEPs. I intend that, on commencement, the Bill will apply to communications with officials at Secretary General and assistant secretary level in the Civil Service and equivalent levels in local authorities. I intend to extend the Bill on a phased basis to prescribe further grades within the Civil Service and other areas of the public service as designated public officials in the light of experience with implementation. I envisage, for example, that the requirements will be extended to principal officer level and equivalents within 12 months of commencement of the Bill.
Section 7 defines certain terms used in the Bill. Part 2 contains sections 8 to 15, inclusive, and details how the system of registration of lobbying communications will operate.
Section 8 provides that a lobbyist must be registered before carrying on lobbying activities, unless it is the first time to lobby. In that case, the registration and the return must be completed before the next return date.
Section 9 provides that the commission will establish a register of lobbyists. The Standards in Public Office Commission will be the registrar.
Section 10 provides that the information to be supplied when registering or in a return will be available on the register. It provides for the commission to decide not to publish certain personal information in order to prevent misuse or protect a person's right to privacy, for example, a person's private e-mail address. It also sets out the role of the commission should it deem that information given is inaccurate, out of date or misleading.
Section 11 provides for the registration details to be included in the register and for confirmation that the details entered on the register are correct. It also allows for registrants to have their registration marked as ceased.
Section 12 provides for returns to be filed. It requires three returns per year.
Anyone engaged in lobbying, in accordance with the definition set out in the Bill, must file a return for each of the mandatory return dates. It allows for a nil return to be submitted also.
Section 13 provides that the commission may require clarification or further information and this must be returned within 21 days of the date of the notice. Where a reply is not received within 21 days the inaccurate registration or return will be removed from the register for non-compliance and a notice of the removal will be issued. The registration or return will be considered as not having been made. In certain circumstances the commission may also immediately remove the information from the register.
Section 14 provides for delayed publication where the registrant believes the registration or the return relating to the lobbying activity would be expected to have a seriously adverse effect on the financial interests of the State; the national economy; or business interests generally or the business interests of any description of persons. It establishes that on receipt of the application the commission will consult with the relevant Ministers where appropriate before a decision is made on such matters. Delayed publication may also be sought where immediate publication would be expected to cause a material financial loss to the person to whom the information relates or prejudice seriously the competitive position of that person in the conduct of the person's occupation, profession or business or the outcome of any contractual or other negotiations being conducted at that time by that person. In both cases, the commission, SIPOC, would be required to consider whether the public interest would, on balance, be better served by refusing to grant than by granting the application. The commission may also decide to publish summary information only. Section 15 is a technical provision and establishes that any document which the Commission certified as a copy of an entry on the register is deemed to be a true copy.
Part 3 contains sections 16 and 17 and deals with the code of conduct for lobbyists and guidance to be provided by the commission. Section 16 allows for a statutory code of conduct to be created for lobbyists by the commission. In developing a code, the commission must consult with interested organisations or individuals. Section 17 allows the commission to issue guidance, particularly with a view to promoting awareness and understanding of the Bill.
Part 4 contains sections 18 to 21 and deals with enforcement matters. Section 18 defines the contraventions relevant to the Bill. Section 19 provides the commission with the power to authorise an investigation to be carried out. The commission can appoint authorised officers to carry out the investigation on its behalf. Section 20 provides for prosecution for serious offences under the legislation and the imposition of penalties for those offences. Section 21 establishes that the commission may serve fixed payment notices where an offence has been committed under section 20(1) in relation to the late filing of returns. A fixed payment notice will state the amount, €200, the payment method and payment date. Where payment is made within the timeframe, court proceedings will not be initiated.
Part 5 contains Sections 22 to 26 and covers miscellaneous and supplementary issues. Section 22 provides for certain designated public officials, namely, Ministers, Ministers of State, special advisers, and on commencement Secretaries General and assistant secretaries in the Civil Service and equivalent grades in local authorities, to apply to the commission for approval to carry out lobbying activities in an area that might cause a conflict of interest as a result of their former role in public employment, within one year of ceasing to be a designated public official. The model proposed focuses on the particular activities likely to present a conflict of interest rather than imposing a blanket ban on the take-up of employment. This approach allows the commission to permit, for example, the take-up of employment but to impose conditions or refuse to give consent to take up a particular employment.
Section 23 provides for appeals of decisions made by the commission. It establishes that the Minister can appoint a panel of independent appeal officers. Appeals may be made in regard to decisions made under section 10(5) relating to inaccurate or misleading information, section 14 relating to delayed publication or section 22 relating to post-term employment applications.
Section 24 establishes that a decision of the appeal officer may be appealed to the High Court on a point of law. Section 25 provides for an annual report to be compiled by the commission. It sets out the types of information to be reported on and provides for the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas within six months of the end of the relevant year. Section 26 makes amendments to the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 to provide, as appropriate, for changes to the functions of the commission in regard to its new role as lobbying registrar.
The consultation process has demonstrated the intricacy of the issues and the essential culture change arising from the introduction of regulation in this area for the first time. I want to ensure that the correct balance is achieved between the need for maximum transparency in public policy making and the need to avoid unnecessary administrative burdens on those sectors which interact with policy-makers at Government or local authority level. The Bill therefore proposes a review of the legislation 12 months after commencement in light of experience with implementation of the regulatory arrangements.
I look forward to a lively debate in this House on the Bill and welcome the contributions of Senators on its provisions. Once the Bill has passed into law, a period of time will be required prior to commencement of the legislation to enable development of the IT and information systems which will support the registration process. My Department is currently working closely with the Standards in Public Office Commission on these issues. An advisory group has been established composed of relevant experts and key stakeholders who are in a position to provide information and guidance that will assist in the smooth implementation of the legislation. All going according to plan, and with the goodwill of this House, I anticipate commencement of the Act in mid-summer. I propose to table an amendment on Committee Stage relating to the delegation of functions by the commission to members of staff of the commission. That is a request I have received in the last week or two from SIPOC itself and I am happy to put it before the House for consideration.
I would be happy to expand on any of these provisions during the course of this debate. I hope the House will support the passage of the Bill and assist in securing its early enactment. I commend the Bill to the House.
We have all been lobbied. Some lobbyists are more beneficial to the State than others, but who are we to judge? The Bill has been significantly watered down from what was originally promised after lobbying from many good organisations, and I do not want to disrespect them. In respect of the cooling-off period for officials, we are concerned about the grade of the civil servant. Principal officers should be subject to this. Deputies are at the same level as principal officers and Senators are at the same level as assistant principals, so if it is being applied to Members of the Dáil and Seanad, as it should be, there is no reason it should not be applied immediately to principal officers or assistant principals. The average principal officer has far more power than a Member of Dáil Éireann. They are very important people. We respect the work they do and we would like any lobbying that goes on with them to be registered in the same way as is the case with us and with Members of Dáil Éireann.
We acknowledge the reforms the Minister has put forward. He has done a great deal. I have said that to him publicly and privately. We must also look at the Government's overall record. It is not personal to the Minister but there was lobbying by the tobacco companies last year and the year before. Even if that were registered, it would be completely wrong. It did not happen under the previous Administration and rarely happens in western democracies. That was very unfortunate. I hope that this will not be a precedent and that tobacco industry lobbyists will not have free access to the Department of Health and other Departments once they are registered. That was found out through other means. I am worried that we would normalise it.
There have been sales involving Bord Gáis, the national lottery and Irish Water, and there have been all kinds of public concerns about who is influencing whom in regard to them. It would have been better to have had this legislation in place already. Fianna Fáil in opposition in January 2012 did put forward legislation, which the Minister has acknowledged today, and both he and the Labour Party had also done so in the past. That is to be acknowledged.
We would not necessarily agree with the blanket two-year cooling-off period being reduced to a year, as has been proposed here. I have already referred to the relevant grades of civil servant.
My party is also concerned about contacts the Taoiseach may have had at Davos because that type of contact would not be registerable. I ask the Minister to explain the reason sovereign states are exempted from the Bill. Is this standard practice in other countries? Members of the Oireachtas are regularly lobbied by certain sovereign states. One particular country comes to mind in that regard. The country in question is very friendly towards Members, presumably because it hopes its lobbying will further its interests. I do not see any harm in making information available where this type of lobbying occurs or Members' have an interest in particular countries. I ask if the Minister can justify the exemption. I would be interested to hear if it standard practice in other countries.
Let us hope the legislation works. I have called previously for the publication on the Internet of an open public register of all persons who regularly visit Leinster House. The Minister indicated last week that such a decision would be a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Bill will go some way towards achieving this objective in the sense that general information about the lobbying of Members will be available. However, it would show complete openness and transparency if all guests and visitors, perhaps with the exception of school visitors, were required to register as having visited Leinster House. I do not see any problem with that proposal and it is one that should be discussed and considered. Too many people, some of whom are members of voluntary organisations, have open access to the House. This has always been a matter of concern. I do not know whether such access is a good or bad thing but some of the lobbying and advice can be a little overbearing, for example, when we are asked if we can meet lobbyists in our offices. The Oireachtas authorities should examine this issue, if only from a security perspective.
The Fianna Fáil Party supports the Bill on which we will propose amendments on Committee Stage. It is about time the legislation was passed. I thank the Minister for introducing it and look forward to having a proper register in place. My only fear is that the establishment of a regulatory system for lobbyists may lead to the industry mushrooming in size, with the result that Members will receive letters and requests for meetings morning, noon and night. Members and civil servants will have to start refusing such requests, unless those making them are ordinary citizens. We should be willing to refuse to meet the types of lobbyists covered by the Bill and I have done so a number of times. I suspect that lobbying will increase significantly once the Bill is passed. As such, it will be necessary to review the operation of the legislation at some point.
I concur with the Minister that much of the lobbying that occurs is good. Members need to know what the farming organisations or groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are thinking. We also need to know what the Government is being told by tobacco companies, major industries and party officials acting in their capacity as lobbyists. Officials from Fine Gael rather than the Labour Party have done this recently. Let us hope the Bill goes some way towards achieving that objective. Its passing will almost complete the Minister's reform programme. The House has dealt with a number of significant Bills he has introduced and I hope they will result in change.
I welcome the Minister. I agree with Senator Byrne that it is about time the Bill was passed. As the Minister acknowledged, some tweaking will be required as the legislation will be not deal appropriately with every vested interest from the outset.
Will a charge be applied for registration? If so, will a fee scale apply? In other words, will fees be charged on a pro ratabasis in the sense that small organisations will not have to pay the same fee as a professional lobbyist who charges clients substantial sums?
While discussing the Bill with colleagues, an issue arose concerning access by lobbyists from outside the jurisdiction and the possibility that large organisations here could use large public relations companies or consultants from outside the State to lobby on their behalf. Does the Minister have any fears in that regard?
Once organisations and individuals have been accredited by means of a licence or register, all those who are asked to meet lobbyists should ask for evidence of registration. Public representatives are contacted by people representing a wide range of sectors in society and one assumes they will be registered. I welcome the provisions regarding the Irish Farmers Association and other relevant bodies. As the Minister stated, the IFA has committees and chairmen in every county and public representatives frequently meet their local IFA representatives, whether at a mart, in a shop or elsewhere. These types of contacts should not be treated in the same manner as contacts with organisations which are seeking increased expenditure in one or other area.
As Senator Byrne stated, the lobbying industry may flourish after the legislation is introduced. In certain towns, a person seeking a divorce will emerge as the loser if he or she does not hire a particular lawyer. Similarly, I am afraid that an organisation seeking a change in Government policy will need to use a particular lobbyist if it is to have any success. Does the Minister understand the point I am making?
I am also afraid that such lobbyists would charge accordingly.
It is long before time that legislation on lobbying was enacted. Several attempts have been made to do so. I hope the legislation will create greater openness and transparency for elected representatives, public officials senior civil servants. I concur with Senator Byrne that a public register of all lobbyists should be made publicly available.
I join previous speakers in welcoming this important and overdue Bill. I congratulate the Minister on its introduction. He did not face an easy challenge but his personal commitment to this issue has been evident. As he stated, this legislation is part of a suite of reform measures. I view the Bill in that context.
I must confess that I have only given the legislation a cursory glance and do not, therefore, claim to be an expert on lobbying. I will ask a few questions to ensure I can fully support the passage of the Bill. I will do so because it is important to clarify the intentions behind the Bill and to be clear about the problem we are trying to solve, the behaviour we will not tolerate and the scope of the proposals. We need to ensure the legislation is fit for purpose and will achieve its objectives. As the Minister noted, we must achieve maximum transparency without adding an undue administrative burden.
We all know from experience in this House that whereas good organisations will fully comply with the forthcoming regulations, others will navigate a course on their borders.
I see it in the House when Senators must declare their interests. Last year a colleague declared having shares in a company. I decided to check that up and while it was technically true, it was misleading. The Senator was an active director of the company. That would have been a much more accurate statement. We have to be very careful that we catch the behaviour we are trying to catch and do not allow some people to skirt the law. The Minister raised the issue and I learned a new word in preparation for today’s debate, namely, "astroturfing", which is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or an organisation to make it appear that it comes from the grassroots. The Minister rightly cited organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association and St. Vincent de Paul, which are very active with their grassroots. If somebody who was passionately involved with an organisation raised an issue with me I would not say that is the type of activity we are trying to stop. I also thought of Uplift which is set up as a campaigning organisation. It is there to activate individuals. This raises questions.
On the other side of the argument, Senator Byrne mentioned the tobacco industry. The same applies to alcohol. I see the drinks industry paying people to activate local networks so that the campaign appears to come from local communities’ concerns about alcohol sponsorship and alcohol. I want to catch that activity. It is not appropriate. It is not comparable to a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer who wants to be involved. I understand the difficulty in capturing that but I am concerned about organisations paying people to activate local networks for a consortium of drinks companies. An individual drinks company does not have to declare this because it is contributing money to another organisation to carry out the activity. We need to catch that type of activity. The public will think it is a groundswell of opinion from the localities when in fact it is the drinks industry protecting itself.
I am also concerned about section 9, Register of Lobbying, and section 5, Meaning of carrying on lobbying activities. This was partially addressed in the Dáil. I want to ensure that if one is included on the register, no Minister or public body will construe that as extinguishing or limiting negatively one’s entitlement to table amendments or be awarded grants or financial supports. There was some assurance that the Revenue Commissioners and the charity regulator have confirmed and will publicise that lobbying is a legitimate activity for charities and does not compromise their status. That is very positive. There are not-for-profit organisations which are not registered as charities. How will those organisations be affected when they publicise or do their work? I would not like to see unintended consequences from this. The Minister said some people will get a shock when the Act comes into force. I want the right people to get a shock but I do not want us to stifle some of the good work of not-for-profit organisations. I am considering an amendment for Committee Stage but I would be very happy if I could speak privately to the Minister about my concerns.
I will lobby the Minister. I am being upfront about why I want to lobby him. What the Minister is trying to do is really good. I want to be as supportive of it as I can to ensure we bring in this legislation and he can commence it as soon as possible.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill. I am delighted to see that, broadly speaking, it has cross-party support. It is a good day’s work and is long overdue. It is good to see the Minister getting through the Dáil and being open minded about amendments. It might not be the last piece of the jigsaw but it is a key piece of the reform agenda to ensure openness, transparency and accountability in government.
We are all lobbied all the time. We actively lobby too. I do not think that is what the public has in mind. Although it is hard to define, there is good lobbying and insidious attempts to influence decisions and policy that we might regard as bad lobbying. The public wants its old lobbyists “washed down”. We want them out front and centre where we can see them, what they are up to and for whom. This week we are at the fulcrum of the proposed sale of Aer Lingus. Public bodies, such as RTE, and public companies, agencies, advisory groups and policy bodies have an important bearing on our lives. Communities and individuals are concerned because they often feel they are out-gunned by more powerful and influential elements which they believe have more resources and more access to the body politic or the Government of the day. This legislation, along with the suite of legislation the Minister has introduced on whistleblowers, freedom of information, appointments to State boards, establishment of an independent Garda authority and the charities regulator, are significant developments. I do not think they have received due and sufficient credit and recognition for their importance as part of the infrastructure being put in place by this Government to try to make decision making more accountable and transparent.
I welcome the legislation but there are areas that can be reviewed, tweaked and fine-tuned as we go along and see how it operates. I agree with the Minister’s comment last week that everyone has a vested interest in something or other and he cannot preclude people from making that view known. A conflict of interest arises, however, in respect not just of poachers turned gamekeepers or gamekeepers turned poachers but of individuals and organisations who try to be both at the same time. One cannot serve the public interest and well-being at the same time as having a commercial interest or skin in the game or shares in a company that may have an advantage based on decisions the Minister makes or can influence. That is a form of insider trading because the lobbyist can also have a role in the decision-making process by wearing another hat. That is quite dangerous. It is not in the public interest. It needs to be addressed. It is not sufficiently comforting to hear someone say he or she has a potential conflict of interest and is stepping out of the room for a moment. I do not believe that person has left his or her influence outside the door.
I do not believe in Chinese walls. I do not know how they work and I do not believe they do work. We should attempt to capture this for the first time ever because this country has been deficient in knowing who is talking to who behind closed doors and about what. If the legislation had been in place earlier, we might not have needed a banking inquiry and we might know how certain banking executives and their advisers were on the country's golf courses and racecourses influencing Cabinet Ministers and the Government of the day to take certain courses of action or not take other courses. I commend the Minister on his perseverance in finally getting the legislation over the line and bringing it to the House. It complements and supplements a range of other legislative measures pioneered by the Minister and they will stand the country in good stead for years to come.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the legislation, although it is fairly timid. It is very important because there is something insidious about unacknowledged lobbyists floating around the Houses. I was not aware that several former Members of the Oireachtas were active as lobbyists in the House. When I saw them around I thought they were just visiting and it leads to the idea of a golden circle of cronyism. A decent and honourable man, Tom Parlon, was a Minister of State one day and a lobbyist the next. There is cause for some hesitation.
As Members of the Oireachtas, we must prepare a register of interests and show our stock holdings, if any, or other occupational interests. I do not see why we should not have to acknowledge if we are members of Marriage Equality, the Iona Institute or the Knights of St. Columbanus. It would be very interesting to know people's background and where people are coming from. That would be very useful. Membership of these organisations is more important than having a few shares in the Ford Motor Company.
Looking at the history of this country, I can produce a number of examples of lobbying that were disadvantageous. A decent man and a former Member of the House, Des Hanafin, lobbied the Government privately and secretly, while a Member of the House to obtain an exemption from a European treaty on the issue of abortion. It was legitimate for him to lobby but nobody knew about it and the measure suddenly appeared. That is wrong. In the same way, the beef industry lobbied to get export credit guarantees and we were faced with the bill for supporting the industry.
Looking at the American experience, which is cited, how lamentable is the pork barrel nature of American politics and the fact that the gun lobby, the NRA, has such a bite on Congress and the Senate. The tobacco industry has the same and the arms industry holds the American parliamentary system in thrall. I presume research was done on this area in order to understand these negative examples because the American experience seems completely negative.
There should be some provision in the Bill to require Ministers to keep a written record of what was said at any of the meetings. It is important we know what was said and not just that the meetings took place. The Minister is correct in saying there is a strong public interest in knowing who was lobbying who about what, which is the baseline. Then there is the question of various voluntary bodies that lobby out of a specific interest. It is very valuable and it is part of the flow of information to us as public representatives. I would like the Minister to keep an eye on the use of the audiovisual, AV, room because there have been attempts by staff of the House to restrict the use of the AV room for lobbying purposes. That is its principal function. It is not there for the entertainment of schoolchildren, it is there for the information of politicians.
I go to briefings that, very often, I do not agree with, I ask questions and it adds to my knowledge. The use of the AV room should be protected in the interests of Oireachtas Members.
The Minister says he sought to engage with stakeholders and indicated 60 of them. It would be interesting to know who they are. I am not suspicious of the Minister but I would be curious to know who the 60 stakeholders are.
That is helpful and I thank the Minister.
Returning to voluntary or paid organisations, what about the Iona Institute? The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, is referred to but it failed completely to get the Iona Institute to register and failed to get any information on its sourcing or membership. We need to know a lot more about the Iona Institute, which is such a powerful force for such a tiny group of people. Where is the finance coming from? Why is it on every radio and television station? The institute is everywhere and it is madness. A letter in The Irish Timesreferred to this point, namely, not being able to switch on a radio or television without seeing someone from the Iona Institute.
Section 14 is important because it provides for delayed publication where it would have a serious adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, which is fair enough. The national economy is also fair enough but the section also applies to private business interests. The tobacco and drinks lobbyists have been referred to but I have no difficulty in adversely affecting them financially. In fact, I would have thought that is the aim of the Government to stop smoking as far as possible. It seems perfectly legitimate to me but this section provides an escape route. The Minister is indicating that it is not the case and I will be interested to read later what he says in reply. This seems to be an escape route for the lobby.
The explanatory memorandum states that the Bill allows for the development of a code of conduct by SIPO but surely that should have been there. If SIPO was charged with this, I do not see why it does not have it already. It is such a fundamental part of the Bill that it should be included. Without a code of conduce, the Bill is valueless. We need the code of conduct.
I very much welcome the section dealing with the development or zoning of land. It has vitiated Irish public life over the past decade.
Section 14(1)(a)(iii) provides for delayed publication if something adversely affects business interests generally or the business interests of any description of persons, and section 14(1)(b) refers to causing a material financial loss to the person to whom the information relates or prejudicing seriously the competitive position of that person in the conduct of the person’s occupation, profession or business or the outcome of any contractual or other negotiations being conducted by that person. This seems to open up the question of the tobacco and drinks lobbyists. I am concerned that there is a clear reason for it. If the tobacco people come in and say the Government's measures aimed at controlling smoking are adversely affecting the industry, it is clear and simple and the industry has a get-out clause and can apply for an exemption. I think that is straightforward but I think it is wrong.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation for it but I am concerned about these areas. The code of conduct should be in the Bill and the question of an exit route for some the most damaging industries should be addressed.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I commend him on this legislation. As the Minister stated, it is one of a suite of measures produced by the Government as part of a focused programme of political reforms, including changes to the legislation governing freedom of information and the protection of whistleblowers. The reforming zeal of the Minister is well accepted throughout the House.
As parliamentarians we have all been subjected to lobbying by various interest groups to differing degrees. Having listened to the contributions today - the Minister is smiling himself - it is clear we are going to have many more visitations when this gets going. In any event, lobbying is part of a functioning democracy. I imagine many laws, regulations and policy initiatives have been improved as a consequence of direct representations made by groups and individuals.
There is a recognition across the political spectrum and, I trust, within the Civil Service that no politician or official has a monopoly of wisdom or experience on any particular area of policy or legislation. It is important, therefore, that the views of those who are directly impacted by initiatives emanating from the political system are adequately heard. Of course at the end of the day it is a matter for politicians and officials to make up their own minds on the relevant laws or policies being considered but usually our consideration of matters is improved following engagement with external groups and individuals as well as our own experience.
It is important to be clear about what this legislation is trying to achieve. The Bill aims to increase the level of transparency and visibility around who is seeking to influence a particular decision by a designated public official, whether that person is a Minister, a Member of the Oireachtas or a designated official. It is not directed at restricting the inputs to Government but rather letting the public see who is making representations in particular areas. This is a notable and worthwhile objective.
The legislation has been motivated by a general political desire to enhance openness and transparency in political and public life. However, it has also been born out of instances where so-called lobbyists effectively acted as bagmen for clients. It is important to distinguish proper lobbying activities by organisations and individuals from attempts to bribe, corrupt or compromise politicians or public officials. Such actions are illegal, repugnant to all and should be distinguished from genuine open and objective engagement between vested interests and the body politic.
As with any new and innovative legislation that seeks to regulate or govern some aspects of human behaviour, I suspect that this legislation will need revisiting - the Minister has admitted as much - to assess whether it is achieving its objectives after a period. The Minister has committed to reviewing the operations of the Act after an initial period of 12 months, which I welcome.
Having read the detail of the Bill I have great sympathy for the Minister, his officials and the Parliamentary Counsel for trying to develop a regime that accurately captures the range of activities that constitute lobbying while trying to differentiate other activities that could constitute lobbying but which are accepted either because they involve communication between public authorities or agencies or because they are a normal part of the industrial relations process.
While I appreciate the Minister's commitment to review the legislation to iron out any problems that emerge once it is enacted, it strikes me that there are certain areas where the Bill could benefit from additional clarity. Given the complexity of this area and the fact that this is a new regulatory structure, it is important that those covered by the new regime are clear as to its scope and recognise the obligations imposed on them, whether they are the lobbyists, clients or the relevant regulatory agency, which is the Standards in Public Office Commission in this case.
Some aspects of the proposed legislation could benefit from further clarity. Section 5 defines a circumstance where a person carries out lobbying activities and broadly or directly links it to the person managing, directing or making communications on behalf of another. I wonder whether that definition is wide enough. It strikes me that there could be situations in which an organisation falls within the scope of the definition but the lobbyists who advise do not.
In my political life I have been contacted on a range of issues by many companies and organisations which have lobbied about specific matters. In some instances these organisations are clearly being advised by lobbyists, as the Minister said himself. However, since the contact has been managed directly I have no visibility over whether a lobbyist is acting for them in providing lobbying advice rather than managing, making or directing the lobbying activity. As I read it, in that scenario section 5 would not apply and a lobbyist who advises a client but does not direct, manage or make the lobbying activity would not be deemed to be involved in carrying out lobbying activities. This seems a strange set of affairs and contrary to what we are trying to achieve.
Forgive me. Perhaps this is an exclusion that the Minister has made deliberately and, if so, I imagine he will deal with it in his reply. I wish to raise a number of other matters but they will wait. I am sure I will have an opportunity again on Committee Stage and Report Stage to make some further points. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
I welcome the Minister. Like other Senators, I support the Minister and this Bill. As I was coming to the House I heard Senator Whelan refer to Chinese walls. There is a story that one law firm in Dublin has so many Chinese walls that we can also see it from outer space. I do not believe in Chinese walls any more than Senator Whelan does.
It is interesting that President Obama is on the same page as the Minister, or vice versa, and that he introduced lobbying rules when he came to office to control gifts - we have that more or less under control - as well as the revolving door ban. When I served on the Brennan commission on the health service, the chairman was most insistent that we put a stop to having in doctors' offices goods or items provided by drug companies. We have to raise the standards all around in public and private life. The control of lobbying to which the Minister aspires in this Bill is absolutely essential.
There is an economic argument that people like William Baumol have put. He maintains this is a waste of entrepreneurial effort. We have no wish to see two people competing for the Minister's attention or for the attention of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. They should go off and compete with each other. That is what entrepreneurship should be about. Baumol calls it directly unproductive entrepreneurship and vast amounts of resources are spent in this area. By one account, in the United States over a 12 year period some $29 trillion was spent on lobbying. Estimates of the number of lobbyists - frequently they are lawyers - in Washington run between 12,500 and 15,000. That represents absolute waste, except that they are chiselling out of the tax code, regulation and the public expenditure budget items for themselves. I suppose if the Government share of GDP grows, that kind of development is inevitable.
We have come across examples already in the banking inquiry. There were pressures to prevent the development of a code of corporate governance in the financial sector in the mid 2000s, in other words, three years before the thing collapsed. The establishment of a code of conduct for directors was successfully resisted as a result of the banks putting pressure on the Department of Finance. Some people knew that these reforms were needed. They saw that the crisis was going to happen and tried to impose stronger standards but they were lobbied away from it.
All correspondence and meetings should be recorded. This includes not only representations or formal lobbyist communications but meetings at squash clubs and golf clubs, which have been mentioned already. In public life we have to serve the public and keep a good distance - I imagine it is increasingly the habit - from the tobacco industry, to which Senator Norris referred.
I feel an annual despair when I see the Finance Bill coming before the House because one can nearly say who wrote each section - a tax break for the property sector and a tax break for somebody else. It is particularly worrying when many of the people who drew up the tax breaks go through the revolving door after a few years to work for tax lawyers and accountants - the fiscal termites as Vito Tanzi calls them in a book. Why do Governments have so much difficulty balancing the books? It is because the tax base is being eroded by the activities of these tax lawyers and accountants. Of course, the expenditure base is increased because of their success in lobbying. I recall President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is probably not thought of as the most radical of men, worrying about the growth of the military-industrial complex. Finance, the health sector - which has given the US one of the most expensive health services in the world - and business account for over half of the enormous amount of lobbying we have described here. What the Minister is attempting to do is most important and he certainly has support on these benches.
We need a requirement to write it down. One of the problems the banking inquiry faces is a culture of not writing things down. We want to know what the discussions were, who was there and who proposed the motion. The representative bodies are not always members of the boy scouts movement. Of course, it is the job of IBEC to make the case for industry, the job of the IFA to make the case for agriculture and the job of the Construction Industry Federation to make the case for construction. We have mentioned the lawyers and accountants. If they all succeed, the welfare of the rest of society will be substantially reduced because we are faced with tax bills that we cannot afford.
In general, what the Minister is trying to do is important. Section 6 lists people like Deputies, Senators, those at Secretary General and Assistant Secretary level in the Civil Service and equivalent levels in local authorities. What about the quangos? Should they be covered in respect of people who lobby them? I recall the taxi regulator's office being occupied by people who did not like her policies on taxi regulation. Much power resides in quangos and many representations are made to them. Perhaps the Minister might consider if that merits his attention.
The Minister is obviously going in the right direction and I think he has the support of the House. This is not good for democracy. We ought to know everybody who comes in here and into Government Buildings and make representation as public as possible. The success of some of the lobbyists in presenting what we could see were bogus arguments means that we need a strong Government economic service - a cause close to the Minister's heart - so it can say "no personal affront guys, that last representation you had would have cost the public about ten times as much as your members would have benefited and, therefore, we're not doing it". Robbing Peter to pay Paul usually gets the support of Paul and his public relations company, tax accountant and lawyer but we in Parliament represent society as a whole and we need stronger resistance to those kinds of pressures. This Bill is a notable step forward in that direction and deserves the support of everybody in this House.
I thank all Senators for their contributions. I will not be able to cover everything in the few minutes I have remaining but my officials and I have made notes and we will reflect on all the points made. I appreciate the welcome for the Bill across all benches. The principles enshrined in this Bill are supported across the House. Many Members of this House indicated that this was anchored in a suite of measures, none of which will compete but many of which interact. I am under no illusion that one can legislate for goodness. One just puts up watch dogs as best one can but cultural change is much more profound and that is a job of work we must undertake so that we change the way of doing things. That will not be achieved by legislation alone. However, we need a legislative framework where we can signal to people what we regard as proper and outlaw as far as we can what we regard as improper and ensure we have mechanisms for discerning which is which.
Senator Byrne welcomed the Bill for which I thank him. He thought the Bill was watered down from the initial concept that was published. When I started off on the journey relating to all the individual pieces of legislation, I thought the FOI and whistleblowers legislation were going to be fairly daunting jobs that would be complicated to craft. This legislation was the most difficult in terms of getting the shape of it right. I repeat that what we are essentially doing is putting some sort of shape on a very legitimate activity, which is lobbying. Lobbying is the right of every citizen. Everyone has the right to have their views heard but it needs to be done in a way that is transparent. In order to get that right, we had very exhaustive consultation that I have listed and discussions on how other places go about it. There are not too many exemplars to which you could point and say that this is the model we could look to. After the enactment of this Bill, I dare say we will be among the ones that other people will be looking to follow.
Senator Byrne said that we have reduced the cooling-off period from two years to one and have changed its character. This is a balancing act in many ways because people have constitutional rights to work and if a person spends some time in the public service or a State agency, the notion that they would be barred from work for two years means that there is no way the State would escape without having to pay compensation for the period. So the State will basically pay somebody two years wages if it does that. I was not terribly keen on or minded to do that. In essence, what I wanted to do was stop people walking out of a job where they regulated an area and on the next day, go work for the people who were regulated. This is wrong. I will bite my lip and not give instances of this in the past. I am suggesting that we leave it to the registrar which is the Standards in Public Office Commission to make that determination on a case-by-case basis. The commission can say a person can or cannot do that or decide that this sort of work is acceptable while another sort is not acceptable. I think this is reasonable and is the right balance but we can debate it again.
In respect of the grades that are to be covered, Senator Byrne said he believes principal officers should be captured by this legislation from the beginning. That is a very fair point. Categories of people are laid out such as Deputies, Senators, Members of the European Parliament, Secretaries General and Assistant Secretaries and analogous grades in the public service are going to be brought in immediately. There will be others in what Senator Barrett inelegantly called quangos - non-governmental organisations - who should be involved in this. I have made provision for that and intend those grades to be involved, a point touched upon by other Senators. Over time, they will grow and it will be a matter for the input of this House as to who should be properly involved. I imagine that principal officers will be captured by this within the first 12 months. There might be lower grades who have influence and more senior grades that we were going to capture automatically who might have very little influence on policy formulation. This is something we need to give some thought to and we will debate that.
A number of Senators spoke about lobbying and the sale of State assets. I was very clear from the beginning regarding the sale of State assets that were within my remit, for example, the National Lottery licence or Bord Gáis Éireann. I established a code of conduct, published it on the websites of the NTMA and my Department and excluded myself and anyone advising me from any contact with anyone who had an interest in buying anything.
I designated the group that could be contacted, who were designated officials, and put their names in the code of conduct. There was therefore one portal - one access point - for anyone who wished to discuss it or find out about it. I never entertained anyone on it. Nor did I allow any other Minister to be involved in it. This is the way these things should have been handled and will be handled in the future.
Senator Byrne also spoke about foreign registration. This was a matter we debated in the other House. This legislation has to be practical. The basic structure provides that if a person is going to lobby and he or she falls within the category listed as a lobbyist, he or she must register, but the person lobbied is not required to register. I disagree with Senator Sheahan on the notion that if someone approaches another, at a funeral for instance, he or she will have to say, "Excuse me, before I talk to you, are you registered?" Life cannot function like that. If someone puts his or her arm around another in the pub, this person will not have to say, "I cannot talk to you because you are not registered; show me your permit to talk to me". None of us would survive very long in politics if we operated like this. The onus is on the person doing the lobbying. The legal obligation falls on them to register.
No, except, if lobbied. If the Senator sees that the person who lobbied him or that person's organisation would fall within the remit of the legislation and is not registered, he would be minded, I imagine, to notify the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPOC, of the matter.
No. This boils down to what is practical. I do not want to put a legal obligation on every local authority member and Senator in the country to keep checking the register or for them to be wondering if the person he is dealing with is registered.
I agree. However, last week I was approached by a representative of a very large company to which employees could not get access because the road had not been gritted. This company will have to register to contact the likes of me or to contact the local councillor. Is that correct?
No. This is the point I am making. We need to explain to organisations, if they are going to make contact with policy formers captured by the Act, that they have a legal responsibility. It would be a very big responsibility if I reversed that-----
The onus falls on the lobbyist to register and not on the person lobbied. This is the international model. We had this debate with the Senator's colleague in the other House on Ministers attending, for instance, a Council meeting abroad. If Members of this House were on a foreign visit and someone made contact with the Member there, it would be very burdensome and a reversal of what I intend if the Member would have to ask the person if they are registered and to tell them that they must register in the Irish jurisdiction.
Senator Sheahan asked a question on the charge for registration. We are setting up an online registration system. This is being worked on at the moment. There will be no charge for registration.
Senator van Turnhout spoke about the intention of the Bill. This goes to the heart of it. I will use a phrase that is probably inelegant. It is to capture more the Galway tent than the Sister Stan, if Senators understand what I am saying. At the same time, it is not possible for me to craft law which provides that lobbying with which I agree is acceptable while lobbying I do not like is unacceptable.
We would have a number of variations of the law, even within this House, dare I say it, given one or two of the contributions made. Grassroots organisations and astroturfing are captured. Section 5(4) refers to communications made personally, "directly or indirectly". If a person is indirectly getting people to make the communications, that person will be captured by the legislation. Not-for-profit organisations need not fear this. Having their names up in lights will be a good thing for them. More people will be drawn to them, as they are not hiding what they are doing but are, rather, proud of it.
I fully endorse what Senator Whelan said about this fitting into a jigsaw of legislation. I spoke about the practical implementation of the Bill. The Senator referred to my perseverance on this aspect. I attempted it a few times in Opposition but I always knew I would have more success in Government.
Senator Norris has, unfortunately, left, to do other business no doubt. He welcomed the Bill but described it as timid. I do not agree with this. It strikes the right balance and a lot of work has gone into it to achieve this. The Senator raised the issue of the use of the AV room, and no more than the issue raised by Senator Byrne on access to the House, this is a matter proper to the House and over which I have no control.
Senator Norris also spoke about delayed publication and section 14. The Senator misstated this. If one looks at section 14 it is not the case that if an issue falls within one of the categories listed in subsection (1)(a) - that is that it would have a serious adverse effect on the financial interests of the State, the national economy or business interests generally or the business interests of any description of persons - the publication of the information will be delayed. If it falls into one of those categories, it will be a matter for the Standards in Public Office Commission to consider if publication should be delayed. Section 14(4) provides that if it appears to the commission that the public interest would be better served by delaying it, it may make that decision. This is the operative phrase. The commission can only delay it if it considers it better serves the public interest to do so. It is not a get-out clause and I hope Senator Norris accepts this. The Senator also spoke about having a code of conduct in the Bill. I have never seen codes of conduct form part of legislation.
I thank Senator Coghlan for his support. I have made note of the points he made. Senator Barrett spoke about the banking crisis and how the issue of lobbyists and a register of lobbyists was sorely needed during that period. He spoke about the Finance Bill and being able to discern the authors of sections of it. This is part of policy formation. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan and I spend days in advance of the budget listening to anyone and everyone who want to present a case on what should be done. This is what a functioning democracy is about. We listen to the views of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish employers bodies and all the various farm organisations. We listen to dozens of organisations under the social pillar who make presentations on everything from care of the elderly to housing and so on. Sometimes they make convincing arguments and this migrates into legislation in the form of the Finance Bill. This is a good way of doing it, because the Minister has to stand up in the House, be accountable for the legislation and robustly defend it.
I wish to blow a bit of a trumpet on one other point to draw awareness to it. Senator Barrett mentioned the need for a strong Government economic service.
I agree with him and that is why we created such a thing.
We have created, and it is important to note as it is not that well known yet, the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service. We started in 2012 and now have 70 trained economists who work across a range of Departments. Obviously they were professional economists before being recruited but they were trained in my Department on the specifics of economic policy. They work across a range of Departments and we will recruit more of them. They have published a range of papers on issues.
I hope Senator Barrett can help me because his voice is important in regards to this matter. By design, the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, is free of any influence from me or any Government Minister and independently evaluates public policy. I have read in the newspapers, when they published their papers on various topics, the views are assumed to be those of the Department or my views for which I am attacked. In order to have rigorous debate we must have independent evaluation. I hope that somebody somewhere will say that it is an important concept to preserve and expand.
I thank Senators for their attention and look forward to coming back in the very near future for Committee Stage.