Private Members' Business. - Ethics in Public Office Bill 1994: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 29 June 1994

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 444 No. 6

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Deputy Jim Higgins was in possession and wishes to share the 15 minutes remaining with Deputy McCormack.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Jim Higgins  Zoom on Jim Higgins  The late Deputy George Colley, as Tánaiste and Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil, spoke in the late 1970s about low standards in high places. How right he was and his comments are valid today because it is the failure to extend the laws and codes of behaviour applicable to ordinary citizens to people at the upper levels of society that is destroying the credibility of the political process.

The recent election was a revelation as I saw for the first time the pent-up anger, frustration, antipathy and antagonism of people to politics. The total national turn-out of 40 per cent speaks for itself. The fact that six out of every ten people decided not to bother voting should teach us a lesson. It is not simply a case of indifference on the part of the electorate. There is antagonism, alienation and a sense of genuine anger towards politics and politians.

Who can blame a jobless person for being bitter at the process that let him down? Who can blame a jobless person caught doing a nixer to top up his £57 per week dole payment, who is hauled ignominiously before the courts when they see, on the other hand, unpunished miscreants at the very top level here?

I was amused listening to Deputy Bell who said we are not so bad compared to Japan. Certainly, Japan is bad but at least if you are caught there your head will roll. The same applies in the United States, we recall the impeachment of a President there in the not too distant past. One of the things about Britain, despite all we might say about its lack of morality is that if people are caught committing a misdemeanour they do the decent thing and go. Here, people are encouraged to brazen it out.

Aer Lingus Holidays was a scandal, yet heads did not roll. Carysfort College was a scandal when approximately £2 million of taxpayers' money was handed on a plate to an individual friend of the Government against the advice of the Higher Education Authority and that of various expert valuation agencies, but again heads did not roll. Telecom Éireann's Ballsbridge site episode was a scandal, another disedifying, expensive rip-off of the taxpayer and, apart from [1459] certain voluntary, and in some cases not so voluntary, steppings aside, again, heads did not roll. In the Goodman saga, mountains were moved to facilitate the survival of one individual because of who he was and who he knew, while small industrialists or people with genuine business ideas, despite the multiplicity of Government agencies and schemes, are unable to obtain even meagre grants. It is another example of abuse. Tax amnesties irrespective of the once-off, net cumulative gain to the State, in spite of according respectability to people who have flagrantly flouted the rules — in effect are rewards for cheating the system and blatant provocation of the ordinary, hard-pressed, law-abiding taxpayer.

There may be no direct financial gain to politicians from some of the instances I mention but Government is clearly involved. There is a whole moral and political dimension here. The fact that the Government presides over systems where major indiscretions can and do occur on a frequent basis with no punishment sends out the worst possible signal to people. It destroys and corrodes people's respect for authority. It eats into the system. We as elected representatives of the people are the ultimate representation of authority here. Ireland is most definitely on the slide. I am not simply speaking about crime and unemployment, I am talking about the fact that we are at a stage where many people have lost faith in the system. That in itself is dangerous. We are at the stage when a growing number of people feel they have no stake whatever in society. If ever there was a missed opportunity to come to terms with the needs for forced public imposition of standards, across the entire range of public performance of duty, this is it.

I support the principle of a declaration of interests. It is part and parcel of the normal process in most countries but this is only a tiny segment of a huge area that needs urgent tackling. Imagine the signal Cabinet confidentiality sends out in order to protect some core information on the [1460] conduct of a multi-billion pounds beef tribunal. Members have used the privilege of the House to make specific allegations in relation to the conduct and performance of Government Ministers. Yet, when it came to substantiating those allegations which will be a vital and core element to the efficacy of the beef tribunal such people were not alone found wanting but now find themselves in Government.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Deputy should await the outcome of that tribunal.

Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Jim Higgins  Zoom on Jim Higgins  As much as any covert seedy financial transactions, the conduct of such people cast a major doubt over the entire political process and damaged the process irreparably.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy McCormack.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I wish to commence by quoting from the Second Stage contribution by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance. Deputy Fitzgerald, when introducing the Bill. She said, “It is important because it builds openness and trust in our democratic system” She also said the Bill would “strengthen our democratic structures and ensure that the public is served in the best possible manner by those they elect and by those chosen to serve them”. Whom does the Minister think she is fooling? Clearly, this Bill does not deal with ethics but with declaration of interests. Is it ethical to call this Bill an ethics Bill? It is obvious that the Bill is a charade, a fad of the Labour Party, to pretend they are challenging some of the unethical behaviour of their Fianna Fáil partners in Government.

This Bill was obviously drafted by the relatively junior Minister of State and contains much rubbish. If this Bill is to be taken seriously, who in the future would want to employ a person connected with a Dáil Deputy if their affairs have to be declared? There is nothing in this Bill to ensure that the business of the family of a Minister or a Taoiseach [1461] cannot benefit by large amounts of money because somebody gets an Irish passport. This Bill should be about regulating standards and ethics of officeholders and should not refer to backbenchers and what their brothers and sisters own or where they work.

The Labour Party is taking credit for this Bill. The public will not be deceived by their apparent conversion to matters ethical. There should be a section in the Bill dealing with the ethics of how a party presents itself to the electorate before an election, and what it does after the election following an increase in the number of its seats. The Labour Party provides many classic examples of unethical behaviour in this regard. Any student of politics has only to research a few quotations of the Labour Party, and particularly of its Leader, when it was seeking the support of the people and what they said about the Fianna Fáil Party and the Taoiseach and how it finished up in Government with Fianna Fáil after the election to discover this. I am glad the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Spring, is present as I wish to quote what he said on 5 November 1992 as reported in volume 424, columns 2312-14, 2317 and 2320 of the Official Report. He said:

This debate, like so much else about this Government, is a meaningless and empty charade. In common with a clear majority of this House, the Labour Party have no confidence in this Government, and we will be hoping to see it swept out of office when the vote is called . . . But there is one thing that this Taoiseach is not. He is not a Taoiseach who has ever received a mandate from the people. He was elected Taoiseach following a typical Fianna Fáil power play.

He went on to state:

It must surely be considered amazing that any party would consider coalescing with them.

Later he stated:

I believe one political party in this [1462] House have gone so far down the road of blindness to standards, and of blindness to the people they are supposed to represent, that it is impossible to see how anyone could support them in the future without seeing them first undergo the most radical transformation.

Those statements were made by the Labour Party Leader before the last general election. It is highly unethical to give the electorate the impression that you will do something when seeking votes and do the opposite after an election. It is obvious from the results in the recent elections that the electorate will take it out on the Labour Party at every opportunity. It is clear to any political observer that the huge swing to the Labour Party in the last general election represented an anti-Fianna Fáil vote.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  It must have been an anti-Fine Gael vote as well.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Was it ethical for the Labour Party to use its extra seats to keep Fianan Fáil in office? Is it any wonder that the voters deserted Labour in large numbers in the recent elections?

One cannot legislate for ethics. It is clear that the Labour Party — credited with the introduction of this Bill — believes that its partners in Government is lacking when it comes to ethics. If that is the case, it is unethical for the Labour Party to be in Government with Fianna Fáil.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  There was nobody else.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Does Fianna Fáil know that?

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  It was unethical for the Labour Party to claim during the last general election campaign that by voting for the Labour Party people were voting against Fianna Fáil and after the election to keep Fianna Fáil and Deputy Reynolds in Government.

After deceiving the electorate the Labour Party entered Government and [1463] its Ministers conducted themselves in an unethical way in appointing managers, programme managers and advisers some of whom were members of their own families. This applies from the Tánaiste down.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  It tried to outdo Fianna Fáil.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  These appointments were made as part of a PR exercise to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate and pretend or give the impression that everything was working well. I do not see any provision in this Bill dealing with advisers, handlers or programme managers, the people who are assuming more and more responsibility in Government.

I have a file full of examples of unethical behaviour on the part of Ministers and their programme managers but responsibility must rest with the Minister. I will give examples of unethical behaviour.

During a six months period in 1993 and 1994, like many others, I made representations concerning the retention of the seventh class at St. Patrick's national school in Galway city. On 24 March 1994 I received a letter from the Minister for Education in which she outlined the reasons the seventh class could not be retained. During the same week the Labour Party Minister in my constituency was able to announce on local radio that he had received confirmation from the Minister for Education that the seventh class would be retained. It was highly unethical for the Minister for Education to tell me one thing in the Dáil——

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  That is politics.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  That is the reason people are turned off politics.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  Fine Gael would not do so?

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  ——and in the same week to give her party colleague the correct [1464] information so that he could be the first person to tell the people of Galway.

When I raised another example of unethical behaviour on the part of a Labour Party Minister on the Adjournment on 28 February 1994 I was not given a satisfactory explanation. I considered it to be unethical then and still do. This matter relates to the practice of the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht to write to people who have not been in contact with him informing them:

About your application for a grant under the Gaeltacht Housing Act, you will be glad to hear that a grant has been approved in your case. My Department will be in touch with you shortly.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  That is art.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  And culture.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  What is most extraordinary is that the Minister sends this letter to people who have not been in contact with him. It was drawn to my attention that during the European elections a slip was included with this letter in which the person concerned was asked to support the Labour Party candidate in the European elections. The Minister apologised for this unethical behaviour but he did not apologise or explain why he considered it be ethical to write to people who had not been in contact with him informing them about a grant. I consider this to be unethical behaviour particularly on the part of a Minister who often preached ethics while in Opposition and who wrote a booklet on clientelism and gombeenism in politics. Let me give a short quotation:

Clientelist politicians in the opinion of the author rarely objectively influence a decision. It creates the illusion of assistance however.

Despite my best efforts and advice to the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht this practice is continuing. The Minister receives the list each week from Roinn na Gaeltachta and writes to people [1465] pretending that he has obtained a grant for them. If that is not unethical behaviour, what is? That is the reason people are so cynical about politics and I blame the Labour Party solely. It was anxious to go into the Government with its bedfellows in Fianna Fáil and we are now in a sorry state.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Spring): Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Ethics in Public Office Bill. I advise Deputy McCormack to speak to some of his former colleagues in Fine Gael who served in Government——

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I speak for myself.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  ——when he may learn a lesson about how Government operates.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Tánaiste should look after himself.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Tánaiste should not be cranky; he should take it in good heart.

(Interruptions.)

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Deputy McCormack had his opportunity and he was heard without interruption.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  The Ethics in Public Office Bill is an essential element of the Programme for Government commitment to openness, transparency and accountability in the way in which public business is conducted. The objective of that strategy is to broaden our democracy by building and maintaining public trust in our institutions and in those who run them.

The key role of Government in the life of the economy and its impact on the lives and interests of those in private and public life are increasingly evident. Against this background, possible conflicts of interest can easily arise between the private interests of those in senior public office or employment and the public interest. In such situations, it is vital to public trust and confidence that [1466] the public be assured that those working on their behalf put the public interest first.

It is to deal with these realities that the Programme for Government committed us to the registration of the interests of Oireachtas Members, and to similar arrangements for senior civil servants and State body executives. The programme also promised a legislative basis for the treatment of gifts made to office holders.

The disclosure requirement set out in the Bill honours these commitments in full and in some instances goes beyond what we committed ourselves to in the Programme for Government. Apart from requiring the disclosure of the interests of Oireachtas members and senior civil servants and senior executives of State bodies, the Bill sets out additional requirements in respect of office holders and special advisers. The application of the Bill to every kind of public body is also provided for.

We have built on the programme commitments, to construct a Bill which lays down ground rules for the identification and resolution of any conflicts between the personal interests of those in public life or employment and the broader public interest.

The disclosure of interests, either through a public register where appropriate, or through confidential but independently monitored mechanisms, is designed to identify possible conflicts between the interests of those in public life or employment and the public interest. Mechanisms are put in place which will address and resolve any such conflicts in a way which protects the public interest. The result is greater openness, greater transparency, greater accountability and the promotion of the public interest. Public trust in our institutions and in those who run them is thereby enhanced.

I am proud of the role played by the Labour Party in promoting the principles behind this Bill in Opposition, and putting them into practice in Government. I have not been unduly surprised by the reaction of some in Fine Gael to the Bill, as exemplified by Deputy Mitchell earlier [1467] today, for example. Always being careful to accept the mechanisms in the Bill, he nevertheless devoted most of his speech to rubbishing the motiviation of those who prepared it and moved it. If it is naive, as Deputy Mitchell suggests, to seek to provide a situation where the public can be reassured about conflicts of interests, then I am quite happy to be called naive.

The Fine Gael Deputies who have spoken in this debate, particularly those who have argued that dealing with these issues somehow involves ignoring other issues, like unemployment for example, are the true cynics. One can only begin to wonder what it is that some of them have to hide.

Deputy Michael McDowell, on the other hand, appears to have nothing to hide. He used the opportunity presented by this debate to put on display for the benefit of the House a virtual wagon load of spleen and bile. I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback to read that I had been described as “morally brain dead” by Deputy McDowell, the member of a party which never managed to have the words “ethics” included in any programme for government they ever negotiated. Deputy McDowell is a constitutional lawyer whose respect for constitutional practice never prevents him from abusing the privilege of this House for vulgar personal abuse. He is a seeker after truth who never hesitates to peddle untrue allegations to newspapers foolish enough to take him seriously.

Deputy McDowell is a double-jobbing lawyer who augments his public and private sources of legal income by holding down a substantial salary as a public representative also. Having read his diatribe in the House, and knowing him for what he is, I have to say that the day I am praised by Deputy McDowell, is the day I will start to examine my conscience.

I am, apparently, morally brain dead because rather than accepting at face value the allegations made by the Deputy, I insisted on seeking out the truth. On a previous occasion, when Deputy McDowell's former leader came [1468] to me with serious allegations, I reacted in exactly the same way, and was thanked by Deputy O'Malley at the time. Deputy McDowell, it seems, regards anyone who doubts his word as being unfit for public office. Personally I regard anyone who shares Deputy McDowell's views as being unfit for human consumption.

To return to the Bill, in providing for the disclosure of interests, we have applied the principle that, where disclosure is necessary, then the disclosure should be as comprehensive as is necessary to identify the possible conflict, while protecting so far as we can the legitimate privacy of those involved, particularly third parties.

We have attached equal importance to the principle that the Act should have real teeth. We have done this by the establishment of recognisably independent and powerful monitoring and enforcement bodies and machinery. We are proposing the establishment of select committees to deal with contraventions by Oireachtas Members, and a top level independent commission to ensure that contraventions by officeholders and others can be investigated and reported.

This will ensure that the requirements of the Act are met and that any contraventions will be adequately dealt with. Once a contravention is reported a range of sanctions can be brought into play. These could include disciplinary action which could extend to suspension or loss of office or dismissal in serious cases.

The Bill has a comprehensive remit. It applies to Deputies and Senators and to a broad range of officeholders, that is, Ministers and Ministers of State, the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach and Leas-Chathaoirleach of the Seanad. The Bill also applies to the holders of designated directorships and positions of employment throughout the public sector.

Two broad kinds of disclosure will be required of each of the categories just mentioned, annual statements of interests and ad hoc declarations of statements where a direct conflict of interest arises.

[1469] In line with the commitment in the Programme for Government on gifts to Ministers, the Bill provides that any gift worth in excess of £500 given to an officeholder or to his or her spouse becomes the property of the State. Detailed guidelines to give practical effect to this and related provisions will be drawn up under the Act. The independent Commission will be involved in this process. The Bill provides also for full openness and transparency in relation to personal appointments by Ministers of special advisers.

As I mentioned earlier, an independent Commission comprised of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, the Ceann Comhairle and the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, will oversee the Bill as respects officeholders, special advisers and the holders of designated directorships and positions of employment in public bodies. A select committee on Members' interests, to be established in each House, will oversee the provisions of the Bill as these affect ordinary Oireachtas Members.

The Commission and the select committees will have full investigative powers, including the requiring of the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents or other evidence.

The Bill also provides for amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Acts, 1889 to 1916 to ensure that these apply to officeholders and to the wider public sector. Penalties are also updated.

Lest any impression be created that we need this Bill because of a general lack of integrity on the part of those in public office or employment, our democracy has been supremely well served by the integrity and commitment of elected representatives and public servants.

This Bill will allow those in public life to demonstrate what most well-informed people rightly believe to be true: that public representatives and senior public servants act in the public interest, and that it is the public interest alone which motivates the conduct of public business.

The overwhelming majority of people in public life have nothing to hide — quite the contrary. Over time, the Bill [1470] will help to demonstrate that. Hopefully, in so doing, the Bill will also serve to dispel the prevalent corrosive cynicism about public representation and service today.

Mr. E. Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne  Zoom on Eric J. Byrne  I propose to share my time with Deputy Sargent.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. E. Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne  Zoom on Eric J. Byrne  Ethics in Government is a topic which instinctively appeals to politicians and the public. It is something that is expected of everybody in society, but particularly politicians and, more particularly, Ministers and their staff. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I support the concept of a Bill such as this.

I wish to refer in a localised manner to something which is absolutely unethical in Government and affects ordinary people in urban areas. I fought a lengthy by-election campaign and was no sooner re-elected to the Dáil when, to my amazement, I noticed an incredible increase in the number of people coming to my advice centres thinking that as I am now a Deputy I could get them a “Government” job.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Perhaps they thought the Deputy was a member of the Labour Party.

Mr. E. Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne  Zoom on Eric J. Byrne  I could not understand the reason for this increase. In my naivety, I assumed that everybody who registered with FÁS would have an equal chance of securing jobs in the public service as unskilled operatives. That was my simplistic and ethical understanding of the way such vacancies were filled in the public service. When I inquired why people were suddenly coming to me as an Opposition Deputy I was informed that FÁS officials had told those desperate for work that the only people who could secure work for them was their local Dáil Deputies. I suggested that their prospects were hardly enhanced by an Opposition Deputy submitting a letter to a Fianna Fáil or Labour Party Minister [1471] and that the only people who could pull strings for them were those in power. In the hope that those in power would not be as unethical as suggested. I made inquiries from FÁS and discovered that there is a long waiting list of people on a panel for “Government” jobs and, to my horror, I also discovered that FÁS was able to secure work for only seven operatives from a list comprising several hundred.

However, unless you have friends and contacts in high places at ministerial level and affiliated to a political party you do not necessarily get the job to which you are entitled. The Minister should explain to the people on those panels why they are instructed by FÁS — whose officials are totally frustrated with the way the system is operating — to see their local TDs. There should be transparency in this area. We are dealing with hundreds of decent citizens who desperately want to work and who believe that if they register and go on a panel their turn will come, but sadly that will not be the case for many of them. Does the Ethics in Government Bill extend transparency to this area? I am not sure if the Bill covers it, if it does not, it is a damning condemnation of it.

Ministerial prerogative and power come into play in bread and butter issues such as jobs. Some of my constituents worked on SES schemes which ran for 12 months, under no circumstances could they be extended beyond that period. As an innocent young TD I accepted the rules of the system laid down by the former Minister for Labour, Deputy Ahern. I understood from his Department that the rule governing the time period applying to those schemes was strict. To my horror and disgust I discovered that the Minister was empowered, and used his power liberally, to extend the period on which workers were employed on those schemes from 12 to 24 months without interruption. People may say this is political bitchery, that Ministers have such power, that everybody knows this happens and that I am silly to say there is something disgusting, unethical and wrong about this. We are [1472] dealing with human beings who desperately want to work to put bread on the table to feed their families. Who is to say that the family entitled to be rescued is the one known by the political forces in power on a given day? The position is unethical, disgraceful and disgusting. FÁS will send constituents to me because the only way they will get Government jobs is by canvassing their TDs. I want the Minister to reassure me that there is a proper system in place and that the Ethics in Government Bill will bring about transparency so that people who get employment will get it on merit.

Will the Minister explain how vocational education committees work and why the composition of the interview boards comprise, in the main, representatives of political parties? How does this Bill address the ethical question of why law abiding, tax paying teachers, of no political persuasion who are excellent in their role as teachers must be interviewed by a political panel? They are often thrown on the scrap heap, not because of their inability to do the job for which they apply, but, sadly, because they are not members of the political party in power. If the Minister can convince me that simple ethical questions like those are addressed in the Bill, that there will be transparency, that we will know how people get jobs, that they will be able to hold their head high and that we can look them in the eye in the knowledge they got jobs on merit and not by political interference, I will fully support the Bill. However, I must await the Minister's response on whether those issues are covered. Having unburdened myself of frustrations because of unethical procedures and unethical use of power by Ministers and people in influential positions, I defer to my colleague in the Green Party.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis An Teachta Eric Byrne as ucht a am a roinnt liomsa.

It is sad there is a need for this Bill. The present system keeps a great number of people outside the political process. They may be forgiven for imagining [1473] something of which they do not have first hand experience and wondering if their political representatives take on their jobs for more than altruistic reasons. That is a sad reflection on the centralised system which we have not merely allowed to develop but encouraged. The Bill provides safeguards and touches on the ethics issue. However, other areas spring to mind, especially following a heated series of radio interviews with successful town commissioners and urban district councils after the local and European elections. Some representatives find it difficult to believe what is happening in their representative boards. They may have topped the poll and been given a democratic mandate, but when they take up office in their local council, often as independents, they face a coalition arrangement quickly cobbled together, similar to that in the House. That arrangement is not motivated by ideology or a common view of the world but by the desire to grab power and carve up whatever positions are available, often on vocational education committee bodies or other committees associated with the urban district council. These matters about which people feel strongly are not dealt with in the Bill, but they give rise to suspicions about the system. The ethics Bill will not reassure people about the level of self interest they detect in politics. How will the register be made available?

With freedom of information on environmental matters, the prospect of a freedom for information Bill may be closer. However, if the present level of availability of information on environmental matters is an example of what that means, there are many problems still to be solved as information on environmental matters is still withheld by many local authorities on various pretexts, such as, that it has not been officially presented or published or that not enough copies are available. Local authorities have certainly not shown a good example on the question of freedom of information to date compared with countries, such as Sweden, which are progressive in many areas including the [1474] making available of information which is of public interest.

Another matter is the question of the limit of £500 on the value of gifts given to public figures. Gifts given to political figures are usually not put on the market but are gifts of a sentimental nature which may have been part of the donor country's heritage. One only has to go a couple of yards down the corridor to see the banner presented by the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy of the USA which one certainly would not put a value on.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  It is the property of the State.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  That is so, but in the case of gifts one must bear in mind how they will be assessed for their monetary value.

Ba mhaith liom a chur in iúl go mbeidh mé ag súil le foirmeacha dátheangacha i leith an Bhille seo. Níl mé ag rá go mbeidh foirmeacha Gaeilge ar fáil ach iad a lorg mar go minic bíonn sé an-deacair iad a aimsiú. Ach má táimid chun sampla dátheangach a thabhairt don phobal ba cheart dúinn tosnú anseo le Gaeilge agus Béarla i dteannta a chéile ar aon leathanach amháin.

I note the inclusion of special advisers in the Bill. I note also that civil democracy as we know it is beginning to give way to a form of monarchy. A collection of people around an elected representative or a Minister gives one the feeling that they are in blessed company. It points to a trend towards centralisation where some people get elected and others, who will have power, are appointed at their discretion. We must turn that around and move towards a decentralised organisation of democracy.

Does the inclusion of income from another trade include expenses incurred as a member of a local authority? Often elected representatives are able to earn considerable extra income as members of other elected bodies and that needs to be borne in mind. The Green Party does not like to see, and looks for the abolition of, the dual or treble mandate. However, we have it and we must deal with it. On [1475] the question of the inclusion of travel facilities. I wonder if the World Cup comes to people's minds when they look at that.

In many ways this Bill has been forced upon us by the news media. There have been many examples in the media of public figures earning large sums of money with no explanation of how they earned that money. Because of lack of co-operation on the part of elected representatives, particularly those in Government, the Garda Síochána have been unable to get to the bottom of many allegations of bribery which may or may not involve local representatives. It is an indication of failure that people are left wondering if there is substance to such allegations. The Minister will recall the many allegations that circulated in Dublin County Council. To some extent this highlights the pitfalls in a system that encourages careerism in politics as opposed to the involvement of a democratic process for everybody rather than the select few, a very centralised system which is reflected now in the debate about the EU President, one person who is so powerful and so political. We need to look at the long term message that a decentralised system ought to take ethics into account and move to a position where people are more in touch with democracy rather than having it so centralised.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I propose to share my time with my colleague, Deputy Shatter. I should like first to compliment the two parties in Government on having the hardest necks that I can recall in my time in public life to come into the House with this legislation which is laudable in itself and certainly desirable and which will be helpful to politicians and people in public life generally. However, I presume the inspiration for this legislation came from the last 15 or 16 months of the two parties' sojourn in Government where the Labour Party not only emulated but excelled the worst excesses of Fianna Fáil in terms of jobbery, fixing and looking after their friends. I can only conclude [1476] that, having wrestled with their respective consciences for a while, they decided it was time to occupy the high moral ground once again.

I give both parties credit for having the gall, in the last week before the summer recess when their credibility is at its lowest ebb, to introduce the Bill. It looks more like an ethics for the Opposition Bill because it cannot and does not apply to the Government. They may protest about what was said by all parties on this side of the House in the past few days, but the criticisms were well deserved.

There is a need for a clear indication to the public that there will be no chicanery in public office. What is public office? Who has power in a public office? It is not Deputies or Senators, because they are not in public office. The only people who have access to the trappings of power are Government Ministers and their advisers, senior and junior, and the other people in their entourage who have access to the public office. It is certainly not Opposition Members or Government backbench Deputies, unless they have the assistance of a Government Minister, who has the power. It is they who are at the centre of power. Could any Government backbencher or any Opposition Deputy of whatever hue influence one Government contract? The answer is no. Not one Government contract can be influenced by any Deputy on this side of the House or by any Government backbencher without the assistance of a Minister. The presumption is that this legislation will cater for the consciences of those who might fall by the wayside and, perhaps, help the democratic process in some way. However, I doubt if one can legislate to make people honest if they do not intend to. That is a flaw in the legislation. I recognise the need to ensure that the public can have trust in the people they elect to public office.

Deputy Bell, a decent and honest man, said he would have no difficulty about disclosing his assets, of which he has none, but I was amazed at what he went on to say. I, and other Members, have no difficulty disclosing our assets, of which we have little or none — the few [1477] we had before we arrived in this House are fast diminishing.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  Will the Deputy make a collection?

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Minister should not tempt me. Her Leader almost tempted me a few minutes ago. Deputy Bell, in his innocence, said that the Labour Party had never been involved in any chicanery about zoning land and other unsavoury activities, but that parties such as Fine Gael had. However, there was no mention of Fianna Fáil. For some reason the Opposition was identified as the culprits in a power game.

There is no question that one of the reasons this legislation has come before us is that somebody on that side of the House concluded there was a need to put forward a logical argument that would stand up before all credibility has been eroded. It irritated me intensely to hear Deputy Bell — I like the Deputy who is a decent Member — suggest that the Labour Party has never been involved in zoning of property or other activity that is generally regarded as dangerous or dubious.

At a time when public confidence in the political system has been eroded I would have thought that an Ethics in Public Office Bill, which would dispel people's doubts about those elected to public office, should be applied retrospetively. Is this Bill being introduced in the manner of St. Augustine, after all the friends and relations have been appointed?

A former Taoiseach, a decent man who is well able to speak for himself, was castigated in his House for being of a dubious character. It was implied on more than one occasion that his friends benefited from the fact that he was in public office. If he was condemned for that, what happened to those who came after him? Not only did the friends benefit, the relations also benefited. There is no indication in this legislation that changes will be made in that area. It has been said that very close members of families will be scrutinised by a declaration [1478] of interest, but that does no necesarily mean that things will change, that everything will come up smelling of roses from now on. It means nothing. We have no difficulty with a declaration of interest. We would welcome it if we thought it would be of benefit. I hope it will benefit the Government who is in dire straits in that area at present and needs all the help it can get.

I had much more to say on this legislation but it cannot be said in ten minutes and I wish to give my good friend and colleague, Deputy Shatter, time to contribute. I hope that after the passing of this legislation we wll see the turning over of a new leaf, with pristine, clean operations from the Government side that will be an example to all of us and that it will not be simply an application of standards for the opposition that the Government has no intention of living up to.

Mr. Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter  Zoom on Alan Shatter  The Ethics in Public Office Bill was conceived by the Labour Party to deflect public criticism from its post-general election machinations. It is the hope of the Labour Party that this Bill will ensure that its political dangerous liaison with Fianna Fáil does not prove an electoral fatal attraction. An important comment was made by the Minister of State, Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, when delivering her speech on this measure last week. She stated that an objective of this Bill is “to strengthen democracy and let in the light”. As other speakers already stated, this Bill has little to do with ethics, it is in reality a declaration of interest Bill — no more and no less. Moreover, in its substantive provisions it is seriously flawed as ably demonstrated by other speakers.

Exaggerated claims for this measure should not be made. While its general objectives are not unreasonable, it does not to any extent strengthen democracy or let in the light. While its contents are lengthy it is a mere pinprick on the body politic. Its enactment will not make the procedures of this House any more relevant to the everyday problems of ordinary people. It will not restore the faith of [1479] our alienated generations in our political institutions and it will not result in an upsurge of new applicants to join the major political parties, nor will it bring a new transparency to our decision making processes.

The fact that this Bill is misnamed the Ethics in Public Office Bill starkly illustrates the extent to which Government and some Members are divorced from reality. Generations of our people have scant regard for the Members from all parties. The making of false promises; the raising of unrealisable expectations; character assassination of political opponents; political patronage and nepotism; the politics of nudge and wink; personally politically advantageous U-turns; the betrayal of much vaunted commitment to principles; phoney public relations campaigns; self-serving announcements of exaggerated achievements; lack of competence shown by many who have held Government office in various administrations — these and other phenomena combine to produce a pot-pourri of disillusionment and public political cynicism.

If we are to strengthen democracy we must truly modernise the procedures of this House so that Members can, on a daily basis, force the Government of the day to fully account for its actions without the Ceann Comhairle being forced by rules of this House to intervene. We should distinguish between those fundamental issues of economic and social policy which require political parties to impose a whip and other issues to which the tyranny of the whip should not be applied so that those elected to this House can apply a degree of personal judgment when voting on a variety of issues that are not central to the functions of or survival of government.

If committees are to truly add to democracy, powers should be extended to them to subpoena witnesses to attend before them and to fully and properly cross-examine Ministers and civil servants responsible for decisions that determine the fate of this country. We should truly let in the light and provide for [1480] greater transparency over a broad spectrum of Government and administrative decisions which affect the lives of so many who live outside this House. We have talked of the need for a freedom of information Bill for too long. Such a measure should be enacted as a priority.

We must also, as Members, behave differently. We must reflect the aspirations and ethos of the new generations of Irish men and women who still hope for politicians in this State to whom they can look for inspiration and in whom they can have confidence. On occasion, it is too easy when measures such as this come before this House to engage in caricature politics and use this type of debate as a platform to gratuitously attack the Government of the day and those parties who form part of that Government for their alleged hypocrisy and dishonesty. The behaviour of the Labour Party in the past 18 months renders such an approach for all those on the Opposition benches almost irresistible.

There is something too comforting about maintaining the pretence that those on the opposite side of the House are the incarnation of evil and those on this side of saintly disposition. It is not only comforting but also politically self-serving to believe that when you are not in Government, those in Government are constantly conspiring to benefit themselves and to do down the State. I confess that in the past, like others, I have indulged in this type of politics. Upon reflection, rather than ensuring the accountability of Government for its actions, such an approach, too frequently adopted from the Opposition benches merely adds to growing public cynicism and, of its nature, poses long term dangers to democracy.

Most times, charges made against the Government of the day and individual Ministers are of an exaggerated nature. I have become in recent years more a devotee of the cock-up principle of politics than of the conspiracy theory to which too many of us in this House are devoted. I believe this is the view held by the majority of the general public. When things go wrong, Members on the Opposition [1481] benches should be wary of engaging in excessive political fulminations against the parties who form the Government of the day in a democracy in which continuing coalition Governments are inevitable and in a Parliament in which most, if not all, parties have in the past or will be in the future in bed with each other. Those who excessively fulminate, having climbed out of the coalition bed, or those who fulminate and then climb into it, not only undermine their own personal credibility but also increase public cynicism.

Those outside this House want a competent Government which they truly believe is doing its best to advance the interests of this country and those who live in it. When things go wrong, whether it be due to cock-up or conspiracy, the procedures of this House must work better to ensure that Government can be made to perform competently and held truly accountable for its actions.

Finally, it is appropriate that this debate coincides with the Government today publishing its Refugee Bill. The manner in which we have treated over the years those seeking political asylum in this country has been little short of a scandal and a disgrace. I have no doubt that if some of the members of the heroic Irish World Cup team had originated from somewhere different and had arrived at Shannon Airport seeking political asylum, instead of being received with a welcome greeting they would be unceremoniously bundled back on board a plane. I have no doubt the Government Bill would not have been published if I had not republished my own Bill two weeks ago that was voted down in this House just over a year ago.

We must ensure that in the future all those who seek political asylum are treated decently and that there is true transparency and accountability in the decision making process. This also applies to those who seek naturalisation and to those who seek visas for relations to visit this country where it seems that for reasons of colour alone, such visas are refused. Prejudice and exclusivity rather [1482] than decency and humanity seem on the surface too frequently to be the determinant in the decision making process. The unpublished secretive procedures that currently apply and the lack of rationale for many of the decisions reflect a world that is starkly described in Franz Kafka's book The Trial. The upholding of ethics and morality in politics demands that we adopt a different approach to all of these areas.

The publishing of the Refugee Bill is, I believe, not sufficient. We should also examine our history in this area so as to ensure that the manner in which we behaved in the past is not repeated in the future.

It is almost 50 years since the end of World War II and as papers in the State archives are now public material, is it not time that a committee of this House examine the manner in which we treated those of the Jewish faith and others who sought political asylum in Ireland not only before and during but also after the war years and who found the door closed? Is it not time for us to come to terms with the behaviour during those years of both Governments and civil servants and ask why, with a few exceptions, we kept our doors firmly closed to those who sought to come here having escaped the gas ovens of Europe? Or are we to be the only State in Europe who refuses to examine the morality of our actions and ask the hard questions?

This is not only an issue of history but a signpost as to how we should conduct our public affairs in the future. It is also a litmus test of our ability to accept responsibility for past actions. It is an issue of political ethics and morality which should be confronted also.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  This debate is on the principles of the Ethics in Public Office Bill, which forms part of the Programme for Government and which has had an abnormally long gestation period since it was first published. Its publication is almost a year late.

One might have imagined that, in that context, the Bill would be one which was comprehensive, well-drafted and capable [1483] of dealing with real situations which have come into existence in the meantime. On the contrary, we find that the Bill has few of these characteristics. It does not deal with the most elementary situation involving ethics in public office, whereby one Minister can, by exercise of his ministerial powers, confer a very significant advantage on another Minister. Issues of accountability, conflict of interest and the public's right to know thereby come into question. That is possibly the most elementary instance of ethics in public office.

We find, unfortunately, that section 14 of this Bill does not even cover such a situation. The only conflict of interest that a Minister is required to disclose is a conflict of interest in which he or a person connected to him stands to gain. How that simple elementary error was allowed to stand in this Bill, notwithstanding the executive scrutiny it received, beggars belief.

We are now told that that particular loophole will be closed by Committee Stage amendments. Perhaps it will, but the crucial point at this stage is that the Bill tendered by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fitzgerald, was wholly inadequate and that any Minister who was so minded could run a coach and four through its provisions. But the inadequacies of the Bill do not stop there. The Bill also goes on to prove that the only disclosure of a possible conflict of interest on the part of a Minister that is required is a private letter from that Minister to the Taoiseach. As long as the Minister acknowledges in writing that he has a conflict of interest to the Taoiseach of the day, the provisions of the Bill have no further effect and the matter may not be investigated further. The commission established under the Bill cannot investigate further once it has been informed that the Taoiseach was duly notified in writing by the Minister concerned of his conflict of interest.

So, even if the Committee Stage amendment to cover the activities of one Minister which benefit another Minister [1484] is made, the Bill is flawed by reason of the complete absence of safeguards in respect of any abuse by a Minister of his ministerial powers, apart from the obligation to notify the Taoiseach of the day.

All of this might appear academic if we were dealing with a perfect world. It might be thought that a Minister who reported a conflict of interest to the Taoiseach would be required by the Taoiseach to explain the conflict of interest and to demonstrate publicly that he or she had not abused his or her office. Unfortunately, no such remedy is envisaged in the Bill and it is not to be assumed, on recent experience, that any such procedure will, in fact, be put in place.

In the course of her Second Stage speech, the Minister of State, Deputy Fitzgerald, drew particular attention to the “citizenship for sale” controversy. I feel, therefore, that I am entitled to pursue that matter somewhat further tonight. Some commentators have suggested that, unless we find out some “new” information, the matter cannot be further investigated. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the facts we know about this matter speak for themselves. They suggest very strongly that members of the present Government and one member of a previous Government abused their office and that the result of that abuse of public office was a very significant financial advantage to the Taoiseach personally.

Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of the sequence of events which gave rise to this recent controversy. According to a radio interview given by the financial director of C&D Foods Ltd. on 30 May 1994, that company was approached in September 1991, when the present Taoiseach was then Minister for Finance, by someone acting on behalf of the Masris' inquiring about a possible investment in the company. Agreement was reached on an investment of £1.1 million in March 1992, when Deputy Reynolds was Taoiseach. He was out of office in late 1991 and early 1992 and it seems inconceivable that he would not have learned of the [1485] Masris' proposals during the period when he was out of office.

I use the term “investment” loosely because it would appear that we are dealing here with a loan and not with any purchase of equity in the company. The people involved, an Arab family, were not resident in Ireland and have never been resident in Ireland. They used an intermediary to approach C & D Foods Ltd. This intermediary had frequently acted for persons seeking Irish citizenship on foot of what are called “investments”. Subsequently, that intermediary introduced one of the members of the family, who was not an investor in the company, to the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Smith. He, in turn sponsored the application for the wife and son of the man whom he met on foot of their “investment” in Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Smith denies that he was ever aware that the investment in question was in the Taoiseach's firm. I will return to that later. The Minister for the Environment appears not to have met the two people whom he sponsored and who got citizenship on his recommendation.

In December 1992, the then Minister for Justice, and now the European Commissioner, Pádraig Flynn, made a decision to grant citizenship to the wife and son of the man who had been met by the Minister for the Environment. The then Minister, Deputy Flynn, must have been aware, from records in his Department, that the investment was in the Taoiseach's family firm and yet, it is suggested that neither the Taoiseach nor the Minister, Deputy Smith, was ever contacted by the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Flynn, on the matter. We are supposed to accept that it was never mentioned to either of them.

The “investment”, which appears to have been a soft loan, was first broached when the present Taoiseach was Minister for Finance and was put in place when he was Taoiseach. The Taoiseach denies all knowledge of this transaction, even though he was out of office for several months during this period.

Is this denial credible? At all material times, the Taoiseach has been owner of [1486] the single largest shareholding in the company, about 41 per cent of its ordinary shares. Doubtless he has, when in office, resigned his directorship of the company. His wife and son remain as directors and are also shareholders of considerable significance. The Taoiseach, and his immediate family, own over 90 per cent of the company. The company records show that, at the time the £1.1. million investment was made, C & D Foods was indebted to the extent of £1.4 million. A soft loan or a credit facility of £1.1 million to the company in those circumstances must have been a matter of huge significance to all of the shareholders in the company. It defies belief, and I do not accept, that the Taoiseach was unaware of the fact that the company of which he was the largest single personal shareholder was receiving a large financial facility from an Arabian mother and son.

I reject completely the plausibility of the scenario that has been trotted out to the media by spin doctors and public relations consultants to the effect that the Taoiseach was personally unaware of this transaction. The directors of the company, including close members of his family, must have been aware of the arrangement. They too must have known that the only reason the Masris selected their company for an investment was to procure citizenship. If the Masris were not primarily interested in getting citizenship, they could have more profitably invested the £1.1 million elsewhere. In those circumstances, it is simply preposterous to ask the country to believe that his close family directors deliberately kept the Taoiseach in the dark. Unless he was kept in the dark, he knew about the matter, if he knew about the matter, he has not been truthful with the public.

We are further asked to believe, however, that the two Ministers who were personally close to the Taoiseach and who dealt with the application also kept the Taoiseach in the dark. Again, that is such a preposterous suggestion as not to merit serious consideration, but, again, it is trotted out for public acceptance.

[1487] If the matter ended there, there would be scandal enough, but the matter goes much further and much more deeply than that. This decision to naturalise two members of the Masri family was taken under what is termed a “business migration scheme”. The purpose of that scheme is to confer Irish citizenship on people who have a connection with Ireland, who are resident here, who propose to reside here in the future and who have made a genuine investment in Ireland of a durable kind.

In the case of the soft loan to the Taoiseach's company, none of these criteria were satisfied. First, there was no Irish connection of any kind. Second, there was not and has not since been any bona fide residence by the people concerned in Ireland and, third, there has been no real investment. Instead, we have a temporary financial facility given to an Irish company. All of these elements show that the criteria laid down by the Department of Justice for the conferring of citizenship were breached.

Moreover, we know that no effort of any kind was made to evaluate the direct impact on employment of the proposed investment. The matter was not referred to the Industrial Development Authority or to the Department of Industry and Commerce for their evaluation, and little or no checks were carried out to ascertain whether the Masris had any Irish connections, or whether they had in fact any bona fide residence here or any bona fide intention to reside here.

In all the circumstances, the granting of citizenship to these people was wrong, was in contravention of both the spirit and the letter of the business migration scheme and mounted, without exaggeration, to a simple sale of Irish and European Union citizenship in exchange for a soft loan to an Irish company.

Combining these circumstances with the fact that this was an approach made to the then Minister for Finance's company and the fact that the soft loan was put in place when he was Taoiseach, and to the fact that this application for citizenship, sponsored by one Minister, was approved [1488] by a second and was, in effect, for the benefit of a third Minister, the Head of the Government, in so far as he benefited more than anybody else from the financial advantage accruing from the “investment”, the whole affair was and is a major scandal and an appalling departure from any reasonable standards of public behaviour in Irish life.

Compounding all of this is the claim by the Taoiseach that this is an effort to involve his family unfairly in the controversy. It is no such thing. He was the Taoiseach when the loan was put in place in the company of which he was 41 per cent shareholder; he is the person who claims now to have been kept in the dark about the loan; he is the person whom his fellow directors and fellow Cabinet members might reasonably be expected to have informed of these matters. Nobody is impugning his family's role in this matter. The questions that must be answered are questions of the Taoiseach himself.

The Taoiseach has postured as being offended. He has suggested in this House that all questions concerning this matter should be addressed to this family firm. They, of course, refuse to answer any such questions The public are being kept in the dark on a matter of grave public importance. Some people in the media seem content to let the matter lie at that.

If any of the Taoiseach's predecessors had behaved in the way that he has done in this matter, both he and the other Ministers involved, would all have resigned or would have been hounded into resigning. It is a mark of our times that this has happened now.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  I ask the Deputy to conclude as I must call the Minister in accordance with an order of the House of this day.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  I will conclude in a moment, Sir.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  I do not have a moment and I do not have discretion.

[1489]Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  This sale of Irish and European Union citizenship in exchange for a soft loan to the Taoiseach's family firm is a major political scandal. The circumstances which have been uncovered amount by themselves, and without further explanation, to a wholesale departure from acceptable public standards.

The Tánaiste is purported to have conducted an inquiry and to have found that everything was in order but that the system should be reviewed. Presumably, if that is his view, he has no objection——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  I must now call on the next speaker, Deputy.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  ——to another million pounds plus being advanced yet again to the Taoiseach's company in exactly the same circumstances.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Fitzgerald, to reply to the debate.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  I regret I was not allowed time to conclude the short remaining part of my speech. If the tenure of it was somewhat different, I am sure it would have been possible to accommodate me.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  The Chair totally rejects that remark. It is unworthy of the Deputy. I am dealing with the order of the House of this day.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  The remark is nonetheless true, Sir.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Ms E. Fitzgerald): Information on Noel Treacy  Zoom on Noel Treacy  I wish to make some general comments on the debate. The Fine Gael Party appears to believe that anything that does not involve our going into government with them is inherently unethical. While the Progressive Democrats Party, during its term of office in Government, constantly jumped up and down on issues of principle, it never brought forward legislation in this area. It now appears to find many difficulties in the ethical area but I ask [1490] Deputy O'Malley in particular, who occupied a senior position in the last Government, what legislation he brought forward to close the loopholes.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  We did not need legislation. We blocked these things from happening.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  The Minister without interruption, please.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  The Minister asked me a question. I am endeavouring to answer it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  The Deputy was allowed to make his contribution without interruption.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  We stopped these things happening. I stopped them happening, unlike the Minister's Leader, Deputy Spring, who approved of them.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  The Minister without interruption.

Mr. O'Malley: Information on Desmond J. O'Malley  Zoom on Desmond J. O'Malley  The Minister asked me to answer her question.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  What we are putting in place in this legislation is a legal framework which will deal with issue of conflict of interest——

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  A fig leaf.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  ——and we will not be relying, as a result of this legislation, on Deputy O'Malley's blocking tactics within a Government. The legislation which will be adopted by this House will stand the test of time. Deputy O'Malley's party, while expressing a great deal of ethical concern, did not see fit to bring forward any legislation in this area. It is more satisfactory to record the need for legislation on the record of this House than to rely on the conscience of Deputy O'Malley in these matters.

A number of Deputies took issue with the title of the Bill saying that it is more about the disclosure of interests than [1491] ethics. These criticisms of the Bill overlook not only a number of its key provisions but they also fail to appreciate the cultural impetus which the Bill will impart. This is a landmark Bill and time will bear that out.

A disclosure process is fundamental to the identification and separation of public and private interests. The positive impact which this process will have on behaviour in public life should not be underestimated. Those making statements of interests, they are also making a statement about the supremacy of the public interest and the need for and acceptance of the highest ethical standards in their conduct of public business. The conduct of public business is made more transparent, those in public life become more accountable and we foster and safeguard an ethos of genuine public service.

I would refer Deputies also to the extension of the prevention of corruption legislation which goes back to 1916 and which contains loopholes. We are extending this to officeholders and to all those holding positions in the public sector.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  They are the only people who have influence.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  The independent commission is a cornerstone of the Bill. The commission is entitled to request any declarations made under the Bill in any of the cases where it is not directly supplied with the information. This powerful access to information breaks the circle of secrecy. Where an independent and powerful investigative third party has access to all information the culture of the golden circle becomes much less probable. Deputies raised the issues of Greencore, Telecom, Aer Lingus Holidays and other problems of lapses of the highest ethical standard in the public sector. In the wake of those disclosures the public service drew up guidelines on the operation of State companies which we are extending and putting on a statutory footing. We have learned from what [1492] happened in those cases, and this Bill will ensure that the golden circle will not exist in the semi-State sector because information on interests will be available to the supervisory authorities and the independent commission. This will ensure that the type of problems which arose will not recur.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  What about information in relation to influence?

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  We envisage a developmental role for the Commission in the general area of ethics in public office, particularly through the promulgation of guidelines and advice and through the annual and special report mechanisms provided for under section 26. We see this role as central to promoting the highest standards in public life.

The Bill, like any legal instrument, can only go so far. We cannot legislate for the Ten Commandments. The Bill addresses the key issues which are proper to legislation and our legislation bears comparison with the best international practice. To the extent that the Bill cannot cover the wider ethical dimension we need to focus on extra statutory procedures and codes of practice, not just at Government level but throughout the public sector. The Bill, through the Commission, will give a powerful impetus to the development and promulgation of such practices and codes. Public sector employers will have a particular responsibility in this regard. The net result will be the creation of a corpus of law and practice which addresses the ethical dimension in the broadest sense.

The requirements in the Bill not only honour the commitments in the Programme for Government but go beyond them in some instances. In addition to requiring the disclosure of interests of Oireachtas members, senior civil servants and senior executives of State bodies the Bill makes provisions for office holders, special advisers and public servants generally.

On the points about legislation for disclosure of political donations, ceilings on election spending and State funding of [1493] political parties, the electoral Bill, now at final drafting stage, will give effect to the Programme for Government commitments in this regard. If Deputies can suggest practical ways in which this Bill might better achieve the stated objectives they will have every opportunity of doing so on Committee Stage. As I said last week. I will be as positive as possible in responding to these. We want the Bill to be as comprehensive as possible and any improvements we can make to it will be made. I will bring forward an important amendment to deal with the public concern raised by the passport controversy.

I sympathise with the points made about the section 7 requirement for disclosure of interests in Oireachtas proceedings. While Deputies accept the principle of what is proposed some have misgivings about the mechanism in the section. It is simple enough to declare one's interests when speaking on a debate but practical difficulties arise when a Deputy is summoned to vote. I will be happy to look at alternative mechanisms which meet the same principle.

A number of Deputies raised the question of imposing controls on those leaving the public service and taking up positions in the private sector, the so-called gamekeeper turned poacher scenario. I examined this issue when preparing the Bill but there were complicated legal and practical difficulties which would make it difficult to frame and implement legislation. Deputy Currie asked whether the Second Schedule provisions on land encompass second homes or property held outside the jurisdiction. Disclosure is not necessary in respect of the private homes of Members. Apart from that and the general exception that land valued under £10,000 is exempt under the Second Schedule, the Bill requires disclosure of property held inside and outside the jurisdiction.

Deputy Currie also asked how Members would value gifts and Deputy Sargent asked how Ministers' gifts would be valued. Under the Bill the Secretary to the Government values gifts to Ministers. The majority of gifts given to people in public life are modest tokens of appreciation [1494]— a bunch of flowers is the one I appreciate most and is the most frequent gift I am given, a pen, a piece of inscribed glass and so on. Clearly the market value of such gifts is well below the threshold value specified in the Bill. Deputies will agree that people should not seek to influence Members of the House or the Government by giving them valuable gifts. Such cases are likely to be rare in practice.

The select committee set up under the Bill can draw up guidelines for the guidance of Members and those who may be given a gift of borderline value can seek the advice of the committee who will arrange for appropriate valuation if this is necessary.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): We do not get any gifts.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  Ministers and other officeholders will be required to surrender to the State gifts worth over £500 while Oireachtas Members are required to disclose such gifts but not surrender them.

Some Deputies stated that the Bill is less onerous on Ministers than on backbenchers. This is not so. Ministers are fully covered by the provisions in Part II of the Bill and are required to make the same declarations under section 7 as any other Deputy. In answering questions in the House as well as when speaking in debate Ministers will be obliged to make public declarations of any conflict of interest. In addition, Ministers must meet the requirements of Part III. They are obliged to make formal written annual statements of the interests of spouses and children which could pose a potential conflict of interest.

Under section 14 Ministers are obliged to inform the Taoiseach in writing if they propose to exercise any function which could confer a material benefit on themselves, their family or their business partners. As head of the Government, a Taoiseach must be informed of any contemplated actions which suggest a conflict of interest. This declaration will be available to the Commission which in turn is [1495] entitled to carry out any investigations it wishes on its own initiative, report on them and have the report laid before the House. These procedures will ensure that Ministers pause and reflect, as they do at present, before contemplating any action which would appear to involve a conflict of interest.

I listened with interest to the arguments made on both sides of the House for streamlining the reporting mechanisms under section 14. I am examining how the procedure might be improved. Deputy Kenny asked why we were putting the declaration requirements on a statutory basis. Over a year ago the House adopted a resolution to draw up a voluntary register of interests and that was referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Nothing further has been done since but as promised in the Programme for Government, we are putting that on a statutory basis.

Mrs. Doyle: Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  The Government has a majority on the Committee on Procedures and Privileges.

Ms E. Fitzgerald: Information on Eithne Fitzgerald  Zoom on Eithne Fitzgerald  We are also putting on a statutory basis the disclosure of interests already required of people serving as board members and senior executives of State companies. It is not right that we should rely in such matters on the conscience of a Desmond O'Malley in Government. Deputy Kenny said that the people in charge should deal with lapses. The mechanisms in the Bill provide that it is the supervisory authority, in the first instance, which is responsible for overseeing State bodies or public servants under its control. The commission is available as a back up to the normal supervision which should be exercised over any State body.

As regards the declaration of qualifications of special advisers, Deputy Kenny said we should include commonsense as well as paper qualifications. We envisage people putting their curriculum vitae on the record. Deputy Fitzgerald made a compelling case for freedom of information legislation. She [1496] put it even better than I put it. We are working on this legislation. It is important work complementary to what we are doing in this Bill.

Deputy Kenny mentioned the case of civil servants working in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry whose families may own a farm and asked if they would have to declare that at every hand's turn. It is clear from the definition of material interest that would not be required where the interest is of such a general character.

I commend to the House this important landmark Bill, which compares favourably with best international practice.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Bill is an imaginative fig leaf.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  (Carlow-Kilkenny): The Minister has not answered my questions.

Question put and declared carried.


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