Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 30 May 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 537 No. 3

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

Mr. Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  One area which has the potential to create difficulty is the possibility of frivolous and vexatious complaints against Members. There is concern that this legislation will give rise to more complaints of this nature. There is particular concern that a complaint might be lodged in the run-up to an election and left hanging over a Member during an election campaign. This Bill has not made any major change in this regard. It would be difficult to find a means of discouraging such complaints. It would probably require the introduction of a fairly strong penalty, and that is something we could consider on Committee Stage.

The Members interests committee looked at the experience in New South Wales in Australia where a permanent independent commission against corruption was set up. Huge numbers of complaints were referred to it and it has a very large staff and very large ongoing costs. In general it has been a most unsatisfactory means of dealing with this entire area. I am glad this Bill does not provide for an independent commission of that nature. One of the cases which was dealt with by that commission, the fairly well known Metherell affair, dates back to 1992. The finding of the commission in that case was overturned in the Supreme Court, but before that the Premier of the day, Nick Greiner, who had a strong record in this regard and the Minister involved, Tim Moore, had both resigned. Between the finding of the commission, which was negative for both of them, and the Supreme Court finding which overturned that, they had both resigned. On the basis of the experience in that jurisdiction, the committee members believed it was not the way to go.

There was also some concern in the committee about the definition of connected persons. Perhaps that might be addressed on Committee Stage. The committee also pointed out a considerable number of anomalies in the 1995 Act. I am disappointed that section 30, which deals with voluntary declarations, has not been amended. The Bill is drafted to give the impression that if one were to make a voluntary statement of an interest, at a minimum one would be required by law to continue to make that declaration subsequently. In fact, it is not clear that other Members of the House would not be required to make that declaration. That clearly was not intended in the Act at the time but the legal advice we received suggested that is the case. It would be useful if that were addressed.

I welcome the provision in Schedule 1, which amends section 29 to provide for corrections to the register. Common sense dictates that such a provision should be in place. I also welcome the amendment to section 7 of the ethics Act to allow for the seeking of advice. However, the amend[636] ment does not address it in the way the committee might have wanted. It should be sufficient for a Member to have sought advice in relation to section 7(2)(b) of the 1995 Act rather than to have made a declaration. Practicality dictates that it is virtually impossible for the committee to give advice before the Member speaks or votes. That is something which has the potential to throw up difficulties in the future.

Section 12 of the 1995 Act provides for Members to seek advice but it does not provide for that to be in writing. The committee strongly believes it should be. Otherwise, there is enormous potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentations of what advice was sought, what information was given and how the advice was subsequently given.

Section 8 of the 1995 Act does not require that a Member against whom a complaint has been made would be informed in all cases. It provides that Members are advised in the event that the Clerk refers the complaint to the committee and in some other cases but not in all cases. The 2000 Bill makes some changes to that but does not provide that the Member against whom a complaint is made be advised in all cases. That is a weakness in the legislation. Complaints might be made against Members of the House and they would not know about it.

The Dáil committee prepared a code in advance of the preparation of the legislation. It has been placed in the Oireachtas Library and circulated to Members. It contains a number of recommendations. I thank the Members who made submissions, both written and oral, in this regard. At this stage it is only a draft code. I expect it will be dealt with by the committee, debated further and, undoubtedly, altered.

It is unfortunate that the general area of legislative ethics is seen to be concerned with the behaviour of individual legislators rather than the framework within which politics is conducted. In a sense this Bill and the other Bills being prepared – one is also before a committee today – seem to confirm the view that ethical behaviour in politics is all about being controlled by legislation. It certainly is not. It would be better if it were concerned with a wider area and seen in the wider context of politics delivering good government.

When one looks at the broader context, one sees that many people besides politicians are involved. The 2000 Bill goes some way in addressing this and extending legislation to public servants and others. However, there are other interests involved to whom legislation should, could and, perhaps, will be extended in the future.

Mr. Timmins: Information on Billy Timmins  Zoom on Billy Timmins  I welcome this Bill. Deputy Killeen referred to the various other Bills and pointed out that one was before a committee today. The amount of legislation to deal with corruption or standards in public office is confusing. No matter how much legislation is in place, it is [637] ultimately down to the type of individual elected to represent the people and how they feel because, unfortunately, any legislation can be circumvented.

Take as an example the declaration of interests. When somebody becomes a Minister, he or she can no longer be a company director and so forth but a family member can become a director. There have been many controversies over the years whereby a Member of the House or a Minister can operate these companies at arm's length. I do not know how one can cater for that situation or whether it is possible to do so.

Politicians have been under the cosh for a number of years as a result of matters which have come into the public domain. The present and past generations do not have a monopoly on badness or on goodness. What has happened reflects what happens in society, but that does not excuse it. People who hold public office should not only be clean but should be seen to be clean. A higher standard applies to them than to members of the general public. However, it is important to realise that what we have seen happened in several other areas of society. Politics is not the only area in which it occurred.

The Minister has agreed to amend section 2 on Committee Stage. It deals with the composition of the commission. It comprises a retired or serving judge, the Clerks of the Dáil and the Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Minister indicated that two former politicians will be added. Is it the case that we see ourselves in such a poor light that we did not include the former politicians from the beginning? The vast majority of politicians are decent and honourable people.

With regard to corruption and standards in general, part of the problem is to do with the evolution of a state. We have seen it happen in many other countries which have broken away from a colonial past. This country is going through those growing pains. Deputies sit in their clinics and are confronted by people wondering how they can get around a problem. Often we try to circumvent the system. Perhaps we are still trying to put one over on the Queen. Many of us feel we do not have a partnership in this country. We believe it is a great stroke to avoid or evade tax; we are not willing to pull our weight and make a contribution. Until we develop that ethos, we will continue to encounter difficulties with people trying to take a short cut and not pull their weight.

The purpose of this and the other Bills is to restore public confidence in the political system. This Bill deals with a certain code of conduct which the commission or the Houses of the Oireachtas or the Minister for Finance will lay down for Ministers, office holders, Members of the Oireachtas and members of other public bodies. The specifics of the code of conduct will involve the production of a tax clearance certificate after election and a declaration of interests and will ensure Members do not duplicate their [638] declarations of donations. The Bill provides for the establishment of an inquiry officer who, if a complaint is made, will carry out an interview process and report to the commission. The commission will be presented with a report on which it can pass judgment.

Section 7 is the most important section and deals with the code of conduct. It will deal with conduct and integrity. I will come back to this important section later. Section 15 deals with fines designed to address cases of obstruction of the commission. In almost every tribunal there has been obstruction on the part of some of the people brought before it. This is inexcusable. I hope people who are questioned by or receive requests from tribunals will be fully compliant and forward everything requested. Ultimately, it makes life easier for everybody concerned. Given that the tribunals were established with the unanimous approval of the House and the support of the public, it behoves every Member to co-operate with them.

Schedule 1 to which Deputy Killeen referred provides for adjustments to the 1995 Act. This deals with where people would make a declaration of interests before a debate and it brings me to the question of the relationship between business and politics. When the Lowry affair broke I remember seeing certain politicians on camera stating that business and politics do not mix and some people would make the case for having full-time politicians. It is important that every walk of life in society is represented in this House. We are all familiar in our own constituencies with the chambers of commerce and with the various contributions which they would make to the debate on how a local area should be developed. It is always important that we are not afraid to go out and interact with people, be they members of the farming community, the business community or the voluntary sector. It is important that their views are represented here. It is also important that people from those various sectors are elected because they can bring a broad view to all the legislation which passes through the House.

It is not good enough to say that business and politics cannot mix. Certainly there is a perception among the public that businesses, which have given donations in the past, have greater access. I do not know whether that is true, but I suppose I can certainly understand how the perception arises. With the limitations on donations and, indeed, my party's policy not to accept corporate donations, which is a good policy, it is not satisfactory that we must go out on the highways and byways to look for donations from members of the public. The time has come when we must grasp the nettle. The public purse will have to finance the democratic system. There is no way around it.

We often get pilloried in the media for not being professional enough but, although I have only been in opposition, people who have been on both sides of the House would understand that [639] when one is in Government one has all the advantages and back-up. In opposition it is very difficult to do anything. One needs research facilities and one needs funding to carry out that research and to sustain a professional organisation, and the common interest would be served by providing such funding from the public purse. I realise there is a difficulty in that regard with political parties or Independents who are trying to get established and, therefore, some channel must be found to cater for those individuals.

I will deal briefly with the code of conduct. In my view this is the most important aspect of the legislation. This comes back to the point I have made on other occasions and which previous speakers have made, that is, how can one legislate for ethics in public office? How can one legislate for ethics in any sphere of activity? It is quite easy, for example, to deal with the simple fact that a person received donation X from Mr. Y, and that he or she declared it. Under the current legislation a Member must declare donations of £500 or more, but we all know that we could get 20 donations of £495, declare nothing and be twice as wealthy as the poor guy who must declare the £1,000 donation he received. Therefore, that aspect of the legislation is unsatisfactory.

This Bill addresses many of the academic areas vis-à-vis tax clearance certificates, donations, etc., but the code of conduct is an important element of it. We, as politicians, are guilty of many failings in this area. There is now a limit on the money we may spend on elections but, considering the recent evidence from the tribunals, what is to stop a person spending in the period between elections? If people have access to a great deal of money or income between elections, they are at a far greater advantage because they can spend day and night. No matter how pure we think we are, if we look into our hearts we will see that we are all looking at ways to circumvent the system between now and the calling of an election. We ask ourselves will we place the advertisement in the local paper now for three or four months or will we sponsor a local organisation. Does all that not constitute spending on an election or can we fool ourselves by saying we are doing it out of the kindness of our hearts? In the main it is done – I am not necessarily speaking for myself here – for self-advancement or to protect one's electoral well-being in the future. Perhaps that is an area we should look at in the future.

An area about which I would be very concerned with respect to the code of conduct is conduct at election time. Recent reports on the election campaign in Northern Ireland show that people have been expressing concern. In my view, people are subjected to the same abuses in the South. I will outline one simple aspect of elections to which many traditional election activities might not like to refer, that is, the concept of tallying at election time. As in the past, there are many people who are concerned that the local [640] politician knows who votes for him. I am aware of candidates and supporters of candidates right across the political spectrum intimidating people into voting. People, who I would have been under the impression knew how the system worked, have come to me and asked “Won't you know how I voted in the election because the tallymen see the votes coming out of the boxes?” There is a concern and fear about that. If one looks back at certain constituencies in the last local elections, one can see where that view was manipulated. This concept of knocking on the door, putting people into the car and bringing them to vote was acceptable to a certain degree in the past, and some parties were more efficient at it than others. We all did it but I do not know if it is a good practice. It is something we should look at. I am not really in favour of tallying. It is nice to know the results by area but a message should go out to people that, except where there was no vote for a politician in a particular box, the politican would not know if people in a particular area voted for him. A person's vote is private and personal and that is how it should be.

They say that in life there are three things which cannot be recalled – the spoken word, the spent arrow and the missed opportunity. I want to refer to the spoken word. It strikes me, as a result of all the innuendo and misinformation going around, that it is now very easy to target somebody and put out a rumour about him or her. Unfortunately in Irish society, particularly when we are out late at night, one man wants to tell a better story than the next and the story evolves. The journalists will always say they have a job to do and I acknowledge that. Without their involvement the tribunals probably would never have been set up in the first instance and, therefore, it is important to acknowledge that. While I do acknowledge that, in last Sunday's newspapers I saw an article about the granting of the Esat licence. The headline stated that £1 billion may be paid in compensation by the taxpayer as a result of the granting of the licence but when I read the article it stated that, notwithstanding that, there is no evidence to show that there was anything untoward about the granting of the licence. I heard another commentator on radio state that a decision was made by the Minister at the time which put £250 million into the pocket of one individual. Such headlines and statements are simplistic. I am not saying that everybody involved is beyond reproach – I simply do not know – but I think we should wait until the end of the tribunals to make a judgment about any person, be that person a member of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or an ordinary individual. We should let people defend their good names. On the face of it, certainly the evidence suggests that there are questions which need to be answered and the sooner they are answered, the better. However, in the interim it is important that we get things in perspective and not let the headline cloud the story. Everybody is entitled to space and time to [641] defend themselves and it is not correct to judge people before the final outcome.

To return to the spoken word, the most important possession of a politician, a public servant or even a child walking down the street is his or her good name. These allegations in the tribunals have led people to think that all politicians are on the take. We face this allegation everywhere. It is so easy to put out a rumour about a person now. Every little action is watched and analysed. When the code of conduct is drawn up, I would like to see it contain a mechanism of redress. There are laws on libel and slander but such cases are extremely difficult to prove. On many occasions people have come to me with a story about someone and when I asked them to put it in writing, sign it or report it to the Garda they have been unwilling to do so. The names of people inside and outside this House are being mentioned on a daily basis and I would ask people to stop and think before they slander someone. I would ask these people how would they feel if somebody said the same thing about them to somebody else. While I would not repeat some of the rumours I have heard about people, certainly they are mind-boggling. It is amazing how members of the public, including politicians, are so willing to believe them. One rumour is better than the next.

I advise people to keep their own counsel. While I welcome this Bill, it is very important to tie down the academics of it so that people will not be able to abuse the spirit of the law while abiding by the letter of it. How the code of conduct is drawn up and implemented and the responsible behaviour of politicians will assist in restoring confidence in the system. If we as politicians and Members of this House are continually castigating one another, what can we expect the reporters to do but write what they hear. I appeal to all politicians to be constructive and not to personalise our arguments. We must recognise that no one has a monopoly on integrity or on wisdom.

Mr. M. Kitt: Information on Michael P. Kitt  Zoom on Michael P. Kitt  I congratulate the Minister on the introduction of the Bill to the House. I agree with much of what Deputy Timmins said when he mentioned the code of conduct and the fact that some people will try to circumvent the code of conduct. The public perception is that politicians are trying to break the rules affecting themselves. The scandals and corruption that have been reported from Dublin Castle have not helped politicians and we have been given a very bad name on that account. Many people believe that decisions are made through money changing hands, as a result of the accounts of the huge amounts of money involved in the scandals.

I am interested in the codes of conduct proposed in this Bill. For the first time a new commission will be established, the standards in public office commission. I am pleased that this commission will have powers to investigate the complaints about acts or omissions of people in [642] public life. The commission will have eminent members and include the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman.

The Teaching Council Bill, which was recently in this House, deals with standards in the teaching profession and the Bar Council and the Medical Council monitor standards in those professions. It is obviously very difficult to have a commission composed of politicians but the Minister has stated that former politicians will be involved in this commission. The Garda Síochána Complaints Body gives people an opportunity to have a complaint aired.

This Bill refers to the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999, a Private Member's Bill introduced by Deputy Rabbitte. The legislative protection of those who wish to give information is very necessary. The Minister said that where people make disclosures reasonably and in good faith in relation to their employers or the conduct of business, there will be protection for such people. I am pleased the Government has adopted Deputy Rabbitte's proposals.

The Electoral Acts which govern expenditure by parties or by individuals are very important. There can be some confusion on the occasion of by-elections because of the efforts by parties and individuals to ensure the election of their candidate, and the guidelines may be breached on occasions. The standards in public office commission will be available to answer any queries. In my constituency of Galway East where Fianna Fáil usually has three or four candidates, there is a good opportunity to spend a very reasonable amount of money on an election campaign. My director of elections told me that we spent £10,000 on four candidates in the last general election. That is a reasonable amount and could be seen perhaps as good value for money.

I do not see any point in spending huge amounts of money. The amount spent on posters is scandalous. Perhaps the Litter Acts could be used against people who do not remove posters when a campaign is over. I note that many of the “No” vote posters for the Nice Treaty referendum do not have any ownership details. Overspending on elections caused a lot of controversy in the United Kingdom at the last general election. It is immoral and unnecessary to spend such huge amounts on elections.

The Government is considering a registration system for lobbyists. Many people believe that lobbyists have a very strong role in ensuring that legislation is passed through this House. Politicians could be called lobbyists because we all lobby for those who are disadvantaged. The Bill does not deal with tax clearance for lobbyists and I ask the Minister to consider this. I agree with the idea of a tax clearance certificate for politicians who stand for office. Many Deputies and Senators have highlighted the necessity for this regulation.

The Minister referred to the work of the McCracken tribunal and to the value of the Eth[643] ics in Public Office Act. They have emphasised the importance of monitoring the tax clearance systems and the statutory declarations in relation to tax compliance. In July 1998, three committees of the House had been examining the issues and their deliberations became known as the Blue Book. The Standards in Public Office Bill will take into account what has been achieved and what was recommended by those committees. I am pleased that the Minister has highlighted the role of committees. We are all aware of the fine work done by the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees. The Oireachtas Joint Committees on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and Public Enterprise and Transport will shortly consider other reports to be produced under their remit.

In addition to praising the role of committees, the Minister referred to the fact that one or two former politicians would be appointed to the commission. I welcome this provision as these people would have expertise in this area and would not undermine the commission's independence. MEPs attend Oireachtas committee meetings, particularly meetings of the Joint Committees on Foreign Affairs and European Affairs and local authority members, who have their own representative association, regularly meet with Ministers or send delegations to the Oireachtas. However, the role of former politicians has never been seriously addressed. Perhaps the Minister would consider the request from members of an association of former politicians for a very basic office facility in the Oireachtas.

Some Members of this House have suggested that former politicians could play a role in the diplomatic service and I agree that this would be worth pursuing. We should make it very clear that, in spite of complaints made against politicians, there is no question of a club being in operation. Some 25% of elected representatives change at every general election through people retiring or losing their seats. Former politicians should have a role to play in the commission; their experience could also be valuable to the Oireachtas.

A distinction appears to be made between office holders and ordinary Oireachtas Members. I do not favour such a distinction as we are all answerable to our constituents. If complaints are made against particular politicians, the politicians in question should be informed of the nature of the complaints, as should the Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not believe any great difficulties would arise in regard to reports of complaints, whether they refer to office holders or ordinary Members, coming before the Houses and appropriate disciplinary action being taken if it is warranted. The Minister referred to duplication and I would welcome clarification on this matter. We should avoid difficulties arising on what constitutes a donation or a gift.

On tax clearance certificates, the Minister referred to penalties ranging from fines of £50 to [644] £2,000 to a term of imprisonment from three to six months. We cannot treat this matter lightly in the legislation. The electoral legislation has given rise to some controversy on the issue of spending. Spending should be clearly defined. I have seen reports of child care being regarded as an expense, although I believe the reference was removed from legislation in the Seanad. In the main, women pay child care expenses and the inclusion of child care as an expense could result in legislation being viewed as anti-family.

The question arises as to how candidates and political parties spend money. Members of a political party may have to divide money 50:50 between party headquarters and constituency organisations. They could quickly find that money they thought was available had already been spent by another element of their organisation. These issues must be thrashed out and clarified. Independent politicians may have greater control over the manner in which money is spent.

In some cases, one election agent may deal with up to four candidates and he or she may attempt to keep election expenditure below a certain limit. It appears that under this legislation, an agent could end up carrying responsibility, paying a fine and facing a possible threat of imprisonment while candidates, who could be spending other funds, could get off scot-free. We must make it clear in legislation that it is political candidates who should take responsibility in these matters. It would be very unfair if agents were to suffer for candidates' wrongdoing.

I welcome this legislation which will provide for the establishment of a very strong commission to address complaints about public servants and I welcome the fact that people making complaints will be protected by the whistleblower provisions. I particularly welcome the introduction of a code of conduct for Oireachtas Members. Hopefully, reporting rules will become more streamlined as a result of the electoral and ethics legislation and this Bill. Tax compliance requirements for Oireachtas Members, members of the Judiciary and senior public servants are also very important.

I pay tribute to the Committee on Members' Interests and other Oireachtas committees which deal with issues relating to politicians. The electoral reform and ethics legislation, together with the standards in public office legislation, facilitate politicians and other public servants to properly serve the public. While some clarification is required on certain issues relating to funding, this Bill is a very positive development in our legislative programme. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. In 1963, Professor Basil Chubb published an article entitled “Going Around Persecuting Civil Servants” which subsequently became one of the most quoted articles in Irish political science. The article purported to be an analysis of Irish politi[645] cal practice at the time and from it derived most of the considerations of the politician's role, usually set up in terms of the duality between the demands of being a legislator and the duties of a political representative. From that work in 1963 I remember my own work with others in the 1970s and the 1980s which made an analysis of clientelism. Much of my work in the 1970s and 1980s has been overtaken by changes that have taken place in the political system but the biggest single change has been the fall in the public conception of politics.

This legislation is welcome and has to be seen in the context of a series of legislation that will govern the practice of politics but will not necessarily save politics. Saving politics, that is restoring confidence in politics, requires actions that are far wider than politicians being willing to impose disciplines on themselves and to be accountable in such matters as taxation and so on. There is no doubt that among the changes that have to take place is the adequate teaching of the concept of citizenship in the schools. The suggestion is that public space is important, that ethics are important. A change that has taken place in the time I have been in politics is the decline in the politics of the public space and its substitution by a politics of the persona.

In relation to the politics of the personal, which is a phenomenon to be observed in other political systems, people operating right of centre will offer personal tax reductions and people who are to the left will seek to offer programmes which are attractive on a personal basis by the individual voter. This is a great limitation of politics. The big issue still remains. That the big issues are not central in politics reflects also something else, that is the decline in the power of parliament in every country in western Europe vis-à-vis the larger corporations that surround it. Somebody pointed out recently in an international journal that of the top 100 major economies, 47 were countries while 53 were international corporations. As well as that there have been such welcome developments in our case as the partnership model but beyond that there have been certain corporate tendencies which have moved decisions out of parliament into the fringes of politics itself. Therefore, parliament is under some pressure from a public that is not giving much opportunity to its citizens in political education, even though I fought in the 1970s to have the subject introduced for the junior certificate. Also, there is a rising kind of populism associated with the politics of the personal. It is interesting, but one is almost not free to say it, no more than one was in the 1970s, to note the hostility towards the politics based on ideas that exists in this country. All we needed to do in the old days was to suggest a complicated topic and people would flee in all directions. When I was writing about politics in the 1970s and 1980s I noted a number of different features of reform that might happen. Unusually for me I pay tribute to the Fianna Fáil Party for [646] some of the reforms because it has always been among the first to provide facilities for Deputies. It has a good record in that regard. I mention that because it will compensate for one or two things I may want to say before I finish.

In relation to all kinds of reforms, most of us who are political scientists spoke about the absence of a committee system. In the Danish system there is an effective committee system where a person who wants a career in politics might choose the path of committees he or she wants to be in and there are crucial ones if one is making one's way towards the Cabinet. The committee system in the Danish parliament has the opportunity of access to the public service to draft legislation and a right of access to the Legislature. Those of us who were writing at that time wrote about the monopoly which the Government of the day had over the public service in relation to the drafting of legislation. The committee system here was dragged in. I wrote in 1981 about the need for a foreign affairs committee. Despite the most elaborate opposition, it was established on an ad hoc basis by elected members. That committee system is not funded adequately in terms of research, the ability to take the minutes of the committees or in terms of publishing its findings. It is a scandal.

In relation to Members and referring to Basil Chubb's article, if TDs are to be legislators there must be somebody to assist them in reading the legislation and preparing for the committee. That is a separate function entirely from that of a constituency secretary. One moves on from that to ask whether it is 80 members of the media who are accredited to Leinster House. Are they covering the committees? I am simply saying the disciplines contained in this legislation are welcome. All Deputies who have contributed are warmly in favour of it. It must be put in the context of other legislation but it will not save politics.

When I entered politics I went to a meeting in a rural area where a beautifully turned out woman stood up and said she did not know what I was on about. She said she had an absolutely lovely life. She was happy and was cooking a meal for her professional husband and was not one bit political. This was followed by a round of applause. I said it must be the only country in the western world where one got a round of applause for self-confessed ignorance, following which some mayhem ensued. There is not anything superior about not being interested in politics and it is a disgrace that some people do not vote. It is not the fault of politicians that some people do not vote. In Australia one has to exercise one's vote. One can write any obscenity one wishes on the ballot paper and say what one likes about John Howard. One either has to have a medical certificate or vote. If we are serious about citizenship we must have the courage to take on those who say it is acceptable not to vote, to be against politics and so on.

Moving beyond the parliamentary reforms that are required, if we were to make politics a vibrant [647] entity, there must be respect for the profession of politics. The late Noel Browne, who had trained to be a doctor, and who had spent so much time training to be a professional remarked how little training there is to be a politician. Yet one sails into the Cabinet. I had the privilege of being a member of two Cabinets. We have excellent members of the public service but they know one is transient, and their hopes of preferment are often more serious than one's own.

It is not acceptable that those senior civil servants who take, for example, decisions in relation to privatisation, deregulation or whatever, should occupy positions in the private sector that involve activities related to those on which they gave a professional opinion. That is unconvincing. There should be a period between the holding of such positions and taking a position in private life, or if one wishes to do so it should be in a different position from that in which they were involved.

There is another point on which I hold strong views. It is a pity Deputy Kitt of Galway East, in whose constituency three TDs were elected for £10,000, is not present. Would that such frugality migrated to Galway West where it took nearly £50,000 to elect one. I have never spent more than £11,000 on an election. I have no difficulty about the costs being published. On the question of the funding of political parties, I have arrived at a personal opinion that is strongly in favour of State funding. I am not at all moved by weak arguments that suggest the public would not wear it. There is certainly a case for State funding of political parties in a post-tribunal vibrant democracy with active political activity decentralised and with more accountability and transparency. Funding of independents or people trying for the first time is not an insuperable difficulty. This has been dealt with in other systems. It would then be possible to simply ban donations altogether so that we could get on with the business of being professional politicians.

Most politicians in all parties I know entered politics to give public service. Some who lost their seats, even where they had gone full term, relied on half their salary with their widows in turn relying on half of that, which was a quarter. It is unfortunate that the media covering the tribunals refer to “the payments to politicians tribunals”. It is payments to a very small number of politicians. It would help if the media said “payments to certain politicians”.

Some of us entered politics without the slightest inclination to want to live the life of the last days of the Borgias or to own islands or to fly here and there buying Palladian buildings etc. Be that as it may, there are two sides to a corrupt transaction in politics. It is not accidental that a certain section of those who have sent people to the tribunals have been associated with speculative building land. Let us call a spade a spade. There is a tribunal dealing with speculative builders' attempts to bribe and corrupt a certain number of politicians and public officials. That does [648] not mean politicians have to go around in sackcloth and ashes saying, “There but for the grace of God go I”. Most politicians have never had such an impulse but it is clearly important to identify what has happened and who was involved and the kind of politics they had.

There are many different models for ending that. I favour State funding of parties, even if it is not likely to get general public support. We should at least ban corporate donations. Here we are arguing this ethics legislation. Is there a debate in IBEC about ethics in the corporate world? Is that a world, which is supposed to be a kind of jungle? I will say nothing negative about Mr. Denis O'Brien, except that he enjoyed a popularity among the Irish public in the 1990s that Mother Teresa did in the 1980s. Most of people wanted him to come to their dinner to say how the magic occurred and find out how they also could become a half billionaire by producing nothing except getting a licence from the Government on a free good that was once owned by the people.

If we want ethics, let us have ethics, but I am not running under any bush in relation to making this statement for the importance of politics, civil society or citizenship. It is very important that the way we do our business in these Houses is properly funded and serviced. We should not be funded out of a subhead from another Department. The Houses should have their own Vote, research staff and spokespeople. We seem to be required to apologise for being politicians; I do not.

I spent 23 years as a senior university lecturer. For most of my life I had another career. The career I left had a salary that was about 30% greater than that of a TD. I won a seat, lost it, regained it and had the privilege of serving in a Cabinet. That describes most of the people in this House who had careers they abandoned. If that is the case, I hope we can all work together to go forward with reforms. I am disappointed that it seems so difficult to get even the most minimal change to the way we do our own work.

Draft legislation is published after an election and at the beginning of each Dáil session. When I was a Minister I was told that it took seven years to train a draftsperson for legislation. That is about two Dáil terms. To deal with a backlog, we had to contract out some of it and had a 75 year old man producing great legislation at a rate of knots. There should be a different way of speeding up the legislative process.

We must be committed to being full time TDs. I am against the dual mandate. Working on general legislation and on the Oireachtas committees requires a great deal of time. I listened with interest to some of the previous speakers about the voyeuristic destruction of people's private lives and the notion of rumour. That is as old as Rome, where they used to say fama est and a rumour would spread. As the people on the opposite side of the House know, an American [649] president once said: “I am damned if the truth can ever catch up with a good lie”.

We have reached a pass in politics because of a number of people who were involved in certain kinds of speculative business activity. It is a great pity they were overwhelmingly from the Fíanna Fáil Party and the larger parties. That is simply explained; to get the desired result, people went to those with the biggest clout.

I am happy the Labour Party has emerged intact from this process. I remember my colleague, the former Deputy, Eithne Fitzgerald, raising questions about all of these things. It is unfair to say that we must all carry the burden of some great shadow that is cast over politics. The Fíanna Fáil Party would be better off if it acknowledged openly that a small number of its members were responsible and that the majority of its members were not and are not involved.

Irish people have a curious, humorous and kind of affectionate sense. Having voted in such overwhelming numbers to put the people that are now in front of tribunals at the top of the polls, they find it very difficult to accept they might have been wrong. They explain it in the simplest way by saying all the politicians were at it. That enables people to evade the moral conclusion that they had voted for someone quite consciously who was getting away with something they hoped might benefit themselves. If the politician was doing it for himself or herself and succeeding, like being there in the last days of Rome, maybe the country would benefit indirectly and down the road so would those voters.

Those days are over, but the moral renewal has to come across the public system in the full civil society. One can support this legislation with minor suggestions for amendments that will come at the next stage. It is part of a package, to which we should commit ourselves. We should not regard it as of lesser importance. It is vital that we give ourselves the resources and the freedom to be politicians. We should be proud to be public servants.

Mr. M. Brady: Information on Martin Brady  Zoom on Martin Brady  I commend the Minister and his officials on bringing this important Bill before the House. This Government has been to the forefront in the introduction of a very comprehensive range of measures designed to improve and underpin general probity in the conduct of public affairs in this State. Fianna Fáil itself, although other political parties seem reluctant to acknowledge this, has given a strong lead and example in the management of its own internal and external conduct by the adoption last year of a detailed mandatory code for office holders and candidates on standards in public life. This code was adopted unanimously at the party's last Ard Fheis. When the Taoiseach took office, he gave a commitment to tackle corruption and malfeasance in public life and that commitment has been honoured diligently. The Bill now before the House is a further part of the growing statutory framework designed to regulate the behaviour of elected rep[650] resentatives who play an active role in public life. The welfare and prosperity of the people on whose behalf they work is critically dependant on the quality and integrity of their decision making. No less than the best is good enough.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a Standards in Public Office Commission to investigate complaints about office holders, including members of the Oireachtas and certain public servants. The Commission will also take over the functions of the Public Offices Commission in relation to the Electoral Acts and the ethics Act. There will be a tax clearance requirement for politicians, senior public servants and judges, codes of conduct for office holders and a regime for dealing with breaches of the legislation. I welcome the provisions for streamlining the disclosure requirements under the ethics and Electoral Acts. Anything which reduces the administrative burden, confusion and legal ambiguity with which Members have to deal in terms of compliance can only be an improvement.

Consolidation of the law in this area would be beneficial. Ireland already has an enviable reputation internationally as one of the least corrupt societies. This reputation has been fostered, since independence, by generations of politicians and public servants who successfully continued and enhanced the best features of the British parliamentary and administrative behaviour. The majority of our politicians and public servants have been, and continue to be, very honourable people, displaying integrity in the discharge of their duties. We need to restore confidence, which has been somewhat shaken, in our public institutions and those who operate them.

If the new commission achieves its purpose, it will also limit the need for tribunals and the enormous cost which those bodies impose on the public purse. Many people are uneasy that their interests are being protected at the price of enriching the legal profession. The proposals in this Bill have considerable consequences for the working of our democratic institutions. They are aimed at ensuring the leaders in society and those who run our public services act in an ethical and impartial manner. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, already requires Oireachtas Members, Ministers and public servants to provide details of their financial interests outside of their public duties. That loss of personal privacy is deemed necessary for the public good and to ensure democratic accountability. I support the view that ethical standards should also apply in the corporate sector.

It is important to have a strong and independent public body with investigative powers to scrutinise complaints or allegations that inappropriate financial transactions have raised the question of a person's fitness to conduct his or her public business properly. That is what this Bill is mainly concerned with. Tax clearance will become mandatory for Oireachtas Members, judges and senior public servants and there will be mandatory codes of conduct to guide them in [651] the impartial discharge of their duties in the public interest.

The Bill, in conjunction with other measures contemplated and pending, clearly demonstrates that this Government is committed to achieving the highest standards in public life. Our Taoiseach has emphasised that on many occasions. Legislation currently before this House will provide a new basis for the prevention, prosecution and punishment of corruption by public officials. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, represents a significant tightening up of the law on donations to political parties and individuals. The Local Government Bill, 2000, proposes a comprehensive conduct regime for local authority members and officials. Whistleblowers legislation, to which earlier speakers referred, is being progressed by way of amendment to an existing Labour Party Private Members' Bill, showing that this Government is open to accepting good ideas from other sources. The Government also plans to introduce legislation to register and regulate the activities of paid lobbyists. Nobody in the media or on the Opposition benches can credibly accuse this Government of foot-dragging on measures to improve standards in public life.

The Bill gives rise to an important issue in relation to the growing compliance cost for Deputies, among others, due to the increasing raft of regulatory measures under which they have to maintain records, supply information and provide returns which will stand public scrutiny. Deputy Jim Mitchell made some relevant points on this some time ago, in an earlier debate as a backbencher. I have some sympathy with the views he expressed. Deputies, as distinct from Ministers, have little resources to meet their obligations under the various statutes and regulations. That inadequacy will be further highlighted in the event of a Deputy finding himself or herself the subject of a complaint to the new commission. Depending on the nature and content of a complaint, Members can conceivably find themselves put to the expense of hiring legal, financial, accounting or other professional advice to defend their good name and reputation. This is a matter which the Minister should consider and address in the context of an appeals procedure. I suggest that it is somewhat anomalous that, in a measure designed to raise standards in public life, there may be a danger that an individual who is the subject of a complaint and investigation may be denied due process and the opportunity to vindicate his or her good name, either through a lack of resources or a deficiency in the procedures.

The inadequacy of resources available to Oireachtas Members, compared to other parliaments, was also raised by Deputy Jim Mitchell and by my colleague, Deputy Conor Lenihan, on previous occasions. In his testimony to the Committee of Public Accounts last year, the Clerk of the Dáil stated that the Oireachtas was at the bottom of the league of European parliaments with regard to resources and backup for public rep[652] resentatives. He gave some figures which I will quote. The EU average for staff per member is 2.55 while our figure is 1.2. The EU average budget per member is £380,000, compared with our figure of £180,000. The ongoing neglect and under-resourcing of the Oireachtas has been put into sharp focus by the creation of the assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. One of the important strands of the Good Friday Agreement provides for increased links and contacts between all parliaments of this island. It is disgraceful that this State's sovereign Parliament is so badly resourced in comparison to our immediate neighbours, including Stormont. If we are stretched to perform our parliamentary duties, how fitted are we to cope effectively with the growing burden of compliance? The Minister should look at these issues.

The way in which the commission will fulfil its remit on a day to day basis concerns me. It ought to review the work practices of the Public Offices Commission, which if the anecdotal and actual evidence is to be believed, represents political correctness gone mad. The instance of the Labour Party candidate in the Dublin South Central by-election is a case in point. A Deputy was fined although he was unaware of the offence. I urge the Minister to charge the commission to establish a common sense code of practice for the conduct of its day to day affairs. Some of the current commission's interventions in the electoral arena are pettifogging in the extreme. These bring well intentioned procedures and institutions into disrepute. Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is a sound, well intentioned measure, requiring some improving, but I commend it to the House.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I heard Deputy Michael Higgins earlier speaking about Mother Teresa. To enter politics, one would need to be Mother Teresa, a god or a saint. We have gone too far. We have gone mad bringing in rules and regulations. One would think politicians are the only people who commit sins. Once in this country there was only one sin and that was with regard to sex. Today the sin is politics. If you are a politician, you are a sinner. People are stoning us day in and day out.

I entered this House in June 1994 after a by-election. We ran the election on about £8,000. We had to borrow money and fought the forces of the State – the Government, Ministers, press secretaries and the rest. I was lucky to win. In 1997 I spent about £9,000. There were colleagues in my party and in Fianna Fáil who spent £50,000 in the election. Not one penny nor one pound buys one vote more. The people cannot be codded by pounds, shillings and pence. A valid point about this Bill, and it is true since Adam and Eve, is that something that is right is right, something that is wrong is wrong. If a politician from any party takes £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 from an individual, that is corruption and he or she should be prosecuted. There are no lunatics out there. If a person gives a politician such a sum [653] and he takes it, he commits a sin, an offence. He is being bought and compromised. There should not be any place or protection in this House for such a politician.

This measure is rubbish. We go too far in setting up a commission to investigate us. Now, when we come into the House, we almost need a legal team to ensure that if we go to the toilet, we do not use the Oireachtas's toilet paper. It has gone so far that we must account for toilet paper and it is a step too far. We must weed out the politicians in this and previous Houses who took money and made decisions to benefit certain people. They must be rooted out. As Deputy Michael Higgins said, that is what gives politics, politicians and this House a bad name.

We as politicians are to blame for much of this. Politicians in this House make allegations in the media against Members, sometimes true and sometimes not, to which the Members must respond. The greatest sin and scandal is that we took the powers, decisions and the ruling of the country out of this House. That is why we are not accountable to the people. There would be fewer tribunals if Ministers had to account and answer questions here. With no disrespect to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle, we do not have debates here any more. Everything is orchestrated, like Question Time, for example. If I ask a question the Leas-Cheann Comhairle does not like, the Minister is protected under Standing Orders from answering it. Announcements with regard to Bills should not be made on Morning Ireland, the radio show. These are the Houses of Parliament to which we are elected. The programme managers the civil servants have more power than the Deputies.

Recently I was at a public meeting about an executive decision taken by council officials. The Garda, the engineer and council officials were present, but the politician was lacerated. The politician only was blamed. The council executive made the decision, the Garda implemented it, and the politician was blamed for it. It is time we spoke up for ourselves. I spoke to a Deputy who gave 36 years of his life to this House and now has a pension of £310 per week. If he had not worked a day, had not entered this House nor stood for election and had a non-contributory pension, he would get £200 per week. He is £110 better off after 36 years' service to the House. The media would say I am talking rubbish. I know a woman whose husband spent 14 years in this House. He travelled long distances to be here and his family suffered. They had little money then in politics. Up until the last increase, she was getting a contributory State pension of £86 per week. Until she reached 70 she was refused free schemes because she had a contributory pension. She was penalised because her husband served the country. If she had not worked and he had done nothing for the State, she would have got the full non-contributory pension, free schemes and would not have to pay for refuse collection. [654] She would have been better off. Let us stop the joking.

Politicians who take money are corrupt and should be cleaned out. There is no place for them in the House. However, this kind of measure is rubbish. Deputy Micheal Higgins will not like me saying that former Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald introduced the most outrageous legislation, the Freedom of Information Act. Why should the public be able to read in The Irish Independent or Sunday Independent what I have or have not? That is no business of the public. If I were a Minister, I would accept that there should be an obligation on me to register what interests I have and, when dealing with a Department, that I should declare a conflict of interest, if there is one. Why should one have to go down to the pub where Joe Soap will say, “I see you have shares in AIB and property here”? What business is it of the general public what I have or have not? Why should it be acceptable to make a joke about one's business? We have gone mad in this House. We are afraid to speak out because we are afraid of the media. If we are doing nothing wrong—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Deputy Ring, I am very reluctant to intervene but you will have an opportunity to continue after Private Members' Time. I ask you to adjourn the debate.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I am glad because I intend to say a lot more.

Debate adjourned.


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