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. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I wish to share time with Deputy Belton. I hope the Minister listened carefully to what I said before Private Members' Business. Many of my colleagues agree with what I said. The time has come when Members have to speak out. We have to stand up for ourselves and not be afraid to criticise the media. Deputy Belton said one time in the House that because of some of the things people say about politicians, privately and publicly, they should be charged under the Incitement to Hatred Act. What is said sometimes is outrageous. People talk about chief executives and the commision which is to be established under the Bill. I put a bet to the House and to the Minister that those who will administer that commission will have far more staff than a Deputy.

I was elected in 1994. I came from the west where I ran an auctioneering business. I gave it up to enter politics full time because I love politics. In my office in 1994, I had a fax machine, a photocopier and a phone. When I was elected to this House, I had to share an office, there was a common fax machine for the entire floor and there was no photocopier. The general public think we have access to all the resources of the State. I have a criticism of the Minister and of previous Fine Gael Ministers. I have not had the honour of such rank yet, but I do not intend leaving this House until I have.

Mr. C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan  Zoom on Conor Lenihan  Deputy Ring could come and join us.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  When Members become Ministers, they forget about the backbenchers. They have a team of civil servants around them, just like in the television programme “Yes Minister”, and they get carried away. They cannot get to the airport unless the officials bring them.

[685]Mr. Deenihan: Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  They might go to the wrong airport.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I did not want to make that comment. When they go to their constituencies, there are three or four civil servants there before them to make sure that everything is done right and they do not get their shoes dirty. They lose all sense of dealing with the people that elected them.

As backbenchers, we have been treated badly by all Governments and by all Ministers except one. I will give credit where it is due to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. He is the only Minister with the courage to deal with the issues. As a a member of the Committee on Members' interests I am aware that whenever we brought reasonable proposals before that Minister, he listened and was not afraid to make decisions in the best interests of the Members.

In this Bill, we are going too far. If a politician takes £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 from anybody that is corruption. It is against the law and that is not what they were elected for. If they take such money they are compromised and they should not be Ministers or even Members of this House.

When I was elected in 1994 my campaign fund was less than £8,000 and I can prove that because I had to go to the bank to borrow it. At the last general election, I spent the same amount. I got elected and topped the poll in Mayo. Machines, money and posters are of no value. Politicians who do their work between elections and gain the respect and trust of the people will have no difficulty getting re-elected. People who have been given ministerial office and abused it have done this House and its Members a disservice.

I made the point earlier about disclosure of interests. It is outrageous that I can go to my local pub and my barman and everybody there can tell me what I own. What purpose does that serve? We do not know what they have. I do not know what the people in the Press Gallery own and I do not care. Why should my family have to be put through the mill? We should not be afraid to change that. It is outrageous, degrading and wrong and the person who introduced this provision was not re-elected. There is nothing wrong with freedom of information but having to declare Members' interests, which the media can use as they want, is not right. I am saying to Fíanna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour that that should be changed immediately. Why should my private business be published in every national paper? When this happened the local paper ran a headline: “This is what your five TDs have”. What does it matter what I own and why should the Joe Soaps in the pub be laughing about what we own?

Mr. Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford  Zoom on Paul Bradford  Did Deputy Ring top the poll?

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I did top the poll and it did not matter what I had or did not have. What was important was what I could deliver for the people [686] I represent. Members should not be afraid to stand up and speak out. Let us get together and defend one another.

Mr. Belton: Information on Louis J. Belton  Zoom on Louis J. Belton  I wish I could speak with the same confidence as Deputy Ring about heading the poll. I do not think anybody works as hard as he does and many Members listened carefully to what he said on this matter.

In recent years the image of politics and politicians has taken a downward slide. Some of the fault lies with us as Deputies. We feel that we have to own up and expose everything. However, the people are still not happy. There are some who will always be suspicious. I totally agree with Deputy Ring in relation to having to disclose what we own. The journalists then pick that up and print it. There are people who, when they see something in print, wonder why it is there. This is bound to create some form of suspicion. There is an implication that, for example, a second property owned by a politician has been obtained by some other means.

People in politics are prepared to work for other people and that is a noble calling. I have served the public for 22 years and I am proud to have done so. I do not feel guilty about what went on in the past and is being investigated now. I do not feel that all politicians are the same. I often hear the expression, this has hurt the body politic. What about all the politicians who are not involved in this? Do they not strengthen the body politic? These people serve the public.

Admittedly we get our salaries and expenses. Expenses always seem to come under a cloud of suspicion. These are expenses incurred and there is nothing to be ashamed of. If I stay overnight in Dublin, I have to go to a hotel, which will not put me up for nothing. Driving up to Dublin, renting a constituency office, having phones, etc., are all necessary to serve the public. The public deserves to have access to its local TD.

Much of the bad publicity that politicians receive is not justified. If in the morning it was announced that there would be no more elections, people might have respect for democracy and politicians. I have no discomfort with what went on in relation to certain people who were Members of this House. That is what they did, but not all politicians should be painted with the same brush.

Political parties are not adequately funded. If a party employs 18 or 20 people, that requires substantial funds to pay them and to maintain offices. One hears reference to Fine Gael getting amounts of £10,000 or £50,000 or Fianna Fáil getting various amounts and there seems to be an inference that it goes into somebody's pocket. Perhaps politicians should be more active in presenting the facts on the cost of running a political party, formulating policy and getting a message across to the public.

[687]Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern  Zoom on Michael Ahern  I wish to share my time with Deputy Daly.

Deputy Ring quite rightly referred to the dearth of resources available in this House. I understand our funding for staff is about 50% of the average for national parliaments in EU countries. Clearly, some sarcastic comments in the media do not stand up to real scrutiny. I disagree with comments that Ministers and Ministers of State are out of touch with reality. Without singling out any Ministers, my general experience over the past 20 years is that our Ministers are in touch with what is happening or, if not, they are quickly reminded at parliamentary party meetings.

Abuse of information was also mentioned by Deputy Ring, with reference to the information which we, as public representatives, have to provide under various Acts. The provision of information is not the problem, but rather the abuse of such information by certain interests. Unfortunately, information presented in the proper manner does not grab headlines or sell newspapers.

I share the view expressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, that sound political and administrative institutions, supported and trusted by the people, are a hallmark of advanced society and are crucial ingredients for a successful economy. Confidence in all arms of government is essential, including confidence in politicians, civil servants and members of State bodies. This Bill relates to all those categories, not just politicians. Those of us in political life have a duty to set a high standard of conduct and to conform to that standard to maintain trust in our institutions. Any failure by politicians in that regard is liable to be reflected in the other areas concerned.

This Bill gives us an opportunity to reinforce the integrity of our political system. In considering it, we need to take account of other major legislative measures of previous years. The Public Service Management Act, 1997, put in place a modern accountability framework for the Civil Service. The Freedom of Information Act was a whole new concept, to which Departments and semi-State bodies are only now becoming accustomed. The Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunity of Witnesses) Act, 1997, gave Oireachtas committees increased powers of investigation in areas of public concern. We have seen the work of the Committee of Public Accounts in the DIRT investigation. The work of the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees will be greatly assisted by the powers which have been given to them. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, provided mechanisms to deal with conflicts of interest in relation to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Ministers and officials in the Civil Service and the wider public service. That Act established the independent Public Offices Commission and provided for a Select Committee on Members' Interests in the Dáil and Seanad to oversee its key provisions. It requires members of the Oireachtas, senior civil servants, [688] members of public bodies and senior executives of State bodies to disclose their personal interests, in order to provide transparency in decision making and accountability. While I appreciate Deputy Ring's comments on the obligation to make this information public, this is a requirement which now applies right across developed societies in the western world. I see no reason to restrict that process.

The Standards in Public Office Bill builds on the foundations laid by the ethics Act and the Electoral Acts of 1997 and 1998. These tried to achieve fairness in the electoral process by limiting expenditure at elections and providing a system of recoupment of candidates' election expenses in certain circumstances. It is no harm to put a limit on expenditure. There has been woefully wasteful expenditure during election times. It is quite common to find substantial excess supplies of literature and posters left over at the end of election campaigns. In my constituency, my party spent £5,000 during the last general election and a similar amount in previous elections. I believe Fine Gael did not spend very much more in that constituency. There is no need for expenditure of £40,000 to £70,000 to get elected. The return will come to those who have worked consistently over the years.

The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, which is currently progressing through the system, is very important in this era of globalisation. It provides that Irish individuals who are involved in corrupt activities abroad will be liable to prosecution. That is a good development. The Whistleblowers Protection Bill of 1999 was introduced by Deputy Rabbitte on the Opposition side of the House and I understand the Government will bring forward some amendments to it. It is important to provide protection so that people can give information on wrongdoings of which they are aware, without suffering recriminations subsequently. A couple of years ago, Deputy Rabbitte, now in the Labour Party, introduced a Bill. His Leader, Deputy Quinn, was the Minister for Finance and a whistleblower's section in the Finance Bill was withdrawn. It is amazing how, when they cross the House, they change their views on such issues. I wonder why. We also have the Local Government Bill, 2000, which will introduce comprehensive ethics for local authority members and officials. This is important because there is so much room for strange carry on in local government. It helps to have such rules applying there.

The Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, arises from the Government's action plan for the millennium and the work of the McCracken tribunal. It examined the Dunne's payments and considered that there was need for change and to update the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. It also introduced the idea of a tax clearance system applying to Members of the Dáil. This was taken into account by the Government who brought forward proposals in the blue book which was sent to three committees of the Houses, finance [689] and the public service, and Members interests of the Dáil and the Seanad. Cross party, non-partisan discussions took place and their reports were unanimous. The Minister took their views into account.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a new standards in public office commission with investigative powers. It is important that it can conduct investigations, not only review actions. The powers cover public servants and office holders. They can also receive complaints about the contravention of the ethics or Electoral Acts, which they can review and decide if there need be an investigation. This is proper because it has been proved in many areas that there are vexatious complaints. The commission must be able to decide which to investigate. The commission will be made up of a judge, or former judge, of the Supreme or High Court, and four ex officio members, the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman. I welcome that the Minister took note of the committees' recommendation that a former Member of either House would also be on the commission, because he or she could provide a perspective and expertise from the inside and this might not be available to the other Members. Some might say that this would affect its independence but people from this House became judges or joined other eminent bodies and operated without being influenced by their life here.

I welcome the Bill because in the long-term it will help to improve the standing not just the politicians but the system. It is needed because times have changed. Up to 20 or 30 years ago there was no openness and no accountability. There was no Freedom of Information Act and people did not know what was happening. Those days have gone and we must change with the times by bringing in codes of conduct and measures to help people to operate the system beneficially for our community.

Mr. Daly: Information on Brendan Daly  Zoom on Brendan Daly  I thank Deputy Ahern for giving me the opportunity to comment on this important legislation. I was brought up in an environment where, in politics, it was taboo to have anything to do with money; it was not acceptable. In my involvement in politics, which has been for quite a while, there were always accusations that certain individuals would act on a person's behalf if paid. Over the years the community at large accepted that there was need for controls in this area. The citizens believe that corruption can be found if improper influences are brought to bear by people with money. This is said about politics and other areas, especially medicine. Only if one has the money, does one get the business done. That is why this legislation is important and we should have the fullest discussions about how it should be undertaken.

In the Council of Europe, on whose parliamentary assembly I serve, there was discussion and preparation of documents on how this should be handled. A recommendation from the political affairs committee, which will come before the [690] assembly in June, states how the 43 member states should set down guidelines and legislation to deal with this issue. What is apparent from the discussion and dialogue between the member states, individuals and professionals who studied this area, is that there is no one ideal formula for tackling it. One may set down guidelines, rules and regulations, but intelligent people will find ways to circumvent them. We need to guard against the situation where foundations, at arm's length from the politicians as in the United States, raise substantial funding for individuals' campaigns. I am not sure if the legislation covers whether it would be possible to find ways to deal with foundations' funding individual candidates, thus giving them an advantage over those operating by the rules. This must be guarded against.

The Council of Europe recommendations acknowledge that there must be a balance between public and private funding. There must be rules on private donations, thresholds on election expenditure, as mentioned by Deputy Ahern, transparency in accounts, independent audit and meaningful sanctions for breaches of the regulations. The crucial matter, as recognised by Europe, is the balance between private and public funding. There cannot be excessive reliance on State funding because it would be detrimental to politics. Europe also recognises that citizens must be encouraged to participate in politics through the financing of parties as that is the only way to have a meaningful say in how the system works. They can have influence without being involved in corruption.

What has been set down by the Council of Europe has been endorsed by the Venice Commission, which spent a great deal of time on it, and only in March of this year set down very detailed recommendations which have been forwarded to all the member states. Some fairly detailed discussion has also taken place in the European Commission which will go before the European Parliament. I am not enthusiastic about passing this legislation without the benefit of the discussion that has taken place in the Venice Commission and that which is taking place now in the European Union. We must remember that what we are talking about also involves Community elections. If we are to have common rules for member states, we should endeavour when preparing our legislation to set it down in a way in which we will have some measure of common regulations and procedures throughout the European Union and especially throughout Council of Europe member states so we can avoid the kind of corruption that has been mentioned and the instability it has created. Citizens and the Union generally are at this stage very conscious that there has been a great amount of corruption, that there is a need to stamp it out, that there is a need to restore confidence in the political system and in politicians and that there is a need to get further agreement from the public at large to contribute towards the funding and development of [691] political parties not only here, but through the European Union and the European Council.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  I am delighted to speak on this important legislation. Politics and politicians must be credible and clearly accountable. Politics is about honest public service. Everyone I have met since my election in 1997 is very much committed to that ideal, but the perception of politics has been very much tainted by the few. Civil servants, county councillors and others are totally committed to serve.

The increasing pace of change requires people of the highest calibre and integrity in public life. I take note that the Government has created a statutory basis for the prevention and prosecution of corruption, which is very important. The provision for a special account for public representatives into which it will be an offence not to channel political donations is important.

The area of political and corporate donations and of political funding was raised by other speakers. The time for getting money for election expenses has long gone. People are elected to do a job and they are well paid. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, recently brought in a fair package for Deputies and Senators. I would not encourage election candidates to accept funding for election expenses because it would affect the candidate no matter how small the political donation. A Deputy is here for four or five years and if, as a previous speaker said, that Deputy does the job well, he or she may be re-elected and the people will decide. One can be elected without accepting donations from anybody.

Funding for political parties is a separate issue to funding of political candidates. We talk about ethics in public office. I refer to the price of democracy. There should be audited expenditure, which should be accounted for, and the State should pay the bulk of that. I accept it is paying a portion at the moment. Although there has not been agreement on banning corporate donations, given the allegations in regard to business, I would see very few business people coming forward with any money. Even though some gave donations for the right reasons in the past, such donations have been tainted and they have severe implications in that in the aftermath, people may feel donors have been placed in a privileged position.

The introduction of legislation on a code of conduct to regulate lobbyists is very important because lobbying could be wide open to abuse as well. Legislation to protect whistleblowers is also very important. The continuation of the unprecedented overhaul of the regulatory framework of public life is very important and welcome. The ethics in public office legislation, the Freedom of Information Act, the local government Bill, the prevention of corruption Bill and the Standards in Public Office Bill are important. All the inquires are, regrettably, doing the body politic untold damage.

[692] The Standards in Public Office Bill provides for the establishment of a new standards in public office commission with wide powers in relation to complaints about acts or omissions by persons in public life. Such complaints would concern matters which would be inconsistent with the proper performance by persons of the functions of office concerned or with the maintenance of confidence in such performance by the public. That is only right. It is a great privilege to serve in public office. This legislation will establish a code of conduct. There has been a voluntary code of conduct since I came into the House and it is very much adhered to by everybody. That has to be recognised.

As previous speakers have said, the Bill also provides for tax clearance requirements and a requirement to make a statutory declaration in relation to tax compliance for persons elected as Members of the Oireachtas or appointed as senior public servants. It is very important that people are tax compliant. It would be very hard to speak on someone else's behalf if one did not adhere to the rule of the law. That is particularly so in this House where laws are passed. It is very important that we are fully compliant with the high standards set.

It has been mandatory for many years for people operating in business to have a tax clearance certificate and this is very important. For those who comply, it is like a clean bill of health and the system is very easy to regulate. Business has made very important reforms from which it has benefited. Unlike years ago, the Revenue Commissioners are seeing that people are working to get their affairs in order.

The Bill also provides for the streamlining of current requirements for declarations of interest and donations under the Electoral Act. It makes a number of technical amendments to the existing legislation. The declaration of interests and donations published recently was so small that it clearly indicated the level of donations that people are now giving. There is no hidden agenda here.

Freedom of information is very important so that people can inquire. They are entitled to know about the spend for elections. A cheque book does not get a person elected to Leinster House, it is commitment to constituency and the work a person does. It is important that there is prudent management. A candidate can lose votes by being excessively extravagant, although it is important to have a certain profile. Naturally, those who have not been previously elected are under pressure to get their names known and that is quite understandable. However, management of spend is very important.

The high standing of politics is vital to the quality of our democracy. Our country needs the energy and the idealism of the brightest and best of our young people. It is important we encourage people to become involved in politics. Young people at the beginning of the last century carved out Ireland's place in the world and established [693] what is now one of the oldest democracies in Europe. It is important that ideal of the 20th century is brought forward in the 21st century and that people in office have a vision.

Many people, particularly young people, are cynical about politicians. Many young people in college who are highly educated would say they would not vote. They nearly frown on politicians. It is not that one wants anyone to revere them, but politics must be seen as an honest profession and that we are here to serve the public.

The issue of ethics in public office and the high standards expected from people in office should be included in the school curriculum. Civics has been brought back into the curriculum. The provisions of this legislation, when enacted, should be taught in our schools as it would help to make younger people more aware of the major opportunities offered by public office.

This is a country of unprecedented opportunities. For the first time in our history we are a country at peace and the basic needs of all our people can be met. Legislation is enacted in our national Parliament. We must set out our stall and let people be in no doubt that candidates elected to public office are here because the electorate wanted them and that they are proud to represent those who elected them.

I was not elected to a county council prior to being elected to Leinster House, although subsequently I have been elected to my local county council. Local authorities represent local government at local level. Their members do an outstanding job by representing every aspect of every county and parish and rural area.

The Public Office Commission has drawn attention to a number of shortcomings in the legislation dealing with ethics in Government and in public life. It suggested remedial action should be taken by adhering to standards in public office with regard to gifts received. I am not sure how such gifts are valued. A politician can receive an expensive gift or a large financial donation from a friend and fail to record it as a political contribution without breaching the letter of the law. I am not sure who puts a value on such a gift whether a painting or something else. I have not availed of that opportunity. The giving of large gifts to politicians when opening a centre or some other facility can be overdone. Large expensive paintings given as gifts go way beyond—

Mr. Cullen: Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  I never got any of them.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  No?

Mr. Cullen: Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  Well, maybe some small ones. I got some Waterford crystal from my own county.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  That is a nice gift to get.

Mr. Cullen: Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  Small pieces I might add.

Mr. Deenihan: Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  Were they inscribed?

[694]Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  The area of gifts needs to be considered.

It is wonderful to be in politics in this time of prosperity. We are into the 21st century. I was elected to this House in 1997. The people I have met in all parties are of the the highest integrity. There has been self-regulatory reform here for a considerable period. I am delighted the Minister has introduced this legislation and that it will be enshrined in the Constitution, which is important.

With regard to many people's apathy about voting and to the concerns about politics among the public, while many PR people work for the Government, we should do a PR exercise on the role of democracy here, what it has achieved and where this country can go. It could be kept apolitical. We must point out to young people that politics is a decent profession and try to attract people into political office. Many people are discouraged about the job.

I am pleased to have spoken on this Bill, although I did not have time to do much research on it. I look forward to representing the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim for many years to come. It is a wonderful honour. Politics is an honourable profession. Doing this job gives me immense satisfaction. We want to get that message out to people who are cynical about politics, but I believe they are cynical for the wrong reasons.

Mr. Deenihan: Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. Politics has gone through a very bad period in recent years. There is no point saying otherwise. Irrespective of how well meaning all of us may be, we are all tarred with the same brush. Those in this House who have dishonoured the profession will have a good deal to be accountable for in time. The rest of us have suffered in the eyes of the public and the cynicism emanating from young people, which almost every speaker mentioned, stems from people who abused the privilege of being politicians and used this House to benefit themselves and not to benefit the country. The founding fathers of this country would turn in their graves at the way some people have exploited the major sacrifices they made for this country not too long ago. People on all sides of this House made sacrifices. We descended from parties who made major contributions to this country. History will not be kind to those people who are appearing before tribunals or who have discredited politics in various ways over the years.

This Bill gives us an opportunity to restore public confidence in politics. It is part of the process to put in place an effective regulatory framework for public affairs in this country. Too often in the past people came into politics for what they could make, not for what they could give. They were generally the exception, but they have tarnished politics and made it very difficult for the rest of us. In future politicians must be credible and clearly accountable. People who enter politics must be of the highest calibre and integrity. That is the bottom line. Gone are the days when [695] people could enter politics with a flawed pedigree, to borrow a phrase used some years ago. We have to be above reproach and totally accountable.

I recently heard the Taoiseach say that politics is about public service, which is correct. It is a vocation. I recall when travelling to America in the 1980s to deal with the emigrant issue asking a former Minister, who came back as a Deputy, what motivated him and he said that politics was a vocation which was next to the priesthood. I would say that is the case for many Members. It is about more than that; it is about giving leadership and leading by example. We are all role models in various ways. We may not think it but every step a politician takes is watched and everything he or she says in public is listened to. The only time a politician hears about what he or she said is when he or she said something foolish at a public event and hears it back. People are listening to politicians all the time. Young people in particular are always looking for role models, whether footballers, teachers or politicians. When politicians misbehave, people get cynical about them, which is exactly what is happening in relation to young people at the moment. Young people never had it better, yet they were never more cynical.

When the Minister of State was replying, would it have been a good idea if he had included local authority members or could they be included in another capacity vis-à-vis the codes of conduct which apply to Ministers, other officeholders, Members of the Oireachtas and employees? I would like the Minister of State to clarify if other officeholders include local authority members. Should a candidate have a tax clearance certificate when they declare as a candidate rather than nine months later? Perhaps the Minister of State will reply to that question?

Mr. Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I wish to share my time with Deputy Roche.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister on its introduction. Unfortunately, we must react to the public perception of politicians. I am conscious of the contributions made by a number of Members this evening. I take the point made by Deputy Ring who suggested that on arrival to the House in the recent past, the facilities were so lacking that one would wonder how a Member could operate to any standard. I understand the point he made which I do not think takes away from the proposed legislation.

A number of Deputies made the point that the public perception is very different. Unfortunately, the train of thought running through the debate has been to try to bring to the forefront the real issues affecting public representatives who try to [696] make representations with very little back-up, yet the public perception is the opposite. The case was also made that whatever structure is put in place to control legislation of this nature, the staffing levels assigned to that particular role will be far in excess of any staffing levels assigned to backbenchers or any Member of this House for research facilities. I can understand the concerns of Deputies in getting the message across that all is not what the public perceive it to be.

Deputy Daly spoke about the road to Leinster House for many Members which is usually from the voluntary sector and with very little funding. Many Members have come to this House through the voluntary route, either by acting as local representatives or members of chambers of commerce and so on. It would be fair to say that very few people arrived here with a war chest of funding in order to set themselves to direct policy for their own benefit. If the media took an interest in this aspect, it would be clear that the vast majority of Members are here to serve the public interest. They certainly are not here to serve their own interest.

Since I came to this House four years ago, I am amazed at the people who have come here from the professions, given what they left behind, not just by way of the substantial decrease in financial income, but by way of back-up facilities, the professional aspects and the pressures under which they must work. Last week there was the public declaration of Members' interests. The public would be wrong to think that this House is full of millionaires. People should be clear in their minds that this is not the case.

Unfortunately, we must welcome the legislation because we must try to clear up the misconceptions that are out there. This is part of that process and another brick in the wall, so to speak. We have dealt with the issues of standards in public life, ethics in public office, freedom of information, public service management, increased powers of Oireachtas committees, prevention of corruption, the blue book, compellibility, privileges and immunity of witnesses and limits on election spending. I can understand why we had to deal with these issues because, unfortunately, in recent years Members of the House have breached the most basic regulations. I take the point that we have been self-regulatory but, unfortunately, breaches have occurred and the response from the public has been that every Member of the House is involved in this misbehaviour. We must now publicly and clearly define the parameters within the House and for that reason I can understand why the legislation is before us.

The Standards in Public Office Bill seeks to ensure that those who seek office with the intention of serving their own as opposed to the public's interest will not find a safe sanctuary in this House. I support the point made by Deputy Deenihan. Standards in public office should apply to all public representatives. An issue that comes back to haunt public representatives in their clin[697] ics is the belief in the public's mind that it is easier to secure a favour if there is an inducement to the public representative. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, when one uses the old cliché that this applies to just a few, the public become even more cynical. I support the need to show the public that this requirement is not just confined to Members of the Oireachtas. Clearly every political party should take the lead and recognise that everyone who carries the banner for their own party should be clearly defined under the legislation.

Tribunals established by the Houses of the Oireachtas have all too often heard from elected representatives words to the effect that that is how things were done in the old days, as if receiving large amounts of money, entertainment, and other gifts or donations were perfectly normal and above board and not worthy of a tribunal's time. If any member of the public is under the illusion that accepting gifts or inducements is acceptable, then they should take time to read the debates on the issues to which I referred. Unfortunately, very few people take the time to read this material and the public emphasis is usually on anyone who strays beyond these parameters. This debate clearly indicates that the old ways are not the best ways. Members of the House must always act with the utmost probity. There should be no place in either House for those who are not prepared to live by the rules and standards of the Oireachtas. Even though we keep repeating this fact, unfortunately, there needs to be more legislation to convince a cynical public that Members of this House are acting at all times in the best interests of the public and the House.

The passing of this Bill will mean a raft of legislation to guide us in relation to what is right, moral and acceptable for public representatives. I accept that we must be ever vigilant against corruption and its insidious effects. It is often noted that corruption is hard hitting. I recently listened to a radio programme which referred to an undercover police operation in Jerusalem. That case concerned architects and builders paying bribes. This type of corrupt behaviour had devastating consequences as seen in the horrific accident last week at a family wedding. I am sure it is difficult for that family to distinguish between so-called low levels of corruption and high levels. It is particularly hard to explain the difference to bereaved families.

The brutal murder of Veronica Guerin uncovered some startling information. Some gardaí had been compromised by criminals and some were working closely with criminals. I do not suggest that gardaí are corrupt. We have the highest regard for the members of the force. The point I make is that criminals will seek to corrupt and it is quite clear that they thrive on chaos. In the past some commentators argued that in the time leading up to Veronica's murder criminals were becoming increasingly convinced of their invincibility and the political system was their next target. What has been portrayed in recent [698] times is that their final target or sphere of influence was to be the legal process itself. The notion is not as far fetched as it might seem. Criminals in other countries have undermined governments and democracy for their own evil ends. The Freedom of Information Act is an effective tool for the press and citizens to guard against unacceptable practices. While none of us like the notion of the press breathing down our necks it is vital that every tool to ensure that wrongdoing can be uncovered is made available.

I am sharing time with Deputy Roche.

Mr. Roche: Information on Dick Roche  Zoom on Dick Roche  This Bill is very welcome. I particularly welcome it because I can claim a little part in its parentage. In 1994 a group of us from my party and the Labour Party were drawing up a joint programme. Ultimately it became the joint programme for three other parties.

The Bill is a powerful instrument and a further block in the fortress against corruption. It makes a powerful statement about politics in this country. Politicians will not ever be role models but this Bill will challenge the cynics and weed out the crooked. Earlier today I was in the gallery with a group of young students from my constituency. They were very young but I was utterly dismayed by their cynicism. It was Question time and one youngster about 12 years old pointed to the Parliamentary Question folder and asked if it was one of the brown envelopes. I was very disappointed that that was all the child knew about politics. I hope things will improve as a result of this legislation.

Politics should be a noble profession. It is about service to the public and representing the people. We are the messengers of the people to the national Legislature. At our level it is about making law, making Government behave, overseeing the system of public administration and overseeing the system of governance in the State. We are challenged in the Constitution with an awesome set of challenges. Bunreacht na hÉireann divests upon this House in particular all the major responsibilities that are vested on legislatures in all the parliamentary democracies in the world.

A political body which has been corrupted cannot with any credibility fulfil the set of tasks given it by Bunreacht na hÉireann. Even if it is not corrupted, if corruption in its centre has given rise to such cynicism as we have in the nation at present, it finds it very difficult to fulfil its task with credibility. It would be very interesting to see how much time the cynics who oversee us from that bench give to this debate. It has been empty for some hours. It would be very interesting to see how much time is given to this debate on the national public broadcasting station or in the major broadsheets.

Mr. Cullen: Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  It was not even mentioned when I introduced it.

Mr. Roche: Information on Dick Roche  Zoom on Dick Roche  The Bill is good and I commend [699] the Minister for introducing it, but I will point not to its strengths but to some of its weaknesses. The idea has been there for seven years and it is timely that it comes in now.

I agree with the sentiments in section 2. The appointment process is marvellous. The idea that the chairperson of the committee should be appointed in a way which elevates the office of Chair is particularly good. However, why is it a former judge? We have many fine judges in the State and many find their way on to the bench but there are also many mediocrats on the bench and one or two that are downright bad. We always seem to call in the judges in these cases. I would prefer if the issue of chairmanship was open to a person of outstanding merit irrespective of where they came from.

I am pleased, although it is not mentioned in the Bill, that people with parliamentary or political experience may be brought on to this commission. We have no reason to be always on our knees as a profession. The majority of politicians who have graced these benches and those of the other House and who have served this nation in every council chamber round the country have been good, conscientious public servants and they outweigh the small number who have been corrupt and have betrayed their public office.

The second issue I mention is the question raised in section 4. A specific figure regarding benefits exceeding £10,000 is mentioned. It has often been said that everybody has a price. People can be bought, I fear, for less than £10,000. The threshold is rather high. People can misbehave without necessarily receiving a specific financial reward and some rethinking is necessary here. I accept the need to put some sort of figure.

The issues in section 5 concern me. Section 5 deals with the roles and the power of the inquiry officer. It deals with the manner in which the inquiry officer shall seek statements from a complainant. The term “statements” is far too bland and neutral. It is important that when people make allegations of corruption they should be substantiated. There should be at least some clear bona fide evidence. A potential abuse that could arise from this Act is that we would have a situation where people could for example on the eve of an election make claims about a candidate which they know to be untrue. They could then leak the word to the local press or the national media that such and such a person is under investigation. We are then in the situation of “no smoke without fire”. A doubt has set in and a problem has been created. We all remember the late US President Johnson who famously said to some of his group “Let us see the B****** deny this” when he was putting round allegations he knew to be untrue about an enemy. The necessity to provide some prima facie evidence of wrong doing is an issue that needs to be looked at and this area needs to be strengthened.

The issue in section 7 I wish to raise is the man[700] ner in which the codes will be drawn up. It would be better if a neutral body, the commission itself, was to draw up the draft code. Then the various bodies could adopt those codes. That is not a major criticism.

Debate adjourned.


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