The word “lobbying” conjures up all sorts of images, including bribery, corruption, brown envelopes, secret decision-making, undue influence and cronyism. All these concepts are in the public mind when the word “lobbying” is used.
That is not surprising at all, because the public has been made cynical by a series of issues that have arisen over recent years, including revelations from various inquiries and tribunals, and particularly because of the wholesale reneging on election promises and commitments made by all the main political parties over recent years.
The current Government is operating to a policy that it opposed during the election campaign. Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party opposed it. The policy was commenced and introduced by the Fianna Fail-Green Party Government. What is being done by the current Government is the exact opposite of what it campaigned on prior to the last general election. This gives the public reason to be cynical about politics, politicians and political parties.
Water charging has been introduced today, 1 October. This again leaves the public cynical, confused and angry. Water charging has been introduced by a Government containing the Labour Party, which absolutely opposed it during the course of the last general election campaign. Not only that; it warned the public not to vote for Fine Gael on the grounds that it would introduce water charges. One should remember its take on the famous Tesco advertisement.
Today, however, a Labour Party Minister is introducing water charges, so it is not surprising that the public is cynical and angry about lobbying, transparency and accountability. The latter two terms have been tarnished badly over the years, including in recent weeks.
The words “transparency” and “accountability” are now regarded by the public as meaning their exact opposite. The use of these terms by any politician now immediately generates unease among the public because it takes it to mean that the individual will not be accountable or transparent.
A registration of lobbying Bill will be helpful, but only if every i is dotted and every t crossed and if it covers every area comprehensively and significantly.
Other speakers referred to the various appointments to State boards. What has occurred in this regard is totally at variance with the so-called democratic revolution that we were promised by the current Government. The new process for appointing members of State boards announced yesterday gives no certainty at all that cronyism will be outlawed. The fact of the matter is that a political decision will ultimately be made by a Minister – a politician – to appoint people to State boards. The process should obviously be overseen by the Commission for Public Service Appointments and we should ensure that representations of any kind would disqualify applicants from posts in which they are interested. The ultimate appointment must be made by some body other than the Minister, an independent body.
There is evidence to suggest that even where the public appointments process has been used, the vast majority of appointees have been and are connected to political parties.
This legislation is certainly welcome, but we need every i to be dotted and every t to be crossed. There are obviously areas that need to be examined, and significant amendment will be needed during Committee and Remaining Stages.
If a professional lobbyist, in return for payment, makes a relevant communication about a relevant matter to a person who is not a designated public official, this is not considered lobbying. If an individual who is an employer directs an employee to make a relevant communication to a designated public official solely about the implementation of a particular public policy, this is not considered lobbying.
We need to deal with these and other areas.
I welcome the introduction of a register of lobbyists, the monitoring of that register and the reporting of returns by lobbyists.
However, there are questions to be answered about the Bill. What, for example, is meant by “in return for payment”? Does this refer solely to a financial payment? Is it possible that a person could be a lobbyist without being in receipt of a financial payment? That could and will happen. This issue must be addressed.
On the exclusion of a business with fewer than ten employees, the Bill refers to an employer or lobbyist where a business has more than ten employees. This should be amended as I do not see any good reason an employer of a business with fewer than ten employees should be excluded from the process.
I wish to refer to another area the Bill should deal with. I refer to particular categories of civil servants which do not appear to be covered by the legislation, for example, principal officers and assistant principal officers.
Also, in the Bill the onus is placed entirely on lobbyists to declare their activities. This section is not strong enough. An onus should be placed on the person lobbied to disclose the lobbying.
This legislation is important, but it will need significant amendment before enactment. We must accept from the evidence that ethics go out the window when they clash with profit and financial advantage. We need to ensure we dot every “i” and cross every “t”.
The jury is out on the Bill and we must see significant amendment of it before it is passed.
Seamus Healy TD
Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) (1 Oct 2014)
link to debate