I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is the view of the Labour Party that this is a very important and significant item of Private Members' legislation, the fundamental aim of which is to increase the level of public awareness and accountability in relation to standards applicable to the holding of public office generally. I intend to deal with all aspects of the Bill in some detail but first I will summarise the main features.
We are seeking the support of the Dáil for the principle of this legislation. There will be many views in relation to the specifics but there are a few core principles which we want to enact into law and we will welcome the support of all Opposition parties. Should we be successful in obtaining a Second Reading for this Bill, we would welcome comments, advice and suggestions from all parties and from Government members who wish to improve the Bill. We want to set before the Dáil a fundamental set of principles which will reform standards in Government and public life.
The first part of the Bill deals with gifts made and services provided to the holders of certain public offices, principally members of the Government, Ministers of State or the Attorney General. Under our Bill any gift worth more than £200 made to such an office holder by virtue of his office will become the property of the State. At present the practice is that no matter how valuable a gift is it remains for all time the property of the individual who receives it. There is a tradition whereby Presidents of Ireland bequeath to the people gifts given to them as a consequence of their office, but no other office holder is bound by tradition to act in like manner. Our Bill provides that the receipt of all gifts must be reported to the Secretary of the Government who will determine their value. Office holders who wish to claim that the gift was made to them in a personal capacity and not by virtue of their office may make a case and argue that case before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
The Bill provides that it will be an offence for an office holder to fail to report a gift or to provide misleading information. The Bill also makes it an offence for any office holder to solicit or accept the provision of goods or services at a price less than the commercial value. The penalties for these offences range up to £10,000 in fines or two years in jail on conviction on indictment.
Part II of this Bill provides for the establishment of a register of the financial and other interests of Members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann. These registers will be public documents available for inspection. It will be compulsory for every Member of either House to complete this register. Interests which must be reported include the Member's own interests and those of his or her spouse and children. It is a matter of amazement that the requirement exists for members of local authorities. They are required to make a declaration of interests when dealing with aspects of local government which would impinge on their own affairs. No such requirement exists for Members of this House or Members of Seanad Éireann.
The matters which must be reported include company shareholdings, beneficial trusts, ownership of land, company directorships, partnerships, liabilities exceeding £1,000 in value, bonds and similar investments, savings accounts, assets — excluding household and personal effects — worth more than £5,000, any other sources of income of more than £500 per annum, gifts worth more than £200, subsidised goods or services, membership of any organisation, any positions held as a consultant or as an adviser and any other interests where a conflict of interest with a Member's public duties could foreseeably be seen to arise.
The Bill makes it clear that a Member need not set out the monetary value of any item on the register. The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are made public but not necessarily the details of the total wealth of individual Members of the Oireachtas. Members who fail or refuse to complete the register may be suspended from the services of the Dáil or Seanad for a period on the recommendation of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
Part III of the Bill deals with the income of political parties, a timely issue coming up to another series of elections. The provisions make it compulsory for political parties to publish their income and expenditure, a practice currently not engaged in by every political party, and to include the identity of any donor who makes a donation in excess of £1,000 in any one year for the benefit of an individual political party. Where a gift is made to a political party for the use of the national party or any local or subordinate organisation of the party or for the purposes of supporting the election of candidates, every person who makes such a gift must identify the name and address of the person or body on whose behalf the gift is made. It will be an offence for any person to fail to comply with this section. The Bill requires identified agents of each political party to prepare and submit a return of the party's receipts and expenses and to include in that return any gifts worth more than £1,000 which were made for the use of the party or candidates of the party.
I am very glad that the Parliamentary Labour Party have decided to allocate their scarce and precious Private Members' time to this Bill, especially given the fact that this is probably our last chance of Private Members' time in this session, such is the division between the Opposition parties. It is hoped that this Bill will generate a high degree of public and media debate about this crucial subject. There is a great deal of talk about the need for Dáil reform. In our view the most important and necessary reform is to ensure that politicians and political parties are as accountable as possible to the public and to the electorate they serve. Above all else, a greater sense of accountability and transparency is in the interests of all politicians, in the interests of the people and of the institution of democracy.
In Thatcherite Britain and in Reaganite America the issues we are raising are commonplace. Legislators in the House of Commons compile a detailed register of their financial interests and in the United States legislators have been sent to jail for breaches in the ethical requirements of membership of Congress. Here the truth is — and it may be a truth that we do not want to confront — that almost any conflict of interest is possible without the general public knowing.
Conflict of interest could involve individuals or whole political parties but the bottom line is that secrecy is still possible no matter how undesirable that may be. That is the dilemma and the shadow on democracy that this Bill seeks to remove. Frankly, I do not believe it is necessary to make a detailed argument in favour of the principles enshrined in this Bill. This is a principle that is long accepted in most democracies, a principle that finally we will accept and, hopefully, we can do so sooner rather than later.
In the last couple of years we have debated many issues in this House: The Goodman affair, the principle of privatisation, broadcasting, the collapse of the Gallagher bank, the purchase of Carysfort, the refurbishment of the Temple Bar area which was discussed today, the Custom House Docks site and the Finance Bill. They are just examples of fundamental issues addressed in this House in recent years. All the issues I mentioned have one thing in common, they all involve sensitive commercial decisions and they all involve powerful interests outside this House, powerful financial interests and individuals. In other words, we are making decisions, virtually on a daily basis, which can affect the economic interests of a wide range of groups and of many individuals. The potential, therefore, for corruption in that situation is immense. I am not implying that there is corruption in our political system but I believe very strongly that there have been many situations in the past, including some of those I have mentioned, where the political system and, more importantly, the citizens who elect us, would have benefited greatly from the fullest possible transparency, accountability and understanding of all the financial implications and issues involved. We have nothing to fear from such transparency. We have nothing to fear from further accountability. It is only those who have something to hide who will oppose the principles.
The political system as a whole can only be strengthened if the cynicism which is inherent in the attitude of so many people outside this House to politics and to politicians is to be removed. A clear assertion by every Member of this and the other House that we could welcome more openness, more accountability and more transparency would be a very significant step in that direction. That is the proposition the Labour Party are setting before this House tonight.
I should like to deal with the Bill in a little more detail. In Part I we seek to ensure that gifts made and goods and services provided to holders of certain public offices are not seen to be in any way linked to buying favours. The Bill deals with gifts made to holders of certain public offices and also with the provision of certain services and goods to office holders. The office holders in question are Ministers, Ministers of State and the Attorney General.
From the date of coming into operation of this Bill any gift, the value of which exceeds £200, made to an office holder by virtue of his or her office, may be deemed to be a gift to the State. A gift is defined as being made to an office holder unless it is made by a personal friend or member of the family of that office holder or of his or her spouse and for purely personal reasons. Where a gift is made to an office holder which he or she knows or has reason to believe may exceed £200 in value that Minister, or that person, must within 30 days report that fact either to the Secretary of the Government or to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Attorney General, under the provisions of this Bill, is required to report such gifts to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Priviliges. The office holder should report directly to the Secretary if he or she accepts that gift which was made by virtue of his or her office. If he or she claims that it was made in a purely personal capacity, he or she is required to report to the appropriate committee of the House and make that case and the final determination will be made by them.
Where the making of a gift to an office holder is reported to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges they are required, under the provisions of this Bill, to arrive at a decision within 30 days as to whether the gift should be considered to be a personal gift and to be retained by the office holder, or, is an official gift and is to be the property of the State. An office holder who has received a gift, the value of which he or she knows or suspects to be over the prescribed limit, and who knowingly fails to make the notification in the prescribed way and within the prescribed time, or who knowingly provides false or misleading information either to the Secretary or to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in connection with that gift, will be guilty of an offence. When the Secretary to the Government receives notification either from the office holder directly or, from the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of either House, he or she shall proceed to ascertain the value of that gift in such manner and in such means as he or she thinks fit, including appointing a valuer. If the Secretary is of the opinion that the value of the gift exceeds the statutory limit of £200 he or she must inform the Government and the gift will be vested, therefore, in the Minister for Finance on behalf of the State.
An office holder may agree to pay to the Minister for Finance the amount by which the value of the gift exceeds £200 and, in those circumstances, the Government may refuse to accept the gift and on the payment being made, the gift vests in the office holder directly.
Part I of the Bill deals also with the making of gifts to office holders by way of providing goods and services at subsidised rates or free of charge. An office holder who solicits or attempts to accept the provision of goods or services for himself or for his spouse, and if he has reason to believe that the commercial price has been reduced greatly for his benefit, would be obliged to give notice under this section. The Bill requires the Government to lay an annual report before the Dáil and Seanad setting out the particulars of decisions made under the section within the preceding year by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the Secretary to the Government and the Government. As a document laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas it will be the subject of public scrutiny. They, in essence, are the technical procedures we put down to achieve a very simple and straightforward aim.
Our object is to bring us into line with the rest of civilised democracies where large gifts simply cannot be accepted by office holders without reference to anybody. In recent years we have seen gifts of immense value — or purported to have immense value — being given to individuals. It is right and proper that we should fall into line with most other countries. It would be improper for any office holder to accept massive expensive gifts by virtue of their office. It is a simple straightforward principle and it is the principle we are putting before the House tonight.
Part II of the Bill concerns the registration of interests of Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. Again, this is a very important principle on which we are out of line even with local government members. This part requires newly elected Members of each House within 28 days of signing the roll of Members to provide to the Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad, as appropriate, a statement of his or her registrable interests. He or she must provide a statement of any alteration in relation to those registrable interests within 28 days of that alteration occurring.
The statement of registrable interests must be in a form prescribed by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and must include all interests of which the individual Member is aware. He or she must include their own interests as well as the interests of his or her spouse and children. The following items would be registrable under the section: company shareholdings, family or business trusts in which a beneficial interest is held, ownership of lands, company directorships, partnerships, liabilities exceeding £1,000 in value, bonds, debentures and similar investments, savings or investment accounts, the nature of any other asset each valued over £5,000, the nature of any other source of income in excess of £500 per year, gifts valued at more than £200 other than gifts received in a purely personal capacity, goods or services provided free of charge or at a price less than their commercial value other than those provided by way of a gift in a purely private capacity or those which would be valued at less than £200. Membership of any organisation would be registrable as would the position of political consultant which is becoming popular now and, perhaps, there are Members who are on a retainer from companies or organisations, and any other interests, where a conflict of interests with a Member's public duties could foreseeably be seen to arise or may possibly arise.
The Bill makes it clear that a Member need not set out the amount or monetary value of his property, of his income or of his benefits. Our objective is not to lay down in some public register the total wealth of individual Members of this House but to have transparency so that we know where somebody is connected, if there is a possible conflict of interest in an issue coming before this House or a committee of this House and the financial affairs of the members of that committee or the Members of this House.
The Clerks of the Houses of the Oireachtas would be required to maintain registers of Members' interests consisting of every statement of registrable interests provided to them under the provisions of section 12 of this Bill. Following upon every general election, the Clerks must lay before each House of the Oireachtas a copy of the appropriate completed registration form. They must also lay before the Dáil and Seanad from time to time as required any notification by a Member of an alteration of his or her interests.
Where the Committee report to the Dáil or Seanad that a Member has knowingly failed to provide a statement of registerable interests within the prescribed time, has knowingly failed to provide the Clerk with any information of alteration of those interests within the prescribed time, has knowingly provided false or misleading information to the Clerk or knowingly has failed to provide the Committee with all the information and assistance necessary for the purpose of investigating a complaint, the Member may be suspended from the services of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Suspension of a Member from the services of the House under this section continues for 12 sitting days after the Committee report that the Member in question is no longer in default of his or her obligations under this Bill. A suspended Member is not entitled under the provisions of this Bill to serve on any select or special committee of the Dáil or Seanad.
The third issue dealt with in this legislation, the third principle that the Labour Party seek support on is the register of income and expenditure of political parties, which is particularly appropriate and suitable to the times we live in, as we approach yet another election. It is of great interest to the general public when they see fortunes being spent on election campaigns to find out where the money is coming from. In my view the electorate have the right to know who is paying the piper so that they can make a proper evaluation of the work of political parties here.
Part III of the Bill provides for the publication and registration of the income and expenditure of political parties to include the publication of the identity of those who make donations in excess of £1,000 in any one year to any individual party. That is a reasonable requirement. It is reasonable for the public to know if any person, or company, is making contributions in excess of £1,000 to the benefit of a political party.
The Clerk of the Dáil should be the registrar of all political parties. This is an office which he or she already holds under section 13 of the Electoral Act, 1963. Under that section registration of a political party is voluntary and its only consequence is that a registered party are entitled to have the name of the party appear on a ballot paper at Dáil elections. Section 13 of the 1963 Act will be repealed by this provision and replaced in this Bill by Part III.
Our Bill requires the registrar to prepare and maintain the register of political parties in which he or she must register every political party, which is in his or her opinion a genuine political party organised to contest an election or elections within the State. He or she must enter in the register in respect of every registered party, all particulars which are required to be reported to him or her under this provision. As soon as practicable after the coming into force of this Bill, and twice yearly thereafter, the registrar is required to lay before the Dáil an extract from the register setting out all particulars which were reported to him or her under this Part in the preceding six months. An appeal against any decision of the registrar in relation to the registration of any party may be made to the High Court.
In this Part, the Bill provides that every registered party must within 30 days of this Bill coming into force or within 30 days of the party becoming a registered party, whichever is the later, report the following information to the registrar: the name of the Leader of the party, the address of the headquarters of the party, the name or names of the officer or officers of the party authorised to sign certificates authenticating the candidates of that party, their normal fiscal period, the name and address of their financial secretary, the name and address of their agents appointed by the party and the name and address of their auditor. Under this Bill a financial secretary of a party is entitled to appoint a person or persons to act as agents for that party. If appointed, an agent shares certain duties which are assigned to the financial secretary by the Bill in relation to the receipt of donations.
Section 22 of this Bill applies to any gift made, (a) for the use of the national organisation of a registered party, (b) for the use of any local or subordinate organisation of members of a registered party, for example, a constituency youth organisation or women's organisation, and (c) for the purpose of promoting the election of any candidate of a registered party, the value of which exceeds £1,000. "Gift" is defined as including the donation of money, goods or services and also the provision of goods or services at a price which is less than the commercial value.
Every person who makes a gift as defined under section 22 will either make that gift in his or her own behalf out of moneys or property which he or she is entitled to, or give notice in writing to an agent of the party of the name and address of the person on whose behalf the gift is given. He or she must also make the gift — or, in the case of goods or services, give notice in writing of the fact that such gift has been made — to the agent of that party and a person who fails to comply with the provisions of this section is guilty of an offence.
The Bill requires agents to maintain a record of all gifts made or notified to him under section 22 setting out, (a) the purpose for which the gift is made, (b) the name of the person who made the gift or on whose behalf the gift is made and (c) the date on which it is made. The records maintained under this section are to be made available to the financial secretary and the auditor of the party. An agent who maintains a record of which he or she knows or ought reasonably to know contains false or misleading information or who fails to make a record containing substantially the information required is guilty of an offence.
In essence, there are three fundamental principles laid out in this Bill which will bring an element of transparency and accountability and openness into the affairs of national politics in this country which does no exist at present and which is considered to be the norm in most democracies and in most developed countries.
It is not some radical notion or radical rush of blood that motivates this Bill. It is a genuine response to a disquiet that exists among the general public in relation to national affairs. Members of this House may find cause to disagree with the specifics laid out. They may feel that the limit imposed on gifts to office holders is too stringent or the mechanism too cumbersome or the monitoring too difficult or awkward. If that is the case, we would welcome contributions to that effect and in particular we would welcome amendments. What we substantially want is to set before the political parties represented in this House three fundamental principles.
If we accept these three fundamental principles we can accept this Bill at Second Stage. The first principle is that it is wrong, immoral and generally unacceptable for office holders to receive substantial gifts in a personal capacity by virtue of their office. The second principle is that it is right and proper that there would be a register of the financial dealings and interests of each Member of the Oireachtas so that the public would be aware should any potential conflict of interest arise. It would mean that when somebody gets up to argue a case here and there is any financial benefit accruing to them from the passing of legislation, etc., the public would be aware of it. The public have a right to know and the Labour Party are asking this House to agree to that. The third principle is that of accountability in relation to the funding of political parties. It is a cause of serious scandal in the country when fabulous sums of money are expended on election campaigns which, in essence, is to buy votes. In the most open-market, laisez faire economy in the world, the US, there are limits on what can be expended on elections to public office. We have no limits here. A candidate can pump in as much money as he can get his hands on, as much money as is needed, even if it bankrupts the party that puts up the “for sale” sign at its general headquarters.
The reality is that the public demand that large scale contributions to political parties should be made public, and I think most people accept that contributions in excess of £1,000 are not insignificant. There is an argument for the State funding of political parties. It is something that I personally would agree with but it is separate from this Bill. Until we get to that position, which is accepted in many democracies, what we need is transparency and public accountability in relation to the current situation where sizeable sums of money can be paid over to political parties or individual candidates without public knowledge and public scrutiny, with people left to draw their own conclusions on the effect that contribution, gift or service has on the operation of the elected member or the performance of the political party.
It is in all our interests that we remove every shadow of suspicion, every taint of contamination because when suspicion rests on one Member of this House it contaminates us all. I ask this House to accept the three principles I have enunciated which have broad support among the electorate and in the community. I hope all the Opposition parties will see their way to supporting this Bill and that the Government themselves might see fit to accept the principles and, if they cannot accept all the detail outlined in the Bill, incorporate the principles in Government legislation in the immediate future.