That, pursuant to section 1 (2) (b) of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995 (No. 22 of 1995), it be hereby declared that—
(a) Part II of that Act in so far as it relates to—
(i) Dáil Éireann and its members,
(ii) the Clerk of Dáil Éireann,
(iii) committees of Dáil Éireann and their members and clerks,
(iv) joint committees of Dáil and Seanad Éireann and their members and clerks,
(b) Part III of that Act in so far as it relates to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Dáil Éireann, and
(c) Parts V and VI of that Act in so far as they relate to members of Dáil Éireann,
shall come into operation on the 1st day of January, 1996.
Last week I heard a radio show on which a well known singer was asked who he would least like to share a taxi with and his answer was "any politician". There is cynicism about people in public life and a belief that we in this House are only out for what we can get out of politics. People in politics, never mind the long hours worked and the strong commitment to public service on all sides of the House, are all tarred with the same brush — that we belong to a discredited profession.
That is the reason the Ethics in Public Office Act is important to us as Deputies and in strengthening trust in our democracy. It is also important for confidence in the public service and the wider public sector. It sets out to put the facts, not the myths, on the record. It establishes the principle of openness in addressing any potential conflicts of interest. It sets out a framework where the conduct of public business and the private interests of people in public positions are seen to be kept separate.
Ministers and Deputies, civil servants and people running State companies are in positions of public trust. The Act provides a framework for identifying and dealing with potential conflicts of interest in these roles. It enables people in public life to demonstrate that the values of public service come first and people in positions of public influence to show that they keep their public duties and their private interests separate. Its mechanisms are a safeguard to show that those who work in the public's name are working on behalf of the public interest.
These rules on disclosure of interests echo those in other parliaments among our European neighbours and in the European Parliament itself. They are a basic feature of democracies in the modern world.
The Act provides for the annual registration of interests by people in key public positions — Oireachtas Members and Ministers, the Attorney General, senior civil and public servants, board members and senior executives of State companies and Ministers' special advisers. It sets out procedures for handling conflicts of interest which arise on the job and new rules in relation to the acceptance of gifts by office holders. It introduces greater openness and accountability into personal appointments by office holders and provides for an independent commission to oversee key provisions of the Act and investigate complaints.
The Act has been debated at length both in the House and in committee — few Acts have received a more thorough going over — with spirited contributions from all sides, including Deputy Connolly and Deputy McCreevy of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Michael McDowell of the Progressive Democrats, the Minister of State, Deputy Currie, who fronted for Fine Gael, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, of Democratic Left and Deputy Willie Penrose of my own party who made a robust contribution.
Our purpose today is not to revisit those debates. The Act is now law and today we are making arrangements to commence those sections which apply to Members of this House. This is in line with the constitutional principle that each House regulates its own affairs.
The Government has already made the commencement order to bring the other sections of the Act, other than the provisions for Deputies and Senators, into operation from 1 November. The Minister for Finance, the designated Minister under the Act, is proceeding with the necessary orders to apply the Act in respect of the public service.
As the Act is a technical one, I will set out in simple terms the provisions that we are making for the commencement order today. I have already circulated during the summer an informal guide to the Act's requirements for Deputies and Ministers which covers these issues in somewhat more detail.
A select committee of this House chaired by the Ceann Comhairle must be set up under the Act with the statutory task to prepare guidelines on compliance with the Act for Deputies and to offer advice on individual queries from Members. A similar select committee of the Seanad will have the same functions for that House. This follows the constitutional provision, Article 15.10, that each House regulates its own affairs.
The guidelines will be drawn up following consultation with the independent commission which oversees the Act for Ministers and senior public servants and with the Seanad select committee to ensure maximum consistency. It will be an important protection under the Act for Deputies to show that they were acting on the advice or following the guidelines laid down by the committee if a complaint was made. A further role for the committee is to investigate complaints and report to the House. The committee will have comprehensive powers to summon witnesses.
Preparatory work on setting up the committee and preparing the guidelines can begin when today's order has been made to ensure that all the necessary elements are in place for the commencement of these sections on 1 January. The House may also consider any amendments required to the Standing Orders of this House.
The Act requires two types of disclosure of Deputies, as it does of all groups which come within its remit: an annual statement of interest and ad hoc declarations of interest where a conflict of interest may directly arise, that is, in speaking or voting on a specific issue.
Oireachtas Members, including Ministers, must set out annual statements of their interests in a public register. The first register covers interests arising from the time the Act was passed to the first registration date, that is, from 22 July to the end of January next. The interests to be declared in the register are outside income; shares and directorships; land, but not the family home; gifts, other than personal gifts; public contracts and work as a paid lobbyist. These points are covered in more detail in the informal guide which I have already circulated to Deputies.
These interests are similar to those listed in other parliaments. Interests below a threshold value do not have to be disclosed, that is, assets or shares worth £10,000 or less, income of £2,000 or less, or gifts worth £500 or less. These amounts will be index linked. In no case is disclosure of the amount of income or the value of the interest required.
In addition, when speaking or voting in the Houses of the Oireachtas, Members will be required to make a formal declaration if the issue involves a potential conflict of interest for either themselves or a connected person, that is, a close relative or business partner. A simple statement that the Member has an interest is sufficient.
As people holding executive positions, Ministers and other office holders are required to make a more comprehensive declaration of interests than ordinary Members. In addition to the annual declaration of their personal interests, which as in the case of other Members forms part of the public register, Ministers are required to make an additional private declaration of those interests of their spouses and children known to them which could have a bearing on their public duties.
The Taoiseach and the independent commission have to be informed where a Minister proposes to exercise a function of his or her office which could potentially benefit themselves, their immediate family or business associates, or another Minister. The Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle are office holders under the Act. In line with the developing role of Oireachtas committees, it will be open to the House to designate the Chairs of particular committees as office holders under the Act. An Attorney General who is a Member will also come under the provisions for office holders. An Attorney General who is not a Member is treated in the same way as other senior public servants.
The order before the House provides for a commencement day of 1 January next for the sections of the Act dealing with Members. The first registration date for registration of Members' interests is 31 January next. Members have 30 days from the registration date in which to register their interests. The register is laid before the Houses following a further 30 days. In other words, Members will make their first declarations by the beginning of March and these will be published in the beginning of April.
The Act deals not only with politicians. It sets out rules for the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest for senior civil servants and those running State bodies.
Senior public servants, senior executives and members of State bodies are required to make annual declarations which are private in respect of their own interests and of those interests known to them of their spouse and children which could have a bearing on their public duties. They are also required to make once off declarations where a potential conflict of interest, involving themselves or close connections, could arise in the performance of official duties. Further, they are generally forbidden, as a term of their conditions of appointment, from performing a function where there is a conflict of interest unless there are compelling reasons for so doing. In such cases these reasons must be given in writing to the relevant authority and made available to the independent commission. These rules are based on the existing guidelines which operate for senior executives and board members of State companies. They provide an important safeguard.
The Act is careful to strike a balance between serving the public interest through disclosure and respecting the legitimate right to personal privacy. Those in public life declare their own interests on a public register. Declarations by public servants and State board members will be confidential to the relevant authority. Declarations in relation to family interests, which are required only from people in executive positions, from Ministers but not from ordinary TDs, will likewise be confidential to the commission. Any unauthorised disclosure of such information will constitute a criminal offence.
Apart from addressing the separation of public and private interests, the Act also deals with gifts to office holders, and with the appointment of personal advisers and assistants by Ministers. The Act provides that any gift worth over £500 given to a Minister, their spouse or child by virtue of that ministerial office becomes the property of the State.
As regards personal appointments by office holders, e.g. personal assistants and special advisers, the Act provides that these will be temporary and will cease when the office holder leaves office. The Government will be precluded from appointing such persons to permanent positions in the Civil Service. This gives legal effect to what is already established practice. The Act also provides for publication of details of all such personal appointments.
An independent commission will oversee key provisions of the Act in respect of office holders, special advisers, public servants, including civil servants, and senior executives of State boards, mirroring the role of the select committee in relation to overseeing the Act in this House. The commission will undertake the investigation of complaints of possible contraventions in respect of these groups. The commission will comprise the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Ceann Comhairle and the Clerks of Dáil and Seanad Éireann. A Cheann Comhairle, you will have onerous roles as both Chairman of the select committee and Member of the commission, which, I am sure, you will discharge with distinction.
The purpose of the motion before us today is to bring those provisions of the Act as apply to the Dáil into operation from 1 January next. I commend the motion to the House.