I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate on this important measure to combat bribery and corruption. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill represents one important element in the Government's strategy to put in place a code for the behaviour of those engaged in public life. Its focus is on tackling bribery and corruption. Other measures include the Local Government Bill and the Standards in Public Office Bill and these will be further supplemented by measures recently announced by the Taoiseach to provide greater transparency in public life. I will return to this matter shortly.
The Bill brings anti-corruption legislation up to date so that it can meet current challenges. I acknowledge that our current law in this area stretches back a long way, but the changes contained in the Bill will have the desired effect of dealing appropriately with those who fall below the standards demanded of us.
The Bill achieves its aims by setting out a comprehensive list of persons who are subject to its provisions, including employees, Members of the Oireachtas, judges, members of foreign Governments or foreign Parliaments, members of the European Parliament and Commission and persons employed on behalf of a foreign public administration and providing that it will be an offence to corruptly accept or obtain or agree to accept or attempt to obtain, whether for personal benefit or for someone else's benefit, any gift, consideration or advantage as an inducement or reward for acting or refraining from acting in accordance with one's duty.
It will also be an offence for any person to corruptly give, agree to give or offer any gift and so on with a view to influencing the person in performing his or her duty; making indirect corruption an offence, for example, where a spouse is given a benefit with the intention of influencing the office holder; granting jurisdiction to the Irish courts in cases where any element of the offence occurs in the State or where an Irish office holder or official is involved, wherever he or she is resident; creating a new offence of corruption in office which will criminalise activity aimed at obtaining personal advantage; establishing the liability of officers of companies for offences of corruption; increasing the maximum penalties for those convicted of the offence of corruption to an unlimited fine or ten years' imprisonment or both.
The Bill, as well as improving on present anti-corruption laws, will allow Ireland to fulfil its international obligations by enabling ratification of three important conventions against corruption. These are the EU convention on the fight against corruption involving officials of the European Communities or officials of member states of the European Union, the OECD convention on combating bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions and the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption.
Before replying to a number of issues raised during the debate, I want to inform the House of a number of important changes I propose to make to the Bill. Last May the Taoiseach offered the Opposition parties a unique opportunity to take part in an all-party committee to consider and propose measures to maintain confidence in the political system. The committee's task would have been to examine various proposals, including measures to prevent corruption in public office, and to report before the end of September with a view to enacting the necessary legislation before the end of the year. Regrettably, the Taoiseach's offer was rejected and the opportunity was squandered. Attempts to portray the Government as insincere in its approach to the issue of corruption are nonsense and the Bill is proof positive of our determination to root out the bad apples.
If further proof was needed, Deputies need only look to the Taoiseach's recent announcement of a set of proposals to increase transparency and improve standards in public life. These include, in addition to the current Bill and amendments thereto, which I will outline shortly: provision for special accounts for political donations; limits to the size of donations; protection of whistleblowers; and regulation of lobbyists.
The Taoiseach's announcement indicated that the prevention and prosecution of corruption was an integral part of the measures which the Government is taking regarding standards in public life. In line with this, I will be proposing a number of amendments on Committee Stage to strengthen the Bill's provisions. While the Government has yet to approve the details, I can inform the House that they will provide for the following matters.
First, a new section will be inserted to provide that a presumption that a public representative has acted corruptly will arise in proceedings under the Prevention of Corruption Acts where it is proved that the public representative has failed to disclose a political donation and has acted such that the donor receives a benefit. Second, an amendment to provide for a presumption of corruption where proceedings are being taken under the Prevention of Corruption Acts against an office holder in relation to the exercise of certain functions and where there is proof that he or she received money or other benefit from a person who had an interest in the way those functions are exercised.
Deputies will appreciate that in each of the cases covered by these amendments there is a connection between the receipt of money etc., by the public representative or the office holder and their actions such that the person giving the money receives some benefit. This is similar to the provision in the 1916 Act, but differs significantly from the Labour and Fine Gael proposals in this regard which, as I have previously pointed out, were too wide in their scope and, therefore, likely to present problems from a constitutional and European Convention on Human Rights standpoint. A third amendment will provide for immunity from civil liability for persons who report, reasonably and in good faith, suspicions of corruption.
Contrary to Deputy Jim Higgins's statement, the Bill, as it currently stands, extends to bribery and corruption outside the public sector. The Deputy said that the Bill does not deal with corruption in the private sector, such as the banks and other institutions, including those in the semi-State sector. He said that it was confined solely to the public sector. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Deputy had taken the time, which he clearly did not, to read the Bill properly he would have noted that the term "Agent" in section 2 includes "any person employed by or acting for another". This clearly covers those operating in the private sector.
Deputy Howlin referred to the presumption in the 1916 Act and the reversal of the burden of proof in cases covered by that Act. He argued that the presumption should apply in any circumstances where payment is made to a public official by a person who has a significant material interest in the outcome of a decision to be made by that official. He suggested that such an extension and the reversal of the burden of proof would be similar to the situation under section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977, and the presumption that drugs were for sale or supply in certain circumstances.
The Deputy's reasoning fails to recognise, however, that the current presumption in the 1916 Act, like section 15 of the 1977 Act, operates in limited circumstances. In the case of the 1916 Act, the presumption only arises where there is a clear connection between the making of a gift and the award of a public contract. I have already mentioned the constitutional and European Convention of Human Rights difficulties of such a wide presumption as suggested and I have outlined my proposals regarding presumptions in certain circumstances, which I believe meets the Deputy's concerns.
I might also mention at this point that, during my initial contribution and in relation to the inclusion of the President as a public official covered by the terms of the Labour Party's Private Member's Prevention of Corruption Bill, I indicated that this raised a constitutional issue in relation to the position of the President and the exercise of the functions of President. The opinion of the Attorney General was sought on the matter. Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution provides as follows:
The President shall not be answerable to either House of the Oireachtas or to any court for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office or for any act done or purporting to be done by him in the exercise and performance of these powers and functions.
The Attorney General has advised that it is clear from the aforementioned Article that the only liability which the President could have in law is for an act done by the person of the President declaring himself or herself to be doing it in a private capacity where the act itself is in no way connected with the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of the office. Whatever liability might be placed on the person of the President, therefore, cannot be connected with the President as a public official. Accordingly, it would not be possible to include the President as a public official covered by the Bill.
Deputy Shatter referred to events taking place before the tribunals established to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by politicians and others. Its seems strange that the House should go to the trouble of establishing these tribunals and agreeing the terms of reference by which they operate and then, in effect, seek to resolve these matters here.
Why do we establish tribunals if the parties opposite insist on ignoring their remit? One answer is that those parties do not have to take the facts into account. The tribunals will establish the facts and then reach conclusions based on those facts. It is my view that we should leave them to their task. A further point to bear in mind, which Deputy Shatter and others have clearly forgotten, is that it is not only members of one party who are being investigated by the tribunals. Members of the Deputy's party also have very serious questions to answer. No amount of bluster can disguise that reality.
The standards Deputy Shatter wants applied to Deputy Lawlor are in stark contrast to his own party's handling of events when the controversy involving Deputy Lowry first erupted. When Sam Smyth's story broke in theIrish Independent in November 1996 about Dunnes Stores' £208,000 refurbishment and extension to the then Minister Lowry's Tipperary home, Deputy Bruton, the Leader of Fine Gael, showed little of the concern he has displayed recently for high standards in public life. On that occasion, Deputy Bruton, the then Taoiseach, told an incredulous public that the story about Minister Lowry, as he then was, merited only “a cursory glance.” Deputy Bruton then sought to pardon Lowry's tax evasion and suggested it was in some way all right because it took place before he became a Minister.