I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000. Sound political and administrative institutions, supported and trusted by the people, are one of the hallmarks of an advanced society and are crucial ingredients for a successful economy.
It is essential that our citizens have confidence and trust in Government and public administration. It is clearly important that we have an appropriate legal framework in place to ensure that their trust is not abused. There is a particular duty for those of us in political life to set a high standard of conduct as misconduct and corruption at the political level creates and appears to excuse an atmosphere and culture of cynicism which invites corruption at lower levels. The Standards in Public Office Bill before us gives an opportunity to further reinforce the integrity of our political system.
The Bill must also be considered in the context of the raft of major legislative measures in recent years in the general area of governance and accountability. The major items of legislation already on the statute book include the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which has put in place a more modern accountability framework for the Civil Service. Another significant Act introduced in recent years is the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, which provides citizens with a legal right of access to official and personal information, subject to certain exemptions and ensuring privacy rights are upheld, and encompassing an independent appeals system in the form of the Information Commissioner. The commissioner's basic function is to safeguard the rights of individuals to official information and reasons for decisions which particularly affect them.
The Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, gives Oireachtas Committees increased powers of investigation in areas of public concern. Among these powers is the ability to compel witnesses to attend hearings and to respond to questions.
The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, provides mechanisms for dealing with conflicts of interest in relation to members of the Houses, Ministers and officials in the Civil Service and the wider public service. It established the independent Public Offices Commission and provided for a Select Committee on Members' Interests in each House of the Oireachtas, to oversee its key provisions. It requires Members of the Oireachtas, senior civil servants, public board members and senior executives of State bodies to disclose their personal interests in order to provide transparency in decision-making and accountability. The requirements of the Ethics Act represent a loss of privacy for these categories of people, particularly Members of the Houses whose interests are published. However, this loss of privacy is accepted in order to ensure democratic accountability. Deputies are aware that a large part of the Standards in Public Office Bill builds on the foundations laid by the Ethics Act.
The Electoral Acts of 1997 and 1998 seek to achieve fairness in the electoral process by limiting expenditure at elections and providing a system of recoupment, of candidates' elections expenses in certain circumstances. They also provide for a scheme of disclosure of political donations over specified limits. The Electoral Acts serve to reassure the public that there is openness and accountability in the relationship between the political system and those that support it financially or otherwise. The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act, 1999, provides similar measures for the local authority area.
The Standards in Public Office Bill is one of a range of legislative initiatives currently being taken by the Government in the broad area of standards and conduct in public life. Other initiatives include the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, which is currently before the House and which represents a considerable strengthening of our anti-corruption laws. This Bill provides for a significant widening of the scope of the Prevention of Corruption Acts by bringing within their scope office holders such as Deputies, Senators, MEPS, members and officials of the EU, judges of national, foreign and international courts and certain other foreign public officials where the corrupt act occurs wholly or partly in the State. In addition, the offence of corruption will be given extra-territorial effect in its application to Irish office holders and officials, so that the offence of corruption would apply even where the corruption occurs abroad.
Another important provision of the Bill deals with situations where an officeholder or official acts corruptly on his or her own initiative to secure some benefit, either personally or for another person. Here, there is no offer or receipt of a benefit from a third party but the person's actions are designed to benefit, for example, a member of their family. This type of corruption in office is being tackled for the first time in the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2000. Deputies will be aware that the Taoiseach's substantial statement in December of last year included the announcement of an amendment to the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill to provide that there will be a presumption that a public official has acted corruptly in certain circumstances where the person has received moneys or benefits from someone who stood to benefit from the actions of the official.
My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, will, subject to Government approval, bring forward on Committee Stage, amendments to the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999 – a Private Members Bill introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Rabbitte. This Bill was accepted by the Government in principle on Second Stage subject to amendments being proposed on Committee Stage following consultations with the interested parties and following the advice of the Attorney General. Its purpose, as currently drafted, is to provide protection from civil liability to employees who make certain disclosures "reasonably and in good faith" in relation to the conduct of the business and affairs of their employers. The Bill also prohibits penalisation of employees by their employers in such circumstances. It is also the intention to amend on Committee Stage both the Bill before us today and the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill to allow for protections for persons making disclosures in the context of those two Bills.
The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, will also bring forward proposals in relation to a registration system for lobbyists who lobby officials and politicians at national and local level. As these proposals will bear directly on the operations of the Oireachtas, and as the Constitution vests responsibility for such matters in each House, the Minister of State will consult the membership of the Houses on his proposals in this area.
Among the main aims of the Local Government Bill, 2000, published by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, is the introduction of a comprehensive ethics framework for local authority members and officials. The provisions of this Bill mirror in many respects the transparency and accountability arrangements of the Ethics in Public Office Act.
In addition to the Whistleblowers Bill, Fine Gael and Labour have published Bills on registration of lobbyists, prevention of corruption, and tax clearance for candidates for election. I acknowledge the work of the Opposition in these areas, which has served to develop debate on these matters. It will be clear from the content of the Bill before us and of the other legislative proposals to which I referred that the Government takes the maintenance of standards in public life very seriously. It is also clear that the issue is one which is complex and requires the achievement of a difficult balance between the rights and sensitivities of individuals working in the service of the public and the public interest in transparency and the maintenance of the highest standards.
The genesis of the Standards in Public Office Bill lies in the Programme for Government – An Action Programme for the Millennium – and the work of the McCracken tribunal. In his report, Mr. Justice McCracken recognised the combined value of the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Acts and looked forward to these Acts being valuable mechanisms in guarding against the unacceptable elements of the financial transactions which the tribunal had uncovered. Among the key recommendations of the McCracken tribunal were the appointment of an independent third party to monitor and investigate possible contravention of the Ethics Act and that tax clearance systems, together with requirements for statutory declarations in relation to tax compliance, be put in place.
In July 1998 the Government published outline proposals for a Standards in Public Office Bill in what subsequently became known as the "Blue Book". The proposals were forwarded by resolutions of the Houses to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service for consideration. The joint committee was directed in examining the proposals to consult with the Committees on Members' Interests of Dáil and Seanad Éireann, which oversee the Ethics Act in each House. The Standards in Public Office Bill takes into account the views expressed by these three Oireachtas committees. Moreover, when it was published, the Bill was referred back to the Oireachtas committees for their further consideration. That was a useful procedure, as the Committees on Members' Interests operates parts of the current legislation and has developed expertise in relation to it.
I am grateful for the work the members of the various committees have done on this Bill. I have taken very careful note of the views expressed by committee members who have considered the Bill. I will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to address some of those concerns. The issues to be dealt with in the Standards in Public Office Bill are so important that they deserve to be closely considered by Members, by the appropriate committees and by the public in general.
I now turn to the main features of the Bill before us. The Standards in Public Office Bill provides for the establishment of a new Standards in Public Office Commission with wide investigative powers in relation to so-called specified acts. The latter are acts or omissions of public servants or officeholders which are inconsistent with the proper performance of the duties of the relevant position, or which would be inconsistent with the maintenance of public confidence in that performance. The commission will take and investigate complaints in this regard only where it considers the matter complained of to be of significant public importance. While it is a matter for the commission to make a judgment on what that means in any given case, the Bill provides that it may deem a matter to be of significant public importance if it relates to a benefit or potential benefit allegedly received by a person, where the value of the benefit exceeds £10,000. It will also be a function of the commission to receive complaints in relation to contravention of the Ethics Act or the Electoral Act, since it is to take on the current functions of the Public Offices Commission.
The Bill provides that the commission will be chaired by a judge or former judge of the Supreme or High Court and will have four other ex officio members, namely, the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman. The commission must be seen as being clearly independent of the political process. However, I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to provide that a former Member of either House will be an ordinary member of the commission in addition to the four ex officio members. I agree with the view expressed by members of the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interest that the commission would benefit by having available the perspective and expertise of a former politician. I do not believe this would undermine the independence of the commission.
The Bill provides that the commission may engage inquiry officers to conduct preliminary investigations of complaints on its behalf. Inquiry officers may be drawn from the commission's staff or from outside the commission. An inquiry officer would report to the commission and indicate whether, in his or her opinion, a case existed for further investigation by the commission. This will give the commission a mechanism allowing it to ascertain whether a particular complaint might be frivolous or vexatious or might refer to a matter which is not of significant public importance. In cases where a minor matter is the subject of complaint and which the commission does not believe justifies the full weight of an investigation by it, the complaint may be referred to a committee of the relevant House of the Oireachtas or to the Minister or public body concerned, as appropriate. This approach should meet any concerns that a standing commission might constitute an open invitation for endless investigations of minor matters.
The commission will enjoy full tribunal powers, for example, in respect of such matters as summoning individuals and papers, administering oaths, ordering discovery and preservation of documents and requiring the giving of evidence. The Bill also provides that it will be an offence to obstruct an investigation of the commission or an inquiry officer. Consistent with Supreme Court rulings on tribunals, evidence given to the commission or an inquiry officer shall not be admissible as evidence against a person who is the subject of investigation in criminal proceedings.
It is important to make a distinction. While the commission will be in a position to accept complaints about office holders and a wide range of public servants, similar complaints about ordinary Oireachtas Members will be made via the clerk to the relevant Oireachtas committee, as happens under the Ethics in Public Office Act. However, if it so decides, a committee will be in a position to enlist the commission to investigate an issue and report back to the House concerned.
The Bill provides that the definition of "connected person" for the purposes of the wider investigative remit of the commission will be the same as that in the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. A connected person for the purposes of the Act includes a relative, business partner, company in which the person has a controlling interest, or person with whom the person enjoys a trustee-beneficiary relationship. I am satisfied this definition, which is comprehended by the terms of reference of current tribunals, taken with the proposed mandate and powers of the commission, constitutes a sound basis for commission investigations. This should ensure the commission is not hampered in carrying out its functions.
The Bill also provides for the development by the Government, the commission or the Minister for Finance of codes of conduct which will apply to Ministers and other office holders, Members of the Oireachtas and employees of public bodies respectively. These codes of conduct will deal with the standards of conduct and integrity appropriate to the persons to whom they relate in the performance of their public duties. The codes will form part of the terms and conditions of public service employees and will provide guidance for them in the performance of their functions. Such codes shall be admissible in proceedings before a court, tribunal, Oireachtas committee or the commission which may take account of the terms of such codes in making determinations.
The Bill proposes that the codes of conduct for Members of the Oireachtas would be drawn up by the new Standards in Public Office Commission. This approach flowed directly from a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service in its 1999 report on the Government's original proposals for a Standards in Public Office Bill. However, not all Deputies who have studied the Bill have been happy with this approach, and I will propose an amendment to the Bill to provide that, instead of being drawn up by the commission, the codes of conduct for Members of the Oireachtas will be drawn up by select committees. These would be applied subsequently to Members by resolutions passed in each House. The commission would be consulted.
In this regard, Deputies will be aware that the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests has considered a draft code of conduct for Members of this House on foot of a resolution passed on 7 March 2001 and has recently published a substantial and thoughtful report on this matter with associated recommendations. The committee's report has implications for the Standards in Public Office Bill and I am examining it carefully. Where amendments are required, these will be introduced on Committee Stage. Work has also started on a code of conduct for civil servants. A draft code has been laid before the Houses and is being considered by the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. Consultations with unions are ongoing.
The committees which reported on the Government's original blue book proposals did not support the creation of offences for breaches of the legislation. While acknowledging the committees' views, the Government is concerned to ensure that the regime to be put in place should command public confidence. The Bill accordingly provides that where the commission finds evidence of wrongdoing on the part of a person who is the subject of an investigation, the organisation or public body to whom a person is answerable will receive the commission's report so that it will be in a position to consider appropriate disciplinary action. In respect of a Deputy or Senator, this would involve the laying of a report before the relevant House and that House would then decide on what penalty might be applied. In the case of a civil servant, receipt by his or her employing Department of an adverse commission report could trigger disciplinary procedures against the official. The commission and the relevant committees may also, in certain circumstances, make a report to the DPP.
The Bill also requires that Members of the Houses must furnish a tax clearance certificate in respect of themselves or a partnership in which they are a member within nine months either side of an election. A statutory declaration that the Member's tax affairs are in order would have to be made one month either side of the election. Consistent with the thrust of Oireachtas committee views, the Bill also provides for tax clearance and declarations for persons appointed to positions as senior public officials and as judges, and they would also have to make similar statutory declarations. The commission is empowered to investigate breaches of the tax clearance requirements. The Bill increases the penalties for making a false declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act from a fine of £50 to one of £2,000 and a term of imprisonment from three to six months. This tax compliance declaration cannot be treated lightly.
The Bill makes provision for a level of streamlining of the current requirements for declarations of interests and donations under the Electoral Act, 1997, and the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. The dates for the making of statements under both Acts will be brought into line and the overlap in reporting requirements which require certain amounts to be declared both as political donations under the Act of 1997 and as gifts under the Act of 1995 will be removed. I know that some members of committees who examined the Bill are of the view that the Bill should go further in this respect and I intend to introduce further streamlining measures on Committee Stage.
I have set out for the House the main features of the Bill. It will lead to the introduction of powerful investigation mechanisms for serious complaints about persons serving the public, with whistleblower protections for persons making such complaints, tax compliance requirements for Members of the Oireachtas, judges and senior public servants, codes of conduct for public servants, office holders and Oireachtas Members, and clearer, more streamlined reporting rules under the ethics and electoral Acts. In addition to these, there are various technical amendments of the Ethics in Public Office Act, and Members will see from the explanatory memorandum that much of the Bill consists of such amendments. I look forward to further consideration of these on Committee Stage.
In framing the Bill, the Government sought to listen to the views of members of all parties and was mindful of the need to achieve a balance between the right to privacy and the exigencies of the common good. The Bill acknowledges the independence of each House in regulating its own affairs and it can only be applied to the Houses of the Oireachtas by resolution in each House. The Bill is not the Government's last word on the maintenance of standards in public office – I set out some of the other initiatives under way in this regard. I will be interested to hear the views of Deputies from all sides of the House on the Bill. I assure them that I will give careful consideration to their views because each Member has a valuable contribution to make to the successful development and implementation of the legislation.
I commend the Bill to the House.