Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000: Second Stage.

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.

The case for a Bill of this nature is unanswerable as the roll-out of evidence at the tribunals continues to raise the gravest concerns. Although it has been clearly established in only seven cases that Members or former Members of the Oireachtas were involved in tax evasion, the acceptance of large gifts of money and the holding of overseas accounts, it is seven too many. It remains to be seen if any other Oireachtas Members are added to the roll of dishonour, but as far as the public is concerned, we are all involved. As a consequence of this perception, the Oireachtas enacted the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and the Electoral Act, 1997, both of which are significantly amended by the Bill.

Today the Minister of State and yesterday the Taoiseach recited the long list of Bills which are at various stages of progress through the House. It appears that enormous legal encumbrances will be placed on Members who have no legal advice, provision for legal costs or administrative help to meet the onerous requirements now being imposed on them.

I speak with some experience. I was recently the subject of a complaint under the Electoral Act, 1997, which I had to go to great trouble to answer. I do not have a filing clerk to check my files or money to hire legal advice. I was able to answer the complaint, but at considerable inconvenience to myself. I use this example to illustrate the effect on Members of the two existing Acts, the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and the Electoral Act, 1997. My first criticism of the Bill and of the raft of other legislation is that they deal only with the responsibilities of Members but not with their rights.

In the policy document, The Democratic Revolution, I spell out how the Oireachtas should be reformed, not only in a radical way but in a revolutionary way. Today we are once again addressing empty seats. What does this say about standards in public life? We are going through a process but we are not doing our job properly because we are not resourced to do so. We are not resourced to answer the inevitable questions which will arise under the huge raft of legislation which is promised.

We already have the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, the Electoral Act, 1997, as amended, and today's Standards in Public Office Bill. The Taoiseach has promised that several other Bills will be enacted before the end of this year and I welcome that. He has spoken of a Bill to deal with the audit of party leaders' allowances. I will speak about that Bill later because I believe it does not go far enough. He has also spoken about another electoral Bill, a disclosure of donations and expenditure Bill, a lobbying Bill and a whistleblowers protection Bill. The Taoiseach has promised ten Bills and I regret to say that all of them appear to be necessary. When they are all enacted I would like to see consolidating legislation to simplify and co-ordinate these complex matters as far as possible. Within this raft of legis lation I see the makings of major and undue embarrassment in the future because of the complexity and cross purposes of some of these Bills and because of the lack of resources for Members to keep the necessary records and answer the necessary questions when they arise.

We speak about vexatious and frivolous complaints but we do not speak about unfounded political charges. I have also experienced this in recent weeks. We do not speak of questions which are laden with innuendo and inference which are unjustified and without basis. The Minister of State himself participated in this by writing an article in The Irish Examiner. That amounts to low standards in public life.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions.

It should be an offence for a Member of either House to try to bring the name of another Member into disrepute without basis or without using the complaints mechanisms which are available and a penalty should be attached to that offence.

We cannot remove public debate.

We can provide in the code of conduct for Members that making malicious and political charges with no basis should be an offence. If such things are said in the House they can be referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and dealt with by the Ceann Comhairle. However, if they are said outside the House by way of statement to the press or otherwise, there is no remedy. Such behaviour will bring politics into disrepute as much as the issues which, properly, are sought to be addressed by this Bill.

I welcome the Bill, so far as it goes, but it will require significant amendment. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has indicated his willingness to listen to amendments and his intention to introduce amendments of his own. The Minister of State is one of those who generally uphold high standards in politics although I was disappointed to see him trapped by his own press office into writing scurrilous articles which have no basis in fact.

Provision must be made for Members who receive a salary equivalent to that of an assistant principal officer, to have legal advice available to them. I have had to engage legal advice to deal with questions from the commission arising from the complaint against me. No resources are provided for me do to this. I do not have a person to maintain my files or to search for records. Like every Member of the House I have one secretary. A huge burden is being placed on Members by this and other Bills. Resources must be provided for this and for other parliamentary reforms which I have spelt out in The Democratic Revolution. Legal costs and advice and proper staff must be made available to Members. We should make no apology for this. This is the most under-staffed parliament in Europe. In the United Kingdom the Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have better staffing arrangements than we do. If we do not address this issue we will find ourselves, individually and as a body politic, in a huge quagmire.

Does a complainant enjoy privilege for his complaint? Will a complaint which is subsequently overturned or found to have no basis in fact be covered by the rule of privilege? How will such a complaint be distinguished from the privilege which is rightly afforded to legitimate and well founded complaints? The question of the privilege which applies to complaints and to documents relating to them must be clarified. Should there be penalties for malicious complaints or for the use of documents of a malicious nature which are found to have no basis?

The Bill should set out the procedure for the proper making of complaints and the penalties for complainants who breach this procedure, especially by way of public charge instead of using the complaints procedure. This will be a very important protection for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas in the future. We must protect ourselves against malicious and political charges. We must provide a fair and independent means of having procedures processed so that they are not made the subject of newspaper articles for several weeks before a complaint is made, or no complaint is made. I speak from personal experience in this matter. No right of appeal is set out anywhere in the Bill, yet such a right is one of the four fundamental requirements of natural justice.

As regards setting out a procedure, when the complaint was made by Deputy Fleming against me concerning this famous opinion poll, at least he did it properly. However, under the Electoral Act no procedure is set out for that. Therefore, the commission was making it up as it went along because it did not have any set procedure to deal with the complaint. Nor, as the person against whom the complaint was made, did I have the advantage of knowing what the procedure would be. This is a major gap in the legislation which should spell out what the complaints procedure will be and what the right of appeal procedure will be. That should be contained in the Bill by way of amendment.

There should be penalties for frivolous or vexatious complaints or political charges. Under the terms of the Bill the commission can decide that a complaint is vexatious or frivolous but no penalties are provided for such charges, although they should be. There is no reference at all to charges of a purely political nature which occur in the heat of the moment and in the cut and thrust of politics, although there should be. These issues should be addressed as a safeguard to all of us who are taking on enormous responsibilities and encumbrances under this legislation, although it affords us no protection or rights.

The Bill should also provide that relatively minor offences should be dealt with by a committee of the House, perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. We have had the case of the Labour Party which was alleged to have overspent by the sum of £257 in the Dublin South Central by-election. The matter was referred to the Dirctor of Public Prosecutions but it was a totally absurd waste of the DPP's time. If it was an offence, which it turned out not to be, it was a minor matter which should never have been referred to the DPP. We are criminalising ourselves even for minor technical breaches, the remedies for which are already provided for in the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Act. If the commission finds there has been such a breach, it has no choice but to refer it to the DPP and as a result one is treated as a criminal. In the case of the Dublin South Central by-election, however, the DPP decided that the matter did not warrant prosecution. That led to a contretemps between the commission and the Department of the Environment and Local Government which refused to amend the legislation. That, in turn, led to a new diktat from the commission as to what it would treat as expenditure in future. The Minister should make provision so that where the commission finds there was a breach, but of a minor or technical nature, there should be some way of dealing with it other than referring it to the DPP. Only serious matters should be referred to the DPP.

When this corpus of legislation has been enacted we should attempt to have a consolidated Act covering the whole panoply of provisions relating to standards in public office and the prevention of corruption. Otherwise, in future there will be a labyrinthine web of measures that is bound to trip up many decent and upright Members of the Oireachtas.

Another problem is that the Bill will alter the current commission by removing the Ceann Comhairle and replacing him with a judge who in this case would be the chairman. As the Bill extends itself to include certain declarations relating to judges, a judge acting as chairman may be the best option. As spelt out in our party's document, The Democratic Revolution, the Ceann Comhairle should be the harbinger and upholder of standards in parliamentary public life. I regret to say that this duty is not spelt out anywhere in the Bill, nor has it always been adopted by successive Cinn Comhairle. Normally, in any other parliament, the Speaker's first duty is to uphold the rights and standards of parliament across a wide range of headings, yet the Ceann Comhairle is being excluded from these provisions, which is an adverse development. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is not included either.

We have a judge, the Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Clerk of the Seanad and the Clerk of the Dáil. I have been privileged to work closely with two holders of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General in my previous capacity as Chairman of the Com mittee of Public Accounts. The Comptroller and Auditor General works closely with Members of the Oireachtas on whom, under this legislation, he may be called to make a judgment. The same is true of the Clerks of the Seanad and Dáil. Would it not be better, and provide a clear distance, if we were to seek to find some other office holders who might constitute the commission? There is a proximity in the proposed make-up of the commission which could make life awkward from time to time.

The Ceann Comhairle should be the head of this establishment with clear duties spelt out in legislation. It is my hope that when the promised Oireachtas commission is established by law, which we are told will happen before the end of the year, the Bill will clearly spell out the rights and duties of the Ceann Comhairle, especially with respect to upholding standards within the Oireachtas. It should also be a duty of the Ceann Comhairle to ensure the standard, completeness and honesty of replies provided to the House, the absence of which in the past has led to the establishment of tribunals. That area of standards in public life is not provided for in the Bill, however.

The Bill co-ordinates the date of declarations made under the Electoral Act and the Ethics in Public Office Act. In other words, declarations have to be made by the same date but why should we be making two declarations? Should the Bill not go further and conflate both declarations into one, thus providing a composite declaration? The Minister should consider that point so that instead of having two declarations there would be just one covering all the issues required to be declared by the relevant Acts.

The Bill makes no reference to reporting standards as regards complaints, which is another matter of considerable importance. If a person is charged before the courts, there is certain protection as to the standards of reporting but if a person is charged before the commission there are no rules concerning how those complaints are to be reported, whether there is a rush to judgment, distortion of the complaint or a summary of the complaint that does not represent the full facts. All these matters can unfairly destroy reputations, yet no consideration is given to this matter in the Bill. The Minister should consider whether reporting standards in the courts can be important regarding the reporting standards for complaints, especially where the complaints are serious and where serious damage could be done to a Member's reputation. I am not concerned where damage is done to the reputation of a Member where his or her actions or omissions warrant it; I am talking about a situation where they do not warrant it and where the complaint is not upheld.

I will propose an amendment to the draft code of the Committee on Members' Interest of Dáil Éireann that it should be a breach of the code of conduct of both Houses for a complaint or a charge to be made except to the committee. If the declaration of a Member is to be questioned by another Member, it should done by procedure through a committee where these matters can be fairly adjudicated upon and not in the media in the first instance. I say this from personal experience in recent weeks. I happen to be the fall guy in this respect. However, my reputation will stand up to any scrutiny but I am concerned to protect Members of both Houses now and in the future against unfair attacks.

The Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann should be chaired by the Ceann Comhairle, even though I have the height of respect for the current chairman, Deputy Killeen, because the Ceann Comhairle has an overriding responsibility to protect the reputation of this House in terms of the standards of Members or those of the House as a body corporate. The role of the committee should be widened beyond its current remit.

The Minister of State referred to the definition of "connected persons" including business partners, with which I agree, but should tax clearance not be provided by a company of which a Member is a director? Where does tax clearance stop? If a candidate or a Member is a director of several companies which are evading taxes and have not settled their affairs with the Revenue Commissioners, why should a partner in a business be at a complete disadvantage compared to a director of a wayward firm? The definition of "connected persons", given the social norm of the day, should be amended to included a life partner. The reality of life today is that more and more people have life partners who are the equivalent of married spouses.

The future role of the Committee of Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann is not clear from the legislation. The committee should be chaired by the Ceann Comhairle or in the case of the Seanad Members' interests committee, the Cathaoirleach

There is no provision for confidentiality in the complaints process where this is required in the interest of natural justice. These issues will be very sensitive in the future. The complaints procedure should be detailed in the legislation because there is no provision in the Electoral Acts for what the complaints procedure should be and I fear there will be a serious challenge in the courts. No proper complaints procedure is provided in law for the Public Offices Commission. It is open to serious challenge and a proper procedure needs to be spelt out in greater detail.

The Bill also provides that judges should have tax compliance certificates within nine months of appointment. What happens if they do not? That is not outlined in the legislation. It is an offence but there is no penalty and the Bill is deficient in that regard. What happens if the Revenue Commissioners refuse to issue a tax clearance certificate within nine months or the appeals procedure has been exhausted and a certificate has not been granted? Public opinion can be brought to bear on a Member in such circumstances but it has no impact on the Judiciary. That is a major deficiency in the legislation and it should spell out what the penalty will be for judges and Members who are not tax compliant within the specified period.

Should there be a requirement on judges to make annual declarations of interest under the legislation in the same way as Members must take two declarations of interest? Why must members of the Judiciary only make a declaration on tax compliance? Members of the Judiciary have an even more influential role in many respects than Members of the Oireachtas. Should there be an annual audit of declarations? In other words, should we go a little further than just accepting the declarations of Members? Should someone such as the Comptroller and Auditor-General take a sample of Members' declarations each year and examine them in greater detail as a means to ensure they are complete and accurate? Currently we depend utterly on the honour of the Member to make a complete and honest declaration. The question of carrying out an audit should be examined. Everybody would not be audited annually but a sample could be taken.

Should one complainant, however vexatious, be sufficient to make a complaint or should a minimum number of people, say two, five or ten, be required to do so? As Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts I receive various vexatious complaints daily. Even a polite letter of acknowledgement to some generated a raft of further correspondence. It must be considered whether a complaint by one person is enough or whether, in particular, it is sufficient that one Member of the House makes a complaint against another Member or whether a minimum number should be required.

The rights of Deputies between the day the House is dissolved and the day of the general election is being considered but is not covered in the Bill. The legislation should make it clear that Deputies, similar to Senators, can continue to avail of their offices during that period, otherwise there would be massive disruption as most of us have our secretaries here. The Public Offices Commission has mentioned that it is discussing and pursuing this issue. That right should be provided for in law, as it is in the case of Senators.

I am worried about the proposal that where there is insufficient evidence to uphold a complaint the commission may make a finding that it is not upheld or not proven as this may leave a Member in limbo. The commission can say there is insufficient evidence to uphold the complaint without saying it is vexatious or rejecting the complaint. The issue needs to be teased out.

The documents submitted under compellability to the commission, as in the case of tribunals, should be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, unless they are published as part of the findings. This legislation, apart from the obvious needs of the Oireachtas, demands that we address the question of resources for individual Members and for Members collectively. These resources will have to be provided together with legal advice and costs for Members if they are not to be the victims of the legislation when it is enacted.

The Minister, and indeed Deputy Mitchell, have concentrated in their contributions on many of the details of the Bill and it is right that they should do so. I intend to do something similar later in my contribution but it behoves us to examine the context in which this debate is situated and to examine some of the facts which have brought us to where we are now. We can usefully start with a reality check on the standing of politics and politicians at what is the start of the 21st century and no matter how one comes at this, the conclusion is a stark and indisputable one. Politics and politicians are held in contempt by a significant percentage of our population and many of the rest are cynical, at best. Huge numbers of people also believe that we are irrelevant. Many of our citizens have lost faith in the capacity or the willingness of politics and politicians to make changes for the better and, as we all know, it is becoming increasingly difficult to encourage people into public life.

It is important to acknowledge that there are many reasons this has happened, and some of those reasons have little or nothing to do with politicians, either specifically as individuals or politicians generally. We should acknowledge, for example, the role that has been played by increased prosperity, which has led to a widespread disengagement from politics. People get their satisfaction elsewhere. They believe their lives can be bettered through activities other than politics and they are more than willing to believe that politicians have little role in the general improvement of life that has taken place over recent years and indeed decades.

The perceived convergence of politics towards the centre has appeared to offer less choice to people and, therefore, they are less engaged. Everything was simple once upon a time when we talked about nationalisation, market economies or what seemed like, and which in many cases were, polar opposites. It is not so simple now. The choices are just as important but they are not as stark as they once appeared to be.

It is important that we acknowledge the role that the dumbing down of the media has played in the disrespect, even contempt, for politics. Some elements of the media effectively trade on cultivating contempt for politics and politicians and playing down the role politics and politicians play in our national life. They seem to think, and they may well be right, that it is a good way to sell newspapers.

All these factors have played a role but we have to acknowledge too that the biggest single factor in bringing us to where we are now, in terms of the view the public holds of us and of this House, is the corruption and impropriety committed by some present and past Members of the House, which is being highlighted on a daily basis in Dublin Castle. What is happening in Dublin Castle will ultimately be to the good of politics. We need to set out, warts and all, what has been done in our name and the way in which our democracy has been used and abused by certain individuals to line their own pockets. We need to go through the process to do our best to ensure that it does not happen again.

I want to begin my contribution by stating what all of us in this House know and believe. Most politicians came into politics to serve the public and that is what the vast majority of us do day in, day out. The vast majority of politicians have not entertained a corrupt thought and many of us have lost money and careers by virtue of our participation in public life. We do not, and should not, look for plaudits for that but we are entitled to expect people to accept our bona fides. This is true of the great majority in all parties. I reject, as does my party, the notion that politicians are all the same. They are not and we are not. Most public representatives, on a personal basis, have nothing to be ashamed of and every reason to be angry at the small minority who have dragged our collective reputation into the gutter.

That is not to suggest that I, or anyone else in the Labour Party, believe that we are all in this together. We reject emphatically the notion that there are just a few bad apples spread over all parties. No member of my party, from the lowliest branch member to the leadership, has been implicated in any way by the work of the tribunals or in any other way. Indeed, the opposite is true. Labour Party councillors in Dublin fought tooth and nail to prevent many of the rezonings which we now know to have been dubious, to say the least. While councillors from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael cashed their cheques, many of my colleagues sought to highlight the abuse which was going on and which everyone knew was going on. I do not intend, in this contribution or elsewhere, to undervalue the work and commitment of those Labour Party councillors by accepting the suggestion of common venality, which we so often hear these days. Everyone knew or suspected what was going on but only Labour, of the major parties, opposed it.

It is all too convenient for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Members to wring their hands and suggest that corruption is or was an individual sin of people who just happened to be members of their respective parties. Certainly it was that, but it was also much more. It arose out of the culture and ethos which was, and to some extent still is, pervasive in those parties, in particular in Fianna Fáil. It also arose out of the uncomfortable and improper interaction of politics and business, a problem that survives to this day.

It is an established fact that Charles J. Haughey received millions of pounds in personal donations when he was leader of Fianna Fáil. It is an established fact that two members of his 1989 Cabinet received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations in 1989 alone and those donations are now the subject of investigations by the tribunals. It is also a fact that three Members of this House who were elected as Fianna Fáil TDs now sit as Independent Members, having lost the Whip in one circumstance or other. Another, the former Deputy Ray Burke, who made tens of thousands of pounds in a few weeks in 1989 alone, was Minister for Foreign Affairs just a few years ago. It is a fact that dozens of Fianna Fáil councillors have questions to answer in relation to the money received. This did not just happen, it was allowed to happen.

Cute hoorism is endemic in Ireland and it is also endemic in Fianna Fáil, but what happened in Fianna Fáil under Charles J. Haughey was more than cute hoorism, it was corruption, straight and fair. It is true – I want to be clear about this – that only a small minority benefited directly but those who put that man into office and sustained him there through thick and thin knew what they were dealing with. They knew that Charlie did not play by the book unless he wrote the book. Some in Fianna Fáil opposed it. I acknowledge the role of the Minister of State in that regard who was, for most of that time, not in Fianna Fáil and also his senior Minister, but they did not succeed in preventing Charles J. Haughey from corrupting not only his own party but Irish politics generally.

The state of Fianna Fáil in the 1980s owes much to the personality of Charles J. Haughey, the people who appointed him and surrounded him and those who allowed him to do what he did, but it is also indicative of a much wider problem. I refer to the unhealthy interaction between business and politics. That works at two different levels. It operates on the level of individual politicians, most likely Ministers – Deputy Lowry is an obvious case in point. Any politician who accepts money or favours from a businessman on whom he may be in a position to confer some benefit puts himself at risk. I will say no more on that matter as it is currently before the Moriarty tribunal and the parties concerned must be allowed to have their say.

We can and must deal with the bigger question, however, namely, the interaction of business with political parties as opposed to individuals. In principle there is nothing wrong with business making donations to political parties but in practice it has not worked out that way. Political parties throughout Europe, primarily of the right but including some of the left, have been in the pocket of big business for decades and it has become clear in recent years that that relationship has been far from proper – Tangentopoli in Italy, the CDU under Helmut Kohl, Paris under the RPR, the Socialists in Spain, the list is very long.

The conclusion is unavoidable. Politics and political parties must be kept at arms length from each other. The experience of corruption and undue influence in the past and the suspicion in the present is too strong. It is time to wholeheartedly accept the recommendations of Judge McCracken just a few years ago that anything which might put an individual or a political party in a position of compromise should be prohibited. In this as in so many other things, perception is as important as reality.

I make those introductory points so as to make two central points about the Bill. First, the Bill, as Deputy Mitchell said, does not go far enough. It makes no effort, for example, to separate business and politics but, second, and on a different note, some of its provisions are or could be intrusive into the private affairs of individual public representatives. In an ideal world this would not or should not be necessary but, unfortunately, it is precisely the experience of the past 20 years which makes it not just necessary but urgent.

In his contribution, the Minister set out the detailed process of consultation we have gone through in preparing the Bill as drafted. I was party to some of that process as a member of the sub-committee of the Committee on Finance and the Public Service which examined this issue. There are quite a few questions for Committee Stage, and there is cross-party agreement and disagreement on some of these issues. However, I do not wish to turn these issues into party political matters.

The basis of this Bill is to strike a balance between what the Minister refers to as legitimate public interest and prying or intruding into the private affairs of individuals or, perhaps of more relevance, people connected with those individuals who are involved in public life. There is also a balance to be struck in terms of answerability. All Members are answerable to the law. We are citizens and have to uphold and adhere to the law as citizens of this republic. If we do not do so we can rightly be brought by the DPP, the Garda or whoever before the courts to which we are answerable.

Perhaps of more relevance to this debate, is the fact that Members are also directly accountable to their electorates. People put us here to do a job. They are entitled to know on what basis we make our decisions and to pass judgment on that decision-making process. That is the essence of democracy and we should uphold that principle above all others. Any legislation, such as the Bill before the House, has to be put in the general context that, ultimately, the people have their say and, ultimately, they hire and fire us.

It is in the context of our responsibility before the law and our responsibility to the people that we then have to carefully define the nature of our additional responsibility to the House and what rules the House should seek to dictate to Members of the Oireachtas. It is proper that the House has a role in determining what we may or may not do. It also has a role in upholding, and insisting that Members uphold, the dignity and propriety of politics and the institutions of this State.

A question arises regarding sanctions. The punters, if I can use that word, are entitled to elect whoever they wish. People are entitled to elect a mass-murderer or a paedophile to this House, so long as they know about it when they elect that person. If they so wish, people are entitled to elect a dog with two tails to this House. That is a fundamental principle.

However, the converse is also true. Expulsion from this House, or removing a seat from a Member, is a sanction which should be available only in the most extreme circumstances and, arguably, should not be available at all, except where it becomes clear that a Member was elected as one thing and he or she proves to be something entirely different. If, for example, a Member is convicted of murder during the course of his or her tenure in this House, a fact which was not known to people before the Member was elected, there is a case that the seat should be forfeited in those circumstances. However, the circumstances in which the ultimate sanction of removing a Member's seat or expelling a Member from the House can be used should be carefully defined and such a course of action should take place only in the most extreme circumstances.

There was some debate among the various committees which considered the Bill about whether it should be open to impose monetary penalties on Members who were guilty of various offences. Forfeiting pay is a sanction which should be available to the commission. Others take a different view and there is a legal opinion that imposing something which looks like a fine may be beyond the scope of this House, or a committee of the House. It is worth legally testing this concept as we hold ourselves up to ridicule if, effectively, we allow a Member to absent himself or herself from the House and its committees for a month, or up to three months, without any meaningful sanction.

Allowing a Member to look after his or her constituency work with the full sanction of the House and calling that a punishment is not something which the public could be expected to take seriously as a sanction. We should go further and give the commission power to allow Members to be suspended without pay.

Deputy Mitchell rightly dealt at some length with the issue of frivolous and vexatious complaints and the mechanism for making and dealing with complaints. The Deputy is correct to suggest that we need to set out the relevant procedure. He is also correct to point out that, under the Ethics in Public Office Act, the procedure is less than clear. I do not intend to go into the details of the complaint made against Deputy Mitchell under the electoral Act, but it is fair to say that we have not had a flood of vexatious or frivolous complaints under the Acts in the few years in which they have been in operation. That is a tribute to other Members who have taken their responsibilities under the Acts seriously and have been slow to use the Acts to gain political advantage. This gives us reason to be optimistic about the future.

We must acknowledge that there is concern about the powers the commission will have. It could be flooded with complaints which are intended to gain political advantage or even to embarrass individual people. Such complaints need not originate in this House as they can come from members of the public. Members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or the Committee on Members' Interests, I am not sure which, who visited Australia were concerned that its standing commission appears to spend a great deal of time examining what frequently prove to be frivolous or vexatious complaints. We need a mechanism to avoid such a scenario.

In this regard, the principle mechanism in the Bill is the power being given to the commission to ask an inquiry officer to examine complaints in the first instance. That is fair enough. If I read the Bill correctly, it seems to give the commission discretion as to whether an inquiry officer carries out such an examination first. It might be preferable if it is compulsory that some sort of investigation of complaints is made before the commission carries out a full investigation. However, there is a need for a clearing mechanism to ensure we do not give rise to frivolous complaints or that people cannot act on spite or malice by the use of this mechanism.

An obvious question which arises is whether anonymous complaints should be entertained. The disposition of all of us would be to say no. It is possible that people who come across information in the course of their duties as a public servants or whatever will make a complaint but will not wish to identify themselves. On that basis I would be reluctant to suggest that we should always exclude the investigation of anonymous complaints. However, in cases where the complainant is not identified, there should be an onus on the commission to satisfy itself that there is a prima facie case to sustain the complaint, over and above the frivolous and vexatious requirement in the Bill. Anonymous complaints should be entertained only in extreme circumstances and complainants should have to cross a higher hurdle to start the process.

A major provision of the Bill deals with the requirement for tax clearance. One of the major powers given to us as legislators is the power to impose, and require the payment of, taxes. In those circumstances it would be invidious, to say to least, if Members of this House who impose taxes do not live up to their obligations under the laws which they pass. Regrettably, there have been examples in the recent past where this has occurred.

The House has also taken it upon itself to impose an obligation on various traders seeking supports or grants from the State, or seeking licences from the courts, to provide tax clearance certificates. This process will continue and will probably be enhanced and expanded in the future. I support the principle that we should require Members to provide tax clearance certificates.

The Minister will know that there are questions over the workability of this system and what hap pens if a person is in legitimate dispute with the Revenue Commissioners concerning an alleged tax liability. It could take some time for a tax clearance certificate to issue. Even if it takes less than the nine months allowed under the Bill, it is possible that malicious or other kinds of rumours will circulate about the non-provision of the tax clearance certificate. The Revenue Commissioners have genuine problems with these provisions. We need to work out a mechanism with them which will be fair to all parties concerned and will ensure that people who have genuine complaints or disputes with the Revenue Commissioners do not fall foul of this provision. However, I support the principle that Members of this House, who impose the taxes, should pay their taxes in accordance with the law.

Deputy Mitchell also dealt with the issue of connected persons. This is not an easy issue. It is one thing to say we should impose duties on ourselves, for example, a duty to be answerable to the public and to make certain declarations about our interests outside the House. Few people who enter public life can complain about that. We would also accept the principle that Ministers, who wield power on our behalf, have particular responsibilities in this regard. The definition of connected persons, therefore, should be broader when applied to Ministers. The compromise the Minister proposes in the Bill is probably fair; the definition in the Ethics in Public Office Act is one we can run with. Deputy Mitchell's point about lifelong partners is reasonable and should be taken on board, although I am not persuaded about company directors.

Much of what we are dealing with in the Bill has been debated in the Committee on Members' Interests and is dealt with in its report which issued a few weeks ago. That report sets out some interesting questions which we can deal with on Committee Stage. It deals with, for example, the issue of legitimate protest. The code of conduct for Members seeks to outlaw or discourage activities which bring the business of politics and the institutions of the State into disrepute. It also imposes an obligation on Members to uphold the law. This sounds very easy but there are laws with which Members disagree and, on occasion, we have protested and sought to have them changed.

The debate in the Committee on Members' Interests considered protests against GMOs in County Wexford, the incinerator in Galway and various other protests. I and members of my party have been involved in public protests seeking to have certain laws changed. The obligation to uphold the law cannot extend to prohibiting such reasonable democratic activity. While I agree that we have a duty to uphold the law, we must also ensure that our rights as politicians and as citizens to legitimate public protest are safeguarded under any code that might be agreed.

Much of the focus of this debate has been on the rights and duties of Deputies and Senators. That is understandable but we should not lose sight of the fact that the Bill also deals with senior civil servants. I am not sure we have done as much as we might have to allow senior civil servants to have their views expressed and understood in public. The finance and general affairs committee is considering a code of conduct for civil servants. There have been preliminary discussions so far with representatives of trade unions who represent the civil servants concerned. It is important to encourage civil servants to express their views and to have a real input into the debate. There is something slightly invidious or uncomfortable about the debate focusing exclusively on politicians. I hope the other parties affected by this legislation will have the input they deserve and to which they are entitled.

There was also some debate about whether Members should be held accountable for past activities which would bring the body politic or the institutions of the State into disrepute. While some believe the past activities of some Members have done that, on balance I concur with the conclusion of the committee that what is past is past and should remain there. Accountability, at least under this legislation, should only start from the day people become Members of the Houses.

The basic principle of the Bill is to deal with acts which are inconsistent with the proper performance of the duties of the relevant position, that is, the position held by the person who is allegedly in contravention of those duties, or which would be inconsistent with the maintenance of public confidence in that performance. We might have to look at that more carefully because it is focused on the rights of an individual in terms of the post held by that individual rather than the duty of all Members to uphold the good standing of politics and the House. It might be necessary to define that basic concept in a broader way.

I support the Bill. It is only one part of the programme of legislation which will have to be put in place before the end of this year but it is a reasonable start and I look forward to the debate on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill. All Members who contribute to a debate such as this are conscious that any suggestions they might make could be interpreted as their not being in support of putting this legislation to work and giving parliamentarians a framework as to how they should work and behave in the House and in carrying out their duties as public representatives.

The amount of legislation already in place and the legislation that is promised or being considered in this area by various committees and the Government is extensive. This Parliament is probably to the fore, in the context of parliaments throughout the world, in the amount of such legislation under consideration. I agree that, in principle, there is a need for a framework or system of sanctions to be put in place, given that a minority of people who held public office, be they public representatives or officials, have behaved badly in the past. Hence the tribunals of inquiry. However, we must weigh against that the need to debate in full the Bill before the House today, the legislation that preceded it and proposed legislation in this regard. We need to weigh how sensible it is. We need to understand what is required or desired by the electorate and what we require to make our work more transparent and better policed.

Sometimes, as has been the case with previous legislation, we have been in a rush to be cleaner than clean and to move from where we are to where we want to be without due consideration. As a result, we have almost put ourselves in a straitjacket. That can be seen with the legislation controlling the amount of money spent in elections and the legislation governing our disclosure of interests. It is now obvious that some of the constraints in that legislation are extremely tight and almost unworkable. It is difficult for Members of the Houses to deal with them.

I am conscious of that when considering this Bill. I am also conscious of the example offered in today's debate of an overspend of £250. The administrative costs involved in chasing this would make a nonsense of the legislation passed in the House. There is a rush from various quarters to complain about Members of the Oireachtas although some of the complaints are vexatious, spurious and of a very minor nature. We must be extremely cautious about how we approach these matters.

The public demands greater accountability and transparency in terms of how elected representatives conduct their business and it is perfectly entitled to do so. As a Member of the House, I want to see such transparency and accountability put into practice. Like the majority of Members, I want to conduct my business in an open fashion in compliance with all our existing legislative regulations. However, I want to do so in the knowledge that we are not far exceeding our brief or tying our hands. The majority involved in local and national politics are decent, honest men and women who make a significant contribution to democracy, largely at their own cost. Members of families within the House and throughout local government have given many years' credible service to the country. We are dealing with a small number, some of whom have already been exposed, who have crossed the line and set out for personal gain.

We must draw up guidelines and a code of ethics for Members' conduct and provide disciplinary procedures for anyone who crosses the line. However, we must avoid blindly rushing into something we will regret at a later date. We must not lose sight of the fact that this debate is not just about politicians and members of local and national government. It is also about civil servants. There is an argument that politicians at local and national level have no power because they are overridden by one rule or another and the Government merely trundles on with the help of civil servants. I acknowledge that the majority of civil servants are honest, hardworking people who do their bit for democracy although a small minority may exceed their remit. Everyone who serves the democratic process must be accountable.

The commission's structure was referred to, as was the nature of the complaints made and the manner in which they will be processed. I want to give an example of the spin which can be put on matters which go wrong. The planning process in local authorities throughout the country was examined with a view to identifying corruption. The examination resulted in a huge number of vexatious and spurious complaints which cast huge doubts on the planning process. The impression was conveyed that the entire process and the officials and politicians involved in it were corrupt although that is completely untrue. Many honest, decent people were tarred with the one brush and exposed in the media as guilty before they had a proper hearing.

When accusations are levelled at politicians, be they national or local, they are automatically deemed guilty. Ireland is a small country in which a simple comment can lead to a person being condemned without trial and result in the end of his or her career. We must ensure any structure we put in place will ensure complaints will be tried and tested before they become public and constitute the subject of an inquiry by the commission. Members of the Oireachtas, local politicians and civil servants deserve to be protected until such time as a complaint is substantiated to the point where it comes before the commission. Once a complaint comes before the commission, the accusations, which should be spelt out clearly, should be communicated to the person involved who should have the right to defend himself or herself with the assumption of innocence until his or her wrongdoing is proven. I hope the finer points of the legislation will be thrashed out on Committee Stage in order that the Bill will provide a right of protection for those who come before the commission.

Sanctions must be provided but, in deciding what they should comprise, we must bear in mind that Members of the House are elected by their constituencies and only their constituents can take their seat away. Only in the case of extreme wrongdoing should the Oireachtas have the power to take away that right. A range of sanctions should apply for minor breaches of responsibilities as public representatives to breaches of a more serious nature. We should observe the workings of other parliaments in regard to the imposition of penalties. Reference was made to financial penalties and expulsion from the House. A Member could be expelled for a particular period with an associated loss of income. We are very restricted in what we can do in this area. We must also consider what penalties or restrictions can be imposed on members of the Judiciary and civil servants found in breach of their contracts or the subject of a commission hearing, be it removal from their positions or suspension from their employment for a designated time.

Consideration should be given to making the Ceann Comhairle, who protects the rights of Members, the chairperson of the commission. The legislation states that a judge or a similar person would be the chairperson, but Members must take care of their own business. Other legislation has removed the rights of politicians to be part of a democratic process. That has been taken out of the control of the House and given to independent bodies. The implication is that this ensures the process is not corrupt and that says something about politicians.

The NRA and other agencies are not accountable to the House. The implication is that they are cleaner because they are outside the realm of corrupt politicians. However, that is not the case. A new breed of politicians is entering the House. Similar to politicians in the past, the vast majority of them are dedicated to the democratic process and willing to play their part in a constructive manner. In terms of the State's agencies, they are anxious that they should be accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. As elected Members, we should take our responsibilities seriously and ensure that those agencies work in a transparent fashion and are accountable to the House. This is our job as Members of the Parliament and it is not right that agencies that are funded by Europe or the Department of Finance are outside the remit of the House and not directly accountable to it.

If we are serious about increasing our role as legislators and parliamentarians and putting in place legislation that will make us more accountable and enable the public to be aware of our various disclosures and understand our work, we should be responsible enough to state that we want to ensure agencies and civil servants function in the same manner. They should be as accountable to the House and, in turn, the public as elected representatives. An issue arises in relation to civil servants and how they conduct their business. As Members who are in contact with local government regularly will understand, when one contacts officials, one is told they are not available because they are participating in interview boards. They interview one another for various positions and this should be taken out of the control of civil servants. An independent board, comprising people from outside local government and the House, should conduct interviews. This would enable civil servants to remain at their desks, doing the work for which they were appointed. It would also ensure a more transparent system that everybody understood. The public is concerned about this matter.

Issues about which people are concerned should be dealt with in a much more reasonable fashion without the need for detailed legislation that will tie up Members' in terms of tribunals, the workings of committees of the House or the legal process. Undoubtedly, some of this Bill will be challenged legally. Another issue relates to committees of the House and reform of the Dáil. If it is necessary to implement this legislation – I welcome the cleaning up of politics – there is a need to give powers to the House to enable Members to act as true parliamentarians. We should not be placed in straitjackets.

Two committees recently faced questions about their legal status. The committees must be brought up to date and given legal powers to investigate and scrutinise the affairs and agencies of the State. This is what the public wants and it is our responsibility, as parliamentarians, not only to deliver on legislation that will police our activities and establish a proper code of conduct, but to extend that to committees. Powers must be given to committees to investigate and scrutinise the agencies which act on our behalf outside the House. It should be possible to bring in the relevant people and conduct our affairs in a similar way to other countries. There are many European and American models in that regard. This will ensure the House has a better way of doing its business. The House is undoubtedly tied to decisions that were made 20 years ago. The Parliament does not function in the modern and efficient manner one would expect in a democracy in a developed country.

I welcome the legislation and the debate it has created. However, I point out to the Members who will consider the Bill on Committee Stage that there is a need to study all the other legislation passed by the Houses and the Bills that are due to be introduced in relation to this issue. They should scrutinise these matters in a way that ensures there is one body of legislation that can be easily understood. This will ensure no Member is misled or misunderstands the position and, most importantly, that the public sees that we are adhering to what they want, which is a cleaning up of politics and the establishment of rules and regulations. I support the Bill in that context and I look forward to a detailed debate on these issues in the future.

I welcome the Bill because any improvement in standards in public life is most welcome. This process has been ongoing for many years and standards have improved. If one compares the indiscretions committed in this State to those committed elsewhere, Ireland fares extremely well, particularly regarding corruption. However, I ask the Minister to consider creating a greater role for committees. I acknowledge the Minister's statement that committees have been consulted about the Bill. This is a good development because it is ensures that elected representatives, backbenchers in the main, will have an opportunity to examine and promote their ideas regarding acceptable standards in public life.

The message from that process is that Members are aware of the need to maintain discipline in the Legislature. If one reads the history of democratic states or considers the position in autocratic states, there was much wrongdoing by members of parliament. However, our Parliament has benefited from the fact that there are 166 Members of the Dáil who all keep an eye on each other. In multi-seat constituencies, each Deputy is fully aware of what is happening there and plays a type of policeman's role in relation to his or her colleagues. In the main, backbenchers have played a good role since the foundation of the State.

If one considers the membership of the Dáil, many professions are featured. It was originally dominated by people with farming interests, but it is now much more diverse. People from all walks of life are now Members. However, following the enactment of the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Freedom of Information Act, many people shied away from entering Parliament because they considered that legislation an intrusion on their privacy. This Bill goes further in the demands it imposes on privacy. It includes relatives under the category of "connected persons" and some will be taken aback by the trustee and beneficial relationships described, including business partners, relatives and companies. When the committee is examining this matter safeguards should be provided for. This is a small country and competitors could easily glean information.

Parliament needs to reform in line with the changing times. Double jobbing involving membership of local authorities and the Oireachtas cannot be justified. Much watchdog work can be done by the committees. For example, the Estimates are examined too frivolously. They should be examined on an ongoing basis in the committee system. As it stands, the system is very slipshod in that Members are given just enough notice to inform them of what is proposed. They would need to be very alert to get behind some of the details involved. Transparency does not appear to be a criterion to be adhered to by those producing the Estimates but that can be changed. Allowing for an ongoing examination of them would be in line with the provisions of the Bill.

Some Members argue that there are too many committees but the Government got the number right. There should be a committee for each Department and their role should be better defined in legislation. They should also be given increased responsibilities. Many hesitate over this aspect but the committees can be useful forums for producing good ideas on the formulation of legislation which can then be transmitted to the Department for inclusion in Bills. At present the role is reversed. The public service produces the legislation which is then examined by the committees. This means that the competence of Parliament is stifled. While the current Administration has improved matters, there is a need to reconsider the role of the committees in conjunction with this legislation.

If the provisions on tax compliance for Members are rigidly imposed by the commission, many will get into trouble. It is always possible to have ongoing arguments with the Revenue Commissioners about the details of one's obligations. The tax compliance requirements should be flexible enough to allow those in dispute with the Revenue Commissioners about certain matters to submit a certificate indicating that discussions with the Revenue are ongoing and a resolution will eventually be reached. In addition, tax compliance is seen as a burden on business people and this acts as a disincentive to them standing for election to the Oireachtas. There is a need to re-examine this area.

Mention was made of expulsion from the Dáil as a penalty, including consequent loss of income. Perhaps the parties could agree to discontinue the unruly situations that have arisen recently. They do not become anyone. It could be the reason RTE is not inclined to broadcast proceedings from the House until after midnight when there will be fewer viewers. Perhaps the biggest complaint is the television depiction of vacant benches. People rightly ask questions about the interest of their politicians in public office. For example, they may ask the reason I did not say something about the tribunals and condemn previous mishaps.

We should make our own standards. That is what the Bill is about. The Minister should provide for a more inclusive role for committees. If so, the legislation will be a good day's work.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The background to the legislation is set out in the Government's programme, An Action Programme for the Millennium, which undertakes to restore confidence in public life through a credible policing mechanism for ethical issues and to follow up on the recommendations of the McCracken tribunal. That tribunal undertook important work and made a number of recommendations. Some of the key recommendations include the need for an independent third party to monitor and investigate possible contraventions of the ethics Acts, that the making of a false declaration under the Ethics in Public Office Act should be a criminal offence, that consideration should be given to providing that a person found guilty of such an offence should be ineligible to become a Member of either House, for a limited period or permanently and that it be a requirement for any candidate seeking election to either House to produce a tax clearance certificate and related declarations. These wide ranging recommendations have been fully taken account of in this legislation. It is not possible to implement them as specifically as Mr. Justice McCracken had suggested but the essence of most of them has been taken on board.

I recall that in July 1998 the Government issued what is known as the blue book, a booklet dealing with proposals for a Standards in Public Office Bill. The book was referred to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service of which I was a member. A sub-committee was established to examine it in detail and go through it paragraph by paragraph. We were confused as to the reason we were given this job but it is important to note that there should have been an all-party discussion, review and recommendations before legislation was introduced. Essentially the blue book amounted to a discussion document which we were asked to consider on an all-party basis and make recommendations before the heads of a Bill were agreed. From that point of view it was a useful exercise. We issued a report in April of the following year. Much work went into the report and much of the contents have been referred to by the Minister. Some of them have been incorporated but some of our recommendations were not accepted. The reasons they were not taken on board have been spelt out by the Minister but I will comment on some of them in detail.

I found that very interesting because I was a new Member of the Oireachtas in 1998 when we got the blue book to consider. We put forward a detailed proposal and laid a report before the House in April 1999 and, as a new Deputy in the House of less than two years standing, I took either the brave or foolish step of putting forward a minority report. I discussed it with all members of the committee and, interestingly, at that time Michael McDowell, spokesman for the Labour Party, was not able to commit to the suggestions I put forward.

Can the Deputy give way? I can say without fear of contradiction that, whatever Michael McDowell was, he was not a member of the Labour Party.

I mean Derek McDowell. I accept the correction.

It may be an actionable accusation.

It is certainly a breach of the Trade Description Act.

I thank Deputy Rabbitte for clarifying that point.

Also on that committee was Deputy Noonan, the then spokesperson for the Fine Gael Party and he was not in a position to put his name, on behalf of the party, to the report I put forward. It left me in an unusual predicament. By way of an appendix to that report, I had filed a minority report and people felt I was being either a little brave or foolish depending on to whom one spoke. The Minister for Finance will appreciate from where I was coming and that when one is convinced an opinion is right one sticks with it and takes the consequences. I am pleased to be in the Dáil to say the essence of that minority report has now been accepted across the House. It was not accepted by Fine Gael or the Labour Party at the time, or by my party, which meant that I had to go on a solo run.

The essence of those proposals was very sim ply, to eliminate all large donations to political parties or to individual candidates. There is quite a distinction drawn between corporate and private donations – one can get over excited about that definition – and the Revenue Commissioners can well distinguish between a corporate entity and a private individual when it comes to tax returns. It is very easy to discern the difference between the two issues. Nevertheless, when eliminating all large donations to parties and candidates the definition does not matter very much. I called for increased Exchequer funding for parties, so there would not be a reliance on the private sector, so that there would be full public accountability and for all parties to publish their accounts which would be individually audited and laid before the House every year. A few short weeks after I made that minority report Deputy Quinn, the leader of the Labour Party, went to his annual conference, took my report verbatim and announced it as Labour Party policy. I am very pleased that the day Deputy Noonan was elected leader of Fine Gael he took precisely, word perfect again, the same recommendations and it also pleases me very much that my party has also come around to the position I have been holding. The days of large donations have passed their sell-by date and under the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, currently before the Seanad, amendments will come from the Government for the first time in the history of the State, to introduce drastic legislation to prohibit donations above a certain figure. We have had disclosure of donations under legislation passed in 1997 but we have not ever had legislation on the Statute Book whereby donations above a certain figure would be prohibited. I am particularly pleased the figure will be quite a low one and whether it is £2,000 or £5,000 it will prevent all donations of £10,000 to £100,000 or even more. That will be a thing of the past and will not happen again. As a new Member of Dáil Éireann I am very pleased by that.

During our debate on the blue book at the sub-committee, there was much discussion of the role of public servants, civil servants, those working for local authorities, health boards, vocational education committees, State-sponsored bodies, An Bord Pleanála and the Director of Telecommunications Regulation, the Independent Radio and Television Commission. We felt there was undue focus on politicians and we came to the conclusion that there were people in senior positions in some of the bodies I have mentioned who were guilty of corruption. That was in the public arena at the time. It would not be correct to pass legislation relating just to the 200-odd Members of the Oireachtas, it should also relate to many in strong positions in those types of bodies who were not covered by the Act. I am very pleased they are now included and I hope on Committee Stage the Minister will specify body by body exactly which group will be included in the legislation and what category of employee, in terms of grade, will be covered. I look forward to those details being specified.

In relation to the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, a new rolling commission will be established on a permanent basis which will obviate the need for many of the tribunals. It will be an independent body to which the public can make complaints and it will have powers of tribunal, investigation, report and recommendation. It will have the same powers as a tribunal and will be a better way to conduct affairs rather than having to set up a tribunal every time there is one serious allegation. The commission will be chaired by a retired judge of the High Court or the Supreme Court, and its membership will include the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General. On Committee Stage the Government has not taken on board my suggestion that the Garda Commissioner be a member. Essentially the role of this body is to carry out investigations and we have gone too far down the legal route as opposed to the investigative route. Who are the best people to carry out investigations if not the Garda? Someone from the Garda should be on the commission and possibly a county manager, or someone of that sort, because we are not just dealing with allegations against Members of the Oireachtas, we are dealing with a wide range of people in the public service. The Government has given the reasons for not accepting my suggestions and wants to keep it to those independent people to carry out the job. I accept that and note there will be an amendment whereby one retired Member of the Oireachtas will be on the commission so it can benefit from the experience of someone who has served in the Houses.

Another issue of concern is that of connected persons. That includes relatives, friends and business partners and is being used by the tribunals under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, as the definition under which we all operate. It can be very cumbersome and many people going forward for election do so on the basis of their own reputation and standing. No one can stand up and swear an oath on everything every relative has done in the past. There is a reason to have that in the legislation so people conferring benefits on others can be caught, but it will lead to difficulties. Under this Bill codes of conduct are to be drawn up before the legislation is fully enacted, which we were very committed to at the sub-committee. People will know the codes of conduct under which they are operating be they elected representatives, public servants or Ministers. There is no point in passing legislation and saying the code of conduct will come some time later. Without codes of conduct we would all operate in a no-man's land and it is therefore essential we have them.

The Government, in consultation with the commission, will draw up the code of conduct for Ministers and the legislation so far says the commission will draw up the code of conduct for TDs. The Department of Finance will do so for public employees and public servants. The Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service has already considered the discussion on the code of conduct for employees, but I notice in the Minister's speech this morning he is making an amendment on Committee Stage to say that the code of conduct will be drafted by a select committee in consultation with the commission. He disagreed with our committee on that and we do not have any problem with the Minister's proposal as all we wanted was to have a code of conduct. I do not mind who draws it up once we all know to what it relates. That will be significant and I look forward to it getting under way.

Complaints to the new commission will be by way of writing or other such form as specified by the commission. They must be matters of significant public importance regarding an act in the performance of a person's duties or an act inconsistent with maintaining public confidence in that performance. If there is a benefit of more than £10,000, it will be deemed to be a significant act requiring investigation. When an inquiry is lodged, the commission will appoint an inquiring officer who can issue reports stating there should be a full investigation, it does not merit a full investigation or, alternatively, it does not merit a full investigation but should be referred to the relevant committee of the House or the relevant head of the Department of which the person is an employee. It is important to recognise that the commission will not have the power to issue sanctions. It, like the tribunals, is not a court of law. It will issue reports to the relevant authorities, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, if there is a need to do so. However, it will not be in a position to issue findings. The evidence given at the inquiries will not be admissible in criminal proceedings. That is a mirror image of what is happening at the tribunals.

There has been much talk about tax clearance certificates. A declaration must be made within one month of an election and nine months thereafter there should be a final certificate. This will cause difficulties for some in genuine dispute with the Revenue Commissioners. I hope they will be strong enough to hold their ground and not concede on an issue on a point of principle. Once the application statement has been sought and obtained, Members of the House should have the same rights as everyone else to deal with their tax affairs in an orderly manner and not be forced to rush them because of the new time limit. Every Member of the House should be tax compliant.

It is also important to recognise that it will be an offence to obstruct the commission in its work. Perhaps it could be clarified on Committee Stage how much the new commission is likely to cost and who will pay the costs of those making a complaint and the person to whom a complaint relates. Will retired Members of the Oireachtas or retired public servants come under the Bill? Will they be responsible for acts they carried out many years earlier when Members of the House or employed in a public capacity?

One paragraph in the Minister of State's speech was unusual. A complaint can be made against any member of the Government or any public servant to the new commission, but a complaint against a Deputy must be made to the Clerk of the Dáil and dealt with through the Committee on Members Interests or a similar committee. The public will have a big problem with this. It will see it as an attempt to screen complaints against Deputies. I am told the reason is that the Constitution states that the Houses of the Oireachtas must regulate the affairs of Deputies and it is not for a commission to do so. However, a formula must be found whereby the complaint can be fully investigated by the commission and then come back to the Oireachtas committee which can regulate the Member's affairs by taking what action is required. The public will be cynical of any attempt by the House to judge a complaint against a Deputy before it goes to the commission.

This is a significant weakness in the legislation of which I was not aware until this afternoon. It must be addressed because we want to maintain public confidence in public administration. This issue will be challenged as time passes. I ask the Minister to discuss with the Attorney General ways of ensuring complaints against Deputies are dealt with in the same way as complaints against public servants and Ministers. The report can then come back to the House where regulations can be made. There is nothing in the Constitution which prevents a commission from carrying out an investigation. It cannot impose sanctions as that is a matter for the House and ultimately the electorate. We must find some way to deal with the issue.

As a member of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service, I look forward to Committee Stage of the Bill where we can thrash out the finer details. I welcome the general support for the Bill across the House. I hope it is passed and enacted before the summer recess.

This is not a far-reaching Bill and I am not sure it is heading for the Statute Book before the general election.

God forgive the Deputy.

The Minister said it had to be viewed in the context of what he called a wider raft of legislation, on which I will comment shortly. Someone should mention the proposition behind the Bill and other imminent legislation. Only detailed statutes can keep Members of the House on the straight and narrow. It is regrettable if it has come to this. It is a lamentable reflection on modern society, not just on this Parliament, if the view across the House is that unless we have detailed legislation and codes of conduct, we cannot rely on the Members elected to the House by the people to conduct themselves in accordance with appropriate standards. I do not believe that is the case, but I accept that politics has been debased to such an extent and corrosive public cynicism has reached such a level that we must take certain measures to put some of these questions beyond reproach. No detailed statute, no matter how complex or comprehensive, will prevent a corrupt politician from being corrupt. Whatever findings the tribunals may bring home about corruption, it will not be because of defects in the law. Prima facie laws have existed and would appear to have been broken, particularly in the area of tax compliance. I do not know what the findings of the tribunals will be, but it will not be because people did not know the difference between right and wrong or because of an absence of law.

It says something about our modern society. There is no point pretending that Members of the House are not representative of our society. Whatever its downside, the proportional representation system has thrown up Members of the House who are truly reflective of the population. It is a sad reflection that we have come to the stage where we have to provide in law for proper standards and compliance with the laws we have the privilege to make in the House.

The fact the Minister draws to our attention the raft of legislation in which the Bill must be seen or judged makes me a bit dubious about this limited exercise. When one looks at the record of the Government in respect of this raft of legislation, it is difficult to see the colour of its money. The two major Acts referred to by the Minister are the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Freedom of Information Act, both introduced by the previous rainbow Government. Since the resignation in that famous September of the former Minister and Deputy, Ray Burke, the Taoiseach has promised a raft of legislation, of which there is no evidence other than the limited Bill before the House which was born out of the debate that preceded the election of the Government.

The Labour Party introduced two Bills – the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999, and the Registration of Lobbyists Bill, 1999. I introduced the Whistleblowers Protection Bill which the Government accepted at Second Stage but it has not been seen since. The Registration of Lobbyists Bill goes to the heart of what we seek to address, yet we have not seen it since its introduction. On the subject of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, the Taoiseach promised the party leaders last June that he would restrict corporate donations before the end of 2000 but we have not yet seen the shape of these restrictions to which Deputy Fleming has just referred.

There is no evidence of the legislation which I assume that the Taoiseach, being the Taoiseach, will publish just before the general election. I do not want the other side of the House to think, however, that I am without admiration for his skill in that area. He wrote a piece in The Irish Times, the Minister for Finance's favourite broadsheet—

I am, perhaps, its favourite politician.

Without doubt. I concede the point. He wrote a piece on 4 December 2000 elaborating on this matter, again telling us that the time had come to restrict corporate donations. On 15 December 2000 the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, published the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, with a detailed press release in which it was stated that the Government had decided to limit corporate donations and that the amendments were about to be published. The Minister has an unfortunate record in making promises. The unfortunate man is under the ferule of the Independent Member for Kerry South and has not been able to deliver on any promise in any area. However, he managed in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill to increase spending limits in a general election. That is the only thing of which we know the shape. We do not yet know what the restrictions on corporate donations will be. In a Seanad debate in March 2000, the Minister again promised that the amendments would be ready "shortly". He repeated this promise at Question Time on 4 April. We have not seen the amendments as the Minister is stringing out the matter.

Now, when the Taoiseach receives his speaking notes each day – the notes which anticipate the issues of the day – he has a standard note in answer to Deputy Quinn's regular questions about corporate donations. He has a page on the subject which rhymes out ten pieces of legislation, more legislation than anywhere in the western world, the Taoiseach claims. This is all in his mind. We have not seen the shape of any legislation; yet, the Taoiseach says it is coming. It is coming like the general election is coming, and if I was a betting man, I would say that the general election will come first.

The Bill has to be seen in the context of this raft of legislation. It is an irritant and does not address the wider issues. I accept that Deputy Killeen and the committee did a good job on the detail, making recommendations, making the Bill sensible and trying to prevent a situation where innocent breaches might entrap Members. The committee tried to deal with the question of frivolous complaints against Members and struggled with the concept of connected persons. I accept this, but the Bill is a modest measure which does little other than give the Taoiseach fig leaf cover to suggest he is dealing with the environment that has debased politics. I can almost picture him using his peculiar speaking habit where the first half of the sentence goes one way and the second goes the other way. I attend each Order of Business and cannot figure out what he means to say. However, this method gets him through each day expertly. The purpose of the Bill is to get him through this situation.

I arrived in the House towards the end of Deputy Fleming's contribution. He said he had introduced a minority report, which I thought would ban corporate donations. However, he seemed to leave the way open to merely minimising such donations rather than banning them. He told the House he had brought Deputies Quinn and Noonan behind the measure. He has, therefore, brought the Labour Party and the Fine Gael party behind it and said he was well on the way to bringing the Fianna Fáil Party behind it also. That is a considerable achievement for a Deputy who said he was only two years in the House prior to suggesting the measure. I do not decry him being the author of such proposals. He has much experience in the area of corporate donations, in keeping donations counted and in keeping the books. No Member of the House knows more about such matters than Deputy Fleming. I am sure he acted in accordance with the highest professional standards as a professional person. Therefore, I take seriously what he suggests. I am dubious, however, about the proposition with which he has swung the Labour Party and Fine Gael behind him – perhaps that is not the way it happened. It is a great pity, however, he could not swing Fianna Fáil in behind him. If he could do so, we would be in business.

The real issue is whether private money can purchase public men. It is a shame it has come to this. There should be no difficulty about the interaction between business and politics. Anyone holding office or with influence in their local constituency who is not concerned to interact with business is not doing the best job for his or her constituents. Unfortunately, due to known high profile cases, when the nexus of politics and business takes place behind closed doors and financial contributions of the order Deputy Fleming put on the record of the House this afternoon can be transferred in secret, there are few in the House who would not be the subject of allegations that they favour a particular business or person. For this reason, the banning of corporate donations is the only way to deal with the issue. Otherwise, we lay ourselves open to the allegations that now feature so easily in the media.

We have lost all sense of balance and proportion. An employee of a local authority who designs a porch for his or her mother-in-law's home is put on the same plane, in some media coverage, as the unfortunate former assistant Dublin county manager. That is the environment in which we work. I hope we are going through a cathartic phase and the tribunals will bring to an end the corrosive cynicism about politics. We have an obligation to uphold the laws we make. We must be careful to put in place some form of consolidated code because, on foot of the number of trip wires that now exist, Deputies who could be innocent of any serious breach could find themselves the subject of allegations, etc.

I agree with Deputy Fleming that former Deputy Michael McDowell has many find equalities. However, membership of the Labour Party was not one of them. My colleague, Deputy Derek McDowell, made the point that there is a special obligation on Members who make the law to uphold it. We must win back the confidence of the people for whom politics has been debased as a result of what is happening outside the House.

The application of the legislation to areas outside politics is an important issue. The question of the role of the media is particularly important in that regard. I take no pleasure in the fact that the focus of coverage of what might be termed "public affairs" has switched from the Houses to Dublin Castle. It is difficult to find in most broadsheets reference to what transpires in this House on a daily basis. Even the coverage of proceedings of the House in The Irish Times has been reduced to approximately one eighth of a page. The focus has been transferred to Dublin Castle and, regardless of the importance of the issues – whether they be hospital waiting lists, taxation or the other matters of import of the day – they cannot compare with scandal in terms of selling newspapers. Apparently, what happens here is dull, boring stuff as far as newspaper proprietors are concerned. That is a great pity.

As regards the application of the legislation to senior civil servants, we are lucky to have and to have had, by and large, a very honest Civil Service. I am aware, however, that permanent office equals absolute power. If a political party remains in permanent office, it can exercise absolute power. Everyone knows what such power tempts and invites. As I reiterate my comments about senior civil servants in this country being uniquely honest, there is a view abroad that many senior civil servants nowadays are differently disposed to a Fianna Fáil dominated Administration than they would be to an Administration dominated by Fine Gael or Labour.

Things are done more easily under Fianna Fáil for some reason. If one says "Send the guns to Dundalk" they are sent to Dundalk; if one says "Build the "Bertie Bowl" it will be built; or if one says "Buy the Boyne site" it is bought. Can Members imagine what would have happened if Deputy Michael D. Higgins, the former eminent Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, had come to Cabinet one morning and suggested to the Taoiseach that we should spend up to £1 billion on building a football stadium? Can they imagine what the media would have said or what the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and his colleagues, then in Opposition, would have said? They would have nailed him to the cross. Thankfully, Deputy Michael D. Higgins did not do anything so daft. However, the boss to whom the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy answers – who was his party's hardline proponent of fiscal rectitude and moderation in public spending – has done so.

The attitude to which I refer is a matter of con cern to me, but it is merely an orientation I detect in certain quarters of the Civil Service and it has nothing to do with the subject matter of this Bill. Nor, has the cute hoor culture to which Deputy McDowell referred earlier. That culture should not be made equivalent to corruption. The cute hoor culture certainly has its defects. There are Members, particularly on the Fianna Fáil benches, who would say it has its advantages and they have certainly captured the constituency, by and large and to considerable effect. However, it is a long way from corruption. That distinction must be made.

Whatever the venalities of public and business life, corruption is a different story and I do not believe any law will prevent the politician who wants to be bought being bought. I do not see anybody coming to the House and wanting to "buy" an Opposition Deputy. One might want to "buy" an influential member of a local authority or an officeholder, but will certainly not be bothered purchasing the services of an Opposition Deputy. Until we deal with the fundamental issue of corporate donations, this Bill is only a minor step and I am not sure it is intended to be enacted prior to the general election at the end of September.

I welcome the legislation. Views have been expressed as to whether it represents an important step forward in putting together a corpus of laws in this area or whether it is a sop. I consider it an important Bill which builds, in general, in a positive way on previous legislation in this area. I am in general agreement with Deputy Rabbitte that if people are disposed to finding ways to transgress and if they are disposed to using political life as a vehicle to advance their financial interests or those of connected persons – I mean connected persons in a wider sense than that contained in the definition in the Bill – it would take more than legislation of this nature to address such behaviour.

A great deal of research in respect of this matter, was conducted mainly in various third level institutions in different areas. I had an opportunity to read quite a proportion of that research during an enforced absence from the House. I was interested to discover that many researchers found that while a small proportion of politicians seem to be predisposed to trawling the system to find ways to illegally benefit themselves and others, there was a political climate in existence which either allowed or encouraged a particular kind of behaviour. The various tribunals will eventually make findings and people will conduct research on those findings and on the evidence which has come to light in public life over a considerable period. It is likely people will discover that a climate existed, at a particular juncture, in and around this House and politics in general which made certain activities a great deal more acceptable than they ought to have been.

If the Bill is placed in that context, however small a step it might be in the view of those who are critical of it, it is nonetheless an important step in the right direction and an acknowledgement that a legislative basis for directing people in terms of what are the requirements of good conduct is an important piece of a jigsaw that is notoriously difficult to put together. It is not merely the experience in this State which suggests this. Historical experience from various democracies and countries with other forms of government, indicates that people manage to find ways to err and to do much worse on occasion. Apart from the worst excesses – there are four or five cases before the tribunals which probably rank among these – the Irish experience has been particularly tame in terms of what people have managed to do on foot of the political positions they held.

My contribution to this debate is informed, and perhaps somewhat jaundiced, by what I have learned on foot of my membership of the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests. I assure Members that, if I am returned to the next Dáil, I will happily serve on ten committees in order to escape serving on that one. I intend to ensure that will be the case if I am returned. It is hugely tedious work which requires a huge commitment of time, and almost all the work must, by its nature, be conducted behind closed doors. There is undoubted attendant stress and unpopularity for Members who investigate complaints about their peers.

I appreciate the work of the other members of the committee. Almost always we reached decisions unanimously. When we did not, as happened on occasion, I was always on the minority side. Parties generally were split, which means people brought their own rather than their parties' perspectives to the various discussions. The committee recently prepared a draft code of conduct and laid it before the House. I will refer to that if I have time.

The vexed question of the type of penalties which should apply in the case of a person found guilty of an offence is one which posed difficulty for the committee and for anyone who examined this area. The first attempt at expulsion of a Member of Parliament I can find was in the United States House of Representatives in 1798. It was unsuccessful because it was two votes short of the required two thirds' or three quarters' majority. There were subsequent cases in the House of Representatives, in one of which the Member against whom the complaint was made was refused the right to mount a defence on his behalf. I mention that because I share the fears expressed by a number of Members who spoke, that, in the rush to put this legislation in place, there is a danger of trampling on the rights of individual Members and on the rights of their constituents to be represented properly, as is required under the democratic mandate.

I already mentioned international scandals. The United Kingdom House of Commons has had its own experiences, some of them recent and well known in Ireland. I imagine all Members will have paid close attention to the Neil Hamilton hearings. For anyone who has the time and is disposed to do so, it is worth reading the transcripts of the Nolan committee, its report and the reasons it reached its determinations. While there were transgressions in the Hamilton case, one must question the relevance of the extremely unsavoury witch hunt conducted alongside it which added nothing to the attempt to have a better and more transparent and effective system in that Parliament or any other in the world.

The blue book, which was mentioned by others and which produced this legislation and debate, was useful in several respects, not least of which was that members of three committees were charged with examining it in detail. I cannot help thinking that, had I not been a member of one of those committees, I would know no more than 5% of what I know about the legislative attempt to keep politicians in line and on the straight and narrow. I would be surprised were I to know more than I would obtain from a cursory reading of the guidelines issued annually by the committee and in which I would only seek whatever specific matter might be of concern to me. That is perhaps the greatest weakness in this Parliament and, I suspect, in many others. Members are so busy chasing issues for constituents and dealing with legislation that they seldom give themselves the opportunity to consider the wider issue of their role as parliamentarians, what Parliament might do and what it does frequently that it should not do. That is the background against which this legislation is set.

I welcome the change indicated by the Minister of State in the composition and membership of the commission which will allow for a former Member of the Houses to be a member of the commission. It is unlikely that those who have not sat in Parliament will be aware of the type of difficulties and conflicts a Member is required to address in undertaking his or her parliamentary work.

All the committees which examined the blue book recommended that the issue of lobbyists be addressed. Perhaps this legislation is not the vehicle for doing it but dealing with that matter is no less urgent. If anything, some of the revelations since that time have made it much more urgent. I am sure few would argue with Deputy Rabbitte's contention and the contention of others that it is more important legislation than this.

Another matter which exercised the committees was dealing with anonymous complaints. Everyone's immediate gut reaction is to discount them and bin them, but recent experience suggests that there must be a means to accommodate the person who has a genuine complaint to make and who runs the risk of being fired, ill-treated or suffering catastrophically by bringing the matter to public attention. Deputy Rabbitte's Whistleblowers Protection Bill, to which he referred, needs to be acted on. The Minister of State said in his opening address that it is being examined and that it will be put to the committee shortly. I welcome that. The Bill is an important and fundamental consideration in this area.

Section 6, which deals with the powers of the commission, addresses and amends section 23 of the 1995 Act, generally by adding or substituting powers. It is important Members are aware that the powers of the commission are the full powers of a tribunal, and that is as it should be.

I am concerned about the manner in which section 14 is drafted if it means what I think it does. It states that a person may not refuse to answer questions or produce documents on the grounds that they may be self-incriminating. This is something which could be argued from either side. There are exclusions relating to sections 32(4) and (5) of the 1995 Act which appear either superfluous or contradictory and I am not sure which. The issue of self-incrimination in transposing whatever may have been dealt with before the commission into any subsequent criminal proceedings which may arise could well be important. It might transgress the rights of an individual and, more importantly, protect the individual in certain circumstances from future criminal proceedings. It is something which needs to be examined closely on Committee Stage.

The committees expressed the view that thresholds should be increased if certain penalties were to be introduced. It is something I agree with although I would not get hung up on it. The four or five sections which deal with tax clearance certificates are to be welcomed in general terms although a number of Members raised certain questions about them. They can be addressed successfully on Committee Stage. Section 10 goes some way towards consolidating the declaration requirements, but they require further streamlining. I do not have any doubt that it would be possible to have one declaration statement under electoral and ethics legislation. It is extremely desirable that that be the case.

The representatives' committee drew attention to the existing title of the committee which unfortunately is confused with the Members' services committee in which almost everyone has an interest at some stage. It is confused further by the fact that the same individual is Chairman of both committees. The opportunity should be taken in the Bill to change the name of the committee to the Committee on Standards and Ethics of Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, as appropriate. That would be helpful for many reasons, not least that it would reduce the level of confusion that besets Members about the roles of the two different committees.

The matters being examined by tribunals, in so far as they affect Members of the Houses, appear to refer only to their activities when they were either Ministers or members of local authorities. I do not recollect any complaint of great consequence directed at a Member arising from his or her membership of the Dáil or Seanad. There are many complaints about what people are alleged to have done and may have done as Ministers and a raft of complaints about what people might have done when they were members of local authorities. I have not heard the Minister use it as an argument but it appears to be a convincing case for ending the dual mandate.

Section 4(5)(b) contains a definition of the term “significant public importance”. Basically, it means a pecuniary interest. I am not sure it is in the interest of legislation to have it in this format. This matter should be looked at on Committee Stage.

The interaction between the Committee on Members' Interests and the commission needs to be tightened up considerably. The modus operandi to be followed regarding complaints is not clear.

Debate adjourned.