Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share my time with Deputy Brendan Smith, if that is in order. I am disappointed to see that not alone is the Chamber emptying but also the public gallery. I play better in front of bigger crowds but I will do my best over the ten minutes available to me.

We are all conscious of the trust and confidence placed in Members when they are elected to this House. It is a great honour given by the electorate and, while we all have certain rights as Members, we should remain conscious of the responsibility that being a Member brings. We should not abuse that privileged position. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen abuses in a number of cases, across party lines, and the tribunals are dealing with those matters at present. There is a worrying cynicism among the public. For the future of our democracy it is important that the public have complete faith and confidence in the House and the way we do business.

The vast majority of TDs and Senators who come to the Dáil and Seanad carry out their duties in an honest and hard working fashion. They do a difficult job, although the public and media often have a go at that. For most Members, it is a job that takes up a lot of their time and family life often suffers as a result. However, we know the sacrifices before we come into the job and are prepared to accept those in carrying out the duties as Members of the Houses.

Most Members will welcome this Bill. The establishment of a Standards in Public Office Commission can only help in restoring public confidence in the House and the Members. However, I am concerned about the rush to transparency in recent legislation. There seems to be a race to find out which party is whiter than white. The only certainty that can be given about parties in the House is that there are no angels in any of them, much as the public might want that. All parties have faults and failings and it is important that, whatever wrongs were done in the past, Members and parties learn from their failings and put in place proper procedures and rules to ensure that we do not have a repeat performance.

Each year Members are asked to provide a declaration of interests. I have no difficulty in providing such a declaration and a list of properties or share dealings. However, the way that declaration is used is unfortunate and unnecessary. Why is it necessary to publish that information in newspapers around the country? Journalists can be very selective in the way they use this material. This declaration could be provided to the Ceann Comhairle or the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. That body, if it was found that a conflict of interest emerged during the year, could call the person involved to account. If the matter needed to be made public at a later stage, so be it. However, it is totally unnecessary to produce this declaration each year and then to have selective use made of it in the media.

It is vital that a good cross-section of people run for public office. A good mixture is important in any organisation. This mixture is certainly not the case in terms of gender balance in the House at present. It is important to have a good mix of men and women, young and old, if we are to have a feel for what is going on in the country. We need to be in touch with different sectors and groups. Likewise, it is important to have business people, teachers, farmers, trade unionists and ordinary working people represented. We do not want a situation where the House is full of lawyers, barristers, teachers, bookmakers or anything else. We need a good cross-section.

I am concerned that recent legislation is part of a competition to see which party is the cleanest. Some of the legislation is preventing good people from running for election. A number of people outside the House see some of the legislation and its demands as an intrusion into their private lives. That should not be the case. The evidence emerging from the tribunals has opened the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, the perception held by many has become a reality. We will have a major problem trying to undo the damage that has emerged from the tribunals. People are reluc tant to be critical of them in that it might indicate they are trying to hide something. The costs of the tribunals are worthy of comment and they must not be allowed go out of control. Nobody knows what they will cost before they finish. There are lessons to be learned in terms of how we do our business and set up tribunals.

We have too many Oireachtas committees. If we had fewer committees with greater powers and resources, we could do some of the work that the tribunals are now doing. I think Deputy Carey stated it was not appropriate for Members to be members of local authorities and that if they were doing their jobs properly, they would have enough work to do without taking on that of local authorities. Deputy Dempsey shares this view, but a small group of Members in this House have a different view. We will be dealing with the legislation over the—

It is a very important group.

—next couple of weeks. I hope there will be a consensus.

It is a weighty group.

I have a concern about the negative public perception of politics in general. All parties have endeavoured in recent years to rectify this. We have had Members from different parties who got into trouble over the past year or two in a very public way. The reaction when a Member is in trouble is very predictable. Usually, it is a venial sin if the Member is a member of one's own party and a mortal sin if he is a Member of another party. We should be more consistent and fair when dealing with such issues. Otherwise we would not be doing ourselves any great service.

A new commission is to be set up which will deal with complaints about the actions or omissions of persons in public life. This will improve standards in general, although most people try to carry out their duties in an honest, efficient way. They serve the public as best they can for no ulterior motive. In order to restore the public's confidence in the political process, it is vital that we have a greater consensus among the parties and that the Oireachtas is given much greater resources and power.

I am glad of the opportunity to discuss this important legislation. What Deputy Power said in his closing remarks is very important. The workings of the Oireachtas and the assistance given to Members should be improved. In recent years, the support available to Members has improved, but there is an obvious case for further improvement. Most Deputies would like to have a second secretary or research assistant, because those with a constituency based secretary know of the difficulties encountered in Dáil Éireann through not having any secretarial back-up or research assistance.

This legislation is being discussed against a background of a small minority of politicians who engaged in corrupt practices over the years. Their actions cannot be excused under any circumstances. The generation of politicians in this Dáil and the preceding one has had to frame legislation to deal with transgressions that took place over a period many years previously.

I welcome the enactment of a number of Bills in the last few years. The Public Service Management Act, 1997, put in place a more modern accountability framework for the Civil Service. 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. It also can compel witnesses to attend hearings and respond to questions. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, provides mechanisms for dealing with conflicts of interest.

Bills laid on the foundation of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and the electoral Acts of 1997 and 1998 seek to achieve fairness in the electoral process. The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Bill, 1999, provides similar measures for the local authority issue.

Greater funding should be made available by the State to political parties. Whether small or large, parties should be treated fairly. There are fewer and fewer people taking part in voluntary political activity. All political parties have this problem. It is not easy to fund parties on an ongoing basis to provide for research and assistance and to provide backup staff at headquarters level. I note the Minister for Finance has recently published a Bill that will provide for increased funding for parties. That is a welcome measure.

We are all aware that there are a small number of people who contribute financially to voluntary activity, such as recreational or sporting clubs or political parties. The people who complained about the relative inactivity of political parties with regard to recent referenda would not contribute to anything themselves. They would not contribute to a local sporting or voluntary organisation, never mind a political one. There are fewer people available who are prepared to run Irish nights, whist drives, etc., to raise money for political parties. Therefore, we should ensure that all political parties are funded by the State on a fair and progressive basis. It is only by having well funded political parties, with research facilities, capable of modernising their systems, that we will enhance the democratic process.

Deputy Power also spoke about the work of committees. All of us find, particularly Government backbenchers who are on a number of Oireachtas committees, that committees create a very serious burden of work for Members.

I am a Member of the Committee on Members' Interests. In recent months, it had many long meetings to hear submissions and consider the drafting of a code of conduct for Members of Dáil Éireann. The committee, chaired by Deputy Kil leen, has only five Members. It operates in a non-partisan manner. I heard Deputy Killeen in his contribution to this Bill state that, at all times, decisions have been reached on the basis of unanimity and that, where there were divisions, they did not occur on a political party basis. That shows the strength of committees and their potential to carry out useful work. In the preamble to the code of conduct for Members of Dáil Éireann, we emphasised that it is in the individual and collective interests of Members to foster and sustain public confidence in their integrity as individuals and in Dáil Éireann as an institution. It is also stated that to ensure this, Members should at all times be guided by the public good and ensure that their actions and decisions are taken in the best interests of the public. If I remember it correctly, the first paragraph of the code stresses that Members must, in good faith, strive to maintain the public trust placed in them and exercise the influence gained from their public office to advance the public interest alone. It is important that we have that code of conduct within which we can operate.

There is no doubt that since Dáil Éireann was established, the overwhelming majority of Members on all sides have worked to achieve the highest standards. However, a very small number have damaged the standing of politics in recent years.

The Minister of State indicated that the Bill provides for the establishment of a standards in public office commission to investigate complaints involving officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas, creates tax clearance requirements for politicians and senior public servants, provides for the codes of conduct to apply to officeholders, Members of the Oireachtas and members of the public service and establishes a regime for dealing with breaches of the legislation. Everyone in the House welcomes the introduction of the legislation. The Minister of State indicated that certain aspects of it could be amended or improved on Committee Stage. I welcome his openness in stating that there are some areas which could be improved.

When the Bill was initially published in July 1998, it was referred to the Committee on Members' Interests. The committee then held meetings with officials of the Department and put forward suggestions. I am aware its members are pleased that a number of those suggestions were taken on board and the Minister of State has indicated that some of them will be provided for on Committee Stage. The proposals in the Bill are of considerable consequence for the workings of our democratic institutions. They are concerned with ensuring that the people who lead our society and run our public services are seen to act in an ethical and impartial manner. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, requires Oireachtas Members, Ministers and most high-ranking public servants to provide details of financial interests, if any exist, relating to activities outside their official duties.

I understand Deputy Joe Higgins intends to share time with Deputy McGrath.

(Dublin West): That is correct. Deputy McGrath and I will each speak for ten minutes.

One of the most striking aspects of the action taken by the Government in respect of dealing with the responsibilities of public officeholders and public representatives and coming to terms with corrupt or dubious practices is the dreadfully slow pace at which it has brought forward legislation. Legislative proposals have emerged in a drip, drip fashion for several years. For example, the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, had its genesis in the mid-1990s but it is only now being debated in the House. In the interim there has been a torrent of revelations concerning the interface between different big business concerns and politicians and the involvement of local government and planning interests.

People believe there is a need for an immediate and merciless crackdown not only on open corruption but also on the cronyism and everything else attaching to the relationship between business and politics. It has been several years since the Ansbacher scam was revealed. We know that 120 anonymous individuals defrauded the tax system and were involved in shenanigans as a result of their private greed. Years later, however, we still do not know the identities of these people and we do not know when the matter will be resolved.

Some months ago, because the local authority does not sweep the streets often enough, litter blew into the gardens of a number of my constituents in a certain housing estate in Dublin West. They were issued with an on-the-spot fine of £50, which was followed some weeks later by a threatened summons to the District Court with the advice that they could be fined up to £1,500 under one or other of the Litter Acts if they did not comply. Terrified of the courts, which most ordinary people are, they paid the £50 fine. In addition, an unfortunate person who is addicted to heroin is currently serving a six year sentence – reduced, on appeal, from nine years – for snatching, with no violence involved, a handbag containing approximately £1,000 worth of goods or whatever. What is the difference between those involved in the Ansbacher scam and the individuals to whom I refer? The difference is that the small people are immediately hit with the full rigours of the law while the big fish are allowed to swim away to enjoy the benefits of their offshore accounts. We do not know whether the latter will ever be brought to book. Is it any wonder ordinary people are so cynical about the political establishment – this was dramatically illustrated in the recent vote on the Nice treaty – when they see this type of double standard in operation in political life?

The Minister of State explained that the Standards in Public Office Bill provides for the estab lishment of a new standards in public office commission with wide investigative powers relating to so-called specified acts. He also indicated that its provisions relate to officeholders and extend to Members of the Dáil. I welcome this development but I must complain about the slow pace of progress in that regard.

In the recent past we witnessed the most outrageous actions on the part of officeholders in respect of their relationship with business interests. The sale of the second mobile telephone licence and the Esat Digifone affair represent an outrageous abuse of his office by the then Minister. It is amazing how silent the political establishment has remained in respect of this matter. People are horrified by the fact that a private businessman was sold the second mobile telephone licence – as everyone knows, this was tantamount to giving him his own diamond mine – for £15 million, which, inevitably, he sold to a multinational and walked away with a personal profit of £230 million. That is bad enough, but we now know of all kinds of dubious dealings of a business nature between the Minister who granted that licence and the beneficiary. There is only one word for this – corruption. I do not care whether it is proved in a court of law, but ordinary people know that this type of behaviour is corrupt.

Another provision in the legislation is for codes of conduct for office holders, Ministers and Members of the Oireachtas. I am in favour of that, but I wish to make a few suggestions as to what might be included in that code of conduct apart from the obvious, such as favours and inappropriate and improper dealings between politicians and businessmen. It should, for example, be in the code that any Member of the Dáil would be prevented from having outside employment. It is outrageous that Members of the Dáil act as paid consultants to big business concerns. That is a conflict of interest. One cannot purport to serve the ordinary people while at the same time be a consultant to big business and possibly multinational concerns whose interests can often be diametrically opposed to the interests of the ordinary people. The moonlighters down at the Four Courts should also be banned. Certain Members of the Dáil travelling the world as directors of multinational companies and financial institutions and showing their faces once a month in the House should be banned from doing so because it is wrong. If we are serious about a code of conduct, we will make fundamental changes.

The proposals unveiled in recent days leave me cynical about the intentions of the Government and its seriousness in transforming politics and political actions. The Ministers for Finance and the Environment and Local Government have in recent days increased to millions of pounds the moneys from the taxpayer to political parties. The Ministers have set aside a major slush fund for political parties. The party leaders' allowance legislation which is to come before the Dáil shortly provides for the auditing of the allowance, for which I called and with which I agree. However, the allowance can still be used for entertainment or an extra honorarium for a party leader. This is provided for in the Bill. After what we have seen in the tribunal regarding a previous leader of the country and the grotesque abuse of the party leaders' allowance which is supposed to be used to aid public service, to come back with the same provision in new legislation beggars belief.

Acting Chairman

I call Deputy McGrath. The Deputy should be careful in any reference to tribunals. We are apparently supposed to steer clear of them.

I will try to do that. I thank Deputy Higgins for sharing his time with me. I welcome the opportunity of addressing the House on the Bill.

It is a tremendous privilege for any Member to walk through the doors of the House as an elected representative of his peers in his area. For anyone who has been a Member for a long time, such as the Acting Chairman, it is a fantastic privilege that people consistently have faith in one to re-elect one on many occasions over a long period. It stands well to the country that so many public representatives have long tenures of office.

Long before we had the Ethics in Public Office Act or the Standards in Public Office Bill, our predecessors served the country well and brought it quickly from a state of anarchy in the early 1920s after the Civil War to a highly democratic state. The gun was taken out of politics to a great extent by our predecessors and we owe a debt of gratitude to them. It should be mentioned that they did it on salaries that were a mere pittance and without all the rules and regulations governing declarations. It can be said that, almost across the board, they were highly respectable people.

There have been difficulties recently, but it is only fair to say that it is confined to a group of people who are small in number compared to the numbers who have been Members of the House. When one considers the average tenure of office of Members is 11 years, the fingers have been pointed at a very small number. Taken in the overall context, the number is quite small. Bad apples exist in any profession as much as in politics. What we do is very much in the public arena and it is perhaps because of that we are more open to being targeted.

When I was elected 12 years ago this week, I was landed into an office with a secretary and phone but no fax. Assistance in becoming accustomed to the parliamentary mode and getting to know how things work was non-existent. One was left to paddle one's own canoe and work one's way through the system to find out how it worked. At the same time, one had to cater for one's constituents and hope that one might be re-elected. Matters were even worse when the Acting Chairman was elected. They have improved since and I acknowledge the improvements made. We now have offices of our own with fax machines and other modern technology. That is a major step forward.

We need further support, however. Whereas modern society has improved with communications and so on, it has increased the burden placed on us as public representatives. The volume of e-mails one receives on a weekly basis to which one must respond with the volume of other work curtails the amount of time one can spend on research, reading through important material and constituency work. There is a strong case for additional support by way of researchers. I hope the Minister for Finance, who has been very good to Deputies, will respond to those requests.

There is a long tradition in Ireland of public representatives being very close to the people. We have a system where one's constituents are in touch with one regularly and one meets them on a regular basis. Compare that to the system across the water. I remember once having a discussion with a parliamentary colleague from the United Kingdom who told me that he was very close to his constituents in that he went to his constituency once a month where he went to the club to meet his constituents. That was his regular contact with them. He would not survive very long in our system. That is something we must bear in mind, especially given the future debate on the dual mandate. What should be our reaction to that? Removing it would take away some of our burden of responsibility and it probably will happen in time.

Even in the short time I have been a Member, tremendous changes have occurred in the declarations one makes. One must declare what one receives and its origins. I have no difficulty with that because I do not have very much in that line. I have not accumulated a great deal of material which means it is easy for me to fulfil my obligations. We must be conscious, however, that some worthwhile people, be they from trade unions, business or the professions, do not want to be exposed in that way and what they have to be made known. We could be reaching the stage where we are, perhaps, turning away good people. People often say to me they would not have my job for anything. They would not do it because of the exposure, their every move being watched and everything they have being made public. Many people could not cope with that.

Deputy Power referred to the interests people might have in property or shares which they would have to declare as politicians. He said that perhaps it is time those were not made known and used for media purposes. It should be available to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the Ceann Comhairle or a committee comprising the Ceann Comhairle and the Clerk of the Dáil, rather than being available for use in the media. In recent weeks an article appeared in a newspaper about millionaire Members of this House. The people I know within this House who are wealthy made their money independently of their membership and of their service here. Many of them would be far richer had they not given up their time to be here. We have moved into a new arena and the difficulties politicians created for themselves are being exposed in tribunals and debated in the media.

I am also a member of a local authority which is currently reviewing its development plan. This is a long and arduous job and has been continuing for more than 12 months. We have now come to the stage of deciding on the rezoning of lands. The management of the council brought in a team of consultants to do a report on rezoning submissions. The report is almost totally negative and recommends almost no change from what was originally proposed. The consultants have made major errors in some of their reviews and have included incorrect factual information. In one case the consultants said an application to have a development in a village four miles from Mullingar would not be practical because it could not be connected to the sewerage system in Mullingar. The consultants were out of touch with the need to develop local communities, to give them power and to maintain local schools, post offices and other services.

When these decisions are debated in public it will be easy to point the finger at politicians. Some people will ask why we want to rezone certain lands for development. It will be difficult to argue that land should be included in a development because it would be good for the local environment and community. The voluntary housing organisation, Respond, has done excellent work in providing social housing and mixed developments. That organisation made a submission to rezone certain lands to provide 300 houses, a community centre, shops, swimming pool and so on to make a properly developed and resourced community. The application was reviewed negatively by the consultants. One questions how in touch are these consultants with the needs of communities and with the need to develop integrated communities such as that proposed.

Politicians must make the final decisions and it is easy for someone to ask why we make these decisions. Rather than giving us an opportunity to respond properly and to state the reasons for a decision, it is often easier to assume politicians make decisions to satisfy big business or some other interest. It is easy to cast a shadow over someone even when there is no justification for it.

I welcome the Bill and I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank the House for the many useful contributions to the Standards in Public Office Bill. The attention Deputies have given to this legislation in committees and on Second Stage has been commendable. I have already indicated to the House that various points already made on the Bill during the course of committee discussions will form the basis of Committee Stage amendments.

I have also noted that the report of the Committee on Members' Interests, in relation to a code of conduct for Dáil Éireann, has also suggested various amendments to the Bill. These suggestions, some of which have been repeated during the course of this debate, have been examined carefully. I anticipate bringing forward Committee Stage amendments on foot of that examination. To the extent that they are not already taken into account, the remarks made by Members on Second Stage are being considered with a view to making the Standards in Public Office Bill, when passed, a serious and effective Act.

The involvement in the debate of Deputies who are members of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service and the Committee on Members' Interests and the professional understanding of the State and its institutions which Members of the House have developed mean that a considerable degree of expertise is being applied to the consideration of this Bill. We can look forward to a productive discussion on Committee Stage.

Discussions of the Standards in Public Office Bill during the course of the Second Stage debate has, from time to time, extended into discussion of issues not addressed in the Bill. The Bill is a discrete Bill with a specific remit. There are important issues related to ethics and probity in public life which are beyond its scope. It is but one part of a broad legislative initiative which, taken in overall terms, will radically change the legislative structure within which people in public life do their business. More importantly, it will make the way we conduct our business more transparent and less open to abuse.

The Bill will build on the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, to ensure greater transparency in the conduct of public business by Members of the Oireachtas, office holders and other public servants. The introduction of tax clearance requirements, codes of conduct and stronger investigation mechanisms will underpin the high standards of probity and conduct to which the bulk of those in public life strive to adhere. The Local Government Bill, 2000, will similarly introduce new measures for greater transparency in local government and local politics.

Legislation in relation to lobbyists will perform a similar service in relation to the interactions between those in public life and those whose profession it is to seek to influence their decisions. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill will update and broaden the scope of the criminal law in relation to corruption. Whistleblowers legislation will protect persons who report unlawful activities. Where matters raised in this debate are likely to be addressed not in the Standards in Public Office Bill but in one of the other legislative initiatives currently under way, I will make a point of bringing the contents of this debate to the attention of the relevant Ministers or Departments.

Deputies have given a broad welcome to the Bill and I am pleased about that. While the welcome has been broad it has been tinged with a certain regret that circumstances are such that this Bill is necessary. None of us is happy about legislation of this type. We would all wish to live in a world where the personal moral and ethical standards of public representatives and public servants were beyond question and were known to be so. As Members of the Oireachtas we impose on ourselves, and to an extent on other public servants, greater transparency in the disclosure of personal and financial interests than applies in almost any other walk of life. I do not believe this carries an implication that we are less upstanding than any other segment of the population. Rather it reflects our own understanding that in the work we do we act as trustees on behalf of the population. Their common property vested in the State, their common heritage, their shared values, and their democratic institutions, are all given to us to manage for them, as a trust. We impose stringent standards on ourselves because we understand that, in the long run, we must be seen to operate to the highest standards, if we are to maintain the public trust.

It is to underpin the public's trust and confidence in its representatives and institutions that we are engaged in legislating in respect of standards and probity in public life. There may well be points of detail, as we discuss this Bill further, on which there will be disagreement but I believe there is little disagreement about the overall goal of ensuring that we continue to have a public service and a political system worthy of the esteem of our citizens.

I turn at this stage to some of the specific points made on the Standards in Public Office Bill during the course of our discussion. I apologise if I miss any points that Members regarded as particularly salient, but I am sure we will get back to them on Committee Stage.

There was some discussion of the issue of tax clearance, and in particular the consequences of failure by a Deputy to produce a tax clearance certificate. The Bill provides that if a Deputy fails to provide a tax clearance certificate, this would be the subject of a report to the Committee on Members' Interests which would lay it before the relevant House. The House could then decide on what action to take on foot of this. This action could involve suspension, for example. If a Deputy or Senator continued to fail to comply with the tax clearance provisions, the relevant House could consider extending such a suspension.

I should clear up any suggestion that the fact that a Deputy was in dispute with the Revenue would lead to any special difficulty. The Bill provides a mechanism that, in such a case, a Deputy will not be required to provide a tax clearance certificate until the appropriate Revenue appeals mechanisms have been gone through.

Deputy Mitchell mentioned that there are special considerations which apply in the case of judges and questioned whether the Bill is correctly structured in relation to tax clearance for judges. We have, in fact, anticipated this point and an appropriate amendment will be put forward on Committee Stage.

Deputies have also referred to the importance of maintaining confidentiality in proceedings of the commission or of the Members' Interests Committee. The point made, as I understand it, was that a Member should be protected from inappropriate disclosures where possibly unsustained allegations might be exaggerated and distorted as they passed through the "rumour mill" to the point where the reputation of a person could be seriously damaged. In that regard, the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, already provides that it is an offence under the Act to disclose information obtained by being present at a sitting of a select committee or of the commission held in private. These provisions will continue to apply and will extend to the new commission proposed under the Bill.

A number of Deputies raised the importance of balancing the extensive powers of the commission against the danger of vexatious or unsubstantiated complaints. The Bill has introduced a number of important safeguards here. The extensive powers of the commission will not be automatically invoked any time a person walks in off the street and makes an allegation. In particular, the commission has been given a mechanism – the inquiry officer – to allow for preliminary inquiries which will filter out frivolous or vexatious complaints, or those for which there is insufficient prima facie evidence. The commission will have power to dispose of frivolous and vexatious complaints, or minor complaints not worthy of a full commission investigation, at any stage. The new complaints under this Bill, in relation to the so-called “specified acts” must relate to matters of significant public importance, so trivial or minor matters should not be taken up.

In relation to complaints made about a Member of the Oireachtas, through the clerk, to the relevant Oireachtas committee, the clerk has been given a new power which did not exist under the Ethics Act, to rule out complaints where there is not sufficient prima facie evidence to sustain the complaint. Previously, the clerk could only refuse a complaint which he or she considered frivolous or vexatious.

I hope the House will agree that we have tried to build into the Bill an appropriate set of protective mechanisms to balance the need to have effective investigative mechanisms in place with the need to ensure that individuals are not left excessively vulnerable to deliberate mischief.

The burden of paperwork and administration arising from ethics and electoral legislation has also been mentioned. The existing legislation in this area, the ethics Acts and the electoral Acts, already impose substantial obligations in relation to annual statements of registerable interests, ad hoc statements where proximate conflicts may arise and disclosure of political donations. The Government considers it important therefore that this Bill should not unduly increase the obligations for Members and other persons covered by the Act. In fact, there are provisions which should make compliance with the requirements of the electoral Acts and ethics Acts a little simpler, if anything, and we will have Committee Stage amendments to go some way further on this point.

We must accept, of course, that the greatest burden may arise where someone is actually under investigation and that certain legal costs might arise. While the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, makes limited provision for award of costs to an individual, the investigations of specified acts under this Bill may turn out to be more complex and difficult than ethics Act investigations. For this reason, I will be putting forward amendments in relation to the issue of legal costs.

Certain Deputies also raised the issue of the level of resources available within the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Deputy McGrath referred to it again during this morning's debate. This is not something which is addressed in the Standards in Public Office Bill but I understand that the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas is evaluating tenders for the provision of consultancy services to perform an international benchmarking study on staff resources and grading, including analysis of the staff resources and grading required to service both Houses and the committees, and a review of the levels of non-Civil Service staff resources which are made available to assist Deputies and Senators in the performance of their parliamentary duties.

Deputy Timmins mentioned section 15 of the Bill, dealing with obstruction of the commission or the committee in their investigations. It is, of course, essential to have such a provision. Without it the whole investigatory structure of the Bill could be rendered ineffective. The commission and the committees can also seek discovery of documents. In that regard, I would also draw the attention of Deputies to section 17 which makes it an offence to deliberately destroy documents relevant to an investigation. In certain circumstances this could be very important.

Deputy McGuinness and others stressed that this Bill also deals with civil and public servants. He is perfectly right. As has been mentioned already, a code of conduct or "Code of Standards and Behaviour" for civil servants is already under consideration by a joint committee. It is anticipated that this will serve as the code to be applied to civil servants under this Bill. This code is also the subject of discussions with civil service staff interests.

Civil servants will also be amenable to the Standards in Public Office Commission, where appropriate, and complaints about them can be made to the commission in the same way as complaints about office holders. Civil servants, for this purpose, will include special advisers. This reflects the reality that, in modern times, public servants may exercise substantial discretionary and decision making powers, and they must be subject to appropriate rules.

Deputy Michael Higgins raised the issue of former senior civil servants taking up positions after retirement, perhaps in privatised State enterprises. He will be interested to know that the draft Civil Service code of conduct addresses this particular area. The draft code provides for an outside appointments board which would consider cases where the nature and, indeed, terms of such intended appointments could lead to a conflict of interest.

The Department of Finance is working on, and hopes to promulgate shortly, a detailed code of practice for the governance of State bodies which will incorporate a requirement that State bodies develop codes of conduct for their employees and directors. I see this as being complementary to the provision for codes of conduct within this Bill.

Deputies Fleming, Rabbitte and others raised the issue of corporate donations. Deputies will be aware of developments earlier this week in this regard. This important issue is one which will be the subject of discussion in regard to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, under the aegis of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. The Standards in Public Office Bill was never intended to address this particular topic.

Deputy Killeen mentioned a number of technical issues relating to the 1995 Ethics Act and the changes that this Bill will make to that Act. There are quite a few technical, but important, changes to the Ethics Act being brought forward here and I look forward to dealing with them on Committee Stage.

Deputy Perry raised the issue of gifts to office holders. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, requires office holders to surrender a gift of over £500 in value given by virtue of their office. This surrender requirement does not apply, obviously, to personal gifts that, for example, might be received from a relative. The Secretary to the Government determines the value of the gifts if there is any doubt.

Deputy Ring made a forceful and interesting contribution to the debate, including mentioning the Freedom of Information Act, for which I have responsibility. He did so in fairly negative terms. I understand some of the issues he raised, although they do not all arise from the Freedom of Information Act. I am reminded of the quote from a southern US politician, who apparently said:

Never write what you can telephone,

Never telephone what you can talk,

Never talk what you can whisper,

Never whisper what you can nod, and

Never nod what you can wink.

Deputy Ring's contribution to this debate proved that he is no whisperer but it would be unfortunate if a culture of secrecy pervaded the operations of the public sector. That is why many countries, including Ireland, have in recent years been taking steps to increase the transparency of their political and administrative systems.

The House should be pleased with the fact that since the Government took office, and since I obtained responsibility for the legislation, the Freedom of Information Act has been extended to over 300 bodies. One should remember that the key purpose of that legislation is for the benefit of individual citizens. That benefit is now being reaped across the country by many of the people whom we represent collectively in the House.

The Freedom of Information Act, 1997, is a key element in delivering the quality, transparency, openness and accountability required by a modern society. I accept it poses difficulties and leads to certain intrusions. One regrets at times the way the media deals with certain information which it is freely given regarding politicians. It was always my wish that the media would present the information in a proper context and not selectively use it to distort the facts regarding any Deputy or Senator. That is grossly unfair and it is a misuse of the Act. I have no difficulty making available information that comes under the remit of the Act even if at times it is personal. That does not bother me and I am quite prepared to make the information available, as are most Deputies and Senators. However, people in receipt of the information, which has been given honestly and freely, have a responsibility to ensure it is presented in a proper context.

I thank the Deputies who have contributed to the debate. There was tremendous interest and the committees involved put in significant work. I will bring forward amendments which have arisen out of the deliberations of the joint committees and the Second Stage debate. I have no doubt Members will table their own amendments and I look forward very much to Committee Stage. I hope we will have a worthwhile Bill at the end of this process. I commend the legislation to the House.

Question put and agreed to.