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.