The third interim report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments was published on 21 January 2004. Its findings relate to Mr. George Redmond and its publication was delayed as Mr. Redmond, who is the primary subject of the report, was before the courts facing charges for corruption.
Mr. Redmond was the assistant city and county manager for Dublin. The report describes in detail three payments made to Mr. Redmond. Of those, the report concludes that two were corrupt payments and the other did not fall within the definition of a corrupt payment as provided for in the interpretation of the tribunal's terms of reference. The report found that the persons who made the payments were Mr. Joseph Murphy Jnr. and Mr. Michael Bailey.
The establishment of the tribunal has sent out a very clear message to anyone who has corrupt dealings relating to planning that these matters can no longer be kept secret. This message is reinforced by the clear findings in the second and third interim reports of Mr. Justice Flood. The Government fully supports this and is providing the tribunal with the resources it requires to continue with work set out in its terms of reference so that the matters being investigated by the tribunal can be resolved once and for all.
Corruption and the act of hindering or obstructing a tribunal are criminal offences and the law in this regard must be enforced. It is unacceptable for any person who holds high office to accept corrupt payments in return for favours. It is important that legislation and structures are in place to ensure that decisions taken by personnel in public office, which can confer large financial benefit on others, are taken in a transparent way. Over the past few years the Government has been actively working to ensure that this is the case.
As yet, the tribunal has not made specific recommendations in regard to amendments to planning, local government or ethics in public office legislation. However, while much important work remains to be completed by the tribunal, the Government has initiated some ongoing improvements of planning and ethics law. The Government made a series of significant changes to planning legislation in the Planning and Development Act 2000. We introduced more opportunities for public consultation and scrutiny at both development plan and permission level.
It is notable that, in the conclusion to the report, one payment referred to was connected to the non-application of development charges that are normally imposed as a condition of a grant of planning permission. The law has been updated and radically revised in the Planning and Development Act 2000. Contrary to the rhetoric of some Members opposite in recent debates, these revisions will improve the transparency of the system and ensure that it applies openly and fairly across all developments. It takes decisions away from the level of individual applicants and sets a common standard.
The new system of development contribution schemes gives the job of deciding on a scheme of contributions to the elected members in each planning authority. The officials of the authority must then apply the scheme across all developments. All local authorities have adopted or are in the process of adopting a development contribution scheme to comply with the statutory deadline of 10 March 2004.
In addition to the changes to development contributions over recent years, my Department has been intervening more proactively with planning policy advice and has issued guidelines on matters such as increasing residential densities, mobile phone masts and child care. Draft guidelines on quarries, architectural heritage and landscape have been issued for public consultation. The purpose of these guidelines on specific subjects is to assist local authorities in carrying out their planning function and to give all involved in the planning system up-to-date guidance on best practice.
Modern guidelines for development management and control, which were last issued in 1982, are being prepared and will be published later this year. These guidelines will give general guidance to planning authorities on processing planning applications and the content of permissions. Planning authorities have the difficult job of promoting the development of their areas at a strategic level, while handling tens of thousands of different applications for planning permission for individual developments every year. The guidelines issued by the Department will help planning authorities to remove inconsistencies regarding how applications are managed, as well as applying a more consistent national framework by which to measure their performance.
As well as changes to the planning code, there have been significant developments in recent years in the legislative and regulatory framework governing the conduct of public representatives and public servants. These changes will reinforce public confidence in the standards by which Ireland is governed.
I am glad to point out, in so far as local government is concerned, that the Local Government Act 2001 provides a comprehensive ethics framework for local government employees and councillors. From January 2003 this has applied to all local authorities. This new framework updated and developed the previous law taking account of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995. As its starting principle, the Act provides that it is the duty of every councillor and employee to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.
The framework is based on three basic requirements: first, an annual declaration of a wide range of interests; second, disclosure of any interest in a matter coming before the authority; and, third, a public register of these interests. The interests that have to be declared annually by councillors and specified staff include such matters as shareholdings, directorships, holdings of land or other property, gifts, supplies of property or services, travel facilities, contracts with a local authority and certain other matters.
There is also a requirement to disclose interests in any matter which arises in the performance of functions by the local authority and in which the councillor or employee concerned or a connected person has an interest. A councillor cannot speak or vote in such cases and an employee must comply with directions from his or her manager. Where the matter relates to a manager, she or he must delegate the function. Failure to comply with either requirement is an offence and the penalties have been set at a high level to deter anyone from pursuing this course. The penalties are a fine of a maximum of €12,690 and a term of imprisonment of two years on conviction on indictment.
The final elements of this framework, separate draft national codes of conduct for councillors and employees, have been drafted. The codes' aims are to set out the standards and principles of conduct and integrity for local authority employees and councillors, to inform the public of the conduct it is entitled to expect and to uphold public confidence. These draft codes have been made available to interested parties for their views and it is intended, following consideration of those, to have them in place by the middle of 2004. The intention is that the codes will supplement the specific requirements under the Act, and will form an integral part of the new ethics framework. Both the courts and the Standards in Public Office Commission may have regard to them in carrying out their duties.
The 2001 Local Government Act is bolstered by other legislation covering the public service such as the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2001. This legislation strengthened the law on corruption. It provides for a presumption of corruption where there is proof that certain persons in public office have received money or other benefits from a person who has an interest in the way certain functions are carried out or the outcome of certain decisions. In effect, a person who receives a payment in these circumstances will have to prove the payment is not corrupt, instead of the prosecution proving that it was. This should make the prosecution of corrupt payments easier. The types of decision covered by this legislation specifically include the sale or purchase of property and decisions on planning matters.
The Standards in Public Office Act 2001 provided for the establishment of the new Standards in Public Office Commission with wide investigative powers. The commission is a permanent statutory body set up to monitor, investigate and regulate the conduct of those elected to serve the people or who are employed in the public service. This is to ensure the maintenance of proper ethical standards. The Act imposes on politicians and others an obligation to have their tax affairs in order and to swear a statutory declaration that this is so. The commission, in carrying out its functions, can also have regard to a person's compliance with the local government code of conduct. An independent and powerful body such as the Standards in Public Office Commission with an ongoing mandate to supervise and maintain proper ethical standards is the best guarantee that what has happened in the past will not be permitted in the future.
Ireland needs a planning system that delivers a better quality of life for all. Hard decisions will always have to taken on where and how the country is developed. The best way to get the right decisions that encourage sustainable development is to ensure that they are made in a way that is open and transparent and can be measured against the right standards. The changes the Government has introduced into the planning code will ensure that decisions on development will benefit not just a few individuals but all the people of the State, now and in the future.
The Government welcomes the third interim report of the tribunal and the clear message it sends out to all persons who engage in corrupt practices. The tribunal has shown that wrongdoing will be exposed. The legislation already enacted and proposed by the Government ensures that we now have anti-corruption legislation appropriate to a modern democracy, with strong monitoring, reporting and enforcement mechanisms. We will not hesitate to respond to any recommendations made by the tribunal to improve our systems further.