On behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I welcome this legislation. We will be supporting the Bill, although we may consider submitting amendments on Committee Stage.
I had understood that the timing of this debate was to suit the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am aware that he had other engagements this morning but I was of the view that the debate had been timed to suit his diary. I am surprised, therefore, that the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs has come before the House to deal with the matter of criminal law reform. However, I do not wish to cast aspersions on either the man or the office he holds. I hope the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will contribute to the debate before it concludes.
It is a refreshing change to have Fianna Fáil associated with corruption in a positive sense. It is good to see that party introducing anti-corruption measures and engaging in the fight against corruption rather than, as we have become accustomed to, being associated with dodgy deals and corrupt practices. The Minister of State referred to the codification of the law, thereby giving the impression that there is a major corpus of law which must be brought together and that existing legislation is elaborate, lengthy and complex in nature. As regards the latter, nothing could be further from the truth. The Minister of State indicated that the legislation has been amended over the years. That is not really the case. In 2001 there was an amendment to an enactment that came about in 1906.
We have been particularly slow to legislate on ethical or whistleblower-related issues or matters relating to corruption. One could argue that this legislative deficit was partially responsible for the culture of corruption which characterised aspects of the planning process for many years and which was particularly associated with the Fianna Fáil Party and its cronies. Indeed, Fianna Fáil holds the record for the number of Deputies that have been expelled or resigned from senior positions due to allegations of corrupt practices. The culture under which the making of large payments was deemed acceptable stems from an arrogance at being in power for too long. There is a particular philosophy which permeates Fianna Fáil to such an extent that the party's entire modus operandi has been the attainment and retention of high office above all else. Under the philosophy to which I refer, the exercise of power seems to be an end in itself.
The legislation before the House is not the brainchild of Fianna Fáil or of the coalition Government of which it is a member. Rather, it arises on foot of a highly critical OECD report and repeated criticism from a globally renowned group, Transparency International. Successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments have shown their contempt for good governance by delaying, procrastinating in respect of and removing proposed legislation on corruption and ethics in public life. The whistleblowers Bill 1999 was on the legislative programme for seven years before being removed in 2006. Ireland has signed but not yet ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption. The criminal justice Bill to ratify the convention has not yet been published. However, the A list of promised legislation indicates that it is to be published before the end of the year, that is, in the coming weeks. We will see if that happens.
In the Ethics in Public Office (Amendment) Act 2007, the then Minister for Finance and current Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, ignored the recommendations of the Standards in Public Office Commission and instead focused entirely on the provision of gifts to ministerial and parliamentary office holders and raised the value of a gift to be declared from €650 to €2,000. Fianna Fáil-led Governments have consistently failed to show any leadership on the very serious matters of bribery, corruption and the acceptance of dodgy money. It is only after being embarrassed by the OECD and having its commitment to fighting corruption and bribery questioned that the Government has introduced this Bill.
The Bill will amend the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 and the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2001. It will somewhat strengthen the law on bribery and corruption and will finally make Ireland fully compliant with the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. It also provides a modicum of protection to whistleblowers who report cases of corruption in good faith. I fully endorse this part of the Bill because there has been no compulsion to date on Irish companies to protect persons who report transactions of a corrupt or dubious nature.
Fianna Fáil has shown a determined reluctance to give legislative protection to whistleblowers. This issue has arisen on many occasions in different sectors such as health and justice. A confidential recipient has only recently been appointed within An Garda Síochána. This followed six years of revelations at the Morris tribunal and eight reports detailing the consequences of allowing a culture of indifference and unaccountability not only to emerge but also to fester for many years.
I hope the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has on this occasion, unlike the last, consulted the private sector on the Bill's provisions. His predecessor failed to do so in respect of the Prevention of Corruption Act 2001. If the Bill before the House is to be taken seriously, and enforced as strictly as should be the case, it is vital that all public and private sector businesses must be made fully aware of the procedures relating to reporting corrupt transactions and also of the consequences of reporting such transactions. The Minister of State referred to a website. A public information campaign should involve much more than merely setting up a website.
The Bill will allow the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring more prosecutions against individuals or companies that are alleged to be involved in corrupt foreign transactions. Enforcing this law will be difficult. Will the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform indicate before the conclusion of the debate the additional resources that will be provided to the Garda Síochána for report gathering in respect of such offences?
As already stated, the Bill came about as a result of an important OECD report, published in March 2007, on Ireland's implementation of the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. That report was scathing in its criticism of the Government's attempts to meet its obligations under the convention. The OECD was of the view that the Government did not take its obligations seriously and levelled three main charges against it. First, it indicated that there was a very low attendance by officials from key Departments and bodies who were invited to meet representatives of the OECD while they were in Ireland. There seemed to be a reluctance on the part of the Government to either reply to invitations or to attend meetings. This made it very difficult for the OECD team to properly assess Irish efforts to comply with the convention. When requests were made in respect of information on the implementation of the convention, much of that information was not provided. The lack of attendance cast serious doubts in the minds of those on the OECD team as to the commitment of the Government to the implementation of the convention.
Second, officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform informed the OECD officials that no awareness campaigns on the convention had taken place or that information had not been targeted towards the private sector. The departmental officials stated that there were "no plans to make [the foreign bribery offence] more widely known than at present". Enterprise Ireland, part of the role of which is to offer advice and support to Irish exporters, felt it was "not responsible for raising awareness of the myriad of Government legislation" in this area. What is the point of legislating against the bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions if Irish companies are not aware that a law exists and if said law is not enforced?
Third, the OECD also criticised the Government's failure to put in place adequate whistleblower protection for both public and private sector employees. The report notes the Government's "miserable" attempt to introduce a whistleblowers' protection Bill into the legislative programme in 1999. Rather than acting on that intention, two successive Fianna Fáil-led coalitions ignored the legislation for seven years before dropping it in 2006 in favour of what was described as a "sectoral approach". By providing for these matters to be considered on a case-by-case basis, the Government is leaving the door open for corruption, bribery and dubious transactions and engagements to continue. I understand that the only case in which this approach has been taken to date relates to the Garda Síochána, undoubtedly as a direct result of the findings of the Morris tribunal. The belated inclusion in this legislation of a section on whistleblowers may represent an acceptance by the Minister that the protection of such people has been woeful up to now. Is the Minister indicating we should expect to see new appropriate legislation to provide comprehensive protection for whistleblowers in all sectors of Irish life and business?
The OECD report recommended the introduction of legislation to fully implement the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. It proposed that an awareness campaign be organised to accompany the legislation. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform responded by saying there was a "general perception that legislation in place was sufficient". All we got was a typical response from a tired Government and a poor initiative from an arrogant Minister. According to the Garda, when the OECD report was published in March 2007, no cases of foreign bribery had been brought before the Irish courts, although five investigations had been initiated. I would like the Minister to update the House on the status of the five investigations. Where do they stand now? Why did no prosecutions take place? Was the lack of resources part of the problem? I am sure the Minister will comment on the current position. I assume that prosecutions did not take place partly as a result of jurisdictional matters. If the Garda requires additional resources, I hope they will be provided. The penalties for foreign bribery — up to ten years of imprisonment and an unlimited fine — are severe. When this legislation has been passed, the law on foreign bribery and corruption will need to be enforced. The Government needs to assure the House that prosecutions will take place and due process will be resourced rather than obstructed.
I am aware that an official anti-corruption website, www.anticorruption.ie, was launched in May 2008. What other mechanisms has the Government put in place to ensure this Bill can be a success? Can the Minister brief the House on the measures, if any, he proposes to take in this regard? When the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, was still in office, he said he intended to establish a committee of officials from Government bodies and agencies who were to be responsible for monitoring compliance with the requirements of the convention. I assume the committee is up and running and is in contact with the OECD on a regular basis. The OECD evaluation team was supposed to return to Ireland for another review in March of this year. Did this review take place? Is a report on the evaluation available? What is the position with regard to the interdepartmental senior official compliance committee? How does the Minister propose to raise awareness of our obligations under the various international treaties to which we have signed up? How can he keep this matter in the public eye? I understand that OECD reports and examinations are normally subject to oral reporting on an annual basis, with a written review every two years. Can the Minister clarify where the latest reports stand?
The Minister referred to the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2001, which provides for a presumption of corruption when a public official or candidate for public office does not declare a political donation. Fianna Fáil's coalition partners in successive Governments, the Progressive Democrats, clearly failed to prevent corruption and bribery by those in public political life during that time. Now that the Green Party has taken on the watchdog role assumed by the PDs before its demise, perhaps it will have better luck in keeping an eye on Fianna Fáil. The signs are not good, however, as the Greens have behaved like a lapdog to date, which does not inspire confidence. I refer to the vote that took place in this House within the last hour, for example.
Any analysis of political corruption, dodgy dealings and questionable behaviour in Irish public life will show that Fianna Fáil is the clear leader when it comes to low standards in high places. Over the past 15 years, the State has been rocked by sleaze and scandal on a massive scale, with Fianna Fáil politicians in the driving seat on almost every occasion. We all remember the Al Masri passports affair. Politicians such as Haughey, Lawlor, Foley, the two Flynns, Burke and most recently, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, were frequently aided and abetted by Mr. Frank Dunlop. Mr. Dunlop, who fuelled the engine of planning corruption in this country for many years, was strongly associated with Fianna Fáil at all times. He was the ringmaster extraordinaire in a tangled web of deceit and profiteering. Perhaps Mr. Dunlop's only saving grace was that he eventually agreed to lay bare to the Mahon tribunal some of the detail of some of his activities.
Is it any wonder that many of our citizens are disillusioned and indifferent to this country's politics, public affairs and politicians? This disillusionment is compounded by the yawning gap the Government has created between itself and the people. In the recent budget, the Government ensured that its cronies will be well looked after, come what may. At the same time, it decided to remove the automatic entitlement to a medical card of people over the age of 70. The mobilisation of 15,000 people, most of them elderly, after this outrageous and ill-thought-out move showed that the public feels it has to march on the streets if it is to communicate with Fianna Fáil, which has truly lost touch with reality and the people it serves. When Deputy Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach, he spent more of his time coming up with a strategy for the Mahon tribunal than keeping his eye on the ball with regard to our economic plight. We have to thank him, in large measure, for the mess we are in.
I would like to mention a statement that was made by the former Fianna Fáil Senator, Mr. Des Hanafin, who guarded that party's purse strings for many years. When speaking about protracted public tribunal hearings, he said:
This demoralises, shakes confidence in politics and public servants, and even destabilises the State. All politicians and public servants are smeared and held up to public odium.
While there may be an element of exaggeration in that statement, it rightly points to the importance, in any democracy, of ensuring that politicians are not seen as removed from, or superior to, the people. Despite the actions of a handful of politicians, most of them from Fianna Fáil, it is important that those of us involved in this profession are not all branded as dodgy, corrupt or in it for ourselves. The actions of Deputy Bertie Ahern, Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke etc., have damaged democracy in this country by undermining people's faith in their public representatives. It is incumbent on us all to rebuild the trust between politicians and those we represent. A package of robust measures emanating from this House is the starting point in that respect. While this legislation is a start, it is no more than that. As the Minister of State said, it is a small measure. Further action is needed. My colleague, Deputy Varadkar, is promoting the Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2008 to that end. I propose a reduction in the dissuasively high fees charged when requests are made under the Freedom of Information Acts, which should be acting as a bulwark of transparency but, more often than not, are choked by the bureaucratic nature of the process. We need to protect and reward whistleblowers. We should ensure that whistleblowing legislation provides for comprehensive arrangements in the public and private sectors.
Fianna Fáil has been quick to make commitments on ethics but has found it impossible to stand by its promises. In 1997 the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government promised, in its programme for Government, to "restore public confidence in public life through a credible policing mechanism for ethical issues". In its manifesto of the same year, Fianna Fáil looked forward to restoring "people's confidence in the process of government" and to address the demand to eradicate all unethical conduct from public life.
This House set up the Tribunal to Inquire into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, chaired by Mr. Justice Flood. However, when allegations arose about the most senior members of its own Government, Fianna Fáil yet again failed to show any leadership or responsibility on the issue, and instead backed its people instead of the people of Ireland. As already mentioned, Fianna Fáil holds the dubious record for the number of Deputies who have been expelled or have had to resign from senior positions, and it continues to allow that self-centred mentality within its ranks.
Fine Gael condemns the conduct of former Fianna Fáil Deputy Ray Burke and the failure of the former Taoiseach to properly investigate the allegations against him. There were many warnings given to the then Taoiseach about Mr. Burke but he decided to ignore them. Former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern appointed a marked man to high political office and, when challenged, stood by his man, come what may. The Taoiseach could not even bring himself to ask Mr. Burke a direct question. He instead chose the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to make inquires on his behalf. It is a pity the Minister is not here to elaborate on his role and function in the Burke affair.
The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, initiated inquiries on behalf of the Taoiseach, the Government and the party. The former Taoiseach's investigation of the Burke allegations was a total sham. In May 1998 he said, "I tried to find out the truth but got nowhere". This was after what he described as "every tree in north Dublin" had been looked at and after his colleague the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, had investigated the matter "to the best of his ability". The ability of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern, is somewhat limited given that Mr. Burke was later successfully prosecuted in the courts. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, in his handling of that affair, brought the highest public office of the land into ill repute.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, recently made an unwarranted political attack on a former and a current Member of the Oireachtas who reacted in an appropriate manner to information they received by bringing it to the appropriate person, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and current Ceann Comhairle, Deputy O'Donoghue. They could have given it to the media but did not. They acted in good faith and history will judge them to have acted fairly, honestly and to have done all they could within the limited resources they had. The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, shamelessly attacked former Deputy Jim Higgins and Deputy Brendan Howlin, now in the Chair. In doing so, he showed how partisan and narrow-minded he is. For him, as in the Burke investigation, Fianna Fáil always comes first, he closes ranks, and the public interest comes second. He showed it regarding the Morris tribunal and Mr. Burke, and he continually shows it.
The late Deputy Liam Lawlor was the only sitting Fianna Fáil Deputy to have landed himself in prison. In October 2000, following four orders to attend the Flood tribunal he refused to give evidence on everything from planning and Century Radio to his own finances. The tribunal was preparing to investigate eight allegations made against him. Deputy Harney called in this House for his resignation and was supported by all other parties. Mr. Lawlor quit Fianna Fáil in disgrace and four months later was before the High Court for refusal to co-operate with the tribunal. Having been told to co-operate fully, he blatantly refused to do so. He was sentenced to three months in prison, fined £10,000 and made pay the costs. After spending a week in prison, he was questioned on the burning of papers in a bonfire in his back garden and sent back to prison for another week. He again failed to make full disclosure and was finally sent to Mountjoy for a month. He made a mockery of the tribunal process and brought politics into disrepute.
All this took place against a backdrop of firm Government support for the work of the tribunals and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern's assertions, in statements in this House on political donations on 28 May 1998, on "the need for financial propriety and probity in the conduct of our public affairs". However, when push came to shove, Fianna Fáil left the tribunal, which it contributed to establishing, out in the cold, in support of its less than honourable members.
When the Flood tribunal was established, the former Taoiseach Deputy Bertie Ahern said, "the tribunals we have established are, in my opinion, the best vehicle for following up any new disclosure if they can be brought within their jurisdiction and we should not try to prejudice, pre-empt or cut across their work". He did not foresee himself coming before the tribunal and that he would become one of the key players who would try to prevent and stall its work.
The then coalition Government deliberately set out to delay the passing of the Courts and Courts Officers Act so that, among other things, extra judges needed for the Flood tribunal could be appointed. Fine Gael demands that the Bill be prioritised were ignored. The Government delayed because it was afraid of the revelations the tribunal would make, once again implicating Fianna Fáil representatives at every level in less than acceptable behaviour bordering on sleaze and scandal.
In March 2002, Mr. Justice Flood had to go to the extraordinary length of writing to the Clerk of the Dáil, informing the Oireachtas that delay in passing the Bill prevented the appointment of new judicial members to the tribunal and this could, "adversely affect the tribunal's ability to progress to the next phase of the inquiry as intended." Only after great public and political pressure was applied did the Government move on the Bill.
No-one foresaw that a tribunal of inquiry would be still investigating allegations of bribery, corruption and unethical payments ten years later and that there would be substantial costs involved. Neither did we foresee Cabinet Ministers, particularly former Deputy Michael McDowell and Deputy Roche, arguing about costs and timeframes and publicly contradicting Judge Mahon as they squabbled with the tribunal's chairman in a bid to stop its revelations in the run up to the 2007 general election. The then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, was almost hysterical in his efforts to undermine the tribunal and prophesied that it would cost €1 billion. We learned yesterday that the tribunal is to cost €300 million, the figure Judge Mahon calmly supplied to former Deputy McDowell in advance of last year's election. There may be added costs with that but the costs of the tribunal would have been far lower had witnesses co-operated. Therefore, blame should be laid at their door rather than at that of tribunal employees over the past decade.
In its 2006 annual report, the Standards in Public Office Commission included a chapter on recommendations for legislative change to improve the oversight of standards in Irish politics. This has largely been ignored. The commission wanted clear standards of acceptable behaviour and the power to initiate inquiry. Regarding standards in State bodies it recommended that the Minister for Finance introduce regulations applying the obligations of the Ethics Acts to board members and specified senior employees of each newly established public body from the date on which the body is set up. The commission also wanted broader applicability, for the Act to cover other Members of this House not currently included.
Instead of taking these considered suggestions on board by its own statutory agency headed up by Mr. Justice Matthew Smith, the Ethics In Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007, published by the Department of Finance under Deputy Brian Cowen's stewardship, focused entirely on the provision of gifts to ministerial and parliamentary office holders, raising the value of a gift, but did little on taking on board the recommendations.
I welcome the extension of existing anti-corruption legislation to include persons acting on behalf of states other than Ireland. It is a strengthening of our corruption laws. I endorse the whistleblowers section and we can return to this later. However, a tougher approach needs to be taken. A message must be sent to those who are involved in unethical behaviour that Ireland has changed and that unethical practices are no longer acceptable or tolerated in either the public or private sectors.
I am sorry I do not have more time now, but such is the order of the House. I look forward to engaging in further debate with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on Committee Stage.