I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share my time with Deputy Niall Collins.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 and to urge its acceptance by the House. This proposed legislation puts forward a structured, comprehensive and legally sound basis for transforming how politics is funded in our country and for making our democracy more transparent. This Bill, if accepted, will be a positive and historic new departure in how politics is conducted in Ireland. It will break the link between business and politics which has long been advocated from all sides of this House but, as yet, has gone undelivered.
All of us in public life recognise that the allegations of improper payments from businesses to politicians, which have flowed from the tribunals over the past decade, has done immense damage to the public perception of politics. It has a created a perception that big business can buy influence by financially supporting the election funds of parties or candidates. If we are to renew politics, we need to overturn this damaging impression. The reality is the only way we can conclusively do this is to ensure that campaign financing is not reliant on business or commercial interests.
The basic principle underpinning our proposals in this legislation is that elections should be funded only by people entitled to vote in them. Specifically, this Bill contains a commitment to the introduction of an effective ban on the receipt of direct donations given to political parties and candidates from businesses and corporations. This commitment is intended to deliver further openness and transparency in the funding of political parties and political activity in order to assure public confidence in the operation of the political system; to ensure the funding of political activity through smaller contributions from individuals, rather than larger contributions from businesses and corporations; and to improve the reputation of Ireland's democratic structures and electoral processes at an international level, which is very important in today's difficult and competitive economic climate.
As well as effectively ending corporate donations, our Bill will also implement key recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal relating to political funding and cut donation limits so that no large-scale individual donations are possible, meaning that no one can attempt to distort a campaign through deploying his or her own personal fortune. The Bill provides for an annual audit of all income from public or private sources paid to political parties and dramatically increases levels of transparency in political funding and expenditure.
I believe this Bill, if enacted, will put in place a fair and transparent system of regulation of political fund-raising and spending, which will begin the process of restoring confidence in our politics after a long and damaging run of controversies relating to political donations. I hope that this debate can be conducted in a constructive manner and free from point-scoring. We do not need the type of partisan debate which says Fianna Fáil had a tent in Galway and Fine Gael has one in Punchestown, while Labour coined in compulsory subs from the unions from many people who do not even support its party. These sorts of debates generate more heat than light and go to the root of why so many people are now apathetic to politics and politicians.
The debate on the Moriarty report was not a very positive occasion. The Government benches are filled with many new members elected on the basis of stirring commitments to change politics. In light of this, the complete absence of any form of self-reflection about what the report said about the last time their parties were in office was striking. That they spent most of their contributions on a report which dealt substantially about Fine Gael fund-raising and preferred to talk about Fianna Fáil was textbook old politics. If one cannot accept any criticism of one's leaders and parties how can one change anything? If we are honest with ourselves as public representatives, we should all accept that over the years, the fund-raising practices of all the main parties have done damage to politics. That is why today our debate must be about change and how we give effect to it.
For the record, I readily admit that in regard to my own party, there have been some unedifying and unacceptable abuses in regard to fund-raising and donations. I deeply regret that. I am determined that on my watch, as leader of Fianna Fáil, this will neither be tolerated nor possible. From the moment I took over as leader of my party, I made clear my intention to bring an end to corporate donations.
During the general election campaign I ensured that Fianna Fáil committed to the introduction of a Bill banning corporate donations within one month of the reconvening of a new Dáil and that we would seek all-party support for it. This is also a position that Fianna Fáil had taken in the previous Government and we had prepared a draft Bill, which we had intended to introduce in February, had an earlier than planned election not intervened.
On Monday, 11 April we published the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 following through on our election commitment. In this respect, and in fairness it should be said, we are only following belatedly in the footsteps of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, who, to his credit, was the first political leader of one of the main parties to come out categorically against corporate donations. It was a brave stance and one in which he was ahead of his time. The position was reversed by the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, as one of his first acts when he became leader of Fine Gael. Since then, Fine Gael has engaged in significant corporate fund-raising and the Labour Party, too, has not been slow in accepting corporate donations.
Passing this Bill will create a new level playing pitch for everyone in Irish politics where corporate donations no longer impinge on our political life. This is now within our grasp.
The Fine Gael Party in its famous — or infamous — five point election plan committed to banning corporate donations, it must be said belatedly following years of vigorous corporate donation fund-raising. The Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, on behalf of the Labour Party, has made a similar public pronouncement. It is worth emphasising that because of these factors, this Bill should not be contentious, unless this House is going to revert once again to the same old charade of politics as usual.
We all agree that corporate donations should go, so the message from these benches is to get on with it. We all agree, so why delay? The only conceivable reason the Government will have for voting down this Bill tomorrow night is that we, on this side of the House, have introduced it. It is to be hoped that politics in this country is ready to move on from this stale and cynical approach.
The current stated position of all of the main parties in this House is that corporate donations should be banned. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have all given real and concrete commitments to this effect, as did other parties and Independents on this side of the House. Each of these parties campaigned on getting rid of corporate donations during the last election. As recently as 11 April this year, the Taoiseach told Midwest Radio that banning corporate donations is a priority for his Government. This Bill will specifically test that commitment. It gives everyone the opportunity to deliver on their election promises and to walk the walk on banning corporate donations.
This Bill can and should be accepted by the Government. Especially given that the Government has said in the past that it supports all of the measures in our Bill, we expect it to let it proceed to committee. To do otherwise brings the Government's credibility into question.
After ten weeks in office, it is surprising that the Government has yet to put a single new piece of legislation before the Dáil or to publish a policy White Paper. The contrast with the first ten weeks of the new British Government is dramatic. It is about time the Dáil started enacting changes promised to the electorate rather than just talking about them. It is clear there are no principles in this Bill that the Government parties oppose, or at least were publicly opposed to at election time. If we in this House are being straight up about our commitment finally to consign corporate donations to history, there is no need to delay further. Stalling only creates further doubt about the willingness of politicians to reform and to change the way we do politics. It does this House no service and it erodes further confidence. Specifically, the Dáil should be seen to act decisively and without delay on the recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal on how the regulation of political funding is organised. Hand-wringing and foot-dragging on these recommendations are not good enough. Earlier the Taoiseach made a rather vague and superficial intervention on the recommendations. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, is also on the record as expressing doubt about them. Will he clarify if there is a commitment on the Government's part to implement all the recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal report on political fund-raising and corporate donations?
The public is right to be cynical if the body politic cannot get its act together to implement the recommendations in a reasonable timeframe. On 29 March the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the Government would act definitively and decisively on the recommendations of the Moriarty tribunal, with Departments to report back in four weeks on how they should be implemented. When the Government promised action on the report's findings within one month, we took this in good faith. However, that deadline has passed by almost two weeks and, having heard nothing further but silence emanating from the Government benches, we are now bringing forward our own initiatives. The Government has missed its own self-imposed deadline for action on Mr. Justice Moriarty's recommendations. With legislation, most of which was initiated by the previous Government, piling up, Fine Gael and the Labour Party may be tempted to quietly put this issue on the backburner. That is not good enough and Fianna Fáil will not be complicit in letting the Government off the hook. The issues at stake are too important.
The Government has committed to introducing a similar Bill to Fianna Fáil's. However, we see no reason to postpone action indefinitely by waiting for its publication. The fastest way of addressing these crucial issues which go to the core of the conduct and the credibility of politics is to pass the Fianna Fáil Bill and allow it to proceed to Committee Stage. Should there be a need for technical amendments, they could be considered and deliberated upon on Committee Stage. Our objective is to ensure corporate donations would effectively be banned before the summer recess and that a formal constitutional ban would take effect before the end of the year. While the issues involved are not complex, the measures we are proposing are based on the clear legal advice that a formal ban on corporate donations could be unconstitutional, advice the Government would also have received.
The most significant part of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 is that it would introduce a restriction on corporate donations from companies, trade unions, societies and building societies to political parties and politicians, requiring the disclosure of any donation in excess of €100. This would amount effectively to a ban. This approach has been taken because of legal advice that a complete ban would be unconstitutional. We are separately publishing a Bill for a referendum on corporate donations which could take place this year. Accordingly, section 5 of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 states it is not possible to prohibit the making of donations by companies, trade unions, societies and building societies without a constitutional amendment since to do so would infringe their constitutional right to freedom of expression. Our constitutional amendment would allow for a more comprehensive ban on corporate donations by ensuring only citizens in the State who have the right to vote in any election or referendum would be entitled to make political donations to organisations or people involved in political campaigning. Our proposal excludes those only entitled to vote for candidates seeking election to the university seats in the Seanad. To ensure no added significant cost to the taxpayer, we are committed to proposing that the referendum be held on the same day as the Presidential election later this year. To ensure this timeframe can be met, this morning I introduced the Twenty-Ninth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill which will be published and distributed later this week.
The Government seems to have accepted that a complete ban on corporate donations would be unconstitutional since it also talks about holding a referendum to ban such donations. We urge it to follow our lead on the matter. While it is not possible to introduce an outright ban on corporate donations until a referendum on the matter is held later in the year, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 proposes to bring greater transparency to the way in which such donations are made, while also making it significantly more difficult for them to be made. Section 5 provides that all corporate donations over €100 would have to be declared within 14 days, authorised by a general meeting and registered with the Standards in Public Offices Commission, SIPO. It would also ensure any donation by a company or trade union exceeding €100 in value would be difficult to make and extremely transparent. First, the company would have to apply to the SIPO to be registered as a "donating company" or a "donating trade union". It would have to provide it with full details of the organisation, membership and shareholding of the company and have secured support for the donation through a vote of its members or at a general meeting. If a donation was subsequently made which could not exceed €2,500 to a political party, the Bill requires that any donation in excess of €100 in value would have to be published in the company's accounts.
Section 5 would also introduce a new and welcome provision into electoral law, based on the recommendations contained in chapter 62.12.vii of Mr. Justice Moriarty's report. A company would be required to publish in its accounts details of any government contracts entered into or that it intended to enter into at the time of the making of the donation where the contracts exceed €1,000 in value. This provision is designed to ensure transparency. This builds on another important Moriarty tribunal recommendation, namely, that a donor should be obliged to identify any relevant financial, commercial or other interests if donations exceed a certain threshold. This would include identifying any government contracts or involvement in procurement processes. This requirement is not simply limited to the company but also includes its directors, shadow directors or significant shareholders. Section 6 would ensure failure to comply with these requirements would be a criminal offence, punishable on summary conviction by imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding €5,000.
The Bill provides for a major reduction in both the levels at which donations to political parties, third parties and candidates must be disclosed, as well as a reduction in the maximum allowable donations. As well as drawing on Mr. Justice Moriarty's recommendations, the Bill draws upon recommendations made both by the Council of Europe and the SIPO. In 2009 the Council of Europe group of states against corruption, of which Ireland is a member, undertook an evaluation study of Ireland's political system, specifically examining the issue of party funding. The report makes a series of recommendations to enhance transparency and improve controls in the funding of political activity in Ireland. They include a recommendation that all registered political parties should prepare independently audited accounts that would be made public in a timely and accessible way. It is also recommended that consideration be given to lowering the current disclosure threshold to an appropriate level, although a precise figure is not specified. These recommendations from the Council of Europe are covered in the Bill. By passing it, we can do our reputation some good. The Government should be cognisant of this in its deliberations on the Bill.
Several issues addressed in the Council of Europe group's report were also the subject of recommendations by the SIPO when it addressed the issue of disclosure thresholds: "If the intention of the legislation is to provide for transparency and openness in relation to party funding and expenditure, then it is not achieving this aim". In regard to these and other recommendations, key changes contained in the Bill include reducing the maximum allowable individual donations to political parties and third parties from €6,348 to €2,500, with the level at which these must be publicly declared to fall from €5,078 to €1,000. It would reduce the maximum allowable donation to a candidate from €2,539 to €1,000 in any one year, with the level at which these must be publicly declared falling from €634 to €500.
The Bill would introduce an amendment to section 23A of the Electoral Act 1997, based on one of the recommendations in the Moriarty tribunal report on political funding which identified a problem where one donor made a series of donations all under the declarable threshold. The amendment would provide that where a donor made a donation in the same year to two or more persons of the same party, these would be treated as one donation to a political party or third party, ensuring no more than €2,500 could be donated in total per annum by a donor.
Another key Moriarty tribunal recommendation stated political donations should be disclosed in a reasonable timeframe following an election. Accordingly, the Bill would require the publication of donation statements within 25 days of polling, as opposed to the current arrangement of 58 days for unsuccessful candidates and until 31 March of the following year for successful candidates.
This Bill provides for SIPO to audit the accounts of political parties each year, with the income and expenditure account, balance sheet and donations statement to be published. A further recommendation by Mr. Justice Moriarty was that SIPO shall publish a record of all donations received by a political party, which shall include the size and amount of all donations and whether the identity of the donor is publishable or not. This will ensure that all income of political parties is disclosed to SIPO. This will also apply to Independent candidates.
I believe that the measures as set out in this Bill are necessary, appropriate and desirable. They will put in place a strong foundation for a political system in Ireland that is, in Mr. Justice Moriarty's words, "not subject to the invisible or disguised influence of powerful individuals or entities" as well as ensuring a new "measure of transparency and openness to scrutiny [which] is essential". I want to conclude by reading the following insightful and wise words into the record of the House:
All over the world, it is recognised that financial support from business to politicians is perceived by the public to have one purpose [namely] the securing of commercial advantage. Claims that such donations are made from disinterested motives are simply not believed. As the lurid tribunal scandals play out before our eyes, one thing is clear. We cannot restore politics until the perceived link between political contributions and public policy is broken.
These words were spoken by the current Minister for Finance in 2001. I sincerely urge the Government to accept this Bill and to help us to finally begin to restore politics and to break the perception of a link between political contributions and public policy.