Public Sector Standards Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

Obviously, it is slightly awkward to split up a speech on what I regard as one of the most important pieces of legislation I have had the privilege to introduce to this House in my five years as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

As I indicated previously, the Public Sector Standards Bill is a new, robust and positive framework for identifying, disclosing and managing conflicts of interest, as well as providing for a streamlined and consistent approach to ethics legislation across the public sector. As I explained before the break, it draws on all the experiences we have had in the operation of the existing patchwork of pieces of legislation that deal with both national officials and elected representatives and local officials and representatives and it integrates them into one overarching piece of legislation. It also does two other important things. First, it draws from best international experience, and we have dialogued with the most progressive countries in regard to ethics to ensure we have best practice enshrined in this Bill. Second, we have, of course, had regard to the advices we have received from tribunals and from the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPOC, which has in many ways been overseeing the legislation that has existed to date. I should also acknowledge the work done by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, which was very involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny. It is one of the innovations in this Dáil that has been very worthwhile.

Of course, no legislation can eliminate corruption. However, this Bill will ensure there is a robust framework in place to ensure that conflicts are appropriately identified well in advance and controlled. For control and identification to be successful, it will be crucial that public officials can make skilled judgments as to what in their particular role and personal circumstances could give rise to conflict. In any of those circumstances, there needs to be clarity about these matters.

The role of commissioner in education and research, together with the strengthened code of conduct and statutory principles we are now laying out in law for the first time, will ensure that the consideration of standards is a significant factor for those performing public office. The publication of this Bill marks the culmination of the extensive programme of reform I have undertaken since 2011. Real and meaningful progress has been made so far, with the Freedom of Information Act fully restored and, in fact, strengthened and broadened from the original Act, and with overarching and clear legislation to protect whistleblowers, not only in the public sphere but in the private sphere as well.

The groundbreaking legislation to regulate lobbying is important and we expect to have the first report from those who registered as lobbyists later this week. Legislation also greatly expands the role, remit and powers of the Ombudsman.

I now turn to the Bill before us and will go briefly through each Part. Part 1 contains preliminary and general matters, including, within sections 1 and 2, the Short Title and standard commencement arrangements and definitions. An interpretation of the expression “material interest in a matter” is provided in section 3, and the term “public official” is defined in section 4. For the purposes of this Bill, public officials are divided into three categories, namely categories A, B and C. These categories are set out and described in section 5. The meaning of the term “public body” is outlined in section 6.

Section 7 contains seven categories of declarable interests. Section 8 sets out the interests which are private declarable interests. Section 9 provides that nothing in the Act will prevent a person from being a candidate in an election for either House of the Oireachtas, a local authority, or the European Parliament.

Part 2 contains three chapters. Chapter 1 begins with section 10 and provides for the maintenance by public officials of proper standards of integrity and concern for the public interest and the efficient and effective use of resources. Section 11 prohibits a public official from seeking or exacting from any person, other than the official’s employer, any benefit, remuneration, fee, reward or other favour for anything done or not done by virtue of his or her employment. Sections 12 and 13 provide for the ad hoc declarations that are required of public officials where a conflict of interest arises. Section 14 prohibits a public official from using confidential information obtained in his or her capacity as a public official to improperly further, or seek to further, his or her private interests or those of a connected person. Section 15 prohibits members of local authorities from acquiring or disposing of land or dealing in any professional capacity with land during their term of office and for two years afterwards in certain circumstances.

Chapter 2 contains four sections, sections 16 to 19, which set out the obligations on public officials to furnish evidence of compliance with the taxation Acts. Chapter 3 concerns what is termed "disclosure of interests". Section 20 makes provision for the determination of whether a public or private declarable interest is a declarable interest at any time during the declaration period. Section 21 sets out the obligations on category A and B public officials to provide a declaration of interests. Section 22 provides for the declaration of certain interests by category C public officials. I believe this is the right approach and I am interested to hear the opinion of Deputies on the other side of the House in terms of not placing the same onerous level of responsibility on everybody.

Section 23 provides that an official shall not be required to submit a declaration statement if there has been no significant change during that period and no ad hoc disclosures have been made. Again, this section is to prevent the need to repeat the same declarations over and over. Section 23 also empowers the commissioner to determine the format and means whereby statements of declarable interests are to be furnished, thus allowing for the development of an online declaration system to be considered in due course and I expect we will migrate to that system.

Section 24 provides that statements and ad hoc disclosures furnished in accordance with the Bill will be retained for 15 years. Section 25 provides that certain documents and information regarding the appointment of a special adviser to a Minister or Minister of State must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Part 3 contains six sections. Section 26 provides for the establishment of the office of the public sector standards commissioner and the position of the public sector standards commissioner and provides for the functions of that person. Section 27 provides for the dissolution of the Standards in Public Office Commission. At this juncture, I believe most Members would like to join with me in publicly acknowledging the work of the commission to date and in thanking the members of the commission for their dedication and commitment in carrying out their duties.

Section 28 provides for the appointment of a deputy public sector standards commissioner. Section 29 provides for the issuing of advice by the commissioner to a person to whom the Act applies regarding steps that could be taken by the person to comply with the Act. Section 30 provides for the development by the commissioner of a model code of conduct applicable to all public officials. Section 31 provides for the preparation of annual and other reports by the commissioner.

Part 4 contains six chapters. Chapter 1 contains section 32, which provides a list of offences. The criminal sanctions for non-compliance with the Bill are robust in nature and will act as a strong deterrent against the commission of offences by public officials. Chapter 2 deals with complaints. If a person considers that another person has contravened a provision of the Act, he or she can make a complaint to the commissioner under section 33. Section 34 provides for the dismissal of complaints by the commissioner in certain circumstances. Section 35 permits the commissioner to request a member of staff to carry out a preliminary inquiry into a complaint, and makes provision for the conduct of preliminary inquiries.

Chapter 3 deals with investigations by the deputy commissioner. Section 36 provides for the referring of a matter to the deputy commissioner for investigation where there has been a complaint made alleging that a contravention of the Act has occurred. An investigation may also be requested in the absence of a complaint, where the commissioner is of the opinion that the Act has been contravened or it is in the public interest to have such an investigation. Section 37 permits the deputy commissioner to appoint investigation officers and makes provision for the conduct of investigations. Section 38 sets out the powers of the deputy commissioner. Section 39 requires the deputy commissioner to prepare a report of the investigation and furnish it to the commissioner. This section also makes provisions for the actions that may be taken by the commissioner on receipt of the report.

Chapter 4 contains section 40, which provides for the conduct of an oral hearing procedure by the commissioner and for the commissioner to make findings of fact at the conclusion of an inquiry. Chapter 5 concerns miscellaneous provisions relating to Chapters 2, 3 and 4 and contains six sections. Section 41 provides for the privileges and immunities of witnesses and also concerns liens and expenses. Section 42 provides for the absolute privilege of documents, reports and statements of the commissioner, deputy commissioner, an authorised official or an investigation officer. Section 43 provides for admissibility of certain evidence gathered in the course of an investigation.

Section 44 provides the commissioner with powers relating to the discovery of documents. Section 45 provides that a person is required to preserve a relevant document or information related to an inquiry, investigation or hearing or intended inquiry, investigation or hearing until the process and any related proceedings are completed. Section 46 prohibits a person from disclosing information obtained by him or her in the exercise of powers conferred by the Act or by being present at a meeting or a sitting of the commissioner, the deputy commissioner, an authorised official or an investigation officer held in private, subject to certain exceptions.

Chapter 6 contains four sections. Section 47 sets out the actions to be taken by the commissioner following an investigation. Section 48 deals with the costs of persons appearing before the commissioner or an investigation officer. Section 49 provides for the award of costs by the commissioner against a complainant in certain circumstances. Section 50 makes provision for the preparation of a report of the commissioner as a result of an investigation, the publication of that report, and its furnishing to the relevant people. Where the report relates to a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas, it shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Part 5 deals with the prosecution of offences, which are provided for in section 51. Section 52 concerns fixed payments orders which may be served by the commissioner when a person has failed to submit a declaration statement.

Section 53 describes the penalties on conviction. Section 54 makes provision for other consequences of a conviction for an indictable offence under this Act, namely disqualification from holding office as a public official or a particular category of public official. This section also makes provision for the suspension of a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas by the relevant House. This is the first time such a provision has been made, as far as I am aware.

Part 6 contains four sections. Section 55 provides for sanctions that may be issued by the commissioner following a contravention of the Act. Section 56 makes provision for the suspension of a Member of a House of the Oireachtas from the service of that House for a period not exceeding 12 months. Section 57 provides for automatic disqualification of a public official from appointment to a position as a public official in the case of failure to be tax-compliant. Section 58 provides for the validity of acts of a public body not affected by reason of contravention or certain disqualification or suspension.

Part 7 of the Bill concerns the "outside appointments board". Section 59 provides for the duties of a public official regarding post-term employment once he or she has ceased to be a public official. The establishment of the outside appointments board on a statutory footing is provided for in section 60. Part 8 consists of six sections. Sections 61 to 63, inclusive, provide for repeals, the making of regulations and orders by the Minister and for expenses incurred in the administration of the Act to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 64 is a technical section dealing with the adoption of references. Section 65 enables any complaints made or investigations initiated before the commencement of this Act to be completed. Section 66 sets out provisions concerning the operation of Schedules 1 and 2. Schedules 1 and 2 set out the persons to whom statements of ad hoc disclosures and statements of declarable interests are to be made, respectively.

A number of amendments have been identified for Committee Stage of the Bill in order to ensure that the framework proposed is as robust and as practical as possible. These include ensuring that complaints concerning the commissioner and deputy commissioner may be made and investigated, clarifying the power of the commissioner to order the production of documents, and changes regarding the issuing of tax clearance certificates as agreed in conjunction with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. Additionally, further consideration will be given to the report of the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that was prepared following the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill I mentioned in the context of Committee Stage amendments.

I hope the Bill will receive broad support from the House. It is our duty to do our utmost to provide today’s citizens with a Government and a public sector that are an exemplar of transparency and accountability. I did an interview earlier today in which I discussed polling on confidence in the working - rather than performance - of government and public administration, particularly transparency. Satisfaction is rising but we need to continue working on that. I welcome the views of Members and particularly those in the Opposition on the provisions of the Bill. I have stated that from the outset of the process, the Executive and every Member in the Houses has a role to play in shaping what we do. I am open to any constructive suggestions from the Opposition on how the Bill can be further improved. I am delighted this final piece in the jigsaw of the suite of legislative measures that I set out in the programme for Government is finally before the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 and I have listened carefully to the Minister's comments. As he has made clear, this matter was discussed as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill with the Oireachtas finance and public expenditure committee some time ago. There was a useful discussion in that respect and I hope our discussion on Second Stage will be taken into consideration in advance of Committee Stage.

Most people agree it is good to have this legislation, which effectively consolidates local and national ethics requirements into a single piece of legislation. In reading through my notes and the Bill itself, the first thought coming to mind was that if right was right, everything in it should be happening anyway. We should be just putting into legislation what would be good practice. I read about everything that needed to be done, with people declaring conflicts of interests, etc., and I hope that a misinformed listener does not believe that this is not happening anyway while we are waiting for legislation to be enacted. The tone is of a belt and braces approach to good practice that we all hope and expect is being complied with 100% in all cases, although human failures can come into the process. That is really what we are trying to tie down here. I hope most of this will not be an undue burden on people as they should be doing what is prescribed anyway. I know there are technicalities in the legislation but the spirit of the Bill and operating with ethics to the highest standard should be paramount in everybody's thinking in the public service, whether they are elected officials or other public servants.

Much of my comment relates to clarification rather than finding fault with the legislation. I would like issues to be teased out and perhaps we will all be here again in a few months on Committee Stage.

The roles might be reversed.

Who knows? We will not go there with this one. The context of this Bill is addressing corruption risk through an appropriate disclosure of interest regime and the regulation of conflicts of interest, which is critical in maintaining trust in the reputation of public institutes. Trust is fairly high in Ireland and relative to other countries, we do not have a bad name. Perhaps the tribunals highlighted some very bad aspects but it is important to note they were the exceptions rather than the norm. Often the difficulty is that when there is an inquiry or tribunal, with the media picking up the highlighted aspects for headlines to be transmitted internationally, people might think it is what goes on in Ireland. They may forget that this is just one or two bad apples in the barrel. It is important to emphasise that we have a good reputation across the board.

This legislation deals with the provision and advice for the development of codes of conduct to be distributed among different bodies, and I will return to that later. The Minister covered some of the objectives of the Bill, although not precisely in the manner I will discuss. The Bill seeks a consistent, coherent and proportionate framework, which is important, as we can get bamboozled with forms. Public officials can also get bamboozled with such forms, and the senior officials in an organisation might be tasked with ensuring the task is done. When they land on the floor of a Department or local authority, it might be a case of "here he comes again, what is this all about now and what must we do?" The processes can be a little disproportionate and I hope people can be tolerant of personnel trying to implement these processes as part of a day's work.

It is interesting that we are replacing the Standards in Public Office Commission with a public sector standards commissioner. People might say it is just a name change but we are essentially broadening the remit of the work done by that commission, and the work will still need to be done. All Members of the House and people in other organisations will be familiar with that work. It is interesting that the commissioner will have stronger powers of sanction and enforcement with respect to a range of contraventions. The Bill will establish a more effective, streamlined and efficient process for the submission of periodic statements of interest. That is important as people may be in a job for a number of years while issues change, which means the original declaration may not tell the full story as time goes on. A periodic declaration is important for everybody.

When we come into the Dáil we have to produce a tax clearance certificate on entry and I have already applied for mine as part of the preparation for the election. I am sure the Revenue Commissioners will deal with that.

Anything could happen during the course of the five years but once you are clear on day one coming in the gate-----

Do you have to submit it if you are not elected or just when you are elected?

Our party requires it to be a candidate. I will not say I was being presumptive. I thought we could kill two birds with one stone and get them on for being-----

I read you are a shoo-in in any event.

I will not go there as a particular Senator in my county would not like to hear anyone talking like that. I think we know what we are talking about. I prefer if Revenue gives it to me anyway.

As I mentioned previously, this proportionate and graduated approach is very important because there are different levels of different aspects of declarable interest that must be declared by different people and it is important to do that. This establishes a new statutory board to address potential conflicts of interest when public officials take up roles in the private sector when merging the Outside Appointments Board for the Civil Service and local authority system. That is an interesting one. We know people should not go to an organisation and use the knowledge they had in the previous organisation. However, my opinion on this topic is probably slightly different from the current fashion. I believe in movement between the public and private sectors. Some people think it is a case of "public sector, good; private sector, bad". We have had lots of cases where people who worked in Revenue are probably now good tax advisers. People might say this is good or bad. I do not know. I think it is an open debate. It is not the closed debate that some people think it is. I have cited one example here previously. I can think of people who probably work in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and when their time comes after a period in the job, they could go on to work for the betterment not just of themselves but that of the company and Irish exports in the food exporting area. The knowledge they have gained in the public service should not be lost to the State but it is a question of how one manages it, particularly during a period of transition. I know some people think people should be almost sterilised, hosed down and put in quarantine for two years after they leave the job. I do not think that is fair either but I accept there can be conflicts and we need a system to deal with conflicts of interest. Sometimes good can result from people moving from job to job.

I will turn to a point that was not addressed in the Bill. The Minister might say it is not exactly the point. One of the briefing notes we received said this ensures that conflicts between the public interest and private interests of public officials in the performance of their duties are regulated. I often ask the question about the conflict of interest between the public interest of one organisation and another public organisation. I know it is not something that is intended here but I think most Government Departments and most people in Government jobs and probably in the private sector as well have a silo mentality. I am not talking about any financial benefit but there can be a conflict of interest between two public bodies because they have a different statutory basis and look at different things differently. There might not be any financial benefit but there could be a financial loss to the State. I raise the point that conflicts of interest can arise between public bodies. I do not think the taxpayer should have to troop off to the courts and fund both sides of a debate while neither side wants to concede. This is an issue that always crops up when we talk about conflicts of interest between public and private interests.

It also talks about a linkage between the quality of public institutions and the long-term economic and social sustainability of the country. This is important. Surprisingly, one of the agencies that has failed in this department over the years is the Central Bank. Public confidence in the Central Bank is very low and rightly so. We all know the Central Bank did not do the job so we will not rehash that. What should be one of the pillar institutions in any country, namely, the Central Bank, suffered a severe loss and the quality of that public institution was severely damaged. This is generally damaging to the public service and everybody connected with it.

In these proposals, we talk about how we manage conflicts and reinforce standards. I like the reference to reinforcing the standards that are already there because it implies that they are there as we stand and that they are not just new requirements. It is also important to have an institutional framework for oversight, investigation and enforcement that is robust and effective. Again, I go back to the Central Bank and other organisations that failed completely in that area in the past and that have a lot of catching up to do to restore public confidence in how they carry out their work. Some people have confidence in how local authorities manage issues. Lots of people have a lower level of confidence in how public authorities do their work. Some people have confidence in the EPA in respect of the quality of its inspection regime and protecting the environment while other people feel that it is a bit too light in how it regulates licences it has issued. This issue comes up periodically in different places. There need not be a conflict of interest for financial gain. It is important that these people are up to the mark in terms of doing their job.

We then talk about how we are going to have a public sector standards commissioner who will have increased powers. The deputy commissioner will be independent of the commissioner in terms of their investigatory function so we will have a commissioner and a deputy commissioner who will be independent in their investigatory functions. I worry about what will happen when you set up one organisation and divide it before you even start and say "you're number two but actually you are independent of number one". We must tease that out because, again, that was one of the problems with the Central Bank. It had a regulatory function and a consumer affairs function. When you set up an organisation and start dividing it in two from day one, it does lead to one side not wanting to know what the other side is doing and we go back to the silo effect about which I spoke earlier.

It is good that public officials will have to disclose as a matter of routine any conflicts of interest they may have. I spoke about how essential it is that people do not use any insider information. Again, we would take that as standard procedure generally in the public area.

I had a look through the explanatory memorandum and a few thoughts came to me about the tax compliance issue and the public sector standards commissioner. We are to have a deputy commissioner. When the deputy commissioner is on leave or sick, retires or leaves the post, is there provision in the legislation for somebody else to carry out the duties of the deputy commissioner if the designated deputy commissioner is not there? This is something to be clarified on Committee Stage. Will it take six to 12 months to fill a post and will the entire organisation be effectively stood down if they cannot work during that period? I do not have to look too far to see where there was a gap previously in respect of appointing somebody to do a particular job. Could the Minister pick up on that?

Section 30 provides for the commissioner to draw up and issue a model code of conduct to guide public officials. This code of conduct is a guide and there are guidelines. I know one cannot be over-prescriptive from day one but it is important that they be very consistent across the different public bodies. Different public bodies will probably be given a template and told to amend it. I hope the commissioner will review the implementation of these guidelines to make sure they are carried out in an objective and consistent manner. It is no good being told "this office only has a policy function". I get tired of hearing this. This means that we will dream up the idea and if it does not work, nobody implements it and everybody ignores it, it is not our fault. This is the Bart Simpson response that one often gets in the public and private sectors so it is important that somebody actually does monitor it, training and manuals are introduced, staff are brought in and shown how to work it and yearly meetings take place in respect of its operation.

Interestingly, the commissioner will be able to make inquiries regardless of whether an objection has been received from a member of the public. There will be a procedure for an oral hearing, which is set out in section 40. This is important because sometimes an oral hearing can achieve far more than all the written submissions people care to deal with. As Deputies, we know that sometimes when there is a hearing involving an appeals officer from the Department of Social Protection and the person who may have been refused a payment, one can achieve more in that half hour and the person sees the people who are directly involved. It is a bit like being in front of a judge. They get a feel for the person with whom they are dealing.

I will now turn to sections 42, 43 and 44. Section 44 talks about how the commissioner will have powers relating to discovery of documents. I want to ask a question that needs to be addressed.

The issue of confidentiality of documents arose in respect of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, inquiry where the receiver, paid for by the taxpayer, doing his job as he saw fit did not pass information to another taxpayer-funded organisation which ran the inquiry and the judge put his hands up and said he had a problem. He asked for somebody to act as referee and give him the powers to do what everyone knew he needed to do. That is an acid test if somebody cites confidentiality in respect of documents. Will the deputy commissioner have the power to go any further? Where will he or she go in that situation? Will he or she go to the High Court? That needs to be clarified at the beginning because there is no point having legislation if when some people have a problem with an investigation, they claim confidentiality and scupper the whole procedure.

There will be powers of suspension if a Member of the Oireachtas contravenes this legislation. This is a new area and will probably require constitutional clarification on Committee Stage to ensure it is safe. Notwithstanding that a report will have been done and laid before the Dáil, there would have to be a mechanism in the Dáil if a Member is to be suspended. It cannot be that the report is lodged in the Oireachtas Library and there is a vote to suspend the Member. The Member is entitled to state his or her case in front of his or her peers. The commissioner may not be right in every adjudication. Will there be a second, parallel inquiry in the House, as was talked about years ago in the Judge Curtin issue? I do not know if that was before my time here.

That was constitutional.

It was sorted out at the last minute. Where stands this Bill in respect of people's right to elect a person of bad repute? They are entitled to elect such a person if they choose to. That is democracy. Some might say that thumbing a nose at the system is a good thing, others might say it is outrageous that somebody should have the cheek to do that and the person should not be here. That depends on one’s political perspective. I would not like to see a high-handed approach being taken.

I am impressed with section 6 and the definition of public bodies. I was scratching my head to know if anyone was left out. There may be some but we can clarify that on Committee Stage. Section 6(1)(j) refers to “a body that is wholly or partly funded, directly or indirectly, out of money provided by the Oireachtas or from the Central Fund or the growing produce of that Fund and in respect of which a public service pension scheme exists or applies or may be made;”. That should catch most organisations. Are there any in the grey area that are not fully caught by the public service pension scheme but that could be funded or partly funded by the Oireachtas or the Central Fund? Does “partly funded” refer to one year? Are annual activities partly funded or is it a once-off payment for an organisation? For example, will a private sector nursing home, 90% of whose clients are in the fair deal scheme, funded almost exclusively by the taxpayer, under contract with the Health Service Executive come under this definition? Another example is a company whose main business is to build schools which continue in good or bad times under the schools building programme. There are some companies substantially funded by the public purse on a permanent basis, notwithstanding that they are involved in capital projects. The annual operating revenue of some of these contractors is public money, notwithstanding that they are in the private sector. We will want that clarified as well.

Sections 16 to 19, inclusive, refer to tax clearance certificates. Under section 19(5)(b)(iii), “... the Collector-General shall notify the Commissioner in writing of the refusal and the Commissioner shall draw up and publish a report in writing in relation to the matter.” I had always understood that there was a degree of confidentiality about a person’s dealings with the Revenue Commissioners if a person did not get a tax clearance certificate but this legislation covers many people and requires that this should be published. Is it not enough to notify the particular appropriate person? What is the format of publication? Will there be an advertisement in the Sunday newspapers or will it be on the website of the commissioner’s office or who will publish it? Is it right that a person’s tax affairs or those of one connected to that person may be published?

Under section 50(1), where there is a contravention of the Act, the commissioner may furnish the report “to such other persons as the Commissioner may consider appropriate”. How widely will that be circulated? Some commissioners might think it is in the public interest to issue a statement to the national media but, some might think that is certainly not what was intended. I do not know how broad that provision is and I would like it clarified. This will cover Members of the Oireachtas and Members of the European Parliament. Under section 50(4) a report “shall be furnished to the President of the European Parliament”. What jurisdiction does an Irish body have in respect of the President of the European Parliament? Maybe this is a standard procedure or maybe there is a reciprocal arrangement. What happens if an Irish MEP does something wrong outside the jurisdiction of the State? Is the President of the European Parliament obliged to inform the commissioner at home? I do not think MEPs should be exempt from this legislation but I want to understand the jurisdiction of the European Parliament in respect of Ireland.

We may want to tease out further the suspension of Members of the Oireachtas on receipt of the report to ensure it is appropriate. During that debate we should also debate the fact that a person who is declared bankrupt cannot be a Member of the Oireachtas. We inherited the system from England and the House of Lords which represented people of property. It was all about money. One can be a paedophile and be a Member of the Oireachtas. I have a problem with that. There was a time when being bankrupt was a mortal sin but many people, through no fault of their own, have had to go bankrupt. We have introduced legislation to make it easier for people to go bankrupt.

It is only a venial sin now.

One only goes to limbo for it, not even to purgatory.

The Minister will go to limbo.

Suspension from the House needs a broader debate. If one receives a sentence of longer than six months for a criminal offence, one has to leave the House. That is utterly at the discretion of a judge and may or may not be appropriate. If everybody here was superhuman and had no failings at all, they would not be representative of the people. We should operate to the highest standards and ethics.

The Labour Party used to be like that. It was very strong on ethics.

I would like to see a bit of consistency with the gravity of the situation because I agree with proportionality and the graduated approach in the legislation.

The Schedules to the Bill deal with categories. Category A refers to persons to whom people are to refer reports. It deals with Deputies, MEPs, the Attorneys General and special advisers.

According to the Schedule, the chief executive of a local authority, the person to whom the statement on an ad hoc disclosure is to be furnished, is the cathaoirleach. I wonder about this because, in the normal rankings, in some counties the cathaoirleach is only in office for one year. He or she is only getting into the swing of things when he or she has to move over to allow a party colleague or somebody else from another party to become cathaoirleach. It should be remembered, therefore, that an individual will not be in the position of cathaoirleach permanently. Technically they are in place as volunteers. They are elected representatives and their filling of the role of cathaoirleach could be coming close to an end.

Could this provision place an excessively onerous responsibility on a cathaoirleach? I wonder if another body such as the Local Appointments Commission could be involved. It is a little too close to the bone for a cathaoirleach to be put in what could possibly be a difficult position. In fairness to them, if cathaoirligh required legal advice on what to do, they would have access to it. As the Minister knows, there is never a shortage of money in local authorities to be spent if management wants legal advice, but a member dare not seek it or expect to have it paid for. Actually, the same happens in the Oireachtas. The Executive can receive all the legal advice it wants from the Attorney General, but if we ever ask to see it to challenge, verify or check it-----

There are legal services for all.

There are legal services to protect the institution, not to help Members. We deal with them at the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees all the time and they will advise on legal procedure. However, they have never been available to me to advise on whether legislation is legal.

The Houses control their own budgets.

Perhaps the legal service needs to be beefed up next time. I have heard the Minister make that reference recently also, but in my experience it has never been available to assist us. It tends to state what a committee can or cannot do, including in guiding the banking inquiry, inquiries by the Committee of Public Accounts, or where we receive something from a whistleblower. It seems to give advice on compliance with existing legislation and how to defend it if the Committee of Public Accounts is before the court in the case of some witnesses. It gives advice of that nature, but, to my knowledge, it never gives us advice on legislation, although I stand to be corrected.

Schedule A.12 states any other person holding an office or other position is to give their reports to the prescribed person, whoever that will be. That phrase is used in the last line of all of the Schedules.

The section on public officials in category C may affect some Members of the House. A person who is a member of a committee, joint committee or a joint body of a local authority, other than a member of the local authority, should make ad hoc disclosures to the chief executive of the local authority. The Minister might advise Members on this provision, many of whom are members of joint policing committees in their local authority areas. I received the form from the council the other day, but I was told I did not need to fill it in because I was a member of a joint committee. I presume that is right, but somebody might clarify if that will continue to be the case. We want to prevent a situation where people in categories A, B and C for different aspects will receive a multiplicity of forms. We should check how many will end up receiving a multiplicity of forms in order to make the process simpler.

Everybody in the House will welcome the Bill. We will entrust whoever will be in the next Dáil with the responsibility of completing the legislation.

The Deputy will be back.

I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.

She will be back, too.

That is a vote of confidence.

There is a lot of punditry going on.

We will now get back to the Bill.

It is very distracting.

The publication of the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 is to be warmly welcomed. It is, however, unfortunate and a great pity that the Bill will not come into force before the dissolution of the Dáil. It represents a lost opportunity by the Government to bring together both local and national ethics requirements which give effect to the recommendations of the Moriarty and Mahon tribunals. A commitment to enact such legislation was given by the Government in the statement of Government priorities 2014 to 2016. If I am wrong and it is, in fact, the Minister's intention to bring the legislation through all Stages before the Dáil is dissolved, he might let us know of his plans.

This is incredibly important legislation. Political and public institutions in Ireland, as in many other countries, face great challenges in ensuring both transparency and accountability. The general public, public servants and politicians alike should be concerned about standards in public life. I believe they are concerned about them. Our behaviour as politicians and that of public officials should be thoroughly scrutinised. The putting in place of ethics legislation that can put us, as politicians, and all other public officials under scrutiny can only be welcomed. It is important that this be done efficiently and comprehensively. It is clear that the current piecemeal approach has not given rise to best practice. In addition, it has not prevented the abuses we have seen and which loomed large for many decades. Some of this corruption, in various guises, has received extensive coverage in the media, most recently in an RTE investigation into potentially corrupt practices by public officials. Such incidents that have been prominent in the media may, of course, be just the tip of the iceberg.

The question arises, therefore, as to whether there is still a hidden, underlying layer or culture of corruption in the State. Does it persist to this very day? It is hard to know for certain, but there is a public fear or suspicion that that is the case. We do know, unfortunately, as a country and body politic, that we are not immune to corruption. It has been suggested by Transparency International Ireland that Ireland is highly vulnerable to corruption. It pointed to its own independent data and analysis, as well as the findings of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, when it arrived at this conclusion. The mechanisms in place for detecting corruption are clearly inadequate. We are not good at exposing corruption. It often remains for others such as RTE to bridge that gap and investigate and expose corruption. It is a job that surely should be the function of the State.

We have a poor record in holding those responsible for corruption to account. That lack of enforcement has been at the root of the problem in tackling corruption in Ireland. That view was echoed by the experts from whom we heard at the committee when we considered the heads of the Bill. Therefore, we need to reflect carefully on this issue. When many might have thought the days of brown envelopes were over, the recent RTE investigation into corruption in county councils showed that it was alive and kicking in some quarters, at least. Why would it not be, given that the greatest weakness in ethics legislation up to now has been the lack of enforcement? "Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time" is the old maxim, but it is very unlikely that someone would ever do time if he or she was caught. Where is the deterrent for those who are so inclined to take a brown envelope or a backhander? What is to discourage those who are so tempted from taking a backhander when it is most unlikely to have adverse consequences for them? In fact, as we have seen in the past, it has not inhibited some political careers. If one was super-cynical, one might argue that it might have enhanced some careers, but why is that the case? Is it political apathy? Despite all the talk of a democratic revolution, the reality is that we are only now, at the end of this Dáil and the Government's term, getting to grips with proper legislation, that could go some way towards addressing the failings of the piecemeal approach which has been adopted up to now.

Declarations of interest, tax clearance certificates and election spending returns are all filed with the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. I join the Minister in acknowledging its work during the years.

It is only proper to do so. The commission oversees the implementation of the ethics legislation as it now stands. The commission has recognised the need for a single comprehensive Act to deal with conflicts of interests and ethics in public office. The commission in the past has recommended that ethics legislation be consolidated, and a clear set of principles should be set out, which would apply to all in public life, thereby giving absolute clarity to all, leaving no margin for error or misunderstanding.

A real dilemma and weakness for SIPO, apart from being hampered implementing disjointed ethics legislation, was that it could not initiate investigations. After the recent scandal involving councillors highlighted in the most recent RTE investigation and taking into account previous instances when councillors, Deputies and even Ministers were apparently accepting cash for favours, it will come as a surprise to many that the commission, as the statutory body responsible for compliance with ethics legislation, does not or did not have the power to initiate investigations into these matters.

Furthermore, as it now stands the investigative process is quite cumbersome. For example, if a member of the public wishes to make a complaint about a local authority member, he or she would have to make the complaint to the ethics registrar of each county council. The complaint can then be referred to the county manager and the cathaoirleach of the council. Only after all local procedures have been exhausted and if the county manager and the cathaoirleach deem it appropriate, can it then refer the individual's complaint to SIPO. It is a circuitous route.

Local authority members must also provide a declaration of interest to the registrar every year, much in the same way that Deputies make annual declarations to SIPO. If Deputies and Senators have left anything off their annual declarations of interest, they are able to make supplementary additions. Any complaints against Deputies or Senators are made to the respective Clerks of each House. These complaints can then be referred to the committee on Members' interests for the Dáil or the Seanad, respectively. They can then be referred back to SIPO, which can investigate the complaint and decide whether to refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

One of the complaints of SIPO is that while it can initiate its own investigations into Deputies or even Ministers, it can only do so if it has received a complaint. If no complaint has been received, no investigation can be undertaken. SIPO has described its current role as being reactive rather than proactive. Those who are tasked with investigating matters of complaint are plagued with a lack of resources, as well as not having the independence and the statutory powers to investigate abuses in public office.

I hope that the Public Sector Standards Bill, if properly resourced and implemented, will provide for a more efficient, organised, streamlined and clearly laid out structure of ethical behaviour expected from all public officials. I hope that the legislation in practice will prove robust and effective.

We have been told that the primary objective of the legislation will be to provide a consistent approach to ethics legislation across the public sector in line with international best practice. Some of the key elements of the legislation are, for example, that it will provide a set of integrity principles for all public officials. In terms of disclosure by public officials, the legislation strengthens the legal obligation for disclosure of actual and potential conflicts of interest, which I welcome. Contrary to Deputy Sean Fleming's concerns, this is not about trying to hold people captive within the public sector. It is certainly not intended to limit people's opportunities or ambition, but it is to ensure disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. Any ethical framework must have that absolutely at its core, so I welcome that.

In addition, the legislation extends the scope of personal and material disclosures to be made by public officials. We should look further into the proposed categories of public officials and revise the current proposal that only the most senior levels of public officials make the widest disclosures. We will return to that on Committee Stage.

The Bill interestingly also proposes a single public sector standards commissioner. Initially, I was in two minds as to whether I would be in favour of a panel or commission similar to SIPO rather than having a single commissioner and a deputy. The membership of the standards commission has brought to it a wide range of experience and knowledge but on reflection I see the merit of a single commissioner. As with an ombudsman, the commissioner will be the go-to person. The buck will stop with her or him and blame or otherwise will not be dissipated among a committee. However, there is also merit in finding a mechanism which could draw on the talents and experience acquired over years of the members of the standards commission. Why not utilise this accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience in some way?

I particularly welcome that the commissioner will be able to initiate his or her own investigations even if a complaint has not been made. That is critical. The proposed legislation allows for any person to make a complaint in writing to the commissioner. This is an improvement on the current position, whereby only specific categories of person can make complaints or have complaints made against them. However, there is a problem with the proposed method as to how complaints are made to the commissioner and we will be proposing at a later Stage other options and ways for people to make a complaint to the commissioner.

I particularly welcome the proposed increased powers of sanction and enforcement on a range of contraventions. As I said earlier, enforcement is the crux of such legislation and it has been severely lacking up to now. The way the current ethics legislation is laid out and the lack of sanction have led greatly, one suspects, to the ongoing and historical scandals and controversies with which, sadly, we are too familiar.

I do not believe the legislation is yet complete and it will require some tweaking and consideration. We expect at a later stage in good faith to be submitting amendments to the Bill, as we see the proposed legislation as a work in progress. I welcome that the Minister has indicated openness to that discussion. It is important legislation and we need to get it right. Deputy Howlin may or may not be the Minister at that stage.

I might be tabling my own amendments.

Who is to say? That is the great thing about elections; it is in the hands of the people.

The Minister will be back, I heard.

Or watching from the Visitors Gallery.

I doubt that.

Comprehensive ethics legislation is central to addressing corruption risk. Such legislation minimises the risk of it occurring. Having such legislation in place is fundamental to the quality of governance that we enjoy. It reduces conflicts of interest between the public and private interests of public officials. Crucially, it gives the public officials guidance and security in the performance of their duties. It should not be regarded as onerous but rather as a safeguard mechanism for public officials. It gives the public comfort and reassurance that these public officials are performing their duties with the best interests of the public in mind.

Our recent history with the banking crisis, the scandal of brown envelopes and so on, showed clearly that failures in governance resulted in substantial costs to the State and we have paid dearly. Generations to come will also pay dearly under the yoke of the economic and social costs that were the consequence of bad governance and corruption.

It is unfortunate that this legislation may now be left for the next Government to enact. It is a pity that this opportunity has been wasted. Nonetheless I acknowledge the publication of the legislation.

If returned, as I hope I will be, I look forward to participating in the debate in whatever capacity and seeing this legislation put on the Statute Book.

I warmly welcome the introduction of the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 as we all need to be part of the reform agenda. We also need to root out corruption in public life and public office, following the economic crash, the banking crisis and other scandals in the past few years which have damaged public life. It is also important that we put forward our own new ideas to develop standards in legislation. The majority of Members, across all political parties and none, are interested in making the cleaning up of public life a priority.

It is important that we have standards in public office and the public sector. As I have said before, there is nothing wrong with having a good old-fashioned public service. The State was founded with this ethos at its heart. Many people were good old-fashioned public servants who served the public. Sadly, however, some of this has been damaged in the past few years. We must go back to that ethos and the principles of serving the public. Whether one is a teacher, a garda, a member of the staff in the Oireachtas, a nurse or anyone else who works in the public service, when one takes on the job, one should put the public and the public interest number one. If we learn that lesson, it will enhance society and the State. We have seen in recent days, however, how this has slipped. I was disappointed with the shenanigans in a recent appointment to a public board. It should have been thought about more clearly. Appointments to State boards should be made on merit through a proper process and assessment, with independent arbitration. The best person, man or woman, should be selected to be put on the board to serve the people. Sadly, however, that did not happen recently. Again, the Government has taken a hit because of it. It is important that there will be a vote in the House on this matter later tonight. It will be interesting to see if Deputy Pat Rabbitte will be in the Chamber for the vote at 9 p.m. I will be watching with great interest.

As an Independent Member, I would not support any Government if it was shown to be corrupt or promoted illegal activity. For years, we have seen how insiders have contaminated politics, while politicians of all parties have abused their powers. We need to look at the issue of political appointments. It should include the ending of the practice of a party in government putting its favourites on the boards of State bodies, appointing them to the Judiciary, the top ranks of the Garda and the Central Bank Commission. An independent body must be set up to exclude politicians from making such choices. This goes back to the issue of standards against political patronage and cronyism. They need to be rooted out to ensure we get the best people possible for such appointments.

The Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 proposes to enhance the existing framework for identifying, disclosing and managing conflicts of interest and minimising corruption across the public sector. The Bill seeks to move towards a risk-based system of compliance and a more effective institutional framework for oversight and investigations. It proposes the introduction of a public sector standards commissioner to replace the Standards in Public Office Commission to oversee a reformed complaints and investigations process, a measure I support. I attended the Standards in Public Office Commission information session in the AV room earlier. I commend its staff for their professional and objective advice on the commission’s guidelines. I hope the buck will stop with the public sector standards commissioner. I also hope when the appointment is made, that it will be made transparently and properly.

The measures in the Bill include the introduction of a public sector standards commissioner, as well as the establishment in legislation of a set of integrity principles for all public officials. Last week we had many smart alecks around this House when the Independent group produced its charter which included many of these principles. Now the Government is including them in legislation. The Bill will also provide for the strengthening of the legal obligation on public officials to disclose as a matter of routine actual and potential conflicts of interest. We have seen significant criminal acts in this area in the past.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a more effective process for the submission of periodic statements of interests; the imposition of statutory prohibitions on the use of insider information; and the establishment of a new statutory board to address potential conflicts of interest as public officials take up roles in the private sector. This is a good vision for the future and the direction in which politics must go. Surely, we should have learned from all of the tribunals of inquiry and scandals. Having watched them for several years, I am not a huge fan of long-winded tribunals. I have also lost confidence in the commission of investigation process because such commissions seem to run into problems regularly.

Perhaps I am naïve, but the bottom line is that if something is wrong in the public service or political life, what is wrong with calling in the Garda fraud squad to deal with the issue? It would save much money, make a lot of sense and one would have an independent investigation away from all politicians. If someone is fiddling the books, scamming or involved in bribery and corruption, it is the Garda fraud squad which should deal with the allegations. If a person is innocent, good luck to him or her. If he or she is guilty, he or she should be rooted out of public office. Such behaviour has damaged politics in the past. There is no use saying only a small minority of politicians are involved because all politicians are tarnished as a result. In my constituency 35% of the people do not vote because in their minds all politicians are the same, essentially they are on the take. That is damaging and stopped people from voting. It is sad when one sees people who are hurting, but one knows deep down that they will not vote in the next election. The damage has been done by corrupt politicians in the past. They have damaged not only themselves, their supporters and families but also public life. I hope, with the new blend of Deputies and Senators after the general election, we will have a good old-fashioned public service and honest politics. There is nothing wrong with hard work and honest politics.

In respect of regulation, the Mahon tribunal noted certain interests posed particular risks from an anti-corruption perspective, including, in particular, gifts and access to inside information, as well as ancillary and post-term employment. We are referring to major gifts, not somebody who is doing a favour and receiving a pack of smokes or a bottle of wine in return. However, I should not say this as one is not allowed to mention the word “cigarettes” in this Chamber any more.

The Deputy should not have mentioned wine either.

During the week it was sugar.

The Deputy is losing the run of himself.

Deputy Finian McGrath can mention cigarettes, but he cannot bring them into the Chamber.

For years I have been listening to them giving out about smokers.

Last week we heard we should not have a drink because they were giving out about the impact of alcohol on health. The new risk the other day was posed by sugar which we should not be eating. I give up. It smacks of the nanny state gone mad, but that is life.

To return to the issue before us-----

-----it is important to have regulation, but the message I want to get across is that we should not over-regulate. Let us not get carried away by the nanny state brigade around this House. I met a doctor last week who gave me plenty of advice on different medical issues. He said much of the information coming from the so-called medical profession was inaccurate. I will go down that road another day when we are dealing with a health issue. For now I will stick to the legislation before us.

The Deputy should go for a smoke after that.

To return to the Mahon tribunal and the issue of regulation which is important, the tribunal concluded that merely requiring the identification of conflicts of interest was not sufficient to control the risk of corruption which they presented. Consequently, several of its recommendations sought to further regulate such interests. In this respect, it recommended that public officials be prohibited from accepting any gift in excess of a stipulated amount where it could reasonably be considered to be connected with their public office. We need to examine the aspect of regulation closely and consider sensible, common-sense regulations.

The Mahon tribunal observed that successful enforcement of conflict of interest provisions was a key element in ensuring their effectiveness. I am referring to the effectiveness of enforcement. The tribunal found significant problems with the existing enforcement provisions which it suggested weakened the ability of conflict of interest measures to control corruption in politics and public services. The enforcement aspect is an important consideration. The tribunal noted that the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, was largely responsible for enforcing these provisions in the case of public officials who were officeholders. The provisions covering Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas are enforced through parliamentary procedures. Again, there are issues about enforcement and complications have arisen in that respect, about which we are all aware.

With respect to corruption risks and conflicts of interest, the final report of the Mahon tribunal states:

Conflicts of interest are a root cause of corruption. A conflict of interest arises where an elected or appointed public official has a private interest which is likely to be affected by the exercise of his or her public powers. Logically, a public official is less likely to exercise those powers in the public interest when he or she is in a position to use them for his or her own personal benefit. [That is an important point.] Some of the inquiries conducted by this Tribunal involved such ... conflicts of interest.

Also, in the case of other European states, it is noted that conflicts of interest for public officials, elected members and holders of public office involve tension between public duty and private interests. This occurs typically where an elected member has a private interest which could influence the public interest. I am referring to serious conflicts of interest, but there can also be minor ones. A conflict of interest does not necessarily mean corruption or fraud. However, it constitutes an abuse of public office for private advantage. There are different levels of conflicts of interest. When it comes to such issues, I am a big supporter of having a top class Garda fraud squad to deal with them and thereby save us all a great deal of money in not having such tribunals and much hoo-ha about not getting the terms of reference right for a commission of inquiry which results in our having to introduce legislation to amend them. Members of the public have issues to deal with and they want us to focus on the important issues of job creation, health, education, the economy and public services and to get on with dealing with the real aspects of our day job.

On periodic disclosures, one of the sections covers directorships. Members must register remunerated directorships in public and private companies. A Member must also register any unremunerated directorship where the company or companies in question is or are associated with, or subsidiaries of, a company in which he or she holds a remunerated directorship. I noted this when I spoke to representatives of SIPO in the audio visual room and I then returned to my office to start to fill in the form. I am a director of the Northside Centre for the Unemployed in Coolock, Dublin 17. It is a voluntary position, but I am still required to register it. I take the opportunity to praise and commend the Northside Centre for the Unemployed on Glin Road for its excellent work in providing services for the unemployed and education courses and in helping, in particular, people living in disadvantaged areas. I have been involved in the centre as a voluntary director for more than 20 years and the people there do excellent work. A number of my colleagues, as local representatives, serve on its board. It is important that they are acknowledged and commended for their magnificent work.

I have mentioned the tribunals of inquiry and raised the issue of public servants. I say to all public servants, be they Deputies, Senators, those working in the Oireachtas, gardaí or teachers, that they should do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. If one is a public servant, one serves the public. If people were to do this, we would have fewer problems. If one meets a good teacher, one will see productivity level increase in the classroom. The same goes for a good community garda. I met one in my constituency recently and they have done good work in building relations with the community and young people at risk. These public servants are worth a great deal to any community. The same applies to civil servants and other staff in the Oireachtas. We should recognise and commend those who do a good job and also reward them. That is also an important aspect.

A number of my colleagues referred to the local authorities. It is an important aspect, having regard to some of the scams highlighted in television programmes recently. There is also the relationship between some of those in senior management positions and some councillors. There were times when I thought there was a conflict of interest and management was not standing up for the real values of public office. Some county and senior managers have their pet councillors and I found that if any member asked awkward questions, on many occasions he or she was more or less blanked. These managers should read the legislation and listen to the debate on it. They work for a county or city council and should treat all elected members equally and with respect. There should be no such thing as having a pet councillor simply because he or she does not rock the boat and no question of there being bold councillors who ask all the awkward questions about the estimates or about what is happening in Dublin Bay. I will not name the people involved.

Please do not mention them.

Do not worry; I am not like that. It is important, however, that those who work in local authorities respect the councillors elected by the people.

I welcome this important legislation which forms part of the reform agenda. It is very good for the country and politics, although I know that some of my colleagues will bring forward amendments to it. It is, however, an important legislative measure if we want to build trust and instil confidence in democracy in Ireland. It will lead to a fairer and more inclusive Ireland. Regardless of our political differences, that is the direction in which we should all be moving.

The next speaking slot is being shared by Deputies Jim Daly and Bernard J. Durkan. Are the Deputies taking ten minutes each?

The Deputy should give Bernard more time.

I will leave enough time for him.

Be sure to do so.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about this Bill. I have enormous regard for the public sector and those who work in it, with whom I have had the privilege and honour of serving in my teaching days and while I have been a public representative. There is an extraordinary level of commitment across the public sector, ranging from An Garda Síochána to the health service, as well as many others. I have huge admiration for those who work in the public sector.

I welcome the Bill which is timely. As a Parliament, a Government and elected Members, we should never ever cease in our efforts to strengthen further the public's trust in public administration. There is no doubt that its trust has taken a hammering during the decades on a number of levels. There has been a focus, particularly on the political side, on how politicians have been seen to be corrupt.

Everybody has been tarred with the same brush, which is most regrettable. We must do more and work harder to strengthen the public trust in public administration and to make it real and more tangible for the public.

I welcome the focus the legislation provides to direct our attention on this matter but not just in terms of corruption which I wish to move away from. I also welcome the move to encourage self-declaration on a more regular basis for all public service officials, elected and otherwise. That will be done by means of enhanced IT systems. That is a most welcome, proactive and progressive step to try to get where we want and continually to reassure people that we are not all corrupt and that people are dedicated and genuinely working to give a real service to the public. It is an honour to serve the public in any role, elected or otherwise.

I also welcome the more proactive role of the proposed public sector standards commissioner. I spoke in the House previously in the context of the recent television programme. At the time I said I did not want to see the establishment of another quango but I appreciate that it is a case of replacing one body with another one which is more proactive. The legislation does not allow the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, to be as proactive as it could be. It is more of a reactive organisation. That is not a criticism; it is fair comment.

Recently, there was severe flooding in west Cork and all over the country. That provided us with an example of excellent public service and the public sector at its very best. Local authority members in particular and so many others were superb and went way beyond the call of duty. They were out in atrocious conditions at all hours. That was real public service and it was appreciated by the public. We can be very proud of that.

The aim of the Bill is to strengthen public trust in public administration. In trying to bring about more accountability and transparency we must look a bit further because when one teases out conflicts of interest there are many more conflicts of interest that erode people’s perception of the public sector. Not enough managers and people with responsibility in the public sector, who have accordingly large pay packets, speak out and are accountable. We, the political class, act as the buffer between the public sector and management. That is evident at local authority level with councillors. We rarely hear county managers answering tough questions on radio or television by the media. I accept they answer to the elected members in the local authority. Neither do we see those responsible for roads or the health service coming out often enough, for example, to respond to questions on the trolley crisis. It is always the Minister who is wheeled out before the camera to answer the questions. If we are to enjoy enhanced accountability and transparency within the public sector we must see more accountability from management. Managers should be more accountable and give more answers to the people. Media appearances are one of the best ways of doing that. I would welcome that as a step towards strengthening public trust in public administration and not just leaving it to the political class, local mayors and the Government of the day to answer questions.

In the context of conflicts of interest and at a time when we seek increased accountability and transparency I am confused by the role of unions within the public sector. Managers say they cannot do certain things because of unions. In effect, unions are taking a role in management. That is an area that requires examination if we are to strengthen public trust in public administration and to provide enhanced accountability. The situation must be more transparent. In my time as a public representative I have come across many examples. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, was a former trade union official. I accept that unions have a role.

I am sorry. I thought the Minister was.

My apologies. The Minister's father was. I do not denigrate unions but I am concerned about their role when it comes to management and how far they go in that regard. I heard a story recently about a nursing home in which HIQA recommended that patients were fasting for too long and should be given tea and a biscuit at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. in the evening. HIQA said they should not be given their last tea break at 4.30 p.m. in the evening but the unions objected to the change. That should not be the case if we are in favour of public service. We are talking about conflicts of interest and people not using public office for private gain. I do not say there is corruption per se but a balance must be struck. Such issues must be examined in terms of a wider discussion on the role of the public sector and standards therein. It is timely that such issues are discussed.

Roads are a significant bugbear of mine and of many public representatives. For years I have tried to get local authorities to employ private contractors on a temporary basis to relieve flooding on roads, such as we saw in recent weeks. Considerable damage results when such work is not carried out. The reason is that unions will not allow management to hire private contractors to relieve flooding on roads. Such matters erode trust in the public sector and public administration. They cause difficulty and we must have more openness and transparency in the debate. We need further accountability. The legislation is a welcome step towards enhancing the public sector and working towards accountability. I very much welcome the introduction of the Bill. I hope it will be the first step in a process that will go much further.

I thank my colleague for enabling me to comment on this very important legislation. The Bill is important for a number of reasons. The purpose of the exercise is to protect the general public and to restore public confidence in the public service in general. That is not for one moment to suggest that everybody who works in the public sector is in some way corrupt or susceptible to corruption, but it is necessary that people are protected whether they are public representatives or public officials.

Like other speakers in the House, I am one of those people who have had the pleasure and privilege of working with various public officials through the years who were the essence of good conduct and who ensured that the right decisions were made in the public interest. They were scrupulous in the way they applied their decisions. As time went by perhaps one or two people failed to observe the rules. I refer to both public officials and public representatives. That does not mean, however, that everybody is corrupt. There is a grave danger that we would go down the road of presuming that is the situation. That does a great deal of damage to the morale of those involved in serving the public, which is a very honourable profession whether it be as a public representative or public official. In many cases the suggestion nowadays is that everybody is corrupt. It is true that every aspect of society has been challenged in one way or another in the past 20 years. Every sector has fallen by the wayside in some shape or form but there are still a number of people who get on the hobby-horse and point the finger of accusation at someone else. Perhaps they themselves are not in a position to do that all the time either, yet the position remains that in order to generate public confidence in public service in general it is essential that we have strict rules and guidelines and that we do our utmost to adhere to them.

Conflicts of interest are important and we do not attach enough importance to the issue. How many times have we known people to speak in a particular fashion on a subject, knowing well that they might have a conflict of interest, but it is not of such a nature that it requires compliance with legislation? The Bill before the House will enable people to be reassured that they are doing the right thing, which is equally important. Down through the years I, and everyone else, have come across countless cases where people spoke as if they had no interest at all in a subject but on closer examination it was found that they did have an interest but that only came to light afterwards, which is the sad part. We must ensure that the standards are adequate to protect public representatives, public officials and the general public.

To move away from a natural presumption that they are all, in some way, incapable of doing their job, corrupt, about to become corrupt or have been corrupt in the past, it is essential that where there is a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of natural justice or the course of business or there is a serious conflict of interest, there is retribution and action taken in the courts to ensure it does not happen again. From time to time, I have seen individuals, who were subsequently accused and found to be guilty, accuse other individuals in public. It is a very demanding area and it is very difficult to be perfect but we can try to provide sufficient legislation and protection to ensure that society is the beneficiary in the long run.

I do not want to go on too long, because I do not have much time left, but I will say another thing. The Minister very correctly brought in legislation on lobbying which was badly needed and which I am sure will stand the test of time. One should remember that lobbying takes various forms. When I was a member of a different body and was sitting around a table and expected to make a decision, I always felt it would be awful if somebody sitting around the table had a vested interest. Some people might make a decision on the basis that it is the right thing to do whereas somebody else might make it on the basis that it is the thing to do because he or she has an interest, which is where the conflict arises. It is also worth remembering that to lobby people to the extent that an incentive is offered is a criminal offence and has been for a long time. There is a tendency to overlook that. If I go to a public official or representative and suggest that it would be beneficial to him or her to follow a particular route, I am guilty of a criminal offence. We cannot allow that as it undermines our entire society. It is up to us to ensure that is how we apply this in the business we are in. Comments have been made about a recent television programme which showed a certain level of "perceived corruption", and I use the phrase advisedly there. It should also be noted that some of the public representatives interviewed clearly indicated that what was being attempted was a criminal offence and in breach of the law. We did not see that because it was not shown. When the public comes to a conclusion on issues of this nature and does not see something like that, I can understand how it comes to the conclusion it comes to if it believes everybody is corrupt. Not everybody is corrupt. Sadly, those who follow the rules very often feel that their views are not heard at all, their efforts are not recognised or they are not doing the right thing.

The other matter is public appointments. Much heat has been generated on that subject. From listening to some members of the Opposition, I wonder has it now come to the stage at which future Governments will have to appoint somebody from the Opposition in order to comply with the regulations as some people see them. It is a serious issue because if that is the case, the presumption is that Government is always crooked and the Opposition is always pristine.

In a small country everybody knows everybody and, sadly, from time to time, we have situations in which the finger of accusation can be pointed at people who are eminently capable of doing a particular job. They are above reproach, can do the job and would be entitled to do it in the ordinary course of events but, if it comes to pass that they know somebody in government, they will not qualify. That is a rather peculiar way of going about things. It is not the application of equal treatment. In my time in public life, I have had dealings with many people who were appointed by Governments in various ways and I have always found them to be honourable, straightforward and, as far as I was concerned, honest.

I will finish with a particular bugbear of mine. In a previous Dáil, I was encouraged to leave the House on a regular basis - more so than anybody else in the history of the House, unless we go back for a very long time.

The Acting Chairman is getting anxious now.

I know. I resented being told that the issues of public interest I raised by way of parliamentary questions were not the responsibility of individual Ministers, which left me with no option but to submit a freedom of information request. I have a strong view on this - I believe that any issue of public interest which is subject to a freedom of information request should be answered in the House, without exception, because no public authority has the right to supersede the House of Parliament. The rights of Members of the House must be observed in every instance and if an issue is going to be the subject of a freedom of information request, it is entitled to be observed in the House. That same information should, without reservation, be brought before the House. I was reprimanded on several occasions because of that. I believe I was right and I will never come to the conclusion, or be encouraged to come to the conclusion, that I was wrong. If the parliamentary system had worked more effectively in the years we are talking about and all those questions that could have been answered in the House were answered in it, there would be much less need for inquiries or tribunals and much less cost.

To those who sneer at the system of parliamentary questions as an expensive way to get information, I say that the House of Parliament is still the supreme authority in terms of obtaining information. I do not believe the House of Parliament is the Executive - the Executive is drawn from the House of Parliament. Some people want to change the way our system works, to reverse it so that the Executive becomes the servant of the House of Parliament. The Executive's role is to produce and propose and the role of the House of Parliament is to debate. If the Executive does not do its job in the way it should, there is a price to be paid. We all know that.

I congratulate the Minister for bringing the legislation before the House. I hope it is effective and open, and is seen to be open. I hope that, as a result, our society will come to the conclusion that all is not lost and that we are quite capable of doing the job we were given in our role as public representatives.

I thank all Deputies for their contributions and for the warm welcome everyone has given to this legislation. All the legislation I have introduced over the past five years - this is likely to be the last of this Dáil - has not received unanimous welcome and support, although some legislation concerning ethics has. I will reserve some of my commentary because this Second Stage debate is supposed to adjourn at 4.30 p.m. I will try to conclude my remarks by then but I will leave the rest of the response until Committee Stage. I am not certain if I will be present then but I will take careful note of all the points made.

Deputy Fleming made a general point which was echoed by every speaker. He said that ethics should happen without the compulsory nature of legislation - it should be the natural environment in which public officials operate. Unfortunately, human nature requires us to sometimes ensure there is a legal framework and sanction for the minority of people who break rules of normal ethical behaviour. He also made the point that our regulation should be proportionate and I strongly agree with that. It links into the other point he made about movement from the public sector to the private sector.

There is a balance to be struck because all Members are agreed on the need for the availability of movement. However, it must be done on the basis that nobody is looking to the private sector when he or she is still in the public sector and bringing a capacity to overcome the will of the Oireachtas by knowing an insider track for somebody. While this balance must be struck, I acknowledge it is difficult to so do.

The silo mentality is an issue on which Deputy Sean Fleming touched and it is being addressed through the public sector reform agenda. I will be able to deal with that issue when Members debate public sector reform. I agree strongly with him with regard to training and I will deal with the issue of the confidential documents.

Deputy Fleming also mentioned the suspension of Members of the House. A process is set out in the Bill regarding that sanction should there be an investigation, should that investigation find serious fault against a Member of the Oireachtas and should it be validated by a court. It will then be up to the Committee on Members' Interests of the House to make a determination as to whether that Member should be suspended because this would be the prerogative of the relevant House itself, be it this House or the other House, depending on the House of which the individual concerned holds membership. Members can go through this process in some detail. I also wished to make sure this provision reached out to the European Parliament in respect of its membership, as its policies and laws have a direct impact on Irish citizens. Consequently, the same ethical code should apply there and that is why reports can be presented to the President of the European Parliament under this legislation.

Deputy Fleming mentioned one further point on where the A, B and C categories might overlap and whether there is a difficulty whereby people may be obliged to make multiple declarations. The Bill is clear and I will make it even more clear in setting it out post-enactment, that is, if one is captured by a number of categories, one simply makes a declaration under the highest category that applies to one. In other words, if categories A, B and C apply to one, one is a category A declarer under that regime. Deputy Fleming also mentioned the deputy commissioner and wondered what would happen were the deputy commissioner to be ill. Under the legislation, the deputy commissioner is appointed from among the staff of the commission. He or she is appointed by the Minister after consulting with the commissioner. It is possible for the deputy commissioner to assign his or her role in an investigation to another member of the investigation team should he or she become ill during an investigation or some such event. Members can work out the procedures in this regard. They are normal procedures that would apply to any analogous body of this sort but that is a level of detail into which Members can get on Committee Stage.

Deputy McDonald again generally welcomed the provisions of the Bill. Unfortunately, she then anchored it all in a lost opportunity, as though this was the only ethics legislation the Government had presented to this Oireachtas. This has been a reforming Oireachtas although Members were largely focused, as was the nation for the last five years, on Ireland's economic collapse and, as a Parliament, as a Government and as a people, on working towards recovery as the prime objective. The reform side of that mandate was a critical raison d'être for the establishment of my Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In addition, bringing in reform of the country's ethics framework to restore public confidence was an important part of the work the Government has both undertaken and delivered over the past five years.

It is unfortunate that Deputy McDonald would not acknowledge this because she then dismissed all the incredible amount of work done by both the Oireachtas itself in pre-legislative scrutiny and external analysis and the work of my officials over the past five years in bringing in legislation such as the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act. That legislation encompassed the biggest expansion of the powers of the Ombudsman since the Office of the Ombudsman was created in the first instance. Similarly, the whistleblowing legislation provided for the first ever overarching protection of whistleblowers in both the private and public spheres. I believe Deputy Durkan mentioned the first reporting under the Regulation of Lobbying Act will take place in the coming days. It is groundbreaking, difficult and complicated legislation. Moreover, a huge amount of time, effort and debate went into the restoration of the Freedom of Information Act and the Oireachtas inquiries legislation was the anchor that allowed the banking inquiry to be held after the people rejected giving additional powers to the Oireachtas by way of constitutional amendment. More reform has taken place in the lifetime of this Oireachtas than in a previous generation and this should be acknowledged.

In many ways, this legislation is the final piece of the jigsaw. As I stated in my opening comments, Members now have before them the overarching legislation that links together everything else because it takes account of the tribunals, many of which were still being finalised in respect of their reporting in the past couple of years. The Bill also takes account of the dialogue the Government has had with the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, in its various reports, as well as the dialogue it has had with international bodies to ascertain what best practice entails. The joining of the Open Government Partnership, which is a world body set up to examine standards in governance to build public confidence therein, has been an important part of all of this.

I will turn to some of the comments of other Members. Deputy Finian McGrath also welcomed the Bill, for which I thank him. He referred to the public sector standards commissioner and asked how that official is to be appointed. Section 26 provides that the public sector standards commissioner will be appointed by the President following a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas. Consequently, it is an open and transparent system analogous to the manner in which the Ombudsman is appointed. I imagine the same open recruiting system used for the Ombudsman also will be used in an open trawl of anyone who wishes to apply for the job, followed by vetting and then a final determination by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Deputy Daly referred to setting out a new standards regime and that is very important because the bringing about of a cultural change is sought. One can do so much by legislation but a cultural change must be brought about. The Deputy also made a valid point about identifying officials. I have always taken a jaundiced view about the thousands of letters that go out signed by officials stating they have been directed by the Minister, as though the latter had any notion of the thousands of letters going out nominally in his or her name, and, in this context, Ministers are corporations sole. Under the new transparency regime in the Civil Service, clear responsibility is being assigned. I invite Members of the House to look at a new website, www.whodoeswhat.gov.ie, which identifies officials and their functions and will bring in greater accountability. I disagree with the Deputy regarding his comment about the trade unions. The idea that a management system would allow trade unions to determine at what time tea is served is a management failure, not a trade union failure.

It is a failure and an abandonment of management, not a responsibility of trade unions. The trade union movement of course is tightly regulated by law.

The final speaker was Deputy Durkan. I agree with him and thank him for stating one cannot tar everybody with the same brush. The idea that somehow, because corruption is identified, everyone in public administration is corrupt must be addressed. There is an irony in that the more robust and vigorous are our investigation procedures and the more corruption that is uncovered, the greater the perception of corruption there is. However, this is something Members must do.

The final point I will make pertains to a point on which I agree with the Deputy, that is, the peculiar view that appears to be abroad to the effect that no matter how distinguished or qualified one is, if one has a political association one is disqualified from holding an office. It is corrosive of politics and public affairs if people perceive that one should not be associated with the political system, which is really important.

I look forward to debating all these matters in great detail later on Committee Stage. I thank all Members for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.