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.