That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to make further provision in relation to restrictions on the post-term employment of certain persons as lobbyists, for that purpose to amend the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, and to provide for related matters.
It is a case of better late than never for me in introducing this Bill today. Sometimes we need reminding that this is a legislative assembly.
Legislation governing the conduct of politics and the point at which politics, business and other vested interests intersect and interact requires updating. We have seen the corrupting influence that big money and cronyism can have on decision-making and on trust in politics, politicians and institutions. This week, there has been a renewed public focus on how politics are conducted in this State. We will presently have a debate on that very question. I have no difficulty with lobbying. One person's lobbyist is another person's advocate, and lobbying and advocacy are part of an open, democratic society. It is how we choose to regulate and limit such activity and how transparent we choose to make it that defines our decision-making processes.
Section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 imposes restrictions on post-term employment as a lobbyist, which apply to persons who have served in certain sensitive positions. The legislation provides for a one-year cooling-off period for Ministers and Ministers of State, special advisers and senior civil servants. This means that for one year from ceasing to hold such a position, an individual may not, except with the formal consent of the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, carry out lobbying activities, or be employed by a person carrying out lobbying activities, that involve the Department or body in which that individual served during his or her last year of office or employment. We know that in a recent high-profile case, no such permission was sought from SIPO by a recent office holder who moved seamlessly into a job in the industry in which, until recently, he had ministerial responsibility. This and other cases have brought into stark relief that the 2015 Act does not contain any enforcement powers, under section 22, and that contravention of that section is not an offence.
The purpose of the Bill I have brought to the Dáil is to regularise the situation by enabling section 22 to be properly enforced as the public would expect. The Bill clearly defines contraventions and the power of SIPO to authorise an investigation. Anyone found to have contravened the section would be guilty of an offence. The proposed amendments would use the punishments already set out in the Act providing for a class C fine of up to €2,500 on summary conviction in the District Court. If a case were to proceed to a jury trial in the Circuit Court, the punishment applicable on conviction would include a fine or imprisonment for up to two years, depending on the severity of the offence.
While the Government has committed to a review of SIPO legislation in respect of this and other matters, it is absolutely essential that it acts quickly. Confidence in politics depends on it. My Bill deals with just one issue, as colleagues will be aware. In my view and that of the Labour Party, we need a top-to-bottom review of our ethics legislation. This requirement was made clear by the events that were revealed this week.