I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the opportunity to advance the Regulation of Lobbying (Post-Term Employment as Lobbyist) Bill 2020. I sincerely hope that the legislation will be supported by all Deputies and all parties. Ireland's standing in the global corruption index has fallen. We now sit well below the states against which we like to compare ourselves. According the latest Edelman Trust barometer, fewer than half of people surveyed trust our Government leaders. Trust in politics and in public administration is intrinsic to democracy. It should be especially so in a republic. For much of our short history as an independent state, the political culture and the dominance of one political party saw our politics poisoned by abuse of public office at the highest levels. In the 1980s, when this country was on its knees, some of our elite politicians were living high on the hog, having enriched themselves through the high offices they held.
One of the many reasons I became a member of the Labour Party is because of our position on corruption and on the need for transparency and integrity in public life, and because we linked those very principles to the health and quality of our democracy. From the first moves to bring in ethics legislation to the initial Freedom of Information Act in 1997 to taking money out of politics and other such important measures, real reform in the space of ethics in public office tends always to start with us. We are proud of our record. The latest initiative came in 2015. The last Oireachtas was sadly largely an ethics reform-free zone. The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 was an important initiative by my colleague, Deputy Howlin. This Act is six years old. Given the passage of time and given what we and the regulator have learned about how these relatively new laws have worked in practice, it is timely that they be reviewed and tightened up.
I have no difficulty with lobbying. Some people seem to, but I do not. I believe it is important for our democracy. One person's lobbyist is another person's advocate. Lobbying and advocacy are part of an open and 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. While the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 has been lauded in many circles as an important public policy measure, there are few sanctions in the Act to enforce compliance with regard to certain kinds of breaches. This is despite repeated requests by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and other experts in recent years to give our political watchdog more bite.
The Act was never meant to stay still. Calls by SIPO to legislate to give it more firepower have fallen on deaf ears. We have seen too many cases of former Ministers and others leaving office on a Friday and walking into a new gig on Monday without even bothering to send a cursory note to SIPO looking for an exemption. This kind of behaviour, carried out with impunity, rightly drives the people we represent mad and does nothing to dislodge the narrative that politicians are all at it, are all the same and are all out for themselves.
The cases of top politicians with which we are familiar do not, however, highlight the full extent of this problem. The revolving door is also alive and well among special advisors and senior civil servants, although this is less well known and receives less coverage. Allowing those with intimate knowledge of the corridors of power to be so easily poached and employed to act on behalf of big corporations and lobby groups undermines the credibility of our system of governance. Today we must finally make a start in closing some of these glaring loopholes, which allow former officeholders and senior officials to act without consequence.
The Regulation of Lobbying (Post-Term Employment as Lobbyist) Bill 2020 is a short and simple Bill. It is a first step in strengthening and further enhancing the powers of SIPO and in properly regulating the conduct of former officeholders and others post employment. As it stands, SIPO has the power to investigate relevant contraventions of the 2015 legislation. These include failing to register, failing to make returns to the lobbying register, providing false or misleading information and failing to co-operate with investigations. Under section 18 of the Act, SIPO may initiate an investigation of a person who it reasonably believes has failed to comply with an investigation or is obstructing an investigation. However, the crux of the issue is that section 22, which is supposed to prohibit former designated officials from undertaking lobbying activity for one year after departure from their posts, is not currently included in section 18 as a relevant contravention. Put simply, SIPO does not have powers to investigate contraventions of, or to enforce, this provision of the Act in such cases. This new Bill proposes to address this omission by adding the contravention of section 22 to the list of relevant contraventions SIPO may investigate.
In so doing, section 22 of the Act as it will be amended will impose 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, as has been the case since the enactment of the 2015 Act. This means that for one year from ceasing to hold such a position, an individual may not, except with the formal consent of 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.
As I have noted, we know that in a recent high-profile case no such permission was sought from SIPO by a recent officeholder who moved seamlessly into a job in the industry for which, until recently, he had held ministerial responsibility. As it stands, SIPO has no power to investigate, rebuke or impose sanctions. This is manifestly absurd. The case to which I refer, along with other cases, have brought into stark relief the fact that the some parts of the 2015 Act do not contain sufficient enforcement powers. I make that point with particular reference to section 22 and the fact that contravention of that section is not an offence.
The purpose of the Bill is to regularise the situation by enabling section 22 to be properly enforced in a way the public has a right to expect. The Bill clearly defines contraventions, the power of SIPO to authorise an investigation and that any person found to have contravened the section would be guilty of an offence. At the lower end of the scale, the proposed amendments would use the punishments already set out in the Act and providing for a class C fine of up to €2,500 on summary conviction in the District Court. However, under this proposed legislation, 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.
In closing, although I welcome the fact that the Government previously committed to a review of SIPO legislation in respect of this and other matters, it is absolutely essential that it acts quickly on this particular glaring loophole. Confidence in politics depends on it.