Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000: Second Stage.

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

From our privileged position as a country which has benefited from generally high standards of behaviour in public life, there can be a tendency to underestimate the value of those standards to society as a whole. However, when we look at the experience of less fortunate countries than our own, the impact of corruption and unethical behaviour becomes clear. Corruption and venality in public life weaken public confidence, drag down economies and undermine the one common idea that characterises and sustains a genuine democracy, that is, the idea that public power should be used for the public good.

We are fortunate to have a public which demands high standards from its public servants and representatives, but we can maintain its confidence only by ensuring that those high standards prevail and are seen to prevail. That is the heart of the matter we are discussing today. I am, therefore, pleased to be here to introduce the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, to this House.

This Bill has been much heralded. The genesis of the Standards in Public Office Bill lies in the programme for Government, An Action Plan for the Millennium, and the work of the McCracken tribunal. In his report, Judge McCracken recognised the combined value of the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Acts and looked forward to these Acts being valuable mechanisms in guarding against the unacceptable elements of the financial transactions which the tribunal had uncovered. Among the key recommendations of the McCracken tribunal were an independent third party to monitor and investigate possible contraventions of the ethics Act and that tax clearance systems, together with requirements for statutory declarations in relation to tax compliance, be put in place.

In July 1998 the Government published outline proposals for a Standards in Public Office Bill in what subsequently became known as the blue book. Between 1998 and 1999 a number of committees, including the Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann and the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, considered the blue book. The suggestions of those committees were taken into account in the drafting of the Bill, which was published about this time last year. On publication, the Bill was remitted to committees again for a further look at what was being proposed. Members of the committees had a number of thoughts about the Bill which we have been able to take on board.

In producing this Bill, we have started from the standpoint that it is essential that our citizens have confidence and trust in government and public administration. It is clearly important that we have an appropriate legal framework in place to ensure their trust is not abused. There is a particular duty for those of us in political life to set a high standard of conduct as misconduct and corruption at the political level create and appear to excuse an atmosphere and culture of cynicism which invites corruption at lower levels. The Standards in Public Office Bill now before us gives us an opportunity to further reinforce the integrity of our political system.

I turn now to the main features of the Bill. The Standards in Public Office Bill provides for the establishment of a new Standards in Public Office Commission with wide investigative powers in relation to so-called specified acts. Specified acts are acts or omissions of public servants or office holders which are inconsistent with the proper performance of the duties of the relevant position, or which would be inconsistent with the maintenance of public confidence in that performance. The commission will take and investigate complaints in this regard only where it considers the matter complained of to be of significant public importance, and while it is a matter for the commission to make a judgment on what that means in any given case, the Bill provides that the commission may deem a matter to be of significant public importance if it relates to a benefit or potential benefit allegedly received by a person, where the value of the benefit exceeds £10,000. The commission, or indeed a committee, will not investigate complaints lodged anonymously. However, where the commission or committee, as the case may be, considers that the circumstances warrant it, they can restrict the disclosure of the complainant's identity where it is necessary or expedient for the commission or committee's investigation of the complaint.

It will also be a function of the commission to receive complaints in relation to contraventions of the Ethics Act or the Electoral Act, since the commission is to take on the current functions of the Public Offices Commission.

The Bill, as amended, provides that the commission will be chaired by a judge or former judge of the Supreme Court or High Court and will have four other ex officio members, that is, the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman. The commission must be seen as clearly independent of the political process. It is essential, however, that the commission should understand and appreciate the context in which the political process operates. For that reason, it has been considered appropriate to ensure that there will also be an appointed member of the commission who will be a former politician, who will be an ordinary member of the commission in addition to the four ex officio members I have just mentioned. This will not in any way undermine the independence of the commission, but will bring to the commission the special perspective and expertise which comes from service as a public representative.

Persons in public life are in some ways easy targets for "crank" assertions of wrongdoing. The commission must be in a position to deal effectively with those complaints which are genuine and substantial. It must have, therefore, some sort of filter process to screen out the bad complaints and allow for proper investigation of the genuine ones.

For this reason, the Bill contains provision for the engagement of inquiry officers. This is something of an innovation in this field. The role of the inquiry officer will be to conduct preliminary investigations of complaints on behalf of the commission. Inquiry officers may be drawn from the commission's staff or from outside the commission. An inquiry officer would report to the commission and indicate whether, in his or her opinion, a case existed for further investigation by the commission. This will give the commission a mechanism allowing it to ascertain whether a particular complaint might be frivolous or vexatious, or might refer to a matter which is not of significant public importance. There may be some cases which are so obviously off-kilter that there is no need even to go this far, and these can be dismissed quickly. There will be other complaints, however, where this inquiry officer mechanism will be of great assistance to the commission.

There will be some cases where a minor matter is complained of, which the commission does not believe justifies the full weight of a commission investigation but which is nonetheless worthy of some level of concern. In such cases, the complaint may be referred to a committee of the relevant House of the Oireachtas or to the Minister or public body concerned, as appropriate. This approach should meet any concerns that a standing commission might constitute an open invi tation for endless investigations of very minor matters.

The commission will enjoy tribunal-style powers, for example, in respect of such matters as summoning individuals and papers, administering oaths, ordering discovery and preservation of documents and requiring the giving of evidence. The Bill also provides that it shall be an offence to obstruct an investigation of the commission or an inquiry officer. Consistent with Supreme Court rulings in relation to tribunals, evidence given to the commission or an inquiry officer shall not be admissible as evidence against the person, the subject of investigation, in any criminal proceedings.

It is important at this stage to make one particularly important distinction. While the commission will be in a position to accept complaints in relation to office holders, primarily Ministers, and a wide range of public servants, similar complaints about ordinary Oireachtas Members will be made, via the clerk, to the relevant Oireachtas committee, as happens at present under the Ethics Act. However, if it so decides, a committee will be in a position to enlist the commission to investigate an issue and report back to the House concerned.

The Bill provides that the definition of "connected person" for the purposes of the wider investigative remit of the commission will be the same as that in the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. A "connected person" for the purposes of the ethics Act includes a relative, business partner, company in which the person has a controlling interest, or a person with whom the person enjoys a trustee/beneficiary relationship. I am satisfied that this definition, which is comprehended by the terms of reference of current tribunals, taken with the proposed mandate and powers of the commission, constitutes a sound basis for commission investigations. This should ensure that the commission is not hampered in carrying out its functions.

The Bill, as amended, also provides for the development by the Government, the committees or the Minister for Finance of codes of conduct which will apply to Ministers and other office holders, Members of the Oireachtas and employees of public bodies, respectively. These codes of conduct will deal with the standards of conduct and integrity appropriate to the persons to whom they relate in the performance of their public duties. The codes will form part of the terms and conditions of public service employees and will provide guidance for them in the performance of their functions. Such codes shall be admissible in proceedings before a court, tribunal, Oireachtas committee or the commission which may take account of the terms of such codes in making determinations.

Members of this House will be aware that the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests has considered and reported on proposals for a draft code of conduct for the Members of that House on foot of a resolution passed on 7 March 2001, so work on this issue has already commenced in the Dáil. It will be a matter for the Seanad committee to produce a code of conduct for application in the Seanad, and no code of conduct, or any aspect of this Bill, can be imposed on the Seanad without its affirmative decision.

A considerable amount of work has also been done regarding codes of conduct for the Civil Service. The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service is currently looking at a draft code of conduct for the Civil Service and the Civil Service unions are being consulted. Department of Finance officials have also been looking at frameworks for governance in State bodies. As codes of conduct are being extended into the public service, appropriate consultations with staff representatives will take place and this is provided for in the Bill. Naturally, where an existing code meets the required standard, this will not need to be supplanted.

In their reports on the Government's original blue book proposals, the committees did not support the creation of offences for breaches of the ethics legislation. While acknowledging the committees' views, the Government is concerned to ensure that the regime to be put in place should command public confidence. The Bill, accordingly, provides that where the commission finds evidence of wrongdoing on the part of a person who is the subject of an investigation, the organisation or public body to whom a person is answerable would receive the commission's report so it would be in a position to consider appropriate disciplinary action.

In respect of a Deputy or Senator, this process would involve the laying of a report before the relevant House which would then decide on what penalty might be applied. The Bill provides that where the select committee is recommending suspension of a Member or office holder, it may also recommend the withholding from him or her of a particular amount of salary payable as a Member of the House. Before recommending such a course, the committee would have to be satisfied that the act or contravention was intentional and of a grave nature, that the withholding of salary was reasonable in all the circumstances, and that the amount to be withheld did not exceed the amount that the Member would earn in the period of suspension.

In the case of a civil servant, receipt by his or her employing Department of an adverse commission report could trigger disciplinary procedures against the official. The commission and the relevant committees may also, in certain circumstances, make a report to the DPP.

This Bill also requires that each Member of the Oireachtas must furnish a tax clearance certificate in respect of himself or herself or a partnership in which he or she is a member within a period of nine months either side of an election. In addition, a statutory declaration that the Member's tax affairs are in order would have to be made one month either side of the election. Senior public officials will also be required to produce tax clearance certificates and make declarations.

The commission will be empowered to investigate breaches of the tax clearance requirements by Members and senior public officials. While there is a temptation to think of the tax clearance certificate as the more obvious way in which tax compliance will be assured, it should be noted that the making of a false statutory declaration is an offence. This Bill increases the penalties for making a false declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act from a fine of £50 to £2,000 and a term of imprisonment from three to six months. It would be a rash person who would make a false declaration lightly and this adds considerable weight to the tax compliance provisions of this Bill.

The Bill also provides for tax clearance for persons to be appointed to positions as judges, and they too will have to make similar statutory declarations. The regime for judges will vary somewhat from that for Members of the Oireachtas. In the case of judges, the tax clearance will be required before a judge is recommended for appointment. This different mechanism reflects differences in the role and constitutional position of the different groups.

There has been some criticism that the Bill does not go further in relation to the Judiciary. The whole area of standards and ethics for the Judiciary, however, is being considered separately from this Bill and I would not even start to claim that this tax clearance system is any more than a first step in that direction, which the Government is taking the opportunity of this Bill to put in place. To the extent that the Bill is deficient in relation to the Judiciary, therefore, it is deficient only in the same way that the first step on a ladder is deficient in not bringing us all the way to the top. That does not make the first step any less important, however.

One aspect of the existing ethics legislation which has concerned Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas has been in relation to the interaction of the declarations under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and those under the Electoral Act, 1997. At present Members of this House will receive different sets of forms from different sources and on different dates, which will have to be returned by different deadlines. The Bill, therefore, makes provision for considerable streamlining of the current requirements for declarations of interests and donations under the two Acts respectively. In particular, the dates for making statements under the two Acts will be brought into line and the current overlap in reporting requirements which require certain amounts to be declared both as political donations under the Act of 1997 and as gifts under the Act of 1995 will be removed. Moreover, the forms will issue at the same time from a single source and be returned in the same way. This is intended to make compliance with the legislation simpler and less confusing. I hope this will contribute to a reduction in the sales of aspirin to Members of the Oireachtas.

That summarises the principal intent and purpose of the Bill before us. I am sure that Members of this House will welcome it in the same way as have Members of Dáil Éireann, that is, openly and positively but tinged with a certain regret that circumstances are such that the Bill is necessary. None of us is particularly happy about legislation of this type. We would all wish to live in a world where the personal, moral and ethical standards of public representatives and public servants were beyond question, and known to be so.

As Members of the Oireachtas we impose on ourselves, and to an extent on other public servants, greater transparency and disclosure of personal and financial interests than applies in just about any other walk of life. This reflects our understanding that in the work we do, we act as trustees on behalf of the population of the State. We impose stringent standards on ourselves because we understand that, in the long run, we must be seen to operate to the highest standards if we are to maintain the public trust. Our overall goal is to ensure that we continue to have a public service and a political system worthy of the esteem of our citizens.

If Senators will bear with me, I would like to take a little time to put the Bill into its legislative context. There have been major legislative measures in recent years in the general area of governance and accountability, and this Bill slots into that overall framework. The major legislation already on the Statute Book includes the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which is the central accountability framework for governance changes in the Civil Service, setting out the formal structure for assigning authority and accountability within the Civil Service.

This change in formal accountability structures is supported by the more informal mechanisms of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, which allows individual citizens to look at Government records in relation to those citizens, or in relation to the more general operations and policies of the public administration. This is subject, of course, to certain exemptions ensuring privacy rights are upheld and encompassing an independent appeals system in the form of the Information Commission.

Accountability to the Oireachtas has also been supported by way of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, which gives Oireachtas committees increased powers of investigation in areas of public concern. Among these powers are the ability to compel witnesses to attend hearings and to respond to questions.

The Electoral Acts of 1997 and 1998 seek to achieve fairness in the electoral process by limiting expenditure at elections and providing a system of recoupment, in certain circumstances, of candidates' election expenses. They also provide for a scheme of disclosure of political donations over specified limits. The Electoral Acts serve to reassure the public that there is openness and accountability in the relationship between the political system and those who support it financially or otherwise. The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act, 1999, provides similar measures for the local authority area.

Perhaps the most important legislation to bear in mind when considering the Standards in Public Office Bill is the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. The Act provides mechanisms for dealing with conflicts of interest in the cases of Members of the Houses, Ministers and officials in the wider public service. It was this Act which established the independent Public Offices Commission and provided for a Select Committee on Members' Interests, covering both Houses of the Oireachtas, to oversee its key provisions. It requires Members of the Oireachtas, senior civil servants, public board members and senior executives of State bodies to disclose their personal interests to provide transparency and accountability in decision making. It is on the 1995 Act in particular that much of the Standards in Public Office Bill builds. Rather than start from scratch, the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, is principally concerned with extending and amending the provisions of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and many of the mechanisms of the Ethics Act, in relation to complaints and so forth, will continue to apply with appropriate adaptations after the enactment of this Bill.

The Standards in Public Office Bill is one of a range of legislative initiatives currently being taken by the Government in the broad area of standards and conduct in public life. Senators will be aware of the amount of work being done in both Houses and in Departments on this range of initiatives. A glance at the schedule for last week shows three separate Bills, before one or other House, dealing with the general area of standards and ethics. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2000, which represents a considerable strengthening of our anti-corruption laws and awaits the President's signature, is one of the most important legislative elements supporting standards in public life. It provides for a significant widening of the scope of the Prevention of Corruption Acts by bringing within their scope office holders such as Deputies, Senators, MEPs, members and officials of the EU, judges of national, foreign and international courts and certain other foreign public officials where the corrupt act occurs wholly or partly in the State.

Another important provision of the Bill deals with any office holder or official who acts corruptly, on his or her own initiative, to secure some benefit personally or for another person. Here, there is no offer or receipt of a benefit from a third party but the person's actions are designed to benefit, say, a member of one's own family. This type of corruption in office is being tackled for the first time in the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2000. In accordance with the Taoiseach's substantial statement in December last, the Bill provides that there will be a presumption that a public official has acted corruptly in certain circumstances where the person has received moneys or benefits.

The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, has been examining the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999, a Private Members' Bill introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Rabbitte. The Bill was accepted by the Government in principle on Second Stage and the Minister of State will, subject to Government approval, bring forward amendments to the 1999 Bill on Committee Stage. This will help to encourage persons who are aware of wrongdoing, in public or private business, to come forward. The Bill we are considering today, the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, contains provisions for the protection of persons who make bona fide complaints to the Standards in Public Office Commission or the appropriate Oireachtas committees. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, will also be bringing forward proposals for a registration system for lobbyists who lobby officials and politicians at national and local level and he will consult Members of the Houses on his proposals in this area.

Among the main aims of the Local Government Bill, 2000, published by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is the introduction of a comprehensive ethics framework for local authority members and officials. The provisions of this Bill mirror, in many respects, the transparency and accountability arrangements of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. In addition to the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have published Bills relating to registration of lobbyists, prevention of corruption and tax clearance for candidates for election. I acknowledge, as I have before, the work of the Opposition in these areas, which has served to develop and progress the debate on these matters.

Let me reiterate, in summary form, the main features of this new Standards in Public Office Bill. It will lead to the introduction of powerful investigative mechanisms for serious complaints about persons serving the public with whistleblower protections for persons making such complaints. There will be tax compliance require ments for Members of the Oireachtas, judges and senior public servants and codes of conduct for public servants, office holders and Oireachtas Members. Under the Ethics and Electoral Acts there will be clearer, more streamlined, reporting rules. In addition to these, there are various technical amendments of the existing Ethics in Public Offices Act and Members will have seen, from the explanatory memorandum, that much of the Bill consists of such amendments. In framing this Bill, the Government sought to listen to the views of Members from all parties and was mindful of the need to achieve a balance between the right to privacy and the exigencies of the common good. The Bill acknowledges the independence of each House in the regulation of its own affairs and it can only be applied to the Houses of the Oireachtas by resolution in each House.

It will be clear from the content of the Bill, and of the other legislative proposals I have mentioned, that the Government takes the maintenance of standards in public life very seriously. It is also clear that the issue is one which is complex and requires the achievement of a difficult balance between the rights and sensitivities of individuals working in the service of the public and the public interest in transparency and the maintenance of the highest standards. This Bill strikes that balance and I commend it to the House.

I respectfully request that, in accordance with Seanad Standing Order No. 121, the following corrections be made by the Clerk, under the Cathaoirleach's direction, to section 24 of the Bill:

In section 24(1)(a), line 9, the reference to ‘(1)(a)' be corrected to ‘(1)',

and,

In section 24(1)(b), line 13, the reference to ‘(1)(a)' be changed to ‘(1)'.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

I will instruct the Clerk to make the appropriate corrections.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for introducing the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000. Bills which come before the Houses of the Oireachtas usually relate to the functions of different Departments and when passed effect better governance. The Bill before the House this morning is different. It is one of a number of recent measures which endeavour to clean up politics. As my political career draws to an end, after having served 19 years in the Houses of the Oireachtas, I am saddened such measures are necessary, but I realise they are. When I was elected in 1982, politicians were held in high regard. Now, just because of the failings of a few, politics and politicians are held in contempt by a significant proportion of the population. Many feel politicians are irrelevant in their lives, and of course that might be true. In the late 1970s and the 1980s many social issues had to be addressed like high unemployment, poor housing, high taxation and poor social services. These have all been improved and the public do not need the politician to the same extent as in the past. Prosperity makes the public very independent of politicians, to whom little credit is given for making the right decisions many years ago, which have led to that prosperity.

Politics is not simply about delivering the goods in a material sense, it is also about providing redress for anger and injustice. Ironically, although politicians are often blamed for what goes wrong it is to politics people turn to have things put right. The vast majority of Deputies and Senators elected carry out their duties in an honest and hard-working fashion. They do a difficult job although the public and the media give them little credit for it. It is a time-consuming occupation and often family life suffers. Shortly after I was elected to the Dáil, that was brought home to me when my son, then 12 years of age, said he was delighted I was elected but the sad thing was "now we never see you". I never allowed myself to forget that remark.

I have no doubt that for democracy to function well it must have the support and trust of the public. Confidence in all arms of Government is essential, including confidence in politicians, civil servants and members of State bodies. This Bill relates to all in those categories, not only to politicians, and as a result it gives us an opportunity to reinforce the integrity of our political system. The public have the right to demand greater accountability and transparency in how elected representatives conduct their business. As a Member of this House, I want to see such transparency and accountability. Like the majority of Members, I wish to conduct my business in an open fashion and in compliance with all existing legislative measures or regulations.

This Bill is the result of recommendations made by Mr. Justice McCracken. He was of the view that it was necessary to set up an independent body to investigate possible contraventions of the Ethics in Public Office Act and the tax clearance systems, together with requirements for statutory declarations in relation to tax compliance. The Government put its proposals before the committees on finance and the public service and on Members' interests. While I am now a member of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, I was not a member at that time, which leaves me at a slight disadvantage. However, I am pleased the Government listened to the views of members of all parties and endeavoured to produce balanced legislation.

The Minister outlined the composition and terms of reference of the tribunal which will be established under this Bill. The Bill requires Members of both Houses to furnish tax clearance certificates in respect of themselves or a partnership of which they are members, within nine months of being elected. In addition, a statutory declaration must be made that a Member's tax affairs are in order within one month of the Member being elected.

One of the most disturbing aspects of recent tribunals is the amount of money that appears to be changing hands without a penny in tax being paid. This must be a matter of grave concern to compliant taxpayers, particularly when politicians are involved in such conduct. They must feel extremely angry and have every right to feel that way. I welcome the provision that these tax clearances must be furnished.

I am concerned about one aspect of the Bill and Members of the other House have expressed the same concern. It relates to complaints that might be made about Members. The Bill provides that the commission may engage an inquiry officer to conduct a preliminary investigation of a complaint. The commission will be able to accept complaints about office holders and a wide range of public servants. When a complaint is made against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas it will be passed to the relevant Oireachtas committee to be dealt with.

Once a complaint is made, however, even though it might be frivolous or vexatious, it will damage the good name of the person concerned. It is almost impossible to rectify that situation. I was once told a story about a person who took the good name of his neighbour in a frivolous manner. He decided to repent and tried to make good the damage he had done. He was told he would have to climb to the rooftop and float a bag of feathers into the wind. Only when he collected the last feather would he be able to make good the damage he had caused. I tell this story to illustrate that if a complaint is made against a Member of the Houses and that complaint is found to be without substance, that Member's good name will still be damaged. The only asset a Member of the Oireachtas has is his or her good name. I will refer again to this issue on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill and the other measures that have been put in place. I hope they will help to improve the standing not just of politicians but of the political system and will effect a restoration of confidence, particularly among young people, in that system.

I compliment the Minister of State on bringing forward this important legislation. I concur with the sentiments expressed by Senator Doyle. I, too, am saddened that this type of legislation is necessary. I have been in the public service for practically all my adult life, first as a public servant, then as a local representative and now as a Member of the Oireachtas.

I have over 22 years service at both local and national level. Practically all the colleagues I met over those years had the highest standards and contributed enormously and sometimes at their own expense to the common good. Unfortunately, however, there are always a few who undermine the system and violate the standards which the public expect of its public servants, politicians and those who serve the common good. This legislation and the other supporting legislation in this area is necessary for that reason.

It is a cause of great anger and concern to people in public life to discover a colleague has undermined the system to the extent of involving themselves in an area of activity which detracts from the, until now, unwritten code of conduct for public representatives. It was understood that a person went into public life to serve the common good. The personal betterment of that individual was not part of that vocation. Unfortunately, as we read and hear about daily from the tribunals of investigation, a number of people decided to use their positions as elected representatives or in other areas of public service for personal gain. As a result, this legislation is necessary. A number of important provisions in the Bill will preclude people who have such intentions from taking such actions in the future.

Codes of conduct for public servants, office holders and Members of the Oireachtas are necessary and are the foundation of this legislation. The Bill also outlines tax compliance requirements for Members of the Oireachtas, judges and senior public servants. There has been a change in the public mindset with regard to tax compliance. In the past, it was generally accepted that people should evade tax if possible. It was something people aspired to and professionals who looked after people's accounts did everything in their power to effect that. However, in recent years, probably due to changes in the Finance Acts, there is a greater degree of compliance and a greater interest in being compliant with tax legislation. The provisions in the Bill dealing with tax compliance will find favour across the board because it is something people are willing to do.

The Bill provides for clearer and more streamlined reporting rules under the ethics in public office and electoral legislation. For those of us from humble beginnings, the large finance available to some to fight elections has always been a sore point. There was envy from those of us who did not have the same level of finance. To some extent, a playing pitch which was not level was created.

It is important that all candidates contest an election on equal terms. There should not be a situation where those with huge finances can advance their case more than those with lesser finances available. If this is the case, more will come forward to take part in public life. There is now a limit on what a candidate can spend in both local and general elections. That is good and will encourage those who would not have thought it possible to run for election to do so. Those who thought they could not finance a campaign will now be able to see how much they need to do so.

I understand the position in relation to investigations and whistleblowers. However, I am concerned that some may act for the wrong reasons and destroy somebody's good name. A report or complaint in the lead-up to an election could be a strategic blow to a candidate who could be undermined. Apologising after the election, if the candidate's name was damaged in an unwarranted fashion, is useless. The electors may have decided that the candidate is not the person to represent them. Saying "sorry" then is too late. I encourage the Minister of State to outline the safeguards in place to deal with this issue.

I have spoken on this matter at the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service and on other occasions. During an investigation by the committee, and in several other countries, it was one of the issues that raised its head. I would like to see safeguards to protect a person's good name where there is an ill intention by an individual or a group to undermine a candidate contesting an election.

Politicians and political life have taken a bashing in recent times. Those in public life have been responsible for this, to an extent. It is inappropriate that criticism and derogatory remarks have been levelled at an Opposition, whether this was in the public good. This has damaged politics. The media pick up on such statements and follow through. It is no good blaming the media for what politicians have said about one another. The media report what is said. Politicians have undermined one another for political gain and advantage.

However, that advantage is short-term. In the longer term they are undermining the vocation they have chosen. Politicians who operate on that basis should consider their role. Did they enter politics to damage their profession? If so, they have picked the wrong one. Those who blame the media for the low esteem in which politicians are held should look into their hearts and consider some of the statements made by colleagues during the years. If one throws enough mud, some will stick. Many politicians have paid the price for this. The public is receptive and now has greater access to information on political life. If individual politicians persist in behaving as they have done, their standing with the public will continue to decrease.

Politicians, more so than those in the public service, must abandon their private life and that of their family when they enter politics. This is a major cross for a family to bear. It is not for the faint-hearted to be involved in public life in these times. Such families have enough pressures on them as it is, particularly if there are children involved. This legislation is good in that it sets out parameters within which politicians must operate, whether in the Houses of the Oireachtas, local government or the public service.

During my time in public life, whether as a member of Roscommon County Council, the Consultative Council of the European Commission, chairman of the general council or the Oireachtas, I have found that there is a great satisfaction to be had from dealing with matters for the common good. If people are to stay in the business of politics, there must be guidelines by which to work in order that the damage inflicted on the political system in the past ten years cannot happen again. If that infliction of damage is allowed to continue, few will choose to enter political life. We need people from all walks of life – the professions, the farming community, the self-employed, men and women, young and old – to consider entering public life if the national view is to be reflected.

This legislation, and the supporting legislation that has already been passed, is necessary but it should not be perceived by the majority of those involved in public life as a slap on the wrist. As far as I am concerned, a few individuals blackened the reputation of politics in this country. This legislation will prevent them from doing so in the future, but it will also allow those with a genuine interest in politics to become involved in the political system safe in the knowledge that if they adhere to the guidelines and regulations, no one will accuse them of wrongdoing. The cynical view of politics that has developed in recent years will evaporate and eventually disappear when this legislation takes full effect and people will then be willing to devote themselves to the political system.

An important group of people who are not making themselves available to serve in public life are those who volunteer to serve on State boards. The investigations of activities which took place in the past have encouraged them to move away from the political system. If we are to request that these individuals, who have great experience in many fields, serve on State boards in the future, we must ensure structures and safeguards will be put in place to ensure their reputations will not be undermined while they are in situ or that their standing will not be damaged when they return to their former positions after their period of service. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the introduction of this legislation which seeks to bring together some of existing provisions contained in the ethics in public office legislation and the Electoral Acts. The Bill also seeks to establish a standards in public office commission, with wide-ranging powers, to deal with complaints in relation to people, not least among whom are Members of this House and the Lower House, involved in the public arena.

I am sure other Senators have provided a litany of the reasons for this legislation and the Minister of State supplied a long list in his contribution. We have reached a critical juncture in public life and it is important now for us to be seen to be taking statutory steps to ensure we put our house in order. An enormous amount of allegations have been made about those involved in the public arena and acts of corruption have been proven to have occurred in many instances. A considerable cloud hangs over a former Taoiseach, a number of Ministers and Members of the Lower House and a large number of local authority members. In such circumstances, it is natural to expect members of the public to believe that all politicians are on the take, corrupt and subject to bribery.

The profession of politics has been badly tarnished during the past decade. Membership of that profession was formerly regarded as extremely desirable and many citizens would have welcomed the opportunity to hold high public office, whether it be as a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a member of the Judiciary or an office holder in the public arena. The majority would have been delighted to serve in these relatively privileged positions, but now they are asking who would want to enter public life, why they would wish to do so and are their reasons for so doing suspect. People now cast a very jaundiced, sceptical and cynical eye on the manner in which we conducted our business in the past. We must show them that we have put our house in order and that the opportunity for corruption is so limited that they can again have confidence in the political system. That is the route we must take and the legislation will allow us to take a major step in the right direction.

Standards in public office are extremely important. It is vital that we move away from the necessity of having to establish tribunals of inquiry, a number of which – McCracken, Flood and Moriarty – are currently sitting and have uncovered an enormous amount of wrongdoing in the public arena. There are tribunals investigating a number of other areas also and we must not forget that ours is not the only profession that is, to some degree, under a cloud.

It is important that we establish a body, a commission in this instance, which will have powers similar to those of the current tribunals and which can deal with complaints as they arise. We should no longer be obliged to establish tribunals and confer on them certain powers while not knowing how long they will remain in operation, the amount of public money that will need to be expended on them or the extent of the terms of reference they will require. I accept that the operations of the current tribunals are proper and above board, but we must move away from the ad hoc system which gave rise to the tribunals and replace it with a permanent statutory model that can deal with complaints as a matter of course. We must know the precise nature of the body we are putting in place and be aware of how it will operate.

I am delighted that the commission will have the powers of a tribunal and that it will be able to summon witnesses, discover documents and carry out the other necessary actions which will allow it to carry out thorough investigations. However, the position is still not as clear-cut as it might be. It is extremely important that we distance all Members of the House from any possible taint of being connected with big business or that we do not allow any suspicion to arise that they have received gifts or financial recompense. We missed an opportunity of not clearly stating in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, recently passed by the House, that there cannot be corporate donations and that the business sector has no role to play in political life in this country. Once we allow the making of corporate donations, we give people the opportunity to allege that we remain in hock to big business.

Most of the difficulties that gave rise to the need to establish the tribunals came about because big business sought to influence politicians, either in terms of their reaction to planning or rezoning matters or Government decisions or in terms of how they conducted their public or private lifestyles or the overly close connection with business. While we allow business to make substantial gifts and donations to politicians, we cannot claim to have solved the problem perceived by the public. It has not been addressed. We had the opportunity recently but the Government did not take advantage of it.

We must end the connection between money and elections. It was a desirable first step that in 1996 we capped the amount that could be spent on them, but it is unsatisfactory that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government seeks to raise it by 50% for the next election. Why is it not raised by the level of inflation or the consumer price index? Why is it by a substantial sum representing a 50% increase? The level of inflation is appropriate. If we allow a lump sum increase or such a percentage increase, we undermine the principle of putting a cap on a politician's electoral spending. If it varies from election to election or from Government to Government, we will be undermined by the taint of corruption.

Some of the Bill's aspects are welcome, such as the immunity provisions, the so-called whistleblowers' charter. Anyone who makes a complaint should have a degree of immunity, otherwise it will be difficult for a person to do so, as past experience showed. Senator Finneran is also worried that there are sufficient caveats and precautions to prevent frivolous and vexatious complaints. The idea of separate inquiry officers, appointed by the commission, examining complaints before they get a full-scale hearing is a valuable innovation. It will mean that a person's character will not be damaged or that a complaint arising at a critical time, such as during an election, does not cause embarrassment or irrevocable damage to someone's career. I am concerned about the role of the Clerks of the Houses. By the nature of their posts, they are involved with the Members daily and so are put in an invidious position by being ex officio members of the commission. Is it appropriate that they are involved? Will the Minister comment on this?

The adage attributed to Plato, that only those who have reached the height of wisdom and integrity should aspire to political power, is one that should hold good. People who can show, and are prepared to do so, that in their dealings they are deserving of privilege and position and of making laws are those who should do so. Consequently, I welcome the proposal that Members of the Oireachtas should supply tax clearance certificates prior to entry. It is procedure in many areas and we should show that it is how we conduct our business and want to be seen to conduct it. It is in our interest, as a first step, to draw up a code of conduct legislating best practice for our profession. If that functions properly, there should be no recourse to the commission for disciplinary action. I welcome the functioning of the commission and look forward to its establishment. It was a long while in gestation but it is worthwhile legislation and will create a perception that those who provide a public service are answerable publicly in a creditable way.

I welcome the Minister. This was a useful debate on the legislation establishing the commission for office holders, Members and civil servants. The core of the debate is the right of people to make complaints, but there must be guidelines to prevent complaints which are frivolous, which we all experience, and vexatious. There are to be higher standards for public representatives than for civil servants, but unlike civil servants public representatives must periodically stand for re-election. A public representative gets a bigger headline than an official. The standard should not be any different.

This is topical in the light of recent days where we saw at the weekend that a complaint or proceedings had been instituted. I am not going to speak on the Taoiseach's behalf as I am sure he is well able to paddle his own canoe. Where one sees that legislation exists, or proceedings have been instituted and then collapse, the standard of coverage should not be different. I can recall the headline last July or August and it was even bigger print than the print at the weekend. The standard should apply not just in a case of proceedings being withdrawn.

If a Member or a public servant is to face the full rigours of the law then the same standard should apply to someone who brings a potentially damning case against a Member, a public representative or a civil servant. That needs to be looked at. Senator Doyle related a parable concerning a bag of feathers. I have skirmished in that area over the last 12 months. A certain line of inquiry was conducted by a group of people who acted as so-called judge and jury. The same people subsequently, when it came to other actions or omissions where a certain cheque was involved in a game of hide and seek or was sent on a tour like a homing pigeon, were not quite as forthcoming with truthful answers.

It is important, and the Minister would be the first to recognise it, that if one starts casting stones one should examine one's own cupboard first. That is nothing to do with the Minister. I am sure Senators Finneran and Costello would agree with my comments that when one goes down that road one should be very careful. If there is a case to be answered let it be answered but let due process take its course. Let us not go head-hunting particularly on the basis of impartial and incomplete facts etc.

I welcome this legislation but there are some aspects I have to question. One relates to the commission and its members. I refer in particular to the Clerks of the Dáil and the Seanad. Would they want to be on such a committee? Is it fair on them considering that in their general dealings they deal at very close quarters with Members of both Houses? It is not an ideal situation because if there is a hearing or case there may be a certain acrimony or knock-on effect. Perhaps there should be some distinguished former Members. I hope the commission will have very little work to do and I am sure I speak for all Members on that.

I support the legislation. It is important in all our actions that we work above reproach and above any question of misdealings etc. That is important in relation to all this ethics legislation and the Electoral Acts. I was very interested to hear what Senator Costello had to say and I agree that there is room for all of us in these Houses to review the way we operate at election times. I hope the commission looking into the question of funding will look equally at a Member with 20 extra posters or an extra couple of rounds of sandwiches and at organisations whose methods of funding etc. should be questioned.

The other aspect I would like to be considered is Members' interests. Each year we make declarations in relation to our interests. It is unfair on some Members. As one who apart from professing a share in a horse and an interest in—

I did not go down that road. If the declaration is concerned with one's role as a Member then it is grand, but not otherwise. If someone invests a few thousand in shares, and at times rumours go round these Houses that there is a tip involved, probably worse than some of the horse tips, then it should not be necessary. If it is to do with a decision that could affect the performance either of that share or the company, then so be it. If someone invests it should not necessarily be open to ridicule.

I ask the Minister to take on board my few words. We certainly support this legislation on this side of the House. We hope by and large it will not be necessary but we recognise that in the light of experience there has got to be a watchdog. I look forward to his reply.

I thank Members for their contributions on the Standards in Public Office Bill. A 19th century American president said that public virtue is the vital spirit of republics. I think he was correct. Without public virtue and without an understanding that women and men in public life are committed to service rather than venality, and to the public welfare rather than the profit of themselves and those close to them, the confidence of the public in our democratic institutions is in decay. The old phrase, upright citizen, comes to mind in this context. The public should be entitled to believe that they are governed by upright citizens whose actions are guided, whatever their ideological differences, by a common commitment to serving the welfare of the people as a whole.

This Bill will not by itself achieve public virtue. It will not by itself make upright citizens of that minority of public servants who do not adhere to high standards. It is a substantial move in the right direction. By introducing codes of conduct for public servants and Members of the Oireachtas it will make clear the standards to which public servants and public representatives should adhere. By introducing a tax clearance regime for Members of the Oireachtas and senior public servants it will underpin public confidence in the persons they elect to make their laws and who are appointed to the highest posts in the public service. By providing for an expanded complaints investigative mechanism it will provide a disincentive for public servants and representatives to engage in inappropriate behaviours. Together with a range of other standards and ethics related legislation being progressed, which I described earlier, it will provide the State with a very substantial corpus of legislation in this area.

Senators Doyle, Finneran and Cosgrave referred to the potential damage a malicious complaint could do to a Member's good name. The Bill makes considerable provision to protect against frivolous or vexatious complaints. For example, the matter complained of will have to be of significant public importance to be investigated by the commission. An inquiry officer will conduct a preliminary inquiry to see if there is a prima facie case or if the complaint is frivolous or vexatious. The commission can drop an investigation at any time or decide not to investigate if it believes the complaint cannot be sustained. A person making an unsubstantiated case could leave themselves open to an award of substantial costs.

The Bill provides that neither the commission nor the committees will investigate anonymous complaints. It should also be noted in this context that the immunity for complaints in the Bill applies only to complaints made reasonably and in good faith. Immunity will be denied to someone who makes a complaint knowing it to be false, misleading, frivolous or vexatious or who furnishes misleading information to an inquiry officer, the commission or a clerk of a committee. The Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, provides that a person may not disclose information obtained by him or her, under the Act or by being present at a private sitting of the commission, subject to appropriate exceptions. Such protection will be extended to this Bill also.

Senator Costello raised the question of the funding of politics, particularly the issue of corporate donations, but I hope he will appreciate that this Bill was never intended to address the matter. It is important but more appropriate to discussion under the Electoral Acts. A number of Senators raised questions regarding the new role of the Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad, but those officials are given roles under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, also. The officials are familiar with the Civil Service and the political process. Despite extensive deliberations, committees have not suggested that anybody else is better placed to do the job. The Clerks are honourable people and perform their functions under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, in a positive way. It is obviously a good idea to extend their roles to include those of this Bill.

One of the innovative steps in the Bill is to include in the commission a former politician of good standing, who can bring his or her knowledge of the political process to the deliberations of the commission on which there will be a proper balance, by and large. As Members of both Houses have said, we hope the Bill will not be used very often. It is a strong and positive confidence-building measure and complements the range of ethics and standards legislation that has been put in place. The majority of those involved in both Houses and public life generally have nothing to fear from the legislation. The Bill is important as it will inspire confidence in the public domain and I commend it to the House. I thank Senators for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 4 July 2001.