I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, back to the Seanad.
Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011: Committee Stage
Amendment No. 1 in the names of Senators Mac Conghail, van Turnhout, Mary Ann O'Brien, O'Donnell, McAleese and Zappone is outside the scope of the Bill. Therefore it is not acceptable and cannot be moved.
I appreciate the amendment has been ruled out of order. In speaking to the section, it would be good if the Minister would review the amendment in light of the loophole which exists regarding the leader's allowance. Originally we made this proposal with regard to the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices)(Amendment) Act 2001, which refers to the Electoral Act. I understand what the Cathaoirleach stated in his letter to me this morning, but as the 2001 Act refers to the Electoral Acts of 1992 to 1999, there is cross-referencing.
Will the Minister consider reviewing this issue on Report Stage because there is a gap and taxpayers' money is exposed? Since 25 February 2011, €656,000 has been paid to Independent Senators and Deputies. From the point of view of the taxpayer, Senators and Deputies, this money should be vouched. This is why I would like to Minister to consider the amendment. While this and a second amendment have been ruled out of order, another amendment, amendment No. 29, has been retained and it deals with the notion of qualifying parties. Perhaps the Cathaoirleach missed amendment No. 29 with regard to ruling it out of order. It proposes Independent and nominated Senators and Independent Deputies should be subject to the same regulations and be included as qualifying parties. I ask the Minister to consider this issue on Report Stage as it is in the scope of the Bill.
I also contend the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2001 should be included in section 2 and should be in the scope of the Bill. We will deal with it later when discussing amendment No. 29 to section 26. The Standards in Public Office Commission should oversee the expenditure of leaders' allowances which should all be fully vouched. The Bill is an opportunity for us to deal with this matter. We need to be more accountable to the public in how we choose to spend our allowances, and there should be full transparency with regard to how public money is spent. We are transforming our electoral process with the Bill and it is an opportunity to deal with this matter. Will the Minister reconsider this prior to Report Stage?
I endorse what has been said by Senators Mac Conghail and van Turnhout. Anyone who is honest about it would say that despite adjustments made in the system of paying expenses and allowances, and changes were made in recent years, we still have not arrived at a properly transparent system. Quite frankly, politicians are faced with a choice between the hassle of maintaining receipts for the purposes of claiming vouched expenses, in which case they are entitled to claim a larger amount of money, or an unvouched system which they quite understandably choose because it avoids hassle. If one is trying to create a properly transparent system, one must go by way of vouching all receipts and allowances.
While supporting what Senators van Turnhout and Mac Conghail have said, we need to widen this debate. I am contemplating tabling amendments on Report Stage to deal with the issue of the public funding of politics generally. It has often been said the reason for public funding of politics is to prevent vested interests from unduly influencing the political system. I wonder how much transparency there is in how political parties spend the public money they receive and to what extent this money is really used to advance their case for the following general election.
Public resources should be made available for the purpose of assisting elected Members to do their job. If one were to add up the amount of public money being spent on political parties one could probably, at a very rough estimate, hire an additional researcher for every elected Member of both Houses. This would be a much better way to use the money. We do not really know what is happening with regard to how political parties disburse the public money they receive and to what extent it contributes to their legislative efforts as opposed to their election efforts.
I welcome what has been said but certainly we need to widen the discussion to consider the public funding of politics. I will consider tabling amendments on this on Report Stage and I look forward to engaging with the Minister then.
I remind Members of the suggested definition section. There is a more substantial aspect to this in amendment No. 27 and there will be another opportunity to speak then.
I agree. If this is ruled out of order it is not that I oppose it. I would like to hear the Minister's response. The item is ruled out of order, although not in regard to this section or this Bill. However, it may be looked at and I recommend that the Minister do this.
I agree with everything stated by Senator Mac Conghail about transparency and funding for Independent Senators. I listened to the debate that took place on this point in the committee rooms and many seasoned Senators and Deputies were unaware of leaders' allowances and all these different facets. There must be more transparency. Perhaps, as Senator Mac Conghail and other Independent Senators noted, we might consider this under section 26. However, it has been ruled out of order now and for that reason I cannot support it.
I wish to stay with the amendment but a number of speakers raised the issue of transparency in regard to allowances——
Unfortunately it has been ruled out of order but the Senator can speak on the section.
I have one brief point which is important. There are two issues involved. The leaders' allowance should be vouched. The practice of Independent Deputies receiving more than €40,000 in unvouched expenses must end. The Minister indicated that there may be changes and stated one of his colleagues is looking at this. It should change. There is no reason an Independent Deputy should get such an amount, unvouched. If that means leaders' allowances must be vouched across the board, that is the way it should be.
In regard to the representational allowances we receive, on which Senator Mullen touched, there are two options available, vouched and unvouched. My problem is that although one is paid both kinds, the vouched allowance is paid on a monthly basis, regardless of whether one spends it, and one must make a return at the end of the year. For example, if one opted for the vouched allowance of €15,000 and spent only €6,000 or €7,000, one must give the balance back at the end of the year. It would make much more sense to consider what local authorities do with conference allowances. One only claims when there is an allowance to claim. Rather than having those of us who choose the vouched option receive a monthly allowance and having to return most of it at the end of the year, there could be the option of when one incurs an expense, in advertising or in holding a meeting, or whatever, one would submit the expense or invoice to the one-stop shop and one would be reimbursed within a certain timeframe, be it a couple of weeks or a month. The practice of getting paid on a monthly basis, as if it were part of one's wages, and having to return part of it at the end of the year, must change.
Senator Mullen is right to state that because of this set-up Senators are choosing the unvouched system. It is a lesser amount but it may be better for some people because although they get less money they do not have to return it at the end of the year. The Minister and the Government should examine this because it is not the best way to administer an expense system.
I realise the amendment has been ruled out of order as it does not come under this Bill. I do not wish to address that issue. However, in their Second Stage contributions a number of Senators addressed this matter. At the time I indicated that responsibility for dealing with the matter raised is covered by the Electoral Act. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is actively considering these matters in regard to the income and expenditure of political parties, how these are accounted for and that they be published. In this legislation we will publish not only income but expenditure. The Independent Members have made a case in terms of transparency and the arrangements they have for funding. At present they do not submit an audited statement in respect of funding. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Howlin, will be anxious to ensure everybody is on the same level playing pitch in this regard.
I refer to Senator Mullen's point. God forbid that political people such as he would not seek re-election or self-promotion for the purpose of being re-elected. It would be a very pure action on the part of the Trinity College, National University of Ireland or Independent Senators if they did not seek that.
When the Senator joins the Minister's party, the Minister will understand.
Senator Cullinane will have to send him the application form.
It is in the post.
I draw Members' attention to section 18 of the Electoral Act 1997, which states that payment of the fund to political parties is for the general administration of the party but also for research, education, training and policy formulation. To draw down that funding the payment must cover, as widely as possible, research facilities, in addition to the communications and education facility. That is scrutinised by the Standards in Public Office Commission and political parties must report accordingly in order to comply with the Act.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 19 are related and may be discussed together.
Amendment No. 2 will have the effect of deleting section 5 and replacing it with new text. Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 22(2) of the Act of 1997, namely, the interpretation section for Part 4 of that Act which deals with the disclosure of donations.
The original provisions in section 5 are restated in paragraph (b) of the new section 5. Definitions for the terms “company” and “corporate donor” are being inserted by that paragraph. Because these terms are being introduced into this part of the Act of 1997 by the Bill, it is necessary to include definitions in section 22(2).
The provisions of paragraph (a) of the new section 5 did not appear in the Bill as published and debated on Second Stage and are being introduced now. Paragraph (a) of the new section 5 provides that membership fees paid to a political party will, for the purposes of the Act of 1997, be treated as donations. This provision is necessary to eliminate the scope for membership fees to be used as a means to circumvent the new restrictions on corporate donors and donations in the Bill.
Membership fees paid to political parties are not explicitly mentioned in the Electoral Act 1997. Heretofore, the Standards in Public Office Commission, in applying the provisions of the 1997 Act, has not regarded membership fees as falling within the definition of a donation under the Act. A concern was identified in drafting the Bill that this could represent a potential loophole which would allow corporate type bodies to provide funding to political parties by way of membership fees. A new category of membership, namely, corporate membership, could be created and fees paid that would be exempt from the donation limits and the restrictions and the declaration provisions. It is therefore necessary to take action. Ignoring the loophole identified is not an option. The Bill before the House is introducing significant restrictions and transparency measures on corporate donors and all corporate funding of political parties must be covered thereby. The most effective way of dealing with this matter is to provide that in the case of a registered political party the definition of donation is taken to include a membership fee, whether paid by an individual or a group. The effect of adopting this approach will be to apply the same restrictions on group or corporate membership fees that are to apply to corporate donations.
I stress that membership fees paid by individual members of political parties will not be subject to any registration requirement and this provision will not place any additional responsibilities on members of a political party. Arrangements will continue as they have done before. Where the Electoral Act 1997 legislates for the disclosure of donations given for political purposes and the regulation of spending on Dáil, Seanad, European Parliament and Presidential elections, the equivalent provisions in respect of local elections are set out in the Local Elections Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure Act 1999.
For the amendment of section 5 of the Bill to apply at local government level it is necessary to insert a separate albeit identical paragraph into section 2 of the Act of 1999, namely, the interpretation section of that Act. This is amendment No. 19, which will have the effect of inserting a new section into the Bill that will become section 18. The new section 18 is being inserted into Part 3 of the Bill which deals with amendments to the Act of 1999.
I do not have any difficulty with section 6 but it allows me to raise one point. In this section the Minister reduces the donations that can be accepted by political parties and politicians in general. He is responding to concerns expressed by the public and by some politicians in recent years. We will never get this perfect because we do not live in a perfect world. Somebody has to fund politics. Democracy is worth funding and if it is not funded privately it must be funded by the taxpayer. I do not believe we are ready yet to take that major step.
We are dealing here with one side of the coin, the funding of politics. The other side is expenditure by political parties and politicians and on this matter I seek the initial views of the Minister. I have no set view. As long as the Minister is a politician there will be a limit on the donations I can receive. On the other side of the equation, there is no limit on how I spend my money as a politician, or how I can attempt to buy popularity by sponsoring clubs or associations, or by having the biggest advertisement in the biggest newspaper and promoting myself in that regard. Privately wealthy people who practise politics can use their own money to get a competitive or political advantage over a candidate who does not have the same ability to sponsor the local soccer team or place big advertisements in the newspaper, and so on. In the future should we consider limiting what politicians can spend, by way of so-called donations or in advertising? This is basically a vote-seeking effort. I do not suggest that we should be prohibited absolutely from buying tickets, or whatever, but it is the other side of the equation. We are being obliged by law to accept only modest donations while people who are privately wealthy can use their money to buy sponsorship or advertising. It becomes a way of buying votes. This is probably something we should consider.
The public might decide that all politicians, who are believed to be so wealthy, have become so mean they will not even buy a ticket at the local GAA draw but we must find that balance. The Minister might have a view on this for the future.
On this section, we must be honest about legislation concerning disclosure of donations in recent years. It has done a certain amount of good, perhaps even a great deal of good. The requirement to comply with the Standards in Public Office Commission requirements produces, and is conducive to, a culture of transparency and compliance among politicians. We must also admit that there has been a certain amount of fuzzy, if not cynical thinking about the relationship between money and politics.
On Second Stage, another Senator and I referred to the fact that I had received a certain large amount of donations when I was running for election in 2007 and these were required to be disclosed under the legislation. That is true but it struck me at the time as amazing, and still does, that a politician can receive €100,000 in political donations but provided he or she receives them in denominations or amounts of less than €635 per donor on aggregate — one must aggregate the donations from any individual donor in any one year — he or she would not have to declare a penny. As a first-time politician, I went around in a transparent way and asked people who would like to see me get elected if they would make a large donation so that I would not have to spend the year fund-raising. I said I would disclose the donation because it would be in excess of €635 and I would therefore have to declare the donor's name. I had no problem with disclosing those donations but I have a major problem with the fact that a person could accumulate an unreal amount of money in donations and never have to declare a penny of it, simply because it was received in amounts of less than €635 per person. It is interesting that this legislation does not propose to change this situation very much. If I am not mistaken, it simply proposes to bring the permitted figure down to €600. It will be at that point that one must declare a donation. Why is the figure not less? If we are really interested in transparency why is there not to be disclosure of any significant amount of money?
It seems there are three kinds of ways in which money can flow to politicians and this is relevant to section 6. There can be public funding which I believe to be dubious because much of the time it does not go towards fulfilment of the Member's duties but towards his or her electoral effort and electability over the longer term. It skews the system. There are corporate donations which are problematic because companies were not set up for this in the first place. Companies are set up, with limited liability and all suchlike provided for, to allow people to take risks and go into business and build up the economy. It was not the original intention that companies could influence politics by using their financial and economic muscle. There is a serious problem with that.
The least problematic area is that of non-corporate donations to politicians, provided there is transparency. I say that as one with a vested interest, as one who has declared donations. Speakers referred on Second Stage to my donations yet all but one that I declared were non-corporate. There was one corporate donation which was duly declared. A person who might not be the best speaker or politician in the world but who has done well in life might wish to put his or her personal resources at the disposal of a particular politician or political party whose ideals and aims and policies he or she admires and supports. That is an entirely legitimate enterprise provided there is full transparency.
Were it not for the fact that I would be accused of having a vested interest I would question more strongly the reduction in the amount of permitted donations, from £2,000 to €1,000. I would not lose any sleep over it —€1,000 is still a substantial amount of money — but this method seems the least egregious kind of donation. I speak of the non-corporate personal donation, provided there is transparency. However, we must do a great deal more than this Bill does in terms of transparency. I cite the example I gave earlier, of the reduction in the threshold only to €600. One can still receive anything up to that amount in any one year from any one source and one does not have to declare a penny of it.
I agree with Senator Bradford's point about buying votes, the more money one has or can give or can throw around. Presumably the aim of giving money to various people is to help the cause but there are other objectives too, asking for help to get re-elected, or whatever. Senator Bradford is right that this should be looked at. Even now, with so many cutbacks, various community organisations are writing to various political people for donations for this, that or the other. People would find it difficult to refuse community organisations that are doing good work on the ground but which may not be funded nationally. Everybody would feel obliged to contribute something. This must all be examined because it will disenfranchise people who are not well off from participating in politics. If one does not have the money to give to each organisation, however worthy the cause, one will be disenfranchised. There must be a serious examination of this.
I raised a matter on the Order of Business concerning the review of local government. The Leader told me to raise it again under this section even though it does not pertain precisely to it. It applies to the funding of politics. I do not ask the Minister for a response now on the review of local government but I wish to raise it in connection with this section because it, too, concerns funding and the application of funding. I asked that pole postering by all political parties should be banned. If we banned that practice there would not be the need to raise half the money needed for politics and everybody would be on a level playing pitch. With all the different means of communication available, a board could be established in each community funded communally, which could advertise all the politicians, and the sending of the litir um thoghcáin centrally on behalf of every candidate by political parties could be banned.
And attack the graffiti.
How much would that save? Less money would have to be raised for the political system if things were done more smartly. We are in the information age and many advances are being made to ensure every community is IT friendly. I do not seek a reply from the Minister now but I ask him to examine this issue in the local government review.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Fianna Fáil accepts that the Bill is a major step forward and is an improvement on the current position. It provides for lower donation limits and increased transparency but it does not go far enough. We would like corporate donations banned completely but we accept there may be constitutional issues which must be examined. That is why in the Bill we tabled last year, we provided for such low limits and restrictive practices that it all but got rid of them. We have tabled amendments to provide for an even more restrictive scheme than that provided for and to improve the legislation.
I agree strongly with Senator Bradford that in looking only at one side of the equation, we are missing the point because people can be independently wealthy and spend as much as they like on their campaign. The current regime provides for limits on expenditure only during campaigns. Candidates can spend as much as they like and they can rent out every bus shelter in the constituency in the week up to announcement of polling day. That issue also needs to be considered and I encourage the Minister to consider it.
I agree to some extent with Senator Keane in respect of posters. However, postering is important for new candidates who do not have a profile and who have not run previously because they need to increase awareness of their campaign. However, the number of posters used in elections is crazy. Candidates compete with each other for space and the posters cancel each other out when there are ten or more on a pole. I doubt anybody sees any of them. A small limit should be put on the number of posters that can be used. I encourage the Minister to examine the expenditure and postering issues. Legislation could be brought forward to address them, given that we are only examining one half of the problem today.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Bradford. Significant money is wasted on election campaigns and expenditure should also be examined. I am prepared to do that and I will publish legislation later this year entitled the electoral (amendment) (referendum spending and miscellaneous provisions) Bill. It is an unwieldy title but it will do what the Senator wants. That will give us an opportunity to tease out expenditure matters in respect of all elections, including referenda. There is currently no requirement on groups campaigning in a referendum to declare what they have spent or the sources of their income. Referenda campaigns involve decisions on matters that have significant and far reaching effects on the country and, therefore, it is important that citizens know how much is being spent on campaigns and where it is coming from.
Currently, the spending limits for elections apply only to the period up to polling day and in the past I and others have expressed legitimate concerns about how candidates get around the limits by spending significant amounts before the clock starts to tick in a campaign. This is an issue of concern and it will be addressed in the legislation later this year.
Senator Keane referred to banning posters but a freedom of expression requirement is enshrined in the Constitution. People have a human right to express themselves in a certain form. We might have a discussion about how that is best expressed without the waste that is experienced.
One can pick any figure one wishes for the donation limit, as the correct figure is subjective, but it must be picked for practical reasons in order that an individual or a political party is tied up with the administrative bureaucracy associated with reporting to the SIPO. The responsibilities are onerous and if one does not comply 100% with them, one will find oneself in the public eye for not declaring. A penalty is built in through the publicity candidates generate by not complying with the SIPO request relating to compliance. The limit of €600 is reasonable. I am reducing the limit for corporate donations to political parties to €200 and that is a substantial reduction. I gave a commitment to do that in the election campaign and I am following through on that. I am sure Senator Power will not disagree that Fianna Fáil had 14 years to do this and did not do it.
The party introduced a Bill prior to leaving government.
It was unconstitutional. This has been acknowledged by the party since. The issues raised by the Senator can be included as part of the constitutional convention, which will be announced by the Taoiseach in the next few weeks. People will have an opportunity to make submissions about an outright ban on corporate donations.
A balance must be struck between political funding from the public purse and private sources. I do not want to go back to the days of cheque book politics with professional and political elites swanning in and out of both Houses when they had their day's work done in the Law Library or elsewhere. That day is, hopefully, gone and people on modest incomes and none will have the same opportunity as wealthy individuals to be elected to the Oireachtas. That is why public expenditure is important and there must be controls on the income and expenditure side. That is what we are trying to achieve. How that money is best spent can be teased out in the debate on the legislation to which I referred earlier. My colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, has a watchful eye on all expenditure matters and he also has concerns about these issues.
The thresholds provided for in the Bill are reasonable and they provide balance in the context of the limits we want to enshrine in legislation. The litir um thoghcháin issue can also be examined in the context of whether it is necessary to maintain it in its current form. It costs significant money for the parties to distribute it. Perhaps there is a better way of communicating to the electorate than sending a letter at the expense of taxpayer on behalf of political parties.
I thank the Minister for his enlightening comments. He said he does not like cheque book politics and I am sure everyone agrees with him. Politics should not be about swanning in from the Law Library, the Blackrock Clinic or Trinity College Dublin to do a spot of legislating while the poor man stands at the gate. If that is the problem the Minister is trying to address, the public funding of political parties will do little to prevent that. One gets the reward once one is elected. To promote access to politics, first-time candidates need assistance. I acknowledge funding is available if a candidate attracts a certain number of votes in an election but if the Minister was trying to promote access to politics and to make sure it did not become the preserve of the rich, he would not target non-corporate donations; he would just require transparency. The way the person who is not rich can access politics and run a good campaign is by approaching people who share his or her ideas and asking whether they will donate and be publicly associated with his or her political platform. I speak from experience. There is something appropriate about that. The issue is transparency.
The Minister's stated motivation is laudable in terms of making sure the Oireachtas is not the preserve of the rich but public funding of political parties does not do much to address that possible mischief. I take his point regarding the bureaucracy surrounding the amounts for disclosure but I do not see the reduction of the limit from €635 to €600 as a significant achievement. One could go much lower than that, and that is before we even talk about the phenomenon of people turning up to race nights. It probably happened more often during the days of the Celtic tiger when the builders had cash in their pockets and would buy any amount of tickets at a race night, none of which would ever have to be declared. We have a flawed system and a donation in excess of €100 is something one should be capable of noting down at the time one receives it — name and address of donor. It is not excessively onerous. I might rattle up an amendment on that for Report Stage and I look forward to debating it with the Minister.
Senator Mullen should be made aware that the race meetings were a bit more problematic than the race nights.
Or the races.
I welcome the Minister's response to our debate and look forward to the publication of the new Bill. A balance must be struck in this regard, and it is difficult. We are engaging in theoretical politics here but it is different in the real world.
On this section, regarding the private little groupings that seem to be funding the American presidential election, which were set up to circumvent whatever expenditure rules are in place in the United States — I think they are called super packs — and where private individuals can come together, not overtly to sell a candidate but to sell a concept and an ideology, do we need to ensure that such activities are regulated in our laws? The Minister is putting in place limits for corporate donations to individuals or political parties but is there a loophole under which a group of people trying to push an agenda or ideology can work outside the law? I do not expect the Minister to have an immediate answer but it is something we might need to examine because apparently the big thing in the United States currently is not what the political parties or the candidates are spending but the private groups which are clearly supporting a candidate or a party and circumventing the law by declaring themselves as interest or pressure groups. It is something the Minister's new Bill later in the year should address.
I agree with Senator Bradford that this needs to be addressed. I have indicated already that we must know from where campaign groups with a particular view of such matters get their money. Equally, they must be accountable and transparent regarding a particular view they may wish to express about a particular matter.
I note in a later amendment Senator Mullen is down to €1 in order to declare, therefore, the lads at the church gate collection will be very busy with their pencil and paper.
That is the corporate——
But if the shopkeeper give him €1 at the church gate——
We can negotiate.
——he will have to declare it. A sense of realism must come into politics. The Senator might not understand the way the system works outside the National University of Ireland set——
I have canvassed in a few council elections.
The Senator will know that €1 is a very impractical way of dealing with it——
I will not hold it against the Senator.
——because for benefit in kind purposes under our tax law a poster in a window promoting a particular candidate will be constituted as having to be returned as more than €1 in benefit. There are practical implications in terms of all of these issues.
One hundred euro. Add a couple of noughts.
The Senator has gone up 100%.
What is the Minister's view on the principle?
The Senator would not be great at the fair in Ballinasloe if he starts like that.
I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will bring forward a Bill to address the expenditure side. That is a huge part of the issue and is part of the problem Senator Mullen is alluding to, namely, they spend as much as they wish. I disagree with Senator Mullen in respect of having an upper limit for personal donations because that means that people with wealthy friends they can collect as much as they wish. The best way to deal with that is on the expenditure side to ensure that whether one is spending one's own money, that of one's friends or corporate donations, which we would prefer were not allowed, everybody is brought down to the lowest possible limit. That is where the real change is needed.
On the broader issue and before we deal with specific amendments, the Minister will be aware that our party has proposed legislation on lobbying. As part of the broader debate we are having here on transparency I hope the Minister would reflect on that because it is another important issue in terms of transparency and trust in politics.
Amendment No. 3 is in the name of Senators Mac Conghail, van Turnhout, O'Brien, O'Donnell, McAleese and Zappone. Amendments Nos. 3 to 13, inclusive, 16, 17 and 21 to 26, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together. If the question on amendment No. 3 is agreed to, amendments Nos. 4 to 12, inclusive, cannot be moved.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 7, to delete lines 11 to 41, to delete page 8 and in page 9, to delete lines 1 to 15 and substitute the following:
"shall directly or through any intermediary accept any corporate donations.".
I apologise for forgetting to welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I am just getting used to this.
I will not hold it against the Senator.
I reiterate what Senator Power said. The opportunity to discuss this Bill in the Seanad behoves well for the level of debate that takes place in this Chamber. It has been a great discussion.
A good deal of exposure was rightly given on Second Stage to the gender quotas but these sections are fundamentally important also in terms of building trust in the future politics of the Republic, and between politicians and citizens, and also encouraging more citizens to become involved in politics. The more trust we have and the more the ground rules are clear for all of us in terms of accessibility and ability, the more level the pitch.
Our amendment is the nub of the issue. It is the nub of the Moriarty tribunal findings and, I presume, it will be the nub of the Mahon tribunal findings in terms of the banning of corporate donations. The Minister mentioned on Second Stage that there might have been constitutional reasons Fine Gael or the programme for Government could not move on the banning of all corporate donations. If there is such advice the Minister might share that with us to ensure we can understand and debate that, although I know what the Minister's argument will be. We intend to move an amendment to ban all corporate donations. The Minister will come back to us and say his advice is that we cannot do that but we would like to see that advice. That will make this a more productive debate and there will not be any gamesmanship. I know that is not the Minister's intention but it is something we might seek with a view to having a better debate on that issue.
While the ban on corporate donations was not recommended in the Moriarty tribunal report on the basis that it was a matter for Government, the report intimated that only a complete ban on private funding would provide a cast iron guarantee against corruption. It stated that the only cast iron guarantee against corruption and abuses in the political system and against the risk of distortions in the democratic process that may arise from the private funding of political parties and political representatives would be to provide for a complete ban on private political funding and, as in some other European countries, to fund political parties entirely from the public purse. I stated on Second Stage that I would encourage private donations by citizens. Donating as part of a democratic political process is an important piece of activism on behalf of the citizen. However, I have yet to come across substantial reasons corporate donations cannot be banned as opposed to meddling with the cap of €100 and suddenly there is an enormous amount of paper work involved as well, never mind the fact that we are being ambiguous about and prevaricating on the "yes" or "no" issue. This is a clear and simple "yes" or "no" scenario, and putting limits on it will allow people to get around. It would be difficult to limit contributions and it does not stop family members, for instance, who also happen to be directors of corporations giving funding individually. Under the current Act a donation from a private business and a donation from directors of that private business which is made in a private capacity are regarded as separate donations. That would remain the case if this Bill is passed as all individuals must have equal rights to donate to a political party, regardless of where she or he works.
The proposed legislation provides for a cap of €2,500 on donations to political parties. That is the legal position. That does not prevent six like-minded individuals who are connected to a corporation from donating €2,500. Therefore, the Bill proposes to cap donations to parties by any donor at €2,500. With donations capped at €2,500, individual donations from, for instance, six directors, could be €1,500 and with those added to a donation from a corporate donor, the maximum that could be legally donated would be €17,500 in one calendar year. That compares with €44,000 under the current Acts and is 39% of what can be legally donated under the current legislation. I seek the Minister's advice as to why corporate donations cannot be banned entirely.
The real test of the reduction in caps proposed in the Bill in achieving the stated policy objective is whether it reduces the probability that political parties rely heavily on financial donations from particular corporate donors or individuals who are associated with the interest of such corporate donors. By reducing the cap, the Bill addresses a weaknesses in the current statutory framework, which may have allowed substantial sums of money to be legally donated to politicals parties and candidates. It could therefore reduce the reliance of political parties on large donations from corporate donors. However, as the position I outlined also demonstrates, as I explained in the case of six directors, it will remain possible under this Bill for a group of individuals to collectively make a decision to each individually donate money to a political party while lower sums of money, in aggregate, could be considerable.
We should get rid of the ambiguity, ban donations entirely and build a trust between the citizen and the politician without it being mediated by big business or a sense of a limit which could be got around, as would be possible under the Bill, by bundling, whereby individuals could come together and circumvent the current proposal. In this amendment, together with my fellow Senators, I propose the banning of corporate donators entirely.
I second the amendment and concur fully with what Senator Mac Conghail said. Our group has put forward this amendment. As the Minister said, the Bill presents an opportunity to increase transparency. When he launched the Bill he spoke about addressing the question of unhealthy relationships and corporate donations are part of such unhealthy relationships. The Minister said that we have moved away from chequebook politics but I contend that corporate donations should be banned.
A number of amendments are being taken in this grouping. Our amendment No. 4 also proposes the banning of corporate donations. The Independent Senators' amendment No. 3 goes further than ours. It proposes to delete lines 11 to 41, while our amendment proposes to delete lines 11 to 37. There is a reason for what we propose in our amendment and I want to explain it because we cannot support amendment No. 3. If the Independent Senators take on board what I say, they may withdraw their amendment and support amendment No. 4.
I support a ban on corporate donations. We have to grit our teeth when we hear representatives from Fianna Fáil talk about banning corporate donations when one considers the Galway tent and that many people distrust politics and their view of it is based on what happened over many years under the term of that party, in particular, in office. That party must take responsibility for the fact that the brown envelope culture came from a certain political party and while it echoed across other parties as well, it was mainly associated with one political party. That must be said in the context of this debate and it would be foolish for us not to do so. That is not to say that Senators in Fianna Fáil or members of that party do not want to have a changed system in the future but we are where we are because of abuses in the system which came from a certain political party. Therefore, I support a ban on corporate donations.
As Senator Mac Conghail said, some people may be able to get around the system. Some positive changes have been proposed with the proposals to reduce the maximum amount that can be accepted as a donation by a political party from €6,348.69 to €2,500 and the maximum amount that can be accepted as a donation from an individual from €2,539.48 to €1,000, and to reduce the threshold at which donations must be declared to €1,500 for parties and to €600 for individuals. A previous speaker made the argument that if one gets 20 donations under €600, even if one of those donations is €599, one does not have to declare them. That is part of the problem in that there are still loopholes in the system. There are ways in which people can get around these limits. While I accept what Senator Bradford said about the need for balance in a general sense, we must also be conscious that people look for loopholes in all of this. The best way to ensure there is no association between big business, corporations or businesses generally with politics is to ban corporate donations.
I have stood for a number of general elections and I have always received over the 25% threshold in terms of getting a return back from the Standards in Public Office Commission. It is around €6,500 for a general election, which would fund a general election campaign. None of my campaigns was over that amount by much and, if they were, it was only by a few hundred euro or perhaps €1,000. If we were to examine that, we could say to political parties that is what they should spend on elections. We know that some candidates spend €20,000 to €60,000 on their campaigns. Senator Keane made the point that posters should be banned. I do not know whether my party would support that but such a move would save money and it would limit the amount of money that is spent. Some of the returns from some candidates in terms of what they spend is amazing.
I support a complete ban on corporate donations. I support the broad thrust of the amendment tabled by the Independent Senators. They propose the deletion of lines 11 to 41 but there is a number of reasons we cannot go as far as what they propose. One relates to college societies. On Second Stage the Minister said:
An exemption from the new registration requirements is given to a provider of a programme of education and training or a students' union where such a body makes a payment to a student society or club. This will allow colleges or students' unions to continue to provide financial support to student groups that promote political participation without being obliged to comply with the new corporate donor requirements. I am sure Members will agree that these grants to student societies can hardly be regarded as the sort of corporate donations which need to be restricted and that this exemption does not contradict our objective of enhancing the openness and transparency of political funding in Ireland.
I agree with that because there is a world of difference between a student society getting a payment from a third level institute to fund a political society and what we are talking about here in terms of corporate donations. The position in terms of a students' society is no different from that of a GAA club, an Irish language society, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender society, or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Student unions should not be subject to this. That is one of the reasons I cannot support the amendment tabled by the Independent Senators.
As proposed in our amendment No. 11, we want lines 23 to 32 retained, which cover a donee having to return a donation to the Standards in Public Office Commission if the money is lodged in his or her account. That is important because if one has a donations account and somebody anonymously puts money into it, or one does not know that money has been lodged in it, or from where an amount lodged has come, sections of the Bill require the donee to give that money to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Such money has to be returned. That is important. It would be wrong to remove that provision. Amendment No. 12 deals with this also. Lines 38 and 40 require the money to be returned and the use of that money would come under the remit of the Minister for Finance. For those reasons, because of amendments Nos. 8, 11 and 12, which retain some of the requirements in terms of the Standards in Public Office Commission, the donations made and how all that plays out, the lines which we propose should be retained should remain in the Bill. However, the substance of amendment No. 3 in terms of proposing a complete ban on corporate donations is dealt with in amendment No. 4. It proposes to delete lines 11 to 37 and its wording, "shall directly or through any intermediary accept any corporate donations" is the same as that proposed in amendment No. 3. I hope the Senators will support that amendment and accept my reasons for not accepting amendment No. 3.
We also tabled amendments Nos. 22 to 25, which are essentially the same but deal with local government. If amendment No. 4 falls we will not be pressing amendments Nos. 8, 11, 12, 13 or 21, because if there are to be corporate donations we do want to see a proper database registration system and so on. That would make sense. We do not want anyone to misrepresent our position — not that the Minister would. Similarly, if amendment No. 22 falls, we will not move amendments Nos. 23 to 25, because there will need to be a database and checks and balances will be required.
There probably is not one of us, as politicians, who would not like to see all types of political donation banned, if this were possible. The first thing we have to do when we get rid of one source of funding is to identify a second source of funding. That is the reason for the Moriarty tribunal. We should look at how things are funded in other countries, sometimes from the national purse. If we are going to ban all types of funding for politics — and I agree with this totally — it would make life so much easier for every politician if there was a central purse to draw on, but how do we obtain that central purse? We would have to go out and ask the people to fund politics. I do not know how many people out there would be ready to fund politicians. I suspect it would be very few.
The other question is what would happen if we banned corporate donations totally. This debate has been around for a long time, and it has been said — I do not know how true it is, and I would not attribute it to anybody — that people will always find a way around it. The best thing is to have regulations, such as those the Minister has introduced, to ensure that corporate donations are as transparent as can be provided for and that any money provided outside those regulations is illegal. Unless there is some type of regulation for corporate funding, we could end up with a free-for-all. Banning is one thing, but there are people out there who are ready and able and willing every day to try to circumvent any type of legislation that is brought in. The Minister has tried his best. The substantial reduction in donations that is provided for in this Bill must be acknowledged, as well as the substantial reduction in the moneys that must be disclosed. We will have to crawl before we walk. I would like to see a full ban, but I have come to recognise that if we ban donations, there will be no regulations. This is a better way to do it. As I said, it would make it an awful lot easier for politicians if donations were totally banned.
In these amendments, we have one Senator saying corporate donations should come down to €1 and another saying they should come down to €100, while a third says they should be banned. There is not total agreement on how it should be done, which shows there is some debate on the matter. However, this is the best way to go at the moment. We will have regulations for corporate donations, which involve a substantial reduction in the amounts that can be given. I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill.
I am interested in the distinction between the different types of amendment that have been offered from different parts of the House. Listening to Senator Cullinane, I find myself in agreement with a lot of what he is saying. As a former student union official, I wondered as I was listening to the Senator whether it was appropriate that we create an exception for donations provided to a political party organised at college, for example. It is often the case in colleges that funding is made available to clubs and societies for the purpose of allowing them to carry out their activities, which is a good thing, and it seems that political parties starting up in colleges should not be excluded from that. That said, political parties in third level colleges are a bit like banks — it is all about catching people early so they can have them for life. With that in mind, perhaps the culture of resistance to corporate donations should also be inculcated; people could be introduced to that allergy to corporate donations from an early age. I am sure it has never happened that a member of the Sinn Féin cumann got elected to the presidency of the student union and there were donations to the Sinn Féin society concerned. I could say the same for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. One would not like to think a student union would show preferential treatment to any political party on campus. On balance, I accept what Senator Cullinane is saying. That exclusion should be made. However, in every other respect I like what I am hearing from Senator Mac Conghail.
I would like to address a point made by Senator Mac Conghail and, to some extent, by the Minister. If it is the case that the Minister intends to make some kind of constitutional argument against an outright ban on corporate donations, I look forward to hearing it. It seems to me that once one goes down the road of restricting the amount of money that either private or corporate donors can give, one is already interfering in whatever kind of freedom that the Constitution might claim to protect. I would look with a sceptical eye at constitutional arguments against an outright ban of corporate donations, but I approach the issue with an open mind.
The Minister does not rate my skills at the Ballinasloe horse fair, but what I am proposing here is that we reduce the permitted amount of corporate donations to €100, and that in any situation in which more than €1 is given, the corporate donor must register as the Bill provides. What I am trying to do is to create a situation in which corporate donations are not banned, but it becomes extremely onerous to either give or receive them. If it is the case that the main plank of the Minister's argument against what Senators Cullinane and Mac Conghail are proposing is a constitutional argument, he will have to find some other grounds on which to disagree with my proposal, because I am proposing that we legislate corporate donations out of existence by reducing the permitted amount to an insignificant sum and that we impose onerous requirements on corporate donors from the get-go. I do not think the village shopkeeper has anything to worry about if he or she is a sole trader; I am sure that will count as a personal donation. The principle is that we should allow maximum freedom to individuals who are willing to take the personal hit to contribute from their own resources — I do not care whether they are rich or poor — to politicians or parties. That can be a good thing, provided there is full transparency. However, we certainly need to close down corporate donations. That is where the potential for corruption really arises.
With regard to Senator Mac Conghail's proposal — he may speak again on this — is he suggesting that if his amendments are accepted, the six individual persons whose companies donated would retain their freedom to make individual personal donations? I presume this is the case. That is something with which I would agree. As long as people are seen to donate, the requirement for transparency is achieved and we can minimise corruption.
I welcome the Minister.
On balance, we should ban politics altogether, and then we would not have any of these difficulties. I would love to be able to say "Let us ban corporate donations". It is the easiest and simplest solution. However, I do not think it would work in practice. That is the problem we face. With our urge for transparency pushing us towards an approach of zero corporate donations, we will end up, ironically, with less transparency, because corporations, as we know, work very hard to achieve something if they are determined to achieve it. They employ accountants and lawyers to manoeuvre themselves around corporate law and all kinds of other things so that they can do what they wish to do. Business is business. In this case, if a corporation is determined to make some type of donation to an individual or a party, it will find a way if we ban all donations. Having a small donation of €200 makes it more transparent. One is seen to give the €200 and one is limited to that amount. Given the way humanity is, my fear is that if we are not allowed to do something, we will find another route to do it. We all know what happened during Prohibition. Ironically, there will be more transparency if we reduce the amount and acknowledge that one is allowed to give that amount. There will still be the squirming and re-routing of support for a person or a party but that will be reduced if one is allowed to make a small donation. I realise this is one of those turning logic on its head moments but, having thought about it for a long time, I believe a total ban will cause more harm.
To respond to Senator Cullinane, other parties did not have access to a vault full of sterling from the Northern Bank. With respect, we should all be fair.
Does the Senator have proof of that?
I accept the view of the Garda Síochána.
She should go to the Garda and make a statement.
Senator Power to continue, without interruption.
While breaches of ethics have been associated with most parties, and the Moriarty report does not concern ours, I accept that our party has been associated with some of the worst of them. As a young member of the party, it is something of which I am deeply ashamed, and I have been vocal about that on many occasions outside the House. That is the reason I would prefer an absolute ban. From a party political perspective, Fianna Fáil will never win back people's trust and support until we can establish that we have put that behind us and that we have set the highest standards, beyond those of anybody else. We have more to prove, which is why I believe there should be an outright ban.
I received one unsolicited corporate donation of €500 during my local election campaign and I sent it back straight away. I have never taken a corporate donation, but I accept that my party and other parties accept them. That should change. The amendments we have put down will ensure disclosure of amounts over €100. The reason I support them is that I have been told an outright ban is unconstitutional. I would prefer if it was constitutional but we must listen to legal advice. Senators van Turnhout and Mac Conghail called for the legal advice to be published. That would be very positive.
We are all on the same page on this matter. Everybody who has spoken has said they would prefer corporate donations to abolished. It would be a positive development if the Minister published that advice so we can all be equally well informed. Listening to other Members, I believe there would be agreement. If a ban cannot be constitutional and we would set up a system that would be struck down by the courts, Members should support the idea of disclosure of amounts over €100 and having absolute transparency. I hope the Minister will publish that advice before Report Stage.
The debate is very interesting. I doubt that we will reach either a conclusion or agreement today and much of this will probably drift back into the Minister's new Bill in a few months. I listened with interest to Senator Cullinane. I trust his ban would also include the famous money from America.
It cannot be spent here.
That would ensure that poor Deputy Adams would have to cut back on the first class transatlantic transport.
Is the Senator sure it does not come down here on an unapproved road in Monaghan?
It cannot be spent in the State. The Minister should know. Can the money be spent in the State?
I am trying to be helpful to Senator Cullinane because his party leader would not have to spend all his time travelling first class across the Atlantic to meet some members——
It is not first class.
It is probably something superior to first class.
It is never first class.
The Waldorf Astoria.
I remind Senator Bradford to speak to the amendment.
I am advised by a colleague that she has met the Sinn Féin leader in the first class section. Perhaps he was only passing through.
If we intend to be realistic and not hypocritical, can the Minister outline the position with all those politicians who appear to live on very high moral ground and claim they do not accept their salaries, but live on the minimum wage and transfer tens of thousands of euro per annum to their political parties? What is the legal situation of a Deputy transferring €30,000 to €50,000 of their salary to their political party? I believe it is illegal. The politicians who claim that they do not take their full salary should enter into a covenant or arrangement with the Department of Finance whereby the balance of their salaries is returned to the taxpayer. They are committing an illegal act in transferring €60,000 or €70,000 per annum to their political parties, as they claim to be doing. If they can live without that money, they should return it to the taxpayer for the general good of the economy rather than use it for political purposes.
Or to a registered charity.
Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.
Senators Keane and O'Keeffe summed up our difficulty. We would love to live in a perfect world, but we do not and will not. Later this year the constitutional committee will examine the electoral system. That might be a little removed from this debate but in one sense it is central to it. Most countries in Europe do not have a facility for private funding of political parties, so the taxpayer funds those parties. However, those countries have a different type of politics with list systems and party headquarters dominating the show. People are not funding individuals because they do not vote for individuals but for political parties.
If there was a list system here, in which the electorate did not vote for a candidate but for a political party, it would then be much easier to suggest State funding of political parties. However, at present people who might support or even be members of the Fianna Fáil Party might well decide to fund their local Fine Gael candidate with whom they have a personal friendship. We have that type of complicated thing here because of our electoral system. That is a debate for another day, perhaps, but it is one of the reasons it is not so easy and neat to simply ban all types of personal and corporate funding and to move to taxpayer funding. We do not have the politics or the electoral system which would make it an easier option.
Senator Keane's response to the amendments is quite balanced. In our innocent days, we all would love to have seen all types of private and corporate funding removed, but I do not see any marches on the street by taxpayers demanding to fund politics. Most taxpayers are of the opinion that they are paying enough tax already and have no wish to fund political party activity. It is either one way or the other, that is, either private, corporate or controlled funding or taxpayer funding. That is a debate that will not be concluded today but it is not as simple as banning all corporate funding, as the amendment suggests.
In our current electoral system our type of politics is often more competitive within the parties than between the parties. We generally do not have a competition of political ideas at elections but a competition of individuals. That is why it is so expensive and why there are so many posters, leaflets and so much advertising. That is the type of politics we have. It is not a national debate on ideology or ideas, but generally a local, hurling match-type of politics. That is the reason politics is so expensive and the reason it is difficult to control expenditure and funding. I hope the constitutional committee will look at that big picture, although it is a debate for another day.
The Minister has got it as right as possible in the Bill. We are, in a way, trying to square a circle. We will not come up with a perfect answer but at least we are making things much better than they were. I hope the Minister will respond to the point I made earlier. I do not believe a word from the mouths of the politicians who claim to be living on the average industrial wage. That is hypocritical cant, but we need to challenge it. If these people are handing over tranches of money to their respective political parties it is illegal, under current electoral law. That money should be returned to the taxpayer.
I also welcome the Minister to the House. The Bill represents a reality. When we look for change we must see it as a continuum and not something to be achieved overnight.
I am concerned about the definition of "corporate", in the context of corporate donations. We seem to have taken a view that all corporate donations are wrong and evil. We need to take a step back from this. In the definition, corporate includes a trust. There are many trusts with charitable purposes or engaged with poor communities, marginalised groups, immigrants or women to encourage these marginalised groups to engage in politics. An unintended consequence of the Bill would be to outlaw the Women's Political Association, which was a key mover in the 1990s and early 2000s in encouraging the activation of women in politics. What are we talking about when we talk about banning corporate donations, trusts or unincorporated bodies of persons? We need to be careful when we talk about banning such "corporate donations" that we do not end up removing access to political engagement from disenfranchised groups in our society.
I am also somewhat concerned at the way the debate has gone. I took Senator Fiach Mac Conghail's point about the Moriarty report and corporate donations. The Moriarty report also said the removal of corporate donations from the political system had to be balanced by more public funding for the political system. Senator Ronán Mullen and others mentioned that a way around this rebalancing would be to have more private donations from individual citizens to support the political system. We have enough activation of the contented in our society without adding to that difficulty. More than 400,000 people are unemployed and 100,000 face the loss of their homes. If we move to a political system that is funded more by the individual and less by corporations the inevitable consequence will be that the funding of politics will come from people who have the most money and the best education, the middle class, white, middle income workers who have a particular agenda and tend not to want change.
We need to be careful when we tamper with the political system that we do not end up with a system that disenfranchises more of our citizens than are disenfranchised currently.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate and I agree very much with what Senator Hayden has said. It is important that we encourage all of society to be represented at political levels. We do not want to go in the direction of the United States of America, where one has to be a millionaire to get into any kind of politics, and certainly to run for the Presidency, although, as the Minister will know, it is getting rather like that in presidential elections here. It is odd that the number of us who ran as independent candidates in the presidential election found that even though we got more than 100,000 votes from Irish citizens we did not get a single cent in support from the taxpayer.
I am glad my good friend and colleague, Senator Cullinane, is here because I would not have liked to make this criticism in his absence. I do not agree with what I heard him say on the monitor earlier. It is against the principle of independence. He suggested that the funding of Independent Members and groups should be further restricted and that there should be stricter vouching and scrutinisation. The Minister agreed with alacrity and said he would be delighted to take up what was being said about the Independents and that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform would do this, that and the other. The Minister should not think this opinion is universally held. He knows, because he is a canny operator, that the entire political system is skewed against the participation of individuals and independents in the system. Every single party has been involved in this, including Sinn Féin.
I usually agree with Sinn Féin Members, because they are rather to the left and we need a leftie perspective in the country. The claim that they take the average industrial wage is hogwash. I do not care if they took nothing, because the taxpayer pays the full whack. They should not think they are fooling the taxpayers when they say they take only the average industrial wage. The people who pay should have a say. Sinn Féin squeezes them for the same amount of money as everyone else.
It is exceptionally difficult for any group, particularly marginalised groups, to be represented. It is an extraordinary thing to say, as Senator Hayden said, that women are a marginalised group. They are the only numerical majority that is seen as a minority——
They are marginalised in politics.
——and have been treated as a marginalised minority. We have had to introduce special legislation to encourage them to get into politics. I am not standing over imposing any further financial hardship on people who have the guts to get up, get involved and get engaged in politics. We need to encourage it. It should not be penalised from a position of hypocrisy by a party that takes every single grant it possibly can, including from Westminster where it never even put a bum on a seat. Although good relations have been established on a personal basis between us, I will not take hogwash and I do not want the Minister to take from this debate that every Independent Member kowtows to the kind of things that may be in the pipeline. I know the country is in a difficult financial situation. However, if we want the political system to work we must encourage independent voices and stop this skewing of financial and other supports.
Candidates who have the support of a political party are at an enormous advantage. The financial arrangements for elections are subtly and deliberately skewed in the direction of parties, and have been since the foundation of the State. We must have parties to have efficient government, but we also need canaries in the mine; those people who, because they are not subject to the Whip, will be prepared to say the things that are for the others unsayable and to stand out and consistently follow a line of principle.
I was not here for the early part of the debate because I was with a young gentleman who is writing a thesis on Palestine and Gaza. I told him to take the principle wherever it led him. It may lead into dangerous areas and one may be accused of certain things but one has to follow that principle. One does not become an advocate of Palestinian rights, Jewish rights, Israeli rights, women's rights or gay rights. One must be an advocate of human rights. We must protect the individual voice through this legislation.
May I clarify a point I made earlier about students' unions? I was referring to the funding of student societies, whether political, sporting or cultural by students' unions. I was not talking about corporate donations. Students' unions have their own mechanisms and controls for how the money is administered and there is fairness and equity for the various groups. That is what this is about, and not corporate donations to student bodies.
I must have touched a nerve when I referred to expenses for Independent Senators and Deputies, given the response from Senator Norris. My point was that Independent Deputies receive the leader's allowance of €45,000, and some of them are giving the money to charity. One Independent Deputy in my constituency gives the money to charity. That is not right. That is a way of buying votes, to be frank about it. I call for vouched expenses. If there is to be a leader's allowance for Independent Deputies, then it should be vouched. If Senator Norris is saying that should not be the case, that those allowances should not be vouched and that Independent Senators can spend this money on whatever they like, that is a matter for him. It is not something I support.
In respect of Senator Norris's point on what he called the hogwash about the average industrial wage — Senator Bradford also made this point — I am proud that I take the average industrial wage. Our party put down an amendment to the Finance Bill to reduce the pay of politicians. That is what we should do, but that amendment was defeated.
The Senator takes the full whack.
I will get to that. We asked for the pay of Oireachtas Members to be reduced by 30% in the case of Ministers, 15% for Deputies and 10% for Senators. That was knocked back by the Government parties and by some of the Opposition parties as well. That would be my preference.
I do not give my money to the party directly, because there is a limit. I spend the money on my constituency service. Senators are not entitled——
As we all do.
I have an office which I pay for out of my salary, and that is where my money goes. It goes back into providing a first class constituency service.
On a point of order, I think the Senator is misleading his constituency.
That is not a point of order.
The Senator does not have a geographical constituency.
Will the Senator speak to the amendment, please?
I am responding to the point made. It is a bit rich, given the climate in which we find ourselves, that some Senators seem to take exception to Senators and Deputies taking the average industrial wage.
We do not believe the Senator.
The Senator does not have to believe me. It is a bit rich. In order to remove any ambiguity about these issues——
The Senator is speaking to a completely different Bill.
If they support what I am saying, why do they not then accept amendments that we put down to the Finance Bill to reduce the salaries of Oireachtas Members?
How is that relevant to this Bill?
Will Senator Cullinane speak to the amendment?
With the greatest respect to yourself, a Chathaoirligh, Senator Norris was allowed a five minute rant about Sinn Féin. Senator Bradford made a similar rant. When I get up to respond, we suddenly have to stick to the amendment.
I was coming into the Chair and it took me a while to establish where we were at.
Can we stick to the amendment, please?
Now that I have established where we are at, I ask you to speak to the amendment.
I have responded to two rants in this House from people who obviously do not believe in transparency.
I compliment Senator Cullinane because he has done very well in fighting off his detractors. I have a little rant coming up, but I would like to add to what has been said.
Senator Bradford has rightly opened up an important question. What happens when people receive income and claim not to take all of it themselves, but do not return it to the State or to a recognised charity? Political parties are not charities and their activities are not charitable activities, so contrary to what Senator Cullinane says, it would be better to give the money to a charity than to plough it back into the activities of a political party or an organisation. While Senator Cullinane gave a good response, he cannot have it both ways. As Senator Norris has pointed out, he does not represent a geographical constituency. He is either giving the money back to his political party, which is improper, or he is spending it disproportionately on the Waterford constituency, where he may intend to be elected at some time——-
Or I could do what the Senator does and keep it and spend it on myself. That is what everybody else does.
——but for which it was not given.
I think the Senator is straying from the amendment as well.
I have already said that expenses and allowances should be vouched, and it is correct to say that if political parties receive public funding and they do not have to present vouchers, then the requirement should be that any public funding has to be vouched. In other words, independent politicians should be treated the same as political parties. Sauce for the flock of geese must be sauce for the individual gander. Senator Norris is right in that respect.
Let us not be distracted from the point raised by Senator Bradford. If people are taking money as a salary from the State and are giving it disproportionately back to their political parties, there may be an impropriety, unless it is as Senator Cullinane described. For the avoidance of doubt, perhaps the Minister may want to nail down the issue with an amendment on Report Stage to make it clear that any such funding back to a political party would be inappropriate and unlawful. A political party is not a recognised charity and an elected politician should not use public money received as a salary any differently than a corporate or private donor should use it. It should be subject to the same limits of donation. That applies whether what the politician is giving is in kind, by way of funding a political office, or whether the politician is handing over cash or making out a cheque from a proportion of his or her salary.
A very interesting issue has been raised by Senator Bradford. He clearly has been ruminating on these issues for a long time. I will not make that joke.
The Senator should not be such a tease. Was it about ruminants?
There is an Irish variant of a certain mental condition where people forget everything except the grudges.
I disagree with Senator Bradford in one respect. He seeks to contrast public funding of parties and individuals on the one hand and private or corporate donations on the other hand. He is wrong in lumping in private and corporate donations. Notwithstanding what Senator Hayden has said, it is appropriate, provided there is transparency, that people put their hands into their own pockets and support individuals and causes in which they believe. That should be encouraged, although subject to certain limits as it is. I have not argued here today for unlimited private donation or the possibility of unlimited private donations. Private donations of that kind are a horse of a different colour from corporate donations.
Senator Hayden mentioned the Women's Political Association. There are many fine causes. I presume she is talking about a situation where the association might want to donate money to female candidates.
Yes. There are examples of this in Britain and in America, some of which I would regard as quite controversial, such as EMILY's List, which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. This is where certain women politicians were induced to take up pro-abortion political positions in exchange for certain donations.
That is not what EMILY's List does.
We cannot prohibit people from making donations if it is lawful, but transparency is important in that instance. I am on record as supporting the closing down of such corporate donations. If the Women's Political Association rightly wants to see more women in politics, it should have the capacity to approach individuals and ask them to donate to female candidates in different constituencies, if they agree with its aims. We need to build up the connection between the politician and the party on the one hand, and the personal sacrifice by the voter on the other hand.
We will never be able to avoid a situation where richer people will be able to donate more. We deal with that by putting in an overall limit, but it is a healthy thing to promote the idea of individuals funding parties and individuals whose ideas they support, provided it is done in a transparent fashion. That is how to promote political engagement. The rot sets in when the taxpayer is indirectly funding people's next election attempt through the public funding system, or when corporate entities fund people and compromise them in what they do and say in politics, and do so in ways that are not transparent. We must not mix the issues.
It is important to separate the notion of private donation from corporate donation. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections could not be limited, pursuant to the right of those entities to free speech. Senator Bradford raised this earlier. This shows how wrong America can get it sometimes on certain issues. That case was the latest in a series of decisions which deeply misunderstood the concept of corporate personhood which, as indicated earlier, is essentially a legal tool to give a corporation personality to undertake contracts, purchase land and so on. The corporation is not a person and should not be seen as a person in the sense of being a citizen. It does not have democratic rights such as the vote or the ability to stand for election. That is why we should see corporations as completely different from personal donations because corporations have a different purpose. They may have legal personality and may be able to do business but since they do not have the right to vote and the ability to stand for election they should not have the ability to donate either. They are self-interested bodies, I do not mean in any pejorative sense, designed to ensure profit for their shareholders and company members, and should not be allowed to influence democratic political decisions made by citizens.
A trust does not have those interests.
Senator Mullen to continue without interruption, please.
I agree with what Senator Hayden has said in that a trust does not have those selfish commercial or self-interested motives from the point of view of commerce but nonetheless a trust gathers money for the accomplishment of a particular purpose. In the same way that I have opposed the hijacking of the system of public funding of politics for the purpose of securing the laudable objective of increasing the number of women in politics, I do not think the Parliament and the business of elections should be skewed around such issues. Neither should trusts be in the business of directly funding political parties or individuals. If the job of those trusts is to create public awareness about the causes and to encourage their subscribing members, qua individual supporters, to fund politicians parties, that is much cleaner and much healthier.
I originally wanted to speak but I did not wish to interrupt my good friend, Senator Norris, in mid flow, during his rant. Since then there have been a number of other rants. I respond to one particular comment he made and remind him and Senator Mullen to try to use gender neutral language when speaking about the nerve people have to enter politics. We heard about a gander from Senator Mullen. I point out there are not just ganders but also, as Senator Keane pointed out——
What is the female for gander?
I cannot recall but in any case I think she used——
I think she took a more charitable view of our difficulties.
We are all geesed here. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Senator Norris's language was, perhaps, rather different but I suggest gender neutral language would be preferable to the term "balls".
We are all goosed.
On a more serious level, it is important to have a debate about corporate donations but it is always a case of trying to balance the freedom of expression of individuals and organisations to make contributions to causes in which they believe, as Senator Hayden has pointed out. It is a complex issue but while corporate donations per se are viewed as being bad for politics, and clearly a restriction on corporate donations as set out in the Bill is important and supported by everyone, at the same time we must look at other entities. I take issue with Senator Mullen’s comment about EMILY’s List, about which he was very pejorative. EMILY’s List is a well established organisation in the US which supports women candidates who have a pro-choice position and is entitled to do that. There are plenty of organisations and individuals supporting candidates in America and here who have an anti-choice position so I do not think there is any issue with that.
We would be banning all that if we banned corporate donations.
I do not think there is any issue with that. I do not join in the rants that many others have had against Sinn Féin, much as I might feel the need to do so but that is going off the point. When debating issues about the incomes of Senators and Deputies, we must be careful not to descend to a lowest common denominator. There is a point at which people can no longer afford to go into politics if they cannot obtain a decent salary. One has to be mindful of that. There is also the point, as others have said, that Senators do not have geographical constituencies.
The Bill is balanced. All the debate which is valuable is around trying to finesse the Bill. Should I not have spoken?
I ask the Senator to continue.
I am prepared to be instructed on how to speak.
The Minister is very patient.
I am sure the same applies to the Cathaoirleach. The Minister, in his portfolio, is probably saving the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and is the most influential Minister, in terms of changing the political culture and participation of the public. He has an extraordinary portfolio given that it includes local government reform, the Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011 and I hope will include vouched expenses for Independent Senators and Deputies before the end of the debate.
That is a completely different Bill from the Bill being debated. We are debating amendments Nos. 3 to 13, inclusive, and amendments——
I thank the Cathaoirleach for reminding me. The Bill also includes the notion of corporate donations. I respond to Senators Keane, O'Keeffe and Hayden who made very good arguments in respect of corporate donations. However, they forgot to mention there is a balance in the Bill in terms of regulation, responsibility and disclosure that the Standards in Public Office Commission would enforce. It is not that we are banning corporate donations and letting everything fly around and hope there might be, as Deputy Keane suggested, a circumvention. There would not be a circumvention because we would empower the Standards in Public Office Commission to monitor that. The Minister mentioned a Bill he will introduce on expenditure. The whole notion is that political expenditure and private donations would all be accounted for publicly. Later we will propose another amendment on disclosure. The notion that banning corporate donations will create another problem is to ignore the instruments in the Bill that will allow that balance to occur. If we take a holistic approach — this is where the Minister comes in, particularly in local government reform — our job and that of the Government is to encourage increased political participation and change political culture. Banning corporate donations is only one small part of that. To answer Senator Mullen's question, I am not suggesting that private donations should be banned or discouraged. Citizens' donations will encourage activism, increase freedom of speech and participation. As happened with President Obama's last election, a smaller amount of donations encourages a greater sense of collectivity, activism and a shared voice. Banning corporate donations levels the playing pitch. In terms of Senator Hayden's view, we should look to the future. Local government reform which will allow for increased local participation will politicise men and women and encourage a more transparent level playing pitch. Banning corporate donations should be a part of that and remind Senators that the quid pro quo is that the Standards in Public Office Commission will require teeth to ensure expenditure is accounted for, including not only our salaries but the leader’s allowance.
One item comes back to funding, including Senators' funding, and for what it is used. Senators should not have constituency offices and that should be outlawed.
That is completely different from the amendments before the House.
We are talking about funding and I ask the Minister to look at this issue because Senators are elected nationally.
It is a different Bill.
No funding is allowed for it.
If so, why did the Cathaoirleach allow everybody else to speak on it?
I did not allow everybody else to speak on it.
Senators Cullinane and Norris spoke on it for approximately half an hour. Senators should not have constituency offices and we would do the House a service if we banned such offices altogether. We can do research in our offices with the library facilities here. We would do the Seanad a service if we banned them because Senators are different from constituency politicians and we have to recognise that. We would be doing ourselves a service if we looked at that.
There should also be some transparency as to who is providing the funding to political associations, whether women's political associations or men's political associations. If the funding is going to women in politics, then they should fund all women in politics. When the Council for the Status of Women was established it became the council for the women of status. We do not want a situation where some women are funded while others are not, be they members of whatever organisation. We have to be careful. Transparency at all costs is necessary.
Senator Norris has spoken already but I will allow him to contribute again briefly.
I will be very brief and this will be my final contribution. I will start by reminding my good friend and colleague, Senator Bacik, that balls is a metaphor and is completely gender neutral. I can provide a number. It was not directed at the gonads but rather it is a political metaphor frequently used——
I fail to see what this has to do with the amendment.
I was answering a point raised by my colleague.
The Senator should mind his metaphors.
I agree very much with Senator Mac Conghail——
On the amendment, please, Senator.
——on the question of corporate donations and the nuanced nature of the Bill as reflected in some of these amendments. It is very important that there be transparency, and the role of the Standards in Public Office Commission is a crucial one. We have seen in America how the political system can be corrupted by massive corporations. Just look at the tobacco industry and the criminal activities in which it has been involved such as lobbying directly against the public interest. This Bill and these sections are welcome and the amendments will help to improve it.
With regard to the very interesting legal precedent put before the House by Senator Mullen on the question of whether corporations have a personality, which has a direct bearing on these issues, there was a very interesting argument during the Defamation Bill during which the then Minister argued that in fact they do indeed have a personality to the extent that they are allowed to take action for libel. I thought that was a very dangerous precedent at the time.
With regard to EMILY's List, I would agree with him if it were bribery and saying as a corporation that it was giving the person money if he or she changed his view and voted corruptly. That is not what I understand, however. I understand it is supporting people who already have that point of view. Otherwise it would be wrong. I have no difficulty with it, as I have no difficulty with people supporting the groups calling themselves pro-life. I think that is all right.
We are in a curious situation. Of course the Minister is happy, smiling and indulgent. Why would he not be?
He could win.
The Government controls everything — the councils, the Seanad, the Dáil, the Presidency, although we are lucky in that we have an Independent rump in this House.
Senator Norris, this has nothing to do with the amendment. Kindly speak to the amendment, please.
I am making the point, if I may, about the Independents. I will finish on this point because it has been raised a number of times. It is a very populist thing to talk about vouched and unvouched expenses. I suggest the Minister gives me accounting services so that I can hold on to all these things and have them assessed.
That is a completely different matter.
One gets a much lower level if one is unvouched. One has a choice between grabbing the honey pot and getting something much more.
The Senator should resume his seat.
I am a professional politician, as are we all in this House, including the Independents appointed by the Government. Why does the Government not permit election expenses to be allowable against tax, as a business expense? They are a business expense. We are in the business of politics. That is the kind of thing that improves political life.
I say to Senator Norris that we are living in a democracy.
The Government was elected by the people. We are not a totalitarian regime.
I do not think I said that.
The Government is not controlling everything. We have a mandate from the people and we have received votes in the Dáil on the basis of votes received from the people for a particular reform agenda.
The Government has a pretty full house and now it has its eyes on doubling it.
I am elected by all of the people.
I did not quite catch that remark.
Everyone in Carlow-Kilkenny, not just Trinity graduates.
In all cases we are very honoured to be a Member of this House.
Not just graduates.
There are quite a few amendments, a total of 19, in case Members had not noticed. They all deal with amendments to the key provisions in the Bill relating to the restriction of corporate donations and the registration of corporate donors. Before dealing with the substantive points raised by the amendments, I wish to address briefly the provisions contained in the sections identified for amendment.
Section 7 effects a ban on the acceptance from a corporate donor of a donation in a particular year, the value of which exceeds €200, unless the corporate donor is registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the donation is accompanied by a statement confirming that the donation has been properly approved by the donor.
Section 8 provides for the registration with the Standards in Public Office Commission of a corporate donor intending to make a donation for political purposes of more than €200 in a given year. Section 10 extends the scope of the existing offences and penalties provisions in the Act to take account of the additional requirements being introduced by the Bill relating to the acceptance of corporate donations and the registration of corporate donors. Section 11 provides for a reduction from €5,078.95 or £4,000, as it was when the Act was originally introduced, to €200 in the amount above which donations made by companies, trade unions, societies and building societies must be reported in the respective annual reports or returns.
Section 19 inserts new definitions into the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, arising from the new corporate donations provisions. Section 21 provides for the restriction on the acceptance of corporate donations to apply at local government level, and section 24 extends the scope of the existing offences and penalties provisions under the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 to take account of the additional requirements being introduced by the Bill in relation to the acceptance of corporate donations and the registration of corporate donors.
Amendment No. 3 from Senator Mac Conghail and the Independent Senators proposes an outright ban on corporate donations, and the purpose of the combined Sinn Féin amendments is similar and would effectively delete most of the provisions dealing with corporate donations from the Bill. The approach is not legally sound and I will deal with that aspect in a moment.
I welcome the acknowledgment implicit in the amendments from Sinn Féin that an exemption should be made for payments to student societies when restrictions on corporate donations are being introduced by the Bill. The relevant provisions are not being deleted by the Sinn Féin amendments. In opposing the amendments from the Independent Senators and Sinn Féin, the objective of the Government is to restrict the influence of corporate donations on politics in Ireland and to enhance the openness and transparency of the whole system of political funding. Notwithstanding that we are talking about money and contributions, it is impossible to stop people from being corrupt. If wealthy individuals want to exercise undue influence, they will continue to be able to do so, but we want to have restrictions on the financial element of it so that money will not buy influence, undue influence or anything like that. Again, this will not stop people and there will always be occasions when people will try to exercise undue influence by means other than by contributions to the political process. The Bill will do what it can to ensure openness and transparency in the system of political funding. The Government will do this to the maximum extent possible and in a way which will not create an undue administrative burden and that is constitutionally permissible.
Amendment No. 5 from Senator Mullen proposes a reduction from €200 to €1 in the amount above which a donation could not be accepted from a corporate donor unless the donor was registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission and that the donation was approved in the prescribed manner by the corporate donor. Amendments Nos. 13 and 17 contain related provisions. I have already mentioned this would cause an administrative nightmare. I know why the Senator has tabled this amendment, having heard his contribution. I can understand the concept of what he is trying to achieve but I think it would raise a lot of issues regarding the administration of that scheme.
Amendment No. 6 from the Fianna Fáil Senators proposes a reduction from €200 to €100. The sum of €200 is based on practical considerations about implementation. Placing the additional disclosure and approval conditions on relatively small donations of under €200 from businesses or organisations would not be fair or practical. For example, if there was no lower limit, a local business placing a poster in a shop window in support of a candidate could be regarded as having a corporate donation by way of benefit-in-kind.
A shop owner who buys a raffle ticket or offers a small spot prize for a local function would generally be regarded as giving a corporate donation. Senator Mullen's proposal would bring these types of activity within the scope of the new provisions. I believe that is unreasonable and, therefore, I oppose it on that basis.
I hope the Fianna Fáil Senators in proposing €100 are acknowledging the appropriateness of the principle of the Bill. I believe Senator Power was quite satisfied with the principle. While one can pick a figure of €100 or €200 to deal with some of the practical administrative issues I am speaking about, I do not want to be in a position where people as corporate entities, or the local shopkeeper in a small town who wants to donate a sum for political purposes, would in any way have to be registered or tied up in the administration of this legislation.
Senator Mac Conghail was anxious to have the legislation published. The Attorney General does not publish legislation but, as a Government, we take advice and, obviously, the best possible advice we can get as a Government is from the Office of the Attorney General.
An outright ban on corporate donations raises particular questions with reference to the provisions of Article 40 of the Constitution relating to freedom of expression and freedom of association. Even if it was feasible in the context of the Constitution to ban corporate donations, one would then have to get over the hurdles in regard to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. We must have regard to the compatibility of an outright ban on corporate donations with those legal and constitutional commitments. As I said earlier, these are issues that can be rightly addressed by the constitutional convention where, if it is a proposal that ultimately comes through that convention that a constitutional amendment can be proposed and brought forward, it can be considered at that stage. However, in terms of the practical, legal advice I have received in regard to dealing with matters under the European Convention on Human Rights, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 40 of the Constitution in regard to freedom of expression and freedom of association, I am legally advised it is not appropriate or possible to do it in this legislation. The measures in the Bill will restrict corporate donations substantially, having regard to compatibility with the Constitution and our commitments to international and European law.
Senator Bradford raised a point on the clarification of salaries. If he wants to make a submission to the Standards in Public Office Commission to get clarification on that, he is free to do so. I am not able to say today what the position is.
Senator Mullen suggested there was some contamination of students in regard to entering or joining a political party in colleges. He seemed to have some difficulty about political parties——
No, my point was much more benign than the Minister thinks.
——offering money or support to student societies, which would include a political party, and that it would be in some way suspect.
I came down in favour of it.
Yes, on balance. On the other hand, the Senator had a problem earlier about support from the public purse, so how are we to fund the political system?
The Bill to come later in the year, relating to the expenditure side, might help us in this regard. A lot of money is wasted across the board in supporting candidates at election time. We should have a detailed look at the appropriate level of spending and the arrangements in the litter Acts for postering and other issues in order that there would be a level playing pitch that would allow ordinary people who want to get involved in politics to do so without being involved in the chequebook-style politics for professional people with a lot of money. They can stand for election because they have independent sources of income, while someone with a low income or no income is not at the races in terms of the support they might receive.
Money means a lot at election time. It has been proved repeatedly that the more money one spends, the better prospects one has in promoting a message, buying necessary advertising space, leafleting and all the associated advertising that goes with it. This does have an impact in terms of name identification. Whatever system we come up with in terms of dealing with these matters, we need to ensure everyone is treated the same.
Reference was made to families being able to continue to donate. That will be part of the Bill and is acknowledged. There is a substantial reduction from €44,000 in the case that was mentioned to €17,000. The thresholds that are now being introduced will have a big impact. As a Senator said, I do not see a queue in the streets of people looking to fund the political process or politicians. However, the restrictions and the reduction in the donation limits and declaration thresholds will have a major influence. There will be a massive reduction in the level of income parties can receive in comparison with the current situation.
It is important to note that the whole objective of the Bill is to provide greater openness and transparency in the manner in which political funding and donations operate. The Bill is designed to provide a level playing pitch for all bodies that are not individual persons. It is in that spirt that I am dealing with the amendments before us.
I want to ask for clarification from the Minister in regard to the banning of corporate donations, which he said would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. How, then, can France ban all donations from private and public sector companies, as happened in 1995? In Portugal, donations by corporations are banned by Article 8 of a 2003 law. Is there some special exception for Ireland which means we cannot ban corporate donations when Portugal and France can do so?
There is a constitutional requirement.
The Minister specifically quoted the European Convention on Human Rights and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Perhaps he could clarify this.
I referred to three aspects. One is the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and another is the Constitution. All of those issues taken together are interrelated in regard to how they affect our Constitution and what we can apply under freedom of expression. We do not look at just one piece of legislation; we must look at all of them in the round, in particular how they affect the Constitution.
Is there a reason we cannot see the advice from the Attorney General just on this particular issue?
Ministers do not publish the advice. I assure the Senator that the Attorney General gets external senior counsel advice and legal opinion on matters that are very important, such as these. I am assured that will happen in this case and that there is a robust legal requirement for me to deal with the legislation in this fashion.
It seems Senator van Turnhout has done us a great service in drawing attention to the situation in other EU countries. While the Minister talks about dealing with these issues in the round, if the law of the European Union and the convention, which does not refer specifically to the Union, cannot place an obstacle to Portugal or France having such bans, it cannot be invoked as an argument in the Irish context. It is just out of the equation. It seems the Minister's argument can only rest on the Constitution and the Minister cannot cite EU law or the convention jurisprudence in any way because, were it to impact in any way on our law, by definition it would have to impact on the law of other EU states. Therefore, the only argument the Minister can possibly make is on a constitutional ground.
The Minister cited Article 40. While I do not have the Constitution to hand, I believe Article 40 relates to personal rights, not to the rights of corporates. I am even more intrigued having heard what Senator van Turnhout had to say and having heard the Minister's response. I am more sceptical now about the idea that there could be any constitutional obstacle to a ban on corporate donations.
I cannot subscribe to the proposition being put forward by Senator Mullen. I am not going to go through case law in the various countries of the European Union. What I am saying is that my legal advice is that we have a constitutional prohibition at present on an outright ban on corporate donations. If it was otherwise, I would bring in different legislation. I will certainly——
If Senator Mullen wants to test it, that is fine. He is in the business of testing many things.
Let Uachtarán na hÉireann consult his Council of State.
As the Cathaoirleach knows, I cannot interfere with the wishes or otherwise of President Michael D. Higgins. Perhaps the Senator might like to have lunch with him and discuss that——
We are not asking the Minister to have lunch with him. I am asking the Minister to do his duty and bring forward legislation, if he agrees with the objective.
I will do my duty. I am doing my duty. Obviously, that does not always get the agreement of Senator Mullen, who has a particular point of view on this matter. He may not always be right, however.
I accept that. The Minister is entitled to his opinion. However, he sought to reassure us there was some kind of legal advice to the effect that this would not be possible. Senator van Turnhout has shown, by illustrating the fact there are other EU states that have laws of a similar kind——
They do not have our Constitution.
There is no way in which EU law on this point can be said to apply differently in this State because we have a different constitutional position. If it is the Constitution which presents an obstacle, one cannot cite EU law and nor can one cite the European Convention on Human Rights. A ban on corporate donations either is or is not possible under EU or convention law. The bottom line, as Senator van Turnhout observed, is that there is no obstacle in European law. The question is whether there is an obstacle under the Constitution.
I have said, subject to a closer examination of the matter, that Article 40, to which the Minister referred, relates to personal rights. He has not cited any case law. Rather, he is asking us to take his word for it that he has been advised legally that this would not fly from the point of view of the Constitution. I am not asking him to introduce a constitutional amendment, but in the absence of any case law or any indication that the courts have ever suggested this, the appropriate course is for the Minister to indicate his preference in terms of policy.
If it is his preference that corporate donations be banned then the appropriate route is to legislate for that. If it is not, I will respect that and we will argue the toss; I am not seeking to undercut his opinion or claim I am automatically right. If he secures the support of the Houses in legislating for a ban, it will be a matter then for Uachtarán na hÉireann to take counsel from the Council of State and to decide whether to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution. The alternative, where the Minister's legal advice is unseen by us and he is telling us there is some type of legal or constitutional argument, is entirely unsatisfactory. We have just shown that there cannot be any European law-based argument against the provision, although the Minister suggested there was.
The Senator has shown nothing.
We have shown that. It is equally possible that the Minister is wrong or his advisers are wrong on the constitutional point. All I am saying is that if it is his policy wish to ban corporate donations — if he believes the goal is a good one — let us legislate for that and see what Uachtarán na hÉireann and the Supreme Court decide.
I do not want to prolong the discussion unnecessarily. It is a debate that has already taken place. With respect to Senator Mullen, it is my understanding — obviously, I am not privy to the Attorney General's advice — that we have not been able to enact an outright ban on corporate donations because of certain provisions of the Constitution. This was explored by parties in opposition before ever there was a change of Government last February. I recall extensive debate on this issue in the course of which we were all told, in different parties and by many different legal advisers, that an outright ban was not possible because freedom of expression was not confined to individual human persons. I do not have the case law in front of me but my recollection is that cases like that involving Quinn's Supermarket have established that freedom of expression, association rights and so on can be enforced before the courts by entities which are corporate personalities. That is my recollection of it. As such, I do not accept, with respect, that the Senator is correct in his point about Article 40. The reason we cannot introduce an outright ban is rooted in our constitutional jurisprudence. That was always my understanding — not that it was rooted in other treaties. There may be other issues arising from the European Convention on Human Rights and so on, but I have not looked into those.
The same advice was given by previous Attorneys General.
Senator Bacik seems to be contending that I may be right on one point and wrong on the other. I recall the Quinn's Supermarket case and she may well be correct on that point. However, I must ask her whether a different principle applies here. If it is possible to curtail the amounts that may be donated, it seems that the principle that one may restrict donations has already been conceded. It would be very difficult to argue, in light of this, that an absolute ban would be repugnant to the Constitution.
With respect, we are all in favour of restricting corporate donations as far as possible and practicable. There has been no dissent from any side of the House on that principle. However, there is clearly a substantive difference between an outright ban and a restriction.
We are being asked to accept that it would not be repugnant to the Constitution to restrict corporate donations to, say, 1 cent, €1 or €10 but that a complete ban, on the other hand, would somehow be constitutionally repugnant. No case law has been cited. We all know that Governments are very good at claiming to have legal advice to back up their position. Notwithstanding Senator Bacik's very valid point regarding the Quinn's Supermarket case — it may well be true that corporate entities have rights under those Articles of the Constitution — my point is that it is stretching credibility to say that one may restrict corporate donations to an unlimited degree and not fall foul of the Constitution but it is not possible to go the whole hog and restrict them completely.
My amendments sought not to restrict such donations completely but effectively to legislate them out of existence. However, my fundamental point remains, that in the absence of any jurisprudence being cited or any legal advice being shown to us, the appropriate course is for the Minister to indicate his policy preference. If it is his preference to ban such donations, we should legislate for that and see what the President and the Supreme Court do should a reference be made under Article 26.
It is my recollection that a previous Attorney General recommended that a ban on corporate donations would be unconstitutional. It is not just the incumbent in that office who has given this advice.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I do not propose to press the amendment but instead to support the Sinn Féin Party amendment.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 7, to delete lines 11 to 37 and substitute the following:
"shall directly or through any intermediary accept any corporate donations.".
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D’Arcy, Jim.
- D’Arcy, Michael.
- Gilroy, John.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Heffernan, James.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Moran, Mary.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Noone, Catherine.
- Norris, David.
- O’Keeffe, Susan.
- O’Neill, Pat.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- Whelan, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mac Conghail, Fiach.
- McAleese, Martin.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
- O’Brien, Darragh.
- O’Brien, Mary Ann.
- Power, Averil.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Zappone, Katherine.
I move amendment No 9:
In page 8, line 22, before "shall" to insert "and subsection (2)”.
I asked the Minister to provide some clarification on a matter and he advised me to seek that clarification from the SIPO. However, there needs to be some political direction in relation to the ability or otherwise of politicians to make significant donations to their parties or general political work. Many politicians have claimed that they live on the minimum wage, with the remainder of their salaries being spent on political purposes. We all do that. What is the legal position in this regard? Are politicians entitled to donate these large sums to their political parties? Perhaps the Minister will clarify this point.
I take the Minister's point in relation to the SIPO but I wonder if there is also political information available on this matter.
If a Member of the Oireachtas is paying money for his or her own purposes, such as in respect of a constituency office, he or she is paying for services that apply to himself or herself. Therefore, there is no requirement to disclose that. It is not a donation. I will have to seek legal clarification on the Senator's question in regard to donations being paid to third parties for other purposes. The Standards in Public Office Commission ultimately adjudicates on these matters.
I would appreciate the Minister obtaining that clarification for me. Every politician in the Oireachtas uses virtually all of his or her income from politics for political purposes. We need to ensure the public is not misled into believing that a particular category of politicians is working on a reduced salary. As far as I am aware, every one of us is taking the entire salary and spending it on political purposes. There have been many declarations by people that they are working on the minimum wage. However, they are not returning the balance to the taxpayer, they are spending it on political purposes, including offices, telephones and secretaries. From 1987 until 2002 I paid my secretary every week, including her tax and PRSI payments. I saw that as part of my political duty. The public needs to be advised that there are not two classes of politicians and that people are using their salaries for political purposes, which I am sure is fine. Some people have said they hand the money over to their parties. I presume that is not legal.
I will have the matter clarified for Report Stage. If political parties do not want to draw down the entire amount of disbursement under the Leader's allowance they do not have to do so.
They do not have to draw down the full amount of their entitlement by way of party leader allowance, in terms of disbursements which they get from the public purse. If they choose to do so, that is fine. It would result in a saving for the taxpayer.
It might be helpful if the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, were to write to each Member of the Oireachtas to inquire of them whether they want to draw down their full salary. It would be helpful to the public to know what would be the response if all Members were asked whether they wanted to draw down a full or reduced salary.
Senator Bradford's interest in this issue is interesting. If he showed as much interest in the issue of bonuses paid to special advisers to the Government and so on his time would be better spent. It sounds as though he does not give much credence to the work of SIPO in terms of auditing our accounts and how we spend our money. It is obviously a moot point with other parties that Sinn Féin have a policy of taking the average industrial wage. Senator Bradford can come home with me any time and my wife will talk him through our domestic budget.
What does the Senator do with the remainder of his salary? Does he, like all of us, spend it on political purposes such as offices, clinics and advertising?
Senator Ó Clochartaigh to continue, without interruption.
We use all of our funds. We use the allowance paid to us as we are supposed to. We are building our party and are working with our people in local areas and constituencies to represent them. They are very happy with the manner in which we represent them. The Senator can home with me at any stage and we can talk through our domestic budget.
Senator Bradford is correct in respect of the point raised by him this afternoon. I am aware of a former Minister who did not take his severance allowance but wished to donate it to his political party. However, when he inquired of the Department of Finance as to whether he could do so, he was told he could not do it, that it was illegal. This is the position in this regard. However, the Minister is correct, there is a provision whereby a Member of either House who does not wish to take his or her full salary may donate it to the State.
Amendments Nos. 14, 15, 20, 28 and 29 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 12, before section 9, to insert the following new section:
"9.—Full disclosure on all donations must be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission.".
This is the nub of an important section of the Bill that relates to full disclosure. The amendment seeks to provide that full disclosure of all donations be made to the Standards in Public Office Commission. The Minister should indicate the reason the key recommendation made in the Moriarty report concerning maximum disclosure was not taken on board. The Bill fails to take on board the detailed recommendation made in the final report of the tribunal of inquiry known as the Moriarty tribunal which focused on maximum disclosure of all income of political parties, including commercial earnings, gifted income and all donations, including, where necessary, loans. This is an effort to address one of the fundamental areas in which the current legislation falls down. Strict and comprehensive disclosure requirements are necessary to make the origins of political finance more transparent. Disclosure helps to prevent inappropriate influence and favouritism which can be linked with political donations and dilutes the perception of corruption linked with political finance. Full disclosure by political parties of their funding sources is a widely recognised precaution against improper patronage or influence exerted by wealthy donors. Disclosure allows citizens to be aware of the origins of donations in order that they have the opportunity to analyse the motivations for the donations. Comprehensive and reliable disclosure of income by political parties and individual candidates is a fundamental element of a regulatory framework aimed at increasing the transparency and openness of political financing.
The Moriarty tribunal report contains many other recommendations and the concern of the Independent Senators which we also mention in respect of elections is to ensure there would be a mechanism by which immediate disclosure could occur in a way that informed citizens. We are not against private donations and at this stage must accept there will be some limited corporate donations and that will be encouraged. However, as the Moriarty tribunal report provides the backbone for some of the Bill, one should encourage such donations to be disclosed immediately to allow for a greater sense of transparency, after which there would be no ambiguity in this regard.
A further recommendation made in the Moriarty tribunal report was that the Standards in Public Office Commission should have greater support. Certainly, on Second Stage the Minister mentioned that the report by the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, GRECO, had made recommendations that we consider providing the Standards in Public Office Commission with greater investigative and sanctioning powers, as well as for increased sanctions for breaches of the rule. Certainly, the Minister should indicate the reason the Bill does not opt for full and immediate disclosure of donations. In addition, he should consider how, particularly during general elections, donations might be disclosed immediately.
I second the amendment on donations and concur with the points made by my colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 15. While I welcome the reduction in the threshold to €1,500, I ask the Minister to consider reducing it further to €1,000.
These amendments address the provisions in the Bill dealing with the disclosure of political donations and political funding and relate to sections 9, 18 and 26 of the Bill. Section 9 provides for a significant lowering of the thresholds at which donations must be declared and the threshold for disclosure by a political party to the Standards in Public Office Commission is being reduced from €5,078.95 to €1,500. The declaration threshold for a Member of the Oireachtas or the European Parliament or a candidate at a Dáil, Seanad or European Parliament election has been reduced from €634.87 to €600. There has also been a reduction in the threshold for donors other than companies, trade unions, societies or building societies in reporting donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission from €5078.95 to €1,500.
Section 10 deals with the donations declaration thresholds at a local election, while section 26 contains the provisions that will require the preparation and publication of political party accounts. Amendment No. 14 in the name of the Independent Senators proposes the insertion of a new section before section 9, stating all donations would have to be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission. There is an equivalent amendment, namely, amendment No. 20, to section 18 in respect of political donations at local government level. Amendment No. 28, also in the name of the Independent Senators, proposes that there be immediate disclosure of all corporate and personal donations during an election campaign.
While I agree political donations must be declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission, in the interests of fairness and to ensure the effectiveness of such provisions, a threshold should continue to apply. I do not believe the approach proposed in the amendments is feasible. First, the proposals might be somewhat administratively impractical. For example, I cannot imagine what public good would be served by reporting the name of each person who donates €1 or €2 to an annual political party church gate collection. Similarly, the amendments as framed could be taken to include low level activities such as the selling of raffle tickets. It would not be reasonable to require that all transactions be reported to the Standards in Public Office Commission. The proposal would have serious negative consequences for the operation of politics and the smooth operation of a robust regulatory regime. The Bill provides for the publication of party accounts and in this way donations received by political parties will be open to scrutiny, as will their expenditure. I am going further than the Moriarty tribunal recommendations in this regard and consider this approach to be more effective.
Amendment No. 15, tabled by Fianna Fáil, proposes that the declaration threshold be reduced to €1,000 from €1,500. While one can pick any figure one wishes, reducing the amount by 70% constitutes a good start. The Government is doing what it stated it would do in respect of commitments it gave.
I concede the point in that regard.
As I have stated previously, 14 years is a long time to wait for it to happen, but it is happening now.
The Senator has conceded the point.
Amendment No. 29, tabled by Senator Fiach Mac Conghail and others, seeks to extend the provisions dealing with the submission of political party accounts by all independent and non-party Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. I believe I have mentioned how this is likely to be dealt with, as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, intends to bring forward proposals in this regard.
On a point of order, amendment No. 29 was not ruled out this morning.
A reduction in the declaration thresholds is a highly significant measure. It can be seen as part of a range of measures included in the Bill that will have the cumulative effect of providing for a more open and transparent system of political funding in Ireland and a severe limitation on the scope for corporate influence on politics arising from funding and contributions made from that sector to political parties or candidates. The problems in the system have been evident for years and are now being addressed.
On the Moriarty tribunal report, in developing the Bill the Government has had particular regard to the recommendations made in the report which was published in March 2011. The provisions in the Bill for the publication of political party accounts will address the recommendation that all income of political parties be disclosed. As I noted previously, the Government is going further than this by providing that expenditure of parties also be reported and opened to political scrutiny. The tribunal recommended that all political donations, apart from those under a modest threshold, be disclosed. It did not recommend that corporate donations be banned outright because I am sure Mr. Justice Moriarty would have been aware of the legal limitations in so doing. The reductions we are introducing in respect of the donation thresholds are substantial and significant and they address the recommendations.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. In my confusion, I neglected to focus on amendment No. 29 to any great extent. One of the recommendations in the Moriarty tribunal's report is that appropriate measures should be adopted to ensure the equivalent obligations will be applied to Independent or non-party candidates. To facilitate this, we have tabled amendment No. 29. The question that arises is how I, an Independent Senator nominated by the Taoiseach who is being paid a salary and receiving State funding in the form of the party leaders' allowance, can be accountable to and make my affairs transparent to both the House and the taxpayer. I wanted to make provision in this regard under section 2 but I was prevented from doing so. If amendment No. 29 is accepted, we should reconsider the position with regard to section 2 in the context of the amendment tabled by Senators van Turnhout, Mary Ann O'Brien, O'Donnell, McAleese, Zappone and me.
I am not questioning whether we should receive the party leaders' allowance. I will not be giving my allowance to charity or using it in respect of political favours. Rather, it will be used for the purposes for which it is intended under the principal Act. The latter is quite clear with regard to the uses to which the allowance can be put. In that context, I would like the allowance to be subject to scrutiny by the Standards in Public Office Commission. That would be both fair and reasonable. Independent Members of the Oireachtas are treated separately and have, in effect, been cut loose. Since February, €486,472 has been paid to Independent Deputies. Up to the end of last year, Independent Senators such as myself were paid €169,176. In total, therefore, Independent Members of the Oireachtas have been paid in excess of €656,000. That is an extraordinary amount of money and there is no transparency or accountability in respect of it. I and the other members of the group which tabled amendment No. 29 will obviously make voluntary disclosures in respect of the leaders' allowances we receive. However, there is no legislation under which we are held accountable for what we do with that money.
The Minister will be aware that the party leaders' allowance facilitates us in the context of funding our research and other work. That will continue to be the case. It is in the context of this aspect that we have tabled amendment No. 29. We are not considered to be qualified parties under the existing legislation and it is on that basis that we have tabled the amendment.
I agree with everything Senator Mac Conghail said in respect of amendment No. 29.
We are dealing with amendment No. 14. That is the only amendment before the House.
We are discussing a group of amendments, of which amendments No. 29 is one. I am of the view that all allowances should be fully vouched. This is the first occasion on which I have been obliged to deal with different people in the context of different aspects of my income. In a normal job, one is given a contract of employment and one deals with a single entity such as a salaries section or whatever. As a Senator, however, I am obliged to deal with the one-stop-shop here in the Oireachtas and also with the Department of Finance, which is unusual. We tabled amendment No. 29 because we are of the view that all the allowances we receive should be vouched. We should be obliged to be accountable in respect of these allowances. When I sought guidance on the allowance, I discovered that the only form available relates to political parties. I decided to follow that guidance and, for the record, I have returned to the Minister for Finance, in the form of a cheque I wrote at the end of January, the unspent portion of the party leaders' allowance I received in 2011. I am transparent when it comes to my work and the amendment does not suggest doing anything which I would not be prepared to do myself. The amendment provides the opportunity to address the anomaly that exists and I am of the view we should receive the support of all Senators in respect of it.
There should be transparency in respect of all funding. As stated previously, such transparency should apply to Independent Senators. The Minister provided the answer in respect of this matter in his earlier contribution when he stated that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has responsibility in this area. He indicated that he will discuss the matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and communicate further with Senators on it. I am of the view that we are engaging in a degree of duplication in respect of these amendments.
It is efficiency, not duplication.
It is regurgitation.
No, it is not.
I agree with the principle but we are discussing the matter at the wrong time, particularly as a different Minister has responsibility in this area. In the interests of efficiency, we should accept what the Minister, Deputy Hogan, stated in this regard and should not ask him to repeat himself.
I had hoped to comment on amendment No. 28 but given that we are only discussing amendment No. 14, I will not do so.
The Senator can refer to amendment No. 28 now because it is one of a group of amendments under discussion. However, the amendment cannot be moved at this point.
Amendment No. 28 states: "There shall be immediate disclosure of all corporate and personal donations during an election campaign." That cannot be legal because the term "immediate" has not been defined. Does it refer to now, within the next hour or during the next week or the coming month? There would be a need to define the term "immediate" before the amendment could be considered.
Amendment No. 29 essentially relates to the application of Part IX to Independent and non-party Members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann. There should be no such thing as unvouched expenses or allowances. All such expenses and allowances should be fully vouched and justified. Allowances should only be expended for the purposes for which they are intended or in the course of the work of those who receive them. This is a fundamental principle and it should apply to all parliamentary allowances, without exception. Some categories of allowances and expenses are already administered on a vouched or verified basis. Any category which is unvouched should be subject to the same requirements, that is, all receipts and supporting documentation should be retained for five years and should be subject to audit. I can think of no other sector in which unvouched expenses are allowed. The sooner both Houses of the Oireachtas move towards a system of fully vouched expenses with absolutely no exceptions, the sooner they will enjoy greater credibility in the eyes of both taxpayers and members of the public at large.
During the debate on section 2, I dealt with many of the points that have been raised by Senators Mac Conghail, McAleese and others. I have taken on board the matters to which they refer. I indicated on Second Stage and reiterated the point earlier that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, will be addressing these matters and that he has them under active consideration. I do not know what the term "active consideration" means but I believe it indicates a degree of urgency.
This is a technical drafting amendment to rectify an incorrect reference in the Bill as published. The reference to the principal Act should have been to the 1997 Act. The intention is to refer to the Electoral Act 1997 and this intention is given effect through the amendment. The substantial revisions in the Bill are not altered as a result.
The reason we did not press the amendments we proposed to the section was delineated by my colleague; once amendment No. 4 was defeated there was no point in pressing them.
Amendment No. 27 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 28 was discussed with amendment No. 14.
I accept the Minister's explanation on this matter.
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 25, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:
"(2) The inserted Part IX in subsection (1) also applies to Independent and Non-Party Members of Dáil Éireann and Independent, Non-Party and nominated Members of Seanad Éireann.”.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Crown, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mac Conghail, Fiach.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- O’Brien, Darragh.
- O’Brien, Mary Ann.
- O’Donovan, Denis.
- Power, Averil.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Walsh, Jim.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Zappone, Katherine.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D’Arcy, Jim.
- D’Arcy, Michael.
- Gilroy, John.
- Harte, Jimmy.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- Heffernan, James.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Moran, Mary.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Noone, Catherine.
- Norris, David.
- O’Keeffe, Susan.
- O’Neill, Pat.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- Whelan, John.