The next item is No. 41, motion No. 8, regarding an update on the general scheme of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to the House. I call on Senator van Turnhout to commence and she has ten minutes.
Industry Lobbying: Motion
‘‘That Seanad Éireann:
recognises that corporate and market forces can have a significant impact on people’s lives and public health outcomes and this provides strong justification for legislative and regulatory responses by government to reduce the influence of commercial and vested interests associated with tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other industries on public health and welfare policy;
recognises the need to provide decision makers with guidance to meet public expectations for transparency, accountability, integrity and efficacy when considering, developing, debating and implementing legislation or government regulations;
and calls on the Minister for Expenditure and Public Reform:
— to update the House on the General Scheme (Heads) of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013;
— to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.’’.
The motion has been tabled by the Independent Group comprising myself and Senators O’Donnell, Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien and Zappone. We felt that it was important to table the motion as Private Members' business because we wanted to focus on the lobbying of parliamentarians and to reflect on our role in that process.
When I saw the Government's amendment, which I shall deal with in more detail later, I was surprised that the role of parliamentarians was not mentioned. The aim of the Independent Group's motion is to shine a spotlight on parliamentarians, particularly the role of lobbying in the areas of tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other interests that have a public health and public welfare policy.
Everybody knows what role the tobacco industry plays in public health. The World Health Organization has prepared a report that identified a number of forms of tobacco industry interference which has been used to derail or weaken tobacco control. An example in the past few weeks has been the Minister for Health's proposal on packaging. I would summarise the WHO's list is as follows: manoeuvring to hijack the political and legislative process; exaggerating the economic importance of the industry; manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability; fabricating support through front groups; discrediting proven science; and intimidating governments with litigation or the threat of litigation. The WHO has clearly identified many forms of interference and I can see the hallmarks of it here in Ireland.
Let us examine alcohol related harm. Too much focus has been placed on how alcohol affects industry. I have written two EU reports on the affect of alcohol related harm. First, the issue must be adopted as a public health issue. All too often people have been sidetracked or derailed when they tried to deal with the matter. We have many reports on the issue and the figures are unacceptable. The latest report that I participated in was the one prepared by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. In early 2012 the committee had all-party agreement on the major recommendations in its report but no action has been taken. I surmise that the alcohol industry has influenced the debate. We have witnessed lobbying during the debate on the marketing of alcohol and alcohol sponsorship of sporting events. The industry has far too much say in these issues. My problem with such influence is that it does not happen in the open but at meetings or expensive dinners.
Let us examine the tobacco industry. Many factors hinder efforts to cut the unnecessary toll of death and disease. The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society have identified that the tobacco industry has great determination and has successfully influenced vital areas of policy. The tobacco industry is one of the best funded and sophisticated corporate lobbying interests in the world that works to build relationships with legislators and policy makers. The tobacco industry has a fundamental conflict of interest with public health policy. For decades the industry has worked across the world to market its killer and addictive products to children, deceived the public about the harmful effects of tobacco use and fought any policies designed to reduce tobacco use and save lives. Like any other corporation the primary obligation of tobacco, drinks and gaming companies is to deliver profits to shareholders and they are not concerned about public health issues. That means selling more of their addictive products.
I wish to refer to public health policy. Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that there is a "fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry's interests and public health policy interests." Parliamentarians should declare when they are approached by these industries. We cannot leave it to the lobbying companies to list their consultations with politicians, perhaps using a PR agency. That is not good enough because they represent specific interests of the industry. I would prefer if companies declared their interest rather than list a collection of consultations with politicians. The latter is not accountability or transparency.
I wish to raise the concerns of organisations to whom we should listen, such as the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society as they are at the coalface dealing with these issues. They have written to me stating they have been informed by a number of elected officials that tobacco industry representatives have been actively lobbying Members of the Oireachtas on the price of tobacco products in Ireland and the volume of illicit tobacco. They also point out that information gathered from parliamentary questions, media reports and freedom of information requests indicate that the tobacco industry representatives have considerable contact with Government officials.
From my reading of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework that should not be happening. We as parliamentarians should not accept this happening. We should not be meeting them. We need to ensure we have a clear regulatory system for lobbyists, but also for parliamentarians. What is needed is a code or pledge that parliamentarians sign stating that in the interest of public welfare, there are certain companies, sectors or vested interests that they will not meet or Members may be allowed to meet those organisations but must declare they have done so.
This brings me to the important work that Transparency International Ireland has done on a legislative footprint. When I came to the House I checked with the office of the Clerk of the Seanad about conflicts of interest I might have when I table amendments. I was advised quite clearly that I should make a declaration of interest. I have actively done that. I am involved pro bono in an organisation for NGOs and I do not get an income from it. For clarity, I will always declare any interests I might have. When we deal with policy and legislation I do not hear people announce often they have met representative from any of these companies. However, the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society report that Oireachtas Members are meeting representatives of the tobacco companies.
It is important to look at ensuring that if contacts are made with officials, Ministers or parliamentarians that the footprint is clearly noted when we are adopting legislation. Following scandals in the European Parliament involving parliamentarians ready to accept bribes in exchange for legislative favour, the Parliament recommended to the bureau to establish the requirement of a legislative footprint but it has not yet been implemented. This goes to the crux of the difficulty we have and to the crux of the motion we tabled and the amendment to it. We find it very comfortable to talk about the lobbyists and how we will regulate and control them. That is important and I do not underestimate that challenge but there is also a responsibility on ourselves as parliamentarians to state what is acceptable or not, which is the reason I was very disappointed in the amendment tabled by Government. We worded our motion in very open language. It states, "to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests." What was the problem with that paragraph? I wanted to make provision for a pledge or a contract. We left it open to have a debate in the House, yet those on the Government side could not incorporate that into their amendment. In my view that raises serious questions.
My colleague, Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, will second the motion.
I second the motion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to draw the attention of the House to one valuable, distinctive and relevant example of this Private Members' motion. An independent consultant company which has expertise in winning parliamentary support travelled the corridors of Leinster House two to three months ago in the Lower House, the Upper House and at the committees, lobbying for Camelot. For those who may have forgotten, Camelot is a very cash rich gaming company which runs the British lottery and it has made a bid to run the Irish lottery. We are selling the Irish lottery for 20 years for money up-front. This is the great idea of the Government and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. Initially, the Government looked for €500 million up-front, but that has now become €300 million and the good causes are not now being ring-fenced. This great gaming company, Camelot, does not take prisoners. It has well travelled swagmen who know how to deal with money when it is needed up-front and get the very best return as well as the very best opportunity to open up online gambling in Ireland to make a bigger profit. One would think that the company would not need a lobby group, but think again, it did.
This independent consultant lobbying company was quite brilliant. It has clients that include asset managers, fund administrators, hedge funds, banks, accountancy firms, lawyers, consultants and insurers and of course in this instance, Camelot, which was the reason it was here in the Upper House and the Lower House. This lobbying company is everything and everybody that the poor and those who play the lottery are not. We had a great lobbying company patrolling the House, influencing decisions. If it was not influencing decisions one would need to ask why it was here, as it had a unique opportunity to do so. This lobbying company is everything which the socially excluded are not about or what the people who play the lottery on a nightly basis are not about. This lobbying company prides itself on below the radar intelligence. One might say it was in the right place because the sale of the lottery could be considered to be below the radar of intelligence. Only for a slip of the tongue did I know anything about it. Why was I not consulted? Why did I not know that this lobbying company, working on behalf of Camelot, was being represented in the House and around our corridors?
The lobbying company also makes sense of the legislative environment in which its clients find themselves. How does it do that? Does it live under the stairs? Does it have a vote in the House? No, it does not but it has lobbying access here. It was peddling this kind of rubbish around the House, while at the same time representing a gaming company called Camelot. This lobbying company representing Camelot states it can craft its messages to senior decision makers. I thought we were supposed to be legislators who are in the business of honest and open representation and messages, and outside the cute craft of certain kinds of communication. This lobbying company builds and uses political support like other like-minded organisations such as Camelot. This lobbying company knows and, I am quoting it, "exactly where you need to be to influence decisions in your favour." It is influencing decisions around gaming companies and crawling the corridors of Leinster House. If ever we needed an update to the House on the general scheme of the heads of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill and if ever we had an urgent need for transparent and accountable regulations governing parliamentarians as my colleague pointed out in relation to any engagement with representations from the great corporate bodies, we need it now.
It is my opinion, after the beginning of the debate on the abolition of the Seanad, that the role of any real politician, or of any real Senator, is to take on the corporates, be they tobacco companies, alcohol companies or gaming companies or any other commercial and vested interest.
I asked on the Order of Business some months ago whether Senators and Deputies who were approached by this company would name themselves. Nobody did. It is not the place of Deputies or Senators to be wining and dining lobbyists or be informed or influenced by corporate bodies. Being informed or influenced by the great corporates is the antithesis of politics and democracy.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"recalls the 10 Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying adopted as a recommendation by Ireland as part of the OECD Council in 2010 in response to concerns over lobbying practices and demands for transparency in public decisions making;
recognises that in all areas of policy, legislation and administration unregulated lobbying can create significant public concern:
- regarding the potential scope for vested interests to secure privileged or excessive access; and
- creating a risk that government decision-making will not promote the balance of the public interest to the detriment of society at large;
recalls in that context that specific OECD principles that countries should:
- provide a level playing field by granting all stakeholders fair and equitable access to the development and implementation of public policies (Principle 1);
- provide an adequate degree of transparency to ensure that public officials, citizens and businesses can obtain sufficient information on lobbying activities (Principle 5);
- foster a culture of integrity in public organisations and decision making by providing clear rules and guidelines of conduct for public officials (Principle 7);
commends the Government for approving the drafting of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill which will deliver on the commitment contained in the programme for Government;
endorses the policy approach approved by Government which will assist in assuaging public concerns that lobbying carried out 'behind closed doors' could override the interests of the community as a whole;
strongly supports the fundamental objective of the lobbying legislation to provide appropriate transparency on 'who is lobbying whom about what' which will facilitate the wider community to reach informed evidence-based judgments regarding the extent to which different interest groups are able to access and influence decision-makers; and
looks forward to the pre-legislative scrutiny process on the General Scheme of the Bill to be carried out by the Joint Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee which will provide the opportunity to examine and make recommendations on all aspects of the legislative proposals.".
Dialogue and engagement between Government and citizens are central to a well-functioning democracy and are vital to support informed and evidence-based decision making. We must at all times ensure policy formulation benefits from full information and that all individuals, groups and interests in society have an opportunity to contribute to it. Such interaction supports the political process in finding a balance between competing interests, in fostering consensus and in helping to guide and educate public and political debate. Therefore, interest groups, representative bodies, industry, civil society organisations, NGOs, charities and third party professional lobbyists all provide crucial input and feedback to the political and public administration systems through communication of the views and concerns of the public to Government.
However, such people and organisations also clearly seek to influence the policy and decision-making process in order to align it to their goals and objectives. These goals and objectives may reflect a private, commercial or sectional interest or what may be represented as a wider public interest or benefit. By seeking to regulate those involved in this process, the aim is to bring about significantly greater transparency in order that the public at large will know who is seeking to influence whom in respect of what in relation to public policy. It is appropriate that this activity would be open to public scrutiny as part of the desirable checks and balances which help ensure any attempt to seek to exert undue or improper influence on the conduct of policy formulation and development, political decision making and preparation and implementation of legislation is discouraged.
The reports of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals have highlighted the risk that the legitimacy of the political system could be eroded by the corrosive impact of secrecy and undue influence. The regulation of lobbying is one of a suite of measures which the Government is taking to address the serious concerns which have emerged in this area. This collection of measures will involve an extensive programme of political and government reform. By regulating lobbying activity through registration and reporting requirements, we can strengthen public confidence in politics and in the business of government and subject public policy making, and those who seek to influence it, to greater scrutiny.
The Government’s decision to commence drafting of the regulation of lobbying Bill marks a significant step in bringing greater openness to the important process of interaction between the political and administrative systems and all sectors of society which seek to influence specific policy, legislative matters or prospective decisions. I understand the legislative proposals include a requirement to register all lobbying activity, the appointment of an independent regulator to oversee the process and ensure compliance and effective penalties for non-compliance. While the proposed legislation is broader in its scope, this suite of measures should address many of the legitimate concerns raised by the Independent Members in their motion which is particularly focused on the tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other commercial and vested interests.
I understand that to ensure the regulatory system is balanced and proportionate and does not give rise to unintended adverse effects, it is proposed that it will be introduced on a phased and incremental basis. The commencement of the enforcement powers of the registrar will follow a review of the legislation and its operation carried out by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform one year after commencement of the legislation. I recognise that the proposals complement significantly the proposals for the reform and restoration of freedom of information already agreed by the Government. I understand that the general scheme of the regulation of lobbying Bill has been submitted by the Minister to the Oireachtas Committee for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for pre-legislative scrutiny. That will provide a further opportunity for input and discussion.
Fianna Fáil supports the Independent Senators' motion. It is worthwhile that the Seanad would debate the issue today. I had two guests from County Meath in the restaurant at lunch time. I walked from the restaurant back to my office and I met two lobbyists along the way. I greeted them. They are nice people. I have no problem with them. The situation did not just start with this Government. That is just the way it is. They walk around the corridors and they seems to have open access. I pointed out to one official previously that a number of lobbyists were walking around the corridors. I inquired how they have free access to the Oireachtas. I was told that Members sign them in. That seems to be the rule, that we can sign in anyone we like and they have free access to the Houses. That must stop now. We can stop it. We do not need legislation to do it. Why should individual lobbyists have access to the House on the say of a Member? It is about time we published the list of who is visiting the Houses.
Who is coming in?
I would be delighted to publish my own list.
We should publish the list every morning.
I would be delighted to publish the list of everyone who visits me except school groups. It is outrageous that Members can sign someone in and they have free access to the Houses.
What about former Members?
I do not blame officials. It is our responsibility. Former Members are another issue. I believe that will be dealt with in the legislation. That is an issue. They are allowed to come but one could ask what they are doing. There are people the public would not know if they visited the Houses or saw television cameras pointing them out. We must ask what people are doing and why they seem to have free run of the building. I object to that. I have never allowed someone to have free run of the building but it seems to be common practice in these Houses at the moment. It has been most obvious in recent weeks. I often wondered how certain individuals seemed to have free run of the place. That must stop. We do not need lobbying legislation. The various administrative committees in the Houses could easily come up with rules such as publishing the register of visitors. Ordinary members of the public have nothing to fear from that and Members have nothing to fear either.
The meeting of the Taoiseach and the tobacco industry illustrates the need for a more open and transparent system in which citizens can have faith. I met representatives of the tobacco industry about a year after I was elected. It was only subsequent to the meeting that I realised it was a gross violation of United Nations protocol. I was quite embarrassed that I did not know that when I met the representatives. It is something politicians are not meant to do but the situation has changed under the current Government. It is the first time such a meeting took place. It seems to be the case that if one gets the right politically connected consultant or lobbyist to do the work, the meeting will take place.
The situation did not start with this Government but it seems to be continuing. We all know what went on and we have all read about the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals. We hear from the tapes how the banks wound up politicians and regulators. There was too much close interaction in that regard. Once again, the banks seem to have too much influence on the process for dealing with mortgage arrears. The banks have been let off and given what they want in the personal insolvency legislation and the code of conduct for mortgage arrears that is due to be published. There is too much of that going on and it must stop.
As Members of this House we could pledge not to allow lobbyists to have free access and not to sign in people in order that they can go around visiting Members. When I ran for the Seanad it was suggested to me to come back to Leinster House to canvass sitting Members. I thought that was most inappropriate and I did not do it. I am sure many did and perhaps they did not see anything wrong with it but I did not think the Houses of Parliament were the place for such activity.
We must take a much more rigorous approach. The Government appears to be trying to water down some original proposals in the Bill on lobbying. That is most unwelcome. Situations can arise at social functions and things could be said that might have consequences and should be regulated. I have no difficulty with any record of who contacts us. We are lobbied daily. As the main Opposition spokesperson in the Seanad on the area, I note that I was not contacted by Camelot. Perhaps that is an indication either of the lack of importance of the Seanad or my lack of importance. I do not know. I do not think I would have met Camelot.
It is not just Camelot, gambling interests in general are very active. The alcohol industry is also very active and it must be said that NGOs are active and while we support the work they do, it should be registered and done in public so there is no issue that could arise. Not everyone will agree when someone asks us to change legislation. Some NGOs have different reasons for doing things so it must be regulated so the public knows what is being sought by whom and who they are meeting. A simple first step would be for us to state that we will not let lobbyists have free run of the Houses. It only takes a few Members to allow that to happen.
We support this motion. I do not see why the Government amended it as it was non-controversial. The Government would agree with everything in it, although perhaps the reference to the tobacco industry was seen as political. The wording of the motion states there is a need for transparent and accountable regulations governing parliamentarians in their engagement with those representatives, which we are told the Government agrees with. It is a pity, however, that meeting took place. It will be chalked up as a major victory for tobacco interests that they got into a Government. They try in every way to meet representatives and they are clever enough. There was a particularly controversial issue in the last Dáil and I was targeted to be persuaded to vote a certain way. It was left to a small number of individuals, with whom I was personally friendly, to talk to me about it and it was very hard to say no in those circumstances. Once I acquainted myself with the principles involving parliamentarians meeting the tobacco industry, I made every possible excuse not to meet them. The lobbyist who contacted me moved on from the tobacco industry and acknowledged that to me subsequently. He could see it and told me he understood. They understand in their heart of hearts because there are rules in place for a reason.
I praise the Senators who proposed the motion. This is a major problem. It is estimated there are 14,000 lobbyists in Britain, 17,000 in the United States and 10,000 in Brussels. What are they doing? They are earning large amounts through their role in influencing legislation and, as Senator Byrne pointed out, that is our task. We should not allow that influence and I agree with Senator Byrne about who gets into this House. We should have a visitors' book for Government Departments because much of the lobbying goes on there. The book from the Department of Finance or Government Buildings went mysteriously missing the night the €65 billion escaped. This must be done openly. It is a major cause for concern.
This is a huge distortion in the modern economy. The studies of why so many countries have nearly gone bankrupt puts as one of the top five reasons that lobbyists are so powerful it means legislation is not assessed in terms of its benefit to society as a whole but just for the narrow interest groups. That increases public expenditure and borrowing, diverting resources that should be used productively into lobbying while letting public servants off the hook. They rely on lobbyists and do not develop the expertise themselves to frame proper legislation. I want to see the best grower of strawberries in Ireland thriving, not the best lobbyist who gets imported strawberries banned for six months and who then makes a fortune by selling an inferior product. That is the nature of lobbyists.
Tobacco was mentioned. The Minister has moved a lot on this and menthol flavour cigarettes are gone. The Minister could not get slim cigarettes banned at the European meeting but in the plain packaging no one will know. We now recognise that we should phase out the tobacco industry.
I have never been lobbied by tobacco, alcohol or gambling interests. Perhaps they know the answer they would get so they do not waste their time. Gaming has tried and we hear that if the industry is allowed to do X, Y and Z, it will create X thousands of jobs but that does not wash with me. Gambling destroys incomes and family homes. It takes a long time for a person to drink himself into ill health but in ten minutes the house could be gone on a horse; that is the damage gambling does.
Bankers have been mentioned and they did more damage than the rest put together. There was a failure to regulate them and previously politicians held them in awe. Enterprise and entrepreneurship must be separate from banking, which is a sort off left luggage place where we put money and leave it in case we need it further along. It should not be allowed to pretend it runs the economy.
The construction industry has an appalling record of lobbying in this country. There used to be a section in the capital budget detailing the amount that had been spent on the construction industry. Nothing else counted. Why did it get a whole section for itself in the public capital programme? The hospitality at the Galway races did the sector no credit either. We need a learned Civil Service that could point out these construction projects would have no multiplier effect, would cause an increase in national debt and would not create an asset. The building industry can no longer mumble about Keynesian economics.
I sometimes wonder if all the lobbying by agricultural interests has had any impact at all in improving standards for those it is supposed to represent. Why is agriculture in New Zealand doing so well? Most of the subsidies are capitalised into higher land prices that prevent young people from entering agriculture. I look askance at documents I get from existing farmers about how to keep new farmers out. I had the same experience with the Government's Bill on the taxi industry that had to be seriously amended.
If lobbyists are to be allowed in here at all, they should be confined to one room. I would prefer to keep them in Buswell's Hotel but if they are here it should be open to everyone - lobbyist X is in room Y and that room should be open to anyone to go in to see what he or she has to say. Much of the bank lobbying was done with bankers marking the golf balls so the regulator always won the competition and would be presented with the cup. He should have been nowhere near those golf fixtures. We all need rules to keep our distance from those who try to inveigle us with hospitality or golf outings.
I got the document on lobbying, which was published in July 2012. Is there any chance the Government might act on it as it has been sitting around for a year? The Government should come up with something; we have not held the EU Presidency forever. These proposals should be developed. The Government's intentions are good but speed is lacking.
We must restore an independent public service, which we always had in the past. Public servants were steely in staying away from lobbyists. That was undermined during the economic bubble era. It can be restored, however, because young people have very high standards in that regard.
We want regulatory impact statements. The Government has been sliding out of that duty and we rarely get them now. Who lobbied, what did he want, what would the effect be on society? That information should be included with every Bill that in introduced to the Houses.
I look askance at the tax lawyers and accountants who have designed a tax system only they can understand. We as ordinary PAYE employees do not have access to them. Their relationship with the Revenue Commissioners must be looked at, particularly in light of the last Finance Bill.
Having listened to the moral arguments for the Government amendment and the motion itself, this is a useless and wasted industry of tens of thousands of people looking for concessions. Why do they not do some real work and produce something that would add to our GDP? Economists would hold even stronger views on this than the proposers of the motion. This is an activity undertaken by termites that eat the tax base and eats into the Legislature. We must have strict rules because we do not want those people around here.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. It is timely and I commend the Independent Senators for their creativity and good timing.
It would be difficult to table a more appropriate motion than this. In a strong, confident and modern democracy, one would expect to have this type of legislation embedded in its democratic infrastructure. We are fighting a rearguard action in addressing these issues.
While I have been a critic of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and Government in general on certain issues, to be fair to the Minister he has introduced legislation this year. As Senator Barrett noted, however, time is of the essence and the Houses must pass the legislation.
Unfortunately, lobbying works, as has been shown, no less than in the Houses of Oireachtas, where it was recently accepted that not one child would play rugby, soccer or GAA if it were not for the drinks companies. We have been persuaded of the argument that without alcohol sponsorship, sport would fall apart at the seams. The argument in favour of sponsorship of sport by the drinks industry was made before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. Why was a public health issue removed from the remit of the Joint Committee on Health and Children? It should never have been sidetracked or diverted for lobbying purposes and to ensure continued sponsorship of sport by drinks companies would be accepted on a wink and nod.
The master stroke of the drinks companies pales into insignificance when compared with the pièce de résistance of lobbying, the bank bailout. It is topical and timely that we are discussing this lobbying coup of the century today. My only regret is that we do not have recordings of the meetings that took place on golf courses and at race meetings, not only the Galway Races, at which decisions were made in the period leading up to September 2008. While we have tape recordings of bankers discussing the bailout, we do not have recordings of them discussing the issue with those who ultimately made the decision. I am not being politically partisan in saying this. However, it is absurd to suggest there are no records of any value in the Department of Finance or Office of the Taoiseach which show that lobbyists were active in this matter. It is difficult to believe that scenario.
I do not want to tar everyone with the same brush because many of those who visit the Houses do so to engage in what one could loosely describe as lobbying. This week, for example, people visited the Oireachtas to lobby about special needs assistants and home helps. We also received a delegation seeking to discuss the side-effects of narcolepsy. The people in question are decent individuals and families who are trying to represent citizens who have not been well represented by the State. People come here to make representations on behalf of the elderly, a group which frequently gets the wrong end of the stick. This, too, is a form of lobbying, albeit not of the type we are discussing.
Behind the motion lies a desire to address the issue of people representing big business getting close to the Government and Cabinet of the day. I resent this because I naively and stupidly believed that elected Deputies and Senators would have access to Ministers to make arguments and lobby, so to speak. As Senator Thomas Byrne stated, one learns lessons along the way. As we speak, there are people we do not know in the House. They are inside the tent and we do not know them, because lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes. As the Senator noted, one cannot walk down a corridor in the House without meeting one. I have been confronted for not attending a briefing or lobbying session and told I will pay a price down the road. We have to ask who is signing these people into the House and on what basis such access to the Government and Legislature is being given. This dangerous practice should be curbed.
Big business has managed to flex its muscles in the area of taxation. While no one welcomes job creation or foreign direct investment more than I do, it has taken a British Tory Prime Minister to set the agenda by stating that big corporations should pay their fair share of tax. Who would have believed Prime Minister Cameron would get us to do the right thing on taxation? I always believed corporations here paid 12.5% tax but it has transpired that companies have ways and means of circumventing the tax system. Lobbyists serve one purpose, namely, to bend our ear, twist our arms and persuade us to turn a blind eye. In many cases, they do so to advance the interests of big business.
While I do not wish to draw the ire of Senator Crown, I do not have problem if I am approached by someone who introduces himself or herself as a representative of the tobacco industry before outlining a pitch. At least one knows the angle in such cases. I am more concerned about vested interests and people with concealed interests or conflicts of interest who do not declare their position. In some cases, these people have been appointed by the Government to represent the public interest on State and public bodies. Some of them double back through the swing doors downstairs before heading to the Minister's office to outline what policy the Government should pursue. I will not abuse the privilege of the House by identifying the individuals in question but Senators know who they are. New cases are emerging all the time. Some of them are undeclared directors, shareholders and board members of companies. While it is legitimate to be in business to try to generate profit and create jobs and to represent one's position, it is not legitimate to pretend that one can represent the public interest and a private commercial interest at the same time. The people in question come to the House to engage in lobbying and have access to the Cabinet and Government on a daily basis.
The motion is not before its time in many ways given the events of this week. Senators often beat up on journalists and the media, sometimes with good cause, but to be fair to the media it is good to finally see a return to good old-fashioned investigative journalism. That people are wondering what will be in the following day's newspaper is a good outcome for journalism and democracy. Finally, the issue of the bailout is being flushed out into the open. Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. The current story is a little like an iceberg in the sense that we have only seen about one ninth of it and we have not yet run aground. As Senators Barrett and O'Donnell noted, the people in question gambled with the lives of citizens, with the result that 300,000 people had to leave the country, 400,000 are unemployed and many people losing their homes. Unfortunately and tragically, others have lost their lives. Lobbying is not a victimless pursuit or benign industry. It must be curbed and, at a minimum, records must be made.
I am pleased this motion has been introduced. It does not require amendment and deserves our support. I am not sure if it was inspired by events several weeks ago when it was reported that a high level delegation from the tobacco industry secured what was an unbelievable level of access to the Taoiseach and Ministers for Justice and Equality and Finance to advance the industry's commercial agenda. The industry may cloak this issue in whatever way it wishes or claim the delegation attended the meeting to address a problem of smuggling or the sale of unregulated products, but it attended for one reason only, namely, to address the industry's commercial agenda. The tobacco industry was facilitated by a well connected public relations company - I do not propose to fling mud by naming names but we know the company - with extensive connections to the senior party in the Government. Those of us who have more than two brain cells, in other words, everyone present, knows that these various observations are not coincidental and the people who secure this type of access are those who have these types of connections.
One holds one's nose and, through gritted teeth, acknowledges that this kind of thing will happen. However, there is no gas mask, no level of nose-holding and no amount of camphor that one can insert in one's nostrils that can cloud the stench when the people coming here to speak to one are responsible for hundreds of deaths daily because they sell a toxic, immoral and addictive product, which I hope will be made illegal at some stage.
There is, I hope, a cultural lesson in this for the Taoiseach and the Ministers in question for whom, as individuals, parliamentarians and leaders of Government I have a lot of respect. I hope they understand that on this occasion they made a colossal blunder and that they never do it again. I hope it will inspire some degree of soul searching within the higher levels of Government and an understanding that the only interaction we should ever have with the tobacco industry is in the context of trying to put it out of business. The Government should not be trying to save any part of the tobacco industry's business.
It should not be trying to save the domestic aspect of the business at the expense of the illegal importation part of it. While the Government might wish to save the retailers, it should be trying to get them to stop selling tobacco. Although we do not deal much with money issues in this House and are above all of that, being more cerebral creatures, perhaps one of the ways we could do this is through incentives like exemptions from or reductions in VAT for shops, pubs or clubs that make a commitment not to allow tobacco commerce to take place on their premises. That would be a wonderful incentive for those who, while making most of their money from selling newspapers or coffee, might be wondering at night how many people's lung cancer they have contributed to by selling cigarettes. This is the reality. People who sell cigarettes are drug dealers, pure and simple. Tobacco contains drugs and those drugs are for sale. If one sells something, one is a dealer. People who make cigarettes are drug manufacturers and people who import them are drug runners. These are legal activities but that is what they are. The only interaction we should ever have with the industry is to say "No more".
That is why I hope that in the area of tobacco specifically, there would be an absolute zero tolerance policy. Members of this Parliament should never meet representatives of the industry. If the shopkeepers want to come in here to talk about tobacco smuggling in Border areas, we should say "No". If the manufacturers want to come in here to talk about trading conditions, we should say "No". We should be telling them that we want them out of the business, pure and simple. There should be no compromise on this.
Another issue that arises is alcohol. I believe we have little successful lobbying by the tobacco industry in this country. Most people are smart enough not to engage. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to his great credit, has, as in so many other areas related to tobacco policy, taken the high road on this and his actions have been right. However, the situation regarding alcohol is somewhat different, I am afraid. We are much softer on alcohol. I know I am going to lose one or two friends when I say this but what other parliament in the world has three lots of drug dealers acting as nominating bodies? None, but we have. The Licensed Vintners Association, the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the National Off-Licence Association are all nominating bodies for Seanad Éireann. While I am not advocating making the sale of alcohol illegal, we must recognise the facts. The national consumption of alcohol from the 1960s to the height of the so-called Celtic tiger - which according to the Taoiseach was caused by Seanad Éireann - went up four or five-fold, from approximately three or four litres to a maximum of 17 litres of pure alcohol per citizen per year. Consumption has reduced a little since then because of the contraction in the economy but our consumption is still colossally high by comparison with the 1960s. As a result, we are seeing, as my good friend and colleague, Professor Frank Murray, has pointed out, a colossal increase in alcoholic liver disease.
Many things would improve if we all stopped drinking, although I am not saying we should stop. Nor am I saying we should make it illegal and mea culpa, I like a drink as much as the next person. However, if we all stopped drinking, we would see decreases in liver disease and cancers of the liver, head, neck, oesophagus, pancreas and colon, as well as decreases in levels of violence, domestic violence and rape. We would also have a smaller prison population. We would have an increase in the availability of domestic discretionary funds for feeding, clothing and educating our children. We would have an end to waiting lists in our health service. In terms of public policy, our attitude to the alcohol trade should be: "We need your business to be doing less well than it is." We should not be doing anything to protect alcohol sales. We want sales to drop and for business conditions for the alcohol industry to be more challenging in the future. We should be saying: "Sorry about that, but that is the deal." We need to get back down to consumption levels of two to four litres of alcohol per person. We need to get back to where we once were, with consumption more evenly spread.
On the issue of lobbyists, I have had a great deal of contact with the pharmaceutical sector over the years. I am sure I have taken and will take more credit for it. However, a simple rule of thumb I have applied since coming into this House is to tell the industry that I will not deal with its lobbyists. I insist that if the industry has clinical data to present, it should sent a medical director in to make a doctor to doctor medical presentation to me. I have no interest in meeting public relations companies.
However, that shoe fits both feet. This Government and every previous one, as well as every Department, is spending tens of millions of euro of public money on PR contracts which are, essentially, for reverse lobbying. The Government is lobbying the people to tell them how great it is. We should have zero PR contracts in the public service. Every public servant should be prepared to speak for her or his own track record. Every senior public servant, on a rotating basis, should make one hour available once a month to do press conferences and press briefings. We need to get rid of all of the PR companies. We do not need to have press secretaries plus communications company contracts plus corporate affairs departments. The National Cancer Control Programme does not need to bring two PR experts every time its chairperson addresses a meeting. We do not need a PR team of six to eight people in HIQA. We do not need to have separate PR contracts in every hospital. If we are going to make truly open and transparent Government, we need to get rid of the lobbying on both sides.
I thank Senators for bringing this very important issue before the House today. I am happy to update the House on the general scheme of the regulation of lobbying Bill 2013. As Members will be aware, the programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists and rules governing the conduct of lobbying. The public service reform plan contains a further commitment to meet these objectives through the publication of legislation in 2013. The final report of the Mahon tribunal also recommended the introduction of lobbying regulation and a code of practice governing the conduct of lobbying.
Regulating lobbying activity through registration and reporting requirements seeks to address the very concerns set out in the Members' motion. The aim is to strengthen public confidence in politics and in the business of Government, to increase the accountability of decision makers and to subject public policy making and those who seek to influence it to greater openness and transparency. The proposed legislation would also facilitate the appropriate independent scrutiny of lobbying activity.
The value of the regulation of lobbying, in fostering a culture of integrity, is supported by the OECD, which states that "a sound framework for transparency in lobbying is crucial to safeguard the public interest, promote a level playing field for business and avoid capture by vocal interest groups". The aim of this process is unequivocally not to restrict the flow of information, opinions, perspectives or proposals feeding into policy making or legislation but rather to bring about greater transparency in order that the public at large will know who is seeking to influence whom in respect of what. The reports of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals have highlighted, inter alia, the risk that the legitimacy of the political system might be eroded by the corrosive impact of secrecy and undue influence. The Government has prioritised this issue since coming into office.
The general scheme of the Bill which will provide for the statutory regulation of lobbying was approved by the Government for drafting at the end of April and has been published. The general scheme has been forwarded to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is intended that the Bill will be enacted this year.
As I have said, the fundamental objective of this initiative is to provide appropriate transparency on who is lobbying whom about what. This will allow the wider population to reach informed, evidence-based judgments regarding the extent to which different interest groups are able to access and influence decision-making. This legislation is intended to assuage public concerns that lobbying carried out behind closed doors could override the interests of the community as a whole.
The proposed legislation introduces specific registration requirements for lobbying activity falling within the scope of the legislation and also provides an enabling framework for the establishment of a statutory code for the conduct of lobbying, in line with the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal.
The core principle guiding the proposed policy approach, as set out in the general scheme, is to continue to foster ongoing dialogue and engagement between Government and all sectors of society on public policy matters while ensuring there is an appropriate degree of openness in regard to such communications. To ensure the regulatory system is balanced and proportionate and does not give rise to unintended adverse effects, it is proposed that it will be introduced on a phased and incremental basis to ensure it works effectively and efficiently.
The development of the policy of lobbying regulation has been informed by several very valuable sources of information, analysis and experience. In December 2011, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform invited submissions from interested parties on key issues relating to options for the design, structure and implementation of an effective regulatory system for lobbying. This process was based on the agreed OECD principles for transparency and integrity in lobbying which were the subject of a recommendation by the OECD council in February 2010.
Research on international approaches was undertaken, including the regulation in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, several European countries and the European Union institutions. This work was advised and informed by the work of international experts on lobbying regulation, including Professor Gary Murphy of DCU, Professor Raj Chari of Trinity College Dublin and Dr. John Hogan of DIT, as well as comprehensive analysis and recommendations published by the OECD on lobbying regulation.
In preparing the details of these proposals, regard was given to five Private Members' Bills on the regulation of lobbying which have been published since 1999, four of which were introduced by the Labour Party and one by Fianna Fáil. The Department also reviewed the Fine Gael draft lobbying Bill included in its New Politics document published in 2010.
On foot of an extensive public consultation process, the Department published a policy paper, entitled Regulation of Lobbying Policy Proposals, in July 2012. This paper was intended to communicate the main policy options to interested parties, including Departments and bodies under their aegis as well as the public more generally. The paper was the subject of a seminar in July 2012 which was attended by large numbers of stakeholder interests and experts and was followed by a further short and focused consultation phase focusing on the issues raised at the seminar and in the paper.
It is essential that normal local and constituency related interactions should be unaffected by the proposals to regulate lobbying. Such interaction includes day-to-day contact between individual citizens and their local political representatives, constituency Deputy, councillor or public representative in regard to any issues affecting them as individuals. These interactions will be excluded from the scope of the regulatory system.
It is unequivocally the case that there should be no registration requirement for an individual contacting his or her political representative in the context of communicating his or her views as an individual citizen on any issue. The only exception relates to matters relating to planning, rezoning or development of land. Similarly, micro-sized enterprises will be excluded where the communication relates to that enterprise.
It is intended that the proposals would lead to the implementation of the recommendations contained in the final report of the Mahon tribunal. There is a close alignment between the commitment included in the programme for Government and recommendations made in the report of the tribunal relating to the establishment of a statutory register of lobbying and a professional code governing the conduct of lobbying. Indeed, in light of the key objective of securing greater transparency in regard to the development of public policy and legislation, the intention is to adopt a comprehensive definition of lobbying, encompassing a broad range of interest groups beyond the relatively small number of consultant or multi-client lobbyists which were the primary focus of the recommendations and findings of the tribunal.
The key objective of this legislation is to promote greater transparency regarding the formulation and development of public policy. In the course of consultation on this legislation, many stakeholders have referred to the need for a level playing field for stakeholders in regard to the development of policy initiatives, the need for more initiatives by public bodies across the public service in inviting submissions from and engaging in consultation with organisations in the pre-legislative phase or early stages of policy development and securing greater transparency by public bodies in regard to their interactions with stakeholders.
While the introduction of lobbying regulation and the parallel implementation of such measures as the restoration and extension of freedom of information would be expected to contribute significantly to the Government's transparency objectives, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, recently formally issued a letter of intent for Ireland to participate in the multilateral global open government partnership which is expected to provide a framework for the development of specific proposals designed to promote a more open and consultative approach to policy formulation and to encourage more proactive release of information on interaction with stakeholders by Ministers and senior civil and public servants.
The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society responded to the extensive consultation process I referred to earlier and welcomed this initiative. In their submission they stated the significant impact of market forces on public health outcomes provides strong justification for a legislative and regulatory response by Government in the area of lobbying, highlighting that voluntary codes are not conducive to good health outcomes. While their submission also raised a number of broader issues which do not fall under the scope of lobbying regulation, it was clear that the design of the regulatory system proposed in the general scheme of the Bill goes a long way to meeting their recommendations in the area of Government engagement with industry and, in particular, the introduction of a lobbying register providing transparency and a code governing the conduct of lobbyists.
The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, will act as the registrar for an initial two year period, given the alignment of this area of activity with its current functions. The long-term appointment of a registrar will be reviewed in light of developments around a new ethics framework and the possibility of the establishment of new or revised structures to manage the oversight of integrity obligations. The focus of the registrar for the initial two year period will be on education, guidance and information to foster compliance. While it will have powers of investigation, powers to name and shame individuals and organisations who do not comply with registration requirements and offences provisions to address more significant breaches of statutory requirements, these provisions will not come into force until a review of the implementation of the Act one year after its commencement.
The regulation of lobbying would be expected to contribute to the further professionalisation of lobbying and increase public understanding of it. Regulation of lobbying renders politicians and Government officials more accountable and helps to promote greater transparency.
The Minister of State is very welcome. I am grateful to him for outlining the provisions of the Bill and thank the sponsors of the motion for putting it before the House. This is an old chestnut. If truth were told, it itches at the skin of politicians in general that there should be lobbyists. In a way one feels somewhat undermined as a parliamentarian. One comes into the Houses, one is primarily focused on legislation and one tries to inform oneself as best as possible.
It can, however, be quite irritating to discover that while one is coming in through the front door of this institution, those who represent big business are exiting through the back door and that they have the relevant Minister in their pockets. That is the perception which many people have of us. I am glad, therefore, that some effort is going to be made to begin to regulate an area which has remained unregulated for far too long.
When considering this matter, I cannot help but reflect on the recent furore relating to our corporation tax regime and the fact that the head of a major multinational informed a US Senate committee that he had done a deal on the side with the then Government in respect of corporation tax. Even though the current Administration and IDA Ireland have denied this was the case, the charge that a side deal relating to tax was done with the Government of the day in the early 1980s remains.
If we do nothing else, perhaps we will bring about a degree of transparency in respect of this matter. I appreciate that the diaries of Ministers are already in the public domain but I hope that what we are doing will extend to ensuring that the public will be aware of the extent of the lobbying that is taking place. As already stated, lobbying can be insidious. What particularly annoys me is the fact that while we might be debating a Bill in the House, changes might be made to it elsewhere as a result of the efforts of a very efficient PR person. Such individuals invariably come from within the political establishment and will have previously worked with or been members of the various political parties.
I understand that the legislation does not contain any provision which imposes a time limit on former officeholders who leave these Houses in the context of when they can, as lobbyists, re-engage with their former colleagues. I am not sure this is a good idea. I am of the view that there should be a period during which these individuals would be prevented from operating within the political environment. They should not be able to move directly from these Houses and take up careers in lobbying. There are one or two glaring examples of former Ministers who ended up being major lobbyists for particular industries. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, the fact that a person could be a Minister one week and a lobbyist representing a particular organisation - and using his or her experience and access to former colleagues on its behalf - the next does not sit well with members of the public and nor is it right.
As the Minister of State is aware, RTE operates a specific system in respect of those who have held office or who have been involved in the public domain. I refer, in particular, to journalists who work as Government press secretaries and who then seek to return to the broadcasting environment. The most famous example of such a journalist is Mr. George Lee, who was a Fine Gael Deputy for approximately six months. Mr. Lee was not allowed to return to current affairs coverage for at least 12 months after rejoining the station. In a sense, this removed him from any potential controversy which might attach itself to him or, more importantly and by extension, to RTE, which has a public service obligation in the context of being seen to be fair and impartial.
Those are the issues about which I am concerned and the final one to which I referred is that in respect of which I believe there might be a need for some further reflection. I am of the view that those who have been elected to high office in these Houses should be obliged, on leaving office, to wait for a period before being allowed to engage in commercial activities and use their political contacts . I do not wish to inhibit anyone who may be unemployed from obtaining a job but a balance must be struck in the context of allowing the public to have confidence that we are not just moving the chairs around the room.
I welcome the motion tabled by the Independent Senators. It is good that we are debating lobbying and the level of transparency which exists in respect of it.
In the ongoing debates on alcohol advertising in sport, plain packaging for cigarettes and abortion, the presence of lobbyists - working either covertly or overtly on behalf of particular interests or causes - is obvious. A number of weeks ago the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, secured Government approval for the drafting by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel of the regulation of lobbying Bill. The general scheme of that Bill has been published on the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's website. I have no doubt that the final version of the legislation will be introduced in the House before long. The goal of regulating lobbying is to ensure confidence in the political process while increasing the accountability of those who make decisions by bringing the policy creation process into the open and allowing it to be subject to greater transparency than was previously the case. I am sure everyone in the House would welcome the latter.
I understand the regulation of lobbying Bill will create a register of lobbyists which will be available online. It will also make provision for a cooling-off period of up to one year for former public officials seeking to lobby colleagues with whom they previously worked for public bodies. The latter is welcome and it will hopefully prevent the equivalent of a revolving door from developing within Departments. In that context, I refer to the recent events involving a former employee of NAMA who, in effect, is a gamekeeper turned poacher. We need to ensure that similar scenarios do not arise within the public sector. The primary focus of the register of lobbyists will relate to the subject matter and purpose of the lobbying, the organisations or persons lobbied and the type and intensity of lobbying activity carried out. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, will have oversight in ensuring compliance and monitoring activity.
While I welcome the debate on the motion and commend those involved on the amount of work they did in drafting it, I am of the view that in the context of the concept of openness and transparency being introduced into decision-making and public policy and ensuring that a revolving door will not develop, we should await the publication of the proposed legislation before proceeding further. I am also of the view that while the motion before the House has merit and raises points which are more than worthy of further discussion, it must be recognised that the Government is actually in the process of legislating in respect of this matter. The Government amendment strongly supports the fundamental objective of the regulation of lobbying Bill in the context of providing appropriate transparency with regard to who is lobbying whom and about what. Such transparency will facilitate the wider community in reaching informed, evidence-based judgments regarding the extent to which different interest groups are able to access and influence decision makers.
Naturally, I agree that lobbying is an important part of democracy. Lobbyists often assist us in framing things in such a way as to ensure that they will not have an adverse or inadvertent impact on sectors of the economy or society that were not considered during the initially policy-making process. As such, they can help to augment the decision-making process. However, it is my core belief that any representations by lobbyists should be made openly in a way which allows members of the public to see the number of such representations made by particular sectors, businesses or lobbyists. Citizens should be able to know who represents whom. I believe in openness and transparency and in the process the Government has put in train. While I recognise the hard work done by the Independent Senators in respect of preparing the motion, I am afraid that I must support the Government amendment.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is good to learn about particular matters and, in that context, the motion on lobbying tabled by the Independent Senators is welcome.
I did not realise that I was previously a lobbyist.
We are all lobbyists.
Approximately five years ago I was asked to become president of Eurocommerce, which represents both the retail and wholesale trades throughout Europe. Eurocommerce is based in Brussels and at the time I was not quite sure what I was getting myself into. My wife pointed out that I would only be obliged to attend 12 meetings a year and I then discovered that each of the subsidiary organisations in the 27 member states expected the president to address their annual conventions. This meant I would be obliged to visit places such as Estonia, Greece and Portugal. Eurocommerce is a very good organisation which represents the views of retailers and wholesalers. There are other bodies which represent farmers and producers and one can see why there is a need for organisations such as Eurocommerce.
It was not until I read the motion tabled by the Independent Senators that I realised that there are significant outstanding issues in respect of lobbyists. In that context, we are currently debating the future of the Seanad. If the House were abolished, there would be less oversight and this could exacerbate the problems relating to lobbyists. Mr. John Devitt of Transparency International has said of our political system, "Other forms of abuse are possible because of the weak or non-existent regulation of lobbyists, the concentration of political power in the hands of government ministers and weak oversight by the Oireachtas ... the planning and public contracting system still creates incentives for bribery".
We have to act upon the covert links between business and Government and introduce transparency in lobbying and fundraising. All of this can be done very simply online and I will outline an example of it presently. We should extend this approach to all levels of society and put public spending online in an accessible fashion. I raised this issue previously and I have said on several occasions that I am unsure why the Government is not doing more on lobbying and increasing transparency through putting all public spending online in an easily accessible way for every citizen to examine. This is done in America and it should be easy to do it here. We should look to the example of other countries. In the United States businesses are obliged to reveal what policies they have been seeking to influence on behalf of which clients. We should include something along those lines in Ireland and this is a step towards that end.
I would be interested to hear the discussion on the position of former politicians. How should we deal with former politicians who end up, immediately after they leave these Houses, working for lobbying companies? Should the Oireachtas be more picky about who it allows in? In Australia, in general, lobbyists must organise a pass to get access to the federal Parliament and it must be signed by two parliamentarians. Should we look to there for example? Our current system is probably far too open.
While a register of lobbyists may seem like a good idea, how do we define what a lobbyist is? An hour ago I attended a very interesting talk by representatives from a disability group in the audiovisual room. I suppose what they were doing was lobbying and I found it very useful. We need to distinguish in some form or other between someone who is carrying out commercial lobbying and those like the representatives of the disability organisation, which was only established this year and which is seeking to influence Government decisions in future. Such work is to be supported and understandable.
Some weeks ago I introduced the Public Health (Availability of Defibrillators) Bill. Representatives from the Irish Heart Foundation saw it and came in to see me. I found the advice they were able to give most useful. They were lobbyists. It is almost a bad thing to say someone is a lobbyist but there is certain lobbying that we must support and we should ensure that we do so. Do lobbyists include charities or youth groups who meet the local Deputy or Senator? Let us suppose a group is seeking to improve the environment in its area. It is not as straightforward as it first seems.
If there were a register, should there be fines and deadlines for not signing up to the register of lobbyists, for fundraising or for furnishing misleading statements? In the United Kingdom there was a recent proposal to introduce fines of up to £5,000 for missing deadlines and higher fines and a maximum two-year jail sentence for knowingly making misleading statements. That is a real method of countering unethical business-government relations. Should we consider following that lead?
Perhaps we are losing sight of the wider picture and putting too much blame on business interests. In the United Kingdom, research by the Hansard Society, a think tank, found that UK Members of Parliament are more amenable to being influenced by charities and interest groups than by businesses. However, as we all know, the interests of charities can result in negative consequences, just like those of businesses or trade unions. We must not always lump charities in with so-called good lobbying as opposed to bad lobbying.
We need to take a hard look at the relationship between alcohol, tobacco and politics. In Australia, the Parliament of New South Wales recently passed legislation banning donations to political parties by the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries. I am unsure whether any money is given by alcohol and tobacco companies to political parties in this country, but we need to make things clear. Could we, as politicians, send out such a strong message by introducing legislation to formally break the link between the tobacco industry and its lobbyists and the political system? That would be a positive step. I appreciate the motion before the House. It gets us talking and thinking but, above all, I hope we will get to act on it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to comment on the Government amendment to this worthwhile Private Members' motion. I am very disappointed; I will not put a tooth in it. We commend ourselves, we endorse ourselves, we strongly support ourselves and we look forward to ourselves. It is an insult to the work done on this commendable Bill by the Independent Senators. I hope that we will not see the likes of this lazy Government response to the motion come before us again. I put my case this morning to the relevant Minister and I am happy to say as much publicly now. I discussed the matter with the Minister and I recognise the proposals he is bringing forward, which are very much to be welcomed and are rather sophisticated.
There are several issues I wish to discuss in general. Most Senators in the House today have identified what we could term the "red in tooth and claw" lobbyists, perhaps from the drinks industry, the banks and the tobacco industry. They are easily identifiable. On the other side of the dichotomy are voluntary services and the voluntary sector, which are also easily identifiable by their actions and objectives. However, as we move towards the middle we come across a blurring of the lines between what is and what is not legitimate lobbying. For example, we take the view that anyone with a blatant and open commercial interest in promoting his or her product is considered a lobbyist. There is no question about that. However, what about the voluntary sector? Sometimes, as part of its fundraising activities, a voluntary organisation may be involved with the commercial sector. The objective of the organisation may not be primarily to raise money although the money being raised is to fund the activities of the organisation. Are such people lobbyists? Are they the type of people we wish to regulate? We probably should regulate these people in some way but not in the same manner as we should regulate the more professional lobbyists.
Often, it is not easy to identify when one is being lobbied. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence relating to sales representatives from medical companies visiting doctors or physicians in surgeries, clinics or hospitals. There may be anecdotal evidence to suggest that the prescribing practice following the visits is somewhat different to the prescribing practice before the visits. Naturally, the evidence remains anecdotal and that is half of the problem. Since it is anecdotal we cannot prove it, and because we cannot prove it we cannot act on it. Instead, we must simply rely on the goodwill and integrity of the physicians, which is not a problem in the vast majority of cases. The anecdotal evidence and the lack of empirical evidence is certainly an impediment to identifying lobbyists.
For years people laughed when mention was made of the Galway tent. People always looked at each other with a wry smile on their faces. Often we wonder about the incentive of most of the developers who were entertained and wined and dined and had to pay substantial fees to visit the famous tent at Ballybrit. I wonder whether some of the things we know now, but which seemed obscure at time, would have happened if developers did not have such ready access to power.
Sometimes lobbying is as much about the omission as the act. As a councillor on Cork County Council I recall when guidelines were introduced relating to burying pipes coming into houses under the ground. It was recommended in the relevant Department guidelines that these pipes should be buried to a depth of 600 mm or approximately 2 ft. When we examined the older guidelines we noticed they stated that the pipes should be buried more than 1 m deep. One may think that it is all rather obscure and that it makes no difference but it made a considerable difference, because if a contractor is digging more than 1 m deep it must shutter the sides of the trench and that adds considerable costs to the job. This obscure omission or change came about. We do not know why it came about but the result was that thousands of people throughout the country found themselves without water two years ago when half the country was frozen. If the pipes had been buried more than 2 feet deep, no one would have had frozen pipes.
I produced a policy for Cork County Council on taking into consideration the previous planning history of a developer before it would get planning permission for its next development. My view was that if a developer left a shoddy estate behind, it should not get planning permission for the next job. I believed it was common sense. The county manager told me that such a law already existed and that there was no problem with it. However, there was a problem with it because the onus of proof was changed and it was not for the developer to prove that it finished the estate.
The law was changed to put the burden of proof to a High Court standard for the local authority to prove that the developer had not finished the estate. What local authority will do that? These are the little omissions that we regard as obscure, of which most of the population, including me, take little heed of until we are affected by them.
It is a very complex area. While we welcome the Senator's proposal, unfortunately with the whip system as it is, if there is a vote I would not be able to support it despite my very fine words here. However, the Senator understands the nature of the whip system.
The main aim of the proposed Bill is to strengthen public confidence in politics and in the business of Government as well as to increase the accountability of decision makers by subjecting public policy making and those who seek to influence it to greater openness and transparency as previous speakers mentioned. The Bill provides for a statutory web-based register of lobbying activity. The key features of the proposed regulatory system include the following. Communication with designated public officials or officeholders on specific policy legislative matters or prospective decisions will be subject to registration. The focus of the lobbying register will be on the subject matter of the communication. The purpose of the lobbying organisations and persons lobbied, and the type and intensity of the lobbying will also be registered.
It is intended that the Standards in Public Office Commission will be responsible for managing the implementation of the register and for monitoring compliance. An important part of this function will be to provide guidance to registrants. The proposed Bill will also provide for a cooling-off period of up to a year for former public officials seeking to lobby former work colleagues with whom they worked in a public body, as outlined by Senator Noone. A wider blanket prohibition on post-public employment is likely to conflict with a person's right to earn a livelihood. Normal citizen interaction with local political representatives is a fundamental democratic right and will not be subject to registration other than when it relates to land rezoning and development issues in light of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal.
Lobbying activity forms an important element of the democratic process. It contributes to greater openness and transparency in public policy formulation, and provides valuable input into the decision-making process. The intention of the Bill is to continue to encourage such participation and engagement, but to ensure that it occurs in an open and transparent manner. I believe everyone is entitled to lobby. The issue with the lobbyist register is that everyone is entitled to know who is lobbying. It is also important that lobbying is done in an open and transparent way.
On the cooling-off period, people are entitled to make a living and we must respect that people have constitutional rights in this regard. The embargo on lobbying will apply not only to officeholders but also to senior public servants. People are aggravated that senior public servants dealing with an industry or an issue can seamlessly move within a month or so of leaving office to the other side of the fence, well armed with information and know-how. A year is a reasonable cooling-off period because matters move on without unnecessarily impacting on a citizen's right to earn a living. I support the Government amendment.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach arís. This debate is very worthwhile. I remember as a UCD student sitting in the Public Gallery when the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, took office. In his speech he talked about Government being accountable to such a degree that it should be visible through a pane of glass. I fully agree that a democracy needs to be accountable. In the 1980s and the early 1990s there was regrettable behaviour by public officials which resulted in tribunals. Unfortunately it was a part of our past that we would much rather forget, but at the same time we have a responsibility to ensure it does not happen again. It is extremely important to learn from recent history. In recent years we have seen significant improvements in ethics in public office criteria, etc. However, unfortunately we have not seen that to the same degree in the area of lobbying. That is why I welcome the proposed Bill.
I will give a simple example. As a councillor in Clare when we were preparing the county development plan the lobbying that went on was appalling. In fairness to my colleagues across all parties in County Clare, it did not influence us. Lessons have been learned from experiences in north County Dublin and in other places. That said, it is not possible to rely on the probity of everybody and therefore an effective register of lobbying is extremely important. International best practice is scattered in the area. I would not consider that the United States has international best practice in the area. The degree of influence that lobbyists have in the United States is grossly obscene. It is also obscene that those seeking any kind of senior public position in the United States need to have multi-million dollar funds available. Of course all of this is channelled through big business which can exercise serious influence within the political system, where lobbyists are dangerous in my view.
I was here for Senator van Turnhout's earlier contribution and I commend her on her comments on the tobacco industry. We can take pride as the first country to have introduced a workplace smoking ban despite the highly-focused lobbying of the tobacco industry. Wearing my other hat, I run a shop in County Clare and have seen the lengths to which tobacco companies will go in order to push their products - that is the business they are in. All we can do as a Government and an Oireachtas is to regulate it and it is important to do so.
This debate is healthy as is any debate about transparency and accountability. Ensuring the best possible result for the public is important. I commend the people who have spoken in the debate. It is an important issue and those who spoke demonstrated its importance. As a society we can be relatively happy and proud that despite the lack of regulation in the area, it is not a big problem and certainly has not manifested itself as it has done in other countries. Prevention is better than cure and in order to prevent it becoming a problem, I support any endeavours to ensure this is addressed.
I thank colleagues for their participation in the debate. I particularly thank my Government colleagues for not seconding their amendment, which I assume has been withdrawn and that we will not have to be pushed to a vote on the issue.
I was disappointed at the selective citing of the OECD principles in the amendment. Several of the principles were cited but not principle No. 6. The comment on it calls for transparency and integrity in lobbying, and mentions the Government should also consider facilitating public scrutiny by indicating who has sought to influence legislative or policy-making processes, for example by disclosing a legislative footprint which indicates the lobbyists consulted in the development of legislative interests. This is the heart of what we are trying to bring forward in our motion.
We called for a debate and not for anybody's hands to be tied. We wanted a debate on the role of parliamentarians, which is exactly what we have had today in the Seanad. This is a first step in the process. Many interesting points have been raised with regard to the role of lobbyists, and this is important, but we also need to focus on ourselves and our role as parliamentarians. Several weeks ago the Government launched the healthy Ireland initiative. What we propose supports this Government policy. We would like to see a legislative commitment to publish details of meetings on public health and welfare issues. The regulatory impact and legislative footprint should be examined. Why not have a code of conduct for all branches of Government? Why not give clear guidance to our parliamentarians? Senator Byrne disclosed his experience. Why are we not given clear guidance so we do not have to find out by accident? Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell, who seconded the motion, clearly showed the reality of what is happening in the gaming industry. I would like to see assurances that the Cabinet handbook will be updated to include Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework convention on tobacco control.
Senator Whelan asked the pertinent question as to why alcohol sponsorship was not dealt with as a public health issue. This is something we must ask ourselves as parliamentarians. As I have stated previously, I wrote two reports on alcohol-related harm for the European Economic and Social Committee. Most Senators have probably not heard of the committee, but the European spirits organisation lobbied intensively every one of the 344 members of the committee on my report. It tried to discredit me, the NGO for which I was working and the report itself. Thankfully it did not win and my colleagues in the committee supported me in the majority. The motion we have tabled was for the purpose of having this debate, and I thank the House for its support. It is a first step in starting the process and the public has an expectation of us that as parliamentarians we must have higher standards.
For the benefit of the House, Government amendments do not need to be seconded.
I respectfully ask the Government to not press the amendment because our motion is very openly worded. I respectfully ask that the debate is left in a healthy way.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D'Arcy, Jim.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Gilroy, John.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Moran, Mary.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- Whelan, John.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Crown, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O'Brien, Mary Ann.
- O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Zappone, Katherine.