Standards in Public Office Commission Membership: Motions

I move:

That, pursuant to subsection (2A) (inserted by section 2 of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 (No. 31 of 2001)), of section 21 of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 (No. 22 of 1995), Seanad Éireann recommends the appointment of Mr. Justice Daniel O'Keeffe, a former Judge of the High Court, by the President on the advice of the Government to be the chairperson of the Standards in Public Office Commission.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on these resolutions proposing the appointment of the chairperson and ordinary member of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The motions were passed in the Dáil this morning.

The Standards in Public Office Commission was established under ethics legislation, namely, the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, as amended by the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. The commission supervises the operation of the ethics legislation, provides guidance and advice on compliance with it and investigates and reports on possible contraventions. It also has a supervisory role under the Electoral Acts relating to political donations, reimbursement of election expenses, Exchequer funding of political parties and, under the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2001, payments to the leaders of political parties.

Recognising the importance of the ethics legislation and in response to the findings and recommendations of the final report of the Mahon tribunal, a project is being progressed by my Department to develop an integrated ethics Bill which will consolidate, modernise and simplify the existing legislative framework governing ethics. The end result will be a much improved anti-corruption system for ethics matters, which will control and regulate conflicts of interest in public life. Substantial progress has been made on the project and the development of draft heads of an integrated ethics Bill is well advanced. Further work and consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission, Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Oireachtas are necessary on the proposed approach. Proposals will be brought by me to Government shortly submitting the general scheme of an ethics Bill. I will update the Government on progress made on the new ethics framework, including implementation of the Mahon tribunal recommendations in that context.

The Standards in Public Office Commission has six members, four of whom are specified in the legislation, namely, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad. The chairperson of the commission is appointed by the President on the advice of the Government following a resolution of each House of the Oireachtas. An ordinary member is appointed by the Government following a resolution of each House.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the outgoing members of the commission. Mr. Justice Matthew Smith was appointed chairman in 2001 while still a High Court judge and was reappointed for a second term in 2007, having retired as a judge at the end of 2004. He served the country well in this important role and I thank him and wish him well in his retirement. I also thank the former Minister, Mr. Michael Smith, who has served as ordinary member since December 2007 and also did an exemplary job.

The legislation requires that the chairman of the commission be a judge or former judge of the Supreme Court or the High Court. I am very pleased that Mr. Justice Daniel O'Keeffe, who retired from the High Court in 2008, has agreed to be nominated for appointment by the President as chairman of the commission. He is highly qualified and has extensive experience in statutory and corporate governance matters.

When the Standards in Public Office Commission was established in 2001, a provision for appointing a former Oireachtas Member was introduced following a recommendation of the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests. This recognises that the commission needs not only legal and administrative expertise, but also the expertise that comes from service as a public representative. As the committee has such an important role in overseeing our politicians, it is essential to have the views of an experienced practitioner on the committee. The Government, therefore, is pleased that Mr. Jim O'Keeffe, who has long experience both as a Member of the Dáil and Minister of State, has agreed to be nominated for appointment by the Government as ordinary member of the commission, subject to the approval of the House. Having worked with Mr. O'Keeffe on constitutional and law reform matters, I am sure his personal qualities and experience will be of great value to the commission.

These appointments are an important measure in ensuring the Standards in Public Office Commission can continue its work. Therefore, I have no hesitation in asking the House to approve the appointment by the President of Mr. Justice Daniel O'Keeffe as chairman and by the Government of Mr. Jim O'Keeffe as ordinary member of the commission.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. It is good to have an opportunity to debate these motions, as such matters are all too often disposed of without debate. I fully support the proposed appointments, in particular, the appointment of Mr. Jim O'Keeffe who is a former colleague with extensive experience. I concur with the view that the experience of a former parliamentarian is necessary to ensure the complete effectiveness of the Standards in Public Office Commission. I suggest the Minister consider the possibility of appointing a former Senator to the commission as that would enhance the good work of the commission.

I propose to raise a not unrelated issue, one which is important to Members of the Oireachtas. As we continue to try to improve the cost-effectiveness of the Houses and the ongoing work of Members, we must occasionally address certain aspects of Members' remuneration. The Minister will be aware of the issue I raise as I have been raising it for the past 20 months or thereabouts. Now that the expenses of all Members are fully vouched, an outcome that many of us sought for many years, an anomaly has arisen regarding the eligibility criteria for Senators' expenses. The issue arose when the then Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, changed the system under which expenses were unvouched. At the time, insufficient consideration was given to the full list of eligible expenses incurred by Senators in carrying out their duties under the Constitution. I have sought legal advice on this matter and, as a member of the Oireachtas Commission, I am familiar with the Minister's correspondence with the commission on the issue. Having investigated the matter with the Department and the officials of the Houses with responsibility for expenses, I have learned that a statutory instrument signed by the Minister is required to give effect to the actual list of appropriate expenses.

The Senator is straying from the content of the motions.

I am raising this matter because Members are all too often afraid to discuss it. The cost of doing business needs to be debated openly and transparently in the interests of ensuring that Members do their work effectively. Under the scenario I envisage, the Exchequer would not incur any additional expense. As the Minister will be aware, expenses are about to be audited to ensure Members have acted appropriately. An unintended consequence of the failure to address the eligibility criteria for Senators' expenses may be that Senators, through no fault of their own, will fall foul of current rules because they were inappropriately drafted in the first instance.

I welcome and support the proposed appointments of Mr. Justice Daniel O'Keeffe and Mr. Jim O'Keeffe to the Standards in Public Office Commission. While I do not know Mr. Justice O'Keeffe, I can certainly vouch for my former colleague, Mr. Jim O'Keeffe, who also has a legal background. The Minister seeks to strike a balance on the commission by appointing a former Member of the Oireachtas who will know the ins and outs of the political system. I support and approve both appointments.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for his nominations. One could conclude from the appointments that the number of surnames in Ireland is limited as it is proposed to replace two Smiths with two O'Keeffes.

Yes, my officials noted that.

I commend the Minister on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, particularly in the case of the current controversy.

I think the Comptroller and Auditor General, who was mentioned by the Minister in his speech, might also be of use to us in the current water controversy. He has an important role in the ethics business. This is a matter of concern to people. Regarding the business we have before us, I welcome the Minister and support his nominations wholeheartedly.

I support this motion, which concerns a change in the membership of the Standards in Public Office Commission. I understand these vacancies arose last month. I commend the Minister on moving so swiftly to fill them in such a short period. I understand that important investigations could not go ahead as a consequence of the board not being at its full capacity. It is necessary for the board to be at its full capacity because it gives it purpose in its modus operandi. I understand the two people who have been nominated are a former judge, Mr. Justice Daniel O'Keeffe, and a former Member of the Oireachtas. I know that both men are of great ability and have great experience in their respective fields of law and politics. I wish both of them well in their work on the commission.

I thank all the Senators for their support. It is important that a small amount of time is made available for Ministers to come to the House for these resolutions, rather than having them dealt with pro forma. I agree with Senator MacSharry in that regard. I am cognisant of the point he made about having as broad as possible a selection of representatives of the Oireachtas, including Members of the Seanad, in the future. I am sure regard will be had to that. I look forward to coming back to the House with the new overarching legislation when the work on codifying, simplifying and consolidating the ethics law is concluded. I propose to publish draft heads in order that we can have input from Members. There is probably no other area of legislative work as important for us to get right than to have a proper and transparent ethics framework that will restore confidence in public administration in this country. I listened to Senator MacSharry as he raised an extraneous matter. I understand the passion that many Members of the House genuinely feel about the issue. I have expressed my views on it. I do not doubt we will return to the issue in question.

Question put and agreed to.

I move:

That, pursuant to subsection (2)(b)(v)(inserted by section 2 of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 (No. 31 of 2001)), of section 21 of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 (No. 22 of 1995), Seanad Éireann approves the proposed appointment by the Government of Mr. Jim O’Keeffe (being a former member of Dáil Éireann and not being a member of the European Parliament) to be an ordinary member of the Standards in Public Office Commission.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.