Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Questions (19, 20)

Brian Stanley

Question:

19. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if his Department applies additional safeguards to maintain as much transparency as possible when both he and his officials are interacting with private and commercial interest groups, in view of the areas of the economy with which his Department interacts and the immense private and commercial interest parties from media, telecommunications, electricity and gas in addition to oil and gas exploration involved. [18303/18]

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Timmy Dooley

Question:

20. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he is reviewing his Department's protocol and internal procedures with regard to lobbyists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18305/18]

View answer

Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I will not be expecting any more latitude than that given to the previous speaker.

The Minister's Department interacts with a lot of powerful and profitable commercial interests in the energy sector, including oil, gas and electricity companies, as well as in the media. There is a public service obligation, PSO, levy, for example, of €500 million to the renewable energy sector, while the national broadband plan will see the Department spending in excess of €500 million. In that context, what measures are in place to ensure transparency and fairness?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 20 together.

Deputy Stanley should not forget that my Department also deals with a lot of environmental NGOs.

My Department is responsible for a number of areas critical to economic and social development such as energy, climate action, cyber and environment which are complex and cross-cutting areas. As Minister, I am required to make significant and sensitive decisions to support the effective operation of the sectors for which I am responsible. It is not possible to make correct decisions without understanding their impact on those operating in those sectors. Therefore, of necessity, it is important to meet and engage with the sectoral stakeholders, including industry, to get a better understanding of the environment in which they operate if I am to make informed decisions in areas that underpin economic and social development. 

In recognition of my ministerial position, I and my officials are subject to a number of statutory requirements including requirements under lobbying and ethics legislation. The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, an independent body, is the registrar of lobbying. The Act is designed to provide information to the public about who is lobbying whom about what. It provides for establishing and maintaining a register of persons who carry on lobbying activities and for a code of conduct relating to carrying out lobbying activities. The registrar has pointed out that lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process which enables or facilitates citizens and organisations to make their views on public policy and public services known to politicians and public servants. SIPO has established an easily searchable and free to use online register of lobbying at www.lobbying.ie.

Public bodies have specific responsibilities under the Act. Section 6(1) of the Act provides that the following persons shall be regarded as designated public officials or “the lobbied” for the purposes of the Act, namely, Ministers and Ministers of State, Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, Members of the European Parliament for constituencies in the State, members of local authorities, special advisers appointed under section 11 of the Public Service Management Act 1997, public servants of a prescribed description and any other prescribed office holders or description of persons.

Section 6(4) of the Act requires each public body to publish a list showing the name, grade and brief details of the role and responsibilities of each “designated public official” of the body. The list must be kept up to date. The purpose of the list is to allow members of the public to identify those persons who are designated public officials and to serve as a resource for lobbyists filing a return to the register who may need to source a designated public official’s details.

In accordance with the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, my Department publishes a list of designated public officials which includes myself, as Minister, the Minister of State assigned to my Department, currently Deputy Kyne, and my special advisers. It also includes the Secretary General of the Department, the five assistant secretaries and the Department’s head of technical section, petroleum affairs. In addition, the Department makes available the Act itself by linking to the Standards in Public Office Commission's www.lobbying.ie website, containing all relevant information regarding the Act, requirements for public bodies, list of public bodies, designated public officials and the transparency code. My Department's information on lobbying and its list of designated public officials is accessible on the part of the Department's website dealing with compliance. 

Section 5(7) of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform shall prepare and publish a code, to be known as the "transparency code", which sets out how certain relevant public bodies, such as ministerial advisory groups, may conduct their activities in a transparent way. By adhering to the transparency code, communications within these bodies would meet the exemption from the requirement to register and report on lobbying activities. This would be actively used within my Department in relation to many groups.

Finally, while I am satisfied that I and my Department adhere to all the statutory requirements on lobbying, I have discussed the issue with my Secretary General and he will review the situation and consider whether any changes need to be made to the procedures in my Department to bring further clarity to this area.  

I thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned NGOs but I think he will appreciate there is a world of difference between, for example, the Stop Climate Chaos group, which is a non-profit voluntary group, and the likes of Independent News and Media, INM, Enet and other commercial companies. SIPO has published a code of conduct for public office holders. Under the heading, "Principles of Ethical Conduct", it states that holders of public office "have a duty to keep faith with the public trust placed in them" and it continues in that vein.

Section 1(5) states that in relation to the highest ethical standards, "office holders should at all times observe the highest [possible] standards of behaviour and act in good faith with transparency, fairness and impartiality to promote the common good". It further states they should "not be influenced in their official duties by personal considerations". The Minister is correct about the lobbyists. Contact between officeholders and lobbyists is to be expected but it should not give rise to a conflict with public duty or private interests. The issue here is that it is unofficial and official contact. Regarding records of meetings and contacts, in all cases where meetings are arranged for the purpose of the transaction of official business, the Minister should be accompanied by an official who would act as a note-taker. Considering the large amount of commercial interests involved in the Minister's Department, does he and his officials adhere to all these provisions? Are there two types of meetings with his Department and two types of contacts, both official and unofficial? How many of those occur?

We do comply with all the standards and the legislation as set out. As I said, I have discussed this with my Secretary General and he is reviewing the position to consider if any further changes are necessary. I can tell the Deputy that I will not be taking any phone calls from lobbyists in the future. The reality is that we do comply with it. If the Deputy looks at the register he will see there are 951 occasions on which my name is mentioned in regard to various interest groups that have lobbied me since I was appointed Minister. On average, that is approximately 50 per month covering a wide range of areas from the environmental sector through to communications, energy, broadcasting, media and across the spectrum. It is a very busy, complex Department. Many aspects of it are very technical and, as I said, I have discussed this with my Secretary General.

I thank the Minister. Can we try to bring this matter to a conclusion rather than have it drag on, which does not suit any of us? We all have a responsibility to this House to try to get it tidied up. There are a couple of straight questions the Minister needs to answer. First, will he accept that he provided confidential information, in other words, an insight into what his future intentions might be? Let us not dance on the head of a pin on that. Will he accept that three weeks later he came in here and misled the Dáil, albeit, I suspect, inadvertently? There is potential for all of us to do it. It is just a matter of addressing it and getting beyond it. Will he accept that his actions amounted to wrongdoing?

I do not bear the Minister any ill-will whatsoever. I have considerable sympathy for him in this instance in terms of the way he wandered into such a fire-storm. Nonetheless, he is responsible to the House so there are three things the Minister needs to do. First, he needs to accept that confidential information was given because it gave an insight into where the might ultimately go; he can put a caveat on it. The second issue is about misleading the Dáil, and the third is accepting that there was wrong done. It does not require the Minister to resign. Nobody has been demanding that, but it requires him to be answerable to the House. This issue will then come off his desk and those of everybody else.

No. I did not give confidential information, and I am categorical about that. I sincerely regret that conversation and acknowledge that it was a political mistake to have had it. I have learned from my experience and I sincerely apologise for that, but I did not give confidential information because I did not have any information available to me at that stage. The information I had was the information that everyone else in this House had or was available on Google. I regret giving my opinion in regard to it at that point. The reality was that three weeks later when I was here in the House I had an active file in front of me and it was a very different situation at that point. I have been at pains to try to point that out and I do sincerely regret it.

On the Minister's reply, the problem is that I asked him about this in October 2016. I asked him a priority question here in the House on 6 December 2016 on his intentions regarding that merger and what he intended to do and he told me, and the Official Report of that debate is available, that he had absolutely no idea. I think he even shook his head in terms of what he intended to do about it. The Minister can say he did not have the file in front of him at that point and that he had not entered into the process. I know how that works. I have looked at all of that in detail and I was following it very carefully at the time because we had huge concerns about it, and I had been raising it with the Minister for months before that. That is where the problem arises. I accept that the Minister has apologised. What we must do now is make sure that we tighten up this entire area.

The chairman of the company in question is also the chief executive officer, CEO, of a solar development company. I refer also to Bord Gáis Energy. He also sits on the compliance committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. I am not suggesting any impropriety on the part of any member of that company but I am saying that there is a very small circle. Dublin is a big city but it is a small town, so to speak, in that there are many people who have contacts. The Minister has told us his Secretary General will look at this issue. What particular steps does the Minister have in mind to tighten up this area? Will he agree that unofficial contacts with Ministers by lobbyists has to stop?

In my initial reply to Deputy Stanley's supplementary question I said I will not be taking calls from lobbyists. I have said to him that I have discussed the issue with my Secretary General and he will be reviewing the position to see if any other changes in procedures are necessary, but procedures are set out clearly in this regard. I have apologised for it. I sincerely regret it. I just want to move on and focus on the work in front of me, which is a very demanding job and a very demanding Department. I know that all Deputies present want to do the same. There is nothing more that I can say on this issue.

I want to let the Minister get on with his job. I want to get on with mine but I am still at a loss to understand why he regrets taking the call, why he has apologised for taking the call and why he has asserted that he will never take a call again if he did nothing wrong in the first instance. The facts remain that the Minister failed to understand that by providing an insight, a hunch or a personal opinion on his thinking, whatever it might be, that was confidential information. It is the confidence of the Minister's own personal information that is at play here, not access to some information in regard to his officials. The Minister had a hunch as to where this process was going and he gave that information to the lobbyist who passed it on. That is now forming part of evidence the Director of Corporate Enforcement is using as part of his campaign to appoint investigators. It was confidential information. That is what the Minister needs to accept. That is what he has identified as being regrettable in terms of taking the call. That is what he apologised for and he needs to start at the beginning and accept that he provided confidential information and that it was wrong. It is on a relatively low scale and it can be addressed in this House. Will he, please, bring this matter to a conclusion?

First, I did not give any confidential information. Second, I made it crystal clear that I would be guided by whatever advice I got from my officials, and the file shows clearly that is exactly what I did. The reason for my apology is because this is the fourth day in a row this House has been discussing the issue of a 30-second conversation I had in which I gave an opinion that I sincerely regret giving. That is why I am apologising to this House and to the public. The House has been preoccupied with this issue for four days in a row.