The renewed programme for Government sets out that the application of the Freedom of Information Act will be expanded to include certain administrative matters in the Garda Síochána. The freedom of information central policy unit in the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice and Law Reform have set up a working group that is examining the various issues and challenges relating to extension of the Act to these specific administrative functions. The group will produce a report that will identify administrative functions for freedom of information coverage together with recommendations and an implementation plan for approval by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform and the Minister for Finance.
The motion also calls for the introduction of whistleblowing legislation. In the course of the preparation of Bills, Ministers are required to include whistleblowing provisions, as appropriate, having regard to the nature, purpose and scope of the legislation in question. Various Acts in recent years have contained such provisions, including the Health Act 2007, the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007, the Labour Services (Amendment) Act 2009, the Chemicals Act 2008, the National Asset Management Agency Act 2009, and the Charities Act 2009. Whistleblowing provisions have been included in various Bills before the Oireachtas, including the Employment Law Compliance Bill 2008, the Employment Agency Regulation Bill 2009, the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009, and the Local Government (Mayor and Regional Authority of Dublin) Bill 2010.
The Government remains of the view that the sectoral response to affording protection to employees through the inclusion of appropriate whistleblowing provisions is the appropriate policy. Where a horizontal approach has been appropriate, however, the Government has moved to apply it. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2008, which deals with the offences of bribery and corruption as set out in the Prevention of Corruption Acts 1889 to 2005, deals with whistleblowing in respect of bribery and corruption on a horizontal cross-sectoral basis. The Bill has been amended on Committee Stage in the Dáil specifically to include whistleblower protection in respect of bribery and corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Acts. These provisions apply to any person reporting an opinion that an offence under the Protection of Corruption Acts has been committed. The provisions apply to a possible report in respect of a very wide variety of persons and include any person employed by or acting on behalf of another, or any person employed by or acting on behalf of the public administration of the State. In effect this means a person employed in any sector, including the public sector, who suspects that an offence covered by the prevention of corruption legislation is being committed and reports that suspicion, will be protected in respect of that report from liability in damages arising from that communication, assuming it is made in good faith and is neither frivolous nor vexatious. The whistleblower provisions in the Bill have been drafted with the intention of ensuring protection for the whistleblower and of clarifying the rights of redress open to an individual who may be penalised, by an employer for example, as a result of having reported a suspicion.
The motion also calls for the introduction of a programme of reform that would include spending limits for local and presidential elections and a reduction in the ceilings for European and general elections. It should be noted that legislation to provide for spending limits at local elections was put in place by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2009. Election spending limits applied for the first time at the local elections held in that year. The spending limits range from €7,500 to €15,000, depending on the population within a local electoral area. The Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides for spending limits at general, European and presidential elections. The expenditure limits are known to Members of the House. Consideration is being given to approaches to effect changes to provide for further controls on political donations and political funding.
In reforming Ireland's system of political funding, there are a number of issues concerning the transparency of current funding arrangements that need to be considered. In particular, recommendations have been put forward by the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption in its report on party funding in Ireland, published in January 2010. Recommendations have also been made by the Standards in Public Office Commission.
Regarding the regulation of lobbyists, the renewed programme for Government states the Government will "introduce a Register of Lobbyists, including professional, corporate and NGO". It is accepted that lobbying is a legitimate activity. Concerns have been and will be raised, however, as they have been raised in this debate, as to whether undue influence is being brought to bear. Effective measures to enhance transparency and accountability and reinforce a healthy culture of integrity in lobbying, while avoiding undue compliance costs on the political and administrative systems and on lobbyists should be proceeded with.
Internationally, the issue of regulating lobbyists has increased in prominence.
The policy challenge for Ireland is to ensure the system of regulation is appropriate to national circumstances. A viable system of regulation must bring tangible benefits in transparency, must fit well with public expectations of access and with the specifics of our political system and must not present an unnecessary drain on public resources to administer, particularly in circumstances such as those which currently obtain. The appropriate regulation of lobbyists, including the question of the introduction of a register, is being considered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who intends to bring proposals to Government on the matter in due course.
In the context of State boards, the appointment of the board members of statutory agencies and public bodies has traditionally been a matter for the Minister under whose aegis the relevant body falls. However, the method of appointment is often set out in the legislation governing the body and ministerial freedom is not unfettered. Account must be taken of specific legislative requirements, such as that relating to the appointment of worker directors or representatives of nominating bodies and also of relevant Government policies, such as that which comprehends gender balance on State boards.
The House will be aware that changes to the process have been piloted in a number of areas. Legislation brought forward by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources provides that a proportion of appointments to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and RTE would be made by the Minister, having regard to the recommendations of the relevant Oireachtas joint committee. The legislation under which the new inland fisheries authority — Inland Fisheries Ireland — was established provides a similar role in respect of some of the board appointments. While it properly remains the prerogative of the responsible Minister under whose aegis a particular body falls to make appointments, there can be no doubt of this Government's commitment to the reforms that are under way.
Following the reform of FÁS's governing statute by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, the legislation now sets out in detail the skills mix required on the board of that organisation. In the case of NAMA, the relevant Minister sought expressions of interest from suitably qualified people for appointments to the board. The Minister for Transport invited expressions of interest for appointments to the Dublin Transportation Authority.
These processes have extended the pool of candidates from which appointments can be made. However, the experiences relating to the processes to which I refer have given rise to a number of resource issues and to some challenges relating to the expansion of those processes. It is becoming clear that the logistical requirements for implementing changes to the process of public appointments to State boards must be thought through, not least because of the time commitment involved and the demands of the selection process. Calling for expressions of interest certainly opens up the process. However, the time demands are greater and the manner in which all or some stages of selection might be conducted in public or otherwise requires careful examination, particularly in light of the risk of deterring suitable candidates who would demand a level of confidentiality concerning their candidature.
The Public Appointments Service is available to assist, where necessary, in such processes and there is a level of ongoing consultation in respect of the matter. In the interim, a perusal of the annual reports of State bodies — in which details relating to board members and their qualifications are set out — will bear testament to the high calibre of appointments that have been made.
As regards Dáil reform, proposals agreed by the Government last year were brought before the relevant forum of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges, namely, the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform. These proposals included more sitting days, consolidating the time that the Taoiseach and Opposition leaders spend in the House, commencing Dáil proceedings earlier each day and dealing with the current position relating to promised legislation only once a week. I am of the view that these proposals would enable the Dáil to be more reactive to issues which are newsworthy on any given day. This would be additional to the opportunity in this regard which Leaders' Questions, in particular, affords Opposition leaders in the House.
Consensus has not so far proved possible on the Government's proposals. However, I understand the Chief Whip is continuing his engagement with the various party representatives on the sub-committee with a view to achieving the highest possible level of cross-party consensus in respect of them. We all share the view that there is a need to reach agreement on a set of procedural reforms and we look forward to this being achieved in the coming period.
With regard to outside appointments, rules to ensure that former senior civil servants and special advisers do not work in an area involving a potential conflict of interest are already in place in accordance with the code of standards and behaviour which was introduced in the Civil Service in September 2004. The code was drawn up and promulgated by the Minister for Finance under the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, and was published by the Standards in Public Office Commission and issued by the Department of Finance as a circular. The outside appointments board is an independent body established under the code in 2005. Its purpose is to provide independent scrutiny of employments which former civil servants propose to take up within one year of retiring or resigning from the Civil Service. The board is comprised of a non-Civil Service chairman, the Secretary General with responsibility for public service management and development in the Department of Finance, the Secretary General to the Government and two other non-Civil Service members.
In line with a commitment in the renewed programme for Government, the provisions of the code of conduct for civil servants in respect of the acceptance of outside appointments and of consultancy engagement following resignation or retirement will be extended to all public servants in designated posts. This will ensure that such individuals will not — within 12 months of resigning or retiring from the service — accept an offer of appointment from an outside employer, where it is deemed to create a conflict of interest, or accept an engagement in a particular consultancy project, where the nature and terms of such appointment or engagement could lead to a conflict of interest, without first obtaining approval from the outside appointments board.
The final part of the Labour Party's motion relates to the roles and responsibilities of Ministers and Secretaries General. It is important to maintain an appropriate balance between the two in respect of policy and administration. This issue was addressed in the Public Service Management Act 1997, which formed a key element of the drive under the strategic management initiative to improve performance and accountability.
Secretaries General have the twin tasks of delivering policy advice to Ministers and undertaking a range of management duties. It is the responsibility of Ministers to determine policy and the outputs required to deliver thereon. Under the Act, Secretaries General must manage their Departments, implement Government policies appropriate to their Departments, monitor Government policies which affect their Departments and deliver outputs as determined with the relevant Minister. Specifically, they must prepare and submit to Ministers strategy statements relating to their Departments and provide progress reports to Ministers on the implementation of those statements, either annually or at such intervals as the Government may direct. They must also provide advice to Ministers on any matter affecting or connected with the responsibilities of their Departments and ensure appropriate arrangements that will facilitate an effective response to matters that pertain to Departments and other parts of the public service are put in place.
Secretaries General must also ensure the resources of Departments are used in a manner that is in accordance with the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 and examine and develop means that will improve the provision by Departments of cost-effective public services. In addition, they must assign responsibility to other officers of their Departments. Officers to whom responsibility for the performance of functions has been assigned are to be accountable for the performance of those functions to the Secretaries General.
In the context of the reform of the Estimates and budgetary process, the Government put in place a special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes, chaired by Mr. Colm McCarthy, to examine every area of Government expenditure in a critical manner. The group's report, which proposes specific savings measures of €5.3 billion and a reduction in numbers of 17,300, was published in July 2009. The Government has moved to implement many of the measures recommended in the report and continues to have regard to its proposals, particularly in respect of structural reforms in the system of public administration generally.
The Government has progressively reformed the system relating to the Estimates cycle in recent years. In 2006, it instituted a new autumn pre-budget outlook. Since 2007, the Estimates of expenditure have been determined and presented alongside the annual tax decisions on budget day. This unified approach to the budget has facilitated the Government in making all of the necessary budget decisions in a coherent and integrated manner. Naturally, the established budgetary framework has also had to be adapted and applied in a flexible manner in the past two to three years as the Government has been obliged to move swiftly to deal with emerging economic and budgetary issues.
It is no secret that like all other member states, Ireland's budgetary timetable will have to be reviewed to take account of recent agreements among all EU leaders in respect of the new European semester that will come into effect in 2011. Under this new arrangement, and having regard to the overall macroeconomic view set out early in the year by the EU Commission, all Governments will be required to publish a stability programme update by the end of April, well in advance of the subsequent budget. Each member state's draft proposals for the following year's budget will then be considered and the views of the Commission and the EU Council will be made known. The implications of this arrangement for existing Irish budgetary processes will have to be considered carefully. As a general principle, however, the Government is in favour of a restructured approach to budget formation that will allow greater space for the informed views of the Oireachtas and of our EU colleagues to be taken into account.
The performance dimension is critical to delivering improvements to public service delivery and efficiency. This is an area in respect of which good progress has been made in recent years. Annual output statements were introduced in 2007. These provide an opportunity for the relevant Dáil select committees to scrutinise the voted expenditure allocations for each Department and to query the public service outputs and outcomes to be delivered with public moneys. In its 2008 review of the Irish public service, the OECD was complimentary with regard to output statements. At the same time, it spelled out some ways in which this performance aspect of budgeting could be improved and integrated more fully into the resource allocation process.
On the subject of the role of Oireachtas committees in scrutinising the economy and efficiency of individual spending programmes, this again is an area where the Government has been at pains to make all relevant information available to the Oireachtas. As part of the enhanced value for money framework announced over recent years, expenditure in each area of Government is subject to periodic value for money and policy reviews. These detailed expenditure appraisals are conducted by the relevant Department with input from the Department of Finance, and when completed they are laid before the relevant select committee of the Oireachtas for scrutiny.
On the question of an independent fiscal advisory council separate from Government mechanisms, the first point to make is that there is no shortage of commentary, independent or otherwise, on the budgetary and economic plans and projections put forward by the Government at budget time each year. This commentary has arisen in recent years but what is important is that the Government has acted at all times on the best informed budgetary forecasting advice on the basis of the latest possible information available at any one point in time.
That having been said, it is the practice in several countries for the policy-making institutions of the state to have access to separate, independent mechanisms for providing economic analysis and advice, to complement the official mechanisms within the Government. The Government is now considering a wide range of structural reforms in the context of preparing our four year plan and budget 2011 and we will be taking full account of international best practice in this area. It is with pleasure that I commend the Government's counter-motion to the House in light of the changes we have introduced in recent years.