I was saying that under section 5, the exclusion of employers with ten or fewer employees would have to be redefined. I have suggested the provision should include the annual turnover of companies to reflect the fact that some companies can be hugely powerful and influential, although their staff numbers may be low. It is also necessary to take into account the fact that some companies employ varying numbers of staff at different times of the year and may declare the size of their companies or groups for lobbying purposes at a time of the year when staff numbers are at their lowest. Therefore, there is the potential for misrepresenting the size and, more importantly, influence of an organisation.
Section 5 also lists exemptions from the regulatory requirements of the Bill. We welcome the inclusion of some categories such as "information sought by public bodies" and "communications relating to Trade Unions", but we will need further clarification and discussion on Committee Stage on the inclusion of vague terms such as "international relations" and "communications between public officials".
It is obviously of great importance that all relevant communications and actions that may comprise lobbying are included in the Bill to avoid the creation of loopholes. While section 5 outlines what is meant by "lobbying", the phraseology is vague. In the interests of transparency, it is important that digital communications and records of meetings are explicitly included in the definition. This would ideally include meetings at Government Buildings and meetings held elsewhere. The European Union has a register of lobbyists for the European Parliament and the European Commission. Groups on this register receive access badges for the European Parliament buildings. However, groups can avoid the register if individual MEPs sign them in or they hold meetings off-site.
It is important that all groups are registered and that all meetings with groups on the register are open to scrutiny. Measures such as these might require changes to the Freedom of Information Acts and therefore we may have to revisit that.
I welcome that section 19 of the Bill proposes to give the commission the power to authorise an investigation, request information and prosecute those who act in contravention of the law.
Section 14 of the Bill provides for delayed publication of the register. This comes into place where the registrant feels that the return made would be expected to have an adverse effect on, among other things, business interests in general or would cause a material financial loss or the loss of a competitive position to the person to whom the information relates. While I can to some extent appreciate the reason for including a measure such as this, I am none the less worried about it. As currently drafted, it is vague. It leaves too much room for manoeuvre and, frankly, an opening for abuse of the legislation. Any exemption of this nature must be absolutely unambiguous and more explicitly defined in the legislation. Anything that is open to a subjective assessment as to what is injurious or damaging to an individual's interests must be weighed and considered very carefully. That is something I hope to return to on Committee Stage.
Given our history and our contemporary experience of political corruption and of certain individuals having a disproportionate influence on policy makers, it is imperative that this legislation provide for an adequate cooling-off period for former public officials who wish to engage in lobbying activities. Section 22 provides for a period of one year only for this purpose. That is far too short. Other jurisdictions, such as Canada, that have enacted legislation regarding the registration and regulation of lobbyists have provided for a two-year cooling-off period. As the Minister is aware, a significant number of submissions throughout the consultation process also recommend that. In the interest of transparency and to avoid any conflict of interest, this period must be increased to two years.
I have heard the Minister's argument in previous debates on this particular issue, and an exchange took place here yesterday which asserted that a longer cooling-off period would be a gross infringement of a person's constitutional right to work. I do not accept that. For people who act as public officials and for whom lobbying would represent a clear and material conflict of interest, two years is proportionate and reasonable. I do not accept that it would represent an onerous burden on them or an infringement of their constitutional rights. I cannot understand, given the experience of this State over decades and the documented evidence of wholesale political cronyism, corruption and abuse, any Minister or any State system so vigorously arguing the toss on a two-year cooling off period. I give the Minister notice that as far as I am concerned, that is a baseline requirement of this legislation.
The Minister of State, Deputy Nash, was not in the Chamber yesterday for the opening part of this Second Stage debate, which I welcome, because it is necessary that we regulate lobbyists. It is a positive move that finally we have this legislation, but yesterday I raised with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, what I believe is the alarm, concern and disgust of citizens across this State at the turn of events in recent weeks, not just the appointment of Mr. McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, but also what is now a litany of stories about political appointments to the Irish Aviation Authority and, it seems, to SOLAS. There was commentary on appointments made to the governing board of University College Dublin, all of those politically inspired and motivated.
I have raised consistently in the House the issue of State board appointments with the Minister, Deputy Howlin, and he has told me consistently that I was making a fuss about nothing. He told me consistently that the democratic revolution had arrived and that matters were resolved. We now have irrefutable evidence to the contrary and it is now clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that not just Fine Gael but the Labour Party also regard appointments to State boards as either a leg up for their political cronies or a consolation prize for other political associates who have failed in various electoral contests.
The Minister has very belatedly brought forward a memorandum to Government, so it seems that all the responses he gave to me and others in this Chamber on this matter assuring us that all was well were far from factual and far from the truth. Unless we get that matter straightened out, and until the moment it is irrefutably the case that every appointment to a State board goes through a public process that is transparent and that appointments are made on the basis of merit alone, any talk of rooting out cronyism or corruption or of a democratic revolution is fanciful rhetoric.
I come back to this point as I finish my contribution to this debate, because I believe there must be a legislative infrastructure to safeguard public processes, to ensure there is a level playing field and fair play, and to rebuild the confidence of citizens in the democratic structures and the basic democracy of this State. However, it is farcical to trumpet legislation, whether it is freedom of information reform or this registration of lobbyists legislation, while the nod-and-wink culture is alive and well within this Government, consisting of the same people who were correctly critical of former Administrations led by Fianna Fáil for precisely this type of behaviour.
In debating, hopefully amending, and adopting this legislation, we have to do it in a context and on the basis of an understanding that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour Party political patronage must now draw to a close. It must be done, and it must be seen to be done.