I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014, which deals with an issue that has been a passion of the Minister for some time. This legislation was included in the programme for Government and has been long sought by the Labour Party. Similar legislation has been introduced on four occasions since 1999, including, on one occasion, by the Minister when he was an Opposition Deputy. Unfortunately, the legislation was rejected by Fianna Fáil led Governments on each occasion. If legislation on lobbying had been passed in 1999 or subsequently, we may have avoided some of the wrongdoing that has taken place in the intervening period which has given lobbyists a bad name.
Yesterday's announcement by the Minister of a new process for ministerial appointments to State boards coincides with his introduction to the Dáil of the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014. This Bill and the new arrangements on appointments are timely and interconnected in that they both deal with transparency and accountability in the manner in which public policy is practised. If all appointments to State boards had been advertised openly on the State boards portal and applications and assessments has been processed by the independent Public Appointments Service, PAS, as proposed by the Minister and agreed by the Cabinet, the shambles of the current by-election to the Seanad would not have occurred.
I recall an event that took place in the early 1990s when I was a new councillor in Dublin and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, was also a Labour Party councillor. At that time, Dublin City Council had responsibility for taxi plates. A professional lobbyist, who was subsequently jailed for corruption, strongly lobbied city councillors not to increase the number of taxi plates. At the time, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 taxi plates in the capital, a figure that has since increased to more than 14,000. Councillors proposed introducing a modest increase of 800 in the number of taxi plates over a three year period. We were informed by the lobbyist in question that any increase would create a tide that would engulf the entire taxi industry. The lobbying did not work and councillors persisted with their plan to increase the number of plates. However, the Taoiseach of the day subsequently intervened by effectively preventing the local authority from implementing the wishes of councillors. We all know what took place subsequently.
There is nothing wrong with lobbying per se. Most of us have spent some time this week attending meetings with various interest groups at which we listened to them make their respective cases for special consideration in the forthcoming budget. Such lobbying is beneficial to the democratic system as it ensures that no group's concerns are overlooked in the run-up to the budget. Our function, as public representatives, is to reflect the needs and concerns of our people through policy decisions and legislation.
The value of regulation of lobbying in fostering a culture of integrity is supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 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 key objective in introducing a register of lobbying is to make information available to members of the public on the identity of those who are communicating with local and national government and senior civil and public servants on public policy matters. Members of the public have the right to know who has lobbied, is lobbying and will lobby politicians and for whom and for what reason lobbying takes place.
The shocking disclosures by Mr. Frank Dunlop, lobbyist extraordinaire and former Fianna Fáil Government press secretary, revealed the web of intrigue, bribery and corruption spun by one professional lobbyist to secure the interests of his clients, namely, big business and developers. This was a chilling example of how a corrupt and ruthless lobbyist could poison the planning process for the entire city of Dublin. If a register of lobbying had been in place, Mr. Dunlop, his clients and their activities would have been a matter of public record. Moreover, the web would not have been spun and politicians and public servants could not have been ensnared.
A well functioning democracy requires communication between the Government and citizens. It is important that policy makers are informed of the opinions of interest groups, representative bodies, industry and civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and charities. While these groups can offer useful input into the decision making process, at times their aims and objectives may be at odds with the wider public interest. The Bill does not seek to prevent this flow of information into policy making or legislation but rather brings about significantly greater transparency. It is appropriate that this activity is open to public scrutiny as part of the desirable checks and balances that help to ensure any attempt to wield undue or improper influence on the conduct of policy development and decision making is discouraged.
Moreover, members of the lobbying profession support the introduction of a fair regulatory framework, such as that proposed in the legislation. They have expressed annoyance at the bad name their profession has acquired as a result of the actions of some lobbyists. Recently, I was lobbied by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, PRII, which states categorically that it strongly supports the aims and principles of the Bill.
I cannot understand the reason an organisation such as the Irish Farmers' Association, the most effective lobbying group in the European Union, if not the world, is opposed to this legislation as it could only benefit from the transparency the Bill will deliver.
As I stated, I have been lobbied by the PRII and I am inclined to agree with it on one point. I ask the Minister to reconsider the exemption from registration provided for companies with fewer than ten employees. While I can understand the reason for introducing this provision, namely, the need to spare small companies from excessive bureaucracy, a number of companies with a small number of employees have a large turnover and exert considerable influence. I ask the Minister to note that there is not always a direct correlation between influence and size.
I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister on introducing it. I am aware that introducing legislation on this issue has been part and parcel of his political interests for a considerable period. It is particularly welcome that the Bill is to be placed on the Statute Book at this time.