I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 is to provide a robust and effective framework for identifying, disclosing and managing conflicts of interest, as well as providing for a streamlined and consistent approach to ethics legislation across the public sector. It will ensure Ireland’s disclosure and conflict of interest framework corresponds to international best practice and will be integral to the quality and efficacy of public governance and the addressing of corruption risks.
This significant Bill was developed following a root and branch examination of the current system and international best practice and will ensure Ireland’s disclosure and conflict of interest framework corresponds to best practice on the international stage. I strongly believe this legislation is key to ensuring the quality and efficacy of our public administration and the addressing of corruption risks.
The Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 consolidates and enhances the existing outdated and piecemeal legislation and gives effect to the recommendations of the tribunals and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPOC. For the first time, a uniform framework of ethical regulations will apply at national and local level in Ireland. There will now be a consistency of approach to ethical obligations across the public sector and, in a new departure, overarching integrity principles for public officials will be enshrined in legislation.
A dedicated public sector standards commissioner will be appointed who will be empowered to initiate investigations, even in the absence of the receipt of a complaint where there is a suspected contravention of the legislation, or if it is in the public interest to do so. This own initiative investigative power is a reform for which SIPOC has long called.
The commissioner will be equipped with the tools to ensure there is meaningful engagement and compliance with the legislation. He or she will have enhanced powers of investigation which will ensure he or she is empowered to rigorously examine and investigate potential breaches of the Bill.
The scope of civil sanctions available to the commissioner has also been enhanced. The Bill also grants the commissioner the power to prosecute offences summarily and issue fines to those not in compliance with their declaration requirements.
The personal and material scope of declarable interests for public officials will be significantly extended in line with the Mahon tribunal’s recommendations. The disclosures of senior public officials will be published on the commissioner’s website to ensure effective transparency and scrutiny of interests. Private declarable interests are also mandated for senior officials for certain interests such as liabilities above a certain threshold and gifts given in a private capacity to be disclosed periodically on a confidential basis.
Ad hoc disclosures must be made by all public officials if and when a conflict of interest arises. This approach is a major innovation in ensuring the disclosure process focuses attention on actual and perceived conflicts of interest as they arise for public officials and extends the personal scope of such disclosures to include the interests of connected parties such as relatives or business partners. The Bill also prohibits the use of insider information in the seeking by public officials of benefits to further their private interests and local elected representatives from dealing professionally with land in certain circumstances.