I move amendment No.1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
— Acknowledges that two statutory reviews have been undertaken to date in relation to the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015;
— Recognises that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has initiated a review of Section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015; and
— Resolves that the Regulation of Lobbying (Amendment) Bill 2020 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months, to allow for, in the context of the operation of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, consideration of the SIPO recommendations for reform and the provisions of this and other private members' legislation in this area."
I thank Deputies Doherty and Mairéad Farrell for bringing forward this legislation and congratulate Deputy Farrell on introducing her first Bill of many, I am sure. Notwithstanding the amendment I have moved, I will work with her to address the issues she has raised in respect of the Bill. I acknowledge that Deputy Nash has also brought forward legislation in respect of the lobbying Act.
I propose to outline some background detail regarding the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. I consider this important in providing an overall context to the Bill. The Act was commenced on 1 September 2015. I acknowledge the work of the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, in bringing forward that legislation in the role I now occupy. From that date, there has been a requirement for those who lobby designated public officials, DPOs, to register and report on their lobbying activities every four months on the register of lobbying. The register, which is a web-based system, can be viewed at lobbying.ie and is overseen by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. The lobbying website also includes a suite of information tools designed by the commission to help lobbyists, DPOs and the public to understand the Act and its obligations fully. Currently, almost 2,100 organisations or individuals have registered their lobbying activity on the register and almost 47,500 returns are available to view.
Part 4 of the Act, which provides for investigation and enforcement provisions, was commenced on 1 January 2017. The time lag between the commencement of the Act and the commencement of these provisions was to provide persons who engage in lobbying with adequate time to familiarise themselves with the new legislative requirements, in terms of both the requirement to register and the requirement to provide ongoing returns, prior to the investigation and enforcement provisions coming into effect.
Section 2 of the Act requires that the operation of the Act be reviewed every three years, as was noted earlier. The aim of this provision is to provide regular opportunities to assess the operation of the legislation and identify whether significant and substantial amendments may be required. To date, two statutory reviews have been carried out and public consultations were conducted on both occasions. The final reports were laid before these Houses. The second statutory review commenced in early 2019 and the subsequent report was published in January 2020. The review found that there is widespread acceptance and support for the legislation, with the Act and the register viewed in a positive and constructive light. The issues raised in the 27 submissions received as part of the public consultation process concerned mainly implementation and procedural matters, with a focus on a perceived need for more guidance on the implementation and interpretation of certain aspects of the Act. The proposed amendments to the Act generally concerned issues that had been examined in detail at the time of drafting of the legislation and its passage through the Oireachtas, and the Act reflects the result of that process.
The review report concluded that the amendment of the existing legislation should be considered only where a compelling business case for change is clear and unequivocal; that the relatively short period of time for which the legislation has been operational is a further consideration in the context of determining whether amendment of the Act is required; and that where issues highlighted through the public consultation process have not been dealt with, they are capable of being effectively managed and resolved on an administrative basis by SIPO without the need to amend the Act. While the report of the second statutory review did not recommend that any amendment be made to the Act, it set out a number of recommended further actions for SIPO to consider, most of which relate to the requests received in submissions for greater clarity, guidance and education.
It is clear from the submissions to both statutory reviews that the Act and the lobbying regulations it introduced have been well received and are now accepted as the norm, which is important. The Act is generally perceived to have met the intended objective of increasing transparency and accountability in respect of the lobbying of DPOs, underpinned by a register that is easily accessible and navigable. In this regard, I compliment the work of SIPO, particularly with regard to the significant volume of guidance notes, content on lobbying.ie and information notices, as well as the tailored outreach it conducts. The next scheduled statutory review is due to commence in early 2022 and will again involve a public consultation. The review must be published no later than the end of February 2023.
I will now turn to the specific context of section 22 of the Act. This section, which restricts certain officeholders and certain public officials from engaging in lobbying in certain circumstances for a year after they leave office or employment, has been a focus of attention in recent times. In its submissions to both the first and second statutory reviews, SIPO recommended that section 22 be amended to provide that failure to comply with the section, with respect to either submitting an application for consent where required or complying with the commission's decision on an application for consent, should be a relevant contravention under section 18 of the Act and an offence under section 20 of the Act. As Deputies will be aware, the Taoiseach indicated in the House in late September that a review of section 22 of the Act was to be undertaken by my Department, and this work is well advanced.
I am committed to finding a resolution to the issues surrounding section 22. If there is a stipulation in law, there should be a proportionate penalty for those who do not adhere to that stipulation. Not having such penalties has the potential to undermine the relevance or spirit of such provisions in legislation. Reviewing section 22, however, presents challenges. While there are no enforcement provisions associated with breaches of the section, any potential legislative amendment to provide for sanctions for breaches of section 22 has to factor in issues such as the right of a person to work and the proportionality of any limitations and sanctions that may be imposed. It will also be important to ensure that any amendment to the current arrangements in respect of section 22 would not have the unintended impact of deterring participation in politics or public service roles, particularly those in positions of short to medium-term duration. On this basis, section 22 currently applies to a select cohort who are defined as "relevant designated public official[s]" under the Act.
The Bill also proposes significant changes to other sections of the Act, and not just section 22. Some of the issues covered were also raised by SIPO in its submission to both of the statutory reviews thus far conducted. Given the substantial overlap between the Bill before us, the Labour Party Bill introduced earlier this month by Deputy Nash and the previous recommendations of SIPO to the two statutory reviews of the Act, I have decided to extend the remit of the review under way in my Department regarding section 22 of the Act to give renewed consideration to the issues raised in the Bill and other matters.
As a relatively new Minister in the Department, I want to have a fresh look at the changes recommended by SIPO. I have reviewed them, and while I quite readily agree with many of them, others require more careful examination.
I will bring my proposals to Government and to the House as soon as that work is completed. I expect they will be ready fairly shortly. Amendment No. 1, which proposes a waiting period of nine months before the Bill is deemed to be read a Second Time, will give my Department sufficient time to complete this extended review of section 22 and the further issues raised in the two Bills.
More broadly, under the programme for Government, we are committed to a wider and more ambitious reform agenda. The Government will update and consolidate the ethics in public office legislation and undertake a review of electoral laws to ensure that donations and resources from outside the State are not being used to influence our elections and political process. The Government will also update our whistle-blowing legislation. Taken together, these measures will underpin public confidence in the administration of government in our country. I am committed to the Government's reform agenda and to acting on this particular matter. I look forward to bringing proposals to Government and to the House once the review I have outlined is complete.