From our privileged position as a country which has benefited from generally high standards of behaviour in public life, there can be a tendency to underestimate the value of those standards to society as a whole. However, when we look at the experience of less fortunate countries than our own, the impact of corruption and unethical behaviour becomes clear. Corruption and venality in public life weaken public confidence, drag down economies and undermine the one common idea that characterises and sustains a genuine democracy, that is, the idea that public power should be used for the public good.
We are fortunate to have a public which demands high standards from its public servants and representatives, but we can maintain its confidence only by ensuring that those high standards prevail and are seen to prevail. That is the heart of the matter we are discussing today. I am, therefore, pleased to be here to introduce the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, to this House.
This Bill has been much heralded. The genesis of the Standards in Public Office Bill lies in the programme for Government, An Action Plan for the Millennium, and the work of the McCracken tribunal. In his report, Judge McCracken recognised the combined value of the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Acts and looked forward to these Acts being valuable mechanisms in guarding against the unacceptable elements of the financial transactions which the tribunal had uncovered. Among the key recommendations of the McCracken tribunal were an independent third party to monitor and investigate possible contraventions of the ethics Act and that tax clearance systems, together with requirements for statutory declarations in relation to tax compliance, be put in place.
In July 1998 the Government published outline proposals for a Standards in Public Office Bill in what subsequently became known as the blue book. Between 1998 and 1999 a number of committees, including the Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann and the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, considered the blue book. The suggestions of those committees were taken into account in the drafting of the Bill, which was published about this time last year. On publication, the Bill was remitted to committees again for a further look at what was being proposed. Members of the committees had a number of thoughts about the Bill which we have been able to take on board.
In producing this Bill, we have started from the standpoint that it is essential that our citizens have confidence and trust in government and public administration. It is clearly important that we have an appropriate legal framework in place to ensure their trust is not abused. There is a particular duty for those of us in political life to set a high standard of conduct as misconduct and corruption at the political level create and appear to excuse an atmosphere and culture of cynicism which invites corruption at lower levels. The Standards in Public Office Bill now before us gives us an opportunity to further reinforce the integrity of our political system.
I turn now to the main features of the Bill. The Standards in Public Office Bill provides for the establishment of a new Standards in Public Office Commission with wide investigative powers in relation to so-called specified acts. Specified acts are acts or omissions of public servants or office holders which are inconsistent with the proper performance of the duties of the relevant position, or which would be inconsistent with the maintenance of public confidence in that performance. The commission will take and investigate complaints in this regard only where it considers the matter complained of to be of significant public importance, and while it is a matter for the commission to make a judgment on what that means in any given case, the Bill provides that the commission may deem a matter to be of significant public importance if it relates to a benefit or potential benefit allegedly received by a person, where the value of the benefit exceeds £10,000. The commission, or indeed a committee, will not investigate complaints lodged anonymously. However, where the commission or committee, as the case may be, considers that the circumstances warrant it, they can restrict the disclosure of the complainant's identity where it is necessary or expedient for the commission or committee's investigation of the complaint.
It will also be a function of the commission to receive complaints in relation to contraventions of the Ethics Act or the Electoral Act, since the commission is to take on the current functions of the Public Offices Commission.
The Bill, as amended, provides that the commission will be chaired by a judge or former judge of the Supreme Court or High Court and will have four other ex officio members, that is, the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman. The commission must be seen as clearly independent of the political process. It is essential, however, that the commission should understand and appreciate the context in which the political process operates. For that reason, it has been considered appropriate to ensure that there will also be an appointed member of the commission who will be a former politician, who will be an ordinary member of the commission in addition to the four ex officio members I have just mentioned. This will not in any way undermine the independence of the commission, but will bring to the commission the special perspective and expertise which comes from service as a public representative.
Persons in public life are in some ways easy targets for "crank" assertions of wrongdoing. The commission must be in a position to deal effectively with those complaints which are genuine and substantial. It must have, therefore, some sort of filter process to screen out the bad complaints and allow for proper investigation of the genuine ones.
For this reason, the Bill contains provision for the engagement of inquiry officers. This is something of an innovation in this field. The role of the inquiry officer will be to conduct preliminary investigations of complaints on behalf of the commission. Inquiry officers may be drawn from the commission's staff or from outside the commission. An inquiry officer would report to the commission and indicate whether, in his or her opinion, a case existed for further investigation by the commission. This will give the commission a mechanism allowing it to ascertain whether a particular complaint might be frivolous or vexatious, or might refer to a matter which is not of significant public importance. There may be some cases which are so obviously off-kilter that there is no need even to go this far, and these can be dismissed quickly. There will be other complaints, however, where this inquiry officer mechanism will be of great assistance to the commission.
There will be some cases where a minor matter is complained of, which the commission does not believe justifies the full weight of a commission investigation but which is nonetheless worthy of some level of concern. In such cases, the complaint may be referred to a committee of the relevant House of the Oireachtas or to the Minister or public body concerned, as appropriate. This approach should meet any concerns that a standing commission might constitute an open invi tation for endless investigations of very minor matters.
The commission will enjoy tribunal-style powers, for example, in respect of such matters as summoning individuals and papers, administering oaths, ordering discovery and preservation of documents and requiring the giving of evidence. The Bill also provides that it shall be an offence to obstruct an investigation of the commission or an inquiry officer. Consistent with Supreme Court rulings in relation to tribunals, evidence given to the commission or an inquiry officer shall not be admissible as evidence against the person, the subject of investigation, in any criminal proceedings.
It is important at this stage to make one particularly important distinction. While the commission will be in a position to accept complaints in relation to office holders, primarily Ministers, and a wide range of public servants, similar complaints about ordinary Oireachtas Members will be made, via the clerk, to the relevant Oireachtas committee, as happens at present under the Ethics Act. However, if it so decides, a committee will be in a position to enlist the commission to investigate an issue and report back to the House concerned.
The Bill provides that the definition of "connected person" for the purposes of the wider investigative remit of the commission will be the same as that in the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. A "connected person" for the purposes of the ethics Act includes a relative, business partner, company in which the person has a controlling interest, or a person with whom the person enjoys a trustee/beneficiary relationship. I am satisfied that this definition, which is comprehended by the terms of reference of current tribunals, taken with the proposed mandate and powers of the commission, constitutes a sound basis for commission investigations. This should ensure that the commission is not hampered in carrying out its functions.
The Bill, as amended, also provides for the development by the Government, the committees or the Minister for Finance of codes of conduct which will apply to Ministers and other office holders, Members of the Oireachtas and employees of public bodies, respectively. These codes of conduct will deal with the standards of conduct and integrity appropriate to the persons to whom they relate in the performance of their public duties. The codes will form part of the terms and conditions of public service employees and will provide guidance for them in the performance of their functions. Such codes shall be admissible in proceedings before a court, tribunal, Oireachtas committee or the commission which may take account of the terms of such codes in making determinations.
Members of this House will be aware that the Dáil Select Committee on Members' Interests has considered and reported on proposals for a draft code of conduct for the Members of that House on foot of a resolution passed on 7 March 2001, so work on this issue has already commenced in the Dáil. It will be a matter for the Seanad committee to produce a code of conduct for application in the Seanad, and no code of conduct, or any aspect of this Bill, can be imposed on the Seanad without its affirmative decision.
A considerable amount of work has also been done regarding codes of conduct for the Civil Service. The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service is currently looking at a draft code of conduct for the Civil Service and the Civil Service unions are being consulted. Department of Finance officials have also been looking at frameworks for governance in State bodies. As codes of conduct are being extended into the public service, appropriate consultations with staff representatives will take place and this is provided for in the Bill. Naturally, where an existing code meets the required standard, this will not need to be supplanted.
In their reports on the Government's original blue book proposals, the committees did not support the creation of offences for breaches of the ethics legislation. While acknowledging the committees' views, the Government is concerned to ensure that the regime to be put in place should command public confidence. The Bill, accordingly, provides that where the commission finds evidence of wrongdoing on the part of a person who is the subject of an investigation, the organisation or public body to whom a person is answerable would receive the commission's report so it would be in a position to consider appropriate disciplinary action.
In respect of a Deputy or Senator, this process would involve the laying of a report before the relevant House which would then decide on what penalty might be applied. The Bill provides that where the select committee is recommending suspension of a Member or office holder, it may also recommend the withholding from him or her of a particular amount of salary payable as a Member of the House. Before recommending such a course, the committee would have to be satisfied that the act or contravention was intentional and of a grave nature, that the withholding of salary was reasonable in all the circumstances, and that the amount to be withheld did not exceed the amount that the Member would earn in the period of suspension.
In the case of a civil servant, receipt by his or her employing Department of an adverse commission report could trigger disciplinary procedures against the official. The commission and the relevant committees may also, in certain circumstances, make a report to the DPP.
This Bill also requires that each Member of the Oireachtas must furnish a tax clearance certificate in respect of himself or herself or a partnership in which he or she is a member within a period of nine months either side of an election. In addition, a statutory declaration that the Member's tax affairs are in order would have to be made one month either side of the election. Senior public officials will also be required to produce tax clearance certificates and make declarations.
The commission will be empowered to investigate breaches of the tax clearance requirements by Members and senior public officials. While there is a temptation to think of the tax clearance certificate as the more obvious way in which tax compliance will be assured, it should be noted that the making of a false statutory declaration is an offence. This Bill increases the penalties for making a false declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act from a fine of £50 to £2,000 and a term of imprisonment from three to six months. It would be a rash person who would make a false declaration lightly and this adds considerable weight to the tax compliance provisions of this Bill.
The Bill also provides for tax clearance for persons to be appointed to positions as judges, and they too will have to make similar statutory declarations. The regime for judges will vary somewhat from that for Members of the Oireachtas. In the case of judges, the tax clearance will be required before a judge is recommended for appointment. This different mechanism reflects differences in the role and constitutional position of the different groups.
There has been some criticism that the Bill does not go further in relation to the Judiciary. The whole area of standards and ethics for the Judiciary, however, is being considered separately from this Bill and I would not even start to claim that this tax clearance system is any more than a first step in that direction, which the Government is taking the opportunity of this Bill to put in place. To the extent that the Bill is deficient in relation to the Judiciary, therefore, it is deficient only in the same way that the first step on a ladder is deficient in not bringing us all the way to the top. That does not make the first step any less important, however.
One aspect of the existing ethics legislation which has concerned Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas has been in relation to the interaction of the declarations under the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and those under the Electoral Act, 1997. At present Members of this House will receive different sets of forms from different sources and on different dates, which will have to be returned by different deadlines. The Bill, therefore, makes provision for considerable streamlining of the current requirements for declarations of interests and donations under the two Acts respectively. In particular, the dates for making statements under the two Acts will be brought into line and the current overlap in reporting requirements which require certain amounts to be declared both as political donations under the Act of 1997 and as gifts under the Act of 1995 will be removed. Moreover, the forms will issue at the same time from a single source and be returned in the same way. This is intended to make compliance with the legislation simpler and less confusing. I hope this will contribute to a reduction in the sales of aspirin to Members of the Oireachtas.
That summarises the principal intent and purpose of the Bill before us. I am sure that Members of this House will welcome it in the same way as have Members of Dáil Éireann, that is, openly and positively but tinged with a certain regret that circumstances are such that the Bill is necessary. None of us is particularly happy about legislation of this type. We would all wish to live in a world where the personal, moral and ethical standards of public representatives and public servants were beyond question, and known to be so.
As Members of the Oireachtas we impose on ourselves, and to an extent on other public servants, greater transparency and disclosure of personal and financial interests than applies in just about any other walk of life. This reflects our understanding that in the work we do, we act as trustees on behalf of the population of the State. We impose stringent standards on ourselves because we understand that, in the long run, we must be seen to operate to the highest standards if we are to maintain the public trust. Our overall goal is to ensure that we continue to have a public service and a political system worthy of the esteem of our citizens.
If Senators will bear with me, I would like to take a little time to put the Bill into its legislative context. There have been major legislative measures in recent years in the general area of governance and accountability, and this Bill slots into that overall framework. The major legislation already on the Statute Book includes the Public Service Management Act, 1997, which is the central accountability framework for governance changes in the Civil Service, setting out the formal structure for assigning authority and accountability within the Civil Service.
This change in formal accountability structures is supported by the more informal mechanisms of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, which allows individual citizens to look at Government records in relation to those citizens, or in relation to the more general operations and policies of the public administration. This is subject, of course, to certain exemptions ensuring privacy rights are upheld and encompassing an independent appeals system in the form of the Information Commission.
Accountability to the Oireachtas has also been supported by way of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, which gives Oireachtas committees increased powers of investigation in areas of public concern. Among these powers are the ability to compel witnesses to attend hearings and to respond to questions.
The Electoral Acts of 1997 and 1998 seek to achieve fairness in the electoral process by limiting expenditure at elections and providing a system of recoupment, in certain circumstances, of candidates' election expenses. They also provide for a scheme of disclosure of political donations over specified limits. The Electoral Acts serve to reassure the public that there is openness and accountability in the relationship between the political system and those who support it financially or otherwise. The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act, 1999, provides similar measures for the local authority area.
Perhaps the most important legislation to bear in mind when considering the Standards in Public Office Bill is the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. The Act provides mechanisms for dealing with conflicts of interest in the cases of Members of the Houses, Ministers and officials in the wider public service. It was this Act which established the independent Public Offices Commission and provided for a Select Committee on Members' Interests, covering both Houses of the Oireachtas, to oversee its key provisions. It requires Members of the Oireachtas, senior civil servants, public board members and senior executives of State bodies to disclose their personal interests to provide transparency and accountability in decision making. It is on the 1995 Act in particular that much of the Standards in Public Office Bill builds. Rather than start from scratch, the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, is principally concerned with extending and amending the provisions of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, and many of the mechanisms of the Ethics Act, in relation to complaints and so forth, will continue to apply with appropriate adaptations after the enactment of this Bill.
The Standards in Public Office Bill is one of a range of legislative initiatives currently being taken by the Government in the broad area of standards and conduct in public life. Senators will be aware of the amount of work being done in both Houses and in Departments on this range of initiatives. A glance at the schedule for last week shows three separate Bills, before one or other House, dealing with the general area of standards and ethics. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2000, which represents a considerable strengthening of our anti-corruption laws and awaits the President's signature, is one of the most important legislative elements supporting standards in public life. It provides for a significant widening of the scope of the Prevention of Corruption Acts by bringing within their scope office holders such as Deputies, Senators, MEPs, members and officials of the EU, judges of national, foreign and international courts and certain other foreign public officials where the corrupt act occurs wholly or partly in the State.
Another important provision of the Bill deals with any office holder or official who acts corruptly, on his or her own initiative, to secure some benefit personally or for another person. Here, there is no offer or receipt of a benefit from a third party but the person's actions are designed to benefit, say, a member of one's own family. This type of corruption in office is being tackled for the first time in the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2000. In accordance with the Taoiseach's substantial statement in December last, the Bill provides that there will be a presumption that a public official has acted corruptly in certain circumstances where the person has received moneys or benefits.
The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, has been examining the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 1999, a Private Members' Bill introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Rabbitte. The Bill was accepted by the Government in principle on Second Stage and the Minister of State will, subject to Government approval, bring forward amendments to the 1999 Bill on Committee Stage. This will help to encourage persons who are aware of wrongdoing, in public or private business, to come forward. The Bill we are considering today, the Standards in Public Office Bill, 2000, contains provisions for the protection of persons who make bona fide complaints to the Standards in Public Office Commission or the appropriate Oireachtas committees. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, will also be bringing forward proposals for a registration system for lobbyists who lobby officials and politicians at national and local level and he will consult Members of the Houses on his proposals in this area.
Among the main aims of the Local Government Bill, 2000, published by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is the introduction of a comprehensive ethics framework for local authority members and officials. The provisions of this Bill mirror, in many respects, the transparency and accountability arrangements of the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. In addition to the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have published Bills relating to registration of lobbyists, prevention of corruption and tax clearance for candidates for election. I acknowledge, as I have before, the work of the Opposition in these areas, which has served to develop and progress the debate on these matters.
Let me reiterate, in summary form, the main features of this new Standards in Public Office Bill. It will lead to the introduction of powerful investigative mechanisms for serious complaints about persons serving the public with whistleblower protections for persons making such complaints. There will be tax compliance require ments for Members of the Oireachtas, judges and senior public servants and codes of conduct for public servants, office holders and Oireachtas Members. Under the Ethics and Electoral Acts there will be clearer, more streamlined, reporting rules. In addition to these, there are various technical amendments of the existing Ethics in Public Offices Act and Members will have seen, from the explanatory memorandum, that much of the Bill consists of such amendments. In framing this Bill, the Government sought to listen to the views of Members from all parties and was mindful of the need to achieve a balance between the right to privacy and the exigencies of the common good. The Bill acknowledges the independence of each House in the regulation of its own affairs and it can only be applied to the Houses of the Oireachtas by resolution in each House.
It will be clear from the content of the Bill, and of the other legislative proposals I have mentioned, that the Government takes the maintenance of standards in public life very seriously. It is also clear that the issue is one which is complex and requires the achievement of a difficult balance between the rights and sensitivities of individuals working in the service of the public and the public interest in transparency and the maintenance of the highest standards. This Bill strikes that balance and I commend it to the House.
I respectfully request that, in accordance with Seanad Standing Order No. 121, the following corrections be made by the Clerk, under the Cathaoirleach's direction, to section 24 of the Bill:
In section 24(1)(a), line 9, the reference to ‘(1)(a)' be corrected to ‘(1)',
In section 24(1)(b), line 13, the reference to ‘(1)(a)' be changed to ‘(1)'.