As Senators will be aware, there is already a substantial body of legislation in place to regulate the ethical standards of people in public office. This includes the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, as well as the Electoral Act 1997. There is also a statutory code of conduct for office holders and this House and the Lower House have adopted codes of conduct, drawn up by the Select Committee on Members' Interests of each House, for their non-office holding members.
Last year, the Taoiseach and the then Tánaiste decided that the ethics legislation should be strengthened to deal with the circumstance where friends offer support for personal reasons and accepting such support would not be likely to influence an office holder or Oireachtas Member in the discharge of his or her functions or duties. It does not take much imagination or experience of life to realise that there can be very human circumstances in which it would be entirely legitimate for an office holder or a Member of this House or the Lower House to accept such support. At the same time, it is legitimate to expect, because of the position he or she holds, that such an office holder or member would not be the only person to make that judgement but rather that the matter would be subjected to judgement by an independent body before the support is accepted.
Accordingly, the Government decided that the ethics legislation would be amended to require an office holder or a Member of the Dáil or Seanad who proposes to accept a significant benefit from a friend for personal reasons only to seek the confidential opinion of an independent body — the Standards in Public Office Commission — that acceptance of the benefit would not be likely to influence the recipient in the discharge of his or her functions or duties. The Bill does this and so gives us an opportunity to reinforce the integrity of public life in Ireland.
I will now outline how the Bill will operate. Senators will be aware that the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 provides that gifts given to office holders, that is, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Government Ministers, Ministers of State, the Attorney General, and the Chair or deputy Chair of the Dáil or Seanad by virtue of their office, are deemed to be gifts given to the State unless the gift is a political donation, in which case it is subject to the Electoral Acts; given by virtue of some other office held, for example, the position of chairperson of a local sports club; or given by a friend or relative for personal reasons only.
This Bill relates to the last exception. It requires officeholders and non-office holding Members of the Oireachtas not to accept benefits worth in aggregate more than €2,000 from a friend for personal reasons only in a period covered by an ethics statement unless they have obtained the Standards in Public Office Commission's opinion that acceptance would not be likely to influence the recipient in the performance of his or her functions or duties as an officeholder or member.
There can be times where a benefit is offered on an occasion when it is not practical to refuse it, for example, if it is offered without prior notification at a public function. The Bill provides that in such circumstances, the officeholder or member must seek the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission on the benefit afterwards.
The Bill defines a benefit as including a gift or loan of money or property or the supply of services. The €2,000 threshold will apply to benefits from the same friend in a period covered by an interests statement under the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, typically a calendar year. For a gift or loan of money, the amount of the gift or loan will be what counts. For services or a loan of property, the value will be the commercial value less any amount paid by the recipient. If more than one benefit is involved before the threshold is exceeded, it is the one that brings the total over the threshold that the Standards in Public Office Commission must be consulted about.
I should say a word here about the choice of €2,000 as the threshold at which the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission must be obtained. As usual, there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, the figure needs to be small enough to be meaningful as an ethics requirement. On the other hand, it needs to be big enough that officeholders and Members do not have to spend their time valuing and counting every ordinary gift they receive from their friends. It also needs to be big enough to avoid the Standards in Public Office Commission having to deal with applications about relatively minor gifts. An amount of €2,000 is a fair compromise between these two sorts of consideration.
The Standards in Public Office Commission will have power to ask the officeholder or Member applying for its opinion to provide any further information it considers necessary for it to decide on the application. Such information might include, for example, details of the officeholder's or Member's official duties, the purpose of the benefit, the name and occupation of the donor, how long the donor has been a friend and whether he or she has given similar benefits in the past.
When it has formed its opinion, the Standards in Public Office Commission will notify the officeholder or Oireachtas Member in writing. If the officeholder or Member does not receive a favourable opinion from the commission, he or she must not accept the benefit or if it has already accepted, must return the benefit to the donor. If the donor refuses to take it back, the benefit must be surrendered to the Secretary General to the Government for disposal under the 1995 Act. If the benefit is non-returnable, the officeholder or Member must pay back its value, or if this is refused, must pay the value to the Secretary General to the Government. In such cases, its value will be its commercial price as determined by the Standards in Public Office Commission less any amount paid in respect of it by the officeholder or Member. Where a benefit or its value is surrendered to the Secretary General to the Government, it is regarded as a gift to the State and disposed of accordingly.
The process of obtaining the Standards in Public Office Commission's opinion will be a confidential one. The commission will be precluded from disclosing information about an application for its opinion without the consent of the person concerned or the Minister for Finance. This is appropriate, given that the application will be about benefits offered or given by a friend for personal reasons only. As the Bill is drafted, the prohibition will not apply to an investigation by the Standards in Public Office Commission or to a report by the commission to the Oireachtas, but as I will mention later, I will propose an amendment to provide that the commission's investigations of possible infringements of the new requirement are to be held in private unless the commission considers that there are compelling reasons otherwise.
The Bill will oblige officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas to make a statement to the Standards in Public Office Commission that they are in compliance with the new requirement at the same time as they make their annual statement of registerable interests or "nil" statement. It will not be necessary to say whether the opinion of the commission was sought or to provide details of any benefit. All that will be necessary will be a simple statement in writing that the person has complied with the law.
Overall, these new provisions represent a balanced way of dealing with a very human situation. On the one hand, there are occasions where support from a friend for personal reasons only is reasonable and would not be likely to influence an officeholder or Oireachtas Member in the performance of his or her duties or functions. On the other hand, there is an obligation on officeholders and Members of the Oireachtas to observe the highest standards of behaviour. The Bill proposes a way of balancing these considerations by ensuring while support from a friend is permissible, nevertheless where such support is significant the opinion of an independent public body — in this area the Standards in Public Office Commission — must be obtained before it is accepted or retained.
The Bill also updates the thresholds for registerable interests in the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the threshold at which a gift given to an office-holder by virtue of his or her office is deemed to be a gift to the State. These monetary thresholds have not been increased since the passage of the Act, apart from being changed into convenient amounts in euro at the time of the euro changeover in 2002. They have effectively stayed the same for 12 years, and I see no reason for the House to be defensive about increasing them to levels that are more realistic in today's world.
Criticism has been made of the Government's decision to propose increasing to €2,000 the figure of €650, which applies to gifts, to property supplied or lent or a service supplied at less than the commercial price, to travel facilities, living accommodation, etc., and to gifts received by an office-holder by virtue of office. I do not accept this criticism. The Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 was the first attempt to set thresholds in this area, and it is by no means unreasonable that this first attempt should be reviewed now in the light of much experience in 12 years. The world is a much different place from what it was 12 years ago and while €2,000 is not an insignificant amount, it is not a large amount either. After 12 years, the amount is being set not just for 2007 but for the next period. The €2,000 for these thresholds is the same level set as the threshold beyond which the Standards in Public Office Commission must be consulted about benefits from a friend for personal reasons only. It seems to me to be a reasonable figure.
A misconception has emerged that the €2,000 figure relates to election expenditure or political donations seems. It does not, as political donations are covered by the electoral Acts. I am confident the Members of the House, and of Dáil Éireann, will agree it is desirable to require an independent opinion before office-holders and Oireachtas Members accept significant benefits from a friend for personal purposes and that it is also desirable to update the ethics thresholds to reflect the realities of today's world. This confidence is based on the fact the committees on members' interests in both Houses were consulted about the Bill's key provisions, including the increased thresholds, and both are in agreement with the proposed changes. The Dáil's committee welcomed the proposals and considered they would further strengthen the accountability of Members to the Oireachtas and to the public in the performance of their official duties and responsibilities.
I welcome the Seanad's committee's technical amendment to state clearly that nil statements — where an office-holder or Oireachtas Member has no registerable interests to declare — are, like statements of interests, to be sent to the Standards in Public Office Commission rather than to the Clerk of the relevant House.
I intend to introduce several amendments on Committee Stage. Some are technical such as that concerning a statement of compliance with the new requirement is a stand-alone statement and not part of an annual declaration of registerable interests. Other amendments deal with the obligationsvis-à-vis the new requirement of an Attorney General who is not an Oireachtas Member and to set the test for benefits as those not likely to materially influence the recipient, as this is the terminology already used in ethics legislation, for gifts as registerable interests. The amendments also state the Standards in Public Office Commission has the power to investigate infringements of the new requirement and that such investigations are to be held in private unless the commission considers there are compelling reasons otherwise.
One amendment addresses a long-standing concern of the Seanad's committee on Members' interests that it be stated that non-office holding Oireachtas Members are treated the same as anyone else to whom the ethics legislation applies in investigations of complaints on specified acts. This is separate to the subject of the Bill but it provides an appropriate opportunity to address the matter and I am pleased to be able to do so.
The Bill will provide assurance to the public that where an office-holder or Oireachtas Member is offered a benefit or benefits — be it a gift, a loan or the use of a service — worth in aggregate more than €2,000, typically in a year, by a friend, for personal reasons only, then the opinion of the Standards in Public Office Commission must be obtained and that acceptance would not be likely to materially influence the office-holder or member in the performance of his or her functions or duties. I commend the Bill to the Seanad and I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on all sides of the House on it.