Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Ceisteanna (37)

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

102 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the legislation he intends to bring forward to address the issue of corruption at local government level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5794/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

The Local Government Act 2001 provided for a new and comprehensive ethics framework for those involved in local government. This built on long-standing ethics requirements on local authority councillors and staff under planning legislation, which predated other legislation.

Part 15 of the Act was brought into operation from January 2003 and the codes of conduct for councillors and employees were published in June 2004. Part 15 requires an annual declaration of interests by councillors and staff, disclosure of a pecuniary or beneficial interest where a matter arises at a meeting or in course of an employee's work and a public register of interests. The purpose of the codes is to set out standards and principles of conduct and integrity for councillors and staff, to inform the public of the conduct it is entitled to expect and to uphold public confidence in the local government system.

The effectiveness of the operation of the local government ethics legislation is kept under close and active review in the light of experience since its introduction. I will continue to monitor developments in this regard and will bring forward proposals for amendments to the codes, if necessary. In this context, as stated in the reply to Question No. 546 of 7 February, the issue of local government officials accepting outside appointments or consultancies following resignation or retirement has not, up to now, been addressed by the codes of conduct. However, my Department has formulated proposals to amend the codes in this regard and the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of Finance are currently being consulted on the drafts. A decision on the proposed amendments will be made as quickly as possible.

In addition, local authority members must comply with a comprehensive regulatory regime with regard to disclosure of political donations, in accordance with the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, as amended. The Act also provides for offences and penalties where a member fails to meet the statutory requirements.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, Mr. Justice Smith, the Chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission, commented in the 2004 annual report on the fact that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did not take on board the views of the commission at that time. He stated that effective whistle-blowers' legislation should be in place to promote integrity and honesty in public life and to prevent corruption. The Minister has not taken on board the recommendation that council employees and councillors who report something illegal, improper, unprofessional or unethical should be protected by legislation under a whistle-blowers' charter. The Standards in Public Office Commission asked the Minister's predecessor to accept that suggestion but it has not been done.

I am aware of the comments made by the SIPO commission. My major concern is the evident lacuna which was demonstrated in this House in a number of contributions in recent months. I will continue to keep my eye on all aspects that touch on the issue of public confidence in the elected or administrative sides of local government. The current arrangements I have with the SIPO commission and which are under review relate to the taking up of consultancies or employment after leaving a local authority.

I do not accept the Minister has taken on board the proposals. A whistle-blowers' charter was called for. We have been talking about it since 1999 and it has not happened yet. The Minister is clearly not committing to it now.

While welcoming the code of ethics for both employees and elected members of local government, in England there is a standards board which examines confidence in local democracy. If anyone feels that a councillor or an official has acted in a way that could potentially damage public confidence in local government, he can complain to the board and the board will investigate fully and properly with the ability to fine or suspend and make a full and comprehensive report. Does the Minister agree that this State lacks such a body and establishing it would give greater confidence to those who have complaints about local government?

The idea has some merit but it came about in a different set of circumstances in Britain where local government operates on a different basis. The executive functions that are the preserve of officials here are sometimes shared by councillors in Britain and this followed a series of extraordinary corruption cases. It is not always necessary to follow the British model slavishly but the point is interesting and I have read a text on it. It is not germane to the specific question but it is an area of interest at the academic level.

This is the Government that has closed down the Freedom of Information Act. Will the Minister think again about closing down transparency and openness in public life in Ireland, which he continues to do?

We can discuss it later. It is a very interesting area of discussion.

The Minister need not bother.