Lobbyists may have to name contacts

Tue, Jun 19, 2012, 01:00

New laws that will force lobbyists to disclose all their contacts with TDs and senior civil servants are included in policy proposals to be published shortly by the Government.

The move is aimed at creating more transparency over Government decision-making.

The proposed new rules will cover all organisations ? including charities, professional bodies and commercial lobbyists ? who make representations to politicians and civil servants regarding policies or prospective decisions.

For the first time, the move would provide the public with information on contact between lobbyists and the government, as well as the intensity of lobbying over particular issues.

The move comes just months after the Mahon tribunal report into planning corruption, which recommended far greater transparency over the role of lobbyists.

Plans to introduce a statutory register for lobbyists were also included in the programme for government.

Among the policy proposals being considered by the Government include:

A two-year ?cooling-off? period for public servants or ministers before they can work in the private sector or any area with a potential conflict of interest with their former area of public employment;

A statutory register of lobbyists that would record the dates of all forms of communications ? including emails or phone contact ? between lobbyists and office holders or civil servants regarding policies, legislation or prospective decisions;

A sliding scale of sanctions for lobbyists who fail to disclose details of contacts with decision-makers;

A public register with details of contacts to be maintained by an independent body, such as the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin is due to publish policy proposals shortly and a major conference is scheduled next month to debate how the system could operate. Under the proposals being drawn up, lobbyists ? rather than civil servants or office-holders ? would be obliged to provide details of their contacts.

Government sources say the model for the proposed lobbying laws is based mainly on those introduced in Canada, which are considered to be among the most rigorous available.

They point out that free and open access to government should be an important matter of public interest, and that lobbying is a legitimate activity. However, the public should be able to know who is engaged in lobbying activities.

There are likely to be exceptions to the laws in certain circumstances. For example, representatives of foreign governments or EU officials may not need to register their communications with officials.

Similarly, there may be scope for certain lobbyists ? such as multinational companies considering expanding or setting up in Ireland ? to delay disclosing lobbying details if it is deemed to be commercially sensitive.

Broad definitions of what constitute ?lobbying? or a ?lobbyist? are being examined to ensure there are no loopholes, as has been the case in other jurisdictions.

Lobbying is likely to encompass any communication regarding legislation, policies or decisions being made by office-holders or senior officials.

Policy proposals are likely to state that those being lobbied may include any office-holder ? such as a TD or councillor ? senior civil servant or adviser.

The scope of the new proposals, if adopted, would represent major changes for Irish politics.

In the absence of rules or regulations, lobbying has tended to be an informal and hidden activity, with little public knowledge over the extent of access between those seeking to change laws and decision-makers.

The new laws would mean contacts between lobbyists and TDs in Leinster House or constituency clinics will be a matter of public record.

Many former politicians and journalists have become professional lobbyists on the back of their knowledge of the political system and their access to senior politicians.

Some former TDs or ministers who have been involved in lobbying for either private companies or public relations firms include former PD ministers Tom Parlon and Liz O?Donnell and former Fianna Fail TD Jim Glennon.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform held a consultation process recently over options for an effective regulatory system.

Most of the 50-plus submissions were supportive of registration of lobbyists but many said any system should not hinder contact between interest groups and government.

Government sources say they hope legislation will be drawn up over the coming months on foot of the publication of its broad policy proposals.

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