Minister in row with standards body over political party funding

Hogan rejects plan to allow finances of local political units to be examined by Standards in Public Office Commission

 Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan says legislation requiring political parties to publish their national and constituency accounts does not apply to local party units. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan says legislation requiring political parties to publish their national and constituency accounts does not apply to local party units. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mon, Dec 23, 2013, 01:00

A stand-off has developed between the Government and the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipoc) over political party funding.

At issue is whether the finances of political party units at local level should be subject to the same disclosure requirements as national and constituency party finances.

On Friday the outgoing chairman of Sipoc Mr Justice Matthew P Smith made public a strongly-worded letter he has written to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan.

Rejecting the department’s view that the current legislation did not cover the activities of local party units, he wrote: “The commission is extremely disappointed with your response and is satisfied that, as an independent body, it is acting within its powers.”

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment yesterday accused the commission of trying to interpret legislation passed by the Oireachtas rather than implementing the law.

“It is regrettable that Sipoc seems to be interpreting the legislation approved by the Oireachtas rather than implementing the guidelines in line with what was enacted,” the spokesman said.

He said the Minister had introduced the legislation in 2012 and had signed the commencement order in September 2012 to require political parties to publish their national and constituency accounts.


Scope of legislation
Last month, Sipoc wrote to the Minister asking him to approve guidelines which would have included local party units within the scope of the legislation.

Mr Hogan wrote back on December 17th saying his department’s legal advice was that local units were not covered by the legislation and he declined to approve the guidelines.

Mr Justice Smith replied last Friday expressing the commission’s disappointment with the Minister’s response and suggesting its legal advice unequivocally supported the decision to include all units of a political party in the disclosure process.

The judge proposed that the department should make its legal advice on the matter available to the commission.

He also suggested the legal advisers to the department and to the commission should meet to discuss the matter.

It also emerged at the weekend that Sipoc will not be able to advance its current investigations or initiate new ones due to the fact that two of its six board members retired last week. One of the vacant posts arises due to the retirement of Mr Justice Smith.


Legal advice
Sipoc has taken legal advice on the matter suggesting that it requires its full complement of six board members to investigate allegations against politicians or political parties.

Appointments to the board must be made by the Oireachtas on the recommendation of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin.

The department said Mr Howlin was aware of the vacancies and he would take steps to have the posts filled by the end of next month.

Sinn Féin public expenditure spokeswoman Mary Lou McDonald said the Government should have prioritised the appointment of new Sipoc board members.

“The Government should never have let this situation arise. Given the important work that Sipoc is engaged in, this situation should have been given the appropriate priority ahead of the Christmas break. Instead it has dropped the ball and put important investigations at risk.”

On the stand-off between Mr Hogan and Sipoc, the Sinn Féin TD said it was unacceptable that the Minister should deal with the commission in such a “heavy-handed” manner.

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