Proposals aim to shed light on lobbying and reform public life
OPINION:THE LOSS of confidence in our political system and trust in politicians is a reality made clear in the last general election.
This, like the loss of our economic sovereignty, has been one of the casualties of the political and economic events of recent years. Both are areas that the Government is working hard to address. As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I place equal weight on the need to reform politics and public life and the need to restore stability to our finances.
The Mahon tribunal report highlighted the corruption risk from lobbying, and recommended the establishment of a regulatory system for consultant or third-party lobbyists. The introduction of a lobbying register alongside the development of a statutory code of conduct for lobbying can play an important role in disclosing illegal behaviour. The legislative proposals for the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill will significantly strengthen the authorities’ hands in prosecuting these offences.
My objectives for lobbying regulation, however, go further than seeking solely to discourage criminal misconduct. I propose to ensure greater transparency that sheds light on “who is lobbying whom about what”.
I therefore oppose the view expressed in a recent Irish Times editorial proposing the adoption of a comprehensive approach to registration – extending beyond professional lobbyists to encompass commercial in-house lobbyists, representative bodies, trade unions, NGOs and charities.
Many of these bodies would not describe themselves as engaged in lobbying. Rather, they would characterise these activities as, for example, public affairs, advocacy or public interest campaigning. I am less concerned with differentiating between definitions of “influencing” than with ensuring there is appropriate transparency in how all such activities are carried out.
The international experience highlights the importance of avoiding potential loopholes that facilitate unregulated, “back-door” lobbying. The policy proposals I published last week extend to lobbying by senior executives and board members of major enterprises.
Regulation of lobbying is one element of an ambitious programme of political reform contained in the programme for government which seeks to ensure that public governance in Ireland is significantly strengthened. The delivery of this programme is well under way.
I published legislative proposals for the protection of whistleblowers across all sectors and referred them to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for their views. The committee’s report is expected soon. Last week I accepted a Private Members’ Bill on Freedom of Information – a fundamental pillar of open government. I also intend to update and reform ombudsman legislation.
Ireland’s political culture places a high value on its accessibility – the relative ease with which citizens can access their local political representative and with which interest groups can engage with the political and administrative system. We are all too aware that at times this accessibility has been abused. Costly tribunals have marked one of the darkest moments of the State’s political history.
My proposals are intended to help the public to reach informed and evidence-based judgments on the degree to which different interests can access and potentially influence decision making.
This is not intended to be another regulatory initiative leading to more red tape.
My priority is to ensure that the regulatory system is as streamlined and efficient as possible, with sufficient information being provided on the level, intensity and scope of lobbying activities.
The Department of Public Expenditure Reform’s paper Regulation of Lobbying Policy Proposals is available on www.per.gov.ie
Brendan Howlin is Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform